Yearly Archives: 2021

Christmas cheer for the chess returner who braved the blitz

When you haven’t played an over-the-board tournament in 15 years, it takes courage to return in a hot blitz event full of underrated juniors in the middle of a pandemic

Gregor Smith

I am not going to lie; I may have been under the influence of alcohol when I decided to enter this tournament. However, it was the Dutch courage I needed to return to the over-the-board tournament scene after a 15-year hiatus.  

I played a lot of tournament chess as a junior, but then barely moved a piece until becoming one of the 12 million worldwide who joined during the pandemic. So here I was at the “Richmond Christmas Blitz” (prize fund £3,000!) making my comeback, off a rating of 1353 given to me on the basis of a few online-rated games.

Some things were familiar – the cold gym hall filled with chess tables, the hustle and bustle when the draw sheet was put up for each round, and the usual reminders from the arbiters before each round that touch move applied. 

Other things were less familiar: a 4 min + 2 sec time control (digital clocks and increments didn’t exist last time out, and this was a bit quick for my comfort zone); random metal detector searches to see if anyone was playing with their phone in their pocket; and of course playing in facemasks, only to be removed if you wanted to offer a draw.

So how did it go? Here is a whistlestop tour of my 11 rounds. Unfortunately, unlike the phenomenal Peter Lalic, I cannot remember the exact moves in my 11 games. In fact, I can’t remember five consecutive moves in any game. It was all a bit of a blur.

Round 1: Destroyed by a titled player. Blundered a pawn in the opening as Black and didn’t get a sniff. (0/1)

Round 2: A solid victory over a (very) young Richmond Junior. Such a splendid kid – before the game he asked me if I knew the “Dragon” opening (I don’t) and then, after the game, he complimented my handwriting on the results slip (my handwriting is barely legible). His time will come. (1/2)

Round 3: A feeble attempt against another much higher-rated opponent. Rolled out my “Tiger’s Modern” opening (something I found on YouTube), but got too cramped and was slowly crushed. (1/3)

Round 4: Another loss, but a braver attempt. It was probably a drawn endgame, but I managed to blunder a pawn in time trouble and my opponent finished well. (1/4)

Round 5: Another (very) young Richmond whizz. My first big blunder of the day and my opponent had me on the ropes, but managed to flag himself on the brink of victory. I honestly felt terrible for him as he slumped back to his parents. He more than deserved to beat me. That kid will go far. (2/5)

Round 6: A nice win over a higher-rated opponent. This time I got the better of another drawn-looking endgame after winning a pawn and managing to promote my passed pawn on the flank. Swings and roundabouts. (3/6)

Rounds 7 & 8: Two crushing defeats as black for my YouTube defence against stronger opponents who didn’t put a foot wrong. I guess I don’t know the opening as well as I thought I did and continually end up with cramped positions and no plan. I decided at this point that I am never, ever playing it again. (3/8)

Round 9: A rare occurrence where my opponent played 1…e5 in response to my 1. e4 and then proceeded to accept all three pawns in my favourite Danish Gambit. These are such fun games to play; I don’t even mind losing from this position. It’s always a bumpy ride. I managed to set up a scything attack and won quickly. (4/9)

Round 10: This is where the magic happened. A first-ever victory against a 2000+ opponent, Luis Ortiz from Spain. I played the Smith-Morra Gambit (another YouTube special) and reached a comfortable position before finding a nice tactic to win a piece. I then spent the rest of the game preparing myself for the inevitable defeat. We all know that Imposter Syndrome feeling – there’s no way I can actually beat this guy, right! But I did, keeping patient and managing to fork his rooks to end up two rooks to one in the endgame before finishing it off. (5/10)

Round 11: By this stage, everyone was looking a bit weary, but thankfully my adrenaline was rushing high. So high, I even retrieved my earlier retired Tiger’s Modern from the scrapheap after my higher-rated opponent opened 1. f3!? and I didn’t know what else to do. 1… g6, 2. g3 … comes up with zero games in its database that have followed these moves, and no wonder. What followed was an extremely closed and complicated game, and my opponent strangely went into the tank for three consecutive moves and flagged himself while I still had two minutes left on the clock. Definitely weary. (6/11)

My goal for the day was to beat someone better than me, and to manage to beat three players rated higher than me made the occasion all the sweeter. But the main thing was that it was great to be back.  

Thanks to Kingston club-mate David Maycock for his constant support and words of wisdom throughout the day. He even took the time to talk me through the Philidor Defence in a five-minute break between rounds after I’d played badly against it in round 4. The great thing was I always knew where to find him between rounds – camped beside the Halogen heater!

I learned several lessons from the tournament. Eleven games is a lot of chess: don’t let early disappointments get you down. Always have a plan: too often I didn’t have one, and you don’t have time to think of many options. Even strong players make mistakes in blitz: this was a David Maycock special – always believe you have a chance of winning. My rating performance was 1605 – a considerable improvement on my starting level of 1353.

And, finally, thanks to Paul McKeown and the team at Richmond Junior Chess Club, who ran a seamless and safe tournament in memory of Rik Thomas, one of their coaches, who sadly passed away during the pandemic, and also marking the deaths of two Richmond Juniors’ parents, Suman Chatterjee and Jatinder Sian. Thanks, too, to Orleans Park School in Twickenham, where the event took place. It was particularly fitting to see so many talented juniors so enthusiastic about the game.

Holiday break

The club is now taking a break until the scheduled resumption of the season on 10 January. Meeting that schedule will of course depend on whether there is a further tightening of government restrictions on socialising in the next three weeks, and on what attitude the leagues in which Kingston plays take to the spread of the Omicron variant. Although the club is not holding any events, there is at present nothing to stop members from visiting the Willoughby Arms to play casual chess. The club will continue to monitor the Covid situation and will update the events calendar and issue further bulletins here as required. Happy Christmas and best wishes for a more buoyant New Year than we have enjoyed over the past 22 months.

John Foley, chair, Kingston Chess Club

It’s hairy, but the Orangutan can be a handy opening amid the jungle of theory

Starting with 1. b4 looks like a piece of wilful eccentricity. But over the years strong grandmasters have played it

Michael Healey

Last Monday I gave a lecture at Kingston Chess Club on three Orangutan games I’d played. For those able to attend, I tried to explain the ideas behind the opening, along with some of the issues for both players. The games chosen were all against strong players, using two bishops and ultraviolence. Here are the firework endings:

Mike Healey
Mike Healey (Kingston)

In this blog post, I hope to expand on the opening itself. 

The onomatology of the opening is more diverse than for most chess openings, the names of which are typically based on the players who – or locations which – made them famous. Originally 1. b4 was the Hunt opening, named after a Canadian doctor no one seems to know anything about. Then it became the Hunter-Englisch (Berthold Englisch was a strong Austrian player in the latter part of the 19th century). With the arrival of the hypermodern school, it became the Polish (following its adoption by Savielly Tartakower) and then the Orangutan (supposedly because “the climbing movement of the pawn to b4 and then to b5 is reminiscent of that animal”). Then its stronger, but more risk-averse, little brother “Santasiere’s Folly” (1.Nf3 d5/Nf6 2. b4) was developed, and used by many strong grandmasters (including Viktor Korchnoi and Nigel Davies). Finally 1. b4 became the Sokolsky, named after its most committed adherent, the Ukrainian-Belarusian IM-strength player Alexey Sokolsky, who used it over the board and in correspondence chess to great effect.

I will be calling 1. b4 the Orangutan. Picture an orangutan winged hussar hunting for maple syrup if that helps. [No – Ed.]

There are many big names who have dipped their toe into the Orangutan over the years (Capablanca, Alekhine, Smyslov, Spassky, Fischer), but only a few true believers – Sokolsky, Boris Katalymov and Michael Basman being the main three, each with completely different playing styles (positional, tactical, chaotic). Possibly the Orangutan does not suit the purer chess genius: Capablanca had 0/2 on both sides of b4, and Carlsen maintains a measly 2/4 on the White side. 

What are the main characteristics of the Orangutan (other than inducing laughter)?

White’s main aim is to gain queenside space, and if possible exchange wing pawns for more valuable central pawns. It is quite possible to transpose back into more standard positions, especially with Santasiere’s Folly (named after the New York-based chess writer Anthony Santasiere). 

Some Black openings (the Grünfeld, Queen’s Indian Defence) do not work that well against the Orangutan. Others (King’s Indian Defence, Dutch) transpose to fairly standard positions. However, there are many, many choices of set-ups for both sides, and a wide variety of unbalanced and unexplored positions can result. If you seek the immortality of your own opening variation, the Orangutan is an excellent place to mine.

One of the main differences between the Orangutan and the vast majority of standard openings is that it forces both sides to think for themselves from early in the game. It is quite possible for even extremely strong players to completely mishandle the opening in the first few moves. Middlegame positions are often “equal”, but slightly easier for White to play.

