(1) Lowinger (2333),NM Daniel - Benjamin (2637),GM Joel [C41]
Saturday G/45 (3.1), 08.12.2013

1.e4 e5
It is impossible to predict what Joel will play. Last year, if memory serves, he played 1...g6 but transposed to some kind of Gurgenidze Caro-Kann. He really seems to play everything under the sun now, except for main lines! Needless to say, the opening caught me off-guard and, despite the fact that I had something up my sleeve for this variation, I totally forgot it in the heat of the moment and fumbled the opening advantage in a mildly embarrassingly stereotyped manner.

2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4
Did I say that Joel avoids main lines? Perhaps I spoke too soon! Take Dan Shapiro's time machine back to the 19th Century, and I'm sure we'd be squarely in the mainstream now! All joking aside, opening selection is a key psychological ingredient in modern chess; after Joel defeated FM Pressman (a monster speed player who defeated GM Rohde and, in an act of tremendous sportsmanship agreed to a draw against GM Kekelidze when Kekelidze may have flagged), I heard Leif remark on the wisdom of Joel's opening choice in their game as well. Needless to say, Joel is not only a phenomenal chess player objectively, but a shrewd psychological chess player subjectively as well.

4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Be2
More challenging, or at least more interesting, is 6.Bf4, with the idea of castling on opposite flanks. This is what I forgot in the heat of the moment. My "obvious" choice is actually probably more consequential than it seems. As someone who often chooses off-beat openings myself when confronting lower-rated players, I know that the purpose of many of these openings, especially in speed chess, is not so much to obtain the objectively best position, but to obtain something original where after the opponent has played some stereotypical developing moves, his middle game plan does not present itself clearly at a glance. Despite knowing this intellectually, I fell face forward into the trap:

6...0-0 7.0-0 Re8 8.Re1 Bf8 9.Bf1 c5 10.Nb3 Nc6 11.Bg5 h6 12.Bh4 Be6 13.Qd2 a5
Here we go. Black plays a concept familiar to him from experience with this type of position, while White flails around for a clear path forward. Unlike in some variations of the Sicilian, d6 is well protected here, and I'm faced with the kind of strategic decision that's nearly impossible to make without time or experience with this kind of position. Objectively the position is equal, but the comfort level of the players is not equal. If I may put it this way, Black has succeeded in taking the psychological initiative.

14.Rad1 a4 15.Nc1 a3 16.b3 Nd4 17.Nb5?!
[17.N1e2 is more natural and logical, using the misplaced knight to challenge d4.]

17...Bg4 18.Nxd4
[18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Nxd4 Bxd1 20.Bb5 is more intresting and complicated.]

18...Bxd1 19.Qxd1 cxd4 20.Qxd4 Qa5 21.f3?!
weakening the diagonal to the king. After Nd3, White's two bishops and Black's damaged pawn structure cause the computer to assess the position as equal.

Now Black rids himself of a weakness with tempo.

22.Nd3 dxe4 23.fxe4 Rad8 24.Qc4??
[24.Qf2 ]

24...Rc8 25.Qd4 Ng4
[25...Rxc2 was simpler, with an easily winning position.]

26.e5 h5 27.h3
Now matters are slightly more complex again, and Joel took a long think here (roughly 2 minutes).

27...Nh6 28.e6
Here I offered a draw, which turned out to be a controversial move, as Joel registered a friendly objection to this after the game. In fact, the propriety (we're speaking as a matter of etiquette not of legality) of a draw offer turns on at least a couple of distinct issues: 1) both players holistic assessment of the game prospects, including both the position's merits and the time situation; 2) the motivation/intention behind the draw offer. As far as the position's evaluation, no doubt Joel accurately perceived that his position was substantially better, and perhaps the basis of his objection was the rather straightforward and uncontroversial view that a lower-rated player shouldn't offer a higher-rated player a draw in a losing position. With this, I whole-heartedly agree; in fact, it was taught to me categorically by my childhood chess mentors, among them our 3rd place finisher FM Dan Shapiro. In my experience (and I'm usually the higher-rated player receiving the offer from a lower-rated), the primary motivation for such an offer is nerves and an irrational attempt to avoid inevitable loss, neither of which are sufficient grounds, I feel, for disrupting the silent intensity of a chess game's atmosphere with verbiage. But that was not the case here. While I realized that White was worse (how much I wasn't sure), I also realized that we were entering a time scramble and that there was plenty of complex play left. Black's knight was offside, and his king shelter substantially compromised. If I were in Joel's position, as I often am, I would not only consider a draw offer here, I would appreciate it: first, as a matter of etiquette, I feel it's more fitting for the lower-rated player to request amnesty from the higher, rather than the other way around; second, given the tournament situation, I might rather take a safe half-point and build my tournament lead later, than risk a loss in a tactically charged melee. As far as my motivation for offering, I was both trying to escape a worse position against a better player, and trying to give my opponent something real and additional to think about in his shortage of time, at least the latter of which I think is a legitimate chess reason. In any event, it is an interesting topic of discussion!

28...Rxe6 29.Rxe6 fxe6 30.Qd7 Qb6+
A nice in-between move, which I had missed. Now Black will protect everything.

31.Bf2 Qc6 32.Qxc6 Rxc6 33.c4 Nf5 34.Be2 h4 35.Bf3 Rd6 36.Be4 Ng3 37.Bxg3 hxg3 38.Kf1 Rd4 39.Bg6 Be7 40.Ke2 b6 41.Ke3 Rd8 42.Kf3 Bd6 43.Ke3 Kf8 44.Be4 Ke7 45.b4 Rc8 46.Kd4 Kf6 47.c5 bxc5+ 48.bxc5
Although objectively White is lost, he has obtained legitimate chances with his passed pawn and active pieces. Only Joel's confidently accurate and speedy play kept everything in check for black; a lesser player might certainly have faltered here.

48...Bc7 49.Kc4 Rd8!
Very alert, tying down the knight so that aiding the pawn involves a major compromise: allowing Black's rook to penetrate.

50.c6 g5 51.Nc5 Rd2 52.Na6 Bd6 53.c7 Bxc7 54.Nxc7 Ke5
Despite being under a minute, Joel plays assertively and directedly, not allowing the White minor pieces to find coordination. Although he had to give his bishop for just my pawn, he possesses the same clear advantage as before and converts nearly flawlessly.

55.Kc3 Rxa2 56.Bc2 Rb2 57.Na6 Kf4 58.Nc5 Ke3 59.Nxe6 Rb5 60.Bb3 Kf2 61.Bc4 Ra5 62.Ba2 Kxg2 63.Kb4 Re5 64.Nd4 Kxh3 65.Kxa3 g2 66.Nf3 Kg3 67.Nxe5 g1Q 68.Nc4 Qd4 69.Kb4 g4 70.Bb3 Kf4 71.Bd1 g3 72.Be2 g2 73.Kb5 0-1