Kingston 2 falter against determined South Norwood 1

South Norwood 1 v Kingston 2, Surrey League division 2 match played at West Thornton Community Centre, Thornton Heath on 4 April 2024

South Norwood are usually a very different proposition at home compared with when they travel, and so it proved here. Threatened by relegation from Surrey division 2, they put out their strongest possible team against Kingston 2 and ran out winners by 5-2. But we had some hard luck stories, and on another night we might have come away with a 3.5-3.5 draw.

The first game to finish was a gloriously violent struggle between South Norwood’s Ronald Harris and Kingston’s Jon Eckert on board 4. Forty years ago, Ron was a 2200-level player and, now 80, has retained a great deal of his strength. He plays at rapid speed, loves to attack, will seize the initiative at every opportunity, and has probably forgotten more about chess than most of us will ever know.

Jon Eckert is now slouch either and is always up for an over-the-board punch-up. The two of them fashioned a game which, sitting next to them, I could barely take my eyes off. This was raw, kill-or-be-killed chess and is worth looking at in full – a glorious French Winawer in which both sides play with the zero regard for defence.

That made it 1-0 to South Norwood, but Kingston were soon on the board after a draw between old rivals Alan Scrimgour and Paul Dupré on board 3. Alan had made most of the running against Paul’s Alekhine’s Defence, but with time starting to become a factor he allowed his advantage to slip and by the end Black had not just equalised but established a small plus in the position below:

Peter Andrews got a good draw with Black against South Norwood’s highly rated Tariq Oozeerally on board 2 to make it 2-1 to South Norwood. Both players played with commendable accuracy in an Alapin Sicilian and peace was declared after 30 cagey moves in the dead-level position below:

Kingston’s Charlie Cooke lost a well-contested game with the higher-rated Michael Livesey on board 7 to put South Norwood 3-1 up, but I managed to win my game with White against Oliver Weiss on board 5 to narrow the gap to 3-2. I had also faced an Alekhine’s Defence, but unlike Alan did not have the courage to challenge it and played a rather anaemic opening. My opponent had a plus (at one point threateningly healthy) for most of the game, but as a messy middlegame developed he allowed me some counterplay and missed a forced mate in two in a position where with best play he had good drawing chances.

Beating a higher-rated player has been such a rarity for me this season that I have analysed the encounter in the Games section, though as others have pointed out the computer-heavy nature of the annotation does hint at the somewhat threadbare nature of my mid-game analysis. I really was guessing at key moments. But it was all fine in the end thanks to my opponent losing the thread in this position:

Black played 28… Be6 here, which allows an unstoppable mate after 29. Qc1. Instead he should play 28…Qf4, which gives good (if complicated) drawing chances. The lines which might ensue are shown in my annotation of the game in the Games section.

So 3-2 to South Norwood with two games to go. David Rowson stood better against the very strong Marcus Osborne on board 1 (their game is pictured above, alongside the Oozeerally-Andrews encounter). Another Kingston stalwart, Nick Grey, was battling hard on board 6 against South Norwood captain Simon Lea, and certainly didn’t look to be worse. At that stage, a drawn match looked perfectly plausible.

It was not to be, however. Nick went wrong in the endgame as time started to take its toll. “I was playing for a win ,” he explained afterwards, “and missed the fact that liquidating both h-pawns would have been drawing.” Even worse was David Rowson’s fate on board 1, where it was the familiar story of first the win going west and then the draw slipping away as well.

David’s game with Marcus Osborne was a very classy one up to the moment when the Kingston board 1 blundered. Marcus played a Sicilian Defence, to which David responded imaginatively, leading to this position after 15 moves:

The engine has a slight preference for Black here, but the white pawn lodged on e6 is potentially awkward for Black, and David made the running hereafter, winning the exchange after a slip by Marcus and having this objectively “won” position after 28 moves:

Of course the notion of an objectively won middlegame position is ludicrous, as the Dutch grandmaster Hein Donner noted in a famous remark: “I love all positions. Give me a difficult positional game, I’ll play it. Give me a bad position, I’ll defend it. Openings, endgames, complicated positions, and dull, drawn positions, I love them all and will give my best efforts. But totally winning positions I cannot stand.”

It is when they have “won” positions that many chess players (at club level at least) start feeling queasy, while the player with the “lost” position has nothing to lose, can throw caution to the wind and will draw on all sorts of resources to try to equalise. Marcus is just such a player and he showed his resilience in the rest of the game.

David, perhaps subconsciously relaxing in that “won position”, blundered to give back the exchange and lead to a level position, but after that, as David later, said Marcus showed his ability and played the final part of the game well. Here is the denouement from move 34.

A desperate finish for David who, behind his brave facade, was very disappointed by the result. Chess is cruel – a conclusion we could draw after pretty much every match we play. But we fight on. We are not quite clear of the relegation mire yet (see table below, under the match scorecard), but once our relegation rivals South Norwood 1 and Coulsdon 2 have played on 15 April we will know exactly what we have to do against Ashtead 1 and Surbiton 1, the two strongest teams in the division. A narrow win for Coulsdon 2 would leave us having to accumulate a handful of game points to survive. We can surely manage that … can’t we?

Stephen Moss, Kingston 2 captain in Surrey division 2