The Bedfordshire League was where I began playing competitive chess, my first rated game being February 11th 1988 whilst in my last year at school. For those who don’t know, Bedfordshire is the smallest of the home counties in south-east England; it is mostly flat farmland with a few main roads connecting its villages and towns. Conversely, our chess league was also small, rarely going beyond two divisions but bolstered in strength by the addition of Milton Keynes/Open University, Northampton and briefly Rushden, all of whom sought a stronger league to play in than their own. Their addition added greater rivalry within the league without causing any real harm, helping the county teams achieve unprecedented levels of success during the 90′s.
League chess in Beds was always an evening affair, with games starting around 7.30-8pm. Journeys for away games offered short drives, often with little of interest to see and an uninspiring venue at the end. Some clubs were notoriously difficult to find enabling them to pick up points by default occasionally; Cranfield, for example, could only be accessed by narrow country lanes with few signposts, finding it in the dark was very tough indeed; Milton Keynes won the league many times, not because they had the strongest team, but because navigating your way through that city is actually much tougher than chess itself, meaning that most visiting players were usually both late and mentally exhausted upon arrival.
Bedfordshire had a small but strong league, and in many respects, it was no different to many others around the country. I played in nine consecutive seasons, and what little incident there was, is well remembered to this day. I thought I would reflect upon some fonder memories and the distinct lack of impact they had.
1 Sheepdog mauls chess computer
In late November 89, I drove with a friend to March, Norfolk, in search of a Novag chess computer which he wanted to purchase. Not long after, the expensive machine became an object of affection for the family sheepdog Sam, who mauled it one evening. The pieces had all been heavily chewed, some beyond recognition. It was funny to see a chewed chess set with teeth marks and chunks taken out of them. It was as if they had suffered defeat even before the game had begun. The ill-fated machine was then ‘borrowed’ but never returned by another club member some years later.
2 Rogue milk bottle angers A-Team players
A milk bottle escaped from a bag of shopping in the Luton A-team captain’s car once and, unbeknownst to him, hid itself under the driver’s seat. Some weeks later a stench arose. In a match to Milton Keynes, team members complained incessantly and asked for windows to be left open. It was finally discovered after the smell became unbearable.
3 Player gets beaten up in the snow
Ah, the legacy of the seventies, you can’t knock it. We had a player at our club, I won’t say his name because that’s not fair, we’ll use his initials MD instead. I liked him even though many did not. Whilst playing for Vauxhall, when Luton was able to operate its own league, he brought his electric guitar to the chess club to play some heavy metal one winter evening. Unfortunately this didn’t go down too well and a fight soon broke out. My friend Mick informs me that it carried on out into the snow. MD slipped and got punched in the jaw, after some rolling around they both returned to play some chess, without the accompaniment of 70′s heavy metal blasting out.
4 Suicidal Newbie almost causes punch up at AGM
There was a player who joined the Open University named Gerrard Ashby. He was rated around 200 and a thoroughly unpleasant man. The league AGM was usually held at our club, which was where the then president Ken Liddle played. Ashby came along once in during the meeting called the president a wanker. Ken quickly stood up and asked him to step outside. The offer was declined but it set the tone for the meeting which was full of arguments. I only saw Mr.Ashby once after that, he was sporting a horrendous black eye for yet more foul language. Not long after that he killed himself.
5 Engine blows up after stunning county victory
Bedfordshire first made a name for itself nationally when the second team beat Warwickshire in the Minor Counties Final at Aston University in July 91. I was sub that day and didn’t play, as we strengthened the team with a host of 180s. The journey back was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I traveled up in Olly’s light blue Skoda, back in the day when Skoda’s were cheap and nasty. After the match, we had real difficulty getting out of the car park and then got completely lost in Birmingham. Once on the motorway things went more smoothly until the engine blew up and filled the car with black smoke. The windows were quickly opened as we rolled to stop on the junction just before Milton Keynes. No real damage done except to the engine, which had a big hole in it. We were picked up by the side of the motorway and taken home by the driver’s father.
