General Mar 30, 2016 | 7:48 AMby WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni

Behind the scenes at the 4 Nations Chess League

You've probably heard something about the mysterious "4NCL" tournament, but did you know that that British chess league features dozens of teams and over 800 players? WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni is the captain of a team including the likes of David Howell and Simon Williams, and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of the event before the final weekend of the 2015-16 season.

Ever since I made my 4NCL debut in February 2011, this has been one of my favourite events. But before I go any further, let’s start with a bit of history and an introduction to what the 4NCL actually is, as I often get the impression it's one of the lesser-known leagues in Europe. 

The Four Nations Chess League is named after its four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. When the league was first introduced back in 1993, it only comprised six teams, while nowadays it spreads over four divisions and more than 800 players represent no fewer than 84 teams. 11 rounds are played from October through May, with the first five weekends consisting of two games each, while during the final weekend three games are played. As for the format, the top two divisions comprise 16 teams of eight players, divided into two pools of eight teams for the first seven rounds. Thereafter the top four finishers from each pool fight for the title in the Championship Group, while the bottom four battle relegation in the the Demotion Group.

The Cheddleton-Blackthorne Russia encounter from March 2015, with Howell, Hawkins & Arkell on the first 3 boards

Part of the charm of the 4NCL is that unlike the Bundesliga, for example, all the matches from the first two divisions are played in the same place, which means that at any given weekend over 250 players are gathered at the venue hotel (which is the Birmingham Airport Holiday Inn these days – great news for players travelling from abroad like myself). This makes the 4NCL not only the United Kingdom’s strongest and most prestigious team event, but also a great opportunity to socialise over a drink or two at the hotel bar. Below are only two examples to illustrate my point, but the memories I’ve made at 4NCL weekends over the years are endless (and maybe not all suitable for publication here ).

14 November 2014: my lucky self with birthday boys Robin van Kampen (breaking: Robin is recording a new chess24 series at the time of writing) and David Howell, who tops the chess24 Blitz Leaderboard

10 January 2015: Celebrating my own birthday at the 4NCL is one of my favourite ever memories. Thanks to Kay and Simon for initiating what is probably the highest-rated birthday card ever!

My tale starts in January 2011, when I received an email from my good friend Arlette van Weersel, telling me she was unable to play the February weekend for her team Cheddleton and asking if I was interested in replacing her for the weekend (in the 4NCL, unlike most other leagues, it is possible to sign up a new player until very shortly before a match). I sure was and I thoroughly enjoyed my debut, when I scored a solid 1.5/2. The following year another replacement opportunity arose and I once again had a great time, while also winning both games. A funny switch then took place as I moved to London for my studies and Arlette moved back to the Netherlands after finishing her degree - at the very same university I was going to go to, incidentally. I went on to score 6.5/8 in the 2012/2013 season and started the next one with 5/5, which means at some stage I had a 15/17 score for Cheddleton – a record I thought would be mine forever, though David Howell is now on the verge of breaking it. As a side note, I scored what remains one of my favourite 4NCL victories to this day in round 4 and John Saunders annotated the game in his round report.

1. e4 e6 2. ♘f3 d5 3. e5 c5 4. b4 I remember having this sprung on me by Ray Keene when he was giving a simul back in 1969. It leads to some lively chess.

4... cxb4 5. a3 ♘c6 6. axb4 ♗xb4 7. c3 ♗e7 8. d4 f6 9. ♗d3 fxe5 10. dxe5 One of the points here is that Black has to develop the knight via h6. Other ways of untangling the kingside leave various weaknesses.

10... ♘h6 11. ♗xh6 gxh6 12. O-O O-O This has all been played before. Black has the extra pawn but his king position looks a bit draughty.

13. ♘a3 ♗d7 14. ♘b5 a6 15. ♘bd4 ♔h8 16. ♕b1 ♕c7 17. ♖e1 ♖f7 18. ♘b5 ♕b8 19. ♘bd4 ♕a7 20. ♕c1 ♗f8? Black plays passively where he could have gone for an initiative with

20... ♘xd4 21. ♘xd4 ♗c5 , followed by 22...Raf8.

21. ♕e3 ♖c8 22. ♖eb1 ♗c5? It's now a bit too late for this change of plan.

23. ♕xh6 ♘xd4 24. ♘g5! There's no time like the present:

24. cxd4 ♗e7 would put a dampener on White's attack.

24... ♘f3+ The only move.

24... ♖g7 and White finishes with 25. ♘xh7 , etc.

25. gxf3 ♖g8 26. ♔h1 ♖xg5 27. ♕xg5 ♗e7? Black needed to swing his queen across to the kingside with

27... ♕b8 , though 28. ♖g1 ♕f8 29. ♖g2 leaves Black with insoluble long-term problems.

