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Feature: My thoughts on our first Thursday night chess club online

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I suspect I was not alone in my surprise when an email landed in my inbox inviting me to attend Thursday night chess club on Chess.com instead of at Moreton Hall.

Like many of our club members, I play online chess to sharpen my skill set, but blending online and live seemed alien from the outset.

Live chess and online chess are like the front and back legs of a cow.

Online chess has always been separate from live chess for most (32797152)
Online chess has always been separate from live chess for most (32797152)

Two distinct black and white parts of what I use to advance the main body of my chess abilities, but not something I ever think of as meeting in the middle.

But then, as we gallop forward into a strange new world of empty roads, toilet roll hoarding and taking turns walking down shopping aisles, it occurs to me that there's no reason why they shouldn't.

Settling down into my armchair at 7.40pm, I find my way onto the correct page and spend the 5-minute countdown checking the list of players entered into the tournament.

Most are just online screens names with nothing on their profile to help me put a face to the name.

Less than half of our club members have signed up, and of the 13 registered players, I managed to work out the identities of four by the time the first game starts.

All but one have a higher rating than mine, leaving me feeling like Sheffield United might if they somehow get into the champions league next season, assuming there is a next season.

Bury St Edmunds' online chess club has become our weekly venue (32807702)
Bury St Edmunds' online chess club has become our weekly venue (32807702)

I find myself wondering if football will ever return, how the season will be concluded and whether we will all be robbed of the very slim chance of seeing a European heavyweight like Barcelona take on the might of Sheffield.

Ping. The first game begins, dragging my mind back to chess.

I don't know my opponent, but he is rated 1507 to my 1224, and he has the white pieces so it's likely to be the first of many tough games.

Almost all decent level chess games begin with pawn to D4 or pawn to E4, mostly because it's an effective way to lay claim to central space and open a path for a diagonally moving bishop to enter the fray.

Of the two, I have more confidence in my defence plan against E4, so in the brief moment before his opening move lands on the board I find time to think 'don't choose D4'.

He complies.

Pawn to C4.

I don't think I've faced this opening in about two months.

In trying to remember the optimal reply to this surprise opening, I recall a famous game between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in the World Championship of 1972.

Unfortunately, I'm unable to remember what Spassky's reply was, but then it occurs to me that he lost that game anyway, in what was later described by IM Anthony Saidy as a 'symphony of placid beauty' by Fischer.

At master level C4 is rarely seen on the opening move (32809200)
At master level C4 is rarely seen on the opening move (32809200)

Fischer's brilliance that day led to the only moment in chess world championship history when a player stood with the crowd to applaud his opponent.

4.44, my clock declares, as I focus on the board once more.

Realising I've just wasted 16 seconds of my starting time of five minutes, I punt my pawn forward to C5, meeting his in the centre.

Better to trust symmetry than Spassky, I suppose.

Three seconds extra time is added to the clock for every move made, meaning that my opponent has 5.04 on the clock by the time I start thinking about where my plan goes next.

The answer was downhill.

The first three games of the tournament all follow a similar path, until, having been paired against someone only rated 220 points higher, I gain the upper hand.

Deploying my favoured 'London System' I manage to win a pawn early on before repelling my opponent's attempt to trap and capture the (allegedly) over-reaching knight that had leapt into the vanguard to dispatch an unfortunate pawn.

The knight continues its starring role in the melee by winning another pawn as it wriggles out of danger to give it's human mastermind a distinct advantage.

I quickly prove myself unworthy of the lofty 'mastermind' title however by immediately miscalculating an exchange of pieces and inexplicably killing off my own rampaging knight.

Perhaps I should have let the horse do the thinking, I reflect.

We could trade places and I could simply sit on my square armchair awaiting my fate.

It sounds like a less frustrating way to spend the evening.

My opening games were less than enjoyable (32808598)
My opening games were less than enjoyable (32808598)

With my momentum stopped cold in its tracks, I promptly get worn down by my more illustrious opponent and I'm suddenly on zero points for four games.

Finally though, in game five, I gain some momentum with a great win over the only player ranked lower than me in the competition.

Computer analysis of the game later showed my moves were 98.3 percent accurate.

If only I'd managed that in the previous games.

The final games bring some better play on my part and I reach the heady heights of 9th by the end of the tournament.

Frustratingly, the competition ends just as I'm building an attack against a strong player in a position known as the Icelandic-Palme gambit.

Oddly, I haven't reached an Icelandic-Palme position since defeating the same player in a near identical live game several months ago.

Lamenting the loss of what is an exciting position to play, I prepare myself for the second tournament to get underway.

By the time the second hour-long tournament clock begins to tick, I feel like the chess part of my brain has finally woken up, thrown off the duvet and made itself a bowl of cornflakes.

Phases of form and focus are a curious aspect of sport, if indeed you can call chess a sport.

The first tournament was won by 'tsunamijon' (32809463)
The first tournament was won by 'tsunamijon' (32809463)

If darts are claiming it though, I think chess can too.

If anyone points out that there are no physical demands involved, chess can always counter with the interesting fact that Anatoly Karpov lost 22 pounds over several weeks while playing out a gruelling World Championship match against a young Garry Kasparov.

The match was eventually abandoned due to health concerns for the players and the players replayed it months later, with Kasparov dramatically wrestling away the title to become the youngest world champion in history at 22 years of age.

But that's another story for another day.

Despite all the training in the world, everyone (even Kasparov) still has moments where they don't feel right and nothing seems to go the way it should.

That is the only similarity I can ever claim to have with Kasparov's game and that's unlikely to change even if self-isolation lasts another ten years and I spend every second of it training.

Despite that sobering truth in the back of my mind, I quickly put together back to back wins in the second tournament, beating a player rated 250 points higher in the process.

For a brief moment, I'm up flying high with the frontrunners, but dreams of a top 3 finish soon fade as I'm outclassed by some of our club's strongest players.

I'm quickly left wishing they had called the remaining games of our tournament off due to concerns about the health of my game.

I'm not sure losing 22 pieces is considered quite as serious as losing 22 pounds, however, and so I'm forced to limp across the finish line with two losses.

I found some redemption in tournament two with a 5th place finish (32793015)
I found some redemption in tournament two with a 5th place finish (32793015)

Despite the reality check in the second half, I'm able to bask in the relative glory of a mid table finish, taking 5th place out of 11 runners.

If we were to crown an overall winner of the evening then 'tsunamijon' (Jon Collins) would have won the day, with 1st place and 3rd place in the evening's tournaments.

top spot in the second tournament of the day went to '185Beast'.

I have no clue to his real identity, despite probably having spoken to him in person at the club.

This isolated anonymity of online play is perhaps the very thing that drives most of us to keep our real world chess separate from its online cousin.

Interacting with someone in person is, after all a far more connecting and fulfilling experience.

Unfortunately however, for the time being, we must accept a new position in which the connecting and fulfilling pieces of our game are removed, and the isolated and the pixelated are grudgingly captured in reply.