Well … it’s been more than a week, but after my long chess trip, I have been a bit lazy to look at chess (even my own games!) for a little while.
The player list at Cannes for the Festival des Jeux (there were all sorts of other tournaments going on as well, from Backgammon to Scrabble) looked promising. Split into 3 groups, the top group was essentially only open to players over 2200 FIDE. With about half the players being either IMs or GMs, you could look forward to a real fight every round.
The first few rounds didn’t disappoint in that way, as I had to work quite hard to get 3.5/4. I started off with a couple wins against lower rated players, but then a draw against a WIM left me playing down in round 4 as well. I’ll recap those rounds for now and save the rest for later.
In round 1, I was black against Fabrizio Molina, and Italian 2230 player. I’ve recently griped about my opponents’ penchant for the Exchange Slav, and while this wasn’t an Exchange Slav, it was an Exchange Queen’s Gambit Declined. Not the most exciting of openings, but oh well.
My opponent didn’t play it in the usual fashion, choosing to fianchetto his bishop, but I’ve seen this incarnation before when I used to start off with the Triangle (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6). After 15.Rfe1, we reached the following position:
(FEN: r2qr1k1/1p3pp1/2pb1n1p/p2p3b/3P3N/P1N1P1P1/1PQ2PBP/R3R1K1 b – – 2 15)
What to do here? I have the bishop pair, but neither bishop is especially great at the moment. Meanwhile, White has no obvious weakness for me to target. I thought about 15…Bg4, hoping to provoke him into playing 16.f3 Be6 17.e4?. This is a common plan for White in similar pawn structures, but here it backfires quickly as White’s center isn’t that sturdy. For example, 17…Qb6 18.Qd3 (not 18.Rad1 dxe4! and Bb3, picking up an exchange) Be5 19.Rad1 dxe4 20.fxe4 Bg4 and Black is in control. If White could have secured his pawns in the center and started to push Black back, it’d be dangerous, but here Black is hitting at White’s structure from all sides. Unfortunately, after 15…Bg4, he can just play 16.Nf5 and my bishops aren’t doing anything.
After some more deliberation, I decided on 15…Nh7. Objectively, I can’t say the move is that much better than 15…Bg4 or 15…Qd7, or a number of other moves, but I was simply hoping to try and exploit the weakened light-squares on White’s kingside in the future. It worked out after 16.Rac1 Be7 17.Nf5?! (17.Bf3! was maybe the simplest, eliminating the threat before it really becomes a problem, although 17.Nf3 was also reasonable) Ng5!. Now he understood what my idea was, as the f3-square is seriously weak and he doesn’t have any good way of stopping Black from dropping a knight into that square next.
I managed to get his light-squared bishop, but in return, I also had to acquiesce to other minor piece exchanges, leaving only the heavy pieces on the board. After some further maneuvering, we reached the following position:
(FEN: 6k1/5pp1/1pp1rq1p/p2p4/3PrP2/P2RPQP1/1PR2K1P/8 b – – 1 32)
White has just played 32.Rc5-c2 – how should Black continue? White has the inferior pawn structure, but without a minor piece, how do I take advantage of that? Right now, the e3-pawn is his only real weakness, so I needed to open a second front. I did that with 32…g5!. White can’t step forward with 33.f5 because of 33…g4 and the f5-pawn falls; 33.fxg5 is also not great after 33…Qxg5, when White has to deal with the threat of …Rf6. The king and queen can’t leave the protection of the e3-pawn for now, so that suggests 34.Ke2. But then Black breaks on the other side with 34…c5! 35.dxc5 d4!, and White’s entire structure falls apart.
He decided to try and sit tight with 33.Rc2-c3, but after 33…gxf4 34.gxf4 (taking with the e-pawn loses d4) Kh7, Black has the kingside to work with as well. After 35.Rd1 Qh4+, White was faced with a big dilemma:
(1) 36.Kg2 is an obvious candidate, but now Black uses a nice little tactic to get a winning position: 36…Rxe3! 37.Rxe3 Rxe3 38.Qxe3 Qg4+, and Black picks up the rook on d1. The queen and pawn endgame doesn’t promise any real drawing chances for White as he has more weak pawns than Black!
(2) My opponent played 36.Qg3, but after 36…Qh5, he had to play 37.Rh1 (otherwise …Rg6 would kick the queen away from h2). But now with the rook away from the center, I hit him from the other side with 37…c5!. Again, 38.dxc5 d4 wins for Black. He tried 38.Qf3, but the endgame after 38…Qxf3+ 39.Kxf3 cxd4 40.exd4 Ref6! is also no fun.
The next day, I was white against FM Eric Gaudineau of France (2346). It was an English Opening that somewhat turned into a reversed French Defense. I can’t say the opening battle went my way, but I got an unbalanced position and proceeded to outplay my opponent. Here’s the position after 19.Kc1-b1:
(FEN: r2bqrk1/pp4pp/4bn2/3p4/3PpP2/2N1P3/PPQBB2P/1K1R2R1 b – – 1 19)
After the game, he said that he thought was alright here, but as the game progressed, he realized he didn’t really have good counter to White’s play on the g-file and in the center. I proceeded to double rooks on the g-file and played Qb3, upping the pressure on d5 and g7. The threat of Nb5 (and maybe Bb4-d6-e5) was also rather unpleasant, but playing …a6 also isn’t great as then I had planned Nc3-a4-c5/b6. Thrown in a potential h-pawn lever with h4-h5-h6 and I really don’t know what Black’s best defensive plan should be. What he did in the game certainly didn’t work though …
The game continued 19…Rf7 20.Qb3 Rc7 21.Rg3 Qf7 22.Rdg1 Be7 (he was hoping to use his bishop to shore up the g7-point) 23.Rg5 Bf8 24.Re5 Bd6 25.Reg5.
(FEN: r5k1/ppr2qpp/3bbn2/3p2R1/3PpP2/1QN1P3/PP1BB2P/1K4R1 b – – 13 25)
Now if he repeated with 25…Bf8, I wasn’t going to go back to e5! I had planned 26.Nb5 and 27.Bb4, breaking Black’s defenses down on the dark squares. Instead, he played 25…a6, but 26.f5 Bd7 27.Rxg7+ Qxg7 28.Rxg7+ Kxg7 29.Nxd5 left him helpless.
Day 3 featured the lone double-round day of the tournament. With the first round starting at 9 AM, we were all pretty groggy and the line at the coffee stand in the tournament hall was a bit longer than normal. I had black against WIM Marlies Bensdorp (2313, Netherlands). She didn’t play the opening very ambitiously and offered an early draw, but even though I thought about the possibility of an early finish and a long nap before the afternoon game, I decided to play on. It seemed to pay off when I coaxed a couple mistakes out of her, and in the following position, I had a decision to make:
(FEN: 6k1/pb2q1p1/1p2p2p/2b2p2/2PBn3/1P3N1P/P3BPP1/3Q2K1 b – – 0 25)
I had two basic ideas in mind here. One was 25…e5, as if 26.Bxe5 Nxf2 is crushing, while 26.Nxe5 Nxf2! 27.Bxf2 Bxf2+ 28.Kxf2 Qc5+ 29.Kf1 Qxe5 is a bit better for Black – his pieces are more active. However, I wasn’t sure how big my advantage was after 26.Bxc5 Qxc5 27.Qe1. The Ne4 gets in the way a bit here, as Black would like to play …e4 to drive White back. However, a move like 27…Nf6 allows 28.b4 and White breaks free from the bind.
The main alternative I saw, and the move I ended up playing, was 25…Qd6. I just wanted to increase the pressure a bit, and with time pressure looming for both of us, I thought I would play some unforcing moves and leave her with the decisions. Trade on c5 or play 26.Qa1? The big idea was that on 26.Qa1, Black has 26…Ng3!!. If 27.fxg3, Bxf3 removes the defender of the d4-bishop. Taking back on f3 is out of the question because White loses a queen after 28…Bxd4+, but 28.Bxc5 Qxc5+ 29.Kf1 also leaves Black with a nice advantage. Compared to the line above with 25…e5 26.Nxe5, Black still has his kingside majority, but he has a passed pawn in this case and his king is a bit more sheltered. Meanwhile, 27.Bxc5 Nxe2+ 28.Kf1 Qd3 wins for Black.
