He didn’t finish in the money, but Boston IM Marc Esserman had a major say in the outcome of last week’s 112th U.S. Open in Orlando, Fla., the nation’s premier open event, won in a sudden-death playoff by young New York GM Aleksandr Lenderman over fellow GM Alejandro Ramirez.
Lenderman and Ramirez had the best tie-breaks of the seven grandmasters who all finished at 7 1/2-1 1/2 in the 367-player event, a group that included U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura, New York GM Tamaz Gelashvili, Timur Gareyev of Texas, Giorgi Kacheishvili of the Georgian Republic and Colombian GM Alonso Zapata. Ramirez had draw odds in the blitz playoff against Lenderman but succumbed to the New Yorker’s mating attack in 37 moves.
Esserman finished a half-point back in a six-way tie for eighth but was critical to the final standings. First he knocked off veteran Dutch GM Loek van Wely, a pre-tournament favorite, with a stunning mating attack in Round 5; then he held both Nakamura and Ramirez to draws in the ensuing rounds. He finally dropped a full point to Lenderman in the penultimate round, setting the young New Yorker on the path to his first Open title.
Van Wely, once ranked in the world’s top 10, is kicked to the curb in brutal fashion in his game with Esserman, a loss from which he never recovered. The win is certain to warm the hearts of partisans of the wild Sicilian Smith-Morra Gambit (2. d4 cxd4 3. c3!?) a sacrificial line often seen in club play that rarely gets a workout against an elite player.
Black appears to be thrown by White’s opening choice, finding neither a clear way to hold on to his gambit pawn or to return the ill-gotten loot to get his king to safety. By 8. Bg5 f6 9. Be3 Ng6 10. Bb3 b5 11. Nd5!?, it is clear that White has gotten the wide-open attacking game he coveted. After 11…exd5 12. exd5! (playing for open lines at all costs; on 12. Qxd5?! Qe7 13. Rfc1, threatening 14. Bc5, Black holds with 13…Bb7 14. Bc5 d6) Nce5 13. d6, trading down is disastrous on 13…Nxf3+? 14. Qxf3 Rb8 15. Rfe1 Ne5 16. Bd4 Bxd6 17. Bxe5 Bxe5 18. Rxe5+! fxe5 19. Qf7 mate.
As often happens in sharp gambit lines, one misstep by the defender proves fatal: 14. Nxe5 fxe5 (Nxe5 15. Re1 Qb8 16. Bc5 Kd8 17. f4 Nc4 18. Bxc4 bxc4 19. Bb6+ Kc8 20. Re8 mate) 15. f4 Qf6? (van Wely had to go for the murky complications of 15…exf4 16. Qe1 Bxd6 17. Bxf4+ Be7 18. Bf7+ Kxf7 19. Bc7+ Bf6 20. Bxd8 Rhxd8; now Black just gets rolled) 16. fxe5 Qxe5 (see diagram) 17. Bg5!, when the two White bishops rake Black’s king position and 17…Qxg5 loses to 18. Qe1+ Be7 (Ne5 [Kd8 19. Qa5+ Ke8 20. Bf7 mate] 19. Bf7+ Kd8 20. Qa5+ Kc8 21. Qc7 mate) 19. Bf7+ Kf8 (Kd8 20. Qa5+) 20. Bxg6+ Bf6 21. Qe7+ Kg8 22. Bf7 mate.
Black tries covering up with 17…Be7, but it’s already too late after 18. Bf7+ Kd8 19. dxe7+ Nxe7 20. Qd2 (White still has not recovered his gambit pawn, but his attack is lethal) Kc8 (White threatened 21. Rac1 Rc8 22. Qa5+ Rc7 23. Bf4, winning) 21. Rac1+ Nc6 (Bc6 22. Rfe1) 22. Rfd1 Qf5 23. Bf4! Qxf7 24. Qd6 Kd8 25. Rxc6 Bxc6 26. Qxc6, and the grandmaster resigned, as moving his attacked rook allows 26…Rc8 (Ra7 27. Bg5+ Ke8 28. Qc8 mate) 27. Bg5+ Qe7 28. Qxd7 mate.
