Thursday 30 September 2010
Wednesday 29 September 2010
Tuesday 28 September 2010
Monday 27 September 2010
The KGB Plays Chess
About the Authors
Foreword by Boris Gulko
Gulko reveals a little bit about the main contents in his interesting introduction, whetting the appetite for what is to come. For example, Tal's suggestion that Kortschnoi would have been killed if he had managed to beat Karpov in a World Championship match is confirmed as a fact rather than a piece of speculation.There's a quick run through some basics regarding Soviet World Champions and the main characters of the book. Already there are some startling stories. According to Gulko, even former champion Smyslov (hardly the most political of the bunch) was involved in some less than savoury incidents. For example, he '...wrote letters to his fans in the upper echelons of the government, got his rivals withdrawn from tournaments, and took their places for himself'.
The KGB Plays Chess by Vadimir Popov and Yuri Felshtinsky
This chapter and the next one make up the bulk of the book and tell the story of KGB involvement in chess activity from both sides.
The accusations come thick and fast. Here's some samples of the content and tone:
'It should be noted that quite a number of Soviet grandmasters were state security agents. Tigran Petrosian, Lev Polugaevsky, Yuri Balashov, Rafael Vaganian, Eduard Gufeld, and Nikolai Krogius, the head of the Chess Directorate at the State Sports Committee, had extensive experience in collaborating with the KGB as covert agents'.
The book even name the individuals who recruited them.
'Like all Soviet sportsmen, chess grandmasters received only a negligible part of the payments that were due to them, since a lion's share of their winnings went to the national treasury and to sports bureaucrats.'
Some of the plots and plans would be too fantastic even for a James Bond movie. Boris Spassky (currently very ill following a stroke) had a particularly complex relationship with the higher powers. His romantic involvement with a '...female employee of the French Embassy' may have appeared innocent enough, but her grandfather was general in the czarist army who had fled for France following the 1917 Revolution.
A plan was hatched. Spassky must be 'encouraged' to end the relationship. A covert operation involved breaking in, locating underwear belonging to the woman in question and planting pubic lice '...procured from one of Moscow's dermatological-venereal medical centres'. The plan was unsuccessful.
The proposed method of Kortschnoi's assassination is revealed here too, as is the source of the Soviets' inside information from the enemy camp at the World Championship matches of 1978 and 1981. Apparently, the wife of one of Kortschnoi's 'young European' helpers had been recruited, under the codename 'Amigo'.
The case of Gulko features heavily in this chapter. Part of the problem of his desire to leave Russia was the fear that he would help Kortschnoi prepare for Karpov. Later on, when Kasparov was starting his explosive trip to the top, Karpov recognised the threat to 'his' title of World Champion, and wanted Gulko to leave after all, so he wouldn't be in a position to be able to help Kasparov.
There's considerable attention given to Karpov; his battles with Kortschnoi and Kasparov were, of course, highly political and far from being level playing fields. When it came to enjoying influential friends in high places, it was definitely a case of some players being more equal than others.
Other sports are brought into the discussion, such as the sad case of gymnast Olga Korbut. Her popularity around the world in general - and the USA in particular - led to her coach, Knysh, becoming an agent for the KGB. His repeated sexual abuse of Olga did not make it into his regular reports.
The Letter ''Lahmed'' Problem
This is Boris Gulko's story, told from his own perspective. It's his first hand account of how difficult life was for a refusenik. There's a relentless series of arrests and hunger strikes.
We get to read some stories from the opposite side to the earlier chapter. For example, Ray Keene and Larry Christiansen visited Gulko when they were in Moscow for the 1982 Interzonal. Ray encouraged Gulko to write his story (by hand - laptops, email and the like were not available then) with the idea of taking it back to England and use it in chess magazines to bring his plight to the attention of the world. Ray, a former second to Kortschnoi, suspected his luggage would be searched on departure, so the manuscript was placed inside Christiansen's luggage. Needless to say, the latter's cases were opened at the airport; Ray's room had been bugged from the start, so it was quite clear where the authorities had to look.This is all hard hitting material, which demands the reader's attention.
