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Chess Scotland

Veselin Topalov (in white jacket) at work in last year's European Team Championship in Greece Picture: andreoua

Following on from the recent cup finals in various Scottish chess competitions, this Sunday will see another notable chess occasion in Edinburgh. And while there were undoubtedly some very strong players in action in the Richardson Cup, this weekend takes things to a completely different level with the arrival in town of one of the world’s strongest grandmasters.

A 37-year-old Bulgarian, Veselin Topalov is currently the 12th strongest player on the planet according to the live ratings list, and has been at that level – or, mostly, above – for over a decade, including a spell as world number one. Topalov is one of very few players ever to have reached the 2800 level in terms of his official FIDE grading (anyone topping 2700 tends to be labelled a “super-grandmaster” or “super GM”, and the gulf between 2700 and 2800 is huge), and for a year from autumn 2005 he was entitled to call himself world chess champion, having convincingly won a title-deciding tournament held in Argentina.

Chess, however – like various other sports and games – has been through a period of splits and schisms, and Topalov, for all his great skill, is not generally regarded as having been the true world champion during that period, the “classical” title having rested with the Russian Vladimir Kramnik during the period 2000–07. (In terms of who has been world chess champion since the late 1960s, the classical continuum is Boris Spassky 1969–72, Bobby Fischer 1972–75, Anatoly Karpov 1975–85, Garry Kasparov 1985–2000, Kramnik 2000–07 and Vishy Anand 2007–date, the latter having seen off a further challenge from Topalov in 2010.)

Kramnik beat Topalov in a reunification match in the autumn of 2006, an encounter remembered more for its bitter controversies than for the actual play, even though it proved to be a thrilling contest – tied 6–6 before Kramnik prevailed 2½–1½ in a rapidplay shootout.

For months and years afterwards, disputes rumbled on concerning allegations made by Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov over the frequency and length of Kramnik’s visits to the bathroom during games. Given that this was the only part of the playing area not overseen by surveillance devices, the implication was that Kramnik was somehow cheating, perhaps by accessing computer chess software.

Even though Kramnik was absolved of any wrongdoing – in the lavvy or elsewhere – the whole “Toiletgate” controversy (as it inevitably became known) created lingering ill feeling. To this day, whenever Topalov and Kramnik are required to face each other over a chessboard, things might appear outwardly civil but the two men find methods of starting and finishing the game without the traditional courteous handshake.

Whatever one thinks of Topalov – and he divides opinion more than any current member of the chess elite – he is without doubt a phenomenally strong player, and as such holds considerable fascination for the humble rank-and-file of the chess community. This weekend he will be Edinburgh – accompanying Danailov, who is now president of the European Chess Union (as in football, Scotland and England are regarded as separate entities in international chess). And while here, Topalov will give what is known as a “simultaneous display”, or simul, against 20 Scotland-based players who are not exactly rubbish at chess themselves.

A simul is pretty much self-explanatory: the simul-giver faces an agreed number of players all at once, usually has the white pieces on all boards, and works his way round each opponent in turn – moving a pawn or a piece, then progressing to the next board. Even though each of the 20 weaker players will be required to move whenever Topalov returns to their board, the whole process can and will take several hours, and is both mentally and physically strenuous.

And the people who Topalov will face on Sunday are not exactly “patzers”, to use the chess jargon for weak players. The list of 20, published this week on the Chess Scotland website, includes one grandmaster – the Bearsden-based former British champion Jacob Aagaard – one international master (IM, the title below GM) in former Scottish champion Andrew Greet, and a group of promising young Scottish players including Hugh Brechin, Clément Sreeves, Andrew Green and Kai Pannwitz.

Although this will be the first high-grade simul to be held in Scotland for quite some time, there is a long history of visits of this sort by the great players of various periods. The list compiled by chess historian Alan McGowan includes seven of the 15 classical world champions: Emanuel Lasker in 1898, 1899 and 1902, José Raúl Capablanca in 1919, Alexander Alekhine in 1938, Mikhail Botvinnik in 1967, Vasily Smyslov in 1969, Max Euwe in 1972 and Anatoly Karpov in 1984. Lasker, Alekhine and Karpov each visited while holding the world title.

