Archive for May, 2020

I did manage to read Rowson’s book The Moves that Matter, carefully enough. It took longer than it should but he does appear to have remained remarkably adept at giving you food for thought and time for digestion. He did come under some criticism as there are factual errors, and some points made are rather contentious. His account of chess in Georgia and the gap in strength between men and women remaining unchanged was disappointing to read given that the policy introduced to invoke change has already done so, hence the reason that the majority of Georgian world champions are female. The latter third of the book has a shift in style which indicates fatigue. Some parts are below par for him, and feel rushed or without the reflection we come to expect from Rowson. Still, it’s a great book and well worth a read. Perhaps a little too ambitious but at worst only very slightly falls short of what it should have been. Anyway, that is nothing more than my own uncontested opinion.

Score 9 out of 10

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Phew! so that’s the most engaging writing project of my entire life done, all that remains is what to do with all 38351 words of it. It’s most likely publishable but that’s not something I consider to be an achievement, so I will have to ponder further over that. Alternatively I may just include excerpts from that 1 weight lifted off my shoulders.

I’m sad to say my focus therefore ability went through the roof, which makes it much harder to read and watch anything as I can dismantle it in an instance, and usually offer improvements without much, if any, thought. Even the book that inspired me to undertake it, which is exceptionally high-brow for chess, almost certainly as high-brow as it gets. I can see where the narrative needs improvement and how continuity could be improved in places.

I was thinking about writing posts about the joys of writing about chess but perhaps I’ll change to the woes of focusing on something your good at instead. Beginning with ‘The woe of increasing your wordpower and the amount of investment in time and resources that will remain in play for good.’

Nothing chess-related to be added other than a rumination. If the author’s insertion of a quote does indeed apply to chess at its highest level as the author suggests, there is either a very strong argument to give it all up or as I narrative in my own piece, find something far better to do than play chess (which by the way is unsurprisingly easy) ‘The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win’.


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‘The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into chaos and old night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild creative delight.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal 1834

Chapter one

Part one –The pieces and the way they moved towards the board…

A Scottish King and a Scottish Queen

Early in the 1930s, a young lady named Helen Laggan stepped on a train robust enough to remain on the rails that ran along the western coast of Scotland and over the border to England, the country south of her own. Carlisle was the only stop as it chugged on towards Lancashire. There, the rails often ran alongside country lanes that seperated farmland or cut through forests where ramblers never went. There was nothing worthy of any note in the north, nothing but fallow fields below cloud blanketing a shy sun. In approaching The midlands some hours on, scheduled stops became frequent and the train ran more slowly between them. Over the Grand Union Canal it chugged, past disused mills where child labour no longer was, past emptied ironmongers and chimney stacks left collapsed upon barren wastelands by the waterways once the life-blood of the industrial revolution. And all the emptiness around them faded into the distance as the train, edging closer and closer, remained on track to the capital and chugged on and on towards it. But with only one track, and more trains approaching, halts in the middle of nowhere came and went more than once before The midlands, and its haunting shadows of a bygone but exploitative era were left behind. The home counties were what it crossed into next but no signs of them were seen on the hillsides it bent between, and London would not loom on the horizon neither, for dusk had fallen already. Back in the golden age of rail, it took all day and sometimes more for such a journey -what with electrification still a long way. The loading and off-loading of cargo alone left trains sat in stations for hours whilst passengers whiled away the next delay with a newspaper or two or perhaps short strolls along platforms where confectionary stores were still open. A wait of an hour or two was expected to occur at some point sooner or later for most if not all journeys of any length back then.

Although Helen was on the train to London, she did not arrive in the capital. With little light left on a horizon tinged reddish, off she stepped in little Bedfordshire. And why did she do that you may ask? Because relatives had settled there in a small homely town named Luton. They promised her shelter. They gave her food and money until she found her way –and there she made herself a new home. A few years later a man named James McCready from Greenock, the city next to hers, stepped on the train to England too. Off down south in search of work he went as friends had urged. Where they told him to step off was where he stepped off; purely by coincidence it so happened to be the same town where Helen had already settled. But Luton was a busy little town with a strong and close-knit Scottish community. It would not be long before they would meet, and would meet in a manner that makes this author smile from ear to ear…okay not quite ear to ear but you get my point!

With a hat trade in the town centre, a new car factory parked nearby, and on its highest hill an airport gleaming in sunshine, Luton was booming in the 1930s: still quaint and Victorian architecturally, Lutonians took trams to a high street where market stalls, picture houses, an octagonal library and several ballrooms sat side-by-side – a stark contrast to the concrete monstrosities it was modernized with after the war. In the 30s newcomers stepped off the train smiling at better prospects and a brighter future, so second-uncle Charlie from Greenock told me. Although now in his seventies, and although his health may be failing, his memory remains crystal clear. Recently, we spoke at length about how people back then just went about their business and bothered no one. He told me how few fussed over policies of migration heard on the wireless, or frowned at differing denominations held in wedlock, as my Grandparents learned hand in hand. He told me that in both pre- and post-war Britain, where someone came from mattered not. Some only spoke Gaelic, no one knew nor cared which part of Scotland or Ireland you had left behind in the slightest. ‘In the eyes of others you were either ‘true Scots’, ‘true Irish’ or mixed as my family were’, he said. And if none of the above were you, then you were ‘a local’. ‘What’s far yee will nee go by yee’, he finished up in that twee Scottish dialect of his, telling me our family had our own reasons for choosing Luton as our new home, reasons which were aptly chosen.

No more than a year or two passed before my grandparents first met. Invited by friends to ‘An evening of dance’, in The George Hotel, George Street Luton, they met where music blared beyond the ballroom grandeur and along the high street. Marry shortly before world war two broke in the news they did. Grandad then signed up for The Royal Navy and set sail to Argentina. Admittedly, he did little on ‘The River Plate’ except drown in whiskey with his fellow seamen, have his arms tattoos up, and scrimp and save a few bob here and there. Before Germany lost the war, he was already the father of two -James and Susan. After the war ended six more came and ten years passed, then a three-bedroom house on a hill became their one home -and two decades on, mine too.

The George Hotel had been the main home of the Luton Chess Club during the interwar years. My grandparents set eyes on each other on the same floor space where club and county matches were frequently played. How they foot stepped one another exactly where future team-mates of mine side stepped their opponents during play I do not know. I do know of all the places my grandparents could have met, it just had to be the home and heart of chess in our town. Furthermore, the two local authors whom I have revered for so long played together for my town at The George Hotel before both made a name for themselves further afield. This website is replete with their writing and so inspired by them both that I feel obliged to honour both G.H.Diggle and Tom Sweby. Although my grandparents never played chess, they met in the hall where favoured authors and future team mates congregated for a club I would one day proudly represent. Whether it is purely incidental I don’t know, but that coming together seemed ‘rather fitting’

Where King and Queen and noted authors congregated.

A spare queen…

My mother was born in Luton but my father was a northerner from Dinnington, Yorkshire – a small village where coal mines sheltered smoggy streets the river Rother bent beyond. In the late 60s he left home. His father died when he was very young, and being the eldest child, the burden of responsibility weighed on his shoulders heavily. His village community was close-knit, ‘all and sundry knew your business’. He didn’t like that, he so often said after my sister finally tracked him down twenty three years later. And with his life going nowhere fast, across the north to Liverpool and Manchester he clambered. In their dockyards he grafted so hard it took the skin off his hands on a cold winter’s day, he once told me whilst supping his pint. A year or two on, he developed itchy feet, abandoned the north, strayed south and stayed there for a while: those were his ‘crazy years’, he said with a remorseless smirk. He worked at Vauxhall in Luton. Compared to up north, the job was easier, the money better, and people weren’t nosey. He claimed it was like being on holiday. According to my mother, he was ‘a bit of a jack the lad’.    

I was born out of wedlock because my mother did not marry my father. In their early twenties both were unready for parenthood –especially my uprooted and unsettled father. One child was more than enough for him, so when my sister popped out eleven months later, he called time on his ‘crazy years’. But before he left Luton he met my grandmother and with her stern Scottish accent, she spoke her mind. She told him what his responsibilities were in no uncertain terms. But with my father already courting another woman, he left Luton. He wandered off to a village in the middle of the county to stay at hers –Flitwick as it’s known. There, he sent my mother a letter to request they meet the following week. But she did not receive the letter in time for it was delivered to our family home when hallway floorboards had been removed and fell through them. It was some six weeks before they had to be replaced again, only then was the letter was found trapped underneath them. By that time my father had gone. Off home to Yorkshire with his tail between his legs he went: no visits, no calls, no letters, no birthday cards, no nothing except that one Christmas card four years on. Inside was a crumpled twenty-pound note and a message to my mother saying ‘get the kids something.’

My mother, now a single-mum, was under strain. She had to work whatever odd-jobs she found to feed us and feed her own lifestyle. And while she was out working, my sister and I were left with our grandparents, whom we were fussed over and pampered by. Too poor to have our own home, we lived in their spare room in our first few years. But whenever my grandmother was not at hand it was because I was not there. I’d been taken away to Mount Vernon Hospital, Hertfordshire or my second home if you like. How often and for how long I cannot say for I do not know. But I am told it was only the twice and on both occasions a week only. From memory alone I can only recall my very last visit there: when I climbed down from the bus with my mother I began walking with her towards the entrance until I suddenly knew where I was, then I began pulling away, whimpering and shaking my head violently, then screaming and shouting until I pulled on my mother’s arm so hard I fell down onto the path screaming not to go. With such pent-up emotion in play, my mother put me back on the bus and took me home -what else could she do. The only solution left was to take me for check-ups at a hospital in our own town. Of that I was less fearful but still wouldn’t let anyone touch me. So why was I taken to both and why did I suffer so much so young? Put simply I was born malformed: three parts of my body were sliced open and cut out…the surgery left unfinished for I could suffer only so much. To be abandoned by your father, then left locked away lying distraught and bleeding for weeks, and sometimes months in a hospital ward many miles from home left me deeply scarred so I am told. How much of my mixed blood was lost, I will never know… .

Why do I use the term mixed blood? Because both my grandfather and grandmother’s grandparents were born in Limavardy, a village near Derry in what was a United Ireland, and is now Northern Ireland. The potato famine pushed many families further afield including my own. They sought work in Colraine and became shipbuilders there. Not long before the 1880s, they sail for Scotland. Second-uncle Charlie told me with much certainty, they were hill-walkers and went far and wide across the Scottish highlands. My great, great grandfather settled in The Hebrides on the Isle of Skye. There, he married into the MacLeod clan. Four of his eleven children died at birth but his son James, who my grandfather was to be named after, survived and later on in life, settled in Greenock. Scots/Irish is the term commonly used. Most of my family are Scottish but my surname is Irish. Our bloodline is pure celtic, only when my mother met my father did the blood of the English add to the mix.

Those isolated pawns…  

As mentioned, it took twenty-three years to finally track down my father. We found his brother Keith first, he gave us my father’s number and persuaded him to come down to Luton on September 19th 1995, where mother, sister and I met him in the bus station. As soon as I saw him he took a small step back with a worried look on his face. He thought I would belt him one, so he said. But instead we shook hands, went to a pub nearby and got pissed. Despite my merry state, I barely spoke a word all afternoon. I sat back and let everyone else do the talking and drank more and more cider. One month later, I took the train to Yorkshire by myself -it was long, long overdue. I sat pensive the whole time, speechless between stations passing en passent, quietened to the core by the importance of it all. As the train pulled into Sheffield he stood waiting on the platform. Again there were no smiles and little said. We shook hands, got in his car and drove for some fourteen miles eastwards. I was all eyes, content to construct an image of what I had missed for all those years gone by and longed for so much.

When he parked up outside his home, all those childhood questions were put to rest for I finally reached the one place I felt I had a right to be in but never knew. We ate with his new wife and their young son, they could not tell him who I was. No one quite knew what to say, it was uneasy. Whenever I spoke to his new wife I felt as though I were walking on broken egg-shells. When the food was finished my father and I went for a stroll around his village, at his pace not mine -definitely at his pace and not mine! He introduced me to his brother Keith, who I was told drove down to Luton to see me when I was few months old and said I looked like his brother Peter. Keith suffered with severe depression all his life. There was a nervousness about him and any mention or question about his children hit home so very hard, I was asked not to bring the subject up. I only ever saw Keith the once. A month after I met him, he hung himself. I met his brother Kevin too but this was a difficult affair for things were tense over a property dispute my father had with him. Being the continued upstanding member of society, my father has always been, he tried to hit his brother in the head with a hammer. This occurred in Kevin’s back garden, who in retaliation, tried to run my father over in his blue car, parked in his back garden.

We left their domestic issues behind and went for another walk, words cannot convey how heartfelt every step of our stroll was, and how the silence in the air sent a tingling down my spine. My own internal dialogue was so centred around my dissipated youth and how I so nearly cried so many times at wanting to be where I was right now. There wasn’t much I could say, my mildly embarrassed father also. Over the abandoned mines he slogged his guts out in the 70’s and 80’s we walked up and reached the top as dusk began. The bleak streets below appeared reddish in the sun setting beyond them. He could have told me to be stood on top of everything with his son by his side was a proud accomplishment but he didn’t. A few pleasantries passed hands and nothing more. The grass that grew under our feet danced in the breeze as we wandered down and along silent streets where soot puffed out every chimney, along darker streets where no traffic came. Curtains were drawn when lights were turned on in the houses we passed, it was all so very grim and silent… .

That afternoon I met his mother for the first and last time. When my father introduced me to her she was very confused and she let slip I was not the first unplanned child to be abandoned. In a strong Yorkshire accent she enquired if I was the one from ‘Worksop’Nottinghamshire‘no the one from Luton’, her son said rather red-faced. Clearly caught off-guard, then and only then did ‘my father’ admit he also has a son named Patrick, born a year before I was. Where he is now I do not know. In all probability my brother and I shall live and die as isolated pawns. I never had the chance to ask my father’s mother about Patrick for she died only a month or two after I met her. It quickly became obvious that asking my father was a complete waste of time, so I stopped.

To sum up, the people who brought me into this world never stood side by side on the board play took place on. The Queen and her King were not my mother and father but my grandmother and grandfather, whom were flanked by their siblings, or major and minor pieces if you like. They helped the Queen protect the King, given that in life he was a raging alcoholic. The spare queen was my unmarried mother: the box being her closest companion. (the box is a British colloquialism for tv). In front of it she sat as she smoked away, eating her sweets, unconcerned where her children were or what they were up to. The pawns were the last to be placed. We stayed put until picked up and pushed forward. On that board I was placed, right in front of the queen.


My great grandfather, one of the very first to come to Luton.

Proof of my red –now auburn hair lies below. I am held by Terry Whitbread the first man to stand in the shoes my father never wore. I am told he was a true gentleman and by far the best of all the men who helped take care of my sister and I.

“Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult? The answer is the same the world over: people move in hope of a better life.”
― Yann Martel

Part Two: That chequered board on which play began.

Where corn no longer grew grit gathered…

To the south of town, the M1 motorway bent around the corn fields undulating in the distance yonder. The council cleared the fields closest then tipped tons of cement on them. The edge of town was no longer a yellow-green landscape that Hertfordshire still was, it was all government grey with only minor variation in housing types -that was where I grew up. It was the end product of a pre-war expansion project on the edge of town with terraced houses and gritty streets a stone’s throw from Hertfordshire farmland. My street was one of many much the same but mine was by far the worst. And not just the worst of that project but the worst in the whole town. And not just the worst in the whole town but the worst in the whole county. Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out if you build a council estate on the edge of town and offer cheap housing to those with a low income or those who need to be relocated urgently, most often troubled newcomers from Ireland and Scotland, then put them all on the same street, alongside migrants from the West Indies, Pakistan and places much further afield, then shuffle them about like a pack of cards, keeping some and removing others – most likely there is tension and conflict up ahead. Now it’s an exaggeration to call my street a ‘melting pot’ but the quaint traditions of old England were nowhere to be found on it, and most certainly not in the long dump behind us. And it’s not quite correct to say we were all resettled on top of a big hill and cut off from the rest of town. No, it’s better to say we were lumped together on top of a bastard of a hill, with only one road up, and one alley down -and there we purposely remained marginalized. My street was named Corncastle after corn grew on the hill before the roads were laid and houses built. But where corn no long grew a most fearsome reputation most certainly did. And what was harvested with that, well you’ll just have to read on. I ought to, though, insert a caveat. Some of what you will read isn’t…well ‘very pretty’.

To begin we were too poor to own a home. With two toddlers and no word nor money from our stale bread-winner, mother had to write her name on a waiting list for a council house. After some two stretched out years our wait for a home ended. We jumped across the street from navy-doored number twenty seven Corncastle to yellow-dooored number forty Corncastle –across one and along four. You could call that a knight manoeuvre with an extra square lengthways or you could call it an underpromotion for we no longer shared a house with my loving grandparents, our many aunts & uncles, second cousins and mysterious stragglers from the pub. We no longer had ‘chip’ the dog as a guardian whilst we slept in a pram in the front garden too. Instead, we had our own empty home, austere rooms with dated decor and damp walls. The carpets were stained and worn. A dusty chandelier left the hallway poorly lit and gaunt at night. Our new home scared my sister more than I for I had to hold her hand and walk her up the stairs when she needed to use the bathroom. Sometimes I was mischievous and would not wait for her. I snuck downstairs and turned the light off, knowing it would make her cry out in fear and wind my mother up something chronic. Living conditions were sparse but thankfully we did have some heating. A large radiator below each large window, condensation came in winter’s worst weeks. So often puddles on window sills ran down the walls to where the wallpaper was mouldy. Net curtains stuck to our frosted window panes until the sun came out –if it ever did. If it did not then we tipped hot water down them from cups and buckets or used a hairdryer so that we see our back garden and the dump behind it. In a room all mine, I drove model cars around the carpet, safe in the knowledge they would never remain parked where I put them for my room was not only a hive of activity but a mess too. A few years on -so we are talking heavily asthmatic me read library books on chess within its dimly lit walls whilst my teddy bears looked on with their beady eyes, grinning with glee, nodding their heads each time I turned a page, looking at each other and shaking paws.

Our home also had a small front garden and a fence with a hole where I once kicked a dog in the head, a side path where I cried in the rain because I lost all my crayons down a drain, a window sill where my sister and I copped an almighty hiding for dancing naked in front of those en passent on the street below, a bath I never had to get out of to take a piss, a shed where a sheltered rabbit shied away from anyone who entered, a back garden where an attempt to build an igloo once ended when I ran out of snow -and beyond all that our long dump; littered with burnt out cars, broken glass, scrunched up beer cans, stolen cars and ripped up jazz (English slang for porno) mags, all sorts of sticks and branches, marbles, burst footballs, brambles, stinging nettles and whatever anyone lobbed out -it was all ours to roam around in T-shirtless during sun-drenched summer days when parents sunbathed in back gardens with the radio on and never went in to fish you out.

To end, two pictures; the first of my original home with my grandparents, the second of the house we moved into. We had no money. Both houses are council houses. But in the first picture you see me protected by the queen. There I stand positioned correctly, awaiting deployment and happily so. Sometimes in chess a pawn may seek a certain square. The garden you see me standing in is indeed a square itself. The only square on the board that was left unchequered.

Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.     
Howard Zinn

Part Three: A corollary of inquisitiveness –the anarchy of a 1980’s UK and my first norm… .

