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Catching up – the Miami Open, part 2: Rounds 6 – 9

Round 6: Black vs. GM Alexander Shabalov (2657)

Another tough matchup, a morning round against Shabalov, who simply plays everything. Also, he tends to get stronger as the tournament progresses, as he’s made a habit out of playing badly to start off an event, but finishing strong to get back in the money. Elizabeth Vicary wrote a whole article on this topic for Chess Life Online, and it can be seen here. Actually, the same happened in Miami, as he drew in the very first round and was slow to get started. Unlike some other events, though, he also didn’t end up finishing too strong, although maybe I had something to do with that.

This was my first real attempt as Black in the regular Slav with my planned 6.Ne5 Nbd7 7.Nxc4 Nb6 8.Ne5 a5 line. He played the currently very popular 9.Bg5!?, which cuts across Black’s usual plan of 9…e6 because of the reply 10.e4!. (As a side note, this position has been discussed in the current SPICE Cup in Texas, as GM Becerra has championed the Black position a couple times – in both games, he played 9…h6).

I played 9…g6, which seems to make some sense as alternative way to develop the dark-squared bishop. In his first game, Becerra played the more radical looking 9…h6 10.Bh4 g5 to bring the bishop out, and while he drew without any huge problems, it looks a bit less solid. Shabalov then played a new move, taking on f6 right away. The resulting pawn structure is one that is sometimes seen in the Slav (especially in Nh4 lines, where White takes the bishop on f5), or even the Nimzo (in the Romanishin line with 4.Qc2 d5 5.cxd5 Qxd5, followed by 6…Qf5 7.Qxf5 exf5), but the minor piece arrangement is more reminiscent of the structure arising after the Trompowsky with 2…d5 (3.Bxf6 exf6 4.e3, with c4 and so on).

The middlegame featured a lot of heavy, positional maneuvering, but I drifted a bit too much and let him achieve more than he should have been allowed. Actually, we reached the following position after 41.Nxd5 (yes, that is move 41!) and both of us were down to just under a minute at this point. The time control was G/90 minutes with a 30 second increment, so there wasn’t too much danger of losing on time, but there certainly was danger of losing because of time.

Here I played 41…Qf7, and after 42.Ncb6 Be6 43.Bxe4 (playing 43.Rc7 first is similar, but with Black’s knight on e4, Black can play …Rd2 more easily while White’s king has to go to h2 square because g2 is occupied) fxe4 44.Rc7 Qxc7 (actually 44…Re7! would have secured an advantage for Black) 45.Nxc7 [not 45.Qxf6+ Kh7 46.Nxc7 Rxd1+ 47.Kh2 (47.Kg2 walks into 47…Bg4, threatening 48…Bf3+ and 49…Rh1#) Bg7! 48.Qg5 Rf8, winning] Rxd1+ 46.Kg2 Re7!? (46…Bg4 is good enough for a draw, but I thought I could maybe try for even more in White’s time pressure).

The game ended in a draw after 47.Nxe6+ Rxe6 48.Qc2 Rd3 49.Qc7+ Re7 50.Qc4 Re5 51.Qc8 Re7 52.Qc4. Black has nothing better to do at the moment that shut White’s knight out on b6 with rook moves to e5 and e7, while if White takes the time to bring the knight back into the game (say via a8 and c7), Black can try to play …Re5, …Bd6, and …Rd2, planning …Rf5 next to target the weak f2-pawn. However, 52.g4!? was a rather interesting try and would’ve really made a mess of things given the time situation, although I’m not sure that is still enough for White to be clearly better. Still, given that Black wasn’t any better, 46…Bg4 was the correct way to go. Still, a draw with Black against another GM was not a horrible result, especially as it was my first outing in the main lines of the Slav.

Round 7: White vs. GM Alexander Ivanov (2625)

Another round, another GM! After my long with Shaba in the morning, I expected to play down, but I had no such luck. Actually, it wasn’t such a bad pairing, since I was hoping to play good players, and to get the white pieces meant I could probably do a bit more damage that I had previously.

Earlier in the tournament, Ivanov had struggled with the black pieces, but he was playing 2nd and 3rd string openings like 1.d4 d6 2.Nf3 Bg4 and the like. He’s normally a Nimzo/QID player, and against me, he gave me his regular Nimzo. We went down a bit of a sideline, in which I had done such preparation a while ago, but as I didn’t remember most of it, I had to rediscover a good chunk of it at the board. After 15…g5, we reached the following crazy position:

15…g5 appears to be a new move (15…Nc6 has been played before, but Black is in trouble regardless). Despite his extra piece, White has a pawn deep in his position on e6 and the rook on a8 is lost. Giving back a knight on c6 frees the rook, but White’s still up a pawn with a better position to boot.

After 15…g5, 16.Nfe2 is quite reasonable, but I spent some time and played the very strong 16.0-0-0!!. Black can’t safely take on f4 because after 16…gxf4 17.Bxf4, 17…Qh5 loses to 18.Qxa8; 17…Qf5 loses to 18.Bh6+; and 17…Qxe6 loses to 18.Qxa8. The only tough move from my point of view was 16…Be2!.

I had then planned 17.Bh6+ Ke8 (17…Kg8 loses to a beautiful idea: 18.Nxe2 Qe4 19.Nc3!!, as after 19…Qxf3 20.gxf3, Black has no good way to stop 21.Rhg1+!) 18.Qxa8 Bxd1 19.Rxd1 Bf8 20.Bd2! (threatening 21.g3 or 21.Nb5) and White is still winning.

As it was, there was a bit of extra excitement, as I played for the beautiful win rather than the prosaic one, and missed a key defensive opportunity for Black. It didn’t change the final assessment (White was much better/winning), but it did make me work for the full point a bit longer than I had anticipated. Still, a win is a win, and this brought me up to 4.5/7 heading into the final day.

Round 8: Black vs. IM Davorin Kuljasevic (2528)

The final day saw the tournament begin at the early hour of 10 AM. The previous morning rounds had taken place at 1 PM and 11 AM (twice). The problem for me this game was partly the early start, but also that I was supposed to play GM Jaan Ehlvest with the white pieces (the pairings had been posted the previous night). A few minutes before the round, however, the pairings changed for seemingly no reason. Kuljasevic was supposed to have the white pieces against Marc Esserman, so he was at least prepared to play with white, and in fact, after the game, said he knew I’d play this line and had looked at it accordingly (he showed up about 10-15 minutes late for the game).

This was my second outing with the main line Slav, but this one didn’t go so well. I couldn’t remember the lines I had prepared over the summer too well, and while I came up with something similar, it wasn’t quite as good. In the following position, I had to play 22…Bd6, with the point that on 23.Qc2 Nc5 24.Nxc5 Bxc5 25.Nd5, Black has 25…Rxd5! and the e4-pawn is pinned because of the bishop on h7

I missed this little detail, and so I played 22…Rac8?, both in order to guard the c5-square after …cxd5 in that line, but also to make a8 available for the knight, so that it could go to e6 via c7. This was much too slow and too subtle to work though. After 23.Bh3! Na8 24.Nb1! Bd6 25.Nd2, White had regrouped quite nicely while Black was all bottled up on the queenside. Davorin put me away pretty easily to send me to my 2nd loss of the tournament.

Round 9: White vs. Victor Kaminski (2514)

This was another game in which I played someone with a higher USCF rating (although Kaminski has a lower FIDE rating; the other 5 higher USCF players were also higher in FIDE), but they had mysteriously dropped Kaminski’s rating to 2291 mid-way through the tournament. It was all the more amusing since for the first half of the tournament, he was the only player to take half a point off Marc Esserman (2350), who had otherwise rampaged through the field with Robson.

The opening was not very standard, and after 16…Qe5, we reached the following position:

I played 17.0-0! Qxc3 18.Rb1! [not going in for the attractive, but bad, 18.Qxb6 Qxa1 19.Qxb7 Rc8! (not 19…Rd8? 20.Nxc4 0-0 21.Bg5, winning), when White is hard pressed to prove an advantage anywhere and should start playing defense]. After 18…Nc8 19.Nxc4 Qxb4 20.Rxb4 Bb5 21.Bf4 Ke7 22.Rc1, I had a large advantage. I ended up being ahead 2 pawns with 2 Bishops against Bishop and Knight (all the pawns on the kingside), and while I took my time to win the game, the result was not in much doubt.

This win brought me up to 5.5/9, good enough for a tie for 10th-16th place and $108.33 in prize money. After starting out with 5/5, IM Ray Robson slowed down a bit, scoring on 2/4 to finish on 7/9. This was good enough for a tie for first with GM Darmen Sadvakasov, who beat him in the last round to catch up. However, Robson then won the armageddon blitz playoff to take the official title. Unfortunately for him, he only played 2 GMs the whole way, and so was ineligible for a GM norm. Marc Esserman was the other big story of the event, beating GMs Ehlvest and Mikhalevski en route to a strong 6.5/9 result. He too only played 2 GMs, but his result was good enough for an IM norm anyways.

My fellow Bay Area chessplayers didn’t fare too well with Josh Friedel withdrawing after having 5.0/8 and David Pruess scoring 5.5/9.

Catching up – the Miami Open, part 1: rounds 1 – 5

It’s a week overdue, but I figured I should write about the Miami Open. It was held from September 10-14 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. It was a much bigger tournament last year, and they banked on a big turnout again this year until Hurricane Ike decided to make its presence felt. A number of players told the organizers they would no longer make the trip because of concerns Ike would hit Miami directly.

As it was, the hurricane passed by Miami at the last moment, and missed Florida pretty much altogether. Actually, this was why our USCL match with Miami went on as scheduled on Monday, September 8. It was originally under a bit of a cloud because of the same concerns (shameless plug: the writeup on the team blog is here).

As for the tournament, I didn’t play up to my hopes, but I did play a pretty strong field (with 6 guys over 2500 USCF). A problem was that I kept either just missing, or just making the cut, meaning that I played up often or played way down, a product of my USCF rating being 2462 going into the tournament. I finished with 5.5/9, enough to gain 12+ USCF points and just over 1 point in the FIDE category. This will be a long post, and instead of including the full gamescores, I’m going to post some diagrams with some of the more critical positions.

