The FIDE anthem

Your sing-along guide to a classic of chess and music


The recent match for the chess World Title in London brought what was for me a revelation, which was that FIDE (The Fédération internationale des échecs) has its own anthem. This was played as part of the closing ceremony, along with the national anthem of the UK (the hosting nation) and, eventually, the national anthem of Norway for the winner, Magnus Carlsen.

The 2018 World Title match closing ceremony

Before I embark on a discussion of the FIDE anthem, I have to comment on the breathtakingly amateurish, indeed gloriously inept, nature of the closing ceremony for the World Championship. The contrast with the incredibly precise play and meticulous preparation of the two contenders for the title over the chess board in the previous three weeks was staggering. The MC, Anna Rudolf (who with Judit Polgar had been a wonderfully perceptive and thoroughly professional live commentator for the whole match), began by telling us the names of the contenders, which seemed a little superfluous; Magnus Carlsen was given so many separate awards that he could not hold them and several had to be whisked away from him again; the organisers could not find the commemorative FIDE Du Pont pen at the moment it was to be presented; and Carlsen actually left the stage at the moment that the Norwegian anthem was to be played. I loved every second of the twenty-minute ceremony, and perhaps you will too:

What is the FIDE anthem?

Watching the closing ceremony left me with several resolutions, one of which was to find out more about the FIDE anthem. I of course turned to the best online resource for anything to do with the history of the game, Edward Winter’s Chess Notes, which I described in the blog post Edward Winter’s chess and music articles. Sure enough, he has a note on the FIDE anthem. His note even reproduces a scan of the music for the anthem. Sadly, the scan was of too low a quality for the words of the anthem to be legible. However, courtesy of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I am able to rectify that with this post.

The FIDE anthem was written in 1951 and first performed at the FIDE Congress held that year at Venice. The authors were two of the FIDE delegates: the music was written by Count Gian Carlo dal Verme, the Italian delegate, and the words by Marcel Berman, the French delegate. The report on the Congress in the August 1951 issue of CHESS includes the official photo, in which they are sitting next to each other:

Delegates to the 1951 FIDE congress with circles
The authors of the FIDE anthem among the delegates to the 1951 Congress. (image from CHESS Vol. 16 No. 191 p. 253)

The report in CHESS also includes the score of the anthem:


At the end of the score, the footnote states,

Superbly rendered by a male voice choir during the Congress at Venice, the anthem proved stirring and effective. (CHESS Vol. 16 No. 191 p. 255)

My images here are of a much better resolution than those in Chess Notes, and if Edward Winter ever reads this, I would be more than happy to send him copies. Because of the format of this blog, they are still rather small here (especially if you are reading this via a mobile phone), so I have put larger versions in another post.

Here are the words of the anthem, transcribed with my translation.

Délégués de notre FIDE
venus des quatre coins du monde,
pour former un seule ronde,
travaillez en fraternité.

Que rien ne trouble ou divise
les décisions et les avis,
que le congrès soit à Paris,
à Copenhague ou à Venise.

Pour la paix et la liberté
que le FIDE sur notre terre
poursuive la longue carrière,
pleine de bonne volonté.

Delegates of our FIDE,
drawn from all corners of earth,
to create a single circle
work in fraternity.

May nothing disturb or divide
its decisions and opinions,
be the Congress in Paris,
in Copenhagen or in Venice.

For peace and liberty,
may FIDE in our lands
long pursue its career,
full of goodwill.

I didn’t try to make my translation rhyme or scan, but reading the words may explain why the anthem is nowadays rendered by instruments only.

Why does FIDE have an anthem anyway?

National anthems are a musical genre all of their own. Begun by the emphatic repetition of the monarch’s name in “God save great George our King” (the original wording of the British National Anthem), continued with the bloodthirsty Marseillaise of the French Revolution, they have always served political ends of varying sorts. Quite apart from the Marseillaise, military marches have been a frequent resort of regimes intent on social change, from the Internationale adopted by socialist movements across Europe from the 1890s onwards, to the anthem of the Soviet Union, composed in 1944 and to which the near-contemporary FIDE anthem bears a passing resemblance (compare the introduction to the FIDE anthem with bars 5-6 of the USSR anthem (the beginning of the second line below):


While the music of the FIDE anthem may recall these revolutionary forerunners, the lyrics carry a typically post-WW2 message, in which chess will bring nations together in peace and brotherhood (perhaps rather surprising ambitions for a highly competitive game defined by Cold War tensions for at least the next forty years after the composition of the anthem).

