Last week the SF Mechanics squared off against the Miami Sharks in the Division finals, with the winner going on to meet the winner of the New York – New Jersey match (New York ended up advancing). While the final score was 2.5-1.5 in favor of the Sharks, we weren’t really in serious danger of being in the match. With draw odds and white on boards 1 and 3, we went into the match with high hopes, but as it was, history repeated itself and for the 3rd time, we lost in the playoffs with draw odds to Miami. I say we kick them out of the Western Division!
Here are the positions from our match after 15 moves (of course, we all reached this mark at different times):
Board 1: Kraai – Becerra
On board 1, Jesse was worse against Becerra’s surprise Grunfeld. Black equalized pretty quickly in the opening, but it wasn’t too bad for White. Unfortunately, Jesse found it difficult to back up the weakening f2-f4 thrust and soon shed the e3-pawn for no compensation. He was only saved when Becerra took a draw in a winning Rook and Pawn endgame to clinch the match for Miami.
Board 2: Lugo – Bhat
On my board, I was doing alright. Lugo surprised me with the Two Knights, but after some slightly non-standard maneuvers, I had played …c6. With …d5 soon to follow, I thought I had equalized. White doesn’t really have any kingside initiative, and after the pawn exchanges on d5, White has fewer pawn islands, but he can’t get at the d5-pawn so easily and his queenside pawns are a little weak.
Board 3: Pruess – Moreno Roman
On board 3, David was pretty much lost against Moreno Roman. David likes to play the King’s Gambit (even though Fischer refuted it ages ago!), and every so often, he produces a brilliancy like he did in France a month ago against GM Bogdan Lalic (take a look at the game here). Unfortunately, this time, he was on the receiving end of a miniature, as he allowed …Qh4+ in the opening and then had to defend against a furious onslaught. I’m not sure if the position was defensible to begin with, but from the above diagram, it ended in another move after 16.Qe1 Ng3.
Board 4: Rodriguez – Liou
On board 4, Yian was keeping it together against Rodriguez. With a big time advantage and a position that was about equal, I figured we’d have to rely on our two relatively equal positions to turn into wins. Sadly, after 16.Rxh8 Bxh8 17.Nd3, Yian allowed White to favorably change the structure by playing 17…Bg6. Now 18.Nxe5 dxe5 19.g4 (19.e4 looks even better) Qh7? 20.gxf5 Bxf5 21.e4 netted White a pawn, and Rodriguez cleaned up in a nice fashion. Instead of 17…Bg6, 17…Nc6 looks quite reasonable for Black.
Thanks to a little tactic, I turned my equal position into a clearly better one:
I played 20…h5! here, and Blas took a wrong turn with 21.Nh2. After 21…Bf6, Black is hitting the b2-pawn, but more importantly, he is threatening to play 22…Be5, trapping the knight on h2. White would have no choice but to give up his g-pawn then with 23.g3, but that’s a rather important pawn. Thus, Blas played 22.Qf2, but after 22…Be5 23.Nf3 Bg3, he lost the exchange. Instead of 21.Nh2, he could have played 21.Nf2, which is a little better. Still, I think Black’s position is better after 21…Bf6 22.c3 d4!. I ended up winning this game, but the finish of this game took place after the match was already put away by Miami.
So, as has been the case most years except for 2006 (when we won it all), we wait for next year. I think the team could have done better this season, but we did alright given the fact we were piecing together a lineup for pretty much every match.
From a personal standpoint, I was satisfied with my play. I lost my first two games of the year (the game against Stripunsky was a bad one, but the game against Barcenilla was pretty good and I should have won that one), but then scored 3.5/4 the rest of the way. Thanks to the 2 losses in 6 games, this was the first time in 5 years that my performance rating in the league was below 2550 FIDE. I clocked in at 2495 FIDE, marginally above my 2492 FIDE rating average for the season. Team captain John Donaldson has recapped the team’s performances in more detail at the team blog.
The finals match is scheduled for December 7th, and features Miami and New York. My guess is that New York will carry the day. With a double-GM lineup and then the underrated (for the league) Yaacov Norowitz on board 4, they seem to have the more dangerous lineup. Still, Miami has scored some big upsets themselves to get to the finals, so it won’t be an easy match.