Theo Slade

Theo Slade – An Appreciation

County match captain David Jenkins interviewed Andrew and Theo Slade for this article on the day before their departure to the States.

It was at the Bude Rapidplay that the Cornish chess world heard of the imminent departure of its brightest up-and-coming star to the United States. The rumours circulated quickly: Theo Slade was off to play the professional chess hustlers in Central Park and become a dollar millionaire. That turned out not to be quite the whole story, since Theo intends spending as much chess time as possible studying and practicing his chess skills under the expert guidance of his recently acquired coach the Danish GM Lars Bo Hansen. As captain of the Cornish team, my first selfish thought was whether Theo would be playing for us in the local derby against Devon at the end of the month. ‘Actually the family are leaving tomorrow’, replied Andrew a trifle sheepishly, ‘we did not spread the word in case the visas did not come through’. Thus, fortuitously, in the final round of the Bude Rapidplay I was Theo’s opponent for his last game on Cornish soil before emigrating, in which he put my Latvian Gambit to the sword. We had arranged to meet following the event.

‘I suppose you think the Latvian is a rubbish opening?’ I asked afterwards. Theo hesitated courteously, but Andrew chimed in, ‘Tell him the truth’ (they had obviously discussed it). Whatever his opinion of the opening, Theo certainly knows the theory backwards and banged out a series of book moves effortlessly before engaging his tactical flair and winning in style. Ah well; none of us would be in chess if we minded losing from time to time.

Theo is the latest in a tradition of exceptionally promising Cornwall juniors, several of whom went on to become strong master strength players, notably GM Michael Adams and Andrew Greet, and to some extent Theo can be said to have adopted them as his role models, envisaging the possibility of making a career out of playing chess, possibly in association with chess journalism and/or coaching. I am professionally more qualified to comment on his writing skills than his chess, and regard him as notably talented in his command of language, with a taste for coherent argument and a neat turn of phrase. But he is young enough for his ambition to be unbounded and I got the distinct impression that his sights were set at the highest levels of achievement primarily as a player. And why not? Constraining realism concerning the enormity of the task is an unappealing abstract proposition not to be invoked prematurely, and as in most things time will tell. Most of us are too old to be promising and do not have the option of unbridled optimism.

Theo’s emergence as an outstanding player is to some extent a tribute to concerted efforts within Cornwall chess to support the development of young players, as testified in the junior section of the Chess Cornwall website. Our leading lights in this activity are Robin Kneebone and Jeremy Menadue and Theo recalled specifically that it was Robin who first recognized his potential and urged him to take up competitive chess. From the very beginning he has demonstrated a work ethic that would put most senior players to shame and great maturity in keeping up his levels of concentration and handling time controls under pressure. His style of play has been consistently imaginative and ideas-driven, with considerable tactical flair. He analyses his own games meticulously and prepares variations for specific opponents (notably for Jeremy Menadue in the first Polruan simul), finding the ‘hard work’ enjoyable.

Theo first came to prominence by winning the under 11 section in the Southern Gigafinal of the Michael Basman UK Chess Challenge. Since then, his tournament experience has grown exponentially, and has included the European Boys under 14 championships in Georgia, the London Chess Classic Open and Super Rapidplay, the Hastings Masters, the British Championship, and the 4 Nations Chess League. Locally he has supported Bude Chess Club and has been a loyal player for an improving Cornwall team in the WECU inter-county matches, steadily moving up the ranking as his grading improved. His maturity as a person as well as a player was a factor in his being chosen as captain of the English Boys Under 14 Chess team.

Over the last six years he has enjoyed a close successful relationship with his coach Dave Regis, as well as having occasional contact with other members of the UK chess international coaching team. His opening repertoire is unusually wide, particularly given his age, and he obviously makes every effort to keep it up to date, often taking quirky ‘modern’ lines or trying out recent ‘improvements’. At the risk of crass oversimplification he began as an e4 player, drifted towards the supposedly more strategic d4, but has recently often chosen e4 in order to exploit his tactical flair. He is a little more willing to exchange pieces than the average master and has become over time a very precise endgame player. Interestingly, he has often presented improved results towards the end of gruelling tournaments (like the UK Open and the Guernsey Open), a tribute to his ability to keep up high levels of concentration and commitment. Notably, too, he is not phased by his losses but seeks to learn from them.

His record has been punctuated by a number of particularly fine individual games that repay study, a few of which are offered below. In 2012 in the Guernsey International Open he was awarded the brilliancy prize, aged 12, for a fine game against the experienced Rudy von Saldern. The brilliancy involved taking a rook out of the defence so it could not be taken by an over-stretched defended without allowing a mating attack with bishop and knight.

