Armageddon in the South
A Champion’s-eye view of the USAT South National Championship, Feb. 18-20, 2011
By Peter Dyson, February 21, 2011
In spite of two off-the-board blunders (more on those later), my top-ranked ‘Armageddon Your Pieces’ team triumphed in a nail biter to become the US Amateur Team (USAT) South National Championship team. The USAT is one of my favorite events, and I have played in over a dozen in the South regional, including as a member of two former Championship teams (Piece Mongers in 2003 and Return of the Kings in 2004). Last year, my team, Piece Mongers II, was top rated, but was toppled by the teen stars, and we took second. Even so, our whole team gained rating points and we could not team again. So what to do? The problem was solved when our fourth board, my good friend Chuck Hall, made a pre-emptive move to play for another team. This left three members of our former squad as the core for this year: IM Javad Maharramzade (2610), me (2099), and Jeremy Mandelkern (2098). Now for our first strategic move: who to recruit for fourth board, and still stay under the average 2200 rating ceiling? Thinking ahead to a possible Internet playoff, we thought that a young, Internet-chess savvy and underrated player would be perfect. After consulting with Javad, I made a few suggestions to Jeremy, including Matt Helfst (1938). I met Matt when he used to live in Melbourne and play in the Space Coast Open. He now lives in North Carolina. Matt most often played on first board for a lower ranked team, but he was excited to play for a contender. So our team was set. Our not-so-secret weapon, Javad, was on board one, and our new secret weapon on board four. Oh, by the way, Matt works for Chess.com, so my thinking was that should we make the Internet play-off on ICC, Matt’s experience could prove key. That story remains to be written.
It took us awhile to pin down our team name. After many suggestions and rounds of voting, we became Armageddon (sort of rhymes with ‘I’m-a-getting’) Your Pieces. The last item to settle was which schedule to play. Unlike the 3-day extravaganza in the East regional, the South offers a choice of either two or three days. We quickly settled on the three day schedule, so we would be less tired when the big matches started in Round 3 on Saturday evening.
At the Starting Pole
At the Daytona 500 held only an hour away, there was a large field of serious contenders. But at the USAT South this year, there were only three teams rated over 2100. This made it clear who we would be playing against in the key matches, but with the possibility of ties and tie-breaks, it also meant that every point against the lower ranked teams was extremely important. We had dinner at the restaurant in the Sonesta Hotel and discussed team strategy. I stressed that the most important thing about playing as a team was not to offer or accept a draw without consulting the Team Captain. We didn’t do very well on this point, but fortunately it did not come back to haunt us.
My quickest win came on Friday night, when my opponent on board 2 was not present for the match. He had told the TD he was playing in the two day schedule, although the rest of his team, Old Fogies to Knight 4, was entered in the three day! This match went according to the rating predictions, as we won 4-0. However, the Old Fogies team put up strong resistance, particularly on board 1, where Javad and Dennis Dunn battled until nearly midnight before Javad was able to prevail.
We had the next morning off while the majority of the teams – and both of our main competitors – played the ‘fast’ Round 1 game. We spent a good portion of the morning catching up on sleep, and then headed out for brunch. Using Jeremy’s phone nav application, we drove around for about 45 minutes to a bunch of restaurants that were closed or out of business, before finally ending up The Virgin Olive Market, a great little café that was within walking distance of the hotel.
Returning to the Sonesta, I eyed all the banquet tables set up in the foyer outside the banquet hall with growing concern. I asked the TD, Harvey Lerman, about this, and learned there was to be a wedding reception that evening. Yikes, this is a chess organizer’s nightmare! So in one of my better non-chess moves, I prevailed upon Harvey to allow the top boards to be played in the skittles rooms on the next floor near the scholastics section, which we did for the next three rounds. The three small skittles room only held two teams each, and were a bit noisy, but still better than being in the main tournament hall, which one of my teammates who ventured downstairs described as “pandemonium” as Round 2 progressed. Even a floor away there was no escaping the reception as the deep base of the band’s music reverberated through the floor.
In Round 2 we were paired with Better Lucky Than Good, a team from North Florida led by David Lamb and anchored by ANTD Ralph Whitford. I joked to Ralph that it was a waste of one of our most senior state tournament directors for him to actually play chess, but he countered that he was “having a lot more fun”. To add to his fun, Ralph nicked Matt for a draw, while we won on the top 3 boards. As a side story, my favorite tournament board is a black and white roll-up board with no algebraic notation on the sides. I recall GM Walter Browne was once quoted as saying “there should be nothing on the board but the squares”, and on this point we agree. It is hard to find these plain boards any more. My opponent felt this was non-standard equipment, but he could not get a TD to support his case.
The Money Rounds
Coming into Round 3, only the top three teams still had perfect scores. So this meant the top two ranked teams would have an early face-off. The opposing team, called ‘Nobody’ was comprised of four rapidly improving young players, with two (now three) masters. Newly minted, National Master Daniel Gurevich from Atlanta, who I would face on board 2, is thirteen. We had a big rating advantage on first board, but on the other boards, we were out-rated by an average of 100 points. The match was fiercely contested. The first result was a draw on board 4. Meanwhile, on board one, Bob Perez stormed Javad’s King and sacrificed a Rook in the process, but Javad coolly defended and collected the full point. A point up in the match, things looked good for team Armageddon. Board 3 was a complex struggle, but on second board I was up a clean pawn against young Gurevich. However, I used up all but 15 minutes of my time for the first 30 moves (the game went over 70 moves). Both games entered the final 5 minutes of the sudden-death time control with the situation still unclear. I was still up a pawn but in the Rook and Pawn endgame, my opponent obtained a drawn position. In the heat of battle, he then misplaced his Rook, and now I was winning, but low on time, with about 2 minutes remaining for each player. Now came my first off-the-board blunder. Gurevich moved, offered a draw, and then said it was a three move repetition. Since he had already moved, the draw-by-repetition was not applicable, but it temporarily confused me. I stopped the clock to discuss the claim. It is hard to be objective about your own game. From the team Captain’s perspective, there was no question that I needed to keep playing. But as player, I was tired and had not spotted the simple winning maneuver. Inexplicably, with an unknown result on board 3, I agreed to the draw. What was I thinking?? Perez then pointed out the simple win, and Gurevich responded, “I know, I swindled him”, referring to his draw offer/claim. To make matters worse, the dust settled on board 3 with a loss for Jeremy, and thus a tied match.
In the meantime, the other top team, Cairo Kann Attack, won their match and took clear first place with the only perfect score. We faced them Sunday morning while the Nobody team was paired against a much lower rated team. Cairo Kann Attack was comprised of five of my friends, most of whom were former teammates. Things did not begin well for Armageddon. First Jeremy got caught in a lightning mating attack by Makaio Krienke. Matt got a promising position against Steve Chakis, with Bishop and Knight vs. Rook and 6 pawns apiece. But Matt could not find a way to make progress, and the game was drawn. Down a point in the match, this threw the pressure on our top two boards. Both these games were contested until the last minutes on the clock. Javad kept pressing in his game with NM John Nardandrea, and finally broke through to win, with John’s clock flagging in a lost position. On board 2, I was paired with White against NM Larry Storch. In our last five or so games, I always got the White pieces. Each time, Larry says, “maybe someday I will get White against you”. Since I was due for Black, I was surprised to find I again had White! But Larry was due Black, and his team had more points, so Black he got. Thus at least I got some consolation (White against both masters I faced) for my slip against Gurevich. In our last two encounters, Larry essayed the Open Catalan, an opening where his theoretical knowledge far exceeds mine. So I expected more of the same. Larry decided to mix it up, and switched to the Closed Catalan, in a line where my book knowledge ended on move 7. At two different points in the early middle game, we twice repeated the position, a tacit offer to repeat a third time and have a draw. The match situation made this unacceptable, and I had well learned my lesson the night before. I targeted Larry’s a-pawn and managed to win it, giving me a passed a-pawn. Larry created some complications and we reached a position with Queen, Bishop, Knight and 5 pawns for me, versus Queen, 2 Knights, and 4 pawns for Larry. Larry saw a chance to offer a trade of Queens and win back a pawn. Since I was low on time, this was a critical turning point in the game, as my passed a-pawn then decided the game. With our come-from-behind victories on the top two boards, we took the match by the narrowest of margins.
