As we left it, the Sorenson Memorial at the Pittsburgh Chess Club was in full swing. In the first round, the lower seeds put up resistance against their higher rated counterparts, but the favorites ultimately prevailed, setting up an intriguing second round.
Though there were still a few mismatches in the top bracket, all eyes were on the top board, as National Masters Franklin Chen and Kevin Carl clashed in the first all-2000+ matchup of the tournament.
Having competed in this format several times, I’ve always found the second round to be especially dangerous. Get a slightly worse position against the wrong opponent, and you might just find yourself starting at 1/2 with four rounds to go. That is an incredibly small margin of error if you’re hoping to win a prize!
While convenient, this tournament schedule can also be extremely unforgiving. Winning a tournament like this means playing consistently good chess for six consecutive weeks against the best players in Pittsburgh – not an easy task by any means! If you want to beat the best here, you really have to be the best. This of course is what makes chess in Pittsburgh so much fun!
Brilliancy of the Tournament
…and I’m not really kidding either. Things seemed to be headed Franklin’s way after the opening, but had a crucial miss when he essayed 21. fxg5?
Just like in his first round game, Kevin found a way to rebound with the stunner, 21…Bxf3!!, offering his queen for an unstoppable attack. After 22. gxf6 Rg8-+, the game reached a quick end with mate on the board!
The Long Haul
While there was an abrupt end to the top board, there were still other players in the field trying to reach the 2/2 mark. NM Nabil Feliachi improved to 2/2, and with half point byes Chip Kraft and Evan Park each improved to 1.5/2. That left Melih Özbek in the chase for a perfect score.
Out of a Tarrasch, the opening didn’t seem to promise much until White erred with 16. h3?!, unknowingly weakening his own king.
After 16… Ne5 17. Nxe5 Qxe5, White quickly came to the painful realization that 18. f4 is forced, as 18. g3? collapses to 18…d4!, opening up Black’s light-squared bishop to wreak havoc on the White king.
Now, having moved so many squares in front of his king, White stood much worse, and Melih was able to use his bishops to ground out a nice win.
The Sorenson Memorial’s third round pairings proved to be extremely difficult for the field. Evan Park, back from his half point bye, had Black against his former coach Franklin Chen for their first ever tournament encounter. Tournament Titans Kevin Carl and Nabil Feliachi squared off on board 1, while further down the list, long time friends Finn Overlie and Jeffrey Schragin were paired for their 22nd contest.
In my opinion, the tournament narrative really develops here. Pittsburgh lays claim to a handful of experts (and stronger), but with so many local tournaments each year, rematches among the top players are the norm. Preparation can play an integral role at this stage – weak opening repertoire? Good luck moving beyond these match-ups.
Clash of the Titans
Kevin and Nabil seemed to be on collision course when they entered the tournament, though to see the pairing with three rounds to spare was a bit of a surprise. Nabil was in cruise control until he erred with 28…Qxa3?, thinking he was winning material:
But imagine his surprise when after 29. Nxb5 Qc1+ 30. Nf1! +- keeping the full piece. As I mentioned before, chess is particularly cruel. Just a few moves before, Black had missed his chance when he played 24…Rac8 instead of 24…Qa4! winning on the spot.
The rooks lack oxygen, and after 25. Rb1 Bxe2 26. Nxe2 Ne4 28. Rd3 Qc2! -+, Black is simply winning material and the game.
Elsewhere, there were nearly upsets on every board. Chip Kraft won with Black against Melih, and Evan Park triumphed in his showdown on board 3. Even more surprising, was that 1800-2000 rated players only scored 50% against lower rated opposition. When trying to beat familiar opponents, you have to be willing take risks. But as this night showed, sometimes taking chances can backfire.
After a dramatic three rounds, only NM Kevin Carl holds a perfect score, but both youngster Evan Park and Chip Kraft are only a half point behind at 2.5/3 and should pose interesting challenges over the next three rounds.
With 1900+ rated players scoring anywhere from 1/3 to 3/3, I think the current standings are proof for the original claim I made in my first tournament report: Pittsburgh is one of the toughest places to play chess.
As the tournament moves into the second half, I will be particularly interested in who can play the most consistently. In the race for first, the remaining three rounds is practically a single-elimination tournament.