Making the grade?

Note:  Now with added game: scroll down

As the three chess-playing readers of this blog will know, club chess players who play regularly in club leagues end up with what in English chess is commonly called a ‘grade’ or ‘grading’, and in many other countries a ‘rating’.

This number is based on the gradings/ratings of the people you have played in competitive games, and the results, and gives an indication of how good a player you are. For instance, a reasonable standard competitive club player might be 150 on the English scale, someone with real pretensions as a player might be 200+, and a chess grandmaster would typically be 230 or above. There is some discussion and even the grading distribution from a few years ago here.

I last had one of these gradings as an 18 year-old in 1979, the last year I played chess before quitting to pursue a then rather all-consuming interest in (inter alia) punk rock electric guitar, dressing up in ridiculous clothes, and consuming cheap cider, beer and red wine [In other words, I became a student].

Anyway, I have played just enough games down at the chess club this autumn to have accrued one of these gradings again. It is 160 on the English scale, which equates approximately to somewhere around 1900 on the international (ELO) chess rating scale.

I am pretty sure this number is distinctly on the optimistic side, since I haven’t played against many players with ratings above this figure, and that is always the real test. But… I’m quietly pleased that I can play at all after so long. And it’s always good to know that your brain’s ability to solve cognitive puzzles hasn’t completely gone.

Although talking of cognitive puzzles – I should say that in my earlier chess-playing career I did at one point have a rating of approximately 160. That was in 1977, when I was 15 or 16 years old.

Always nice to get these things in their proper perspective.



PS  Now updated with an actual game…

For dedicated chess-ists, here’s a game to be going on with. It’s from the beginning of the chess ‘season’ back in late September. I remember it was an unseasonably warm night,  something of a contrast with now! This was an away match, and played in a South Manchester Conservative Club, so there were large portraits of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen hung about the place. Thankfully Mrs T was not hung in the room we were playing in, as I think her gimlet gaze, even on canvas, might have put me off.

It isn’t a terribly good game really – more one of those ones exemplifying Savielly Tartakower’s famous dictum that “the winner of the game is the one who makes the next-to-last mistake’ – but it was a tense struggle. I got a clear advantage in the opening, then let it slip rather around moves 17-21 , and then got it back when my opponent went wrong. In the endgame I was clearly winning, and was material ahead, but was terribly short of time – I reached move 30 with only 20 minutes left to finish the entire game, while my opponent had more than 50, and by the time the Queens had been exchanged on move 35 I was well into my last 10 minutes. This made the end of the game surprisingly tense.

I was quite pleased to win in the end – first because it’s nice to win, at least once in a while, and also because I’d been unexpectedly promoted to board 2 in the team and my opponent, who had a rating around, ECF 140 / 1750, was the highest-rated player I’d then played on the comeback trail. But it was most pleasing, I think, because winning out at the end of a back-and-forth 3 hr struggle helped convince me I could still play a little.

Anyway, notes more or less as I wrote them when I was analysing the game later.


AE – JB    Manchester Chess Association Wahltuch Team Trophy  Sept 2011

1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 d6  5. Re1

(I think White is supposed to play d4 straight away here, but I had forgotten. The rather slow set-up I chose – with Re1, c3 & h3 to prevent …Bg4 –  is the ‘standard’ kind of closed Ruy Lopez scheme that White usually employs after 3.. a6 4 Ba4)

5.   ..Be7 6. c3 0-0 7. h3 Bd7 8. Ba4

Worrying unnecessarily about possible ‘discovered attack’ tactics if the Nc6 moves.

8  ..Be6?

There seems no reason to move the B again, and it invites White’s next move d4 – after which, as White threatens d5, the B simply ends up back on d7.

9. d4 ed:  10. cd: Bd7   11. Nc3 a6

A move without much point to it when the White B is already on a4.

White has clearly got a better position out of the opening. The question is how to proceed. After a rather inconclusive think I decided to push the e-pawn.

12. e5 de:

13. de: Ne8

14. Qe2

This move took a longish think, and I’m not sure it is best, though it does clear the d1 square for a Rook

14  ..g6

Planning to route his N to g7-e6, but solving the “where does the White Queen’s Bishop go” question for me.

15. Bh6 Ng7

16. Nd5

Good, but perhaps a touch hasty. 16, Rad1 first looks better, when Black would probably have to play ..Qc8 to get his Q off the d-file. 17 Nd5 would then be even stronger than a move before, and would pretty much force ..Re8 – when 18 Bg5 would already be nearly terminal for Black, as exchanging Black-squared Bs leaves his f6 square horribly weak.

17. Ne7:+ ??

Dear oh dear. I can’t remember why I did this, but it is a terrible move, trading off the best piece on the board for a Bishop which is doing nothing much on e7 (and missing Black’s 18th move completely). The right move was the obvious 17. Rad1, bringing the final White piece into play and transposing to the previous note.

17.  ..Qe7:

18. Bg5

I think I had got a bit obsessed with the idea of getting at f6, which might explain 17. Ne7:+? as well – but here 18. Rad1 is still the right move.

18     ..Qb4

Errm – crikey – where did that come from?

19 Bb3  Ne7?

Just when he is untangling a bit, Black goes wrong. 19. ..Be6 20. Be6: Ne6: is obvious and good, blockading the e-pawn.

20. Rad1

Better late than never, I suppose. I wasted far too many minutes here thinking about 20. Bf7:+ Kf7: 21. e6+ Be6: – which fairly clearly gets nowhere after 22. Ne5+ Kg8.  The computer liked 20. Bd2 Qb6 21. Ng5 best, but it is always hard to see crafty piece retreats like Bd2.

By now I was down to about 15 minutes or so to make the ten moves until move 30, and 35 minutes in all to finish the game.

20     ..Bc6

Again, I couldn’t (and can’t) see why he didn’t play the obvious and solid ..Be6. Perhaps the idea was that the c6-h1 diagonal points at White’s King.

21. Nd4

I didn’t want him to have time to play Nef5 and then Ne6, solidfying things. The obvious idea for White is to play e6 to open the position, and Nd4 supports the e6 advance. Now he played another move I hadn’t anticipated:

21.     …Ba4?

Which should actually lose the exchange by force after the not-at-all-obvious 22. a3! Qa5  23. Bd2 (that retreat again) Qb6 24. Ba4: Qd4: 25. Bb4.  I didn’t see this, needless to say.

In this position I was seized by two thoughts. Firstly, if I exchanged off my light-squared Bishop, it would get much harder to play e6; and secondly, I really needed to try and get at the black squares round his King and make my opponent defend. So I decided to force the pace with:

22. e6 Bb3:

23. ab: f5

I was quite happy when he played this – I was expecting fe:, and having decided I couldn’t take back with the Knight (because of ..Nef5) I was pondering 23.  ..fe: 24. Bf6 and things after that. After …f5 the black squares around his King are like the proverbial Swiss cheese, and the P on e6 also helps set up mating threats. It also made the next few moves obvious, always good when you are short of thinking time.

24. Qe5

My opponent had quite a long think here, so I had the impression he might have underestimated this move, which threatens both Bh6 and Qf6. Another useful point is that the Black pawn on f5 means a Knight can’t move there and cover g7.

24.   ..Rf8

25. Bh6 Nh5  (forced)

26. Bf8: Rf8:

27. Qc7:

It’s always tempting to cash in advantage for a material plus and to simplify, especially when nearly out of time. However, I did wonder momentarily if 26. g4 might not have finished Black off. And the computer found something even better a move earlier: 25. Nc2! (forcing the Black Q away from protecting e7) Qb3: 26. Be7: Qc2: 27. Rd7 winning easily. 25. Nc2 is, of course, another of those retreat-to-attack moves that I never spot.

27… Nf6

28. Nf3

Aiming for g5 and f7, but 28. Nc2! is still far more decisive: 28  ..Qb3: 29. Qe7: Qc2: 30. Rd8 and wins.

28. ..Rc8

On the night I was very happy when he played this move, as I now get to swap off his rook AND play my last two moves before the time control at move 30 without having to think. When you have less than a minute of time left, not having to think is a definite plus.

29. Rd8+ Rd8:

30 Qd8:+ Kg7

The dust has settled, and I have just over 20 minutes to play the rest of the game. I now got fixated on the idea of getting my Knight to f7, upon which I assumed checkmate or advancing the e-pawn to queen would follow. The best move here would have been 31. Rc1! heading for c7 and simultaneously preventing Black’s ..Qc5. I picked a not-as-good open file for the Rook, mainly to have the R protected by the Q.

31. Rd1  Qc5

A good move, thinking of ..Ne4 with a nasty threat on f2. Around here I began to have misgivings about my opponent having nearly an hour or so left to my 20 minutes.

32.  Ng5

Heading for f7, but also stopping  ..Ne4.

32.  ..h6

33. Nf7  Nfg8

Blast. Black prevents the mate, but at least now his knight is a very long way from e4.  The question for White now is – how to convert the advantage?

34. g3

And this definitely ISN’T it.

The origin of this rather dire move is that I wanted to move the Rook down to d7, but didn’t want to allow a check on c1, and especially not then another check on f4, with a probable draw by perpetual check. However, g3 is a rather poor way to prevent a check on f4, as will become apparent. 34. Qb8! (covering f4) and Rd7 should win, as should 34. Nd6. and then Ne8+. After Ne8+ White can swap Queens by Qd4, and he then wins easily by Rd7, as Black’s King and Knights are completely immobilised.

34. ..f4

And now I realised I had given him a target. I didn’t fancy 35. gf: or 35. g4 f3. In fact, the latter line is OK as Nd6-e8 still wins comfortably… but of course I hadn’t seen the Nd6-e8 manoeuvre.  *Sigh* Anyway, to kill the threats I traded Queens:

35. Qd4+  Qd4:

36. Rd4: fg:

37. fg; Kf6

The big difference here from an ending with White’s N on e8 and Black’s K penned in on h7 or h8 (see note to 34. g3) is that now the Black King is active.

The next few moves demonstrate that I am not much of a R vs minor piece endgame player. The best way to defend the e6 pawn is probably Nd8, which would allow White time to play Rd7 and get at the Black pawns. What White should NOT do is tie his Rook down to the defence of the e-pawn..

38. Re4 Kf5

I was a bit surprised by this move, as by some mental blindspot I had convinced myself that White’s next move was actually checkmate!

39. Re5+ Kf6


40. g4  g5

41. Re4 Nc6

42. Nd6 b5

By now I was down to my last 5 minutes to finish the game, while my opponent had 40 minutes. I had a series of rapid thoughts.


– I don’t know how to play this endgame. Where should my Rook go? Should I try and keep the e-pawn or let it go? Where should I put my Knight? And so on.

– I don’t have time to think about how to play it. If I stop to think about it, I will lose on time. Again.

– Losing on time in a won endgame will be…  embarrassing.

– My opponent is clearly planning to play Nge7 next move.


So I decided to swap off a pair of Knights, even though I realised I didn’t know how to play the R v N ending either.

And then – I got an idea.


43. Nc8 Nge7

44. Ne7:  Ke7:

I was expecting this capture with the King, but when he played it I was doubly sure his next move was going to be Nd8 and then Ne6:

45. Kf2 Nd8

I had the impression he was starting to look quite happy, not unsurprisingly given his time advantage.

46. Ke3 Ne6:

47. b4

This brought him up short, and he had a think, making it likely he wasn’t expecting this move. Or the next one.

47… Kd6

48. Re6:+!

And this was my idea, though it isn’t anything that startling. My opponent did look distinctly surprised, though, which was gratifying.

The point is that after:

48.      …Ke6:

49. Ke4

White has gained the opposition, as we say in chess, and thus the pawn ending is won for White. The reason is that if the Black King heads for the Pawns on either wing, then White’s King runs the other way, and gets to the pawns on the other side a move or two faster, since White’s King is further advanced. But Black has to move – he has no pawn moves he can make, and his King has no ‘waiting’ moves, so the King has to give way, left or right.  The evocative German word for this is Zugzwang – ‘compelled to move’, even though any move loses.

There is also a subsidiary point, which is that it is a lot easier to play a Pawn ending with little or no time left than it is to play a Rook ending – less options to consider, and no checks, and you can think on your opponent’s time. At least, it’s easier provided you are winning. Admittedly there can be subtleties that require thought, but it is still a much better option all around than a piece ending.

49.  …Kf6

After a long think.

50. Kd5  Kg6

51. Kc6 h5

52. Kb6 h4

53. Ka6: Kf6

54. Kb5: Ke5

55. Kc5 Kf4

56. b5 Kg3:

57. b6 Kh3:

58. b7 Kg4:

Black’s h-pawn will be much too slow.

59. b8=Q h3

60. Qh2 Kh4

61. Kd4 g4

62. Qf4

Immobilizing the pawns. My opponent had been playing on for the last several moves because I was down to my last minute of time. However, these positions play themselves…

62.  ..Kh5

63. Ke5 Kh4

64. Kf5 Kh5

65. Qg5 mate

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 Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Making the grade?

  1. Congratulations on being back in the rankings, Austin. As I think I’ve mentioned before, Jr. Wintle #1 routinely engages in ferocious chess duels with his Grandad via t’internets, and plays in his school’s chess club once a week. I hope he finds it interesting for long enough that he achieves a ranking himself one day.

  2. Alexandros says:

    Great news, Austin! Congratulations! I would characterize your comeback as impressive…

  3. steve caplan says:

    Wow! An ELO equivalent of 1900 would put you at the top of the chess scene here in Omaha. When I started, at age 42, I was about 1000 on the scale, and when I retired at age 45 (to write blogs and books instead!) I still hadn’t hit the 1400 mark and I fear my progress was less than exponential. 2000 here is considered a Master, so you are close enough to shoot for it!

