Saturday, December 31, 2011

Australian Championship reaches halfway point

The organisers of the Australian Championship have generously designated January 1st a rest day in the tournament, which will allow the players to celebrate the new year without the nagging worry of a game looming the next day. If I was being very cruel, I would be disappointed that we spectators are going to miss out on what could have been a day full of booze addled blunders. But then again, a New Year's Day round would certainly have increased the chances of the junior's and teetotaller's in the tournaments.

I personally had a rest day yesterday, but I'm back to blogging again. My New Year's resolutions are to write more, and play more, and hopefully these 2 will coincide as well! As for the Championship, the 2 top seeds were able to break the deadlock and pull away slightly from the field. Top seed Zhao defeated Ly while second seed Xie defeated Wohl to put them both half a point clear of the field. Victorian GM Darryl Johansen won again, to keep himself in the hunt, while Smirnov stayed in contention with a draw against Morris.

Then came the pairing we had all been waiting for with the top board for round 5 featuring:


These 2 had a head to head in the last Championship in 2010 where they finished way clear of the rest of the field. In that Championship Zhao proved the stronger scoring a magnificent 10/11 including a win over Xie. George Xie also scored a great score of 9/11, a score that could have won him the Championships some years and left him 1.5 clear of 3rd place. This year, their meeting just before the halfway mark ended in a draw and helps build the tension of the championship with both players sitting on 4/5.

Here they are joined by Johansen who scores his third win in a row, and Smirnov. Johansen has won the Australian Championship a record 5 times and stayed in the hunt for his 6th victory by beating young FM Ikeda clinically. Smirnov also had a young challenger in FM Cheng, but the experienced IM who still represents his native Russia was too good on the day and took advantage of Cheng's adventurous play. These 4 share the lead going into the rest day, and will have to play each other in the next round.

Round 6:

Only half a point behind is Wohl and there is then a big pack a further half a point behind, featuring almost all the young hopefuls in this years Championship: Illingworth, Morris, Ly, Solomon, Ikeda, Cheng (spot the odd man out!). Also on 3/5 are 2 local favourites, Dragicevic, and Stojic who are both keeping up with the pace. Although there are still some strong players behind these, I don't think the winners and place getters are going to come from outside this group. Not unless someone starts to really up their game in the second week. However, almost anyone in the 3/5 group and above have a chance. Zhao is obviously still the man to beat being highest rated and defending champion, but there's a lot of talent at the top of the championship!

And at the other end, I'm glad to say that everyone has at least one point. This might sound patronising, but it really isn't. I have been in the situation where I'm not playing well and every game is a tough one and I know well the feeling of relief when you finally get off the mark. Even when you are scoring, if it's not at the rate you expect, it can make you put yourself under extra pressure to win at all costs. I wonder if this was what happened to Max Illingworth in this Championship? Max is undoubtedly one of Australia's stars of the future. He has had a terrific 2011 scoring a GM norm in Budapest and working his rating to over 2400. But the start of the Championship was mediocre by his standards. in round 1 he drew with Ferozkohi, in round 2 he scored another draw with Pengyu Chen, and then in round 3 he lost to Dragicevic. I'm taking nothing away from those 3 guys, who must have been doing something right, but Max would have expected more than 1/3 against those players. In his game against Dragicevic, he built an imposing position with the black pieces, but then made an inexplicable blunder.

Max as black has a powerful, mobile, advanced centre while Dragicevic as white is waiting for black to finally make his move. Black needed a preparatory move such as 27..Rce8 and then the pawns can be pushed. However, Max played 27..Qe5? which loses a pawn to the shot 28.Nxf4! where the knight is protected by the fact that the other knight can hop to e6 with check.

Happily, Max is back on track with 2 wins pulling him up to 3/5  and poised just behind the leaders. But I wonder if he was trying too hard to win his first few games, and not just let his immense natural playing ability  just do the talking. If that is the case, he certainly wouldn't be the first player to have heaped too much pressure on his own shoulders. As a comparison, look at the most experienced player in the field, Johansen. He started with an unpretentious 14 move draw with local junior Laurence Matheson and followed that up with another draw against 2008 Champion Solomon. But since then he has gone about winning his games in whatever manner it took, and pulling himself into joint first.

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