Winter is Coming

Added on 21 October 2014

You find yourself in strange situations in the diplomatic world. For example, there was the time Mrs Lindsay found herself making tea, live on Serbian television. Then there was the occasion when I was asked to run illegal weapons to rebels in the Casamance region of Senegal, disguised as a Wurtlizer monkey.

This past Sunday in Tallinn, Estonia, there was another such slightly surreal moment. Her Majesty’s Ambassador (HMA) to Tallinn had been offered a place at a simultaneous chess tournament, playing ex-World Champion, Garry Kasparov. HMA claimed to be on holiday with his family – in chess, the technical term for this opening is the Brave Sir Robin Gambit – the offer of the place was cast around the embassy, there were a few cries of Chess? What even is that?? and ultimately the invitation came to me.

I swithered, but eventually representations were made directly to me from Buckingham Palace, and I quickly accepted the challenge.

I used to play chess. When I was a teenager, for example, I often played my brother and dad. I was the whipping boy. I was Derby County that year they only won a single game in the Premier League. I was Albion Rovers at a convention of Real Madrids. And I certainly never studied it, to know the set openings and attacks.

The years passed, and I never played chess, although I always remembered the funny L-shaped move with the horse. Then we had children and I taught them to play so I’d have someone to beat. They weren’t so bothered, however, and we didn’t play often. And there the chess lay, dormant, unloved and unused, sitting at the bottom of the abyss of disinterest, festering quietly in melancholic obsolescence.

Then, out of the blue, there I was, primed to play the greatest chess player of all time at five days’ notice. Tricky.

I downloaded a chess app onto my iPad, and played chess for five days with the game on its highest setting. I Googled things like How Not To Lose Chess In Four Moves, discovering that in fact it’s possible to lose chess in two moves.

On Sunday morning Mrs Lindsay asked if I’d practiced enough. I pointed out that if I’d started when I was eight, that wouldn’t have been enough, never mind five days.

We arrived at the chess venue, a restaurant above Tallinn Old Town square. Cold day, wet and bleak. They don’t really do a lot of autumn over here. Winter is coming.

Simultaneous Chess is where a chess genius plays a certain amount of games against non-chess geniuses at the same time. On this occasion it was twenty-five. The chess genius moves from table to table, occasionally stopping to think, but for the most part playing a move the second he gets there. One by one they will knock off their opponents. There’s a great old black and white film of Bobby Fischer doing this when he was, like three or something. Maybe he was fourteen.

My two aims were not to be first out, and to try not to lose in under ten moves.

Mr Kasparov arrived, expectancy and nervousness hung in the air. I expect most people were thinking the same as me, except the younger ones who were probably having Walter Mitty moments.

I got to five moves in pretty good shape. By the sixth move I was a bishop down. This is probably the point where a professional would know to resign, because they’re guaranteed to lose, but it was too early for that here. After eight moves, I thought he had me. The dagger of despondency plunged into my viscera. I faced defeat, broken and alone. No one else had yet lost. My twin objectives had not been met. I thought of the Queen, and how disappointed she was likely to be.

Then I realised I had a way out - there's no scientific explanation for how this happened - and I somehow escaped. Perhaps he let me.

Two moves later we made a pawn exchange that allowed me to put him in check. As he walked around the room, heading inexorably back to my game, I thought, should one actually say check to Garry Kasparov? I mean, it’s not like he’s not going to know. Should one say it because it’s etiquette, or is it just going to get him annoyed? I’ve got this far, I thought, he must be going easy on me. Maybe if I say check he’ll get biblical.

I never said it. Just as well. My voice would have been small and pathetic, and he would probably have disintegrated my king with a stare. I mean, he was very nice ‘n all, pleasant and approachable throughout, but you don’t get to be the best ever at anything in the world by always being friendly to your opponents.

I soldiered on to the twenty-first move. By then I was a bishop, a knight and a rook down. I could probably have strung it out a few more moves, but you have to show some respect, don’t you? And anyway, by then six or seven people had already lost. So I resigned before I had to, because I was, after all, representing the British Empire and had to do the decent thing.

He won all his games, although a teenager with this year’s spectacles made him think for a while. After the game he answered questions from the vanquished. These days he’s more of a political activist than a chess player, so I thought I’d wait to see what he had to say about Russia/Putin and then write a diplomatic telegram back to King Charles Street on Monday morning. However, having talked about chess briefly in English, he was then asked the political question in Russian, and so answered in Russian. At some length.

Curiously, every now and again he threw in an English word or phrase. At one point he smiled and said, ‘blah blah blah Game of Thrones, winter is coming blah blah blah.’ He wasn't talking about the weather. Another English word he used was compromise. I didn’t catch much more than that.

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary the next morning to tell him that there was no word in Russian for compromise.