The Fabulous 70s: The National Chess League

The National Chess League was a precursor of today’s US Chess League. We played with telephones (no Internet!) and “runners” relayed moves on physical boards to the phone operators. Often a move was not relayed right, causing extensive delays. Operators used military jargon like “Bishop to Echo Four”. Even with a few minutes left on the clock, it was more like triple that amount with the exorbitant relay delays. So 40 moves in 1 hour wasn’t so fast.

Here is a game from the 1978 Finals. My DC squad “Washington Plumbers”, named after the Watergate scandal, was quite strong but so were our opponents, the “Berkeley Riots”. The match was played at a small chess club in Georgetown (Northwest Washington) called “It’s Your Move” (now defunct). The end of this article has the match results.

Mark Ginsburg (2353, Washington Plumbers) – GM Larry Christiansen (2508, Berkeley Riots) 5/17/78 40/1

1. c4 c6 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. b3?! I was scared of my strong opponent. Larry had made GM directly, skipping IM. It was handy, though, to play “anonymously” in a phone setting. It made the encounter a little more surreal and random. In fact, later on Larry admitted he had no memory of this game. Phone matches are indeed much more forgettable than OTB encounters.

3…d6 4. d4 Nbd7 5. Bb2 e5! A nice, inventive, move!


6. dxe5 dxe5 7. e3 It looks and is really scary (read that as bad) to grab the pawn. 7. Bxe5 Nxe5! 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. Nxe5 Bb4+! 10. Nd2 (10. Kd1 Ne4 11. Nd3 Kc7 12. a3 Bc5 13. e3 Rd8 14. Kc2 Bf5 with a huge attack) 10… Ne4 11. Nef3 Bg4 12. a3 Bc3 13. Rc1 Ke7 is overwhelming for black.

Even worse is 7. Nxe5?? Bb4+ 8. Nd2 Nxe5 9. Bxe5 Ne4 10. Bf4 Qd4 with total destruction. For example, 11. Be3 Nxd2 12. Bxd4 Nf3 double checkmate! Imagine that finale in a team game with your teammates staring piteously at you.

7… Bb4+ 8. Nbd2 e4 9. Nd4 Ne5 10. a3 Bg4

Larry has always favored easy piece play. And he has it.

11. Qc2 Bxd2+ 12. Qxd2 O-O 13. h3 Bh5 14. Nf5?! A surprising shot is 14. Ne6! Qxd2+ 15. Kxd2 Nxc4+ 16. Bxc4 fxe6 17. Bxe6+ Bf7 18. Bxf7+ Kxf7 and it’s about equal. The text shoots into the darkness.

14… Re8 15. Bc3 White is playing very timidly.


15…Nd3+? A stumble. 15…Bg6 and 15…Nfd7 are both quite good for black. The text gives white a surprising shot on move 17.

16. Bxd3 exd3 16…Qxd3 17. g4 Bg6 18. Nxg7! (the point!) is very good for white.

17. f3?? Terrible. If a good player gives you something, take it. 17. Nxg7! is obviously a shot that both players overlooked. 17…Kxg7 18. g4 Kf8 19. Bb4+ Kg7 20. gxh5 Ne4 21. Rg1+ Kh8 22. Qb2+ f6 23. O-O-O and white is way on top.

17… Bg6 18. g4 Bxf5 19. gxf5 White is more or less OK now but he could have had more.

19…Qe7?! The most accurate is 19…Nh5 right away; for example 20. O-O-O Qe7! hitting various pawns.

20. Kf2?! A better try is 20. Rg1! Nh5 21. e4, hoping for 21…Qh4+ 22. Qf2 Qe7 23. f6!! Nxf6 24. Rxg7+!! Kxg7 25. Qg1+! Kf8 26. Bb4 winning the queen and the game or 25…Kh8 26. Qg5 winning. A good demonstration of the power of the queen.

20… Nh5 [38] 21. h4 Rad8 22. Rag1 f6 23. b4 b5 23… Qd7 24. e4 Qf7 25. c5 b6 is good for black. 23…c5 is also good. White has very little to undertake.

24. c5 [40] Rd5 Again, 24… Qd7 25. e4 Qf7 is good for black.

