I finished my last blog on a positive note, with a win where I finally played well from start to finish. As it was, I did manage to continue to play well through the rest of the tournament, but I wasn’t able to parlay that into any wins. Instead, all three of my games ended in draws (and thus, the title is inspired by Picasso’s so-called “Blue Period”).
In round 7, I had the black pieces against GM Daniele Vocaturo. Vocaturo had started off with 4 seemingly easy wins before falling back to earth with a couple of draws. The first critical moment came after he played 13.Bc1-e3:
r4rk1/bppq1pp1/p1np1n1p/4p3/4P3/1QPPBN1P/PP3PP1/R3RNK1 b - - 2 13)
His last move was a new one for me, and so I sat down to think about my move. I can’t avoid the bishop exchange, but should it take place on e3 or a7? I played 13…Rfe8, and both of us agreed after the game that this was the right move. One problem with exchanging on e3 right away is that after 13…Bxe3 14.Nxe3, Black cannot easily chase the queen away from b3 because the b7-pawn will still be hanging (for now, …Rfb8 would trap the queen if it took the pawn). Black also has to think about a Ne3-d5 jump, as after an exchange on d5, White might quickly play d4 and gain a small advantage in space and activity.
After 13…Rfe8 14.Bxa7 Rxa7, though, Black does not have those same problems. The rook looks funny on a7, but it guards the b7-pawn and makes …Qe6 possible to chase the Qb3 away. Black can also respond to 15.Ne3 with 15…Ne7, clearing the way for …Qb5 as well and covering the soft d5- and f5-squares. He tried 15.Ng3 and after 15…Qe6, traded on e6 as retreating would allow 16…d5 with equality. I didn’t think the endgame presented much danger for me, although it turned out to be a little trickier than I thought.
rr3k2/1ppn1pp1/3p3p/p1nPpN2/P1N1P3/2P2P1P/1P2K1P1/R3R3 w - - 6 26)
After the exchange of queens, Vocaturo quickly pushed forward with d4 and d5 to establish a spatial plus. This spatial plus gives White the more pleasant position.
In the above position, I just played 25…Reb8, which sets up a little trap that Vocaturo almost fell into. He reached for his a1-rook and was almost certainly about to play 26.Ra3 when his eyes widened and he put his hand back down. After thinking for another couple minutes, he played the correct 26.Nfe3. Had he played 26.Ra3?, then after 26…Nxa4 27.Rxa4 b5 and Black’s disadvantage disappears. If 28.Rxa5 bxc4 29.Rxa8 Rxa8, the c4-pawn is easily guarded and takes away a powerful square from White’s knights. The b2-pawn is also a new target.
After 26.Nfe3, though, Black still has to be a little careful. If White can arrange the b4-push, then Black will be in trouble. He cannot play …b5 so easily on his own right now because after an exchange on b5, White can think about b2-b4 (the a5-pawn is pinned). Even after the game’s 26…Ra6 27.Nc2, playing …b5 is a double-edged decision as after the exchange on b5, Black will likely have to play a4 to safeguard the pawn, giving White the b4-square for his knight.
r7/1pp1k3/r2p2p1/p1nPpp1p/P1N1P2P/R1P1KP2/1P4P1/R7 w - f6 0 35)
After further maneuvers, I finally got something going on the kingside with 34…f5, and we reached the above position. It looks like White is finally ready to play b4, and Vocaturo thought so as well. It wasn’t quite as obvious as with his intent to play Ra3, but he wanted to play b4 here before he finally noticed a tactical problem with it.
After 35.b4, it looks like Black is toast, as after 35…axb4 36.cxb4 Nxa4 37.b5 R6a7 38.Nb2, Black can’t save his Na4 or escape safely from the pin along the a-file. However, instead of 37…R6a7, he has either 37…Nb2! (or 37…Nb6!, both have the same idea). If White takes the knight, then the Ra3 loses an important defender, while if White takes the rook, Black plays …Nxc4+ and forks king and rook.
Strangely enough, White had just played 34.Ke3, thinking it took the king away to safety. On e2, there was a knight check on c3 (that would win the b5-pawn, as otherwise the Ra1 would be left en prise). Even had the king moved to d2, the same problem with …Nb6(b2) would have existed. The only safe square was back to f1, but then Black could play …Nd3 and stop b4 a different way.
With b4 stopped and some kingside chances, the advantage shifted over to me, but it wasn’t much to work with and I offered a draw shortly after making the time control.
In round 8, I played GM Yuniesky Quezada. Quezada, like Vocaturo, had also started off with 4 straight wins before drawing a series of games. The opening was a Queen’s Indian Defense, with a pawn-sacrifice that Kasparov helped popularize (namely, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.d5!?).
I played a somewhat rare line that eschews the now more popular attacking setups with g3-g4 and instead exchanged on d5. But instead of the common …cxd5, he forced a knight exchange with …Nxd5/Nxd5 before taking with the c-pawn. We thus reached the position below:
rn1q1rk1/pb3ppp/1p3b2/3p1N2/8/6P1/PP3PBP/R1BQ1RK1 w - - 0 15)
Now I played 15.Ne3. After the game, he said that Shirov had played 15.Bf4 (but lost to Adams in just a few more moves). The knight retreat is almost certainly stronger, as White can’t be stopped from taking on d5 next. Then White is likely to get the bishop pair. Nothing major, but something I could work with. The one problem is that White won’t be as well developed, and with the powerful Bf6, the b2-pawn will cost White some time. Probably the position is still about balanced, but it’s quite easy for both sides to go wrong. The mostly symmetric pawn-structure belies a position that can become complicated in a hurry.
