The Rat Race, part 2

In round 5, I was black against GM Lazaro Bruzon. Bruzon was listed at 2653, but having played through the Catalan Circuit (and Pamplona) with nothing but success, he was up to about 2675 at game time. I had played him once before, in 2008, and while I got into serious trouble there, I managed to escape with a draw. This time, I was not in any trouble until I managed to lose!

(FEN: r1bqk2r/2p1bppp/p1np1n2/1p2p3/P3P3/1B1P1N2/1PP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 b kq a3 0 8)

He surprised me by playing an Anti-Marshall with 8.a4 (in the Ruy Lopez), even though I wasn’t “threatening” to play the Marshall. With the pawn already on d6, it’s not supposed to be very dangerous because Black doesn’t have to play …Rb8 (giving up the a-file), …b4 (weakening the b-pawn and the c4-square), or …Bb7 (putting the bishop on a diagonal where it just hits against the strong e4-pawn).

I think 8…Bg4 is the most popular move here, and while I’ve played that before, I had since looked at 8…Bd7 and so that’s what I continued with. Bruzon didn’t look happy at that development at all – when he plays, he pretty much always wears a scowl on his face, but this was even more serious.

Now instead of normal plans with 9.c3, he played 9.Nbd2, seemingly ignoring the “threat” of …Na5 followed by …bxa4 after the Bb3 retreats. In the immediate position, I rejected 9…Na5 10.Ba2 bxa4 because of 11.d4!, when it seemed that White was getting nice activity. An extra pawn is nice, but here my knight is misplaced, my queenside pawns are weak, and White is more active. No thanks.

So after 9.Nbd2, I played 9…0-0 and after 10.Re1 Na5 11.Ba2, I continued with 11…c5 (diagram below). With d3-d4 stopped, I figured I was actually threatening to take on a4 now.

(FEN: r2q1rk1/3bbppp/p2p1n2/npp1p3/P3P3/3P1N2/BPPN1PPP/R1BQR1K1 w - c6 0 12)

Bruzon surprised me again here, though, by just ignoring the pawn on a4 and playing 12.Nf1. I obliged with 12…bxa4 and he played 13.Ne3. Black has an extra pawn, but it’s obviously not the greatest pawn in the world. I decided that it made sense to put the rook on the semi-open b-file so I played 13…Rb8. This ties the Bc1 down to the b2-pawn while also getting out of the way of any future attacks from d5 (for example if White plays Nd5 and Black exchanges there). After 14.h3, I played 14…Ne8!.

I didn’t have any prior experience in such a closed Lopez structure, but this move seemed to be pretty good to me. Black wants to rearrange his pieces while also cutting across any plans of a kingside attack from White. Thus, …Ne8 helps deal with moves like 15.Nh2 (clearing the way for the White queen and maybe preparing Nhg4/Nf5 later on) as Black now can play 15…Bg5. The bishop on g5 would help neutralize any pressure by preparing to exchange off a potential attacker against a not-so-useful defender if White moves the Ne3.

Black also prepares to advantageously regroup with …Nc7 and either …Ne6-d4 or …Be6. If he plays ….Nc6, he also threatens to sink a knight into d4, but then White can play c3 as Black lacks the …Nb3 threat.

After further maneuvers and exchanges, we reached the following position after 20.Qd1-f3:

(FEN: 1r3rk1/2n2ppp/p2p4/n1p1pP2/7q/P2P1Q2/B1P2PP1/R1B1R1K1 b - - 1 20)

White is still down a pawn, although Black’s extra pawn has switched from the a-file to the h-file! White’s immediate threat is to play 21.Re4 Qf6 22.Ra4, embarrassing the Na5. Black can try to save the knight tactically now with 20…Nb5, but after 21.Bd2 Nd4 22.Qd5 Nxc2 23.Bxa5, I preferred White’s two bishops to the rook and pawns. Instead, I played 20…Rb6, keeping control over the d5-square while preparing …Nc6 next.

Objectively, Black isn’t really any better here, but he’s also not any worse. After another long think, Bruzon decided to enter a forcing line with 21.Re4 Qf6 22.Qh5 Nc6 23.Rh4 h6 24.Bxh6. This came as a real surprise, as when I played 20…Rb6, I was under the impression that I would just win with 24…Qxh6 here.

