More tasty Thanksgiving morsels

by admin on December 1, 2009

The CalChess State Championship may be over, but just like a tasty Thanksgiving dinner, it keeps on giving! I will write at least two more blog posts about it.

One thing that I enjoyed about this weekend’s tournament was having a chance to catch up with my old friend from North Carolina, Robin Cunningham. As I wrote in my previous entry, he is a former 2400-level player whose rating is now under 2300, but the rating is deceptive. He just hasn’t played very much in recent years. I’m glad to see him showing signs of getting back into tournament chess.

Robin had a very strange tournament this weekend. He tied for the under-2300 prize in spite of the fact that he played only three games, and drew all three of them! Here’s what happened. He took half-point byes in rounds 3 and 4, probably because he signed up for the 2-day schedule but didn’t want to play four games in one day. But there were five people in the 2-day Master section, so each round someone had to sit out. Originally Robin was paired with someone for round 2, but then there was a complaint about the pairings and they were re-done, and Robin got the full-point bye! So after four rounds, his result was: draw in round 1, full-point bye in round 2, half-point byes in rounds three and four. He completed his tournament with draws in rounds 5 and 6, thus ending with a score of 3½-2½.

It might seem as if he hardly deserved a prize for that performance, but actually the three games he did play were quite impressive. All three draws were against players of 2400 strength or higher: De Guzman, Zierk, and Zilberstein. One of Robin’s strengths is his fighting spirit, and he is very good at Houdini-like escapes from difficult positions. He demonstrated that in both of his games against the Z’s.

Robin showed me the game with Steven Zierk, which I thought was very impressive. I don’t remember all the moves, but here is the crucial position.

Black to move.

Obviously, Black is desperate here. He is down the exchange, and White is about to round up his pawn on a4. On the other hand, White has left the kingside unguarded. Can Black exploit that fact? Make sure that you go past the first move in your analysis, because there is a trick a couple moves later.

While you’re thinking, let me tell you about a really good ChessLecture I watched last week. Dennis Monokroussos presented a lecture called “The Best Trap is the One You Fall Into.” He said that if you discover your opponent is setting a trap for you, sometimes the best thing to do is to “fall into it.” Either you can analyze a little bit farther than your opponent, and place a counter-trap at the end of the trap, or sometimes you can spot a side variation that he missed (perhaps an in-between move). Your opponent will be so overjoyed that you fell into his trap that he will usually be completely unsuspecting that you have laid a trap for him!

That is exactly what Robin did in this position. He could tell from White’s last move (1. Qa6) that Zierk was daring him to sacrifice the bishop on f4. Zierk didn’t have to allow this move; he could have played more cautiously and he would have still had a winning position. But Zierk was so sure that he could stop Robin’s checks that he went ahead and dangled the tasty morsel in front of Robin’s face.

And so Robin “took the bait.”

1. … Bxf4! 2. gf …

Incidentally, White still had time to reconsider. He could have played 2. Rc2 and still be ahead in material. But as I said, the person who sets the trap seldom realizes that he is actually being set up. (Actually, the computer says that Black equalizes even after 2. Rc2, because … h4 is coming with the complete destruction of White’s kingside.)

2. … Qxf4+ 3. Ke1 …

Black to move.

And here Zierk was thinking that Black would play either 3. … Qe3+ 4. Qe2 or 3. … Qh4+ 4. Kd1 Qg4+ 5. Qe2, and in either case White’s queen is able to come to the defense of the king.

What he didn’t see was Robin’s beautiful “quiet move” that seals the queen off from the kingside.

3. … Rc4!

And here Robin had the satisfaction of seeing Zierk jump with surprise. There is now no defense to 4. … Qe3+, with a perpetual check. Notice that if either of White’s rooks tries to defend, the other rook is lost. Thus, if 4. Rc2 Qe4+ either 5. Re2 Qxb1+ or 5. Kd1 Qh1+ followed by 6. … Qxb1. Or if  5. Kd2, then 5. … Qf4+ sets up an immediate draw by repetition. White’s queen, of course, cannot help with the defense. Zierk captured on a4 and played several more moves, but there was no escape from Robin’s queen checks.

One of the other players said to Robin after the game, “Lucky!”, but actually I think that Robin showed great skill in this game. He blundered a pawn in the opening and he felt that Zierk could have just rolled him up with a kingside attack. So his first clever idea was to distract Zierk with counterplay on the queenside. After a while they got to a point where Zierk was in complete control there, and Robin felt that going into a pawn-down endgame would be hopeless, so he sacrificed the exchange in order to keep the position murky. Then he pushed his pawn to h5 and his king to g7, preparing to play … h4, bring the rook the the h-file, and create complications on the kingside. Zierk stepped his king up to f2 — thinking to defend his kingside, but actually walking right into the attack. Then, when Zierk foolishly went pawn-hunting with his queen on the queenside, the stage was set for Robin’s drawing combination. So it wasn’t just an isolated stroke of luck, it was a whole scheme of defense and distraction that eventually paid off for Black. Lady Luck will come your way only if you prepare the bed for her.

I don’t think Zierk was down in the dumps for too long, because he went on to draw GM Jesse Kraai in the last round and tie for third place with a score of 4-2.

Stay tuned for more Thanksgiving leftovers in my next post!

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