100 league games for Hammersmith Chess Club

My memory fails me when it comes to my opening lines, but I clearly remember the day, the circumstances and the game highlights (a lowlight) of my first league game for the club. It was the 1 April 2019, and I remember it because it was my exciting first day of retirement. Before that, I had worked abroad, so I had not yet attended any club evening, but here I was on the High Street in Staines, searching for the playing venue. I approached another person on the dark and empty street who seemed as clueless as me, and he turned out to be John White, what a coincidence. My first contact was made.

The later evening did not continue as well. I lost my game, and since it was the last game of the match, I learned a new sensation, losing not only a mere game, but letting the team down. Welcome to the world of league play.

I was lucky enough to be invited to many more games, and now that I join those who have played 100 or more league games for Hammersmith, I look back to not only my early disaster but mostly a realm of positive experiences which I would never have made as a mere internet or tournament player.

The most visible difference to tournament chess is the camaraderie. It starts when players are called for the next match. From my short one-time experience as captain of a London Summer League team in 2019, I know how stressful it is to organise a team. The captains have to set up a squad. They have to make the difficult decisions about whom to select for the team of the day. It is not all about nominal rating but also about the diversity of players. Giving Juniors the chance to play higher rated opponents is an important aspect.

The club has fielded a record 15 teams this season, and on some days and especially far away matches it is challenging to find a sufficient number of players. That is when team captains´ skills come to the fore. They make sure that everyone knows what is at stake. In urgent need, there is always someone standing up and sacrificing an evening at home for club duty, sometimes just before the start of the match. And the camaraderie continues after the matches. It rarely happens that all stay on until the last player has finished its game Most players have to get up early next morning for work or school, or have someone waiting at home. Let’s not forget, these are evenings away from family and friends, or the regular TV drama. But there is always a team member around accompanying the last game. You never walk alone.

I am a slow player, and as a consequence I am quite often among the last of the team to finish the game. When it is a tight match it could mean becoming a hero. But for each winner there is a loser, and unfortunately I was often enough sitting on the wrong side. Losing a game is one thing, but losing a decisive game for the team leaves quite a different and lasting impression, and then it is nice to have a mental post-mortem with a chess friend in an adjacent pub.

Captains summarise the events of the previous match day for the whole squad in team-specific WhatsApp groups or via email. They caress the individualists, praise the successful, uphold the unlucky ones, keep the spirit in difficult times, week by week, and prepare for the next round. I have nothing but praise for the captains (well, read below), irrespective of whether they win a cup, avoid relegation or silently suffer in defeat. The club needs these heroes. Just one small pinch of salt. How comes that in my 100 league games I got Black 60 times and White only 40 times? Not knowing the statistical probability (or unlikelihood) of such a head or tail ratio when tossing the coins and deciding on colour, it seems quite conspiratorial to me.

Coming from abroad, the league system looks unstructured, and it bloody well it is. While in Germany there is a clear hierarchy of club competitions with the Bundesliga at the top of the pyramid, but here around London the Hammersmith Chess Club could win the competition in one of the different leagues it is competing in (and at half-term we are leading in 2 top leagues), but never be promoted to a higher regional or even national level, the 4NCL being a quite different animal. But, being an anarchy, it has its charms. In a comparable German chess club like Bayern Munich, my rating would restrict me to one of their 15 teams (coincidentally the same number as Hammersmith) and I could enjoy maybe 10 league games in a season. Here in Hammersmith I am free to play in each of the four local leagues, and even in 2 divisional teams in the same league (that however is strange to me, and unfair to smaller clubs). Whenever I was not travelling, I was raising my hand to play, and while I was not always selected, I was able to accumulate up to 30 games per season. What an experience. London truly is the chess capital of the world, and Hammersmith at its very centre.

Being the Mecca of chess, one would expect that time controls are clearly defined, just as the start of Ramadan is determined by Mecca. That is far from being the case. Time controls differ between the leagues, and even in the same league could differ from one round to the next, and in a match there could even be different time controls for different boards. Very strange. And time controls are short. Since I am an older player (I guess I am in the oldest 1% percentile of our club), I need more time to think, or so I believe. That has a few consequences. Compared to standard tournament play, having 15-30 minutes less in a league game is like an eternity for me. Fortunately, the average age of the league player seems to be higher than in a tournament. One in seven league games I played against people older than me, with a score of 12/14. So it seems they struggle even more, and it indicates that the average age of other clubs is higher than ours. For the statistics, I played only one in every seventeen league games against a junior. And I only played twice against female players, but fortunately there is now a women’s division in the London League, congratulations! Also there is the odd game where the home team still uses analogue clocks. Not that I mind the nostalgic ticking sound, but playing without increments is like triggering a time bomb for me. Since I don’t play lotteries, I herewith give notice to captains that I am no longer available for these fistfights.

Also in other ways, league chess seems to be more challenging than tournament chess. You only learn just before the game whether you play White or Black. You cannot prepare against your specific opponent. And your typical opponent can be 200 points lower rated, or 200 points higher. So, your success rate mainly depends on the strength of the opponents you get. In Swiss style tournaments this levels out around your own strength, but in league chess it depends on the relative strength of your own team. With Hammersmith being more often on the strong side, my average opponent was 100 points lower rated, so my 60% success rate does not look good anymore. Nothing to be proud of, my win ratio should have been higher, I did not beat the statistics. Not even in my best period of the unfinished season 2019/20, when I scored 7.5/8 in the London League, the one draw conceded against GM John Emms (oh yes, about that I am proud). Anyway, no time to celebrate then, because the pandemic stopped all further OTB play for some time. But it has returned more energetic, and the London League with more divisions looks more anarchic than ever, but its home is now at our MindSports Centre. I love it.

As my first one, my 100th league game was in the Thames Valley League. This time I had Black, and I won, and with it saved a match point for Hammersmith. And now I dare to look back at my first game where I missed the draw, and I am relieved to state that no human being would have found the solution, or would you? The idea may be easy to spot but the move order and the very precise follow-up moves are crucial. This is a challenging calculation and visualisation teaser. White to play and draw.

Christof Brixel – Jack Sheard, Thames Valley League, 01/04/2019

Just ignore Black’s queenside march, White cannot stop the pawn promoting. White has to establish a “perpetual net” around Black’s king. The starting critical move order is Nf6 and Rh5, followed by Bh4.

The engine line goes: 1.Nf6! Rb2+ (a3 2.Rh5 a2 3.f5+ finally draws in a different, dramatic long sequence which is not shown here) 2.Ke3 d4+ (the best try) 3.Kf3! a3 4.Rh5! Ne7 and there are two choices, a more human one and the engine suggestion.

Human continuation

5.Rg5+ looks the only way forward, but the follow-up requires precise calculation: Kh6 6.Rh5+ Kg7 7.Bh4! (difficult to find) Ng6 8.f5 Bd5+ 9.Nxd5 Nxh4+ 10.Rxh4 exd5 11.c6 (now obvious) a2 12.Rh1! Rb1 13.f6+! Kg6 14.c7 a1Q 15.c8Q and now it is Black who gets a perpetual

Silican continuation

5.c6 is the engine suggestion, an intermediate move the reason of which becomes obvious in below lines: a2 6.Bh4! and now

a) Be2+ 7.Ke4! Rb8 8.c7 Rc8 9.Rg5+ Kh6 10.Rh5+ Kg7 10.Rh7+ Kg6 (Kf8 11.Nd7+ =) 11.Bg5! Nf5 (a last trick) 12.gxf5+ exf5+ 13.Kd5! (13.Kxd4 loses) Bf3+ 14.Kd6 =
b) Bd5+ 7.Nxd5 Nxd5 8.Rg5+ Kh7 9.Rh5+ Kg7 10.c7! (therefore 5.c6) Nxc7 11.Bf6+ Kg6 12. Rg5+ =
c) a1Q 7.f5+ exf5 8.gxf5+ Nxf5 9.Rg5+ Kh6 10.Rh5+ Kg7 11.Rg5+! = and now not Kf8 12.Rg8+ Ke7 13.Re8#

Christof Brixel

3 thoughts on “100 league games for Hammersmith Chess Club”

  1. Very enjoyable read, Christof – thanks. Particularly fond of the ‘anarchy’ characterisation 🙂 YNWA – true Hammer!!

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