Jan 242020

This way to the polling station! Time for you to decide on your ‘Game of the Decade’. Photo: kcivey

We’ve reached the end of our short series covering some of the best, most interesting, exciting and memorable chess games played in Hebden Bridge or by Hebden Bridge Chess Club players. Now it’s time for us to reveal our short list and for readers to decide which one they think is their ‘Game of the Decade’.

Just as with the long list I really agonised over which games to select. There are so many factors to weight up and, in the end, the selection is subjective. The least I can do is explain the criteria that I used to weigh up the long list candidates so that readers can understand how I reached this short list of five games, even if they don’t agree with my choice.

  • How accurate was the play in general?: although there were some games on the long list in which the general standard of the play was not that high, I felt they merited inclusion because of one interesting moment or because they were particularly dramatic. However, those games have not been carried forward to the shortlist as I felt the games here should be considered as being ‘well played’ by the majority of our readership. All of the games on this short list would be torn to shreds by chess engine’s but we aren’t computers and so the engine’s assessment didn’t come into my thinking so much. It’s also fair to say that really complicated games tend to contain more moves that engines would class as ‘inaccurate’ but that, for us mere mortals, would be hard to criticize. So the complexity of the game was considered in conjunction with the standard of play.
  • Was the game was a genuine contest?: I eliminated some games from my consideration because I felt they were too one-sided. Sometimes even games that were well played by one player were ruled out because the defender had capitulated too easily or missed an obvious improvement
  • Was the game exciting or unusual in any outstanding way?: I felt all the games on this shortlist should have some exciting or interesting moments in them. That didn’t mean they had to be sacrificial, tactical or complicated but I felt they needed to have some kind of ‘X-factor’ in them.

Here then is my shortlist for readers to vote on:


In the game viewer below I have published the five shortlisted games again for those who wish to refresh their memory before making their decision.

This poll will be open for 1 week only. Everyone is welcome to vote (you don’t have to be a Hebden Bridge Chess Club member or even a UK resident!) Voting is anonymous and please note that you’ll only be allowed to vote once by the poll, so choose carefully! I’d also very much like to hear from any readers who would like to share the reasons for why they chose a particular game and whether or not they thought the right games made both the longlist and the shortlist. Do please leave comments at the end of this post and let everyone hear your opinions. You can post comments anonymously if you wish to.

Jan 232020

It’s Black to play in this position from Ursal vs. Leatherbarrow. What would you play here? Find out what Andy did in the game viewer below.

This is the third part of the series in which we’ll be featuring the final five games that made it onto my long list. After having had five games from 2014 in our last post, this time the games span out over a longer time frame from 2016 to 2018.

I also want to mention that I’m using a different game viewer in this post. Several readers had been in contact with me to say that they had not always been able to see the Chess Tempo game viewer that I had been using. I’m not sure what was causing the problem as it wasn’t a universal one, but that game viewer was no longer being updated or supported so I guess it was going to break down at some point anyway. The ‘new’ viewer is in fact one that I was using quite some time ago. I’ve tinkered around with the display to try and optimize it. I hope it works for everyone.

Please note that, when more than one game is included in the viewer, you need to click on the bar above the board to reveal a drop-down list and select the game you want to view. Otherwise, the viewer is set to automatically play through the games in turn.

Right! On with the show.

10.) Gormally vs. Morgan, Hebden Bridge Flood Relief Simul, 7th February, 2016

Many readers will have happy memories of our fund raising simul for flood relief with GM Danny Gormally back in 2016. I know I do – primarily because I beat him of course! It was a tough day at the office for the GM as he ended up losing a small handful of games against what he acknowledged was a pretty strong field of club players.

I could have featured several games from this event. All of Danny’s defeats could have qualified as ‘memorable giant-killings’ despite the fact that they were simul games. However, in the end I decided that I should feature the game that he picked out as the ‘best game’ of the simul.

John Morgan acquitted himself most nobly in this one. For a start, he had the courage of his conviction to play his favorite St George’s Defence (1…b5) against the GM. Secondly, he was quick witted enough to spot when Danny’s aggressive play tipped into over-extension and he punished him effectively. In fact, after John had played his 14th move Danny was strategically lost already.

The question then became whether John could be accurate enough to finish the GM off. Unfortunately, he missed a couple of opportunities to finish his illustrious opponent off and Danny slowly clawed his way back into the game. By move 25 he had managed to equalise. John missed one last rather difficult and very beautiful saving chance and goes down swinging. A cracking game of heroic failure fully worthy of it’s space in our list.

