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Jonathan Penrose RIP

An appreciation by Tim Harding

Jonathan Penrose in 2000The death occurred on 30 November 2021 of Jonathan Penrose, Britain's greatest player of the 20th century at the age of 88.

Memorial events are planned in COlchester, Essex, in early October 2023. A memorial website for him is in preparation and we shall link to it when it becomnes live.

Penrose was one of a small elite who have earned the grandmaster title for both over-the-board and correspondence play. This short list includes the late Alberic O'Kelly de Galway and Lothar Schmid, Ulf Anderssen, M. S. Tseitlin and a few others.

In over the board play, Penrose (born in 1933) came to prominence in 1950 when he beat former world title challenger Efim Bogoljubow in a tournament at Southsea. Over the next few years he concentrated on his academic career but then, starting in 1958, Penrose won ten British championships, breaking the record of nine long held by H. E. Atkins.

Penrose represented Britain in several events overseas biut was never a professional player. He was the first person to win a game against Mikhail Tal when the latter was world champion. At the same event (1960 Leipzig olympiad) he also beat ex-world champion Max Euwe and had the better of a draw with Bobby Fischer.

That performance was a clear GM norm but in those days there was no rating list to establish title qualifications. Penrose's FIDE grandmaster title was eventually awarded retrospectively in 1993, after he had retired from OTB play, following proofs provided by the British Chess Federation that he had satisfied the requirements in other tournaments.

In postal play, which he took up in 1975, the over-modest Penrose at first asked to be placed on lower boards on national teams until he gained more experience at this form of the game. Then he was undefeated top board on the Great Britain team which won the final of the 9th Correspondence Olympiad (1982-85). Later he placed third in the 13th CC World Championship, his last tournament. At one time he was in first place on the ICCF rating list and he only lost four games played by post out of 76, many of them against CC-IMs and CC-GMs.

Jonathan Penrose was a scion of a distinguished English family. His father Lionel Penrose was a geneticist and art collector while his mother Margaret was a medical specialist. His three siblings all became academics, the most notable being his brother Roger who won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on black holes and relativity. His other brother, Oliver, was also a strong chess player.

Leonard Barden's tribute, with a full account of Penrose's over the board career, may be read on The Guardian website.

Young Penrose

I first met Jonathan Penrose when I was a teenager competing in Oxfordshire junior tournaments in the early 1960s; his father-in-law Frank Wood, from Banbury, organised these events. Later I played Penrose in a county match; of course he won the game easily.

Many years later we met again when I interviewed him in London about his correspondence career for issue 3/2000 of my magazine Chess Mail. We had a long friendly conversation during which Penrose supplied scores of all his postal games (which can be found in the UltraCorr series of CC databases) and annotated several specially for the lengthy article.

That interview including game notes is available here in PDF format.