The US Championships ended a couple weeks ago (on May 25th), and I apologize for being a bit slow for writing about that event. It took me a while to come up with the correct title. =)
I’ll start with the finish, and then work my way there from the beginning. I ended up with 3.5/9, tied for 18th place with GM Melik Khachiyan, GM Alex Lenderman, and IM Levon Altounian. The minus-2 result was a big disappointment, as I had been generally playing well leading up to the event, and I had higher hopes for my first US Championship.
The title was taken in tiebreaks this year by GM Gata Kamsky over GM Yury Shulman. Both finished the set of regular games with 7.0/10 (5.0/7 in the main event, and then 2.0/3 in the quad), and by holding a draw with black in the sudden-death tiebreak game, Kamsky won the title.
I knew I would be playing Shulman in the first round (in a closed field, it’s not difficult to figure out where the cut is made), but the colors were up in the air. When Nakamura drew the black envelope at the opening ceremony, it was clear Yury would have the white pieces against me. Not ideal, but so it goes. Shulman and I share a lot of the same openings – as white we both play 1.d4, while as black, we both play the French and Semi-Slav Defenses. Thus, I was a bit wary of walking into some home-cooking and surprised him right away in the opening with the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
There were some interesting middlegame moments, but one of the key moments was when we reached the following endgame:
2r3k1/p4ppp/4n3/p6b/8/P3PN1P/R3BPP1/6K1 b - - 0 24)
White has just played 24.h3, creating some luft for his king. However, there is a second idea behind the idea, which explains why Yury chose that pawn move instead of 24.g3. After h3, White threatens to sideline Black’s bishop with 25.g4 and then 26.Ne5. Black’s bishop could come out to e4 then (or f7 if he plays 24…f6), but the real problem then is that while White’s knight can be used to target the queenside, Black’s bishop has no real active prospects. Thus, while 24…Bxf3! might look a bit unnatural (giving up the bishop for a knight in an open position), it is definitely the right move. After exchanging off the bishop, I activated my rook and knight, fixing the weakness on a3 in the process. Eventually, to save his a3-pawn, Yury had to give up his bishop for my knight and then an exchange of a3 for a7 ensued.
8/4kp2/R5p1/4P1Kp/7P/p5P1/5P2/r7 b - - 4 44)
It’s a rook and pawn endgame with equal material and no obvious weaknesses. Furthermore, Black has an outside passed pawn. So what kind of trouble could he ever be in?
Actually, there is still some danger. If Black plays 44…a2, for example, then 45.Kh6! would be a real problem (45.e6 is tricky, but for the moment, Black has 45…Re1! 46.Rxa2 Rxe6 with a draw). Black’s rook has nowhere good to go from a1 and the pawn on a2 actually hurts. If 45…Re1 now, then 46.Rxa2 Rxe5 47.Kg7 will win the f7-pawn by force (Ra7+ is threatened, and if the king moves, then Ra6/Ra8+ first will force the king back to e7, when Ra7+ again wins the pawn).
I was alert to the danger, and played 44…Rf1 instead. The f-pawn is en prise and if it moves up to f4, then 45…Rf3 turns the tables on White. Thus, White has to liquidate and after 45.e6 Rxf2 46.exf7 Kxf7 47.Ra7+ Kf8 48.Rxa3 Kg7 49.Ra7+ Rf7, there wasn’t much more to play for and we soon agreed to a draw.
That game, while not particularly exciting, was a solid effort from me and a good start to the event. A draw with black against one of the top players was fine, even by my ambitious standards. Unfortunately, it was to be one of only three games at this tournament where I played anywhere near my best. Along the way, I played some pretty horrendous moves and games.
In round 2, I was white against GM Sergey Kudrin. A lifelong Grunfeld devotee, Kudrin had held a draw without too much trouble in a 4.Bf4 Grunfeld against me in 2008. Since I didn’t have any great new ideas in that line, I decided to try something new, going for the 7.Bc4 Grunfeld that Topalov has had a lot of success with. Unfortunately, I only had a short time to do the work on this line and I took a couple shortcuts that burned me in the end.
r1bq1rk1/pp2ppbp/2n3p1/2p5/2BPP3/2P1B3/P3NPPP/R2Q1RK1 b - - 5 10)
This is the position after 10.Be3. I had essentially ignored the once popular Seville Variation and Bronstein Variations (both beginning with 10…Bg4), as Kudrin hadn’t played them in ages and had instead played many of the other important 10th move alternatives. Anand, for example, tried out 10…Na5 and 10…b6 against Topalov in the recent World Championship match. Besides that, 10…Qc7 and 10…Bd7 are quite popular now, and so I was more focused on those moves. But, as luck would have it, Sergey dashed out 10…Bg4 when we got that position, and pretty much all my preparation went out the window.
r2r2k1/1p2p2p/4PppB/nN1P4/b7/3B1P2/P5PP/5RK1 w - - 1 23)
Having been surprised, I probably somewhat unwisely ventured down the main line of the Bronstein Variation, sacrificing an exchange, without really knowing the line properly. At some point, I mixed up the order of moves between Bh6 and Qd4, allowing an extra opportunity for him to exchange queens with …Qb6. Still, I thought the exchange-down endgame I reached was quite reasonable for me, but in the above position, the first of many hallucinations hit me.
