Excellent stuff, Alex.
I thought I'd summarise the events of the weekend while they are fresh in my mind (and since this is Reading Week at University!). Even so, for time reasons I shall confine myself to the first division. This division, as two years ago, has two "dynamically equal" pools: in one pool (A) you find the top two teams, Wood Green and Guildford (yes the latter have found some money again) but then there is a big gap. In the other pool (B) you find the teams who will probably finish 3-6 in the Championship pool.
From the point of view of other teams qualifying for the championship pool, it is clearly much better to be in pool A. Wood Green and Guildford will clearly beat everyone else - but then two other places are up for grabs! Barbican 2 always seems to find itself in this pool (where there are more obvious "vacancies") and this year it took its chance. Its fourth win (against ADs on the Sunday) secured third position in the pool, and so it has already secured a career record. It has never before finsished in the top 8 of the first division, though it did master the art of finishing ninth between 2000-3 in the days of twelve teams and three relegation places!
The fourth championship place from this pool will be a direct contest between e2e4.org and ADs who play each other in round seven: ADs need to win (but any score will suffice). Judging by this last weekend, this will be an interesting match, more so than one might have expected before this weekend. At Sunningdale e2e4 did not field their strongest players at the top and they had by far their worst weekend since joining the first division last year. A comfortable loss against back-markers Anglian Avengers on Saturday will give them extra incentive now to make the championship pool, and they lost 8-0 to Guildford on the Sunday. Meanwhile ADs impressed. They inflicted the third consecutive defeat by 4.5-3.5 on Blackthorne Russia (formerly betsson) by winning the top four boards, despite being comfortably outrated. To some extent, the pairings came right for them; both Jirka and John Richardson had good previous results against Adam an Harriet Hunt respectively and these pairing came up again. Ian Snape had a masterful captain's performance by beating Andrew Ledger with Black on board four. An exellent result! They fought well against Barbican 2 and had several good positions, but could not convert enough of them and lived the match in the shadow of two early excellent wins by Barbican 2 youngsters Samuel Franklin and Ryan Griffiths on boards three and four. Still - enough for e2e4.org to think about!
Extraordinarily Blackthorne Russia, who finished fifth last year, lie bottom of this pool, but of course no one (yet) expects them actually to be relegated at the end of the season. Still, like e2e4, they need to pick themselves up. If they continue their February form while Anglian Avengers continue theirs, then their round seven encounter too might prove unexpectedly interesting. For Anglia Avengers, round seven in this pool is absolutely pivotal. If they lose to Blackthorne and ADs fail to beat e2e4, then they will enter the relegation pool with just 1/6; but if these two matches go well for them they would enter it with 5/6!
Pool B is tighter at the top; no would expect anyone to take 100% in this pool. Before this weekend, five teams were in contention for the four championship places, with Jutes of Kent having some advantage over Wood Green 2. But their encounter on Saturday, rightly shown on the live boards, went in favour of Wood Green 2; and Wood Green 2 followed this up with a victory over Barbican 1 (their first since May 2002) on the Sunday by the astonishing score of 6-2 - an achievement with which their first team would have been happy. (One notes in passing two excellent results from Wood Green 2's women: Jovanka Houska beat Mark Ferguson and Sarah Hegarty avenged last year's defeat against Ingrid Lauterbach). On account of Wood Green 2 's bad start, they are still "only" level on matchpoints with Jutes of Kent in places 4-5; but now the momentum, gamepoints, and fixture list all favour them to qualify. Watching his second team demolish Barbican 1, former manager Brian Smith managed to find one possible thing that might still go wrong for Wood Green 1 wrong this season - they could "do a Guildford" and lose to their own second team in round eight! Hopefully this can be shown on live games: the match will start on the morning on 1 April .....
Of the other top teams in pool B, one thing was predictable: someone would win the White Rose v Cheddleton match by 4.5-3.5 - but since both teams have virtually made a living of this over the past season and a half, it was anyone's guess as to who it would be. In the end it was Cheddleton who won by that score and they will probably now enter the championship pool with 3/3 against Barbican 1, Wood Green 2 and White Rose, all achieved by 4.5-3.5! At the other end of pool B, spare a thought for Oxford who have beaten both Wood Green 2 and Cheddelton but who will carry neither result because they lost their "more important" matches, including their traditional 4NCL loss against Cambridge on Sunday. This seems to be their unfortunate habit: they similarly "lost" the benefit of an excellent win v White Rose last year, a "lost" resut which helped White Rose to achieve their third place while Oxford ended up being relegated (until reprieved by the withdrawal of Pride and Prejudice). Many will hope that Oxford can stay up again, but they are bound to shudder when they see Blackthorne Russia currently at the bottom of the other pool ...
Can Cheddleton challenge for the title? At current strength, no - they simply are lacking in all departments, and not just on boards 7 and 8 - in comparison to Wood Green 1. Also, they will presumably play Wood Green in the last round immediately after they play Guildford, and that matters too! But a surprise result against Guildford on the Sunday of the last weekend - ie, a "real" battle for second place - might be conceivable; and Guildford might find that emulating Cheddleton's wins against the other pool B qualifiers is not so easy either.