Back to the Bay: Josh Friedel on the Northern California International Print E-mail
By GM Josh Friedel   
February 7, 2012
There has been a long-standing tradition of having international tournaments in the East Bay. For the last couple of years, Arun Sharma has picked up the baton and held the 2011 edition at the Berkeley Chess School. That event, which I also wrote about in the "Reincarnation of the Fight Club", was successful by all accounts, resulting in an astonishing seven title norms.  It was also a really fun tournament, and even those who weren't playing their best chess seemed to enjoy themselves.  It's true that soon after the event I packed my bags and moved to Wisconsin, but I assure you this was purely a coincidence. 

I have mostly good memories of the Bay Area, and I was anxious at the chance for a return visit.  This year was a chance for not only a strong tournament, but also a bit of a nostalgia trip, visiting my old haunts and binging on avocados.   

GM Josh Friedel
The 2012 edition of the Northern California International underwent some changes from previous years.  Arun brought in a co-organizer, Ted Castro, and as a result the tournament moved to Ted's NorCal House of Chess. This is about 30 miles south of where it was previously held in Berkeley.  The club is quite spacious.  A large auditorium was used for the playing hall, and it fit all the participants with considerable ease.  There was another room where drinks and snacks were provided, and elsewhere plenty of tables for analysis and couches for lazy people such as myself.  Overall I found the location to be a huge upgrade.  It was a bit more off the beaten track, but there were plenty of shops and restaurants nearby. 

Transportation worked out much more smoothly this year, with only a couple of exceptions.  One was Arun getting a flat tire on the way to the tournament site, though I won't get into which of the people riding in the car actually caused it.  Another was driving around forever finding a place to drop off Payam Tanaka, one of the people assisting with the event, only to end up leaving the poor guy in one of the worst parts of Oakland.  I'm not sure how he fended off the muggers, drug dealers, and other crazies with only a small backpack.  Nevertheless, it is fortunate for us all he was able to, as his assistance in running the event was definitely invaluable.     

This year's field was impressive with 8 GMs, 16 IMs, several FMs and masters, 5 women, and representatives from practically every age group and nationality.  The highest rated player was GM Georg Meier of Germany, sporting an impressive 2671 rating, and one of the key players in Germany's recent European Team victory.  Additionally, there were 2600+ GMs Macieja of Poland and former US Champion Yury Shulman. 

Though a strong field was eventually amassed, there were certainly setbacks, the first of which occurring before the tournament even began.  Originally the event was set to be a super-Swiss, meaning it would contain over 20 foreign participants, enabling anyone with a high enough performance to get norms without worrying about having to play a certain number of foreign federations.  Arun had 25 pre-registered, yet an astounding 6 of them dropped out just before the start of the event, and one person's federation changed to US.  This was quite an unfortunate occurrence, as it left basically no time to find replacement players.  While I understand that sometimes people have last minute issues that come up before a tournament, this is an insane number, and it is no small wonder that so few people step up to organize events like this.  Apart from that the event ran smoothly. 

GM Sam Shankland and Ted Castro
GM Sam Shankland won clear first with an undefeated 7/9.  This victory was not only impressive, it seemed almost effortless.  His wins seemed to come easily, his draws were pretty solid affairs. I don't think he was in any kind of real trouble for even one move throughout the event.  This is a rare feat, especially in a field with so many strong players.  Sam has certainly shown himself to be a capable player, defeating Super-GM Peter Leko in the latest world cup, and has been steadily gaining rating with every tournament.  This win has to be one of his best yet, however, and I'm certain there will be more to come.  Here are a couple of Sam's best games from the event, annotated by the man himself.   

Shankland,Sam (2565) - Bryant,John (2401) [A61]
Northern California International, 03.01.2012

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.Bf4 a6 8.a4 Bg7 9.h3 0-0 10.e3 Qe7 11.Be2 Nbd7 12.0-0 Ne8 13.Qb3

I had this position against Peter Leko as well.
This looks like an improvement over Leko's h6, although I still like white's position.
14.Nd2 Ne5
14...g5 I think this was more in the spirit of the position. 15.Bh2 f5 16.Nc4 f4 Black shuts down the h2 bishop, which is often a problem piece for him in this line, but the positional concessions he makes are clear. The position is unclear.
15.a5 f5 16.Bh2
I like this move- now black is unable to play g5 and f4 because I will meet g5 with f4 myself.