If you are not actually a nation state, though, the adoption of an anthem is necessarily an aspirational statement. Both the Internationale and the State Anthem of the USSR were created by political movements that aspired to radical social change. The European Union in 1972 adopted as its anthem Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy, with its message of international brotherhood. At almost the same time (1971), the United Nations commissioned the Hymn to the United Nations from W. H. Auden, set to music by Pablo Casals — although never officially adopted as an anthem, this was a much classier effort than most others to create the requisite stirring of the emotions.

Eagerly, musician,
Sweep your string,
So we may sing,
Elated, optative,
Our several voices
Playfully contending,
Not interfering
But co-inhering,
For all within
The cincture of the sound
Is holy ground,
Where all are Brothers,
None faceless Others.

(W. H. Auden, first verse of Hymn to the United Nations)

Sporting bodies with anthems are another matter altogether. Clearly, the idea that sport might be a force for peace, and as important as any individual nation, was “in the air” in the post-WW2 world. And if you are a force for international peace and brotherhood, you clearly need an anthem. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) adopted its anthem at almost the same time as FIDE, in 1958 (previously, a new anthem had been written for each Olympic Games held between 1896 and 1956). The IOC anthem’s lyrics are not dissimilar to FIDE’s in tone, and much better as poetry:

Olympian flame immortal,
Whose beacon lights our way,
Emblaze our hearts with the fires of hope
On this momentous day.

As now we come across the world
To share these Games of old,
Let all the flags of every land
In brotherhood unfold

I suspect that FIDE’s need for an anthem was not unrelated to its long campaign to be recognised as a sporting body by the IOC, which consistently turned down its overtures in the 1920s and 30s (the IOC eventually recognised FIDE as a brother sporting organisation in 1999).

Other sporting organisations with international aspirations have also turned to anthems to bolster their image — notably FIFA, which in 1994 adopted an anthem written by Franz Lambert, a German virtuoso of the Hammond Organ. My favourite anthem of this sort, though, remains that of Formula One motor racing, which always plays the overture from Bizet’s Carmen at the prize-giving ceremony after each Grand Prix. It took me some years before I got the pun.

Can I see a large image of the FIDE anthem score?

Yes, of course you can. I’ve put it in this post: The FIDE anthem score.

Can I hear the FIDE anthem?

Yes, of course you can. I cannot embed the MP3 file here, sadly, but FIDE itself hosts it on its website. Here it is:

This is the official recording, played at the opening and closing ceremonies of the FIDE World Championship. That is, as long as someone remembers to play it at the right moment.

The FIDE anthem score

This scan of the the score of the FIDE anthem is of higher quality than that in Edward Winter’s article on chess and music. It was taken from the copy of CHESS magazine, Vol. 16, No. 191, August 1951, pp. 254-55 held by the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

I discuss the anthem in detail in The FIDE anthem.

CHESS vol.16 no.191 Aug 1951 p.254 (anthem p.1)

CHESS vol.16 no.191 Aug 1951 p.255 (anthem p.2)

Edward Winter’s chess and music articles

An early post in this blog was devoted to Richard James’s chess and music posts. Another fantastic resource for the subject is found among the immensely capacious Chess Notes, started in 1982, written and curated by Edward Winter, probably the most reliable, certainly the most meticulous chess historian of today (or indeed any other day).

chess facts and fables
Signed copies of Winter’s many authored books are available from the Chess Notes website

Winter’s speciality is uncovering nuggets of information among the pages of chess journals and magazines, often going back into the nineteenth century, and many of them all but inaccessible today outside of personal collections or specialist chess libraries. This article is no different. Nowhere else could I have found a reference to ‘Mendelssohn as a Chessplayer’ (in the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 22 November 1881, page 565). Nowhere else could I have discovered that the famous Russian-American violinist Mischa Elman boasted of his ability as a chess player on page 266 of the June 1916 Chess Amateur.

