Thursday, November 29, 2007

Finals Recap

Although I wasn’t an in-person spectator for the USCL Finals this year, I doubt there were many out there who had the grit to sit through the entire six hour marathon that it wound up being so I figured I’d give you readers my impressions of the evening as a whole. I should note that I also wrote a prediction for what I thought might happen to occur during this match and for those who are bored enough, feel free to look through it and count the number of assumptions/predictions I made there which wound up being wrong as shown by the actual match, but be warned that that number might be higher than a lot of people can count.

Prior to the match beginning, while I knew it, like nearly all USCL matches, would be a very competitive match no matter what the final score wound up being, I was mostly just hoping this Finals could be even half as exciting as last year's in terms of the number of amazing number of twists and turns that really make the League all worthwhile. I’m quite pleased that my expectations wound up being more than fulfilled as this year’s Final may well have eclipsed last year’s in terms of the length of a book it would take to tell the whole story of it. While I’m not sure what was going through all the players’ minds during the whole ordeal, I will note that many of the spectators, including myself, who had the strength to sit through the marathon that it was found the whole match a very strenuous and draining experience, and if it had that effect on the spectators, I think you can imagine what the participants were going through.

Now while there could be plenty of analysis done about the games themselves, several more qualified and probably more inclined players will probably take on that task (FM Braden Bournival has already done so, and I would expect to see more in the upcoming days) so I’ll mostly focus on what us the general consensus of what was in us spectators’ minds while it was all going down in terms of our game impressions and what seemed to be the biggest turning points/most exciting moments. I should note that while the majority of ICC kibitzers (myself included) tend to be weaker than the League players, the weight of this match had many former and current other big guns in the League making an appearance for much of the match including: IM John Bartholomew, IM Vinay Bhat, IM Jay Bonin, IM Ron Burnett, IM Igor Foygel, IM Josh Friedel, IM Robert Hess, IM Irina Krush, GM Eugene Perelshteyn, IM David Pruess, GM Alejandro Ramirez, IM Bryan Smith, IM Eli Vovsha, IM Dmitry Zilberstein, and of course the Chess.FM coverage by IM John Donaldson and IM John Watson. I’m sure I forgot or didn’t notice some of the others so we had plenty of real analysis to go with our traditionally ridiculous opinions. Often times for those who don’t watch the match live, it can be confusing why certain things wound up transpiring the way they did (as John Donaldson logically pointed out on Chess.FM as to why Vinay Bhat didn’t take an easy draw as he could have in the Wildcard round against IM Blas Lugo) since the expected results of your teammates' games while you're playing can (and should) have a profound effect on what result you're aiming for in your game. Hopefully I can fill in some of those gaps for those of you who missed watching the Finals live.

The match in the early stages seemed to be trending the way many a match tends to in the USCL – drastically in one team’s favor, in this case Dallas. After a fairly early draw on Board One, each of the other boards seemed to be leaning towards them with Kuljasevic looked to simply have a better position despite the material deficit brought on by his sacrifice, Stopa after seeming to score a huge positional loss when he played 19. dxc4 had generated some great Kingside counter play which along with Shmelov’s miserable dark squared Bishop seemed to assure him of a better position, and Zorigt just looked to have a completely dominating position with an extra pawn and her super powerful d3 Knight.

Things just never seem to work out the way they start in the League though do they? In a twist very similar to last year’s where San Francisco seemed to be dominating their match early on only to have New York tenaciously fight back, Boston quickly soon made a similar comeback. Sammour-Hasbun, in a very tricky position, which had seemed worse for him for a long time pulled off his usual tactical wizardry, finding 28. Qxe5!! which liquidated the game into a fairly simple ending which he converted with little difficulty. Shmelov, at about the same time, who had been on the brink for the previous fifteen moves having a bad position and a very low clock shocked the crowd with the nice swindle 46... Rd8! (played instantly with under thirty seconds on his clock) where before it seemed he was on the verge of losing (the natural assumption as the general consensus including by those on Chess.FM was that Black had no choice but to allow White to trade off all the pieces on e7 which would bring about a trivially winning King and Pawn ending for White), and after this nice find the game did turn into a trivial ending, but this one just happened to be a draw and suddenly Boston had a 2 – 1 lead! So once again, just like last year, after everything seemed to be going Dallas’s way early on, suddenly they were in near dire straits in a must win situation on Board Four to even stay alive.

