Destiny and anti-climax are rarely seen together, the latter usually paired with a dominant performer, but they made a joint appearance at the USCL final. For the second straight year, the closing minutes of the USCL Championship were devoid of risk for the victors. Giorgi Kacheishvili had effectively clinched the match for the New York Knights on the 57th move of his game against the Chicago Blaze’s Mesgen Amanov, with his extra piece and chromatically correct bishop/rook-pawn, though Amanov’s resignation would not come for another 40 moves.
New York sailed through the first eight weeks of the regular season and backed into the second seed after consecutive 2.5-1.5 defeats in weeks 9 and 10. Kacheishvili’s incredible 5/5 with black on board 1 (spurring him to his first league MVP award) and John Fedorowicz’s ultra-solid play on board 2, with pinch-hitters Irina Krush and Pascal Charbonneau delivering critical wins, anchored the top half for New York.
During the championship run of 2009, US #54 Yaacov Norowitz held board 4 and Matt Herman contributed a solid 50% on board 3 (and yet the Knights finished only 5-5!). The 2011 Knights fielded a patchwork team on the bottom boards, rotating Herman (who played quite erratic chess during the regular season) and Leif Pressman on 3 and the three juniors Michael Bodek, Justus Williams and Ben Gershenov on 4.
Chicago began the season 8-0, utilizing the “GGGg” strategy of three strong grandmasters on boards 1-3 and an underrated junior on board 4. An incredible 14/16 on boards 3 and 4 made them nearly impossible to beat. With draw odds/colors clinched, Miami and Chicago nicked them before the playoffs.
The Boston Blitz quickly revealed the Knights’ flaws in their quarterfinal match – an identical rematch of their week 2 tilt. Kacheishvili hung an exchange against Jorge Sammour-Hasbun and Fedorowicz’s Sveshnikov was demolished by a Marc Esserman novelty. Herman was unable to consolidate an extra pawn, hung a piece and then was forced to “sacrifice” another to keep the game going against his USCL nemesis, Vadim Martirosov. Michael Bodek, who had managed to beat Ilya Krasik from a completely lost position in their first encounter, looked to hold New York’s only chance to avoid an embarrassing 4-0 whitewash. There was no question, however, that New York was going home and that Boston would face Philadelphia or Manhattan in their quest to reach a 3rd USCL final.
Fabled “curses” in sports are often the product of a “narrative fallacy”, the desire to fit facts into a neatly packaged story, constructed with hindsight and strengthened by “confirmation bias”. Much like the stunning reversal in baseball’s AL East this September, however, it was impossible to avoid the real-time sense that this was not Boston’s year. As documented by Marc Esserman, Martirosov mis-evaluated a sacrifice that would have forced mate in 3
Herman-Maritrosov, after 43. Kh4
and within a half-dozen moves was staring down the barrel of mate and resigned. That Bodek and Krasik traded errors and Krasik had, first, successfully prevented black’s pawns from advancing and, at the brink, could have been rescued by a shocking stalemate trick
Bodek-Krasik, after 78. ... e2??
was irrelevant. The crowd felt the shift in momentum and, in a cruel twist, Krasik saw the stalemate idea one move too late and when Bodek recaptured correctly on d3 it was over.
Manhattan shocked Philadelphia in the other quarterfinal, overcoming the 3/4 All-Star duo of Jay Bonin and William Fisher.
The Boston match proved two things: anything is possible till the clocks are stopped and the tremendous advantage of draw odds. The Knights made the finals in 2006 and 2009 without that edge but in 2011 it provided a comfortable margin in the Eastern Finals against the Applesauce. New York played for two results on boards 1, 2 and 4. After Irina Krush converted against John Bartholomew on board 2 and Justus Williams overcame a few hiccups to beat James Black on board 4, with Leif pulling yet another rabbit from his hat against Farai Mandizha on board 3, not even Kacheishvili’s fatigue-induced blunder on board 1 could prevent New York from returning to the Finals.
Chicago’s also got through their toughest test in the quarterfinals, advancing 2-2 against a very strong Dallas team. The critical game was Sam Schmakel overcoming Jeffrey Xiong’s preparation in a Bg5 Najdorf Sicilian and the resulting hour time deficit. Xiong missed at least one clear win and eventually blundered a rook. In the West Finals, Chicago dispatched a gritty Los Angeles Vibe team, despite a loss on board 4 and getting nothing with white on board 1. Josh Friedel’s GOTW-winning effort on board 2 against Zhanibek Amanov gave Chicago their first Finals appearance.
One of the dangers of fielding a team full of rising young stars is that they happen to find themselves competing for national and international titles. The weekend of the USCL Final provided a double whammy, where 5 of the 10 Knights were called away, with Justus and Michael in Brazil, coached by Fed, and Ben was competing in the nationals in Dallas, where Pascal would also be coaching. Chicago also had some significant challenges, as Schmakel was in Dallas (where he won the 10th grade title), and Eric Rosen on his way to an IM norm at the World Youth. The effects on both teams were significant – Chicago couldn’t bring out the GGGg lineup that had served them so well, and the Knights, well, we had some more pressing lineup challenges.