Instead of this, though, she sought to relieve the pressure with some exchanges and so she played 26.Bxc5. Some of the endgames are unpleasant for White in this structure, but here, it works out: if 26…Qxd1+ 27.Bxd1 bxc5 28.Bc2? Nc3 29.a3? Bxf3! is quite good for Black as Black has the perfect minor piece to take advantage of White’s shattered structure. However, after 27…bxc5, White plays actively with 28.Ne5! Nc3 29.Bc2 Nxa2 30.Nd7 and is even marginally better, although it should be a draw.
The game continued with 26…Qxc5, but after 27.Qd8+! (it’s important to push the king away from the center a bit for potential endgames) Kh7 28.Qd4 Qa3 29.Qa1, she managed to hold things together. I pressed for another dozen moves, but she held firm and found the best move in nearly every position to maintain equality.
I was a bit disappointed with this result, as I had really hoped to take care of all the lower-rated players I faced. Still, I have to give her credit for defending well in a difficult position while in time pressure! She avoided a lot of pitfalls that I thought were quite easy to miss.
In round 4, I was white against IM Pavel Govciyan (2422). He had started off strongly, with a draw against a 2610 as black (he was actually winning at the end) and a win against a 2601, so I wasn’t going to take him lightly (not that I would anyways!). It was the second round of the day, so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, and the time that I did have was spent looking at the Benko. My preparation went out the window on move 1, though, as he responded to 1.d4 with 1…d5!
Admittedly, there were a couple recent games of his with 1…d5, but as his opponents avoided the main lines, I didn’t really know what to expect and so I didn’t spend any time on that. We ended up in a Meran of sorts that he had actually prepared beforehand up to move 17 or so (his 14th move had been a surprise for me). But, rushed because of the short turnaround time between games, he hadn’t left his computer running long enough and it turns out his whole idea was flawed. Here’s the position after 17…Ng4xe5:
(FEN: r4rk1/pbq2ppp/2p5/1pb1n3/4P2B/2N5/PPQRBPPP/R5K1 w – – 0 18)
The computer approves of Black’s position here, but only when it’s running for a short time. Give it some more time and it begins to understand that positionally, Black is in real trouble. I played 18.Rc1 (threatening 19.Nxb5) to which Black is forced to play 18…Rac8 (moving the bishop doesn’t actually stop white from taking on b5). Now 19.Na4! highlighted Black’s problems on the queenside. Taking on a4 leaves Black’s structure weak and broken, while 19…Bxf2+ only temporarily wins a pawn – 20.Bxf2 bxa4 and White has his choice of capturing on a4 or a7 (I would take on a4). In both cases, Black is left with the worse structure and facing White’s bishop pair. He tried 19…Be7, but after 20.Bxe7 Qxe7 21.Nc5, White has an obvious advantage.
This is a fun position for White to play as he can slowly turn the screws without having to worry too much about counterplay. In order to clamp down on Black’s queenside, I brought my knight back from c4 to d5, tying Black’s bishop down, and then played b2-b4 to fix the queenside pawns. After that, I slowly expanded in the center with f4, Bf3, and so on to reach the following position:
(FEN: 3r2qk/1b3n1p/2pr1pp1/1pQ5/pP1NPP2/P4BP1/4R1KP/3R4 w – – 7 34)
Black’s position is really bad – he’s sitting there waiting for the hammer to drop. I obliged with 34.e5, and he threw in the towel after 34…Rd5 35.Bxd5 Rxd5 36.Qe7, as he doesn’t have the hope of any good discovery along the long diagonal.
Thus, after 4 games, I had 3.5/4 and this last game seemed to be a real nice effort. I felt good about my chances going into the toughest part of the schedule where I’d be playing the top seeds.