Victories, hollow and solid: an interview with Michael Bennett

By Andrew Medworth
Saturday 5 December, 2020

In my last interview, I talked to the man who turned Hendon into a go-to destination for chess events. Continuing the series, I’m talking to the man who turned the club into serial competition-winners.

Michael Bennett has done a huge amount to shape Hendon Chess Club over the years. He had three periods of membership, joining in the 1970s as a junior, returning as a young adult in the 1980s, and then getting involved again in 2008 after taking quite a long break from chess.

Michael Bennett at the 2009 Club Championship (photo courtesy of Adam Raoof)
Michael Bennett at the 2009 Club Championship (photo courtesy of Adam Raoof)

The recovery

We’ll get into some of the back-story later, but I want to start in 2008, because in my view, it’s here that Michael really started playing a key role in making us the club we are today. Without him, I think it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t have won the Middlesex League nine times, including last season (and been runners-up twice) since then.

When Michael returned to the club, he found it in an unhealthy condition. It was losing members, there were just two Middlesex League teams, and they weren’t doing well.

“We were down to just 16 active players,” Michael recalls. “We were defaulting all over the place because not everyone could turn up. We defaulted our way to relegation that season, for team two.”

The first team wasn’t doing much better. “Adam [Raoof] nabbed me for bottom board for the first team for that season. And we just managed to stay up in the First Division. It was pretty soul-destroying: King’s Head would come in, and they’d just beat us in about an hour and then leave. It was really horrible. I didn’t like it: this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! Adam had come to do a publicity campaign, but we were still really struggling.”

“I thought, what can I do to help? I said I thought I could probably make a website for the club. Because they had this one-pager website on GeoCities or something, Times Roman [font]!”

Many readers will not be old enough to remember this particular phase of the web’s history, but I am, and I can sympathise!

The website Michael put together was a fantastic resource. Having taken over as website manager from him this season, I resolved to preserve as much of the old content as I could, and there was just a vast repository of material there, particularly reports on matches and other events! Along with our Facebook page (we didn’t open a Twitter account until later), Michael’s website significantly improved our visibility and drew in new members.

But that was just the start: Michael had plans. Big plans.

“There was a Central London Rapidplay that got started up by somebody from Hackney, and we decided to enter that at the end of that year. And we won it!” he says. “Dan Ellis and I scored really highly on the middle two boards, and then we had a Board 1 who did okay, and our bottom board was quite strong as well. We actually won that year - and it was the first time we’d won anything for 25 years. From 1947 to 2008, the only thing we’d ever won was the London League in 1982-83. We’d never won the Middlesex League.” A glance at our roll of honour will confirm this!

The taste of victory was intoxicating, and it seems that in its aftermath, the Club took a decision that would have major ramifications.

Hired guns

“I don’t know if we should have this on the record or not,” Michael says. “But basically, I said we should try getting a kitty together, and getting a professional player to play on top board for the next year, just to give us a better chance of staying up. This was something another Middlesex League club had tried a couple of years previously, and it had worked for them - they managed to retain their first-division status.”

The use of “hired guns” to strengthen league teams is one of the most controversial topics in British club chess. The best-known example is Wood Green, who have won the London League every single year since 2003 by paying the UK’s top players to converge on the capital from all parts of the country to represent them in match after match.

This policy has attracted great opprobrium from across the London chess world. “Financial fair play hits London Chess League in historical rivalry,” screamed a headline in the SW Londoner earlier this year. Battersea and Hammersmith - two of the capital’s best-run clubs in my opinion - are particularly offended, with the latter tweeting “Tonight we take on Financial Fair Play’s money-doping league chumps, Wood Green”, and the former fielding an all-junior side against them in protest.

What Hendon did in the 2009-10 season wasn’t nearly as extreme as that. The Hendon 1 Middlesex League team of that year was still mostly Hendon members. It started with just one professional per match.

“Our joke was, we’re going to have a different strong player every time on top board,” Michael says. “So we started off with Lawrence Trent. Then we had Lorin D’Costa at one point, Aaron Summerscale etc - we had various strong players play, which was quite fun. We thought, we’ll just keep them guessing! And we were also supporting professional players.”

“We did have a really long hard think about it beforehand. I guess I was the instigator; I felt that it would be a good thing for the club to try out. Adam said, ‘I’m not sure we should do it.’ He’s more experienced on the chess circuit than I am - he had misgivings, and he anticipated what would happen. I wasn’t so experienced: I was just, ‘let’s do it!’.” And eventually Adam agreed.

Hendon 1’s line-ups from that season make interesting reading. The full list of FIDE-titled players who were paid appearance fees in that 14-match season (with number of games played) is:

  • IM Lorin D’Costa (5)
  • GM Aaron Summerscale (4)
  • GM Simon Williams (1)
  • GM Alexander Cherniaev (1)
  • IM Lawrence Trent (1)

Perhaps the most prominent name on the list is Simon Williams, who is a well-known English Grandmaster and YouTube celebrity. When I looked at Michael’s archives, I found that Simon had even annotated his one and only game for Hendon. Those of you who know the Ginger GM’s inimitable style will certainly recognise it here:

[Event "Kings Head 1 v Hendon 1"] [Date "2010.03.29"] [White "Williams, Simon"] [Black "McMichael, Richard J"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A40"] [EventDate "2010.03.29"] 1.d4 e6 2.Nf3 f5 3.e4 $5 { I think that Nigel Povah is the only strong player that I know who has played this gambit on a regular basis. It is certainly dangerous. } 3...fxe4 4.Ng5 Nf6 5.f3 exf3 ( 5...c5 { is what I recommend in "Play the Classical Dutch". } 6.fxe4 cxd4 7.Bd3 ( 7.e5 $2 Qa5+ ) 7...Nc6 ) 6.Qxf3 Nc6 $1 ( 6...h6 7.Qh3 Bd6 8.Bd3 O-O 9.O-O Qe8 10.Nc3 $5 { N. Povah - D. Shaw, 2002, 1-0. } ) 7.c3 ( 7.Bd3 Nxd4 8.Qh3 Nf5 ) 7...Bd6 8.Bd3 O-O 9.O-O Qe8 $6 ( 9...h6 10.Ne4 ( 10.Qh3 Qe8 ( 10...hxg5 $2 11.Bxg5 ) 11.Nf3 Qh5 ) 10...Nd5 11.Qe2 ) 10.Nd2 h6 ( 10...Qh5 $2 11.Bxh7+ Kh8 12.Qxh5 Nxh5 13.Rxf8+ Bxf8 14.Ndf3 ) 11.Nge4 Ne7 $6 { A mistake in a tricky position. } ( 11...Be7 12.Nxf6+ Rxf6 13.Qe4 Rxf1+ 14.Nxf1 ) 12.Nxd6 cxd6 13.Nc4 Ned5 ( 13...d5 ) 14.Nxd6 Qe7 ( 14...Qh5 15.Qxh5 Nxh5 16.Bh7+ ) 15.Qg3 $18 Nh5 16.Rxf8+ Qxf8 17.Qg6 $18 { And now I played like a plonker! } 17...Qxd6 18.Qxh5 $6 { In hindsight I should have just captured the queen but I thought that this would be easily winning as well, as I could not see a defence for Black. } ( 18.Qe8+ Qf8 19.Bh7+ Kxh7 20.Qxf8 $18 { is winning but I thought that Black would struggle on for a while. In the game I wanted to checkmate Black! } ) ( 18.Bxh6 { was also interesting } ) 18...Qe7 19.Bg5 $2 { A disgusting move! I played this far too quick, my original idea was } ( 19.Bxh6 $1 { which would have won quickly, for example } 19...gxh6 20.Rf1 $1 { I saw this far but thought that Black could aim to play on for a while in the ending after } 20...Nf6 21.Qg6+ Qg7 22.Rxf6 Qxg6 23.Rxg6+ { but of course the position is hopeless for Black. } ) 19...hxg5 { I am still better but I had basicallty forgot that now Black could play ...Nf4 at some point, oh dear! } 20.Qh7+ Kf8 ( 20...Kf7 $2 21.Bg6+ Kf6 22.Rf1+ Nf4 23.Rxf4+ gxf4 24.Qh4+ Kxg6 25.Qxe7 ) 21.Rf1+ Nf4 ( 21...Nf6 22.Bg6 Qf7 $5 { was one line I saw but I had spotted } 23.Qh8+ Qg8 24.Rxf6+ gxf6 25.Qxf6+ Qf7 26.Qxf7# ) 22.h4 ( 22.g3 $5 ) 22...Qf6 $2 { This makes my life easy. } ( { Best was } 22...e5 $1 { when most of my advantage has slipped away! } ) 23.hxg5 Qxg5 24.Qe4 $16 d5 25.Rxf4+ Ke7 26.Qe3 Kd6 27.Bb5 $1 { This stops Black developing his queenside. } 27...a6 ( 27...Bd7 28.Bxd7 Kxd7 29.Rf7+ ) 28.Be8 b5 29.c4 $1 e5 $2 ( 29...dxc4 30.Qa3+ Kc7 31.Rf7+ Kb6 32.Qd6+ Ka5 33.Rf3 $1 ) 30.dxe5+ Qxe5 31.c5+ 1-0

(See also the match report from the time, which has a couple of videos Simon recorded on the game as well!)

