Oxford vs Cambridge vol. 125 – the never ending game

by ChessBase
5/16/2007 – The rivalry between the two great English Universities, Oxford and Cambridge, goes back for hundreds of years. In chess hostilities began in 1873, and since then, interrupted by the odd war, the chess clubs of both universities have been meeting anually to settle the score. This year for the 125th time. Exchange PhD student Olena Boytsun, WIM from Ukraine, helped make it memorable.

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Oxford vs Cambridge – the never ending game

By Olena Boytsun

Photos provided by Sean Lip (SL), Hervé Hansen (HH), Olena Boytsun

Recently in London a long tradition was kept safe again: the 125th Varsity Chess Match between the Oxford and Cambridge University teams took place in the magnificent venue of the Royal Automobile Club.

The idea of an Oxford vs Cambridge confrontation is, by itself, probably as ancient as humanity. Oxford University, which was founded at the end of the 12th century, is the oldest in the English speaking world. Cambridge University was founded in 1209, and the story goes that after local conflicts some scholars from Oxford fled to the city of Cambridge and transformed the school in that city into one of the best educational institutions of the world.

The emblems of Cambridge and Oxford Universities

Both universities possess the finest reputation in academic and social circles, both are collegiate universities (the administration is divided among departments of the universities and colleges), both have excellent research centers and the tutorial teaching systems, with students taught in very small groups. With such similarities, it is obvious that rivalry was unavoidable.

Inside the Trinity College in Cambridge

Universities compete on official and unofficial levels. Inofficially – comparing, for example, the success of the alumni. It is said that Oxford has an advantage in politics: all but two of the British Prime Ministers, since Winston Churchill held his second term, graduated from Oxford. Cambridge is more associated with scientists, such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

The view from Carfax tower on the High Street in Oxford

This is of course more the stereotype and marketing positioning. More interesting is the official competition schedule. Who hasn’t heard of the famous boat race between the Oxford and Cambridge teams, held every spring on the Thames in London. Students take it very seriously, and actually start training in September, three times a week, at 6 a.m. Apart from rowing the Universities compete in all kind of sports; such matches are called Varsity matches. And of course there is the Chess Varsity Match, one of the oldest in the history of Oxbridge rivalry.

Before coming to Oxford, I had no idea about this tradition. In September 2006, when the chess world holding its breath followed the World Championship match in Elista, I headed for the United Kingdom in order to continue work on my PhD at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Center at St. Antony’s College of Oxford University. After half a year, although I still haven’t finished my research, I very much enjoy the chess community here.

Autumn in Oxford

Oxford University Chess Club was founded in 1869. On the 30th of April 1869 it was written in the minutes book: “This day is memorable as being the date of the foundation of the Club... A code of rules was drawn up, and the Club, having received its constitution, entered upon what we trust will prove to be a long and glorious career. No less than one hundred and three names were entered upon the first list of members... The meetings were held weekly on Wednesdays, and the early members appear to have been more desirous of playing one another than of engaging in foreign matches”.

Actually, I have found that there are not so many changes in the Club in 2006, compared to 1866. The most dramatic is that the weekly club night is now on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays. The club proved to be a success, hundreds of people are members, mostly students. The especial charm of the chess club is also in the fact that one of the best British grandmasters, Luke McShane, studies at Oxford. The club committee always tries to organize a bunch of interesting events. In general chess life in Oxford is bright and vivid, and you can hardly find any time for studies beside it.

The President of Oxford University Chess Club Marco Zhang (HH)

In 1871 the Oxford University Chess Club first challenged Cambridge to a match. The first couple of matches were correspondence, but since 1873 the teams tried to meet each other personally. No games were played in the inter-war years of 1915-1918, and there were informal matches during the Second World War, but they are not counted for the series of matches. In 1978 a female board was provided, and nowadays the team should consist of eight players, at least one of whom must be female.

All this long history made the match in 2007 the 125th Anniversary event. The score before this match was Cambridge: 55 - Oxford: 51, with 18 drawn encounters. Unfortunately for me and Oxford team, and fortunately for Cambridge team, the new score in 2007 is 56:51 in favor of Cambridge.

