Monthly Archives: January 2010

easyCancellation and the End of the World (as They Knew It)

I’m in Gibraltar now, here to play in the Gibtelecom Masters which begins later today. Somewhat unfortunately, my plans in between the tournament in Sevilla and this one were scuttled before they ever took off though. The plan was to fly from Madrid to Marrakech and spend the time between the two events in Morocco. From Tangier, I would then take a ferry across the Strait to Gibraltar.

After the prize ceremony in Sevilla, I took a train to Madrid, spent a night there, and went to the airport the following morning. Unfortunately, after a few hours of waiting, easyJet canceled my flight (along with 3 other flights they had from Madrid that morning) due to “inclement weather.” We all had to collect our bags from the baggage carousel and then go back to the check-in area to figure out what our options were.

I thought something was a bit odd, as the weather in Madrid that day (January 17th) wasn’t particularly bad – it was cloudy, may have been sprinkling at the time (although it wasn’t when I came into the airport or left), and wasn’t especially windy. Pretty much all the other carriers in the terminal had some delays on their flights, but none of them were canceling their flights. After doing some searches online, it seems that easyJet has one of the highest cancellation rates of any European airline. I’m not sure why it makes sense for them to cancel flights since it leaves planes and staff out of position (not to mention costs them money for the people who they reimburse for hotel expenses, etc), but they seem to pull the trigger quickly on canceling flights.

In any case, we had no choice but to wait in line with hundreds of other passengers to hear our options. They made another strange move at this point, opening only two of the desks for these displaced passengers, but leaving six desks open for new check-ins – the lines at those desks were about two deep, so it shouldn’t have been too much trouble to accommodate their other passengers, but we weren’t going to have such luck.

After standing in line for 3 hours, I finally made it to the front, only to hear that their offer was a flight to Marrakech in a few days! If I took that flight, they would reimburse my hotel expenses in Madrid until then (within a reasonable amount).

Unfortunately, the loss of a few days would effectively derail my plans in Morocco. I had planned on visiting Marrakech and Tangier, combining some sightseeing with some rest. But with only a few days in Marrakech before a 10-hour train ride to Tangier, the new schedule wouldn’t give me enough time to do both – I’d either have to cram a lot of sightseeing and exploring into my trip, or go to Morocco to sleep. Neither option appealed to me, so I declined that offer.

Thus, I ended up spending the interim period in Madrid. I was disappointed that my trip had been shot by the weather and easyJet, but as I like Madrid, I didn’t mind it too much in the end. I made a couple daytrips to Segovia and Salamanca, and then went to Malaga to be a bit closer to Gibraltar.

From Malaga, I took a bus yesterday to La Linea de Concepcion. There, the bus station is just a short walk from the border. While there were cars backed up waiting to get through, I crossed on foot! Of course, the border is manned, and I had to show my passport at an immigration counter, but it was quite fast and I think that’s the first time I’ve crossed a border on foot.

On the bus from Malaga, I ran into one of my opponents from Sevilla (GM Damian Lemos). Because Gibraltar is so expensive and the tournament organizers don’t provide conditions to (male) players below 2600 FIDE, he decided to stay in La Linea and will just cross the border every day before the game. I can’t think of any other tournament in the world where you would stay in a different country from the site and commute every day!

Gibraltar is a tiny British colony and the massive Rock of Gibraltar marked the end of the world for the ancient Greeks. Amusingly enough, the tournament is on the side of the Rock that faces Greece, whereas my hotel is on the other side – I guess they never would have made it here!

The tournament itself should be very strong and the pre-registered list lives up to the billing of being one of the most prestigious open tournaments in the world. The top seed is French GM Etienne Bacrot. One of the strongest American players ever, GM Gata Kamsky, clocks in as the 5th seed.

