For the first round of the playoffs, we were facing the LA Vibe. As they finished just ahead of us in the regular season, they received draw-odds while we had color choice on board 1. Taking white makes sense mostly because having the white pieces is relatively more important for GM games, while Board 4 games tend to be more of a tossup.
As an aside, with our season over, I think it’s safe to reveal a facet of the team’s strategy this year: maximize the number of whites for GMs Patrick Wolff and Jesse Kraai, and fit me in if needed. Thus, after Week 1 when I was in NY, every time we had black on board 1, I was in the lineup. Whenever we had white on board 1, I didn’t leave work early.
It’s not that I’m so great with the black pieces, but I guess I don’t show as big a differential in results by color as many other GMs. Looking at my database, my performance rating for the past handful of years is only a couple points below my average rating for that time. Given that the standard performance “boost” for white or “penalty” for black is around 35-40 rating points, I guess I have done relatively better than average with the black pieces. If I have to win, it’s not ideal, but otherwise I also don’t really mind playing with the black pieces.
So, with us having white on 1 and 3, the lineup that matched our color strategy was for all 3 GMs to finally play together with Uyanga Byambaa on board 4. I could play above Wolff, but then that’d break the color pattern, so our lineup was Wolff – Bhat – Kraai – Byambaa. As black on board 2, I faced IM Zhanibek Amanov, who’s played all of 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, and 1.Nf3 in the past few years. The full game can be seen at http://www.uschessleague.com/games/zamanovbhat11.htm.
The game started out 1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2, and here I played 4…g6. This was a new move for me – I’ve normally played 4…Bg4 or 4…Bf5 setups – but I was looking for something more solid. Maybe it wasn’t the right decision, though, as the positions are often pretty dry and don’t provide too many active prospects for Black. White followed with a double fianchetto and we brought out the rest of our pieces. After 14.e3, we reached the position in the diagram below:
r3r1k1/1p1n1pbp/1qp2np1/p2pp3/2P5/1P1PPNPP/PBQ2PB1/1R3RK1 b - - 0 14)
This is a general problem with Black’s whole setup – he isn’t really much worse at the moment, but he doesn’t have much to do while White can still improve his position. The e5/d5 center is nice but not particularly mobile, and Black’s pieces are largely stuck guarding those pawns. I had trouble coming up with a plan, and the result maybe was a bit artificial, but I think it was reasonable given the situation.
I played 14…Rad8, which is odd having already played …a5, but I had a specific idea in mind. After the natural 15.Bc3, I responded with 15…c5!. With the bishop on c3, it’s not necessary, but after cxd5/…Nxd5/Nxe5, the Nd5 wouldn’t be hanging. Meanwhile, the natural continuation of White’s plan with 16.Qd2 leads to a big mess after 16…Qa6!. Here are a couple lines:
(1) 17.Bxa5 b6 18.Bc3 dxc4 19.bxc4 (19.dxc4 Ne4, …Nxc3, and …e4 wins) e4 21.Ne1 exd3 with good counterplay
(2) 17.cxd5 Nxd5 18.Bxa5 b6 19.e4 (19.Bc3 Nxc3 and 20…e4 wins) bxa5 20.exd5 Nf6 is at least equal for Black.
Instead, Amanov played 16.Rfe1 and I, a bit confused again, erred with 16…Qa6?!. I didn’t like either 16…e4 or 16…d4 (16…e4 17.dxe4 dxe4 18.Ng5 is troublesome, while 16…d4 17.exd4 seemed to leave me with bad choices either way), but 16…Qc7 was normal and good. I decided it was useful to have some pressure on d3 and c4, though (in case I could play …e4, for example) and so I went with a6. The game continued 17.a3 b6 18.cxd5 Nxd5 19.Bb2 Qc8 20.Rbd1.
Unfortunately, I ended up having to reroute my queen to c7 just a few moves later, so playing it there immediately on move 16 would have saved some time. White’s unlikely to take on d5 until he’s ready, so the Queen doesn’t add much pressure to d3, and …e4 is always a bit risky. Thus, if I played 16…Qc7 and the game continued with the same 17.a3 b6 18.cxd5 Nxd5, Black would have two extra tempi over what actually happened.
2qrr1k1/3n1pbp/1p4p1/p1pnp3/8/PP1PPNPP/1BQ2PB1/3RR1K1 b - - 0 20)
Anyways, after 20.Rbd1, I went wrong again. This time, I seemed to only have one of White’s plans in mind and forgot about other ways in which he could improve his position. The plan I was on the lookout for was a d3-d4 break, and so I wanted to get my Nd7 out of the way, either to e6 or c6. I decided on 20…Nf8?, because from e6, it’s off the long diagonal and it covers c7, c5, and g7, and d4. Unfortunately, it also leaves the e5-pawn with two less defenders than it would have from c6. Thus, 20…Nb8 21.Qb1 Nc6 was definitely the better choice – the light-squared long diagonal isn’t fatal and now the dark-squared one is much more protected.
Amanov followed up with a good plan, playing 21.Qb1 Qc7 22.Qa1, pressuring e5 some more. I followed with another lemon: 22…f6?, as I completely hallucinated in a line after 22…Nd7 – I thought 22…Nd7 23.e4 Ne7 lost the e5-pawn, but Black has 3 defenders still! Thus, I ended up shutting in my Bg7 and making d4 a much more potent threat. Black’s position is still somewhat unpleasant after 22…Nd7, but there’s no reason to give up after 23.Nd2 Nb8, for example.
Finally on move 25, the d3-d4 break came and things opened up for White’s better pieces. After a number of exchanges, we reached the following position:
5nk1/2q3bp/3r1pp1/pp6/3B4/PP4PP/5PB1/Q3R1K1 b - - 0 31)
Material is equal, but the position is anything but. White’s two bishops are clearly much stronger than Black’s minor pieces, and Black’s queenside pawns are also vulnerable. This was definitely not the position I wanted to play, but so it goes. Wolff had gone from much better to a little worse (but holding, I thought), so I was still working towards a draw. With both of us running low on time (hovering between a minute or two, with the increment), I hoped to sneak out of it somehow.
8/3r1qbk/1Q4p1/5pBp/3n3P/P5P1/5PB1/1R4K1 b - - 0 46)
After a lot of time pressure influenced maneuvering (in the last 6 moves, White’s rook has moved from e1 to b1 and his queen from a6 to b6; everything else is the same for both players!), I got my first opening and I managed not to miss it by playing 46…f4!. It’s not much, but it’s a little counterplay as White’s kingside is going to get opened a little bit. Instead of White having the initiative plus the queenside, Black has some tricks now. Zhanibek continued to play well though, starting with 47.gxf4 Ne2+ 48.Kh1 Nxf4 49.Be4, and honed in on the new weakness at g6.
Black needs to find a way to either close the g-file (…Ng4) or the 6th rank (…Rd6), but he doesn’t really have time to do both and start an attack of his own. There were a couple moments where I felt I had some serious drawing chances (51…Ng4 and 55…Bxd4 were the ones I saw, and the computer adds 53…Qe6 to the list), but the two I saw did not lead to positions where I would have any winning chances. Wolff had a lost endgame by this point, and so I had to find a way to win. Under time pressure, I felt the only way to do that would be to keep the queens on the board and hope he blundered into something (or I blundered onto something!).
That strategy didn’t work out so well though – with queens on the board, there was some chance I could play …Qh3#, but it also meant I was in danger of getting checkmated too. Amanov concentrated his pieces on g6 and then decided to start pushing his a-pawn, reminding me that while things might be about equal on one side, they certainly weren’t on the other. Not able to find anything, I walked right into a skewer and lost a piece. There was one amusing final moment, though:
8/8/4r1Bk/6Rp/P6P/8/8/7K b - - 0 64)
The match was pretty much lost at this point, but I still did have a chance to avoid losing the game. I had put the king on h6 partly because it set up stalemate ideas, but I had only considered the bishop moving back to c2 or b1. Had I been paying more attention, I might have noticed 64…Re4!. After the game, both Wolff and Kraai thought this was a forced draw, but White is still winning.
Given a draw was enough for Amanov, maybe he wouldn’t have thought too hard about it, but after 65.Kg2 Rxa4 (65…Rxh4 would be nice, but then 66.Rxh5+! simplifies into a winning K+P endgame) 66.Bf5!, the last pawn is hanging but taboo. Here, the Kh6 gets in the way because of Rg6+ and Rg4+. With the pawn safe, White is winning.
Instead, I resigned after 64…Re1+ 65.Kg2 Ra1 66.Be8.
Thus, we lost the match 2.5 – 1.5, and LA advanced to face Chicago (who “beat” Dallas by virtue of draw-odds after a 2-2 result). I played well (or defended well) for stretches, but at a number of key moments, I didn’t find the right moves while Amanov consistently found good continuations. In time pressure I tried to muddy the waters, but nothing really stuck and he found his way quite well. It’s unfortunate that it came in a playoff match, but so it goes.
Jesse was the top performer for the team in 2011, scoring 6.5/9 (6/7 with white, including our lone win in this match), for a USCF performance rating of 2708. I’ll wrap up my USCL year and some other related items in a later entry …