In which I revisit my youth as a chess-playing dweeb. Sort of.
Contrary to an earlier threat, I haven’t posted much here about my chess-playing activities over the last year and a bit. Partly this is because these days chess stuff mostly goes on the chess club’s Facebook page. Partly it’s because I haven’t posted much of anything this last year. Anyway, I have been carrying on with my chess comeback by playing once a week for the local club, and have ascended to the dizzying heights of first board for the third team, lower board for the second team, and occasional fill-in player on bottom board for the first team.
However, until last weekend I had not taken a run at the other thing that probably defines the hardened chess fiend – the chess congress.
Back when I was a teenage chess fanatic I used to play in several weekend chess congresses each year. These are two- or three-day events where, as the name suggests, you play one or two games a day, typically in what is a called a ‘Swiss system’ format where each round you are paired against a player with the same (or almost the same) cumulative score as you.
These congresses are, along with traditional local chess clubs, one of the backbones of the UK chess scene, something that is as true now as it was 35 years ago when I was in my teenage chess heyday.
Now, even as a keen junior I only used to do a few of these a year, including specifically junior (age-group restricted) tournaments. Some people used to play many more, and there are people at the chess club I go to now, and at others, who seem to be playing in a tournament like this practically every second week. So on the chess fanaticism scale, I would now be officially classed as only ‘mild’. Indeed, there are also plenty of club chess players who never play in a congress at all. These often tend to be middle-ranking players in their middle years with families – in other words, people like me.
Incidentally, talking of families, my better half (aka ‘The Boss’) is prone to saying that taking up chess again represents my Mid Life Crisis. I always thought ‘mid life crisis’ meant men running off with younger women, dyeing their hair or having plastic surgery, and buying convertible sports cars or large motorbikes. I just toddle off to play chess and drink the odd beer. All I can say is that it must be the world’s most low-key mid-life crisis. I probably should have started playing the electric guitar again instead.
Anyway, getting back to chess: amongst the various local congresses there is a Manchester Autumn chess congress, which is at the very end of the school summer holidays (Labour Day weekend, for my American reader). This congress also takes place a mere 10 minutes drive from Casa Elliott. Last year I went along a couple of times to spectate a bit and browse the bookstall. This year I decided I would take the plunge and actually play. So last weekend I played in my first chess congress for precisely thirty-six years (the last one was the Amersham Reserves A in late August 1977, since you ask, just after I got my O-level results). I was fortunate that there is an ‘Under 165 rating’ section at the Manchester congress, which corresponds well to my current UK chess rating of 157 (For Steve Caplan, this equates very approximately to an U-1950 FIDE, or U-2000 USCF ELO, section).
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to score a decent 4/5 (three wins and two draws) and even got a modest prize for being one of the four equal 2nd place finishers. Funnily enough that is exactly the same score as I made in my last event, 36 years before.
[In another odd coincidence, my chess rating back in 1977 was 162, not too far from its current value. So I am a marginally worse player now than when I was 16. I'm not sure if that ought to be depressing, or comforting.]
The prize, BTW, was enough to just about cover my tournament entry fee and my chess club subscription for the year… or alternatively to take the family to Pizza Express for supper. The children have been petitioning for the latter, though I have been trying to bargain them down to a takeaway. Still, it’s the first time I ever won any money at a chess congress. Back in the 70s the few meagre prizes I managed to collect were all books.
I found it a bit hard going playing two games in a day – especially on Sunday, the third and final day of the congress, when my morning game was quite a tough 3 hr tactical battle (game below). When my final round game that same afternoon went nearly down to the wire too (3 hrs 15 min) I was definitely fading a bit in the later stages. Of course, the last time I played two ‘standard play’ (i.e. standard time rate) chess games in a day I was barely sixteen years old.
I don’t think the way chess congresses run has changed much, if at all, in the time I’ve been away, bar the arbiters/organisers having laptop computers and printers. However, chess congresses now do sound different. This is because the key sound of a chess congress in my youth was… ticking. Lots of ticking. Chess clocks then were all clockwork, and ‘massed ticking’ was the sonic backdrop to all congresses, or any other kind of serious chess-playing. But nowadays, the clocks are digital, and silent. No ticking. One or two players have told me they find this paradoxically more distracting, as now the other sounds in the room are more noticeable. It doesn’t feel quite right to me. A bit like the Morgan Freeman character in The Shawshank Redemption, who finds that he has been ‘institutionalised’ to the point of not being able to the bathroom without being ordered to, I find that it seems… well, wrong, really, to play a serious chess game without ticking in the background.
So…. will I be doing it all again next year? I’m not sure, but on balance I’d say ‘probably not’. Though I enjoy playing chess, Friday evening and most of Saturday and Sunday is a lot of free time to give up, especially on one of the last weekends of the Summer. Perhaps the one-day speed chess events might be more ‘bite-size’, though given my age and declining powers of calculation/concentration I would likely do a bit worse at rapid than at ‘slow play’.
Overall, though, the decisive factor is probably this; after trying both, I reckon spectating/kibitzing/browsing the bookstall at chess congresses is more fun, and certainly less stressful, than actually playing.
Now you might think – and so might I, come to that – that that parallels my view of scientific research these days.*
* ‘I shoulda bin an Editor.’ I sometimes think. “I coulda had class’. Hey ho.
More actual chess details – for the really keen. [Warning: includes algebraic chess talk, chess positions and games.]
I started the congress a bit slowly on Friday evening, despite my first round opponent gifting me a pawn in the opening, and then a whole piece in the middle game. I decided to try and win by direct attack and them embarrassingly missed or botched a whole series of tactical points, worst of all a simple forced mate in six. Luckily I still won.
I was still a bit rusty in round two on Saturday morning, when my opponent again obligingly gifted me a pawn early on. I then made heavy weather of the Queenless middle game, though I did gradually manage to trade off pieces into a R+B v R+N ending where I still had my extra pawn. I was trying to work out how to win when my opponent basically committed suicide.
End of the game; I’ve just played 32 f5 to try and finally get my Rook, which had been dozing on f3 for the last 15 moves, into the game. Luckily for me, my opponent now had the bizarre idea of a solo charge by the King;
33. fxg6+ Kxg6
34. e5! (making a possibly outpost on f6 and looking at Rf6+ and then takes e6)
34. … Kh5? (Suicidal – he has to play …Rf7, though I suspect he didn’t want to swap the Rooks off given his pawn deficit)
35. Rf6 (played quickly, and hoping for…)
35. …Re7?? – see diagram – which protects the pawn, but…
..and there’s no way out, as Rh6 will be mate next move. 36. ..Kh4 fails to 37. Kf2 (again threatening mate on h6) …h5 38. Rf4+ and a discovered check next move wins the Black Rook.
It isn’t often you get to set up a mating net by playing a little move like h3, especially with so few pieces on the board, so I was quite pleased with the finish of this game.
Full game, with a few notes:
My most enjoyable game was my 4th round win on Sunday morning, though it was also my most tiring game, as there were plenty of sharp tactics involved. I misplayed the early middle game, and my attack was slower than it should have been, but by move 25-30 I had some real threats to my opponent’s King. He was also critically short of time, which helped. The diagram position is after his 29th move, Kg8-h8 (As will become apparent in a minute, h7 might have been better). Seeking to open more lines towards his King, and with a tactical idea in mind, I played in the diagrammed position:
…the best defence here is ..Bg5. I hadn’t exactly decided whether to meet this by sacrificing an exchange to eliminate the Bishop – 30. ..Bg5 31. R6xg5 hxg5 32. Qxg5 – or just to try and exchange off the Bishop with 31. Be3. I think I’d probably have gone for the latter, especially as the trade ought to favour me with him so short of time. Anyway, to my surprise and delight he played instead:
I had calculated that he couldn’t do this because of:
31. Rxh6+! gxh6??
In fact he could fight on here with the cool response 31. ..Kg8, though he would still be in a pickle. The text move loses at once.
32. Qxh6+ Rh7
33. Qxf6+ Rg7
Simplest – Black will be at least a piece down after 34. ..Qxg7 35 Qxd8+
And he resigned.
This one put me on 3.5/4, only a half-point behind the two leaders with one round left.
Finally, as a comparison for those who have time to play through games, here are two of my wins from the 1977 Amersham congress. See if you think my playing style has changed over the intervening thirty-odd years.
PS Once again I should thank Our Blog Overlordz (aka Richard) for setting up playable game support.