Homeward Bound

GM Shankland
Sep 30, 2012, 11:14 AM |

After leaving for Europe on July 20, I never got a chance to head back to my native California until last weekend. 2 months away from home is nothing unusual for me- going to school 3000 miles away and being a part time chess professional has that effect- but there are always certain things I miss when I'm away. For example, just last night I was green with envy when I got a text message from my brother that he and my parents were at Hsiangs, my favorite hometown Chinese restaurant for many years, on it's last night of existence before the owner retired and a new restaurant would replace them. But I was fortunate enough to have dinner there last weekend, when I made a short excursion back home to play the Imre Konig Memorial, a strong, unrated rapid round robin featuring some of the best players in California.

I've often felt that it is difficult to play at home- I need at least some feeling of discomfort, a feel that I not at home but at work, to really be 100% focused on chess. Waking up at 8am in the comfort of my very soft and inviting bed makes me want to fall back asleep, rather than get out my laptop and start preparing. For this reason, oftentimes even if a tournament is within driving distance from my home, I'll stay onsite instead. But this time, I wasn't as concerned- the tournament was unrated, there were handsome prizes even for those who finished at the bottom of the crosstable, and I viewed it as an opportunity to see my friends and family as well as playing a tournament. However, in spite of all these negative elements that would suggest I should crash and burn, I somehow managed to squeak into a tie for first place. However, the route there was anything but easy.

In my first game, I had white against the promising young star IM Daniel Naroditsky. I thought I got a nice edge coming out of the opening, and after some slow building up of my position, the game opened up and the pawn structure changed. I still very much liked my position, but somehow the combination of the position suddenly becoming sharper and my not having yet adjusted to chess mode at such an early hour caused me to make a horrific mistake in 27. d7?? when 27. Nxe5! would secure a large advantage for white. I had somehow completely missed the respite Nxd2!, after which I am quite lost. To his credit, Danya showed excellent technique in spite of his low time on the clock and put me away cleanly, efficiently, and correctly, without ever allowing a chance to come back.

Round 2 was also a disappointment as I achieved a pawn up endgame with the black pieces against GM Nick de Firmian, but he defended very well and demonstrated the power of a knight blockading on the opposite color of the opponents bishop. I don't think I ever had a chance to win that endgame, but I was hoping I could make him suffer more than I did. So after 2 rounds I had 0.5/2, which was certainly discouraging.

However, things would soon change. My next 2 games were both rather sloppy affairs against GMs Anka and Browne, but I eventually managed to win both of them to finish the first day on a +1 score. The next morning I would be playing my former trainer, GM Vinay Bhat, who also was on a +1 score. This would be a very critical game, and it could not have gone any better:


I have to credit one of my seconds for looking into this variation and finding it to be promising for white, but I still take some credit for this game as 19. Rd6! is a very strong move, and solely the fruit of my own preparation. Black then has to find a basically inhuman move with Nc5! (which looks like it blunders b4) in order to keep the game going, using some cute tactics and a daring kingmarch to escape imminent disaster. In any case, after 20. ... Ne5? the game is essentially over because the pretty tactic 21. Qc3! snares a piece. 

I was very fortunate in the rest of that round- Naroditsky lost to Anka, so going into the final round I was in clear first place with 4.5/6 (3.5/5 when you consider each player gets 1 full point bye). I had black in the final game against GM Jesse Kraai, and though I could have proved an edge at some point with precise play, I was unable to find the best continuation and had to settle for an even endgame, which was promptly drawn. Unfortunately for my wallet, Naroditsky managed to beat Bhat in the final round with a nice tactical shot in an otherwise equal-ish position to catch me and also finish with 5/7 (4/6). I was certainly not satisfied with the quality of my play, but first place and a nice prize check in an unrated event while getting a chance to visit family and friends was nothing to complain about. I'd like to openly thank Tibor Wienberger for his generosity in sponsoring this wonderful event, and the Mechanics Institute for organizing it, and hopefully I can participate in many more to come.

Good luck to all!

GM Sam Shankland