After the win against Khachiyan in Week 3, I was back in the lineup for Week 4 as the SF Mechanics faced off against the Miami Sharks. My guess is that we’ve played them the most of any other USCL teams and they’ve had a habit of derailing us in the playoffs in the past.
As usual, GM Julio Becerra lurked on Board 1 when the lineups were posted. He’s the MVP points leader in USCL history and has also racked up the most wins. We had played a couple times previously in the USCL and both those games ended in draws. Last time I played him with black, I played the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Winawer for the first time in my life. That game can be seen here.
Not having looked at that line or any main line Lopez in over a year, I decided that instead of rushing to update my lines (and walking into his prep), I might as well try to surprise him. I looked at what I could do, and decided on the Burn Variation of the Classical French (3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4). The lines looked relatively easy to pick up on one night’s notice …
The next day, it was the moment of truth. Becerra had played 1.c4 in his first USCL game this year, but our game started with what I expected: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4. After following the main line Burn for a few moves, his first small surprise was 8.Bg5-e3 (the whole game can be replayed here):
r1bqkb1r/ppp2pp1/4pn1p/8/3P4/4BN2/PPP2PPP/R2QKB1R b KQkq - 0 8)
He had played this move once before, but most recently (and by far more often), he had chosen 8.Bg5-h4. That’s where I had focused my attention, but I did look at a couple games after 9.Be3. Unfortunately, at the board, I didn’t recall too much beyond my next few moves: 9…Nd5 10.Bd3 (10.Bd2 is also popular) Nxe3 11.fxe3 Bd6 12.e4 c5.
I think the theoretical reputation of this line is pretty solid for Black, but there are still some imbalances to play with. The first real interesting moment came after Becerra played 18.dxc5 to reach the following position:
2k4r/ppqrbpp1/2b1p2p/2P1P3/4B3/5N2/PPP1Q1PP/1K1R1R2 b - - 0 18)
Should I take on c5, d1, or e4, and in what order? As it turns out, this position had been seen before, and actually at a tournament I was at! That’d be the Montreal International in 2009, where the 10th round game between Bacrot and Akobian reached this position. Akobian played 18…Rxd1+ 19.Rxd1 Bxc5, which is pretty natural. After 20.Bxc6 Qxc6 21.Ne1 Rd8 22.Nd3 Bd4 23.Rf1, White has set his sights on Black’s f7-weakness, which Var took care of with 23…f6. After the exchange, that left an isolated e-pawn, but it wasn’t quite enough for Bacrot and the game ended in a draw after 72 moves. I didn’t remember any of this, though.
Instead of exchanging on d1, I hoped to provoke an exchange on d7, so as to stay in touch with the f7-pawn. I also didn’t want to see him transfer his knight to d3, where it closes off the d-file and opens the f-file for him. With that in my mind, I played 18…Bxe4 19.Qxe4 Rhd8. The c5-pawn can be had later on, as if 20.Rxd7 Qxd7 21.b4 (21.Qe3 Qd1+ is no problem for Black) Qb5!, Black hits the Rf1 and can play …Bxc5 next to recover the pawn. Instead, Becerra played 20.Rd3 and the game continued with 20…Bxc5 21.a3, leaving me with another decision.
2kr4/ppqr1pp1/4p2p/2b1P3/4Q3/P2R1N2/1PP3PP/1K3R2 b - - 0 21)
What do I do about the d-file and the backward f-pawn? With a3 played, White is thinking about playing Rc3 and using the c-file. I could sidestep with …Kb8, and then sidestep further with …Qb6 if Rc3. I’m not sure it matters too much either way to the evaluation – the position is about equal – but it’s about what kind of position I want to play. I decided to trade on d3, and after 21…Rxd3 22.cxd3 Kb8 23.Rc1 Qb6 24.Ka2, we reached the position in the following diagram:
1k1r4/pp3pp1/1q2p2p/2b1P3/4Q3/P2P1N2/KP4PP/2R5 b - - 0 24)
I played 24…Bf8 here, essentially resigning myself to passive defense. This was my first real mistake of the game, as the position goes from “equal” to “equal, but slightly easier for White to play.” The correct move was 24…Bd4!, which of course I saw, but I didn’t see the correct follow up after 25.Rc2. I wasn’t sure what my bishop was doing on d4, as it seemed like it had nowhere to go, but here is where Black should get rid of the f7-weakness with 25…f5! 26.exf6 Bxf6. The f7-weakness has been replaced by one on e6, but now the bishop stays on the diagonal eyeing b2, and the d-pawn has no safe square on the file anymore. Black should have no trouble in this position.
