The Gazette - February 2021
Edited by Julie Leonard
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.
Looking Deeper: BCA in ‘Chess Magazine’
Readers of the November 2020 gazette will recall an article by Mark Kirkham reporting that the BCA was to feature in Chess Magazine. Sure enough, the piece, entitled “Looking Deeper”, which was written by our associate member, Ben Graff, appeared in the November issue of that highly respected publication, and we’re delighted to have received permission to include the text in this gazette. Our thanks go to Ben and Chess Magazine. As you’ve read in our Membership Secretary’s Report, we have gained a member as a result of the article, which is reproduced below.
Ben Graff enjoyed exploring the blind and partially sighted chess scene
“I don’t have a dis-ability, I have a different-ability.” Robert M. Hensel
“The beauty of chess is it can be whatever you want it to be... Whatever your circumstances, anyone can enjoy a good fight to the death over the chess board.” Simon Williams
Some readers might recall the congresses at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, many years ago. I certainly remember with fondness playing chess in the smoky dining hall and the games of cricket that would take place on the sun-drenched lawns between rounds. Yet my own family’s connection with the place went deeper than the chess I played there.
My mother, Mary, taught English at the RNCB for over twenty years. My father, Colin, was a college fund-raiser after his retirement. I got to know many of my mum’s students and was always inspired by their successes in so many different fields. More recently, at Leamington Chess Club, I was proud to count amongst my friends one of my mother’s former pupils, the late David Hodgkins, who never let being blind and severely deaf stand as an impediment to his talent.
For those of us who are fully sighted, chess is a very tough game. This is what draws us in and keeps us coming back. Being visually impaired undoubtedly has the potential to create further additional challenges. Yet the fact chess can work for all is what makes it so amazing. I had always wanted to explore the blind and partially sighted chess scene further. To look at the history and to hear the stories of players and organisers, both in the UK and internationally. I was keen to build my own understanding and wondered if there was more the rest of us could do to help welcome the visually impaired into our ranks.
I found that when it came to the history, the name of one man kept cropping up again and again. Reginald Bonham, founder of the Blind Chess Magazine in 1932 and of both the British and International Blind Chess Associations. Bonham was born with some sight, but this rapidly deteriorated and by the age of sixteen he had become an outstanding student at the Worcester College for the Blind. His academic prowess took him to Oxford, where as well as being the University Chess Champion, he was also a superb rower who came within a whisker of making the blue boat.
Bonham was the over-the-board blind world champion once and the blind correspondence world champion on five separate occasions. He would have considerable success in sighted events too, not least being Worcestershire County Champion 20 times, Midlands Champion four times and regularly competing in the British, finishing as high as ninth, no mean feat.
Bonham was a fantastic teacher, inspiring generations of blind and partially sighted players to take up the game on his return to Worcester College after his time at Oxford. His writing extended beyond the prodigious content of the Blind Chess Magazine. Bonham’s two books Chess Questions Answered and More Chess Questions Answered were classics of their time and are still highly readable today.
Jorgen Magnusson and Stan Lovell, who I spoke to during this piece, told me how much his writing had personally influenced them both.
Bonham's passion for chess, his determination to bring others to the game and his ability to build relationships, all served to create the foundations for the now thriving global blind and partially sighted chess community.
Reginald Bonham contributed so much by creating the organisations that have given many blind and partially sighted players a route into the chess world. He also deserves to be remembered as an extremely formidable competitor in his own right. What I like about this game is the way in which Bonham takes his time, squeezing his opponent until victory is assured.
R.Bonham - L.Alster, Correspondence (MCCU vs Czechoslovakia) 1947
King’s Indian Defence
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 g3 0-0 6 Bg2 e5 7 Nge2 exd4 8 Nxd4 Nc6 9 Nxc6 bxc6 10 0-0 Be6
11 Qa4 Nd7 12 Be3 Ne5 13 c5 Nc4 14 Nd1 Nxe3 15 Nxe3 dxc5 16 Rad1 Qe7 17 b3 Bd7 18 Qa5 Be6 19 Rd2 Bd4
20 Nc2 Rfd8 21 Nxd4 cxd4 22 Rc1 Rab8 23 Rxc6 Rb6 24 Qc5 Qxc5 25 Rxc5 Rd7 26 e5 Ra6 27 f4 h5
28 Bb7 Rb6 29 Bc8 Rd8 30 Bxe6 Rxe6 31 Rxc7 Ra6 32 Kf2 Ra3 33 Kf3 a5 34 Rc4 Kf8 35 Ke4 d3 36 Rd4 Rxd4+
37 Kxd4 a4 38 b4 Ke7 39 Kc4 Ke6 40 b5 1-0
Today, Jorgen Magnusson is the secretary of the International Blind Chess Association (IBCA), and a four-time IBCA junior world champion, as well as being a FIDE Master and an Associate Professor. He told me that as a child he would commute from the north of Stockholm to a specialist school for the blind in the south of the city. This was around the time of Karpov’s 1974 match with Korchnoi and Jorgen remembered being excited that two people could be engaged in “competitive thinking”. He asked the school bus driver if he knew how to play and while he was not an expert, the driver knew how the pieces moved and this was enough to get Jorgen started.
