Thursday, September 16, 2010

Week 4 Roundup / League Overview (part 1)

Another exciting week of USCL play. The GOTW contest, which til this point has been less than competitive, ought to pick up steam and controversy this week, with a number of sparkling games and upsets taking place. We are now 40% through the season and the playoff picture is starting to emerge.

In the East,
New England (3.5-0.5, 9.5) and New York (3-1, 12) have emerged as front-runners, with Baltimore (2.5-1.5, 10) and Boston (2.5-1.5, 8) close behind, while Manhattan (1-3, 4.5) and Carolina (0.5-3.5, 5.5) need to make a mid-season surge to remain viable.

Out West, Arizona (4-0, 11.5) and San Francisco (3-1, 10.5) have created some distance from the field, though Chicago (2.5-1.5, 8) remains within striking distance. Storied franchises and perennial contenders Dallas (1-3, 6.5) and Miami (0.5-3.5, 5.5) have a lot of ground to make up to stay in the hunt.

What has separated the best from the rest? After four weeks, it looks to be the performance on board 2. The top 4 teams in the league (Arizona, New England, San Francisco and New York) happen to have the top 4 scores on board 2 (though not necessarily in that order), while the bottom 4 teams (Miami, Carolina, Manhattan and Seattle) have 4 of the bottom 5.

This was also the case in the regular season for 2009 (board 2 being most significant as a predictor of team result). In 2008, board 3 was most indicative.

On to the games!

The Philadelphia Inventors (1.5-2.5, 7.5) drew the Baltimore Kingfishers (2.5-1.5, 10) in a rare match where all the games were drawn! On board 1, GM Magesh Panchanathan drew GM Sergey Erenburg in a relatively placid game, where first minor pieces, then rooks left the board leaving a drawn queen and pawn endgame. Board 3 saw FM Karl Dehmelt play the Panov-Botvinnik against IM Ray Kaufman's Caro-Kann. In a very theoretical line, Dehmelt played a dubious novelty (17. Rc1 vs the standard 17. 0-0-0) and soon his king was far away from the action developing on the queenside and in the center. Instead of the critical 25. ..Kd7, Kaufman acquiesced to a 3-fold repetition with 25. ..Kf5, returning to that square on move 27. Board 4 was the next to finish, where NM Ricky Selzler was unable to convert his slightly better position against IM Richard Costigan into a concrete advantage and a drawn N vs B endgame soon resulted. The longest and most exciting game of the match was a battle between GM Larry Kaufman (2008 World Senior Champion) and FM Thomas Bartell, an early front-runner for league MVP. Bartell chose the rare 10. ..h6 (10. ..c6 and the sharp 10. ..ed are more popular) and quickly found himself in a difficult position with little space and even less counterplay.

Kaufman chose 21. f5!? which soon netted him a pawn, but 21. e5! would have nearly won the game on the spot. If 21. 22. Re5 Qb6 23. Na4 Qc7 24. Re6! decides or 21. ..d5 22. cd cd 23. Rc1! and white's positional advantage is overwhelming. Bartell was able to escape into a pawn-down endgame. On move 35 (diagram), Kaufman had a chance to win in style with 35. Nd8!! cb 36. Be2! when the c-pawn and the lineup on the d-file will cost black at least a piece. Instead, 35. Kg1 kept black on life support.

Bartell defended resourcefully and move 58 began to seize the initiative with ..h4, weaving the beginnings of a net around white's king. Kaufman bailed out on move 67 and forced a 3-fold repetition draw.

St. Louis (2-2, 8.0) drew a bizarre match against Miami (0.5-3.5, 5.5), last year's Western champions who need a strong finish to get back to the playoffs. A big problem this year for St. Louis' top heavy lineups has been the lack of production on board 4. Shocking, then, was the ease with which Spencer Finegold achieved a winning position with the black pieces against NM Andres Santalla and, more surprisingly, his decision to take a draw (diagram) when after 21. Bc5 Nc3! 22. Be7 Rd7 23. Rd2 Re7, black not only has a clean extra pawn, but superior pieces as "compensation".

Next to finish was GM Ben Finegold getting into opening trouble for the second consecutive week with the black pieces and Miami's GM Renier Gonzalez was up to the challenge and finished him off in style. In a sharp Grand Prix (diagram), Finegold played the disastrous 19. ..Bd5 and was lost after 20. c4! Bc6 21. Rd1!. Forced was the "greedy" 19. ..Ba2! 20. Rd1! Kd5! 21. c4 Bc4 22. Nb3 Ke4! 23. Nd2 with perpetual.

GM Hikaru Nakamura's homage to the late, great Bent Larsen was as volatile as the legendary Grandmaster's own play and quickly landed him in a difficult position. Already up two pawns, GM Julio Becerra missed an opportunity for an immediate knockout (diagram).

