For the first time ever, the St Benildus Christmas Charity blitz was won by a player from arch-rivals Gonzaga after John Connolly won an event dominated by the underdogs and which raised over €1,000 for charity.
There was a record turn-out of 69 – compared to 49 last year – which meant more places than players, so three of the Benildus Armstrong were among those who sat the tournament out to help officiate instead. That took away a bit from the strength of the tournament, but remarkably, all bar one of the nine players who won titles at the recent Leinster Junior Championships were in the field, as indeed was Conor O’Donnell, who would have been hot favourite to add to his personal tally of five junior titles in the past three years had he not been playing in France. So in many cases, the ratings weren’t the full story in gauging who was sitting down opposite you!
Not that that fazed Eric Bennett, who sailed through Group A with one of just three 100% winning records in the groups. Things were a lot tougher in Groups B and C, which provided the eventual finalists. John Connolly was in arguably the weakest group – certainly the one with the lowest-rated top seed – and lost to Luke Hayden before drawing with Dylan Boland. Dylan and John entered round 7 level on 4½, but Dylan lost to Luke while John beat Luke Scott to squeak through.
It was even tighter in Group C, a group of fast-improving juniors and a junior coach, Shankill’s Lukasz Goralski, a semi-finalist last year. Liam Coman – at 711, second seed! – improved on last year’s 2/5 to score 5/7 and top the group, but he would have lost out on a quarter-final spot on tie-break had Luke-Andrew Feeney not stalemated Mark Finn-Lynch when completely won in the first round. Luke-Andrew rounded off his first blitz by beating Liam, and was left to ponder what might have been!
Group D was, in contrast, fairly straightforward – Ben Cullen won on 7/7 and had three points to spare over second place, about as big a gap as it’s possible to have (it is possible to win a group on 7/7 and have all your rivals level on 3/7). Scott Mulligan was 1½ points clear of two other Leinster junior champions at the top of Group E, after which the groups got noticeably tougher…
Group F contained two Leinster Junior champions – Ross Beatty and Mihailo Manojlovic – and the top scorers for the Benildus Heidenfeld and O’Hanlon teams. Top seed Brendan Cuffe did beat Mihailo, but came a cropper against Odhrán McDonnell and Ross, who both lost to Mihailo. The hard work done, all Mihailo – who’s usually to be found in time trouble in the Bodley! – needed to do was win his last four games with the novelty of two minutes – the downside of a 300-point rating gain in one year. However, he was up to the task and took his place in the last eight.
Group G showed just how volatile the groups in the tournament can be, and showed just how good an achievement it is for any player to reach the last eight. Aisling, the first of hopefully many Raphaela’s students to come up to the club as a result of teacher Ger Reilly, beat Paddy Power in her first ever tournament (having had to be shown what a clock was), but Paddy then recorded his only win against group winner Fiachra Scallan. The advantage of the time control is that pretty much anyone has a chance of coming out of a group.
Group H was the Group of Death, and just so happened to be mine! In addition to myself (two-time champion), there was Thomas Bittner (top seed, reigning champion and 2011 runner-up), Conor O’Donnell (second seed), Mark McKenna (quarter-finalist last year with a perfect record in the groups), a trio of 1500s in Ciarán Ruane, Ger Reilly and James Osborne, and Julien Carthy, making up the numbers on the face of it, but he did beat me despite hanging a queen! I also lost to Mark, but managed to beat Thomas (I was probably lost, though I was happy enough to have reached 4P v B+2 doubled pawns after going with everyone’s favourite blitz opening, the King’s Gambit). While all around were taking points off each other, Conor O’Donnell was helping himself to 7/7 to storm the group by three clear points.
So the scene was set for the knock-out stages – not the strongest line-up we’ve ever had, but still respectable. Eric Bennett took on Scott Mulligan, but was knocked out after a replay, while Ben Cullen took Conor O’Donnell to a replay as well, but failed to pull off a shock in the end. Bottom seed Liam Coman did for Fiachra Scallan, while John Connolly looked in trouble against Mihailo Manojlovic before managing to pick up a piece; Mihailo might have had a way out of it, but John was fairly clinical after that, pushing home his passed pawn for victory. In 2 v 8 blitz, if you have a passed pawn, you push it for all it’s worth!
Both the semis were big upsets, with John beating Scott and Liam stunning Conor, a mere 1354 points higher rated. That left the most unlikely of final – two players whose cumulative rating would have had them only third seed! John won the draw for colours and within seconds the game was all but over, as the unfortunate Liam hung a piece early on and then allowed a knight into c7, forking both rooks. He battled in vain after that, but John didn’t even need to deliver mate, winning on time in a game in which he never looked anything other than relaxed!
At the last count, €1,060 had been raised for the Simon Community and the Samaritans, including a very generous €500 donation from the school itself. The usual people come in for thanks, lest we take them for granted – in particular Gerry, who controlled overall, and Frank, who as ever rounded up both prizes and players. Thanks as well to the other clubs who supported the night, in particular the big contingents from Rathmines Juniors, Gonzaga and Shankill, and those from Dublin, Elm Mount and Blanchardstown as well. We’ll be back next year!
The group cross-tables were as follows –