Wednesday, July 04, 2012

What a coup

The final stage of the National Schools Championships takes place tomorrow and Friday. Takes me back. My school used to play in it.

I went to St Michael's, in Stevenage, a comprehensive albeit a somewhat unusual one, being a Catholic boys' school which took pupils from across North Hertfordshire. As is nearly always the case, the school was interested in chess because there happened to be a teacher who liked to play, in this instance Ron Hollins, who was Head of Maths.

St Mick's

We didn't play a lot of serious chess before 1979, by which time I was in my fourth year, though we did have a lunchtime chess club. But by then several players had come to St Michael's from the same primary school in Royston, which also happened to have a teacher keen on chess. (He organised the Bill Hartston simultaneous mentioned here.)

There were four of them. There was me. And my brother arrived, which made six, enough for a team in the the National Schools Championships, which we therefore entered. As far as I recall the existence of the competition had previously been entirely unknown to me.

If we knew little about it, we expected not much more. We were a very young team - I was the oldest, and only fourteen at that. However, this turned out to be to our advantage, since an age-handicapping system was in place, meaning that a much younger team could lose narrowly to a much older one, and still go through.

So off we went, average age maybe twelve, seeing how we got on against the big boys, though our first match was actually against the primary school that most of my teammates had attended. Our second was against the B team of Bedford Modern, alma mater of Monty Panesar and others. My opponent was graded 109 which doesn't sound much but, in retrospect, can't have been too shabby for board two or three of a school B team. My grade back then eludes me, but whatever it was, I won, and we progressed. We then played a school called Holy Trinity, which I would link to if I had a clue which of the many schools of that name it actually was. Wherever it was, or is, we got through that as well, and then played Bedford Modern's A team.

My distinct memory of our visit to that school is of seeing a notice advertising photos of the First XI's recent trip to the West Indies. Their chess team were no slouches, either, and this time my opponent, one Potter, was graded 148. I note that my game was adjudicated a draw and that, amusingly, I wrote the moves in green ink. My obsessiveness doesn't seem to have extended to actually recording the opponent's initial, or the match result, but we must have scored enough points to get through, since we met Netherhall in the regional final. I drew again, but this time recorded the result. 4-2 to us, "with age 4½-1½" - and we were in the national stages, the last 32.

There we played Guthlaxton College (Garner, 123) and although once again I don't have the match score, I believe we won easily enough. (I played the Sokolsky, which I had only just taken up but which served me rather well for about a year, before I realised it probably wasn't much good.)

Not everything in those days was produced to Batsford standards

That put us through to the last 16, where we were drawn against rather tougher opposition: the reigning champions, St Paul's. I see that they'd beaten Bolton School in the final, which presumably involved a top board meeting between England's two strongest juniors, since Bolton had a young Nigel Short playing for them, while St Paul's had Julian Hodgson.

Nigel and Julian on the same side of the table

So the winnners in three out the last four years came to our school, in our very first year of competition. We played them in the library. Hodgson had the black pieces and our top board, Michael Leahy, played 1.d4. Then followed 1...d6 2.c4 e5 and after 3.dxe5 dxe5 4.Qxd8+ Kxd8 Michael lost quite easily without, I think, ever really understanding what he'd done wrong.

Our second board, though, Robert Lee, got what must have been a very creditable draw. On boards three to six we had two sets of brothers. On four and five, Peter and Paul Sanders, who both lost. On three and six, we had respectively me, and my brother.

I can't claim to remember in which order the games finished, but if you've been counting, you'll have noticed that we'd scored one draw from four games. Hence the best we could do was a score of 2½-3½. But you'll also remember that there was an age handicap, which meant that we only needed those 2½ points to go through. On board six, my brother won his game. Did his, or our second board's, finish before mine? I don't recall. But I recall winning my game.

Of course I should never have got away with that one - when he played the disastrous 25...Re6?? he had forty minutes left to my two as well as a winning position - and there were further blunders on both sides after that. But I did. I got away with quite a lot, and then he threw his queen at me. My last move before the time control was queen takes queen. And after that it was over.

We did it. We took on the multiple champions, one of the top public schools in the country, and we put them out of the competition. I can still recall a physics teacher, a Maltese called Joe Camilleri, next day, calling it "a coup". I remember this because he pronounced the p. But I also remember it because it was. A coup. And what a coup.

In the next round we played Watford Grammar. I drew with John Sachs (this one, I suspect) but we went down 5-1. They went on to lose the final. St Paul's won the next two years, and another six times since. We never got as far as the last eight again.

