Eastern Class Championships

IM Cryptochess
May 13, 2015, 11:23 PM |

After a quite good Philly Open, my goal for the Eastern Class was, basically, to play the same way I did last month. For the most part, I managed to do so, scoring 3.5/5 against high-class opposition and picking up about 15 USCF points (unfortunately, the tournament was not FIDE rated, so I missed out on a ~30 point FIDE gain), so overall the weekend was a solid success.

Playing in these short, 5-round events is always an interesting contrast to the more important norm events (which are generally 9 rounds). Since the main point is to play for the top places (or, in my case, to play for improvement), there's a lot more fighting chess in the early rounds and a lot less in the later ones, when the top boards slow down and begin weighing payoff matrices. A single loss is usually enough to knock one out of serious prize contention, and thus, analogously, so is two draws. This makes it even more important to get off to a good start.

Unfortunately for me, I slept very poorly in the days leading up to the tournament (particularly the night before), something that continued throughout the entire tournament (I have no idea why). The drowsiness was quite evident in my first game:

In this - hardly unknown - position, I thought for several minutes and uncorked the truly horrific 12. g4?, completely forgetting that Black's reply 12... h5! was a valid response. This gave me a much worse position already, and I was quite lucky to get away with the continuation 13. N3h2 hxg4 14. hxg4 Qd7?! 15. Ne3! when White has survived the worst due to the trick 15... Bxe3 16. Rxe3 Nxg4? 17. Nxg4 Qxg4 18. Qxg4 Bxg4 19. Rg3, collecting the knight on g6 due to the pin. Brandon instead played 15... Nf4 16. Nf5 g6, when sacrificing the piece was necessary (but quite desirable):

White has just played 18. Qf3!, jettisoning the knight on f5, but blowing open Black's kingside structure in the process. Brandon defended reasonably, but the position is very unpleasant to play in a practical game and I eventually reached a won ending.

Though I managed to win this game, it was hardly an encouraging start to the tournament. My round 2 pairing was black against IM Justin Sarkar - quite reminiscent of Philly - in  which an early oversight gave me a great position

White sidestepped my preparation by playing the English with 1.c4, and followed up with a very interesting pawn sacrifice that I chose to accept. For the moment, my king is stuck in the center, but it will soon extricate itself after defending the knight by ...c6 or ...Rd8. White should continue 15. c4! here, when the bishop comes to the long diagonal with serious pressure. Instead White chose the natural looking 15. Bb5?, apparently increasing the pressure on the d7 knight, but overlooked the strong rejoinder 15... O-O! when after 16. Bxd7 Bxf3, white cannot recapture due to 17. gxf3 Qg6+ and the rook on b1 falls. White had to settle for 17. Bf4, but with an extra pawn and the better placed pieces, Black managed to collect the full point.

My third round match against GM Kudrin was rather anticlimactic. The Morra and I have a rocky history, but it's given me many excellent games including a 9-move win, and it was my opening of choice in the critical last round of the NAYCC where I earned my IM title. However, it's time to put the opening to rest, and I decided to give it a final send-off against GM Kudrin - an idea that proved way too optimistic as my initiative disappeared quickly and I lost a short game.

The next game was probably the most instructive of the bunch, despite being one of the least interesting to play! When comparing the difference between ~2200 and ~23-2400 rated players, one of the biggest differences is how they play in worse positions: low masters will often just crumble without much resistance, while higher rated players often collect many more half points from ugly looking positions. If you're 2200, this is probably the best place for you to rapidly improve.

Obviously, something has gone seriously wrong for Black and the position is already critical. The d6 pawn is very weak, as is the b7-pawn, and White's minor piece greatly outclasses Black's. In such a situation, it's often difficult to come across the right defensive plan, which is: do absolutely nothing! Despite the appearances of the position, White doesn't have much of a constructive plan to break through, so sitting on the position is important.

Black has made some progress here, trading off the minor pieces, and White hasn't been able to do much despite getting control of the a-file (by the way, leaving the pawn on b7 is important, as it would become a difficult target to defend on b6). Here an important idea is 28... h5!. Of course, the exclam is not for the move, but the important prophalactic point: Black prevents White's idea of h4-h5-h6, which would create potentially fatal weaknesses in Black's camp. If White leaves the pawn be, Black will play h4-h3 himself, getting key counterplay to untangle his pieces, so White continues 29. h4. The fixed pawn structure on the kingside is important for another reason: in potential R+4 vs. R+3 situations, the pawn structure is perfectly set for Black to defend.

It's important to, even after defending passively for some time, always be alert to one's own tactical chances. Here Black can continue the "do-nothing" defense and probably hold, but there's a more concrete - albeit more complicated - way to get what he wants. Always be on the lookout for counterplay!

Obviously, I wasn't too thrilled about getting such an ugly position, but I was reasonably happy with the way I defended it. This set up a final match against FM Christopher Chase, a very dynamic and interesting player, where a win was necessary for either side to even theoretically reach the prize pool. Things got off to an excellent start right out of the opening:
Having been faced with a Modern defense - an opening I haven't played against very much - I dusted off a (very!) old idea of Morozevich's: a quick Be2-f3 maneuver followed by e4-e5, immediately challenging Black's fianchettoed bishop pair. Here the situation is already dire for Black: his pieces have practically no scope, and his centralized king is very close to becoming destroyed early. My opponent came up with the only way to play this position: a double pawn sacrifice (!) with 10... Nh6!? 11. exd6 O-O! 12. dxe7 Re8, when Black is the one with better development and attacking chances at the price of heavy material. Unfortunately for him, White has a way to immediately quell the counterplay with 13. Bxb7 Qxb7 14. Qf3! when the queen trade is essentially forced (in view of Nd5). This left White a healthy pawn up, and though I missed a quick win, ultimately it was sufficient to take the full point.
On the top board matchup between GMs Kudrin (4-0) and GM Ivanov (3.5-0.5), GM Kudrin built up a winning position as Black - likely assisted by the tournament situation - but as victory seemed imminent, he offered a draw out of the blue! A bit of an odd decision from the GM, but it secured clear first and the desire to avoid risk - however slight - is quite understandable.
This left my score of 3.5/5 just high enough to tie for the final prize with GM Perelshteyn, and though the amount was primarily symbolic, it was nice to finish among the top of a rather strong field (the weekend swiss drew 3 GMs and 3 IMs, along with over a dozen other masters). Not exactly a GM norm performance, but encouraging nonetheless.
Probably won't be playing any more major tournaments until (possibly) the DC international, where I'll again pretend that I'm a GM-norm seeker.