A glorious queen sac can be irresistible and fans will always applaud it. But winning the game is even better – a lesson I learned the hard way in this totemic position from early in my playing career
An instructive position! Context later, but what would you, as White, do here? Do you long for the security of exchanged queens? Qxb8, Ne4, Rhe1 or maybe even f4 straightening out the doubled pawns? White is after all a pawn up; the rest, as they always say, should be a matter of technique.
Should White keep the queens on with Qg5, then point everybody at g7? Surely Black’s kingside couldn’t survive the firepower of White’s entire army? Or is this a mirage?
Is Rd6 your choice, preventing the queen exchange with an awkward self-pin? Dominating Black like a sumo wrestler sat on a cat?
Or is there something else – something which makes your heart beat faster, dreaming of glory. A taste of immortality. A portal in time to the great chess romantics of the past. To be included in great tomes of tactics books and legendary sacrifices. A kiss from Caissa herself? Can White play Qxf6?!?!
Let’s split the options into four:
The Dull – f4
The Daring – Qg5
The Dominating – Rd6
The Dramatic – Qxf6
Bet bet bet now! (Obligatory Banzai! music). Betting ends.
Now for some background.
A long time ago, I had started work as a chess teacher. In an effort to test this new-found professionalism, having spent most of my chess life up to this point hacking and worshipping the g5 square, I entered a proper chess tournament (as did future team-mate FM Julian Way). The tournament went bizarrely well. I finished joint fourth with IM Chris Baker in a very strong field. GM Keith Arkell came first, netting the princely first prize of £100.
In round seven I was paired with White against FM (and future GM) Michal Matuszewski, the pre-tournament dark horse. I had been having a strange tournament, scoring my first ever win against an IM, but also suffering in a couple of terrible games. I was very, very nervous, and then shocked to find myself in the above position having played some offbeat nonsense and invested very little time. Here I sank into thought. What to do?
Thanks to my friend and chess history devotee Kevin Henbest, I was thoroughly familiar with the game Nezhmetdinov-Chernikov, surely one of the most beautiful queen sacrifices ever played:
Now, back to my game. Somehow I was a pawn up against an FM, but here I was with a chance to emulate the great SuperNezh himself. My usual calculation was failing me completely; the sacrifice was like a black hole drawing my thoughts away from every other line. Qg5 and Rd6 looked good, then dangerous, then drawish and seemingly dissipating my advantage, then a blur of lines I couldn’t concentrate on because THEY WEREN’T THE GLORIOUS QUEEN SAC!
After attempting to consider the alternatives I returned to stare longingly at Qxf6. I couldn’t see the win, but felt it must be there. Surely only a coward would shy away from such a move? Having taken nearly an hour, I punted.
The game went as follows:
A few months later, proudly showing this game to my friend, FM Thanasis Tsanas, he responded with utter disgust. “You were winning! Why would you play this? Karpov would never play such a move!”
I had been fully expecting praise, maybe even light applause, for my bravery. Yet here was an FM telling me off! Something in me, a crazed romantic, got a lesson that day. Rare and entrancing as a queen sacrifice is, it should not come at the expense of the position. Chess wins are not the result of hit and hope.
What would I do today? Well, older and wiser, I now realise many games between strong players are decided not by tactics or queen exchanges, but by domination – controlling the board and not allowing your opponent’s pieces space to breathe. Rd6 is the key move, and the computer agrees. While the other moves should win with perfect play, Rd6 is the truly brave move – self-pinning, calculating to see that everything is working tactically, and having faith in one’s pieces (and scorn for your opponent’s prospects).
Kingston v Wimbledon, Alexander Cup final, Adelaide pub, Teddington, 16 June 2022
This was the board 2 clash in the Alexander Cup Final between Wimbledon stalwart Russell Granat, a noted attacking player with an ECF rating of 2260, and 18-year-old Kingston star David Maycock, whose ECF is close to 2300 and which will no doubt soon enter the stratosphere. Maycock first rebuffs Granat’s Worrall Attack in the Ruy Lopez and then occupies the centre with a phalanx of pawns. It is a wonderfully controlled display by a young player of enormous promise who has helped to transform Kingston’s fortunes this season.