There had been hopes that Sunday’s event would be held in the Scottish parliament building, but the fallback option of Edinburgh Chess Club, 1 Alva Street, will be the venue. It is a wonderful place – used specifically for chess since 1922 and with a long history of visits by strong players – but will be somewhat tight for space, given that it is a tenement flat. The 20 boards will be squeezed into one or two of the rooms, however, and play is expected to start at 3:45pm, half an hour after Topalov arrives.

Proceedings will continue until 9pm if necessary and onlookers are welcome – although, as international arbiter Alex McFarlane points out, “there will be spectating opportunities but these are limited by the size of the premises”.

The event is a considerable coup for Scottish chess – with much of the behind-the-scenes work having been done by Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland – and is the latest sign of revival in the game north of the border.

While not in crisis, the past few years have seen difficulties in terms of funding and venues, and a worrying lack of strong young players pushing on to titled status, with talk of a lost generation since the emergence of Aberdeen’s Jonathan Rowson in the latter part of last century. Rowson reached grandmaster status in 1999 and went on to win the British title three times in a row, 2004–06. Since then, there has been a dearth of young – or, for that matter, older – Scottish players really pushing on, even to the IM title, never mind to the high table of GM status.

The current crop of young players might well break through, however, with Alan Tate of Edinburgh (in his early 30s) closing in on the IM title following a fine run of international results, and various of the student-age players, most notably Sreeves (who turned 20 in January) being seen as very promising.

The chance for such players to face someone as strong as Topalov will surely provide inspiration – and, should any of them win, it will be a tremendous confidence-boost, notwithstanding the knowledge that their opponent was calculating strategy and variations against 19 other opponents at the same time.

Topalov was well regarded for his willingness to face the entire four-man Irish squad in a simul in Dublin last year – an event where he made no complaint on finding that one of his opponents was himself a GM (Alex Baburin) and all four were titled. That match was played using chess clocks – a markedly harder option than a normal simul, as all four devices were counting down at once even though Topalov was only able to attend to one game at a time. He also willingly took the black pieces in two of the Dublin games – and the result was 2–2, with the Bulgarian winning one, losing one and two games being drawn.

Were Sunday’s event in Edinburgh to end as a 10–10 draw it would be a major surprise. Far more likely is something in the region of 17–3 to Topalov, and 20–0 is not impossible. Whatever happens, it will be great to see such a strong player walking through the door of Alva Street, and he is sure to receive a very warm welcome. Whether any of the organising team is able to show him the whereabouts of the toilet while keeping a straight face remains to be seen, however.

● It finished 16½–3½ to Topalov. He beat Roberta Brunello, Alistair Campbell, Alistair Forbes, Andrew Green, Stevie Hilton, Ian McLean, Mike Mitchell, Andrew Newton, Charlie Nisbet, Kai Pannwitz, Gordon Rattray, Mike Ridge, Clément Sreeves and Alastair White. Five games – against GM Jacob Aagaard, Hugh Brechin, Adam Bremner, Robert Lawson and Boris Mitrovic – were drawn, while the sole defeat came against IM Andrew Greet.

Organiser Andy Howie describes it as “a fantastic day”, with an “endless stream of spectators”.

Pictures by Andy Howie here.

CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

Yesterday saw the conclusion of this year’s British chess championship, a fortnight-long event held in Sheffield. This was generally deemed to have been an interesting tournament with some good, exciting and high-standard chess – but it concluded amid high-profile acrimony that had very little to do with the game itself.

The main tournaments – in which upwards of 900 people took part – ended on Friday, with only one issue remaining to be decided. The two leading British grandmasters, Cornishman Michael Adams and Nigel Short (ex of Lancashire, now of Greece), had tied for first place in the main championship and were required to meet again in short-form quickplay chess on Saturday morning to determine who would be this year’s champion.

Before that happened, however, at 9:30am on Saturday, came the general prizegiving ceremony, covering a considerable spread of chess ability.

The prizes were meant to be handed over by Connagh-Joseph de Mooi – commonly known as CJ de Mooi – who, as well as being a model and a panellist on the BBC show Eggheads, is also president of the English Chess Federation (ECF), having been elected to the post in 2009.

In Sheffield yesterday, de Mooi – who describes himself as a “gay equality” supporter – was wearing a red T-shirt sponsored by the charity Stonewall and bearing the legend “Some people are gay. Get over it!” In the lead-up to the presentation, de Mooi’s choice of attire was questioned and this led to him not presenting the prizes. Amid conflicting accounts of what had happened, a considerable hooha kicked off, both in the tournament hall and online.

