LIKE many people, I was so transfixed by the return of The Crown in October that I failed to notice the start of another Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. Since then I have joined the millions who have been charmed and entranced by the story of the girl who grew up to be the first chess champion, which has now attracted even more viewers than The Crown.
The Queen’s Gambit should have caught my eye earlier because I became closely involved with the chess world at one time. But not in the 1960s, in which the series is set. I was then into bridge, especially the notorious bridge scandal at the world championship in Buenos Aires in 1967, which I covered in my early days on The Observer. That story would have made a good series in itself.
What happened was that the leading British pair, Terence Reese and Boris Shapiro, were kicked out of the tournament for cheating, which obviously caused a massive storm, with the British team pulling out of the contest in protest. The Observer was embarrassed because Reese was its long-standing and highly respected chess correspondent and the writer of classic works on bridge. It was alleged that the number of fingers they showed when they held their cards indicated to their partner how many hearts they held.
Reese and Shapiro strenuously denied the allegations and were supported by a British inquiry, led by a QC and a general and lasting many months, which concluded that the cheating had not been proved. Shapiro had by then retired from international competition, but Reese carried on and was allowed to enter tournaments, even though the World Federation never withdrew its allegations against the British pair.
I remember having a lunch with Reese in his spartan bachelor pad in a London mews, in which he pointed out that it was normal for players to have three or four cards in the same suit in their hand and also normal for them to have three or four hearts.
The air was never really cleared, with many people in the notoriously bitchy bridge community continuing to believe that Reese and Shapiro were guilty as charged. The case against the pair was fuelled by a claim made by a bridge-playing friend and publisher in 2005, after both players had died, that Reese had once admitted to using the hearts-in-the-hand ploy as part of plan to write a book about how easy it was to cheat at bridge – a project he abandoned after the Buenos Aires affair.
The magazine Bridge World said the official attitude to the case was “muddled” and that the players should therefore be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. My own view is that Reese was far too good a player, and far too fastidious a man, to feel any need to resort to cheating.
From bridge I moved on, a decade or so later, to the world of snooker and wrote a couple of books on the subject. I was lucky enough to be following the snooker circuit at a time when the game was dominated by such colourful figures as Hurricane Higgins, Jimmy White (“the Tooting tearaway”), Cliff Thorburn (“the cool riverboat gambler”), Ray Reardon (“the Welsh Dracula, the Prince of Darkness”) and, craziest of all, Bill Werbeniuk, (“the Canadian teddy bear”, who needed 20 pints of lager to keep his hands steady enough to play).
I was also lucky that the same year produced the greatest snooker match in history, the world final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor (the man with the giant glasses) which was settled on the final black of the final frame, the only time Taylor had been ahead in the whole event. It was watched by a record 18.5 million people on television after midnight on a Sunday. I went on to ghost Dennis’s book about his life.
Chess followed soon after when I was asked to help Garry Kasparov, the world champion, to write his autobiography. This was quite a challenge and certainly a big change of gear. The Russian had perhaps the biggest IQ in the universe: Dennis, shall we say, did not. Kasparov, as I discovered, also had one of the biggest egos in the universe. Perhaps he needed that degree of self-confidence to give him the strength to overcome the many obstacles put in his way by his own Russian authorities, who favoured Karpov as their champion because he was a Slav and more genuinely Russian than Kasparov, who was half-Jewish and half-Armenian.
So: bridge, snooker, chess, all very different worlds. I went with Kasparov to tournaments all over the world. I recognised the kind of characters depicted in The Queen’s Gambit, especially the chess addicts in the Grandmasters’ room at each tournament, trying to outguess the players and, in Kasparov’s case, frequently getting caught out. I was in Brussels once watching a tournament where it was the unanimous view of the Grandmasters that a game was petering out into an inevitable draw.
Suddenly, in a flurry of moves, Kasparov had won. In the lift on the way back up to his hotel room I asked Garry: how many moves ahead did you plan that trap for your opponent? “Thirteen,” he replied curtly.
Garry finally had to leave Russia after a racial pogrom in Azerbaijan and credible fears that KGB would kill him because of his fierce opposition to Putin. When someone said in his presence that Putin was strong, Garry replied: “Putin is strong in the way arsenic is strong.” I have a profound admiration for Kasparov’s courage, but I worry about the dangers he faces as a relative pawn in the political arena.
In Judit Polgar, the Hungarian prodigy, we also had a woman chess champion who once beat Kasparov when he was world number one. But she was born in 1976, a decade after the setting of The Queen’s Gambit. She became a Grandmaster at 15, younger than anyone else of either sex. The last time I saw her play she also had red hair like Anya Taylor-Joy, the beguiling actress who plays the heroine in The Queen’s Gambit, and had the same sort of stare to fix on her opponent across the table. The only difference is that Beth Harmon’s stare seems to go right through the television screen as well.
The game I won’t see
Today is only the second time I haven’t been able to watch England play a rugby international, either in person or on TV, for about 40 years. The first one was last week when they beat Wales. The matches are only available on Amazon Prime, to which I don’t subscribe.
Even when I was editing The Observer and its publishing day was a Saturday, I had a TV set in my office. I also had bets with Welsh, Scottish and Irish members of staff and did especially well when England won the Grand Slam in 1991 and 1992. Our Moscow correspondent came in to see me early one Saturday evening at that time and said there was a queue of people waiting outside to see me, all clutching fivers like supplicant serfs waiting to see the Tsar.
I’m betting on England to beat France today to win the final of the Nations Trophy, though sadly I won’t see them do it.