The Final Lap
The Nobody kids also won their match, and that left us tied with 3½ points going into the final round. Since Nobody had to face Cairo Kann Attack, and we would be paired down, we were in a good position to win the tournament. The team from UF was leading the race for the U2000 prizes, and as a result they had to face a determined Armageddon. We won this match 3½ to ½, but the score does not reflect the incredible struggle. Things started off reasonably well for us when my opponent accepted the sacrifice of a rather hot pawn on move 13, and quickly got into trouble, resigning only 5 moves later. I now had the chance to closely observe the remaining games, but I neglected a key Captain duty – to monitor the tie-breaks. The UF team was fighting hard. On board 3, Jeremy got a favorable Rook and Pawn endgame, and eventually had his Rook plus a Bishop-pawn and Rook-pawn against Mahbub Shahalam’s lone Rook. But Shahalam spotted all the tricks and held the draw with precise defense. On board 4, Matt fell into a difficult position against Nhan Van Le. During the middle game, Matt offered a draw which, lucky for us, was declined. They entered yet another Rook and Pawn endgame, with neither side having an advantage. The game continued to simplify until each side had only one Rook and one Pawn each. Not realizing the danger, and with only minutes remaining on the clock, Nhan Van Le made a very unfortunate Rook move, and all of the sudden Matt was able to convert a dead draw into a theoretical win. I mentioned this to Jeremy and he could hardly believe it. After a bit of maneuvering, Matt brought home the point. That left the battle on board one, which was the last game to finish of the whole tournament. During the fourth hour of play, Javad asked if a draw would be an OK result. I was not at all sure of the tie-breaks, and although the rules prevented me from considering the position in Matt’s game, there was the real risk that he could still lose. Matt’s opponent was hungry for the win, and I was unaware of Matt’s earlier spurned draw offer. In any case, I advised Javad it would be better for him to keep playing, and would let him know if that advice changed. By now, the Nobody kids had won their match against Cairo. But with the tie-breaks still unknown, I made my final Team Captain blunder, and revised my advice to Javad, who immediately offered his opponent, Harry Prahl, a draw. The UF players showed great fighting spirit, and up an exchange in a complex position, Prahl declined the draw. This may have caused him to upset the delicate balance as he tried to press the win, and the position simplified to Prahl having a Rook for Javad’s Bishop, but Javad had 3 extra Pawns, which he carefully converted to the win. This was the last game of the tournament to complete, and Javad’s third game to last until the final minutes (or seconds) on the clock.
At this point, Matt was bouncing off the walls with excitement, as he had confirmed that the tie-breaks ran in our favor, making us the USAT South National Champions! Jeremy earned the dubious honor of taking home the huge “ugly rook” trophy that has rotated among the winning teams since its debut many years ago at the USAT South in Gainesville. Our team also took two of the four board prizes. My 4½ score was good for the board 2 prize. Javad worked hard for his perfect 5-0 score, and his board prize was well earned. With this result, Javad extended his undefeated streak – he has not lost a game in rated US Chess Federation competition since coming to the US in 2005. Although out of the running for board prizes, Jeremy’s 2½ points and Matt’s 3½ points were critical to the final tie-breaks. One less point in any match would have bumped us out of first place.
We all had a great time and winning first place made this year’s tournament extra special. This result in now in the history books, and our secret weapons are out in the open well ahead of the play-offs with the other Regional winners. But will it help them!? Find out March 26 on the Internet Chess Club.