Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pertually drawish results

Here’s a belated wrap-up of USCL Week 2 action, in which:

·      San Francisco has one of the best results (of the five teams who didn’t win a game),
·      The western division somehow outscores the east, thanks to an impressive crush by St. Louis (who needed just one GM, not three, to make it happen), and inspired draws from underdogs Los Angeles and Carolina (again),
·      I forget that the Wednesday night games are on and spend about an hour trying to figure out why the clocks aren’t running on ICC,
·      And Daniel Naroditsky doesn’t get the memo about perpetual check week and accidentally draws by insufficient material.

It’s as if our instructions, after last week’s bloodbath on all four boards, were, “Don’t be afraid to make a draw.”  You usually feel pretty good about your chances to win a match when you salvage lost positions on the bottom two boards, but this was one that neither team could quite put away.

Our best chance to win a game came on board one, where Jesse Kraai wandered down the well-worn paths of the pawn sac line of the Queen’s Indian.  On move 19, black eschewed a chance to trade the light-squared bishops, and a few moves later, Jesse struck:

Your Generated Chess Board

White has just played 23 Be5!, and black is in a tight spot.  Neither 23… Qe7 24 Nf5! Qd8 25 Bd6 or 23… Bh8 24 Bd5 Rd8 25 Rb4 with the threat of Rh4 are much good, so he played 23… Bxe5.  White’s response, 24 Rxe5, creates the threat Rh5 to prevent black from taking the knight, but after 24… Bc2 25 Rae1 he had no choice: Nxf7 and Re7 are on the horizon.

A dozen or so moves later, Jesse was closing in on the win, but had to play one more precise move to finish off his opponent:

Your Generated Chess Board

Unfortunately, he did not find 40 Qe4!, after which black cannot effectively organize his rooks to hold off the passed pawns.  Instead, after 40 Kf3? Rfg8 41 Kf4 Rg4+ 42 Ke5 Rxg3, black’s rooks are just active enough to hold the draw.

Things were not going as well on board three, where Yian Liou burned all his bridges early, sacrificing a mess of queenside pawns for a slow kingside buildup:

Your Generated Chess Board

Here Yian needs just one more move to complete the attack: Nf3, and black’s king is stuck and checkmate will be inevitable.  But it’s black’s move in the diagram, and he took his last chance to evacuate the king, playing 29… Kf7! 30 Qh7+ Ke6 31 Qxg6+ Kd7.  Now the f-pawn is poisoned, and white can only hope to find some tactical tricks to extricate himself from his material disadvantage.

Fortunately for us, such a trick appeared on move 42:

Your Generated Chess Board

White is threatening Qc7+ and Qxc6, so black needs to find a few more defensive moves to win.  My computer favors giving back a piece to trade queens with 42… Qd7! 43 Qxd7 Bxd7 44 Rxd7 a4, since the white pieces cannot hold off the avalanche of pawns forever.  Human intelligence indicates either 42… b5 or 42… c5.  As it turns out, 42… b5 would have maintained black’s advantage, whereas 42… c5, as played, allowed white a miraculous perpetual: 43 Qc7+ Kc5 44 Qe7+ Kb6 (since 44… Kd4? 45 Qd6+ Kc3 46 Rh3 is perilous for black).

The same story, but with the colors reversed, was being played out on board four.  Kesav Viswanadha, another one of our young guns, had won a pawn on the black side of a Nimzo-Indian, but then began playing passively, allowing his opponent to gradually make inroads into his position.  By move 48, his position looked bleak indeed:

Your Generated Chess Board

Black’s pieces are badly tied down to his weak pawns, and white should be able to win Petrosian-style, slowing improving each piece until black’s position collapses.  One idea from the diagramed position is to play 48 Qb5, taking away a6 from the black queen and tying her majesty to the defense of the knight.  Instead, white played 48 Nc6, going after the black c-pawn right away.  After 48… Qa6 49 Qb8 it still looks bad: the knight is now trapped, but Kesav found a way out: 49… Qa1! 50 Qxe8 Qf1+ and white’s king cannot find refuge from the checks – match still all tied up!

Board two featured a wild battle between Eli Vovsha and Daniel Naroditsky in a Sicilian Najdorf.  Daniel got in the traditional exchange sacrifice on c3, and had an opportunity to hop on the bandwagon early with a clever perpetual check:

Your Generated Chess Board

White has just played 18 g5, and instead of moving the knight, black can play 18… Qxc3 19 gxf6 Bxf6 20 Qc1 Bxb3 (unfortunately there is nothing better) 21 cxb3 Qa1+ 22 Kc2 Qc3+ 23 Kb1.  Instead, Daniel bravely played on with 18… Nd7, and his choice was nearly rewarded a few moves later:

 Your Generated Chess Board

White’s pawns are all isolated and the e and h-pawns are particularly vulnerable.  With 27… Rxh4 28 Rxh4 Bxh4 29 Rxd6 Bb7, white is out of ways to defend his e-pawn, so 30 Ne2 Be7 31 Rd1 Nxe4 should be close to winning, as black threats of discovery of will net him two bishops and two pawns against knight and rook.  Instead, Daniel chose 31… Bxe4 32 Bxe4 Nxe4, and white was just able to hold the draw.

We play St. Louis this coming Monday night, and I’ll be the old man of the team on board four, as we roll out one of our more balanced lineups.  Hopefully we'll finally be able to win a match! 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Creaky start for the Mechanics

Welcome back to that most dizzying of rollercoaster rides, the 2012 edition of the US Chess League.  Since I’m neither an IM nor an 11 year old, I can old assume that our valiant captain, John Donaldson, put me on the team as lead blogger as much as anything else, so here goes…

The happiest Mechanic this Thursday is undoubtedly Donaldson himself, who I can only imagine is partying and preparing with U.S. Olympiad team in Istanbul after an unexpected win over Russia – the rest of us are licking our wounds after barely holding off the Carolina Cobras on Wednesday night.

Our best moments of the match came on board three, where Samuel Sevian looked like the best player on the team (and won his first ever USCL game in the process).  Oddly enough, after 13 moves he reached the same position that he had in the first round last year:

Your Generated Chess Board
Normally you’d just say that here’s a kid who isn’t afraid to try to slay the dragon the same way twice, but the problem is that the line with 13 Bh6 isn’t very good if black knows a particular sequence of forcing moves: 13… Bxh6 14 Qxh6 e5 15 Nde2 b4 16 Nd5 Nxb3+ 17 axb3 Nxd5 18 Rxd5 Rb6 (last year’s game diverged here: 18… Be6) 19 h5 g5 20 Rxd6 f6, and the white queen more than a little stuck.  Maybe this was just lazy opening prep on Sevian’s part, or maybe I’m not up on all the new shizz, but I wasn’t feeling too happy about our chances at this point.

Fortunately, Simpson played 13… b4 instead, and the game continued in typical Dragon fashion, eventually reaching the following position on move twenty:

Your Generated Chess Board

It’s not immediately clear how white will continue to develop his initiative, but here young Sevian tenaciously went after the g-pawn: 21 Ne2 Bb5 22 Ng1! Nb7 23 Nh3 a5 24 Nxg5!  Simpson trapped the bishop with 24… a4, but after 25 Qd4, it was clear that black was either losing the Rb6 or getting mated by Nxf7!  A smooth effort that I would have expected to get some game of week consideration in past seasons, back when the judges actually got to do some judging.

Life also looked good on board one, where Vinay Bhat had the dream Exchange Queen’s Gambit Declined position:

Your Generated Chess Board

The point is that with the knight on e2, white can play for either standard minority attack with b4-b5 or go for f3-e4 in the center.  It’s stuff like this that makes most players choose the move order 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Be7, forcing white either to commit the knight to f3 or to play Bf4 instead of Bg5.  Anyway, Vinay chose immediate central expansion over messing around on the queenside, and after 31 moves the position had reached a crisis point:

Your Generated Chess Board

Vinay played 32 Ng6+, a move that everyone was expecting (how can you not send a knight to that square) and simultaneously not expecting (because does it actually work? and isn’t the d-pawn falling?).  True, after 32… hxg6 33 hxg6 Nh6 34 Bc4 black’s got his share of troubles: Rh3 and Rxh6 is going to be hard to stop.  But Schroer simply played 32… Nxg6! and after 33 fxg6 Rxd6 he was up a pawn.  Vinay could have put up some resistance with 34 Rd3, but after 34 Qc1? Rxd1+ 35 Bxd1 Qd4+ black was in charge and won easily.

So it seems that 32 Ng6+ is not too convincing, but it’s hard to believe that white could be worse in this position.  Instead Vinay could have tried 32 Ne6!, when white’s initiative continues, despite the loss of the d-pawn: 32… Nxe6 33 fxe6 Rxd6 34 Rd3 Rxd3 35 Qxd3 Qxd3 36 Bxd3 Ne5 37 Be4. 

We didn’t look much better on board two: Jesse Kraai played an opening that some might call extravagant, while other, kinder folks might call experimental.  The position after move five reminded me of Kasparov’s epic battles against Deep Blue – let’s give the opponent an opportunity to double my pawns and then win with the bishop pair kind of approach:

Your Generated Chess Board

Jesse jumped at the chance, perhaps operating under some kind of Jeremy Silman “any-imbalance-is-a-good-imbalance” mindset.  Then, perhaps just because, he traded his remained bishop for white’s other knight, and we reached a position you are not likely to see in any opening books:

Your Generated Chess Board

White played 14 Qd4, but he missed a good chance: 14 dxc6 dxc6 15 Qa4, when in additional to his unopposed bishops, white is up a pawn and has all the chances.  Instead, despite repeated opportunities to gain a significant edge, Korley hunkered down on the d-file and tried to make a draw, which admittedly would have done us in had he been able to hold it.

While all this was going on, we looked like we were doing well on board four:

Your Generated Chess Board

White’s unusual opening play did not pay off, and Cameron Wheeler had achieved a nearly ideal position from the black side of the French.  Now the trick is to figure out what to do next.  White’s only real defensive idea is to play Bd4 and c3, so 19… Bc5 makes sense here, but may not be strictly necessary.  Given the state of the match at this point (winning on three, better still on one, holding on two), black would be well served by not trying to do too much, simply playing for two results while keeping an eye on the other boards.  I can imagine getting the king to safety, doubling on the c-file, and engineering an exchange of bishops to get at all of white’s weak pawns.  At worst, white struggles for a draw.

Cameron began well, playing 19… h5, shutting down white’s last idea on the kingside, but then he started getting a little frisky with his pawns and rooks, until the weakened state of his king meant that the position was more irrational than solid:

 Your Generated Chess Board

Now don’t get me wrong, black still has some edge here, but we can no longer talk about black torturing his opponent and clinching the match when he figures out if we need a win or a draw.  Instead, there’s every chance that white could pull out a nasty tactic, and that’s exactly what happened after the mistake 30… Qc6?  White responded with 31 c4! Qxc4 32 Rc1 Qxb4 33 Qc2! Ke8 34 Qc8+ Kf7 35 Qh8 and it was over in a flash.

Only Jesse’s pragmatic maneuverings on board two saved this from being a humiliating opening round defeat.  Hopefully this will be a good wakeup call for the Mechanics – one of our top rated lineups held to a draw and nearly beaten by a Carolina squad rated on average 100 points lower!  As we’re a strange combination of youthful inexperience (5 kids!) and experienced rustiness (of our aged players, only I’ve played in a USCF tournament since February), we may have our work cut out for us, even in a weaker than usual Western division. 

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Play it Again, Sam

Mechanics-Sharks, 2005 USCL Playoffs: Tough loss eliminates SF from the playoffs. Team manager John Donaldson cleans house, brings in new fourth board Sam S. to lead team to 2006 league championship.

Mechanics-Sharks, 2010 USCL Week 10: Tough loss ensures that Mechanics will not make the playoffs for the first time in their history. Team manager John Donaldson cleans house, brings in new fourth board Sam S. to …

Well, you get the idea.

Mechanics fans were happy to see a win for the first time since last September 22nd in what we can only hope is our most successful season yet. We’ve got some flexible lineup possibilities, some underrated folks for the fourth board, and some real power on the top. Here’s some analysis from the first week.

