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.

A Very Old Post From Week Three That No One Is Likely to Read

Well, that’s not really the way we drew it up in practice. Seriously; I mean, I left my preparation on move two, which isn’t very surprising, but makes me feel like I should just get a good night’s sleep and show up at the match alert and awake. The excuse, “Honey, I can’t do the dishes, I’ve got a couple more variations to look at,” doesn’t carry as much weight when you have a three minute think on your third move.

Perhaps the only person with more wrecked opening prep was my opponent, although I haven’t asked him; I was simply surprised to see him sink into thought even earlier than me (move two!). For a long time I was only a queenpawn player; I’ve since tried to teach myself 1.e4, with mixed success. Still, I’m guessing that most of my available games start with the queenpawn.

To continue: my opponent from the Windy City played 2… g6 and I was a bit flummoxed, as I had been expecting a Najdorf. I considered playing casually with 3. c3, but then remembered that this had already been played in the league (the day before, in fact, in the game Costigan-Williams [see, it does pay to follow the league outside of your personal team affiliations]). I hadn’t much liked Costigan’s position after he took on d5, although it’s probably fine, so I tried to recall half-remembered variations and thought that there was one that involved moving the queen a bunch of times. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it and decided to give it a shot.

Around here I took a minute to wander and observe the rest of the team, or Dima and the Ninos, as I affectionately call them. Daniel’s game amused me: I found it a bit ironic that a guy who writes a book called Mastering Positional Chess goes out and plays some sort of an Austrian Attack with Bg5 thrown in for good measure. When’s Mastering Angry Caveman Chess coming out? The position after 9. Qxf3 reminded me of the comment about a similar recapture in My 60 Memorable Games: black doesn’t really slow down white’s development, because as soon as he takes the knight the queen replaces it. Definitely the sort of position I enjoy.

The other boards (where Chicago had white) were looking a little dicey. Chicago apparently went with a very specific strategic game plan: 1) lure opponent’s pawn to f5, 2) break with g4, 3) obtain extremely strong positional advantage. The Dmitry v. Dmitry matchup concerned me the most, as after 9. gf gf, white is two moves from castling queenside while black is not close to completing his development.

I was relatively happy with my game after 11. Ng5, which I felt offered me good attacking chances despite being quite double-edged. Although the potential discovery on the queen from the Bb7 is annoying, it works both ways, as now black cannot reply 11… Nxe5 and must find another way to cover f7. My opponent decided that castling was an unacceptable risk, and we continued 11… Ne6 12. h4 Rb8 13. Bd5 (I was not happy
about this move after the game, but I felt that the alternatives were speculative) 13… b4 14. Ne2 Nxg5 15. Bxg5 h6, and after a quick search, I tried to bail out with 16. Bf6.

A quick survey showed that we weren’t in Dallas or Miami any more. Daniel was still fine on two, although Felecan’s … f6 had broken the center phalanx. The real problem was on boards one and three. Gurevich had just played 15. Ne5, the kind of angry move that gets in your face as says, “Yo! Hand over the dark squares.” I was sort of horrified to see Dima accede to this request by taking twice on e5, and playing … Qh2. However, I see the logic: if your position is crummy, you can always grab a pawn and hope for the best. But given white’s position, what black had to hope for was a little limited. Heart attack? Massive nationwide internet failure? All of the above?

Stephen’s position seemed more weird than bad by this point. As he was playing on his laptop in the corner of the room, I could only see his screen from a weird angle, and although I could see that there were three e-pawns, I wasn’t completely sure whose they were. I figured one of them must be his. Wrong! I mean, take a lot at this thing after 20… Ke7! So, he’s down two pawns, but it’s not at all clear what white’s supposed to do with them. I had a brief flashback of a game where I had three extra e-pawns again Larry Christiansen – unfortunately, I had sacrificed a piece to get them and promptly resigned.

Back to my game, definitely feeling like I needed to win. Shankar continued to feel that discretion is the better part of valor, playing 16… Bxf6. After 17. ef e6 I had a brief vision of 18. Qf4 ed 19. Qd6 Rc8 20. Rh3, but 20… d4 kills it. White just cannot prepare the attack and keep the queen on d6 at the same time. So I continued bailing out, but by the time black played 22… Kf8 I realized I was in some trouble. Now my planned 23. Qxa7 Kg7 24. Qc7 Bb5 25. Rxd6 Qf5 26. Re1 loses to 26… Qf5, so I played 24. Kb1 and tried to hold things together.

About this point Dima’s game fell apart and he had to resign after a smooth mating attack. Felecan kept finding ways to liquidate the position and Daniel took a perpetual in the endgame. Stephen’s game looked as weird and strange as it had for the past hundred moves or so. Interestingly, it was turning out that the tripled e-pawns were crippling white’s winning chances, as he much rather would have had his king on e4 than a pawn.

So the pressure was on. Fortunately, despite my positional problems, Shankar was pretty low on the clock (if there’s one thing you can say, good or bad about the USCL, it produces some entertaining time scrambles), and he blundered a pawn with 27… Ba4 28. b3 Bc6 29. Nd3. One pawn became two, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. Oops.

A quick digression: two weeks ago, against Dallas, I had been happily finishing off the end of summer vacation. But now, two weeks into the school year, the names of 150 kids memorized (to the loss of countless opening variations), I was not in prime chess condition. I had tried to play in the CalChess Labor Day tournament the previous weekend and found out that: 1) I was so tired that I needed to be up more than 4 points of material to win a game, 2) that it’s hard to win an endgame without pawns, and 3) that when the end of your combination involves moving a rook to a square that is attacked you should resign and probably withdraw from the tournament.

So although I was happy with my two pawn edge, I probably shouldn’t have gotten too relaxed. After the sneaky 44… Rb2, I played the boneheaded 45. Re4 only to be shocked by 45… Rexb3+, a move which I had been considering in another variation only a few moves before. Calm down, I told myself, you’re probably still winning. I played a couple more quick moves, watched my opponent play 48… f5, and thought to myself, “That’s stupid, I just play 49. gf gf 50. Kc4 Re3 51. Rxf5 and he doesn’t get my h-pawn.” Then it hit me: 49. gf g5! and I can’t stay on the f-file.

I played the rest of the game pretty shell-shocked, and Shankar held the draw easily. Stephen made a valiant effort, but he was working from a pretty tough starting point. And so we lost our first match of the season. Chicago should be congratulated for playing two outstanding matches in a row; they were extremely solid this week, offering us very few chances to score cheap victories. Let’s hope for a better result against Seattle next week.