UT Rio Grande Valley Snaps Webster’s Final Four Winning Streak

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV)

Villanova and Michigan’s Monday night tip-off for the NCAA national round ball championship generated plenty of drama for the 12 million or so who watched on TV and could hoot and holler at home. That other Final Four championship was decided earlier, on Easter Sunday—and the sport that focuses not on hoops but squares roiled up about as much drama as the crowd at the Marshall Chess Club could handle, even getting some of the crowd hushed into silence by none other than U.S. Chess President Mike Hoffpauir. The 2018 rendition of the event that stretches back to 2001 was “The strongest ever,” according to Hoffpauir. Two of this year’s players, GMs Ray Robson of Webster U. and Yaro Zherebukh of St. Louis U., plus Texas Tech Head Coach Alex Onischuk, compete in the U.S. Championship in mid-April. A dynasty at stake Webster University had owned the national playoffs since GM Susan Polgar began its program in 2012 and was shooting for its sixth straight national title. The Final Four is a matchup of four-player teams head-to-head. Teams can bring up to two alternates and must deploy their squads in rating order within 50 points. Importantly, it’s not match points but total game points that determine the winner. That longstanding rule was key this year. If match points were the gold standard, Webster would have stretched its record to six, since they scored 2 ½ match points to UT-RGV’s 2. Game points make for an exciting event. A team can lose a match but come back with lopsided wins. In Round 1, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV) grabbed 3 game points in its 3-1 defeat of St. Louis U., with key wins from GMs Vladimir Belous and Hovhannes Gabuzyan. Meanwhile Webster, on the back of Ray Robson’s sole win, picked up 2 ½ in a narrow win against Texas Tech. Then in Round 2, Webster beat UT-RGV 2 ½ - 1 ½. That put Webster up ½ going into the final round. A position for the college chess history books Then the UT-RGV team members showed themselves to be true pressure-players, racking up a 3-1 lead against fellow Lonestar hopeful Texas Tech, collecting three more points to finish with 7.5. In the Webster-St. Louis matchup, three games were drawn and title hopes came down to one remaining game. Robson and St. Louis’ GM Dariusz Swiercz had both consumed the 90 minutes in the SD-90 time control and had only the 30-second interval to choose each move. In this dramatic endgame (below), if team captain Robson finds the win, Webster wins its sixth championship with 7.5 game points and better tiebreaks. Incidentally, in that outcome, Robson would become the only player ever to play on six Final Four championship teams. That would remain an unsurpassable record, given the rule against playing more than six. If Robson fails to win the last game going, UT-RGV breaks the streak and takes home the title.

                Position after 82. … Kc7 What’s the winning move? Show Solution

83. Rh7+! Kb6 84. e6 Ng6 85. d6 and white's pawns are unstoppable. Tempted by 83. Rh8? See game for Black's skillful, narrow defense.

Here’s the game:

