Sacred squares and foolish horses

by Jonathan Speelman
10/4/2020 – Two days ago, October 2, it was Jon Speelman’s 64th birthday. Given that 64 is a canonical number for chess players, our columnist used this chance to remind us that every single square of the chessboard may be important. In order to illustrate his point, he goes on to show a game in which, as Black, he placed his knights on both h1 and a8 during a single game. Happy birthday, Jon! And many thanks for your ever-ingenious columns! | Pictured: Speelman usin PressTel Chessbox to play long distance chess | Source: British Chess News

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A canonical number

I’m writing this on Friday, October 2nd which, a fond hope, is International Day of Non-Violence after Gandhi’s birth on October 2nd 1869, and coincidentally (there are lots of worse people to share a birthday with) my own. Mercifully it isn’t a round one, at least for a pentadactyl, though if our lords and silicon masters eventually attain real consciousness, they will presumably consider 0x40 to be fairly round and their more simple-minded colleagues will deem 1000000 to be very much so...

Jon SpeelmanI’m not enormously delighted to be 64, but at least it is a canonical number for a chess player and does provide a fairly plausible segue to the idea that every single square of the chess board may be important (or to misquote Monty Python: Every square is sacred).

There’s a game I sometimes show people in which as Black I put knights on both h1 and later a8, and it appears at the end. (I think it may have appeared here before but not for a good while?). This set me thinking about how unusual it is for knights to appear on multiple corners of the board in the same game, and I did a fairly simple-minded search for white knights on a1 and h1, starting by making a database of games in Megabase in which a white knight at some stage appeared on a1 — there were a little over 17,000 of these — and then searching that database for ones in which a knight also appeared on h1.

These are pretty rare and, of the nearly 6.5 million games in my Megabase, I found 39. They included three in which people (kids?) had agreed a draw and then moved their horses around the board for a longer or shorter time: one of these masterpieces ended in the initial position (admittedly after rooks had also moved, so in no-castling chess) after Black’s 54th move.  There were also a few instances of Chess960, but still over 30 real games.

After a quick look at these, I reached a tentative conclusion that knights on the rim really are dim — or at least that the people who had created this very aesthetic picture were making a minus score. To my surprise I also found that of these 30 or so games, eight (!) featured white knights on a1 and  h1 at the same time.

Given a chance to create such an aesthetic picture, I’d certainly do so myself if the second knight move to the corner was decent, but I don’t think that aesthetics played any part in most of these, and you can judge for yourselves.

I realize that foolish horses in the corner may not be to everybody’s taste so please do keep on sending in your Agonizing and Ecstatic games and /or ideas for future columns, more rooted in the nitty-gritty of battle. Readers whose games or ideas are used will win a 3-month premium membership.


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Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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