Super Stars A: Underdogs Take Down the Big Dogs

Most of Section A: Steven Witt, Matt Dalthorp, and Max Sun on the left. Ben Pikus and Austin Nguyen on the right.

On paper, it looked like it would be a battle between heavyweights Steven Witt (1817), Max Sun (1800), and Matt Dalthorp (1791) for the prizes. The winner would be the #2 rated scholastic player in the state if he scored 3/3. These three were over 200 points higher rated than the rest of field. Surely one of them would win, right? Not quite…

Elo isn’t very accurate to begin with, and it doesn’t take into account how fast active scholastic players improve when they are focused and motivated, as Austin Nguyen (1563) and Aaron Grabinsky (1559) showed by crushing the “big three” — both went 2/2 against their much higher-rated opponents. Austin added a second round win against Collin Goldman (1580) to score 3/3 and separate himself from Aaron, who only managed a draw against Collin to come in second overall with 2.5/3.

Austin’s first round victim was Matt. Matt is known for his aggressive, attacking style and love of sharp positions, so Austin tried to steer Matt’s Accelerated Dragon to relatively calm positional lines, beginning with an early Be2. It worked like a charm. Matt overextended, and Austin was able to break through in the center before Matt could safely castle. 1-0.

Austin Nguyen (1563) vs. Matt Dalthorp (1791)
Round 1
1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 g6
4. d4 cxd4
5. Nxd4 Bg7
6. Be3 Nf6
7. Be2 d5

In the standard Dragon, Black plays d6 before committing to the fiancetto with g6. The Accelerated Dragon is called “accelerated” because g6 comes before the d-pawn is moved. The d-pawn can later take the fast lane to d5 without pausing on d6 first like it has to in the Dragon. But the timing has to be just right. Matt moved it too early, and Austin found the best way to take advantage, winning a pawn out of the opening and creating substantial pressure in the center.

Black just played d5. White wins a pawn with Bb5!

8. Bb5! Bd7

Austin Nguyen contemplating how to take advantage of Matt's impatient Ne4 in the first round.

9. exd5 Nb4
10. Bc4 Qa5
11. Nb3 Qc7
12. Be2 Bf5
13. Rc1 Ne4

An aggressive attack on c3/b2/a2/c2, but Black still hasn’t castled, and White’s d-pawn is poised to help pry open the center files. Is the attack too early? Austin answers with a convincing “Yes!”

White to move. Black just played the aggressive Ne4. White responds with Nb5, demonstrating that Black's attack was premature.

14. Nb5! Qd8
15. Bd4 Nf6
16. c4 Bh6

Black’s queen and knight were forced back into their holes, while White’s attack gained steam. Black can’t castle now, because White could gain tempi for his attack with a3, g4, and g5 and threaten to overrun Black’s position. To gain some activity, Black plays Bh6.

White faces a critical decision…

  • Block the attack on the rook by playing Be3? Not a good solution because White would have to exchange his great bishop that is central to his attack.
  • Move the rook back to a1? Even worse! On the surface it looks passive and timid at a time when White is trying to coordinate an attack. It’s easy to see that it also would allow Black to play Nc2 to fork the king and rook. A little harder to see is that Black can win the queen with Bc2!
  • Move Rc3? On the downside this abandons the a-pawn to Black’s knight. But on the upside, the knight would be badly misplaced and in terrible danger of being trapped. In addition, the rook could then enter the battle. All-in-all, Rc3 was probably the best choice.

17. Rc3 Nxa2
18. Rf3 Be4

Black had a choice between castling to relative safety (0-0), trying to rescue his terrible knight on a2 (Nb4), or going for the active, swashbuckling attempt to win the nearly trapped rook on f3 (Be4). Matt opted for the aggressive line. Austin responded with a nasty exchange sacrifice to rip open the center while denying Black the opportunity to castle.

White to move. White responds to the attack on his rook by sacrificing the exchange on f6 and ripping open the center, while keeping the black king stuck in the middle.

19. Rxf6! exf6
20. Bc5 Bf8
21. d6 Rc8

White’s attack looks overwhelming, but to finish the job, he’ll need to bring more power into the battle. The light-squares bishop would be great on the c8-h3 diagonal. It could go there immediately, but Black could then simply block the diagonal with f5. The other option would to bring the king’s rook into the game via castling and Re1. Getting that rook to the open e-file could be devastating, but it would take a few moves to get it there and move the bishop out of the way. Even so, Black wouldn’t have time to either close the file or move his king safely off it in time. In a rare inaccuracy, Austin chose the bishop move and gave Black a chance to get off the hook.

22. Bg4?! f5
23. Bf3 a6
24. Bxe4 fxe4

White to move. In a series of strong moves, Austin gives a seminar on how to use the queen when you have control of the center.

25. Qd4 axb5 Matt wisely takes the knight rather than move his h8 rook out of the queen’s line of attack. The knight was an powerful fighter in the attack, while the rook was not useful in the defense.
26. Qxe4+ It’s tempting to grab the rook on h8, but that would be the end of White’s attack, and he’d be two pawns down. Austin’s made a better choice — to forget about material and continue the attack with Qxe4+.
Black to move. Black is up a rook in this position, but White has a withering attack.
26. … Kd7 Black’s last hope for keeping the game alive was to shed some material in exchange for closing the e-file…Be7! The black king uses the white pawn as shelter from the attack. This move is hard to find any time, but when both players are down to less than a minute on their clocks, it is easy to go astray.

Austin was able to find the right queen maneuver to finish the game with an excellent win.
27. Qxb7+ Ke8
28. O-O Bg7
29. Re1+ Kf8
30. d7+ Kg8
31. dxc8=Q Qxc8
32. Qxc8+ Bf8
33. Qxf8# 1-0

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Max Sun getting ready to play the crushing Qc3+ to win Ashwin Sah's knight in the first round.

The second of the big three to fall was Steven Witt. Max Sun, who is famous for his wild gambit openings, opted for a relatively quiet, positional sideline against Steven’s Sicilian defense this time. And it paid off, as Steven lost a piece after a greedy pawn grab on move 30. From that point on, Max ruthlessly ground him down for a great second round victory.

Max Sun (1800) vs. Steven Witt (1817)
Round 2
1. e4 c5
Steven plays all kinds of openings, including the relatively quiet Caro-Kann (c6) and French (e6), as well as the typically sharper Sicilians. With 2. … c5, Steven shows he’s ready to rumble.
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5
The Rossolimo Sicilian! A somewhat surprising, quiet choice by Max, who often goes for ultra-sharp, tactical gambits in the opening. Bb5 postpones opening the center and will likely result in a trade of White’s potentially powerful attacking bishop for Black’s typically active Sicilian knight — an early indication of White’s intent to play a positional, maneuvering game. The trade gives Black a damaged pawn structure in exchange for the two bishops vs. bishop + knight. The center tends to be a bit tangled, though, so the two bishops are hard to put to good use right away.
3. … e6
4. O-O Nge7
5. c3 a6
6. Bxc6 Nxc6
7. d4 d5
8. e5
Steven tries to open the center to give his bishops some air. Max rebuffs his offer and continues with his merry maneuvering. Steven will spend the next ten or so moves trying to open lines for his pieces, and Max will go on the defensive.

Black to move. A quiet opening. Black has the two bishops, but the center is destined to remain closed.

8. … Be7
9. Be3 b6
10. Re1 O-O
11. Nbd2 Bb7
12. Nf1 cxd4
13. cxd4 f5
14. exf6 Bxf6
15. Bf4 Qd7
16. Bg3 Qf7
17. Ne3 h5
Max has stubbornly refused to let Black get any advantage and continues to test his patience with his quiet maneuvering. It looks like it is starting to pay off. With Ne3, the white knight makes its presence known, and Black doesn’t like it. h5 keeps the knight from going to g4. At the same, it creates a long-term weakness that White will later take advantage of. But for now, he’ll continue the waiting game. In the next dozen moves the knight will go from e3 to c2 back to e3, to c2 again and finally back to e3. The bishop will go from g3 to d6 and back to g3. The rook will go from e1 to f1 and back to e1.

There aren’t many weaknesses in Black’s position…long term weak pawns at e6 and h4, and a tactical weakness with an unprotected bishop on b7. Under the right circumstances, a rook on c7, protected by the bishop on g3 would win the b7 bishop via fork on bishop and queen. Max will set up the fork and wait for an opportunity to play it.

Black just played h5 to keep the e3 knight from g4. White will spend the next dozen moves shuffling his pieces back and forth, waiting for Black to make a mistake.

18. h4 Rae8
19. Nc2 Ne7
20. Ne3 Ng6
21. Bd6 Be7
22. Bg3 Rd8
23. Rf1 a5
24. Rc1 Ba6
25. Re1 Rc8
26. a3 Bf6
27. Qd2 Bb7
28. Nc2 Qe7
29. Qe2 Rce8
30. Ne3 Nxh4?
Ouch! The waiting finally pays off. Black snatches a pawn but misses the ensuing fork. Black’s light-squares bishop is lost.

Black just grabbed a pawn on h4, leaving himself open to the fork Rc7!

31. Rc7 Nxf3+
32. Qxf3 Qd8
33. Rxb7 Bxd4
34. Qxh5
Black’s weak pawn is now gone, and the open h-file will play a critical role in the final stages of the game as well.
34. … Bxb2
35. Be5 Bxe5
36. Qxe5 Re7
37. Rxe7 Qxe7
38. Nxd5 Qxa3
39. Qxe6+ Kh8
40. Nxb6 Qb2
41. Qh3+ Kg8
42. Qe6+ Kh8
43. Nd5 Qxf2+
44. Kh1 Rf5
45. Qe8+ Kh7
46. Re3 g6
47. Rh3+ Rh5
48. Rxh5+ gxh5
49. Qxh5+ Kg7
50. Qg5+ Kh7
51. Nf6+ 1-0

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In the final round, Austin faced Max for the championship. Surprisingly the two had met only three times previously, with Max coming out on top 2/3. This time, though, Austin evened the score.