I particularly remember the last match in which I played, at Wymondham, which I remember because of the Nissen huts, but also because Peter, in the last game to finish, needing just a draw, was a piece up with one move and a couple of spare minutes to go before the time control. But he forgot about the clock, and lost on time. Nobody said a word for a long time until finally, in the minibus on the way home, he burst out "I didn't do it deliberately!" It was a long trip back to Hertfordshire.

Next year I was at university. I played a couple of games for my college, but other than that, although I was playing postal chess, I didn't play OTB for about six years.

The school is houses now. They merged with the local Catholic girls', St Angela's, to form John Henry Newman, on the St Angela's site. Lorin D'Costa went there. So did Ashley Young. So did Lewis Hamilton, though the school tried, ultimately unsuccessully, to expel him. I seached their website for chess. My search returned 0 results.

Pergamon were good though

I have an old copy of Vukovic's The Art Of Attack In Chess - so old it has a 9-digit ISBN - which I got off Michael. On the back flap is written:

He wasn't, though. Last I knew, about a dozen years ago, he was a missionary in Malaysia. I don't think he plays any more. I can find no trace of Robert, or the Sanders brothers. My brother plays occasionally in the London League. I play a little, and write a lot.

Will Burt, who used to be my clubmate at Oxford City, went to St Paul's. During the Oxford tournament of 1998, of which Julian Hodgson was joint winner, we mentioned the match to Julian, who recalled that William Watson had been missing from the team. It might have been a different story if he'd played.

But he didn't. If he had, I assume I'd have played somebody other than my actual opponent, Ken Shovel. We never met over the chessboard again. But we were on opposite sides in the Oxford University Doubles Pool semi-finals of 1986. He won that time.

That's OK. Because I won the time it really mattered. What a coup. I'll never forget.

[Short/Hodgson image via Dr Mark Ginsburg]


SD said...

Great piece, really enjoyed it, thank you. I seem to remember playing in a junior tournament in Royston in the early 80s and there were many good congresses at a very nice school in Hitchen.

ejh said...

Thanks. (And apologies for the difficulties you had in commenting!)

Anonymous said...

1979 final - don't think Nigel played, Julian beat Allan Beardsworth on top board

Allan is checking his records this weekend

Mick Norris

ejh said...

Again, thanks. Would be interesting to know what kept Nigel away, if he wasn't there.

Neill Cooper said...

Green ink? That was used on board 1 in yesterday's final! Why I noticed I do not know - perhaps because now green ink has a purpose in some classrooms.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article... That Watford Grammar School team would have been pretty handy - Ian Thomas was top board, and had at least one IM norm to his name. I'm sure a few of the other guys were in the 190s.

I played for the school just after that (from 1984) but we never made the final again. Beating Haberdashers' Aske's was always too bloody difficult!


Anonymous said...

Paul Sanders may be the father of strong junior Isaac Sanders. He certainly shares his name.

ejh said...

I'd be extremely interested to know if that were actually the case.

Thingamebobs said...


Thanks for bringing back the memories. I don't think at the time I fully understood the achievement of the St Michaels team and also the tireless efforts of Ron Hollins.

I do remember we had some really tough matches against Haberdashers Askes, St Albans (?), Watford Grammar and Bedford Modern. Though I was probably the weakest link in the team.

It is worth noting that the school got an award for the efforts

Apart from the six you mention (Leahy, Lee, Horton(x2), Sanders(x2)) the school club had some other keen and good players, I'd like to mention Martyn Wates who often played.

Peter Sanders (Board 4)

ejh said...

Hello Peter. Giod to hear from you after all this time. We did indeed play St Albans at least once. I don't know who played after I left by I am sure that Stefan Kubler as well as Martyn Waites played some games. (If I have the spelling right, which I probably don't. I even wondered if it was this guy.)

I'd forgotten about the award. I shouldn't have, it was in my final year.

I am sure I had some kind of email from Michael Leahy a dozen of so years ago - he was in Malaysia, I believe, working as a missionary - but not since, and I no longer have that email account.

I haven't seen Ron Hollings for a number of years but I did use occasionally to see him in the pub before Oxford United matches, as he was always a supporter and I began watching them at university (and then lived in the city until 1999). As I now live abroad this is unlikely to happen again soon!

Thingamebobs said...

Hi again,
I did once hear from Michael who, I seem to remember, was teaching in Malaysia. Not heard from him in a long time though.
I think this is Martyn Wates ( ).
I am base in South London now and my brother in S.Herts.
I haven't played chess for more than 20 years ... but I remember those school trips with the chess team vividly.