"You want me. You know you want me." Do I grab it? It looks so appetizing at the moment. I could get away with taking it, couldn't I? After all, what's the worst that could happen if I do? But something inside me made me feel that there would be bad consequences if I did. Better to just lay off, and avoid that post-traumatic moment when I think, "Why didn't I trust my instincts?"
I was staring into the heart of the refrigerator at the Chess-In-The-Schools offices, looking for a little cream to put in my coffee. All of a sudden, there it was: a hot-pocket. I had no idea how hungry I was until that moment. With the match set to begin in less than 30 minutes it would certainly do no harm to eat something and avoid feeling famished. As I began to reach for it I instantly had a flashback. Someone else on the team had been in the same situation last week, and things had gone horribly wrong...
No. I must be strong. I walked over to DD next door and bought a bagel. I came back, sat down and got ready to play Craig Jones, the 4th board of the Carolina Cobras. The good thing about this match (for me) was that nobody was really expecting me to win. This is not to say that my teammates didn't believe in me (they did); just that we were so strong on the top three boards I felt we could win even if I lost.
After a few technical issues, the match started, and very quickly I liked the positions we had on boards two and three (Dmitry Schneider and Yuri Lapshun, respectively). Eli Vovsha got into one of his usual masochistic positions. I don't understand Eli's style of play, but he seems to prefer it, so I try to have faith that he knows what he's doing.
In my game, I made a lot of second- and third-best moves in the opening, and after 12...a6! Mr. Jones began an excellent plan to create a queenside initiative. My attempt to counter this in the center was futile. After the thematic knight centralization, 20...Ne5, black had a clear advantage. At this point I thought our team had good chances to win the match without me, so instead of suffering a long and agonizing defeat I decided to sac a pawn go down swinging. My plan was 21.Nxe5 Bxg5 22.f4 Rxe5! 23.fxg5 Qxg5 24.Qf2, with the idea of creating pressure down the f-file. I would be worse, but not completely lost. Who knows? Maybe someday I get into one of those notorious rook endings where black is up a pawn but can't figure out how to win.
But none of this never happened. For whatever reason, Craig hallucinated and played 22...Bh6? which threw away black's advantage and allowed my knight to reach a dream square. Then it was my turn to mess up when instead of playing the safe 26.Kh2 I erred with 26.Kh1? which left my queen overloaded and black could have played 26...Bxb2. But I was allowed to equalize yet again when Craig tried to get fancy and played an unnecessary exchange sacrifice.
After 29...Bc3 30.Qf2 Bd4 31.Qe1 I took a walk around he room. Eli had equalized, and both Dmitry and Yuri had achieved winning positions. Wonderful! In my mind I was thinking, "Okay. He'll just keep attacking my queen, I'll repeat moves, and take the draw." Craig apparently realized the trouble his team was in, so he (understandably) avoided the draw and played 31...Qd8?! Those queenside pawns were looking a bit menacing, and as I began to think what to do about them, I heard Dmitry cry out in agony, "Oh my God!" He had blundered, going from completely winning to totally busted in the blink of an eye. He resigned in disgust, which changed the climate of the match. I couldn't afford to lose anymore! For the first time I felt pressure. What do I do now? I was in severe time trouble, and the endgame hadn't even started yet.
I lunged out and attacked with 36.f5! if only because I wanted to put pressure on Mr. Jones and make him use more time on his clock. After 38...Qb6, my teammates were in the adjacent room watching. Dmitry and Shaun spotted the exquisite 39.Rxf7!! which wins on the spot. Honestly, this move never occurred to me. As soon as I had my plan I proceeded without looking back. The position was double-edged, and with both of us having less that two minutes on our clocks, just one mistake by either player would cost the game. I was leaning forward in my chair, being extra-cautious not to have any mouse-slips. Craig wasn't playing it safe; he wanted his team to win, so he went for broke. His pushed his passers forward, but my passed c-pawn beat him to the punch. It became unstoppable, and Mr. Jones soon resigned.
When the bell rang, I leaned back in relief. I had had a long day of work, which took away some of the exhilaration. What made me the happiest were the smiles on my teammates' faces. When I saw those grins I thought, "This is why I wanted to be on the team." :)
Our first victory! What it lacked in style it more than made up for in excitement. Being an alternate, I may not have the chance to play again this year, but that's okay. One's first victory in the U.S. Chess League is like one's first girlfriend: it may not be the best, but you'll remember it for a long time.
By the way, it may just be a coincidence, but our first victory came after the first time we didn't make any match predictions. Until next time...