A Return to Form?

As I wrote in my last post, I finished the first three rounds with 2.5 points, but I still wasn’t playing all that well. I had missed key variations and ideas in each of my first three games.

In round 4, things were to get even worse. I had the white pieces against IM Jordan Ivanov, a solid IM I had drawn with in Seville earlier in the year. That was an up-and-down game where I missed a few opportunities and had to work hard to escape with a draw.

I was prepared for his usual QGA, but around lunchtime, I developed a splitting headache. A couple of Tylenol numbed some of the pain, but at game time, I was more inclined to sit with an icepack on my head than to play a game of chess in the sweltering heat of Balaguer.

Once it took me an hour to play out my preparation (and notice that I had already spent an hour), I realized it wasn’t my day, and I quickly tried to swap off some pieces. Luckily, Ivanov was not particularly ambitious that day (he had beaten GM Oms Pallisse the day before, but I guess with the black pieces, he went in being happy with a draw), and he didn’t try to avoid any of the exchanges. We agreed to a draw after 24 moves.

Playing one degree with Ivanov, Oms Pallisse is the only player to have beaten me in a rated game when I played the Trompowsky. I’ve been a 1.e4 player for most of my chess career, but after a long break from regular tournaments, I started playing 1.d4 in 2005. To cut down on the theory I had to learn, I started with the Trompowsky against 1…Nf6 players. In 21 rated games with the Tromp, I scored 19.5 points. Most of the games were against players about 150-200 points lower rated than me, though. GM Larry Christiansen also beat me in a Tromp in the US Chess League, but that wasn’t a rated game. Including such unrated games, my score in the Tromp moves up to 22.5 points from 25 games!

Now back to Balaguer … If round 4 against Ivanov was a strange day, the next game was even weirder. I was black against IM Mathias Roeder. Roeder has 3 GM norms, but he’s never crossed 2500 FIDE. With the white pieces, he’s especially difficult to beat, and I noticed that for a stretch from the start of 2006 through part of 2008, he didn’t have a single loss in the database with white. For someone who plays about 100 games a year, that’s pretty solid.

(FEN: r1b2rk1/ppqn1ppp/2pb1n2/4p3/P1BP4/2N1PN1P/1PQ2PP1/R1B2RK1 b - - 1 11)

White has just played 11.Qd1-c2, and it’s now up to Black to find a reasonable plan. In general, his problem is that the central tension can’t be favorably resolved and so his queenside pieces will languish on the first rank. Black can’t push …e5-e4, and for the moment, …Re8 would leave f7 weak after Ng5. Meanwhile, if Black takes on d4, White will recapture with the pawn and achieve a very nice isolated-queen’s pawn position. Black can’t target the pawn, and White has the more active pieces.

I ended up playing 11…h6?!, which is a somewhat provocative move that I didn’t really want to play. At the same time, I didn’t like the alternatives. Playing …h6 means that …Re8 is quite reasonable. After …Re8, Black can think about …exd4, …Nf8, and …Be6 – the pawn on h6 shuts the Bc1 down in that IQP middlegame.

The cost to …h6 is that it weakens the kingside light squares. With the bishop on c4, White might drop a piece into g6, or he might try and maneuver a knight to the soft f5-square now. Black can’t play g6 anymore because the pinned f7-pawn doesn’t actually guard that square.

White immediately executed that maneuver with 12.Nh4. I responded with 12…Rd8. I didn’t want to go e8 in this position for two reasons: one, the rook takes away a square for the king in case of Bxf7+ and Qb3+; and two, there could be a time when if White sacrifices a knight on h6 and plays Qg6+ and Bxf7, the rook would en prise on e8.

Now White made a clear mistake in my view, with the apparently natural 13.Nf5?!. After 13…Bf8, Black is now ready to play …Nb6 (there’s no pressure on e5 anymore), and so Roeder played 14.a5, cutting the knight down. This allowed me to unwind nicely with 14…Nd5!.

(FEN: r1br1bk1/ppqn1pp1/2p4p/P2npN2/2BP4/2N1P2P/1PQ2PP1/R1B2RK1 w - - 1 15)

Tactically, the move works because of the latent pin along the c-file. Taking on d5 now only gives Black more central space: 15.Nxd5 cxd5 16.Bd3 Qxc2 and 17…e4, or 15.Bxd5 cxd5 16.exd5 Nxe5.

