IBCA Olympiad, Weymouth 1968
here to see all the games of the IBCA Olympiad 2017
by John Graham
"It had seemed such a good idea the year before," said the Weymouth organizer, "now, at one o'clock in the morning, standing on a bare railway platform in Weymouth and listening to the broken English of a helper explaining that the interpreter had died on the way from Poland, the idea was wearing thin."
A year before, a blind friend had asked if I would organize the third world championship for blind chess teams. It was not an unreasonable request - I was already editing and producing an international tape-recorded chess magazine for the blind - I had the contacts - I was a contributor to the 'Dorset Evening Echo'. I had a seaside resort for the venue. I was sighted. I said "O.K. - as long as I don't have to collect the funds."
I need not have worried. Hans, the Secretary of the British Blind Chess Association, was a whiz at collecting funds. As teams began to respond to our invitation, he first persuaded Mr. Marks of 'Marks and Spencers' to sponsor the Israeli team because the Russians were sponsoring a team. Then he told the Soviet Embassy that the Israelis were fully funded but the Soviet team couldn't afford to come. We only told one lie. Meanwhile, I had formed a group of U.S. blind players into a national team and persuaded George Koltonowski, the San Francisco chess columnist, to accompany them. A San Diego violinist's foundation provided the funds once they knew that Koltonowski was coming. Funds grew on other funds, with a little persuasion, and soon the event was ON. Now it was up to me and Weymouth.
The Fairhaven hotel was being reconstructed and I was able to persuade the owner of the rambling building on the sea front to add elevators. Since the building had been assembled from three older hotels, its corridors and innumerable staircases invited accidents if you were sighted or not. In the final event, the elevators were unnecessary and the blind visitors rejected warning tapes that I had planned for each staircase. They would take their chances, they said. In the two weeks of the tournament, three players fell down flights of stairs but no one was injured - if you're blind you relax in falling, you don't grasp for a hold that you cannot see.
We invited every blind chess team we knew - those from 20 nations. Eventually, they all managed support and all turned up. Each brought a team of four players with two sighted helpers.
In 1968, Britain did not recognize East Germany and I was warned by the U.K. Foreign Office that East German nationals would only be allowed to enter the country as individuals rather than as a team. I had to promise that they would neither be allowed to wave their flag nor sing their anthem. That was annoying because I had arranged for each table to show the flag of its competing nation (and the media would be watching) and we might even sing to each other in the evenings. So, when the East Germans came and learnt of the restrictions, they naturally objected - they announced that they would go home and take the other Soviet block countries with them. How strange that now sounds since the Soviet Union is no more but it was a serious threat in 1968. I found a solution. Since I, the organizer, was the only one who had actually made the promise to the British Government, I offered to leave and they could organize everything between them.
"Well, let's not be hasty." was the unanimous reply.
We worked it out: inside the hotel the East Germans would be allowed to wave whatever flag they chose (even the Welsh one that I offered), and sing whatever anthem they chose. Outside the hotel we asked for more decorum. However, since play would take place only in hotel rooms they were the only places where flags were needed. All was well. My threat, together with a little diplomacy, worked.
Apart from arranging for two weeks of team play I was also charged with providing entertainment each evening for 80 blind players, and their 40 sighted helpers. So, the months before the event had been a fury of looking for opportunities which entranced senses other than sight - a visit to the Devenish brewery (which we had to repeat several times), a visit to the seaside, a concert, a musical get-together, and an international evening with the local blind of Weymouth.
Apart from a chess magazine for the blind, Weymouth volunteers ran 'The Sound of Weymouth', a recorded entertainment for the blind, a sort of local radio program of recorded interviews and music before local radio came into being. I planned to make a similar tape of entertainment for the international evening.
Thus, I contacted each of the twenty embassies for a sample of their nation's music together with, perhaps, a recorded message of welcome to their national blind team. All save one immediately sent music and recorded contributions. 'The U.S. was too busy.' I wrote saying that I understood their dilemma and that I was simply looking for advice. Should I play "Yankee Doodle-Dandy", since it was the only piece of American music that I had at hand?
A reply telegram appeared by return - 'Do not play the suggested music, recorded contribution on way.' They eventually did us proud - the ambassador had recorded a resounding cheer for the team with an exhortation to do well. He had also included a musical contribution that would not offend any Civil War sensibilities. After all the arrangements, the joint meeting was a great success and the local blind felt they were part of the Olympiad, which, of course they were. But I get ahead of myself again.
