Backing into the Playoffs

Yesterday was the last round of the 2009 USCL regular season. Going into the match, we were tied with the Arizona Scorpions for 2nd place in the Western Division, a full match point behind Seattle and a point ahead of Miami.

Our primary goal was to secure draw odds in at least the first round of the playoffs, and to do that, we needed one of the following scenarios to play out:

(1)   A win in our match, coupled with an Arizona loss and a Seattle loss would give us the 1st seed in the West, because while we’d be tied on game points, our opponent’s average rating was higher than Seattle’s.

(2)   A win or draw in our match, coupled with an Arizona loss and a Seattle draw or win, would give us the 2nd seed.

(3)   A draw in our match would give us 2nd place at best, and only if Arizona lost their match (again, our opponent’s average rating was higher than Arizona). If Arizona drew their match, then they’d have more game points than us, and so it wouldn’t get to the opponent’s average rating.

Dallas has traditionally been a pretty tough match for us, so we weren’t expecting a cakewalk. An hour or so into the match, it wasn’t really clear to me how we were doing.

My game wasn’t particularly interesting – Bercys surprised me with the Queen’s Gambit Declined. I had been expecting a King’s Indian, so this was a big departure from the norm. As it was, we repeated a game of mine against a British GM earlier this year for a little less than 20 moves. That game ended in a draw, and this one was headed for the same result. I played a bit too loosely on the kingside, but with a big time advantage, I wasn’t in too much trouble.

By the time it was clear that I wouldn’t have any winning chances on my board, our board 4 phenom, Yian Liou, beat WFM Zorigt on board 4 in a strange Dragon endgame. At that point, we were a little better on board 3 (Naroditsky was up the exchange, although I thought White had decent compensation) and clearly better on board 1 (where Wolff had turned around a dubious-looking opening into a big endgame advantage). I quickly offered a draw, and Bercys was kind enough to accept.

In this position after 23…Rb8 from Ludwig-Wolff, White is already in some trouble:

Ludwig - Wolff 1

White has to cover the b2-square, and so Ludwig played 24.Kc2. Wolff played 24…Ba6, threatening …Rb4 in some lines, so Ludwig covered that with 25.a3. Patrick then rerouted his knight nicely with 25…Na8!, heading for b6. This further inconvenienced White, who had to play 26.Na4 to cover the b6-square. With the e4-pawn no longer attacked, Black had a free hand to come in via the f-file with 26…Rf5!. With a series of jabs, White has been backed into a corner.

Wolff could have capped his effort off with a nice little tactic in the following position after 29.Rg4:

Ludwig - Wolff 2

Instead of 29…Bc8 (which maintains a clear plus, because 30.Rxe4 loses to 30…Bf5 31.Re7? Rc2#!), Black had 29…Nxd5+!, taking advantage of the fact the Bf1 has one less defender. After 30.cxd5 Bxf1 31.Rxe4 Bg2, White is toast – Black’s rooks and bishop are too active, and White’s king is too exposed.

On the plus side, at this point, Arizona had already gone down to Miami, so we were playing with house money in a sense as the 2nd seed was ours. However, the Seattle match was up for grabs, and if they lost, we would have liked to get at least 2.5 from our match to take the top seed!

Unfortunately for us, after some good defense from Ludwig and mistakes in mild time-pressure, Wolff found himself having to defend an exchange-down endgame.

Ludwig - Wolff 3

This was the final chance in my view for Black to try and save the game. Patrick played 48…Bh3, going after the c4-pawn. While it does win a pawn, it frees the d5-pawn for White and that is the more important factor. Black’s connected passers never became a factor and Ludwig pushed his d-pawn all the way. It seems to me that Black can try for a draw with either 48…Bc8 (forcing the rook to take the a7-pawn with Ra8xa7, while Black pushes on the kingside) or 48…Kf6 (centralizing the king, and again planning to push the kingside pawns).

In any case, the result of this game was a moot point as Seattle held on for a draw. Thus, we took 2nd place in the Western Division, behind Seattle and ahead of Arizona and Miami. After winning the division in 2005 and 2006, we’ve taken 2nd place the past 3 years. Our best regular season record of 8.5/10 however has gone untouched, as both Seattle and New Jersey fell just short of the mark this year.

Next week, we’ll face the Scorpions with draw odds (they’ll choose the color they want on board 1 tonight). We have a 1-1 record against them historically.

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