4NCL 2023-24 Rounds 7-8: Division 1 results

This time Oxford 1 met heavyweight oppo in the form of Cheddleton and Wood Green in Telford. It seemed challenging but on Saturday Cheddleton turned up with an unfamiliar line-up, boosting hopes that we might pinch a match point or even two.

Hopes rose further when Edgar had Cheddleton captain Fiona Steil-Antoni on the ropes early on in a Caro-Kann:

Wilson v Steil-Antoni (17. Re1)

It is grim for Black who has just played 16. … Rd8-d6 just to close the dangerous h2-b8 diagonal. She has to watch out for getting mated (Rb1-b8), watching the e-pawn trap her bishop on its starting square (Bf4, Bxd6 – exd6, e7), perhaps f4-f5 is on the menu, and later if the king wanders to d6, it might go Rb1-b7-d7#. Something went awry later, Fiona wrestled herself back into the game, and we went down. Swindlegate continues, begor (three in the Sharks 1 match, one v Celtic Tigers 1 already, begor). Instead of staring at zero points we could now be on six. Ho hum.

Tashika had GM Arkell under the cosh, but it appears the GM wriggled out of trouble in this position:

Arora – Arkell (38. cxd6)

Most things are worse for Black, for example 38. … Rxd6 39. Rxd6 Nxd6 40. e5 Nc4 41. Bxc6 Nxb6 42. Bxb7 when White can try and lever a win from the resulting B+4 v N+3 endgame. The experienced GM found 38. … c5! which appears to hang the b7 pawn, no? No, for now Black can capture on d6, then navigate his knight to c4 or c8 to hoover the b6 pawn without losing his c-pawn.

GM Arkell tried to win this endgame with his c-pawn, winning Tashika’s bishop for it. He was down to his h-pawn at the death, and clock times suggest he wasn’t sure he was absolutely definite that he was winning it. No, Tashika’s pawns were strong enough to keep the knight quiet and Tashika scored a well-earned draw. I’m told this was the subject of animated discussion in the post-mortem, and that the conclusion was that Keith never had enough. Still, had Tashika chalked up 1-0 then it would have been very much with the run of the play.

Theo (another debutant transferring from West Is Best, like Donald Macfarlane) scored up his first Oxford win after a chaotic game in which it seems White’s last move 20. Bc1-e3 …

van Dael – Khoury (20. … f5)

… inadvertently took away the Ng4’s last available square, and 21. Bxf4 to free the square runs into 21. … Nxf4 hitting the queen. I wager the consequences of 22. Qh4 fxg4 23. Qxh7+ Kf8 was calculated by Theo. Perhaps he planned 22. Qh4 Ng6? Anyway, White wriggled for a long, long time but Theo kept control. As he scored Oxford’s only win of the weekend, that gets Theo “top game” status.

Sunday was always going to be a disaster area against divisional leaders Wood Green, but Theo completed a weekend of 1½/2 (v FM & GM!) in a quiet draw with Jon Speelman. Elsewhere, our poor a2 pawn was terrorised by doubled rooks on boards 1 & 5 with a securing pawn on b4:

Claridge-Hansen v Harvey (20. … g6), Hobson v Arakhamia-Grant (32. … Bf7)

Clearly the first diagram is all Black as the White rook on a1 is miserable. But the second is more 50:50. GM Arakhamia-Grant manoeuvred fruitlessly until move 55 as Kenneth defended patiently for his second half-point of the weekend (against an IM & GM!), making more than 150 moves in the process.

4NCL 2023-24 Rounds 3-4: Division 3B, 4 results

The lower three teams ventured forth to Telford for the second weekend of 4NCL OTB. Hold it, did skip say “three” teams? No, it was only two, as player availability (for many reasons!) meant only Oxford 2 and 3 braved the floods. Skip may be over-dramatic there, as the Friday rain had stopped by the Saturday.

  • Oxford 2 lost 1½-4½ to ex-Oxford skip Aidan’s team Greater Woodpushers* and ½-5½ to Warwickshire Select 2;
  • Oxford 3 lost 0-5½ to Crowthorne B and ½-5 to Ashfield 2;
  • Oxford 4 were not present.

