When Second Feels Like First

by admin on February 20, 2019

There are only three words to describe the San Francisco Mechanics’ performance in the PRO Chess League last night:

Danya! Danya! Danya!

But if I were allowed three more words, they would be:

Epic. Unbelievable. Comeback.

Either description is perfect. But first, let me back up and set some context. Going into week 7 (out of 10) of the PRO Chess League, the Mechanics were in seventh place (out of eight) in their division. That’s not good. In fact, it puts us in danger of being “relegated” (i.e., we would have to play a qualifying tournament just to get into the league next year). It’s very important to at least get into sixth place to avoid relegation, and this means that we need to catch one of two teams: the Seattle Sluggers or the San Jose Hackers, who are currently in sixth and fifth places respectively.

This week’s matches were very important because they were conducted in Battle Royale format, which means that instead of playing a match against one team, we played in a round robin against seven other teams. The stakes are higher in a Battle Royale: first place gets you 24 points, second gets you 20 points, etc. Compare that to a regular match, where winning gets you 10 points, and you can see that the Battle Royale gives you an exceptional chance to move forward in the standings – in essence, you can win two matches in one week.

The lineup for this week’s Battle Royale looked very challenging. Just take a look at the ratings of the first boards for the eight teams:

  1. Fabiano Caruana, St. Louis Arch Bishops (2827)
  2. Ding Liren, Chengdu Pandas (2804)
  3. Hikaru Nakamura, Seattle Sluggers (2763)
  4. Le Quang Liem, Webster Windmills (2715)
  5. Adhiban Baskaran, Mumbai Movers (2668)
  6. Ahmed Adly, Delhi Dynamite (2630)
  7. Daniel Naroditsky, San Francisco Mechanics (2615)
  8. Anton Smirnov, Australia Kangaroos (2549)

Four super-GMs! Even though Daniel (Danya) Naroditsky has been playing very well for us, he would be the favorite in only one game. Going by the ratings, he would be expected to score 3 out of 7, and even a level score of 3½-3½ would be quite a good result. So when I tell you that Danya scored 5½-1½, the best score of anybody on first board, you can tell that it was a pretty good night for the Mechanics!

As it turned out, we needed every one of those points, because this was an incredibly hard-fought Battle Royale, with huge changes in the standings right up to the very end. Here was the situation going into the last round:

  1. St. Louis – 15
  2. Chengdu – 13
  3. Seattle – 12.5
  4. Webster – 12.5
  5. Delhi – 12.5
  6. San Francisco – 12
  7. Australia – 11.5
  8. Mumbai – 7

As you can see, in spite of Danya’s heroics (4½ – 1½ to that point), things were looking kind of bleak. Even though our game score, 12-12, was not awful, we were in sixth place. But the good news was that there were lots of teams bunched up just ahead of us. We were paired against Australia in the last round. Meanwhile, St. Louis would play Chengdu (#1 vs. #2!), Seattle would play Delhi, and Webster would look to pick up some points against tail-ender Mumbai.

As it turned out, the pairing against Australia would be a lucky one for us, even though they routed us 10-6 in our match in week two. We were both “balanced” teams, and so each board would be a matchup of roughly equally-rated players. As you can tell from the players listed above, most of the other teams had chosen “stacked” lineups with really strong players on the first one or two boards and a weak player on board four (to bring the average rating under 2500). I always love playing on a balanced team against a stacked team because you can pull off upsets – BUT it is hard to win by a large margin. You generally have mismatches on all four boards, and you just hope to pull out a draw in one of the games you are supposed to lose and thereby win the match, 2½-1½. By contrast (and irony), when you play a team that is rated close to you on all four boards, you expect a very hard-fought match but you also have at least a chance of getting lucky in all four of them and winning by a large margin, 3½-½ or even 4-0.

That’s what happened for us against Australia, as everything broke in our favor. On board three, Steven Zierk won fairly quickly, putting pressure on their other boards. On board four, Andrew Hong’s opponent sacrificed a piece but Andrew was able to keep his wits and pull out a draw. On board two, Vinay Bhat sacrificed a rook, most likely unsoundly, but his opponent had only seconds left and was not able to keep his wits. He blundered back the rook and then Vinay had an easily won endgame, for his only win of the night.

And finally, on board one, Danya had this epic battle that went down to a queen-versus pawn endgame.

Position after 1. Qxa7. Black to move.

FEN: 3r2k1/Q1p2pp1/2p2nq1/5bPp/2B1pP2/2N4P/PPP3K1/4R3 b – – 0 1

Anton Smirnov, who had sacrificed a pawn in the opening, has just won it back by playing 1. Qxa7, but this move temporarily leaves the kingside unguarded. Danya took advantage by playing the bold piece sacrifice, 1. … Bxh3+! What impressed me about this move is that it had to be played partially on intuition. The computer (Rybka) says that it is only good enough to equalize, but Danya correctly realizes that it will be White who has to come up with all the difficult moves.

For a while, Smirnov defended accurately. The game went 2. Kh2! (cleverly declining the sac but leaving both Black minors en prise) 2. … Qf5! (in for a penny, in for a pound) 3. gf Qxf4+ 4. Kxh3 Qg4+ 5. Kh2 Qh4+ 6. Kg2 Qxe1 7. Bxf7+!

