Thursday, 30 October 2014

Graves of Famous Chess Players: No 5 in a series of ......?

Having been stuck in Kensal Green cemetery for what seems like an age, it is now time to take a tube ride - New Vaudeville Band, anyone? West Brompton is ten long stations from Kensal Green change at Paddington (and if necessary  Earl's Court, too!), where we find another of London's "Magnificent Seven" High Victorian cemeteries.

Brompton Cemetery is unique in being managed by The Royal Parks. This is a truly spectacular architectural site, with many listed monuments, while the cemetery as a whole is listed Grade II*. The colonnaded central section is truly awesome. Unlike Kensal Green, Brompton is quite a busy place, as not only is it more central and accessible, but it operates as a short cut for pedestrians and cyclists between Chelsea and Earl's Court. And, according to Wikipedia, because "it is a popular cruising ground for gay men." Now they tell me! Should I be offended that no one cruised me on my visit?

But why are we here, you ask? Well, we have come to visit the grave of the great Polish chess master Johannes Zukertort (1842-88), a man who so nearly ascended to the very summit of chess, but lost the first official World Championship match to Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. The match was something of a road-show, with the first five matches in New York, then four in St Louis and the last 11 in New Orleans - poignant, as that city's greatest chess son, Paul Morphy, had died there in 1884.

Zukertort had convincingly won the great London tournament of 1883 with the massive score of 22/26 in the 14 player double round event, ahead of Steinitz (19), Blackburne (16.5) and Chigorin (16), so his right to a shot at the title (which Steinitz could reasonably, but unofficially, claim since his match victory over Adolf Anderssen in 1866) was indisputable. History was so very nearly different, as Zukertort led 4-1 after the New York session, despite losing the first game. Unfortunately, his poor health - which ultimately saw him killed by a heart attack just two years later - took its toll under the stress and strains, and while still level after the St Louis games (by which time there had only been one draw!) he collapsed in New Orleans and ended up a 10-5 loser with five draws.

Zukertort's grave has probably been the most celebrated of all chess players' over the last couple of years. GM Stuart Conquest led a campaign to install a new headstone after discovering (in 2011) that the original had fallen into disrepair and had even become buried. A joint effort between the chess community and the UK Polish community (the Polish Embassy donated £2,000!) ended successfully with the rededication of the grave on June 26, 2012. You can read more about the ceremony, watch Stuart Conquest's speech, and see pictures of the pristine new headstone, at my good friend John Saunders' chess blog here.

When I arrived at Brompton almost exactly two years later, though, there was quite a transformation. Luckily I had some idea of where the grave was located - in the shadow of one of the stands at Stamford Bridge - since while the headstone was still looking pristine, it had almost vanished into the vegetation.

Taking my life in my hands, I even ventured into the undergrowth to bring you a close up or two.

So there we have it. The cycle of neglect that seems to afflict most graves, judging from my observations of two major cemeteries, has already recommenced. One good reason to opt for cremation. Another being you won't be pursued in death by morbid grave hunters like me!

And so to our illustrative game. Not much debate here. A true immortal game.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Perennial league champions Olton came to Kenilworth on Monday, defending a perfect Played 4/Won 4 record this season against the reigning champions with their perfect Played 2/Lost 2 record. By the end of the evening, both records were securely intact, as player availability, or rather the lack of it, unfortunately meant we were staring defeat in the face before a ball was kicked.

Poor old Phil, once again valiantly answering the call to arms, was both massively out-graded and, not surprisingly, the first to finish on Board 4. Facing a Leningrad Dutch, he played a desperately passive response and was worse out of the opening almost immediately. At some point he dropped the exchange and in next to no time Mark Cundy had chalked up the first point for Olton.

David O'Neill, making his A team debut on Board 3, was the next to finish. Meeting Richard Smith's Catalan type set up with an early d5/c5 Tarrasch set-up, he got a reasonable position but then became overly nervous about his IQP and co-operatively lined his rooks up on e6 and c8 so that the white bishop could go from g2 to h3 to win the exchange, and soon after the game. Are you spotting a theme here?

On Board 2, Carl was engaged in a tough fight with Alan Lloyd and seemed to be pressing throughout. He reached a complex minor piece ending where he may have had a slight edge. But by the time control it was nothing significant and a draw was agreed.

My game against Phil Holt on Board 1 saw my intense preparation wasted as early as move 5, but in fact I got a pleasant position from the opening anyway, as Phil uncharacteristically resisted playing an e5-e6 pawn sac for three successive moves. We reached an ending where I had bishop against knight with pawns on both sides of the board and Phil having one set of doubled pawns. Advantage to me, you'd think, but I never came remotely close to doing anything with it and the position was dead equal when we agreed the draw to leave Olton 3-1 winners.

So while our visitors went home as red-hot favourites to regain the league title, a relegation struggle looks on the cards for the A team.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

How The Mighty Have Fallen!

Two games into the defence of our first league title in 26 years and its still like watching Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest for the A Team this season - Kenilworth, Nil Points! Not only did we allow Banbury B to follow in their A team's footsteps and record a 2.5-1.5 win, but it couldn't even be classed as a big surprise, as they managed to field a team that out-graded us (and their own A team)!

In Paul's absence, I had a really interesting game against Fide Master James Jackson on Board 1, after he uncorked a major opening surprise by leaving a knight undefended on d4. I resisted temptation for one move and then took it, and even though I had to give up my rook on a8, I got a very playable position with a pawn for the exchange. After I removed his dark square bishop I may even have been very slightly better, but in severe time trouble I started to go wrong and despite some inaccuracies by White which should have left me with a dead equal position (according to Fritz) as late as move 46, I had neither the brain power nor the time to find the right moves, and was eventually overrun by 2 connected queen side pawns - about ten seconds before I would have lost on time.

Joshua had a typically crazy game on Board 2 against Paul Rowan which eventually yielded our only win of the night. In a mutant KIA type position he feinted to sacrifice on the king side, and then rushed over to the queen side to grab a pawn at the cost of his centre. Black had a big phalanx of pawns but neglected to push them at the crucial moment and when he went passive to stop Joshua's passed a pawn, they fell off.

Carl played a solid - some (not me I hasten to add) might say boring - game on Board 3 to draw against Dan Rowan with 2 rooks and a bishop against his opponent's two rooks and a knight. There were divergent opinion's afterwards as to whether the bishop was better or worse than the knight, which probably means that a draw was a fair result.

So once again Phil found himself occupying centre stage with the match outcome in his hands. After various vicissitudes, a seemingly level rook and knight ending was reached, but then all hell broke loose. Nick Martin went horribly wrong and lost a queening race by several tempi. But Unfortunately, Phil went horribly wrong by having less time, and despite being a queen up in the final position, he lost on time while his opponent had the grand total of 3 seconds on his clock. A very unlucky break for us and for Phil, but in a perverse sort of way it is becoming quite exciting to see the new ways Phil keeps coming up with to lose winning positions.

I don't want to be unduly alarmist after just 2 matches, but history does sound a word of warning for us. In 1937-38 Manchester City got relegated from Division 1, the season after winning the title. Could lightning strike twice, I wonder?