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!