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Brutally Frank
January/February 2013

Mark Carney's appointment as the next Governor of the Bank of England has had the unfortunate consequence of reviving the tired old jokes about Canadians—"God's frozen people" being among the least objectionable, if only because it is not based on the stereotype that Canadians are intrinsically dull.

Yet it set me to thinking: has there been a truly great Canadian chess player? The answer, sadly, seems to be no: although before he quit chess in favour of the more lucrative world of financial analysis, Grandmaster Duncan Suttles played many games of stunning strategic originality during the 1970s. Yet even Suttles did not start life a Canadian: he was born and brought up in San Francisco, and took Canadian citizenship only as an adult. But if childhood and early career make the man, then Canada can indeed claim to have produced one of the most brilliant exponents of the struggle over 64 squares: Frank Marshall. 

Marshall had the remarkable achievement of being US chess champion, without interruption, for 27 years until he relinquished the title voluntarily in 1936. Yet his father had moved the family from New York to Montreal when young Frank was eight years old. It was then and there that he picked up the game and became enraptured by it, an all-consuming love affair that lasted his whole life. Marshall came to public attention as a rare talent when he won the Montreal championship in 1894 at the age of 17. As his autobiography records, "I began to look for new worlds to conquer. Fortunately for me, my family returned to New York a couple of years later . . ."

In the end, Marshall did not succeed in conquering the whole world of chess: although he was universally feared for his slashing attacks and astonishing eye for tactical opportunities, he himself admitted that against the very greatest defensive techniques his method was unsuitable. This explained his crushing defeat at the hands of the great defender Emanuel Lasker in 1907, the one occasion on which Marshall played a match for the supreme title. Yet for his implacable ferocity Marshall was loved by chess followers in the way that the brutal boxer Jack Dempsey was by fight fans during the same era. This was a comparison Marshall himself favoured: "I suppose I am a bit like Dempsey as a fighter. He used to start slugging at the opening gong and never gave his opponent a chance to get started . . . I have always tried to knock out my opponent with a checkmate as soon as possible."

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