Toying with an unwitting pawn

 

CHESS:Bobby Fischer made it glamorous and 'The Seventh Seal' made it scary, but chess is above all about strategy, writes EOIN BUTLER.

'You're not doing very well, I'm afraid." It's Wednesday morning and Eamon Keogh and I are playing chess on the banks of the Grand Canal. It's a glorious sunny day and a gaggle of swans have glided over to see what we're doing. But the two-time Irish champion is unimpressed. He tuts quietly and leans across the table to offer some constructive criticism.

"Both of those were terrible moves, to be honest with you," he says. "I mean, your first move was bad. But your second is practically an international disaster." He shakes his head. There are many renowned opening strategies in chess. This one I'm calling the "Butler Hara-Kiri Gambit".

Keogh is a chess veteran with more than half a century's experience. In 1964, he made history by becoming the first Irishman to defeat a grandmaster in competition, beating Sweden's Gideon Ståhlberg at the Chess Olympiad in Tel Aviv. The result meant that the Israeli team progressed to the final at the expense of the Swedes - so it was splashed all over the Jerusalem Post the next day.

Four years later, Keogh and fellow Irishman Ray Cassidy spent eight weeks in Havana, being whisked around in a chauffeur-driven car as guests of the Cuban government. During that trip he met Bobby Fischer in a nightclub and asked him if he'd like to play in Ireland. ("Sure," replied Fischer. "That'll be $25,000.")

Keogh's skills today are no longer as sharp as they once were. "It's a steep learning curve," he explains, "followed by a long, steady decline."

Fortunately, I'm probably not the most formidable opponent he'll ever come up against. "Where did you say you played?" he inquires at one point. Actually, I didn't say. As it happens, however, I'm a former Ballyhaunis under-11 Community Games champion. I haven't played much since then, but I'm sure the old magic is still there somewhere.

Keogh tells me to think of my pieces as soldiers who have to work in tandem with each other. By surrendering possession of the centre of the board, he explains, I have left myself at a tactical disadvantage from which it will be difficult to recover. Nonetheless, I give it my best shot.

"You're making me think now," he frowns, after one of my moves. "I don't like that." Lest I get too carried away, he adds: "I have a clear winning advantage though. Your rook is attacked and shortly after I'll take another pawn. This is a position to die for, in fact."

Chess in Ireland is highly organised with 26,000 children receiving coaching in schools. Despite this, our Government remains one of only two in Europe not to provide any funding for the game. "We get a lot of pious promises from politicians," he comments wistfully, "but nothing ever happens."

It's hard to imagine the chess lobby as a particularly terrifying political foe, I muse. But I'm too polite to say as much out loud.

A man out walking his dog stops by our table for a look. ("It's like Central Park here," he marvels.) Eamon tells the man he's about to finish me off now. "How do I attack such a nice young man?" he wonders. With ruthless efficiency, as it transpires. "See, materially, I'm after giving up one of my rooks there," he explains. "But your king is now wildly exposed and I should get mate relatively quickly. Unless I'm kind to you . . . which I don't intend to be."

What, I ask, are the attributes required of a good chess player. "Some level of intelligence, obviously," he replies. But it's not quite that straightforward. Keogh's brain, he tells me, was once tested by a psychologist. He was horrified to discover that he was only of average intelligence. "I always assumed I was verging on Einstein," he admits. It is something called "spatial apperception" that sets him apart from the rest of us mere chess mortals.

"Checkmate in three," he suddenly interjects. "Can you see it?" I shake my head. As he demonstrates, I mutter the Lord's name under my breath. He flashes a wide grin.

"Just call me Eamon," he beams.

With thanks to the Art & Hobby Shop, Jervis Shopping Centre for use of the board.

CHESS FACTFILE

The term checkmate comes from the Persian shah mat, meaning "the king is dead".

In the 1972 World Chess Championship decider in Reykjavik, America's Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky 12-8 in what was dubbed the "Match of the Century".

The British code-breaking team that cracked the Nazi Enigma code in Bletchley Park during the second World War included chess masters Harry Golombek, Stuart Milner-Barry and H O'D Alexander.

The longest theoretically possible chess match is 5,949 moves.