Monday, 11 July 2016


July 2016 marks the end of my 28th consecutive year of teaching chess in schools.

When I first started, back in September 1988, it was with the thought that it would be great to get a full year out of it but that I would definitely take another job as soon as one came along (it hasn't, yet...).

1988 - when the world was still in black and white
The first year set the scene for much of what was to follow. Working in schools is never as easy as some people have the ability to make it appear to be. Back in 1988 schools were very different in many ways. There was absolutely no security, for one thing. No fences around the schools, no buzzers on the doors, no visitor badges, nobody asking any of the obvious questions. Anybody could come and go as they please. I worked in one Middlesbrough school for six months and never once encountered a single member of staff. My CRB certificate went unchecked wherever I went.

What else was different? Headteachers would still teach. They enjoyed teaching. Schools didn't have computers; not even in the school office. Index cards and filing cabinets ruled the world of information. Cups of tea (rare in themselves; sometimes I never found the staffroom after being in a school for a decade) came without rubber safety lids. Back then, if someone - no matter what age - ran into you, it was fair game to tell them to watch where they were going.

I never trained as a teacher. In fact, apart from attending a course with Bob Wade - the same one who appears in my foreword to The Batsford Book of Chess: From Beginner to Winner, I had no training of any kind. I really did make up my own style as I went along, picking up various (hopefully good) teaching ideas and techniques from a whole host of teachers and TAs. I have known lots of great teachers across the decades. Plenty of bad ones, too. The Headteacher of a school in Billingham once told me he was switching an established group of chess children for a new group, claiming the first group were 'really horrible children. They don't appreciate anything and I don't want them to have opportunities like this.' A strange message from a strange man. An early eye-opener about the scope of a school's ethos.

It always disappoints me when teaches spend every possible minute out if their class when I am there. Yes, everyone is busy. But should it be normal for a teacher not to ask how their own class is getting on? Not once, over the course of a whole school year?

Fortunately, I have known numerous fully committed and fiercely loyal teachers and TAs in my time. I will always be very grateful for their efforts.

My initial intention when I started working in schools was specifically to create good chess players. I found it frustrating when our county teams struggled against more experiences teams, although looking back we did make rapid progress as we went from being no-hope novices to qualifiers for the national finals.

County team success in 1993
My premise changed over the course of the first five years or so. I began to see the general opportunity as more important than the chess achievement. Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Give people an opportunity - no matter how small - to better themselves and you may be able to cut out the middleman and head straight for a better world.

I don't need to prove anything about the benefits of chess. They should be too obvious. The important detail is that the skills we encourage to develop are definitely transferable.

Strong chess players can make very poor tutors. Great teachers can be novice chess players. Which is the better combination of the two? The one with the great teacher - every time. Great teachers can teach virtually anything. Strong chess players can really struggle to find the most suitable level to be able teach chess successfully.

What does teaching chess in schools entail? A plethora of skills one wouldn't normally suspect were required. Lifting and rearranging furniture - and making sure it is all back in the correct place afterwards. Making sure children are collected by their parents at the end of an after-school session. Not really the chess tutor's job, but who else is going to do it? Taking the register if the teacher is late into class. Maintaining classroom discipline. Not upsetting teachers from neighbouring classrooms with the unmistakable sounds of children having fun. Finding another room to make way for someone else. In the distant past I fell for the 'one where we use the school hall and get booted out shortly after starting because it's nearly lunchtime.'

One learns to avoid the more obvious traps, over time.

The largest class I've ever had? Over 65 - in a Secondary School. They had messed up the internal timings and sent three groups at once. The most members of staff I have had talking loudly in classroom during a chess session? Six, four years ago. The smallest room I've ever been expected to use? A broom cupboard.

How many work-related bus journeys have I had during the school year 2015-6? The nearest estimate is 1020. Add a few trains and taxis, plus some lifts from very kind people, to build up the whole transport picture.

A decade came and went. Another soon followed; a third is now almost complete. An almost unbelievable amount of time has flown by. I already passed the stage - some time ago, in fact - of seeing my former chess pupils in their new lives: Headteachers, barristers, secretaries, footballers, parents...

