I recently competed in the SPICE Cup (Group B) in Lubbock, Texas. Hosted by Texas Tech University, it was a Category 11 round-robin (average rating 2503 FIDE). The top group was a Category 16 (average 2631 FIDE) double round-robin.
As the 3rd lowest rated player in the event, I didn’t expect it to be an easy event, but unlike my previous event in Montreal, the players here were much more tightly bunched in terms of strength. The highest rated player in the group, IM Gabor Papp (2562 FIDE) of Hungary, was not so much higher rated than me, while the lowest rated player, FM Daniel Rensch (2386 FIDE), had beaten me two times in three previous encounters.
I started the event off with white against a nemesis of mine – IM Davorin Kuljasevic (2547 FIDE). He was at UTD for a few years before starting at Texas Tech this fall as a graduate student. We had only played once before in person, but in USCL play, he was one of only two players with a higher performance rating in league history and had beaten me down a couple times. After 14.dxc5, we reached the following position:
Strangely enough, I had the position after 14 moves before, in 2006 against GM R.B. Ramesh. Somehow, though, Davorin missed this in his preparations and so he had already spent a good deal of time to get to the diagrammed position!
Anyways, Ramesh played 14…f6, which avoids the problem of 14…Nxc5 – namely that the knight capture walks into 15.Rfd1!. The d5-pawn is pinned (since capturing on c4 would lead to mate on d8), but after 15…Be6, White has 16.Qb2!. With the pin broken, the d5-pawn is again under attack, but now the g7-pawn is as well.
After a short think, Kuljasevic played 14…dxc4, which is a better move. After 15.Rfd1 0-0 16.Be7 Re8 17.Bd6 Nf6, I felt I was better, but I struggled to find a way to keep my advantage. On 18.Rac1, I decided that Black would likely play 18…b5 (if 18…Be6 19.Nd4 Bd5 20.Qb2 looks annoying, threatening both Nf5 and Nb5). White would then like to play 19.a4, but without a rook on a1, Black can simply play 19…bxa4.
With this in mind, I played 18.Rdc1?!. Now 18…b5 walks right into 19.a4! bxa4 20.Qxc4 Qxc4 21.Rxc4 Be6 22.Rcxa4 with a winning position. However, with the rook’s departure from the d-file, the Bd6 is slightly loose, and Kuljasevic was alert to this fact. After 18…Be6 19.Nd4 Ne4! 20.Nxe6 Rxe6 21.Qxc4 Qxc4 22.Rxc4, Black gets his pawn back with 22…Nxd6. Unfortunately, White’s other rook is sitting on a1 instead of d1 …
In round 2, I was white against IM Ben Finegold (2513 FIDE). Ben has long been one of America’s strongest IMs, but he somehow has never managed to get the GM title. He surprised me in the opening, but my biggest mistake was thinking that I had the advantage (and so should press). In reality, I was worse, and I should have been playing for equality. By the time I realized what was up, I was already clearly worse, and soon found myself in the following position after 24…Bb4-e7!.
Black is now threatening to take twice on g3, followed by …Bh4, pinning and winning the rook. White can’t easily defend the g3-pawn and pushing it to g4 isn’t an option because f4 becomes irremediably weak. Meanwhile, 25.f4 doesn’t help as after 25…Nf6, White can’t really guard the e4-pawn properly. The Queen is needed to guard the b5-knight; the b5-knight needs to stay put because the b3-knight is undefended behind it.
In time pressure, I decided to play 25.Nd2. The idea is to guard the g3-pawn from f1. Finegold continued with his plan: 25…hxg3+ 26.hxg3 Nxg3 27.Rxg3 Bh4 28.Nf1 Nf4 29.Qc4! (not 29.Bxf4 Qxf4, and White can’t deal with the threat of …Rd2 later) Nh5 30.e5! (hitting the Bh4, so not giving Black time to calmly pick up the e5-pawn). After 30…Bxg3+ 31.Nxg3 Nxg3 32.Kxg3 Qxe5 33.Qf4, White has escaped the worse and I managed to draw the endgame after the queen exchange.
However, instead of 25…hxg3+, Black had the very strong 25…Rxd2!. The point is that on 26.Qxd2, Black gets two minor pieces for the rook with 26…Bxb5; meanwhile, after 26.Bxd2, Black has 26…Qb6+!, picking up the bishop on a6. It was this move that Ben missed. I saw this before playing the knight move, but as I didn’t see what else to do, I figured I might as well try. Luckily, it paid off.
With two uninspiring draws from my first two games, I faced IM Ray Robson (2527 FIDE) as black in round 3. Ray is one of America’s most promising talents in a while, and he beat me in a very complicated game in July at the World Open (https://vbhat.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/taking-a-ride-on-the-reading-the-first-half-in-philly/).
This time, I decided to go with a Ruy Lopez instead of the French Winawer. However, Ray knew the opening line I chose better than me and quickly got an advantage. After 22.e5, we reached the following position:
White controls more space across almost the entire board and has the bishop pair to boot. Among other things, he’s currently threatening 23.Bxg6 fxg6, when Black will never be able to really challenge White’s central dominance and will be stuck with rather weak kingside pawns. I played 22…Nf8, which isn’t particularly inspiring, but Black’s position is a bit tougher to crack than it looks like at first glance.