6 Open-top bus blasts out music during play
Towards the end of the season 93-94 we played Norfolk in the King Edward VIII hall, Newmarket. It was a sunny afternoon late in the season, meaning that all the venue windows were all open on our floor, which overlooked the main road. Well into our match with Norfolk a carnival suddenly rolled into town. An open-topped bus stopped outside the hall, giving a live radio dj a direct view of our match, which he began reporting on the radio with great amusement. A brass band then began playing, accompanied by a group of female dancers, also looking into our venue with amusement as it vibrated under the deafening noise. This went on for far too long, causing many of the older players to get out of their chair and look on in disgust. I liked the fact that the dj made an impromptu attempt to drown us out with music but when the carnival passed, the show went on to a choral sigh of relief .
7 Raj loses in four moves!
One of our players once started drinking cans of Guinness on the way to a match. He wasn’t bad, about 160, but lost in four moves due to drunkenness at the board. If memory serves me correctly he left a bishop en prise and resigned.
8 Offensive t-shirt results in life-time ban
A totally ridiculous incident occurred one summer afternoon when a new member got himself banned for life over his T-shirt. The manager of the social club we played in objected to the message on the back of the shirt, which was obscene. It was suggested, politely, that he should turn the shirt inside out, as it was a family club and would cause offence. Some people, however, are incapable of accepting criticism. Rather than do as asked, a crazy half hour arose with the new member repeatedly storming in and out of the building, asking why it was a problem and confronting club officials. At one point he stormed up to the club president looking like he was about to hit him and called him a c**t, resulting in a ban from the social club for life. Fortunately, he had arrived early and most members did not witness the incident. The person in question was aptly named Steven King. I will never forget him for the aforementioned incident and the fact that all his post-game analysis involved the word hassle, ‘He was hassling my rook, so I hassled his king’, and so on…he was about as bad as it got over the board.
9 Player thrown through windscreen during chess club car crash
I’ve talked about it before and I didn’t witness it. It happened in the 80′s. Ivan Mitchell’s name for the victim was piss-head Pat, a man I did meet a few times, and who the author can confirm, lived up to his name. Once, after leaving the chess club, the taxi he took crashed, throwing him through the windscreen into a bush. Pat had no recollection of the event, it was the police who informed him the next day. It sounds apocryphal but was confirmed by several other members.
10 Game lost due to call of nature
One of our more recent players (again he shall remain unnamed) had the ability to cause mild controversy every time he came to the club. He is, unfortunately, one of those people who can’t control themselves and speaks too loudly all the time. Much of what he says confuses those who know him, let alone visiting team members. I always remember him repeatedly asking average club players if they could show him how to beat Karpov!! One evening during a blitz tournament he lost a game (not too uncommon) and tried to stop the clock because he needed to go to the toilet. He then tried to cancel the game because he was unable to concentrate due to the call of nature. He was deadly serious about it. An hour must have passed before we heard the end of it. The following week, he was still unable to stop talking about it. When his opponent from the previous week turned up, he demanded justice: a best of three, which then went to a best of five, and then a best of seven. Sadly he wouldn’t listen to the advice of others, that trying to win on time in blitz by playing entirely random moves isn’t an effective strategy.
11 Loudmouth American gets thrashed by junior
There is an American military base in Bedfordshire. Once in a while we would get personnel from it coming to the club. One evening an over-sized soldier came with a smart case containing numerous neatly packed sets and clocks. He talked a great game and initially refused point blank to play our best junior, who would indicate to us just how good he was. I remember watching events unfold with interest. Within the hour the American packed up all his equipment and promptly left. He lost 6 games in quick succession and never returned. Typical yank, I thought.