Early attempts at refutation (c6 and Qb6; a5; d5 and Qd6) don’t seem to work, and often rebound on Black. The most sensible way for Black to play is either to go down the main line “Open Orangutan” (1. b4 e5 2. Bb2 Bxb4) or choose a set-up they are comfortable with from other openings. 

Often the opening resembles two boxers circling, with neither army making contact. This early flexible dancing is a major characteristic of the opening. When opposing pawns do eventually meet, the results can be explosive. IM Basman has compared the Orangutan to the St George (1…. a6 2…. b5), the opening of a “counterpuncher”. This is a pertinent observation of Orangutan psychology. Black will take the initiative and the centre, but when White eventually starts hitting back it will certainly hurt. A most unusual way to play with the White bits.

What are the main problems for the Orangutanger?

White’s major headache is development, especially the queenside knight and rook. The Orangutan dark-squared bishop is either stupendous or ghastly, with little in-between. Casual White play leads to good Black positions, so White does need to know what they’re doing. Even if White plays well, the opening will seldom grant any serious advantage. Moreover, the White kingside is often attacked (not to everyone’s taste), to the extent that sometimes queenside castling becomes a valid alternative, despite our first move! And of course White will often forget the b4 pawn is undefended, especially after a couple of pints.

Why should one play the Orangutan?

(a) From a competitive perspective

Your opponent may feel insulted, become annoyed and play badly. Equally they may well underestimate an opening with a silly name they have never faced. Black will often invest time working out a system against this novel opening, which is excellent news for rapid and faster classical games. There are a tremendous number of possible Black set-ups – it is move one after all! As the opening progresses, Black is often caught between playing dynamically and strategically, aggressively and solidly, ending up with something in-between which is neither. White, if they play the opening accurately, should be able to control the pace of the game. Some players react badly to a slower game, or playing on the backfoot with little opportunity for dynamism.

From a “professional” point of view, it is another opening in your arsenal, something else for an opponent to prep against. Black might well read up on a “refutation” or “solution”, but not know that much about the resulting position. It is very easy for Black to “equalise”, but the resulting positions are often incredibly unbalanced (especially the main line), involving unique strategies and even tactical patterns, where the experienced Orangutanger should have the advantage. 

I myself use the Orangutan as a weapon against titled players – bringing them to an arena where they should know less than I do (unlike every other opening) – and where it is difficult for Black to play for a win against such insolent weaker opposition. Against weaker players, playing sensible moves, it is difficult for White to avoid draws, while there is often a risk of overpressing. However, White can keep the pieces on and create extremely tense positions, with the battle raging right across the board, which a weaker player will sometimes mishandle. 

(b) From the perspective of becoming a stronger chess player

As a chess player, the wider your appreciation of different types of position, the more universal a player you become. The Orangutan is most certainly a challenge, and one that forces you to think and to respond to your opponent from very early in the game. It teaches you to be extremely careful about development, about pawn placement, and about exchanges of both pawns and pieces which will radically alter positions. Rushing too many pawns forward will lead to disaster – the Orangutan often rewards caution, and waiting for the perfect moment to open things up. Certain patterns recur (a weak c6 square, use of an open a-file) which can win games on their own. Positions which seem to be ambling along can suddenly accelerate into dominating White positions:

As an e4 player, it is pleasant to be able to play something completely different from time to time, rather than facing the same openings again and again. I can flex strategic and chaotic neurons which a thousand Ruy Lopezes tend to dull. The Orangutan is most certainly an opportunity for creativity. Here is IM Graeme Buckley v Mike Healey: [N.B. Mike is on the receiving end – Ed.]

Whilst always trying to hack the enemy king if possible, I also get to play set-ups never reached with 1. e4, such as KID and IQP positions. Here is an example:

Mike Healey lecture at the Willoughby Arms

One valid criticism of my lecture was that the games shown demonstrated not the opening’s strength, but my own. Well, here are four impressive positions reached against extremely strong players using the Orangutan:

Healey v IM Jovanka Houska (+4 after 15 moves)

Healey v GM Chris Ward (+1.2 after 10 moves)

Healey v GM Nick Pert (+2 after 23 moves)

Healey v GM Evgeny Postny (+1.8 after 20 moves)

While we must not take Stockfish’s word for everything, the Orangutan most certainly played its part in getting to these positions; an inept hairless ape brought home 0.5/4 however!

