Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Threefourthtime Report

The Mechanics have now completed 9 of 12 matches, with 7 victories and two tied matches, and thus far, the best record in the league. With last night's victory over top Western Division contender, Seattle, the Mechanics clinched the regular season division title. This represents some serious advantage in the playoffs: a first round bye, followed by draw odds in the semi-final round. We wanted this badly, and now get to breathe a sigh of relief after an extremely tense match.
The match last night started out quite poorly, in my opinion. This was my first time this season experiencing a match as a fan, as it was my first time on the bench. Seven of our eight members were free and ready to go for this most important match of the season if we were called on to play. After long consideration, our manager John Donaldson, in consulation with Alex Yermolinsky, predicted that Seattle's lineup would be Serper-Orlov-Readey-Lee, and that our optimal lineup to face that was Friedel-Bhat-Zilberstein-Shankland.
So last night I went to work as usual at the East Bay Chess Club, logged on to icc, and prepared to watch. It turned out that this was much more stressful than playing had ever been.
From the get-go it seemed that the Seattle team was getting the better of the opening struggle. In Serper-Friedel, as early as turn 7 or 8, I couldn't see anything reasonable for Josh to do. This contributed to making the experience of watching excruciating. After a little bit, it became clear that we were actually doing about as well in our white games as Seattle. When Sam played g5, his opponent sank into a think- not calculating to a brilliant sacrificial win 20 moves deep as his manager might suggest- but trying to come up with any way to keep the game going, as black was already out of
Vinay had made an excellent decision with 11.c4! His advantage was not immediately clear to all eyes after this, but in fact it probably was quite great, and after several more strong moves, it began to become more obvious. The point is, he can not give black time to play a move like Qc7 and then Nf4. He needs to keep the black knights off of good squares, and if his king has to sit on f1 for that, oh well. This was a really nice game, even by Vinay's fairly high USCL standards. In the position where black plays e5, it may look just bad, but ask yourself, what else can black do? Nb8 Be5 or Nf8 Be5 looks great for white, and O-O h5 is probably extremely dangerous. Black really seems to be pretty squished.
Despite good games in our two whites, I still felt quite uncomfortable. I could not see the whisper of a drawing chance in the two black games, and a drawn match was not good enough! Serper and Readey seemed to be playing very well. I know that at one point in Serper-Friedel there is a blip (29...b6!), but I still think for the most part, this was a well played game by Serper, where he was really in control 99% of the time.
One other thing I should mention about this match is that little Michael Lee showed great resilience, even in the face of a pretty strong showing by Sam. He hung in there down a piece, and even managed to call up a few ideas spooky enough to make sf fans (like me) feel quite uncomfortable. Luckily, Sam has earned more of our confidence by navigating everything without trouble.
And then the score stood Serper 1, Bhat 1, Shankland 1, and the Readey-Zilberstein ending played out for what seemed like ages. Readey had finally slipped up, and Dima had reached a rook and pawn ending where he was only down one pawn. With split pawns though, 3 vs 4 could often be a win for white. Both low on the clock, I alternately watched with premonitions of horror, and tremblingly averted my gaze. Even when I knew the position should be a draw, I shook to think of Dima's shaking hand, as he tried to play the moves he could easily and comfortably play in a less important game. Finally after 70 moves in this ending, the two spent (well, I'm guessing here, as there were no web cams) combatants finally agreed to a draw with rook vs rook. They had just apparently set a record for longest uscl game (113 moves), and Dmitry had personally sealed the Mechanics record: most division titles won!
For those really challenged with regards to counting, that is two division titles, in two years of US Chess League history.
I look forward to the Mechanics next match victories, but hope I will not have to watch them in such a stressful way. I'd rather have the measure of control of having one of our opponents within my grip.
To all our fans, I know it looks like we've been giving up an inordinate number of drawn matches so far this season. But during this last stretch, we will prepare for our matches in earnest... We still have some new tools we have not used this far... and you can with confidence look forward to seeing the Mechanics fixing cars once again come playoff time!!!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Well, the most anticipated match of the season thus far has passed, with a hard-fought 2-2 tie. I beat FM Slava Mikhailuk, while on board 1, IM Josh Friedel beat GM Gregory Serper; unfortunately, we lost on boards 3 and 4, as both FM John Readey and Michael Lee came through for their team. And amusingly enough, just like the WC match that finished in a tie during the regular games in Elista, there was some controversy over this match.

The match lineups, as usual, went up on Sunday evening at 9 PM Pacific. I would have the black pieces against IM Eric Tangborn, while David would have the white pieces against Mikhailuk. Then the fun began ...

