Author Archives: stephenmoss

Kingston overwhelm Epsom in Alexander Cup

Alexander Cup match (10 boards) played at the Haywain Brewers Fayre, Epsom on 22 November 2021

Wimbledon provocateur Paul Barasi has been complaining that Kingston’s season seems to comprise of nothing but beating up Epsom, and he has a point. After defeating them in the Lauder Trophy earlier this month, Kingston have now given their ambitious rival (revived in the past few years by Marcus Gosling and already on course to become one of Surrey’s strongest clubs) a fearful drubbing in the county’s most prestigious cup competition.
 
Barasi complained when, on Twitter, Kingston described the Lauder win as “epic”, doubting that Epsom deserved the epithet. But Kingston have struggled in the past decade or so, whereas reborn Epsom have been soaring, and the Lauder victory felt like a watershed. This much-anticipated Alexander Cup match was an even more significant moment, with Gosling & Co out for revenge, Epsom enjoying home advantage and Kingston captain John Foley reminding his troops that Kingston had not won the Alexander Cup since 1976.

Kingston from left: Scrimgour, Gibbons, Foley, Healey, Taylor, Maycock, Rowson, Bussmann, Lalic, Eckert

Kingston had an average rating advantage of around 30 points a board (in the new four-digit classification), but a close match was nonetheless anticipated. Epsom, in their impressive pub venue with a quiet playing room and tables in an adjoining room for social chess, had installed a large scoreboard and bought pricey new wooden boards for what they clearly saw as a defining match. But as the night wore on and the scoreboard recorded their tale of woe, they must have wished they had kept it all a little more low key.

Alan Scrimgour, playing his trusty Sicilian on board seven, led the way for Kingston with a 22-move victory over Natasha Regan, whose ambitious piece sacrifice backfired. Epsom’s Daniel Young on board four tried a speculative knight manoeuvre that came unstuck against Kingston’s wily David Rowson. It was 2-0, and Epsom may already have been wishing they hadn’t invested in the new scoreboard.

Kingston were soon sprinting ahead, with a smooth win on board three for David Maycock over Kevin Thurlow, and a very fine victory by John Bussmann over former Kingston regular Matthew Baker. Bussmann is noted as a sharp tactician, but here he played with great positional precision in a game which chess luminary John Saunders later described as the “game of the day”. Veterans Jon Eckert and Malcolm Groom agreed a draw on board 10, giving Epsom their first half point, but the writing was already on the wall. Literally, thanks to that wretched giant scoreboard.
 
Paul Gibbons, playing his first match of the season for Kingston, secured a draw on board eight that took the running points total to five, and soon after Peter Lalic, on board two, produced a spectacular double-piece sacrifice to force checkmate and take Kingston over the finishing line and into the semi-finals. The Lalic game was a truly extraordinary one, with Peter playing a characteristically imaginative and challenging opening which completely bamboozled his opponent, Michael Dams. Saunders points out that there is no precedent among ChessBase’s new Mega DataBase 2022’s 9.2 million games for the first two moves played in this encounter: 1. Nc3 e6 2. d3 Bb4. And it got crazier from there.

Epsom from left: Anvarinaeini, Dams, Thurlow, Baker, Gosling, Regan, Young, Hamilton, Groom.
IM Peter Large was exercising the time-honoured prerogative of the team’s board one to arrive late for the match

The match had been won, the champagne corks were already popping back at the Willoughby Arms – metaphorically speaking that is: in reality Greg Heath was having another beer and the ascetic twentysomethings following the match via WhatsApp were sipping their glasses of Diet Coke – and all that remained was the mopping up. At Epsom, not the Willoughby.
 
John Foley won a queenless middlegame with a precisely calculated pawn advance against Robert Hamilton on board six; Will Taylor (having nobly made the trek down from Walthamstow) drew with Epsom president Marcus Gosling on board five; and, in the last game to finish, IM Peter Large won a roller-coaster struggle with Mike Healey to record Epsom’s sole win of the evening, drawing Healey’s king into a mating net with Large’s own king and two bishops. Healey thought he had drawing chances if he had traded his rook for one of those killer bishops, but went for glory and paid the price.
 
By then, though, the match was long over and Kingston were celebrating, with a final result of 7.5-2.5. Gosling promised there would be a painful post-mortem – he threw an imaginary punch as he said it – and next year Epsom will be back even stronger. Their ambition knows no bounds, and good for them. But for the moment, Kingston had the spoils and Foley’s dream of winning the Alexander Cup for the first time in almost 50 years was still alive.

