The third 4NCL weekend of the year on 27th/28th March in West Bromwich never looked like being at all straightforward for the Oxford teams.
We had known well in advance that the team’s Mr. Reliable, Aidan Rawlinson, would be missing for this weekend. And with the draw seeing Oxford 1 pitted against second placed Brown Jack and the dangerous Poisoned Pawns, the search was on for the extra strength which would see the promotion bid stay on track. Meanwhile, Oxford 2 also needed a strong team, particulalrly for their tough Saturday match against Cheddleton. However, finding a replacement for Aidan proved trickier than expected as a succession of strong candidates declared themselves keen to play in principle, but unavailable for this particular weekend. Eventually it was decided that we would stick with much the same squad as had played so well on previous weekends, with the under-rated Chris Duggan promoted to the first team for Saturday and Cowley’s formidable Gerard O’Reilly making his season’s debut on the Sunday. The second team was filled out by two more debutants, the solid Kevin Henbest and the exciting 1 b4 player Matt Read.
Before the chess could begin, there were a couple more hurdles yet to clear. Firstly, a combination of late booking from your esteemed captain and incompetence from the staff at the Moat House led to an accommodation crisis. For a while, we faced a stark choice between some extortionately priced Moat House ‘Crown’ rooms and Chris Duggan’s offer to bring his tent. But ultimately the team rallied round and Ben Savage managed to save the day by locating some decent quality rooms at the local Travel Inn for only slightly more than we should have been paying at the Moat House.
Then, just when all seemed to be finally on track, transport problems began to set in, as Kevin spent a fruitless hour waiting outside 66 Great Clarendon Street, only to discover that Kieran lives at 66 Cardigan Street, a few metres away in the heart of Jericho. Eventually a meeting was achieved at the railway station, by which time panic was setting in at the Alternative Tuck Shop where it seemed that Ian and Sean were both waiting for each other in a space a few metres square without actually managing to locate one another. A race to the venue ensued with Ian making it a comfortable 15 minutes before kick-off and Kevin and his charges rolling in at a slightly less comfortable 1.59pm.
Oxford 2 did thus eventually get six men to the board on time, but still found themselves massive under-dogs against a Cheddleton outfit who out-rated them by between 30 and 50 BCF points on each board. As had seemed likely since his recruitment, the early excitement centred around board 5 where Matt Read confidently whipped out 1 b4 to the delight of the crowd. And it proved no futile gesture as Matt got a very decent position in the early stages. Indeed the Oxford boys generally got off to a solid start with Sean on board 3 and Pete on board 4 both achieving small plusses and Ian on board 1 not shying away from his usual pawn sacrificing strategy despite facing an opponent rated over 200BCF. Gradually, though, proven class began to show as Kevin on board 6, having played a respectable Najdorf and Matt Ludbrook on board 2 in a Benoni were slowly outplayed. And the fatal blow came when Matt Read’s sterling effort was snuffed out by first the loss of a pawn, and then the game. There never seemed likely to be a way back from 3-0 down, though Ian was still scrapping for his life and Pete had twice had draw offers turned down from a position of strength. When Pete finally did have a third draw offer accepted, he was almost certainly winning, but the psychology of facing an opponent rated 50BCF points higher than yourself can be tough to overcome. And with Ian’s defeat soon confirmed, the match result was already set in stone. Sean also slipped to defeat having missed winning chances in a tense middlegame, leaving the final score at 5.5-0.5. It was, however, a far tighter match than the scoreline would suggest.
Oxford 1, as previously described minus Aidan’s solidity, were a little lucky that their opponents Brown Jack were also missing a couple of big names, with Richard Haydon ill and Tim Headlong on baby-sitting duty. But they still had sufficient strength in depth to present a tough challenge, especially so when Oxford’s star of previous weekends, Ben Savage, blundered in the early stages against the dangerous David Bareham. Tight games were ensuing elsewhere as James Coleman boasted a superb knight on top board, Kemal won a piece for several pawns on board 2 and Kieran found himself battling back after getting the worse of the opening against Jonathan Bourne. Dan’s opponent on board 5 set out intent on a draw and for all Dan’s valiant efforts to enliven the position, ultimately achieved his aim, while Chris on board 6 got a good early position with plenty of attacking chances. It was around the first time scramble that the match really began to take shape. James’ opponent managed to muster a winning attack, while Kieran hit back for Oxford, picking up a much needed full point with a nice tactic. Kemal, meanwhile, was having a wild tactical fest against Jane Richmond. He first had to give back his extra piece to stop his opponent’s marauding pawns and eventually found his way out of the time scramble with two pieces and a pawn for a rook. Which a few moves down the line was sufficient to level the match at 2.5-2.5. All eyes turned to Chris Duggan who was by now desperately defending a rook ending from a pawn down. However, he was not without chances and gave his opponent plenty of opportunities to blunder in a fascinating and trappy position. The tension mounted in the bar as everyone desperately tried to spot ways in which Chris could hold or even win. With every dash back to the playing hall to check the position, he always seemed to have found the right moves and his opponent kept dodging the traps. And with the night fast drawing in, Chris was eventually forced to give best after a truly titanic struggle. So a first defeat of the season for Oxford 1, though going down 3.5-2.5 against arguably the toughest opponents in the league was by no means an awful performance.
