As the Oxford players travelled to the pivotal fourth 4NCL weekend of the season in West Bromwich, we all knew that the next three days of tension filled chess would go a long way to determining the ultimate fortunes of Oxford 1 and Oxford 2. Saturday’s pre-determined fixtures saw Oxford 1, strengthened by the recruitment of new star man Merim Bilalic , facing the old enemy Cambridge . And Oxford 2 had a key mid-table clash with the enigmatically named Grendel’s Mother.
We had anticipated that Cambridge would be boosted by Karl Mah’s first appearance of the season, but were pleased to see on arrival that his name did not appear on the team sheet. However, their team was still very strong and a close match was in prospect. As the match began to take shape, Cambridge seemed to be gaining an edge on the top 3 boards, while Ben Savage had the advantage on board 5 and Kieran Smallbone on 4 and Aidan Rawlinson on 6 had finely balanced positions. Aidan turned down a draw offer in what looked a pretty level position, a decision which soon proved justified as he pulled out a spectacular winning tactic – quite a way to end his previous run of four successive draws. Indeed one fellow team member who was watching the game at the time described the winning move as a ‘near-orgasmic experience’. High praise indeed. So Oxford had the early lead, but things were not looking so good elsewhere and before long Kemal Ozeren succombed to David Moskovic’s marauding b pawn on board 2. When the first time scramble approached, Ben, who had comprehensively outplayed David Garner, seemed on the verge of victory with a huge material plus. But tragically he dropped his queen in the scramble and Garner gained the luckiest of victories. Kieran, who had also run pretty short of time, sacrificed the exchange against Rohan Churm and found himself left with a worse ending. Meanwhile, Merim on 1 and James Coleman on 3 were battling hard to hold endings from a pawn down. James showed fine defensive skills to hold the draw, but when Kieran’s ending slipped away, the writing was on the wall. The match did end on a high note, however, as Merim managed to turn his game against Nathan Alfred around to such an extent that he actually had chances to push for a win in the queen and pawn ending. Ultimately he had to settle for a draw which made the final result 4-2 to Cambridge . Still a creditable effort by the Oxford boys, but a result which left no further room for error in the promotion push.
The second’s game against Grendel’s Mother had to take something of a back-seat by comparison to Oxford 1’s top of the table clash. Nonetheless, Oxford 2 were putting in some fine performances. Kevin Henbest played a speculative sacrifice on bottom board, but unfortunately couldn’t quite find a conclusion to the attack and the material advantage told. Dave Bruce was also undone after his attack failed to break through, while Alex Milovanovic, making his long-awaited debut made a solid draw on top board. But wins for form man Chris Duggan and the Oxford City connection of Will Burt and Sean Terry sealed a narrow but well-deserved 3.5-2.5 victory.
Much speculation now surrounded the draw for round 8. Most of the top teams in the division had already played each other, so it was likely that Oxford 2 would face challenging opponents from the upper reaches of the table. And on our return from the by now traditional visit to Wetherspoons , the draw which we’d all feared had become reality. Oxford 1 v Oxford 2. Much debate ensued about the respective board orders, since we were intent, despite the difficult circumstances, on both sides playing for the win. If the seconds could pull off a shock result, then so be it. Eventually we arrived at the aim of pairing up opponents who didn’t know each other too well and letting events take their course. Indeed in the early stages, the seconds were very much holding their own on all boards and a close match looked in prospect. But gradually, the firsts began to exert their authority, as Kevin Henbest against Aidan Rawlinson and Pete Harrison against James Coleman finally succumbed after closely contested struggles. In fact, Aidan was quite close to defeat in the early stages of his game. Kemal on board 1 produced the latest in a succession of classy 4NCL performances to see off a valiant challenge from Alex. Ben bounced back from his disappointment of the previous day to slowly outplay Chris McIntosh, but on board 4 things were less clear as Matt Ludbrook seemed to gain a small plus from the opening against Kieran. Subsequent quality play from Matt and a slight miscalculation from Kieran combined to create the day’s first and ultimately only upset. For in the final game of the day Ian Webster narrowly failed to overcome a vast grading deficit against Merim. So a 5-1 win for the first team, but not without a few shaky moments along the way.
