Chess: You've eaten my knight]

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The Independent Culture
THE RAC Chess Circle is a beautiful anachronism. At club nights in Pall Mall, they play for fun, they quaff wine during their games, and they balance out differences in playing strength by giving odds of a pawn or a piece or two, a practice the rest of the world abandoned in the second half of the last century. And nobody was more into the spirit of it all than Leslie Sympson.

I first met Leslie about 15 years ago, and I'm sure he told me he was 81 then. Short, with a round red face and a perpetual smile, it was impossible not to be captivated by his gnomic charm. His chess certainly fell short of the highest standards, but he loved the game and, as I recently learned, had enriched its theory with the little-known Sympson's chocolate gambit, which he unleashed on the world just after a hip replacement operation.

Visited in hospital by a fellow player, Sympson immediately proposed a game and fished out an old pocket set which, he explained, had been in his possession since his youth. Somewhere in the Second World War, however, it had lost a black knight. With all due apologies, he reached for a silver-wrapped chocolate and placed it on the board on b8. We quote from the account of this historic game by Mr Roger Smolsky, who played Black:

'After about 15 minutes of play, the silver chocolate was in the middle of the board and beginning to confuse me. The other black knight was still on the board and I could not force an exchange without some disadvantage. Just as I was wondering how I could get rid of this annoying piece, Leslie reached across to make a move with one of his own knights.

'Almost as an afterthought, and without taking his eyes off the board, he picked up the chocolate, unwrapped it and started to eat it. I was now a piece down without any compensation.'

The following conversation ensued:

'You have eaten my knight]'

'Have I? I am so sorry.' (Reaches for another chocolate, placing it on an entirely different square from the one its predecessor had occupied.)

'I think it was here.' (Points to correct square.)

'Was it? (pause) No, it couldn't have been there.'

Now quite muddled, and beginning to doubt his own memory, Mr Smolsky then fell into the trap, asking: 'Why couldn't it have been there?'

Waiting for a perfectly judged few seconds, Leslie replied: 'Well, if it had been there, I would have eaten it on the previous move.'

As the account concludes: 'Leslie had once again triumphed in bewildering his opponent off the board as well as on it and I lost the game shortly afterwards.'

Leslie Sympson died two weeks ago at the age of 81. He will be greatly missed.

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