Now I find children of my former pupils attending my sessions. It's a great feeling, showing progression. Although it can be a bittersweet experience. I recall a time when I was usually the youngest 'teacher' in a school. Now I often find myself working alongside staff less than half my age. Hello, Mr Chips.

One day I'll tell you the real story.
2016 - still going
How much longer will I continue in schools? All I can promise is that I am committed to my 29th year...

Sunday, 3 July 2016

7th Mike Closs Memorial Tournament

Four players contested this year's Mike Closs Memorial Tournament. The venue, for the fourth consecutive year, was Marsh Towers.

The defending champion, Julian Allinson, was back to try and defend his title and former champion David Baillie was one of the three challengers out to try and stop him. Julian and David are the only two people to have played in all seven memorial tournaments. They were joined by Kevin Winter, who has played in most of the events, and fellow CSC Teesside tutor, Richard Harris, who was making his debut.

The players selected an envelope to determine their number in the draw for pairings.

Play was soon underway...with just five minutes on each clock.

The first cycle in the 'all-play-all four times' allowed the players to use their favourite openings, but the second cycle imposed randomly drawn openings that were all based on Mike's favourites; mainly very sharp gambits.

At the end of the first cycle, the defending champion had already staked a strong claim to be crowned again.

First Cycle

5.5/6: Julian Allinson
3/6: David Baillie
2.5/6: Kevin Winter
1/6: Richard Harris

The second cycle saw the following openings: Sicilian Wing Gambit, Sicilian Dragon, Modern Defence, Black Lion, Modern Benoni and Milner-Barry Gambit.

Second Cycle

4.5/6: Julian Allinson
3.5/6: Kevin Winter
2.5/6: Richard Harris
1.5/6: David Baillie

Kevin and Richard both won more points in the themed cycle than they did in the first, whereas Julian and Dave did the opposite. Nevertheless, Julian, despite losing a game against Richard, had already done more than enough to secure first place.

Final Scores 

10/12: Julian Allinson
6/12: Kevin Winter
4.5/12: David Baillie
3.5/12: Richard Harris
Julian takes the title again!
Well played, everyone!
Reports on previous events:

6th Memorial Tournament

5th Memorial Tournament

4th Memorial Tournament

3rd Memorial Tournament

2nd Memorial Tournament

1st Memorial Tournament

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Mike and the Caro-Kann

As we saw yesterday, Mike Closs had a number of weapons in his arsenal to take on the French Defence. After his normal 1 e4, he played many times against 1 ...e6, but it is a little odd that so few people tried the related move 1 ...c6. Somehow the Caro-Kann was rarely seen in Mike's games. As far as I know, he never played it as Black, preferring openings based on a kingside fianchetto (Pirc, Modern, Sicilian Dragon), although he did have a brief spell with the French Defence a long time ago.

With White, he varied his response to the Caro-Kann without ever settling on a favourite. After 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5, I certainly saw him play 3 Nc3, 3 Nd2, 3 e5 and 3 exd5 (the latter two against me when I twice surprised him with 1 ...c6).

Today's game sees him using the Advance Variation and reveling in the standard space advantage before arranging a tactical denouement.

Mike Closs vs. Kyle Kinnie
Redcar Open, 1995

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. Be3 Bb4 6. Nge2 Ne7 7. Ng3 g6 8. Bg5 h5 Black's kingside pawn play is reminiscent of a Gurgenidze System, although it would be useful if the bishop could fill in the weaknesses on the dark squares. On the other hand, the pin on the knight is quite annoying for White.

9. h4 Nd7 10. Be2 Qa5 11. Qd2 Rg8  Rather than commit the rook to a particular position, Black should have stayed more flexible with 11 ...c5 or even 11 ...0-0 12. O-O Nb6 13. a3 Bxc3 14. bxc3 Na4 15. Rab1 Just in time, as Black was building serious pressure on the queenside. The counter-threat against b7 stops Black from gaining the advantage.

