IM Michael Basman, a strong British player in the 1960s and ’70s, founder of the U.K. Chess Challenge, prolific author, and most of all an innovator both on and off the chessboard, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday at age 76. Most famous for his wild opening moves, he lived just long enough to see GM Magnus Carlsen adopting 1.g4 and 1…g5 in Titled Tuesday.
Michael John Basman was born on March 16, 1946, in London. His father, an Armenian immigrant named Basmadjian, changed the family name to Basman. Michael temporarily changed it back when he lived in Yerevan for a short period in his twenties, where he learned Armenian and even participated in the Armenian championship.
Basman was among the strongest British players in the late 1960s, part of a generation that also included GM Raymond Keene and IMs William Hartston, George Botterill, and Andrew Whiteley. A significant result was his draw with GM Mikhail Botvinnik at Hastings 1966/67, after which the sixth world champion was very complimentary of his play. Basman would later also draw with GM Mikhail Tal and beat strong GMs such as Andras Adorjan, Tony Miles, and Albin Planinc.
Basman played for the English team in one Olympiad: Lugano 1968, where he was the second reserve board on a team with IM Jonathan Penrose, IM Cenek Kottnauer, Peter Clarke, Keene, and Peter Lee. Basman scored 6.5/11.
In that tournament, England faced the mighty Soviet Union. Basman played the seventh world champion, GM Vasily Smyslov, got close to a winning position, but ended up losing the game after avoiding a draw by repetition. In the December 1968 issue of British Chess Magazine, Harry Golombek wrote:
As it happened, this last result was a turning point in the history of the whole group as regards qualifying for the top final section. It is ironic to think that a more timid player than Basman would have taken the draw by perpetual and thus ensured our qualifying for the top final section; but then, a more timid player would not, in all likelihood, have achieved a position against Smyslov in which he could force a draw by perpetual. No blame, in any case, attaches to Basman since at the time he disdained the draw he had good winning prospects.
The match brought about an amusing contrast in the way in which offers of a draw were received. “Are you playing for a win!” said Spassky to Keene and the words were hardly out of his mouth before the Streatham and Brixton player was shaking him heartily by the hand. Basman, at a later stage in the game, offered Smyslov a draw. There was no reply, so, clutching him fiercely by the coat, Basman repeated his offer and got a simple “No” in reply.
In the late 1960s, Basman worked as a computer programmer at Chessington Computer Centre, a government information technology organization. Chess journalist and photographer John Saunders, who worked there after Basman had left, told Chess.com that Basman’s reputation there wasn’t entirely positive, which might have explained the slightly hostile attitude to chess Saunders detected from their manager:
Mike liked to pile print-outs around his desk so that his fellow workers couldn’t see the pocket chess set immediately in front of him! But it wouldn’t be fair to say that he was unpopular — others remembered him with affection/amusement, he was a competent programmer, and he later shared amusing memories with me about various people that we had both worked with. (I told Mike all of the above and he was quite amused.)
In the 1970s, Basman started something quite revolutionary: Audio Chess, a business where he provided chess analysis of games of students via cassette tapes.
After becoming a chess editor in the 1990s, Saunders got to know Basman better as he explains:
Conversations with Mike were almost as bewildering as his opening theory and he liked to test my general knowledge of chess. He beat me easily at that game too, but it was done with a smile and I always enjoyed our chats. We met every year or two at major chess events in London, notably the London Classic, and I enjoyed kibitzing when he renewed his blitz rivalry with Peter Lee, the 1965 British Champion who was a colleague of Mike’s in the 1968 England Olympiad team.
Basman further established his reputation as a strong chess player when he tied for first place in the 1973 British Championship with Hartston, who was awarded the title in a tiebreak. Two years later, in a match between England and France played in Luton, Basman played board one, ahead of future super grandmasters John Nunn and Jon Speelman. Basman was awarded the international master title in 1980.
As his chess career progressed, Basman started to experiment more and more with rare and often bizarre openings. He also became a prolific writer, and this way he became responsible for many ideas in lines such as St. George Defense (1…b6), the Grob (1.g4), what he called the “Borg” (Grob reversed: 1…g5), and Creepy Crawly (1.a3, 2.h3, followed by a quick c2-c4).
