Grandmaster King and the cyberspace pawns

William Hartston logs on with the experts for an ethereal game of world-class chess
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1895 the US and Britain tried to hold a transatlantic chess match with teams of players relaying their moves over that new invention, the wireless telegraph. Unfortunately it was a flop - technical difficulties meant play had to be abandoned after 20 moves. But a century later, surely such an event could be achieved with consummate ease using the modern technology of the Internet?

Some hope. Arriving at the Cyberia cafe in central London, where the English players had arranged to log on for the match, I was told: "They're downstairs. But I wouldn't go down if I were you. Simon's doing his nut and Ali's just smiling a lot and saying: 'It'll all be fine, don't worry'."

England were meant to be playing the United States in the first round of an international chess team tournament that was somehow linked to the G7 economic summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadians had thought it would be rather jolly to celebrate the summit by staging something that would allow a real-time computer link between members of all the G7 nations. They added Russia to the list and, at a week's notice, made a few telephone calls and announced an eight-nation international chess tournament. What could be simpler? But there's many a slip ...

I had a cup of coffee, then went downstairs where Simon Brown, the international director of the British Chess Federation, explained that the Canadians had promised to call him the previous evening with the rules, and to fax them to him, and to e-mail them to Cyberia, but that nothing had happened. They had not been able to contact the server yet, but hoped that things would start in about half an hour. Ali Mortazavi, who seems to be the gateway leading from British chess to the Internet, said things are always like that on the Internet and it will be fine, don't worry.

When the games did start, it all went rather smoothly. "I don't know what happened," said Simon. "Suddenly it just seemed to work."

Susan Lalic sat at a chessboard playing her moves as normal. A chap seated opposite shouted them out to alert a computer operator who entered them by mouse on to the screen. A few seconds later, another piece moved on the screen, propelled by a signal from New York, or Canada, or somewhere else in the ether.

The only hiccup came when Lalic, who had been trying to win a position with an extra pawn, finally gave up and offered her opponent a draw. "The draw offer is declined," the screen announced. It turned out that Olga Sagalchik, back in the States, given the choice between "a" and "d" (for "accept" or "decline") had pressed "d", perhaps thinking it stood for "draw" or "da" or "definitely".

It was sorted out quickly, but what with the delays at the start, it all finished too late for grandmaster Daniel King to start his own game with any hope of finishing before another appointment that afternoon. Mortazavi stepped in as reserve and lost to Gennadi Sagalchik. So England lost to the United States. We blame the technology, of course.

Comments