If that was too depressing, some scalps to cheer you up (including the Polish defence with Black):

Slowplay wins v IMs x 4; draw v GM Chris Ward
Rapidplay wins v IMs x 4
Blitz wins v IMs x 4 and against GM Gawain Jones; draws v GMs Marie Sebag and Paul Velten

Not bad for an ageing 2150!

Ignore Carlsen’s whinging and leave the world championship match just as it is

Magnus says that playing for the world title has become tedious, but the matchplay system produces champions with longevity and we should resist the seductions of annual knockouts or chess ‘majors’

Stephen Moss

The world championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi was in the end a disappointment. Once Carlsen had won the glorious sixth game, the contest was over, with poor Nepo collapsing in a heap. What an anti-climax. The great Fischer-Spassky match, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate next year, has lived for half a century in the memory. Indeed, one might argue that it was too vivid – overshadowing most of what followed. The Carlsen-Nepo match will be lucky to last for a fortnight in chess aficionados’ collective imagination.

Magnus Carlsen winning the world championship in Dubai in December 2021

But the fallout has been interesting. First, the suggestion that Carlsen’s easy win and his fifth title (fourth title defence) means he is now unquestionably the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). With all due respect to Carlsen, who is of course a wonderful player, this is manifest nonsense. You simply can’t compare today’s players – in any sport – with those of the past.

In many sports – cricket, golf and tennis spring to mind – the equipment gets better, so naturally Kevin Pietersen will hit the ball harder and further than Don Bradman. That certainly doesn’t mean he is better. In other sports, football and rugby say, players are bigger, stronger, fitter. In rugby especially they are playing a game that the players who were around when I was growing up and following Wales avidly in the 1960s and 70s wouldn’t recognise. The great Gareth Edwards might struggle a bit against today’s behemoths, but then the great Gareth Edwards would also be spending six hours a day in the gym and would still be great – just in a different way.

So it is with chess players: today’s elite have computers and access to all the games played by their forebears. They stand on the shoulders of these pioneers. How on earth can you compare Carlsen with Philidor or Bourdonnais, Morphy or Steinitz, Capablanca, Alekhine or Fischer, or even with Kasparov, most of whose career was in the analogue era? You can’t: all these players were great in their own ways and their own eras.

Don’t take my word for it. I asked John Saunders, doyen of British chess journalists, what he thought, and he was emphatic that comparisons across the generations were of little value. “The GOAT concept is suspect,” he told me. “It’s not really possible to form meaningful judgments on players from different eras. The basic rules may be the same, but so much has changed – time controls, computers, communications, money, other resources. Carlsen is obviously one of the greats, with a natural gift on a par with Capablanca and Karpov. Then we have the natural attackers – Kasparov, Alekhine. And what to do with Lasker and Fischer? Botvinnik? I think those are my top eight, but I can’t choose between them.”

A top eight without Mikhail Tal – very controversial. But you get the point: all these players are great; they all brought something new and different to the chess party. Identifying a single GOAT suggests the rest are mere sheep, and that is ludicrous. Let’s celebrate them all, perhaps establishing a collective pantheon, but under no circumstances crowning a single all-time champ. That is to misunderstand the nature of sporting evolution.

More intriguing is the suggestion that this title defence might be Carlsen’s last; that he might now bow out, as Fischer did in 1975, as the undefeated champ. He gave an interview to a podcast earlier this week and shocked the chess world by saying this: “It has been clear to me for most of the year that this world championship match should be the last. It does not mean as much any more as it once did. I have not felt that the positive has outweighed the negative. I want to quit when I am at my best.”

Whether he carries through with this threat is moot, and he gave himself some wriggle room: “If someone other than Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament, it is unlikely that I will play the next world championship match.” In other words, if Firouzja is the challenger, count him in. The whole chess world wants to see a Carlsen-Firouzja match, and much now rides on the latter’s performance in the Candidates. The world championship doesn’t seem to motivate Carlsen any longer, but a match with the young pretender does. “I have to say I was really impressed with his performance in the Grand Swiss and in the European Team Championship,” he has previously said of Firouzja, “and I would say that motivated me more than anything else.”

Carlsen is clearly bored by the world championship format, and may also feel that he could be making more money from sponsorship and on social media than from competing every two years for the world title. His principal objective now seems to be to get above 2900 Elo and, by the sound of it, he would welcome an annual tournament – perhaps featuring the world’s eight top-rated players – to determine that year’s champion.