My first norm was ‘blighted by anarchy in blighty’, the second was a product of that…

In chess you need three norms to gain a title, in life I only ever gained two norms, neither were chess related. The first norm I acquired could, then, not have been a Grandmaster norm (GM) nor an Internationalmaster norm (IM) nor a Fidemaster norm (FM) for they relate to chess. The norm I first received was not an acquisition either. It was a norm bestowed upon me, thus categorically different. It was a norm which existed as a form of life and remains unacronymized. Throughout my childhood violence frightened me, I saw it so often for it was the norm amongst the displaced families moved onto my street as well as my own. When I played on the street I had rascals & scallys roughly my size always up to something or trying it on out of boredom. You couldn’t shy away from them or they would hit you so you had to learn how to defend yourself, something which took me a long time to do. Indoors you had to take what you were given. Punishment was often heavy-handed especially even when uninvited alcoholics twice my size weighed in. There were no scoresheets, all results went unrecorded, some wounds remained, I ended up with a norm I was frightened of and hurt by so many times, my childhood was to be altered by it unchangeably and there was nothing I could do about it. Corncastle Street was like one big soup we were all lumped in, handed down morsels by those who fed us, offering only scraps when things were hard. But that was the problem. Things were hard. You only lived on our street if you were disadvantaged or didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford your own home. Violence was part of our lives. It slept among us and entered our dreams at night.

By growing up on a rough council road in a rough town, my childhood was rich in colour but resplendent it most certainly was not…blighted by anarchy in blighty is a more appropriate term for I simply cannot count the amount of times I got caught up in situations I was too little to understand and wanted no part of. I was a happy child overall but one poor in health and more easily hurt physically and psychologically than most for I had no father to run to for protection when scenes became scary or things got out of hand. It was the never knowing why which made violence so hard to bear and accept, a few examples which typified what happened on my street may help here; only seven years old I awoke startled deep into the night by a house set ablaze a few doors down and all the commotion on the street below my bedroom window before learning it was an act of arson. I witnessed police cars smashed up and overturned as officers ran down our alley in broad daylight scared shitless, bare knuckle brawls between neighbours turned bloody when shirtless George at number 22 fought shirtless George at number 20. With his first blow, George at number 22 split open the chest of George at number 20. I felt the thudding blow myself and saw it bleed when the fist moved off the sternum then into a left eye. I saw cars stolen and bikes too. Houses broken into, windows smashed by footballs, smashed by cricket balls, smashed by stones, smashed by fists, smashed by boots, garden fences booted in and far much more than I care to remember for. I always stood, stared and questioned but never did I understand. I just accepted it was the norm, a form of life that I was part of. One that developed around me and, slowly but surely, one I developed into as a child for there was no escape.

But it’s not correct to portray my street as some sort of urban warzone for it was usually quiet. It’s better to say on the domestic front it was volatile from end to end; rife with alcoholism, the capacity for situations to ignite or explode then spill out onto the street was ever-present, you just never knew when, and this includes my own home. As kids we played together on the street, there was lots of fun to be had if you were mischievous enough -and if you hadn’t been indoctrinated into mischief, you soon would be! Our street had a dead end, which meant we never got much traffic, which meant we all got up to things on the road without being seen- we all loved to play about and cause trouble for what else was there to do? Parents were stuck indoors watching the telly whilst smoking and drinking away, so out we crept to conspire. For example, each autumn, superbangers were let off in the street on quiet Sunday afternoons (they were so loud it sounded like a high-pitched bomb going off). How I so loved hiding under parked cars to see who would open their front door first, and drunkenly stagger forward with a look of disgust in their face. When unable to spot the rascal who let one off, they slammed their front door shut. Street games were often played to alleviate boredom, like a game of knock-up ginger, especially on the houses where the div kids lived. Letting down tyres on parked cars was often a rite of passage, and lobbing bouncy balls to see if they could bounce all the way down our street and down the hill we were plonked onto was probably the first competition I ever entered. Kerby and British Bulldogs were more summer games but not always. We had a sense of community because we were marginalized and the hill below our street was steep but the divisions amongst families was deep also, and with alcoholism so rife, that sense of community was often damaged. It was not an easy street to remain a happy child on.

That first VM norm and a second VM norm and how I became me 

Chess players often muse over the platitude that the best form of defence is attack. It was on my street too but I was not violent by nature. I would never start fights. If dragged into one I was only ever counter-attacking. I couldn’t take too much but I knew how to throw a punch if I had to. Some kids steered clear if they knew you would attack them back before they had a second chance to hit you. I could say this engendered a counter-attacking style in me but it’s a whopping lie because I always shied away from battle until a second norm was bestowed upon me.

Yes, there was a second norm at hand, one interrelated, one more pernicious. In being too sensitive for the environment I grew up in, vexation became my second norm. I was a very quiet and homely child before I began to play on the street. But the more time I spent outside, the harder to control I became. I was hurt so often and beaten up so many times by bigger kids, an anger began burning within me. It made me cry on rainy days sometimes, even though no one had hit me. It left me confused and befuddled. Unable to understand I began to feel angry at home and would fly into a rage for no reason I am told. It was not long before that anger worsened and fused my brain so that a hot temper began to burn when I played on the street. I became a vexed child unable to differentiate between friend or foe, and all too often one that cried in pain or exploded with rage and felt nothing between the two.

First it was milk bottles…

Most who achieve norms do so in teen years at their earliest. Preparation for or exposure to my first norm came as a toddler, and yes, naturally I bled upon receiving it and cried my eyes out too. A teenage girl with thick glasses and massive mental problems was the first to attack me outside. Whenever she saw my sister and I playing in the garden she threw milk bottles at us from across the street then ran away when they smashed against the wall behind us and hit us with glass, so my mother so often said. As young as five, I was forced to beat up kids strongly against my will. My cousin Jamie and I often played together in my grandmother’s home. He kept on hitting me when we played together but I never did fight back for it wasn’t in my nature. Eventually my mother dragged me out by the arm, and squeezing it very tightly, ordered me to ‘stop letting him hit me and hit him back’. But I couldn’t because my mother had grabbed me so hard it put me in mild shock. I didn’t understand and wanted to play but when Jamie hit me in the head with a toy gun, I felt scared of another hiding. I switched from one extreme to another. I still remember him screaming how he was trapped by the door and how I kept charging into him like a ram and punching him, ‘help, help, help’ he screamed until rescued. I went unpunished but still I did not understand. We stayed friends but he remained wary of me and has ever since. Only when push came to shove would I lose it, but not lose it in the normative sense of the word. I went completely mad so that I wouldn’t get another hiding.

Then unsuspecting friends found a flurry of uppercuts

When I was seven, a boy called Chris Sturdy kept picking on my sister. My orders were to go up the street, lynch him outside his home, drag him back down and then in front of my whole family beat the crap out of him. But we were good friends and I never saw him hurt my sister. I didn’t understand. Somewhat vexed I didn’t want to impress anyone either. Not that it mattered – I had my orders. I had no choice. Violence was the norm I already had and now the second norm was rearing its ugly head too. I got angry. Really angry. So in front of them, I did as I was told against my will. Not only was I cheered on. I was ordered to put him in a headlock and dish out uppercuts. He left my sister well alone and never wanted to play together thereafter. I had lost a friend, we were both hurt. Nothing was explained. You just did as you were told. That’s was how things were. Whether you were hit or hurt, vexed, violent or despondent didn’t matter. All that mattered was you did as you were told, end of story. A norm may be an acquisition in chess but in my childhood it was something unchosen and bestowed upon me in a harmful environment.

Facing opposition over a table chess was never played on…

As a future chess player, tables were to become part of my future. So how was the first table I sat at? Well, indoors, my mother was a disciplinarian, no more so than at the dinner table. But no matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard she slapped me, no matter how many hours were wasted, she could not force me to eat food I disliked. Children are, by their very nature inquisitive, some of us more than others. We are because we want to learn, so we raise questions. When I asked insistently, ‘Why do I have to eat beef again?’ or ‘Why are there so many greens on my plate?’ or ‘Why can’t I just have ice-cream instead?’ I wasn’t being fussy but was getting at the limits or conditions imposed at mealtimes, wanting to know why some foods taste better and why some are healthier than others, and so on. Whilst sat on my stool, all I ever got were stone-faced glares and verbal abuse, ‘never you mind’ or ‘you get what you are given’ or ‘shut it n eat up ya little shit’. To a small child such answers are unintelligible and as unpalatable as the plate of cold food little me stared at until my mother got fed up and sent me to bed.

Over the first table I spent hours sitting at –I faced hostile opposition because I made no moves. It was very working class: all my mother ever served up was the same slop dished out to her at my age; when food was still being rationed after the war, and many food types were hard to find. She could have been better. She could have realized I was fussy for a reason. But she didn’t and refused to accept I had likes and dislikes all my own, preferring to pour scorn over me instead. At home, whenever hunger struck, I used to sneak into the kitchen to scoff all the biscuits whilst my mother smoked away in front of the box. If caught in the act, I was accused of and charged as being ‘a greedy little bastard’…well I was ’a little bastard’ but I wasn’t ‘greedy’, I just wasn’t parented properly. Verdict given: digestives were always left unscoffed -fussy little blighter acquitted.

The enemies within

When we were around eight years old, and when my mother was off down the pub at weekends, we had a babysitter. Her name was Peggy Butler. She was spiteful and sadistic. She told my sister and I to put an ear next to a spider in the bath to hear it scream whenever she could. When it was bedtime, she often chased my sister and I up the stairs with a horsewhip, and if she caught us, she chastised us. It went on for months until the marks became redder and redder. My mother demanded to know where they came from, so we showed her what Peggy was doing to us. Then, whilst Peggy babysat us the weekend after, the youngest of my three uncles entered our house by the back door. He was as pissed as fuck and booted the living room door open, startling my sister and I. He grabbed Peggy by the hair right in front of us, and dragged her out into the front garden. And with her trying to pull herself away, there he punched fuck out of her. And when I say ‘he punched fuck out of her’, I really do mean what I say -and that is by no means an exaggeration. I looked on from the windows and heard how she whimpered and politely pleaded with him to stop when it started. But he hit her full on in the face many, many times. Screaming, crying and begging for him to stop. Stop he did not. He didn’t even slow down. A few families opened their front door to find out what the commotion was but they weren’t bothered –it was all nothing new and she was from much further down the street anyway. Peggy never spoke to us again–I suppose she learnt her lesson the hard way. I can’t say I was surprised or agog to see it unfold in the way it did, it was just part and parcel of life on our street.

One Saturday evening- in 1982 I think it was – my mother brought back to our humble abode a pissed-up paddy named Noel. But at home I strongly resented the presence of a male, especially one from outside my family. I was the only male in the house, so I ruled the roost. I was not going to take orders off anyone, especially from someone I didn’t know. When he came downstairs the morning after his night out with my mother, I didn’t want him in my front room and wound him up whilst he was hung over. He retaliated by punching me in the stomach so hard it knocked me into the electric fire behind me. He winded me so badly I didn’t know I had a burn on my back for the pain in my stomach was so severe and I could not stop myself from crying. Noel was aided and abetted by my own mother, who then consoled him by offering him some toast whilst ignoring not her own suffering son. Together they watched as I cried my eyes out on the floor in front of them, and as I looked up in need of help –there he sat smiling at me as if he’d won. At times I was a right little shit –no doubt about that, but still -in my own home?

In chess we often discuss whether a bad plan is better than no plan at all, with the general consensus that its better to have a bad plan because at least that gives you some focus and coordination with what you have. Similarly, is a bad father better than no father at all? Well, if like myself your upbringing is brutally working class, then the only way to answer that is to rephrase it by asking ‘Is it better to have the shit kicked out of you at home by the same someone who brought about you into the world or is it better to have the shit kicked out of you by strangers who enter your home whilst pissed up just to sleep with your mother?’

The following year, one night near Christmas, uncle Jimmy –or put differently -uncle “ere’s ya pocket money now fuck off ya little shite” –was down the Labour Social Club in the centre of town, the place everyone on my street traipsed down each and every weekend. It had a huge bingo hall, a snooker hall, tv rooms and five bars where the Scots/Irish communities could sit amongst each other and get hammered together before heated debates broke out and tables were knocked over. I worked as a potboy there and earned a wage. And so one unforgettable evening my mother was there propping up the front bar as usual, and also as usual uncle Jimmy was waiting to get served too. Because he was ahead in the que she suddenly turned on him and hurled drunken insults his way. He lost it completely and knocked fuck out of her in front of everyone. Even when he put her on the floor below the bar itself he would not stop. I still recall how badly injured she was, and how we were left to watch tv by ourselves over the festive season that year. She spent several days in bed and came out of her bedroom once or twice only to attend to her wounds in the bathroom. Her left eye was blackened badly. She had lost the gold chain she was so fond of, something she cried over when she told me. It was hard to grasp all the words she spoke for her mouth was bruised and swollen. At one point she put her arm on my left shoulder, wanting to be comforted. I couldn’t. I didn’t understand.

I always asked ‘why-this’ and ‘why-that’ but was rarely given answers -and that became the fabric my youth was woven on -a fabric woven in the dark. From a broken, argumentative and violent family I grew up without the confidence that kids with more home security had. With no father and a mother who put her own life before the well-being of her own children, vexation became embedded in me, this meant trouble was forever ahead.

With no Christmas dinner, I just hung around on the street and waited for friends to come out and play. But no one did. Not even the rabble down the end of the road came out to show off their new toys. I just stood about, stuck my hands in the pockets of my green anorak and played with the rubble in the dump. I don’t remember what I got for xmas that year. I just remember the sky was light grey and the wind blew colder than the days before and I felt alone. When bored of the burnt out cars in the dump I went back in and warmed up my hands by the fire. That made it easier hunt down the peanuts and crisps I found in the cupboards as yet unscoffed. On Boxing day I had to run a bath by myself as my mother still stayed in her room nursing her injuries and wounded pride. There were no ripples in the bath for I lay still in tune with the silence that hung in the air. Normally my sister would use the bath after I had finished, but she didn’t so I just lay there still with the water going cold, wondering why a day of celebration was left so empty. I didn’t even get out of the bath to have a piss because that was the only feeling of warmth that xmas gave -the feel of my own warm piss filling the bathtub.

Yuletide Greetings and a truly shameful movie

The following Christmas my sister and I were not left to fend for ourselves, there were changes all-round. My mother was now seeing a hardened alcoholic, a real wrong ‘un’, and always up to no good. He spoke with a fake accent and tried to show everyone on our rough little council road he was better than them. Everyone was round our house on Christmas Day and boozing it up like there’s no tomorrow not long after dinner was served. At one point my cousins and I were told to get out of the living room and go upstairs. We didn’t know why but were happy to play together with our new toys so it didn’t matter. My aunts and uncles, and a few family guests, were camped out in the living room with the curtains drawn. This went on all afternoon. I became hungry, went downstairs but didn’t knock on the living room door. Instead I waltzed in asking if I could have some crisps. ‘GET OUT’ was the chorus screamed, ushered out at breakneck speed I was.

Well why was that might you ask? On the tv I saw a man standing in a doorway with his arms raised. He had permed hair, a wide grin on his face and a massive chopper. Now I know what you are thinking: you are thinking,’ hmmm, children, alcohol, pornography, a day of worship’, I bet the person who put that movie on was a Catholic, and you’d be right! The alcoholic my mother had taken a liking to was the guilty party. Unphased by this blooper I was, but it led me to believe that men who watch pornography, like to look at other men, that’s why they are all as bent as a nine bob note. If, back then, I were asked to watch a movie with men in it, I would have assumed something was afoot.

The enemies on the street…

Not by choice by any means, I grew up as a bit of a scrapper out of vexation alone, often in trouble of some sort and fighting my way out of it or not fighting my way out of it on the street. Sometimes I just wanted to get off our street so that I could stay out of trouble but it was no easier to make friends in the streets lower down the big hill ours lay on top of. Some families openly discouraged their children from playing with us in their homes, and never allowed them to play on our street also. To their parents we were all seen as outcasts. Indeed we were a colourful bunch of kids from a variety of backgrounds almost all of which were broken in some shape or form. Some of us were half-caste and seen as thieves in the corner shop, and outright trouble by just about everyone. Mostly we were poorly parented like myself, some of us were more wayward than others. We all had a lot of freedom and that freedom remained unchecked throughout my youth.

Friends were often absent but enemies never were. Sometimes friends became enemies and vice-versa. You never quite knew where you stood on our street. And if you did not look over your shoulder, sooner or later you would pay the price. On the first occasion, I was duffed up in winter. Winded with an orange cagoule on whilst my sweets were ‘arf-inched. The culpable kid was a certain David Clarke. The fourth son of five from a family shunted onto our street by a council who couldn’t cope with them anymore. David went to borstal before he left school but before so the trouble he caused was never-ending. In 84 we fought in my back garden once a week over the summer holiday. He won the first but I won the following five, even taking him on with his brother Paul in the last of all our battles, which ended by the shed where my depressed rabbit was. On one occasion he collared me in the street with all his brothers and beckoned them over. I legged it down the road, up the hill past my school, down the alley where we fought gangs from other schools, and down the long hill towards the town centre. I kept glancing over my shoulder and saw them stretched out further up the hill so took a sharp right up ‘Ruthin Close’ behind which a path cut through wood cuttings towards the park. And that was where I sprinted hard and lost them. I ran cross-country for my school, the Clarke’s never came close to catching me.

Despite that we remained friends and so it stayed until they took in a lodger they called ‘Elvis’. With one of the Clarke family he broke into my grandparents home and stole money out of the electricity meter. Not much but that mattered not. Later that day I was playing happily on the street. All of a sudden my grandmother came out the house and ushered me inside hurriedly. I ran upstairs, bounced off the bed in the spare room, opened the window and stuck my head out and saw uncle Charlie had left the pub down the road at closing time and was trundling along our street with a crew of fifty or so following him, all of whom brought their lagers with them and were as pissed as he was. I watched on, my line of site, directly over the very spot I learnt to play chess on the street (more on that shall follow). When they got to the Clarke’s house, his crew hung back. He booted the front door open, smacking it loudly against the adjoining wall. Went straight in and dragged out an already terrified Elvis. Then Charlie started whacking him about with a chunky fence post in front of his crew, ensuring Elvis had no escape. I recall how in trying to escape, the agony in his screams was very real, and how the Clarke family watched on more terrified than he was. Whenever I saw him in the years thereafter, he jumped whenever he saw me though I meant him no harm and was half his age –I guess Uncle Charlie taught someone another lesson they would not forget.  

David Clarke was not the only enemy I had –not by a long shot. A now dead distant cousin named Paul Mapp was by far the worst. He always strutted our street with his burgundy Doc Martin boots, a scowl on his face and sun cream all over his shaved head whether summer it be or not. Two years older than I, he terrorized anyone smaller or younger by shouting ‘RIGHT’ as soon as he caught sight of someone he didn’t like. Anyone caught playing on the street became his next target, unfortunately that was usually me!

On my eleventh birthday, he collared me as I left my Nan’s house after my party had just finished and friends were walking home -that was his mistake. Vexation kicked in and went into overdrive, my first living memory of my hot temper was when I flattened him with a right hook but as he fell onto the road, he dragged me down with him. My sister and school friend Paul Gardiner were with me but Mapp did not see them in the dark. Mapp sunk his gnashers deep into my forearm then screamed his head off. Paul kicked him in the head repeatedly and my sister kicked him in the back whilst we scuffled on the street. I was punching him with my left everywhere before neighbours came running out to rescue him, allowing me to return home from my birthday party with blood dripping down my arm. For years after he tried to gain revenge but never did. In his teens borstal beckoned, prison thereafter. He tattooed-up inside, then one evening his fixation with needles sunk into a heroin overdose which took his life away from him. The last time I saw him was in ‘black alley’ climbing a fence so he could break into an apartment. ‘So what was black alley then?’ Well, to reach our gritty little street you had to clamber up ‘black alley’, so called because the solitary streetlamp never worked, and the fences were so high they blocked out the moon. It was narrow and steep, always treacherous during winter’s worst weather. One Christmas an alcoholic was knifed to death there under the blackened sky rain fell from to wash the snow away. As kids we used to run down it after school ended. Before we got to the school gates one of us would always lob a brick at someone’s side door, then we all legged it down black alley laughing our heads off at full speed. And lastly, late on in the 80’s black alley became the only place where uncle Charlie first faced a family member who stood up to him. Himself, myself and granddad had to carry a long ladder up it. I was at the front, granddad was in the middle and Charlie behind us both. It was hard work for the alley was so steep. Charlie kept getting stuck into me, moaning that I was slowing things down. Finally, I snapped, turned around, pulled the ladder out of his grasp and rammed at his head. He managed to deflect it but taken aback did nothing, so I just stormed off and wandered about the street drinking Jamaican lager.       

