The Coffeehouse Genius, part 1

11/5/2013 – The enigmatic John Healy was featured recently on our website as having one of the most interesting stories, rehabilitating from alcoholism and a life of thuggery and brutality to finding redemption and passion in the game of chess. But what kind of player was he exactly? Did his style live up to his reputation? We let you decide that by yourself in this series of brutal attacks.

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John Healy’s devastating autobiography The Grass Arena (New in Chess) was first published in 1988 to great critical acclaim. It won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, and was made into a multi-award-winning film. It gained many fans, and some establishment sceptics, all astonished that a man who had left school at 14 and spent fifteen brutal, alcoholic years living rough on the streets of London, could write such a fine and compelling work. Twenty years on it has lost none of its power to grip, or its elegance and verve. After a decade out of print, Penguin is delighted to be publishing it as a Modern Classic for the first time.

John Healy, brought up in a poor Irish immigrant family in Kentish Town, was a child when he discovered that drink offered a release from his violent and unpredictable father. Stints in the army, the boxing ring and military prison couldn’t save him from spiralling into alcoholism and homelessness. For fifteen years he dossed, drank and fought in the grass arena – the parks and open spaces of London – with beggars, thieves, prostitutes and killers. Healy tells of darkly funny schemes to purloin the next drink with his fellows – The Dipper or The Sham – which turn in an instant into desperate accounts of murder over prostitutes or a bottle, or the begging of money. The only respite comes from the police cells and prison, where he is treated with casual brutality and contempt and kicked back onto London’s streets. Here, racked by meths, homelessness and dog-end cigarettes, the premature and ugly death of the vagrant looks inevitable.

On one occasion in prison, though, something remarkable happens. Healy learns chess... and becomes hooked. He gives up alcohol, plays obsessively and becomes a tournament champion. He finds himself in a new arena where the conflicts are subject to unfamiliar, middle-class rules, but where the old school tie cannot hide the seething aggression and mania of competitive chess players. He realises that he has given up one addiction for another, and his search for peace of mind, and friendship, has to continue.

Recently we published an article on the new film coming out about Healy, Barbaric Genius

What brutal style comes out of such a route to becoming a chessplayer?? What kind of chess player was John Healy? For this we have prepared a series of games played by this enigmatic character, for you to decide. The following are annotated by Healy himself.

[Event "Hampstead 1992"] [Site "?"] [Date "1992.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "John Healy"] [Black "Gerry Hayes"] [Result "1-0"] [Annotator "John Healy"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r2q1rk1/ppn1bpp1/4b2p/2ppP3/5B1P/5NN1/PPPQ1PP1/3RR1K1 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "21"] [EventDate "1992.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.10.18"] {Iron also Gleams Hayes' unassuming Buddha-like appearance gives little guidance to the fact that he is a consumate tactician anda master strategist. A former teenage prodigy, his chess record sparkles with the scalps of International Masters.} 1. Bxh6 gxh6 2. Qxh6 Bg4 3. Ng5 Bxg5 4. hxg5 Bxd1 {4...Ne6 is best} ({At this point, I suddenly realised that my immaculate conception was flawed, and that Black could cooly play} 4... Ne6 5. f3 Qxg5 6. Qxg5+ Nxg5 7. fxg4 {passively sacrificing back the bishop, for a good endgame.} ) 5. Nf5 Ne6 6. f4 Bxc2 7. Kf2 Bxf5 8. Rh1 f6 9. g6 Bxg6 10. Qxg6+ Ng7 11. e6 1-0

A crushing attack. Healy misevaluates his opponent's resources, as 4...Ne6 would not have saved Black. White would still have some crushing resources, none of which is 5.f3?! Can you find the correct way to continue the attack? The line given does not devalue the beauty of the finishing attack.

[Event "Camden Chess Club "] [Site "?"] [Date "1990.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "John Healy"] [Black "D. Hayter"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D00"] [Annotator "John Healy"] [PlyCount "25"] [EventDate "1990.??.??"] [SourceDate "2009.10.18"] 1. d4 d5 2. e3 {This modest move steers the game into the required pattern needed to set up the attacking machine. Yes, 2 e3 blocks the development of White's queen's bishop but this does not matter at the moment since this piece hasn't any great role to play in the direct attack.} Nf6 {Bringig a man into play, striking the central e4 square, and already preparing for kingside castling.} 3. Bd3 {White also develops a piece, prepares for castling, and eyes not only the e4 square but also the kingside where Black intends to seek shelter for his monarch.} e6 {Preapring the entry of his king's bishop into the game.} 4. Nd2 {Further observation of the important e4 square. White wants to advance his f pawn to f4 without allowing Black to set up a strong point on e4 by ...Ne4 and ...f5.} c5 {Challenging the d4 pawn - the cornerstone of White's centre - and also threatening 5...c4 driving back the bishop from d3.} 5. c3 {Giving added protection to his d-pawn. Control of the centre is of the utmost importance in chess. Moreover this little pawn move provides a retreat for his bishop on c2 after Black's advance ...c4.} Nc6 {Diagram [#] Another good developing move. One thoughtless move by White now would allow the central thrust ...e5, gaining freedom for black's pieces and giving him the initiative.} 6. f4 $1 {Completing the Stonewall construction. White rules out once and for all the threat of ...e5 and in some lines prepares to plany his knight on the same e5 square, a powerful central outpost from where he can strike deep into Black's territory} Be7 {Black is now ready to castle.} 7. Nh3 {At first glance this looks like high-rosk coffee house play. Not to develop one's knight to its most natural square – f3 – seems irrational, ungainly, unBritish, and downright unethical! For more than a century inthis kind of position, White has developed his knight to f3, ready to jump into e5. In fact this square has long been considered an absolute des-res for the pony. But the move played packs a sly punch and also does not tangle up White's game as it might from f3. } O-O 8. Ng5 h6 9. h4 hxg5 $2 10. hxg5 Ne4 11. Qh5 f5 {Black hopes this move will allow him to escape via f7.} 12. g6 $1 Nf6 {Now the knight covers h7, but . . .} 13. Qh8#} 1-0

Was his opening the best in the world? Kramnik might disagree, but his opponent could not resist the attack!

[Event "Hardiman Championship"] [Site "?"] [Date "1993.12.29"] [Round "?"] [White "John Healy"] [Black "E Kass"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D02"] [Annotator "John Healy"] [PlyCount "35"] [SourceDate "2009.10.18"] 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Bf4 e6 4. e3 b6 5. Bd3 Be7 6. Nbd2 O-O 7. h4 Bb7 8. Ne5 Nbd7 9. c3 Nxe5 10. dxe5 Nd7 11. Bxh7+ Kxh7 12. Qh5+ Kg8 13. Nf3 f6 14. Ng5 fxg5 15. hxg5 Rxf4 16. Qh8+ Kf7 17. g6+ Kxg6 18. Qh5# 1-0

This game truly speaks for himself. Pure devastation! If anyone had to describe the 'ultimate in coffehouse chess', well, this would be it.

The brilliant coffeehouse attacker in action, exhibiting his skills in a simultaneous


Topics John Healy
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