At first it was unclear who had made the request of de Mooi: candidates ranged from the tournament organisers, the on-the-day arbiters, the management at the Ponds Forge centre where the event was being staged, or even a chess player or a parent of a junior player.

Gradually a clearer picture emerged. Just before midday on Saturday, de Mooi commented on Twitter: “I’ll make an official statement when play is over [in the Adams–Short playoff]. I stress this was not an ECF board (the members here were supportive) or venue decision.”

Then, late afternoon, de Mooi commented directly on the English Chess Forum (which, confusingly, is not linked to the English Chess Federation), both in an official “Statement” and in a personal – but still public – addendum. “At this morning’s prizegiving ceremony of the Darwin Strategic British Chess Championships 2011,” de Mooi wrote in the statement, “an arbiter approached me saying she had ‘personal reservations’ about me wearing a Stonewall T-shirt when presenting prizes to juniors. It was apparently inappropriate for me to wear something mentioning ‘sexuality’ in such an environment.

“I did not consider this an issue as I had worn it the previous day in the playing hall and no objections were raised. I am fully CRB [criminal records bureau] checked and was registering my public support of a charity. The other 2 arbiters said ‘no problem with it’ and ‘I hadn’t actually noticed’ but after a discussion returned and suggested if I wanted to wear it, I could just present to the adults. I refused saying ‘I either present all the prizes or none’ but I would leave it as their decision.”

There was then “consultation”, after which de Mooi says he was told “there had been ‘some complaints’. He then sat out the presentation ceremony.

“Personally, I was incensed,” de Mooi said in his addendum. “No matter how I try to drag chess into the 21st century, I seem to continually face ‘antediluvian’ attitudes. Whether it relates to lifestyle, accepted tradition, maintaining a status quo, whatever – if change wasn’t wanted or expected, why was I elected? I am utterly passionate about chess – I have used up most of my personal savings to provide ‘the strongest’ and ‘best ever British Championships’ this year and really don’t want to have to deal with this sort of stuff too.”

He added: ”I won’t change (in either sense!) and will continue to work hard to promote chess and what I think is right. I have heard nothing but support from the GMs [grandmasters], other players, sponsors ECF board and many other parties.

“If this isn’t what the English Chess Federation wants, please ask me to stand down or vote me out in October. However, you know who I am, what I do and what I support (incidentally, I don’t support gay rights, I support gay equality) I humbly dare to suggest that no-one has any issue with my chess endeavours and how I work to promote and support the game. […] I am happy and honoured to be ECF President but I am foremost CJ de Mooi and it’s him who defines the job, not the other way around.”

De Mooi has since offered his resignation “for the benefit of the ECF and the future reputation of chess”. He also said: “I am a passionate person and I know that’s one of the main reasons people are able to support me. However, although I don’t apologise for who I am, what I choose to promote or how I go about doing that, I may have over reacted on this occasion (despite my ‘irritation’) and it’s unfortunate that something such as this threatens to overshadow a magnificent event that so many people worked for, most far more than me.”

The mention of a female arbiter – the chess equivalent of a referee or umpire – made it easy to identify the person who had initially spoken with de Mooi, as there was only one such person present at Sheffield. Lara Barnes – a chess player and arbiter based in north-eastern England – is a familiar face on the Scottish chess circuit, where she is well-liked and respected.

This morning, Barnes – having earlier commented on Facebook – posted her response on the English Chess Forum: “Here is my side of the incident (I am posting against the advice of some, but I am getting hate emails claiming that I am homophobic and need to clear this up). I spoke to David [Welch – tournament manager] and Alex [McFarlane – chief arbiter] before the prize-giving suggesting that the T-shirt in question may not be advisable seeing as children were going to be in photographs with it and the charity in question was promoting a sexuality-based issue. I personally raised over £200 for the same charity on the Sunday night quiz [midway through the tournament] […] I was just worried that children who had come for chess may be exploited in photo opportunities for a different issue/charity.

“They [Welsh and McFarlane] were reluctant to speak to CJ about it and I said that I would. I told CJ that we usually dressed up more formally for the prize-giving and that it was only my opinion that his T-shirt may be controversial. He said ‘well I won’t present the prizes then’. When I told David Welch this he said that I had made a mistake in his opinion. I then left it to the ‘officials’ to make any decision. I believe that they still wanted CJ to present the prizes to the British Championship for which he had made a large financial contribution and huge publicity effort. He declined, saying ‘all or nothing’.

