Although the London Commercial League has finally turned over its king and stopped the clock, the London League itself is still going strong, just has it has been since the 1888-89 season.
There are currently four open divisions (top three played over 10 boards – top division reduced from 12 a year ago, Division 4 over 8 boards) plus two grade restricted divisions (4 boards each).
For the last 16 years, the league champions have been Wood Green, a team ostensibly representing a rather nondescript North London suburb. In fact the team has little or nothing to do with Wood Green, except by historical accident. The team is heavily sponsored and most of the players, including the likes of Luke McShane and Jon Speelman, are paid to take part. This season, as usual, they won all their matches, by an average score of 9-1. Members of other clubs have mixed feelings about this: some consider it unfair, and that the league loses some of its interest because everyone knows in advance who the winners will be. Others, though, are pleased to get the chance of taking on a famous grandmaster once a season.
I’m pleased to report that this season, my club, Richmond & Twickenham, finished second. I hasten to add that this is nothing at all to do with me: the last time I played in the London League was in the 2000-01 season. Instead credit is due to our captain Gavin Wall for his ability to recruit strong players and inspire them to play their best. After the 1963-64 US Championship, in which Fischer famously scored 100%, Hans Kmoch congratulated Bobby on winning the exhibition, and Larry Evans, who finished, second, on winning the tournament. Wood Green win the exhibition every year, and, at least as far as we’re concerned, this year Richmond won the league. We don’t get our name on the trophy, though.
We have actually won the league twice in our history: in 1975-76 and 1987-88. Recently, some of our longer serving members, who joined the club 40 years or so ago, were reminiscing about who might have played in those teams. As it happens, I was club secretary for a few years in the mid 70s and kept detailed records of our results, which I still have. So I tabulated the results, posted them on Facebook, and also sent them to my clubmates. If you remove Wood Green from the equation, the teams were roughly comparable in strength to those 42 years on. The average age, though, was a lot lower.
Our squad was headed by Michael Stean, team captain Andrew Law and future IM David Goodman, with former international Michael Franklin a board or two below them, and other young players such as Jon Benjamin, Peter Sowray and Julian Hodgson on the lower boards. I was already a Richmond veteran at that point, in my tenth season with the club. No one else who represented Richmond that season still plays for us, although several current members joined the club shortly afterwards. Peter Sowray, who is still involved with junior chess in the Richmond area, remarked that he didn’t remember his game from the match against Athenaeum, but he still remembered Jon Benjamin’s win against Tim Harding. As it happened, Jon annotated the game for RAT, the club magazine, which I was editing at the time, so it was interesting to compare his notes with what his team mate Michael Stean would, the following year, refer to as the ‘bloody iron monster’. Today’s engines, of course, are far more monstrous than when Michael made that remark.
1. e4 d6
2. d4 g6
3. f4 Bg7
4. Nc3 Nf6
5. Nf3 O-O
6. Bd3 Nbd7
This was first played in a game between Cochrane and Bannerjee (whom I wrote about a few months ago) in 1850. By the time of this game it was generally considered inferior to what was then the main line, Nc6. More recently, 6.. Na6 has become popular.
The strongest reply, played by Max Weiss against Louis Paulsen in 1883.
Going for a crude attack. Ne4 is the main line here, while Ng5 and Qe2 are also strong.
9. e6 fxe6
10. h5 cxd4
The three games on my database reaching this position all continued 11. Ne4 with White scoring 100%. The engines are happy to play black, but of course it’s not so easy for humans to defend this type of position. Jon prefers a typically creative piece sacrifice.
This was Jon’s brilliant idea, preventing Qa5 when the black queen defends along her 4th rank. Neither this nor Tim’s reply impress the engines, which think Black’s winning after h6, hxg6 followed by Rf6, or the immediate Rf6 among other moves.
My computer tells me Jon should have preferred 13. gxh7+ Kh8 14. Nh4 Rf6 15. Qh5, when Tim should sacrifice a knight and both rooks for a perpetual: 15.. Nf8 16. Qxe8 e5 17. Ng6+ Rxg6 18. Bxg6 Bh3 19. Qxa8 Bxg2 20. Rf1 Bxf1 21. Kxf1 Qc6.
14. g4 Nf8
Instead, 14…hxg6 15.g5 Rf7 16.Bxg6 Nf8 17.Bxf7+ Kxf7 and White has nothing to show for his material deficit.
15. gxh7+ Kh8
16. g5 Rf7
17. g6 Rf6
18. Ng5 Bd7
19. Be3 Qxb4
20. Rg1 Nc7
The losing move, overlooking White’s threat. He had to play 20.. e5 21. Nf7+ Rxf7 22. gxf7 Nf6, with, apparently, a slight edge for Black.
21. Nf7+ Rxf7
22. gxf7 e5
23. Rxg7 Ng6
Falling on the sword, but after 23.. Kxg7 humans play Qg2+ and promote on h8, while computers play Qh5, announcing mate in 9.
24. Rg8+ 1-0
Athenaeum’s team was headed by the legendary Bob Wade, with Correspondence GM Keith Richardson on board 2. Several of their other players were involved with Bob in writing projects. Tim Harding himself is now a respected chess historian: I’ve just bought his most recent book, to which I might refer in a future post. Hilary Thomas, on board 10, wrote some books on Tal, edited a short-lived magazine – and then changed his name to Richard Pentreath. I won’t provide a link. Jon Benjamin sadly died in 2000 at the age of only 41. A highly creative and imaginative player, who played for the sheer enjoyment of the game rather than to reach the heights his talents deserved, he is still much missed by his many chess playing friends.
Editor’s Note: Richard has had a number of books on chess published that can be found at Amazon: