The Rat Race, part 1

Following Balaguer, I continued my play in the Catalan Circuit with Badalona. The Badalona tournament is a pretty unique one on the calendar, although I guess it shares some similarities with this year’s US Championship.

In the top section at Badalona, everybody plays in a 6-round swiss to start the event. The top 8 (using tiebreaks) then advance to play a 3-round, 8-player pseudo-knockout. Those not lucky enough to make it top the final 8 continue playing 3 more rounds of a swiss. Thus, everybody gets 9 regular games, but amongst the top players, it’s a real race to make that final 8.

My tournament started off well as I beat Francisco Rojano (2127 FIDE) in the first round pretty handily. He played a Semi-Slav against me, and at the board, I decided to switch things up from my normal repertoire and played the 5.g3 gambit line instead of my normal 5.e3 (that is, 1.d4 e6 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.g3). It’s always had its adherents, but in general, most top players don’t believe that the gambit offers White anything special with the knight on c3. In the Catalan, a similar position can easily arise, but White’s knight isn’t on c3 so early there. That early development puts it in the line of fire with …b5-b4 (in response to a typical a4, for example), or …Bb4 and …c5 ideas. My opponent didn’t know the theory of the line, though, and let me develop very smoothly. In the diagram below, he just played 19….Qc7.

(FEN: r1b1r1k1/ppq3pp/2p1p1n1/2P2p2/3P1P2/2P3P1/P4QBP/1RB1R1K1 w - - 0 21)

White is clearly better, but to make progress, he needs to open the position to take advantage of this greater potential. With that in mind, I played 21.c4 here. I want to play d5 next, opening the long diagonal for the Bg2 and also clearing a diagonal for my dark-squared bishop. After 21…b6, I continued forward with 22.d5. There isn’t really anything for Black to do now; his position is pretty much lost. For example, 22…cxd5 23.cxd5 Qxc5 loses to 24.Qxc5 bxc5 25.dxe6 (or 25.d6), when the Ra8 is trapped. He tried 22…cxd5 23.cxd5 Bb7, but that offered no respite after 24.c6 Ba6 25.Ba3. I wrapped up the game on the 30th move.

In the second round, I had the black pieces against Maxime Marie (2267 FIDE). I had been expecting 1.c4, and so when he played 1.e4, I sat down to think what I should do. In the end, I decided to eschew my now-normal 1…e5 and turn back to the French Defense.

(FEN: r1bq2k1/pp2b1pp/8/2p1nr1N/3p2P1/6Q1/PPP1BP1P/R1B2RK1 b - - 1 17)

A strange line of the Guimard Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nc6) led to this weird middlegame position. Actually, I had missed a simple resource for him, but I was lucky to have the …c5/…d4 advances to kick his queen around to a more vulnerable square. When he played g4 a few moves ago, he had missed that I could play 17…Bh4 here. Without that, Black would have had to shed some material as his rook can’t keep in touch with the Ne5 for much longer. After …Bh4 though, White’s queen is shooed away and White is just left with serious kingside weaknesses and a complete lack of coordination.

The game continued 18.Qg2 (not 18.Qh3? Rxh5, the g4-pawn is pinned!) Rf8 19.f4 d3!. Again, Black has to play actively as retreating with the knight would allow White to somewhat justify his risky play with something like 19…Nc6 20.f5 and 21.Bf4, when White’s setup doesn’t look so silly.

(FEN: r1bq1rk1/pp4pp/8/2p1n2N/5PPb/3p4/PPP1B1QP/R1B2RK1 w - - 0 20)

Instead, after 19…d3!, White faces serious trouble. He can’t take on e5, as after 20.fxe5 Qd4+ 21.Kh1 dxe2, White is completely lost: both 22.Qxe2 Bxg4 and 22.Rxf8+ Kxf8 23.Qxe2 Bxg4 call for the fat lady to make an appearance.

However, 20.cxd3 is no fun either. After 20…Qd4+ 21.Kh1 Nxd3 (sadly, 21…Bd7 falls short as after 22.fxe5 Bc6 23.Rf3, Black can’t increase the pressure on f3 easily), White doesn’t have time to develop properly. The f2-square is a real soft spot, the Bc1 can’t be developed while keeping the d-file open for a rook, and White has to worry about a bishop coming to the a8-h1 diagonal.

