Interview with Dominic Lawson

by Frederic Friedel
9/13/2014 – In October the English Chess Federation will elect a new president, and with a single nomination the result is clear: Dominic Lawson, one of Britain’s most prominent journalists and a well-known supporter of chess, will be chosen. Dominic has been a good friend for many years and agreed to a very frank and engaging interview on chess, life and mental disability.

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The English Chess Federation

The ECF was formed in 2004 to replace the previous British Chess Federation (BCF), which existed since 1904. The BCF previously governed chess in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Channel Islands, which today have their own independent chess federations. The ECF runs the British Chess Championship, publishes grades for players and ECF and a newsletter, Chess Moves, that is free to members. The Presidents have been CJ de Mooi, Roger Edwards and most recently Andrew Paulson, who resigned in March this year, leaving the English Chess Federation without a figurehead.

Dominic Lawson is a strong club chess player, who plays in the Central London League. He writes a
chess column for Standpoint, a monthly British cultural and political magazine based in London.

Now finally the ECF seems to have found a successor: the board has announced that the well-known journalist Dominic Lawson is their candidate for the job. Their decision is subject to an election at the governing body’s AGM in October, but since no other person has received enough nominations, it seems almost certain to be approved.

For his first interview as President-elect, Dominic Lawson, who is an old friend, agreed to answer questions put by ChessBase. The interview was conducted by senior editor Frederic Friedel.

Interview with Dominic Lawson

Frederic Friedel: Dominic, I have known you for many years, and followed your activities, not just in chess, very closely. Was it your idea to go for the post of ECF President? I know that your father, Nigel Lawson, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but you have never stood for any sort of public office, even locally.

Dominic Lawson: No, it was not my idea. What happened was that the board of the ECF went through an internal procedure, based on certain agreed criteria, before drawing up a short-list of names that they thought suitable. And at the end of it they approached me – to my great surprise.

FF: So why did you accept?

DL: I suppose because I have always wanted to popularize chess in this country and to make it more part of the cultural mainstream: and I felt that I could do that best at the helm of the official governing body.

What have you done to date to advance the interests of chess in England?

Well, it started back in 1983 when I managed to persuade Acorn Computers to step in at the last minute to finance the holding of the FIDE World Championship semi-finals in London. You might recall that they had been abandoned when the Soviet authorities refused to let Garry Kasparov play his match against Viktor Korchnoi in the designated venue of Pasadena – this was still the Cold War! – and It seemed as though it would simply never take place. I felt that would be terrible not just for Kasparov but for chess itself – and of course I was very motivated by the idea of bringing the match to London, which had never before hosted a major FIDE event. By the way, I should add that we also staged the other semi-final between Vasily Smyslov and Zoltan Ribli. Vasily, at 62 years of age, produced in my opinion the best game of the entire event: his beautiful win in the fifth game of his match was fantastic to watch in the flesh.

If I didn’t know you already, Dominic, from our many enjoyable meetings over the past few years, I would now recognize you as a true chess fan. But how did you get interested in chess in the first place?

The schoolboy Dominic Lawson around 1968

Like so many, as a result of the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972. You’ll recall that it wasn’t just the most talked-about chess event in history, it was the biggest news event of the time, bar none. But I was already fifteen years old, so I was late to get the bug: Nigel Short said to me that it’s virtually impossible to be a strong player if you take the game up at that age, and I have certainly proved him right.

But I believe you got up to about 200 on the ECF gradings, which is pretty strong for an amateur.

Yes, but in the past few years my grade has fallen with monotonous regularity!

Are there any of your games you might like us to show?

Well, there are a couple which gave me particular pleasure – the first because it found its way into a book of combinations, and which was played in the Oxford University Championship in 1975; and the second, because I played a series of (for me) unusually correct sacrifices against a much better player, who himself had once beaten Vishy Anand.

