NJ KO'd by Queens
Sounds like a New York Post headline... The New Jersey Knockouts, who had been undefeated through three rounds of US Chess League action, lost a return match to the Queens Pioneers last night after their first two boards, GM Joel Benjamin and IM Zlotnikov, went down to defeat. I have annotated the games and posted them online. In previous matches, New Jersey had been holding their own on the strength of their top boards and the occasional luck of their bottom boards. But in last night's match, the roles were reversed, with the bottom two boards, young masters Molner and Ju, coming through with 1.5 out of 2 points while the top two were blanked.
The heartbreaking part of the night was that both Benjamin and Zlotnikov had chances to at least hold their games. Benjamin probably could have equalized against Stripunsky's early novelty in the Taimanov Sicilian by playing 11...d5! but instead went pawn hunting with 11...Nxd4 12.Bxd4 e5 13.Be3 Nxe4?! creating a whole series of problems for himself that led to his King being stuck in the center of the board and subject to attack. Stripunsky, out for revenge after losing to Benjamin in their previous match, was relentless in his pursuit of Black's King and finally capitalized on its situation with a nice concluding combination (see diagram above). Zlotnikov, meanwhile, chose neither his favorite English with 1.c4 nor my recommended 1.e4 (in order to play against Vovsha's favorite Scandinavian Defense) but instead 1.Nf3, which he has favored of late, leading to a rather stale-looking Reti system where Black had greater control of space. However, Zlotnikov secured excellent chances in the middlegame and missed at least one chance for a very clear advantage. But he missed his chances, let his initiative slip away, lost a pawn to a nice Knight fork, and finally blundered the Exchange to prompt his resignation. If we had drawn either of these games, we would have at least maintained our unbeaten record.
The bright spot of the night was last year's New Jersey State Champion and Cadet Champion Evan Ju's performance on bottom board, where he redeemed his lucky draw against Queens in the first round with a very careful and masterly performance. Ju was able to repel his younger opponent's unsound attack and gain a winning material advantage for the endgame, which he promptly converted to a win by a nice concluding combination (see diagram above).
More coverage of the match (if you can stomach it) can be found at the following links: