William Hartston (Class of 1965)

After reading Mathematics at Cambridge, William Hartston (Class of 1965) has enjoyed a diverse career as a chess champion, journalist, TV presenter, author, puzzle-setter, newspaper columnist and, latterly, star of Gogglebox. William’s current work includes reviewing opera for the Daily Express (for whom he has also been writing the Beachcomber column for 25 years) and setting a quiz and creativity questions for the Mind Sports Olympiad. He has recently published books on the secret life of sloths – and the history of humour.

How would you describe what you do for a living?

I wish I knew. I’ve done so many, well, really rather bizarre things. I went from school to Cambridge and read Maths and then spent a long time not doing my PhD while I was playing too much chess. And it was the success at chess that gave me a lot of opportunities and experiences and enabled me to see the world at other people’s expense. Which was very useful.

A lot of good chess players come from families who have split when they were seven or eight – as mine did. Chess gives you a self-contained world you can hope to control. It’s a retreat from the real world.

I was the best player in Britain before we had any good players. There came a moment when the younger generation overtook my generation fairly comprehensively and I had to make a conscious decision whether to take it less seriously or to work very hard not to fall further behind – plus there was the option to make a living writing about that younger generation of players…

You’ve written a lot about chess history as well as presenting it on the BBC. Where did your own chess career fit into the history of chess in the UK?

When I was growing up, there were almost no professional players because there was no money in the game in the west and as a sport it was dominated by the Soviet Union. But then [American world chess champion] Bobby Fischer came along. With an American world champion beating the Russians, the game took off as a sport in the west – and that was when a new generation of very competitive players overtook mine. Basically, all British players in my day and the generation before were failed academics and loved the game for its problem solving and the game itself. And the new generation were winners – they wanted to win.

In the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, that chess world of the 1960s seems very glamorous and dramatic. Have you seen the show and did it get it right?

I think dramatically the series was very good but technically, it had all sorts of chess mistakes in it. They would have her play moves and saying ‘check’. No good player ever says that. It would be incredibly rude; your opponent would know. And the speed at which they were playing in a world championship game! It just missed the nature of what real chess playing was like.

How did you fit into that eccentric, high-stakes world, which peaked with the Fischer/Spassky 1972 world championship, which was headline news around the world?

That was the first thing I covered for television… I certainly felt as though I was part of that world at the time. The chess life, the chess world was a lovely experience. There were maybe 500 players around the world who you would meet in different places and sometimes years apart and just continue the same conversation… I really liked that. I revelled in it. I was never a full-time player but chess was responsible for up to half my income at times, with television and books and things.

At, maybe, the other end of the TV scale, your most recent appearances have been as one of the TV viewers on Gogglebox. How did that come about?

After the first series they felt they were missing intelligent rationality and that they should try and find some lively bright lunatics. My friend Josef – the former world Cluedo champion - was recommended to them and they liked the look of him but his wife didn’t want to be on the series. I happened to bump into him the next day. He asked me to go on with him. I said, ‘Is it total rubbish?’. He said, ‘I think so’. And I said, ‘Definitely.’

What was a show you both loved to talk about on Gogglebox?

That was the trouble – their choice of programmes was drifting away from things we felt able to comment on. They started using us less. They filmed us once watching Mastermind. One of the contestants had Bobby Fischer as his specialist subject. I was sitting there, rattling off the answers and scored one more than the contestant. But they didn’t use any of it on the show because all the others were completely blank throughout.

But they changed the method of filming it during Covid: they had to have outside broadcast trucks in the street and my road didn’t really allow for that, so we were gradually phased out.

Are you recognised mostly for Gogglebox rather than your TV chess work now?

Oh, it’s very pleasant and unusual now to be greeted by someone who remembers me from the chess programmes. I do get stopped in the street and asked if I’m the man from Gogglebox. I had a lovely one round the corner from where I live. She said, ‘It’s our favourite programme and it makes us so proud knowing you are from Cambridge.’ Of all the reasons to be proud of Cambridge!

How many books have you written now? Different sites suggest 30 or 40…

Last time I was asked I said 24… But it may be around 30 with different editions, if you count those I’m ashamed of!

Who else has taken your career path of pursuing a career based around their various enthusiasms?

I seem to be rather unusual. More people should do it and then they might be a lot happier! Writing a book about sloths was wonderful. I had been fascinated by the YouTube videos from the sloth orphanage in Costa Rica and I wanted to know more – but there wasn’t a book. I always felt the only totally legitimate reason for writing a book was because you want to read it. The same with my recent history of humour – it was a book I wanted to read but didn’t exist.

Who are your comedy favourites?

Monty Python, certainly. In the history of comedy there have been certain people and groups who have really advanced the thing – the Marx Brothers, Monty Python – and a brilliant Swedish author called Jonas Jonasson who I think may be the funniest man on earth.