Board One: Finegold-Kraai

A tough positional grind of a game, nicely played by Finegold, although not the sort of struggle that’s going to get much love from the Game of the Week illuminati. Jesse appeared to go a little wrong during the flurry of exchanges in the center and sought refuge in a pawn down ending. A critical moment occurred on move forty:

Here Jesse avoided the exchange of bishops by playing the awkward 40… Ba3. As John Donaldson pointed out in the Mechanics’ Newsletter, the three vs. two rook and pawn ending with e and h pawns is rarely covered in chess literature, and Jesse’s instincts must have told him to avoid this one.

However, it’s here that I believe he missed his last good chance to fight for a draw. Let’s consider the following: 1) rook and pawn endings with all pawns on the same side of the board are generally drawn, particularly those with reduced numbers of pawns, such as three vs. two or two vs. one; 2) the addition of a pair of minor pieces in these types of endings is often enough to flip the assessment from drawn to won; 3) white’s bishop controls the queening square of the h-pawn, reducing a number of drawing plans in a pure bishop endgame; 4) with the bishops off, black can sometimes give up another pawn and hold, such as trading his two pawns for white’s g-pawn, leaving white with the problematic bishop and rook pawn duo.

I’m not saying that black holds the draw easily if he plays 40… Bxe5, but I would assess his chances to hold at about 60 percent, much better odds than I would give him in the bishop ending that took place in the game. Notably, white passed up two chances to enter the rook ending himself (although I’m not sure why he avoided it the first time; isn’t 42. Rxa3 Rxe5 43. Re3 a simple win?).

Board Two: Naroditsky-Banawa

My sense of righteous violence on the chessboard says give Danya GOTW, my little silicon friend says blunder by black on move 23 in time pressure. Unfortunately, as pretty much always the computer is correct, and in fact Banawa missed a good chance a few moves earlier:

Here 20… Qa5 is much stronger than Banawa's 20... Qb6 because the knight is not pinned. Now 21. Bxg7 Ne6 22. Qe5 (22. Bd5 Rf7) 22… Qxe5 23. Bxe5 Bf6 leaves white struggling. Risky play by Danya, but that’s sometimes what you’ve got to do when you take on the ugly pawn structure, and he was rewarded this time with a win.

Board Three: Eckert-Pruess

I don’t have much to add to David’s excellent article about this game; in fact, when I saw him bust out the QGA for the first time ever, I was reminded of a conversation that David and I had before playing at a tournament a couple years back.

David: I’m going to play an opening that I’ve never played against you before.

Me (in my head): So not the Benoni, Benko, Semi-Slav, Dutch, King’s Indian, Budapest …

Me (aloud): So it’s got to be the Slav or the Queen’s Gambit Accepted.

David: Good guess.

Obviously I could have manned up and played 1. e4, and for some reason I forgot about the existence of certain other common openings (Gruenfeld, QGD), but the lesson is clear: dude likes to play a lot of different openings. And I couldn’t agree more that playing this way keeps you fresh in a way that learning one opening straight through to the ending does not. Oh, and sometimes you play something new and get crushed, but that’s chess.

One cool little trick that David passed by in his article:

Here David has just sacrificed his bishop on c3 to help break through on the queenside. White’s rook and bishop are attacked, so he has to give back some materials, and did so, with 33. Bc2, which looked dangerous but lost in short order. But what if he plays 33. Re2?

Then 33… Qxb3 allows 34. Nf6+ gxf6 35. Qg4+ Kf8 36. Qxh4 with a miracle draw. The only way to stop Qh8# is to play the king back to the g-file, and then white simply checks with the queen.

Fortunately, black is still winning after 33… Ba6, but it’s a good reminder to never let down your guard when converting an advantage.

Speaking of opening preparation ...

Board Four: Sevian-Ding

This, in my mind, was the key game in the match. We lose here with white and a tie or loss in the match was quite likely. I wasn’t too comfortable with how the opening went for our latest wunderkind: he was wandering through (and getting way down on the clock) a really dangerous line of the Dragon (and reminding me in the process why I try to avoid the open Sicilian).

Black missed two good chances to gain a big edge against his youthful opponent:

In this position the move 18… Rb6 has done very well for black. The idea is that after 19. h5 g5 20. Rxd6 f6 white is playing without his queen for a very long time. Instead, the game continued 18… Be6 19. h5 Qc7 (now 19… g5 loses to 20. Nd4) 20. hxg6 fxg6 21. Rxd6 Rfc8.