Stephen Moss

Chess rebels: inside the mind of the Covid militants

Why do so many chess players resist society’s demands that they take precautions against the pandemic?

Stephen Moss

Are chess players naturally libertarian? Given that many players – often men of a certain age, sedentary, not very fit, sometimes large of stomach, with a passion for beer and fried breakfasts – are in the vulnerable group for Covid, and indeed quite a few people from the chess community in the UK have succumbed to the pandemic, you might think there would be an across-the-board (in every sense) commitment to vaccination, mask-wearing and other anti-Covid measures.

But you would be wrong. I heard from one club official that when he raised the subject of mask wearing at a committee meeting just before the return of OTB chess, he was mocked for mentioning the possibility of playing in masks. People just wanted to get back to the board as if nothing had happened, despite the fact that thousands were still being infected and hospitalised and hundreds dying every day.

The discussions on the English Chess Forum have been instructive. The respected chess arbiter – and decent player – David Sedgwick started a thread labelled “Facemask openings”. “I am looking for an opening repertoire for games where I am obliged to wear a facemask and therefore want to get the game over quickly one way or another,” he wrote. “Does anyone have any suggestions? Dubious but not hopeless gambits or counter-gambits are one obvious possibility. So are lines which more or less force the opponent to acquiesce in a draw.”

Other contributors did have suggestions, including the rude (a not uncommon phenomenon on the forum) “play your usual stuff”. But what was interesting, to me at least, was that no one seemed to question Sedgwick’s premise: that mandatory mask-wearing was an imposition that should be resisted, or at the very least mocked by playing a style of chess that would guarantee as quick a finish as possible.

There is a huge thread on the forum called “Chess life returning to normal” – it currently runs to a whopping 159 pages – and while there are some naysayers who argue that we are still gripped by a pandemic and have to tread very warily, mostly you sense a desperate desire to return to the world we knew pre-Covid – a world without restrictions, and, in the case of the libertarian chess wing, without masks or Covid passports or any of the paraphernalia of what they would see as the nanny state. People calling masks “nappies” is a sure sign of this privileging of personal freedom over public safety.

In the US last spring, this battle between the health lobby and the libertarians found a lively focus in chess. The famous Marshall Chess Club, on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, banned members who had not been vaccinated against Covid from using its historic premises and said you could only play there if you could show you had been vaccinated – if, in other words, you carried a vaccine passport.

The club’s stringent policy led to demonstrations outside the venue, a lovely townhouse bequeathed by former US chess champion Frank Marshall. The demos were organised by longstanding member Anthony Kozikowski, who considered the banning of anti-vaxxers to be authoritarian. While some of his fellow members were trying to play quietly inside the club, Kozikowski led a raucous rally against the restrictions in the street outside, and in response the Marshall revoked his membership for five years.

“I am heartbroken that I have been thrown out of this club,” the New York Post reported him as saying (shouting actually) at one of the demos he led, “but I would be thrown out of this club 10,000 more times if that’s what it takes to stop vaccine passports in this country. I will not live in a country of vaccine apartheid.” The club president, Noah Chasin, was unabashed. “Our sincere desire lies in ensuring the safety of the club for the greatest number of people,” he wrote to members, “and at this time we believe that guaranteeing an environment exclusively for vaccinated people is the most prudent way to begin the transition back to business as usual.”

It is a classic battle between liberty and those who argue that liberty can sometimes become licence. You are not free, say those who demand tight restrictions and precautions, to put the health of others at risk. Chess is uniquely a game that pits healthy 17-year-olds against vulnerable 70-year-olds, and, worse, puts them in close proximity for three hours or more. Yet chess players, who you might think would be alive to the dangers of being dead because of Covid, are often among the foremost opponents of what they see as the heavy hand of state bureaucracy.

The question is why. Chess is a game with carefully laid down rules and conventions, built up over hundred of years, so players are clearly not anarchists, even if their awful behaviour at the board can sometimes veer towards to anarchic. But chess players are also natural rebels. When I was researching my book The Rookie, I played at the Marshall Club and in Washington Square Park. Chess in New York, indeed throughout the US, is aggressive and money-oriented, with lots of trash talking. Many of the players, especially the hustlers in the squares and parks, are tough nuts who are set apart from conventional society. Chess, certainly in the US and I suspect elsewhere in the world, is the preserve of rebels and free-thinkers, contrarians and trouble-makers, who have disconnected themselves – or perhaps were already disconnected – from conventional life. They are living life on the margins, and see every action of the state as an imposition.

