Monthly Archives: April 2022

Graeme Buckley v Alan Scrimgour

Cavendish 2 v Wood Green, London League division 1 east, Millman Street Community Centre, London WC1, 7 April 2022

In a recent blog, Kingston stalwart Alan Scrimgour recounted his lifelong love affair with the Sicilian Defence. In this game, played for his London League team Cavendish, he demonstrated its potency by downing IM Graeme Buckley, who was playing for perennial London League champions Wood Green.

Ealing Juniors default hands Kingston Thames Valley promotion

A walkover adds a touch of bathos to Kingston’s rise to division 1, but we’re not complaining. We’re just happy to get there and are ready for the challenges ahead

It was not the way we would have wanted to claim a place in the first division of the Thames Valley League – an email from the captain of Ealing Juniors’ B team announcing they were unable to raise a team for a match due two days hence – but we’ll take it all the same. Ealing Juniors’ default gives Kingston an automatic 6-0 victory, and that is enough to confirm us as champions of Thames Valley division 2.

Ealing Juniors B are bottom of the division and, on paper, this was going to be a mismatch, so the default may have been for the best. No matter how quickly their standard of play is improving, there is little point in juniors coming up against players rated 700 points or more higher than them. Next season we will face Ealing Juniors A in division 1, and with their battery of 2000-plus players that will be a very different proposition.

Kingston have secured promotion with two games in hand – a terrific achievement and testament to how much stronger we have become this season. Thanks to everyone who played and contributed – as setter-uppers, packer-awayers, spectators, supporters, friends, allies. The team has been very easy to manage and the spirit at the club has been tremendous this season, which bodes well for the tougher challenges ahead next year in division 1, where strong outfits such as Hammersmith, Richmond and Ealing, as well as those pesky 2200-rated juniors, await us. Thanks also to Rick and his team at the Willoughby Arms, our home venue, for putting up with us.

Stephen Moss, Kingston Thames Valley captain (thankfully non-playing, except in dire emergencies)

The season is not yet over, but Kingston are promoted with two games in hand

The case for seeking draws in chess tournaments

Being quick on the draw can be completely rational in certain circumstances and where prize money is at stake. Just do the maths

John Foley

The re-emergence of weekend tournaments has drawn attention (no pun intended) to the use of draws. Chess purists would say that you should always try to win a game. By contrast, game theorists would say that you should always try to obtain the best payoff i.e. financial outcome. This divergence of perspectives gives rise to different draw strategies. We need to set aside the emotions and make a rational case for seeking a draw as players reach the last round.  It is more rational to be realistic rather than optimistic.

Photograph: R Nial Bradshaw

Last-round strategy

Let’s say you are in the fortunate position of coming into the last round of a tournament in joint first place, you are paired against someone with the same number of points and you are both a point ahead of the chasing pack. Let’s make this more concrete and assume that the first prize is £400 and the second prize is £200, and that these are the only prizes and this is shared among those in the top places. These figures are not atypical on the English chess scene. Not a lot of money, but enough to give pause for thought for an impecunious chess player.

What is the right draw strategy?  There are three outcomes arising from the game:

You win:          sole tournament victory and £400

You draw:        joint tournament victory and £300 (being half of the total prize money)

You lose:         zero 

The game theorist says you need to consider the probability of each outcome.  As a first approximation, there is an equal chance of a win, draw or loss. The “expected value” of the game is therefore:

(⅓ x £400) + (⅓ x £300) + (⅓ x 0) = £233

It is rational to offer a draw because you are guaranteed a return greater than the expected value from playing the game out. You avoid the possibility of defeat and get a share of the pooled prize money.  You are £67 better off than leaving it to the vagaries of a contested game. To express this in percentages, you get a 29% improvement in expected prize money by agreeing to a draw early on.

Young and ambitious players may prefer to slug it out. Youth knows no fear. Or they may lack objectivity and overestimate their chess skills. More seasoned performers will assess the opposition and, unless they are clearly superior, will often seek a draw.  Tournament organisers are wise to this temptation and seek to impose measures designed to avoid early draws. Nevertheless, the economic incentive remains. 

