Living chess

Living chess, or human chess, involves human beings taken the part of chess pieces and moving around on a giant board. The earliest examples can be traced back to the 15th century. Most commonly such games are intended as a spectacle or pageant and a rehearsed game is “played”, to avoid the problem of a long and/or boring game which would not be enjoyable for the spectators (and probably for the people being used as the pieces!)

In 1891 a Club of Living Chess was formed in Dublin, Ireland with the purpose of giving living chess displays for suitable charities. In 1892 one of the members, Dr Ephraim McDowell Cosgrave wrote what is probably the only book devoted specifically to living chess, “Chess With Living Pieces”.

The front cover of Ephraim Cosgrave’s 68 page book on Chess With Living Pieces.


While most living chess games are “one-off” demonstrations, Marostica in northern Italy is famous for its biennial living chess game, which has been held since 1954. The game is performed in honour of a game played in 1454 for the hand of a lady. The moves of the 1454 game are repeated each year, and the event has become a major tourist attraction for the town. One of the restaurants in Marostica is called “alla Schacchiera” (at the chessboard).


David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, “The Oxford Companion to Chess”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992 pp, 230 & 249 was used as the basis for this blog post.


The strange chess career of Nicolas Preo

One of the major issues in regard to cheating in correspondence chess is players using strong chess engines and databases to help them work out their next move. While various organising bodies have created rules banning the use of such software, it is virtually impossible to police and prove that someone is using software to help them with their games.

Another form of cheating is for a player to assume a false identity to compete in a tournament. This occurred back in the late 1980’s in England, when a Leigh Strange entered and won the 1986 English Women’s correspondence chess championship. It was later discovered that “Leigh Strange” was in fact a promising young male junior named Nick Down, who received a two-year ban for his dishonesty.

And then there is the case of Nicolas Preo. Born in Russia on the 26th of March 1902, Preo spent some time studying in Harbin, Manchuria, emigrating to the United States in 1923. He took up correspondence chess in 1949 and won the Golden Knights tournament organised by the United States Chess Federation in 1952. Preo started to play internationally under the auspices of the International Correspondence Chess Federation in 1958. He was awarded the International Master title in 1967. He played with distinction on various American teams in international tournaments, and was the only player to feature in all four of the first North American invitational championships. Preo was still an active player in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, according to the ICCF rating database.

In 2002, ICCF tournament director Carlos Flores Gutierrez received news that Preo, a competitor in one of his tournaments, had died. Although it was unusual for a player to continue playing at Master strength into his nineties, this was not unprecedented; fellow American Walter Muir had an even longer career.

When Gutierrez announced Preo’s death, some awkward questions started to arise. Why did the local newspaper, the “Santa Cruz Sentinel”, report that Preo had died of a heart attack at age 72, when the CC world believed he was in his late-nineties? Why was he described as an accountant when all previous articles about Preo had talked about his long working career with the Owens Illinois Glass Company? Why was the second initial in the obituary “N”, and not “A”? Were there two different Nicolas Preos?

After some digging by CC officials, fellow players and family members, it was discovered that the obituary in the “Sentinel” was for Nicolas Preo, Jnr, – Preo’s son.

Preo Jnr was born on the 26th of April 1929, and had learned chess from his father, but he had always used the full surname “Preobrajensky”, which his father had shortened to “Preo”. His second name was “Nikolaevich (son of Nicolas), thus explaining the middle initial of “N” rather than “A”. Preo Jnr was an accountant with a degree in Business Administration of from the University of California in Berkeley. His other chief interest was singing, which he did with various local choirs and operatic societies.

Father and son shared a house in Santa Cruz along with daughter Vera, who was blind. Poor eyesight was feature of the Preo family, and it appears that from the early 1980’s onwards Preo Jnr started helping his father with the games that he was playing, due to his father’s eye issues. This was back in the era of ‘snail mail’ transmission of moves, when Preo Snr needed to write out his moves as well as the postal address of his opponent. Also the rules of CC allow players to consult opening books, so maybe Preo Snr was unable to read properly any of those books, and thus asked his son to help play though opening variations that he might play in his games. So at this point Preo Jnr was just helping with the clerical side of CC.

