Our Man in Balaguer

[Note – the games and opponents are real and no vacuum cleaners were misrepresented in this blog!]

After Barberà del Vallès, the next tournament on my calendar was in Balaguer. I’ve had good experiences in Balaguer, having made my last two GM norms in 2006 and 2007 there. In 2006, I was in contention for first place until a last-round loss to GM Azer Mirzoev. But in 2007, that final GM norm came with a tie for first place with GM Alexander Delchev.

Unlike my previous tournaments in Barberà and Montcada, Balaguer is a single section tournament, so in the first round, there are huge rating mismatches. Still, my on-and-off form was on display in the first round against Jaime Parramon (1963 FIDE).

(FEN: r2q1rk1/pp1bnppp/2n1p3/1B2P3/Q2P4/R4N2/3P1PPP/1N3RK1 b - - 0 13)

Parramon responded to my French Defense with the Wing Gambit. At first I accepted the pawn, but I gave the pawn back in order to quell his hopes of a simple initiative (that’s how White’s c-pawn ended up on d4 – I played …d4 at some point and he played c2-c3xd4). White’s structure, though, is teetering now and I could have increased my advantage very simply with 13…a6. Retreating the bishop allows …Nxe5, while after 14.Bxc6 Bxc6, White will not be able to hang onto his d4-pawn after …Nf5.

I saw this, but thought I could get the same thing with 13…Nf5?. Black is threatening 14…a6 again, with the same ideas of a discovered attack. I realized right after I played the move that I was allowing 14.d5!, which sacrifices the doomed pawn, but also cuts down my bishop along the way. After 14…exd5 15.Bxc6 Bxc6 16.Qf4 Bd7 17.h4, White had achieved more counterplay than he could have dreamed of after 13…a6.

(FEN: r3qrk1/pp4p1/2b3Pp/4Pp2/3p1P2/R5Q1/3P2P1/1N2R1K1 b - - 0 24)

I managed to regroup and again put a stop to his attacking ambitions, and now I finally got myself on track and started attacking a bit myself. White’s g6-pawn is an obvious target, as the queen is the only piece that can guard it. I could win the pawn with …Qe6 and …Be8, but the bishop is useless on g6. I could also try for …Qd7, …Rfe8, …Re6, and …Qe8, but that is rather slow. The quickest, and strongest, route is via a6!

With 24…a5!, I opened the 6th rank for my Ra8 to swing across, while also setting my queenside passers in motion. Had he played 25.Rd3, then 25…Rd8 is simple and strong. The queenside pawns are now free to advance, and White’s Nb1 is still doing nothing. Instead, he played 25.Rc1 Ra6 26.Rd3, but with 26…Bd5, Black’s rook is going to take on g6 with tempo and White’s position falls apart.

In the second round, I was white against Diego Del Rey (2395 FIDE). Black has just recaptured on c5 with his bishop. Structurally, Black is doing fine. His only problem is with his development and this means White has to act quickly.

(FEN: rn1q1rk1/p4ppp/1p2p3/2bb4/8/5NP1/PPQBPPBP/R4RK1 w - - 0 13)

I wanted to play 13.Ng5 g6 14.Ne4, but I didn’t see a knockout blow after 14…Nd7 15.Bh6 Re8 16.Rfd1 Be7, with ideas of …Qb8 and …Qb7. Somehow the dark squares could be covered (either with …Nd7, or …Bf8, or …f6). White still has an advantage here, but I ended up playing 13.Rfd1 because I saw some other tactical ideas for White.

Del Rey played 13…Nd7 here. Something like 13…Qc8 makes a one-move threat (…Bxf2+), but after 14.Rac1, Black isn’t helping his cause. White threatens 15.b4, and 14…Qb7 15.Ng5! g6 16.e4 Bc6 17.b4 Be7 18.b5! Bxb5 19.e5 leaves Black a piece down.

After 13…Nd7, I played 14.Bc3, threatening 15.e4 and 16.Ne5, pinning and winning material. My plan was revealed after he played the very natural 14…Qe7?.

(FEN: r4rk1/p2nqppp/1p2p3/2bb4/8/2B2NP1/PPQ1PPBP/R2R2K1 w - - 4 15)

Do you see how White wins now?

The queen move allows 15.e4 Bc6 16.b4! Bd6 (16…Bxb4 17.Bxb4 wins the bishop on c6) 17.e5! and Black is completely lost. If Black retreats with 17…Bc7, then 18.Ng5! Qxg5 19.Bxc6 wins. Black can’t even take on e5 because of f4, forking queen and knight. Meanwhile, 17…Bxf3 18.Bxf3 is completely lost as well. Black again doesn’t even get the consolation of a pawn (18…Nxe5 19.Bxa8 Rxa8 20.Qe4 wins another piece, while 18…Bxe5 19.Bxa8 Bxc3 20.Qxc3 Ra8 21.Qc7 is curtains).

