When gentlemen ran British chess

Last week on this blog, whilst discussing the latest tasteless antics of the current ECF President,  I had occasion to make reference to one of his “great predecessors”, Sir Stuart Milner-Barry. He is a man who deserves more than a passing mention.

Milner-Barry (right), playing his great friend, Hugh Alexander

Born in Hendon on 20 September 1906, Milner-Barry represented all that was best about the Edwardian English gentleman. Educated at Cheltenham College and Cambridge, he had a brief, and none too happy spell, as a stockbroker in the 1930s, but the war changed his life. Pressed into service as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, he was one of the most senior figures there, and at one point personally went to see Churchill, to request (successfully) more resources for that vital operation. After the war, he became a senior civil servant at the Treasury, and on reaching the normal retirement age of 60, he was persuaded to stay on, as the official responsible for the honours system. In that capacity, one of his finest achievements was writing the paper that recommended PG Wodehouse for an honour. On Milner-Barry’s recommendation, Wodehouse was appointed KBE in the 1975 New Year’s Honours list, just weeks before his death.

As a chessplayer, Milner-Barry was the classic British amateur – he played the game for sheer pleasure, yet did so to master level, beating such players as Mieses, Tartakower and many others, and once drawing with Capablanca, after missing a win.  He also made several major contributions to opening theory, with both his gambit against the French, and also the Nimzoindian variation, 4.Qc2 Nc6. With characteristic modesty, he always referred to the latter as the Zurich Variation, but most books name it after him.

Photograph © 1973 Bassano. National Portrait Gallery, London.  (Chessgames.com)   

Above all, Milner-Barry embodied that high sense of morality and honour, so typical of his class and generation. One example of his highly-developed sense of honour was quoted by Bernard Cafferty, in his fine obituary of Milner-Barry, in the May 1995 issue of the BCM.  When Nigel Short played his world championship match against Kasparov, in London in 1993, the match was controversial, because the players walked away from FIDE and organised the match themselves. As a result, the match was officially treated by FIDE and its affiliated bodies, the then BCF included, as a “rebel match”. Milner-Barry agonised over whether to attend, in a private capacity,  as a spectator. He very much wanted to watch the play, but as a former BCF President, fully 20 years earlier, he felt that it was his duty not to lend the match any greater recognition than that assigned it by the BCF!

Milner-Barry lived most of the post-war period in Kent, and so I had the privilege of seeing a lot of him, as he turned out faithfully for the county for decades, right up to just a year or so before his death in 1995. I still recall his distinguished figure, very tall and gaunt, always dressed in suit and tie, arriving at the match on the train. He always carried a brown briefcase with him, from which at the appointed time, he would take out a pack of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, which he always brought with him.  He contributed enormously to British chess throughout his life, and his charming wife, Lady Thelma Milner-Barry, was for many years a loyal supporter of women’s chess in this country. It was a privilege to have known Sir Stuart, albeit only slightly.

The game below is a typical example of his vigorous attacking play. It was played in a county match in 1966.

White: Whiteley, A

Black: Milner-Barry, P. 

County Match 1966 

1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 Bf5 5. Bg5 Nbd7 6. e3 h6 7. Bh4 e6 8. e4 Bh7 9. e5 g5 10. Nxg5 hxg5 11. Bxg5

By a strange transposition, we have reached a bizarre position, which closely resembles the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav, but with the black QB on the unlikely square h7, rather than its usual c8!

Be7 12. exf6 Bxf6 13. Bxf6 Qxf6 14. Bxc4 Nb6 15. Bd3 O-O-O 16. Bxh7 Rxh7

It is clear that Black has a huge initiative, and White will not be able to find a safe place for his king. Milner-Barry was very strong in such positions.

17. Ne2 Qg5 18. Kf1 Rg8 19. g3 Qd5 20. Kg1 Rh4 21. b3 Qf3 22. Rc1 Nd5

23. Qd2 Re4 24. Re1 f5 25. h3 f4 26. g4

Ne3! 27. Rh2 Nf5 28. d5 e5 29. Nc3 Rxe1+ 30. Qxe1 Nd4 31. Kf1 Qd3+ 32. Kg2 Nf3 33. Qe4

33…Nh4+ 34. Kh1 Qf1# 

A splendid pounding of an opponent, who at the time was one of the most promising young players in the country. I will leave the last word on Milner-Barry to the aforementioned BCM obituary, by Bernard Cafferty:

“We shall not see his like again. The England that formed his character is no longer with us”.

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