After the massive over-subscription of players which characterised the first two weekends of the season, weekend 3 was a rather different story as mumps, hockey matches and various prior commitments wiped out a selection of players who would, by themselves, have made up a very respectable first team.
The team manager’s job is never a straightforward one and on this occasion Pete was still hard at it deep into the eleventh hour, recruiting players and negotiating complicated wildcard issues with the league organisers. Eventually, and against all the odds, we were able to field some very respectable teams with a combination of old stalwarts and invaluable new squad members Anna Partington, Marco Zhang and Hervé Hansen. Without the enthusiasm of these three to step into the breach, the weekend could have been a disaster. As it was, however, things didn’t go at all badly…
Oxford 1 were to face two of their main rivals at the top of the league and kicked off against this season’s surprise package FCA Solutions 1. It seems to be an Oxford trait to perform at their best when backs seem to be very much against the wall, so it was no great surprise that the firsts came out fighting for every point. The top boards were as strong as ever as Ben, Kemal and James stepped up to the plate. Kemal finally broke this season’s amazing run of draws with a comprehensive victory, while James suffered a rare lapse in his massive theoretical knowledge and was given no second chance. Ben meanwhile was finally persuaded to accept a draw and was later glad to have done so as it turned out that he was probably losing the final position. The team’s engine room chose an ideal day to shine and both Kieran and Aidan notched up emphatic victories – in Kieran’s case continuing an amazing 100% record for the season to date. All of which left the bottom 3 boards, all making their season’s debut in the first team, needing a point between them to complete victory. All three put in tremendous battling performances. Graham Morris was always somewhat on the defensive, but didn’t give up till the very last when time pressure finally told. Chris Duggan on board 6 as usual performed his best against strong opposition and eventually converted to a full point. And Anna always had the edge on board 8, but despite giving it everything couldn’t quite find enough for more than a half point. So a 5-3 win and a great team effort.
Oxford 2, playing high-flying Hilsmark Coventry, were always going to be up against it – you always know you’re in trouble when you see Woody elevated to the heady heights of board 3. He duly obliged with a disastrous early blunder and could never quite find enough play to recover. Elsewhere the troops were battling valiantly but in vain. Sean tried to baffle his talented young opponent with the spectacular 1 … Nh6, an idea which had come to him during his pre-game shower. It actually gave him a decent game, but he was eventually ground down. Hervé Hansen on board 4 played a solid game until time pressure got the better of him, while Marco Zhang on 5 was slowly crushed by his opponent’s advancing pawns. Marco is a man who finds unusual ways to win chess games and this time had tried the cunning technique of waiting for his opponent to lose his mobile phone before the game. Sadly he found the missing telecommunications device just in time to finish Marco off. Kevin gave his all as ever on board 6 but couldn’t quite stave off ultimate defeat. It was left to Matt Ludbrook on board 2 to salvage some pride for the Oxford boys with a solid half point.
Sunday brought the division 3 top of the table clash against Guilford-ADC 3. This was always going to be the weekend’s toughest challenge, but the team knew that a win would set them well on the way to promotion. The early excitement centred around Ben on board 2 who out-witted his opponent in the opening, but then found himself with the thorny problem of how to convert his two extra rooks with his king dangerously exposed in the centre. Ultimately, resourceful play from his opponent meant that Ben had to settle for a perpetual. Nonetheless, this was certainly one of the season’s most exciting games to date. Kemal returned to his drawing ways with a solid board 1 performance, while Aidan on 3 was always on the wrong end of a particularly tricky variation of the French. Kieran’s winning run had to end somewhere and he had to settle for the half on board 4, while on board 5 James’ tough 4NCL season continued when his opponent found just too much counterplay for some extra material. It was down to the bottom 3 to save the day. Chris, who seems to get more than his share of rook endings, was this time struggling to hold a rook ending from a pawn down. All that practice must have paid off because he finally secured a vital half. Anna had drawn the short straw of playing local Oxford starlet Claire Morris. She made light of the task, however, with a commanding performance based on superior opening knowledge and some exquisitely sharp tactics. The pivotal performance of the day came on board 6 where Ray Starkie was making his seasonal debut in the first team. He has shown fine form in the local leagues this season and carried in into 4NCL as he wasted no time at all in thoroughly outplaying a strong opponent. So an honourable 4-4 draw and the promotion challenge still very much on track.
The seconds, strengthened by the much-needed arrival of Will Burt and Dave Bruce and by Graham Morris dropping down from the firsts took on a powerful Slough Sharks 4 outfit. Sadly, the Cowley connection didn’t quite make the desired impact as Dave and Will both went down despite brave attacking performances. Graham played a fine game on top board but was unlucky to fall victim to his opponent’s lucky swindle and have to settle for a draw. Herve scored his first 4NCL point with a nice win while Marco was somewhat unfortunate only to halve when landed in an opposite colour bishop ending. Which left Matt to complete a superb personal weekend with a win which secured a 3-3 draw for the team. A much needed boost for what had been a rather beleaguered second team. They’ll be back harder and stronger next weekend.
To sum up the weekend, a win and a draw can be regarded as a great return for the slightly under-strength firsts, while the seconds enjoyed their chess and certainly deserved the reward of that Sunday draw. Above all it was one of the best ever Oxford 4NCL weekends from a social point of view as the new players blended with the old and brought a fresh feel to the much-vaunted Oxford team spirit. There were, as ever, many great individual performances, including 1.5/2 scores from Kemal, Kieran, Chris, Anna and Matt. But my man of the weekend has to be Ray. The way he dispatched his opponent was most impressive and come the end of the season, his win might just make all the difference to the first team’s ultimate fate. I, for one, can’t wait for weekend 4 and the chance for Oxford 1 to stamp it’s authority on division 3 and for Oxford 2 to take some notable scalps.