Did it rain down on those warriors?

One warm summer afternoon, when the sun shone down on black alley, it rained down with bricks and bottles. A crew from the other side of town bravely came clambering up it once. But no one ever made it up onto our turf for the families on both sides of the alley were Jamaican immigrants; named Brooks and Wrigley, they were large families of huge unruly Rastafarians and blasted our street with rap or reggae all day long. No one dared complain because we knew they took shit from no one. They saw from their bedroom windows who were invading our turf. It was them who pelted our unwelcome crew with bricks and bottles. That was the part of the street where all the half-caste kids lived. It was in front of the metal gate next to their house where with mates I stopped our kick about on the street, and watched it unfold. The first bottle thrown went some thirty meters, ricocheted off a metal pole and smashed across the path causing many in the crew to shift sideways superfast. When bricks started flying, they became scared and ran back down black alley –the whole thing lasted barely a minute. All I saw was what I was so used to. A state of normality changing without warning. With my own two eyes I saw we really did have a reputation –not that I cared. For me my street was my home and that was all that mattered. And to think, had my background been more in tune with your average middle-class chess player. I could have been sat at home somewhere serene and had a father challenging me to a game or to by the fireside in the parlour.     

An English Opening and a red pencil

The opening moves of the game of my own life were made without preparation on a board too chequered for play to commence. Conflict and strife came quick, still so small I was a diffident homely boy with chronic asthma and poor health in general. Children ought to have safety and security from them as they grow towards teen years but there was no authoritative figurehead at home. Only a single-parent mother who put her own life first. I was a free child for our front door was always left open but that board where my first moves were made was too chequered, my childhood was a hodgepodge of dissonance if ever there was one.  The only place where I felt at ease was in the safe arms of my loving grandmother, who nourished my childhood with so much warmth and affection I could happily sit with her all night long and watch whatever she liked to watch on tv. Whenever she asked me to go into town with her, I was always happy to, as a treat she’d sometimes buy second-hand clothes for me in charity shops en passent. I was her pride and joy and was lavished with her affection accordingly. She always gave me money for an ice cream when a van drove by. When I was eight years old I came running back to her with ice-creams for both my sister and I held out smiling away. But I tripped badly and took a lot of skin off both wrists. I cried my eyes out in her arms only to be given enough money for two more. Teary eyed I walked back on the second trip. Her home was my first home but in truth it was still home even though we moved across the road and moved from 27 to 40. If we count the squares on a chess board, starting with a1 as square 1 then 27 would be c4, the home of The English Opening as we all know. 40 would be h5, which if you invert to 5h would be the red pencil I always used to draw in my books at school. Co-incidental I know but amusing to me.

“Because (grandparents) are usually free to love and guide and befriend the young without having to take daily responsibility for them, they can often reach out past pride and fear of failure and close the space between generations.” Jimmy Carter

Part 4: An unexplored opening

This skinny street kid, that Red Square.

Whilst indoors I could not be told what to do: the only person I would have listened to as a child was my own father but he was never there. Whenever I bolted out the front door it was usually to play football or marbles. In summer more so cricket, and in autumn conquers. I used to zoom along our street on my bike like a rook moving across an open rank. If that wasn’t enough, then at my freest I sped towards the park and down country lanes in Hertfordshire, returning to lob any bouncy balls found down the end of the street or golf balls found over the park. Failing that I lobbed tennis balls over our house and played Frisbee with mates and lobbed them at cats or cars passing by. But on one occasion I played none of the aforementioned, I played chess. 

In 1979, aged 7 years old only, a lad named Daniel with Irish parents taught me how to play chess His back door opened to an alleyway which led onto our street. There we sat and there he glared at me with great impatience, forcibly demonstrating where the pieces moved, slamming them down on his small wooden board, cursing my inability to remember how the knight moved. I learnt the moves of chess whilst sat on the grey kerb between the red path and black road on my street. It was just another street game at first and incorporated elements of all the other games we played. The occasional football flying over your head between moves, for example, was not so uncommon, cricket balls clattering all the pieces off the board, well yes that was very annoying. Interrupting play to deflect a Frisbee or chase away dogs sniffing around in the endgame was never anything too far out of the ordinary during summer school holidays, nor were adjournments whilst we cycled off to the shop to buy ice-poles. To me chess was just a street game where mates could gather round, gob in the gutter, and show you how to win with illegal moves. Sometimes a game of football would be going on near where I was playing chess and so I played both at once -chess was just another street game to me then.

Between nine and twelve years old my interest in chess developed but only in fits and starts. Written for children, I read a work of fiction on our beautiful game I borrowed from the local library. From memory it was a contemporary version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass’ The interest I gained altered what chess was -now no longer a street game where mates joined in and took over, it was also something adults enjoyed, and without wanting to thump anyone.  A year or so on, I was given a set by my nan, picked up in a second-hand shop. But half the pawns and pieces were missing, when a friend from school came round to play we never knew whether it was better to start with white or black, so we just played on. Like most kids in 1980s Britain, I had lots of toys and loved all the games we were given at Christmas. Yes we were poor but our family was big, so you always got lots of presents. At xmas we held big parties that went on all night long. With so many party goers so merry in your house, it was a great opportunity to play them at chess or show them your Christmas pressies but when something went wrong we had to scarper. Once, a speaker fell down, smashed up the fireplace and stopped everyone dancing. All my cousins and I ran out the room and legged it up the stairs as fast we could for we knew we’d be clipped round the ear. At their friendliest, the strangers in my house would get you a drink despite your age. I was introduced to alcohol when I was only 8 years old. I didn’t like beer so was given Snowballs instead, I still remember that very first time and how uncle Charlie laughed at me saying ‘I was drunk’. Well, as you can see below, everyone was always drunk.

The pictures below show not only that I was given a chess set for Christmas but also I understood the principles of development and coordination early on in life, long before I read up on them. What they don’t show is that in a house full of boozers I played chess against anyone who wanted to play, and when stood at the top of the stairs said to all ‘en passent’,  ‘I’ve got more money than you.’, in hope I could get extra pennies and maybe pull in a quid or two.

His name was Brian. Apparently, I liked him very much.

That open h-file.

The nursery I attended –and yes I do remember my first day-, infants and juniors were all lumped together on a plot of land behind our street. Chuck a right onto the only road adjoining ours was all you had to do. That road was named Hillborough Road, my school was named Hillborough School. I could see it whenever I climbed the fence or the apple tree in my grandmother’s back garden, I saw its playing fields grow green towards the pond by the playgrounds beyond the grey pathways and emptied classrooms. Junior school was a warm place for me, even during winter’s coldest days, especially when the pipes froze and we were all sent home. It was a happy place full of happy times except at lunch, when we were told we could not leave the table until we finished our plate, and were forced to eat curry or semolina –unless of course you were as wily as myself and quickly learnt how to sneak off without the monitor noticing…oh and in morning assembly when we weren’t so happy when we had to sing all those fucking hymns. Our Headmaster was named Mr. Brian Duffy. He was humble and friendly. At the end of the week he loved coming into class and playing a game where you had to stay after the bell rang until you found the right answer to whichever brain teaser he had up his sleeve. The teachers were of a similar ilk – it was all very cosy and close-knit. I often came running home full of excitement, happy to tell my mother what I had learnt that day and how my best friends were. I made my grandmother a Valentine’s Day card there once with the words ‘To nanny I love you’. For many years after she put that on the shelf by the tv. The most likeable teachers were Mrs. Taylor and Mr. Green. Mrs. Taylor had a task-orientated approach: she encouraged us to make many things and so often we played with water. Her approach was very hands on, but they were very warm hands and so we all liked or loved her. Sometimes I stayed late with friends just to say goodbye to her as she left to catch the bus home. Mr. Green always ended Friday afternoons by drawing a crossword on the blackboard. Only when we had completed it could we go home. On one occasion, ‘A type of goat’ -4 letters was the clue that stopped us all leaving -much to our frustration. We knew the first letter was I and the last X and not the middle two letters. We all guessed out loud hoping we could go home. When I shouted ‘IBEX’, Mr. Green nodded and wrote it on the board. There was an almighty cheer, all my mates shaking my hand, patting me on the back, smiling away as we all sped out of the class -everyone was happy, myself most of all.

Admittedly, Mr. Green did sometimes lob chalk at you if you weren’t paying attention, and when naughty, pull you up to the front of class to give you ‘the shakes’. By holding your arms and shaking you backwards and forwards, he told you ‘PAY ATTENTION BOY’. No girl was ever given the shakes, only boys were. I was the only child in our class always spared the slipper and the cane, much to the frustration of our teachers and my class mates. I was not unruly at school but I could not be disciplined. Severe asthma attacks had me in and out of the nurse’s room like a yo-yo, not to mention an uncountable number of allergies also: sometimes I was only there for a quick check up, but more often I had to lie down all day long, listening in to mates running around on the playground, having a laugh in light sunshine. I used to spend hours in the nurse’s room thinking my asthma had abated, not knowing my stay was precautionary in case it had not.

On our ‘leaving do’ in late July 1983 we sprayed our hair pink, red, or green. We dressed up. We were in our post-punk Britain and the new romantics reigned. We loved the music, loved parties, messed about, and loved the prospect of a long summer and a new start at a new school in the coming September. That evening became the happiest of my whole childhood. After the disco was over, I lay in bed with the curtains undrawn as there was still light in the evening sky. My mother entered, sat by my side and saw my punk-like, multi-coloured hair, my head still full of disco music, my face full of smiles. She spoke to me with a soft, sincere tone over what a wonderful time I had with my school friends. That was the only time I remember she came across as so motherly and caring, and the only fleeting moment in my childhood where I felt close to her.

Chess helped forge true friendships until they were torn asunder

Now aged eleven, whenever I played chess, it was always on the street or against school friends; one of whom came to my home most often, the other I went to the children’s home he had been placed in at the bottom of our hill. He was my best friend at Junior school. His name was Lee Scott Carter, he joined us late in our last year. He was an orphan sent down south to stay in a children’s home with his brother Duane, whom I last saw with a broken leg in a disco. I went to play chess with Lee many times, especially on Sundays. I taught him how to play chess, he taught me how to box. When we became bored of both, we climbed the trees in the courtyard as high as we could. Lee supported Liverpool Football Club, so on Sept 4th 1984 I took him to see them play Luton at Kenilworth Road. It was an evening game, still I remember the song ‘Self-control’ by Laura Brannigan played on the tannoy before kick off. When Liverpool scored their first goal right in front of us, from a penalty that ricocheted off the face of Luton goalkeeper Les Sealey Lee jumped up and down with joy. After the school year ended, Lee was sent to a home in Dunstable, some 6 miles away. The guardians in his new home were too strict –that he did not like. Things came to a boil one afternoon when he was told to lay the dinner table. That he did not, stormed out and walked all the way to my home. With his legs aching, he curled up in my bed and was barely able to talk. That was the last of Lee as my closest friend.

Thirty one long years of trying to find him came to a close three years back. I finally found his brother Duane. He informed me that Lee Carter, from Halifax, is no longer with us. He was murdered in Charlottesville, USA in May 2005. A jealous ex-husband saw him with his wife parked outside her apartment. He then shot and killed my friend, turned the gun on himself and blew his brains out directly in front of his ex-wife. Out of respect, honour, and a long-held brotherly love I will not link the details. R. I. P Lee Scott Carter.

Lee Scott Carter –funny, popular, likable, loved to run around the playground, and able to punch well above his weight…still I lament his loss.

On the street my best friend was a girl named Irene Milne. She lived three doors down, had lots of energy and was always racing about -she even beat me up in her alleyway once! We used to play tag all in the school playground and carry it on in class because we sat next to each other until we were caught in the act by the teacher. We hung out in the dump and made many dens there. Like myself she had Scottish blood in her, and like mine her family was cursed with alcoholism. I will never forget the time I was playing football on the street and the ball went into her garden. So in I went to get it from underneath a bush. As soon as I had stood up a fist came straight through the window and was only inches away. It was her father’s fist and for many months I was not allowed into her house. She had to sneak me in by the back door so we could go to her room and listen to the radio. Only after her father had conked out in his chair was I allowed to leave.

Consumption at a carnival: chess puzzles and chips

Compared to the nation it is now, 1980’s England was markedly different. There were generations who pulled through WW2 was with us in mind, body, and spirit: there was a community spirit toughened by their togetherness. Unlike how things stand with the malleable generation presently, the government never tried to knock the fight out of those who did their dirty work. The present malleable generation hasn’t endured bombing raids together and lost loved ones for their country. They’ve only lost civil liberties and the ability to challenge authority. When I was young we had huge street parties for the Queen’s Jubilee and when Princess Diana married Prince Charles too. There were Union Jacks strewn everywhere, patriotism was something we all shared. Between lampposts, over cars, across the street and along it; on hats, little badges, shirts, trousers, even shoes. You name it, if a Union Jack could be put on it, it would be. If not then St. George’s flag was. At Whitsun a carnival covered the town centre as Summer began officially. It was a celebration of traditional English culture and the mood was always high. Everyone was jovial on a George street packed with stalls, tombolas, and side-shows offering prizes that cost so little. Clowns and jesters walked up and down blowing up balloons and doing funny dances by people dressed very differently, displaying crafts and traditions from medieval times. You saw knights on horseback and living quarters from the dark ages. Whitsun taught us what culture was and traditions were on a sunny day with a long Summer ahead. It was better and more educational than Christmas because of the pride we all showed in our nation in unison.

One Whitsun, either 83 or 84 Grandmother took me to the High Street to join on the fun. We stopped in a newsagent beforehand. I didn’t buy any of the comics the shelves were stacked with. Instead, I bought two chess magazines, six times the price! Both were based on solving puzzles: the diagrams all displayed figurine notation similar to the expensive sets sold on the opposite pages, giving it a ‘collector’s set’ feel. I found that fascinating, and loved looking at the differing figurines and boards they advertised. Some antique sets were so exotic I could only guess which piece was which. Most importantly it was the iconography I was sold on: that prompted me to put my hand in my pocket more so than the puzzles shown. They became progressively harder and were way beyond my level soon enough, but courtesy of the iconography all equally curious nonetheless. I remember being briefly overwhelmed by a feeling of impossibility at most of the puzzles on the pages. Whilst I sat in St. Georges Square on a wall draped in the sunshine of a hot summer’s day, my grandmother ate chips beside me whilst I puzzled away at a snail’s pace, attempting to solve each puzzle no matter how hard they were and how tricky piece identification sometimes was –and therein lies the first proof that I would go on to become a competitive chess player. I loved to play many games, as kids always do, but the only game I spent pocket money on the literature for was chess. I used to chuck comics out within days of reading them but I kept those chess puzzle magazines for years even though the cat pissed on them. ‘Wot are they, mags from the dump or somefink? Chuck em out, they stink init’ I was oftentimes told. But I never did and never would I, for pages stained yellow by cat’s piss did not discolour the beauty of chess.           

Encouragement to play chess only came from a family member once. An aunt lived near the bottom of black alley, just up from the nearest boozer. When its doors closed on Sunday afternoons, a family friend came round came round to play me for cans of lager in the fridge. Even though he was oftentimes slurry and sleepy, I never did beat him (although I did miss the chance to capture a rook left en prise once). We played Sunday afternoons for a few months then without warning he stopped coming. I was never told why. Although I didn’t understand much in our games he was encouraging and friendly. I liked to play him because I liked to play, and in losing that opportunity herein lies a proof a love of chess was latent within me at that age. When high school started, however, an opportunity arose on the horizon, then everything changed…

Aged eleven I was showing strong signs of interest in chess. It’s true I loved Monopoly, Scrabble and most board games but chess was the only one I used my own pocket money to buy magazines with. I just loved playing anyone whether I won or lost never mattered much. Had circumstances been different and I had supportive parents, they would have seen this and acted upon it. But that was not the case. Only aunt Maggie down the road tried to encourage and that didn’t last long. If you are a loving parent and reading this, may I suggest you carefully consider the words written here: had I been supported as a young child I would have become an exceptionally strong player. Instead I was left to my own devices, a state of affairs usually antithetical to progress per se, particularly when kids have a variety of ever-changing interests.

“By making eye-contact, getting down to your child’s level, offering a touch, or using a tone of your voice that conveys a desire to genuinely connect, you disarm yourself. You make it possible to reach your child more deeply and truly move forward together.”
― Hilary Flower

Part 5 NOT BREAKING NEWS – Daydreamer Becomes Delinquent Becomes Chess Addict

Awaiting trial

On that first day at a new school, I stood in the street at dawn in a new uniform with a red tie on. Breakfast full under that September sky still morning red, I stood proud, excited, nervous and reliant on friends to show me which roads to take. That new dawn fades was named ‘Stockwood High School’ after the park nearest to it. To wend your way around leafy lanes a mile and more from home, between parks that lead into the countryside was a real adventure at first. The houses became bigger, the parked cars more costly. But the hills were all, short and steep, except for the longest, which lead to the school gates, the kids you followed to them had more about them, some twice the size than my timid self.

High school was a good ten times the size of junior school, multi-tiered and very hilly. Moving from one building to another was like an expedition sometimes. Between the classrooms lumped on top of each other were three large football pitches, a rugby pitch, wickets to practice cricket on, a hockey pitch, an athletics track, tennis courts and a sandpit for the long jump – oh and triple jump too. The school grounds were cut back by a dual carriageway where traffic droned away from town and into the distance. In other words our school was stuck to the edge of town like shit to a blanket. On the other side of the dual carriage way was LutonHoo, a stately home where the river Lea ran past bluebells that grew in the woods further up the hill. (Lea means shinning in olde celtic). We were only allowed to go there to run cross-country, it was where I staked my place in the school team in that first month –my first achievement at school. Of the 70 or so boys I ran with I was always somewhere in the top six, and one of a rare breed that sprinted over the finish line hard. In running for my school, I developed a competitive-streak which was to remain in place and held me in good stead for a number of disciplines later down the line, most significantly school chess.

Stockwood was a rough and tumble school. This I learnt within minutes on my very first day. As soon as I got to the playground with a small gang of mates from my street, one named Nicholas, had his head kicked in. To the nearest teacher for help I ran, she grabbed me by the arm, dragged me to where they were, broke up the fight and forced me to give my name. As soon as that registered, she screamed her head off with rage and demanded I go straight to the deputy head –Mr. S. Bunker- to explain everything to him too. What I was yet to learn was my uncle Charlie had also attended my new school and…well, let’s just say he blotted his copybook when he stuffed the school piano with bricks and with help from his mates, sent it speeding down the driveway into the gates at the bottom. That had not been forgotten by anyone and in giving my name I made an innocent mistake. ‘Oh yet another McCready is it, oh I say…’ said the Deputy Head, sounding like a judge sentencing someone to five long years whilst rejecting my laudable efforts to separate those scuffling on the playground.

A few days into term, we were lumped together and tested for our abilities. Later in the week we were told which classes we would be in. When the register was called, I had to explain to the teacher that my best friend Lee Carter had gone to a children’s home in Huddersfield, hence the reason why he was always absent. Chess players are often associated with Mathematicians courtesy of their ability to calculate well. Although I never did like Maths, I scored 94% in the exam, beaten only by one other in the whole year. I was a top-set student in maths but only maths.Whatever subject it was bored shitless I sat and stared out of the windows daydreaming all lesson long until bell rang; all too often I was put on report, but only until teachers were fed up of signing it week after week after week. I was brighter than most but like so many I never used what brains I had. At our school good grades meant nothing, you only ever made a name for yourself if you were the hardest in the year –that was how you earned credibility on the playground. Everyone knew who was the hardest in our year but no one knew nor cared who achieved the highest grades. I never chose to fight anyone and I wasn’t a swot. I was just another face in the crowd, one who spent more time playing football in the playground, sliding down banisters between classes and put on report for ‘horseplay’ in the corridors, than studying. Overcoming fear at school didn’t take long and soon it was the case that nothing ever bothered me much. The only time I was ever hurt was when someone asked me why I don’t have a father. That was the only way anyone could make me cry in front of others. I never knew the answer but could never escape the rejection inflicted upon me. And even though my mother knew where he was all along, and knew how affected I was by it, she never took my sister and I up to Yorkshire to see him once. Her life was her priority the rejection her children both felt was of no importance.

So what did I learn at high school? Nothing much of any real interest or practical use. Our teachers appeared browned off by just being there. They were no source of inspiration. It was as if they didn’t want to work there and we didn’t want to go to school and only did because we were forced to. So often they sent me to sleep instead of wanting to learn anything. They were unpretentious in approach and as incorrigible as we were –if not worse. The popular music video below is very similar to what I experienced at High School as a child.

Sour forms of revenge

Our Chemistry teacher was a stocky rugby player from Belfast called Dr. Archibald. To him, every pupil was impertinent and any boy who didn’t complete his homework was stood in the corner -and yes that meant me too. When his board work was being copied down by those who did their homework, he wandered over to those who didn’t and asked softly ‘Where’s your homework?’ If you smiled or looked away, jabs to the gut came quick, ‘Where’s your homework?’ he would ask again with a stone-faced stare. There was nothing slap-dash about him: full of sneaky fast fists to the gut if you fooled about, there was never no slight of hand. Once, classmate Zair laughed in class loudly and was told, ‘YOU LAUGH AGAIN ONE WEEK’S DETENTION’, the response ‘WHAT!’ was said with a laugh. ‘RIGHT TWO WEEKS DETENTION. Zair then laughed at that, ‘THREE WEEKS’ and sure enough within a minute EIGHT weeks of detention were handed out.

To gain revenge, at lunch my classmate Martin and I always went to the chippy and wandered back up the school drive with a few saved up –those at the bottom of the bag drenched in vinegar usually. When we got to where Archibald’s car was parked, which was right in front of the staff room, we lobbed a chip or two each onto his bonnet…well until he caught us in the act. In winter we sought revenge with speedy snowballs during his playground duty once. Shouting ‘IRA’ Martin and I lobbed them at the same time. We both missed but hit a wall barely a few feet away. Both balls broke apart and sprayed snow over him. Startled sufficiently…we hoped perhaps he thought paramilitaries were present. We snuck off chuckling away as he dusted himself down and went looking for the culprits. Zair got himself into even more trouble by smashing the fire alarm just before we had a music lesson with the debonair Mr.Dart, whose love of spotted ties and effeminate demeanour made it abundantly clear his orientation was picked up by all and always giggled at. The Deputy Head came round to where we lined up for class and demanded an explanation. The one Zair gave made our whole class struggle to quickly control laughter, and makes me smile as these words are written. He claimed that after he entered the hall he tripped on a mat with one edge turned up, flew through the air and broke the fire alarm in flight with his hand. But the mat was about 5-10 meters away. The look on the Deputy Headmasters face said it all, ‘YOU TRIPPED ON THAT AND THEN FLEW ALL THAT WAY INTO THE FIRE ALARM’? Zair could not keep a straight face, none of us could. To claim whilst walking you tripped on a map which sent you flying up to 33 feet into a fire alarm was as preposterous as it was impromptu …sorry but I don’t recall what trouble he got into. Most likely it was nothing more than a good telling off.    

But that’s what school was all about. Absolving boredom and messing about at playtime whilst trying to get at the teachers in whatever way we could without being caught. Zair, with his eight weeks of detention had a big argument with a boy called John Tramiro also in our form class. They settled the matter at the bottom of our hill on a grassy roundabout only just outside the school grounds. Martin and I were told to keep a look out for the old bill while they scrapped it out. I sat on a bollard and looked along Park Street but as soon as I saw a police car coming, Martin and I jumped the school fence and legged it up the hill laughing. I glanced back and saw the police car had stopped, presumably to apprehend them. They were caught in the act and put on detention by our HeadMaster.

Mark Blench –the mystery man that had everyone guessing…

That same year we had a new student join late on. His name was Mark Blench but his English was very poor, and what little he spoke was hard to understand. He told us he was from Ireland and 14 years old like us but something wasn’t right. He had sideburns and often reeked of cigarettes. His writing ability was so low we had to help him spell basic words and he never came to school with a uniform on, always saying it was being ordered. He always sat quietly and never spoke unless spoken to then one morning he pulled a stunt which wrote him into folk law. During morning break, he drove a brown Vauxhall Cavalier up the drive and parked it next to the space for the Deputy Headmaster, in front of where the staff room was. Even to this day Martin and I still chuckle away how nonchalant he was about it. As soon as he got out of the car he lit up a fag. Three or four teachers came out and approached him in a state of disbelief if not outright shock whilst we pissed ourselves laughing, definitely in total and utter disbelief. It transpired that he was an Irish gypsy, was aged 18 and was already married, had children too. He just wanted a bit of free education but that was the end of him. But it never stopped us asking when he was coming back. Good old Mark –no one ever got the whole school laughing like he did. I can’t remember the amount of times kids from the years above and below us came up to me and asked ‘Are you in the same class as Mark Blench was’, with a big smile on their face.

The exact car Mark Blench drove into school in except his was a brown colour.

In my final year In the last year of my sentence at Stockwood High School a sense of freedom forced itself home: in the eyes of the teachers I went from a ‘daydreamer’ to a ‘delinquent’ no longer worth bothering with. To them I had not only dropped out of too many exams but also began playing truant: in my eyes I just played football in the high-rise apartments nearby and whatever else I felt like doing. Then just before the first half term break in Autumn, our games teacher, Mr. Peter Watson, announced there would be a chess tournament starting after we came back. How my stomach churned with excitement that is something I shall never forget. On the sporting front I had run cross-country for my school every year, coming 37th out of the 150 in the selected ‘elite’ Luton schools finals. At school, I had a competitive streak in me when it came to cross-county: running came naturally for I was chased along my street all the time as I grew up. With a long-held but unexpressed love of chess, and a competitive streak firmly in place, they came together and I pushed myself on like never before.  

Off I sprinted to the only computer shop in town. By chance it sold Sargon II: my Commodore Vic 20 accepted it, myself also. I set up camp in front of the tv and had it beaten within days but not because I was any good, but rather I had the bit between my teeth and was not going to relinquish it. When forced out of the living room and booted upstairs, I locked myself in my room and listened to Fleetwood Mac on cassette. There I reveled in seclusion -every library book borrowed I read voraciously. With pop music on low and books on tactics at hand, so often I slumped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling with a daydreamy smile -schoolwork it seemed, was becoming a thing of the past: my own interests were suddenly developing and that brought change. During that half-term break I found out where Luton Chess Club was and cycled there at break skull speed. I was so determined to become the school champion that nothing was going to stop me.

I could smile at the ceiling with a head full of chess whilst listening to this.

Shyness defeats attention…no moves were made.

And so I made it to the final unchallenged. And in the final I became the school champion by beating a kid called Jeremy Fraser. Of African descent he was both calm and confident in demeanor, perhaps over-confident at times, as he resigned smiling in disbelief. I admit I was a little nervous as the game had an audience, and none of the games before it had. It was an after-school affair. All the pupils had gone home and left the corridors quiet and empty. What with winter closing in, it was already dark outside when we played, the only lights left on were for us. He was white and fianchettoed both his bishops. That was the only way he knew how to play but I beat him with a strong central attack for I was already well-read. The only difficult thing was holding my nerve. Thankfully I did and the game was quickly concluded.

When a league was created the week after, I white-washed it with a score of 9/9. Then one morning one week before that Christmas came, our ageing Headmaster Mr. Toman, called me onto the stage during upper-school assembly. But I was too shy to revel in being centre-stage. I walked up onto it but stood by the side close to the undrawn curtains. The headmaster spoke fondly of my achievements as pupils listened attentively in unison. When his short speech ended he called on me to collect my trophy. I walked over a little nervous. He shook my hand with a sincere smile then handed over the trophy. Although many believed that moment was the best or most touching moment of my time at school, no it’s not so. That occurred in the corridor outside the cookery classroom, as shall be explained later.   

Now no longer just a face in the crowd amongst pupils, I was thee ‘chess-champion’ –a title which I became increasingly uncomfortable with. To our teachers I was a dark horse now, one who never did anything but was suddenly the best in the school at an intellectual pursuit -their attitude towards me did not change though. A sudden rise in popularity in our pupil population ensued in the weeks following, and that I really did not like. Whenever girls approached asking for a game during break time, I paid no attention to their half-arsed chat up lines. I was besotted with chess not girls and rightly so. Every time, a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes named Julie saw me, she said ‘Mark!’ with an astonishment I found bothersome. Like wildfire rumour spread that no one stood a chance against me, and being the school champion, everyone wanted to take the challenge on. I withstood all testosterone-fuelled challenges, with Adam Kittappa, full of bluster and bravado telling me ‘I’m gonna beat you because my dad is good at chess’ before remaining ignominious in defeat. There was nothing gratifying about beating anyone at school. At best, school was an insufferable place I felt imprisoned by, who I beat and how mattered not. All that mattered was chess was an escape from the humdrum of boring teachers, boring lessons, and boring exams.

Definitely definitively and decidedly so, my education shifted shape from a drab and dreary affair imposed upon me, to one I had the say over, thus identity-conferring. I played chess in every class I could, sometimes all class long. It never mattered how easy it was to win. What mattered was five long years of an incarcerating boredom was coming to an end. In some classes I soon I became an elected in-class instructor; settling disputes over the rules of chess, showing pupils how to beat their mates, and teaching onlookers ‘a prawn is a pawn’, ‘a castle is a rook’, ‘a horse or horsey-one is a knight’, ‘a bishop does not move slantyways but diagonally’ and so on whilst the teacher caught up on his or her marking. And although I never thought much to the attention, being listened to instilled a degree of self-belief I did not have before then.

The real reason I became the school champion had little to do with talent and everything to do with personality type

How did I become the school chess champion? It had little to with talent and everything to do with personality type. My rate of progress was so marked because I was -and still am -obsessive. I didn’t have an O.C.D, I had an O.C.C.D (obsessive compulsive chess-playing disorder). That was the engine transmuting all the power needed. Talent was secondary; quintessentially, chess is about pattern recognition and implementing patterns of play into your games. Children learn best by repetition and reinforcement, this I gained from playing my newfangled chess program almost to circuit board meltdown. Children also learn from memory, that I gained from the many opening principles and mating attacks I read in the books I borrowed repeatedly. Children also learn from mimicry, this I gained from watching the best players in our club play and copying their style. All of sudden, I was way above whoever I played at school. But only because as Edison once said, ‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. What he omitted, or perhaps overlooked, was that concentration levels can go through the roof when you focus on something that is theory-laden, such as chess. From being much uninterested in reading, I now read everything chess-related I got my hands on, then re-read and re-read again what I had bought. I was downright obsessed and growing more in love with chess.

In pursuing what I was passionate about, I became an avid reader at school with publications possessing an otherworldly charm, which our school textbooks definitely did not have. With my back turned to whoever droned on at the front, I swotted up on Soviet style mating attacks at the back of class relentlessly. My school bag was crammed with books on chess, and so my love of our beautiful game blossomed all the more as I leafed through them. ‘The Complete Chess Addict’ by Richard James and Mike Fox is, still to this day, the book that has given me the greatest pleasure to read. The breadth of content taught me more about life than school ever did. With chess being an intellectual pursuit, I found what I read highly educational: it taught me about the importance of personal achievement and how to become a success yourself, which all those hours of religious studies, parallelograms, long lists of French verbs, woodwork projects, and so on, most certainly did not. 

Cookery class and a moment to be savoured  

During a cookery class our games teacher dropped by and saw me giving someone a beating over the board whilst other pupils beat eggs instead. He challenged me outright for he set up the tournament I had won and was entitled to see first hand how well I played. Mr. Peter Watson was an accomplished athlete and a great teacher. There was nothing he wasn’t good at, with badminton and tennis being his fortes. He was a very active man, very down to earth, always wore a tracksuit, and gained respect from everyone. When I ran cross-country for my school, it was he who stood in muddy fields cheering me on. I always looked up to him and hoped my father was just like him for Peter was from Sheffield, the city next to where my father’s village was. Peter and I played whilst others made pastries but one or two watched on. I was already playing for Luton B team by then and equipped myself well. The game was long drawn out, I took him into a knight ending and lost a queenside pawn. He struggled to squeeze out a win but win he did –finally I lost a game at school! I still remember how we spoke in the silent corridor before he walked away. ‘But Mark, you only made one mistake!’, he said affectionately in his Yorkshire accent, ‘I play for Luton now sir’ I replied, hoping to impress him further. ‘Oh’, he uttered with surprise and looked away. After a long pause Peter mentioned he had duties and had to go. He spoke about them softly, as if I were an adult and not as ‘another school boy’. I stood and stared as he slowly walked down the corridor deliberating with each step. That moment meant far more to me than collecting trophies in front of the school and any other for that matter. It was the only time I felt truly proud of myself and touched by the respect given by the teacher I so hoped my father would be like…  

Chess in classrooms where riots broke out

A kid called Jalil joined our school in the first term of our final year. He was Turkish and spoke little English but became my little friend quickly. Classmate Martin and I were asked to show him around and help him find classrooms. His English was very poor, he was new but we smoothed it over for him until his personality began to protrude, then we had to duck for cover. Jalil came from a family of martial arts experts. He was short, stocky, and a blackbelt in karate well before he became fifteen. He worked out rigorously and destroyed everyone in arm-wrestling contests. He had plenty of hot Turkish blood flowing through him and like myself he loved chess. He called me ‘Scottish’ because ‘Scottish’ was my nickname at school. Afterall, most of my relatives were Scottish and I spoke some of the words my nan taught me in her Scottish accent. And whenever England played Scotland at football, I would always run across the road and watch it in their house with a kilt on and support Scotland.

Jalil and I played chess at the back of the class in most lessons, and when we didn’t play chess we played blackjack. Jalil was expelled from school because he threw a typewriter at another pupil’s head -missing by inches only. That boy was a certain Matthew Jefferson -himself a right handful to say the least. In French Matthew once came to class late, and as he walked behind the row those in front of us sat in, he stabbed three people in the back of the head with his pen in one swift movement, much to their dismay and my amusement. But as Matthew found out, Jalil was the wrong person to try it on with. When summoned to a senior teacher to explain why he threw a typewriter at Matthew’s head, Jalil said nothing and again took no nonsense. I stood outside and heard the kerfuffle. What was going on in there I didn’t know. But furniture was being damaged of that I was sure. I saw the look on the teacher’s face as he left visibly flustered, definitely unvictorious in his hurried departure.  

But just before Jalil was thrown out there was a riot in our class, and Jalil was on fine, fine form. Luton Town F.C won the league cup at Wembley Stadium the weekend before. All week we waved our tightly knotted scarves about and spent break times running about smacking smaller kids round the head with them. We were all so happy –but at Stockwood High School, that was frowned upon in classrooms. During English class, a pupil named Stuart Tennyson paraded his Luton scarf in class proudly but our substitute teacher was having none of that. She was more middle-class than the many others ushered in before her, and so confiscated Stuart’s scarf as he brandished it. Uppity and uncaring, on she carried, focusing on her next pay packet more than her insolent pupils –that was her mistake. Up Stuart stood and strutted up to her desk, snatching it back with a smile on his face to show us all.  She stopped writing on the board, walked up to his desk, and visibly angered, snatched it back. A fierce argument broke out, ending when Stuart snatched back his scarf for the last time and whacked her round the side of the head with it in front of everyone. Out she stormed, cheer ourselves on we did then we rioted. At first Jalil and I carried on our game of Blackjack at the back of the class, then it got messy, really messy. Everyone was going at it so we joined in. We both turned over tables and together ripped the legs off them, then an about to be expelled Jalil really went for it. Bruce Lee-like he started spinning round at speed and whacking people about with the table legs we tore off. He gave us a full-on demonstration with impassioned B-movie sound effects thrown in –highly entertaining to me but not anyone else. One or two took him on but were whacked about at great speed and fell back fast. I just stood to the side, booted in study cubicles then kicked chairs about whilst watching Jalil take on anyone in his path. There was no end to the destruction but what got us caught was throwing hundreds of books out the windows and cheering each other on as we did. Teachers in the classes below came to see what the commotion was and why hundreds of books went flying past their windows. They didn’t take too kindly to seeing us have such a laugh whilst destroying the place, myself and Stuart together throwing away the shite we were supposed to read, seeing who could chuck the most out in one go.  What came of that I can’t remember. It mattered not. ‘Scottish’ as I was known as was done with school anyway.

In the video below you see about 5-10 seconds of school chess champion me with Stuart Tennyson below. We went to a football match but he had no membership card, so I had to use it then hand it to him through the barriers. I am wearing a yellow and blue Puma jacket, standing to the right of the goal and up a bit. It’s the only time I am seen on video as the school chess champion.

About 10 seconds in you’ll will see me standing around above the goal a little and to the right. I am wearing a blue and yellow Puma jacket and talking to Stuart Tennyson.

One of the many changes chess instilled was it taught me when you pursue your passions autodidactically you learn more about life than what school teaches you for you need initiative. At school most adopted a stance of rebellion against the system imposed upon us. What I read in the books I bought I applied to what I did over the board, the approach was more harmonious than my school work which was scattered from book to book, some of which were misplaced or lost. At home I had a lot of freedom, at school almost none. I never did hunker down with my studies for they were not of my own choosing and I never did take to high school, only cross country and chess were of any real interest, only they were what I excelled at.

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”

Neil Gaiman, The kindly ones

Part 5 An unmanned entry into an adult world

Not a mere trifle rather an awfully important transition

To retell the tale once more, being the school chess champion meant little to me. It was too easily achieved and I was too shy to lavish the attention it brought. Once the novelty had worn off it became a burden. Yes it gave me a sense of achievement but I was already a member of Luton Chess Club when I became the school champion and could beat club members there. Finding competition outside school took precedence over playing in classrooms: that was the direction I rode, and with handlebars firmly held, I turned into quieter streets and gently cycled an uphill climb into an adult world, where those I played sat for hours deliberating over their moves pleasantly.

The gentleman I played every week was Peter Whone. A tall and friendly, retired man who wore a suit always, and the very first gentleman to point out improvements needed in my play. A school friend, whom I beat in the quarter final of the school chess championship, called him Tefal at first, courtesy of how he bore a resemblance to the egg-headed characters in their ad at the time. Peter was a middle-aged millionaire. He lived a life of leisure with snooker and chess being his two main loves. He was warm-hearted and liked to joke about his blunders over the board –it was hard not to take a liking to him. He played mostly with Margaret Roe, whose son became county champion, and a friend named Richard. As I entered the club, Peter and friends played on the first table to the left, where weaker players or those new to the club played whilst more established members played further back. In the late 80s the Luton Chess Club was the strongest in the league and drew in many talented players from out of town. Several of whom were the strongest in the county. It was a small but strong club, its sense of community was cordial.    

It took me six long weeks to beat Peter. I still remember the back rank mate down the d-file that caught him out, and his gentlemanly acceptance of defeat with congratulations for winning my first game. Margaret took more time to beat but it wasn’t long before I could beat whoever I played in our small circle. By February 88 I was playing for our B team regularly. A month later I was promoted to the Luton ‘A’ Team by Keith Dudeney. He did not do what was best for the team, but being a gentleman, he saw what was best for myself and acted, principally, upon that. On that day, being March 24th, I played a certain Lynn Rose. He was rated 133. I didn’t outplay him but he didn’t outplay me either, then he blundered before the time control. I swooped, held my nerve, won my first match, and received more than one shake of the hand by the very best players in the club. Opinion with encouragement inserted from adults is what children need to hear to believe they are good at something or at least improving. The cliche that results speak for themselves is at best a partial truth and less applicable to junior players for inchoate ability is unmeasurable. You may wish to pause and reconsider what life was like for yourself at that age and how you looked up to adults -if you did that is. Telling anyone what I had done down the chess club at home was given scant regard if not ignored and left unrectified also. But in the eyes of the club members, I was flourishing and that meant a great deal to me because I rubbed shoulders with the likes of club champion Gary Blackbourne and Nick McBride, who apart from becoming the county youth champion, was strong enough to put GM Michael Adams, England’s strongest ever player and victor over numerous world champions, to the test. Remember I had no one at home helping me, the club’s better players were almost like big brothers to me.

