Chess players on ice

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

We are what we do. Alas, in its zeal to suppress the virus, this government would have many people doing not very much. Since March, many musicians, actors, sportspeople and more have had precious few opportunities to perform. In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that the hundreds of live performances played by the Beatles in Hamburg 1960-1962 were a key ingredient in their later success. If he is right, 2020 marks a daunting setback for countless aspiring artists. Government handouts can mitigate the long-term damage to their careers, but they cannot possibly make them whole.

Chess is in the same boat: it’s a communal activity where performance and practice are central. This is particularly true for developing players, for whom over-the-board play is where the rubber meets the road. Poring over a game of classical chess for hours feels intimate and meaningful. Losing hurts: the experience itself is the teacher, as when you fall off a bicycle. Ambitious players in their teens might look to play dozens of slow games of competitive chess in a year. In 2020, that looks impossible, at least in the UK. It is true that there are more opportunities to play online than ever before. But online games tend to be played at fast time limits, and the players usually have less invested in the game. It’s like weightlifting a bag of rice.

Sadly, over-the-board events, in the UK at least, have almost vanished. The British Chess Championships didn’t happen in Torquay in July. In December, neither the London Chess Classic nor the Hastings International Congress will take place. The Gibraltar festival in January 2021 is cancelled too. The 4NCL remains on hiatus. Last month, the 56th Northumberland Congress was another casualty of lockdown in the north-east. A sad report, but what could be expected, when the rules change from week to week? A recent announcement from the English Chess Federation concluded that ‘the new measures [including the rule of six] are going to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for chess clubs, leagues, congresses and other bodies to organise over the board chess events…’. One significant factor is that ‘Chess is not recognised as a sport by Sport England, and so it falls within the definition of “social gatherings” rather than within HM government’s “Return to recreational team sport framework”.’

One heartening outlet of activity was the European Online Youth Chess Championships, held last month. This was a ‘hybrid’ event, in that most of the English squad played on laptops from a hotel in Kenilworth. Even with social distancing, the shared venue bolstered a sense of community, and by the standards of online chess, the time limit was relatively sedate: 25 minutes + 5 seconds per move. Here is a splendid miniature won by England’s Nishchal Thatte.

Farid Orujov (Azerbaijan)-Nishchal Thatte (England)
European Online Youth Championship U12

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 The Winawer variation of the French defence. 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 cxd4 8 cxd4 This natural capture is unusual. Instead 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 Qc7 leads to the ultra-sharp ‘poisoned-pawn’ variation. 8…Qc7 9 Bd2 Qxc2 10 Qxg7 Rg8 11 Qh6 Nbc6 12 Nf3 Qb2 13 Rc1 Nxd4 14 Nxd4 Qxd4 15 Bb5+ 15 Qe3 was better, hoping to defend the endgame a pawn down. Bd7 16 Bxd7+ Kxd7 In the French defence, Black’s king is often surprisingly comfortable on d7. 17 O-O Walking into a devastating combination — see diagram. Rxg2+! 18 Kxg2 18 Kh1 Rxf2 is equally hopeless. Qg4+ 19 Kh1 Qf3+ 20 Kg1 Rg8+ 21 Bg5 Qg4+ 22 Kh1 Rxg5 23 Rg1 Qf3+ White resigns

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