Weston’s Game (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The match at the Heliopolis Club went into a fifth game, Gamal levelling with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner.

Weston left the court to towel down, take a drink and reflect on the state of play, and on the state of his body. His three month sabbatical, enforced by the medics back in London, still had two weeks to run. In the beginning, an old friend had fixed him up with a villa in Barbados where he’d been able to swim and snorkel most of the day before eating dinner, prepared by the housekeeper, on the terrace overlooking the sea. He’d drunk no alcohol, read, and retired to bed early with only a painkiller for company.

But then, he’d felt the need for some recreation, something with an edge, something  competitive. So he’d come back to part of the world where he’d spent so much of his time in the service on assignment. Somewhere, despite recent political upheavals, where he felt comfortable, connected with history, alive.

Here, in Cairo, he’d kept up a fitness regimen to maybe seventy-five per cent of his potential. Swimming, running and weights at the club, with the occasional game of tennis, and now squash with an old friend and his former squash coach. Gamal was now in his early fifties, but was still more than a match for him.

They resumed their match, watched from the balcony by some youngsters whose parents, he reflected, obviously had the money and the connections, for them to be there. Weston started the stronger, keeping his opponent to the back of the court, but then tired as Gamal’s superior powers of deception began to take their toll. It was their third match in as many weeks but now, he sensed, he was getting closer.

++++

Showered and changed, they sat by the pool drinking iced tea and watching the sun set over the city. They talked business, politics. Then family. Gamal’s family. Weston had none. At least that was his story.

‘So how’s that nephew of yours?’ he said, switching to Arabic. ‘The squash player?’

Heliopolis Club, Cairo

‘Ah, a fine boy,’ said his squash partner with pride. ‘And a fine coach too. But  now, I hear so little from him and see him even less. He left home over a year ago to work abroad. Always on the move, my friend. So many places around the world.’ He paused. ‘Do you know, the last my sister heard from him, he was coaching squash on a yacht somewhere. Can you imagine that? On a yacht!’

Weston smiled and lifted his face towards the setting sun.

When they’d finished their drinks, they picked up their bags and racquet cases and walked towards the reception area.

‘Same time next week, Jim?’ said Gamal.

‘Yes Gamal’ said Weston. ‘Why not.’

He left his playing partner and walked out into the early evening heat.

‘Taxi, Mr. Faulks?’ asked the concierge.

Weston nodded.

++++

Later, in his room at the hotel, Weston retrieved his cellphone from the safe. It displayed a solitary text message from an unidentified number. It read simply: ‘Call Global Trading. Urgent.’

He took a second ‘phone from the safe and connected it to a small electronic device taken from his racquet case. He keyed in a number from memory and listened. There was a click and then a low hum on the line as he heard the call being diverted.

At last, he heard the voice – precise, distant but unmistakable – of the person he most respected in the world.

‘Weston?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘The party’s over.’

‘But, I thought –‘

‘One of our sales force is reporting exceptional activity.’

‘Where?’

‘In the Gulf, although imports from the US are looking up as well.’

‘What about my sabbatical? It doesn’t end until –‘

‘To hell with your sabbatical. I need you on the first flight to Dubai tomorrow. Got that?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

The line went dead.

Next week’s match at the Heliopolis Club was most definitely off.

++++

The following afternoon, Weston found himself sitting in the Dubai offices of Global Trading awaiting the appearance of Dan Thorpe. A stencilled sign on the glass door read ‘Mr. D. R. Thorpe, Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’.

Weston had been ushered into Thorpe’s office, a scene of uncharacteristic disorder given the true role of its owner in the service. Now, looking from his third floor vantage point towards the Dubai skyline, he sipped at a glass of sweet tea and wondered what sales activity was about to be shared with him.

When he finally appeared, Thorpe looked much the same as ever, slightly dishevelled with dark hair greying at the temples and a stooped posture as he walked towards Weston, hand outstretched. They exchanged pleasantries before sitting opposite each other across Thorpe’s desk.

‘Sorry about the sabbatical, Jim’ said Thorpe. ‘Duty calls, eh?’

Weston gave a wry smile and relaxed into his chair.

‘A week ago, our cousins across the pond shared some intelligence with London about someone they’ve been watching. Someone they believe may be about to take possession of a, shall we say, shipment intended for subsequent distribution – and, presumably, consumption – within the US. They don’t appear to know where the shipment will be handed over but experience suggests it will be at sea. Somewhere in the Caribbean.’

‘What has that got to do with Her Majesty’s Government?’ asked Weston.

‘I’m coming to that’ continued Thorpe. ‘The person the cousins have been watching has connections to someone that London believes could turn out to be a threat to our national security. Someone who, coincidentally, arrived in Dubai just over a fortnight ago.’

He leaned forward and pushed a manila folder across the desk towards Weston.

