Apr 272010

In a week that sees the final round of the UK general election’s live, televised leadership debates and also the continuation of Viswanathan Anand’s World Chess Championship defence against Veselin Topalov in Bulgaria I am pleased to be able to bring Chessticles readers (belated) news of another clash of the titans. Yes, that’s right, Hebden Bridge ‘A’ vs. Huddersfield, round 2!

Readers may remember that earlier in the season Hebden Bridge ‘A’ managed to draw with the reigning champions away from home (and therefore playing on all boards with the black pieces). Since then Huddersfield, much to everyone’s surprise have slipped up dramatically, losing two matches. This meant that before the crucial match started Hebden Bridge only needed to achieve another tie to guarantee them title the Calderdale League title with one round to spare.

Huddersfield came calling with a strong team. Their top two boards were staffed by, in my opinion, even more proficient personnel than they had been able to call up in the first match. On boards 3 to 5 they were only marginally weaker. Despite this, I was relatively confident before the match that we would get the result we needed.

For once (and I must stress this does not happen very often) I managed to score a full point when it mattered most. Following the strategy that I have tried to remain true to all season, I restrained my baser, speculative instincts and played it safe. I even allowed the queens to come off before move 10 in order to gain a small but enduring positional edge. You can see how the game panned out below.

(show chess board)(hide chess board)

My game was the first to finish on the night. 1-0 Hebden Bridge!

Next to finish was the game on board 1. It seemed that our player missed his regular Huddersfield match up who he has scored heavily against over the last few years and took a full point off in the away match. This time, against a different, but equally familiar foe, things turned out differently. Facing the Two Knights Defence our man got into a tricky situation quite early on. After the game he admitted that he had looked the line up after facing it against the same player last year but that, over the board this time around, he couldn’t remember the best way to play. Black played accurately to prevent white from getting a foot hold and then to drove home his advantage mercilessly. 1-1.

At this stage of the evening I had been finished long enough to get a good look at the remaining three games and I didn’t particularly like what I saw. On board five we were a pawn down in a knight and rook ending. On board two our team captain seemed to have a comfortable position in what looked like a Queens Gambit Exchange Variation but it seemed like the kind of position that carried great danger if he over-pressed for a victory. Finally, on board three matters were complicated as our player had sacrificed a pawn for a strong attack and had been repulsed by solid defending. Black now had a piece for two pawns.

Nail biting, stomach churning tension at the Trades Club! I couldn’t see where we would get another win from at that point in the evening and so it seemed like we would have to get three draws in order to tie the match and that looked anything but straight forward. Next to finish was our captain on board 2. Having tried to find a way of improving his position for as long as he could he sensibly decided to take a draw in position where his advantage looked only theoretical. 1.5-1.5.

Soon afterwards board 5 was finished as well with white finding a nice tactical trick to force a repetition of moves. From a pawn down this was a good result. 2-2.

Now the situation was well and truly taut. On the final board black had given up a third pawn for his piece in order to get the queens off. It seemed a sensible decision as he had a central chain of pawns that appeared very strong. However, white played extremely accurately and managed to hold the position with his extra bishop. Towards the very end of the night a draw was agreed to everyone on our team’s great relief. The final score then was 2.5-2.5. Another epic tied match, but it was enough for us to claim the league title.

Well played and “Congratulations” to all my colleagues on the Hebden Bridge ‘A’ team (including our reserves) for achieving very consistent level of performance right through the year.

Mar 182010

In ancient Rome when a conquering General returned to the capital after a successful campaign he was often voted the honour of a “triumph” by the senate. This was essentially a ceremonial victory parade through the streets of the city with his army following in his wake. The General would drive in his chariot, the roads lined with jubilant citizens, to the senate house where he would be received by his peers and become the subject of various obsequies.

However, to ensure all this adoration didn’t give him too inflated an opinion of himself, behind him, in the chariot, would be one of his slaves who would murmur again and again in his ear the words “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!” It is this phrase that the classic epitaph “Memento mori” (Remember you must die) originates from. I also like to believe that it is the origin of the famous pantomime catch phrase “Look behind you!” but I admit that might be stretching reality a little bit too far!

Over the last few months I’ve been reminded of this lesson from antiquity on several occasions as I’ve seen and experienced life at the chess board deliver some reality checks (no pun intended!) When you are on a good run of form, whether this be at chess, or in any competitive situation, it is easy to get overconfident and start to feel like a Roman General enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Victories are easy to come by, your luck is in and you feel unstoppable. It is at this moment that the game tends to hand you a timely reminder that all good things must come to an end.

As I sat enjoying my Christmas turkey in the mid-season break I reflected on an excellent first half of the chess calendar. I had a score of +6 and I was riding high in the Calderdale league with my team, Hebden Bridge ‘A’, being unbeaten. Immediately after the festive holidays I had a little bit of a stutter but maintained my score at +6 through January. Then in February… disaster struck and I lost five in a row including some pretty painful defeats. Admittedly three of these five loses were against strong opponents who I’d normally expect to struggle against. The other two hurt like hell.

Take this first position which lost me my unbeaten record in the Calderdale league.

I had managed to get myself into a nice position here. White has played the opening phase in a fairly unambitious manner and had allowed me to generate good pressure down the c-file and a1-h8 diagonal. I was looking for a tactical means of capturing the c2 pawn. I spent quite a long time considering the merits of d5, Rh5, Ne5 and Rc8. Instead of any of these however I instead selected the idiotic Rxc3? As soon as I had pressed the clock I realised what was coming next and sure enough my opponent simply played Nb5 and won the exchange. After this I struggled on deep into the endgame and eventually lost on time but my opponent played well and capitalised on my early blunder, fully deserving his point.

The following week, I was playing in round three of the Calderdale individual championship and was right in the running on 2/2. I got a reasonably kind draw against a really solid player graded just a little below me. Out of the opening I felt I had secured a pleasant advantage with the white pieces and was starting to look for ways to capitalise…

I had just played 17.0-0-0 and my opponent now sunk into a long think. He said after he game that he had expected 17.0-0 and instinctively felt that he had good chances after I had castled long. From my point of view we had just reached the end of a crisis period in the game in which I had managed to exchange my e-pawn for black’s f-pawn in the belief that the resulting pawn structures would be to my advantage in the end game. I also felt optimistic that I could take advantage of the open e-file as well as developing a king’s side attack with moves such as Rhf1, g4 and f5. Sure, there were some weaknesses in my position and some organisation would be needed before I could push on but I was optimistic.

Then, black played 17….Bh6! and after reflecting on this for only a few minutes I realised that in fact I had some serious challenges on my hands. The move played both pins the f-pawn and prepares to attack it ferociously with either Nd5 or Nh5 next move. Having been happy that my dark squared bishop was on the long diagonal I now realised that the h6-c1 diagonal was the more important one. In the end I decided to give up the f-pawn and re-organise my pieces for an attack on the black king but it didn’t emerge and I was well beaten. It’s not always easy to find a move like 17….Bh6! as it means re-positioning a piece that already looks like it is on its optimum square. My opponent deserves great credit for finding the right idea and following it through with some strong play.

This loss dropped me out of the running and put the third seed in the competition in a fine position as he was the only other player aside from my opponent in the game above who reached 3/3 and, as he seemed in excellent form, I fully anticipated he would win and go 4/4 on his own before the final round.

Naturally, it didn’t turn out that way. In round four, playing with the black pieces again, the underdog battled grittily to keep the game tight. They reached a pawn ending and the favourite blundered when he calculated that, although he would queen second he would queen with check and be able to win his opponents new queen via a skewer. In fact the opposite was the case as he didn’t queen with check. Simple mistake to make when you are a little fatigued at the end of a long fight but nevertheless, it was something of a shock outcome.

Finally, to press home my historical observation, I should report that the reigning champions of the Calderdale league, Huddersfield, have now been usurped. Having drawn with them away in our match with them before Christmas we had expected the league title race to go right to the wire with the last game of the season scheduled for Hebden Bridge (we played that match this week – expect more in my next post). Imagine our surprise then, when we learnt that Huddersfield had lost by an odd point to the bottom team in the league in January and then again to the then third, now second placed side at the beginning of March. I’m not 100% sure of my facts here but I think Huddersfield have won the title for at least the last two years, and been unbeaten in the process. It just goes to show that even the most glorious of triumphant chariot rides has to end sometime. Hebden Bridge ‘A’ are next in the line of succession, lets hope we can make it through to the end of this season before we get what’s coming to us!
Jan 162010

Today I give you an endgame position that I contested over the board recently. Endings are one part of my all round game that I’ve identified for remedial work. Many of my games never culminate in tight end games due to the fact that I’ve normally secured or conceded a decisive advantage by this stage of proceedings. Never the less if I’m going to improve my results I need to get better at playing endings. Recently I’ve been dipping back into the antique master work “How to Play Chess Endings” by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky and, although the going is heavy I felt like I was starting to make some progress. It seem I was wrong!

