My previous interviews have been with people heavily involved in chess organising in some form, here at Hendon and elsewhere. Today, for a change, I’m talking to someone purely about playing the game.
Gary Senior is one of Hendon’s longest-serving and most successful players. He’s a stalwart of our Middlesex League teams, and was our highest-scoring player last season, with 9½/10, a grading performance of almost 220 ECF (2350 on the new scale, which is FIDE Master strength!).
What interests me most about Gary is his trajectory as a chess player. Currently, in his late fifties, he is sitting at his lifetime peak rating, despite having taken a very long break from the game. As someone who, like so many club players, struggles to get stronger in adulthood, I’m keen to learn his secret!
I don’t want any readers to feel cheated, so I should admit at the outset that my hopes were soon dashed when I learned that Gary had already achieved a very decent playing standard in his youth! But nonetheless, his rapid rise as a junior, and his return decades later to the level he achieved back then, are very impressive, and worth looking at in their own right. In the spirit of the excellent book by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, consider this Hendon’s own treatment of “Chess for Life”!
Gary got started very early. “I was brought up in Leeds,” he told me. “I’m a proud Yorkshireman, and a big Leeds United fan. And my Dad was very into board games. He was quite a good draughts player: I have a photo of him somewhere at a draughts club in Leeds in a simultaneous display with the world draughts champion, sometime before the war. And he was a chess player, but not a very good chess player. He taught me to play when I was about four, and he used to give me a penny if I beat him!”
“My first tournament was when I was nine. I entered the Leeds Under-14 Chess Championships – came 23rd as I remember! I didn’t go to a chess-playing school, so I played very little at school. But when I was eleven, [my Dad] took me to Leeds Chess Club. That was in about 1973, so it was very much the Fischer boom time. You had fantastic congresses and so on. Leeds Chess Club was a very long-standing chess club, with a vibrant social chess scene. I wasn’t particularly keen to go, frankly – I wanted to do what most eleven-year-olds did, which wasn’t going to chess club!”
That didn’t stop Gary building up strength quite quickly, though. “From around the ages of thirteen to sixteen, I played a lot. And I think my peak rating, when I was sixteen, was 189. I played for England Juniors, I was fourth in the British Under-16 Championship. This was a time when English junior chess was very strong. People like [Nigel] Short, Danny King and Julian Hodgson were coming through at that time.”
One tournament Gary won during those years was the 1978 Evening Standard London Junior Chess Congress, for which Michael Bennett kindly provided me with a copy of the pamphlet. It’s interesting to see how many well-known names from British chess history - and Hendon’s specifically - appear there!
Quite a start to a chess career! But unfortunately it stopped almost as soon as it had begun. “I suppose I enjoyed [playing],” says Gary. “[But] from sixteen, I sort of plateaued, didn’t put as much into it, and gave up when I was about 21.”
That was when adult life began for him. “I moved to London when I was 22,” he says. “I stopped [playing] for about twenty years. Chess just seemed less fun, maybe, relative to the other things you can do with your time. I remember the match when I decided to pack it in, actually. I played a game for Leeds Chess Club in the Leeds Evening League, in maybe 1983, and I lost. And I just thought, I didn’t really enjoy that. Probably why I lost! And I said to the captain, I don’t really want to play again. I distinctly remember that: I was just doing it out of habit.”
Everything is different now, though! “I really miss over-the-board chess right now,” Gary continues. “It’s not just playing chess – I enjoy being a chess fan. I subscribe to New In Chess and I enjoy following what’s going on in the chess world. I regret cutting myself off completely for nearly twenty years. You can keep your hand in a bit, even if it’s just subscribing to a chess magazine, or something. I wish I’d maintained more of a link than I did.”
So how did Gary get back into chess again?
“My job slightly changed when I was about forty, but also my son started playing junior chess,” he tells me. “I taught him how to play, but he was also at a strong chess-playing school – Haberdashers – and that got him into it. I coached him; I spent some time managing a couple of school chess teams. He won the British Under-10 Championships [in 2006], which was very exciting for me – I’d never done that as a junior. He’s played some games for Hendon, but he doesn’t play a lot of chess now.”
So what was it like coming back to the game after so long? “It’s like riding a bike,” Gary tells me, “but virtually all my opening knowledge had gone. It’s bizarre – you can play chess at a reasonable level, but you know no openings! I had to rediscover an opening repertoire.”
Having an enjoyable playing environment was also important. “There are two teams I play for,” Gary says. “One is the MCC, who play in a members-only club league called the Hamilton-Russell Cup. You play against the RAC, and Oxford and Cambridge and so on. I also started playing for Hendon, around 2003-04 I think.”
