England’s silver medals on Thursday at the World Team Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan, were the team’s first of any colour in major competition since 1997. European gold in that year seemed the last hurrah of a generation which had proved itself No 2 to the former Soviet Union. Before that England won bronze at the 1989 world teams and the 1990 Olympiad but then the Berlin Wall came down and new strong chess nations appeared from Eastern Europe and Asia.
England proved themselves more consistent than their major rivals, China, India and the US, in Kazakhstan, although the margins were narrow. They were mentally tough, too, often fighting back strongly from dubious mid-session positions.
The team captain, Malcolm Pein, said: “We showed in Astana that, although our teams do not receive the official and financial backing of many of our rivals, our resilience and team spirit are second to none.”
Expectations at Astana were muted. Only four of England’s six world-class grandmasters were available, the team struggled with heavy colds in the first few days as it was minus 15 outside the playing hall, while Michael Adams, its lynchpin for two decades, was feeling the years at 47 and lost his first two games.
However, boards two to four, Luke McShane, David Howell and Gawain Jones, were all in medal-winning form. Tied matches against USA, Russia and India, all major rivals, were followed by convincing wins against the weaker Iran, Egypt and Sweden, with the only defeat coming against China in the penultimate round.
The final leading scores were Russia 16 match points (23.5 game points), England 13 (21), China 12 (21), India 11 (22) and USA 11 (20). McShane won the board two gold with 6/9, Jones the board four silver with 5.5/8 and Howell the board three bronze with 6/9.
The result has another significance for English chess, which has been dominated by Nigel Short and Adams for three decades. Currently the live ratings show that the England top five, the four in Astana plus Matthew Sadler, are all covered by a mere 14 rating points, with Howell fractionally ahead of Adams. Short, at age 53, has dropped out of the world top 100. Dominance has given way to primus inter pares.
Further down the line, the dearth of new potential global level talent is an increasing concern. Jones and Howell in the late 1990s were the last to show clear potential to reach a 2600 rating, the level of the world top 200 and a springboard for further progress.
There is an array of initiatives to encourage juniors, from grandmaster coaching for the most promising down to the very popular UK Chess Challenge, which has its early rounds in schools and attracts tens of thousands of boys and girls. But the implicit ceiling for achievement has become lower, so that the talents are satisfied to become a teenage international master or maybe to go for grandmaster norms in a university gap year.
Luke McShane’s victory against India was a key moment in his own and the team’s success, and demonstrated the subtleties of equalising then building an advantage with the black pieces. It was a humdrum Giuoco Piano (quiet game) until White’s committal 11 d4?! (Nbd2) gave him an isolated centre pawn.
More misjudgments by 23 Ne1?! (Qc2) and 25 Nd3? (Ba5) accentuated the isolated pawn weakness which in turn made his bishop less active than Black’s knight pair. So McShane offered the queen swap 27…Qd5! which White could not accept and left him in real trouble. The end was the simple tactic in this week’s puzzle, but McShane did the spadework far ahead of that.
Krishnan Sasikiran v Luke McShane, India v England, world teams 2019
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 d3 Bc5 5 c3 a6 6 a4 d6 7 O-O Ba7 8 b4 O-O 9 Re1 h6 10 h3 Ne7 11 d4?! exd4 12 cxd4 d5 13 exd5 Nexd5 14 b5 axb5 15 axb5 Be6 16 Qb3 Bb6 17 Rxa8 Qxa8 18 Bd2 Ba5 19 Nc3 Bxc3 20 Bxc3 Re8 21 Bd2 Qc8 22 Re5 Qd7 23 Ne1?! Nb6 24 Bxe6 Rxe6 25 Nd3? Rxe5 26 dxe5 Ne4 27 Be3 Qd5! 28 Qc2 Nc4 29 b6 c5 30 e6 (see the puzzle diagram for the finish).
3610: 30…Qxe6! 31 Bxc5? ( 31 Nxc5 is similar, and otherwise White will shortly be two pawns down) Nxc5 32 Nxc5 Qe1+ 33 Kh2 Qe5+ and White resigned 0-1 as Qxc5 follows.