Penultimate-round strategy

By a similar argument it can be shown that, based on a reasonable set of assumptions typical of local weekend tournaments, if the tournament leader accepts a draw in the penultimate round, their expected value of the prize money is £267, whereas if they take their chances and play out the game the expected value is slightly lower at £256. The tournament leader can thus secure a small financial margin of £11, on average, by taking a draw in the penultimate round against the nearest challenger. That’s the price of a couple of beers if you live in London.

The outcomes can be summarised in this payoff matrix. This shows that it is always advantageous to seek a draw in the last two rounds. This decision must be made prior to or at the outset of the game. Try for a win only if you have grounds for believing you can beat the odds. Once the game is underway, then this analysis is superseded and depends upon the chances in your current position. Then the conventional strategy applies: If you are ahead, then go for victory; if you are at a disadvantage, try to get a draw.

The expected value of settling for a draw in the last two rounds of a Swiss

There are more substantial benefits of taking a draw before the final game. Nimzowitsch, in an article titled “The Technique of Tournament Play”, explained how he won Carlsbad 1929 ahead of Capablanca and others due to taking short draws to save energy.  The message is to save your efforts for the last round,when you may also have another drawing possibility.

Offering a draw can also have a psychological impact. Your opponent may believe you are lacking in confidence and therefore start focusing on you rather than the board. They may lose objectivity and take a more risky line. As a result, you may outperform original expectations. It is not as if you are bluffing. You are taking a rational approach to winning prize money.

We should acknowledge the legitimate fear that taking a draw could become habitual. We all know players who have a reputation as draw specialists. They are the chess equivalent of people who hug the middle lane on the motorway – ultra-cautious and annoying.

However, what is being advocated here is highly circumscribed. Firstly, the prescription is only relevant to Swiss tournaments where there are only a few top prizes and there is a shared prize pool for people scoring the same number of points. If you are in an all-play-all, then try to win each game. Secondly, it only applies to those two or three people in the lead – if you are in the chasing pack, then try to win your game.

Maycock takes second place in Southend

Kingston star shines brightly in a tough Easter congress, showing his fighting qualities to score six out of seven

While most of us were taking it easy over the Easter weekend, the more committed among the chess fraternity were fighting it out in two tough congresses at Daventry and Southend. GMs Danny Gormally and Mark Hebden led the way at Daventry, but at Southend – in a field which, though lacking any GMs, was still very strong and had its fair share of IMs, FMs and 2200-plus players eyeing titles – Kingston’s very own David Maycock enjoyed a productive weekend, taking second place and gaining a hatful of Fide rating points.

Maycock, with a Fide rating at the start of the event of 2183, was the ninth highest-rated player in the field, but he blazed a trail with four successive wins and ended the second day of the four-day, seven-round event in the outright lead, ahead of three players on 3.5/4 – Julius Schwartz of Scotland, England’s Thomas Villiers and the Swedish FM Joakim 2000 Nilsson (who seems, bizarrely, to have added his birthdate to his name – perhaps it’s a Swedish thing).

Maycock and Villiers met in round five. The latter, with White, ambitiously sac’d a piece but David coolly negotiated the resulting complications and attendant time trouble to simplify down to an endgame in which his bishop prevailed over Villiers’ extra pawns. That made it 5/5 and David could start dreaming of winning the tournament.

The dream didn’t, however, last long. He had the misfortune to have the black pieces again in the afternoon and to face another Catalan, this time against 2000 Nilsson (all Kingston players will henceforth be adding a number to their names to suggest unbending robotic efficiency). Maycock was doing well – his opponent even offered him a draw on move 10 – but, after a series of trades, the Swedish player created a passed a-pawn, the black rook was tied down in defence, and the more mobile white rook did the rest.

Maycock’s decision not to take a draw, which he revealed immediately after the game, caused some consternation among Kingston club members, who had been eagerly following and discussing the game on What’s App. Of course he should have taken the draw, some argued. He would have retained the lead in the tournament, and a short draw would have given him some rest ahead of the seventh and final round. The laconic Maycock had a neat answer to the draw advocates: “If I start taking short draws, it might become a habit.”

