The 4NCL, or Four Nations Chess League, is the Premier League for chess in the British Isles. The season was cut short by Covid-19 and after a hiatus the management team at 4NCL announced that they would be running an online chess league. The format would be slow play chess of 45 minutes per player with 15-second increments per move. This innovative approach faced two formidable principles – that online chess was only for blitz games and that cheating was impossible to stop for slow play games. Nevertheless, there were plenty of entries comprising four divisions of 32 teams ordered by rating.
ChessPlus entered two teams: ChessPlus Alpha (First Division) and ChessPlus Beta (Second Division). Each team comprised people who were involved in some way with chess and education whether as trainers, coaches or organisers. It was a way to bring colleagues together to play chess competitively – something which is rare for us nowadays. Each match comprises four boards. Captains like to have at least another four people in the squad to ensure that there are enough for each match and to allow team rotation.
The core of the Alpha team was Swedish and the core of the Beta team was Latvian adding a Scando-Baltic flavour to the league and reflecting the international scale of what we do in chess training and education. Leonard Barden in the Guardian noted that ChessPlus was a new name in team chess. Gawain Jones described the Alpha team as a strong Swedish squad. However, the teams were captained from London and several others from the UK played during the campaign. We were proud that the top board for each team was a woman: Pia Cramling (Sweden) for ChessPlus Alpha and Viktorija Ni (Latvia/USA) for ChessPlus Beta.
In the First Division, ChessPlus Alpha were the No.1 seed and faced tough opposition all the way. We were lying second in our group with three rounds to play against the other top seeds. We faltered at the end against Wood Green and Chessable White Rose 1 led by Gawain Jones who eventually went on the win the First Division title.
Meanwhile ChessPlus Beta came second in their group behind Wood Green Youth thus qualifying for the Division 2 playoffs. Each match looked unpromising: we were outrated in the QuarterFinals, the SemiFinal and the Final. Furthermore, we had the disadvantage of Black on odd boards compounded by a “lowest board count” tie-break and the dreaded “ignore the last board” decider. Nonetheless, the team played superbly and won the Second Division title.
We thank the organisers especially Mike Truran, Alex Holoczak, Dave Thomas and Matthew Carr for their sterling efforts in putting this unique event together.
FM Martin Jogstad (ChessPlus Alpha) is a recent Swedish junior champion who is considering taking up chess seriously. His uncompromising play obtained five wins in the first seven rounds. Here we see him as Black making a spectacular queen sacrifice and concluding with checkmate against seasoned club player Andrew Stone (Watford)
The game Rhys Cumming (Sussex Social Isolators) v GM Pia Cramling (ChessPlus Alpha) saw White unwisely sacrifice a queenside pawn and the exchange for nugatory compensation. Pia hoovered up the material and glided to a win.
IM Etienne Mensch (ChessPlus Alpha) from the Bischwiller Chess Club in Strasbourg played an uncompromising attack as white against Roy Ali (Alba). His win secured the match draw against the Scottish team.
Guildford created a team “Young Guns” to showpiece a strong brigade of talented young players including Matthew Wadsworth and Harry Grieve who played together for Cambridge University in the latest Varsity Match. This plan worked because the Young Guns eventually came second overall in the First Division losing out to Chessable White Rose 1 in the playoff Final. During the league stage, ChessPlus Alpha were not daunted. IM Jesper Hall (ChessPlus Alpha) as white crushed the newly-minted IM Matthew Wadsworth (Guildford Young Guns), a rising star in English chess on Board 2. White’s 15th move was particularly devastating.
Meanwhile on board 3 Harry Grieve (Guildford Young Guns) was white against Stefan Loeffler (ChessPlus Alpha) who navigated to a pet variation of the Alekhine’s Defence. Following theory, White gave up the exchange for greater space and development and obtained a strong positional advantage. However, Black found ways to swap pieces and gradually gained the upper hand.
FM Alexis Harakis (ChessPlus Alpha) was torn between playing chess or poker on Tuesday nights. His abundance of technique was evident as white against Colm Buckley (Spirit of Atticus). In a Nimzo-Indian three knights, White gradually built up the pressure and won a pawn which was slowly converted into a winning endgame.
Philippe Vukojevic (ChessPlus Beta) took 4.5 points from his 5 games in the league to give him the best percentage within the squad. Philippe, the editor of the First Rank newsletter, has an enviable knowledge of the openings. This game from round 6 against Nigel Moyse (Schach Attack) shows him following opening theory to make queen sacrifice in the Pirc Defence.
One of the nice things about the team was that everybody got a chance to play. It was more important for us to treat the event as recreational rather than competitive. The curious aspect of this approach is that it engendered a strong team spirit which resulted in some fine performances. Bob Harnett (ChessPlus Beta) is a very occasional player nowadays but is always up for a challenge. On Board 3 he was white against Tim McMahon (Higgie’s Heroes). Black’s Dragon soon had Bob under pressure on the queen’s side and he had to relinquish a pawn. The observers on Zoom were feeling glum. However, Bob decided to risk a further pawn loss to disguise a cheapo forking the advanced white knight. Lo and behold Black fell for it and White finished off the game in style.
ChessPlus Beta played away to Liverpool who outrated us by an average of 126 Elo points. Dominic Foord for Liverpool, white on board 1, offered a lovely queen sacrifice and won against Viktorija Ni in an Old Benoni, making our task seem even more out of reach. Meanwhile on board 3, Rashid Mohammed Amin Ali (Liverpool) as white had a clear positional advantage against John Foley (ChessPlus Beta captain) from a Caro Kann. However, White let his guard down (it is harder to focus when you are ahead) the black knight grabbed the d4 pawn destroying white’s centre after which the rook ending was straightforward for a vital win for ChessPlus.
In the Semi Final, we faced the Alpha nemesis, Chessable White Rose, whose first team had beaten our first team and effectively stopped us from reaching the First Division playoffs. We were determined to do well.
On top board, WIM Viktorija Ni (ChessPlus Beta) defeated the South African champion FM Daniel Barrish (Chessable White Rose 2) in a splendid and finely judged attacking game. Switching from the Benoni, Viktorija essayed the Kings Indian Defence and reprised an aggressive set-up played by Gary Kasparov.
On board 2, Boris Bruhn (ChessPlus Alpha), the President of the German Schools Chess Foundation, faced WFM Maaike Keetman (Chessable White Rose 2). Boris showed real class in the few games he played. In this game, Boris creates a tripled pawns weakness and is careful to keep the pawns locked to split the position into two preventing Blacks’ king from defending the threats from both sides.
On board 4, we had our surprise (even to us) secret weapon Elhans Imanov (ChessPlus Beta) who faced Alexandra Busuioc (Chessable White Rose 2), former U-16 champion of Austria. Stuck in London during the lockdown, the petroleum engineer decided to take up chess again and was on a run of 4.5 points out of 5 coming into the match. As White in the Sicilian, he obtained a distinct positional advantage especially when Black allowed the white bishop to take up residence on d6. (The game followed Francisco Vallejo Pons (2315) v Hernandez L. WCh U12, Szeged, 1994 for 10 moves.) Black tried to break free with 14..b4 after which she wandered off course in the tactical fireworks and lost a piece.
The Final was Wood Green Youth v ChessPlus Beta. Although seriously outgraded, the match ended in a draw with a surprising postscript. The teams had met previously in Round 5 of the League Stage also resulting in a draw. The most notable difference between the two encounters is that the clearly misdescribed Wood Green Youth had drafted in a couple of 2300+ players. Their average Elo rating had risen from 2048 in Round 5 to 2290 in the Final: amounting to an average of 290 per player. Their board 1 in Round 5 became their bottom board in the Final.
Viktorija Ni’s last four games were with black and, having adjusted to the new normal, for the first time in her life was now enjoying playing black. She was better prepared than her opponent in the Final when she accepted an isolated queen’s pawn in the Sicilian. The young Irish IM David Fitzsimons (Chessable White Rose 2) played inaccurately on move 15 and, in trying the retrieve the situation, blundered on move 18.
The other hero of the Second Division Final was Yuri Agafonov (ChessPlus Alpha) who was white against FM Michael de Verdier (Chessable White Rose 2), a sometime commentator on the Swedish Chess Championships. In a wild game, white and black are attacking each other on the same side.
ChessPlus Beta took the Division 2 title on account of the tie-break criterion being “lower board count”. This victory only became apparent when the Manager received messages of congratulations from well-wishers. Puzzled, there was a hasty re-reading of the byzantine regulations. Some team members had already poured their cocoa in preparation for a sleepless night of “what might have been”. We waited for official confirmation the next day. It was a rare delight to be contacted to be told you’ve won the league. It felt like winning the lottery – but without the money.
The Alpha Team
- Evgeny Agrest (Sweden)
- Jesper Hall (Sweden)
- Pia Cramling (Sweden)
- Stefan Loeffler (Germany)
- Martin Jogstad (Sweden)
- Etienne Mensch (France)
- Alexis Harakis (UK)
- Rita Atkins (UK)
The Beta Team
- Viktorija Ni (USA/Latvia)
- Yuri Agafonov (Latvia)
- Boris Bruhn (Germany)
- Pep Suarez (Spain)
- Philip Vukojevic (Belgium)
- John Foley (UK)
- Bob Harnett (UK)
- Elhan Imanov (Latvia)
- Bob Kane (UK)
- Viktor Ferrari (Belgium)
- Anders Eriksson (Sweden)