Q How old were you when you started playing chess?
A I was seven when I learned the moves. I used to play with my father but not really seriously at all. When I was twelve, I spent some time in the Gaeltacht where I met a few chess players from Drogheda. I played a couple of games with them and got hooked. When I returned to Dublin, I quit the boy scouts and took up chess with a passion.
Q What are your abiding memories of chess as a junior?
A Winning money! That doesn't sound too inspiring but I really enjoyed winning money. I didn't get much pocket money, you see. Beating adults was an awful lot of fun as well. I also had this feeling that I was going to be World Champion someday. So every time I won a junior tournament I thought to myself that this was just another step along the road to a 2700 rating and all that. I enjoyed it a lot, but I think I wouldn't have if I hadn't been good and felt I was going somewhere. I was very ambitious about it all.
Q How old were you when you realised that you were not going to be World Champion?
A (Laughs) About twenty-five.
Q Do you have any more memories of chess as a junior?
A I remember thinking how wonderful it was that you could mate a lone king with two rooks and how, relatively speaking, it was so much more difficult with only one rook. I mastered that as well though.
I remember "inventing" the King's Gambit myself as a junior. I thought of the move f4 because I wanted an open f-file to attack the king. That's why I probably keep on coming back to it even now. It's "my" opening.
Q How long did it take you to get to 2000?
A It took me quite a while. I was never anything like a prodigy. For example, I was never selected for the Glorney team, not even for the Leinster U-19 team. In my last year in school I was picked on board two for the Leinster U-19 'B' team. I simply didn't shine.
Q Who were your main contemporaries during that time?
A Eric McMahon and Joe Ryan were the big two. Colm Daly and Niall Carton as well. They were all well established players when I was 14 or 15 and battling my way up.
Q Which of the Irish players would you most admire?
A Oh, that's a really difficult question. I mean, admire in what context? If you want to admire what somebody has actually done, Mark Orr is the only one who has actually done the business, become an International Master and has won the Irish Championship a couple of times. People whose style of play I really rate highly would be Colm Barry and David Dunne. A lot of the older players I wouldn't really know that well at all. But those two I've always been really impressed by, especially Dunne. Colm is a very tenacious player and I kind of like that quality. The obvious players at the moment would be Mark Quinn and Brian Kelly, but I'll wait until they're in their twenties before I start writing their history (laughs). The two of them are really promising.
Q So who will be Ireland's next International Master?
A (Surprised) Mark Quinn.
Q And Ireland's first Grandmaster, excluding Baburin?
A No, he won't do it (laughs mischievously). I don't think that Ireland's first GM hasn't been born yet. I reckon it's a slow process. I reckon you need to be able to play people who are IM strength on a regular basis before you can reach GM strength. The current crop aren't going to meet people that strong that often. But if Quinn and Kelly succeed in becoming IMs and Baburin continues to live here then the next crop will have those three to play against and will have the possibility of surpassing them, but I think that time is maybe 15 years away. Unless perhaps Brian is talented enough.
Q Have you any comments on other chess players on the Irish scene? Will Daly ever win the Irish for example?
A If he was going to win it he'd have done so in the last three years. The competition gets tougher and tougher every year and he's not getting much better. As regards the other players, we have the best prospects we've ever had: Quinn and Kelly. As regards female players we probably also have the best ever prospect in Danielle Collins. Things are certainly looking up in Irish chess.
Q Who is your all-time favourite player?
A Of recent players the one I most admire is Karpov. Of the past masters I admire Capablanca the most. I admire players who do simple things very well.
Q What is your strategy in preparing for a tournament? For example, in one of the Irish's that you won, I saw you playing an unusual line of the Burn variation of the French with ...gxf6. It got you good results but which you have never played it since.
A Yes, for the simple reason that it's rubbish. Going into a tournament it's nice to feel that you have an opening repertoire, that you needn't be nervous that your opponent will produce a line that you won't survive against. At the time of that Irish, I hadn't had good results against e4 for a while, so I prepared a line where I knew I'd get complex games where I was slightly worse but they'd all be interesting games that I could work hard at. After that I had no real strategy. I remember someone telling me that David Dunne used to try to beat one or two of his rivals and draw with all the rest of them. I'd like to beat all of them (laughs).
