On Your Mark, Get Set (Fingers Crossed), Go

The second tournament of my trip this summer was in Barberà del Vallès, a town just north of Barcelona. With no rest day between the final round of Montcada and the first round there, I had to hope that my last round win against Lorenzo was a sign of better form.

The tournament at Barberà del Vallès is much smaller than the one in Benasque at about the same time, but that cuts both ways. Benasque, where I’ve played twice in the past, has more strong players, but so many more players in general (and only one section) that you play many lower-rated players before getting even a 2400. At Barberà, though, there were some GM/IM matchups in the first round. I was paired against a young 2280 in the first round, Alberto Chueca.

(FEN: r4rk1/pppqbppp/1nn1p3/4P3/3P2b1/PBN1B3/1P2NPPP/R2Q1RK1 w - - 3 12)

Black just introduced a novelty (I doubt if it was prepared, though) with 11…0-0. Normally in this line, Black castles queenside, and in fact, that is what GM Andre Diamant did against me at the SPICE Cup last year (he played it with …Bf5 instead of …Bg4, but both squares are reasonable).

Against Diamant, with him having castled queenside, I played a maneuver with Qd1-c1 and Rf1-d1, preparing the d4-d5 breakthrough. After a serious think here, I came up with something similar – 12.Qe1, which I think is a strong move. The move seems to be quite useful to me: it prepares Rd1, which supports the d4-pawn and sets up d5 breaks again; it breaks the pin on the knight (which might go to g3, when a further h2-h3 would embarrass Black’s bishop); and it also allows White’s queen to eye the a5-square (which Black might otherwise use to transfer a knight to c4) and the kingside (after f2-f3).

I was happy with my position here, and after a further 12…Rfd8 13.Rd1 Bf8 14.f3 Bf5 15.Qf2?!, I remember taking a walk around the playing hall feeling good about my position. It was only after playing 15.Qf2, though, that I realized that the best move there was probably 15.Ba2!. The bishop retreat gets out of the way of tempo-gains with …Na5, and the opening of the c2-square for the Bf5 isn’t such a big deal now. Meanwhile, if Black plays 15…Na5, White has more information on the position and can act accordingly – 16.d5! is now very strong, since after exchanges on d5, the Qd7 and Na5 will both be hit.

After 15.Qf2?!, though, Black gets a reprieve, which he could have seized with 15…Na5! 16.Ba2 Bc2. By transferring the bishop to b3, Black renders d5 impossible, takes the bishop away from potential trouble on the kingside, and also gains the c4-square for his knights. Instead, Chueca played 15…Rac8, hoping to play …Na5 and …c5 at a later juncture. He didn’t get a second chance though.

(FEN: 2rr1bk1/pppq1ppp/1nn1p3/4Pb2/3P4/PBN1BP2/1P2NQPP/3R1RK1 w - - 3 16)

With 16.Ng3 Bg6 17.f4, I threatened to break open the a2-g8 diagonal and the f-file with f4-f5 next. White would then have a lot of kingside pressure and his central pawns would be ready to roll forward. Black played 17…Ne7, but that doesn’t really stop f5. After 18.d5!, Black is lost no matter how he captures on d5 (and retreating with the queen drops the e6-pawn and more material after that). The point is that after some exchanges on d5, White will play f5, when the Bg6 is trapped. Black struggled on for a few more moves, but once I won another pawn, he threw in the towel.

In round 2, I had a rematch from Montcada with Lazaro Lorenzo de la Riva. I had beaten him there, but with the white pieces, he’s much more dangerous. I didn’t know what opening to expect from him, but when he trotted out the King’s Gambit, I was really shocked.

I didn’t remember any of this at the board, but the last time I faced the King’s Gambit was in 1998 against Ricky Grijalva. I won that game, and was 8-0 against the King’s Gambit from 1994 onwards (I don’t have any of my pre-1994 games in ChessBase). From 1999 onwards though, I’ve played the French much more often than 1…e5, and so I haven’t had much of chance to face it.

(FEN: r4r1k/p1p3pp/2ppQp2/q3n3/4P1P1/2PPB2P/P1PK4/3R1R2 b - g3 0 20)

White just played 20.g2-g4, trying to start something against Black’s kingside. I felt good about my position here, as it seems that Black should be able to open up the center and get at White’s king before White can do the same to Black on the kingside.

To this end, I played 20…Rfe8 21.Qf5 d5, thinking that on 22.exd5, I have 22…Rad8! with a strong attack. That’s correct, but I underestimated the strength of 22.g5! fxg5 23.Bd4!, when I began to realize I was in some trouble. Now 23…Ng6 24.Qxg5 is no fun (the d5-pawn is pinned to the Qa5, and White plans either h4-h5 or Rf7), but after the game’s 23…dxe4 24.Rde1!, I was beginning to think that I was about to lose another game.

Black’s problem is that White has too many attacking themes here – there is the pin along the 5th rank to worry about; there are back-rank problems if Black tries to fortify the Ne5 with Ra8-d8-d5; and if the Ne5 does move away safely, then the 7th rank opens up for White’s queen and/or rook.