The game below gave me my first opportunity to my new found understanding to the test and I fear that I rather let the side down. The most challenging aspect of endgame play is the high degree of accuracy required. Judgement plays less of a role in this stage of the game and calculation becomes much more important. Even the smallest error can change the outcome of proceedings. Take a look at the position below.

White has just offered black the opportunity to exchange the knights off the board (with 33.Nd2) and enter into a king and pawn endgame. Should black accept or decline this offer? My recent studies have taught me that it is wise to have a clear idea of the theoretical outcome of the resultant position and how it should be approached before making a choice. King and pawn endings have concrete assessments you are either “winning”, “drawing” or “losing” there is no “unclear” or “equal” assessment. I figured that I was winning as after exchanging the knights I could play my king to d5 via e6, assume the opposition and eventually break through to win a pawn on the king’s side.

Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. I needed to look more carefully at the situation of the pawns on each side of the board. Who will be able to create a passed pawn most easily and who (without intervention from the enemy monarch) will be able to queen a pawn the quickest? The reality is that black must play with the upmost care to keep control over white’s king’s side pawns.
Play continued…

It’s pretty depressing to think that if it’s possible to make this many errors in a “simple” king and pawn ending then a more complex ending must be very difficult indeed!

Dec 192009
Well, it’s been a few months since I posted now. Time flies when you are having fun! My wife and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon for a couple of weeks and had the most amazing time. Of course when you get back from such an amazing adventure it’s easy to feel a bit jaded and restless. Between that and the build up to Christmas I simply haven’t got round to posting. The longer it’s been the harder it is to break back into it. Now that I’ve written this post I can feel the momentum building again!

The main impetus for this post was to report on the epic showdown between my team, Hebden Bridge A and Huddersfield in the Calderdale League. Both teams came into the match unbeaten. Indeed, neither team had even lost one game! As you may remember me relating in one of my earliest posts, Huddersfield are the current champions, the strongest team in the league on paper and the favourites to win again this year as a result. I gave us a chance of upsetting the established order at the beginning of the season, but thought it would be difficult for us.

We played the match on neutral territory in Halifax as Huddersfield’s usual home venue wasn’t available and this possibly gave us a tiny psychological advantage as I’d guess that “fortress Huddersfield” has not been breached in the Calderdale league for a number of years.

As we were the “away” team, we played with black on all boards and were marginally out-graded on every board except the top board (where both players had the same grade).Unusually for a fixture at this level the game on board one was the first to finish and it finished in our favour. Our top board seems to have Huddersfield’s top board in his pocket at the moment. He scored 1.5/2 against him last season and I’d not be surprised if he repeats or improves on this result again this year. It would certainly be fair to say that Huddersfield’s board one needs to revise his choice of openings if he is to try and buck the current trend. He played a Four Pawns Attack against our man’s Benoni and (as I’ve tried this line against him myself on several occasions) I can vouch for his ability to absorb the pressure and then kill you on the counter attack. 0-1 to Hebden Bridge.

Next to finish at the other end of the match was board five. Huddersfield’s captain equalised the match score by taking advantage of a positional slip from our player fairly early in the opening. White won a pawn and maintained a positional bind that our man couldn’t break. The rest was about 2 hours of torture. 1-1

The remaining three boards went right to the very death and, as the tension in the room started to become really acute I managed to salvage a draw in my game on board 4. I had gained a pretty good position out of the opening and begun to start looking for ways to press for an attack when I over looked a defensive resource and lost a knight for a pawn. The only other compensation was that I had a good initiative and some pressure against my opponent’s king which meant that I was pretty much obliged to just “go for it”. My opponent defended accurately but in fending off my attack he lost another pawn. It came down to an end game where I had a knight and four pawns against white’s bishop, knight and two doubled pawns and I was able to hold on for the draw and even overlooked a possible winning chance (see below). So with two games to finish it was still level pegging.

