All the Armstrong B wanted for Christmas was to be out of the relegation zone – and they’re almost certain to get it after battling to pick up a point off reigning champions Gonzaga.
With Gonzaga having already beaten Curragh 8-0 and Kilkenny 7½-½, there was both no pressure on us at all to get a result, and yet a lot of pressure to pick up a result somewhere – most likely on the white boards – given the chance to put another small gap between us and two of our relegation rivals. While overall, the ratings predicted we’d pick up half a point somewhere, that didn’t take away from what was a daunting task over each individual board!
One game was brought forward a day, with Ciarán going up against Carl Jackson, hoping for a partial repeat of last year’s Bunratty encounter where he got through 15 moves of theory, built up a sizeable advantage and (and this is the part we didn’t want repeated!) threw it all away in five consecutive blunders, going from winning to better to level to a bit worse to lost to mate in 1. This time, the game went 18 moves into theory before Carl – with more time on his clock than he’d started with – decided enough was enough and went into a slight sideline. After a close few moves, Ciarán left a rook loose, which turned into a tactic three or four moves deep to win a piece, and that was the end of that.
The other seven games took place the following day, and we were barely half an hour in when we were 2-0 down. In hindsight, playing John Gibson (who likes his sharp openings) against Killian Delaney (who likes his sharp openings and is 400 points higher-rated) mightn’t have been the best of ideas – but someone had to take one for the team on the higher boards!
At least John was there by choice; Dylan and Tim had no option but to play titled players on the top two boards. Both have picked up results against titled players before of course, though for Dylan, a match against Ireland’s number 1, whose best result is a draw with black against the world number 7, was higher than he’d ever faced before. Still, there’s not many school players can say they’ve played board 1 of the Armstrong! One of those, by coincidence, was playing Tim, who’s no stranger to titled scalps. He did win an exchange against Conor O’Donnell, although to consolidate it, he had to get his knight back out from a8.
Lower down the order, Brendan was facing a kingside attack, Mihailo had allowed a bishop embed itself on h7, while myself and Mariusz were still level enough – though the question was, for how long?
The results did start to roll in though. Brendan got cracked open – 3-0 as the two ex-Gonzaga players on our team folded suspiciously easily against players a mere 500 points higher-rated! Tim finally got his knight out from the corner, but while he did so, Conor targetted pawn weaknesses elsewhere and picked up a couple of pawns – 4-0. Mihailo somehow came through Henry Li’s initial attack to end up in a weird material imbalance of R+4 against three pieces, and he was starting to untangle his pieces too. But given Henry’s queen was far closer to Mihailo’s king than any of his own pawns were, it would have been a rather unlikely scalp had he taken anything from the game! And, indeed, so it proved as Henry picked up a piece to a pawn pin, and it was 5-0. Dylan was eventually squeezed out of an ending by Sam – 6-0. Apparently this is what Sam always does, but still quite a respectable performance from Dylan.
But as is almost tradition for this team by now, we ground our points out in the long games. I had muddled up my c3 Sicilian lines, playing a 6th move which I (rightly) suspected I’d noted as “weak” from my study of the opening – which was potentially a bit embarrassing as the presenter of the DVD I’d studied was playing board 1… But, taking my inspiration from Brendan at the weekend, I threw my g and h pawns at my opponent and hoped for the best; what I got – a 40-minute time advantage – wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it wasn’t unwelcome. When we reached 19 v 3 minutes – and after I’d sacced a pawn for the bishop pair and lots of pins only for my opponent to ultimately untangle himself – I chanced a draw offer. There was still plenty of play in the position, so I could maybe have hoped for a blunder in time trouble, or even a win on time, but psychologically, I was happy to try avoid the team whitewash, especially given Curragh and Kilkenny’s scores. The draw was accepted, and we were on the board.
That just left Mariusz, who was two pawns down against Gordon Freeman, but who was at least doing the checking. Curiously, he decided against mopping up a couple of extra pawns – even though it would have been with check – and afterwards claimed he did this to try find a winning line (without opening lines to his own king), but eventually both players agreed the game was going round in circles and agreed a draw – the best draw of the season so far from a Benildus point of view.
So 7-1 it ended – though some are never happy, with Gerry O’Connell noting that it wasn’t quite the 7-1 result he was hoping for. Still, it has us in the lofty heights of 9th at the moment; we will drop one place (but probably not two) when Kilkenny play Phibsboro at the weekend. The next three games are all much bigger games than this week’s – Phibsboro, Balbriggan and Curragh. A couple of wins there and we could find ourselves with a nice cushion from the drop going into the closing stages.