Theo, like a number of strong chess players, had displayed a taste for playing simultaneous chess from a young age. My own fledgling club at Calstock a number of months back invited Theo down to our inaugural meeting to give a simultaneous display in the Calstock Arts Centre in the Old Chapel. His youngest adversary was 6, the eldest over 80, but it didn’t really matter what age they were: he beat all comers, and won the contest 14-0

The losers could point to one Calstock player who missed a win in a complex tactical game while another just failed to hang on to a deserved draw, but statistics do not lie and the 14-0 result was a superb whitewash in favour of our young guest. Spectators who had never before attended a ‘simul’ were interested to observe the sheer speed with which young Theo walked around the square of the tables, typically making his moves almost immediately, without obvious calculation, seemingly relying entirely on memory, experience and instant pattern recognition. Not the way books like Alexander Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster tell us experts ought to play, which is more about the careful calculation of candidate moves. And in longer games Theo certainly does not shirk calculation, although his declared doctrine in favour of ‘natural moves’ helps in the selection. Tellingly, in this particular ‘simul’, Theo’s survival instinct would kick in when a tactic required calculation and he would pause briefly to work out the logic of the position before rapidly passing on.

How does Theo or any other experienced simul player manage it? Nobody is quite sure, but those who can do it well seem also to be able to reconstruct all the games of their ‘simul’ from memory afterwards, an amazing feat. Theo was, for example, able several days later to discuss in detail possible variations in the interesting game he played against Jonathan Earp from the Calstock Community Primary School.

I elected in my interview with Andrew and Theo to explore two issues that have always interested me: the potential pathologies of the parent/child relationship with respect to unusually talented offspring and whether some of the quasi-psychological assertions about the appeal of chess make any sense to young players. We all have encountered the popular stereotype of chess playing loners trapped inside their own heads.

The first issue is of course a general one, not specific to chess, although as with tennis players (Andre Agassi: ‘I always hated tennis’) there are a number of cautionary tales that are more than anecdotal and suggest a pattern of vaunting ambition by proxy, with parents treating their own children as experimental fodder in pursuit of some quirky pedagogical hypothesis. On the psychological front suggestions have varied from seeing chess as barely sublimated aggression (Nigel Short: ‘I like to see their egos crumble’) to attributing mental instability to an over preoccupation with chess (Bobby Fischer being the cited paradigm example).

I began exploring my first theme by asking Andrew about the ‘pushy parent’ syndrome and whether he was tempted to put undue pressure on Theo in the manner of Laszio Polgar or Rustam Kamsky, on the not unreasonable grounds that fanatical parenting is clearly productive of offspring success. Both he and Theo laughed heartedly at what they deemed to be the absurdity of the thought, and it was clearly a fruitless line of inquiry for me to take. Indeed, I quickly formed the opposite view that Andrew takes a low-key balanced view of Theo’s special gift and is himself happy simply to support him and see where it leads. Put simply, Theo appears a personable and rounded young man who has found a rewarding niche but is not consumed by it.

This led me to the second issue, how Theo viewed the psychology of the chessboard. Interestingly, he argued for playing the position rather than the opponent, and was not particularly inclined to see chess as utilizing the psychology of warfare, a kind of abstract proxy for hand-to-hand combat or prize fighting. On the other hand, his choice of opening moves in specific games was determined in part by knowledge of his opponent, but on reaching (God’s ordained) middle game it was always a matter of the logic of the position. Theo even recounted his earlier efforts to depersonalise the contest element in chess (‘When for some reason I wanted to beat a particular person rather than win a game I always played worse’).

The second issue was one that I approached gently, first enquiring whether an absorbed preoccupation with the highest levels of chess was a legitimate way of spending a human life. Theo again played the sensible card, seeing top-level chess as a fantastic career choice if things so worked out, but he also saw the need for balancing interests. ‘Like politics’ he replied when I pressed him, although he refused to be drawn on American foreign policy (in chess terms, the Fifth Amendment Defense). I could hardly ask the delightfully normal Theo why he thought so many world famous chess players had suffered psychotic episodes of one kind or another. But it was obvious that no alarm bells were ringing in the paternal belfry, and in my view nor should they. Overall I warmed to Theo’s cheerful optimism and the relaxed attitude both he and Andrew took towards his blazing ambition. I am certain that the whole of Cornwall chess wishes him well and will second my final request: that family visits to the UK will factor in the dates of the WECU inter-county matches!

I felt the most appropriate way of ending this tribute was to append one of Theo’s games that seems to me to repay study as well as sampling his career as a still young player. The games of chess players are instructive regardless of the result, and I have chosen his game against Hikaru Nakamura, world number 1 blitz player, no less, in LCC Super Rapidplay Open. one loss and one win as a sample of Theo’s play. This game can be played though by following the link.

Theo Slade with Hikaru Nakamura, London Chess Classic 2014

Hikaru Nakamura v. Theo Slade (1-0). LCC Super Rapidplay Open, London [Nimzo-Larsen Attack, Modern Variation]

David Jenkins, October 2015