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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 51 - Opening up young minds to the thrust and parry of a mental duel


BECAUSE I seldom mention my contribution to keeping the sun from setting on the British Empire, it may not be generally known that chess played a strategic part in my chequered Army career moves in black and white lands of sun, sand and sweat.

You must understand that I was not always as you see me now - one broken down, like a government statistic, by age, taxes and the toil of journalism - but an Army corporal whose brass stripes were burnished blindingly-bright and matched the undimmed ardour of his mind. By my Schlieffen Plan blitzkrieg opening and Magi-not-Line-type defence, I may not have been expert at changing step on the march but when it came to displaying the ambit of my gambits, outmanoeuvring bishops and toppling castles, I reckoned I was a nice mover in the imperial game and among the best lightweight, chessboard warriors between the White Nile and the Limpopo.

While stationed at Nairobi, in Kenya, I and an officer in charge of staff postings wiled away languorous hours playing chess (officers earn their money easily). His moves resembled Light Brigade charges, fancy but futile; mine were like some Russian re-doubt at Sevastopol - stolid but successful. I kept beating him and one day, surveying the detritus of his defeat, he retreated in hyper-dudgeon.

Next day I was posted - not to some palm-fringed, golden-sanded, cocktail-bar-flecked outpost of imperial importance, but to the arid wastes of British Somaliland, where my attempts to introduce feuding tribal chiefs to the subtle clash-es of chess warfare proved ineffectual, their views resembling that of Bernard Shaw who said that chess was, "a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time".

As an unshakeable chess hand, I deny that squarely and only mention this because Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, wants to encourage children to play chess to im-prove their academic skills. A keen chess player, himself, he has talked to the British Chess Federation about promoting the game in primary and secondary schools although it will not be in the curriculum.

An admirable move al-though, regrettably, there are no similar plans for Scottish schools, some of which, however, have chess clubs. While England and Wales may produce improved intellects as a result of board battles, chess should be approached with caution - too much of it and the mental and physical cylinders could go into overdrive.

The dapper Cuban world chess champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, would often stroll the streets of New Orleans staring fixedly at women or shouting, cryptically, from his house veranda that he would plant the banner of Castile on the walls of Madrid. When he lost to Seigbert Tarrasch in 1914, it was rumoured that had sprung to the chessboard from the bed of a Russian grand duke’s mistress (mate in one knight.) Another world champion, Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz, believed he was in electrical communication with God, and challenged Him to a game, giving Him pawn and move. The match, if it took place, was never recorded.

The Russian world champion, hatchet-faced, blond giant, Alexander Alekhine, when playing, would work his ears into indescribable shapes to frighten opponents, would shift uneasily as if sitting on an anthill and when he lost a game, would hurl his king across the room and sometimes smash furniture.

Although some chess champs have acted socially as if they were two pawns short of a Sicilian defence, most, are, I believe, like the majority of chess players, mature, self-assured, well-mannered and, of course, utterly ruthless and, with a tendency to say "mate" in a voice, that to opponents would never fail to sound, smug, triumphant, boastful and malicious.

Chess is the pulse-racing, mind-stretching equivalent of a sword duel, with thrusts and parries, sometimes rapier-darting, sometimes sabre-like slashing. It can lead to many surprises like one I had on a cruise ship. When playing against my-self on deck, a lad of about ten summers asked for a game. Loftily - one should encourage the young - I agreed and after two hours’ mind-grinding play, I lost. He was, I discovered, an English state primary school’s chess champion.

I hope Mr Clarke’s opening will receive an appropriate re-ply to widen the knowledge of the game in Scotland’s schools. A veteran imperial chessman says to the Scottish Executive: "Your move."


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