Fun though this all is to look back on, Michael soon learned that paying appearance fees to professional players has costs beyond just the financial.

“One of the problems was that we started winning all our matches, basically. And when we got to about two thirds of the way through the season, we realised that we were in with a chance of winning the League for the first time, and it would be an amazing thing. So we had another whip-round, and then in a couple of matches, we had more than one professional player play for us. And then we won it… and it felt terrible. It felt really hollow. It wasn’t really us playing. [At least one club member] unfortunately left [because of it], and I had another first team player come to me and say he was not happy with winning it this way. So I said okay, from now on we’ll do it with no fees.”

This point bears emphasis: Hendon has not paid any player to play competitive chess for us before or since the 2009-10 season, more than ten years ago.

The majority of the titled players Michael has persuaded to play for the club over the years - and all of them, since 2009-10 - have done so without financial compensation. Many were recruited at the monthly blitz tournaments Adam Raoof ran, or just through conversations Michael had at other events. “Sometimes Adam would literally say, ‘you have to come to the rapidplay now, there’s a really strong player here, come and get them!’,” he says.

Although Michael did agree to stop paying players after the 2009-10 victory, he does not regret doing it for that one season, he tells me. “It was a stepping stone, just not something to repeat,” he says. “It wasn’t a mistake, because it’s why we’ve grown so much [since]. I regret that anyone left the club [over it], but I see it like a journey: we went somewhere, and we didn’t like it that much, so we won’t go there again.”

Barnet Knights

Another key to Hendon’s recovery after 2008 was the cooperation with Barnet Knights junior club. One recommendation I always have for people looking at chess clubs is, how many junior players do they have, and how good a job do they do of helping them “graduate” into senior chess? Barnet Knights is the way Hendon solved that problem.

“Rob Willmoth joined us just after we won the League,” Michael says. “He’d always been a Hackney guy: he actually played against us [for Hackney] at the end of [the 2009-10 season], the year we won. He moved locally and switched to Hendon. And then he took over Barnet Knights, he became a junior organiser and coach.”

Our operation with them began in 2012-13 - that’s the year we started having a fifth team, and the year the first graduates started to play. “Rob said, ‘I’ve got this proposal,'” Michael recalls. “‘Basically Hendon runs a team for us in the Middlesex League, Hendon 5. I want to call it Hendon Barnet Knights because it’s like an advert for the club.’ I said okay, that sounds fine, because that’s what it is: it’s like a conjunction between the two clubs.”

“There was resistance from some members. I don’t want to go into names, but they said kids aren’t that good at chess, they’re all tactical, they’re not positional. We’ve got this really quiet adult club, do we really want these noisy kids to arrive? I’d been coaching at Barnet Knights already - Rob roped me in to go and have a look - and I said, I think perhaps you should just see these kids play…”

“What happened was, amazingly, the third or fourth team started the season with their match against Barnet Knights, and they were short of players. So I said that’s fine, we’ve got excess players in Barnet Knights, we’ll just choose the strongest ones to promote up to the third team, and they’ll be our player against Barnet Knights. And it was Sacha Brozel against Josh Altman, I think was the game. And everyone was so impressed with their play. They were just nine-year-olds. And people said, ‘they’re in,’ basically, and there wasn’t any problem after that. That’s been our scheme ever since.”

The only Brozel - Altman clash I can find is in this match between Hendon 3 and Hendon 4 on 16th October 2012, and this seems to be the one Michael is referring to. But what no-one can nit-pick is the great benefits that the Barnet Knights partnership has brought us over the years.

We have also been fortunate to have a number of top-class coaches in our ranks, including Julian Meszaros. Julian joined us (again, without being paid), coached some of our players, and even brought some of his pupils with him, like GM Tamas Fodor. “Meszaros is a world-class coach,” Michael says. “He has coached World Junior Champions!”

