The Middlesex League: a Player's Guide

By Andrew Medworth, Hendon Club Captain
Friday 22 October, 2021

We were pleased to hear recently that our traditional over-the-board league competition, the Middlesex League, will soon be getting back underway! We are in the process of arranging the fixtures, which will appear in our calendar in due course.

We have many new members who may not be accustomed to playing in club leagues, or in team competitions of any kind. Longer-standing members may also be wondering what has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. I therefore thought it was worth writing a bit about how the competition works.

Clubs and divisions

The Middlesex League has three divisions, numbered 1, 2 and 3, with Division 1 being the strongest. There is a real spread of playing strengths: Division 1 sees regular participation from Grandmasters and other titled players, while the lower boards in Division 3 often see players not much above beginner level.

Each division is a double-round all-play-all: each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away.

This season, each Division will have seven teams, so each team will play twelve matches, six home and six away. Each season starts in the autumn and finishes in early summer the following year. (Normally the first matches are played in September, but the League did not operate in 2020/21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021/22 season is starting a bit late due to the challenges of resumption.)

Hendon’s home matches will all be played on Thursday nights, starting at 7:30pm at our new venue, The Holly Bush pub in Hampstead (22 Holly Mount, London NW3 6SG).

Away matches will be played at the venues of other clubs in the League, which are spread across London. The full list of clubs in this season’s competition, besides Hendon, are as follows (with approximate locations if it isn’t obvious from the club’s name):

  • Albany (Tottenham Court Road)
  • Athenaeum (Covent Garden)
  • Ealing
  • Hackney
  • Hammersmith
  • Harrow
  • King’s Head (Pimlico)
  • Metropolitan (Liverpool Street)
  • Muswell Hill
  • West London (Chiswick)
  • Willesden

Clubs are allowed to choose their own match nights and start times, but they will always be weekday evenings. Match start times typically range between around 6:45pm and 7:30pm.

Teams and matches

Some clubs have just one team in the League, while others have more than one. Hendon has four teams this season:

  • Hendon 1 is in Division 1
  • Hendon 2 is in Division 2
  • Hendon 3 and Hendon Barnet Knights (our junior team) are in Division 3

Historically, Middlesex League matches were played over eight boards, but this season, this has been reduced to six. (This is to make life easier for organisers in a time of uncertainty, and to allow greater spacing in club venues for COVID-safety purposes.)

That means each team selects six players, and ranks them in order of strength; the two strongest players from each team play each other on Board 1, then the next strongest play each other on Board 2, and so on down to Board 6.

The colours alternate, so one team gets the White pieces on the odd-numbered boards, and the other team gets White on the even-numbered ones. This is decided by a coin toss before the match: the captain who wins the toss decides whether their team should play White on odds or evens.

The traditional chess scoring convention is followed, with players scoring one point for a win, half a point for a draw, and zero for a loss. At the end of the games, the scores are added up for each team, and the match result is a win, a draw or a loss accordingly.

The winning team scores one match point, the losing team scores zero. If the match is drawn 3–3 then the teams score half a match point each.

The winner of each division is the team with the most match points at the end of the season. The top two teams in Divisions 2 and 3 are promoted to the division above for the next season; the bottom two teams in Divisions 1 and 2 are relegated to the division below.

In the event of ties, the number of game points scored by the players is used as a tie-break (a bit like goal difference in football).

Games and time limits

All League games are rated using the ECF rating system, and are played under the full FIDE Laws of Chess.

The time limit used in each match is decided by the home club. There are two choices:

  • A “2½-hour session”, with 60 minutes per player, plus an extra 15 minutes each at move 30
  • A “3-hour session”, with 75 minutes per player, plus an extra 15 minutes each at move 30

In recent years, clubs have been given the option of playing with what I would consider a more modern time limit, with an increment of 15 seconds per move instead of the 15-minute “quickplay finish”. When I am captain, I always use this option if I can.

However, even if the home club offers increments, the old-style time controls above are still used if either player wants it on any given board. When increments are used, there is no fixed time by which the game is 100% guaranteed to be finished; this is a problem for some players, and some clubs need to vacate their venue by a specific time of night. Also, a (thankfully small and shrinking) number of clubs have not yet invested in the digital clocks necessary for increment-based time limits.

As more players come into the game who are used to playing with time increments (e.g. from online play), I expect their use in the League will become more common, but we are not there just yet!

Team selection

When a club has multiple teams, particularly spread across multiple divisions, there is obviously an intent that they will be ranked in order of strength: Hendon 1 will be our best team, followed by Hendon 2 and Hendon 3.

The League enforces this through a system of “nominations”. This is quite complex (quite overly so in my opinion), but one of the key rules is that a player cannot play for a team if they have played five or more matches for higher teams.

For example, if you have played three matches for Hendon 1 and two matches for Hendon 2, you can no longer play for Hendon 3 for the rest of that season, and once you have reached five matches for Hendon 1, you can no longer play for either Hendon 2 or Hendon 3.

We’re required to nominate a full team’s worth of players for each team at the start of the season, and you can’t play for a lower team than the one you’re nominated for, so some players will be restricted from the outset. But you can still play even if you’re not nominated for any team.

When I’m captain, I typically send out an email to eligible members a week or two in advance of the match, to ask who is available. I then pick a team out of the available players.

For Hendon 1 and Hendon 2, I typically pick the strongest team I can, to give those teams the best possible chance of placing as high as they can in their divisions. However, we aim to offer playing opportunities to all our members who want them, regardless of strength, so for Hendon 3, I try to rotate more, and typically pick players based on who has played the fewest League matches so far during the season.

Selection for the Hendon Barnet Knights junior team is done separately by the Barnet Knights club.

To be eligible for selection, we have only the following requirements:

  • You must be a member of the club. We do occasionally make exceptions to this rule: for example, when someone has played for Hendon as a junior, but then goes to university in another part of the country, we sometimes invite them to play as a guest occasionally during their holidays, to try to maintain their connection to the club. However, for the most part, playing in the League is a benefit reserved for members.
  • You must be a member of the ECF at Bronze level or higher. This is required in order to fund the rating system. We generally ask that players register for ECF membership before playing their first match.
  • You must not have played in the Middlesex League for any other club in the current season. (It’s fine to play for other clubs in different leagues, such as the London League or North Circular League.)
  • You must have given us consent to add you to our mailing list when you registered for membership. Under modern digital communication and privacy laws, we need members' consent to be on our mailing list, and without that, we don’t have a feasible way to invite them to play in matches.

People meeting the above criteria should be invited to play in matches automatically.

The spirit of the League

Hendon is proud of its track record in the League: we have won Division 1 nine times and been runners-up twice so far since 2009. We aim to be competitive, but in a fair and friendly way.

We encourage our players in all teams to treat the League as “serious fun”: do your best, learn from the games, and support and encourage your team-mates. Celebrating with your fellow club members after a win, or commiserating after a loss, is one of the benefits of team chess over individual competitions.

We look forward to seeing our friends and rivals in the League this season!

You can find a list of all news stories about the Middlesex League here.