A report on our Middlesex League season

By Andrew Medworth, Hendon Club Captain
Thursday 16 June, 2022

The Middlesex League’s 2021/22 season has now concluded, so it’s time to look back at Hendon’s year of team chess.

We were very happy to see the League resume, having failed to complete the 2019/20 season or to hold any season at all in 2020/21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 28th October 2021, we held our first League match since 12th March 2020, a gap of 595 days!

COVID changes everything

One of the main themes of this report will be the enormous changes to club league chess wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This season, League matches were held across six boards, rather than the traditional eight; this was partly to allow greater physical distancing of players to reduce COVID-19 risks, and partly to help clubs navigate the challenges of resuming over-the-board chess as COVID-19 restrictions eased. Very few clubs could be certain how many of their players would be willing to play over-the-board chess, or how that would change over the course of the year.

Prior to the pandemic, the first League matches would typically be played in late September, with the season wrapping up in May. This season, the schedule was a little different, with the first matches being played in late October due to difficulties negotiating the resumption; this in turn caused matches to spill into June.

The League had three Divisions of seven teams each, as close as possible to the 2019/20 composition (since that season was officially unfinished, other than Hendon 1 being declared Division 1 champions).

At the start of the season, I was concerned that COVID-19 would lead to a much greater proportion of defaults than before, as players would have to withdraw from matches at the last minute due to positive tests. This did prove to be a factor throughout the season, but the smaller team sizes helped, and it was often possible to find substitute players at the last minute, particularly later in the season when restrictions and general fears of COVID-19 had eased.

Apart from this, League matches felt much as we were used to, and it was a great joy and relief to many of us to see this form of chess resume.

The season began in a state of total uncertainty. Severe restrictions on indoor social mixing had only been lifted in July; many people were still concerned about infection and we had no idea how many members would return to over-the-board chess.

We took a wild guess and decided to run four League teams in total: three “regular” teams (Hendon 1, Hendon 2 and Hendon 3) plus Hendon Barnet Knights, our traditional collaboration with Barnet Knights junior chess club. As club captain, I ran teams 1–3, while Hendon Barnet Knights was run by Rob Willmoth. (In the most recent pre-pandemic seasons, we had run five teams: four plus Barnet Knights.) Thankfully, this number of teams proved to be about right for the amount of demand we ended up with.

I selected the teams according to a policy I announced before the season started. For Hendon 1 and Hendon 2, I selected the strongest players from those both eligible and available. For Hendon 3, I operated a simple rotation system, selecting the available players who had played the fewest matches to date, using playing strength only as a tie-break.

This policy was parallel to what we did for the LOCL in 2020/21. It is a response to previous member feedback that we should have both teams which fight for the highest possible positions in their respective divisions and a team which focuses more on offering competitive playing opportunities to as broad a section of the membership as possible.

High-level stats

Our full schedule of matches added up to 252 total team places. By comparison, in 2019/20 (which was shortened by COVID-19) there were 380, and in 2018/19 (the last fully completed season prior to this one) there were 528. This reduced total was due to the smaller team sizes, the fact we ran four teams rather than five, and the smaller number of matches per team resulting from the reduced number of teams in each Division (more on which below).

Ignoring the internal matches between Hendon 3 and Hendon 4, there were 228 games played, of which 209 were contested: we scored 81 wins, 83 losses, and 45 draws – remarkably close to an even score!

Of the 19 uncontested games, 10 were lost by default and 9 won by default. So the total default rate in our matches against other clubs was 8.3%, which was higher than the 4.7% of 2019/20 and the 6.0% of 2018/19.

This was not catastrophic however. Six of our defaults came in a single Hendon 1 away match at Hammersmith, which is always hard to raise players for due to the distance we have to travel – I foolishly arranged this early in the season “to get it out of the way” and was duly punished when I was only able to find a single player! If you ignore this one match, the default rate was just 5.7%, which is much more in line with historical norms.

In total, Hendon were represented in the League by 67 different players. If we exclude the Barnet Knights team, we were represented by 44 different players. For comparison, the equivalent numbers in 2018/19 (the last completed season) were 89 and 61.

Our full match results for this season can be found here.

Hendon 1

Our first team played in Division 1. They contested eight matches, winning three and losing five. The team finished fourth in the Division, behind Muswell Hill, Hackney and Kings Head, but ahead of Hammersmith. Here is the League table.

We originally expected to contest twelve matches, since each Division had seven teams and each was supposed to play each other team twice, once at home and once away. However, Athenaeum were unfortunately unable to field a team at all this season, and the Harrow 1 captain did not respond to my repeated attempts to contact him to schedule fixtures (Harrow 1 appears to have played only two matches in total). So the division had only five active teams.