12 Dubious Tea Urn causes speedy exit from makeshift cafe during county match
In truth this happened a number of times as county matches tend to seek the same venue. When Bedfordshire first started using the Turner Hall in Newmarket, it had a tea urn that had a problem with its thermostat and teetered on the edge of explosion at times. And what in chess could be worse than traveling across flat countryside, playing out a dull draw in quiet country town, wandering off for a quick cuppa in the endgame, being badly scalded by an exploding tea urn, and then unable to secure the draw! Nothing right? The one occasion I remember this happening was during a casual chat amongst team members, suddenly interrupted by a violent rattling of the tea urn with boiling water spilling over the top, custard creams were laid aside in favour of a hasty exit.
13 Drunken playing session and heavy cigars lead to urinating up walls and puke going everywhere
Another late night session, this time in the Summer of 93 took place at my friends detached house on the town’s most expensive road, involving Ivan Mitchell. Much alcohol was consumed and a box of heavy cigars came out. At the end of the evening, a drunk Ivan decided not to water the flowers but to water the walls twice, finishing the evening off by puking everywhere in the host’s car whilst being driven home. Nice!
14 Relative newcomers encounter air bombs
It was either November 91 or 92. Several matches were being held at our club, one of which involved Milton Keynes C team. From memory, Milton Keynes joined in 89, drawing in players from the yet to be formed Open University. Many players in their teams were new to our league at the time of the match. The week before I had agreed to let air bombs off in the car park close to the playing hall. A number of heads went up and started looking around to see what was going on a friend told me. During a quick couple of pints in the bar afterwards, no one mentioned the air bombs before setting off in the dark. Alas, a couple of loud bangs weren’t enough to unsettle our opponents, making it the only occasion where such measures were employed.
15 Embarrassing incident over the board
There was a gentleman who played for Leighton Buzzard whose name I forget, he was always rated around 150 (1900) in strength, in his late 50′s, grey-haired, always wore a suit and was very polite, I believe he mentioned once that he worked in the city. The first time I played him was in the very early nineties when Leighton Buzzard had those hideous boards with yellow and black squares, and pieces that were slightly too large to fit on them, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, we had to play in some school on the other side of town, or Linslade as its also known. I’ll never forget the incident during the early middle-game where my impeccably mannered opponent accidentally belched and farted simultaneously with such force that everyone in the room must have heard it. He was quite embarrassed and sincerely apologetic even though, out of courtesy, no one acknowledged what happened….I found it funny.
16 Stand off between karate club and chess club emerges over doors not being closed properly
This happened in 85 or 86, so I didn’t witness it but was told about it several times. The first venue I played in was a horrible church hall which we shared with a karate club, and had to cross through their hall to get to our equipment. I noticed that there were signs on all the doors asking you to close them. Sometimes there were even instructions how to do this. The reason being that many doors slammed loudly and upset the more sensitive karate club members. Once, during a league match, a member from the karate club entered our room, slammed the door as loudly as he could three times and shouted ‘THERE, SEE HOW YOU LIKE IT’. Unsurprisingly, no one got out of their seat and confronted him.
17 From Gambit gets author’s head smashed open
It happened on March 6th 1993. I got a lift into London to buy a book on the From Gambit in Foyle’s. Unfortunately I hadn’t slept much the night before, and whilst ascending an escalator, stretched my back over the rail. I didn’t see the metal and glass display cabinet further up, wrecking it beyond repair with my head. There was quite a lot of blood, out of disorientation and fatigue I then left the book behind on the tube.
