From rounds 3 to 6, I’ve only scored 2.0 points. I beat a lower-rated Romanian player quite easily in the 3rd round, and in the 4th round I faced GM Stelios Halkias of Greece with the black pieces.
For a little over a year, I’ve switched from playing the Semi-Slav to the Slav. However, against Halkias, I didn’t feel like playing into his preparation as he had faced the Slav a number of times with reasonably good results. Instead, I got a small surprise in first by playing into the Moscow Variation with 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 5.Bg5 h6.
I started playing the Moscow Variation back in 1997, but when I looked in my database, I noticed I had only managed to play it 15 times in rated play! This was a bit of a surprise for me as the Moscow was a cornerstone of my black opening repertoire for a long time. Meanwhile, Halkias had almost 25 games in MegaBase in this variation as White. With so many games, he had tried a few different approaches and so I had to work for a few hours in the morning to update all my lines. Over the board, however, he decided to see whether I knew the latest theory in this line and played something a little less usual for him.
The game continued 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.e3 (I had spent most of my time preparing for 7.Qc2, with which he had played the most games and had excellent results, but he didn’t want to see what I had prepared there) Nd7 8.Bd3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 g6 10.0-0 Bg7 11.Rc1 0-0 12.Bb3 Qe7 13.Na4!?.
This was Beliavsky’s strong novelty that had caused Black some problems. Before this move, White normally tried putting the knight on e4 in this setup in order to dissuade …c6-c5 and to target the d6-square, especially if Black tried to break in the center with …e6-e5. However, Black was able to solve the issue of his light-squared bishop by taking advantage of the unprotected knight on e4. With 13…b6, the c6-pawn would be taboo because of 14…Bb7, skewering rook and knight. By putting the knight on a4, White tries to keep Black’s light-squared bishop shut in while avoiding this tactic. However, in February 2009, Karjakin got Black started on the correct path and about a week before my game with Halkias, Gelfand finished the job. Although I didn’t specifically prepare for this continuation, I had seen the game replay on ICC and so I turned out to be well-prepared!
I played 13…e5! 14.d5 e4! 15.Nd4 cxd5 16.Nc3 Nf6! (in February, Karjakin played 16…Ne5, but Halkias had prepared the correct 17.Bxd5, after which White has some advantage) 17.Nxd5 Nxd5 18.Bxd5 Bh3!:
This is Gelfand’s new move and it equalizes comfortably. If White plays 19.gxh3, then 19…Qg5+ picks up White’s bishop with a better pawn structure. He decided that I passed the test and offered a draw after 19.Bxe4 Qxe4 20.gxh3 Rad8 21.Qg4 Qxg4 22.hxg4 Bxd4 23.exd4 Rxd4 24.f3. A rather strange game, as neither of realized the other knew about the Gelfand game.
The following round, with 3.5/4, I had the white pieces against GM Felix Levin. I had played him twice before – once in Benasque in 2007 and another time in Benasque in 2008. The game was rather complicated for a while but the evaluation was always about equal. However, being a little over-optimistic about my position and my chances in a time scramble, I decided to push the issue. In the following position, I had just sacrificed an exchange on f6 and planted a knight on d5:
I now played 24.Nef4 exd4 25.Nxb6?!. 25.Bd3 was probably better, as the light-squared bishop on h3 is more threatening in the long-term than its dark-squared colleague on b6, but I had a specific continuation in mind. After 25.Nxb6?! Qxb6 26.Nd5, I thought I was doing quite well – if 26…Qd6, then either 27.Qxd4 or 27.Bf4 is pleasant for white; if 26…Qd8, then 27.Qxd4 is good; and if 26…Qe6, then again, 27.Qxd4 or 27.Nc7 is good. He played 26…Qc5 and I replied with 27.Bd3. In my quick calculations, I figured that he would have to guard the f6-pawn here. For example, on 27…Nd7 28.Qh5! threatens both the bishop on h3 and to take on f6, as the knight is overloaded on d7.
Unfortunately, while he was thinking here, I realized that he had a strong response that pretty much takes the h5-square away from my pieces forever. He finally found it as well, playing the strong 27…Re5!, simply sacrificing the f6-pawn in order to keep White’s queen from joining the attack. Now White is just lost – his king is more exposed than Black’s.
Levin continued to play well in the time scramble, as even with 14 seconds on the clock, he found the brutally efficient 35…Qe3+! in the following position (even with the 44 seconds I had left here, I’m not sure I would have seen 35…Qe3+ if I was on the other side):
On 36.Rxe3, he played 36…Ra1+ 37.Kf2 Rf1+ 38.Ke2 Rxf4, and if White takes the rook, he loses his own. I played 39.Re7 Bf1+ 40.Ke1 Rf5, but the endgame is totally lost and so I resigned. In any case, I didn’t feel so bad about this loss, as it was a tough fight and I thought he played quite well. I rolled the dice and I came up short.
The following day, though, was a bit of a disaster. In the following position as Black against a Portuguese master, 14.Kf1-f2, I blundered big time:
I wanted to bring a knight to e4 and so after 15 minutes of thought, I came up with the brilliant idea of 14…Nb8?! (the knight is headed for e4, via d7 and f6 – but do you see the problem with this?). After 15.Rhe1, I happily continued on my way with 15…Nd7?. After making my move, I noticed that the f5-pawn is just hanging now. He naturally played 16.Bxf5, after which I wondered what was going on in my head. It’s pretty rare that I manage to miss a one-move capture like that. Black’s position is pretty much lost now, as although Black is only down a pawn, he faces a bigger problem as White will take on g6 to double Black’s pawns. After that, the e5-square can never be properly defended and Black’s light-squared bishop has no real future. Luckily I managed to put up some resistance and in the end, managed to salvage half a point from this horrible position.