A Bittersweet Ending (SA Closed, Pt 3 of 3)

A Bittersweet Ending (SA Closed, Pt 3 of 3)

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It’s taken me nearly two months to write this series on my SA Closed experience, since I’ve been quite busy starting a twitch channel, planning interviews, and organising my studies. But here, at last, is the final post of the series! In this post, I’ll be discussing my last three games of last year’s Championship. Posts one and two can be found here and here, respectively.

Part two ended with me on 6/8 despite a terrible first four rounds where I only scored two points. I was clear second, only half a point behind the tournament leader, and since I had objectively easier pairings left than the tournament leader, a national title was a definite possibility… if I could win my last three games.

Round 9

My round 9 opponent was an experienced player, with likely more Olympiads under her belt than the rest of the field combined. She had suffered a shock loss to a lower rated opponent in round 8, so I knew she would be out for a decisive result. In the past, she has played 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4 and 1.Nf3, and in earlier rounds she had also switched up her repertoire, so preparing for the round was no easy feat. I mainly focused on replying to 1.e4 and 1.d4, as she had played the other two openings far less frequently, and her only 1.Nf3 game on record had transposed to a queen’s gambit declined.

I was completely out of my comfort zone when she played 1.Nf3 and it didn’t transpose into my preparation. I played very cautiously in the opening and ended up missing some threats in the middle game which resulted in me losing the exchange with no compensation. Although I played on for a while, I had little hope of salvaging a draw, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t put up much of a fight in the game.


Fortunately, the tournament leader had lost her game, so after my loss I was in third place (third had won her game and overtaken me), still only half a point behind the tournament leaders.

Round 10

In order to keep my title hopes (or at least a top 3 finish) alive, round 10 was a must-win game. It was against an opponent who was having a bad tournament, and against whom I’ve never lost a game. Preparation was fairly easy, as my opponent had a standard response to 1.e4, so I just went over my usual lines, and resolved to play a patient game and wait for her to make a mistake.

When my opponent left her knight on c6 undefended, I abandoned my plans for a patient game as I thought I might have some tactical chances. This was not the case, and play continued with inaccuracies from both sides, during which I mistakenly thought I had an advantage throughout. 32…Re5 was a rude wake-up call that I completely missed: I panicked and failed to find the correct defence, which ultimately led to a devastating loss and an end to my title hopes.

Round 11

To quote Carlsen after his last round of the 2020 Tata Steel: “…I felt I had legitimate hopes of contending for first, and then the last two days it all sort of fell apart. Today I didn’t have much to play for.” I had no hope of finishing top 2 and automatically qualifying for the Olympiad team, and prize money in the event was minimal (and at that stage still unadvertised). There was also less time for preparation as round 11 was played earlier than the previous rounds.

I went into the game in a bad headspace, not caring about the result, and with minimal preparation since my opponent had been switching between openings in the tournament and faring well against strong opposition. My opponent arrived nearly 10 minutes late for the game, which made me want to play even less. She played an odd variation against my Sicilian, but fortunately she missed a win in some tactical complications where I managed to escape with the bishop pair and a large time advantage (she spent nearly 45 minutes making her 11th and 12th moves). The time ultimately decided the game, as my opponent missed a neat “puzzle-rush-esque” mate in three in time trouble!

Overview

The nice mate at the end of my last game saved what would have been a disastrous end to the tournament. As a bonus I finished third on tiebreaks after every last-round game went in my favour – this was something I didn’t expect at all, which is why I was dressed very casually for the prize giving!

Unexpected last-round results meant I found myself in shorts on stage at the prize-giving!
The final standings of the Women's section

Overall, it was a bittersweet ending, as I could easily have won the tournament if I had been in form and not missed so many chances. Fortunately, I still qualify for the Olympiad team based on rating, else missing second place and a spot in the team would have been devastating.

In conclusion,

The tournament gave me a good idea of what I still need to work on, and highlighted the role of psychology in these high-stakes events. I also realise that many people may question why I changed my opening repertoire so close to the event. Although it may not have been wise, I feel it was good in the long-term, and it is encouraging that even when I was out of my preparation, I was still able to get an advantage from the opening in most of my games. I’m therefore looking forward to playing more chess in 2020, and hopefully breaking through my plateau of the last few years!

Thank you for reading, and be sure to look out for some interviews with top South African players, which I'll be posting in the next few weeks.