7.30pm and we're off. The top boards in the top four sections are online, as befits a tournament of this status. For added pressure, they're also played on an elevated stage at the head of the room, and the first round starts off not with the usual posting of the draw, but by calling the board 1 pairings up from the main crowd to take their places centre stage. Rippling applause spreads as the players settle into the comfy leather seats robbed from the hotel's Conference Centre, and take in the view from on high.
There's quite a wide spread of ratings across the sections, and the first round is full of what appear to be mis-matches. Junior tournaments are notoriously difficult to predict, but in this case, the ratings are justified - of Friday's 37 matches, only two go against seed. Richard Sheahan picks up an excellent win against second seed Dayna Ferguson in the U-12s, while right at the death, Robbie Kildea claims and is given a draw against Aodhán Keane in the U-16s. Aodhán had been a piece up, but Robbie's 500 extra rating points see him conjour up a few attacks, claw material back bit by bit until he had a queen for two pieces and - after the controller had given extra time to play on and see if a draw claim was justified - he ultimately reaches a dead position.
So most of the contenders avoid the banana skin that is the first round. Within minutes of its conclusion, the round 2 draws are sent out by text for the first time ever at an Irish tournament. Will the chance of extra prep be taken for round 2? Will those with a morning bye arrive more refreshed than usual for round 3? The morning will reveal all!
Day 2 - morning
Round 2 sees the U-10s join the fray. They usually start in a whirlwind of lost pieces and quick results - but 2016 is different as we start with the hotel fire alarm instead. In Ireland, of course, no-one pays any heed to fire alarms, but there is at least one member of the hotel staff running around like it might be genuine, so we decide to take precautions. We manage to get all games paused before the alarm is muted and forgotten. Be grand, sure.
When the games resume, board 2 in the U-10s is the most interesting position. St Benildus' Thomas Cooney, playing in his first rating tournament, has black against the second seed, Con Kirby. Con could have been forgiven for expecting an easy win, but instead Thomas brings out a trappy line learned online -
Con Kirby (982) v Thomas Cooney (Unr); 2016 Espion Irish Junior Championships - U-10s round 1; 01/04/16
1 e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nd4?!
Objectively weak - but the pawn is poisoned, as we shall see!
4 NxP? Qg5 5. NxP??
White has to go in for 5. BxP+ Ke7 6. 0-0 QxN, when the two pawns and safe king give approximate compensation for the piece.
5 ... Qxg2 6. Rf1 QxP+ 7. Qe2
7 Be2?? Nf3#
7 ... NxQ 8. BxN KxB
And black, a queen up, later stalemates his opponent. That’s how the U-10s roll at times.
All bar two of the games in the U-10s are finished within an hour – the one just noted, and a second game which has reached a K+P v K ending. White promotes, reaches the end of his scoresheet and enquires if this means the result is now a draw. Rather kindly, the controller doles out a second sheet, and the win is soon converted.
In the other sections, the top seeds have all retained their spots on the live boards for the second round, though Andrew Kildea has to put in a bit of overtime to get the ever-temperamental system to acknowledge their new opponents. Once things get underway, Felix Jordan falls to a family fork against Danny Dwyer in the U-12s, while Tom O’Gorman – the reigning U-19s champion has opted for the U-14s this year – wins after his rook travels from d1 to h1 to h8 to g8 to g7 to f7 in successive moves; now stuck in the heart of opponent Denis Ruchko’s position, there's inevitably a tactic, and the rook soon gives itself up for two bishops, which then walk a pawn home through Denis’ own helpless rook.
Conor O’Donnell again sees off Dylan Boland in the U-19s – the two are no strangers, having met twice in last year's Leinster Juniors, again in this year’s Gonzaga Masters and in numerous schools matches over the past few years – but we do have the first live upset when Shane Melaugh fights back from two pawns down against Ross Beatty in the U-16s to reach a R+3 each ending, which fizzles out into a completely dead position of two kings apiece. The U-16s is likely to be the most fiercely-contested of all the section, and we should have two new players on the live boards for round 3.