28. ♕h5 After Rg7 29. Rg1 White's mating attack soon breaks through.


Team photos from the 2014-2015 season

However, it was all downhill from there and I will quietly skip my results from the following season. Luckily for me, there had been some big developments the previous summer, when our captain stepped down and I was offered the chance to take over the role – thus maybe saving my spot on the team, as firing myself would surely have been an unprecedented move! On a more serious note, I have ever since thoroughly enjoyed captaining the lovely and crazy bunch that make up the Cheddleton team. 

This seems like the right time to introduce our players, who I am happy to say have mostly remained the same over the course of the years. The backbone of the team is made up of Jonathan Hawkins, Keith Arkell and David Eggleston, all three of whom have been Cheddleton players since the very early days. Over the past couple of years we were delighted to welcome to the team none other than England number two David Howell, the one and only Simon Williams and the up and coming Ezra Kirk. As for foreigners, Aleksandar Colovic, Vladimir Hamitevici and Jovica Radovanovic have all been essential members of the team for a few years now. Last but not least, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our chairman, Mr Robert Milner, not only for giving me the chance to captain this fantastic team, but also for everything else he has done and continues to do for the club.

ECC Skopje team photos, from left to right (left photo): Keith Arkell, Malcolm Armstrong, Ezra Kirk, Fiona Steil-Antoni, David Howell, Alex Colovic and Vladimir Hamitevici

After finishing the 2014-15 season in third place (behind Guildford 1 and incredibly Guildford 2!), Cheddleton made its debut in the European Club Cup in Skopje last October. For some reason, the strongest British teams never take part in this competition, which made Cheddleton the highest rated team to represent the UK in many years, as we were seeded 18th out of 50.

Round 5 at the ECC: SK Team Viking - Cheddleton

Despite our suboptimal start, by round 6 (out of 7) we had managed to play all our way up to board 5, where we were facing the famous Israeli team Beer-Sheva. We ended up losing this match by the narrowest of margins, but with a tad more luck we could have won and played one of the very top teams in the last round. However, it wasn’t meant to be and insult was added to injury when we lost the last round with the same 3.5-2.5 score. Because of this unlucky finish we had to content ourselves with 22nd place in the final standings, but it was nevertheless a very positive experience overall and we shall be back with a vengeance!

Team dinners are an essential part of Cheddleton gatherings and especially so in Skopje, where food was cheap and plentiful

To conclude this report, let’s have a look at the state of affairs in the ongoing season. Our team remains largely unchanged, with only the addition of London-based Hungarian GM Tamas Fodor. I think a large part of what makes up the strength of Cheddleton is the fact that we are not only a decently-rated team, but also a group of real friends. After a narrow 3.5-4.5 defeat against Guildford 1 last season, everyone was determined to give it our all to be fighting for top honours once again, and the team got off to a perfect 6/6 start.

The final crosstable of Pool A

After a slump in form I also managed to get back to my old Cheddleton winning ways and was happy to produce the following shot during the important round 6 encounter against Guildford 2 (it seems like using the chess24 Tactics Trainer is already starting to bear fruit):

Last weekend the season entered its most interesting stage, as the group-defining 7th round was played on the Saturday. The round featured some highly contested matches and it wasn’t until 9pm that the eight teams qualifying to the Championship pool were clear and the draw for the last four rounds could be made. Guildford 1 and Cheddleton both won their respective groups and are thus paired against each other in what is probably going to be the title deciding 11th and final round, which, along with rounds 9 and 10, will be played on the Bank Holiday weekend of 30 April-2 May.

Team photos from the January and February 2016 weekends. For more photographic impressions, head to John Saunders’ excellent gallery!

During Sunday’s 8th round both Guildford 1 and Cheddleton continued their perfect run by scoring an eighth consecutive match victory, Guildford 1 against their reserves and Cheddleton against Blackthorne Russia (click the right arrow below to get to Fiona's game).

The Championship group crosstable after 8 rounds

As you can see in the above table, Cheddleton trails Guildford by just 1.5 board points before the final weekend, which means unless things go very wrong for either team in rounds 9 or 10, the first title decider in Cheddleton’s history will take place on Monday the 2nd May. You will be able to follow all the games from the last three rounds live on chess24 and you can also expect a final report from me after the fateful weekend.

Fingers crossed David Eggleston (and the rest of team Cheddleton) will have more reasons for celebrations in May!

Fiona Steil-Antoni

Fiona is currently a contributor for chess24. She started playing chess at age nine, earned the WIM title in 2010 and won a gold medal on board two at the 2006 Olympiad. She has worked as a press officer, commentator or interviewer at the Reykjavik Open, the PokerStars Isle of Man International Tournament, the 2015 European Team Chess Championship, the London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters Open.

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