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Sharks and Knights in US Chess League Championships! Print E-mail
By Arun Sharma   
November 25, 2009
And then there was one.  One match that is, only one match left to determine who will be the 2009 US Chess League Champions. The Championship Match will take place on Monday December 7th at 7:00 PM EST and should be a great way to end a very exciting season of the USCL.

But as always, the action in the previous week was plenty entertaining in itself so let’s take a look at what happened.
New Jersey Knockouts (9.0 – 2.0) vs New York Knights (6.0 – 5.0)

Both sides definitely had some history on their side in this match, with the Knockouts having swept the Knights in two matches this year while the Knights ended the Knockouts’ season in both 2007 and 2008 with a victory over them in the final week of the regular season, snatching the final playoff spot in the East away from them both times.  The Knockouts had to like the fact that they came in possessing draw odds though I’m sure it was an ugly reminder also of how their elimination in the previous two seasons both occurred under the same circumstance, where a draw either time would have given them the final playoff spot over the Knights.  Plus with all five previous meetings between these two teams having ended in one team’s favor 2.5 – 1.5, it’s really anybody’s guess how much an advantage those draw odds really were.

The match’s start was anything but tame with GM Joel Benjamin embroiled in an offbeat variation of the Caro-Kann against GM Giorgi Kacheishvili on Board One while GM Pascal Charbonneau and IM Dean Ippolito had faked out the spectators by starting with a Petroff move order which transposed into a Two Knights’ Defense that quickly became as anti-Petroff as one could hope.  On Board Three, two aggressive players, SM Mackenzie Molner and NM Matt Herman had entered a Najdorf very similar in nature to their previous encounter this season, and on Board Four between NM Yaacov Norowitz and Sean Finn, well no one really had any idea what to make of the opening that occurred there, but it certainly promised to be interesting.

The Queens came off the Board One fairly early leaving what seemed to be a fairly balanced ending where Benjamin had a strong Bishop in exchange for a somewhat weak central pawn.  A Queen also came off on Board Two very early as well.  Note though the singular tense of that statement as in this position, Charbonneau played a very surprising move.

White to Move

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Pascal sacrificed his queen for two pieces!  Ippolito seemed to have a chance to get the better out of this with 14… Bxc2!, but after 14… Bg4, it was anything but clear.  After things settled down a bit, we came to a position where White had two pieces and two pawns for the queen in a fairly unbalanced situation.  

I’m sure many people’s immediate question would be to ask who actually has the better position here (or if not here a couple moves earlier), but I personally doubt there is really a good answer to that.  Counting material might give one the impression that Black stands better, but seeing how well White’s pieces coordinate compared to Black’s likely will have others thinking that White is to be preferred.  I won’t venture to try to actually answer that, but we will return to this game shortly to see what transpired.

In the meantime, Benjamin, when many were beginning to think he might be worse, as it didn’t seem he had much of anything in return for his weak e-pawn, found a nice idea:

White to Move

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Kacheishvili found the best thwart to this with 19… Ng4! 20. Rf3 Ne5, inviting White to either repeat or ease up his pressure on the f-file.  What did White choose?  Well jumping to the Board Four game, might provide a good clue to that.

Finn’s offbeat opening had seemed to leave him just a step behind for the majority of the game, always having to deal with White’s initiative and never getting a real chance to develop his Queenside in the process.  Eventually Norowitz traded off Finn’s powerful Bishop and immediately after, a deadly threat on the long diagonal compelled Black to surrender a Pawn to enter the following ending which looks dreadful for Black as he is down a Pawn and d6 seems to be so weak that it is likely to become two pawns very soon.  Despite how bad it looks to be at first glance, Finn found a nice practical try:
Black to Move

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Norowitz defended calmly until the following was reached, where Finn, again appearing to be totally lost at first glance, made another valiant try.

Black to Move

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However, Finn’s efforts were not quite enough as despite the box he managed to put White’s King in, Norowitz was able to successfully navigate the mine field and eventually turned the mines back on his opponent, surprisingly mating Finn largely due to the tripled pawns that his own King had been boxed in by!

White to Move

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And so with that, New York took a 1 – 0 lead.

In the meantime on Board Three, Herman had taken a great stride to reverse the tough defeat he had suffered at the hands of Molner in Week 3 but not perhaps in the way one might initially think.  The opening position was as unbalanced as their previous game and clearly any result was possible.  However, in the first encounter, Herman had ended up spending all but about ten minutes of his clock by move thirteen while in this case, due to the increment, he was still above his starting time at that juncture!  This strong preparation also seemed to be paying dividends on the board, definitely seeming to get the better of the opening and perhaps missed a strong chance to make it into something concrete quickly in the following position:

Black to Move

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Instead after 18… Be6, the game uneventfully liquidated into a fairly even looking ending where White might have had very minor chances, but due to his huge time disadvantage at that stage offered a controversial draw.  Controversial due to the fact that with New Jersey clearly losing on Board Four and things looking dicey on Two by that time, he really gave Herman a chance to sit on the draw offer and to accept or not based on the result the team would need.  While both sides’ winning chances were very slim, spectators were more in favor of White simply maneuvering around until he himself could be more certain about what result HIS team would need.

And so with New York winning on Board Four, a draw being up for the taking for them on Board Three, and appearing better on Two, we return to the following Benjamin position:


So once again, Benjamin was faced with the choice of taking a draw by perpetual with 23. R3f2, but due to the team situation undoubtedly made the right decision to decline with 23. Rh3.  The decision seemed to pay off, as whether he was better or not after this declination, the position was certainly quite unbalanced, and the winning chances that White desperately seemed to need at that stage were definitely available, especially with both players getting very low on the clock.  Indeed, soon after an incredible shot might have made White’s boldness payoff in this position

White to Move

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Unfortunately, being very low on the clock, White continued with the more natural 30. Nd3?, handing the edge back to Black.

Jumping back to two and three, Herman, undoubtedly hoping that Charbonneau could convert what seemed to be like a winning position to allow him to take the draw and clinch the match, allowed his clock to run all the way down from forty minutes to under a minute, before accepting the draw offer.  

The win Herman had been hoping for on Board Two though could not seem to transpire for New York as Ippolito refused to capitulate despite Charbonneau’s best efforts to take advantage of his sudden multiple extra pawns, as Ippolito used a single passed pawn and his Queen’s harassment of the exposed White King to garner counterplay.  He missed one chance to snatch a draw right away in this position:

Black to Move

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Instead after 39… Qf2, White still had some winning chances, but controlling the b-pawn while also preventing a perpetual was no easy task, especially with a low clock, and Charbonneau shortly conceded a draw.  A very up and down struggle which ended up winning Game of the Week.

So with New York leading 2 – 1 and only the Benjamin vs Kacheishvili encounter remaining, Benjamin would need to win to send New Jersey to the USCL Championship.  However, after the 30. Nd3 slip up, it seemed that only Black would have the winning chances, but the old enemy of time pressure struck and along with some energetic play by Benjamin, White managed to win a Pawn to reach the following position:


It seems that White should be winning here with his extra Pawn, but as often is the case, formulating a winning plan when playing off the increment is not easy, and Benjamin returned Black’s earlier Pawn blunder with 54. Bd1? Rc4+ 55. Kg5?? giving Black an immediate winning line.
Black to Move

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Kacheishvili instead played 55… Ne4+ 56. Rxe4 R4c5+ 57. Kh4 Rxh6, leaving an endgame where only Black has realistic winning chances.  And indeed soon after Kacheishvili made a convenient simplification to ensure him a draw and sending New York to the USCL Championship Match in one of the most nerve racking USCL matches in history.

San Francisco Mechanics (7.5 – 3.5) vs Miami Sharks (7.0 – 4.0)

Another match with a fair amount of history behind it which both sides probably were hoping worked to their advantage here, with the Mechanics getting the better of the Sharks during the regular season and holding an overall edge in all of their previous head to head matches.  On the other hand, in both the 2005 and 2007 Playoffs, the Sharks eliminated the Mechanics from the postseason, despite San Francisco having possessed draw odds each time, no doubt an ugly reminder to the Mechanics.

Board One saw a sharp contrast of players with League Rookie GM Jesse Kraai and his solid style taking on two time League MVP GM Julio Becerra who has a tendency to play very unbalanced games in the League.  Boards Two and Three saw San Francisco possessing a fair rating advantage on each board with IM Blas Lugo contesting GM Vinay Bhat and IM David Pruess taking on IM Alejandro Moreno Roman.  On Board Four, the battle of the undisputed stars of the two teams this season and two of the top Board Fours in the League saw NM Eric Rodriguez taking on NM Yian Liou.

Just like the Eastern Semifinal this match did not start quietly, with Pruess displaying the very rarely seen (at least in the League!) King’s Gambit on Board Three which got wild right away while Liou essayed the always interesting Dutch Defense on Board Four.  Unfortunately, neither decision paid off for San Francisco as Moreno Roman made an interesting piece sacrifice in return for great counterplay putting White in a very tough position.  Pruess used up tons of time trying to find a proper defense, but Moreno Roman found a nice knockout blow very early

Black to Move

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At this stage Black is already much better though White still has some minor fighting chances.  However, having used up nearly all his time trying to find a defense earlier, White succumbed fairly quickly, managing to lose on time (in a lost position) by only move sixteen – a testament to how difficult this game was to play even with a fairly small number of moves.

A tough loss for the Mechanics as losing with the White pieces on a board where they had a fair rating edge put them in a big hole.  Unfortunately, the other interesting opening on Board Four, after seeming fairly stable early on, also quickly turned sour.


After a fine opening, Black can retain fairly even chances with 19… e4!

But after 19… Qh7? 20. gxf5 Bxf5 21. e4 Bd7 22. Bxg5, Rodriguez had simply won a Pawn and had a much better position.  Liou desperately tried to find counterplay, but Rodriguez was the one who wound being the real play utilizing a nice attacking idea here:

White to Move

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And sure enough, Rodriguez converted with no issue, giving Miami a 2 – 0 lead.

This left San Francisco needing to win both of the top two Boards to advance – a task which seemed impossible as they had been fighting an uphill battle nearly the whole game on Board One.

Black to Move

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Having utilized a nice pin to gain a clear edge, Becerra played the above line, entering an uneventful endgame up a clear Pawn.  He appeared to be well on the way to converting it when, due to the Miami victories on the bottom two boards, he consented to a draw, clinching the match and a trip to the USCL Championship for the Sharks.

The Mechanics’ only real bright spot of the night was GM Vinay Bhat, who played an energetic game to defeat IM Blas Lugo:

Black to Move

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And so for the third time in five seasons, Miami managed to overcome San Francisco’s Playoff Draw Odds and return to the USCL Championship for the first time since 2005.
So with that the Championship match is set! The Miami Sharks will take on the New York Knights, two teams who have met only twice in five seasons of the USCL. The match will be held on Monday, December 7. Follow the games live on the Internet Chess Club and check updates and blogs on the US Chess League website. No one should miss the exciting climax to the USCL season!