I went on a course for writing TV comedy once. It was run by Danny Simon who had worked with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, all the great American writers of that generation – and he had a line: ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a joke joke’. If you watch the great sitcoms there are no jokes. It’s just totally in-character witticisms. Cheers is a very good example. I never liked Friends – they have punchlines. They have joke jokes.

I loved Big Bang theory – possibly because the head nerd Sheldon would be really nice to people if only he could understand them. There are so many things he says in the programme that I could have said in real life.

Your own writing sometimes has a certain deadpan style, as if you are rising above strange or angry behaviour because you see how ridiculous it is…

Oh I love the ridiculous – and I have incredibly slow emotions. By the time I’ve got angry it’s so long after the event, there’s no point!

Who guided you towards this career – who gave you permission?

The maths teacher at school – CG Nobbs. He had a total understanding of children and a complete grasp of his subject. He was a very strong influence on me. He was the father of David Nobbs, the comedy writer. Many years later, when one of David Nobbs’ novels came out, there was a chance to interview him and I invited him to tea at the Savoy and we spent the whole time talking about his dad! It was a wonderful meeting.

I was rubbish at English at school so to have become a writer was very strange. But at school I didn’t have anything to write about – I started as a writer, writing chess columns for the Independent. At one tournament, I started writing more about the players – such a loveable eccentric bunch – rather than the games. And I heard an editor reading it and laughing and saying, ‘This guy’s wasted on chess’. And then they started asking me to be… sort of the Eccentricity correspondent, which took me into another world of writing, writing about things that no-one else was covering.

I wrote a column called Consuming Passions, where a couple of us went out to meetings of various niche interest and hobby groups. People who were totally passionate about something you maybe shouldn’t be.

I am one of the very few chess players who has done anything else. I have escaped from this world of total obsessives. But I love obsessives. And I can become obsessed about any subject I’m writing about, even sloths.

Have you ever had a ‘proper’ job?

When I finished my Maths degree, the University put me in touch with a group of industrial psychologists – and I started working on various projects for them including one on management teams. I was looking at personality tests results and moving on to develop personality tests: ‘Would you rather go to a party or sit in a cold attic on your own?’ That sort of thing.

We were trying to build up the rules for what makes a good team, what makes a team stronger than the sum of its parts. We would bring people in to compare how they did with what their personality tests said. In the end we could predict the result of the management games.

How did you come to be at CLS?

My parents were divorced. My father wanted me to go to Westminster and so my mother sent me to City of London School. I think she knew someone whose son had gone there.

I came into town from Enfield every day. There were a couple of older boys who lived nearby, who looked after me.

Which subjects did you enjoy most? 

I’ve always been interested in about half of what I was doing. At school I liked maths and sciences and didn’t care about anything else. At Sixth Form, I was interested in Maths but not Physics and at  University it was Pure Maths but not Applied. I always had these other areas I was doing but not enthusiastically!

What extra-curricular activities did you do, apart from chess?

I played the clarinet and I was in the choir and I went swimming to avoid having to do any sport. I liked the music department. They seemed nice people.

Presumably, playing at an international level when you were still at school, you outgrew the chess club quite early on?

No, it was still one of my most enjoyable things to do. The master in charge of chess was absolutely charming to me but he had a very loud voice and loved shouting at children. He was head - or perhaps deputy head - of the junior school. I remember once chatting to him quite amicably and this small boy came in and asked him something and the teacher bawled at him at the top of his voice then turned back to me and said in his quiet voice, ‘It’s good shouting at them, it does them good’.

There was one thing I didn’t like about school, which was the compulsory cadet force. I asked the great Mr Nobbs what he thought of it being compulsory. He said there was one thing to be said in its favour – there will be times in all your lives where you are in a role that is subordinate to someone who is your intellectual inferior and that’s a good enough reason to have the cadet force – to help you to get used to that situation!

I hated everything about it. It was a complete waste of time. The militarism. There were a couple of teachers who had attained quite high rank during the war. It wasn’t for me. I thought it was awful.

Is there a common thread to all the diverse work you have done – are you always trying to say, ‘What a wonderful world’ – or is everything different?

Yes, everything is different but running through it all is a desire to help people realise there’s a lot more to a subject than they might have thought. Opera is a good example. I had always liked classical music but opera was a minor interest until I started getting free tickets and started to see what it was all about.

What personal qualities have allowed you to keep going and be allowed to do so many diverse and enjoyable things so successfully?

Extreme curiosity. Just a fascination with everything and just constantly asking myself questions.

 

Chess Photo:
Top row: L to R: 1: Unknown 2 Simon Brett, 3. Keith Butt, 4. Michael Hart
Seated: L to R: 1. Me, 2. Anthony Manning, 3. Headmaster Dr Arthur Barton, 4. Master i/c chess  Mr Hall. 5. Paul Shrank