Round 1: White vs Christopher Heung (2092)

This was a nice, easy game to start off the tournament. He chose the odd 6…Nc6 variation instead the standard 6…e5, and immediately found himself with a good deal less space, reaching the following position:

The knight required some help to find a safe square on c5, buty he never played …a4 to stop b2-b4. Even if he had, White is doing good there, as he can simply play Nf3-d4 and expand with f2-f4, etc. As it was, I got to play 14.b4, and after his blunder with 14…axb4 15.axb4 Na4? (15…Na6 was necessary, but Black is relegated to 3 ranks with no counterplay after 16.Qb3), his knight was permanently sidelined with 16.Nb5!. He tried to confuse the issue with a piece sacrifice on the kingside, but he lost that piece and the knight on a4 before resigning.

Round 2: White vs. GM Victor Mikhalevski (2680)

This was a bit of a surprise, since I expected to get the black pieces in round 2 and instead got white against the top seed in the tournament. It was a Grunfeld (Mikhalevski’s specialty) where he made an implicit draw offer with a knight maneuver in the middlegame. I wasn’t aware at the time, but afterwards he said this draw is known to theory, whereas the way I refused the draw seems to be a novel approach.

The new way won a pawn, but with Black’s two bishops and my misplaced knight on e7, he had definite compensation. We reached the following position on after 18…Rad8:

I played 19.Rfd1, as on 19…Rd7, White has the tricky 20.Nxe6! Rexe7 (20…Rxc7 21.Nxc7 and 22.Nxe8 is winning for White) 21.Nxg7! Rxc7 (21…Kxg7 is better, but after 22.Bxf6+ Qxf6 23.Qc3, white is just up a clear pawn) 22.Nxe8! Rxc1 23.Rxc1 (not 23.Bxf6+ Qxf6! 24.Nxf6 Rxd1+) is winning for White!

After some more excitement, we reached the following endgame after 33…h6. Black is threatening to play …Ke8-d8, leaving the rook short of air.

I played 34.f4! Ke8 35.f5 gxf5 36.gxf5 Kd8 37.fxe6 Kxc7 38.exf7 Nd7 39.Nd5+ Kd6 40.Nxb6. Originally, when I played 34.f4, I thought this position was winning because I’m threatening Nc4+, picking up the rook, in addition to queening the pawn once I remove his knight from d7. However, as we approached this position, I realized he can play 40…Rd1+ 41.Kf2 Nf8, when he stops the pawn. We played the endgame for a while longer, but neither of us were really able to muster up any winning chances and the game ended in a draw. A solid result against a good GM, and while I could’ve obviously taken the draw much earlier and saved myself 3 more hours of tough play, I wouldn’t have played such an interesting game.

Round 3: Black vs. GM Julio Becerra (2642)

This was a tough matchup, as it was a short turnaround after my long game with Mikhalevski. Also, Julio is a much more dangerous player with the white pieces (I had played him twice before with white, achieving won positions in both games, although he did manage to beat me from one in Oklahoma earlier this year). It was also tough because I’m still learning to play the Ruy Lopez, and that’s probably his best opening as he plays it exclusively from both sides.

I showed some Lopez naivete by playing 15…c3 in the following position:

I was hoping to play …c6 to break up his central pawn chain, and thought that by playing …c3 first, I’d break up his queenside pawn structure a bit. Unfortunately, 15…c3? opens the b-file, a fact that Julio was quick to notice and first to take advantage of. After 16.bxc3 Nb6 17.Rb1, Black’s already in some trouble and after 17…Rb8 18.Nc4 Nxc4 19.Bxc4 c6 20.dxc6 Nxc6 21.Be3, the torture began. Julio put me out of my misery pretty quickly and very accurately to pocket the full point.

I should’ve just played 15…Nb6 right away, as after 16.Nxc4 Nxc4 17.Bxc4 c6 18.dxc6 Bxc6, Black has broken the central chain and can hope to play …d5 at some point. White is still a bit better, but Black’s position is certainly playable. I was aiming for that position, but with White’s pawn on c3 instead of b2. However, I never got the chance.

It was disappointing to lose, but on the other hand, I did pick up a useful lesson in Lopez ideas and also a good demonstration of how to put away an opponent – I set up some tactical tricks near the end and many an opponent would fall for them thinking they faced no difficulty. But that was precisely when Julio started to spend more time to make sure he was not allowing any counterplay.

Round 4: Black vs. Karel Gonzalez (2170)

This was a frustrating game, because my opponent played the Exchange French as White and tried to exchange all the pieces as quickly as he could. I actually managed to find a good plan to gain a very tiny edge, but then I misplayed it a bit. My biggest mistake was burning up a lot of the clock debating whether to castle kingside or queenside. In the end, I think my decision to castle kingside was right, but it cost me too much time, and then I followed it up poorly, not playing incisively enough on the queenside. The game ended in a draw after a long struggle.

Round 5: White vs. Brian Goldstein (2152)

I was a bit angry this game, which explains my more aggressive than normal play. It started out as a Trompowsky that turned into a Torre Attack of sorts, but Goldstein didn’t find a viable plan and allowed me to expand in the center. I probably could have played it more sedately, but I decided to forego castling in an attempt to checkmate Black quickly. We reached the following position, after I played 18.Rf1:

Here, he played 18…N7b6 19.Nd6+!? (19.Nd2 was also possible) Bxd6 20.exd6 Na4!. Actually, he touched his knight at first, and I thought he was going to move it to d7 (which allows the beautiful finish 21.Qxe6+! fxe6 22.Bg6#), but then he sat and thought for a bit longer and played it to a4, which I think might well be the best move in the position, even if he hadn’t touched his knight! The threat is …N(a/d)c3+, winning the white queen, while also faciliating …Bd7 and …Rc8 or …Qb6 in some lines.

