In part 1, I left off after my round 5 draw, where I was supposed to be the one pressing but instead had to fight hard not to lose.
In round 6, I got my momentum back with a nice win against Qibiao Wang (2420 USCF, 2324 FIDE). Things got off to a good start for me, and we reached this position:
Only white can be better here, and I naturally opened the position up with 12.c4!. The isolated pawn is no big deal. After 12… Nc6 13.Nc3 dxc4 I took an interesting decision by playing 14.d5!?. 14.Bxc4 and 14.Qc1 were also viable alternatives. After 14… Ne5 15.Bxc4 Nfg4 I had to decide where to go.
Black is trying to get some activity and doesn’t want to be submitted to passivity. If white does something simple like 16.h3?, he gets hit with 16… Qc5!, double attacking the c4-bishop and the f2-pawn. 16.Nxe5 Nxe5 probably gives white an edge, but I chose a different and stronger option: 16.Bb3!. The bishop just gets out of the way. It’s that simple. Black has a dilemma where to put his queen: 16… Qf6 runs into 17.Ne4, and 16… Qd6 runs into 17.Bf4. The game went 16… Qc5 17.Ne4 Qb6 18.Bc3 after which white has a big advantage which I went on to convert in a powerful style.
That was a boost! Now I had 4.5/6 and was half a point behind the leaders. Oh boy… I wasn’t ready for the heartbreak that awaited me in my game against GM Gil Popilski (2578 USCF, 2502 FIDE).
Up to this point, I had played well, and the not-so-unreasonable notion that I’m better crept into my head. White’s bizarre pawn on e6 is a combination of a thorn and a weakness. Anyway, it’s white move, and he played 26.Rb1 to prevent Bb5. This opened up the tempting possibility of going 26… Bc2, but after 27.Rb7 Bd3+ 28.Bxd3 exd3+ 29.Kd2, black’s position looks nice, but he doesn’t have anything. 26… Bb5 should be a draw after liquidations. Instead, I got way too excited and played 26… Rad8?! completely missing his reply 27.Rhc1!. Rd2+ appears to be useless. I can’t go Bc2 anymore. Wait, what can I do?? After a long think, I decided to swallow my pride and play 27… Bb5 aiming for a draw. What I didn’t realize was that white is just better after 28.Bxb5 axb5 29.Rxb5 Rxe6 30.Rc4
With accurate play black should draw this, but it’s just easier to play with white. Over the next few moves, I drifted, and by the time we reached the time control, I was already in huge trouble. My resistance wasn’t enough, and I lost.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t mad after this game. Really mad. I may or may not have spent a couple high quality minutes swearing in front of a mirror. Even if I remembered it, my post-game pep talk to myself is unpublishable. I had blown half a point in a pointless and idiotic fashion. I wasn’t this mad after my round 2 game, where I arguably blew half a point in a similar fashion, because I played badly and didn’t really deserve to get a half point there. This time, on the other hand, I actually played pretty reasonably overall and had had a draw within clear reach, only to have a minor brain freeze blow it all away.
A night’s sleep did me good. Next up came round 8, where I got white against Mario Arias (2342 USCF, 2245 FIDE).
The pieces are mysteriously scattered here: the white bishops on a4 and h2, the white knight on d3, the black knight on d4 of all places… Though he has an isolated pawn, black should be totally fine here. His pieces are a lot more active. Meanwhile, I had to make some tough decision with white. After the natural 22.c3, black can go 22… Nxg3 23.Bxg3 Ne2+ 24.Kh2 Nxg3 25.fxg3 Bf5! where he’s better. That doesn’t look good, not to mention that black also has …d4 ideas that could be very strong. Therefore, I decided to keep the tension in the center by playing 22.Qh5. If black still goes 22… Nxg3 23.Bxg3 Ne2+ 24.Kh2 Nxg5 25.fxg3, he’s probably still fine, but this is definitely a better version for white than with c3. My opponent decided to play 22… Be6 after which I took an agonizingly long think. If 23.c3, his plan is to go 23… Nxg3 24.Bxg3 Nf5 25.Bf4 d4 which appears to liquidate the center and promise him equality. Okay, what else do I have? 23.Re1 appears to be playable, but it didn’t inspire much confidence in me. Black should be more than fine there too. Anything else… Seriously, what am I going to do? If I don’t win this game, then what??
Then my little idea hit me. The game went 23.c3 Nxg3 24.Bxg3 Nf5 25.Bf4 d4 after which I uncorked my little idea: 26.c4!?
