Friday, 29 November 2019

A Coventry League Match ..... on a Wednesday????

I guess this must have happened before, but it was a new one on me. When Warwick University asked to change the date of our match away against Uni A, a Wednesday night turned out to be the best solution. Or at least it did when I agreed the switch, but then Dave decided to go to Belgium to drink the local bars dry, and Drago found himself in London playing for Barclay's Bank, and we suddenly had only 3 players. And with the A and B teams having played on Monday, and the C team in action on Thursday, it looked like we might not even have a full team. Cometh the hour, though, cometh the man - and that man is called Phil. Serendipitously Phil couldn't play in the C team match as his brother was arriving from Germany to visit that very day, so he was instead available (and willing!) to be drafted in to our Cov League team a day earlier.

Having just drawn 2-2 against Uni B the previous week, our chances against Uni A were obviously not too good. But you never know what team they will field, and in the end they left more 190+ players out of their side than we have in our entire club (2 - and neither of them has played a game for us this season!) Even so, the odds were stacked against us when we finally found Room B2.05 in the Science Building. But in what has otherwise been a sobering week for the club (except in Dave's case, I presume) we rose manfully to the challenge and somehow came away with an excellent 2-2 draw despite being out-graded on every board.

And things didn't start off too well when Mike got unceremoniously rolled over by a very aggressive Romanian student on Board 2. The Black king found itself stuck in the centre, and even though White had a fianchettoed knight on b2 for the whole game, the remaining forces honed in on the Black monarch and eventually forced the win of Black's queen.

Ben finished next, on Board 3, and it was more disappointment for us, as he had played an excellent game and was better the whole way ... and then suddenly it was a draw! I have no idea what happened at the end, but it looked like without a full point in that game we were doomed.

However, Lady Luck then turned in our favour, as my game went from dead level to completely winning almost without me realising such a dramatic swing was happening. I had been trying to develop a very slow kingside attack while my strong Serbian opponent was playing on the queenside. But in the blink of an eye, the whole picture flipped and abandoning the kingside attack - which was going nowhere - I won a key queenside pawn which put me in complete control. Rather than suffer a protracted defence against my now mighty passed b pawn, Black sacked two more pawns in the centre to set up a fork of a rook on a4 and a knight on e4 by a queen on e8 - but, thankfully for me, there was a tactical escape from the double attack, and when I forced the last pair of rooks off to leave me two pawns and position up, Black resigned.

Which left Phil needing a draw to save the match. For most of the night I had been fearing the worst, as every time I looked at his game, his position seemed more and more depressing. But Phil dug in for the long haul, First World War style, and adopted the Verdun-inspired mindset of "Ils ne passeront pas!" And they absolutely didn't passeront - right down to a king and pawn ending, where Phil was able to keep the White king at bay and secure the required match saving draw and an unexpected point.

So a small ray of light in an otherwise disappointing week. Thank heavens for small mercies!

Black Night

Who'd have thought that Deep Purple would ever be an appropriate soundtrack for a Leamington League chess match? But that was regrettably the case this week, as Kenilworth A failed the test on our first serious examination of the season, relinquishing top spot in the Division 1 table to our conquerors in the process.

We've had a pretty good run against Olton lately, winning comprehensively in the league earlier this year and beating them in the Cup Final, too, so the law of averages said that would have to come to an end sometime. Even fielding our strongest side so far this season couldn't overturn the odds.

Andy B made his 2019-20 league debut and pressed for the whole game against Alan Lloyd on Board 2, though without ever making any serious inroads into the Black position. The game was probably about level when Andy offered a draw, but given the state of play in the match, we could have done with him playing on.

David P was struggling against Mark Cundy on Board 3, and gradually shed a pawn or two. I was expecting his pieces to spring to life and deliver a rousing counter attack on the White king, which had castled long - but it never happened and eventually the material advantage told for Mark.

Thank goodness for the ever reliable Joshua on Board 4, who kept his 100% (league) record for the A team this season by despatching Richard Smith. I saw virtually nothing of the game and have no idea how convincing a victory it was - but quite frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn! A point is a point and we needed it.

But alas it wasn't to be enough, as the law of averages also caught up with me on Board 1, where I failed to make it three wins in a row against Phil Holt, and fell to what used to be my traditional defeat in rather excruciating circumstances. Deep into a game where I had been slightly worse throughout, I thought I saw a clever way to line up a perpetual attack on White's queen by giving up a pawn on g6. But I had overlooked a neat tactical trick which saw Phil counter the attack on his queen by attacking mine, and in the time it took to say "Rats!" my position collapsed. I could have given up a pawn, but for some reason decided to give up an exchange instead and the game should have ended on the spot. But bizarrely/cruelly Phil then needlessly blundered the exchange and a pawn back leaving me just a pawn down in a rook and opposite bishops ending. But my pawns were all on vulnerable squares and Phil cleverly traded off the rooks to win all my queenside pawns. Even opposite bishops can't save you when you are three pawns down.

And it really was a black night for the club all round, as the B team failed to win a crunch match they had at their mercy against Shirley, and the D team went down 0-3 at home to Solihull E, which included a very annoying default. And also spare a thought for Noah, who came within one or two moves of his first league victory only to falter at the eleventh hour after playing a really good game against the very experienced Dennis Horsley.

And maybe there's a song called Black Week somewhere? Because the C team went down 3-1 to Banbury B last night to complete a clean sweep of all four of our teams within four days. I think the lads need to be called in for extra training - though Jude is exempt after his excellent win last night. Clearly we need more 9 year olds in the teams to show us the way.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

When Three Points Is Not Enough...

I am hoping my questionable form of late has passed under the radar. Presumably most (?!) would excuse my performance at the board, given the cutting edge captaincy skills I bring to the table. Other than the separate emails advising the team of both the wrong date and the wrong venue for Monday's match against Shirley, these continue to be top notch. Details, details! My profound insight that this was a match it would be really helpful to win surely counted for something. Albeit, it was of course somewhat disappointing that we didn't...

It was one of those nights that really epitomize what league chess is all about. Dark, wet and with a lot of road works in the Shirley area. While Shirley were bottom of the table, the average grades were virtually identical and it was always going to be very tight.

Mike was giving away a few grading points to Phil Purcell on board one, but always looked comfortable. He got to play an idea he had first thought of ten years ago that placed a lot of pressure on Black's f6 knight and required very accurate play to defend. Phil burnt through time, but found a way to ease the pressure and simplify to a level position. Certainly a draw that Mike had the better of.

Meanwhile, Bernard seemed to be level on board 2, I was better on board 3 and Jude was better on board 4. Thank goodness nobody placed a flutter. On board two, Jonathan Dale just seemed to turn equality into a slight advantage and then further turned the screw. In a heavy piece endgame, his superior pawn structure and weaknesses in Bernard's seem to make it increasingly difficult for Bernard, and eventually Jonathan broke through to win the point.

Sitting on Board 3, I generally spend some of my time watching Jude's games and some of it watching Jude's opponents to assess where they are on the worried/ despairing continuum. Dave Thomas had the look of an extremely worried man for most of the night. Jude won the exchange and had a lot of possibilities on the king side, but Dave defended well. It all got quite messy and a draw looked like a fair result - but another game we had the better of.

I was playing Keith Ingram on three and this also got away for us. In a complex middlegame, Keith overlooked a tactic and I picked up a pawn. Unfortunately, Keith had a very strong knight and I felt I had no choice but to exchange into an opposite coloured bishop ending with a promising passed pawn. Only a win would get us anything and I played until I was under 5 minutes, by which point Keith was clearly holding everything, so another draw. It is rare to lose a match where a team has the better of three of the games. Chess can be very cruel sometimes, but we will re-group and go again.

So what of my title of this piece, I hear you ask? Indeed. It was a massive night for the A team too. They went down by the same margin. So three points between us and nothing but pain for our supporters. The B team still have to play Rugby before Christmas. I've made a note to combine an instruction to win with the right venue and date instructions. Such a formula has to be unstoppable! Doesn't it?...

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

A Match of Two Halves

But not first compared to second, instead top compared to bottom, since our 2-2 draw against Warwick University Blast night saw us win on the top two boards and lose on the bottom two. Unfortunately there was no tie break by board count or elimination, so 2-2 it had to stay and one point for each team.

My game was over in half an hour, of which I'd used 5 minutes - and truth be told I could have played the whole game in 30 seconds as I didn't have to think once. I employed a rather dodgy opening that is exceedingly sharp and tactical, but luckily my opponent's theoretical knowledge ran out before mine and he simply dropped a piece - the move Qb4+ won a loose White bishop on h4. I was tempted to go home, but a sense of captain's duty prevailed and I stopped to watch the rest of the match. It wasn't always pretty viewing!

