New Jersey Knocked Out
By GM Joel Benjamin   
November 5, 2008
"Don’t beat my Daddy!"--Aidan, GM Joel Benjamin's one-month old son.
My favorite baseball team has had more than its share of late-season woe.  Apparently, my chess team has become the New York Mets.

The New Jersey Knockouts lost to the New York Knights in the final round, 2 ½-1 ½, completing a collapse that may be unrivalled in U.S. Chess League history for quite some time.  The Knights completed an historic comeback by winning their fourth consecutive match and snatching the final playoff spot in the eastern division from their neighbors to the west.  It’s a great story for them, but naturally I’m more focused on what went wrong on our end.

At my mid season-report, we were flying high with three wins, one loss and one draw from our first five matches.  In the sixth round we tied Baltimore in the only match of the season where we were appreciably fortunate.  After that, the last four matches ended in excruciating fashion, with mind-boggling missed opportunities.  Everyone contributed to this phenomenon, but sadly, I gave more than my fair share.

Queens Logic

In week six, we were on the verge of a share of first place in the division.  Lenderman remained perfect against Ippolito, but Gulko registered his third easy win against Vovsha.  The match came down to first and fourth board, and we held an edge in both games.

I steadily hoovered into a drab queen ending, only to find unexpected winning chances.  I can only assume Stripunsky felt he need to go all out for the win.  Afterwards I felt I missed one good chance to win:

Position after 45...Kg6

Here I  played 45…Kg6 allowing major counterplay after 46.Qc8.  Instead 45...Qe3+! 46.Ka4 Qe8+ 47.b5 (or 47.Kb3 Kg6) Kg6 looks like it should win.  I played the ending with a conservative mindset, because Andrew Ng was so completely winning I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose.


Andrew had missed a clincher here and there (e.g. 41.Rdxc6+ Nxc6 42.Nd6+ Kb8 43.Nxb7), but had things well under control. But somewhere in the middle of Stripunsky checking me a million times I noticed to my horror that Andrew had gone from this…

Position after 50...Nc6

to this…

Position after 54...Kd6

all in four nightmarish moves!  51.e6 (okay) b6 52.Nd3 (simply 52.Nxa6+ Kb7 53.f5 ends the game) 52...Rh7 53.Rg5 (what for?  53.f5!) 53...Ne7+ 54.Ke4?? (54.Ke5 Rh3 55.Rg7 is still completely winning) 54...Kd6.  Now White is only better, and Alexander seized his opportunity to hold a draw.  We can only dream of what might have been if we won this match.  But I felt bad for Andrew, who played a solid, patient game destroyed by this faulty interlude.

Carolina in My Mind

We were still in good shape for second, which a win over Carolina would have netted us.  Dean wanted to take off for his wife’s birthday, though he would have played if I begged him.  [Dean rearranged his work schedule several times for matches]  With three rounds to go, I didn’t think it would be fair to do so (plus he had logged a ton of Blacks already).  Still, we could have survived with our kid lineup in part because I actually managed to win a game, against Lev Milman [I was at least relieved that I beat Dmitry Schneider and Lev Milman this season.  I enjoyed my opportunities to coach these fine young men in the past and wanted to show them I could still bring it.] 

Evan Ju played sparingly this season.  He has a heavy load in high school, and our rating list, while extremely kind to Dean and Mac, had Evan too high to play fourth board.  He was badly out of form.  Victor Shen has been working harder but he didn’t have it either.  [I say blame the coach]

But Mac Molner was a total rock for us this season.  He played a strong game against Oleg Zaikov, a young man who had already pulled out a few games from suspicious positions this season.  What transpired was the greatest of all the travesties that befell us in the second half.


Position after 28.exd5

After 28…Nc5! Mac simply wins a piece.   There followed 29.Rbb1 Qxc3 30.dxe6.  In the heat of the battle strange decisions can have logic, but how can Black not exchange queens and win with simple moves?  After 30…Rxa4? 31.e7 Re8 32.Qd1! Black is forced to make some accurate moves to stay on top.  After 32…Qc4 33.Nd5 Ne4? 34.Nb6 Qd4 35.Nxa4 Qxf2+ 36.Kh1 Qxf4 37.Qd5+ we had a full point swing.

Of course, Victor’s draw on board four was a gift given because of the result of this game, but a 2-2 draw would have banished any notions of missing the playoffs.

Miami Vice

I would have to admit that thoughts of impending doom started to creep in around here.  I wasn’t sure we matched up well against Miami, and Dean had a rare misstep against a tough opponent, Bruci Lopez.  Jayson Lian lost, though in fairness he had little opportunity to play with White this season.  [Blame the manager and the coach]

But Mac pulled off his biggest win yet, a nice instructive endgame win similar to one Daniel Naroditsky failed to win earlier in the season.  I liked it so much I used it in my Friday class two days later.


Position after 65...Ra1, White to Move and Win


I had a chance to halve the match if I could consolidate a material advantage against Julio Becerra.


Position after 23...Nh4

Becerra’s speculative exchange sacrifice was certainly tricky to deal with, but he never developed anything concrete and I found myself on the verge of consolidating.  The only problem was I had used too much time on obvious moves and found myself in big time pressure.
24.Bxc5 Nf4 25.Bb4! Nd3 This is the only answer to the threats of 26.Qxf4 and 26.Nc5 trapping the queen.  Now 26.Nd4! would essentially compel resignation.  Instead I played 26.Ba3?! missing 26...Nf5. Here White is still in good shape but I simply could not find a move as my time ticked down. 27.Nc5? Qh4! blew the win for me, but the draw after 28.Nxd3 Ng3+ 29.Kg1 Ne2+ 30.Kf1 Qxh2 31.Qxe2 Qh1+ 32.Kf2 Qh4+ would have given Miami a match win anyway. So I folded all the way:  28.Kg1? Nf4 29.Re1 Re2 30.Rxe2 Nxe2+ 31.Kf1 Qxh2 32.Qe1 Nf4+ 0–1

No Escape from New York

So it would go down to the wire after all.  In the last match we needed at least a 2-2 tie to advance to the playoffs, while New York would pass us with a match victory.  The match was tight with the other boards difficult to call.  I wasted too much time and energy worrying about whether I needed to win the game.  I suppose I overestimated my compensation for a pawn.  Eventually I realized that Mac would draw and Dean would win (another fine effort in a fine season for Dean) and I just needed a draw for the match. By that time I was once again too low on time to achieve the result comfortably.  Pascal pressed what chances he had in the opposite bishop ending.  I’ll pick it up at the most critical juncture:


Position after 43.Bb8

Short of time, I made a risky bid to force a draw with 43…Rxd4.  I didn’t like 43...Re8 44.Bd6, but  43...b4 looks sufficient for a draw:  44.Rd3 (White will have trouble progressing after 44.Rc5 Re8) 44...Bc4 45.Bxa7 Bxa6! (45...Bxd3 46.cxd3 Re8 White will win with a king march) 46.Rb3 Bc4 47.Rxb4 Be6 and Black gets back a pawn and should draw. 44.Bxa7 Rb4+ 45.Rb3 I saw this of course, but actually I should “fall into” the trap and take the rook--45...Bxb3 46.cxb3 Re4 47.Bb8 b4! 48.a7 Re2+ 49.Kb1 Re1+ 50.Kc2 Ra1 51.Kd3 c5 52.Kc4 Ra5 53.Kd5 Kf5 and Black holds.  45…Ra4 46.Ra3 and now I realized to my horror that I had overlooked 46...Bc4 47.Bc5 Rxa3 48.Bxa3!  White wins the race by a tempo:  48…c5 49.Bxc5 Kxg3 50.Kc3 Kf4 51.Kd4 Bf1 52.Bb4 Bg2 53.Kc5 Ke5 54.Kb6 Ke6 55.Kc7.  But it was too late to find another defense.

After making second team all-star last season, my performance this year was hugely disappointing.  Expecting a child proved to be a big distraction for me, and I never really got my game going.  My wife delivered a month early (October 10th), and little Aidan was just fine after two weeks in the NICU.   I was excited to take him home but a crying baby certainly didn’t put me in good condition for that last game.

I’m not making excuses; we all have to deal with outside distractions and stress (Pascal has to deal with Wall Street, which can’t be easy these days).  I just have to acknowledge that all those people who told me how difficult it would be to play chess with a newborn knew what they were talking about!  Believe me, I never intended to play all ten games.  Gulko was unavailable for the last three weeks (October is rife with Jewish holidays) and I just didn’t see any choice for the team.

In the grand scheme of things, I guess blowing the USCL playoffs is a fair sacrifice to have the cutest baby boy in the world.  Nevertheless, I think the end of the season would be keeping me up at night…if I didn’t have Aidan doing that already.

I’ll leave the readers with a trivia question:  Why is “Yefim” one of my nicknames for little Aidan?  This one is just for fun; I think GM John Fedorowicz is the only one who could get the answer.

Go to the U.S. Chess League homepage for more players, standings and links to blogs and video. Be sure to watch the playoffs live on the Internet Chess Club , with the quarterfinals kicking off on Monday, November 10.