2016 came to a close at the 2016 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships held in New Orleans, Louisiana from December 27-30. Our Pitt Panthers fielded a 2205 average team with Thomas Riccardi on board 1, myself on board 2, John Ahlborg on 3, and Isaac Steincamp on 4. We entered seeded 16th out of 60 teams, but with sharks like Webster University, UT Dallas, and newcomer Saint Louis University in play, this was always going to be an exciting tournament. Both Isaac and Tom have both published their own recaps of their tournament(s) as well as describing the city of New Orleans. Isaac’s can be found here and Tom’s here. For this piece, I will just focus on my games. Each of the Round headers is a link to my games. Enjoy!
What was supposed to be a straightforward round 1 almost turned into a complete disaster for us. Tom, John, and I were losing at one point in each of our games, but we somehow ended up sweeping them 4-0.
My game opened with a sharp line in the Advanced Caro-Kan. I played the opening a bit sloppily but managed to pull ahead with a timely pawn sacrifice. My impatience got the better of me, and I attempted to end the game by force only to see my naked king almost manhandled by Zaporteza’s queen.
Black had just captured my knight on c3 with his bishop after I had tried to force the issue on the kingside (hence the queen on h8). Black can proceed with Qa5 threatening Qxc3+, when white’s king will regret not having castled sooner. In the game, Zaporteza continued with 18…Qg5, only to realize later that my king can slink away to b2, after which black’s attack fizzles, leaving him with little to show for his exchange. Crisis averted.
I have to commend our opponents for their fighting spirit and sportsmanship. They put up a hell of a fight for playing up 600 points.
All of the sudden, we were paired on match 1 against the top-rated Webster-A boasting a lineup featuring world #30 Quang Liem Le and prodigies GM Illya Nyzhnyk and GM Ray Robson. I had the opportunity to play my very first GM and put up a fight before being ground down in time pressure.
I decided to play into a Queen’s Gambit Accepted not because I knew what I was doing, but because I wanted to fight for a win and didn’t want to play into a quiet QGD. I managed to keep the pawn out of the opening and had just about consolidated when a series of time-pressured inaccuracies allowed Nyzhnyk to capitalize and seize the initiative.
I had slowly fortified my position with an awkward Bd7-e8 and Rd8-d6 maneuver (and somehow avoided a Bxh6 sacrifice, which would have killed the game a few moves before). My plan was to remove the e5 knight with Nd7, but I decided to attack the d4 pawn with Nc7, allowing white to regain some control with g4-g5 and Qc2-e4. I blundered away the game a few moves later. Tough luck.
Round 3 saw me play Joe Fennessey, who I’d last played about a decade ago at some SuperNationals in Tennessee. I played into a drawish endgame out of a Taimanov which I somehow managed to win. I won a pawn early out of the opening, but black equalized quickly and looked set to hold.
Black had offered a draw a few moves prior, but I decided that I would try to poke him until he cracked. Fennessey proceeded to go after my a-pawn, which turned out to be a bad idea:
After the trade on a3, black had nothing to stop my c-pawn(s) from advancing.
Round 4 was a much more straightforward game. Ilnytsky played into a dubious line in the Semi-Slav before breaking in the center with his king still on e1.
After a series of exchanges, white’s king was forced to f1, and I won pretty comfortably. We also swept Rutgers 4-0, which gave us a boost of confidence going into round 5.
We knew going into the round that we’d be facing a team around 2500, but I wanted personal redemption for my round 2 loss against Nyzhnyk, and this provided the perfect opportunity. Tom warned me not to “fall for Berczes’ time-pressure shenanigans” – he is apparently infamous getting himself into time pressure.
Berczes’ games in the database suggested that he played a lesser-known variation in the Chigorin starting with 12…exd4 and Nd7, and sure enough, we played into the same line over the board. He’d played his line against a few GMs (Ray Robson, among others), but I chose a continuation with 15.Ne3. We soon reached a critical position a few moves later:
Black’s position is pretty cramped: his queen is stuck defending the a5 knight and cannot move off of the d8-a5 diagonal. White has plenty of space in the center as well as the bishop pair. But black has an immediate threat of Rxc2, which must be addressed. I found my next move almost instantly but thought little of it at first. I then looked at Rxe8 followed by Rd1, but that looked unconvincing. I returned to my first move, and something clicked.
Out of seemingly nothing, white has killed the game instantly. With Qb6, black inadvertently sidelines the queen from the defense of his king. The bishop sacrifice exploits that fact – after 22…gxf5 23.Nxf5 Bxb2 24.Qxb2, black can do nothing to prevent white from rerouting his queen to h6 via d2. As it happened, I did not realize this queen maneuver was unstoppable and played something else, prolonging the game. I managed to win in the end though, so no harm done. Still counts!
Our team fought tooth an nail to try and snatch a victory, but UTD-B managed to walk away with the victory 2.5-1.5. So close.
In our final round, we played UT Austin. My opponent played a Semi Slav Exchange Variation, and we took an early draw to wrap up the tournament.
All in all, the 2016 Pan-Ams was a great experience for us. I got to play my first two GMs and even took home my first win! I’d like to thank the University for flying us all down, Tom Martinak for getting our team organized, and that guy I sat next to on the plane who kept his reading light on the entire 5am flight. Last but not least, I’d like to thank and commend my teammates Tom Riccardi, John Ahlborg, and Isaac Steincamp for Hailing to Pitt. H2P!