Hendon was a very different club back then. “When I started, Hendon was much weaker than it is today,” Gary remembers. “I think Tomer Eden was top board, Adam Raoof was second, and I was third board. We were a kind of yo-yo team, between Division Two and Division One. Obviously the club has become much bigger and stronger in that time. I like Hendon Chess Club very much.”
Gary has high praise for my previous two interviewees. “Adam [Raoof] and Michael Bennett are the two stalwarts, really, going throughout my time,” he says. “Michael is an amazing organiser and captain of the first team, and the way he’s drawn in strong players… When I started, I was board three, when I was weaker than I am now. And now if we have a full-strength team out, I don’t get in the team! So it’s become a very, very strong team. Michael deserves tremendous credit for the way he runs the team. He expends a lot of nervous energy as captain, in my experience!”
Once Gary started playing again, any kind of rustiness soon disappeared. “I got back to the 190s after a couple of years,” he said. “And a couple of times, including at the moment, I’ve got myself over 200, which I think is about as strong as I can be. I maybe could get a little bit better if I played an awful lot. But there’s a certain level you can get to. I enjoy chess, much more now then I did as a junior. I think junior chess can be quite competitive… I could be a little bit critical of the whole junior chess scene: I think too many kids give up and don’t keep playing. I think it could be much more fun, much more enjoyable.”
“I then had [another] break for about four or five years, between about 2013 and 2017-18, then came back again,” Gary tells me. But even that didn’t knock him off course: his last rating before the break (July 2014) was 197, and then his next rating (in July 2018) was 197 as well!
I’m very interested in comparing Gary’s chess development with my own. There are some interesting parallels: he was brought into the game as a child by the Fischer-Spassky World Championship match of 1972, and I was brought into it in my own childhood by Short-Kasparov in 1993. Both were times when chess was in the newspapers every single day: I still have my scrapbooks of cuttings from The Times during the period!
Like Gary, I was taken by my parents to visit my local club (Bath Chess Club, in my case). But the outcome of those two experiences were very different: I more or less gave up the game at the age of eleven, when I went to secondary school, and didn’t play my first graded game until I returned to Bath Chess Club at the age of eighteen. Obviously, that has had a huge effect on our respective playing strengths: Gary was already considerably stronger at the age of sixteen than I am now in my thirties.
Now that I have a child of my own, I’m particularly struck by the question of what causes these radically different trajectories. Why did Gary stick with the game during those critical years, while I didn’t?
The main reason, I’m convinced, is that Bath Chess Club didn’t really know what to do with me as a child. People weren’t unfriendly: they would play casual games against me, and so on, but they had no mechanism for developing young players, and getting them involved in league matches and tournaments.
At the time I first went, the Club met in the Sixth Form Centre of a private school in the city, and there were a few younger players from that school who graduated into Bath’s senior teams. But I think that school must have had a chess club of its own, and Bath Chess Club must have been reliant on such school clubs to prepare young talent for the world of adult chess. The state school I went to didn’t have a chess club while I was there, which probably goes some way to explaining why I missed out.
I have a vivid memory at Bath Chess Club from my childhood: I went in one evening, and found the atmosphere a little quieter than usual, and the desks perhaps more neatly arranged, but otherwise it seemed very much the same club I was used to. So I wandered up to somebody’s board, and asked them why they made a move, rather than some other move. It turned out they were in the middle of a League match: my intervention was most unwelcome, and I was quickly shushed, and had to retreat in shame!
I’d been going to the club for a number of weeks, but nobody had ever thought to explain to a child of nine or ten, as I must have been at the time, the difference between social and league chess, or brought me up to speed on what was going on! Small wonder I drifted away and returned only much later.
Obviously in Gary’s case, Leeds Chess Club must have done something right when he went there as a junior. I ask him what it was. “They had a few things,” he answers. “One is, it was a pretty busy social club. It was in central Leeds, above a pub, probably at a time when chess clubs were able to get rooms above pubs relatively cheaply, which I think is much harder now. And there were always a lot of people there, as I remember – it was always a full room.”
“The other thing is, you had big congresses then – it was a real chess boom at the time. I remember coming down to London for the Evening Standard Chess Congress in Islington, and there must have been hundreds of people in that room – it was absolutely packed. I got invited down to play in the Lloyds Chess International in 1978, which was a very big strong tournament in really nice premises. I think Leeds Chess Club was probably quite important: it was an active chess club with a couple of teams in Yorkshire leagues, a team in the Leeds league. So there were a lot of opportunities to play.”
A lot of that was also true of Bath when I went there, though. There were plenty of leagues and congresses I could have played in, but I never made it there. Were there a lot of people Gary’s own age when he first went to Leeds Chess Club?