This arrangement would be very detrimental to chess. The sport benefits by having a long-term champion that the broader public can identify with. Who now remembers all the here-today, gone-tomorrow Fide champions of the 1990s and 2000s. Fide had its own champions at a time when Kasparov broke away from the governing body’s embrace. At first, champions were decided via a match, but then a bi-annual knockout tournament crowned each new champion. Your starter for 10: name the six players who held the Fide title between 1993 and 2006 (answers at end of this blog).

A separate champ every year or two just doesn’t work. They come and go so fast, the public lose all sense of who is top dog. Obviously, the present set-up gives the champion a big advantage: challengers have to slog through the Candidates and will face a champion practised in matchplay. That was in part the undoing of Nepo: Carlsen had been through this four times before. But why shouldn’t the champion have that advantage? Having climbed the mountain he deserves it, and now some other bold Alpinist has to knock him off his perch.

World chess champions (and two who were not). Image: Serkan Ergün

That there have only been 16 official and undisputed – that is the key word – world champions is a huge plus for chess. They form a kind of apostolic succession, to use chess writer Bernard Cafferty’s lovely and very apposite term. Any chess lover worth his or her salt can name the lot. In order of course. Let’s do it aloud: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Carlsen. The change of world champion really matters. It’s a seismic moment for chess, the changing of the guard, the ushering in of a new era, and matches to determine the title can be dramatic: not just Fischer-Spassky, but Capablanca-Alekhine, Botvinnik-Tal, Karpov-Korchnoi, Karpov-Kasparov. Chess loses that climactic moment at its peril.

A tournament once a year or once every two years – in effect the Candidates but determining the champion rather than the challenger – wouldn’t be the same. It would be exciting, but it would just create a champion for a brief time and then the process would start up again. Rinse and repeat. We would soon grow tired of this. In any case, the Candidates Tournament is already exciting enough: a great event in its own right with the job of producing a worthy challenger for the champion. It is the step beneath the summit, and both stages of the climb are momentous. Leave well alone: whatever Carlsen in his ennui thinks, the system is not broken.

Others have suggested a format, such as that in tennis and golf, where you have, say, four great annual tournaments and a range of satellite events, and those determine the world number one. But chess is not like tennis or golf. Those sports have four “majors” which have been hallowed by a century of tradition. In chess, events come and go as cities and individuals put up money and then lose interest. What would these four great chess events be? Would they be opens or invitationals? It would all be hopelessly messy.

These rival systems may have superficial attractions, but in reality they would produce a panoply of different champions and the public would lose all sense of where true greatness lies. To have a Lasker as world champion for 27 years or players such as Botvinnik, Kasparov and Carlsen dominating their eras gives the sport a flagbearer, a brand name with global recognition. That should not be given up lightly in exchange for the superficial excitement of a maelstrom of different talents competing for the title.

Admittedly the matchplay system means that some very great players never became world champion – Rubinstein, Bronstein, Korchnoi, Aronian, Shirov, Ivanchuk. With an annually crowned king, they would no doubt have been multiple champions. But even their failure to win the crown has its own drama and pathos. To share round the rewards to every “great” player would mean something was lost. Everyone must have prizes. Sorry, but life isn’t like that. When undisputed world champions are so few and getting a crack at the title so hard to come by, it makes winning the crown all the more significant. There is something magical about the golden 16, each handing on the title to the next. Truly an apostolic succession.

The method might seem perverse: people laugh now when they hear that the Wimbledon tennis championship did something similar in the late 19th and early 20th century – playing an entire tournament to produce a challenger to face the previous year’s champion, who would presumably come on court fresh as a daisy to beat a rival who had struggled through a number of tough rounds (this so-called challenge-round format was not abandoned until 1922). But somehow in chess it works. Please don’t change it just because the current champion is getting bored. Let’s hope Firouzja wins the next Candidates, Carlsen is galvanised by the prospect of facing him, and we get a world championship that sets the pulses racing and rivals 1972 for banner headlines. What a present that would be for chess.

FIDE champions 1993-2006: Karpov, Khalifman, Anand, Ponomariov, Kasimdzhanov, Topalov

Traditional county chess still has its supporters

Reflections on Surrey v Essex, 11 December 2021, at Cheam Parochial Hall

John Foley

Counties were organising major events long before the British Chess Federation was formed. Winning the county championship was regarded as a pinnacle of chess achievement – especially if you were from Middlesex or Lancashire, the most prodigious victors. The continuing importance of counties in the structure of English chess is illustrated by their right to vote on the ECF Council, the national decision-making body for chess. Chess clubs do not get a vote. If a club wants to raise a matter at council, its county must first be persuaded.

There has been a slow, long-term decline in the importance of county matches. The number of participating counties and the number of players per team has declined. The rise of the popular 4NCL weekend format has perhaps been a major factor. However, county chess still has its supporters who are prepared to turn out several Saturdays each year to show loyalty to their geographical locality. In a global age, many people prefer to identify with traditional ways to bind people together. Most sports tend to be organised regionally according to the county concept. In fact, I still support Middlesex for cricket because I grew up there.

Surrey has county teams at a variety of strength levels – open, under-180, under-160, under-140, under-120, under-100 (in old money) – so there is an opportunity for all club players to play in a representative match. This can be a memorable way to make one’s entry into the world of competitive chess. The matches are organised by the Southern Counties Chess Union.

There is stiff competition among the home counties around London. Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Surrey slug it out to reach the ECF finals stage, where they play victors from other chess unions. Usually, the county champions come from one of the two great conurbations around London and Manchester, but occasionally a smaller county snatches victory, especially in the grading-limited competitions. For example, Staffordshire are the reigning under-100 champions.

Surrey v Essex at Cheam Parochial Hall: Masks were obligatory and the boards were socially distanced

I played the game below on board 1 for Surrey in the under-2050 match against Essex last Saturday. I managed a victory, though the match overall was drawn 8-8. The counties are not active on social media, so you will need to consult the Results to find out whether Surrey make it to finals.

Due to Covid, the teams were reduced to 14 boards each on the day

Kingston make winning start in Surrey League promotion bid

Surrey League division 2 (Beaumont Cup) match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 6 December 2021

The first Beaumont Cup match of the season and the captain was nervous. After all, 41 years had passed since he had last led out a Kingston team to take their places at the boards. Did he still have what it takes? The loss of the toss might have suggested otherwise. On paper, given the grading disparity, Guildford 3 should have been no match for the cream of Kingston, but were they a banana skin lying in ambush? 

In the event, the Guildford players put up a creditable fight and several of the Kingston players were required to press the grind button to achieve their wins. For some time all the players doggedly stayed in their seats, the atmosphere heavy with concentration. To be honest, it was not so easy to stand up and move around in the central seats anyway, due to a lack of space between the rows, but this was probably all to the good in the case of a player such as myself, who otherwise gets distracted by the other games.

Seven-board match in the background – Kingston players on the right-hand side of each board. Intense social game being played in foreground

John Foley and Alan Scrimgour made quicker work of it than the rest of us, winning quite early. Mike Healey demonstrated yet again how at home he is defending the Ruy Lopez, and Peter Lalic skilfully tightened the screws on his opponent’s Sicilian centre. Almost from the start of his game, Julian Way was nursing a slight advantage, and it looked like his king march to the far side of the board would see his passed pawn home. However, according to Julian the king took the wrong route, and his opponent Henry Loomis’s resourcefulness, aided by a mobile knight, resulted in a draw by repetition.

My game followed a pattern which is familiar to me. As Black in an English, I was given the two bishops and complacently assumed that I could slowly let the position win itself with natural moves, whatever they might be. I underestimated Trevor Jones’s ability to keep finding strong moves in the middlegame, until the position was looking very good for him, with my king exposed and my pieces not co-ordinating well. I was fortunate to find a way to swap off most of the pieces until an opposite-coloured bishop ending was reached and a draw agreed (game below).

Finally, Will Taylor, who had been a pawn up for much of his game, finished it off in a king and pawn ending. A conclusive win by 6-1. More challenging matches may lie ahead, but it was great that we avoided a banana skin first time out. Thanks to everyone for their participation, and to Greg Heath for all his help in preparing the room for the match.

David Rowson, Kingston Beaumont Cup (Surrey League division 2) captain

Peter Lalić wins London Classic Blitz

Talented Kingston player returns to winning ways

Peter Lalić won the Blitz Tournament at the London Chess Classic on Sunday 5 December with an impressive 9.5/11, half a point ahead of Harry Grieve and two points ahead of grandmaster Keith Arkell, who was the top-rated entrant (2398). This was the third blitz in a series of four in the London Classic festival.

Peter Lalic, taken at Kingston’s recent Alexander Cup victory over Epsom

The Classic is an annual event that brings the cream of international chess masters to London. Due to Covid, the Classic was cancelled last year, and this year it has had to be scaled down. The World Chess Championship in Dubai has also diverted the chess world’s attention away from London. The associated London Chess Conference which I direct has also been postponed until a more propitious date in the New Year.