‘The man the cousins have been watching is called Ivanov. Viktor Ivanov. Born in St. Petersburg. In his mid-50s. Bit of a track record but hardly public enemy number one. That’s his photograph on top of the heap. He pretty much lives on his yacht, the Ekaterina. Registered in St. Petersburg naturally. It’s now in US territorial waters. As far as the cousins can tell, it got there via the Baltic, the North Sea, the Med, North Africa, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, stopping at at least a dozen ports, including London. Quite a holiday cruise – assuming that he’s on holiday of course.’

Weston looked the photograph of a thick-set balding man with a black goatee as Thorpe continued.

‘Ivanov has his family with him. More precisely, wife number three and two children – one from a previous marriage. That’s a picture of his wife, Maria. Looks like an archetypal Russian good-time girl who’s seen better days but there’s something much more interesting about her.’

Weston looked at the picture. It showed a plump, bleached blonde woman in her late 40s, perhaps, wearing a flowered smock. She was standing at what looked like a ship’s rail.

‘Which is?’

‘She’s the elder sister of this man.’

Thorpe pointed out the third photograph.

‘Anatole Grigoriev. Also from Petersburg. And the person we believe now controls the opium trade routes from Northern Afghanistan through Iran and the former Soviet republics.’

Weston picked up the photograph. It showed a clean-shaven athletic-looking man with short dark hair. He was wearing a white shirt and slacks and was sitting under a parasol, holding a cocktail glass up to the camera.

‘He looks a happy soul,’ said Weston.

‘He should be,’ answered Thorpe, ‘Considering the amount of money he must be making. But there’s just one problem. Grigoriev doesn’t just have aspirations to control the global drugs trade. He wants to destroy the West. It appears to be personal, for some reason. That’s what HMG is panicking about. London believes that whatever Ivanov is up to is just a side-show. Grigoriev is the one who pulls the strings. And now he’s sitting in a penthouse suite over at the Burj Khalifa Hotel.’

Weston shrugged.

‘I suppose it makes sense,’ he commented. ‘Big Russian community to provide  cover. The cousins not exactly popular in the area for obvious reasons. Just us honest British businessmen left to see fair play.’

‘That’s where you come in,’ said Thorpe.

‘London wants you to find out what Grigoriev’s up to. Whatever happens in the cousins’ backyard isn’t our concern. But how Grigoriev responds most definitely is. And you may just have a way of reaching him. Take a look at the fourth photograph.’

Weston picked it out of the folder. It showed an attractive young woman playing tennis at what he suspected was the Burj Khalifa Sports Club. Long legs, high cheekbones and a pretty good-looking double-fisted backhand by the look of it. She was wearing a white visor with her blonde hair pulled into a pony-tail.

‘Grigoriev’s younger sister, Tatiana’ said Thorpe. ‘Rather different from his older one  I think you’ll agree?’

Weston nodded and placed the photograph back in the folder.

‘She certainly has friends here,’ continued Thorpe ‘But seems to spend a lot of her time in sports clubs. Money no object, of course. Tennis, swimming, golf, even the odd game of squash, you’ll be pleased to hear. Speaks four languages that we know of, all of which, coincidentally, you speak fluently. I’m sure you’re more than capable of engineering a casual meeting?’

Sunset over the Burj Khalifa, Dubai

When Weston had left for his hotel, Thorpe closed his office door and picked up the telephone. He pressed the scrambler and heard the familiar click and hum.

‘Thorpe?’

‘Yes, ma’am. He’s just left.’

A question.

‘No, ma’am, he doesn’t know anything about the runaway on Ivanov’s yacht. Or the private investigators.’

‘Good. Thank you, Thorpe’

He hung up.

++++

It was early evening at the Burj Khalifa Sports Club.

Weston timed his walk past the table by the pool to coincide with that of the white-coated waiter. At an opportune moment, he moved sharply out of the waiter’s path, knocking into the table and upsetting the cocktail glass standing on it. The glass hit the floor with a satisfying crash.

‘Oh, how clumsy of me!’ he exclaimed, turning to the young woman sitting there.

‘I beg your pardon, madam,’ said the waiter on cue, making to pick up the broken glass.

Weston turned towards him and spoke quickly in Arabic.

‘Please get the lady a replacement, Hassan, and charge it to my account.’

The woman spoke in accented English as Weston turned back towards her. ‘Please don’t concern yourself. It was a simple accident.’

By this time, Hassan had abandoned the glass and scuttled away on his highly lucrative errand.

‘Please. I insist. It was completely my fault, Miss – ?’ said Weston, this time in Russian.

She smiled.

‘Grigorieva. Tatiana Grigorieva.’

He extended his hand.

‘My names Faulks. Jim Faulks.’

She hesitated, took it and answered. In Russian this time.

‘You speak very good Russian for an Englishman Mr. Faulks. Are you a member here?’

‘Jim. Yes.’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘Yes. I arrived in Dubai only recently.’

‘Then I insist on helping you feel at home’ he offered. ‘Tell me. Do you play any games, Miss Grigorieva?’

