Saturday, July 30, 2011

A trip to Sheffield to watch the British Chess Championships

Nigel Short standing and laughing, C.J. de Moi (you know, C.J. off Eggheads, with his back to the camera), Richard Pert sitting and his twin Nicholas obscured. It's almost like being there, isn't it?

I had though of going down to London today to see Bobby Fischer Against the World, but as I was in that frame of mind I thought I would let the film wait and go to Sheffield to watch the British Chess Championships instead.

They are being held at the Ponds Forge leisure centre in the centre of the city. The complex also has an Olympic-standard pool and it turned out that the national junior swimming championships were also being held there today. This gave scope for all sorts of comic misunderstandings and also suggested a challenging new form of the biathlon, but I managed to end up watching the right event.

I had intended to spend most of my time in the commentary room, where you can here the games explained by an expert. Last time I was at this event was at Southport back in 1983. I remember being in the room for the extraordinary Jonathan Mestel vs Julian Hodgson game. We were all suggesting moves and trying them out on the demonstration board, yet again and again the actual moves played surprised us.

But today I had found a seat in the front row and decided to stay there. I was also quite impressed that I had played two of the eight players on the top four boards - these games were shown on computer monitors. One was Nigel Short - I took part in a simultaneous display he gave when he was only 14 (mind you, I was quite young myself then too). I got a good position out of the opening, he offered a draw and I chickened out and accepted it.

The other championship leader I had played was Richard Pert, whom I remember losing to horribly in the Leicestershire League when he was at Oakham School. Today he had been drawn against his twin brother Nick (who is slightly the stronger player) and, perhaps not surprisingly, the game was quickly drawn.

They were replaced on the monitor by a game involving the Leicester grandmaster Mark Hebden. This too was a quick draw, but it was a much bloodthirstier affair. Mind you, it involved an opening that has been deeply studied and widely played, so it was perfectly possible that the whole game has been played before somewhere.

And there was a 22-move checkmante. Gawain Jones is one of the bright young things of British chess, and his opponent made the classic mistake of grabbing a pawn with his queen before he had completed his development. The punishment was swift. Top players normally resign before they are checkmated, but the etiquette of the game is that if your opponent had played particularly brilliantly then you allow him to checkmate you, and this game did end with a particularly pretty mate.

Nigel Short was playing a younger man whose body language suggested he was very aware that he was playing someone who had once challenged Garry Kasparov for the world title. His play suggested that too, as he did all he could to swap off pieces and head for what he imagined would be a drawn ending.

You could feel Short's mind working as he did everything he could to find winning chances in a dull position. When I left to catch the train home I thought that Short had been stymied, but when I checked at home I found that he had won in the end.

This championship is being billed as the battle of the generations, with Nigel Short and Michael Adams, who have been the leading British players for a couple of decades, being challenged by Gawain Jones and David Howell.

The final game on the demonstrations boards featured Howell against Adams. It was a real grandmaster battle and when I left I thought that Adams was about to settle for a draw. Again, when I checked at home I found he had won it.

One of the great talents of top grandmasters like Adams and Short is the ability to keep their concentration and keep trying to win for hour after hour. Lesser players tend to wilt under this pressure, even if their position on the board is objectively equal.

An honourable mention too goes to Jovanka Houska. Her game against the male grandmaster Stephen Gordon went up on the board just as I was leaving. She had a better ending and managed to win it even though it came down to a technically difficult position.

Tomorrow (Sunday) is a rest of the day, but you can follow the leaders' games on the championship website next week. The final round is on Friday.

One other point: in my earlier post on the championships, I said it was the strongest ever. While this may be the first time that four players as strong as Short, Adams, Howell and Jones have taken part, my impression is that the tournament is not particularly strong in depth. This could be simply because I am out of touch with the game and don't know many of the players these days, but I have heard other commentators say this too.

1 comment:

Stephen Glenn said...

Jonathan I've been following Andrew Martin and Ravikumar in the commentary room online all week. Been a welcome distraction at times