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4NCL 2008/09: Observations on the First Division

by Jonathan Rogers

So, a new style first division has concluded, but two very familiar teams fought for first place (Guildford and a rejuvenated Wood Green, who have found some cash again). Meanwhile some very familiar teams occupied the relegation spots. Bristol, North West Eagles, and Richmond have all gone down before but only Bristol has a good track record at getting immediately repromoted, and this seems likely to be the case once more next season. The relegations confirm a trend of some years’ standing – single teams who do not have a second team in a lower division are apt to struggle, unless they have a core of GMs on the top boards (ADs, Pride and Prejudice) or a store of FMs down to about board six (Betsson, Cambridge). Unfortunately none of the relegated teams this year could bring themselves within either exception.

But aside from the new format, two freshly promoted teams, White Rose (playing in the first division for the first time since 2001/2002) and Pride and Prejudice (promoted every year since starting in division four) both injected some novelty on the boards. White Rose even finished fourth and won a place in the European Club Cup, should they wish to take it. Pride and Prejudice managed to keep everyone guessing throughout. Before the season, one asked “is Michael Adams really going to play? And shouldn’t they change their name, now that they are only going to field one or at the most two women in every match, like everyone else?". Then they fielded a good team which had an excellent first weekend, and one wondered whether Adams really would be joining the squad soon. Instead they meandered through the next several rounds, losing three consecutive matches, all of which suggested that they were happy just to have secured a place in the championship pool (largely on account of their first weekend’s showing). Then with nothing much left to play for in the last weekend, Adams appeared after all! Well, not to complain – it was great to see him play in the 4NCL again, and his presence meant that Wood Green dropped a few gamepoints against Pride and Prejudice, meaning in turn that the title race between Wood Green and Guildford 1 would go the wire after all.

That, after all, was not something that could be taken for granted. In the previous weekend, Guildford 1 had lost its first match in the 4NCL since the first weekend in 2003/4 (when it lost to betsson.com, though they still recovered to win their first title). I must say that this was the first time that they faced a real threat from their second team. In previous seasons, their derby match would always take place in the first weekend and Guildford 2 would always be comparatively very weak, before rapidly improving for the rest of the season (especially, it must be said, when playing any of Guildford 1’s potential rivals). This year, Guildford 1 played the same sort of Guildford 2 that had caused so many problem to its rivals in past years – and suffered the same fate. I think it fair to say that a number of teams took some pleasure in seeing this happen; but at the same time it was good to see Guildford 1 get back on its feet for another last round showdown.

For the fourth time in the 4NCL, then, Guildford 1 needed to beat Wood Green in the last round to win the title - but only needed to win by the minimal 4.5-3.5 score. In 2003/4 it had succeeded; but in 2004/5 and in 2005/6 it had only managed a draw. For my part, I found this the most interesting of all their battles, even though it was the weakest of the four title deciders (“weak" being very much a relative term here!). In 2005/6 we had the strongest 4NCL match of all time but only three of the sixteen players were either born or resident in the UK (Adams and McShane for Wood Green, Rowson for Guildford). As a team event, it was a bit damp. Should Krasenkow play high, to play Dreev, or low, to play Sokolov – how would any 4NCL follower be expected to answer a question like that? How would even the captains decide something like that? This year, however, no less then twelve of the sixteen players were born or are now resident in the UK, and all have played regular 4NCL in the past. (The four “foreigners" were Kurnosov for Guildford, and Cramling, Berczes and Szabo for Wood Green, though the Wood Green players had also appeared earlier this season). This meant that there would be at least four games where the contestants were both well known, and the respective managers had a lot more thinking to do than in their past super-encounters, where almost any board order could reasonably make sense.

