John Littlewood (born 1931) was a very strong British chess player. Perhaps his most famous game was the one he lost against the world champion Mikhail Botvinnik at the Hastings Chess Congress 1961/2. Littlewood launched a fearsome attack which Botvinnik was able to defend only by means of a tactical finesse. Botvinnik chose to include the game in his autobiographical Best Games 1947-1970.
John Littlewood was born in Sheffield in 1931. He was the fourth of his eleven siblings. He didn’t start playing chess until he was 13, when he was introduced to the game by a friend. This is very late compared with most chess players,
He kept on losing to his friend, so he went into the school library and checked out every single chess book. He then read a lot of chess tactics, and eventually beat his friend.
At 16 he was much better so went to join the local chess club. As he hadn’t played that many people he was surprised when he found he could beat everyone in the club. At this point he became very keen on the game. When he went to study at Sheffield University, he won three university tournaments and won the Sheffield Championship.
After university he did national service where he taught reading and writing to the soldiers. Because of this he didn’t have the opportunity to play chess for the next two years.
After his national service he began his career as a French teacher in Lincolnshire. His first big break was when he was invited to the British Chess Championship in York. He did well for his first time and was nick-named ‘the Lincolnshire poacher’, a name he protested against because he was born in Sheffield!
After his good performance in York he was invited to play at the famous Hastings tournament and played his famous game against Botvinnik, the World Champion at the time. He started with a heavy attack that would have destroyed most players, but then Botvinnik turned the game around and defeated him. Botvinnik includes this game in his autobiographical “Best Games 1947-1970”.
At Hastings he also played the American grandmaster Bisguier who he beat within 25 moves. After the match his opponent said “What do they feed this guy on? Raw meat?”
John Littlewood has since played at three Olympiads, several Anglo-Dutch matches, and European and World Seniors. He is proud to have defeated Uhlmann on two occasions. He has also managed the national blind chess team and was at one stage the Director of Junior Chess.
His brother Norman also played in four Olympiads and his son Paul is an International Master, having won the British Championship in 1981.
John Littlewood now lives in Skelmersdale in Lancashire, and has seven children and eight grandchildren.