Cumnor Chess Club players in the news as chess boot camp comes to Oxford

Cumnor Chess Club wouldn’t be the same without the Varneys.

Andrew Varney, and son and daughter Daniel and Zoe, have become regular strong members of the Cumnor 1 team, and Zoe recently confidently secured herself the highest grade in the club – with an impressive 171 ECF.

Daniel and Zoe have, of course, benefited over the years from their father’s keen love for chess, and his skilled coaching.

As the Oxford Mail reports, this week Andrew was involved in a two-day chess boot camp at Oxford Spires Academy, training 17 promising young chess players aged 9-15, ahead of a tournament on Thursday.

Oxford Mail report

The Oxford Mail reports that the participants will definitely find the training useful in improving their chess playing:

Mr Varney said students had an intensive look at a particular game, adding: “It will definitely be beneficial to them longer-term.

“My experience from my own kids and people I coach is that if you have a more intensive look at things, you see a change pretty much straight away.”

Andrew Varney is an ECF-accredited chess coach and can be reached on 07786 321095, or via email at

Rest and Resilience – report from European Youth Chess Championships

Going into round 6, at the foremost of Zoe Varney’s mind was the fact that she was the only one in the England team yet to win a game. Consequently she played a little rashly when her opponent was passive with the White pieces. In most tournaments, the rest day would come nearer to the half-way point rather than two thirds of the way through. So tiredness and lack of morale took their toll and she ended up losing.

On Sunday, Zoe was at least a lot more refreshed after a relaxing day away from chess. We avoided the blitz games on Sunday night; instead Zoe enjoyed some friendly games against a much higher rated team-mate, which were quite close and restored some of Zoe’s confidence.

Zoe and Akshaya playing a friendly game
Zoe and Akshaya playing a friendly game

It was just as well that Zoe was rested, because her round 7 game turned out to be the longest yet, lasting close to five hours. Playing White, she had a very small edge out of the opening, but after one inaccuracy suddenly Zoe found herself in a lost position. This time it was Zoe fighting for the draw!

Fortunately she played very well from this point on, looking for counter-threats and being prepared to sacrifice material to maintain rook activity and cut off her opponent’s king. It is true that her opponent made some errors which let Zoe off the hook, but the game showed great resilience in the face of difficulties over the board. Another life lesson and another draw, but this time a great relief rather than a disappointment!

Pavel enjoying a blitz game against Theo
Pavel enjoying a blitz game against Theo

Pavel Asenov’s experience in round 6 was a lot more positive. In fact it was possibly one of those critical moments for him, as he had never had a losing run of four out five games before. Recovering from this took some mental strength. But he managed to pull himself together with clear preparation and a very well executed game plan in which he outplayed his opponent in the middle game.

Consequently Pavel was in a relaxed frame of mind for the rest day, enjoyed the blitz tournament in the evening, and was back in good shape for his round 7 game which he won confidently and convincingly.

Critical moments – report from the European Youth Chess Championships

In life there are many critical moments when everything seems to turn on one decision at that particular instant in time. At other times the critical moment may not turn out to have such far-reaching consequences, but the wrong decision may still lead to some discomfort.

Yesterday (Saturday) was the rest day at the European Youth Chess Championships. Zoe and I spent the afternoon, with some of the other English girls and their parents, watching a spectacular show at the dolphinarium, visiting the decidedly unspectacular aquarium and wandering around an interesting small zoo.

Batumi Dolphinarium
Batumi Dolphinarium

We decided to walk back to the hotel via the beach and ended up getting completely drenched in a 15-minute downpour. The consequences were that we got back to the hotel dripping wet, so had to dry off and change clothes. Probably not life-changing, but a little uncomfortable for a while.

If we had more experience of this region, we may have noticed the indications in the colour of the sky and changes in the wind pattern. Based on this, we may have made a different decision and not faced the discomfort of getting soaked in the rain.

Many chess games can be much like that. A position may appear where some tactic could change the course of the game or at least allow one to avoid some discomfort. It may appear for one instant and then be gone again the next move. That is why practising regularly with tactics puzzles is so important, as it allows one an increased chance of recognising the signs over the board at the critical moment.

Below are positions from Zoe’s fifth and sixth round games. In each position there is a game-changing tactic which was only possible on that one move. Can you spot them?

Z. Varney (1741) vs F. Vangsgaard (1842), EYCC round 5 (Batumi, 23/10/14).


A drawish looking queen and pawn end game, but White to play at this one point (move 49) has a neat tactic which could have changed the course of the game.