One more diagram:

22. Rc6 is good enough to draw here, although that is something of a defeat of this whole line for white. Instead Samuel went for the unbalanced ending with 22. Qxh7+ Qxh7 23. Rxh7, but instead of the automatic 23… Kxh7, black could have had great winning chances with 23… Bxb3.

So, as almost always in the USCL, both teams had plenty of opportunities to win the match. A good season takes steady play and a little luck, and let’s hope we have both against a tough Dallas team next week.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Making a list, checking it twice

After a long morning of looking at chess games and copying and pasting until my eyes glazed over, here are my picks for game of the year, with brief and hopefully not too insulting commentary. Who says you can't win blog of the year after the season's over? Wait, there isn't a blog of the year prize? What gives?

Anyway, as Tony Kornheiser would say, "That's it! That's the list!"

20. Week 7: Schroer-Kacheishvili

Voted into the contest after a majority of GOTW judges were stricken with upset-itus, this game has a lot of value when used to show kids that even GMs can fall asleep in the opening. But the system allows for do-overs, so the more deserving Stripunsky-Erenberg will get its day.

19. Quarterfinals: Krasik-Balasubramanian

In a week with a reduced number of games you expect shock-and-awe to get a little more play. The Krasik game was a nice bit of prep and technique, but at the risk of becoming an Esserman groupie it would have been more entertaining to see Esserman-Enkhbat in the GOTY competition.

18. Semifinals: Rosenthal-Thompson

An attractive attacking game with some nice ideas by white to crash through, but something about black’s porous defense makes me feel like it’s not quite on par with most of the other games in the competition.

17. Wildcard, Week 5: Gurevich-Barcenilla

This is the sort of thing that King’s Indian players everywhere have nightmares about. Not only does white overrun the queenside, but he eventually even pulls together a mating attack. The tactics were pretty if not too surprising, but black’s position will not attract many supporters in the future.

16. Week 5: Galofre-Milat

This game makes me think of what the NFL would look like if they didn’t have offensive linemen. It would be entertainingly violent, but the quarterbacks would make a lot of mistakes, as black did in this one. Good enough to win for the week, but the GOTY contest isn’t so forgiving.

15. Week 1: Shulman-Khachiyan

A nice clean win with a typical storyline: white gets initiative, white keeps initiative, black saves king at the cost of too much material and resigns. But they don’t give the Oscar to movies that come out in February.

14. Week 6: Christiansen-Kraai

I don’t really understand the appeal of this game. Castling on opposite sides is right in Larry C’s wheelhouse. And black’s queenside play was almost nonexistent. A couple quick blows and it was over. But if I rank it 19th the judges will pick it to win the whole thing, so I’m hedging my bets.

13. Wildcard, Week 8: Kacheishvili-Shankland

A lot of people thought this should be game of the week, and indeed, it’s sort of magical to win in such fashion with black out of an opening that has been so heavily analyzed. And Shankland played quite well. But on some level, it feels like white got punished for playing too hard for a win when there was none to be found.

12. Week 10: Sammour-Hasbun—Kacheishvili

White wriggles into black’s position and black, overextended, capitulates after a short struggle. The coolness factor comes from the fact that this all came out of an exchange Slav, but I think that the wildcard selection from this week will do better. A lot better.

11. Week 9: Akobian-Friedel

A nice game, if mainly for the way the e4 shot tore apart black’s position so effectively. Strangely enough, there were three games from this week that made it into the GOTY contest, and everything that made the other two too scary to pick for GOTW will make them all too appealing for GOTY.

10. Wildcard, Week 9: Sammour-Hasbun—Kaplan

I remember glancing at this game and thinking that black had just won with Bxg3. Then Sammour-Hasbun rolled off a bunch of tactics and the black position just collapsed. As Tal said, you can only take the sacrificed pieces one at a time.

9. Week 3: Rensch-Abrahamyan

This game reminds me of many battles from my youth with my old sparring partner David Pruess. I’d play the Winawer, he’d sac the queenside, and then suddenly his pieces would all be better and I’d get mated in some sick way. As did Abrahamyan. Some things never change.

