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Obituary: John Littlewood (1931-2009)

Originally posted 2009: last Edited: Sunday April 25, 2021 6:58 PM

John Littlewood (1931-2009)John Eric Littlewood (25 May 1931 Sheffield - 16 September 2009 Skelmersdale)

English FIDE Master John Littlewood has died aged 78. He was one of the finest British chessplayers of the 1950s and 1960s who, though never titled higher than FIDE Master, was a strong enough amateur player to impress at least two legends of the game. At the 1961/62 Hastings Congress he launched a dangerous attack against Mikhail Botvinnik’s Sicilian Dragon which posed the reigning world champion considerable problems (Botvinnik thought enough of the encounter to include it in his book of best games). Some of his published analysis drew approving comments from Bobby Fischer in My Sixty Memorable Games.

In the modern era John would undoubtedly have gone on to the IM or even GM title. He played in five Hastings Premiers, with a best score of 5/9 and a best scalp of world-class grandmaster Svetozar Gligoric in 1961/62. He was also a regular in the British Championship, debuting in 1959 and playing his last only a month or so ago in Torquay, fifty years on. Of his 19 championship appearances, his best score was 7½/11 in 1962 and perhaps his closest to winning the title was in 1969 when he spoiled a very good position against Frank Parr in the last round; he would have tied for first with Penrose had he won. He played in two Olympiads for England, in 1962 and 1972, scoring 6/13 in 1962 (all decisive results) and 5/7 in 1972 (no losses).

John went on playing the game to the end of his life, putting in some excellent performances in senior competitions at world and national level, winning two British Senior Championship titles in 2006 and 2008. In his younger days he was sometimes referred to by admiring rivals as ‘Little Tal’ in honour of his attacking prowess but in recent years he had become more like ‘Little Korchnoi’ as he could still play a phenomenally strong game on occasion and demolish highly rated players. In 1979 he beat Miles and Mestel in the British Championship and in 1990 Matthew Sadler was one of his victims. In 1999 he beat both Michael Hennigan and Luke McShane in the 4NCL. In World and European senior competitions this century he twice beat legendary German grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann.

John was also a highly respected and influential coach, journalist and author. He was Director of Junior Chess for the English Chess Federation for some years. For many years he wrote a column - ‘Littlewood’s Choice’ - for ChessMoves (the English Chess Federation’s newsletter) and he only dispatched his final copy to the federation on the evening before he died.

John was ebullient, indomitable and larger than life. I last chatted to him a few weeks ago in Torquay where he looked frail but still sounded his usual humorous and cheerful self (the photo above, taken by me, shows him playing his last game in the Championship). He had a powerful speaking voice; this might have been because he was a teacher (he graduated in modern languages at Sheffield University and taught French and German) but might also have had something to do with him being one of 11 children. His younger brother Norman (who sadly died in 1989) was of comparable strength to him as a player and also represented England in an Olympiad and came close to winning the British Championship. John’s son Paul went one better than his father and uncle, winning the British Championship in 1981. Our condolences to Paul and other members of John’s family.

John Saunders, 2009

2009, 2021 John Saunders

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