Thursday, 16 February 2012

Division 2, Third Weekend (Rds 5 & 6)

by John Carleton

De Vere Sunningdale Park in February
We arrived at the southernmost venue in the 4NCL panoply determined, as promised, to show what we could do to ignite our season and begin in earnest the big battle against relegation. The snow cover gave the grounds of Sunningdale Park a Christmas-card feel on the crisp sunny Saturday morning that awaited us but provided an extra worry for the captains and management of teams such as ours.

Thus concerns about travel conditions from the North added to pressure on the captain already feeling the heat about his lack of IT skills in general, specifically the apparent lack of skill of texting ability [here, unlike one slightly more high profile manager, I can categorically state that I have sent a text and quite often notice when I receive one], lack of a cat, let alone a bank account in the cat's name, poor results, mounting criticism of the Martin Johnsonesque policy of trusting the players, not to mention general concerns over recent hand-shaking fiascos.

All-in-all it was another 4NCL weekend and the team were looking forward to keen competition.

Christmas card scenery awaited us
South Wales Dragons were missing some of their big guns so surprisingly perhaps, we were the higher rated team. The match started brightly for us with all our whites [on the even boards] generating play. As to be expected our black boards were experiencing some pressure too but, it seemed, not to the same degree. Dave Latham on board 3 was first to down tools agreeing the draw in a level but not totally flat position. Andy Smith on board 5 was playing one of his offbeat lines but had run into an opponent bent on knocking him off the board and looking quite capable of doing it. Top board saw Nick mixing matters with John Cooper who could claim an edge but was not having matters all his own way. Steve on board 7 had turned down a draw after ambivalent advice from his captain ["please yourself" as I recall]. Thereafter his instincts to play on were proved correct by Rybka which demonstrated gain of material, but his analysis did not match his instincts and Steve soon found himself defending an awkward ending.

Peter on board 6 delivered us a win to gain the lead, firstly he forced his opponent to sacrifice, then leaving his king to keep out the first wave of the attack, finally launched unstoppable counter play on the long diagonal. Andy Mort's advantage on board 8 by now seemed to be only minimal. Sheila's control appeared to spread across the board but opponent Jeff Smith, showing tenacity and skill, managed to dig in and engineer enough exchanges to reduce that control and a draw was agreed.

I reached a draw by, having finally found a way to break into my opponent's position, joining him in a time-scramble, not startling inaccurate for that genre but typically leading to great changes in the nature of the position, but then repeated moves once too often [past the time limit of course] allowing him to claim the draw in a position in which I would otherwise have been entitled to play on. Andy Mort too produced a surprise, managing to a reach a difficult but probably won ending which proved a quick win when his opponent went astray.

John Carleton
So we were two up with three games in play, varying through difficult to very difficult to hopeless. Nick on board 1 was in "very difficult", an ending with rook, bishop and 3 pawns against rook, knight and 4 pawns all the pawns on the kingside. Despite Nick's careful defence John converted the victory in fine style, an excellent game not least because of the quality of the resistance shown by the Atticus player. In the "difficult" Steve finally scrambled a draw after having hovered on the brink for a few moves. Andy Smith had been totally lost for many moves and so resigned the "hopeless" with a clear conscience and the team headed for Sunningdale town centre and sustenance.

Jades Fountain Sunninghill
We started with a toast with the wine provided by Dave Robertson, recuperating after illness and therefore unavoidably missing, for the first time ever, a Spirit of Atticus weekend. Whereas it was admitted that substitute wine taster Nick did an adequate job it was noticed that the bouquet was not perhaps given the attention it deserved [and would certainly have got from Robbo] and the waiter was not kept waiting nearly long enough before being told that the wine was fine. The toast was to Dave himself and his unsuppressable optimism, spirit and love of chess. Thereafter, over the next four hours we enjoyed a pleasant banquet, interspersed with long gaps inducing pangs of acute hunger. The management of the restaurant were shamed into providing free wine in recompense for the delays and this, it was generally agreed, added to the quality of discussion, particularly on the topic of diplomacy in modern Britain, in which area it transpired that we had several experts.
Next morning saw us start play bottom of our section of Division 2 because the only team previously below us, Rhyfelwyr Essyllwg, albeit only on game points scored, had landed a fine victory against our opponents of the day, Brown Jack, and had thus overtaken us. These erstwhile opponents might justifiably be called 'boing boing' Brown Jack because of their yo-yo antics between Divisions 2 and 3 in recent years, but in our brief experience of the 4NCL we had also found them perfect exemplars of the great competitive yet sporting and friendly ethos which is a hallmark of the league.

The match was tense from the start with our odd numbered boards demonstrating early pressure with the white pieces and our even boards likewise less comfortable. Thus on board 1, Nick was setting up gentle long-term pressure and on board 2 I had unnecessarily allowed a slight weakening of my pawn formation and as a result was facing long range discomfort. Board 3 was brewing nicely with Andy Smith lining up Paul Girdlestone's king position but Paul countering classically with central pressure. Board 4 saw Sheila take a small space disadvantage in return for simplifying exchanges and on board 5 Dave Latham was starting to eye the black king position, his advantage in space granting some room to manoeuvre. Peter on board 6 had accepted a slightly inferior French ending but his game terminated abruptly when he demonstrated the old adage that "the mistakes are all there just waiting to be made" when a blunder dropped the exchange, resignation soon following. Steve on board 7 had the more comfortable position but stage by stage his opponent became more active and a level ending justified the draw. Andy Mort on board 8 came out of the opening phase well gradually, it seemed, taking control. However as her position became critical Megan Owens struck back and guided matters into a flat drawn ending, peace terms quickly being concluded.

With the approach of the first time control matters cleared up. Dave won impressively on board 5 having systematically stripped the black king of defenders. Nick's pressure was neatly broken up by Peter Richmond and a position which neither side could attempt to win saw the draw agreed on board 1. Andy and Paul on board 3 gave great entertainment in a time scramble which saw Andy's aggressive and optimistic play justifiably rewarded by the full point. Thus we had just two games in progress. I had a slice of luck when my opponent left a pawn en prise but thereafter he blocked virtually the whole board and I had no winning chances and thus Sheila was left in play against Mike Truran who was clearly determined to give this blocked position with 3 minor pieces and 5 pawns each where he had a space advantage and potential targets his best shot to try and draw the match. Gradually the drama unfolded with plenty of support from team mates for the gladiators and the tension mounting as it became clear that Mike had some dangerous possibilities based on his various knight tours. The game reached its climax with the 50 move rule imminent and Mike setting up his most dangerous possibility, a deadly zugswang following if Sheila got it wrong. Sheila didn't get it wrong and the draw was agreed; Atticus hugs all round after finally winning a match in this tough season.

The well appointed and spacious playing room for the Division 2 players at Sunningdale

The long and belated journey North was thus bearable and we look forward to continuing our fight against the drop back to the Northern League in the upcoming 4NCL matches. On my return I was greeted by congratulations to the team from Dave Robertson who had watched the action from the gradually emptying tournament room via the webcam. The pictures he watched doubtless recalled the days of his youth when the equally dashingly handsome actors and beautiful actresses adorned the silver screen to provide tension, but never more than for this production.

Division 2, First Weekend (Rds 1&2)

by John Carleton

De Vere Staverton Park
Captain: John Carleton
The memories of a year earlier when the 4NCL adventure began for the Spirit of Atticus came flooding back when we were greeted this year, as then, by a beautiful sunny November morning. The butterflies in the stomach that were in place in anticipation of the unknown last year were active this time with the prospect of upgrading ourselves from medium sized fish in a small pond to life in the big pool. And what opponents were likely to be more fearsome than our first round opponents, the Sharks?

At this point I should emphasise that Spirit of Atticus for this campaign, like the England Rugby Union team in the recent World Cup, explored new levels of preparation unanticipated by their rivals. Some matters cannot be revealed because of their revolutionary impact, but let me ask,"does your team have target setting?" Atticus did. "Does your team gather round their computers to sing along with video clips [The Jet song from West Side Story; the Jets, of course, sworn enemies of the Sharks] thoughtfully provided by their support staff?" Atticus did.

Rd1: Spirit of Atticus v Sambuca Sharks
This left four games in play: Dave R on board 8 had equalised comfortably with the black pieces but in trying to break into his youthful opponent's position walked into a sucker punch and selected playing on with rook and pawn for a queen as his best practical chance: this was not, as you will anticipate, a great chance and in due course Dave succumbed leaving three of us playing, with Sambuca Sharks better in each game. Andy S on board 2 had gradually moved to neutralise the slight but nagging pressure he had been under throughout when a time trouble blunder lost a piece and ended his resistance. Peter and his opponent on board 5 had constructed a position where Peter had acquired a bad bishop; however the pawn formation had become blocked and after extreme care and some suffering Peter was able to complete the exchanges that made a draw inevitable. Last to finish was my game against Thomas Rendle: a sharp skirmish in the opening saw us progress to an ending where Thomas had two pawns for the exchange. When this extended to three pawns a loss for me seemed inevitable, but a couple of small errors on his part were enough for me to generate activity sufficient to wriggle into a straightforward theoretical draw. Thus we set off somewhat belatedly for our traditional post match celebration, following a match of many ifs and buts but one where we had contributed fully to the tension in the narrow defeat.

