My father taught me chess, and I used to play against him and for my secondary school teams without knowing any opening "theory" beyond Scholar's Mate (indeed I recall thinking as a 16-year-old that an opponent was a bit of a clever-dick for mentioning the Sicilian Defence, which I'd never heard of!). I first started taking chess more seriously in early 1975, joining Sittingbourne Chess Club and beginning to expand my primitive opening repertoire (initially relying on simple lines of the Scotch, Classical French, and Nimzo-Indian). I soon discovered the King's Gambit, which hugely increased my enjoyment of the game, and in the summer of 1975 I chose as a school prize – for performance in the "lower sixth" – my first book of opening theory, Korchnoi and Zak's The King's Gambit. Thanks partly to scoring well with this exciting new weapon, I won various individual tournaments, and got selected for Kent Juniors (for whom I was playing Board 11 by January 1976). But the real highlights of this period were when the Sittingbourne second team won the Kent Stevenson Cup in 1976, and the first team won the Kent Lewis Cup in 1978 (I played top board in both campaigns).
At Oxford, I played quite a lot of chess and improved rapidly, both captaining the Lincoln College team for a number of years (including victory in the inter-college "Cuppers" knockout competition) and also playing for the University. As a postgraduate, I captained the University's "Pieces" team in the Oxford league in the 1981-82 season, when we won the First Division having won every match (including two against our University "Pawns" rivals), and I was then invited to captain the Oxford University team in the National Chess Club Championship, which we won in 1983 (beating Cambridge in the final).
When I went to teach at Glasgow, 400 miles away from my new wife down in Brighton, I found chess to be a very helpful distraction from my rather depressing situation (in which I was lonely, very poor, and in two departments whose staff members, though pleasant, were none of them anywhere near my age). I played for the University club (winning the Glasgow University Championship of 1984), and spent lots of time analysing the fascinating combinations arising from a wonderfully swashbuckling variation of the King's Gambit. Some years later I wrote up some of that analysis, in the following article:
- The Double Muzio Gambit, published in Correspondence Chess 102, April 1989, pp. 6-15 (the final combination later found its way into Jonathan Levitt and David Friedgood's book Secrets of Spectacular Chess, Batsford 1995, pp. 122-3, under the section "Beauty in the Opening").
This study, by forcing me to focus on objective assessment rather than practical chances, helped to turn me from an opportunist over-the-board tactician into a far more careful and thoughtful analyst. A couple of years after I got my job at Leeds, a friend suggested I take up correspondence chess, and then I found that I was far stronger as an analyst than I'd ever been over the board. After working my way up through the qualifying leagues, in 1990 I played in the British Correspondence Chess Championship, which I won outright with 8/10, gaining the British Master title. The British Postal Chess Federation then nominated me to play in a World Championship Semifinal, which again I won outright (with 10/12), giving me the International Master title and an ICCF Rating of 2610, number 31 in the world (and no rated losses so far). This gained me an invitation to play in the NPSF-50 tournament, celebrating the 50th year of the Norwegian Postal Chess Federation, and the first ever "Category 15" tournament (i.e. with an average rating of 2600 or more – the "supergrandmaster" level). This was really tough, including many of the strongest players in the world, and I was delighted to come 5th (outright) with a score of 8/14, thus becoming in 1997 England's 10th ever International Grandmaster of correspondence chess. (In a subsequent ICCF rating list, the four players who outscored me – Andersson, Timmerman, Van Oosterom and Elvert – were placed 1, 2, 3 and 6 in the world!) Amongst the highlights for me were a win with Black against Colin McNab (a Scottish over-the-board grandmaster) and a draw with Black against Ulf Andersson (the tournament winner, who had previously been a candidate for the over-the-board World Championship).
Meanwhile, in 1986-87 I had started to participate in Gambit tournaments, having fun trying out my exotic Muzio analysis. One of my opponents, Nick Down, was subsequently banned from competition after winning the British Ladies Correspondence Championship under the pseudonym "Leigh Strange", and since he was unable to continue, invited me to take over his team, the "Knights of the Square Table", which was competing in the British Correspondence Chess League. Building in strength each year (thanks to recruits from my old Oxford friends and new correspondence chessfriends), we won the BCCL Premier Division in 1988, the Championship in 1989, and then went on to win the British Postal Chess Team Championship – the top British correspondence chess team competition – for five years from 1990 to 1994 inclusive before retiring undefeated: a record that we hope will stand for a very long time!
Showing the Double Muzio Gambit to an East Kent Gazette reporter after winning something (1975)
The final move against Cliff Chandler, to become British Champion in 1990