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US Chess League Heads to Playoffs Print E-mail
By Arun Sharma   
November 9, 2009
The final week of the regular season of the US Chess League is in the books and the playoff picture is now complete.   I’m sure many people will chime in on their playoff perspectives, so keep an eye on the USCL site for such previews. The playoff lineups are already out, so be sure to log into the Internet Chess Club on Monday at 7 PM EST and Wednesday at 9 PM EST to follow all the games live.

Week 10 action was quite fierce so let’s recap.

Boston Blitz (6.5 – 2.5) vs New York Knights (5.0 – 4.0)

This was the only match in Week 10 which had almost no chance of affecting the playoff picture in any way, but no could have guessed that from watching it.  These teams have been bitter rivals for nearly every season of the league. They were already guaranteed to meet in the first round of this year’s playoffs, so it was clear that the very least each team wanted to gain a psychological edge.

Early on, the match seemed anything but clear, with SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun making an interesting double Pawn sacrifice against GM Giorgi Kacheishivili while IM Irina Krush seemed to have a very double edged position against SM Denys Shmelov.  With the bottom two boards each having fairly a uneventful opening, neither team really seemed to have gained much of an upper hand.

But a break quickly came on Board Four where NM Evan Rosenberg likely underestimated the danger to his e5 Knight after 15… dxe4, losing a piece in short order which NM Vadim Martirosov had no trouble in converting.



With that result and with Board Three ending shortly afterwards in a draw, New York would need to win both of the top boards for a victory.  After Sammour-Hasbun’s early two pawn sacrifice, GM Kacheishvili found a clever liquidation in the middlegame, surrendering the exchange to get the Queens off the board.  With a powerful Knight and White’s weak pawns, he converted quickly.



So with the match tied at 1.5, it all came down to Krush vs Shmelov.  Krush had been pressing for most of the game, eventually sacrificing an exchange to put Shmelov into a near zugzwang bind. It seemed it would only be a matter of time before White crashed through.  However, with both players in severe time pressure, Krush blundered badly with 30. Rf4??, and Shmelov quickly pounced with 30… R8xd7!, completely dissipating White’s pressure after which Black converted his material advantage with no difficulty.



And with that, Boston took this match 2.5 – 1.5. They'll hope this result is a precursor to the teams’ playoff meeting.  Given the stakes, that match is almost certain to be even more dramatic than this one.
 
Philadelphia Inventors (3.0 – 6.0) vs Carolina Cobras (2.0 – 7.0)


The Cobras had been eliminated from playoff contention the previous week but the Inventors still had a chance. A win combined with a Baltimore loss would hand them the final playoff spot in the East.  However, Carolina looked determined to play the role of dream wrecker as FM Oleg Zaikov, having already won three games in a row, struck again early, defeating FM Tom Bartell in a wild tactical mess.  A rather creative display which ended up liquidating to an endgame where both sides seemed to have chances, until Zaikov struck with another tactic, 38. f5+!, ending the game immediately. 



The Inventors struck back on Board Four with one of their most consistent performers throughout League history, NM Elvin Wilson, taking out Carolina’s John Timmel, each of them making their 2009 League debut.  Timmel had a great chance to strike with 39. Bf8!, but unfortunately missed it and by the time he did end up playing it on move forty six, it was too little too late and Wilson converted without trouble.



With the match tied at one, it was down to Boards One and Three, both of which Philly ended up taking in nice endgames.  Bryan Smith’s slow grind featured some nice maneuvering.



The Inventors did their part to put themselves in the postseason, but were left just short, as Baltimore more than made the draw they needed to take the last spot.
 
New Jersey Knockouts (8.0 – 1.0) vs Queens Pioneers (2.5 – 6.5)

In previous head to head matches between these two teams, Queens had dominated - a fair contrast to the teams’ respective records when entering this match.  New Jersey had locked up the Eastern Division so they were in the position to play dream wrecker as Queens would need a big match victory combined with a good deal of help from other teams to take the last playoff spot. Pioneers leader GM Alex Stripunsky capped off a great personal season with a win over GM Joel Benjamin with the Black pieces.



Combined with solid wins by GM Lev Milman and WFM Elizabeth Vicary over SM Mackenzie Molner and NM Andrew Ng, the Pioneers, like the Inventors, were certainly doing their part to try to snatch the last playoff spot.  They even had a chance to make it an amazing 4 – 0 sweep as a surprising double oversight of 44… d3?? and 45.g4?? (45. Bc3!), gave the Pioneers a strange chance to achieve a sweep.



Like the Inventors, the Pioneers best efforts were not enough to snatch the fourth playoff spot from Baltimore. Queens joins several others in the “Wait til next year!” camp.
 
Tennessee Tempo (2.0 – 7.0) vs Baltimore Kingfishers (3.5 – 5.5)


This match saw an already eliminated team taking on a team with everything to play for. The Kingfishers desperately needed at least a draw to hold onto the final playoff spot in the East.   Board One looked headed toward an uneventful draw for most of the game so Baltimore would need to score two points on the other three boards to make their playoff spot a lock.  IM Tegshsuren Enkhbat seemed to have a good chance to get them halfway there holding a solid pawn edge for most of the game against FM Todd Andrews but he eventually slipped into a drawn ending.



It would come down to the bottom two boards.  In contrast to the top two boards, the Board Four encounter between Jared Defibaugh and David Justice was a fairly unbalanced game where both sides had their chances. Black even sacked two exchanges!  Despite the crazy action, it eventually liquidated into a drawn ending.



With the match now tied at 1.5, Baltimore’s veteran, FM Ralph Zimmer came through for them in the clutch, scoring a nice victory in a Dutch, grinding down FM Peter Bereolos in a long ending. This is a good example of the power of the bishop over a knight in endings with pawns on both sides of the board.



After three seasons of frustration following their 2005 Championship, the Baltimore Kingfishers are finally back in the Playoffs.  But their celebration time will be short as they have an unenviable task upcoming.  In the playoffs they'll face New Jersey, the team with the best record and one they have not scored well against.  New Jersey’s excellent regular season also affords them draw odds for that match, so it’s a big mountain for Baltimore to climb.
 
Dallas Destiny (3.0 – 6.0) vs San Francisco Mechanics (6.0 – 3.0)

This match also pitted an eliminated team against a team desperately jockeying to improve their playoff positioning.  Though their spot in the postseason was locked up the previous week, the Mechanics still were in the unusual position of being able to finish anywhere from first to fourth based on the results of the final week.  Even though second and third were by far the most likely two spots for them to be in, that in itself was not a small issue, with draw odds for the first playoff match being a huge advantage.

The middle two boards of this match, featuring GM Vinay Bhat against IM Salvijus Bercys and FM Keaton Kiewra against FM Daniel Naroditsky, both ended peacefully but in very different fashion.  The Bhat game had little action in a fairly locked position. Kiewra and Naroditsky played a Najdorf featuring interesting tactics, but neither side developed many winning chances.



And yet another match was tied at 1-1 early; But then the Mechanics took a great stride to achieve one of the top spots with a nice endgame win by their young phenom NM Yian Liou over last year’s top Board Four All Star, WFM Bayaraa Zorigt.



With a 2 – 1 lead and GM Patrick Wolff pressing IM Daniel Ludwig for most of the game, the Mechanics seemed to have the match in the bag before the old enemy of time pressure hit.  Wolff ended up trying a risky exchange sacrifice, 44… Rxe4?!, to try to relieve some of the pressure that Ludwig’s fierce play had created, but it  did not turn out as he hoped with White’s d-pawn proving to be faster than Black’s connected passers, securing Dallas a drawn match.


 
Seattle Sluggers (7.0 – 2.0) vs Chicago Blaze (3.5 – 6.5)


Needing only a drawn match to clinch the division, this match probably did not start out the way the Sluggers were envisioning, with IM Florin Felecan using a surprising tactic to instantly win against FM Slava Mikhailuk.

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Despite the early deficit, the Sluggers looked to be in good shape on the other three boards, having a nice technical edge on one and three, while NM Joshua Sinanan seemed to be getting the better of complications against NM Eric Rosen.  But time pressure struck again and Rosen found a nice tactic, allowing Chicago to take a surprising 2 – 0 lead.



At about the same time FM Marcel Milat converted his Pawn up ending against IM Mehmed Pasalic without too much difficulty, leaving it on their longtime leader GM Gregory Serper to tie the match and secure the division crown.  In his patented style of slowly but surely outplaying his opponent, Serper managed to do just that, a very solid game which garnered him Game of the Week Honors.



For the first time, the Sluggers secured the top spot in the West after the regular season.  Having draw odds in every match until the Championship, along with a fearsome double GM lineup of Nakamura and Serper at their disposal, they are going to be a very tough team to beat.
 
Miami Sharks (5.0 – 4.0) vs Arizona Scorpions (6.0 – 3.0)

In one sense this was the biggest match of the week, as it held great consequences for both teams.  The Scorpions, like the Mechanics, had a playoff spot locked up prior to this week, but any position from first to fourth was still possible while the Sharks could be second, third, or fourth.  The Sharks needed at least 3.5-0.5 to pass the Scorpions.  Unfortunately for them, one of the boards they had to be most optimistic on did not pan out with their rock GM Julio Becerra only drawing with the White pieces against GM Alejandro Ramirez.



Despite this early disappointment though, the tides turned quickly with the Sharks’ best performer this year, NM Eric Rodriguez, scoring a quick victory in a wild Benko against Amanda Mateer.  But the biggest result came on three with IM Alejandro Moreno Roman, a player who has generally struggled in the League, playing a smooth game against FM Robby Adamson, topped off by a surprising end, featuring a potential two Knight mate.



With this, the Sharks clinched victory, but would need IM Blas Lugo to take down IM Levon Altounian with Black to move up to third.  With the Mechanics already having drawn, it was already known to the Scorpions that second was now out of reach and locking up third was the only concern.  IM Lugo wisely refused a draw offer in a worse position with that knowledge, but despite some creative tries, could manage no more than a perpetual.



As disappointing as a 3 – 1 loss had to be for the Scorpions, who were on four match win streak, they nevertheless had to be glad that they still managed to hang onto third. I doubt anyone wants to face Seattle’s double GM lineup and also give the Sluggers draw odds.  The Scorpions will still have a tough ask ahead of them though, facing the strong Mechanics team who will also have the advantage of draw odds.
 
That wraps up the 2009 USCL Regular Season.  But with the playoffs starting just this next week, there’s still plenty of drama left to unfold.  Be sure to tune in to the Internet Chess Club on Monday at 7:00 for the Eastern Quarterfinals of New Jersey vs Baltimore and New York vs Boston and then on Wednesday at 9:00 for the Western Quarterfinals of Miami vs Seattle and Arizona vs San Francisco.
Also follow results and blogs on uschessleague.com.

 
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