November 15, 2004

I drew with a man...

I danced with a man, who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales...
In Bobby Fischer's classic My Sixty Memorable Games, the very first game in the book is one he won at the New Jersey Open of 1957 against a player called James Sherwin. On Saturday, I played the very same James Sherwin, forty-seven years later, in a tournament at Birkbeck College. I got a draw.

He wasn't at all pleased about it, since his grading is rather higher than mine and his position was rather better than mine for most of the game. He wasn't happy. In fact, he was a thoroughly miserable old man. By contrast, I wasn't miserable at all. I fought hard for that draw, rescuing a poor position, keeping my nerve under pressure and steering myself to the draw before I ran out of time. I was even happier when I got home and discovered that, in fact, Sherwin once beat Bobby Fischer - in the very next game they played after his famous defeat. That's something to think about. I drew with a man who once beat Bobby Fischer.

I know it's a rather half-arsed claim to fame, not just because the victory and the draw were forty-seven years apart, but because I beat a man who once beat Bobby Fischer would be a rather greater distinction. And bearing in mind that I had been quite prepared to settle for I lost to a man who once beat Bobby Fischer and still count it to my credit, the draw itself isn't so very much to talk about. But I don't care. It matters to me.

Moreover, the very fact that his game against Fischer was forty-seven years ago is part of the appeal. Normally you get your result in first and then wait for them to get famous - beat (or draw with) a promising junior and then wait for them to become a grandmaster, in much the same way as you might see a band playing to an audience of seven at a pub and then tell everybody about it when they were household names. I've beaten at least one junior from whom I'm hoping for great things in the future, in the selfish hope of seeing a reward for this investment in future anecdote.

But this way round, you start hopping backwards, towards history already made. In his book Corruptions of Empire Alexander Cockburn writes:

I like skipping across the brother Andrew and I made a point last year of calling on Joe Vesel at his home near Carmel, California. Vesel was a witness to the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which prompted the outbreak of World War I, hence determining the destiny of our century. Vesel had also gone to school with the assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Vesel is bursting with vim at 85 [the piece was written in 1986 - ejh] and he plunged into a detailed lecture on Balkan politics at the time of the assassination, with much edifying incidental detail, such as how Emperor Franz Josef had kissed him on the forehead when he, Vesel, was 10. Franz Josef had as a young man surely known people who had listened to Mozart play at the Viennese court.

I later told my mother that I had shaken hands with this particular chapter of history, and she riposted with the information that as a little girl, her grandmother Edith Blake had met an elderly Frenchman who as a little boy had been one of Marie Antoinette's pages. Edith asked him if Marie Antoinette had been pretty. He said, "Very", and drew a sketch of the Queen, which I can remember looking at when I was a youth.

So from Sherwin I get to Fischer, who drew with Botvinnik, who beat and drew with Emanuel Lasker, which in four degrees of separation takes us right back to the nineteenth century and the start of the modern era. Of course I could have done the same without even getting a draw against Sherwin, but at least this way I feel I contributed something. I played my part. I drew with a man, a miserable old man, who once beat Bobby Fischer.


At November 16, 2004 10:36 am, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

You think that's a thin claim to fame?

Mine is that I once beat Luke McShane's Dad.

At December 29, 2007 7:57 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a marvellous little book, "Chess Treasury of the Air" (1966), compiled from a series on the Third Programme (yes, really: chess on BBC Radio!), which contains a great passage by Heinrich Fraenkel:

"Mieses [Jacques Mieses, the chess master] came to see us regularly every three weeks or so, and one day looking at my older boy, then aged about nine or ten, he told us that when he was that age in his native Leipzig elderly people -- not so very elderly at that, just ordinary septuagenarians -- would tell him of their vivid memories of Napoleon's grenadiers entering the city in 1806 and leaving it again six or seven years later when the famous battle of Leipzig was being fought.

There and then I asked Mieses to sit down at the chess table opposite my son. It wasn't much of a game for the boy could just about set up the pieces and shove them around a bit, and for a minute or two Mieses helped him do so. What I had in mind was to provide for a story which, over the years, would prove more and more embellishable. I was thinking ahead to the first decade of the twenty-first century -- my son would then be getting on for seventy -- and how in his local chess club they might talk about legendary masters of the distant past such as Mieses, whose links went back to the beginning ofthe nineteenth century.

`Mieses?' my son would up and say; `Old Mieses? Why, I knew him well. He came to my father's house ever so often.'

`You didn't actually play chess with him?' an over-awed youngster might ask.

`I certainly did', my son would say (and by then he'll be firmly convinced of speaking the truth), `many a game we played. Quite thrilling ones too. The old boy was a glutton for gambits, don't you know. Pity I seem to have mislaid all the scores.'

And with a modest afterthought (I hope!), he will add: `Of course he won most of the time; after all, I was a mere child, and he was a famous old Grandmaster.'"

Well, here we are, in the first decade of the 21st Century. I wonder if Fraenkel's son is still alive, and did he ever tell the anecdote?

At December 29, 2007 8:15 pm, Blogger ejh said...

Thanks for that. I'm sure I have that book somewhere: I can remember reading it in a pub in Newmarket midway through a congress there.


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