Author Archives: David Rowson

About David Rowson

David Rowson, by profession a teacher of English and history, is overall club captain at Kingston Chess Club

Kingston A beat Richmond to secure TVL Div 1 title

Kingston A v Richmond A, Thames Valley division 1 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston, on 20 May 2024

Sometimes a cliché just happens to fit the facts, so let’s say that Kingston’s 2023-24 Thames Valley League division 1 experience was a season of two halves. Up to the end of January, we had played seven matches, winning three, drawing three and losing one (to Ealing). Not too bad, but not title-winning form. In contrast, during the same period, our main rivals Hammersmith had won six and only drawn one match (against us). The title looked to be theirs. But the following weeks saw Kingston achieve consistently good results, winning three and drawing one, while Hammersmith seemed to lose their focus, losing three of their final five matches, including one at home to us.

The consequence of this was that on Monday 20 May we faced Richmond A at the Willoughby with the same number of match points (eight) as Hammersmith, but with this match in hand. If we won or drew we would be champions for the second year running. 

The strength of our team is shown by the fact that Peter Lalić was on board 4. I reckon that few opponents would now mistake his opening 1. d3 d4 2. e5 as evidence of modest ambitions, as he has shown himself to be a master at patiently wringing victories from these innocent-looking moves. It happened again against Bertie Barlow. In the position below Peter was a pawn up, but if Bertie had contested the d-file with 37…Rd7 it would have been hard for Peter to make progress, as an exchange of rooks leaves a drawn king and pawn ending.

However, after 37…Rg7 38. Rd3, Peter first activated his rook and then pursued the winning plan of advancing his a-pawn to a6. His opponent allowed him to win the pawn on a7 in a desperate search for counterplay, but the white a-pawn was then unstoppable.

Kingston 1 Richmond 0, and David Maycock soon made it 2-0 with a win on board one, in a very different type of game. Gavin Wall opened with the Trompowsky Attack (1.d4 Nf6 2. Bg5), and after five moves this position was reached:

White took the offered e-pawn – 6. Nxe5 – and David then played the spectacular Ng4. Now 7. Bxd8 would not be sensible in view of 7…Bxf2 mate. Gavin defended with 7. Nd3, though David thought “7. Nxg4 was the way to go, to which Black would have played 7…Qxg5 8. h3 and Nc6 with compensation.” The game actually continued 7…Qxg5 8. Nxc5, giving this position:

Now David was able to spoil White’s kingside pawn structure with a temporary knight sacrifice. 8…Nxf2 9. Kxf2 Qh4+ 10. g3 Qd4+ winning back the knight. The position is still roughly level, but later Black’s rooks infiltrated White’s second rank to give the following position:

Here 25. Rf4 is best, though White’s situation would still be difficult. Instead, Gavin played 25. Rxf7 and lost queen for rook after 25…Rdg2+ 26. Kf1 Rf2+ 27. Rxf2 Rxf2+ 28. Kxf2 Qxg7. He resigned one move later. Another very impressive win for David against an IM.

On board 2 Vladimir Li and Michael Healey were having a technical battle in a line of the Catalan Opening. Mike gave up a pawn to activate his queen’s bishop, but was eventually left with a weak pawn on a6 and resigned when this was about to fall, at which point he had already lost two other pawns in a rook ending.

In our final two matches we have been very fortunate to have 10-year-old Supratit Banerjee (pictured) playing for us. His mature, patient play as Black against Maks Gajowniczek was remarkable for someone of his age. His analysis of the following position is instructive.

Supratit explained: “17…a5 is not the best here because after 18. a3 bxc5 19. bxc5 my queen cannot come to a5. If 17…a5 18. a3 axb4 then the white rook is occupying the a-file.” So Supratit played 17…bxc5 instead, and after 18. bxc5 Qa5 19. Rfb1 Ba6 he commented: “The white light-squared bishop defends key squares such as c4 and e4, so if I trade it then the black knight will become better than the white knight because the white knight has no good squares.” The game continued 20. Bf3, allowing Bc4, and Black has achieved an advantage on the queenside. White’s exchange of rooks on b8 added to this advantage, though presumably White was hoping to get counterplay with e4.

