Q This sounds a bit trivial, but where do you come from?
A I was born in York in England. My parents were working there at the time. We moved to Limerick when I was two-and-a-half years old. I lived there until I was about twelve and then we moved to Belfast, where I've lived ever since. My mother's originally from Fermanagh and my father from Kildare. So it's not a trivial question!
Q How do you feel about playing for Ireland then?
A I'm very happy to play for Ireland and to play under the Irish flag. I feel as much Irish as I do British and of course I've spent most of my life living in the Republic. I'm entitled to dual citizenship in any case.
Q How old were you when you started playing chess?
A I was five. I learned the moves from my cousin and it just sort of interested me. I got a book and basically taught myself. I didn't really study the game seriously, I just played it. It was just a hobby. It's still just a hobby to me.
Q How old were you when you played your first tournament?
A I was seven. I didn't play that many tournaments back then of course. I think I played only three tournaments between the ages of seven and nine.
Q Do you have any particular memories of chess as a child?
A Not really. Well, one memory does come to mind when I think about it. There was a fellow in the club who used to help the junior players and one time he was showing us how to mate with a Rook and King versus a lone King. He set the position up on the board and I was able to work it out on my own.
Q Oh, so you were a prodigy then?
A I don't think that quite signifies a prodigy to be honest (laughs).
Q You don't remember the Douglas-Limerick league match many years ago when you fell backwards over your chair? We thought you'd choked on your biro.
A No, I don't remember falling backwards off any chair. I did have a bad biro-chewing problem though. I could go through a biro in every game. I've managed to get rid of that problem at least, partly through using a pencil to score my games.
Q When you appeared at the Irish Championships in Armagh two years ago I was surprised to see that you were still playing chess, I had heard so little about you in recent times. However you finished second in that Irish, won the board six gold medal in the Moscow Olympics later that year, and then won the Irish outright in 1995. How do you explain this sudden rise to the top of Irish chess?
A Well, I don't think it was as sudden as all that really. Before Armagh I hadn't been able to play in many tournaments down South, so people had almost forgotten I was there. Earlier in 1994 I had won some tournaments in Belfast and going into the Irish my rating was about 2100. That's not all that high but I think it shows that my result wasn't so remarkable.
In a chess sense, I can't pinpoint what happened to my game. It may just have been that something clicked in my play and I realised that I wasn't doing certain things right and I had to fix them.
Q Is it true that you weren't picked for the Glorney cup team that year? It seems like a bit of an anomaly to say the least.
A That's true. The reason is that I did very badly in the Irish under-19 championships: I only finished on a 50% score. That wasn't representative of my true playing strength at the time. I was stronger than some of the players that were actually picked. In fact there was a two or three hundred rating point difference, but the Irish under-19 championship is taken as the basis for team selection.
Q Would you regard yourself as a well-educated chess player? For example would you know the endings of Queen vs. Rook or the mate with Bishop and Knight vs. lone King?
A I've never actually tried these endings in practice. I have studied them from a book so I do know the zigzag Knight manoeuvre required for the Bishop and Knight mate and I know a few of the basic winning positions from Queen versus Rook. I expect I'd work out the details over the board. I'm lucky in that I find that if I read this sort of thing in a chess book, the most important points stick in my head after only one or two readings. It's very handy.
Q How would you describe your style of play?
A I don't know really how you'd describe my style of play. I've heard that the general consensus on my play is that it's boring, but I certainly wouldn't agree with that. I think I tend to get a lot of interesting positions. I do prefer simple position where the plans are clear-cut, but if it suits me to complicate matters I'm quite prepared to do it. It also makes a difference whether I'm White or Black. With Black I always head for more complicated positions. I defend with the Scheveningen Sicilian and the Semi-Slav which can produce very interesting positions.
If you play for example a simple QGD Orthodox against an IM, you haven't a chance of winning really unless he blunders, but in more complicated openings, there's more scope for him to go wrong. Also for me too of course.
Q You always seem to look unhappy with your position when you play.