One of the great things about a 10 player roster is you can always find a way to field a legal lineup. Well, maybe not. Our 10th player, John Fernandez, who hasn’t played in the USCL since 2005, was there to allow us to have the very frightening Kacheishvili/Charbonneau/Herman/Fernandez lineup (Average 2400.75!), but with the performance of the youngsters, the captain had decided not to field him this season. That left a lineup of Kacheishvili/Krush/Herman/Pressman, which would have been wonderful except for the fact that it wasn’t legal. After a protracted discussion, we ended up with the most equitable outcome, playing Fernandez on board 4.
With both teams fielding sub-optimal lineups, the Final was always going to be interesting, but perhaps the Knights had not intended for it to be as interesting as things turned out. A bit of a digression about the Marshall Chess Club, the home of the Knights for all seven seasons: it is always a hotbed of chess activity. You can count on a tournament going on every day, with lectures, folks hanging out, studying, playing blitz, wheeling and dealing, and everything else that makes it great. That often, however, means that setting up proves a challenge, especially with WiFi in a very old building, or the occasional disruption from one of the many members. Lo and behold, at 2:57PM, the WiFi went down for all four players. After many minutes of rebooting routers, re-pairing wireless connections, and rebooting machines, nothing would work. In a panic, the team decided to head to the nearest place with reliable Internet for 4 – Fernandez’s home office. Now, his place is no stranger to US Championship team play, having hosted the US Amateur Team East Champs in 2005 when Eli Vovsha, Sam Benen, Evan Rosenberg and Josh Bromberg competed in the US Amateur Team Playoffs, but this time, Fernandez was both hosting and playing. Finally, with almost a half hour off their clocks, the Knights began play.
Fernandez chose a very solid positional line against Gopal Menon’s Philidor on board 4, doing everything he could to keep moving quickly and overcome the time disadvantage. Fernandez was incredibly rusty, having not played a USCL game for 2,224 days (certainly a record), and only played one tournament (Bermuda this year) since the summer of 2004. The rust showed as things got a bit out of hand as he pushed for a win.
Fernandez-Menon, after 24. ... Qd6
While Fernandez had seen 25. f5!, the move necessary to keep everything together, he couldn’t find a clear continuation after 25. … e5 26. Bc5 Rxc5 27. Bxc5 Qxc5+ 28. Kh1 d4 29. Ne4 Qxa5 with moves like b5 coming for Black, and panicked with 25. Rg3?, and then further compounded the error with 27. Qf3?. Menon converted quite easily.
Herman got into his usual time trouble against Angelo Young on board 3, in a game where both players maintained a high degree of tension for 30 moves. Black sacrificed his c6 pawn with 24. ..d4 (instead of the "safer" 24. ..f5), looking to sharpen the struggle and bury the a1 Bishop. Young, who at one point was ahead a full 45 minutes on the clock, drifted into time trouble and had only 54 seconds remaining after 29. ..Nc5.
Young-Herman, after 29. ... Nc5
He responded 30. Qf3 and after 30. ..e4 31. Qg2 ed 32. cd Nd3 33. Rd1 de 34. fe
Young-Herman, after 34. fxe3
Herman had regained the pawn with a close to winning advantage. Choosing to keep queens on in Young's time pressure, he played 34. ..Ba7 instead of 34. ..Qe4 which would have led to a favorable ending. Young tried to save his position with a tactical blow, the stunning 35. Bf6 (35. Bd4 would have been better, though white was still defending after 35. ..Bd4 36. Rd3 Ba7 37. Rd8 Rd8 38. Qf3 g6), but after 35. ..Be3 he erred with the mouseslip Qg2-f2. The league rejected the takeback request given the time situation and Young allowed his time to run out. If he had instead chosen 36. Kh1, black had an easy win after 36. ..Nf2 37. Qf2 Bf2 38. Be7 Rd1 39. Rd1 Re7, as the h4/g5 pawns fall quickly and a2 is permanently weak.
Board 2 was a sharp melee in the Queen’s Gambit Declined, where after some amazing Bishop tactics (Bc1-f4xe5xg7xf8xa3 for Irina, and Bc8-f5-e6xd5xg2xf1-h3 for Gurevich), Black ended up with a slight advantage. Fortunately, Bishops of Opposite Colors endgames have tendencies to be drawish, even with rooks on the board, and Irina kept a cool head and hauled in the half point.
On board 1, Giorgi began an early fight for the initiative in the Grunfeld against Amanov's g3, though Amanov missed his best chance on move 22
Amanov-Kacheishvili, after 21. ... Rc2
When Bg2-f1 would have challenged the integrity of black's queenside and led to a comfortable game. Instead, Amanov sought refuge in a minor-piece endgame, trading off rooks and queens over the following 5 moves. On move 29, Kacheishvili could have gone after white's a2 pawn with Nb6-a4/Bc3-b4/Na4-c3, but chose to create a passed d-pawn with f7-f5!?. Four moves later, instead of Nd2-f1, Amanov should have restrained the d-pawn with Nd2-f3, meeting d6-d5 with Bc1-e3 and asking black how he intends to make progress. The last chance for an "easy" defense was with 36. Bc6 (instead of 36. f3). Amanov took his knight on a deadly tour and after 38. ..Bf7
Amanov-Kacheishvili, after 38. ... Bf7
His pieces could not coordinate to stop the d-pawn. The doomed knight was finally trapped with 44. ..Be6, and concurrent with Irina's draw on board 2 made the rest a mop up.
The 2011 United States Chess League Champion New York Knights: GM Giorgi Kacheishvili, Matthew Herman, IM Irina Krush, John Fernandez