Yes, chess. Look away now.

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.

After White's 32. f5

After White’s 32. f5

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;

32. ..Kf6?
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…)

After Black's 35. ..Re7. White to play and win.

After Black’s 35. ..Re7. White to play and win.

35. …Re7?? – see diagram –  which protects the pawn, but…

36. h3!

..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:

White to play

White to play

30. f5!?

…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:

30. …..exf5?

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
34. Rxg7

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.

Full game:

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.


About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Chess, Getting old, Nerdishness, Procrastination, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Yes, chess. Look away now.

  1. Pablo Lopez says:

    Very nice… I think that if you are going through a “mid-life crisis” chess is the best option.
    Regarding your game from the second round, I agree that keeping pieces on the board was a better option. Considering that his king is in the middle of the board and without the right to castle, his bad coordination of pieces and your superiority in development… I would have been surprised if he lasted for long…

    • Austin says:

      Thanks, Pablo. Chess certainly makes for a fairly inexpensive mid-life crisis. Not as dangerous as riding a motorbike, either.

      Agreed about keeping the Queens on in the round 2 game. I should have played 13. Qc4. I think I was slightly worried about 13. ..Bd4+ 14. Kh1 Ng4, but 15. Qe2 would block the threatened check on e2 and then I could drive Black’s pieces back with h3 and c3 prior to opening the centre with d4 or f5.

      I did something a bit similar in my final round game, trading Queens into an equal ending, though that time I somehow convinced myself I was going to have a clear advantage. (Nope). Memo to self: don’t swap the Queens off unless the advantage is really, REALLY clear…

  2. Cromercrox says:

    It seems like a fairly sensible mid-life crisis to me. Less exhausting than playing in a rock band (I’m now 51 and in the hardest-working band I’ve ever been in.)

    • Austin says:

      Yes, I’ve been following your Stealer adventures on the blog and via Fb, Henry. Was wondering how you fitted it all in… how much rehearsal do you do?

      Also presuming you have to hump your own gear (as it were)… Though do I recall a blog conversation some time back about how much less weighty amps etc had got since the 70s…?

      Funnily enough I got an email during the hols from a bloke I used to play in a band with at Univ 30+ years ago, including a couple of mp3s of one of our rehearsal tapes. Was almost inspired to break out the axe (well, cheap SG copy) and practise amp…

      • Cromercrox says:

        Thanks Austin – well, we rehearse once a week at a Secret Location in the Norfolk broads, and we play live once a fortnight, more or less. That old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall (practice, and more practice) is absolutely true. Fitting it all in? Well, we just do, because it’s something we all care about, and it’s a break from our regular jobs (bus driver, electrician, welder, radiographer, and me.)

        And yes, we do have to hump our own gear. Bass bins still remain incredibly heavy (low frequencies mean that a lot of air has to be moved, and ye cannae change the laws of physics, Captain) but advances in speaker technology (niobium magnets, kevlar cones and so on) mean that speakers are lighter and more reliable than they used to be. And my Hammond organ, whereas it sounds completely authentic, can be carried easily under one arm, which wouldn’t have been the case in the 1970s.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    In the few years when I began playing tournament chess (congress as you call it) about every 6 weeks, and once a week chess club evenings, the amount of self-study that I needed to put in just to achieve a very modest rank (way below yours) had my spouse deem herself as a “chess widow.” Enough in itself to set off a mid-life crisis.

    • I know what you mean, Steve..!

      In my case, before I started playing chess again I used to spend a fair amount of time on the computer surfing / writing / blogging, so I suspect ‘chess self-study’ has replaced quite a bit of that. Might explain my much-reduced blog productivity the last couple of years. The rest of my family also go to bed a fair bit earlier than me (I’m a definite night owl rather than a lark) so I get ‘free time’ when they are all asleep.

      It is also true that I still rely on the chess theory I ‘booked up’ back in my teens. For instance, I still play most of the same chess openings as in the 1970s.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Note: I’ll try and have a look at your games when I return from my visit here in your neck of the woods–well almost–here in Umea, Sweden!

    • Enjoy your trip to (nearly) the Arctic Circle, Steve.

      Is Umea the most Northerly University in Europe (if one excludes Russia), I wonder? It must be close.

      Back in July at the big IUPS physiology conference here in the UK I saw my chess-playing Greek friend Alexandros, who is a post-doc in Umea and has just spent his first (very dark…!) winter there.

      • Alexandros says:

        Nice post and great games, Austin. Enjoy your well deserved prize!
        I did not have time to analyze the games so I will comment on them later.I found 36.h3 move (round 2) fantastic!

        I remember that we had the same discussion about the northernmost university at the IUPS. According to Wikipedia,it is Tromso. I guess Umea is in Top-5.

        Unfortunately, I was sick yesterday and I could not attend Steve’s seminar.

        • Austin says:

          When I showed the finish of that game to the gents at the chess club last night, they punctured my bubble by insisting that 6. h3 was obvious. It may not have been that hard to find in the diagram – though you really had to see the possibility a move or two earlier – but it was still fun to play.

          I’d forgotten we’d debated the world’s northernmost University at the IUPS. I’m actually surprised it isn’t a Russian one, which was why I said ‘in Europe’…!

  5. Hm. I played chess on the weekend for the first time in a long time, and was soundly pummeled by Jr. Wintle #1 (age 11). Who, admittedly, has played in a regular chess club in school these last several years, and against his Grandad via internet, and is probably naturally better at it than I am to begin with.

    I am avoiding the photographer’s mid-life crisis (i.e., dropping $x000 on a Leica camera, the tool of preference among poseurs, the wealthy, and hipsters alike). Mainly by buying $20 cameras on ebay instead.

    • And by “age 11”, of course I mean “age 12”. Sigh. Where do the years go?

    • Ah, father-son rivalries… my dad taught my brother and I the moves of chess at the end of the 60s when we were about seven and five respectively, but he wasn’t a very keen player so we both had the beating of him fairly early on, as far as I remember. The only time I saw my dad play chess in latter years was a game or two against Jr Aust a couple of years ago. Incidentally, Jr Aust refuses to play me, even if I give her a Queen head start, as she says I won’t let her win..! I haven’t tried to teach our boy the moves yet, though he is six now so probably about the right age.

      On the photography, what is the going rate for a mid-life crisis fancy digital SLR? And is there a digital equivalent of medium format? My mother used a Hasselblad for her portrait photography for many years (see e.g. this one), but sadly it went in a burglary some years back. I’ve never got further myself than a film-based Minolta SLR (now some 30 years old, not even sure where it is!) and the usual compact IXUS-type digital cameras.

      • PS Speaking as a hobbyist/nerd, I’d reckon ancient film cameras and faffing around in a real darkroom (preferably in a comfortable shed, with one’s favourite talk radio station on and a cold beer to hand when needed) was far preferable to digital and yet MORE hours on a computer. Have fond memories of ‘burning in’ areas of film b&w prints using the traditional hand-waving of bits of cardboard…

        You can see one of my old pictures (a self-portrait, yet), complete w scratches on the negative, over here (scroll to the bottom).

        • That portrait is excellent, Austin. I can feel the 80’s cool emanating from it… 🙂 And I’d forgotten about your mother’s photo of Dorothy Hodgkin – it really is excellent.

          I am thinking about starting black and white film developing, for fun. Not sure how that will go over with my wife, though, but if I stick to non-smelly chemicals and the basement bathroom, it should probably be ok. 😉

          DSLRs start around $500 or so, but for mid-life crisis appeasement I’d go with the idiotically high megapixeled Nikon D800 for landscapes, or the 10-frames-per-second Canon 1D Mark IV for sports. Each is about 3 grand, plus however much you feel like spending on lenses (I can think of one I’d like that is the best part of $10,000 that would suit me nicely).

          There are digital medium format cameras, yes, and they cost about what you might expect. Phase One is a good brand. Leica (predictably) make them as well. I think you can still buy brand-new Hasselblad film cameras too.

          Am I off-topic yet?

          • Definitely…!

            Though you’ve almost inspired me to get back into black and white developing/printing…. perhaps I’ll dig out one or two of my old pictures and scan them in for a laugh.

  6. Stephen Moss says:

    Always enjoy an interesting chess post! I’ve been conferencing for a couple of weeks and have only just found time to catch up with your mid-life crisis. I still restrict myself to keeping a few games going on, but the temptation of Muswell Hill Chess Club lies only a few streets away and perhaps one of these days I’ll wander round and play a few games OTB.

    Curiously enough, MHCC is just across the road from a minor landmark in these parts, an ordinary looking house named ‘Fairport’ – not as famous perhaps as the zebra crossing on Abbey Road, but the birthplace of something very special nonetheless.

    • Austin says:

      Funnily enough I never knew the Fairports had Muswell Hill connections, despite one of my best friends (and flatmate) at Univ having been a lifelong ‘Muswell Hill-billy’. I’ve been trying to remember where her family lived back then… Onslow Gardens seems to ring a bell.

      • stephenemoss says:

        One of the highlights of my musical career was when our band (Avalon) played with Fairport at the 1994 Cropredy festival. We had a terrific time playing cricket and generally larking about with Richard Thompson backstage.

        • I’ve only seen Fairport Convention once… on stage for one song with Jethro Tull in 1987. Unfortunately, I missed their opening set as I was in, you guessed it, a Biology lab course. Fruitfly genetics and all that. Dave Pegg was playing bass for Tull at that time of course.

        • ‘Legend’ is a terribly over-used term in any kind of non-classical music, but Richard Thompson is very definitely definitely one.

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