A few moves later this was the position, with White to play:

Supratit commented: “White has to play 26. Qc1. That would still be a slight advantage to Black, but White can hold if he plays perfectly.” Instead Maks took the bishop – 26. Qxc4 – and after 26…Qxf3 Black had a winning advantage due to the active position of his pieces and White’s kingside weakness. Supratit won on move 41.

Thus the four top-rated members of the team had already given us the wins needed for victory in the match and for the retention of the Thames Valley League title.

Among all these successes my own game hardly bears mention, but it did have some interesting points – one of them painful for me.  In this position I saw an opportunity to win the exchange:

There followed 25. c4 Nc7 26. Bxc6 Qxc6 27. Qxb3 exd4 28. Bf4 Nc5. Here I moved too quickly and miscalculated, playing 29. Nxd4 when Qd1 would have kept more advantage. This was the position:

Black played 29…Nxb3 30. Nxc6 Nxa1 30. Rxe8 Nxe8 31. Nxd8. Seven successive captures have left me just a pawn up. I actually hoped to win this position, but my opponent played it better than me, and I ended up with bishop and two pawns against his knight and one pawn, but with me unable to make any progress. Disappointed, I sat looking at the position and completely forgot about my ticking clock. Suddenly my opponent broke into my reverie to point out that I had lost on time. It was a shocking and stupid finish to the game for me. Fortunately, these negative feelings were overlaid with delight that we had already won the league.

The final game to finish, like mine, made no difference to the overall result. John Foley had graciously stepped in as a substitute on board 3 when it turned out that Silverio Abasolo had got the wrong date for the match. Behind on the clock from the start, John had put up a good fight, but ultimately lost a rook ending to John Burke.

It is no exaggeration to say that in 2022-23 we had swept all before us; as a result, we felt that in the first matches of this season other clubs made a point of trying to get out their strongest players against Kingston. We sometimes struggled early on, but came through in the end. It has to be admitted that we were reliant on Hammersmith slipping up to give us any chance of winning the league, but then we had to show our mettle by taking that chance – and we did.

Many thanks to all the players who made this achievement possible, and to Peter Andrews and John Foley for captaining when I was unavailable, to Stephen Moss for his assistance with team selection, and to Greg Heath for his hard work getting everything ready for home matches. Next season … but no, let’s not even think about next season yet.

David Rowson, Kingston captain in Thames Valley League division 1

Final table

My favourite player: David Rowson on Tigran Petrosian

The first of an occasional series in which Kingston members and friends of the club choose the player who has most inspired them. Illustration by Theo Esposito Bennett

One of the first chess books I ever owned was not really a book at all, but a very slim booklet, produced by the Soviet press, with minimal production values, which somehow found itself in a bookshop in London in 1969. It contained the games of the recently concluded world championship match. The contenders were the ninth champion, Tigran Petrosian, and his successor, Boris Spassky.

I understood few of the moves, but that added to the mysterious fascination of the event. If the play of these two masters had been at all comprehensible to me it would have meant that there was nothing exalted about it. Likewise, I felt somehow – or rather read somewhere – that Petrosian was himself a player of special mystery. The American chess writer Irving Chernev, in another of my early chess books (The Most Instructive Games of Chess ever Played), had encouraged this belief by his comment on the game Petrosian-Korchnoi, 1946: “Petrosian must have the spark of genius! How else could he, with a few mysterious moves, cause the quick collapse of so eminent a player as Korchnoi?” I wasn’t aware at the time that in 1946 Korchnoi was only 15 years old.

In 1946 Petrosian himself was only 16 or 17. His already exceptional talent had its roots in a very tough childhood, as described by the man himself in an interview in Life magazine in April 1969. According to this, his Armenian parents were illiterate and he was orphaned at a young age. Growing up in wartime Tbilisi, Georgia, he had to work as a road-sweeper to earn some roubles, or perhaps kopeks, to survive. This was clearly a formative experience.