Having booked in at the Travel Inn, we all made our way to the bargain-priced Wetherspoon’s discovered at the previous weekend for an evening of quality food and drink. Ben and James once again led the way in the eating stakes, Ben comfortably seeing off two full meals, with James coming up just a few mouthfuls short of matching his achievement. Pete and Kieran meanwhile were more than happy to settle for chips, beans and sausages for £2.50. Now that’s what I call value for money. The evening ended with glasses raised to James’ five years of marriage after which everyone adjourned to Ben’s room to ponder on the day’s events and brace ourselves for another vital round of matches.
On Sunday, Oxford 2 were once again boosted by the arrival of Ray Starkie, Dave Bruce and Will Burt and by considerably lower rated opposition than on the previous day. However, Sussex Mindsports, a team made up predominantly of under-rated juniors are never to be under-estimated, and so it proved. For the second successive 4NCL weekend, Matt Ludbrook did not find his Sunday game over-strenuous, once again having things pretty much wrapped up within 15 moves. As it turned out, we were to be most grateful for the comfortable start as other games looked far from straightforward. Ian’s opponent on board 5 blundered a piece for a pawn in the early stages, but then seemed to somewhat stumble into a tremendous attacking position. Chris on board 4 went a pawn up, but found it hard to convert this to a clearly winning advantage against an opponent who didn’t seem to feel the need to think for more than a minute on any given move. And Ray and Will’s positions looked no better than level. At least Dave on board 2 always seemed to be developing a fine attacking set-up, which he converted into the full point with a spectacular kingside assault. Tough though it was proving, we did gradually seem to be edging towards a won match. Chris eventually sealed a win, though the speed and accuracy with which his opponent negotiated some pretty tough complications was truly remarkable. Aside from time spent away from the board, he thought for little more than 15 minutes during the whole game. Ray’s game turned rather uncharacteristically crazy, but he had enough in hand to secure the draw with a neat perpetual. And Ian somehow found his way into a queen and bishop against queen ending which he rather optimistically tried to win before settling for the half. All of which meant that Will’s loss in a rook ending having previously turned down six draw offers did not affect the final result – 4-2 to Oxford 2.
Oxford 1 badly needed to steady the ship against Poisoned Pawns, which was never likely to be a formality against yet another tough batch of opponents. The match was uneventful in the early stages, with Kieran securing a draw from a slightly worse position and other games getting off to a sedate start. But by the first time control, events took a dramatic turn for the worse. James lost after blundering in the scramble, while Ben’s position on board 1 was looking pretty desperate and debutant Gerard was two pawns down on board 5. The only real glimmer of light was on board 6 where Dan seemed to hold at least a small advantage in the form of a dangerous looking passed pawn. It was to be a day when every half point had to be ferociously battled for. Things were to get worse before they got better as Dan’s advantage began to slip away – though it was later pointed out by the Arbiter that 31 … Be3 would have secured a win for him. And Ben found himself still struggling to hold the draw even after his opponent blundered a whole knight. It seemed for a while that all the hard work of the two previous weekends was to be in vain, but the Oxford boys are nothing if not fighters and this was the day to fight in adversity. Gerard managed to generate sufficient play to hold the draw and Ben was relieved to find a perpetual to seal a vital half point on top board. Dan’s up-and-down struggle ended with the spoils shared, leaving the match score at 2-3. All rested on Kemal’s board which had been looking pretty level throughout and was now down to a rook ending which looked very tough to win. But win he had to do and Kemal found a superb way to secure the full point, sacrificing a pawn for a winning position which he converted perfectly. So 3-3 and disaster averted.
In fact, despite what was relatively speaking a poor weekend, Oxford 1 on 9/12 find themselves only one point behind the division leaders and still very much in the promotion hunt. But they are in the heart of a pack of strong challengers and will badly need victories against Cambridge and Cheddleton next weekend to remain confident of promotion going into the final weekend. Oxford 2 sit just behind the main pack on 6/12, but are still within range of a finish well in the top half of the table if they play well next weekend. And they could yet play a vital role in the promotion race by taking points off Oxford 1’s main challengers. And man of the weekend? Well there were many battling draws in adversity from the likes of Dan, Gerard and Pete, and a solid 1.5/2 from Kieran. But without doubt, this weekend’s star man was Kemal whose two fine victories on board 2 for the firsts went a very long way towards keeping Oxford 1 in the promotion hunt. Roll on the end of May and the chance to set the table to rights…