Friday, October 30, 2009

Hanging Tough and Letting Up

In the two games I posted from the Prospect-Conant match, players almost got away with some poor opening moves when their opponents failed to pursue their advantage with sufficient vigor. I thought I would take this opportunity to share a game of mine in which the highest rated player I have ever beaten achieved a dominating position against me but let me slip away when he hesitated to make the crucial breakthrough.

Onyekwere v. Hart

The game is from the second round of the 2006 U.S. Open that was held in Oakbrook, Illinois. I had the black pieces against Chickyere Onyekwere who I later found out was the champion of Nigeria. His rating at the time was 2272 while mine was 1969. The time control for the game was forty moves in two hours followed by sudden death in one hour. Due to my opponent’s rating, the tournament provided us with electronic score keeping devices so that the game was broadcast live on the internet.

I played the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defense which is a sharp opening that is popular at the highest levels of the game. I really didn’t have any business playing it against a player of Onyekwere’s caliber as I hadn’t kept up on the latest innovations. Not surprisingly, my opponent played a move that had recently become fashionable for which I was unprepared. I quickly found myself on the defensive and the following position was reached after I played 14...Ne8

Any time you find yourself retreating your pieces to the back rank against a master, you can be sure that you are in trouble. At this point, my opponent sank deep into thought for fifty-seven minutes. The move that scared me most was 15. f5, after which, I was pretty sure my position would be ripped open and my king subjected to a withering attack. However, after nearly an hour of thought, my opponent played the relatively sedate 15. a3.

When we looked at the game afterward, Onyekwere showed me all the variations he had thought about during those fifty-seven minutes. He spent most of his time considering 15. f5 and sure enough, bad things seemed to happen to me in almost every variation. However, he could not quite see all the variations through to an easily won position and he was concerned that I might come up with an unforeseen defensive resource. Moreover, he felt that his position was still very strong and that there would be future opportunities to storm my position. As a result he played a waiting move.

Onyekwere’s delay turned out to be fatal. Although his position was still commanding, his passivity allowed me to improve my defenses even if only slightly. As a result, while he continued to have attacking possibilities, they would never be quite as attractive as 15.f5 and having passed that up, he couldn’t bring himself to settle for less. More importantly, having invested so much time on his 15th move, he didn't have the time to test the later possibilities. As he kept trying to press his attack, he failed to notice that I was generating threats against his king and I finally managed to turn the game around with 26…Qc7.

After pressing the attack for so long and being low on time, Onyekwere was unable to adjust himself to the need to play defensively and he failed to counter my threats.

I have often thought that if Onyekwere had been playing another master, he would have played 15. f5 after about twenty minutes of thought. He knew that it was the right time to launch his assault and he knew that 15. f5 was the most promising continuation. Against another master, I think he would have accepted the possibility that his opponent might come up with an unexpected move, however, against a player he out rated by 300 points, he wasn’t willing to launch the attack without being absolutely sure that it would succeed. Against another master, he would have been afraid to let such an opportunity slip away, but against me, he expected that better chances would come.

As we went over the game, Onyekwere’s frustration over letting the game get away was obvious, but he was very gracious nonetheless. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was getting home and finding e-mails from three friends who had watched the game on-line. One of them congratulated me on my cool defensive play and I admitted that I just been hanging on for dear life.

Based on this game, I would offer the following advice to MSL players the next time they come up against a very strong opponent as they might in a match with Barrington or Buffalo Grove or at State:

(1) Don't be intimidated by your opponent's rating. Even the strongest players can go astray against determined resistance.

(2) Don’t change your playing style. Don’t be more aggressive or more passive

(3) Don’t change your openings. Your opponent may well know more about your favorite opening than you do, but he probably knows more about other openings as well. Playing the opening you are familiar with gives you the best chance of finding good moves.

(4) When you get in trouble against a strong opponent (or any opponent for that matter), work as hard as you can to find the best defensive moves that you can. As much as you might want to turn the game around in a single move, it may be enough just to keep your opponent from making progress. The pressure will build on him when the win does not come as easily as he thinks it should.

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