A tough loss for the Sluggers against St. Louis this week! Sadly, Seattle never managed to get into a groove and had clearly lost positions before the 20th move had been reached on both of the boards where Seattle wielded the Black pieces. The first of these was board one.
I’ve heard it said that the result of board one is disproportionately a good predictor of the entire result of the match, possibly because of its effect on team morale. If this is true, then players in St. Louis must have doubled their resolve when GM Ben Finegold accumulated a nice advantage in the opening and then profited from an early but quite understandable mistake by FM Costin Cozianu (16…Ne8?) to immediately gain a winning advantage on the queenside in the form of an extra pawn which was passed and already threatening to march down the board.
Instead Black’s best chance may have been able to keep the balance through grabbing the pawn 16…Qxb4!? While it would seem that White would be able to gain much from attacking the queen, in fact after 17.Rab1 Qa3! Black is able to get away with capturing on a2, and aiming to trade heavy pieces as quickly as possible. The alternative 17.Rcb1 Rac8! Forces 18.Qxc8 Qxb1+ 19.Rxb1 Rxc8 20.Rxb7 and Black can achieve a holding ending after 20…Rc1+ 21.Bf1 Bxf3 22.Nxf3 Nb6! With adequate counterplay threatened in the form of …Nc4, …Ne4, and then a knight coming to d2. But all of these lines look extremely difficult to see at the board, and it’s understandable that Costin tried to hold the 7th rank and harass White’s queen instead beginning with 16…Ne8 – but White was able to capture two pawns and was able to consolidate one of the extra pawns too easily. A rapid loss for the team Seattle.
On board three, FM Curt Collyer also suffered very early on against IM Levan Bregadze. Curt used his system of an early ....b6, provoking the opponent to take space in the center. White fully ouccpied the center with e4, d4, and c4 pawns, but with the strong play 7…Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 d6 Curt managed to keep White’s strategic plus down to its bare minimum. Strangely, White gave up most of his space advantage when he played 12.dxe6?! which is probably just an anti-positional mistake. No doubt, White was counting on generating sufficient active play with his bishop pair but had Curt simply replied 12…fxe6 13.Ng5 (this was the move Curt feared) 13…Qd7 – it’s not too clear what White will have and left to his own devices Black will play …e5 with a fine position. Perhaps White would have tried 14.f4 but Black has many ways to hold the balance. An attractive one is 14…h6 15.Nf3 Rae8, with the intent of playing a sharp thrust …e5 on the next move.
Instead, Curt, fearing Ng5, played 12…f6? Intending to recover the pawn on e6 at a later time. But White accurately burst through the position before Black had time to bring about a reasonable turn of events and by move 15 it was clear that White would be pressing home a winning kingside attack. The game was abandoned on move 22 when Black had the unhappy choice of surrendering his queen or being checkmated.
These two early losses could not be fully atoned for on the boards where Seattle had White. NM Josh Sinanan’s game against Matthew Larson was well-played by White who coped with a barrage of rapid moves fired off by a well-prepared opponent. Larson (rated around 1918) fired off the first 22 moves of the game (!) a full eight moves after Josh appeared to be aware of the “theoretical” moves. Josh remained calm and found one good move after another until finally Larson began to slow down around move 23. The fruits of Black’s preparation were a significant advantage on the clock and an opponent who had already expended much more nervous energy on the game, but finally the difference in playing strength made itself known and just four short moves after the storm of preparation had ended White had already achieved a winning position (27.Rd3 +-). It also appears that White had a chance to gain a decisive advantage a couple moves earlier with 25.e5! Qf8 (only move) 26.Bf1! and Black is losing by force - all variations end in winning attacks or in material losses for Black which lead straight into easily winnable endgames.
FM Slava Mikhailuk’s game on board three with White against 19 year-old IM Priyadharshan Kannappan did not go as well. Rating’s wise this was the closet game of the match with Slava holding slightly fewer ELO points. Here too, Black appeared to be very well prepared and a striking feature of this game is how intimidatingly fast IM Kannappan was moving. By the end of the game, Black’s clock appeared to almost never have been utilized, meaning that the 30-second increment was enough for Black to make all of his moves. Slava’s English fell into some troubles, but with accurate play Slava had just about managed to stabilize the situation. But, uncharacteristically, Slava lashed out with a risky pawn jump 19.d4? which I believe must have contained a miscalculating on Slava’s part. If I had to take a guess I would say that after 19…cxd3 20.Bb2 Nec4 21.Bd4 Nd2 (all of which occurred in the game) White may have believed he had 22.Rfc1+ Kb8 23.Bxd3 but later discovered that Black would have 23…Nb3 in the final position. Instead 19.Nf3 !?, for example, would have been enough for White to eventually exchange pieces and complete his development (Ra2-c2, Bb2). Ultimately 19.d4? ended up being a mistake so grave that it cost Slava an exchange. Slava fought hard to salvage the position but a lost exchange was just too much.
The match ended 1-3 for the Sluggers. A tough match indeed!