Obituary: Cenek Kottnauer

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The Independent Online
You could always tell when Cenek Kottnauer was content with his position in any game of an international chess tournament.

After making his move, he would shift position on his chair, cross his legs, pick up the newspaper that he had left by the board and start filling in the Times crossword. He was remarkably good at cryptic crosswords for a man whose native language was Czech, and who spoke English - almost on principle - with a strong accent. I remember him once lecturing the English chess team on the sloppiness with which we spoke our own language. He had particular contempt for the way we say "pneumonia", not only omitting to sound the "p", but totally mispronouncing the "eu" diphthong. He firmly believed that every English child should have to study Latin and Greek, if only to avoid the horrible "yoo" sound when saying "pneumonia" and "Euclid".

Kottnauer's chess was equally authoritative. Brought up in the climate of eastern European professionalism, he displayed a disciplined technique that, in many aspects of the game, put him in a higher class that any other British player when he settled in England in 1953. There was another way in which he stood out from other British players: his level of physical fitness. A powerfully built man, he had represented his native Czechoslovakia not only at chess but at water-polo too. Once asked to compare the stresses of the two games, he thought a little then said there was really very little difference "except that in chess you do not have to worry about underwater fouls".

Had Kottnauer stayed in Czechoslavakia, there is little doubt that he would have become a successful grandmaster on the international circuit. In the Prague-Moscow match of 1946 and the tournament at Groningen in the Netherlands in the same year he showed that he could survive in competition against the best players in the world. When he came to England, however, he had a living to earn and chess always had to take second place to his work as management consultant to Trust House Forte.

He also had difficulties acclimatising to the British chess style. While he scored a string of victories in the Ilford Whitsun congresses, playing in the invitation- only top section against other seasoned internationals, he never performed to his true ability in the British championship, tending too often to come unstuck against the uncultured but occasionally inspired amateurism that was the predominant style in Britain in the 1960s.

In international competitions, however, Kottnauer occasionally showed his true class, particularly in making fine results on top board for England in the Chess Olympics of 1964 and 1968, and in winning tournaments at Lucerne in 1953 and Beverwijk in 1961. In the latter, he accomplished the rare feat of winning all his games.

Despite these fine results, many will remember Cenek Kottnauer most fondly for the evening classes he gave at Morley College in London, when he would walk round demanding, not better chess from his class, but greater signs of emotion and enjoyment. If he did not hear shouts of joy and anguish and the crash of pieces being banged down, Kottnauer felt his pupils were not entering into the true spirit of the game. He was never quite able to transplant the fervour of Prague coffee-house chess to south London, but he did teach his colleagues in the English team a great deal about self-discipline and commitment.

William Hartston

Cenek Kottnauer, chess player: born Prague 24 February 1910; married Daniela Horska (one son); died London 14 February 1996.