Week 9 US Chess League Recap
By Arun Sharma   
November 2, 2009
USCLmainlogo.jpgWeek 9 of the USCL has come and gone and with it the Playoff Picture is not quite complete. More than a few teams have plenty at stake in their final regular season match.  For the complete scoop see the standings. Before I recap week 9, I’ll give a brief rundown of the exact playoff scenarios.

In the East, the top three seeds are set as New Jersey, Boston, and New York (in that order), with only the fourth place finisher being at large.  Baltimore can clinch the final spot with a win and are likely to do so with a draw (only a very lopsided win by Philadelphia will not allow them to do so).  Short of that, Philadelphia will need a win combined with a Baltimore loss to take the final spot while Queens needs a lopsided win by themselves, a lopsided loss by Baltimore, and a draw or loss by Philadelphia to take the last spot.

In the West, the four playoff teams are decided, but their order is anything but with the top three teams (Seattle, Arizona, and San Francisco) having the potential to finish in any possible order, depending on the final week’s results.  The same holds for the second through fourth teams (Arizona, San Francisco, and Miami) as any order for those three is also possible.  With draw odds and color choice being at stake for the upcoming playoff matches, this final week clearly still carries great importance, and I doubt any team here which has clinched its spot will be taking it lightly.

Now let's look at Week 9.

Queens Pioneers (2.0 – 6.0) vs Carolina Cobras (1.5 – 5.5) 


Despite both teams undoubtedly disappointed by their season performance to this point, still being mathematically alive in the playoff race always gives something to shoot for, so this match was unequivocally approached by both teams with a win or go home mentality.  While some were complaining that this leadoff match of Week 9 was a meaningless one due to the long playoff odds of each team, the actual match certainly could not have given any observer that impression as this turned out to be one of those patented back and forth huge battles were both teams had great chances to score.

Carolina got on the board quickly as IM Yury Lapshun of Queens, a big fan of offbeat openings, put on another unusual display.  Unfortunately for him, FM Oleg Zaikov struck with a nice Queen infiltration at just the right moment and scored a quick victory. 

 

Queens struck back on Board Three, with their best performer this season, FM Andrei Zaremba, calmly defusing an attempted attack from NM Craig Jones and coasting to victory.

So it would come down to Boards One and Four, with Queens seeming to hold the edge on one and Carolina on four.  But as usual it didn’t exactly turn out that way, as with both players in fair time pressure, Queens’ Shaun Smith found the very nice resource, 47… Rb3!, seeming to rise from the ashes and then actually getting the better endgame!  Unfortunately for him, the nice comeback didn’t go the whole way as 62… Ke4! would have put the nail in White’s coffin, but instead the game petered out to a draw.

 

As mentioned, IM Dmitry Schneider seemed to have the better of the middlegame against IM Jonathan Schroer, but things turned abruptly in the ending with Schroer winning a Pawn and seemed completely headed for victory.  Schneider would not capitulate easily though and eventually forced the game into the notorious Rook and Bishop versus Rook ending.  Schroer seemed to come close to winning it at a few stages, but Schneider didn’t allow him to succeed before the fifty move rule could apply.

 

A very hard fought match, but obviously not one where either side could have been too happy with the result as Carolina is now eliminated from playoff contention, and Queens’ chances hanging by a very loose thread.
 
Dallas Destiny (3.0 – 5.0) vs Chicago Blaze (2.5 – 5.5)


Like the above match, both teams no doubt came into this with the mindset of winning or going home, and once again the brand of chess both sides played showed they were going to settle for no less.

The first game to finish was a fairly wild Najdorf between IM Florin Felecan and IM Daniel Ludwig, featuring a not atypical sacrifice on e6.  Felecan seemed to have a couple good opportunities to gain a winning advantage (20. Qg4 was one idea and also 22. Qf5+ with the idea of answering 22… Ke8 with 23. Nd6 and answering 22… Nf6 with 23. Rd8 Bd8 24. Nf6 Bf6 25. Qd7).  However, a win did not manage to transpire for White, and the game ended shortly afterwards in a perpetual.

 

Undoubtedly, a disappointing first result for Chicago who seemed to have their chances, especially since the way an early win can set the tone for a match.  However, they got exactly what they needed on Board Four as Dallas’s Gerald Roberts played some dubious opening ideas and was quickly punished by Jeremy Kane.

 

In the meantime, Dragon expert, IM Jan van de Mortel had uncorked another surprise on Board One with 17… Rc5!?  IM John Bartholomew weathered this challenge well early on.  Unfortunately, with time pressure hitting and being in a must win situation due to the Board Four result (perhaps the reason he turned down the fairly simple 30. Rh7 Bg7 31. Qxg7+), he blundered with 30. axb4, and the rest was history.  A creative display by Van de Mortel which won him Game of the Week. 

