Monday 27 June 2016

Mike and The Black Lion

As we approach the 7th Mike Closs Memorial tournament, it seems like a good time to dust the cobwebs from this blog to share some more memories of my great friend, who was taken from this world far too early.

From the start of the 1980 - when we played on board one for our respective schools - up until 2010 - the year of his tragic death - we liked to analyse chess together. Generally speaking, we were on the same level as each other and this helped both of us to progress from novice school team players to county champions.

However, it wasn’t the case that we would share all of our secrets. When we prepared certain opening variations, full of traps and pitfalls, they were often intended for…each other! The point is we didn’t always play for the same local club. When I joined Guisborough, Mike played for Redcar. Then he made the move across to the other side of East Cleveland and we spearheaded Guisborough’s famous charge towards the title in 1988. It was Guisborough’s first A Division title for 50 years (we won the B Division title too). Unfortunately, it was also their last title as the club folded in 2015.

Later, after a decade’s break from league chess, I returned with a new club - Elmwood. Mike played for Middlesbrough at that point. He joined me at Elmwood after couple of years and Elmwood experienced a spell of great dominance. Now even the Elmwood club has folded, although it has been replaced by one in Stockton.

Apart from having to prepare for each other in league matches, we also crossed swords in the club championships of Guisborough, Redcar and Elmwood and in the Cleveland Championship. Not to mention many times in chess congresses and Rapidplay events.

We knew each other’s game so well that we often threw in a few surprises. The psychological effect of unveiling an unexpected opening - or even a particulate variation of an opening - should never be underestimated. Inherent paranoia can set in. Why is he playing this? What nasty surprise has he prepared? Should I vary my own openings to try and get away from his preparation? 

One particular opening surprise would have happened in a very important Cleveland Championship in 2002 whoever had been White and Black in the game. For we had been independently preparing the same opening to surprise each other! 

Mike told me he had the book, The Lion (by Jerry van Rekom and Leo Jansen), with him when we had last played, side-by-side, in a recent league match. He had folded the pages backwards to hide the cover, in case I had spotted it in his bag! What he didn't know was that I was preparing the very same opening, from the very same book, to be used against Mike the next time I had the black pieces.

Sean Marsh vs. Mike Closs
Round 6
Cleveland Championship, 2001-2

1. e4 Already a surprise. Most of our games with me as White started 1 d4. In the previous year's County Championship we had transposed to a Pirc Defence, which ended in an exciting draw by perpetual check. I wanted to set Mike thinking as soon as possible. Would he be curious about my preparation for his other favourite, the Sicilian Defence?

1 ...d6 Well, perhaps a Pirc after all...

2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nbd7 Oh - The Lion! This is what I had been preparing to play against Mike in the event of reversed colours, so I knew something about the white side of the position too. 

4. f4 e5 5. Nf3 exd4 6. Qxd4 A critical line.

6 ...Be7 We were both novices in the world of The Lion. According to the book, Black should play 6 ...c6. Black falls into a worse position due to this omission. First, he has to waste a tempo to get his bishop to c5 and then it turns out the d5 square lacks protection and the white knight can occupy it with impunity.

7. e5 dxe5 8. fxe5 Bc5 9. Qh4 Qe7 10. Bf4 Ng4 

Sharply played. Now 11 Qxg4 can lead to trouble after 11 ...Nxe5, with a discovered attack on the queen.

11. Qxe7+ I always liked to trade queens with Mike. It reduced - to some extent - his great attacking potential.

11... Bxe7 12. Nd5 Bd8 

13. h3 c6 14. Nc3 Nh6 15. O-O-O White, with a spatial advantage, is better. Yet it is not out of the question that the isolated e-pawn will turn out to be a useful target.

15 ...Nc5 16. g4 Ba5 17. Be3 Bb6 

Fancy footwork from Mike, in a tricky position. 18 ...Nb3+ 19 axb3 Bxe3+ is a threat, gaining control of the dark squares and easing the defence by trading a minor piece. 

18. Kb1 O-O Late castling for Mike! He invariably put his king into safety as soon as possible, but here he had to take his time to tidy up the rest of his position first.

19. Bc4 Na4 A tactical solution to some of Black's problems. He wins some dark squares after all. 

20. Nxa4 Bxe3 21. Rhe1 Bf4 22. Nc5 b5 23. Bb3 Bg3 24. Rf1 a5 25. a3 Re8 26. Ng5 Ra7 27.Nxf7 Nxf7 28 Ne4

I was expecting 28 ...Bh4 here, to be followed by the extremely strong 29 Nd6, hitting virtually everything. Unfortunately for me, Mike found a way to jettison the extra material and to force unlikely equality!

28... Be6 Here Mike offered a draw. We were both very short of time (the time control was at move 36) and it seemed a fair result, so... 1/2-1/2

We will continue the build-up to the 7th Memorial Tournament as the week progresses.

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