Much anticipation greeted the second 4NCL weekend of the season which took place in a chilly West Bromwich on 24th and 25th January. It was to be an important weekend for both Oxford teams, as Oxford 2 sought to bounce back from two narrow defeats at the first weekend and Oxford 1 aimed to consolidate their position in the promotion places. Two days of entertaining and closely fought chess were in prospect.
Oxford 1 began the weekend against Slough 3, a team they out-rated , but who still presented a dangerous challenge. Kieran Smallbone, making a well-deserved appearance on top board, set the ball rolling by drawing in 14 moves with the Black pieces after two hours of play. Dan Gunlycke also lost little time in dispatching his opponent who despite a very small BCF rating put in a respectable performance. Elsewhere there were further draws for Kemal Ozeren and James Coleman who played well and was better for most of the game, but sadly could not quite find a win in a tricky bishop ending. Aidan Rawlinson racked up a typically solid draw on board 5, leaving Ben Savage just needing to avoid defeat to seal victory in the match. This he did comfortably enough, the early loss of a pawn proving no barrier to him collecting the full point which gave Oxford 1 an eventual 4-2 victory.
Meanwhile, Oxford 2 had the luxury of a private room in which to play their match against the Braille CA, a team very strong at the top end, but with a relatively soft under-belly. It is here that the reason for my somewhat brief report on the first team match becomes apparent – your scribe blundered horribly on move 13 and consigned himself to not far short of six hours of dogged defence. Indeed the awful nature of the offending move was such that it took some time to convince my opponent that I had actually made it, a problem accentuated by a certain lack of aural faculties on the part of the opposition. This, coupled with the hotel’s automatic doors opening and shutting repeatedly just outside the playing room and the use of a phonetic alphabet to inform our opponents of our moves, made the match a truly unique chess-playing experience. Matt Ludbrook on board 4 made light of the difficult conditions to notch up an easy win. Chris McIntosh also recorded a maiden 4NCL victory by neatly out-playing his opponent after an early queen exchange. And Sean Terry was unfortunate to find himself in time trouble against a tough opponent, his flag falling one move away from the time control. The flag was more friendly to Chris Duggan, however, who somehow managed to win on time despite himself having to make around 20 moves in 5 minutes. An important issue was raised here about the role of the arbiter who seemingly refused to step in to make the moves of the blind player as BCF rules suggest he should. Had the result gone the other way, then serious questions would have had to be asked. All this left Oxford 2 3-1 up with Ian Webster on board 1 and Pete Harrison on board 6 needing just a half point between them to seal the deal. This was to be a far from straightforward matter as Pete was still a pawn down with his opponent’s b pawn, or Bella as she became known, fast heading for a regal future. And Ian was having a crazy game with the vastly experienced and much higher rated Tyson Mordue. Typically, Ian had adopted an aggressive approach and sacrificed an exchange for considerable activity. At one stage he was an exchange and two pawns down with a wandering king, before his opponent was forced to sac the exchange back. A series of extraordinary complications resulted in Ian having a queen, bishop and knight against his opponent’s queen, bishop and three pawns. At this point a well-deserved draw was agreed and the match result was settled. Meanwhile, on bottom board Bella’s progress had been stopped in its tracks, but Eva was now connected and passed. But after much tense manouvring and with most other games long since completed, a hard-fought 60 move draw was finally agreed and a 4-2 match result was reached.
With the night now fast drawing in, food and refreshment were much in demand, so we went in search of a Chinese restaurant which it was confidently claimed, though by whom is not clear, had been sighted at the last weekend. A lengthy trek throughout the amazingly quiet streets of West Bromwich, however, seemed destined to yield nothing but a hearty dose of frostbite. Just as we were about to give up hope though, salvation was provided in the form of an opportunely placed Wetherspoon’s. Cheap prices and the day’s satisfying results all contributed to a spirit of revelry. The evening was also notable for a remarkable achievement from Ben Savage in effortlessly devouring two quarter pounders and two platefuls of chips and for a bizarre incident involving a nameless player and a kettle.
