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!

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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