Alexander Cup final between Kingston and Wimbledon, played at the Adelaide, Teddington, on 16 June 2022
This match meant so much to Kingston. The club had not won the Alexander Cup, Surrey’s premier knockout competition, since 1976 – 46 long, often frustrating years. We had come through the earlier rounds at a canter and were now up against Wimbledon in a match played at the neutral venue of the Adelaide pub in Teddington, home of Richmond and Twickenham Chess Club, to whom thanks are once again due for hosting the final.
Before the start of the match, Wimbledon’s Russell Granat paid tribute to his long-time team-mate Nick Keene, whose death had been announced on the very day of the match. Keene was a strong player who had been associated with Wimbledon for many years. His playing style was highly original – early cramped positions suddenly bursting into life, as Granat explained – and he was noted for his sporting and gentlemanly approach to the game. The players stood and observed a minute’s silence in Keene’s honour.
Wimbledon had brought a strong team to the final, spearheaded by IM Alberto Suarez Real on board 1. So strong, in fact, that John Foley, who had intended to be non-playing captain, decided at the eleventh hour to play himself, exchanging roles with Jon Eckert, who, freed from playing responsibilities, captained Kingston on the night. Eckert also won an important toss, giving Kingston’s board 1, Mike Healey, White against Wimbledon’s IM.
We had hopes of picking up points on the lower boards, where we outrated Wimbledon, but as so often those hopes were to be confounded. Indeed, we were quickly in trouble on board 8, where Ivan Georgiev was struggling against rising star Shahvez Ali. A recent win against Coulsdon’s Chino Atako tells you just how good young Ali is, and his official Surrey rating of 1773 (set back in August 2021) gives no clue as to his true strength. His live ECF rating is 1988 and he is clearly a 2200-plus player in the making.
Ali played a mainline closed Catalan and, by advancing his b and c pawns, exerted early pressure. Georgiev went wrong, was forced to give up a piece for a pawn, and by move 23 was effectively busted. He bravely fought on, blitzing out another 40 moves, but the game was up, and Wimbledon had first blood. Captain Eckert and the Kingston contingent who had come along to support were aghast.
Things were not going according to plan. Foley was doing well on board 7 and so was Alan Scrimgour on board 9, until he missed a combination that would have netted two pieces for a rook. But Vladimir Li, whom we had considered our banker on board 4, was in trouble in the opening, most of the other games were level and the rarefied proceedings on board 1 were largely impenetrable.
Still, accentuate the positive. Foley, who this week was elected president of Kingston Chess Club, opted for the mildewed London System and played a beautifully controlled game, picking up a couple of pawns before polishing off his opponent with what we can only call a “cheapo” that either won a piece or forced mate. His opponent, Oliver Weiss, decided to fall on his sword: 1-1 and match on.
On board 10, once Scrimgour had missed (or, as it later transpired, deliberately chosen not to play) his early tactical shot, the game had turned somewhat and, if anything, it was Wimbledon’s Sean Ingle who held a small edge as the game moved towards the endgame. Ingle, though, who was outrated by a fair margin, sought peace, and Scrimgour, with an expert assessment of how the game stood, concurred. All square at 1.5 to 1.5.
The match was in the balance and Kingston backers were still far from happy. Vladimir Li was in what looked like terminal trouble, Wimbledon’s Suarez Real was turning the screw on board 1, and the other games were too close to call. Where were Kingston’s points going to come from? Board 3 possibly, where Peter Lalić was playing a tricky anti-Dutch system against the experienced Dan Rosen. Eckert, himself a keen Dutch player, reckoned Rosen was playing a Dutch that had gone wrong. A “double Dutch”, one wag suggested.
On board 6, Julian Way’s game against Haridas Girinath was very tight. Girinath played a solid Modern Defence, and a draw was agreed after 24 moves, but Way – distracted by his opponent’s draw offer – missed a neat tactic in the final position that would have given him an advantage of +3 (the exchange and a pawn). One that got away for Kingston, and, with the scores tied at 2-2, it still felt as if Wimbledon had a slight edge in the remaining games.