Sunday dawned with the usual selection of bleary eyes, but also a fierce desire to carry on the previous day’s good work. Oxford 2 were taking on a Nidum Liberals team which had considerably strengthened since the first weekend, not least by doubling its number of players from 3 to the regulation 6. The second team were themselves boosted by the arrival of the City and Cowley boys, Will Burt, Ray Starkie and Dave Bruce. Matt Ludbrook set the team off in fine style by ignoring a couple of obvious distractions to trap his opponent’s wandering queen. And Ian Webster wasn’t far behind in completing a comfortable victory. Dave Bruce made it a hat-trick of wins on the bottom boards with a typically spectacular attack. So just half a point more was required. Will Burt on top board had made a small error in the Ruy Lopez Schliemann Variation, resulting in his king coming under a sustained assault. He battled superbly to stay in the game, but unfortunately he just failed to hold off the attack and make his extra pawns tell. By now, Chris Duggan had blundered giving his opponent two extra pawns and Ray Starkie’s position was looking drawn at best. Briefly there seemed a danger that the early 3-0 lead would be frittered away. However, the Oxford teams are never short of fighting spirit and before long, Ray had secured the decisive draw. Minutes later, Chris followed suit by holding the rook ending, and a second successive 4-2 win was secured.
The first team meanwhile faced their toughest challenge to date as they squared up to Hilsmark Kingfisher 2, the only other team in the league with a 100% record and a remarkable 17.5/18 board points from their first three matches. In fact in the bar on the previous evening, we had been led to believe that their team would be considerably strengthened for the Sunday match. This turned out to be nothing more than a futile bluff, however, as their team, though strong and containing a couple of under-rated juniors, was no stronger than on Saturday. Dan Gunlycke on board 5 played a very nice looking sacrifice and was unlucky that it proved to be not quite enough for the full point. Kieran Smallbone reluctantly turned down an early draw offer, but was ultimately glad to have done so as his opponent responded to coming under a certain amount of pressure with a rash sacrifice. Kieran seems to have a happy knack of inducing such play from his opponents and once again coveted comfortably despite the opposition’s reluctance to resign. Indeed the Hilsmark Kingfisher team seemed generally unfamiliar with king toppling technique as James Coleman’s opponent played on for some time in a hopeless position. Kemal Ozeren on top board played a terrific exchange sacrifice, but unfortunately missed a few winning opportunities in a complex middlegame. Nonetheless a draw was no bad result against a talented young opponent, especially since he was also taking on a rather spectacular large orange bear which would have unsettled the calmest of players. This brought the match score to 3-1. By this time we were pretty confident of victory as both Ben Savage on board 2 and Aidan Rawlinson on board 6 had significant advantages. Aidan had played some terrific chess, but every time he seemed on the verge of winning, he played a move which let his opponent back into the game. It was typical of a topsy turvy encounter that Aidan reached an ending with three connected passed pawns, but was sadly unable to win it. He did however maintain his unbeaten record with a fourth draw in four games. Ben was having a titanic struggle against a vastly under-rated junior who had played a sharp opening line, sacrificing a pawn for dynamic play. Accurate defence from Ben brought him to a double rook ending still a pawn up. And perhaps the best moment of the weekend was saved for last as Ben constructed a fine mating net and produced a superb crowd-pleasing rook sacrifice to finish the job. A 4.5-1.5 victory was hence secured.
So a tremendously successful weekend came to a close with a perfect 4 victories out of 4 for the Oxford teams. There were once again great performances throughout both teams, right from Kieran’s solid top board draw on day 1 to Pete’s miraculous rescue of half a point at the bottom of the second team. Heroes of the weekend were once again Ian Webster and Chris Duggan who both pulled off fine results against highly rated opponents and Matt Ludbrook who recorded 2/2, albeit against relatively weak opposition. However, my ‘man of the weekend’ is unquestionably Ben Savage who scored an impressive 2/2 and produced that classy finish on day 2. Oxford 2 have now dragged themselves into mid-table, and good results next weekend could even push them into the promotion race. In any case, they will be guaranteed decent opposition. Meanwhile, Oxford 1 sit proudly atop the table, the only team with a 100% record. They will once again face tough games next weekend, probably against Brown Jack and Cambridge, but know that two more wins will virtually guarantee promotion. Exciting times lie ahead.