25. Rg4 Rxf5 Black can just wait with 25… Kh8 26. e4 Rdd8 with some plus, or 25… a5 26. e4 Rd7 again with some plus. The text is good too; black retains the advantage (see note to move 27).

26. Qxd3 Rd5 27. Bd4


27…Qf7?! Strongest is 27… f5! 28. Rg5 f4. Here is a nice line: 29. Rxd5 cxd5! 30. exf4 Nxf4 31. Qxb5 Ne2! 32. Qd3 Qc7! and wins.

28. Qc3 [51] f5 29. Rxg7+! [54] White has to seek practical chances and might as well try this. Very good for black is 29. Rg2 f4! 30. e4 Ng3 31. Rhg1 Qd7! 32. Rxg3 fxg3+ 33. Ke3 Qh3! and white can’t handle the infiltration.

29… Nxg7 30. Bxg7 Re6 [57] Clearly weak is 30… Qxg7?? 31. Rg1 Qxg1+ 32. Kxg1 Re6 33. Kf2 Rde5 34. Qd3 Rxe3 35. Qxf5 and white has good winning chances.

31. h5?? Necessary was 31. Rg1 Rg6 32. Rxg6 Qxg6 33. Bd4 Qh5 34. Kg3 Kf7 and black has good winning chances. The text was just nerves (this was the league finals).

31… Qd7?? Having very little time left, black misses the interference-theme tactic 31… Qxg7 32. Rg1 Rg6! where he would be up a rook and a disappointed white would have to resign (with the usual crowd of staring teammates taking pity).

32. Bd4 f4 33. Rg1+ Kf8 34. Rg4! [57] Posing the most problems as we near the first time control. Unexpectedly, this move brings results.


34…fxe3+?? In severe time pressure, black tosses it all away. The careful 34… Rxh5! 35. Rxf4+ Ke8 36. Rg4 Qf7! denies white access points. This line is not easy to see with a minute or so to move 40. After 37.e4 Rh2+ 38. Ke3 Rh3 39. Rf4 Qg6 it’s not quite over, but black of course keeps good chances to win.

35. Bxe3 Multiple diagonals are now open and black’s king is cornered.

35…Qf7 Suddenly everything is hopeless. If 35… Rde5 36. Bh6+! Ke7 (36… Rxh6 37. Qxe5 Qe6 38. Qg7+ Ke8 39. Re4 wins) 37. Rg7+ Ke8 38. Rxd7 Kxd7 39. Bf4 Re2+ 40. Kg3 wins) Or, 35… Ree5 36. Bh6+ Ke8 37. Rg8+ wins.

36. Qh8+ Ke7 37. Rg7 Rxh5 38. Rxf7+ Kxf7 39. Bd4 Rh2+ 40. Kg3 Reh6 41. Qg7+ Ke6 42. Qg4+ Ke7 43. Qe4+ Kf7 44. Qf5+ Ke7 45. Bf6+ 1-0


All was not sweetness and light for our team, though.

Final results:

Washington Plumbers Result Berkeley Riots
Mark Diesen 0 James Tarjan
Mark Ginsburg 1 Larry Christiansen
Eugene Meyer 0 Julio Kaplan
Steve Odendahl 1/2 Nick De Firmian
Robin Spital 1/2 Paul Whitehead
John Meyer 1/2 Jay Whitehead

As can be seen, Berkeley narrowly won the match, 3 1/2 – 2 1/2. Historical amusement: they played the kid Whitehead brothers (I had seen these kids play Dragons against one another at the Mechanics Institute way back in 1974; Paul taking the black side). As the roster shows, our team hero, strong Virginia master Charlie Powell did not play that match. Throughout the season, he had scored clutch win after clutch win. I will try to find some of his NCL heroics. I don’t have records of any of the other finals games – perhaps a reader can supply some. In an addendum to the dramatis personae of this match, Robin Spital recently surfaced on ICC – he teaches Physics in a Florida prep school.

Before we leave the National Chess League, let’s recap a prior 1978 match between Los Angeles and Washington DC. I played the following interesting game versus NM Alan Pollard in the telephone match on May 3rd, 1978.

National Chess League (telephone match)

Alan Pollard, LA (2373) – Mark Ginsburg (Washington Plumbers), 2353.

Sicilian Kan 40/1, then 20 moves in 30 minutes, then adjourn

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Bd3 Nf6 6. O-O Qc7 7. Be3 d6 8. c4 Nbd7 9. Nc3 b6 10. f4 Be7 11. Rc1 g6

According to my understanding at the time, ….g6 was OK if white had already committed his bishop to e3.

12. b4 O-O 13. a3 Re8 14. Qf3 Bb7 15. Qh3 Bf8 16. Nf3 Here white has the very dangerous 16. f5!? but black can hold on after 16…exf5 17. exf5 Ne5 18. Be2 Bg7 19. fxg6 hxg6 20. Bh6 Bh8 21. Qh4 Ned7.

16… Bg7 17. Bd4 Rac8 18. Qh4 Qd8 19. Rce1 White’s play is a little incoherent over the past few moves and black now has a good game.


19…e5 A completely valid and solid defense is 19… Nh5! 20. Bxg7 Qxh4 defusing the situation. Then, 21. Nxh4 Nxg7 22. Na4 e5 23. f5 g5 24. Nf3 h6 25. Rd1 Red8 is simply equal. The text is trying for more.

20. fxe5 Nxe5 21. Bxe5! It looks strange to give up the bishop, but it’s the best move here.

21…dxe5 22. Rd1 Qe7? 22…Nh5! was far superior with only a small disadvantage.

23. Qf2 Ng4?! It’s unsound to give up the b6 pawn, but white has to find the refutation – no easy task in a 40/1 game.

24. Qxb6 Bh6 25. Rfe1? White stumbles badly. He had the crushing 25. c5! Be3+ 26. Kh1 Rc6 27. Qa5 Nf2+ 28. Rxf2 Bxf2 29. Nd5 and black is not long for this world. Similarly, 25…Ne3 26. Bxa6 is also decisive. The move 25. c5! is obvious once one sees that losing the exchange is not a big deal with the queenside pawns ready to roll and the d5 square available for the WN on c3.

25…Rc6 26. Qa7 Rc7 27. Qb6 A sample alternative here is 27. Kh1 Bxe4 28. Qg1 Bxd3 29. Nd5 Qd6 30. Nxc7 Qxc7 31. Rxd3 Qxc4 32. Rd4 Qc8 33. Rxg4 Qxg4 34. Nxe5 with a level game.

27… Rc6 28. Qa7 Rf6!? Bravely avoiding the repetition draw. Of course it’s a thin line between brave and foolhardy.


29. Nd5 Bxd5 30. Qxe7 Rxe7 31. cxd5 Be3+ 32. Kf1 Bf2 33. Re2? The logical 33. Rc1! gives white a substantial edge.


33…Ne3+?! This move is a little craven and also not very good. 33… Bd4!? is another and better way to try to bottle white up. Then, 34. Ke1 Bc3+ 35. Nd2 Bd4 36. Rc1 Bf2+ 37. Kd1 Ne3+ 38. Rxe3 Bxe3 39. Rc8+ Kg7 40. Nc4 Bd4 41. Na5 Rf2 42. Bxa6 Rxg2 43. Bb5 is good for white but difficult to see over the board.

34. Rxe3 Superior was 34. Kxf2! Nxd1+ 35. Ke1 leaving white with an edge.

34…Bxe3 35. Ke2 Ba7 36. Rc1 Rd6 37. Rc8+ Kg7 38. Nd2 Bd4 39. Nc4 Rf6! Black is just in time to generate serious counterplay on the f-file.

40. d6 Rd7 At this stage, both players got 30 more minutes for the next 20 moves. keep in mind the very long telephone relay-delay. Effectively, it was more like 45 minutes of thinking time for the next 20 moves.

41. a4? A very bad blunder. 41. Bc2!, with the idea of Bc2-a4, liquidates the game into a drawn ending after the inevitable Rdxf6 or Rfxd6. 41. Ne3 was also safe and completely equal.

41…Rf2+ Black is now winning but it will take some calculation to bring the point home, not an easy task at this time control.

