Monday 31 May 2010

Chess Reviews: 142

Alekhine Alert!
A repertoire for Black against 1 e4
By IM Timothy Taylor
285 pages
Everyman Chess

IM Taylor covers Alekhine's Defence (1 e4 Nf6) enthusiastically from the Black point of view, starting with the toughest lines first and working his way through to those of a less challenging nature.

Following a quick look at some World Champions playing Alekhine's Defence, each main chapter presents the author's personal likes and dislikes and selects a hero for each part.

The material is arranged thus:

World Champions Play Alekhine's Defence
Our Hero: Alekhine

Modern Variation I: The White Pawn Wedge
Our Hero: Bagirov

Modern Variation II: A Danish/Latvian Co-Production
Our Hero: Kengis

Modern Variation III: Vikings Board the Alekhine Longboat
Our Hero: Carlsen

The Exchange Variation: The Ox is not a Scary Animal
Our Hero: Larsen

The Four Pawns Attack - Fracture Him!
Our Hero: Sergeev

The Chase Variation - Back to the Centre
Our Hero: Vaganian

Fourth or Fifth Move Sidelines
Our Hero: Varga

Alekhine Declined
Our Hero: Taylor

The repertoire choice against the Modern Variation is the reliable Kengis system: 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 Nf3 dxe5. The first chapter on this line handily covers the neglected 5 dxe5 and the author is correct to point out that it was very rarely even mentioned in other books.

There are some controversial choices. Against the Four Pawns Attack, Black is advised to go in for 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 c4 Nb6 5 f4 g6, which is not particularly highly regarded by theory, but could be useful at club level.

The dreaded Voronezh Variation, so popular in the Exchange Variation, is avoided here by 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 c4 Nb6 5 exd6 exd6 ( ...cxd6 can lead to the Voronezh).

The author makes himself the hero of chapter 10, which advises the reader to meet 1 e4 Nf6 2 Nc3 with 2 ...e5. Controversial again; most players prefer 2 ...d5 to heading into the Open Games, but Taylor is convinced that 3 e5 is too much of a problem.

On the whole, this a perfectly readable account of an interesting defence. Club players should be able to put together a decent repertoire to combat 1 e4. Some of the recommendations remind me of the style of old Foxy Openings DVDs; they may not be the best, in a harsh theoretical sense, but they can be effective at club level.

How To Win At Chess - Quickly!
By GM Simon Williams
192 pages
Everyman Chess

GM Williams takes the reader on journey through 50 illustrative games to discover what sort of mistakes can lead to a game ended successfully - or unsuccessfully, depending on one's side of the board - in just 25 moves or less.

The material is sensibly arranged into the following chapters:

The Exposed King

Exploiting an Advantage in Development

Punishing the Pawn-Grabbers

Gambit Play

Play With Purpose!

Crossed Wires

Missing the Danger

Unnecessary Pawn Moves

Super h-pawn Power

The chapter headings are largely self-explanatory. In 'Punishing the Pawn-Grabbers', the author starts off with a warning against greed and gamely includes a shocking loss of his own.

'In today's climate of capitalism and supposed democracy, greed is often seen as a good thing, but as the Catholic Church has long warned us, greed can lead to the downfall of an individual. Chess is not dissimilar. In the opening a player can often be punished for grabbing a pawn too early. It takes time to capture material and in some cases this time can be put to better use, such as by castling or developing a piece.'

Gullaksen - Williams
Oslo 2004

Black has just played 18 ...exf5? and his extra pawns turned out to be no comfort at all when White whipped out: 19 Bxf6 1-0

The chess variations are kept light; the prose is allowed to breathe and this provides ample advice for the club player to improve the skills of spotting mistake in the opponent's play and tightening up the contrasting aspect of one's own game. Club players are the target audience.

Why We Lose At Chess
By IM Colin Crouch
187 pages
Everyman Chess

This is a very interesting book. Following a stroke which put IM Crouch temporarily out of competitive chess action, he spent some time during the 2006-7 period working on his own games. The resulting analysis forms the basis of this volume.

He presents the material in the form of 15 tests, each one featuring four game positions. The reader is given three options from which to chose the best continuation.

The positions are then given in the context of an annotated game, with special emphasis given to when and how potentially losing mistakes occur.

Here's a sample test position:

Black to play

A) 16 ...Qxb2
B) 16 ...Rd8
C) Something else?

IM Crouch nicely verbalises his thoughts and searches deeply for the reasons behind mistakes. There's also some advice on the general thinking process which goes into selection moves over the board.

