The weekend of 16th/17th February saw 17 teams from various universities across the UK converge on High Wycombe for the BUCA (British Universities' Chess Association) Team Championship 2013. This was a 5 round Swiss, with all teams in one big section. The format caused some controversy actually, not because the format was new, but some of the top players argued that there was too much of a gulf in class between the top 8 teams and the others (in terms of average grading points, this gap was over 25 on the ECF scale, which translates to about 200 in FIDE) and that the tournament was short enough that lucky draws might affect the result. More on that later on in the blog.
Our team, from Durham, was the 8th seed in the event, the lowest graded of the "top 8". That I had provided estimated grades for 3 of the 4 of us that didn't currently have a grade made this more of a guess than a true average as well!
The venue was De Vere Uplands House Hotel and accomodation in the hotel was included for Saturday night, with breakfast! The hotel seems to be much used for chess events, as I noticed quite a few signs around the place regarding the 4NCL (the 4 Nations Chess League is the premier club chess league in the UK) around. Needless to say, the playing hall was spacious and glass windows meant there was plenty of natural light. A great venue, overall.
Anyway, the not-so-great part about the venue is that High Wycombe is a town right down in the south of the country (near London), off most of the main public transport routes. And the first round was at 12.00! Since we were travelling from Durham, right in the north-east corner of England, this meant a very early start! Actually our first train proved too early and we missed it! And had to get on one that left an hour later. This took us to London, where we took the tube from Kings Cross to Marylebone, only for delays to cause us to miss a following train from there to High Wycombe by about 10 minutes. We got on the next one and managed to get there, only 10 minutes late! Luckily I had phoned ahead and warned we would be a little late. In fact, every university from the north of the UK (York, Edinburgh, Newcastle and ourselves) struggled to make it down in time, so I heard. There is talk of moving the event to Birmingham next year.
So, our first round opponents were York 2, a much weaker team than us on paper. I had Black against an opponent whom, at an estimated rating of 109 (~1500 FIDE) I should really be able to beat handily, tired though I was. And indeed, the win was fairly comfortable. The game itself was a good model of how to neutralise the 5.Bc4 Grand Prix Attack: play e6, d5 to claim the centre and drive back the bishop, then put a minor piece on d4 and White has a very cramped game. My opponent tried to exchange multiple pieces on d4, but blundered into a small tactical shot and his position deteriorated. His resignation, though early, was not premature.
The time control was 60 minutes, with a 10 second increment.
We whitewashed York 2 4-0, with FM Callum Kilpatrick, our not-so-secret weapon on Board 1, finishing first, then myself, then Johnny on Board 3 and finally Charlie on Board 4. The scoring system in place was 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw, with tiebreaks decided on total gamepoints, so it was good to get the maximum on offer.
After Round 1 finished, we checked into our rooms, then headed back for Round 2 at 3.00pm. This time our opponents were the third seeds Imperial, with a huge rating average of 182.75. Although Callum at 221 ECF outrated his opponent by 2 points, I was outgraded by 46 by my 206 (~2300 FIDE, although with players this strong, the official conversion tends to overestimate I believe) opponent Alex Galliano, and Johnny and Charlie were outgraded by around 30 and 10 points respectively. So it would be a tough task.
The opening was not great, as Alex responded 2...e6 to my Alapin Sicilian, basically forcing me to pick either the Advance, Tarrasch, or Exchange French to transpose into. None of which I have any real familiarity with. As once before, I chose the Exchange, only to misplay it somewhere. My attempt to muddy the situation with 8.Nf1?! was met strongly by Alex, and by move 12 my position was an abject disaster. Still, I battled on, and crawled to a horrible endgame, which didn't pose my opponent many problems, and he took the full point.
Alex went on to score 5/5 and took Gold on the Board 2 Individual prizes.
As for the rest of the team, Johnny lost and Charlie got a draw a rook down, meaning that even when Callum clinched a win after his opponent blundered in deep mutual time pressure, we still went down 2.5-1.5. Not a crushing loss by any means - with half a point elsewhere, we could have tied the match.
We went and booked dinner from the hotel reception, £10 for a buffet. However, Round 3 stood between us and dinner. We drew Bristol 3, which, it has to be admitted, was a very kind draw. They were on 2 points by virtue of receiving a first round bye, and with an average grade of just over 75, were the weakest team in the competition. They were a friendly bunch though.
My game was possibly the most mentally challenging game I have ever played. Against a 74 (~1250 FIDE) rated player, I got a fair position out of the opening (Hyper-Accelerated Dragon), although my opponent played well also, developing his pieces to good posts. Then, I made some poor moves, and before I knew it, I was getting driven back. My opponent was playing very well, and I kept retreating, not being able to find any way to complicate matters. By move 24, all my pieces save the king were right back on their starting squares, and my position was looking very shaky indeed. I realised I was becoming increasingly agitated about the situation, and wasn't able to think logically at all. I had to go outside for 2 minutes and try and find some self-belief, as it really seemed to me I had forgotten how to play! When I came back in, I was a bit calmer. I just hunkered down with my defensive barriers, and waited for him to make a mistake. He offered a draw around move 30, but I declined. Finally, on move 34 he blundered a piece, and I was able to mop up.
That game really made me think of Emmanuel Lasker and his "chess is, above all, a fight" quote. Certainly that game was a fight, with my opponent landing punches, but failing to knock me out, and then tiring towards the end.
The match result was actually only 3-1 to us in the end after Johnny flagged in a completely dominant position. We were using digital clocks so it was hard to misread your time - he just didn't notice he was so low on time until it was too late!