I thought for a while and played 21.Ke1!!, which escapes the checks on b2 and c3, while simply threatening to continue with the kingside attack. After 21…Bd7 22.Be5 f6? (23…Rf8 was necessary; 23…Rg8 loses to 24.Rxf7!) 23.Qh5+ Kf8 24.Bxf6, Black resigned and I was back in the win column.

So after 5 rounds, I was sitting on 3.0/5. Ray Robson had jumped out to a huge lead with a perfect 5/5 score, so I wasn’t in serious contention for 1st place. There were still 4 more rounds to go, and those games will be discussed in the next post …

Derailed on Labor Day

This is a few days overdue, but I played in the CalChess Labor Day tournament this past weekend. It doubles as the championship for North California, a state unto itself in the US Chess Federation (Southern California holds it’s own, separate championship on the same weekend).

I was largely playing to get some practice playing 2 rounds a day again, as most European events have one round on every day. It was my first time back at the State Champs since 1999, when there were very strong players like GMs Roman Dzindzichasvili and Walter Browne amongst the participants. This year, I was the top seed with about four or five 2400s behind me.

Nevertheless, it was an unmitigated disaster for me.

In the first round, I had the white pieces against Jimmy Heiserman. He played a Grunfeld against me, and I was rather happy with the game, as I got a small edge out of the opening and started to expand across the board. He tried to complicate things, but I cut my way through the complications to get an easily winning endgame.

In the second round, I had the black pieces against NM Steven Zierk, who I played in a 20-board simul in Los Gatos earlier in the year (writeup at: https://vbhat.wordpress.com/tag/los-gatos/). He played extremely passively, but I guess he just wanted a draw from the game. I struggled to squeeze something from the position, and I was making great progress until I made a bad miscalculation around the time control on move 30 and was left with a worthless advantage in the endgame. The game petered out in a K+B (for me) vs. K (for him) draw …

Annoying for sure, but it was the 2nd game of the day, and as I was trying to prepare myself for the rigors of playing a pair of 5-hour rounds a day, I wasn’t overly upset at that one. The next morning, though, I drew again with a much lower rated master, this time NM Gregory Young.

I got a clear advantage out of the opening, but immediately took it into an endgame which offered few practical chances for me due to the opposite colored bishops. This was a bad practical decision, as had I kept more pieces on the board, I may have kept more chances of outplaying my opponent. As it was, the endgame was not so hard to defend, and although he gave me a few chances, I never got close enough to win the game.

The real disaster struck that evening, in the fourth round as black against NM Drake Wang. I emerged from the opening with a clear advantage (extra pawn, pair of bishops), but then was so overjoyed with such an advantage that I played a little loosely for the next few moves. I saw a winning line after he played 18.Nxf7, the only problem being that I mixed up the order of the moves. Thus, I incorrectly played 18…d4, when 18…Bxc4 19.bxc3 d3! was winning. He immediately took advantage by sliding his knight away with Nce5, after which I was reeling. I tried to fight, and the game went on for another 2.5 hours, but I was again in no danger of winning and in fact was in no real danger of drawing the game!

With that loss, I was dropped to 2/4 and decided to withdraw from the tournament. I had done a great job against lower rated players in general since playing more seriously in 2006 – before this tournament, in my previous 64 games against lower rated opposition (since the start of 2006), I had 55 wins, 7 draws, and 2 losses. In this tournament, I left with 1 win, 2 draws, and 1 loss. A clunker like that was bound to happen at some point, but it was disappointing for sure. However, I think I’ve learned a couple things from those games and will hopefully not let that happen again.

The tournament was also costly from a FIDE rating standpoint, as I essentially threw away all my gains from Balaguer 2008 by losing 12+ rating points. My next rated tournament will be the Miami International, from September 10th to the 14th.

As a stand-in for a wrap-up of the tournament, my former student FM Sam Shankland won the tournament convincingly with 5/6. He thrashed IM Andrei Florean in round 5 before holding a draw against IM Dmitry Zilberstein in the final round to secure clear first place.

HT to my former teacher Richard Shorman for the photos. There are more available at his Chess Dryad site.

Tiger Style

This is a bit late, but I only just got back from Germany and didn’t have much internet access in my hotel rooms.

About a week after Balaguer finished, I went to Mainz for the Chess Tigers Mainz Chess Classic 2008, a huge chess festival that draws close to a 1,000 players to the city over 7 days. I had spent the interim period in Munich (4+ days) and Frankfurt (2+ days), and then took an S-bahn train to Mainz.

Situated on the Rhine River, Mainz is the capital of the German Rhineland-Palatinate state and has a long history. Unfortunately, I did not get to see much of Mainz, but on the plus side, I did get to play in a pair of strong chess tournaments. The tournament website is at: http://www.chesstigers.de/ccm8.php?lang=1

FiNet Chess960 Open

The first tournament on the docket for me was the FiNet Chess960 Open. A rapid event, the games are played at a rate of 20 minutes for each player, with 5 seconds added per move. The twist is that it’s Chess960, and so the starting position is randomly selected from the 960 possible arrangements of the pieces on the back rank (there are only 960 positions because the rules do not allow positions where both rooks are on the same side of the king).

