Smurfo Beats Ginger GM 17-15 in Very Close Death Match 19
On Saturday GM David Smerdon of Australia (smurfo) beat GM Simon Williams of England (Ginger_GM) with the score of 17 to 15 in Chess.com's Death Match 19. In what was one of the closest and most exciting Death Matches ever, Williams took the lead several times but Smerdon always managed to level the score. Right at the end "The Smurf" won two games in a row, time ended and the match was decided.
The format of a Death Match is simple. It's a two-player online battle that lasts three hours and is played over three different time controls: 5 minutes plus 1 second per move (blitz), 3 minutes plus 1 second per move (faster blitz) and 1 minute plus 1 second per move (bullet). Dubbed "the other Ashes" by FM Mike Klein earlier this week, it was Australia vs. England in the 19th edition, with David Smerdon vs. Simon Williams. It started Saturday at 18:00 Central European Time, or 09:00 Pacific Time.
The 5-minute part of the match got off to a good start as Williams finished off a kingside attack with a pretty queen sac to force mate. This game started with 1.d4, Williams' favorite first move, and Smerdon had prepared the Ragozin.
The second game was the first of a long series of French Defenses in this match. Smerdon is a 1.e4 player, and the French is Williams' pet defense; he even wrote a book about it. It was also the first of several Advance variations, and Williams won the bishop pair early on. The Englishman got a big advantage and easily won a much better ending to take an early lead of two points.
Commentator GM Ben Finegold, who picked Smerdon before the game, said: "Whom am I betting on over here? What's going on?" But luckily for Finegold and Smerdon, the match didn't go all the way to 3-0 as a tactical oversight caused William's first loss in an English in game 3.
From that point it slowly became clear that Smerdon was suffering a bit from a "white complex". Even though he got a nice position in another French Advance this time, the Aussie was outplayed anyway and even ended up in a pretty checkmate.
In matches like these, it's a good idea to throw in a completely different opening every now and then. That's what Williams did in game five: 1.b3, these days popularized by Georgia's number one player Baadur Jobava. That move was a nice surprise ("Now we're talking!" - Finegold) but right after the Englishman had finished his Hippopotamus setup, he blundered terribly and had to resign on move 13! 3-2 for Williams.
Game six was the first draw, and in fact only four of the 32 games would be drawn, underlining the fact that we were dealing with two very creative and tactical players.
Williams won the next game, using a gambit line against Smerdon's Czech Benoni where, even in the queenless ending, White kept a nice initiative going.
The "Ginger GM" even increased the score to 5.5-2.5 the next game, when yet another Advance French didn't go Smerdon's way. It was about time for Smerdon to get his act together; before the match he said that he would be happy if he could tie the 5-minute segment. In what was one of his best games, "Smurfo" played a good Benoni and won convincingly even though his queen was totally out of play on b8 for some time!
At that point the players moved to the 3 1 segement, with a comfortable 5.5-3.5 lead for Williams. However, the small break and the switch to the different time control worked out well for Smerdon, who won two games in a row to level the score. Changing his strategy against the French (the rare 2.Nf3 and 3.Nc3), he scored as White, and then in another Ragozin he survived an onslaught on his king. Finegold: "White's really messing this up. That's a lot of messing up!"
With regained confidence, Smerdon went for another Advance French with a typical pawn sac on d4. However, it seemed that whatever happened, this opening just wouldn't work for the Australian GM. A winning position quickly turned into a lost one due to a tactical oversight.
Williams then surprisingly switched to 1.e4 for the first time — was it a mouse slip? — and a Scandinavian became some kind of Caro-Kann with White's d-pawn and Black's c-pawn still on their starting squares. This was good for White, who won a pawn and the game - yet another two-point lead for Williams.
With Smerdon getting more and more ground in that theoretical discussion in the French, Williams decided not to tempt fate and played 1...e6 and 2...b6, which became another Hippopotamus. This time the Ginger didn't hang anything and actually played nice game that saw a positional Exchange sac. But, anything can happen in blitz and he actually managed to LOSE this position as Black.
After another draw, Smerdon finally did everything right in that Advance French, won all of Black's queenside pawns and accepted the gift of a full rook (which was definitely a mouse slip). And so we were back to all square: the score was equal again after 16 games, half-time in terms of total number of games. However, by also winning the last 3 1 game (playing Williams own favorite, the Dutch Defense!), it was Smerdon who went into the bullet segment with a small lead: 9-8.