16...g5 17.f4
17.Na4 The most natural move, intending Nb6, meets a shocking respite: 17...Nxd5! 18.Bxe5 (18.Qxd5 Be6 The queen is embarrassed in the middle of the board, not a usual sight) 18...dxe5 19.Qxd5 Rd8 20.Qxc5 Qxc5 21.Nxc5 Rxd2 22.Rfd1 Rxd1+ 23.Rxd1 Bf6 white has some nominal edge but black will hold with accurate play. I was feeling a bit more ambitious than this
17...Rb8 18.Bf1!

White prepares for f4 and e4, activating his pieces and opening the center while black is still underdeveloped.
18...Bd7 19.Kh1?!
19.f4 Nf7 20.e4 This was a better option. 20...Bd4+ 21.Kh1 Qf6 This line bothered me, but my computer seems to think I am a moron. I won't comment on whether it is right about the latter, but the former is definitely true 22.e5! dxe5 23.fxe5 Nxe5 24.Qb6 I missed this move, which wins instantly.
19...Qd8 20.f4
I decided the time had come, but this would have been more effective last move.
20...Nf7 21.e4 fxe4 22.Ndxe4 b6

Now black gets some counterplay.
23.axb6 Nb5 24.Na4?!
I had an interesting plan with this move, but it was not quite as effective as I initially thought [24.Rxa6 This was probably a better move 24...Nd4 25.Qd1 Rxb6 26.Ra2 Qb8 27.Qc1 Black has some play, but not enough for equality]
24...Nd4 25.Qd1 Bxa4

25...Bb5!? The author of the article suggested this move, and it does have some merit to it- but still, I find it hard to believe black can leave the pawn alive on b6 for too long. In any case, it may have been the lesser of 2 evils 26.Nec3 Eventually the b6 pawn may win the game, but black has some counterplay in the short run.

26...Qxb6! 27.b4 This was the move I was counting on 27...cxb4 28.Bg1 I thought black was way too tied up here- the knight on d4 is pinned, the pin cannot be broken, b3 will never be possible because d4 will hang, and I can simply put another attacker on d4. But things are not as easy as they seem. 28...a5 29.Ng3 (29.Nd2 This was my original plan and I thought it was immediately winning, but I forgot that it breaks my queen's contact with d4, and now black can simply retreat the queen. Oops!) 29...Rbc8 30.f5!? Houdini move, makes no sense to me but the computer is very insistent. It smacked me when we sparred. Objectively it looks like white is much better, but this is much easier to say in the comfort of my favorite chair with an engine running and no time constraints than an over the board game with time trouble approaching.

Now black is in trouble.
Black had to take the bait 27...Rxb2! 28.Rxd4! Playing for mate 28...cxd4 29.Bxd4 Qa5 I must confess I overlooked this move, which gives black some saving chances, but he will still suffer for awhile (29...Rg8 30.Bxb2 Bxb2 31.Bxa6; 29...Rb4 30.Bxg7+ Kxg7 31.Qa1+ Kh6 32.g4 g5 33.Ng3) 30.Bxb2 (30.Bxg7+ Kxg7 31.Qd4+ Ne5 Every black piece is hanging but somehow he is alive- computers these days can really be annoying.) 30...Bxb2 31.Kh2 I'd prefer white because of the bad knight on f7 and loosened black kingside, but black has very good chances to hold on.
28.g4 Ne7 29.b4! Rxb4 30.Rxb4 cxb4 31.Bd4 Rg8 32.Bxa6
White's pieces coordinate beautifully while the black knights gasp for air and the black rook is stuck defending Bxg7.
32...Qa8 33.Bc4 Rc8

Loses immediately, but black was more or less in stalemate- finding another move was not easy!
34.Bxg7+ Kxg7 35.Qd4+ Kf8