11. Cook vs. C.Bak, Calderdale League 1, 17th October, 2016

The younger of the two Bak brothers has played fewer games for Hebden Bridge than Andy and his style of play is rather different. Chris admits that he prefers slow burning positional squeezes rather than the percussive tactical play and attacking flair that is the hallmark of Andy’s style.

This game is a good example. Phil Cook is not an easy man to beat, especially with the White pieces. In fact, I can only think of one other occasion that this happened and that was in the final round of the Calderdale Individual Championship 2016-17 against Matthew Parsons, and Phil already had the title in the bag by that point. There must be others, but I haven’t witnessed them.

In this game a curious position arises from an English opening in which the White king ends up on d1 and Black castles long behind a shattered pawn structure and with White controlling the b-file. In the middle game, Phil finds a creative way to double his rooks on the open d-file but Chris strikes back in the centre.

I think time pressure had an impact on the quality of the play in this game from as early as move 20 and both players commit some errors. In particular, on the last move before time control and under extreme pressure, there is a case of double blindness as both men miss a straight-forward tactic that would have sealed the game for Black. Instead they bound on into an intricate and interesting rook, piece and pawns ending in which Chris slowly out plays his opponent and runs the gauntlet of a second time scramble to secure a very nice victory.

12.) Ursal vs. Leatherbarrow, Halifax, 13th February, 2017

When Darwin Ursal first started playing for Hebden Bridge in 2010-11 I gave him a nickname: ‘Draw-Win’ Ursal. That was simply because he never lost and usually won. So, it’s fair to say that finding a Calderdale game in which he was on the losing side is like finding a hen’s tooth! Here then is a hen’s tooth extracted with great effort by Andy Leatherbarrow.

The key moment of the battle comes on move 20 when Andy digs deep and plays an instinctive piece sacrifice to get Darwin’s king out in the open. The position is very complicated, and Andy couldn’t possibly have calculated everything, but his bravery and gut feel are rewarded as he gets a huge attack on the king with his queen and rook whilst Darwin’s pieces are largely by standers.

Andy can’t find the killing blow immediately but patiently probes and pushes the White king around until he can find something concrete. Darwin’s defensive task proves impossible and he finally caves in. A fascinating sacrifice which is well worth of further study and exploration and is excellent calculation practice!

13.) Cook vs. Porter, Calderdale League 1, 27th of November, 2017

We’ve just seen Phil Cook losing a game. It wouldn’t be at all fair to omit an example of the three time and reigning Calderdale Champion’s work. With that competition now defunct, he may end up keeping the trophy and the title forever!

This game is from the Calderdale League and I think it is quite typical of Phil’s style and qualities. Of course we expect to see his trade mark English Opening but Richard’s choice of response (to play d5 and d4 quite quickly, provokes Phil into playing 3.b4!? and this induces Richard to gambit the d-pawn. From there on in Phil plays deceptively simple and sensible chess to increase his control in the centre, open the b-file, improve the position of his pieces and limit Black’s counter play.

By move 30, White’s position is a picture of harmony whilst Black’s is a sad tangled mess. Richard hit’s out in desperation, trying to complicate proceedings but he is in no position to do so and Phil ends up with four extra pawns and a positional bind.

This one is a bit of a crush, but it’s a model in how to exploit eccentric opening play.

14.) Patrick vs. Clarkson, Calderdale League 1, 15th of January, 2018

Sometimes a game stands out because of one unusual feature or motif. This game is a case in point. How many games have you seen when one player’s king could justifiably be dubbed ‘Man of the Match’? In his notes to this one Andrew Clarkson quite justifiably awards his king the MVP prize and when you take a look at this game, you’ll see why.

The game doesn’t start out in a way that would suggest it would become so remarkable. Dave chooses an unusual, but perfectly playable variation of the Pirc Defence to test Andrew with. Both players develop sensibly and then a crisis comes in the centre of the board as Andrew breaks thematically with 12…c5 and Dave responds in kind 13.e5 and a mass simplification occurs.

If this doesn’t sound promising so far then the endgame really makes up for it. Both players have six pawns and two rooks but Dave has a bishop against Andrew’s knight but he also has doubled and isolated c-pawns and this proves to be the decisive factor in the outcome. Dave forces off another pair of rooks thinking that he can at least hold the position. It’s at this point that Andrew executes a remarkable winning plan as he marches his king across the open board from g8 to collect one of Dave’s loose c-pawns before turning tail and racing back to g7.