In retrospect, I was improving tacticially, and as a child the excitement that brought was enough. Not because my results improved but because it gave me all the more reason to read even more books. Each one a new challenge, a signpost for the way forwards in its own little way. I remember how we all drove to Bedford once and I thought to myself ’Okay I’m really going somewhere, okay so it’s pitch black outside and I can’t see where I’m going but I am going places’. I do admit one destination was unsignposted -bankruptcy. The money from my Sunday job and that ad hoc on the side added to my pocket money all went on buying more chess books and magazines. Incredulously for a 16 year, whenever I went into the shopping centre W.H.Smiths was always the shop I would go to first. If a book or magazine was purchased, milkshakes were next, whatever else was left usually went on arcades.

Those Barron Knights

When Luton won the league cup on April 24th 1988, half the town watched the hatters at Wembley. Half at home on tv. The other half…er? The town centre was, of course, barren. Only those who sought a Grandmaster strolled by its unopened shops and emptied streets. There were whispers that in a closed office of a Barclays Bank, a simul would be held. We paid 200 pounds for GM Murray Chandler to come escorted by a couple of likely lads. Still to this day he is the only person who holds a 100 per cent record against former -and then current- world champion Garry Kasparov. Away from the board he wrote the most critically acclaimed book on the Ruy Lopez ever written. Facing him as black we played a Ruy Lopez, Chigorin variation. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t stand a chance but lasted longer than expected, passing the 30-move mark before his central attack tore me apart.

Scoresheets not text books please

Days at school became more infrequent, the gaps between them grew longer. I felt as though I had served my time, that my sentence was up. I passed what exams I sat but my grades were poor. I never revised because I didn’t care for them. Nonetheless there was a quiet and comfortable feel of pending victory during those last few weeks at school. I was a competent chess player and more confident in myself. A victory for the Luton A Team meant much more than an A for English. When I walked down the school drive for the last time, with my results in my hand; what was written on it was of much less importance than the score sheets from my games in my bag.

When I think of school and what it left with me, Pink Floyd’s ‘Another brick in the wall’ often replays in my mind. I used to love that song and watched the video wide-eyed although sadly I never did understand the symbolism and that canny resemblance it bore to my generation’s life at a state school thus my own. ‘Dark sarcasm in the classroom’, being picked upon by teacher’s and being ‘just another brick in the wall’ was what we were in the eyes of those the government employees paid to teach us. Like so many I didn’t ‘need their education’. No wonder I found my own way and begun teaching myself more than they could. Listening to myself more than those who were mostly unkind and uncaring just seemed so natural. The only three things gained of real importance were classroom friends who turned life-long mates to knock about with, the development of a competitive streak, and most importantly, a platform where my love of chess came to the fore and flourished. A month before I left school I received my first chess rating -127J. It was higher than I expected and gave me yet more confidence in myself: a bunch of pointless exam grades brought only closure on my five-year sentence at high school…finally I was free.

I could ‘walk the walk’ but could I ‘talk the talk’?

With schooldays gone for good, my social milieu broadened into the adult world. I spent summer evenings conversing with upstanding members of society, all of whom had an upbringing quite unlike my own. Most members were local, some from further afield and less easily approached but no matter where they were from, I was always spoken to in a gentlemanly manner as if I were one of them, and not as a child even though I was the only child of Luton Chess Club. They offered encouragement and kind suggestions over preferred lines of play when they watched me play. I was never belittled or ordered about as I would be if at home. When I told my family I was going to cycle to the chess club, I was told off for even considering it. But at the end of the night when I told club members I would cycle home, the reply was rather different, ‘Fiddlesticks, a young man like yourself on a bicycle at night. That’s danger.’  For the first time in my life I was treated like an adult. In response I began to speak like one and behave like the bonafide member I was.

For a fatherless child, competing against grown men meant much more than beating kids at school. Even though we played in the same small room by an old church hall each week, it was a whole new world with a much greater sense of challenge, and when I cycled there I did so speedily. I looked up to everyone I played, and full of questions, quickly learnt from them. This had a profound impact on many levels: my accent even began changing from the crude colloquialisms I picked up on the street, all cockney-London in character, to one attune to those I conversed with over the board – I was ‘all posh now’ some kids said’. Over the board I was no longer just a street kid, I was a rated individual who would be listened to, and if necessary, politely corrected.

The American airforce and an altered trajectory…

Chicksands is the name of an American Airbase in Bedfordshire. Once in a while personnel came to our club. José Harris from Florida joined us for about a year between 87-88. He was always well-dressed, polite and well-spoken, a born again Christian, and a true gentleman if ever there was one. He was the very first American I got to know and was an object of curiosity at first. During one of our very many games, I once asked him ‘Do you like England?’ His reply was ‘I think it’s a beautiful country’, ‘It’s a dump’ came my reply, revealing my working-class background all too readily. We got on well though and spent much of summer 88 playing in my home on weekends.

José was living proof of the perils of state education and what a waste of time it was. In minutes he taught me more about trigonometry than years of listening to conspicuously poor teachers drone on and showed how hard and fast rules are often best avoided. And not because he had a better upbringing and understanding but because he communicated his pragmatic approach to life effectively. Concerning formulae he taught me so much so fast, and spoke with such sincerity and clarity, I was truly transfixed. For trigonometry, only one word only was needed ‘SOHCAHTOA’ said with a soft American twang in an alleyway where he locked his bicycle. No longer did I mix up Tangents with Sine and Cosine.

José taught me about his home country too, why he was moving to Aurora, a suburb of Denver, and how if I sent letters to him we could play correspondence chess. Whenever he came round my house we spent as much time chatting as playing. He was always so gentlemanly and always answered whatever I asked him thoughtfully. José and his bicycle aside, down the local library I tore through whatever chess books they kept within weeks, front-shelf or back-room it never really mattered. I did at first think that publications held back were somehow more important but it mattered not. I was such an easily driven and obsessive child –all texts I devoured no matter where they were kept for I wanted not only to read, speak and learn but drive myself further and push myself on. I could not stop myself, I had no self-control, so on and I went and not by choice. When José relocated to Aurora, a suburb of Denver, we played correspondence chess. He went on to become an author and by chance I actually passed through where he lived on a bus bound for Boston once. I still remembered his address and with a stopover of 1h 40mins, I wondered whether I would find him. More than a decade had passed, I could not be sure I would, and so left it at that.   

Not a number, I’m a street kid a free man…

In my youth I never wondered where my love of chess was taking me for kids don’t think that way so why would I? Okay, so I shot up through the rankings fast but so what? Kids have all kinds of wild hopes and dreams. I fantasized over ratings but that was only as far as it went. What mattered above everything else was the change in direction my life was undergoing. I was now travelling along an altered trajectory, one lifting me above the dimly lit orbit I span round in-my working-class origins that is-, towards a distant celestial future where adulthood and academia were found in proximity, providing a nebulous platform where reason and passion entwined in self-expression. Both my mental agility and social etiquette continued climbing on their altered trajectories, upwards and away from my working-class beginnings towards a broader circle of people more personable. Over the board they taught me how to better myself and my game through peer correction. Peer correction, what is that you may wonder? Indeed you should for to follow the narrative without a sound grasp of the definition offered, will perplex you and prompt a return to the following two sentences. So what is peer correction then? Simply put, it is a form of instructional dialogue between mentors (strong club players) and learners (weak or new club players). Books cannot reply to your tailor-made questions, only people can. As comprehensive as a book may be, it was never written for you with the questions you have in mind. Making sense of that at an early age was tremendously challenging and without the help of strong club players on what I read, I could not have led my way out of the many labyrinthine middle-games I found myself lost in. As Aristotle rightly pointed out, we are social creatures, and its from interaction with others that we learn. Books aren’t ‘crap’ as Philip Larkin once pointed out. For a theory-laden game they are a source of information, but that’s all they are. For junior players, learning comes through playing and peer correction for the most part. As you may know, it’s not uncommon to find a GM who has never read a book on chess in his life. And as you may also know, finding a GM who has never benefited from peer correction, simply isn’t possible.

The one thing I admired about Peter Whone was how he would comedically narrate his games with his favourite phrase ‘I made a boo-boo’ during play and would ask me why I made certain moves, especially if I played the French Defence against him. He helped me understand how people see things differently and how what I think my opponent will play next is often not the move he thinks he will play next. In retrospect, I am greatly indebted to their encouragement, wisdom and belief in myself. Luton was a small, if not diminishing, club but that meant levels of interaction were very high, there was much to absorb. Away from the board some club members exemplified a scholarly attitude towards life itself I had not encountered before and was so taken by. I modeled myself on them. In turn I became the cultured individual who types these words, in sum: as a teen, chess pulled me off the street and got me reading in my room, that fostered a love of literature, from that I became bookish, by my late teens I was scholarly, so stood on my bedroom bookcase alongside publications on chess theory chess were publications on Literature and Philosophy from which I went on to gain a Bachelors and Masters degree. As Aristotle pointed out in The Nicomachean Ethics moral virtue cannot be taught. It is acquired through what we learn and apply. Both over and away from the board I picked up so much from those who played around me, and from habituation I achieved a certain disposition. On a more personal level, chess became thee focal point in my life and reshaped my identity. It gave me a sense of belonging, a broader circle of friends and more confidence in myself.  I was never spoken down to or shouted at when I played chess. I could offer opinion that club members mulled over and engaged in dialogue with unafraid of yet more belittlement. Still only a teen, the social aspects of chess I found invaluable, the cultural dimensions to it truly liberating. Chess dragged me away from a harmful home environment and pulled me out of the streets I may have spent my entire life in. That ease into adulthood as a chess player was gracious –for that I am forever grateful for what chess gave me and forever indebted to the various aspects that changed me. 

“The game gives us a satisfaction that Life denies us. And for the Chess player, the success which crowns his work, the great dispeller of sorrows, is named ‘combination’.”
― Emanuel Lasker

Chapter Two

Part one: returning the pieces to their starting positions

The flagship that could no longer remain afloat?

As my first season came to a close, that being May 88, something unexpected occurred -Luton Chess Club closed down. Not for the summer but for good. That last season began a month before I joined. I did not know discussions had been raised over where the club was going and why numbers were dwindling. Former county Champion Peter Gayson was so rarely seen and with him out of the picture local journalist Tom Sweby came to the club to express his displeasure at the overall lack of motivation, which of course, left him with less to write about. Uncertainty hung in the air and many players began floating between both the A and B team -myself too. Blackbourne and McBride brought real flair to the team and ensured Luton retained its title as league champions. And in becoming defending champions, that small rented room we played in stayed so harshly lit but no longer echoed with opening developments and minor quibbles over endgame technique. Jargon and prolonged prayers to not to blunder carried down the aisles of the church hall just off to our right no more. We were gone and gone for good with no goodbye. Officially we amalgamated with the only other chess club left in town, a social club named ‘Kent’s’, a fifteen-minute bike ride away on dry roads. Unofficially, we ran out of members and money because the church began charging us for the room we used, and we could not find anywhere to play without fees to pay.

But where exactly was this ‘Kent’s’ club? Was it really an amalgamation? What is an amalgamation? What was that imperceptible ‘something’ I never picked up on? Why did it set the tone of what was to follow?

The location of ‘Kent’s’ was in the north of the town, en route to where the all the news-breaking riots in the next decade set off. But a mile before those slums appeared, there was a right turn called Tenby Drive on the road leading to them. It was a turn off to a 1960’s middle-class enclave with a road tree-lined and always empty of traffic. Tenby Drive eventually led towards another part of town but just before it did, a large social club appeared on the right. That club they called ‘Kents Athletic’, named after the company ‘Kents’: a Dunstable factory which made gauges and electronic meters of many kinds. Usually they measured the flow of water and gas, definitely not the number of eccentric chess fanatics that would soon flow through their gates like me of which I was not one!

Were we on the same diagonal?

We were part of a working-man’s social club now, the significance of which I shall explain shortly. This meant we had to pay 12 pounds each a year to the social club itself but had access to all its facilities. Within its grounds was a large but bobbly football pitch, a less bobbly lawn bowling green & veranda with a garden patio below it, and an unbobbly bingo hall –which we borrowed every Tuesday night. Beside the bingo hall was a bar where I always bought pepsi and bags of dry roasted peanuts. And beside the bar were fruit machines if felt lucky and a space invader if I didn’t. I say that because being a chess player I had a much higher level of concentration than the kids my age who didn’t play chess and so became better at arcade games too.

But how was this so-called amalgamation agreed upon? And was it really an amalgamation? Late one long summer evening, around tables where empty pint glasses glinted in the sunlight, members of both clubs drank away and so the joint force operation was named ‘Kents & Luton’ by the new club chairman Mr. Ken Liddle. He was a very down to earth man. A roofer and wealthy through his tireless commitment to his job. He was a very practical man with lots of enthusiasm and very popular, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. However, our numbers had dwindled so much it wasn’t really an amalgamation at all, it was more like a subsumation. We were nearly out of members, so they took us in under their wing but the term ‘amalgamation’ stood firm.

For me it was an exciting change because the bingo hall was much larger and there were many new players to meet. I just loved to play, it didn’t matter if I lost, drew or won, and if I had never met my opponent before, that made it all the better. Initially it felt like real progress with real prospects too. José didn’t know where it was, so he used to cycle to my home then we’d walk there together, something I could do before I left home and went to live with my aunt some six months later. I had so much admiration for José. I liked to ask him about American Football for he was a big San Francisco 49’ers fan. If we didn’t talk about American Football then we would chat about his culture or compatriots, he would always do so in a modest and steadfast manner, being a military man of course. It was a short walk and I was all ears. Just listening to how he spoke was fascinating enough, let alone what he actually spoke about. Summer months are usually relaxed and quiet in England for so many saunter off on their hols, leaving chess clubs empty or closed. But we stayed open. Mini-tournaments were held each week. One of my opponents was rated over 200. A certain Andy Perkins, the quiet postman who looked like an old professor, and the only decent player Kents had (on this more shall follow). Quite impressed with the Sicilian I played (which from memory was a Taimanov by transposition), he took out a pen and wrote the moves down in the post-game analysis, admitting with a smile, my move order had caught him out in the opening. Those summer evenings radiated with the warmth of a long-awaited school leaver’s love. We had a good summer that year, full of soft sunlight and me zooming around on my blue racing bike with orange shorts on. As summer came to a close I went to North Wales to play on arcades all week long on some family outing. I even took chess magazines up on the train and spent more time playing through Karpov’s most recent games than chatting to cousins and taking interest in the countryside en passent, even though insults were thrown at me for doing so. That week away apart -I never missed a single night of chess at the new club, eager for the new season to begin.  

A phone Call off the cuff or a sworn allegiance?

Where did the money for a holiday come from then? For money my family shoved me into a factory for summer holiday work, then nine weeks later, out the door I was pushed, told to toil away towards something better than some dead-end job. With September came decisions and so VIth form college it was. But my attitude towards education was already anti-establishment: I was not going to prioritize more of the same school-like shit over my own personal library of chess material –not on your nelly. One phone call one Sunday morning early in September came when I called Tom Sweby. As mentioned, Tom was a dignified gentleman whom I have written about so much. Head of the county association and a Vice-President to the Southern Counties Union, and a columnist for The Luton News for decades, I called him up for advice on literature and what I should read. Although his advice was vernacular, for we didn’t know each other that well, I followed what he said. The books he suggested I went straight to the library to get. They took priority over whatever drivel I was supposed to read at college -I knew which side my bread was buttered on. From the first day of VIth form college until the last, studies played second fiddle to both chess and football. Not wanting to turn up at the chess club cream-crackered, I took Tuesdays off. And when tutors asked why, and suggested I come on Tuesdays I did not mince my words. Assertively, they were told to ‘get lost’ – despite the repose, their faces dropped with disappointment. But there was no stand-off. Only several smiles masquerading an uncertainty. Indecision over an issue unworthy of pursuit followed. Still unsure, they sheeped away shyly. Unlike the teachers at my old school: college tutors were better educated. They had better jobs, a better salary and lived a better life. They saw I was bettering myself with commitments outside of college and didn’t treat me like a child. They granted consent but with a tacit acknowledgement I was not going to listen to them anyway. When no tutor excoriated my conduct my education was more meaningful to myself. I never listened at home, so why listen at school? Why listen at college? With age increasing the more rationally informed my decisions were, the stronger I became and both made all the difference for I could think for myself by myself alone now. I defined myself as a chess player and not a college student, that was what counted. Chess developed my pattern recognition skills enormously, I saw what I always moved towards and what thus remained closest to me. I saw how I was moving and why. I saw it was always the case I would move away from college work towards chess. Because of that it wasn’t possible to see myself as a student, all I saw myself as was a chess player. Although I was a child, I was also very much my own man. I chose what I read and chose to read only that. College work and student life were both irrelevancies unworthy of any thought. The only respectable part of college was the library, and only because it had quite a few chess books in there. Everything else I saw as a waste of space and a waste of time.

Snow on snow on snow and a solitary bus ride home through a blizzard…

A fortnight on an Artic cold gripped the nation tightly. Siberian winds swept across our county chess clubs and dropped snow on our roofs and over our car parks. It fell most mornings and every evening as November slowed up. Soon the snow inches amassed, and soon after I played in my first official tournament one Sunday morning. With little traffic on the heavily gritted roads, an uncle drove me through the snow to Leighton Buzzard. I won my first game: my opponent was a pretty girl with green eyes, tawny hair, and a country look about her, a sister of three at the same tournament, and more than capable of breaking my concentration unintentionally during the game. In retelling what I recall, I spent more time eying her up than focusing on what was an easy win. It was the first time I’d ever seen a girl my age play chess and she was quite pretty. I drew the next two and lost the last two but not because my opponents were any better, simply put I was completely overwhelmed by the whole experience. One of the losses was to the elder sister of the girl I played in the first round. She had more confidence and bigger boobs, making it impossible for me to shake off an emotional logic I had not encountered before. The blushing unfamiliarity of my opponents, not to mention the tournament regulations abound within it, were quite enough for a cold snowy afternoon. The time granted between rounds was far too short. Finding my way through the hundreds shuffling around the hall, trying to find their own board I found hard. I started off well enough but five quickplay games in one day was too much stress for a school leaver in his first tournament. In trying to compete whilst entirely alone in unfamiliar surroundings with direct exposure to the energy the event exuded, the whole thing knocked me sideways and threw me out.

By the time I left Bossard Hall it was dark and snow fell heavily. I was cut off from home, there was no traffic on the roads. I stood leaning against a door frame listening to Iron Maiden on my cassette walkman but my uncle never came. For the bus fare home let alone money to buy batteries for my walkman, I barely had enough It was a day of chess, that was the sole reason why I went to Leighton Buzzard on that snowy Sunday. My uncle never did come. My mother called the venue to tell me to get the bus. I managed to get the last one home. The journey put me on edge of my seat as the bus kept sliding all over the snowy roads, and to make matters worse, the batteries on my Walkman were dying too -was I next?

