By Lim Chong
One fine morning on December 14, 1986, saw me engaged in an unexpected one-on-one and one-sided battle with England’s first grandmaster Tony Miles.
It started with Miles facing around 30 opponents in a simultaneous match held in a small classroom at La Salle Petaling Jaya. Looking relaxed in blue short-sleeve shirt and jeans, he was ruthless in quickly finishing off one opponent after another.
Soon, I was the last one left. Miles then pulled up a chair, not to sit but to put up his left foot. An intimidating stance, with the grandmaster staring down and giving you his total attention.
I struggled towards an inevitable defeat in 52 moves. Miles was gracious enough to point out the mistakes and how I could have put up a better fight, especially in the endgame.
One of the things that struck my mind during the game was that despite his rugged appearance with long hair and moustache plus beard, Miles had a gentle demeanour and he smelled nice (the scent of victory? hope this does not affect his reputation as a streetfighter in chess).
Miles, who was the world junior champion in 1974 and became the first English grandmaster two years later, was then at his prime, rising to be among the world’s top-ranked grandmasters.
He was known for his unorthodox opening repertoire which often confused his opponents and his eagerness to fight hard for a win. He even caused then world champion Anatoly Karpov much consternation with his a6 response to e4 at the 1980 European Team Championship. Caught by surprise and annoyed, Karpov played badly and lost, and Miles’ unusual response was subsequently called the St George Defence.
When asked his predilection for offbeat openings, Miles however chose to highlight the endgame’s importance. “With the endgame, there’s no fooling around. The better player wins,” he said.
He believed that it was the efforts he made in improving his endgame techniques that made him adept in exploiting small advantages to grind down opponents, enabling him to finish on top in strong tournaments.
This was Miles’ first visit to Malaysia and he returned in May 1992 for the Commonwealth chess championship held in Kuala Lumpur.
Plagued with mental problems, Miles met with a sudden and untimely death in 2001 at the age of just 46. He will always be remembered as one of those who sparked the so-called “English Chess Explosion” which led to the emergence of outstanding grandmasters like Jonathan Speelman, John Nunn, Nigel Short and Michael Adams.
I have fond memories of Miles, not just because of the game we played but that he was also the first grandmaster whom I had a one-on-one interview with.
By coincidence, a few months later on May 24, 1987, I managed to get an interview with Raymond Keene, England’s second grandmaster, when he made a one-day stopover. This was arranged by United Publishers Services, then the local distributor for Batsford chess books. (In case you are wondering, I am able to remember the dates and details precisely due to a wonderful photographic memory. Nah! It’s because I never throw away any of the reporter’s notebooks).
Keene, known for his popular chess books, turned out to be a charming character. Unabashedly, I told him I had read all his books and found them to be interesting and useful. This got the interview off to a good start.
It lasted more than an hour with Keene relating many enthralling anecdotes about the world of chess, and his views on several subjects.
Competing with Miles in the race to become England’s first grandmaster in the 1970s, Keene lost out by just a few months. Asked whether he could have gained the title earlier if he had given up his university studies as Miles did, Keene replied that the degree in German literature from Cambridge University meant more to him than the grandmaster title.
He also said that he would not hesitate to advise students to complete their studies before committing themselves fully to chess. “Chess is rich and fascinating, but it is not everything,” he added.
Keene has since been embroiled in many controversies related to chess and as he became more prolific, the quality of his books naturally suffered. However, his early efforts like Aron Nimzowitsch: A Reappraisal, Karpov-Korchnoi 1978, and Becoming a Grandmaster, which detailed his personal progress in gaining the title, are considered chess masterpieces,
The opportunity to meet and interview grandmasters when they made their way here was one of the few perks in being a chess writer. But in the 1980s, it was rare for grandmasters to come here and interviews with them rarer still. It was considered lucky if there was even one grandmaster visiting each year.
Now things have changed so much and we find so many grandmasters taking part in local events like the Kuala Lumpur Open and Datuk Arthur Tan Malaysian Open.
Another interesting grandmaster who made his way here was Denmark’s Curt Hansen. In fact, Hansen’s presence in August 1988 at the invitation of the Chess Association of Selangor (CAS) caused a controversy.
The Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) insisted that as an affiliate, CAS should have sought approval from the federation before inviting foreign players to take part in the Selangor Pewter Charity Open celebrations. Fortunately, the matter was later resolved when MCF relented and gave its approval. How things have changed; if such a rule is strictly enforced now, many chess organisers will be in trouble.
Hansen, humble and down-to-earth, mentioned about the lonely pursuit of being a grandmaster when interviewed. “Talent is not enough; one needs to study very hard to make progress in chess,” he said.
Known to be a solid player, he was world junior champion in 1984 and became a grandmaster one year later. “There was really no one to help me along the way. I had to prepare and do everything on my own,” Hansen said.
He said the Danish Chess Union did provide him with some funds to play in tournaments from 1984 to 1985 but after this he was on his own again. “Chess is not very popular in Denmark compared with other sports,” he added.
Hansen’s main source of income then came from writing chess columns for newspapers. “It is usual for Danish newspapers to have a chess column. I write a daily column for one newspaper and a weekly column for another,” he said.
Hansen was aware that his achievements as Denmark’s strongest player from 1983 and winning the Danish championship six times would always be compared to the legendary Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen, who was a world title contender during the 1960s.
“We have played six times so far and the record stands 3-3. I respect him because he helped to pave the way for players like me,” he said.
For the past five years, Hansen has played rarely. Now aged 46, he is reported to be involved in the real estate business.
Grandmasters now regularly come and go, with their own stories to tell. Know what, the biggest story in Malaysian chess is yet to be written – an interview with the country’s first grandmaster.