Chess: Normal U-High ends Uni's bid for undefeated league season, fifth straight title
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - 1:53am
CHAMPAIGN — In a showdown Thursday between the two top teams in the East Central Illinois Chess League, Normal U-High defeated Uni at Parkland College, handing the Illineks their only loss of the league season.
Uni finished the ECICL match season with a record of 9-1, placing second to Normal U-High. Going into this season, Uni had won four consecutive league titles.
Almost two weeks earlier, in the Jan. 5 Illini Classic, Uni defeated both Bloomington and Normal U-High. This time, U-High came back determined to avenge that loss.
The Uni varsity team consists of junior Gordon Ruan (1), senior Alex Zhai (2), senior Geoffrey Beck (3), junior Alan Liang (4), junior Greg Atherton (5), and junior Brian Wang (6).
In Round 1, Uni swept Bloomington with no problems. All six boards won decisively, giving their opponents no chances. Zhai’s game was the most interesting, where he came out of the opening with a slight advantage and slowly increased his advantage with every move. Eventually he forced his opponent into a worse endgame and defeated him with very good technique.
Uni began Round 2 against Normal with a strong start, with Ruan, Zhai, and Wang obtaining excellent positions. A couple of moves later Ruan pulled off a winning combination, and his opponent, Eric Meier, was forced to resign.
However, Beck, Liang, and Atherton were having tough times against their opponents, and their winning chances looked slim.
Beck, facing Alex Zaitzeff, and Atherton, playing Matt May, were down pawns, while Liang had an extremely cramped position versus Aaron Barton. Although Beck was able to hold a draw against Zaitzeff, Atherton and Liang eventually lost.
With a win on Board 1, draw on Board 3, and losses on 4 and 5, Uni needed either Zhai or Wang to triumph in order to win the match. Both had superior positions to their opponents, and victory was imminent. However, fate struck.
Zhai’s opponent, Sean Comeford, found a forceful combination to draw the game by sacrificing a bishop and a rook, while Wang’s opponent, Dan Nibbelin, was able to outplay him in an endgame. Uni’s win on Board 1 and draws on Boards 2 and 3 were unable to compensate for the losses on Boards 4, 5, and 6.
"It is very hard to win matches if you lose all three lower boards [4, 5, 6]," said Uni chess coach Chris Merli. "I think we simply needed better production from our lower boards. I was disappointed in our endgame play on those boards in particular. At the Illini Classic and again in this meet we lost matches through poor play in the endgame."
Added Beck: "Most of us need to work on converting an advantage and improving technique. We need to know a bit more on openings."
In the individual junior varsity matches, freshman Youyang Gu finished first.
The team’s next competition will be the IHSA state meet Feb. 8 to 9 at the Peoria Civic Center. In 2007 Uni placed eighth among all schools regardless of size and first among Class A schools (defined last year as 730 enrollment and below).