M. Volha (1988) vs Z. Varney (1741), EYCC round 6 (Batumi, 24/10/14).


Black was induced into an ill-advised early attack by White’s passive opening play, and White has a raging counter-attack. But now is a critical moment, with Black to move, where a tactical defence could have saved the game.

Castles kingside – report from European Youth Chess Championships

D4Zoe Varney’s round 3 game at the European Youth Chess Championships had resulted in a draw when she unveiled her surprise weapon, 1. d4!?

This was her d4 debut in a competitive over-the-board game, so she was pleased with the result against a higher-rated player. Pavel Asenov had faced a player rated over 2200 and he lost his game.

Round 4 was the first time that both Zoe and Pav lost – i.e. the result was 0-0.

Wiesner vs Varney

Zoe was up against Paula Wiesner, a very experienced German girl who plays 1. e4 and 1. d4 equally well. Zoe decided to play a Queen’s Gambit Accepted if her opponent should choose 1. d4 but the line that they went down was not one that she had prepared in depth with her coach.

She found the best moves for a while, some of them not so obvious (such as 11…Ke7!) but unfortunately blundered with 13…Ba7?? which allowed White a massive attack after 14. b3! and 15. Ba3+. The German girl made very efficient use of her initiative and Zoe suffered her first loss of the tournament.

Karelidze vs Asenov

The opponent Pavel faced as Black in round 4 seemed significantly inferior to him on paper, but he is one of quite a few Georgians in this tournament who are clearly massively under-rated. Pavel had built a significant advantage out of the opening, and skewering his opponent’s rooks won an exchange.

Surprisingly, his opponent chose to make a second exchange sacrifice, at which point Black was objectively winning. If Pavel had activated his rooks quickly and, ideally, cut his opponent’s king off, his superior fire power would have won through. Instead, White ended up with a very active bishop pair and king which were able to support a passed pawn to obtain a superior position.

This game is a very neat lesson on the overriding importance of piece activity in the end game.

A shared experience – report from European Youth Chess Championships

ChessYesterday I said that Pavel Asenov would have “an easier draw for his second round” because he lost in the first round. Of course, “easier” is all relative. There really are no easy games playing at this level.

In fact, I’ve heard the European Youth Chess Championships described as the toughest junior chess tournament of them all, because unlike the World Youth, it does not have a tail of less experienced players from countries where chess is played at not such a high level amongst juniors.

When the results do not go one’s way, it is helpful to celebrate the victories of other players in the team. Although the chess games are played individually, the team work to support each other. I will not be focussing too much on the overall team’s progress in this blog, since you can follow this elsewhere: e.g. on the ECF Juniors web page and via the ECF Juniors Twitter feed.

England team in Batumi
England team in Batumi

In fact, Pavel did win his second round game fairly quickly, having set a few traps for his Russian opponent who eventually missed one of them. Zoe Varney’s game was longer, but she was pleased to draw as Black against her opponent from Belarus. The game finished after 36 moves, very close to the time control. The rules of this tournament specify that no draws may be offered until after Black’s fortieth move. However, a draw by three-fold repetition of a position can still be claimed. This is what Zoe did.

In this case the claim was rejected by the arbiter as incorrect (even though it is clear from Zoe’s score sheet that the claim was legitimate). Unfortunately, the arbiter looked at the wrong initial position, and Zoe was too confused by language barriers to fight her cause. Thus Zoe was penalised with a two minute penalty (added to her opponent’s clock). Fortunately, her opponent’s best move was to repeat the position, and so Zoe was able to claim the draw again the very next move!

Another way in which experiences can be shared at these international tournaments is between coaches and players. We were sat next to John Emms at dinner, and in the context of talking about Zoe’s game, I mentioned an incident in the British this year where Richard Pert made many incorrect draw claims in one game. It turns out that John Emms was his opponent in that game, so we received an interesting first-hand account of what happened, apparently with six separate claims in the one game!

For those who are interested, here is that game:

Small beginnings – report from European Youth Chess Championships

Little could I have imagined, when I started William Fletcher Primary School chess club, that about six years later I would be part of the supporting party for the England junior chess team containing two of the original beginner players at the chess club. But now here I am, sitting in my hotel room in Batumi, Georgia, while they play their second round games at the European Youth Chess Championships.

View from our hotel room

The two players in question are Zoe Varney, playing in the Under 16 Girls section and Pavel Asenov in the Under 14 Open. Since I wrote about Zoe’s experiences in the European Schools Chess Championships in Kavala in June, she has achieved two further chess ambitions, winning the titles of Under 14 “Ultima” at the Delancey UK Chess Challenge Southern Gigafinal in July and Under 15 British Girls Chess Champion at Aberystwyth in August.