When Preo Snr died on the 9th of January 1988, aged 86, his son didn’t inform his opponents or the ICCF of his father’s death, but instead just continued playing the games. His opponents had no idea that they were now playing a game with a totally different person making the moves for the other side.

At the time of his death, Preo Snr was playing in one of the semi-finals of the 16th ICCF World Correspondence Chess Championship tournament . After two years of play, Preo Snr had scored 5.5/6 – a very good result for an 85 year old man. He then passed away. What should have happened is that opponents would have stopped receiving moves from Preo Snr, who would have repeated their move, and getting no reply, would have informed the tournament director or the ICCF directly. They would have determined that Preo Snr had died, and all of his uncompleted games would have been adjudicated, or all of his games could be annulled or all of his opponents would be awarded a win.

Preo Jnr now faced a dilemma – should he report his father’s death and begin competition under his own name, or should he just carry on? As mentioned earlier, he decided to carry on, By the time of his father’s death, the outstanding games had taken shape, and he thought that he was as good an analyst/player as his father. The semi-final dragged slowly on, and Preo Jnr dropped out of contention, losing five more games and winning three, to finish with a score of 8.5/14.

His next tournament was the Anglo-Pacific Tournament Championship, which began in August 1994. Preo Jnr only scored 6.5/14, maybe due to the fact that he had to start all his games from scratch without Preo Snr’s analysis. He entered several further tournaments, and had scored 1/5 in one of them when he died on the 9th of February 2002. His opponents thought that some of his behaviour a bit odd; he did not seem to understand the time limits for moves, which is something that his father would have been very familiar with. He also rarely resigned in hopeless positions, instead forcing his opponent to checkmate him, as well as writing “By Air Mail” on the cards that he used to transmit his moves, when this is usually printed on such cards. They obviously had no idea that they were playing Preo Jnr instead of Preo Snr.

Preo Jnr’s involvement with his father’s games was confirmed in two ways:

  1. The printed existing scores of Preo Snr’s games are written in the handwriting of Preo Jnr.
  2. The game scores are written in the now-abandoned descriptive notation, which was still widely used in the United States when Preo Jnr was learning how to play chess. In Russia, Preo Snr would have learned algebraic notation, and would have found descriptive notation confusing.

Analysis by CC player and author Tim Harding suggests that Preo Jnr started playing some of his father’s games in the early 1980’s. It appears that he lacked strategic knowledge, and was also prone to launching premature attacks. Yet if he could survive the opening and reach an unclear middle game, he became a wily tactician and could score victories against quite strong opponents – just like his father.

This blog post was based on Tim Harding’s article “The strange CC career of Nicholas Preo”,  in his book “The Write Move”, Chess Mail Ltd, Dublin, Ireland, 2005, pp. 142-149.

Chess – the odd and the bizarre #1

As well as playing my own games of chess, I enjoy playing through the games of other players from all era of chess history. As well as enjoying a brilliant tactical combination, or a game that has a long strategical plan, I also enjoy when a bizarre or unusual position appears on the board in the course of a game. Here are some of my favourite positions in games that I have come across.

Du Mont – Gosling, London 1943

The longest supported pawn chain in chess history, with the white chain running from the 2nd all the way up to the 7th rank.

Dodge – Houghteling, Chicago 1904

A symmetrical arrangement of the Black knights and bishops in the checkmating attack.

Lee v Shoosmith, London 1904

Black manages to get four connected pawns simultaneously on the 2nd rank.

Guijarro v Alonso, Elgiobar 2011

Six queens on the board at the same time.

Topalov v Kasparov, Amsterdam 1995

Kasparov wins without moving his Queen in 28 moves.

Sergienko v Vescovi, Moscow 2010

Amazing endgame with 9 pieces on the board, but no pawns.

Foldeak v Nagy, Budapest 1942

After only 13 moves, the White knights occupy the starting positions of the Black Queen and King.

Kovacs v Barth, Balatonbereby 1994

Amazing set of quadrupled White pawns.

Diemer v Cerff, 1983

Position after Black’s resignation – White has moved neither knight in 30 moves.

I am pretty certain there will be a 2nd instalment in the future!

