BBC: The Master Game – Part two

7/6/2013 – The very popular BBC chess-themed TV show ran for seven series between 1975 and 1982. In his previous report John Saunders described its genesis and importance in bringing chess to mainstream television. In this second part he gives us an impression of the players' live commentary that was part of the appeal of the show. Two series of The Master Game are now being released on DVD.

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The Master Game – Let the Show Begin

John Saunders looks back on the classic BBC programme

The first two series (1975/6 and 1976/7) involved only UK players and were played as eight-player knock-outs. This was a very unusual tournament format in those days (they are still quite rare), but there were good reasons to use it: to keep the number of games (and programmes) to a minimum, and also to circumvent draws (which were resolved via tiebreaks at a quicker time limit). The first game was played at the then standard international time limit of 40 moves in 2½ hours, with adjournments. A replay was played at the rate of 40 moves in an hour, with the rest in 30 minutes, a second replay at all moves in thirty minutes and a third replay at fifteen minutes for the whole game.

Series one featured Bill Hartston (winner), Jon Speelman (runner-up), George Botterill, Tony Miles (semi-finalists), John Nunn, Michael Stean, Jonathan Mestel and Howard Williams. Hartston seemed to be on the ropes in the first round against Stean, but held him to a draw before winning the replay. He was equally lucky against Botterill in the semi-final, which went to three games, but again he triumphed after playing “any old rubbish” (his phrase, referring to 2...Ìc6 after 1 d4 Ìf6 2 c4). The tournament favourite was Tony Miles, recently qualified as Britain’s first OTB GM, but he succumbed to Speelman in the semi-final. The book of the tournament recorded that he “shed a manly tear” after this disaster.

[Event "London BBC TV"] [Site "London"] [Date "1975.??.??"] [Round "2.2"] [White "Speelman, Jonathan S"] [Black "Miles, Anthony J"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D01"] [Annotator "Saunders,John"] [PlyCount "57"] [EventDate "1975.??.??"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventRounds "3"] [EventCountry "ENG"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2000.11.22"] 1. d4 d5 2. Nc3 {"Had a feeling he might do that. Don't know anything about it, but not to worry" (Miles)} Nf6 3. Bg5 Nbd7 4. e3 c6 {As Leonard Barden pointed out in the book of the tournament, Black got into a rather passive position out of the opening.} 5. Nf3 h6 6. Bh4 e6 7. Bd3 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Ne2 c5 10. c3 b6 11. Bxf6 Nxf6 12. Ne5 Bb7 13. Ng3 Bd6 14. f4 Ne4 15. Nh5 Bxe5 ({Black is soon in big trouble after this. Hiarcs suggests} 15... Qh4 $5 {, which cuts across some of White's more ambitious attacking ideas.}) 16. fxe5 Qg5 17. Bxe4 Qxe3+ 18. Kh1 dxe4 {"I'll stop his queen going back. My attack may be unsound, but I doubt if he'll find a defence at this fast time limit." (Speelman)} 19. Rf4 Kh8 20. Qg4 g6 21. Nf6 {"Oh dear..." (Miles)} Rad8 (21... Kg7 22. Raf1 Qd2 $1 {, with ideas such as e3 and taking on g2, buys Black a little time against White's kingside attack but in a practical situation the precision required to defend this position against the clock is probably unrealistic.}) 22. Raf1 { Miles' comment is much as his previous.} Qd2 23. Qh4 Kg7 24. Ng4 {"Ugh, have to play pawn to h5. I'll give this stupid game up." (Miles)} h5 25. Qf6+ Kh7 26. Qg5 hxg4 27. Rxf7+ Rxf7 28. Rxf7+ Kh8 29. Qxd8# 1-0

In the final Speelman was offered a draw in a level end-game, but turned it down with what eventually proved to be an unsound pawn sacrifice.

So Hartston’s pragmatism brought him the first Master Game title. The following year he was to triumph again and had the second trophy to adorn the other speaker of his stereo system (he made that comment just before winning the final game against Nunn). The players were Hartston (winner), Nunn (runner-up), Botterill, Miles (semi-finalists again), Short, Jana Hartston (as she then was; now known as Jana Bellin), Julian Hodgson and Peter Clarke.

GM Tony Miles (1955–2001) was one of the great stars of The Master Game

Botterill was very lucky to emerge from his quarter-final pairing with the 15-year-old Julian Hodgson, after being a piece down in one game and only scraping a draw as the flags tottered. In the semi-final Hartston was more assured than he had been against Botterill in the first series, but Miles once again succumbed, this time to Nunn. He was a bit lucky to draw their first game but he was hit by a thunderbolt in the second.