I would like to claim this as a profound observation which I arrived at entirely on my own, but it was really prompted by reading Arnold Denker’s amusing memoir, The Bobby Fischer I Knew, on an Amtrak train from St Louis to a tournament in Chicago. “As I mentally rummage through the years and try to capture with memory’s eye the great players of the last several decades,” wrote Denker, “I find one characteristic common to almost all of them: a bitterness about and rebelliousness against the inequitable social and economic conditions of the real world … For them, playing the royal game was a purely personal statement against social injustice.” The royal game, in other words, is actually the plebeian game: cast out of the “real” world, chess players have created their own world, an esoteric, enclosed landscape in which they have mastery.

In the memoir, Denker tells a funny story about the chess and poker hustler Jacob Bernstein, one of a rich cast of characters active on the New York chess scene from the 1920s to the 1950s, a period summoned up evocatively by Denker, a US champion who died at the age of 90 in 2005. Bernstein was at a Woodrow Wilson-for-President rally. “Mr Wilson, is it true that if you’re elected, every man will have work?” asked Bernstein. “Yes”, replied Wilson. “But Mr Wilson, I don’t want to work!” Spoken like a true chess pro, many of whom have spent their whole lives scraping a living from the 64 to avoid the rigours of more conventional labour.

Alexander Cockburn, in his 1974 book Idle Passion, made this rejection of convention explicitly political. “Chess is par excellence the pastime of a disinherited ruling class that continues to crave political domination but has seen it usurped. Just as, in psychoanalytic terms, chess is a way of sublimating oedipal conflicts, so, in social terms, it is a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by the player over his pieces is consolation for lost power.”

Now, it is fair to say that parts of Idle Passion are rather pretentious, and some may choose to write off Cockburn’s psychoanalytically inclined musings as twaddle. But I find that phrase “empty omnipotence” telling. Chess players are often hugely intelligent people who have decided to devote a large chunk of their lives to shuffling wooden pieces around a board. Albert Einstein berated world champion Emanuel Lasker for wasting his mathematical genius doing just this. Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree countered by insisting that chess was a game “beautiful enough to waste your life for” – a bitter-sweet conclusion if ever there was one.

Chess players have either made a conscious decision to opt out of conventional life or they feel as if society has excluded them, done them down in some way, is a hostile force from which they must protect themselves. Either way, they are marginalised and see the 64 squares as a form of protection. It is little wonder that when society fights back and demands they obey the norms of conventional living, they resist the routine restrictions they are being asked to accept. Their whole life has been lived in opposition to normality, and they are not about to start conforming now. The only norms they are interested in are GM norms.

Did Spassky really want to win the match of the century?

A provocative article in Chess Magazine attempts a starkly revisionist reading of the world champion’s match against Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. But should we take the extraordinary claim that he never intended to win the match seriously?

Stephen Moss

The latest issue of Chess Magazine contains a fascinating/diverting/ridiculous (delete according to your view of whether the arguments really stand up) article about the 1972 world championship match between Boris Spassky, the suave Russian champion, and Bobby Fischer, the abrasive American challenger. The event is of course the foundation stone of modern chess: certainly in the UK where the match, which was a global news sensation, inspired a generation of players who propelled England to No 2 chess nation in the world behind the Soviet Union.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable match, which has already spawned countless books, films and even a musical – Chess, by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. There will no doubt be plenty more coverage next year when we relive the match all over again. The fact that this defining event will not go away is double-edged: it’s great for the game to be in the news, but less desirable that all the general public really know about chess derives from a 50-year-old contest and a deranged chess genius who barely played after he won the title and died more than a decade ago.

Spassky v Fischer Reykjavik 1972

But back to the article in Chess Magazine. The writer, Stewart Player, who as far as I can see does not appear to be a chess historian of any standing (apologies to Mr Player if his oeuvre has unaccountably passed me by), argues that Spassky was far from disappointed to lose. Indeed, Player goes further than that; he says “Spassky had no intention of winning the match”.

Player’s argument is that Spassky didn’t prepare properly, bent over backwards to accept Fischer’s ever more extreme demands regarding conditions – including, Player says, “agreeing to play game three in a janitor’s broom cupboard” – and was above all concerned that the match was played to a conclusion, so he got his cut of the fee. “The main thing as far as Spassky was concerned”, says Player, “was that the match went ahead and that he must not lose his erratic opponent.” He argues that Spassky was already planning to leave the Soviet Union and anticipated “lucrative return matches” once he was based abroad. Player cites in his support an incendiary quote from former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik alleging that Spassky “threw” the match, but I would like to know the provenance of this. There is no footnote giving the source or context in which Botvinnik made the alleged remark, nor is the original Russian given. It doesn’t feel quite right: do Russians even talk about “throwing” a match? Something may have been lost in translation, and we surely need to see the original text for this crucial – and perhaps rather un-Botvinnik-like – allegation.

Player suggests that Spassky had a carefully worked out game plan – just not for this match! “By proving pliable and not antagonising Fischer,” he argues, “the likelihood of future million-dollar ‘title’ matches would remain, as in subsequent interviews both Spassky and Fischer talked about rematches outside FIDE jurisdiction. And these would be in the US, with Las Vegas the most oft-quoted venue.”

So, fascinating, diverting or ridiculous? Not quite fascinating because Player’s evidence is thin and rather circumstantial. He says at one point that Spassky’s long-time coach, Igor Bondarevsky, may have split with him because Spassky told him it was his intention to grant concessions to Fischer. But not a shred of evidence is offered to back up this claim. Player is just guessing that “in an argument, in his [Spassky’s] cups”, such an admission might have been made. Sorry, that’s at least one might too many. Such bold revisionism needs something more substantial to back it up.

Since I have chosen to write about Player’s article, I suppose I am admitting that the re-reading of the match is not wholly ridiculous. Clearly, Spassky did not prepare hard enough; did offer Fischer too many concessions in terms of conditions – perhaps giving the challenger a psychological edge; did miss Bondarevsky; perhaps thought too much about money rather than focusing entirely on beating Fischer, who on the strength of their previous encounters he may have underestimated; may even already have been thinking of life outside the Soviet Union – he moved to France in 1976 and became a French citizen in 1978. But all this is far from proving Player’s central contention that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match”. Let’s then file the piece under the non-committal heading of “diverting”.

David Edmonds, co-author with John Eidinow (whose name Player misspells) of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, is not willing to be quite so charitable. He dismisses the new reading of the match out of hand, and is not best pleased that Player damns his and Eidinow’s book with faint praise, calling it “very useful on Spassky’s background … while never straying too far from the routine narrative”. “There is absolutely nothing there,” Edmonds tells me, “not a single piece of evidence. My initial reaction is to be surprised that they [Chess Magazine] have given this claim column inches. This should be making international headlines if true. What a scoop! Presumably he has a response from Spassky?” Spassky, of course, is incapacitated by a stroke, and has made no response to Player’s claims.

“The idea that the best way to maximise his future income was to lose is risible,” Edmonds argues. “Why would there be more money on offer for a rematch if he was the challenger rather than the champion? His [Spassky’s] income, following defeat, took a predictable hit. He had also seen what had happened to Taimanov after losing to Fischer. Why would he risk that?” Fischer beat Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates quarter-final in 1971 – a humiliating reverse that the Soviet authorities believed must have had a “political explanation”, leading them to reduce Taimanov’s salary and ban him from travelling overseas.

Edmonds insists his and Eidinow’s book was far from routine. “The standard narrative until our book was that Spassky, though indeed a gentleman, was a Soviet stooge,” he tells me. “That’s how he’s presented in most of the press coverage and the books that emerge in the immediate aftermath of the match. Our interviews and Soviet documents revealed the tensions in the Soviet camp and the authorities’ dissatisfaction with him.”

Edmonds says that if the claim that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match” was true, then even now Spassky should be looking for a publisher for a tell-all memoir. “If Spassky was really so motivated by money, ” says Edmonds, “then he could sell this story, even today, for a skyscraper high pile of dosh.  It seems to me to be pretty irresponsible to make the sort of claim this article makes without a shred of evidence.”

I asked Richard Palliser, editor of Chess Magazine, about Player’s piece. He doesn’t go quite as far as his author in suggesting Spassky never intended to win, but he does believe there were psychological factors at play that could have undermined Spassky before and during the match. “My take on the piece wasn’t that Spassky threw the match,” Palliser tells me, “[but] rather that he wasn’t too unhappy to lose. [I] suspect he still fought tooth and nail in every game, but at the back of his mind was the realisation that losing would have some benefits. Surely every chess player has been there at some point?”

Perhaps the crown was weighing rather too heavily on Spassky’s head. Might he have been seeking the freedom to go back to being an ordinary chess player, rather than a standard-bearer for the Soviet system? It may be that the book we need most of all to mark the 50th anniversary of the epic encounter in Reykjavik is a comprehensive biography of Spassky, one that examines his true motivations back in 1971-72. What did he really want out of the match? How did he see the future? Did he underestimate Fischer – his preparation was indeed woeful and discounted the possibility that Fischer might play 1. d4 – or was he subconsciously willing his own destruction and that of the Soviet chess machine, perhaps even of the Soviet Union itself? So many millions of words have been devoted to Fischer. Now we need to pay some attention to his adversary in that magnificent, myth-laden match.

Boris Spassky vs Robert James Fischer

The famous 13th game of the world championship match showed each player striving to win. Spassky gave up a pawn to obtain space and mobility. Fischer used a tactic to exchange queens and reach an ending where he had a preponderance of queenside pawns and then sacrificed a bishop to march these pawns forward. Spassky stoutly defended the complex and unbalanced endgame until he had to make a crucial decision which way to check Fischer’s king. It was a 50:50 decision with four minutes to play four moves, but the path he chose allowed Fischer to break through.

World championship match, Reykjavik, Iceland, 13th game, 10 August 1972
Alekhine Defence: Modern, Alburt Variation (B04)

A talk through video by Antonio Radić (Agadmator) gives more details on the game.

Kingston on verge of victory over Surbiton

Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the United Reformed Church, Surbiton on 2 November 2021

Local rivalry renewed and once again Kingston are in charge against the auld enemy, though it was admittedly the Kingston first team up against Surbiton B in Division 2 of the Thames Valley League. Both teams were missing key personnel, and Kingston suffered a late withdrawal, which meant that the captain himself had to play – never a happy situation. For a long time, it looked as if Surbiton would prevail, but at the end, as the cold in their wintry new church venue told, there were some strange twists that changed the picture entirely.

The facts. Peter Lalic, whose arrival at Kingston alongside David Maycock has helped to transform the club’s fortunes, played the Budapest Gambit and won a pleasing game against Liam Bayly on top board. Jon Eckert overcame a ratings deficit of 140 points and a poor lifetime score against his opponent to beat Paul Dupré in an excellent game on board two. On board three, Surbiton’s Nick Faulks returned the favour by overturning another large ratings deficit to defeat Kingston’s David Rowson.

From Eckert v Dupré, White to play and checkmate in 15 moves ignoring desperadoes (answer)

I was very lucky to squeeze a draw out of my game on board five against the solid and thoughtful David Cole. I sacrificed (or perhaps just lost) a pawn for what turned out to be nothing early on, and was always up against it. David had what was almost certainly a winning rook endgame but happily no time to prosecute it, so rather than trying to win on the increment took my rather desperate draw offer. On board six, Adam Nakar dropped a piece early and looked certain to lose, but fought valiantly and secured a miracle draw two pawns down in an endgame where opposite-coloured bishops were the only pieces left on the board. He has written a blog about the joys of such endings – the point being that with opposite-coloured bishops you should never give up even the least promising-looking of positions.

That made it 3-2 to Kingston, so it all hinged on board four. Cue anti-climax: the two players – Kingston’s extremely promising newcomer John Shanley (the medical hero of the Maidenhead match the previous week) and Surbiton’s Andrew Boughen – adjourned. Shanley has the edge and I am foolishly already calling the match as a win for Kingston, but we won’t have a definitive result for a couple of weeks.

This raises all sorts of questions. Should we really still be playing adjournments in the age of engines and digital clocks that allow for increments so avoid flagging? Why on earth does the Thames Valley League permit a variety of different time controls to be played in the same match? Quickplay on some boards; slowplay on other boards; even different forms of quickplay, with some players allowed to opt for increments and others for fixed times. We were using three different time controls across six boards, which is madness, yet permissible under Thames Valley rules.

