I took a half day from work and a very leisurely train journey south (through places I had never heard of) which brought me to Frome at about 15:30pm. The first round wasn’t starting until 18:45 so I checked into the George Hotel and contemplated life (AKA watched YouTube videos) until wandering along for round 1. I was entered into the Major (u165 or u1950 for our non-British readers) and with a rating of 154 found myself as 17th seed in a field of 44 players. A healthy sized tournament hall and a wonderful book stall from Chess Direct added to the feeling that this was a step up in both congress standards and size.
Round 1 – Outplayed and left begging for a half point
The perennial question of weekend congress players, should I take a Friday night bye? Nay! Thou shalt battle hard to take an early lead over the lazy people (and those travelling from very far away) to stamp your claim on the tournament from day 1.
Alternatively, you could be comprehensively outplayed in the opening by a player of the black pieces who knows your surprise white opening off by heart because they themselves play it. What are the chances?!
After two hours, I was left in a queen endgame with shattered pawns. Fortunately, the best that either one of us could hope for was a perpetual so we shook hands at around 21:00 and I left with a half point.
The same score as if i’d ticked the bye box on the entry form and sat in the pub instead.
Still I consoled myself by saying I had warmed up the chess brain cells. To be fair, my opponent had played well and indeed left me grovelling for the half point. Some players might have tried to force the situation given I was graded almost 20pts (150 ELO) above my opponent but it was a classic example of respecting the board position and the way my opponent had played rather than worrying about grades.
Round 2 – Dodging a bullet, riding your luck
Saturday morning arrived and after a very enjoyable Egg’s Royale in the hotel bar, I plotted my game plan for the day on the 20 minute walk to the venue. I decided my plan would be to win. Both games. A devilishly complex approach which demonstrated my strategic genius (sigh).
I found myself paired with the black pieces against an opponent whom I had never met but talked to regularly online. I knew he was a reader of The Bristol Chess Times so it quickly dawned on me that he probably knew all my opening repertoire.
This is a serious problem as most amateur players will tell you. We don’t tend to have back up repertoires. Damn.
The game started well before a serious lack of middle game planning meant I drifted into an inferior, defensive position. Trying to unclamp myself I played probably my worst move of the weekend which simply dropped a centre pawn, gave my opponent an open e-file and pretty much the game in the long term. Miraculously, the error was missed and my opponent continued with his queenside stack that had been brewing for the last 5 or so moves. I quickly rectified my mistake and counter punched against my opponents king leading to the game opening up for both sides.
After move 30 the game had really opened up and I presented my opponent with an opportunity to trade queen for two rooks with very interesting play.
Again the opportunity was turned down and I went on to grind out a better end game with a passed d-pawn. A win is a win as they say, although I certainly felt like I had gone unpunished throughout this game.
Round 3 – Grinding
The field had packed together after two rounds with only one person in our 44 strong section being on 2/2. I was one of about 15 players squished together on 1.5. Clearly my grand plan of “win all games” would pay dividends in this situation.
Suffice to say it did. In rounds 1 and 2 I felt inferior middle game planning had got me in hot water and I had been lucky to score what I had. However, Round 3 was a classic example of Karpovian (admittedly with an amateur slant to it) grinding of small advantages. Queens came off early, pawn structures were fixed and minor pieces shuffled for dominance. My opponent erred with a rook manoeuvre to the congested middle of the board where my knight was actually stronger and he was forced to give up several pawns. The material difference was enough I converted the win after a long 3.5hr slog.
The first game I felt I deserved.
So the master strategy was working well. I returned to the George Hotel ordered some faggots and peas with an IPA and wondered when I became middle aged.
Round 4 – “Why aren’t I winning and how is he still in this?”
Come Sunday morning, I found myself on the second from top board being one of three people on 2.5 /3. One sole individual was still on 3/3 whilst the chasing pack of 2/3 was very large and one mistake away from catching up.
This game was my favourite from the weekend for many reasons. In what became a running theme for the weekend, it required enourmous amounts of patience in a slightly better position. Having won the exchange relatively early on I spent the next 30 moves wondering why it wasn’t enough to win as my opponent seamlessly held his position together with the power of the two bishops. Even when I felt I had broken through and was going to win even more material he seemed to find all the right moves (in all the right order) to keep the game alive.
As we entered the fifth hour of play with an open board and advancing passed pawns for both sides we entered “squeaky bum time” as Sir Alex Ferguson would call it. My opponent had a dangerous looking passed c-pawn that I was using both my remaining pieces to keep an eye on. I include the key position below for your analysis. Black to play and win.
This is the move that I was most proud of and also surprised my opponent.
My opponent thought for several minutes before offering me the draw after 51. Bxc7. I believe that he thought we would be entering an opposite coloured bishop ending with me a pawn up. I refused straight away as I’d noticed a rather surprising move.
Unbelievably with an open board and my opponent with two bishops, the pawn cannot be stopped. My incredulous looking opponent thought for a few minutes before trying the only move that carried any hope to save the day but I was wise to the trick: 53.Ba4+ Ke7 (not Kf8?? when Bc7+ gets the black squared bishop back in time) 0 – 1.
I must pass on my thanks to my opponent for a cracking game that he hung to til the very end. Its fair to say I had nothing left in the tank at this stage and with only an hour before round 5 was due to start I went and lay on the grass in the sun.
Round 5 – Surely I’ve earned the GM draw?!
There isn’t much to say about Round 5. Two of us found ourselves on 3.5 / 4. I was mentally exhausted and faced playing with the black pieces for a third time. It was sunny outside.
The game was drawn in 10 moves.
In al seriousness, both me and my opponent had fought through some very tough games (almost 14hrs of chess up until that point) and I felt an early handshake was a prudent move to ensure a share of the spoils. Our early finish did enable two others to catch us on 4 /5 resulting in a four way split for first place but I have no hard feelings about that. Its very very hard, in my opinion, to come clear first in a five round Swiss with a field as large as 44 players.
Thoughts on the Frome Congress
Well on a personal level, I obviously enjoyed it with one of my best performances in tournament chess. Being unbeaten all weekend gave me a grading performance of 172 (1990 ELO) and was a just reward for not topping up my suntan like the rest of the UK.
But moving beyond my personal tournament, I feel my mindset and approach to the weekend was greatly helped by the friendliness of the congress staff and all Somerset competitors, many of whom I was meeting for the first time. I genuinely enjoyed my time and all the people I met.
The prize money was generous and four sections (Open, Major, Intermediate and Minor) meant that it really is a tournament for players of any ability.
I would heartily recommend this congress to anyone, especially if you embrace the weekend and take your time getting to and exploring this small Somerset gem of a town. Good pubs, good accommodation and sunshine all round! They also give you real money when you win! Whats not to like?
I will definitely be returning next year.
Thank you Frome Congress!
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.