Oxford Lose to the Auld Enemy

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.

Pete Harrison

Oxford 4NCL – Past, Present and Future

It was the imminent demise of the Oxfordshire county team which prompted Kieran Smallbone to consider new outlets for the enthusiastic chess players of the county.

Kieran himself and one or two other local players had played occasionally in previous seasons for various teams in the ever-expanding 4 Nations Chess League or 4NCL as it is universally known. Kieran spoke to other players about the possibility of entering a team in the league loosely based in Oxfordshire and found that there was considerable interest in the possibility. In particular, Dave Bruce of Cowley Chess Club led a drive to recruit local players, predominantly from his own club and the strong Oxford City club who wanted the chance to play 4NCL chess. Kieran meanwhile pieced together a ragbag bunch of current and former University players. A few other players known to Kieran were thrown into the mix and Oxford 4NCL was born. Kieran brought Pete Harrison on board to head up the administrative side of the operation and the relatively affluent University club loaned us the £200 or thereabouts which was required to enter two teams.

The key members of the initial Oxford 4NCL squad were University players Kieran Smallbone, Kemal Ozeren, Ian Webster and Chris Duggan, former University players Ben Savage, Matt Ludbrook and Pete Harrison, Cowley players Dave Bruce, Gerard O’Reilly and Ray Starkie, Oxford City players Sean Terry and Will Burt and miscellaneous associates James Coleman, Aidan Rawlinson and Chris McIntosh. Later in the first season our happy band was joined by Merim Bilalic, Alex Milovanovic and Kevin Henbest, while Witney man Dave Hackett and emergency reserve Matt Read also put in appearances during our debut season.

From the start we enjoyed tremendous success on the board as the first team cut a swathe through its early opponents and the second team consistently performed well above itself, notably in beating Brown Jack who were arguably the strongest team in the league. The first team did later face a couple of setbacks including a narrow and unfortunate defeat against old rivals Cambridge. But by the narrowest of margins they did enough to secure second place in the division 4 table and promotion to division 3. Oxford 2 meanwhile finished in mid-table which was scant reward for some of the fine performances they had put in during the season.

For season 2, the need for extra and stronger players to cater for our new division 3 status meant a summer recruitment drive. Some of the area’s strongest players were now keen to get involved, so Oxford City duo Matt Rose and Nigel Moyse and new University president Dave Shaw joined the squad. We were also delighted to add strong female players Melanie Buckley and Vygante Milasiute and to find that season 1 squad members Graham Morris and Jon Smith would now be able to take an active part. The back-up power of Brunel University pair Philippe Chassy and Guillermo Campitelli was also secured.

At the time of writing the two Oxford teams have made a great start to season 2, with Oxford 1 winning its first two fixtures and Oxford 2 achieving a draw and a win against the Cheddleton team who had thumped them 5.5-0.5 last year. The vital second weekend approaches with both teams facing two of their toughest games of the season and promotion prospects on the line.

So what of the future. Already we have found that this season we have the very pleasing problem of having more enthusiastic players in the squad than we can realistically provide enough games for. So for season 2005-2006, the plan is to enter a new third team in division 4 to cater for these players. Hopefully Kieran Smallbone will take his first team to division 2 where, with perhaps one or two extra players, they will surely be strong enough to hold their own. Dave Bruce will lead a second team in division 4 or perhaps even division 3 if Oxford 2 can produce some mighty performances this year. And Pete Harrison will skipper the new third team which will provide opportunities for some of the current second team to play very strong opponents and gain FIDE ratings on the top boards and for weaker players to experience the unique atmosphere of 4NCL on the lower boards.

Pete Harrison

The Adventure Resumes

With Oxford’s tremendously successful first season at the 4NCL completed, thoughts turned to both consolidating what had been achieved and pressing for further success.

The summer recruitments of the Oxford City duo Matt Rose and Nigel Moyse and current and former University players Dave Shaw and Mel Buckley, together with several other keen new players only served to bolster what was already a very strong squad. It is always a very pleasing problem for a captain when the number of strong and enthusiastic players available for a fixture exceeds the number of places in the team. In fact, for the first weekend of the new season we could easily have fielded three teams as we hope to do next year. Even the extended trek to Telford didn’t seem to deter the troops.