She laughed.

‘Tatiana. Yes, Mr. Faulks. I do play games.’

She looked into his eyes.

‘In fact, I happen to be very good at them.’

Acknowledgement

‘Weston’s Game’ was first published as Chapter 10 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Steve Cubbins, Aubrey Waddy, Alan Thatcher, John Branston, The Squashist, Tracy Gates, Rob Dinerman, Mick Joint, Will Gens and your truly.

Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’

Thanks Ted!

A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Hiking in New England during the US’s hottest summer since 1895 may not be everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Whatever plans you might have had to explore the Great Outdoors tend to change daily, if not hourly, as the mercury rises, the forest shade beckons and a craving for the next ice-cold drink begins.

Well, that’s what it was like for me when I hiked the trails around Burlington, Vermont, where squash is still very much part of the varsity athletics scene. Not only that, one enterprising Burlington squash player had even built himself an outdoor court, with a slight gradient from front wall to back for drainage purposes.

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Things were much the same hiking the trails of Acadia, off the coast of Maine, where I came across a fellow traveller and hiker who just happened to play in Philadelphia’s squash leagues. I even experienced déjà vu on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire where a passing conversation with another hiker revealed yet another ex-college player and squash lover.

So, by the time I headed south towards Massachusetts, I already had a feeling that all I had to do to stay connected with squash was to keep travelling, hike trails and share stories with strangers. After all, I was wandering through a landscape which, over the years, has attracted travellers and hikers from all over the world. People who, just like me, wanted to go for a walk in the woods, whatever the temperature.

People drawn to the place where squash first took root in America.

The First American Squash Court

St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

The first squash court in America was built at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in 1884. Two years previously, the headmaster of St. Paul’s had seen the game played in Montreal and wrote an article about it for the school magazine. In the article he favoured squash over rackets, largely on the grounds of its lower costs. But, despite his enthusiasm, the soft ball used in the sport proved to be unsuitable for use on the unheated squash courts of New Hampshire with its cold winters. Because of this, a harder ball was developed which was more suited for use in colder temperatures and on narrower courts.

In 1924, the US hardball squash court was standardized at 18.5 feet wide with a 17 inch “tin” – the out-of-play strip of metal at the bottom of the front wall. This contrasted with the British (international) court which, four years later, was finally to be standardised at 21.5 ft. wide with a 19 inch “tin”.

But whatever progress was being made on both sides of the Atlantic in standardising squash balls and squash courts, there was one milestone in the development of squash which proved to be ‘no contest’. In 1904, twenty years after the appearance of America’s first squash court, the world’s first national squash association was formed.

It was American and was to pre-date its British equivalent by almost a quarter of a century.

Harvard Connections

From its beginnings in New Hampshire, squash began to spread further into the US through the private boys schools of New England. This initial phase of squash development is still reflected in the distribution of squash courts throughout the country, the majority still being located in private universities and athletic clubs. Today, there are over 1,000 facilities across the US which house squash courts including those at the Ivy League universities of Yale in Connecticut and Harvard in Massachusetts.

Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

Not surprisingly, I found that Harvard featured on the fixture list of the Concord Acton squash club which I visited, and played at, between walking excursions. Before my visit to the area, I’d already discovered that Concord itself boasts a remarkably rich literary history centred in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was as a lover of traveller’s tales that I took a particular interest one of the town’s most famous natives, the author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is best known for his book ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Published in 1854, the book is part personal declaration of independence, part social experiment, and part manual for self reliance in what were then physically demanding times. Thoreau was also a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the US as a protest against the current state of culture and society and, in particular, against the state of intellectualism at Harvard University.

Thoreau himself was no great traveller or walker, but others in the local area shared and outlook on life which combined intellectualism with more physical pursuits.

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

By the time transcendentalism had run its course in the early 1850s, Harvard had begun to embrace another new movement, that of intercollegiate athletics. In 1852, the first intercollegiate sporting event, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, took place on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Other sports were to follow, tennis making its debut in 1880 and, eventually, squash, arguably Harvard’s most successful sport of all, in 1922. The first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard versus Yale, followed in February 1923.

Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

Harvard squash was to produce its own successful exponents including the legendary Harry Cowles who coached its men’s team for its first 16 seasons, leading it to five national titles and mentoring no less than 13 individual champions. Cowles’ book ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’ was published in 1935 and is still available if you look in the right places.

Over the years, many other notable figures were to emerge from Harvard’s squash community including one who would come to be recognised as one of the leading all-round athletes of the first half of the 20th century.

Someone who was to blaze the trail for women’s participation in sport in America.

The First Women’s Squash Champion

Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881. The great-great-granddaughter of the 3rd President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing. In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.

In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the US women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Southern California, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.

But, despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she first learned to play squash in 1918.

