Another Rip Van Winkle Story

by admin on September 3, 2017

In 2014, GM James Tarjan returned to tournament chess after an absence of three decades, and I wrote a post about him called Rip Van Winkle Returns. Last week a friend’s Facebook post reminded me of another, less well-known “Rip Van Winkle” chess player — the terror of Ohio chess in the early 1990s, Boris Men.

Men appeared completely out of the blue in 1991 and started winning tournament after tournament. His signature opening was one that you hardly ever see strong players use: the Albin Counter Gambit, 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e5!? It’s an opening that I still think fondly of, because I played it regularly as Black in my early days in chess, as a class-D and C player. But Men played it a whole lot better than I ever did; I haven’t touched it for years and years.

Curiously, I don’t think that Men was a tactical wild man, which you might expect from an opening like this. I think that he liked it because it gave him really active pieces and a strong bind; he would be a pawn down, but that didn’t really matter to him. In the prototypical Men victory, he would let White stew in an uncomfortable position until he made a tactical mistake, and then seize the opportunity. My only tournament game against him illustrates this approach perfectly.

Men’s USCF rating soon climbed over 2600 and he qualified for the 1992 U.S. Championship. The other players must have been wondering, “Who is this guy?” All of the other players in the field of 16 were known quantities: Patrick Wolff (who eventually won the tournament), Joel Benjamin, Yasser Seirawan, Walter Browne, … None of them had ever played or heard of Boris Men before.

Except for the Russian emigres! If my memory of the Chess Life article about the tournament is correct, they knew who Boris Men was, and that was his undoing. He had been a promising junior player, a year older than Anatoly Karpov. However, he was not quite good enough to cut it as a professional (which, if you’re competing with the likes of Karpov, is quite understandable). Thus he had a good Soviet chess education, but one that had been cut short around the mid-60s. All of his openings were 30 years out of date. Once the GMs figured this out, they were able to shred him with 25-year-old analysis. The results were not pretty. Men won his games against Walter Browne, Roman Dzindzichashvili, and Kamran Shirazi — a pretty impressive accomplishment — but that was not enough to overcome the drumbeat of losses against the other players. He finished 15th out of 16 players, with 3 wins, 8 losses and 4 draws.

And with that, Men’s career at the national level was basically over. He never played in another U.S. championship. He continued to play in the Ohio area through 1998 but has been inactive since then. He is on the very short list of people who have finished in the top 16 of a U.S. championship without ever holding an IM or GM title. As far as I can tell, the list (since 1992) is exactly three names long:

  1. FM Boris Men, 15th place, 1992
  2. FM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun, 14th place, 1997 (* – there were two sections, and Sammour-Hasbun was seventh in one of them)
  3. FM Tyler Hughes, tie for 16th place, 2009

Both Sammour-Hasbun and Hughes qualified for the US Championship by winning the US Junior, which explains how they were able to qualify even though they had unusually low ratings. All three of them have had prolonged absences, which may be one reason why they only made it to FIDE Master. Sammour-Hasbun has played only sporadically in tournament chess since 2000, although he has been very successful in online chess. He came back and made a second appearance in the U.S. Championship in 2013 but didn’t do very well, finishing 23rd out of 24. Tyler Hughes is also AWOL; he hasn’t played in a tournament since 2015. All three of these guys had the talent to be IMs at least, and perhaps Sammour-Hasbun or Hughes could still make it if they care enough.

I’m not sure when, if ever, we will see another untitled player or FM playing in the U.S. Championship. The tournament is now down to 12 players, and the organizers in St. Louis, who have run the tournament since 2009, seem to like it that way. You can still qualify for it by winning the US Junior championship, I believe. But nowadays, the US Junior also is chock full of players with IM or GM titles, so winning the tournament as a “mere” FIDE Master will be really, really hard.

Anyway, let’s get back to Boris Men. I would like to show you the game I played with him, during his brief period of glory.

Dana Mackenzie – Boris Men, 1992 Columbus Open

1. d4 … I wanted to test myself against Men’s Albin Counter Gambit.

1. … d5 2. c4 e5 3. dc d4 4. Nf3 Nc5 5. a3 …

albin 2Position after 5. a3. Black to move.

FEN: r1bqkbnr/ppp2ppp/2n5/4P3/2Pp4/P4N2/1P2PPPP/RNBQKB1R b KQkq – 0 5

According to ChessBase this is the second most popular move for White, the most popular being 5. g3. There are a couple ideas behind it. First, White hints that he would like to play 6. e3 next (a move that could not be played immediately because 5. e3? is met by 5. … Bb4+). Second, White hints that b2-b4 might be coming in the future, a threat that may make Black think twice about castling queenside (which is his normal plan in the Albin). Men’s next move is intended to prevent 6. e3.

5. … Bg4 6. Nbd2 Nge7 7. h3 …

Putting the question to the bishop. Black can win back the pawn if he wants, with 7. … Bxf3 8. Nxf3 Ng6, but after 9. e3 fe 10. Bxe3 Nxe5 11. Nxe5 Nxe5 I still agree with what I wrote in my notebook 25 years ago: “White is the only player with winning chances, thanks to the two bishops and open position.” Given our rating difference, with him at 2600 and me at 2200, Men could not be happy about playing such a line, so he retreated his bishop.

7. … Be6 8. Nb3 …

From watching Men’s games I saw that his opponents tended to get tangled-up positions, so I thought that it was worth trading the c-pawn for the d-pawn in order to improve my development.

8. … Bxc4 9. Nbxd4 Qd7 10. b3 Bd5 11. Bb2 O-O-O

albin 3Position after 11. … O-O-O. White to move.

FEN: 2kr1b1r/pppqnppp/2n5/3bP3/3N4/PP3N1P/1B2PPP1/R2QKB1R w KQ – 0 12

A good place to pause and assess what’s going on. Going over the game 25 years later, I thought that I played a little bit too passively here, and I should try 12. Qc2, with the idea of castling long and pushing the pawn to e4 (instead of e3). For example, a line like 12. … Nxd4 13. Nxd4 Ng6 14. e4 looks promising for White. I get the two bishops and I don’t even have to worry too much about defending the e-pawn; I can let Black take it and get a nice mobile center after an eventual … Nxe4 f2-f4.

However, Rybka threw some cold water on my idea. After 12. Qc2 Nxd4 13. Nxd4 Black plays 13. … Nc6!, which at first looks harmless until you realize that 14. Nxc6? is met by 14. … Bxb3! (diagram)

albin 4Position after 14. … Bxb3 (analysis).

FEN: 2kr1b1r/p1p2ppp/2p5/4P3/8/Pb5P/1B2PPP1/R3KB1R w KQ – 0 17

Actually I think that White might be okay here after 15. Qc1, but there’s no question Black is the one in the driver’s seat. This is the type of tactical trick that White can easily fall into in the Albin.

So, back to the second diagram. In fact 12. Qc2 doesn’t seem to be that much better than what I played, the more cautious

12. e3. But now Men plays a really nice move, a move that when played by a 1600-strength player looks just like a routine capture, but when played by a 2600-strength player turns out to be full of venom.

12. … Nxd4! White has four different ways to recapture, but all of them have flaws of one sort or another. If (a) 13. Qxd4 Nc6 14. Qc3 Bxf3! 15. gf Nxe5! once again exploits the threat of checkmate on d2. If (b) 13. Bxd4 Nf5 I don’t really see anything better for White than giving the pawn back with an inferior position after a move like 14. Be2. (c) 13. ed might actually be the best move, but I didn’t like it because I thought it gave Black exactly the kind of position he wants. My extra pawn is securely blockaded and his bishops have lots of targets. White will really have to struggle to make any headway here. So I chose the fourth option, which seemed to me as if it made the fewest concessions.

13. Nxd4 Ng6 But now, I realized to my horror that my intended move 14. Bd3? fails because of 14. … Bxg2 15. Bf5 (skewering the king and queen) Qxf5! winning a piece. My first tactical oversight in the game, and not the last. So I had to grit my teeth and defend the pawn with

14. f4. In all these gambit openings — Albin, Budapest, Staunton, Blackmar-Diemer — this is the sort of move you do not want to play. You save your pawn, but at the cost of creating huge weaknesses later. I no longer felt good about my position. On the other hand, there is still an onus on Black to prove that he really does have compensation for the pawn.

14. … Kb8 Very patient. Men is preparing his next move and also taking away any possibility of a king-queen skewer later on.

15. Qc2 c5 He does not want to let me get too comfortable. Also, this move sets a trap that I (of course) fell right into.

16. Bb5?! … The question mark is because I missed the trap. The exclam is because the unintentional piece sacrifice turns out to be not too bad. The alternative here was 16. Nf3, which the computer will tell you is the best move, but after 16. … Bxf3 17. gf Be7 White will not be able to castle and has all kinds of headaches.

16. … Qc7 And for the second time in four moves I smack my forehead, as I realize that I have botched it again. If 17. Nf3 Qa5+ loses a piece; if 17. Ne2 Bxg2 looks all shades of ghastly, with … Nh4 coming. Still, there is some hope…

17. Rc1 Qb6

albin 5Position after 17. Qb6. White to move.

FEN: 1k1r1b1r/pp3ppp/1q4n1/1BpbP3/3N1P2/PP2P2P/1BQ3P1/2R1K2R w K – 0 18

So what do you do as White in a position like this? “Obviously” you are losing a piece. The first thing to do is take a deep breath and get your wits about you. Second, you take a closer look at those “obvious” assumptions. In fact, it is not clear at all that Black can get away with taking the piece! There are problems on the c-file, problems on the back rank, and problems with the queen possibly becoming trapped. So White should not give up yet. The question is how to exploit the temporary disharmony in Black’s pieces.

