Snooker Without Balls

You wait half a century for a BBC radio chess series and then three come along at once. I wrote here 16 months ago about Across the Board, a series of interviews over chess games  with champions and eminent enthusiasts which I had been asked to present for Radio 4. Then a second series of five programmes was broadcast last October. And early this month, the BBC will be broadcasting a third series — from Monday to Friday in the final week of the general election campaign.

I think the commissioning editors at Radio 4 were keen to broadcast interviews during that week with no political implications whatsoever, something which otherwise causes the BBC more than the usual amount of headaches about “balance” at such a time. The only condition, therefore, was that I couldn’t have any MPs as a guest — but I imagine that most listeners, even to Radio 4, would not see that as a privation after so many weeks of wall-to-wall politics.

On the other hand, I did invite the former world champion, Gary Kasparov, who in retirement from top-flight chess has devoted himself largely to the political struggle against Vladimir Putin. That formed the main theme of our interview. The discussion about his own physical risks if he were to have remained in Moscow were put into the sharpest perspective by the murder of Boris Nemtsov, soon after the programme was recorded.

But during our game the only terror was the one I experienced in trying to fend off Kasparov’s chessboard attack while also holding up my end of the conversation. Over the years, his grandmaster opponents had frequently spoken of the sheer intimidation they felt: and even in a friendly game in retirement against an amateur, I learnt that Kasparov is still terrifying. At one point he smiled wolfishly and declared, “I’m coming for you, don’t you worry”; and he played each move with a physical force that suggested nothing so much as the hammering of nails into a coffin.

Fortunately, as in the other two series, I play only one chess genius (in the first series I encountered the women’s world champion Hou Yifan, and in the second the men’s champion Magnus Carlsen). This time my eminent amateur opponents are the author of Stalingrad, Antony Beevor; the television presenter and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan (yes, really!); the investment guru and world’s biggest sponsor of chess, Rex Sinquefield; and the six-times world snooker champion, Steve Davis.

In our interview Steve told me that he was taught chess by his father when just five years old, before he ever picked up a snooker cue. And his love for chess has lasted: he still plays regularly online. In a way, the two games have much in common, even though the snooker balls are governed by Newtonian physics (being physical objects) while chess is purely geometric.

Both pursuits require the calculation of a series of moves ahead, and both require the ability to concentrate for hours at a stretch. So it’s not that surprising that Steve Davis’s manager for almost four decades, Barry Hearn, has described snooker as “chess with balls”.

There have been some chess grandmasters with more than a passing passion for snooker: the former world champion Anatoly Karpov was keen and once played a unique chess and snooker match against  Davis (no guesses required as to which man won which section of the event). Most notably, the six times chess champion of Russia, Peter Svidler, has devoted a large chunk of his life to playing snooker, and in fact made some money at it in games for stakes. 

In our interview, Davis was clear that snooker and chess are pursuits with less in common than I had tried to suggest and that the very finely honed physical skills required for his professional pursuit were absolutely critical to mastery of the snooker table. Indeed, he said that the main reason why at 57 he is no longer able to do what he once could at the table — and thus was no longer a contender at the very top — is an almost imperceptible loss of fine-motor co-ordination.

I reassured him that a similar decline afflicts chess players who are well into their sixth decade — although in their case it is to do with a loss in mental focus. Conversely, in both chess and snooker, players appear to achieve startling results at a much younger age than was once thought possible. In chess, this has much to do with the development of computer software which enables the young to assimilate knowledge rapidly in a way that was simply not possible in an earlier era. But for snooker there is no such explanation; perhaps it is just that thanks to Steve Davis’s renown and impeccable reputation, parents were happier than they had been to encourage their children to take up a game once seen as slightly seedy.    

For the moves of my game against Davis, you will need to go to where they will appear immediately after the broadcast. But if you can’t wait until then to see the former snooker champion in action over the board, here is the game he played against the Editor of Standpoint in a 1997 match between teams described as Academics and Philistines.

This was the amateur board but Daniel Johnson’s play with the black pieces here is as forceful as any professional’s: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 h6 6.Nc3 d6 7.h3 g5 (This looks like a risky shot, but it correctly targets White’s Kingside weakened by 7.h3) 8.Nxg5 (White should probably have reinforced the g4 square and gone for safety with 8.Nh2. Instead Davis hazards a long pot) hxg5 9.Bxg5 Rg8 10.h4 Bg4 11.Qd2 Nd4 12.Nd5 (It looks as if Davis is about to embark on a big break, but Daniel’s thunderous reply reveals just how well placed the balls are for Black) Bf3! 13.Kh1 (13.c3 seems more challenging, but then Daniel would have been able to execute a spectacular clearance with 13…Nxd5! 14.Bxd8 Rxg2+ 15.Kh1 Rxf2+ 16.Kg1 Rxd2 17.Bxd5 Rg2+ 18.Kh1 Rf2+ 19.Kg1 Ne2 checkmate)….Nxd5! 14.Bxd5 (Taking the Queen with 14.Bxd8 now leads to mate in two with 14….Bxg2+ 15.Kh2 Nf3++)…Qd7 15.Kh2 Bxg2! and since 16.Kxg2 Qg4+ leads to rapid checkmate, Davis conceded the frame.

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