Having played tremendously well to qualify to go to the semi-finals back in March, this weekend West Leigh Chess Team headed down to Camber in East Sussex. The team consisted of Ethan, Dylan, Luka, Max, Sidney and Kaya and despite being an Under 11 team they ranged from Year 3 to year 6. Pontins was the venue for this year's English Primary Schools Chess Association National Championship Semi-Final. In the Under 11 section, 34 of the best school chess teams from across the country were present to compete for the opportunity to go through to the Finals in Birmingham West in July. Each team were scheduled to play 6 matches across Saturday and Sunday. First opponents West Leigh would be facing was Dulwich Preparatory School, one of the highest seeded and by coincidence was also paired with us in the first round last year too. Tensions were high as last year West Leigh were beaten 4-1. 3 of the West Leigh players this year - Ethan, Dylan and Luka - were also in the team last year, they had set their hearts on settling the score with Dulwich Prep and vowed to get revenge. An intense battle ensued and as promised those 3 returning champions brought back victories with 3-2 to West Leigh after Round 1.
Bouyed by that and a fun game of football on the go-kart track, West Leigh returned to the playing hall to find themselves pitted against Eltham College A, another very strong opposing team . Confidence was running high but that was soon diminished as one by one West Leigh players came away empty-handed. Final result in Round 2 was West Leigh 1½, Eltham College 3½. Egos well and truly deflated. Bellies needed to be filled so play resumed after lunch.
Round 3 saw West Leigh vs St Paul's. After a stern pep talk, the team found their footing again and came out with a solid 3-2 victory. This concluded the first day of chess and after those 3 rounds West Leigh had accumulated a respectable 7½ points and clear 1½ above where we were last year at the same stage. Camber has a beautiful beach and the team got some well-deserved recreation time playing beach football and running up and amongst the marvellous sand dune system there. This was followed by a team dinner and birthday celebrations for a team member turning 10.
Sunday started with a fresh round of chess. West Leigh found themselves paired against Coldfall Primary School, one of the very few non-Independent schools at the tournament. They fought valiantly but West Leigh cliched the victory with a 3-2 win, giving our team a total of 10½ points. This meant West Leigh was on track to achieve a silver place position like last year when the team achieved a total of 14½ at the end of the tournament. So now every point was crucial and we were not prepared to lose any having done so well by this stage. We simply needed a total of 4 points in the final 2 rounds and we would met our previous year's achievement. Round 5 began with our opponents being Devonshire House Preparatory School. On paper they were a lot tougher than our team with each respective opponent having a higher chess grade than ours and thus the prospect of us getting silver place was under threat. West Leigh Chess Team are not ones who buckle under pressure and any doubts of securing a victory soon evaporated as wins from our side steadily came in. Final score in Round 5...West Leigh 4½, Devonshire House ½! We made it! With still 1 round to go, we had already secured silver position and exceeded our last year's overall position.
It was clearly going to be a great day for West Leigh and also a great day in Camber as the sun shone brightly with hardly a cloud in the sky. Total points was now 15, there was only 5 other teams who had more points and 2 others on the same points. Whoever we were going to play in Round 6 was going to be a formidable side. But that was of no real concern at that particular moment as tummies were rumbling so lunch was in order before the 6th and final round.
Coming back into the playing hall, the side effect of the blazing sun outside meant the temperature inside had soared. With close to 500 people in the playing hall the playing conditions were not ideal. However, the show must go on. With 15 points already bagged the prospect of reaching gold position was not altogether unrealistic but realising our opponents in this last round was North Bridge House Team B we really needed to pull it out of the bag. The greatest fear a team manager faces with junior level chess is the speed in which they play. All too often they make moves without thinking things through and thats when mistakes are far too easily made. So every pep talk has to have the "slow down, take your time" routine. This was no different, with the added emphasis it is the last game of the whole tournament they needed to end it on a high note by playing the very best chess they possibly could. Each player gets 40 minutes on their clock with 10 seconds added per move, so for a typical game, it can last up to 1 hour 40 minutes.
Round 6 starts. You can imagine the blood draining from the team manager's face, as within just 7 minutes of play 3 West Leigh players had already concluded their games simultaneously. Surely that could not be a good sign! Regaining consciousness, the team manager sees 2 were wins and only 1 was a loss, heart promptly leaves throat. 2 players left and already another 2 points to our total. Not only was gold position within our grasp but could it be we were now in contention to even achieve a place in the Finals?
The 2 remaining players rightly or wrongly heeded the team manager's words and really took their time. However, the temperature in the hall was beginning to take its toll and it was evident both games will be a struggle for both players. For that contention to become a reality both players had to win their games as only the top 3 scoring teams go to the Finals. Even after Round 5 it was clear the top 2 positions were already secured by 2 other schools so that 3rd position was being hotly contested. 19 points looked to be enough to get us there. Things were looking good as 1 of the players was coming back from a weaker position and eventually got the point we so desperately needed. By now, we were at 18 points, we really need that final player to come through with the win. 50 minutes had past and sweat was literally pouring off his face, the team manager has never seen that player so physically drained before. Although he had both a material and positional advantage, his opponent having a grade of 112 (27 points higher than himself), was not giving up without a really tough fight. But fight as he may, it was no use, West Leigh was victorious and won that match 4-1 and the 19 points were now under our belts.
Now the wait began as all the West Leigh players got a celebratory ice-cream to cool down from their harsh team manager. Scores were still coming in from other teams but it looked as if West Leigh may actually be joint 3rd with Homefield Preparatory School. As there were only 3 places for the Final, it would have to be decided who would go using their tie-break rules. The parents started pouring over the rules to find out how the tie-break positions were decided and lots of number crunching ensued. It looked as if it was not to be for West Leigh and this was confirmed come prize-giving when it was announced the decision was decided in favour Homefield. As nice as it would have been to be able to reach the Finals, this year's West Leigh Chess Team has exceeded all expectations. They went with the hope of matching last year's success with getting a silver position with no realistic aspiration of achieving a gold position. But that is exactly what they have achieved, a gold trophy for the school and gold medals for every team member. The standard of play from everyone has been phenomenal, the enthusiasm and commitment has to be applauded. Considering the thousands of schools across the UK, to qualify through to the Semi-Finals is already an outstanding achievement but to get joint 3rd was beyond any of their dreams.
Additional recognition goes to the 3 players who only joined the chess team this year - Max, Sidney and Kaya - who have shown formidable strength and resolve despite their ages in a major tournament. 2 of which are young enough to play in the Under 9 section yet was playing above their age group in the Under 11 team. At no point did they feel fazed by it and only shows the potential heights the calibre of chess West Leigh can get to in the future. At this point I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the person without whom none of this would have been possible, Mr Frank Gulley, chess coach at West Leigh. He has been a true inspiration to all our chess club members and worked tirelessly to promote and encourage chess across many schools in our area. Due to poor health he has not been able to continue with the chess club for the time being and very reluctantly had to decline accompanying the Chess Team this year to Camber. All the children miss him dearly and wish him a full and speed recovery. This win is for you Mr Gulley!