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US Amateur Team West: Ted Talks, Luke Annotates Print E-mail
By Ted Castro and Luke Harmon-Vellotti   
February 21, 2014
Salman Azhar with Luke Harmon-Vellotti
Nor Cal House of Chess repeated as champions at the US Amateur Team West, held from February 15-17  in Santa Clara, California. Ted Castro talks about team selection strategy and the experience. Also find annotations from UCLA student Luke Harmon-Vellotti, who posted his all-time best performance rating in this event, of 2786.   

The Nor Cal Path to Back to Back Victory

By Ted Castro

This year, I was torn between fielding a balanced team & a stacked up one. My solution was easy, why not form two teams?   I registered the second team a week before so people would think that's just what we have. Then to everyone's surprise, we registered onsite for Team A. They didn't see it coming. I figured, that would give us a psychological edge.

After 5 rounds, Team A (named NorCal House of Chess - National Champions) won all its matches. Although it wasn't a walk in the park. The pressure to win all their games or maybe draw one landed on the shoulders of our veteran coaches/players on boards 1 thru 3. We didn't expect much from our Board 4 but we had faith in him. Shafieen actually played beyond expectations (2.0/6.0). Most importantly, he played it really well on round 5 (against a 1975) when it counted the most. He lost but almost drew that game.

 Interestingly on round 4 we figured it would be an easy match against NO-HUNTER-HERE but then their board 1 played really well and drew with GM Sevillano. On board 2, IM De Guzman also had a drawish position against Jack Zhu. Our board 3 was losing - he was down by 2 pawns in the endgame and was low in time. At this point, the score was 0.5-1.5.

Nor Cal House of Chess with USCF President Ruth Haring

After 5 hours or so, Ricardo grinded it out and did a Carlsenesque type of endgame and won! Like a ripple-effect, FM Cusi also pulled a rabbit out of his hat and magically won a losing game. In round 5, we figured this was the crucial match against UCLA (Undercover LLamas). Only 2 teams had perfect score. This game went down the wire - score was 1.5-1.5 and we were only waiting for Ricardo's game to finish. He had another drawn position but pulled another Carlsen move and converted it into a win after playing for more than 5 hours.

Despite a final round loss leading to a five-way tie for first, our tie-breaks were the best, securing us the seat to the playoffs. In tiebreak order, the other four teams were: Undercover Llamas (led by Luke Harmon-Vellotti), Abusment Park, Bay Area Berkeley United and NoHunterHere. See full results here.

I'm not sure if any West Coast Team has ever won it back-to-back. We're all excited to be back in the playoffs for our quest to win the National Title two years in a row. I heard, according to Peter Tamburro, there was only one team from East Coast who managed to do it. "In 1975 and 1976, the Garden State Chess Association Four (Ken Regan, John Fedorowicz, Tyler Cowen and Ed Babinski the first year and Michael Wilder the seond year, did it."  And then I found out, the team that we beat in the Finals last year, Princeton University A also won USAT-E! It's just fitting that we play the best of the best.
If you look at our group picture during the award ceremony, all of us were wearing white hoodies - "NorCal House of Chess 2013 National Champions -- US Team West Champions 2013 & 2014." Everyone was asking when we had it made. I told them, "We had this made the moment we registered our team!"



A "Vellotti Moment"
By Luke-Harmon Vellotti

The tournament was great fun for me! I have been running a free 2-hr training class each week for UCLA students since the fall  quarter, and I was finding lots of talented players. My team mates Vincent Huang and Julian Lin had always loved chess, but they had not played or trained seriously for a while. But we all just came together and decided to play in this event as UCLA Team and luckily the rating average was a good one at 2193, with my brother, Carl on board 4. All of us put serious effort into representing our school well, and I think it showed with our result. We had fun throughout the weekend, and I enjoyed playing some younger students in time odds blitz games whenever they would challenge me. I ended with 5.5 out of 6 and my all time best performance rating of 2786.
UCLA team "Undercover Llamas" strike a pose

Harmon said of this exciting game: "I spent a long time considering 14. Nd5. Brian Wall calls this a "Vellotti moment", when I start calculating a series of advantageous moves."  

Harmon-Vellotti,Luke (2496) - Wheeler,Cameron (2338) [C13]
2014 US Amateur Team West (4), 16.02.2014

My team, the UnderCover Llamas, was playing a team of all juniors named Bay Area United. I was board 1 for the team, and was playing Cameron Wheeler, a strong junior from the Bay Area. 
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4
In all the games that I could find in the database, he had only played Be7 before, so I was surprised by this.
5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6

The other main line is 6...Bxf6, where both sides castle on opposite sides. 