David Maycock, foreground left, in action against Epsom earlier in the season playing Kevin Thurlow

Some research by another Kingston star, Peter Lalic, revealed that in 54 rated games (classical and rapidplay) this season, Maycock has had only four draws. He’s a fighter who believes in playing to the bitter end, subscribing to American GM Ben Finegold’s view that you learn and get better by playing chess rather than not playing chess. “Never offer a draw; never accept a draw,” insists Finegold. “You don’t get better at chess by drawing. You want to go to king versus king. If you sat there and didn’t play chess for a year, you wouldn’t be a better chess player. You play 15 moves and you agree to a draw instead of playing 15 more moves, you just took away chess you could have played. Never even think about a draw; think about what chess move you should make. Live like a man; fight like a dog.” Maycock is a streetfighter, and more power to him. Lalic reckons his opponents will fear his reputation for never suing for peace.

He got his reward in round seven with a fine technical win over Fide master David Haydon (see game below). That victory secured second place for Maycock, who finished on 6/7, half a point behind Nilsson 2000. A great result for Maycock 2003, who ended up with some prize money (always welcome when you’ve shelled out on accommodation over Easter), a tournament performance rating of 2412, and 37 extra Fide rating points, taking him to elo 2220. An FM title (and more!) surely beckons for this most impressive young player.

Stephen Moss

Thomas Villiers v David Maycock

Southend Easter Congress (Open), Round 5, 17 April 2022

David Maycock, whose arrival this season has been a big factor in the revival of the Kingston club, made the early running in the Southend Easter Congress, winning his first four (yes, four!) games, with a 2800+ Elo rating performance. This was his fifth game at the congress – as Black against the tactically ambitious, 2219 Fide-rated Tom Villiers – and was played on Easter Sunday as the four-day, seven-round tournament reached its critical final stages. Maycock played with great control against Villiers, who, looking to blast open Black’s kingside, lashed out with a piece sac. The Kingston star had to play more than a dozen moves on the 30-second increment, but kept his cool, traded pieces – each trade increasing his advantage – and, with a passed pawn motoring, forced White’s resignation. A terrific victory for Maycock, which took him to 5/5 and maintained his clear lead in the tournament. Not that any chickens – or indeed Easter eggs – were being counted yet.

David Maycock: One of Kingston’s brightest new talents

Win over Richmond fuels Kingston 2’s late promotion drive

Surrey League division 4 match played at the Adelaide, Teddington on 12 April 2022

Kingston 2, after a slightly up-and-down season, finally came good in the sixth and final Centenary Trophy (Surrey League division 4) match at Richmond’s excellent new venue – the Adelaide Pub in Teddington. Our team of Jon Eckert, John Shanley, Stephen Moss, club president Lju Lazarevic (in her first game for the club in 2022), Adam Nakar and Jake Grubb proved too experienced for a Richmond side studded with new members. The latter were players who had been enthused by the game during lockdown, had played online and were now making the transition to OTB chess.

Richmond proudly announced last week that they had just signed up their 50th member – their highest level of membership for many years. They are one of the clubs that have returned stronger from lockdown than they were before – there has been quite a power shift among clubs in south-west London. Richmond seem to have gained more than most from an influx of new members who got enthused by chess during the pandemic (insert obligatory reference here to the pulling power of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit). The loss of their previous venue at the start of this season seemed to have dealt them a mortal blow, but it’s actually done them a huge favour as they now have what, in chess terms, is a pretty well perfect venue. We are trying not to be too jealous of their good fortune.

The Adelaide pub in Teddington: Richmond’s excellent new venue has given the club a major boost

Richmond had surprised us at the Willoughby Arms last week, coming back against what was on paper a stronger Kingston side to draw 3-3. There was to be no such Lazarus-like revival for them this time, though, as their inexperienced team – well done to Richmond for having the courage to blood their new players by the way – were dispatched by the more battle-hardened Kingstonians.

The first win came on board six from Grubb – one of Kingston’s very own post-pandemic arrivals, here notching up his first victory for the club. He won on time – there was a huge disparity on the clock – but he was four pawns to the good and his position was commanding. I secured the next victory, winning a piece early on and patiently (for me at least) building an attack before crashing through with the heavy artillery to embarrass Black’s naked king. 