“May I add that, and many of my friends know already, it would be highly hypocritical of me to ‘oppose’ any gay-equality charity as I have had gay relationships in the past. Any thought of ‘anti-gay’ anything was never in my mind when I suggested the T-shirt was inappropriate for a national chess championships prize-giving, it was just inappropriate. I have many Wychwood Brewery T-shirts promoting real ale, but I would not wear them to the British Championships prize-giving. My only fault may have been being naive to the controversy that this brought up.”

Barnes also says that in today’s Sunday Times article on the controversy, “CJ’s claim that he was ‘banned’ from wearing the T-shirt is just untrue.” She also said: “He was never asked to ‘take it off’. I only queried whether it was appropriate, had he said ‘yes, I believe it is’ then I would not have had anything further to say at the time and he would have gone ahead with the prize-giving. He is the president of the organisation for which I do voluntary work and I would have bowed to his authority.”

The Sunday Times piece was co-written by grandmaster and 1971 British champion Ray Keene, who has been tweeting vigorously about the controversy since the start. Keene – long retired as a player – is a noted chess author and organiser but is himself no stranger to controversy. The dispute has also been covered by the Guardian.

It should also be noted that the T-shirt in question forms part of a high-profile anti-prejudice campaign, involving politicians – for instance Boris Johnson – and recently translated into Gaelic.

Also noteworthy is that this year’s British chess championship was unusual in having a dress code. This was set at “smart casual” – but seemingly only applied to players, not officials.

Asked this morning what would happen in a similar situation north of the border (where the British championship is held from time to time, most recently in 2003 in Edinburgh), Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland, said: “As executive director I don’t often get asked as I am normally working the event. Often when I am, I will be wearing my Chess Arbiters’ Association top, a Scottish Chess top or a Scottish Junior Chess top. If I ever had to present at the Scottish [championship] I would be in a suit.”

“For official events like the Scottish championships / SJC Chess For Kicks final etc I would wear a suit”, said Chess Scotland president Michael Hanley. “In fact I was ‘suited up’ at the Scottish but had a chat with Lord Kirkwood and asked him to present the trophies as he had just agreed to be new honorary president. For less formal events like Hamilton Junior Congresses, I have no problem wearing a T-shirt advertising my business.”

Oh, and while all the T-shirt palaver was going on, there was some chess taking place. Adams and Short drew the first of their playoff games, before the former world no.4 Adams won the second to retain the British title. It would be neat to be able to report that one of the players used the Stonewall System in one of these games – and Short, known to have a wry sense of humour, was perhaps tempted. But a pair of more mainstream openings – a Queen’s Indian Defence and a Caro-Kann – were played…

Update, late evening 7 August: A statement from Andrew Farthing, chief executive of the English Chess Federation – along with new statements from Lara Barnes and CJ de Mooi – can be found here, about two-thirds down the page. Basically it seems that there has been a cooling-off period, time has passed in a useful way, misunderstandings have been sorted out and the two main parties have found it in themselves to say nice things about each other. CJ de Mooi’s offer of resignation has been declined by the ECF.

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Keti Arakhamia-Grant in Edinburgh <em>Picture: AEK Photography</em>

Keti Arakhamia-Grant in Edinburgh Picture: AEK Photography

Last Sunday, just as one experienced and popular competitor emerged victorious after several days of intense effort on the rainswept coast of Kent, so something similar was happening in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh.

OK, so Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant – Keti, as she is known – plies her trade indoors, is of a somewhat slimmer build than Darren Clarke and her area of expertise is always likely to be way behind Clarke’s in terms of mainstream coverage and public awareness. But both victories were well received, and each event – the Open golf and the Scottish chess championship – appears to have left onlookers and officials satisfied with the fare on offer.

The 118th Scottish chess championship proved to be an interesting and tense nine-day contest. It was more competitive than generally anticipated, given that there had been a fair chance of the Ochamchira-born, Edinburgh-based player strolling away with the title rather than – as actually happened – having to scramble for it in the final round.

