Oxford Turn Up The Heat

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.

Pete Harrison

Oxford Make 4NCL Debut

The adventure has begun… on the weekend of 22nd/23rd November, the new Oxford team, a combination of University players, ex-University players and local Oxford league players, made its long-awaited debut at the 4NCL.

The general mood from the start was a cheery one as much of the team had begun the day by watching England’s glorious victory in the Rugby World Cup. Perhaps inspired by this, Oxford 2 in particular began like a team possessed. Faced with the toughest possible first round draw against top seeds Cambridge, the team raced out of the blocks and were arguably better on all six boards in the early stages.

Meanwhile Oxford 1 also had a tough challenge against Nottinghamshire who fielded a considerably stronger team than for their Sunday match. The firsts, however, began their bid for promotion in efficient fashion and fittingly it was the team’s founder and captain Kieran Smallbone who scored Oxford’s first ever 4NCL point when his opponent sacrificed unsoundly and was comprehensively punished. And Oxford 1’s powerful top three were in no mood to let the advantage go to waste. Kemal Ozeren got a typically strong position from the Queen’s Indian and though his opponent defended well to avoid middlegame mate, he couldn’t stop Ozeren converting an extra pawn in the resulting queen ending. James Coleman on board 3 had an edge throughout, but it required dogged determination and a few slight errors from his opponent for him to convert a rook ending with four pawns against three into another full point. And on top board Ben Savage played accurately to draw from a slightly worse position and secure overall match victory. In the remaining two games, Aidan Rawlinson tried hard to eke out a win, but eventually had to settle for a draw, while Ray Starkie on board 6 drew a pretty wild double rook ending to leave the final margin a comfortable 4.5-1.5.

If the first’s victory was relatively straightforward, the second’s match never seemed likely to be anything but a real battle. Perhaps Cambridge were guilty of a little complacency as David Moskovic allowed Will Burt on board 2 to go the exchange up early on. And on board 6, Matt Ludbrook’s opponent made a fundamental blunder on move 6 in the French. Ludbrook hesitated over which of several strong moves to make, but ultimately perhaps regretted not going down a line which would have given his opponent two pawns and some activity for a piece. Oxford 2 were also clearly better on board 1 where Nathan Alfred got precious little compensation for his exchange sacrifice against Dan Gunlycke and board 4 where Ian Webster was outplaying David Garner. But the first game to finish was on board 5 where Chris Duggan smoothly dispatched a higher graded opponent and moved to an impressive 3/3 in games against the old enemy. On board 3, things were much less clear – Dave Bruce had found a typically risky but nonetheless dangerous looking sacrifice and was evidently enjoying the kind of wild tactical battle he relishes. Elsewhere, Webster was unlucky to have to settle for a perpetual and Ludbrook’s advantage slipped away, leaving him with a still creditable half point. Sadly, however, the tide had turned just far enough in Cambridge’s favour – Bruce’s opponent proved too solid defensively and Moskovic got his act together impressively to turn around his game against Burt. These 2 points, Burt’s game bizarrely concluding with a resignation in the bar where Moskovic had gone after the time control, were to prove decisive. This left Gunlycke desperately battling for the full point which would have resulted in a drawn match. Ultimately, however, after a tremendous fight, he had to settle for the draw. And though there was disappointment that the team had come so close only to pull up just short, losing 3.5-2.5, there was also relief that Dan did not miss out on a well-deserved draw by over-stretching. The round of applause which greeted him in the bar was testimony to his tremendous performance and to a superb team spirit which will surely stand us in good stead in the matches to come.

This team spirit was once again evident as most of the players enjoyed a fine meal in a local Indian restaurant and spent the remainder of the evening in jovial mood in the hotel bar. There is surely no experience quite like an evening spent in the company of a group of friendly chess players and by the time the last few retired to bed, the world had been fully set to rights.

Sunday saw further tough draws for the Oxford boys with Oxford 1 narrow favourites to beat Metropolitan and Oxford 2 once again underdogs against Mindsportsltd.com 2. Oxford 1 started a little shakily, with Ozeren struggling to equalise as Black, Smallbone’s position looking somewhat hairy, and Sean Terry, stepping in for the unwell Tom Nitz, being worse from an early stage. However, Smallbone’s game swiftly turned in his favour and he once more opened the scoring with a comfortable win. James Coleman clinically disposed of his opponent, who perhaps wasn’t helped by the fact that he spent the whole game believing that he was playing Ben Savage. The real Savage also won, completing a unique double victory when his opponent blundered in the ending. Rawlinson’s game on board 5 ended in an uneventful draw, so despite a few scares the match was won. The final margin was more comprehensive than had seemed likely when Ozeren fought well to hold the draw and Terry’s opponent was unable to mate with knight and bishop, a nightmare which all chess players must fear. So a 4.5-1.5 win took Oxford 1 onto 2 wins out of 2.

Meanwhile Oxford 2 were entering another tense battle. Pete Harrison on board 6 against quiz show legend CJ De Mooi and Chris Duggan on board 3 both made solid draws, one with and the other against the Dutch Stonewall. Gunlycke completed a fine weekend with another draw against strong opposition – the match was to be decided elsewhere. Webster was once again outplaying quality opposition on board 2 and would probably have won even without his opponent’s disastrous blunder allowing a decisive knight fork. Once again Oxford 2 had the lead, but things were about to take another cruel turn. Chris McIntosh had battled well on his board 5 debut, but was unlucky to blunder fatally just before the time control. Which left Ludbrook, who had been worse for most of the game, scrapping desperately for the vital half point. It was not to be, and the seconds were unfortunate to once again be consigned to defeat by the narrowest margin, 3.5-2.5.

And so ended the first 4NCL weekend of the year. There were many fine performances, notably from Savage, Coleman, Ozeren and the one player to score 100%, Smallbone. But despite their unlucky defeats, top plaudits must go to second team players – Gunlycke for his two great draws and Duggan and Webster for taking 1.5/2 against supposedly stronger opposition. If they maintain that kind of form, then surely well-deserved success will come at the next weekend. It will also be a vital weekend for the first team who will take on two of their main title rivals in pivotal games. Everyone is looking forward to the challenges ahead.

Pete Harrison