Knockouts, Knights, Sharks and Mechanics Advance in USCL Playoffs
By Arun Sharma   
November 15, 2009
The Quarterfinals of the 2009 Season of the US Chess League are complete and as usual there was plenty of great action to go along with it. Update: New York and Miami advance to the USCL finals. Look for Arun's CLO wrap-up soon.
 
New York Knights (5.0 – 5.0) vs Boston Blitz (7.5 – 2.5)


The Knights and the Blitz have what's probably the oldest rivalry in the USCL. This match, the third time in the last four seasons where the two teams met in the post-season would add a dramatic new chapter. Like their previous playoff battles, the Blitz had draw odds.  However, New York had the valuable commodity of now 2400+ Yaacov Norowitz on Board Four. (!) Many were predicting an upset here.  The match seemed to start out in that direction, with New York getting great games on Boards One and Four. Board Two went back and forth, while Board Three looked headed towards a fairly tame draw. 

But then, the fireworks began, starting with Board Four.  After a typical opening, it seemed destined to go to a dry middlegame with White trying to take advantage of Black’s isolated Queen Pawn. Norowitz offered the d-pawn as a sacrifice.  Never one to shy away from complications, NM Ilya Krasik snatched it.  Norowitz seemed to achieve exactly what he was hoping for, forcing Krasik to keep his King in the center.  However, Norowitz could not seem to find the knockout blow and eventually Krasik decided to take a page from his opponent’s book, sacrificing two (!) pawns to take over the initiative himself.  Krasik had one great chance to win the game:

Krasik.jpg
White to Move and win


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Instead after 32. Bf5, Norowitz got his sacrificed piece back, and the game ended in a draw via perpetual.


 
Meanwhile the Board Three encounter, with NM Matt Herman taking NM Vadim Martirosov was on course for a draw in an even endgame, with the only truly salient point of the game occurring in this position where both players missed an incredible shot.

Martirosov.jpg
Black to Move and win

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Instead after the natural 29…  Qd4, the game petered out into a fairly even looking ending.  Boston desperately needed a win given the situation on the top boards, and Martirosov rose to the occasion, playing the endgame very well to bring home the full point.



Since Boston had draw odds, New York would need to prevail on both of the top two boards to advance.  They looked poised to get halfway there on the top board with GM Giorgi Kacheishvili playing a very smooth game against GM Larry Christiansen, who just could not seem to develop sufficient counterplay to defuse Kacheishvili’s continued slow build up.  But in time pressure, complications developed and with both players only having about a minute left, the following position arose:

Kacheishvili1.jpg
White to Move and win


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Unfortunately, Kacheishvili instead continued with the natural looking 47. Qd4, the only real blot on his play in this fine game, where play then continued 47… Kh7 48. Rxg6 Rg8!, and suddenly matters were much more unclear.  After 49. f5 we then had:

Kacheishvili2.jpg
Black to Move

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GM Kacheishvili on the cover of Chess Life earlier this year
But with both players in severe time pressure, what actually would have happened had Christiansen found this powerful resource is anyone’s guess!

Instead after 50… Qc1?, the simple 50. Ra7!, soon forced liquidation into an ending that Kacheishvili had no trouble converting with his extra pawns.  A very exciting game, which ended up winning Kacheisvhili Game of the Week.

And so with that, it would come down to Board Two, with Boston’s probable best performer this season, GM Eugene Perelshteyn, taking on the Blitz’s longtime heartbreaker, GM Pascal Charbonneau, with Charbonneau needing a win to send New York to the Semifinals.

This was a fairly back and forth game, with it seeming fairly unclear for much of it as to who was actually better.  Charbonneau seemed to get the better of the opening with Perelshteyn sacrificing a Pawn for somewhat dubious compensation.  However, Perelshteyn nicely created counterplay here:

Charbonneau1.jpg
White to Move

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Rather than try to save his Knight and defend a tough position after Qxh7, Charbonneau made the natural decision to return the piece with 19… Kg8, and after that, the game seemed very unclear.

Charbonneau eventually got the better of the middlegame, sacrificing a couple of pawns to gain a powerful passed Pawn along with tying Perelshteyn up a bit.  Using a nice pin, Charbonneau managed to liquidate into this endgame position

Charbonneau2.jpg
Position after 39.Kf2


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Instead after 39… b2? 40. Bf5 Bf7 41. Bb1 Bg6 42. Ba2 b1 43. Bxb1, to win the endgame for Black was far from easy.  But Charbonneau showed excellent technique and reeled in the full point, advancing New York to the Semifinals.


 
New Jersey Knockouts (8.0 – 2.0) vs Baltimore Kingfishers (4.5 – 5.5)


The playoff battle between two teams with the best and worst records didn’t  have many predicting an upset here, especially with New Jersey having draw odds.  But with Baltimore’s top board, GM Sergey Erenburg, having swept GM Joel Benjamin in two games in the 2008 season, along with Kingfisher veteran, WIM Tsagaan Battsetseg having a fair rating edge and the White pieces on Board Four, I’m sure New Jersey was not resting on their laurels.

