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GM Joel on Knocking Out the Competition Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
October 3, 2008
GM Joel Benjamin, Photo Elizabeth Vicary
Midway through the U.S. Chess League, GM Joel Benjamin of "Ask GM Joel" blogs on the New Jersey knockouts and their stellar performance in the USCL so far. Check out the official U.S. Chess League website for more information including blogs, results and pairings. Also check out a great summary article on the league on chessvibes.com by Robert Bernard. Joel now alternates between blogging for CLO and answering quesitons for "Ask GM Joel", so send your inquiries to [email protected].

“I always had trouble envisioning the Knockouts as being division champs or going especially far in the playoffs as they've never really seemed to have the firepower to pull off a long string of consecutive victories, especially against the top opponents.”—Arun Sharma after Week four.

Shortly after I moved to New Jersey, I watched enviously as my former hometown competed in the U.S. Chess League.  I thought New Jersey could easily field a competitive team, but lacking the necessary organizational skills, I turned to Michael Khodarkovsky.  Apparently Michael can make anything happen, and after about two seconds he found the best site in the league, the computer room at the Chapel Hill Academy in Lincoln Park, and two dedicated arbiters, Mike Sommers and Roger Inglis.  We also have generous support from the New Jersey Chess Federation, though we don’t feel we have to brag to the league about it. 

Last year was great fun, but in emulation of my favorite baseball team, we faded down the stretch and just missed the playoffs.  This year, halfway through the season, it’s good to be a Knockout. We’ve won three of our first five matches (all by 3-1 scores), drawn one, and lost only to undefeated Queens.  Before the season few prognosticators believed us to be a playoff team.  That’s entirely understandable, when you look at the facts:

1) We have two grandmasters (Benjamin and Gulko)
2) We have a 2500 player who counts as 2426 (Ippolito)
3) We have a 2400 player who counts as 2325 (Molner)
4) We have lots of young talent to cover fourth board, including one player who improved two hundred points from last year’s rating (Andrew Ng).  With him we can put our three highest players in the lineup.

Who could dream such a roster would have any success in the U.S. Chess League?

Round One:  Baltimore Kingfishers

1.GM Sergey Erenburg (BAL) vs GM Joel Benjamin (NJ)  1-0
2. IM Dean Ippolito (NJ) vs IM Larry Kaufman (BAL)  1-0
3. FM Ray Kaufman (BAL) vs NM Mackenzie Molner (NJ)  0-1
4. NM Victor Shen (NJ) vs FM Ralph Zimmer (BAL)  1-0

The rust really showed as I lost to a much more active player, Sergey Erenburg.  I took way too much time and my sacrifices were shown to be overly desperate.  But in a welcome change form last year, when I tallied nearly a third of New Jersey’s points, my teammates won all their games.  Mac Molner destroyed Ray Kaufman with Black.  Victor Shen won a solid, patient game against the veteran master Ralph Zimmer. And Dean Ippolito showed proper priorities when he offered a draw in a better position against Larry Kaufman.  Kaufman turned it down for the team but lost shortly thereafter.  Here’s Victor’s effort:



Here 20.Bb5 maintained an edge, but even stronger was 20.f5 gxf5 21.Nxc6! (21.Bb5 Bxd4 22.Bxd4+ f6 23.exf5 is highly favorable but not winning) 21...Qxc6 22.exf5 Bd7 23.Bf3 Nxb3 24.cxb3 Qxc3 25.Qxc3 Bxc3 26.Bxa8 Rxa8 27.Rc1 Bf6 28.Rc7 and White should win the endgame

29…exf4 was too optimistic; Black had to maintain cohesion with 29...Raf8.  After 33.Ne4, the knight is about to fork a majority of Black’s pieces!

For me, it’s nice to lose a game and yet feel no pain.  But the second round turned out to be a total reversal of the first.

