Under Pressure by Andy Lee
“Mine goes ding-ding-ding-duh-duh-ding-ding.” – Vanilla Ice
Well, it’s been a while since I blogged at the end of week one. At that point in the season, the ‘Nics were coming off a dominate performance over a dangerous Dallas team, Wolff was winning pawn down endings, Naroditsky looked like a lock for MVP, and I had a performance rating over 2600. I figured we would just win the next nine matches like that and coast through the postseason. It didn’t quite work out that way, but even halfway through the season, we looked like a pretty sure bet to get through to the postseason with our 4-1 record. Unfortunately, after two close losses in a row, we found ourselves Wednesday night facing the St. Louis Yankees and their ravenous Cerberus lineup.
Back in week two, when the Yanks first unveiled this monstrosity, I was sure that it would lead to the immediate collapse of the league. I mean, who the hell could compete with H-Rod on board one and C.C. Shulbathia on board two? I briefly considered sending a solution to Greg and Arun at league HQ, but I figured that my Hikaru-baiting plan would be too much of a stretch of league rules (for those interested in employing it, you simply put your fourth board on board one against STL, and then shift your other boards down one).
However, strangely enough, the big lineup didn’t really impress during week two. And then in week three, the unthinkable happened and Shulbathia lost with white. Through in a few weeks of Olympiads, and the Yanks were no longer looking so high and mighty. And so we got stuck facing round three of the superlineup, no longer cocky, but focused, filled with venom rather than hubris. Not exactly the way we wanted to face them, especially not in the face of a two-match losing streak.
From the fourth board point of view, facing the Yanks is a peculiar experience. First of all, there’s the letdown that the rest of your team is facing GMs, and although the guy you’re playing has the same name as one of the GMs, he isn’t a GM himself. So everybody’s really amped up to play up and you find yourself playing the lowest rated opponent you’ve ever played in the USCL.
Then there’s the pressure. And it’s not normal pressure as when you’re playing an comparable opponent in a match-up that could mean the playoffs (see all boards, SF vs. SEA, for example), but the weird pressure where everyone on your team tells you that you’re going to win. And you can’t even think about how bad it’ll be for your team if you don’t. But going into a chess game thinking either “I’m going to win,” or “I have to win,” is somewhat disastrous. The former shuts down your brain and the second leads you to unfathomably aggressive and bizarre decisions.
So, as I sat across from the Panda, chewing on a Cliff Bar and preparing to get serious, I realized that I needed a new mindset. And I determined that I should not try to win. I was just going to play chess. If for some reason my position got good, I was going to be happy and convert it, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to do this. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t say that this is an amazing game plan, but I needed to do something to focus on the chess rather than the pressure.
So, to get to the chess: according to little Finegold’s blog, (which is notable for its crass attack on the Mechanic’s Institute, but there’s no accounting for the tastes of youth [just look at the brainwashed fans of Hanson, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber over the years as evidence]), he did not expect the ol’ “best-by-test” e-pawn surprise. Now, I know that I have a lot of queenpawn games in databases, but I’d played 1. e4 against Shankar (that game’s another story: I haven’t beaten a player whose name begins with “Shank” since 2004), and I figured that I would only get one game of surprise value out of it. It probably doesn’t matter, since I had been counting on 3… Bf5 and was out of book by move five myself.
The game proceeded rather normally, and as a French player, I kept expecting black to break with the f-pawn. He finally did, a few moves after I had thought he would, but he played 12… f6 instead of 12… f5, which allowed me to take on g6 and try to play against his queen bishop. This is probably fine, but I felt afterwards like I was still trying to hard to do something about the position. Remember no winning attempts allowed!
By move seventeen I was stuck. Nothing concrete looked like it worked, and although my pieces were a little better, he had the bishop pair and was adequately covering his weaknesses. I calculated some stuff involving 17. ef, but realized that 17… gf was going to be an annoying response … black’s a little loose but his center and bishops are going to be in charge. Then 18. Nxe6 Re8 19. Nxd8 Rxe2 20. Nb7 Rxc2 is the stupid sort of stuff that you try when you are desperately under pressure to win. So I resolved to make pawn moves and rook moves and do too much.
The other boards were not going particularly well at this point. H-Rod had trotted out a pretty stupid looking opening against the Panda, but white seemed to still have some pull in the endgame, as most of Josh’s pieces were guarding pawns or restricted by white’s structure. Danya had a position that looked similar to mine but with more aggressive chances, and then Steven … well, Steven’s position looked like he’d been letting big Finegold choose the moves for both sides. I had no idea how he’d gotten into such a mess until I saw 14. Nb5 after the match was over. Certainly not a game of the week candidate, but a pretty sick move nonetheless.
Back to my game on four, which I was certainly not delighting in. Little Finegold played a couple strong ideas on moves nineteen and twenty and appeared to be within the drawing range. My bishop was still more active and I had an outside passer, but the rooks were coming off the board on the queenside and it was going to be hard to win anything given black’s compact structure. Fortunately, my “wait till he blunders” strategy paid off after the unwise 25… g5 and the subsequent hang of the exchange. Then all it took was the invasion of the rooks (now the open queenside proved useful), and black resigned in light of 41… Ke7 42. Qxf7+!
Unfortunately, by this point, we had already lost the match, as Danya had come through, shaking his head after forcing a perpetual. And that’s the trouble with playing the Yankees: they get a couple quick wins on boards 1-3 and whoever is left has to choose between pragmatism (those extra tiebreak points could be big) and desperation. Anyway, we go into the final two matches under even more pressure than before, but with some pretty clutch players out there. I wouldn’t count us out yet.