Eleanora Sears in 1929

In 1928, she helped to found the US Women’s Squash Racquets Association. In the same year, at the age of 46, she not only became its first singles champion but the first women’s squash champion in history. In 1929, she convinced Harvard’s officials to open its squash courts to women. She later served as the USWSRA’s president and was captain of the US national women’s team.

Sears frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) claimed her to be his favourite dance, squash, and tennis partner. She played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, and was also famous for her frequent marathon hikes, her favourite being from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, a distance of 44 miles. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours and during her 1912 visit to California, walked the 109 miles from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte in 41 hours.

Sears, nicknamed ‘The Universal Female Athlete’ died in 1968 at the age of 86.

So the next time you travel to the US, why not visit some of the places where squash is still very much part of the local culture? New England, perhaps, or maybe further south even as far as Atlanta, Georgia where the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail ends. And while you’re there, why not take a walk in the woods?

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for its entries on squash, Eleanora Sears, Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, Harvard University and the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks also to Peggy Miller Franck for her article ‘The Mother of Title IX: Trailblazing Athlete Eleonora Sears’ in The Daily Beast.

And, finally, thanks to the Concord Acton Squash Club for allowing me to play in its Sunday morning ‘round robin’.

Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.

It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself  travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.

During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.

On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also  provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.

His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his  arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M——  in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.

On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.

On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business,  Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his  steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.

The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an  hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.

Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.

Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.

The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.

At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.

As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the  dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent  embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might  end their visit to Pemberley.

No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master  was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.

Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.

Notes

Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.

Squash and the Art of Espionage

If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6,  supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.

MI6 Headquarters in London

Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.

And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.

Including those relating to the game of squash.

Squash and Special Intelligence

If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.

Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and  ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.

John Le Carre

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5),  squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.

As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.

Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.

In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…

“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”

A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match

While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.

But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…

A Perfect Spy

Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical  espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…

“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”

In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…

“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”

Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…

“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”

But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.

Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display  idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.

A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?

The Evolution of Squash

Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.

The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.

Being Playful – Squash Skills

Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.

“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”

“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw  co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.

Bekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a  vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically  and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.

But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.

Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge

From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of  science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.

“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?

One likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”

Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”

Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.

But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”

So maybe the science of squash, or the science in squash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!

But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.

Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour

The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.

For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).

After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules about when one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.

Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.

Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”

So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection  and footwear.  Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.

And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.

I hope you’re keeping score…

Coming Next…

In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

The recent appearance of New Zealand-born screen actor Russell Crowe in the British tabloid headlines wasn’t that much of a surprise. Over the last fifteen years or so, Crowe has been a regular visitor to the UK not least to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator and Robin Hood. Shooting on both of those films, and on the forthcoming Les Miserables, took place at Pinewood Film Studios west of London and Crowe, you’d imagine, would be more than familiar with the area.

So much so that he should find it relatively easy to locate somewhere to wind down after a hard day’s filming. And, for the famously sports-loving Crowe, where better to relax than at one of the area’s best appointed leisure centres.

Except that staff at Crowe’s chosen venue ‘rudely’ refused him entry as he wasn’t a member. Feeling somewhat miffed, Crowe resorted to Twitter,  accusing the venue of having “hoity toity staff with chav accents.” Again, given Crowe’s reputation for being somewhat ‘difficult’, his attack – delivered via cyberspace – wasn’t particularly surprising either. What was surprising was that he’d travelled to the leisure centre on a combative mission.

Russell Crowe wanted to play squash.

Russell and Sport

Russell Crowe at Eight

Where Crowe first started to play squash isn’t a matter of public record. As a child, he played cricket and his cousins Martin and Jeff Crowe are both former captains of New Zealand’s ‘Black Caps’ Test side. In 2008, Crowe even captained an ‘Australian’ Team containing former Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh against an English side in a charity ‘Hollywood Ashes’ Cricket Match’.

Since childhood, Crowe has also been a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and, in 2006, he and Australian businessman Peter Holmes á Court  bought  75% of the club, leaving 25% ownership with the members. In the US, he supports the University of Michigan Wolverines American football team and, in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. Back in the UK, he follows English football teams Bristol City and Leeds United, both located well outside the London area.

But it’s in the relatively affluent English Home Counties that Crowe’s recent sports-related combat mission took place. And, based on his experience of filming and living in the area, you’d have thought  he’d be well aware of the options available to him to book a squash court.

Russell On Set

The filming of Russell Crowe’s latest film, Les Miserables, started in March 2012 in France and in a number of English locations including Winchester Cathedral Close, the naval base at Portsmouth, Oxford and Pinewood Film Studios.

Pinewood Studios were also used in 1999 to film Gladiator, the production for which Crowe received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The opening battle scenes for the film, set in the thickly-wooded forests of Germania, were shot in three weeks in Bourne Woods near Farnham in Surrey. When director Ridley Scott learned that the UK Forestry Commission were planning to cut down the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scenes to be shot there so that he could burn it down as part of the filming and save them the bother.

