My Final Final Norm?
The 4th Berkeley International concluded on Jan 8, 2011. This tournament, which was organized by Arun Sharma, was the strongest event in California since the disappearance of the Lone Pine events, with such stars as GMs Loek van Wely, Timur Gareyev, Sergey Erenburg, Robert Hess, Axel Bachmann, and Davorin Kuljasevic playing (to name a few!). I had not played a serious over-the-board game in 6 months,and I was not sure about how I would fare in another grueling 10-round event.
But the tournament would seem like a breeze in comparison to another challenge I had. GMs Gareyev and Erenburg were staying with me for the duration of the event, and while they were wonderful guests and made everything very enjoyable, it definitely meant a bit more work for me. Timur had one particularly humorous moment; the day before the tournament, he invited me to go on a “little jog” with him. I readily agreed, but this little jog turned out to be nearly 6 miles! There were plenty of other crazy stories,including but not limited to bargaining with the owner of a soccer store, hitting on waitresses, getting lost while driving in San Francisco, and sprinting to try to get to our favorite sandwich place (Bakesale Betty’s) before it closed. On the whole, the tournament was quite an experience without any games being played! Although for me, the games were a good experience as well. And soon enough, it got underway.
I was seeded 12th out of almost 60, so my first game was supposed to be easy, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort. I was playing against Ankit Gupta, a 2250 player, with the black pieces. Gupta is not exactly an up-and-coming junior anymore, but he is a young player and can be very dangerous if he gets a position that he feels comfortable with. The night before the game, I decided to do some preparation, but I came across a small difficulty: as of late, chessbase lists players by their first initial and then last name, rather than using the first name. Now when I searched for “A Gupta”, I was shocked to see just how many games my opponent had in chessbase, and that he was rated around 2600… at that point I decided that trying to parse through GM Abhijeet Gupta’s games and eventually find one of Ankit’s was a useless gesture, and I packed my computer away.
As the first round began, I had no idea what my opponent would play on the first move. After starting his clock and seeing 1. e4, I thought for some time on move 1, a very rare occurrence for me. For most of my life I have been a Sicilian player, but I recently added the Caro-Kann to my repertoire with great success. Eventually, I decided to go with the more aggressive option, and the one I knew better.
Fortunately, I did not have to make another tough decision on move 6; my opponent selected the Closed Sicilian, a very tame line which lets black equalize without too much trouble. I basically treated the position as if he had played the Open Sicilian, going for my favorite Scheveningen setup.While cxd4 was never played at any point in the game, this strategy did seem to work.
Round 2 was similarly easy. I had much more success looking up my opponent in chessbase this time than the previous round, and I saw that he plays the Dragon against 1. e4. I’ve been playing 1.d4 almost exclusively for over a year, but when I saw that he played such a clearly refuted opening I decided to give 1.e4 a whirl again. Soon enough, I was licking my chops!
Round 3 was supposed to be a challenging game-- Black against Hess-- but I held a draw extremely easily. I was very happy with the way that I was playing- my games seemed very clean. However, all of that would soon go out the window. In round 4 I played against GM Kuljasevic. After a couple inaccuracies in the early middlegame on his part, I developed a strong initiative and constantly played very precise moves, leading to what looked to be a sure blowout. Unfortunately, just as he could start considering resigning, I made a colossal blunder that allowed him to take an entire piece back. The fact that the game ended up drawn demonstrated just how good my position was before…
At this moment, I faced what I believe was my hardest challenge in the tournament. That might seem to be an odd statement, as I was playing white against a player rated under 2400, but the game would be very hard for me. IM Dmitry Zilberstein is a very solid player, and he was having a great tournament, having already crushed GM Bojkov and drawn GM Bykhovsky with black. Furthermore, I was not in the best state of mind; the previous day’s round was still bothering me, and I would have trouble keeping it out of my head. This is why I was so proud of this game- I managed to put the past behind me and focus completely, and I managed to grind out Zilberstein in what would be his only loss of the tournament.
Although the tournament was only half over, at this point I was feeling very tired. Being out of tournament practice was surely the main cause of my fatigue, and my play began to deteriorate. I was fortunate enough that in round 6 GM Bykhovksy offered me a draw on move 10 with the white pieces, giving me some much needed rest, but the fatigue was still setting in. My next game was against GM Bachmann, and while it was my best result on paper in the tournament, it was an extremely sloppy affair by both sides that I was not particularly proud of.
With 5.5/7, I looked to be in extremely good shape for the hopefully final GM norm, probably needing only half a point from the next 2 games. My chances went down, however, when GM Erenburg outplayed me in a somewhat dry but unbalanced middlegame, dealing me my only loss of the event. I was mildly rattled after the game, but upon looking at it afterward, I realized that I actually played pretty well, only making a couple small inaccuracies, and that my opponent was just good. I was tempted to throw him out on the street as revenge, but luckily for him, I resisted!
However, a draw in round 9 would seal the deal. I was to play white against GM Loek van Wely, by far the top seed at 2676 and a former top 10 player in the world. Last May, I played him on board 1 in the final round of the Chicago Open with the black pieces, moreover right after having played black against GM Ehlvest. He got a close to winning position right out of the opening, and I ended up losing the game, costing me around $10,000. It was a very hard pill to swallow, in particular the bad luck of playing 2 black games in a row on the last day, but that pain paid dividends here. In a relatively quiet opening, I offered my distinguished opponent a draw on the 6th move. He smiled, said “I’m not going to make your life miserable again” and accepted the offer, thus clinching me the norm. It was something of an anti-climactic way to get the GM title, but after all that I had been through, I had no complaints.
At this point, the tournament was essentially over for me. I played rather horribly in the final round game against IM-elect Daniel Naroditsky, and I was all too happy to accept his draw offer in a significantly worse ending. Once the whole tournament was over, we had a very nice GM soccer game, with van Wely, Gareyev, and myself taking on Erenburg, Kuljasevic, and Bykhovsky. Unfortunately my strong performance in the tournament did not repeat itself on the soccer field, and we lost 30-19, but a nice dinner at one of my favorite restaurants (Little Hong Kong in El Cerrito) was a very nice consolation. Once that was over, I headed back home with Sergey and Timur, and that was the end of my experience in Berkeley.
On the whole, this was one of the best tournaments I have ever played in. Arun truly outdid himself, organizing a very strong and successful event in his first experience as a tournament organizer, and it was very enjoyable as well. A lot of norms were made, in addition to my GM norm Keaton Kiewra and Denys Shmelov both made GM norms, and Conrad Holt, Daniel Naroditsky, and Roman Yankovsky all made their final IM norms. The tournament was won by van Wely with 8/10, Erenburg got second with 7.5/10, GM Panchanathan got third with 7/10, and then there was a colossal tie for 4th with 6.5 (myself included, the top performing American!). We hope to see you there next year!