4NCL Online Season 5 began on Tuesday night last week and Hebden Bridge Chess Club once again fielded three teams in this national competition for chess clubs across the UK and Ireland. Having dipped our toe in the water with two teams in season 3 (which was played this time last year), and then expanded to three teams for Season 4 (which started in August last year), this competition is proving to be a good way to make sure everyone at the club has a chance to play some competitive chess – especially those who don’t yet feel ready to return to playing face to face.
The 4NCL has also been a great way to continue involving the historic members of the club who have now moved to other parts of the UK (or even the world) some of whom came back to join us when we moved online during lockdown. Our online community is really an extension our physical membership at the Trades Club.
The resumption of over the board chess means that participation in the 4NCL Online has been quite unpredictable. In season 3, at the height of the winter lockdown last year there were seven leagues and 264 teams of 4 players. That equals over 1,000 players participating in each of the seven rounds and then a reduced number taking part in the divisional playoff semi-finals and finals that followed. That’s quite a phenomenal participation rate. As clubs began to return to meeting and playing face to face, season 4 saw a significant reduction in numbers with five divisions and 184 teams. Now for season 5 numbers have dropped again, but less significantly to 154 teams in five divisions.
In season 4, Hebden Bridge 1 became champions of Division 5. Although this was the bottom division and our first team were the top seeds, this was still no mean achievement in a league consisting of 56 teams as the competition was fierce and many players in the league were much stronger than their fledgling ECF Online ratings suggested they would be. The teams from Morpeth and Cork in particular were of very similar strength to our first team and pushed them all the way. We beat Morpeth by the narrowest possible margin and only tied with Cork in round 7 by which time the title was, thankfully, already in the bag. By coincidence, I received the trophy recognizing our triumph this week and have pictured here so that all our members can enjoy it!
Our other teams also performed consistently with their average ratings. The second team started slowly with a defeat in round 1 and a draw in round 2 but then they won four matches in a row before falling to Wells Globetrotters 1 in the final round to finish in 10th place. Our third team finished just outside the top half of the table in 34th position. In a contrast of fortunes with the second team, they began with two excellent drawn matches against tough opposition, then lost their next four matches before rallying to win in the last two rounds and climb back up the table.
For season 5, there has once again been a significant ‘churn’ of teams with many dropping out of the league and a good number of new teams signing up. As expected, Hebden Bridge 1 were promoted out of the bottom division and have landed in Division 3. Meanwhile, both our second and third teams have been seeded into Division 4 and so have also avoided the melee of Division 5. The top four divisions are run along different lines to Division 5 which uses a seven rounded Swiss system to decide the winner. Instead, in the top divisions, there are 32 teams and these are then subdivided into four groups of eight teams. Each team plays a round robin against all the other teams in their group across seven rounds and then the winners of each group progress to the divisional play offs with a semi-final and final taking place. Winning their group then is the main target for each of our teams this season and that process began on Tuesday night.
Now let’s find out how each team did in their first round matches.
Hebden Bridge 1 vs Cork A
Hebden Bridge 1 are in Group C of Division 3. This saw them drawn alongside last season’s rivals Cork, who tied with them in the final round of season 4. With Hebden compelled to field a weaker line up than they had done for that final match of last season and Cork also marginally weaker, it promised to be another very closely fought affair. Hebden’s team consisted of Andrew Clarkson, Dave Shapland, David Wedge and Pete Leonard. All experienced players both over the board and online having played in both previous seasons that we have participated in the 4NCL Online.
The evening began pretty well for Hebden 1 as they seemed to secure at least a small advantage out of the opening on every board except board 1 where Andrew found himself up against it with the Black side of the Anti-Grunfeld set up deployed by Henk de Jonge. Although he was two pawns down, he had a perfectly acceptable position with active piece play until he opted for 18…Bxb2, recapturing one of the pawns, when 18…Bd4, maintaining the initiative, would have secured him a solid advantage. After that, he was on the edge of defeat for much of the rest of the game as his opponent was able to complete his development and consolidate his material advantage of an extra passed pawn on b5. Fortunately, Henk couldn’t play the resultant position as accurately as he needed to and Andrew was able to force a position where there was nothing better for White to do than repeat moves for a draw.
By this time David Wedge had already won his game with the Black pieces against Vaibhav Sharma on board 3. White played the opening very passively and David was quickly able to secure a very comfortable game. By move 20, he had an extra pawn and an overwhelming positional advantage which he did not waste and converted the position into a win on move 51 though is opponent could well have resigned long before that.
