Obituary: Harry Golombek

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The Independent Online
Harry Golombek, chess-player and journalist: born London 1 March 1911; International Grandmaster, three times British Chess Champion; died 7 January 1995.

Harry Golombek was never a truly great chess player, but as one of the finest writers on the game, and a strong proponent of the cultural and educational aspects of chess, he was a leading figure in the growth of chess in Europe.

Indeed, his knowledge of the game and high regard for its traditions earned him a unique respect in the chess world. For 30 years a member of the Rules Commission of the International Chess Federation, Golombek became the voice of reason and integrity ina sport increasingly riven by political in-fighting and sectional interests. From 1954 until 1972, a world championship match without Golombek as one of the arbiters was almost unthinkable.

Harry Golombek was born into a Polish immigrant family (the surname translates as "little dove") in the East End of London in 1911. His early chess prowess is still recorded on the shield for the London Schools' Team Championship, where the name of "Wilson's Grammar School" interrupts those of more illustrious educational establishments in the late 1920s. In 1928, Golombek played in his first London Boys' Championship, finishing last in his section. The next year, however, he won it, an achievement of which he seemed never to tire of reminding his readers. The British Chess Magazine, reporting his victory wrote: "Golombek . . . showed a much better grasp of the game than he did the previous year." Two years later, he won the Major - the top section - of the London Congress and the same journal commented: "If he continues to improve at this rate, he will soon be one of our finest players."

He fulfilled that prediction by winning the British Championship on three occasions, in 1947, 1949 and 1955, and represented England nine times at the Chess Olympics, between 1935 and 1962.

Golombek went from Wilson's Grammar to London University, though there is no record of his having completed his degree. His chess career was interrupted by the war, which he spent among that famous group of mathematicians and chess-players who formed thecode-breaking elite at Bletchley Park. During dull moments, he would play chess against Alan Turing, giving the great computer pioneer a queen start and still beating him.

After the war, international chess resumed and Golombek took first prizes in small tournaments in Leeuwarden 1947 and Berne 1948 to add to his pre-war victory in Antwerp 1938. He also, in 1945, became chess correspondent for the Times, a post he was to hold for over 40 years. He also wrote a weekly chess column for the Observer between 1955 and 1979.

In British chess, Golombek was a true professional among amateurs. His style was correct rather than imaginative, strong in defence and he had a technique good enough to take merciless advantage of the positional errors of less chess-educated opponents. On the international front, however, the Russians had begun to establish pre-eminence, and Golombek's patient and placid style was never a threat. When discussing chess-players' superstitions, Golombek once mentioned that he had a favourite threadbare pullover that had lost three times to Tigran Petrosian. His fame in Russia, however, was sufficient for a letter addressed solely, in Cyrillic script, to "G. Golombek, Anglia", to be delivered to his door, thanks to the combined resources of the Soviet Embassy and the Post Office.

The writer of over 30 books on chess, Golombek, through his Penguin primer The Game of Chess, could have justifiably claimed responsibility for teaching the game to more people than anyone else. His best writings, however, were his meticulously and lucidly annotated games collections such as Capablanca's 100 Best Games (1947), The World Chess Championship 1948 (1949) and, his own favourite, Reti's Best Games (1954). He was also editor of the British Chess Magazine from 1938 to 1940.

Golombek became an International Master in 1950 (the year of inception of the title), and an International Arbiter in 1954. In 1966, he was appointed OBE, the first person to gain the award "for services to chess".

He was awarded the title of International Grandmaster in 1985, which he liked to stress was not an honorary award, but a belated recognition of his playing achievements in the 1940s.

His manner and writings, while always intensely serious regarding the cultural pretensions of chess, displayed a dry wit, never better exemplified than at the 1978 world championship match in the Philippines which he was covering for the Times. During a run of dull draws, he wandered one afternoon from the playing room shaking his head ruefully. "Korchnoi's gone wrong," he muttered. "He's had it this time." When the other journalists had rushed out of the room to catch Korchnoi's dying moments, Golombekordered tea. "It's the only way I can get to drink it in peace," he explained. He also knew the word for "ice-cream" in 13 different languages.

One game cannot remotely do justice to a playing career that spanned half a century - from the London Boys' of 1928 to shared first in the British Veterans' Championships of 1984 and 1985 - but the following game, from one of his last international appearances, at Kecskemet in 1968, certainly gave its winner particular pleasure, not least because of the obvious annoyance of the grandmaster he defeated.

White's unadventurous opening play allowed Black to develop a strong initiative, but beginning with 17.h4! Golombek fought his way back into the game. 20...Bxe2? was an error born of frustration. "Too greedy," wrote Golombek, recommending 20...Rg8 "with an overwhelming attack". As the game went, Black, despite three extra pawns, could not defend himself.

30...Qxf3+ was a sign of desperation, but 30...Rxf4 31.Qxf4 Qg6 32.Qf8+ Kh7 33.Rxe7 would have been no better.

White: Harry Golombek Black: Eduard Gufeld 1 Nf3 f5 20 Be4 Bxe2

2 d4 g6 21 Nxe2 Qxe2

3 g3 Nf6 22 Rce1 Qg4+ 4 Bg2 Bg7 23 Kh1 a5

5 0-0 0-0 24 Qc4 exf4

6 c4 d6 25 Rg1 Qh4

7 Nc3 Nc6 26 Bc3 Qxf2

8 h3 a6 27 Re2 Qh4

9 Be3 h6 28 Bf3 Ne8

10 Rc1 g5 29 Rg4 Qh5

11 d5 Ne5 30 Rxf4 Qxf3+ 12 Nxe5 dxe5 31 Rxf3 Rxf3

13 c5 Kh8 32 Rxe7 Bxc3

14 Qb3 Qe8 33 bxc3 Nf6

15 Qb4 f4 34 d6 cxd6

16 Bd2 Qh5 35 cxd6 Rg8

17 h4 gxh4 36 d7 b5

18 gxf4 h3 37 Qxg8+ 1-0

19 Bf3 Bg4