It took all 10 weeks, but NJ's season is finally officially over. A combination of our loss to Manhattan and NY's draw with Philadelphia added insult to injury as either would have sufficed to keep us in the spectator position for the playoffs. Realistically, the elimination occurred last week as NJ continued its miserable statistic of continuously losing to NY in elimination matches, this time leaving in the need of multiple miracles to survive.
Surprisingly, a while into the matches the situation wasn't so clear. Burke was conducting a great game, achieving a massive time advantage as well as a great-looking position against Manhattan's phenominon Ryan Goldenberg, while Bartell was shocking the USCL with a huge upset over GM Tamaz Gelashvili. Furthermore GM Alex Fishbein had a great attacking position while Karl Dehmelt was pressing with black against Nicolas Checa. Hardly enough to spark confidence, but a big step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the illusion of hope was quickly dispelled. Burke, having played a fine game and undoubtedly looking forward to the upset, uncharacteristically buckled under the pressure just when it seemed he was permanently escaping it and blundered a queen. In the meantime GM-elect Krush had taken care of business for NY by defeating FM Dov Gorman, officially ending our playoff bid (barring a huge comeback by Burke down a queen).
My game was the first to finish, doing so under... odd circumstances. FM Salimbagat evidently mouseslipped in the opening, playing 4. c3 rather the intended 4. Nc3. This was taken back several minutes later and a small time bonus given as compensation. Later on I overlooked a strong move and fell into a very difficult position, finally blundering in time pressure. However, as FM Salimbagat began to play the winning combination, a second mouseslip appeared on the board and decided the game.
Unfortunately, GM Fishbein had failed to capitalize on his initiative and IM Farai Mandizha had managed to consolidate into a pawn-up endgame (though it was far from winning). Interestingly the latter player declined several opportunites to repeat the position in the middlegame, despite a draw being great for the match situation at the time. A slip (not of the mouse variety!) by the GM allowed Mandizha some serious winning chances, but White was able to hold the position. Thanks to GM Fishbein for his comments! It's not often you get to see the GMs comment on their games in the league, so well worth taking a look if only for that! After the 33rd move, it would be instructive to stop looking at the analysis and think for a while about the consequences of 33... Rf8. It's not as simple as it looks!
Burke looked as though he was playing the hero, but near-MVP Ryan Goldenberg was able to make the position just messy enough for Burke to slip up just when it seemed like he was consolidating his material. Despite the loss, White conducted a very well-played game up until the final blow. I wouldn't be surprised if this netted Goldenberg a GOTW nomination, as this was a really amazing game from both sides notwithstanding the blunder.
With our season over, GM Zviad Izoria added insult to injury by defeating GM Alex Stripunsky in long technical fashion, after the latter eschewed easy equality due to the team situation. Unfortunately GM Izoria confidently refuted the pawn sacrifice and continued his torrid pace through the USCL. The combination of GM Izoria and Ryan Goldenberg led Manhattan to a 5-match winning streak and the division title.
And that would be the final move for NJ in this season of the USCL. A disappointing finish to be sure, but many great games were played, many chances missed, time scrambles, mouseslips, giant upsets, and all around general exciting games.
NJ's season in 10 diagrams:
In the first week of the USCL, we took on perennial rivals NY in what was the opening match of the Eastern conference. Nicolas Checa scored first blood with a fine positional win over Haik der Manuelian (who would later exact his revenge, albeit to no avail, in week 9), while GM Joel Benjamin responded with a GOTW-winning effort over GM Pascal Charbonneau. With my draw against Alex King, the match would rest on this game. In this position GM Gulko played 19...dxe5!?, a very interesting queen sacrifice that eventually petered out to a perpetual and thus a drawn match.
However, GM Gulko could have likely gotten our season off to a strong start with 19... g5!, when Black escapes the onslaught and enjoys all his positional trumps after the inevitable exchanges.
The second week brought no salvation. Despite playing against a Philadelphia squad that was weakened in more ways than one, we were unable to prove anything and even lost the match. With the top 3 boards (Gorman-GM Benjamin, IM Kapengut-Minear, IM Costigan-Katz) all draws, once again the result would be determined by one game. Unfortunately, Balakrishnan failed to continue his strong play with the move 16. Be3!, which would have led to a pleasant position with a free initiative. Instead he erred with 16. Nc5? and Dehmelt took full advantage with 16... Nxc5 17. dxc5 d4! and his active pieces were too much to handle after 18. c6 d3! collecting a pawn and eventually the game.
The first interdivisional week was simply more bad news. IM Marc Esserman, one of the most successful players in league history, played black against our GM Gulko. The GM had chosen an English setup that transitioned into a reversed Sicilian Dragon formation, with Gulko playing smooth logical moves and getting a good position. Esserman's previous creative concept of 16... Ba2!? to hide the bishop from tactics paid off as Gulko blundered with 21. Qf5? which simply lost an exchange after the non-obvious 21... Ne7! 22. Qd3 Bxc3 and White had no defense to the upcoming Nd5.
NJ finally got back on track in week 4, the first interconference week, with a big win over LA. GM Alex Stripunsky had joined the fray, making his debut against GM Melikset Khachiyan (a chess.com fan favorite by virtue of his video series). Nursing a small edge for most of the game, Stripunsky crashed through with the likely well-before calculated 42. Nxg7!. The pawns were too much for Black to handle after 42... Rg7 43. Rb8! Kh7 44. fxe6 Rg4 45. e7 Re4 46. Kd6 Bh5 47. Kxc6 Rxe7 48. Rb7! and Black's bishop was not a factor. Combined with GM Benjamin's crazy draw and my long win, NJ finally marked one in the win column.
