|Which one are you?|
I’m new to this team Captain business and whilst the logistical dealings of organising a team and getting them to a venue come to me easily enough I hadn’t anticipated some of the thoughts and feelings I’d experience on game night itself. I found myself paying quite a lot more attention to the status of my colleagues’ games and at the end of the night I found myself weighing up the value of the result much more extensively than I might have done if I’d just been participating as a player.
As I prepared Hebden Bridge ‘A’ for the season I did so with the goal of winning the League 1 title in my mind. Huddersfield won last season with our team a close second and I wanted to create a team capable of winning the title back from them. I think we have such a team but we’ve had to re-build. Dave Wedge has done sterling service for the ‘A’ team on board 1 for many years, but a career opportunity has taken him away to Cambridge. His son Matthew, coincidentally, has achieved a place at Cambridge University studying Mathematics and he was one of the ‘A’ team’s top performers last season. In addition, last year’s Captain, Alastair Wright, has decided to offer his services to Todmorden ‘A’ this year. That left just Nick Sykes and Matthew Parsons from last year’s squad.
So, we’ve started again. Matthew Parsons is now on board 1. He would have been even if Dave was still here due to his higher rating. We have managed to secure the services of Darwin Ursal on board 2. He was a board 1 player with Halifax ‘A’ last season but, as they were relegated, he wanted League 1 chess so we’ve have him on a “season’s loan”. Darwin hopes and expects to go back to Halifax next year assuming they can get one of their two teams in League 2 promoted. Last season I was in the ‘B’ team but playing on board 1 or 2. This year I’ve switched teams but will operate on board 3. Finally, we have drafted in Pete Leonard who was probably the club’s surprise package last year as he returned to league chess for the first time in many years and performed admirably in the ‘C’ team. In the end, on paper anyway, we actually have a stronger line up than last year so I’m confident that we can compete.
Round 1 took us away to Todmorden for the first tie of the new campaign. I suspected they would be able to generate a strong line up. Martin Hamer and Andrew Clarkeson (both very strong players) were only guest stars last season but this year I suspect they will be regulars. The addition of Alastair Wright on board 3 gives them a powerful top order. And so with my new Captain’s head on I suspected we’d have to win on the lower boards to win the match. In my experience this is always where things are decided in League 1 as the best teams can all field very strong and evenly matched players on the top 2 or 3 boards. Baring in mind that we’d all have the Black pieces this fixture seemed like it would be one of the season’s toughest encounters.
Half way through the evening I admit I was worried. On board 1 Matthew appeared to be under pressure but was holding his own against Martin. On board 2 Darwin was playing his favourite Sicilian Dragon variation but Andrew appeared to know his way about and was playing accurately in the opening phase. My own game against Alastair had begun disastrously as his chosen move order completely flummoxed me. I had ended up with a terribly uncoordinated mess (king forced to f8 by a massive White knight on d6 (!), queen’s bishop trapped at home with no prospects of escape, rooks disconnected and a knight on the h-file) and was reduced to hunkering down to a long night of misery grovelling for a draw.
Boards 4 and 5 appeared to offer the best cause for optimism. Pete had achieved a huge passed pawn on the c-file straight out of the opening against Chris Edwards and seemed in control of things and Nick seemed to have a very satisfactory position from another Sicilian Defence against David Innes.
There was a brief moment mid-evening when disaster seemed imminent. Darwin had his queen trapped in the centre of the board and, to my eyes at least, there appeared no way out without giving up material. As you’ll see from the game analysis below, it turns out my assessment was correct (most unusual) but Darwin found a tricky response and Andrew overlooked the correct reply. Darwin went on to play the resultant endgame very actively and accurately and deserves great credit for overturning a -2 previous score against Andrew (admittedly one of those losses was in the lightning chess format).
By the time Darwin had won his game Matthew had agreed a draw against Martin Hamer, an excellent outcome given he had Black, and I had finally given up the fight against Alastair who played accurately and without fuss to convert his huge positional advantage. My queen’s bishop was still on c8 when it was trapped at the end of the game! All of this left the scores even from the top 3 boards, proving once again my opinion that League 1 games are decided on the lower boards.