Russell Crowe as Maximus in 'Gladiator'

Ten years after the shoot, Scott and Crowe were back in a now rather less thickly-wooded  Bourne Woods filming scenes for Robin Hood. Following that film’s release, Crowe stormed out of a BBC radio interview at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel in London after it was suggested that his accent in the film sounded Irish.

But it wasn’t the first time in his life that Crowe had been involved in an altercation that would subsequently hit the headlines.

Russell On Court

In 1999, Crowe was involved in a ‘scuffle’ in a bar in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales in Australia which was caught on security video. Two men, including a Coffs Harbour nightclub owner, subsequently conspired to extort $200,000 from Crowe to keep the video secret. The matter went to court.

Three months earlier, Crowe was alleged to have attacked several people in a drunken rage outside a Coffs Harbour nightclub, one of whom suffered a bite to his neck and a broken thumb. The matter did not go to court.

In 2002, Crowe was alleged to have been involved in a ‘brawl’ with a businessman inside a trendy Japanese restaurant in London. The fight was broken up by a fellow actor and did not go to court.

In 2005, Crowe was arrested and charged with second-degree assault by New York City police after throwing a telephone at hotel employee who had refused to help him place a call when the system didn’t work from his room. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone). The employee, a concierge, was treated for a ‘facial laceration’.

All of which would seem to indicate that Russell has good eye-hand co-ordination occasionally, but not always, linked to an appearance in a court.

Although not necessarily a squash court.

Russell in Command

To end on a positive note, Crowe’s squash mission did come to a successful conclusion  when he gained entry to a nearby leisure centre. “A friendly spot, where regular folks hang” he later commented.

All’s well that ends well, you might say. And nobody hurt.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any images of Crowe actually playing squash. However, here he is dealing impressively with a large number of black balls flying towards him at enormous speed.

And he doesn’t even have his squash racket with him.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Daily Mirror for it’s article documenting Russell Crowe’s squash altercation. Also thanks to all at Maximum Crowe, a website dedicated to chronicling Russell’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour.

Plaudits as always to Wikipedia and to Gawker for its article “I Will Kill You with My Bare Hands and Other Fun Tales of Russell Crowe.’

Enjoy!

Snookered in Ooty: Squash in Tamil Nadu

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

Squash on Indian TV

Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

Squash at Wellington Staff College

Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.

The Mathematics of Playing Squash

Today, military strategists resort to the mathematics of decision theory in developing war games. So perhaps it’s not surprising that mathematics or, to be exact, the mathematical theory of probability, can be applied to the game of squash.

Mathematical modelling can describe the main features of the game pretty well and, at a practical level, can reveal the best strategies available to the squash player. In fact, it’s also proved useful over recent years in deciding whether the scoring rules of squash should be changed; first for professional tournaments, then for national and regional competitions and, finally, at club level.

And it’s all due to a 19th Century Russian mathematician.

Squash and the Markov Chain

Andrei Markov

Andrei Markov

Believe it or not, squash offers a simple example of a mathematical structure called a Markov chain. The theory of these non-deterministic random structures was  first developed at the end of the 19th Century by Russian mathematician Andrei Markov (1856 – 1922). According to fellow mathematician, Hungarian Lajas Takacs, Markov got the idea for his chain by studying the occurrence of vowels and consonants in the poetry of his compatriot Alexander Pushkin. But, despite its unlikely beginnings, the theory is now used in a wide range of contexts, from telecommunications to genetics and even sociological modelling.

A Markov Chain identifies a system that can occupy a ‘countably finite’ number of states, and which can make a transition from one state to another after a unit interval of time. The likelihood of a transition depends only on the system’s present state and not on its previous history.

So, let’s take a single game of squash as an example of a rule-based system. Starting at ‘love all’ (and omitting rallies which end in lets), the game moves from one state to another as points are scored. With each rally, one of two outcome states will be reached corresponding to whether the server wins or loses the rally. That outcome state becomes the ‘new’ present state for the game.

Whether a player wins a particular rally will obviously depend on a range of factors such as their skill, fitness, judgement and (not that I ever need it myself) luck. Whether a player serves or receives will also be a factor, so we can reasonably state that ‘Player A’ should win a certain fraction of rallies when serving and a certain fraction when receiving. In other words, the probability that A wins a rally when serving is pA and when receiving it’s qA. If we calculate the corresponding definitions for Player B, then (because the total probability of any rally being won is always 1) it’s evident that pB = 1 – qA and qB = 1 –pA because when A serves, B receives and vice versa. With me so far? Good.

The Probability of Serving and Receiving

The simplest possible game to imagine is one in which pA = ½ and pB = ½. In other words, both players can expect to win 50 out every 100 rallies when serving and when receiving. Clearly, in such a match, A and B are equally balanced.

