Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the Willoughby Arms, Kingston on 16 November 2023
I often feel over-the-board league chess has close ties to Test cricket. Both are long, tactical games, with players trying to strategically overcome their opposite number at the other end. Some may say (Magnus Carlsen included) that classical chess is outdated, left in the dust by more the trendy versions of blitz and bullet. Much like the gluttonous marketeers of the cricketing world who have attempted to make Twenty20 and The Hundred the new norm.
But there was something wholesome and authentic about this meeting of Kingston and visitors Richmond and Twickenham at the Willoughby Arms, facing off using the Thames Valley League’s new, longer time control of 80 minutes plus a 10-second increment, allowing for a more “relaxed” three-hour playing session.
Kingston’s team could be likened to the make-up of England’s Test team of the late 1990s, who, despite having great strength at the top of the order, were often said to have a “long tail”. We had 2000-rated John Foley, Julian Way and Alan Scrimgour opening the batting, with 1700-rated Stephen Moss, me and David Shalom hoping to provide a bit more firepower than England’s lower order of Andrew Caddick, Alan Mullally and Phil Tufnell did 25 years ago.
This was in stark contrast to the the Richmond and Twickenham side, which appeared to be more aligned with England’s modern-day, Bazball approach to Test cricket, with consistent firepower right throughout the order, so much so that there was less than 100 rating points between Sampson Low (1869) on board 1 and Pablo Soriano (1779) on the bottom board.
Kingston’s top order batted sensibly, Atherton-esque, all securing important draws. However, John Foley and Alan Scrimgour’s innings were far less eventful than Julian Way’s on board 2. He had an explosive encounter with Kingston Surrey League team-mate Jon Eckert, who played with great aggression and imagination, winning the exchange and causing problems for Julian all over the board. But Julian created enough counterplay with a kingside assault of his own to sow a seed of doubt in his lower-rated opponent’s mind and eventually, with time and exhaustion becoming factors, a draw was agreed. Jon may have felt Julian could force a perpetual check, but objectively he was still winning.
It was a tremendous game, and one of those occasions where Jon will be wondering whether to take solace from the many fine attacking moves he played or ultimately be disappointed that he let his opponent off the hook. In chess, keeping a sense of perspective and learning to be philosophical are essential. So often, especially at club player level, games you deserve to win end in disaster, and games you deserve to lose are somehow salvaged from the wreckage. Nothing ever quite goes according to plan.
There was another quiet draw on board 5 as my Accelerated Dragon was met by Simon Illsley’s Maroczy bind set-up . This eventually led to the swapping of queens and an agreed draw, with both players feeling insecure about their chances in the endgame.
But it was indeed Kingston’s lower order who stepped up to put the crucial runs on the board. Tailender David Shalom emerged better after his opponent made a tactical error in time trouble and managed to force home victory. And on board 4 Stephen Moss, clearly scarred from two recent endgame nightmares (where poor technique and blind panic had turned level games into losses), was relieved to make his piece advantage tell in a time scramble, securing the point that clinched the match.
This made it 4-2 to Kingston – the first second-team victory of the Thames Valley season. Credit to Richmond and Twickenham who battled well, especially at the top of the order where they were heavily outrated. For Kingston it was a satisfying night, but there will be even tougher tests to come.
Gregor Smith, Kingston 2 captain in Thames Valley division 2