We were in the middle of a spate of draws. Peter Andrews, playing his trusty English against Wimbledon veteran Paul Barasi (not a man to sit in his seat if he can be having a cigarette outside the pub), had had the worst of the opening exchanges and overlooked a tactic that allowed Barasi to grab a pawn. He said later that the oversight affected his confidence and, despite outrating Barasi, was happy to take a draw with the position level. Kingston’s ratings advantage on the bottom boards had not yielded the hoped-for dividends, and now we had to look at the top boards, where fierce battles were raging.
In many ways, or so it seemed in retrospect, the crucial game was board 4, where Kingston’s Vladimir Li had been struggling from the start against another Wimbledon veteran, Ian Heppell. Heppell played the Alapin variation against Li’s Sicilian, and enjoyed a tiny edge in the opening which quickly built into something more substantial in the middle game.
That resolved into an endgame where Heppell had knight and six pawns against Li’s bishop and five pawns. Some observers thought Li was a goner, but Ljubica Lazarevic, who was tweeting and what’s apping the match for Kingston, reckoned the long-range capabilities of Li’s bishop gave him a fighting chance, and Heppell clearly agreed. With a time scramble beckoning, he bailed out, and a draw was agreed. The engine suggests Heppell was almost +2 in the final position.
With that unexpected draw, Kingston started to believe, especially as the four players left to get us over the line – Mike Healey, David Maycock, Peter Lalić and Will Taylor – all had youth on their side. Draws are on the whole not in their vocabulary – they would be pushing for wins. At least that was what the exhausted and sweltering Kingston contingent in the bar hoped.
The first crack in the Wimbledon dam came on board 3, where Peter Lalić – a towering presence in Kingston’s first team all season – was up against Dan Rosen. Lalić established an early advantage; Rosen fought back to equality; Lalić, playing beautifully (as so often) with the bishop pair, re-established his advantage and had what looked like a decisive pawn on the a-file, with Rosen’s remaining rook and black-squared bishop (pitted against Lalić’s rook and white-squared bishop) tied down. Rosen resigned.
But, as a post mortem in the bar quickly revealed, the resignation was premature. The engine, despite the fact that Rosen was in a near-zugzwang, only gives Lalić plus 0.5 in the final position. Psychology may have been the key. Lalić has a reputation as a ferocious blitz player, and Rosen is in effect saying “In a time scramble, I know you will win this.” Lalić’s win made it 4-3 to Kingston, and suddenly the door was open – though whether dams have doors is a moot point. The heat was getting to the match reporters as well as the players.
The news got even better a few minutes later when David Maycock, playing Black, won a magnificent game against Russell Granat, a highly rated and very attacking player who has been a mainstay of a succession of strong Wimbledon sides for decades. Granat had played the very sharp Worrall attack in the Ruy Lopez, which Maycock had first neutralised and then, with a flamboyant set of pawn pushes, repelled.
Granat’s pawns became uncoordinated, Maycock consolidated his advantage with some lovely tactics, and on move 48, faced with a phalanx of unstoppable pawns, Granat resigned. Maycock and Lalić have been galvanising figures for Kingston all season and here they were again, delivering against very strong and experienced players when it really counted.
On the subject of counting, that was exactly what the Kingstonians were now trying to do. With the score at 5-3 in our favour, would we win on board count even if the final two games went against us? Happily, the maths were not tested, because Kingston soon recorded their third victory in the space of 10 minutes when the rock-solid Will Taylor, playing Black on board 6, defeated Anthony Hughes – another triumph of youth over experience.
Hughes had played the Botvinnik System of the English, with an early e4; Taylor easily equalised and then traded pieces to leave himself in a middle game where a better pawn structure gave him an edge. It was still defensible with best play, but time pressure, the occasion and the heat were starting to take their toll, and Wimbledon’s Hughes blundered horribly, dropping a rook for nothing.