Round two: Queens Pioneers

1. GM Joel Benjamin (NJ) vs IM Dmitry Schneider (QNS)  1-0
2. IM Eli Vovsha (QNS) vs NM Mackenzie Molner (NJ)  1-0
3. NM Evan Ju (NJ) vs IM Alex Lenderman (QNS)  0-1
4. Benjamin Katz (QNS) vs NM Victor Shen (NJ)  1-0

Last year I joked that Queens called its team the Pioneers because many of them had never been to Queens before.  [They had players from Manhattan, Westchester, Connecticut, you name it]  Their team is still not as representative as the Knockouts (100% New Jersey), but it is strong.  They rested their top gun, the consistently annoying opponent Alex Stripunsky, but put out a brutal lineup with Eli Vovsha and Alex Lenderman on two and three.  Victor had an off day and dropped a piece in the opening, which proved to be the difference in the match.  This time I won and everybody else lost, the reverse of the first round.  I liked it better the other way.


I think Black’s opening was quite dubious.  I wanted to take advantage big time (it was clear we would need a full point) but went for too much with 17.Ng5!?  It’s the kind of flashy move that gets exclaims, but White should simply play 17.bxc3 0-0-0 18.a4! with a large plus.  I think that actually happened in a game between two Dutch guys.

I saw 17…Rf8 was forced but didn’t really have an answer.  I rejected 19.bxc3 because I didn’t see a good answer to 19…Rf8, though the computer tells me 20.Rd2 is okay.  19.Bxh7 seemed risky to me, but I had to make something happen.  Black could have played 19…Rxh7 20.Nxh7 c2 with advantage, according to the computers, but I don’t think either human considered the possibility.

Dmitry got into trouble again with 21…Ba7? Allowing White a big advantage after 22.Ba3.  Instead 21…Be7 keeps the balance, as the bishop on h7 is very awkwardly placed.

I was proud of 24.Rab1!  With so much happening, White waits and throws the ball back in Black’s court.  The computer likes it too!  I aimed for the bishops of opposite colors ending with rooks because Black’s structure is shattered and his bishop is so passive.  My technique was solid…with the exception of allowing 38…Rxf2+! 39.Kxf2 Bc5+ with drawing chances for Black.

Round three:  Seattle Sluggers

1. GM Hikaru Nakamura (SEA) vs GM Joel Benjamin (NJ)  1-0
2. GM Boris Gulko (NJ) vs IM Eric Tangborn (SEA)  1-0
3. FM John Readey (SEA) vs NM Mackenzie Molner (NJ)  1/2-1/2
4. Jayson Lian (NJ) vs NM Joshua Sinanan (SEA)  1/2-1/2

This week we introduced Boris Gulko to USCL competition.  He got a pretty nice pairing on board two, playing white and not having to face a grandmaster.  I had black against Nakamura.  [See what a selfless captain I am?]  Hikaru played a funky kind of flank opening with 1.g3.  I had one good chance for a complicated game, with even arguably better chances, but I rushed out a blunder that left me down pawns for nothing.


Instead of 20…Rhe8? 21.e5 Nfd5 22.Rxf7, I should have played 20…Bxe2 21.Kxe2 Nxe4! 2.Nxe4 Rhe8 with an unclear position.

Jayson played a great game but boo-booed at the end.

I’m not sure if this was a pet line or Jayson confused his move order with 7.Qa4+, but it worked out well indeed.  He was solidly on top for the whole game, with one blip.  [Black missed 29...Bxh3!! 30.gxh3 Bxe5 31.Bxe8 (31.Bxe5 is forced but Black is much better) Nf3+ 32.Kf1 Nxh2+ 33.Kg1 Nf3+ winning for Black.  It’s not very obvious when you’re short of time.] 


After 39…Qe6 Jayson has a position where the old phrase “anything wins” can well be applied.  Even if he drops the d-pawn, he can still win the bishop ending with his extra b-pawn.  Jayson couldn’t decide what to do so he repeated a bit to add some thirty-second increments to his clock.  Unfortunately, he stumbled into a three-fold repetition.  Jayson was confused because in each case a different move created the position.  Of course, the rule only pertains to the position being repeated, not the exact moves.

The sad finish deprived us of a match victory.  I still considered it as a win for Jayson and gave him another shot in the next match, where I thought he would be paired with Ilya “Verbal” Krasik.  Instead it was the supremely underrated Marc Esserman with Black.  Not much of a reward after all, I have to confess.

Round four:  Boston Blitz

1. GM Joel Benjamin (NJ) vs GM Larry Christiansen (BOS)  1-0
2. SM Denys Shmelov (BOS) vs IM Dean Ippolito (NJ)  0-1
3. NM Mackenzie Molner (NJ) vs NM Charles Riordan (BOS)  1-0
4. NM Marc Esserman (BOS) vs Jayson Lian (NJ)  1-0

If this season turns out to be a success, this match will go down as the turning point.  Boston fielded a team with a lot of firepower on each end.  Luckily, Larry had an off day and made an early major blunder.



