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.