The author is very open and honest about the effects of the stroke he suffered a few years ago, leaving him blind in one eye and somewhat less than 100% in the other. Indeed, in the build up to the stroke he lost around 100 ELO and wondered why; the answer was worse news than a sticking with a dubious opening or two.

The effects of the stoke on IM Crouch's play are still variable, depending on factors such as tiredness and the quality of light in the venue. He recounts one tale of turning up late, feeling flustered and meeting 1 e4 with 1 ...b5? in the mistaken belief that he had played 1 ...c5 (the room was as dim as most club venues usually are). Fortunately, the opponent very sportingly offered to start again, and this time the black squares were successfully sorted from the white.

I found this to be the most interesting of the three books reviewed this time, mainly due to the unique perspective and intriguing circumstances of the author. It's very unusual to see a chess player provide what is essentially a collection of annotated games in which there are considerably more defeats than victories (he scored +7, =6, -11 from the games used) and his honesty is ti be admired.

Club players may well see similarities here in the way that they lose games. IM Crouch's logical explanations should help the reader to learn what to look for and how to take measures to avoid such defeats in the future.

For further details about Everyman chess books, pop along to:

Sunday 30 May 2010

Natalie Merchant At The Sage

Natalie Merchant
The Sage
A Pictorial Report

I became aware of Natalie Merchant's extraordinary music quite recently; last November in fact, when I was introduced to 'Ophelia'. I enjoyed the depth and unusual style.

I was very pleased to hear she was coming to The Sage and immediately snapped up a couple of front row tickets.

The tour is to promote the new CD, 'Leave Your Sleep'. Her first for seven years, it is based around an extraordinary concept of putting the words from 19th and 20th Century British and American poets to her own music.

The first 90 minutes of the show focused entirely on the new material. Each song was preceded by a short history lesson on each of the featured poets, complete with photos, displayed on a big screen.

The set list for the main part of the show:

No One Marries Me

Land Of Nod

Sleepy Giant

The Man In The Wilderness

Janitor's Boy

Calico Pie

Peppery Man

Sailor O Sailor

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May

Vain and Careless

Indian Names

Crying, My Little One

Spring and Fall


The first encore brought forth an excellent selection of songs from earlier albums.
(I'm open to correction here, both in the content and running order)

Life is Sweet


Tell Yourself


San Andreas Fault

Break Your Heart


Second encore:

Kind and Generous

It was an amazing evening, lasting around two hours and 20 minutes. Bewitching, mesmerising and an unforgettable experience.

Here's some of the pictures I took, which will hopefully convey a little of the extraordinary atmosphere...

Here's a sample of a show similar to the one we saw, courtesy of TED:

Many wonders await you in Natalie Merchant's back catalogue. There's no better place to start than her official website:

Saturday 29 May 2010

GM Conquest Interview

The new issue of CHESS (June 2010) includes my interview with Grandmaster Stuart Conquest.

For ordering details, pop along to:

Friday 28 May 2010

Peter Hammill At The Sage

Peter Hammill
The Sage
24 May 2010

Peter Hammill, founder member of Van der Graaf Generator (a cult progressive rock act) doesn't tour much but a rare outing brought him to my favourite venue as part of a small number of solo dates.

The music of Peter Hammill is never less than challenging. It is marked by an intensity of subject matter and performance which demand the listener's attention. Death, break-ups and other matters of emotional turmoil are usually well to the fore.

Starting with 'Don't Tell Me', the first part of the show saw him on the piano. Around the half-way stage he switched to the acoustic guitar for some softer numbers, such as 'I Will Find You' and 'The Birds'.

Then it was back to the piano for the remainder of the set, which included various songs from his most recent CD, 'Thin Air', including 'The Mercy'.

The spell of intensity was briefly broken by a member of the audience asking if '...he ever got his leather jacket back'. Peter Hammill quickly related the tale of his jacket being stolen in Newcastle from a touring car many years ago, but stressed that he doesn't hold anything against the region (even though he never did get in back).

Then it was back to the show - 'Enough of this raconteurship!'

He played for about 90 minutes, without a break. The encore was a single song on the acoustic guitar.

I enjoyed the show and can recommend his music to anyone whose tastes include 'dark' and 'disturbed'!

Here's a couple of snaps from the evening. The quality is not so high but it was very dark in Hall 2!

For more information on Peter Hammill, please visit his official site:

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Memories Of The Mighty Mish

Mike Closs
1966 - 2010

Part 1

Over two weeks have gone by since I posted about some dreadful news:

It is now a week since Mike's funeral and I think it is time to post a little tribute to my longest-standing friend, chess opponent and team mate.

