A Glimmer of Hope (SA Closed, Pt 2 of 3)

A Glimmer of Hope (SA Closed, Pt 2 of 3)

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This is the second part in my series on the games I played in the 2019 South African Closed Chess Championships. Part one can be found here.

Part one ended with me on 2 points out of a possible 4, with (in my mind) no hope of winning the tournament. I had not yet found my form, and I had failed to convert some simple wins in the first four rounds. Having faced the defending champion and a past-Olympian in rounds 3 and 4, I had another tough two games before I was paired against some of the less-experienced players.

Round 5

My round 5 opponent has been playing competitively in senior events for about as long as I have, and made her Olympiad debut with me in 2018. In all her recorded games she was a d4 player, but I had seen from earlier rounds that she had switched to playing e4. I focused most of my preparation on responding to 1.e4, as I thought this was more likely to occur and I was more comfortable with my black repertoire against 1.d4. I was therefore happy when I saw that her first move was, indeed, e4.

Despite forgetting my opening prep and mixing up the move order, I got to a position that I vaguely remembered, where I knew I had likely reached at least equality. I was happy to find moves like 14…g5, and I was able to maintain an advantage throughout the game, despite some inaccurate play.

This game was a large confidence-booster, as I had finally been able to convert a game against an opponent who hadn’t made obvious blunders, and without losing the advantage myself. I also received feedback from my coach and other players that they were impressed with the game (the DGT boards had arrived after some delay, and from Round 5 onwards the games were broadcast live), so I felt good going forward.

Round 6

My round 6 encounter was with a junior who has been performing well this selection cycle, and who will likely make her debut soon in the Olympiad team. In all her recorded games and in earlier rounds, she unfailingly replied to 1.e4 with 1…e6. I prepared my lines against the French, and I was excited to try them out, after some successful practice games with one of my earlier opponents.

I was therefore completely taken aback when she replied to my 1.e4 with 1…c5, and I spent a while debating whether to stick to 2.Nf3 (with no idea of how she would reply, and not having looked at some of my lines in over a month) or to revert back to 2.c3 which I was likely more experienced in, having played it for nearly 10 years.

I decided to have faith in my memory and my new opening repertoire, and I played 2.Nf3. I was relieved when the first few moves replicated my round 1 game, but got confused upon seeing 9…Nh6 and felt from there that I was on the back foot. This caused me to play very inaccurately, but fortunately my opponent didn’t take advantage, and I was able to offer a sacrifice on move 15 which my opponent didn’t accept. I went on to increase my advantage and win the game after some nice tactics.

Round 7

After two good wins against tough opposition, I was starting to feel like I was eventually regaining my form. My round 7 opponent was relatively unknown to me, but she had been holding a lot of the experienced players to draws, so I didn't go into the game expecting an easy win. For the first time in the tournament, my opening preparation was spot-on, and I was able to play my first 11 moves against her London in under two minutes, compared to my opponent’s twelve.

With both a time and a positional advantage straight out of the opening, I was comfortable with my position, and I was able to increase the pressure slowly until I blundered an exchange on move 31. Fortunately, even after this, the position was equal. I won back the exchange a few moves later (although my instincts correctly told me not to), and I managed to convert the endgame with some difficulty.

Round 8

After 3 consecutive wins, I was sitting in second place, only half a point behind the leader who I’d lost to in round 1. My next opponent had been having a bad tournament, but she is an attacking player who I don't have a good track record against (most, if not all, of out previous encounters had been draws). She almost always played the Petroff as black, and in the earlier rounds of the tournament, she had played a variation of the Petroff which had a number of inaccuracies, which I prepared for.

I was therefore surprised when she played 2…Nc6, and so we went into a Ruy Lopez where a6 was omitted. I got impatient and unsoundly tried to generate play on the kingside, but fortunately I emerged a knight up out of the complications that ensued. Nevertheless, it was not an easy endgame for me, given my opponent’s superior pawn structure, and I was relieved to get the win in the end.

Overview

I had gone from 2/4 to 6/8, and the tournament was starting to look a lot more hopeful – I was still half a point behind the leader, but I was a clear half point ahead of third. I had one more experienced player to face (round 9), and the rest of my games were (on paper) easier than those remaining for the tournament leader. So, there was a chance that I could still finish first if the tournament leader made any errors, and a top-3 finish was looking almost certain.

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If you’re interested in seeing how the final rounds went, follow my blog to get a notification when I post part 3 of this mini-series. Thank you for reading!