We managed to continue our climb up the standings with a huge win over a division rival, the Manhattan Applesauce, behind a big upset win by Haik der Manuelian on the bottom board. Despite Goldenberg basically crushing me and GM Izoria saving a piece-down ending, the story of the night was GM Joel Benjamin's win. After White's apparently dangerous sacrifice, GM Benjamin won all sorts of honors for his brilliant move 14... b3!!. Though postmortem analysis showed White could defend, IM Schneider finally folded under the pressure after 15. Bc4 bxa2 16. Bxa2 Nb4! 17. Bxf7! Kf8! 18. Bg6 Ncd3! 19. Bxd3 Bxd6 20. Bxd6 Qxd6 21. Be4?, when Black consolidated his extra rook.
The second round of interdivisional play led to solid disappointment, as New England convincingly beat us in what was nearly a clean sweep. Their board 4 phenom Lawyer Times took advantage of an early oversight by John Michael Burke to win an exchange and later the game, while IM David Vigorito rebuffed GM Fishbein's overaggressive play (brought on by the match situation) for the full point. GM Stripunsky proved the sole bright spot after a late blunder by GM Ivanov. Here though, was Andrew Liu's match-turning victory over Christopher Wu. After an apparently good opening for Black, he began to drift and fell into a strong attack. White ignored Black's capture of the c1-bishop with 25. f6! and Black capitulated just 4 moves later.
Week 7 brought a bit of a reprieve, as we got to play against the struggling Carolina Cobras. With a huge rating advantage one might expect to coast to victory, but this was hardly the case as Carolina scored 3 draws (IM Schroer - GM Benjamin, Jones-IM Kapengut, der Manuelian-Agner) and came very close to nicking us for points. However, GM Gulko was able to make the difference, using his huge rating advantage to create this position. Black had played a nice game up until 23... Ba3? leading to the diagram, which Gulko soundly punished with 24. Nxd5! exploiting the pin on the c6-pawn. He converted this pawn 14 moves later and brought us back to a .500 score.
The last 3 weeks brought about the second set of divisional matches, with us starting off against Philadephia. Despite a huge rating edge the first time, we were unable to even draw the match. This time we came dangerously close to repeating that, but was "able" to draw the match due to big wins on the top 2 boards (by GM Stripunsky and myself). I had moved up to board 2 for the first time on the season, playing a familar opponent in FM Gorman. He played the hyper-aggressive opening choice 4. g4!? which I was slowly proving overextended, but with low time had allowed White back into the game. As the clock ticked down I took my chance with 19... Nxd5! and after 20. Nxd5 Bxd5 21. exd5 Qxe3+ 22. Be2 Rfe8, white had nothing better than 23. Ng1 Nf4 when Black collected a host of pawns and overwhelmed the White pieces.
Week 9 brought the pivotal NY-NJ matchup, with the winner almost certain to get into the playoffs while the loser would need a lot of help. With the score level, the match was in the hands of GM Benjamin. In a position that had gotten complicated despite White being winning earlier, Herman had just played 40... Qc1, when White could have practically sent us into the playoffs with 41. Bg3! Ne3 42. Nxf7! Nf1 43. Kh3 Bf5 44. Kh4 Qc4 45. f4. Instead he played the inferior 41. Qe8?!, when Black found 41... Qg5! and after 42. Qxf7 Nf4! 43. g3 Nxh5 White needed to find 44. f4! Qg4 45. Qb7! to stay alive, but missed Black's idea with 44. Qxe6?? after which Black completed the reversal with 44... Qd2! 45. Kg2 Qe2! and White found no defense.
The final week was basically meaningless barring multiple miracles, but the games were hardly any less exciting. I was the recipient of yet another mouseslip (Salimbagat's 3rd in 2 games!) that gave us a lucky point, but GM Stripunsky's pawn sacrifice was slowly rebuffed by Manhattan star GM Izoria and GM Fishbein drew with IM Mandizha. But the Burke-Goldenberg game stole the show, and for good reason. With low time and a bad position, Goldenberg had been forced to play 18... Ke7 which led to the diagram after 19. Bxc6 Bxc6 20. Nxa5. Facing many threats along with the loss of the pawn, Goldenberg struck with 20... Ng3!!, a concept that would prove to be much more than just a liquidation after 21. hxg3 hxg3 22. Kg1 Bxe4!? when the position was murky enough that White eventually blundered and Black took the full point.
And so another season comes and goes. This nearly ends my blogging for the year (unless for some reason I decide I want to write something about the playoffs), with my (most likely) final entry coming up in a few days previewing the entire playoffs and predicting the results of every match! Our next match will be... oh right :(
Thanks, as always, to our sponsors PokerStars and chess.com, and certainly a huge thank you to the USCL administration for making this all possible. In less than a decade the league has grown from just another crazy idea in Greg's head (of which there are many [crazy ideas, not heads]) to a staple of American chess (and possibly soon to be more? *wink*). I look forward to it every year and it's always disappointing when it ends and the realization that it's another 8 months until it starts again sinks in. Kind of like football. But then again forgetting the Giants' season might not exactly be the most terrible thing right now :)
P.S. If any of you guys figure out how on earth you're supposed to put multiple diagrams into a post that doesn't look strange (this can't be right...), I'd really appreciate it if you sent me a message for future reference. This took more time to format than to write T.T