In due course, I am hoping to present at least two more articles about him. One will feature games, anecdotes and snippets from our personal chess battles and the other is set to focus on some of his best games.

This is not intended to step on the toes of my eulogy (which may, or may not, appear here in the future to complete the tribute). I have an almost endless supply of stories, quotes and anecdotes from and about The Mighty Mish.

He shared with me most of his inner thoughts and ideas. I knew his real opinion of the people he met and played over the board. I knew his hopes, fears and expectations. I knew his strengths and weaknesses as a player. I believe I am fully qualified to write a personal tribute to him.

School Days

I first met Mike towards the end of the 1970s when we played on board one for our respective chess teams at secondary school. He played for Westfields (Redcar) and I represented Warsett (Brotton). Westfields were one of the strongest teams in our school league. Our chess lives were forever to be linked.

In the early 1980s I went to Prior Pursglove College and very quickly joined Guisborough Chess Club, thanks to Stuart Morgan who was a teacher at PPC and a player/organiser at the chess club.

Meanwhile, Mike had already been a member of Redcar Chess Club for a few years and had experienced considerable success in the world of junior chess. It wasn't long before we faced each other in a Guisborough v Redcar match.


Around about this time we started to contact each other on a regular basis. Guisborough entered the National Club Championship and we made Mike a member of the club so he could play for us (Redcar didn't have a team in the event). This led to a further increase in our mutual chess activity, with him coming along to Guisborough on Thursday evenings and me going to Redcar's club on a Friday. Often, we'd get together and visit other clubs too. We were mad keen. We started going to congresses together and were frequent visitors to Scarborough, Northumberland, Durham, Leeds, York, Harrogate and other paces in addition to never missing a Redcar or Middlesbrough weekend event.


I remember I had been reading about the Botvinnik - Tal match of 1960. Botvinnik, needing a win to keep the match going, had leaned over the board and concluded matters with the words: 'Let's call it a draw, Mischa'. During some 'friendly' games at Guisborough, I leaned over the board and said, 'Let's call it a win to me, Mischa'. The name stuck - although it was Anglicised to 'Misher' (and often aggrandised to 'The Mighty Mish'). I remember his delight when I first put his name in print in my chess column in the Herald & Post (1985-2000).

On forums in latter years he would sometimes use the handle 'Mishmash', which was a corruption of 'Mish/Marsh', an early name for our chess partnership.

We came to the conclusion that we would be better off playing for the same team but the question was - who would make the switch? We discussed the matter for some time. At first, I was seriously considering playing for Redcar. However, I became the secretary of Guisborough chess club at the very next AGM and decided to make a real go of it.

League Title

Middlesbrough A held a stranglehold on the Cleveland A division title in those days. With the team's top four boards consisting of David Smith, Norman Stephenson, David Wise and Tom Wise it was no real surprise. However, I was obsessed about building Guisborough into a local force to be reckoned with. Mike was driven by thoughts of success too and he agreed to join Guisborough with the sweetener that he was made captain of the A team.

Then things really started to move. A couple of other strong players recognised our intent and joined up between seasons. We arranged training matches and produced a regular chess bulletin, full of annotated games and chess chat.

Incredibly, the league fixtures pitched us against Middlesbrough A in the first match of the season. We drew 3-3. Both teams went on to win all of their remaining fixtures and Guisborough won the title on 'goal difference' - by one point.

Mike won a lot of games on boards two and three (he switched with Kevin Bailey on occasion) during the season.

Our club had won the title for the first time in exactly 50 years (we won the B division too). The future looked bright for Guisborough.

However, things were to change quite quickly. Before we knew it, Kevin Bailey had moved to London and Tim Blake, Howard Turner, Tristram Brelstaff and Rob Wallace all left the area too (the 1980s wasn't a particularly kind era for employment prospects in the North East). I started working full time in schools and the long distances involved meant I couldn't get back in time for matches. I stopped playing local chess for 10 years.

Mike still played for Guisborough for a year or two and then he eventually joined Middlesbrough, becoming a major force behind the successful run of Middlesbrough Rooks, who had displaced Middlesbrough A as the top team.


I returned to local chess 10 years after Guisborough's league success. This time, Elmwood was my local club. Soon enough, I was facing Mike again in an Elmwood v Middlesbrough Rooks encounter.

