Monday 7 January 2013

Chess Reviews: 210

Arkell's Odyssey
The Autobiography of a
Chess Grandmaster
Keith Arkell
123 pages
Keverel Chess

I've known Keith Arkell for a long time. We played each other on numerous occasions and became friends. He was always a friendly and approachable Grandmaster of chess.

I was very pleased to hire his services for two simultaneous displays for the junior players of the Chess Links Project back in the mid-2000s.  The juniors loved the experience of playing against such a strong player and the two events made front-page headlines in the Teesside press.

I remember telling him - on more than one occasion - that he should write a book. It's great to see that (more than a decade on!) he has finally found the time to do so. Yet Arkell's Odyssey is not the book I was expecting him to write.

Keith's star qualities, the very aspects of his personality that make him the winner that he is, are neatly summed up by Britain's No.1 player, Michael Adams, in his foreword. ''Keith's appetite for the game: his determination, mental toughness in bad positions and fighting spirit, not to mention his formidable endgame technique...'' With that in mind, one would have expected Keith's first book to be a serious games' collection, with deep notes explaining exactly how he consistently manages to squeeze full points out of virtually nothing. ''That's the sort of thing a Korchnoi or a Karpov does, but not a less industrious Grandmaster such as myself'' he writes, on the very first page. Instead of that, Keith decided to write his autobiography.

It is a story full of surprises. Despite the early suggestions that he has led an unconventional and unorthodox life, I wasn't prepared for such a degree of frankness from page 1 onwards, with a near fatal birth and the admission that he was ''a very frightened little boy.'' It's a feature destined to reappear later in the book, with the further admission of panic attacks and a fear of infinity, ''a feeling of being trapped in time forever.''

Even his passage into the world of chess was unconventional. These days, when some children in their early teens are studiously dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's on their way to becoming young Grandmasters, it will come as a surprise to learn that he only got to know the moves and rules at 13 when his father taught both Keith and his brother Nick the moves of the game ''he had just learned from one of his workmates.'' A couple of years later, sporting his first ever BCF grade of 142 (ELO 1736) he took his first notable scalp when he defeated Sheila Jackson (ELO 2048 at the time).

Soon came another pivotal moment in his life, this time away from the chess board. Taking a position as a junior wages clerk could have been the first step on the road to a conventional life, but after a ''terrifying and claustrophobic'' first day at the office, he never returned. ''Since that day I have never taken conventional employment again or signed on the dole.'' Thereafter, Keith's future life as a professional player was well and truly sealed.    

He remains remarkably frank about personal matters throughout the book, even chronicling - in detail -  his first love, marriage and eventual divorce from Susan.

Naturally, the bulk of his story concerns chess and his rise through the ranks to become the scourge of British weekend tournaments and, in 2008, to achieve one of his greatest successes - a tie for first (with Stuart Conquest) at the British Championship. He lost the play-off the following day, having been out celebrating until 5 a.m. in the morning, but still shared the title of English Champion.

70 games (or game fragments, in some cases) are peppered throughout the book. Opponents include Tony Miles, Bent Larsen, Michael Adams and Lev Psakhis. There is even a successful tactical tussle against an 11-year old Magnus Carlsen (now, of course, the world no.1). Annotations to the games are brief. Too brief really, which is OK in the context of adding a little chess colour to the story and completely excusable if a serious study of Keith's games will someday see the light of day. You don't need to be a Karpov or a Korchnoi after all, Keith; your games, together with a full explanation of how to convert slight advantages and exactly how you manage to keep just enough going would make an excellent and highly instructive book - a fitting companion volume to Arkell's Odyssey.

Here are a couple of interesting snippets to give a flavour of the chess content. For those who are more used to seeing Keith grind out the points from extremely long endgames, two queen surprises may come as a surprise...

Arkell - Boudre
Hastings, 1988

28 Qh1! (with the idea of 28 ...Bxh1 29 Ne6+ Kg8 30 Rxg7 checkmate). Black tried 28 ...Qxc5 but couldn't hold on for much longer. 1-0 (33).

Arkell - Holland
e2e4 High Wycombe Open, 2012

29 Qd8! ''...the most spectacular way I have ever seen to simplify to a better ending,'' wrote Michael Adams in the Daily Telegraph. It's an incredible fork on the rook and bishop and it led to an endgame advantage Keith converted after 58 moves.

There are numerous photos too, some of which will be familiar to readers of old CHESS magazines and some from the Arkell family archive.

Arkell's Odyssey is a very unusual book. Chess players are usually loathe to admit to any form of weakness, let alone fear. Keith, as usual, goes his own way and presents an uncompromising ''warts and all'' self portrait that will come as big surprise to most readers. Entertaining and thought provoking, this is a book which deserves to reach a wide audience.

Further information and ordering details are available from the Keverel Chess website.

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