Michael is keen to emphasize his pride in the junior players we have seen come through. Sacha Brozel, Federico Rocco, Isaac Sanders, Ravi Haria, Oscar Pollack, Gautam Jain, Jason Covey, Kennan Kesterson - and the tradition is continuing, with Eric Eedle, Savas Marin Stoica, Alex Leslie, Eugenia Karas and Dev Ranka all making regular appearances. Michael knows all their names, and is delighted by their achievements - and even more so when they come back and play for Hendon, after they have “flown the nest”!

Junior years

While I was certainly interested in how the club recovered from its slump after 2008, that period is already quite well covered in the website Michael built. I’m also interested in Michael’s earlier memories of Hendon, since he has been a member for so long.

“This is my old notebook,” he says, holding it up to the camera (we spoke by video conference, of course, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic). “I used to write down games in here. The second one I’ve got in here is a match game that was played between Hendon and Camden, on 28th October 1976 in the Middlesex League. It’s by a guy called Bob Craven, who was from Hendon, against ‘M. Flowers’ - I think it’s Malcolm Flowers - from Camden. That would have been the first time I went to the club - I’d have been twelve and three quarters!”

“I sat there and wrote the game down. Because when I first went to the club, I just sat and watched - I was really interested in how stronger players would play. I was really into chess. I played school chess for my primary school, but I’d read about Bobby Fischer, who used to go to chess clubs in New York, and just sit there and watch, and sometimes play. And I thought, well, I’ll do that then. So I went off to the local chess club, which was in Hendon, probably a ten-minute walk away.”

“At that time, the club met in the Labour Party headquarters, which is a really big building. I think it’s a doctor’s practice now. You walk in through a big front door, and then on the left there was a room and on the right there was a room. The left one was for friendlies and social chess, and on the right was where they had the matches. And it was full of smoke. That’s another thing I remember: everyone used to smoke really badly - pipes, cigarettes, you name it. It was absolutely the worst environment for a young person!”

Michael was very keen on improving right from the start. “I had learned the game when I was six, from my uncle,” he says. “When I was seven, I won my primary school chess championship, for under-elevens. But I didn’t really have any encouragement - people were just, like, wow, that’s great.”

“There was a teacher there, that unfortunately put me off. He brought a lot of chess to the school, but he put me too low down in the team. He said, you haven’t got enough fighting spirit, kind of thing. I’m quite sensitive, and I took it on board. And I gave up chess for a bit, unfortunately.”

“There was another guy there who became really strong. And he beat me in the final of the chess championship when I was about nine or ten. And I didn’t enjoy it, because I had to play against him on a massive board in front of the whole school. And I couldn’t visualise, because I was so small, I could hardly see over the pieces! It wasn’t a proper chess game! And so those experiences put me off.”

“But the second prize was a book called Logical Chess Move By Move, by Irving Chernev. I put that down for a couple of years, but when I was eleven or twelve, I read it cover-to-cover. And I really got into chess because of that book! I took it up more seriously, because I went to the Hendon senior high school, and there were quite a few strong, enthusiastic chess players there. They took me into the chess club. That’s why I would have gone to Hendon Chess Club at that point.”

Michael must have been a big hit at the club straight away, because remarkably, he won the Club Championship in 1977. “The way they used to do it in those days was, you were given pairings, and then you used to go off and play them when you could,” he recalls. “You’d have a week or two to play this game. I remember that I played the decisive game at school with someone else who was also a Hendon Chess Club member. I remember winning that and then thinking, I’m now the club champion! I must have been thirteen. And I was ungraded still.”

You’d think they would have encouraged an obviously talented young player, but that’s not the way Michael recalls it. “I remember this guy with a pipe, and I don’t know his hame, but I know there’s an ‘H’ involved. It must have been Dr. ‘H’, or Mr. ‘H’ or something. When I first arrived, he said, do you want a game? And he just beat me. I was using an opening out of the book I’d read, Logical Chess Move By Move, but it was really old-fashioned and it wasn’t very good. And then I said, do you want another game? And he said ‘no, I don’t, because you’re too weak’.”

What a thing to say to a twelve-year-old! Quite apart from the unkindness, given the speed with which junior players tend to improve, it seems like a terrible way to tempt fate! Indeed, Mr. “H” got his come-uppance in due course. “After about a year, I played him again, and I absolutely crushed him. And then he goes, I’m not going to play you again, because you’re too strong now! I only ever played him twice!”

