Stretched Resources and Brave Efforts

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.

Pete Harrison

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*