On floor level, the U-19s are unfortunately truncated by two travelling byes. William Kenny – bottom seed by some 200 points – picks up the result of the tournament so far when drawing with second seed Luke Scott, while Paul O’Neill beats Rudolf Tirziman, leaving Conor as the only player on 2/2. Unlike the U-16s, it’s looking ominous in the U-19s already.
In the U-12s, second seed Dayna’s surprise loss in round 1 is followed by a draw for the other second seed, Adam Murphy – same rating – against Mateo Plaza Reino. The game is a clash between the winners of the U-10s section for the last three years (though Mateo was ineligible for the title when winning last year), now renewing acquaintances at the next level up. Fourth-seed David Remenyik is now Danny Dwyer’s closest rival in his quest for two-in-a-row.
The morning concludes with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from the U-10s. Operating on a different schedule to the rest of the tournament - their
games are time control is just 60 minutes each - they start their round 2 half an hour from the end of the main sections’ round 3, and are all finished within about five minutes of the end of the main sections. Top seed and reigning champion Admira Aida Kecskemeti is in a pack of five players still on 2/2.
Day 2 - afternoon
Under 10s are like pens. One moment you have lots of them; the next they're all gone. The great pen famine strikes around the start of the third round. We had brought 50 - and by lunchtime we're tucking into the backup stack of 20 we'd bought in a mild panic this morning. Pens are presumably littered everywhere - I've seen one in the bathroom - but the players keep coming back for more; like zombies, they approach the controllers’ table with arms outstretched, groaning “Pens…PENS…!” We feed them; we must.
The Under 10s' brief appearance is again over within 45 minutes. But they're learning quickly. Thomas Cooney, who had stalemated his first-round opponent when he had Q, R and two pawns against sole king, reaches a position of Q, R + 2P against king and, crucially, a pawn. His winning plan is to again stalemate his opponent's king, and when the pawn moves, any check will be mate. Simple, but effective, and he's off the mark.
Elsewhere, the live games are getting more juicy - and to acknowledge this, spectators decamp to the Dungeon Bar, where the hotel have set up a big screen to watch the games live. Brendan Cooney provides his analysis and does a round of the boards. After a few minutes, we become suspicious when Utkarsh Gupta, taking on Danny Dwyer in the U-12s, seems to be taking an age over what looks a straightforward immediate plan of kicking Danny's rook from e7. A quick trip to the main room confirms the worst - the internet connection has been broken, and in the bar, we've been missing the action. Connection restored, the game skips forward many moves, but the discussion resumes.
Danny takes the point in the end to take the outright lead. Behind him, David Remenyik, James Naughton and Sanjay Menon all slip up - David and James share a lost point between them, while further back, Dayna succumbs to a second upset, this time losing to Cillian Scallan.
The Irish Juniors isn't just for players living in Ireland, of course, and there's a few entrants who've travelled from farther afield, taking advantage of Irish parentage to enter. Two of those meet in the U-14 afternoon session - Dylan Capaces from Nancy losing out to Gianfranco Ameri from Pimlico. Gianfranco could well be a dark horse if any of the Triumvirate, rendered over-confident by already winning their own little mini-tournament, underestimate him.
Following the top-board draw in the U-16s in the morning, we have two new players in live action for this round - Pádraig Hughes builds up a big centre from the opening against Fiachra Scallan, and though in the final position, it’s Fiachra who has the big pawn centre, Pádraig does have a piece, and he keeps his place in the hot-seat. He'll face Diana Mirza next, who gets the better of Michael Higgins.
In the U-19s, Conor O'Donnell moves a point clear after victory over Luke Scott, who is now in a bunch comprising two-thirds of the field on 1½/3. Dylan Boland is the only player other than Conor to be on a plus score, after scraping past clubmate William Kenny, who comes very close to picking up another heroic draw to add to his collection.
Day 2 – evening
The Triumvirate take centre stage again in the evening – this time, Tom faces Henry on the live board. Tom reaches what must be a winning rook and pawn ending, but it goes wrong, and both players queen – Tom has a pawn as well, but it’s a rook pawn. He throws in a check – it’s all he can do – then another, and this time, Henry blocks with check. Tom’s hands go to his head, but the queens come off, Henry offers a draw and Tom knows it’s all he has in the position now. Like the original Triumvirate, political alignments change, and now Tom must be fully behind Alex, who earlier was rooting for defeat for Tom.