There was some confusion on the Seattle end as to who was actually available to play for them, and as a result, David and I had no clue who we would be playing until Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, the Seattle lineup knew who we'd be fielding, and were more than able to prepare accordingly. Because of the late lineup switches (going from Tangborn/Mikhailuk to Mikhailuk/Readey), Seattle was assessed a time penalty, and David and I started with 85 minutes to their 65 minutes. On the other two boards, where no lineup changes were made, both players started with 75 minutes.

As to the games, mine was surprisingly easy. For whatever reason, Slava didn't seem familiar with a line I thought he played regularly, and started eating up the clock. He should already have been fighting for equality after I played 9...c5, but he continued to press. By the time he played 13.Rd1, he was already clearly worse, and after 17.Nxd4, he was clearly lost on the board and on the clock. After 18...e5, he could have played 19.Qe3, but then I have 19...Nd5! 20.Qe4 (not 20.Qf3, as then 20...Nxf4+ 21.gxf4 exd4 wins) Qa8!, and the threats along the a8-h1 diagonal decide the game. White can try 21.Bxe5 - hoping for 21...Ne3+ 22.Kf3 Qxe4+ 23.Kxe4 Nxd1, but there's no reason to even give White that glimmer of a chance - Black can respond with 21...f5!, and if 22.Qxf5? Ne3+ wins, while if 22.Qf3 Nxe5 decides.

On board 4, Sam got an ok position out of the opening, but then lost his way and forgot the develop his queenside. 16...Bf7 was the first culprit, in my opinion, giving up the option to recapture on e4 with the f-pawn (as without that bishop on e6, White has f4-f5). Playing something like 16...a6 or 16...Nbd7 seemed to make more sense. Near the end of the game, his sense of danger seemed to let him down, as his queenside was too undeveloped and kingside too weak to survive the attack.

On board 3, David got a typically unbalanced position out of the opening. I'm not quite sure what miscalculation was made in the middlegame, but he ended up down a couple pawns for essentially no compensation. However, he fought back and just when he had serious drawing chances, he blundered badly and lost the point.

And, as usual, our board 1 game was the longest one of the match. Josh came through in the end, though, converting an advantage that he had nursed from the opening to a Queen versus Rook (and pawns) endgame. Things seemed to get a little hairy after Serper's exchange sac, especially as I had thought that White would be in trouble after 27...Rc3 (following 27.d3-d4); Black threatens to take on e3, and after 28.Rh3, he can play 28...Qe4 setting up some rather annoying pins. However, as Josh explained afterwards, everything was under control there and with 29.Qf2 f5 30.exf6 Nxf6 31.Rg3!, White stays on top. With Serper having to retreat his rook rather than face that fate, Josh continued to outplay his opponent in mutual time pressure and brought us to a 2-2 tie.

Thanks to the tie, we kept out position as best in the West, moving to a 6-1 record, while Seattle is half a point behind, at 5.5-1.5. Next week we get Tennesse, while Seattle has to swim with the Sharks. And all that is just a prelude to a Week 9 rematch against the Sluggers ...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Open Letter to Deputy Commissioner of the US Chess League

To Gregory Shahade, President of the United States Chess League:

I am Jaan Cochrinov, assistant manager to the San Francisco Mechanics, and I might share a concern of my regarding the Seattle team. I have suspected something for quite some time, and I believe I finally have sufficient proof. I plugged the moves of each Seattle player from their Wednesday match against Miami into shredder, with alarming results. Each, and I mean EACH of them, played one of the top 20 choices by shredder every move! When I reduced it to top 10, that percentage decreased to 95, however I think it is clear to everyone what is going on.

If we are to play the Seattle team next week, we request the following actions be taken:

1. No Seattle player will have access to a computer at ANY time.

2. The private bathrooms for both teams be shut down, to be replaced by one bathroom to be shared by both teams.

3. If a Seattle player plays a single move suggested by a computer, we reserve the right to withdraw from the match IMMEDIATELY and without question.

I expect ALL these demands to be met, or else we might seriously reconsider participating in further US Chess League matches.

Jaan Cochrinov, Assistant Manager of the San Francisco Mechanics

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of the Anti-Meran

After a month-long hiatus, I finally returned to the lineup, sneaking away from work in the afternoon to play against NY. With the black pieces against Irina Krush, I could look forward to an interesting game, although I managed to get into more trouble than I should have.

The opening was an Anti-Meran (Semi-Slav) with 6.Qc2 and 7.b3; not the most topical of lines anymore. Amusingly enough, the first time I faced this line was in a US Chess League match last year (against GM Alejandro Ramirez). Like that game, this one finished in a draw, but this was a bit more eventful. The plan of ...a6 and ...e5, accepting the isolated pawn in return for some more room for my minor pieces, is a known one, and I felt like I had achieved an about equal position after the opening. But then things got interesting.

