This past weekend I had the good fortune to play in the first club championship of the Tampa Chess Club. I am not a good fast time-control player, so I had serious reservations given the G/1 hr time control. Coupled with the fact I would be near the top of the wallchart rating-wise, with few points to be gained (and many to be risked) on my path to National Master, I questioned the wisdom of even bothering to play.
That said, on many levels, I'm glad I did.
One of the things I've discovered on this quest to NM is achieving the rating without achieving the strength is going to be quite a hollow victory indeed. So my feeling was that if I couldn't perform well in a small event like this, then I probably wasn't making as much progress as I thought. It would be a good barometer of where I was.
As it turned out, there were only 10 players in the Open Section (the club has a vibrant membership of VERY young juniors, who appeared to have more fun than should be allowed in the other section, Under 1400). While I knew NM Corey Acor would play, I thought I would be the second highest (published 2091) but happily discovered that was not the case, as we were joined by Hisham Sunna, right above me at 2095.
After winning the first round without much difficulty, the second round presented me with the challenge of one of the most gifted blitz players I've run across in quite awhile. Every chess club of any size has its personalities, and the TCC is no exception. Ours is my opponent, Goran Markovich, weighing in at USCF 1956.
Normally, playing an A-player is no big deal. Playing Goran is, however, an experience. A game with Goran is made that way because, regardless of time-control, he plays as though it is a blitz game. That he can keep is rating in the 1900's while playing as quickly as he does, against all comers, is something I frankly find amazing. That his ICC blitz rating is an incredible 2900 gives the reader an idea of what I'm up against (along with the fact that I regularly lose to him a steady rate at low-stakes blitz, even with Goran giving me a 5-to-2 minute handicap).
If Goran could ever discover his way to slowing down, I have no doubt he could find his way to FM or even IM strength. He has a good natural grasp of positional and tactical elements which, when coupled with his blitzing speed, becomes quite perturbing indeed.
Given that one of Goran's weaknesses is I don't find him to be particularly booked-up, I choose a sharp Schliemann line, one that I haven't used in quite awhile, against him as black. Big mistake:
The most disturbing part of this game was that Goran completed all of his moves while using up less than five minutes.
Fortunately, the Schliemann didn't have to wait long for redemption as, after winning round 3, I got a chance to employ it against tournament leader Sunna (who scored an upset over Acor in round two) in round four:
This result sets up a forced last-round pairing of myself and Corey Acor (2274), a talented young man I had the opportunity to play and defeat earlier this year. It is now time for rematch and feeling good as I will get the white pieces.
The game began 1. e4 e5 2. d4 ed. I thought for a moment about the psychological ploy of essaying the white side of the Two Knights versus Corey as he did against me in our earlier game. However, I considered this an excellent time to wheel out the Center Game, which I have been playing in blitz games over the last several months and have now promoted to my main weapon against 1. e5. The game continued 3. Qxd4 Nc6 4. Qe3 g6 (D).
This frequently-played line avoids complications likely unfamiliar to black following the main continuation of 4....Nf6 5. Nc3 Bb4 6. Bd2 O-O 7. O-O-O Re8 8. Qg3!?
This is only my second rated Center Game (average opponent rating: 2200) and both have followed this path. White's plan is generally the typical attacking mechanism against the k-side fianchetto, namely h4-h5 and opening the h-file.
The game continued 5. Nc3 Bg7 6. Bd2 Nge7 7. O-O-O d6. (D)
In the Center Game, white has to be vigilant against any black opportunity to play ...d5. As such, the more viable black continuation is 7....O-O, where white has to play 8. Bc4 to prevent ...d5.
One of the other issues with the path black has chosen is the placement of the knight on e7 as opposed to f6. ...Nge7 is a move white loves to see in the Center Game, particularly in the fianchetto lines, because 1) the e-pawn comes under no pressure from ...Re8 (with a threatened ...d5) and 2) white is able to proceed h4-h5 without worrying about ...Nxh5 as he would if the knight were on f6.
Accordingly, white gets on with the business at hand. 8. h4 Bg4 ?! 9. f3 Be6. Black wants to leave white guessing as to where he's going to put his king.
10. Nge2 Qd7 11. Nf4 h5 12 Nfd5 (D)
The Nf4-d5 maneuver is pretty much standard operating procedure against a bishop on e6. Depending on the situation, white may also elect to capture the bishop on e6 (especially in light of black's ...h5 move) since it would leave white with a light-squared bishop where black has a number of key pawns situated on light squares.
With the move ...h5, black semi-telegraphed the direction he was going to put his king. In the current position, 12...O-O-O would not be good due to 13. Bb5 targeting both the a7 pawn and the e7 knight.
Play continues 12...O-O 13. g4! (white should get on with things before black organizes queenside counterplay) Bxd5 14. ed Ne5 15. gh Nf5 16. Qf2 c5 17. hg fg (D).
Both sides are stressing the trumps of their positions, with white looking to explore possibilities on the g- and h-files, while black will look to organize piece play in the center against white's wing assault.
According to Fritz, white has managed the opening quite well. The move 18. f4 at this point would have secured an evaluation of +2.19. My choice at this point still results in a superior evaluation for white, at +1.83 (both +- ).
White continues to press on the kingside with 18. h5 Nd4 19. Bh3 Qe8 20. Rdg1 Rxf3 21. Qg2 (D)
No quarter is being asked and none being given by either side as both begin to run low on time. Black's knights, while active are tied to respective roles at the moment -- the d4 knight must defend against Be6+, while the e5 knight must support the rook on f3.
According to Fritz, white is still doing fine here with an evaluation +1.81. However, he spoils the effort with an error on his 23rd move that goes a long way towards deciding the game.
The slugfest continues 21...b5 22. Ne4 Qf7!
Black finds a good move in a position where he could use some help. While I could win the exchange with 23. Ng5, my concern was for the a2 square (after ...Qxd5) and the subsequent complications stemming from the subsequent Nxf3 and the reply ...Nexf3 by black. It looked like more than the position could bear, but I needed to place more value on the severity of white's counter-threats on the g-file.
As such, in the current position Fritz recommends 23. Ng5 Qxd5 and the simple 24. Kb1 to quell the black threats while still going after the exchange. The Kb1 idea was also recommended by Corey after the game as a potential stabilizer for white.
Instead of those good ideas, I found the lemon 23. Bc3? with position going from a nice +1.82 evaluation by Fritz to about minus by the same amount. White's 23rd was promptly met by 23...Qf4+! White then quickly runs out of gas (and time), as illustrated in the conclusion: 24. Nd2 Rf2 25. Qe4 Ne2+ 26. Kb1 Nxg1?! (I had anticipated -- and Fritz confirms -- Nxc3+ followed by Qxd2 was much better) 27. Be6+ Kf8 28. Rxg1 b4 29. Bxe5 Qxe5 30. Qxe5 Bxe5 31. Nc4 gh 32. Nxe5 de 33. d6 Rf7 34. Bxf7 Kxf7 35. Rd1 (better, of course, was 35. Rg5, but white was still quite lost, nonetheless) Rh8 36. d7 Ke7 37. Rh1 Kxd7 38. Rh4 Ke6 0-1.
While I was unhappy to lose, it was good to play such an interesting and exciting game. The opening posed no problem for white, delivering a decent advantage -- which is all one can ask. I have no doubt that my Center Game investment will pay future dividends.
Congrats to Corey on winning the club championship!