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4NCL 2009/10: Reflections on the First Division
by Jonathan Rogers
Last year I wrote some observations on the first division in 2008/9 and concluded by congratulating Wood Green on holding out against the defending champions, and higher rated, Guildford team. Assuming that Guildford would come back fitter and stronger, I wrote of Wood Green that
"in respect of next year, this may be one of those occasions when defending the title will prove even harder than having taken it."
Well no, not as it turned out. It was Guildford’s turn to suffer a financial collapse. Only three grandmasters (all of them well into their forties) remained with the team this year and it was only rarely that their first team could even be complemented by a full set of IMs. It got worse. Guildford had always been notably weak between 2280-2400 (only one FM, Ian Thompson, has consistently played for them; he at least was rewarded with an IM norm this year). They have also often struggled to find women players. So while the first team at least carried on and finished sixth, lower down the Guildford chain the 2009/10 season was little short of an apocalypse. Guildford 2 and Guildford 3 were relegated from the first and second divisions respectively, each with a number of defaults, and their fourth team almost finished last in division three.
For those who indulge in GM trading, this was good news. Wood Green recruited a number of Guildford players (McShane, Pert, Tissir) and it might have seemed that nothing would stop a repeat victory. But another title contender emerged, who recruited even more ex-Guildford players (Rowson, Howell, Hebden, Flear, Chernaiev) and that was Pride and Prejudice. P&P’s objectives seem radically to change every year - it certainly seems silly to continue to refer to them as a women’s team, as some chess journalists do - but at least this year, their aim was clear and unambiguous (remembering that they already had Michael Adams and Harriet Hunt from last year ...).
However, Guildford’s collapse was generally very bad news for the League. Generally, when big teams go under, it takes a while for all of their stronger professional players to be redeployed elsewhere. It also did not help that ADs had lost the services of Speelman to Wood Green, and Nigel Davies (who did not find redeployment elsewhere). The combination of these events played havoc with the seeding system, because both Guildford 2 and ADs were put in the same pool (Pool B). Teams are seeded on the basis of their finishing position in the previous year but because these teams were no longer as strong as last year when they had earned those seedings, Pool B was rather severely distorted as a result. In particular - Guildford 2 was in pool B as the ostensible number three seed in the whole division, but it would only finish 14th! Pool B did have both of the top two teams Wood Green 1 and P&P, another mistake explained by the fact that Guildford 1 was the number two seed and the priority had been to separate Wood Green 1 and Guildford 1, but even so this was still a rather weak pool in depth; none of the other six looked obviously worthy of joining them in the championship pool.
Meanwhile Pool A had all the potentially troublesome teams, which numbered five (Barbican 4NCL 1, White Rose, Guildford 1, Wood Green 2 and Betsson.com). Again, it was not surprising that whichever four of these teams would qualify for the championship pool might, on arrival there, expect to occupy places 3-6. The unlucky team who missed out from the championship pool from being put in the "wrong" pool was Betsson.com, who then proved their point by scoring 7/7 in the "relegation" pool.
Every year, I think we will have similar stories about the original pools being of uneven strength. The 4NCL Board has unfortunately never been willing to accept that seeding chess teams is a thankless task. A team can register several IMs and GMs but hardly ever field any of them, and so seeding by registration list has proven faulty. But so too has seeding by past performance, especially because of teams who collapse when the money disappears. Every year this can be expected to cause problems. No team has spent serious money indefinitely; even at Wood Green and Guildford it has dried up at some point. The only teams to have performed consistently in the 4NCL over the last six or so years have been Barbican 4NCL and Betsson.com, neither of whom rely on money. If you have only a handful of consistent performers, what hope is there of correctly devising two pools of teams of comparable strength? All that can be said for the new pooling system then is that the excitement of having most of the big matches (concerning both titles and relegation) towards the end of the season might arguably compensate for the inevitable feelings of unfairness that some teams will have regarding the inequality of the original pools.
The big matches
Naturally, the first big match was between Wood Green 1 and Pride and Prejudice, in round four of their original Pool B. It turned out that on the same day, in Pool A, the two teams hitherto on 100%, namely White Rose and Guildford 1, were each to lose, to Wood Green 2 and Barbican 4NCL 1 respectively. So "everyone else" had lost a match already (since Barbican 1 had already lost to White Rose in the first weekend), and thus the winner of Wood Green v Pride and Prejudice would be in pole position.
