Monday, 22 November 2004

Archive: UNCUT! 34

The Sean Marsh Chess Column

Column 34
November 2004

England, Oh England!

Dear Readers,

Did any of you follow the England performance at the recent Chess Olympiad?

Way back at the first ever Olympiad, (London 1927) England took third place. Of course, the Olympiads were much smaller in those days and Russia-free but England continued to more or less hold their own even when other countries began to stockpile Grandmasters and we had to rely on talented amateurs.

Some of you may remember the thrilling chase for gold at the Dubai Olympiad back in 1986 when England lost out to Russia (headed by Kasparov and Karpov) by half a point. We all believed that it marked a big turning point and that England might even progress beyond their position as number two in the world. It should have been the start of something bigger. Instead, it was a peak England reached and never went beyond.

Well, this time it wasn’t an easy task following England’s progress after the first few rounds because the team was scoring so poorly that it vanished off the top pairings lists.

At first, I thought they might have just had trouble warming up because they followed up a nervy looking 2½-1½ against Turkey with 3-1 victories against both Croatia and Denmark in the next couple of rounds. Things didn’t ever get better than that; a substandard 2½-1½ against Canada was followed by defeats to Poland, the Netherlands and Hungary, with a solitary victory over Mexico in between. Despite being dumped very much into ‘the pack’ England were completely unable to lift their performance and the last six rounds brought a mixed of victories against Indonesia and Macedonia, draws with Iceland, Belarus and Australia and a catastrophic defeat to Vietnam.

The final standings told no lies. England’s tally of 31 points was only enough to hold 30th place (they started the event seeded 6th) – their lowest ever placing. Michael Adams played in 13 games and scored 10 points. So where did it all go wrong?

A couple of months or so ago, when it was announced that the England team had a new sponsor, hopes and expectations were higher than usual. Adams and Short were confirmed as team members and Luke McShane was on good form and would be expected to score heavily on board 3. Completing the squad were Jonathan Speelman, Peter Wells and Mark Hebden. It looked good.

The first wheel came off even before the first pawn was pushed. It soon became apparent that Short wouldn’t be able to join the squad until the last few rounds due to another tournament commitment.

Straight away we see a problem. A squad of six is deemed necessary to bring out the best in a team and the art of choosing who to play and when to rest is an essential part of potential success. By including a player in a squad when he can only make the last few rounds is a completely unbalanced way of thinking and it is assuming that such a player is going to score so heavily when he does arrive that is going to outweigh the advantage of having a full squad right from the start. Short’s ultimate score of 1½/4 was clearly a major disappointment but even if he’d won all of his games, would it have been worth it? It must go down as a serious error of judgement.

I’m not convinced that the chosen squad was the best one for the job. The team seems to lack a certain something; the hunger for victory, the ability to dominate the lesser teams rather than drop points to all and sundry. It cannot be that the majority of the team was off form.

We are missing Sadler who more or less gave up chess several years ago. We have never really replaced the likes of Nunn and Chandler who traditionally scored heavily for the team.

There are two full years to go before the next Olympiad. What can be done to improve matters before then? A good shake up is essential. There is still a clique element, which in my opinion prevents the best team being selected. There is far too much of the ‘cosy slipper’ mentality; team selections must be braver. Changes must be made to return a sense of dynamism to the England team, both on and off the board.

It shouldn’t take much to elevate our standing above 30th. It might take a great deal more to return us to the dizzy heights reached in 1986, or even 1927. Whatever happens, one thing is crystal clear: what we are doing now simply isn’t good enough.

Sean Marsh

November 2004