After our win against LA last week, we faced Miami in the USCL Semifinals yesterday. With newly minted GM Daniel Naroditsky on Board 2, FM Yian Liou on 3, and soon to be NM Siddharth Banik on board 4, I was actually the “old man” of a talented team with hopes of winning it all. Unfortunately, we lost the match and dropped to 0-4 against the Sharks in the USCL Playoffs.
At this point, I have to ask – what is Miami doing in Western Conference anyway? Maybe they can swap with Philadelphia: at least they’re not right on the EASTERN coastline! I’m sure at least Dallas would vote for realignment at this point too …
My own game was the quickest of the match. Due to their better regular season record, Miami chose White on Boards 1 and 3, so I had Black versus GM Julio Becerra. There are a number of strong players in the league, but Becerra is by far the USCL leader in terms of wins. And with the white pieces in normal league games, he’s been incredibly strong – by my count, 21 wins, 18 draws, and only 1 loss for a 2698 FIDE performance rating against opposition with an average FIDE rating of 2507. His last loss in any tournament as White in my database was in 2011. All this is to say that while I would have liked to win, my primary goal was to at least hold the line as Black.
For the 4th time this year, I played the Winawer French, and for the second straight match, I played (or was allowed to play) the Poison Pawn Variation (full game here). This marks the 5th time I’ve played it, and amusingly, the 1st time I did was also against Becerra in the USCL (that game can be found here).
r1b1k1r1/ppq1np1Q/2n1p3/3pP3/5P2/P1p5/2P1N1PP/R1B1KB1R w KQq - 0 12)
Last week, Melik played the normal 12.Qd3 here and that is what Julio played against me back in 2008. This time though, he responded immediately with 12.Nxc3. It now seems like an obvious move, but this wasn’t always the case, and looking back at my notes for that 2008 game with Becerra, I had no mention of 12.Nxc3 in my preparation. In the past couple years though, Karjakin and Svidler have chosen it in serious games, so it has some pedigree now and I had looked at it in advance of the Melik game. I had not focused on it for Becerra though, as I had predicted some other lines from him.
After 12…Nd4 (12…a6 is reasonable too, but then with 13.Qd3 Bd7, we’ve transposed to a normal Poison Pawn as in Becerra – Bhat 2008, while I wanted to play 12.Qd3 d4 this time around) 13.Bb2 Bd7 14.0-0-0, I played 14…Qb6. I have 3 games in my database here, all from GMs and Karjakin, Svidler, and Nijober all chose 15.Qd3. After 6 minutes of thought, Becerra went with 15.g3.
r3k1r1/pp1bnp1Q/1q2p3/3pP3/3n1P2/P1N3P1/1BP4P/2KR1B1R b q - 0 15)
I had been following Svidler – Vitiugov from this year’s Alekhine Memorial, but 15.g3 was new so I began to think. I considered 15…Ndf5, which Houdini seems to prefer slightly to my 15…Rc8. While 15…Rc8 is very natural, it also means Black’s king is going to stay in the center and that’s a real drawback. Meanwhile, 15…Ndf5 was attractive because it cuts White’s queen off, but I missed the sequence 15…Ndf5 16.Bd3 0-0-0! 17.Qxf7 Rh8! when the White queen doesn’t have an easy way back. It’s not going to get trapped, but White will probably shed some material while it’s sidelined or being extricated.
Unfortunately after 15…Rc8 16.Bd3, I was left with a real dilemma – how could I improve my position? I’d like to put a knight on f5, but with the Ne7 tied to the Rg8, I can’t afford to. My first instinct was 16…Qa5, but after 17.Ne2, none of 17…Nxe2+, 17…Nb3+, or 17…Nb5 were satisfying. I even considered 16…Rc5, trying to power through the c-file with 17…Qc7 next, but there simply isn’t enough firepower.
I settled on 16…Kf8, guarding the Rg8 and so making 17…Nef5 possible. The rooks aren’t connected, but White’s pieces aren’t particularly threatening, his extra pawn is light years away from being converted, and Black has clear building moves. White’s plan is probably connected to Rhg1/g4/f5, but it’s a bit far off and if he blindly tries to follow that plan, a Black knight will likely land on e3 with devastating effect.
I had already seen the sequence that ended the game when thinking about 16…Kf8, but I didn’t quite expect Julio to go that route: the game ended after 17.Qh6+ Ke8 (17…Rg7 18.g4! is not in Black’s interests) 18.Qh7 Kf8 19.Qh6+ Ke8 20.Qh7 and Julio claimed the draw by 3-fold repetition.
When Julio repeated once, I figured he’d go for it, but after 16…Kf8, I thought he might go with 17.Qh6+ Ke8 18.Qh5, trying to get his Queen back into the game. It’s not amazing for White, but it does keep the game going, and that might not be in his objective interests in that position.
Incredibly, when I looked at the game with Houdini a few hours after the match ended, it gives 0.00 for 16…Kf8, within seconds of 16.Bd3 being entered in the game! No cache, no nothing – it just assesses the game continuation with 16…Kf8 17.Qh6+ and so on as the best right off the bat!
The quick draw with White certainly didn’t work against them in the match although it didn’t always look that way. Shortly after my game, Siddharth drew on board 4 (also in a French Winawer!), and things looked at least equal for us between boards 2 and 3.
Sadly though, Yian never did get any real chances in his game and had to force a draw, while Danya made a couple small mistakes in the queenless middlegame he had and began getting squeezed. While he fought on valiantly, it was to no avail and GM Renier Gonzalez slowly – and very professionally – tightened the noose giving him no chances to squirm free.
So all in all, a terrible chess weekend for me from Friday – Sunday. We got eliminated by Miami yet again, and Anand lost two games in terrible, terrible fashion. In both games, he was objectively equal, but at least in Game 5, he was practically worse; but Game 6? Just a travesty.