Windsor RSL Speedway#4

Like any speedway track, the Windsor RSL Speedway had its fair share of spectacular accidents, and one of the most spectacular involved speedcar driver Merv Ward back in 1956.

On the 13th of May, Ward was competing in the speedcar feature race when he clipped the car of Gwes Bowen in Turn 1, which resulted in Ward’s car starting a series of roll-overs. In the process of the roll-overs, Ward was thrown from the car, and ended up against the safety fence after the car ended back up on its wheels.

During my research into the history of the Windsor RSL Speedway, I was able to obtain an amazing series of photos taken by a photographer on the infield of the crash, along with a picture taken from outside of Turn 1, and which was featured in a contemporary magazine. Here are these pictures:










A very spectacular accident! Merv Ward’s head is just visible behind the ambulance officer in the final photo, and he is probably wondering how he is still in one piece and conscious. His injuries were a laceration to his lower right leg and ankle, and shock. He was taken to the Hawkesbury District Hospital and after observation, was allowed to leave.

Back in the 1950’s, speedcars did not have the range of safety measures that exist in modern cars. The only restraint that the drivers used was a lap belt which was fitted across their abdomen. Most of these belts were ex-military equipment, and they were not always reliable, as the Ward accident showed. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that shoulder harnesses were fitted, and in the early 1970’s full roll-cages were fitted to cars.

Not all accidents at the Windsor RSL Speedway at this time had such a happy ending. On the 12th of August, Charlie Cam was competing in a speedcar race when his car rolled-over in a race. Like Ward, Cam’s safety belt broke, and he was thrown onto the track, suffering two depressed fractures of the skull, and died shortly afterwards – the first of two fatalities at the speedway between 1949 and 1968.

1973 Sega Moto Champ arcade game

With Playstations, Xboxs, Wiis and other forms of electronic-based gaming giving us very realistic simulations which we can control, it is not very long ago that games were of a more mechanical and rudimentary nature. Here is a classic arcade game from the early 1970’s – Sega’s “Moto Champ”, which was meant to be a simulation of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.


“Moto Champ” was a one-player game. The player attempts to “ride” his controlled motorcycle to the other end of the playfield using a motorcycle styled handlebar, which includes a throttle to give an extra boost of power to pass the other motorcyles. While this is happening, the other game-controlled motorcycles, which are held by magnets to an elaborate sequencing mechanism under the roadway, impede progress. The complicated nature of the sequencing mechanism can be seen in this photo from a restored “Moto Champ” game.


A motorcycle collision results in a “penalty”; the player gets four penalties in a game before ending. A penalty also moves the motorcycle back on the playfield. If the player can advance the Moto Champ far enough up the playfield with a minimum of penalties, a free game can be won. The actual road on which the bikes sit does not move – instead it is projected from a rotating drum and lamp assembly that is mounted in the display board at the back of the machine.

Here is a video clip of a restored “Moto Champ” game showing how the motorcycles and the road moves. The sound system is a classic – two mono channels of two 8-track cassettes (Hey, we’re in the 70’s!) One channel has the sound of the motorcycles, the other has a fanfare which is played if the player manages to win a free game. From our modern eyes, it looks very simple and not realistic, but I can appreciate the amount of work and skill required to build a game like this, which relies on electrical currents and multiple mechanical moving parts to make it work.

The main disadvantage of this game is that there is no actual “winner” of the race. The only real measurable score in “Moto Champ” is winning a free game, which after a while would become rather boring. Also, the repetitive nature of the road with the single back line, and the lack of corners would also tire players of the game as well.

Do you have a favourite mechanical arcade game that you remember playing? If so, please mention it in the comments!

Attack of the killer pawns!

Time for another chess posting, and another miniature. The game in question was played between Frank James Marshall and Hyman Rogosin, and was played during the championship of the Marshall Chess Club in New York city in 1940.

Frank James Marshall (born August 10 1877, New York; died November 9 1944, New York), was United States champion from 1909-1936 and a respected international competitor for the first quarter of the 20th century. He won several tournaments, and challenged Emanuel Lasker to a match for the World Championship, which he lost convincingly (0 wins, 8 losses and 7 draws). Marshall voluntary relinquished his US championship in 1936 so that a tournament could be played to decide who the best player in the country was. Tournaments have been held since then to determine the United States champion. Previously, a player had to defeat Marshall in a match to gain the title.

