55 and Fabulous: An interview with Keith Arkell

by Alexey Root
6/30/2016 – Over a 10-week period, English Grandmaster Keith Arkell played in and won seven weekend tournaments. The seven first-place-finishes in a row is a personal best for Arkell. In this interview, he tells how he prepares for his games, how his approach to chess changed over the years, why he works harder at the board and reveals why he thinks chess and life are fabulous at age 55.

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Keith Arkell (Photo: Carl Portman)

Alexey Root (AR): Tell about the “weekenders.”

Keith Arkell (KA): Weekenders mostly run from Friday to Sunday, although one or two of them carried over onto a Bank Holiday Monday. They can be 5, 6, or 7 rounds, sometimes necessitating three rounds on the Saturday. That can mean 12+ hours of chess in one day! Typically there is an Open alongside some sections with rating ceilings. Usually I have been the top seed. My main opposition has been IMs rather than GMs. IM Chris Beaumont ended my run of firsts when his 5.5/6 beat my 5, at Gloucester. My seven first place results:

  •  26-28 Feb Bristol Spring Open 4.5/5 1st
  • 4-6 March East Devon Open   4.5/5 1st
  • 11-13 March Hereford Open   5.5/6   1st
  • 25-28 March West of England Open Championship 6.5/7 1st
  • 16-18 April Nottingham Open 5/5 1st
  • 23-24 April Great Yarmouth Open 4/5 1st
  • 13-15 May Rhyl Open  4.5/5   1st

Then the failure at the Gloucester Open 28-30 May 5/6 2nd place

AR: How do you keep up your energy and motivation for weekenders?

KA: My stamina seems to have improved with age, even though I have also squeezed in countless simuls. I get less worn out now, as a 55 year old, than I did in my youth. I save energy by rarely preparing for games, either during an event or between events. Instead I relax by doing a lot of walking, reading, surfing the net and so on.

Keith Arkell (Photo: John Saunders)

I am very lucky that, after 40 years on the tournament circuit, I still get excited about each new event. As I write this on June 16, I have another weekender in a couple of days in Heywood, near Manchester, where I will be catching up with some friends from the past. Then, shortly after giving simuls Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I’m off to Dresden, where I’ll play alongside some legends of English chess for the World Senior Team Championship.

AR: How will you switch from being the top seed at weekenders to an event like the World Senior Team Championship, where you will face players who are higher-rated than you?

KA: It is necessary to stay focused and play as accurately as you can against weaker opposition. If you don’t do this, your play will become sloppy and you will struggle in tougher events. I don’t think my play is any weaker now than it was during the second half of 2014 when I played in a series of very strong events, took many big scalps, and played the whole period at 2600+ level. I made a number of superfluous GM norms, thus proving to myself that I was still capable of becoming a GM from scratch.

AR: Your book Arkell’s Odyssey covers your life up through 2011. Tell about those years compared to now and where readers can order your book (download excerpt).

KA: Two or three decades ago it was possible to earn a living in the UK by successfully notching up weekend tournament victories. Today this is impossible because though costs have risen the prizes have fallen. My brother Nick returned to chess a few years ago after almost three decades of running a successful business. Since his return, and with his kids joining in, I got back into playing in the weekenders. We have a lot of fun. With my offering encouragement and Nick helping cover some of my costs, it has worked really well.

Richard Wiltshir, a friend from those distant times who has also recently returned to chess, has often joined in, and reminded me why I used to call him “Chauf'”! However, with the prize money being so small (typically £300 1st), and because the Grand Prix first prize is only a fraction of what it used to be (when, for example, the Terence Chapman Group sponsored it for a few years), it really is mostly for fun and for old times’ sake that I’ve been playing in these weekenders.

Chess and Bridge in London has my book, as does Chess Direct. Having bought complete ownership of my book from Keverel Chess, I’m currently working with Richard Wiltshir on putting an improved version on Kindle, possibly adding a few chapters to encompass my successes at senior (50+) level.

AR: In Arkell's Odyssey you mention “The Speckled Egg” opening. Tell me about your opening innovations.

KA: I wouldn't say that “The Speckled Egg” was an innovation - just a line I popularised. It is simply 3 b4 after 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 - so a kind of reverse Polish Defence. I scored rather well with the system for a while, for example in 2002 I used it to beat GMs McShane, Kosten, Arakhamia, and Kotronias.



Luke McShane

However, I eventually lost interest in it when the element of surprise disappeared. As described in the notes to Arkell versus Kosten, the whimsical way in which the name arose was as follows: While swimming with me at Swansea, in 1995, an eagle-eyed Harriet Hunt spotted that my incipient hair loss was more readily observable under water. On seeing my scalp as never before, she pointed and declared “Speckled egg!” The name just seemed to stick. The idea is to give Black unfamiliar problems if he happens to be a King’s Indian or Grunfeld player.

The opening which has more readily acquired my name, or, to be precise, that of both Igor Khenkin and myself, is the ‘Arkell/Khenkin’ line of the Caro Kann - viz: 3...c5 v the Advance Variation. According to Wikipedia’s pages on chess openings, New in Chess Yearbook 42 bestowed this honour upon us both. A quick Google search suggests that this has taken hold to some extent.  

AR: In Chess for Life by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, you are presented as a role model of chess longevity, in part due to your opening repertoire and your ability to win rook endgames. What is the connection between your opening choices and rook endgames?

KA: The bulk of my opening repertoire is designed to give me, or help me work towards, a favourable pawn structure. I think the point that Matthew and Natasha are making is that some of the work has therefore already been done by the time I arrive in a Rook endgame. Rooks in particular are very good tools with which to nurse this kind of advantage, chiefly because they are very effective at manoeuvring against weak pawns.

