Maryland Open 2015
There are two reasons I love playing in MD Chess Association tournaments held at the Rockville Hilton: one, it is a very comfortable playing environment, and two, I've played there three times in the last year and have never left without a prize. Last weekend, I scored 3.5/5 in the under 2000 section of the Maryland Open - not bad considering that just four months ago, this section would have meant "playing up" for me.
My first-round opponent is a strong player: his peak USCF rating was over 2100 and his peak FIDE rating over 2000. But this wasn't his day. He played a dubious opening line and never recovered from it. All I knew about it was that 5...Bxf3 is not considered sound and that white should not fear taking on b7. (Black is still alive after 6...Bxg2, but 6...Be4 - though generously awarded only a "?!" and called "a spirited reply" by Burgess - is given a +1.33 in computer evaluations.)
Really, don't judge my opponent based on this game! He won the remaining four games and finished ahead of me.
My second-round opponent and I met in the Baltimore Open less than three months ago; that game ended in a draw. He is another recently "unretired" player. His plays carefully, but tends to get in time trouble. This time, we played a fianchetto King's Indian and the position was equal until I first chose a plan that led nowhere (17...Bd7 and 18...Na6) and then chose to passively defend d6 with 22...Bf8. I think it's fair to say that the proper alternative (22...Nc5) is brilliant and hard to find (I don't know if I'd ever see 24...Nxf3 without a computer), so I blame myself more for the earlier moves even though I was objectively equal until move 22. But just as white was close to winning (after 26.Qc3 Houdini says it's "only" +1.2 but that kind of position is awful to defend), he blundered with 26.e5 and again with 28.Rd5. But neither one of us was aware after the game that I gave him a chance to escape with 28...Bxc2?, though again the saving combination (this time for white) would win a brilliance prize if there was one. He didn't find it and that was that.
My third-round opponent was the defending Maryland Amateur Champion, as he won the U-2000 section last year. He outplayed me in the opening and early middle-game (Who knew the thematic ...f6 was pretty bad in this particular setup?!?) but the game was not too far from balance except briefly when he could have gained a clear advantage with 20.Nxa4 (or with an earlier 18.a4 bxa4 19.Nxa4). Then I missed a winning tactical chance on move 27, and he returned the favor by missing 29.Bd7 with clear advantage. After 31.Ra6, the attack on my e6 pawn looked worrisome, but then I played what I thought was my most inspired endgame in a long time (perhaps ever). Houdini is not so impressed, but I suppose few 3000+ players are.
In the fourth round, I faced an 11-year-old. I must not have been fully awake in the opening (the round started at 9 AM) because I didn't see 7.Nh4 was losing a pawn until after I played it. I knew I had some compensation, but I thought I was at least half a pawn behind. In fact, this move has a computer evaluation of just -0.15 and white scores 48% with it. (Yes, there are 26 games in the database!) I still don't know why anyone would deliberately play into this position, though. Anyway, my rather unorthodox setup was motivated by thinking I was in a worse shape than I really was. According to Houdini's evaluations, my plan of keeping the king in the center behind my central pawn majority and launch the lone b-pawn on some kind of a minority attack was not very good, and through the early stages of the middle-game black was a full pawn up; things got more hopeful, however, after black failed to block the queenside with a timely 23...b5. Still, I kept looking for a b5 break and kept thinking (wrongly) that I needed more preparation. An instance of mutual blindness occurred on move 28, when I allowed a winning shot and he missed it. Finally, when 33...Rd6 left Ne7 undefended, I saw a clearly promising 34.b5! I thought (and I think he thought the same) that this turned the game around. Apparently, it was far less clear, but eventually I did get a winning endgame, only to underestimate the danger and allow him to force a draw. Even so, I had a late chance to win with 54.Rxg6 and again with 56.Rxg6, but I missed it twice!
Four players had 3.5 going into the last round. Andrew and another kid agreed to an express draw, which meant that my opponent and I were playing for the clear first place, which mattered for prize prospects. Prizes in this tournament are awarded based on points, not placement - $125 for 3.5, $325 for 4.0, $650 for 4.5, and $1200 for the (now impossible) 5.0. But there is a $150 bonus for clear first if nobody scores 5.0, so it was clear that the prize money depended on the result of the game as follows: $800 for a win, $325 for a draw, and $125 for a loss. In those circumstances, it clearly makes sense to take some risks rather than try to play for a draw (though it is questionable if players at my level are ever truly capable of "playing for a draw"). I also knew for sure that I had secured a Category 1 norm, so I wasn't worried about that either.
It is possible that my opponent was thinking along those lines, as he chose the sharpest defense against the Torre Attack. Of course, I have built my repertoire around avoiding memorization (mainly based on Burgess' A Cunning Opening Repertoire for White), and no one has played this critical line against me since I took up 1.d4, so I was out of the book very early. I knew Burgess recommended giving up the b-pawn and developing quickly with Nbd2 and Bd3, but I couldn't even remember if white should take on f6. (It's fine either way, but Burgess only considers the lines in which white keeps the bishop.) I still did fine in the opening, and there are signs that my opponent wasn't booked up either. But eventually my position deteriorated through the middle-game, without any dramatic errors. Still, I could have equalized as late as move 40 - and then again on move 42 in another ping-pong of errors. The endgame was clearly lost, though for a few moves I made it interesting, at least in the sense that black had to find the best moves - which he did, and he deserved to win.
I am certainly happy with the result. My rating has reached a new high (1929, the first time ever above 1900). I earned my third Category 1 norm (and the second this year). In fact due to the high average rating of my opponents, I was half a point away from a Candidate Master norm. And of course I had my chances to win the 4th game or draw the 5th... but then again, I was in trouble at some point in every game except the first one, so I "almost had" a lower score just as much as I "almost had" a higher one.
I suppose my game must be improving if I've gained so many rating points, but it's humbling to find out how many things I missed (as did my opponents). After the tournament, I honestly thought I did very well tactically, except for the beginning and the end of game 4. But then Houdini showed me all the shots I (and my opponents) missed, even after the games. I am not sure how many of those combinations were just really hard to see and how many a player of roughly 2000 strength should be able to spot.
I certainly seem to be getting to the level where endgames are becoming more interesting - and more likely to decide the game. It's tempting to say that the openings are getting challenging too - I could have used some opening knowledge especially in games 3 and 5 - but there is no indication that book knowledge had any effect on the outcomes of those games.