The first game to finish was a fairly uneventful draw between IMs Tegshsuren Enkhbat and Dean Ippolito on Board Two.  A solid result for Ippolito, but likely a disappointment to Baltimore, as when facing draw odds, an early draw, especially with the White pieces, puts that much more pressure on everyone else.



In the meantime, the other three boards all seemed fairly double edged, with three results looking possible on all  boards.  New Jersey got a great boost though when Sean Finn found a nice idea against Battsetseg.

Finn1.jpg
Black to Move


Finn played the strong 24…  Rxa4!, forcing 25. bxa4 where followed 25… Nb6 26. Qb3 Rb7 27. R4c2 Bd4+, at which point the chances are probably still fairly even after 28. Kh1.  However, the old nemesis of time pressure struck again and 28. Be3? was instead played leading us to:

Finn2.jpg
Black to Move and Win


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Finn had little trouble converting.



Finn.JPG
Sean Finn of the New Jersey Knockouts, Photo Robert N. Bernard


So with the Knockouts leading 1.5 – 0.5, Baltimore would need to win both Boards One and Three to advance.  FM Shinsaku Uesugi seemed to have some minor chances to do that, getting the better of the middlegame against SM Mackenzie Molner via a typical idea in this system.

Uesugi.jpg
Black to Move

Here Uesugi broke open the Queenside with the typical 21… a4!,  before Molner could get anything going on the Kingside.  Eventually Uesugi won a Pawn, but with a dreaded opposite Bishops ending eventually arising, converting it was going to be anything but trivial, and indeed Molner made an easy draw, clinching the match for New Jersey.



Meanwhile, GMs Joel Benjamin and Sergey Erenburg were engaged in a very interesting struggle.

Benjamin.jpg
White to Move


Benjamin played the bold 8. g4!, bringing about some very exciting play.  Not one to fear complications, Erenburg accepted the challenge well, creating his own share of counter chances.  But neither side gained much of an edge, and seeing Finn on the verge of winning at the time, Benjamin wisely traded Queens into a tame ending, even though keeping them on likely would have given him better chances. 

Erenburg continued to fight but was eventually faced with the ugly choice of taking a perpetual or embarking on a very risky looking King walk to avoid it.  Needing to win for the team to have any chance at the time, Erenburg took up the challenge,  the mating threats against his King soon cost him a piece and then the game.



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GM Joel Benjamin, Photo Robert N. Bernard
And with that 3 – 1 victory, the Knockouts moved onto the Semifinals to face the New York Knights where they once again will have draw odds, afforded them by their excellent regular season.
 

 
Miami Sharks (6.0 – 4.0) vs Seattle Sluggers (7.5 – 2.5)


On paper, everything in this match looked to favor the Sluggers: draw odds,  a large overall rating advantage, their two best performers this season, GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Gregory Serper on boards one and two.  Seattle was the only team of four which when granted color choice for the Quarterfinals wound up taking Black on Boards One and Three – not a surprising decision when having the highest rated player and League MVP, Nakamura, on the top board, but nevertheless an audacious thing to do, knowing how dangerous Miami’s GM Julio Becerra tends to be with the White pieces.

Even the very early portion of the match looked to be trending Seattle’s way, with IM Blas Lugo having transportation issues and ending up showing fifty (!) minutes late for his Board Two game (in a game with time control seventy five minutes).  Unfortunately for Seattle, that ended up being almost the only thing to go their way in this match.

On the top board, Nakamura essayed a somewhat offbeat line in a Sicilian but looking to be treading just fine as after the well known 9… Be6, both sides have good play.  Instead, Nakamura tried 9… Qe7?, where after 10. Bg5 f6 11. O-O-O! dxe5 12. Rhe1!, we reached the following position.

Becerra.jpg
Black to Move


Black is already lost and simply resigned in this position. The threat of Nxe5 followed by Rxe5 with either Qd8 or Qf7 mate in the cards leaves Black no satisfactory defense.  One of the most shocking results in USCL history.



Meanwhile, IM Alejandro Moreno Roman developed a strong opening advantage against FM Michael Lee, winning a clear pawn and seeming to have a better position.  Lee fought valiantly, eventually managing to scrape his way into a Pawn down ending where he seemed to have real drawing chances.  But despite temporarily giving the Pawn back, Moreno Roman found a nice idea to regain it and eventually win a second Pawn with Lee’s wayward Knight away from the action.

MorenoRoman.jpg
White to Move


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And with that, Miami was suddenly up 2 – 0, meaning Seattle would need to win both Boards Two and Four to advance.  They seemed to have their chances on Board Two, with Serper attempting his usual tactic of slowly grinding his opponent down from a slightly better position.  Lugo did not capitulate easily in the ending though, fighting very well despite his huge early time deficit.  Eventually the game liquidated into a drawn Knight and Pawn ending. Needing a win, Serper went all out to create complications and eventually wound up losing.