That’s not the only memory Michael has of less-than-encouraging treatment in his junior years. He tells me about when he started playing for the club in the Middlesex League. “My first match for Hendon was 11th November 1977. What happened was, I was eventually beating all the people in the left-hand room. So I must have got better over that year. There were two Phils that ran all the matches in the Middlesex League: Phil Fawcett, who was a guy with glasses, and Phil Thornton, who I remember always used to have a beard and a checked shirt. And they said, do you want to come and play? They were short of players. And they put me in the team.”

“I can actually remember the first game I played, because there was a combination I won quite early on with. I played one of Fischer’s openings, the Najdorf, which I’d been studying from a book in the library. [My opponent] went wrong quite early on, and I was able to win a piece. I thought I’d done really well, I was really pleased with myself. But I got an isolated pawn later on, and had to defend it. At the end, I thought they’d come up and say wow, that was really good, you’ve played for the club for the first time, you won, well done! In fact, the guy said, ‘you have to avoid isolated pawns in future’!”

Those memories have done a lot to shape Michael’s attitude towards young players today. “Even at the time, I thought it was quite funny,” he says. “Telling me to avoid isolated pawns, which I knew anyway! I remember these things that happened when I was a kid, and I try and avoid them. If they make a mistake, I never say you shouldn’t have done that - I say hard luck, everyone makes mistakes. I always aim to point out something they did right, to be positive about their play, even if they’ve lost, as well as suggesting improvements… if I can think of any!”

“Even just a few years ago, before we joined with Barnet Knights, there was a kid that came into our club, and there were some older members there. And they said, oh, this isn’t a club for juniors, basically. When I found out, I was absolutely livid. I told the committee, and we put out a memo saying this must not happen again. I heard that happened three times with three different juniors. And the kid that was pretty much sent away, was actually the regional champion for his age! He’s now a lot stronger. That would have been a real catch for Hendon. So I’m always trying to encourage juniors as much as possible.”

Despite the mixed reception he received, Michael was still able to achieve some notable successes in his youth. In 1978, he won the British under-14 championship, along with Peter Wells, who is now a well-known English grandmaster, which gives a sense of how well he was doing for his age. “I was still ungraded,” Michael says. “I’d been playing for about a year, but the grading list came out just after that. Obviously they were really pleased at the club that that had happened, and they mentioned it in the end-of-year report.”

Struggles in the ’70s

Michael wasn’t involved in the running of the club during his junior years, unsurprisingly, but he does remember that the club struggled, particularly in the bad economic conditions of the late 1970s. He produces a couple of fascinating documents from his archives, which prove that there really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the trials and tribulations of running a chess club!

The first is a booklet from the club’s thirtieth anniversary in 1977. It’s an eight-page document that appears to be type-written; you can read it in full here. On the cover is a very poor black-and-white reproduction of a photograph of a display of chess books put out by Hendon Central Library in honour of the Club’s anniversary.

Inside are various articles, including an amusing one by Ken Davies about a game he played as captain when he stepped in late because one of his players hadn’t turned up!

The introduction by the chairman, W. Gluckman, gives a fascinating snapshot of the state of the club at the time:

From small beginnings of meetings held above a public house in Brent Street, Hendon, to our present position of one of the foremost Chess Clubs in both London and Middlesex, we have indeed come a long way. Our first team playing in the London Chess League has gradually gained honours and promotion to a very elevated position in its premier division, and our second team is doing very nicely too.

This success would not have been possible without the devoted help of a small number of members, and we should always be grateful to them.

Unfortunately, however, the club has been badly hit financially by the rising inflation in the country, and we have spent a year living from hand to mouth, trying to save the club from having to close down through lack of funds. We are not a profit making organisation, but at the moment it is difficult finding the funds to pay our way.

Michael also shows me a letter from a later chairman, J. D. Friedman, in 1980, which shows the club having gone rapidly downhill from this point:

Chairman's letter, 1980
Chairman’s letter, 1980

For those who may be unable to read this image, here is the really telling sentence:

Attendance on club nights rarely exceeds six or seven; we have no teams playing in the Middlesex League, where a few years ago we had two and sometimes three, and we no longer have a club championship tournament.

This really gives a vivid sense of just how bare the club’s cupboard was at this point! Did this affect the atmosphere at the time?

“Yes,” Michael says. “I remember going along to a meeting and there was hardly anybody there. They said, ‘wow, you’ve turned up,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, ‘cause I worry about the club.’ There was a handful of people there, maybe three or four.”

