Chess Composers A. J. Roycroft Autobiography


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Written by A. J. Roycroft   

No-one has done more to promote studies in Britain during the last half-century than John Roycroft, inspiration behind The Chess Endgame Study Circle, and founder of EG magazine. The following article first appeared in the Problemist of Ukraine No.2 (20) 2009.

John Roycroft and chess

by himself

Blame for my familiarity with chess must be laid squarely at the door of a certain Adolf Hitler. The Führer ordered the invasion of Poland for September 1st 1939, resulting two days later, a Sunday, in Britain declaring war on Germany. My parents, my 10-year-old self and two brothers, one older, one younger, were living in Brighton on the south coast. Dad deemed this an exposed spot and soon afterwards arranged for the rest of us to set up house in a tiny hamlet known as Calcot in North Wales. The accommodation was an ordinary house which we shared with the family of my father’s sister, similarly ‘refugees’, but from Liverpool. While we were there my uncle visited the house fairly regularly, as Liverpool was at no great distance, and taught chess to me and my elder brother Francis. I at once took to the game – “How many pieces can you have on one square?” I asked – but Francis did not, eventually saying that he would play me a game once a year, a ‘promise’ that unsurprisingly lapsed.

We didn’t stay in Calcot long, the summer of 1940 finding myself and Francis (the older by two years and five months) back on the south coast as boarders at Brighton College Preparatory School (note the same initials as the British Chess Problem Society). The lad in the dormitory bed next to mine had a pocket chess set. No one else took the slightest interest. Meanwhile the German advance into French territory was unstoppable. The miraculous cross-channel rescue of troops – the official final total was 338,226 – from Dunkirk stunned those of us able to understand what was going on. And the war in the air was beginning to hot up in the skies over England. Before the four Roycrofts undertook their second voluntary evacuation – Dad’s work in the Bank of England in the City of London kept him there, often on the roof of the Threadneedle Street building on fire-watching duty at night prepared to deal with incendiary bombs dropped by the raiding German Luftwaffe – we stayed for a while with another aunt, this time on my mother’s side, in Loughton, Essex, right on the edge of Epping Forest. I remember the difficulty I had persuading my mother to purchase my first chessboard and chess set costing, I think, four shillings (one fifth of a pound), from a local toy-shop. The set, a simple, unweighted, unfelted, wooden one of Staunton pattern (about which I knew absolutely nothing) became my constant companion in the years ahead.

Our third house-sharing experience took us late in September 1940, at the height of the London Blitz, again to North Wales, not with relatives this time but in the spacious vicarage at Llanrhaiadr, a neat little place on a hilly S-bend in the bus-route linking the towns of Denbigh and Ruthin. Being already a young bookworm – looking the part with spectacles after a teacher had noticed that I was short-sighted – I soon stumbled on treasures among the clutter in a neglected cupboard in the vicar’s study. Two books stand out in my memory: one on chess and one on Africa. The chess work was The Minor Tactics of Chess, unpromisingly riddled with jargon such as “third pawn integral” for a particular opening formation of eight white pawns, but at least it presented – and annotated – the Morphy ‘Opera’ game. The African book told of adventurous stuff about the Matabele chief Lobengula, setting my imagination on fire in another direction, to be satisfied only years later when I had with difficulty acquired from second-hand bookshops a private collection of the romantic African tales of H. Rider Haggard, especially the ones featuring hunter Allan Quatermain with his rifle Intombi (‘maiden’) and the Zulu warrior Umslopogaas with his axe Inkosi-kaas (‘chieftainess’). The search was an early test of persistence because it turned out that Rider Haggard used as many as six different publishers.

In 1942 Dad thought it was safe for us to rejoin him down south, at 37 King’s Road (moving later to 42 Richmond Hill) in Richmond-upon-Thames. The school I went to for two terms was Sheen County School, where the science teacher, Mr Mercer, ran an after-hours chess club. The bookshop in George Street, one of the ubiquitous W. H. Smith chain, actually had a few chess books on a top shelf. That was where I purchased the Rev. E. E. Cunnington’s inexpensive and simple-looking little book Lessons in Pawn Play, which I devoured. Speedily acquired expertise with the three-man endgame king and pawn against king, notably mastering the technique of posting the aggressive king ahead of the pawn, impressed Mr Mercer, who called me, the youngest player in the group, ‘the thinker’. My final pre-university educational port of call began in May 1943 after I won a scholarship to Malvern College – a ‘public’ school in the illogical English sense – where I was a boarder for five years until 1948. For at least three of those years I was ‘Captain of Chess’.