A I can't really help that and it does have the advantage that my opponents can't tell what I'm thinking about a position since I always look like I'm losing. I do have one give-away signal though: if I make a blunder, I tend to go a bright, red colour.
Q Do you use ChessBase?
A Not a huge amount, but I do think it's a useful tool.
Q What's your opinion of the other Irish players? Is there anyone you particularly respect or admire?
A (Long pause) I respect all chess players away from the chessboard, but over the board I try to have as little respect as possible. I find it difficult to admire Irish chess players. If I want to admire a chess player then there's a player like Kasparov to admire. Of course it isn't that I think there are no good Irish players. I can't beat them all every time, so I couldn't say that. But as inspiration, as role models, no, there are no Irish players that fulfil that role for me.
Q Who will be Ireland's next IM?
A Certainly I'm hoping it will be me, but I think Mark Quinn is nearest at the moment. He's got two norms which I suppose speaks for itself. His rating is fairly close as well.
Q And after you two, who next?
A I don't know, it's up to the rest of them to start getting IM norms and getting on with it really.
Q Apart from yourself, who will win the Irish in 1996?
A Well it depends who plays of course. Mark Quinn is a very possible future Irish Champion but we'll never know until he actually plays in the tournament. I suppose Colm Daly is in with a shout even though he never seems to do well in it. He might have a good year yet.
Winning the Irish
Q Tell me a bit about winning the Irish last year.
A A lot of the games in it I won fairly comfortably. It wasn't as difficult as it could have been for me. I didn't have to play the top seed, Colm Daly. I think I have a plus two score against him but he is nevertheless a difficult player to play against. I do think there's more of chance of me losing to him than to some other Irish players.
During that tournament the greatest danger to me was from myself shooting myself in the foot. For example, I just completely threw away a game against Gerry O'Connell. If I had done that a second time I would have been in trouble
Q Didn't Stephen Brady miss a win against you?
A Yes, that was simply a blunder on my part. Apart from that most of my games were quite smooth. Some players simply crumbled against me, especially Joe Ryan and Conor O'Shaughnessy.
Q What do you do when you're not playing chess?
A I play the piano and the clarinet quite seriously. Not both at once though.
Q Anything else? Do you collect stamps?
Q Oh, I was only joking. So you do collect stamps. Just like Karpov then.
A No, I'm not Karpov.
Q So when you lose a game do you go home and flick through your stamp collection to cheer yourself up?
A No, I don't. I haven't done much stamp collecting in the past few years. I've been playing too much chess and been too busy with schoolwork. I do a bit of running and play volleyball as well.
Q What are your plans from here?
A I've no particular plans. I'm not especially ambitious but I really enjoy playing the game. I intend to keep on playing and see where I get to.
Q And where might that be?
A I don't know. I think I've fairly good chances of being an IM. My last five FIDE-rated tournaments I've been gaining 25 points every time. That progression will have to plateau out pretty soon or I'll end up being 2600.
Q The IM title must surely be only a matter of time for you, how about the GM title?
A Maybe, well I don't know. It's very, very difficult to become a Grandmaster, I mean a 2600 performance isn't easy. And it's so much more difficult being based in Ireland where the opportunity to play GM-strength players doesn't come about very often.
Q How long before you make the IM title? Will it happen in 1996?
A That would be difficult but not totally impossible. It is difficult to find closed tournaments to play in and of course I have a very restricting school timetable to contend with. It's easier to get time off school to represent Ireland, since it gives them something to put in the school magazine and so on.
Q Would you ever consider playing chess full-time?
A Not before I get properly qualified for something else. For one thing, there simply isn't enough money in chess. I plan doing a degree in mathematics with the idea of perhaps becoming an actuary. After that I might consider playing chess full-time for a year. If I do get the IM title before I finish school, I'd have to be well on the way to a GM title before I'd considering playing chess full-time.
This is all a bit too much in the future for me now. I simply enjoy playing chess and I intend to keep on playing the game. I want to see how good I can get.