Friday, July 30, 2010

Just Kent get enough

The Championships have only twice before been held in Kent, perhaps surprisingly given that they go to a seaside resort more often than not and Kent claims to have more miles of coastline than any other county in England. In fact, only one of the three trips to Kent has been a seaside job, that being the tournament held in Ramsgate in 1929.

Ramsgate, what memories. I stayed in that town once, before getting a ferry in the early morning: there was a parrot in our guest house, up on the cliffs directly above the lorry park, which had learned to imitate the lorries' high-pitched and repeated beep and the message "this lorry is now reversing". It was, as I recall, a much-interrupted sleep.

The 1929 Championship - the contestants' photo can be seen here - was not in fact the strongest chess tournament to take place in the town that year, the unlikely title of Kent County Congress disguising a British v Foreigners seven-board Scheveningen tournament held in March and April (games here). The locals were soundly beaten by a line-up of, in order of their scores, Capablanca, Rubinstein, Menchik, Koltanowski, Maroczy, Soultanbeieff and Znosko-Borovski, to give the spellings you can see in the tournament crosstable (with the BCF crosstable just above it) by scrolling down here.

Only the last-placed Foreigner scored fewer points than the highest-placed of the British, Thomas: and he was absent from the British Championship later in the year, as was the second-placed Yates, and for that matter Sergeant too. Present, however, was Sultan Khan, who played in and won his first ever Championship.

Perhaps because it has been overshadowed by the international tournament, games from the 1929 Championship seem to be hard to locate on the internet - I could find none on Chessgames - but John Saunders was kind enough to send me a number of them, which have helped enormously in the writing of this piece. Two of these are given in their entirety below.

Sultan Khan actually lost in the first round, something few champions can claim, and drew in the second. This may not have given Gerald Abrahams, his third round opponent, the impression that the newcomer was anyone to fear. Nor, perhaps, did the opening: it was an Interesting French Exchange in which the combative Abrahams castled queenside. After White's 20.b5

Black decided not to take on b5, an error as his king position was opened up all the same without any material compensation to show for it. Everything then fell apart surprisngly swiftly.

Sultan Khan won a tense game in the fourth round against Fairhurst and then took two and a half from the next three rounds to reach 5/7. He then played, consecutively and both with Black, Price and Michell, who were to finish sharing second place, albeit Price had to win the last three games to do so.

The game against Price opened 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 e6?! and soon became an Advance French with White a tempo up, an advantage Price soon squandered with 6.Ne2 combined with 8.dxc5, possibly under the impression that he was getting himself Nimzowitsch-Salwe with a move up, which he was not. Sultan Khan may have known very little theory but he soon demonstrated that he understood how to play the French, answering White's unobservant 19.a3?

with 19...Nxe5! recovering the piece with an extra pawn after 20.fxe5 f4 21.Qd1 Bxc2 22.Qxc2 fxe3.

The game against Michell began, remarkably enough, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 a6 and after they had settled down into an Exchange Slav, Sultan Khan was very much outplayed and found himself with his king uncastled in the middle of the board.

When the centre was subsequently opened that might have been enough to see off the stranger but Michell unwittingly exchanged off most of his advantage when he exchanged queens. While he was still working out how to try and win the game he lost it, overlooking 38...Re5 after which his f5-pawn fell off.

One of those games where, looking at if afterwards, you can never quite see either where you could have won it, or why you did not.

A win would have put Michell in the lead, with two rounds to go: as it was, he trailed Sultan Khan by a point and a half, as did Drewitt and Tylor, both of whom lost in round ten. As should Sultan Khan have done, after reaching this position with White against William Winter

but being obliged with a helpful stalemate when Winter thoughtlessly put his king on e3. He needed just a draw in the last round, against the back-marker Eva, to win the title, and he got it.

Lucky? Quite likely. The winner is almost always lucky. But he was also alert and stubborn at the crisis of his games, and more so, perhaps, than the opponents he overcame.

Michell, for his part, was 56 when their ninth round game was played. He would never finish higher than second in the Championship.

He was the only player in the 1929 line-up who had played in Tunbridge Wells when the Championships went there in 1908, although Sergeant, who played the international tournament in 1929 but not the British Championship, had also been in Kent twenty-one years before. Both tournaments were, of course, all-play-alls, not the Swisses we know today, although the number of rounds remains the same.

