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
OXFORD 1 8 1 2 17
BROWN JACK 7 2 2 16
SLOUGH 3 7 2 2 16
OXFORD 2 5 0 6 10
BRAILLE C.A. 3 2 6 8
THE ADS 3 3 0 8 6

Division 3 Here We Come!

Saturday 19th June, the first day of the final 4NCL weekend of the season, always seemed likely to go a long way to deciding Oxford 1’s promotion fate. Not only were they themselves seeking to boost their game point total against Grendel’s Mother, but Oxford 2 had the chance to help them out by taking game points off their main challengers Poisoned Pawns 2.

Despite being without Kemal Ozeren and Chris Duggan, two of the season’s stars to date, we were able to field very strong teams for both Saturday matches. Grendel’s Mother are a team without any big stars, but still presented a tough challenge from top to bottom with a consistently strong line-up. Indeed in the early stages, things did not appear to be going entirely to plan for the firsts. James Coleman on board 3 took advantage of his opponent’s opening inaccuracy to win spectacularly within an hour’s play, but the rest were not having it all their own way. Ben Savage’s opponent blundered a pawn, but then stumbled upon some useful counterplay , while Kieran Smallbone , Gerard O’Reilly and Ray Starkie were slowly eking out slight advantages on the bottom 3 boards. Perhaps the decisive moment in the match was the touch of tactical genius which saw Merim Bilalic seal victory on board 1, after which the result, at least, was never in doubt. But game points were still important and smooth if unspectacular wins for Ben and Kieran edged us ever nearer to promotion. The bottom two boards were not so clear-cut, however, and Ray’s opponent on board 6 had equalised from a tough position. The resulting half point was no disaster, and Gerard, having seemingly let his edge slip was once more pressing for victory. And when the Cowley man finally brought the full point home, a 5.5-0.5 win seemed likely to be enough.

Fielding their strongest team of the season, the on-form seconds needed to rack up a couple of points against Poisoned Pawns to all-but confirm Oxford 1’s promotion. But forewarned by the previous weekend’s fine result against Brown Jack, the Pawns were themselves fielding their strongest team of the season – hard-earned respect for Oxford 2. But sooner or later, after such a great season, the second team had to have an off-day, and sadly this was it. Against powerful opponents, none of the second team boys really got into the game, with Matt Ludbrook slowly crushed in a French on bottom board and Aidan Rawlinson worse from an early stage at the opposite end of the team. Will Burt failed to find his characteristic resources from an exotic looking position and Dave Bruce looked ill-at-ease in a rare outing with the Black pieces. Ian Webster battled hard to rescue an ending from a pawn down, but found himself undone by his opponent’s solid technique. The nearest Oxford 2 came to salvaging a half point was from a fine defensive effort in a tricky queen ending by Alex Milovanovic on board 2. Even this game ultimately slipped away, however, leaving the second team with a disappointing 6-0 defeat.

With the division’s top two, Cambridge University and Brown Jack also winning, the equation for Sunday was now simple – Oxford 1 needed a 4-2 win or better to guarantee promotion. Anything less would leave them relying on results elsewhere going their way. The draw was relatively kind, yielding a fixture against the Braille CA whose weak lower boards would surely offer some easy points. And so it was to prove, as a tough struggle for Merim against Tyson Mordue on board 1 and a much worse position for James on board 2 against Chris Ross were counter-balanced by quick wins for Ben, Aidan and Alex on the bottom 3 boards. Promotion was soon sealed as Merim halved out, Kieran produced a typically hard-fought win on board 3 and James miraculously rescued half a point on board 2. So a comprehensive 5-1 victory to conclude a tremendously successful first 4NCL season for Oxford 1.

Meanwhile Oxford 2’s final fixture against ADs 3 was to prove a tough struggle. The previously weak ADs were considerably stronger than in previous weekends, and Oxford 2 were without Chris Duggan, Dave Bruce and Will Burt. Kevin Henbest faced an under-rated junior on bottom board and was unlucky to get the worse of a tight battle, while Sean Terry was unfortunate to have to settle for a draw from an initially promising position. Matt Ludbrook completed a disappointing personal weekend with a second reverse. And Ian also moved to 0/2 after once again narrowly failing to hold a tricky ending. Pete Harrison defended well to win after his opponent’s dangerous but unsound sacrifice, while Chris McIntosh won smoothly and efficiently. But these results were not enough to avert a 3.5-2.5 defeat. So Oxford 2 ended a fine season in slightly disappointing fashion to conclude with a record of 5 wins, 6 defeats and 12th position in the division – not quite a true reflection of the performances they produced.

Oxford 1’s final position was in fact better than we could have expected, since Brown Jack who had been top of the table from an early stage were cruelly denied promotion by a shock last round defeat. So Oxford 1 picked up £100 for finishing second in the division – a fine all-round performance from a committed, focussed and tight-knit team. And after so many superb efforts from second team players earlier in the season, this weekend’s plaudits must sit firmly with the men who led us to promotion – the classy Merim, battling James and 100% performers Ben and Kieran.

Pete Harrison

Oxford on the Brink of Glory

As the Oxford players travelled to the pivotal fourth 4NCL weekend of the season in West Bromwich, we all knew that the next three days of tension filled chess would go a long way to determining the ultimate fortunes of Oxford 1 and Oxford 2. Saturday’s pre-determined fixtures saw Oxford 1, strengthened by the recruitment of new star man Merim Bilalic , facing the old enemy Cambridge . And Oxford 2 had a key mid-table clash with the enigmatically named Grendel’s Mother.

We had anticipated that Cambridge would be boosted by Karl Mah’s first appearance of the season, but were pleased to see on arrival that his name did not appear on the team sheet. However, their team was still very strong and a close match was in prospect. As the match began to take shape, Cambridge seemed to be gaining an edge on the top 3 boards, while Ben Savage had the advantage on board 5 and Kieran Smallbone on 4 and Aidan Rawlinson on 6 had finely balanced positions. Aidan turned down a draw offer in what looked a pretty level position, a decision which soon proved justified as he pulled out a spectacular winning tactic – quite a way to end his previous run of four successive draws. Indeed one fellow team member who was watching the game at the time described the winning move as a ‘near-orgasmic experience’. High praise indeed. So Oxford had the early lead, but things were not looking so good elsewhere and before long Kemal Ozeren succombed to David Moskovic’s marauding b pawn on board 2. When the first time scramble approached, Ben, who had comprehensively outplayed David Garner, seemed on the verge of victory with a huge material plus. But tragically he dropped his queen in the scramble and Garner gained the luckiest of victories. Kieran, who had also run pretty short of time, sacrificed the exchange against Rohan Churm and found himself left with a worse ending. Meanwhile, Merim on 1 and James Coleman on 3 were battling hard to hold endings from a pawn down. James showed fine defensive skills to hold the draw, but when Kieran’s ending slipped away, the writing was on the wall. The match did end on a high note, however, as Merim managed to turn his game against Nathan Alfred around to such an extent that he actually had chances to push for a win in the queen and pawn ending. Ultimately he had to settle for a draw which made the final result 4-2 to Cambridge . Still a creditable effort by the Oxford boys, but a result which left no further room for error in the promotion push.

The second’s game against Grendel’s Mother had to take something of a back-seat by comparison to Oxford 1’s top of the table clash. Nonetheless, Oxford 2 were putting in some fine performances. Kevin Henbest played a speculative sacrifice on bottom board, but unfortunately couldn’t quite find a conclusion to the attack and the material advantage told. Dave Bruce was also undone after his attack failed to break through, while Alex Milovanovic, making his long-awaited debut made a solid draw on top board. But wins for form man Chris Duggan and the Oxford City connection of Will Burt and Sean Terry sealed a narrow but well-deserved 3.5-2.5 victory.

Much speculation now surrounded the draw for round 8. Most of the top teams in the division had already played each other, so it was likely that Oxford 2 would face challenging opponents from the upper reaches of the table. And on our return from the by now traditional visit to Wetherspoons , the draw which we’d all feared had become reality. Oxford 1 v Oxford 2. Much debate ensued about the respective board orders, since we were intent, despite the difficult circumstances, on both sides playing for the win. If the seconds could pull off a shock result, then so be it. Eventually we arrived at the aim of pairing up opponents who didn’t know each other too well and letting events take their course. Indeed in the early stages, the seconds were very much holding their own on all boards and a close match looked in prospect. But gradually, the firsts began to exert their authority, as Kevin Henbest against Aidan Rawlinson and Pete Harrison against James Coleman finally succumbed after closely contested struggles. In fact, Aidan was quite close to defeat in the early stages of his game. Kemal on board 1 produced the latest in a succession of classy 4NCL performances to see off a valiant challenge from Alex. Ben bounced back from his disappointment of the previous day to slowly outplay Chris McIntosh, but on board 4 things were less clear as Matt Ludbrook seemed to gain a small plus from the opening against Kieran. Subsequent quality play from Matt and a slight miscalculation from Kieran combined to create the day’s first and ultimately only upset. For in the final game of the day Ian Webster narrowly failed to overcome a vast grading deficit against Merim. So a 5-1 win for the first team, but not without a few shaky moments along the way.

This result left Oxford 1 in third place – the last promotion position – but only by half a game point from Poisoned Pawns and with a potentially tough match against Cheddleton still looming on the horizon. After spending the previous evening at Wetherspoons , we decided to cast our net further afield and dined at a very pleasant Indian restaurant , the only downside of which was their refusal to serve tap water. It was ironic that the neighbouring table was occupied by the table-topping Brown Jack outfit who still remained unbeaten for the season. The draw for round 9 awaiting us at the hotel saw Oxford 1 with their expected game against Cheddleton and Oxford 2 with the toughest possible fixture against Brown Jack. A relatively early night ensued as we all looked forward to the day which could make or break our season.

When the team lists went up in the morning, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the previously strong Cheddleton team had evidently given up all aspirations of a high finish in the division. Most of their best players seemed to have simply jumped ship. Aidan was first to rack up a full point as he easily dispatched his opponent and moved to 3/3 for the weekend. James wasn’t far behind and it was soon evident that the match was heading inexorably Oxford ‘s way. Dave Hackett made a solid season’s debut with a draw on board 3 and Merim halved with a tough opponent in the form of Robert Shaw on board 1. Kemal yet again effortlessly disposed of decent opposition on board 2, while highlight of the match was the way Ben on board 4 toyed with his unsuspecting opponent. Well if you don’t resign when several pieces down and with zero compensation, what can you expect?

And so to the second’s match. Of course there was little hope of victory, but at least we could put up a decent fight. Indeed things started well enough, as Sean and Pete secured early draws on boards 5 and 6. By this time the other games were beginning to take shape and things were looking fairly promising. Chris Duggan had survived a pretty ropey position in the early stages to reach a level middlegame , while Matt on board 3 and Alex on board 1 were battling hard to hold off 200 strength players with the Black pieces. On the plus side, Ian on board 2 seemed to have an edge against Richard Haydon , turned down a draw offer and proceeded to go an exchange up. When Alex lost and Matt’s kingside began to look increasingly fragile, it seemed that another narrow but honourable defeat was on the cards. As the time scramble arrived, Chris had gone a pawn up against Jonathan Bourne, but it was still looking tough to convert. Until Bourne, under extreme time pressure, dropped his queen to take the match score to 2-2 . For the first time, an upset seemed genuinely on the horizon. There was a hum of anticipation amongst the Oxford squad in the bar as Tim Headlong somewhat surprisingly decided that his attack had no future and agreed the draw with Matt on board 3. Surely now at least a drawn match was secured. Ian had no intention of settling for a half, however, and when he added an unstoppable passed pawn to his exchange, Haydon offered the handshake which sealed a remarkable 3.5-2.5 victory for the seconds.

These results left Cambridge and Brown Jack at the head of the table with 14 points each, one point ahead of Oxford 1 and Poisoned Pawns, whose narrow 3.5-2.5 win on Monday left them a couple of game points down on the firsts. So two big wins next weekend will guarantee promotion for Oxford 1, while another shock result for Oxford 2 against Poisoned Pawns on the Saturday would smooth the path still further.

After such a successful weekend I’m spoilt for choice in selecting a man of the weekend: Merim and Kemal showed their class on the top boards of the first team; the City boys Sean and Will produced fine performances; and Aidan deserves special commendation for his perfect score of 3/3. But I simply can’t split the second team’s three heroes. Ian: dynamic and determined, Chris: 2/2 against powerful opposition and Matt: surely two of the best results of his career, are my men of the weekend. If they can produce similar performances next weekend, then a place in the top 5 for Oxford 2 and much-deserved promotion for Oxford 1 may not be beyond us. Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th June could be momentous days for Oxford chess.

Pete Harrison

Oxford Promotion Bid Stays On Track – Just!

The third 4NCL weekend of the year on 27th/28th March in West Bromwich never looked like being at all straightforward for the Oxford teams.

We had known well in advance that the team’s Mr. Reliable, Aidan Rawlinson, would be missing for this weekend. And with the draw seeing Oxford 1 pitted against second placed Brown Jack and the dangerous Poisoned Pawns, the search was on for the extra strength which would see the promotion bid stay on track. Meanwhile, Oxford 2 also needed a strong team, particulalrly for their tough Saturday match against Cheddleton. However, finding a replacement for Aidan proved trickier than expected as a succession of strong candidates declared themselves keen to play in principle, but unavailable for this particular weekend. Eventually it was decided that we would stick with much the same squad as had played so well on previous weekends, with the under-rated Chris Duggan promoted to the first team for Saturday and Cowley’s formidable Gerard O’Reilly making his season’s debut on the Sunday. The second team was filled out by two more debutants, the solid Kevin Henbest and the exciting 1 b4 player Matt Read.

