U.S. Amateur Team West — 1st Place!

by admin on February 20, 2012

This weekend I played in the U.S. Amateur Team West tournament, which was organized by Salman Azhar and held in Santa Clara. Curiously, it was my first time playing in this tournament, even though I’ve lived in California for nearly 16 years. It was worth the wait, because my team, called “Forfeit by Disconnection,” won the tournament!

So how do you win one of these tournaments? It’s always been a subject of debate. Do you stack the team with a grandmaster or a couple of senior masters, or do you opt for a balanced lineup of experts and lower-rated masters? (The rule is that your team’s average rating has to be below 2200, so if you have a GM on your squad he will have to be balanced by weaker players on the low boards.)

I’ve always thought that balanced teams have the best chance, but you need the top boards to play over their heads just often enough, and you need the lower boards to really take care of business against weaker opposition. That was pretty much our recipe for success. In fact, we went 6-0 on fourth board, with Steven Gaffagan scoring 4-0 and me scoring 2-0. (I also played third board in two matches and went 1-1 in those games.)

The members of our team were Robin Cunningham (5 games), Julian Chan (6 games), Todd Rumph, (5 games), me (4 games), and Steve Gaffagan (4 games). We gave the trophy to Julian because he was the only player who played every round and also he seemed to score the most key points.

For Robin this was actually his fourth time winning a U.S. Amateur Team tournament. He has won twice in the East (including winning the national title once) and once in the South. I joked that he needs to enter a team in the Midwest next year to complete his collection!

Here’s a round-by-round description of how we did it:

Rounds 1 and 2: I took the first day off and didn’t play these rounds, so I can’t tell you much about them. We won the first match, 3½-½, and drew the second match, 2-2, against a hotshot team of underrated kids.

Round 3: We played a “stacked” team with a 2400 first board and a 2300 second board and class A/B players on the third and fourth boards.  Steve won on fourth board, I won on third board in a long, grind-it-out endgame, and Todd got us the draw we needed on board two. We win, 2½-1½.

Round 4: This was probably our toughest match. Our opponents were like a mirror image of us, except their rating was about 30 points lower on every board. All four games were hard-fought and still undecided going into the second time control. I was better almost all the way in my game, maybe even winning at some point (though I’m not sure), but then I hung a piece in the time scramble. I was disconsolate because I thought I had blown the match. But it turned out that Steven had done the exact opposite. After being in a completely lost position, he had miraculously pulled out a win! That gave us a 2½-½ lead and made my game irrelevant. I was so focused on my game that I had no idea. There’s nothing for picking up your spirits after a bad loss than hearing that your team won anyway!

Round 5: We played the top-rated team (average rating 2199.5!), which had IM Ricardo de Guzman on first board and FM Ronald Cusi on second board. They also had an FM on fourth board, but this perhaps should get an asterisk. He was Tanuj Vasudeva, who earned his FM title when he won the Pan-American Youth Championships under-8 competition in 2009. His USCF rating, however, is still only class A. Obviously you have to take him seriously. I’ve had so many games against talented kids in the Bay Area who play like grownups, so it came as a bit of a surprise this time when Tanuj played like a kid. Basically he ignored his development and tried to throw his kingside pawns at me (as all King’s Indian players do) but we were in a variation where this plan was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Todd won on third board and Julian drew on second board. This was another key moment. Robin, who tends to be a bit pessimistic, thought that Julian was completely busted, with a Q+B against Cusi’s Q+N. I was not as pessimistic as Robin was. I’ve studied these endgames a bit lately, and what makes the Q+N stronger is their ability to team up and make strong threats against the king. But in this particular position, Julian’s king did not seem to be in danger. As it turned out, Cusi exposed his king too much in an attempt to win, and Julian managed to infiltrate with his queen and force a draw by repetition. Along with Steven Gaffagan’s miraculous save in round 4, this was another very key moment.

Round 6: We went into this round in first place, with 4½ match points. Three teams trailed us with 4 points. So we knew that we could tie for first with a draw, but because of all our narrow victories we would probably lose on tiebreaks. This time we were paired against a team with national masters on boards 1-3 and an A player on board four. We were outrated on the top three boards, so it was very important for me to win on board 4, the only one where we were favored. I won in dominating fashion. Robin and Julian drew from superior positions. Todd was the only one of us who got in trouble, but he managed to set up a fortress in an endgame where he was down an exchange for a pawn. Julian’s game was the last to finish, so he had the honor of clinching first place for us.

Looking back at the weekend, it was a tournament where everything just broke the right way for us. You can’t win four straight 2½-1½ matches without getting a little bit lucky. We had one tough save in each of the last three rounds, and without those key half-point swings we wouldn’t have won.

For me personally, I feel as if I did nothing special. A win against a class-B player, two wins against class-A players, and a time-trouble meltdown defeat against an expert would not usually qualify as a good tournament. But that’s the beauty of team chess! I won the three games I had to, gagged in the one that didn’t matter, and in the end it was one of the best weekends of my chess career. Who’d have thunk?

P.S. Along with everything else, we won the prize for third best team name! The best team name was “White Tarrasch.”

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish February 21, 2012 at 11:20 am


I stopped by just as the kid (Tanuj) was winning his Round 4 game – in that game, he played a very nice combination indeed.


Michael Aigner February 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Congratulations Master Dana! Your team truly rocked, with everyone playing a key role. I really wish I could have played; alas I could not. Wah, wah.


admin February 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Thanks, Michael! Are you getting any closer to making a comeback into tournament chess?


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