But now, let’s denote the probability that A wins the current rally (and a point) when serving by the character PA and when receiving by QA. Subscript B will denote the corresponding probabilities for B, in other words PB = 1 –QA and QB = 1 – PA. The probability that A wins the current point, however, depends on whether A or B is serving.

In the example, where pA = ½ and pB = ½, the probability of A winning the point when serving, PA, is 2/3 but when receiving it is only 1/3. To understand this surprising statistic, we need to realise that the probability of winning the point is equal to the sum of each winning sequence of rallies possible in the game. In other words:

pA = ½ + ½4 + ½8 + ½16 +…

This is a geometric series which, when added up, approaches (but never quite equals) 2/3. So the probability of A losing the point must therefore be 1/3.

And how many winning sequences can there be in a game? Well, that’s what the superscripts are in the above equation. Just consider the possible sequences for the first 2 points (A win – A win, A win – B win, B win – A win or B win – B win). Four possible sequences.

Or, what about the possible sequences for the first 3 points:

A wins – A wins – A wins

A wins – A wins – B wins

A wins – B wins – A wins

A wins – B wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – B wins

That’s eight possible sequences, rising to sixteen for the first 4 points. Complicated, eh? Well, not really if you understand probability which I’m sure the gamblers amongst you do.

We can use this approach to analyse squash games between any two players of arbitrary standard; that is for any values of pA and qA and the simple expressions derived for PA and QA in terms of these. For example, a player with a pA of 2/3 and a qA of 3/5 may be expected to win two out of three service rallies and three out of five returns of serve.

But what can mathematical studies of the game of squash tell us about how to play the game? For that, we need to skip the difficult stuff and look at the results of a scientific study.

Squash Studies and Player Tactics

Scientists at the University of Glasgow and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford created a mathematical model of squash in the late 1980s. They tested the model in true scientific spirit with two of them playing an experimental series of 29 squash matches including 105 squash games over a 3 month period. Just think of two guys wearing white lab coats running around carrying squash rackets and you’ll get the picture.

As both of them had no idea whether their theory was accurate or not, there was no chance of them ‘cooking the books’. Nevertheless, the recorded frequency of the scientists’ game and match scores – and the point scores predicted by the model – were remarkably good with pA = 0.59 and qA = 0.56.

The scientists also came up with some interesting findings.

For example, a player receiving should always choose to set two. If A were to choose no set,  A would need to win the next point and, as we’ve seen above, the probability of doing this is QA. On the other hand, if A chooses set two, the winning sequences for the next two rallies are:

A wins – A wins

A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins

Three out of the four sequences will involve A regaining the serve meaning that A’s PA is more favourable to winning a point. Player A should, in fact, choose no set only if A’s pA is less than about 0.38, a situation which would place them in the company of higher  performing squash players.

Minding Your P’s and Q’s

Obviously, players (even scientists) can have off-days or may tire at different rates during a match. However, the  model reproduced the broad features of squash: the clear advantage of the first server, the setting choice, and the frequency with which a player wins a game  without their opponent scoring. It also shows that the probability of winning a point is much greater for the player who won the last point. And, perhaps more than anything else, this is the factor that gives squash its reputation of being such a highly competitive game; players need to fiercely contest every point.

So what tips does the mathematical model offer? The first is for players to estimate their p and q coefficients by assessing their performance against similar standard players. They can then choose set two or no set in a tie-breaker with some confidence.

Next, a player may attempt to vary their p and q. For example, they may choose to expend a lot of energy returning serve in the hope of increasing q even though a possible consequence may be a decrease in p. Whatever they choose, the model found that one result is almost always true: it is to the advantage of the stronger player to concentrate on service returns and, conversely, for the weaker player to concentrate on service by adopting, for example, hit and run tactics.

Last, but not least, the model allowed for a comparison of the European (hand in) and American (point a rally) scoring systems. Supposing that the most probable game scores for three pairs of players under British rules are 9-6 9-3 9-1. A calculation using the model showed that, when converted to American scoring, these translated into 15-13 15-11 15-5. Generally speaking, American rules were far kinder to the weaker squash player, in the sense that the likelihood of an ignominious defeat was small. Matches appeared to be much more closely contested although, in fact, the probability of a win for either player would not be much altered.

So the next time you play squash, be sure to insist on American scoring and try and get your opponent to assess their p and q during the match.

With any luck, they’ll lose concentration.

Squash, Mathematics and Fun

For an explanation of probability in squash scoring – including tree diagrams (!) – see Toni Beardon’s “Playing Squash” article on the excellent NRICH website. You can also test your probability knowledge by answering, or at least trying to answer, a question on the same site. Have fun!

Acknowledgements

The article “Calculating to Win” by David Alexander, Ken McClements and John Simmons originally appeared in the New Scientist on December 10th, 1988. It was subtitled, “If losing at squash dents your ego, don’t resort to feeble excuses such as tiredness or lack of concentration. Blame the mathematics of probability underlying the game.”

