Hammers – as many of you will already be aware, we sadly lost one of our own recently when long-standing player and stalwart John Woolley passed away. He will be greatly missed in the world of London Chess, having been an active player on the circuit at various clubs for many years.
Fellow Hammer and long-time friend of John’s, Carsten, offers us a fitting tribute.
John Woolley: A personal Appreciation
I no longer remember when I first met John, but it must have been late Summer or Autumn 1995 when I joined Hammersmith after a few years away from chess. We became regulars in the same teams for the next 20+ years, most of them with John as captain of the Thames Valley team.
As is thankfully still the case, we usually socialised after matches in a local hostelry, and we were also both in groups where a few of us would occasionally meet up outside the club to play some blitz and put the world to rights, so over time I think I came to know John quite well.
He was instantly recognisable – a thin man always in a jacket, a size too large, shirt whatever the weather, and an overall slightly dishevelled appearance giving a somewhat eccentric impression.
However, behind the exterior was a keen mind with a wide range of interests, and our conversations ranged well beyond chess, usually including discussions about whatever book I was reading, exhibitions John had been to (there were many!), films he’d seen (he had a love of arthouse cinema), politics (left!), football (Arsenal!) or any other topical issue of the day. We didn’t always agree – in fact often we did not – but it was always stimulating and frequently gave me a different perspective, which I appreciated. I hope I did the same for him.
Saying all of the above, we of course primarily met through chess, where John’s contribution to Hammersmith Chess Club was substantial.
As mentioned, he was Thames Valley captain, a league he felt a strong affiliation with – for many years a committee member, and a regular for other teams as well as being a very frequent club night participant. One of the reliable regulars every chess club needs.
Checking the ECF grading list I see that John’s grade when we first met was consistently in the mid-150’s, roughly equivalent to 165-170 today. Somehow I remember him as stronger than that.
In a sense, he was. John had a classical positional style and quite a strong aesthetic view on how chess should be played correctly.
This gave him a somewhat impractical attitude to competitive chess, and as a result he got swindled more often than he should have been, especially in time trouble. This, combined with a propensity for premature resignations – especially if he felt he’d messed up a good game – and draw offers, meant that his practical results were always below what they should have been purely based on his chess ability.
These traits got more pronounced in his latter years, and his results declined in line with that, but for those who only know him from this period, he was more than you saw.
I must also mention John’s absolute honesty and insistence on always doing what he felt was the right thing to do, and his expectation that others would reciprocate. This sadly on occasion was to his detriment.
At an away match at Harrow, John’s opponent was playing on in a stone-cold theoretically drawn ending, clearly trying to flag John who was down to his last couple of minutes while his opponent had plenty of time. John was murmuring under his breath, clearly unhappy, and the Harrow captain, Nev Chan, was standing next to the table also not looking happy.
Eventually John’s flag fell, and Nev immediately asked “John, why didn’t you offer a draw? I would have immediately accepted it as a section 10.2 claim, as our player clearly wasn’t trying to win by normal means”. John’s response was along the lines that it didn’t occur to him, he was too upset by his opponents unsporting behaviour.
John didn’t say so, but I think another factor may have been that his opponent was an irrelevant pawn up, but classic good manners in that situation dictates that the player with extra material should offer the draw. This is undoubtedly what John himself would have done.
Of course, to him, chess was more than a competitive game – it was a lifelong passion with an appreciation of the aesthetics and history of chess.
As I sadly don’t have one of John’s own games to show, I will invite you to play through a game he several times mentioned as one of his absolute favourites, played by his great idol Tigran Petrosian, to get a feel for his chess ideals.
Petrosian – Botvinnik, 5th game, 1963 World Championship match:
Chess has lost a great friend, rest in peace, and thanks for the memories.
John’s funeral will take place at Mortlake Crematorium on Monday 15th June, starting at 10am. Please refer to the Mortlake website for visitor information: