In my experience, Pittsburgh is one of the most dangerous cities to play chess. Unlike other metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh isn’t dominated by young talent, but rather a class of well-seasoned veterans, consistently underrated yet somehow consistently over-performing. Opening innovation isn’t enough to win against these guys – everything needs to go perfectly. Hotbeds for chess around the city like the Pittsburgh Chess Club continuously pair the city’s best against each other, making a logjam in the chase for rating points. Want to boost that rating in the Steel City? Good luck!
That brings us to the 20th Fred Sorensen Memorial. A Tuesday night ladder at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, this event marks the first litmus test to see who’s playing well going into the fall. With college players returning from the summer to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, it’s more important now more than ever to be in form.
Where was I in all this? Frustratingly enough, my course load this semester has forced me to keep my eyes off the chess board, and I’ve decided to sideline myself for a few weeks from tournament play until my school schedule becomes more manageable. Somehow that found me to be a tournament director of this event, and thus the inspiration of this project. Knowing that I have played a vast majority of players in the field, I’m hoping that with these tournament reports I can share my insights throughout the event, as well as give a glimpse as to why chess in Pittsburgh is so strong.
And with that hefty introduction, let’s take a look at some chess!
These ladders can be long. With the tournament lasting six weeks, I’ve always believed that momentum is the key to winning. For the strongest players in the field, that means showing their class and effortlessly moving into the second round unscathed on opening night.
Easier said than done! Even with the top players paired against the bottom half of the field, that still pitted roughly 1800 rated players against National Masters. Who would put up resistance?
Second seed NM Nabil Feliachi arguably had the best win of the day:
Unaware of the of the impending attack, Finn chose 1. f4? to kick Black’s knight off of e5. However, after Nabil chucked 1…c4!, White must have realized he was lost! The game continued 2. Qe1 Nd3 3. Qg3 f6 4. bxc4 Qf2+! (click here for web player), and with the trapped bishop on g5, Nabil won material and the game.
Nabil wasn’t alone in producing a masterclass win. Chip Kraft launched his e-pawn and busted Black in a Catalan, and the youngest (Evan Park) as well as one of the oldest (Vassil Prokhov) competitors both cruised to nice tactical finishes. Candidate Master Melih Özbek (Congrats on the recent PhD) met some resistance early, but methodically earned his point.
Overcoming the First Test
Of course, winning every game with ease is unrealistic, and there were a fair number of close calls on opening night. Having played in this field several times, I must admit that has more to do with the growing strength and resilience of the 1300-1600 rated players in Pittsburgh. There have been quite a few events here where I’ve felt that a win against a 1400 was much harder to come by than a win against an opponent 400 points stronger! They simply aren’t afraid to play slightly worse positions.
Playing Black, National Master Franklin Chen had to take some risks to get an advantage from a symmetrical pawn structure to win. Paul Cantalupo (who I played recently) got an advantage early, but couldn’t convert his attack and had to settle for a draw, a result which proved to be the only upset of the day.
That being said, no one danced on a knife’s edge more than Michael Kostyak who managed to convert the following position:
Playing for the 500 point upset, Ivry plopped a quick tactic on the board: 35. Qf8+ Kh5 36. g4+ Kh4 37. gxf5. Thinking he had won a piece, Ivry was in for Caissa’s worst lesson when Michael played 37… Kh3!!, prompting immediate resignation.
White cannot stop mate on both g1 and g2, and thus the game was over. Even worse was that 37. Qg8! was the winning blow White needed to win the game. Chess is truly a cruel game.
Battle on Board 1
The top seed and my Pittsburgh Chess League teammate, Kevin Carl, had the toughest pairing of the night in his match-up with Walter Kennedy. Walter is a solid player, and at his best, is a much stronger player than what his 1800 rating suggests.
Kevin ventured into the Catalan, and opted to give Black hanging pawns. All seemed to be in the balance until he dropped the howler 19. Qb2?, offering Black a tactical shot:
As he told me after the game, he immediately realized that he had missed the undermining move, 19…g5!, winning a piece. Luckily for him, Black continued with 19…Rfe8, and after an immediate 20. Nd3, the position returned to rough equality and the plot progressed.
Black actually had built a slight edge when Kevin played 26. Qf5:
In what proved to be the critical moment, the game turned on its head when Walter essayed the move 26…Qe7? allowing 27. Rxd4! g6 28. Qh3, dropping a pawn thanks to the pressure on c8.
26…Ne4! could have proven to be something here, as Kevin would have to combat the knight’s route to c3. Black had his chance.
With the pawn center collapsed, Black fell apart, thanks to some good technique from White. Miss your chances against these top players, and you don’t give yourself a chance to win.
On to Round 2
With the first round in the books, eight players opened the Fred Sorensen Memorial with a win, meaning that the tournament’s toughest games start this Tuesday! A lot of interesting games this round, and certainly a lot more to be looking forward to. Hard to say if anyone stands out as the clear favorite after this round, but that’s why there are six!
I’ll be posting the next report in two weeks, following the conclusion of Round 3!