Brutal. Epic. Fail.

by admin on March 7, 2019

Someone get David Pruess an ice-cold Yoo-Hoo, because he’s gonna need it.

The San Francisco Mechanics’ manager was speechless after our unbelievable last-round meltdown last night. He looked like Sheldon Cooper in the TV show “Big Bang Theory,” who wrote a paper he thought would win the Nobel Prize, only to find out that an obscure Russian physicist had already proved his idea was wrong. Only one thing could console Sheldon: lighting his paper on fire and drinking “an ice-cold Yoo-Hoo.”

It was funny on television. But last night’s match against the Minnesota Blizzard sure felt like having the Nobel Prize right in front of you, and then having it snatched away. The prize that the Mechanics were coveting, a playoff spot in the PRO Chess League, now appears to be very likely out of reach.

Let’s back up and take it from the beginning. Going into this week’s action, the Mechanics were in sixth place in the Pacific Division of the PRO Chess League and breathing down the necks of Australia and San Jose, the fourth and fifth-place teams. We needed a big win against the Minnesota Blizzard, the third-place team, to stay in contention for a playoff berth. Australia was facing the last-place team, San Diego, and we had to figure that they were heavy favorites to win that match. (In fact they did, by 11-5.)

For the first three rounds, the match was a dream come true. We (the Mechanics) were going with a lineup that has been playing very well for us – Daniel Naroditsky on board one, Steven Zierk on board two, and Andrew Hong on board four. On board three we had a new player who had not previously competed for us this season – Bartek Macieja, the chess coach at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In the first two rounds, Bartek turned out to be an inspired addition to the team, winning both of his games (including a victory against the Blizzard’s top board, Andrew Tang). That made the difference in both rounds, as we won each of them by a 2½- 1½ score.

Then in the third round, everything clicked. Daniel turns in a masterpiece at least once every week, and his game against Thomas Beerdsen was an absolute clinic in the power of the bishop pair. Our fourth board, Andrew Hong, scored a win against grandmaster Nikola Mitkov, a huge upset. Bartek agreed to a draw against Brandon Jacobson in a position where he could perhaps have pushed for more, but a draw was certainly reasonable. Finally, Steven saved a draw in the endgame against Tang. That gave us an 8-4 lead, clinching at least a tie in the match. All we needed to win the match was one draw out of four games in the last round.

But there’s a funny thing about being ahead 8-4. You start thinking defensively (at least if you are a spectator). You start asking, “Who is going to get the draw?” It would be different if the team were ahead, say, 7-5, because then you know that you still have to play some fighting chess. We had a situation like this last week, when we were ahead of the Dallas Destiny 8-4 but got into trouble on three out of four boards.

A similar scenario unfolded this week. Daniel, who had played like Capablanca in the first three rounds, for some reason channeled Bent Larsen this round, and not in a good way. He played 1. b3, followed up with h3 and g4 a few moves later, and ended up with pawn weaknesses all over the place. Bartek floundered as Black in an accelerated Dragon where White played an unusual move order. Steven’s position went downhill fast. Once again, we needed Andrew to save us as he had against Dallas.

And it really looked as if he would. He had an absolutely un-loseable position, a Rook and opposite colored bishop endgame where he had the only passed pawn and his pieces were more active. His opponent kept trying to trade rooks – basically just conceding the draw in order not to lose.

But here’s the thing about Andrew. He is extremely obstinate. He hates draws. In fact, against Mitkov one round earlier he had a very similar situation, an OCB endgame with rooks where he had a slight advantage. In that game he kept on pressing for a win and was rewarded with a pretty checkmate. So of course he was going to do the same thing against Jacobson.

“But… but.. but… what about the match situation?” you might ask. Well, I’m not sure that he knew that we were lost or losing on the other three boards. That’s one reason that it’s bad to have your four team members playing in four different locations. In a normal team tournament he would have known that the team desperately needed him to take a draw, and I hope that he would have swallowed his pride and accepted it.

So, with David Pruess and all the fans of the Mechanics looking on in disbelief, Andrew refused to trade rooks. Then he made a mistake and lost a pawn. The game was still probably a draw – R + B + 2P versus R + B + P, with opposite-colored bishops, but then an unbelievable disaster struck. Andrew set up a helpmate in two moves, moving his bishop to a square that took away his king’s only flight square.

Ironically, this had also happened to Andrew just last week – walking into a checkmate in an endgame, with his king in the middle of the board. Fortunately, that one didn’t cost us the match. But this mistake enabled the Blizzard to catch up, 8-8. It was quite likely the first time that any team has made up a four-point deficit in the last round of a match in the PRO Chess League. And it happened at the absolute worst time for us, because we needed a win to stay in contention for the playoffs. It was just a disaster in every conceivable way.

David, who was commenting on the game, was so stunned by the turn of events that he couldn’t even speak. Fortunately, his co-broadcaster Andy Lee kept his wits about him and said something that I think was very important: you can’t blame this on Andrew. He played the way that he always plays, and he may not have known the match situation, and in any case there were three other players who also lost their games and were equally responsible for our collapse.

In fact, I will also take some blame for the catastrophe. I sent out an e-mail to everyone on the team yesterday saying let’s go for a 16-0 whitewash! “I’ll settle for 15-1,” I wrote. It sounds pretty arrogant now. Who knows? Maybe my e-mail put the thought in everybody’s heads that we should not just settle for a win, we should try to win big. So everybody over-pressed in the last round.

There is one silver lining to the dark cloud. Although it seems like ancient history, we did actually play three really good rounds and we did tie the match, not lose it. That means we put more distance between ourselves and the seventh-place team, the Seattle Sluggers. In order to avoid relegation (i.e., to stay in the league next year) we only need to stay ahead of them. Here are the standings after last night’s play:

  1. Chengdu – 186
  2. Dallas – 178
  3. Minnesota – 169.5
  4. Australia – 156
  5. San Jose – 146
  6. San Francisco – 141
  7. Seattle – 127.5
  8. San Diego – 89

We are not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, but to qualify for the playoffs we would need a really strong performance in the Battle Royale next week coupled with a subpar performance by the Australia Kangaroos. Oh well, crazier things have happened!

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