18. O-O! Correctly figuring out that Black does not want to take on d4 yet. For example, if 18. … cd 19. Bxd4 Qa5 20. b4 Bxb4 21. ab Qxb5 22. Qc7+ Ka1 23. Ra1 a6 24. Rxa6+! White wins Black’s queen for two rooks and has at least an even game. Men said after the game that he was a little bit worried here. However, he didn’t lose his cool either. He played

18. … Be7!, which gets out of the unpleasant back-rank threats — and leaves me still with two pieces hanging! I believe that I was once again caught unprepared by this move. When you play people under 2200 and you offer a piece sacrifice, they almost always do one of two things:

  1. Take it, or
  2. Decline it out of fear.

But a 2600 player picks door number three: he declines it out of cunning. He figures out a way to defend the threats and still leaves you with the problem of what to do about the piece that you have so generously put en prise. That is, in effect, the point of Men’s last move. He asks: “Okay, now how are you going to justify your piece sacrifice?” I failed the test.

albin 6Position after 18. … Be7. White to move.

FEN: 1k1r3r/pp2bppp/1q4n1/1BpbP3/3N1P2/PP2P2P/1BQ3P1/2R2RK1 w – – 0 19

The thing I hate about my next move is that it doesn’t even pass the “sniff test.” It doesn’t look like the right move. It’s a craven retreat that doesn’t improve my position in any way:

19. Ba4? …

The move I should have played instead was 19. Qe2! If Black takes the piece he still comes under a merciless attack: 19. … cd? 20. Bxd4 Qa5 21. b4 Qxa3 22. Ra1 Qxb4 23. Bxa7+ and White wins. A somewhat better try for Black is to postpone the decision one more move with 19. Qe2 a6 20. Ba4 cd, but now¬† after 21. Bxd4 Qa5 22. Bc3 Qc7 23. Bd4 Black faces an unappetizing choice: allow an immediate draw by repetition with 23. … Qa5 or go into an endgame where White has four pawns for a piece, after 23. … Bc6 24. Bxc6 bc 25. Qxa6 Qb7 (25. … Rc8? 26. Rxc6! anyway) 26. Rxc6.

Given the 400-point rating gap and the fact that I had already made a couple missteps, the draw by repetition would not have come as a disappointment to me. So why didn’t I see 19. Qe2? I think I was too stuck on the idea that the queen’s role was to break into Black’s position on c7. I was also too stuck on the idea that the target was Black’s king. After 18. … Be7 I had to adjust my thinking and realize that Black’s queen is now the main target.

But in truth, everything would have been all right if not for one little twist that Men saw and I didn’t.

19. … cd! Bravo! A lesser player would have chickened out.

20. Bxd4 Qa5 21. b4 Qa6 22. Qc7+ Ka8 23. f5 …

albin 7Position after 23. f5. Black to move.

FEN: k2r3r/ppQ1bppp/q5n1/3bPP2/BP1B4/P3P2P/6P1/2R2RK1 b – – 0 23

Black had to foresee this position and had to see his game-saving response back when he took the knight on move 19. It looks pretty dire for Black. If 23. … Nh4 24. Qxe7 and White recovers his material. What is Black’s saving resource?

23. … Nxe5!! Double exclams for originality and depth of analysis. After 24. Qxe7 Nd3! 25. Rc3 Qxa4 26. Rxd3 Qc2! both attacks the rook on d3 and threatens mate on g2. The latter point is the one I overlooked.

Remember, Men had to see all of this back on move 19. This illustrates a point that is universally true among GM-level players: they see the whole board. Back when the queen was cowering on a6, it would have been impossible for us ordinary mortals to see her delivering checkmate on g2 eight moves later. What can I say? I just got outplayed.

24. Bxe5 Bg5 Everything in the position conspires in Black’s favor. White doesn’t have time to rescue the bishop on a4 because Bxe3 forks the king and rook instead. All of a sudden, the game is just over.

25. Bd4 Qxa4 and white resigned on move 36.

All in all, a pretty exciting game; I think that Men got a workout. So, what does the 2600 player have that the 2200 player doesn’t? Here are some answers:

  1. Flexibility. For example, I had a pre-conceived notion that I was going to win the game by penetrating with my queen to c7, and didn’t consider other options. I was inflexible.
  2. Whole-board vision. Again, I just can’t say enough about that idea of … Qa6-a4-c2-g2 mate.
  3. Tactical awareness on both sides. Looking at my thinking process, I think that I was very aware of tactical possibilities for myself, but I was constantly missing the tactics for my opponent. I missed his idea of 14. Bd3 Bxg2 15. Bf5 Qxf5 (that is, I missed it on move 13, and only saw it on move 14). I missed his idea of 17. Nf3 Qa5+ until it was too late and I had already committed myself to a piece sac. Finally, I missed his admittedly spectacular defense 23. … Nxe5!! Don’t forget that your opponent is smart, too! You should put in as much work looking for his tactical shots as your own.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Kuhner September 4, 2017 at 1:20 pm

Tarjan is right this moment tied for first in my section of the Oregon Open! (Though due to terrible play on my part I’ve never come close to getting to play him.) He beat the Oregon Champion, Matt Zavortink, a couple rounds ago. One round to go.


Mary Kuhner September 6, 2017 at 7:23 am

He won the Open with a nice win vs. FM Breckenridge, who has been hot lately.


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