Powerful Maidenhead B spring a surprise

Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 18 December 2023

After about half an hour of this match I had a feeling we’d been mugged. I was on board 4 and, having expected to meet a player of my own strength or slightly below, was faced with Nigel Smith, an experienced player rated around 1900. I was already in a spot of bother after a foolish bishop for knight exchange that left his bishop pair controlling affairs. If they had a 1900 on board 4, what were their top 3 like?

The answer was pretty handy, because Maidenhead managed a clean sweep of boards 1 to 3, despite facing players of the quality of Peter Andrews, Julian Way and Alan Scrimgour. Make no mistake: this was a very strong Maidenhead team, and with these players, including the newly joined Sir Lankan father-and-son duo Ishan and Jenith Wiratunga, strengthening an already very useful first team, Maidenhead are really going places and could be contenders for the Thames Valley division 1 title in the near future.

Going places is of course what Maidenhead have to do. They are quite a long way from their rival clubs in the Thames Valley League and have traditionally been slightly ropey travellers. Generally you could expect them to be a good deal weaker away than at home. But they disproved that dictum here, getting their best players out and winning comfortably despite the long journey.

Peter Andrews lost a remarkable game against Maidenhead’s Stephen James on board 1 – remarkable because of the transformation in his fortunes in the course of a few moves. He pinpoints this position, after White’s 14th move, as the key one. He plays 14…Bc5 here, and things go badly awry.

“Nxd2 was best, “explains Peter, “when play might go 15. Nxc6 Nb3 16. Nb4 Nxa1 17. Be4 Qc8 (d5 is no help because Bxd5 is possible) 18. Bxa8 Qxa8 19. Qxa1 and -0.2 suggests a fractional edge for Black but nothing much. Curious to see both queens in corners. I had originally intended 14…Bxb4, which is also fine. Bc5 was too clever and forced my opponent to play well.”

The game proceeded 14… Bc5 15. Be3 Bxb4 16. cxb4 Qxb4 17. Qg4, leading to this position:

“I thought Qg4 was winning and collapsed,” Peter says with great honesty. This is a fascinating and complicated position, which Peter (accounting for his “hallucination”) describes in the following way in the annotation he did for the game: “This came as a complete shock. A visualisation error on my part; in the lines I had been looking at in advance of move 14, I would have played Nxd2 at some stage, so the queen would come to g5 rather than g4 and I would not now face this pin on my knight.

“When looking at this with an engine, I had expected to find that I was now lost, and was surprised to find the evaluation 0.0. Even more surprisingly, it recommends 17…O-O, which I barely considered because of the obvious 18. Bh6, threatening mate and attacking the knight for the third time. I had missed 18…. Qxb2, guarding g7 from long distance and backwards along a diagonal (hard to see, but it was relevant to my actual choice of 17… Qxb2, so I should have seen it in this context too). The threats of Nxf2 and Qxf2+ constrain White’s choices. Natural and best is 19. Bxe4 Bxe4, when 20. Rxe4 would leave the a1 rook en prise and (best) 20. Qxe4 allows gxh6. Black’s position looks pretty hairy, but he does have two pawns as compensation and with accurate play he can avoid disaster.”

As Peter said, he played the right move, Qxb2 – but too early and without castling. The game proceeded: 17…Qxb2 18. Bxe4 f5 19. Bxf5 exf5 20. Bd4+ 1-0

“17… Qxb2 was tantamount to resignation as soon as my opponent saw that 19. Bxf5 was possible,” says Peter. In the final position [see above] exf5 allows Bd4+, and Black has no sensible way to prevent the white queen giving check next move, followed by annexing the black queen.” A horrible end from a position a few moves earlier of relative security. One concludes for the umpteenth time that chess can be very cruel.

On board 2, Julian Way succumbed to young Jenith Wiratunga. Wiratunga played a Sicilian Dragon, and White countered with the Yugoslav Attack. Julian thought his initial error came in this position:

Here he plays 13. Nd5, leading to a mass trade of pieces: 13.Nd5 Qxd2 14. Nxf6+ Bxf6 15. Rxd2 Bxd4 16. Rxd4 Rc5 17. Be2 Rac8 18. Rc1 h5 19. h3 hxg4 20. hxg4 g5. Black is already heading for an endgame in which he has greater piece activity. White’s light-squared bishop never really joins the party, other than as a rather ineffective defender, and 20. g5! secures an entry point for Black’s king on the dark squares. Simple but very effective chess from Black.