First intermission

Michael wasn’t there to see how the club made it through that period, though.

“I must have carried on playing for the club for a while,” he continues. “I didn’t really stop playing until I was 17. I know that for those last two years, I was doing my A-Levels, and somehow I got persuaded that I shouldn’t do so much chess. But then in early 1982, I won the Middlesex under-18 championship, so I must have still been playing at that point. But I didn’t play very much at all when I was doing my A-Levels, unfortunately. That was a really big mistake, because all of my age group just got loads better in two years. When I came back, I was nowhere near the top. It was really bad timing.”

“I started at Manchester University in 1982, and in the freshers week, I met the guys on the chess club. They said, ‘ooh, you’ve got to come and play for us!’ And I was like, you know what? I’m just not going to. And that was the end of my chess until I was 25. It was another seven years before I played for Hendon again.”

So what brought him back in 1989? “I came back to work in London [after university], and I was living in Finsbury Park. And I suddenly got phoned up by Ken Davies. He said, ‘have you stopped playing completely?’ I said ‘Yes, I kinda gave up.’ He said, ‘well, you were really good, can you come back? We need players.’ I said, well, I’ll think about it. I think he phoned me up three times. In the end I said OK, I’ll do it.”

This was the same Ken Davies who had the article in the 1977 booklet. He seems to have been quite a captain, single-handedly running several Hendon teams in the London League!

Restarting competitive play brought Michael renewed success. “I’d never really had an opening repertoire. It was always a bit ad-hoc. I thought, well, I’ll get some openings together. So I just found out what Judit Polgar was playing, and I scored really highly. That year I think I scored eight out of eight in my first games, and then finished with 8½/10.”

“That was the second team in the London League. But now I was playing there, they said, can you play in the Middlesex League?” It was at this point that Michael met Adam Raoof. “They said, we want you to play on Board 2. Adam was Board 1. I said OK, I’ll do it. I play quite crazy chess, and he plays really sensible, good, strong chess. He’d never met me before, just heard of me. And I played this completely crazy game, where there were just pieces everywhere. My king was in the centre, and everything was just open. At the end, he just said to me, ‘are your games always like that?’ And I said, ‘they are!’ I think he was quite shocked!”

Living abroad

Then came Michael’s second intermission: in the early 1990s, he moved to the Netherlands. “With my partner, I decided to move to Holland, just to see what it was like living outside the UK for a bit,” he says. “At the time, I was working for British Telecom. And I went over to Holland, got interviewed, and got a job with Logica, the software house. You didn’t need to speak Dutch, it was an English company, [but] they gave you Dutch lessons, so you [could] have a chat.”

Michael was still active in chess during these years. “I thought, well, I have to join a chess club here. I actually went to the wrong club first, I went to a really tiny club. They said, oh no, you want LSG!” Leidsch Schaakgenootschap, or Leiden Chess Club, was the largest chess club in Leiden, with a very long history, and Michael found it incredibly active.

“You’d walk in and there would be 150 or 200 people playing,” Michael remembers. “It was in a massive hall. They have this ongoing club championship called the interne. They gave you ten rounds or something, during half a year. You had the first-half interne and the second-half interne. And surprisingly, I did really well in it. The top two, I think, of each interne would qualify for the club championship final [knockout]. The first year I got there too late, and I didn’t qualify. But I did qualify for two years. It was quite shocking, because I was playing quite strong players and doing really well against them. Something just happened, because I was playing in an atmosphere of really strong players. I was beating 2100s.”

Michael was kind enough to share several of his games from that period with me. The following is admittedly rather one-sided, but shows his feeling for the attack:

[Event "LSG IC"] [Site "Leiden"] [Date "1992.12.01"] [White "Bennett, M."] [Black "Irwin, M."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A02"] [Opening "Bird: 1..c5 2.Nf3 Nc6"] 1.f4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.b3 d5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Bb5 e6 6.Bxc6+ bxc6 7.Ne5 Qc7 8.Bb2 Be7 9.O-O O-O 10.Rf3 Rd8 11.d3 d4 12.exd4 cxd4 13.Nd2 c5 14.Rh3 Bb7 15.Qe2 g6 16.Re1 Nd5 17.Qg4 Ne3 $2 { A superficially attractive square for the knight, but now Michael is able to open the long diagonal with an exchange sacrifice. Black's position collapses under a series of sacrificial blows. } 18.Rexe3 $1 dxe3 19.Nxg6 $1 exd2 ( 19...hxg6 20.Rh8# ) ( 19...fxg6 20.Qxe6+ Kf8 21.Rxh7 $18 ) 20.Rxh7 $1 d1=Q+ ( 20...Kxh7 21.Qh5+ Kg8 22.Qh8# ) 21.Qxd1 fxg6 22.Rg7+ Kf8 23.Qg4 Qc6 24.Rg8+ $1 { An elegant finish, and in fact the only winning move! Mate follows shortly. } 1-0

