Tribute to a chess original

I am sure most chessplayers like to think of themselves as creative and original thinkers, but of course, very few of us are. Most of us push wood with a greater or lesser degree of common sense, following the principles we were taught when young, and adhering fairly slavishly to our opening theory. But every now and then, one comes across a real chess original, someone who ignores traditional chess theory, and goes their own way in the game. One of the best and most striking of these is English IM, Mike Basman. Famous for his use of the most outlandish opening systems, Basman has spent decades dodging an international arrest warrant for crimes against chess orthodoxy.

Mike Basman, pictured in 2006 (photo: Antranig M Basman)

I first encountered Basman’s name in 1973. One of the very first chess magazines I ever saw had the games from his tie-break match against Bill Hartston, for the British Championship. Basman lost that match, but he had already been a leading British player for years. The first time I saw him in the flesh was at the Oxford weekend open in late 1979, when I sat next to him, as he demolished pre-tournament favourite, John Nunn, with 1.g4. Over subsequent years, I encountered him at many weekend events, and played him 4-5 times myself, never beating him, although I did take a couple of draws.

Nowadays, Mike plays very little, spending most of his time running his British Land UK Chess Challenge, a monster schools tournament, that attracts some 70,000 children every year!  It is a great shame that Mike does not play more, because although now over 60, he is still capable of playing fine, original chess. He showed this recently, when he turned out for Surrey in the semi-finals of the English Counties Championship, a couple of months ago. His opponent that day was Jana Bellin, a WGM and vastly experienced player, still around 2200 strength. Luckily, I saw Mike at a chess problem event the very next day, and he kindly showed me his masterpiece from the previous afternoon. The notes are based largely on his verbal comments to me:

White “Basman, M.
 Black “Bellin, J.
 Surrey-Staffordshire, 11 June 2011

1. g4 Grob’s Opening, Basman’s great love. Most masters regard it as one of the weakest opening moves of all, but Basman has won countless games with it, and with the black equivalent 1.e4 g5.    d5 2. h3 e5 3. Bg2 Ne7 4. c4 dxc4 5. Na3 Ng6 6. Nxc4 Be7 7. d3 Nd7 8. Nf3 c6 “This gives me my chance”.

9. h4! Nxh4 10. Nxh4 Bxh4 11. Nd6+ Kf8 12.Qb3 “She’s lucky she’s not just losing a piece”. Qf6 “After 12… Qe7  I just play 13. Nxc8 (13. Rxh4 Nc5 is not so clear) 13… Rxc8 14. Qxb7 smashing her”. 13. Ne4 Qe7 14. g5

f5 “She’s just able to save the piece with this” 15. Rxh4 fxe4 16. Be3 exd3 17. Qxd3 Nb6 18. Qc2  “Bc5 is not just a cheapo, but the start of a great strategical plan!” Kg8 19. Bc5 Qf7 20.Be4 g6 21. O-O-O

Be6 “Maybe she should have tried 21… Bf5”. (21… Qxa2 is no good because of just 22. Bxg6) 22. Rd6 Nc4 23. Rd3 “But this is really unfortunate, because now I come at her from the other direction!”. 23… Kg7 24. Rf3 Qd7 25. b3 Nb6 26. Qc3 “Now we start an attack on the dark squares”.

Qc7 27.Rf6 Rae8 28. Rh6 “So now 29 Rfxg6+ is the threat”. Nd5 29. Bxd5 Bxd5 30. Bd6 1-0


“And she resigned. Note how every White piece is on a dark square!”. A positional masterpiece by Basman, and a game where it is not that obvious where Black went wrong. Can 8…c6 really be that bad?

As those north of the border are wont to say, “Lang may yer lum reek, Mike!”.  In these days of wall-to-wall opening theory, chess needs originals like Mike Basman more than ever.

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