Wood Green 1 was the higher rated side; but again they could not bring themselves to beat a side of comparable (i.e, 2500+ on average) weight. They never have done this, in fact, in serious competition. In all their previous victories, it has been enough for them to draw with Guildford in the big last round showdown, and that is always what they did (except when they lost, in 2003/4). Only against Beeson Gregory (headed by Adams and Svidler) in 2000/1 did they record a win by 5-3 (no losses, moreover) but one can argue to what extent this was a serious competitive match: Beeson Gregory was already assured of first place on tie break. And, skipping forward to January 2010, nor did Wood Green break their 2500+ duck against Pride and Prejudice:
| ||WOOD GREEN 1||(av.2570)||v||PRIDE AND PREJUDICE||(av.2519)|
|1||Bacrot, Ettienne||2709||0 - 1||Adams, Michael||2682|
|2||Hammer, Jon-Ludvig||2585||1 - 0||Haslinger, Stewart||2529|
|3||McShane, Luke||2615||½ - ½||Rowson, Jonathan||2579|
|4||Baburin, Alexander||2552||½ - ½||Hebden, Mark||2503|
|5||Gordon, Stephen||2535||½ - ½||Flear, Glenn||2497|
|6||Speelman, Jon||2525||½ - ½||Emms, John||2484|
|7||Pert, Nicholas||2541||1 - 0||Grafl, Florian||2426|
|8||Arakhamia-Grant, Ketevan||2499||0 - 1||Hunt, Harriet||2452|
| || || ||4-4|| || |
Adams won a tough game (but his seventh in a row in the 4NCL) and now the French players Bacrot, Fressinet and Lautier seem to have a combined record of 1/5 in the 4NCL. The other wins in the match were also deserved, and indeed Hammer’s looked remarkably easy. Of the draws, only Hebden v Baburin fluctuated. Wood Green had looked likely to win the match on this board, but Hebden continued to resist and Baburin allowed himself to become confused (it may be recalled that Baburin also let a highly favourable position against Pert slip away to a draw in the Guildford v Wood Green climax of the previous year). But overall a draw seemed a fair result. From the point of view of the League this was by far the best result. Not only was there genuine suspense about the final outcome, but it would mean that the two frontrunners would need to continue to field their best sides. "Just" winning all the remaining matches would not be enough for one of them. Also there remained the possibility that one of the top teams from the other pool might have a say in the title race. This seemed a distant possibility at the time, but, looking ahead, one might give credit to both Malcolm Pein and Andrew Greet for warning their readers that one should never forget about Barbican ...
Three rounds later, the preliminary pools were finished. Wood Green 1 and P&P had kept on winning but Wood Green led by 1.5 gamepoints, courtesy of a very casual performance by P&P against Jutes of Kent (who would eventually finish last). P&P fielded four GMs but three players under 2300 and won only by 5-3, and indeed might have blown the title race altogether if Jutes had not lost a game from a winning position in Rice v Kilpatrick. (By comparison, Wood Green 1 beat Jutes by 7-1). So Wood Green 1 were the top team in pool B, though they only carried forward 0.5 gamepoint advantage over P&P into the final pool (mainly because the Jutes results disappeared). Still, the pressure was on P&P: they would have to outperform Wood Green by one whole gamepoint over the last four rounds in the championship pool, because they would lose on tie break if they only gained half a point (because gamepoints accrued through the whole season would then be decisive).
Also, the top teams from the other pool were only a short way behind. The scores, going into the championship pool with four more rounds, were Wood Green 1 and P&P on 2.5/3 and Barbican 4NCL 1 and White Rose on 2/3. Two round later - the leading scores were Wood Green 1 and P&P on 4.5/5 and Barbican 4NCL 1 and White Rose on 4/5! An impressive race, but Wood Green had extended their lead on gamepoints over P&P to 1.5. This was not, as one might have expected, because Wood Green 2 had put out a stronger team against P&P in round nine than they had against their own first team in round eight (they did do that, but it did not influence the gamepoint situation because Wood Green 2 lost both matches by 5.5-2.5). The difference was that Guildford had taken 2.5 gamepoints from P&P in round eight but then only 1.5 against Wood Green in round nine. Perhaps the main difference here was that Wood Green 1 converted their advantage on board 8 against Guildford into a win (Arakhamia-Grant 1-0 Meri Grigoryan) whilst Elliott Auckland, after a 3/3 start to the season, lost his fourth game in a row on board 8 to Meri, in P&P v Guildford 1. No other team chasing the title in recent years would have allowed this to happen! The chances of P&P now making two gamepoints extra over Wood Green 1 in just two matches were rather small.
Well, that was one way in which many would have analyzed the situation prior to round 10 (or if you like, round 6 of the 7 round championship pool). Did they forget about Barbican after all? If so, that would soon be remedied:
| ||PRIDE AND PREJUDICE||(av.2521)||v||BARBICAN 4NCL 1||(av.2398)|
|1||Adams, Michael||2704||½ - ½||D'Costa, Lorin||2466|
|2||Howell, David||2612||0 - 1||Parker, Jonathan||2523|
|3||Hebden, Mark||2548||½ - ½||Turner, Matthew||2515|
|4||Flear, Glenn||2517||0- 1||Ferguson, Mark||2393|
|5||Emms, John||2484||0 - 1||Collins, Sam||2401|
|6||Hunt, Harriet||2452||0 - 1||Cox, John||2389|
|7||Ward, Chris||2431||½ - ½||Knott, Simon||2342|
|8||Grafl, Florian||2421||½ - ½||Lauterbach, Ingrid||2158|
| || || ||2-6|| || |
I could write several paragraphs, finding different ways to describe this result and the effect it had on all the participants. I would have to agree that it could not have been predicted, if one includes the scoreline. Barbican have beaten teams with four or five more grandmasters in the past, after all - indeed, both Wood Green and Guildford had early title attempts thwarted by Barbican, and each needed to "learn" to beat Barbican before they each won their first title. But these previous landmark wins had generally been achieved by 4.5-3.5; and so to win by 6-2, without any individual defeat, was new territory. Moreover it seems to be only the third time that a team averaging over 2500 has lost in the 4NCL, I believe (the other occasions being Beeson Gregory in the inconsequential match against Wood Green in 2000/1, and Wood Green when they lost their title against Guildford in 2003/4: needless to say, both teams lost against comparable opposition). So while it is not all that usual for one team to lose to another which is 120 odd points lower on average, this particular defeat - by such a strong team and by such a margin - is likely to be remembered by all those who watched it unfold.
It was thankfully easy to watch the match unfold: all eight games were relayed in the foyer. The possibility of an upset was earmarked quite early on, when Sam Collins beat John Emms very quickly, and with Black to boot. This result brought both delights but all sorts of old regrets to my mind. When Barbican 1 beat Guildford in 2002/3 and next played Wood Green 1 in a potential decider, at Telford, we lost a relatively close match in large measure because of public transport problems which caused Sam to default - against Emms. I could not help from thinking in May 2010 - however irrationally - is this what would have happened in 2002/3 too?! Then a Black draw, against Hebden. No one in Barbican was in deep trouble either - we had clearly worse positions on boards 1. 7 and 8, but our three better positions seemed at least as good. Yes, at least as good - now Flear has resigned! The score stayed at 2.5-0.5 in our favour for a while, and so the growing band of spectators tried to work out how P&P might turn the match around. But the necessary progress in their better positions simply refused to emerge; and our two good positions continued to improve. Eventually, with the score still unchanged, I felt confident enough to declare victory in the foyer! But that we should convert both of the good positions and hold all the bad ones was still beyond my imagination. However, there was a chain reaction by now. Adams missed a win which he would ordinarily have seen. Howell put up desperate resistance against Jonathan Parker, who ran short of time and might have taken perpetual check if the team had needed him to secure a draw. But by this stage the team had already made 4.5 gamepoints, so Jonathan felt at liberty to continue, and he duly won as well.
That is what happened; how can it be explained? Naturally enormous credit is due to the Barbican players, and to the captain Max Devereaux whose (presumably, unexpected) decision to play Lorin d’Costa on board one proved inspired. But also, we must not forget - P&P were not playing just to win, but rather to win by an (arguably unnatural) high score "on demand", in order to have any chance of overhauling Wood Green 1. One needs only to look at Flear’s bizarre opening experiment as Black against Mark Ferguson’s 4 Knights Opening to sense that all members of the team were under instructions to win, and I think that this pressure told. Flear is usually such a solid player but frankly his opening was a disaster! To some significant extent then, P&P did much of Barbican’s work for them: one can imagine that once a couple of bad positions are obtained, then the team loses faith in securing the miraculous high score, and before one knows it, the match is gone too...