* Skip hasn’t asked Aidan, but he suspects “Woodpushers” is a nod to Oxford 4NCL’s original founder Pete Harrison (d. 2005) who went by his nickname “Woody Woodpusher”.

So when will Oxford 4 appear? Skip has made it his objective to make sure the fourths appear in Weekend 3 at Warwick by hook or crook.

There was not much delight for our troops on Saturday, though David W scored a good win. It looked like he might be in the clubhouse by move 20 as Black’s king sallied out to f6 early doors, but David was last to finish in a technical Q, c7, h2 v Q endgame. Skip contributed our other half-point while feeling that he should have doubled said contribution after his opponent dropped a pawn near the time control. He’d missed 39. … Rf4. So had skip, he was banking on 39. … Rg3+ to collect Pg4 but had forgotten that 39. Be2 protected it, so 40. Kh2 was winning material. Luckily for skip he realised this in time in some mild time-trouble, 5 minutes to move 40. Phew. A lot of promoted-pawn ghosts appeared in the knight endgame and skip navigated safely to a draw rather than blow it completely.

Sunday wasn’t much better, but Phil N makes a strong case for Oxford “player of the weekend” by making his personal total 1½ and keeping the thirds in non-negative equity on his own. Mind you his win was assisted by White’s clock, for his opponent lost on time in a strong position. Oops. So instead of giving you that one as “top game”, skip will give David’s Saturday game. Sorry, Phil, but I’m sure you understand!

4NCL 2023-24 Rounds 1-2: Division 3B, 4 results

We were at Telford for this weekend – the first time for this season, and the first time for a few seasons. Distance meant we could only field the second and third teams, who posted these results:

  • Oxford 2 beat MASCeteers 4½-1 (default-related scoreline) and Sussex Martlets 3 4-2.
  • Oxford 3 were trounced 0-6 by Desert Penguins then defeated War & Piece B 4½-1½.
  • Oxford 4 were not present.

On Saturday, MASCeteers were a player short so Shambavi was left at home to claim a free point. Edgar was ready to play Mark Drugan but an emergency in Oxford 3 meant I dropped him to board 1 in that team and replaced him on board 5. Stefanus and Roman engaged in pin-related trickery that ended in one movebound opponent and another mated opponent. Jan reached a position where a perpetual was all that was available; sadly he tried to improve further and this did not work out. On top board Szymon was occupied for more than six hours holding a two-pawn down position. He managed it, impressively.

Not content with six hours’ Saturday play, Szymon doubled his board time on Sunday, being last to finish in the whole room for the second day running. Twelve hours in total, begor, and 172 moves. He may have overpressed a smidge, but Oxford 2 had already won by the time he was mated at move 99. Roman (2/2 for the weekend!), Edgar and Alex had already sewn up the points on the bottom three boards to go with Jan‘s Berlin draw on 2. Alex calmly defused a premature White attack; it seems to skip that White had to retreat the queen with 19. Qd1 but her Maj hadn’t charged out to g4 last move only to meekly return to base. No, she went boldly (rashly?) forward, hanging not only the c2 pawn but also the b2 bishop which could not be defended.

Stefanus‘s king worked tirelessly to save his half-point after his big passed b-pawn mysteriously went missing, going all the way to f7 and back while his counterpart dozed on h8.

What positive spin can skip put on a 0-6 Saturday start for the thirds? Edgar battled well against his IM opponent, Steve looked like he was stomping his opponent in a Closed Sicilian but skip forgot to count the rooks, for Steve was one light. Still, Steve’s attack looked promising. Had he inserted Bd5 at some point to prevent the deadly bishop being shut off on a2 with … c4, he might now be basking in “top game” status?

The thirds bounced back on Sunday. Richard won on the White side of a Panov Caro-Kann, several tactics netting Q v R. Phil got his centre pawns running and one quickly touched down. Barry took control of the centre and collected a free piece.

