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Dr John Nunn, chess Grandmaster, retains world over-65 title

Dr John Nunn (1970, Mathematics) took a step back from serious tournament chess after the turn of the millennium, but in 2022 he made a surprise return to the board, going on to win a string of golds.

Throughout 2023 John, now an Honorary Fellow of Oriel College, has been adding to these wins. As recently as November, he emerged as world over-65 champion for the second year running.

At the championship John went up against a strong 152-player field, including ten other grandmasters, and came out on top. Back in June he also won the European over-65 championship.

John said he is “very happy” about his recent success but explained that the main pleasures of competing again come from the opportunities that tournaments afford for reconnecting with other players.

“It’s rather different now to fifty years ago. When you are a young player it’s all about improving and learning more, but now it’s more about ‘managed decline,’” he added.

After learning to play chess aged four, John went on to win youth tournaments across London and the UK, including the British under-14 championship at age 12.

Aged 15, he attended Oriel College to study Mathematics, then as the youngest undergraduate to matriculate at the University of Oxford since 1520. Soon after graduating he started a DPhil, with a thesis on finite H-spaces.

Yet all the while he continued along the trajectory of a career in professional chess, gaining the title of Grandmaster 1978 — the same year that he was awarded his DPhil.

In 1981 John realised that pursuing careers in both chess and mathematics was untenable, and so decided to focus altogether on the former. He does not consider there to be as strong a relationship between the two as is often thought.

“In mathematics you are searching for the truth, but in chess you are only aiming to be better than your opponent on the day,” he said.

“You don’t mind at all if, after winning a game, a computer proves that you should really have lost.”

John scored three golds at the 1984 chess Olympiad and in 1989 entered the world’s top-ten but said that he considers the period from 1989 to 1991 to be the pinnacle of his career.

In 1989 he finished sixth in the chess World Cup, and across 1990 and 1991 he won the prestigious Wijk aan Zee chess tournament twice.

Throughout the 2000s, despite seldom competing in in over-the-board chess tournaments, John had great success at chess solving, winning the world solving championship a total of three times across the decade and also becoming an International Solving Grandmaster in 2004.

With a prolific output of monographs and other publications, he also further entrenched his reputation as one of the best chess writers and columnists of a generation.