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. 


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