Neil tried to emulate Szymon’s stamina, being one of the last in the room to finish on both days. He declined three(!) draw offers pushing for a Sunday win, and perhaps missed Black’s move 43 when the pendulum swung. Skip makes it Neil occupied ten hours of board time over the weekend, sadly for zero return.

What was going on in Steve‘s game? His opponent contrived to bury his knight on h7 by move 25 (see picture); but then that same knight trapped the black King for a future endgame. We never got to one, for many (mis)adventures with pieces dropping off everywhere ended with the White king being mated in mid-board.

“How do we get out of this pickle, sire?”

Top game. Having contemplated both of Steve‘s entertaining games, skip’s mind concentrated on other Black wins. Stefanus‘s Saturday win on 3 was a candidate, as was Alex‘s Sunday win. Phil‘s marching centre pawns were worthy of consideration. Skip gives the nod to Roman, as the only Oxford player with two wins. His Sunday effort was well-controlled.

4NCL 2023-24 Rounds 1-2: Division 1 results

The first team ventured out into Division One for the first time in the new season. Looking over oppo teams we ranked tenth on average ratings (2249), but only seven rating points behind Alba (2256) and one behind Barnet Knights A (2250). The bad news was that we ran into the No. 1 team Sharks 1 who boasted 2480, and even “rested” IM Peter Roberson in their second team!

It was a thumping loss to Sharks 1 on Saturday. But was it? Our four White games against Sharks 1 resulted in three losses and one win. The three losses can be categorised as “swindles” of various complexity triggered by the oppo. The most evil was Makkar’s 37. … c3 against David, that was a tough one to meet in time-trouble. Those three games, if re-scored in our favour, would have been enough for a narrow match win. Ho hum.

On the upside debutant Donald controlled his White game well against IM Rendle, scoring what proved to our only win of the weekend – an easy choice for “top game” in our playthrough..

Only Will got on the board with Black, holding off White-specialist IM Grieve in what was a topical Sicilian Taimanov (or is it Kan?) line of the 1990s where White happily develops his king to f3.

[so what have Sharks 1 just done on Sunday? Right, turned over Manx Liberty!]

Tashika was last to finish on Saturday after a six-hour marathon against FM Moreby. She was involved in another long game on Sunday at board 5 against experienced FM Webb, spending most of it defending doggedly as Black’s dark-squared bishop ruled the roost. Eventually she managed to get shot of it and Webb conceded a well-earned half after 4¾ hours – it was a long weekend of nearly eleven hours for Tashika.

No-one else was close to racking up a win over Blackthorne’s IMs though Jon had a small chance late on: would Black fall for 45. … Kg5 46. h4+ Kh5 47. Kh3 Rxg2 48. Qf3+ Kh6 49. Qxg2, and a super-long queen endgame? No, Nelson carefully chose 45. … Kh5 and a perpetual was all that was there.

4NCL 2023-24: Announcement from HQ

Skip presents a lengthy email from 4NCL HQ that outlines the future direction for next season. It’s an “existential” problem.

Although venue contracts for 2023-2024 are still being finalised, we thought it was important to let you have as early an update as possible on how things are shaping up for the forthcoming 2023-2024 season – in particular so that you know before the final weekend of this season what we expect next season’s format to be.

To start with, a little context. As we have started to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, so the hotel industry has it seems decided pretty much ‘en masse’ that it’s a good idea not only to reflect current inflationary trends in their pricing but also to try to recoup losses incurred during Covid as fast as they can. As a result bedroom rates in general have rocketed and playing space at discounted rates is no longer on the table as an option in return for high bedroom occupation. Leisure and special interest groups generally are now it seems seen by the hotel industry as undesirable business compared with the higher-margin business they are presumably hoping to attract instead (although quite how hotels expect to fill their boots with, for example, wedding and conference business on a longer term basis once wedding backlogs are cleared and businesses decide to stay with Team/Zooms etc rather than having face-to-face meetings rather escapes us).