42. Kd1 Rxg2 43. b5 axb5 44. axb5 Rxh2 [69] The complete destruction of white’s kingside should have been decisive.

45. Rc7 Rd8 46. d7


46…Ra2? Black in turn fumbles the ball. Of course I can play 46… h5 but after 47. b6 Ra8 48. Bb1 the position is murky. The winning move, by no means easy, was 46…g5! In that case, white’s desperate counter-measures with 47. Nd6 are simply ignored! 46…g5 47. Nd6 g4! 48. Nb7 g3!! 49. Nxd8 g2 50. Ne6+ Kh6 and wins – an exceptionally nice variation. This is a good example of where concrete calculation can bring the point home – although …g5 is on the surface ugly (giving the f5 square to white’s knight) – the poor position of the WK means that the g-pawn can safely rush up. The specter of white’s advancing passed pawns must have caused this panic reaction.

47. b6 Raa8 [79] This incredibly passive sequence, transferring an active rook on the 7th rank to a passive location on the first rank, is of course by no means a winning attempt. White is now totally OK again. This crazy see-saw game is once again in balance.

48. b7 Rab8 49. Rc8 h5 If 49… f6 50. Nd6! forcing 50…Ba7 and black is not really getting anywhere.

50. Na5 [83] Bb6 51. Nc4 Bd4 52. Ke2 g5 53. Na5 Bb6 54. Nc6 Rxb7 55. Nxd8 Rxd7 56. Nc6 Rc7! The easiest way to steer for a draw and an end to this nutty game before any unfortunate accidents occur.

57. Rxc7 Bxc7 58. Ne7 g4 59. Kf2 Kh6 [89] 60. Kg3 [88] Kg5 At this stage, my scorepad indicates the game was adjudicated (?). However it must have been declared drawn as well – neither side can do anything.


Here were the final match results. The Andersson-Peters game was funny. Andersson was led into our venue, the tiny chess shop in Georgetown (was it called ‘It’s Your Move’?), and his clock read 4:59. I think he was in town for his Volvo exhibition match versus GM Lubosh Kavalek (Kavalek won that match easily – the match took place in a Volvo dealership showroom!). Ulf thought it was G/1 Minute (!!) game and started bashing out moves in his pet …Nf6 Nxf6+ exf6 Caro Kann. On move 15, he noticed others were thinking and he then realized it was actually a 40 moves in an hour game! He then slowed down just a tiny bit and won an ending (of course, starting in an equal position) effortlessly vs IM John (Jack) Peters. Our team won by the narrowest of margins thanks especially to the 2 Meyer Brothers.

Washington Plumbers Result Los Angeles
GM Ulf Andersson 1 IM John Peters
IM Mark Diesen 0 Julius Loftsson
Mark Ginsburg Adjourned and … 1/2 Alan Pollard
Eugene Meyer Adjourned and … 1 Kent
Steve Odendahl 0 S Jones
John Meyer 1 Tibor Weinberger

2 Responses to “The Fabulous 70s: The National Chess League”

  1. The Fabulous 70s: Washington Plumbers win the 1976 National Chess League! « IM Mark Ginsburg Presents A Personal Chess History Says:

    […] I still remember Larry showing me a “philosopher’s wheel” (a circular chart he had made with lots of tiny Elliott Winslow-style letters).   And next to Larry, second from right, is 1976 World Junior Champ Mark Diesen – he went to Potomac HS, the HS right next to mine (Walt Whitman HS in Bethesda). Finally, on the right, we had our star, Czech emigrant GM Lubosh Kavalek.  It also didn’t hurt in 1978 that we were able to play guest star Swedish GM Ulf Anderssen in a match (Ulf was in town losing a short match 1 1/2- 4 1/2 to Lubosh in a Volvo exhibition match).  I played on this team in the 1978 season. For more information on this ancient precusor to today’s US Chess League and some games, click here.  […]

  2. Chess and NY Times Bridge? Rara Avis, Indeed! « IM Mark Ginsburg Presents A Personal Chess History Says:

    […] relays).  Click to enlarge.  For more on my game vs. Christiansen (referenced in the post), see this entry. In the clipping, the reporter amusingly refers to Eugene Meyer as Gene Myer.  Note that […]

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