To return to the weekend itself and the first match; after welcoming new recruits, Andrew Smith and Dave Latham, the team were soon locked in battle. The early stages seemed fairly level which we took as a good sign as there was a chance we could be swept away if we started badly. There was a flurry of activity around the 3-3½ hour mark; Dave L had drummed up some initiative as black on board 4, turned down a draw but having initiated play in the wrong sector of the board, resigned when prohibitive material in arrears with no activity. This was balanced by Andy M on board 7 who had had his draw offer turned down by an opponent who could sense long term attacking options. Unfortunately for him this was not backed up by suitable short term choices; a simple sequence netted the exchange and a straightforward win for Andy. Sheila on board 3 had emerged from a dodgy opening with some activity for a pawn and when her opponent moved in for the kill with what was anticipated as a pseudo-sacrifice but succinctly demonstrated to be a real one by Sheila, the point that gave us the lead was not long delayed. Steve on board 6 put in a measured display to hold the half point as black in a game that never varied significantly from level.

Brabenecs in Northampton
This time we ate English style in Northampton, close to our hotel. Steve's assiduous research was applauded by one and all, for it was he who had found the Brabenec Restaurant some months before, and he has immediately been installed as assistant to the deputy Entertainment Secretary.

The food was much appreciated and, hard though it will be to comprehend by those who know us, I got the impression that the drink was appreciated even more than the food. The conversation was as ever, varied, inspiring and lucid. We were graced by Jeannie Latham's presence and look forward to welcoming her on a regular basis even if Dave should be unavailable for a particular match. It was Sunday morning when we retired, looking forward to the challenges of the new day.

We were higher rated than our opponents 3Cs and we settled down with confidence for we felt that they would have been unsettled by their defeat to the impressive, largely North Wales based opponents, called South Wales Dragons. As a team who has regularly beaten higher rated opponents we should have expected that one day the tables would be turned, and, after two and a half hours or so it might have dawned on us that this was the day. The games where we were making the running seemed few and far between: on board 3, Sheila had ventured into the home ground of well-known Trompowsky aficionado Alan Walton and an interesting and rather obscure position arose. On board 2 Andy S appeared to be on the verge of breaking through into his opponent's rather undeveloped position.

Rd2: 3C's 1 v Spirit of Atticus
The rest of the match did not look promising: my game on board 1 was set for long term action on opposite sides of the board and my position looked reasonable; this changed when I rashly opened up lines in the centre meaning that the pawn cover round my king was extremely scant. Dave L on board 4 was, as white, struggling to get play. Peter on board 5 set up what appeared to be a fairly balanced position with maybe an edge for his opponent Graham Burton. Only after the draw was agreed did the players establish that Peter's situation was in fact extremely dicey and we were fortunate to get the draw. Over the bottom three boards, the Spirit of Atticus team had between them something in the region of one hundred and fifty years extra chess experience over their opponents. This did not show with Dave R on board 8 and Steve on board 6 in very poor positions and Andy between them struggling to equalise.

Our destruction was complete approaching the first time control: Dave L duly obtained enough to draw on board 4 and Sheila also agreed a draw in a position where maybe most would have preferred her opponent.

Dale James against me did not rush into matters, calmly playing defensive moves before launching his cavalry against my king. Where his knights led the heavy artillery soon followed and I was blown away. Andy's opponent on board 2 played some clever defensive/counter attacking ideas with both sides short of time: those watching from our side could only admire this intense battle whilst feeling, on Andy's forced resignation that this may have been the one that got away. There is no criticism of our player here nor complaint concerning the match result, since the bottom three boards proved the three that got away for 3C's, experience having the last word and three of our elder statesmen managing to capture three difficult draws. We thus lie equal bottom of our section, and, like the Rugby Union Board before us we will not stand idle for a moment faced with this grave situation. Extracts from the first report of the management committee include the following:
  1. We have no comment regarding the unsubstantiated dwarf throwing allegations in Northampton on Saturday night.
  2. A moratorium on target setting is now in place whilst we consider the whole matter; we will in the meantime hope for the best like we always have.
  3. We will ensure that the new song [to a tune by a band called the Village People, we believe] ♪ "It's fun to play 'gainst the AMCA" will be ready for distribution in good time for the second round of matches. 
  4. In brief we intend to enjoy this season's competition and camaraderie every bit as much as we did last season.

The Northern 4NCL 2nd Weekend, 15-16 Jan 2011

by John Carleton

Wychwood Park, Crewe
It was a big sporting weekend in Crewe with Port Vale the visitors to Gresty Road on Saturday to play the Alex [The match of hate as it is known locally since Stoke's fairly recently acquired lofty status]. Fortunately, two of our stars [heading for the other major sporting event in Crewe] Andy and Mike managed to elude the police cordon at Crewe Station and joined their colleagues at the second superb venue for the fledgling 4NCL Northern League. This time we knew a bit more about our opponents and were expecting a tough match against fellow 100% scorers Cheddleton 2 in our Saturday fixture.  We were not to be disappointed in this expectation.