Sensibly, Winter’s article excludes material relating to François Danican Philidor, although he does permit himself a mention of a recording of a military march by Philidor’s dad, André Danican Philidor. Actually, one could find a lot of music by relatives of the great chess theorist, quite apart from the fact that he is himself the most celebrated composer of the family. The Philidors were an extensive dynasty of French court composers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the chess genius’s half-brother Anne Danican Philidor (yes, a brother called Anne — explained by the fact that he was ‘named after his godfather’, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) who in 1725 founded the Concert Spirituel in Paris, one of the very first public concert series.

Anyway, Winter’s article is full of treasures, going well beyond the obligatory mention of Prokofiev (who gets his own article anyway), and even has several musical scores reproduced as images — a Caïssa Waltz, Schach-Marsch, even a Lament at the Tomb of Paul Morphy. Perhaps a concert of chess-related music would be a good fund-raising idea for impoverished local chess clubs.

Click here to enjoy Chess and Music by Edward Winter (last updated November 2018).

Click here to enjoy Sergei Prokofiev and Chess by Edward Winter (last updated September 2014).

Click here to enjoy CHESS The Musical by Edward Winter.

Magnus Carlsen: the Mozart of the chess board

The 2018 chess World Championship finished this week with Magnus Carlsen retaining his title, and with it his reputation as one of the greatest chess players of all time.

The handshake with which Fabiano Caruana conceded defeat in the final game of the match

Before the match began, expanding on a throw-away remark by the challenger Fabiano Caruana at the pre-match press conference, I compared Caruana’s style of play with hip hop music. Caruana was responding to a journalist who repeated a well-worn comparison of Carlsen with Mozart. So, was the 2018 title match indeed a victory for Mozart over Kendrick Lamar?

When did Magnus play like Mozart?

The match will probably be most remembered for two individual moments, both of them in endgames, and both undoubtedly destined to feature in future manuals of endgame technique. One was the extraordinary ‘fortress’ that Magnus Carlsen constructed in Game 9, when he deftly arranged his weaker forces so that the challenger could extract no more than a draw from a position in which he had two pieces and one pawn against Carlsen’s one piece and two pawns.

The other moment is truly Mozartian in its elegance and brilliance, though. It is the single move that effectively won the match and confirmed Magnus Carlsen as World Champion. All twelve of the standard length match games were drawn — a feat unprecedented in the history of the chess World Championship — which meant that the match was to be decided in a series of four ‘rapid’ games, in which each player had only twenty-five minutes on their clock, with an extra ten seconds added after each move. In the first game, Carlsen had the white pieces, and he brought about an endgame with one rook remaining on each side, and an advantage of one extra pawn for White — a definite advantage, but not enough necessarily to win. Carlsen allowed Caruana to capture the extra pawn, in order to bring about the following position at move 37. The analysis that follows owes a lot to the excellent coverage of the match by Grandmaster Daniel King (@DanielKingChess).

White to move. What would you play?

In this position, Carlsen did not do what I (and probably more than 99% of all chess players) would have done, and take the pawn on g7 with his rook [R x KKt7]. If he had done so, Caruana could have  obtained a draw by giving check to Carlsen’s king with Ra2+ [R-QR7 check], and after the king retreats to h3 [K-KR3], the black king comes to f3 [K-KB6] and draws because of the threat of checkmate (White must prevent Ra1 followed by Rh1 [R-QR8 and R-KR8]).

Instead, and with almost no time to pause and think, Carlsen played a move of stunning, truly Mozartian elegance.

White plays 37.Re7+!! [R-K7 check!!]

For me, this is not only the move that effectively won the match, but it is truly the move of a World Champion. Black is forced to take the pawn on f5 [K x KB4] before White takes the pawn on g7, with the result that the white king can no longer be trapped.  Carlsen did indeed go on to win. Caruana must have been devastated; forced to press for victory at any cost, he lost both the next two games and Carlsen took the tie-break match 3-0.

This moment shows just how complex and difficult endgames can be, despite their apparent and deceptive simplicity. Magnus Carlsen’s ability to spot the only winning move, and the fact that it is what looks like a harmless and inessential move, shows why the comparison with Mozart is fully justified.