Leading but bleeding

Letchworth, Hertfordshire it was next, some 11 weeks later. The journey begun with us going in completely wrong direction until I told the driver where he thought the tournament was being held and where it was being held were two different places in two different counties. Upon learning this he became flustered, which his brother and the other passenger both found highly amusing. There was four of us in a car and to join we had to form a team which was named ‘Knight to the square table’. I was asked if I agreed with the name but was too shy to say what I thought, so I just agreed. When I wrote about this in my diary later that night I wrote the words ‘fuck me, what a shit name’. So I am assuming that’s what I thought at the time. I led that entire section of more than 100 players at the lunch break with two out of two but kept picking my nose in the bogs between games, so much so that both nostrils bled profusely during play. So bunged up by cheap toilet paper, the quality of my play became hard to measure. I had winning positions but the taste of blood running down my throat altered my concentration levels so much so I lost all my games. Between them I bent over the sink letting out as much blood as I could before bunging toilet paper up my nostrils again. From 2/2 to 2/5 I ended the tournament more concerned over my health than the chess I played for I could not stop myself from bleeding and had to run from the board many many times that day. On the drive back not much was said, no one did very well that day. It felt like a wasted day if anything.

Part 2: A pawn sacrifice prompts an unplanned manoeuvre…

The middlegame was full of moves made on instinct first and thought later

Aged sixteen I had no choice but to leave home. Attacks both verbal and physical were on-going still. ‘I don’t know you, you are not my child anymore.’ I was told by my own mother after I suffered an unprovoked physical attack by non-family members in front of my own family, none of whom would help me defend myself. The amount of abuse I tolerated had reached its limit, so that was that. I left, something that should have happened long before. I was, generally, a happy child but also sensitive and easily hurt: in a hard working-class background, parenting is about control primarily, for most to see their child mature and change really gets their goat up, notably when the control they have begins receding. Parenthood is less about love and more like a perpetuated check of the misery inflicted upon them onto you. Everyone was so drunk that new year’s eve, and what with violence being the established norm sober or otherwise -at 16 I was due a dig. I got it at the bottom of the stairs because I now liked my own clothes, my own music, and listened to others outside the family more. I had my own interests and did not consider that to be a heinous crime; was I in the wrong when I developed a fuller sense of self, became thicker-skinned, and deaf-eared when shouted at? I doubt it. What was wrong in associating with chess players who treated me like an adult and with respect? If at all, not much me thinks. Now able to stand on my own two feet more firmly, I became both defiant and deviant when I realized I wasn’t welcome anymore. I couldn’t defend myself but I did have a family large enough to offer options for shelter. So I went to stay with the same aunt who brought a drunken family friend round to beat me at chess when I was only twelve. I slept on the floor at first, in the same patch he lay when pissed up and sometimes spilled beer and squirted sperm where he shagged fat birds he pulled down the pub. But I was safe there. And when the small bedroom was cleared out, my chess books and I had our own little space for the next nine years.


With no authoritative figurines in play, I became somewhat side-lined, like a rook moving from a central file to the flank. Everyday I cycled to college -except Tuesdays of course. College meant nothing at all, it filled the day but I only read about chess. With an empty room where heavy metal cassettes and stacks of chess magazines sat on my shelves, and a mirror where my hair grew longer every day, I continued cycling to the chess club and improving as a player. I cycled at speed to ensure I was always the first to arrive, and usually some twenty minutes before anyone else, a habit that remained unbroken for 9 long years. Two months after leaving home, I beat V. Maluga -a former champion of Bedford Chess Club. The game was an exceptionally long Ruy Lopez. Family issues altered my state of mind but never affected my love of chess, nothing did.

Upon a broadened horizon smirking faces arose at dusk

As a street kid, holidays were always some last-minute steal to a cheapo holiday camp like Pontins or Butlins – prompted by a mad early-morning scramble to some smokey London-train that waits for no one. It was much of a muchness, all rough and ready. Working class from top to bottom, bottom to top. Each afternoon we were told to get lost, then at the end of each day aunts and uncles staggered off to the pub with my mother to get pissed up before they staggered back after closing time. My sister and our cousins were always given enough pennies for some takeaway chips and a bit of fun in the arcades but only that, with hangovers in play we were told to piss off and play with a scowl on the face of whoever said it as they turned their back on us whilst they got ready. With head-scratching being a forte of mine, and being a street kid too, that made me happy for it meant freedom. We were always put up in the cheapest chalets available and were often lost when it was dark. But with no hiding imminent, to run amok around newly discovered areas of the camp was a form of discovery. Although fun-filled, it wrongly taught me that travel is for holidays and hedonism only. With no cultural dimension on offer, it left me with an understanding of England that was impoverished. Until I travelled across the land to play chess that was how it stayed. The only exception being when almost the whole family took the train Scotland to meet relatives there. We stayed on a small island named Millport, where I befriended Glaswegians also on their hols and went cycling around the island with them.

I am to the right as you see it, Douglas Hannah is to the left.

Behind the wheel

In the winter of 89, new members joined our club. One had taken a long break from chess and returned to the fold. He was friendly, keen to slot back into the mold he saw it as, and incredibly likable too. He offered a ride to anyone wanting to play anywhere; no matter where or how far away it was. With his car full of club players, tournaments together meant movement up and down the country. Within months we drove down to London for quick plays and simuls, across Hertfordshire for weekend congresses, and all the way down to Devon to watch the British Championships unfold on a very hot summer’s day. In exploring my own country at leisure and watching the very best players in the land in action, this broadened horizon painted a side of my country very different to the one I saw as a small child. When the world championship qualifying matches were held in London’s west-end, we all drove down to The Saddler’s Wells Theatre to watch Jan Timman hold onto a draw with Karpov. When his game petered out into an obvious draw, I whispered into a friend’s ear ‘It’s a draw’ rather too loudly and was glared at by Karpov himself–oh well. The odd glare aside, I now had butlers opening doors for a long-haired me, waiters offering aperitifs in the lobby and referring to street-kid me as ‘Sir’ also. I felt embarrassed and pretended not to hear, given how unfitting it felt. Chess uplifted me into an echelon that overlapped into ‘high society’, where culture was, and cultured individuals thrived. Street kid me learnt quickly. I learnt who I now mingled with were very different to the adults I grew up around and sometimes had the living shit kicked out of me by. Only through chess did I adopt mimicry and learn how to mimic my peers. I became well-spoken yet also taciturn, careful in how I chose my words. I learned how to express myself with language more complex than before. I liked how respected you were if you were courteous -that at home I was never taught. That trajectory chess altered, lifted me out of the working-class culture I was not well-suited to for I was too sensitive as a child to cope with.

A junior yes, a child no, a teen yes, an adult no.

In autumn 89 I began playing for my county. To begin I was slung into far-flung corners of East Anglia where country bumpkins gathered in farmyards, sat on bales of hay with silly hats on, drunk milk straight from the cow and ate pizza with a pitchfork. Spruced up by the odd tree and hedge rows that hid narrow lanes, it looked no different to where I ran cross-county for my school. Just as bleak but more rustic. Sometimes the playing hall had a bridal path close by. The stench of manure wafting in the wind and through windows we could not close pissed everyone off more than once. I won my first game for the county on the outskirts of Ipswich, Suffolk. I was white and played the Ruy Lopez, defeating some grey-haired geezer in a school classroom somewhere. Some five months on I represented East Anglia as a junior. Carolled by the gentlemanly Paul Habershon, I competed at a regional level and did not disappoint. We played in Bury St. Edmunds, my opponent was rated 130J. I was white. I played e4. I faced the Sicilian and played the Alapin but my opponent left his bishop on b4 unprotected, which I collected after 11. Qa4+. Amongst the 50 or gathered from afar across our land, I was the very first to win in the hall, the first for our team. Captain David Chandler quickly shook my hand –it was a case of a job well done. So where was I in terms of ability? I was a top 5 junior player for my county and that’s all: nothing more, nothing less, a big fish in a small pond if you like. I never went beyond my region and never represented my nation -ultimately I was still a talented kid and only that: a talented street kid and nothing more, and it showed. I had improved but opponents rated 180 were much better than I and almost always beat me. Had my rating continued on the same trajectory, I would have reached their level. That was the only dream I had at that age. But for reasons beyond the board, that was not going to happen.

Adulthood arose in April when I turned 18, a month later the 89/90 season ended. All the clubs within the Bedfordshire League closed for the summer, except ours. We stayed open but was depleted by transfers from our empty bingo hall to the tv area by the patio for the football world cup, given that England made it to the semi-final, and given that England was the same mass-media driven society it still is. Seasons affect people differently. I did not see chess seasonally because I was still so obssessed by it. I played on and on no matter the weather, the month or what the English team was doing on the football pitch. Chess had broadened my horizon beyond mainstream media, so I never followed the footy much and instead prioritized chess by playing in tournaments halls across Hertfordshire on sweaty summer days, scoring 3 out of 5 in the ‘Major’ section with an impressive victory or two on one particular weekend. When the England football team was booted out of the world cup it paraded through Luton town centre, that I did see but it was of far lesser importance than what happened the week after. I won my first club tournament, beating a certain Gary Ames in the final. In the weeks that followed the weather stayed warm my love of chess literature blissfully warmed by clinching that game in the final with play described as ‘cagey’. It was, perhaps, the only example of my undeveloped style of play paying off as I caught him with a cheapo which put him in trouble on the clock, the endgame then just played itself out into an easy win.

Officially, aged 18 I became an adult and was given greater freedom. But that meant I became inelligable for the county junior team and now had to pay the full price when I entered tournaments – my reaction was that adulthood was one of resentment. I felt I had been conned so I played that game and conned off the government by signing on. With what little money it brought, I was at least able to go to concerts in London, and if a book appeared in Smiths that I didn’t have, that too. Late one evening, under a broadened skyline I was driven to the only casino in town by a chess playing partner. He was into all sorts of games and I wondered how it would differ from the quiet chess-playing halls that echoed silently in my mind. That fascination was short lived. Quickly it became apparent that the ‘Sargeant Yorke casino’ was nothing more than some smokey ‘pick up’ joint. Lots of cigar smoke, over-weight and over-aged men sitting or standing besides mutton dressed as lamb, making light conversation. In chess terms the females besides the bar would be denoted?! The atmosphere denoted?? The only fond memory being the first visit to a very busy roulette table. I wore a thick brown jumper and was asked to choose a number, so I said ‘32’. The friend with me placed a bet. And the number the ball stopped on was indeed number 32. I was still too young to be in a casino, there was a lot going on, much of it making little sense, it was like the arcades I used to play in but without the arcades. We all mucked about there but no one did where I was, they just drunk alcohol, smoked and played with pretend money, if that was your archetypal adult playground then adulthood was something I was unready for.

Chess taught me a great deal, much of which was character building but not all of it beneficial. I now saw school as a waste of time. A place I had spent five long years learning numerous opening lines, none of which would ever be put into practice. But because I was not overly-talented at chess, I felt under-promoted more than anything else. My teen prospects were limited by my blind love of chess. Two years on from school, I had only gone from a pawn to a knight. Nothing much of merit had been achieved by a blindly driven me. The teens I sometimes hung out with sneered at me for having an intellectual pursuit. Most were on the dole but so was I. Had I prioritized my school exams instead, I would have found seeking employment I liked or more suitable for myself more easily. Those who played chess with me took pity on me if I ever explained why I was unescorted to the club. That I never understood if my bike was working. Should that not be so then usually I blushed and asked whose move it was to steer the conversation off-topic. England is so heavily structured around class identity -all I could do was play with the few cards dealt to me, well according to folklore. But I did not. I mucked them and, albeit unassisted, played a game of my own choosing instead. That game we call chess. I love our beautiful game, and it is for that reason why these words are written. I made for hazy teen days that I knew little about but I had my chess and my music. Rightly or wrongly together they meant more than the few options available to me took away.

“The poor, I am told, are kind to each other but that is because they have nothing to lose,’ he said. ‘The rich cannot afford to be.” M.Kasasian

Part 3: Team orders and the seasoned malaise that ensued

Joey: ‘Misery loves Company…and I’m your number one fan.’

Organizing into new teams was the first of many headaches our amalgamated club had. Disagreements over board orders were left unsaid. Members stopped turning up for matches without a voiced reason why. Randomized team selections and defaults became commonplace. We had six to a team back then, but oftentimes late only three turned up with sirens blaring, meaning everyone had to win just to draw the match, flustered or otherwise. Heads lowered, morale dropped. There was a lot of floating between teams going on often with little effect or to no avail. Most team sheets had a blank or two. The only strong player the old ‘Kents’ club had was the aforementioned Andrew Perkins but he only turned up when matches were on. Okay they had Steve Yates too, who could sling a sharp Benko Gambit at you anytime and everytime he thought it would catch you out. But Steve, he took time out. And by that I don’t mean a few weeks, I mean a few years -it was all rather higgledy-piggledy. Our new premises had cushioned seats and plush sofas to stretch out below the windows in the wall where the bar was. The tables were larger, the wooden legs matched the wooden floor we played on. The lighting could be brightened or dimmed if deemed necessary. The bar served pints to all those over 18. That little room aside a Catholic church hall was no more but the social upholstery of our new club was well and truly in tatters. Club president Ken Liddle was full of energy, but the club as a whole, was not taken too seriously by the county for it was seen as a drinking establishment where some chess was played. There was nothing professional about our new club. You were more likely to hear renditions of pub songs from the bar than the peer correction I had become accustomed to. For example, Pat Foley or ‘old piss-head Pat’ as he was affectionately referred to, always went to the bar and came back with a tray of beers. At first club members thought ‘oh good old pat, he’s gone and got a round in’ until he sat down and drank them all by himself. He was a large and friendly man but not a strong player. Sometimes Pat finished his tray of beer and got another. When that was finished off into a taxi home he staggered. He was involved in a car crash leaving the chess club once. Thrown through the windscreen of a taxi into a bush he was. He knew nothing about it until the police came round to ask him what happened the morning after. There were many members who never did anything except deaden the atmosphere. Members who turned up, met their usual playing partner, had a pint, chitter-chatter ensued, and when done put their coat on and wandered off home. In thinking back, there must have been at least 20 members I never engaged eye contact with, never spoke to, and had to ask others what their name was. Usually it was the case that their rating was exceptionally low, and leaving a queen en prise would be on show at some point in the evening.

The social club itself was too working class for a board game which is archetypally a middle-class intellectual pursuit. Visiting members liked it because it had a bar and was spacious but I felt indifferent from how it functioned. I sensed it to be spurious and superficial rather than cultured and learned. And so it brought me back down to earth with a hard bump I felt but was undistracted by. There were always pool competitions and darts matches going on, sometimes dominoes and rummy or cribbage too. Tvs with football were placed in every corner and the banter was petty but incessant. Expletives were oftenplace raising eyebrows or inducing smirks for visiting teams. Deeply unsober arguments broke out by the bar sometimes, and so to seclude ourselves we made sure the bingo hall door was always kept shut so that we could concentrate on our games. On the other side of the door we were seen as the ‘Kent’s Athletic Social club’s’ anti-social section’. When I stood up and wandered off to the bar, the non-chess players sitting there people would stare at you wondering who you were. More often they blanked you for not being one of them. Less often they looked at you then dropped their heads as if they were ashamed of themselves, thinking you were somehow better. I just stood at the bar and looked at the posterization of semi-nude women which were hidden behind where packets of peanuts were pulled from.

Members shall remain silent and shan’t leave their seats unless necessary’

So what was that imperceptible something I let slide? Damning so, I never questioned if Kent’s & Luton’ was the right club for me. I never asked why our best players left and would not return. Why I did not follow them. I never went to my family to ask for help and say ‘I need train money to join Bedford Chess Club’. Blinded by my own love of chess, unable to think ahead, I just stayed put. Unable to unhinge myself from calling it ‘my club’ I never saw it as anything else. The importance of all that remained damningly imperceptible.

The amalgamation and the stench of an abattoir

My playing style remained obstinately precocious, making the calibre of my new opponents in elevated playing arenas uneasy to adjust to. So often I played for the same flashy tactical tricks I’d read up on and could catch kids out at school with easily. I was sharp enough tactically but that alone is not enough for competitive chess -not by half. I played instinctively not thoughtfully, and that is not a justifiable approach for a game as deeply complex as chess undeniably is. Positionally, I was still a weakling, for no one sat me down and taught me to look at my opponents moves more closely, to look at the finer points of chess deeply, to look at how nuanced endings are, what a finesse might be and so on. There was no one around I could watch and learn from anymore. The principle advantage peer correction gives is that it irons out all the wrinkles for you. We all have imbalances in our play of some kind and tend to be good at certain aspects of the game but poor at others. These often come to the fore when analyzing with players much better than yourself and can be addressed so that your game improves as a whole. There was less scope for development, no one seemed to have time for anyone but themselves and the pint in their hand or by their board as they milled around mumbling to themselves sometimes. With no immediate source of inspiration at hand, my progress as a player slowed up so much that, as mentioned, my style remained stuck to that of a precocious school boy. I continued to absorb information and knowledge about chess for I never stopped reading, but ultimately, I was not improving. I was going nowhere fast.

A divided nation & a divided town, a divided chess club & a diffident street-kid come together as one or do they?

With those from my home town and those drawn to my own home town club by a brotherly love of chess, I sat with chessed out. But it was all unbrotherly, and was instead a coming together of many ones only. Our anti-communist state and ipsofacto spell-bound chess-loving club lacked a sense of community. We were without the comrades who strengthened us the most, having scarpered upon hearing an unbobbly bingo hall was where we were defecting to. As I teened up and teened on, I drew more and more inspiration from the old Soviet masters I read avidly about, finding myself increasingly at odds with our capitalistic craphouse as I should have nicknamed it. That unbrotherly love never resonated through the old Luton club because of how close yet open its dignified members were, but in our new, amalgamated, ‘social club’ nothing other than a deadened silence and the ticking of analog clocks rang. Hormones jiggled about without warning. My mood began shifting. My face didn’t quite fit anymore. I was no longer seen as the only child of the chess club much larger than my old club. Team captains took note that I looked displeased at their cold shouldered approaches but kept it to a quizzical look and a sarcastic ‘hello’ before play began. Whilst sat waiting for my opponent to move, I always got up and wandered around the hall to look at other games. But with a new team captain, I was asked to remain seated as much as possible, so that I ‘did not distract others’ he said rather condescendingly. It simply was not the done thing to roam around between boards like I did so it was implied, nor was it derigueur to grow my hair long and wear black heavy metal T-shirts all the time -and that I resented, for it was equally as thoughtless as it was serious. That age gap in play I now struggled with. At times I felt belittled. It made me feel as though I were being treated like a child again. As the only child of Luton Chess Club I made them proud when I was promoted up the ranks and won for them. Now no one paid any attention -that was the culture of our club. How chess and perceived dickheadedness fitted together threw me out, that was how I learnt to sit at the board and pay more attention to my own game than the team captain’s or anyone else’s for that matter.

When I look back and think about this, I do not take any of it to heart or take anything personally. The age gap in play had everything to do with it as I sat amongst creatures of comfort who just liked to turn up, play their friends and have a pint or two. The only sense of sadness being I was amidst a school-leaver’s epoch of absenteeism; taking a good step back, taking a good look around, and averting a lack of club ambition being the absent parties -a three-fold repetition if you like.

“The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.”

Chuck Palahniuk

Part 3: An overshadowed board

The lady was lost

We have moved towards the beginning of the 90/91 season, my third full season. But before it began something truly tragic occured when the only person who ever loved me died. That previous sentence is by far the most signifcant in the post for the tone of the words that follow sequentially are altered, chess is seen with saddened, sullen eyes. I saw myself as a chess-player. Kids and teens always ask questions like ‘What are ya into?’ ‘What sports are you good at?’ and so on. I always said ‘I’m a chess-player’ that was how I saw myself for chess was never out of my thoughts. That one-dimensional view of myself meant I did not see myself as a family member or a human being, such things I took for granted as we all do. But as we learn in life, nothing can be taken for granted. Juxtaposing my main hobby, the loss of the only family member who loved me, and understanding human nature was something I had much less than no ability to achieve. What I was yet to learn was I could never be the same again, I was to be torn apart by personal tragedy and my chess slowly lost all its life too. With the lady in my life lost forever more, I wasn’t a pawn or piece down, a rook neither -I was a queen down. Start any game a queen down and you gain a sense of the hopelessness abound with moments of abject misery about to unfold.