[pgn] [Event "US Chess Final Four 2018"] [Site "Marshall Chess Club"] [Date "2018.04.01"] [Round "3.2"] [White "Robson, GM Ray"] [Black "Swiercz, GM Dariusz"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C65"] [WhiteElo "2734"] [BlackElo "2757"] [PlyCount "195"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] [WhiteTeam "Webster"] [BlackTeam "StL"] [TimeControl "6000+1985"] [WhiteClock "0:04:33"] [BlackClock "0:05:44"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Bc5 5. Bxc6 dxc6 6. Nbd2 Bg4 7. h3 Bh5 8. Nb3 Bd6 9. Bd2 b6 10. g4 Bg6 11. Nh4 a5 12. Qf3 Qd7 13. Nf5 Bxf5 14. gxf5 a4 15. Nc1 O-O-O 16. Ne2 Kb7 17. O-O-O Qe7 18. h4 Bb4 19. Bxb4 Qxb4 20. h5 Qe7 21. Kb1 a3 22. b3 g5 23. hxg6 hxg6 24. fxg6 fxg6 25. Qg3 Qc5 26. Rhf1 Nh5 27. Qe3 Qxe3 28. fxe3 Rdf8 29. Kc1 Nf6 30. Rg1 Rh2 31. Nc3 Nh5 32. Nb1 Rf3 33. Nxa3 Rxe3 34. Rd2 Rxd2 35. Kxd2 Rh3 36. Nc4 Rh2+ 37. Kd1 Nf4 38. Nxe5 c5 39. Ng4 Rh8 40. a4 Ne6 41. Kd2 Nd4 42. Rg2 g5 43. Ne5 Re8 44. Nc4 Rh8 45. Ne3 Rh3 46. Nf5 Ne6 47. Kc3 Rh1 48. Ne3 Kc6 49. Kd2 (49. Kc4 {seems the right direction, when White is on the verge of winning.} Nd4 50. Rf2) 49... Kd7 50. Nf5 Rh3 51. Kc3 Rh1 52. Ng3 Rh3 53. Ne2 Rh1 54. Kd2 Rh3 55. Ng1 Rh8 56. Nf3 Ke7 57. Rh2 Rg8 58. Ke3 Rg7 59. c3 g4 60. Nh4 Rg8 61. Nf5+ {White's position was now very encouraging to Webster fans.} Kf6 62. Rg2 Rg6 63. Nh4 Rg8 64. d4 cxd4+ 65. cxd4 c6 66. Nf3 g3 67. b4 (67. Ng1 Rg4 68. Ne2 c5 69. e5+ Ke7 70. Kf3 $18) 67... Ra8 68. Ra2 (68. e5+ Ke7 69. b5) 68... g2 69. Kf2 {Now both Houdini and StockFish show the game dead even. 69. a5 kept some advantage.} Rg8 70. Ra1 Nf4 71. a5 bxa5 72. bxa5 Nh3+ 73. Ke3 g1=Q+ 74. Nxg1 Nxg1 75. Rc1 Ke7 76. Rxc6 Nh3 (76... Rg3+ 77. Kf2 Rd3 78. Kxg1 Rxd4 79. e5 Rd5 $11) 77. d5 Rg3+ 78. Kd4 Nf4 $2 ( 78... Ra3) 79. a6 $1 {Here Webster-boosters following the game on computer engines erupt in such a whoop that Hoffpauir dashes upstairs from the playing room below with stern instructions to be quiet. Now, with best play, White could win a kind of Robson trademark game of vacillating piece values.} Ra3 $1 80. Rh6 Kd8 81. e5 Ra5 82. a7 $3 {The only clearly winning move.} Kc7 (82... Rxa7 83. Rh8+ Kc7 84. Rh7+ Kb6 85. Rxa7 Kxa7 86. e6 $1 Ng6 87. d6 {and White queens and mates.}) 83. Rh8 (83. Rh7+ $1 Kb6 84. e6 Ng6 85. Ke4 Ra1 86. Kf5 { is hopeless for Black.}) 83... Ra4+ $1 {WIth an increment only, Black finds the only drawing move!} 84. Kc5 Ra5+ 85. Kd4 Ra4+ 86. Kc5 Ra5+ 87. Kb4 Rxa7 88. Rh7+ Kb6 89. Rxa7 Kxa7 90. Kc5 Kb7 91. Kd6 Kc8 92. e6 Kd8 93. Ke5 Nxd5 94. Kxd5 Ke7 95. Ke5 Ke8 96. Kd6 Kd8 97. e7+ Ke8 98. Ke6 {Stalemate gives UT-RGV the half-point it needs to be the champ!} 1/2-1/2[/pgn]
Coach GM Bartek Macieja’s squad of five International Grandmasters returned to campus in Brownsville in time to watch Villanova and Michigan, or hit the books for upcoming exams. “You can’t win the Pan-Ams without a hero,” Webster’s Paul Truong said. GM Vladimir Belous filled that role for UT-RGV. He was the only player to score 3-0, and he did it on Board 1 with two Blacks. Robson turned in an outstanding 2 ½ - ½ as an impressive last hurrah to college competition.  He just couldn’t find that last winner.

GM Vladimir Belous
 Here’s Belous’ key third-round game against the top Texas Tech player.

