The 57th season of the Pittsburgh Chess League kicked off this weekend, if in a somewhat messier fashion than I remember from my two years with the league. The league is apparently one of the oldest of its kind (if only because there aren’t many of them), but the gatherings of area teams and curious individuals for monthly long rounds of chess constitute one of the main avenues of competitive play in the area.
The big change for me was that I became the primary contact for the CMU teams and in charge of the rosters. Normally, managing team attendance and forming rosters isn’t so burdensome, but this did coincide with the sudden exodus of several teams with transportation issues and several others losing top players. This really shook up the boundaries between the three divisions (the top 8 and next 8 teams by rating normally play in Divisions I and II; the rest in Division III), and created a lot of guesswork in the days leading up to the opening round, since I didn’t think CMU II (mostly lower-rated players) would like being a punching bag for the experts and masters in Division I.
In the end, organizer Tom Martinak decided to scrap Division III altogether and CMU II (rated 1609, a low-ish rating for Division II) barely made it out of Division I, which looked like this:
The top half is playing the bottom half first, so perhaps 75% of the first few months’ matches will go 4-0; unfortunate, but the way of the draw. However, Pittsburgh will see a tough spring fight among the top four, which I think will come down to CMU and Pitt:
- Phalanx Trebuchet is seeded first nearly every year due to having GM Shabalov on the roster, but its lack of a reliable lineup has led to some shockingly poor performances over the years. Despite the addition of FM Gabe Petesch and rising expert Maxim Yaskolko to the roster, Phalanx likely lacks the necessary depth to challenge the other three contenders.
- This time, Carnegie Mellon decided against splitting into two expert teams, and now stands to gain from some strong players who’ve joined over the last two years. With ten players over 2000 (including three 2300s, e.g. Grant Xu), CMU is in a good position to take over the lead from…
- Pitt, who’s taken first for the last three years and added two masters to a traditionally strong roster. Convincing victories over CMU and CMU Tartans sealed the deal last year, along with Isaac’s (yeah, that Isaac) stellar 6-1 record. The battle between CMU and Pitt may come down to which of the 2200s and 2300s come to bat in critical matches. Of course, one can’t really count out…
- CMU Tartans, who have various connections to CMU (Well, mostly. See Jack Mo and Joe Mucerino), but aren’t affiliated with CMU I. The team has been able to send a surprisingly strong and regular lineup despite its smaller and slightly lower-rated (compared to CMU and Pitt) roster. Tartans took clear second last year, and can easily play spoiler if CMU and Pitt slip up.
But before that, we’ll have to get through the first four rounds. The first round was more chaotic than I remembered in many ways: a smaller room for more people, the loudest I’ve ever heard league president Tom Magar scream announcements, two accidents (of the falling/tripping kind) under the same table, etc.
Not exactly ideal conditions for the first round, so perhaps it’s fitting that I used it as a bitter sendoff of a gloomy opening. Due to extra CMU players, I opted out of the main match and played my new teammate Nathan Holzmueller in an alternate game. Recently, I’ve been struggling (a lot) with concentration and my lack of opening knowledge catching up to me in sharper positions (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’ll save further explanation for another post!) Recently some of my opponents have done a better job than others at showcasing the dangers for Black in the 5…e6 Panov and seemingly typical IQP, activity-for-structure positions. I’m transitioning to the more active 5…Nc6, but before getting completely up to speed on that, decided to try my luck one last time.
Holzmueller (1987) – Li (2084)
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6
Until now, I’d kind of been using 5…e6 as a theoretical shortcut since I figured most of the positions were similar to each other. The only issue was that I’d never faced main lines into moves 10-15 and didn’t have a great sense of danger in these positions. My intuition was that if Karpov liked the 5…e6/6…Bb4 ideas here, I should more or less trust it.
6. Nf3 Bb4 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bd2 Nc6 9. Bd3 O-O 10. O-O Be7
The plan of rerouting the bishop to f6 does make it awkward for White to keep the d4 pawn, but as I’ve been learning the hard way lately, White does pretty well to let it go while he still has the activity to show for it. Another recent game of mine continued 11. Qe2 Ndb4 and although I did get in 12…Nxd4, Black’s queen never got a moment of rest until I blundered into a mating attack!
11. Re1 Bf6 12. Ne4 Nxd4?! I think this is already not a great idea; 12…Bxd4 is no piece of cake either, but does avoid some of the immediate threats that I faced in the game that give White so much more initiative. 13. Nxf6+ Qxf6 14. Ng5 g6 15. Ne4 Qg7 16. Qc1 Rd8?
Direct defenses with …Nf5 aren’t always the most stable, but due to potential knight forks on f3 that isn’t a problem for the time being (e.g. 16…Nf5 17. g4? Nd4 =+). The game move was actually due to an oversight after 17. Bh6 I had quickly planned 17…Qe5?? which of course fails to 18. Bg5 and 19. Nf6+. As if I needed any more trouble with the weak dark squares and loss of the bishop pair.
17. Bh6 Qh8 18. Bc4 f6!? A primitive but interesting attempt to extricate the queen from h8. 19. Nc3 Kf7 20. Rd1 Ne7 21. Bf4?! g5?
In hindsight, this is a pretty bonehead move, but I hadn’t actually considered 21…Nef5 which would counter the Ne4-d6 threats more smoothly. To his credit, White had 21. Qf4 simultaneously clearing the 1st rank for the rooks and threatening Qxd4 and Qc7.
22. Be3 Nef5 23. Bxd4 Rxd4 24. Rxd4 Nxd4 25. Qd2 Nf5 26. Re1 Qe8 Probably the best try; having to clear f8 for the king is pretty awkward, but it’s not easy to counter Qd3 threats. 27. Qd3 Kg7??.
A real pity given the time advantage (16 minutes to 2 until move 30). 27…Kf8 would have given Black some reasonable practical chances, but the rest of the actual game isn’t particularly comment-worthy.
Perhaps “fitting” isn’t the right word for the 5…e6 Panov sendoff, but for better or worse it did showcase the problems I’d been having with opening choices and how I’m willing to address them. Here’s to more success with the 5…Nc6 Panov, and a great season of Pittsburgh Chess League!