Getting Hackneyed

Hackney captain Paul Conway reveals how the Middlesex League was conquered

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Three seasons ago Hackney’s Middlesex League team was in need of a new venue and my Chief Exec said we could use a room at the office. The club’s view was that, since I’d have to be there for each of the home games, I might as well captain.

I quickly realised that Hackney has a lot of strong players on its books. I was able to get decent teams out the first two seasons, but we dropped points to sides other than Hendon I and they powered through each time. We took a match off them at the end of last year, but they’d already won the league by then so it didn’t really count. We finished second in these first two seasons. After the first year we migrated to the Clarence Tavern, a decent pub in Stoke Newington with a nice line in halloumi fries and garlic mayo.

In 2018-19 the time had come to make sure we didn’t drop careless points, and to take on Hendon I for the crunch matches. Hendon had two teams in the first division, had won the championship for the last eight years and took things very seriously.

Muswell Hill had taken us down before; on 22nd November we played them at the Clarence and won 5-3, including this convincing performance.

The Middlesex League season finale, with Hackney away against Athenaeum. In the foreground IM Richard Bates has the black pieces in a rook ending grind against Mark Gray. FM Richard Britton (left) and John Reid (right) spectate, while in the background FM Bob Eames and Carl Hetherington are still slugging it out too. Both these games were drawn and so Hackney won the match 61⁄2-11⁄2 to take the Championship for the first time since 2002.

Black has two bishops against two knights and an extra pawn – what’s not to like?

The centralised bishops are a picture, and too much for the knights; White is losing more material or getting mated on h1.

On 12th March we played away against Hendon I. Both teams were on 100%, but they had played more matches than us. We were giving this our best shot and had a good team on paper. As I was finishing work, Dave Ledger texted to say he was having trouble with his journey and could we get our sub to play. I replied that I was the sub and for him to get an Uber. This was an Uber gambit declined, and he advised me to play a captain’s innings.

As is customary on these occasions, I lost the toss. This did mean that I was White on bottom board. My young opponent Gautam Jain was graded 183, and I mentally added about 20 points for a fast-improving junior, while I’m a well-weathered 166. The match was being played at speed: 60 minutes for all the moves, plus a 15-second increment per move. In a main line Spanish, he looked to be limbering up to play a Marshall, I avoided this with 8 a4, and we reached a position which was perfectly playable, before I lashed out with an unnecessarily loosening f2-f4.

This is the position after 26 c4, which I played to stop his rook on the seventh becoming too dangerous, and to liquidate some pawns on the queenside. My bishop is out of play, and the centre is going to collapse. It had all looked so promising. On the plus side, Black has used up his time and is playing on the increment, and also the position of my bishop is not completely without merit.

Some sort of natural law operates, so that the side giving up material tends to get comp- ensation, even when it’s not been a deliberate sacrifice. Here the offside bishop on h6 and the unlikely march of the cavalry c-pawn combine to set my opponent more problems than he could solve in 15 seconds a move

We won this away match 5-3, with 8 keenly contested games. A word of appreciation here for Michael Bennett, the Hendon captain, who drove round all the local pubs until he found us – in the heat of victory, I’d gone out into the March cold and left my coat at the venue.

On 11th April we faced the rematch at home. It was obvious that Hendon were going to bring the strongest side they could, and so it proved: three GMs and an average team grading of 230. We were significantly outgraded on all boards, but had also worked to strengthen our team – club stalwart Francis (Frank) Chin is a former Malaysian Champion, and knew the Malay junior Li Tian Yeoh who had had been a regular top board for Imperial College in the London League, and at the time of the match was just back from the Dubai Open where he’d been trying for his third GM norm. For obvious reasons Li Tian was Black on top board.