Before the chess could begin, there were a couple more hurdles yet to clear. Firstly, a combination of late booking from your esteemed captain and incompetence from the staff at the Moat House led to an accommodation crisis. For a while, we faced a stark choice between some extortionately priced Moat House ‘Crown’ rooms and Chris Duggan’s offer to bring his tent. But ultimately the team rallied round and Ben Savage managed to save the day by locating some decent quality rooms at the local Travel Inn for only slightly more than we should have been paying at the Moat House.

Then, just when all seemed to be finally on track, transport problems began to set in, as Kevin spent a fruitless hour waiting outside 66 Great Clarendon Street, only to discover that Kieran lives at 66 Cardigan Street, a few metres away in the heart of Jericho. Eventually a meeting was achieved at the railway station, by which time panic was setting in at the Alternative Tuck Shop where it seemed that Ian and Sean were both waiting for each other in a space a few metres square without actually managing to locate one another. A race to the venue ensued with Ian making it a comfortable 15 minutes before kick-off and Kevin and his charges rolling in at a slightly less comfortable 1.59pm.

Oxford 2 did thus eventually get six men to the board on time, but still found themselves massive under-dogs against a Cheddleton outfit who out-rated them by between 30 and 50 BCF points on each board. As had seemed likely since his recruitment, the early excitement centred around board 5 where Matt Read confidently whipped out 1 b4 to the delight of the crowd. And it proved no futile gesture as Matt got a very decent position in the early stages. Indeed the Oxford boys generally got off to a solid start with Sean on board 3 and Pete on board 4 both achieving small plusses and Ian on board 1 not shying away from his usual pawn sacrificing strategy despite facing an opponent rated over 200BCF. Gradually, though, proven class began to show as Kevin on board 6, having played a respectable Najdorf and Matt Ludbrook on board 2 in a Benoni were slowly outplayed. And the fatal blow came when Matt Read’s sterling effort was snuffed out by first the loss of a pawn, and then the game. There never seemed likely to be a way back from 3-0 down, though Ian was still scrapping for his life and Pete had twice had draw offers turned down from a position of strength. When Pete finally did have a third draw offer accepted, he was almost certainly winning, but the psychology of facing an opponent rated 50BCF points higher than yourself can be tough to overcome. And with Ian’s defeat soon confirmed, the match result was already set in stone. Sean also slipped to defeat having missed winning chances in a tense middlegame, leaving the final score at 5.5-0.5. It was, however, a far tighter match than the scoreline would suggest.

Oxford 1, as previously described minus Aidan’s solidity, were a little lucky that their opponents Brown Jack were also missing a couple of big names, with Richard Haydon ill and Tim Headlong on baby-sitting duty. But they still had sufficient strength in depth to present a tough challenge, especially so when Oxford’s star of previous weekends, Ben Savage, blundered in the early stages against the dangerous David Bareham. Tight games were ensuing elsewhere as James Coleman boasted a superb knight on top board, Kemal won a piece for several pawns on board 2 and Kieran found himself battling back after getting the worse of the opening against Jonathan Bourne. Dan’s opponent on board 5 set out intent on a draw and for all Dan’s valiant efforts to enliven the position, ultimately achieved his aim, while Chris on board 6 got a good early position with plenty of attacking chances. It was around the first time scramble that the match really began to take shape. James’ opponent managed to muster a winning attack, while Kieran hit back for Oxford, picking up a much needed full point with a nice tactic. Kemal, meanwhile, was having a wild tactical fest against Jane Richmond. He first had to give back his extra piece to stop his opponent’s marauding pawns and eventually found his way out of the time scramble with two pieces and a pawn for a rook. Which a few moves down the line was sufficient to level the match at 2.5-2.5. All eyes turned to Chris Duggan who was by now desperately defending a rook ending from a pawn down. However, he was not without chances and gave his opponent plenty of opportunities to blunder in a fascinating and trappy position. The tension mounted in the bar as everyone desperately tried to spot ways in which Chris could hold or even win. With every dash back to the playing hall to check the position, he always seemed to have found the right moves and his opponent kept dodging the traps. And with the night fast drawing in, Chris was eventually forced to give best after a truly titanic struggle. So a first defeat of the season for Oxford 1, though going down 3.5-2.5 against arguably the toughest opponents in the league was by no means an awful performance.