Arakhamia-Grant was the only grandmaster (GM) in the 37-player field, and the only serious challenge was expected to come courtesy of international master (IM) Craig Pritchett – Scottish champion in 1977 and 2005. IM is the next title down from GM – think BA as against MA, although either chess title is markedly harder to achieve than those academic honours. Outside bets for the title were two fast-improving young players – Clement Sreeves and Andrew Green – but beyond that it was hard to see how anyone else had much of a chance.

It was, therefore, a surprise when the leader at the start of the final round, with 6½ points out of 8, was Tony Dempsey – a little-known player from the Wandering Dragons club in Edinburgh. So little-known, in fact, as to cause 2007 champion Andrew Muir to comment on the Chess Scotland noticeboard that he had “never heard of him before this”.

The final round, with games potentially lasting six hours, saw Dempsey play Arakhamia-Grant, who was half a point behind (in chess a win counts as one point, a draw half). Also on 6/8, and facing each other, were Sreeves and Arakhamia-Grant’s husband Jonathan Grant, the 2006 champion. Given the nature of the tiebreak system, the only way for Arakhamia-Grant to take the title and the £1,200 first prize was for her to beat Dempsey and for the other game to be drawn – which is exactly what happened.

The top-board encounter ended first – after a lovely combination by the winner, but also a missed, near-impossible-to-spot chance to draw for Dempsey. There was then a curious domestic subplot, given that Jonathan Grant now only needed to prevent Sreeves from winning for the Grant household finances to benefit – although a win would have seen him take the title ahead of his wife. Chess is indeed a complicated game.

That Arakhamia-Grant had to battle for the title rather than cruise to it came about mainly through her having lost to Sreeves in round 3, then only drawing with Pritchett in a round 6 thriller. Pritchett later pointed out – in a magnanimous, such-is-life way – that he missed a clear chance to win that game because of trying to save time on the clock by repeating the position and thus allowing his opponent to claim a draw. He ended the tournament joint-second – on such brief but profound moments do victories come and go.

It could be argued, however, that the title ultimately hinged on two curious non-games. In round 6, Sreeves and Green opted to shake hands on a draw after just nine moves, while the much-anticipated Grant–Grant pairing in round 7 similarly lasted only 11 inconsequential moves before the café beckoned.

Both these games prompted collective groans from the watching online chess community, especially the clash of the unbetrothed. There has, in recent years, been a history of promising young Scottish players declining to play serious chess against each other. Whether this is linked to the lack of title-gaining success for Scots over the past decade or so is debatable – but there was frustration at seeing the practice recur in Edinburgh.

“Motwani, McNab, Condie, Mannion, Rowson, as juniors had the bottle to avoid premature draws – hardly coincidence they were the future titled players and Scot champs,” said 1996 and 1997 champion Douglas Bryson as he reeled off the names of various earlier Scottish chess stars – three eventual GMs and two IMs – who weren’t in the habit of quickly halving-out. “Of course easy to say sitting here on the sidelines,” Bryson added.

Whatever the ethics of quick draws (imagine if, say, Rangers and Celtic were able to shake hands and walk off the pitch five minutes into an Old Firm game), it seemed likely that one of the Sreeves–Green and Grant–Grant opt-outs would, come the final reckoning, look like a silly miscalculation, while the other would be seen as a masterstroke of energy-preservation – and so it proved.

So, a well-contested tournament with a clear and worthy winner: who could ask for more? Well, quite a few people on the Scottish chess scene – both players and organisers – remain uneasy about both the format and the future of the annual championship.

The various problems inter-relate: the structure of the tournament – how many rounds total, how many rounds per day? (At present it is nine rounds at one per day.) Should it be a small-format all-play-all for the top-ranked players, or a larger Swiss-style open event, as now, in which the overall field is broader but weaker?

And where should it be held? Not just the old seaside versus city debate – with cities in the ascendant at present – but also the even older west/east split. Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalry exists in many spheres, and the extent to which it crops up in chess can be seen in just how few west-of-Scotland players entered this year’s championship. The same, in reverse, tends to be true when the event is held on the rainy side of the country, and it seems a near-unbridgeable divide.

This isn’t a footballesque problem whereby Glasgow chess players dislike Edinburgh players and vice versa. They get on perfectly well (well, so they say); it’s just that both groupings seem reluctant to allocate the time, money and logistical commitment required to play in a nine-day tournament away from their home patch. And that’s without getting into debates about players based in Dundee, Inverness and so on.

