England Calling

The charming city of Dresden

For nine days in late October and early November Dresden hosted the European Senior Team Championships. England entered six teams across the 50+ and 65+ categories. Given my youthful looks I was only eligible for the former.

There is as such no chess competency test for playing for your country in such a competition, although I think you’d want to be at least a medium strength club player to have some prospect of winning the odd game. If more English players were interested, then more teams could be entered.

My strength fell somewhat in the middle of a pool of non-professional players allocated to England 2 and England 3. I ended up playing top board for England 3 in what the ratings suggested was not a team expected to do very well at all (seeded around 24th from 35 teams).

The spectacular tournament venue

There is a change in organisation underway in English seniors’ chess. Increased sponsorship has enabled more competitive first teams to be entered. Perhaps more importantly, if a little less visible, a greater use of spreadsheet technology has enabled the smooth and accurate planning of teams, travel plans and t-shirt sizes across the England team. Such technology is readily scalable should playing interest increase as hopefully it will.

England 3 (L to R Phil, Peter, Brian and Ray) model the white t-shirt

Choosing your t-shirt size is always a bit of a leap of faith. Perhaps naively I had selected small, and it soon became apparent that other more experienced players had made more prudent choices. My pre-tournament preparation therefore needed to focus on physical exercise with the hope of squeezing into the team kit. I also forensically studied “100 Endings you must know” although that didn’t prove in any way useful as it happens.

After a couple of days of venting freely about the usual rating gripes (especially under-rated juniors) and using loose language (like grades rather than ratings) I realised that the Brian Valentine who was our England 3 captain was also the Brian Valentine who was in charge of ratings for England. November 1st for him brought a raft of ratings emails. I decided not to tell him that my new grade (sorry rating) was wrong.

As a 65+ player he may have been made our 50+ captain to instil some discipline amongst us relative youngsters. He might also have thought he could take on a Mike Brearley role (a cricketer before you start looking up his grade) where captaining would be more important than playing. The rest of the team disavowed him of any such possible notion pretty early on and he was soon able to demonstrate that even ratings officers can threaten a back rank mate or two.

One of the nice features of playing in the England squad was the mixing across teams over breakfast. Ray in our team was able to ask GM John Emms to sign a copy of his book on the Sicilian. I was able to explain to IM Nigel Povah how much I’d enjoyed his first book on the English. He was perhaps less pleased when I pointed out that I’d given it away as a lockdown prize during the pandemic. GM Glenn Flear gave an entertaining account of his barely successful return to France after the March 2020 Prague world senior team tournament ended.

A highlight of the breakfast buffet was the automated butter dispenser

In round 1 our England 3 team was somewhat outclassed by Austria, well at least that was how it felt to me. Our next chance to beat another national team came the very next round when we faced the slightly smaller country of Liechtenstein. I was all set to play their top master, apparently also a Fide bigwig. He was less keen and didn’t actually arrive at the tournament until a few days after the start. Still, I have some devious opening preparation ready for him as and when he’s up for a game. That default win helped propel us to our first victory.

Iclicki – Crocker was a more than impressive Stockfish first line all the way to the default!

England 3 were never more dangerous than when attacking the king. My most enjoyable if less than completely accurate attempt was against the top Graz FM below.

How can White to play sacrifice a knight for 2 pawns to open up the kingside and suffocate the black pieces? Sadly, he didn’t take the knight and later got a little counterplay before succumbing in the end.

Our team also demonstrated some tactical alertness which always comes in handy against senior opposition. Next up Peter seems to have tangled up his white pieces but has a way to win the day.

White’s pieces are all en prise. 52 Rg5 should draw but is there a way to actually win the game*?

Our team results improved steadily towards the end of the tournament. One of the highlights was beating Ireland. Peter and I managed to hold draws on the top boards before Brian crashed through in his game starting below with establishing an “octopus” on d6.

13. f4 exf4 14. Bxf4 Qd8 15. Nd6 gave Brian a dominating position which he soon won.

The final round saw England 1 (already confirmed as tournament winners) play England 2 on table 1. We played on table 3 against second seeds Berlin. With a 1950 or so average rating we faced a GM and three IMs. It started relatively promisingly. My opponent GM Rabiega, the highest rated player in the 50+ section, somehow confused himself in the opening and ended up at best equal as white after 15 or so moves. I decided to simplify to a roughly level ending.

The 101st Ending You Must Know. Black to play and avoid doing anything stupid for a couple of hours. It was frustratingly beyond my capabilities in the final round.

It’s one thing to reach a level ending and an entirely other thing to actually draw it. My opponent created the odd half-threat and eventually I managed to find a way to self-destruct. Such is the way the game goes.