That was followed soon after by a draw on board three for Moss, finishing with king and five pawns and symmetrical structures on each side. Moss’s opponent, Michael Robinson-Chui, was one of the Richmond newbies – he even admitted to having been inspired by The Queen’s Gambit! – and this was only his seventh rated OTB game. He had lost his first four and won his next two, so this was his first ever draw in a rated game. Nor was it in any sense a fortunate draw. Robinson-Chui had greater activity in the final phase of the game, when each player had rook and bishop, and Moss had to make some unnatural-looking moves to hold the position. After struggling against this up-and-comer, Moss is now considering his team-mates’ ever more explicit suggestions that it may be time to call it a day. Like a boxer who has endured one or two fights too many, it would at least save him further punishment.

That draw on board three made it 2.5 to 0.5. Who would take Kingston over the line? Fittingly, it was Kingston talisman (and former Richmond treasurer!) Jon Eckert, playing on top board. He went a piece up early on, always held the upper hand, but was pressed hard by Levente Lencses, and was only sure of securing the point once he had forced an exchange of queens.

That was the match in the bag. Now it was about trying to win by as big a margin as possible to maximise our chance of getting promotion. That will be decided by the match between South Norwood and favourites Epsom 3 at South Norwood on 28 April. If Epsom win or draw they are promoted, but, if they lose to South Norwood, all three teams will finish on 3.5 points and board count comes into play. Thanks to our 5-1 win over Richmond, South Norwood will have to beat Epsom by 6-0 to go past us. As one of our members said on the Kingston What’s App group, if that happens we will be demanding a stewards’ inquiry.

On board two, John Shanley had been the exchange up and was pressing for a win, but he went wrong and the game came down to a knight v knight – plus some hard-to-defend pawns – endgame that was inevitably drawn. Meanwhile, on board four, the president was not having things all her own way against yet another chess-playing product of the pandemic, Ronvir Bilkhu. Lju had sac’d a piece for what she thought would either be a mating attack or a hatful of pawns. She got the pawns but not the mate, and faced a tough endgame with five widely scattered pawns pitted against bishop and two pawns.

A bishop is worth three pawns – unless they are on opposite wings. White to play in the game between Ronvir Bilkhu and Kingston president Ljubica Lazarevic. Lazarevic’s pawn posse eventually prevailed

Moss had had (and, playing with the extra pawns, lost) that precise endgame in a tournament at Bournemouth in 2012 – it features prominently in his book The Rookie. He confidently told Jake Grubb, when Grubb said he preferred Lju’s position, that the bishop would prevail. Moss was wrong and Grubb was right. Lju advanced her pawns on both wings and eventually forced Bilkhu to give up his bishop to stop her a-pawn, leaving one of the two connected pawns on the opposite side of the board to march home against a frustrated White king. An important victory for the Prez in the light of the divisional maths. Now it’s all down to South Norwood doing Kingston a favour.

This match concludes the Centenary Trophy season for us. Thanks to all the players who played across the six matches: Peter Andrews, Vladimir Bovtramovic, John Bussmann, Jon Eckert, Jake Grubb, Ljubica Lazarevic, Ian Mason, Max Mikardo-Greaves, Stephen Moss, John Shanley, Gregor Smith and Yae-Chan Yang. The team was entered to give both new players and returning stalwarts a few matches to bed back into league chess after a season and a half out, and it did its job well. The opposition was limited in the small league, but provided tough competition – as demonstrated by the fact that promotion is still in the balance and could go to any one of three teams. I hope everyone returns for 2022/23.

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

David White (Hounslow) v Vladimir Li (Kingston)

Kingston 1 v Hounslow 1, Thames Valley League division 2, Willoughby Arms, Kingston, 11 April 2022

This match against Hounslow was Vladimir’s first outing representing Kingston. We had no doubts that he would justify our faith in him. During our introductory chess sessions, he had beaten Kingston’s finest, so now it was time for some real competition.

