I posted some video clips earlier about a chess player called John Healy. One clip was of a film made in 1992 which was called ‘The Grass Arena’ after his autobiography of the same name. The other clip was of a trailer of a documentary about his life called ‘Barbaric Genius’. This weekend I watched the documentary and read his book.
The book starts with his childhood in London. His parents were Irish immigrants and his dad was a cruel, loveless man. At 15 John started to drink and soon became an alcoholic who ended up living on the streets of London for 10 years. Because of vagrancy laws and a lack of any social services his life was hard, violent and dangerous – his time was spent either drunk or in prison. Whilst he was in prison he discovered chess and chess took over the part of him that drink had held. He became addicted to chess and good at it. It is a great read, the books beauty lies in the authenticity of the writing and the lack of self pity or moral questioning. It is available as a penguin classic.
The documentary followed the same course as the book and reviewed his life history but it was great to also get a glimpse of who John Healy is now. He is aware that a darkness was created in his childhood and the rest of his life has been a quest to overcome that broken begining and it is moving to see him do this through bravery, curiosity and tenacity. The documentary is available vis iTunes.
On top of all this it is great to see that he was able to start chess at 30 and get good enough to win tournaments and draw to the likes of Bent Larsen.
Here are some violent miniatures of his that come from a chess book he wrote (which I haven’t read yet) called Coffee House Chess Tactics.
On the weekend a chess shop was having a clearance of all it’s older stock. This included chess books. I went along and bought five for $25. They were: ‘Chess, The History of a game’, ‘Bobby Fischer goes to war’, ‘The Best of Chess Life’, ‘Kings Gambit’ and ‘Wining With The Scandinavian’. I also bought a chess clock (that I need to return because only one side works) and was given free photocopied work sheets; one on the Grunfeld defence and one on the Marshall attack.
I have almost finished the chess history book and it’s been interesting so far. It starts by looking back to the earliest origins of chess which can be proven back to around 600AD and intimated at around 450AD. The history starts in India then moves to Persia (Iran) before spreading first to Sicilly and Spain via Islam and then spreading through Europe especially to Paris and London. Later it moves to Russia but I haven’t read that far. I’m glad I also read the Chess Queen by Yalom (see earlier post) because this fills in what I consider to be an omission – the changing value of the pieces, particularly the queen, and the changing rules of the game.
I have also been reading ‘Fundamental Chess Openings’ (see earlier post). This is a great book in that it runs through all the well known openings and gives a bit of history and background to openings. It talks about the shift from 1.e4 to 1.d4 in history and then continues to discuss modern flank openings. One opening paragraph inspired me to buy the ‘Kings Gambit’ book by Korchnoi at this sale but I’ll go into that more in my next post.
In the electronic world I found an app called e+chess that is a chess e-reader. It allows you to read some chess books and to click on annotated moves in the text. As you do moves occur on a board next to the text. It seems like a good idea and I have enjoyed reading, and viewing, some of Capablancas book ‘Chess Fundamentals’ which comes free with the app (which is also free). Other books are available as in app purchases. But, in luddite spirit, I still want to read paper books and unfortunately I have done very little ‘full board nirvana’ work – see earlier post. This makes it impossible to read books that focus on technique.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading because there are good chess books that don’t have games in them. The last one I read was a very moving book called ‘The Queen of Katwe’ by Tim Crothers. I found out about it while googling for chess stuff and there are some videos online about Phiona Mutesi, the queen of Katwe, that are good – here is a link to one
It’s a story of a girl from a Ugandan slum that follows her brother to a charity outreach place in the slum where, amongst other things, they teach chess. She goes there, and returns, because she gets a cup of porridge. She starts learning chess and enjoys the game and gets better and better at it to the point where she ends up competing internationally. What I find so uplifting is that chess, which is such an egalitarian game, can have the power to transport someone from hopeless poverty to a place of self value, dignity and ambition.
Another book I read was ‘Birth of the Chess Queen’ by Marylin Yalom. I’ve always wondered why the King is so passive and vunerable in chess while the Queen is so strong. Given the physical and historical differences between men and women you’d expect that the male figure would be the bold crusader while the queen might hide in the castle quaking. So this book was interesting. It talked about chess’ muslim beginings where the pieces are abstracted to avoid figurative and potentially idolotrative imagery and explained the growing scope of the chess queen from a piece that could only move one space in any direction to the dynamic piece we know know. It covered the history of europe as chess was developing and made links to powerful female historical figures at crucial times during chess’ expansion. It was a great read.
how does this make me improve at chess? Well I think it is fuel for my interest in chess and that’s got to help.