Also in the last part of the match, where a total of 15 very fast games would be played, the players turned out to be very evenly matched. However, yet again it was Williams who gained the "match initiative", winning two consecutive games - yet another black win in a French Advance and then a convincing victory as White where Smurfo's Blumenfeld Gambit completely backfired.
Game 20 had a funny start. Smerdon, after the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4, premoved 3.e5 as he expected 2...d5. However, Williams went for 2..b6 again! Well, 3.e5 wasn't the worst premove ever, but Williams kept a positional advantage only to mess up a drawn pawn ending. The score was 10-10.
Probably thinking "Another Dutch? Not funny", Williams completely crushed Smerdon in game 21, but Smerdon came back with a vengeance! His 19th-century (and slightly incorrect) style of play proved to be very effective in, yes, another French Advance.
That same opening also came on the board in game 23, which meant that Smerdon was now also playing it as Black. "Now they're really playing with us!", as the host of the show, FM Mike Klein, put it. It's not a bad strategy at all — and not just from a psychological point of view — to check on how your opponent would treat his own opening. Well, Williams did well, got a nice ending and eventually won the infamous f- & h-pawn rook ending (that, indeed, was drawn at the start).
It's not easy to draw a chess game at the bullet time control, but somehow the two next games ended peacefully.
Then, in game 26, Williams played a Sicilian (only for the second time) allowing what is perhaps Smerdon's favorite white opening: the Alapin. It was a risky strategy, and somehow the Ginger never got into the game. In fact he hang more pieces and pawns than in many previous games together.
With another win from a Stonewall Dutch (don't miss his blog on this opening — did Dave get lonely and called his ex??), Smerdon finally was the one who was leading the match, with only a few more games left. ("[Williams] blundered like nine pieces in one minute!" - Finegold) But also this lead wouldn't last long.
It was Ginger's turn to win two games in row, the first with another Hippopotamus and then with a Trompowsky where Smerdon's queen got trapped early on. However, the Aussie won game 30 (another Hippo), and so after almost three hours of play, the score was still equal: 15-15!
The next encounter turned out to be the key game of the whole match. There was time for just two more, and in this 31st, the Ginger GM got a crushing attack. Unlike his normal habit, here Williams missed all the wins (e.g. Finegold quickly spotted 24.Rxg7+! and resigns) and completely blundered away this game.
Smerdon was 16-15 up, and needed just a draw to win the match. If he'd lose, the match would see a tiebreak for only second time ever in Death Match history (it happened in the match Arnold-Ipatov).
That last game was, guess what, a French Advance. Winning that last game convincingly, Smerdon settled the score at 17-15 to win Death Match 19. "If the Smurf does well, the Ginger is going to be blue!", said Ben Finegold at some point. The winner was the player he rooted for.
"I thought I had him but he came back with lots of tricks. He played very well; I have to congratulate him on making my life very difficult!" said a gracious Simon Williams afterward. Although the French Defense seemed to hold quite well in the match, the English GM felt that in the crucial phase, "his" opening was under pressure. "He found a good way to play against my opening. The initiative is very important in games like these."
Williams, who played from his home and had started his day with "a full English breakfast" and "lots of cups of tea", also revealed that at some point he would have liked to visit the toilet. "But that's why it's called a Death Match. You just gotta keep playing!"
Smerdon was humble afterward: "It really took me a while to warm up. He completely dominated in the 5-minute section. In fact I think in all three sections he played much better than me. I think I was extremely lucky."
The Australian GM didn't win his first game as White until game 10. About the theoretical discussion in the French, he said that he didn't expect the sub-system with an early ...Rc8 by his opponent. In the first few games, Smerdon tried to meet that positionally, which didn't work. In subsequent games he went for a more gambling kind of approach: "I just had to go for this dodgy pawn sacrifice. I guess when the time got shorter, it was more and more difficult to defend it."
Williams won the 5-minute segment 5.5-3.5, Smerdon won the 3-minute segment 5.5-2.5 and the bullet 8-7.
In the end it seems that Smerdon's preparation of about 50 blitz & 70 bullet (!) games on the Chess.com server (from his current home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands) was a decisive factor. However, while busy clicking away, he forgot that this weekend was actually he and girlfriend's annuversary, so he ended up playing the match on holiday in a bed & breakfast in Bruges, Belgium! At some point she went out, but arrived back in time to see the finish of the match. No doubt she'll be happy with that $750 check won by her boyfriend, but the question is if she'll ever find out about that Stonewall...