For all his pluses, White has two problems – Black’s knight on g4 controls some nice squares around White’s king, and White’s central pawns, if they can’t make any threats, can quickly become weak if Black puts pressure on the d-file.
Ray decided to solve this by going after the knight on g4 (and the pawn on h5), but landed himself in some trouble. After 23.Bf5 Qb6 24.Kg2 Rbd8 25.Nh2 Nxh2 26.Kxh2 c4 27.Be3 Qb7, I was threatening to take on e5 and then d5. Thus, Ray played 28.e6, and after 28…Bf6 29.axb5 Qxb5 30.Qxh5 Re7 31.Re2, we reached the following position.
Black is now down a pawn and it looks like White is in charge, but unlike the previous diagram where Black was retreating, Black now has an opportunity to move forward. After defending for a while, I didn’t need a second invitation.
With 31…fxe6 32.dxe6 d5, I got my pawns moving. Surprisingly, White’s position is not so easy. One threat, for example, is 33…d4 34.Bf2 Rd5 35.g5 g6, trapping White’s queen! Ray played 33.Bd2 d4 34.Ra5 Qb6, but there is still no real attack on the kingside, while Black is definitely threatening something with his pawn mass. After 35.g4 d3 36.Rg2 Bxb2 37.Be4 Qd4 38.Re5 c3, we reached the following position:
Black’s pawns are rolling, so Ray found the only way to make things interesting with 39.Be3!. By this point, by the way, we were both in horrible time pressure. With no second time control, all we could rely on was the 30-second increment. Thus, intuition has to take over, as the position is still rather complicated and you don’t have time to calculate everything.
I immediately played 39…Qxe3 40.Bh7+ Nxh7 41.Rxe3 d2, but after 42.Qc5, I had to think a little bit. I have two minor pieces for the queen, but with my d- and c-pawns, I felt my position had to be winning when I gave up my queen.
Still, it’s not trivial. For example, 42…Ree8 43.e7 Rd7 would lose to 44.Qc4+! Kh8 45.Qf7!, and White’s threats carry the day. Similarly, 42…Kf8 also loses, this time to 43.Rd3!! Rxd3 44.Qc8+ Re8 45.e7+ Kf7 (not 45…Kxe7 46.Re2+) 46.Qc4+ and after 47.Qxd3, Black’s pawns are frozen.
With that in mind, I played 42…Rxe6!, and after 43.Rxe6 d1/Q 44.g5 (trying to restrict Black’s knight on h7) Nf8 45.Re7, I found 45…Qh5. White’s h4-pawn is surprisingly weak, and moving the king up to the 3rd rank entails allowing Black to play …Ng6, hitting the pawn again. Thus, Ray tried 46.Qc4+ Kh8 47.f5, but at this point, I took advantage of some nice chess geometry to play 47…c2!. The pawn is going to queen, but if White plays 48.Rxc2, then 48…Rd4 wins the h4-pawn and White is not going to survive that attack. Ray tried 48.f6, but after 48…c1/Q (double promotion!) 49.fxg7+, Black has 49…Bxg7!. The end was 50.Qxc1 Qxh4+ 51.Kg1 Bd4+ 52.Kf1 Qh1+, and White is going to lose his queen, so Ray resigned.
In round 4, I was white against Gabor Papp. This time I got in an effective opening surprise and he reacted poorly. After 24.Qd2-h6 Rf8-e8, we reached the following position:
White’s position looks dominating, but how does he make progress. My original plan was to play 25.Nf5 here, but while 25…gxf5 loses after 26.Qg5+ Kf8 27.Rxe8+ Qxe8 28.Rd8, 25…f6 was a considerably tougher nut to crack over the board. I looked at all sorts of variations for close to half an hour before deciding that nothing was particularly clear.
I then spent another chunk of time to find something else to do, and decided on 25.c4. It’s a rather tricky move, but sadly, not the right one. After something like 25…Nc3 26.R5d6 Qxe2, White has the amazing 27.Qd2!! which wins a piece! Other moves similarly lose after 26.R5d6. White also gets the advantage after two other natural replies by Black: 25…Ra8 26.Rxa8 Rxa8 27.Nf3! is good for White, while 25…Nd4 26.e3! is also pleasant. Papp admitted after the game that he didn’t see what was wrong with 25…Nc3, but that after my 40 minute think, he figured I had found something. Buying the act, he decided to play the correct 25…Nc7!.
After 26.R5d6, he again reached correctly with 26…Qxe2 27.R8d7 Qxc4!. Black needs to break the pin on the c7-knight, so he needs to free the b5-square for the knight. He also threatens Re1+ and Qf1+ himself, so I played 28.Nf3. After 28…Nb5, though, I had no choice but to go for a repetition with 29.Ng5 Re1+ 30.Kg2 Qf1+ 31.Kf3 Qe2+ 32.Kg2 and the game was agreed drawn shortly.
Back in that diagram, though, White did have a win with 25.Nf5 – after 25.Nf5 f6 26.Rxe8+ Qxe8 27.Qd2! Ra8 28.Nh6+ Kh8 29.a4!, White is winning. 29.Rd7 would have failed to 29…Nd4!!, but by kicking the knight away first, White’s rook and queen invade with decisive impact.
So with a few ups and downs, I found myself with 2.5/4. At the time, GM Perelshteyn was leading with 3.0/4, along with IMs Finegold and Antal.