Black is threatening the d5-pawn, and White has to guard it with his knight. When I had gone for this endgame, I had looked at 23.Nc7 Rac8 24.Bf4, initially figuring that the knight on c7 couldn’t be touched, and so White was better. Black’s minor pieces aren’t doing anything, and he can’t chase my bishop from the diagonal (…g5, Bg3 stays on the diagonal). Only now I noticed that with 24…Bc6, Black could maybe cause some problems for me on the d-file.
I continued thinking, and looked at 25.Be4 f5 26.dxc6 fxe4 27.cxb7 Nxb7, only now, instead of realizing that it was White’s turn (and now 28.fxe4 is obvious, giving me the d5-square for my knight and two pawns for the exchange – the position equal), I thought it was Black’s turn! If it’s Black’s turn, then 28…exf3 is obvious, when 29.Rxf3 Rd1+ causes all sorts of problems.
Shocked at this turn of events, I decided to go backwards and played 23.Nc3, but that cost me any chance at the initiative and I was soon retreating with all my pieces. Kudrin was soon able to reorganize his pieces and slowly pick off the d5-pawn, after which I was just down an exchange for no real compensation.
The amazing thing is that I only realized I had given Black two moves in a row when I came back to my room after the game. I was inputting the variations I had seen (normal practice for me, I like to compare what I saw during the game with is “correct” when I analyze my games later on), and naturally, ChessBase wouldn’t let me make two moves in a row for Black.
In the third round, I was black against GM Jesse Kraai. I had hoped not to play either Kraai or Shankland in this event, but in a small field and a poor start, I ended up playing both of them. He surprised me early on with 6.Bd2 in the Semi-Slav, but I came up with an interesting novelty at the board:
r1bqkb1r/pp1n1ppp/2p1pn2/3p4/2PP4/2N1PN2/PP1B1PPP/R2QKB1R b KQkq - 0 6)
White’s 6.Bd2 can either be a prelude to 7.Qc2 and 8.0-0-0 (a sharp line that is probably ok for White), or 7.Bd3 (when White has avoided the sharpest lines of the Meran). I don’t know which line Jesse had intended to play against me (he later played the 7.Bd3 line against Stripunsky and lost), but I decided to try something new at the board with 6…g6!?. It looks a bit funny, having played …e6 already, but the idea is pretty simple. White’s e4-push, a standard response when Black doesn’t act in the center in these Semi-Slav lines, isn’t so dangerous when there’s a pawn on g6 blocking White’s kingside play. The bishop on g7 also has a strong presence on the long diagonal. Meanwhile, the Bd2 looks a bit silly now, as White would prefer to have it on b2 or a3. The opening experiment went quite well, and I gradually equalized and then gained an advantage.
1rr3k1/1b1n1pbp/p3qnp1/2pp4/8/Q1N1PN2/PP2BPPP/2RRB1K1 w - - 8 19)
In the above position, after 18…Rf8-c8, Black has a definite plus. He has a hanging-pawn structure, but White can’t really target the pawns in a good way. The pawns take away a lot of good squares from White’s pieces and Black is fully developed behind the pawns. I maintained a plus for a while, and while I had many alternatives as time pressure began, I didn’t see any that presented great winning chances. My real troubles began in the following position:
4rbk1/2N2p1p/6p1/5r2/4b3/4P3/P5PP/2RRB1K1 b - - 4 35)
White has just played 35.Kf2-g1, and here, with my clock below 2 minutes, I was debating between 35…Bh6 and 35…Rb8. Unfortunately, I decided to play 35…Rb8?, thinking that I could play …Bh6 later on.
While 35…Bh6 doesn’t win, it is better than what I did, as for example, White is in big trouble after 36.Bf2. Then 36…Rb8 37.Rd4 Rb2 hits White too quickly, and 37.Na6 Rb2 is also winning for Black, as White’s bishop isn’t on the e1-a5 diagonal.
But, after 35…Rb8, the game continued 36.Rd4 Bb1? 37.Na6, reaching the following diagram:
1r3bk1/5p1p/N5p1/5r2/3R4/4P3/P5PP/1bR1B1K1 b - - 8 37)
Jesse offered me a draw with this move. I was down to a minute left, and while he had been thinking about 36.Rd4 and 37.Na6, I realized that 35…Bh6 was the right way to go. I thought for a little bit here, and then decided to decline the draw and played 37…Bh6??. Unfortunately, this was not a case of better late than never.
After 38.Bd2 Rb2, it hit me that 39.Rd8+ Kg7 40.Bc3 is check! Uh oh. For the time being, after 40…f6, the Rb2 is taboo because of …Bxe3+, but that threat is easily dealt with. After 40…f6 41.Rd7+ Kg8 42.Bd4, White threatens a winning check on c8 and the rook, and Black can’t play …Rb8 because of the knight on a6. Black is totally lost.
This was a rather painful defeat, as I had played quite well until about move 35, when the train went off the tracks in a hurry. I tend to be rather ambitious at the board (I’ve declined draws in losing positions many times, don’t ask why), and while I generally haven’t been burned by that, here I was burned quite badly.
With 0.5/3, this was not the start I was looking for. I’ll talk about the rounds 4-6 in a later post.