[Event "BBC TV Master Game"] [Site "England"] [Date "1976.??.??"] [Round "2"] [White "Miles, Anthony J"] [Black "Nunn, John DM"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E92"] [WhiteElo "2510"] [Annotator "Miles/Nunn"] [PlyCount "70"] [EventDate "1976.??.??"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventRounds "3"] [EventCountry "ENG"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1998.11.10"] 1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. c4 d6 4. Nc3 Nf6 5. Be2 O-O 6. Nf3 e5 7. Be3 exd4 $6 8. Nxd4 Re8 9. f3 c6 10. Bf2 Nbd7 11. O-O a5 12. Qd2 Ne5 13. Rfd1 a4 14. b3 axb3 15. axb3 Rxa1 16. Rxa1 d5 17. exd5 cxd5 18. c5 Bd7 {"The first decent position I've had all day. I wouldn't want to play b4 just yet because it might give his knight a square on c4. I can play Nb5, possibly it's a little early. Maybe I could play Na4, then invade on b6 and possibly get my rook to the seventh or eighth." (Miles)} 19. Na4 $2 {"I hadn't even considered that plan. He's going to come with the knight to b6. Perhaps I can get some counterplay on the kingside. It's really my only hope here. Well - is that a possibility? Neg4? It looks ridiculous but [at which point Nunn explained the underlying tactics] " (Nunn)} Neg4 $1 {"Eh? What's this?..." (Miles)} 20. Bh4 (20. fxg4 Ne4 21. Qf4 Nxf2 22. Qxf2 {allows} Rxe2 $1 {which by now Miles had also seen. Nunn on his next move: "Now he's really threatening to take that knight on g4. I might consider Bh6 here. I have another move, Ne4. Forking my own knights! That's not something I do very often... [continues with analysis]... Perhaps Ne4 will give him a bit of a shock. I'm not sure he's seen that move." (Nunn)}) 20... Ne4 $1 {"Oh, what's this? Oh dear, I take his queen and he takes my queen... ugh. Everything's attacked. Oh, this is dead. There's nothing at all..." (Miles)} 21. fxe4 (21. Bxd8 Nxd2 {Bxd4/Rxd8}) 21... Qxh4 22. Bxg4 Qxg4 23. Nc3 dxe4 24. Qe3 Qh5 25. Nde2 Bg4 26. Re1 Qe5 27. b4 $2 Bxe2 28. Nxe2 Qb2 29. Kh1 Qxb4 30. Rc1 Rd8 31. h3 Be5 32. Qg5 f6 33. Qe3 Qd2 34. Qb3+ Kh8 35. Qc4 Rd3 0-1

Nunn blundered in the final so once again Hartston was the winner. In future series the quality of Hartston’s bon mots (“This is an important game for theory. John has been drinking coffee during the interval, and I’ve been doing yoga. Always wanted to know which is better...”) was to persuade the programme-makers to promote him to the expert’s chair beside Jeremy James, but not before he and Tony Miles represented the home nation in the vastly stronger international line-up in 1977, headed by World Champion Anatoly Karpov. The other players were Werner Hug (Switzerland), Jan Hein Donner (Netherlands), Helmut Pfleger and Lothar Schmid (West Germany), plus the redoubtable Bent Larsen (Denmark). Hartston bit the dust in the first round, losing to Pfleger, but Tony Miles really rose to the occasion this time, despatching Schmid and Larsen in good style to reach the final against Karpov.

The 1977 Miles-Karpov final went to a third game (after Miles had done well to draw game one, and there was a steadily played draw in the second). It was played at G/30 and came down to a frantically-played heavy piece ending. Miles was under pressure, but he passed up a chance to draw when Karpov momentarily blundered.