The match soon settled into a series of headlong collisions with quarter neither being given nor expected with the possible exception of board 6. Andy approached me fairly early on saying that the positions were going to be pretty drawish and would a draw be O.K. Trying to fathom where three and a half points might come from was proving quite taxing so I was agreeable to reducing that problem to trying to work out from where a further three points might come. So as anticipated, this game was agreed drawn quite early in the proceedings. Meanwhile in my game we were trying to recall some heavy Nimzo theory which was taking quite a bit of time. You may be surprised that I needed quite so much time since I had actually played the variation before [unlike my opponent]; this should not connected in any way to my having a deteriorating memory but at the moment I can't quite recollect why I took so long. Meanwhile board 2 was rapidly turning into a Dutch Defence tribute afternoon. Peter, with scarcely a glance to the queenside, took on the mantle of the Ginger GM and overwhelmed his opponent's king's defences; a smooth Atticus victory with a snappy finish.

Captain: John Carleton
On board 3 Dave Robertson had started slowly but his opponent lost time when he had prospects of a promising initiative. Dave needed no further invitation and soon whipped up a ferocious attack which ensnared the black king. Many people were worried whether, playing board 4, Dave Stuttard, with his somewhat idiosyncratic style, would be ready for the generous time allowance and positional emphasis of the 4NCL. Of course they should have been worried whether the 4NCL would be ready for Dave. Suffice it to say that on this occasion even his captain was more than a little concerned that he might not have quite enough for the two pieces sacrificed.

In addition Mike on board 5 had been under pressure, was forced to jettison a pawn and although he was fighting back,  the match, despite our two fine wins, could depend on board 1. This had progressed to an ending where I had the notional advantage of two pieces against rook and pawn and could play on for a long time but was having trouble coming up with winning ideas. My plans for an early trip to the bar seemed in jeopardy when Mike lost on time with a move to make to the time control in a drawn ending. At this point Dave Stuttard's opponent was forced to resign [obviously, oh ye of little faith!] so  peace negotiations swiftly followed in my game to wrap up a satisfying 4-2 win.

Giovannis, Crewe
And so, pausing for a only few drinks at the golf club bar, the team embarked on our traditional in-depth post match debriefing session before heading into Crewe town centre for a meal. Robbo's researches had indicated that Giovanni's offered a particularly interesting selection of wines and so even the traditional beer drinkers decided this was the opportunity to broaden their horizons and to embrace the produce of the grape. As a result of this pioneering decision it was felt by many that the conversation reached new heights, although recollection of said discussions proved somewhat elusive on Sunday.

The dawn of a new day saw us move up from the competition's 5th highest rated team on Saturday to the 4th highest team on Sunday so we felt we must have had a good evening. We were however wary of Jorvik, who had looked in good shape in the previous round. Our wariness had grown to real concern quite early in the round 4 encounter with our opponents looking more comfortable overall. Jos Wooley had a small opening edge against me. On board 2, Peter was our brightest starter, looking very comfortable as he built up big pressure on the black centre. Dave on board 3, with a willing partner from Jorvik [Richard Mounce], embarked on some hot Najdorf theory which had the non-aficionados amongst us bemused. Dave Stuttard on board 4 appeared very relaxed as he lost/sacrificed a pawn in the opening, swapped queens and then converted the material situation to an exchange deficit. There was some concern in the Atticus camp that this game might not last too long. Mike was under big pressure on board 5 but was digging in and showing real determination. Andy on board 6 had realised that we required a win and, accepting a potentially loose position, had grabbed space and was generating some initiative.

The well appointed playing room at Wychwood Park, an ideal setting for rounds 3 & 4.
All the games came to a head with the approach of the time control: board 3, after some startling adventures fizzled out to a draw. Andy made his space count on board 6, gathering material as his opponent attempted to break out. Jos outplayed me in the crisis position I had provoked which meant the match was all square. Mike liberated his position and even grabbed a pawn but was content to agree a draw as matters were changing on board 4. Dave had won back the exchange for a [weak] pawn which duly dropped off. Thereafter, he gave a text book demonstration of play with two bishops against bishop and knight and once again delivered the full point. This enabled Peter to agree the draw in what was surely a winning ending [but posing real problems of coordination] to bring victory by the narrowest margin.

Another weekend of tough chess thus saw us sitting proudly at the top of the division, but with nearly every match close and unpredictable we look forward to more uncompromising battles in the forthcoming rounds.