by Ian Rogers
Australia recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as World Telechess Champion.
The story of Australia’s 8-0 victory over the Soviet Union on the way to World Championship glory in 1990 is the stuff of legend, but few know that these two chess powerhouses had been telechess rivals more than a decade before then.
Telechess – chess by telex – is a concept which may baffle some younger readers. Before the internet, before even the fax machine, came the telex machine. This was a method of sending text-based messages, separate from the telephone system, and messages could be sent and received worldwide – perfect for interstate and international chess matches.
Telex matches were painfully slow, which is why the job of conducting Telechess Olympiads was handed to the ICCF – the International Correspondence Chess Federation.
The ICCF decided that each match should have six open boards, a woman’s board and a junior board, with ties decided by removing the results on the lowest boards.
The first Telechess Olympiad began early in 1977, with Australia scoring a comfortable 6.5-1.5 first round win over Guyana. The match, played in Australia at Overseas Telecommunications (OTC) House in Melbourne and Sydney, went for more than eight hours.
Even so, most games were unfinished, having reached only move 30, and needed to be adjudicated by the ICCF panel. The delays came because each move, after being played, had to be written on a piece of paper to be given to the telex operator, transmitted, received, passed on to the correct board of the opposing team, and so on. You had no way of knowing the clock time of your opponent without asking, which used up precious telex time.
Australia’s next opponent was the top seed, the Soviet Union, which had received a first round bye.
Negotiations over the date proved to be unfortunate for the Victorian players, with the match to be played on the day of the VFL Grand Final. To make matters even more tricky, the 1977 Grand Final was the first ever to be televised live and in Melbourne a small black and white television was placed just outside the main playing room in OTC House to enable players waiting for their opponent’s move to return to enjoy the game.
Australian team selection for the match was slightly controversial, with influential pessimist Cecil Purdy pushing to move this writer from board two to the junior board as Australia’s only chance of scoring any points. Hoping to play against a big name such as Spassky or Smyslov rather than an unknown junior, I refused.
The match began at around 3pm Australian time, early morning in Moscow,. It turned out that only one big name was playing in the USSR Sport Committee conference room for the favourites; the legendary Mikhail Tal on board one, up against Australia’s dominant player of the 1970s, Robert Jamieson.
Apart from the junior board, where moves were being exchanged at (comparative) warp speed – less than 10 minutes transmission time per move – the match proceeded painfully slowly, with plenty of down time to watch the football. One handicap was that each time a move was transmitted or received, the television reception would deteriorate to a black and white fuzz, so our team was very grateful for any long thinks by the Russians. The Grand Final, between North Melbourne and Collingwood, turned out to be one of the most exciting ever played, ending in a draw – a once-in-five decades occurrence.
The finish of the Grand Final coincided with the finish of the first game – Australia’s junior Guy West lost in only 12 moves to a player we had been told was soon-to-be World Junior Champion Sergei Dolmatov but turned out to be a young Garry Kasparov.
Guy himself, in a 2004 post on Chessgames.com, takes up the story…
It’s 4.15pm on a glorious, spring afternoon in the premier stadium of the world’s most sports mad city. 110,000 fans watch the T.W. Sherrin roosted high into the stratosphere above the hallowed turf of the MCG. As the pigskin executes its graceful parabola upwards and then down into the 10 yard square of the Kangaroos goal-mouth, fabulous Phil Baker launches himself skywards, crashing the pack, stands on the heads of the hapless Magpie mortals beneath him and hauls in an absolute screamer. (That’s a hanger, or speccy, for those of you unfamiliar with Aussie Rules vernacular) A massive roar of Baaakeeeeeerrrr goes up from the crowd and small creatures called Colliwobbles begin to ring the boundary line as Baker shakes off a few minor internal injuries and lines up for the shot on goal.