I think that we can identify one particularly difficult decision that each captain had to make. I hasten to add there would have been seemed to be many more at the time; and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we might identify the truly difficult decisions. These are the decisions which would be similarly difficult even if the whole match were to be played again with the same teams, each expecting the other to play the same board order. Wood Green’s big difficulty, in my view, was whether to ask Stephen Gordon to hold as Black or to win with White. Guildford’s big difficulty was to decide which two GMs to select on the lower boards among King, Plaskett and Hebden, all of them from the same generation and all of comparable strength (between 2491 and 2512).

To elaborate: Wood Green’s problem was that they had to play four Blacks against Guildford’s seven grandmasters. So who should play these Blacks? Lalic always stood out as the most obvious choice (he had even made a quick draw as Black with Jim Plaskett in the crunch match of 2003/4 …). But who else? One would not want to see Baburin punt his Alekhine’s defence against high class opposition, and yet most of the Guildford team plays 1 e4. Cramling and Arakhamia-Grant are also more stylistically suited to playing White. And so it was, that Wood Green ended up giving these three players the available Whites, meaning that the other three Blacks (after Lalic) were given to their two Hungarian players Berczes and Szabo, and to Gordon. But the last decision must have been very difficult! Gordon on his day can beat anyone with White, including David Howell (see their game in the 4NCL last year). Of course he can defend too; but it is not his forte, and in the same way that one might remember his heroic defence as Black against McShane in Liverpool 2006, one might also remember him failing to hold his worse endgame as Black against Jonathan Parker in the opening weekend of this season. But what to do! One never has enough Whites to go around … so they gave Gordon the last Black, and in so doing they opted to try to hold as many top boards as possible (and to win lower down) rather than to maximize winning chances at both ends of the team.

Guildford’s difficulty was more one of selection, though colours (as always) played a part too. Their top four boards were fairly clear: Kurnosov and McShane would stay on boards on and three and play White, where they had warned up with a promising 2/2 against Barbican 1 on the Saturday. Meanwhile Pert and Howell were natural choices to play Black. (Incidentally, I wonder whether Guildford’s decision to switch the board order between Howell and Pert was motivated to avoid the risk of another Gordon v Howell game … but equally, they may have thought that with Howell on board four they might have a chance of making 1.5/2 rather than 1/2 on those boards). Ok; so that is the top four boards. I daresay that Conquest was also always going to play, though he was Guildford’s only loser in the 2003/4 match with Wood Green and generally has an indifferent record in important 4NCL matches. But then who to play on the other two boards, with three obvious candidates being King, Hebden and Plaskett ?

Two years ago this would have been a no-brainer. King played brilliantly for a number of years, and his form was the main reason why Guildford won their first title in 2003/4 – his wins were smooth and efficient, and to cap it all he beat Baburin with Black in the crunch match with Wood Green. Hebden too has continued to reel in the points, though has always done so more readily with White – players who never deviate at all from a relatively confrontational Black repertoire tend to score much more reliably with White. Plaskett, by contrast, would generally find himself in Guildford 2 in their strongest years. But much can change in two years. King had completely lost his form, his well publicized loss to Elena Winkelmann in round 7 not being his only disappointing result of late by far. Hebden has been shedding points by the bus load with Black, even starting the 2007-8 season with 4/4 with White and 0/4 with Black! – but he had also even looked unconvincing with White against Steve Barrett of White Rose on the day before this crunch match. Whilst Plaskett … well, at least he had not got worse of late, and he was looking the most dangerous among the three of them so far that weekend.

So Plaskett was chosen to play, and the other place was given to Hebden, since Guildford had Whites to give to both to them. But this meant that Conquest had to play Black, and I am sure that this was not really part of the game plan. Conquest seems never to draw, so why give him Black in a big match, where (absent a draw) a loss is more likely than a win? Guildford also, then, found themselves in a situation where they wanted to give White to too many people. The important point is that if King had not lost his form there would have been no problem – he would have played Black on board six, and Conquest and Plaskett would have taken the Whites on boards five and seven. That team, in my view, would have been favourites, even if one assumed that they would probably lose on board eight and would thus need to make their 4.5 points on the top seven boards. But King had lost his form; so Hebden was preferred and to accommodate him, Conquest was asked to take on the unnatural task of playing Black (on board six).

These, then were the dilemmas for both sides before the match, as they would seem to me. I now remind you of what actually happened.

 Guildford 1vWood Green 1
1I Kurnosov (W)1-0B Lalic
2N Pert½ - ½A Baburin
3L McShane1-0S Gordon
4D Howell½ - ½P Cramling
5J Plaskett1-0D Berczes
6S Conquest0-1K Arakhamia-Grant
7M Hebden0-1K Szabo
8S Lalic0-1A Greet

It turns out that the match was drawn not just because the teams were relatively well matched but also because neither team was able to solve its own difficult dilemma. Gordon did lose with Black after all (though it would perhaps be fairer to say that McShane won, since he played a very fine squeeze). And while Plaskett crashed through, the point gained there was outweighed by the losses on boards six and seven. Conquest, asked to play Black, did get on the board with an Alekhine’s Defence, but this is not is his regular opening and understandably he struggled to manage a space disadvantage with a symmetrical pawn structure. Arakhamia-Grant carried on calmly and even won without allowing him any real play at all. And Hebden carried his unconvincing form of the previous two days with him, albeit that Szabo forced him to play a heavily theoretical line, which is always a good idea against Hebden. So in effect the teams’ difficulties in solving their own tactical dilemma cancelled each other out; and that is a further reason why the match was drawn. Had Hebden been able to justify his inclusion, Guildford would have won; and had Gordon swapped places with Cramling, and then played one of his characteristic White games, then Wood Green would have won.

One final observation: if Wood Green had had four Whites on the top seven boards, they would, I think, have won this match, despite still being slightly outrated. It is likely that Greet would still have engineered a win on board eight even with Black; and then there would be no more colour dilemmas! Gordon could play his White after all! As for Guildford, finding two of their GMs among Hebden, Conquest and Plaskett to play Black on boards 5-7 would have been intolerable…
But this does not mean that Wood Green are favourites to retain their title next year. That is altogether too hard to call at the moment. It would only take, say, the resurgence of King or the introduction of another player who can play solidly with Black, to give Guildford the edge again. Alternatively, they might invest in a foreign lady player so as to allow one of their male GMs to play on board eight. Or they could just do better against their own second team, so that they could afford a draw in a match like this! Any one of those three changes would likely have made all the difference this year, after all.

So, congratulations to Wood Green. But in respect of next year, this may be one of those occasions when defending the title will prove even harder than having taken it.

Division 1

Pride and Prejudice
Barbican 4NCL 1
White Rose 1
Guildford-A&DC 1
Cambridge Univ. 1
The ADs
Barbican 4NCL 2
Oxford 1
Pandora's Box Grantham
S. Wales Dragons
Guildford-A&DC 2
Poisoned Pawns 1
Jutes of Kent

Division 2

Sambuca Sharks
Warwickshire Select 1
e2e4.org.uk 1
Barbican 4NCL Youth
AMCA Dragons
Kings Head
Poisoned Pawns 2
Anglian Avengers
Wessex 1
Celtic Tigers 1
Bristol 1
White Rose 2
Brown Jack
Guildford-A&DC 3
FCA Solutions 1

Division 3

Rhyfelwyr Essyllwg
Sambuca Black Sheep
Cambridge Univ. 2
Wessex 2
Warwickshire Select 2
KJCA Kings
FCA Solutions 2
The Full Ponty
Sussex Smart Ctls.
e2e4.org.uk 2
Nottinghamshire 1
Nottinghamshire 2
Oxford 2
AMCA Rhinos
Braille Chess Assoc.
AMCA Hippos
Glos. Gambits
Bristol 2
KJCA Knights
Guernsey Mates
Bristol 3
e2e4.org.uk 3
Beauty and the Beasts
Celtic Tigers 2
Oxford 3
Guildford-A&DC 4
AMCA Cheetahs