St Benildus will be back in Europe for the first time in more than 30 years after plotting a fortuituous draw through the National Club Championships to come second – and so will be able to send a team to the 2017 European Club Cup in Manavgat in Turkey this October.
We went into the event as fifth seeds, and with three European spots on offer, it gave us a reasonable, if outside chance of qualifying – though the top three seeds were the top three sides in the Armstrong, and we only had three of our top flight squad available to us. Still, we had a good start when Enniscorthy faced us without their top two boards. Our fourth team had drawn with Enniscorthy in the leagues this season and our third team had beaten them, so a mixture of our first and second teams duly put the Wexford side to the sword. It wasn’t all straightforward though – or at least, that’s what I thought while watching Ciarán and Mariusz struggle online before being told that the names were all mixed up and I’d been following the wrong games. In reality, Ciarán had won a piece early on, though Mariusz was made to sweat before finally winning a N+2 v N+1 ending. In the end, only Tim lost – but then he was alwasy better at playing up than down! – and we had a 5-1 win to start us off.
Round 2 was a bit trickier as we faced Trinity, runners-up last year. Mariusz made one wrong move and got thumped for it, but across the other boards, things were interesting. I’d sacced an exchange for positional complications, but then didn’t play as aggressively as required, and my opponent got back into the game to swap material off and just be winning. Tim had a wild game on 2 where eventually he fell for a temporary queen sac followed by a knight fork to lose a piece. Gerry picked up the result of the weekend on 1 when beating Karl McPhillips FM – his eighth win in a row in all competitions – while Constantin accounted for Rory Delaney. But Zdravko also lost to see us go down to a battling 4-2 defeat.
Far from the end of our tournament though, the result was maybe a blessing in disguise. A Swiss submarine is quite potent in a 4-round tournament where one team (Gonzaga) are hammering everyone else, and the draw for round 3 gave us another boost – we were up against bottom seeds Ballinasloe, who had gotten the bye in the first round, thereby lifting them on to 2 match points by default. Despite missing Tim for this one, we racked up another big win – I sacced a pawn and then a piece only to blow the whole +7 advantage in one silly move which left me facing an ending four pawns for a piece up, but then my opponent kindly hung a rook and resigned immediately. Ciarán had won a couple of central pawns in a French and converted with ease too, while Mariusz, Constantin and Gerry – his ninth win in a row – all won to put us 5-0 up before Zdravko, unusually, went wrong in an ending and lost.
Still, a second 5-1 put us in a good position – third, in fact, and with Trinity playing Gonzaga in the last round, we knew that any win of our own in the final round could well see us sneak second. Better, fourth seeds Bray had flopped entirely, and we were seeded for the draw, which put us against Elm Mount. It was mostly their Heidenfeld team that had drawn with our Heidenfeld just two weeks ago, but with Gerry and Zdravko added to our team, we had every reason to be confident. And we could also add a secret weapon in Mihailo, who’d been unavailable for the first three rounds, but who had finished playing for Ireland against Sussex upstairs – he had originally been declared in the NCC squad before the Ireland squad had been announced, and unable to find a sub to replace him, we’d left him in the squad just in case. Even though he’s never beaten me, I had to make the captainly decision to put our strongest team into action, and dropped myself. And it worked as, once again, we picked up a huge win, amazingly going 4-0 up without too much trouble. With results elsewhere going our way too, we were now just a half point off qualification – and Tim, in time trouble, had mate in 2 on the board. But then, disaster – he forgot to press his clock, and sat quite relaxed while his final few seconds started to tick away. After losing over half of his remaining two minutes, he finally wondered why his opponent was taking so long over an only move, looked down at his clock, casually pressed it, and his opponent made one more move before resigning. A suitably dramatic end to a dramatic campaign!
We didn’t quite get the 6-0; Gerry’s winning run was finally halted after he held on to draw a near 100-move-long rook and pawn ending a pawn down against Gavin Melaugh. But in the final standings, we were three points clear of Trinity and 5½ clear of Adare in fourth, and so comfortably booked our places on the flight to Turkey in October. We’ll be in illustrious company – Caruana, Giri, Svidler, Grischuk, Kramnik, Aronian, Vachier-Legrave, Harikrishna, Mamedyarov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Vallejo Pons, Leko, Bacrot and Shirov were just some of the big names to be playing in last year’s competition. This year, they’ll be playing in the same room and the same section as a few random punters from Benildus! To whet the appetite, you can see the full archive of results on the superb olimpbase website.
Particular thanks to Zdravko, whose idea all this was!