Back in 2014 I’d not long returned to competitive play after 30 years out, and this was played against me in the 4NCL. The Modern Main Line of the Benoni was unwelcome news – I’d been working from what I could remember of Bill Hartston’s 1973 Batsford monograph The Benoni in descriptive notation, and the line is not mentioned there. I hadn’t kept up with the latest nuances, but it was still a shock to find there was a new main variation about which I knew nothing. Black is going to have trouble finding a useful deployment for his light-squared bishop, and some other problems besides. I watched this game with increased interest.

Li Tian commented later that White has misplayed this: Kh2 and g4 weaken the important dark squares f4, e5, and d4.

This is an advance I want to play in these positions, but it often weakens the d4- square. Here White can’t get a knight to it and when the bishop gets there, Black’s knights make a good job of shutting it out.

I’d been expecting 28…hxg4 here to play for more of an attack, but I’m not the one with two GM norms and Li Tian plays to lock down the dark squares further. He had used nearly all his time by now and was playing on increment. The reason that I’ve got the moves is that he was not only recording his moves, but also writing down the clock times, probably with neat little brackets, i.e. (0.03). The match was played at the slightly more sedate time control of 75 minutes plus 15 seconds a move, but I’m still impressed.

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The triumph of Black’s dark-square

strategy. The queen is immune from capture because of 44…f3+ and back-rank mate. There are only spite checks left for White.

We won this one 41⁄2-31⁄2 and were the only side still on 100%. There were six matches to play, and we continued with wins until we had an upset at home against Athenaeum, languishing near the bottom of the table and eager to avoid relegation. On June 12th we played them again, away, and this time got the result we needed.

Notes by Richard Britton

9 Nf1 a6 10 Bxc6 Bxc6 11 a5 is also about equal, but maybe Black can make something of the two bishops.

The first new move. 9…d5 10 exd5 exd5 11 Nce5 Nxe5 12 Nxe5 looks a bit better than my choice as the bishop on b5 is a bit isolated after 12…Be6.

11 Bf4 should be an edge, and if 11…Bc8 12 a5 d5 13 e5 dxc4 14 exf6 Bxf6 15 Bxc4 Bd7.

13 exd5 exd5 14 Ìa3 dxc3 15 bxc3 would have been about equal.

After 16 Qc2 I intended 16…Bg5 17 Nf3 dxe4 18 dxe4 Be7 when I think Black is a little better and 16 Qb1 dxe4 17 Nxe4 seems quite good for Black, in view of 17…Qxd3 18 Ba3 Qc4 19 Bxc5 Bxc5 20 Nxc5 Rxc5 21 Qxb7 a5.

I could have exploited the unfortunate line-up on the b-file with 16…Qb6!: for instance, 17 Ra3 (or 17 Nxc5 Qxb2 18 d4 Bxc5 19 dxc5 Rxc5) 17…Nxd3 18 Qxd3 Bxa3 19 Bxa3 Qxb3 20 Bxf8 dxe4 21 Qxe4 Rxf8.

18 d4 Qb6 19 Rb1 Bd6 20 Rxe4 Rfd8 is better, but White’s c- and d-pawns are targets.

This looked natural to me, but 21…Rc5 22 Rf4 Qe5 23 g3 Qd6 24 Qe2 e5 25 Rf3 is clearly preferable.

Getting the pawn back, but Black’s king is the safer and his pieces the better coordinated. Besides having to look after his king, White also has to keep an eye on his two queenside pawns.

The Middlesex is a highly competitive league, with no quarter asked or given. It is also very social – there have been many interesting in-match conversations when I’ve not been playing, and many post-mortem drinks with our opponents.

The recent popularity of playing on increment has been a welcome development – at a time when grandmaster games do not use adjournments. it really is an anachronism to adjourn and hand over to computer analysis. The London League will now be dispensing with adjournments in the majority of games. Increments provide a mechanism for games to end without the brutality of a pure quickplay finish, in which three hours’ work can be spoiled in an instant.

Already October is coming up, and we look forward to the challenge of a new season.