Three of the four divisional winners advanced in this week's United States Chess League quarterfinal matches, with only the New York Knights overcoming the draw odds that are afforded the favorite. It was also a week in which the top point scorers in the MVP race were unable to help their teams.
The Eastern Conference lined up first on Tuesday, and the lead match already invited news before the first move was made. The Manhattan Applesauce, winners of five straight matches and the hottest team in the league, did not start top player GM Zviad Izoria against New York, himself winner of five consecutive games.
His replacement, GM Robert Hungaski, drew as Black, and Manhattan won on board two as IM Farai Mandizha played a black system as White and took out GM-elect Irina Krush.
That left the Midtowners only needing a half point from the bottom two boards to beat their rival West Villagers. New York would not let this happen. Barely-teenage IM Akshat Chandra played simple yet effective chess to beat FM Rico Salimbagat. 14...Rad8 was too prosaic, and was punished swiftly after 15. Bc4. If 15...Qc6, then 16. b5 and the queen can no longer guard the knight on f6.
IM Akshat Chandra
Salimbagat rightly went for complications, but his minor piece and two pawns never stood a chance against White's coordinated rooks. Chandra finished elegantly with a rook sac that netted him a passed a-pawn.
Teammates have relied on Manhattan's NM Ryan Goldenberg all year, and he nearly always came through. Playing every week, he was nicked for only one draw and one loss in 10 games in the regular season. More fuel for their confidence may have come in the form of his opponent, NM Nicolas Checa, who had lost two straight and had a minus score on the season.
NM Nicolas Checa
None of that mattered Tuesday night, as Checa invaded on the e-file and 4th rank. Goldenberg reacted like an inchworm: 21. g3, 22. f3, 23. g4, 24. f4, 25. f5! Unfortunately for him, ensnaring the bishop was a Pyrrhic victory, as White's king became too exposed. Checa's queen rampaged, and the youngster sent his team to the semifinals.
New York won 2.5-1.5 (avenging their playoff loss to the Applesauce last year) and thus continues their quest to win their third championship in five years. They also won the title in 2009 and 2011, while they didn't advance out of the first round in 2010 or 2012. Although they have made the playoffs every year, the Knights are now 9-2 in odd-year playoff matches, but only 2-4 in even-numbered years. The successful odd-year campaigns make them similar to another New York legend, pitcher Brett Saberhagen.
Brett Saberhagen, also playing with Apples
The Connecticut-New England quaterfinal match was a repeat of week 10, in which the teams drew 2-2, which allowed the Nor'easters to win the Northeast Division and retain draw odds (the two teams also tied their other matchup earlier in the season).
This contest would go the same way. Amazingly, for the third straight meeting, the teams fought to a tie, allowing New England to move through.
The top two boards were exact repeats from week 10, even down to the colors. Once again GM Robert Hess could not engineer a win over GM Alex Ivanov with the white pieces, while FM Steven Winer bounced back from his loss last week to draw GM Michael Rohde.
That left everything to the bottom two boards. Needing only a win to advance, the Nor'easters probably felt safe with 6-0 NM Lawyer Times on board four. Times helped his team score a league-leading 8.5/10 on the final board, the highest total for any team on any board this year. But the jinx against top performers that began with Goldenberg continued, as Jason Shi completely immobilized White en route to crashing through on the second rank for a win.
FM Leif Pressman, replacing IM Jay Bonin from last week's roster, looked ready to secure the match for the Dreadnoughts in their first-ever playoff series. With Black's king wide open, White pushed too directly, forgetting about his own king. The blunder 42. Qd7? allowed a startling reversal; instead 42. c7 would keep Black very much on his heels. NM Mika Brattain thus played hero for the second week in a row.
NM Mika Brattain
In week 10, he saved a lost ending which proved necessary for his team to secure the draw odds that they very much needed this week. This week, perhaps an even more improbable comeback, as he earned the full point.
In the Western Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday, draw odds once again came in to play. All eight games were decisive, and for Miami, they didn't look past their top board for advancement.
After NM Ruifeng Li started Dallas out first by beating the previously 5-1 FM Eric Rodriguez, GM Renier Gonzalez evened the score by avenging his loss from last week. He changed tack from week 10, going for a small endgame plus and eventually grinding down league MVP FM Jeffery Xiong, who was 8-0 on the regular season.
From there NM Ryan Moon won to get the Destiny back in the lead 2-1, and all attention reverted back to board one. Original Shark GM Julio Becerra showed that he never runs out of teeth as he beat GM Conrad Holt for the second week in a row (a total of 168 moves!), making the final score 2-2 and sending Dallas packing.
GM Julio Becerra
Holt arrived 40 minutes late, and while he eventually mitigated the time gap, he was on his heels most of the game. A picturesque late piece sac gave Becerra four pawns for the piece and overwhelmed White's king and bishop. After a decent start to the season, Holt faltered late, going 1-4 in his last five games.
All of the Game of the Week nominations came from Wednesday's matches, and Holt-Becerra was the first.
Becerra is the only one of the top five MVP finishers to win this week. Despite only having one loss on their cards over the regular season, the other four went 0-3.
In the last quarterfinals matchup, San Francisco went in as the favorite against Los Angeles, and won without drama, 3-1. The Mechanics' quartet was the exact same lineup that also beat the Vibe by the same score in week 1.
Despite the lack of a close score, many of the week's best games were played in this match. GM Vinay Bhat controlled the center for most of the game, and eventually won the exchange to beat GM Melik Khachiyan.
NM Madiyar Amerkeshev offered a pawn early for intiative against FM Yian Liou. Black never ridded himself of White's wedge pawn on e5, and with the board bifurcated, the slow progression against his king was too much to bear. Amerkeshev's lone point for L.A. earned him a Game of the Week nomination.
Though the score was 1-1, San Francisco was never in danger of failing to get their required margin for victory. Needing only one more point, both of their better positions netted them wins, and at nearly the same time. GM Daniel Naroditsky finally broke through the stalwart defense of IM Luke Harmon-Vellotti, who resigned just seconds before Siddharth Banik scored the third point by forcing mate against NM Craig Hilby.
GM Daniel Naroditsky
Naroditsky earned the final Game of the Week nomination in the process.
The semifinals, which will be Saturday, November 16, will be New York against New England in the East and Miami against San Francisco in the West. There are no draw odds in these matches. If tied 2-2, they will play a series of tiebreak games.
Fans can vote for the Game of the Week winner on the chess.com homepage. The fan vote counts in the tabulation.