Uni B levelled the scores with a win on Board 4. From a very staid opening Black nevertheless whipped up a big attack along the g file against Dave's highly compromised kingside (shattered pawns on h2, f2 and f3). It looked like curtains to me, but resourceful play by Dave somehow staved off the mate threats and he reached a (bad) position a pawn down. But one careless move relieved him of the need to try to defend a losing ending, as he could only avoid a back rank mate by giving up a rook.

All this time Ben had been suffering the tortures of the damned on Board 3 where a White knight on e4 was absolutely killing the Black position and especially Ben's dark squared bishop which was roaming around but simply hitting thin air. Ben tried a pawn sac but it simply made the Black position worse and White remorselessly turned the screw before the move pawn to d6+ (guarded by that killer knight on e4!) won a whole rook.

So now we needed a win from Mike on Board 2 to level the scores, and fortunately it was never in doubt. He achieved a dream like position for White from a Benko Gambit, and used the passed a pawn that Black had so kindly donated to restrain any Black queenside play. Then he responded to a rather strange f6 move by planting an octopus knight on the square e6. Black tried an exchange sac to eliminate White's a pawn, but Mike simply ignored it and after forcing a queen trade ended up in an overwhelming rook ending where the pawn on a7 paralysed Black's rook on a8. When the White king got to b7 winning the rook for a pawn it was time to resign, although for some unfathomable reason several more moves were needlessly played before Black hoisted the white flag.

A slightly disappointing result overall, but there's no denying some of the University's ungraded overseas students are pretty sharp cookies! And they do have youth on their side, which is certainly not a quality we were overly-endowed with last night!

Sunday, 10 November 2019

I Almost Forgot.......

……. that we won a Coventry League match last Tuesday! Playing away to Coventry B, we recorded an ultimately comfortable 3-1 win over last season's Division 2 champions, who are finding life in Division 1 rather tough.

The match, however, was actually quite competitive for virtually the whole evening. I finished first on Board 1, winning with White against Sam Cotterill, despite a definite opening slip by me. Even though I knew the line quite well, I carelessly waited one move too long to play g4 driving the Black bishop away from h5, and ended up in a distinctly awkward position for a few moves. But after playing the opening very well, Sam rather drifted in the middle game, and once he recaptured the wrong way on e4 the tide turned very quickly in my favour. I won an exchange which then became a whole piece.

But we weren't ahead for long. Despite having a population of well over 300,000 compared to our 25,000 or so, half of Coventry's team were Kenilworth residents, and one of them, former KCC star Kate Donegan, struck back decisively by beating Ben on Board 2. At some point Kate sacrificed a piece for 3 central pawns, and when it came down to rook and 5 v rook, knight and 2, it looked decidedly dodgy for Ben as the White king had got into a strong position supporting connected, passed e and f pawns. Ben was trying franticly to blockade/attack them, but in the time it took me to blink, Ben's rook simply disappeared from the board - while the White rook and all the pawns were still there! Our fate was sealed and Kate had an excellent win.

While all this was going on, Dave was having a very strange game against Nigel Morris on Board 4. Mainly because the board and pieces were totally mismatched - the squares were small, and the pawns & pieces were giant. And with few exchanges, the board looked over-crowded for the whole game. I found it all very disconcerting and would have declined to play, but Dave is clearly made of sterner stuff and took it all in his stride. The position was almost totally blocked, but when I had just about given up any hope of progress, Dave found a killing piece sac which opened up the White king, and his queen and rook then powered into the position to deliver an unstoppable mate.

But still the match was not won, with the clock a big enemy for us on Board 3. Drago, who had stepped in late to replace an unwell Mike D, was an exchange up against Kenilworth resident number 2, and ex-KCC stalwart, Mike Johnson which then became a whole rook. But Drago's time was slipping away well below 5 minutes (no increment) and to my consternation he was still writing all the moves down. In contrast, and despite the rules, Mike - who had about 20 minutes left - was recording about one move in every four! I almost couldn't bear to look, but thankfully Drago had it all under control and got the job done with a couple of minutes left on his clock, to wrap up a 3-1 win.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Hustler

Ben's recent article on chess in New York brought back memories of my own time there in (gulp!) 1984/85.

There was no league chess as we know it, and the only time I ever played at any of the famous New York chess landmarks was shorty after I arrived in September 1984. At the now defunct Manhattan Chess Club, where Fischer was once a member (though not in the same premises that I played in, on West 57th street near Carnegie Hall and the Russian Tea Rooms), I scored 3/4 in the NY September Open, losing only to future IM Dimitri London (USCF 2457 then, and still a highly respectable 2422 ELO now!) in Round 2. Serves me right for playing the Ponziani!

