My earliest memories of chess shall always be linked to the world of music and musicians who I have always felt share a particular affinity with chess players. It was at a music festival in Southport, England that I first came into contact with chess as my parents sought to find something to amuse a very energetic, hyper and no doubt precocious six year old. Although a nominal participant in several piano competitions the chief reason for our trip to Southport was so that my sister could compete in the senior competitions. As a result of my sister's enthusiasm for and success as a pianist I became the somewhat reluctant recipient of unsolicited piano lessons. I would much rather have been training to be the next George Best or Jimi Hendrix instead of labouring over scales and those ever so difficult arpeggios which test the elasticity of any six year old's tiny hands. Nevertheless I quite possibly would never have been introduced to chess had I not annoyed someone so much by constant pestering that they sought to find someway to shut me up. The solution to a mutual dilemma, that of my boredom and subsequent nagging of all around me led to the production of a small square like wooden object dotted in White and Black, which held two secret compartments containing two tribes of warriors of different shapes and sizes. I was fascinated and have been ever since and it might be noted barely squeaked for the duration of the festival.
I went to quite a few European cities with my sister where she was either attending master classes or playing competitions. In Switzerland and Austria I had the particularly interesting experience of playing locals on giant chessboards, which not only was great fun but enabled me to pick up languages more easily. The nicest and most traditional chess club I ever played in was Cafe Mozart in Salzburg, Austria situated on the main street opposite the composer Mozart's birthplace. This was a very much old style cafe and the chess club coexisted with the hundreds of tourists and locals who would pop in for a coffee and to read the newspapers. The club itself was immersed in history with numerous world champions having played there, most notably Karpov and Tal. The atmosphere in the cafe was quite unique and was something I have never experienced before or since. In the most beautiful of surroundings, tourists would watch as blitz games with quite large stakes of money were in progress. Kibitzers would argue relentlessly over the best continuations and while away the afternoon amusing fascinated tourists. The club was frequented by many famous and interesting people, most memorably the pianist Gulda.
Just before my first visit there the club members had been split almost halfway as to whether they should allow a former Italian porn star who was in fact quite a strong blitz player to join the club. Despite her indubitable charm and good looks she was denied membership by the thinnest of margins though I saw her once or twice afterwards as a patron of the cafe. My sister returned to Salzburg for several successive summers and I tagged along playing blitz till I could drop. The hours I spent there were some of the best I have ever spent in a chess club and at a time when I was rapidly improving, playing strong opposition on a daily basis and earning a little pocket money did my chess a world of good. Sadly now the club has moved premises due to the cafe being turned into some American clothes shop. Though the club still exists the atmosphere and grandeur of Cafe Mozart in it's heyday is something that will not be possible to recreate.
Back in Dublin, I joined a local chess club which met once a week for a few hours and whose membership was twenty pence to be presented on a weekly basis. Though this club was indeed a fabulous club from which many strong players progressed, the highlight in the view of the members was always the game of chasing in and out of a cluster of trees in the school grounds afterwards. Strangely my most enduring memory of the time there was the manner in which I tried to get the attention of a girl I had a crush on by wearing luminous snot-green socks. Any chance of romance was however scuppered when during a chess encounter I took the somewhat questionable decision of trying to impress her by catching her in a family fork in front of numerous onlookers. Had I had the foresight to blunder horribly, perhaps I would have found a beautiful mate, yet at the age of seven I lacked such worldly knowledge and some might argue still do!
My progress as a chess player was helped after I subsequently began attending Gonzaga College and won my first chess tournament on 6/6 against my classmates. The final clash was my first epic encounter and the victory which gave me a real incentive to play chess although I had little interest in studying the game. There was a surprisingly strong pool of chess players led by Alan Peart in the class above me which gave me ample opposition and would eventually lead to our school's domination of Irish Junior and Senior schools chess for many years culminating in winning the Marlwood school's chess championship in England in 1992. Thus in many ways I am indebted to my school for providing the atmosphere necessary to my development as a chess player.
