Sisyphus in Spain

After a horrible start in Montcada, I was at 50% after four rounds. The second half of the tournament was a little better than the first, but that’s not saying much.

In round 5, I got my second black in a row against Jonathan Cruz (2437, Colombia). I didn’t find a lot of his games in the database, but he generally seemed to pick the sharp main lines. Thus, I was a bit surprised when he went for the 6.e3 variation of the Slav. Everything in his past games seemed to point to him repeating 6.Ne5, but I guess he had prepared something himself.

The variation with 6.e3 is somewhat testing, but it’s generally considered to be less challenging than 6.Ne5. White often gets a symbolic advantage, but can’t really do much with it. Compared to the main line with 6.Ne5, games with 6.e3 tend to end in a draw much more often. That is how this one ended up, although as it turns out, I should have played on in the final position:

(FEN: 5rk1/np1qbrpp/p3p1p1/P2pP3/3P1PPP/2NQ1R2/1P6/4BRK1 b - - 6 33)

We had been repeating with …Na7-c6-a7 and Nc3-e2-c3 the past couple moves, and this was a chance for a three-time repetition. I was down to about 3 minutes at this point to reach move 40 (along with a 30-second increment). I was tempted to play on, with 33…Qd8, hitting both h4 and a5.

I’m not quite sure what I was afraid of now, as 34.f5 gxf5 35.gxf5 Bxh4 nets a pawn (White can’t take on e6, because after the mass exchange on f3, the bishop on e1 hangs). White has some compensation after 36.Bd2, but Black is definitely playing for a win. Meanwhile, on 35.h5 gxh5 36.gxh5, I remember thinking my position was quite pleasant after 36…Nc6.

I think normally I would have played on here even if I thought the position was equal (after all, I’ve played on in much worse positions, and with less time!), but maybe because of my prior blunders, I decided not to tempt fate in time pressure and just repeated. The strange thing was that when I offered him a draw before finishing out the 3rd repetition, he declined and said it wasn’t 3 times. I was a bit confused by this, but instead of letting my clock run to zero, I just wrote my move down and claimed the draw. The arbiter duly verified the claim.

The next round, I was white against Melkior Cotonnec (2296, France). The opening of this game was completely ridiculous – here’s the position we got after 11.Rh1-g1:

(FEN: r2qk1nr/ppp1n1p1/3bppb1/3p2Pp/3P3B/P3PN1P/1PPN1P2/R2QKBR1 b Qkq - 2 11)

If you look at the pieces from the 2nd rank to the 7th, it almost looks like something that would come out of a Chess960 opening, but no, this game started with the usual arrangement of pieces and 1.d4. During the game, I thought I was a little better now, while after the game, he thought he was doing fine here.

The game continued: 11…Qd7 12.c4 c6 13.Qa4 (trying to keep Black from castling queenside) Kf7? (13…a6 is better, but I think White still has a plus after 14.Qb3) 14.Qb3 Rc8 15.Bd3. Now he realized that he was in some real trouble, as White is just planning e3-e4 at his convenience. White still retains the option of castling queenside, and after e4, he will have the more active pieces and more central space.

That was pretty much the story for the next few moves, as once the g-file opened up and then the center after e3-e4, Black just didn’t have enough counterplay to make up for his numerous kingside weaknesses. The win took me to 3.5/6, and I thought I might be picking up some steam for the home stretch.

The next game was in some ways one of my better ones, but it was also somewhat disappointing. I had the white pieces against IM Hipolit Asis Gargatagli (2406, Spain), and since he pretty much had 1 game with every single opening against 1.d4, I had no clue what to expect. It ended up being a Grunfeld, and after my knowledge of the opening ended at move 13, I ended up playing the first choice of FireBird on a fixed depth of 16-ply for the next 12 moves. That brought me to the following position, where I’m up a pawn, but considering how to recapture on f1:

(FEN: 2rq2k1/1b2p1b1/p6p/1pnP2p1/1Q2P3/2P3BN/P3B1PP/2R2rK1 w - - 0 25)

I had originally played 25.Rxf1 here, but now that I had arrived at this position, I was a bit concerned about 25…Na4 26.c4 Nc3 27.Bd3 e6, and I didn’t see how I was going to avoid having my great central phalanx blown apart (and lose my extra pawn in the process). It turns out that 28.Nf2 here is quite good, as after 28…bxc4 29.Qxb7 cxd3 30.Nxd3 exd5, Black has restored material equality but has also achieved a lost position after 31.Be5!.

Not having seen that final combination, I was looking at 25.Bxf1, and while at first 25…e6 seemed to be a real problem, I thought I hit upon a solution. Checking the clock (I ended up being almost 12 minutes late because of an accident on Line-1 of the Barcelona Metro, which delayed all trains), I decided to just go with it. After 25…e6, I played 26.Bf2 Bf8 27.Qb1, which I thought was a rather clever way to avoid any problems from the Bf8 and to also keep my extra pawn.

(FEN: 2rq1bk1/1b6/p3p2p/1pnP2p1/4P3/2P4N/P4BPP/1QR2BK1 b - - 3 27)

The point is that if Black takes on d5 and then recaptures with his bishop, 29.Qg6+ Bg7 30.Rd1 is essentially winning – Black can’t deal with the pins and the kingside attack. Meanwhile, on 27…exd5 28.exd5 Qxd5, I have 29.c4, which picks up the b5-pawn.

As it turns out, I keep my extra pawn here, but the endgame after 29.c4 Qe4 30.cxb5 Qxb1 31.Rxb1 axb5 32.Rxb5 Bd5 is just nothing special for White. The a-pawn is an extra one, but it’s too weak to do anything and the White knight on h3 is too far away from the action. I finally gave in to the inevitable and offered a draw in another 15 moves.

In round 8, I was black against FM Hector Mestre Bellido (2404, Spain).

(FEN: r1bq1r1k/1ppnb1pp/p1np4/P3pP2/2BP4/1QP2N2/1P3PPP/RNB2RK1 b - - 0 11)

I guess I thought I had rather cleverly solved my opening problems in the above position and didn’t check the tactics too carefully. I was debating between 11…Rxf5 and 11…e4, and decided that there wasn’t a huge difference between the two.

The lines I quickly looked at were:

–          11…e4 12.Nfd2 Rxf5 13.Nxe4? Nxa5 (and after exchanging on c4 and …d5, Black wins)

–          11…e4 12.Nfd2 Rxf5 13.d5 Nc5 14.Qc2 Ne5 (with a small advantage for Black)

–          11…e4 12.Nfd2 Rxf5 13.Be6 Rxa5 (with approximate equality)

–          11…Rxf5 12.dxe5 Ndxe5 13.Nxe5 Rxe5 (with a small advantage for Black)

–          11…Rxf5 12.Nbd2 e4! 13.Nxe4 Nxa5 (and again, after exchanging on c4, …d5 wins a piece)

–          11…Rxf5 12.d5 e4 13.Nd2 Nc5 14.Qc2 Ne5 (which transposes to the 2nd line listed here)

Since 11…Rxf5 seemed to eliminate the only equal line (after 11…e4 and then 13.Be6, #3 above), I decided to go with that one. Unfortunately, there’s a rather simple hole in the last line I gave. After 11…Rxf5 12.d5 e4, White plays 13.dxc6 Nc5 14.cxb7! (14.Qc2 exf3 is good for Black), and now Black is stuck – he can’t take the queen because of 15.bxa8=Q; he can’t play 14…Bxb7, because after 15.Qc2, the e4-pawn is pinned to the unguarded rook on f5; and he can’t play 14…Nxb7 because that gives up the double attack meant to regain the piece. Oops.

Thus, after 12.d5, I had to retreat with 12…Nc6-b8, but Black’s position then is a bit of a sorry sight. After 13.Be3, I decided my position was much worse, and rather than get squeezed positionally, I decided to go nuts and played 13…Rxf3?!.

Black’s position after the exchange sacrifice is still bad, but I hoped to drum up some kingside counterplay and take advantage of the fact that White’s rooks don’t have any great files. However, Black is too undeveloped for this to work, and he duly built up a big, objectively winning, advantage.

Luckily for me, though, he was a little over-anxious to break open the kingside and slipped up a little bit. That allowed me back into the game:

(FEN: r4nk1/1pp2q2/p6p/P2p1bb1/3B2R1/2P5/1P1N3P/3Q2RK b - - 2 32)

At this point, I was feeling like I had a second lease on life in the game, as I had definitely escaped the worst. Now 32…Ne6 is reasonable – Black has a pawn for the exchange, and 33.h4 Kh7! nicely defuses the threat along the g-file (34.hxg5 Qh5+ wins the rook on g4).

Instead, I played the boneheaded 32…Bxg4 (after having declined to take the rook on the previous move, why did I think it was ok now?), and after 33.Qxg4, White is back to just winning. This time it’s pretty straightforward too, as White just needs to pry open the g-file with Nf3 and h4, and there’s pretty much nothing Black can do.

After 33…Ng6 34.Nf3, there’s no stopping 35.h4, and 34…Re8 35.h4 Re4 36.Qg3 doesn’t save the piece either. To add to my woes, I dropped a whole rook on move 39 when I played 39…Re4-f4, to which he replied 40.Qg3xf4 and I resigned immediately. Like Sisyphus, I was back at the bottom of the mountain.

Coming from the US, withdrawing from a bad tournament is a pretty common thing. I can recall withdrawing from a US event 3 times in the past dozen years. In Europe, though, it’s almost never done unless you have an emergency or are very sick. In the end, I decided to play the round as I was there and I hoped to start my next tournament off feeling a bit better about my chess.

As it turned out, I got a measure of satisfaction, as I beat Lazaro Lorenzo de la Riva (2390) in the final round with the white pieces. He dealt me my only loss in Balaguer in 2007 (where I made my final GM norm), but I had beaten him once since then.

(FEN: r2q1rk1/3nppbp/3p1np1/2pP4/P3P3/2N2NP1/1P3PKP/R1BQ3R b - a3 0 12)

I just played 12.a2-a4, which is a pretty rare move here in Benko. I had played it once before, in April 2010 against IM Hugo Tirard, who responded with 12…Qb6. That game didn’t make the database until only recently, so I guess that’s why Lazaro hadn’t seen it. He was surprised and played 12…Ng4 (often White prevents this with 12.h3, but the main line is 12.Re1).

The problem for him is that 12…Ng4 allows White to demonstrate the idea behind 12.a4! Pretend that White had played 12.Re1 instead of 12.a4 – after 13.Nd2 Nge5 14.Qe2 (covering d3) Nb6 (preparing …Na4 or …c4/…Nd3), Black’s knights can find some decent squares. Here, though, with the pawn on a4 instead of a rook on e1, White meets 14…Nb6 with 15.f4 Ned7 16.a5 Nc8 17.Nc4. This is certainly not the Benko you’re looking for. He didn’t go down this exact path, but his attempt to stir up some counterplay didn’t really work. I had the extra pawn and the compensation.

So, after all that, I finished with 5/9, a pretty abysmal result overall. Lazaro Bruzon, the top seed by over 100 rating points, dominated and took clear first with 7/9.

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