I heard some of the fans were knocked out by 8.Be3, but it’s a standard idea.  I played the move in a nearly identical position against Dmitry Gurevich in the 1996 U.S. Championship (also in New Jersey). 8...dxe3?! 9.Bxf7+ Kxf7 10.Ng5+ Kg7 11.Nxe4 Nxe4 12.Qd4+ Nf6 13.Qxe3 gives White a clear edge.  Instead 8...Bg4 and 8...Be6 have been played here.  Larry played his move too fast; I suspect he just blacked out on 9.Bd3!  After that, 9…Qe6 would simply lose a piece to10.Nxd4 Qe5 11.Nc4 (I had actually worked out the more complicated but equally winning10.Nb5 Nd5 11.Nfxd4 Qe5 12.Nf3 Qe6 13.Bc4 Bxe3 14.Nc7+). 

Losing a piece for nada is beyond hopeless, so Larry made the best of it by pitching his queen for two pieces.  [The computer even agrees with that decision]  Heck, I’ve seen Larry win a game with one piece for a queen.  The one slightly unfortunate consequence is that the story went from Larry blundering a piece in nine moves to dropping his queen!  The pro that he is, Larry dusted off and won a big game with Black the next week against Vinay Bhat.

The impending loss on board one influenced the Blitz play on the middle boards, but both Dean and Mac played solid, strong games to get the full point.

Round five:  Philadelphia Inventors
1. GM Sergey Kudrin (PHI) vs GM Joel Benjamin (NJ)  1/2-1/2
2. GM Boris Gulko (NJ) vs IM Bryan Smith (PHI)  1-0
3. IM Richard Costigan (PHI) vs IM Dean Ippolito (NJ)  1/2-1/2
4. Andrew Ng (NJ) vs NM Elvin Wilson (PHI)  1-0

We rolled out our heavy jumbo lineup with me, Boris and Dean on the top three boards.  We are able to field this lineup because Andrew Ng is grossly underrated at last September’s rating of 1985.  In the USCL, with foursomes having to average below 2401, the difference between a good team and a great team is having underrated players. Teams are well advised to load up on young talent, and most of them do.  After our top three players (myself, Boris, and Dean) every player we’ve used this season is too young to celebrate our victories at the bar.  It was thus an easy decision to put Andrew Ng on the roster; only later did I discover how much lower his rating was last fall.


Black’s approach in this MacCutcheon French looks all wrong to me.  Why play 8…Kf8 and then close the queenside?  Andrew took advantage with spirited play.  I could quibble that 14.Rhb1 was unnecessary and that White should leave the rook on the kingside for the attack.  But 21.h6! was a very nice move, not only opening lines but also bringing in the bishop to break Black’s defenses.

After 23…g6 I expected Andrew to retreat with 24.Bg4, penetrate on the h-file and wipe out Black’s position without any complications.  It’s the kind of move a player with more experience might opt for.  But in his youthful exuberance, Andrew nearly gave me a heart attack with 24.Nxe6.  It’s a more overtly tactical solution, and naturally more attractive to the younger generation.  After a minute or so I understood that Andrew had things well under control.

He passed up the cleaner continuation 25.Bg4! Rxh1 25.Rxh1!, but consolidated efficiently with two more strong moves, 28.Qf6+! and 30.Rh8.  He did all this while suffering through an unpleasant head cold.

I made a rather grovelly draw against Kudrin, knowing all along that it would be good for the team.  Though I never had a whiff of victory, it felt like I had won.  That’s what team chess can do for you.

In his USCL first half report, Jonathan Hilton had nothing to say about New Jersey.  Well, he did mention us, but only as a bridge to get from first place Queens (a great story at 5-0) to third place Boston.  That’s okay I suppose.  Our players don’t really crave the attention.  We’re just having a good time playing…and so far, winning.

In round six, the New Jersey knockouts scored 2-2 against the Baltimore Kingfishers. Check out all the action live on the Internet Chess Club and go to http://www.uschessleague.com/ for all the daily links to blogs, videos and photos.