I made a couple of oversights, and by missing simple responses to my moves, I managed to get into a worse position. The most glaring of these was my plan with ...Qf6, instead of taking the c-file with a move like ...Rc7. To add to the mess I created, we seemed to be in real trouble on board 1 (where Pascal turned around a seemingly worse position) and a bit of trouble on board 3 (where a tactical oversight seemed to leave David in a slightly worse endgame, in my estimation). That partly led to my decision to start pushing on the kingside with moves like ...h5, ...Re5, and ...g5!?. Throw in the time factor (both of us were down to about a minute or two at that point), and the game became a real toss-up. Irina made a mistake by not liquidating into a clearly favorable endgame by exchanging queens on f6; she must have wanted to get the same exchange on a more favorable square (on g7), but by doing a little Kansas City shuffle with my king, I threatened to trap her queen with ...Re8. That forced her to jettison the g4-pawn, after which I should be better. But, with the time situation and my inability to see anything clear after ...g4, I took the draw with ...Rg4+.

As it turns out, ...g4 would have been a better move, if only because the natural response Rd7 loses to ...Rh2+! (as Black follows with ...Qxf2+ and ...g3!, winning); White has to play Qe7, after which Black should probably take the draw with ...Rh2+, Kxh2 Qxf2+, with a perpetual check coming soon. Another possibility was ...Qg6!? (instead of either ...Rg4+ or ...g4; Black threatens ...Rg4+, Kf1, ...Qd3+ winning), but again, without any time to calculate properly, I didn't want to risk anything. And as it turns out, all's well that ends well as once again, Josh showed some real defensive skill in saving a draw, clincing victory for us, 2.5-1.5.

With 3 draws out of 3 games against this Anti-Meran, it might be time for me to go back to the drawing board to see if I can find a more enterprising line ... the "simple" positions arising from this ...a6/...e5 combination might not be the most appropriate for a team match.

The #2 Chess Area in the Country

the #2 chess area in the country
Last night, we had a match against one of the most important centers of chess in the United States. New York has a long history of excellent chess, and continues to serve as home for several of the country's top players, as well as a breeding ground for many new talents. It would be safe to say that most people consider it the nation's second most important center of chess activity.
So last night, the Mechanics knew they'd have their hands full (with tools) in their match against the Knights. The week before the Knights had also played in the featured Monday night match. They made a tremendous party out of it, kicking off with a party, and presentations by the league's mvp and commissioner (charbonneau and shahade), and following up with the first ever defeat of the Seattle Sluggers, a very strong team indeed. I'm sure they were in pretty good spirits going into this match, and we were right to expect a serious challenge.
But of course, since we believe we are the best team in the league, we shouldn't be counted out. On Sunday, we had all gathered in one place for the first time this season. We met with Boris Spassky! and had a wonderful team lunch, which he attended. It was really great for our team spirit, and I think we were also quite ready to play this match.
The match itself was indeed tough. I can't comment too much on the other three games, as I have not studied them fully. I'll just say this: Mark looked to have a comfortable game out of the opening. His opponent at some point hung a pawn, and Mark had a crushing position from then on. Good job, Mark! Thanks from a teammate.
The other games all went less well. Friedel's defensive abilities have improved markedly. Many will remember the ridiculous save against Costigan which won that close match for us. His game yesterday echoed that one. He was in serious trouble. Eventually it came down to a rook ending 2 vs 1 (this was when I could watch), in which Charbonneau missed one or two wins. Friedel hung on, while a large crowd on icc predicted his demise (and some fans cheered him on hoping for another miracle draw). Finally, I was sure that he had achieved a drawn position, and the reality that we'd gotten lucky (again) began to sink in on all of us.
Vinay's game I did not see too much of, but I think through most of that game a draw was a likely result.
In my game, I thought I gained a good looking position from the get-go. And I came into this game (as most weeks) determined to bring my team a point, so the others wouldn't have to worry about the match score as much. However, my calculations kept turning up fairly equal looking positions. Unsatisfied, I used up a bunch of my time, and still did not come up with much. After the game was over, John informed me that my opponent had probably played pretty good defense. But still, I felt extremely frustrated as it became clear we had transposed into an equal ending, and then when the game ended in a draw. I'm still very frustrated now.
But anyway, the team win is a bit of a salve. I want to thank my teammates for playing decently, and getting the match won, even when I didn't do anything for them.
Go Bay Area!!