[pgn] [Event "US Chess Final Four 2018"] [Site "Marshall Chess Club"] [Date "2018.04.01"] [White "Baryshpolets, GM Andrey"] [Black "Belous, GM Vladimir"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E08"] [WhiteElo "2670"] [BlackElo "2684"] [PlyCount "96"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] [WhiteTeam "TT"] [BlackTeam "UTRGV"] [TimeControl "6000+895"] [WhiteClock "0:02:12"] [BlackClock "0:17:09"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 c6 7. O-O Nbd7 8. Qc2 O-O 9. Rd1 b6 10. Bf4 Bb7 11. Ne5 Nh5 12. Bd2 Nhf6 13. Bf4 Nh5 14. Bd2 Nhf6 15. cxd5 cxd5 16. Nc6 Bxc6 17. Qxc6 Rc8 18. Qb5 Ne8 19. Qd3 Nd6 20. Nc3 Nf6 21. Be1 Qd7 22. e3 Rc7 23. f3 Rfc8 24. b3 Nf5 25. g4 (25. a4) 25... Nh4 26. Bh1 Ng6 27. Ne2 e5 28. Qf5 Qb5 29. Qd3 Qe8 30. dxe5 Nxe5 31. Qf5 Bc5 32. Bf2 Nc6 33. g5 Nh5 34. Qh3 g6 35. f4 Re7 (35... Nb4) 36. Rd3 Nb4 37. Rc3 Rc6 38. a3 Nc2 39. Rxc2 Bxe3 40. Raa2 $17 (40. Nc3 $11) 40... Bxf2+ $17 41. Kf1 (41. Kxf2 Rxc2 42. Rxc2 Rxe2+ 43. Rxe2 Qxe2+ 44. Kxe2 Nxf4+ 45. Ke3 Nxh3 46. Kd4 Nxg5 47. Kxd5 Kf8) 41... Bc5 42. b4 Nxf4 43. Qh4 Nxe2 44. Rxe2 Be3 45. Bxd5 Rc1+ 46. Kg2 Rg1+ 47. Kf3 Qd7 48. Be4 Bxg5 0-1[/pgn]
GM Pavlo Vorontsov played a vital game for Texas Tech, as he did at the PanAms to secure the team’s qualification. But this time his opponent was Zherebukh.
[pgn] [Event "US Chess Final Four 2018"] [Site "Marshall Chess Club"] [Date "2018.03.31"] [White "Vorontsov, GM Pavlo"] [Black "Zherebukh, GM Yaroslav"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D35"] [WhiteElo "2644"] [BlackElo "2701"] [PlyCount "65"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] [WhiteTeam "TT"] [BlackTeam "StL"] [TimeControl "6000+900"] [WhiteClock "0:09:27"] [BlackClock "0:14:49"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 c5 7. Rb1 Be7 8. Bb5+ Bd7 9. Bxd7+ Qxd7 10. Nf3 O-O 11. d5 f5 12. Ne5 Qd6 13. Nc4 Qa6 14. Qb3 fxe4 15. O-O exd5 16. Ne3 Rf7 17. Qxd5 Nc6 18. Qxe4 Bf6 19. Nd5 Qxa2 20. Rxb7 $1 Rxb7 21. Qe6+ Kh8 22. Qxc6 Qb3 23. Nxf6 gxf6 24. Qxf6+ Kg8 25. c4 Qxc4 ( 25... Re8) 26. Bb2 Rxb2 27. Qxb2 $16 a5 (27... Re8) 28. Rd1 $18 Re8 29. h3 Qb4 30. Qc1 $1 c4 $2 31. Qg5+ Kh8 32. Qf6+ Kg8 33. Rd5 {Perhaps Zherebukh looked only at} (33. Rd7 Qe1+ 34. Kh2 Qe5+ $11) 1-0[/pgn]
St. Louis University’s GM Alexander Ipatov came through with a big win on Board 1 in Round 3 to put Webster in the hole.
[pgn] [Event "US Chess Final Four 2018"] [Site "Marshall Chess Club"] [Date "2018.04.01"] [White "Ipatov, GM Alexander"] [Black "Durarbayli, GM Vasif"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D75"] [WhiteElo "2723"] [BlackElo "2694"] [PlyCount "141"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] [WhiteTeam "StL"] [BlackTeam "Webster"] [TimeControl "6000+1225"] [WhiteClock "0:01:33"] [BlackClock "0:01:17"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 c5 4. Nf3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 d5 6. Bg2 Bg7 7. O-O O-O 8. cxd5 Nxd5 9. Nb5 Be6 10. Nd4 Bc8 11. Nc3 Nb6 12. e3 h5 13. b3 Bg4 14. Qe1 Qd7 15. Ba3 Bh3 16. Bxh3 Qxh3 17. Nce2 Re8 18. Rc1 Na6 19. Qa5 Qg4 20. f3 Qh3 21. Nf4 Qd7 22. Rfd1 Rac8 (22... Red8 $11) 23. Nc6 $1 Qxc6 24. Rxc6 Rxc6 25. Rc1 Rxc1+ 26. Bxc1 {And White systematically mops up with his queen.} Rc8 27. Ba3 e6 28. h4 Rc2 29. Qb5 Rc8 30. Bd6 Kh7 31. a4 Rc1+ 32. Kh2 Rc2+ 33. Kh3 Rc6 34. Be5 Nc7 35. Qa5 Bxe5 36. Qxe5 Nbd5 37. e4 Nxf4+ 38. gxf4 Kg8 39. Qd4 a6 40. b4 b5 41. a5 Rc4 42. Qd6 Kg7 43. Kg3 Kg8 44. Kf2 Rc2+ 45. Ke3 Rc4 46. Kd2 Kg7 47. Ke2 Rc2+ 48. Ke3 Rc4 49. Kf2 Rc2+ 50. Kg3 Rc4 51. Qe5+ Kg8 52. Qf6 Kf8 53. f5 exf5 54. exf5 gxf5 55. Qxf5 Ne6 56. Qxh5 Kg8 57. Qd5 Kg7 58. Qd6 Nd4 59. Qxa6 Nf5+ 60. Kf2 Rxb4 61. Qb7 Rb2+ 62. Ke1 Nxh4 63. a6 Ng2+ 64. Kd1 Ne3+ 65. Kc1 Rc2+ 66. Kb1 Rd2 67. a7 Rd1+ 68. Ka2 Rd2+ 69. Kb3 Rd3+ 70. Kb4 Nd5+ 71. Kc5 1-0[/pgn]
