Sometimes you take a while to get round to doing stuff you want to do – life just gets in the way. That’s just life.
It has always been a desire of mine to enter a chess tournament and get a real idea of my chess abilities. I think you can be lucky in one-off games or the weekly league chess match – but to play six long games of chess in under two days leaves no room for lady luck.
Early last year, Hammersmith Chess Club raised funds for our club legend and retiring Secretary, Mike Mackenzie and his long-suffering wife Merceda (only joking!!), to go to the Bunratty Chess Festival 2020, for Mike to take part and then spend a week with family in Cork. At the same time, Karen and I lost an extremely close and dear friend to liver disease and I wanted to do something to make sense of what was a terrible situation.
In a moment of rare clarity, I realised that I could enter the Bunratty Challengers event, fulfilling a chess dream and life goal, and use that event to raise money for the Liver Trust. I would use my contacts in the business, pharmacy and chess worlds to raise funds.
The idea was born and took shape. I was to be joined by two of the best of Hammers – Chris “Sydney” Skulte, and Adan “Pickle” Cranston (please note the deliberate misspelling of Pickle’s christian name).
The Liver Trust were amazing and very supportive. T-shirts, wrist bands, leaflets and a gifting page were setup in our friend’s name.
The sight of Mike, Adam, Chris and I proudly wearing our Liver Trust T-Shirts was something to behold.
The Bunratty organisers, from the committee to the sponsors, were hugely supportive – indeed the chess festival contributed £100 to the fund.
There are many more people to thank, but that will come later. Onto the chess…
I have been to Bunratty twice in my life, last weekend and back in 1974 on a family holiday as a 14-year old. My memories are pretty vague from that first visit but the castle and a working village seem to figure prominently in my mind. Plus, I am pretty sure we ate in the Bunratty Castle Hotel.
This return trip was an eye-opener – the roads, the hotel, Dirty Nellies and just the sheer beauty of the country is overwhelming. The one thing that has remained unchanged is the kindness and welcome of the Irish people. As part Irish and with a large family in Tipperary, Ireland is one of my favourite places on earth. This is my idea of heaven.
For the past 27 years, Bunratty has become known as a chess Mecca with an international tournament that has obtained legendary status. Running four sections, the Masters section has attracted such luminaries as Nigel Short, Michael Adams, Jon Speelman and Peter Svidler. It is a unique tournament played in the Bunratty Castle Hotel.
I accompanied Mike and Merceda from London to the hotel on the Friday morning 21st February. Our rooms were not ready but they put a priority tag on them and we retired to the bar. The first beer was drunk and the weekend had started. We were joined by Adam and Chris as they arrived and the beers kept coming. This was definitely a case of Dutch courage on my part, with the first round due to kick off at 8pm. Nervous times.
I have to confess that probably way too much beer went down. This was then followed by the “bright idea” of doing a gym session, sauna and swim, in an effort to sober up. However, sustenance was needed to reinforce recovery and the delights of “Dirty Nelly’s” called to us. A legendary ale house that is a must-go – check it out: http://www.durtynellys.ie/
I, indeed we, were ready for the Hammers to strut their chess skills and take Bunratty by storm.
Round One vs Ciaran Marron, rated 1621
I was off the mark – this was such a relief. I had held my nerve. It was not pretty chess, but getting the win boosted my confidence.
I missed many opportunities but the mantra was a win is a win.
Cue more celebrations, of the ale kind, that went on to 2am in the morning. Having been up since 4am this was probably overdoing it. The Bunratty Craic is really something though. GMs and Its mixing with us wood-pushers. The sight of the Ginger GM taking on all comers at blitz in the bar was just brilliant.
Round Two vs Jana Solomatina, rated 1522
The kick-off was 9.30am in the morning. This was one of those games where not a lot happens. My junior opponent was a very correct player and will undoubtedly be a strong player of the future. However, she lacked aggression at crucial moments and also consumed too much time.
The chess engine Stockfish reckoned I did OK. I was just glad to be 2-0. I also discovered that drinking a lot of water during a chess game seems to improve my concentration and play. A curious discovery but entirely due to excess alcohol consumption the previous day. Here is the game:
Round Three vs WGM Diana Mirza, rated 1939
Things were starting to get interesting – this round saw my playing on board 2 and my game would be transmitted live. These were heady times. Incidentally, it is beyond me why the London League has not adopted this, as it is a great way to promote our brilliant game.
The downside is that it exposes you to the commentary of your peers and superiors – in the case of Hammer, that’s fine, as the banter on the WhatsApp group testifies to.
My opponent was the third-strongest women in Ireland, with a WFM title and by a considerable degree a notch higher than my two previous opponents. Her ECF equivalent would be 165.
Playing white, I opened with my usual e4, which as Jim “El Loco” Stevenson says is the only move. She hit me with Philidor’s defence. An opening that has given me problems in the past. I was soon floundering for a plan and decided to sac a pawn for complications.
A typical Clueless solution – however, she saw much further than me. In no time I was two pawns down facing two bishops and a knight vs two knights and a bishop. These were grim times – but I am a Hammer and Celtic Tiger stock, and we play to the end. Eventually an opportunity arose and I played a clever tactic, which ended up winning the Bishop.
Further liquidation then occurred and I was left with two knights and King, versus a long black King. I then played on for 30 moves trying to checkmate my opponent. Somewhere in my Clueless brain I thought that was possible. This was embarrassing to say the least. However, deep in my memory banks, from when I was a kid, I read a chess book by RF Green called “Chess” (original!). I swear that it had a two knights checkmate in it – or was it some other ancient tome. The memory definitely fades with the passing of time.