The U-19s, by contrast, has become a dictatorship. Conor O’Donnell wins again, this time against Aleksejus Pachalov, and he needs just one draw on Sunday to secure a clean sweep of titles from U-12s to U-19s. As if to emphasise the futility of anyone else even trying to launch a challenge, boards 2 and 3 both end in draws.
Conor was U-16 champion last year – in his wake, a power vacuum ensues. Ross Beatty, Fiachra Scallan and Pádraig Hughes have all occupied the top spot as the struggle to succeed turns bloody; Diana Mirza has now taken over after cutting Pádraig down in a rook and pawn ending on the live boards. With a passed, if isolated, pawn compared to Pádraig’s doubled pawns, she seemed to have all the winning chances in the ending, but Pádraig fights well and soon has the more advanced pieces – king, rook and pawns. The next time I look, his rook is gone, and the king is dead. Is it to be long live the queen?
The U-10s, meanwhile, have turned from students to teachers. In the evening U-16 session, remarkably, is a repeat of Kirby v Cooney from the U-10s on Saturday morning – a second Blackburne Shilling Gambit, which this times ends in the smothered mate trap on move 7. Back in the olden days, Blackburne would have earned a shilling for each of these wins – or so the story goes. History, sadly, doesn’t have a record of Blackburne playing his own gambit.
The lack of increments isn’t causing the controllers too many headaches with regards draw claims – and the players are helping out too. Mihailo v Mustakim is the last match of the night to finish; Mihailo had been under pressure early on, but now has queen, knight and two pawns against just two pawns. And he has three seconds. He stops the clock and claims a draw – but of course, the draw must be offered and declined before you can claim. So Ivan walks the players through the routine.
“Mustakim, do you accept?”
“No”, comes the reply.
“Are you trying to push him off the clock?”
“OK – well in that case, what I’m going to do is to add two minutes to each clock and see how the position continues.“
“Oh. Can I still accept the draw so?”
And so the game was drawn.
It should be noted that had Mustakim been mated in those two minutes – as he surely would have been – the game would have ended in a draw, as Mihailo’s claim of a draw on the basis of overwhelming material advantage would have been proven correct.
Day 3 – morning
There’s an old Irish story about a man who found his cottage was too noisy, and he asked someone in the village what he could do about it. Here’s an idea, he was told. Bring the cows into the cottage for the night, and come back to me tomorrow. OK, the man said, and did as he was told.
“How was it?”, he was asked next day.
“Awful”, he replied. “The cows were up mooing all night. I didn’t get a wink’s sleep.”
“Hm”, said his friend. “Well, try this. Tonight, bring the hens in as well.”
The man did as he was told – but it was noisier again. On subsequent days, he was advised to bring the sheep in as well, and then the pigs. The cottage was chaotic.
At his wits’ end, the man went back to his friend and begged for one last solution. “Right. Put all the animals back into the barn tonight and come back to me tomorrow”, he was told. The man did as he was told – and came back expressing blessed relief the next day. It was the same busy cottage as before, but it now felt like blissful quiet compared to what had recently gone on.
I leave it all in Desmond Beatty’s capable hands and return to the main room, where I’m blissfully overwhelmed by the silence, and even the noise of the one squeaking table, which had annoyed me previously, seems peaceful.
Tom O’Gorman is off the live boards despite the fact that he’s top seed and in the lead; his opponent is on a lower score than Henry’s, Henry is on the same score as Tom, and so Henry gets the top billing. The top seeds have been getting more and more comfortable in their opulent stage surroundings, but how will Tom cope when amongst the commoners? Not very well, is the spectacular answer – he loses to Darragh Moran, a mere 1001 points his junior, but previous opponents have already commented that he’s worth more than his rating. Henry accounts for Denis Ruchko, and it’s now a straight shoot-out between Henry and Alex for the title.
The U-19s race, by contrast, isn’t alive at all. A fifth straight win for Conor, against clubmate Pádraig Sheehy, secures him the title with a round to spare, regardless of the fact that his nearest rivals are still falling over themselves in an effort to drop back into the anonymity of the pack. In fact, by the end of the tournament, Conor’s nearest rivals after any given round will not have recorded a single win between them in the following round.
Conor now boasts the tournament’s only 100% record, with all the others falling in the fifth round. That includes Danny Dwyer - the reigning Irish U-12 champion held to a draw on board 1 by the reigning Leinster U-12 champion, David Remenyik - and Robbie Kildea, who finally breaks his Giri-esque run of draws with a win over Alex Goss. It’s been a bit of a tournament to forget for Robbie, about which the best you can say is that he’s fought very well to recover bad positions in most of his draws, and without that, the weekend could have been a lot worse.
In the U-10s, a couple of interesting rook endgames. In one, a draw is claimed by a player who has two pawns against two rooks. “All he’s doing is checking me!”, he complains. The claim is invalid, of course – no player in the U-10s gets remotely close to having two minutes left on their clock all weekend – and play continues.
In another, a spectacular rook sacrifice, well worth sharing here, even though it had an unfortunate conclusion. Zhengjin Wang, with the black pieces, reaches the following position against Albi Vettichira –
Here, Black uncorks 1. … Rf1+!!?? White takes, but before he completes his move, Black proclaims stalemate. On the defensive, White points out his move is incomplete – but of course, he has touched both pieces, so must take, and has no other legal move anyway. But Black has made a decisive miscalculation – the !! is for the superb stalemate idea in a lost position, while the ?? is for unfortunately forgetting about his own pawn on a5…
The U-10 games are slowing down now as players get used to the idea of having a whole hour on the clock. One game, the round 5 top board clash between the top two players, Con Kirby and Admira Kecskemeti, goes so far as to be still in progress when the top sections start to return for the final round. Both players are into their final 20 minutes when Con takes a crucial victory. But he can't be complacent - this is just a repeat of 2015, when he beat Admira in round 5 only to lose to Mateo in the last round and drop back behind both players. The final round - against the third seed - must yet be won.
Day 3 – afternoon
To the final round. Conor is home and dry anyway - with whatever pressure there had been off, he treats the online viewers to a quick win against Rudolf Tirziman. Rudolf gives up a pawn in the opening, and Conor simply holds on to it, builds a huge centre and soon has his opponent completely immobilised. Rudolf's rook and bishop have no squares, even from the fifth and sixth ranks respectively; his knight can only swap itself for a bishop, which would be to Conor's benefit. Shorn of moves, Rudolf opts to resign.
In the U-10s, Con Kirby does win, banishing any ghosts of last year, and indeed of that first round loss of a queen inside seven moves. Admira ends on 5/6 as last year, but this time, it's only good enough for second.
The U-14s and U-12s deciders, meanwhile, both end in very different draws. A French Tarrasch sees Henry get a kingside attack, while Alex's central passed pawns loom ominously if the attack fails. Henry gives up a piece, Alex gives up all his kingside pawns, but a draw is all Henry needs, and though there's plenty of interesting play left in the position, Henry reckons he has enough of an edge to justify a draw offer, and Alex accepts. Tom O'Gorman is up against Gianfranco Ameri on board 2, and avenges his 2014 defeat to take the point and, on tie-break from Alex, second place. Henry becomes the last of the three to take an Irish underage title, but he knows the balance of power is his only until their next meeting. The Triumvirate reign supreme, but they can never rest easy.
Last to finish is the U-12s - only two pawns each have come off the board when Danny Dwyer and James Naughton agree a draw on move 37, with the position completely locked up. The players both head to watch the conclusion of board 2, where Sanjay Menon can take a share of first if he wins. But he's a pawn down in a rook ending, and though he fights well to hold the draw, the last of our champions is the one doing his trademark fists-clenched, hop, skip and jump celebration away from the board.
Irish Junior Champions 2016
Irish Under-8 champion Arnold Kecskemeti
Irish Under-10 champion Con Kirby
Two-time Irish Under-12 champion Danny Dwyer
Irish Under-14 champion Henry Li
Irish Under-16 champion Diana Mirza WCM
Irish Under-19 champion Conor O'Donnell FM