The tournament was played over 2 days, with 5 rounds on the first day and 6 rounds on the second day. This can make for a somewhat tiring event, as even though it’s rapid chess, each game can easily take 30-40 minutes, and then that is repeated a number of times each day. Even in the so-called rapid World Championship in which Anand, Carlsen, Morozevich, and Polgar participated, it looked like by the last games of each day, Anand was not calculating nearly as well as at the beginning.

Anyways, in the FiNet Open, I was seeded number 41 of about 232 players at the start of the event. The first day, I lost to GM Rustam Kasimjanov (2004 FIDE World Champion) in horrible fashion, dropping a center pawn for absolutely no compensation after less than 10 moves. This was my only loss of the day, leaving me with 4/5 going into the second day. I started off with a loss to GM Evgeny Bareev (former super-GM, and second of ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik in multiple matches) in a long, hard-fought game. The disappointing thing with this game was that I had a worse position, fought back, and then blundered horribly at the end to throw all my hard work away. Again I beat up on the lower rated (at least at regular chess) players, and then faced GM Pavel Tregubov (a former European Champion) with the white pieces. I played enterprisingly in the opening, sacrificing a pawn for good compensation, but then I began to play poorly, miscalculating lines at every move. Tregubov finished me off with a nice queen sacrifice to set up a mating net.

I beat a lower rated player again, and then finished the tournament off with a smooth win over GM Murtas Kazhgalayev. Thus, I finished with 8.0/11, good enough for a tie for 9th through 18th place, with my mathematical tiebreaks being good enough for 16th place overall. GM Hikaru Nakamura won the event on tiebreaks with 9.0/11, although he should have won the event in sole first had he not thrown away a drawn endgame against GM Arkadij Naiditsch in round 10. Naiditsch then returned the favor, throwing away a complete win against Motylev (up a queen!) and blundering into checkmate in the last round.

Ordix Open

After the end of FiNet Chess960 tournament, the Ordix Open began the following day. The time control was the same (G/20 + 5 sec/move), but with the standard starting position. Some of the players had been joking during the FiNet tournament whether the organizers could randomly select Position 518 from the list (which corresponded to the regular starting position) – now we got a chance to play 11 rounds of that.

The first game was a bit weird, as I had gotten more used to playing with my pieces in their non-standard starting squares over the previous couple days. However, I beat all the lower rateds until I was paired up in round 4 with GM Hikaru Nakamura, the favorite (at least in the eyes of most people I talked to) in the event. With the white pieces, we played a very long game that ended in a draw, although I really should have won the game. The game was a bit of a see-saw at first, with neither playing getting a winning advantage, but then in the rook and pawn endgame, I steadily outplayed him to get a won position. However, I then erred a little bit, and then in the final position with only one move to win, I didn’t see how to proceed and took his draw offer.

That game can be replayed here. After the first day, then, I was sitting on 4.5/5.

The second day, I started off with a tough loss to GM Davit Arutinian. I then won a pair of games before getting clobbered by GM Tomas Markowski of Poland. Like my game with Kasimjanov, this was a very disappointing game because I essentially did not put up a fight. After the opening 12 moves or so, I was just clearly worse having lost a central pawn for little compensation. Markowski then managed to put me away, leaving me on 6.5/9. Had I won the game, for example, I would have been in contention for first place with 7.5/9.

Over the last two games, I managed to get back on track, beating WGM Anita Gara and GM Robert Ruck of Hungary, the win against Ruck being particularly nice. And so, after 2 more long days of chess, I finished with 8.5/11, good enough for a tie for 12th through 24th place, with my mathematical tiebreaks being good enough for 19th place.

The Ordix Open was won by Ian Nepomniachtchi and Pavel Eljanov on 9.5/11, with Nepo’s tiebreaks being better. Nakamura finished with 9.0/11 after losing a won game against GM Zoltan Almasi in the tenth round. However, he still managed to win first place overall in the combined score list (with 18.0/22 across the two events).

GrenkeLeasing Rapid “World Championship”

After the end of the normal open tournaments each day, the crème de la crème fought it out in the evening. Billed as the Rapid World Championship, it’s not officially sanctioned, so I think it’s a bit disingenuous to call it as such. Still they always get some of the strongest players in the world to play, and this year was no different. It started as a double round-robin with Anand, Carlsen, Morozevich, and Polgar. The top two finishers would then play a 4-game match for 1st/2nd place, and the remaining two would play for 3rd/4th place.

Anand finished ahead in the round-robin phase, beating Morozevich twice and then drawing with everyone else. Carlsen took second in the round-robin, and so faced Anand in the final stage. However, he got completely crushed in the first game (foolishly playing the Sicilian Dragon again) and lost the second in poor fashion after playing a very insipid Catalan. After missing a ton of opportunities, Morozevich finally beat Polgar in their match. Surprisingly (or not), Polgar went through 10 games without a single win.

The chess was somewhat disappointing, with everyone except for Anand looking particularly mortal. Carlsen’s opening play never really got him much; Morozevich did not quite seem on form, missing some tactical lines that I would have expected him to normally see; and Polgar just looked completely outclassed.