 

With this, Chicago had a match victory in hand, and put an exclamation on it shortly after with IM Mehmed Pasalic scoring a win against FM Keaton Kiewra.  Almost certainly this was the Blaze’s most convincing win in their short history, but unfortunately it wound up being for naught as with Miami’s result on Wednesday, both Dallas and Chicago wound up being eliminated from the playoff picture.

I’m sure I’m not the only one fairly surprised that we won’t be seeing the two-time defending champions Dallas in the Playoffs this year.  But in a league as balanced as the USCL, strange things can happen, and I’m sure this won’t be the last such instance of a fair disparity of a team’s results in consecutive seasons.
 
San Francisco Mechanics (5.0 – 3.0) vs Tennessee Tempo (2.0 – 6.0)


The Tempo's lineup did not include either of their GMs in the lineup, and as a result had the Mechanics entering it with a huge rating advantage.  No matter how many times I say it though, I suppose it needs continual reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted in the USCL.  The Tempo really gave the Mechanics all they could handle, led by a very smooth upset win by David Justice against the previously unbeaten NM Yian Liou.



Luckily for the Mechanics, they managed to make the top two boards hold true to rating form with GM Patrick Wolff using an attractive double Knight fork to gain a winning advantage against IM Ron Burnett, and GM Vinay Bhat strongly outplaying FM Todd Andrews in a sharp Ruy Lopez.

 

 

Combined with FM Daniel Naroditsky’s draw with FM John Bick, the Mechanics still managed a narrow victory, and they continue to threaten to move into the top or second spot in the Western Playoff Picture should the cards fall their way in the final week.
 
Philadelphia Inventors (3.0 – 5.0) vs New Jersey Knockouts (7.0 – 1.0)


Despite the disparity in these two teams records’, the match was rather significant to both, with the Inventors still clawing for the last playoff spot in the East, and the Knockouts looking to secure first place there.  One reason for New Jersey’s stellar record this season is the incredible play of GM Boris Gulko, who moved to 5 – 0 on the season in this match and 8 – 0 lifetime in USCL play.  This quick win coupled with a short draw on the top board definitely helped set the tone for the match.



So the Inventors would need to win on both of the bottom two boards to score a victory.  That definitely seemed possible for much of the game on Board Three with IM Richard Costigan having a nice technical edge against NM Victor Shen, in a classic good Knight vs bad Bishop scenario.  However, on Board Four, New Jersey’s Sean Finn seemed to have the better of the opening against WGM Jennifer Shahade.  But with both players expending the vast majority of their clocks in the opening, it seemed likely that anything might happen once time pressure hit, with the first big blunder likely to decide things.  It ended up playing out that way as after 24… d6?, White pounced with 25. f4!, winning a piece and the game.

 

And with that, New Jersey was guaranteed to move to an incredible 8 – 1 record, though for good measure, NM Shen found a nice counterplay idea after the match result was decided. Even though IM Costigan had been pressing for the whole game, Shen managed to walk his opponent’s King all the way across the board before mating it, giving New Jersey another resounding win, locking up the Eastern Division for them, and almost guaranteeing them the best League record this season.

 

Baltimore Kingfishers (3.5 – 4.5) vs New York Knights (4.0 – 4.0)


Undoubtedly one of the bigger matches of the week, with both teams engaged a fair struggle for their playoff lives.  New York seemed to get off on the right foot everywhere, gaining a definite opening edge on the middle two boards and winning a Pawn on the last board.

After a Board One draw between GMs Sergey Erenburg and Giorgi Kacheishvili, Baltimore fought back valiantly, with Jared Defibaugh finding a nice tactic against NM Yaacov Norowitz on Board Four to turn the advantage to his side, and IM Tegshsuren Enkhbat played some very creative moves to fight back against what seemed to be a dominating position of GM Pascal Charbonneau.  However, first blood was drawn on Board Three with NM Matt Herman playing one of his seemingly patented creative attacking games and finishing with a flourish, giving WGM Sabina Foisor a rude welcome to the League.



Baltimore still seemed to have fair chances to score as despite this loss, Defibaugh looked to hold the better of it against Norowitz along with any result seeming to be possible in the Charbonneau vs Enkhbat game.  But Norowitz managed to liquidate his game into a drawn ending, and after some very creative play, Enkhbat finally blundered in time pressure with 39… Nc3+?, where 39… Qxe6, with the idea of answering 40. Rb3+ with 40… Nb4! still would have left the game very much up in the air.