But sadly, it didn’t last. “I left the Netherlands in 1995,” Michael says, “and I didn’t play any chess after that. I literally didn’t look at a board, or puzzle, or book, or have any chess thoughts for thirteen years. I gave away my chess books to Adam! I thought, if they’re around on the shelves, I’m going to start picking them up!”

A serious move! Why “go cold turkey” all of a sudden? “It was a conscious thing. I became very aware of the stress it was putting on my body around that time. And I had other priorities, setting up a new business, a holistic business.”

The return

So why come back again in 2008? “I got back into chess when I was teaching my son,” says Michael. “He was four and a half at the time. He said, ‘I want to know how to play chess. How do you win in chess?’ I said, well, you just trap the opponent’s king. He said, ‘I want to know how!’ So I said OK, I’ll teach you a bit of chess then. He learned all the moves really quickly. I said to myself, this is actually fun! I wonder if I should just pop down to the club and say hi. I looked up where it was, and it was Adam still doing it.”

But there had been a lot of change in the intervening years. “I was really shocked, because people had died,” Michael says, “like Tony Miles and [Bobby] Fischer. Tony Miles was another of my big heroes, you know. I used to watch him on The Master Game when I was a kid. My parents asked, ‘can you understand this?’ And I said yes, I can understand that! And they were like, ‘OK, that’s good!’ When I got back, there was loads of [chess] stuff on the Internet… and there were quickplay finishes! We didn’t have those before.” No longer having to adjourn games must have seemed quite a luxury!

“I came back, and I went to the [monthly] blitz, just to try it out,” Michael tells me. “Adam was obviously really pleased to see me, quite surprised. I played in the blitz, did OK. [In the League], Martin Walker was playing Board 1, then I think there were Tomer [Eden] and Gary Senior.”

But Hendon’s presence in the London League had gone, because of another unfortunate development: Ken Davies had passed away. “That was really sad,” Michael says. “I had a good relationship with Ken. He phoned me up sometimes to talk about my games, ask me how it had gone. He was a very encouraging person, and full of energy.”

“We had quite a few strong players, but they had dispersed to other clubs, like Kevin Bowmer, who went to Hackney; Steve Berry, I think he ended up somewhere south of the river, not sure.”

We’ve already seen how Michael turned things around after that - the rest, as they say, is (more recent) history!

Conclusion

I’m fascinated, and somewhat torn, by the debate around what kind of behaviour is acceptable to attract strong players to a club.

It seems clear to me that it benefits a club to have titled members: they can generate events (like simultaneous displays and lectures), coach weaker players, and help bring competitive success.

Being a strong chess player is very demanding, and outside the very elite, it is hardly well-remunerated. Is it really such a bad thing to provide our country’s best players with a source of financial support to develop and share their abilities?

On the other hand, the game of chess in the UK is not sufficiently well-financed to support even a single nationwide fully-professional league, and you can see why people object to mixing the amateur values of loyalty, belonging and local community with the cold, mercenary, transactional, rootless ethos of professional sport.

When a game is as universally accessible and cheap to run as chess, there is surely something sad about seeing leagues decided purely by which club has access to the most money, especially in a place like London, where clubs are associated with particular parts of a city where wealth is very unevenly spread.

Paying professional players to play is a step too far for me. Hendon learned its lesson on this a decade ago, and this is not something I would want my club ever to repeat. However, paying them for non-competitive events, like coaching or simultaneous exhibitions, is another matter, and so is offering non-monetary benefits, like free or discounted club membership. Becoming a grandmaster is an incredible achievement, and personally, I’m happy to see my membership fees cover a portion of theirs so they don’t have to pay. Others may of course see it differently.