I have a hunch that Danya might have missed this move, because you can only analyze so far ahead in a speed game, and there were lots of other variations to look at. But Danya kept his wits about him and declined the sham sacrifice with 7. … Kh7 8. Bxh5 e3! This move cuts Smirnov’s queen off from the defense, so Smirnov played 9. Qxc7, both defending and threatening mate on g2!

This kind of forced Danya to exchange into the queen endgame with 9. … Rd2+ 10. Be2 Rxe2+ 11. Nxe2 Qxe2+ 12. Kg3 Qf2+ 13. Kg4 Qg2+ 14. Qg3 Qe4+ (diagram)

Position after 14. .. Qe4+. White to move.

FEN: 8/6pk/2p2P2/8/4q1K1/4p1Q1/PPP5/8 w – – 0 14

So far Smirnov has defended very well, but in this super-difficult position he missed the only equalizing move (according to Rybka), which is 15. Kg5!! Seriously, how many of us would find such a computer move, with only seconds left on our clock? It looks as if White is marching forward to his doom, but this move strikes a perfect, magical balance between attack and defense. If Black plays aggressively, with (say) 15. … e2, then White can get a perpetual check with 16. Qh2+. If Black plays for exchanges with 15. … Qg6+, then White’s king gets back in time to defend the passed pawn with 16. Kf4.

Instead, Smirnov played the reasonable-looking 15. Kh3?, but the trouble is that Danya can simply play 15. … gf, winning back his pawn. The simplest move on the board is also the strongest. The position has clarified, and Danya clearly has great winning chances because of his advanced passed pawn. It turns out that the pawn on f6 also has an important role to play, as we’ll see.

Let’s fast-forward several moves and see how the game ended.

Position after 0. … Ke4. White to move.

FEN: 8/8/2p5/5p2/4k1q1/8/PPP1pQ1K/8 w – – 0 1

Here Danya has achieved the holy grail in a Q+P endgame: a position where he cannot be checked. Smirnov played 1. a4 Qf3 2. Qe1 and now something interesting happened. Danya played 2. … Qf1? 3. Qb4+ Ke5 4. Qe7+ Kf4, after which the computer says that White can achieve a perpetual check with 5. Qb4+!

I won’t attempt to go through the reams of analysis that would be necessary to confirm this, but no lengthy analysis is needed to understand why 2. … Qf1 was premature and an unnecessary risk. Black has two moves that win, both of them humble pawn moves. For people with a Nimzovichian, prophylactic approach to chess, 2. … c5! is a really nice move, taking away White’s main threat and thereby preparing 3. … Qf1. And for people who like to attack, 2. … f4! is also winning, because it threatens 3. … Qg3+. On 2. Qb4+ Black will play 2. … Ke3 and his king has two possible routes to find shelter, depending on White’s next move: he will either run his king to d2 (as in the game) or to f2. The lesson here is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Both 2. … c5 and 2. … f4 assist in defending the king from checks, and this assistance is critical so that Black’s queen can go to f1, a great attacking square but not such a good defensive square.

Another lesson here is to take your time! However, we can forgive Danya because “take your time” is the last thing you think of when you are down to less than 10 seconds on his clock. Both he and Smirnov were blitzing out moves at less than a second a move, and under such circumstances such finesses as 2. … c5 and 2. … f4 are the first things to be overlooked.

A final lesson is: All’s well that ends well! Because Smirnov erred with 5. Qh4+?, and this allows Black’s king to make a break for d2 and eventually c1, where White cannot check him. The game finished 5. … Ke3 6. Qg5+ f4 (yes, 6. … Qf4+ is easier) 7. Qe5+ Kd2 8. Qc3+ Kc1 9. b4 e1Q 10. Qa1+ Kxc2 11. Qa2+ Kd3 12. Qb3+ Qc3 and White resigned.

The most amazing thing about Danya’s night was that all of his wins were like this – epic, heart-pounding battles. It was truly an MVP performance.

Our 3½-½ victory in the match enabled the Mechanics to leap all the way into a tie for second place. In the other matches, Chengdu beat St. Louis 2½ – 1½, and Seattle beat Delhi 2½-1½, and last-place Mumbai salvaged their night by blowing out Webster, 4-0! These were the final standings:

  1. St. Louis – 16.5
  2. San Francisco – 15.5
  3. Chengdu – 15.5
  4. Seattle – 15
  5. Delhi – 14
  6. Webster – 12.5
  7. Australia – 12
  8. Mumbai – 11

It was by far the closest and hardest-fought of all the six Battle Royales so far, and St. Louis’s winning score of 16.5 was the lowest winning score yet. For us, aside from the overall good performance, a key point was that we gained ground on Seattle – not just half a point, but six and a half points, because we get an 18-point bonus (tying for second) while they get only a 12-point bonus for finishing fourth. We did not gain ground on Chengdu, the leader of our division, but that’s not as important because they are too far ahead of us in the standings for us to catch up. The ultimate goal for us is just to make it into fourth place and secure a spot in the playoffs. Also, it doesn’t matter that we finished behind St. Louis, because they are in a different division entirely.

Our exact new position in the standings is still uncertain, because there are two more Battle Royales yet to come on Thursday, in which some of our other divisional competitors, notably the Hackers, are playing. But no matter what happens on Thursday, we made very significant progress to our goals of avoiding relegation (i.e., finishing sixth or better in our division) and making the playoffs (i.e., finishing fourth or better in our division). 

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