Everyone in the British chess community will have been saddened to hear of the death this week of IM Mike Basman at the age of 76.
Mike was a player of outstanding talent, imagination and creativity. but, much more than that, he was a pioneer, a maverick, an eccentric, and one of the most important and influential people in the world of British chess.
Living in CHESSington (where else would he have chosen to live?), he was well known in our part of the world, having been a member of several local clubs, most recently Surbiton, and having been involved in the club recently started in his home town.
His competitive chess career lasted more than sixty years. In the 1960s his talents were praised by none other than Mikhail Botvinnik, but, perhaps frustrated by the growing importance of opening theory, he decided to go his own way, preferring apparently crazy openings involving moving knights’ and rooks’ pawns at the start of the game.
After a short and unsuccessful career as a computer programmer in the Civil Service (it’s hard to imagine anyone less suited to working in the Civil Service than Mike) he decided to make his living out of chess. He started a business called Audio Chess, providing analysis of students’ games on cassette and producing a series of tapes on various aspects of the game. His contributors included many of the country’s leading players and this revolutionary approach to teaching chess soon proved very popular. He also wrote extensively on the game, including a lot of material designed for young beginners: well worth looking out for.
But it is his extensive contributions to junior chess, both locally and nationally, which will perhaps prove his most important legacy. Mike, along with his revered colleague Pat Armstrong and their associates, ran Wey Valley primary schools chess for many years. Wey Valley was Surrey in all but name: Mike once explained to me that they’d been forced to change their name after an argument with the Surrey County Chess Association. An argument in Surrey chess? Who’d have thought it? From the 1990s onwards, Richmond and Wey Valley were friendly rivals in national primary schools competitions.
Most significantly of all, in 1996 Mike started the UK Chess Challenge, an extraordinary and wonderful concept in which children start by playing competitions within their school before qualifying to move onto local, regional and national competitions, billed as the Megafinals, Gigafinals and Terafinals. More than a million children have taken part in this event, which, now sponsored by Delancey, is still going strong in the capable hands of Mike’s protégée Sarah Hegarty and her husband Alex Longson. Long may it continue!
Mike’s views on life were as imaginative and creative as his views on chess and he could, at times, be his own worst enemy. But no one could deny his infectious enthusiasm, his insistence that chess, above all, should be fun, and his enormous influence on every aspect of chess in the UK. More than that, he was a brilliant teacher, beloved by generations of former pupils, many of whom became lifelong friends, as well an outstanding organiser, building a team of loyal and devoted colleagues around him who still coach in many schools and run regular junior tournaments in Surrey and neighbouring areas.
He will be much missed by very many people in the world of chess, which will be a more predictable and less colourful place without his genial presence. Our thoughts go out to his family, and to his very many friends, whose lives will have been infinitely richer for having known him. His memory will never be forgotten.
Let’s hope that the ECF, along with Mike’s colleagues, will ensure that his name will live on. We also need a full biography and games collection paying tribute to his fascinating life and inspirational games.
In this game Mike used one of his pet variations from the time to crush Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club’s strongest ever player: Michael Stean. Click on any move for a pop-up window.
For more information about Mike Basman’s life and games, there’s an extensive tribute from Peter Doggers, incorporating reminiscences from many of his friends and contemporaries, here and a great article from my online friend Neil Blackburn with further games here.