Saturday, October 2, 2010

Seattle Slugged the Knocked-Outs

Co-authored by Alex Guo and Josh Sinanan

Going into the match of the interdivisional week, I must admit that I was rooting for Western division to get swept, and then Seattle would be the lone winner and take a giant leap in the standings. Of course, none of that was going to happen, but to my surprise, Seattle did indeed take quite a sizable jump, from second to last, to being one of the top four--at least for now, as Seattle had the best tiebreaks of all the other teams.

As for the match, I was a little uneasy about our chances. Seattle had better chances on the bottom two boards, while the top two boards faced strong New Jersey players GM Benjamin and IM Molner. Fortunately, everything turned out alright, with Cozianu and Slava getting past their missteps in the past two weeks, and bottom two boards performing as was expected.

Personal message to Professional Prognosticators: HAHAHAHAHA, WE WON!!!!!! Sorry, it just makes me a little bit more than amused to see Seattle completely stomping the predictions of naysayers, who were predicting a win for New Jersey, while instead, New Jersey nearly got swept. Looks like NJ is having a rough season.

Well, onto the match!

Board 3: FM Michael Lee - IM Albert Kapengut, 1-0

Michael Lee scored the first win of the match, continuing his latest winning streak. Nothing's stoppin' this USCL stud! With the white pieces, Michael Lee entered into a 1...e5 English, to reach the following position arising out of the opening:

(after 12...b6)
White is saddled with doubled c-pawns, but in return, has the two bishops, potential pressure down the d-file, and a nice target to work with, in the e4-pawn. In positions like these, the e-pawn is like a sore thumb, since backing it up with a pawn is difficult to do.

Michael Lee mobilized his Q-side pawns with 13.b4, to which Black replied 13...c5!?, a positionally sharp move. After 14.Nb5, Black must take on b4. After winning the pawn on b4, Black will position his QN on c5, and then opt for a d6-d5 break, and the chances are roughly equal.

However, Kapengut played 14...Bf5?, a positional blunder, and allows White to consolidate his Q-side pawn structure 15.ba5 ba5 and then 16.Rad1, and then Black will have the uneviable task of defending the d-pawn, with no substantial counterplay in sight. Another important detail, as noted in the only two tweets that NJ had on this match, the QN is rather cut off from the battle, while Michael Lee's pieces are coordinated against a concrete target.

Kapengut did indeed lose the d-pawn soon, and after that, Michael Lee cleaned up the game to score the point for Seattle. Nice job FM Lee!

Board 4: Sean Finn - Alex Guo, 0-1

Finally. For the first time, I'm not the only player in the match without some sort of a title! This game was rather crazy. Obviously, the Winawer I played was wayyyyy offline, with 6..Qa6 and 7...c4 completely out of book. I don't think you'll find many significant games on this line. I just wanted to immediately lock up a portion of the pawn structure and see how well Finn could play on his own. Besides, 1.e4, 2.d4, 3.Nc3 were whipped out rather quickly, so it was obvious Finn had come prepared to battle me in my Poisoned Pawn Variation. But 2100s aren't well known for great play in an opening that is unknown to them.

Apparently Finn didn't like my line. He immediately went for the kill, trying to refute my opening, which is, to be honest, a little aggressive, when at the most, Black had committed only a opening inaccuracy, and so Black should not be immediately losing, though Black might indeed be in a slightly worse position.

(after 15...Ba4)
With the two bishops and targets on a greatly weakened K-side pawn structure, White probably has the better position, though, unfortunately for Finn, the path to victory is by no means clear. Smelling blood, "Shark" Finn went for the kill with 16.Ne2?!, allowing 16...Bxc2 17.Nf4 Kd7! with this move Black is doing fine now. After 18.Qxf7 Nxf4 19.Qxf4 Black has pressure along the g- and f- files, and meanwhile White's king is no safer than Black's.

(after 31.Rg2)
Just a few moves before, I essentially offered Finn a draw. We were repeating moves with Be2/Bd3 and Bf3/Be4. Objectively, Black's position is certainly better because of a Q-side passer, but the win is very tricky and by now I was living off the increment. By this point, the upper boards Cozianu and Slava looked like they both had good chances to secure a draw, in which case a draw on fourth board was sufficient to clinch the match, which is all that really matters in the end. Thus, I decided to "offer" a draw instead of going for the win by exchanging bishops. Naturally, Shark Finn declined.

I went for the kill with 31...a5, to utilize my extra q-side pawn. Shark Finn saw a tactical opportunity and played 32.Qh2, sensing a chance to target the potentially weak Q-side pawns. Unfortunately, the attack comes just a little too late, as after 32...Be4! Finn must exchange the key defender of g4-pawn. After the exchange, Finn must either defend the g-pawn with his queen, which then paves the way for my queen to get my a-pawn down the board. On the other hand, if Finn advances his g-pawn, then that gives up control of the f5-square, so that my Nf5, which then gets control of the key e3-square, and thus Finn can never really get his Bd2 out of the way on the second rank, and thus my a-pawn still gets to the last rank. Essentially, White is losing. After some crazy tactics and a pretty intense time scramble, I did eventually convert the point.

From here on, Sinanan recaps the match for us.

Board 1: FM Costin Cozianu (SEA) - GM Joel Benjamin (NJ), 1-0

On board 1, Costin faced off against MVP points leader GM Benjamin.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Costin, he was one of the top junior Romanian prospects back in the early 90's. He stopped playing chess professionally to take up a career as a software engineer, which eventually led him to Seattle where he works for Amazon. He came to the attention of the Sluggers management in 2009 when he won the WA State Championship, ahead of Sluggers stars FM Michael Lee, NM Howard Chen, and yours truly. Oh yeah, and don't be fooled by the fact that Costin is "only an FM." Like many other players from Seattle, he just hasn't bothered to get his IM norms yet!

Before the game began, Costin beat the heavy Seattle traffic and arrived at the Chess4Life Center early to do some last-minute prep. for GM Benjamin. Cozianu is one of the few Sluggers who prefers to play 1. e4 instead of 1. d4 or the English, which he considers to be "closings" rather than "openings." It was no surprise when GM Benjamin responded with the Caro-Kann defense, which has been his weapon of choice against 1. e4 this season. Costin chose the quiet exchange variation, which followed theory until white played a novelty on move 8:

(after 8. Bg5!?)

Costin chose 8. Bg5!? over the more popular 8. Bf4. Perhaps he was hoping to trade the Bishop for the knight on g8 should it develop to f6, which would weaken black's pawn structure. Benjamin didn't go for this though and seemed to equalize rather easily. In the ensuing middle game, black had the better chances due to superior coordination amongst his pieces. After 14. a4, white's knight on b3 became a target that Costin defended by interposing his bishop on b5.

(after 15. Bb5)

White was forced to give up a pawn a few moves later but as compensation he was able to establish a knight on d4. As time pressure approached, GM Benjamin built up nicely on the kingside, while Costin countered in along the d-file. The critical moment occurred when black found a very nice exchange sacrifice to open up the kingside:

(after 25... Rxf3!)

Here Seattle fans had reason to be worried. After 26. gxf3, black could have improved with 26...Ne5 instead of 26...Qh3, leading to a winning position. In the complications that followed, white had to find 28. Bxe5 Bxe5 29. f4, probably leading to a draw. Instead, Costin blundered:

(after 28. Qc3??)

GM Benjamin had about 2 minutes on his clock to find the crushing 28...Nf5! The point is that after 29. Rxd5, black has 29...Nh4!!, winning instantly.

(analysis diagram after 29...Nh4)

Fortunately for Costin and the Sluggers, GM Benjamin played the second best move, 28...Bc5+. After 29. Kh1, black missed the last chance to win with Nf5. Costin took advantage of this missed opportunity and calmly played 30. Nf4, after which white is winning.

After a series of forced moves, white won a piece for a pawn and converted the ending cleanly. Nicely done Costin!

Board 2: IM Mackenzie Molner (NJ) - FM Slava Mikhailuk (SEA), 1/2 - 1/2

On board 2, Slava was playing up against Molner, a very dangerous IM. Coming into this game, Slava was off to a slow start this season, having castled long after his first three starts. In Slava's defense though, he has played up in all three games, facing 2 GM's and a very strong IM. He came very close to beating GM Gurevich and held his own against IM Barcenilla and GM Becerra. As one of the Sluggers' all-time MVP points leaders, it is only a matter of time before Slava regains his form!

Slava seemed to have prepared well for this game, as he opted for a Lowenthal Sicilian instead of his usual classical Sicilian. Molner went for an early queen trade with 8. Qxf6, and the game followed theory until Slava played the rare 10...b5 instead of the more common 10...d5:

(after 10...b5)

The point of this move is to create a square for the bishop on b7 and to take over some space on the queenside. Molner countered with Bg5 and captured on f6, giving black some weak doubled f-pawns.

(after 14...gxf6)

I was discussing this position with NM Dereque Kelley during the match, and we went back and forth trying to decide how white can prove an advantage in this position. After doing some analysis with Rybka 4, we decided that the correct plan for white is to play f4, bring his King to e3, double rooks on the f-file and then switch to the c-file at some point one black has taken time to defend on the kingside. Molner instead went for a quick f4 break, exchanged on e5, and doubled his rooks on the f-file. Slava responded by putting his King on e7, king's rook on h7 to guard f7, and his other rook on c8 for play on the queenside.

(after 18...Rh7)

Molner then played the aggressive 19. Rf6, threatening Rb6. However, after Slava responded with 19...d6, Molner played 20. Nd1?!, allowing 20...Rc2 with equality.

(after 20...Rc2)

Here white had no choice but to retreat his rook back to f2, after which Slava traded into an even endgame and easily held the draw.

Final score: Seattle 3.5 - New Jersey 0.5

Overall, this was a great match for the Sluggers! Everyone played well throughout the evening, and we seemed to gain momentum after Michael Lee's big win on board 3. We were lucky to come out on top in the time-pressure scrambles on boards 1 and 4, and Slava scored a clutch draw on board 2 to clinch the match. We improved our match record to 2.5-3.5, which puts us in a 4-way tie for 4th place in the West. The next 4 weeks will be critical as we play 3 of the teams with whom we're currently tied. With the return of our new superstar from the Olympiad, GM Varuzhan Akobian, we hope to have another strong showing next week as we take on the L.A. Vibe!

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