A Good Start to the New Year

I’m done with the first leg of my 2-month trip, having finished the tournament in Sevilla a couple days ago. I finished in a tie for first with four others on 7.0/9! This is definitely a better start to the new year than in 2009, where I floundered horribly at the Parsvnath Open in Delhi.

On the mathematical tiebreaks (more on that again later), I finished in 3rd place, behind GM Renier Vazquez Igarza (originally of Cuba, now in Spain) and GM Hicham Hamdouchi (originally of Morocco, now in France). The three of us were on one of the top two boards for the last couple rounds. After us came IM Kiprian Berbatov of Bulgaria and GM Kevin Spraggett (of Canada, now in Portugal). The top 3 finishers are in the prize winner’s photo below (for those who don’t know, that’s me on the right):

Amusingly enough, I got a trophy for my efforts, but it was so big that I had to leave it behind with the organizers! There was simply no room for it in my bags, and with airline rules the way they are, there was no way I could take it on the plane with me. I also wasn’t particularly interested in lugging it around Europe for the next 6-7 weeks. Maybe I can ask them to mail it to the US …

I don’t think I actually played all that well here, but it was good enough to put points on the board. Somehow, I wasn’t quite as accurate as I was in some of my tournaments at the end of last year (in Montreal, Texas, and Palma). Still, I won a couple nice games and I managed to make it through another tournament without losing a game (5 wins and 4 draws).

After giving up a draw to FM Patrick Van Hoolandt in round 3, I had the white pieces against WGM Adina-Maria Hamdouchi. An offbeat King’s Indian turned into a Leningrad Dutch type of position, and her advances on both sides of the board left her with a worse structure in the following position:

I played 22.b4! here, opening up a front on the queenside. An isolated c-pawn would be difficult to defend (and in fact, 22…c4 could lose a pawn in a couple different ways), so she exchanged on b4. After 22…cxb4 23.Qxb4, though, her light-squared bishop is in a bad way. It may want to avoid c8, but a6 isn’t a good alternative because of 24.Qa4, hitting the Ba6 and Re8. Meanwhile, after 23…Bc8, I played 24.Re4! g5 25.g4! Qf6 26.Rc1, turning my attention to the bishop and the 7th rank. Black’s problem is that she has no real play in the center and kingside and the bishop has no safe haven. She ended up having to give away a pawn to get her bishop out of harm’s way.

After a number of moves, we reached the following rook and pawn endgame:

From the end of the previous note, I picked up a pawn and then entered a rook endgame. We exchanged a couple pawns, and I had assessed this endgame as a win. Black can’t seriously attack White’s d- or f-pawns (for example, 47…Rd4 48.Rxd6 Ke7 49.Re6+ and 50.Re5 covers everything), and putting the rook on a6 leaves it extremely passive. White walks his king up and should be able to win the game.

She found an interesting idea that I had overlooked with 47…Rf4 48.Kf2 Rf6!, as the king and pawn endgame is a draw at the moment! Black’s king gets to e5, and so White’s extra f3-pawn is useless. However, her rook is still badly placed, so I decided to regroup with 49.Re4 Rh6 50.Kg3. Now if 50…Rf6, 51.f4 and the exchanges of f4 lead to a winning K+P endgame for white (White has the e5-square). She played 50…Rh8, but after 51.Re6 Rd8, I walked my king to f5 via f2, e3, and e4 with 52.Kf2!. She resigned shortly afterwards.

Amusingly enough, the following day, I had black against her husband, GM Hicham Hamdouchi (the top seed at just over 2600 FIDE). That was probably my best game of the event and I’ll talk about it in a later post.

Last on in the tournament, I had white against the young Argentine GM, Damian Lemos (2544 FIDE). This was my highest-rated scalp from the event, but I didn’t think it was a particularly good game. It was notable more for the fact I played an opening that I normally face with the black pieces.

I had faced this line against GMs Bluvshtein (in June in Montreal, I won) and Akobian (in August in Montreal, I drew), and Lemos registered some surprise when I went for it. While I’ve played a couple different setups against the Semi-Slav Meran Variation, I had never gone for this before.

I’m not sure if his preparation was based on my games in this line, as when the opportunity to follow in my footsteps arose, he thought for the first time in a very topical position these days. After a long think (26 minutes!), he deviated from my games with 15…g6 in the following position:

The amusing thing was that the plan he chose was not one that I seriously considered during or before either of my games! Against Bluvshtein, I too was worried about Nd4-f5, but decided to play the prophylactic 15…Bc7 to avoid the kingside weaknesses and a possible f4/e5 pawn roller (see the writeup here). Against Akobian, I tried a speculative piece sacrifice with with 14…b4 (instead of 14…Ne5-d7 15.g2-g3 as in this game) 15.Nf5 Bc5 16.Na4 Bxf2+, which I wrote about here.

After a long think, I played 16.Be3!?, which invites him to continue with his plan of 16…b4 17.Na4 c5. This is a common motif for Black in these Meran setups, as it activates his light-squared bishop and can open up some diagonals for Black’s bishops and queen. The e4-pawn in this case is also en prise.

When I played 16.Be3, I had originally planned 18.Nb5 here, thinking that on 18…Bxe4 19.Qc4, if he moved his Bd6 anywhere, I’d take on d7 and then take on e4, getting two pieces for a rook. After I played 16.Be3, though, I took a walk around the playing hall and realized that after 19.Qc4, he could play the intermediate 19…Ne5! 20.Qc1 and only then 20…Be7. He’d then have a quite good position.

Luckily, when I played 16.Be3, I hadn’t put all my eggs in one basket, and had noticed that 18.Nb3 was also interesting. While not hitting any piece, the c5-pawn is under serious pressure, and I thought that after 18…Bxe4 19.Qd2, I would get a knight to c5 with a small plus. Actually, my advantage there isn’t so big, so that was the right way for him to continue. Instead, he played 18…Nxe4, missing 19.Na5!:

Somewhat surprisingly, Black is just lost here! White is directly or indirectly putting pressure on all four of Black’s minor pieces, and he just doesn’t have the time to save all of them. The immediate threat is 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Bf3, hitting and pinning the Ne4. After Black guards the knight, White plays 22.Rxd6, taking advantage of the fact the Ne4 is pinned to the Qb7.

Meanwhile, if 19…Ndf6, guarding the knight in advance, White has 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.f3. If the Ne4 moves, the Bd6 hangs. The Bd6 can’t move at the moment because the Nd7 hangs behind it. And the Ne4 can’t move because of 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Rxd6. So what to do?

He tried 19…f5, but that doesn’t really help after 20.f3 Ndf6 21.Nxb7. He played on for a while, even down two minor pieces, but he never really had a chance.

19.Na5! was a somewhat non-standard move, but it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to find and it really just ended things immediately. I had expected a tougher game, and this maneuver ended things a bit prematurely in my opinion. Not that I’m complaining of course – I was happy to take the easy win and improve my preparation along the way.

I’ll write about a couple of my other interesting games in a couple days …


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