While the Board Four encounter had been going Zorigt’s way most of the middle game with Williams having a fairly uncomfortable position along with a pawn deficit, Williams really knuckled down and did a fairly impressive job of complicating matters playing some great defense and not allowing Zorigt many easy paths to victory. After Zorigt sacked the exchange what the correct evaluation of the position was seemed very unclear with Black having a powerful d-pawn, but White’s defenses seeming very tough to crack, and along with Black’s ill placed f6 Rook, it seemed it would be very hard for Black to gain the activity she’d need to garner the full point. However, time pressure can often cause strange things to occur, and just when it seemed that White had completely consolidated and might even have had the better position, in mutual time pressure, he finally slipped up after some great defense in allowing 48... Qb5! Even after that, it still didn’t look very easy for Black to win (if it was even winning at all), but perhaps flustered from his earlier mistake, White then committed a fatal one with 50. Rxf7? after which Black converted with little difficulty to send the match to the tiebreaker.

As I mentioned in my prediction, from a spectator’s point of view the blitz tiebreaker was obviously the most exciting way for the match to be decided, but many in the crowd voiced there general dissatisfaction towards this system from the players' perspective being used to decide the Championship due to the inherent random nature of it. While I agree it’s not the ideal way to do things, I definitely feel giving either team draw odds based on whatever factor isn’t a good idea and overtime systems for sporting events in general (whether you mean the NFL, NBA, or whatever) also have their many flaws and many vocal detractors to. The simple fact is that there just really is no perfect way to decide things when a match of any kind winds up tied at the end of regulation, and like most things everyone will have a different opinion about the best way to resolve it, and it's pretty much a matter of opinion as to what's best.

Boston got off to a quick start with Williams avenging his regulation match in fairly crushing fashion with Zorigt playing an inaccurate opening which Williams exploited with little trouble. The game between Stopa and Williams was quite a messy affair with Stopa seeming to be nurturing a small edge for most of the game until Williams uncorked the surprising 30... Nhf4?! While most people might not be a huge fan of trying something that appears so dangerous in a team event, I personally think you have to have a lot of respect for someone who’s willing to do so when the stakes are so high, and given Williams was out rated, had the Black pieces, and was doing this in a blitz game, it may well have been the best try (and I’m not just saying that because it happened to work out favorably). Williams soon found the incredible follow-up blow 36... Rf3!! which completely turned the tide into giving him a flat out winning position. However, once again strange things can happen in blitz chess as after some missed opportunities by Williams, Stopa really bore down and with some nice defense turned the game around again and managed to score the victory.

Shmelov stepped in for Williams, and we once again were treated to a struggle with some ridiculous turnarounds as Stopa seemed to get the best out of the opening with a Benko type position where he’d recovered the sacrificed pawn -- generally a sign that Black has the superior position. But then came the shocking 19... e5? (which I haven’t gotten confirmation was a mouse slip but the consensus seemed to be that it must have been) that turned the game completely upside down. Shmelov capitalized on this quite well just applying pressure to the weaknesses garnered by this, winning a pawn to get into what looked to be a fairly simple winning ending. Once again though, Stopa with the help of a crucial mistake, this time 39. Kf2?, managed to turn the game back around just as he had the last and soon had the better ending himself which he didn’t let slip from his grasp.

So then what most of the crowd had been waiting for came to fruition with Sammour-Hasbun stepping in for Shmelov. He didn’t disappoint expectations early on slowly but surely building up a better and better position. While Black seemed to be obviously better prior to losing his e-pawn, it still seemed anything but easy to really capitalize as nice as his pieces seemed to look. After the e-pawn fell the position seemed very unclear and like Sammour-Hasbun’s games often do, developed into something of a tactical melee where both sides missed some chances (it’s hard with ten seconds on your clock though even for a tactical wizard like Sammour-Hasbun) and again came down to an ending which rarely (at least compared to his two previous tiebreak games) Stopa had the better of. However, as Irina Krush wisely pointed out during the game "Stopa’s position isn’t bad enough where he can win" which turned out to be exactly right as Sammour-Hasbun managed to hold the balance.