Unfortunately, as I now realized, that loses! White has the very tricky 25.Qg4 Qf6 26.Qh3 g6 27.fxg6 d5 28.g7!!. That final 28.g7 was what I missed a few moves ago, as no matter how Black captures, he will lose his queen.

I normally stay pretty calm at the board, but I this discovery did lead me to panic a little bit. Even though I hadn’t rejected 24…gxh6 earlier, my gut preference for 24…Qxh6 meant that I now became worried that I had just missed something big. It was compounded by the fact that when I played 22…Nc6, I was debating between that move and 22…d5, closing the Ba2’s diagonal. Had I played 22…d5, then 24.Bxh6 Qxh6 would indeed have been winning for Black.

In any case, after thinking the position over for 7 minutes, I played 24…gxh6 and the game continued 25.Rg4+ Kh7 26.Bxf7.

(FEN: 5r2/2n2B1k/prnp1q1p/2p1pP1Q/6R1/P2P4/2P2PP1/R5K1 b - - 0 26)

I reacted almost immediately with 26…Rxf7?? here. The move loses immediately to 27.Rg6, a detail that I had noticed in advance.

I had also seen both 26…e4 and 26…Ne7 when I played 24…gxh6. Both alternatives force White to make a draw with 27.Bg6+ Kg7 28.Bf7+ Kh7 and so on. So why didn’t I play either of those moves?

Bruzon immediately asked me that same question after the game. All I could do was shrug my shoulders – I had played …Nc6 thinking it was more important to bring the knight back to the defense in general and I had seen the correct moves. But I still somehow played …Rxf7.

I was certainly a little tired after spending a lot of time preparing for the game (Bruzon plays all of 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4 and 1.Nf3) and then we had played about 3 hours up to this point. Throw in that small doubt that hit me with Bxh6 and maybe that’s why I played …Rxf7.

I was somewhat shell-shocked as I rode the Metro back to my apartment. Losing to somebody like Bruzon is not a disaster in itself – he’s a strong player – but frankly, the manner in which I lost was pretty ridiculous. But such is the life.

The next day, I was white against IM Konguvel Ponnuswamy (2416 FIDE). I was doubly annoyed going into the game, partly because I lost against Bruzon, but also because the loss meant that I would need to hope for a number of results in order to make the final 8. Playing on board 6, even if I beat Konguvel, I would not automatically make the final 8.

The Cubans occupied all the spots on boards 1 and 2, which virtually guaranteed draws and 4 spots taken right there (they all did indeed draw quickly). Meanwhile, boards 3-5 featured players half a point ahead of me. Finally, while I played nearly as strong a field as I could have rating-wise, the withdrawal of my 3rd round opponent meant that my Buchholz was somewhat artificially low compared to my competitors (Vidarte had 2.5/3 but withdrew because he was sick).

But I could only control the course of my own game, so on to that …

(FEN: r2q1rk1/1pp1pbbp/1n3pp1/pR6/P1pP3B/2P1P3/2QNBPPP/R5K1 b - - 3 15)

After playing the Classical Exchange with 7.Bc4 in round 3, I returned to my favorite 4.Bg5 Grunfeld for this game. I hadn’t prepared this exact line (Konguvel’s move order forced me to deviate) but I was still happy with my position. White is down a pawn but has some annoying pressure, and it was not obvious to either of us how Black should proceed.

The Ra8 is tied to the a5-pawn; the Nb6 is tied to the c4- and b7-pawns; the Bf7 is tied to the c4-pawn; and the Bg7 and Rf8 doesn’t seem to have any active prospects. White also doesn’t seem to have any obvious plan, but he plans 16.Bg3, when 17.Rab1 would threaten 18.Bxc7 and 19.Rxb6. Note that 16.Bg3 Be8 17.Rb2 doesn’t really help Black – he has to return with 17…Bf7, when 18.Rab1 reintroduces the threat of Bxc7.

After a 19-minute think, Black played 15…c6, which looks dubious to me. There’s no simple solution, but tactically, it doesn’t seem to hold up. This is especially true after his 16.Rb2 c5 17.Rab1 Ra6? – had he played 17…cxd4, which is what I expected, he would have had more chances to maintain a reasonable position. The idea is that on the positionally desirable 18.cxd4, Black has 18…Nd5 with …Nb4 in the offing. Thus, White has to play 18.exd4, but then even if White wins a pawn, the pawn on c3 will be a real headache while he has to worry about ideas like …g5 and …Bg6 or …f5. The …g5 thrust is not an issue if White has a pawn on e3 because he can play e4 to close the diagonal.

After 17…Ra6? though, I hit him with 18.Ne4!. Taking the pawn on c5 the past couple moves hasn’t been so great, as after …Nd7, the c5-pawn is rather weak and White can’t take both b7 and c4 in one move. But a knight landing on c5 would be a real problem for Black, and so he had to give way with 18…Nd7. Then 19.Rxb7 wins back the pawn without giving Black any central squares. After 19…Rc6, we reached the following position.

(FEN: 3q1rk1/1R1npbbp/2r2pp1/p1p5/P1pPN2B/2P1P3/2Q1BPPP/1R4K1 w - - 1 20)

When he played …c6 and later …Ra6, Konguvel said he thought this position was ok for him. He didn’t see any way for White to make progress in the center while he could expel the White rook with …Rc7. Unfortunately for him, I played 20.Ra7! here.

Black can still play 20…Rc7 (he should and he did, as otherwise 21.Rb1-b7 would set White up for a nice harvest along the 7th rank), but now I just picked up the a5-pawn with 21.Rxa5. White was down a pawn a few moves ago, but now he’s up one with a better structure to boot. The only compensation that Black has is that the Ra5 is somewhat misplaced and there are potentially some tactical issues with the Ne4 and Bh4.

(FEN: 5rk1/1N3bbp/1n3pp1/R7/P1pP4/5BB1/5PPP/6K1 w - - 0 30)

Black pulled out all the tactical stops and managed to reach the above endgame after 29…Nxb6. I only had 4 minutes at this point to make it to move 40 (with the increment). Black is still down a pawn, but it doesn’t look so bad at first – the c4-pawn is a pain and White’s rook is still oddly placed. After the game, I thought that maybe 30.Bc7 was an improvement here, but 30…Re8! creates a bit of a mess. The c-pawn is ready to run in that scenario.

Moving the rook to b5 immediately drops the a4-pawn, and so I had to regroup with 30.Ra6 Nd5 31.Rc6. After 31…f5 32.Nd6, I felt pretty good about my chances to wrap it up, but he continued with the tricky 32…Rb8 33.h3 f4. The point is that on 34.Nxf7 fxg3 35.Bxd5, Black has 35…Rb1 mate! We exchanged a set of pawns, but his activity started to look a bit ominous.

(FEN: 1r4k1/2R4p/4b3/P5p1/3b1p1B/3n1B1P/3N1PP1/6K1 w - - 0 39)

I was down to 43 seconds at this point (I still write down my time every move for some reason, even the seconds – old habits die hard I guess) but I came up with the accurate 39.Be4!. Taking on g5 allows way too much counterplay with 39…Bxf2+ 40.Kf1 Be3. After 39…gxh4 I had another decision – take on d3 or take on h7 with check first?

In the end, I decided to take on d3 immediately. I hadn’t seen any concrete reason to choose one over the other, but I thought it might be useful to have Black’s king on g8 later. As it turns out, I was right, but it wasn’t for any reason I had seen at this point!

After 40.Bxd3 Rb2, we had made time control and I had some time to think. I now noticed a little nuance – after 41.Rc2! Rxc2 42.Bxc2 Bc3, White can just continue with 43.a6 Bxd2 44.a7 Bd5 and now he wins with 45.Bb3!. That’s all thanks to the king still being on g8!

Of course, had I taken the pawn, I might still have won the endgame, but by keeping the rooks and the a-pawn on the board, it’s much, much easier. The rook exchange leaves Black helpless, so he retreated with 41…Rb7, but after 42.Nf3, White is in full control. The endgame is a pretty simple win for White and I wrapped it up shortly. He resigned after I collected all his kingside pawns.


2 responses to “The Rat Race, part 2

  1. This blog rocks. Keep up the good work!

  2. What Dan said.

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