My killer instinct needs some training...36.Ng5! wins immediately 36...Rxc4 (36...Nxg5 37.Qf6+ Nf7 38.Rxe7) 37.Ne6+ Ke8 38.Qxc4+-; 36.Nxd6 is also completely winning.
36...Qa3! 37.Nxh7+ Ke8?
37...Kg8 38.Nf6+ Kf8 39.Kg2 Qc3 40.Qxc3 bxc3 41.Bd3± White should win this endgame, but I was not too happy about allowing black to get this far.
38.Bb5+ Kd8 39.Ng5 Nxg5 40.Qb6+
Rc7 Qb8 with mate on the next move 1-0

Shankland,Sam (2565) - Meier,Georg (2671) [E20]
Northern California International (7), 06.01.2012

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3 c5 5.g3

I think this was a good opening choice given my situation: in general I feel black's best options against the Nf3 Nimzo lead to slightly worse positions where he can hold with accurate play, and sitting in clear first and playing against the strongest player in the event I was hoping not to take too many risks.
5...cxd4 6.Nxd4 Ne4 7.Bd2 Bxc3?!
I'm not sure about this move. More normal would be Nxd2 when 7...Nxd2 8.Qxd2 Nc6 9.Bg2 Qb6 transposes back to one of the main lines. Black's results here have been entirely adequate.
8.Bxc3 Nxc3 9.bxc3 a6?!
9...Qa5 Black should probably play this move to prevent Qa4, but I still am a bit skeptical about his position because of white's lead in development. 10.Qb3 a6 (10...Nc6 11.Nb5) 11.Bg2 Nc6 I would be a little more comfortable with white but the battle continues.
10.Bg2 Qc7
10...Qa5 Now this is less effective, but it was probably still a better move 11.Qd3.
11.Qa4 Nc6

11...0-0 12.0-0 d6 13.Nb5 axb5 14.Qxa8 bxc4 would lead to a similar position to the game, but a much improved version for black. Even still, I don't believe he has sufficient compensation for the exchange.

12.0-0? Would be a bit careless 12...Na5 if black can collect the c4 pawn he will solve all of his problems, and after d5 suddenly it will be white's pieces that look ineffective.

12...Qa5 I think this was black's best chance, although the position remains unpleasant. 13.Qc4 (13.Qxa5 The computer's move looks less logical to me. 13...Nxa5 14.Nb3 Nc4 15.Nd2 Nxd2 16.Kxd2 Ke7= The black king in the center holds the fort down, and he can prepare Rd8 and d6. White's advantage is only symbolic.) 13...Ne5 14.Qb4 Qxb4 15.cxb4 Nc6 16.Nc2 White has some pressure.(16.Bxc6!? Was also interesting, aiming for a good knight on the dark squares and pressure on the black queenside. 16...dxc6 17.Nb3 e5 18.Na5)
13.0-0 Ne7 14.Qa3 Rd8?

The last mistake. 14...Rb8 preventing Nb5 was critical, although white still is much better because he can put pressure along the b and d files while black will struggle to develop the light squared bishop.
15.Nb5! axb5
15...Qb8 16.Nd6+- Black is completely paralyzed; 15...Qe5 16.Qa5! Rf8 17.Nc7 Rb8 18.Qb6 Again with a complete paralysis 18...Nc6 (18...Qxe2 19.Qa7) 19.Rad1
16.Qxa8 Qxc5 17.Bxb7 Nf5 18.Qa5 Rf8 19.Bf3

19.Bxc8 White can probably win here too, but I thought it was unnecessary to give fortress chances. 19...Rxc8 20.a4 bxa4 21.Qxc5 Rxc5 22.Rxa4 g5 If black can comfortably set up d5 and Nd6, he may have some chances to hold the game.
19...d5 20.e4

Opening lines for the White pieces!
20...dxe4 21.Bxe4 Nd6
21...Ne3 I only saw this move after I had played e4, but after a moment's concern I realized white can handle it: 22.Rfb1! (22.fxe3? Qxe3+ 23.Rf2 Qxe4; 22.Rfe1 Ng4 23.Re2 Qh5 24.h4 Nf6 With unnecessary complications) 22...Ng4 23.Rb2 Bd7 (23...Qh5 24.h4) 24.Rd1 Nf6 25.Bg2+-
Care must always be taken- Bf3 looked more natural to me at first glance, but it has a problem... 22.Bf3 Nc4 23.Qb4 Qxb4 24.cxb4 Nd2 and black gets some saving chances
22...e5 23.Qb4 Qxb4 24.cxb4 Be6 25.a4 bxa4 26.Rxa4 e4 27.Ra6 Nb5 28.Bxe4 Nc3 29.Re1
Although Meier did not play nearly as well as I know he is capable of, I was still pretty happy with this game. 1-0




