Inspiration for a Generation

Anthony Miles, Britain's first chess grandmaster, died ten years ago this November, but not before his talents sparked a UK chess boom

Dominic Lawson

The title of grandmaster is the chess equivalent of a peerage. Once something very special, it has become devalued by a mixture of numerical inflation and the suspicion that the title can be bought through payments to the right people. Yet in the relatively innocent 1970s, when the grandmaster title really meant something, it was a matter of deep concern among chess promoters in this country that no Briton had ever performed well enough to be awarded the accolade Tsar Nicholas II created in 1914. 

Thus it was that Jim Slater, the English financier whose last-minute prize fund supplement of $125,000 had persuaded Bobby Fischer to play Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, opened his wallet again to offer £5,000 to the first Briton to claim the title of grandmaster. That might seem like a small sum, but then, and especially to chess players more used to prizes in the hundreds of pounds, it was a dramatic incentive.

Appropriately, the man who picked up Slater’s cash offer was someone who despised the British tradition of chess amateurism, dominated by Oxbridge graduates, and had determined to make a career of it. This was Anthony Miles, who in 1974 had become the first (and only) Briton to win the world junior chess championship; then in February 1976 at the age of 20 he achieved his second and final grandmaster “norm”, playing in the snowbound Russian scientific centre of Dubna and beating the Soviets at their own game.

Until then, British chessplayers had regarded the Russians as superhumans, to whom deference was owed and any draw offer eagerly accepted. The Birmingham-born and-based Miles was a different beast entirely. He appeared to have an invincible and un-English self-confidence, arrogance even. He treated the highest-ranking Soviet grandmasters as equals, at best, and would try to beat them in every game.  

As Gennadi Sosonko, the Russian-born chess trainer and historian, wrote in his obituary of Miles: “He was as though born for chess; he had an innate sense of confidence in himself, which is so necessary for successful play at a high level…He defeated world champions Boris Spassky, Mikhail Tal and Anatoly Karpov. One distinguished grandmaster from the Soviet Union complained: ‘I like all the players from England, except Miles — he does not treat me with the respect I am used to.'”

Yes, I did say obituary. Ten years ago on November 12, 2001, Miles’s body was found at his home by the police, after he failed to appear for a scheduled event. Britain’s first chess grandmaster had died of a heart attack, brought on by diabetes, at the age of 46. It was a shock, even though Miles, with characteristic cussedness, had refused to take the insulin doctors recommended.

Yet his sad end, living on his own surrounded by a chaotic mess of chess books and trophies, was in another sense not so surprising. Having become one of the planet’s leading grandmasters at the start of the 1980s, he had endured only setbacks in his attempts to break into the magic circle of candidates for the ultimate title of world champion. Then, in 1986, he was invited to play a non-title event against Garry Kasparov, as the then world champion wanted some match practice ahead of one of his title bouts against Anatoly Karpov.

A good result by Miles would have restored his confidence and his credentials; but it was a disaster — Kasparov won five games out of the six, allowing Miles a solitary draw. “I thought I was playing the world champion, not a monster with a thousand eyes who sees everything,” said Miles afterwards. This brave attempt at humour did not disguise the devastation he felt at such a brutal demonstration of the gulf between him and a player who was a child when the great British hope burst into chess stardom.

Worse was to come: that same year, 1986, a much younger English rival, Nigel Short, blazed his way to a series of tournament victories so emphatic that he shot ahead of Miles. Now Miles was not even the top British player, a situation he found unendurable. In the 1986 Chess Olympiad, Miles used his position as a national side selector to retain the right to play on “top board”, while a furious Short was allocated third. A journalist who queried the fairness of this in print was punched in the face by Miles.

This was the early sign of a series of psychotic episodes. The itinerant Miles’s behaviour at overseas tournaments became increasingly eccentric. Back in the UK, he was arrested by police as he climbed over barriers to Downing Street to protest to Margaret Thatcher about an imaginary threat to his life from other chess players.

Nigel Short is convinced that his own ascendancy was inextricably linked to Miles’s mental collapse: “Tony was insanely jealous of my success, and his inability to accept that he was no longer Britain’s number one was an indication of, if not a trigger for, his descent into madness. His first psychiatric internment came in 1987, and he was in and (usually) out of institutions for the remainder of his days. Thankfully, there was much more to him than that.”

Indeed there was. Tony Miles was not only the man whose over-the-board achievements inspired a generation of British talents. He also left a legacy of wonderful games, to be treasured for as long as chess is played. Perhaps the most dazzling is this victory with White over ex-world champion Boris Spassky in 1978. The notes are from Miles’s own comments at the time. 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 b6 3. c4 e6 4.Bf4 (My latest anti-Nimzo-Indian variation. It has the merit of being  untried at master level) Bb7 5.e3 Be7 6.h3 0-0 7.Nc3 d5 8.cxd5 exd5 9.Bd3 c5 10.0-0 Nc6 11.Ne5 c4 12.Bc2 a6 13.g4! b5 14.g5 Ne8 15.Qg4 g6 16.Rad1 Ng7 17.h4 Bb4? (A serious mistake. Probably best is 17…b4 18.Ne2 f6 although White retains some advantage) 18.Nd7! Bc8 19.Nxd5 Kh8 20.N5f6 Ra7 (Best. If 20…Be7 21.Be4 or 20…Ne8 21.Be5. Now White must lose the Nd7 but in the meantime mounts a decisive attack) 21.d5! Ne7 22.Be5! Rxd7 (Not 22…Bxd7 23.Qd4 wins) 23.h5! Rxd5 24.Qf4 Rxd1 25.Rxd1 Qa5 26.Ne8! f6 (Or 26…Rxe8 27.Qf6 Rg8 28.h6 mates quickly) 27.gxf6 Kg8 (Or 27…Rxe8 28.f7 Rf8 29.h6 Nef5 30.Qxf5 Bxf5 31.hxg7 mate) 28.Nxg7 (Black resigned since 28…Nc6 29.hxg6 soon forces mate).

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