In those days I did not delegate well. I did most things myself. Amongst other things, I wrote letters, negotiated with the hotel hosts and selected the meals. I purchased the medals and flags, arranged for sets and boards, and wrote to firms, like Wedgwood, for gifts for participants and organized volunteer helpers. In addition, I wrote the newspaper columns for the Dorset Evening Echo (weekly before the event but daily during it) for delivery at 1:00 a.m., I laid out the tables for play before 7:00 a.m., calculated scores, and drove the rented van to meet incoming teams at the railway station. Now here I was, at one o'clock in the morning, meeting the Polish team, which had just announced that one of their sighted guides had died on the way and they had brought the body with them.
That next morning, amongst all other tasks, I had to move the body to a mortuary and find a Polish speaker in an English seaside resort - one who could devote the better part of two weeks to helping four young blind men to play chess. Astoundingly, I found one.
Besides the grim reality of a Polish death, each team had its own problems.
The event was held in April to avoid the summer resort prices. So, the U.S. team was always cold at night and needed extra blankets. George Koltonowski, a man who was famous for his photographic memory and intelligence, rose one morning, too cold to sleep, and in the bathroom, still dazed from sleep, cleaned his teeth with my hair cream.
The Israeli team had arrived with full security. They had a sighted chess organizer and a security man from the Hagganah. But the young men of the team, all North-African Arabs who had suffered more war wounds than simple blindness, were always eluding their "helpers" and going out on the town alone. They would walk, single file, each with a hand on the next man's shoulders, and blunder through the streets, each taking the lead after the prior lead had been battered enough in knocking into walls and railings. I rescued them one evening after they blundered into a Chinese restaurant to find beer and failed to understand Britain's quaint restaurant licensing laws: 'no food, no drink'. Even today, the picture of a Chinese restaurant proprietor explaining English law to four blind French-speaking Arab Jews is unique. These lively young men did not play strong chess but they were intent on having a good time. They elected at the end of the tournament to return to Israel via Paris in order to 'see' the Moulin Rouge nudist display.
Tournament play was arranged with a preliminary session to grade the teams, and then a longer final session as the real competition. Each game had a primary chess set on which the moves were made by helpers and each player had a smaller set (about 7" square) over which he, or she, could feel the entire span of pieces with their hands. A player would make his move on his small board, announce his move aloud in German, and record it in Braille. The opponent would then make the move on his board and a helper would make it on the large set for the sake of onlookers. It was a little more complicated than in a sighted tournament, but it went well. The hall buzzed with announced moves and the chattering of Braille recorders.
The whole competition went well - there were enough boards and sets, hall facilities were good, there were plenty of guides and helpers, refreshments and meals were on time and well received, and the day's reports were being printed each day in the local newspaper. I couldn't believe that there could be no problems when I had spent the past year running from one crisis to another.
Evening entertainment - another earlier concern was much less trouble than I had expected. The visit to the old brewery was the greatest success. Its creaky wooden stairs and floors, the smell of fermenting grain, malt, and brew, coupled with a taste of various samples, was such a sensory feast that the visitors were not content with a single visit - they insisted that they return the next day and the next. The coach visit to the beach culminated in paddling on the shingle shore was another sensual experience that the visitors enjoyed. Most had never paddled before. Then the international evening proved so musically inspiring that the visitors decided to put on their own musical evening. Overnight, I was asked to find several guitars and an accordion. A notice in the paper the following morning provided instruments within hours and we had a real German 'biergarten fest' ready made.
At the end of two weeks, there was a grand awards evening. After all the good fellowship of chess and music, the opportunity provided by speeches brought the old political ambitions to the surface. After all, each team had two sighted helpers - a chess expert and an official. The official was generally political. Certainly, they were for the Soviet Union and Israel. This was their turn in the sun. Immediately, a dispute broke out - the Israelis had brought a gift for Weymouth's Mayor so they demanded that they speak first to present the gift. However, the Soviet team had won the tournament so they demanded first spot on the program. Impasse! Everyone shouted and argued. A decision had to be made. Thank the lord for international chivalry: I remembered that the Rumanian team alone was lead by a woman so I announced that she would speak first. The protests ceased and we had smiles for the remainder of the ceremony.
In my home, there are reminders of that hectic fortnight: a pair of magnificent
black Wedgewood chess pieces and a small white bear. The little bear is
in recognition of the difficulties that the East German team brought me.
I have a memory of the team waving its flag in public at the closing ceremony
in the Town Hall along with everyone else. And so it should be.
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