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Ask GM Joel
By Joel Benjamin   
September 11, 2007
Dear Joel,
I'm so glad you joined the U.S. Chess League to head up the New Jersey knockouts. You tried the Open Sicilian against Stripunsky...don't you usually try offbeat lines against the Sicilian? Why did you choose the Open Sicilian in this particular game, and what did you think of the position you got? Also, do you employ different strategies or even openings when playing for a team than when playing for yourself? Sometimes, I find that playing for a team can make me play better, but I also worry more about losing and blundering, which can tighten me up a bit.



It was actually my idea to form a team in New Jersey, and with exemplary organizational work by Michael Khodarkovsky, a great playing site provided by our match arbiter Mike Sommers, an informative and entertaining blog by our team writer Rob Bernard, and generous support from the NJCF, everything has come together beautifully.

I may be known for offbeat lines against the Sicilian, but do a database search and you will find I’ve played plenty of Open Sicilians (I turned up 90 games, and that’s far from comprehensive). Move order is a major determinant; 2…d6, 2…Nc6, and 2…e6 seek different Sicilians and allow different anti-Sicilian treatments. The opponent is a factor as well. An unknown opponent may surprise me with a Sicilian I’m not well prepared against. I have played Stripunsky a number of times and tested many different opening lines against him, but he is too familiar to hit me with a big surprise in the opening.


I managed to obtain a big opening advantage but played indifferently after that. I was very unhappy with 15.Bf3?! That move just made it harder to press forward with f4-f5—which incidentally, would have been stronger right away, e.g. 15.f5 exf5 16.Nd5 Rb8 17.exf5 Bxf5 18.Bxa6.

I underestimated the strength of 14…Qc5, which kept me tied up for the next few moves. In the middle of building momentum (26…d5! intending Nf7-d6 would have maintained an advantage) Stripunsky surprisingly lost the thread over the next few moves and dropped an exchange. After that, the win was easy for me. The 30-second increment insured time pressure would not be a serious factor.

Everyone wants to put their best foot forward in team matches. I think players should play in the style that works best for themselves; it will probably be best for the team. One time I missed a beautiful finish to a match game (vs. Xu Jun, U.S.-China 2001) because I didn’t want to take a chance on a line I couldn’t quite see to the end. It turned out the move I rejected won easily, while the “safe” move I chose forced me to toil another two hours for the victory.

Nerves can be an important factor in team matches. I think this match turned on the husband/wife team of Stripunsky and Julia Shiber. Both had excellent positions but produced just a half-point. Probably they were a bit distracted thinking about/watching each other's games! Ironically, a similar situation with Pascal Charbonneau and Irina Krush doomed the New York Knights in the first round as well.