8. Week 2: Shulman-Felecan

Certainly the deserving winner of the “Upset of the Year” award. Or “Clutch Performance to Salvage a Draw for the Team” award. But “Game of the Year?” Probably not, although it was a nice effort from Felecan.

7. Finals: Shankland-Becerra

I’m glad I got my licks in against Shanky when he was a grade-school lad rated 1600. This game is elegant, smooth, and against the league’s most successful player in the most important match of the year. It’s not GOTY, but the context pushes it up a couple of spots in the rankings.

6. Wildcard, Week 7: Stripunsky-Erenberg

It’s clear that the judges initially rejected this game because of the strangeness of the opening. It’s not like they blundered any pieces, but the opening looks like it came from the top board of a B section rather than the USCL. However, Erenberg more than showed off his GM credentials with some nice tactics and technique.

5. Wildcard, Week 1: Rosen-Guo

The best game on board four, bar none. I admit to having some bias towards the French Defense, but it’s hard to argue with the facts: nice exchange sac, tough middlegame struggle, and a nice long combination at the end to win the queen.

4. Week 8: Schroer-Christiansen

A tough one to rank. Imagine that you’re back in 1998, watching “The Matrix” for the first time, totally blown away by one of the action sequences and then “My Dinner with Andre” is spliced in for the final three hours. Do you give the movie a good review? And how many times during the film do you have to go to the bathroom?

3. Wildcard, Week 10: Akobian-Shulman

This game reminded me of Shulman’s win from week one, but I like this one better. White just hammers and hammers at black’s position and eventually breaks through with a new queen. There’s something about the power of an attack down the center that isn’t aiming just for the king that is very aesthetically pleasing.

2. Wildcard, Week 9: Hungaski-Schroer

If the Turing test is the name for the not being able to tell that a computer is not a human, what do you call not being able to tell that a person is not a computer? Hungaski had to have ice in his veins to play this game with queen and knights circling his king.

1. Week 4: Friedel-Akobian

From my perspective, the game of the year should be epic … really epic. And this game certainly was, with the showy endgame making up for a maneuvering middlegame. This game made me realize that if this is what it takes to beat Akobian, well, I’m probably never going to do it. And I realize that this leaves open some talk of “West Coast Bias.” And I’m OK with both of those things.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Stuck Inside of Miami with the Playoff Elimination Blues Again

Going into the last match of the season, one thing was on the minds of the San Francisco Mechanics: we had won one championship. We had been eliminated by the Miami Sharks in the three of the four other years, each time losing despite having good chances to win. Now the number is four, and for the first time, the ‘Nics won’t be making an appearance in the playoffs.

First, a little history. Although according to the league website we’re 7-7 against the dreaded Sharks, it seems like we’ve lost every key match against them. In 2005, needing only a draw to win the match, I fumbled the following position:

I had calculated 33… Nf4! 34. gf Qf3 at the board, and realized that it drew, when I looked at the clock, saw my time running down, panicked, and hammered out 33… Rd7?, losing on the spot. Dima also lost a drawn ending against Marcel, and a curse was born.

Two years later, 2007, and we met the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, draw odds again, same result. Patrick drew quickly with black against Becerra on board one, and Dima got posterized by a sick piece of preparation from Martinez on three. Greg was getting destroyed on board four, so Vinay went all out to win in the following position:

Unfortunately, the winning attempt backfired, Vinay lost a position he certainly could have drawn, and so even when Greg miraculously came back, we had still lost the match.

In 2008 we lost to Dallas, but the next year it was Miami’s turn again. This time we fell apart early, as David tried to resurrect an ancient variation of the King’s Gambit that was probably best left dead and buried. He was already busted in the following position on move 12 (!):

So now, the present: we had neither draw odds this year (as we needed a win to grab a playoff spot), nor did we have one of our strongest lineups, as we would prefer to play Danya or Stephen on board three with Yian on four, but neither was available. So we went with Jesse on one, who had a tough time with Becerra last year in the playoffs, Dima on two, who had lost a surprising five straight games in the USCL, me on three, playing up for the essentially the first time in my USCL career, and Yian on four.

