Weekend 4 of the season saw Oxford 1 pitted against two of division 3’s relegation candidates. SCS 1 and Numerica 3Cs may not be as strong as some teams in the division, but both still possess talented players who were not to be underestimated. Oxford 2 meanwhile faced the up-and-coming juniors of Richmond B and the powerful outfit from Nottinghamshire.
Oxford were missing some of their big stars, notably Merim Bilalic and Dave Shaw, but the main selection headache surrounded the non-availability of our trio of strong female players. Fortunately we were able to take advantage of the rule which allows an U16 junior to substitute for a female player for three matches in the season and recruited Witney’s rising star Guanqun Gai.
The highlight of Saturday’s play always looked likely to be Kemal’s game on top board against Oxford exile Tim Dickinson. But the early action took place elsewhere as Ben quickly halved out for a solid draw on board 2 and James’ unfortunate 4NCL season continued with defeat on board 6. Ray, however, continued his superb season with a smooth and comprehensive win on board 7. Things were not going so well on the remaining boards as Kieran had much the worst of it against his young opponent and Alex’s game against another Oxford exile, Nigel Moyse, looked far from clear – Oxford seemed to be staring down the barrel. The story was only just starting… Matters got worse before they got better as good performances from Aidan and debutant Gai were only rewarded with draws. Then two vital turning points – first a series of complex tactics resulted in Kemal picking up a crucial central pawn. And then Kieran managed to trap his opponent with a time trouble related swindle to turn what had seemed a likely defeat into victory. One had to feel sorry for his opponent, but the point gained set us firmly on the road to victory. The result was soon settled as Tim had to give best to Kemal’s precise endgame technique and Alex’s extra knight proved more than enough to counter-balance Nigel’s marauding pawn mass. So a final score of 5.5-2.5, though the victory was nowhere near as comfortable as the scoreline suggests. As a footnote to this game it’s worth noting Tim’s superb win against a much higher rated opponent the next day. We can only be glad that he saved his best for Sunday…
Oxford 2’s game against Richmond B never threatened to be as easy as the opposition’s position at the bottom of the table suggested. And the situation wasn’t helped by Matt and Ian’s late arrival caused by a train cancellation. This didn’t seem to affect Matt unduly as he found his way neatly through a tactical maelstrom to rack up the full point. Jon on board 6 also proved too strong for his inexperienced opponent. All seemed set fair with Graham outplaying the Richmond skipper and other games remaining in the balance. Then a series of setbacks as Will’s sacrificial play proved unsound and Dave had to settle for a half. The cruellest blow was on board 3 where Graham once again fell foul of his time trouble demons. As so often it was to be Ian’s game on board 1 which would settle the match. For some time it remained unclear whether his extra pawns were sufficient compensation for the exchange. When the situation finally resolved itself, the knight and pawn v two pawns ending was always destined to be a draw. A slightly disappointing 3-3 draw, but doubtless Richmond’s youngsters have a bright future ahead of them.
A fully booked Moat House forced us to once again explore the Telford suburb of Ketley on Saturday evening. It is a matter of some debate whether the cheap rooms and excellent breakfast provided by the Westbrook House compensate for its inconvenient location and the dubious merits of the local hostelry, the Elephant and Castle. In any case, our broadly successful day ensured a lively atmosphere and a good time was had by all. The morning brought an extraordinary record turn-out for breakfast of 8 hungry punters. We then hopped into the cars and made our way to the venue for the day’s challenge. The seconds faced a stiff test against a Nottinghamshire outfit who, while not at full strength, were still one of the more powerful teams in the division. It was not until about 15 minutes into the game that I realised that we were trying to win the match with only 5 men. It was a few seconds before I could remember who was meant to be filling the vacant slot on board 2. Only then did I realise that Sean did not seem to be in attendance. Now those who know Sean will know that a late arrival at the board is nothing unusual. More worrying was the fact that none of our drivers had brought him from the guest house, all assuming that someone else had done so. A swift phone call revealed that Sean had just set out on foot for the venue having watched the end of the London marathon. Given the distances involved, it was somewhat surprising when Sean took his place at the board only a few minutes later. It transpired that the luck of the Irish had done its work and Sean had managed to hitch a lift from a lady he met in a petrol station. Before we knew it, 1 h3 was on the board and all was well with the world again.
It soon became clear that it was not to be a happy day at the office for the seconds. First your scribe went down to a sharp performance from yet another of 4NCL’s many talented youngsters. After his earlier adventures, Sean did well to secure a solid half and Kevin played very well indeed before a few slight inaccuracies in the endgame left him with only a draw. Performance of the day came from Jon who produced a fine attacking display to see off his board 4 opponent. But another unfortunate defeat for Graham and a narrow reverse for Matt, both somewhat influenced by time trouble sealed our fate. A 4-2 loss against a strong side was no disgrace, but the seconds will certainly hope for better at the final weekend of the season.
The firsts meanwhile were tackling Numerica 3Cs 2 with a point headstart due to the opposition’s default on board 8. The match itself was not the most eventful of the season. Ben produced another solid display for the half point on board 2 while James had a slight edge for much of the game before halving with ex-University stalwart Alex Hickman. Ian went at it in typically attacking fashion on board 7, but ultimately his daring sacrifice proved in vain and he was forced to admit defeat. There were further draws for Kemal on board 1 whose opponent found sufficient counterplay to win back a pawn lost in the early stages and Aidan on board 5. It was left to Kieran whose superb season continued with an easy win and the ever impressive Alex to make the final score 5-3 to Oxford. Though the match was no walkover, for once we never really looked like losing.
While Oxford 2 are having a tough season, Oxford 1 now find themselves top of division 3 and look set for promotion. Three more wins at the last weekend would secure the title as well, the prize money for which would prove most welcome. As ever there were performances to savour from the Oxford boys this weekend. Notable amongst them were Kieran’s 2/2, albeit with a little good fortune, Ray’s by now familiar smooth display and Jon’s 2 wins, especially his clinical attacking display on Sunday. But my man of the weekend has to be Alex whose two wins, including one against a player of the quality of Nigel Moyse, were really most impressive. The Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May can’t come soon enough. We’ll keep the champagne on ice until then…