After a couple of very successful campaigns, the Downend & Fishponds 4NCL team is now established in the second tier. But our division is fiercely competitive, so we'll need to be at our best again just to stand still. The first two rounds were an early test of whether we had retained our near-magical form of last season, when we accidentally made a serious promotion challenge.
First up were the Chess in Schools & Communities Dragons, which for once put this CSC employee straight on the team sheet. Although closer inspections reveals that ECF grades gave us the edge, the published ratings promised a difficult afternoon. It certainly didn't start well, as both of our London-based players met trouble on the roads; Phil was hit by a breakdown, and I dubiously took a lift from an IM, only to discover again that chess skill definitely isn't proportional to navigational ability.
By the time I arrived the games were well underway. The black boards looked pretty exciting, with CSC offering gambits all over the place: David and Phil decided to accept the challenge and cling on for dear life, Jerry wasn't up for a hat-trick but disappointingly seemed to get a comfortable game anyway, and I had unwittingly ventured the 15-minute Gambit. Unfortunately our players with white hadn't got the memo - Chris was playing yet another Alapin, Charlie's early fireworks soon died down into a queenless middlegame, Max had a nice position but looked to be channeling some Carlsen-Karjakin sitzkrieg, and Michael's game may as well have not started yet either.
I soon had plenty of time to take in events, as my prep actually appeared on the board for the first time in forever. My opponent went into the tank for almost an hour as early as move 11 - but too late. It was starting to look good for us, with Jerry's opponent overextending himself, and things got even better when Max's opponent blundered an exchange in an awkward position. A desperate attack soon boomeranged to give the man from Millfield our first point of the season, prompting Chris to halve out soon afterwards.
Although we were making the running, there was still a match on. David had kept the gambit pawn, but even Korchnoi would have had second thoughts about his position, whilst Phil's opponent also had clear compensation which eventually proved enough to hold the balance. Charlie's game was hard to judge, and the less said about Michael's game the better. Even so, CSC had a mountain to climb when I made it 3-1, having picked up a pawn and the compensation for it by the time my preparation ended.
By now Jerry was about to convert a material plus of his own, and the match was sealed when David's opponent gave an exchange to the cause in a better position. 5-1 was definitely a nice place to be, but we had two difficult endings left. Charlie had some drawing chances but would have to defend a rook ending a pawn down, whilst Michael had convincingly outplayed himself, and seemed to be sinking quickly. He had no choice but to hoist up the pirate flag, sac a piece for some pawns, and hope for the best.
In the end Charlie's game proved too difficult to defend, but under the disdainful gaze of his teammates Michael drummed up some confusion and even missed a win. In the end he was able to draw by giving 'perpetual check' to a bishop, leaving us with a slightly generous 5½-2½ win. Apparently we've still got that magic touch - though I can't help noticing that it was those swashbuckling black games which made all the difference....