At that moment 18 year old Guy West, eyes glued to the television screen, picks up his Queen’s Knight and moves it to d7, a shocking blunder. Releasing the piece he instantly understands the gravity of the error and for a brief moment contemplates nudging it to c6. Smashed in the very opening in a game destined to be used as a quintessential example of bad play in “Chess For Children”, the young West’s career is killed stone dead and he takes a desultory further decade to get even the lowly title of IM, giving up all thoughts of a serious career in the game.
At the same moment 14 year old Garry Kasparov looks in stunned amazement at the Soviet teller, asking him to check the move. The move is correct. He swoops… 11.Nxe6, simple! Behind him the great Mikhail Tal raises his hypnotic, hooded eyes and looks approvingly at the board and Super GM Lev Polugaevsky, his superb proboscis giving him the air of a professional wine taster or exclusive maitre de, winks approvingly at the excited boy from Azerbaijan. Kasparov takes the scrawled letter of resignation from Botvinnik’s Chess Academy from his pocket and screws it up, throwing it into the rubbish bin. “Maybe I do have some talent”, he thinks to himself. “Perhaps I’ll give this chess caper one last go”.
West’s theory about his profound influence on chess history might not have been so far off the mark; this match came after two mediocre results for Kasparov at consecutive World Cadet Championships – tying for third place; not good enough for a Soviet representative in that era. After beating West, however, Kasparov went on to win the Sokolsky Memorial in Minsk and when he next appeared internationally it was to score a GM norm in Banja Luka in 1979.
That West’s game was resigned in just under two hours had unfortunate consequences for me. The teenage Kasparov then surveyed the remaining boards and decided that the most interesting game was that between Boris Gulko and me.
Gulko relates that Kasparov spent much of the rest of the match helping him out, sitting next to him and suggesting variations.
(Such a relaxed attitude to the traditional rules of tournament chess was also evident in 1990 when the USSR went as far as to allow White players their own choice of time limits!)
The match dragged on and on, with transmission delays meaning that opponents were lucky to exchange three moves each hour. By midnight it was clear that Australia’s board six Roy Travers and our female player Narelle Kellner were losing but the other games were more promising, ranging from equal to unclear to slightly worse.
At around 1am, with no game beyond move 30, the two captains began discussing stopping the match and agreeing results rather than submitting positions for adjudication.
The captains settled on a 5.5-2.5 win for the USSR – a fair result on the positions, though had the match continued for another 10 hours there were good chances for the USSR to score better than this.
The USSR went on to win the first Telechess Olympiad, beating East Germany 5-3 in the final, while Australia had to wait another 13 years before triumphing in the third Telechess Olympiad. (The coming of the internet – which measured lag time for a game in fractions of seconds rather than hours – made sure that the third Telechess Olympiad was also the last.
Since most of the games from the 1977 Telechess Olympiad match between Australia and the Soviet Union have never been published, here are a few games from the legendary match, with brief notes.
Opening: French Defence
1.e4 c5 2.c3 e6 3.d4 d5 4.e5 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.Be2 f6!? 7.0-0 fxe5 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.dxe5 Qc7 10.Bf4
Tal’s opening choice was rather rare at the time and the critical line 10.c4! had barely been explored.
10…Ne7 11.Re1 0-0-0 12.Bd3 Be8 13.Nd2 Bg6
Solving all Black’s worries.
14.Nf3 Bxd3 15.Qxd3 Ng6 16.Bd2 Be7 17.b4!
It would be easy for White to drift here but by securing the d4 square for his knight, Jamieson ensures that he will not be worse.
17…Rhf8 18.bxc5 Bxc5 19.Nd4! Nxe5 20.Qe2 Bxd4
Now the game peters out. 20…Nc4 21.Qxe6+ Qd7 would keep more options open for Black.
21.cxd4 Nc4 22.Qxe6+ Qd7 23.Qe2 Qf5 24.Bb4 Rf6 25.Rac1 Rg6 Game Drawn
Tal’s attack is not serious – White can simply defend with 26.f3 – so a draw is a fair result.
