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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Download Tony Miles: “It’s Only Me” eBook

Tony Miles: It’s Only Me Cover
Book Review @ Chessville  
Two years ago, November 2001, the chess world was saddened by the early death of Tony Miles, England’s first Grandmaster.  Since his death much has been said to commemorate this exceptionally colorful and very human chess player, and now Batsford has published Tony Miles – It’s Only Me.  This book, put together by British IM Geoff Lawton, is a compilation of Miles’ own writings with a few biographical articles written by close friends of his.
Most of the articles and games contained in It’s Only Me first appeared in various chess magazines or the New Statesman magazine chess column, which Miles wrote from 1976 to 1981.  Miles had a definite knack for telling good stories with brutal honesty and trademark sarcasm, which has resulted in a very entertaining book.  In fact, It’s Only Me made this reviewer laugh harder than any other chess book has managed to do for years, and since laughter is supposedly such a healthy activity I recommend you to get your copy soon.  As a significant bonus, you get a collection of fine, annotated games from the hands of a very creative player.
Tony Miles became England’s first Grandmaster in 1976 and so spearheaded the English chess explosion.  Today England has more than 30 grandmasters, which is quite an astonishing accomplishment even considering the general title inflation.  In his prime, Miles was considered among the best Western bids for challenging the Soviet chess supremacy, which at that time was personified by Anatoly Karpov.  Incidentally, Karpov was on the receiving end when Miles, in a career-defining moment, beat him using the St. George’s defense 1.e4 a6!? (Skara 1980).
Among his most meriting triumphs, Miles counted winning the Junior World Championship in 1974 and two first places at the Tilburg Interpolis tournaments (1984 and 1985).  The Interpolis tournaments were comparable in strength to the Corus or Linares super-tournaments of today, so this was no small feat.  Miles’ playing strength declined from the late eighties onwards, when he had to give in to a new generation of emerging stars.  However, he had already seen the writing on the wall some years before.  Here is what he said in an interview with Anchorage Times in 1980:
These days they are breeding super kids, the Kasparovs and the Shorts.  The machine type creatures.  I don’t think a human being can win the World Championship anymore.  And I prefer to be human.  I don’t care to dedicate this much of my life to chess.  I’m not that interested.
Incidentally, it was Nigel Short that eventually dethroned Miles as the number one British player, while a ½-5½ match loss to Kasparov marked the end of his best years in 1986 .