28. ..Re5! 29. Ne5 Qh2 30. Kf1 Qh1 31. Ke2 Ne3! 32. Kf3 Qh5! 33. Kf2 Qd1! would have been a picturesque finish. Instead, after 28. ..Ne5?! 29. Ne5 Qg7?! (29. ..Qd6! would have been better, with the idea 30. d4 f5!!) 30. d4 f6 31. b4! fe 32. ba Rd8 33. Qe5 Qe5 34. de, Nakamura had escaped into a likely drawn R+P endgame, though he still had to demonstrate some technique (keeping the pawn on g2). This game was the last to finish as Becerra played on to the bitter end (50-move rule draw), though the drama had been lost for the spectators long prior to the official result.

The Archbishops needed a win on board 3 from IM Michael Brooks against All-Star NM Eric Rodriguez. Brooks chose the rare 7. a4 in the Ne7 Winawer (as played by Fischer in the first game of his match against Larsen - more usual is 7. Qg4) and Rodriguez chose Korchnoi's 7. ..Qa5 treatment. Brooks innovated by finally playing 9. Qg4, rather than the usual 9. Nf3, which has been championed by GM John Nunn and netted him a sparkling victory against Tiger Hillarp Persson in 2000. Both players seemed a bit out of sorts as Rodriguez eschewed castling and Brooks refused to take the proffered g7 pawn. Perhaps influenced by Rensch's convincing win against Abrahamyan in last week's GOTW, Rodriguez played the creative but incorrect 13. ..Ke7?! (diagram), which was not necessary as the e6 pawn is taboo after 13. ..0-0! due to the pin on the Qg4.

After 14. h4 h6 15. Nh3 Be8 16. Nf4 Bf7 17. Ng6 Bg6 18. Qg6, Brooks had won a pawn but Rodriguez fought hard and after queens left the board was close to being equal (diagram)

Unfortunately, Rodriguez chose a too-passive regroupment, starting with 28. ..Rc8 29. Rf3 Ke8 30. Rf1 Rc6 31. Rb1 Rb6 32. Rb6 ab and now white's extra pawn would tell after 33. h5! as it is impossible to avoid zugzwang given the plan of Ke2-f3-g4-f5 and Bd2-c1-a3. Instead, 28. ..a5! would prevent a rook exchange (29. Rf3?! Rf3! 30. Kf3 Nc7! and black creates an outside passed pawn ensuring at least a draw) and give black sufficient counterplay.

Monday night's final match was an exciting battle between two teams headed in opposite directions. The Arizona Scorpions (4-0, 11.5) defeated the Dallas Destiny (1-3, 6.5) by a narrow 2.5-1.5 margin to cement their grip on the West. Most games in this match were at critical moments simultaneously, so I'll aim to avoid a too-chronological narrative. First to finish was IM Julio Saddora refuting FM Warren Harper's interesting but incorrect exchange sacrifice with precise, aggressive play (27. ..d5 and 28. ..d4 were star moves) on board 2, giving Dallas an early lead. FM Keaton Kiewra risked the condemnation of opening theoreticians and certain GOTW judges when he played 1. e4 c5 2. a3!? against FM Robby Adamson (whose league excellent recap post this week beat me to the punch!). After the standard 2. ..g6!, Kiewra surprisingly backed away from his enterprising opening and transposed (a tempo down) into "main lines" with 3. d4? and Robby took full advantage (see his excellent annotations at . If you're going to say "A", you must say "B" - next time, play 3. h4!

IM Salvijus Bercys outplayed IM Levon Altounian in a Dutch, starting with the extremely nice 18. e4! in the diagrammed position.

After piling up and winning the e-pawn, Bercys had a chance to clarify matters on move 30 with 30. d5! (the bishop is taboo due to Rf8) cd 31. Qd5 and white's extra pawn should tell. Instead, after 30. Bg2?! Bg2 31. Kg2 Rad8 black organized a defense in a heavy-piece endgame and held the draw.

The decisive game, then, was a battle between two of the league's top board 4s, NM David Adelberg and two-time All-Star WFM Bayaraa Zorigt (looking to bounce back from an 0/3 2009 campaign after scoring 11.5/16 in 2007-2008, including 4-0 in the playoffs). It was classic USCL - sharp, sometimes sloppy but always entertaining. Zorigt had the better of it early, but missed 25. ..Bd4! (instead playing 25. ..Nd6) and the more straightforward 30.! (instead 30. ..Ne4?? allowing 31. Nf5!). Adelberg seized the initiative with gusto, finding the strong 35. b4! / 36. e4! / 37. f5! sequence (see diagram) but failed to continue with 38. h4!! Rg4 39. Bh3, winning a piece. After 38. Kh2??, Zorigt had an excellent opportunity to turn the tables and level the match with 38. ..Qc7! after which white is forced to shed a pawn and close the beautiful a1-h8 diagonal with 39. e5 Nf5. Alas, it was not Dallas' night - Zorigt played 38. ..Nh5 and after 39. Qb2 f6 40. Qd2 Qc7?? (h6 was necessary) 41. e5! and white converted 15 moves later.

No comments: