Convincing start to Alexander Cup hat-trick campaign

Alexander Cup first round played over 10 boards at St Thomas’s Church, Streatham on 3 October 2023

Kingston, playing away to Streatham & Brixton, won 7-3 in the first round of the Alexander Cup, which is the knockout competition for teams in the Surrey League. This was the opening fixture of the season for Kingston’s first team, which won impressively on the top five boards. In spite of the summer break, the team has come back refreshed and ready for action. No doubt the fact that most of the top players participated in the Kingston Invitational has helped to expand their opening repertoires, strengthen their positional nous and sharpen their tactics. Although the final result was convincing, during the match the games ebbed and flowed and after two and a half hours Kingston was only edging ahead 4-3.

Lost in thought: Peter Andrews (left, facing) alongside David Rowson

The highlight of the match was the win on board 1 for Kingston by David Maycock (ECF-rated 2289) against Venkat Tiruchirapalli (2320). This was their second encounter in the Alexander Cup this calendar year – David also beat Venkat in last season’s semi-final in January. Venkat played the Breyer Variation against David’s Ruy Lopez, but soon got into trouble. David, who had prepared for the encounter, made not one but two exchange sacrifices to leave Venkat in zugzwang with queens still on the board. This was a sublime game which the team members praised afterwards as being among David’s best so far in his promising career.

On board 2, Streatham’s Phil Makepeace (2176) avoided early complications by going for a double fianchetto in a queen’s pawn opening. Vladimir Li (2263) put his queen’s bishop outside the pawn chain and waited for White to do something. Sure enough, White opened up the position, after which the Vladimir’s more actively placed pieces dominated the board. At 9:01pm our on-site commentator Stephen Moss sent an update on WhatsApp to the club faithful: “Vladimir’s position against Phil Makepeace is wild. Monster calculation required.” Two minutes later he was obliged to issue a correction, “Ignore my last message. My stupidity. For wild read complex, but Vladimir had it under complete control and his opponent has just resigned.” This is the burden upon a chess commentator – how to rapidly assess a complex position between strong players.

David Maycock (right) v Venkat Tiruchirapalli: Martin Smith watches while Stephen Moss frets over the match score

Kingston’s Mike Healey (2236) against James Toon (2097) on board 3 was the first game to finish in just over an hour and notched the first point to Kingston. Mike belied his reputation as a purveyor of chess anarchy by playing a splendidly practical game. He thought it was dull; we found it delicious. He went a pawn up, traded off pieces and that was that. He could take the early train home.

The board 4 game between Streatham’s Robin Haldane (2076) as White and Silverio Abasolo (2226) was a delight to watch. Robin advanced his pawns in the middle and on the kingside with aggressive intent. Silverio was completely calm about the situation and to while away the time watched some other games until Robin finally launched his attack. Silverio was fully prepared and had massed several pieces against Robin’s f4-pawn in an obverse strategy to overprotection. Once the position opened up, it was clear that Silverio held the upper hand. However, Robin had some tricks up his sleeve and, although down to just a few minutes, he reeled off some fancy moves. Silverio had seen it all and won a piece for two passed pawns. The endgame was blitzed out by both players. Whereas ordinary players might try to stop the passed pawns, Silverio opted to go for checkmate directly. It was not obvious how he was going to mate with rook and bishop against a king on the flank, but with the reinforcement of the king into the fray he achieved victory in the nick of time.

Matthew Tillett (1988) of Streatham put up strong resistance in the Pirc Defence to Peter Lalić (2251) on board 5. Peter described the game as uneventful, by which he meant there were no sacrifices or wild attacks. Peter focused on improving the position of his pieces and sidelining the enemy knight on the queenside. As the pieces were gradually exchanged, the relative advantage of Peter’s pieces became evident. It was a slow and systematic victory.

Whereas on the top half of the team list, Kingston scored 5/5, on the more evenly matched bottom half Kingston scored only 2/5. Peter Andrews (board 8) and Alan Scrimgour (board 10) took draws, having checked the match position. On board 6, Ben Simpson (1977) defended well against Will Taylor (2091), who left himself with too little time to prosecute the attack. When Ben forced the exchange of queens, Will’s attack was bust and Streatham took the point. On board 9, Kingston’s Julian Way essayed the Three Knights Game a little too casually, leaving his king stranded in the middle unable to castle. Mark O’Neill finished off the game with a sacrificial flourish.

David Rowson was making no progress on board 7 and his offer of a draw was refused by Azizur Rahman. As the game drifted into completely drawn territory, David adopted a stoic demeanour. Suddenly, out of the blue, David complicated matters by sacrificing the exchange for a couple of pawns and an advanced outpost for his knight. Nobody could work out who was winning as the worn-out players entered a time scramble. In the dramatic finale, they each had a minute left on the clock. Rahman allowed a knight fork against king and rook. David picked up his knight and played it to the wrong square, but before he released his finger he switched squares to deliver the fatal blow. The victory came after two hours and 50 minutes of intense concentration.

The time control was 75 minutes plus 10 seconds for each move. This match was the first played under the new arrangements for three-hour matches in the Surrey League. Both teams had non-playing captains – John Foley for Kingston and Martin Smith for Streatham. During the match, the captains conducted detailed discussion about how to interpret the new arrangements whereby the clocks are stopped after three hours of play and the result of each game is to be “determined” by agreement between the captains and the relevant players, with the default being adjudication. Fortunately all the games were completed with 10 minutes to spare, so the new arrangements did not need to be activated.

Kingston has won the Alexander Cup for the past two seasons. We will now face Coulsdon at home in the semi-final, with Epsom or Wimbledon waiting should we progress to the final. On a personal note, Martin Smith kindly purchased a copy of my new book for beginners, Checkmate!, which has just been published. It is to be an addition to the Streatham chess library and a recommendation to Streatham juniors. To be fair, I had previously purchased a copy of Martin’s magisterial history of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club. Authors in the chess sphere provide support to each other.

John Foley, Kingston Alexander Cup captain