He tried the tricky 22.Bd2, which tries to provoke 22…Nf2+?. White is better after the hasty check: 23.Rxf2 Qxf2 (23…Bxf2 24.Bc3 wins) 24.Bc4+ Kh8 (24…Rf7 is necessary, but Black isn’t better there) 25.Bc3 leaves White’s bishops in control.

Instead, I played 22…Nxb2, which does a nice job stopping both Bc3 and Rad1. After 23.Bf3, I returned with 23…Nd3 and a winning position. He dragged the game out for a while, but the result was never in doubt and I wrapped it up just before the time control.

In the third round, I was white against IM Arturo Vidarte (2409 FIDE). He surprised me with the Grunfeld, and then a rare line in the Classical main line with 7.Bc4. This was my shortest game of the qualifier stage, as I executed some nice maneuvers to achieve a small plus, only to then miss my one opportunity to increase that advantage. Already nearing time pressure on move 24, I offered a draw which was immediately accepted.

With 2.5/3, I got the black pieces against Hector Mestre Bellido (2404 FIDE). I had already played him once before, in Montcada, where I went nuts trying to complicate the position and then gifted him a whole rook in one move at the end of the game.

This was another game in which I had to improvise at the board. I was busy doing laundry that morning and when I went to an internet café to look at the pairings (the WiFi in my building was out that morning), the police showed up to search everybody and the premises for a woman’s lost phone.

Anyway, at the board, I decided to go with the French again. He played the Tarrasch, and to extend my streak of different moves against the Tarrasch, I went with 3…h6 this time!

(FEN: rnbqkbnr/ppp2pp1/4p2p/3p4/3PP3/8/PPPN1PPP/R1BQKBNR w KQkq - 0 4)

It’s kind of amazing how many reasonable moves Black has early on in the French Tarrasch – I think all of 3…h6, 3…Nf6, 3…Be7, 3…c5, 3…Nc6, and 3…a6 are considered to be generally reasonable by theory. Of course 3…dxe4 is also quite solid, but isn’t as unique to the 3.Nd2 line.

I expected him to be surprised by 3…h6, but he continued to bang out his next moves at a rapid pace. That doesn’t mean I think they were right, though …

The game continued 4.Ngf3 Nf6 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bd3 c5 7.0-0 (7.c3 must be correct) Nc6 8.Re1, and now I played 8…cxd4. He had played this same setup against GM Cornette last year, but with a key difference – Cornette played it with 3…a6 and not 3…h6. That means that after something like 9.Nb3 in my game, I can play 9…Qb6 with a clear conscience as White has no attack with 10.Ng5.

However, he wasn’t fazed yet and after a very short think, he continued with 9.a3?. Now another useful point behind 3…h6 revealed itself, as I played 9…g5!. The g-pawn takes away the f4-square from White’s bishop and prepares …Bg7 when the e5-pawn is lost. There’s also the small point that …g4 next leaves the Nf3 trapped! After 10.h3 Bg7 (diagram below), the e5-pawn is toast. White should be lost at this point, in my view, but some absolutely horrific play on my part got in the way.

(FEN: r1bqk2r/pp1n1pb1/2n1p2p/3pP1p1/3p4/P2B1N1P/1PPN1PP1/R1BQR1K1 w kq - 1 11)

I didn’t realize either of these nuances behind …h6 immediately, and in fact, I had already spent about 45 minutes by this point. That’s no excuse for what happened, but it does partly explain how I found myself in time pressure in just over 10 moves.

(FEN: r1b2rk1/1p4bq/p1n2p1p/3ppP1Q/1P1p3N/P7/1B4PN/3RR1K1 b - - 0 22)

To spare any young readers, I’ll gloss over the intermediate moves from 10….Bg7 to 22.f5. Suffice to say that if, like Znosko-Borovsky, I decide to write a book on how not to play chess, that stretch of moves will probably be one of my main qualifications.

Since that last diagram, I’ve added a 3rd pawn to my keep. But on the opposite side of the ledger, my queen is tucked away on h7, my bishop on g7 is a big pawn, my central pawn mass is immobile, and my queenside is still undeveloped.

The game continued 22…Ne7 23.Rf1 (23.g4 is also reasonable, as the rook is nice on e1, but at the same time, it takes the g4-square away from the Nh2) Bd7 24.Ng6 Nxg6 25.fxg6 Qh8. A rather dubious achievement – the queen has been completely buried on h8!

I have played dozens of games where I willingly tucked my queen away on a8 and a couple where my queen ended up on h8, but in none of those games did I completely bury my own queen with little to no hope of ever escaping. After 26.Bxd4, White is only down 2 pawns, and whatever FireBird or Rybka want to say, you’d be hard pressed to find a human who doesn’t think White isn’t just better here. I’m not actually sure he’s better, but he’s probably at least equal. Thanks to Black’s central pawns, it’s not that easy for White to find a way in without releasing some of the pressure (like if the Qh5 moves away, Black could play …h5 and …Qh6).

While trying to provoke some weaknesses, my pawns made their way forward and his knight made its way into my camp. I happily gave up my rook for his annoying knight as I thought that with one less attacker, I’d have good chances of finally starting to unravel with …Bf6 and …Qg7. I had also been in bad time pressure since move 30.

(FEN: 4r1kq/1p4b1/p2B2Pp/3bp2Q/1P1p1pP1/P7/3R4/5RK1 b - - 0 34)

In this position, though, 34…Bf6? runs into 35.Rxf4!. The rook is taboo (the same would be the case after 35.Rxd4, but that one isn’t as strong) and 35…Bg5 36.Rf7! is a rather brutal finisher. I got off the 5th rank with 34…Bc6 and my opponent sat down to think for 28 minutes here.

Luckily, neither of us found the one win for White. With 36.Qf5! Bf6 37.g5! hxg5 38.Rh2 Qg7 39.Rh7, White’s rook comes around the mountain with devastating effect. Obviously it was lucky he didn’t see it, but it was maybe also a bit lucky that I didn’t see it. By not actually seeing a forcing win for him, I was busy thinking on his time about how to counter all his possibilities. Had I seen the win, I might have either telegraphed some reaction to the find or spent a lot of time thinking about where I went wrong and not on the position at hand.

As it was, he played what I thought was best with 35.Qh3?, angling for the light squares. After 35…Bd5 36.Qh5 Bc6 37.Qh3, he was offering a draw. With all the trouble I was in and my time situation (down to 45 seconds, in bad time pressure for a little while), some spectators thought I would take the draw.

But, as the bard said, past is prologue and largely motivated by the fact I was winning earlier, I set out to prove that I would still win this game. While at first I hadn’t seen a way out of the bishop moves, I had noticed a new resource and continued with 37…f3!. He played the tricky 38.Rc2 here, when on the tempting 38…e4, he has 39.Rxc6! bxc6 40.Qh2!! and Black can’t save himself. There’s simply no good response to 41.Qa2 – the computer suggests 41…Qh7 as the best move.

I avoided that pitfall and played 38…Re6!. After 39.Qxf3 Rxg6 (not 39…Bxf3 40.Rc8+ Bf8 41.Bxf8 and wins) 40.Qf7+ Kh7 41.Bxe5, I continued with 41…Qc8!. This was the additional resource I noticed between the first and second repetitions with Bc6-d5 earlier.

(FEN: 2q5/1p3Qbk/p1b3rp/4B3/1P1p2P1/P7/2R5/5RK1 w - - 0 42)

After being locked away for a while, the queen finally makes an entrance and puts some serious pressure on White’s defenses. Mestre played correctly at first with 42.Rf4, but after 42…d3, he went wrong with 43.Rh2 (instead, 43.Rcf2 allows White to fight for a while). With 43.Rh2, White threatens 44.Rxh6+!44…Rxh6 45.Qxg7# and 44…Kxh6 45.Bxg7+ Rxg7 46.Qh5# are a pair of nice finishes. Unfortunately, he forgot to look at one bishop move, and it just so happens that 43…Be8 is the one that ends the struggle. The bishop will cover the h5-square in the line above with 44…Kxh6 and meanwhile, the Black queen threatens to invade on c1.

He tried to plug the c-file with 44.Qc7, but after 44…Qxc7 45.Bxc7 Rc6!, there is no good defense. He resigned after 46.Bb8 Rc1+ 47.Kf2 d2 as the pawn can’t be stopped.

So, after a veritable roller-coaster of a game, I did manage to chalk up a full point. But my form was a bit erratic (as this game showed) and that continued for most of the rest of the tournament.

[Note: Kudos to those who figure out why Liam Neeson is tagged on this post.]

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