15 ...Nb6 16. Rb3 Kd7 17. Rfb1 Rae8 An important moment in the game. White stands better, but how can he inject a little more poison into the position?

18. Qc1! Making way for the bishop to retreat from g5 to d2, when it can play against the black queen. I like this creative idea very much. 18 ...Rc8 19. Bd2 Nc4 Black cracks under the pressure. 19 ...Qa4, although not entirely satisfactory, avoids the tempo-gaining 20 c3-c4 and is probably the best try. Once b7 drops the writing is definitely on the wall. 20. Rxb7+ Rc7 21.Bg5 Rgc8 I can't recall a single game in which Mike threw away such an advantage. I really like the way he now swaps off all three sets of minor pieces, almost on successive moves. He undoubtedly had the final position of the game in his mind, even from this distance. 22. Bxe7 Kxe7 23. Qg5+ Ke8 24. Nxf5 exf5 25. Bxc4 dxc4

26. e6 Qa6 27. Rxc7 Rxc7 28. Rb8+ Rc8 

Go on then, Mike!

29. Qf6!! and Black resigned, 1-0. Just try and find a successful defence!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Mike and the French Defence

We continue our tribute series to the late, great Mike Closs with a fabulous game he played against the French Defence.

The French Defence featured very regularly in our chess conversations, as it was the defence I most often played against his habitual 1 e4. Mike would try to trick me into revealing my thoughts on various lines, presumably with the idea of saving them up and using them against me. No such luck. Then, as now, I kept my cards close to my chest.

Mike Closs vs. Peter Hempson
Redcar Open, 1995

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2

Mike played so many lines against the French, including the Advance, 3 Nc3 and the Wing Gambit. However, the Tarrasch was his most regular choice.

3 ...Nf6 4. e5 Ne4 An unusual line, advocated by GM Daniel King on his French Defence DVDs (actually, in those days it was still Foxy Openings video tapes!).

5. Bd3 f5 6. exf6 Nxf6 7. g4

No messing around from Mike! Black must react to the threat of 8 g5 followed by a quick Qh5+.

7 ...g6 8. h4 e5 9. g5 e4 10. Be2 Ng8 11. Nb3 Bf5 12. Bf4 Bd6 13. Qd2 Ne7 14. O-O-O b6 15. f3 Mike's favourite occupation: opening lines!

15 ...Nbc6 16. fxe4 Bxe4 17. Rh3 

Wonderfully original play by Mike, who is already planning on swinging the rook across to the queenside.

17 ...Qd7 17 ...a5 is an interesting alternative, with the intention of embarrassing the knight on b3.

18. Bxd6 Qxd6 19. Re1 O-O-O This looks logical, but is perhaps inferior to both 19 ...a5 and 19 ...0-0. As soon as Black's king castles queenside, Mike steps up a gear and lets him have it.

 20. Ba6+ Kb8 21. Nc5!

He was very strong when he held the initiative.

21 ...Na5 22. Ra3 Rhf8 23. Ree3 Nf5 24. Rec3 bxc5 25. Rxa5 Nxd4 26. Rcxc5 Qf4 Tempting, as it appears to substantially dilute the attack, However, Mike proves it to be an error. Black should have tried the unlikely-looking 26 ...Qxa6 27 Rxa6 when 27 ...Rf1+ 28 Qd1 and now not the obvious 28 ...Rxd1+, which leaves White in control, but 28 ...Rxg1!!, when 29 Qxg1 allows 29 ...Ne2+ and 30 ...Nxg1.

27. Rab5+!

Mike's attack is spectacular and even more impressive as it looks as if Black has secured an exchange of queens. How is Mike to crown his attack without his favourite attacking piece....?

27 ...Nxb5 28. Rxb5+ Ka8 29. Bb7+ Kb8 30. Bxd5+ Kc8 31. Be6+ Rd7 32. Bxd7+ Kd8 33. Rb8+ Ke7 

Go on then, Mike!

34. Re8+! Rxe8 35. Qxf4 Kxd7 36. Nf3 and after this remarkably late debut move by White's king's knight, Black resigned, 1-0

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Mike and the Danish Gambit

Yesterday's game showed Mike's resourcefulness under pressure. Yet it was not a typical game for him. Mike was the one who normally held the initiative and more often than not he was able to drive home his advantage to pick up the full point.

He excelled when he was White and able to unleash one of his pet gambits. He was fascinated by the Danish Gambit for a couple of decades and was rewarded by numerous notable victories after gaining a very early advantage. Mike would often phone just to update me on his analysis of this opening, safe in the knowledge that I would never allow him to play it against me, as I was not going to reply to his 1 e4 with 1 ...e5!

Today's game was played in one of Mike's rare appearances in the 4NCL. The game was published in a couple of places, most notably in the 2003 book Danish Dynamite by Mueller and Voigt.

Mike Closs vs. Nicholas Jakubovics

1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Bc4 cxb2 5. Bxb2

Here it is. White sacrifices pawns to load up two torpedo bishops. Black has to be very careful. Amazingly, most of Mike's opponents avoided the safest line for Black, which starts with 5 ...d5, returning some of the material to speed up the second player's own development.

5 ...d6 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Qb3 Qd7 


Black has defended against the threat on f7 and now has hopes of trading knight for bishop after 8 ...Na5, so Mike takes steps to prevent this. Black then finds an artificial-looking way to mobilize his kingside pieces. 8. Bc3 Nh6 9. h3 f6 10. O-O Nf7 11. Na3 Nce5 12. Nxe5 Nxe5

Here one might expect Mike to play to preserve the bishops with 13 Be2, to be followed by 14 f4, hitting the centralized knight. Instead he must have been tempted to force his initiative in a more direct fashion. Perhaps he was concerned by giving Black a defensive tempo to play 13 ...Qf7. He was not always the most patient of players!

13. Bxe5 dxe5?

13 ...fxe5 is the better of the two recaptures. The game move justifies Mike's 13 Bxe5 and allows him whip up a very strong attack. Indeed, his play from this point on appears to be faultless.

14. Rfd1 Bd6 15. Bb5 c6

16. Nc4! Brilliant - and absolutely typical of Mike. 16 ... cxb5 17. Nxd6+ Kf8 18. Rac1 Qe6

Go on then, Mike...

19. Rxc8+!!  Black resigned, 1-0

Stay tuned for more of Mike's games this week as we build up towards the 7th Mike Closs Memorial Tournament.

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.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Best of the Year

Of the many gigs I attended and enjoyed from last December to this, I would say these we're the highlights...

PiL at The 02, London. Somehow I found myself deep in the mosh pit instead of being seated upstairs. Quite an experience; quite a show.

Sparks - two nights at the Barbican, London. They played Kimono My House all the way through followed by some other hits, backed all the way by a massive orchestra.

Woody Woodmansey's Holy Holy, The Lexington, Pentonville Road. Woody, the drummer from the Spiders From Mars, led an ensemble through the classic songs of David Bowie. Steve Norman (of Spandau Ballet) was part of the band.

The Transatlantic Sessions at The Sage, Gateshead. An annual treat, enhanced even more by the addition of Patty Griffin.

Spandau Ballet at the Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle. A class act.

Deep into Brixton for Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart. Jah was celebrating the release of Redux, a highly recommended box set covering 1978-2015.

A fabulous double-header at the Americana Festival (the Sage again) saw Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell one night, followed by...

...Rosanne Cash (who had been in the audience for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell) the following evening.

Culture Club managed to put their differences behind them to rock the Hammersmith Apollo in style.

I was at the London Palladium for the final English show for Jerry Lee Lewis. What a show!

Back to London again - this time the King's Place - for the return of Patty Griffin. Patty was showcasing the new songs from Servant of Love.

Florence + The Machine put on a very theatrical and memorable show at the Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle.

Closer to home, Space came to the Georgian Theatre, Stockton to blast away any lingering 2015 cobwebs. They clearly had as much fun as we did.

Tommy Scott had been at The Green Room (around the corner from the Georgian Theatre) for a solo acoustic show earlier in the year. Hopefully he will back next year.

I wonder what 2016 will bring...?