[Event "Oxford University Championship"] [Site "?"] [Date "1975.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Lawson, Dominic"] [Black "Foley, John"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C14"] [PlyCount "43"] 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6. Bxe7 Qxe7 7. f4 a6 8. Nf3 c5 9. Bd3 Nc6 10. dxc5 Nxc5 11. O-O Bd7 12. Kh1 b5 13. Qe1 Nxd3 14. cxd3 O-O 15. f5 b4 16. Qg3 Kh8 17. Ne2 f6 18. Nf4 Nxe5 19. Nxe5 fxe5 20. Ng6+ hxg6 21. Qh3+ Kg8 22. fxg6 1-0

Then and now: the strong amateur chess player Dominic Lawson

[Event "Sussex League"] [Site "?"] [Date "2010.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Lawson, Dominic"] [Black "Macfarlane, Donald"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B10"] [PlyCount "51"] 1. e4 c6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 e5 4. Ngf3 Nd7 5. Qe2 d4 6. g3 g6 7. Nc4 Qc7 8. a4 b5 9. axb5 cxb5 10. Na5 Nb6 11. Bg2 Na4 12. Nc4 f6 13. O-O Bd7 14. Na3 Bg7 15. Nxd4 exd4 16. e5 O-O-O 17. e6 Bc6 18. Bf4 Qb7 19. Bxc6 Qxc6 20. Nxb5 Qxb5 21. Rxa4 g5 22. Qe4 gxf4 23. Qa8+ Kc7 24. Rxa7+ Kb6 25. Qxd8+ Kxa7 26. Qc7+ 1-0

I know that you recently played the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen.

That’s supposed to be a secret! But yes, I have just completed recording the second series of Across the Board. As ChessBase readers might recall, at the end of last year I presented this programme for Radio 4 – the first chess on BBC radio for over half a century – in which I interview people while simultaneously playing a chess game against them. Only one of the five interviewees are professionals, and as that was the woman’s world champion Hou Yifan in the first series, the BBC thought I should take on the male champion this time.

I suppose we don’t need to guess the result of your game against Magnus?

Now that I really can’t reveal until it’s broadcast next month! But seriously, I was thrilled that the Controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, gave the go-ahead for this series and then commissioned it again after it had been very well received by audiences well beyond the chess afficianados. It can only be wonderful for the profile of our game in the UK for the world’s greatest broadcaster to give it such prominence: and of course I was delighted that the BBC thought I was the right person to do it.

The full fifteen-minute broadcast can be viewed at the official BBC site

You are often thought of as a Conservative, but I recall that your only political guest on the first series was the Labour Shadow Cabinet member Rachel Reeves.

Yes, Rachel was very sporting: it’s not easy to answer questions and play chess at the same time.

So will you have a Conservative MP this time?

Funnily enough the BBC very much wanted me to, I think partly because they have a natural desire to appear politically even-handed. But I rejected their idea – though they had a decent Tory MP lined up for the final slot and willing to play – once I realized that their short-list didn’t contain a single woman. That is a much worse case of imbalance! So I went out and found a fascinating woman interviewee/chess player myself: normally the BBC does all the work and I just stroll in at the last minute to do the interview.

Mission accomplished? Dominic Lawson after a flight in a Harrier jump-jet, back in 1996

But you do have good contacts in the Government don’t you? Isn’t that one reason why the ECF wanted you?

Well, I’m a newspaper columnist: I jolly well should. But yes, I know the Chancellor, George Osborne, and I was able to persuade him to throw open the state rooms of 11 Downing Street for the closing ceremony of the 2013 Candidates in London. I think it was quite a thrill for the players, and also very much welcomed by the FIDE officials.

But do you also have contacts with Labour? After all, they might very well be the next British government in eight months’ time, with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.

Well, one of the Godmothers of my daughter Domenica, Rebecca Nicolson, is married to Ed Miliband’s chief press spokesman – and actually he (Tom Baldwin) was very encouraging when I told him what I was up to at the ECF.