The Board Four encounter between NMs Howard Chen and Miami’s best performer this season, NM Eric Rodriguez, was a mostly uneventful affair.  Like Serper though, Chen was in a must win position and also fought every way he could to create chances. He also gave his opponent the advantage near the end.  Rodriguez won a Pawn and may have had chances to win the endgame, but it liquidated to a draw, a very satisfactory result for the Sharks given the other results at the time.



And so the Miami Sharks wound up shellacking the powerful division winners, the Seattle Sluggers, by a 3.5 – 0.5 score.  They will have to perform a similar act in the Semifinals though to make it to the Championship, having to face off against San Francisco, with the Mechanics once again having draw odds.  But history is definitely on the Sharks’ side in that match, as in both 2005 and 2007, Miami faced San Francisco in the Playoffs, both times the Mechanics having draw odds, and yet the Sharks prevailed 2.5 – 1.5 in each encounter.  Will this meeting be third time’s the charm for the Mechanics or a nice three-peat for the Sharks?  That question will be answered on Monday  at 8:30 PM EST.
 
Arizona Scorpions (6.0 – 4.0) vs San Francisco Mechanics (6.5 – 3.5)

The Mechanics had draw odds in this match, but that was  not much comfort for them as three of their four seasons, they have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs despite having draw odds each time.  The Scorpions had to be happy to be in the postseason after the narrowest of misses last year, but a tough defeat in the final week of the regular season saw them facing draw odds in this match instead of possessing them.

The early trend definitely looked to favor San Francisco, with Boards One, Three, and Four all looking fairly even while GM Vinay Bhat on Two seemed to quickly gain a winning position against IM-elect Daniel Rensch.  Bhat may have missed a chance to quickly close the game out in this position.

Bhat1.jpg
White to Move


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Even though Bhat’s 18. f4 seemed to be less effective, he still took control and gained a winning advantage.  However, in what seems to be a common occurrence in the USCL, an endgame that looked to be trivially winning for him somehow managed to become far from easy and then suddenly seemed to be losing.  One key moment was:

Bhat2.jpg
White to Move


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Instead, after 46. g4? d3 47. b3, suddenly it seemed like Black might be winning!

Bhat3.jpg
Black to Move


Here, the natural 47…  Kd4!, seems to be winning for Black as the natural continuation of 48. bxc4 b3 49. Kc1 Ke3!, makes it impossible for White to stop all three Black Pawns, with his own Pawns being too slow.  However, GM Robert Hess suggested 48. Bg2!, where the possibility of Bf1 in many lines makes Black’s task much trickier as 48… cxb3 fails to 49. Bf1, and one interesting drawing line after 48… c3+ is: 49. Kd1 f3 50. Bf1 Ke3 51. g5 c2+ 52. Kc1 d2+ 53. Kxc2 Kf2 54. Kxd2 Kxf1 55. h5, and when Black steps his King away to Queen his f-pawn, it enables White to Queen with check ensuring a draw!  But in line with the cleverness of 48. Bg2!, Black has an equally clever thwart

Bhat4.jpg
Black to Move


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(PS:  Thanks to those like GMs Friedel, Bhat, and Hess whose analysis I had to steal in order to try to properly comment on this game!).
 
Unfortunately, in time pressure, IM Rensch tried 47… cxb3??, after which 48. Kxd3 is easily winning for White as he merely sacs his Bishop for Black’s f pawn while Queening one of his Kingside pawns.


 
With San Francisco looking headed for victory on Board Two for the vast majority of that game, Arizona would desperately need wins elsewhere to have any chance to advance.  GM Alejandro Ramirez though could never seem to gain more than the tiniest of edges against GM Patrick Wolff on the top board, and the game uneventfully petered out into a draw.



Meanwhile on Board Three, FM Robby Adamson seemed to be locked up in a fairly even struggle with FM Daniel Naroditsky after an early Queen trade.  Needing to win though, Adamson took some fair risks, but Naroditsky did not waiver, playing very smoothly, and eventually showcasing the power of the two Bishops in a convincing manner; a very strong performance by the young FM.



yian.JPG
Yian Liou of the Mechanics

Board Four, like Board One, seemed very uneventful for the most of the game, with neither side ever seeming to manage more than the smallest of edges.  As in other cases though, NM Leo Martinez desperately had to try to win for his team and fought in every way he could, but NM Yian Liou also played very smoothly, eventually winning a Pawn and then using a nice tactic to score a victory.

Liou.jpg
White to Move and Win


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With that the Mechanics wound up with a fairly lopsided victory and will go on to face their old playoff nemesis, Miami, in the Semifinals.  
 
Tune into the ICC on Monday at 8:30 PM EST for the San Francisco vs. Miami Semifinal and on Wednesday 7:00 PM EST for the New Jersey vs. New York Semifinal.  Lineups are already up for the former match and will be up for the latter match on Sunday night.