David White v Vladimir Li (foreground) conducting a post-mortem

Li makes successful debut as Kingston whitewash Hounslow

Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 11 April 2022

This is probably a terrible hostage to fortune, or perhaps a statement of hubris that invites nemesis, but Kingston are undefeated so far in 2022: we have played 14 matches, winning 11 and drawing three. When you look at the team we fielded in this match, the reason becomes obvious: the first team is suddenly enormously strong; far too strong for the second division of the Thames Valley League.

Hounslow brought a perfectly respectable team to what we now like to call Fortress Willoughby. A few years ago, this would have been a tight match, but the arrival this season of David Maycock and Peter Lalić, two young players who can gain master titles in the years ahead, have transformed the club’s fortunes, adding two 2200-plus players to the core of 2000-strength players the club has always been fortunate to have. With Vladimir Li, a welcome returner to chess after more than a decade, making his debut here with a conservative estimated rating of 2130, backed up by the hugely experienced David Rowson, Peter Andrews and Alan Scrimgour, this was a tremendously strong team and one we were proud to field.

Hounslow, to their credit, fought hard, despite being outrated by almost 300 points a board. Hounslow’s captain, David White, essayed a King’s Gambit against Li and gave the debutant some serious thinking to do. Indeed Li, who accepted the gambit and played the Schallop Defence, thought for half an hour on his sixth move – almost half the time he had for the entire game. His captain was at one point worried that he had misunderstood the time control. But after a middle-game tussle with the experienced White, it resolved into an endgame where Li had an active knight pitted against a hemmed-in bishop, and a passed pawn eventually settled the game in Black’s favour.

The post-mortems by Peter Lalić (standing) and Vladimir Li (foreground right)

The veteran Leon Fincham gave Peter Lalić a very tough game on board two, with the latter prevailing only as mutual time trouble took its toll. David Maycock, unfurling the Paulsen/Kan variation of the Sicilian Defence, played superbly to win with Black against his highly rated rival on board one.

On board five, Peter Andrews created an early queenside pawn bind and, in an effort to break the logjam, his opponent sac’d a bishop on move 35 to break up the position. The piece advantage looked decisive, but his opponent continued to blitz out moves and Andrews came under considerable time pressure – he reckons people are playing faster this season after two years spent playing almost exclusively online. With Andrews’ king in mid-board and his opponent seeking a perpetual, it looked at one point as if the game might end in a draw, especially with the increment threatening, but in the end the bishop answered Andrews’ prayers by blocking the white queen, the checks ran out and he was able to bank a win. (Apologies for that absurdly pun-filled sentence!)

Meanwhile, on board four, David Rowson had marooned his opponent’s pieces on the queenside in an Advanced French Defence and was launching a kingside attack that resulted in a gain of material decisive enough to force resignation. To complete the clean sweep, Alan Scrimgour – fresh from downing IM Graeme Buckley in a London League match – took control of his board-six game and created a passed h pawn whose imminent queendom forced another resignation.

The result, perhaps predictable given the rating differential, was 6-0, but none of the games finished quickly and the Lalić and Li games were especially hard fought. Kingston need to win one of their final three matches to be guaranteed of promotion to the first division of the Thames Valley League. If we do get there and can keep in place this wonderful team, backed up by a group of other very strong and experienced players, we have absolutely nothing to fear. Kingston have traditionally been a “yo-yo” club, bouncing between divisions one and two in both the Thames Valley and Surrey leagues. Could it be that for the first time in 20 years we can actually cement a spot in the top flight and even challenge for the title? More hubris!

Stephen Moss, Kingston Thames Valley captain

My Sicilian odyssey

The Sicilian Defence can go horribly wrong, but this lifelong adherent argues that its variations offer rich rewards if you find the lines that suit you and learn from the occasional disaster

Alan Scrimgour

Part 1: Alarms and excursions

“Alarms and excursions” is an archaic expression meaning confused activity and uproar. I cannot think of a better description of the Dragon and Najdorf variations in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ulysses’s odyssey only lasted 10 years, while my journey with the Sicilian Defence has lasted more than 50. I first played it in 1965 at the age of 14 and lost in 19 hectic moves. To be honest it was barely recognisable as a Sicilian. I could have safely been two rooks up, but instead I ended up resigning when about to be mated on the next move. My opponent that day subsequently became one of the world’s best bridge players. 