For a while, the local pattern was set. Elmwood were invariably successful in the Tom Wise KO Cup but often had to settle for second place in the league, behind the powerful Rooks. Mike and I frequently reminisced about the old Guisborough days, and how good it was to play for the same team. Soon after that, Mike joined Elmwood and a league and cup double became the norm until we both stopped playing for Elmwood after the 2005-6 season. The last games we played for the same team were both wins, against strong Peterlee opponents, in the 2006 Tom Wise KO Cup Final.

The Griffin

After leaving Elmwood, Mike re-joined Redcar (something he'd always wanted to do) and after a successful season with them he went on to become a founder member of the Griffin club. His constant stream of wins on board one helped the new team progress rapidly up the league system and they had established themselves as a potent force in the A division.

When he became captain for the start of the 2009-10 season, he made several attempts to sign me up.

He once texted: 'What would it take to make you turn out for the Griffin this year?'

I replied: '£50,000 cash, an apartment full of women and your email password'.

He said he would see what he could do, but didn't get around to fulfilling the deal.

Aggressive Style

Mike didn't enjoy defending and always sought the initiative as soon as possible. The Danish Gambit, Wing Gambits against the French and Sicilian Defences all featured heavily in his aggressive repertoire. He was often to be found with a pawn wedged in at e5, limiting the opponent's space, a Bishop on d3, a Queen on g4 and a Knight looking to leap into g5 at the earliest opportunity.

As Black, he was drawn to the King's Indian and Benoni defences against 1 d4 and the Sicilian Dragon against 1 e4. The Pirc and Modern defences were favourites too.

I used to play the Sicilian Dragon, back in the 1980s. We would often prepare for games together (something we did for about a quarter of a century, all the way up to his final game).

He liked the idea of the Dragon and said he'd give it a try during the Leeds Quickplay tournament. I looked up after a couple of minutes during one of the rounds and saw him walking around with a very glum face. I got up and asked him what was wrong. He said he'd already lost and that the Dragon was rubbish. Unfortunately, his Dragon debut had walked straight into the famous Levenfish trap. A trip to the bookstall later in the event enabled me to convince him it was an opening worthy of his perseverance.

Eternal Champion

I think the title of Cleveland Champion meant more to him than any other. He won it in each of the last three seasons and has done the ultimate Alexander Alekhine impression to guarantee it stays with him forever.

Winning the title this year resulted in qualification for the British Championship. His place was deferred until 2011, when the Sheffield-based Championship would have been more tempting for him to travel to.

Towards the end of the season, when he was busy winning game after game and sending his rating through the roof, I suggested it was high time he tested his skills against stronger players. He hadn't played an Open event for six years. I said that his current strength was surely approaching FIDE Master level (at least). He didn't agree and claimed he had been very fortunate in a number of games, when various gambles had paid off in dubious positions.

However, further discussions on the matter appeared to have changed his mind. A recent text from him said: 'I intend taking up my British Championship place in 2011 and cordially invite you to be my official 'second' for the duration, entailing two weeks of fun and frolics. You have one year to prepare'.

I replied: 'I cordially invite you to find a sponsor for yourself and your second. You have one year to do so'.

Here's a few photos of our chess times together...

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

Mike during his game against Norman Stephenson in Elmwood's crunch 2003 league encounter with Middlesbrough Rooks. Elmwood won a tough match to take the league title.

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

In accordance with our match plan for this particular encounter (a win with White and a short draw with Black on the top two boards), Mike had drawn relatively quickly with Norman and here he his watching my game against David Spence to see if I could stick to the plan too.

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

Mike and I in typical poses; concentrating in games against Trevor Glass and Barry Taylor respectively. The match was the Tom Wise KO Cup final of 2003 against Athenaeum. Steve Dauber, Geoff Garnett and Jim Rogers look on.

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

A major haul of trophies for Elmwood - a very common sight for a decade. (Left to right: Brian Myers, SM, Steve Dauber, Mike Closs, Alan Trotter, John Garnett)

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

Philip Mitcheson, Alan Trotter, John Garnett, Mike Closs, SM and Geoff Garnett.

Mike accepting his prize from David Smith at a Middlesbrough Chess Club Rapidplay.
Is Mike offering Queen odds...?
Mike giving a simultaneous display - with clocks - at Billingham Synthonia. Result: 4-0 to the Mighty Mish.

Full story here:

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

Another cup final, another success. Mike against Colin Walton (Peterlee).

(Photo: Steve Henderson)

Side by side, defending Elmwood's grip on the Tom Wise KO Cup.
Mike playing Ian Elcoate in the SME Match Championship. 2-0 to Mike, who went on to lose by the narrowest of margins to David Wise in the four-game semi-final.

The last time we were photographed together. We'd been out for a meal in Saltburn.

Part 2 to follow....