GM Erwin l'Ami began with six consecutive wins in Saturday's Death Match 22, en route to a convincing 17.5-7.5 win over fellow Dutchman GM Jan Smeets. l'Ami won all three time controls as Smeets scored the lowest number of points in Death Match history.
l'Ami won $750 while Smeets took home $250.
Both players admitted to being apprehensive about the opening 5+1 segment. "The scary part is the five minute plus one (second)," l'Ami said. "I don't have any experience with it. It seems kind of long."
l'Ami adroitly handled the "long" games, most of the time getting ahead on the clock by more than one or two minutes. The time deficit certainly played a part at the outset as Smeets blundered a piece in the opening game, then with only seconds left he left a rook en prise in game two. "This is a surprising start," said Chess.com/tv commentator IM Danny Rensch, who had predicted a close contest.
After the match, l'Ami explained that he stuck with his usual openings so as to get the first moves out quickly to obtain a lead on the clock.
Game three made it 3-0 and after Smeets missed a draw in the closing seconds of game four, the rout had begun. Smeets tried a dubious Benoni setup in game five which didn't change things.
However game six really proved that it just was not his day. After finding the brilliant 31. Bg8+ and breaking through Black's pawn shelter, l'Ami's resource 33...Qg7 weirdly tied up White's army. Neither the commentators nor Smeets found a way to save all of his pieces or the game. "That's not fair," GM Ben Finegold said of the move.
"Psychologically that's crushing because he was winning the entire game," Finegold said. "Erwin was against the wall until this incredibly resourceful move, Qg7," Rensch added.
Smeets struggled but found a way to draw game seven. Game eight also concluded without a winner and the five-minute portion thus ended 7-1 for l'Ami, the largest lead ever in the first hour of a Death Match.
The match's only chance of becoming close came during the beginning of the second hour. Smeets sped up his play and won the opening two games.
"At the beginning of the 3+1 I felt like something was changing but I managed to get back and it was all fine," l'Ami said. He stemmed the comeback by holding the afternoon's first rook ending and drawing a blitz finish to game 11. Smeets then slowed down and blundered again to a simple pin in the following game.
GM Erwin l'Ami, Death March 22 winner
Triskaidekaphobics and others who place emphasis on the number 13 were not disappointed in game 13, as something unique was close to happening. As l'Ami bore down on g7 for mate, Smeets resigned, but GM Hikaru Nakamura, who chatted live during the match, immediately spotted the possibility of a unique stalemate defense.
46...Qe1+! is clearly the best practical try. After the obligatory 47. Rxe1, Black seeks to give up his last active piece with 47...Rxb3+. As Finegold and Rensch showed, White would have to then spot that 48. Kg2? only draws, as in the sample line 48...Rg3+ 49. Kh2 Rg2+ and the rook toggles along the g-file. Instead the winning method is to go straight to h2 - 48. Kh2! Rb2+ 48. Kh1! Rh2+ 49. Qxh2 wins.
The clever trap notwithstanding, Rensch said after this game, "It's like masochist chess, [Smeets] is just putting himself in these painful positions."
l'Ami went on to win two of the next three to narrowly take the three-minute section, 4.5-3.5.
"What I like best is 1+1, it suits me," l'Ami said prior to the match. He estimated that he had played "well over 100,000 blitz games online." The two have also met 28 times in rated games - they were born within three hours of each other.
"I definitely like the one-minute games the most," Smeets concurred. "They're the fastest, most action-packed."
GM Jan Smeets | Photo © Frans Peeters
With both players confident of their bullet abilities, l'Ami once again proved faster. He won the opening game, and Smeets' attempt at his country's namesake opening, the Dutch, didn't help in the second one-minute game.
Smeets couldn't crack l'Ami's Berlin all match, and his various iterations of the Scotch Game and Four Knights didn't net him much either.
Game 22 was his lone win and highlight from the final segment. The classic Greek Gift sacrifice out of a Reverse Stonewall is always pleasing.
l'Ami won four and drew four to win the bullet 6-3 and make the final margin 17.5-7.5. "Toward the end of the bullet section, I didn't really have any confidence in the result anymore," Smeets said.
"It was quite unexpected," l'Ami said after the match. "I know Jan is an excellent blitz player and I didn't really consider myself a favorite today...Luck was on my side today - I'm not really sure I was entitled to win some games."
Smeets' score was lower than the previous mark of 9 points that both GM Ray Robson and GM Valeriy Aveskulov obtained in their respective matches.
The Dutch have now contributed the second-most number of players to the Death Matches (five), though curiously they've twice played against themselves (Death Match 11 was another all-Netherlands affair). The country's overall record is 2-3. The U.S. has contributed the most players, while Germany (four) and England (three) have also played a sizable part.