In the position above, I’d been hanging on for a while and by now was fairly confident I could hold for a draw. “Oliver” has just played 46.Bc3 to which I replied (pretty much straight away I’m ashamed to admit) with Ne4. Of course had I thought for a few minutes I might have found:

46…g5+! 47.Kxg5 Ne4+ 48.Kf4 Nxc3 winning back the bishop and maintaining a pawn advantage. It must be said that the resultant position looks hard for black to win but I could have had fun trying!

Next up our board three took a full point with a win on time. He had the better position when the game ended and had put his opponent under pressure for a long period. This had translated into a big time advantage on the clock which proved decisive. Suddenly we were up one point with one game to finish and looked like we might pull off a massive upset.

On board two our captain had been holding on in a tricky position for a long time. In a double rook ending Huddersfield’s man had a space advantage but it looked very difficult to exploit. Right up until the end it looked like our captain’s rear guard action would get us the draw we needed but sadly it wasn’t to be. White managed to get a passed pawn and it was all over. Final score 2.5-2.5!

What all this means is that Hebden Bridge A have a tiny advantage in the league based on our better “board count” in all matches (we have 19 wins to Huddersfield’s 16 over 5 matches played each).However, before the half way point is reached we still have to play our B team (who are third in the league) and Huddersfield play Halifax (who are bottom) so that points gap could be reduced to 1 point if we only win 3-2 and they win 5-0, which is entirely plausible.

So, if neither side drops any points for the rest of the season it could all come down to the last match in April when we will be at home and playing the white pieces. That is a fairly mouth watering prospect. Now we need to make sure we reach that match unbeaten!

Oct 052009

It’s time for another Calderdale League update readers. A week last Monday (the 28th), Hebden Bridge A played away to Belgrave in Halifax. Meanwhile, at the same venue our comrades in the B team were playing Courier A, who we had beaten in our first match of the season. (I may well post separately on this match as I saw one very interesting game that deserves some coverage.)

The A team made heavy work (although we were all playing black) of defeating Belgrave 3.5-1.5 with all the games being tightly contested for a long period of the evening. In the end we won on board 1 and board 5 and drew the other three games. What is pleasing to see so far is that everyone in the team has made a good and pretty much equal contribution to our first two successes. Boards 1,2,3 and 5 have all scored 1.5 from 2 matches and board 4 has made two draws.

My own game on board 3 was drawn. To tell the truth, I should have won it fairly comfortably. I chose to develop sensibly against a Reti system which transposed into a Catalan/Slav type position when white elected to play d4 instead of e3 or b3. Having succeeded in gaining a fairly comfortable positional advantage (see diagram on the left) I managed to avoid a tempting piece sacrifice after a long think.

This position (my 15th move) was critical for me. I had been looking for ways to get at white’s king and one idea I had looked at was a piece sacrifice starting with 15….Bxg3 and following 16.hxg3 up with 16….Qxg3 17.fxg4 Qxh4 when the white king is exposed and I should pick up a third pawn (g4 or d4) for my piece. I tried to calculate the variations that might arise after Qxh4 but the plausible continuations were too numerous to manage. In fact, during analysis after the game my computer found a tactical flaw in my plan which I hadn’t uncovered which is 18.Rxe8+! Rxe8 19.Be1 protecting the knight on h4 and maintaining a two piece advantage! I’m can’t be sure my opponent would have found this but I’m glad I didn’t give him the opportunity.

Ultimately I realised that if I played the sacrifice I would have to rely on my gut instinct and a positional justification. After further reflection I decided that in this case the positional justification wasn’t strong as I already had a tangible positional advantage. White’s structure is badly damaged and his pieces are not all placed on good squares. I therefore resolved to try and find a different method of capitalising on this even though retreating the bishop on g4 would give white some time to re-group.

I’m sure that playing 15….Be6 was the right choice here and my opponent said after the game that he would have been happy if I’d played 15…Bxg3. We very quickly looked at the position that would have arisen after the short forcing sequence and I wasn’t wild about the resultant possibilities.