13. a3 or perhaps g5 would have been better for White, and 18. c3 is a better way to defend the c-file than Rc1, because it doesn’t tie the rook down to defence and opens up squares for the light-squared bishop. In the game as it unfolded, Black got all the play, won a pawn and sealed the deal with some very precise endgame play, leading to the final position below when Julian resigned. Wiratunga Junior is a player of whom we are going to hear a great deal more.

Wiratunga Senior was also successful for Maidenhead on board 3 against the redoubtable Alan Scrimgour. They had a fierce and complex battle in which neither side could establish a decisive advantage, despite pressure on Alan’s uncastled king. In the position below, Alan felt that in retrospect he should have recaptured on e4 with the queen to force a queen exchange.

He retook with fxe, which the engine prefers, but it led to long-term pressure from the white queen on Black’s now exposed kingside. “My opponent began to create threats,” says Alan, “but I was still holding until an unsound and unnecessary exchange sac on move 44. I was dead lost after that.” A very classy game, though, in which both players made excellent moves over a long period in a series of complicated positions.

I managed a barely deserved draw against Nigel Smith on board 4. In the position below I thought I was about to be mated:

I do, though, have a rather desperate resource: 24. c4, buying myself some time to stop the black rooks combining on the h-file while the black bishop occupies c4 to cut off my king’s escape route. My position remains very bad, but at least I am still alive and can create problems, which is exactly what happened. The rooks were traded, my knight became active, time began to run short, my opponent blundered a pawn, and we reached an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops in which I just about hung on. One of those draws that feels better than a win.

Kingston captain Gregor Smith had what he freely describes as a “boring draw” on board 5, with material being liquidated down to a rook and pawn endgame after 20 moves. Nevertheless a good result against Maidenhead veteran Nigel Dennis, who has been a fixture on the chess scene for almost 60 years and retains a very respectable rating.

Our only winner in the match was Nick Grey, continuing his good recent run of form with a victory against Simon Foster on board 6. Nick played the Advanced Variation against the French Defence, and the game quickly descended into a blizzard of tactics. In the position below, Nick thought he was completely busted, and the truth is he probably was.

Black plays the correct move here: 21…Rxf6! White recaptures with the pawn, but is now in serious trouble because 22… Nxg3 is potentially a killer move.

23. fxg3 is losing on the spot – mate in two. The engine recommends playing 23. Qe1 (23. f7 is a close second best) and just giving up a piece to the discovered check, with the hope of some back-rank counterplay later. But neither of these options is very pleasant, and both would be likely to end in defeat. Nick found something that is objectively worse in the short term, but maybe in human terms better because it at least muddies the waters: 23. Ne5, blocking the discovered check.

23…Nxe5 here would hand back a substantial plus to White. The best move for Black is 23…Nxf1+ because, if, say, 24. Qxf1, then 24…Nxe5 25. dxe5 Qxe5+ 26. f4 Qxf6 27. Qf2 Bxc2 28. Rg1 Rxg1 29. Kxg1 Qxc3 is winning. But Black actually played 23…Nxe2, which appears to pick up a piece but is far from conclusive unless he follows it up, after White’s 24. Qe3, with 24…Qd8, relinquishing the knight in order to get threats which will force White to give a piece back to avoid mate.

All very complicated and Black proceeded to lose his way completely, playing 24…Rg4 instead of Qd8, and, after 25. Qxe2, 25…Bxc2, believing White would play 26. Qxc2 and Black would have at least a draw by perpetual. But Nick did not capture the bishop on c2, instead playing f3! (f7! is also strong).

Further complications ensued – Black tried the tempting (but misguided) 26…Bd3? – with neither side playing perfectly as time started to get short in a very double-edged position. But Nick never relinquished the advantage he now had, and Black was eventually mated. Very satisfying for Nick, and welcome relief for Kingston after the reverses elsewhere.

Stephen Moss