I was saddened the other day to receive an email informing me that one of my regular Thames Valley League opponents, Stephen MacDonald-Ross, had died at the age of 70.
Stephen was the younger brother of the better-known (but, in recent years, much less active) Michael MacDonald-Ross. Like many chess players, he came across as very quiet, but was always a pleasant and friendly opponent. He was usually graded a few points below me, but my impression, judging from our games, was that he was much stronger than his grade. His openings were well prepared and he seemed to excel at positional and endgame play, but was hampered by a tendency to mishandle the clock and run short of time.
I was never able to beat him in five encounters, managing only three draws.
The first time we met was in a London weekend congress in 1974. I had White and the game was a fairly short draw. It was not until 1992 that we met again, in a London League match between Richmond and Wimbledon.
Our remaining four games were all in league matches and in each case Stephen was white. We met three times in the 1990s, the first occasion being a 1992 London League match between Richmond and Wimbledon.
1. d4 g6 2. c4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. e4 e5 5. Be3 Nc6 6. Nge2 exd4 7. Nxd4 Nge7 8. Be2 O-O 9. O-O f5 10. Qd2 Nxd4 11. Bxd4 Nc6 12. Bxg7 Kxg7 13. f4 fxe4 14. Nxe4 Bf5 15. Qc3+ Kg8 16. Bf3 Qe7 17. Ng5 Qf6 18. Qxf6 Rxf6 19. Rae1 h6 20. Ne4 Rff8 21. Nc3 Bd3 (I have to be careful here as my position is slightly loose. This is not good, giving White time to double rooks on the e-file. 21… a6, to prevent a possible Nb5, should have been preferred.) 22. Bd5+ Kg7 23. Rf3 Bf5 24. Rfe3 Nd4 (A blunder, probably in time trouble, losing at once.) 25. Re7+ Kf6 26. Rxc7 Rac8 27. Rxb7 a5 28. g4 Bd3 29. Ne4+ Bxe4 30. Rxe4 Nf3+ 31. Kf2 1-0
It’s not very often that I get outplayed positionally but that’s what happened in our next game, from a 1995 Thames Valley League match between Wimbledon A and Richmond Juniors A.
1. d4 f5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 e6 4. Nf3 d5 5. O-O c6 6. c4 Bd6 7. b3 Qe7 8. Bb2 O-O 9. Qc1 Bd7 10. Ba3 Be8 11. Bxd6 Qxd6 12. Nbd2 Nbd7 13. Qb2 Bh5 14. Rfe1 Ne4 15. Rad1 h6 16. Ne5 Nxe5 17. dxe5 Qc5 18. Nxe4 fxe4 19. Qd4 Qxd4 20. Rxd4 Rf5 (Black should be fine here despite the typical Stonewall bad bishop because of the potential weakness of the e5 pawn. The right way to go here is 20… g5, to prevent, rather than encourage, White’s reply. My move is not very intelligent, just provoking White into playing good moves. Now Stephen outplays me in impressive style.) 21. f4 exf3 22. exf3 Rff8 23. Bh3 Rae8 24. cxd5 cxd5 25. f4 Bf3 26. Ra4 a6 27. Rb4 Re7 28. Rb6 Rfe8 29. Kf2 Be4 30. Ke3 Kf7 31. Rc1 g5 32. fxg5 hxg5 33. Bg4 Rh8 34. h3 Bf5 35. Rf1 d4+ 36. Kd2 Ke8 37. Bxf5 exf5 38. Rxf5 Rxh3 39. Rxg5 Rh2+ 40. Kd3 Rxa2 41. e6 Kd8 42. Rc5 Rc7 43. Rd6+ Ke7 44. Rxc7+ Kxd6 45. e7 1-0
Looking at these two games now, it’s clear that I lost them both by making a threat (21… Bd3, 20… Rf5) which was met with a gain of tempo when I should have preferred a defensive move instead. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt there.
We met again in another Wimbledon A v Richmond Juniors A match in 1998. Again it was a Dutch Stonewall, but this time I chose a different plan, delaying castling. After mutual inaccuracies in what was probably mutual time trouble I missed a winning tactic.
1. d4 e6 2. c4 f5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 d5 5. Nf3 c6 6. O-O Bd6 7. b3 Qe7 8. Bb2 b6 9. Qc1 Bb7 10. Ba3 Bxa3 11. Nxa3 Nbd7 12. Qb2 O-O 13. b4 Rab8 14. cxd5 exd5 15. Rfe1 a5 16. b5 c5 17. dxc5 bxc5 18. Nc2 a4 19. Qa3 Nb6 20. Ne3 g6 21. Nd4 Rfe8 22. Nc6 Bxc6 23. bxc6 Rbc8 24. Rac1 Rxc6 25. Nc4 Nxc4 26. Rxc4 Re6 27. Rc2 Qa7 28. e3 c4 29. Rd1 Re5 (Missing my chance as the time control at move 30 approaches: 29… Rxe3 is winning.) 30. Qd6 Qe7 31. Bxd5+ Nxd5 32. Rxd5 Qxd6 1/2-1/2 (White now stands better in this double rook ending. I don’t remember whether we agreed a draw here or whether the position went for adjudication. Unlike our previous game, neither of us wanted to play on.
Our last encounter was in 2013, in a match between Richmond B and Wimbledon B. Like our first game, it was a short draw.
Although never a demonstrative presence at matches, Stephen will be much missed in London chess circles, most of all by his friends and colleagues at Wimbledon Chess Club, to whom I extend my sympathy.