Pete Leonard also won his game on board 4 playing White against Sumeet Bhattacharjee to carry Hebden to victory. Black used the eccentric, but perfectly playable Czech Defence (characterised by 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 c6) against which Pete developed sensibly and then played for extra space on the queen’s side. There was a very brief moment early in the middle game where the engine thinks Black was slightly better, but aside from that, Pete’s game was reasonably comfortable throughout and his main challenge was managing his time. He won an exchange on move 20 and then made solid progress as he secured a fine outpost for one of his knights on d6. As he drifted into time trouble, Pete blundered back the exchange and the game seemed to equalise but then another error by his opponent, who was also getting short on time, simplified the task and led to a mating attack.
Pete’s win just left the board two game between Dave Shapland and Simon Lawrence to be decided. This was the only one of the four boards that saw a rerun of one of the games from the end of last season when Simon had beaten Dave handily. This time, Dave found a nice way to win a pawn as early as move nine on the White side of a French Defence Rubenstein Variation. However, he didn’t play the follow up accurately and started to drift when he played 19.Bc1, when 19.Qe2 would have preserved his advantage. After that he played a string of sub-optimal moves and Simon took full advantage grabbing the initiative, winning back the pawn and then over running Dave’s position to collect a comfortable point.
Despite this loss though, Hebden 1 had made a great start to their league campaign winning by 2½ – 1½ to improve on their tie with Cork last season. Two other teams won their opening matches in Hebden’s group. Brentwood Juniors won 4-0 (including two defaults) and Uxbridge B also won 2½ – 1½. The other match was drawn. Hebden will play Brentwood Juniors in round 2, so there is a chance to take control of their group right away.
You’ll find all the games from Hebden Bridge 1’s match against Cork A in the game viewer at the end of this post along with the games from the other two matches.
Hebden Bridge 2 vs Calstock Killers
Hebden Bridge 2 are also in Group C of their division. The trickle-down effect of missing players who usually represent the first team meant that both the second and third team were understrength compared to their regular line ups. However, the second team did really well to keep all of the games tight and, in the end, secured a hard-earned tie in a match where all four games were won by Black.
On board 1, John Allan was in fact the first Hebden player to finish from all three teams as he comfortably overcame his opponent, Gary Trudeau. Maybe it helped that he had played him twice before and beaten him on both occasions. Regardless, the game was in the balance until White over-extended himself in the centre in playing 12.e5 when 12.Bf3 – consolidating first – would have been more prudent. John then set up a nice trap with the seemingly innocuous 17…Nf8 which induced a blunder that lost a piece for nothing. Rather than play on, Gary resigned on the spot.
The remaining three games all finished around about the same time so let’s run through them in board order. On board 2 Ollie Hill played his usual brand of interesting and enterprising chess against Jason Henderson. Ollie elected to play an offbeat line against the French Defence and seemed to get a perfectly acceptable position early on even though the engine’s assessment did not think much of it. In practical play between two humans, sometimes playing to discombobulate your opponent is a highly effective approach. Ollie developed naturally but may later have had cause to regret choosing to castle queen’s side on move 11 as it was on this flank where Black’s decisive attack later broke through. Just as his opponent’s offensive seemed unstoppable though, Black blundered most of his advantage away with 20…Nc4, allowing a series of exchanges which simplified White’s defensive task. Sadly for Ollie, the respite didn’t last long, as a second wave of the assault arrived and broke through forcing Ollie to exchange his queen for one of Black’s rooks. The rest was a mopping up exercise which Jason completed efficiently.
It was a different story on board 3 where John Kerrane played very nicely to maintain control against Michael Hill. The game started out as a Semi-Slav Defence where Michael elected to close the pawn structure and try to play for a space advantage. As the opening transitioned into the middle game and the position started to open, it looked like John’s queen’s side pawns might be vulnerable to an attack. However, John defended himself carefully and Michael was unable to find a way to break into the Black camp. The game turned just after it transitioned into the end game as White took the wrong approach with 30.Rb6 when he should instead have pushed his passed a-pawn immediately. John launched a counter-attack which took advantage of his opponent’s back rank weakness and suddenly White’s passed a-pawn was blockaded whilst Black’s passed d-pawn was accelerating up the board. Michael felt compelled to sacrifice his knight for it and, now a piece up, John showed good technique to convert the full point.
Chris Marsden was holding his own quite nicely against Nigel Kirkman on board 4 throughout the opening and into the middle game. This game was played from a French Defence Classical Variation with neither player really able to gain the upper hand until Chris decided to try and break out with the ill-fated move 23.f4. This should have allowed Black to exchange pawns and pieces on c4 and then win a pawn by capturing twice on g3. Instead Nigel went for the attractive looking 23…Nxd4 which grabs a free pawn due to 24.Qxd4 falling to a deadly pin with 24…Bc5. Chris could have limited the damage to a pawn if he’d been able to find the tricky 24.b4, but instead went for 24.Be3 and this gave Nigel a second bite of the cherry that he did not fail to capitalize on. Chris got his bishop trapped on c4 and the rest was straight forward.
So, a very decent 2-all draw for the second team which may stand them in good stead as stronger players return to reinforce their efforts in round to come. Their match was the only one that was tied in the group and so they sit in joint 4th-5th along with their opponents.
Hebden Bridge 3 vs Downend 2
The third team are in Group B of Division 4. They had two experienced 4NCL Online players in the form of Josh Blinkhorn and Terry Sullivan on boards 1 and 3 and then two new-comers as Paul Gledhill and Matthew Nolan stepped in on boards 2 and 4. This was always likely to be a tough assignment for the third team and so it proved although they fought tenaciously and came close to getting a result.
The first game to finish in this match was the board 4 debut of Matthew Nolan. Given that he’s fairly new to chess this competition is really all about getting a feel for what competitive chess involves and wetting his feet. His opponent Elliott Bleeg took full advantage of his opportunity as Matthew weakened his king’s position early on in the game when he played 7…f6 which led to the loss of a rook. Matthew did his best to wriggle but he was going to have to have seen a big blunder in return and Elliott was careful enough to convert without too much trouble.
Not long after Matthew’s demise the board 3 game was finished as well as Terry drew with Shaun Walsh. Facing a King’s Indian Defence, Terry deployed the Petrosian Variation and got a good game with a persistent advantage but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to find a way to press home his edge even though he was never in any danger and had lots more space when acceding to a repetition of moves and a draw.
On board 1, Josh had been under pressure with the White pieces against Thomas Ash’s Sicilian Najdorf Variation after he went astray during the opening. It looks as though 10.Bg3 was the start of his troubles. The engine calls for 10.fxg5 instead. It took Thomas several moves to play the obvious pawn fork 14…e5 which had been on for a couple of moves. When he did play it though it didn’t actually work and Josh found a way to maintain material parity. However, Josh lost a couple of pawns on the king’s side and that gave Black a passed pawn on the h file in an ending where Josh had a knight and bishop against Thomas’s rook and two pawns. Josh did manage to get some counter play but in the end Thomas played the ending with fewer mistakes and was able to win in the end.
That just left Paul Gledhill, also making his 4NCL Online debut on board 2. His game was also a Sicilian Najdorf but he had the Black pieces against James Meadows. This was a tense and complicated struggle with Paul getting a dangerous looking attack on the queen’s side after James castled long but leaving his own king in the middle of the board. James was tempted into a thematic and dangerous looking piece sacrifice with 17.Nd5. It didn’t work but it was hard to find the best continuation as the position exploded into pure tactics that only a computer could reasonably expect to navigate perfectly. For a brief moment White was better but he missed a difficult chance and Paul kept his cool admirably to maintain the balance and eventually won two pieces as White’s position fell apart.
A 2½-1½ defeat was not a terrible outcome for the third team and it will be interesting to see how they get on in this group once some of the stronger players in the squad return in round 2.
All the games from last week’s 4NCL Online matches can be found in the viewer below. Some have annotations from Lichess’s in house engine – Stockfish 14 – and the variations and move assessments are from the engine.
Instructions for using the PGN Viewer
For the benefit of those who are uninitiated, the game viewer above contains all of the games played on Tuesday night. It will automatically scroll through all of them one after the other unless you tell it to stop by clicking on the ‘=’ button below the board. To select the game you want to view click on the ‘…’ symbol in the white box above the board. This will reveal a dropdown menu for you to choose from and when you select your game will appear. You can navigate forwards and backwards using the arrow buttons beneath the board or click on the moves in the text box on the right.