Oxford 1 began their division three season with a potentially tricky looking fixture against AD’s 2. However, we entered the game with confidence as a successful summer’s chess for Ben Savage had made him our second FM. But last year had certainly taught us that ratings don’t count for everything and sure enough events soon took a turn for the worse. A couple of hours into the new season we found ourselves staring down the barrel of an embarrassing shock defeat. Dave Shaw’s debut on board 6 had left him with a pretty grim looking defensive task while Aidan Rawlinson on board 7 turned down a chance of clear extra material in favour of what he had wrongly calculated to be an even easier win. And Merim Bilalic’s Colorado on board 1 for all its undoubted merits never inspires total confidence for a nervous team captain. With the other boards showing little promise of full points, prospects looked somewhat bleak.

The second team’s division 4 fixture against new team the Conquistadors showed no signs of being any more straightforward. Kevin Henbest accepted a cramped position for an extra pawn while Dave Bruce took a typically aggressive approach on board 5. Meanwhile probably Oxford’s smoothest win of the day was taking shape on board 2 where Nigel Moyse belied his low FIDE rating to effortlessly outplay strong opposition. Alex Milovanovic also seemed to have things under control on top board. When Ian Webster sealed a solid draw and Dave Bruce’s attack petered out to a half point, it seemed likely that we had done enough. But unfortunately Kevin Henbest’s battling first 4NCL win was cancelled out by an unlucky time pressure induced reverse on board 1. By now Chris Duggan’s previously solid position had deteriorated beyond repair and we were forced to settle for 3-3 and a share of the spoils.

Attention returned to the first team match where James Coleman had diffused some mild pressure to draw and impressive debutant Vygante Milasiute was easing to victory on bottom board. Rawlinson was trying desperately to find a saving tactical shot, while Matt Rose found both his position and his clock to be firmly against him. When both these games were lost and Savage could only secure a draw on board 2, we really looked up against it. Fortunately some neat trickery from Shaw had turned his game right round, but with Kemal Ozeren heading for a draw at best we needed to secure the full point on top board. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and Bilalic drummed up a whole mountain of counterplay to go from two pawns down to a pawn up in what seemed like a matter of moments. So often does Merim achieve such feats that we will soon cease to be surprised by them. Ozeren’s draw was soon agreed and a dramatic, nerve-wracking 4.5-3.5 win was secured.

The next challenge of the day was to locate our lodgings for the night in nearby Ketley . We had been assured that the guest house was only 5 minutes drive from the venue and within easy stumbling distance of the local hostelries. In fact, contrary to many expectations, the accommodation proved most satisfactory and we even located a pub which offered two for one meal deals to almost match those at the legendary West Bromwich Wetherspoons . We did get a few suspicious looks from the locals, but perhaps in the light of Chris Duggan’s remarkable achievement in downing an entire bottle of vinegar, such an air of reservation could be said to be justified. It seems unlikely that the good folk of Telford have often seen such iron-stomached performances in their midst.

It can’t be many teams who have the luxury of being able to cater for a late withdrawal by bringing in a substitute FM, but so it was when an early trip to the venue was necessitated by captain Kieran Smallbone’s unexpected absence. After the previous day’s uncertain first team performance, however, Ben Savage’s steadying influence in the final line up to take on Wessex 2 was probably a blessing. Once again much of the early action centred around Aidan Rawlinson’s board where a complex theoretical opening line gave his young opponent strong attacking opportunities in return for a tricky material imbalance. Dave Shaw’s early position was a little unconvincing once again, but Dave Hackett showed signs of developing a powerful attack. The top four boards all got off to a fairly steady uneventful start.

