Last night the SF Mechanics faced off against the Arizona Scorpions in the Western Division quarterfinals. As the 2nd place finishers during the regular season, we had draw odds (meaning we advance on a 2-2 tie) while they had choice of color on boards 1 and 3.
We had a topsy-turvy match against them earlier in the regular season (which they won, 2.5-1.5), but this time, we controlled the tempo from the start.
I was white on board 2 against IM-elect Daniel Rensch. We’ve played 3 times over the past 5 years, but I had black in all those games (with 2 draws and 1 loss). I think this was his first appearance on board 2 in the USCL, but the Scorpions probably wanted to get a master on board 4 to deal with Yian Liou, our underrated anchor.
Playing a Queen’s Indian, Danny went astray pretty quickly and chose a line that I don’t think is particularly good for Black (the full game can be replayed here):
Instead of the normal 8…c6, which commits White to a real pawn sacrifice, Black played 8…Ne4. After 9.cxd5 Bxh4 10.Bxe4 Bf6, Black is stuck with a worse pawn structure and a bad bishop on b7. This is similar to a line after 7.Re1 (instead of the 7.d5 that I played) that goes 7…c5 8.d5 exd5 9.Nh4 Ne4 10.cxd5 Bxh4 11.Bxe4 Bf6 – in this structure, though, Black’s c-pawn is on c5 already, so what he has is a slightly odd Benoni structure with his bishop on b7. It’s maybe not the best line against 7.Re1, but it is certainly quite playable.
Anyways, in the game, we reached the following position after 16.Bg2:
White has two main threats: one is 17.Ne4, exploiting the weakened kingside dark squares, while the other is b2-b4 at some point, sidelining the knight on a6. I think White has a big positional plus, for example, 17…Qe5 (not 17…Qe7 18.d6!, winning a lot of material) 18.Rad1, and Black is going to struggle to activate his minor pieces or deal with White’s central pawn roller with e4 and f4.
However, Danny may have missed the strength of Ne4 as he played 16…c5, trying to fix his queenside pieces and structure. After 17.Ne4 Qe5 18.f4 Qd4+ 19.e3! Qxe3+ 20.Kh1, Black has no good way of dealing with the knight hops to d6 and f6, and so he’s forced to give up the exchange with 20…Rxe4.
With relatively equal positions on the other boards at this point, this put a lot of pressure on the other Arizona players to try and make something of nothing, as they had to score 2.5 to advance. Danya’s game on board 3 was the only one I thought had decent chances of being decisive, and in the end, that was the first game to finish – Danya outplayed Adamson in a complicated position in mutual time pressure.
Meanwhile, I was doing my best to screw things up. Instead of playing for checkmate with 33.Qxh7, I played 33.Rxd5 Bxd5 34.Qxd5. I was now up a piece for a couple pawns, which was completely winning, but like a complete idiot, I botched the endgame in epic fashion.
In the above position, I played 46.g4??, after which it’s Black who is winning! After 46…d3 47.b3, instead of 47…cxb3??, Black can win with 47…Kd4!. I only realized this after I played 47.b3. After 47…Kd4 48.bxc4 b3, Black has 3 passed pawns, and White’s king and bishop can’t hold them all off.
Instead of 46.g4??, though, White is winning with 46.gxf4+ Kxf4 47.Bd5. The pawns are picked up after 47…c3+ 48.bxc3 dxc3+ 49.Kd3 Kg3 50.Bb3 Kxh4 51.Kc4. White picks up all the queenside pawns and gives his bishop up for Black’s h-pawn. That was my original plan, but then I saw the b3 idea, and I figured that was even simpler. Oops. Luckily for me, Rensch didn’t spot the …Kd4 idea, although it probably wouldn’t have made a difference for the overall result.
Ramirez and Wolff were exchanging draw offers on board 1 – Wolff was playing on a computer without the sound on, and so he didn’t hear the draw offers, and ICC doesn’t show the move number for the draw offer (not sure why they don’t implement this simple change), and so he kept noticing the draw offers too late. Meanwhile, Yian ended up winning the drawn endgame on board 4, so we ended up with a big 3.5-0.5 victory.
The other Western quarterfinal was a massacre, as Miami beat Seattle 3.5-0.5. GM Julio Becerra slaughtered GM Hikaru Nakamura on board 1 in 12 moves (12 moves!!!) – despite only starting 15 minutes before us, that game was essentially over before we had even played 10 moves. Here’s the final position in which Nakamura resigned:
Thus, next week we face off against the Sharks. While we’ve generally done well against them in the regular season, we are 0-2 against them in the playoffs (they eliminated us in 2005 and 2007 by a 2.5-1.5 score in each match). Hopefully the third time is the charm!