I got back from Montreal a few days back (I spent some extra time there after the event), so it’s now high time to blog about the tournament.
Going into the event, I knew it would be a struggle, as it was the strongest tournament I had ever played in. The average rating of the entire field was 2615 FIDE (or Category 15); however, as the lowest-rated at 2473 FIDE, my opposition had an average rating closer to 2630 FIDE (or Category 16).
Up until this event, the strongest field I had ever faced was at the Qingdao Open in China in 2002. I was there to play an open event prior to the US-China Chess Summit Match, and I ended up making my first official GM norm with a +1 score against a field with an average rating of close to 2580 FIDE.
The event saw me struggle at the start of the event, scraping only half a point out of my first three games. However, I then scored 4.5 points from my next 6 games before dropping the final two games to finish at -1 with 5.0/11.
In the first round, I had white against GM Alexander Onischuk (2699 FIDE). I had never played (or met) Onischuk before this event, and to be honest, I was a little nervous before the game – it’s not normal for me to start out an event against such a strong player. In most open tournaments that I play in, I get a 2200 or so in the first round, and so I can more easily ease myself into the competition. Here, though, I was going to be facing one of the top dogs out of the gate.
After 7 moves of a Queen’s Indian, I was rather embarrassingly on my own – maybe it was because it was my first game of the event, but I was definitely a bit slower than usual with my move-making (and I’m normally quite slow!). We reached the following position after 10 moves:
I had already gone wrong a little bit after being surprised, but I shouldn’t be worse here. However, I think I underestimated the danger and played 11.Be3. White wants to play 11.f3, hoping to force 11…exf3 12.exf3, when Black’s strong pawn on e4 disappears and the backward e6-pawn gets exposed. However, after 11.f3, Black has 11…Nc6 12.Be3 Bf6 13.d5 Na5, with a very good position. Because of this, I decided that if I guarded the d-pawn enough, I would get to play f3 later. Unfortunately, Onischuk never gave me a chance to do so under favorable circumstances.
Thus, 11.f3 was probably still correct, but after 11…Nc6, 12.e3 is probably the way to go. It’s not ideal, as after 12…exf3 13.Bxf3, the pawn structure isn’t the best case scenario for White, but at least White has room to move his pieces around. In the game, after 11.Be3 Nc6 12.Qd2 Bf6 13.Rad1 Qe7, I still don’t have a good hold on the d4-pawn, and so I played the visually unattractive 14.Nb5, but this was already a bad sign for me. Onischuk increased his advantage quickly, but rather than slowly grind me down, he decided to play quite concretely, reaching the following position after 23…Qxa3:
I played 24.Bxd4, when Onischuk played 24…Rxd4 (not 24…Bxd4 25.Rxd4, when Black’s king on h8 is toast) 25.Rxd4 bxc5 26.Rd8, and now Black has only one move to win, but win it does (and it’s not too hard to find). Both 26…Rxd8 27.Qxf6 and 26…Bxc3 27.Rxf8 win for White, so Black has to close the g-file with the intermediate 26…e3+, when 27.Bg2 Bxc3 28.Rxf8+ Kg7 wins for Black.
Ok, so I lost the first round, but losing to Onischuk isn’t such a bad thing. He’s a very strong player, so I could live with the result. In round 2, as black against GM Varuzhan Akobian (2626 FIDE), I thought I had some very strong preparation in his favorite line of an Anti-Meran Variation of the Semi-Slav. Here’s the position we reached after 14.Nd4:
Akobian had recently won a couple very big games in this line, against Becerra at the US Championships and then Fressinet at the National Open. I had prepared the piece sacrifice with 14…b4 15.Nf5 Bc5 16.Na4 Bxf2+ 17.Kxf2 Neg4+ for him, and here I got my chance to play it. Unfortunately, my theoretical surprise failed on two levels – both levels, incidentally, on which I expected it to score:
(1) Although new, Akobian had done his homework well and looked at this exact piece sacrifice on his own!
(2) And more concerning, it turns out to not be sound!
Of course, I couldn’t know (1) beforehand, but I could have known (2) had I done my preparation more thoroughly. But, ignorance is bliss, and so I played these moves quickly. After Akobian continued to blitz out the moves 18.Bxg4 Nxg4+ 19.Ke1 Qxh2 20.Qe2 Rad8 21.Bg5 f6 22.Be3, I was quite worried, since I hadn’t expected him to have known about this line. However, after 22…h5, he sank into deep thought for almost 50 minutes.
During his long think, I spent some time watching the other boards, but I also spent some time sitting in the viewing chairs watching our board on the projection screen. It was during this time that I realized that I not only couldn’t remember what to do against 23.Qf1, but I couldn’t find anything good to do either! After 23.Qf1, White covers the h1 square and prepares 24.Bf4, trapping the Black queen on h2. Retreating the queen isn’t a real option, but in this position with the insertion of Bg5/…f6/Be3 (rather than Be3 immediately), 23…Ba6 fails. Meanwhile, after 23…Nxe3 24.Nxe3 Qh4+ 25.Qf2 Qxe4 26.Nc5 Qe7 27.Nxb7 Qxb7, White has beaten back the attack and has a knight for 3 not so great pawns. White is clearly better.
Luckily for me, even after his long think, Akobian played the computer’s first choice with 23.Kf1. Against this, I did know what to do, and the game ended in a draw shortly afterwards. A couple days later, Akobian told me that his analysis file had 23.Qf1 in it, but he simply couldn’t remember it at the board and wasn’t able to find it during his think either.
Phew – one bullet dodged!
In the third round, I had white against GM Anton Kovalyov (2571 FIDE). Kovalyov qualified via the Quebec International in June, just like I did. With the white pieces, I was hoping to do some damage, but this didn’t seem to be my day. After 11…Nc6-e7, we reached the following position:
Black is obviously threatening various things along the c-file, but after a long think, I came up with the incomprehensible 12.Bb2?. I had seen, and planned, the correct 12.Bg5, and while White is not better after that, he at least isn’t really worse either. But after 12.Bb2?, I just lose a pawn to 12…Bd5 13.c5 d6, and I can’t guard the c-pawn enough times. Amazing. Down a pawn, I dug in my heels and defended like a wounded lion (I think) for another 80+ moves before finally succumbing to the inevitable.
So at this point in the event, I had 0.5/3 and was facing a game the next day against the top seed, GM Etienne Bacrot, with the black pieces. Things were looking grim, but this turned out to be the next phase of my roller coaster event …