Chess: Howell wins Titled Tuesday as mobile phone saves Short from teenager

David Howell scored a rare English victory in high-class international competition this week when the three-times British champion won’s weekly Titled Tuesday. The Sussex 31-year-old had just returned from Warsaw, where he performed well in the World Rapid with 8/13, but faded in the World Blitz with 10/21.

Titled Tuesday is free to enter for all Fide titled players, right down to 2200-rated Candidate Masters, and regularly attracts hundreds of entries, who play an 11-round Swiss with a three-minutes-per-game time limit plus a one-second increment.

This week’s top seeds were the blitz No 1 and five-time US champion, Hikaru Nakamura, plus the Russians Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexander Grischuk. Nakamura is Titled Tuesday’s most prolific winner, and competed despite still being stuck in Warsaw after testing positive and withdrawing from the World Blitz.

Howell’s shrewdest move on Tuesday turned out to be his unintentional third-round loss to an outsider, creating for himself a “Swiss gambit” where a player is behind the pack on points but gets the benefit of weaker opponents while his rivals are paired together.

The crunch came in the final round where Howell met the No 5 seed, Jeffery Xiong, in a sharp Scotch Game where Black chose the ambitious 12…Qg6? instead of the safe 12…f6. The queen looked active but Harry the h pawn and a white rook trapped it in just six moves and Howell soon wrapped up the game. His web handle is howitzer14, and he is believed to be the first English winner in all the years of Titled Tuesday, which began as a monthly event in 2014 and has since become weekly.

It has been an unusual week for Nigel Short, who last month was in hospital with coronavirus and Tweeted a selfie from his hospital bed with the caption: “Good morning everyone. How is your day?”

This week Short felt recovered enough to accept an invitation to the Vergani Cup at Cattolica, Italy (Beniamino Vergani is best known for finishing 22nd and last with 3/21 in the great tournament of Hastings 1895). The 1993 world title challenger’s uncertain start could have been much worse: in round two he overlooked a tactic and was losing to a lowly rated 14-year-old, Lorenzo Candian, escaping only because the teenager’s mobile phone rang, triggering an automatic default under Fide tournament rules.

Back in the 2008 European Union championship in Liverpool Short had himself dropped a point to his mobile. He had switched it off at the start of the game and put it on the table in view of his opponent, Keti Arakhamia-Grant, but the low battery warning overrode the switched-off status.

Next round at Cattolica was better and Short gained the point when his opponent, under pressure from both position and clock at move 36, missed that he could draw by Kg8 or Rf5 and instead blundered into defeat.

Another win came in Thursday’s sixth round, which, despite a few inaccuracies, was played in the simple yet elegant style of Short’s best years. As a result, he jumped into a multiple tie for second on 4.5/6, behind Iran’s No 2, Amin Tatatabaei, on 5/6.

Before his seventh-round game on Friday, Short tweeted: “This tournament is an experiment as to whether I am suffering from brain fog”. His energetic attacking victory over the 10-time Greek champion, Vasilios Kotronias, was anything but an indicator of long Covid as the 56-year-old’s pieces pounded the exposed white king, although Short missed the possible brilliant finale 24…Qxf2+ 25 Re2 Bf8! 26 Rxf2? Bb4 mate. Kotronias is Greece’s best known player and Short’s home is in Athens, so this was a significant victory.

The final two rounds, with Short now in a six-way tie for the lead on 5.5/7, will be tense and testing. Round eight, starting at 3pm on Saturday, and round nine, at 9.30am on Sunday, should be interesting to watch, especially for English chess fans.

Hastings is cancelled, the London Classic had no Open, next weekend’s 4NCL league weekend is postponed, and England’s other 2600+ grandmasters have been inactive in major competitions. It seems like an echo of a century ago in the 1920s when the Bradford bank clerk Fred Yates and the badminton baronet Sir George Thomas were virtually alone as regulars on the European tournament circuit.

In the latest Titled Tuesday, GM Gawain Jones (handle VerdeNotte), who normally does well, retired after starting with 1/4; and otherwise there were just two IMs and a CM from England. Yet Titled Tuesday is clearly an invaluable free training tool for some of the world’s fast rising stars. It has been suggested that English players dislike the event because of its 6pm GMT start and late-night finish, but time zone problems are far greater for Russian and Asian GMs and IMs, who compete in large numbers.

It ought to be possible to encourage many more titled English players to take part in Titled Tuesday. ECF prizes for the best scores by English juniors and female players, groups for whom the national federation has dedicated funds; a requirement that the 2600-plus GMs should play at the event as part of their preparation for Olympiads and European team championships; awards for the highest placed sub-2600s – some or all of these could work. There would also be a knock-on effect as strong players without Fide titles would have an incentive to qualify for them.

Some time in the near or distant future, when Covid-19 is a distant memory, there will be better alternatives for strong English players.than a masters online tournament. But for now Titled Tuesday is an inexpensive, available and useful experience which the ECF should be doing much more to support. If the event had been around in the 1970s, the golden English generation would have jumped at it.

The new World Rapid Champion, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, helped hone the skills which defeated Carlsen et al by competing in Titled Tuesday most weeks for many months, This week, the 17-year-old was honoured in Uzbekistan with a €20,000 cash prize and the keys to a two-room apartment, at a ceremony held at the National Olympic Committee in Tashkent.