• The Golden Age of English Chess

The enormous publicity for chess triggered by Fischer v Spassky, plus Slater’s prizes for the first five British grandmasters, sparked a golden age for English chess. The number of GMs went from zero to several dozen. In the Olympiads of 1984, 1986 and 1988, England won silver medals behind Soviet gold.

How was this achieved? The young talents came largely from grammar and public day schools, where St Paul’s produced four GMs and Bolton two. Frequent strong weekend opens had hundreds of competitors, low entry fees, high prizes, and a national Grand Prix. Clubs like Centymca and Richmond played their part. Dozens of juniors were invited to play in simuls against star GMs, right up to Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov, or received financial help to play at Lloyds Bank, Hastings, and other major events.

Dubai 1986 was close to the supreme achievement of gold ahead of a USSR team headed by Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. With four rounds of 13 left, England had won eight matches and drawn 2-2 with the Soviets, whose team they led by two points. The Guardian even had an editorial prepared, praising England’s victory. Then came an ugly episode where England’s Spanish opponents appeared to get advice from USSR trainers during play, England lost the match badly, and at the end the Soviet team edged gold by just half a game point.

The last hurrah of the English chess boom came when Nigel Short defeated Anatoly Karpov, the then world No 2, 6-4 in their 1992 Candidates semi-final. They were level at 3.5-3.5 before Short took control in game eight.

In the 1993 world championship match against Kasparov Short spoilt some good chances as White but was outclassed as Black. His misfortune was that he was born Kasparov’s contemporary rather than at a different period. The standard of play he showed against Karpov would have been enough for even chances against many of the other world champions of the Soviet era – Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Vassily Smyslov or Spassky.

Realistically, the chances for a new golden age of English chess are remote, even with the welcome backing of government money which could have made the difference had it been available in the 1970s and 1980s. The 2020s are likely to be the era of India, Uzbekistan, and the US, where Fabiano Caruana, the world No 2 and the favourite for next month’s Candidates in Toronto, is currently leading this week’s $250,000 American Cup.

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