Austin Nguyen vs. Max Sun
Round 3
1. d4 d5
Austin demonstrates his flexibility in the opening. After playing e4 in the first round, he switched to d4 against Max to avoid Max’s favorite wild Ruy Lopez lines.
2. c4 e6
3. Nc3 c5
With the Tarrasch variation of the queen’s gambit declined (QGD), Black takes on an isolated queen’s pawn (IQP) in exchange for easy development and lively piece play. Tarrasch (1862-1934) loved these kinds of positions, but his QGD variation has not been popular because Black often has an upward struggle to attain a draw.
4. Nf3 Nf6
5. g3 Nc6
6. cxd5 exd5
7. Bg2 Be7
8. O-O O-O
9. Bg5 Be6
[Comments by Austin Nguyen] White decides on the Rubinstein variation, which allows him maximum winning chances by targeting the “weak” d-pawn with the light squared bishop.
10. Rc1 cxd4
11. Nxd4 h6
12. Bf4 a6
13. Qd2 Qd7
14. Rfd1 Rfe8
15. Na4 Bb4
16. Qc2 Nxd4
Perhaps it was better to take the bishop on e6 earlier and set-up a dark squared blockade but my goal was to force an endgame with either no minor pieces or a winning good knight vs. bad bishop situation. White already risks a disadvantage here.

17. Rxd4 Qb5
18. Qb3 Ba5
19. Qxb5 axb5
20. Nc5 Bb6
21. Nxe6 fxe6
22. Rb4 e5
Here the position becomes quite muddled. On board 2, Aaron Grabinsky had a winning position over Steven Witt so to have an outright 1st place, either Max or I had to win.
Because I thought black had the advantage here but could not break down the white position, I offered a draw, which was declined almost immediately. I thus decided to go into an endgame, thinking black’s “weak d-pawn” would be just that, a weakness. How wrong I was!
23. Rxb5 exf4
24. Rxb6 fxg3
25. hxg3 Rxe2
26. a3 Re7
27. Rc5 Rd8
28. Rb4 d4
29. Rc1 d3
Too late, I realize, I do not have time to take the b-pawn and still stop the d-pawn. The isolated pawn has come running all the way down the board and still cannot be captured.
30. Rd1 d2
31. Bf3 Re1+
32. Kg2 Rd3
I was actually expecting g5-g4 here. I couldn’t find a satisfactory defense to this threat. Maxwell’s move essentially threatens the same thing except not as forcefully. It does save a tempo though.
33. Rxb7 Rxf3
34. Kxf3 Rxd1
35. Ke2 Rc1
36. Kxd2 Rc6
37. b4 Ne4+
38. Ke3 Nc3
39. Kd4 Na4
40. Ra7 Nc3
41. Ra5 Ne2+
42. Kd5 Rc3
43. a4 Kf7
In the mad rush that followed, both of us lost track of notation. Despite having 15 minutes on the clock, I wanted to rush Max, hoping for a mistake since it was definitely white with a more pleasant position playing for a win with almost no chance of losing.
44. Rc5 Rb3
45. b5 Rb4
46. a5
After losing track of notation and making many mistakes, white managed to take both kingside pawns at the cost of his far-advanced queenside pawns. This last hope was to use the time it took for the errant knight to recover back to the kingside to safely advance or promote
a pawn. A position, where white’s pawn on the seventh, forced black to sacrifice the rook for two pawns. This created a “theoretically” drawn rook vs. knight endgame. After blitzing probably 20 moves, in a stroke of luck for me, Max dropped his knight, leading to an elementary victory.
46. … Nd4
47. b6 Nb3
48. Rc8+ Ke7
49. Rc7+ Kd8
50. Rxg7 Nxa5
51. Rg6 Rb5+
52. Ke4 h5
53. f4 Nc4
54. Rh6 Nxb6
55. f5 Ke7
56. Rxh5 Kf6
57. Rh6+ Kg5
58. Rg6+ Kh5
59. g4+ Kh4
60. f6 Rb4+
61. Kf5 Rb5+
62. Ke6 Rb1
63. f7 Re1+
64. Kf6 Rf1+
65. Kg7 Nd7
66. Rd6 Ne5
67. f8=Q Rxf8
68. Kxf8 Nxg4
69. Kf7 Kg3
70. Kg6
Both players were in extreme time trouble and were no longer notating. Black soon lost his knight, and the rest was easy for White. 1-0

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Aaron Grabinsky in front of the Capitol building.

Aaron Grabinsky from the amazing Coquille team has been playing a lot recently — and it shows. After drawing against Collin Goldman in the first round, he defeated two substantially higher-rated players, Matt Dalthorp and Steven Witt, in rounds 2 and 3. His 2.5/3 was good enough for clear second.