[Event "BBC TV Master Game"] [Site "England"] [Date "1977.??.??"] [Round "3"] [White "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Black "Miles, Anthony J"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A17"] [WhiteElo "2690"] [BlackElo "2555"] [Annotator "Bulletin"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/8/rp2k3/4P3/1R3K2/4P2P/8 w - - 0 44"] [PlyCount "33"] [EventDate "1977.??.??"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventRounds "3"] [EventCountry "ENG"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1998.11.10"] 44. h4 $2 ({A time trouble error from the world champion.} 44. Ke3 {should ensure the win.}) 44... Ke6 $2 ({Miles misses his chance:} 44... Kd4 $1 {, to support the b-pawn and free the rook for active service, gives him a reasonable chance of a draw.}) 45. Kf4 Ra7 46. Rxb5 Rf7+ 47. Rf5 Rh7 48. h5 Rb7 49. h6 Rh7 50. Rh5 Kf6 51. Kg4 Kg6 52. e5 Re7 53. h7 Rxh7 54. Rxh7 Kxh7 55. Kf5 Kg7 56. Ke6 Kg6 57. Kd7 Kf5 58. e6 Kf4 59. e7 Kg3 60. e8=Q {... yes, that's right 60 e8 and not 60 e8Q - because there wasn't a spare queen handy when they were playing the game, apparently. By the strict rules, the game should not have continued with the players pretending that a pawn was a queen, but that is what happened. What follows is the final position of the game, with Miles mated by the pawn on c1. A favourite position of chess quizmasters...} 1-0

Mimic Like a Grandmaster

The introduction of leading overseas players into The Master Game had some interesting side-effects. Previously, British chess fans had only experienced their chessboard heroes via the written word and photographs (unless one was lucky enough to have met them in the flesh at a post-Hastings simul, say), so to have them talking to us via a cathode ray tube was bliss. Those of us who lacked the deep reverence due to grandmasters and were prone to mimicry were parroting their various catchphrases and other linguistic oddities whilst playing our friends at the local club. I regret to say that I utilise the first person plural here with good reason as I was one of the irreverent brethren.

My particular favourite was Vlastimil Hort (above), with his lugubrious self-castigations, delivered in a rich Middle European accent: “Yes, yes, of course, he plays Beeshop ee six... oh, what am I to do?... Vlastimil, you play vaary slowly!”, etc.

However, probably the all-time favourite for those who like mimicking GMs has to be Viktor Korchnoi, with his odd mixture of falsetto and basso profundo, words interspersed with asthmatic breaths (like musical rests), then a rapid burst of beautifully articulated syllables, as if he were racing to make the time control. I would need a musical stave to annotate this accurately but let’s try: “Here [rest] I play [rest]... er... beeshop ee FAIVE [fortissimo] [rest] with possibEEELITY of rook [rest] c7 [rest] as in my game [rest] with [rest] AnatolykarpovinNINEteenseventyFAIVE!”. Wonderful stuff – if only Mike Yarwood had watched The Master Game. I may be mis-remembering, but I always felt Viktor fixated on the number ‘five’ – certainly this featured strongly in my own rendition of his dulcet tones.

We haven’t room for a full blow-by-blow account of seasons four to eight, but I should list the winners: 1978/79 Larsen; 1979/80 Lothar Schmid (beating a distinctly “dischuffed” Walter Browne in the final); 1980/81 Nigel Short; 1981/82 Eric Lobron; and 1982/83 (finally) Tony Miles.

Another Master Game star: the teenage chess prodigy Nigel Short

One cannot help feeling particularly sorry for Tony Miles, even though he won that last series, beating Karpov in the final, as it was never screened on British TV as the result of some stupid TV industrial action which everyone has long since forgotten about. Two years previously it had been bad enough when he had had to lower his flag to the young pretender to his crown as Britain’s top chess player, Nigel Short, and then these annoying TV malcontents deprived him (and us) of seeing him beat Karpov through absolutely no fault of his. I’ve made it worse by giving three of his Master Game disasters. So let’s finish with Tony’s triumph in the final Master Game series against the World Champion.