Hendon 1 were the reigning Division 1 champions from 2019/20, and this result will be a significant disappointment to those who were accustomed to our first team achieving this type of success.

Several factors contributed to our lower strength this season:

  • We have always been reliant on young players, which in many ways is a very good thing, but a number of our key players from 2019/20 were away at university this season, including Federico Rocco, Sacha Brozel and Gautam Jain.
  • The younger cohort we would normally have hoped to replace them were generally prioritising their studies this year, and playing less chess. I can’t say exactly why, but there was significant uncertainty throughout the year as to whether major public exams like GCSEs and A-Levels would take place in 2022; this increased the importance of coursework, mock exams and teacher-predicted grades, which depend on academic performance earlier in the school year. It’s hard to imagine these stressful circumstances faced by our young people didn’t play some role here; this would have hurt us more than other clubs who are less reliant on young players.
  • Other strong players from 2019/20, such as GMs Jonathan Hawkins and Ravi Haria, IM Lorin D’Costa, Rob Willmoth, Bogdan Lalic, Tomer Eden, and Adam Raoof, played few or no matches this season, for a variety of reasons, including increased teaching load or other commitments, no longer being resident in the London area, or, sadly, ill health.
  • Still others, such as Gary Senior and John Richardson, still played some matches, but less than they did in 2019/20.

There were bright spots: John Richardson scored 3½/4 on Board 1, promising young talents Savas Marin Stoica and Eric Eedle played four matches each, and several new members like Daniel Duma, Anthony Bolchover and James Robinson joined and will be very useful to the team in the future.

However, overall the team found itself outgraded too often, especially away from home. Hendon 1 only contested 38 games due to defaults; of these, we won 11, drew 10 and lost 17, with a further three game points coming from defaults. We were outgraded in 60% of our games.

I rather like these box plots showing the rating distribution of Hendon 1 on each board, relative to the other teams in the Division. This clearly shows how the team was generally behind the rest of the Division in terms of strength.

Chart showing Hendon 1 strength relative to other Division 1 teams

We have had an excellent season in terms of raw member numbers (see conclusion below). The new members are very welcome indeed, and I’m sure they will contribute a great deal to the club. But the plain fact of the matter is that there are much fewer strong players willing to play League chess regularly among the new joiners, compared to those among our pre-pandemic membership who have become much less active in the League for a variety of reasons.

The pandemic has essentially acted as a massive randomiser, a hurricane grabbing the pieces on the chessboard of the Middlesex League and violently mixing them up. As the strongest club in the League pre-COVID, such a randomisation was never likely to benefit us.

It is clear that the League-winning machine built by Michael Bennett over the decade before the pandemic needs to be completely rebuilt if we are to return to a strength where we can win Division 1 regularly. I am optimistic about our ability to do this (see conclusion) but it will take some time and work.

Hendon 2

Our second team played in Division 2. They contested ten matches this season, winning five and losing five. The team finished fourth in the Division, behind Hammersmith 2, Ealing and Metropolitan, but ahead of Albany and West London. Here is the League table.

Division 2 had only six active teams, since unfortunately Willesden & Brent Chess Club were unable to field a team this season. This is why Hendon 2 only contested ten matches, rather than the planned twelve.

Hendon 2 had a generally decent season, winning 21 games, losing 18, and drawing 18. A couple of regular players found themselves outgraded quite often, and thus had difficult seasons results-wise, but Salvatore Pepe scored a barn-storming 4/4, and Daniel Duma 3½/4. We had positive or even scores on all boards except 2 and 6.

The team went on a four-match losing streak from March to early May, but was never beaten by more than 4–2, and won two of the last three matches, avenging the home defeat to Albany and beating back markers West London, who lost all ten of their matches.

Here is the box plot of per-board strength in Division 2:

Chart showing Hendon 2 strength relative to other Division 2 teams

Hendon 3

Our third team played in Division 3. They contested the full twelve expected matches, winning three, losing five, and tying the remaining four. The team finished fifth in Division 3, behind Muswell Hill 2, Harrow 2, our own Barnet Knights team, and Hammersmith 3, but ahead of Kings Head 2 and Hammersmith 4. Here is the League table.

Of the 70 games contested, Hendon 3 won 26, lost 32 and drew 12.

As mentioned in the introduction, Hendon 3 was picked on a rotational basis, which inevitably reduced its strength, as we were intentionally not selecting the strongest players available. Given this, its final result is quite acceptable.

There were some good performances here, with Salvatore Pepe scoring 3½/5, newcomer Lalit Maganti scoring 3/4, and several other good turns. A special shout-out to Evelina Engelaityte and Athanasios Christidis, who celebrated their first ever seasons of competitive chess with very respectable scores of 2/5 and 1/3 respectively, having joined us as near-beginners!