Q How do you prepare for a game on the day of an international tournament?
A I always have to work hard during a tournament. I've never been so well prepared for a tournament that I could relax and take each game as it came. I remember I shared a room with Joe Ryan during a tournament and found his approach remarkable. On the day of a game he'd have a long lie-on, get up and potter about for while. He might out of interest go and look up his opponent to see what lines he plays, but it wouldn't be so important to him. Joe has such a big repertoire. But for me, I'd have to look up who my opponent was, find some previous games by them and alter what I was going to play. Frequently I'd spend the morning looking, for the first time, at what I was planing to play that afternoon. Mind you, that's changing lately as I'm developing a proper repertoire. It's certainly better now than it's ever been.
Q Given that you have been playing for so long, how come your repertoire is so poor?
A Until I discovered and honed the Queen's Gambit Accepted, I always had serious problems playing against d4. As Black against e4 I used to vary between the Sicilian, the French and the Philidor. More recently the Scandinavian has become my main defence to e4, but it's only in the past few years that I've started to do well with it.
Q Don't you feel that a defence like the Scandinavian isn't going to survive? That it's only on the edges of respectability?
A No, I reckon in ten years everyone in the world will be playing it (laughs). Until someone points out a major flaw with it, I'm happy. There's so much opening preparation to be done when you try to take the game seriously. Considering that until recently I'd no defence prepared against the English, having a second defence to e4 is too much of a luxury. If the Scandinavian were refuted tomorrow I'd be in trouble. I really have no idea of other defences to e4 anymore.
Q What is your own style of play? You seem to be happy to hack your way through the ugliest positions or to play elegant, almost Karpovian endgames.
A I don't set out to hack but often it happens of necessity. I think it comes from my lack of opening knowledge. I get a grotty position and have to knuckle down and prolong the game in whatever way possible until I can swing things my way a wee bit. I think my style is quite balanced really: I'm not terribly good at anything but I can play reasonably in both positional and tactical games.
Q Do you regard chess as an art, a science or a sport?
A The way I play it I'd have to say a sport. It's not a science for me, it's more of a struggle. Most of the games I play wouldn't stand up to much analysis. Things go wrong in the heat of the moment. I couldn't really call my chess art either.
Q What were your best tournaments?
Q What is your best ever game?
A Mark Orr asked me that recently too. I don't know. I haven't really played many good games. I played a nice game against Murshed in Lloyds bank in 1989. I simply outplayed him with Black and got a really nice position. I only drew, but I think that was because I'd never had such a good position against a Grandmaster before. I simply let him off the hook, but I was very chuffed that I'd played so well. Then there was a game I played against Colm Daly in the Irish Championships in Limerick 1991. I had my back to the wall for a long time in that game but gradually built up to a nice piece sacrifice that won the game. It was a critical point in the tournament where I'd just taken the lead and so with this win I really established myself as the main contender. After that game I felt certain that I'd win the title and I did. The game itself wasn't what you'd call elegant though.
I think it's telling that Karpov's response, when he was asked which of his games he regarded as his best, was "I haven't played it yet." It seems that chess is so difficult that no-one is ever completely happy with a game, not even Karpov. It is an ambition of mine to play one really nice game. A game where no-one could point out an obvious flaw in what I did, and where my opponent defended quite well. I'd be really happy with that.
Q How does losing affect you?
A The pain of losing is certainly far worse that the little frissant of joy I get from winning. I do find losing very painful, though not in a severe way. I'm not the sort of person that gets too upset about anything in life, but losing at chess is one of the worst. If I'm doing well, losing the odd game isn't too bad, but two losses in a row certainly gets to me.
Q What was your most painful loss?
A The first time I played for Ireland was in the European Team Championships in Haifa Israel 1989. I was doing well in the tournament until the last two rounds. In both of them I blundered a piece. Both of them. It spoiled what would otherwise have been a very good result. I was really disappointed. So, so disappointed.