[Event "Bath TV-1pl"] [Site "Bath"] [Date "1983.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Black "Miles, Anthony J"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B16"] [WhiteElo "2710"] [BlackElo "2585"] [Annotator "Saunders,John"] [PlyCount "78"] [EventDate "1983.11.??"] [EventType "game"] [EventRounds "1"] [EventCountry "ENG"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. e4 c6 ({No 'disrespectful'} 1... a6 {antics against Karpov this time, as per Tony's more famous victory at Skara in 1980. Instead, Tony mimics the world champion's opening repertoire but spices it up a bit.}) 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nf6 {All the rage in those days, with several of the top British GMs being aficionados, but Miles came fairly new to it.} 5. Nxf6+ gxf6 6. Nf3 ( {The following year Karpov preferred} 6. c3 {against Miles in Oslo but they transposed back to the same position within a couple more moves.}) 6... Bf5 7. Bf4 Nd7 8. c3 Qb6 9. b4 ({It would probably amount to 'annotation by result' to criticise this move but it certainly allowed Miles the sort of messy fight that he would relish. Karpov and his minions did their homework and diverged with} 9. Bd3 {the following year. That game proceeded} Bxd3 10. Qxd3 Qxb2 11. O-O Qa3 12. Rfb1 {and White went on to outplay his opponent in typical Karpovian fashion.}) 9... e5 10. Bg3 O-O-O 11. Be2 h5 12. O-O Be4 ({Miles later thought he should have preferred} 12... Bg4 {here.}) 13. Nd2 Bd5 14. Bxh5 exd4 15. c4 Be6 16. a3 Ne5 17. Re1 d3 18. c5 Qb5 19. Rb1 Bh6 20. a4 Qa6 21. f4 Nc4 22. b5 cxb5 23. Rxb5 Na3 24. Rb2 Nc2 $5 ({Tony could play} 24... Nc4 {to repeat the position but he must have been enjoying this complicated brawl with the world champion too much to want to stop now. Computers think he is still slightly worse but objectivity has long since gone out of the window here.}) 25. Bf3 {Karpov was now down to about two minutes - Miles had never seen him in such time trouble before - while Miles himself had about five.} Bd5 26. Re7 Bf8 27. Bxd5 Rxd5 28. Rbxb7 $2 ({An almost unprecedented time trouble blunder from Karpov. Miles had planned} 28. Rexb7 Bxc5+ {where Karpov, in the post mortem, proposed} 29. Bf2 {, when any result is still possible.}) 28... Bxe7 29. Rxe7 Qc6 $1 30. Rxf7 Rxc5 $2 ({It's still very complicated, but Black should probably have played} 30... Nd4 $1 {here, when he is close to wrapping things up.}) 31. Qg4+ $1 f5 ({Suddenly Black has problems again.} 31... Kb8 $2 32. f5+ Ka8 33. Qg7 {would be catastrophic.}) 32. Qg7 $2 (32. Rxf5 {shouldn't lose, with Black's king vulnerable to attack. but Karpov blunders again in his desperate time trouble.}) 32... Re8 {Now Black is winning again.} 33. h4 Ne3 $1 {Now Black is not just winning, but winning quickly.} 34. Bf2 Rc1+ 35. Kh2 Ng4+ 36. Kg3 Nxf2 37. Nf3 Ne4+ 38. Kh2 d2 39. Nxd2 Nxd2 0-1


Two series of The Master Game are being released on DVD. Each series features all 13 original episodes in a two-DVD set. The DVDs are region-free and will work in all countries. Series Six was filmed/broadcast in 1980-1. Contestants included: Bent Larsen, Nigel Short, Svetozar Gligoric, Vlastimil Hort, Robert Byrne, Tony Miles, Lothar Schmid and Jan Hein Donner. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Running Time: 6 hours 30 mins.

Series Seven was filmed / broadcast in 1981-2. Contestants included: Andras Adorjan, Nigel Short, Walter Browne, Eric Lobron, Raymond Keene, Larry Christiansen, Miguel Quinteros and Hans-Joachim Hecht. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Also included on this special edition is a bonus BBC documentary – The Lowdown: The Master of the Game – which follows the rise to international success of a young Matthew Sadler. Running Time: 7 hours.

BBC: The Master Game Series 7 (2 DVD Video Set) Trailer

Release Date: Monday 29 July - RRP £22.99 per series / CHESS Magazine subscribers £20.69 per series / £40 for both series TO ORDER CALL 020 7288 1305 or online from the Chess & Bridge Shop.


CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

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EarlPurple EarlPurple 9/4/2016 02:08
These articles are good but have not answered the question of why it was discontinued on TV (aside from whatever industrial action there was in 1983) and why we don't have some kind of televised chess now, particularly with all the extra channels there now are available.

In particular, given the interest of the DVDs now, they might consider at least showing the various series from the past in repeats.

I am of similar age to Nigel Short, and remember picking up on The Master Game in its second series, when he appeared and lost his game to Bill Hartston. Of course he would show his progress 4 years later, coming back to win it, and then later making his mark on the world scene.

And of course Bill Hartston winning the first two series made me think he was our greatest player. I had no idea that both Miles and Nunn were actually better than him, and Nunn's blunder in the final is inexplicable, as he was one of the greatest players in the world on tactics. But I did get to meet Hartston in the commentary room of the Phillips & Drew tournaments in 1980 and 1982

I do remember that, following this series, or maybe it was at the same time, they had a go at televised bridge too, with a match between the UK and the USA.
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