In the final act, Andrew manages to exchange the final pair of rooks to enter a knight versus bishop ending in which he has an extra pawn. He then frog-marches his king all the way back to pick up Dave’s pawn on a2 in order to win the game. Of course, there are some improvements in play that both sides could have made here but this is a fairly unusual endgame to be sure.

In my final post of this series tomorrow I’ll be launching a poll for readers to choose their favorite game from a shortlist of 5 games selected by me.

Jan 122020

Maybe the craziest position of the decade? This is from Syrett vs. Webster. White just played 7.Kh1. Find out how this happened and what came next in the game viewer at the end of this post.

Today’s post covers five more games from the archive that made my ‘long list’ for Hebden Bridge’s ‘Game of the Decade’. Interestingly, all five of today’s games were played in 2014. It seems that this was a vintage year for interesting and exciting chess games in the Calder valley. Was it something in the water I wonder? Who knows?
As with Friday’s post, I’m going to give a short description of each game and why I selected it plus, at the end of the post, all the games are published with some notes.

5. Dickinson vs. Corbett, Calderdale League 2, 17th of February, 2014

The 17th of February, 2014 should be memorialised in our collective psyches in the same way that the dates of some of England’s most famous battlefield triumphs are memorialised. Why? Well, the date marks what amounts to the most improbable, unlikely and surprising match result ever in the Calderdale League. That’s not hyperbole. The occasion in question was our Hebden Bridge ‘D’ junior team, without a win to their names approaching the end of the season and rooted to the foot of the table, hosting Belgrave ‘B’ who were top of Division 2 and undefeated. No one expected anything other than a rout for the hugely out-gunned home side and yet the juniors triumphed 3 – 2.

This game from board 2 was my pick of three startling wins by our juniors but I should also mention that Dan Crampton beat Gordon Farrar and Dylan Leggett defeated Angel Gonzalez (both excellent wins) in a blood bath where all five games were decisive. I felt compelled to pick one game from this match and I chose this one primarily because of the dramatic turning of the tables at the end. Karl Dickinson was being comprehensively dismantled by Malcolm Corbett whose main problem appeared to be choosing between the different ways to win the game. In the end the one he chose back fired horribly and Karl found the narrow path he needed to tread to force victory. The only shame is that he missed a very beautiful checkmate right at the end which would have crowned his startling achievement. But this game is certainly the most memorable giant-killing of the past decade.

6. Shapland vs. Leatherbarrow, Calderdale Individual Ch. – Round 5, 10th of March, 2014

Let’s get this one out of the way as it’s one of mine! Generous colleagues suggested a few of my own games as candidates but not this one. However, when I weighed them all up, I felt this game was the most special and I remember a lot of the kibitzers after the game remarking on how interesting it was. It’s hard to disagree, this is a most unusual game. It should also be said that Andy played a full part it too, competing with creativity and bravery in a game that was ultimately a bit of a dead rubber for both of us as neither of us could challenge for the Championship in the final round.

The game develops out of a Scandinavian Defence and, in a moment of improvisation, I decided to play on both sides of the board rather than in the centre. This makes for a very unusual and chaotic position but somehow, I always felt that I managed to maintain the initiative. This is one of those games with a dizzying complex of variations some of which the players considered and calculated and others that were unearthed with the help of an engine afterwards. I’m relatively satisfied however, that both of us played the game well enough for it to be on this list and as your archivist, I have to permitted one indulgence surely?!

7. Syrett vs. Webster, Calderdale League 1, 14th of April, 2014

Another game made memorable by its total mayhem. I seem to recall that I was playing in another match at the Trades Club on the night in question, took an early walk to see what was happening on the other boards and nearly fell over with surprise when I saw this one. By the time Martin had played his seventh move he was missing his f, g and h-pawns and Tom had a pawn on h2 that the White king was taking shelter behind. On move 7 mark you!

That this position is reasonably well known in King’s Gambit theory is bye the bye, there aren’t many players that would agree to reach this position in a serious game. If White has the audacity to play the King’s Gambit, generally Black players will try to spoil his fun in some way by declining it or playing the Falkbeer Counter Gambit. Here though we have a full-blooded King’s Gambit Accepted – a rare jewel that both Martin and Tom immerse themselves in to the full.

To be fair, this game is rather one-sided after Tom makes a couple of mistakes early on. It gallops on in a similar vein with some striking moments along the way before Martin finally finds a route through to Tom’s king. This game can be torn to shreds under the scrutiny of an engine, but that’s rather missing the point. It’s pure entertainment from start to finish.

8. A.Bak vs. Eagleton, Calderdale League 1, 22nd of September, 2014

I was keen to have a feisty draw on the long list, and this is one of the feistiest I can remember. It’s more chaos and complexity but is different from the previous two games in that this one is rather more theoretical in nature as the platform for it is one of the most heavily analysed branches of the Najdorf Sicilian, the infamous Poisoned Pawn variation.

The game develops much as you’d expect it to with Black collecting White’s b2 pawn at the cost of giving his opponent a serious development advantage. With his queen getting kicked around, Greg fights to find ways to simplify the position whilst Andy strives to keep pieces on and open lines towards the Black king.

I remember both players got into serious time trouble in this game, which is no surprise when you consider the level of complexity they were dealing with. However, neither man backs down and both play some creative and resourceful chess. Later in the game Greg plays an inaccuracy that hands Andy the advantage but he in turn fails to find the most effective way to prosecute his attack and the game hurtles on.

At the end, realizing that both their flags had fallen and not knowing who’s had dropped first, the exhausted fighters agreed to a draw. A game full of fight and commitment.

9. Sykes vs. Clegg, Calderdale League 1, 6th of October, 2014

‘And now’, as Monty Python famously said, ‘for something completely different! Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of excitement to enjoy here, but this is a silky smooth and predominantly positional win from Nick where all the tactics fall into place for him behind his single-minded strategy. It’s a classic win against Robert’s King’s Indian Defence with White attacking on the queen’s side and trying to break through before Black can get to his king.

The fact that the result never seems to be in doubt should not disguise the fact that Robert played quite well himself in this game, it’s just that Nick played pretty much perfectly to best him. At the end White is just a pawn up but the position is completely winning.

A really fine effort from both players which bestows even more kudos on the winner.

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Jan 102020

It’s traditional to celebrate special occasions with a display of fireworks. As this website celebrates its tenth anniversary and marks the and of the 21st century’s teenage years, we have a fireworks display of our very own. 14 of the best and most exciting games played by Hebden Bridge players or in Hebden Bridge over the last ten years. Photo: Robert Hensley

Dear reader,

As the calendar flips inevitably over to the beginning of another new year the natural tendency of many writers, historians, commentators, journalists, philosophers, TV presenters, sociologists, pundits and yes, even chess players, is to turn back to reflect on the events of the previous year to try an identify the important moments of interest for them. As 2019 ended and we entered a new decade, we had even greater cause to reflect than usual.

Now then seems an appropriate time for us to think back over the last ten years of recording chess events in Calderdale and of course Hebden Bridge in particular. This little website started life just over ten years ago itself. The 10th of September, 2009 was the date of the first post to be exact. I initially set it up as a personal chess blog but quickly moved it on to become a website for the chess club, reporting on the matches and exploits of our players and our friends and rivals participating in Calderdale chess.

Recently I was trying to think of a suitable way to celebrate reaching such a landmark anniversary. I don’t know how many posts there are on this website or how many games I’ve published here, but I’ve invested an enormous amount of time into documenting our club’s activity, recording our successes and failures, greeting our new members and remembering some who are no longer with us. I felt like I ought to do something to celebrate.

It was then that it struck me that the website’s 10th anniversary and the passing of the present decade might enable me to run something like a ‘Best Games’ poll to enable us to enjoy again some of the most accurate, complicated, tense, stressful, beautiful, competitive and entertaining games from the first ten years of this website’s existence.
Making that decision was the easy part. I then had the dilemma of deciding which games to select and trying to figure out which deserved a place in the pantheon of the ‘greatest’ of the past ten years. When I reflect on my own games from that time there have been so many memorable and interesting battles that I could probably make a very long list of my own efforts quite easily. It was going to be too hard a task to compile a list of candidate games on my own. So, I reached out to club colleagues from the past ten years and some of the strongest players from other clubs in Calderdale to ask for suggestions.

I expected a few suggestions primarily from current team-mates and a few players who I see regularly. What I got was an unexpectedly enthusiastic response, both to the concept of a ‘Games of the Decade’ list and also contributions suggesting games for the list. In fact, I got so many suggestions that I realised I would quickly have to set out some entry criteria to help me home in on a longlist to present to you. Here are those criteria:

  • First of all I decided that all the games on the list must include at least one Hebden Bridge Chess Club combatant and have been played in a Calderdale Evening Chess League competition or have been played in by two non-club members in Hebden Bridge under the auspices of the club, for example in the Calderdale Individual Championship.
  • Secondly, after some agonising, I decided that I would only allow individuals to appear in the list once as a game winner, meaning they could only feature in a second or third game if they were on the losing side. This criteria has enabled me to showcase the best endeavors of a pretty broad range of players, some of whom are no longer active in the league.
  • Finally, I would only allow games that had been played between 2009 and the present day.

Using those guidelines, I was able to whittle down the list of candidates I had received, but I still had rather a lot, and, in some cases, players were appearing in multiple games. The next job then was to go through the games again myself, often having to decide which of a number of candidate games suggested for a particular player were my favorites. I use the word ‘favorite’ very specifically because I didn’t really feel that I could be the sole arbiter for the ‘best game’.

And that brings me to the final dilemma. After much soul searching and contemplation, I have created what still amounts to a longlist of 14 of my favorite games that I’d like to celebrate again with you. There’s that word ‘favorite’ again. I’ve used it because I think this will ultimately be more of a popularity contest than a judgment of quality. If we were only aiming to seek out the best on the basis of the ‘most accurately played’ game, then we’d probably end up selecting a contest between two of the strongest players in league that ends up as a draw with some relatively hard to understand strategic manoeuvring along the way.

My list of 14 still has plenty of games played by the strongest players in the league, but we’ve also got a few games that are not, and they deserve their place on this list in my opinion. Some games are extraordinarily complicated and that usually means that the accuracy levels go down and the number of mistakes (at least from a chess engine’s perspective) go up. Others are memorable because they involve high stakes or high drama and were played under the greatest competitive pressure. Others still are on the list for aesthetic reasons because there is something strikingly beautiful about them. There are also some games that are outstanding for technical reasons and that can therefore be considered as instructive. What they all are, I hope, is entertaining.

I’ll present all 14 games over the course of three posts and then in a fourth post I’ll give you my shortlist of five games and present a poll to ask readers to choose their favorite which will be crowned ‘game of the decade’. You can do so on any or all of the grounds given above. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone who took the time to reflect on their games and the games of others and send me their suggestions. Every game was considered but ultimately this initial long list is my own selection so I apologise if my opinion doesn’t reflect your own.

Without further ado then, let’s rip the lid gleefully off pandora’s box and take a look at our first four games as we progress through the list in chronological order.

Game 1: D.Firth vs. D.Wedge, Calderdale Team Knockout Competition, 13th July, 2009

This first game actually predates the website but it fits the entry criteria and I was keen to have an example of Dave Wedge’s play in the list as he was, without doubt, the strongest player at the club at the turn of the decade. Here, Dave faces Huddersfield’s top board of the day who plays the most aggressive and uncompromising set up against the Modern Benoni. Dave knows how to handle this and sets about neutralising White’s attack before going on the counter offensive. His opponent continues to hit out and go for the kill as the position opens up and becomes very complicated.

I’m guessing that the end of this game was played in mutual time pressure as both players miss chances that I’d have expected them to spot with time in hand. However, aside from a moment at the very end when Dave allowed his opponent a gilt-edged chance to steal the game that was in turn overlooked, this was a typically fearless win for Dave in fine counter attacking style.

Game 2: Breen vs. Parsons, Calderdale League 1, 29th November, 2010

Matthew has been one of the dominant players in the Calderdale League for much of the last ten years. That being the case it was no surprise to find that there were a significant number of his games that could easily have made it into this collection. There were several that made my ‘Parsons shortlist’, but in the end I picked this one as my personal favorite because the sacrificial idea that swings the game is, in my opinion, quite hard to concieve.

Using one of his favorite weapons with Black, the Sniper, Matthew plays ambitiously and creates a very double-edged position against Dennis Breen of Brghouse. The critical moment comes at move 15 when Matthew invites Dennis to invade on the queen’s side with his knight via b5 to c7 in order to give himself the time to launch a king’s side attack from what seems an unlikely position. Even the chess engines take quite a long time to figure out that this approach is viable. Dennis misses what amount to a couple of pretty difficult chances to improve his play and Matthew sweeps him aside. I find this to be a highly creative and powerful performance.

Game 3: Webb vs. Ursal, Calderdale League 1, 8th October, 2012

Two of the strongest players in the league at the time go toe to toe in this slugfest. Matty Webb opts for the offbeat Mengarini Variation (2.a3!?) against Darwin Ursal’s Sicilian Defence. He’s hoping to confuse Darwin with such an unusual variation and, early in the game, the strategy appears to be paying off as the game develops down an unorthodox route. Darwin weathers the early storm however and, when Matty goes astray he takes his chance to initiate a ferocious counter-attack that quickly lands him the full point.

The engine assessment will tell you there were a number of better moves available to the combatants in this game, but, as Matty says in his game commentary, ‘your opponent is NOT a perfect calculating machine, you should try to line up as many problems and lines to analyse as possible to allow them to go wrong!’ Unfortunately for him, in this encounter it was Darwin who calculated more accurately.

This was a heavy weight encounter with lots of interesting ideas in it and it also has Darwin’s finger prints all over it. He often sails quite close to the wind in his games, but he often ends up coming out on top even from seemingly desperate situations.

Game 4: Leonard vs. Sugden, Calderdale Individual Ch. Round 4, 2nd November, 2013

A good king hunt is always a pleasure to witness and this game made my list primarily because of the stylish way Pete concludes it. The game builds quite slowly to begin with as Pete deploys his favourite Bishop’s Opening against 1…e5 and Dave responds with a critical set up for Black. Pete proceeds to use strategic ideas commonly seen in the Ruy Lopez to initiate a dangerous king’s side assault and Dave is unable to find the antidote.

At the end Pete finds some attractive tactics to draw Dave’s king out of his lair and then hunts him across the board to check mate him. That Pete was able to find these ideas in the pressurised situation of the fourth round of the Calderdale Individual Championship is all-the-more impressive. This game made a big impression on me at the time and it was a pleasure to re-discover it again as I researched games for this poll.

You’ll find all four of the games mentioned above in the game viewer below with notes by the combatants (mostly). I hope you will enjoy these and the subsequent games to come in two further posts.

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Apr 242012

Yesterday was an auspiscious day for Dragons - Saint George's day in the Chinese year of the Dragon. This image was sourced from Frank Wuestefeld's Flickr photostream

For the last two years this site has made a point of celebrating the advent of the national day of our patron Saint with a game from my Sicilian Dragon archive. Yesterday was the 23rd of April and so we will once again acclaim Saint George with a dragon!

Of course 2012-13 is the Chinese year of the Dragon and so it seemed appropriate to recognise this with today’s image choice. There is also a line dubbed the “Chinese Dragon” in the opening variation. Indeed it is mentioned in the notes to today’s game.

Readers will find that the game below includes extensive notes and aims to cover some of the strategic ideas behind the opening as well as the tactical themes that recur all too often. It has been my aim to try and provide some basic coverage of the ideas to those who may wish to start playing the mainline of this opening with White or Black. However, if you just want to play through a lively game with plenty of tactical cut and thrust then I don’t think this game will disappoint you. 

It occured to me that, between the two previous articles and this new annotated game, there must now be a fair amount of theoretical ground covered. So, for ease of reference, here are the links to the two previous items should you chose to delve deeper into this complex but rewarding opening variation. I’ve updated both articles with the Chesstempo game viewer so that the games can be downloaded as well as enjoyed on the page. 

 These first two games both featured White wins (well Saint George did kill the Dragon after all!) but in todays effort Black manages to hold a draw in a complicated battle.

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Feb 152012

Continuing with the recent anniversary theme, today we acknowledge a recent significant birthday for one of the game’s true titans.

The 10th Chess World Champion, Boris Spassky celebrated his 75th birthday on the 30th of January. I’m not going to regurgitate his wonderous achievements or indulge in any sentimental recollections about the ‘good old days’ here – well, not much anyway! There are plenty of folks out there better qualified to do that than I. Chessbase being just one example.

Boris was disappointed to see that, once again, his wife had ordered a chessboard-shaped birthday cake with pieces for candles

What I will say is that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Spassky and my feelings were reinforced when I saw the recent celluloid about Bobby Fischer. It seemed to me that Fischer was able to complete his match with Spassky in ’72 due in no small part to the Russian’s patience, generosity and sportsmanship. Spassky wanted to play that match and he put up with Fischer’s shenanigans despite the fact that they undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his psychological equilibrium and therefore his playing standard.

I could re-publish any number of Spassky’s great masterpieces. The one against Bronstein (Leningrad 1960) or the one against Larsen (Belgrade 1970) are the ones that most readily spring to mind and get trotted out whenever his masterpieces are considered. However, I’ll resist the temptation in order to bring you a less prominent encounter that may have escaped your attention.

Spassky’s 16th move of the first game in viewer at the bottom of this post was adjudged by Tim Krabbé to be the most fantastic of all “The 110 Most Fantastic Moves Ever Played” back in 1998. The game was played in the 1959 Russian Championship play-off in which Spassky and his opponent, Yuri Averbakh were competing with Mark Taimanov. I’ve put the whole game into the viewer but move 16 is the point at which Spassky (playing Black), after sadly reflecting on the misery of his situation, decided that 16…Nc6! was required. On his website Krabbé annotates this move as follows:

About his #1 greatest move, Spassky wrote to me: I have played 16…Nc6 because I did not see any other practical resources because my position was so passive. I was very surprised that Yuri Averbakh was thinking about 1 hour (!!) (55 min.) I considered that after 17.dxc6 bxc6 18.h6! Bh8 White would have two pieces up and they could manage the win very easy. Mark Taimanov: “I would rather resign the game than to make such a move…


It would be greatly amiss of me not to add that Spassky’s opponent in this game, Yuri Averbakh, was 90 on the 6th of February! I believe he is currently the oldest living Grandmaster. Chessbase also has a nice tribute and interview with him on their website.

To end this appreciation I would like to set straight a record that was recently made public by Vladimir Kramnik. I was listening to the Full English Breakfast podcast last week in which Macauley Peterson interviewed Vlad right after his win in the London Chess Classic. At one point in the interview Kramnik was talking about living in Paris (were Spassky also resides) and the fact that he hadn’t yet learnt French. He recounted thisanecdote about his illustrious countryman.

He’s been living in France since ’73 or’74 and actually his French is still not great. Once I visited him at his place and he had a big sign on the door of his bureau cabinet in Russian which was saying ‘Learn French idiot!’
— Vladimir Kramnik interviewed by Macauley Peterson for the FEB

Readers may think nothing of this apparently amusing story but, in yet another exclusive for this website, I can now reveal the true and rather more poignant origin of that handwritten note. At the beginning of last week I was alerted to the Kramnik interview by our erstwhile guest columnist, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro, who sent me this e-mail.

Dear Intermezzo,

Perhaps you will have come across the recent interview of Vladimir Kramnik by the chaps at the Full English Breakfast. In it he mentions a note stuck to Boris Spassky’s bureau cabinet that he naively assumes must have been written by Spassky himself and refers to his failure to learn the language of his nation of residence. 

Setting the record straight, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro

I say “naïve” because Kramnik clearer failed to consider some plain facts which point to the true origin and nature of the note, which I should add, I witnessed being written with my own eyes.

First of all, the note is, as I mentioned above, handwritten and if Kramnik had given it any more than a perfunctory glance he could not have failed to notice that the handwriting was not Spassky’s. Secondly, if he had taken a further moment to inspect the note he wouldn’t have missed the familiar size and stock of the paper which is clearly a score sheet from a chess game. Finally, if he had been minded to consider a potential alternate meaning for the three words in the note he might have deduced that the word “French” could in fact refer to the chess opening of that name and not the language.

The tragic truth behind that note must cause poor Spassky to suffer a pang of anguish every time he reads it. In 1977 he had qualified to play in the final Candidates Match of the World Championship cycle against Viktor Korchnoi, for the right to play Karpov. The match was played in Belgrade just a year after Korchnoi had defected from the Soviet Union. The bad blood between Viktor and the Soviet bureaucracy was just beginning. In fact some of the antics and psychological chicanery that distinguished the subsequent World title matches between Karpov and Korchnoi originated from the acrimonious dénouement of this Belgrade encounter.

The match started very badly for Boris who went five games behind. The main instrument of his agonies was Korchnoi’s use of the French Defence which Spassky for some reason found very challenging to overcome. In seven games across the match where Korchnoi played the French Spassky managed a score of only +1, =2, -4. Desperate for a break, in game 10 Spassky suddenly decided to consider his moves in his designated “relaxation box”, using a large demonstration board  to analyze his moves. He would only go to the board to play his moves, record them and press the clock and then return to his box. This tactic drew a protest from Korchnoi, but he was clearly unnerved and Spassky fought his way back almost to equality in the match winning games 11, 12, 13 and 14 by which time Korchnoi had begun mimicing Spassky’s behaviour to no avail.

Belgrade 1977. Spassky is the one in the sun visor!

The match descended into farce and relations between the two men had become very poor. By the time they played the 17th game Spassky had returned to consider his moves at the board but had taken to wearing a silver sun visor and sunglassed underneath a pair of goggles. He lost that game (probably because he couldn’t see properly!) and Korchnoi now needed only one more point to win the match. Fittingly, in game 18 (the second game in the viewer at the bottom of this post) Korchnoi deployed the French once more and Spassky tried the Advance Variation.

I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front row of the auditorium when this game was played and I can assure you the atmosphere was very tense indeed. Eventually Korchnoi overcame his opponent and when the formality of swapping and signing each other’s score sheets arrived I noticed Korchnoi turn his sheet over and scribble something on the back of it before passing it to Spassky. I saw that Boris took a look at the note and immediately turned pale with anger before leaving the stage humiliated.

Later on that evening, at a party held in honour of Korchnoi’s success, I got the opportunity to ask Viktor what he had written on that score sheet that had obviously distressed Spassky so deeply. Korchnoi chortled and said,

“Learn French idiot!”

I hope that this e-mail will go some way to redressing the inaccuracy of Kramnik’s statement which was in no way intentional on his part. How could he have known that this note of admonition was in fact a spur to drive Spassky’s opening studies and not his linguistic deficiency?

See you soon,


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Apr 232011

Today is St.George’s Day and so it only seems right that this blog celebrate the occasion by offering up a Dragon to be slain! Of course I’m talking about the chess variation rather than the mythical beast itself. I count myself as something of a Sicilian Dragon aficionado and have played the opening numerous times with both sets of pieces. In the game I’m presenting for examination today I was playing with White in an online correspondence tournament in which all games played had to be Dragons. My opponent chose to play a line called the Soltis Variation (it’s named after the American GM who is credited with introducing it into high level chess) and things got very interesting there after. In fact this game also features the only occurance I think I’ve ever come across in a genuine game where one player has ended up with quadrupled pawns so, to me, it is something of a collectors item.

The Soltis variation (characterised by 11…h5) is reputable and very sound. Recommendations don’t come any higher than that of ex-World Champion Garry Kasparov who, in his title match against Viswanathan Anand in 1995, chose to defend this line of the Dragon after a series of set-backs with his beloved Najdorf variation. I can remember the shock waves this switch caused amongst commentators at the time of the match. It was a huge change in strategy from Kasparov but, as always with him, it was a practical decision and it worked. Anand was caught off guard, lost in the first game that the Soltis was played and the momentum of the match changed decisively.

I hope readers will enjoy this little sojourn into Dragon theory…

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Apr 242010

Could there ever be a better excuse for me to post a Sicilian Dragon game than to celebrate yesterday — St George’s day? As patron saint of England, (and also of various other nation including Georgia I believe) St George has a special place in the heart of every Englishman. However, if you mention St George and the Dragon to a chess player their mind will also turn to the well-known variation of the Sicilian Defence. The Dragon is notorious for being a double-edged and tactically complex variation which has been analysed in great depth, sometimes to the point where it was in danger of extinction. However, Dragon enthusiasts are die-hards who love their pet and fight courageously to protect it.

My own history with the opening goes right back to point when I first started to learn the rules and play of the game. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for myths and legends and so as soon as my tutor told me that there was an opening called the Dragon I knew it would end up in my repertoire. I learned the line, played it over the board when I could and, occasionally, I would cheer from the sidelines when the opening made an appearance at the very top flight of Grand Master chess — most illustriously when Kasparov used it to great effect in his World Championship match with Anand in 1996. (I wonder if Topalov will give it a shot in his match with Anand which starts today?)

My understanding and appreciation of the Dragon stepped up to another level when I started to use it in correspondence chess on the Red Hot Pawn web site. To play this opening in correspondence requires a much deeper familiarity with the myriad variations than playing it over the board. I’ve entered several “Dragon Thematics” online and in the later stages of these competitions the level of play is extremely high, much too high for me, but I’ve learned a lot by playing in them.

This Dragon loving is all very well but yesterday was St George’s day so I can’t possibly publish a win for black. Instead, much as it pains me to do so, I will give you an interesting win for white. Playing in thematic tournaments means playing against each opponent with both colours and so even the most ardent Dragon funs must face, and try to defeat, their own beloved favourite. To begin with this feels a little bit odd but once you have grasped the opportunity to play the lines that you find most uncomfortable facing with the black pieces it becomes a great deal of fun. I hope readers will enjoy today’s excursion into the wonderful and crazy world of the Dragon.

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