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John Saunders


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Tournament: 117th Varsity Match • Venue: RAC Club, Pall Mall, London • Date: 6 March 1999
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John Saunders reports: The 117th Varsity Chess Match between Oxford University and Cambridge University was held at the RAC Club, Pall Mall, London on 6 March 1999. The match sponsors were Tony Buzan, the Brain Trust and Henry Mutkin. Match arbiter was Bob Wade.

1998«     1999 Varsity Chess Match     »2000
Bd Oxford University Rating Nat 1999 Cambridge University Rating Nat
1w Dharshan Kumaran (Green) 2505g ENG ½-½ Brian Kelly (Trinity) 2423m IRL
2b Jonathan Rowson (Keble) 2494m SCO ½-½ Harriet Hunt (St John's) 2413wg ENG
3w Aleksandar Trifunovic (St Anne's) 2260 ENG ½-½ Mark Ferguson (Queens') 2377m ENG
4b Oliver Rosten (Somerville) 2218 ENG ½-½ Karl Mah (Pembroke) 2312f ENG
5w Ben Savage (Lady Margaret Hall) 2140 ENG 0-1 James Vigus (Clare) 2280f ENG
6b Joel Ouaknine (St Cross) (180) CAN 0-1 David Moskovic (Queens') 2248 ENG
7w Kieran Smallbone (New) 2110 ENG ½-½ Aron Cohen (Queens') 2265 ENG
8b Emily Howard (Lincoln) 2047 ENG 0-1 Nathan Alfred (King's) 2215 ENG
  Av. Rating 2228.0 approx.     2½-5½ Av. Rating 2316.6    

The history books tell us that the idea of a chess match to be held between Oxford and Cambridge Universities was first mooted by Howard Staunton in 1853, but as with so many good ideas, it was not put into practice until much later, in the 1870s. A correspondence match was held in 1871 but the first official over-the-board encounter came about on 28 March 1873 at the City of London Chess Club, when two or three games were played at each board. The match format was amended in 1892 to have just the one game on one day over seven boards.

That's the way the format stayed until 1978 when an eighth board was introduced "for the ladies". Even so, the result of the 8th board would count for nothing unless the top seven boards finished 3½-3½. The late Harry Golombek recognised the inequality of this arrangement at the time and looked forward to a day when the top seven boards would be occupied by women, leaving two males to play the tie-breaker.

Harry's dream has not quite come to fruition but things are at last beginning to move in that direction. Board 8 is no longer "women-only" with Harriet Hunt laying claim to a very much higher board for Cambridge. Emily Howard for Oxford is still on board 8 but has become the first woman to captain the Oxford team. And, without taking next year's Oxford selectorial decisions for granted, new arrival Ruth Sheldon will most probably be in the team and is unlikely to be playing on board 8.

Now that the trappings of sexism have been largely removed from the event, it would be nice to think that the players of each team can henceforth enjoy equal rights with each other in every respect. Sadly this is still not the case. Cambridge players taking part in the match have long since been accorded the honour of a half-blue for their efforts; Oxford players have not. This is despite a determined and high-profile campaign for the half-blue recognition of chess waged by the Oxford University Chess Club, supported by such luminaries as Jon Speelman, John Nunn, Ray Keene, Leonard Barden and Adrian Hollis. And despite (with all due respect to the practitioners of what is doubtless a splendid game) the half-blue status of tiddlywinks. Nothing daunted, the Oxford players are determined to redouble their efforts to put this injustice right for next year. Oxford University's club, the oldest university chess club in the country, with eight of Britain's 25 grandmasters being former members, deserves better.

This season's match was held in the now-traditional venue of the RAC Club in Pall Mall, once again generously sponsored by Tony Buzan, and the Brain Trust charity. Your correspondent arrived on the scene an hour after play started and it was beyond the powers of his own enfeebled brain to work out why there were only the players and one of the arbiters in the playing room and a few reserve players next door. It transpired that the rest of the guests were enjoying lunch downstairs. This off-stage feasting had a direct effect on the appetites of the players, one of whom felt unable to wait for that evening's celebratory supper, sending a colleague out to fetch him a take-away 'veggyburger'.

Jonathan Rowson set out his stall early to try and complete a hat-trick of Varsity match victories on board 2 by sacrificing an exchange for a pawn against Harriet Hunt, accompanying this with a startling but effective king walk up the board. Meanwhile on board 7, Cohen went into a line of the Pirc where White can get a dangerous attack. His 18...f6 boxed in his bishop and Smallbone soon got in an apparently crushing 21 d6. White obtained a piece for two pawns; but there was still much to do in both of these two games.

As with the Boat Race, it is not always the team that gets its nose in front at the first bend in the river that ends up winning. Elsewhere the Oxford boat was beginning to ship water. Finally, after just over three hours' play Cambridge went one up on board 6 where Black succumbed to a combined onslaught from the entire mass of White pieces after being just one tempo short of an overwhelming attack himself on move 19. Twenty minutes later Cambridge went 2-0 up when the Oxford board 5 lost after getting into difficulties in the early middlegame and then dropping a piece. Soon after, board 3 ended in a fairly peaceful draw, as did board 1, where Oxford had perhaps hoped to cash in their GM vs. IM advantage.

Around 4.25pm it was all over; Nathan Alfred won against Emily Howard on board 8 in a game where White finally broke through Black's defensive wall of pawns to win, and Karl Mah was happy to agree a draw to secure match victory for Cambridge - 4½-1½.

Meanwhile play was still in progress on boards 2 and 7 (which is where we came in), with the Oxford players still seeking their team's first consolatory full point. It never arrived. On board 7 Smallbone gave back the piece hallucinating that he was going to give mate. Thereafter he was unable to gain the upper hand despite gaining two rooks for a queen in a position where the Black king looked in imminent danger of being mated. Black managed to force a threefold repetition. Finally on board 2 Jonathan Rowson could not convert his evident compensation for the exchange into a winning advantage and agreed a draw after just over four and a half hours' play. The match was over and Cambridge had won 5½-2½. The overall scores in this, the oldest fixture in the world's chess calendar, are now Cambridge 51 wins, Oxford 49 wins, with 17 draws.

© 1999 John Saunders, all photos and text - not to be used without permission