Tony Miles (1955 - 2001)

November 12, 2001.

It was a busy 24 hours for world news: Another plane crashed on the unfortunate town of New York. On the other side of the world a war was busy being won and many a beard was subsequently shaved in downtown Kabul.

Meanwhile a tragedy of even greater emotional impact for the British chess community was unfolding in a quiet home in Birmingham. Grandmaster Tony Miles, the first truly world-class English chess player of the 20th Century, died alone in his sleep at the age of 46. His body was discovered the next morning. Miles learnt of his diabetic condition late in life (two or three years ago I believe) and many are speculating that this was a major contributory factor in his untimely death.

I am not writing an obituary and nor do I wish to present any of his games. Still, I feel compelled to write something. The death of such a respected colleague brings out all sorts of feelings ranging from sadness to a sense of futility and tragedy. Tony was not really a close friend (I'm almost a decade younger than him and had not even played in my first novice tournament when he had already gained the Grandmaster title) but I liked him and always enjoyed his company, his never failing sense of humour and his perceptive, cutting insights.

In chess terms Tony Miles achieved a great deal: first amongst Brits in the race to the Grandmaster title, many fine tournament successes, the leading English player of the seventies and early eighties, top board for England at various Olympiads when we were second only to the Soviet Union. Basically he did just about everything in chess except scaling the heights of the World Championship.

His style was positional and yet unorthodox. He played off beat openings (famously defeating Karpov with 1a6) and could bang out fine positional wins at great speed. I remember in my own post-mortems with Miles that he did not like to get involved in complex tactical calculations when simple, solid moves were available, even though his tactical intuition was extremely developed. He could calculate very accurately of course but generally preferred not to have to.

What made him really stand out as a player was his strength of personality and will power. I remember playing a weekend tournament in Bangor almost twenty years ago. It started the day after the Lloyds bank International in London and many players were exhausted even before the start of the weekend event. Miles himself was also going down with a particularly nasty dose of the 'flu.

Despite his illness, Miles stormed off to 5/5 and needed a draw in the last round against the Spanish player (now a well known journalist), Garcia Leonxto, to win the tournament outright. Miles got the tiniest of edges in a very drawish position but would not concede the draw. His game lasted several hours after all the rest had finished and he finally won. This was not the way most players would have handled the situation and showed his extraordinary determination and will to win.

At that time Miles was the leading hero of British chess. He had lead the way for the English chess explosion and for many years was the most respected (and feared) chess player in the land. His main contribution to the game was as a player but in later years he also wrote some fine articles illustrating his sharp humour and deep understanding of the game. Fearless of controversy and often outspoken, his articles were always a most enjoyable and engaging read.

Towards the end his strength was only slightly diminished. Years of playing too much chess had taken their toll. His nervous system struggled to take the strain and he suffered occasional breakdowns. Nonetheless he was still a great player and still a very creative one too, which makes his early death all the sadder for the chess world. He leaves behind him a great collection of games but there could have been so many more. He had no children as far as I know.

One of my earliest memories of Miles is from the Phillips and Drew tournament in London in (I think) 1980. I was a teenage junior doing a demo board during the tournament and hardly dared to speak with Miles during the event, but I remember going to a reception after the event. This was a rather posh affair and had a 'master of ceremony' announcing the invited guests as they arrived at the door. It was the first (and hopefully last) time anyone had ever beamed out my name to a room full of important people.

The master of ceremonies was probably used to announcing Prime Ministers and heads of state and looked a little disgruntled at having to first allow through the door and then announce the names of one or two sub-optimally dressed chess players like myself and the then long-haired Jon Speelman. I was still standing near the door when Tony Miles arrived with his then wife, Jana (a medical doctor). They had of course turned up without their invitation and the doorman was not at all sure about letting them in. I wondered over and said 'That's Tony Miles, Britain's leading chess player. He's definitely invited'.

'Mr and Mrs Miles is it?' the doorman inquired to the married couple, trying to make sure he had the names right before announcing them out loud. Like any great chess player Miles knew when it was time to seize the initiative: 'Grandmaster and Doctor Miles actually', he said sharply as he stormed past us and into the room.

He was not always the easiest man to get on with and at times he had his disagreements with several other leading English players and organisers. This may have been what drove him to change nationality (he briefly represented the USA and Australia) some years ago. He ended up back in the UK which seems right since to my mind there was something very English about 'our' Tony. He was very much an individual, a wondering Samurai with an island mentality and his own eccentricities. At any rate, Tony Miles is a man this country will proudly wish to claim as their own.

I imagine that nearly everybody in the chess scene will miss him greatly, probably even those he did not get on with.

Anthony John Miles (1955 - 2001)


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