White: B.Gulko (with a little help from G.Kasparov)
Opening: Sicilian Defence
1.e4 c5 2.f4 e6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Qc7
Now the game goes its own weird way. If Black wants to exploit White’s unusual move order, 5…Qb6 is probably the way to do it.
6.Nb5 Qb8 7.Be3 a6 8.N5c3 b5 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.0-0 d6 11.f5 Nf6 12.fxe6 fxe6 13.a4 b4 14.Ne2 Ng4
I was dreaming of mating attack’s involving …d5 when Gulko was not looking, but Black’s position is not solid enough to afford this.
14…Ne5 15.Nf4 Qc8 was playable for Black.
15.Bb6! Bc8 16.a5 Be7
Humble, but by now I had realised that 16…d5 17.Nf4 just opens up the position to White’s advantage.
17.Nf4 Nce5 18.Nh5 g6! 19.Ng7+! Kd7
I was beginning to feel optimistic here, since the knight on g7 has no way back for the foreseeable future.
A spectacular idea, although the more modest 20.Be2! turns out to be stronger, but only because of the obscure tactical point 20…h5 21.h3 Nf6 22.Bd4 Kc7 23.Nd2!! with the idea that if Black tries to trap the knight with 23…Rg8 he runs into 24.Nc4! Nxc4 25.Bxc4 Rxg7 26.e5!.
20…Nxc4 21.Qxg4 Nxb6!
I was very happy to give White the e6 pawn with check but had failed to consider the nasty reply.
I had been hoping for something like 22.axb6 Qxb6+ 23.Kh1 Qd4! 24.Nxe6 h5 25.Qh3 Qxb2! when even with the long transmission waits I couldn’t work out what was going on.
I couldn’t resist the king march, but later analysis showed that
22…Na4!! was the best defence, e.g. 23.Rxa4 (23.Qxe6+ Kd8) 23…Qa7+ 24.Kh1 Qd4, winning a piece – though of course White should never be worse given my bad king.
23.axb6 Game Drawn
Here the game was concluded, after ten hours play. Black can hang onto his pawn but all the practical chances would be with White, e.g. 23…Qxb6+ 24.Kh1 e5 25.Qe2 Rf8 26.Rxf8 (Incredibly, 26.Nc4 Qc5 27.Na5+ Kc7 28.Rxf8 Bxf8 29.Ne8+ Kd8 leads nowhere.) 26…Bxf8 27.Qc4+ Qc5 28.Qf7 Bxg7 29.Nb3 Qb5 30.Na5+ Kb6 31.Qxg7 when White has all the chances, even though objectively Black can probably hold.
Opening: Sicilian Defence
Comments by Guy West from Chessgames.com
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4
Weak, but in those days I just played to avoid theory.
6.e5 Nd5 7.Bd2 Nxc3 8.bxc3 Bf8?!
Before the game I asked Johansen, (now a GM) what Black should play if White played Bd2 and bxc3 as in the game and Johansen nonchalantly suggested that he thought Bf8 was okay, like in some lines of the French. (He’s felt guilty ever since!) Of course it’s weak, but I should have realised that across the board.
9.Bd3 d6 10.Qe2 Nd7??
The position is bad anyway, but 10…Nc6 instead of the losing blunder 10…Nd7 keeps the game going. I realised as soon as I’d played it that 11.Nxe6 wins.
11.Nxe6! Qb6 12.Nc7+! 1-0
Ist Telechess Olympiad
USSR v Australia
September 24 1977
Board 1 Tal(B) v Jamieson Draw
Board 2 Gulko v Rogers Draw
Board 3 Vasiukov v Woodhams Draw
Board 4 Mi. Tseitlin v Shaw Draw
Board 5 Chekhov v Prods Draw
Board 6 Zagarovsky v Travers 1-0
Board 7 Akhsharumova v N.Kellner 1-0
Board 8 Kasparov v West 1-0
Final score: USSR 5.5 – Australia 2.5