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John Henderson
By John Henderson

What can we say that hasn’t already been said about the world’s oldest and most famous international tournament? Hastings was first played in 1895, with the US Chess Hall of Famer, the great Harry Nelson Pillsbury famously defying the odds with his spectacular debut on the international stage by winning ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker, respectively the first and second world champions.

It has been won by some of the greatest names in in the game: José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal to name but a few. All World Champions from Capablanca to Spassky, plus Karpov, have participated. But the event’s peak years from the 1930s to the 1970s are long gone now and the Netherlands’ Tata Steel in Wijk aan Zee is the winter mecca destination for all elite-level grandmasters.

Hastings subsequently fell on hard times with no big sponsor budget to operate on; all but being reduced in status to a very modest open, and some 40 years since it quit the VIP lounge. Nevertheless, simply through its sheer longevity, and it’s standing in history, Hastings still has cult appeal for all chess aficionados worldwide.

Recently Hastings received a much-welcomed boost with new sponsors Caplin Systems, specialist desktop e-trading provider, stepping in to rekindle interest in the famous tournament. And despite the Covid pandemic, they also stepped up to sponsor a special £7,000 ($9,500) online tournament that took place last weekend, to mark the centenary of the very first Christmas and New Year Hastings tradition, in 1920-21.

The top seeds for the Caplin Hastings Online also provided a rare clash between the four English elite grandmasters – Michael Adams, Luke McShane, Gawain Jones and David Howell – who headed the all-British 12-player all-play-all. The games were played on the Tornelo platform, with special regulations put in place to secure fair play in the online event.

In the end, David Howell – the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour lead grandmaster/host commentator, so no stranger during the pandemic to witnessing online rapid tournaments! – dominated the tournament, as he destroyed the field to take the title and top prize with a stellar performance, undefeated on 9/11 to finish 1½ points ahead of second-placed Luke McShane.

Final standings:
1. GM David Howell, 9/11; 2. Luke McShane, 7½; 3. Michael Adams, 7; 4. GM Gawain Jones, 6½; 5. GM Danny Gormally, 6; 6. GM Matthew Turner, 5½; 7-8. IM Matthew Wadsworth, GM Keith Arkell, 5; 9. GM Nick Pert, 4½; 10-11. GM Mark Hebden, IM Ameet Ghasi, 4½; 12. GM Glenn Flear, 3.

Photo: © Brendan O’Gorman

 

 

GM David Howell – GM Luke McShane
Caplin Hastings Online, (9)
Ruy Lopez, Smyslov/Barnes variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 The 7th World Champion and former Hastings winner, Vasily Smyslov is the player best known for developing the theory of the Spanish fianchetto defence and bringing it to prominence, after it was first examined by Albert P. Barnes in the Canadian (Montreal) Spectator in July 1880 – and not, as many wrongly believe, associated with Thomas Wilson Barnes (1825-1874), the leading English master of his day. 4.d4 exd4 5.Bg5 This is the crunch-line in the Smyslov/Barnes variation, and one of the main reasons why many today prefer playing the fianchetto via 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 g6 route. But now, White sacrifices a pawn for a dangerous initiative with rapid development of his pieces. 5…f6 The best move, as 5…Be7 6.Bxe7 Ngxe7 7.Nxd4 and with Nc3 and 0-0 coming, White will quickly centralise his rooks on d1 and e1 with an easy game. 6.Bh4 h5 It looks like weird play, but …g5 is a very the strong threat, and delays White playing Nxd4. 7.h3 Qe7 Threatening ..Qb4+. 8.0-0 And with the king safely castled, now Black has to be aware of the dangers of White playing e5. 8…Qc5N A novelty from McShane, as previously here the path taken was 8…g5 9.Bg3 g4 10.Nxd4 Qb4! with equality. 9.Ba4?!? A brave choice from Howell, who decides he’s going to ‘mix it’ up. The best move looked 9.Bxc6!? dxc6 (Not 9…bxc6?! 10.Bg3 and White has a very comfortable game.) 10.Nxd4 Bd7 11.Nb3 Qc4 12.Nc3 0-0-0 and White has slightly the better of the game, though Black should be OK with …g5 and …Bd6 coming. 9…g5 10.Bg3 g4 11.Nh4?! This looks too adventurous – the best way forward looked like 11.hxg4 hxg4 12.Nh2 d6 13.Bxc6+ bxc6 14.c3!? dxc3 15.Nxc3 Rb8!? with both sides having dynamic chances. 11…gxh3 12.c3?! Howell probably felt ‘pot-committed’ now. 12…b5 13.Bb3 hxg2 It’s all gone double-edged now – just the sort of game Howell thrives on! 14.Re1 Nge7 Safer looked 14…Bb7 15.Bxc7 Nge7 16.Bg3 Rh7!? and again, both sides have dynamic chances. 15.cxd4! With the safer king and better development for the sacrificed pawn, Howell rightly decides now is the time to open the game up. 15…Qxd4 I think I would have rather gone for 15…Nxd4!? with the idea of chopping-off asap White’s light-squared bishop. 16.Nc3! Ba6? McShane has simply missed the point of Howell’s previous move, not realising a crucial point to it. The only way forward was 16…Qxd1 17.Raxd1 Kd8 18.Nd5 Ne5 and try to hang on. 17.Nd5! Oopsie! 17…0-0-0 Forced. What McShane missed was the intermezzo 17…Qxd1 18.Nxc7+! Kd8 19.Raxd1 winning a piece. And now he’s left trying to cling on to the wreckage of his horrible position. 18.Nxc7 Qxd1 19.Raxd1 Kb7 20.Kxg2 Bh6 21.Nxa6 Kxa6 22.Rd6 Howell has a dominating position for his pawn, but the clinical move was 22.Bc7! Rde8 23.Rxd7 and Black’s position is on the verge of collapse. 22…Bg5 The only try to desperately hang on was 22…Nc8 23.Rdd1 but you get the feeling that when White surely wins back the sacrificed pawn, Black’s position may well collapse with it. 23.Red1 Nc8 24.Rxd7 Rxd7 25.Rxd7 Nb6 The better defence was 25…Re8 26.Nf5 h4 27.Bh2 Ne5 28.Rd1 but White still has too much pressure with his rook dominating the d-file and his bishop-pair, not to mention vulnerable pawns on h4 and f6 to target long-term. 26.Rd6 Na5 27.f4! And with it, with careful play, Black is all but dead now. 27…Nb7 28.Rc6! And not falling for 28.fxg5?! Nxd6 29.Bxd6 fxg5 30.Nf5 White’s probably still winning with the material count, but it’s just made more trickier with Black’s passed g- and h-pawns threatening to trundle down the board. 28…Nd8 29.Rc5 Howell isn’t going to give McShane any chances at all, as once again 29.fxg5?! Nxc6 30.gxf6 Nd7 just gives Black hopes of saving the game. 29…Bxh4 30.Bxh4 Rh6 This position must have been nothing but pure agony for McShane to have to endure – his rook is out of the game, as is his knights, he has three vulnerable pawns on b5, f6 & h5, while Howell has the very active bishop-pair and better rooks and no pawn weaknesses. 31.Kf3 Nb7 32.Rc6 Rg6 33.Rxf6 The rest is now academic. 33…Rg1 34.Bf2 Rh1 35.f5 b4 36.e5 Kb5 37.Rxb6+! [see diagram] This is the simplest way to victory with those e- and f-pawns so far up the board. 37…axb6 38.f6 Nd8 39.e6 Rh3+ 40.Kg2 Rxb3 41.e7! 1-0 Howell doesn’t miss a trick, as McShane resigns with the e-pawn queening.

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