Bringing Chess to Visually Impaired People

The Gazette - November 2009

Sponsored by The Primary Club
Edited by Guy Whitehouse
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.

Obituary: John Littlewood

The BCA lost one of its most prestigious members when John Littlewood died on 16th September, 2009. He was 78 years old.

John was born on 25th May 1931, the fourth of eleven siblings, in Sheffield. He showed no interest in chess until the age of thirteen, when he played against a friend and lost. The experience of continually losing to his friend spurred him to go to the library and read every chess book he could get his hands on. Soon the roles were reversed, and he also found that he could beat every player at the local club as well. He later went on to win chess tournaments during his time at Sheffield University.

National service interrupted his chess career; during his time in the forces he taught reading and writing to soldiers. He then went into teaching, and resumed his chess career with a creditable performance at the British Championship in York.

The tournament that most chess enthusiasts talk about in connection with John’s career is the Hastings 1961, when John launched a fearsome attack against Botvinnik, which the then world champion was only able to defend through a tactical finesse. Botvinnik thought highly enough of the game to include it in the book of best games. But there were also other notable performances by John at that tournament, notably a 25-move win against the American grandmaster Arthur Bisguier, which led to the American asking: “What do they feed this guy on? Raw meat?” John was also proud to have defeated the German grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann twice.

John represented England twice at the Chess Olympiad, scoring 6/13 (all decisive results) in 1962 and 5/7 (no losses) in 1972. In 1969 he came close to tying for first place in the British Championship with the legendary Penrose, but spoiled a promising position against Frank Parr in the final round. In 2006 John became national seniors champion at the age of 75, and finished equal first in 2008. He was also an active chess writer to the very last, submitting his “Littlewood’s choice” column on the day before he died. He was also one time director of junior chess in England.

On top of all this John proved to be a great friend to the BCA. He regularly coached the Olympiad team, reading many hours of material on to cassette for them. He acted as travelling companion and guide to Hans Cohn during his presidency of IBCA, and Hans remembers one particular incident that took place in the IBCA Individual World Championship in Moscow in 1986. Hans had recently had a plastic eye fitted, and the fit was as yet not perfect so that it fell out at the breakfast table. John dived under the table to retrieve it, and a Russian waiter approached and asked what was wrong. In his best Russian John explained that “my friend has lost an eye”, whereupon the waiter let out a scream and ran off.

If it sounds as if John only mixed with the chess greats, I should perhaps point out that when the BCA started contacting coaches to see if they would give lower-graded BCA players coaching, John was one of the very few who said that he would. This seems to confirm what others have written about John, that he was a genuinely kind and courteous man who showed that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to combine a genuinely high level of ability with a pleasant and likeable personality.

Information for this obituary was taken from an article linked to by the ECF website. BCA members also contributed.

Guy Whitehouse.