But the worst game of all, oh God it's sickening to think about it. In the Limerick Open one year I was two rooks and three pawns up against Tom Clarke. I'd played a really nice game and then I simply got myself mated. I reckon I'd have won that tournament except for that. That was about as bad as I've ever felt about a loss.
Q Is there anything in particular you do to cope with a loss?
A I'll tell you an interesting story. During the Irish Championships in Limerick a few years ago a group of us used go out together for a meal in the evenings. On one occasion Mark Heidenfeld, who had lost his game that day, joined us but ate nothing. He told me afterwards that that was how he deals with a loss - by starving himself. (Interviewer's note: Mark was probably joking, since he does not recall this incident himself and states that after a loss he in fact eats twice as much!)
But myself, there's nothing in particular that I do. Losses don't affect me deeply. When I realise I'm going to lose it's very unpleasant but I pick up quickly after that. There's no lasting effect. For example after I lost to Brian Kelly in the 1995 Irish this year, I just went out with some friends, had a good time and the next day got stuck into preparing for my next opponent.
Q How do you feel about the organisation of chess in Ireland?
A There's a lot of things I'm not happy about. Many decisions seem to be taken without there really being any discussion. I'm one of the players whom you would expect to be "in the know" in that I play lots of tournaments and people talk to me and tell me things. But I'm still in the dark about so many issues. Why do we pay £15 a year for a magazine that we sometimes get and sometimes don't? I don't know where the money goes. I don't know who the ICU selection committee is at the moment. There's so much I'm not aware of even though I'm very actively involved in the Irish chess scene. I don't feel the ICU works in a very democratic fashion.
Q How could things be improved?
A That's the hard question of course. I feel that some of the people involved in the organisation are there for the wrong reasons, that it's a power thing with them. The primary motivation for someone who's involved in chess should be to improve the lot of chess in Ireland. An awful lot of good things have been done in the past few years like getting Baburin to live here, organising some excellent international tournaments and so on, but I still feel something's not right. The ICU subscription fee generates a significant amount of money and all I can see us chess players getting for it is a magazine that advertises tournaments that have happened months ago and reports on tournaments that happened even further back. I also can't understand why the Irish Chess Journal is compulsory, I just don't see any good reason for that at all. The bulk of the ICU subscription fee should be put into promoting chess not publishing a compulsory journal. I certainly welcome the appearance of other magazines on the market. The ICJ should strive to be so excellent that every chess player will want to buy it.
Q What are your own ambitions?
A A couple of years ago it was definitely to be an IM, but my form has been extremely erratic over the past couple of years. Two years ago, after I'd won the Irish twice, I thought it was a cert to happen, and I think if I'd done things differently it would have happened as well.
Q What could you have done differently?
A Not got glandular fever for a start. I played quite a good Hastings tournament in 1992 and then played the Zonal, during which I developed glandular fever. I played the following Irish and maybe one tournament after that. I then took a full year off chess to finish my studies in Trinity. That meant that all in all there was an eighteen-month period where I played only three tournaments, and did poorly in them at that. I reckon if I had continued playing I would have built on my previous achievements and would by now probably have a few IM norms in the bag.
Q Hasn't your form picked up lately?
A Yes. Over the summer when I was doing a bit of work on the game, I realised that there was two possible courses my chess "career" could take. Either I'd get to be as good as I was and I could work to try to improve from there, or else I'd discover that I'd just lost it and that I'd never be as good as that again. In the latter case I was going to stop taking the game seriously, stop working on it and continue playing but only for the craic. Things have gone well for me in the past few tournaments, so I'm going to keep on trying.
Mind you, even now, if I get to be as good as I was before the 18-month lapse, I'm still going to be worse than Mark Quinn or Brian Kelly. Previously my ambition was always to be the best Irish player around at the time. Even though Daly's rating was usually higher than mine I felt that after winning the Irish two times I was on my way to doing just that. But now I reckon that I am inferior to Brian and Mark, but that doesn't bother me because they're both really good. I'm planning for the near future to play a few tournaments abroad and chase IM norms. That's where I am at the moment.