An appreciation by Jon Nelson and friends
Sheffield Nomads chess club lost one of its founding members before Christmas. Our friend Ken passed away on 16 December and very sadly Nomads members did not become aware of his death until after Ken’s funeral had taken place on 8 January in his native Lancashire. Ken had played chess in Sheffield for nigh on 35 years and was a valued player in several Nomads league-winning sides.
What follows are some personal memories of Ken the chess player and Ken the person. I am indebted to Duncan Chambers, Stuart Crosthwaite, Jeremy Hamm, Mike Newett, Kieran O’Driscoll, Chris Shephard, Mike Smith, Brian Stephenson and all who have helped remember Ken. Particular thanks to Steve Mann for the records he maintains on the Sheffield sub-site of his excellent Yorkshire Chess History website.
Ken was born in 1962 in Blackburn and must have learned the game in his Lancashire schooldays. Mike Newett remembers playing him in the Preston League many years ago and by the time he arrived in Sheffield in the early 1980s he was a strong player – Steve records his first YCA grade in 1984 as 162 and this was in pre-grade inflation days. He won the Crabb Shield in 1985 and the Holroyd Trophy in 1986 so was already well established in Sheffield chess circles.
Ken had gained a First in English which was very rare in those days and a mark of his high intelligence. Stuart remembers him from the early 1980s, armed with books from the University library and sometimes reading as he walked along! By around 1984 Steve and Duncan recall Ken was already working on his PhD on TS Eliot but regrettably this was never to be finished. Ken and his PhD supervisor Neil Corcoran (now Emeritus Professor at Liverpool) shared a boundless enthusiasm for Bob Dylan and their conversations seemed to revolve more around the “poet” Dylan than the poet Eliot! Ken seemed to have a mental block with his PhD and sadly, as Steve notes, he never got to put “Dr” in front of his name but we know he had the intelligence to have done so.
When I joined Sheffield University in 1986 Ken shared his interest in chess and literature, recommending chess-playing authors such as Nabokov and Beckett. We were both fans of the surreal chess game in Beckett’s “Murphy” where Mr Endon refuses to engage with Murphy’s pieces, keeps moving backwards and still wins. Whilst the novel is hard work the game and annotations are still very funny even 80 years later.
My University friends and I have very fond memories of Ken at this time. He had a number of personal quirks, for example the brown wool jacket he always wore. We finally realised why when he stayed in our student house in early 1988 – there were no clothes in his wardrobe just a mountain of books! At this time, and indeed seemingly forever, he lived on a diet of cheese sandwiches and was never known to let a vegetable pass his lips It’s well know chess players can’t dance but Ken’s dancing style was completely unique: my friend Tim describes it as a circumnavigation of the room, one hand in his jacket pocket, with a kind of skipping action. Any blast of New Order would set him off in those days
In 1987 or thereabouts Ken was one of the founders of Nomads chess club, along with current member Chris. The impetus for a new club was apparently the installation of a snooker table in the Robin Hood which reduced the chess playing space. As a new club they had to start in the bottom division but they were strong and at the end of their first season won the Richardson Cup, defeating the mighty champions-elect Ecclesall 4-2 in the Final (it’s good to see so many players from both sides still playing now at a high level)
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Mike Smith remembers Ken scoring a resounding win in that Final. The team were indeed Nomads around that time, regularly moving venue, and Chris recalls Ken reaching his chess peak in those early Nomads years which shows in his highest YCA grade of 167 in 1989.
It was around 1988 that Ken and I discovered we had an ability to make money from the quiz machines which were springing up in pubs at that time. Chess players seem naturally good at quizzes due to regular use of their memory (GM Danny Gormally is a good example) and Ken with his quick natural intelligence and breadth of interests became very good. Still being young we couldn’t quite believe we could make money that easily and have a great time doing so.
Ken in fact had a brief brush with fame at this time: the BBC2 10×10 series episode “More Questions than Answers”, broadcast 10 August 1989, filmed two of our quizzing colleagues in action at the Old Harrow pub in Ridgeway (now long gone). Ken went along to the filming and to assist with answering the questions. The mists of time have clouded my memory as to whether he actually appeared on screen but we’ll count it as his 15 minutes of fame
My friends and I left Sheffield in 1989 and continued to make a very good living from quiz machines until 1996 – it was a great life and certainly better than working! I believe Ken also continued to do so here in Sheffield but was constrained to the local area by lack of transport. The quizzing bubble burst around 1996 when the arrival of the Internet meant new questions could be uploaded to the machines overnight so it became impossible to win big money. My friends and I retrained and found “normal” work but Ken didn’t – I wish he’d found something related to his beloved books, even voluntary work would have provided some needed structure to his days.
Chess-wise Ken was still ECF 165 in 1996 but thereafter his grade slumped somewhat. Around this time Brian managed to convert Ken to chess problem-solving and he subsequently competed regularly in the annual solving tournaments Brian organises. When I returned to Sheffield in 2003 it was however sad to see how Ken’s health had deteriorated and, though he’d always had issues with self-care, he clearly wasn’t looking after himself. He was diagnosed with diabetes and psoriasis but for some reason didn’t take the medication he was given to manage his conditions. It is to the great credit of those current and ex-Nomads who tried to help Ken with his health problems in his latter years.
Chris recalls a quirky memory of Ken from these times. Always very generous in taking Ken home after Nomads matches, (our venues seemed to get further and further from Ken’s house!) Chris found this was at a great risk to his car. Ken’s habit of slamming the passenger door on exiting once led to a late night visit to A&E when he forgot to remove his hand first! Thereafter Chris took no risks – he’d park up and jump out to get to the passenger door before Ken could open it. Proper chauffeur service!
My fondest recent memories of Ken were as part of our early evening quiz team at the Three Tuns each Wednesday. Brian and Ken had been doing this quiz together for nearly 20 years and could often be found deep in discussion over the latest issue of The Problemist or their shared love of Radio 4 and The Archers. Ken’s wide erudition made him a valuable quiz team member with interests including philosophy, literature, classical music and sport. He loved cricket and of course his beloved Blackburn Rovers. When the Beatles came up as a question we’d be treated to “I read the news today oh boy, Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, And though the holes were rather small, They had to count them all” Brian and Ken had named their team “Beyond Our Ken” after the famous 1960s radio comedy and when we learned of Ken’s death, Brian, Kieran, Ian Copley and myself reconvened the team and renamed it “Our Ken Beyond” in tribute and raised a glass to his memory.
So how to remember our friend Ken? My friend Lisa called him a gentle soul, not suited to these harsh and unforgiving times. The adjectives frequently mentioned are: thoughtful, polite, intelligent, erudite, kind. Of course we could be critical of aspects of his lifestyle but rest assured he wouldn’t be critical of ours, he was the most non-judgemental of people unless you were a politician and let’s face it that’s often deserved! When I dropped him off after his last Nomads match he was unwell and worried about losing some of his beloved books but even then he wouldn’t for a second blame anyone else for his lot in life.
Nomads send their condolences to Ken’s family and friends and are aiming to organise an event later in his honour. In the meantime we would like to thank Sheffield chess colleagues for their kind thoughts.
So here’s to our friend Ken via his beloved Bob Dylan:
From “Bob Dylan’s Dream” (1963):
We never thought we could ever get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
Our chances really was a million to one
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
Steve Mann’s site: http://mannchess.org.uk/
The chess game in “Murphy”: https://www.chess.com/blog/thompunton/chess-in-literature-murphy-vs-mr-endon-in-murphy-by-samuel-beckett
Sheffield Nomads site: http://sheffieldnomads.co.uk/ken-dewhurst/