Battling Old Men in Torquay

Torquay Harbour

Well, not literally of course. No hand to hand combat in the Over 50s British Championships; we settle everything over the board. And those of you who think I’m being sexist or am not up to speed with pronoun fashions should first appreciate that there were no old women in Torquay, at least not in my Over 50s section. Perhaps a prize and/or title could be introduced given affirmative action is all the rage for younger women!?

My plans to duff up some old men in Torquay began at the tender age of 49 when in September 2019 I booked my accommodation for August 2020. I would be in my physical prime for a senior and would have my best ever chance of success.

There was then the small matter of a global pandemic. My mind and body were deteriorating but at least I managed to spend 25 days and 48 minutes playing online blitz. Probably more than the average senior, but you can’t be sure. Many months and a few virus strains later there were eventually some chess events appearing. Kudos to the ECF for organizing some of these such as the British Seniors in Milton Keynes in October 2021. History is written by the victors and as I started that one with 0/2 we’ll gloss over that particular tournament. Except to say that I did show more stamina than many participants around half of whom had withdrawn by the time Paul Dargan and I duked out a meaningless rubber in the final round. With the games subject to an unusual negotiated flavour of mask policy it was clear that the environment hadn’t properly recovered yet. It was also clear that the old men were tougher than I had hoped.

Roll on the clock to August 2022 and with my hotel reservation almost three years old much of the British chess world descended on Torquay. At least those that could dodge the train strikes.

I understand that Chennai put on a grand welcome for visiting chess players. Torquay was no exception. Barely outside the train station there was a banner welcoming us seniors. Too many muddled move-orders and it seemed there was a specialist care home for chess players which had been arranged. Very thoughtful.

Assistance available if needed

Talking of care homes, a new one has just opened near our Chester club. It boasts an intergenerational nursery. Apparently such mixing creates benefits for all concerned. Be that as it may, an intergenerational experience was also the environment for us 50+ seniors for the first few days. As befits our chess experience we were allocated a quite spacious area of the main playing hall. All was fine except for the pitter patter of feet as the very youngest players raced to the toilets and back. Still it wasn’t much of a distraction and within a couple of days we were even given electronic display boards for our top games with seating for spectators. That said, the policy of expelling non-players from the playing hall at the start of each round meant that spectators weren’t especially numerous.

Talking of toilets, one of the advantages of being a senior is that no one is going to think it unusual if you totter off to the bathroom every now and again to check your move on your mobile phone. Only kidding of course arbiters, most of us can barely switch a phone on or off let alone install the latest version of Stockfish. That said, given the undoubted quality of our senior moves, you might have expected more scanning checks – trust by verification as they say.

With 8 masters (6 candidate, 1 FM and one grandmaster) at least one of whom had drawn a game against Bobby Fischer in a field of 44 it didn’t look that there was much hope of any random other player winning. But still if you run the maths (Monte Carlo simulations recommended if you really feel the need) then against such a field I don’t think that even a grandmaster can be a big favourite. John Nunn had entered and won in Llandudno a few years back but had reported that he found it tougher than expected and noticed an increased resilience in player skills over the years. To save you doing all the calculations the basic conclusion is that if you have enough 2100-rated players and enough typewriters then one of them will write the complete works of Shakespeare. Another one might even string together enough wins to challenge a grandmaster.

Our grandmaster was Paul Motwani, well known for his polished play and excellent books when I was learning the game. Despite playing hardly any games over the last couple of decades he shot to an early 3/3 although Paul Dargan had him under pressure for a while. Chester alumnus Paul Townsend was first to slow him down, managing to hold off some slight pressure in the middlegame to secure a draw. Next up was Rob Willmoth who successfully defused some early pressure to get the half point. Even when held to draws GM Motwani behaved in an impeccable and respectful manner, always offering post mortems.

I was the next of his challengers, thankfully with the benefit of the white pieces. My 1d4 was met by 1..d6, not something I’d covered in preparation. Maybe he was bluffing and wouldn’t know the Pirc? 2 e4 instantly to push for that psychological edge was followed by the deflation over the next few moves of realising that he really did know all about Pirc manoeuvres, and more to the point wasn’t going to castle into some kind of h-pawn hack attack. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. What would you play here?

White to play and shock GM Sadler

Now, I must confess to being a big fan of GM Sadler’s online commentary. The depth of insight you can get from a Leko or Svidler but he has a knack of seeing the positive intent behind the most ridiculous moves he is called to comment on. However, when he saw my next two moves he really could find nothing at all encouraging to say. It was clearly a crime against Caissa. Bh6 was the way to go rather than my Bxc5 followed by Qe3. And yet for any fans of the Silicon Road to Chess Improvement the computer doesn’t mind my approach so much. Nor did GM Motwani mind it. No doubt mindful of what befell Sorokin against Botvinnik in 1931 he didn’t rush to double my pawns. Long story short the game fizzled out to a draw on move 31.

Up on time, I accompanied 31Nd6 with a cheeky draw offer

If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

My preparation for the event had included some work on pattern recognition, well sitting in the sun whilst skim-reading the excellent books by that bloke with the odd (for us English) Dutch name van de something or other.

Torquay had an excellent selection of fish eateries

I’d also focused on physical fitness. During the event I started each day with the full English breakfast and then walked along the incredibly scenic and incredibly undulating Coast path to Babbacombe beach and back. Taking a leaf from Magnus’ Indian world championship preparations I did a practice trip to Torquay in May 2021 where I verified that the human body could endure for eight consecutive days a full English, a long walk along the coast, a fish and chip supper, a couple of pints of pale ale and a game of chess. Well OTB chess was more or less illegal at the time so I substituted a couple of hours of online blitz. A week was do-able but I’m not sure an old-style 11 round British would be within my capabilities.

The Italian Riviera has nothing on this, the turning point on my daily walk
Not too shabby scenery on the daily walking route

So going into the last round there were five of us tied for first. I’d been the lucky monkey with the typewriter so far but could I stretch that for one more game? With the five players spread over the top 3 boards it was clear that each player should play for a win regardless of colour. I faced Paul Dargan, a specialist 1e4 player. What to play? Well, I first met Paul on the train from Exeter to Plymouth for the 1989 British. He spotted me as a wannabe chess player by my perusal of John L Watson’s Play the French. He had probably forgotten that moment and in any event I had given away the book when I paused my chess career for a couple of decades. Over the years I have played a number of other disreputable openings against 1 e4: 1..Nc6, my favourite 1..Nf6, the Caro and a couple of passes with the Pirc.

My motivational coach, Rajko Vujatovic, then the current and four-times chess diving world champion and multiple London pro-biz winner, had remained safely within the M25. He texted support for the three-results potential of the Pirc. Less motivationally he did mention that Korchnoi had come a cropper playing the Pirc in some last round game in a match against Karpov a few years back.

A few months earlier in Milton Keynes Paul and I had played out a fairly insipid Bogo-Indian game. That made me forget that he is a pretty fearsome openings expert. Thirteen or so moves into a sharp line of the Byrne variation of the Pirc I was regretting having stopped my previous night’s preparation with the thought that no one would know enough to play this line. The fact that the computer was saying +1 made me less keen to memorise any more moves; why learn the best moves in a poor position? Fifteen minutes into the final round I was regretting that attitude. Around moves 20-21 Paul stopped banging out the moves and sank into thought. That was a bit of a relief as maybe I would now have a chance. It later transpired that he was just selecting from several options which he already knew were all strong!

20Kh1 and 20Qf2 are both excellent for White which Paul knew

At times like these my philosophy (no doubt unoriginal) is to try and make the most of the pieces and pawns I do have remaining. It does look like the white pawns will roll black off the board but still I had two pieces for the rook and maybe there was a way to activate them. The usual convention is to explain all our wins with skill and all our losses as bad luck. However, I would have to admit to getting a little lucky here as Paul lost his way in the many tempting options and eventually my pieces sprang devastatingly into life.

With Chris Duncan edging Paul Townsend and GM Motwani grinding out the two bishop advantage in an ending we ended up with three players tied for first. There was no tie breaker or playoff required so the title, £700 financial spoils and £200 of Chessable vouchers were to be shared. Prize-giving ceremonies seem to have gone out of fashion these days. Add in the perhaps slightly less photogenic status of your typical oldie and it was clear that there was no plan to have any formal awards. I couldn’t help thinking that an opportunity had been missed to recognise the players and promote the sponsors a bit (Hint: A picture of GM Motwani holding a cardboard Chessable voucher might be of interest to Chessable!?) and raised that thought with the nearest ECF non-exec Director WIM Natasha Regan (who visited Chester for a talk and simul a few years ago). She took the following photo of Paul and I, although by then Chris had sadly already had to start his return home.

Two thirds of the British 50+ winners

Tournaments you win (a rare experience for me!) are normally pleasurable ones. That said I think the Torquay set up was excellent even for the less successful players. For once we had a mayoress open the event with some in depth knowledge of the game and it might well be worth revisiting the venue yet again in the future.

Sadly I didn’t make any of the social events which were arranged. I’m particularly gutted about missing the walking tour, often a highlight of any competition. However, I arranged my own trip with the first stop being Paignton, home of the legendary GM Keith Arkell.

A senior moment: my attempt to capture the Paignton pier failed so here are a couple of paddle-boarders instead

I had expected to see some of those brown tourist signs pointing out where to find his residence or one of those blue plaques but sadly I failed to find any.

Next stop on the walking tour was Torre Abbey, presumably named after the earlier Carlos Torre famous for beating Lasker with a windmill attack in 1925.

25Bf6! starts the windmill
Torre Abbey but no sign of either of the famous Torre players

Once again my chess tour was thwarted. It actually seems that there were non-chess reasons for the abbey existing. After the Spanish Armada was thrashed the abbey was used to keep 397 Spanish sailors prisoner.

To keep the reader actively learning we’ll finish with a couple of simple tactics from my games. (Hint: You may want to “sacrifice” your queen for a rook).

Round 2: Black to play and win
Final round: Black to play and win it all

Very finally a picture of my only real blunder in the tournament. I’d upgraded from take-out to eating the daily fish supper on a plate with cutlery. Popping inside for some vinegar a lurking seagull spotted an opportunity…

Posh fish and chips and pale ale al fresco
My biggest blunder: don’t let these birds near your fish supper

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