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Puzzel van de dag

Promotieklasse is ours to claim!

Wednesday evening's match against De Rode Loper, our closest rival, was one of the most important matches in the team's recent history. After achieving a creditable 4th place in the Promotieklaasse in 2007-2008, the loss of several key players between 2010 and 2011 (Lenze, Seth, Philip and Henk) resulted in a painful and relatively swift descent into the klasse 2. This evening was our chance to take the next step in our rehabilitation, and remove the last major hurdle on our journey back to the upper echelons of the SGS competition.
The match began promptly, with Rill, Hill and the rest of the Houten team sandwiched somewhat claustrophobically between our opponents. After settling into the match, most of us took the opportunity to stretch our legs and view the games "live" from the bar, where the positions were being projected onto a screen. As befitting for such a crucial match, the play progressed methodically, everyone aware that a mistake could be very costly, both individually, and for the team's chances.
On board 1, Gerard Rill elected to play the King's Gambit. Both players seemed well prepared and the game followed an established line of the Nimzowitsch Countergambit. The first critical shift in equilibrium came on move 15 when Gerard's Qe1 allowed black to win the d4 pawn. However, with the major pieces and a bishop still on the board, the game was far from decided.
While in the previous game I would have been "out of book" after white's second move, Gerard Vernooij playing on board 2 defended against 1.e4 with the much more familiar 1...c6. In the resulting exchange variation of the Caro-Kann defence, black played an early Qb6 but then passed on the opportunity to capture the b2 pawn in favour of developing his light-squared bishop outside the pawn chain. A very positional game ensued with white slowly building up pressure on the queen side. The first significant mistake again went in favour of our opponents, with Gerard's 29th move allowing white to win a knight and achieve an active position for the cost of two pawns.
Freek on 3 played the Taimanov Attack against the Benoni, retreating his bishop with 10.Bc4 rather than the more common Bd3 or Be2. A few moves later, black was unable to resist the temptation to win a pawn, even if it meant trading his important dark squared bishop for a knight. After a few small inaccuracies from both players, the game moved into a finely balanced phase in which Freek sought to exploit the weakened dark squares around his opponent's exposed king.
Top scorer Rik as black played a closed Catalan against former Houten team member Seth van der Vegt. Seth opted to push his a-pawn aggressively up the board, sacrificing his c-pawn in the process in order to apply pressure along the h1-a8 diagonal. Rik proceeded to consolidate his position and won a second pawn after Seth's over-ambitious advance of his d-pawn. With white unable to make further progress, Rik set about coordinating his pieces to support his own pawn advance.
My game on board 5 transposed into a Dutch defence and I was relatively content to reach a playable middlegame in which the only obvious plan for me seemed to be to expand on the queenside. However, while the plan was clear, the method of execution was less so, and I ended up taking far longer than necessary only to find the wrong move, throwing away my early advantage and allowing my opponent's light-squared bishop to enter the game. With my opponent primed to mobilise his pieces against my king, and no obvious weaknesses in his position, an unexpected blunder allowed me to capture his e4 pawn. It was now a question of consolidating my kingside, but thirty minutes down on time, the pressure was still acute.
On the neighbouring board, Vincent played a Pirc defence and after white's uncommon 5.h3 was presented with the interesting tactic of 5...Nxe4, a possibility that became even more attractive two moves later. After some indecisive middlegame play by his opponent in which he retreated first his knight and then both bishops onto the d-file, Vincent's premature b5 push gifted his opponent the a-pawn. Within a few more moves Vincent's position was becoming increasingly precarious as his opponent cleverly engineered a pair of connected passed pawns on the c- and d-files.
Henk, whose return last season coincided with the team's reversal of fortune, played the anti-Marshall 8.a4 line of the Ruy Lopez. After opening up the a-file and trading a pair of rooks, the game progressed with the exchange of three further pawns and a knight for a bishop. With the position finely balanced until black's weak 21...Nh4, Henk overlooked or underestimated the strength of 23.Bxf7 but nonetheless had a promising position with which to fight for the win.
Team captain Joop played the Nimzo-Indian defence with a seemingly premature 6...Ne4. However, the knight remained unchallenged and by the time all the pieces were developed black could be satisfied with a solid, if somewhat cramped position. Passing up on the opportunity to create some counterplay with an a5 push, Joop instead elected to sit and wait, giving his opponent time to line up his major pieces on the a-file and eventually capture the a-pawn. With the queenside under control, and Joop's pieces unable to get into the game, his opponent switched attack to the opposite flank and won a second pawn with the clever 38.Bxf5. With two protected passed pawns for his opponent, Joop's chances of holding out in the end game looked remote.
With 13 minutes remaining on my clock and my opponent deep in thought with about 40, I made my final visit to the bar area to prepare myself for the approaching time scramble and assess our prospects on the other boards. All the games were still in progress and while Henk had a promising bishop and pawn endgame and seemed unlikely to lose, the positions on the other boards were still too unresolved to call a clear verdict.
Within 10 minutes of returning to my board, and unbeknown to me at the time, Henk's game ended in a draw, his opponent rescuing a half point with a nice bishop sacrifice. A few minutes later, Gerard Rill scored our first win after his opponent inexplicably blundered a bishop and was left with a lost position. Next, possibly due to time pressure, Freek's opponent miscalculated and gave away a knight in the mistaken belief that 30...Qf2+ was winning. Freek kept his cool and realizing that his opponent was unable to capture his queen, played Kh1 and won the game shortly after.
The remaining games ended within minutes of each other, Rik converting his two-pawn advantage into a convincing win, Vincent forced to resign after walking into a pin in time trouble (albeit in a losing position), and Joop, struggling hard to defend against his opponent's advancing pawns, eventually forced to resign under an imminent threat of checkmate. In my game, with a minute on the clock, my attention had switched to survival rather than victory, and to the disbelief of my onlooking teammates I was too quick to accept a draw in a clearly winning rook-and-pawn end game. Fortunately, although a piece for a pawn down, Gerard Vernooij was able to create some uncertainty in his opponent by advancing his a-pawn, and after the unnecessary 52.Ng6+ managed to win the piece back and secure the vital last half point we needed for memorable victory.
Finally, after 4 seasons in the chess "wilderness", the chance to play in the Promotieklasse is ours to claim. Let's make sure we finish the job!