The overarching problem, however – as in so many areas of life – is a lack of funding. Chess is not a sport in the official sportscotland sense (although some would like to see it go that way), and it being one of the least televisual of games severely limits the scope for advertising/sponsorship revenue.

“This event will run at a loss of about £500, though the paper loss which will include grading fees will be a couple of hundred more,” said tournament director Alex McFarlane, after the championship ended. “We were basically seven entries short of breaking even which can’t be too bad. The venue [the LifeCare centre] proved to be very popular – the players liked the staff and the staff liked the players. I would certainly use the venue again with a suitable event. The cost of the venue is less than the free venue last year [in the University of the West of Scotland at Hamilton] and much better. We had to pay for cleaning and security last time.”

With a new crop of strong young players coming through – it would be rash to bet against either Sreeves or Green (aged 19 and 21 respectively) winning the Scottish title in due course – and with the popularity of the game at the middle and lower levels remaining healthy despite the stay-at-home distractions of the internet and the general economic downturn, it is important for chess in Scotland to push on and progress.

Something approaching a full-strength Scottish championship would help – the country has five GMs and a similar number of IMs, but of these only Arakhamia-Grant and Pritchett played this time round. It has been some years since the Scottish chess champion was also unequivocally the strongest Scottish chess player. (At present, most observers would award the latter title to Jonathan Rowson – who has recently acquired a column in the Guardian, albeit one in which his byline profile makes no mention of his chess prowess.)

A genuinely strong championship, however, needs a large prize fund along with a suitable venue and substantial publicity in order to draw in the funders. This is not an easy combination to achieve, but there is plenty of confidence around. “I am extremely optimistic,” said McFarlane. “Unfortunately I am not in a position to say publicly why.”

One imminent boost for the game is that Lord Kirkwood – the appeal court judge and keen supporter of chess Ian Kirkwood – looks set to take on a formal role as honorary president of Chess Scotland. He will be proposed and seconded at next month’s AGM, with his election expected to go through. The extent to which this and other as yet unannounced developments will raise awareness of chess in Scotland and contribute to an increase in funding remains to be seen – but a lot of thought and work is being put in at the organisational level.

Of course, there could have been a much swifter solution to the financial worries had the recent EuroMillions winners from Largs – which has a lively chess club – been chess fans and willing to lob in a spare couple of hundred thousand for the good of the game…

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Johnny Marr celebrates his 90th birthday at Ediburgh chess club <em>Picture: Geoff Chandler</em>

Johnny Marr celebrates his 90th birthday at Ediburgh chess club Picture: Geoff Chandler

Anyone who has played chess at a formal level – be it in evening leagues or at weekend congresses – will know that one of the more endearing/alarming/unnerving (delete as appropriate) features of the game is that young children are capable of inflicting defeat on experienced adult players.

Certainly my own experience – 35 years of regular playing without ever pushing on from a low-to-middling standard – is that, come the final round of a tournament, with money and perhaps a trophy up for grabs, it can be disheartening to be drawn against a small child who has achieved a similar score and who is obviously quite handy.

Better to face a known-quantity adult rather than some Jonathan Rowson in the making – and better still (although everyone is too polite to say this) to face some really old campaigner who might get tired or muddled at a critical point in proceedings.

That’s the theory at least, but theories can be dangerous and generalisations inaccurate – as shown by Johnny Marr, a much-loved Edinburgh chess player who died last week at the age of 93. Marr continued to play with great enthusiasm right up to the end, and was one of those resourceful players who could, at times, seem markedly stronger than their numerical grading might indicate. His formal strength peaked in 1974 at a decidedly useful 1904 grading points (players of this strength tend to play in the highest sections of weekend congresses without having any realistic chance of winning them), and stayed above the 1800 level for the remainder of that decade.

As he entered his eighth decade, Marr’s grading dropped to – and stabilised at – an entirely respectable 1600ish – before sinking to 1550 as he reached nonagenarian status and finally – in this season’s grading list – ending at 1428. Those numbers don’t begin to tell the full story, however, and numerous opponents in the last few years – especially those who didn’t know him and who mistakenly assumed they were facing some fairly weak old bloke – will have been startled to find themselves on the receiving end of some very sharp play and an eventual defeat.

The canny old guy in the baseball cap was perfectly capable of showing glimmers of his former strength, and possessed a level of experience that few on the Scottish tournament circuit could rival.