Another view from the hotel

Back in 2012, Pavel was a good board 2 player for the William Fletcher Under 11 team, but towards the end of his time at the school he started showing an increased interest in chess. The hard work he has put in during the two years since has enabled his innate talent to shine through, such that he is now in the top five highest rated Under 14 players in England. One recent highlight for Pavel was playing a major part in the Witney second team getting promoted to Division 1 of the Oxfordshire Chess League. He’s now proud to be playing on board 1!

In the first round yesterday, Zoe faced a titled Russian player, who came fourth in the same section in the World Youth Chess Championships last month.

Zoe Varney

Zoe played really well as White, dominating the board for most of the game. After about four hours, as time trouble and tiredness set in, she unfortunately missed some winning chances, then lost her pawn advantage so that the game ended in a draw. Out-rated by more than 300 Elo points, it was not a bad result for Zoe nonetheless!

Meanwhile, Pavel had an even stiffer challenge, against the third seed in his section, an Italian FIDE Master. Pavel started very well against this “Goliath” but eventually, under time pressure, on one of the moves he changed from his original plan and played a slight inaccuracy. Hence in this particular David/Goliath battle it was “Goliath” who won, but this does at least mean that Pavel has an easier draw for his second round.

Chess Season Starts With… Well.. With A Lot Of Chess

Congratulations to Cumnor 2 for a great win on Thursday evening, click here to see the result!

Cumnor 2 play again on Tuesday away to St. Claires, will they be able to keep the 100% winning start to the season going? Cumnor 1 start their season with a game against Magdalen College School on Thursday evening.

Zoe Varney is playing in the European Youth Championship 2014 in Georgia which starts next weekend. Andrew promises to keep us updated and we all wish her luck.

And finally, one last plug for the 2nd Witney Weekend Congress, being held at Cokethorpe School on 18-19 October. Find out how to enter and more information on the Witney Chess website.

Liam and Gareth have already put their names down in the U180 competition. I will let you know how well (or poorly) we do.

Players deep in thought at the last Witney Congress
Players deep in thought at the last Witney Congress (2013)

ESCC: Live chess!

Towards the end of the tournament, Liza could be seen sporting a T-shirt with the words “Eat. Sleep. Chess.” But that does not mean it was a harsh regime. Liza’s view was summed up in the words for the last day’s report for the ECF website: “The routine we got in to – breakfast, preparation, coaching, rest, lunch, preparation, rest, game, dinner, rest and sleep – was so easy to follow and it wasn’t tiring.”

The end of the tournament involved a change to the schedule, since the last round (round 9) was due to start at 10.00am. With round 8 at the usual 4.00pm slot, this meant that by the time the pairings were published there was less time to prepare for the opponents in the final round. As well as potentially less sleep.

Wearing England shirts

Round 8 saw Zoe once again on the live boards against one of the stronger Russian players. The game was fairly level throughout, although interestingly in the post-game analysis it was clear that Zoe had seen much better moves for her opponent than were played!

After a long game, with both players tired, a draw was agreed when Zoe played some accurate moves in the rook and pawn end game to gain a small advantage as White.

Marianne and Liza were out earlier, both unfortunately losing their games. It was fairly late that Zoe got to bed after analysing the game and just getting to the dining room in time for dinner.

The hotel breakfast room was packed on the final morning, with everyone needing to get going earlier in order to make the 10.00am round start. Liza and Zoe shared the same coach (Neil McDonald) and Liza had chosen the earliest slot, 7.00am! Zoe also somehow managed to get up to take over Neil’s time at 7.40am. Marianne’s coach had arranged things a little differently. She had an hour long session, shared with Asha Jina, which made it a fun session as they worked off each other.

In this final round, Zoe was playing for a medal place (i.e. to be one of the top 6 in her section). A win would guarantee a place, a draw probably, but a loss was unlikely to do so, although theoretically possible if one of the other games went against the run of the previous results in the tournament.

Liza was the first out, achieving a longed-for win to finish the tournament with. Marianne had a much longer round, playing against highest seed among the U15 girls. Marianne eventually lost, but she had managed to hold on for another 40 moves after dropping a piece to a clever fork in the early stages of the middle game.

Zoe was out not much later than Liza, before Marianne. She had been playing a tough game on the live boards again. We have a father and daughter agreement that I do not watch Zoe’s games when she is playing “live.”

However, I had an indication of the impending finish just before the 3-hour mark when I received a text message from a friend who was watching. The message stated “In general she has played very well today but … oh no, that b4 move was so rash!”

Indeed, the “that b4 move” did turn out to be the turning point in the game which she lost. In the analysis room afterwards, Zoe’s coach did find a way to get some tricky counter-play at a later critical part of the game a few moves before she finally resigned. However, it took maybe 15 minutes of looking and by that stage of the game, the girls only had a few minutes each left on the clock.