It’s a shambles, a nightmare for captains, confusing for players and needs to be rationalised. Some clubs opt for two-and-a-half-hour playing sessions and others for three-hour sessions, each of which comes with a variety of different time controls, adding to the confusion. I count at least six different time controls in use in the league. Sorry, but this needs to be looked at as soon as possible. Why not 75 minutes and a 10-second increment for all evening chess? That’s fair, easy to understand and provides sufficient time for a perfectly good game.

 A blog by club chairman John Foley covers these issues in more detail 

But enough ranting. Thanks to Surbiton for an excellent match that was in the balance to the end – indeed could, I suppose, still be said to be in the balance, though the doctor’s diagnosis is that his opponent is unlikely to recover. It’s nice for the club to be off the mark in the Thames Valley. We would love to be back in Division 1. And, speaking for myself, I was extremely pleased to squeak a draw as a last-minute substitute after the Maidenhead disaster last week. My season is up and running … or at least stumbling.

Stephen Moss, Kingston Thames Valley captain

P.S. John Shanley drew his adjourned game when it was resumed after a two-week delay. He was a little disappointed not to convert his advantage, but, as his opponent said, a computer’s evaluation that you have a 2.7 plus is not so easy to convert in practical play in a rook v bishop and knight endgame. In the end, a draw was agreed, so Kingston did win the match, getting us off the mark in Thames Valley League division two, which we are very hopeful of winning this season (famous last words).

Kingston back on Lauder trail with epic win

Lauder Trophy match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 1 November 2021

Epsom, the brash new boys on the Surrey club chess scene, arrived at the Willoughby Arms full of hope and self-belief for the opening round of the 2021/22 Lauder Trophy. Happily, Kingston were able to snuff out the potent threat they posed and secure a 4-2 win that put them back in the hunt for the cup they won in 2018/19 but lost to South Norwood in the recent final of the 2019/20 competition (the 2020/21 event was lost completely to the pandemic).

There was a wonderful match-up on board one between Kingston’s bright new teenage star David Maycock, who recently came third alongside GMs Keith Arkell and Mark Hebden in the Hull Weekender, and Epsom’s veteran international master Peter Large. Their game was complex (too complex for me to grasp at least), but Large – with white – gradually took control, built up a time advantage, kept squeezing, and Maycock was eventually forced to resign. A victory for experience over youth.

On board two, the last game to finish, Vladimir Bovtramovics came out on top in a tense struggle with Epsom captain Marcus Gosling, whose piece sacrifice proved to be unsound; wily tactician John Bussmann forced a quick win on board three when Malcolm Groom played the London System but omitted to castle; Jon Eckert, who has made an excellent start to the season, won efficiently on board four; Yae-Chan Yang, returning to chess after five years and making his league debut for the club, overwhelmed his opponent on board five, sidestepping the Hillbilly attack against his Caro Kann and coolly building his own attack while playing on the increment (though he said later that the coolness was an illusion and tribute to his acting skills because inside he was shaking throughout); Jake Grubb, another Kingston league debutant, fought bravely but eventually succumbed to a tide of black pawns sweeping up the board.

Vladimir Bovtramovics v Marcus Gosling (Photo: John Foley)

A terrific match, played in an excellent spirit in front of almost 20 Kingstonians who had come along to support. Thanks to the Willoughby, as ever, for hosting, with supporters spilling out of the playing room and into the bars and garden. “Bring us back some silverware!,” bellowed Rick the landlord when he learned of Kingston’s progress to the Lauder semi-final, where we will face Ashtead or Dorking. We’ll do our best Rick.

Stephen Moss, Kingston Lauder Trophy captain

Kingston runners-up in Lauder Trophy

Lauder Trophy final against South Norwood played at the neutral venue of Ashtead Peace Memorial Hall on 19 October 2021

Which of course is another way of saying we lost 4-2 in the final to South Norwood (well done to them and their canny captain David Howes). The fault was largely mine as captain, not least as I failed to explain the time control properly to Murugan Kanagasapay (playing on board five for Kingston). He didn’t realise he was going to get an extra 20 minutes after the first hour and hurried through his moves as the initial control approached, blundering and eventually losing the game.

