Radio Play

After a gap of very nearly half a century chess moves are returning to BBC radio. The credit is entirely that of Radio 4’s controller since September 2010, Gwyneth Williams. In a letter to me she observed that “although not much of a player, I admire the game; it has entered (like cricket) into the language and culture and it somehow matters.” And, to my delight, she asked your columnist to be the presenter of this new series. 

Williams’s analogy with cricket is pertinent. Radio 4 is of course the home of Test Match Special, in which experts and ex-players bring the game to life in a way which defies the listener’s apparent handicap of not being able to see what can be a highly complex struggle. But the chess programme I am to present, Across The Board, is not to be just a commentary on games between masters. The format, of what I hope might be the first of more than one series, consists of quite personal interviews with people eminent in other fields, but who have devoted part of their lives to chess. 

My interviewees include the former undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis and the former British girls’ under-14 chess champion-better known as the present Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves. These interviews take place while we play a game against each other. Only in one of the programmes do I take on a professional grandmaster: none other than the women’s world champion, the 19-year-old Chinese prodigy Yifan Hou.

The programmes are scheduled for transmission on five consecutive days, starting Monday December 30, and will each last for 15 minutes — the concentrated essence of interviews conducted over the course of an hour, with the players allocated half an hour each to complete all moves. I have also been fortunate that the producer with the difficult task of cutting the material down is David Edmonds. As well as being a long-term BBC man, Edmonds is the author (with John Eidinow) of the best-selling book Bobby Fischer Goes To War: How The Soviets Lost The Most Extraordinary Chess Match Of All Time.

In fact Bobby Fischer took part in the original BBC Radio chess series — which ran from 1958 until 1964 on what was then called Network Three. The most popular element in the programmes were the “consultation games” in which two teams of two players each were put in separate cubicles and each recorded their thoughts as they discussed what moves to play against the other. It was in 1961 that the 18-year-old Fischer — already one of the strongest players in the world — took part, teamed with Leonard Barden (who won the British championship jointly with Jonathan Penrose in 1963) against Penrose himself and Peter Clarke, four-times runner-up in the British championship.

To find out more about this, I contacted Leonard Barden — who at 84 still writes the weekly chess column in the Guardian and who was one of the most important figures in the revival of British chess in the 1970s and 1980s. Barden told me: “The broadcast was recorded in September or October 1960. I had become friendly with Bobby Fischer during the Leipzig chess Olympiad of 1960 and was a contributor to the Network Three programme, hence the idea of a consultation match. Bobby was paid £50, which pleased him. He had come to London to buy a Savile Row suit, and this covered the costs of the suit. I was nominally Bobby’s consultation partner, but my true function was to get him to talk. He was fluent and articulate for the whole of the session, which lasted eight hours and only stopped when the studio time ran out. Bobby was annoyed at the end when Penrose and Clarke would not resign.”

In fact the position was not at all resignable, even though Fischer/Barden had an advantage — and remember that Penrose at that Leipzig Olympiad had won his individual game against the reigning world champion Mikhail Tal. The final position of the BBC game was sent to the former world champion Max Euwe for adjudication and he declared it drawn-to Fischer’s even greater irritation.

You can find the full score of the game in Chess Treasury of the Air. This book — a collection of the best moments, games and discussions from the BBC series-was published originally by Penguin and remains available from the specialist chess publishers Harding Simpole. 

Unfortunately that book does not give any of Fischer’s comments. When I asked Barden what had happened to the tapes of the programme he said that when the BBC had been approached about this some years ago, it responded that “the tape has been wiped and used for another programme”. I am afraid this archival vandalism was all too often the practice of BBC radio in the pre-digital age.

On a lighter note, one of the wittiest of the contributors to that sadly erased series was the four times British ladies champion Eileen Tranmer (who came fifth in the women’s world championship of 1949). Tranmer’s episode, entitled “New Discoveries in Chess Strategy”, gave such advice as “MOVE QUICKLY. Not long ago…in a lost position I brought off a delightful combination. With a snarl of rage my opponent picked up the solid wooden board and lifted it high above his head…I MOVED VERY QUICKLY and suffered no harm.”

Tranmer gave the following win of hers from the British women’s championship as an illustration of the principle “NEVER GIVE CHECK. IT MAY BE A DISASTER.” 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 d5 4.exd5 Nf6 5.Bb5+ Bd7 6.Bxd7+ Qxd7 7. 0-0 Nxd5 8.d4 Nc6 9.c4 Ne3 10.Bxe3 fxe3 11.d5 Bc5 12.Qe2 (obviously 12.dxc6 loses to 12…e2 discovered check) Nd5 13.Qxe3+ (Tranmer comments: “White is tempted into this only because it is a check as well as a pawn”) Ne6 (“Out of check”) and White resigns, as her Queen is pinned and lost. Tragicomedy.

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