Your daughter’s more famous Godmother was Diana, Princess of Wales. Did you ever try to get Diana interested in chess?

At the Savoy: Princess Diana with Dominic Lawson, watching the 1993 match between Kasparov and Short.

I did, actually! Or at least, I persuaded her to come along to watch one of the games of the 1993 World Championship match between Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov at the Savoy Theatre. Obviously, I thought it would raise public interest in the match if the world’s most famous woman attended – and it did. But it didn’t help Nigel: the game she attended was the seventh one, which Garry won brilliantly to go into a 5.5-1.5 lead.

The daughter of whom Diana was Godmother, Domenica, has Down Syndrome. You have spoken passionately to me in the past about the value and worth of people with this condition. So it was surprising that people have expressed concern about your becoming President, because you might “jeopardise” disabled participation in chess.

Dominic Lawson with his daughters Savannah and Domenica in 1996

I was amazed, frankly. IM Jack Rudd, the ECF’s Manager for Disabled Chess, said words to that effect, although he has never spoken to me. Rudd seems to have picked up that back in 2006 I wrote an article in which I used the term “mentally handicapped” – and he asserted that this meant my suitability for ECF was in doubt. It would be better for people to know exactly what I said in full rather than just two words of it. But essentially the argument I put eight years ago was that the term mentally handicapped – which was rightly introduced to replace genuinely pejorative descriptions such as ‘cretin’ or ‘idiot’ – was often more appropriate than the increasingly widespread one of “learning difficulties”. It seemed to me that the phrase “learning difficulties” has the effect of minimising the nature of the problem that many people such as my daughter face – and therefore the resources that will be put into dealing with it. After all, every one of us – except possibly Dr John Nunn – has “learning difficulties”.

Watching the London Chess Classic in 2011 (with Jon Speelman and John Nunn)

You knew John Nunn at Oxford University, didn’t you?

Yes, we lived across the road from each other, though I was a mere undergraduate reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and he was a lecturer. It was very good for me that we saw such a lot of each other – including over the chessboard, as he played board one for his college and I for mine – as it gave me the necessary understanding of just how big the gulf is between the truly gifted and the rest of us. What they have is really very special – and in the age of invincible chess computer programs it is all too easy to forget that.

I read somewhere that you were an MI6 spy and that while you were at Oxford you had been approached by the Secret Intelligence Service, to consider a career with them…

No! That sort of recruiting might have gone on back in those days, but I was definitely not the type. Far too Bolshie! And the accusation that I was an agent came from a man, a sacked intelligence officer, who also claimed that Nelson Mandela was an MI6 agent… So I suppose I was in good company! In a way, it was a rather flattering fantasy to have spread about oneself. James Bond and all that. But it was just that, a fantasy.

Back in the real world, I see that you have got involved with Chess in Schools, both in fund raising and teaching. But did you try to teach either of your own children chess?

 

Funnily enough, it was only Domenica who seemed fascinated by the chess board. So we would play her invented version in which I had to abide by the real rules, but she on her turn was allowed to capture as many of my pieces as she could by lifting them off the board with her hands. Fortunately for my chances, she has tiny hands! My elder daughter, Savannah, who actually is now at Oxford University herself, reading Experimental Psychology, never showed any interest. Really, it’s very hard to know who will become addicted to the drug we call chess, and who won’t. But it’s a wonderful addiction: perhaps the only one which doesn’t damage our brains, but actually improves them.

Dominic Ralph Campden Lawson (picture Sunday Times), 57, is the principal columnist and non-fiction book reviewer for the Sunday Times and also weekly leader page columnist for the Daily Mail.

Dominic is author of The Inner Game, an intimate inside account of the 1993 World Championship match between Kasparov and Short.

In January he presented BBC Radio's first chess series in half a century: Across The Board.

Links to articles by Dominic Lawson



Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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