The spacious playing room at Ashtead

But there were no excuses really. Adam Nakar was furious with himself for failing to convert a wonderful attacking position on board four; John Bussmann was outfoxed by Paul Dupre on board two; Jon Eckert drew a sharp game on board three; Greg Heath won nicely for Kingston on board six; and honours were shared in the game on top board between Kingston’s David Maycock and South Norwood’s flagbearer Tariq Oozerally.

Tariq Oozerally v David Maycock

A good match, but Kingston’s luck ran out after our somewhat fortuitous victory in the semi-final over Guildford. No time to mope, though. This was the conclusion of the Covid-paused 2019/20 Lauder Trophy; the 2020/21 tournament was lost completely; but in a week we begin our 2021/22 campaign. There hasn’t even been time to sack the captain, despite protests among Kingston’s loyal fan base and moves to engineer an injection of funds from a foreign oligarch to boost the team. I have vowed to stay on and turn things round – at least until I can secure a multimillion-pound payoff.

Stephen Moss, Kingston Lauder Trophy captain

Kingston edge out Guildford in dramatic Lauder semi-final

Lauder Trophy semi-final (resumption of the Covid-suspended 2019-20 competition) played at the Guildford Institute on 20 September 2021

Well, that was pretty amazing. Two-thirds of the way through this semi-final match, Kingston were losing 2.5 to 0.5, and looked almost certain to be beaten and to have their hands prised from the Lauder Trophy, which we had won in 2018-19. But there was to be the strangest of conclusions to this extraordinary match …

Oliver Luen playing it cool as Black (Mike Gunn standing)

First, some context. Kingston are the holders of the Lauder Trophy, having won it in 2018-19 for the first time in almost two decades. This semi-final was part of the 2019-20 competition. The match had been due to be played in March 2020, but we all know what happened in that dire month. The Surrey Chess Association decided to play the 2019-20 tournament to a conclusion, pretend that 2020/21 never happened (which of course it didn’t chess-wise) and start the 2021/22 tournament in November. Pity the poor Lauder Trophy captain who has to juggle all this.

The other key point about the Lauder is that there is a collective grade limit. We had been waiting so long to play this match that the English Chess Federation has changed the grading system from three digits to four in the interim, so what used to be an overall limit for the competition of 841 has become one of 10,505 (why not 10,500 for simplicity?). Captains can slice their team any way they like, but if you use up 2800 points by having Magnus Carlsen on board one, you are likely to be quite weak on the bottom boards. That is the beauty of the competition: in theory you get very well-balanced matches (as we saw at Guildford). One does, however, always have to keep an eye on unscrupulous captains putting in players on dodgy estimated grades (Carlsen has no official Surrey rating, so if he did wander into the Willoughby Arms for a game I’d probably seek to play him in the Lauder at an estimated grade of around 1600).

The semi-final was played at Guildford at their terrific venue and in an excellent atmosphere. There were two titans on board one – John Foley for Kingston and Julien Shepley (complete with generous lockdown beard) for Guildford, and these old rivals fairly rapidly agreed a draw. Greg Heath went wrong in a good position on board six and lost; Jon Eckert played what he said later was a very sharp opening as black on board three and also came unstuck. 2.5 to 0.5 to Guildford, with the other three games looking evenly balanced and an hour still to play. Things looked ominous, and I was resigned to handing the battered trophy, which I had brought along, over to Guildford’s Lauder captain, Mike Gunn.

But miracles do happen. Ljubica Lazarevic won well against a higher-rated player on board four – she said she’d swindled him but we are convinced she was in control throughout. John Bussmann drew on board two – a game he felt he should have won (but Jon always feels that). 3-2 to Guildford. Since they had won on board three, I feared that was the match gone. Surely board count would consign Kingston to defeat.

John Bussmann (left) and Ljubica Lazarevic (right) with Jon Eckert watching

There was, though, to be one final twist: Oliver Luen won brilliantly on board five to equalise the score at 3-3. Board count, with top board scoring 6 and bottom board 1, was also equal, with the decisive games scoring 5-5. And a quick consultation of the Surrey association rules by Julian Way, who had generously come along to support Kingston, showed that, in the event of a tie on board count, the bottom board score was eliminated first, leaving Kingston the winners.

Gunn took the news with remarkable equanimity, as Kingston had been under the cosh all night and now squeezed through on a technicality. We now face South Norwood in the final at the neutral venue of Ashtead on Tuesday 19 October. I’m not sure my nerves can take it.

Stephen Moss, Kingston Lauder Trophy captain