Jonathan Kettle, March, 2023
‘Chess, Life and Beyond’, staged at a Covent Garden restaurant, was billed as a talk by Mike on said subject followed by a simul. Conceived to celebrate his 73rd birthday, this hybrid event, had more than a hint of ‘Drama Kings and Queens’ about it. Certainly the flyer picturing Mike’s beaming face beneath a glowing, golden, King’s crown hinted as much.
Fortunately for me, due to a double-booking, ‘Chess, Life and Beyond’ had to be rescheduled at the last minute which meant, much to my delight, I was free to accept my invitation to attend. But when I arrived at the venue on the rearranged date, the front-of-house restaurant staff appeared clueless that anything out of the ordinary had been organised. As I awaited news, Mike himself arrived. But, failing to notice me, he
started to head straight back out, at which point bizarrely I found myself chasing after him onto the street. Surely we hadn’t both turned up at the wrong venue!
Sanity finally prevailed when the restaurant ushered us downstairs, Mike serenely unperturbed by this slightly chaotic prelude, me wondering ‘What on earth next?!’ We arrived to find our hosts, The London Chess Society, putting the finishing touches to tables and chess boards. With time to spare before Mike’s presentation, I found myself in an impromptu LCS photo-op, playing a friendly rapid game against one of the other guests.
Mike’s talk turned out to be a gentle stroll down memory lane, his focus on a selection of his own matches from the early 1960s. I was struck, not so much by the relatively conventional nature of the teenage Basman modus operandi, certainly in the openings, but by the fact that Mike had brought along his original score sheet notations for use as a reference. It felt as if he was reacquainting himself with old friends, savouring the inner workings of his formative chess mind…the chess equivalent of browsing through precious, early, photo albums. No Grobs, no St Georges, but always a clear sense that Mike might spring something unconventional on an unsuspecting opponent after they’d emerged from their ‘book’ opening.
Four of us were now well and truly primed for the ensuing simul. Playing Black against Mike’s trademark Grob, I was second to succumb, lasting a mere 30 moves. Out of the opening I was feeling reasonably confident in my position. My downfall came about from a premature Queenside knight attack I’d been lured into making. So much for my threat of a King/Rook fork – Mike foiled it in a flash, preceding his escape with a mock-shocked quip, ‘Vicious!’ He simply castled Queenside on Move 12 to leave me wearing a furrowed brow and forlorn grin in recognition of my now inevitable fate. All my last-ditch efforts to counterattack were easily defused as were my increasingly frantic attempts at defence, once Mike had unleashed his irresistible mating onslaught. He faced stiffer opposition on the top two boards, only a draw by repetition on Board 1 thwarting his clean sweep.
Scorecards signed, matchplay complete, egos more-or-less intact, we celebrated in style, over a good meal, reflecting on our lively evening of chess and chess recollections.
Though ‘Chess, Life and Beyond’ now seems a distant memory it took place just four years ago, shortly before our lives were turned upside down by the pandemic, lockdowns, and subsequent war in Europe. I think a sixth sense somewhere in the bones of each participant that late March 2019 evening helped us appreciate the moment with extra relish. I’m sure I felt the unmistakeable winds of change that evening. Hindsight you might say. I disagree. It was more like precognition…but in ways I couldn’t completely grasp.
For two decades I’d been following in Mike Basman’s footsteps, mastering chess as best I could, seeking to share with the schoolchildren I taught, the secrets of chess I was still discovering. By demonstrating the power of chess I sought to instil and nurture a love of the game that had become a defining part of my life. But for Mike it went an awful lot further – life really, truly imitated chess. ‘If people can’t write well they cannot think well and if they cannot think well others will do their thinking for them.’ George Orwell’s provocation to the copy cats among us is straight out of the Mike Basman school of life.
Mike shared those early 1960s chess matches with us four years ago, in part because they had spurred him on to be a more fiercely independent thinker. It was his fearless free-thinking and innate drive that took him to the top of the UK chess world in the 1970s; led him to devise his radical Audio Chess approach to chess teaching; and his extraordinary array of published chess literature.
Of course Mike’s most abiding legacy to us all remains the uniquely successful UK Chess Challenge which he created and nurtured with the flair of a maestro. Sadly it’s a bittersweet legacy in light of the prolonged battle Mike endured against the tax authorities, sustained largely by his boundless energy, determination, self belief and absolute conviction in the justness of his cause.
Despite the outcome of that court case, Mike managed to maintain his air of invulnerability. I never saw it waver. Indeed I remember marvelling at Mike’s powers as a free-ranging communicator, analyst, player and warm-hearted mentor and colleague that night. My time as a teacher had nearly run its course. But I felt sure Mike’s flame would continue to flicker and shine in one way or another for decades to come. I hope it still will.
We hope to share more memories at the Mike Basman’s Memorial Rapidplay on Sunday 23rd April (St. George’s Day) at Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton. If you have a memory or favourite photograph of Mike you would like to share, please get in touch.