7.Nf3 f5 8.Nc3 a6
I had only seen b6 before, so this was a new move for me. I knew white's plan was to play d5 and try to break open black's kingside pawn structure, so I played my next couple of moves with this plan in mind.
9.Qd2 b5 10.0-0-0 Bb7 11.Qe3
Now, black doesn't have any easy way to stop d5 without making any concessions. 
Playing 11...b4 allows me to take advantage the now weak a4 square with 12.Na4 , after which I will play Nc5 with a small advantage, This would have been better than what happened, however.; 11...c6 is the only other way of stopping d5, but now Black's bishop on b7 is terrible as all of his pawns are on light-squares, so I just have good position. One potential plan for me is 12.Ne2 followed by Nf4 and c4, after which he must either take, weakening his queenside, or allow me to play c5, which would bury his bishop on b7.
12.d5 b4 13.dxe6 Qxe6 14.Nd5!

Here white faces a dilemma. White would like to play 14.Ne2 , but that would hang the a-pawn to  14...Qxa2 . On the other hand, if white trades queens, then after black recaptures, his queenside pawn-structure will be fixed. I found a solution in the form of the game move, 14. Nd5!

14...Bxd5 15.Qd4
Now, I am forking his bishop and rook, and so will win one of them, leaving me with a better position dues to his weak kingside pawns. 
15...0-0 16.Qxd5 Qh6+
I know face the most important decision of the game: to play Kb1 or to block on d2? Playing Kb1 will allow him to win my queen for bishop and rook, while blocking on d2 would place one of my pieces into a somewhat unpleasant pin.

If 17.Qd2 then after 17...Qg7 black could get threats against whites queenside by playing Bf6, and it is hard for white to come up with something concrete. I chose Kb1, therefore, because I thought that after the queen sacrifice, although I would technically be down material, my pieces are all so active and well coordinated, his pieces are still trapped on the queenside, and his king would be so exposed that I would easily have enough compensation for the sacrificed queen.

17...Rd8 18.Qxd8+ Bxd8 19.Rxd8+ Kg7 20.Bc4
It is hard for black to find a constructive move here. There is no easy way for his pieces to break out of the queenside, and I will just continue to develop.
His best chance was  20...Qf4 when it is hard for me to keep my bishop on the a2-g8 diagonal. After 21.Bd5 c6 22.Bxc6 he has  22...Qc7! I would therefore have been forced to play Bd3 after Qf4, when he still he no easy way of extracting his pieces from the queenside.
If  21.Bd5 he has 21...Qf6 22.Rc8 c6 23.Bxc6 Qe6! when Black is fine.
21...Qe4 22.Bd5 Qd4?
His best chance was to trade off my active knight with 22...Qxe5 23.Bxa8 , because he can play 23...c6 temporarily trapping my bishop. Play might continue 24.Rhd1 Qc7 25.Re8 Qa7 26.Rdd8 Qxa8 27.Rxb8 when the rooks are slightly stronger than the queen, but the endgame would be very hard to win.
23.Nxf7 Nc6!
Without this move, he would be completely losing.
24.Rd7 Ne7!
It looks like white's attack may have been beaten back, as there are no good discoveries with my bishop. However, after my next strong move, it is clear that white is indeed much better.

I am now threatening Ne6+, and there is no good way to stop it. 

25...Qd2 26.Rxe7+; 25...Kf8 26.Ne6+; 25...Kg6 26.Bf7+; 25...Kh6 26.Nf3! forces the queen off the d-file; His best chance, then, was  25...Qxd5 , sacrificing the queen back, leading to an endgame, after  26.Rxd5 Nxd5 , where I am up a pawn and should be theoretically winning,but it would have been much harder than in the game. The game move is simply a blunder, after which he is simply losing.

Surprisingly, there are no squares for his king!

26...Kg7 loses to  27.Rxe7+ Kh8 28.Bxa8 , when he has no more pieces, and; 26...Ke5 loses to  27.Bxa8 Qxd7 28.Re1+ , when I am going to win his queen. Only the move played in the game is left, but it is cleraly not enough.
Winning the queen, after which I will be up a rook. With this move, I won the first board of the match, and helped our team win this critical match 2.5-1.5. 1-0

Look for more details in an upcoming Chess Life Magazine and find full results at  http://bayareachess.com/events/14/usatwresults/ as find many more photos from the event on their facebook page.