Marshall founded the club that beared his name in 1915, and along with the Manhattan Chess Club, were the two biggest chess clubs in New York City until the Manhattan club closed down in 2002. Marshall was famous for his attractive, attacking style of play, and for his “swindles”, in which he would turn a losing position into a won position through a tactic or combination.

Hyman “Rogie” Rogosin (born April 15, 1908, New York; died March 16 2004, Laguna Hills California) was a Marshall Chess Club player whose strength was just below the top level of players in the United States during the middle part of the 20th century. Like many other players, he is mainly remembered for this loss, rather than for the many victories that he achieved in tournament and club play.

What makes this game truly bizarre is Marshall’s play with the White pieces. Instead of developing his pieces, Marshall moves all eight of his pawns within the first fourteen moves, in an attempt to trap one of the two black knights. it is amusing to see the Black knights moving all around the board as they are constantly attacked by the advancing White pawns. Here is a video of this amazing game with some analysis.

This game still holds the record for the most consecutive pawn moves from the start of a serious tournament or match game.

The longest tournament chess game ever played

My previous chess post on this blog featured the brilliant 19th century US player Paul Murphy winning a sparkling miniature against two opponents at Paris in 1858. This post is about a game at the absolute opposite end of the scale – the longest tournament game ever recorded, in terms of moves.

The game took place in a minor tournament in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1989, and featured two minor players – Ivan Nikolic playing the White pieces, and Goran Arsovic playing the black pieces. A long and difficult ending was reached after 60-odd moves, which eventually after 167 moves turned into one of the standard pawnless endgames in chess – king, rook and bishop for Nikolic against the king and rook for Arsovic. This ending can be theoretically drawn by the player with the rook, but in a tournament setting with time issues, as well as fatigue, it is hard for the player with only the rook to continually find the best moves. The player with the rook and bishop can play on with virtually no chances of losing (exclusing a major blunder), which is exactly what Nikolic did in this game, hoping that Arsovic would make a fatal blunder. Nikolic also took advantage of a change in the “fifty-move rule”.

The fifty-move rule in chess states that a player can claim a draw if no capture has been made and no pawn has been moved in 50 consecutive moves. The purpose of this rule is to prevent a player with no chance of winning from obstinately continuing to play indefinitely, or seeking to win purely by tiring the opponent out. This rule aids the player with the lesser pieces, as they know that if they can last for 50 moves, the game can be drawn. However computer analysis of various endgames including the rook + bishop v rook endgame showed that the player with the superior forces could theoretically win the position using more than 50 moves. As a result, the fifty-move rule was changed to a hundred-rule move in 1984, which was the rule in force when this game was played. This explains why Nikolic played on for 102 moves from move 167 until the game was agreed drawn after 269 moves. Shortly after this game was played, the rule was changed to 75 moves, if a certain defined types of endgame occurred. In 1992 the rule was changed back to the 1984 rule, eg 50 moves to get a result after the last pawn move or capture of a piece. The game in total took 20 hours and 15 minutes to play, and computer and human analysis has shown that Nikolic missed wins on moves 201, 238, 239, 241, 244, 247 (checkmate with 247. Ra6#) and 255.

This game still holds the record for the most moves in a serious over-the-board tournament game with “classical” time controls

Here is a list of the other tournament games that have been at least 200 moves

228 Sanal-Can                    0.5-0.5, European Championship, Plovdiv, 2012

213 Zawadzka-Lach,          0.5-0.5, Polish Women’s Championship, Warsaw, 2011

210 Neverov-Bogdanovich 0-1,       Ukraine Championship, Kiev, 2013

209 Chekhlov-Stavrinov,     0.5-0.5, Riga City Championship 1988

204 Shanava-Emiroglu,       0-5-0.5, 40th Olympiad Open, Istanbul 2012

201 Mirzoev-Sanal               0-5-0.5, Nakhchivan Open, 2013

200 Meiers-Rausis,              0-5-0.5, Latvian Championship, Riga, 1989

200 Wegner-Johnsen,          0-5-0.5, Gausdal 1991

Here is a youtube video of all 269 moves, thankfully compressed into 10 minutes: