Occasionally a season can turn on one match, one game, even one move. So it proved for the C team last night as we survived in Division 2 at the expense of our opponents, in the most unlikely of circumstances. If I am still shaking a little as I write this, you will see why when reading on!
Perhaps it does not do to dwell on the debacle that had been our campaign to date. Six matches lost 1.5 – 2.5. A fraction more luck here or there and we would have been clear of this relegation fight. Equally though, the struggle to get our strongest team out very often had also been a factor. There is no way around the fact that teams generally end the season with the points tally they deserve, even if they do not necessarily accrue those points in the right order. We had no one to blame for being in the relegation mire other than ourselves…
Still for all that, driving to the game last night on one of those evenings when you can just feel winter turning to spring, we were somehow just about still alive. A win against Shirley would keep us up. Defeat and we would be relegated. A draw and we would need something from our final game with Stratford, but everyone knew that tonight was going to decide things one way or another. (Well apart from Roy, who confessed afterwards that he had no idea, but he clearly plays better when not troubled by such practicalities!)
The Shirely team arrived early, clearly keyed up. Their C team is on to win Division 3, but this would count for nothing if their B team went down, so the fate of two Shirley teams was at stake. For Kenilworth, with our B team (I don’t dare say it – let’s just say going very well) we were at serious risk of not being able to offer members any Division 2 chess next year. Something a club of our standing should be able to take for granted, but no longer could. It was all going to turn on what happened over the next few hours.
The statistics favoured Shirley. I had an eight point grading advantage over Dave Thomas on Board 1, but Bernard was giving Gordon Christie twenty three points (albeit this is mainly down to Bernard’s decision to play in the World Seniors rather than a true reflection of his real strength relative to Gordon’s.) On Board three, Jude who has done so much for the team this year was giving John Freeman thirty one points and on four Roy’s opponent Fred Dickinson had a twenty five point rating advantage.
Who cares for the numbers, you could well say, but the truth is for a lot of the night the chess was going Shirley’s way too. Jude was the first to finish, losing to John. Jude played well, but John is always wily, and from what I saw he appeared to net a piece in the late middle game, after which it was all over. So, 0 – 1. Not Jude’s night, but better ones will undoubtedly follow.
Roy was the next to finish on Board three. He had been under pressure out of a Budapest Gambit but eventually seemed to get on top and shattered Fred’s kingside pawns. In a same coloured bishop ending Roy made Fred suffer (and fritz suggests missed a win) but it always looked like a draw was likely and having turned down previous offers, Roy finally acquiesced. 0.5 – 1.5
It was around 9.45 at this point. Bernard and Gordon were in a knight and pawn ending. I thought Bernard stood worse. He certainly had a more fragile pawn structure. Meanwhile I was winning. I seemed to take a lot of initiative out of the opening and was starting to turn the screw. Dave sacrificed a pawn. I captured (which Fritz says is correct) but it had been a good practical choice by Dave as suddenly everything was a lot more complicated and I started to both burn time and lose ground.
Then almost simultaneously, there were two momentous happenings. Gordon and I both blew up. Bernard’s endgame skill had meant that he was starting to ask questions, but really Gordon was safe. A terrible miscalculation suddenly meant that Bernard’s pawns had broken free and could no longer be stopped. Unfortunately, at precisely the same moment, I miscalculated too and somehow conspired to drop the exchange on a board that looked great for Dave’s rooks. So 1.5 – 1.5, but it felt like Bernard’s heroics were going to count for nothing.
I had five minutes left to Dave’s twenty. A knight and a pawn for his rook. A queenside pawn chain that looked extremely vulnerable and no obvious way forward. As everyone crowded around the board, I realised that I actually had two things going for me. First, no one expected anything, all the pressure was on Dave to bring the point home. Secondly, I did have one or two tricks. They were not sound. With best play, I would have been finished, but there was nothing else for it. When all else fails, hit and hope.
I picked up another pawn and in effect invited Dave to try and net my knight, which he obligingly did. Unfortunately, he had missed that with his king on a1, behind pawns on a2 and b2, his back rank was vulnerable. To his horror, I could take his rook with my queen with impunity. While he was welcome to recapture, my remaining rook would then mate him. Even worse, as well as massive problems on the back-rank, Dave’s own queen and a handful of his pawns were suddenly in my sights. By the time he had fixed these problems, I had gone from -3 to +5 and was playing with rook and six versus rook and two. I was down to two minutes, but that was more than enough.
Had Dave played a3 before rounding up my knight we would have been relegated. Just as we would have been if Gordon had not gone wrong. I sat in the bar with Bernard and Roy afterwards and we talked about the evening. More reflective than jubilant. Celebrations should really be for winning titles, but we were still proud of what we had achieved against the odds. It had been way too close for comfort. We all felt for Shirley who must have been printing their tickets for 19/20 Division 2 a mere ten minutes before they were relegated.
Sometimes all that you can do is to hang in there and as a team we had done that. Gordon and Dave had ultimately both made mistakes, but we had been ready to capitalize on them.
This season is now done. Next season is just waiting to unfold. One match. One game. One move at a time.