That was, thankfully, the last game of the Saturday. We went for dinner, which was great, and above all helped us to relax. After dinner it was a couple of pints in the bar. By coincidence an old friend of mine, who was at Durham finishing his masters whilst I was a fresher, was on the Warwick team, so we had a chat and caught up. Then I went back and got a good night's sleep.
Sunday dawned, I went to get a good cooked breakfast! Never have one of those at uni, unless it is a bacon sandwich at around noon after a lie in. Had an interesting chat with one of the Bristol 1 team over breakfast, about how much funding we managed to get from our respective student unions, and how Bristol 1 had been held to a draw by Bristol 2 the previous day, rather embarrassingly for them!
I knew I was in a better frame of mind to play chess that day. The pairings came out, and Durham were facing Southampton 1, seeded just above us, with an average grading of almost 170. About 10 points above us, which is not huge, but certainly significant.
My opponent was Thomas McFaul, rated 185 (~2130 FIDE). I got a great position out of another Alapin Sicilian, but missed a promising continuation, and then just made a mistake. I was struggling to find the right plan, and discarded what was probably best after seeing ghosts. He slowly began to outplay me. My king had to evacuate the kingside after he opened the h-file and got some rooks over there, but the position was fairly closed and my defence was solid enough. Towards the end of the game we started making mistakes. I made the first obvious one, but the position was still probably drawn. Then I made another, which resulted in him winning an important pawn. With this, I was probably lost, except then he took the pawn with the wrong piece, and then made a mistake himself. I was able to get enough threats of my own, combined with time pressure, to force him to take a draw.
I really enjoyed that game, although it left me surprisingly drained! Thomas actually ended up getting the Bronze Individual Board 2 prize with 4/5. The Durham team performed great in this match, and we upset Southampton 3-1! Johnny especially did well, winning against his opponent rated 30 points higher! This left us on 6/8 going into the final round. We still had an outside chance of winning the whole thing in fact, although very unlikely.
In the final round, we drew LSE 1. The 4th seeds, although behind us on 5/8. Their team was rated around 175/180 across the board. With our bottom two boards graded around 130 each, we would probably need to get most of our points on the top two boards to secure anything from the match.
My game was another Sicilian, the 5th! Yep, all my games were different variations on the Sicilian, a true workout! This time, I was on the Black side of a Maroczy bind, against a 178 (~2075 FIDE) player, James Wei. Everyone knows the Maroczy is good for White objectively, but I find it comfortable enough as Black, and actually have great results against another guy in our club, who used to be ~2000 FIDE strength. He and I played several games in it, because he believed it was just great for White objectively. But it takes a certain style to play as White I think, and as he admits, he isn't really of that style!
My opponent here, however, seemed more prepared to play it. He got some nice pressure on the queenside, and especially after I made a horrible mistake with Qc8? and had to waste two moves, I had to play creatively to survive. The main idea I was pleased to find was Qb8-f8-g7 to form a battery with the dark squared bishop. My opponent also played creatively, setting me many problems to solve, but I negotiated them and, in the end, secured a draw.
On top board, Callum breezed past his 180 opponent to victory. However, it wasn't enough to save the team, as our two bottom boards didn't manage to get anything from their games. Johnny in particular had a nice position but then sacced a knight speculatively in an attack, which was refuted. So the match score was 2.5-1.5, another narrow loss.
Disappointing, but 6/10 was a good score. In fact, it proved good enough to place 4/17, after 5 teams tied on 6/10, but we had the superior game total, 13/20 total games as opposed to 12.5 and 12 for the other 4 teams!
The winners were our second round opponents, Imperial. They tied on 9/10 with Warwick 1 (the two teams had drawn their individual clash), but had half a total game point more. There was some controversy as mentioned earlier, with one of the Warwick players mentioning that Imperial had won without having to play the top seeds and last years winners Edinburgh, who admittedly finished in 6th place, below us, and that there should be more rounds. Others suggested two sections might have been more competitive, although I think that probably discourages weaker players from coming. Overall, though, Imperial were good value for their win, and they played most of the strong sides on the way. I for one wouldn't object to more rounds, though; it was good fun!
Overall, it was a really successful weekend for the team, as we outperformed our seeding quite considerably, and also a great weekend individually. Callum took 5/5 on Board 1; this was enough for the Silver Board 1 prize, as Warwick 1's Board 1 scored fully as well, but played slightly tougher opponents overall. My own performance rating was just over 160. It might have been higher had I not played some fairly low-rated players, but I was still pretty happy, especially with my Sunday games. Great performances from Johnny and Charlie as well, who both played some important games, especially given how tight it was at the end.
Having thought a little about how I played in this event, I think there was something that stood out to me. It is that I played quite solidly, maybe too solidly. I don't feel I took many risks in my games. I was pleased to draw with the 178 and 185 players, showing I can compete at the 180 level, but I don't really feel I did enough to have chances to win in either of those games, although I was resourceful in defence. So I feel I should play more enterprisingly, and maybe this means a look at my openings too - maybe saving the Maroczy and the c3 Sicilian to play only occaisionally, and have a wider variety of openings to play including some sharper ones (although I do have the Dutch and the Evans ready to bust out on occaision). But I feel like I learnt a lot about how to improve my chess at the same time, and how to proceed with it. I think definitely playing over some more high-level games in my opening, having a look at different ideas that were played and analysing how exactly they were executed. Also, I think I have a better grasp on how people play openings in tournament chess. Anyway, this is something for me to think about.
Thanks for reading!