Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Midnight Rider

“I’ll do it!” Truly the decision was not momentous, but also not easy. My word has to be worth something. Still, times that your team makes an initial appearance in the finals are extremely sporadic. Usually, only once per team does that happen. So, it is now or never. Please dear readers forgive me for my transgression.
As I spied the scores my mind went blank. Not that blankness that writers use in literature to suggest a loss of moral compass, nor that painful blankness that comes when you can’t remember your ATM pin. Not hardly. This was the blankness of easy acceptance that something so totally improbable had happened. Yup, seeing the score of Seattle’s victory over Arizona seemed to defy the past and at the same time define that matters had worked themselves out. I was not able to watch the Arizona match, a night time job can do that to you, so I didn’t find the excitement of going to the final that should naturally accompany this result. Yet, it is because they are in the final that I am once again in your company.

I want to say that the “easy acceptance” part of that was the result of the previous weeks match with Dallas. I feel compelled to start out by saying that I don’t understand why this match didn’t get more recognition. To start with, Dallas is a star studed (pardon the pun) lineup with plenty of history. Remember though, part of that history was a tied match in the wildcard round of the Sluggers first season of 2006 that sent the Sluggers to the conference finals. You may remember that the match was at 2-1 for Dallas when Seattle’s Slava Mikhailuk was able to create a path to victory which tied the match. Dallas won the USCL the 2 seasons following that, so maybe this preempted a three peat? Anyway, events in the 2012 match could only be matched by a batch of Hollywood script writers, that is if they had the propensity to see the beauty and greatness of team chess. Seattle’s star first board had fallen dramatically and cast immediate doubt on the Slugger’s chances. This was certainly not a new scenario for Slugger’s fans to witness. This was offset by a fourth board effort from the Slugger’s Lessler which would even the match. Matters would be decided in the middle. There was a sort of weird relationship between the games. As Orlov slowly found a bit to play with on second board, Sinanan was sliding into passivity on third board. With draw odds it looked as if Dallas had matters well in hand with advantage on third board. Seemingly Dallas went into a holding pattern to see if events on second board could be swung around. I have no clue what was going on in the Dallas player’s heads… winning on third board was enough to advance. Yet, events on second board did seem to evolve towards Dallas and at the same time the third board flipped almost completely. Now, with Seattle having a winning position on third board we all considered how to get a positive result on second. Literally, the result of either game and consequently the match changed with every move. On second board the Holt went into “last ditch” mode and fell into a lost position. As if the fog totally was gone Josh drew on third board and Seattle had pulled one out. These kinds of things are produced in major sports and offer a glimpse of how exciting team chess can be. I do not know how all of this excitement was able to escape more attention, but it did. Note to Eddie and Dean Wormer: find some more excitement in this thing.

So, to the final. My initial feeling is that these teams are very similar. Neither rely on under rated kids or college students. Traditionally both rely on grit over flash. In the current season though, Philadelphia has defined themselves as a power team that looks to roll over opponents. Seattle surprised by making the playoffs in what looked to be a heavily stacked western division. We have in the final what could be the start of a dynasty in Philadelphia and a “Rocky” like underdog in the Sluggers. Yeah, I wanted to get that one in to annoy our Philly friends! Each of the 4 matchups presents a unique perspective on team chess. Here’s what I see.

First board will be a matchup of superstars. Both are around the 2700 mark and have plenty on their resumes to talk about. Neither of them is an easy out and will come well prepared. Such is the world of professional chess. I guess giving White an advantage is about as good a marker as any, but I doubt it is enough to expect either to win.

Fourth board is the “classic” in the group. Philadelphia has IM Richard Costigan, one of the few in the league who can remember first hand the “Telephone League”. Seattle brings Roland Feng who was still in knee pants when the USCL started. This is one of those “fast or slow” things. The longer the game goes, the more likely it is for Costigan to have an advantage. What we always have to think about is how much of a surprise will the kid be for the IM?

Each team finds its “non-star” star player on third board. I don’t know much of anything about Dov Gormon, but he seems to have pulled plenty of weight for the Inventors this season. Josh Sinanan has done more than what could be expected of him this season and did so last season as well. I think that this could be decided stylistically. With Black Josh is going to play pretty solidly, well he plays solidly with any color, and will have to be careful not to go too passive. My intuition is that Gorman has an advantage here, but Sinanan has been beating the odds all season.

Second board might be the most interesting. At first glance it appears critical for Phily as NM Miller has a lower rating than IM Orlov as well as much less experience. The thing is that Miller has been holding draws with Black against higher rated opponents this season. His solid play has been a real bonus for the Inventors and could be a key to the final. This will be very interesting, to me at least, because Orlov is well trained and extremely crafty. It is very possible that he will arrive with something unexpected in his pocket and will get a small opening advantage with a large time and psychological advantage. Both sides fans will be well advised to use this game as an initial barometer for what result might be at hand.

Ok, lets just suppose that everybody plays way beyond what we expect and all 4 games end in draws, what to expect then? All them boys on the East Coast think they are really great blitz players and some of them are right. What they might not expect is that we have chess clocks up here in the northwest and we have been practicing. My suspicion is that if it comes to that Seattle has a tiny edge. Not anything against you boys on the other coast, its just that these kinds of things tend to work out for the underdog. At least I hope so.

That’s it for me. The next time you see me will be… don’t know. After this the Sluggers won't have any "firsts" to look forward to, so my motiviation is gone. Oh well.

Good Luck to all the players and lets hope for a fun match. Out

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sluggers advance to Championship!

The Sluggers have advanced to the Championship match after clinching an important victory the Arizona Scorpions! As with so many other matches this season the result was anything but clear for the whole duration of the match.

On board one, the Sluggers unleashed GM Varuzhan Akobian(2697) on IM Mackenzie Molner (2511). GM Akobian’s 4.Bg5 reply to the Grunfeld and IM Molner’s replies quickly gave the game an improvisational tone. At move 12 White appeared to have the initiative as Black’s king had been forced to move to f8 in awkward fashion and the c4- and c5- pawns gave a loose impression. But as play continued it became clear that White’s own army was not sufficiently coordinated to exploit these factors.

Play continued in an unfavorable direction for the GM Akobian when IM Molner struck with 17…Nb6 18.Qb3 c4! Forcing White to continue 19.Bxb6 (19.Bxc4? Nxc4 20.Qxc4 Ba6 -/+) 19…axb6 20.Bxc4 when after 20…Bd7! Black had acquired the bishop pair tremendous pressure on the weakened queenside pawns at the cost of a pawn. Yielding him more than enough compensation.

Around this moment, the situation on board one was not favoring the Slugger’s and it appeared that Black could be holding the initiative. But the Sluggers were to receive excellent news as NM Josh Sinanan (2263) had just won yet another game this season on board three where he was paired significantly up against IM Shahin Mohandesi (2399). In this game, Josh succeeded at building a substantial advantage on the clock and acquired a somewhat easier to play position in the middlegame thanks to his queenside pawn majority. After a  maneuvering phase, no side had succeeded at gaining anything substantial but a couple of errant King move’s by Black (25…Ke8?!, 26…Kd8?) gave White the time he needed to reposition successfully and advance the queenside pawns.

An important improvement would have been 26…Nc3! Forcing White to react to the threat to the b-pawn with 27.b6 (27.Na3? Nxe2+ 28.Kg2 Nc3 =+) 27…axb6 with the idea of  28.Qxb6 Qb5 = or 28.Qa8 Qa7! 29.Qc6 Qd7 30.Qxb6 Qb5 … here too however, White could have gained an advantage after 28.axb6! Nxe2+ 29.Kf1 Nc3 30.Qa8 Qd8 31.Qb7 += Instead, Black blundered with 26…Kd8 overlooking a strong reply by White. Josh correctly played 27.b6! axb6 28.Qa8! when Black clearly had to concede material. Soon after, Black resigned. A marvelous upset!

On board two, IM Georgi Orlov’s (2523) game seemed predictably headed towards a draw as IM Levon Altounian (2493), handling the White pieces, had not managed to create anything serious with the c3-Sicilian. Early on, IM Orlov improvised with 9…Nb6!? After a long think, IM Altounian replied 10.Bd3?!(perhaps 10.Bb3 +=) allowing Black to play enterprisingly with 10…Nb4! harassing the bishop and eventually capturing it. Though White tried hard to encircle around the e6-pawn, his own d4-pawn was far too weak. Finally, several moves later, Black crashed through on d4 only long enough for White to simultaneously crash through on e6 keeping the material balance, and further reducing material. Soon a draw was agreed and the Sluggers were ahead 1.5-0.5.

A win on either board one (GM Akobian – IM Molner) or board four would secure the match as would draws on both boards. But by now, GM Akobian’s position had further deteriorated. After 30…f4! by IM Molner, Black was dangerously close to cashing in on his opportunity to play …Bf5 and roll the b-pawn forward winning material. Attempts to capture the pawn on b3, such as 31.Rxb3, were doomed to failure. Example: 31.Rxb3 Rxb3 32.Bxb3 Ra1 + 33.Kg2 Qe7! -+ (with the idea of 34…Qe1). However, with the clocks dwindling down and Akobian having a small but significant clock advantage (7 minutes to 2) it was still possible to cross one’s fingers and hope for the best while on board four, events were also unfolding in an unexpected manner.

On board four the young Peter Lessler (2177) was valiantly holding on with the Black pieces against Arizona’s NM Dipro Chakraborty (2306). Right away, Peter was able to deploy his pieces sensibly in the face of a King’s Indian Attack setup. But with White slowly creeping up the kingside and Black facing the usual issues of how to achieve an active plan, it seemed that Peter was in real danger of being eventually outclassed. Throughout a protracted maneuvering face, the game at times seemed to favor White (NM Chakraborty) and other times appeared to be balanced. Despite sorties such as 22.Nf6!? and a spirited effort on White’s part, Peter always seemed to be holding on just enough to begin generating queenside play and not suffer any real damage to his position. After an important knight exchange and the move 27…Rb2! it was clear Peter was standing up to the master after all and any result still seemed possible.

Nevertheless, the situation still looked quite dangerous for the Sluggers - hoping for two draws or a victory on some board still seemed like a miracle. On board one, it still seemed that if GM Akobian would somehow avoid losing material his winning chances may not be significant. But then, a reversal of fortune took place! After GM Akobian’s 33.Rc6, IM Molner, who had less than two minutes on the clock, played 33…Qe7? Overlooking that after 34.Qxf4 b2? (as played in the game) White simply had 35.Qxb8! capturing the rook for free! All of this occurred in the game. Amazingly, Akobian was now up a full rook and wasted no time whatsoever in giving back some of the material in order to acquire an easily won position. Instead Black was very close to winning the game with 33…Qb4 intending …b2, when White cannot complicate the game for long. IM Molner’s mistake was no doubt prompted partially by GM Akobian’s tenacity and the pressure of the unusual opening and match circumstances. The complicated position had paid off and suddenly the Sluggers had qualified for the Championship!

And what of board 4? Did Peter Lessler pull it off? After a missed win by White at 54.Qf4? (54.Bxg6! fxg6 55.Qxg6+ Kh8 56.Qf7! +-) Peter’s infiltration broke through and within a short handful of moves Black was up a pawn (after 58…Nxc4) with a winning position. Peter had nearly finished off his game in victory when he made an important mistake 76…Nxa5? Grabbing a second pawn, but giving White enough time to organize a defense with 77.Ba4! Instead Black could have won with 76…Nd4+ 77.Kd1 Kb7! White cannot play 78.Bxf7 due to 78…Nf5, with the idea of 79…Ne3+ (and there is no Ba4) He is therefore helpless to find a useful move. The game could continue 78.Ba4 Ka6 79.Be8 kxa5 80.Bd7 Nf5 and there is no Ba4. Instead after 76…Nxa5? 77.Ba4! Black lost his two pawn advantage. Still the game should have been easily drawn but a last-minute oversight by Peter (83…Ke7? Instead of 83…Nxg5 =) gave White an opportunity to transpose to a winning king and pawn ending. As soon as the point was revealed (87.Kh5! gaining opposition), sadly Peter’s magnificent efforts were revealed to be not enough and he had to resign.
The Sluggers’ play, as a whole, left a strong impression during this match. All boards refused to be budged. Helped by a bit of good luck, the players pounced on opportunities and never gave Arizona an opportunity to think they had it in the bag. This continuous pressure, no doubt, contributed very nicely to the Slugger’s victory. Congratulations Sluggers and good luck in the Finals!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sluggers Lose Round 10 Match

Monday night’s match ended in defeat for the Sluggers: 2.5 – 1.5. Despite a substantial deficit in ELO Average (almost 80 points) the Sluggers appeared to be teetering close to a drawn or even won match at various points during the match.

The most important game of the match turned out to be on board two where the Slugger’s FM Marcel Milat had White against IM Keaton Kiewra. Marcel was able to establish quite a nice position in the King’s Indian using the older  continuation of 10.g3 in the Bayonet Attack. This choice paid off nicely since by move 15 (15.Bxe4!) White already had the initiative and a pleasant light-squared bind. For a long time, Marcel possessed the bishop pair and a potentially devastating dominance on the light-squares while IM Kiewra appeared to only be looking for some counterplay. But with very resourceful and accurate play (27….Rxb7! 28.Qxb7 e4!) the game once again looked very unclear and dangerous for both sides.  The players continued to trade accurate moves back and forth (29.Rg3!, 30…Be5!) when finally Marcel made a decisive misstep in the form of 33.Kh3 whereupon 33…e3! Was lights out as would have been 33…Rf5!.

Instead, had Marcel played 33.Kh1!, analysis shows that it is Black who must play accurately to compensate for his material deficit. Note that the bishop on e5 can not capture on g3 because of Qg7 mate. The move 33…e3 could, in this case, be dealt with effectively via 34.Rg2 Qf3 35.Qc6 as 34…Qf3 is not check. Instead Black would carefully need to play 33…Qb2! Followed by 34.Rd1 Bxg3 35.hxg3 Rf2 36.Qg7+ Qxg7 37.hxg7+ Kxg7 with an equalized ending.

With this slight misstep, a game which appeared to even having winning chances for the Sluggers ended in defeat and the remaining boards were under pressure to produce a +1 result in order to tie the match, or +2 result (of 3 games) to win the match. But this did not seem like too terribly unlikely. On board one, IM Slava Mikhailuk was defending the Black side of a dangerous looking attack on his kingside arising from the Sicilian. IM Zhanibek Amanov wielded the White pieces and was proceeding down the board, but Slava was remaining alert and gradually finding decent activity for his pieces.

After some back-and-forth mistakes (18…Bb7? Was mistaken and should have been met with 19.Qf2! rather than 19.Rf2? for example) Black had just about equalized when he made a critical oversight and played 26…Bxg7? 27.Rxf7 Qe2? Aiming to tie the queen down to e3 so she could not capture on g6. But Amanov quickly revealed a combination which Slava had overlooked: 28.Rxg7+! Kxg7 29.Qe5+ Kg8 30.Bd4 and the mate threats on g7 and h8 were far too much to cope with.  Instead, Slava could have played 26…Bd6! Whereupon 27.Qh3 (or 27.Qh4) can be met with 27…f5! amazingly solving Black’s defensive problems. Thus here too, equality was close at hand just before a tactical mistake spelled defeat for the Sluggers.

This game wrapped up not too long after Marcel’s and thus the Sluggers had scored 0/2 where 1/2 or even 1.5/2 had moments ago seemed feasible. But the Sluggers were not to be counted out! NM Josh Sinanan played quite smoothly and cashed in on a couple of inaccuracies (20…c5? in particular) by FM Eugene Yanayt to gain a healthy extra pawn with big winning chances. Still after some back and forth inaccuracies for both sides, FM Yanayt missed an opportunity to nearly equalize the ending with 35…Nh5+ when the check buys just enough tiem to coordinate the Black forces and avoid conceding any extra material. Instead after 35…Nf5 36.Rd7 White was back on a healthy path to victory and before long had regained his extra pawn, thereby obtaining a pair of protected passed pawns on the queenside. The game ended in checkmate and the Sluggers still had a chance to equalize the match.

It looked like this just might happen as on board three the Slugger’s FM Curt Collyer had gained an extra pawn against FM Konstantin Kavutskiy and appeared to have winning chances though it never quite looked like he would be able to break White’s resistance. Curt Collyer again sprung his 1…b6 defense and managed to, again, acquire quite a decent position! By move 15 (15…Nb4) it was already clear that White had not managed to gain much of anything out of the opening. The long maneuvering struggle which ensued remained mostly balanced though for a while it appeared that White had modestly better chances. At one point in the game, both players faltered severely, and Black should have ended up down a piece. This occurred after 30…Bb3? When White missed the opportunity to play 31.Qd3! threatening Qb5 and simply planning to meet 31…Bxa4 with 32.Qc4 b5 33.Qxc6. There is no adequate solution to this move and Black could have lost the game. Instead, FM Kavutskiy played the more meek 31.Bc2? and Black had attained full equality. A further serious mistake by Kavutskiy (36.f4?) simply blundered away a pawn and gave Black substantial winning chances. Tragically, Curt missed his chance when he played the quite natural recapture 63…Nxb5 instead of cleverly using the king to capture the pawn with 63…Kb6! 64.Kf2 a3! 65.Nc1 Kxb5 66.Ke3 Kc4 67.Kd2 Nf5 68.Kc2 Nxd4 69.Kb1 Kc3! -+ With the idea of 70.Ka2 Kc2 -+. Instead after 63…Nxb5, the slight loss of time for the king’s penetration was enough to allow White to hold the draw. Though he fought to the very last, Curt was unable to finally make anything of his extra pawn and the game was finally drawn.

A disappointing loss for the Sluggers but as the playoff seat had already been secured – the Sluggers will play on next week! Best of luck Sluggers!