A Newbie’s Guide to League Chess in London

Club membership – Paid.
ECF Membership – Sorted.
Played some games at your club to prove you know your way round the board – Done.

Now what?

Now you’re ready to play some London League chess, of course!

That’s where it started for me 3 years ago. It’s been at times bewildering, exhilarating, and sometimes just downright confusing (How did I just lose on time??), but I hope this post serves as a reasonable guide to assuage any doubts for those thinking about taking the plunge.

My first game was a memorable ride. Turning up at the ascribed venue near Euston station, I’d arrived early – eager to impress, clearly! – but it wasn’t hard to spot the chess crowd milling around. Nervous tension palpable, a slight sense of foreboding overcame me – how would I remember to write down each move correctly (harder than you might think when the board is un-annotated and you’re playing black!), press the clock, whilst trying not to embarrass myself on the board? Surely all new players go through the same set of thoughts, fears and emotions, I tried to reassure myself.

Thankfully my team captain was already there and helpfully pointed out where I should be sitting. The respective captains toss a coin to decide who picks which colour on the top board. The other boards then alternate down from that, as does the slow/quick play timing. It’s worth reminding yourself of the difference in the timing regimes and other rules of play before you start – I’ve won and lost cheaply through not knowing the details properly.

Typical league chess board setup with scoresheets and clocks

With my opponent and I in situ and apparently ready to go, there’s the awkward wait for the allotted start time to arrive. Do you engage your opponent in conversation? It doesn’t appear to be the done thing but some are more receptive to it than others. One thing that’s useful to do at this point is ensure you have written your opponents name and the other details of the match down correctly on your match sheet.

A general murmur of excitement builds, the home captain might make a quick announcement about mobile phones, and you’re ready to start. A quick shake of your opponents hand – mumble a “good luck” while you do it – and you’re off.

I will admit, I spent most of my first game panicking about making a spectacular blunder. Check, double check, triple check every move and position – diagonals for bishops, potential forks for knights, discovered checks, any obvious intermezzos I’ve missed? The stress level and heart rate were both pretty high. I can’t really remember too much of the detail but after about 4 moves I was way off any openings I knew about (admittedly not saying much, but my opponent employed the English opening – 1.c4, rare enough for a beginner like me I think). Somehow I was able to convince myself it’s fine; just play your game and don’t worry too much about anything else.

I don’t remember the sequence of moves or my thought process at the time, but I ended up with an advanced knight threatening the squares near his King, with my Queen poised to move forward next move and check him. Surely this couldn’t be check mate, I thought, as I sat there pondering the combinations and desperately hoping my opponent wouldn’t make the obvious defensive move to repel me? The excitement and pressure at a moment like that can be quite intense. My mouth was dry, my right leg hopelessly twitching in nervous response to the sudden burst of adrenaline as I contemplated victory against a respectably strong player in my maiden game for my club.

The overriding thought was to double, triple, quadruple check to ensure I wasn’t leaving the back door open to a disastrous failed attack. Breathe and relax, write your move down and await your opponents response.

An eight board London League Match

One notable difference in face to face chess versus that played over the internet or on my phone, is that your opponent nearly always finds the right move to deny your thrilling combination. Your considered sacrifice resolves to vain, inglorious defeat. You quickly learn to leave your Mikhail Tal impression at home and more often play the dull – but safe – move. On balance this is where results are found in the London League. Very rarely does the frivolous attack lead to victory.

Not today though.

Beginners luck perhaps but my opponent failed to spot the threat, making a move of little consequence. I tried – and mostly failed – to nonchalantly advance my Queen, dispatching my opponents King with aplomb. I stumbled slightly in announcing “check mate” (as is de rigour when one achieves it), not entirely convinced of my own victory. After a brief pause to assess the position my opponent looked up and mumbled “Uhm… I didn’t spot that”, conceding defeat with the offer of a hand to shake.

What normally passes after a game has finished is the stilted assessment by bother players in hushed tones, offering advice or pointing out where victory/defeat was achieved. Aside from annoying your neighbouring players (and thus often having to de-camp to the nearest empty room), these little chess vignettes can be remarkably useful in understanding how you played, where you could have made better moves, or what the expected response to a certain opening was. It can be a good opportunity to get into the mind of your opponent too – they will often have assessed a situation quite differently to what you may have. On occasion I’ve had my opponent point out where I missed an opportunity for check-mate. Now that is frustrating!

As a relatively hardened pro I now tend to shy away from assessing my defeats with my opponent – pretty poor on my part this – but I do enjoy replaying the occasional game that was particularly enjoyable and close fought. I prefer to analyse my games a few days later with a book or two and perhaps a computer to aide me. I’ve found it one of the best ways to learn opening theory and spot holes or missed opportunities in my performance – though admittedly my current grade (92 ECF) does not reflect this!

Regardless of the outcome you can always be sure of learning something about the game in a face to face match. It may not be the fluid attacking combo you were hoping for, executing that opening you’ve been studying for weeks, or ruining your opponent in a 20-move blitz of style and sophistication, but even old pros get a bit of luck occasionally.

You can see my full “analysis” of that game here. Enjoy!
– Andy.

3 thoughts on “A Newbie’s Guide to League Chess in London”

  1. Good read Andy – and scarily similar to my first experience of starting league chess three years ago, in fact almost word for word (until the bit about winning!). Shamefully I don’t go back over my losses though – partly due to laziness, and partly because it’s quite painful (what a wimp I am).

  2. Good read Andy! Think I need a lot more practise/learning before I get to compete but enjoying the journey so far!

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