So there was a direct final round title decider after all. For the first time ever, Barbican 1 was involved. For Wood Green 1 it was the fifth time (not counting their match in the last round against Guildford in 2002/3 when the title was already won). And, as with all their previous occasions, they needed only a draw. It should be remembered that, wonderful as this was for us, our win over P&P was also a very pleasant surprise for Wood Green. Had we lost to P&P, they would have needed to beat us by a certain score line, which would only have become clear during the course of the match; but now they needed only a draw. This meant that we could not look forward to receiving easy chances or bizarre opening experiments! - and unfortunately we did not manage to create any serious chances either. So in what (we are now told) was Brian Smith’s last match as Wood Green captain, his team finally won outright a title deciding match after all:
| ||BARBICAN 4NCL 1||(av. 2404)||v||WOOD GREEN 1||(av.2529)|
|1||Turner, Matthew||2515||0 - 1||Hammer, Jon Ludvig||2617|
|2||Parker, Jonathan||2523||½ - ½||McShane, Luke||2628|
|3||D'Costa, Lorin||2466||½ - ½||Gordon, Stephen||2527|
|4||Collins, Sam||2401||0 - 1||Pert, Nicholas||2541|
|5||Cox, John||2389||½ - ½||Speelman, Jon||2530|
|6||Ferguson, Mark||2393||0 - 1||Berczes, David||2510|
|7||Devereaux, Maxim||2387||½ - ½||Arakhamia-Grant, Ketevan||2447|
|8||Lauterbach, Ingrid||2158||0 - 1||Greet, Andrew||2429|
| || || ||2-6|| || |
So, an exact reversal of Barbican’s previous result: this time a loss by 6-2 without any individual victory. Pert v Collins was one of the boards where we might have hoped for a surprise: Sam had beaten Nick with Black two years ago in a crunch match with Guildford 1. But perhaps that history was not so helpful - Nick would have wanted revenge and really he is very hard to play against when he is White. Sam played a risky line and Pert was able to win quite smoothly. That already seemed to be enough to seal our fate ... Two other boards which aroused interest in the opening were Cox v Speelman (1...b6, 2...f6, 3....Nh6) and Turner v Hammer (a pawn sac against the Exchange Lopez which has been known for many years but was thought until recently to be insufficient). But of course, Speelman’s opening was not actually bad, and in due course he made a good position; whilst Hammer got a winning position rather quickly. Again, with Black and in such a big match! He made 5/5 for Wood Green this season, and could easily establish himself as one of the 4NCL’s greatest players if he plays some more games.
It may be simply the case that Wood Green was too strong for us. We were happy enough with the individual pairings, but could not take any advantage from this. Three points should be made here. First, Wood Green 1 was a tougher team than P&P. Wood Green mostly fielded younger players, in most cases still improving. Their only players over 40 years old were the likes of Speelman and Arakhamia-Grant; contrast this with the four players over 40 or even 50 years old in P&P who were not among the world elite even in their heyday. This matters more, I think, than the relatively nominal difference in ratings between the two teams. Second, the fact that Wood Green did not need to win undoubtedly helped. If Barbican had not lost to White Rose earlier in the season, then the roles would have been reversed: I think that Wood Green would still have won "on demand", but this would have been unfamiliar territory for them and the match would probably have been closer. (As it was, Barbican’s earlier loss to White Rose meant that they finished third in the end: P&P beat White Rose ruthlessly in the last round). Finally, it was the last day of the weekend! Most Barbican players have demanding jobs and so had been working or playing competitive chess for at least eight days without break. Further, Barbican had just played P&P! Playing two such teams on consecutive days is exhausting: it is not surprising that one might use up most of one’s strength against the first such opponent. This brings us back to the immediate aftermath of Wood Green 1 v P&P, when P&P made a low winning score against Jutes of Kent and thus finished as the second team in Pool B. This was expensive! Wood Green 1 benefited immeasurably from thus having Barbican 1 (the nearest remaining danger) play P&P before playing them.
The rest of the first division
The division this year, as in a number of other years, could be divided into three. We have mentioned the six title-chasers/pretenders already, and they finished in the order
1 Wood Green 1
3 Barbican 4NCL 1
4 White Rose
5 Wood Green 2
6 Guildford 1
Something like this was predictable, though naturally P&P and Guildford 1 would have been disappointed. We have said little of White Rose, but with 8/11 over the season they had by far their best season in the first division and showed that their fourth place in the previous season too was no fluke.