For a while things looked pretty good. Jesse got the a solid position against Becerra, the sort of stuff he likes where he can shuffle his pieces around like an old man and torture his opponent to death. I didn’t love Dima’s position out of the opening, but he worked through the complications well and got a reasonable middlegame position. Yian was clearly not very comfortable in the French-style position he achieved, but I had hope that he would eventually overwhelm his lower-rated opponent. And I stayed in preparation for 22 moves.

A big part of my preparation was psychological. By playing a sharp line that had a few places where white could force a draw by repetition, I wanted to see whether Martinez was willing to take some risks to make a game out of it. I was out of book after 22… h6, but got an interesting attacking position and felt pleased with my initiative after 29. Ra2. We were turning down draws on the other boards and our intrepid team manager, John Donaldson, slipped in an important message: Giants 8, Rangers 2. It was San Francisco’s night, baby!

(after 29.. Nxb2)

Here, however, things started to go downhill. After 29… Nxb2 I had intended 30. Rxb2 Bxb2 31. e5, with the idea 31… Bf5 32. Qd2 Bxc2 33. Qxc2 Bxe5 34. Bg5, but then realized that all black has to do is give back the exchange and he will be up a couple of pawns. Thus, I played it a bit more carefully: 30. Qd2 Nc4 31. Qf4.

I was again surprised by 31… Bh8, but I decided to go for the kill instead of bailing with 32. Bg5 f6 33. Bxf6 Rf7 34. Bxd8 Rxf4. Unfortunately, I had missed the hidden point of Martinez’s clever defense: clearing the bishop to the back rank allows the rook to swing to h7 as well. So after 32. Ng5 Ne5 33. Qh4 (threatening 34. Bf8! Nf3+ 35. Rxf3 Bd4+ 36. Kh1 Kxf8 37. Nxf7), 33… f6 leaves white in a very awkward position. I burned half of my remaining time, panicked anyway, and played the lame 34. Nf3? A couple moves later and I was down a piece, playing for tricks.

But by this time the whole match had fallen apart. Yian, whose opponent had the good side of a Karpovian torture position, tried to make sometime out of nothing and quickly resigned. Dima, pressed but the position liquidated into a drawn rook and pawn ending. Jesse, seeing our plight, went for it on one, got his queen trapped, and was granted a mercy draw. And so we lost 3-1, our worst drubbing at the hands of Miami yet.

Perhaps the worst part of the whole night was having to fight the World Series traffic on the way home from the match (what post of mine would be complete without baseball?). Thousands of ebullient, drunken, screaming Giants fans on BART, and me, morose and headachy, the one sad guy wearing a Giants hat in the Bay Area.

And so for the first time we watch the playoffs from the sidelines. I’m not going to break down the matchups quite as scientifically as David has, but I’ll pick a couple of teams for the finals: New England vs. Seattle. Best of luck to all the teams as they compete for the USCL’s biggest prize, and we’ll be back next year.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Under Pressure

“Mine goes ding-ding-ding-duh-duh-ding-ding.” – Vanilla Ice

Well, it’s been a while since I blogged at the end of week one. At that point in the season, the ‘Nics were coming off a dominate performance over a dangerous Dallas team, Wolff was winning pawn down endings, Naroditsky looked like a lock for MVP, and I had a performance rating over 2600. I figured we would just win the next nine matches like that and coast through the postseason. It didn’t quite work out that way, but even halfway through the season, we looked like a pretty sure bet to get through to the postseason with our 4-1 record. Unfortunately, after two close losses in a row, we found ourselves Wednesday night facing the St. Louis Yankees and their ravenous Cerberus lineup.

Back in week two, when the Yanks first unveiled this monstrosity, I was sure that it would lead to the immediate collapse of the league. I mean, who the hell could compete with H-Rod on board one and C.C. Shulbathia on board two? I briefly considered sending a solution to Greg and Arun at league HQ, but I figured that my Hikaru-baiting plan would be too much of a stretch of league rules (for those interested in employing it, you simply put your fourth board on board one against STL, and then shift your other boards down one).

However, strangely enough, the big lineup didn’t really impress during week two. And then in week three, the unthinkable happened and Shulbathia lost with white. Throw in a few weeks of Olympiads, and the Yanks were no longer looking so high and mighty. And so we got stuck facing round three of the superlineup, no longer cocky, but focused, filled with venom rather than hubris. Not exactly the way we wanted to face them, especially not in the face of a two-match losing streak.