“A few,” he says, “but it wasn’t a club that particularly catered to junior chess. I don’t remember an awful lot of juniors. My Dad was very keen. So I would play in a lot of weekend congresses around the country, and he would take me to those.”
That explains a lot, for me: my own parents, while very supportive, weren’t keen chess players themselves, or general board-game players, so they weren’t able to compensate for the lack of impetus from my school or city chess club in keeping me involved in the game.
It’s fascinating to me how these small things can make a difference, and something that again stresses, for me, the importance of organisations like Barnet Knights, who provide a fun and supportive environment for young players, and a pathway into senior chess for those who want it.
Biographical comparison over! I also wanted to hear what kind of techniques Gary used to get back to a good playing strength once he returned to the game.
“If I think back to when I was playing as a junior,” Gary says, “I think there’s no doubt there’s a certain maturity you can get when you’re a bit older. I’m a bit more self-aware [now] as to why I lose games. My theory is that your personality traits tend to get reflected in the way you play chess. I think a reflection I have now that I don’t think I had then is a tendency to be over-optimistic around positions. I tend to go from A to B quite quickly. When I lose games, it’s often because I’ve convinced myself that I’ve got some kind of advantage, that actually may not be an advantage at all – you lose control of the position by over-pressing. I’ve got an awareness of that now that I didn’t used to have, which I think is helpful, because I’m sure I must be weaker in some respects: my ability to analyse must be weaker than it was twenty years ago.”
“The other reflection is, I did some coaching once with a Grandmaster, and he made me change my opening. I used to play an open Sicilian, which I played all my life, even when I was a junior. He said to me he didn’t think that particularly suited my style. I like more closed positional games. I changed to a variation of the closed Sicilian, and I do a lot better in that variation. It’s quite hard as adults to improve, but one thing is, we all tend to just play the same variation for years and decades, just because it’s easy. To have the courage to change your variation, I think is something worth reflecting on. I wouldn’t have done it, if somebody hadn’t said ‘I think you’re playing the wrong variation’.”
“Puzzles is the other thing. The best book I’ve read as to why it’s difficult for adults to improve is Chess for Zebras, by Jonathan Rowson. As adults, we’ve got so many bad habits in our heads, it’s extremely difficult to unwire that and improve at an activity. But I think [puzzles] can help you with your tactical analysis, and also themes to help you improve how you play certain positions. We all spend far too much time with opening books, I’ve got no doubt about that.”
“I recently did some chess puzzle coaching with Adam which I thought was very good and worth a plug - I found it an excellent way to do a deep dive into certain types of position. Adam deploys the six steps coaching method which I think works very well.”
How about endings? Gary surprises me a bit here. “I think endings are not so important if you’re spending most of your time playing evening league chess,” he says. “By the time you get down to an ending, everybody’s very short of time. I’m not sure ending proficiency is so important then. How do I win games? My ideal game is sort of positionally dynamic, where you get a grip on the position and you don’t let go of it. That’s my preferred way of winning. I’m quite resourceful defending: I’ve managed to draw or win some appalling positions in Hendon league matches!”
Gary is very much a lover of chess books, as I think many of us are. “My favourite chess book is The King, by Jan Hein Donner,” he says. “Everybody should read that book! It’s one of my favourite books, never mind chess books, actually. I am a great believer in just reading My Great Predecessors and things like that, chess books which are enjoyable, without worrying too much about whether it’s going to improve your play!”
How about analysing your own games, I ask Gary – because that’s often cited by strong players as an important improvement practice? Interestingly, Gary says he hasn’t been doing that much recently. “I know, it’s terrible,” he admits. “I should start doing that a bit more if I’m serious about it. The only thing I would say is I think there’s a bit of a tendency just to kind of run it through the computer – just ‘oh, I should have gone there,’ or ‘he should have gone there’. I’m not sure, at the end of it, what you’ve actually learned by doing that.”
“It’s interesting to know where you blundered. But I think a much better way to improve is, as I was trying to describe earlier, to reflect on, why is it that I’m losing these positions? Should I keep persisting with this opening variation which doesn’t really seem to suit me, or should I try and find something better? If you’re going to go through your games, you probably need to do it in a more fulsome way than I used to do, which was to do it quickly, often at ten o’clock at night, and I’ve just come back and I’ve lost, and you run it through Fritz or something. There’s a conventional view that a great way to improve is to study your games, but I think you actually need to spend quite a bit of time to do that.”
Maybe it helps to have some perspective from a stronger player, as well as a computer? “No doubt, absolutely,” Gary says. “The computer will tell you what it would have done, but you don’t know why!”
