Hit the board, Jack!

6/18/2004 – The great musician Ray Charles, who died last Thursday, will be laid to rest today at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. We pay homage to this legendary pianist and soul singer by taking a look at a chess game he played two years ago against GM Larry Evans. Rest in peace, Ray.

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Ray 'n Chess

Soul legend Ray Charles recently passed away at the age of 73 from an acute liver disease, and has been praised all across the world by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.

He had fought against adversity all his life, having become blind at the age of seven due to a disease known as glaucoma, and was forced to overcome both childhood poverty and later drug addiction. And yet, Charles produced some of the most startling, subversive music of his age, including such classics as Hit the Road, Jack and a fine cover of Georgia on my Mind.

What is fascinating also is that the singer had a great interest in chess, as the game allowed him to keep his mind focused. The most appropriate way for us as chess fans to pay our belated respects is by taking a look at an example of Charles in action.

The following is the only game I have been able to track down, in an interview with GM Larry Evans in a 2002 issue of Chess Life. It would be fair to say that, out of respect more than anything else, Evans does give Charles a relatively easy ride, though the latter's perceptiveness is never in doubt.

If anyone else can track down games by Charles – such as his game seen in the NBS documentary Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving, I for one would appreciate it greatly.

White: Ray Charles
Black: Larry Evans
Chess Life Interview, Reno 2002, Four Knights
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6. More popular here is 2...Nf6, leading often to the Vienna Gambit, which was made popular by Steinitz but first played by Staunton.

3. Nf3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bc5 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Qe2 O-O 8.Be3 Bxe3 9.Qxe3 Re8 10.f3 d5.

Evans is threatening to fork the white knight and the queen. Charles plays 11.Qd3, saying "I can't let you attack two pieces by pushing your pawn again". Evans is surprised and says, "You saw that?" Ray Charles: "Aw, c'mon man. I play bad – but not that bad!"

11...a5 12.O-O-O Ba6 13.Qd2 Bxf1 14.Rhxf1 dxe4 15.Qxd8 Raxd8 16.Rxd8 Rxd8

17.Rd1? One exchange too many from Charles. This cheap mate threat – combined with his seeming eagerness to simplify the game as much as possible – leaves Evans with a more than comfortable endgame. The natural 17. fxe4 would have made more sense.

17...Rxd1+ 18.Kxd1 exf3 19.gxf3 Kf8 20.Kc1? It is hard to see the reasoning behind this move. Kd2 stakes a claim on the centre far quicker.

20...Ke7 21.Kd2 Ke6 22.Ke3 Nd5+ 23.Kd4 Nxc3 24.Kxc3 Kd5 0-1.

Is Black's position completely won here? 25.b4 certainly complicates matters; 25...axb4 gives White a passed pawn and 25...a4 leaves an unclear position after 26.Kb2 Kc4 27.Ka3 Kb5 28.c4+. Similarly, it looks pretty drawish after 25.Kb3 Kc5 26.Ka4 Kb6 etc. However White probably wins on the kingside with 25.Kb3 g5! and with 25.b4 a4 26.Kb2 Kc4 27.Ka3 g5! [Click here to replay the game]

All in all, not a bad game at all for a blind man against a Grandmaster. His preference towards the endgame is intriguing – others find it far easier managing the middle game without sight of the board.

Rest in peace, Ray.

Morgan Daniels


Chess Drum: "If you haven't gotten your copy of Chess Life yet, you're in for a treat. If you're not a United State Chess Federation member, then go to the bookstore, or have someone send you a copy. Why? The cover story features a fascinating interview with the legendary Ray Charles. The interview was conducted by another legendary figure, GM Larry Evans.

In the interview Ray Charles was asked if he ever played the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. "Yes, I did. And he beat the hell out of me. But Diz wouldn't give me a chance to get even. I always talked about it." The interview format was unique in that it was conducted while the two were playing chess on a special set… very entertaining! [Full article]

Friend and duet partner Willie Nelson: ''Ray could kick my ass any day in a chess game. He gloated over that.''

Ability Magazine writes: "If you're looking for Ray Charles on an evening where he plays two 55 minute shows, you can probably find him in one of two places: seated in front of a piano or chessboard, In fact, the trim, 5'9" legendary "Genius of Soul" feels at home in front of either board, regardless of how many people are watching. Most people can picture Ray with his black sunglasses and captivating smile sitting in front of a piano, yet the image of this blind musician looking with his hands at a chess board may raise a few questions. Like, how?

In a game where skill and determination weed out the more proficient players, chess can be easily adapted to the needs of the visually impaired. For instance, Ray plays on a board where each square is the same color but the depth of the squares are altered-- the "black" squares are raised while the "white" squares are lowered. In addition, the black pieces may have sharper tops, whereas the white ones are flat, and all pieces include a peg on the bottom that fit into any hole drilled into the squares on the board. In order to make the game a bit more user-friendly, you will probably hear Ray Charles and his partner calling out moves as the game progresses, making this type of chess a louder, more interactive experience.

Ray has managed to recruit a few of his band members, friends, and even interviewers to play a chess game in between gigs on tour. As he sips warm coffee with Bols gin, he is comfortably removed from long months on the road promoting his latest album." [Full article]


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