The game, the match and the Alexander Cup were, in an instant, all gone. Or as Lazarevic put it on the club What’s App: “Will wins on board 6! Kingston have done it! Winners of the Alexander Cup!” We do not stint on exclamation marks on these historic occasions. And, as we discovered, where there’s a way there’s a Will.
The match was won, but on board 1 Mike Healey and Alberto Suarez Real were still locked in an epic struggle. Healey, ever inventive, had responded to Suarez Real’s Sicilian with the so-called Chameleon variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nge2 Nf6 4.g3 g6 5.Bg2 Bg7 6.d3 d6 7.O-O O-O). Suarez Real won the exchange, and Healey’s love of knights looked unlikely to save him. But even IMs make mistakes, and Suaraz went wrong in time trouble, handed the exchange back to get rid of a troublesome knight on e7 supported by a pawn that had been planted on f6 all game, and stumbled into a theoretical draw.
That made it 6.5 to 3.5 to Kingston and the celebrations in the bar could start in earnest. Even the abstemious David Maycock had a half of bitter. Let’s hope this is not the start of a slippery slope to perdition for the immensely talented 18-year-old. We need him firing on all cylinders next season, along with the rest of this terrific team if we are to have any chance of retaining this much-vaunted trophy.
This was Kingston’s first win in the Alexander Cup for 46 years, and the club’s fifth victory in the competition overall in its 100-year history. We won it previously in 1932, 1946, 1975 and 1976. In 1932, Kingston did the “double”, winning the Alexander Cup and the Surrey Trophy (division 1 of the Surrey League). This is the only time so far that Kingston have managed that.
Remember that this season we won Surrey’s premier knockout trophy as a second-division club – we had already wrapped up the second-division title. John Saunders, who was at the final taking the terrific photographs which adorn this report, likened it to Sunderland beating Leeds in the 1973 FA cup final, a second-division club downing a strong first-division side. Kingston, who a few years ago were going nowhere, had suddenly emerged to claim the crown.
Now what? Do we have the spirit and the strength in depth to compete for the title in division one next season? Could we even hope to repeat that achievement of 1932 and do the double again, with all the effort, stress and pain that will require? Even in triumph, you feel a certain sense of anti-climax, a sense of “Is that it; is that all there is?” And there is a nagging fear that maybe the only way now is down. This season Kingston were the insurgents; next year we are the targets.
Kingston have been very strong twice in our history: in the 1930s and the 1970s. We may now be entering a third golden age. But success comes with a warning. Mitcham dominated Surrey chess in the 1980s and 90s; Redhill in the first 15 years of this century. Both those clubs no longer field teams in the Surrey League. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Saunders was a member of the Mitcham team which won eight Alexander Cups in 10 years. A fantastic achievement. They must have been utterly knackered. So knackered, in fact, that within a few years the key organisers had left and the club was on the way out. Becoming so dominant, winning eight Alexander cups in so short a space of time, is a great aspiration. But the fate of once-mighty Mitcham is also a memento mori. Roman generals returning in victory supposedly had slaves whispering in their ear “Remember you must die.” For the moment we will celebrate, but we will not forget how fragile success is. We have had the luckiest and most memorable of seasons. Next year we will discover if that success is etched into granite or founded on sand.
Lauder Trophy final between Kingston and Chessington, played at the Adelaide, Teddington, on 14 June 2022
This match was always a potential banana skin for Kingston. Chessington are an ambitious new club which has done very well in its first season – beating the Lauder Trophy holders South Norwood in the semi-final of the competition was surely the shock of the season. Their pool of players is small and we outrated them substantially, but that made it something of a no-win situation for Kingston. When David meets Goliath, who wants to be the big guy?
The two teams were meeting at the neutral venue of the Adelaide pub in Teddington, home of Richmond and Twickenham Chess Club. Many thanks to Richmond for hosting, and to Huw Williams for setting up and overseeing a match played in a great spirit. Thanks, too, to John Saunders for taking the photographs that accompany this report, and for collating game scores.
The match started in the worst possible way for Kingston. Jake Grubb was up against the talented junior Harvey Li on board 6 and was quickly drawn into a tactical melee which saw him go the exchange down. Worse was to follow as the eight-year-old Li played a neat combination that gave Grubb the unenviable choice of losing queen for rook and knight or being mated. Grubb took the third option – resignation. Well played Harvey Li, clearly a name to look out for. First blood to Chessington.