The blitz tournaments are the only London Classic events which are open to all – the other events are invitation only. The entry fee is £15 and the time control is the nowadays unusual “all moves in five minutes”. This gives rise to some fraught disputes mainly about not placing the pieces in the centre of the square, which unfortunately was also the case during this event. The games were FIDE blitz rated. The first prize of £250 was the first prize money Peter, who took a sabbatical from competitive chess before making a welcome return in the summer, has won in seven years. With a performance rating of 2337, he will not have to wait very long until his next prize.

Peter’s path to victory was as difficult as it gets because he played against all of the top contenders. In round 3, he beat FM Tarun Kanyamarala, the young prodigy from Dublin, who won the 1st EJCOA Forest Hall Invitational event in Newcastle in October with a performance rating of 2508. In round 4, he beat FM Harry Grieve, a mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge who plays for the well-funded Guildford Young Guns 4NCL team and has been tipped by leading English trainer IM Andrew Martin as a future grandmaster. In round 5, he drew with the Canadian FM Tanraj Sohal, a pan-American blitz chess champion, who won the second blitz in the London Classic series 9/11 after drawing with Peter in the final round on the previous evening. In round 6, Peter lost to Keith Arkell, the ubiquitous chess weekender. This is the second time that Keith has beaten a Kingston player recently and plans are afoot to spring an anti-Arkell trap next time. In round 8, Peter defeated IM Ezra Kirk (2308), and in round 10 swept aside the young prodigy FM Shreyas Royal. By the time he reached the last round, there were no comparable players left to pair, and Peter faced Heinrich Basson from South Africa, who had scored 2.5 points fewer. Basson did not present any obstacle.

Final results

Peter has a remarkable memory for chess and was able to reconstruct all 11 of the games he played in winning the event. He also performed well in the second of the four London Classic blitz tournaments, and here is his victory in the penultimate round against Harry Grieve.

Healey runner-up at Golders Green

In a double success for Kingston players at the weekend, Mike Healey obtained second place behind Alexander Cherniaev at the Golders Green RapidPlay on Saturday 4 December, scoring 5/6. Mike lost to perennial winner Cherniaev at their encounter in the penultimate round.

John Foley

Shanley shines, but Kingston’s newcomers lose to Epsom

Surrey League division 4 match played at the Haywain Brewers Fayre, Epsom on 29 November 2021

At time of writing, I am celebrating: my daughter is turning 2,000 days old! Milestones in days are tragically under-appreciated. It felt almost as long ago that we had our last Centenary Trophy match, but a mere 634 days – not even a million minutes – covers the period between our match in this league against Richmond on 5 March 2020 and this game at Epsom.

Just one player from that Richmond trip can claim to have played in both these matches. Jon Eckert was the experienced top board for this fixture, with five players new to the club this season below him.  Epsom had a similar mix of experience and newcomers – it’s great to see so many new players coming to over-the-board league chess.

After an hour and a quarter’s play, all the queens were still on all the boards and the fights were raging.  Soon after, Kingston’s Jake Grubb finished first, on board 6, some key chances being missed in an unfortunate defeat to the hard-working Epsom captain David Flewellen. Kingston also went down on on board 5 despite a valiant fight.

Jon Eckert won on board 1, building a nice attack and keeping his cool as his veteran opponent Michael Wickham, who has slain me in our last two matches against Epsom, found numerous difficult tactics for him to see past:  2-1 to the hosts. Yae-Chan Yang on board 3 was living precariously, and, after dodging the mines for a while, one was triggered and his position collapsed. 3-1.  Could we get a draw?

Max Mikardo-Greaves had played an excellent game on board 4 against an opponent who on paper was far stronger. His position was close to winning, but a knight tactic proved his undoing. Very unfortunate, but a good topic of discussion for the drive home. John Shanley, though, finished on a high for Kingston. His opponent sacrificed a piece for a dangerous attack early on, but, despite the Black king being forced to trek ignominiously across the board, Shanley kept the attack at bay. As it finally fizzled out, he got to a winning endgame and finished it nicely.

So we lose 4-2.  But plenty to take away and learn from this – all the newcomers insisted they enjoyed their exposure to the rigours of league chess and the traditional journey to the away venue in polar conditions (more exposure, of an icy kind). We will, as they say, take the positives and use the experience to strengthen us for our next match.  There’s less than 1,000 hours between the end of this match and the start of the next one, so the intense mental preparation starts now!