The Division 3 box-plot may be found below the Barnet Knights report.

Hendon Barnet Knights

Our Barnet Knights junior team played in Division 3. They contested twelve matches, winning six, losing five and tying one. This was good enough for third place in Division 3, behind Muswell Hill 2 and Harrow 2, ahead of Hammersmith 3 on game points. Here is the League table again.

Of 68 games contested, Barnet Knights won 32, lost 25 and drew 11.

This was a terrific season for the Knights, albeit one heavily assisted by adults Randolf Borces and Zsolt Bakacsi, who both scored 6½/8 on the top two boards.

In total, the Knights scored 9½/12 on Boards 1 and 2, 6½/12 and 6/12 on Boards 3 and 4 respectively, and 4½/12 on Boards 5 and 6. It is therefore clear that the team’s strong performances on the top boards, driven by Randolf and Zsolt, were key to this strong showing.

This is also evident from the box-plot of rating by board for Division 3:

Chart showing Hendon 3+BK strength relative to other Division 3 teams

Individual results

I will now list some of the best individual results from Hendon players this season. (The cut-offs in this section are necessarily somewhat arbitrary, so apologies to anyone who just missed a mention, but I had to draw the line somewhere!)

First, here are the players who played six or more matches:

  • Eric Eedle (8/12)
  • Salvatore Pepe (7½/9)
  • Anthony Bolchover (2½/9)
  • Randolf Borces (6½/8)
  • Zsolt Bakacsi (6½/8)
  • Daniel Duma (5/8)
  • Xander Lee (2½/8)
  • Lalit Maganti (5½/7)
  • Andrew Medworth (4/7)
  • Thomas Page (4½/6)
  • Anthony Kent (3½/6)
  • Domenico Napolitano (3/6)
  • James Robinson (2½/6)
  • Gul Kapur (2½/6)

Many thanks to all these stalwarts! Having reliable players who will turn out week after week makes my job as captain so much easier (and I’m sure Rob would say the same for Barnet Knights).

Congratulations also to Eric for being our highest-scoring player in absolute terms!

In terms of relative scores, congratulations to the following for scoring 100%: Gregor Sanfey (3/3), Mohammad Farahi-Far (2/2), Ryan Voecks (1/1), Mark Smith (1/1), Sacha Brozel (1/1), and James Baxter (1/1)!

Congratulations also to the following for scoring above 50%:

  • John Richardson (3½/4)
  • Salvatore Pepe (7½/9)
  • Randolf Borces (6½/8)
  • Zsolt Bakacsi (6½/8)
  • Lalit Maganti (5½/7)
  • Thomas Page (4½/6)
  • Alex Funk (3/4)
  • Muhammad Bilal (1½/2)
  • Eric Eedle (8/12)
  • Rob Willmoth (2/3)
  • Daniel Duma (5/8)
  • Max Michener (2½/4)
  • Anthony Kent (3½/6)
  • Andrew Medworth (4/7)

I would like to conclude this section by saying a huge thank you! to everyone who has played League chess for Hendon this season! I’d especially like to thank people who help make the matches happen in one way or the other, such as helping put out the equipment before home matches and/or put it away again afterwards, or acting as captain when I’m not available. I certainly couldn’t make all our matches happen on my own.

Looking forward

It’s been a challenging season for many clubs. As we have seen, several have been simply unable to return to their level of activity prior to the pandemic. Clubs have had all kinds of difficulties, from loss of venues, to loss of members, to loss of the leadership that was keeping them going.

I wish all chess clubs, especially in London, all the best in their recovery from the blow of COVID. I also wish everyone involved with chess who has suffered during the pandemic, whether with ill health, loss of livelihood or anything else, the very best in their own personal recovery.

Navigating the post-COVID landscape has not been at all easy for Hendon either: we have experienced challenges, such as our not-entirely-voluntary mid-season move from the Holly Bush pub to the Cumberland Club.

However, there are major silver linings in this particular cloud. We have actually had an excellent year in terms of member numbers: many people have picked up chess during the pandemic and have been looking for an outlet for it now we are allowed to mix with friends indoors again. Our new venue can accommodate far more people, and gives us the basis for a major new membership drive. As far as I can see, there are few limits to what we can achieve, if we put in the effort!

I certainly expect we will compete in the Middlesex League next season. It would be premature to speculate what changes there might be, since the League AGM has not yet taken place. Personally I quite like the six-board matches, and I hope they stay, but it remains to be seen whether other clubs will feel the same.

How many teams we run in 2022/23 will depend on demand from our members, and on what other activities we want to plan for the season. Members who would like to express their views should contact us, and should strongly consider attending our AGM on 28th July.

Until then, thank you very much for reading this report!