Watching the players, though, was somewhat more interesting. Anand plays without showing too much emotion, although he does fidget around a little bit during all phases of the game. Polgar and Morozevich were rather stoic, although Morozevich would show his disappointment with his play more often. Carlsen was the most interesting to watch, because it almost didn’t look like he was playing a game. He would often look at the other board during the game (even on his own move), would sit in a much more relaxed fashion than any of the other players, and so on. The only time he looked a bit distressed was after losing the first two games of the final to Anand. In those cases, he ran off the stage to a side door.

ChessBase had a final report on the Biel 2008 tournament, with some amusing photos of Carlsen. Here they are, along with a link to the ChessBase article. He was doing the same sort of stuff in Mainz.

It’s too bad you never see such events in the US – from the champions tournaments, to the massive turnouts in the open events (with such strong fields), to the packed spectators area for the evening matches, it was lots of fun. I definitely plan on returning next year.

Stalled at the Finish

Round 8: White vs FM Lazaro Lorenzo de la Riva (2367, Spain). I managed to get back in the win column against the only person who beat me in Balaguer last year. That time, though, Lazaro had the white pieces against me.

The game can be replayed here.

He surprised me with the Benoni as Black, although I expected something new as he doesn’t have many games in the database. I played the Modern Main Line with 7.h3 and 9.Bd3 and he responded with maybe the most theoretical response in 9…b5. This was a bit of a surprise, but a bigger surprise was 14…Rd8. My recollection of this line was that 14…Nd7 was the main move, and that there was some reason 14…Rd8 was not best. I thought for about 10 minutes and played 15.Qe2!?, which was a surprise for him.

As it turns out, 14…Rd8 is reasonably common and usually transposes to the 14…Nd7 line after 15.Bf4. However, 15.Qe2 is an interesting way to play and a viable alternative to 15.Bf4. He played 15…Bf8, after which he was down one pawn, but he had some development advantage and a somewhat awkward knight on e3 to play against.

He was just getting more compensation with 24…f5!, but then he threw it all away with 25…Qe4? as the endgame is just lost. Better was 25…Nd6, heading for the e4-square.

Round 9: Black vs. GM Alexander Delchev (2618, Bulgaria). Another crazy game against a GM, and again, this one ended in a draw. Delchev is a very solid 2600+ GM, who loses pretty rarely and loses with the white pieces even more rarely.

The game can be replayed here.

The game was a Semi-Slav Meran with 8…Bd6, although the game left my preparation after 13.Ne2. He said after the game that he has analyzed this position a bit, and thought that white was just better – during the game, I thought it was rather unclear but probably about equal.

He soon sent all his pieces to the kingside, and on every move, there was the possibility of f2-f4 or Nh4-f5. With the clocks running down to about 20 minutes apiece, he decided to play it safe with 18.Nf3. This shouldn’t have posed any problems, but a few inaccuracies from me capped by 24…Qe7?, left me in a difficult position. He played two very strong moves with 25.Qf4! and 26.Nf5!, after which black’s position looks extremely shaky. However, I was confident in my defensive chances and I didn’t see any win for him. As it turns out, neither did he. I consolidated the extra piece and with 39…Rf5, I would have sealed the win. But alas, I played 39…Qc5, which threw the win away as I had missed 44.Bg4.

With the cold, objective analysis of a computer, it turns out his sacrifice with 26.Nf5 is winning, but he has to find a series of amazing moves – 30.Qh4 (instead of 30.Qf5) Kh8!? 31.g3!!. While somewhat logical ex-post, it’d be hard to find many chessplayers who could find such moves with a minute on their clock.

Round 10: White vs. GM Levan Aroshidze (2547, Georgia). This was a particularly tough pairing for me (and for Levan), since we have roomed together at a few tournaments since last year. It’s never easy to play a friend.

The game can be replayed here.

The game itself ended in a draw, although not quite like it may have been expected. The opening was not something either of us prepared for (I pretty much always play the IQP positions of the Rubinstein Nimzo) and I was on my own after 10…b6. He then offered a draw with 13…Rfd8, which left me thinking for 20 minutes about what to do – play on or just take the draw?

In the end, I decided to play on, as my job now is essentially to play chess and get better. A draw wouldn’t have risked anything in the tournament, but at the same time, after going all the way to Spain, it made some sense to play on given that it wasn’t a GM norm/title on the line.

My idea with 15.e4, 16.e5 and 17.Qg4 looked dangerous, but Levan found the correct series of moves to diffuse the tension. If, instead of 20…Qc4, he played 20…Qb3, then 21.dxe6 Qxa2 22.Nf5! g6 23.exf7+ is the point (if 23…Qxf7, 24.Nh6+). If Black steps to h8 with king, then 24.Qb4 is crushing.

In the actual game, the endgame after 24.d6 is rather hard to assess – Black gains control of the c-file, but the d6-pawn is a serious asset. 24…f6 was the safe way to play and liquidated the central pawns and the game petered out to equality after which I offered a draw which was quickly accepted.

So, after playing an extra 2 hours or so, I was back at square one with a draw. But the game was still a useful one to play, I think. After the game, Levan actually apologized to me for offering a draw, saying that he couldn’t bring himself to play the game seriously and so offered a draw even though he had the black pieces. I didn’t mind that at all, actually, but I explained why I wanted to play on a bit.