In 1975, Basman used the St. George to play an amazing “waiting game” and beat one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, GM Ulf Andersson.
The website of the U.K. Schools Chess Challenge notes: “Just a few days before his untimely death we were joking about how even the world champion Magnus Carlsen was finally adopting his openings in a recent Chess.com Titled Tuesday event.”
That was on October 11, when Carlsen played 1.g4 and 1…g5 in each game. It is not clear whether Basman also saw this week’s Fischer Random game where Carlsen’s amazing 1…g5 involves a piece sacrifice.
Here’s Basman beating another strong British GM, Speelman, in the British Championship, using 1…g5:
More of Basman’s games can be found in this blog post.
In 1996, Basman created the U.K. Chess Challenge, a tournament for juniors of all standards and ages progressing over four stages. Over the years, it has grown into one of the largest junior chess tournaments in the world. Over 50,000 children nationwide participate; more than a million have participated since 1996.
Basman’s involvement with and earnings from the organization, as well as issues with the tax authorities, were at times the subject of controversy, but it is generally agreed that he created something unique. GM Keene once wrote: “Michael Basman is in many ways the most important person in British chess.”
In 2013, Basman received the English Chess Federation’s President’s Award for services to chess. In 2020, FIDE included Basman in a group who benefitted from FIDE’s support to chess veterans.
Sarah Longson, who with her husband Alex took over the business from Basman a few years ago, wrote on the website:
The energy, originality and joy that Mike brought to all his endeavors is a source of great inspiration. He believed that young minds should be encouraged to be rational, compassionate and creative and that through chess and the UK Chess Challenge he could help develop these traits in the next generation. Mike was a fighter at the board and away from it – not afraid to stand up for his beliefs.
Mike leaves behind an incredible chess legacy and I know many of his former students, friends and acquaintances will be deeply saddened by his passing. Our condolences go out to his family and nearest friends.
Basman also had a keen interest in chess history and liked to challenge people with trivia questions. In February of this year, he gave a lecture on the British master Henry Bird (of the 1.f4 opening) at the Kingston Chess Club that was well received. A few months later he also privately published a monograph on Bird, which probably was his last chess publication.
Basman died on Wednesday at St. Helier Hospital in Carshalton. It was four months after his younger brother Robert had passed away, about which Michael wrote a touching blog post on his website. Michael Basman is survived by his ex-wife, his sister Rosemary, and his son Antranig.
Author and commentator GM Simon Williams wrote to Chess.com:
Mike was the first titled player that I ever met. Mike lived pretty locally to me and was key in promoting chess for the “Wey Valley” area which I was part of. From an early age, Mike would help take me and the team to various tournaments around the country, I obviously learned a lot from the great man.
My strongest recollection was probably around the age of 10 when I agreed to a quick draw against a much higher-rated player. Mike kindly told me with that trademark sparkle in his eye that this was the worse blunder that I could ever make. Quickly after that chat my rating shot up.
Mike was the original chess Maverick, it was Mike who first played 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4!?, a move that was laughed at years ago but is now considered one of the greatest novelties of the modern era. Then there was that game against Ulf at Hastings…
Mike also drew with Botvinnik at the height of his reign. Botvinnik afterward mentioned how Mike was a brilliantly talented player.
I recall Mike telling me that he started to play the moves 1.g4, 1…a6 and all those other bizarre and wonderful creations when theory started to take over the world of chess. Mike wanted to stay original and that he was until the end. It is somehow fitting how Magnus has recently started to try out 1.g4 and 1…g5, maybe the universe aligned and realised that it was going to lose a true spark.
Throughout his life, Mike dedicated himself to spreading the love of chess around the country to players of all ages and strengths.
Myself and his good friend, Blair Connell, met him last Saturday in the hospital. He was clearly very ill but still shined with that special charisma his soul possessed. Whilst holding Blair’s hand I can remember him asking for the remaining things after his death.
“All I wanted to do was spread my love of chess to everyone, I dedicated my life to this and I want to be remembered for this. I also want people to look at things differently, that’s what I always did and what I want people to continue doing when I’m gone.”
I asked Blair if there was anything he wanted to add. “To the man, the myth, the legend. A true character of chess. Inventive, positive and witty. A heartfelt loss.”