I decided that I needed to learn a proper Sicilian variation, and opted for the then fashionable Dragon. I played my first Dragon the following year and lost. This time I accepted an unsound queen sacrifice and then resigned, thinking mate was inevitable (it wasn’t and I should have drawn). Otherwise, I had five fairly happy years playing the Dragon before giving it up when keeping up with theory seemed too demanding. 

Game 1 illustrates a number of the common Dragon themes, especially black sacrifices on f3, c3 or sometimes e4. The game was played in a qualifying tournament for a place in the Scottish students’ team. There were four players and we played each other twice. Both of my games with David Watt were Dragons (I did say it was fashionable) and in the first I lost, falling into a Nxe4 sacrifice. In the second it was my turn to sacrifice.

Enter the Najdorf variation – theory-wise this was frying pan to fire – which I played throughout the 1970s, despite losing my first game with it. As if the normal mainline Najdorf wasn’t exciting enough for me, I chose the Polugaevsky variation, which could lead to a position where White first sacrificed a piece on e6, followed by another on b5 for a ferocious-looking attack. I had the position after move 13 three times, losing the first, winning the second and drawing the third. Game 2 shows my victory.

If this has been too exciting for you, in part 2 I will show you my experience with more solid (for the Sicilian) variations.

Part 2: Looking for a safe harbour

Spoiler alert: there isn’t one in the Sicilian (but don’t let me stop you looking).

In the 1980s I moved to the more solid Scheveningen variation, and yes I lost my first game with it. This is the variation that I have played over a longer period and with most games. Statistically, I have done better with the Dragon and the Najdorf than the Scheveningen and the Taimanov, although I do have a plus score in all of them. I estimate that overall, I have played against stronger opposition with the latter two variations. 

Game 3 gives a good example of Black’s counter-chances on the queenside, illustrating an unusual potential mating pattern.

“That is no country for old men” – W B Yeats.

So, in my old age, I started looking for a more sedate variation, hopefully where I would not be mated in under 25 moves (if only – I have actually achieved this in all four variations). This led me to the Taimanov, often called the flexible Sicilian, even The Safest Sicilian (Delchev and Semkov, 2006).

Finally, I did not lose my first game with this variation – it was a draw. The Taimanov is flexible for Black, but it also leaves White with many options. Game 4 shows how Black may succeed against one of the more ambitious attempts.

Part 3: Epilogue

I mentioned earlier that in the 1960s and 1970s I played fashionable Sicilian variations. Game 5 was also in vogue at the time, with theory developing quickly. Just how quickly I found out the hard way.

The main reason for including this game is that, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only one of my games to feature in two books – Chess Olympiad Nice 1974 (Keene and Levy, 1975) and The Najdorf Variation (Geller, Gligoric, Kavalek and Spassky, 1976). OK, I admit it – it does allow me to do some heavy namedropping. 

It is also a game of which I am proud – it was played in round 1 of the Scottish Championship of 1974 against my old schoolmate and eventual Scottish winner that year (and several others), Roddy McKay. Roddy had recently played in the Nice Olympiad and had seen at first hand the Levy-Garcia game, with its Nd5 sacrifice on move 18. The sacrifice had been played before, but Levy found an improvement at the board. I cannot recall how many minutes (maybe 40 or 50) I took over move 18, but it was just as well that we played 40 moves in two and a half hours in those days. I also discovered later that my 21st move improved upon previous theory.

Tariq Oozerally (South Norwood) v Peter Lalić (Kingston)

South Norwood 1 v Kingston 1, Surrey League division 2, West Thornton Community Centre, 17 March 2022

This was the decisive game in the crucial match between Kingston and South Norwood that effectively determined who would win the second division title in the Surrey League. As ever Peter Lalić, playing black against the very capable Tariq Oozerally, proved nerveless, first building a small advantage, then losing it with an error, but finally outplaying his opponent in a time scramble after boldly turning down a draw to claim the vital point. Peter’s detailed annotations capture the ebb and flow of that critical game, and the visceral excitement of its final passage of play.

The crucial position around move 41