Certain acquisitions in this period left their mark. The first was H. J. R. Murray’s A History of Chess, a 1943 Christmas present from my father that I coveted from the moment I caught sight of it on a bottom shelf of Foyle’s bookshop – today still occupying five floors at the same address in the Charing Cross Road – and costing 45 shillings. The second was crucial: Sutherland & Lommer’s 1234 Modern Chess Endings, despite it being almost out of reach where it stood on the top shelf in J. & E. Bumpus’ bookshop (now long gone) at 477 Oxford Street just a few yards from Marble Arch. I stretched to take it down and browsed the diagrams on several successive visits before succumbing and forking out the required twelve shillings and six pence. Then, early in 1944 I once more badgered my father, this time to find me a copy of the British Chess Magazine, of whose existence I had just learned. How he tracked it down I don’t know but was I grateful?! With intense excitement I drank the February issue, printed on wartime economy paper. It reported the death of the American player Frank Marshall. I ought to mention two more books. Chess: An Easy Game was not much more than a pamphlet, but packed with good things, one of which was the short-solution, sacrificial 6-man pawnless study by T. B. Gorgiev featuring king, rook and bishop on each side. The last treasure was Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess 1908-1923, another purchase from Bumpus’ – ‘Booksellers to His Majesty the King’! Clutching this volume on the crowded route 73 bus on the way home to Richmond – that bus very conveniently covered the whole journey – the thoroughly English lady in the seat alongside, who seemed rather old to me, but may not have been, politely asked if I opened with P-K4 or with P-Q4. When I shyly answered ‘P-K4’ she vouchsafed the information that she had played internationally. I never did discover who she was, except that she was too slim to have been Vera Menchik, tragically killed two years later by a “V-1” (Vergeltungswaffe Eins or ‘Vengeance Weapon No.1’) flying bomb or doodle-bug, so nick-named from its magnified insect-like bumbling roar, a roar that haunts me still. Early in June 1944, a day or two after the Normandy landings, and from a dormitory window high on Harrow-on-the-Hill, I heard, and then watched, one of these beasts approaching, without knowing what it was. It was very close, and like a plane on fire, an evil dragon farting fire from its rear end. When a V-1 engine stopped overhead you knew you were in trouble because it dived straight into the ground, where its deadly cargo, its only cargo, exploded.

My over-the-board strength could be quite high – over the years I have won three ‘beauty’ or ‘brilliancy’ prizes – but it was inconsistent. However, my best win ever was not one of those prize-winners but was played against the late Hungarian GM László Szabó, even if he was playing 18 others at the same time! He had just triumphed at the Hastings Christmas 1947 international tournament and gave his simultaneous display on January 10th 1948 at the now long disappeared Gambit Chess Rooms in Budge Row in the City of London. My opponent advanced pawns to the seventh rank no fewer than three times during our game, but still lost. When on his 52nd move he turned the white king over I stood to shake hands, honoured at having defeated such an illustrious opponent.

So what about EG? Before I went to university (Trinity College Dublin, 1949-1953) I spent 16 months on compulsory National Service in the army. The last few months were spent at Shorncliffe Barracks hard by Folkestone on the English Channel coast. There was little to do. I drank cider and played chess with Pete Sandon, who not only convinced me that I could play blindfold – after two pints I could! – but also introduced me to the very new chess column in the left-wing political weekly the New Statesman. Run by ASSIAC, the pseudonym adopted by German émigré Heinz Fraenkel, this column had from the start an endgame studies bias. I got to know Heinz very well and the names of his solvers too. Then in January 1955 I first met Harold Lommer, who became my mentor as far as studies were concerned. One day I innocently asked him which magazine was devoted to endgame studies. Astonishment showed on my face when he said that there was no such magazine. Seeing my reaction, Harold simply said, “Why don’t you do it?” The challenge was mutely accepted, and I did just that, although it took a few years. Late in 1964 I pulled together potential subscribers from the list of New Statesman solvers and from other places – in the end there were over 300 names – to whom I circulated a questionnaire. Responses were positive. Eleven enthusiasts came to the inaugural meeting of The Chess Endgame Study Circle held on Friday March 19, 1965 in a room on the top floor of St Bride’s Institute, Ludgate Circus, down the hill from St Paul’s Cathedral. As a direct result EG1 was published in July 1965, printed by the British Chess Magazine after its highly respected editor Brian Reilly had solemnly warned me with a shake of his head that the venture would make me bankrupt! Well, this didn’t happen, one contributory cause being the out-of-the-blue offer from a total stranger, Netherlands printer Theo van Spijk of Venlo, who indeed took over printing from EG3.

Without going into too much detail, the production of EG and keeping it going eventually became almost routine. Theo sent me proofs, which I corrected while travelling to and from work. Although employment with IBM(UK) was frequently onerous, the fact that EG was not monthly but quarterly helped enormously. The many magazine exchanges ran smoothly once they were set up. Filipp Bondarenko of Dniepropetrovsk regularly sent me handwritten tourney awards from ‘the East’, writing in Russian. The biggest challenge was not so much linguistic as the editorial chore converting the wide variety of solution presentation ‘systems’ into something consistent and manageable, at a time before the PC became available. However, I inherited the 6-digit representation of chess force from Hugh Blandford, who himself had it from the originator Richard Guy. This was a great help, though later I refined the ‘GB’ code to the present ‘GBR’ version (counting ‘1-for-white’ plus ‘3-for-black’ for each piece-type in turn, with the totals of white and black pawns after a ‘decimal point’). Much later ChessBase adopted this without, I think, acknowledgement. A subsequent very natural expansion let the GBR code represent complete positions without using letters for the chessmen. This was a low-tech solution to a major international inter-communication challenge that I and others use to this day. Later on the friendly Danish programmer and endgame enthusiast Lars Rasmussen wrote an MS-DOS routine for me to search text for the extended GBR code, which, when located, was thoroughly tested for self-consistency. But the major ‘innovation’ was something else. It revolutionised setting out solutions on the printed page, however complex the topology of variations and sub-variations. This is accomplished by the almost total elimination of my pet hate, namely the parenthesis, in particular in its nested manifestation – anathema! Surprisingly, this essentially simple studies-friendly technique, using serially numbered unique signposting, has been slow to take root. Perhaps it would help if programming support were available, something to which the method, which amounts to a veritable ‘system’, is eminently suited.

