There were differing fortunes for the relegation-threatened O’Hanlon and the promotion-chasing BEA as the Leinster leagues started back up this afternoon after the Christmas break.
The O’Hanlon had a problem early on as they lost a player through illness in the morning and had to scramble to find a sixth. An added problem was that we didn’t have until 2:30 to find a replacement, but until 12:30, when our visitors Ballinasloe were setting out from Galway – no point asking their board 6 to travel unless we had an opponent of course. The BEA playing at the same time didn’t help – and we didn’t want to borrow from them as it might hurt their promotion chances – but at 12:25 after a fruitless search, I was about to call Galway and scratch board 6 when Seán Kelly agreed to step in for his league debut. Normally, we’d blood players in the Bodley or O’Sullivan of course, but a quick look back at Ballinasloe’s matches showed they almost always had an under 800 on board 6 – and from talking to them, I already knew they were missing a player to their Heidenfeld. Sure twould be grand. As it turned out, of course, Ballinasloe had signed a new board 1 over the Christmas and so had a 1250 on board 6…
Our team had a fairly unfamiliar feel about it, with four players having played just one league game between them all season! In addition to Seán, we had Ronan (whose only game this season was against Henry Li in round 4), Stephen (whose last home game was more than a year ago) and Kevin May, back for his first league game in almost three years. Add in Brendan Cuffe on the same panel, who didn’t play at all last season, and who’s played just twice so far this season, and it’s probably fair to say Eddie has drawn the short straw in the captaincy stakes this season!
But we did out-rate Ballinasloe on five of the six boards, so were hopeful of a draw or maybe a narrow win to ease away from the bottom two. Eddie himself didn’t hang around long, as per usual – he was doing ok until overlooking a queen check, which also brought his opponent’s queen into the centre of the board to nab a couple of pawns. After three had fallen, Eddie decided enough was enough. A couple more quick results followed – Kevin uncharacteristically lost in 14 moves after overlooking a central pawn push which was going to cost at least a piece, while Desmond’s dismal season continued with a draw against Ballinasloe’s lowest-rated player. Seán had started well but was now just two pawns down, and a thumping was starting to look on the cards.
But we did scramble to a somewhat respectable score in the end. Seán was rewarded for continuing to fight when his opponent dropped a pawn and couldn’t convert an opposite coloured bishop ending; Seán goes straight to the top of our High Fives for best draw of the season. Ronan went a pawn up and grew his advantage until he reached a trivial ending, promoting and chasing his opponent – Ballinasloe’s new signing, the equally rusty Atanas Kouhtev – with queen, rook and pawns v knight for a little bit before Atanas finally threw in the towel. Stephen, meanwhile, had gotten to a rook and pawn ending, and though it seemed to be level enough, it went wrong – partly because of time trouble – and he dropped a pawn and ended up passively defending a R+3 v R+4 position. Ironically, he could maybe have held it by standing firm, but when his opponent briefly went passive, Stephen went on the attack, which just fatally allowed his opponent infiltrate and pick up decisive material.
So a 4-2 defeat overall, and with the other Saturday results, the table half way through round 6 looks like this –
We’ve still to play three of the current bottom four, and our results there will be crucial – starting in round 7 with a trip to Celbridge.
Alongside the O’Hanlon, the BEA were hosting a Curragh side who were well out-rated, but who are performing well in excess of those ratings this season. Subs Liam and Ben started us well in a dangerous tie by picking up straightforward wins, but we were probably slightly worse on all the other three boards. William gave up a draw in the end, Seán swapped off the remaining pieces to at least reach a drawn king and pawn ending while Aodhán had been left off the hook a little bit but was still facing this fairly head-wrecking position –
Black, Curragh, played 1. … RxP!, the only move to keep him in the game. It was probably just as well Aodhán was 20 minutes up on the clock as this isn’t a position you want to face in time trouble! We’ll leave you ponder white’s reply and head back to board 1 for a while.
On 1, Seán had reached this position –
White, to play, just has to hop his king back and forth between d2 and c2 to claim the draw. The a2 pawn can stay where it is to keep black’s king out of b3, and black can’t go after it as 1. Kd2 Kb4 2. Kc2 Ka3 3. Kb1 a4 4. Ka1 is still a draw – 4. … Kb4 5. Kb2 a3+ 6. Kc2 and white goes back to hopping between c2 and d2. White was in time trouble here, but once you have the key plan, you can move between c2 and d2 almost without thinking – and even claim a draw if your time gets too low.
