The annual chess match between the teams of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Varsity match, has often been described as the Boat Race of the Brain. Last year, the Cambridge boat sank, with almost all hands. After 139 matches the overall score then stood at: Cambridge 60 wins, Oxford 57 and Drawn 22.
Last year ’ s catastrophe for Cambridge, normally held in spring, had been postponed because of the pandemic. It eventually took place with a six-month delay on Saturday, October 23, 2021. For the 139th Varsity Chess Match any predictions, based on respective ratings, of a close contest did not come to pass, with Oxford moving swiftly to establish a 3-0 lead, the match eventually ended in an overwhelming 5½–2½ victory for Oxford, with only one game being drawn.
The 2022 contest was held last Saturday March 12 and in a week which saw the identification of the wreck of long-lost ship, Endurance (pictured above), it was clearly a propitious moment for abandoned wrecks to peek de profundis towards surface visibility. Indeed, as Cambridge rose from last year ’ s depths, a drawn outcome was in sight, until the moment when an elementary blunder converted a likely Cambridge win into a stony cold draw.
140 th Varsity Match @ Royal Automobile Club, London
According to the excellent programme, assembled by the RAC organisational team, the idea of a regular chess match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities had first been suggested in 1853 by the English polymath, Shakespearean scholar and unofficial world chess champion, Howard Staunton. Staunton had established his formidable playing credentials by a sequence of convincing match victories in the 1840’s, against those masters of European stature, Saint Amant, Horwitz and Harrwitz. And to be pre eminent in Europe in the 1840’s, before the advent of Paul Morphy, was, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “To bestride the narrow world like a colossus” (Julius Caesar).
In 1871 the Oxford University Chess Club challenged Cambridge to a match, but at that time, the Cambridge Club was only open to dons, who haughtily declined the challenge from mere undergraduates. Not until 28th March, 1873, did the first official over-the-board Varsity Match take place, at the City of London Chess Club. (For comparison, the Boat Race has only been an annual event since 1853.) Since then it has grown into the oldest continuous fixture in the chess calendar, interrupted only by war years. The winning team is awarded, to hold for a year, a handsome gold cup, originally presented in 1953 by Miss Margaret Pugh.
A women’s board was introduced in 1978 to determine the result in the event of a drawn match. However, since 1982, it has been decreed that the matches should comprise eight boards, with at least one woman player in each team, the board ranking being determined solely by playing strength. To emphasise the essentially undergraduate nature of the competition, all players must be resident bona fide students of the universities, with at least three members of each team studying for a first degree.
During the 20th century, it was remarkable how many British Champions had played in the Varsity match. In addition to those named below, Henry Atkins, William Winter, Alan Phillips and Hugh (CHO’D) Alexander (who worked with Alan Turing to decipher the Nazi codes in World War II) played for Cambridge, with Leonard Barden, Peter Lee and George Botterill representing Oxford. A feature of recent years has been the increasingly international nature of the teams, reflecting the student intake of the universities.
Looking at the history of the match, Cambridge retained the lead in the series until 1956 when Oxford won 4–3, with the impressive and seemingly immortal Henry Mutkin winning on Board 1 for Oxford. Then Oxford went ahead until 1970, when Cambridge — inspired, as the RAC Committee generously remark, “ by the presence of Raymond Keene and Bill Hartston ” — began a remarkable run of 11 straight victories.
In their wake came a procession of first-class Cambridge players, including Welsh champions Howard Williams and John Cooper, Grandmasters Michael Stean and Jonathan Mestel (both, like myself, from Trinity, by the way), as well as International Masters Paul Littlewood and Shaun Taulbut. Although Oxford had its stars too, including Grandmasters Jon Speelman and John Nunn, together with International Masters Andrew Whiteley and Peter Markland, Cambridge had greater strength in the lower boards. However, in 1981 the tide turned and Oxford achieved a run of eight consecutive victories, eventually regaining the overall lead.
In 1973 the event was held for the first time at its current venue, the Royal Automobile Clubhouse in Pall Mall, London, for the Centenary match. By invitation of the Royal Automobile Club Chess Circle Committee, the match has been played each year at this ideal venue since 1978. The Committee’s Honorary President, the indestructible Henry Mutkin, also present for this year’s match, captained Oxford on top board in 1957 and has been a driving force of the event to the present day.
Other officers of the Committee are Chairman Henry McWatters, Match Captain Robert Matthews and Honorary Secretary Richard Hughes. Plenipotentiary for matters Varsity were delegated as usual to the capable hands of Stephen Meyler. Again, thanks to the Committee for their erudite comments on the history of the contest, and their highly useful comments on the run of play in the latest bout.
Although your chess columnist for TheArticle remains in deep mourning at the second consecutive Cambridge rout, our Editor, Daniel Johnson, an Oxford alumnus, was able to celebrate a glorious victory.
This week’s game is the top board win by Cambridge, awarded the Best Game Prize by the Grandmaster triumvirate of Jon Speelman, Matthew Sadler and myself. The prize itself was an artwork by Barry Martin, official match artist for two of Garry Kasparov’s world title matches in London.
) English Opening (Anglo-Indian Defence, King’s Knight variation). Board One 140 th Varsity Match @ Royal Automobile Club, London, March 12 th 2022
Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from .
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