The second team had a score to settle with Cheddleton who had hammered them 5.5-0.5 last season. And things got off to the best possible start when the non-appearance of Pete Harrison’s opponent on board 6 gave us an early advantage. Rumour has it that he is still driving around West Bromwich wondering where the 4NCL has gone. A tough match was still on the cards however, as Cheddleton’s top two boards are amongst the strongest in the league. But a solid start to Jon Smith’s 4NCL debut and an early extra pawn for Ian Webster boded well for a good day.

Fortunately for the supporter’s blood pressure, Wessex 2 were not presenting quite the same threat as AD’s 2. Once Rawlinson on 7 had secured a battling draw and Shaw on 6 had equalised, no-one really looked like losing. A calm efficient win for James Coleman set the ball rolling and Kemal Ozeren secured a second comfortable draw of the weekend. The fireworks came from Dave Hackett whose comprehensive win on board 5 was probably the performance of the day. Vygante Milasiute completed a fine 100% debut weekend with a win which, if not quite as smooth as Saturday’s, never really looked in doubt. All of which left our two FMs playing for wins with the draw very much in hand. Neither could quite pull off the full point, but for this day at least enough had been done and a 5.5-2.5 win was safely completed.

The second team had suffered a setback when the usually solid Ray Starkie went down on board 4. But Webster put us back in front with an easy win against a strong opponent. And Jon Smith took advatage of some inaccurate play by his opponent to extend the lead to 3-1. Just half a point needed then from those tough top two boards. Gerard O’Reilly on 2 was always struggling to contain his opponent after an enterprising opening choice, but Alex Milovanovic’s position on 1 showed a deal more promise. O’Reilly eventually had to give best, but Milovanovic, while being a little unlucky not to win, did at least manage to bring home the vital half point. So 3.5-2.5 to the seconds and revenge for last season exacted.

All in all, another superb weekend for Oxford 4NCL. Three wins and a draw from our four matches represented a great start to the season and there were also some fine individual performances. Everyone contributed to a great team effort, right from Merim’s silky smooth performance at the top of the first team to Kevin’s hard fought point at the bottom of the second team. Alex deserved much more that half a point for two impressive displays, Moyse and Hackett both produced vital wins and Dave Shaw found a really nice tactical finish when the first team most needed it on Saturday. But my player of the weekend is Vygante Milasiute whose two out of two having stepped in at short notice might well prove decisive when the final reckoning comes in May. A great addition to a great squad.

Pete Harrison

Final table – 2003-4

Team Won Drawn Lost Points
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY 8 2 1 18
OXFORD 1 8 1 2 17
POISONED PAWNS 2 7 3 1 17
BROWN JACK 7 2 2 16
SLOUGH 3 7 2 2 16
CHEDDLETON 6 1 4 13
METROPOLITAN 6 0 5 12
HILSMARK KINGFISHER 2 5 0 6 10
GRENDEL’S MOTHER 5 0 6 10
NOTTINGHAMSHIRE 5 0 6 10
MINDSPORTSLTD.COM 2 4 2 5 10
OXFORD 2 5 0 6 10
PONTYPRIDD 4 0 7 8
BRAILLE C.A. 3 2 6 8
SUSSEX MINDSPORTS 3 1 7 7
THE ADS 3 3 0 8 6
HILSMARK KINGFISHER 3 2 0 9 4
NIDUM LIBERALS 2 3 0 8 0*

Division 3 Here We Come!

Saturday 19th June, the first day of the final 4NCL weekend of the season, always seemed likely to go a long way to deciding Oxford 1’s promotion fate. Not only were they themselves seeking to boost their game point total against Grendel’s Mother, but Oxford 2 had the chance to help them out by taking game points off their main challengers Poisoned Pawns 2.

Despite being without Kemal Ozeren and Chris Duggan, two of the season’s stars to date, we were able to field very strong teams for both Saturday matches. Grendel’s Mother are a team without any big stars, but still presented a tough challenge from top to bottom with a consistently strong line-up. Indeed in the early stages, things did not appear to be going entirely to plan for the firsts. James Coleman on board 3 took advantage of his opponent’s opening inaccuracy to win spectacularly within an hour’s play, but the rest were not having it all their own way. Ben Savage’s opponent blundered a pawn, but then stumbled upon some useful counterplay , while Kieran Smallbone , Gerard O’Reilly and Ray Starkie were slowly eking out slight advantages on the bottom 3 boards. Perhaps the decisive moment in the match was the touch of tactical genius which saw Merim Bilalic seal victory on board 1, after which the result, at least, was never in doubt. But game points were still important and smooth if unspectacular wins for Ben and Kieran edged us ever nearer to promotion. The bottom two boards were not so clear-cut, however, and Ray’s opponent on board 6 had equalised from a tough position. The resulting half point was no disaster, and Gerard, having seemingly let his edge slip was once more pressing for victory. And when the Cowley man finally brought the full point home, a 5.5-0.5 win seemed likely to be enough.

Fielding their strongest team of the season, the on-form seconds needed to rack up a couple of points against Poisoned Pawns to all-but confirm Oxford 1’s promotion. But forewarned by the previous weekend’s fine result against Brown Jack, the Pawns were themselves fielding their strongest team of the season – hard-earned respect for Oxford 2. But sooner or later, after such a great season, the second team had to have an off-day, and sadly this was it. Against powerful opponents, none of the second team boys really got into the game, with Matt Ludbrook slowly crushed in a French on bottom board and Aidan Rawlinson worse from an early stage at the opposite end of the team. Will Burt failed to find his characteristic resources from an exotic looking position and Dave Bruce looked ill-at-ease in a rare outing with the Black pieces. Ian Webster battled hard to rescue an ending from a pawn down, but found himself undone by his opponent’s solid technique. The nearest Oxford 2 came to salvaging a half point was from a fine defensive effort in a tricky queen ending by Alex Milovanovic on board 2. Even this game ultimately slipped away, however, leaving the second team with a disappointing 6-0 defeat.

With the division’s top two, Cambridge University and Brown Jack also winning, the equation for Sunday was now simple – Oxford 1 needed a 4-2 win or better to guarantee promotion. Anything less would leave them relying on results elsewhere going their way. The draw was relatively kind, yielding a fixture against the Braille CA whose weak lower boards would surely offer some easy points. And so it was to prove, as a tough struggle for Merim against Tyson Mordue on board 1 and a much worse position for James on board 2 against Chris Ross were counter-balanced by quick wins for Ben, Aidan and Alex on the bottom 3 boards. Promotion was soon sealed as Merim halved out, Kieran produced a typically hard-fought win on board 3 and James miraculously rescued half a point on board 2. So a comprehensive 5-1 victory to conclude a tremendously successful first 4NCL season for Oxford 1.

Meanwhile Oxford 2’s final fixture against ADs 3 was to prove a tough struggle. The previously weak ADs were considerably stronger than in previous weekends, and Oxford 2 were without Chris Duggan, Dave Bruce and Will Burt. Kevin Henbest faced an under-rated junior on bottom board and was unlucky to get the worse of a tight battle, while Sean Terry was unfortunate to have to settle for a draw from an initially promising position. Matt Ludbrook completed a disappointing personal weekend with a second reverse. And Ian also moved to 0/2 after once again narrowly failing to hold a tricky ending. Pete Harrison defended well to win after his opponent’s dangerous but unsound sacrifice, while Chris McIntosh won smoothly and efficiently. But these results were not enough to avert a 3.5-2.5 defeat. So Oxford 2 ended a fine season in slightly disappointing fashion to conclude with a record of 5 wins, 6 defeats and 12th position in the division – not quite a true reflection of the performances they produced.

Oxford 1’s final position was in fact better than we could have expected, since Brown Jack who had been top of the table from an early stage were cruelly denied promotion by a shock last round defeat. So Oxford 1 picked up £100 for finishing second in the division – a fine all-round performance from a committed, focussed and tight-knit team. And after so many superb efforts from second team players earlier in the season, this weekend’s plaudits must sit firmly with the men who led us to promotion – the classy Merim, battling James and 100% performers Ben and Kieran.

Pete Harrison