Henry Atkins won the tournament, a point and a half ahead of the field. It was the fourth of his seven consecutive victories, a streak which might very well have been longer had he not retired from competitive chess for a number of years after his seventh win. Being aware of this, and having read in Tim Harding's review of the year 1908 in chess that
at Tunbridge Wells in August, he retained his British Champion title with a point to spare
I was expecting it to be a procession. Which it was, in the end. But looking at the games, it wasn't as simple as that. The very part of the tournament in which he pulled away from the field - the four consecutive games he won between rounds five and eight - was when it might very well have gone wrong for him.

If I read the games right, his was a cautious approach, waiting for his opponents to make errors allowing him to gradually ratchet up his positional advantage. (Michael Adams would perhaps appreciate that.) But a couple of times in the middle of the tournament, it very nearly failed to work out as planned.

After the first four rounds, in which he'd won twice and drawn twice, he was in joint second place, half a point behind Streatham resident and former world championship challenger Isidor Gunsberg. In round five, Gunsberg lost, his opponent, as it happens, being our friend Reginald Michell. Atkins took the lead by defeating RE Lean - who stood last, and would finish last, in the 1908 Championship. (He was twice champion of Sussex according to Brian Denman's history of chess in Brighton.)

Winner of the Championship v winner of the wooden spoon: a one-sided game? Perhaps it ought to have been, with Black controlling the centre early on and letting White's queen chase after a sacrificed pawn on the edge of the board. Black castled, then on the next move prevented White from castling. He looked forward to kicking open the centre with a view to an early finish. But after 21.Kxd2, Atkins slipped up, choosing, in the diagram position, 21...c5?! rather than the better 21...Nc5!.

The difference would have been the removal of White's white-squared bishop, which began to play a threatening role after 22.h4! c6?! (perhaps Black suddenly realised that on 22...cxb4? 23.axb4 Rxb4?? the bishop skewers one rook to win the other) 23.Qh5 g6 24.Qh6 f5

and now 25.h5! is trouble for Black. 25...Be8 is his best - 25...g5 and 25...Qe8 can be met with 26.g4! while if queens are exchanged on g5 Black is simply a pawn down with a horrid position - but then White has 26.hxg6 Bxg6 27.Rag1!

and White, with everything lined up against the King, is winning. (Again, if Black eases the pressure by exchanging queens, he's a pawn down with less than nothing to show for it.)

Even after 25.f4 as played, Lean was very much in the game, but after 25...Qe7 26.h5 g5!

he blundered with 27.g4? which no longer works now that ...g5 is in, because the f4 pawn is hanging. Atkins recaptured his pawn, beat off the attack and organised one of his own with 27...Nxf4. Instead, after 27.fxg5 there would have been a complicated game, which at very least is better than losing in short order.

Atkins' win put him in the lead by a half a point from Gunsberg, who would lose again in round six and fade out of the running, and by a point from both Ward and Michell, who was his sixth-round opponent. As was to be the case twenty-one years later, Michell was, in retrospect, the champion's key opponent, the tough game that really should have been lost. As he would again in 1929, Michell lost a long, difficult game in which for a fair stretch he was close to winning.

I am not a chess historian - something which will become even more apparent and perhaps more important when we look at the seventh round - and I don't know to what extent the Michell game has been analysed. There are very brief notes, scarcely more than "good move" or "bad move", in Britbase - game 31 is our game - and I do not know from what source these are drawn. Moreover, some of them are in my opinion wrong. If a thorough analysis does exist somewhere - I do have the vague feeling that I have seen the game annotated before - then I'd be glad to know of it. The notes that follow don't pretend to be anything other than shallow, and particularly in its exciting climax, this rich Ruy Lopez is a game that deserves to be analysed in depth.

It began a little better for White than Black, who lost a tempo in the opening by playing Bc8-g4-c8 - only one, since White played d2-d3-d4 and perhaps not an important one given the reasonably closed position. (For what it is worth, in the position after Black's fourteenth, Michell was a tempo down on the position after Ivkov's thirteenth here.) It certainly didn't turn out to be important as Atkins gave two tempi back with Nf3-h2-f3 and perhaps feeling - correctly - that while he was treading water, his opponent had been getting on with improving his position, he lashed out unwisely with 24.g4?

after which Michell hopped into f4 with 24...Nf4 and after 25.Bxf4 exf4 White's dark squares and his king position in general were looking most unhappy.

Michell pointed his bishop at the dark squares with 26.Nh2 Bd6 and from that point Atkins was scrambling to stay in the game. Except, that is, for a brief moment immediately after 27.Nf3 Bd7?! (several other moves are better including 27...f6) when Atkins continued 28.c4?! missing the tactical shot 28.e5!

the point of which is that the pawn sacrifice is followed after 28...Bxe5 with the piece sacrifice 29.Bxg6! which is followed after 29...hxg6 with the exchange sacrifice 30.Rxe5! which is followed after 30...Rxe5 with 31.d6 getting back the rook that is by now the sum of his investment.

It's very far from fatal for Black since after 31...Re2! 32.dxc7 Rxd2 33.Nxd2 Rc8 34.Rf1 Rxc7 35.Rxf4 I would have thought him a little better in the ending, but still, that would have been satisfactory for White compared with the game continuation.

Michell now played 28...f6 cutting off the danger and solidifying the centre ready for a flank assault on White's king. Whether any actual breakthrough exists, if White plays the right moves, is a moot point. There continued 29.Kf2 Kg7 30.b3 g5 - committing to the ...h5 route, though I can't see that ...f5 is ever likely to be on - and then 31.Rg1 h5, which last our Britbase notes give an exclamation mark to, while my computer does not.

It doesn't give a winning alternative, though, as opposed to just marking time and enjoying Black's edge without doing anything with it. That being so, perhaps ...h5 was indeed the best winning chance - and Michell, a point behind, surely wanted to win. However, it does seem that 32.gxh5! is clearly best here and that after, say, 32...bxc4 33.bxc4 Bxh3 34.Qc3 Black is probably forced to play 34...Be5. Now after 35.Nxe5 Rxe5 and then say 36.Be2 Bd7 37.Bf3 I think White is safe enough: Black can probe on the queenside but I do not see that a breakthrough can be organised.

Atkins, however, chose to sit tight, and this was his error, one that should have been fatal for him. He played 32.Rg2? surrendering the h-file, which Michell grabbed with 32...hxg4 33.hxg4 Rh8. (What else was Atkins expecting? I confess I do not understand his choice.)

Atkins tried 34.Rc1 perhaps hoping for something with b4 but 34...b4 put a stop to that and after 35.Re1 White was very, very close to defeat. Black played 35...Rh3. I would love to know what the players' clocks were saying here. The position, at least, was saying - shouting - "now or never!"

Black is going to play ...Rh8 and ...Be5 and win as he pleases, perhaps by threatening the g4 pawn, perhaps with a sacrifice on f3. White can lose like that or he can play a move that loses - but gives him a chance of winning. Sensing, surely, that the time for sitting tight was past, that there was nowhere left for him to sit, Atkins played 36.e5! and after 36...Bxe5 followed up with the exchange sacrifice 37.Rxe5! dxe5 38.Nxg5.

On Britbase, Michell's 35th is given a question mark and 35...Be5! preferred, presumably because it would have prevented Atkins' break. In practical terms I think this is right, and I also think that Michell probably missed it - had he seen the exchange sacrifice, he would very likely have preferred 35...Be5. He was probably winning nonetheless, although I have not yet been able to find a clear, watertight, certain win, or not one, anyway, on behalf of which I would swear an affidavit.

One wonders again about the state of the clocks. Besides, two moves before the time control, possibly in a time scramble, Black suddenly found himself attacked, sacrificed against, when for the previous twenty moves the initiative had been exclusively his. Even if he was not in time pressure, this was real pressure nonetheless, a change in circumstances to which he may have found it difficult to adapt.

He took a step back, playing safe 38...Rh6, perhaps watching the e6 square where a knight fork might take place. It's difficult. At first 38...Re3 looks strongest, not fearing 39.Bf5 because 39...Qd8! wins, but in fact 39.Rh2! forces a draw! 39...Rh8! 40.Rxh8 Kxh8 41.Qd1! and Black - check it! - has to allow a perpetual, hoping that White, with all his pieces swarming around an unprotected king, can find no better. Michell's choice may well have been best.

But now Atkins came forward, with 39.Bf5 and suddenly he was inside Black's position. Two moves for Michell to find before the time control. What should he do? All of a sudden there are all sorts of ideas for White, not just the knight fork but Ne4 threatening the c5-pawn and maybe g5, there is the possibility of d6 and a queen invasion on the light squares, maybe threatening the e5 pawn.

What should he do? Possibly 39...Rd8, buying time because the d5 pawn will be pinned if White exchanges bishops with a view to the fork on e6, and deciding that the fork can subsequently be allowed because Black will win the ending (e.g. 40.Bxd7? Qxd7 41.Qe2 Qe7 42.Ne6 Rxe6 and wins). Or possibly 39...Rah8 which can lead to the remarkable variation 40.Qe1 Rh1 41.Bxd7? (though it looks good at first) 41...Rxe1 42.Nf6+ Kf6 43.Nxd7 Rhh1!

which wins. But 41.Qe4, for instance, is much better, with the game remaining up in the air.

A rook move may well win, or may lead to a win, which is not necessarily the same thing. But I cannot find it for sure and neither could Michell. He tried 39...Qd8?! (question mark on Britbase - I shall be kinder) chasing off the knight. The problem was that it didn't have to go to e4, allowing 40...Qh4+. It went 40.Nf3, allowing no such thing, and menacing the e5 pawn which Black's queen had just abandoned.

This position is now reversing. If there was a win on move 38 or 39, it was surely gone by move 40. Michell played 40...Bxf5?! - perhaps not seeing that after 40...Qe7 41.Bxd7? Qxd7 42.Nxe5 Black has 42...Qe7 and then either 43.Nf3 Rae8 or 43.Qb2 Qh4+ 44.Kf1 Rae8, in either instance with attack.

After the better 41.d6, 41...Rd6 is struggling against 42.Qc2 Bf5 43.Qxf5 Rae8 44.Qe4 Rh8 45.Rg4! with Nh4-f5 to come but either 41...Rhh8 or 41...Rh1 seem to draw, e.g. 41...Rh1 42.d6 f7 43.Bxd7 Qxd7 44.Qd5 Qf5 45.Qxe5+ Qxe5 46.Nxe5 Rf8 47.Kf3

and I think that's a draw unless either side tries too hard to win it.

Atkins of course recaptured with 41.gxf5 and now, with the time control reached and the win no longer there, it may be that the draw was no longer available either. 41...Kf8 receives a question mark on Britbase but is 41..Kf6 actually better? White continues 42.d6 Qd7 43.Qd5 Re8 44.Ng5!

threatening 45.Ne4+ Kxf5 46.Rg5 mate. If 44...Kxf5 45.Nf7 and now if 45...Rh1 46.Qd3+ e4 47.Qd5+ Kf6 48.Qg5+ Kxf7 and White has a selection of mates in two. Hence "better" is 45...Rh5 after which the same manoeuvre is merely winning easily.

Really Black's only try appears to be 44...e4 after which 45.Ne6 and Black is on the precipice. I can find nothing better than 45...e3+ 46.Kf3 (not forced, but I don't think 46.Ke2 comes to anything different) 46...Rxe6+ 47.fxe6 Rh3+ 48.Kxf4 Rh4+ 49.Kxe3 Qxe6+ 50.Qxe6+ Kxe6 51.Rd2

and I think White is winning this ending. It's not at all clear that moving the king to f8 was worse than putting it on f6: both may lose. Be that as it may, White's next, 42.Qb2 was not the best, and seems to have handed back a draw that Michell didn't take.

42.Nxe5! was right, daring Black to come in with 42...Qh4+ 43.Kf3 Qh3+ 44.Kxf4 and now I think that White is probably winning after either 44...Rh5 45.Rg4 or 44...Rh4+ 45.Rg4 (not 45.Ng4?! Re8! and Black will get a draw by taking on g4 with the rook and checking with the queen) but I cannot claim to have an analysis which proves it.

The move played, though, was met by 42....Qf6 and now 43.Nxe5?! would run into 43...Ra7! preventing 44.Nd7+ and embarrassing the knight as 44.Nd3? loses to 44...Qh4+ as White can no longer interpose on g4 at the right moment. Hence 44.Rg6 Rxg6 45.Nxg6+ Kg7 46.Qxf6+ Kxf6 47.Nxf4 Kxf5

and despite White getting a second pawn for the exchange with 48.Ne6 Ke5 49.Nxc5 this looks fine for Black. (While a lot of these knight-against-rook endings are good for White, in this one the absence of an extra rook apiece tends to work against him as the rook is much swifter round the board than the knight and Black's king is better placed than its counterpart.)

