Luke the Comeback Kid

After a seven-year hiatus, young British Chess talent Luke McShane returned to the board in late 2010, only to go unbeaten in two prestigious tournaments

Dominic Lawson

Like all sports, international chess has a fully-fledged programme of youth tournaments, which provide us with tantalising glimpses of the stars of the future. For example, the world under-10 chess championship of 1992, held in Duisberg, Germany, saw the international debut of Levon Aronian, the brilliant Armenian who is now the world’s third-ranked player, along with a number of other child prodigies from across the globe who rank today among the top twenty grandmasters.

Yet the winner of that event, a mere eight years old at the time, was a Briton, Luke McShane. Whatever happened to Luke? What happened was that Luke stayed normal. By this I mean that he continued — as so many chess prodigies do not — with conventional full-time education. After a scholarship to the City of London School, Luke won a place to read Maths and Philosophy at Oxford University (one of the most demanding of all courses). While on his Oxford vacation he was offered an internship at Goldman Sachs — the world’s most profitable and successful financial firm has an unerring eye for the best and brightest; and thus on graduating Luke joined Goldman as a currency trader. 

Very nice for Goldman Sachs, and pretty good for McShane too (not least financially); but for those of us who had treasured Luke’s extraordinary chess performances as a child — he became Britain’s youngest grandmaster at the age of 16 — it was a shame to see his remarkable mind being deflected into the closed world of currency swaps.

Luke himself does not have much time for such regrets. He told me that joining Goldman’s currency operations in 2007, just as the world’s financial system began to creak and then break asunder, was a learning experience he would never have wanted to miss — just as he doesn’t for a second regret his three years at Oxford, at an age when the international rivals of his childhood were devoting themselves entirely to becoming the best chess players in the world.

Yet in the winter of 2009, the British chess impresario Malcolm Pein drummed up the funds to hold a great tournament in London, inviting the world’s most formidable grandmasters, such as Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik, to take on this country’s talents. Since Luke had earlier that year parted company with Goldman Sachs, he decided to take up Pein’s invitation to pit his wits once again against the best that the chess world had to offer. He did remarkably well, given his ring-rustiness, including a dazzling victory against the US champion Hikaru Nakamura, which won the tournament brilliancy prize.

Last December, Pein again put together an awesomely strong tournament in London, this time including the world champion himself, India’s Viswanathan Anand. McShane, who had marked his return to full-time chess by winning the 2010 Canadian Open, began the second London Chess Classic with a game even more brilliant than his victory against Nakamura, and against an even mightier opponent — the world’s highest ranked player, Magnus Carlsen. Perhaps the only person not astonished by this denouement was the Norwegian. Carlsen had earlier on his blog described McShane as “underrated,” acknowledging that the Englishman had a rare talent which had been obscured by his earlier decision to abandon chess as a profession.

No one could beat McShane in the 2010 London Chess Classic. Even playing Black, he held both Anand and Kramnik to draws although the Russian ex-world champion had pounded away at Luke for no fewer than 139 moves before conceding that McShane’s defences were impenetrable. In fact, very long games are a McShane hallmark — and usually it is he who is doing all the pressing. When I asked him what his main strength was, Luke told me: “I fight very hard at the board.” Most chess grandmasters will get up many times during the game, and wander around to look at the positions of other players in the tournament hall, or just to relax a bit. Luke, however, almost invariably sits at his board for the full length of the game, concentrating ferociously, even when it is his opponent’s turn to move.

His remarkable powers of concentration delivered the goods again in January: Luke, as he put it to me, “at 27, now quite old for a chess player”, took first place in a very strong second-string tournament in Wijk-an-Zee. With that victory he also won the right to play in the Premier event next year, against, among others, his old rival from the under-10 world championship, Levon Aronian. Here is his win, playing White in the penultimate round against the Filipino Grandmaster Wesley So, himself an ex-prodigy who became a grandmaster at the age of 14. The notes are based on Luke’s own explanations to me immediately after the game.

At the time he and So were tied for first place, so everything was at stake: 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.c4 e6 6.Nc3 Nd7 7.Nge2 dxc4 8.Ng3 Nb6 9.Be2 Bg6 10.Bg5 Be7 11.Nge4 f6 12.Bf4 Nd5 13.Bg3 Qb6! (“Most of Black’s moves came as a surprise to me, including this one. But I understood that I was in trouble and came up with what I thought was my only chance”) 14.0-0 Nxc3 15.Nxc3 Qxb2 16.Bxc4!!? (This brilliantly imaginative piece sacrifice is what McShane had in mind. It may not be entirely sound, but at least he will now have the initiative) Qxc3 17.Rac1 Qb2 18.Bxe6 Rad8 19.d5 fxe5 20.Rfe1 Bf6 21.Re2 Qa3 22.Bxe5 Bxe5 23.Rxe5 Kf8 24.Qe1 Qd6? (A blunder by So but even after the much better 24…Nf6 McShane still has compensation for the piece) 25.Bxg8 Kxg8 26.Re6 Qxd5 27.Rxg6 Rh6? (Another error, but Black’s position was now very hard to defend) 28.Rxh6 gxh6 29.Qe3 Rd7 30.Qxh6 Rg7 31.g3 Qd4 32.Qe6+ Rf7 33.Qe2 Kg7 34.Rf1! (Not falling for So’s devilish trap: 34.Rd1? Rxf2! 35.Qe7+ Rf7+ 36.Rxd4 Rxe7) Kg6 35.Rd1 (Now this works: if 35…Rxf2? 36.Qe8+ and any Black discovered check is useless). Qf6 36.Qe3 b6 37.Rd4 Re7 38.Qd3+ Kg7 39.Rf4 Qe6 40.Rf5 Rf7 and So resigned, because McShane’s next is 41.Rg5+ with two principal variations: 41…Kf8 42.Qd8+ Qe8 43.Rg8+ winning the Queen and 41…Kh6 42.Qd1! with the deadly threat of Qh5 mate.  More, please, Luke!

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