From the fourth board point of view, facing the Yanks is a peculiar experience. First of all, there’s the letdown that the rest of your team is facing GMs, and although the guy you’re playing has the same name as one of the GMs, he isn’t a GM himself. So everybody’s really amped up to play up and you find yourself playing the lowest rated opponent you’ve ever played in the USCL.

Then there’s the pressure. And it’s not normal pressure as when you’re playing an comparable opponent in a match-up that could mean the playoffs (see all boards, SF vs. SEA, for example), but the weird pressure where everyone on your team tells you that you’re going to win. And you can’t even think about how bad it’ll be for your team if you don’t. But going into a chess game thinking either “I’m going to win,” or “I have to win,” is somewhat disastrous. The former shuts down your brain and the second leads you to unfathomably aggressive and bizarre decisions.

So, as I sat across from the Panda, chewing on a Cliff Bar and preparing to get serious, I realized that I needed a new mindset. And I determined that I should not try to win. I was just going to play chess. If for some reason my position got good, I was going to be happy and convert it, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to do this. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t say that this is an amazing game plan, but I needed to do something to focus on the chess rather than the pressure.

So, to get to the chess: according to little Finegold’s blog, (which is notable for its crass attack on the Mechanic’s Institute, but there’s no accounting for the tastes of youth [just look at the brainwashed fans of Hanson, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber over the years as evidence]), he did not expect the ol’ “best-by-test” e-pawn surprise. Now, I know that I have a lot of queenpawn games in databases, but I’d played 1. e4 against Shankar (that game’s another story: I haven’t beaten a player whose name begins with “Shank” since 2004), and I figured that I would only get one game of surprise value out of it. It probably doesn’t matter, since I had been counting on 3… Bf5 and was out of book by move five myself.

The game proceeded rather normally, and as a French player, I kept expecting black to break with the f-pawn. He finally did, a few moves after I had thought he would, but he played 12… f6 instead of 12… f5, which allowed me to take on g6 and try to play against his queen bishop. This is probably fine, but I felt afterwards like I was still trying too hard to do something about the position. Remember, no winning attempts allowed!

By move seventeen I was stuck. Nothing concrete looked like it worked, and although my pieces were a little better, he had the bishop pair and was adequately covering his weaknesses. I calculated some stuff involving 17. ef, but realized that 17… gf was going to be an annoying response … black’s a little loose but his center and bishops are going to be in charge. Then 18. Nxe6 Re8 19. Nxd8 Rxe2 20. Nb7 Rxc2 is the stupid sort of stuff that you try when you are desperately under pressure to win. So I resolved to make pawn moves and rook moves and not do too much.

The other boards were not going particularly well at this point. H-Rod had trotted out a pretty stupid looking opening against the Panda, but white seemed to still have some pull in the endgame, as most of Josh’s pieces were guarding pawns or restricted by white’s structure. Danya had a position that looked similar to mine but with more aggressive chances, and then Steven … well, Steven’s position looked like he’d been letting big Finegold choose the moves for both sides. I had no idea how he’d gotten into such a mess until I saw 14. Nb5 after the match was over. Certainly not a game of the week candidate, but a pretty sick move nonetheless.

Back to my game on four, which I was certainly not delighting in. Little Finegold played a couple strong ideas on moves nineteen and twenty and appeared to be within the drawing range. My bishop was still more active and I had an outside passer, but the rooks were coming off the board on the queenside and it was going to be hard to win anything given black’s compact structure. Fortunately, my “wait till he blunders” strategy paid off after the unwise 25… g5 and the subsequent hang of the exchange. Then all it took was the invasion of the rooks (now the open queenside proved useful), and black resigned in light of 41… Ke7 42. Qxf7+!

Unfortunately, by this point, we had already lost the match, as Danya had come through, shaking his head after forcing a perpetual. And that’s the trouble with playing the Yankees: they get a couple quick wins on boards 1-3 and whoever is left has to choose between pragmatism (those extra tiebreak points could be big) and desperation. Anyway, we go into the final two matches under even more pressure than before, but with some pretty clutch players out there. I wouldn’t count us out yet.