Adam Nakar, Kingston Centenary Trophy (Surrey League division 4) captain

Peter Large (Epsom) v Michael Healey (Kingston)

Alexander Cup, Epsom, 22 November 2021, board 1

The top board in a match is very often the last to finish and this game was no exception. The players were totally engrossed in this titanic struggle and were playing on the increment for most of the complex ending. The advantage changed hands several times, both players having eschewed a chance to take the drawing option. This win was Epsom’s only win in this knockout match and was very well deserved.

Peter Large (right) about to move against Mike Healey

Chess is about the pursuit of perfection. It’s not a circus

Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi are under attack for producing a string of draws in the world championship. But their critics misunderstand the essence of the game

John Foley

The drawish nature of the games in the world championship is receiving adverse comment as usual. Apart from in the chess community, there does not seem to be much public interest in the match, in spite of many newspapers designating correspondents for the event. The trouble is that people don’t like draws. If presented as a sport, the public likes to hear about winning and losing, not a streak of draws.

Magnus Carlsen has played 48 games in the world championship finals, including matches against Anand (India) 2013/14, Karjakin (Russia) 2016, Caruana (USA/Italy) 2018, and the three games of the present match. Of these, 39 were drawn or 81%. By contrast, for all games in regular over-the-board competitions, Magnus has a drawing rate of 44% (per So why are world championship games more drawish and should we worry?

The most straightforward explanation is that a title match is quite different from a normal tournament. The stakes are much higher and the nature of the contest is different. Both sides have teams of analysts who are working the silicon engine to wrench the minutest fraction of an advantage from the opening. The players are briefed on the latest developments and, provided their memories hold up, it is extremely rare for someone to completely surprise their opponent.

There is also the mutual familiarity of the players. They are well matched and have been jousting with each other since 2002, when Nepo won the under-12 world championship and Magnus was second. They know each other’s styles inside out. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and know what to prepare. Nepo has a lifetime plus score in classical games of 4-1 with 11 draws (69% draws). They have played more than 80 games together in all forms of chess.

On paper, there is not much to choose between the players. The betting gives Magnus the advantage, but, as the match progresses, the odds become more even because a single game can make all the difference. The match also gets more tense, so there is a greater chance of a mistake, which balances the odds.

The prize pot is €2 million, of which the winner gets 60%. So in effect, the money at stake is €400,000 (20% of €2 million). Both players are guaranteed €800,000, even if all games are drawn. There is no incentive for either player to go all-or-nothing on some risky opening. They are both comfortable whatever the outcome.

The real problem is that chess has been oversold as a spectator sport. We can be grateful to The Queen’s Gambit for stimulating extraordinary interest in the game. Chess can be played in stylish surroundings by smartly dressed, beautiful young people. However, chess has been raised on to a pedestal in Dubai, where it is exposed to the full glare of the world’s media. Journalists are looking for a story to tell the people back home.

We cannot blame the players for not playing in the 19th-century romantic style. Nor can we blame them for playing high-level, error-free, technical chess. These two players are the product of the computer engine age and will have exhaustively analysed virtually all the main openings. They don’t blunder.

It was different in the past. In 1972, Bobby Fischer was fighting the cold war against Boris Spassky. In 1983/84 Garry Kasparov was fighting the faltering Soviet system. The new generation is fighting a battle we have yet to describe. Maybe the underlying story is about which strand of artificial intelligence is going to dominate. The Red Queen evolutionary battle between, say, Stockfish and Alpha Zero is being played out by teams of computer scientists feeding ideas to the diligent seconds.

Some commentators have suggested speeding up the play – maybe one hour each for the game. This artificially enhanced excitement should be avoided. At least with slowplay time controls, the quality of the moves is uniformly high. There is no point in choosing a time control to generate more errors. I want games that are strategic masterpieces rather than resolved through tactical oversights; protein rather than sugar.

The players can never give the world what it wants, at least not as represented by the media. The public wants results, excitement, drama, a circus. In truth, chess is an inner game, a game of the soul and the mind, a striving towards perfection. If a player feels good about their game, their cognitive and emotional struggle, the ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism, and maintaining the will to win, then they have done their job. If they produce a game for the anthologies, then we should all regard that as a bonus. Chess is not for spectators and, truth be told, it is not even a sport.

Stop the press conferences. Let them play.

#CarlsenNepo #FIDEMatch2021