On that very day team-mate Damon and I were due to go to the Lloyds Bank Masters on The Strand in London to watch a major tournament, it was Aug 23rd 1990, day four of the tournament. The night before, I saw my grandmother and asked if she could sew a button on my trousers, my plan was to pick them up before Damon and I drove down to London together. But when we arrived at her apartment, something was seriously wrong. She wasn’t answering the door so Uncle Billy and I had to break in as Damon waited outside in his car listening to the radio. I was the first to find her lying on the floor beside her bed. An hour later, Damon drove off not knowing what to say after I told him to go there alone. Uncles and aunts came over that afternoon, each in a state of total shock. They cried and cried and cried, holding their arms open and walking towards my own reddened eyes. It was much too much. I took a step back and sought solace in chess, whilst they cried together, huddled in mass. I had to get away. I was only 18. I couldn’t cope. It was all too much.

Later that night, Damon picked me up in his black Vauxhall Astra or the black panther’ as he called it. We played through some of the games he followed in the commentary room. He provided supper and remained his usual up-beat self although hesitant at times. He kept looking at me to see if I was okay. I was in shock but kept everything suppressed. I was stoical so I seemed sort of okayish. He offered the spare room for the night. I could not refuse -I needed my chess and chess friends more than ever now. I agreed to stay and with his home being a Victorian mansion on the edge of town with orchards in his back garden and a hearth in the living room. We threw logs on the open fire and played a few games late on. The sound of cinders crackling being the only thing that broke on into the silence. It wasn’t easy to pretend as though nothing had happened but that was what I did. We didn’t talk about it, I imagine he could see I didn’t want to. But when it became too late to concentrate on our games, I was shown the spare room. There I stayed the night. When in bed I lay awake, not alone but truly alone. Only then did I burst into tears safe in the knowledge no one would see nor hear me. With chess being the touchstone of my existence, I slipped into a solitariness where only chess offered solace. With the only person I ever loved gone, all I had left was an my blind, undying love of chess. It became the rock I clung onto alone whilst so deeply wounded.

Pieces are not to be slammed down onto the board

The cultural norm among chess clubs across England is to implore silence during play rampantly so that all acquiesced en mass, with a few exceptions only. I had become used to it but it now began to cause harm. Sat at the board I began to feel alone and detached, overpowered by my own inner struggles that grief gnawed away at. I often leant back in my chair and glanced at other players to see how they were and if I were fitting in or behaving differently. I tried not to draw attention to myself but I was yet to learn that in becoming stoical in the face of personal tragedy, I was also distancing myself from my own emotions, and in turn, everything around me -a very dangerous gambit indeed, one long since refuted. In suppressing your own emotions so hard so that they go away, you become estranged from yourself. You are killing that which is part of you and is an interrelated part of the person you matured into. You lose all sense of self and it’s a process not easily reversed. And wasn’t it bad enough that I felt estranged from the club I played in anyway? But to estrange myself from my own failure to cope spelt disaster, for estrangement is like a form of mental-mutilation, a severed and futureless form of life.

Slow death & black ballpoint pens & imminent decay

It was not long after my grandmother died that my results began falling away and my rating fell heavily. No club in the county was like ‘Kents & Luton’, for all other clubs took themselves seriously. Peer correction took precedence over ‘another pint’ at the likes of Leighton Buzzard or Bedford, where I really should have been. Were I able to work closely with much better players over the board, as I did two years before, I would have received guidance over what to do. But not a single soul pointed out the dissonance which had crept into my play & persona nor the estrangement they would have spotted. Nothing was said over the way I was slumping over the board with uncoordinated play. No one asked ‘are you struggling with anything personally?’ Nor claimed I looked crestfallen and until I am back to my old-self again, should consider a break from chess. With no such advice proffered with a hand on my shoulder, all that was left was my dreaded, empty room, the books strewn across the carpet, the pens scattered around a room by the magazines stacked on my shelves lit by a Lutonian sky clouded by grief, shrouding a carcass in which motivation waned perpetually. You take a still shot of that carcass and you gain insight into the very same person who writes these very words… .

Depression cannot be calculated

By the time winter set slowly in, shock slowly thawed. My resolve to suppress my feelings hardened like iron, solitude had set in deep. That inner-drive which shot me through the ranks of the Bedfordshire Junior chess scene, now leeched onto a life-denying demeanour, below which grief and depression festered. Hiding how I felt and denying it to myself over the board didn’t hit me hard -it killed me. It wasn’t me playing. It was someone I didn’t know. Someone I was out of touch with. Some doppelganger who just happened to drop in on the off chance. Someone with a raw love of chess and love of raw intense music that made him a bit mad. Someone so brilliant at pretending everything was okay but not so good at chess.

Home isn’t always where the heart is

I lived with two aunts. Both as distraught as I but whilst they stayed downstairs watching tv. I stopped socializing and lay in bed with the lights off all night long. Although they needed a shoulder to cry on at times too, they knew my bedroom door was always closed tightly for a reason. Sometimes they heard me crying and knocked on the door but I never did answer. At the time I proudly called it ‘deep isolation’. But one cold Autumn evening I saw my school friend Irene over the road and told her what had happened. She said ‘Mark, you sound like you don’t even care’ it was windy, there was traffic passing, drivers putting their foot down hard, distracting both of us. She was so wrong, I said nothing, we walked off in different directions

When Christmas came, a discoloured festivity it began and ended as -what else would you expect when the head of the family is gravely lost. I stayed in my room so I could drink cans of strong lager and listen to Fade to Black by Metallica by myself ruminating on the lyrics and sinking further into self-demise as I tried to compare and apply them to my own sorry state. I have here a picture of that Christmas, that christmas where I spent minutes rather than hours in the company of my grieving family. Although we all tried to put on a brave face, should you look at my eyes, you shall see I am suffering with depression -if, and only if, you ignore the false smile that is. 

The eyes carry a suppressed sadness.

The books my head were buried in were as flat as I and as endless my own estrangement. They were neither more of an answer nor a solution than the magazines I flitted through oh-so-casually. But intense music aside, they were all I had left. Somewhere in a recess of my mind was the disillusion: study chess and keep on studying because that will make me a better player and thus better in myself overall. If my rating went up, it would lift my mood and overall well-being I so thought. It saddens me greatly to think that’s how I was, believing that in chess literature lied an answer. I was unaware I was suffering with depression, so it became my comfort food. I was clinging on to what little I had, and although chess was a rock at that time, I had clung onto it for the wrong reasons. Results were suffering because I was suffering. Suffering because I focused more on chess than my masqueraded well-being. It seemed innocuous to put chess first for a care free teen like myself -how stupid I was.

In narrating what I did and did not gain from chess in my youth it has taught me something I only accepted in my mid-40s. I was aware of it before but only fleetingly so and somehow it seemed inconsequential -clearly that’s not the case. There were, and still are, two weaknesses at the core of my personality that are always in play, firstly; I don’t love myself enough to put myself first; and secondly I have a lack of self-control, which again, only with maturity have I learnt how to cope with. Some of us are more complex than others, even as a child I was told I am ‘a deep person’, so shall that be the case, self-knowledge was a long way off way back then.

Digging the grave

On match nights performance mattered most. Your own well-being was, of course, given short shrift by an estranged me. League matches always had a seriousness about them that put me on edge. In knowing others were reliant on your performance I wasn’t quite the same. Usually I adopted a demeanour more stoical than usual but sometimes a mild excitement broke through despite my depressive & suppressive state, after all, I was still a street kid and liked to get out and about. Just doing things and being part of something was, in its own little way, something. But during match play so often I was diffident and inescapably so. Oblivious to critical moments for overlapping reasons, to say I was simply off-kilter is an understatement: only over-calculating middle game positions functioned with a dual purpose, for over-calculation distracted me from the hurt I had in me and dulled it down more than everything else. I played that way all season long, and because I was regressing rather than progressing, it was indeed a long season. I could have and probably should have been mistaken for being a method actor; primary it was a season of well-rehearsed stoicism, secondarily it was a season of poor chess. Non-forcing lines that never went anywhere became a forte of mine facet of my play. Sometimes between moves, I sat staring into space with my jowl on me knuckle with no interest in -yet another- losing position. I never loved myself enough to sit myself down and work through what was going wrong over the board. I could not stand up and take a good look at myself in the mirror either.

Throughout that season I no longer played chess to win, I just played on. It was a winter as heavy as my mindset. I couldn’t cope with any emotional state during competitive matches, so I developed a style of play devoid of dynamics where an agreeable draw was the unchosen outcome. Playing chess with depression makes it hard, if not downright impossible to lift your spirits and ready yourself for competitive matches. You’ve had the fight knocked out of you before your game begins, and oftentimes you feel you’ve lost the game even before the first move is made. Despite the direction my results were going, I always hung around after matches had ended. I always wanted to ask our club members how their games went. It was more so a reaction to the hours of leadened silence we all had to sit through rather than a frontispiece for further dialogue away from chess itself. In chatting to members from away teams, conversational gambits over the evenings affairs were offered but never accepted if heavy losses were inflicted by our team.

Sometimes I just couldn’t talk, so to the toilet I went to compose myself with internal dialogue. To get there I had to walk through the changing rooms for the football teams. In them I stayed sometimes. In them I cried sometimes for you can’t hold everything in forever. Only with dried eyes would I go back into the playing hall. Around Feb 91 it was clear to everyone something was seriously wrong. I looked forlorned, hurt by something. Ken Liddle, the club secretary, often stared at me wanting to say something. He never did. He somehow sensed it was not a chess related thing.

Many league players were city bankers who arrived late in their work clothes. As soon as their game was done, off home they drove, only waving goodbye on their way out. When I think back, there were so many county members I never once had the chance to speak to, and so many I never knew the name of. At the end of a night at the club, what saddened me the most was not losing my game but going home having lost the chance to feel close to someone. I was a teen who needed to talk but English chess club culture bound by silence and anti-socialism. Sometimes, I walked home so slowly and did not arrive until past eleven pm. Between the adjoining rows of darkened houses along roads where silence lay undisturbed by the sound of traffic, there were more adjoining rows of darkened houses where sleeping souls lay with closed eye. Nothing was open, nothing moved, nothing changed week after week month after month. There was a being of nothingness silhouetting the shadows of the midnight sky. In leaving a deadened, silent playing hall, I wandered across an urban nothingness and its inescapable being.

I walked through that nothingness let down over something or other with cheeks slightly flushed as I made my way home. I plodded on and knew where home was but knew not where to turn for I had asked too much of chess and nothing of myself – and in so doing made a double wrong-turn. Of course I was going home but why was I going home? By its nature, chess appeals to those more introverted, those who prefer something solitary played somewhere quietly, with little or no social interaction. Yes there are exceptions, the old Luton club being the obvious example, but they were rare at that time, that being the very tail end of the Fischer phenomenon. For that reason I cannot attribute blame at English chess club culture. Oh yes, it most certainly has its faults but then what doesn’t? But I can, and should, blame myself for not moving to a livelier and stronger club with members younger than I. Given the predicament I was in –that would have been a wise move. I would have connected up with members of a similar age, members who represented the county junior team as I did. I could have made real friends rather than kept everything at the level of acquaintance. They may have had broader interests and broadened mine in turn. I could have opened up more. But never did I branch out. Neither did I foresee it was the harbinger of a decade long break from chess in the years to come.

Fuel supplies running low, astropod ejected

The altered trajectory which chess lifted me above the grim working-class orbit I span round in, altered in direction. The Bedfordshire league was very British. On all fronts, class warfare commenced, the weakest ensemble in terms of strength and depth being my club. We had a bingo hall. We were part of a working mans club, the atmosphere often boozy. We were looked down on and not taken seriously, unworthy of a fight. I suppose Newton had an applicable point ‘What goes up must come down’. I was moving back down towards something I had elevated from. Suddenly chess was not what it once seemed.

Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t shunt out of a period of ‘deep isolation’ in the month of May 91. But my mood lifted for the first time since depression had me by the gonads balls. I still remember that moment en route to the club. I then saved the B-team from relegation by beating Kevin Williamson of Leighton Buzzard. I was the last to finish and had many people watching on. He played the Modern Defence which I met with the Austrian Attack and beat him with a strong attack on the kingside. Thankfully when it mattered most of all, I could pull myself up and play properly…but only when the honour of my team was at stake. The sense of pride in myself was diminished by depression but at least I had some capacity to feel. When it really counted I could still bring the very best out in myself.

The loneliness of this long-distance runner…

I can’t say the 91/92 season was no different to the season before for I was too detached from everything to know. I do know ratings were published nationally some six weeks before the season began and mine had again fallen, this time to its lowest point ever. I remember finding my name on the list and seeing my grade. I laughed but didn’t care. I didn’t care because I couldn’t care. I couldn’t care because I was passed caring. I was in too much of a mess to care. I played in a tournament at Hitchin Boys Grammar School almost before the season began. I couldn’t sleep beforehand and couldn’t concentrate during my games. In the second round. I faced for the first time the Vienna Gambit. I had no idea of what to do against it, panicked and lost within fourteen moves. Visibly distraught I left the school and walked to the centre of town. By a set of traffic lights on the main road I sat on a bench. There was a cold October wind that day, I had only a jumper on. But there I sat for hours staring into the traffic. I was struggling to hold back the tears and would not return to the hall.

Autumn’s end was amber cold at dawn and dusk. For a perennial cold-weather person I was always happier to be out and about than stuck indoors between thick walls which denied depression its overdue departure. Particularly so when I was in the countryside. When we drove back from East Anglia after a county match had ended, I was always dropped off near a decent chippy by the train line in Flitwick, a small village in the central to our county. I liked how dark the countryside was compared to its urban counterpart, the depth in the shadows moving in headlights from afar. How bare it was, how safe it felt and how freer I felt put me at one with solitude per se. I felt I was part of the earth itself, and to be stood apart from that around me hidden by darkness was nature running its course. Solitude in urban areas felt out of place but in the countryside it felt right. Flitwick was a dark entity in cold fog. The trees were all overgrown and withered, the train lines crackled and fizzled. Apart from your own footsteps, it was the only thing you could hear. I could see my breath form clouds below the station lights. The cold air deepened in my lungs, my lips all numbed, I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets. I never would catch the first train home. The chippy came first for all you ever got at county matches were cheap biscuits and tea…provided the tea urn didn’t explode and scald half your team mates and hopefully your opponent too as that increased your winning chances greatly. The chip shop down a gentle hill, it was always open and offered a supper I scoffed as I strolled back up that poorly lit country lane. There was always the funk-thrash metal band Mordred blasting through my Walkman and keeping my heart pumping, for I saw them play in London that Autumn. There were no chess players around, so I could clear my head and forget all about my game that way. On the train platform was where the chips drenched in vinegar were grabbed and a guzzled can of coke made slippery with chip grease, as I hung around for a train I could jump. I always liked that part of the journey home even though I had reasons not to for Flitwick was where my father went after I was abandoned. He shacked up with some woman for a while, unrepentantly of course, it was just the next little adventure on his journeys to him.

The comfort in being sad

At least twice I refused to leave the town centre after I got off the train. On George Street, the original home of Luton Chess Club and where my grandparents first met, I stopped dead. I couldn’t go home to an empty room knowing all too well that depression and isolation lay there in waiting side by side, hand in hand. To lie in the dark for hours, cut off from the world around me except for a pile of books below my bed had narrowed my outlook on life to one life-denying. You might want to ask why were the lights always off. I think it was my way of hiding from myself but I can’t be sure. Having depression greatly diminishes the choices and decisions you have available thus do or do not make. Severe depression, severely so. What is true of depression holds true for all conditions, you lose control of your thought process and decision making abilities to varying degrees depending on a number of factors. You don’t have the same level of control you had, it is usually that which determines both the nature and severity of whichever condition (s) you have been saddled with. As these words are written I have three conditions, one being hyper mania…I cannot put into words how challenging living a normal life is. But to have a condition in your teens means you do need help. I got none. That none was both extrinsic and intrinsic, the latter being the one that mattered all the more.

I said at least twice, okay so thrice or more I sat in the town centre for hours. I was sitting it out in the cold no matter how cold it was. I changed tapes in my walkman and listened to Nirvana, the song ‘In Bloom’ especially and just sat there estranged. I never looked at those en passent, fixing my gaze into the freezing fog slowly enveloping the town centre, only dreading going home when I began shivering too much.

“I am nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I couldn’t want to be something.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.”

Fernando Passoa

Part 4: There were more appropriate forms of entertainment at hand

Playing down the wing

Happiness is not disallowed by depression for being off-side. There’s no red card for a break from the norm. I was a street kid  -as I still am- and always up for a good kick about. In winter 91 sometimes I went to my cousin’s house and played football with his friends. One evening sleet fell and had covered the pitch, slowing the game down and making my shoes soaking wet. But bound by a sense of brotherhood it was ‘a good craic’. Why was that? What was it football gave that chess did not? Why so often sullen over the board but never on the pitch? In a football match you are defined by your position. Football is a team sport. Team mates need you to be ‘on the ball’. No one wants anyone not up for it. If something is wrong, you will be told to fix it for the next match, which in chess would never ever happen. I never felt isolated playing football but always did when I played chess. I loved being part of a team that worked together much more than being in a team where individual results took precedence above all else. And after the footy was finished up, team mates propped up the bar down the pub, got hammered and took the piss out of each other -the camaraderie was always there. If you didn’t join in and joke about you got dragged into the mire anyway. A pint or ten more, a team mate or two would put their arm around you and want to know if anything’s wrong, even if they didn’t know you well. On the pitch I had quick feet and could play down the wing at pace. I knew most space was on the left wing, so that was where I played. Known as a good crosser of the ball I could dribble too. I was never the best in the team but was good enough to decide matches and sometimes did. So team mates bought penniless me a pint or two or a fair few more. It’s was both a good and laugh and a vital release of stress we all wandered off home merry or legless. The chess club had became an isolating artifice -and I am to blame. What I expected from English chess club culture was hard to find outside London. Bedford had progressed as club but how suitable it was, I cannot say for sure. What I can say with certainty is I was the author of my own demise. And what I can add to that? As any established novelist will tell you it wasn’t character driven more like characterless. But as you’ve read, a large part of me was lost with the unexpected loss of the only person whoever loved me, and that shook my world upside down with such force. In retort this piece is character driven but let’s just redescribe him as an anti-hero in Chapter 2.

Okay, so why was it that I put so much into chess and gained so little from it yet put nothing into football and gained so much? That was a question I never asked myself because I portrayed a weakness prevalent amongst poor players who play at a poorly chosen club. My now narrowed view of chess limited it to a game of calculation only, so I focused on forcing lines or as few non-forcing lines as possible, generally speaking. I was unable to take a step back to evaluate my position thoroughly, and consider alternatives in depth before making my next move. In life, too, that same weakness was in play. I never asked myself was another dreary evening sat in silence really worth it? As mentioned, I had already stopped playing for a win, I just turned up and played, hoping an agreeable draw would be the result, hoping I could chat to someone or just anyone. But the longer the evening, the lower the mood dropped. With the weekly funeral procession in play as time ran short, I could sometimes leave with a smile on my face. I’d had an evening out and may have won, sometimes that was just enough. A condition is a condition but life is life and human beings are far too complex entities to let any temporal particularity dictate affairs. You may be bound by something, depression in my case, but are also unbound by nature…it’s just so much tougher when you are younger.

The team player I always was…

Had I loved myself more vis-à-vis known myself better, I could have made a startling discovery. Team results mattered more to me than my own. Depression left the pride in me unscathed when I played for my county. All those long drives in the county presented me the only opportunity I had to learn from our strongest players, and of course, a change of scenery was, as always, a breathe of fresh air. Given how rapidly I developed due to peer correction whatever opportunities arose, I took for granted, expecting nothing less still.