Afterword by Viktor Kortschnoi
It's a pity that Kortschnoi's contribution is limited to six pages. Although it's all very interesting stuff, there's no doubt that he could fill many books with stories of his own.
Sometimes he seems to have been caught up in a real life version of the 1960s TV show, 'The Prisoner', unable to escape the all-seeing eyes of his former masters.'...I moved into my own apartment in Wohlen, Switzerland and had a telephone line installed in it. My number was not yet listed in the telephone directory, but the first call I got was from the Soviet embassy - I was informed that I was being stripped of my Soviet citizenship'.
Letter from Vladimir Popov by Vladimir Popov
The final chapter is a reproduction of the letter sent by Popov to Felshtinsky in 2007, highlighting the danger brewing to the letter's recipient as well as to Kasparov, by now a real political thorn in the sides of some people.The whole book is a gripping study of fear, paranoia and the struggle of the individual against the powerful system. My only complaint is that there isn't more of it, as it makes for compulsive reading and leaves some stones unturned (who was 'Amigo'? Why did Spassky allow himself to be used as such an obvious pawn in the game against Kortschnoi in the 1977/8 Candidates' cycle? What was the truth behind Dr. Zukhar's powers in 1978...?).The world has certainly changed over the years. It's impossible to imagine that this book would have been published even just a few years ago. Some of the people named in unfavourable circumstances are still very much alive and kicking, so it will be interesting to see if there will be any sort of reaction to what has been revealed.This is a brave release from Russell Enterprises. It's unusual to find a chess book which will appeal to non-players too. Anyone looking for a product to improve their chess skills will not find it here, but those looking to delve into the murky world of top-level chess politics will find a goldmine.For further details about Russell Enterprises and their books, please click here.
Saturday 25 September 2010
Daniel Pettitt is a singer/songwriter based in North East England. His back catalogue is extensive, (at least 25 CDs) stretching all the way back from 1993 to the present day.
Daniel's style is primarily acoustic folk (Bob Dylan was an early influence and there are clearly similarities in style).
I caught up with Daniel recently to record two interviews. The first of these was a conversation about 'The Songs Of Daniel Pettitt', a CD which brings together some of his finest songs from various stages of his career.
'Above the Taj Mahal' is a great opener. It's certainly one of the catchiest songs on the CD.
A lot of people have said that!
It's a spiritual track and that's something of a theme running through a lot of the songs. Where did the idea come from originally?
Well, going back 13 years ago - 1997 - I'd just finished the first year of my Graphic Design course at Luton University - which is now Bedfordshire University - and I was just working and in my spare time I was just doing something enjoyable and I'd been looking at native American chants, and this real melting pot mix came together with this song. Is it native American, or is it Indian, as in from India, with the sound of it...? It just came together and I couldn't do much about it - it just came out. It's the old cliche; you write a song in five minutes and it's the best thing you've ever done. I wrote it in a few minutes and then just tweaked it a bit here and there with a bit of instrumental stuff.
Is it still one of your favourite tracks?
Not really, no! Well, when you've done a song like that...I've been in a couple of bands some years ago and I always tried not to do that song because I've done it so many times. Obviously, when I go to a gig, I should be doing songs where people will say, 'That's good - I like that!', but I'll play some obscure song that no one's heard before and they'll 'Oh, I'm not so sure about that!'. So I shoot myself in the foot there a bit.
Have you ever seen the Taj Mahal?
No, I haven't. I had the opportunity to go there a few years ago but didn't take it up. But I do want to go there at some point.
'Loved Up (Summertime)' is a much lighter number; a celebratory song for Summer. When did that first come to you?
That was a couple of years after Taj Mahal. I'd finished University and it was just before I moved out of the area. I was still living in Luton and I'd just finished my work there and I was hanging out with friends.. I was playing the blues with a guy called Richard Gouldesbrough and we recorded some of his songs, which were bluesy. I picked up on that and developed some songs which were acousticy but were catchy as well; sort of dark and light at the same time. Loved Up is quite a downbeat song really, but at the same time it's quite happy as well. Somebody could perform it really quite darkly.