Having booked in at the Travel Inn, we all made our way to the bargain-priced Wetherspoon’s discovered at the previous weekend for an evening of quality food and drink. Ben and James once again led the way in the eating stakes, Ben comfortably seeing off two full meals, with James coming up just a few mouthfuls short of matching his achievement. Pete and Kieran meanwhile were more than happy to settle for chips, beans and sausages for £2.50. Now that’s what I call value for money. The evening ended with glasses raised to James’ five years of marriage after which everyone adjourned to Ben’s room to ponder on the day’s events and brace ourselves for another vital round of matches.

On Sunday, Oxford 2 were once again boosted by the arrival of Ray Starkie, Dave Bruce and Will Burt and by considerably lower rated opposition than on the previous day. However, Sussex Mindsports, a team made up predominantly of under-rated juniors are never to be under-estimated, and so it proved. For the second successive 4NCL weekend, Matt Ludbrook did not find his Sunday game over-strenuous, once again having things pretty much wrapped up within 15 moves. As it turned out, we were to be most grateful for the comfortable start as other games looked far from straightforward. Ian’s opponent on board 5 blundered a piece for a pawn in the early stages, but then seemed to somewhat stumble into a tremendous attacking position. Chris on board 4 went a pawn up, but found it hard to convert this to a clearly winning advantage against an opponent who didn’t seem to feel the need to think for more than a minute on any given move. And Ray and Will’s positions looked no better than level. At least Dave on board 2 always seemed to be developing a fine attacking set-up, which he converted into the full point with a spectacular kingside assault. Tough though it was proving, we did gradually seem to be edging towards a won match. Chris eventually sealed a win, though the speed and accuracy with which his opponent negotiated some pretty tough complications was truly remarkable. Aside from time spent away from the board, he thought for little more than 15 minutes during the whole game. Ray’s game turned rather uncharacteristically crazy, but he had enough in hand to secure the draw with a neat perpetual. And Ian somehow found his way into a queen and bishop against queen ending which he rather optimistically tried to win before settling for the half. All of which meant that Will’s loss in a rook ending having previously turned down six draw offers did not affect the final result – 4-2 to Oxford 2.

Oxford 1 badly needed to steady the ship against Poisoned Pawns, which was never likely to be a formality against yet another tough batch of opponents. The match was uneventful in the early stages, with Kieran securing a draw from a slightly worse position and other games getting off to a sedate start. But by the first time control, events took a dramatic turn for the worse. James lost after blundering in the scramble, while Ben’s position on board 1 was looking pretty desperate and debutant Gerard was two pawns down on board 5. The only real glimmer of light was on board 6 where Dan seemed to hold at least a small advantage in the form of a dangerous looking passed pawn. It was to be a day when every half point had to be ferociously battled for. Things were to get worse before they got better as Dan’s advantage began to slip away – though it was later pointed out by the Arbiter that 31 … Be3 would have secured a win for him. And Ben found himself still struggling to hold the draw even after his opponent blundered a whole knight. It seemed for a while that all the hard work of the two previous weekends was to be in vain, but the Oxford boys are nothing if not fighters and this was the day to fight in adversity. Gerard managed to generate sufficient play to hold the draw and Ben was relieved to find a perpetual to seal a vital half point on top board. Dan’s up-and-down struggle ended with the spoils shared, leaving the match score at 2-3. All rested on Kemal’s board which had been looking pretty level throughout and was now down to a rook ending which looked very tough to win. But win he had to do and Kemal found a superb way to secure the full point, sacrificing a pawn for a winning position which he converted perfectly. So 3-3 and disaster averted.

In fact, despite what was relatively speaking a poor weekend, Oxford 1 on 9/12 find themselves only one point behind the division leaders and still very much in the promotion hunt. But they are in the heart of a pack of strong challengers and will badly need victories against Cambridge and Cheddleton next weekend to remain confident of promotion going into the final weekend. Oxford 2 sit just behind the main pack on 6/12, but are still within range of a finish well in the top half of the table if they play well next weekend. And they could yet play a vital role in the promotion race by taking points off Oxford 1’s main challengers. And man of the weekend? Well there were many battling draws in adversity from the likes of Dan, Gerard and Pete, and a solid 1.5/2 from Kieran. But without doubt, this weekend’s star man was Kemal whose two fine victories on board 2 for the firsts went a very long way towards keeping Oxford 1 in the promotion hunt. Roll on the end of May and the chance to set the table to rights…

Pete Harrison