Seconds stumble - but thirds thrive
Celtic Tigers 2 tumbled down the 4NCL division 3 south table after two defeats against promotion-chasing rivals.
The seconds narrowly lost 3.5-2.5 to Iceni 1 in round three at the latest weekend played at Holiday Inn in Maidenhead, where five of the matches finished as draws only for Abigail Burton to go down to an agonising defeat on board five.
But they were outgunned by a strong Cambridge University 2 on the Sunday. Despite putting up a good fight on all boards, CT2 eventually slumped to a dispiriting 6-0 defeat.
Having started the weekend sixth in the 33-team division, CT2 are now 18th in the table and in need of a recovery if they are to fight for places in next season's third tier.
They are now just one point and three places about Celtic Tigers 3, who in contrast enjoyed an excellent weekend - none other than Jeremy Turner who scored 2/2 for the first time for the Tigers.
On the Saturday they defeated Watford 2 4-2 thanks to wins for Richard Cranston, debutant Matthew Perchard and Turner, before drawing with stronger opposition in the form of Iceni 3 on the Sunday, with Turner and Jonathan Hoong the victors.
The weekend also saw what will surely be one of the opening moves of the season from Sturt. Read on to find out more...
The Tigers had lined up strong teams to compete at the January weekend, which was cancelled because of the rising post-Christmas fears over Covid-19. But they found themselves missing several regular players for the February weekend - a situation exacerbated by two unfortunate and unavoidable withdrawals by first team players that saw Gaston Franco and Bajrush Kalmendi instead sent to Daventry for duty in division 1/2.
This meant CT2 made three changes from round two. David Webster made a welcome return on top board, Abigail Burton dropped down from CT1 to play on board five, and John Armitage stepped in to play his first competitive games of chess (!!) on board six.
Only bottom boards Jeremy Turner and Nadim Osseiran retained their places for CT3. Charlie Sturt - always an entertaining presence on 4NCL weekends - made his first national league appearances for two years on top board. He was joined by Richard Cranston - stepping in for his unavailable son Adam - and debutants Matthew Perchard and Charlie Rigby.
Iceni 1 3.5-2.5 Celtic Tigers 2
Watford B 2-4 Celtic Tigers 3
The weekend looked ominous for CT2 when the draw showed the top five matches all containing teams with average ratings in the 1900s and 2000s - while the Tigers average was 1783. As one of six teams to win both matches from weekend one, it was clear a higher-rated Iceni 1 would be challenging opponents.
There was an added element of intrigue as Jacques Tivillier - who once turned out for Iceni in the 4NCL before signing for the Tigers - found himself playing one of his best friends Vincent Sagues on board two.
Despite any initial fears, the seconds fought admirably. Tivillier turned down an earlier draw offer and tried to push for a win on the white side of a French King's Indian Attack before having to settle for a draw by repetition shortly before the time control, while Webster also played a very solid game as black on top board to secure a comfortable draw.
The performance of the day probably came from John Armitage on board six. Not only was he playing his first rated game of chess, but he was playing a tough and experienced 1940-rated opponent in Ian Calvert.
Yet Armitage played a very solid game on the white side of a Scandinavian Defence, and withstood everything Calvert could throw at him, drawing a same-coloured bishop ending after 60 moves of play. Well done John and welcome to the Tigers!
His effort was matched by Robin Sarfas on board four, who came by far the closest to winning a board. His opponent Dominic Gibbs was clearly confident playing the Dutch Defence, bashing out his first 20-or-so moves very quickly and building up a large advantage on the clock.
But Sarfas started to make progress in the centre, and his very strong 22.Qc5 appeared to give him the advantage. He reached the ending two pawns up - but due to the activity of Gibb's queen and rook on the d-file the major pieces had to be exchanged, leaving Sarfas in an opposite coloured bishops ending that ended in a draw. A fine effort though.
That left two more endings to decide the fate of the match - with all six games ending as draws still a distinct possibility.
Both Abigail Burton on board five and Peter Kitchen on board three had been on the back foot in their games, both playing with the black pieces. Burton had appeared to fight back into a drawish ending against Ian Reynolds - but a fateful ...e5 push just after the time control cost her a key pawn, and she ultimately lost the rook ending.
This narrow defeat would prove decisive. Kitchen had looked solid against Luis Ortiz Sanchez on board three, but stumbled in the early middlegame, and in time pressure had jettisoned a pawn. He did get control of the e-file in the ensuring rook and pawn ending in return, and was even able to exchange into a pawn ending material down safe in the knowledge it was almost certainly drawn.
But following Burton's defeat, he had no way of drumming up any winning chances of his own and had to settle for a share of the spoils - and a narrow defeat in the match.
If the CT2 matches were all tight affairs, many of the CT3 games were much more open affairs. This seemed to work for them, as they clinched a 4-2 win against Watford B to secure their first league points of the season.
We can't start anywhere other than board one, where on his return to the side Charlie Sturt uncorked a shocking move as early as move 2!
Not only did Charlie get away with answering the King's Gambit with 2...f5?! with a playable game, but he was arguably better in the queen ending that followed until having to settle for a draw by perpetual check.
Richard Cranston ground out a solid positional win on board two against Keith Hylands, while Matthew Perchard enjoyed an excellent win on debut. It was a wild, entertaining and see-saw battle before Perchard delivered checkmate on move 38.
Charlie Rigby drew a positional battle on board four, Jeremy Turner won convincingly on board five and Nadim Osseiran lost a long queen and rook ending against Ananya Patel on bottom board.
SPICING IT UP
(And another long walk...)
Robin and Jeremy had planned to venture out to a curry house for their evening meal - but their evening for two hit the buffers when they made the mistake of informing the rest of the squad where they were going... cue eight Tigers players making the lengthy walk through a Maidenhead housing estate to find the Gandhi Indian Restaurant.
Finding a good place for the evening meal is a vital part of any 4NCL weekend, and this venue went down well with the hungry Tigers who made the journey. A varied menu meant plenty of choice, and the self-dubbed "Bhuna Boys" (Peter and Jeremy) were most satisfied with a mixed meat bhuna dish.
It was also a great chance to get to know some of the new Tigers (this was a first chance for many of the regulars to meet Abigail, John, Charlie R and Matthew) and reacquaintance ourselves with old friends too.
Following the curry and walk home (it always feels shorter on the way back, doesn't it...) there was some brief analysis of games from earlier in the day in the bar before we all realised it was 11.30pm and that we all had tougher games tomorrow...
Celtic Tigers 2 0-6 Cambridge University 2
Celtic Tigers 3 3-3 Iceni 3
There's no doubting that the draw for round four was a little unkind on CT2. Having lost narrowly the previous day to a team that went top of the table as a result, they then got drawn against the team lying second. Despite Cambridge Uni looking slightly weaker than Iceni 1 on paper, it quickly became clear that their grades were all FIDE ratings, a good 100 points lower than their ECF equivalents...
While the final score is dispiriting, the seconds actually put in a very similar performance to the previous day. All of the games were pretty close and the Tigers put up a strong fight, only to finish second in all of them...
Peter Kitchen probably came the closest to getting a result, battling in a difficult position on the white side of a Sicilian Paulsen for more than four hours against Chino Atako only to blunder on move 55 and walk into a mate-in-three in an endgame that appeared drawn. This was a particularly painful error for Peter as it ended his 10-match unbeaten 4NCL run stretching back to November 2018... but it did at least provide useful study material for his primary school chess club pupils the following week.
Kitchen's loss left the Tigers 5-0 down, and Burton again found herself on the losing side of a rook and pawn ending after another brave fight, this time against Colm O'Shea. Earlier, Sarfas had been beaten by Ian Gooding in a Sicilian Sveshnikov, and Armitage had again played solidly but been ground down by Peter Webster on bottom board.
On the top boards, Jacques Tivillier was gradually outplayed by Nevil Chan on board two, and David Webster slipped into a lost endgame against Mark Rich on top board.
Meanwhile, CT3 were this time the underdogs against Iceni 3, but rose to the challenge admirably.
Jonathan Hoong came into the side on board two for Richard Cranston, and continued his fine record with the black pieces to impressively defeat John Alderson.
Jeremy Turner defeated Rowan Kent on board five, despite being an exchange down in a lively position
Charlie Sturt recovered from being a pawn down against Steve Lovell on top board to claim a draw, while Matthew Perchard was again involved in an entertaining game, this time drawing with Michael Usher after 57 moves.
Charles Rigby went down to Robert Jones on board four, fighting back after losing a pawn in the early middlegame but ultimately being outplayed in a knight ending. while Nadim Osseiran also found knights not to his liking in defeat in an endgame against Harry Hartshorn on bottom board.
While the two Tigers teams have very different ambitions this season, they find themselves very close together in the league table after four rounds.
Organisers are hopeful of arranging a fifth weekend to make up for January's cancelled one, it still leaves CT2 with little room for error if they wish to challenge for a place in division 3 south once the league reorganisation is complete for the 2022/23 season.
While a reminder of just how string and competitive the division is - especially at the top end - the weekend also gave all of the Tigers involved valuable experience on the road to improvement, which is what we're all after!
We're already looking forward excitedly to weekend three and returning to Milton Keynes.
Report by Peter Kitchen