Despite the fact that this crucial decision took me quite a long time to make I’m glad that I reached the right conclusion. Often in the past I have found that I am unable to make objective decisions about retreating pieces from attacking outposts if I believe that an alternative direct method is available to me, no matter how risky. I need to be more aware of this tendency in my play and try to avoid making decisions based purely on my desire to attack and maintain the initiative.

Having selected the right continuation here I managed to maintain some control of the game and picked up a pawn in the middle game and another one as we transposed to the end game. The diagram below picks up the stor of the endgame.

I should take some comfort from having made the correct decisions at key points in the opening and middle game but it was disappointing to have missed out on a win when it was staring me in the face on a few occasions.

Sep 222009

Hebden Bridge A made a good solid start to our new league season with a 3.5-1.5 victory over Courier A (from Halifax) last Monday (the 14th of September). As the match was a home fixture our team played with the white pieces and won fairly comfortably in the end against the team that finished just behind us in last year’s campaign.

It would be fair to say that Courier’s team was weaker than it had been last season as they’d lost one of the best players from their line up. Never the less, it was a good result for us. This was emphasised as our B team (also playing at home) did very well against the champions (and favourites for the title again in my view) Huddersfield, losing by the narrowest of margins, 3-2. This result suggests that Huddersfield may not be capable of the high board count I was afraid they would achieve again this season and gives us grounds for optimism provided we can keep winning or matches.

Hebden Bridge B are just about the strongest I’ve ever seen them with a good level of playing strength right through to board 5. They may well be a factor in the season this year if they can wheel out the same team for every match. It’s good to see our B team looking so healthy after having gained promotion from the second division last season.

My game in the A team’s match was not of the most stupendous quality. I played well in the opening and capitalised on some provocative play from my opponent. However, having gained a good positional advantage I didn’t handle his subsequent attempts to complicate the situation as well as I could have done and was fortunate to see him miss a few good opportunities.

Not one of my best games for sure but it’s nice to start the season with a win. Incidentally, this game continues a fairly rich seam of from that I’ve struck with the white pieces in the closed variation of the French Tarrasch. I was planning to post an entry about lucky opening variations at some stage and this one is certainly a strong candidate for me. Keep an eye out for more on “lucky openings” in the near future.

Sep 112009

As a new chess season looms large in Calderdale can I find fresh grounds for unjustified optimism? Of course I can! Show me an “over-the-board” (OTB) player who doesn’t feel a surge of excitement about the untold stories that lie in wait over the coming months and I’ll show you a dead man. The very fact that OTB is seasonal in nature means that it provides a very welcome adrenaline injection for club players. No matter how much online or correspondence chess you play you never get the same buzz that you get at the start of the season. I’m sure every amateur sports person would testify to getting the same feeling, no matter what their sport.

So, what should I expect from the new season? Well, last year in the Calderdale league my team, Hebden Bridge A, finished second in the first division and I made third place in the Calderdale Individual Championships. Frankly, I’d be delighted with a similar performance this season. In the league, the champions, Huddersfield A, are almost certainly going to be the strongest team and will probably win again this year. The season will probably boil down to our two matches with them and I give us maybe a 1 in 5 chance of winning either of those ties. I can’t see anyone else taking points off them so we’d need to win all the rest of our matches (certainly not a given) and probably match their board count as well. Hebden Bridge A are capable of winning the league but it will be very difficult indeed.

From an individual perspective I was pretty happy with my Calderdale Championship result last year and I know from having played in it for 3 years now that it is a very open tournament indeed with the top 15 to 20 players all capable of beating each other on their day. I’ll be happy if I’m in contention again this season come the final round in March. The area where I want to make big improvements is in my league performance. Last season I did no better playing board 3 in our “A” team than I had done in either or the previous two seasons playing on board 1 for our “B” team and I was in the same division for each of those seasons! I need to tighten my game up this season which will probably mean deploying a slightly more reserved opening repertoire. Last season I simply lost too many points to players graded below me. In addition to this I lost twice in our matches with Huddersfield and that cost us dearly we lost at home by an odd point and drew away. If I’d drawn both games we’d have drawn and won those matches. On such fine margins will the success of our season be decided.

The new season starts tonight with Hebden Bridge A, playing Courier A at home, a tough opening fixture. I’ll be posting a journal entry on this blog for every game I play in Calderdale so if you want to have the pleasure of watching my suffering unfold as it happens do tune in regularly.