Interview with David Howell, British KO Champ

by Sabrina Chevannes
12/20/2015 – David Howell has once again proved that he is a force to be reckoned with in British chess. After adding another British title to his belt, David Howell is now £20,000 richer and closer to his goal of being back in the top 30 in the world. The inaugural British Knockout Chess Championships just took place in Kensington, London and seeks to revolutionize British chess.

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Whilst we already have a British Chess Championships, that has been going on for over 100 years now, this new format ensures quality chess is seen throughout and provides a much more exciting experience for both the players and the spectators. 

Many believe that a Swiss system is somewhat unfair to determine who should be the national champion. There is always someone who gets a more favourable draw than others. However, in this knockout, all of the players were very strong. In fact, Nick Pert, the runner-up in the event, probably had the toughest draw of the lot.

Nick never actually made the initial line-up, despite being higher rated than some of the entrants and having represented England on numerous occasions. He has Nigel Short to thank for his £10,000 prize, as Nigel had to pull out due to health reasons. We wish Nigel a speedy recovery and hope to see him in a tournament in the very near future.

After the six-game final, which felt like forever to the players, I decided to catch up with the winner, David Howell, to find out his thoughts on the tournament.

Sabrina Chevannes - Congratulations on becoming the first British Knockout Champion! It must be nice to be British Champion again. This is a new tournament though, as we already have a British Championships. How do the two tournaments compare?

David Howell - Well, for a start, I didn’t win the other British Championships! (chuckles) The British Championships has sadly fallen out of favour amongst a lot of the top players for several reasons. The tournament is two weeks long and so would not suit everyone. The lack of money is a big factor, with the prize fund not being nearly so generous and seemingly decreasing each year.

Although this tournament cannot really compare with regards to the history of the British Championships and all the big names who have won it, it doesn’t have the tail end of players and thereby is a much stronger event.

Do you think this new knockout tournament is good enough to eventually replace the British Championships?

This year was a success as many people have been saying great things. However, the schedule was rather gruelling; the quarter and semi-finals were rather like in any other sport, where a winner absolutely had to be determined. Then, the final was completely different and required a lot of stamina. So, with a few tweaks maybe, this tournament could be a real success.

In the quarterfinals, you played a former student. What was that like?

I’ve always struggled against my coaches in the past, so it must have been quite difficult for him, but he put up a great fight. In fact, I was quite lucky – he turned up with a broken leg, lulling me into a false sense of security! A lot of things were going against me – I’m not really a morning person and it was a very early start, then I was White and wanted to prove what I could do and actually struggled to get out of the opening. He surprised me – he has always played the King’s Indian and he played something different. I tried to surprise him back, but it backfired and I had to swindle him in the end!

Your opponent in the final was Nick Pert… he wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament in the first place! What do you think about this and what about how far he went in the tournament?

I think Nick more than justified his place in the tournament. It was tough that he wasn’t invited in the first place, but the organisers clearly had criteria for the players. They also had two places just for juniors, meaning Nick just missed out, although he must have been close. He is a very, very strong player, as he proved.

I was actually very afraid, as many people were talking about the European Football Championships in 1992, where Denmark didn’t qualify and only got invited just before the event, but went onto win it. This has also been seen in chess, where English GM Glenn Flear was a substitute in the London 1986 tournament and caused the biggest upset when he won it ahead of chess greats such as Boris Spassky and Bent Larsen. I was also worried that Nick would be inspired by this and go on to win this tournament too.

Have you played Nick much in the past before?

I’ve played him a lot in the past and I have never actually beaten him before until now. He’s one of the few players on the English chess scene that I had never actually beaten. Previous to this match, I think his score against me is about +3/+3. He even beat me at the British Chess Championships this year and the game was really on my mind. I overpressed with White and was determined not to do the same in a match situation.

David Howell congratulates Nick Pert on his fantastic collection of water bottles

How does it differ when playing a match, as opposed to a Swiss tournament format?

I’ve never played a match like this before and you could tell at the beginning that we were both very nervous. You have a lot more time to suss out your opponent, so there is a lot of tiptoeing around before you actually directly attack your opponent.

What about the difference in preparation for a match or Swiss tournament?

Well, in a Swiss tournament, you will only play them once, so you can pick an idea and just go for it. Although, there’s more risk as you know you will get an easier opponent in the following round. In this match, as it was 6 games, I needed 3 solid ideas to get me through the match. Nick was fairly predictable with White and then mixed it up as Black. I was the opposite; I tried to keep solid with Black and then with White, I wanted to just put a bit of pressure on with not much risk. That strategy seemed to work for me, minus the couple of tentative, nervy draws.

Did you ever feel that you were going to lose the match, or did you always feel that you were in complete control?

Actually, Nick made some jokes a few times during the match about me winning the £20,000, but he probably did that to take the pressure off him. In fact, I really didn’t like taking an early lead, as I felt like I was holding back, as I wanted to keep hold of my lead and I refrained from making too many advances.

Do you feel that maybe you should have obtained a higher score than you did? After all, you are at the peak of your career (so far!) and Nick plays less chess now that he is coaching a lot.

Well, I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I would have liked to have won every game, but I would have even taken 3.5-2.5. You just do what needs to be done in match situations. The rating was secondary to me and I didn’t even realise until just before the last round that I would drop below Nigel (Short) in the rating list, so this inspired me to win the last game! If anything, the final score flattered me and for my first match, I’m very happy.

So, did you enjoy this match format and would you do it again? If so, who would you most like to play in a match?

I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself when preparing for this match – my resilience and my approach to chess. Normally, I would prepare one-off ideas in an Open, even if it’s not sound, as I know they only have one chance over the board to refute it. Obviously in a match, this is not possible.

I’d like to play another one again, ideally Magnus Carlsen… and in a six-game match against him, I think I would score six! Nah, I would hope to grovel a few draws here and there. We have four or five draws in our past encounters and sadly, he’s beaten me the last couple of times we’ve played.

However, style-wise, I would love to play Harikrishna – he is a tricky guy and rather unorthodox. He has his own unique take on openings and middlegames – it would be a new challenge, different from the norm. We probably wouldn’t be playing the Berlin every match! It would be interesting and I have struggled against those sort of players in the past. In fact, my score is 0.5/2 against him, and that was a lucky 0.5!

Do you have any advice for those who are up and coming and want to improve?

Having been to university, I’ve made a more sophisticated approach to things; learnt how to break things down and what obstacles to tackle. I finally found the time to work on those things after my study and enjoy chess more. Also, life is much better now and things are more stable, which helps. For many people, their lives are really chaotic. I really recommend just getting things out of the way and allowing yourself to be able to focus.

What is your next aim for your chess now?

Well, I made it to the world’s top 30 players, so if I can get into the top 20, that would be great. I have still never made it to the World Cup; the closest I came, was in 2010 when Navara knocked me out. I’m still hopeful and that’s my next target. I would like to consolidate my 2700 rating and my peak rating is 2712, which is the same as Nigel’s peak rating.

Ahhh, you two actually have a cheeky bet going on at the moment with regards to your rating don’t you? Tell us about that!

Well, we have a race to see who can get to 2725 first. We did toy with the idea of very high stakes, but now we’ve just settled on a posh dinner and lots of wine. A cute date (!) There is no question who is going to win that one… It’s definitely gonna be me!

Who would you say is your chess idol, past and present?

The older I get, the more I appreciate Capablanca and Karpov. I just love the smoothness, the co-ordination of their pieces – sexy chess! The fact they never seem like they’re out of control, ever, is amazing. Out of the current guys, I would say Kramnik. I love how creative he is in the opening. It’s very disappointing that he is not on this tour. He is number two on the live rating list, so it feels slightly incomplete without him. He is all about fighting chess nowadays and there would definitely be more decisive results with him in the tournament.

Where can your fans see you next?

I’m off to Qatar immediately after this and then Gibraltar in January, which are both exceptionally strong tournaments. Then, probably the Reykjavik Open in March.

Last question… What are you going to do with your £20,000?

Blow it all in the Casino tonight! Only joking… It’s simply going to fund my next tournaments and take the burden off me a little, which should hopefully mean I will play better chess. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming events.

Photos by Ray Morris-Hill

Born in 1986 in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, England, Sabrina now lives in London where she is managing director of the London Academy of Chess and Education. With over 300 members of the academy, she has one of the largest following of students in the UK. Sabrina is a Women International Master and an active chess player.


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