  4. Austin says:

    Thanks, chaps.

    @Richard – I guess what my little project tends to prove is that you can always get the bug back once it’s first ‘taken’. Actually, quite a few of the people down at the chess club seem to have come back to playing in their middle years, often once their kids have grown up a bit.

    I often wonder whether chess was at all helpful for studying other stuff. I suspect it was useful for concentration and for stuff like being able to do exams – it definitely taught you to manage time and not to panic when you were doing something against a clock, which are things I have the impression a lot of my students are not very good at.

    @Alexandros: Not sure it’s that impressive a comeback as yet – the last two years before I quit playing I had a rating in the 2000-2100 range. So a way to go to get anywhere near that, and actually I’d be surprised if it was possible. Really I’m just happy playing. One advantage of age is that I find I mind losing a lot less than I used to when I was a teenager..!

    @Steve: I think that to become a 2000+ player the trick is to start young. Most very good players I’ve known (rated ELO 2100 and up) started playing pretty seriously in their early teens or even earlier. The question is always where/when the improvement ‘trajectory’ will top out. For keen junior players who then keep playing into adulthood as a semi-serious hobby, I have the impression that the ‘topping out’ tends to happen in their early to mid 20s. I guess that partly tells you that once you’re out of University the need to get a job cuts into chess time rather a lot, but also that even with studying you reach a kind of full playing strength and then stop.

    in my own case, the question would have been whether 2100 was my rating ‘plateau’, or whether it might have increased any more if I’d kept on playing through University. I think that, at the time I quit, I had the feeling that I’d gone almost as far as I could – indeed, that was probably another of the reasons. And of course, improving more, if it had been possible, would certainly have meant a lot of both playing and studying. When I was in my early teens (13-16 or thereabouts) I reckon I used to play chess for about 10-14 hours a week (two or even three competitive games a week, plus endless speed chess most school lunch hours), and would spend almost as many hours again studying the game. So I would probably have put 20-30 hours a week into chess for several years, which were the years when I was improving quickly. Again, the time to do that is not something you tend to have as an adult with a job, let alone with a job and children.

    I’m actually slightly surprised a city the size of Omaha (pop 400,000-odd?) doesn’t have a player or two in the ‘FIDE master’ kind of class (2300+). Around Manchester most of the larger clubs have a player or two in the 2100+ range, and there are about a dozen or so active players across Greater Manchester rated 2200+, including one long-time International Master who sometimes turns out in the local A league.

    • steve caplan says:


      The greater Omaha region (including Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river and going as far as Lincoln, 50 miles west) has well over a million people. There are a couple of 2200+ players in Lincoln, and we have several “retired” chess players in Omaha of similar rank. There is also John Watson, a famous chess author and theorist and high caliber player (who is also not competing any more). We also had a visiting Russian grandmaster (23 years old!) here for a couple of years with a rank of about 2700!

      It’s interesting that Omaha, isolated as it is, has a kind of “island effect.” Meaning that our players are typically under-rated compared to players in other US cities. this is because the player-pool is limited, and if someone obtains points, it’s from someone else in the same community. And as players grow and get better (especially the younger ones!) the older ones like me have to play better and better just to stay the same rating and not lose points!

      So frequently when players from here go to tournaments outside Nebraska, they do very well. A 1400 player here competes well with 1550 and 1600 players in Chicago or Denver…

  5. stephenemoss says:

    Austin – that is a very respectable rating. I have no idea what my own rating would be, but I’m generally around 1850-1900 on the Chessworld internet chess site, which roughly equates to the ELO scale. I keep meaning to get along to my local club in Muswell Hill to play some real OTB chess, but so far have not had the time. Look forward to seeing some of your games posted.

  6. Austin says:


    I should say that 160 / 1900 is almost certainly a considerable overestimate – it is derived from a mere nine games, so (a basic piece of statistics familiar to all biologists!) it is heavily influenced by ‘out-liers’ – such as the one relatively high-rated player that I beat. But he could have just been having an off night. Anyway, I would be surprised (and delighted) if my rating at the end of the playing year – which will be calculated from about twice as many games and will thus be a better estimate – stays that high. If you make more ‘eyeball’ estimates – e.g. looking at the ratings of most of the people I’ve beaten – then something much more like 150 / 1800, or even lower, is plausible.

    Anyway, all I can do is keep playing and see where I end up. Which is fine.

Comments are closed.