This result left Oxford 1 in third place – the last promotion position – but only by half a game point from Poisoned Pawns and with a potentially tough match against Cheddleton still looming on the horizon. After spending the previous evening at Wetherspoons , we decided to cast our net further afield and dined at a very pleasant Indian restaurant , the only downside of which was their refusal to serve tap water. It was ironic that the neighbouring table was occupied by the table-topping Brown Jack outfit who still remained unbeaten for the season. The draw for round 9 awaiting us at the hotel saw Oxford 1 with their expected game against Cheddleton and Oxford 2 with the toughest possible fixture against Brown Jack. A relatively early night ensued as we all looked forward to the day which could make or break our season.
When the team lists went up in the morning, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the previously strong Cheddleton team had evidently given up all aspirations of a high finish in the division. Most of their best players seemed to have simply jumped ship. Aidan was first to rack up a full point as he easily dispatched his opponent and moved to 3/3 for the weekend. James wasn’t far behind and it was soon evident that the match was heading inexorably Oxford ‘s way. Dave Hackett made a solid season’s debut with a draw on board 3 and Merim halved with a tough opponent in the form of Robert Shaw on board 1. Kemal yet again effortlessly disposed of decent opposition on board 2, while highlight of the match was the way Ben on board 4 toyed with his unsuspecting opponent. Well if you don’t resign when several pieces down and with zero compensation, what can you expect?
And so to the second’s match. Of course there was little hope of victory, but at least we could put up a decent fight. Indeed things started well enough, as Sean and Pete secured early draws on boards 5 and 6. By this time the other games were beginning to take shape and things were looking fairly promising. Chris Duggan had survived a pretty ropey position in the early stages to reach a level middlegame , while Matt on board 3 and Alex on board 1 were battling hard to hold off 200 strength players with the Black pieces. On the plus side, Ian on board 2 seemed to have an edge against Richard Haydon , turned down a draw offer and proceeded to go an exchange up. When Alex lost and Matt’s kingside began to look increasingly fragile, it seemed that another narrow but honourable defeat was on the cards. As the time scramble arrived, Chris had gone a pawn up against Jonathan Bourne, but it was still looking tough to convert. Until Bourne, under extreme time pressure, dropped his queen to take the match score to 2-2 . For the first time, an upset seemed genuinely on the horizon. There was a hum of anticipation amongst the Oxford squad in the bar as Tim Headlong somewhat surprisingly decided that his attack had no future and agreed the draw with Matt on board 3. Surely now at least a drawn match was secured. Ian had no intention of settling for a half, however, and when he added an unstoppable passed pawn to his exchange, Haydon offered the handshake which sealed a remarkable 3.5-2.5 victory for the seconds.
These results left Cambridge and Brown Jack at the head of the table with 14 points each, one point ahead of Oxford 1 and Poisoned Pawns, whose narrow 3.5-2.5 win on Monday left them a couple of game points down on the firsts. So two big wins next weekend will guarantee promotion for Oxford 1, while another shock result for Oxford 2 against Poisoned Pawns on the Saturday would smooth the path still further.
After such a successful weekend I’m spoilt for choice in selecting a man of the weekend: Merim and Kemal showed their class on the top boards of the first team; the City boys Sean and Will produced fine performances; and Aidan deserves special commendation for his perfect score of 3/3. But I simply can’t split the second team’s three heroes. Ian: dynamic and determined, Chris: 2/2 against powerful opposition and Matt: surely two of the best results of his career, are my men of the weekend. If they can produce similar performances next weekend, then a place in the top 5 for Oxford 2 and much-deserved promotion for Oxford 1 may not be beyond us. Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th June could be momentous days for Oxford chess.