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University Men Close In On Title Glory

With the protest withdrawal of both Bangor Winston and Groomsport from the league last Thursday, round 12 of the race to claim the coveted John Strawbridge Cup was set against a backdrop of administrative confusion. Nobody is quite sure what the precise impact of the withdrawals upon point totals are as yet, but the key facts remain satisfactorily clear – QUB enjoy a comfortable lead over nearest rivals Malone, with a Devon Loch collapse necessary for league glory to be snatched from the grasp of Millar’s Mob.
University Men Close In On Title Glory

Rogan (left) discovers his position has imploded while Fenton (background) realises he's been duped

In any case, the aforementioned uncertainty here was definitely no match for the disarray traffic chaos wreaked upon QUB’s preparations for their penultimate league fixture, an away trip to Portadown. With the word sent out at one stage that complete cancellation was of a high probability, the university men eventually gathered the requisite number of players – if only after fortunately snaring a passing Spaniard with a 2000 FIDE rating – and set off for the destination 30 minutes behind schedule.

Portadown’s full strength line-up patiently awaited the QUB side, who finally managed to set off for, find, and then gain access to Portadown Rugby Club – if only after John Masterson’s coded signals to the surveillance cameras at the venue’s entrance.

The first game to finish was between the QUB captain, Chris Millar, and Portadown regular, Colin Fenton. Following recent form, your author began the game as favourite, but his counterpart set up drawishly and played well-enough to both equalise and gain a firm foothold in the match. Playing with the white pieces, Millar opted for a positional approach, exchanging to a position where he held a good knight against bad bishop. However, upon building up an initiative, Fenton cracked open the position to leave himself with what now looked like both a superior minor-piece and positional edge. Just when it seemed that the Portadown player was to gain a material advantage for his fine play, he offered a draw which was gratefully accepted by Millar, keen to dispel rumours that his drawish past is completely behind him.

With this result, combined with the less than domineering positions held by the league leader’s other players, it seemed that the visitors may have found a bogey team in their mid-Ulster adversaries.

As has been the trend in recent weeks though, one of the Queen’s players produced an unlikely result to swing the momentum in their side’s favour. This was a task achieved this week by Vlad Pucovsky, who played through an unorthodox opening with Portadown’s Gerald Rogan. The players then found themselves in an even more peculiar middlegame, which saw a closed game with each side enjoying superlative bishops of opposite colours. Rogan played with bravado to whip up an attack, but saw his chances go up in smoke when he allowed the Slovak’s queen to penetrate his defensive line, combine with his bishop, and deliver a crushing checkmate.

Meanwhile, on board 3, Fred MacDonald and John Canning enjoyed what may be considered the most intriguing game of the evening. Canning, astutely recognising the capability of MacDonald in an open position, directed the game towards a gridlock reminiscent of the traffic-clogged Belfast streets of just two hours previous. The QUB player was having none of this though, and decided to mix things up with a dodgy gambit on g4. MacDonald used the initiative gained here to unsettle the surroundings of Canning’s king while simultaneously finding active employment for each of his pieces. As the net tightened upon Canning, he realised the game was up and offered his resignation.

Less than five seconds later, Portadown suffered another resignation - this time on board 1. Here Portadown’s Tony Redden had displayed his usual tenacity against Claudio Fierro Mendicute. Claudio could only manage to use his opening plus to gain a small spacial advantage, from which it seemed Redden had chances to hold off the efforts of his higher-rated opponent. The Portadown board one for the night displayed steadfast defending resulting in the Matador achieving little more than an edge in a rook endgame. Uncharacteristically though, Redden resigned when the match appeared to swing significantly to the Spaniard’s advantage. Perhaps unable to see past his opponent’s rating, Redden had overlooked the extent of his resources which objectively should have produced a draw.

The last match to be completed was the board 2 encounter between Nigel Telford and John Masterson. Telford has enjoyed tremendous form this season, and must have been confident having dispatched QUB’s Pucovsky earlier in the season. Nevertheless, John Masterson has returned to the top of his game recently and was determined to push his side another step closer to a secured first place in the league race. At one stage Telford appeared to hold an advantage with good kingside chances and a notable time advantage. As ever though, Masterson only really started to sparkle as he approached the time control. John utilised his tactical awareness to gain a material advantage, which he then sacrificed back in the ensuing mutual time-trouble. Telford eventually reached a won position, but it was too late, for his flag had fallen and Masterson claimed a half-point.

In summary, “Los Galacticos” record another heavy, if slightly flattering, victory. In doing so another nail is banged into the coffin of Malone’s flailing league challenge. It now seems that QUB will enter their final fixture, at home to RVH on March 15th, with the title of champions already mathematically secured. For now at least though, the champagne remains on ice.

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