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John Saunders


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Tournament: 127th Varsity Match • Venue: RAC Club, Pall Mall, London • Date: 14 March 2009
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John Saunders reports: The 127th Varsity Chess Match between Oxford University and Cambridge University was held at the RAC Club, Pall Mall, London on 14 March 2009. The match sponsor was Henry Mutkin and match arbiter was David Sedgwick.

2008«     2009 Varsity Chess Match     »2010
Bd Oxford University Rating Nat 2009 Cambridge University Rating Nat
1b Athanasios Tsanas (St Cross) 2276 GRE ½-½ Aaron Pixton (Churchill) 2462m USA
2w Alvar Kangur (Pembroke) 2231 EST 1-0 Zi Jing Wong (Fitzwilliam) 2410m MAS
3b Carl Bicknell (Wycliffe Hall) 2140e ENG 1-0 Gabor Pinter (Queens') 2355m HUN
4w Steffen Schaper (Exeter) 2115e GER 0-1 Li Wu (Churchill) 2344 ENG
5b Robert Heaton (St Catherine's) 2095 ENG 1-0 Peter Roberson (Churchill) 2221 ENG
6w Michael Healey (University) 2016 ENG 1-0 Mikhail Tyomkyn (Corpus) 2055 GER
7b Ti Chen (Worcester) 2035e CHN 0-1 J Stuart Robertson (Trinity) 2050e ENG
8w Agnese Salputra (Keble) 1800e LAT ½-½ Julie Kourtseva (Newnham) 1800e MLT
  Av. Rating 2088.5     5-3 Av. Rating 2212.1    

Oxford's win narrows the gap in the series to Cambridge 56 wins to Oxford's 52, with 19 matches drawn. Captains were Michael Healey (Oxford) and Julie Kourtseva (Cambridge) (not the first time a woman has captained a team - that honour fell to Emily Howard some years before). Julie lost the toss and Oxford took white on the odd boards.

The match commenced at 12.30pm, with the time control set at 40 moves in 2 hours, followed by one hour for all remaining moves. Greatly missed from the throng was the late Bob Wade who had been at the great majority of the matches of the past half century, first as adjudicator (in the days before the quickplay finish) and latterly as arbiter.

After two hours' play, first blood went to Cambridge as Li Wu defeated former Oxford captain Steffen Schaper. There was nothing particularly surprising about that as Cambridge were hot favourites, with their average extra 124 rating points per board. However, favourites rarely prosper in the nervous atmosphere of this famous annual fixture and surprise results are almost the norm.

Sure enough, things steadily turned against the Light Blues and they were not to enjoy the lead for very long. First, their very highly rated top board from New York was comfortably held by a lower rated but highly competent 25-year-old from Athens. That was the first clue that the rating differential was not to be a decisive factor. The third game to finish was a major shock as Hungarian IM Gabor Pinter, who had been a pawn to the good for what looked like insufficient compensation to his opponent, let Carl Bicknell's queen and rook invade his position with devastating effect. Soon Oxford were in the lead as their skipper Michael Healey turned over Mikhail Tyomkyn. The bottom board game ended in a draw with locked pawns across the board disallowing any hope of a decisive result. So, at that stage the score stood at 3-2 in Oxford's favour.

Boards five and seven finished around the same time and, although Cambridge pulled back a point with Stuart Robertson's well-played victory, it was cancelled out by Robert Heaton's brutal demolition of Peter Roberson's king's defence. So, Oxford had 4 to Cambridge's 3, with one crucial game left. This was a highly imbalanced Dragon between Alvar Kangur and Malaysian IM Zi Jing Wong. The experienced Estonian player eventually reached a position where he had three pawns for a rook. Not too much compensation on the face of it, but in the specific position the pawns were mighty strong - connected, passed and well on the way to the queening square. Zi Jing Wong gave up a piece for one of them but the other two were not to be denied as a large crowd gathered around to watch this, the final game to finish. Eventually the Malaysian's time ebbed away but his position by then was utterly lost. Oxford had scored a remarkable victory and deserved the warm round of applause which greeted them.

It was one of the most cosmopolitan matches for many a year, with five non-English players on each team. Ten different nationalities were represented in all. But, despite being outnumbered by overseas players, the English contingent acquitted themselves remarkably well. Of the six decisive results, five went in favour of English players, with the sixth Englishman losing to a fellow Brit. But it was the Estonian winner Alvar Kangur who picked up the brilliancy prize, judged by Jon Speelman and Luke McShane - an award which is now named in honour of the late arbiter, Bob Wade. The last word goes to him.

Victorious Oxford chess team in 2009

© 2009 John Saunders, all photos and text - not to be used without permission