Friday 10 August 2007

Danegeld - Another £5,000 Paid Over

"The Danegeld was an English tribute raised to pay off Viking raiders to save the land from being ravaged by the raiders. The expeditions were usually led by the Danish kings, but they were composed by warriors from all over Scandinavia, and they eventually brought home more than 100 tonnes of silver"

... and the English are still paying. I've witnessed a lot of similar payments over the years. There was a period when another Viking raider, Tiger Hillarp Persson, sailed round various islands around Britain scooping up sackfuls of cash. Done with a smile and no need for the sword and horned helmet. Then Simen Agdestein came to the Isle of Man and carried off the loot a few years ago. One of the first thing he said in his victory speech was "we used to own this place!" - a reference to the fact that the Vikings used to hold dominion over the Isle of Man. I'd never heard a territorial claim made in a chess tournament winner's speech before so this was a first. Judging from the look in his eye and the generally sturdy appearance of the young Norwegians in his party, they could have taken the place back, there and then.

Notice, these Viking chessplayers are always more at home when they are near the coast. It's an atavistic thing - they sense the nearness of their long ships, left on the beach to carry away all the plunder to their villages back in Scandinavia. The ECF should take notice of this and stop holding congresses in seaside towns - it only encourages them. Find somewhere well inland, or well up an estuary where they don't feel as safe... London, say...

Jacob Aagaard wrapped things up with a nice, fighting effort against Glenn Flear. He always gives the other guy a chance, does Aagaard, but his brand of fearless chess did him proud these past two weeks. One thing sent me scurrying to my record books - the fact that he lost two games. It is quite a long time since that happened last. It was in 1988, in Blackpool, when Mestel lost to Chandler in round five and Flear in round nine but still won (with 8½/11).

Gibraltar 2008

Thie briefest of brief blog entries...

... the new website for the 2008 Gibtelecom Chess Festival is now live. You can download the brochure and check out all the details.

Traffic Jam in Great Yarmouth

As the last round of the British Championship starts this afternoon, eight players still have realistic chances of becoming the champion. However, this afternoon's round may not be decisive in its own right. The only way we can have an outright champion now is if either Aagaard or Gordon wins and the other doesn't. The players on 7/10 will know that they will have more work still to do even if they win this afternoon's game. Remaining scenarios lead to more than one player in the top score group. Aagaard and Gordon both winning would leave them tied on 8½, while we could have as many as four players tied on 8/11.

Here are the pairings:

Gordon (7½) vs Kosten (7)
Flear (7) vs Aagaard (7½)
Rowson (7) vs N.Pert (7)
Hebden (7) vs Haslinger (7)

Results between other players have worked out very well for the reigning champion Jonathan Rowson. With two losses to his name he could have expected to be out of the hunt by now, but he could still win his fourth successive championship if he wins today, two other results work out in his favour and he comes through a play-off. That's three "ifs" but they could quite easily happen. He is rated significantly higher than the other players and has acquired the Penrose touch at the championship, so it is hard to bet against him. But his opponent today has become very hard to beat in recent years, so it should be a good contest. Last year Nick Pert lost his last-round game to Keti Arakhamia when also on 7/10 so he will be looking to improve on that.

Like Mark Hebden, Glenn Flear and Tony Kosten have reached the veteran stage (they are 48 and 49 respectively), but neither has been as frequent a British championship competitor as Hebden. Flear's first appearance pre-dates Hebden as he debuted in 1977; he last played in 2002. Kosten's last appearance was as long ago as 1999. Perhaps this infrequency of appearance is because they both live in France. Kosten is also French-registered; were he to win, he would be the first French-registered player to do so, though I don't think he has the true Gallic genes possessed by another former champion, Matthew Sadler.

On my old blog last year, I wrote a piece on Mark Hebden and his championship career. He is one of the eight contenders in 2007, and a win this afternoon would bring him up to 8/11 and his best score ever, at his 26th appearance in the championship. Just to recap his championship stats: he made his debut in 1979, when he scored 7/11. He has scored 7/11 on eleven occasions, 6½/11 five times, 6/11 once (in 1990) and 5½/11 twice (before he got really strong, in 1980 and 1981). His best score to date is 7½/11, which he has achieved six times – in 1989, 1992, 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2006. Since his first appearance in 1979, he has only missed the tournaments of 1987, 2003 and 2005. It would be rather fitting if Hebden finally chalked up a championship as it would mean he would turn 50 (next February) as champion. That would make him a couple of months older than Bob Wade was when he won the title in 1970 but a good deal younger than Stefan Fazekas was (59) when he won in 1957. Hebden has white against Haslinger this afternoon.

That just leaves the three players who have made most of the running in what has been a closely-fought and worthy championship: Aagaard, Gordon and Haslinger. Whatever happens this afternoon, all three can all be proud of their achievements over the past fortnight.

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?

Monday 6 August 2007

At Last! The 1948 Show!

If you were wondering about the title, there used to be a TV comedy show in the 1960s called "At Last! The 1948 Show" with some of the comedians who later gained fame as Pythons and Goodies taking part. We are currently running the chess equivalent here at the BCM Blog, where Bernard Cafferty follows up Leonard Barden's contribution of yesterday on the 1948 British Championship. We haven't taken our eyes off the 2007 version, by the way, and I note that Jacob Aagaard has just reached 6½/7 after beating Simon Williams. He is still in parallel with BH Wood since BH also had that score in 1948. Or did he? Actually it was a tad more complicated than that, as Bernard Cafferty explains...

"Reference in the Hastings CC to the austerity-sized October and November issues of BCM and CHESS of 1948 indicate that the situation was not as clear-cut as indicated by a retrospective account of the round-by-round scores. Games needing two adjourned sessions to establish a result seem not to have been played off as quickly as one would expect. I assume from the narrative that there were no morning adjourned sessions. Perhaps Bishopsgate Institute was not open in the morning? Or could it have been that there was morning play, but no evening adjourned sessions?" (note - Bernard was not present at the 1948 championship but perhaps Leonard Barden or Bob Wade could comment? - ed)

"In the October 1948 CHESS, page 1, BHW states that Alexander and Sir George Thomas were spoken of as leaders in the first week - though in retrospect it was actually Barry Wood, who started with 6½ points from his first seven games! There had been a 'partial clearance of outstanding games on the Sunday'".

"When Broadbent and Wood faced up to each other in the last round, each had a score of 7/9. The former still had to play the second session of his 7th(!) round game with Ritson Morry, BHW had do likewise with his 10th game with Milner-Barry."

Bernard goes on to describe what happened in the two adjournments, but let's first have a look at the key round 11 game between Broadbent and Wood.

BH must have thought he'd spotted a mate and played 28...Qh4. There followed 29 Rxf8+ Kxf8 30 a7 Qh2+ 31 Kf1 and Black must by now have realised that 31...Qh1 is not mate because White has the simple bishop retreat 32 Bg1. Black had to resign a couple of moves later. What he had missed was 28...Bh2+ 29 Kxh2 Rxf1 winning the exchange and the game. After 30 Bf2 Qe7 keeps the a-pawn at bay. That would probably have sewn up the title without reference to the adjourned game from round 10. Now, back to Bernard...

"The Broadbent-Morry game was thought to be a draw, as it turned out to be in fact after 74 moves; the Milner-Barry-Wood game depended on Wood’s sealed 57th move, after M-B had sacrificed a knight just before adjournment, as both sides went for a win. As Wood commented in his magazine '…an unsatisfactory situation, which really should not be allowed'".

"Milner-Barry had White, in a French, and the position was as shown above. According to Bob Wade’s account, analysis by others established that Black could win by 57…Kb5 58 e8Q Bxe8 59 Kxd5 Bc6+ 60 Ke6 h4! 61 gxh4 Bf3 and …Bh5. BHW chose 57…Kb3 and lost after 58 Kc5 Ba4 59 Kxd5 Kxb2 62 Ke6 Be8 53 Kf6 Kd4 54 Kf8 ….1-0 in 72 moves."

"BHW gave a flare-up of his duodenal ulcer trouble, first incurred during the war, as his reason for falling back as the event progressed. Doubtless the fact that he knew he had sealed a losing move weighed heavily on him, adding to the tension of the last round."

If you'd like to play through these games, I've now uploaded a file of all extant 1948 British Championship games to BritBase. There are only 15 complete games out of 66 but there are also a few fragments of games culled from BCM. Click here to play through the games.

Sunday 5 August 2007

When 5½/6 Wasn't Good Enough...

I've just received a most interesting message from Leonard Barden, who tells me about an occasion when 5½/6 in the first week wasn't good enough to win the British Championship. It was in 1948 when the championship was played at the Bishopsgate Institute in London - in fact, this was the last time the championship was ever held in London.

The unlucky man was BH Wood (see photo), founder and editor of Chess magazine. In the first week, he won his first five games (versus W Winter, RH Newman, W Ritson Morry, G Wood, CHO'D Alexander) and then drew with reigning champion Golombek in round six (a spooky parallel with 2007 - I hope Aagaard isn't superstitious). His second week started well with a win against JM Aitken, but then it all fell apart: 0 v G Abrahams, ½ v Sir George Thomas, 0 v PS Milner-Barry, 0 v RJ Broadbent. That left Broadbent the winner on 8½, while BH Wood was in a multiple tie on 7. But BH could have won the title had he won that final round game.

Those are the facts. Here is Leonard's commentary:

"BH Wood had paid for several weeks of special training beforehand from Paul Schmidt (who had been No. 2 to Keres in 1930s Estonia and held his own with Alekhine, Bogolyubov and Junge in German wartime events) and had some sharp theoretical lines prepared. He was impressive in the early rounds, much to the dismay of Golombek."

"In the second week BH got nervous and dropped a few points, but he was still only half a point behind Broadbent at the start of the final round. BH was worse, then he had a late opportunity to win game and title, then he blew it."

"I guess if BH had won with the extra kudos from being champion at that time it might have sunk the BCM, since both BCM and Chess were struggling financially at the time."

"I can vouch that 5/6, which I had in 1954, 1957 and 1958, is a psychologically vulnerable score. I recall Penrose asking me meaningfully as we went for a stroll during the weekend at Plymouth 1957 'What does it feel like to be leading the championship at the end of the first week?' The answer: a burden. You have the free day on Sunday to fret and Sunday night to be sleepless..."

"I watched the 1947 and 1948 all-play-alls (controversies with selections, exclusion of young talents) and competed in the first Swiss in 1949. Those early Swisses around 1950 were strictly limited to 32 players and I think they were the best answer, very competitive events with hardly anybody outclassed. It's the later expansion to fields of over 50 players which has caused the imbalance."

Many thanks to Leonard for letting me use his comments on my blog. It's great having a former British Champion contributing to the debate. The reference to the 1948 championship reminded me that Bob Wade had commented on this when I interviewed him for BCM back in 1999. Here's what Bob said about that cataclysmic last round against Broadbent (Bob, like Leonard, was in the room and saw it happen). "There was a famous last round where the establishment were terribly worried that BH Wood had a winning position - but then he got flustered and blundered..." At that point I asked Bob what he meant by "the establishment". He replied "Oh, BH Wood was regarded as anti-establishment by people like Alexander and Milner-Barry".

Great Dane Off The Leash

Great Scot! The Great Dane is still off the leash...

Scores after Week 1 of the British Championship:
Aagaard 5½/6, Flear, Gormally, Haslinger, Kosten, N.Pert, Rowson, Williams 4½...

A pretty amazing performance by Aagaard so far. He must be buoyed up by getting his GM title at last. And this is of course his first appearance in the British Championship. I think a number of players have won it at the first attempt. One such won it first time and never entered again. A clue: he was editor of British Chess Magazine. The answer is not Golombek (who did win it but not at the first attempt) or Murray Chandler (who never won it), but RC Griffith, famous for being one of the founding fathers of Modern Chess Openings. He won the British Championship in 1912. Anyone answering "J Saunders" gets 10/10 for obsequiousness, but 0/10 for knowledge of chess history (and should probably also get their head examined at the earliest opportunity).

