Friday, March 27, 2015

Brixton Byways 10: Howzat

In the last episode we found some helpful corroboration of the likely Year Zero of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club, viz 1871. This was the moment of stellar creation when, out of the void of the Stockwell, Kennington, Camberwell sector of the ever expanding chess universe, there appeared the nebulous form of the Endeavour Club of North Brixton. Over the following decades it tracked ever southward, touching down in the 1920s at the Half Moon Hotel by Brockwell Park, where the outer reaches of the eastern Brixton fade into the lower slopes of Herne Hill, with the upper crust of Dulwich just visible beyond. It had by then condensed into an entity referred to as Brixton CC.

As we noted in that episode, the club President, speaking at the 50th anniversary garden party in 1921 (reported in the British Chess Magazine of August in that year), told how Brixton CC had been making its mark on the Surrey chess scene in a way by which it would want to be remembered. For starters, it had won the County Championship several times. And now the club was now about to make its mark on the London scene. But, to add our own comment, in a way that it might have preferred to forget.

Though by and large peaceably inclined, the club, in its post-WW2 Streatham and Brixton incarnation, and within living memory, has occasionally found itself embroiled in controversy. Indeed, some may say it has a peculiar aptitude for it - but in this post we discover that the Club had form going back even before the War, and it is fascinating to see that our forebears were cut from the same disputatious cloth as contemporary S&B Clubbers. And here comes the usual caveat-cum-disclaimer: neither individually nor collectively do the S&B Chess Bloggers speak for the S&B Chess Club, even though some may be members.

Invariably, when rules collide with a sense of fairness, cricket is invoked to support one side or the other. Or, as in the gentlemanly contretemps recounted below, both.

With thanks to Chesham Cricket Club 
So - to get on with the story - what about this, on page 238 in the BCM of June 1922? "Practically the last match of the season in the London League Division "A", between Brixton and Battersea very nearly caused a split in the League." Gosh. The scenario for this drama was the match crucial for the final League placings. At 'time', it had come down to Brixton 9.5 v 8.5 Battersea, with two for games submitted for adjudication, the standard method in those days for resolving unfinished games. It was then that the fun began.

By the way: it is pretty clear that way back then they took the business of adjudication pretty seriously, and where appeals were permitted they were an arena for legitimate contestation. Although the London League had done away with adjudications when it re-activated after the War in May 1946 (BCM July 1946, p 219), they were common enough elsewhere, even in the mid-70s. Thus Leonard Barden included a chapter on "Adjudication Techniques" in his "How to Play the Endgame in Chess" of 1975. He gave advice, for example, on how to "window-dress" your position to impress the far from infallible, and maybe very busy, adjudicators. Appeals (where permitted) should not, he recommended, be neglected: "too many average players simply assume...that it is somehow not ethical to contest a decision." Analysis of endings for adjudication appeals was good for your chess. As in the aforementioned cricket, appeals were part of the game.

So it was (and here we are still broadly following the account in the BCM of June 1922) that the two unfinished games were referred to one of the "official adjudicators of the league", who, being too busy, passed them to "another first-class player" who adjudged them one apiece; hence the match went to Brixton, and with it the right to a play-off match with Hampstead for the title. "Hang on a minute" said Battersea (or words to that effect). Concerning the "lost game": Battersea was, said the BCM, "justly confident that they could not get less than a draw, and ought to get a win". The club had reacted to the result of the adjudication with "astonishment" said the BCM, and Battersea "took the matter up" - submitting, the reader might have supposed, some supportive analysis à la Barden.

As far as telling the story goes, we can leave the concrete position to the end, although the BCM inserted it at this juncture while continuing its report to the effect that, in view of the gravity of the circumstance, a special meeting of the League Executive Committee had been convened which pronounced that the result must stand consequent upon a strict application of the rules. Thus the tie-match was played, and Brixton duly beat Hampstead to become League Champions. However, the adjudicator in question had issued a mea culpa in his own chess column elsewhere, as the BCM reported, and had confessed to a "regrettable error". The mag. admitted its sympathy both for Hampstead, who but for the cock-up would have won the League, and Battersea, who, by rights should have won the match against Brixton. Or so it said.

End of story? Not a bit of it. Brixton CC felt affronted by the "biased and unsportsmanlike" reportage in the BCM, and stood on its dignity. In the next issue of July 1922 a letter from Frank St. J. Steadman, a Brixton CC heavyweight, appeared with the declared intention of putting the record straight and defending the club's honour. He believed that the adjudicator had examined the position and, moreover, had concluded that it was won for Brixton; anyway (as he reminded the readers) there was no provision for adjudication appeal in the London league, especially not where only one side puts in analysis. And what is more, he thundered, the rules should be adhered to in the course of the competition, and not changed until it was over. Battersea, he said, was trying to tinker with them, or at least claim a special exemption.