“There is a kind of fairness to chess,” Jorgen told me. “It is possible for a totally blind person to compete against a sighted player. Perhaps it is not an entirely level playing field, but you can compete on near equal terms. The reality is though that if you lose your sight before the age of five or six your capacity for abstract thinking will be affected. Spatial awareness is a much easier concept to grasp if you can see.”
Jorgen was quick to highlight the way in which chess has helped him more generally. “Being blind or partially sighted can make you quite passive. It can be hard to imagine an abstract place. Chess can train those specific capacities that blindness hampers – so can really help as a life-skill training point. When I took my PhD, because of chess I knew I could solve the kind of practical problems it would entail. Chess gave me a kind of confidence to succeed at other things, no question.”
Jorgen told me that he had played in both events for blind and partially sighted players, and mainstream tournaments. I asked him if there were any specific challenges for blind players and he highlighted the basic difficulty of finding your way around a venue (and the wider event locality), when you do not know the place. He noted that events in hotels often worked best because there was a much smaller area to find your way around and the hotel staff were invariably helpful, but even so you would still need a guide.
Jorgen said that he had had very few difficult incidents against sighted players, but did remember playing an International Master in a rapid game, being up by queen to rook and a minute to ten seconds on the clock. The IM said it was too stressful to move Jorgen’s pieces for him and the arbiter declared the game a draw. Jorgen would get his revenge by winning the next few longplay games with the IM.
I did get a sense from a number of those I interviewed that while most sighted players could not be more welcoming to the visually impaired, a very small minority can be less so. I even heard a story of one player asking not to be paired with a blind player, which is clearly far from helpful behaviour.
Jorgen told me that as the Secretary to the IBCA, a large part of his work involves securing the funding for the blind chess Olympics, world championship and other events. It is not always easy, and Jorgen mentioned that the next Olympics has been moved back by a year to avoid a clash with the para-Olympics, which has arisen because of the impact of coronavirus on the chess calendar. Jorgen said that it was important that those who were completely blind did not inadvertently get left behind, as the partially sighted would always need more access to training materials.
The current Swedish national team in IBCA events is largely completely blind. I asked Jorgen about whether there was a level playing field between blind and partially sighted chess players, and Jorgen noted that the latter must have some advantage. However, he highlighted that this was not always obvious. For example, a partially sighted player who is straining to look at the pieces for a prolonged period might struggle with a headache.
Jorgen was quick to praise the work of Lichess for making their site extremely accessible to blind players and was excited about the future of the IBCA. There will always be role for the IBCA, both independently and as a means for encouraging others to subsequently make the move into mainstream events. It was obvious how much chess had given to Jorgen and how passionate he was about playing his part in taking the game to others.
Notes by Jorgen Magnusson
J.Magnusson-J.M.Vela Ignacio, IBCA World Championship 2020
1 c4 e5 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 Nf3 Nc6 6 0-0 Be7
This move is commonly regarded as dubious. 6...Nb6 is preferred in order to prevent 7 d4, but I think the poor results Black has had with 6...Be7 are more a product of psychological factors. Those who allow 7 d4 feel they have lost control and underestimate their position. I still prefer 6...Nb6, but I do not think the text move is so bad either.
7 d4 exd4
7...e4 was played against me in a game I won quite quickly in 2008. After 8 Ne5 f5 9 Nxc6 bxc6 it might seem that Black has a terrible position. However, I have realised that White’s advantage is minimal if Black really
knows what to do.
8 Nxd4 Nxd4 9 Qxd4 Nb4?
Suddenly Black is lost. 9...Nb6 and 9...Nf6 lead to a comfortable but not huge advantage for White.
10 Qxg7 Bf6 11 Qh6 Nc2 12 Nc3 Nxa1 13 Rd1
Of course, I saw this position before taking on g7. But the calculation is pretty easy. As White has played some good moves and Black some fairly time-consuming ones, it does not take Mikhail Tal to sacrifice the rook.
13...Bd4 The rest of the game is fairly easy for White.
14 Bg5 Qd6 15 Qh4 c5 16 e3 f6 17 Qh5+ Kd8 18 Ne4 Qf8 19 Bxf6+ Kc7 20 exd4 Bd7 21 Qe5+ Kb6
22 dxc5+ Ka6 23 Rxd7 Qc8 24 Bf1 1-0
I first met Julie Leonard at a BCA tournament a few years ago. Julie has been the Editor of The Gazette, the BCA’s excellent magazine since 2014, organises many tournaments and is integral to the running of the BCA. Julie told me that her father, Colin, had taught her to play when she was four or five, on his braille set. Growing up with parents who were both blind, Julie highlighted that this was just what was normal to her. “We can be quick to label people as disabled, when actually they are able people who happen to be blind.”
I asked Julie how she saw the role of the BCA and she told me that it was many different things to different people. “We cater for top notch international players through to beginners. Some of our members are totally blind and others are partially sighted. We also welcome sighted players as associate members and they can play in our tournaments. Some of our members are people who have lost their sight later in life and the BCA can really help them, to either keep playing chess or to get started.” Julie said in some ways the BCA “is as much about a sense of community and belonging as it is about the chess. Some of our members have been with us for so long that they are now involving their children.”
The challenge is attracting new juniors. The education system is more integrated now than it once was, and fewer young blind players seem to learn chess in mainstream school than did so at specialist establishments for the blind in previous generations. Perhaps there are a greater range of things for people to do these days, which means chess is marginalised. Ultimately, more generally juniors are the lifeblood and the future, so this is clearly a concern. Still, if anyone is well placed to steer the BCA through these challenges, it has to be Julie.
I then spoke to Julie’s father, Colin Chambers, a renowned Olympian, long time BCA member and a familiar figure on the south-west chess circuit. Colin told me that he learnt the game at the Royal School for the Blind in Bristol, which he had started attending after losing his sight at the age of fourteen. Colin told me he had been a keen cricketer and footballer, and chess was the perfect way for him to continue to interact with sighted people.
Colin played for the school team and then later for the RNC in Shrewsbury, before going on to play for the various teams in the Bristol and Gloucester Leagues. Colin told me that chess had taken him all over the world, from “As far east to Turkey to as far west as Brazil.” Colin said that one of his greatest victories had come against blind world champion Sergey Krylov in a 1981 tournament to mark the year of the disabled in Austria. Colin always remembered chatting to “some guy” at the welcome buffet. It was only later that it was highlighted to him that he had been talking to the President of Austria.
Colin stressed how much chess had helped him professionally. His long and distinguished career in IT had come about almost entirely because a former boss had discovered he was a chess player and wondered if he might have an aptitude for IT, given this. A hunch that proved to be right. “Who knows how my career would have panned out if it hadn’t been for the lucky break chess had given me,” he mused.
Stan Lovell is also well known on the south-west chess scene and a BCA veteran. Stan said that he was born with a little sight, but had lost this by the age of twelve or thirteen. He noted how important the social side of chess was to him. Like most blind children at that time, he had gone to a boarding school and would come home to find he did not really know anybody. Chess enabled Stan to meet with people and to integrate. He told me, “I love the competitive side, but I’ve met so many life-long friends through playing chess. The BCA is a bit like a family. It is a tremendous thing. You can play these great games in this wonderful social atmosphere. It’s lovely.”
Stan told me that there would always be a place for tournaments for the visually impaired. That they work well in their own right, but are also a great way of giving those who want them the tools to play in mainstream events. Stan felt that if a blind player were not blind, they would probably be a slightly higher grade, which certainly seems to make sense. “It’s not an entirely level playing field. It cannot be. You can’t take in
the board at a glance, but ultimately chess is a game that is played in the head.” Perhaps it is all too easy to underestimate the added challenges blind and partially sighted people face in everyday life. “Making a cup of tea or a meal needs a bit more concentration, but you get used to it, you have to do it.”
Stan highlighted that since Covid-19 there had been a “big uptick” in games on Skype, with tournaments being organised with participants from all over the world. Stan noted he had played against people from Nicaragua and Peru, places you are unlikely to visit. We reflected that it was impossible to know when the world would go back to normal, but that events like this might well play a greater enduring part than in the past.
Finally, I spoke to Mark Kirkham, someone else I had previously met and share a family connection with. My mother-in-law taught at Tapton Mount, a primary school for the blind in Sheffield, and Mark had been one of her students. Mark was taught by his father, “A wonderful man and a terrible chess player”, but as with the bus driver who taught Jorgen, Mark’s father knew enough to get him started and was the provider of many lifts when Mark played for Sheffield University.
Mark told me that he “liked the fact that chess is very self-contained. It reflects life in some strange way. I love the fact that you must think on your feet. You can give people rule-of-thumb guidance, but there is no substitute for calculation. It is easy to either be too aggressive or too cautious. This really appeals to the mathematician in me.”
Mark has been on the BCA committee for a long time and is the organisation’s longserving librarian. He described part of his role as being to “guide less experienced players toward material that might be helpful.” He highlighted that the BCA would always appreciate volunteer readers, and this was another way in which the wider chess community could help out.
I felt truly inspired by the people I had met and the stories I had heard. From a former junior world champion in Jorgen to a man who had beaten one in Colin, so much had been achieved at the board. Yet perhaps what will stay with me most is what I learned about the way in which the blind and partially chess scene acts as a community. Welcoming people in and helping provide the skills and opportunities to progress not just at chess, but in life more generally. Julie, Mark, Stan, Colin and Jorgen are all heroes who have helped many others to enjoy the game we love.
If anyone wants to support the work of the BCA, whether as an associate member or a reader, they should contact Julie in the first instance. The next time you come across a blind player on the circuit, take the time to say hello. Whether we can see or not, chess means we all have far more in common than whatever happens to make us different.
1. Two integral pillars of the Braille Chess Association, Julie Leonard and her father, Colin Chambers, who once pulled off a giant-killing victory as he defeated world champion Krylov.
2. Nowadays resident in Scarborough, Stan Lovell has also been a lifelong BCA member.