The happy chess team of Cambridge in 2007 (SL)

Although the match itself is the pure competition, I personally believe that the best part of it is the team building and team spirit. Oxford lost, but we are definitely a very strong team from the social point of view; I believe that members of the Cambridge team could also say the same. Every person is the personality, and putting so many great people together couldn’t help resulting in the enormous synergetic social effect. I am very thankful to my team that I had a chance to be a part of it.

The organization of the event was of the highest style. The halls of RAC (Royal Automobile Club) are marvelous and elegant, one of the most stylist venues one can imagine. The club has a membership system, and members and guests can enjoy the nice atmosphere of different bars, a restaurant, a library, a swimming pool and many other facilities right in the heart of London.

RAC is situated within a five minute walk from Big Ben in London

The match was sponsored by Vantis and Henry Mutkin. Mr. Mutkin is currently Chairman of the RAC Chess Committee and the director of Chess & Bridge Ltd. In 2007 that was the 31st time that he has brilliantly organized the Varsity Chess Match at the Royal Automobile Club. While studying at Wadham College of Oxford, Henry Mutkin participated in the Varsity chess matches himself: in 1955, 1956 and 1957 (when he even played board one and captained the team!).

R. G. (Bob) Wade, Henry Mutkin, Raymond Keene at the opening ceremony

This year on the first board Oxford had a magnificent player, Luke McShane, who, in my opinion can serve as the best example of the inner calmness, politeness and British charm. Luke, who is finishing his studies in Mathematics and Philosophy at the University College this year, became grandmaster at the age of 16. He writes a weekly chess column in the newspaper Sunday Express, studies Russian and German, and still finds time to hang around with fellow students. I see in him the image of the real British gentleman, who during his walk in the park incidentally saves a drowning child from the lake, helps old lady to cross the street, wins millions out of a good stock action and than goes home, takes off the bowler and drinks his refreshing five o’clock tea. Veni, vidi, vici. This time Luke also came, saw and conquered his opponent David Hodge, who is writing his PhD in mathematics at Trinity College of Cambridge.

The first move on the first board Luke McShane vs David Hodge (HH)

Some micro-matches within the big match between universities even had background stories. For example, I assume that the third board players Alvar Kangur and Thomas Nixon took their game and preparations very seriously. Last year after a tough fight and mutual flips the game between them was won by Alvar, and this point brought the win for the Oxford team.

The Oxford team won the match in 2006 (photo from Oxford Chess Club website)

This year the players faced each other again, and the circumstances of the meeting were once again quite stressful. At the beginning, after the first three moves of the game, Thomas disappeared from the playing hall for a rather long time. The players started to wonder if everything was all right. In the middle game Alvar spent a lot of time for making up a plan and chose a very sharp line, which soon led to the winning position for White.

Board 2: Alvar Kangur vs Thomas Nixon (SL)

Kangur,Alvar (2231) - Nixon,Thomas (2189) [C29]
Varsity Oxford-Cambridge RAC Club, London (3), 10.03.2007
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 d5 4.fxe5 Nxe4 5.d3 Nxc3 6.bxc3 d4 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.cxd4 Nxd4 9.c3 Nxf3+ 10.Qxf3 c6 11.d4 Be6 12.Bd3 Bd5 13.Qg3 Qd7 14.0-0 0-0-0 15.Be3 g6 16.c4 Be6 17.d5 cxd5 18.Bxa7 dxc4 19.Be4 Qc7 20.Qe3 Bd5 21.Bb6 Qc6 22.Rf6 Qb5 23.Rb1 Bb4 24.a3

Both players had only about 7-8 minutes left, and the pressure was high. After 24…Be4 25.Qe4 Bc5 White just missed the win: 26.Kh1? (26.Kf1 would be clearly winning) 26…Bb6 27.h3 (White cannot take the queen: 27.Rxb5?? Rd1 and mate to follow) 27...Qd5. Time trouble followed, and White also missed the chance to at least draw the game. 28.Qg4+ Rd7 29.Rfxb6 h5 30.Qe2 Re8 31.R6b5 Qd3 32.Qf2 Rxe5 33.Rxe5 Qxb1+ 34.Kh2 Qd3 35.Qc5+ Kb8 36.Re8+ Rd8 37.Rxd8+ Qxd8 38.Qxc4 Qc7+ 39.Kh1 Qxc4. So the result dramatically became 0-1.