I found the only way to continue with 24…Qd5 25.Rxe4 Nc4+ (other knight retreats generally allow a rook or queen to land on f7), and here, he blundered with 26.dxc4?. He had spent a ton of time in the opening to come up with some normal moves and he was already nearing time pressure at this point. He had also assessed his position as slightly worse before, but hadn’t stopped to re-assess after the pawn sacrifice. Seeing a forced draw with 26.dxc4, he took it. The draw is after 26…Qxe4 27.Bxg7+ Kxg7 28.Qf6+ Kg8 29.Qf7+ and Black can’t escape the checks.

But instead of 26.dxc4?, 26.Kc1 was what worried me. Black has three reasonable moves – 26…Qxf5, 26…Rxe4, and 26…Nd6, but none of them are good. The key point is that even a queen trade doesn’t stop White from infiltrating on the 7th rank, and then the pawn deficit is meaningless. White will get a pawn or two back along the 7th rank, and will likely find himself with a passed a-pawn and a bishop and Black’s knight and kingside majority. That endgame is always winning for White, as the kingside pawns aren’t so dangerous while the knight is helpless against a rook pawn.

This was a lucky break for me, although I also missed something big in the above diagram. Had I started with 20…d5!, I would have had excellent chances to pick up a full point. The point is that after 21.g5, Black plays 21…Rae8 22.Qf5 Kg8!!. Naturally, I saw the option of playing d5 immediately, but I didn’t consider the simple king move. By guarding the rook on f8, Black introduces the threat of …fxg5 (and a later …Nf3+ fork). White’s queen can only retreat along the f-file, which doesn’t remove the danger of …fxg5. Meanwhile, taking on f6 with 23.gxf6 doesn’t help either: after 23…Rxf6 24.Qh5, Black can win with either 24…Rg6 or 24…Rfe6. In either case, Black’s attack is much more dangerous than White’s.

In the third round, I was white against IM/WGM Ana Matnadze. When preparing for her, I noticed she has a pretty narrow repertoire, and that against the 4.e3 Nimzo-Indian, she exclusively plays 4…Nc6!?. I played the 4.e3 Nimzo regularly for a couple years, but I had never seen this move and I didn’t even know it existed!

Strange as the move seems, I couldn’t find anything horribly wrong with the move, and my first efforts to find a clear advantage weren’t successful. However, sometimes it’s useful to have some surprise ready, just for the practical value, rather than repeat all the known moves.

(FEN: r1bqk2r/ppp2ppp/2n5/8/3N4/2bBP3/P4PPP/R1BQ1RK1 w kq - 0 11)

I was really surprised that she accepted the pawn sacrifice, because I figured nobody would be willing to take that pawn on c3, especially since I had played pretty quickly up to this point. I was so sure she wouldn’t take on c3 that I hadn’t even bothered to consider the acceptance in my preparation!

Still, the position is pretty simple to play for White and objectively, I think Black is already just lost. After 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Rb1, Black can only castle at the cost of a lot of material. On 12…0-0, White plays 13.Qc2 Bf6 14.Bxh7+ Kh8 15.Ba3 Re8 16.Rfd1 Bd7 17.Be4 with an essentially won position. Black is going to lose at least one more pawn and her king will still be exposed.

Instead, she tried to hold onto the material with 12…Qf6 13.Ba3 Bd7, but while White doesn’t have any immediate wins, Black is never going to get castled here. I had visions of a lot of Morphy games when I got that bishop to a3.

The maneuver with …Be5-d6 blocks the diagonal, but so long as White plays Be4 on …Be5, then …Bd6 is met with Bxc6, and Black is in big trouble. The only other way to block the diagonal is with …a5 and …Bb4, but White can either sacrifice an exchange on b4 to keep Black’s king in the center or just win back the pawn on b4. Black’s h7-pawn will still be en prise after castling and any further delay would allow a check from e4 that would prevent castling. She continued to hang onto the material while I increased the pressure, reaching the diagram below:

(FEN: 3rk3/p1pb2p1/2p2q1r/b4p1p/5P2/B2RP3/P1Q1B1PP/3R2K1 w - - 1 23)

I was quite happy with my finish here, although the computer scoffs at my efforts – it turns out 23.Qb3 Rh8 24.Rxd7! leads to mate in 8. Instead, I played 23.Qc4, threatening a check on g8. Black cannot move her king, while 23…Qf7 24.Qxf7+ and 25.Rxd7+ and 23…Qe6 24.Qc5 (threatening mate on f8 and the Ba5) are none too appealing. Matnadze played 23…Rh8, but then 24.Bxh5+ g6 (taking the bishop allows the check on g8 again) 25.Bb2! cleaned up nicely. The queen and rook are skewered, and if 25…Qxb2, then 26.Bxg6+ and 27.Qf7 is mate.

The finish is sort of similar to my game against IM Yohan Benitah from the GibTelecom Masters earlier this year (it’s the last diagram in this blog post). I’m surgical with those bishops. =)

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