Monday, September 25, 2017


Mute Swan on the Thames

One of the problems with emigrating from England to Australia is the distance you suddenly are from family and friends. Platitudes about the world getting smaller don't really cut it when you're sitting on a 13 hour flight after an 8 hour "short leg"! There are a lot of theories about jetlag but it is probably safest to say that it affects each person differently. My wife, Caroline, for instance, suffers minor jetlag problems, while it hits me quite badly.

We left Melbourne late on Wednesday flying Malaysian Airlines.The first flight was comfortable and the service was excellent. A 3 hour stop in Kuala Lumpur was followed by the gruelling 13 hour flight landing in London on Thursday afternoon. It's a short drive to my family which is our first destination, Basingstoke, in north Hampshire.

Village clock in Burley, New Forest
In Australia, when people ask me where I come from in England, I say that I am from about 70km west of London. Trying to describe where Hampshire is can be difficult, and as soon as you move away from London in a description, you have lost the main reference point that people have about England. So where is Basingstoke, really? Basingstoke is a crossroads, a market town between the historic centres of Reading to the north, Winchester to the west, Southampton to the south, and of course, London to the east. While it has historic prominence from Basing House, which sits to the east of the town, Basingstoke is essentially a new town, growing in the 1950's and 60's from London overspill. And as a new town, Basingstoke is a hotch-potch of housing estates built around a relatively small central shopping area. In itself, the town is not very exciting, but its location is excellent. Basingstoke is an hour from London, an hour from the coast, a short hop to the Thames, and surrounded by places of historic interest.

The bridge at Pangbourne over the Thames
Our plan was to have a couple of fairly easy days when we first arrived, so as to get used to the new time zone. We were treated to drive to the Thames on our first day by my brother and his partner. The Thames is a beautiful river through the counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire and we were driven to the village of Pangbourne just west of Reading, about 30 minutes drive from Basingstoke. A pub lunch by the river as narrow boats and swans glide past is about as idyllic as it gets. This was followed by a riverside walk. It was a mild autumn day, and we were enchanted by scenes which inspired Wind in the Willows illustrator E. H. Shepherd, and the author, Kenneth Grahame retired to Pangbourne.

Thatched roof in Burley, New Forest
The following day I was still suffering from jetlag. So another short trip was welcome. The weather has been very pleasant, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the high teens Celsius. So we went off to the New Forest to search for ponies. Again my brother drove and the 4 of us headed to the picturesque village of Burley. The magical natural countryside has an ancient history with evidence of prehistoric barrows while the area was the land of the Jutes in Anglo-Saxon times. Royal interest goes back as far as William the Conqueror, who proclaimed the area a royal forest. For us, though, it was a matter of having a scone and seeing some beautiful wildlife, and both of these were found!

New Forest pony in front of an Oak

Pony on the New Forest heathland
Sylvan magic
It's been great to see family, and see how my former home has changed over the 30 years since I lived here. And its been a beautiful start to our trip to England with a couple of stunning days out.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Downhill at 50?

I turned 50 nearly a year ago, and for some reason have been ill more in the last year than the previous 49 put together. Perhaps things do start to go downhill at 50? A frozen shoulder wiped me out at the end of last year and a flu bug has taken hold for the past....well I can't even remember how long! And now, I've strained/pulled/torn something at the top of my leg which has me hobbling around like someone much older than 50. I've struggled to hold concentration at times, and get tired more easily than usual.

But life goes on and as my 89 year old mother says every time I call her, "Complaining doesn't help!". In fact, I'll be seeing my Mum soon as I'm heading back to England in a couple of weeks. It's been a few years since I was there so it will be good to catch up with my family again. More about that as it happens as I like writing about my travels. But first we have to get there, and as we're flying Malaysian Airlines who have had some notable incidents recently, I'll be happy when we do get there! (Actually, flying back on Friday 13th October is even more harrowing!)