'Bringer Of Chaos' is quite a dark song...what do you remember about the writing of that one?
That was just before Taj Mahal, and was very Native American based. There's a chant called 'The Night Hawk' in the background on that one. I was quite happy with the whole thunder and foreboding, like a sort of coming of a native American apocalypse, with the reigning Gods and this sort of stuff. I found the whole thing fascinating and I thought I'd express that in a musical form.
'So This Is Heaven' is in stark contrast to 'Bringer of Chaos'; it's the other side of the coin. This is one of the earliest ones you wrote, back in 1993. What can you remember about that one?
Wow - that's getting the old grey cells going. That was when I first started writing songs and I could hardly play the guitar, so I had to rerecord a lot of those later. I couldn't play the guitar, to be fair. As soon as I picked up the guitar I started writing. I'd been listening to a band called The Sundays. They've got quite a jingle-jangle guitar feel to them - very melodic - and I quite like them. The first songs I wrote were quite free flowing, and that's where that one comes from. Just simple expressions; immediate thoughts that come down and put them on a piece of paper and don't try and tamper with them too much.
That's almost the theme of the song, isn't it? What you have in the moment is all that matters.
'Someone or Something'...
I wrote that at the same time as 'Loved Up (Summertime)'. I got kind of influenced by George Harrison and The Beatles and there was a certain catch to it. It was just a proper love song, because sometimes I can be too obscure for my own good. I wanted to write something which was...poetic, yes, but at the same wasn't too...
Would you say it was light or dark...?
I would say that's quite a light song, but I can see that the way I recorded it, with just that guitar and saxophone, it's quite sparse.
What was the inspiration for 'The Hills of Mexico'?
This was a difficult time for me in my life. In the song it's...this is what I wasn't sure about; I don't want to go into too much depth with great details, but certain things were happening in my life at the time and music was a form of release and expression, and getting things out, like a lot of songwriters do, I suppose - that express what's going on in their life and with 'The Hills of Mexico' I wanted something where it's a form of escapism, so it wasn't just the hills of Bedfordshire; I was transferring myself to a different place and a different time - living in a different world.
With songs like that, which are obviously based on your very personal experiences, do you feel the pain of the experiences when you revisit the songs - when you play it now, for example, or do you find it too painful to play now, because of the experiences?
There's an album I wrote called 'Halo', which I find hard to listen to now because it's hard to relate to, because I'm in such a different place now - a much better place. So there are songs in my back catalogue which I don't really listen to.
(Image © Daniel Pettitt)
Is it because having got through the experiences and triumphed over them, they are not really part of you any more?
Exactly - yes. I appreciate them, but I find it hard to relate to them.
'Dancing Gypsy Child'...I think that must be one of your favourites. It conjures up a lot of mind pictures. I know it's based on a poem you wrote; was that from long ago or was it around the same time that you actually created the song?
That's an interesting question...it's the only song that I come back to again and again. I wrote a poem in 1993 called 'Empty Rooms'. I was even at school when I wrote it and I gave it to the teacher. I got the impression that he actually seemed to think it was about him! Then in 1997 my dog died and as a homage to my dog I decided to put this piece of poetry to music. Then in 1999 when I finally came to look at it and record it, which is when I first did it properly, I added the chorus. I'd never have done it otherwise; it goes against all my rules as a songwriter.
What is the story behind 'Reach for the Stars'?
Well, you said spiritual earlier...spiritual can have a lot of religious connotations to it but I''m not really part of a religion or anything. That's more about my feelings towards the Bible or ancient religions and ancient traditions...it's looking back and seeing it in a philosophical way, really. Seeing the beauty of the images and the language of the Bible. I don't take it to the point where I study it or believe it, but I appreciate it at the same time and that's what that song's about.
'Earth Heart' is next. That's from 'Halo' too...you said that was quite an intense album. Does that go for this song too?