Author and three-time Wijk aan Zee winner GM John Nunn said he was “really shocked and saddened by this news” and wrote the following to Chess.com:
Michael Basman was an innovator both on and off the chessboard. In his earlier years his distinctive style was capable of upsetting the strongest players. He was a dangerous attacking player, a good example being Basman-Stean, Hastings 1973-4, but his amorphous style sometimes led to the most remarkable chess. Perhaps his most unforgettable game was his win against Ulf Andersson from Hastings 1974-5, in which he did absolutely nothing from moves 12 to 28 and then won rather convincingly. He later espoused some eccentric openings (1 g4 and 1 h3, or 1…g5 and 1…h6) and this handicapped his results, although he seemed convinced of the soundness of these openings and nothing was able to persuade him otherwise. However, it is off the chessboard that he probably had the greatest impact. He put a huge amount of effort into promoting junior chess and his UK Chess Challenge introduced a huge number of juniors to the game. There’s no doubt that he had his flaws, but overall his contribution to chess was very positive and it was always entertaining to talk to him. I will miss Michael Basman and his weird and wonderful chess.
Chess author and commentator Hartston wrote to Chess.com:
Michael Basman was, by a very long way, the most creative chess player of his generation, which was also my generation, but it took me a long time to appreciate him. We first met at a London Boys Under-14 championship over 60 years ago and I took an instant dislike to him. Firstly, he beat me easily, but I also disapproved of his smoking and dropping the cigarette ash into a skull-shaped ashtray.
Our respective chess styles also differed greatly as mine always strived for correctness and traditional values while Basman’s became progressively more imaginative and outrageous. In 1973, we tied for first place in the British Championship and when preparing for our playoff match, I began to understand and admire his style. The match was played in great friendship and mutual respect and we remained friends for almost half a century after.
His iconoclastic approach and the encouragement he gave to young players marked Basman as a true lover of the game, and his passion for chess was perhaps the greatest and most inspiring I have ever encountered.
Author and one of the strongest British GMs, Matthew Sadler wrote to Chess.com:
I didn’t know him well but he was an indelible part of the British chess scene. As a kid, the things he did seemed a bit like magic. I got his book on the St. George when I was about nine and I remember the book and the games vividly still to this day. He was an incredibly persuasive author and I never blamed him when my childish attempts to play 1…a6 failed miserably. 😉
The thing about him of course was that he was a really strong player. If he emerged from his crazy openings with a slight edge, he was capable of playing a smooth positional game from then on as if the craziness had never happened. The specific systems he played don’t stand the test of time at all in the engine era of course but I’ve found the concepts behind his ideas (many pawn sacrifices for pure activity and open lines, wing thrusts, etc.) to be inspiring for many other openings (e.g., the Modern).
He was someone who gave color to the chess world and the English scene. You use the word “Basmanic” and everyone knows what you mean and that’s maybe a more lasting legacy than a string of tournament victories!
Commentator IM Lawrence Trent wrote to Chess.com:
Today is a sad day.
I didn’t know Mike very well at all but when I was playing the junior tournaments I have a vivid memory of him always smiling, always being involved, encouraging youngsters, boys and girls alike, full of anecdotes and just someone who filled the room with enormous positive energy.
He has most certainly left his mark on English chess and will be remembered for all the good work he did at the grassroots level.
GM Keith Arkell, on the English Chess Forum:
Even though I had known for a number of months that Mike was terminally ill my sadness is still tinged with shock. Throughout my chess life he was always visible in one capacity or another — larger than life, in a sense. (…) Idiosyncratic, visionary, kind-hearted and principled, Mike Basman’s passing will leave a big hole in British Chess.
In 2018, we held a Basman Night at the club where everyone had to play coffee house chess. @ginger_gm, a great friend of Basman, was there. It was one of our best-ever nights. RIP Michael Basman. https://t.co/sZxKp7Nh3b
— Battersea Chess Club ♞♜♛♚ (@BatterseaChess) October 27, 2022
I enjoyed his book on the Grob, and had the pleasure of meeting him later in person
A very kind man. https://t.co/AmQqGEoAJn
— Peter Heine Nielsen (@PHChess) October 27, 2022
Thanks to John Saunders for contributing.