Bond, James Bond
The critical point in my chess life came at the age of eleven, when although an enthusiastic chess player I lacked much ambition and in comparison to many other chess players of my age was relatively weak. On being invited to a one day training session organised for around twenty juniors of my age group it became clear to me how little about chess I really knew. I lost every game I played that day and could not make head nor tail of any of the combinatorial problems that we were asked to solve. Though disappointed, a James Bond movie later that night obliterated any memory of the first unsavoury day I had experienced in chess and I comforted myself with the notion that saving the world on a regular basis would be a far more useful pastime than playing chess. Two weeks later however my mother bumped into the person who had organised the training session and who was quite frank about my chess ability. It was of her opinion that I was far too immature to ever become a good let alone strong chess player. Despite the innate gift which all mothers have in imparting unpleasant news to their unsuspecting offspring I was furious. I was determined from that moment forth to make that person eat her words and within the space of two years had beaten and overtaken in ELO all of my contemporaries from the training session and found myself representing Ireland in the World Under 14 championships in Milwaukee, USA, alongside Judit Polgar.
Shortly before the Milwaukee tournament I was mentioned in an amusing Irish Times article written by Kevin Myers and from which the following extracts are taken.
From his earliest days he was clearly destined for great things on the chess board. He was barely born when he cried "mate", and his mother replied testily from her accouchement bed that that was what had got her there in the first place, and wasn't he rather young to be talking to his mother like that.
Mark's poor unfortunate father was inveigled into going out and buying a book on chess for the mutinous five-year-old, and bit by bit, father and son learned how to play chess - well the father "sort of" learned how to play chess. "He knows how to move the pieces," says the kindly Mark of his dad. "He plays baby chess."
Mark admits that he likes to play chess aggressively. "I like," he declared with some relish, "aggressive openings. I play as aggressively as possible." In other words he is the Marvin Hagler of chess though his hero is Bronstein the Soviet player, who can win a chess match, be showered and have gone home before his rival has even sat down.
What fascinates me most about chess are in fact the chess players themselves. Apart from the enjoyment I get from playing the game (heightened by winning) it is meeting people from all over the world who share a common interest which I have always viewed as the greatest benefit in playing chess. Travelling has also always been close to my heart and chess has given me some quite unique opportunities to visit countries and places which are off the tourist trail. The two most memorable tournaments that I have played in were also strangely two of my worst results in International chess, the Moscow Olympiad (1994) and the Erevan Olympiad (1996). Both were unforgettable cultural experiences; the former taking place in a gigantic hotel crawling with mafiosi, prostitutes and chess lovers and the latter in Armenia at a time of political crisis. I will always have the greatest respect for the Armenian people after my brief stay there. Apart from their generosity and pride as a nation they also harboured a great respect for chess and chess players, something that was quite a novelty for a Western chess player.
On one particular rest day Stephen Brady, Angela Corry and I set off for the centre of Erevan to try and buy tickets for the opera. On our way we passed an antique shop which we decided to browse in. As soon as we entered the shop the owner recognised us as chess players and immediately challenged one of us to a game of blitz, claiming he had already dispatched several Olympic chess players including one from America. I took up the challenge and we exited the shop where there was a table, clock and board on the footpath. The day being a national holiday the streets were crowded with soldiers, and civilians wandering around and as soon as we started playing a huge crowd gathered to watch. Quite nervous at being watched by so many street spectators I only drew the first game in a frenzied time scramble and realising my opponent was a total patzer destroyed him in the following game. As soon as he had lost he became very disconsolate and bemused considering he had, as we subsequently discovered, single-handedly demolished the female American Virgin Islands team!! After the crowd dispersed we made our way to the opera house where thousands of people had gathered for a demonstration, which some few hours after we left erupted and ignited an unsuccessful political insurrection.
So far have I have won three IM norms, the third of which was scored in a Scheveningen style tournament in Walsall, England, in 1997. That tournament featured one of my most crushing wins as Black. However, though I have had some good results as a chess player I would have to say that I don't particularly regard myself as having a very strong chess culture. It is only recently while trying to spark off once again my interest in chess that I began to study the games of the world champions, especially those of Alekhine, Capablanca and Tal. Previous to last year I had never even opened a games collection of such players and thus had denied myself for too long the real artistry and magic of chess.
The preponderance of chess theory is in my opinion ruining chess and particularly my enjoyment of the game. Nevertheless a wealth of ideas still remain to be discovered and reintroduced into chess. My great fear in chess is that the constant strides being made towards playing perfect chess may one day succeed. Many great achievements have been made in the quest to gain perfection, yet what happens if such and abstract concept were to become a reality. Chess would have become a perfected art form and the role of chess players would become redundant, at least for a chess player such as myself with a dislike for theory and the conscious need, more and more, to play creative, aesthetically pleasing chess.