“I started sweeping streets in the middle of winter,” Petrosian recalled, “and it was horrible. Of course, there were no machines then, and everything had to be done by hand. Some of the older men helped me out. I was a weak boy. And I was ashamed of being a street sweeper – that’s natural, I suppose. It wasn’t too bad in the early morning when the streets were empty, but when it got light and the crowds came out I really hated it.”

Petrosian was one of the golden generation of Soviet players who peaked in the 1960s. This also included Viktor Korchnoi, Mikhail Tal, Spassky and Efim Geller. All of them grew up in hard times: the second world war and the final years of Stalinism. To those of us who followed the chess of that era, each player seemed to have a distinct personality and style, but Petrosian’s style was probably the most singular.

One might speculate as to whether the experiences of his early years had an influence on this. With the kopeks saved from his road-sweeping he had bought Nimzowitsch’s My System, and he often afterwards stated how significant that positional chess manual had been for him. In his games there is usually an emphasis on the permanent features of the position – pawn structures, strong and weak squares, the long-term relative values of the pieces and so on. Curiously, like Mikhail Tal, Petrosian was known for his sacrifices, but, unlike Tal, Petrosian’s were often defensive, the most famous being his exchange sacrifices. Again, in contrast to Tal, Petrosian sacrificed material not to gain time but for long-term positional reasons.

As an example, here is the position after White’s 25th move in the game Reshevsky-Petrosian from the 1953 Candidates’ Tournament, Zurich:

However, with Petrosian it can sometimes be difficult to say whether a sacrifice like this is defensive or offensive. His game against Czech (and later German) grandmaster Vlastimil Hort from the 1970 European Team Championships is an example. Petrosian is Black and plays the Winawer Variation of the French Defence.

One reason Petrosian’s style attracted me was that commentors often referred to his deep understanding of the mysteries of positional chess. Of course, as a novice player, I was far from understanding even some basic aspects of the game, let alone its deep mysteries, but I was hopeful that studying Petrosian’s games might initiate me into some of these.

One aspect of his play which I could hope to find myself copying at my own undistinguished level was his pragmatism, in particular his readiness to make the moves required by the position even if they looked ugly or humbling. Petrosian seemed to be saying that it was OK to retreat a piece or to repeat a move if necessary. The following position in the fourth game of the world championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik in 1963 is an example of this.

In retrospect, I think another reason why I was drawn to Petrosian’s style of play was my misconception that if you were a master of strategy you didn’t need to worry so much about tactical details – and I was weak at tactics. In fact, as many commentators have noted, Petrosian was actually a superb tactician. You can’t base your game on strategy if the tactics are wrong.  In addition, it’s been pointed out that Petrosian’s image as a purely defensive player is false. He could also play attacking combinations and, according to Spassky, “It is to Petrosian’s advantage that his opponents never know when he is suddenly going to play like Mikhail Tal.”  

The 10th game from Spassky’s world championship match with Petrosian in 1966 must have been the kind of thing he had in mind. Petrosian has White against Spassky’s King’s Indian Defence.

Interestingly, Petrosian had perpetrated a very similar combination 10 years before on Vladimir Simagin (Petrosian-Simagin, Moscow Championship play-off 1956):

For more than a decade Petrosian fought his way through zonals, interzonals and candidates tournaments against his peers, until he finally qualified to play Botvinnik for the world title in 1963. He won this match convincingly 12.5-9.5. It might be said that he was fortunate that Botvinnik’s right to a return match had been abolished by Fide, but Petrosian proved he was a worthy champion by defending his title against Boris Spassky in 1966 with a score of 12.5-11.5. He lost to Spassky in 1969, but he remained one of the top players in the world until his death in 1984 at the early age of 55. He won the Soviet Chess Championship four times; the only players to record more wins were Botvinnik and Tal with six titles.

The ways in which Petrosian is sometimes described make it seem as if he inhabited a chess world of his own. This could be seen as implying either his limitations (he is often regarded as too cautious, with a very high percentage of draws) or as a sign of his unique understanding of the game. I have to accept that he did draw many games, but he also lost very few (his record playing for the Soviet Union in 10 Olympiads was +78, = 50, -1).

To conclude, in my view, playing through his best games can enrich any player’s understanding of chess’s infinite possibilities. This was brought home to me again recently when Kingston’s head of training, FM Julian Way, led an online discussion of the fifth game of the match with Botvinnik. It was a great choice;  there is so much to learn from it.

Kingston beat Hammersmith to keep title hopes alive

Hammersmith A v Kingston A, Thames Valley division 1 match played at the London MindSports Centre, London W6 on 14 March 2024

Fate, or the Thames Valley fixtures secretaries, decreed that in the week beginning 11 March our first team played season-defining matches against its two main rivals: Epsom in the Surrey League and Hammersmith in the Thames Valley League. We had recorded a famous victory against Epsom on the Monday; could we do the same at Hammersmith on the Thursday? They were also playing their second match in a week, but had only drawn at Richmond, so maybe we would go into the clash with more confidence.

On arrival at the impressive London MindSports Centre we discovered that the Hammersmith team was missing some of its strongest players, a few of whom were playing in the Reykjavik Open. They were still able to field a challenging team, however. Their top board, Thomas Bonn, had won seven and drawn just one of his eight TVL games before this match.

The game on board 3 was the first to finish. Peter Lalić opened with the Mieses Opening (1. d3) against Hammersmith captain Bajrush Kelmendi’s customary double fianchetto. Peter soon took control of the c-file and Bajrush’s pieces were an unhappy picture by move 27:

None of them can defend g6. There was a very conclusive denouement, starting from this position:

The evolution of the opening on board 6 was instructive. John Foley’s opponent, Greg Billenness, clearly wanted an attacking game, as he choose the Blackmar Gambit: 1.d4 d5 2. e4. However, John foiled this by playing 2…c6 to transpose to his familiar Caro-Kann Defence. White was still determined to have a tactical game and chose the double-edged Fantasy Variation (3. f3). John was ready for this, and played what he described as “the sharpest line of the sharpest line”, giving this position (not for the faint-hearted) after move 4.

Sitting next to John, I spent almost as much time looking at his game as my own, since it seemed much more interesting. After 5. dxe5 Bc5 6. Na4 Qa5+ 7. c3 Bxg1 8.Rxg1 John could have played 8…dxe4, winning back the pawn, but instead chose to make it a gambit with Nd7. John built up pressure in the centre and as a result Greg first gave up a pawn and then the exchange. John had to be careful, as White’s queen and knight threatened to combine against Black’s king, but in the end the Hammersmith player’s time pressure told and he blundered the knight. 2-0 to Kingston.

David Maycock is never afraid to sacrifice the exchange for an attack, and in this game, a Sicilian Defence, he did it twice. First, in the position below.

David decided to use his mobile pawn majority by playing 20. c5. Black took the rook – 20…Nxc1 21. Rxc1 – but erred by playing 21…dxc5 (Rd8 was better), which was answered by 22. d6! Three moves later this position arose, with White to play.

My own game featured a reversal of fortunes. Reaching this position from a Giuoco Piano, I felt I was on top and just needed to work out how to pursue a kingside attack:

As we were well ahead in the match I offered a draw here. It’s actually still quite a tricky position for both sides. A queen exchange is likely to favour Black, whose rook and king will be better placed, but my opponent was probably worried about his time, so he accepted the offer.

On board 4 Will Taylor was facing Christof Brixel, who must be underrated – he’s actually won all his TVL games this season. In a difficult position arising from an English Opening, Will lost the exchange and had to resign soon after.

The final game finished in unusual circumstances. Silverio Abasolo, who had loyally come all the way from Kent to play, needed to finish in time to catch the train back. In a close ending he blitzed out his moves and eventually the players agreed a draw, unfortunately too late for Silverio to get the train he wanted. We were very grateful for his participation, as apart from giving the team an extra half-point it also meant that his team-mates below him played a board lower than they otherwise would have.

This completed a perfect week for Kingston’s first team, with wins against our main rivals in the two leagues, leaving us with an outside chance of the title in both. This victory put us level with Hammersmith on match points, but they had three game points more, so as well as winning our final two matches we would need to win well and hope our rivals slipped up.

David Rowson, Kingston A captain in the Thames Valley League