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.