Since the Ulster Championship proper migrated to warmer climes in 2005, the rapidplay version has occupied the Christmas/New Year slot. The fourth in this series, all held at Belfast Boat Club, was played 28th December 2008 and featured Stephen Scannell, winner for the last two years plus Gareth Annesley and John Cairns, two of the three joint champions from the 2005/6 event. Also among the top seeds were Michael Holmes, making a welcome return to tournament chess, and Timothy Douglas, home from Germany for the holiday season.
There were also a number of young players who regularly compete in the monthly Saturday Children's tournaments at Methodist College. Amongst these was Harshith Maruthireddy, recently arrived from Wales, where he was Cardiff and Valleys under 9 and under 10 schools champion for the last two years. The young players showed they were not out of their depth as early as Round 1 when Radhika Gupta, winner of an important girls' competition in Manchester earlier this year, and Kiran Robbin recorded victories over battle-hardened adult opponents.
Six rounds with 30 minutes each player per game were on the menu but I only arrived to spectate midway through Round 5. A quick glance at the results showed that Scannell was in the lead with 4/4 with Holmes, Cairns, Ulster Schools Champion Ananda Srinivasan, Douglas, Mark Newman and Annesley, all with 3 points, in hot pursuit. My attention was drawn to the board one game between Holmes (white) and Scannell - this was a cagey encounter with Holmes probably having a slight advantage due to his better-placed bishops. Scannell started to drift behind on the clock, and this was to prove decisive with Holmes winning on time. In the meantime, Cairns had defeated Srinivasan, while Annesley had got the better of Douglas. Newman, although floating down to the players on 2.5 points, was now out of the running after losing to Calum Leitch.
The final round saw four players - Annesley, Cairns, Holmes and Scannell - entering it in the lead on four points. Cairns checked what would happen in the event of a tie. When told that title and prize money would be shared, I anxiously asked him if we might see two quick draws on the top boards, but he assured me that this was most unlikely - and so it proved, but here was also to be a final twist to the tale.
Leitch defeated Douglas on board three with a sacrificial attack that caught his opponent's King in the centre to finish on 4.5 and with a chance of sharing the title if the two top games ended in draws. This however did not seem very likely. Cairns Grand Prix Attack against Holmes's Sicilian Defence produced a won King and pawn endgame for Cairns, but he wandered too far up the board with his King and suddenly there was a pawn race. Both players were now blitzing out their moves and when the smoke cleared each had only King and promoted Queen left. A draw was agreed, so they joined Leitch at the top of the leaderboard. Cairns was visibly disappointed to have let his opportunity to slip.
Now all attention was on Scannell versus Annesley. The latter's Pirc Defence had not gone well and at one point Scannell was ten minutes up on the clock with a strong kingside attack. However Annesley did not panic and Scannell then consumed a lot of time looking for the knock-out blow. Suddenly Annesley got counterplay on the queenside and with an active Queen and Rook, it was now Scannell's King that was under pressure. However Scannell remained with just enough threats of his own to stay in the game and a number of pieces got swapped off. There were now no obvious winning attempts for either player with both having less than a minute left on the clock. Annesley - with slightly more time and marginally better position - offered a draw.
Scannell is famous for grinding out wins in unpromising positions, but even he was not prepared to hazard the lottery of just aimlessly blitzing out moves until one of the players' flags fell (well that's a piece of artistic licence because they were actually using a digital clock). He accepted the draw offer and Cairns immediately commented, "That makes me feel a lot better now." So it all ended in an unlikely five-way tie, with Holmes, Scannell, Cairns, Annesley and Leitch all finishing on 4.5 points.
Srinivasan and Richard Gould shared the under 1600 grading prize while the rapidly improving Aaron McCully took the one for under 1300s. Kevin Robbin, a P7 pupil at St Brides, Belfast and younger brother of Kiran, won the prize for the best unrated player. Full standings and crosstable are at the Ulster Chess Chronicle.