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 3 – End Game

Jansher Khan

Jansher Khan

In 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks on the US, one of the greatest squash players in history announced his retirement from the professional game. During his career, Jansher Khan had won 99 squash titles including eight World Open and six British Open championships.

Along with his fellow squash champion and compatriot Jahangir Khan, Jansher was a national hero of Pakistan, not least in the eyes of the President, Pervez Musharraf, himself a keen squash player. Musharraf was a four-star General in the Pakistani Army who, since 1999, had led a military government following a bloodless coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pervez Musharraf

Pervez Musharraf

But now, on the eve of the War on Terror, Jansher was unaware that his international  success was about to be celebrated in a way, and in a place, that would create another link between the game of squash and the unfolding events of global geo-politics. That celebration was to be centred on a city located 150 kilometres north of the nation’s capital, Islamabad, and 200 kilometres east of Jansher’s birthplace, Peshawar.

The city of Abbottabad.

Squash and the Generals

General Sir James Abbott

General Sir James Abbott

Abbottabad was named after the British Army General Sir James Abbott, who settled the town and district in 1848 after the annexation of the Punjab. Abbott (seen here in a portrait  dressed as an Indian noble) founded the town in 1853 and even wrote a poem about it before he returned to Britain. Due to its strategic location and pleasant climate, Abbottabad subsequently became, and still is, an important military cantonment and sanatorium, being the headquarters of a brigade in the Second Division of Pakistan’s Northern Army Corps. The Kakul district of the city also became the home of Pakistan’s Military Academy whose sports facilities still include squash courts.

It was here in 1961 that Pervez Musharraf began his military training and acquired his love of squash. In Pakistan, squash is the glue that binds the British-influenced officer class together. During his dramatic coup of October 12th 1999, Musharraf knew that he could count on his army colleagues to neutralise the incumbent prime minister and president. As he later wrote in his 2006 memoir ‘In the Line of Fire’, this was because “apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan” of the elite Triple One Brigade. In fact, Ali and Sultan were playing squash when the coup happened, and interrupted their match to lead the Triple One into Islamabad to secure the civilian rulers’ homes so that Musharraf could seize power.

But less that two years after the coup, Musharraf was to find himself, and Pakistan, at the centre of the world’s attention for a very different reason. President George W. Bush had announced the US’s War on Terror and was looking for allies.

Squash and Abbottabad

Weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf allied Pakistan with the US against the Taliban government in Afghanistan in far from congenial circumstances. Five years later, on September 24th 2006, Musharraf was to reveal exactly what had happened during a US television interview. Richard Armitage, then US Deputy Secretary of State, had called Musharraf and threatened military action if Pakistan didn’t support the war on terror. According to Musharraf, Armitage warned him to “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” Furthermore, during an interview with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show two days later, Musharraf said that US Secretary of State Colin Powell had also contacted him early in 2002 with a similar message: “You are with us or against us.”

Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak

Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak

But whatever the challenges he was facing both as President and as Head of the Army, Musharraf was still able to find time for his pet project: re-kindling the glory that was Pakistani squash. In 2003, he had become so concerned about the state of the game in Pakistan that he offered a 10 million rupee ($140,000) award for any Pakistani who achieved the World No. 1 ranking in squash. He also offered 5 million rupees to any Pakistani who won gold in the Asian Games or at the British Open. Musharraf pledged the money during the Chief of the Army Staff International Squash Tournament in Islamabad, won by two Egyptians – from the British-influenced squash-playing officer class typified by fellow  President, Army General and squash player Hosni Mubarak.

Jansher Khan Squash Complex

Jansher Khan Squash Complex

By 2004, another investment in the government-sponsored revival of Pakistani squash finally took form when the Jansher Khan Squash Complex was opened in Abbottabad. The Complex was located within jogging distance of Pakistan’s Military Academy and, by 2005, was being used to stage national and international squash trials and tournaments. But the Complex was also located within similar jogging distance of a non-descript high-security compound in the well-tended Abbottabad suburb of Bilal Town. A compound which, from early 2006 and known only to a few, was to be occupied by the most wanted man in the US War on Terror.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had taken up residency in Abbottabad.

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden

On August 18th, 2008 Pervez Musharraf resigned as President of Pakistan and went into self-imposed exile in London. Following his departure, Pakistan continued to play a vital role in the War on Terror and by early 2011 had captured or killed more than 700 members of Al Qaeda whilst losing over three thousand of its own soldiers. But despite all these efforts, Pakistan was regularly blamed by its partners for not doing enough, not least for its lack of success in finding Osama bin Laden.

The Al Qaeda leader was widely believed to be hiding in the tribal homelands of West Pakistan following his escape from Bora Bora in Afghanistan. But, in the early hours of May 2nd 2011, 24 US Navy SEAL commandoes arrived by helicopter in Abbottabad, breached the  wall of bin Laden’s compound using explosives, and entered the main building. Encounters between the SEALs and the residents took place in the building during which bin Laden was killed.