When did Mozart play like Magnus?

Perhaps the most appropriate comparison should be of Carlsen’s play with a piece written by Mozart at exactly the same age (Carlsen retained his title two days before his twenty-eighth birthday). Even better, Mozart’s piece is also an example of ‘rapid’ play, since it is a symphony he wrote in just four days.

In 1783, the twenty-seven year old Mozart and his wife Constanze were returning to Vienna from Salzburg where they had been visiting Mozart’s father. Leopold Mozart had disapproved of the marriage, but had been partially assuaged by the fact that they had named their newly-born first child after him. On the way home, they stopped at Linz, to stay at the castle of Count Thun, the local aristocrat, whose wife was a patron of Mozart’s in Vienna. To Mozart’s surprise, the Count had already advertised a concert to be given by his court orchestra on the following Saturday (four days after their arrival), to be conducted by Mozart and featuring a new work by him. Mozart wrote back to his father, “I have no music with me, and so am having to write a symphony at top speed”.

Whether Mozart was able to remember and reconstruct a symphony he had been working on in Vienna, or whether he really did compose Symphony 36 (the ‘Linz’) entirely from scratch in those four days, we cannot be sure; but he did indeed conduct the new work on the Saturday, and it is a masterpiece.

Magnus Carlsen’s moment of brilliance came towards the end of his game, so I shall choose a moment of brilliance from the last movement of the symphony.

The moment in question is the following sequence of little three-note motifs:

Mozart, Symphony No. 36 ‘Linz’, K425, last movement (presto), bars 308-311

These are so simple, so unassuming. But they are also extremely memorable. Whether it is the slightly off-beat nature of the rhythm, or the subtle difference between the second group, which alternates two notes, and the others, which go in step, I cannot be sure. But these four bars, which are not important in the sense of being a main theme in the movement, are nevertheless the moment that sticks in my mind after I hear the work, and the moment I look forward to before it begins. As Roland Barthes might say, this is the moment in which I as a listener do not just take pleasure [plaisir], but find bliss [jouissance] (read Le plaisir du texte if you want to know more on that score).

These little groups of three notes grow out of motifs in the first subject:

And also the second subject:

And by the end of the movement, you hear ghosts of these three-note groups everywhere:

Perhaps the most delightful thing about them, though, is the way that Mozart deploys them when they occur. While many composers might use little motifs of this sort, it takes a Mozart — a World Champion of classical composition — to recognise how ideally they work in counterpoint. With a sureness of touch very like Magnus Carlsen’s incredible ability to think in several divergent lines simultaneously — I compared chess logic to counterpoint in Reti and Bach: four-piece counterpoint  — Mozart passes these motifs in turn from the top of the orchestra to the bottom:

This looks simple enough on the page. But the effect is astonishing, and the judgment it displays is truly brilliant. When you listen to it in a moment, you can hear how Mozart follows this passage with further wonderful contrapuntal work for these three-note motifs as they accompany the main themes of the movement.

So, why does this little bit of Mozart remind me of Magnus Carlsen’s endgame brilliancy? Like Carlsen’s move, these little motifs seem inessential; they are almost a passing detail. But in fact, they are so embedded in the texture of the movement that they seem to grow naturally from its main themes, and infect every part of what follows. Similarly, the opportunity for Carlsen’s brilliancy was created by his superb judgment earlier in the game — he used nine of his twenty-five available minutes considering just one move (the twenty-seventh), after which he steered the game into this endgame — and it is the one moment that makes sense of every other move he played.

Here is a performance of the last movement of the Linz Symphony, with the sort of graphics that appeal to me. You get to hear the motifs I have been talking about three times, at 0′ 57″, 3′ 00″, and 6′ 00″. Sit back and enjoy brilliance such as we are seldom privileged to witness.

Fabiano Caruana: hip hop chess

At the press conference that served as the opening ceremony for the World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, being held in London at the time of writing, the American challenger was reminded by a chess journalist that Carlsen had been described as “the Mozart of chess”. He was asked what similar comparison he would make of himself. His reply was:

My musical tastes lie more outside classical music, so I would probably pick someone either in the hip hop or the rock genre. This comparison to Magnus was made a long time ago, when he was a very talented up-and-coming player, and I think it was very fitting because of his great talent in chess.

