The words "chess" and "festival" are not normally associated with each other; but that it is what is taking place this month (from December 8-15) at Kensington's Olympia — the venue of the 2010 London Chess Classic. The organiser, Malcolm Pein, has not merely gathered the strongest team of grandmasters to compete in a British tournament — including the world champion Viswanathan Anand, his predecessor Vladimir Kramnik and the Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen — but there will be other events designed for players of all abilities and a children's tournament.
Most enticing of all — for those who want to play a true chess legend — Viktor Korchnoi will be giving two simultaneous displays, against 30 opponents, on December 9 and 14. It is probably too late to apply to play against one of the toughest competitors in chess history, but I would still urge you to go along to watch. You will not see his like again: Korchnoi is now 79 and although his chess brain is still in formidable focus, I doubt that his legs will for much longer be able to endure such exhausting exhibitions.
I can think of only one other player who was able to perform simultaneous displays at such an age: that was Joseph Blackburne, who was still performing the chess equivalent of treading the boards in his 80th year. It is especially appropriate to recall this almost forgotten genius in the context of a UK-based chess festival. Blackburne was the most consistently successful chess player this country has ever produced, playing at the highest level from the early 1860s until the First World War — at 72 he won a coveted brilliancy prize for his game against Aron Nimzovitch in the great St Petersburg tournament of 1914. According to the Chess Metrics website, which applies modern chess ratings retrospectively, Blackburne was the second strongest player in the world for much of the 1880s, behind only the first acknowledged world chess champion, the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz.
The impact Blackburne made on Europe's chess scene can be glimpsed in this extract from the book of the Vienna Tournament of 1873, where he shared first prize with Steinitz — and was immediately given the nickname of Der Schwarze Tod. "The pale, lean, muscular young man opposite is the iron Blackburne, the Black Death of chess players. But very seldom there falls from the moustache-covered lips a laconic English word. He surveys the game with the eye of a hawk; even now he is tearing to bits a snare laid for him by his unsuccessful opponent, and a demure smile steals over his face."
The 19th-century prose is purple; but "tearing to bits" is rather a good evocation of the Blackburne style. He had taken up chess at the remarkably late age of 18, having become captivated by the European exploits of the visiting American genius Paul Morphy, and Blackburne's style was a tribute to Morphy's methods: brutally clean and direct tactics following rapid development of all forces. He was also entranced by Morphy's blindfold chess displays, which to the general public of the day seemed something akin to witchcraft. Yet Blackburne raised this form of chess necromancy to an altogether higher level, astounding not just his fellow Mancunians but the entire nation, when — just two years after taking up the game — he played ten games, simultaneously, without sight of the board, against the best players of the Manchester Chess Club.