Wednesday, 8 August 2007
The Final Furlong
Just two rounds to go now, and Jacob Aagaard has reestablished a sole lead on 7½/9.
I don't suppose he is superstitious but he may be relieved to have finally broken the run of results which mirrored BH Wood's ill-starred championship campaign of 1948. They matched all the way until round 9, at which point Wood had drawn a game but Aagaard has now won his game.
It is always interesting to see what sort of score wins the British Championship. Luckily we can compare like for like as 11 rounds have always been played. Until (and including 1948), the championship was a 12-player all-play-all but since then it has always been an 11-round swiss (with a varying number of players). In fact, the foregoing is not quite right - it has either been 11 rounds or zero. How so? This is the 94th congress, but rather fewer than 94 have featured a championship as such. For various reasons there were no championships played at the BCF Congresses of 1919, 1922, 1927, 1930, 1939, though all five of those figure in the numbered sequence, so the 2007 British Championship will only be the 89th to produce a true British Champion.
The winner's score has been as low as 7 and as high as 10. A score of 7/11 was good enough to win the championship for George Botterill in 1974 though only after a seven-way play-off in Llanelli later that year. 10/11 was Julian Hodgson's magnificent winning score in Plymouth in 1992. He won his first three games, then drew with Jonathan Mestel and Mark Hebden, then reeled off six straight wins.
9½/11 has taken the title eight times: Yates (1914), Atkins (1925), Yates again (1926), Mir Sultan Khan (1933), Yanofsky (1953), Alexander (1956), Jonathan Mestel (1976) and Nigel Short (1987). There was a ninth instance of 9½/11 - Blackburne in 1914 - but he was unlucky enough to lose a play-off to Yates, making that the highest ever score that didn't win the title. Spare a thought also for Theodore Tylor (1933) and Frank Parr (1956) who both scored 9/11 to finish second. Mestel holds the record for the best start - 9/9 in 1976. In fact, that effectively ended the tournament as he could no longer be caught (the next best score being 6½/9). With nothing left to play for, he drew with Haygarth in round 10 and lost to Whiteley in the last round. Had he the motivation, he could probably have made it 11/11. Like Hodgson, Mestel is also a phenomenal front-runner in tournaments. I remember playing in the same Under-18 Championship as him (in 1971), when he went through the opposition like a knife through butter, scoring 10½/11 and only conceding one draw to a Scots player called Tudhope. After a few rounds, we nicknamed board one in that event "the board of death" where you went to be put to the sword by Mestel (I didn't score enough points to warrant summary execution).
9/11 has won the title 14 times, all of them outright wins which required no play-off. Julian Hodgson has two 9/11s to his credit, to go with his 10/11. One curiosity is that the man with the most championship titles - Jonathan Penrose, who won the British Championship ten times - never exceeded 8½. His titles were won with eight 8½/11 scores and two 8/11s. There was a mini-vogue for 8/11 wins between 1969 and 1972, when chess was in the doldrums, but from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, as British chess took flight, the average British-winning score hovered at around the 9/11 mark for a number of years. Like Penrose, Michael Adams also has a maximum score of 8½/11 in the British.
8½/11 is the commonest winning score: it has happened 40 times, including the last five championships (2002-2006). Seven times it has led to a play-off. 8/11 has won 23 times, also with seven play-offs (two left unresolved). The last time 8/11 was scored was in 2001 when Joe Gallagher won the title. 7½/11 has won just once (Atkins in 1907) when no play-off was required.
It will be interesting to see what score wins this year. The safe bet would have to be 8½ but if Aagaard and Haslinger slip up there could be a pile-up on 8. By the same token, if Aagaard keeps up his momentum then 9/11 is achievable.
But the real interest must lie in whether the Scottish streak can be extended to four years, and the English drought to seven years with no title. It reminds me of one of Michael Palin's "Ripping Yarns", in which a fanatical football supporter whose team have been losing every match goes out and rounds up an elderly bunch of players who had played successfully for the same team some years before. Perhaps the ECF will have to do something similar: dust off its fifty-something grandmasters and former champions and persuade them to come back in 2008 to wrest back the British Championship from the North British. Nunn, Mestel, Speelman... and what about Littlewood, Watson, Hennigan, Plaskett? Where are they when their country needs them?