A couple weeks ago I finished the 2014 Northern California International with 6.5/9, resulting in a 6 way tie for first place. I had won this event quite convincingly in 2012, so after a year off in 2013, as the defending champion I had very high ambitions. However, they were slashed down a notch very quickly when I could not remember analysis I had done over a year before, and went from += or +/- to =+ in one move.
f4?? was just one of the dumbest things I have ever done. There's no way I will ever get e5 in, and it weakens my e4 pawn, my entire kingside, and deprives my bishop of the f4 square. Instead, h3 should lead to a clear advantage. It was a really tough pill to swallow- I lost with white playing down 150 points, and to the Benoni, an opening I think is terrible and that I have a massive score against. While I believe the Benoni is fundamentally unsound, I also know that it is very easy for white to go wrong and if he does, black often takes over very quickly. It is the mark of a strong player to be able to restrict black's counterplay with accurate play and convert the opening advantage, and I have generally been able to do this in the past... it made me second guess my form and overall playing strength.
However, very quickly these thoughts disappeared. I understood that I had a terrible game, one of the worst I have ever had since becoming a grandmaster, but my opponent had played very well, he deserved his win, and I needed to just forget about it and recover as best as I could. Indeed, I won four consecutive games to retake the lead after 6 rounds, including the following victory over a former champion of Europe:
I slept very poorly that night for some reason- maybe because I was a bit tired during the game and had a cup of tea, caffiene too late in the day perhaps. In any case the next day I woke up totally exhausted and was very happy to make a quick draw with black, in fact I was so groggy I had not even realized I was slightly better (though really not much) in the final position. My last 2 games were very solid and I had good chances in both with no risk at any moment, but my opponents defended very well and I was not able to make anything of it. So in the end I tied for first with 6.5/9, picked up some money, and increased my live rating to 2611. I could have won clear first with a bit of luck, but it just wasn't there for me this time. In 2012 every break went my way- 5 whites, white vs the 3 highest guys I played, opponents defending worse- good play and good luck pushed me up to 7.0. I don't think I played worse this time around, but everything that just happened to go my way in 2012 did not come to full fruition. On the whole I was very happy with my result and very happy to have played my third consecutive Northern California International. As always, it was extremely well organized and professional and I hope to be back for any and all subsequent editions.
Best of luck to all,
GM Sam Shankland