18 Acts of extreme violence deny school champion a regular playing partner
I cannot write about my experience of chess at school without mentioning my old friend Jalil who provided stern opposition, enabling me to gain valuable practice as I began playing for my home town. I befriended him instantly when he joined our school as he spoke no English, and when he saw me go up on stage to collect my trophies for winning the school championship and league, he wanted to play at every opportunity. Fortunately we had both been kicked out of almost every class in school already, thus had plenty of opportunity. Sadly, Jalil got himself expelled. He came from a family of martial artists and was a black belt in Karate at 15, he was also very hot tempered. A series of events occurred which finally gained him expulsion. First, he threw a typewriter at another pupil’s head, then in English (we called this class Cards, as everyone played blackjack at the back of class instead of study) the day after Luton won the league cup, a riot occurred in our class, during which he ripped the legs off a table and started whacking another boy round the back and the head with them, then finally he got expelled for beating the games teacher up. Some years later I met up with Jalil again, and true to form we played some chess (this time in his Kebab shop). I was already a county player by then, and he was a 2nd dan in a number of martial arts. He wasn’t a bad chess player and helped me use my time in school more effectively.
19 Under real pressure, the author performed at his very best.
I am not and never will be a great chess player due to a distinct lack of talent, and an inability to retain concentration sufficiently. However, this doesn’t mean that there are moments of which I am not proud. When I assumed the role of B Team Captain, my first task was to stave off relegation. It came down to the last game of the season, at home to Leighton Buzzard B, and more importantly my game. Though my opponent was some 200 FIDE points above me, I was so fired up that he was blown out of the water within 25 moves. I kept my team up, something I remained very proud of for a long time. Whilst playing for our A-team a few years later, I also saved it from relegation by winning the final game of the season’s final match, against Bedford A. It’s true that beating someone with a FIDE rating of around 2000 is nothing exceptional but it was the manner in which it occurred. I played with immense passion.
20 County player takes corners faster than Mansell!
It’s MD again, this time with myself in the back of a car that is running late for a county match against Norfolk, held in the equidistant Newmarket. Mr. Mirza, our driver, decided that we wouldn’t be late and started driving like Mansell, we swerved through some bends on the outskirts of the town so fast that we crossed into an oncoming lane and could have caused a serious accident. MD, who had suffered a nervous breakdown in his youth was a fragile character. He became panicked by the excessive speed, and held onto a handgrip tightly. I remember this because I had to inure hours of monotone analysis, suddenly cut short after he was thrown across the backseat whilst entering a sharp dipping bend, prompting a nervy fixation of the road ahead. It was one of those rare occasions where apparent danger came as a godsend.
21 Player pranked by late night playing session
Poor old Roman, sadly no longer with us. I will be forever indebted to his kindness when, as a junior, he showed me how to play the c3 Sicilian. So it is with a little sadness that I remember a late night session between him, my friend Damon and myself in late 89. He went to bed just before midnight but we kept playing until beyond 4 am. It was a slow Sunday morning in late Autumn, Roman awoke at 8am, and being a guest he could have taken offence at having to wait until 4pm before my friend and I finally awoke and went downstairs. Being a gentleman however, he did not and was even able to greet us with a smile.
22 Crafty pensioner retracts move during game.
In the Summer of 93 I was playing in our club quickplay championship and got up to go to the bar. Looking at my position from afar, I saw my opponent play his move. Upon a second glance some minutes later I also saw him retract the move and play something else. I didn’t mind at all because I was clearly ahead and he was one of the weaker club players. I went on to win and said nothing about it. If anything, I found it quite amusing.
23 Super GM downs Bedfordshire’s finest.
The best player Bedfordshire ever produced is GM Jim Plaskett. Since he has not participated in our league since he was a child for various reasons best known to himself, the accolade of our greatest ever player should go to GM Andy Ledger. I first saw him in action at the Hitchin Open in 89, where he came up against a certain Michael Adams. Andy was way ahead in material, a knight if memory serves me correctly but was under pressure both on the board and on the clock. I remember how it had welled up in his face, knowing that with calm play he would surely beat GM Adams. Sadly for us, a clever tacit ending in a back rant mate put paid to Andy’s efforts.
That is about eventful is it got. Chess is generally a serene affair with little of note, there is nothing else I can think of that is noteworthy. In future blogs I will attempt to write about the mundane, which believe it or not, is usually of greater interest. Until then… .