But one of the lessons I take from Michael’s experience is that club chess is in some ways quite a closed world, and once a club develops a reputation, it can persist for a long time. “If you mention it, I would like you to say that it definitely was just one year,” Michael says. “We’ve got this terrible reputation that we pay players, and it’s stuck with us for years and years. I’ve even had people come up to my juniors and go, why would you play for Hendon? Because they hire professional players. And it’s just completely untrue. It’s actually really quite sad, because it was literally just one year.”

I saw evidence of this first-hand in recent weeks, in this write-up of the London Online Chess League match between Hammersmith Firsts and Hendon A, by a Hammersmith player who refers to himself as “Lord Clueless”:

A little history here - I think it’s fair to say Hammersmith have had serious beef with Hendon in the past - mainly based on the culture and philosophy of both clubs - they are so different.

He (I will presumptively continue to use the male pronoun, since it is hard for me to believe that a woman would refer to herself as “Lord Clueless”) doesn’t specify these cultural and philosophical differences, but I can’t imagine what else he might be referring to. In most respects, Hammersmith and Hendon seem quite similar to me - both large, successful, competitive clubs who strive for a friendly and welcoming atmosphere and encourage junior participation.

Yes, Hendon’s social chess scene has atrophied somewhat in recent years, but in my view that has far more to do with the difficulty of finding an affordable venue that can support both a serious match atmosphere and a lively social environment, than any conscious intent on the part of anyone at Hendon.

There is no reason to allow these dark mutterings about Hendon’s culture to persist. I am laying out this history openly here, in the hope that we might make the Lords of our fine city slightly more… “clueful”, and lay this particular ghost to rest.

When I look at Michael, I see someone who deserves to be remembered for far more than just a one-season policy of paying players. The vast majority of the huge gains he has brought to Hendon Chess Club have been achieved through unimpeachable means: putting on attractive events, advertising and recording them (through a fantastic website which he built and to which he contributed a great deal of the content over more than ten years), and ensuring new members - especially juniors - are welcomed, and encouraged to participate in club life long-term.

That said, there’s no denying that the 2009-10 Middlesex League success, which was at least partly down to “hired guns”, came at the very beginning of our recovery as a club. Would we still have all the players who came later, even without that first league win? Success breeds success, after all. It’s impossible to rerun history, so we’ll never know for sure.

Michael is fiercely competitive, but he’s unfailingly sporting. One time one of our main title rivals were about to default a crucial match - which would basically have handed the title to Hendon - because they couldn’t find a room; Michael wouldn’t allow that, and gave them extra time - the match went ahead. He has also refused to accept a default point when an opponent’s mobile phone rang, even when it would have brought us the title.

He is also kind. In 2019, when Hackney beat Hendon 1 twice to wrest the Middlesex League title away from us for a season, Hackney captain Paul Conway left his coat at our venue, and Michael scoured all the local pubs until he found him to return it. “It was the worst night of my life,” Michael says, “but I told myself, no-one died, and it’s just chess!”

Michael is also keen to emphasize his gratitude to the players he’s worked with over the years. “I want to pay tribute to the players we’ve had,” he says. “Jonathan Hawkins, Julian Meszaros, Tamas Fodor, Lorin D’Costa, Jahongir Vakhidov, John Richardson, Dan Bisby, Ravi Haria, Isaac Sanders, Giampaolo Buchicchio, Peter Poobalasingam, Peter Sadilek, David Moskovic, and more recently Bodgan Lalic and Damian Lemos - can you imagine how incredible it’s been to have all those players to call on as a captain? It’s organically grown.”

“Then also the Barnet Knights juniors who came up through the ranks and joined them as regulars, such as Sacha Brozel, Federico Rocco, Oscar Pollack, Gautam Jain, Jason Covey, Joseph and Oren Levene, and more. And our other regulars throughout the years - Rob Willmoth, Cristian Mures, Tomer Eden, Gary Senior, Adam Raoof, Daniel Ellis, Gayan Peiris, Aravind, Phillip Orgler, David Levy, David Friedgood, Roman Mitra, Jonathan Pein, Simon Warman, Marcos Capuzzo, Paul du Buf, Tim Rogers, Martin Walker, Mate Manfay, Duncan Burbidge, Darlan Veit, and many, many more - who have just turned out match after match!”

“You can see they’re an amazing squad. They’re a bunch of strong, dedicated players - and that’s why we win! I can honestly say it’s been an honour and absolute pleasure to be their captain for the last 10 years.”

That’s who Michael Bennett is, and I hope this interview will help spread awareness of what he has done for Hendon Chess Club.

You can find a list of all interviews done for this site here.