Serious, but friendly

In my earlier piece about Sir Stuart Milner-Barry (“When Gentlemen ran British chess”), I did not mention one interesting aspect of the great man, which was his fondness for what he invariably termed “serious friendly games with clocks”. Throughout his life, starting from the late 1920s, he was in the habit of playing private games with various friends, at each other’s houses. They would play a “real game”, with a full, five-hour session, using the internationally-recognised time-limit of 40 moves in two and a half hours. There would be nothing at stake, except a little bit of pride – this was just chess for sheer pleasure. As early as a profile of himself, published in the BCM in the early 1930s, Milner-Barry was on record as saying that this was the type of chess he most enjoyed, and he continued to play such chess throughout his life. His most regular partner was Hugh Alexander, and the two played dozens of such games, over more than 40 years, ending only with the latter’s death in 1974.

It is easy to see why this form of chess should so appeal. One can play in the comfort of one’s own home, against an opponent with whom one enjoys cordial personal relations.  One can agree with one’s opponent to play a certain style of game, or test a certain opening variation. There is no harassing or expensive 2-3 hour journey to be made to the venue, and one is not at the mercy of whatever cold, over-crowded, noisy and otherwise unpleasant playing conditions the opposing team may impose. There is no danger of trekking to a pub venue in the centre of London on a Saturday afternoon, only to find the playing room has been double-booked with a trade union meeting and one has instead to play in the main bar, to the accompaniment of the Saturday afternoon crowd watching sport on the large-screen TV – all of which happened to the members of a Kent county team last season! One is in no danger of having to spend several hours in close proximity to a catarrh-clogged youth, clad in a baseball cap, busily trying to stuff his crisps, guzzle his Coke and breathe through his mouth, all at the same time. And, finally, as the Egregious Chess Federation currently debates adopting a compulsory membership scheme, the “Milner-Barry solution” may soon be the only way one can play serious chess, without being forced to swell further that grasping organisation’s already bulging coffers.

“So that’s a deal then – loser pays the ECF Game Fee?” (Photo: Reza/Webistan/Corbis)

Sadly, the scores of the great majority of Milner-Barry’s own such games were lost. However, in 1974, after the death of Alexander, he played two such games against another veteran, who had been a leading figure in British chess since the late 1940s, namely Cenek Kottnauer. Fortunately for posterity, the latter was at the time running a regular column in the Dutch magazine Schakend Nederland, and he published both games.  I found them during one of my numerous forays in the splendid library of the Max Euwe Centrum in Amsterdam, some 7-8 years ago. The first is a nice example of a positional pawn sacrifice in the opening.

White: Cenek Kottnauer
Black: Sir Stuart Milner-Barry
Blackheath, 1974 

1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 d5 4. b3 dxc4 5. bxc4 Qd4 6. Nc3 Qxc4 7. Ba3 e5 8.Bxf8 Kxf8 9. Nf3 Nbd7 10. O-O

10…e4 11. Ng5 Nc5 12. Qc1! Bf5 13. Qa3 b5?

This is asking too much. 13…Qd4 was somewhat better. After the text, the immediate tactical blow 14.Nxb5 is possible, but Kottnauer’s choice is also strong.

14. Rac1 b4 15. Qa5! bxc3 16. Rxc3 Qb5 17. Qxb5 cxb5 18. Rxc5

Black’s position is a wreck, and his pawns will drop like ripe fruit, whilst he struggles (unsuccessfully) to develop his pieces.

18…h6 19. Rxf5 hxg5 20.Rxb5 Rd8 21. Rc1 $1 Ke7 22. Re5+ Kd6 23. Rxg5 1-0

An example of what consenting chess masters can get up to in their own homes.   

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