BritBase – the British Chess Game Archive

by John Saunders
5/10/2016 – What makes a chess game interesting to read in a book or a magazine and exciting for an online spectator? In CHESS Magazine John Saunders writes about changes in taste as more of us get our ‘chess fix’ from watching everything in real-time. He goes on to consider how our appreciation of the talents of old-time players is growing, and how he maintains a database of British games

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English IM Richard Bates wrote the following (at the English Chess Forum on 16th March 2016): “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What was the most ‘exciting’ game yesterday? In the pre-computer age, almost certainly Nakamura-Giri. But it was all home-prep. This is true of many, if not most, top-level games in traditionally ‘exciting’ openings. The truth is that for even a vaguely aware spectator these sort of games paradoxically often are not friendly for live chess broadcasting.

“Commentators are there to try and explain to the audience what is going on. When games are being played at the level of super-computers and are swinging on deep tactical nuances several moves in the future they can’t even begin to do that. A commentator probably wants positions that they can explain in fairly simple terms, e.g. bishop v knight, weak pawns, open files, long term positional strengths vs short/medium term difficulties, etc, etc.”

This is very true. These days, tactical games in elite events are like fireworks, burning brightly for an hour or two as the two super-GMs’ computer-generated repertoires clash head on, but so often fizzling out to a disappointing draw, leaving you feeling that all you have witnessed is an abstruse laboratory experiment. On the other hand, as Richard says, it is paradoxical how games that might be dismissed by the uncomprehending as boring when playing through them in a book become intriguing when experienced in real time.

Personally, I find what plays out a great deal better from the spectator’s point of view is one of those long, suspenseful Carlsen grinds, starting from the most innocuous of positions and morphing imperceptibly into a niggling edge and (usually) a Norwegian triumph. Not so much a whodunnit as a howwillhedoit: the chess equivalent of Nordic noir. And, as Richard says, these longer, less flashy games are also preferable from the commentators’ point of view: it gives them the time and opportunity to demonstrate all the subtleties and nuances of top-level positional play.

I enjoy watching live chess, but I also spend a lot of my time these days delving into the back pages of chess history, as I update my online archive of British chess games. I set up BritBase ( back in the 1990s as a supplement to commercially-available databases, but at the time I didn’t have enough spare time to do more than a modicum of work. Now I’m more or less retired, it’s a different matter: if you check the ‘what’s new?’ page you can see that I update the material several times a week, as I systematically work my way through newspaper archives and old magazines looking for old games and information.

BritBase is very much a collaborative exercise and I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received from many people in compiling game files. Any readers who wish to become involved in some way, such as by supplying bulletins or games, or providing advice as to where to source them, etc, please do get in touch.

While I’m poring over archives, I’m usually struck by the thought that chess hasn’t changed much. I suppose the biggest change has been the internet, with its immediacy and interactivity. And yet somehow it wasn’t all that different at various times in the past: whereas people play online these days, correspondence chess was a really big thing at one time. Before the Second World War, there were chess columns in many regional newspapers, some of which featured material sent in by rank and file players, so it was possible for relatively modest players to reach an audience.

In the process of building the archive I also get to input quite a few games from the past. They are usually obscure ones that didn’t find their way into the magazines at the time, but I find them all the more interesting for that. I’m left with the impression that the gap in ability between the players of the past and those of today is not as wide as people seem to believe.

It’s true that pre-war openings were unsophisticated compared to the present, and that there were far fewer genuinely strong players then than there are now. However, in many cases old-timers are judged by the quality of the widely-published games which they won against inferior quality opponents, whereas it might be fairer to take into account some of their less flashy games against sterner opposition.

I reckon one of a handful of top Brits from the between-war period, on a good day, having survived the opening, could provide decent opposition to all but the 2600+ cream of today. As for us sub-2300 types, any thoughts that we could have taken on players such as H.E. Atkins or F.D. Yates – forget it. Those guys could play. The more games I look at, the more respect I have for the top players of this, and indeed all, eras of the game.

It’s that time of year when the league season is winding down and players start to look back on the successes and failures of the previous campaign. I’ve written about this before and don’t propose to cover it again, except to say that the only way to improve is to do some real work on your game. And, let’s face it, most of us cannot be bothered with that.

Rather than going through the motions, like buying an opening book which you never get around to reading, a more enjoyable (and, hopefully, educational) way to spend some free time during the close season might be to dip into a database to examine the play of the masters of the past. Choose a long, manoeuvring game between well-matched rivals, rather than a quick tactical smash, and try to remember how the best online commentators squeeze the juice out of such games. The trick is, learning to do this for yourself. It takes time, but it can be done.

British Chess Game Archive

BRITBASE (, founded in 1997 by John Saunders, is an archive of British and Irish chess tournament games, for viewing online and downloading in PGN format. Material dates back to Hastings 1895, with the current focus being on the period from the start of the British Championship (1904) up to the pre-computer era. There are also some collections of games by player, and PDFs of bulletins and other documents. The site is constantly being worked on and updated, with new features added, such as the provision of crosstables, results, newspaper cuttings and biographical information. The best way to check out what is happening is to look at the ‘What’s New’ page.

BritBase is very much a collaborative effort. Many people have contributed to it over the past twenty years and their help is much appreciated. We are always looking for games and other information relating to British and Irish chess tournaments and players. Some of the material we are keenest to find is listed on the 'Most Wanted' page. If anyone can supply bulletins relating to any of the missing tournaments, please contact John Saunders via the contact page. Any bulletins sent will be well-treated and returned. Relevant information, corrections and advice are always welcome.

The above article appeared in the April 2016 of the British magazine CHESS

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 IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organises the London Chess Classic.

CHESS is mailed to subscribers in over 50 countries. You can subscribe
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In 1999 John Saunders gave up his job as an IT professional to become full-time editor/webmaster of 'British Chess Magazine'. During the 2000s he was also webmaster and magazine editor for the English Chess Federation, and regular webmaster and photo-reporter at Isle of Man and Gibraltar tournaments. In 2010 he became editor of the leading UK monthly 'CHESS' Magazine, retiring in 2012 but remaining its associate editor and regular contributor.


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