So Many Things Happening!

by admin on September 6, 2016

I feel guilty for not writing any posts for the last week when there are so many things happening in the chess world. The past weekend was the traditional weekend for state championships in the U.S. Also, halfway across the world, the Chess Olympiad is going on in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Let me start local and move to global. I did not play in the California championship this year — a tournament I almost always play in. But this year, as you’ve probably noticed, I am hardly playing in any tournaments, because I’m too busy with my book. Instead I have to watch from afar (via the Internet) and feel envious of those who are playing.

Anyway, the northern California championship was SUPER strong this year, with two grandmasters (Parimarjan Negi 2732 and Zviad Izoria 2687), along with one 2500 player (IM Steven Zierk) and five 2400s. Plus, there was the usual gaggle of kids who aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license but are nevertheless old enough to crush unsuspecting masters.

Somewhat predictably, Negi and Izoria tied for first at 5½ points, drawing with each other and beating everyone else, even the upset-minded teenagers. IM Ricardo de Guzman, who usually wins these events, tied for third with Michael Wang. One of my Facebook friends, Michael Aigner, scored one of the best upsets of the tournament when he beat Zierk in round two. However, so strong was the competition that it was the only game Michael won, and he finished 3-3. He was a little bit disappointed, but for us 2200 players even a 3-3 score was actually good at an event like this.

Two more of my Facebook friends, Mike Zaloznyy and Jason Cigan, played a little farther north, in the Oregon state championship. They actually faced each other in round five, as Mike got off to a blazing 4-0 start (all against experts, he pointed out) and Jason started 3½-½. For Mike, the last day was a disaster, as he lost to both Cigan and Chris Chase, who won the tournament. His Facebook posts were full of moaning about how he never does well in crunch time, he doesn’t get enough sleep, and his chess isn’t making any progress and why does he keep doing it? Reading his posts, I think he was beaten psychologically, or at least half beaten, before he even started. It also seemed to me as if he played scared. When his opponents offered pawn sacs, he didn’t take them even though it looked as if he could. Possibly he doesn’t like to defend. I can understand; I don’t like defense either, and I also have a tendency to not take the material when it’s offered to me. Dear Mike: Don’t let them get away with it! Take the blankety-blank pawn! Signed, Dana.

On the other hand, Jason used his win over Mike as a springboard to second place and an even more important milestone: his first National Master rating! Congratulations, Jason! Even though I think we all pay more attention to ratings than we should, nevertheless getting your rating over 2200 is, for most of us, such a long long struggle that it deserves recognition.

Okay, now let’s talk about that other little tournament going on in Baku. Eighty-five nations* vying for world supremacy. And unlike in the real world, a level playing field.

* Correction posted 9/7: Sorry, I got this wrong. The pairing sheet for round six had 85 boards, and I mistakenly thought it was a list of the standings and there were 85 teams. So the number of teams still participating is (about) 170. There are some technicalities… not all the teams participating are countries, and Azerbaijan as host gets three teams… so I won’t try to figure out the exact number of countries.

So far five rounds have been completed, and three countries are tied for first with perfect 5-0 scores: Ukraine, India, and the Netherlands. I mentioned Ukraine first because they have to be the story of the tournament so far, knocking off both the #1 and #3 seeds, Russia and China. Tomorrow they get a chance to make it a clean sweep of the top three seeds, because they are paired against the #2-seeded United States team.

For most of my life the U.S. has been a plucky underdog at the World Chess Olympiads, and so it is a little bit strange and disorienting to see us as the second seed and one of the overdogs. (Is that a word?) But what can you say about a team with Fabiano Caruana on board one and Hikaru Nakamura on board two except, WOW!

Let me repeat that for full effect. Hikaru Nakamura on board two. Let it sink in. Also Sam Shankland, the gold medal-winning alternate at the last Olympiad, available for board three or four, depending.

So far the first five rounds have been pretty routine for the U.S. Four rather easy wins and one 2-2 tie, against the Czech Republic, in which we drew on all boards. But next round is clearly when the rubber hits the road. Either we justify our lofty seeding, or else the path is clear for the Ukrainians to achiever world domination. (Or the Netherlands. Remember what I said about an even playing field?)

