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!

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