The game continued 15.Ne3 Na6 16.Nxd5 Nc5 17.Rb1 (threatening 18.b4 and 19.Nxf6+, winning the Bb7) Ba6!? 18.Re1 Rc8 19.Re3 (diagram below). By covering the soft d3-square, I wanted to reintroduce the idea of b2-b4. But the rook move also conceals another idea, that of swinging the rook to a3! Thus, on something like 19…Ne6?, I would have played 20.Ra3 and all of a sudden Black is going to lose material.
2rq1rk1/p4ppp/bp3b2/2nN4/8/4R1P1/PP3PBP/1RBQ2K1 b - - 5 19)
Quezada was alert to the dangers and played 19…Bc4. Now on something quiet like 20.b3, Black can play 20…Bxd5 21.Bxd5 Rc7, and White’s lagging development and issues along the d-file mean he can’t really hope for any advantage. Instead, I played 20.b4, but it also doesn’t lead to anything special.
With 20…Bxd5 21.Bxd5 Na4!, Quezada again found the correct path to maintain the balance. If he retreated with his knight to e6 or d7, then White could consider 22.Rd3! on both moves, with serious pressure. Black’s minor pieces aren’t exerting much pressure, and the knight has no central outpost. Meanwhile, White has the bishop pair and can’t be stopped from completing his development in a natural manner.
After 21…Na4!, White has to do something, as otherwise the knight will land on c3. I decided to win a pawn with 22.Bxf7+ Rxf7 23.Qxa4, and after 23…Bd4 24.Re2, we reached the diagram below:
2rq2k1/p4rpp/1p6/8/QP1b4/6P1/P3RP1P/1RB3K1 b - - 2 24)
White has an extra pawn, and if he can consolidate, then of course he will have some advantage. But for the time being, White’s relatively undeveloped and uncoordinated. Luckily, though, the placement of his queenside pieces means he won’t be worse!
Quezada again found the best continuation, with 24…Bxf2+!. After 25.Rxf2 Rxf2 26.Kxf2 Qd4+ 27.Be3 Rf8+ (note that c2 is covered by the Qa4 in all these lines) 28.Ke2 (stepping to any light square on this or the previous move would cost White the Rb1 and the game) Qc4+ 29.Kd2, a curious situation arose. It looks dangerous for White at first, but there’s nothing more than a perpetual for Black!
A natural move would be 29…Qd5+, as 30.Ke1 Qh1+ and 30.Ke2 Qf3+ (and 31…Rd8+) are both winning. However, after 30.Kc3 Qe5+ 31.Kd2, Black isn’t making any progress, and 30.Kc3 Rc8+ 31.Kb2 Qe5+ 32.Ka3 Qxe3+ 33.Qb3+ is a bit better for White! Note that Qb3 is check, so there is no chance for 33…Rc3, pinning the queen. The problem for Black is that after the queen exchange on b3, White’s king might cause some trouble on the queenside. It should be a draw, of course, but Black needs to make a couple accurate moves.
Instead of this, Quezada found the correct continuation again, with 29…Rd8+. After 30.Ke1 Qc3+ 31.Kf2 Rf8+, we’d just go around in circles with 32.Ke2 Qc4+. A draw was therefore agreed.
These two draws took me to 6/8 and left me half a point behind Vocaturo (who won in the 8th round). With me on 6 points were GMs Pavel Maletin, Quezada, and Manuel Leon Hoyos. The last round pairings were Leon Hoyos – Vocaturo, Maletin – Bhat, and Quezada – Andriasian (who had 5.5/8).
The last round was a strange one for a couple reasons. One was my game with Maletin. Of all my games in Balaguer, that was the one for which I spent the most time preparing. At about 2620, Maletin is a pretty strong player and his opening repertoire presented some problems for me. Normally I spent some time before the game resting up, but in this case, it was only about 30 minutes before I left for the game that I found a new idea that I was happy with.
The game proceeded as I expected, following a main line Slav. However, on the 11th move, he offered me a draw! I figured that with the white pieces, he, as the much higher rated player, would want to press. Board 1 seemed likely to be a draw as Leon Hoyos and Vocaturo are good friends, so a win would take Maletin into a tie for first.
I decided to take the draw, as frankly, with the black pieces in a Slav, I’m not exactly expecting to win a lot of games. That final draw took me to 6.5/8, and in the end a tie for 3rd place with Maletin and GMs Fidel Corrales and Josep Oms Pallisse.
I asked Maletin after the game why he offered me a draw. He said the main reason was that he had prepared mostly for the Queen’s Gambit Declined (he plays the Catalan) and that he hadn’t really spent much time on the Slav. Figuring that I would be the better prepared player, he said he didn’t want to risk another loss with the white pieces (having lost to Vocaturo earlier in the event as white).
As it was, Quezada was rewarded for his fighting spirit – he won a tough game against Andriasian which took him to 7/9 and clear second place. Clear second place because Vocaturo did not draw on board 1, he won!
Thus, Balaguer was a successful tournament for me. I’ve played there four times now, and each time I’ve had a good result. I made my last two GM norms there in 2006 and 2007, had a solid performance (2550 or so) in 2008, and clocked in with a performance barely under 2600 FIDE this year. There must be something about the hot, dusty town that does wonders for me chess … or at least does not do wonders for my opponents’ chess!