Season 2, weekend 2 and as ever the Oxford 4NCL squad faced key fixtures.
The firsts were scheduled to play arguably their toughest two opponents, Poisoned Pawns 1 and Cambridge 1, while the seconds also faced hard games against Gloucestershire Gambits and Cambridge 2. Once again the squad’s enthusiasm shone through as the firsts were able to field something close to their strongest team. The seconds meanwhile could easily have had about 10 players for each match, so some people unfortunately had to miss out. Hopefully this will be made up for at future weekends and next season if a third Oxford team enters as planned.
After about an hour of play on Saturday, Ben approached me to express his concern that the firsts were struggling – always a good omen that we are destined for victory in my experience. And sure enough, things soon started turning our way with Kieran Smallbone producing a superb tactical display to dispatch his strong opponent in double quick time. Elsewhere, however, Ben’s forecast didn’t seem so far wrong as Aidan Rawlinson got the worst of the opening and Dave Shaw was busy slipping into his usual time trouble. With other boards looking no better than level, it was clearly not going to be an easy ride.
Oxford 2’s game against the highly rated Gloucestershire Gambits was also very much in the balance as Sean Terry’s usual unconventional style gave him some early problems to sort out. But Chris Duggan had played the opening well and Ian Webster was very much holding his own against strong opposition. Dave Bruce was unsurprisingly going all out for the attack and Matt Ludbrook seemed slightly better when he had a draw offer turned down.
Solid draws for debutant Mel Buckley and Dave Shaw who was perhaps lucky that his opponent’s time trouble was as bad as his own brought the first team score to 2-1. By now, however, Ben Savage and James Coleman were struggling in inferior positions and despite his best efforts, Merim Bilalic’s game had long since looked destined to be a draw. At least Aidan was able to secure a half point, though he might have been in trouble had his opponent pressed harder for the win. The ever reliable Kemal Ozeren racked up another half, leaving us hoping for Ben and James to cling on for us to scrape a narrow victory. This, James managed, but Ben, despite some valiant late attempts to pull off a saving trick, couldn’t quite do the same. With Merim still looking set for the draw we weren’t too disappointed to be settling for 4-4 and a share of the spoils. Our battling board 1 is nothing if not unpredictable and the gasps were almost audible as he decided to sacrifice a piece for two pawns in pursuit of the full point. With his opponent in considerable time pressure and a very dangerous pair of passed pawns beginning to advance, Merim always looked like having enough to at least hold the draw. And frankly no-one was surprised when the game turned decisively in his favour. So a match we had looked like losing for much of the day finally ended 4.5-3.5 to Oxford 1. A fine result.
Meanwhile, tension was mounting in Oxford 2’s match. Sean and Ian both managed to secure good draws and Alex Milovanovic found a beautiful finish against a tough opponent on board 1. The match score moved to 2-2 when Chris Duggan was unlucky to see his promising position slip away. With Dave Bruce’s attack negated and his opponent’s extra pawn destined to prove decisive, the match came down to Matt’s game on board 6. He by now had an extra pawn, but it looked tricky to convert his rook ending to victory. In fact even when he reached a postion with 3 connected pawns against a pair of doubled pawns, things seemed far from straightforward. Fortunately his opponent made a succession of bizarre moves apparently under the extraordinary impression that he might have winning chances. Matt lost no time in taking advantage to give us a final match score of 3-3. No bad result given that we were slightly out-rated on all boards.
An enjoyable evening of pizza and poker ensued, leaving everyone bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for Sunday’s long-awaited double-header against Cambridge. Your scribe is ill-placed to report on the early stages of Sunday’s matches in view of the tense struggle he was himself embarking on. Past history suggests, however, that Dave Shaw was getting into time trouble, Kemal was playing solidly and Ben was predicting heavy defeats all round. Unfortuntately the one early development I can report on with confidence is the fact that Matt Ludbrook got trapped in an opening line his opponent seemed to know well and was soon slipping to defeat.
Although Cambridge’s teams were not as strong as they could have been, the firsts quickly found themselves in trouble. Merim and Kemal were forced to settle for draws – in Kemal’s case maintaining a perfect record of 4 draws out of 4 this season. Ben played strongly in the opening against the powerful IM Karl Mah, but eventually went down. Dave continued his impressive 4NCL form with a comfortable win and Kieran made it 2 out of 2 for the weekend with a typically enterprising performance against Natasha Regan. When Mel slipped to defeat and Alex’s advantage drifted away in time trouble we found ourselves 4-3 down with just James Coleman on board 8 left to finish. He gave it everything to try for the win, but finally had to settle for a half point, making the score 4.5-3.5 to the Tabs.
The second team match was unclear throughout – both Chris Duggan and Pete Harrison probably pushed too hard for wins and both ended up losing. Aidan Rawlinson showed a pleasing return to form with a smooth win on top board and Kevin Henbest managed to find a win from an unpromising position when his opponent fell for a one move mate. So 3-2 to Cambridge with Ian Webster still in action on board 2 and finding himself having to win a theoretically drawn ending with rook and bishop against rook. We knew we had one of the team’s greatest battlers on our side and his opponent’s imperfect defence gave Ian a chance. But tragically, with a mate in two on the board, the 50-move rule came into play and the game was drawn to leave the match score 3.5-2.5 to Cambridge.
So ultimately a slightly disappointing weekend in terms of results, though not in terms of individual performances. Provided they play to their potential in future weekends, the first team remain on course for promotion, while the seconds seem set for another up-and-down season in mid-table. They are always capable of beating the top teams and of losing to those teams they should probably beat. Man of the weekend…? There is no shortage of candidates: Merim for his brilliant win on Saturday; Alex for two more fine performances which deserved greater reward than 1/2; Ian for two great battling draws. But I guess the star man has to be Kieran whose two wins, especially that on Saturday were most impressive.