If White doesn’t make an immediate threat, then Black will continue with 15…Nd7-f6, uncovering his Bc8 and preparing to finish his development. The Nf5 will then be somewhat of a problem for White. Finally, the critical 15.e4 allows 15…Nb4 16.Qb3 exd4!. White can take on f7 with check, but after 17…Kh8, Black has ideas of …Ne5 or …Nc5 depending on the circumstance, and White’s pieces are uncoordinated and vulnerable. What this all means is that White can no longer prevent Black from developing naturally, and so Black has no problems.

Maybe somewhat unnerved by my response (he admitted after the game that he hadn’t seen it), Roeder found a way to lose almost instantly. After 14…Nd5!, in the above diagram, he played 15.Nxh6+??.

I’ll admit that when I got back to the board, I was worried I had missed something simple in my calculations. I hadn’t even considered the sacrifice seriously. But after about 15 seconds, I didn’t see what I could have missed. I played 15…gxh6, and now it was his turn to stare perplexedly at the position. There’s nothing for him here, and he quickly realized that. Somehow, in his mind, he thought that I was recapturing on h6 with the f-pawn, which would allow 16.Nxd5 cxd5 17.Bxd5+. A very strange oversight, but chess blindness affects most of us at some point or another.

Ok, so I gave 11…h6 a dubious sign above, but then I also said that 13.Nf5 threw away White’s advantage. So should White have done? If you’ve studied Karpov’s games, I think this will probably be easier.

I think that 12.Nh4 was fine, but instead of 13.Nf5, the correct move was probably 13.dxe5. White can’t maintain the central tension forever, he also needs to continue with his development. By taking on e5 now, he will lose a move with the bishop (13…Nxe5 14.Be2 – note that on 14.Ba2, Black has 14…Nd3!, which was the final [and main] reason I played …Rd8 instead of …Re8), but he will prepare the advance of his center pawns. If he can get his e- and f-pawns rolling, then he will have a ready-made attack. Compared to the Karpov examples below, Black is a bit more active, so the position is less one-sided, but it still seems to be the thematic approach to me.

Here’s the first example:

(FEN: rbb1rqk1/1p1n1pp1/2p2n1p/pN2pN2/3P4/P3P2P/BPQB1PP1/R4RK1 w - a6 0 17)

This is Karpov – Anand, FIDE Candidates Quaterfinal Match (game 8) from 1991. With 17.dxe5! Bxe5 18.f4 Bb8 19.Nc3, White had a clear advantage. Black has no good counter to the plan of e3-e4-e5 (on 19…Ba7, White just plays 20.Kh1). Black’s position is much worse and Anand wasn’t able to put up much of a fight. There’s a similar example from Karpov – Hungaski, 2005 (simul), where Karpov reaches a similar structure but with the queens off the board. The e- and f-pawns still cause Black all sorts of problems.

Here’s the second example:

(FEN: r1b2rk1/pp1nqppp/2pb1n2/4p3/2BP4/2N1PN1P/PPQB1PP1/R4RK1 b - - 0 11)

This is Karpov – Gurevich, Cap d’Agde (rapid) 2000. GM Luke McShane writes here, “It is barely perceptible, but Black is under great pressure here.  The problem is mainly on the light squares, which aren’t covered by the bishop on c8.” The game continued 11…Bb8 12.Bb3 h6 13.Nh4 Rd8 14.Nf5 Qf8 15.f4! with a clear plus. Although not quite the same motif in the previous two Karpov games I mentioned, White again forces the opening of the center on his terms. After 15…exd4 16.exd4 Nf8 17.Rae1 Be6 18.d5! Nxd5 19.Nxd5 cxd5 20.Nxh6+!, he concluded the game in excellent style.

Getting back to the tournament at hand, after that gift in round 5, I was white against WGM Soumya Swaminathan in round 6. Normally in a reasonably strong swiss like Balaguer, I would play up with 4/5. However, in this case, a number of the higher-rated GMs had given up more draws (or a loss) along the way so I was still in the top half of the cut after two of my fellow 4-pointers were bumped up to player 4.5-pointers.

She surprised me with the Benoni, but I was able to turn the tables with 9.g3 in the following position.

