Woody Woodpusher – Plays at the 4NCL

Once upon a time, the 4NCL was all about teams full of expensively hired Grandmasters battling it out for the top prize. You had to have a FIDE rating well over 2000 or equivalent to even think about getting a game. And, of course, in the first and, to an extent, the second division this is still very much the case. But since the introduction of the third and fourth divisions, 4NCL has been opened up to the masses.

Don’t get me wrong – there are still some very strong performers including several titled players in the lower two divisions, and some tremendous chess is played there. It does, however, give the opportunity for the average club player such as Woody to enjoy the unique experience of playing 4NCL chess. In fact it’s probably fair to say that anyone with sufficient enthusiasm to seek out a team and find their way to West Bromwich for a few weekends each year can get a game in our still prestigious national league. It can only be good for encouraging wider participation in the game that this is the case.

For those who don’t know that much about the 4NCL, it takes place over five weekends each year, which this season spanned from late November 2003 to mid June 2004. With one of the weekends being a Bank Holiday weekend, and one match each day, this means a total of 11 matches in the season. Unfortunately, this season, due to a lack of capacity at the available hotels, the third and fourth divisions have taken place on separate weekends to the first and second divisions. This is a shame, since it deprives the lesser players of the chance to see some of the top GMs in action, though as I said before, there is still plenty of quality chess to be seen. And sadly these split weekends will continue next season, though I believe the organisers are doing their best to find a large enough venue to house all four divisions in the future. This season the third and fourth divisions have taken place at the West Bromwich Moat House, a pleasant venue and central to the country – essential when you have teams competing from locations as diverse as London, Pontypridd and Cambridge. In the top three divisions, teams are made up of 8 players, at least one of whom must be of each sex, while teams in the fourth division are 6 players strong. And with three divisions of 12 teams and one of 16, that makes a mind-boggling total of 384 chess players participating in each round of matches and an extraordinary 2112 games taking place during a 4NCL season. That’s a lot of chess.

One of the best things about the 4NCL from a club player’s perspective is the fact that we get to play a diverse selection of players from all over the country. This can make a refreshing change from playing the same relatively small selection of players in the local league, year in, year out. An especially interesting experience for my team this season was our match against a team from the Braille Chess Association. My game in particular was made all the more ‘interesting’ by the fact that my opponent, in addition to being blind, was somewhat hard of hearing. Which made communicating my moves to him a little tricky even with the use of names for each file: Anna; Bella; Cesar; David; Eva; Felix; Gustav; Hector. Indeed when I reached the following position, it took some time to convince my opponent that I had actually played the awful 13… b5, simply dropping the a pawn.

White: I thought for a minute you said Bella 5! [ed: Steve Thacker]
Black: Woody [Pete Harrison]

We rejoin the game after move 30, with White’s Bella about to make her bid for glory.

31 b4 Ra3+ 32 Nc3 Ra8 33 b5 Rf8 Trying to gain some activity rather than resort to passive defence. But maybe I should have settled for 33… Rb8. 34 Rb2 White should maybe ignore distractions and press ahead with something like 34 Na4. 34… Kc7 35 Ra2 Nc8 Cutting the rook off from defensive duties on the b file is a somewhat dubious approach. 36 Ra6 Rf2 Once again trying to gain activity, but it’s mostly bluff – 37 Rxe6 Rxg2 38 Nxd5+ Kd7 39 Rc6 Rxh2 must be good for White. 37 Ra2 Rxa2 (=) Here I offered a draw, more in hope than expectation, but my opponent rightly presses on for the full point. 38 Nxa2 Kb6 39 Nc3 Ka5 Things are looking a little more hopeful with the rooks off, but this is still going to be hard to hold. 40 Ne2 A very clever move – I must prevent the knight hitting the e6 pawn. 40… g5 41 h4 h6 42 hxg5 hxg5 43 Nc3 Or 43 Ng1 Kxb5 44 Nh3 Kc6 45 Nxg5 Kd7 46 g4 when the dangerous Bella is replaced by a practically unstoppable Gustav. 43… Na7 43… Nb6 is a good deal stronger – it puts White in something close to zugzwang and probably results in the b pawn dropping very shortly. 44 b6 Bella is seemingly heading for a regal future since 44… Kxb6 allows the dangerous sequence Na4-c5-e6. 44… Nc6 45 b7 Kb6 46 Na4+ Kxb7 Finally I’m left with no choice but to stop Bella at the expense of Eva becoming connected and passed. 47 Nc5+ Kc8 48 Nxe6 g4 49 Ke3 Kd7 50 Nf4 50 Nc5+ would have been pretty terminal. 50… Ne7 51 Ne2 Ng6 52 Nf4 Ne7 53 Ne2 Ng6 54 Kf2 Ke6 55 Ke3 Kf5 (=) Foolishly missing the opportunity to play 55 … Kd7 which would have been a draw by threefold repetition. Instead I give my opponent the chance to have one last stab. 56 g3 Ne7 57 Nf4 Kg5 58 Ne6+ Kf5 59 Nc7 Kg5 60 Ne6+ ½-½

I was more than a little relieved when my opponent agreed to the draw, although the winning method is not entirely clear. Something like 60 Ke2 Nf5 61 Kd3 Nxg3 62 Nxd5 should be winning though.

So on only my second 4NCL appearance, a careless 13th move had led to a marathon 6 hour battle to save the draw. But it was still a great experience – probably the longest game I have ever played. Also an instructional ending, something I would never have had the chance to play in an evening league game with adjudication.

Now, another game, coincidentally from the same match, which shows the kind of entertaining chess which the 4NCL can provide. I’ll attempt to offer some annotations, but if I’m honest, much of what goes on in this game is completely beyond my comprehension. Nonetheless, it is undeniably exciting stuff, so enjoy …

White: Crazy Bandit [Ian Webster]
Black: Wild Warrior [Tyson Mordue]

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Rg1 Until this move, we had a standard Najdorf Sicilian, but now we are headed down a rather more unconventional path. 6… Nc6 7 g4 The natural follow-up to White’s 6th. 7… h6 I see no obvious reason why Black could not play 7… Nxd4 8 Qxd4 Nxg4, but he is a far stronger player than I… 8 Be3 e6 9 h4 White continues to tread a fine line between launching a dangerous attack and over-extending himself. 9… g6 It seems to me that Black is justifying White’s attack by weakening his kingside pawn structure. 10 f4 Or maybe 10 g5 hxg5 11 hxg5 Nd7. Whether all this pawn pushing is entirely sound is unclear. But undeniably White’s position looks pretty thereatening when observed from the Black side.

10… h5 11 f5 White completely ignores the threat to his g4 pawn and continues to bash away at the kingside. 11… Nxg4 12 Bg5 Qb6 13 Rxg4 Once again White declines the option of attempting to save a threatened pawn, this time in favour of a daring exchange sacrifice. 13… hxg4 14 Bf6 Nxd4 Why not 14… Rh6 trying to hold the extra material? 15 Bxd4 Qd8 16 fxg6 Not for White the simple 16 Bxh8 Qxh4+ 17 Kd2 Qxh8 reclaiming the exchange at the expense of a second pawn. 16… Qxh4+ 17 Kd2 Bh6+ 18 Kd3 0-0

Black must be feeling quite comfortable now – an exchange and a pawn up and a king position which, if not entirely secure, is probably more so than his opponent’s. 19 e5 dxe5 20 Bb6 20 Bxe5 loses to 20… Rd8+, so Black now has yet another extra pawn. 20… Bd7 21 Qe2 Qg3+ 22 Kc4 The White king is having quite an adventurous game. 22… f5 23 Rd1 It really is hard to see how White, whose opponent considerably outgrades him, can rescue even a half point from here. 23… Rfc8+ 24 Kb4

24… Bf8+ 24… a5+ 25 Bxa5 Bf8+ 26 Kb3 Rxa5 27 Rd6 Ba4+ 28 Kb4 must be winning for Black. 25 Kb3 Be8 A curious move. 25… Ba4+ 26 Kxa4 Rxc3 looks more direct. The game move gives White a glimmer of hope. 26 a3 Creating an escape square for the king. 26… Bc5 Black seems to be playing too passively rather than going for the swift kill. 27 Qc4 Rc6? 27… Bxb6 28 Qxe6+ Kg7 29 Qxb6 keeps Black well in front. 28 Bxc5 b6 29 Rd6 Black has miscalculated the tactics, encouraging White that all is not yet lost. The game has turned on its head in a few short moves. 29… Rxd6 30 Bxd6 Bxg6

As the dust begins to settle, at least for a while, we find White with a bishop and knight for a rook and three pawns and the game is right in the balance. 31 Qc7 Bf7 Maybe 31… Qf2 holding the b pawn. But White doesn’t seem that interested in trying to mop up pawns. 32 Bc4 b5 33 Bd3 Qe3 34 Bxe5 Finally pawns start falling. 34… g3 35 Qc6 35 Bxg3 loses to 35… e5+ and then 36… Qxg3. 35… Qxe5 I’m not sure Black really needs to give back the exchange – something like 35 .. Re8 looks solid enough. 36 Qxa8+ Kg7 37 Qf3 After 37 Qxa6, White is, astonishingly, slightly better. But White is understandably cautious about the Black g pawn. 37… Qe1 38 Kb4 Bg6 39 Ka5 White’s wandering king is now usefully placed to act as an attacking piece. 39… e5 40 Bxf5 It is now White who is clearly winning. 40… Qf2 41 Qb7+ Kh6 42 Bh3 Once again, perhaps paying undue respect to the g pawn when 42 Bxg6 Kxg6 43 Qxa6+ could have been played. 42… Qxc2

Now it is White who is beginning to let Black back into the game. White has a knight for two pawns and the poistion is unclear. 43 Qe7 Qxb2 44 Qh4+ The alternative was 44 Qb4. 44… Kg7 45 Qxg3 White could probably have a draw by seeking to repeat with 45 Qe7+. 45… Qxa3+ 46 Kb6 Qd6+ 47 Ka5 Qa3+ 48 Kb6 Qd6+ 49 Ka5 And a draw by repetition. ½-½

What an extraordinary game! Both players seemed to be clearly winning at various stages, so I guess ultimately a draw was a fair result.

Let’s conclude with a game which shows that even quality players make disastrous blunders. There is hope for us all if the following White player, a FIDE rated performer, can make a move like 6 Qe4 …

White: Generous Benefactor
Black: Grateful Beneficiary

1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 g6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Qxd4 Nf6 5 e5 Nc6 6 Qe4?? Nxe4 0-1

We all have our off days …

Pete Harrison

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