Yes, it does. I think with Earth Heart being on this collection, it's OK...I came back to it because I appreciated it as a song. It might be something personal but you don't songs which are too cold and impersonal. A song like 'Above The Taj Mahal' edges on being too impersonal. So I thought it would be nice to have something with a really personal touch to it and that's why I put it in there.
Then comes 'Mama Death's Blue Eyed Boy' I thought was quite an intense song too.
Oh right - I never saw it like that, but...I don't know how this sounds, but I'd been brought up on...my Dad was always fascinated by the Second World War and he had loads of books on it and I grew up watching Second World War films and First World War films so it seemed to make sense that eventually I'd cover the subject in some form. I just wanted something simple; very folky; not about me.
War seems to be in a few of your songs. Has that always been the influence of your Father's interest, do you think?
Maybe it is, yes...maybe it does go back to that. I've never thought of it like that! It's a bit worrying...!
You're finding out quite a lot about yourself tonight, aren't you? You'll be writing songs about yourself as soon I'm gone.
The last one on the CD is another with war in it: 'Born to Die'. What can you tell me about that one?
Yes...I wrote that thinking about the troubles abroad, with Iraq and Afghanistan and I wrote it with that in mind. I did it just on guitar there because I literally didn't have the capabilities to have the big band sound. As it's a long song, the arrangement in the studio would have been crazy if I'd brought in a sitar player and a bongo player...I'd like to have it with a band sound, with a crescendo and stuff but I did what I could.
When songs are sparsely arranged the message can be stronger, because the message is less cluttered.
That's what I wanted with the whole CD. Not varied to the point where it didn't work together, but something which had a bit of depth, a bit of variety.
There are recurring themes: war, loss, love...big themes. How do you stand on war? Are you anti-war or just an observer?
I wouldn't say I'm anti-war. If we were in a time like the Second World War and got called up I'd have to go anyway but at the same time...it's...I suppose it's in our nature to defend ourselves but it's the way of the world, isn't it? It's part and parcel of international politics. But at the same it's a very controversial area with the Middle East. I'll step back and be an observer as far as that goes.
Daniel Pettitt, thank you very much!
The second interview, in which we discuss Daniel's musical career from his first steps to the present day, will appear here at Marsh Towers in October.
Meanwhile, there's more information about 'The Songs Of Daniel Pettitt' here:
...and much more about Daniel here:
Tuesday 21 September 2010
The 1963 World Chess Championship Match
By GM Mikhail Botvinnik
New in Chess
It may seem strange to be enthusiastic about a book covering a match played almost 50 years ago. Yet Mikhail Botvinnik's final match for the World Championship title has been somewhat overlooked in chess literature. His titanic matches with Bronstein, Smyslov and Tal all seem to be better known bouts.
Ending Botvinnik's disjointed reign at the top of the chess world was not an easy task, despite the big age gap between the participants. The challenger had to possess special qualities.
It's possible that the 1963 match suffers in the popularity stakes due to common perceptions regarding Tigran Petrosian's curious style of play. We know all about his supernaturally acute sense of danger and his habitual short draws, but there must be more to his story than that. Nobody can become a World Champion purely through negativity, so it's refreshing to be able to read this new, English-language version of 'Botvinnik - Petrosian' to try and find out how 'Iron Tigran' captured the title.
Former World Champion Anatoly Karpov provides a short Foreword, in which he mentions that he saw some of the match with his own eyes.
'How quickly time flies! Forty years ago, I, then a twelve-year old boy, was lucky enough to be a spectator at the world championship match between Botvinnik and Petrosian'
Igor Botvinnik, Mikhail Botvinnik's nephew, is next up with an essay titled Without Right of Revenge. He provides various observations, mainly from the outgoing champion's point of view.
'In my view, one of the reasons for Botvinnik's defeat was his poor realization of advantages - in a number of games in the first half of the match, having obtained a sizeable advantage in the opening, he could not ''put his opponent away''. This drains one's strength, undermines one's self-confidence, and generally shows inadequate sporting form'.
From the Match Regulations comes an important piece of information, which effectively ended Botvinnik's lengthy relationship with the World Championship.
'The main difference from the rules for previous contests was that, in the event of defeat, the World Champion would not have the right to a return match.'