This is a pawn sacrifice, but I felt I had enough compensation. The game went 26… g6 (26… g5!? is also possible) 27.Qf3 Bxc4 28.Re1. Black’s position isn’t that easy. If he goes 28… Be6, I’ll go 29.Bb3 Re8 30.Bxe6 fxe6, after which I have more than enough compensation. His h6, g6, and e6 pawns are weak, the e5-square looks juicy, my pieces are more active… that’s certainly better than liquidating with no hope of an advantage! If 28… Qf6, then black is starting to get harassed after 29.Ne5, and 28… Qh4 29.Ne5 doesn’t inspire confidence. Black’s best move is actually 28… Qf8! just getting out of the way of everything. White enjoys full compensation for the pawn, but not more than that. My opponent’s next move, however, almost gave me a heart attack: 28… Ne3?
Oh my… If 29.fxe3 Bxd3, black is just much better. 29.Ne5 Bd5 looks terrible for white, not to mention that 29… Qb4! is lights out. Then, thankfully, I found the move that saves white: 30.Bc2! simply protecting the knight. Black is actually going to lose the knight on e3. Though black will have compensation, white is much better, and I won a few moves later.
Not a bad boost! It feels great when you spend 20+ minutes to find an idea that works like a charm. Going into the last round, I was 5.5/8. That’s actually the same score I had last year… There, had I won my last game, I would’ve gotten a GM Norm, while now I was losing rating. Unbelievable.
Anyway, back to this year’s tournament situation. 6.5/9 would win a solid prize, definitely four figures, while 6/9 would give me a couple hundred dollars. I was expecting to play up, but for the umpteenth time this tournament, I wasn’t. I was playing David Peng (2407 USCF, 2331 FIDE). I also got lucky that I got a double white. Not a bad tournament situation…
Last rounds are hard. When you have to win, there’s a lot of pressure on you… What to do? How much to risk? Even must-draw situations aren’t easy. And then there are games where you’re not sure if you want to play for a win or a draw… Anyway, I was playing this game for a win, no question about it.
I took a risky decision in the opening which turned out to be 100% justified. I was much better, though I misplayed it a bit.
So yeah, I have a piece for three pawns. If black gets coordinated, I could be in trouble, and I have to play against his coordination. Black can’t castle kingside because of Rxd7, and it looks like Bc6 is going to be his next move. Anticipating that, I played 16.f3! protecting the e4-pawn against his upcoming attack. Sure enough, he played 16… Bc6 which I met with 17.b4!. I should use those pawns! After 17… 0-0 18.b5 Bb7 19.Rb6 black’s position is already alarming.
The bishop is in serious danger, and he correctly played 19… Bc8 after which I played 20.Bc5 Re8 21.Bb4. I’m now planning to push my a-pawn. Oh boy, this is fantastic!! The only problem was that he put up resistance that I wasn’t able to crack. The game went 21… g5 22.a4 Ng6 23.a5 Bd7 24.Rb7 Ne5
Black has improved his pieces coordination, and he has a couple ideas. First, he can go Rec8 with the idea of harassing me with Rc4, and he’s also toying with the idea of going Nc4 in some variations. My next move, 25.a6?!, is very logical but reduced my advantage. 25.Rc7!, preventing both Rc8 and Nc4, was very strong. White is considering pushing both his a- and b-pawns, and there’s also the surprisingly annoying threat of Rc5 in the air. Black will probably have to go 25… Rec8, but after the rook trade, white’s life is much easier. The pawns will be much more powerful, and he doesn’t necessarily have to push them to victory. He can spend some quality time building up, while black won’t be able to do anything. The more I stare at this position, the more I realize that white is totally winning.
Back to the game. After 25… Bc8 26.Rb6 Bd7 I repeated once with 27.Rb7?. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. After 27.Rbd6 Rec8 28.Bc5 Be8, white is probably close to winning, but black is holding on. Anyway, the game went 27… Bc8 28.Re7 after which I missed his reply of 28… Bxa6! 29.bxa6 Nc6! (29… Rxa6 30.Rxe8+ Nxe8 31.Rd8 is winning for white, and I had seen this).
I realized that I’m losing the a-pawn. I still retained my c-pawn and had good winning chances, but it was nothing compared to what I had before. I tried hard to win the endgame that followed, but it wasn’t enough. He defended well, and we drew.
Chess is hard. After this game, I wasn’t really mad, but I was disappointed. I had given this game everything I had, and it wasn’t enough. I had tried very hard throughout the entire tournament, and it wasn’t enough. But barely. I was so damn close to tying for second. What a comeback that would have been…
On Monday, the day after the tournament finished, I felt that I was incapable of doing anything productive. And I don’t think that going to bed at 2 am was the main culprit. What are the real conclusions from my fireworks show in Philadelphia? Looking at the games a few weeks later, I’m still not sure. The tournament was really a mixed bag. I had my fair share of good and bad luck. I had triumphs and tragedies. There is nonetheless one fact that stands out: I only played up once in 9 rounds. Okay, you could blame the round 2 loss, but it’s not like I completely crashed and was out of the running for most of the tournament. Compared to a year ago when my FIDE was in the low/mid 2300s and I played up 7 rounds out of 9, and with my 2400 rating I only played up once this year!? I really miss being the underdog.
Until next time!