Near-Death Experiences (on the chessboard)

by admin on September 2, 2013

The 2013 CalChess State Championship had one recurring theme for me — amazing escapes. In round 1 I lost (well, sacrificed) a pawn and managed to draw. In round 2, as I showed in my last entry, I was down an exchange for a pawn and still managed to win. Round 3 was my only relatively simple game, a 35-move victory.

But then things got seriously crazy. In round four I played a never-to-be repeated gambit that I actually analyzed about 10 years ago and thought was okay for me. But it wasn’t. My position spiraled downhill to the point where I was three pawns down (on the board) — but even worse than that, in Rybka’s analysis I was TEN pawns behind! Nevertheless, I managed to save a draw. It’s hard to remember a single game, at least since I was a beginner, where I was more busted and yet saved the game.

I was not intending to show the game in this post, because I didn’t want to embarrass my opponent. But one of the people who saw it (and reads this blog) asked me to, and what the audience asks for, the audience gets.

Here are a couple of the more memorable positions from the game.

Position after 33. Bg2. Black to move.

This position marks the absolute nadir of my game, according to Rybka. It’s easy to see why. Not only am I down three pawns, I am also effectively down a rook, because neither my rook on a1 nor my king on b1 can ever move. Rybka evalutes the position at +10.04 pawns for Black, mostly because after 33. … a2+ it sees a forced mate or win of a ton of material. (I think the point is 34. Kb2 Nb6.) However, this takes a little bit of calculation. The move that my opponent played, 33. … g5, should have been good enough. But things started going a little bit haywire for him after 34. cd Bxd5? Why did he take this way? Simply 34. … ed should be killing. Black doesn’t mind opening the e-file because he can play … Re8 and trade rooks, and then (as noted before) he is essentially a rook up.

Well, I don’t want to do a lot of analysis because there are a million and one ways that Black should have won this game. After 35. Nxd5 Nxd5 36. gf! all of a sudden his center is collapsing. He played 36. … Nc3+ (which is also Rybka’s top choice) 37. Kc1 ef 38. Bxa8 b2+ 39. Kc2 baQ 40. Rxa1 Rxa8 41. Kxc3, leading to the second diagram position.

Position after 41. Kxc3. Black to move.

It’s amazing how much progress White has made, yet I am still totally busted. Previously I was down 3 pawns (really) and 10 pawns (according to Rybka). Now I’m down 2 pawns (really) and 4 pawns (according to Rybka). And yet there really should be no hope here for White.

But a funny thing happened. I just kept playing and playing, constantly expecting almost every move to be put out of my misery, and yet it never happened. There was always another resource. I would have resigned if he had given me a good excuse to, but he never did. We finally got to a position with R+N+2P versus R+N that still should have been a win, but it got harder and harder, and finally I was able to trade rooks and get to a drawn endgame of N+P versus N.

The only problem was that I was almost out of time! By move 68, when the above scoresheet ends, I was down to less than a minute. So even though the position should be a dead draw, it was not at all clear that I was going to succeed in drawing before my time ran out even with a 5-second time delay on the clock). But finally, with 14 seconds left on my clock, we got to the position shown here.

Position after move ??. White to move.

Here I played 1. Ne4! and at last the draw is completely clear. If Black plays 1. … Ne5 I will play 2. Nf2 and sacrifice my knight for the pawn. Instead he played 1. … Nf4, and with 12 seconds left on the clock I played 2. Nd6+ Kg5 3. Ne4+ Kh5 4. Nf6+ Kg5 5. Nxg4, draw.

Amazingly, a very similar situation occurred in round 5, where I was Black against Igor Traub. Again I got a very difficult endgame a pawn down, and again I somehow managed to wriggle out of it. My opponent couldn’t believe it, because he had thought all possible king-and-pawn endgames were won for him, but I was able to set up a fortress. He agreed to a draw when I had 28 seconds left.

In both of these games, as well as round 2, my game was the very last one to finish, and each time the TD, Richard Koepcke, was watching like a hawk in case he would be called upon to make a ruling on a draw claim or a flag fall. I joked that this was starting to become a habit!

Round 6 was fairly sedate by comparison. Against Eric Steger I got a position that seemed a little bit superior, but I wasn’t able to find a win and we agreed to a draw around move 45. This time my game was one of the last to finish, but not the very last, and I told Richard, “I finished early this time!”

So my final record was 4-2, with 2 wins, 4 draws, and no losses (but a lot of heart-stopping moments). All in all I feel pretty good about my result. I think I tied for fourth in the expert section and will receive a small cash prize. It would have been nice to do better today (rounds 5 and 6), but it’s tough to compete for first when you have Black in both of the last two  games.

Now here’s where I should report on the rest of the results of the tournament — who won the master section, the expert section, etc. But I have to apologize. After my game with Steger I was too eager to get home, and I completely forgot to look at the other results. But Bay Area Chess usually posts their results quite promptly, within a day or two of the end of the tournament, and I will do a short update when they do.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane September 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

Steven broke my number one rule for handling endgames where you stand better, STOP COUNTERPLAY FIRST! Instead he decentralized his king and ignored everything else in his rush to push the f2 pawn. Great lesson for him, and your readers, in how not to play endgames.


Chaitanya September 5, 2013 at 8:00 am

I loved this game!! i couldn’t believe first when i saw 1/2 – 1/2.
White was in the good position but I feel black’s Knight was strong and there were few mistakes from White 🙂


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