I have to say…I am completely wiped out. And I wasn’t even playing. I think that gives you an idea of how difficult our road to victory was.
The match started off on a good foot. I was pleased to see Yakov’s opponent being “creative” with 1.d4 g6 2.Nf3 Bg7 3.e3 Nh6!?.
Joel tried to surprise Giorgi with the Caro-Kann Fantasy variation, but seemed to be surprised himself with the relatively rare 3…Qb6!? By move five, Giorgi was up about twenty five minutes on the clock, and nothing he hadn’t seen before had showed up on the board. Joel made a fairly surprising decision to recapture on d4 with the queen, instead of the sharper 7.Nxd4, and the game went into a queenless middlegame. I was confident that Giorgi would be adept at handling this kind of position.
Matt’s opening went even better. In fact, it stayed at the “opening” stage for quite some time, since he played his first fifteen moves instantly, while his opponent, Mackenzie Molner, burned through fifty minutes. So we had a huge time advantage on this board, as well as a promising position, as Molner failed to pose any question marks to the 7…Nc6!? variation of the Bg5 Najdorf.
But of course Pascal’s opening caused some worry. The “staid” Four Knights Game became incredibly sharp when Dean chose 4…Nd4, then later 9…0-0-0. Pascal was aware of a Vallejo-Dominguez game from a few years back where White played the safe and natural 10.Be3 and the game ended in what looked like a forced draw. He didn’t want to enter such a line, so he deviated with the plausible move 10.Bc4, but after Black sacced on e4, it started to look really scary…and I was like, please God, don’t let this be an example of another self-immolation with the White pieces. Are we really just going to get crushed in fifteen moves with White, despite playing the Four Knights!?!?
Out of dire necessity, and maybe because he enjoys sacrificing his queen, Pascal pulled 13.Nxd4!? out of his Canadian fur hat. To be honest, I had no idea what sort of compensation he was counting on for the queen. But at least the queen sac changed the nature of the game. White would get a few pieces and a few pawns, and even a good chance to castle!!
Yakov’s game was smooth, and over quite quickly (Yakov still had forty minutes left on the clock). He got a strong knight on d5 and zeroed in on the weak f6 square, winning a pawn, then two, and finally mating Sean Finn in a double rook endgame.
The other three games were tense, seesaw affairs. Dean made a mistake (wasn’t so obvious, though) right after the queen sac with 14…Bg4 instead of 14…Bxc2 with advantage to Black, and Pascal wound up getting great compensation for the queen. He made many natural moves and some nice ones (like 19.b4), and Black was struggling to stay on the board. Some of the cuter points never came up, but for example Pascal pointed out after the game that Black could never play …b6 (an otherwise desirable move, kicking away the well-placed Nc5) because of Ba6+ and Bb7 and the Black queen will be snared. Isn’t that a nice word? Snared? Coming upon the black queen from behind like that…tricky, tricky Pascal.
It was quite a turnaround. From how things stood in the opening, I never would have dreamed that the board we’d have winning chances on would be Pascal’s board!
Meanwhile, let’s stop by some of the critical moments in Giorgi’s game. After the game, Giorgi expressed wonderment as to what positional considerations underpinned the move 12.Nc4, which allowed Black to simply trade the knight (nope, it won’t get to enjoy the fine d6 square), and leave White with two pretty ineffective minor pieces and Black with a magnificent outpost on e5 for his knight. He expected 12.Bc4 (White is fine with trading bishops) and thought he still had to work for equality there. Black had a very comfortable game after 12.Nc4, the kind I thought Giorgi could play for an eventual win, but he went astray with the too “deep” 17…Rf8. His idea was very nice and all, planning to keep the king centralized on e7, but he missed the simple Ne6 idea (once White’s knight gets to f4), taking advantage of the awkwardness of the rook on f8. After 17…0-0 Black just has a positional advantage. With the continuation in the game, Giorgi was forced to repeat moves with …Ng4-e5 to avoid being worse.
I was a little surprised that Joel declined the repetition and went hunting the h-pawn with Rh3. At that point, Matt was not doing too well, and Pascal’s game was still unclear, so I didn’t think a draw on board one was bad for New Jersey, given their draw odds. Plus, I didn’t see what would happen if Black defended their h-pawn with …h5.
Matt’s promising opening, unfortunately, fizzled into something less than promising. The first critical moment in his game occurred after 18.g4, attacking the bishop on f5. I was gone from the room at that moment, and came back fifteen minutes later to find his bishop on e6. And I was like, oh no, that’s not where the bishop is supposed to be! It was perfect on the h7-b1 diagonal, that’s why you brought it there in the first place. I mean, I understood that Black had some concerns about Bg2 and the attack on the d5 pawn, but it just couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be, that you’d have to retreat to e6 because of that. I thought that 18…Bg6 was correct, and that Black would always have counterplay based on the …Rxc3 exchange sacrifice, with two such strong bishops on their side. So 18…Bg6 is quite fine, but Pascal suggested the immediate 18…Rxc3!? 19.bxc3 Be4! 20.Bg2 and later the computer filled it in for me: 20…Qb6!! with the idea that on 21.Bxe4 there is 21…Bf4 22.Rd2 and the simple 22…dxe4, with advantage to Black. Well, what can I say? I was just very sad for that lovely bishop to retreat into its dark hole on e6. The position is very dynamic in nature, so you have to strive to play it dynamically, every move.