(Fabiano Caruana, 8 November 2018)

The second part of Caruana’s answer shows that he may not fully appreciate the reasons for comparing Carlsen with Mozart, which have as much to do with the elegance and apparent simplicity of his play as with the fact that he was a child prodigy. Carlsen as a player reminds many of his great predecessor as World Champion, José Raul Capablanca, whom I compared to Mozart in my post Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur.

It is true that Caruana was less of a child prodigy than Carlsen: in his first chess tournament, he lost every game. On the other hand, he developed fast, earning the grandmaster title a few days before his fifteenth birthday (Carlsen became a grandmaster aged thirteen). But his suggestion that his play might be better compared to hip hop or rock is suggestive. For a start, it recalls the player he is most regularly compared with, the only American chess World Champion, Bobby Fischer.  Fischer, an unpredictable genius over the board, considered himself a great rock singer, as I pointed out in Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?.

In part, Caruana’s answer simply refers to his musical tastes, which he also described in a pre-match interview for The Guardian:

He [Caruana] grew up on classic rock and spent many tournaments listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin during his downtime, but has taken a shine to hip-hop in the last few years. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he says. “But it changes all the time. When I’m bored and I have nothing to do, I’ll just listen to random pop music.”

(Interview with Bryan Armen Graham, The Guardian, 7 November 2018)

Nevertheless, I see no reason not to ask: what would “hip hop” chess look like?

Hip hop chess

HHCF logoBefore going further, I must point out that there indeed exists a Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF). It is a California-based charity which uses chess and other disciplines to help children’s academic and social development in some of the most deprived urban areas of America and elsewhere. Its work is clearly brilliant, and I urge you to read about HHCF here.

However, to stay with hip hop as a music genre and the playing style of Caruana: in hip hop, an essential effect of the music is its non-stop urgency: a rapper has to obey the rules of rhyme and metre, impress the audience with verbal dexterity, and create the impression of unstoppable force, often with a shocking or sudden punchline as the end-point. Here’s an example from Kendrick Lamar, the artsit mentioned by Caruana above. It’s the end of “King’s Dead” (an appropriate title for a chess rap), from the soundtrack to the 2018 film Black Panther:

Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven and not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under
All hail King Killmonger
Red light, green light, red light, green light
Red light, green light, they like, we like
Fast cars

Now here is one of Caruana’s great wins. It was played in Dortmund in 2014, against the Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Ponomariov. The devotee of hip hop in this game cultivates on the chessboard a “rapping”, non-stop urgency in his play, with threats maintained on both sides of the board simultaneously. Ponomariov, having to rush his defensive pieces from one side to the other, ended up with the following position:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39.
Caruana vs Ponomariov, 2014, move 39. White to move.

Black’s bishop and rook have been decoyed to the far side of the board from the black king. But Caruana’s next move, which of course he had foreseen several moves in advance, comes like a Led Zeppelin power chord:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39...
Caruana plays 39.Re7!! [R-K7!!]
To Ponomariov’s credit, he did not resign immediately, but allowed the combination to unfold on the chess board (Fischer once described his opponent’s resignation in similar circumstances as “a bitter disappointment”). Like a non-stop rap, Caruana has given up his rook only to have the chance to give up his bishop:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 40b
After the black queen takes the rook, Caruana plays 40.Ba6!! [B-QR6!!]
The ending is a wonderful checkmate:


Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 41
After the black king takes the bishop, Caruana plays 41.Qa8# [Q-QR8 checkmate]
“King Killmonger”, indeed!

So, who will win? Mozart or hip hop?

Image may contain: one or more people and people sitting
Caruana and Carlsen during the first game of the 2018 World Championship

Of course, I cannot predict the outcome of the current title match: World Championship matches can take surprising turns; I covered one of the most surprising of all time in my post Music in Glavinic’s chess novel. As I write, the first four games have all been drawn, although in my judgment the World Champion has had the edge whenever there has been an edge to have. All of us who follow the game hope to see a genuine clash of styles: the classical, cool calm of Carlsen (who has already tested Caruana through an endgame that lengthened the first game to 115 moves played over seven uninterrupted hours) against the unpredictable “hip hop” of Caruana. The match is not unlike the 1927 World Title match when the Mercurial Alexander Alekhine defeated the first “Mozart of chess”, Capablanca, to the astonishment of most onlookers. Notoriously, Alekhine avoided ever giving Capablanca a rematch.