And with that big win, New York locked up not only their playoff spot but are assured of being in third place and will face their long time archrivals, the Boston Blitz, both in the final week of the regular season and in the Quarterfinals.
 
Boston Blitz (6.0 – 2.0) vs Miami Sharks (4.0 – 3.0)


Despite these two teams being two of the most successful ones in their division, they had not met head to head since the first match of Season Two in 2006. Both being in the thick of various playoff races, this match promised to be a good one.

The early trend seemed to heavily be in favor of Boston, with only Board Two seeming unclear.  The Blitz seemed to have a nice technical edge on the top board, up a clear pawn on three, and winning a piece early on four.  Many Chicago fans whose team needed Miami to lose to keep their playoff chances alive seemed happy with the starting trend, but as usual it never seems to work out that easily.  With both Miami players fighting valiantly on the bottom boards, IM Blas Lugo managed to gain enough counterplay to secure a draw in the ending against WGM Anya Corke, and NM Eric Rodriguez with the help of a dangerous passed pawn managed to win his piece back to also secure a drawn ending against NM Ilya Krasik.

The only game which held true to early form was GM Eugene Perelshteyn’s smooth victory on the top board, capped off by a surprising mate against FM Bruci Lopez.



And in the only game which did not seem to clearly favor either side early on, FM Marcel Martinez slowly wore down SM Denys Shmelov’s main weak spot of b5.  Shmelov valiantly tried to strike back with 42… e5, but Martinez’s cool response of 43. Bc1! and 44. Qf5 won him a Pawn and soon after the game.



With the match ending up drawn, Boston assured themselves of second place and a Quarterfinal matchup (with draw odds) against the New York Knights.  This will be the third time in four years those two teams will have met in the postseason with the Blitz having draw odds (with each side having taken one of the two previous matches).  Meanwhile, Miami managed to assure themselves of a playoff spot as well, but will need a large victory against Arizona in the final week to attempt to get higher than fourth place in the West.
 
Seattle Sluggers (7.0 – 1.0) vs Arizona Scorpions (5.0 – 3.0)


On paper, most everything in this match seemed to favor the Sluggers, as Seattle has been on fire the whole season, and their two strongest performers, GM Hikaru Nakamura and NM Joshua Sinanan both were slated to play in the match, each having a fairly large rating advantage in their respective game.  Combine that with Seattle needing only a drawn match to clinch the division, and the Scorpions desperately needing a win to keep control of their destiny for garnering even second place in the West; Arizona obviously had an unenviable task.

The Scorpions’ best hope had to be in IM Levon Altounian with White taking on FM Slava Mikhailuk on Board Two.  Altounian has a well deserved reputation for being ultra solid, but unfortunately this has seemed to somewhat work against him in the League on a couple of occasions, drawing a couple of games he had to be hoping to win.  But realizing the importance of this match, he made sure there was no danger of that happening here, gaining a big opening edge and converting very smoothly.



Meanwhile, GM Hikaru Nakamura got the better of the opening against GM Alejandro Ramirez, but Ramirez played very creatively with 32… Re4! and even managed to get to a Pawn up position.  But with opposite colored Bishops, the winning chances were small, and the players soon called it a night.



So with Arizona getting exactly what they had to be hoping for on the top two boards, it would come down to Seattle needing at least one win on the bottom two boards to score in the match.  FM Marcel Milat seemed to have the better of a wild Benko against FM Robby Adamson, but the position was extremely unbalanced, and any result was certainly possible.  Meanwhile, NM Joshua Sinanan had been compelled to sacrifice a piece against Amanda Mateer but had a perpetual at his disposal which he wound up declining, probably due to the overall match situation.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about whether that was really the correct decision. Some felt that it would have been wiser to hold the draw and hope for a win on Board Three to tie the match since declining the draw at the time was nearly certain to put him in a losing position and even without a win on three, tiebreak points could well come into play also.  But others felt that with Seattle seeming to have no better than a draw on Board Three that Sinanan had to play on as with Mateer’s semi-open King, certainly there were chances for something strange to happen.  I’ll let you readers decide what was actually correct, but needless to say a draw or loss by him did not end up mattering for the match result as Board Three did indeed draw soon after, and despite Sinanan fighting from every angle that he could, Mateer played smoothly in the ending and finished the game with a surprising mating attack.



And with that, Arizona kept control over second place and kept Seattle sweating as the Scorpions will now pass the Sluggers with a victory in the final week combined with a Sluggers loss (and the Mechanics will almost certainly also pass the Sluggers with a win by them and a Seattle loss).
 
Tune in to the Internet Chess Club on Wednesday night to watch a whopping seven matches. You can also see pairings, games and blogs on uschessleague.com.