Polgar was gracious in rare defeat. “All streaks come to an end,” she said. She congratulated Bartek and the UT-RGV team on their performance. At the closing ceremony, Hoffpauir pointed out that Webster’s five-in-a-row national college championships were a record, and Polgar’s personal record as seven titles in a row as coach (two from her pre-Webster days with Texas Tech) stands as an imposing career statement among her many other achievements. UT-RGV, Webster, Texas Tech and St. Louis U. had qualified for the playoff by finishing as one of the top four U.S. college teams at the annual Pan-American Intercollegiate College Team Championships held at the end of December, where match points, not game points are primary. Once a college is qualified, it is not committed to bringing the players who got them there but may bring any eligible player. The College Chess Committee applies strict eligibility rules, which are strictest for GMs and IMs. All players are verified college students pursuing degrees. Just making the Final Four playoff distinguishes a college as one of the chess elite. Here are the universities who competed in the 2018 Final Four of College Chess in order of their finish. The lineups given were those used in the first round. US Chess ratings used were official in February.  It’s notable that Texas Tech continues to qualify and do well in the Final Four with “only” two GMs while the other scholarship powerhouses send six. And we should also note  that Texas Tech’s coach, GM Alex Onischuk, U.S. champ in 2006 and in the playoff with GM Wesley So just last year, will be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis on April 17, before he starts competing in yet another U.S. Championship. Univ of Texas Rio Grande Valley (2683.0)—7.5 game points Head Coach: GM Bartek Macieja GM BELOUS, Vladimir (2684) GM DRAGUN, Kamil (2686) GM STUKOPIN, Andrey (2683) GM GABUZYAN, Hovhannes (2679) GM HEVIA ALEJANO, Carlos Antonio (2569) Webster University (2716.8)—7 game points Head Coach: GM Susan Polgar GM DURARBAYLI, Vasif (2694) GM SHIMANOV, Aleksandr (2713) GM ROBSON, Ray (2734) GM CORI, Jorge (2723) GM NYZHNYK, Illia (2697) GM PROHASZKA, Peter (2688) Texas Tech University (2635.5)—5 points Head Coach: GM Alex Onischuk GM BARYSHPOLETS, Andr (2670) IM MATSENKO, Sergei (2620) GM VORONTSOV, Pavlo (2644) IM SHTEMBULIAK, Evgen (2608) IM TORRES ROSAS, Luis Carlos (2421) St. Louis University (2699.5)—4.5 points GM IPATOV, Alexander (2723) GM SWIERCZ, Dariusz (2757) GM ZHEREBUKH, Yaroslav (2701) GM RAMBALDI, Francesco (2617) GM ALI MARANDI, Cemil Can (2571) IM DERAKHSHANI, Dorsa (2373) Chief Organizer Mark Herman, CEO of his own award-winning gaming company and a retired division head for Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), has steadily improved the Final Four during his eight years of remarkable volunteer service to the event. Mark again worked with Jonathan of Cluen.com to stream live commentary by GM Max Dlugy, former world junior champ, and seven-time U.S. Women’s Champ Irina Krush.

Commentators, Grandmasters Irina Krush and Maxim Dlugy

Hoffpauir is another eight-year Final Four volunteer, tireless in his many efforts all over the country for chess. He flew into New York from BAH business in Japan to oversee the team meetings, making sure the special rules governing the event were followed. Oscar Garcia again served as international arbiter for the event. Two Sigma and Booz Allen Hamilton sponsorship key Two corporations who believe in the benefits of chess make the improvements in the college championship possible. The Final Four of College Chess was once again generously sponsored by Two Sigma and BAH through contributions to the U.S. Chess Trust. The event is sanctioned by U.S. Chess. And of course, the Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village was again the natural host for such an elite showdown.

Al Lawrence is a frequent contributor to US Chess News. He recently wrote about the U.S. Armed Forces Championships.  He is a two-time winner of the Chess Journalist of the Year award (2000 and 2016) and a former Executive Director of the US Chess Federation. He currently serves as the Managing Director of the U.S. Chess Trust.

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