AR: In Arkell's Odyssey, you mention panic attacks. How did panic attacks negatively affect your chess career?

KA: In my younger years, I had constant anxiety states and panic attacks. I can immediately think of two ways in which these conditions adversely affected my chess. The first was apathy. It is difficult to care about chess when your mind is anxious or panicking or in fear of panicking. Fear of fear! The second negative effect is the tendency to run away from challenging situations for fear of bringing on an attack. Therefore I often took the easy route out in tense moments or in big games. Now that I have been free of these conditions for many years it’s easy to forget just how unbearably terrifying a full blown panic attack is. I am only now moving towards realising my full potential in chess. I have probably lost the options which would have been available to me in academia had I not, in consequence of my burdens, run away and taken refuge in the not particularly prodigious chess I displayed as a 17 year old school-leaver.

AR: What is enjoyable about chess and what are your proudest accomplishments?

KA: I thoroughly enjoy my life in chess. I enjoy playing good games, analysing well, and feeling myself getting stronger. I am ambitious - much more so than at any time before the last 30 months or so. I enjoy watching and playing through the games of players stronger than me, and listening to them demonstrate these games. I am full of admiration for dozens of the world’s best players, and I soak up everything I can about how they execute their craft.

My sweetest accomplishments are probably all chess related. Winning the first tournament I ever played in with 6/6; making my final GM norm after winning a horrible position from a massive time-scramble and then rushing out of the building to jump around in a field in sheer ecstasy; winning a good last round game against my friend Gawain Jones to tie for first place in the British Championship; realising that by taking a draw at the European Senior Championship I was certain to become Britain’s first ever winner of an over the board European Championship title at adult level; and finally pulling off a massive swindle to turn around a horrible position and beat chess legend Evgeny Sveshnikov. With 8/10 I gave myself a great chance going into the final round of a very strong World Senior Championship.



Gawain Jones (Photo: John Upham)


Evgeny Sveshnikov

AR: What else would you like to share about chess and life?

KA: Chess teaches us not to jump to conclusions but instead to enjoy the process of learning. A weak player will say “This is won!” or “This is lost!” or “That is dead drawn!” But a World Champion will say “Maybe White has some chances here, but I’m not sure.” In the words of Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Would I swap my life for that of anybody else? Absolutely not! Emotionally I feel I have earned my current level of happiness by enduring decades of anxiety and worry and panic while everyone else seemed to be having a good time. Now it’s my turn!

Topics: Keith Arkell

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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peterfrost peterfrost 7/12/2016 10:50
Recently I took up the Caro-Kann, but was a bit worried about what to do if White played 3 e5. I discovered that Kramnik had played the odd looking 3...c5 and read somewhere that GM Arkell was the acknowledged expert in this line. I spent an evening playing over about a dozen Arkell 3...c5 games, and immediately felt comfortable with it. Have now ventured the line several times and not yet lost with it, and still rely on the Arkell games in chessgames when preparing to play it. Many thanks GM Arkell!
NiiLoC NiiLoC 7/6/2016 10:57
Such a wonderful and inspiring interview. As a former expert and chess teacher, it brings me great joy to read of GM Arkell's continued success! From a personal standpoint, I also suffer from anxiety/panic attacks...It is because of these reasons that I stopped playing competitively...So yes, to hear that GM Arkell is not only triumphing over the board, but that he defeated such a difficult off the board condition? Well, it certainly made my day much brighter :) Thank you chessbase and GM Arkell!
Mark Hesford Mark Hesford 7/5/2016 08:47
I've always seen GM Keith Arkell as a Dumbledore of chess endings, a wizard at the board. His rook endings are underestimated in the chess world. I think he could add to the built up wisdom created by legendary Korchnoi, who wrote Practical Rook Endings. I think he might just be the best endgame player in UK, and one of the strongest in Europe. Though his grade hasn't reflected on this, that is probably more down to the lack of high graded opponents opportunities, rather than strength. In the UK we have low grades, even for GMs. I would look forward to reading a rook ending book written by GM Keith Arkell. He's played a number of Super GMs, including Nigel Short, where the rook ending has magically appeared on the board, typical magician, and I think that plays right into his GM Arkell's hands. Nigel took a draw, knowing full well of the dangers of challenging Keith in such endings. Another 2700 GM tried his luck and got ground down into dust, and this is typical when he hits a rook ending. One thing that bothers me by a lack of interest in the practical side of endgame play is that it is smoothered by tactics. This is unfortunate, because I think endgames are drastically more interesting.
Keith Arkell Keith Arkell 7/3/2016 06:02
Hello Rational. Thanks for showing an interest! I guess I am best placed to answer this myself. You would have read that I played these event for fun, for nostalgic reasons and to encourage my brother and his family to play chess. Of course bigger prizes would be nice, but the events are usually not sponsored. While the serious focus of my chess is obviously elsewhere, please don't underestimate the strength of these things. At a weekender in Telford, a month or so earlier, 5 of us, all GMs tied 1st. GMs, and especially IMs, have not deserted weekend chess in England by any means!
Rational Rational 7/3/2016 09:50
It a bit sad that in those 7 weekender Arkell just won that for most of them he would have got better paid on an minimum wage jo, though in most of them he the only player over 2200 . Many of these GM are in a bit of a trap though Arkell seems happy enough.
GMScuzzBall GMScuzzBall 7/3/2016 12:31
That's good shit
overaged overaged 7/2/2016 04:55
As a casual chess player over 50 myself, it's encouraging to see K. Arkell's continuing success and enthusiasm. There are far too few articles like this as GMs are all in nappies nowadays. Thanks to Alexey Root for researching and writing this insightful profile.