Unfortunately, Curragh’s player – who’s been having an excellent season so far – put his king on c1 by mistake, which loses instantly. More than 3 hours of effort ruined in one second; there’s surely no game crueller than chess! The rest was trivial, and we were 3½-½ up.
Back on board 4, Aodhán finally decided on 2. RxN. 2. NxN is the only other move which doesn’t lose instantly; I preferred it from briefly looking at the board – it connects the two rooks and adds covers g2 – but in either case, the best black can do is draw, which he can actually do by force. 2. NxN is easier to work out – 2. … Qh2+ 3. Kf1 Qh4+ 4. Kg1. 4. Ke2?? is of course a disaster after 4. … RxR+. So much for my brief looks at the board!
2. RxN is much more fun though! One line might run 2. RxN Qh2+ 3. Kf1 (3. Kf2 is the same) Qf4+ 4. Ke2 (4. Kg1 Qh2+ and a draw) Qg4+ 5. Kd2 QxP+ 6. Kc3 (6. Qd2? 7. QxP+) RhxR 7. NxR Qf2! (the only drawing move at this stage) 8. Nc2 Rc8+ 9. Kb3 (9. Kb4?? Qf4+ and the rook on c1 falls) Qb6+ 10. Ka3 Qa5+ 11. Kb3 Qb6+ and a draw.
A completely different draw can be seen by 8. Rc2 QxN 9. QxQ RxQ+ 10. Kd4 (D)
Despite being two pawns up and having three connected passed pawns, black can’t win this! After 10. … Re8 (forced) 11. Rc7 Rb8 12. d6 Kf8 13. Kd5 Ke8 14. Re7+ Kf8 (Kd8?? 15. Rxf7) 15. Rc7 Ke8, the position repeats.
If black decides to run the pawns, another interesting draw appears. So if 11. … h5 12. d6 Kh7 13. d7 Rd8 14. Kd5 h4 15. Kd6 g5 16. Ke7 RxP+ 17. RxR h3 (D) –
– and now it’s white who’s material up but who has to settle for a draw! 18. KxP h2 19. Kf6+ Kh6 20. Rd1 g4 21. Rh1 g3 and deadlock. Neither side can make the two pawns on the queenside win. Black can’t push the g-pawn, his king is stuck to the h-file, and white’s king is stuck keeping black’s king on the h-file. So after 22. b3 (white passes, effectively) Kh5 23. Kf5 – white is forced to keep black locked in and can’t use his material advantage to win on the queenside.
But what if black’s king reaches h3? 23. … Kh4 24. Kf4 Kh3 25. Rd1! g2 – now white can’t stop black queening, but it’s still a draw! 26. Rd3+! Kh4 27. Rd8 Kh5 (27. … g1=Q or h1=Q both lose immediately to 28. Rh8# – black has the choice of two promotions, but neither comes with check!) 28. Kf5 Kh6 29. Kf6 Kh7 – now white needs to be careful as the mate isn’t on, but black’s king is stuck in the corner – 30. Rd7+! Kh8 31. Rd8+ Kh7 32. Rd7+! Kg8 33. Rd8+ Kh7 34. Rd7+! Kh6 35. Rd8 and the mate threat is back on. Black has two pawns on the second, but can’t stop the checks.
Away back in the original position, Curragh’s player unfortunately must have reckoned – not unreasonably in fairness – on there being more in the position and pushed for the win. I didn’t see how it finished – I can only recreate the moves with an extra, losing, tempo for black! – but in this position –
– black has run out of checks and, a piece down and into his last minute, chose to resign.
So we escaped with an excellent 4½-½ win, putting us into the top two –
Dublin play Portmarnock on Thursday, and a tight result – a draw, or a 3-2 win for either side – would keep us in the top two after this round, assuming Naomh Barróg don’t whitewash Finglas. Our next match is a huge tie later this month away to Dublin – if we can get any sort of a win in that one, a second successive promotion would be a genuine possibility.