Perhaps having seen that demolition job, Lenderman three rounds later wants no part of any Sicilian gambit lines in his own encounter with Esserman. Black goes with a Caro-Kann and gives a nice demonstration of how to keep control of a position when White again tries to sacrifice a pawn for the initiative.
On 13. Rfd1!? (Qxb7 Be4 14. Nc4 Rb8 15. Qa6 0-0 is probably equal) Bxe3 14. fxe3 Rb8 15. Nd4 0-0 16. Nc4 Be4 17. Nd6 Bd5, White can’t recover his pawn with 18. Nxb7?? because of 18…Nxd4 19. exd4 Rxb7. After 19…Nxd4! 19. exd5 Nxe2+ 20. Qxe2 Qe7 21. Qe4 Nb6 22. dxe6 fxe6, Lenderman has emerged from the central complications a clear pawn to the good, and this time White has no real counterplay as compensation.
White may have thought simplifying the position would increase his chances of saving a draw, but Lenderman soon disabuses him of that notion: 23. Rf1?! Nd5 24. Rxf8+ Rxf8 25. Rf1?! Rxf1+ 26. Kxf1 Qg5!, when pawn-snatching with 27. Nxb7? is punished by 27…Qd2 28. Qe2 Ne3+ 29. Kf2 Ng4+ 30. Kf3 Nxh2+ 31. Kf2 Qf4+ 32. Ke1 Ng4 33. Nd6 Qc1+ 34. Qd1 Qc3+ 35. Qd2 Qxe5+ and wins.
But on the game’s 27. g3 Qd2!, the White king is trapped in a box and the game is quickly wrapped up after 28. h4 (Qe2 Ne3+ 29. Kf2 Ng4+ 30. Kf3 Nxh2+ 31. Kf2 Ng4+ 32. Kf1 Qxe2+ 33. Kxe2 Nxe5 is a straightforward endgame win) Ne3+ 29. Kg1 Qd1+ 30. Kh2 (Kf2 Ng4+ 31. Kg2 Qd2+ 32. Kh3 Nf2+) Ng4+ 31. Kg2 Qd2+, when 32. Kf2 Nh2 is a nice geometric mate; Esserman resigned.
Two Maryland players were in the large group of players another half-point back at 6 1/2-2 1/2 - GM Larry Kaufman and master Alex Barnett. Barnett, who drew Lenderman and former U.S. champion GM Alex Shabalov, lost only one game in Orlando (to Kacheishvili) and tied for the top scoring player under 2400.
Esserman-van Wely, U.S. Open, August 2011
1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 a6 7. O-O Nge7 8. Bg5 f6 9. Be3 Ng6 10 Bb3 b5 11. Nd5 exd5 12. exd5 Nce5 13. d6 Bb7 14. Nxe5 fxe5 15. f4 Qf6 16. fxe5 Qxe5 17. Bg5 Be7 18. Bf7 Kd8 19. dxe7 Nxe7 20. Qd2 Kc8 21. Rac1 Nc6 22. Rfd1 Qf5 23. Bf4 Qxf7 24. Qd6 Kd8 25. Rxc6 Bxc6 26. Qxc6 1-0.
Esserman-Lenderman, U.S. Open, August 2011
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Ne7 6. O-O c5 7. dxc5 Nec6 8. Be3 Nd7 9. c4 dxc4 10. Na3 c3 11. Qb3 cxb2 12. Qxb2 Bxc5 13. Rfd1 Bxe3 14. fxe3 Rb8 15. Nd4 O-O 16. Nc4 Be4 17. Nd6 Bd5 18. e4 Nxd4 19. exd5 Nxe2+ 20. Qxe2 Qe7 21. Qe4 Nb6 22. dxe6 fxe6 23. Rf1 Nd5 24. Rxf8+ Rxf8 25. Rf1 Rxf1+ 26. Kxf1 Qg5 27. g3 Qd2 28. h4 Ne3+ 29. Kg1 Qd1+ 30. Kh2 Ng4+ 31. Kg2 Qd2+ 0-1.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column can also be read online at https://www.washingtontimes.com.