After that misjudgment, Matt’s position hovered between =/+= for many moves. To be honest, I guess I was overly pessimistic about it. Matt was never seriously worse, and he did a fine job of neutralizing White’s slight plus. Psychologically, it was hard for me to cope with the turn of events…where we went from having the initiative and a huge time lead to defending an endgame with zero active counterplay, a passive bishop, and pawn weaknesses. We still had the time lead, though, which was no small thing, and I knew that this type of dry, technical position was not Molner’s cup of tea.
By the way, I’ll mention the other interesting moment in this game. It was after Molner’s 29.Be4. The fact of this move actually appearing on the board was surprising to me, though I had noticed it. It just looked so suspicious, setting yourself up for a pin on the e-file. Matt instantly replied with 29…Bc6, and I wanted to cry. Wasn’t 29…Re8 at least worth some consideration? White is forced to take the d5 pawn and after 30…Kc7, White is pinned, and has three pieces that will make fine targets on the a8-h1 diagonal; Black also has ideas of getting back their pawn with …Bxg4. I didn’t know exactly how good it was for Black; that depended on whether White could find an effective response on move 31, but I felt that Black should be fine.
However, my intuition let me down! Actually, White saves himself with 31.Kd3! (the only square that works), managing to defend himself against all of Black’s threats and remaining up a pawn. So it was a good thing Matt didn’t go for that…although calculating it would still be a good idea, since it’s a potential winning try J
After a bit more maneuvering around (I like Matt’s a5-a4 advance, precluding White’s own a4 ideas), White offered a draw in a position in which he apparently didn’t see how to make progress. I was surprised. By that point, New Jersey really needed to win board three. Dean was losing, and Joel…well, it’s hard to say, since their game kept swinging from one side to the other, but I think at that moment Joel was not at one of his crests. But Mac was short on time, and didn’t have much to work with anymore. The queenside was locked, and Black was sturdily defending their one weakness on d5. The comp gives it as =0.00, so I guess a draw is a fair result, but still…
After Joel continued the game with 23.Rh3, it seems like Giorgi again reacted in an unnecessarily deep way, activating the rook with 23…Rd4 instead of the simple 23…h5. Black certainly “activated” his pieces, if activation means getting a rook trapped in your opponent’s camp, and could have been punished for that if Joel had found the pretty 30.Be6! with a big edge for White. Instead, the tables turned once again after the cooperative 30.Nd3? Within a few moves, it was Black who had built up a dominating position, which he duly spoiled with 35…Nd6?. I know the knight usually wants to be blockading the passed pawn on that square, but in this case the effective thing to do would have been to blockade it with the king, after 35…Nd4+ and 36…Kd6. There wouldn’t be a glimmer of counterplay in sight. Instead, a few more moves passed, and Giorgi blundered the pawn on g6, giving White a superior position. Joel eventually turned that into an extra pawn, and it was starting to look terrible for Black. In time pressure (to be fair, Joel had been in severe time pressure for a very, very long time), Joel blundered with 54.Bd1?, letting Black into the game, and compounded that with 55.Kg5?? which not only loses an exchange as happened in the game, but a whole rook that Giorgi failed to take!! 55…R6-c5+ followed by Nf5+ picks up a rook (Giorgi probably missed that 55.Kf6 leads to mate in one after 55…Rf4). Thankfully I missed all these horrors, because at that point I was completely focused on Pascal’s game. Pascal was very close to winning, and since Matt had a draw in hand, all we needed was a win from Pascal. However, it remained elusive…Dean put up some stiff resistance, finding the resource 30…Qg4! with the idea of hiding the queen on d1 from a discovered attack by the rook (for example, after 31.g3 Qd1+ 32.Kg2 a4 and White’s rook can’t find Black’s queen for their planned rendez-vous!). Of course, at various points in the game White was winning, but it was never that trivial, and it proved unexpectedly tricky in the R+B+ pawns versus Q+ P endgame that Pascal went for, because of that …Qg4 move.
By the time the win had slipped through Pascal’s fingers, however, Giorgi had profited from all the time trouble mistakes to wind up in a position of strength that he used to steer the game to the needed result. So behind a win from our board four, Yakov Norowitz, the Knights overcame New Jersey’s draw odds with a score of 2.5-1.5 to advance to the USCL finals.
I just wanted to say a few words about how proud I am of our team. At the end of the match, the celebration was quite subdued, because we were all …exhausted.
I’m fond of an expression I once heard in a Charlize Theron movie…I think it was North Country. “Win or lose, leave your blood on the ice.” I don’t know if we left everything we could, but we left a lot.
Stay tuned for our battle against Miami for the League Championship.