22-Year Winning Run Ends As Amateur Team Topples Chess Giants

A decades-long unbeaten run, believed to be one of the longest in sporting history, has ended after a team of amateur chess players toppled a club dubbed the “Manchester City of chess.”

Hammersmith Chess Club in west London beat the invincible kings of local league chess, Wood Green, in an eight-a-side David vs. Goliath match on Tuesday night.

The result was stunning: Wood Green hasn’t lost a single match in the London Chess League, the UK’s top local league, for 22 years. Since the 2002-2003 season, the north Londoners have reigned supreme, winning the city’s top division every year.

Wood Green’s team had an average rating of 2456 ECF. Photo: English Chess Federation.

By fielding teams stacked with top players, wins of 8-0 or 10-0 have become the norm for Wood Green. The difference is that Wood Green pays its players’ expenses, believed to be up to £500 ($622) from the pocket of a silent benefactor, and can, therefore, attract top players at the grandmaster level who often make their living from playing or teaching the game.

But in an otherwise amateur league, Wood Green’s team of league chess galacticos finally came unstuck in a close match against a determined but heavily outranked Hammersmith side who ran out 4.5-3.5 winners.

Hammersmith club members gather to watch the results come in. Photo: Hammersmith Chess Club.

Wood Green had fielded seven grandmasters and one lower-ranked candidate master, including England’s number eight, GM Daniel Fernandez, and former Ukraine under-20 champion GM Eldar Gasanov.

Hammersmith, meanwhile, mustered together a team containing two international masters, the rank below grandmaster, and two FIDE masters, one of which, Sohum Lohia, was aged 15.

“It was an astonishing win,” said league president Alan Palmer. “Wood Green is like the Manchester City of chess in London. They have super-strong players and win every match to the point that opposition players often just turn up to enjoy the night and have the honor of playing a grandmaster.

“So this is a big shock. It has shaken up the whole league. Congratulations to Hammersmith on an incredible achievement. The London Chess League is 136 years old but in all its history I can’t imagine it has seen two sides this strong battling it out and a result like this. This is a historic moment for chess in England.”

Wood Green first won the league in 1981 and has gone on to win it a record 28 times. Among the players used include world-class names like England’s former world number-four GM Michael Adams, three-time British champion David Howell, and former world championship semi-finalist Jon Speelman.

However, the use of “hired guns” is one of the most controversial topics in English chess. Wood Green’s dominance has drawn much criticism, with accusations from some over the years that the league has become uncompetitive and other clubs are competing for second-place. Posts on the English Chess Forum website have labeled Wood Green a “behemoth” and claimed the club doesn’t do enough to support chess in its community. King’s Head Chess Club once described them as “monsters.”

In 2019, Battersea Chess Club opted for a different approach to make the point and fielded a team of only juniors against Wood Green. Among them were Lohia and a 10-year-old Shreyas Royal, who is now an IM. The team lost 9-1.

In 2020, Hammersmith went even further. The club’s Twitter account aired its members’ frustration by saying: “Tonight we take on Financial Fair Play’s money-doping league chumps, Wood Green.”

Hammersmith, founded in 1962, has never won the London Chess League. The club languished in division three for many years and was traditionally seen as one of the smaller clubs in the 30-strong league.

However, since 2016, the club has gone from strength to strength and risen up the divisions. In 2020, the club helped raise £2.3 million to establish the London Mindsports Centre in Ravenscourt Park which became its home with bridge enthusiasts and the British Go Association.

Now, Hammersmith has more than 200 members, including strong players of its own, and is targeting Wood Green’s crown. Unfortunately for Hammersmith, however, it is unlikely to happen this year. Following a first match of the season slip-up against Cavendish, ironically the last team to deny Wood Green the title, Hammersmith need Wood Green to lose again. That looks highly unlikely.

The London Chess League table. Photo: London Chess League.

GM Daniel King, a club member who lives locally, congratulated the team on X, saying: “Well done, Hammers! Epic!”

Hammersmith’s first team captain, former accountant Jim Stevenson, said: “It was a real team effort. The guys truly believed they could do it, took the fight to Wood Green on every board, and thankfully, took their chances at the critical moments.

“The next challenge is to be more consistent throughout the league season. It was great to see our club president John White lead the celebrations. He, along with a few other club stalwarts, started this process six or seven years ago when we were a modest third-division club with only about 30 to 40 members.”

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