Thereafter my chess was restricted to participation in four small tournaments at the Game Room, which was a (quite respectable!) basement establishment somewhere high up on Broadway beyond Columbus Circle. I guess that they catered for bridge and other card players and goodness knows what else, but my memory totally fails me on this point now.

In their 5 round Swiss No 6 (Oct/Nov 1984; 1 game per week on a weekday evening)  I scored 4/4 plus a Rd 2 bye to finish first and pick up $100. Then in Swiss No 7 (Nov/Dec) I pocketed another $100 for scoring 3.5/4, plus another Rd 2 bye.  Quite what I had against playing in Round 2, I have no idea. My scoresheet tells me the last round was played on Boxing Day 1984. In this tournament I played the greatest game of my life against another future IM Jay Bonin (2388), that was so brilliant (though I say so, myself!) that it deserves an article all its own.

It was after one of these games that I very nearly saw Woody Allen, and very nearly (in my imagination anyway) appeared in his film Hannah and Her Sisters. As I walked along Broadway to go and catch my bus home, there was a film crew set up outside a Tower Records store, with tracks laid on the sidewalk (sorry, pavement) and a film camera sliding up and down, shooting through a floor to ceiling window into the store. I walked on, not having a clue what was going on, only to have a "what on earth?!" moment a few months later when going to see the film (this was well before Woody fell out of favour!), and recognising a scene as the one I had watched being prepared.

Thereafter, I played in two Quads at the Game Room. These were 4 player all play alls held over a single Sunday. On April 21st 1985 I scored 2.5/3 and took home the first prize of $30, but on May 5th my winning tournament run came to an end as I could only manage 2/3, and the $30 jackpot went the way of one G. Dimitrov (2062) who absolutely slaughtered me in our (Rd 2 of course!!) encounter with the Grand Prix Attack.

So my New York chess record ended up at won 12; drew 2; lost 2. And I ended up (briefly) with a USCF rating of 2303!

But this is all rather gentrified and several miles removed from Ben's New York experiences of street chess (even if some of it was played indoors!), and in fact one of my most memorable moments in New York occurred one workday lunchtime (July 9th, 1985) when I chanced upon 2 chess hustlers taking on all comers in the street near the ill-fated World Trade Centre, where I worked on the 83rd floor. For stakes of $3 a game, I sat down and played two games against a 20-something hustler who turned out not to have grasped the fundamental fact that he was supposed to take money off me, and not the other way around. Because, yes, I out-hustled the hustler in both of our five minute games -and luckily for all KCC members, I subsequently reconstructed them and they are now seeing the light of day for the first time ever.

Here's Game 1.

And here's Game 2.

So two nil to the Limey, but hustlers always have to have the last word, and my opponent then deducted two dollars from my winnings for "clock hire". It seems like not all hustlers have Paul Newman's class and style!

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Time Was Against Us

Having drawn against Solihull B last time out, playing Solihull's A team was always going to be something of a challenge and so it proved. Albeit, things could have been very different had it not been for the cruel nature of the clock.

Phil Wood had heroically stepped in at very short notice on the Sunday night, as Mike was ill and the original replacement had a family matter to deal with. However, his board three encounter with Paul Roper (who is finding Kenilworth an increasingly good customer) did not go to plan. Paul uncorked a beauty of a tactic in the opening which gave him an incredibly strong position. Phil really made Paul work for it, but sadly there was little he could do to prevent us going 0-1 down. Still a really valued effort at such short notice.

My own position against Tony Sadler was unclear at this point, but Andy Ward was well up on his 180+ opponent on Board 1 and Jude was winning against Nigel Towers on Board four. Jude as ever played with incredible maturity way beyond his years. He is not the teams top point scorer for nothing! Perhaps there was a chance for the win, but it wasn't obvious and in the end Nigel held out for a draw. Nigel said afterwards that he would not enjoy playing Jude a year from now, but it has to be said he did not look like a man who had enjoyed the previous three hours of his life! Another great effort from Jude against a very strong and highly respected opponent. So 0.5 - 1.5.

I don't have the best of records against Tony and we ended up in a position where I had ripped his king side apart, only to find myself in huge danger down the center. I certainly did not find the right plan and found myself having to back off, deep in survival mode. Tony pressed forward, picked up a pawn and seemed to be closing in on victory.