Board 6 Gustav Holzegel vs Steffen Schaper, both from Germany (HH)

I cannot resist mentioning the participation in the match of twin brothers, Tom and Adam Eckersley-Waites. Originally from Cambridge, Tom studies Philosophy and Mathematics at Oxford, while Adam is reading Classics at Cambridge. Both played in the Varsity match for a second time, both are really bright players with an incredible aggressive style, and no, they don’t play each other. So far I have the impression that Tom never loses, and he confirmed my suspicion again, winning a sharp game against Richard Mycroft. For this game Tom received a special prize from organizers.

Board 4 Richard Mycroft vs Tom Eckersley-Waites (SL)

Board 5 Robert Heaton vs Adam Eckersley-Waites (HH)

Board 7 Chris Rawlinson vs Andreas Werner (SL)

The very nice brochure was published for the match due to the efforts of Mr. Edward Penn. I was glad to make a small contribution to it by remembering my past, full of chess photography, and making the portraits of the Oxford team players. And if I performed this task well enough the biggest challenge for me remained: to remember actually how to play chess.

Some photos of the Oxford chess team taken for the match broshure

For about last five years I haven’t played any serious games – watching the genius Anand playing never forced me to try to produce something myself. There are so many people who play perfectly and professionally, and beautifully. Since I entered University in 1999 I have been trying to concentrate on economics, languages, communication, photography, writing, anything but not chess.

Board 8 Elizabeth Roberts vs Edward Stembridge (HH)

Playing again at such an event provided a lot of interesting experience for me. For one thing I will definitely know now the answer to the the question “what was your most embarrassing game of the life”. That was it, at the 125th Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge. The game is really short, but can serve as a nice example of how one should never play chess. It was published already in major British newspapers (such as Daily Telegraph), my opponent received a special prize for it, so I see no point why I cannot publish it for the entertainment of Chessbase.com readers as well. Chess commentaries are unimportant, so I will restrict myself on the general remarks.

My opponent, Duane Rowe (28), is the current and four times National Champion of Jamaica, a National Master with a 2203 rating. Duane has an impressive background beside chess, and is currently obtaining his MPhil (Master) in Engineering for Sustainable Development at Wolfson College of Cambridge University. He represented Jamaica in the last four Chess Olympiads and has the ambition to become an International Master within the next decade.

Duane Rowe posing after the match (SL)

Rowe,Duane (2203) - Boytsun,Olena (2281) [B07]
Varsity Oxford-Cambridge RAC Club, London (2), 10.03.2007
1.e4 d6. The very nice opening ceremony has just finished. There was the drawing of colors, and Oxford received white, which means that on the second board I had to play black. Am looking at the chess set, one of the the Jaques Original Staunton sets, which are in use for Varsity matches since 1873. Impressive.

Board 2 Duane Rowe vs Olena Boytsun (HH)

2.d4 Nf6. So far everything is fine. There are a lot of spectators around, and they take pictures with flash. Do these photographs know at all how annoying it is when you are photographed? Unprincipled paparazzi who care only about good shots. 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3 Bg7. Everything is still fine, although I cannot help noticing that flash, which is annoying. I know now why chess players hate photographers (like me). Am starting to blush.

5.h3 Nbd7?! I just forced myself to make a move, and right after this the question arises: why did I do it? It is such a questionable move, I had never played it before. Probably nobody has ever played it. Don’t ask me why I did it… 6.Nf3 e6? ...or better, don’t ask me ever about this move. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

7.Qd2 b6? Somehow in the middle of the opening I decided to have a bishop on b7. All the three previous moves don’t mean I had no idea of the main line in Pirc Defense. I knew it was wrong. Probably, I decided to be creative. Probably. Thinking about our team, what kind people they are, especially Chris and Ed. They will never ever hurt or punish me.