While working on this review, I happened to watch a televised interview with Denmark’s current number one player, GM Peter Heine Nielsen.  The interview focused on how computers had become indispensable tools for top players in their opening preparation, and how this to some extent was undermining the creativity of chess.  When asked about the typical qualifications to become a strong grandmaster in our day and time, Heine Nielsen opined that many current top-grandmasters were computer-savvy and would fit into IT businesses.  Players of older generations, such as Bent Larsen, the greatest Danish player ever, were typically more artistic souls, who would get inspired while taking a shower rather than while sparring with Fritz.
What has all this got to do with Tony Miles?  Well, as It’s Only Me clearly illustrates, he did in many respects belong to the old school of players.  Not only was Miles a self-acknowledged computer illiterate, he also could not motivate himself for the detailed opening preparation that characterizes contemporary top-level chess.  Instead, he typically followed a game plan that involved blurring things in the opening, and then using his tactical wit and/or sublime technique to overcome his opponent.  In particular, Miles played endgames with great enthusiasm and skill, and was brilliant when it came to capitalizing on minute advantages in this game phase.  It’s Only Me contains many fascinating examples hereof.
However, Miles probably became best known for his affinity for offbeat openings.  His reputation was to some extent propelled by the provocative (1.e4 a6!?) win against ruling World Champion Karpov - a game that is of course included in the book.  Yet Miles had many other offbeat opening favorites such as the Nimzowitsch Defence (1.e4 Nc6), which he played often (my database has more than a hundred such Miles games!)  "I like playing this (ed. 1.e4 Nc6) in the first round of Swisses." he said, "Future opponents waste lots of time preparing for it!"
This casual comment cuts right to the bone of the matter. It is well known that Miles did not waste much time following the latest theoretical developments (in fact he was busy playing tournaments instead!).  At the same time, he was not naïve and realized that wandering straight into topical lines against GM opposition would most likely be a “very bad idea” for him.  So it made perfect sense for Miles to leave mainstream theory behind early, that way forcing opponents into thinking by themselves.  Of course Miles did know a good bit of opening theory, and even authored an opening book on the Sicilian Dragon early in his career (1979).  If you look closely, you will also find that he mostly played the offbeat ideas as Black, while his White opening choices were less exotic.  In conclusion, one cannot help thinking that even Miles’ approach must have been a lot of work, since he had to keep changing little nuances of his pet lines in order to avoid acting as a sitting duck for well prepared opponents.
Among Miles’ many odd opening ideas, my personal favorite is the mind-boggling “Holey Wohly”, named after Australian IM Alex Wohl.  The concept of this opening is a (very) early departure from main line Caro-Kann theory after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 Na6!?  This knight on the rim is eventually headed for c7, and 3.Bxa6 can be answered with 3…Qa5+, which leaves Black with the bishop pair and an intact pawn structure.  Miles wrote an entertaining article on this (ahem) innovative idea for his monthly column at the Chess Café website.  Here is my favorite excerpt, where Miles describes what happened the day after he had unleashed the abovementioned system on GM Gufeld (Miles lost that game):
What really sticks in my mind, though, is that at breakfast the next morning Gufeld spent fully two hours yelling at me “I hate you my friend”.  (Honestly!!)  “You are destroying chess with your stupid ideas!”  You may think that I exaggerate, but there were several witnesses!  You may also wonder at my sanity for listening, which I would understand, but frankly I was so shocked I just sat transfixed. Goof has not spoken a civil word to me since, and at our only subsequent encounter even the customary handshake was missing. Such a reaction is surely testament to the opening’s surprise value… Heaven help me if I had won.  I would probably not still be alive…
Vintage Miles!
Compared to contemporary top players, Miles was an extremely active player who visited every single continent (except for Antarctica) to play tournaments.  In fact, you might say that he was a chess tourist long before Garry Kasparov ever coined the phrase.  Why did Miles play so many tournaments?  The short answer is that he was making a living from chess; another answer is that he loved playing chess far more than sitting at home training or preparing it.
The impressive tournament listing given in the back of It’s Only Me, also reveals that Miles was active close to home.  Even at his peak, he unpretentiously played lots of open weekend tournaments - something one can hardly imagine today’s top-20 players doing.  Miles claimed that the must-win situations of open tournaments helped sharpen his style for the super tournaments, where he faced the likes of Karpov, Korchnoi, and Timman.
Playing 10-20 tournaments annually throughout his career, it is hardly surprising that Miles now and then came across badly organized events.  In these cases, he was not afraid of openly criticizing conditions. As an example, listen to this description of playing conditions at the 1978 Buenos Aires chess Olympiad:
By far the most memorable feature of the event was the organization. We arrived to learn that the chief organizer had just been ‘kidnapped’.  It later transpired that this was the one and only sensible thing that he had arranged during the whole tournament.  The choice of venue was inspired.  The playing hall was a badly ventilated corridor inside the River Plate football stadium (matches once clashed!).  The stadium also happened to be near the airport, on the main flight path, and immediately opposite a shooting club (matched often clashed!).
As we are drawing towards the end off this review, I will show you one of the games from It’s Only Me.  After all, it would be misleading to give you the impression that this book is mostly talk and little chess.  In fact, it contains a total of 119 games, most of them delightfully annotated in Miles’ honest style (a minority of games have Informator style annotations).  The following game was played in the penultimate round of the 1974 Junior World Championships and secured Miles the title, and is reproduced here with an excerpt of Miles' own notes:
Alexander Kochiev- Tony Miles
World Junior Ch., Manila 1974

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0 9.g4 e6! 10.Ndb5?! d5 11.Bc5 a6! 12.Bxf8 Kxf8 13.exd5(?) exd5 14.Na3 b5 15.Nd1 b4 16.Nb1 Bxg4! 17.Bg2! Qe7+! 18.Qe3 Ne4!!