In the other games, Baklan beat Fidel Corrales and so passed him for first place with 8/10. The top two Cubans (Corrales and Bruzon) shared 2nd-3rd at 7.5/10, and there was a 10-way tie for 4th-13th at 7/10. Unlike in Benasque, number of wins was not the first tiebreak (it was the 5th) and my opponent’s score as calculated by the Bucholz metric was the 2nd best amongst my group. Thus, I finished in 5th place on tiebreaks. For what it’s worth, had number of wins been used as the first tiebreak, I would have finished last!

I didn’t quite make a GM-norm equivalent performance in Balaguer though, as the performance was only about 2572. Still, it was a solid performance and I managed to gain about 12 points. So after Benasque and Balaguer, my two tournaments of the summer, I should be sitting on 2512 FIDE or so.

Shaking the Malaise

Well, since the fourth round, I managed to get 2 points from 3 games. The first two games, though, were not particularly clean, although the third was a bit better.

Round 5: Black vs. WFM Keti Tsatsalashvili (2271, Georgia). An odd game from the start. The Benoni is not part of my normal repertoire (I’ve only tried to play it twice over the past 10 years in rated play, and in both cases, my opponent didn’t let me play it!) and I had no games of my opponent against this opening. Still, I decided that since the Benoni angles for a fight from the start, it was the remedy I needed to get back on track.

The game can be replayed here.

Keti started off with the Knight Tour Variation with 7.Nd2, but then got back into a Fianchetto Variation with 8.g3. Black’s position was actually quite comfortable after 12…Ne5 and 13…Nh5. However, instead of 13…Bd7?!, I should have played 13…f5. I had seen this move, but I thought by threatening …b5, I could get her to play a move like Rb1, after which …f5 would have even more effect. However, I never got a chance to play …b5 and …f5 was a defensive measure when I got to play it. After 17.Nc4 Qc7, White’s position looks amazing at first glance but it’s not so easy to figure out how to make full use of the advantage.

In the game continuation, I sacrificed a pawn because I didn’t see anything better to do after 18.a5, but White has some technical difficulties to keep the pawn, as her knight on b6 is completely out of play. In addition, the bishop on c1 is temporarily tied down to the defense of the b2-pawn, and she must watch out that I don’t get a rook to e2 or capture the d5-pawn.

The way she played managed to temporarily avoid losing the pawns or allowing a rook in, but all of Black’s pieces became very active and after 27…Re4, Black is better. It was only a matter of time before I crashed through, and with 40…Nd4!, won the game.

Round 6: White vs. GM Lazaro Bruzon (2582, Cuba). An amazing save, if I may say so myself. In the database, Bruzon had essentially only played three different systems against 1.d4 – (1) the QGD, (2) the Nimzo-Indian, and (3) the Semi-Slav Meran with the rare 8…b4.

I was ready for all those, although I had expected him to play a Nimzo. However, he trotted out the Meran and then played 8…Bd6! While I had faced this once before this summer (against Eduardo Desanjose Candalija), I had not studied it too carefully since then, and even if I had, I probably would not have been ready to meet his natural novelty of 11…a5.

I sunk into thought and was unable to find anything good to do, and in fact, got a worse position in trying to play for some advantage. 19.Rd1 was a mistake in view of 19…g6! To compound my troubles, I was down to about 4 minutes to his 30 minutes. In the complications that followed, I managed to find some good moves and missed one good one (26.Qxb3! instead of 26.Qd2?), but Lazaro was unable to put me away there. To avoid some nice checkmates after 29…Nf5+, I had to sacrifice my queen, but the Q vs 2R endgame was not a trivial win, especially as his clock was ticking down.

In the end, he had to repeat the position to avoid a worse fate (if, for example, my pawn gets farther down the board, maybe I can even think of playing to win). The computer would, of course, had a field day with the middlegame attacking position.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the endgame, but given the time control, it was difficult to play properly. The original time control for the tournament was 40/90 + G/30, with 30 seconds added per move. However, for reasons unknown, it was changed the same day as the first round.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 7: Black vs. GM Vladimir Baklan (2630, Ukraine). This game was a bit of a missed opportunity for me. Baklan is the top seed in the tournament, but I let a bit of an advantage slip.

The game featured the Worrall Attack of the Ruy Lopez with 12.d5, a line I had spent all of 5 minutes preparing for. As this was my first time on the black side of such a Ruy structure, I took a bit of time, but I hit upon a few somewhat standard ideas. Actually, after 19…c4, I was even a bit better, but then I played 22…Na5?. I think I should have played 22…Nc5 instead, but for some reason, I reacted instantly with …Na5. After 23.g5 Nh5 24.Nxh5, my position is probably alright, but it’s gotten a lot more unclear. I had a shattered kingside pawn structure, and a rather bad bishop on g7, but I did get a pawn on h3 as compensation in addition to the trump of my queenside passer.

The 10 minutes I spent on 27…a5 was a key moment in the game, as it was during that think I realized that the way for me to keep playing this position was to push the a-pawn. Black has two ideas there – one is just to push the a-pawn all the way, the other is, if the pawn gets exchanged on a4 for example, is to take back with the rook, followed by doubling on the a-file and the 4th rank (with …Qc4).