Anyway… we have, along with other chess organisations specifically and leisure/special interest groups generally, struggled to locate venues at acceptable venue hire and bedroom rates, and although it’s to Guaranteed Event’s credit that we have any venues at all, the difficulties are illustrated by the fact that only two venues have been willing to provide anything like competitive terms for more than a single weekend – and: (a) the terms on offer are still much less favourable than previously; (b) we have only been offered a limited number of weekends (on the basis that the hotels would rather hold out for higher margin business than take more of ours – see above).

This has had the following consequences:

  1. Charges for venue hire have increased significantly vs 2022-2023 (with the expectation on the part of hotels that significant numbers of bedrooms will still be booked regardless). Guaranteed Events will continue to absorb these as they have done in past seasons, but the hire charge increases have inevitably further eroded their margins (which were already fairly thin compared with, for example, their bridge holidays business).
  2. The net bedroom rates quoted to Guaranteed Events (the rates used as the basis for the bedroom block allocations that Guaranteed Events commit to and pay the hotels for) have increased by close to 30%  (with many other venues quoting net rate increases in excess of 50%). Had these increases been passed on in full to our chess players we would have been looking at gross bedroom rates of around £90. Guaranteed Events are willing to absorb a large part of the increase so as to keep the headline rate at £79, but again that means that their own margins have been reduced.
  3. As a result of 1 and 2 above Guaranteed Events are no longer in a position to give us commission on bedroom bookings.
  4. One of the hotels that has offered us terms has a maximum playing space of 510 sq m. As a result we are going to be limited as regards the number of teams we can cater for next season – in practice 24 teams in Divisions 1 and 2 and 40 teams in what we expect will be a single Division 3, so a total of 64 teams.
  5. The financial effect of 3 and 4 above amounts to around £16,000 lost revenue to the 4NCL (£11,000 lost bedroom commission and £5,000 lost entry fees). The only way to cover these losses is by increasing entry fees.
  6. In calculating the expected level of entry fees (expected to be in the region of £600-625 for Divs 1 and 2 and £450-475 for Div 3) we’ve applied the principle that all divisions should contribute equally to the league’s running costs. As usual, our costings are based on achieving break-even and not making any surplus. The cost per game works out at around £7 or so – so not dissimilar to the cost per game of a weekend congress, although we accept that that’s small consolation for entry fee increases of this scale.
  7. Dates and venues for next season are, subject contract, expected to be as follows:
Division 1 & 2VenueDivision 3Venue
3-5 NovemberMilton Keynes17-19 NovemberTelford
12-14 JanuaryWarwick5-7 JanuaryTelford
9-11 FebruaryTelford9-11 FebruaryWarwick
15-17 MarchTelford8-10 MarchWarwick
3-6 MayTelford3-6 MayWarwick

The allocation of divisions to venues is still provisional at this stage and may be reviewed.

  • Divisions 1 and 2 will continue as 12 team all-play-alls. Division 3 will be played as a Swiss, combining the present Divs 3 East and West and, we expect, 16 teams from the present Division 4 to make a total of 40 teams. Promotion and relegation arrangements as at the end of the present season will remain unchanged.
  • We envisage that invitations to play next season will be a staged process: (a) firstly, Div 1, Div 2, Div 3 East and Div 3 West teams (as adjusted for promotion/relegation arrangements as at the end of the season) will be given two or three weeks to enter; (b) the top 16 teams from Division 4 (again, adjusted for promotion/relegation as above), or as many teams are required above 16 to take account of any teams not renewing their entries from (a) above, will then be given a further two or three weeks to enter; (c) if any places remain unfilled they will be offered to teams on a first come first served basis.

We can only apologise for next season’s limit on team numbers and increased costs. We’ve taken the view that a smaller 4NCL costing more to enter is still a better thing than no 4NCL at all, and we hope that captains and players will take that view as well and continue to support the 4NCL – support that has been such an impressive feature of the league over the years. We hope that if we can survive these difficult times in reasonably good shape we will be in a decent position to expand again in the future (and reduce entry fees) as the economic position in the UK improves and the hotel industry takes a more realistic view of things.

Kind regards