The Sluggers win! This was an exceptionally close match in which the advantage ebbed and flowed – from looking about equal, to sharply worse for the Sluggers, to nearly winning for the Sluggers, to sharply worse for the Sluggers, to suddenly winning and won for the Sluggers. See for yourself!Boards one and two were looking shaky right from the start. On board one we had FM Costin Cozianu (2508) handling the White pieces against GM Joel Benjamin (2646). Clearly, a draw here would be an excellent result but Cozianu’s opening play left something to be desired right from the get-go. Costin used the Worrall Attack, a setup against the Ruy Lopez featuring Qe2 and Rd1. Strangely, he then followed up with 11.d3 when the placement of the rook seemed to call for 11.d4 – but the real enigma is why both players seemed to feel that 14.Nxe5 led to an acceptable compensation for Black. When I raised this question (including to Cozianu!) I mostly heard groans related to the Marshall Gambit – but this is most certainly not a Marshall Gambit position!
There are several factors in White’s favor. He will not find it necessary to play g2-g3. After the suggested 15…Bd6 (Cozianu) White can play 16.Qh5! (on 16…g6 17.Qf3!) – notice that unlike the Marshall Gambit White has activated his queen very early (whereas in the Marshall White must play Rxe5 and then Re1 in reply to …Bd6 – he then struggles to include his queen into the affairs on the kingside). There is no question of Black achieving …Qh4 and this means that White does not to weaken his king’s front with g2-g3. What’s more in the Marshall Gambit White’s knight lives in b1 for quite some time, but here it is just a move away from hoping to e4. All-in-all Black is forced to prove that his piece play can be turned to account on the kingside and I just don’t see how this is going to take place. And if you’re still not convinced, just look at the alternatives! … White instead played 14.d4 after which he was saddled with an isolated pawn and Black’s space and majority on the queenside was impressive. A pawn in exchange for some pressure may have been a better compromise for White (and quite possibly- advantageous for White).
Fast forward a few moves and Black had achieved an outstanding position. NM Josh Sinanan, observing the game, immediately recognized 20…Ba3! as a very strong move which would have exploited the unpleasant arrangement of White’s pieces on the queenside and creating the simple threat of …Bb2, White would have probably found this position highly unpleasant and needs to find 21.Be4 and hope for the best.
Instead 20…Bd6?! was played by GM Benjamin followed by a spirited attack – from here both players played excellently. Black built his attack and at the same time set all kinds of dangerous traps for Cozianu, but Cozianu was able to hold his ground and draw the game. This was an unexpected delight to all of us who had been following the game (and rooting for Seattle) since the opening and the strength of the opponent seemed to indicate that this game was headed toward disaster! Not so!
Board two was an even more hopeless cause from the outset but miraculously ended in a draw. FM Slava Mikhailuk (2415) was paired way up with the Black pieces against GM Boris Gulko (2590). White coasted straight to an overwhelming advantage somewhere by move 18 or so and was playing his moves fairly rapidly adding to the fright which we all experienced while watching the game and which must have ruffled Slava as well.White went ahead a pawn at move 21 with 21.fxe5 giving him a 3-0 central pawn majority (!!) Black also had weaknesses on the queenside and a knight out of play. This is the Grunfeld at its worst! By move 35, White had a full two pawns advantage, every one of the remaining Black pawns was seriously weakened, and the Black pieces were barely holding onto their blockade. White also held four minutes on the clock to Black’s two (30 seconds are added every move).
Black faced overwhelming odds but continued to play the most precise moves which did not immediately lead to disaster. Everything was in excellent shape for White and it was just about time for Slava to resign before a very innocent mistake meant that White had to part with the fruits of all of his efforts. That mistake was the seemingly inconsequential 43.Rff2 when after 43…Qd3! White suddenly found that he could not prevent perpetual check no matter how he tried. Had White tried 47.Be5+ Kh6 48.Rxh2+ Kg5 49.Rxh7 Black would draw with 49…Qxe4+ 50.Kg1 Qe1+ … a miracle!! White was forced to accept a draw and this drastically altered the situation in the match. Instead, White could have put the game away with 43.Rb8+ Kg7 44.Rfb1 with an overwhelming position. For example 44…Kf6 (trying to prevent e7) meets 45.e7! … 1-0! A great game by GM Gulko which was spoiled by very bad luck and a spirited resistance by Slava. Congratulations Slava!
And a good thing that Slava pulled through, because the situation on boards three and four where we were looking for at least that one win couldn’t have gotten more disturbing. Board three was an interesting game full of little Catalan motifs. White was the Slugger's FM Marcel Milat's game against FM Carsten Hansen. This game was also the closest in terms of ELO points (Marcel having a 59-ELO point advantage). Black always looked close to equality but never managed to dispell the pressure on the queenside pawns. Little by little, Marcel seemed to be guiding the Sluggers to an important victory - a victory which seemed necessary to at least equalize the match given the dire situation on board four. But just as it seemed that Marcell would go a comfortable pawn up and wrap up the effort neatly, Marcel decided to sacrifice a piece! (39.Rh1?). Instead, 39.Nb7 Nxa4 40.Rh1 is very strong. Marcel's piece sacrifice led to three pawns for a piece with still very dangerous pressure on the Black position. The maneuver 41...Nc8! followed by 42...Nd6 would have been enough to careen the game towards a simple draw for Black, but in time pressure we all quite liked Hansen's quick-thinking defense 41...Nxa4!? immediately returning the piece for two pawns and holding a rook ending down a pawn. Very quick thinking! The last touch was 52...f5+! when White had to accept that the two pawns were useless in bringing about victory. Marcel continued to do his very best but luckily it became unimportant for him to win the game because of the dramatic events on board four....The decisive game proved to be board four, where Black (the Slugger's FM Curt Collyer, 2294) magically found himself in a perfect King’s Indian position after opening the game with … 1…b6! With the colossal gap in ratings (White was Vince Klemm, 2073) and Black stretching out in the center and on the kingside, this game had been chalked up by the gang as 0-1 almost as quickly as it had begun. But things did not at all proceed smoothly, and unable to land a serious strategic blow, Black found himself being ripped apart by the exact same chronic weaknesses which tend to characterize the King’s Indian in its saddest moments – and with nothing serious in the form of a compensating attack. White was just a move or two away from forcing resignation but instead veered off track at the last moment giving Black’s pseudo-attack the right to exist. What amazing fortune, because the unexpected draw on Marcel’s board meant that Collyer’s game held the entire result of the match. Who could have guessed that he would emerge from this position unscathed! Congratulations must be paid because Collyer’s position was by no means easy. Rather than fold or launch a hail-mary, Collyer was able to get his attack close enough to success to profit from White’s inaccuracies. Suddenly, Collyer had won the game, and with it the match was secured in Seattle’s favor. Go Sluggers!!