As if to show that being now a stickler for the rules wasn't come-lately and born of self-interest, Dr. Steadman pointed out that Brixton CC had, in another instance, accepted a decision against itself even though the adjudicator had set up the position incorrectly (!). And, in praying in aid the parallel of cricket, Steadman argued that adjudicators, like umpires, are human - and "we all know what we think of the batsman who....argues with the umpire and refuses to leave the crease" would be poor show and not "part and parcel of our national character". It was "incredible", he went on, for the BCM to suggest that the League had nearly split, moreover, "a more sportsmanlike team than...Hampstead...does not exist....Yours Faithfully"!

Dr. Steadman wasn't alone in his antipathy to adjudication appeals (on this occasion, anyway). Just a year later, on 22 December 1923, the chess columnist of the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer stepped into a similar controversy surrounding some contentious adjudications by Maroczy in a Sussex v Surrey match earlier that month. He wrote: "Two teams agree an adjudicator; he gives his decision, far fetched, maybe right or even wrong. The decision ends the matter absolutely and both sides are bound by it. For part of one side to a pact to talk of appealing, etc., is only to display a lamentable lack of sportsmanship...which would turn turn these enjoyable matches into a bickering contest..."

But back in the London League in July 1922 it was now the turn of the Editor, R.C.Griffiths, to take his guard and reply to the bowling, admitting, in doing so, to being a member of the London League Executive Committee, to having checked his account for the June BCM with Battersea CC, and to having shown Mr. Steadman's letter to Battersea (whose reply followed). When it comes to cricket, he said, it would have been more sportsmanlike for Brixton to have resigned the game than to have offered resignation of the championship - which Battersea considered unsatisfactory to all concerned. To his impartial credit, or so as not to inflame the situation further, Griffiths, whose June report, remember, had sympathised with Hampstead, did not mention that he was a Hampstead man himself (though, to try to be fair, perhaps it was common knowledge).

Now George Wernick had the ball, and he started by tossing up what might have been a googly from the Battersea end: "Knowing what a good sportsman Dr Steadman is..."...

...but then he continued "...I don't think that he can be fully acquainted with the facts." So he'd sent down his straight ball after all, and gave the appearance of a man pouring oil on troubled waters by the tankful. They hadn't appealed as such, he wrote, but were asking for a "reconsideration" as the game position hadn't been adjudged by an official adjudicator, a line supported, he said, by the Battersea Club Committee. Nonetheless, it had "seemed to him absurd" that the championship should be decided by the "carelessness - or worse" of an adjudicator, and that he had been "tempted to ask [his] club to withdraw from the League". (And thus stands revealed the source of the "very nearly...split the league" canard printed by the BCM; moreover, we can infer that Mr. Wernick held firm and flounced not.)

George Wernick - good sport.
From Battersea CC, with thanks  
He ended on another emollient note: on failing to get the case re-opened Battersea accepted the decision of the League Executive and wished Brixton "hearty congratulations" on bringing the Championship south of the river. So the hatchet was buried, and forgotten, and Brixton - its reputation tarnished and/or its scrupulosity vindicated - was simply recorded as the League champions for 1921-22.

Just for the record, the BCM reported that Brixton had won the tie-match 12.5 v 7.5, and, prior to that, the League match proper 12 v 8 (inflicting on Hampstead their only London League defeats that season); and it also noted that the two clubs made up practically all the top 20 boards of their respective county sides, Surrey and Middlesex - with Surrey edging it 11-9 in a recent SCCU match (on April 8th, that must have been). Griffiths had won on board 2 for Middlesex - though he was tactful enough not to flaunt it in his BCM report. That would not be cricket.

What was the game position that gave rise to so much grief? Here it is for you to adjudge, perhaps without the aid of a computer as they would have had to do. Would you put a '1' in score book for Battersea (White, with the move), or for Brixton; or would it be 0.5 to both?

Battersea (White) v Brixton (Black)
White to Play.
For Adjudication.
Begin here for all episodes of Brixton Byways.
See History Index for links to more Chess history.                


Anonymous said...

Checking with an engine shows White as better in the adjudicated position, despite being a piece down. The concrete idea is to play Rd7 attacking f7. This then forces Qe8 and White follows with Qd5. The question then is whether Black can hang on. It seems he can, as extending the analysis leads to a repetition.


ejh said...

The bespectacled bowler in the first image is surely Daniel Vettori, who should be playing in the World Cup Final on Sunday.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

I don't know cricket. My sport was hockey, and there the attitude of the players towards the referees was, "They have a hard job." If you felt an opposing player managed to slip something by the ref, you just got even on the next shift, sometimes legally; and if you got called for it, those were the breaks.

Not using an engine here, but 1.Rd7 begs to be played, after 1...Qe8 2.a7 looks like the move. Now 3.Rxf7 is a real threat, 3.Qd5 also looks strong, or perhaps just maintain the bind with 3.Qb7 and figure out how to advance the queenside pawns later. If 2...Qxd7 3.Qxa8+ Kg7 4.Qe4 Qxa7 5.Qxe5+ looks like a textbook theoretical win (I could be senile though). Maybe the real problem was they didn't have Basic Chess Endings yet.