Friday, 31 May 2013


Yes, this is the end of the line; this blog is an ex-blog, (et cetera, et cetera).

However, should you wish to start from the very beginning you'll find it here...

I'll still be replying to comments, and posting gibberish on Twitter.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Greatest Game I Ever Played

If there were any doubt as to my middle-agedness, I have been unable to get this final post out due to a kidney stone! All is better now, so strap yourselves in for one final patzerrific post...

So, we are still at the Gatwick Congress, and it's nearly the final round. The atmosphere is tense, but the outside world is beginning to creep in too. Travel plans and lunchtime arrangements are on our minds, those of us who have checked out are getting used to our refugee status at the bar, everyone is trying to figure out what an acceptable final result would be for them.

I am paired with a fellow Mid-Sussex Chess League player, David from Horsham, and John, my second-round opponent is up against my third round opponent. Both David and I pass on a few tips to John about his young opponent, as David had also faced him in round two. Then we have a nervy gossip about our exploits so far, David explaining that he is getting on much better in the League now he has eliminated silly mistakes, while I try to underplay my cards in a silly attempt to lull David into negligence.

My chess stress is still there as the start time approaches, but it is more of a concentrated tension than the barely-restrained hysteria of past rounds. I have white, so I feel reasonably happy about what I'm going to go for in the opening; there is an element of cowardice to my thinking, try to get some small advantage and hope David feels like a draw would make him happy...

I'm not very good at playing for draws though, generally missing out on creating perpetuals and unable to swap off material without allowing imbalances to appear. What to do...?

David is an energetic opponent who should never, ever, under any circumstances, play poker. He writhes and grimaces, digging his fingers into his skull and emitting throaty rumbles throughout his thinking time. Occasional whispers slip out, his words simple flashes of negativity and positivity dependent on position or subsequent analysis. He is an irrepressibly likeable young man.

I try to maintain my mixture of Buddha stillness and squint-eyed skepticism. There's no point in looking at the board before my next move, as I end up filling my short-term memory with questionable lines that will probably have little or no relevance; I have learned from bitter experience how I sometimes end up playing a refutation against a move that was never made.

A lot of time is spent sitting in my hands.

The game itself is a Semi-Slav opening, and I am lost in the woods quite quickly; my concern is that I can't put an attack together but I am loathe to spend too much energy defending my a and b pawns. Houdini had me slightly ahead during the early moves, but in general we were fairly equal for much of the first half of the game.

However David has some raking bishops on the board and my queen is really rather exposed, so I commit her to the kingside. Black doesn't like this, it's not easy to force the white queen from the a-file. David mutters 'that's a good move, that's a good move' to himself, finding new contortions both facial and bodily to express his discomfort. He is forced to offer the exchange and I gladly rid the game of queens; his responses is to start harrying my back rank with his light squared bishop.

We reach the following position, where I am about to make move 20, with both sides suffering from bruxism. The difference is that David has a plan; I am not so well prepared. His bishop seems like a pesky fly to me, so I don't spend much time on the best way to swat it away...

The playing room is emptying; John's young opponent thrust his tiny hand into the grizzly Scot's face and loudly declared DRAW! so John was obliged to growl at him and refuse the handshake for a few more moves before making a far more socially adept offer of his own. Stan has said farewell too, he has another Open next week and leaves with three points in his pocket.

My hope is to bolster my centre pawns, and I somehow forget the d3 bishop is capable of movement; I play Rad1, he plays Bc2, and I sweep the pieces off the board, stand on the table, and start howling like a shot wildebeest. Two pawns are lost, and now I am really struggling. I somehow manage to win a pawn back, but he has three pawns marching into a vacuum. My decision-making radar has really gone on the blink now as I somehow choose to put the knight on the h-file instead of using the rook to equalise on material. Then I toss another pawn off the board for no reason.

It's as if I am writing a wishlist with my moves; I wish that e6 pawn weren't there so I could fork his king and rook and then I move my knight into position for the fork even though I am nowhere near to removing the e6 pawn, or I wish I could reveal a check with this pawn move. I have managed to regard the position on the board as some sort of fantasy and the silly lines in my head as a solid reality.

I am playing like a twat.

David continues his slow charge down the b and c files, and I throw a couple of silly checks in the mix. I am simply hoping for a mistake, and all of a sudden one appears...


David is rather unhappy with himself. Material is now equal, and I am starting to formulate a vague idea of blockading and pleading for a draw. It takes some time for black to regain his equilibrium, it takes too long for me to regain my grip on reality. I have a chance at another pawn, but time and tempi are ticking away; I block the pawn's progress and offer a draw.

Well, even I would blush at an outright offer, so I dress it up as "Would you accept a draw in this position?". David snorts, a mixture of mild-mannered incredulity and self-directed anger at allowing me to get someway back into this, then apologises for having to turn me down. I am enjoying this torture, he should win but he is so concerned that he has made an error that he is questioning himself far more than my moves could ever do. We play on, I sacrifice a rook for bishop and offending pawn, and black keeps trying to work a way around. But the game slowly slips away, I am always a tempi or two away from winning a rook, but always a tempi or two from safety too. It's all over in 53, and David can finally relax after two and a half hours against me. He finishes on 2.5/5, and we chat about possibly crossing swords again in a League match.

In the mostly empty hall I reflect to myself that this was the first game I have played where I felt like a Proper Player, fully in tune with my opponent, fearing nothing, it was the best I have ever played.

I gather my stuff together, and pop to the bar for a quick coffee, but it's all too depressing. The tv is tuned to Sky Sports News and the drinkers are all staring goggle-eyed. These aren't the chess people of the last two evenings, the cheery people who pulled travel boards and endgame books out at every opportunity, they've all been scattered to the winds. These new guests are off on flights tomorrow, Watney's Red Barrel and Torremolinos springs to mind, and it's time for me to go home.

The trouble is that I've just been to paradise; what can ordinary life offer me now? I can't bear the thought that it will be another year until I can play tournament chess again, there seems to be no justice to this fact. I know I have not disgraced myself, , but I also know that if I could get to one tourney a month I would become a much better player through these intense, colossal experiences. I have learned more in 3 days than I have in the previous twelve months.

League games are fine, very much a challenge against much higher-rated players for the whole of my team (which leads to a great spirit between us), but these tournament games were just for me; this led to a deeper anxiety, a greater concentration, and a far more vivid experience. Even now, more than a month afterwards, my heart sinks as I relive how I felt as I walked back to my car; a line from an old Replacements song ringing in my head.

Opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut.

 I was back in league play a couple of weeks after, and it was almost the same; I have somehow nurtured a habit of finding a good position then slowly letting it slip away through indecision but I don't fear these ECF 120-140 players will humiliate me anymore. David was picked to play against my club recently, but I was laid low with the kidney stone and was not able to catch up with him; probably for the best as we won.

I ended up my first season on 2.5/8, fairly satisfactory given I only played 2 people under ECF 100 but I should have done better with the positions I got. I was appointed Vice Captain for the team, which was a nice acknowledgement of my commitment, if not my capability.

But I keep looking at those weekenders and sighing.

The moral of the story is simple; if you want to improve your chess to become a Tournament Player then enter a bloody tournament. It's that simple. No amount of league games will prepare you for it, just as no amount of Playchess games will prepare you for League play. And if you have the opportunity to do it then grab it with both hands, you never know what might be around the corner to keep you from playing in the future.

And so this is the last substantive post too; I know that my continued improvement can only happen if I have the opportunity to swim in the big pool on a regular basis. I'm at the point where I need to figure out how to force mistakes instead of merely avoiding them, I can't pretend to be a beginner anymore. And that was what this blog was about, growing from playing Fritz to playing graded games, league games, FIDE rated games and so on.

So it is time to express my heartfelt thanks to the people who have read this, (especially the guy from Stuttgart who read all 99 posts in one weekend), and all who supported through comments and retweets. You made me feel as much of a chess player as those who I have faced over the board, even those who swept imaginary sweat from their brow at the end of the game!

Thank you.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Triumph and Disaster

I was a bit more composed by the final day of the Gatwick Congress; a good night's sleep followed by a hearty breakfast did me the world of good. However, having to go throught the rigmarole of checking out before the start of Round 4 was a complete pain, and I wished I had been able to afford another night. Silly little things like this made the final day feel bittersweet.

By now the process had become routine. I'd go and check the pairings, hoping I wouldn't be bottom board, and then get myself into some sort of sate of readiness. It's all too easy to underthink things before a game, turn up, have a gossip about matters at hand, and then just expect to be able to play, but then it's just as simple to over-prepare and end up hyped, fearful and in danger of missing the starting gun.

My method was to have a good look around from my seat first, to take in the sights that might distract me if I were to only to notice them in the middle of the game. I made note of violently colourful jumpers, outrageously bushy eyebrows, plunging necklines and bouffant hairdo's, and had a good old stare before we settled down to play. I didn't quite imagine myself playing the game before I started, but I have done that since and found it to be quite an effective method of boosting early concentration.

I had black again, and I was trying to get the measure of my opponent before deciding how to respond. He had seemed a little melancholy, saying things were going "about as expected" in the same tone one might expect someone who had been shipwrecked to respond when asked if they'd kept themselves busy in the years before their rescue. Was this a bluff? I wasn't sure, but when things went all Open Sicilian I decided to pull out my one Big Gun again.

The Sveshnikov is so easy to neutralise that even Sveshnikov stopped using it. It's inherently clubby, in that if you don't get the responding move right you might have a bit of work to do to get comfortable, but it's hardly dangerous. But I felt lucky, I felt like attacking, and my opponent didn't play Ndb5, which immediately looks at the hole Black has left on d6, but retreated the knight to f3 so I started to look for ways to shed blood. The dark-squared bishop came out, the d-pawn tore into the fray, and before long I sort of had the fork I was looking for...

(I almost managed to bugger this up, playing the bishop to e6 instead of castling, but I was lucky to get away with it).

Better players than I will have noticed that the knight on c6 is vulnerable, and of course the white rook on e1 is full of promise too, so when the white bishop takes on e4 black is obliged to take the queen off d1. That bishop on e4 can now take the knight with check and Black ends up a pawn down. However Black did not see this so I ended up taking a knight for a pawn, and Harry was well pleased with me when he looked over things afterwards. I, however, was now in a blasted fix that I hadn't anticipated.

I had to win this now, there could be no-one else to blame but me.

It sounds almost petulant, doesn't it? Having some form of self-inflicted panic because I was doing well? Perhaps I felt I hadn't deserved it, although I hadn't seen the worrisome position the knight on c6 was in either so I was still under the illusion that I had won the opening fair and square.

I think it was more that it was from a learned move order rather than a thought-out process. Most of the Sveshnikov training I had looked at for Nf3 merely said to bash the bishop up to b4, whack the d-pawn up, and keep the pressure on, but this was enough for me to feel this was not my triumph, it belonged to Lars Schandorff and Sam Collins, sitting in some corner of my memory where they could manipluate my thoughts and my limbs.

So I was cacking it, to be upfront, honest and frank, I was more uncomfortable than I had been when I had to resign game one on a blunder. The thought pattern was similar to that of a person who's been given directions to get somewhere but the instructions ran out before the destination was reached. Game plan?

Well, I was happy to have swapped knights off; I knew that with my advantage I should take every opportunity to get pieces off the board. But beyond that, I was lost for words. I need to try to avoid tactics now, where normally I try to seek them out. I need to keep safe, eliminate the threats, (like that vicious bishop on b2), and try to force the play. If I can dictate the moves to White he can't hurt me.

Not exactly Rocky III is it? A bit dull. A bit safe...

But that's what happened, kind of. I started ganging up on the queenside pawns to force White to defend them, then started my own pawn advance supported by the knight and bishop. Slow, steady, no mistakes. White tried to wrestle some initiative on the kingside, which I could have anticipated better as all three queenside white pawns were locked down for the duration, but I handled it ok.

Then I blundered a pawn.

Stupid, really, I saw the move and had planned an intermezzo move to protect it, but simply forgot to play it. Before I knew it I had thrust my knight to win a pawn, but lost one in the process. This was just what I was afraid of, a tiny blunder that gives the opposition some material back, that gives them some hope, that gives them some initiative!

I tried to calm myself, to look at a way to hold things together. I still had the queenside under some kind of clampdown if I protected the bishop, I should, could, might, be able to win a pawn still. I wondered what Harry would make of it, then tried to look for engine moves. What's best here? What should I do? (Harry had me around 4.8 ahead by the way, the old escapologist would have been ashamed of my mental bleating).


The last move was White's Rxb5 followed by Black's a4
The breathing returned, I was back to being a sphinx. White would lose a bishop if he didn't move his king; if he did move out of the fork I won a pawn back. My bishop-pawn combo was still strong enough to hold on for a while and my rook was running free. It's ok, it's ok, it's ok.

Of course my jumpy mental state was being mirrored on the other side. White was looking for moves, looking for hope. There simply didn't seem to be much to go for. The pressure told and, from the above position, White chose the worst place to put his rook, then resigned after my knight moved to d3.

So I had my win! I had managed to meet my expectations for the tournament with one game to go, but it was still not the triumphant feeling I had wanted. I don't want to say I felt sorry for my opponent, that would be patronising and untrue, but I did feel as if the whole game had been decided by someone else and therefore White should not be too downcast.

I looked a lot better on the standings, and that made me feel good. But this game simply didn't feel like a triumph in the same way it would have done in a League match. What would satisfy my ego, a stunning sacrifice, a beastly tactic? I had my win, why was I worried that I hadn't crushed my opponent as much as I had wanted to? I'm not sure, but at the back of my mind was the gentle reminder that if Doug were to play me again he might teach me a lesson or two in return.

In some ways the rapid evaporation of the surge of elation I felt upon winning was good for me, to stop me from getting too big for my boots or having delusions of adequacy.

However the most memorable emotion was felt upon coming out of the playing area, I saw two of my three former foes looking questioningly to me, before cracking broad grins when they saw my thumbs-up; that feeling of cameraderie made me feel much more proud of myself than when I accepted the resignation.

So there you have it; I played chess and felt pride.

The hows and whys don't matter quite so much, but that's the lesson of this game; sometimes all that hard work and practice pays off, sometimes you remember what you are trying to learn, sometimes it's the other guy who is struggling from the get-go. Sometimes you win, and your mind tries to tell you slanderous lies to stop you from feeling great about it or goes to great lengths to make it seem insignificant, so you have to remind yourself of how far you have come.

In this case it was only after I got home that I understood the achievement, of going from a know-nothing-dabbler to getting a win in a tournament in just over 12 months, and was able to appreciate it. In the meantime something else had changed in my mental make-up, something that would define my next game.

But that's another story...

Sunday, 14 April 2013

How To Bring Back Flogging...

The situation requires some explanation. I have just played a 3.5 hour game that left me utterly befuddled, as I have scored a half-point but really should have won in the end. I have just spent the 90 minutes between games running off to get sandwiches and then trying to reboot my brain with a shower.

My hangover is slowly receding.

I dash downstairs with ten minutes to go, and discover I'm playing black. Clutching my coke bottle and sighing at how unready I feel, I make my way to the playing hall and discover I'm playing an 8 year old. Oh bloody hell, I hate playing kids.

I hate their swiftness, how you find yourself playing to their pace even after the point in the opening where you should really be having a little ponder. I hate their potential for growth, (in the time it has taken you to read this far most 8 year old chess players have already added 20 bloody Elo to their rating), and I hate their memory.

I have to think about council tax and water rates and supervising people who hate their jobs, the average 8 year old hasn't even developed a preoccupation with boobies let alone any of the less interesting mind-shackles adults tend to have.

I hate the fact they haven't grown up. It sounds silly I know, but playing sport against people who have not had the opportunity to develop social skills is really difficult. You have to make allowances, which I hate, you have to empathise, which I hate, and you have to not take it personally, which I bloody despise.

The kid offered a handshake that had all the tangibility of almost brushing coats as you pass in a supermarket aisle; if there was any way to make briefer physical contact before playing e4 then I can't think of any. Fair enough, I'd have been the same (grrr). We end up in a sort of Closed Sicilian with a hint of Grand Prix attack about it, and I start making all sorts of silly errors. First of all I recapture with the d pawn instead of the b, then I stick a knight on the h-file.

This rimming of knights (so to speak) becomes something of a theme for my weekend.

I castle, without noticing an impending fork, and by move ten I couldn't be any more lost if I were seen wandering around the Ross Ice Shelf mumbling 'Has anyone seen my rhino? About yea-high, horn, terribly thick skin?' It takes 12 more moves to finish the game up, but I have decided to play on so the kid can get his checkmate; I have no hopes about him blundering.

He deserves to make a mating move instead of accepting a feeble resignation.

Position from the game around move 15
As he makes the mating move he gives another brief handshake and then starts to explain where I went wrong. I make three attempts to tell him we need to go to the analysis room but he simply doesn't understand that he might be disturbing others. He runs off to show the scoresheet to his mum.

It doesn't matter to me, I know where I went wrong. Having watched other competitiors playing kids, some of whom were actually poorly-behaved brats instead of just typical 8 year olds, I have put together a plan to get an edge if you ever have to play what is effectively little more than a hyperactive toddler after a growth spurt.

(i) Take your time. I mean it literally, take YOUR time. You won't have much opportunity to think on your opponent's clock, but that's ok. I had 90 minutes plus 30 second increments, I should have planned to use them all.

(ii) Disrupt your opponent's rhythym. If you've ever seen kids playing blitz in an analysis room you find the moves become almost metronomic in their regularity, almost hypnotic for the unassuming player who can easily find themself ticking along in sympathy. Sit on your hands if you have to, take extra time to double-check what you're going to play, lean back and put your hands behind your head while you look around the room if you need to. Don't play the move without asking if you've thought it through.

(iii) Ignore the little bastard. Kids get up to all sorts of stuff while waiting for your move. I saw one of them step away from his seat to make some Michael Jackson moves, whilst most make do with yawning, sighing, fidgeting, tapping fingers against the table etc. The opponent is insignificant, the pieces are not. If their behaviour is irritating you then take more time to think; your emotions show you haven't been concentrating.

(iv) Mess with their mind. Your most important weapon here is concentration span. Take 20 minutes if you need to, and watch your opponent gradually forget the position, indeed the whole bloody game, as they wander around the hall. The Precious Little Snowflake in front of you won't even take twenty minutes for their whole game, and will not be able to snap back into proper focus every time they rejoin battle.

However there is no point in trying other mind games, like using facial gestures to suggest their last move was a weak one. All youths think they are cleverer than their elders, and the little git will be even more convinced that you haven't grasped the reality of the situation if you ever hint that you might see things differently to them.

Spoiling tactics such as flirting with their mum are complete non-starters. You're a chess player and the only thing you have ever succesfully flirted with was disaster.

(v) Get them out of book as quickly as possible. Little Fifi Trixibelle may well know the Ruy Lopez exchange variation to move 15 but a lot of that information is non-transferable. However Little Fifi Trixibelle may not realise that and continue playing fast moves that are inappropriate for the current situation. Remember that the little bugger thinks you're a dinosaur with a pea-sized brain, so try gambits that will test their calculation skills and go for complicated positions that will have the added bonus of testing their rapidly-evaporating attention span.

(vi) Accept reality. Sometimes you're just going to have to face the fact that this holy terror has the opportunity to spend four hours a day on chess, and may well have been doing so for three or four years. They may well be much better than their rating shows, simply because they are limited to playing other kids most of the time. Of course it is irritating when you've been wiped off the board by someone who only has properly-conscious memories of the last three years, but if you've done your best then they've outskilled you.

And don't get in a huff when they abruptly walk off to play marbles or Nintendo, as if your defeat and their victory was suddenly forgotten; that's what kids do.

The child may be too immature to know how to behave, in victory or defeat, during the game or afterwards, but I bet a lot of your internal fury is based on how jealous you are of their great opportunity, not how much they take it for granted. Just think; the next time you hear about them might just be when they achieve a third norm...

As for me, well I checked the football scores, had a nap, poured some hair of the dog then went for a massive steak meal where I fell into conversation with another chess fanboy.

It's only a game. You can't win 'em all.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

War and Peace

It was the morning after the night before, and maybe the last three shots of whisky hadn't been such a good idea. My hangover kicked in around 5 am, the Fear turned up to join it just as I bravely faced breakfast.

Of course we must try to put the last game away before we face the next one, but I was finding it harder and harder to stop the rebellion in my head. After all, I still didn't have a competitive win in 2013, so the thought of going 0-5 kept reverberating amidst the thuds of self-inflicted punishment.

It was no surprise to see I would be competing round two from the bottom board of the tournament.

My opponent, John, was a genial fellow who'd also had a bad first round, we commiserated with each other then got down to business with 1.d4. Daniel King calls 2... e5, the move that forms the Budapest Gambit, 'shocking'. That's an understatement as far as I'm concerned. I'd have wet myself if I han't been so dehydrated from the night before. I'd never really faced it, even on Playchess, and really didn't know what to do.

It was no further surprise to see I was looking down the barrel of a gun as early as move 8.

Basically I had to maintain a defence against mate on e2 for five nerve-shredding moves until I could castle without losing material. I felt slightly less uncomfortable, and even sent my queen out on manouevres on move 18. But John was completely relentless in his attacks; swapping off a rook apiece, and then light-squared bishops too. His response to my queen asking questions was to send his lady marching into the heart of my position, and I was soon worse off. I kept thinking of Laffey and the Kamikazes as I desperately tried to keep afloat.

There simply seemed no way for me to get any initiative.

However, I was forgetting that John had been in a similar frame of mind this morning, feeling nothing he tried ever seemed to come off, and when he started picking up a pawn or two he seemed to start second-guessing. He'd been razor sharp at first, but now when he needed a killer instinct he kept worrying about messing it all up.

The queens came off, and we were left with a rook and knight apiece. I was two pawns down and John simply had to start marching down the queenside and I would be toast.

Can you spot the tiny, tiny weakness in White's position?!
 Morale was very low in White's camp. I would occasionally dream of a back-rank mate, begin wondering how to get my rook past the line of OH JESUS BLEEDIN' CHRIST! LOOK AT ALL THEM BLOODY PAWNS! THERE'S THOUSANDS OF 'EM! Houdini had a major tantrum when looking at the game, at one point falling to its knees and repeatedly flashing WHY?! WHY?! WHY?! WHY?! on the screen at the lack of black pawn movement.

White wasn't complaining, in fact White was slowly working his way back into the game. Working on the principle that if the pawn mountain wouldn't go to Mohammed, I managed to get my knight into play and won a pawn back after ten niggly moves. And then I equalised material a couple of moves later.

Now Black was looking a little down in the mouth, although I was still making mistakes on at least every other move. All I wanted to do was get Mr Rook to the back rank and try to steal some kind of perpetual, and I soon had a chance. It had cost me two pawns but I felt I had the initiative now, some three hours into the game.

The confusing feeling of relief flooded through me, further contaminating the calculation part of my brain.I had spent so much time knowing I was losing that I somehow felt I already had more than I deserved, so, on move 52, it took a while to realise that I was near to winning. In many ways I didn't really believe it till long after hands had been shaken. Material was even once more, which I had calculated, but Black had also allowed me a chance to go after his a and b-file pawns too. My king, which had been scared all the way up to the 4th rank, was now an attacking piece.

And my rook was on the rampage.

I had dreams of snaffling pawns, I had a brief idea about winning the rook with a skewer, I could almost see the proffered hand of resignation. There was about 10 minutes left on the clock which, with increments, would leave me enough time to make hay from my g-pawn. It barely registered that the playing hall was all but empty, I had no idea of time passing and could only think of how to finish this off.

Black gives check, and White falters; the optimism was counterbalanced by the fear of failure at the last gasp. I lost the strings of calculation almost as soon as I started down them, and forgot to look at what Black was going to do next. I blocked the check, despite this being an error in my last game.

It was an error here too, as Nh5 walks into a perpetual. We shook hands on move 55, both sighing from relief rather than regret. You could literally have watched the '50's version of War and Peace in the time it took us to kill this game off, but both John and I had had the time of our lives. I knew now to keep going, I knew that my opponents would be as fallible, as human, as me.

I also knew that I had missed a win, but, worryingly, this didn't seem to matter. If you ever feel like this then beware! It's not about who 'deserves' to win, there is no fair result in such a game of oscillating fortunes, and your lack of brutality will serve you badly in the future. John and I felt this game wasn't so bad for the bottom board, but the more I think about it the more I regret not taking the time to try to win it when I had the chance.

I was letting myself down by being happy I had a half-point, but it was still one hell of a game and I finally felt like I was competitive. Now I had to make sure I didn't come last...

(As the Playchess publish service is offline (as usual every weekend *sigh*) I will update this with the game in full later in the week.)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

...And The Rest Is A Matter Of Technique

So, the journey from aimlessly playing Fritz to doing not-quite-so-badly-actually at a Proper Tournament is complete. When I started this blog I was using Gameknot as my only source of competition, and now I am about to complete my first season as a club and league player in couple of weeks or so (and will hopefully add to my pair of wins and a draw along the way).

I think that's the real lesson here; it's not that I got that much better at chess, but I did get a whole lot braver.

I certainly have a bit more knowledge but, just as people go to University merely to learn how to learn, I've finally figured out that all those books and dvds mean nothing until I have turned the knowledge into experience at the highest level I can bear. I'm not comfortable as a Club Player, it's a bloody challenge to keep going up against players much better than me, and the tournament made League games look like a heavenly slow sensual massage from Victoria Coren.

If you're concerned about absorbing the things you think you need to get you to the next level,I've got bad news for you. The sad truth is you will only pick up that information by actually going to that next level and getting beaten up like an extra in a gangster movie. You won't learn anything from regurgitating the same positions and tactics that you know will bring results if you play the same old kind of foe at the same kind of level.  That's the reason why they are still there, and the reason why you must leave.

Every jump I have made is one I should have made sooner, which must be the overwhelming message to every middle-aged patzer who reads this. You're not getting any younger, and no-one's stopping you, so stop mulling and put those wrinkly old balls on the line. It's only your dignity.

This doesn't leave much else to say here; I could bash out post after post about my league games or making generally-unfair comments about the characters of the best players in the world but you've had all that before. I'll still be maintaining this page, (and will respond to comments), but I've simply run out of things to tell you.

However, as one last prim little courtesy to self-congratulation and indecently immodest myth-making, I thought I'd use my five Gatwick Games to show what I've picked up along the way. Also, I believe every blog's death should be covered in five acts...

Game One; "Great, Kid, Don't Get Cocky!"

So, there I was, all nervous and overwhelmed. My opponont, Stan, was older than me and rated about 1500 or so. "Well," I thought to myself, "it's only my dignity..." As I sat, in this vast room filled with the urgent murmurings of players settling down and readying for the off, I began to think about what they hell I thought I was doing.

I had spent the afternoon feeling like I could keep away from complete disaster as white, but worried that my Anti-Sicilians were a bit lackey. I took a bit of time to get the basics of the Closed Sicilian down pat, but I simply don't like being on the back foot.

Stan opened with e4, and I played c5 with a fatalistic sigh. But Stan was no dullard Club Player, (see how quickly I turn my back on my team-mates as I elevated myself to this exalted company?!), and had no fear of the Sicilian at all. We went through the normal motions to the point when I got to choose what kind of Sicilian we would go into.


Not that I know it all that well, more that I know that other players sometimes don't make the right response, especially when they're used to fighting Dragons or the mainline. Stan made the 'wrong' move of pulling his knight out of harm's way of my pawn push to e5, which allowed me time to bring a bishop out. Next I pushed the other centre pawn.

It was all going terribly well, I thought. Not that this allayed my fears; I could tell Stan wasn't comfortable but he didn't seem on the verge of tears or anything either. We took a bishop and knight each off the board, then I tried to get behind my d-pawn to make the most of the fact Stan had doubled pawns on the c-file. A quick bit of mutual castling, and this is what we were facing;

 I wasn't exactly happy, but I was certainly relieved not to be down in either position or material by this point. I had a feeling I might be slightly ahead, but I couldn't be sure.

However, the thought that I was 'alright' somehow got translated into a feeling that I was safe; this was a temporary advantage, not a permanent one such as being a piece up. I pushed my f pawn to try and get some space, not realising I was weakening the diagonal a2-g8 which just happened to be lined up against my king.

I gave absolutely no thought whatsoever as to what Stan might do.

His queen came out onto c4 to give check, and to double the attack on my remaining knight. How can I nullify this threat to my knight? said my mind, not realising that this was a secondary threat of little importance. I blocked the check with my queen, hoping to exchange them off and leave my happy little pawns marching down the kingside.

How does White win immediately?
So my first battle ends in ignominious defeat.

However Stan said he wasn't comfortable throughout, and he wasn't even sure about taking the knight if I'd moved my king out of check, simply because I'd win the bishop with Rc8 pinning it against the queen. Then I could start targeting those c-pawns and generally make a nuisance of myself, while Stan might start looking at ways to get a draw.

As for what went wrong for me, it was simple. I'd gone from a state of terror at the beginning to a mellow fug of false security in only a few moves. I had convinced myself there was no danger because a good part of the material for each side was back in the box, and I forgot that my opponent was a decent player who knew how to wrestle a bit of initiative from me. To lose to a simple pin made me angry at myself, especially feeling I had been doing so well to get to where I was, but I had brought it on myself.

However, the positives were (i) I now knew I was in a place where people would not automatically go for the spoiler moves in openings, (ii) I had held my own, with black, against an opponent with the kind of rating I would like to achieve myself, and (iii) I had only myself to blame for getting cocky and ballsing it up, and I would know better next time.

It was simultaneously a slap in the face and a clap on the back. No matter how well you are doing, a temporary advantage is only that, and you have two enemies to be wary of when you play chess; your opponent and yourself.

Stan proved to be a good buddy throughout the tournament, popping over to check my board during each round and telling funny jokes and interesting stories in between. I hope to thrash the bloody arse off of him the next time we meet...

Monday, 8 April 2013

How To Satisfy The Middle-Aged Man In Your Life

I thouroughly enjoyed my time at e2e4's Gatwick Congress. E2e4 is run by Sean Hewitt, a man who has brought more happiness to the lives of middle-aged men than Pippa Middleton's arse in motion, and if I had the money I'd be at every weekender he puts on.

Let's leave the actual chessplay for my next, (and final), post, but it's worth pointing out that I didn't have a great tournament. I lost three games, (one deservedly, one through stupidity and one through laziness), squeezed a half-point from a lost position in my draw, and managed just one solitary win. And yet here I am, itching to get back for more...

It helps that the people there are, (for the most part), kind, interesting, and socially adept. There was one hysterical gobsh*te who would think nothing of interrupting the breakfasts of others with a stream of unwelcome opinion and gossip, but I think someone shot her through the kneecaps by Sunday lunchtime, to the silent relief of all and sundry. In general the atmosphere was astoundingly genial. A lot of the players had been on previous tournaments, and many of the regulars had been to one or more events this year alone. This meant a lot of catching up, but also meant new bods like myself were welcomed too.

I found that the best way to get to know someone was to first spend two or three silent hours trying to humiliate them over the board.

That unique shared experience that no-one, not even the greatest of players, could ever hope to pick up from studying the moves, was a good part of what made the weekend special for me; to declare non-combatant status through a resignation or a draw agreement was to seal a bond that will never be forgotten. A submersion into a game-reality that was only given meaning and life by the two participants, lasting only for a couple of hours or so, and in some cases a mere matter of minutes, the only way to make sense of it all was to reconnect with the other player afterwards. I spent a great deal of time catching up with my first two opponents throughout the weekend, and only the fact time was running out kept me from doing the same with the final two.

I also fell into a long conversation with another entrant at dinner, our mutual fanboyism tickled the restaurant staff no end as we gushed over some master games and favourite quotes and maxims. We chatted so long I almost sobered up after necking a bottle of red at dinner, a most pleasant way of doing such a thing.

But then it was that kind of place. The playing hall itself was very pleasant and large enough to accommodate all the players without a squeeze, and I was surprised at how little I noticed bystanders next to me. This was particularly the case in my second round game; by the time we broke the three hour mark the position was very sharp and we attracted a nice little audience. Maybe it's because of the professional quality of the environment, maybe it's simply the mass-delusion of those who wish it would be, but we all felt like Tournament Players all the way down to the 1200-1400 hackers and those of us who graced The Bottom Table on occasion. You can say what you like about the standard of my chess, but I played in the same room as GM Arkell and I was putting my Chess Balls on the line as I did so.

The analysis room was sometimes a fun place to be, watching the Big Boys kibbitzing was instruction in itself. I should have spent more time in there but, after a long-fought draw in round two and a short, sharp shock in round three, I needed to spend the rest of my Saturday afternoon Not Thinking About Chess.

It's often been the case that, after a setback, I struggle to find people who can understand how I am feeling; there's the people on twitter who are great counsellors and sources of hope and inspiration, to the point that I know I ask too much of them.

At Gatwick there was no end of people who wanted to hear my story as much as they wanted to tell me theirs, a mass consciousness of celebrating the stories we were making over the three days. It was a lovely moment just before the final round, when my opponent and I were able to warn my second round draw about my third round opponent's behaviour and playing style; although he had been fairly well-behaved with me, the young chap had blotted his copybook somewhat in other rounds and was Not Popular.

In fact the only slight downside was the behaviour of the smaller children, some of whom certainly did not know how to behave over the board or in the playing room. I was jogged several times by kids running round the tables or trying to get a closer look at the boards. Pro-tip - if you can't see the board because a player is hunched over it, it's considered somewhat rude to try to push them out of the way. It seemed that concentration span was a problem in most cases, these children didn't have the capacity to occupy themselves properly if their opponent spent 20 minutes on a move, but in other cases simple manners and proper supervision were in short supply.

It would not be tolerated if I were to disrupt two players by pushing their backs to squeeze through a too-small gap in their chairs, and I would expect to be sharply upbraided were I to declare in a loud voice "THAT'S A DRAW" and shove an outstretched hand into my opponent's face to force a handshake. I'm not sure what the reaction would be were I to suddenly stand up and start busting out Michael Jackson dance moves, including 360 spins and crotch-pulls, but I'm fairly sure it would not be considered fair play.

I'm all for youngsters playing in competitive games but the expectations of behaviour must be upheld by all competitiors; if it is unreasonable to expect the younger players to know better then they should be segregated or monitored.

The end of the tournament was bittersweet. I spent a couple of hours trying to swindle a draw out of a player who was having a few instabilities in his play, before he cleaned up his act and wiped me off the board. The new friends I'd made all found their way across to wave good bye after their games ended and, as in all special occasions, each person took a bit of the magic away with them as they departed. There were only a few stubborn games still on by the time we signed our final round sheets and the hotel was filling with the next set of guests as I sat in the bar one final time to catch up with the football scores and swig some caffeine to get me through the Post-Chess-Comedown.

The sad thing is I am not able to play much more than one tournament a year as the wife works weekends and we're not exactly flush with money. I'll elaborate more in the second part of this Tournament Report, but I feel the only way for me to get better is to play this class of chess on a regular basis. To say I had moments of illumination might be a stretch but I really burned the moves of these games into my mind in a way I have not even been able to do in League matches. There was no-one to blame but me.

I wasn't picked I volunteered so with complete responsibility for the consequences of my actions I concentrated (for the most part) like I never have before, and I don't see how I can replicate that crucible of pressure in any other way.

My club is small, and meets in a single room venue so we don't have the opportunity for coaching or even proper post-mortems, so it is nigh-on impossible to use it to work on my weaknesses. By repeatedly subjecting myself to the intensity of tournament play, a full notch above that of Club play, I could really pick up a thing or two and create a proper foundation to build on. I have been concentrating on knowledge, but it is not memory that matters, it's experience, the hot fury of dog-eat-dog competition beating in your heart and filling your soul.

So, sadly, I have to conclude that, having tasted the forbidden fruits of tournament play, I will find it hard to be satisfied with what I have left. When I started this blog the idea was to push myself to get better, to join a club and, ultimately, to play in a tournament. Little did I realise how bitter a victory it would be to achieve this final aim.

So I will close this whole silly little affair with one final post on the games I played at Gatwick, and in doing so explain why I learned so much more in 48 furious hours of battle than in 48 weeks of patient study.