(FEN: rnbq1rk1/pp3pbp/3p1np1/2pP4/2N5/2N3P1/PP2PP1P/R1BQKB1R b KQ - 0 9)

The Knight’s Tour Variation with 7.Nd2 and 8.Nc4 is already somewhat rare, but combining it with the Fianchetto is extremely rare. The normal move in that position is 9.Bf4, but after 9…Ne8 with ideas of …b5 and/or …f5, the position can get messy in a hurry. I didn’t want to get stuck in a theoretical discussion, and so instead chose to this more positional line.

Black’s problem is that she can’t just play the normal …Nbd7 because of the weak d6-pawn. Even after something like …Qe7, the position after a later …Nbd7/Bf4 may not be so pleasant for Black. She doesn’t want to give White a passer on d5 by playing Ne5 (and allowing an exchange there), so she will still have to drop back with …Ne8. Obviously in all these lines, the most annoying piece is that Nc4, and so she played a normal move with 9…b6, aiming to get rid of it later on. However, with 10.a4, I aimed to keep the knight there. I planned 11.Nb5 against 10…Ba6, when the exchange on b5 saddles me with doubled pawns, but completely secures the knight on c4 and also “develops” my Ra1 by opening the a-file. Then …Qe7 would allow Nxb6 ideas, thanks to the pin along the file.

Of course, White isn’t winning, but Black has to be somewhat careful to avoid finding herself in a hopeless position (then again, that can be said about pretty much every Benoni line!). I don’t think she came up with a good idea, though, by playing 10…Na6 11.Bg2 Nb4 12.0-0 and only now 12…Ba6. As will be seen in the next diagram, the knight on b4 looks decent at first, but really does nothing for her position. After 13.Nb5 Bxb5 14.axb5 Ne8 15.Bf4, we reached the following diagram.

(FEN: r2qnrk1/p4pbp/1p1p2p1/1PpP4/1nN2B2/6P1/1P2PPBP/R2Q1RK1 b - - 2 15)

She now played 15…a6, aiming to break White’s bind on the queenside. If White takes on a6, then 16…b5 will come, knocking the Nc4 loose and leaving the b2-pawn unprotected. However, I had seen a bit further into the position and played 16.Qd2!.

Black’s new problem is that she’s not actually threatening to take on b5! After 16…axb5 17.Rxa8 Qxa8 18.Nxd6, White gets a dominating position. Material is equal, but White’s passed d-pawn and bishop-pair far outweigh Black’s uncoordinated pieces and queenside cluster of pawns. At the same time, if she’s not threatening …axb5, then what is she to do?

She can’t move the Ne8 (loses the d6-pawn), the Nb4 (no safe square), or the Ra8 (going to a7 only leaves the a6-pawn pinned more directly). The queen can only consider moving to b8 or c7, but neither move reintroduces …axb5 as an idea. Thus, she played 16…Bf6, which threatens 17…g5. By releasing the pressure on d6, Black can take on b5.

But with the b2-pawn protected, there’s no reason for me to avoid taking on a6 myself. After 17.bxa6 Nxa6 (17…b5 18.Na5 only transfers White’s knight from one strong square to another on c6) 18.e4, Black is stuck in a Benoni nightmare. There’s no real counterplay and White can simply advance in the center. The game continued 18…b5 19.Na5 Be5 20.Bg5 Bf6 21.Be3 (there’s no reason to trade pieces and relieve some of Black’s congestion) Nb4, reaching the diagram below.

(FEN: r2qnrk1/5p1p/3p1bp1/NppP4/1n2P3/4B1P1/1P1Q1PBP/R4RK1 w - - 6 22)

Now I delivered the final blow with 22.Nb7!. The tactical point is that after 22…Qc8 23.Rxa8 Qxa8, White has 24.Nxd6! Nxd6 25.Bxc5. Both black knights are hanging and there’s no way to save both (25…Nc4 still drops a piece to 26.Qxb4). Meanwhile, White has two extra pawns and a completely winning position. Instead of being down two pawns, she chose an exchange down position, but it was similarly hopeless and I cleaned up without any trouble.

Through six rounds, I now had 5/6 and I had finally played a good game from start to finish. The win against Roeder was odd, and the wins in rounds 1 and 2 featured some miscalculations on my part. But this game in round 6 was clean throughout.

2 responses to “A Return to Form?

  1. Very clear and instructive annotations once again, many thanks.

    One slight typo:
    “The cost to …h6 is that it weakens the kingside dark squares. ”

    Light squares, no?

  2. Thanks. Good call – that mistake has now been fixed.

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