This is important, as Botvinnik had made the most of his return match privilege against both Smyslov and Tal. A defeat this time would have meant a choice between World Championship retirement and a gruelling trip through the Candidates' matches.
The bulk of the material quite naturally concerns the actual Games of the match. All are presented with good annotations by a variety of players, including Botvinnik and Petrosian themselves.
The match was quite dramatic. Botvinnik won the first game - with Black - but Petrosian took the lead with wins in games four and seven. Botvinnik equalised in game 14, only to lose the very next game. Further wins in games 18 and 19 essentially earned Petrosian the title. The final three games were short draws. Tigran Petrosian was the new champion of the world!
Game 5 is probably my favourite Petrosian game of all.
The position comes after 11 ...f7xe6. Petrosian comments:
'It is said that some of the more impatient members of the press corps were already starting to pack up, ready to go home. After all, those magical figures, the queens, have disappeared from the board, and how can there be any interesting play after that...?'
Petrosian went on to give a bewitching masterclass in patient endgame skill.
At this important moment, he played: 23 b4!
'Undoubtedly the best move, sharpening up a position which appears totally calm. I decided on the move only after considerable thought.'
This is the final position, after 48 Kg8. Petrosian has crushed Botvinnik in typical boa constrictor style and key pawns are about to drop off the board.
Botvinnik definitely missed some good chances in the match. For example, in game 16, after 38 ....Kg8xg7...
....he played 39 e6. He says:
'It is hard to explain why I refrained from the natural continuation 39 Rxd4! Rc8 40 Kh2 Rcc2 41 Kg1 with an extra pawn and good chances. It appears that in time-trouble, the advance of he passed pawn looked like a reliable answer to the threat of Re8-c8-c2, but in reality, Black is merely presented with an extra tempo to carry out this manoeuvre.'
Following the games, we are treated to ten pages of Petrosian's View of the Match. This tells mainly of the challenger's thoughts and preparation before the match began.
'Whether I was listening to music, reading a book, walking around Moscow, surrounded by friends and colleagues in Armenia, watching a football match - the whole time, I was thinking about the match with Botvinnik.'
It concludes as the first game starts.
'Well, I said to myself before the first game. I will play as quietly as possible, not objecting to a draw. It is a long match, a lot of blood will be spilled, and even the most bloodthirsty of spectators will be satisfied.'
The book concludes with several smaller articles. There's A Symbolic Game, which shows Botvinnik using some of 1963 match preparation to defeat Taimanov at the 1963 Spartakiad.
Botvinnik's musing son Why Did I LoseThe Match? are next, consisting of snippets such as these:
'So, perhaps it is true that Petrosian's rather unusual way of playing had its effect on me, and deprived me of my usual ''creative harmony''. On the other hand, maybe the answer does not lie in this, but, whatever the case, I played the match with a great deal of tension and constraint, which had gone from me when I next sat down at the board, three months later.'
'Yes, sometimes that happens to a chess master. He appears to fight for victory, but he himself does not really know beforehand whether he really wants it.'
There are still more games to come, starting with all other games between Botvinnik and Petrosian, before moving on to eight games from a Training Match Botvinnik - Furman January - February 1963. These were all new to me.
Botvinnik's Final Notebook contains some analytical snippets. There's an added twist of interest here. Botvinnik had been preparing for a match with Fischer (which, needless to say, never went ahead).
Botvinnik retired from the World Championship scene after the defeat. Petrosian went on to defend his title against Spassky in 1966, before losing to the same player in 1969. His 1966 match victory was, remarkably, the first time a reigning champion had won a World Championship match since Alekhine's victory over Bogoljubow in 1934, and the last time until Karpov beat Korchnoy in 1978.
This book fills a significant gap in chess literature. Petrosian wasn't just in the right place at the right time to take the title from an ageing champion; this was a very tough match with plenty of hard fought games and missed chances. It's high time that this intriguing match enjoyed it's fair share of scrutiny and appreciation. Reading this fine volume is a great place to start.
For further details regarding New in Chess books, please click here.