Friday, November 13, 2009

NJKOs Advance to Final Four

The New Jersey Knockouts advanced to the final four of the US Chess League with their victory Monday night over Baltimore. Wins by the New York Knights (Monday over Boston), Miami Sharks (Wednesday over Seattle) and San Francisco Mechanics (Wednesday over Arizona) have made for an unpredictable final, since the Knockouts were the only team with the better record to advance. Miami's victory over Seattle was especially a surprise, with GM Julio Becerra not only beating GM Hikaru Nakamura but doing so in a record 12 moves!

I have analyzed the Knockouts victory over Baltimore and posted it online in a java replay article along with the PGN file to download.

The New Jersey - Baltimore match was very hard fought, but Baltimore had little chance against the best team in the League playing with draw odds (which meant that Baltimore had to win the match to advance). Nevertheless, Baltimore gave it their all and the games were very hard fought and complex (which is part of why I have not posted my analysis sooner!)

The game that interested me most was the Board One encounter between GM Joel Benjamin and GM Sergey Erenburg, which had lots of drama in all of its stages. Benjamin played the super-solid Spanish Four Knights (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5), which I have written about in these pages (see my Spanish Four Knights Bibliography and various articles). It's a great opening to choose when you are playing with draw odds as White. Erenburg played the increasingly popular 4...Bd6!? which has been discussed by a number of sources, including an article in SOS #1 by Jeroen Bosch titled "Sokolov's Surprise" (currently available online as a PDF download at the New in Chess website.) This line has turned into a "cold war" of sorts, with Black waiting for White to castle kingside before he castles himself to avoid a potentially dangerous g4-g5 attack. The waiting game continues with White playing h3 (to support a possible g4 advance) and a3 (to provide an escape square for the Bishop) and Black playing h6 (to prevent a pin by Bg5) and a6 (trying to gain the Bishop pair by either Bxc6 dxc6 or Ba4 b5 Bb3 Na5 etc.) Black has more useful waiting moves than White does, however, and so White generally castles before Black and the second player can equalize without much trouble (as discussed by Larry Kaufman in The Chess Advantage in Black and White). But if Black wants to avoid a drawish Four Knights game then he might need to think of another plan.

Some recent games have shown that Black can get away with castling right away, inviting White into the complications that follow g4 and often gaining good counterplay against White's king in the center. It's a double-edged continuation, but just the thing if you need to play for a win, so Erenburg naturally gave it a try. But he made a clear mistake after 5.d3 a6 6.Ba4 h6 7.a3 0-0!? 8.g4! Bc5 9.Rg1 d6 10.h3 Nh7 when White pushed forward with 11.g5 and he answered with 11...g6? (temporarily sacrificing a pawn) when probably 11...hxg5 or even 11...h5!? are better and lead to a balanced but complex struggle. After Erenburg's error, Benjamin had firm control of the initiative and great prospects of a kingside attack. However, just when the game began to look like it would be decided in the middlegame, Benjamin traded queens and headed for a slightly advantageous ending so that he could play for a win or draw without risk of losing. Erenburg fought hard and the ending became a very double-edged slugfest. Benjamin probably was never really at risk of losing, but both players were challenged to keep from getting in time trouble due to the complexity of the situation. Eventually Benjamin found a line that assured either a clear advantage or a draw by repetition (which by that point would have won the match.) Refusing to submit to the team loss, Erenburg chose a dangerous way to continue the game, after which Benjamin was able to force a win on the strength of a central passed pawn. This was quite an epic encounter and worth careful study.

Dean Ippolito's game on Board Two against Tegshsuren Enkhbat was a much more straightforward affair. The opening posed some problems for Black, but none for which Ippolito seemed unprepared. Displaying his command of elite opening theory, Ippolito demonstrated an important improvement on some previous high level games in a line of the Slav where White typically has some chances of making trouble for Black in the ending. But Ippolito played with excellent care and secured a draw by repetition in an equal Rook ending. It is possible that most of the game was covered in his preparation.

On Board Three, Mackenzie Molner took up the White side of a well-traveled and extremely double-edged line of the Sveshnikov Sicilian where Black gambits a pawn. His opponent, Shinsaku Uesugi, eventually got very strong counterplay that won back the pawn with advantage. However, rather than patiently building up his position, Uesugi went for premature breakthroughs (especially with 28...f4 and 37...e3) that ended up allowing lots of exchanges. When he exchanged Rooks in time pressure with 42...Ra7, the game petered out into a drawn bishops of opposite color ending, which essentially guaranteed a New Jersey match win.

Battsetseg - Finn
Black to play.

Bour Four had the brilliant expert Sean Finn playing WIM Tsagaan Battsetseg in a line of the Saemisch King's Indian that resembled a Benko Gambit. A clear ratings favorite, Battsetseg seemed to be playing to keep things under control and have a quiet game. But Finn would have none of that, offering up his b-pawn for queenside counterplay. Battsetseg declined the gambit but Finn got good play anyway. And when Battsetseg seemed to have him stymied, Finn channeled Boris Gulko to play a brilliant "GM Exchange sac" that changed the course of the game. Likely White could have maintained equality, but Battsetseg missed a neat tactic (see diagram above) that netted Finn a winning material advantage, which he promptly converted with the help of connected passed pawns. This was a brilliant game from start to finish and I expect Finn to have a master rating by next season.

Next week, New Jersey faces their arch-rival New York Knights, who have been responsible for ending New Jersey's previous two seasons. Let's hope there are plenty of donuts on hand -- and that the third time is the charm.

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