A View From Board 4: USCL Debut
by Travis Guenther
As someone who has enjoyed following the USCL the past few seasons, I naturally jumped at the chance to join the Dallas Destiny when the opportunity presented itself. Being able to play on a team alongside the country's top players is something that doesn't come along everyday for a class player like myself. So as I was weaving my way to the UTD campus amidst Dallas gridlock, my mind was anything but on the road. What will my opponent play? What if I forget my opening repertoire? What if I lose in 9 moves in front of an online audience? What if I lose my game and the team loses the match by one point? All of these thoughts and more raced through my mind like I wished I was doing on that crowded highway.
My opponent was Andrew Liu of the Boston Blitz, a talented young master from Massachusetts, and he had the white pieces. A quick Google search of his name revealed plenty of links to great tournament performances he's had and trophies he's won. "Great", I thought to myself, "that search sure helped my confidence". As I sat down to the board, I tried to clear my mind of all distractions and just play. Easier said than done. After a few minutes of trying to coax the butterflies out of my stomach, my opponent's d-pawn marched forward two squares, and we were off...
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6
The Slav defense, an opening I play quite often.
3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. a4 Bf5 6. e3 e6
Andrew chooses the most popular line, which aims to bolster the d-pawn and develop the f1 bishop by capturing the c4-pawn.
7. Bxc4 Bb4 8. O-O Nbd7
So far, so good, we're still well within opening theory here. 8...O-O is actually the most popular move in the position (according to Mega Database 2010), but the move in the game is very popular as well. Both moves are fully playable and are more a matter of taste than anything else.
White continues with the overwhelmingly most popular move. At this point, black is at somewhat of a crossroads. The two most common moves are 9...Bg6, as played, and 9...O-O. Again, both are fully playable. I like the 9...Bg6 line because I've played it the longest, have had good results, and am familiar with the resulting positions.
10. Rd1 O-O
So far, so theory.
At this point, again according to Mega Database 2010, white has several options. The most popular are 11.Ne5 and 11.Bd3. The move chosen by white has been played by multiple 2500+ players.
Here is where we officially deviate from opening theory. The most common move is 12...Qe7, which makes perfect sense. It prepares to eventually push the e-pawn, gets the queen off the d-file, and prepares to put a rook there. I wanted to push e5, but chose a different path. From h5, the bishop pins the knight which in turn weakens the e5 square. I'm not sure if this is any better than 12...Qe7, but I think it has some merit.
12. e4 e5
The logical follow-up to the last move. Black doesn't want to allow 13.e5, which would gain some serious central space.
White's move was a good one. Capturing with 13.dxe5 is exactly what black wants, and the d-pawn is awkward to defend otherwise. Plus, it gains central space and can allow white to capture on c6 if the time is right.
I thought for a long time here; probably too long. I wasn't quite sure exactly where I wanted to go with the position. Several squares look tempting for my pieces, so this is somewhat of a waiting move. But more importantly, I really was playing against the d2 bishop, which is currently clogging up the middle of the board for white. White wants to move that bishop to open the d-file for the rook and menace black's queen. The natural square for the bishop looks like g5, which could be annoying for black, so I wanted to prevent that and see how white would react.
14. dxc6 bxc6 15. Be1
I don't think this is best. The bishop does vacate the d-file, but in doing so becomes very passive. I was pretty pleased at this point, because playing 13...h6 achieved the desired result.
The queen has enjoyed her stay on the d8 square, but it is time to move and say so long to the d1 rook.
This move plays into black's hands. The knight on d7 has been staring longingly over the c5 square for a few moves now, and 16.Bb3 allows that to come with tempo. Plus, white spends two tempi to move the bishop from an active post on c4 to a passive post on c2 (see move 17), while allowing black's pieces to come alive.
16...Nc5 17. Bc2 Ne6
As Jeremy Silman would say, "eyeing the juicy f4 and d4 squares", with d4 being particularly weak due to the pinned f3 knight.
18. Qc4 Bxf3
Virtually forced if black wants to retain an advantage. This weakens d4 and doubles white's kingside pawns, can't ask for much more from an exchange of minor pieces.
19. gxf3 Nd4
At this point both my opponent and I were low on time, around 7-8 minutes each for the remainder of the game. The f4 square looks so inviting, particularly with the weakened kingside, but in time trouble I couldn't find a forced win. Houdini really likes 19...Nh5 by a large margin, when white is pretty tied up on the kingside. Indeed, it's a much better idea.
20. Rxd4 exd4
I think giving up the exchange for a pawn was by far white's best option, objectively and practically. Though technically up material, things aren't so easy for black here.
21. Qxd4 Qc5
In time trouble, my first instinct was to get the queens off the board and try to grind white down with the extra material. In retrospect, this isn't the best decision and the silicon monster confirms. Black actually benefits more from the queens on the board because of the weakened white king position. Plus, this allows white to untangle with something like 22.Qxc5 Bxc5 23. Ne2 and white's central pawns can start rolling.
22. Qe3 Rab8 23. Rb1 Rfd8
Both rooks are now active and things are looking promising for black.
24. h4 Qh5
I wish I could fabricate a story about some deep calculation here, but when in time trouble, attack weaknesses. I was a bit nervous about de-centralizing the queen, but lucky for me I didn't have enough time on the clock to second guess myself.
25. e5 Nd5
On 26.Qe4 black is playing 26...Bxc3 27.Bxc3 (If 27.Qh7+ Kf8 and white has nothing) Nxc3 28.bxc3 Rxb1+ 29.Bxb1 Re8.
26. Nxd5 cxd5
Forced recapture. If black plays 26...Rxd5, then 27.Qe4 threatens a check on h7 when the b8 rook is undefended, a key feature.
Great move. Defends h4 and prepares e6.
27...Bxe1 28. Rxe1 Rxb2
I was nervous about snatching a pawn and taking a rook away from the back rank when white is shifting his pieces to the kingside, but again I didn't have time to think. Probably for the best.
29. Bf5 Rb3
Like I said before, when in time trouble, make threats.
30. Bg4 Qg6
30...Qxh4 was best, but I wanted to pin the bishop.
31. e6 Rb1??
A potentially game losing blunder. In severe time trouble (playing only on increment), I overlooked that 32.Qxf7+ Qxf7 33.exf7+ Kxf7 34.Rxb1 costs black his rook and the game. For what it's worth, the best move is 31...fxe6, but that looked awfully risky at the time. Something like 31...Rb7 looks safer to me.
But fortunately for me, my opponent missed this idea as well. However, he kindly pointed it out to me after the game.
Kf8 33. Rxb1 Qxb1+ 34. Kg2 d4
How is white stopping this pawn? If black can contain the white threats against his king, the game is won.
35. Qc7 Qb6!
The exclamation is not given for brilliance, but for strength. From this square the queen defends the rook, the d-pawn, the a-pawn, and covers the dark squares so white has no checks.
36. Qf4 d3 37. Qe4 d2 38. Bh5 Qb8 39. Qh7 d1=Q
After a few more checks, white throws in the towel.
40. Qg8+ Ke7 41. f8=Q+ Rxf8 42. Qxg7+ Kd6 43. Qxh6+ Kc5 44. Qg5+ Qd5 0-1
A very nerve-wracking, up and down, yet incredibly enjoyable game. After it ended, I finally realized how dry my throat was and how sweaty my palms were. I also realized I had forgotten to breathe for about the past 15 minutes.
Once the smoke cleared, the Dallas Destiny won 2 games, drew 1, and lost 1, to win the match 2.5-1.5 and take the lead in the Western division. It felt good to win my first USCL game, but most importantly to help the team secure the match. Hopefully the coming weeks will provide as much excitement and be as enjoyable as this one.
Here is a full version of the game if anyone is interested.