The first three rounds at Barberà went pretty well, as I scored 2.5/3. The one draw I had was where both of us had mutual chances. However, starting with round 4, something strange seemed to happen – my opponents either seemed to respect me too much or not much at all!
In round 4, I was black against IM Roberto Aloma Vidal, a 2460 IM from Montcada. I was expecting a serious fight, but instead my opponent sucked all the life out of the position as quickly as possible. I recently switched from the Slav to the Nimzo/Queen’s Gambit Declined, and as part of that opening set, I have to face the Catalan. I’ve played a couple different lines against the Catalan, and I decided to go with one of the more theoretical choices amongst that group.
r1bqkb1r/pp3ppp/2n1pn2/2p5/2pP4/5NP1/PP2PPBP/RNBQ1RK1 w kq - 2 7)
Unfortunately, the line with 4…dxc4 and 5…c5 also presents White with an early set of options: the first, with 7.Ne5, leads to a complex position, which holds promise of an advantage for White, while the second, with 7.Qa4, leads to quieter positions, with the option of sterile equality if White wants it. My opponent quickly played 7.Qa4.
2rq1rk1/pp1b1ppp/4pn2/2b5/7Q/2N3P1/PP2PPBP/R1B2RK1 w - - 3 13)
After some further moves, we reached the above position. Black has no good deviation that I know of along the way (7.Qa4 Bd7 8.Qxc4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 Rc8 10.Nc3 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Bc5 12.Qh4 0-0), and strong players have been trying for decades. Virtually every deviation is supposed to give White a clear advantage, but in 2008, the pawn sacrifice with 12…0-0 caught on. According to theory, Black has adequate compensation for it after 14.Bxb7 Rb8 and 15…Rb4. Still, all 3 results are possible there. Instead, Aloma again chose the blandest continuation, going with 13.Bg5, which has resulted in a draw in every single game in which it’s been featured. Stronger players than me have fallen victim to the drawing bug with this line (GMs Naiditsch and Drozdovskij have recently given up draws to players about 160 points below them here).
Even stranger was the fact that he offered me not one, but two draws within the first 25 moves … and there was a 30-move minimum before draws could be agreed! After the second one, I reminded him that we had to play at least 30 moves, but in the end, he managed to hoover off all the pieces without providing me with any real chance.
Of course, part of the blame lies with me and my opening repertoire in these games. Had I played something that immediately creates imbalances, like the Dutch, maybe I would have had better chances to win a game. At the 2009 FIDE World Cup, GM Gata Kamsky lost his first game to GM Wesley So and had to win the second game as black to force the match to tiebreaks. Kamsky tried the Dutch, but was lucky to escape with a draw when So didn’t bother to press home a big advantage (the draw was enough to advance). After the game, Kamsky said, “In the second game I had to solve a difficult problem: it is almost impossible to beat a good player with black.”
Obviously my opponents here are not as good as Wesley So (nor am I as good as Kamsky), but the problem remains that most openings now have some lines with extremely strong drawish tendencies. Deviations, as in the Aloma game, usually concede a rather large disadvantage, and I’d rather not lose just to avoid a draw.
And to be honest, I wasn’t too unhappy with the result at the time. Aloma is only rated about 60 points below me, and he had easily outplayed a higher-rated GM (Omar Almeida) the previous day with the white pieces. That was only my second black, and I figured things would be different in my other games.
Against IM Vasilij Gagarin, I again reached a QGD, although this time, I expected him to play the classical main lines with 4.Nc3 and 5.Bg5. Although there weren’t many games of his against this opening in the database, that was pretty much all he had played before. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to win from a 5.Bg5 middlegame, but it’s been done many times before and GM Nigel Short (who is a bit of a champion with these sort of Classical openings) has made a killing as black there. But when Gagarin had the chance, he played 5.Bf4 instead of his usual 5.Bg5.
rnbqk2r/ppp1bppp/4pn2/3p4/2PP1B2/2N2N2/PP2PPPP/R2QKB1R b KQkq - 5 5)
At first, I wasn’t perturbed by it – Bf4 is a perfectly reasonable move, and I was oblivious to the “danger.” I continued as I have in the past with 5…0-0 6.e3 Nbd7 and now he played 7.a3. When he played 7.a3, it finally dawned on me what he was going for. I had faced this line at the US Championship against GM Yury Shulman and I continued in the same vein as GM Michael Adams. Adams introduced an idea against Kramnik last year that seemed to kill the once popular 7.a3 as a winning attempt. Shulman deviated before I could execute the idea, and while the game was interesting, it never swung too far from equality.
But I had a feeling when Gagarin played 7.a3 that he wasn’t looking to keep more life in the position, a la Shulman. Before 6…Nbd7, Black can play 6…c5 as well and then bring the knight out to the more active c6-square. But with the knight already on d7, I was unable to come up with any good deviation over the board and ended up trying to play the position after 7…c5. I declined to play Adams’ idea, as that would give me absolutely no chance at a win, but my deviation didn’t leave a whole lot of active chances for me either. When he found a clever bishop maneuver with Be5-d4-e5 chasing my queen back and forth from b6 to d6, I had to acquiesce to a draw.
After the game, he said he wasn’t expecting the QGD, but had seen my game with Shulman and had checked the line out just in case. Thank you, TWIC and ChessBase. =)
The fun with the black pieces wasn’t to end there. Last year at the World Open, I got to witness an amazing game between IM Leonid Gerzhoy and GM Josh Friedel. It went 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4 5.0-0 0-0:
r1bq1rk1/pppp1ppp/2n2n2/1B2p3/1b2P3/2N2N2/PPPP1PPP/R1BQ1RK1 w - - 8 6)
And now Gerzhoy showed some ambition with 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.Nxe5. White is up a pawn, but Black can get it back. The cost is at further exchanges, a symmetric structure, opposite colored bishops, and a sterile position. The game ended 7…Re8 8.Nd3 Bxc3 9.dxc3 Nxe4 10.Qf3 and a draw was agreed on move 12.
I’ve been playing the Four Knights line with 4…Bb4 since 1994, and I’ve never had to face 6.Bxc6. But I also hadn’t run into a 2400+ IM who saw his pairing and decided it was the right time and place for a rest day. As John McEnroe would say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
I mean, really?! I’m relatively good, but I’m not that good. To future opponents, you should be a little afraid of me, but not so afraid that you force a draw at the earliest possible opportunity. =)
Of course, the flip side of all this respect some people seem to have for me popped up in round 7 as white against IM Mikel Huerga Leache (he has 3 GM norms, but he’s never hit 2500 FIDE). I had a small advantage in the endgame we reached, but one lax move cost me whatever initiative I had and soon I had to work to make sure I wasn’t worse. We reached a R + P endgame with four pawns apiece:
5rk1/2R2p1p/4p1p1/8/8/4P1P1/4P2P/6K1 b - - 1 30)
I offered a draw here and I thought it was a foregone conclusion that he’d accept. The endgame is a trivial draw and I wasn’t even in my customary time pressure (I was up on the clock, actually). But then he declined the offer!
Black has pretty much no plan that creates any trouble for White. What’s he going to do? Push his pawns and exchange them off?! Anyways, Huerga clearly has a bit more ambition than the rest of the folks combined – that might also be why he has 3 GM norms already. He did offer a draw himself some time later, after he realized he wasn’t getting anywhere.
Anyways, to wrap up the tournament, I finished with 5.5/9. I ended up losing another 5 or 6 rating points, essentially due to the draws with black (I outperformed my rating slightly as white). There was a tie for first between GMs Bruzon and Fedorchuk, with Bruzon coming out on top after the mathematical tiebreaks.
My next tournament in Balaguer starts tomorrow, and when I get the black pieces there, I might mix things up quite a bit more than I did in Barberà!