Hastings. Just the name itself is to evoke a chess tournament of somewhat legendary proportions - on a par historically with Wijk Aan Zee. However there’s no doubt that the tournament has gone downhill in recent years. Go back to the mid nineties and the early 2000s and the tournament was still a fairly strong event attracting strong grandmasters on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case and the most recent edition was the weakest I can ever remember.
You can put up a lot of reasons but the primary one is money. If you put up enough cash, then the stars will come, after all they still do to Wijk Aan Zee - hardly the most glamorous location either. And the problem is that Hastings as a town isn’t doing that great, money wise, so they don’t have money to put into the event.
Perhaps another one of the problems is that we are living in the age of “self-promotion”, exemplified by those look at me Instagram and YouTube stars. Tournaments like Gibraltar and the London chess classic have embraced this new philosophy with a social media presence. It just feels like Hastings as a tournament is getting left behind by more fashionable events. It felt tired and almost dated.
I felt this sweeping paranoia that I was almost the “last grandmaster left in town” when I turned up at Hastings on the night before the first round. Normally you run into one or two people in town having a beer, before the more serious formalities begin, but this time there was noone. I then wondered down onto the wind-swept seafront, and walked past where the Pig in Paradise used to be. Looking in, all I could see was an abandoned building. It brought back memories of the time when we all used to meet in that bar, but now even that was gone.
In the first round I also had some memories of a more painful kind. That’s because I was paired with a 15 year old Malaysian, and I thought “here we go again”, as the previous year I had been paired with underrated junior after junior and had struggled.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this otherwise forgettable game was when I was faced with one of the most difficult conundrums in chess; one that I failed miserably - which rook to move to a certain square. Here my opponent has just played the retreating move Ne1 - in general his play in the opening phase was quite passive - and Black now has a choice of which rook to move to d8. Which rook would you move and why?
The game against Vakhidov in round seven was perhaps a decisive one. Having beaten Fier in round six, I then got paired against my bogey opponent Jahongir Vakhidov. Perhaps the worst possible pairing in this situation - I’m on an incredible high, and then I get paired against someone I have half out of three against. But of course if you’re up there then you have to expect to play these players.
My opponent in this game sacrificed an exchange, then a whole rook - however it was a rook move of my own, or rather one I failed to play, which turned out to be the fatal error.
As we have seen from the Vakhidov game, it’s very easy to underestimate how complex a chess game can become. This almost cost me as well in an earlier game in the tournament where I missed a very interesting possibility in my game against Buchenau, and because of this gave my opponent the chance to make a beautiful draw.
Certainly the highlight of my tournament, and a game that suddenly gave me hopes of winning the event, was the game against Fier. Wisely I avoided any preparation by playing the solid Torre attack.
There was a funny postscript to this game - I felt like it was one of the best I had played in years, if not the best, and unsurprisingly put it forward for the best game prize. Later on after the last round, feeling somewhat morose, I was told by a lady that in fact I had some good news as I had in fact won the best game prize. Then Keith Arkell came along and told me that he had put forward his game from the last round as well, and it had been put up for a vote in the commentary room, which to my great relief, I had narrowly won.
I must be totally honest here and say I was shocked by this, as I didn’t consider that game in the last round by Keith to be anything special. It looked to me that he had beaten a weaker player in automatic fashion, while I had defeated the great Fier - how often these days do I get to beat such strong players? In fact I thought he had much better contenders from earlier in the tournament, for example the magnificent rear-guard defensive efforts against Vakhidov and Hebden.
I guess when we do actually play well, we get very defensive and protective of those games, and there’s certainly a bit of professional jealousy as well, when we think people are going to win prizes that we believe that we deserve. Or maybe it’s just that I was skint and needed the £100.
Of course the tournament was to end painfully for me, when I lost to Deep Senguta in a horrible game where I didn’t escape the opening. He prepared the Bg5 Najdorf - I wasn’t ready for it, and got crushed. Obviously chess can be a painful game when you consider the difference in prize money, my opponent won £1625 for that game, while losing got me a measly £75 quid. You can well understand why some people get discouraged with chess and walk away to other professions.
As I alluded to earlier, I could hide behind the fact that I was the only player in the tournament to play the top three seeds - so I was arguably unlucky with the pairings - but that would be a poor argument. If you deserve to win the tournament then you have to play the best players and beat them. I beat one of them but couldn’t get past the other two. The problem in both of those games is a problem that I often face - I couldn’t get out of the opening. There’s nothing more depressing in chess than sitting there with a miserable position and thinking you never got the chance to play, to show what you can do. That is the danger when you play sharp openings like the Najdorf.
Sometimes I wonder if I should play like Keith in the opening, just get my pieces out and play chess. I feel like my skill set in the middlegame and endgame are more than sufficent to get a result against almost anybody - as long as I can get out of the opening. Or I could play like Mark Hebden - choose one opening defence with Black and just stick with it and learn it really really well. For what seemed like the 10th millionth time, Keith and Mark faced off in a demo board battle in Hastings, in the sixth round. Someone asked me if I had played Keith or Mark a lot and I said that I probably hadn’t played them anything like as much as they had faced each other; I haven’t been around as long but also crucially, I don’t play anything like as much as they do.
You have to admire their ability to keep going. They’re basically like Duracell bunnies. However i did kind of the get the impression that this extremely long game did rather take it out of them in the latter rounds. There’s only a certain amount of energy when you’re older that you can draw upon.
Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.
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