To be honest, things could be a lot worse. I feel for the people in extreme weather conditions dealing with hurricanes and earthquakes etc. We've had a colder than usual winter but nothing to complain too much about. I live in the most livable city in the world according to the Economist, and Australia hasn't the uncertainty over its future like other Western Democracies at the moment. I'm not sure what is happening in Europe and the UK with their break up, nor am I certain what is happening in North America with a seemingly ineffective executive branch of government in the USA. At least in Australia things are fairly stable. We have our issues such as human rights abuse against asylum seekers, a vociferous opposition to marriage equality, and a dangerous relationship with North Korea with which we are within striking distance of their missiles. But generally speaking, life is good for your average Australian.

So besides work, and being ill what have I been up to? Not a lot really. I have been playing a lot of chess which has been going quite well. And reading a lot of fiction. Since the Man Booker Prize announced it's Longlist I've read 4 of the novels and I must say, they were all great. (I'm currently reading number 5 which also started brilliantly). I read a lot of fiction of all genres, including fantasy, crime, YA, historical and even some romantic types. But I make an exception for the Booker Prize nominees because over the years they have become some of my favourite novels. I have been blown away by winners such as The Remains of the Day and Narrow Road to the Deep North and even those that didn't win such as Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being which I felt should have been the winner in 2013.

This year of the 4 novels I read so far, there is already one stand out. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is unbelievably good, and taking into account that the other 3 novels have been excellent, this is really saying something. The Booker Shortlist is announced on Wednesday and the biggest shock for me is if Whitehead's novel isn't on it. Of course, there are still 7 novels I haven't even started yet, which may be better, but they will have to be astonishingly good to better The Underground Railroad.

I try to devote a little bit of time every day to leaving the world of what I'm doing and just sit at a cafe drinking a coffee and reading, usually about 20 minutes before the day really begins. The Underground Railroad has been the best book I've read this year so far though it was very uncomfortable reading at times. Crying in public is not considered the done thing for men in Australia!

So there you have it. Can life really be that bad if I get to spend a little bit of time each day drinking coffee, reading good books in the most livable city in the World with the woman I love? There might be some little issues, but like my Mum says, "Complaining doesn't help". :)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Ultimate Climax

Chess players are fascinated with what they consider to be beautiful motifs on the chess board. It is sometimes hard to describe what is beautiful in chess, and it may be different for different players. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When we start learning the game, traps fascinate us. But after a while we learn that these are just guiding posts for us to avoid,or for us to deliver if someone doesn't know them.

As these traps usually involve moves which don't appear natural, such as sacrifices, our next fascination comes with the unusual in actual play. There are no end of famous sacrifices in the history of chess and just mentioning words like Morphy, Tal, Immortal or Evergreen will conjure images of wonderful combinations. But again, after a while playing chess, we realise that sacrifices work rarely (which is why they are probably so wonderful in our minds) and we are more likely to win a game of chess by playing solidly, winning a little bit of material, and converting in the endgame.

Which then brings us to a study of endgames. With minimal pieces on the board there can also be beautiful ideas, moving pieces around in seemingly impossible fashion to manufacture wins or draws, using various methods to save positions, especially stalemate themes, or creating amazing pawn breakthroughs to promote. However, the practical reality of the endgame is that what is most useful for us, is to develop a technical understanding of how to generally play endgames, backed by a reasonable theoretical knowledge of basic endgame positions that can help guide us in making plans.

So it would seem from what I'm saying that we are attracted to the beautiful in chess, but then most of us develop a playing style which is practical and technical, rather than flamboyant and beautiful. And that is fine. It doesn't mean that we can't enjoy the beautiful, or on occasion, dish out an extravagant move.

I remember thinking about these things and wondering if I'd ever be able to play a double rook sacrifice in my games like Anderssen in his Immortal win against Kiezeritsky. I have then since wondered about using various endgame ideas that I've worked on in my games.

But I now have fully seen the light, with the most amazing move possible. Can you imagine under-promoting to a knight in a corner square to deliver mate? Not in a made up study, in a real game? Well if you manage it, then you certainly won't be the first. I don't know if anyone else has done it, but Ding Liren managed it last night in a play off game in the World Cup against Kravtsiv.

I'm struggling to think of a move more stylish than this to finish a game of chess!

Monday, September 4, 2017

MCC Open Round 2

I often ask the kids that I coach what they think is the most important tournament. I inevitably get answers like the World Championship, or the Olympiad, or even the latest super-GM event. I tell them that the most important tournament is the one you are in. So while it is natural to get excited and follow something like the World Cup of chess with Magnus Carlsen and all the rest of the world's elite, that still shouldn't mean as much to each player as the tournament they are playing in. I'll admit that I get more of a buzz being in a chess club watching live chess, than viewing it on my laptop as it is broadcast from across the globe.

And with that intro, we enter the second round of the MCC Open. There have been a few late entries and the field now sits in the mid 40's for size. The tournament is wide open after top seed, Thai Ly lost last week. Today should see a settling of the field. Top board is Dizdarevic-Papadinis, but Jim Papadinis hadn't showed with 10 minutes left on his clock.

8.15 Update

An hour down....yes, we started on time tonight. The first winner is Mehmedalija Dizdarevic who moves on to 2/2 after Jim Papadinis didn't show. There are some exciting games happening,though. Tom Kalisch has tried the King's Gambit against Sally Yu who has taken. A bizarre position sits on the board at the moment. David Lacey is going for a big king side attack as black in a Dutch against Richard Voon. Thai Ly also has a promising king side attack against Sophie Chang, who has had a remarkably tough start to this event after playing so well against Tom Kalisch last week, but losing in the end. I'll go get a position or 2...

David Lacey as black just played ..Nxf4. Richard Voon replied Ne4 almost immediately.

This is the top game in progress, Kalisch-Yu which arose from some weird Bishop's Gambit.

9.00 Update

There are some crazy time differences on some boards. Here are some examples of time left:

Kalisch 53 Yu 39
Gusain 62 Fry 37
Voon 76 Lacey 24
Harris 62 Li 34 (and Oliver Li has gone walkabout)
Culbert 70 Snow 28
Ragavendran 27 Ashlock 67.

I don't know why players are taking so much time, but they will need to look at their confidence and decision making skills.

Ben Frayle finds himself a rook up, but somewhat tied up by an advanced passed pawn and an excellently placed king by Kerry Hopkins.

An interesting endgame. Colin Savage has an extra pawn, but will the opposite coloured bishops help Kevin Liu?

Club President Elizabeth Warren is putting up a very good fight against Roger Beattie. Elizabeth is just a pawn down, though the connected passed queen side pawns will probably give Roger the win.

Meanwhile, the giant killer from the last round, Alex Jones is playing another solid game against Sushant Manuja who had an excellent performance in the previous tournament, the Malitis Memorial.

9.45 Update

The Ben Frayle-Kerry Hopkins game is reducing to a pawn endgame. Who fancies some calculation training?

I guess Black must play ..Kc2 when white should move his rook forcing black to promote, but who is quickest after d1=Q Rxd1 Kxd1? Actually, the game continued 47..Kc2 48.Ke2 and black has won the a-pawn and should win the game! What a turn around from being a rook down!

Kalisch-Yu is still in this complicated position with clock times 29-22. I don't know if I prefer white's bishops or the better black structure. I think a knight swing from c6-e7-g6 could make white concerned about those offside king side pieces. But it is white to play...

Manuja-Jones, and I think black is ok!

10.00 Update

It is time for me to go home. My predictions? Carlsen will progress to the second round....

Kalisch-Yu too close to call. I'm beginning to like white
Harris-Li Unclear with Anthony bishop and pawn for a rook, and Oliver down to 9 minutes left
Gusain-Fry Looks like Daniel has this one dead to rights
Anton-Watson Sarah looks to be in control
Manuja-Jones I'm going with another giant killing here, black is ok
Hooi-Nordruft Black is material up and should win

Finally, the Frayle-Hopkins game ended in a draw! Black did win white's a-pawn, but instead of then swinging his king to the king side to pick off white's pawns, he got himself stalemated trying to promote his own a-pawn! Moral of the story: Work on your endgames!

I would verymuch like to see the full games of Kalisch-Yu, Harris-Li and Anton-Watson as they all were very interesting. I'll see about getting them off the players :)