However, Aagaard should be aware that, in recent years, people who lead after one week have seldom gone on to pick up the championship trophy at the end of the second. Let's look at what has happened since 2000, giving the first-week leaders followed by the eventual winner in brackets:

2000 Hebden/Ward (eventual winner Hodgson)
2001 Seven players tied on 4½/6 (Gallagher was not one of them, but won)
2002 Ten players tied on 4½/6 (RB Ramesh was not one of them, but won)
2003 Z Rahman / Motwani (eventual winner A Kunte)
2004 Rowson (and he won)
2005 Ward (Rowson won)
2006 N.Pert / Hebden (Rowson won)

So Rowson is the only player this century to lead week 1 and win overall. However, I am withholding a significant statistic. Like Aagaard this year, Rowson in 2004 had a score of 5½/6, while all the others mentioned as first week leaders had 5 (except for the major pile-ups of 2001 and 2002 when 4½ was the leading score). Going back further, Hodgson in 1999 also had 5½/6 and went on to win. So having 5½/6 could be the clincher. I haven't been able to look back further (it's a bit of a chore on a hot Sunday afternoon) - could anyone tell me if anyone starting with 5½/6 has ever failed to win? I do know that CHO'D Alexander scored 5½/6 in 1956 and he only just won the title despite getting an almost as impressive 4/5 the second week. Frank Parr ran him close, scoring 4½/6 the first week and then 4½/5 the second.

Friday 3 August 2007

The Long Ships Are Coming...

Look out! A Danish (sorry, Scottish) pirate is on the loose! See the photo, taken by me while I spotted him marauding in Manx waters a couple of years ago*.

What was I saying about "nothing to write about"? Even as I clicked the 'send' button on the blog, I read that Jacob Aagaard has beaten Nick Pert with Black. And Jonathan Rowson beat Steve Barrett on board three. That constitutes something to write about... how the Scots players continue to dominate the British Championship. Aagaard is now a point clear of the field on 5/5, while Rowson is amongst those on 4. I remember writing something about 'the English challenge to Rowson' but it now seems as though the main threat to his chances of a fourth successive title could come from his own side of the border.

Reminder to English chess fans: the last of your fellow countrymen to win the title was Julian Hodgson in 2000 (which was technically in the 20th century, remember?). When will England produce its first 21st century British chess champion?

* incidentally, I did not digitally insert that skull and bones flag into the photo, it's a real flag. Jacob posed with it so he could use the photo for a book cover!

Swiss System Blues

There was a spate of short draws between the highest rated players in round five of the British Championship today. As another chess journalist put it to me: "they have reverted to paying appearance fees to titled players at the British this year - their reward? These short draws."

The fault is probably the swiss system format itself. It is flawed because it only gets truly competitive and interesting on the final run-in. Accidents suffered in the early stages can easily be remedied. I'm reminded of one of those cycling 'pursuit' races where they seem to spend most of the race pootling around the track like elderly district nurses and then only pick up speed and race properly on the final lap.

It doesn't have to be like this, but some experienced players appear to exploit the inadequacies of the swiss system. It is possible to aim for a score of around 6/8, and then bank on a good run-in over the last three rounds to get 8 or 8½. How you get to 6/8 doesn't matter, and they don't knock themselves out trying to beat other leading players when there are plenty of lower-rated players available to play against. Draw against a big guy, beat a little one = 1½/2. Multiply that by five, add one for luck, and you've got a championship-winning score. Well, that seems to be the plan, anyway.

A few years ago Julian Hodgson and others used to try and blast their way to the title by going for it in almost every round. I think Jonathan Rowson sets out to do this as well, but he tends to have accidents along the way (another famous Jonathan - Penrose - had a similar track record). Each of Rowson's championship wins has included one loss, but his determined approach seems to bring its own reward in the final stretch. All three of his title wins have been richly deserved.

We put up with the swiss system out of necessity. To be fair, it's not a bad way to produce a winner and I've got nothing better to suggest. It's just that the order of the also-rans tends to be meaningless, and it also allows strong players to coast to a runner-up prize without fully exerting themselves until the last lap. Consequently, at the moment I cannot think of anything very inspired to say about the British (other than to congratulate the various 'Davids' who have defeated 'Goliaths') but of course things should hot up eventually and I look forward to a lively second week.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

FIDE Ethics Commission: Short Case Decision "Imminent"

Re the FIDE Ethics Commission case against Nigel Short: latest reports indicate that Rustam Kamsky has been co-opted onto the tribunal. We have also heard a further unsubstantiated rumour that former women's world champion Zhu Chen (see photo) could be involved in some capacity. The verdict is said to be "imminent".