Meanwhile on board 4 it looked like the Berlin IM was being crushed by Ray rated 1791. This seemed to fluster the Berlin team a touch, particularly when he quickly bashed out the following sacrifice. An auto sac for an English club player maybe, but perhaps German chess is a little more positional…

How can White sac a second piece to open up the black king even more? Clue: f6 and h6 look a little loose**.

Unfortunately, Ray later failed to find a way to close out the game, but a draw was still a very fine result and helped avoid the team being whitewashed.

Despite losing in the final round England 3 still won the prize for the team performing best against expectations (12th against a seeding of 24th). That earned us each a certificate and a rose each. Oddly, given the violent chess some of us had played, they also threw in some DVDs on attacking the king.

England 3 with certificates and flowers

With a single game a day there was time to explore the city a little and to have the odd beer or two. With the advantage of O level German and a few months long ago working in Germany, it largely fell on me to make the beer order for our team. Not a duty to be taken lightly given the keenness to give us pils rather than our preferred wheat beer. At one riverside bar we even had to negotiate whether we wanted to pay a couple of euros for outside heating. This was a small example of the energy crisis with another one being that all public fountains had been switched off.

Waiting for beers and just before we switched the heating off

A nine round tournament is also about physical and mental stamina. Top GMs like England 1 have their own routines to stay match fit. Some of the amateurs went for a morning walk to stay active.

Artwork on the walking route. A dog, wolf or even penguin (from a different angle) we were never quite sure?

Often what is most memorable about such a trip is the things that don’t quite go to plan. Flying home was one such experience for me and a few other players. My experience (somewhat abridged) went something like this: 1) 2.25 am email from Lufthansa asking me if I’d like to check my hand baggage in the hold because the return flight will be quite full; 2) 10.45 am travel by taxi to the airport along with Mark Hebden and Natasha Regan aiming to be there in good time to avoid mishaps in getting to Frankfurt and then on to our various English destinations of London, Birmingham and Manchester; 3) 11.15 am arrive at Dresden airport and begin a tour of its main attractions; 4) 11.17am complete the tour noting little of interest; 5) 11.24am text message from Lufthansa explaining the flight to Frankfurt is cancelled (no reason given); 6) 11.35am text message with rebooking details. A much later flight to Munich for Natasha and Mark arriving later in the day in the UK. An even later flight to Frankfurt for me with an onward flight to Manchester the next day. 7) 11.55am Fruitless attempts to negotiate a return to the UK on the same day for me with a generous offer to stay at Mark’s house if I could get onto his Birmingham flight. An even more generous offer of a cup of tea if I could persuade my wife to drive to Birmingham around midnight and drop him off at home on the way back to Chester; 8) 12.05pm tot up our collective free meal vouchers for the delay and fantasise on the sort of meals which might be available.

Game Changer co-author WIM Natasha Regan is a big fan of Dresden airport. Her talk at the Chester club promised an AI revolution which doesn’t yet seem to have reached airport scheduling systems.

9) 12.20pm Realise that the meal vouchers can only be spent beyond the hand baggage security check but that this is shut because the flight is cancelled; 10) 1pm Somehow get the security checks opened up so that we can reach the range of restaurants expected on the other side; 11) 1.01pm Establish that the only thing on the other side is a duty free shop but that the meal vouchers can’t be spent on wine or beer and can only be spent on crisps, a rubbery sandwich or lettered Russian biscuits; 12) 1.15pm Invest our funds in Russian lettered biscuits which enables us to play a version of Scrabble; 13) 2pm – 7pm Free time to explore the tiny airport further. One plane and a racy collection of nude statues noted (photo withheld by censors); 14) 7pm Meet Irish IM Mark Orr (who lives in Scotland) on the next seat on the plane to Frankfurt; 15) 10pm dinner at Frankfurt airport with Mark, no doubt boring him with details of Scottish players I once played; 16) 4am breakfast at Frankfurt airport (sadly no automated butter dispenser there); 17) 8.30am arrive in Manchester etc.

It’s a little-known fact*** that Franz Kafka wrote his famous stories of bureaucratic absurdity after being trapped in Dresden airport for a few days after his flight to Prague was cancelled.

The pleasant Maritim hotel next to the venue where most of the players stayed

Notwithstanding the travel hiccup returning from Dresden, the trip was very enjoyable. I’d definitely recommend the experience to senior players considering playing. A big thanks to Nigel Povah for the efficient organisation. Also, thanks to my England 3 teammates who showed that ratings are just numbers and that apparent no-hopers like us can sometimes do really quite well.

*52 Bxf6! and the knight is trapped if it captures the rook on h5


***Not strictly in the sense of true. More in the sense of fake news.

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