Chess: Britain’s 4NCL national league has closest ever three-way finish | Chess

Britain’s 4NCL national chess league has traditionally been the preserve of one or two very strong and well financed clubs. Guildford, the record holders, went unbeaten for eight seasons with 81 wins and two draws before they abdicated their title and downsized in 2021.

The 2023-24 season ended on Monday with the closest finish in the league’s history as Wood Green, with 20/22 match points and 61 game points, edged out Manx Liberty by only half a game point and The Sharks by one game point.

Wood Green have dominated the London League unbeaten for many years before a recent loss to Hammersmith, while Manx Liberty, from the Isle of Man, are also a professional team with a nucleus of Romanians. Manx had 2600+ rated grandmasters on the top three boards, and had won the 4NCL for the last two seasons.

The Sharks, for whom GM Dan Fernandez scored an unbeaten 7/9, were the surprise. Their squad of mainly English IMs upset a weakened Manx team in an early round, then stayed in the leading group. Wood Green’s Loz Cooper and Sharks’ Ben Purton are team managers with excellent long-term records, and for both this was probably their finest achievement yet.

One individual result stood out. GM Gawain Jones of Chessable White Rose made an impressive return following the tragic death of his wife, Sue Maroroa, last year. Jones won all three of his games, starting with a rare defeat of the eight-time British champion Michael Adams in a rook and pawn ending, and concluding with the tactical coup 32…Bg2+! against Alexei Shirov.

Shirov is a legend. In 2000 the Latvian-born GM, who now represents Spain, qualified for a world title match with Garry Kasparov but was denied it due to lack of funds. His “Fire on Board” book is a classic, his style is a constant search for complications, while prior to last weekend his 4NCL total for Manx was 12 wins, no draws, and no losses.

However, in round nine he only beat the Cheshire amateur Paul Townsend by a late trap in an endgame of rook, bishop and pawn each, then had the worse of a draw against Ireland’s Conor Murphy, who has two GM norms but not yet the title, before Jones’s victory simultaneously ended Shirov’s unbeaten run and decided the league championship.

The 4NCL continues to flourish despite rising costs. Its 12-team, eight-player top division with a mandatory women’s board, gives opportunities for individual players to qualify for GM and IM norms and titles. Six players, four from England and one each from Scotland and Australia, achieved IM or WIM norms in the season just completed.

Division two is also fiercely fought, with two promotion and four relegation slots. In divisions three and four teams are reduced to six boards, and standards can vary between 2200 (master level) and 1500 (low club standard). All games are played centrally at a Midlands hotel, with four two-round weekends and a final seeded three-rounder over the early May holiday. New teams are welcome.

Magnus Carlsen, who abdicated his world title in 2023 after a 10-year reign but remains world No 1, and Gukesh Dommaraju, at 17 the youngest ever challenger for the crown, are both competing over the board at Warsaw this weekend in the Superbet Poland Rapid/Blitz, part of the St Louis-organised Grand Chess Tour. Blitz games last around 10-15 minutes.

The three-day Rapid at Warsaw from Wednesday to Friday includes, besides Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu, 18, Arjun Erigaisi, 20, and Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 19, so that the event is a test between 33-year-old Carlsen, the oldest in the tournament, and Generation Z.

After six of the nine rounds Carlsen, undefeated so far, shared the lead with China’s Wei Yi on 8/12 (Rapid points count double, Blitz single), with Gukesh on 6/12. Gukesh v Carlsen in the sixth round was eventful. It started with the rare Ulvestad Variation of the Two Knights’ Defence 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 Ng5 d5 5 exd5 b5, named after a US master who scored 1-1 against David Bronstein in the 1946 USA v USSR match in Moscow.

skip past newsletter promotion

Gukesh v Carlsen was complex but level until, in mutual time pressure, Gukesh blundered into a lost position with 27 Nf3? (27 Qe8+ is equal) and Carlsen erred in turn by 30…Kh7? (30…Bd3+ is winning). Nine moves further on, they settled for a draw by repetition.

Play in the Blitz starts at noon BST on Saturday and Sunday and can be followed on YouTube, as well as on lichess and other major chess websites.

Why the early start? Carlsen and others are also playing this weekend in the Classic, part of the Champions Tour, which includes qualifiers where all grandmasters can compete. The action there began on Wednesday on Twitch, but Carlsen is pre-qualified for the later rounds and will start his tournament on Friday at 5.30pm BST.

Carlsen has already caused a stir in online games this week. In the early Titled Tuesday, he played, as beginners do, 1 a4 and 2 Ra3 in every game (a5 and Ra6 as Black), even allowing Bf8/f1xRa3/a6. He still scored 8.5/11, and went on to win the late Titled Tuesday with 9.5/11 despite overlooking a simple mate in one (Qc2/Ng5 v Kg8) against Hikaru Nakamura in the final round.

It is perhaps the best chess documentary ever made. Stephen Fry’s account of the 1988 Olympiad, where England won silver behind USSR gold, is an evocative reminder of a departed era, and highly recommended viewing.

3919: 1 g6+! If 1..Kxg6 2 Bf5+ Kh6 3 Rh8 mate. If 1…Kh6 2 Bf5! Bxd6 (Rc2+ 3 Bxc2 only delays mate) 3 Rh8 mate. Not 1 Bf5+? g6!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *