Dazed and Confused

The first three rounds were a real struggle, and rounds 4 through 6 weren’t too big of a change. I did manage to avoid losing, though, so that was something.

In round 4, I got my third black against IM Levon Altounian. This was my 6th time playing him since 1998, and my fifth time with black. The previous four times featured a Petroff (a draw), a French (a win for me), a Reti (another draw), and a Slav (in a rapid mini-match, a win for me).

The opening was a King’s Indian Attack (KIA), and I went with the Lasker System where Black puts his pawns on e6, d5, and c6, while the light-squared bishop gets out to f5. I’ve switched back-and-forth from that setup to the Capablanca System where the pawns go to the same squares, but the bishop goes to the g4-square.

He played it with c2-c4, instead of the more traditional e2-e4 of the KIA, and while it shouldn’t be much for white, it’s probably a bit more pleasant for him in the following position:

(FEN: rq3rk1/pp1n1ppp/2pb1n2/3p1b2/3B4/1QNP1NP1/PP2PPBP/R4RK1 b - - 3 11)

Black doesn’t have any real targets (the e2-pawn is the closest thing at the moment), while his queen is a little funny on b8, and his light-squared bishop doesn’t have any good squares or prospects. Still, it’s not like White is doing all that much, and so long as Black is careful not to walk into an e2-e4 push or let his light-squared bishop get trapped, he shouldn’t have any serious troubles.

(FEN: rq2r1k1/pp1n1ppp/2pbbn2/3p4/3B3N/1QNP2P1/PP2PPBP/2R2RK1 b - - 7 13)

White has just played 13.Rac1, which keeps him from getting into trouble with his bishop on d4, knight on c3, and queen on b3. If it were Black’s turn and the rook were on a1, then Black could play 13…Ng4! here. Black threatens 14…c5 and 15…d4, hitting the queen and forking the minor pieces. Thus, White has to play 14.h3. Now 14…c5 15.hxg4 cxd4 16.Nb5 isn’t really what Black wants, but he has 14…Nxf2! instead. If White plays 15.Bxf2, then 15…d4 recovers the piece, and then White will end up down a pawn – he will have to choose between capturing the pawn on c3 and saving his pawn on g3. Meanwhile, 15.Rxf2 loses to 15…Bxg3, when both pieces are en prise and Black still has the latent threat of …d5-d4 later on.

Moving the rook to c1 guards against this, as after 13…Ng4, White has 14.Na4, covering the c5-square. Without …c5, the knight on g4 is just silly. Thus, in the above position, I played 13…b6, taking full control of the c5-square. White noticed the idea and brought his queen back to c2, and then I proceeded to finally develop my queenside with 14…Qb7 and 15…Rad8.

The position was about equal then for a little while, but in playing for a draw, Altounian started to slowly drift into a worse position. In a sterile position, you can just shift around aimlessly, but in an equal position where both sides have potential improvements to make, the draw isn’t inevitable, and so you have to do more than shuffle wood around.

(FEN: 3r2k1/p4pB1/1p5p/3p4/Pb4P1/3bR2P/5PB1/6K1 b - - 1 38)

Just as I had an almost winning advantage within my grasp, though, I kicked it away. In the above position, we were almost at time control, and both of us were in some mild time pressure (1-2 minutes left, with the 30-second increment). Black has a choice of whether to play the pawn-up endgame with one pair of bishops or two – in other words, 38…Bc2 or 38…Kxg7.

In general, I wanted to avoid any opposite-colored bishop situations, as even with the rooks on the board, there could be some tricks in the endgame to give him a draw. However, on 38…Bc2, I was worried about 39.Bf6. Somehow, I completely forgot that 39…Rd7 isn’t forced (that allows 40.Re8+ Bf8 41.Bc3, with some counterplay, although even here, 41…Re7 is good for Black). Instead, Black can play 39…Rc8 and after 40.Bxd5, still remain a pawn up with 40…Bxa4. Then Black has connected passers on the queenside instead of just a single extra pawn in the center.

Instead, I went with 38…Kxg7 39.Rxd3 d4, thinking that even with the opposite-colored bishops, I’d be able to activate my rook along the 1st or 5th ranks and go after his a-pawn. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy, since after 40.Bf1 Bc3 41.Rf3, White’s rook can either contest the 5th rank or he will bring his bishop out to c4 to attack the f7-pawn. The bishop and rook combine to prevent Black from advancing his pawns or winning the a4-pawn.

The endgame was headed for a pretty simple draw, until, despite being a pawn down, Altounian decided that he was better and started to decline clear drawing variations. Where was all this optimism when he should have been fighting earlier in the game?! Anyways, I accepted the gift and again achieved a winning advantage, only to let it slip away a few times, two of which were just amazingly simple wins that I wasn’t able to see. We had been on the 30-second increment for a while (pretty much fluctuating between 30+ seconds to just under 2 minutes) at this point.

(FEN: 8/1R1B4/1p2Kp1p/p1b3kP/P2r2P1/8/8/8 b - - 1 64)

White just played 64.Ke5-e6 (there was no other legal move), and one would think that I would now take the opportunity to win the g4-pawn with 64…Rxg4. With an extra pawn on each flank and the h5-pawn falling next, Black will be up 3 pawns. It’s a pretty simple win. But, in what I suppose was an indication of how things were going, I played 64…Re4+, allowing 65.Kd5 and now the g4-pawn is guarded again! Of course I could have repeated with 65…Rd4+ 66.Ke6 (66.Kc6 Rxa4) Rxg4, but I wasn’t that smart.

(FEN: 6R1/8/1pK5/2b2B1P/3r2Pk/p7/8/8 b - - 4 72)

Ok, despite my blind spot on move 64 above, I am still winning, although now it’s turned into a pawn race. With 72…Ra4??, I threw away my final winning opportunity. After 73.Be6 a2 74.Bxa2 Ra2 75.h6, Black can stop the kingside pawns, but only at the cost of his material advantage.

Instead, 72…a2 was a simple win, as after 73.Ra8 (73.Be6 Rd6+ wins the bishop WITHOUT losing the a-pawn!) Rd2, Black plays 74…Bd4 next, covering both the h8-square and preparing to promote the a-pawn. I probably would have been able to win the resulting endgame with an extra rook.

In round 5, I had finally made my way to the last table (board 12 in a 24-player event), and had the white pieces against GM Dmitry Gurevich. At this point, Gurevich had 0.5/4 while I had 1.0/4, so neither of us was playing particularly well.

I couldn’t remember my opening line on move 7 and played something I hadn’t looked at before (as it turns out, Gelfand and other strong players have played it too, so it’s not like I did something horrible). He had a chance to equalize, but it involved defending against a small initiative for a few moves, and he thought he could bypass those troubles with developing moves.

(FEN: r2q1rk1/pb3ppp/5b2/2p5/1nB2B2/5N2/PP3PPP/R2Q1RK1 w - - 2 15)

Instead of 14…Bf6xb2 (which equalizes for Black in the end), he played 14…Bc8-b7. This was my one real opportunity for a solid advantage in this game, and I missed it. I played 15.Ne5, and after 15…Bd5 16.Qb3 Re8 17.Rfe1 Bxc4 18.Nxc4 Qd3!, Black was at least equal.

Instead, 15.Qb3! immediately was correct. The move is more natural than putting the knight in the center without great support, but I didn’t like 15…Bxf3 16.Qxf3 Bxb2. However, I missed that after 17.Rad1 Bd4, White has the simple 18.a3, and the knight on b4 is trapped! The c2-square is the only safe square at the moment, but then if White attacks it again with his queen or rook, it has nowhere to go!

After missing this opportunity, I needed to defend accurately for a few moves, but I wasn’t quite up to the task.

(FEN: r3r1k1/p4pp1/3B1b1p/2p5/R1N5/1n4P1/1P3P1P/3R2K1 w - - 0 24)

I had put my rook on a4 instead of a6 to make sure the knight on c4 was protected. The second part of my plan was to attack the knight on b3 so as to win the c5-pawn later on. Thus, 24.Rd3 suggests itself. After 24…Re1+ 25.Kg2 Nc1, White has 26.Rda3 and the a7- or c5-pawn will fall next, restoring material equality.

Instead, I forgot all about the plans I made a move or two earlier and played 24.Ra3?. This attacks the knight without allowing it to come to c1, but Black has 24…Re4!, and now taking on b3 allows …Rxc4 and the c5-pawn is guarded again! Uh oh.

White is going to be down one pawn for sure at this point, and for good measure, I lost my b2-pawn a few moves later. It was only thanks to Gurevich’s time pressure and his desire to avoid too many tactics (all of which favored him in the end) that I swindled my way to half a point in this game.

In round 6, I got the other pairing I wasn’t so excited about. With 1.5/5, I got the white pieces against IM Sam Shankland. I used to teach Sam for a few years when I was studying at UC Berkeley, but he’s gotten much stronger since then and we haven’t really worked together on a regular basis in quite some time. It was also an interesting matchup since he was being seconded by GM Josh Friedel, who I have worked with quite a bit in the past few years.

The opening turned out to be a Grunfeld, my second of the event. Since the experiment against Kudrin had failed and I would not get any surprise value out of the Classical System with Bc4 and Ne2 again, I switched it up, and turned to the Exchange with Be3 and Qd2. The exact line I played with Ra1-b1-c1 has become popular recently, and there was an interesting incident during this game because of that.

(FEN: r1b1k2r/pp2ppbp/2n3p1/q1p5/3PP3/2P1BN2/P2Q1PPP/R3KB1R w KQkq - 4 10)

Black has just played 9…Nb8-c6, and we’re in a pretty standard position. Both of us were still in our preparation, and the next moves were 10.Rb1 (10.Rc1 immediately is the main line) a6 11.Rc1 (the stutter-step is designed to weaken the b6-square) Bg4!? 12.d5 Rd8 13.Be2 0-0 14.0-0 e6 15.Rfd1 exd5 16.exd5. I had left my preparation on move 14.

While Shankland was thinking, he got up from the board and went to the other side of the hall, across the partition. He glanced at some board and then came back. This was all a bit confusing, so I decided to get up and see what he was looking at. As it turned out, on board 4, the same position had been reached between GMs Akobian and Yermolinsky! Both Akobian and Yermo had been coming by our board earlier to see what was going on, and I was a bit surprised by this since we were on the last board and there had to be more interesting games to watch. Now Yermo had apparently just played 16…Rfe8, and shortly after returning to the board, Shankland played the same move (in total, he spent 14 minutes on the move).

Although we’re not on the same level (and I don’t think the intent was to make Yermo and I play against each other), this incident reminded me of a situation that arose in the Bundesliga in 2003. GMs Anand and Shirov were on the same team playing boards 1 and 2. On both boards, the same line of the Sveshnikov Sicilian arose after move 14. They heavily outrated their opponents (GMs McShane and Hracek, respectively; average difference of about 140 points), and they quickly realized that they were being made to play against each other. Anand, then, playing white against McShane, knowingly played an inferior move, and Hracek decided to “deviate” by continuing with the main line. In the end, both Anand and Shirov won their games!

(FEN: 3rr1k1/1p3pbp/p1n3p1/q1pP4/6b1/2P1BN2/PQ2BPPP/2RR2K1 b - - 2 17)

Anyways, the copying was to end there, as after the subsequent 17.Qb2 that both Var and I came up with on our own, Shankland and Yermo branched off. While Shankland played the natural 17…Bxf3, Yermo played the stronger 17…Ne7!. One point behind the knight move is that after 18.d6 Nf5 19.Bf4, Black has the rather strong 19…Qa4!.

Back to our game, though, after 17…Bxf3 18.Bxf3 Ne5 19.Be2, White has a solid plus. Black has a problem with his queenside – he can’t play 19…b5 because the c5-pawn falls – and Sam’s 19…Qc7 doesn’t solve all Black’s problems because after 20.Rb1, Black can’t play 20…b5 because of 21.Qa3, hitting a6 and c5. Meanwhile, after the game’s 20…Rd7, White has 21.Qb6!, fixing the queenside pawns as a weakness and making 10.Rb1 look like a genius move! The queen trade is virtually forced, and the resulting endgame is much better for white.

(FEN: 4rbk1/1p1r1n1p/pR4p1/2pP1p2/2P5/4B3/P3BPPP/1R3K2 b - - 3 25)

I just played 25.Kg1-f1, guarding the bishop on e2. This introduces the threat of taking on b7 (if White had taken on b7, then Black would have exchanged and played …f4, winning a bishop), and it also frees up the bishop on e3 to target the knight if it goes to d6.

Black has a choice of how to guard his b7-pawn now – Sam played 25…Nd6, which is the active and better choice. The alternative was 25…Nd8, but then White has many ways to increase the pressure. My plan was to bring a bishop to a4 (either with Bd3-c2-a4 or with a preparatory g3 first); the immediate 26.Bd1 might allow some counterplay after …Re4.

After 25…Nd6 26.Bf4, Black can’t keep his queenside intact. Black maintained material equality with 26…Nxc4 27.Rxb7 Rxb7 28.Rxb7 Re4 29.g3 Rd4, but now 30.Bxc4 Rxc4 31.Be5 finished things pretty quickly. The rook has trouble getting back to the d-file (31…Rc2 32.Ke1 is the idea), and without that, he can’t stop the d-pawn. Sam resigned a few moves later and I had my first win of the tournament.


2 responses to “Dazed and Confused

  1. How would you assess the position after Yermo’s 17…Ne7? It looks like the line with 18.d6 is good for Black, but what else can White do?

  2. There’s not a whole lot White can do there. Akobian played 18.d6, and after 18…Nf5 19.d7 Re7 20.Bg5 f6 21.Bf4 Rexd7, he exchanged on d7, played Qb3+, and played h3. With the bishop-pair and some better coordination, he had full comp for the pawn, but not more.

    But Yermo could have thrown in 21…Qa4! after 21.Bf4, taking away any check on b3 and misplacing White’s bishop.

    Maybe White’s best is to bail out into an endgame with 18.Qxb7 Nf5 19.Qxa6 – after exchanges on a6, e3, and f3, Black will get his pawn back and then it should be about equal.

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