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He Who Has Fewer Pieces at the End can Still Draw

In my last post, I summarized a couple of my important wins from the tournament. After the win against Adina-Maria Hamdouchi in the 4th round, I got the black pieces against her husband, top seed GM Hicham Hamdouchi. Even though I didn’t win this game, it was probably my best game of the event because of the fight I had to put up to get even half a point. The opening was a Ruy Lopez, and in the following position, I had just played 19…d6-d5:

Surprised by a relative sideline, I decided to try and sacrifice my b5-pawn in the hopes of getting some active piece play in return. By the time I played …d5, I had already seen White’s upcoming maneuver, but I still had to get rid of my backward d-pawn and try to open things up for my pieces.

After 20.exd5 Qxd5 21.Nb1!, it looks like Black can’t take on b5 yet because of 22.Ba4, skewering Queen and Rook. Actually, Black can consider it, because after 22.Ba4, he can throw in 22…Bxf3! 23.gxf3 (White would like to take back with his queen, but then the Ba4 hangs, while if he takes on b5, Black takes on d1 and will have two pieces for the rook) Qb8 24.Bxe8 Qxe8 with some compensation. I considered this, but decided that it was a bit too speculative with White’s b2-pawn still around. For what it’s worth, Rybka considers this best for Black.

Instead, I played 21…Qb7, keeping the Q + B battery on the long diagonal. Now Black is planning 22…e4 and 23…e3, prying open the kingside. He played 22.Be3 to stop the e-pawn from making its way down the board, reaching the following diagram:

Now did I take on b5 with 22…Qxb5. After the game, he asked me why I didn’t play 22…Nd5 instead. I considered it, but the line 23.Nc3 Nxe3 24.Rxe3 (he preferred 24.fxe3) Bc5 25.Be4 dissuaded me. He had thought Black could play 25…Qb6 here, and on 26.Re2 Bxe4, White will lose his extra pawn: if White takes back with his rook, f2 hangs, while if he takes back with his knight, b5 falls. However, after 25…Qb6, White has the key intermediate move 26.Na4! and the tactics work out in his favor after 26…Qxb5 27.Nxc5 Qxc5 28.Qa4! (hitting e8 and a8) Qc8 (the only move) 29.Bxg6 fxg6 30.Nxe5 with a big advantage.

After 22…Qxb5 23.Ba4 Qxb2 24.Bxe8 Nxe8, we reached an interesting position that I considered to provide me with excellent drawing chances in a practical game. In a correspondence game, that evaluation might change. =)

But wait, there’s more!

A Good Start to the New Year

I’m done with the first leg of my 2-month trip, having finished the tournament in Sevilla a couple days ago. I finished in a tie for first with four others on 7.0/9! This is definitely a better start to the new year than in 2009, where I floundered horribly at the Parsvnath Open in Delhi.

On the mathematical tiebreaks (more on that again later), I finished in 3rd place, behind GM Renier Vazquez Igarza (originally of Cuba, now in Spain) and GM Hicham Hamdouchi (originally of Morocco, now in France). The three of us were on one of the top two boards for the last couple rounds. After us came IM Kiprian Berbatov of Bulgaria and GM Kevin Spraggett (of Canada, now in Portugal). The top 3 finishers are in the prize winner’s photo below (for those who don’t know, that’s me on the right):

Amusingly enough, I got a trophy for my efforts, but it was so big that I had to leave it behind with the organizers! There was simply no room for it in my bags, and with airline rules the way they are, there was no way I could take it on the plane with me. I also wasn’t particularly interested in lugging it around Europe for the next 6-7 weeks. Maybe I can ask them to mail it to the US …

I don’t think I actually played all that well here, but it was good enough to put points on the board. Somehow, I wasn’t quite as accurate as I was in some of my tournaments at the end of last year (in Montreal, Texas, and Palma). Still, I won a couple nice games and I managed to make it through another tournament without losing a game (5 wins and 4 draws).