Black to play and win (solution at the end)
The special feature of the Lauder Trophy is that the collective ratings of the six players cannot exceed 10,500 ECF points (an average rating of 1750 across the team), so you have to strike a balance between strong players and relative novices. It’s always fascinating to see how captains slice the cake. A junior such as Li is perfect for the Lauder because he gets into the team with a rating of 1350, but his true strength as a fast-improving player will be several hundred points above that.
By contrast, on board 1 were two vastly experienced players, Kingston’s David Rowson and Chessington’s James McCarthy. Their 2000 rating strength has been tested over decades, they knew each other’s games inside out, and unsurprisingly perhaps they played a short and cagey draw that ended with a repetition of moves. On the surface, a decent result for Kingston, as David had been Black, but one that still left the team in deficit, at a time when two of the remaining games were even and Kingston’s board 3, Vladimirs Bovtramovics, had a very passive position and looked like he was being squeezed. Frankly, as Kingston’s Lauder captain I was worried, though not as worried as England football manager Gareth Southgate, whose team had just gone 4-0 down at home to Hungary in a match that was being avidly followed by the regulars in the bar downstairs who seemed oblivious to the drama unfolding in the chess room upstairs.
Gradually, things started to improve – at Teddington, that is, not Wembley. On board 5, Kingston’s Yae Chan Yang – a key figure and banker winner in the Lauder team throughout the season – had been on top all game, and his opponent succumbed to a crushing attack that ended in checkmate. Now it was 1.5 to 1.5, with boards 2 and 4 level and Vladimirs fighting for equality on board 3. Thoughts of what would happen in the event of a 3-3 draw – board count and, if it was still drawn, bottom-board eliminator – started to enter my head.
Looking at the board 3 game afterwards, Chessington’s Kevin Martin’s apparent advantage was largely visual. His rooks dominated the e-file and his queen was lurking menacingly, while Vladimirs’ heavy artillery was entirely committed to defence and he was forced into some ugly manoeuvres with his knight. But the engine suggests he was never worse than 0.5, and after Martin, in his frustration to make his space advantage tell, had lashed out with g4 the position quickly became level. By the time they agreed a draw on move 48, with queens and rooks exchanged to leave knight v knight and an equal number of immobile pawns on each side, it was dead drawn.
Kingston’s fate was now in the experienced hands of Scottish international Alan Scrimgour on board 2 and Jon Eckert, who had been lauded at the club’s AGM the previous evening for a season in which he had scored 14.5/18 for Kingston, on board 4. They did not let us down.
Scrimgour, with the bishop pair, had a small edge for most of his game, but his opponent, Visagan Ravindran, had turned the tables by move 34 and looked like he could go into an endgame a pawn up. Scrimgour perhaps realised the tide had turned more quickly than his opponent, and cannily offered a draw, which the heavily outrated Ravindran accepted after a minute’s consideration.
That left Jon Eckert’s game on board 4 against Murugan Kanagasapay. The ever enterprising Eckert had played the Vienna Gambit and managed to get a small edge in the opening. But Kanagasapay fought back to equality, with both having queen, rook and potentially dangerous advanced pawns. The big difference was time: Eckert had 10 minutes left, while Kanagasapay was virtually playing on the increment. Kanagasapay blundered away a rook, and Eckert pressed home his advantage and forced checkmate.
Kingston had won the match 3.5 to 2.5 to regain the trophy they won in 2018/19 and then lost in the final to South Norwood the following season. That latter final was actually played in the autumn of 2021 after an 18-month Covid delay, which might make a nice quiz question: which was the season in which Kingston managed to both lose and win the Lauder Trophy? Answer: 2021/22.
Kanagasapay (who, in another ironic twist, had played for Kingston in that previous Lauder final) looked devastated by his loss in the decisive game. He co-founded the Chessington club with his sister (and captain on the night) Meena Santhosh, and knew how much this meant in its debut year. But the enterprising Chessington club, which has a booming junior section, will be back and are well on the way to being a force in Surrey chess.