Chris Rawlinson finishes his Classics studies at Somerville College, Oxford, can do any crossword and is ready to play blitz any time of day or night (photo by Graham Morris)

8.e5. Ed came by and looked at my game. Oh my. I still hope Chris will never hurt me.

Ed Stembridge is in his last year studying Classics at Balliol College of Oxford, has a very fine sense of humor and besides chess plays hurling (Irish hockey)

8...dxe5. Just a move. There were some thoughts, but I would prefer to pretend I was thoughtless. 9.dxe5 Ng8. Am drinking water. Tom always says once you step back, you loose the game. Tom, I think you are right. Am trying to save face. 10.Bb5 Bb7. Well, I hope my opponent will not castle now… 11.0-0-0 c6 12.Ne4! I saw the move, but somehow it didn’t come to my mind that I could face it so quickly. Just still don’t ask. I took a deep thought after it, about 1 hour, but it is useless. Alvar comes by my board. In his eyes I read the question “Why did you play 6. …e6?” Am drinking water.

Alvar Kangur plays for Estonia in correspondence chess events, is writing his PhD in Economics at Pembroke College in Oxford, and is a passionate salsa dancer

12… Nxe5 13.Qc3 Qb8. People were attracted by my deep thought, and started to gather near our board. In order not to see anyone after the 13th move I escaped to the hall and saw the newly elected President of Oxford Chess Club Michael Healey. “Mike, you will not hurt me, will you?” – I asked. “You are a nice and kind person, aren’t you?”. “Don’t worry," Mike said kindly. "Play for a draw”. Ahem.

Steffen Schaper, Justin Hadi and Michael Healey playing exchange chess after dinner at RAC (photo by Graham Morris)

14.Nd6+. I am sitting and thinking for the next 20 minutes, where to put the king, on e7 or f8. Oh dear, who cares? People around are multiplying like cells, and they are all talking about the game. Am still trying to look calm and drink water simultaneously. 14. …Ke7 15.Nxe5.

My opponent behaves perfectly. He is so calm, thank God he is not laughing in my face. Am drinking, you know, water. Whatever. At least, am sure now our game will receive the special prize. Am trying to imagine that I have just contributed to the history a bit. Trying, but not successfully.

15 …cxb5. Why, why did I come here? Convince myself the team needed a girl to play anyway. I am enormously angry on myself, thinking, when is the next bus to Oxford? 16.Nxg6+hxg6 17.Qxg7. La la la la. No more thoughts. Just starring at the board. I should force myself to resign, but decide to postpone it for one more move. 17 … Bd5. My opponent starts to think. Oh dear, why? I am surprised. No, he makes a move… 18.Qxf7+ 1-0.

We shake the hands, and I run for my life. My first emotion was to run away completely, because it is not only about my personal feelings. It is team play, and there is much more tension and responsibility. But I forced myself to stay, and was really thankful to my team and other people for the support. Our captain Hervé Hansen comforted me with stories from the past, about the guy who lost in seven moves three years ago, and another one who lost to the unrated player who hardly knew the moves. Probably myths, but comforting.

The captain of Oxford team, Hervé Hansen, at the closing dinner (SL)

And I understood: that was it. I had become part of history, of chess folklore. I will always be part of the future stories around the Varsity matches. The girl who lost in 18 moves. "You know, at the 125th Anniversary match there was this WIM from Ukraine…"

GM Luke McShane
1 - 0
David Hodge
WIM Olena Boytsun
0 - 1
NM Duane Rowe
Alvar Kangur
0 - 1
Tom Nixon
Tom Eckersley-Waites
1 - 0
Richard Mycroft
Robert Heaton
0 - 1
Adam Eckersley-Waites
Steffen Schaper
0 - 1
Gustav Holzegel
Chris Rawlinson
Andreas Werner
Edward Stembridge
Elizabeth Roberts
3 - 5


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