Still, this wasn’t too serious a mistake and we continued to maneuver only to reach the following position:
8/kp1rbpp1/p3p2p/q3P3/2QP4/P1R2N1P/1PK3P1/8 b - - 0 30)
I’m not sure what it was, but I had a total brain fart with 30…Bd8? here. Even though Black is passive, there’s no real way for White to make progress, and my original plan was simply to sit tight with 30…Qb6. White has no entry anywhere and he has to keep an eye on d4 himself. Instead after 30…Bd8?, exactly what I had told myself to avoid earlier occurred – White traded queens.
When he played 31.Qc5+, it was probably best to try and get White to execute the trade with 31…Qb6, but I thought that maybe I had an out with 31…Qxc5?!. Unfortunately, that was a miscalculation as after 32.dxc5 (32.Rxc5 Bb6 is a little awkward for White because of the d-pawn), Black has no way to take advantage of the temporarily weak state of the e5- and c5-pawns.
My original plan was to play 32…Rd5 here (stopping 33.Rd3 because of Rxc5+), and after 33.b4, continue with 33…Bc7 to force White to guard the e5-pawn. That’d be nice, but 34.Rd3! can be played anyways, as Black can’t take on e5! Uh oh.
The trade with dxc5 then leaves Black in a real bind – he’s got no answer to White’s queenside majority and his bishop has no prospects. Although the computer doesn’t sense the danger, I thought this endgame was lost as soon as I realized I couldn’t play 32…Rd5, and the GMs I talked to about this position all agreed with me. Sigh.
Black can’t really avoid a trade of rooks, and the resulting minor piece endgame is no fun:
8/1pb3p1/p1k1pp1p/2P1P3/PP6/3K1N1P/6P1/8 w - - 0 38)
I thought my only hope of activating my kingside pawns was connected to …f6, but Becerra alertly realized that he didn’t have to take on f6. Taking on e5 with the bishop would always leave me with a lost K+P endgame, while winning a pawn with …fxe5 would be short-lived because White can always bring his king to e4.
Here, with my clock running down to just 10 seconds (there was a 30-second increment though), I tried 37…Kc6, hoping that I might be able to sneak in …fxe5 if his king came to c4. However, after 38.Kc4!, taking on e5 is useless, since after b5+, White can bring his king back to e4 and round up the e5-pawn without letting Black out. Meanwhile, 38…b5+ 39.axb5 axb5 40.Kd4 is no fun either, as the b5-pawn is going to be a real problem when White gets around to playing Nd4+.
With that in mind, maybe 36…f5 was a better defensive try, with some thoughts of meeting h4 with …g5 anyways. I’m not sure if changes the evaluation with correct play, but what I played didn’t offer that much resistance.
By this point, we had pretty much lost the match (we had lost on board 4, and we had been lost on board 3 from around move 20, but I was still hoping to scrape a draw out of the game. My last hope was in the following position:
2k5/1pP1b3/1P6/3K2p1/4N1P1/8/8/8 w - - 0 55)
White’s up a pawn, and that pawn is on c7! Now 55.Nd6+?? is pretty bad, as 55…Bxd6 56.Kxd6 is clearly stalemate, but I was hoping for 55.Ke6. Looks pretty obvious, but then 55…Bc5 was the plan. He can’t take on c5 because its stalemate, so Black picks up both the b6- and c7-pawns. The endgame actually is winning for White after 56.Nxg5 Bxb6 57.Ne4 Kxc7 58.g5, but still, I have to try something. Julio didn’t fall for it though, instead going with the very precise 55.Nc3!, heading for a7. As there’s no way to stop that, I resigned.
As Black against the higher rated Becerra on board 1, my main task was to at least not lose, but I managed to waste my equal position. Coupled with losses on boards 3 and 4, Jesse’s win on board 2 against FM Eric Rodriguez was for naught and we ended up with a 3-1 loss against Miami.
Finally, here is a quick rundown of our setup – Danya is the only one playing without a board, while I’m the only one playing with a clock (and an analog one at that!) …
Instead of 37 … f6, perhaps … f5! ? Capturing en passant is often irresistible.
True, …f5 might have been better, but I actually got the order of moves incorrect! I first played …f6, then after a3-a4, I played …Kd7-c6 (not the other way around). Otherwise, I could have played …a5 and stopped him from pushing his pawns so easily. It’s now been fixed in the post.