Marc Arnold, Greg Shahade, and Sam Collins all could have achieved GM Norms with last round victories, but unfortunately none could get it done.  Marc in particular had a very strong tournament with 6.5/9, just shy of a GM norm performance.  Here is his flashy win against GM Axel Bachmann. 


13-year-old Kayden Troff scored 5.5 with an insane performance rating of 2529.  The following is one of his strong games.


Tatev Abrahamyan also finished with 5.5 and a 2492 performance, which would have netted her an IM norm had she met the foreign requirement.  Here Tatev annotates a win as Black in her beloved French Defense.

Rensch,Daniel - Abrahamyan,Tatev [C18]
Northern California International (4), 04.01.2012

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.Qg4 0-0 8.Bd3 Nbc6 9.Bg5

Not the most common move. Danny chose the main line 9.Qh5 Ng6 10.Nf3 Qc7 11.Be3 in our last game, so I was expecting it.
9...Qa5 10.Ne2 Qa4

Another less popular move. Our last game went 10...Ng6 11.0-0 c4 12.Bxg6 fxg6 13.a4 Bd7 14.f3 Rf7 15.h4 and Danny played flawlessly and won a beautiful game. This time I got a little help with my preparation from another fan of this positions, my friend Alejandro Ramirez.
11.0-0 b6
11...Nxe5 12.Bxh7+ Kxh7 13.Qh5+ Kg8 14.Bxe7 Re8 15.dxe5 Rxe7 has been played before, but I think black's king is a little vulnerable.
12.Ng3 Ng6 13.Qe2 c4 14.Bxg6 fxg6

If White's idea is to protect the c2 pawn and attack the black king with h4-h5, I think Ra2 makes more sense. however, I think black is perfectly fine here. Bd7-e8 is an easy maneuver to protect the king if needed.
15...Bd7 16.h4 Rf7 17.h5 gxh5 18.Nxh5 Ne7
Not necessary. Raf8 is more logical, developing the last piece.
19.Bxe7 Rxe7 20.Qd2 h6
I like this move because I found the move Qg5 annoying. Also, it opens up a square for my bishop after Be8-g6.
21.Nf4 Rf7 22.Qe3

White could have played Qe3 on move 20. This is just a loss of tempo.
22...Rf5 23.f3 Raf8 24.Ng6 R8f7 25.Kf2
White could have won an exchange with 25.f4 Kh7 26.g4 Kxg6 27.gxf5+ Rxf5 but black should have enough compensation due to white's bad king and the awkward pieces, especially the rook on c1. 25...Be8 26.Qd2 Kh7 27.Nh4 Rh5

The wrong move order. White should start with 28.g3 Rf8 29.Rh1 g5 30.Ng2 Bg6 but still black has a very nice position, with the bad French bishop ironically becoming the strongest piece on the board.
Now the knight is trapped. The rest is pretty straightforward.
29.g3 gxh4 30.g4 Rg5 31.Rxh4 Rfg7 32.Rah1 h5 33.R1h2 Qxa3 34.Kg3 Qf8 35.Qd1 Kg8 36.Qc1 a5 37.R2h3 a4 38.Kh2 a3 39.Rg3 a2 40.Qb2 hxg4 



The only person to actually score a norm performance while meeting the foreign requirement was FM Faik Aleskerov, who captured his final IM Norm with a performance of 2497.  Faik has a wild, entertaining style of play that is showcased in the following game.


There was a brilliancy prize in this year's event, the winner getting a brand new ipad 2.  It was won by IM Larry Remlinger for the following sacrificial victory.


Here are some of the more interesting and crucial games from the event.  Enjoy!




I hope the East Bay International tradition lives on, and if so I will certainly be back!

Find more details on the event, including games and final standings.