To give you a sense of how great it is to have Hikaru Nakamura on board two (I’m going to keep saying that!), take a look at his game today against Robert Markus, a 2662-rated GM from Serbia.

naka 1Position after 21. Nf4. Black to play.

FEN: 4rbk1/1bqn4/pp1pp1p1/4n2p/P2BPN2/1N1BQ2P/1PP3P1/R5K1 b – – 0 21

Hikaru is White, and he clearly has slightly the better of the position. Black has three pawn islands and has weaknesses at b6, e6 and g6. Nevertheless, I was expecting Markus to play 21. … Bh6 here, after which I think he is okay. In fact, there is a little drop of poison in that move. White is more or less forced to play 22. Qg3, but then after 22. … Bxf4 23. Qxf4 Nxd3 24. cd e5 it looks as if Black is winning a piece. How would Nakamura save the game? See the diagram below if you want to figure it out.

naka 2Position after 24. … e5 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 4r1k1/1bqn4/pp1p2p1/4p2p/P2BPQ2/1N1P3P/1P4P1/R5K1 w – – 0 25

There are actually a couple answers, but the basic idea is to attack the g-pawn: 25. Qh6, and Black cannot capture the bishop because of 25. … ed?? 26. Qxg6+ Kf8 27. Rf1+ Ke7 28. Qg5+! (Did you see this? Zero credit if you didn’t.) However, Black can play more calmly with 25. … Re6 or 25. … Nf8 (Rybka likes the first better) and have a completely playable game.

The point of this is not that Hikaru missed anything — in fact, I feel certain that he saw this when he played 21. Nf4 and still felt it was still a reasonable variation for White, and at least as good as anything else.

However, Markus definitely missed something, because he played instead 21. … Qd8? leading to diagram 3.

naka 3Position after 21. … Qd8. White to move.

FEN: 3qrbk1/1b1n4/pp1pp1p1/4n2p/P2BPN2/1N1BQ2P/1PP3P1/R5K1 w – – 0 22

My first question is: Why don’t 2600 players ever play moves like this against me?! I’m joking, of course. I never even get a chance to play 2600 players. Besides that, even if they made a mistake like this I would probably be too in awe of them to see why it’s a mistake.

Hikaru replied with a move that caused his opponent to resign immediately. Do you see what he did?

The answer is

(space inserted in case you want to think about it)

22. Nxg6!

If you didn’t see this, don’t feel bad. I didn’t understand it at first either. I mean, I get the concept that it’s a deflection sacrifice followed by a sweeper, e4-e5. But the trouble is that 22. … Nxg6 23. e5? is just completely ineffective after 23. … Ndxe5.

What I missed, and Markus evidently missed, too, is the sneaky zwischenzug 22. … Nxg6 23. Qg3! Palm hits forehead. Black has no good way to defend the knight. If 23. … Nde5 24. Bxe5 wins a piece; if 23. … Kf7 24. Rf1+ is death; and if 23. … Kh7 now 24. e5! is a million times stronger than it was before.

Actually the best thing for Markus to do is just let Nakamura have the piece, with 23. … Bg7 or something. But the h-pawn is eventually going to fall, too, so Markus just didn’t think there was any point in playing on.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Schmidt September 6, 2016 at 5:19 pm

I think having Wesley So on board 3 is an even bigger coup than having Nakamura on board 2!


Mary Kuhner September 7, 2016 at 7:28 am

I was happy to see Jason do so well in Oregon. At last year’s Oregon Open he was just in striking distance of master when I got to play my best game of the year, or perhaps of a lifetime, versus him; nice for me but very frustrating for him.

It was an intense tournament in general: lots of upset wins and draws for the underrated kids, but the adults managed to come up on top.


Mary Kuhner September 7, 2016 at 9:59 am

I should say, though, that it’s the Oregon Open, not the State Championship (which is a closed tournament).


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