As my youth ended, my county was exceptionally strong. I struggled to get in the team and hold my place down but do that I did. In all probability that was down to reliability than playing strength as they knew if my name was on a team sheet I would be there without fail. The honour of being a county player in a very strong team gave me the gusto to unshackle myself from depression –unchained my results were not to be sniffed at. In 91 I was part of the team that pushed Bedfordshire into the national finals against Warwickshire, held at Aston University in Birmingham. We bolstered the team that day, and so I was asked to be sub. I didn’t bother me in the slightest. It was all about my county and what was best for them. When play began I paced up and down the board order almost non-stop of what was an even contest, with only the odd victory late on seizing victory. I became the sub everyone saw go giddy with excitement, the sub everyone saw with much pride in his heart. The pride I felt at watching us become national champions was the defining moment of my life-long love of chess at that time. Hearing us being declared national champions and the round of applause that followed warmed my heart more than any of chess moment I can remember. I was tremendously proud and completely lost for words. Not one millisecond of depression came into play that day, mania was more of a concern if anything. I was there in all the qualifying regional matches, I was there in the quarter-final and semi-final putting in strong performances. I did my best. I did my bit. Together we got there and wrote ourselves into the history books, in which many of my results are published. The final was the icing on the cake for the team, and I saw myself as a team player not an individual. It was a wonderful day that I shall never forget.

Wandering around shopping centres & edification

When depression was at its very worst aimlessness was too. Everyday brought with it a nothingness, as if I had been cut adrift from myself as a human being and had been molded into a sculpture of one of the great stoics, Epictetus for example. Down at the chess club there was a subdued mentality that something wasn’t right with Mark, best leave him be. I was about as close to a gaunt nobody as you could get. During the day there was nothing to do except watch Australian soap operas. When they were finished, I used to hang out with a bunch of Chinese kids down the amusement arcades. Tan was the smartest and fastest of them. He was always well dressed and spoke with an eloquence his friends had not yet acquired. We all battled it on Street Fighter many-a-time and when the staff buggered off we put pinball machines on tilt and knocked bins over. We got to know each other quite well as the months rolled by. None of us had much money and there wasn’t much else to do. Just being able to chat with mates was a release of pressure, and that was enough for me even though we were so different. When we came out of the arcades we were all skint, so wandered around for hours window shopping, wondering what we could buy had won on the fruit machines. When they went home or just wandered off, I usually walked round the back of the town centre by myself. It all closed for renovation. There was nothing there. I knew I would meet no one but it was better than going back home.

A long walk in the park, a frozen pond

When I ran into school mates up the park, we always knocked about and had a catch up. They always said I seemed fine but I never understood why. I admit, being out and about was a breath of fresh air in itself. To be at one with nature helped me feel at peace with myself more than anything else. ‘You alright?’ was always the first question, as together, we lobbed empty crisp packets onto the fairways on the golf course we ambled across. ‘Ya still playin’ fo’ Luton yeah?’ being the second always. Because I no longer spoke like the street kid I was –and still am- I shied away with a short and simple ‘Yeah’ in hope I could pick up our one-time school time teen speak. With John, me mate from me form class, we walked to the pond by the golf course in early one morning in spring. In class we always had a good laugh. We sat next to each other but always on the wrong tables. He was left-handed, myself right-handed. Whenever our forearms banged into each other arguments broke out over who caused it. Years on we still chuckle away at it.

One ordinary day near the park we bumped into each other on our ordinary walks. We went off somewhere for a chat and ambled across the golf course. The fairways were frosted over. The fishpond on the furthest edge of the park frozen. There was nothing to do except sit on the frozen grass or walk around the reeds protruding out of the ice. We had no money there was nothing to do, so we just chatted about school and the shit we got ourselves into. ‘John, it was shit mate, it was fucking shit, what was it for, what’d it get ya’ I said to him with some consternation. He glanced at me as we sat with our hands in our pockets, ‘but it weren’t irrelevant was it’, ‘oh yeah?’ I replied. John continued, ‘at least I can sign on yeah. Couldn’t do that if I couldn’t read or write, could I? You on the dole?, he asked. ‘Nah mate’. I stayed silent, unsure of what to say. ‘College any better than school?’. I stared at the pond and remained still. After a minute I said ‘No’ as softly as I could. ‘You wot?’ he asked now eyeballing me. ‘No’ I said unmoved. ‘Is it about ya nan?’. A lump formed in my throat. I fixed my view on the pond. I said nothing, hoping he would change the subject. ‘Come on, let’s go inta town’ he blathered, seeing me flattened. When we cut across the park, we didn’t say a word to each other. To its only tree-lined road we walked. John kept glancing at me, wanting to see how I was. Just being with him meant so much. But when the chance to open up and talk was there, I couldn’t take it for I could not find the right path to take. For that I am to blame. But blame myself I never could. In not coming to terms with depression, and not branching out for help beyond my own chess club, I knew not where to turn next –I was lost. I was so completely lost. I could not see the wood for the trees and could not branch out for help whilst I walked en passent.  

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” Laurell Hamilton

Part 5: What was there to do?

The doors opened by long days in the library

I read chess books less often for they were no longer the escape they once were. Without peer correction, chess theory just wasn’t doing anything for me anymore. I spent more and more time in the library in the town centre, sitting in its long corridors where the windows were always open and you could hear the sound of the traffic. One librarian I saw there a few times was quite pretty. She had brown hair and wore black only but spoke politely to me. I began reading D.H. Lawrence a lot in the summer of 1991, his short story ‘A Prussian Officer’ being the work I enjoyed the most. Edgar Allen Poe followed soon for Iron Maiden entitled a song from one of his works. Dickens followed suit. As more months rolled by I read up on the poet laureates with works in our local library. I found Lord Alfred Tennyson to be the most inspiring of all. His memorial piece on Arthur Hallam is the most moving work I have ever read. So chess really did get me reading, but when I compared the authors of books on chess theory to notable authors or established academics there really was no turning back. I chose to focus on ancient Greek & continental philosophy and some history, leaving me with post-nominal letters after my name, a much rounder sense of being, and a broad sense of literary style and genre I could dip in and out of when I so wished. According to my favourite lecturer, who is still the cleverest man I have ever met, the main argument of consequentialism he presented, which is a critique of ontological ethical theory, is based on the claim we can never judge an action by means of its consequences, lack thereof, neither merits nor demerits, avoiding causality and intentionally so. We cannot know where the consequences of our actions end for there is no end because they have a domino-like effect that per se never ends. Simply put, the knock on effect of what we do is boundless for even the same simple action can have a different effect. To exemplify, had you told the 15-year old street kid I once was that an interest in chess would trigger a chain of events so improbable –I would not have known what to say. Had you told him he would meet his future wife at a chess tournament and would bring a baby girl into the world, courtesy of his participation in the tournament aforementioned -that would have left me speechless. Yet it is true, were it not for my love of chess I would not have a daughter.

Loud Concerts in an emotionless London

Trips to London just became empty and ugly. Be it chess or concerts it was all one and the same and did nothing. Although John Miles once sang ‘music was my first love’ you would not have seen it was mine too back then. I did spend more time memorizing lyrics than opening theory but that’s about the only defence I have. Concerts were all metal. You never saw much trouble but the music was louder than deafening. I always wore a black T-shirt and blue jeans. I did try to fit into the sub-genre I was so fond of but I always went alone and never drunk alcohol. I wore the same clothes but that aside the gentlemanly trajectory chess sent me on somehow kept me apart from metal fans. The only thing I gained any pleasure from was stage diving even though hitting the floor always hurt. Whenever I was landed on or hit in the head by someone’s feet or legs…well that was part and parcel of it -I just got used to it. I saw most of the bands I liked and experienced an ephemeral joy at their prospect in stark comparison to chess matches. You could say in suffering with depression, I couldn’t enjoy either. They were both day’s out, nothing more than a liberation from zugzwang.

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” Stephen Fry

Part 6: Down to my final moves

After metal only death is real…

When family met after my grandmother had died all were subdued, all missing that same special person. My Scottish grandfather had been on one bottle of whiskey a day –sometimes two- for a good forty years and was dying of cancer fast. He was so weak he could barely walk and talk. He no longer had the strength to beat whoever he shared his house with. He wanted to be buried by the side of the wife he lost no matter what he did to her. His body was feeble but his aggressiveness remained in your face. My grandmother and grandfather lived in the same house, for 20 years they were never in the same room together, and she never spoke to him. All his children hated him and sided with their mum. When he was steaming but sleeping they used to creep round the sofa, put toilet paper between his toes and set fire to it –that always stirred him round. He would always get hammered on the sofa in front of their black and white tv. Again, in his children crept and tipped over the sofa rolling him towards the fire. He was tolerated but not respected and like my mother and father, was a very selfish person. In the months before his death, only I went to see him. It was only I who would talk to him. It was only my grandparents I was ever close to. What reason would I have to stop visiting him? Ok well you could argue seeing him on his second bottle of whiskey, singing along to ‘The Sound of Music’, constantly being offered ‘a wee dram’ and occasionally being asked if I wanted a blue movie put on did require some patience sometimes but he was Grandad and that was that.

Unsurprisingly, my grandmother expressly forbade them to be buried together. But he begged and begged to be with her in death as in life -and so his wish was granted.  He died six months and seven days after I hit twenty. With very long hair and dressed in metal attire with Greenock born second-uncle Charlie by my side, together we watched him draw his final breaths. With them he lost all sense of where he was. He didn’t know who I was. He told me to get out of his room. He threatened to hit me if I did not. He was being no more than the person he amounted to and only that. He struggled for breath before his lungs collapsed. His life ended right in front of me. Second uncle Charlie cried. I broke down. 

An imminent resignation…

Winter that year dragged on far longer than the year before. Slowly it draped across and hung over my brain like a final curtain. In February a heavy snow dropped from a navy blue sky. It stayed on our blackened burial grounds and the streets around them. This I remember well for I had a tear in my trainers and no money to scrape together for new ones. Downtrodden in the snow, with an elastic band tied around one trainer left to flap about and steer slush onto a freezing foot, as I traipsed towards the chess club. With a frozen foot, I spent more time there wiggling toes about than moving pieces around a board some nights. When college was done and dusted, I sunk deeper in depression and sought seclusion almost always: I could not work, would not work and dare not work for what confidence and pride I had in myself depression destroyed. But 26 pounds a week from the government left me with little to spend, thankfully chess is cheap. All I ever did with that money was save up for heavy metal albums and the odd concert in London.

Not your average resignation

Instead of turn left and walk down the hill towards the town centre, all season long I turned right to walk up the hill. By a narrow cutting at the top, was a pathway where some woodlands were one mile yonder. A steep hill stretched beyond with footpaths, crossways and a bicycle path straight down. On a clear day you could see as far as the airport and the entire town below it. Not the quickest route but it was quieter than walking into town, and anyway my ancestors were hillwalkers. All I ever saw on foot were those out walking their dogs before they disappeared hither and thither, and bikes being walked up towards the main roads.

I always left just after six in the evening but one chilly day, as I walked down the hill, a mist in the air rolled with me then overtook at speed. Fascinated by the engulfing fog, I stopped paying attention to where I was going. At the bottom of the hill I forgot to take a turn off and couldn’t see it through the thickening fog -I was lost. I stopped walking and sat down on a log, putting my army rucksack down on the wet grass. I could have doubled back and found it but did not. Instead I just sat and looked at the fog creeping across the way. More rolled over the thickets of woodland, unhindered by the brambles it passed over. Gently the light lowered. I remember how I sat in silence unperturbed, at one with nature. But then I remembered we had a match that night and inside my rucksack was the equipment for it. Many minutes passed until I told myself that my team was low down in the league and I needed to be there early to set everything up. But instead of stand up and get going: I stood up and sat back down in defiance -something out of the blue struck me: angered with myself greatly, I told myself in a deepened voice, slow in its delivery ‘there is no point anymore, there is no point to anything, why bother?’ and as those words left my low hung head my heart pounded. Some minutes more the street lamps flickered on.

I sat slumped in sadness, torn by duty. Out of guilt I got up and punted on. Questions would be asked if I didn’t turn up, I was cutting it fine and as soon as I got to Kingsway, the road which led to a small hill beyond which the club was, I punted it at pace. There was a strange glow in the sky and it was almost dark when I reached the top. Rush hour traffic was at its worst. No one knew where I was going nor why. No one could offer a lift, they just drove on by. I arrived at the club. I slowed up as I saw my reflection in the glass door entrance: the glare from that gaunt reflection lost me the game on the spot that night, so full of self-loathing it was. The glares I got for being late spoke volumes themselves. I took that to heart but could not bring myself to say sorry and find some ready-made excuse. We needed to win that match but the Leighton Buzzard side we played against were pushing for promotion and outgraded us. I hung on for a draw against Kevin Williamson and so too did Clive Hemmingway against Brian Valentine on board one but it wasn’t enough and we lost the match heavily.

It was foggy all night long but I stuck to the same route and walked back through the woodlands. On my way home I thought only of my grandfather. I thought about how I had to help him battle alcoholism before he died. He’d been an alcoholic all his life and never ate much. He abused he wife his whole life and never wanted anything to do with any of their eight children. He had ginger hair like his second cousin Angus, and down the pub, together they scared people away. He lost all his teeth early in life and kept the money he made from the navy in the attic, never giving anyone any of the seven thousand pounds of it. I was the only one in my whole family he could speak to and in turn I was the only one to regularly see him and spend time with him. But with no Queen and no King I was too depressed to remain in love with chess. I never thought about my game that night on my journey home even though Kevin Williamson was a strong player and almost had me beat. I was past caring. When I reached home I didn’t play through it and instead I made some tea and toast. Cleaning the kitchen surface from crumbs with the score sheet, which I chucked in the bin along with them. It was late. I just watched tv then went to bed. Three seasons later I stopped playing and forgot about chess altogether. And in those three years, I used the score sheet to clean up crumbs from toast or mop up spilt tea, then chuck it into the kitchen bin no matter whether I won, drew or lost. That was their function now: sheets of paper to wipe clean kitchen surfaces. All week long they sat in black plastic bags with whatever rubbish we threw out that week. They meant nothing. They were nothing. Their true home: landfill centre where a flock of seagulls took their pickings.

Chapter 3: An unorthodox endgame analysis

Part one: No not final commiserations

Reflections which run together hand in hand

Chesswise, I made some poor decisions early on, then coupled with personal tragedy, the fight in me was lost. As chess players some of us believe that evaluation triumphs over calculation; for the simple reason that evaluation gives you oversight of your position as a whole whereas calculation is restricted to the movement of pawns and pieces -the nitty-gritty if you like. In being so blindly in love with chess, evaluate my position as a whole was something I could never do and suffered endlessly for. I never could look at the bigger picture which included myself.

“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” Andrew Solomon


I played 496 competitive games at club, county, and regional level, and in tournaments across the country also. Most of my opponents were higher rated, I scored 44% in total. Over the 8 years I played for Luton and Bedfordshire and E. Anglia as a junior, I suffered with depression for five of them. There was, however, a hiatus. Aged twenty, I broke free of the chains I was enshackled by. I reached out. I joined numerous social clubs across my home town, one of which was a church group at St. Mary’s church in the town centre. I even dated a girl called Emma from it, and whilst everyone was participating in activities had long smooching sessions in evenings sat behind tombstones below a pale evening sky. The shadows were long and we were naughty. I went to festivals and camping in the woods. So what happened in the 92-93 season-wise. Depression dropped, determination upped itself. Now with the bit between my teeth and was awarded player of the year at my club. I put a healthy 28 points on my rating in one season and did not lose a single game for the team I captained until we only had three games left. Mr. Alan Brown, a solid 180 (now 200) was the victor that evening in Northampton. That liberation from melancholy lasted one season only. I then suffered from Dysthymia for another 4 years. Since it’s a milder form of depression -or a hangover from grief and a major depressive disorder if you like- my results gravitated towards my own playing style. Still unadventurous, I became more solid and would draw many games usually against people 30 rating points above me, sometimes 40. By the time Dysthymia lifted in the third week of March 1997, and I was only 1 year and 5 months away from completing my Bachelors degree, which I celebrated with an adventure to the Pacific Ocean where I met a girl from Connecticut. We flew to her family home and fell in love in New York and fell in love. My love of chess had died out the season before. It was only an obsession with chess that accelerated my development into a regular club and county player whilst at school & college with such speed and propelled me out of, and away from, a working class background towards a cultural revolution which gentrified my demeanour; but that same obsession then killed my love chess for I never stopped playing on and on whilst drowning in my own self-inflicted sorrows…

Lessons to be learnt

Well done if you made it his far. I hope you gained a sense of how chess altered the trajectory I span round and round in. Trapped in an endless loop, chess lifted me towards a cultured and better life. If too you are a parent, what comes first for your child are -if you’ll pardon me to say so- the following: your acceptance that education begins at home not at school, parents know their children better than teachers do thus are able to encourage and inspire. Secondly your child’s character will be shaped by your love of them, it is you who can teach them to be brave and bold if their improvement stutters, and that is where character often begins building in chess, with self-belief and inner-strength they can -unlike myself- learn how to overcome set-backs by themselves; thirdly play at home and play regularly so that pattern recognition can build in their play; and lastly, remember to understand your child’s persona, chess is a complex game and takes a lifetime to master, which makes patience not a virtue but a necessity. I became school champion out of obsessiveness only, yes I was a very bright child but chess talent had little to do with it. I did it autodidactically, and that I can assure you is the exception to the rule. Parenthood is never easy and chess, it could be argued, will test your child more than anything else they apply themselves towards. Bear in mind what has been reiterated in this post many times over ‘without peer correction’. For progress to continue your children will need people to learn from other than their parents, usually tutors and better chess players. Give them all the opportunities you can. Look at what happened to me when I lost the peer correction I had become accustomed to. Chess is a people’s game; literary theory is embedded in the game itself but chess is a game enjoyed in the company of others and learnt in the company of others above all else.

“Without you there would be no me.
I am everything reflected in your eyes.
I am everything approved by your smile.
I am everything born of your guidance.
I am me only because of you.”

Richelle Goodrich

I hope the narrative shows I came from a hard working-class background yet am well-educated, for chess got me reading. Once that was firmly in place I became almost unknowable, so close friends told me. Chess opened doors which were either closed off or left slightly ajar. I don’t know if the merits of chess outweigh the demerits of chess or whether or they are more numerous. All I can say is a lived and felt both with an intensity that shall never be forgotten. Was it ‘an agreeable draw’? That question is over-simplified but I will attempt to answer nonetheless. I didn’t love myself enough to tell myself to stop playing chess, it just happened by itself as my interest gradually died out. The hours spent sat at a chess board feeling depressed and estranged and all too self-effacing were much greater than the number of hours sat at the board focused on my game. From that perspective it was not ‘an agreeable draw’, I was soundly beaten. But beyond the board chess improved my mental skills and reading ability so greatly, at university both the BA and MA were so easy they made me the President of the Philosophy Society immediately and had me attending conferences on a weekly basis courtesy of how sharp I was mentally and how in my very first time I was able to critique visiting professors with challenging questions; in becoming empowered by chess it opened up so many doors, so from that perspective it was ‘an agreeable draw’. Any conclusions drawn are facile for the simple reason this is a narrative. A narrative written more like a Memesis, in adherence with the interpretation of Plato’s dialogues. You have read what you have read. Only you can decide what it all meant to you and whether more was lost than gained from chess or vice-versa. I could finish by saying writing this piece altered what was ‘an agreeable draw’ into a hard fought victory for my love of writing flourished more than I can put into words’. I ought to conclude by saying the decision has been revised harmoniously by the author. However I shall remain impartial and end with these final words: what I gained and didn’t gain from chess in my youth remained an agreeable draw in the very long break I took from chess and that was how it stayed until that memorable day came when I decided to write about it all, inadvertently altering the decision to ‘no not an agreeable draw’ from the drawn out process of describing it with such precision was, in itself, a resounding victory that I am proud of and happy to share despite it being so deeply personal, which for someone as shy as myself is per se proof of accomplishment.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” Plato

The end

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