The climax of Black’s attack.  The white king is nailed firmly in the center (19.0-0? Bd4).  If instead 18…Qd6 19.0-0 Bf5 20.Qd2 White still keeps his head above water.


At last White begins to crack.  If 19.fxg4 Bd4! 20.Qe2 (20.Qh6+ Kg8 21.Kf1 Re8 or 21.Ne3 Ng5!) 20…Re8 and White has no move.  E.g. 21.Bxe4 Qh4+ or 21.Nd2 Ng3!  The last chance to keep things interesting was 19.c3 Qh4+ 20.Kf1 and either 20…Re8!? 21.fxg4 d4 with a raging attack or just 20…Bh6.  If  20.Nf2 bxc3 21.bxc3 Bh6 22.Qe2 (22.Qb6 Rb8) 22…Re8 and White is helpless.

19…Bxd1 20.Nd2

The fireworks die down.  If 20.Kxd1 Bxb2 wins easily, while 20.c3 is answered by 20…d4 21.Qd2 dxc3 22.bxc3 Ba4 with decisive pressure.

20…Bxc2 21.Rc1 d4

Played quickly.  With two pawns for the exchange, one passed pawn on the fifth and likely to go further, Black is clearly winning, but probably even more efficient would have been 21…Ba4!, e.g. 22.b3 Bb5 23.Qc5 Bc3! 24.Qxe7+ Nxe7 25.exd5 Nxd5! 26.Bxd5 Rd8 winning.

22.Qh3 d3 23.0-0 Kg8 24.e5

Hoping to gain counterplay with the e4 and d5 squares.


Supporting the d-pawn and controlling d4 (if 25.Bxc6 Qc5+)


The pawn is doomed so White jettisons it as best he can.

25…fxe6 26.Rce1 Nd4 27.Kh1 Nf5

Defending the kingside and renewing the threat to the b-pawn.

28.Re4 Qg5!

Undermining d2 and forcing the further advance of the pawn.

29.Nf3 Qh6


A spirited attempt at counterplay. In fact Black can defend successfully with 30…Nxh4 31.Qxe6+ Kh8 32.Qe7 Rf8! 33.Ng5 Rxf1+ 34.Bxf1 Bf8! But it is far simpler to ignore the rook.

30…Qe3! 31.Rxb4

Now if 31.Rxh7 d2 or 31.Re1 Qxe1+ 32.Nxe1 d2.

31…d2 32.Nxd2 Qxh3 33.Bxh3 Rxd2

All that remains is to reach the time control safely.

34.Re1 Bf8 35.Rb8 Kf7 36.Rb7+ Be7 37.Bf1 Ba4 38.Rb6 Bd6 39.Re2 Rd1 40.Kg2 Bb5 41.Rf2

At this point the game was adjourned and a capacity crowd of about a thousand stood and applauded. The remainder of the game was rather an anti-climax, being played in a small room at the hotel.

41…Bc5 42.Rb7+ Kf6 43.Bxb5 axb5 44.Re2 Rg1+ 45.Kh3 g5 46.Rg2 Rd1! 0-1
I found this game to be remarkably well played (by both players), in particular considering the high stakes.  Some of the 119 games are clearly not among Miles’ best efforts, but they are never boring!  It’s Only Me even has a few games that Miles lost, and an unbearable time scramble against Speelman (game 54) with lots of embarrassing mistakes from both sides.
It’s Only Me just came second in the 2003 British Chess Federation Book of the Year Awards, surpassed only by Volume One of Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors series.  I think it was fully deserved that it made it onto this extremely short list.  The book is somewhat uneven at points, but I feel it is slightly unfair to criticize a compilation on that account.  The material is organized chronologically, and so paints a good picture of Miles’ development as a player, a chess writer, and as a person.  Highly recommended!

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