Hilton on Championship Fate
By Jonathan Hilton   
August 13, 2008
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Jonathan Hilton in Dallas
During this year’s U.S. Open, I found my own fate entangled with that of each of the three winners—Milovanovic, Shabalov, and Sevillano—in one bizarre way or another. Now, as I leave Dallas, the U.S. Open, and the Denker behind, I’m recording my own impressions of the Open Champions. In reverse tiebreak order, here they are.

Rade Milovanovic: Winning with “One Pawn More”


In Round 7, I had the privilege (and misfortune!) of playing the man who finished third on tiebreak with 8.0/9.0, IM Rade Milovanovic. Milovanovic, besides being a strong 2400 player, is also the celebrated head coach at the University of Texas Dallas chess team. When I discovered I was paired against him, I laughed: the round would be another part of my ongoing tour of UTD while in Dallas. I had been visiting the school and talking with its faculty off and on all week, and here I was, off to meet another important person of the University!

I had a couple of hours to prepare and immediately began to scavenge my database for my opponent’s games. I discovered his strong positional style and considered the strong possibility that he might employ the Exchange Lopez against me, as I had the Black pieces. Fully armed with a new weapon taught to me by my friend Matt Parry, the Denker Representative from New York—1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.0-0 Ne7!?—I felt confident I could stir up early complications against Milovanovic. I quietly continued to prepare variations for the famous coach’s other pet lines.

During the game, Milovanovic chose the interesting sideline 5.Nc3 rather than 5.0-0. I had plenty of preparation for this line, so I felt confident whipping out 5…f6 and playing the endgame that ensued. However, over the next several moves, I found myself slowly slipping out of my preparation. My opponent castled queenside, rather than kingside—where my preparation had originally focused—and I soon discovered I could not retreat my dark-square bishop to d6 due to the tactical pressure on the d-file. In these kinds of endgames, I knew that an exchange of dark-square bishops could be highly detrimental to my chances—so when White ruthlessly forced the exchange of bishops, I did the only thing I could do: I dropped a piece.

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Position after 13...Rhe8


With 13…Rhe8??!! I offered up my dark-square bishop. At first, I thought my move was safe: after 14.Bxb4, I could simply win back my piece with 14…Rxe4. Then, as I punched the clock, a chill of horror ran down my spine: 15.Nd4! easily saves the piece for White.

At this point, Milovanovic fell into a deep trance of cognition. With a stern, unemotional face, he began to calculate the possibilities. I immediately left the board and began laughing hysterically in the hall outside. Here I was on Board 6 in the U.S. Open, playing the head coach of a college I’m interested in, and after just 13 moves I’ve simply dropped a piece? “Oh, no!” I thought. “What am I doing!”

When I finally came back to the board, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My opponent hadn’t taken the free piece! Instead, he had made a quiet pawn move to shore up his position in the center. I thought he must have calculated 14.Bxb4 Rxe4 15.Nd4 Bg4 16.f3 Rexd4 17.Rxd4 Rxd4 18.c3 Rxb4 19.axb4 Be6 and thought I would be able to hold a draw, despite being an exchange down. I managed to quickly calm down and refocus my energy for the rest of our nearly five-hour endgame battle. To my vexation and slight annoyance, Milovanovic simply continued to trade pieces and head for a pure rook and pawn endgame. I foolishly obliged him, thinking I had a good shot holding since “all rook endgames are drawn”. However, the coach’s technique was simply flawless. On move 63, I resigned.



In the post-mortem, I asked my opponent why he had not taken the free piece I accidentally offered him back on move 13. He explained that he thought 14.Bxb4 Rxe4 15.Nd4 Be8!? was complicated, and I confessed I had not considered 15…Be8 at all. Looking at it now, however, it doesn’t seem hard to see that after 16.Bc3, 17.b3, and 18.Nb2, White will be able to keep his extra piece easily.

However, regardless of the fact that my opponent didn’t take the free piece, I still lost. What had I done wrong? As my opponent and I played over the moves of our game, the famous UTD trainer would consistently pause. In a low, serious voice he would point to his majority on the kingside and remark: “I play with one pawn more, so it is difficult for Black.” I would then ask what would happen if I had tried a different defense, and we would play a few moves. In the same low tone, Milovanovic would reiterate his previous lesson: “Yes, but it is difficult for Black…because I play with one pawn more.”

Indeed, my opponent could answer any variation I came up with in the post-mortem by using the phrase one pawn more. Like a magician’s slight-of-hand, this U.S. Open Champion could juggle any piece I’d throw at him: and still the result was that he played with “one pawn more”.

The next day, as luck would have it, my friend Matt Parry was paired against Milovanovic—also with the Black pieces. I knew Matt had the 5.0-0 Ne7!? line worked out for Black, but I didn’t know if he had anything for 6.Nc3. With slightly over a half hour before the round, I decided to forego any preparations of my own to help Matt avenge my loss for the pride of all us Denker Champions. Dashing to his room on the fifth floor, I found myself out of breath as I knocked at his door. I told him about Rade Milovanovic and his evil strategy of “one pawn more” as I showed him my loss. Together, the two of us worked out a different fifth move to help Matt avoid any awful endgames. I was confident Matt would perform excellently with his weapon of choice: it promised blue skies and no bad endgames in sight.

Like a Champion, however, Milovanovic was slippery enough not to play right into our preparation. Instead, he chose the Scotch Opening—and to my dismay as a spectator, Matt played 8…Qe7+!? and headed straight for the endgame. Yet Matt played well and seemed to achieve a comfortable position, even against Rade Milovanovic in a “simple” endgame. With 23.g4, however, the “one pawn more” monster began to rear its ugly head. The IM was simply taking space on the kingside. After 23….Rc8?!, an innocuous slip-up, White proceeded to destroy Black’s queenside (including the undefended a-pawn) and won a pawn. In a dozen moves, Matt had little choice but to resign.
 


I should mention, however, that Matt rebounded from his loss quickly and finished in the money with 7.0/9.0. My hearty congratulations go out to Rade Milovanovic for his 8.0/9.0, which included wins against two Denker Champions and also Jerry Nash, the Scholastic Director of the USCF!

Alexander Shabalov: A Material Imbalance


Earlier in the week, Elizabeth Vicary’s article on how to beat Shabalov taught us that we must defeat him with attacking chess in the very first round. This year, Shabalov’s first round—which was actually Round 2—included a wild comeback after going down a queen for a rook and bishop. I decided to follow his steps in the 5-day schedule by going down the same material imbalance against my opponent, the fighting A-player Hall Odell of Oklahoma. Frank Berry cautioned me of his skill in taking down masters, but only after the game. Despite initially parting with my queen for a rook and minor piece, I soon found myself in the driver’s seat and believed myself en route to a nice positional victory. Towards the end, however, I fell into time trouble (the time control was G/60) and mishandled my position. Odell made a dashing comeback with his queen, slicing and dicing with it all across the board! Then, in the heat of the moment, he sliced one square too far.



After this narrow escape, I felt a certain amount of admiration for Shabalov for his Round 2 victory. His position had seemed more desperate even than mine—I had only squandered my advantage, but he had perhaps never had one! Shabalov continued to cruise through his next rounds with attacking flair and confidence, despite playing the entire tournament with his arm in a cast. Recalling my futile attempt at playing despite my head injury at the World Open, I again have to commend Shabalov for his impressive performance—8.0/9.0 and second place on tiebreaker points.

Enrico Sevillano: Staring Down the Pawns


The tournament’s winner on tiebreaker points was IM Enrico Sevillano of California (Correction: Enrico had no byes). According to the Monroi site, in the fourth round, Enrico utilized the Modern Benoni against Expert Barry Endsley. To triumph over his opponent, he had to stare down intimidating White pawns on e5 and d6 and use tactical resources to demolish this center.



I too managed to terminate such nasty, aggressive pawns in one of my own games. However, Sevillano’s deconstruction of White’s pawn center required great care and foresight, while my own was the result of dumb luck. In my Round 3, I faced FM Anton Paolo Del Mundo of Virginia, who scored 7.5/9.0 in 2007 to become one of last year’s U.S. Open Champions. Since we were playing the 5-day schedule, the time control for this round was G/60. I blitzed out my first twenty moves at an incredible rate, just having fun and not taking myself too seriously—something I was trying to do after the incredible stress of the Denker. I gained a large advantage on the clock, something like 45 minutes to 15, but I then erred with 20….Rc7? Del Mundo then found a few quick punches to destroy my position—and I continued to play quickly, not slowing down to find any sort of correct defense.

Within a few more moves, I was staring down pawns on e6 and d6 and was down a full piece. I let out a sigh. I was playing miserably. However, I looked at the boards to the right and left of me—no other master seemed to be doing particularly well against his or her 2400+ opponent either, it appeared. Both players on either side of me were at least down the exchange. At least I had some extra clock time and a few cheapo shots! My position was resignable, but I was just having too much fun.

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Del Mundo-Hilton, Position after 31...Rd8


Then, I noticed my opponent’s clock ticking down towards the five minute mark. He found a quick way to pave a flight for his king, which I had slightly on the run—a queen check followed by 31.Qf4, defending the d2 square. I decided it was time to start trying to take out those nasty center pawns, so I whipped out 31…Rd8. Then, to my surprise, Del Mundo blundered. As he explained after the game, he had simply forgotten about the pin on the d-file. After 32.e7??, I simply snatched away the pawn and checkmated my opponent. Del Mundo took his turn of fortune with extremely good sportsmanship, and we did a full post-mortem after the game.



Soon after this victory, I started to get comments from total strangers regarding my victory. They followed a fairly similar vein:

“How could you beat Del Mundo? The man plays like a god!”

“I heard you had a nice swindle there against Del Mundo, man.”

“Wait, is your name Jonathan Hilton? Oh man, if I were you, I’d be jumping with joy right now.”

“You beat Del Mundo and you only finished with 6.5/9.0? Sheesh!”

“You beat my hero! I hate you!”

I have to confess I was truly impressed by Del Mundo’s fan base. Despite the fact that I got extremely lucky in my game against him, he was clearly the man to beat at this tournament. Next year, however—in the 2009 U.S. Open in Indiana—“the man” will definitely be Sevillano. His outstanding performance here—leading the tournament throughout all the later rounds, yet not being the top seed—will make him a grand part of U.S. Open lore. Until next year, congratulations to all three Co-Champions!