Interview with Luke Rutherford
by Anthony Giles
As part of New Members Night on Thursday 13th December, long time club member and Chess instructor Luke Rutherford will be helping new players better understand their games in an analysis session. To give those interested in the event an introduction to Luke and his teaching, I met up with him at the club to discuss his career and experience – the resulting interview being a brilliant insight into Chess understanding, as if I had just received a personal masterclass, but happened to record it…
AG: Luke, thank you so much for talking with me today. To start off, can you tell us how you started out playing Chess?
LR: When I was a teenager, we went on holiday to Snowdonia in North Wales, which, while beautiful, a lot of the time it was raining. While looking at this lovely scenery from the back of the car, my brother and I started playing Chess. I also had a friend who played a bit, so from then the three of us would play. My parents had a house in Bath for a while, and when we had the house to ourselves a we would sit around aged 16, drinking Heineken and smoking cigars while playing. My brother and my friend could take Chess or leave it: but I was just really hooked and thought it was a beautiful game.
I started going to Brighton Chess Club when it was based near the Pavilion. I went thinking I would teach them a thing or two but, of course, that wasn’t the case even against the average player. I met a player called Brian Blinko; he had this very attacking style, and a good eye for tactics and combinations. He wiped me off the board again and again. This is where I started seeing things like a Knight on e5 that couldn’t be dislodged, and I started to understand weak squares and realise that it wasn’t just about pieces but about invading the opponent’s space. Another motif being Rooks on the 7th rank. I learnt a lot from playing these friendly games, and then went on to enter the Brighton Junior Championship.
AG: How long had you been playing by this point?
LR: About 2 months! Along with the championship there was another event called the County Jamboree, and a player there who was very arrogant and absolutely despised me, as I was mad keen on chess but wasn’t really any good - I was talking about Bobby Fischer and Alekhine but wasn’t able to apply any of that knowledge with any competence. I think he was around 160 [ECF Rating]. Anyway, I ended up playing against him and winning, which was a great feeling.
AG: At what point did you start to get really good at Chess?
LR: I went away to Argentina and lived there for 16 months. I was a member of 2 Chess clubs, both tremendously strong, with Masters and Grandmasters. When I went my grading was around 123, and by the time I came back my grading was 173, and after a couple more years I pushed that up to 196. So, it took me about 4 and a half years.
AG: Would you say that is relatively common for a good talented player to have that trajectory quite swiftly?
LR: It might not be. I was helped by being interested in the right things. I was interested in Capablanca’s games, Bobby Fischer etc.. So, I worked on developing an understanding of space advantages, structures and piece play. I'm awed by the grandmaster attacking games on 'Attack with Larry C', but I like the technical and positional aspects of chess just as much. I think it has been observed that if you start playing slightly later in life, you end up as a good positional player, but are more vulnerable tactically. All the people in your age group are slightly better [because they started earlier] so you are always playing catch up, so you get on to the very advanced stuff, but you have missed a few rungs. It took me some time to get to a similar standard tactically as positionally. Even when I reached over 200 [ECF rating] I was still tactically erratic for a while.
AG: So now, you have several accolades to your name – including previous Brighton Club Champion, 4 x Sussex Champion and 4 x Sussex Lightning Champion. First, what is Lightning?
LR: Lightning is something that doesn’t exist anymore, it goes back to the 20’s and 30’s when clubs didn’t have lots of Chess clocks, so a way of timing the game was to have a buzzer which would sound every 10 seconds, and you had to move on the buzzer – if before or after you forfeit the game. First time I did it I was so nervous. I played David Cummings, an incredibly talented player, and my hands were shaking. He wiped me off the board!
AG: Tell us a bit about your general tournament experience and what it meant to you to win those events?
LR: I have a tremendous love for the aesthetics of the game, one that has never left me - such as, if someone wins with a beautiful attacking game. I am really awed by some of the Grandmaster games. But I also like the positional and technical side of the game just as much. So, imagine if your skills are gradually developed and matured, and then you end up applying it correctly. I find a tremendous satisfaction from doing that. You know, if I play somebody good and get a slight space advantage in the opening and manage to keep that alive. Then that advantage turns into something bigger: for example in order to free that game up they make a structural concession, their pawns are slightly weaker than mine which lasts into the endgame, and one eventually drops off. I have been told I have a sort of sadistic style. It’s not pure sadism, more a pleasure in feeling that I have done something right. If I win a competition, then there will be a few of those games I played where I will have executed my skills in a competent way.
We played against Hastings the other day. Although the team lost, I won my individual game. My opponent made quite a big positional mistake straight out of the opening, and it became a struggle for him – so it wasn’t a terribly difficult game for me, but I still got a lot of pleasure from having the skill set to see his positional mistake and exploit it.
AG: You mentioned playing against stronger players, and notably have beaten a couple of Grandmasters. What extra do you feel is needed to face those opponents and win?
LR: You must have a completely objective view of the game. Just look at the position. You can’t think about gradings or reputations. If you have a style of game that has brought you success, it doesn’t really matter who you are playing, carry on doing your own thing. GM David Howell is the strongest player I have ever beaten. He was getting low on time and was obviously very nervous. He offered me a draw; I didn’t even need to think and turned it down immediately. There is a term in Chess: ‘A draw by reputation’ that GM’s play on. He was an IM [International Master] when I played him and became a GM a few months later – I think he had 2 GM Norms at the time so was a GM level player.
AG: Now, a focus of yours is teaching. What got you in to doing that?
LR: It started ages ago, I think originally due to wanting a bit of extra money. There were a several people from Lewes Chess Club and a couple of academics from Sussex University who were keen on coaching. All the people who have come to me for coaching have all improved; one chap was around 130 [ECF Rating] and in a couple of years was up to 150. Another went from 130 to 160 in 3 years. They felt that was mainly due to having good things explained to them.
AG: Tell us more about the teaching service you provide – is it 1-to-1, groups etc?
LR: To save money, I have had people come to me 2 at a time – never more than that until recently. Now I teach at a couple of schools like Windlesham and a high school in Brighton. There is a strong emphasis on knowing the steady state aspects of Chess, understanding things about structure and space advantages; having the bishop pair; king safety, which can be neglected. There are things, Chess skills, which are unique to the modern era. If you play a Queens Gambit Declined or a Kings Indian Defence etc, there is now all kinds of information which previously wasn’t available to people 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. There are things in Chess that were good to do 100 years ago, which are still good for players to do now, and I like to show people these good practices. Get these under your belt, and the newer state-of-the-art stuff becomes relatively easy to pick up.
AG: What do you look for in a potential student?
LR: I like a person to show a high level of concentration. However, I don’t want to teach anybody who thinks they are going to memorise their way to Chess success; I have had people who are convinced that the whole Chess skill comes from memorising concrete variations from books.
If you get the basics down…say you are playing your friends, online, blitz, rapid etc: you will have your own Chess perception, your own things that you do. Then you look at what a Grandmaster does from similar positions, it will make sense to you, because you have this experience and core of understanding. People who think it is a brute force memory task, I think are a bit of a waste of time.
AG: On the 13th December next week, we have New Members Night – what can people attending expect from your workshop?
LR: I ask them to bring score sheets along, and we will discuss and make some general pointers based on their games about what can be improved. I will almost certainly start by telling people they are making too many Pawn moves! If the session is at all typical of my experience, this will come up.
There is a whole art to the interplay between Pieces and Pawns. People usually start playing with their friends in the pub, they play with their Dad, or with their best mate at a very amateurish level; and the way that they play is they move a piece which attacks one of their opponents’ pieces which they hope won’t move; and then they take it. It is only when they start playing at a club when they find the Pawns are a part of the fabric of the game. Then, they go the opposite way, and start taking loads of space with their Pawns, not understanding the coordination between Pieces and Pawns. So, the game I won in the Hastings match, it was really because the opponent mishandled his Pawns horribly early on. This is another thing you shouldn’t do – don’t advance on your weaker flank! Something very common.
AG: Finally - and you may have answered this already in what you have said already – what is the best piece of advice you can give to anyone considering learning how to play the game?
LR: (Pauses) … I probably don’t have one piece of advice, I have a couple. One would be to be humble about the extent of what you don’t know. When you look over your games you may think ‘this is where I went wrong’. It is more likely that you went wrong over a whole spread of moves, and you lost because you whole understanding was inadequate. Also, be ambitious. It’s worth your while making the effort to develop your core knowledge, as the game is so much more rewarding if you have a steady state of understanding. The aesthetics of the game emerge more strongly with better understanding, so it is worth making the effort to develop this. So, I guess humility and ambition. They are not mutually exclusive; if you have ambition you can achieve by being humble.
To find out more about coaching and tuition with Luke, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
New Members Night is on Thursday 13th December at Brighton & Hove Chess Club, 15 Third Avenue, Hove, BN3 2PB from 7 pm – 11 pm. The analysis session with Luke Rutherford runs from 7.30 pm – 9 pm. For non- club members it costs £4 for the workshop but comes with a free Mince Pie to get in the festive spirit.
Check out he event page on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/events/340809306468262/