Pomp and circumstance

by admin on June 15, 2008

Today I played my last game in the Santa Cruz Cup. After disappointing losses in my last two games, I was playing Black against Ilan Benjamin. With a win I would finish third; a draw or loss would relegate me to fourth place.

Coincidentally, this was also graduation day at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Ilan teaches and where we play our games in this tournament. I was a little bit surprised that Ilan would skip the commencement ceremony to play a chess game, but he said that he never goes to commencement unless he has a student who is graduating. He doesn’t care for the stuffy formal robes, and he also doesn’t like the speeches. Twenty years ago, he says, the speeches were all about excellence. Nowadays they are all about diversity, the politically correct catchword of our times. If excellence is mentioned, it’s “excellence through diversity.” He’s enough of a curmudgeon that this change rankles him.

As a faculty member in my previous career, I’ve been to quite a few graduations. I can tell you that nobody ever remembers what the speakers say for more than five minutes after they’ve finished. There are only two things on the students’ mind: get the diploma and open up the champagne! From their point of view, the only good speech is a short speech.

Still, all in all, I like graduations. I liked the closure of seeing my favorite students one more time, looking happy and triumphant instead of frantic and over-stressed. In some cases I really felt as if I had given them something. The parents are happy to get some tangible proof that all the money they spent on their kids’ education was not wasted. The faculty is happy because there are no more tests to grade, everybody will be gone soon, and they will have peace and quiet to do their research. Everybody is happy!

My game was very exciting, but ended up as “only” a draw. Ilan is very predictable in his openings — I knew I would face the Ruy Lopez. Usually I play the Bird Variation, but as often happens when you play the same line against someone twenty times, we have eventually worked out a line that leads to a boring draw. So for a change, I played the Archangel Variation, which Josh Friedel has lectured on several times for ChessLecture. Ilan played very unambitiously, with Nc3 instead of c3, heading into some version of a Four Knights Game. This gave me a minuscule advantage, and I did everything humanly possible to make something out of it:

White to move.

Here I have just played 12. … h5, offering a piece sacrifice. This is a pretty standard idea that comes up in the Ruy Lopez Exchange variation and also the Steinitz variation. If White plays 13. hg hg, he has to give the piece back because any knight move gives Black an instant mating attack on the h-file.

However, there is an extra wrinkle in this position: Ilan played 13. Nxc7+!, which deflects the Black queen away from its best diagonal. I played 13. … Qxc7 14. hg hg 15. Nh2 and now faced a big decision. Do I play 15. … g3, giving up the doomed g-pawn but trying to mess up White’s pawn structure? Or 15. … Rxh2, sacrificing the exchange in order to strip away White’s defenders? Or 15. … d5, threatening checkmate and busting open the center? Or 15. … O-O-O, calmly finishing my development? Or 15. … Ne5, for no particularly good reason?

I think that 15. … d5! is definitely the best move. There’s an important tactical trick behind it that you’ll see in a second. Ilan played 16. Nxg4, as I expected. I exchanged pawns with 16. … de 17. de, and now moved 17. … Ne5. One of the key points of … d5 is that Black has now unblocked the pawn on d4. So White cannot just trade knights with 18. Nxe5 Qxe5, because 19. f4 is met by 19. … d3+! (Also note that 19. g3 is met by 19. … Qxe4!, which does not lose the queen to 20. Re1 because 20. … Rh1 is checkmate.)

Again Ilan played the move I expected, 18. g3, and now I got a chance to reveal the other hidden point of 15. … d5:

Black to move.

(Space added in case you want to think about it.)

Now I uncorked a move that I am sure Ilan did not see coming — my second piece sacrifice of the game: 18. … Qd7! Of course, if he takes the knight, he gets checkmated: 19. Nxe5 Qh3 20. Bxf2+ Kd8 21. Nc6+ Kc7 and the spite checks have run out.

Just before I played this move, the band far down the hillside started playing “Pomp and Circumstance” to start the graduation ceremonies. We could hear the music coming in through the open windows of the classroom. What a fantastic combination, to play this beautiful sacrifice with such an appropriate sound track! DAH, duh-duh-duh DAH DAH! DAH, duh-duh-duh DAH! I could see myself marching down the aisle, waving to all my cheering fans …

Alas, White has a perfectly sound defense. It’s really his only defense, but it’s pretty easy to find. Ilan played 19. f3! O-O-O! (note that the knight on e5 is still taboo) 20. Kg2! Unfortunately, there’s nothing Black can really do to prevent White from playing Rh1, after which the attack along the h-file loses its oomph. Here the best move is probably 20. … Re8. According to the computer, Black still has a minuscule advantage, which can turn into a winning advantage only if White gets too greedy.

Instead I played 20. … Rh5, and Ilan replied with 21. Rh1. (If he were interested in playing for a win, he could have tried 21. Qe2, but I think that under the circumstances he was glad to give the pawn back and defuse my attack.) After 21. … Rxh1 22. Qxh1 Nxg4 23. Nxg4 Qxg4 24. Qh3 Qxh3 I offered a draw, and Ilan accepted. There’s just no hope of winning this opposite-colored bishop endgame.

What can I say? Although a draw was not what I wanted, I feel great about the way I played this game. It isn’t every game where you get to play two piece sacrifices that are completely sound. I made an excellent decision on move 15 based on deep analysis. Basically, I played all the best moves, but there just wasn’t a win in the position. That’s the way chess is sometimes.

To all graduating seniors, at UCSC, and around the world, congratulations!

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