Anyway, it finally sunk into my thick head that I could not win this against a competent player. It would need an eejit of Clueless proportions to help facilitate a checkmate. Curiously if I had left the last black pawn on the board there was a chance of a win.
So, first I would like to unreservedly publicly apologise to Diana for the 30 plus moves I made her endure and state categorically it was purely done out of ignorance and not stupid stubbornness.
Here is the game:
I was now on 2.5/3
Although feeling great about my chess, my physical condition was poor – fuel was needed. Durty Nelly’s again proved the perfect refuge – the next round was starting at 7.30pm.
Round Four vs James McDonnell, rated 1945 (ECF 156)
At last a fellow Londoner was the opponent. He is a member of GLCC and only five years ago was rated 184 – he is now down to 156. The chess oracle that is El Loco informed me after the event that he was a former Ulster Champion.
My only frustration is that I lost my scoresheet, so I cannot give the game, especially galling as it was probably my most interesting game.
Again, I was on a live transmission board and playing black. After a mix-up in the move order on my part, I am definitely pleading the 5th on that (Chess amendment 5 – the effect of late nights, lack of sleep, and alcohol) we entered a mainline Sicilian Najdorf.
My opponent played a 5.Qf3 version – I responded by getting a knight onto e5 and delaying castling – indeed I played the whole game really well. With my opponent showing visible signs of frustration and not being able to find a suitable plan other than trying to hack his way through.
In the end my position was overwhelming with my b-squared knight indulging in a really nice tour around the board – the last move would have been Nd4 which was crushing.
My opponent lost on time in a position that was very awkward and devoid of counter chances.
Just to mention the time controls for Bunratty are 90 minutes plus a 15 second increment per move – so generally the games are around 3 hours long.
I had moved to 3.5/4 and was definitely in the mix for a prize.
Once again, we answered the call of Durty Nelly’s and enjoyed a serious drinking session – the atmosphere was great – there is something about chess players getting together – the camaraderie and the craic is infectious.
When it closed, we retreated to the bar at the hotel and to be honest I do remember about 3am thinking it’s a 9.15am start in the morning, you have to shower and pack… and check-out… before commencing play. I remember leaving Mike and Merceda and staggering off to my room. Again, perfect Bunratty etiquette but definitely not ideal chess preparation.
Round Five vs Peter Cofolla, rated 1909 (ECF 161)
Yet again I was on a show board – this was something I could definitely get used to.
Playing white, I played e4 – he replied c5. I took a moment and decided this was the moment to play the Makepeace-Clueless variation – named in honour of my esteemed past opponent from the Ealing-Hammer encounter in the TV Division One game last month.
This game represented a huge missed opportunity on my part when I got the sequence wrong on move 17 – I should have played BxB, followed by Nf6+ with a clear advantage as I win the exchange and have control of the d-file. I missed it, and realised my error a couple of moves later, then followed up poorly with Rd6 and Rad1, losing the a-pawn. Completely overlooking returning the rook to a1.
I had missed my opportunity to go 4.5/5 and be in with a shout of the top prize. To be honest, it was lesson learned again, that if you do not compose yourself after realising your error, you are likely to make another error. This was frustrating as the rest of the game I was grovelling to hold the position which I eventually did.
Still, 4/5 was not bad. Here is the game:
Round Six vs Eetu Tiiva, rated 1895 (ECF 159)
The second Finnish player I have played in my life – Rauno, fellow Hammer and Tiger was my first, and then only casually.
My fourth appearance on a streaming board definitely seemed OTT. Although I wrecked the whole process when I slapped my clock after playing a move and it died. The rest of the game had to be played without move relay.
To be frank this was not the most exciting game with the battle for control of e4/e5 and neutralising white’s expansive queenside play the main themes.
By this time, I was running on an empty tank with thought processes laboured and even indulging in totally farcical possible variations. To be frank I was glad to get a draw and finally conclude the tournament. The relief was palpable.
Here is the game:
This was an amazing experience where you, as a standard wood-pusher, are playing feet away from world-class chess players (Nigel Short, Simon Williams, Keith Arkell and Matt Turner). In a real way there is a sense of you are all equal and tackling Bunratty together. It is an experience I will never forget – the tournament is brilliant.
I urge you all to play this special tournament just once in your life.
So, in no particular order my thanks and gratitude go to the following:
- The Bunratty organisers, who have created a totally unique tournament that so reflects the Irish character and approach to life. Plus they made a generous donation to the Stephanie Liver Fund.
- To Mike, Merceda, Chris and Adam – the Hammer posse – the best of companions and the best of people. All of them embody the Hammer spirit in spades.
- The British Liver Trust for their support and help – the T-shirts and wrist bands went down a storm.
- The chess genius Simon Williams, the Ginger GM, who has mentioned the Stephanie fund on his Facebook page. His generosity and time spent playing all-comers in the bar was something to behold.
- Uwe and his friends from Germany who were really a huge laugh and tolerated my bemused looks at the fact I was undefeated.
- To all my sponsors – the friends, family (English and Irish) and the Chess players – the chess community is a generous and outward-looking one.
- To my Karen, who allowed me the chance to do this and encouraged my in every way.
- Finally, to the very sadly missed and incomparable Stephanie, whose early tragic death gave me the impetus to try and make something happen that could create some good out of the terrible darkness. Chess can bring some light.
If you would like to contribute to the find, here is the link: https://tribute-funds.everydayhero.com/uk/stephanie-kennedy-our-friend
Stephanie Kennedy – 23rd May 1974 to 21st February 2019
Wife, daughter, and the best of friends.