Perhaps Caruana should remember, though, that the title that denotes a rapper of distinction – the one at the top of the game – is made up of a significant two-letter acronym: MC.

Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?

There have been any number of chess giants who were also musicians, of course; the greater their standing in the world of chess, the more intriguing their musical achievements. Some could have been professionals in either sphere, the concert pianist Mark Taimanov and the operatic bass Vasily Smyslov being examples. There are many more in Richard James’s chess and music posts.

Here, however, is a case of a chess giant who could also have been a singer to rival John Lennon, or at least so it would seem from this intriguing 1961 interview with the great American champion Bobby Fischer:

D. ANDRIC: Some other participants of the tournament [in Bled, Slovenia] persuaded Fischer to sing when at a Bled night club one evening, hoping to have some fun at his expense. They were hushed to awe however, when he sang a series of rock and roll songs attractively and well.

FISCHER: “My main talent lies not in chess but in music: I’ve written this somewhere in my diary. Grandmaster Smyslov who could be an opera singer anywhere admitted I had a suitable voice, and I’ve got rhythm, too.”

As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Fischer’s claim that in becoming the only chess player ever to achieve truly global celebrity, he robbed the world of a potential rock god. I owe this fascinating quotation to the chess writer and researcher Jeremy Silman, who unearthed it in the March 1962 edition of the American magazine Chess Life, a journal whose early issues are particularly hard to obtain: no library in the UK, not even the British Library, keeps copies. Silman’s article on these treasures of chess journalism (Part Two of a three-part series) can be found here.

The 1961 tournament in Bled was a good one for Fischer: at the age of eighteen, up against many of the world’s best players, he was the only player to remain unbeaten throughout, and he finished a very narrow second to Mikhail Tal, who had been World Champion until a few months previously:

Bled 1961 final standings
Bled 1961 final result. One former World Champion and two future World Champions led the field.

Even better, Fischer defeated Tal in their individual game, the only one that Tal lost in the tournament:

Najdorf watching Fischer vs Tal Bled 1961
Fischer vs Tal, Bled 1961. The great Miguel Najdorf watches over Fischer’s shoulder.

Bobby Fischer was born in the same year as Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Roger Waters. His teenage claim that his musical talent was even greater than his chess-playing ability obviously tells us more about his incredible self-confidence and self-belief than anything else. But it is a reminder that he was of the same generation as the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the other greats of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll. Perhaps the rock legends who played chess will be a future post in this blog. Here are four:

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?

Bobby Fischer came closest of anyone to playing chess like rock ‘n’ roll. First of all, there were the tantrums: forfeiting a match when the start time of a game was rescheduled; accusing the Soviet chess establishment of cheating by fixing results to prevent him from winning a tournament (he then refused to play at all for nearly two years); insisting on playing some of the world title match against Boris Spassky in the tiny room at the back of the hall reserved for table-tennis instead of on the main stage (which he claimed to be too noisy). Fischer was as much a nightmare for officials and organisers as any rock diva demanding, say, a particular brand of white socks be supplied to their dressing room (Status Quo once refused to play on those grounds). You can read more about such things here.

But more to the point, Bobby Fischer was someone who could play chess like rock and roll. Here’s what I mean:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10
Bobby Fischer vs Samuel Reshevsky, US Championship 1958, move 10. White to move. What would you play?

When this game was played, Fischer was fifteen. He was also the defending US Champion. Reshevsky, playing Black, was one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, who had previously won the US Championship seven times, and would win it again one last time in 1969.