Nothing would have changed with 15…Bb7, as after 16.b4! Bd6, 17.Qd2 wins one of the minor pieces on the d-file. Also, Black would have still been in trouble if he had played …f5 on move 12 or 13, as the pawn structure leaves e6 extremely weak (White has ideas of Nd4, Ne5, or Ng5 to remove the Bd5, and then the pawn on e6 is vulnerable).

So is Black essentially just lost after 13.Rfd1? Well, it turns out Black has one defensive idea that both of us missed. Instead of 14…Qe7, Black has to play 14…Nf6!. At first, it looks bad because of 15.Ng5 – White is threatening 16.Bxf6 and mate on h7 while also a pin with 16.e4. But Black has the surprising 15…Bxf2+!, with the idea of 16.Kxf2 Ng4+ and 17…Qxg5. And after 16.Kh1, Black has 16…Bxg2+ 17.Kxg2 Qc7, pinning the Bc3 and planning …Qc5+, hitting king and knight if White takes on f2.

After a 2-0 start, I got the black pieces against GM Ruslan Pogorelov in round 3. Pogorelov had crushed GM Fidel Corrales with white in round 2 and this was his second white in a row. We reached the following position after I played 18…Kg8-f8.

(FEN: 1b1rrk2/pb1n1pp1/1p2qn1p/2pp1N2/3P4/1PN1P1PB/PBQ2P1P/3RR1K1 w - - 6 19)

I slid my king over to avoid 19.Nxh6+. I could also have gone to h8, and that was probably safer, but I wanted to make …g6 a real threat. With the king on h8, after 19…g6 20.Nxh6 Qxh3 21.Nxf7+ Kg7 (otherwise g6 falls too) 22.Nxd8 leads to a difficult middlegame with a R + 2P vs B + N. With the king on f8, White doesn’t have Nxf7xd8, and so …g6 is a real threat. The king is also more exposed on f8, but I decided that there wasn’t any way to take advantage of that at the moment.

After a long think, Pogorelov came to the same conclusion and played 19.Bg2. I kicked the knight back with 19…g6 anyways (20.Nxh6 Kg7 traps it) and regrouped. Although the position was still complicated, probably White is marginally better. However, I managed to slowly outplay him and get some advantage. However, it wasn’t enough to win the game and it ended in a draw.

Instead of 19.Bg2, the critical move was 19.dxc5. During the game, I had planned 19…g6 20.c6! (20.Nd6 Qxh3 21.Nxb7 Ne5! is less clear) Bxc6 21.Nd4 Qxh3 22.Nxc6 and now either 22…Ng4 or 22…Ne5 seemed to be ok to me. There was one amazing line after 22…Ng4 that I’d like to show – 22…Ng4 23.f3 Nxe3 24.Rxe3 Rxe3 25.Nxd8. My opponent stopped here and thought White was just winning, but it’s not so simple. I continued with 25…Ne5 26.Nxd5 Nxf3+ 27.Kh1, reaching the following diagram:

(FEN: 1b1N1k2/p4p2/1p4pp/3N4/8/1P2rnPq/PBQ4P/3R3K b - - 1 27)

I had seen 27…Rd3 here, and thought this line with 22…Ng4 was good for me.  The point is that the rook is taboo – the queen is needed to guard the h2-pawn and the rook is needed to guard the f1-square. But if the rook moves away, say with 28.Ra1, then 28…Rxd5 leaves Black in complete control.

Unfortunately, the computer scoffs at my idea and points out that White has one winning move in that position – 28.Ne6+!!. White mates after king moves or 28…fxe6, while 28…Qxe6 releases the pressure and allows 29.Qxd3.

Of course, I made a mistake earlier in my calculations which made the above situation a moot point. Neither of us saw it in fact, but instead of 21.Nd4, White has 21.Ne2!, which cuts across all of Black’s tricks. A knight will land on d4, hitting queen and bishop and leaving Black’s position full of weaknesses.

I’m not sure what I would have done if he played 19.dxc5. While I was walking around and thinking about the position, I was certainly focused on 19…g6 and thought it would work out. But I had also seen the alternatives (all of 19…d4, 19…Nxc5, and 19…bxc5 have to be considered, although each has some drawback), so I’d like to think I would have thought twice before responding. All this also suggests that 18…Kh8 was a better move than 18…Kf8.

In any case, the draw with Pogorelov completed the first third of the event. I still wasn’t in great form, but I managed 2.5/3. The next three rounds would see me finally start to round into better form.

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