Still, the pawn push only kept the position rather unclear, and in mutual time pressure, the game simplified into an endgame that I probably should have kept playing. Instead, I decided to call it a day and accepted his draw offer.

The game can be replayed here.

So after 7 rounds, I have 5 points. IM Fidel Corrales Jimenez of Cuba is leading the tournament with 6.5/7. He crushed GMs Delchev and Aroshidze the past two rounds, and is the first person I’ve seen beat Delchev in Balaguer in the last 3 years!

The dog days of summer in Balaguer

Round 1: Black vs C.P. Aatirah (1946, India). An easy game to start off the tournament. Since first round pairings only go up right before the game, there is no time for preparation. As a result, I went with what I know best (and what angles for a fight from the start). I played the French Defense, and after the Advance Variation, my old favorite line of 5…Nh6. Black’s pieces all went to their best squares right away, and in some sense, it was a textbook demonstration of what Black should be trying for in this line.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 2: White vs Boris Bruned (2224, Spain). A protracted struggle, with most of the problems for me coming in the opening phase. I had not prepared much for this game, although it would have been useful for me to have done so. I played a Trompowsky, and we followed a game of mine against Kruttika Nadig from Andorra 2006 for a little while. While I managed to win that game, it was not because I came out ahead from the opening struggle, and I spent a lot of time at the board trying to figure out what the improvement was supposed to be. In the end, I hit upon an interesting idea with 9.Nh3, 11.Nf4, and 12.Bh3.

After the opening, my opponent started to think a lot more and soon came to the realization that his opening plan did not solve the problems of his pawn structure, especially with the pawns on e7 and f7. In the end, those pawns cost him the game, as he was going to lose one for sure after 27.Qd3. The endgame was lost, but he then lost on time after 38.b4.

The game can be replayed here.

Compared to the past two years, the tournament is marginally stronger this year. While the ratings of the top players are about the same, the bigger difference is that there are fewer lower rated players (especially in the 2000-2100 range). In the past two years, I faced players rated 2167 and 2182 in the 2nd round. And last year, despite have a lower rating, I was essentially the same seed.

Round 3:  Black vs Jose Luis Vilela (2347, Cuba). The game finished as a draw after only 14 moves, but it took almost 3 hours to play! Again, I did not spend as much time preparing for this game as I would if I was playing without the accumulated fatigue of a previous tournament.

As it was, he played the Slav Exchange (like Levin did in Benasque). I had actually expected something else from him even though he had played this line a few times. He continued with 4.Nc3 and 5.Bf4, so I played 5…Qb6. He then sank into thought for about 30 minutes before playing 6.Rc1 (one of the more testing moves in my opinion).

Not remembering the theory here, I decided to avoid taking the pawn on b2 (after a preparatory 6…Nc6, for example) and instead played 6…Bf5. He then thought for another 15 minutes and played 7.Na4. And then I sat down for about 45 minutes before playing 7…Qa5+! The first problem for me was that I had completely overlooked 7.Na4, despite it being a rather obvious move. The second problem was that I realized it was a good move.

I spent a lot of time calculating variations after 7…Qd8 8.Qb3 Nbd7 9.Qxb7 e5! (angling for an eventual …Rb8 and …Bb4+) and 9.Nf3! Ne4!? with similar traps in mind based on the a5-e1 diagonal. In the end, I realized that 9.Nf3 was quite strong for white and gave up on this line.

In the game continuation, White missed a strong line with 9.Qb3 (instead of 9.e3), which would have secured a small advantage. As it was in the game, I had a nice trick with 11…a6!, covering the b5-square. Even though it drops the d5-pawn, it’s only a temporary loss since I get the a2-pawn back after 13…Be6. Down to less than 20 minutes, Vilela offered a draw with 14.Qa5 and I saw no reason to decline.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 4: White vs Yvain Bruned (2383, Spain). Thanks to a healthy dose of good fortune, I managed to escape this game with a draw. It was a bit weird to play Boris’ twin brother in the same tournament as they play the exact same set of openings. Thus, I was not likely to repeat the Trompowsky, but I had to decide what to do against the Nimzo.

He deviated from his usual patterns in the Rubinstein Variation with 4…0-0 5.Bd3 d5 (rather than the 4…c5 he had played in every game from that position in the database). He immediately made a misstep though with 7…Nxd5? instead of 7…cxd4. However, I played too hastily with e4-e5 and threw away a huge advantage and then had to try and stir up trouble on the kingside without any obvious weakness to attack.

I got into huge time trouble in this game, down to about 4 minutes against more than an hour, but managed to pose enough problems to trick him into a draw. Actually, he blundered with 27…a5?, which loses to 28.Bxh7+!, but for some reason, I missed the only threat I had in the position. Then I hit upon an amusing idea of 37.Qg2, aiming to throw the h-pawn into the fire (the only piece that could attack but hadn’t yet done so). He then blundered again horribly with 42…Kxh7, although neither of us realized that 42…Kh8 was immediately winning!

The game can be replayed here.

After this game, the Bruned family is on the board against me. I had beaten Yvain in Andorra 2006, Vianney (the youngest brother) in Balaguer 2007, and Boris in Balaguer 2008.

Hopefully I play better the rest of the tournament – the past two games have featured some pretty poor chess on my part.