In this position, Fischer played the chess equivalent of a rock power chord:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10B arrow
Fischer plays 10.Bxf7+!! [B x KB7 check!!]
Astonishing! After ten moves, Reshevsky is lost. He gamely took the marauding bishop with his king, and Fischer played:

Fischer Reshevsky move 11B arrow
Fischer plays 11.Ne6!! [Kt-K6!!]
Another power chord! In the resulting position, either Reshevsky is going to take the knight with the king, in which case it is checkmate in a maximum of six moves (Fischer had worked that out); or Fischer is going to win the black queen (which is what actually happened — Reshevsky took the knight with the pawn, allowing Fischer to take the black queen with his queen). Reshevsky eventually resigned on move 42.

That’s chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s another chess rock moment, from Fischer’s game against Robert Byrne (another American grandmaster) in the US Championship of 1963:

R.Byrne Fischer move 15B
Robert Byrne vs Fischer, US Championship 1963, move 15. Black to move. What would you play?

Time for another power chord:

R.Byrne Fischer move 16 arrow
Fischer plays 15…Nxf2!! [15…Kt x KB7!!]
Fischer’s opponent did not realise until several moves later why Fischer had given up a whole piece. After move 21, Byrne resigned. The two grandmasters explaining games to the public in the commentary room thought, when the game ended, that Byrne must have won since Fischer was so far behind in material. Fischer later described his opponent’s resignation as “a bitter disappointment” — it had prevented the following position actually appearing on the board:

R.Byrne Fischer move 23B never played
Byrne vs Fischer, the position that would have occurred on move 23. Black to move. What would you play?

Here, Fischer had foreseen another two-piece sacrifice leading to mate:

Checkmate on move 25, as a result of a piece sacrifice on move 15. That is chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock and roll in performance is very loud; chess is usually very quiet. But the display, bravado and technical brilliance of Bobby Fischer was the same as that of the greatest rock performers. The brilliant moves above did not come out of nowhere; they rely on absolute technical mastery, as much as a Brian May guitar solo.

Perhaps the best moment to end on is the turning point of Fischer’s greatest match, when he won the world championship by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. In the first five games of the match, Fischer had lost two (one of them by not turning up), and won two. In the sixth game, Fischer played an opening he had almost never played before. He proceeded to win with such style that Spassky, on resigning, stood and applauded him.

Spassky applauds Fischer (Pawn Sacrifice)
Spassky applauds Fischer on losing the sixth game of the world championship match in 1972 (scene recreated in the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice).

That’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Does practice make perfect?

The value of five-finger exercises and pawn endings

One of the things I disliked most in my childhood was piano practice. Not that I disliked playing the piano; in fact, I spent quite a lot of time sitting at the piano and playing things through. But I did very little practising. Playing scales, or other keyboard exercises, were things I almost never did. Partly, this was because my piano teacher (whom I liked very much and to whom I owe a great deal) did not teach me how to practise, nor explained to me why practising is important, and how it differs from playing pieces through and hoping that by repetition you will play them better.

Much the same was true of my early experiences of playing chess. I learned the moves from my father; I played at a club at school and later for a club in the local league; but all I ever did was play games. I did try to memorise some common opening moves (which I found very difficult to do beyond the second or third move), but no-one ever suggested to me that playing chess might be a skill that required practising.

The proverb, “Practice makes perfect” therefore intrigues me. What exactly is practice? Is it just playing a piece on the piano again and again, or playing games of chess as often as possible, with the hope in both cases that  improvement will be the inevitable result? Or is there more to it than that? Equally, what does it mean to play music, or to play chess, “perfectly”? Is that even possible? And will it result from proper practice?

My attitude to piano practice changed abruptly and forever when I was sent to a new teacher as part of starting my music studies at university. That teacher was Phyllis Palmer, who is something of a legend amongst those who ever studied with her. At my first lesson, she told me that the piece I played to demonstrate my standard was badly chosen, my posture was dreadful, and my technique was poor. She also introduced me to a book of piano exercises, recommending I try the easiest two. “These,” she remarked, “are what a professional would use for the whole of their career.”

What do you do when you practise?

Here is one of those piano exercises by Dohnányi to which the redoubtable Phyllis Palmer introduced me:

Finger exercise (Dohnanyi) transparent

When I first saw this, it looked trivially easy. You put your five fingers on the five white notes C, D, E, F and G, and only use one hand (to begin with; you add the other hand, an octave lower, later). You keep one note depressed while you play the others. The pattern changes by one note in each bar until it repeats itself. Easy.