So 43.Qxe5

and now Black's 43...Qxe5?! was a clear error with 43...Re8! easily holding the draw. 44.Qxf6+ (44.Qxf4 Rh3! and ...Qb2+ will draw) 44...Rxf6 45.Ng5 Rxf5 46.Ne6+ Rxe6 47.dxe6 Ke7 48.Rg6 Re5

and that's the handshake.

Instead Michell, perhaps a little tired, perhaps a touch demoralised, took off the queens and then met 44.Nxe5 with 44...Ra7? losing outright. I'm not necessarily convinced that 44...Re8 or 44...Rh5 wouldn't have given him some slight chances (and certainly some practical chances) to save the game, though investigating that really would be an analysis too far for this particular writer.

It is however obvious that the move played gave him absolutely no chance, with a worse version of the knight-against-rook than any we've so far seen: two passed pawns for the exchange, the White king active and Black king otherwise, Black's pawns utterly harmless, Black's rooks unable to threaten either knight or king or even any of White's pawns.

White's king, pawns and pieces just walked towards the other side of the board until Black resigned, having no more obvious motive for playing on the last couple of moves than a very understandable sense of disbelief. But, like Sultan Khan in 1929, it was the man who coped best in the crisis who prevailed.

If that game was strange, round seven, for completely different reasons, was even stranger. Atkins' opponent was Ward, who had led the tournament early on with three straight wins and who was still, like Michell in the previous round, only one point behind the leader. They met on Monday 17 August, the previous day, a Sunday, having been a rest day. After White's 19.g3 had followed eighteen other uninspiring moves apiece, they reached the following position with White standing a little better

when, Britbase (game 42) tells us, White lost on time.

This is not quite as extraordinary as it sounds, once you learn that the time control at move forty was not the first, but the second of the game, the time limit being twenty moves in an hour. Even so it is a startling outcome, the game not really having started in earnest before it was over - and that not because of anything dramatic on the board itself.

It makes you wonder whether there is a story behind the game - whether Ward arrived late, or forgot about his clock, or even whether he never actually lost on time and there has been some kind of transcription error. As I wrote above, I am not a chess historian. I know no more about the game than I have written here and although I have enquired elsewhere I have not been able to add to this paucity of information. But on the face of it, a bizarre and disappointing outcome to what must have been a much-anticipated game, probably the last realistic chance anybody had to reel in Atkins even though the second week had only just begun.

That was it, essentially, as Ward and the rest of the field were two points behind with only four rounds to play. Atkins' three lucky days in the middle of the tournament had rendered the last part of it no more than a battle for second, which was eventually won by Ward on six and a half points ahead of four other players on six.

Atkins, who had an easy win in round eight, lost his ninth round game to Blake, but if his luck had run out his lead had not: a tenth-round draw with Palmer (game 55) clinched him the title with, as mentioned above, a round to spare. In truth a more ambitious Black might have tried harder to hurt Atkins after his passive opening. In the last round Gunsberg tried to make something of the Exchange Lopez, but having played for two results, soon settled for the one that split the point two ways.

I've concentrated, to some degree, on Atkins' fortune during three consecutive crucial games in the middle of the tournament, if only because they go some way to contradict the initial view I had of the tournament. There is, I think, another way to look at it, which is that only two players found themselves swapping tactical punches with Atkins (his loss to Blake was a different sort of game, in which he was squashed without a fight) and both of those mini-brawls were decided quickly, and one-sidedly, in Atkins' favour. If players feared complications when they sat at the other side of the board from him, it may not have been without reason and it may not have been unwise of them to draw back from the prospect.

Two Championships in Kent, two clear winners, Atkins by a point and a half and Sultan Khan by a point. At the time of writing that a third one-man show seems more likely than not, and perhaps this time, one just as real as apparent. If it is, then people will remember Mickey Adams at Canterbury, as they always remember winners: Sultan Khan at Ramsgate, Henry Atkins at Tunbridge Wells. But I prefer to remember Reginald Michell. Who was so close. Who like so many of us, was nearly. But never quite.

[Many thanks to John Saunders for his quite invaluable help.]

1 comment:

Ilkley Chess said...

The mystery of the loss on time on move 19 solved - with pictures (or at least picture)