I felt bad that Andy's efforts were going to be in vein, but then disaster struck on Board One. Somehow Andy had lost on time in a great position. An incredibly painful way to lose and Andy had deserved so much more. It is only a matter of time until play of his quality yields some points, but tonight was just not his night. So the match was lost 0.5 - 2.5.

However, by some miracle my own game was not. I sacrificed a second pawn to give myself an incredible Senitz Knight that completely dominated the board. Tony's king had very few squares and I picked up first one of my lost pawns and then the other. I had all the play, but was down to a minute and a half on my clock to Tony's five. An ocean of time compared to the previous match, but I couldn't see the win. There was one there, as we established afterwards, but Tony had surly missed victory himself earlier in the night, so a draw was a fair result.

So in the end a 1-3 result. Not a disaster, but had Andy and I had a little more time to think, things could have been very different. Not to worry. We have a crunch match coming up next, against Shirley. A real four pointer if ever there was one. I know we sometimes give Jude tips on slowing down, but maybe we all need to take lessons from him as to how to play more quickly!

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Washington Square Revisited - The Only Thing Worse Than Taking the Money

I knew I had already left it too late really. It was starting to get dark, and the barriers were already being erected down sixth avenue in readiness for that evening's Halloween parade. Still, there it was. We had spent most of the day at the Metropolitan Museum and the children were tired and in need of a rest. They had headed back to the hotel with Katharine, which meant I had a couple of unscheduled hours at my disposal. What better way to use them than with some chess in the park and at the chess forum across the way?

Some of you might have seen my piece earlier in the year for Chess magazine. Then in glorious sunshine I taken in Washington Square, The Chess Forum and the Marshall club. I had played the hustlers and rubbed shoulders with the stars, including the US number 2 ranked female player, Irina Krush. This return was always going to be a much more fleeting visit. A shorter and more transient chess fix in a week that had consisted of museum visits, a trip up the Empire State Building and the more general back and forth of family life with teenagers.

The Washington Square tables were nearly empty as dusk drew in, but I spotted a familiar face through the gloaming. Leroy Mack. As affable as ever, with plans for work and plenty of chess in the park over the winter. A true warrior and a gentleman. We played and talked. I would love to say he remembered me from our previous games, but he didn't. He must have played thousands of people at his marble table since our last encounter. Not that it mattered. We gossiped like old friends. Our chess a common language that bridged our most likely quite different lives. We had an enjoyable game. We both said at the end that we knew we would play each other again one day, and really meant it.

I was then challenged by the self-styled strongest player in the park that day. He told me that what I'd done against Leroy "don't mean nothing." That he didn't want a donation. That we would play a straight bet for five dollars. I had white and soon my position was overwhelming. All you can give anyone is your strongest game and I knew from very early on how this one was going to end. Finally he resigned and handed me a five dollar bill I did not want, but was not brave enough to refuse.
"That's all I got, man," he said. Referring to his chess game rather than the money. We shook hands respectfully and I left the park for the Forum, somehow feeling as if I had stolen something.

The Chess Forum is on Thompson Street, a couple of blocks from Washington Square. They serve no refreshments, but it is only a few dollars an hour to play there. I started off against Kyle, who comes in every day, but normally plays the same person. "I know his style as well as I know anything in life," he told me. "Your style is a little different," he said with a smile. I then played his friend and then a few games with an "inconsistent expert," called David, who used to live in New York, but was now just a visitor. "My wife wanted to go to her dancing class, so where the hell else would I head?" he asked me. He had a curious style, tending to open with moves like e3, but he was considerably stronger than my previous opponents. In the end, I won 3-1, but it was more about the bonding than the chess.

What other game gives you a passport to any city? A way of walking in off the street and bonding with strangers? I knew why David would come here when his wife was dancing, just as he knew why I would hole up at the Forum while my family rested. We were both of us drawn to these few wooden tables and the black and white chess men that sat between us, keen to travel together to that place where briefly nothing else matters, save the game unfolding in front of you.

Finally, I left the Forum and walked back through Washington Square, the chess tables now all empty. The whole of sixth avenue was lined with those waiting for the Halloween parade. The sidewalks smelt as much of marijuana as Washington Square had itself. Heavy rain was forecast, but it did not come. Even so, this was one of those moments when you notice that summer has well and truly fallen away and even the autumn is beginning to bleed into winter.

As I walked back to the hotel and my family, I reflected on a couple of hours of affirmation, playing chess in New York. Even if I could not share the unusual feeling of having won a game I would prefer to have lost. The five dollar bill I did not want, burning a metaphorical hole in my pocket.