Photo Finish: The Battle for Squirrel Hill

Pittsburgh Chess Club Veteran Jeffrey Schragin (White) taking on Steve O’Conner (black)

After Kevin Carl’s 3/3 start, it seemed like the Sorensen Memorial was headed down a familiar plot line. Top seed enters, wins games, and cleans house. But winning in Pittsburgh as we’ve seen isn’t easy, and a bloodbath ensued over the next three rounds. From Kevin’s win over Nabil, four different players juggled the position of sitting atop the standings until the close of the final round.

With three rounds in the books, we knew a lot about the field. Kevin Carl was unbeaten but shaky. Chip Kraft and Evan Park were both underdogs and dangerous, and both Melih Özbek and Nabil Feliachi were only one mistake away from a 3/3 score. The fourth round promised to challenge the narrative.

Shake-up on Top

Chip clashes with Kevin on board 1

Having prepared for the Dutch, Chip Kraft got his chance to tackle the top seed with White. In my opinion, Chip is one of the most improved players in Pittsburgh this calendar year. Having trained with him personally over the summer, I know first-hand how much work Chip puts into chess, and his recent rating jump has given him a lot more confidence and swagger in his play. After downing Melih last week, this was Chip’s chance to boost his tournament.

In what proved to be a tight game, Kevin’s middlegame advantage didn’t prove enough in the time scramble, and he stumbled to his first defeat of the tournament, pushing Chip to 3.5/4. With first place changing hands, only one question remained: would the youngster Evan Park join him?

Evan entering the Open Sicilian

Evan is the youngster in Pittsburgh. Fresh off competing in the World Cadets in Brazil, Evan is one of the most ambitious players in the city and its clear that he will be a big part of it’s future. In the meantime, the 10 year old had a game with Melih Özbek, who was on a hunt for much-needed tournament redemption. In what proved to be one of the most interesting games of the tournament, Melih saved a worse position, and then some – meaning Chip was a half-point clear of the field.

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Park–Özbek, position after 17…Ne5

With an early space advantage, Evan had to make critical decisions early. Here he played 18. fxg6 fxg6 19. Bh3, but after 19…0-0, Black was able to hold a worse position. Instead, switching the move order and keeping the tension with 18. Bh3 could have proved an interesting alternative.

But the game continued – and with Black weathering the storm, the question of the Sicilian endgame took center stage. In what seemed like an equal position, Melih asked Evan one last crucial question with 33…Nf3 – how do you defend the h-pawn?:

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Park–Ozbek, position after 33…Nf3

Evan responded correctly, first with 34. Rxb5 axb5, but then with 35. Kb4? Nxh4 36. c4, realizing he had wasted a tempo with his 35th move. Unfortunately for Evan, this single tempo cost him a half point, and Melih won the endgame with relative ease.

Push in the Penultimate

Having spent a week preparing for Nabil’s repertoire, 1 e4 came as a surprise for Chip!

With Chip now on board 1, it was National Master Nabil Feliachi’s turn to push with the White pieces. Nabil surprised Chip with 1. e4, prompting Chip to enter his battle-tested Scandinavian. White had pressure from the early middlegame, working the clock to a 25 minute against 9 second (!) edge with a positional advantage. But Chip stayed resilient, and after a few missed chances from Nabil, Chip saved a half-point and continued to stay on top the wall chart.

Melih beat both Evan and Kevin with Black in consecutive rounds to join the lead

Outside the top board, the penultimate round serves as an elimination game for players with 3/4. Even in a tight field like this, 4/6 seldom claims top prizes. In my experience competing at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, this round (as well as the second) often proves to be the most stressful, as the pairings are reasonably competitive and the stakes are high. Such was the nature of Melih’s clash with Kevin Carl. In a loser-goes-home match-up, it was Kevin who flinched first, giving Melih a tactical hit on f2 and a tie for first heading into the final round:

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Carl–Özbek, position after 16. Nf3?

After some thought, Melih realized the power of his a7 bishop and essayed the stunner, 16…Nxf2! with a clear advantage. The game didn’t continue much longer after 17. Nxg5 Nxd1 18. Nc5 Nxe3 -+. Kevin’s perfect 3/3 was now reduced to a 3/5, and after having played two Blacks in a row, Melih would get his chance on board 1 with the White pieces.

Hold Your Ground

Paul Cantalupo taking on eventual U1600 winner Yirael Isaacson

Entering the final night, Chip had the most to lose with both his claim to first and a Candidate Master norm on the line. Who did he have to go through? Evan Park. With Evan recently having beaten Chip twice head-to-head, Chip played it safe with White, essaying a Queen’s Gambit with some simplification to work his way to a draw. Norm achieved – but would Nabil pull through against Melih?

As this was transpiring, National Master Franklin Chen put on a clinic with Black to beat the Closed Sicilian with a quick h-pawn push:

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Kennedy–Chen, position after 9…h5

Black quickly asserted himself in control of the game with 9…h5!, and after 10. f4 h4! 11. e5 Nd4, Franklin was in cruise control. In what felt like a near-miniature win, this game proved to be one of the most instructive of the tournament. After a slow start, Franklin finished 4/6, but was just one missed queen sacrifice away from knocking on the tournament’s front door.

Franklin taking on Michael Kostyak in Round 5

Melih’s game was slow – with both sides maneuvering. While Nabil was building an edge with Black, the game wasn’t decided until its final minutes, with Nabil taking the point in the rook and pawn ending. With Nabil winning, both he and Chip clinched first place at the Fred Sorensen Memorial with 4.5/6 in an impressive tournament finale:

T-1 Nabil Feliachi – 4.5/6

T-1 Chip Kraft – 4.5/6

T-3 Kevin Carl – 4/6

T-3 Melih Özbek – 4/6

T-3 Franklin Chen – 4/6

T-3 Evan Park – 4/6

Chip and Nabil analyzing at Stack’d. Post round hangouts became the norm throughout the tournament.

And that concludes this series on chess in Pittsburgh. This tournament was a lot of fun to direct and spectate – fighting chess each round, high stakes games, and plenty of upsets. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Pittsburgh is one of the most dangerous places to play. Learn how to play here, and you can play anywhere. I’m looking forward to see what the Robert Smith Memorial will offer in November – but this time I’ll be throwing my hat in the ring.


One thought on “Photo Finish: The Battle for Squirrel Hill

  1. Pingback: Off and Back On Again: How to Break out of a Slump – chess^summit

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