1958 was an extraordinary year. I wanted to experience at first hand the Interzonal at Portoroz in Slovenia, where the young Mikhail Tal and the even younger American Bobby Fischer were to play. Imagine my astonishment when I got there not only to find Harold Lommer already in residence but to hear from him that immediately following the Interzonal there was to be the First World Congress of Chess Problemists at Piran, just a short bus ride from Portoroz up the Adriatic coast of the Istrian peninsula. It took a while to forgive Harold for not having told me about all this in London. But what an experience it was! No sooner did I announce my presence than Congress organiser Nenad Petrović pounced to co-opt me, willingly enough, to take over his draft of the studies section of what was to become known as the Piran Codex, and to lick it into shape. The committee for this purpose included Grzegorz Grzeban of Poland and Vladimir Pachman of Czechoslovakia, with Vitaly Halberstadt (France), Harold Lommer and Osmo Kaila (Finland) in the wings. My degree in French and German certainly came in handy, though it would have been better had I had more than only a smattering of Russian! Anyway I typed the whole thing out on a typewriter supplied by Petrović. Aside from that, an inextinguishable memory of Piran is of sitting alongside the legendary A. P. Kazantsev on the miniature train that ferried us all deep into the famous caves at Postojna, in temperatures close to freezing.

It was during World War II, of course, that I learned of the chess prowess of our Russian allies, emphasised in 1948 when Botvinnik convincingly won the world championship. But I made only perfunctory progress with the language until in 1987 I took an early retirement after 26 years in an assortment of non-managerial capacities working, for the most part very happily, for the marketing side of IBM(UK) the British arm of the computer multi-national, though never as a programmer and with almost zero knowledge of electronics. My attitude towards programming was to liken it to demanding a sufferer from Parkinson’s disease to thread a needle. On taking early retirement at age 58 I promptly enrolled for A-level Russian. But even before that I compiled the names and addresses of about fifty Soviet experts or enthusiasts, to whom I sent EG gratis, hoping for reciprocity with information, such as tourney awards or articles. EG6 was entirely devoted to an original article by GM Ghenrikh Kasparyan. Today the wide distribution continues to FSU-land, the territories of the ‘Former Soviet Union’.

Risking the accusation of name-dropping I admit to being proud to have met and talked with, sometimes at length, other eminences of the studies world such as – in no particular sequence – André Chéron, Vladimir Korolkov, Alexander Herbstman, Tolya Kuznetsov (who devoted a full page of Shakhmaty v SSSR in July 1976 to EG, possibly because that moment coincided with Viktor Korchnoi’s defection, making him an instant non-person!), Alexander Grin/Gulyaev, Ernest Pogosyants, Nikolai Kralin, Karen Sumbatyan, Andrei Visokosov, Juri Randviir, Gia Nadareishvili, Merab Gogberashvili, Alexander Hildebrand and Oleg Pervakov.

Do I have a distinctive study creed? Not really, but there is one quality that I value highly enough to seek it in every study entered for any tourney for originals that I am invited to judge. It is the quality of charm. If charm is absent I mark that study down. If the reader asks what is meant by charm, I can offer a definition: the cumulative effect of two or more distinct features, each one simple in itself, integrated into the whole without loss of economy. The reader must judge for himself the extent to which the five diagrammed examples exhibit this quality.

The pension I receive from IBM keeps my wife Betty and myself (we were married in 1961 and are now active members of the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers) on an even keel to support the simple life we lead, without car or mobile phone but, now that we are both pensioners, benefiting from free public transport in London. We have recently become proud grandparents for the third time, our daughter (b. 1965) living in Italy with her own teenage daughter, and our son (b. 1962 and Director of Sport of the University of Oxford) with a two-year-old daughter and now with a boy just a few months old.

John Roycroft

London, 17th January 2009.

[Birth date: July 25th 1929. Full name: Arthur John Roycroft, hence ‘AJR’, but always known as John. For over 40 years, most of it spent commuting to and from work in London, I have never developed a bad cold, but no medical body has shown interest in investigating this de facto immunity. More autobiographical data can be found in Peter Kniest’s Caissas Schlossbewohner 4 (1991) and in the closing pages of EG Vol. XI (2006).]

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