2.5/4 at MD Sweet 16 2015
So I managed to qualify for the MD Sweet 16 this year, since I was the first alternate when someone dropped out of the initial roster. It was extremely fun, as I had a lot of friends there and I enjoyed the feeling that I had accomplished something special by qualifying. The atmosphere, the namesheets next to our boards (even if they were just folded papers with our names and ratings on them), the tournament room, and everything in between contributed to that.
I can't accurately describe my play in this tournament, as it was completely different from game to game. On Day 1, it was somewhere between eccentric and insane, as I missed all sorts of things in my calculations, blundered repeatedly, and escaped with an incredibly fortunate win in Round 1 while allowing my opponent to do the same in Round 2. On Day 2, it was overall much better, but both games were very different: one was completely stale and the other was very interesting and imbalanced. I do feel that if I had to rank the games in order of how well I played, I believe it would go chronologically, with my worst game being by far my Round 1, and my best game being my final round. And perhaps that is a good thing, but I also do need to do something in the future to prevent myself from having bad starts to tournaments- I have a tendency to play better down the stretch in my tournaments than I do at the start.
The first game was by far the worst of the tournament, in spite of my miracle win. My opponent was lost in the middlegame, escaped when I played the wrong move order in a tactic, and then was completely winning right up until the disastrous move 31. Nc4?? which just ignores my passed pawn on e3. I was very lucky that I didn't lose this game.
After that near-disaster, I then played the eventual winner of the tournament, Alexander Davydov. Incredibly, I should have won this game, but missed the winning refutation of his dubious rook sacrifice.
Thus concluded the first day of the Sweet 16. I had a 1/2 score, but I had played so many "??" moves in those two games, especially the first, that I didn't think I was playing well at all. However, I played much better on the second day.
Round 3 was against a very small 5th grader rated close to 2000. Some had expected him to be a wildcard contender for the Sweet 16 this year, as he was the #4 seed, but an upset loss in the first round ended those hopes quite quickly. The sky's definitely the limit for this kid as he will likely win the Sweet 16 in the future if he keeps playing at a high level; however, this year's Sweet 16 was not a good tournament for him.
I knew I would be playing him the night before because the pairings were posted before I left. I also knew that he played the Caro-Kann Defense, which was problematic for me. I hadn't prepared anything in the Caro in a long time, and the only line which I knew deeply enough to play was the Two Knights Variation, a fairly innocuous line which allows black equality if he plays the right moves. I had three options: 1) I could play 1. d4, not knowing his pet response, and risk being caught totally unprepared because I haven't studied queen pawn theory in some time, 2) I could do some last-minute studying for his Caro-Kann, which I was too tired to do, or 3) I could go ahead with my Two Knights preparation, allowing him equality but arriving at a safe position where I wouldn't need to know much further theory. I chose the latter, and it ended in a very stale draw. This was good for my rating, but I'll need to find a better line for the Caro-Kann in the future because I made a commitment after the Baltimore Open to try to avoid this sort of boring, risk-free chess, even against much higher-rated opponents. I must add that the Caro-Kann is, in my opinion, not the best choice for a higher-rated player such as Pieter to be playing against lower-rated opponents, and I think this game is a good example of this.
In the final round, I was paired against a very good friend of mine from my chess club, Justin Hontz. I saw the pairings about a half hour before the round, and so I had enough time to try to prepare something for him as black. My games as black against Justin often run 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bf5 and the play is solid but stale. In the last round of the Sweet 16, playing a somewhat lower-rated player and with a chance to emerge with a positive score (as well as gain some rating points), I wanted to win. So I ruled out the Classical Slav and started thinking about other options. My first thought was to play the King's Indian Defense, as this option would result in a very interesting and unbalanced game which would give me winning chances. But no, this opening is too theoretical. What if Justin has prepared some sideline against the K.I.D. that I don't know? I ruled out this option. My second thought was to play the Czech Benoni Defense. I often employ this defense in online blitz and I have had mixed success with it against Justin online. But this is not a great defense for standard chess, as white can break the structure and favorably open the board with a timely f4 push. So I ruled this out also.
Finally, it dawned on me. I could play the Meran! This opening is one which I had studied a little bit for black as a surprise weapon, and I thought I would know it at least as well if not better than Justin. Furthermore, it would create an interesting game with a good chance to win with black while still not featuring as many side variations as the K.I.D. The only possible problem was that I wouldn't be quite as comfortable with the theory if Justin played an early Bg5, but I knew he liked to play e3 against the Slav so I doubted this would be a problem. I then took a walk outside for about ten minutes, came back, and then played one of my better games so far of 2015. What I like about this game is not really how well I played, because I definitely didn't play perfectly, but the manner in which I played: I played very active, interesting, and dynamic chess, and after the losing move f4, I found the correct sequence leading to a nice black victory.