“He had a wonderful ability to hang on to a position and create subtleties and traps even when all looked hopeless,” said former Edinburgh chess club secretary Bill Marshall after hearing of his friend’s death.

“Watching him playing strong visitors or over-confident juniors was always interesting. You could see the light slowly dawning on them that this old guy was vastly more experienced than them and damned crafty! And then when they found out just how old he was, there was usually a look of astonishment and respect.”

Marr was still playing – and still winning those crafty games – until very recently. At the big Edinburgh congress held in George Heriot’s School at the start of April he lost in the first round of his section but won the next four games to finish joint-second. He played in a small club tournament just a couple of weekends before his death, and had long been a familiar face on the Scottish chess scene, especially in the Lothians, where even in his later years he would cycle to matches and tournaments.

“He was without doubt the chief influence on my play and for the love of the game,” said the chess blogger Geoff Chandler in a posting on the Chess Scotland noticeboard. “Whenever I played a good game I could not wait to show him to get his approval … A great man, a great chess player, always ready with a quick joke, never a bad word about anybody, greatly loved by all.”

Chandler is sure that he and Marr played more than 1,000 games – “and none of them were dull affairs” – dating back to the mid-1970s. As well as being the oldest chess club in the UK (it was founded in 1822) and possibly the second-oldest in the world, Edinburgh chess club is unusual in owning its own premises – a lovely tenement flat on Alva Street in the west end.

Chandler – himself a strong player – had a spell as the live-in caretaker, and Marr’s love of the game was such that he would often stay into the early hours to play just one more game. “I was usually on the receiving end,” says Chandler. “Slowly I got better. These games helped me no end.”

In his working days, Marr was a glassblower at the Edinburgh Crystal glassworks, and he joined the Edinburgh club in 1966. He had, Marshall recalls, “a wily and imaginative style that could occasionally trip up the very best” – and he was an ideal club man.

“Whenever a team captain was short of a player,” says Marshall, “Johnny would be happy to step in if it was legal to do so. Whenever a new player or a visitor to the city came into the club it was always Johnny that offered to play them first. He loved showing the bright young juniors that old folk could play a damn good game too, but always encouraged them to improve.”

My own memories of Johnny Marr are mainly of a nodding acquaintance who was often to be found watching – and then enthusiastically analysing – the games of other players after his own efforts had ended. We played one formal game – in 1994 at the Lothians allegro tournament in Lasswade – but much clearer in my mind, partly because it was recent and partly because it fits with the widely held impression of the man and his style of play, is a between-rounds encounter at the Edinburgh club this past winter.

We were both playing in a small Sunday tournament, on a day when the streets were lethal with ice and hard-packed snow – not that this stopped the 93-year-old from showing up. Between rounds, Marr asked if I fancied a ten-minute friendly. I was playing well, was soon a piece up and then a whole rook up, in what felt like a cruise of a position. But then I did what countless other opponents must have done over the years: relaxed a little, became complacent, and started to let the position drift.

Suddenly the wily old customer sitting across the board seemed to morph into a much stronger player, and before I knew it, to avoid checkmate, I had to give up a heap of material. That was that – it wasn’t long before I was reaching out my hand to resign. My opponent said thanks, and then chuckled. Seems it was a typical Johnny Marr game.

Condolences to his son Donald – himself a strong chess player – and to the rest of the family.

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<em>Picture: Nestor Galina</em>

Picture: Nestor Galina

Less than a fortnight after the Scottish chess championship ended in Hamilton, the British equivalent is underway in Canterbury. It’s a much larger and more complex event than the Scottish, lasting 14 days with a wide range of tournaments for players of all strengths and ages.

The main event is the championship itself, an 11-rounder with 78 players competing for a £5,000 first prize. The bulk of those 78 are English, along with a cosmopolitan smattering from Wales, Ireland, Spain, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and South Africa – but a distinct lack of Scots.

Arguably, the line-up does include one Scot, in the form of Andrew Greet. English by upbringing, Greet qualifies as Scottish through residence, having worked in Glasgow for the past couple of years. He remains registered with the English federation, however, and his recent capturing of the Scottish title sparked online chatter.

If Greet doesn’t count, then not one player from north of the Border is vying for the top prize at Canterbury. This is a striking decline. During the period 2004–2007, the British title went to a Scottish player each time: three wins by Jonathan Rowson, then one by Jacob Aagaard.

Also, for each of the four years from 2003 to 2007 when the title of British women’s champion was awarded, it went to Keti Arakhamia-Grant, a Georgian who married a Scot in 1996 and settled in Edinburgh. Yet none of these, and none of the other Scottish titled players, are at Canterbury. Even in the lesser events there are only a handful of Scots among 800-odd players.

The reasons for this are complex. Two straightforward factors – particularly for the weaker players – are distance and expense. Canterbury is a long way from Scotland. Getting there, and staying there for a full fortnight, is both pricey and holiday-consuming for the amateur or semi-professional player. (The British does occasionally visit Scotland: Edinburgh played host in 1920, 1926, 1985 and 2003, Ayr in 1978, Glasgow in 1911, Dundee in 1993.)

The presence of Michael Adams at this year’s event has also skewed the entry. Adams, from Cornwall, is an elite “super-grandmaster”, a former world number four. Having such a strong player at the British will have caused other contenders – whether English or Scottish – to reassess their chances. “With the betting markets saying [Adams] is a 80% favourite to take the £5,000 prize,” says former Scottish champion Douglas Bryson, “there is not a big incentive to gamble 12 nights accommodation, travel costs, etc, on the small chance of Adams failing.”

One other reason for the lack of Scots in Kent, however, is considerably more contentious. It concerns appearance fees, along with suggestions that last year’s event, held in Torquay, was a less than level playing-field.

The British championship comes under the auspices of a coordinating committee comprising representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, all Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man. Chess, like football, is resistant to having a UK-wide body, as that might prompt FIDE – the chess equivalent of FIFA – to insist that the component parts combine for international events.

The actual organisation, however, is undertaken by the English Chess Federation (ECF), and in the lead-up to the 2009 championship the then tournament director Stewart Reuben found sponsorship of almost £5,000 from a company called Accelerated Bridging Finance Ltd (ABF).

This was divided among the ten English grandmasters who entered. None of the ABF money was offered to Scottish grandmasters – a decision that continues to rankle. “The ECF is solely responsible for the surplus or loss of the event,” Stewart Reuben says. “The other federations have no responsibility here, nor any in its organisation (although several people help in their private capacity). There was nothing to prevent sponsorship being raised for Scottish players by their own federation in 2009. Had the event been fully sponsored, the Scots would have been supported on an equal footing with the English.”

Others saw it differently, however. Alex McFarlane worked as chief arbiter at Torquay (he is doing the same at Canterbury, and is also co-manager). “I have been unable to establish the facts to my satisfaction,” he says, “as regards how the decision was made (for example was it the sponsors wishes or not?) that the money which came into the congress budget was only available to English grandmasters. This offended a number of Scots no end.”

McFarlane made a similar point on the Chess Scotland noticeboard, where he described the 2009 division of funds as “a horrendous decision by the previous Congress Manager … This created a great deal of ill will which continues to this day.”

Adam Raoof is the current tournament director, and is keen to move forward from last year’s problems. “This situation would not happen on our watch,” he says. “I would not accept sponsorship under those terms.”

While the fallout from Torquay could not be described as a formal boycott of Canterbury, the “ill will” has undoubtedly been slow to subside. One Scottish grandmaster, while unwilling to speak on the record and wary of being drawn into Scotland–England feuding, had clear concerns about differing terms and conditions that were offered to English and non-English players.

This time round, with Adam Raoof having replaced Stewart Reuben and no major sponsor having come forward, there are no centralised appearance fees – although two of the English grandmasters, definitely Keith Arkell and possibly Michael Adams – are known to have negotiated deals with outside sponsors.

Other problems remain, however. One issue is that the British championship incorporates the English championship, for which an additional £1,500 first prize is available. Had any Scot entered and won at Canterbury, he or she would have collected £5,000. But if Adams wins, he takes home £6,500. (Quite what happens if Greet wins – adding the English title to the Scottish one – is hard to say. The organisers may have breathed a secret sigh of relief that he started poorly, with two wins and two defeats, as against four straight wins for Adams.)

The irony is that there is a significant and highly regarded Scottish presence at Canterbury, as part of the arbiter team – the umpires and referees of chess. This looks set to continue over future years, but whether it helps to bring the top Scottish players back into the tournament hall remains to be seen. The mood is better than it was a year ago, but it will take time.