The end of the game produced a round of applause, and Eckert calmly took the plaudits from his delighted team-mates. Had it been me, I would have insisted on a lap of honour along Park Road, which runs alongside the Adelaide, but Eckert was the very model of modesty. On the hottest evening of the year so far, his cool under extreme pressure was admirable.
Stephen Moss, Kingston Lauder Trophy captain
Grubb v Li, Teddington, 14 June 2022 1… Nde2+! wins the queen. If 2. RxN then Qb1#. In the game, Li played the intermezzo 1…Rxd4 2. cxd4 with the same continuation as above 2…Nde2++
Kingston v CCF (Coulsdon), Alexander Cup semi-final, Willoughby Arms, Kingston, 30 May 2022
Kingston’s latest star player, Vladimir Li, won this crucial game playing on board 5 in the recent Alexander Cup semi-final against CCF (Coulsdon), but you might not think it reading his annotations to this game in which he thwarted David Ian Calvert’s Scandinavian. “Poor opening preparation, shallow reasoning, irrational time budgeting, wishful thinking, poor calculation discipline” … Li is extremely hard on himself. But he is a perfectionist who detests weak moves, and his annotations can teach us a huge amount about the potential depth of chess thinking.
Epsom’s failure to secure a draw in their final match against South Norwood mean they fall at the final hurdle, allowing Adam Nakar’s team to snatch promotion
In a way, this was the sweetest triumph of all in a season in which there have been plenty. Kingston’s second team had started off the season using the Centenary Trophy (division 4 of the Surrey League) as a testing ground for the new players who had joined in the wake of the pandemic – people who had got the chess bug online and now wanted to play some over-the-board chess. It was only halfway through the season when we suddenly realised “We can win this”.
In the end, we were a little lucky. Excellent wins away to South Norwood and Richmond put the team captained by Adam Nakar in the hunt, but we needed other results to go our way. In particular, we needed long-time league leaders Epsom 3 to stumble away to South Norwood 2. That trip was always going to be a tricky proposition for Epsom, but they only needed a draw to seal the division and seemed confident of getting it.
The match stood 3-2 to South Norwood on the night, but the game between South Norwood’s Ken Chamberlain and Epsom’s David Flewellen was adjourned, with the higher-rated Flewellen pressing for the win which would level the match at 3-3 and give Epsom the trophy. When they resumed a few weeks later, Flewellen carried on pressing, but Chamberlain is noted for his doughty defence and the issue was still undecided when they adjourned again. Because it was so late in the season, no third session was permitted under league rules, thwarting Epsom’s bid and handing the trophy to Kingston.
Flewellen sent the Kingston captain a note offering hearty congratulations, which was an extremely generous and sporting gesture in the circumstances. At every stage this season, Kingston and Epsom have been locked together in tough tussles, and it speaks volumes that the camaraderie between the two rival clubs has remained intact.
Kingston, Epsom and South Norwood all finished on 3.5 match points, and even the game points were tight, with Kingston 2 winning the division by a mere half-point from Epsom, with South Norwood close behind in third. A wonderful and unexpected end to the league season. Congratulations to Adam and his team.
Kingston v CCF (Coulsdon), Alexander Cup semi-final, Willoughby Arms, Kingston, 30 May 2022
This was the board 3 game in the semi-final of the Alexander Cup, Surrey’s premier knockout competition, which pitted a strong Kingston side against a Coulsdon team that was slightly weaker on paper but had a good blend of experience and youth and fought very hard on the night. Kingston won 7-3, but the scoreline masked some tense individual battles, including this one, which was level for most of the evening. This was the game which took Kingston past the magical five-point mark, and Peter Lalić shows both his endgame skill and customary steeliness in a time scramble. His exploitation of his opponents’ hanging pawns is particularly instructive. As ever, his annotations capture the excitement and uncertainty of the moment. Peter never pretends omniscience; he tells you what it is really like to be there at the chessboard with all its boundless possibility … and potential for pain.