After giving up a draw to FM Patrick Van Hoolandt in round 3, I had the white pieces against WGM Adina-Maria Hamdouchi. An offbeat King’s Indian turned into a Leningrad Dutch type of position, and her advances on both sides of the board left her with a worse structure in the following position:

I played 22.b4! here, opening up a front on the queenside. An isolated c-pawn would be difficult to defend (and in fact, 22…c4 could lose a pawn in a couple different ways), so she exchanged on b4. After 22…cxb4 23.Qxb4, though, her light-squared bishop is in a bad way. It may want to avoid c8, but a6 isn’t a good alternative because of 24.Qa4, hitting the Ba6 and Re8. Meanwhile, after 23…Bc8, I played 24.Re4! g5 25.g4! Qf6 26.Rc1, turning my attention to the bishop and the 7th rank. Black’s problem is that she has no real play in the center and kingside and the bishop has no safe haven. She ended up having to give away a pawn to get her bishop out of harm’s way.

After a number of moves, we reached the following rook and pawn endgame:

From the end of the previous note, I picked up a pawn and then entered a rook endgame. We exchanged a couple pawns, and I had assessed this endgame as a win. Black can’t seriously attack White’s d- or f-pawns (for example, 47…Rd4 48.Rxd6 Ke7 49.Re6+ and 50.Re5 covers everything), and putting the rook on a6 leaves it extremely passive. White walks his king up and should be able to win the game.

She found an interesting idea that I had overlooked with 47…Rf4 48.Kf2 Rf6!, as the king and pawn endgame is a draw at the moment! Black’s king gets to e5, and so White’s extra f3-pawn is useless. However, her rook is still badly placed, so I decided to regroup with 49.Re4 Rh6 50.Kg3. Now if 50…Rf6, 51.f4 and the exchanges of f4 lead to a winning K+P endgame for white (White has the e5-square). She played 50…Rh8, but after 51.Re6 Rd8, I walked my king to f5 via f2, e3, and e4 with 52.Kf2!. She resigned shortly afterwards.

Amusingly enough, the following day, I had black against her husband, GM Hicham Hamdouchi (the top seed at just over 2600 FIDE). That was probably my best game of the event and I’ll talk about it in a later post.

Last on in the tournament, I had white against the young Argentine GM, Damian Lemos (2544 FIDE). This was my highest-rated scalp from the event, but I didn’t think it was a particularly good game. It was notable more for the fact I played an opening that I normally face with the black pieces.

I had faced this line against GMs Bluvshtein (in June in Montreal, I won) and Akobian (in August in Montreal, I drew), and Lemos registered some surprise when I went for it. While I’ve played a couple different setups against the Semi-Slav Meran Variation, I had never gone for this before.

I’m not sure if his preparation was based on my games in this line, as when the opportunity to follow in my footsteps arose, he thought for the first time in a very topical position these days. After a long think (26 minutes!), he deviated from my games with 15…g6 in the following position:

The amusing thing was that the plan he chose was not one that I seriously considered during or before either of my games! Against Bluvshtein, I too was worried about Nd4-f5, but decided to play the prophylactic 15…Bc7 to avoid the kingside weaknesses and a possible f4/e5 pawn roller (see the writeup here). Against Akobian, I tried a speculative piece sacrifice with with 14…b4 (instead of 14…Ne5-d7 15.g2-g3 as in this game) 15.Nf5 Bc5 16.Na4 Bxf2+, which I wrote about here.

After a long think, I played 16.Be3!?, which invites him to continue with his plan of 16…b4 17.Na4 c5. This is a common motif for Black in these Meran setups, as it activates his light-squared bishop and can open up some diagonals for Black’s bishops and queen. The e4-pawn in this case is also en prise.

When I played 16.Be3, I had originally planned 18.Nb5 here, thinking that on 18…Bxe4 19.Qc4, if he moved his Bd6 anywhere, I’d take on d7 and then take on e4, getting two pieces for a rook. After I played 16.Be3, though, I took a walk around the playing hall and realized that after 19.Qc4, he could play the intermediate 19…Ne5! 20.Qc1 and only then 20…Be7. He’d then have a quite good position.

Luckily, when I played 16.Be3, I hadn’t put all my eggs in one basket, and had noticed that 18.Nb3 was also interesting. While not hitting any piece, the c5-pawn is under serious pressure, and I thought that after 18…Bxe4 19.Qd2, I would get a knight to c5 with a small plus. Actually, my advantage there isn’t so big, so that was the right way for him to continue. Instead, he played 18…Nxe4, missing 19.Na5!:

Somewhat surprisingly, Black is just lost here! White is directly or indirectly putting pressure on all four of Black’s minor pieces, and he just doesn’t have the time to save all of them. The immediate threat is 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Bf3, hitting and pinning the Ne4. After Black guards the knight, White plays 22.Rxd6, taking advantage of the fact the Ne4 is pinned to the Qb7.

Meanwhile, if 19…Ndf6, guarding the knight in advance, White has 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.f3. If the Ne4 moves, the Bd6 hangs. The Bd6 can’t move at the moment because the Nd7 hangs behind it. And the Ne4 can’t move because of 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Rxd6. So what to do?

He tried 19…f5, but that doesn’t really help after 20.f3 Ndf6 21.Nxb7. He played on for a while, even down two minor pieces, but he never really had a chance.

19.Na5! was a somewhat non-standard move, but it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to find and it really just ended things immediately. I had expected a tougher game, and this maneuver ended things a bit prematurely in my opinion. Not that I’m complaining of course – I was happy to take the easy win and improve my preparation along the way.

I’ll write about a couple of my other interesting games in a couple days …

En España, de nuevo

Yesterday evening, I arrived in Spain after a 30-hour trip from San Francisco that began on Tuesday afternoon. I’m here for the Sevilla Open, which begins on January 8th – the first of four tournaments I will be playing on this trip (the rumors of my imminent retirement have been greatly exaggerated).

My trip went from SFO to Amsterdam to London to Seville. There were delays on each flight, but nothing too serious. The first one was delayed because the KLM plane from Amsterdam was late (because of the enhanced security measures at Schipol Airport), while the flight from Amsterdam to London was delayed because London has been receiving record snowfall these past couple weeks.

Once I got to Heathrow, I was a bit worried that I’d be grounded there. British Airways had cancelled all their flights to Spain that afternoon and evening, and I was desperately hoping that the Iberia flight I was on would not meet the same fate. Luckily, it didn’t and we got off the ground about 45 minutes after the scheduled take-off time.

I did have a couple strange security experiences along the way. In San Francisco, after passing the metal detectors without any problems, I had put my laptop back in my backpack and collected my belongings. But just as I was taking my bag off the belt and walking away, I received a little tap on the shoulder, and I was “randomly selected for a further screening.” I’ve occasionally been selected when I’m still in the area, but this was the first time I had been randomly selected as I was about to leave the roped off area.

In Amsterdam, I was already past the main security checkpoint, but they had another one set up at the gate. However, they didn’t have security personnel at the gate 2 hours before the flight, so people just filed in and sat inside the “clean” area. Once the security guards came, everybody had to leave and they did a reasonably thorough search of the formerly clean area, taking apart the garbage can, crawling along the floor to look under the seats, and so on. They probably could have saved themselves the trouble had they just closed the area off for passengers when nobody was around to check them.

They did another strange thing when they scanned our carry-on bags. I had bought a water bottle inside the terminal, so I should theoretically have been able to bring it in, even if I hadn’t declared it. I didn’t think it would be a problem, so I didn’t pull it out of my bag. And when I got to the other side of the metal detectors, there was no problem. However, a guy further behind in the line had to throw out his water bottle. Did they just not see the bottle when they scanned my bag?

Finally, in London, they were quite professional. I’ve been through Heathrow a dozen times over the past couple years and it seems to me that the security guards there seem to enjoy their job a bit more than they do in other airports. Anyways, one guy kept calling out “Do you have anything in your pockets? Anything left in your pockets?”

Somehow, the word “pockets” was repeated often enough that I was reminded of the scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo escapes from Gollum by asking Gollum what he has in his pockets. By the time I got to the front of the line, I was chuckling at the imaginary scene of the security guard hissing “Have you gots anything in your pocketses?”

I’ll try and post some updates as the tournament rolls along.