We were still in the analysis room a little later when Zoe suddenly whooped for joy and gave me a big hug. The unthinkable had happened – there was a surprise result from a game between two Turks in the U15 girls section, which meant that Zoe was sixth place.

Zoe collects a medal

Going up to the stage to collect a medal was one of the highlights of the whole experience for Zoe, although the book prize could have been better chosen – “Chess Tactics for Beginners” with mostly one-move mates is hardly appropriate for this level of competition!

ESCC: Not Overdoing It

With their round 6 encounter now behind them, Zoe and Marianne prepared together before the next round. Just as on a chess board, it is often important not to overpush but instead to consolidate. Hence all the families were careful not to overdo it. After lunch Zoe simply relaxed reading, listening to some music and did some tidying up. Marianne spent her time not overdoing it by watching the football, and listening to music.

I will let Liza recount her relaxing experience in her own eloquent words.


“Yesterday after a great coaching session we went up through the old city to get a break and some lovely photos of the sea views. We found a staircase leading through a cluster of beautiful flowering acacia trees down to the sea. The water there was amazingly clear but we were put off the idea of swimming by the colony of sea urchins which dwelled there. (However we are planning to go back there after we’ve bought some water shoes.) We spent a while sitting there in the sun on the slabs of rock trying to catch crabs and shrimps, however sadly all of our attempts failed and we decided to go back to the hotel for lunch and to do some more preparation.”

The games generally went well for the girls, except at the end for Marianne, who was the last out. Marianne found it hard to break through in a tight position, and then blundered because of time pressure, which was a shame as the game was heading towards a draw against an opponent who had previously beaten Zoe.

Zoe’s round 7 game went off the prepared line fairly quickly, but a tactical win of a piece in an already stronger position allowed her to win relatively quickly and easily. Elizaveta had a complicated game, in which she played with accurate judgement of the position bearing in mind her opponent’s playing style, enabling her to generate a strong attack using her central pawns.

I personally enjoyed sitting in on Liza’s after-game analysis with the coach as well as Zoe’s, learning a lot myself in the process. Bearing in mind that the games did not finish very late, it seemed strange that we were a bit later for dinner than the last few days, but that was due to the complications that we were examining in Liza’s game.

After dinner, Zoe and I joined Katherine Shepherd and her dad and most of the younger coaches to explore the old town at night. Quite an experience, with amazing views from the castle, atmospheric narrow winding streets, old ruins and lots of cats including at least one litter of kittens.


Although we got to bed a bit later than intended, that would have been fine. Except for the football.

No-one could be in any doubt that Greece had won a key match in the World Cup at around 1am local time. The cacophony of bibbing horns, over-revved motorbike engines, loud music, drumming, raucous cheers, fireworks, etc, continued for more than half an hour as people paraded up and down the streets around the town.

Hopefully all the players were able to get back to sleep and it will not unduly affect their performance in round 8.

ESCC: “Chess is mental torture”

“Chess is mental torture” is what Garry Kasparov said in the context of his 1990s match vs Nigel Short. Those who play long competitive games of chess regularly will know what he meant. No wonder, then, that the players are getting very tired after the half-way point in this nine-round international tournament. While the weather is amazing, the hotel food good, and the location and participants list provide an exhilarating cross-cultural experience for the three girls, it is by no means simply a holiday for any of them.

Zoe vs Marianne: Rest day – brushing away the temptation of an easy draw?
Zoe vs Marianne: Rest day – brushing away the temptation of an easy draw?

In fact, with morning coaching and preparation and some long games into the evening, it is all too easy to overdo it. Mental state can be even more important at this stage of the tournament than at the beginning. Clearly that was a contributory factor for Liza in her round 6 defeat, after her previous loss to her team mate in round 5.

Zoe vs Marianne: Walking to the venue - friends before rivals
Zoe vs Marianne: Walking to the venue – friends before rivals

Zoe’s state of mind was also not the best approaching her game vs Marianne. She had not slept well as she was feeling physically sick at having to play the friend she had just spent her rest day relaxing with. On the surface, Marianne appeared a lot more relaxed about it, and joked as they sat down at the board “Bagsy White!”

"Bagsy white!"
“Bagsy white!”

The game between the two of them was over quite quickly, with mistakes on both sides. They were clearly both going for the win but, to your commentator, the nature of the game seemed more like a “friendly” than the others so far in the tournament. A point for Zoe was the result, but it could have gone either way earlier in the game. Afterwards Zoe and Marianne went through the game together with each of their coaches.