When informed of the raid, Pervez Musharraf described how, when he was in military training, he used to go running right by the spot where the world’s most wanted terrorist was found. “It surprises me it was next to the Pakistan Military Academy,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “The location is next to the place where I used to run nine miles, en route, maybe passing in front of the house. That is surprising.” he added.

In an unlikely way, Pakistani squash and the War on Terror were both back in the headlines.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Alex Beam for his 2008 Vanity Fair article on Pervez Musharraf, ‘Big Man on the Court.’

Squash and the Art of Betrayal

In 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter died following a six-year battle with cancer of the oesophagus. In its tribute to  his work, The Swedish Academy said:

“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle….”

“In his plays,” it went on, “(he) uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

And nowhere did Pinter’s art resonate more effectively with the Academy’s description of his work than in his 1978 play, Betrayal, the story of a classic love triangle, in which Emma betrays her husband, Robert, a publisher, by conducting a seven-year affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent. A play in which the game of squash serves as an icon for a whole set of male social games that evolve around its leading characters.

A game played in an enclosed space, a closed room, where drama emerges from the power struggle.

The Rules of the Game

The relationship between Emma and Jerry in Betrayal is basically a game with an elaborate system of rules set up by both sides. These are especially necessary as there is in fact a double system of relationships between them, as clandestine lovers and as, respectively, wife and best friend of Robert. There are external rules, about how to keep the affair secret, and internal rules, about what is permitted within. Even after the affair is over, Jerry corrects Emma when she asks about his son: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”

In fact, all the relations in the play assume the amusing shape of sophisticated social games and rituals, making the game logically precede the particular instance of its playing and disqualifying any originality in the behaviour of the characters.

The bitter twist is that the action moves backwards in time, beginning with the end of the affair and working remorselessly back to the first snatched kiss.

Pinter never reveals his point of view, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions, offering scenes of the affair alternating with scenes of the two male friends meeting, Robert baiting Jerry(who doesn’t think that his best friend suspects), always suggesting a game of squash, symbolic of male companionship, and Jerry always backing away from the direct competition.

In one scene Robert proposes a game at a social event with Emma present.  She urges them to play together again and suggests she meet them after for lunch. Robert quickly says no:

“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that. You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch […]. You don’t actually want a woman within a mile of the place, any of the places, really.”

Robert’s outburst reveals the nature of the series of male rituals he is describing. They are clearly meant to exclude women from what is perceived as exclusive male terrain. At the same time, the attack discloses a defensive attitude, an attempt to distance women so as to get rid of their sexually threatening presence. It’s implied that Robert and Jerry have not played squash for a long time because Jerry has engaged instead in the betrayal game, and Robert’s rather fierce speech is meant to win him back as a partner in the male game.

The same disjunction between affair-with-wife and squash-with-husband appears in Robert’s disclosure about another character, Casey: “I believe he’s having an affair with my wife. We haven’t played squash for years, Casey and me. We used to have a damn good game.”

The Seeds of Betrayal

There’s no evidence that Pinter had any particular interest in squash before writing Betrayal. In fact, he was an enthusiastic cricket player and approved of the “urban and exacting idea of cricket as a bold theatre of aggression.” But squash would certainly have been played by some of his friends and acquaintances.

One such was the British actor Robert Shaw, a close friend of Pinter who in 1962 appeared on stage as Aston in Pinter’s first major theatrical success, The Caretaker, and again in its film version two years later. As a boy he attended school in Cornwall and was an all-around athlete, competing in rugby, squash and track events.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

Unfortunately, at the age of 18, Shaw was misdiagnosed with a chronic inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease which, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to curtail his involvement in sport. The disease was supposed to affect joints in the spine and it’s a measure of Pinter’s artistic approach that Shaw’s character in The Caretaker has a speech in which he expresses his fear of breaking his spine during a stay in a mental institution.

But around the time of London premiere of The Caretaker, another event occurred which was to directly influence the writing of Betrayal. Pinter, then married to his first wife Vivien Merchant began a seven-year clandestine affair with a married BBC-TV presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell.

Closed Rooms

Throughout his career, many of Pinter’s plays were to feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force they can’t understand.

In his first play, The Room, the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space, though the actual source of menace remains a mystery. Pinter later confirmed that his visit, in the summer of 1955, to the ‘broken-down room’ of the English writer,  Quentin Crisp, in Beaufort Street, London inspired him to write The Room, “set in a snug, stuffy rather down-at-heel bedsit with a gas fire and cooking facilities.”

The First Production of The Room 1957

The First Production of The Room 1957

The first performances of The Room were staged in 1957 at the University of Bristol.

In a converted squash court .

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Hanna Scolnicov whose article ‘Pinter’s Game of Betrayal’ provided much of the source material for this post. Her article was originally published in Cycnos, Volume 14 No 1 on June 11th, 2008.