1970s: Tales from a Devon Club

Tales from a Devon Club

Big Mike

One of the definitely larger-than-life characters at Exeter Chess Club in the 1970's was Mike Boag. Not a very strong player, he loved the game, especially blitz play at which he was much better. He was certainly one of the most enthusiastic players I have met, and could be quite boisterous at times.

He owned a small boarding house in the city, and as this kept him at home most of the day, he would invite players round to his house to play quick chess most days during the week; he never seemed to tire of it.

Eventually his keenness led him to stand for Match Captain for the Exeter Club. Although not that strong, he had the novel idea of being `team supremo', organising each division' s players so that there would be no confusion as to which player turned out for which team. A captain for the night would be appointed to look after the administrative details.

As far as I know this worked very well until the notorious occasion when Teignmouth were the opposition. For some reason, both team captains got it into their heads that they were playing away for the night. Cars duly left Teignmouth and Exeter at around 7 p.m., presumably passed each other somewhere around Exminster, and arrived at the rival venue just before 7.30. After waiting a few minutes two pennies dropped almost simultaneously, and without phoning the other club both teams ran back to their cars and hurtled back to base, probably crossing at Exminster rather faster than before.

Now almost 8pm, a whole pile of copper coins fell, at least one call was made, and the horrible truth emerged. I believe the match was played at a much later date, presumably with one or more replacement team captains. One cannot imagine Mike being very amused.

Shortly afterwards Mike and family moved to Torquay, bought a small cafe, and converted it into a chess haven. He would hire sets out and serve sensible food. He used to take on all-corners at five-minute games, and got so proficient against the locals that he offered a slap-up meal to anyone who could beat him.

Unfortunately a group of evil-minded Exeter players (probably those who suffered after the wrong-venue incident) decided to set Mike up. They arranged for the then Teignmouth champion (who Mike did not know) to call in for a cup of tea, and let himself be persuaded into a rapidplay game. Mike was duly taken to the cleaners, left Torquay, and was last heard of running a barge down the Grand Union Canal for tourists.

If you're still out there, Mike, I hope your latest scheme is working

The Eighth Man

One of the tragedies of life is when someone with everything apparently going for them is struck down in the prime of life. Such a man was Peter Rooke, a modest player, but who was elected Competitions Secretary for Devon and set about reorganising the various events in the county. His death at an early age prompted demands for a memorial, and this was done in the shape of a Cup to bear his name, to be competed for annually by all teams in Devon.

The rules of the competition were designed by a committee, and they came up with an ingenious formula of an eight-person team with a total maximum grading of 1000. The intention was to make the contest more even between the stronger clubs (like Exeter, who had several players over 150) and lesser teams who might not have any over 140.

The problem at Exeter was that most of the keen players (who later semi-deserted to form a breakaway team in the local league) were too strong to allow all of them to play at one time in this particular event. In fact, the `Secret Seven' virtually broke the one-thousand limit alone. There seemed no way to keep the happy bunch together until late one night

"Caine!"

This cry came from one of the more devious elements. He had remembered that on most club nights, a civil-servant-type individual sat in the corner waiting desperately for someone to play. He was a pleasant enough fellow, but was so pitifully weak that he had never been known to draw, let alone win, a single game. Consequently he had never been picked for any representative match of any kind. However, here was a stroke of' genius. With the Seven's grading points at the perilous level of 985, Caine's meagre 12 left them under the limit, all quite legal and — er — above board.

And so it was that Mr. Caine ( I'm not sure anybody even bothered to ask his first name ) was invited to play in the Peter Rooke Memorial Cup for Exeter. The initial shock must have been great, though it's not clear whether he ever realised he was being used almost literally as a pawn.

Mr. Caine no longer appears in the grading list (his name has been changed to protect him in this shameful episode) but he was duly driven all around Devon in order to fight for club and city. It is not known whether he actually broke his duck; I just hope that one day he realises that without him those notches on the Cup would never have been made.

[The Peter Rooke Cup is still fought for annually — DR]

The Ring of Bells

Have you ever wondered why Brian Hewson lives at Cheriton Fitzpaine? Is it his love of the countryside, or an old family tradition? Neither of these. Brian is trying to find the lost chess club of middle Devon...

In the 1970's, the Exeter and District League was dominated by Exeter University. They produced a string of good student players, and only Exeter itself seemed capable of denting their record. (Exmouth in their half-centenary year beat both the University AND Exeter, but that is a story for another day!) However, the format of the league (5 boards) and the ridiculous time limit ( 30 moves in 75 minutes then probably adjudication ) meant that as a serious competition it left something to be desired.

Hence in the late 70's the more adventurous members of Exeter were looking for a more enjoyable way to spend an evening than churning out 30 moves in the Literary Society Library then trying to get to the pub before 10.30. At this time taverns outside the city had much longer opening hours, some official, some not. Let it be made plain that no member of the Exeter Club ever connived in drinking at illegal hours (sorry, that should read `was convicted').

It was discovered that there was a very friendly hostelry in Cheriton whose landlord was a jolly Australian who had a healthy contempt for illiberal English Licensing Laws (it's even worse over there). One of the Exeter team was seeing a local girl, and as well as playing darts in the Bells, there seemed ample room for some chess boards. One by one, the keen members of Exeter were persuaded to pay a visit, until enough players attended regularly to form a team.

The Exeter and District League Committee accepted their entry, but insisted that, in spite of their strength, they should work their way through Division Two first. The relevant cup was won somewhat at a canter, at which point the Committee rather ambiguously berated the embarrassed team for being too strong!

This proved somewhat hollow when they failed to win the First Division in their second season, mainly by being somewhat cavalier in their play. Nevertheless, they won the League in due course, though by now they had changed names through `The Abominable Snowmen' to `The Wandering Minstrels'.

Sadly, by 1980, the team had started to break up, as marriage, divorce, job moves, and redundancy took its toll on this merry band of pirates. But the mysterious names are still on the cup.

— Steve Boniface

Chess Quotes

"The delight in gambits is a sign of chess youth... In very much the same way as the young man, on reaching his manhood years, lays aside the Indian stories and stories of adventure, and turns to the psychological novel, we with maturing experience leave off gambit playing and become interested in the less vivacious but withal more forceful manoeuvres of the position player."
— Emanuel LASKER