Then I tried playing it. I couldn’t.

Nowadays, I often start a practice session with this exercise, which trains your fingers to move independently, and makes them stronger. It is an exercise that shows the value of practising.

Now here is a chess position to which, a year or two earlier, an older member of my chess club introduced me:

pawn ending exercise 4 (Black to move and lose)
A pawn ending. Black to move.

“What do you think of this position?” He asked me. “It’s Black to move.”

“It looks like a dead draw,” I replied.

“Quite right. Try and play it out.”

Since Black’s king  can’t go forwards, I moved it one square backwards. “Ah!” said the older player who then, in a few more moves, forced my king into the corner, took all Black’s pawns, and won.

The position should indeed be a draw. But of Black’s five legal moves, four lose. It is a position which shows the value of practising.

Five-finger exercises and pawn endings

There is an affinity between five-finger exercises and pawn endings like the ones above. They enable you to develop the kind of ability which underlies much more complex tasks, which however cannot be attempted unless the “practice” task is completely mastered.

The piano exercise by Dohnányi is not a great piece of music, but if you can play it perfectly, then your fingers will be able to attempt the counterpoint of a Bach fugue or the figuration of a Chopin Étude. Equally, the pawn ending is not a great game of chess; but if you know how to draw and not lose the ending, you will be able to tread a path through real, tricky endgames.

Both kinds of exercise look deceptively simple. The first bar of the Dohnanyi exercise is fairly easy, in fact; the second bar is a lot harder, and the third bar really takes practising. Pawn endings share this deceptive quality. Here is an apparently symmetrical, equal position; White is to move. It is a win for White.

pawn ending exercise (White to win)
White to play and win

On the other hand, if the kings are anywhere except in the corners, the result is different:

And here is a similar position where, if White is to move then White will win, while if Black is to move then Black can draw:

pawn ending exercise 3 (White move win Black move draw)
White to move and win; Black to move and draw

How do you practise?

Now that I am no longer a child, and thanks to Phyllis Palmer’s accurate assessment of my weaknesses, I enjoy practising the piano. A regime of Dohnányi’s A Legfontosabb Ujjgyakorlatok [Essential Finger Exercises] and Bach’s immensely beautiful, immensely tricky 48 Preludes and Fugues (Book 1 in odd-numbered years, Book 2 in even-numbered years) will keep me happy for the rest of my life, I should think.

Practising chess technique used to be more laborious, requiring books of puzzles, endgame studies, and the like, as well as a board and pieces (unless you could play blindfold, which I cannot). That, however, has been entirely changed by the internet. Nowadays, a regime of practising using an internet chess site is a direct parallel to practising a musical instrument. The examples above were endgame puzzles; here is an example from’s training website, where you need to remember basic pawn technique to win an ending that looks as if it comes from a real-life chess game:

pawn ending exercise ( tactic 175366) tactic 175366. White to move and win. Click to try it yourself!

I try to practise every day. Like Schumann, I try to make Bach my “daily bread”. In chess, I am still very poor at endgames, partly because I prefer to practise tactical puzzles which reinforce the kind of pattern recognition I waxed lyrical about in Creating patterns.

I certainly don’t manage to practise the piano every day, but I do usually manage to practise chess tactics (which takes a lot less time). And in both realms, there is no doubt that my technique has become a lot more secure.

So, does practice make perfect?

No, of course it doesn’t. At least, not in the sense that I will ever become a pianist to rival András Schiff or a chess player to rival Magnus Carlsen. However, what practice can perfect is that underlying technique that can allow you to aspire at least to competence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can play that Dohnányi exercise as well as anyone; and ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can draw a drawn pawn endgame, or win a won pawn endgame. It is practice that enables me to stop worrying about the routine business of playing the right notes or choosing reasonable moves, and get on with the rewarding business of interpreting great music or formulating chess strategy. But in both contexts, that is true only if I keep practising, daily if possible.

Even a professional pianist or a professional chess player has to practise – in fact, professionals practise an awful lot more than I do or could. It was Phyllis Palmer herself who first gave me that well-worn adage: “An amateur practises until they can get it right. A professional practises until they can’t get it wrong.”