Then there were the four mid-table teams, who only had to worry about relegation in hypothetical terms. These four teams had finished between 8-11th in the previous season, and after the collapse of Guildford 2 in the interim, now finished 7-10th in 2010! - albeit in slightly different order. Thus:
10 Barbican 4NCL 2
Clearly this was very good news for Cambridge, who only played their third year in division one and often fielded some lowly (though under-rated) players on the bottom boards. Their win over Guildford 1 in the last round was quite striking (especially perhaps the win by Moskovic over Buckley) and achieved against a 150 odd overall rating point deficit. ADs must have been delighted to find that losing Speelman and Davies made no difference to their position from the previous year. Betsson.com would have been disappointed not to have made their Championship pool but as already noted they were seriously disadvantaged from playing in pool A at the start. No such excuses for Barbican 2 who again failed to qualify from the "easier" pool, but five victories by the score of 5.5-2.5 or above nonetheless confirmed a general mid-table status.
Then the six teams who always had very good cause to worry about relegation:
12 Pandora’s Box
13 South Wales Dragons
14 Guildford 2
15 Poisoned Pawns
16 Jutes of Kent
Among these six were all four promoted teams from the previous season, three of them playing in the first division for the first time. For two of them, Oxford and Pandora’s Box - who had finished in the same order at the top of division two last year - it proved to be a successful debut. Each won, and carried, two games from their original pools but made life more complicated than expected in the relegation pool. Pandora’s Box lost to Jutes in round nine, and thus still needed a result against Guildford 2 in the last round. This ought to have been a formality but they had to work for their draw; and even that would not have been enough if Oxford and South Wales Dragons had drawn their last round match. Oxford lost in rounds eight and nine and now expected to need to win their last two matches. But, after they won in round ten, it was not so clear whether they needed to win against Dragons, or only to draw with them. Assuming at this stage that Pandora’s Box would pull clear by beating Guildford 2, it became important to know who had "draw odds" in Oxford’s match. Whilst clearly the winner would survive, in the event of a draw, everything would depend on their respective gamepoint scores in their original pools. But this information was not posed at the venue and the original pool tables had been removed from the website! It seems to me that the Dragons had draw odds, but Oxford ruthlessly exploited their playing advantages on the bottom boards and a narrow victory always seemed likely. Disappointment then for the Dragons, though objectively they probably were the 13th strongest team, unluckily for them.
Incidentally, it should be said that the uncertainty over who had draw odds between Oxford and South Wales Dragons is not a strong argument against the tie-breaking system. All that is needed is for the records of the original pools to be kept and made readily accessible! Those who would do away with the relevance of the results in the original pool as a tie breaker should reflect not only on the consequent lack of motivation in some matches in the original pools (i,e those matches between teams which are obviously headed for separate pools after round seven) but also that, had this been the situation in this year, then the tie break between Oxfird and Dragons would have been their own head to head match. So, in the event of a draw, board count then.... I must say that I regard board count as a creature of knock-out events and very much hope that nothing of importance will ever depend upon it in the 4NCL.
There is little to be said for the remaining three teams, other than that both Jutes and Poisoned Pawns deserve credit for coming to the final weekend with determination, each making a win on the Saturday to maintain their hopes and to put more pressure on the other teams. Jutes, I think, will be back after a year in the second division, along with the Dragons.
It is too early to speculate whether the newly promoted teams will strengthen the first division next season. This time, two of them have played in the first division before, and three of them seem prepared to spend some money on their teams, but only Cheddleton to any serious and consistent extent. But even they may struggle to attain championship pool status unless they increase their spending.
Pride and Prejudice
Barbican 4NCL 1
White Rose 1
Cambridge Univ. 1
Barbican 4NCL 2
Pandora's Box Grantham
S. Wales Dragons
Poisoned Pawns 1
Jutes of Kent
Warwickshire Select 1
Barbican 4NCL Youth
Poisoned Pawns 2
Celtic Tigers 1
White Rose 2
FCA Solutions 1
Sambuca Black Sheep
Cambridge Univ. 2
Warwickshire Select 2
FCA Solutions 2
The Full Ponty
Sussex Smart Ctls.
Braille Chess Assoc.
Beauty and the Beasts
Celtic Tigers 2