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Ron Harman (1938-2014)

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Ron Harman in September 2014.

Ron was the heart and soul of Cavendish Chess Club for many years after his Islington days. As Jimmy Adams puts it: “Ron was always a fervent club member as well as a team member and when he eventually took up residence again in London after a spell in Southport he found the traditional values and loyal membership of Cavendish in Central London to be the perfect choice for him, the more so that his former colleagues at King and King, Syd Kalinsky and Danny Wright, and Stewart Reuben from Islington were also playing there and the environment bore some similarities to Islington.”

As well as being a team captain, Ron was the much loved editor of the Cavendish club newsletter which flew off the shelves as much for the Shakespeare quotations and the potential libel actions as for the chess content.

There are many stories about Ron, in fact never a dull moment. He was equally happy swapping chess tales with a grandmaster or a palooka … “he walked with kings nor lost the common touch”. I always found him very good company though hid did follow some of his own “club rules” by resigning at regular intervals when an intolerable injustice could not be born.

Outside of chess, Ron loved crosswords and quizzes, reading and writing, conversation and debating, news and current affairs. He had little time for the pompous or the vainglorious or for those that did not pull their weight in club matters but he was always ready to help juniors or less able players and his ready wit gave pleasure to most of the club.

And though, by his own admission, he had a quick temper which resulted every now and then in some dispute or other, for the most part he was a gentleman … and a gentle man … who was always great fun to be with – provided you could take a joke!

One story I recall is of Ron’s 2nd appearance on the TV Quiz, 15 to 1. The rules did not allow a second appearance so he changed his name to Chris this time. Ron claimed that he was timed out and eliminated because he forgot to answer a question directed at Chris!

At one of the Islington club’s annual general meetings the Chairman wanted to make firm arrangements for serving tea and biscuits, and washing up afterwards, as there were no volunteers. But when he proposed an alphabetical rota, Ron spontaneously blurted out “My name is Znosko-Borovsky!”

On his way home from the Portoroz Interzonal in 1958, 15-year-old Bobby had stopped off for a lightning visit to England, during which time he arrived unannounced at the En Passant. As fate would have it, this was on a Sunday afternoon when Ron was there playing cards and he readily accepted the young grandmaster’s challenge to take on all-comers at blitz, conceding time odds of two minutes to eight and playing for a stake of five dollars a game. Fischer won 3-1 but Ron dined out for a long time as the man who had beaten Bobby Fischer!

In the 1990s Ron was living in Newington Green, bordering on Islington and only a short distance from the council flat where he had spent most of his younger days. He was about to commence a university course, I think in journalism, which would reinforce his brother Kenny’s statement that “Ron was better at words than figures,” even though he was an accountant by profession. However he then had to undergo heart bypass surgery, almost certainly the result of being a smoker all his life, and his health was further undermined when he developed diabetes. A chess friend then helped him to obtain more suitable accommodation in Finsbury, within walking distance of the Cavendish club and also, coincidentally, very close to the site of his former school where he had developed his chess strength. He continued to play for Cavendish up to 2009 after which he became too ill even to attend the club.

Ron died on 10 September 2014 from pneumonia and at his funeral a splendid biographical sketch, written by Kenny, was read out in the chapel and brought to light many personal details about Ron’s life which were almost certainly unknown to members of the congregation. For example, Kenny mentioned that Ron was psychologically deeply affected by his inability to bond with his father after he had returned from years of imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp in the Second World War.

Although Ron once said: “Chess is alright – provided you don’t take it too seriously” he himself played thousands upon thousands of match and tournament games in his lifetime, perhaps more than any other English chess amateur. Chess seemed to satisfy his need for both competition and intellectual challenge. As he expressed it: “Every move is a new problem.”

Ron was always a devoted club member and a great believer in the social benefits of chess. You could say he championed the chess club and I think many of his provocations at club meetings were really designed to stimulate involvement and debate from lethargic members and not to create animosity. He never really changed much over the years, still used an old typewriter long after computers became standard, and never stopped complaining about prizes, pairings and policies at weekend tournaments, from which, regrettably, he too often withdrew if he did not get satisfaction. However, as David Sedgwick wrote on the English Chess Forum: “He could be an arbiter’s nightmare, but I always felt that the cause of this was that few people loved chess more than he did.”

Ron is probably up above now or in the other place challenging all comers and debating at length some grievous breach of chess etiquette. Rest in Peace Ron, chess has lost one of its truest disciples.

Much of the above is taken from Jimmy Adams’ excellent tribute to Ron in Kingpin which also includes Ron’s famous victory over Fischer and many other games.