I think it was at this moment that most of the crowd began to really realize that the Dallas team had a more than a minor shot to pull this match out as the mood prior to this as had been mentioned on many an occasion was "All of this is irrelevant, once Boston gets to Sammour-Hasbun and Christiansen they will tear Dallas up." But with one big gun out of the way suddenly the road to victory was much clearer: Just one blitz game victory against Christiansen. It sounds so easy doesn’t it? I doubt somehow that the Dallas team was thinking as such though as Christiansen hadn’t lost a game yet in the season (and once again not lost a single game in three seasons with the Black pieces) and like Sammour-Hasbun is known for his amazing blitz prowess.

The first encounter between Christiansen and Kuljasevic seemed to be a fairly up and down affair with both sides seemingly better at various stages which settled into a fairly peaceful draw. The second game was much trickier with Christiansen getting the better out of the opening with a menacing force aimed at Kuljasevic’s King and with the nice 26... Rxf3!, looked to be heading to victory. As usual though, it didn’t exactly turn out quite that simply with Kuljasevic finding the very dangerous looking 30. Rb4! after which suddenly Black is treading on thin ice even with his extra pawn. The game then (as every game tiebreak before had) went into a tough ending with Black having an extra pawn, but White having some nice pressure. I’m not really certain where the turning point in the ending really was, but Christiansen conducted the ending quite well and won cleanly.

Thus we wound up in almost the same situation as last year with Christiansen against Boskovic. Both teams down to their last player, in one corner a known amazing blitz player and in the other a player whose blitz prowess is much more in question. Despite the seeming inequity of the situation, the underdog prevailed last year and this year would be no different with the underdog pulling through for his team at the most important moment winning a game, which like every other tiebreak game, contained a tricky ending and with a very rare mistake from Christiansen, Boskovic brought the win and title of USCL Champions to the Dallas Destiny!

So in a nutshell that’s what this evening seemed to contain (though a rather large shell based on how long I think I’ve been writing this). Hearty congrats should go out to both teams, they both played great seasons and a great Final, and it’s almost a shame that not both of them could be the Champions as both of them certainly did play like ones all season. But additional kudos to the Dallas Destiny for appearing to defy the odds on more than one occasion in this match to score a well deserved Championship. I’ll now close with some of my personal thoughts on the Finals match and this season in general.

One thing that seemed to be a common misconception (at least in my opinion) amongst the kibitzers about the blitz tiebreaker was that the lower boards would really play no role in determining the Champion at that stage. While of course the last played game is very unlikely to be decided with any of the lower boards directly participating, I think the way the tiebreaker went down in this situation was evidence of just how important all of the games in the tiebreaker really are and that the lower boards can really play an enormous role in the final outcome. With no one debating the blitz prowess of Sammour-Hasbun and Christiansen, the simple fact is anything can really happen in a blitz game, and the more cracks you get at a person, obviously the more chances you have to pull off that one upset, and I think that’s precisely what happened here. With Stopa knocking out both the lower boards of Boston and giving them the three versus two edge, I think at that stage it should be clear how much Dallas’s chances overall had improved. Also, while I, like most of the audience, suspected Sammour-Hasbun might run through the entire Dallas team, the expectations on him were probably a bit unfair. Obviously, as amazing a blitz player as Sammour-Hasbun is, Stopa has shown on more than one occasion how strong a player he is in the League especially when he has the White pieces and for Sammour-Hasbun to be thrust into a situation like that, having the Black pieces against such a strong player, where the fans were going to view even a draw as a failure by him is really not a reasonable burden to put on anyone. Also, the simple fact is Christiansen ended up having to play three blitz games while it was Boskovic’s first (once again due to the way things had transpired on the lower boards), and it seems very likely that the fatigue caused by both that and the time that the match ended (2:00 am!) was a factor in causing the fatal error of the last game which decided the Championship.

Overall, I’m very pleased the way this season of the League turned out, and just like last year this Finals match, which I’m sure none of us will soon forget, was a great way to top it off. Just as Greg Shahade predicted at the end of last season, the League was better in basically every way this year, and I can only hope that we can pull off a similar feat next year.

I want to end by thanking everyone who took the time to play in or follow the League this year. Obviously each one of you is a big part of why the League has been able to progress to where it's at now, and when I see how excited people get because of it (as I saw on more than a few occasions yesterday and many a time throughout the season), that’s really what makes all of the work we put in to make it happen worthwhile. I hope you all keep up with the League during the off season (especially with the Game of the Year Contest and don’t forget to nominate your Wildcard games there!, along with the announcement of the two expansion teams), and I’ll see you all next August for the 2008 Season!

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