Pete Leonard put our noses in front with his first League 1 win against Chris. That left us a point up with one to play and it appeared we would win the match as Nick seemed to be well in control of his game. Sadly he then overlooked a tactic that left him with too much ground to make up and he resigned in disgust.
At the time it felt disappointing to draw the match when we seemed to have it in the bag despite my own abysmal contribution. The glass was half empty. Nick was gutted at blundering in a winning position and I felt thoroughly dispirited from the molestation I had suffered. However, by the time I had gotten home and tucked myself in I was feeling a bit more positive. Looking at the Todmorden line up before the match I’d have taken a draw if you’d offered me one and the other three members of our team had all performed extremely creditably. I also reasoned that other teams (even our closest rivals) would struggle to achieve a drawn match if Todmorden put the same team out for every home tie.
A few days later I’m now convinced that my optimism is well founded for the champions, Huddersfield ‘A’, stumbled to a 3½-1½ defeat away to Brighouse in their first match of the season. Suddenly our draw seemed all the more like a point gained rather than a point lost. Recent history suggests that Huddersfield are more than capable of recovering to challenge for the title. Last year they draw their first match and lost their second but then went on a 12 match winning streak to claim victory. They’ll hope to do the same again but for the moment my glass stays half full.
Whilst we are on the subject of optimism let us pause to appreciate this quality in Martin Syrett, our ‘B’ team Captain, under whom I served with great pleasure last season (and in previous years also). Martin has been the ‘B’ team Captain for a number of years now and he labours under the most difficult circumstances. He knows that the best he can hope for each year is for his team to maintain their League 1 status. He knows that if the ‘A’ team find themselves a player or two short he will be expected to weaken his line up to support their title bid. Yet despite these travails he maintains a jovial and easy-going demeanour no matter how desperate the situation appears to be.
Last year the ‘B’ team appeared doomed for the drop and yet he led the charge to safety as we rallied to win our final two matches and stay up at Halifax’s expense. This season I think he has cause for a little optimism. In contrast to the ‘A’ team he has only lost one player. Me. In addition he also has access to some players who distinguished themselves in League 2 last season. On paper they like a big hitter on board 1 to help protect the rest of the troops but all of his regulars are rated within 5 or 6 points of each other and that should provide him with the chance to rotate them a bit in order to give them all the chance to win some games and test themselves on higher board.
Sadly, on Monday night at least, it didn’t work out for the ’B’s. Matthew Wedge Roberts guest starred on board 1 for his final match before heading off to university and he did well to draw with Courier ‘A’s number 1, John Morgan. John was last season’s individual super star as he collected not only the Calderdale Individual title but also the prize for best individual score in the league. I posted their game in the express report on Monday. John appeared to have most of the pressure in the game but Matthew knuckled down and held his position to prevent his opponent breaking through.
On board 2 Andy Leatherbarrow played tenaciously against Dave Patrick and pushed him all the way to the end of the night’s play (when does Andy ever play a game that is over in an hour or less!) but in the end an extra pawn in a rook ending wasn’t enough for a win.
It was further down the order that the ‘B’ team’s night went sour. Captain Syrett seemed to be doing well but then lost a piece as the endgame approached and went down swiftly to Robert Clegg after that. On board 4 Pete Olley seemed to be a certain winner before he also capitulated in dramatic fashion. Finally, Dave Sugden, so solid and dependable on board 1 for the ‘C’ team in League 2 last season, seems to have had an early catastrophe in his game and also lost.
Hebden ‘B’ matched up favourable grading-wise on the bottom two boards so (having drawn boards 1 and 2) the margin of the 1-4 score was disappointing. They next face Todmorden ‘A’ at home before playing their derby match with the ‘A’ team later in October, so they may already be looking at another slow start to the season. Martin’s side should be able to compete and pick up points against the likes of Brighouse, Belgrave and Huddersfield ‘B’ later in the Autumn. They’ll need to if they are to help Mr. Syrett is to continue performing his little miracles.