Positively Gutted, I Tell Ya

by admin on January 23, 2019

My wife is a big fan of reality television, and has watched almost every episode of the Great British Baking Show and has moved on to watching the not-so-great British interior design show. Even if the shows fail to teach us interior design, they at least educate us to some of the finer points of the English language, as spoken by its inventors.

Case in point: She pointed out to me yesterday that if a contestant advances to the next round, he or she is invariably “chuffed” about it, but when a contestant loses, he or she always claims to be “gutted.”

Both of these words sound incredibly twee to American ears (as, indeed, does the word “twee”),  but in the spirit of broadening my vocabulary I will say that the first three weeks of the PRO Chess League season, for the San Francisco Mechanics, have consisted of one gutting after another. I’ve already written about our oh-so-close 7½-8½ defeat by the San Jose Hackers in round one. Last week I was away at a math conference and did not have to suffer the agony of watching our 5-11 disemboweling by the Australia Kangaroos. However, you can relive the experience by listening to team manager David Pruess’s lament in the form of a rap song at YouTube. Warning: I did not say you have to watch it, only that you can watch it.

So that brings us to last night’s match against the Seattle Sluggers. Any team with Hikaru Nakamura on board one is a team to be reckoned with, but the Sluggers were coming off their own disappointment last week, a 9½ – 6½ loss to the Dallas Destiny. Who would recover faster?

The first round went quite well for the Mechanics. The big stop-the-presses result was a win by our third board, Andrew Hong, against Grandmaster Gabriel Sargisian. However, this outstanding result was partially negated by a very disappointing draw by our second board, Daniel Naroditsky, against Bryce Tiglon. Danya found a neat tactic that appeared to just win the game outright, but he somehow got too sloppy in the followup. Tiglon had two rooks against a queen and bishop, but the bishop was very ineffective and the rooks had constant checkmate threats against Danya’s king. Plus, Danya’s flag was hanging. So he had to bail out to a draw by perpetual check.

So the good news was that we were ahead, 2½-1½, our first lead of the season. The bad news was that our lead really should have been 3-1. That game by Naroditsky would set the tone for the rest of the night. We kept dropping half points: draws that should have been wins, losses that should have been draws.

Round two was uneventful, as the favorites all won, leading to a 2-2 tie for the round that left us with a 4½-3½ lead. Wang Hao (our “secret weapon” on board one) played a truly magnificent double-rook endgame against Tiglon. On the team broadcast, commentators Andy Lee and Josiah Stearman were agog at the smoothness and precision of Hao’s technique. “That’s a grandmaster move!” Lee kept saying.

But in round three, disaster struck — in fact, several disasters. First, Nakamura pulled out an ingenious win in what had seemed to be a probably drawn opposite-color bishops endgame against Naroditsky. Rooks were still on the board, and Naka found a nice way to sacrifice a pawn in order to advance his a-pawn to a7, where it was protected by his bishop. Naroditsky’s rook was forced to blockade on a8 and could not be protected by his bishop (if I remember correctly, there was a pawn on c6). Hikaru was able to methodically move his rook to h7, b7, and b8, trapping Danya’s rook in the corner and forcing submission. A very thematic winning procedure.

Meanwhile, our fourth board, Ladia Jirasek, played too passively against Tiglon and our third board, Andrew Hong, botched a superior position against the much lower-rated Jason Yu and was only able to draw. Suddenly, instead of being a point ahead, we were a point behind going into the last round.

The last round is always exciting because the players are in theory evenly matched: first board against first, second against second, etc. Just as in the other rounds, and the match as a whole, we seemed to start out well but then run into problems. Ladia, on fourth board, won impressively from what had seemed like a dull-as-dishwater position with no queens and with all center pawns gone. It seemed as if we would get massive exchanges and a draw, but Ladia managed to keep the pieces on the board and whip up a strong attack, and then Yu’s flag fell.

But every other game followed the same discouraging script: decent position followed by groveling for a draw followed by resignation. On board one, Nakamura completed a truly impressive 4-0 performance by outplaying Wang Hao in the endgame. It looked as if Hao had decent drawing chances with a rook and two pawns against rook, bishop and one pawn. In the broadcast, Lee said, “If you’re going to be a piece down, this is the way to do it.” But Naka, blitzing out his moves, found a way to give back the piece and go into a winning ending of king and one pawn versus king and one pawn. It was very clear that Hikaru knew exactly where his pieces had to go and had seen the win a long time earlier. On board two, Naroditsky evidently felt the pressure to go for a win against Sargisian, played a dubious exchange sac and lost. And on board three, Hong got into an insanely tactical position against Tiglon where Hong’s rook was en prise for about six moves in a row and his bishop was also intermittently en prise, but he had lots of cheapo threats against Tiglon’s king. It was impossible to tell for a while whether Hong would find enough tactics to save both his rook and bishop. But in the end, Tiglon found a simple little intermezzo that not only Hong but also the commenters, Lee and Stearman, completely overlooked. “This just shows we have no idea what’s going on,” Lee said.

So the final result was 6½ – 9½, another bad loss after what had seemed like a promising start. Everyone on the team had reasons to be disappointed. Wang Hao, on board one, played elegantly in his first three games but surprisingly looked overmatched by the Hikaru juggernaut in the last game. Daniel Naroditsky, on board two, dropped two critical half-points and then had a complete flame-out in the last round (partially due to the match situation) and continues to look rusty. Hong, on board three, had a super-impressive victory against a GM in round one but then had two losses and a draw that felt like a loss. Jirasek, on board four, had a solid 1-3 result and fought hard, but in the end all he did was beat the guy he was supposed to beat and lose to the guys he was supposed to lose to.

By contrast, the kind of lineup you need to win in this league seems to be something like this: super-GM on board one who is a threat to go 4-0 almost every week; solid GM on board two who draws other GM’s with no effort and is lights-out against anybody lower; scary prodigy on board three who has an FM rating but, at least intermittently, GM strength; and a young player on board four who doesn’t get too discouraged at being beaten by the “big boys,” can beat the other board fours and occasionally put a scare into the board twos and board threes. So far it doesn’t seem as if we have found any of those pieces yet.

Next week will be interesting, with the first “battle royale” where eight teams play against each other simultaneously and bonus points will be awarded on the basis of cumulative score. It’s the first of three “battle royales” in the season, and offers a unique opportunity for teams that have started poorly (i.e., us) to make up a lot of ground. Hopefully this will be our week to be chuffed, not gutted.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Smith January 24, 2019 at 8:52 am

Thanks for the nice play by play account of things. Is there a website where one can replay some of these games? It’s as though you’re artfully displaying tasty-looking food, but not giving out any real samples. If I were easily able to replay some of these games I’d be chuffed as little mint balls.

Nice use of “disemboweling” at the hands (?) of the Kangaroos, btw.

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admin January 24, 2019 at 9:36 am

Larry, good point (and use of “chuffed”)! There are games at https://www.prochessleague.com/2019-games.html, but they are running behind. Week three is done, but they only have games for weeks one and two. I did write down a few key positions from the match, such as Naroditsky’s combination gone wrong against Tiglon in round one. It was really cool because in one variation it looks as if Naroditsky wins by a zugzwang in the middlegame — a rare but beautiful sight! However, I decided not to show it because I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I copied down the position right. These are fast games and sometimes two or three moves have passed between the time I start writing down the position and when I finish. I guess I could use a screen capture, but my 19th century Luddite brain never thinks of such solutions.

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