In my last post, I covered my first four games from Metz. After the win against Bauer, I faced another double-round day, and in the morning, squared off against GM Andrei Sokolov.

Both of us were the only players on 3.5/4 (nobody had a perfect score). He had taken a different route, though, as he drew his first game and then won three games. Sokolov was as high as #3 in the world in the late 1980s, but he wasn’t able to maintain his good form for that long. Still, his Wikipedia page described him as a “practical-minded chess player” who would remain “ice-cool under pressure” – at least the latter is sometimes used to describe me!

Our game wasn’t especially exciting. I maintained a small plus for a while, but he defended well, although both of us thought White might have some serious chances in the following position:

(FEN: 6k1/5pp1/4p2p/q1nn4/b1Q5/N3PP2/1B2BKPP/8 w - - 0 27)

Black has just played 26…Nd7xc5. White has the bishop pair and Black’s pieces are somewhat awkwardly placed on the queenside. However, I wasn’t able to find any way to proceed:

(1)   27.Bd4 was an obvious candidate, pushing Black backwards. After 27…Nd7 28.Qc8+ Nf8 (28…Kh7 is also possible, although he thought he was running some risks after 29.Nc4! – however, he didn’t realize that after 29…Qb4! 30.Bd3+ f5 31.Qa6 Nc7!, Black is holding things together) 29.Bc5 Be8! defends everything nicely. The bishop on e8 is hanging, but if White takes it, the bishop on c5 then falls.

(2)   27.Nb5 is somewhat tricky (27…Bxb5?! 28.Qxc5 Nc7 29.Qd4 seems to give White some initiative), but 27…Qd2! kills any dreams White may have had.

(3)   27.Qg4 f6 (not 27…Nf6?? 28.Bxf6) 28.Nc4 Qc7 29.Ba3 Bd7 also defends, and this is what I chose, hoping to keep pieces on the board. We were both in some time pressure, and he later offered me a draw, which I declined, as I felt I hadn’t exhausted all my tricks in the position. However, once he noticed that last tactical shot, I decided I didn’t have much to play for and offered a draw, which he immediately accepted.

In the evening round, I was black against the Cuban GM Fidel Corrales. This was a tough fight – he surprised me in the opening, but I reacted well and actually gained a small plus. However, I made a couple mistakes subsequently in the middlegame and then had to suffer for a long time in an endgame. By about move 35, both of us were down to just a couple minutes left (with the 30-second increment), making the endgame rather difficult to play:

(FEN: 4k1r1/3n2pR/p1p1b1P1/1p2P1K1/1P1BP3/P7/8/3B4 b - - 14 47)

Material is equal, but it’s clear that White is the one who is playing for something. Black’s rook is tied to the g7-pawn, the knight is tied to the c5-square (allowing Bc5-d6 would really cut Black’s options down), and the bishop is tied to e6 for now (as otherwise Bg4 and e6 would be devastating). Note that …Nf8 never threatens anything, as after exchanges on h7, White plays Kg6 and Kxg7, forcing the pawn through!

Still, the question remains of how White is going to make progress, as I had been shuffling my king back and forth for the past couple moves.

Unfortunately, I had neither the time nor the energy to figure out what either of us should be doing here. With the benefit of hindsight, Black should play 47…Ke7 here, waiting for 48.a4 when he can play 48…c5!!.

Black absolutely needs to change the structure if he wants to continue fighting for a draw. White’s idea with Bd1 was to play a4 and exchange on b5. Then, however Black takes, an open file will be created that isn’t already covered. For example, with …axb5, White’s plan is as follows: Be2, Rh1, and Ra1 to a7. If Black “stops” this with …Ra8 (after Rh1), then Rc1 forces Rc8 and then Ra1. Once the White rooks lands on a7, then Bc5-d6 will be a huge improvement as then Black’s king will be pinned to the back rank. Taking back on b5 with the c-pawn (as I did), isn’t all that much better, and I lost without too much trouble.

However, with 47…Ke7 48.a4 c5!!, I think I would have had chances to draw the game.

(1)   49.Bxc5+ Nxc5 50.bxc5 b4 creates immediate counterplay, as the passed b-pawn is a serious asset. White’s rook will have to leave its post on h7, when Black’s rook can swing to the b-file. In comparison, the extra c5-pawn is no threat since Black’s king can easily grab that one if he wants.

(2)   49.bxc5 is the better move, when 49…Nb8! still keeps things interesting (now 49…b4? allows 50.c6 and 51.Bc5+, winning). After 50.axb5 axb5, what is White to do? If Black’s knight comes to and stays on c6, then all of White’s pawns are blockaded and Black has a passed pawn himself that could cause some trouble. Jettisoning the pawn with 51.c6 Nxc6 52.Bc5+ Kd7 doesn’t really achieve much, so 51.Be2 Nc6 52.Bb2 b4 53.Bb5 is called for. Still, after 53…Nd8 (followed by a switching of the guard on e6), Black has serious drawing chances.

I haven’t analyzed the endgame in that much depth since I got back, but we discussed it over dinner that night (the game ended rather late and it was a Sunday evening, so rather than analyze it in the playing hall, we decided to talk about it over some food). While we weren’t able to find a win for White, it wouldn’t surprise if it was somehow possible. Still, in a practical situation, I would have good drawing chances.

In any case, I missed this opportunity and ended up losing. Not the end of the world, though, as it was a tough fight and he’s a good player. The next day was a single-round day, and I was quite thankful for some rest after this long game against Corrales.

I was quite happy with this game as I thought I beat him rather smoothly – a small positional plus (his awkward coordination) from the opening gradually grew in size until I netted a pawn. I didn’t have much to worry about, except that in the following position, I had to watch out for a little tactical trick:

(FEN: 2rq1rk1/5pbp/6p1/2NPpb2/1Q6/4P1BP/5PP1/R4RK1 w - - 1 26)

Black has just played 26…Bd7-f5, hitting the d5-pawn. The obvious move would be to play 27.e4, but then Black gets to demonstrate his real idea: 27…Qd6 28.Rac1 (taking on f5 leaves the d5-pawn rather weak) Bxe4!, and now White can’t play Nxe4 because of his queen, while Qxe4 drops the knight.

Instead of this, I played 27.Rfd1 Qd6 28.Na6, breaking the pin and entering an endgame with a solid extra pawn. I converted it without too much trouble, and actually ended up winning on time (in a completely winning position) on move 40. It was an amusing way to end the game, as usually I’m the one facing time trouble!

The next day, I was black against GM Sebastien Feller. This was my shortest game of the event, but not in a good way! After 20.Rfe1, we reached the following position:

(FEN: r3q2r/pp3pk1/n1p2pp1/2b5/P1B2BP1/2PQ3P/5P2/3RR1K1 b - - 8 20)

Obviously, Black is in some trouble (actually, the position is losing, but at the board, I didn’t know that). I had been surprised in the opening and was already in some time pressure as I desperately searched for a way to stay alive. The whole time, he was playing quite quickly and talking with a couple of his buddies (seemingly about our game, which I didn’t really appreciate). I had entered this variation, thinking that with 20…Rd8, I had found a saving idea.

If 21.Qf3, then exchanges on d1 relieve a lot of the pressure on Black’s position. Meanwhile, on 21.Rxe8 Rxd3, both of us have rooks hanging and, going into this variation a few moves back, it looked like I was surviving. I should note that 20…Qc8 and 20…Qd8 are alternatives, but in both cases, White’s initiative is worth way more than the pawn he is technically behind.

Anyways, he reeled off 21.Rxe8 Rxd3 and as I took the queen, I suddenly realized that a nice little zwischenzug ends the fight immediately. He played 22.Bh6+! and Black is just dead lost. Going to the h-file with the king means that White takes on h8 with check, and then collects the rook on d3. Meanwhile, 22…Rxh6 23.Rxd3 also offers no hope, as Black is down an exchange and has the worse position.

This was a disappointing loss, as it was essentially all preparation from him. Still, he’s also a strong player (nearly 2600 FIDE at age 19!), and this was a case of him doing better homework than me. Like Anand in the first game of his ongoing World Championship match against Topalov, sometimes this happens. Obviously you just hope it doesn’t come in such a big situation ….

In the last round, then, with 5/8, I was white against IM Arghyadip Das. I felt good going into the game, and in the early middlegame, I sacrificed a pawn for an initiative (mostly better development and coordination). At one moment, I had a chance to recover my material with a safe plus (the bishop pair in a reasonably open position). Unfortunately, I thought I saw something even better – sacrificing a knight to remove the e5- and f6-pawns that were blunting my bishop on b2. With queen on g3, bishop on e5, and rooks ready to swing to the kingside, I thought my attack would be devastating.

It would have been, had he played any of the moves I looked at. Unfortunately, I missed one simple defensive idea and now I was just down a piece. Oops.

That loss definitely hurt, as after playing well for 8 rounds, this last-round debacle cost me a shot at any prize and any rating gain in the event. A win would have put me on 4th place, a full point behind GM Andrei Sokolov. Sokolov took clear first with 7/9, while GMs Feller and Abbasov shared 2nd and 3rd with 6.5 points. Looking at the crosstable, one amusing thing was that on the first two mathematical tiebreaks they used, I had the highest totals of anybody in the event (even though I was two points behind Sokolov)!

That last day was also a bad one for a couple other reasons. In the morning, I received notice that Eyjafjallajokull (the now-infamous volcano in Iceland) had canceled my flight back to the US the following morning. My return flight was from Frankfurt and it ended up being about a week before I finally returned the US!

To add insult to injury, after my last-round loss to Das, when I got back to my room and turned on my laptop, it completely shut down on me! Windows (Vista) couldn’t start up, and the Startup Repair wizard churned away for 45 minutes before kindly telling me that it didn’t know how to fix the problem. So it goes sometimes.


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