I ask Gary if he has played any particularly memorable games. “I’d have to think…” Gary ponders. “One was, I won the Southern Counties Under-16 Championships, and I beat Daniel King, who obviously is now a Grandmaster, but was a very strong junior at the time. I beat him and went on to win the tournament. As a junior that was quite a big game for me: I remember being quite excited as the kid down from Leeds! I wouldn’t be able to touch him now that he’s a grandmaster, but back then as a junior, it was a well-played game and I enjoyed it very much!”
Indeed it was – and thanks to Gary’s archives, here is Senior–King, SCCU Under-16 1978, for you to enjoy in all its glory!
“The other one that sticks out was in the Evening Standard Chess Congress I mentioned. They had big display boards for the [top] games, and I managed to get high enough to play on the boards, against a Yugoslav IM called Karaklajić. And I drew that game. I remember Barden coming up afterwards. That also sticks in the mind as quite an exciting game as a junior player. Barden is an amazing bloke: there was a position in his Evening Standard column, and he mentioned my draw with Karaklajić from forty years before! The guy must have some incredible sort of database, that he was able to bring up that game!”
Gary mentions that he has beaten and drawn with IMs in what he calls his “adult phase”: he mentions names like Paul Littlewood (draw), John Piggott, and James Sherwin (both won). But I find it interesting that Gary mainly cites games from his youth as the most memorable!
(Interestingly, Jimmy Sherwin is a name I remember from my youth playing for Bath Chess Club – he’s someone who played with Bobby Fischer, and his main claim to fame was being Fischer’s victim in the first game in My 60 Memorable Games! It’s a small world!)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gary has very kindly renewed his Hendon membership, as many people have – for which we are incredibly grateful. But as our London Online Chess League captain, I’ve not yet succeeded in tempting him to play on Tornelo. I’m keen to get his views on his likely path back to playing in some form.
“I do quite a lot of blitz online,” he tells me. “But I’ve never played more than a ten-minute or five-minute game. Maybe I should give it a go, but I just don’t fancy it somehow. I don’t think I would play as well as I could play over the board. The whole dynamic of sitting in my loft as I am now… And the whole cheating thing disturbs me slightly as well. It’s hard to believe why anybody would cheat in the London League you’re organising, but you know…”
I should point out that as far as I can tell, the LOCL has been pretty clean so far - after eight rounds, there’s only been a single game where I’ve had the slightest suspicion that anything untoward might have been going on (and that was never proved). But as Adam pointed out in his interview, the perception of these things can be as damaging as the reality!
“If this thing goes on for that much longer then maybe I might [play online],” Gary says, “but I’m hopeful that over-the-board chess is going to be back in April-May. Because I somehow don’t believe this can go on, that we can go on living like this for more than a year. And then hopefully there’ll be a bit of a chess explosion. There’s going to be a lot of people who felt closeted, people who’ve taken up doing chess online, because they’ve not been able to go out to restaurants and to work and what have you.”
Let’s hope he’s right! We spoke very close to the day of the release of Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, which will hopefully give the game an additional boost!
There are a few things I took away from talking to Gary. One is that, sadly, there really are no shortcuts to chess strength, especially when you’re no longer a child with an almost infinitely absorbent brain. My hopes of replicating his rise from a rating of 157 in July 2006 to 199 just three years later seem unlikely to be fulfilled, unfortunately!
That said, Gary is surely right that there are some advantages to adulthood, in terms of maturity and self-awareness, and it’s important to make good use of them in order to resist being overtaken by the next generation for as long as we can!
I’m absolutely convinced that the principal cause of the difference between my playing strength and Gary’s lies in what we did between the ages of eleven and eighteen. He played, I didn’t: it’s really that simple. It’s too late for me to go back (and I’d like to think that whatever shortcomings my youth may have had in chess terms were compensated for in other areas), but having recently become a father myself, the importance of those childhood years in laying the foundations for later success are definitely something I intend to bear in mind.
Of course I don’t want to fall into the trap of putting excessive pressure on my daughter to play chess, but I certainly do intend to introduce her to the game, and to make her aware that her youth is a unique opportunity for her to get really good at something – whether that be chess, or almost any other activity she might prefer to undertake.
More generally, I am renewed in my belief that providing an environment where young players can develop and excel is something that is of crucial importance to Hendon Chess Club, and we must continue in this, both through this pandemic and beyond. Making sure that the next generation of chess enthusiasts gets a better welcome than I did into the adult chess world is something that really motivates me.
I’d like to thank Gary very much for taking the time to talk to me. I very much hope we will see him, and all our other friends and clubmates, back at the board very soon!