Achilles Last Stand

In my last blog, I mentioned how even if I beat Konguvel, I would need some help to make the final 8. In a strange turn of events, almost all the results around me worked in my favor, but almost all my previous opponents lost.

Thanks to those results around me, there were 5 people with 5/6. That left 3 spots for the 7 players (including me) who were tied with 4.5/6. Unfortunately, my collective opponents from the first 6 rounds scored a whopping 1.0 out of 6 that day.

Most of my fellow 4.5’ers had played weaker fields up to that point, so even with that 1.0/6, not enough of them leapfrogged me in the Buchholz race. I thus snuck into the final 8 as the #8 seed, but had any of my previous opponents won that day, I would have moved up to #6.

I also wrote earlier that the two-stage design was somewhat similar to the 2010 US Championship. The knockout stage in Badalona, though, was rather different from the second stage of the US Championships. In St. Louis, they had the top 4 break off and play a round-robin. Here, in the first round of the knockout, seeds at opposite ends of the bracket faced off in the first round.

Each round would start with a single slow game with rapid tiebreaks if necessary (and potentially blitz and Armageddon as well). With only one game and no draw odds, the only advantage you can give the higher seed is the white pieces, and that meant that as the #8 seed, I would get the black pieces in all 3 rounds no matter who I played. I would only see the white pieces if I drew the first game.

There was a time when I used to score about evenly with both colors, but this year, I’ve struggled with the black pieces (especially in beating lower rated players). From 2008 through 2009, I have 95 games in my database with the black pieces – I scored 65% with black in those games and outperformed my own average rating by 13 points then. In 2010, though, things have changed – in 44 games, I’ve underperformed my rating by about 90 points. Hence, Achilles Last Stand …

In round 7, I was black against GM Fidel Corrales of Cuba. Corrales beat me earlier this year with 1.d4, so I had to respect his ability to play both 1.e4 and 1.d4 on move one. With 1.e4, I had only prepared for the Ruy Lopez, but he surprised me with 1.e4 and the Scotch. Somehow I had missed that he had 4 games with the Scotch in the database and the possibility had not even crossed my mind.

(FEN: r1b1kb1r/p1ppqppp/1np5/4P3/2P5/8/PP1NQPPP/R1B1KB1R b KQkq - 2 9)

I had faced 9.Nc3 a couple times last year, but his 9.Nb1-d2 here left me on my own. I played 9…a5, which seemed like a useful move because White is very likely to play b3 later on when Black might want to have the …a4 lever. It’s also nice to have the pawn on the “right” side of the Ba6 if Black develops the bishop there later.

After 10.g3 Qe6, he was forced to play 11.b3 as otherwise 11…Bb4 would win material – for example, 11.Bg2 Bb4 12.b3 (12.0-0 Bxd2 wins the c4-pawn) Bc3 picks up the e5-pawn. Admittedly, my original idea with 9…a5 was to play 11…a4 here, but I realized that wasn’t particularly effective now and so I continued with 11…Bb4. After 12.Bb2 0-0 13.Bg2 d5 14.0-0, we reached the following position:

(FEN: r1b2rk1/2p2ppp/1np1q3/p2pP3/1bP5/1P4P1/PB1NQPBP/R4RK1 b - - 1 14)

After an abnormally long think, I came up with 14…Qg6. The idea was two-fold: avoid any f4-f5 or Nf3-d4/g5 attacks while preparing to develop the light-squared bishop to g4 or f5. However, I’m not quite sure why I rejected 14…Ba6. After the game, when I tried to enter my in-game thoughts into ChessBase, I wasn’t able to remember any line that scared me.

I also wrote earlier that 9.Nd2 left me on my own. At the board, I was pretty sure I had looked at that move before, but I couldn’t remember anything about it. The amusing thing is that when I got back to my apartment, I looked in my opening analysis file and noticed that I had played according to my preparation until 14…Qg6 and that the move in my file was 14…a4. I considered that move at the board, but in my home analysis, I seemed to overlook 15.Nf3 a3 16.Bd4 Ba6 17.Qe3! which keeps things unclear.

My faulty memory somewhat paid off here, as 14…Qg6 surprised him and he had his first think of the game. He didn’t react well and played 15.a3?. Better is 15.Rfc1, with covers the soft c2-square while exerting some pressure along the c-file. Meanwhile, the immediate 15.Nf3 allows 15…dxc4 when Black favorably changes the queenside structure. After a further 15…Bxd2 16.Qxd2 dxc4 17.Rac1, we reached the position below:

(FEN: r1b2rk1/2p2ppp/1np3q1/p3P3/2p5/PP4P1/1B1Q1PBP/2R2RK1 b - - 1 17)

I played the completely ridiculous 17…Bf5? here. I have no clue what I was thinking, as both 17…Be6 and 17…cxb3 are good for Black while the move I played is just bad. Having spent a lot of time on my previous moves, I think I saw a line with …Bf5 that was fine for me and just played it without considering much else.

Had I played 17…cxb3, White can play either 18.Bxc6 or 18.Rxc6. Neither one is sufficient to even equalize. After 18.Bxc6, 18…Ba6! is a nice move, hitting the Rf1 and threatening …Nc4 as well. Black has a solid advantage after 19.Bxa8 Bxf1 20.Kxf1 Rxa8 21.Rxc7 Qe6, as the Bb2 is bottled up by the e5-pawn and the b3-pawn is a real trump. Meanwhile, 18.Rxc6 is met with 18…Be6 19.Rxc7 Rac8, again leaving Black with the same advantages.

After 17…Bf5? though, White has the simple 18.bxc4 Bd3 19.Rfe1, when Black has no good way of taking back on c4. If 19…Bxc4, both 20.Be4 and 20.e6 are good for White. I tried 19…Nxc4, but after 20.Qc3 Nxb2 21.Qxb2, Black is just much worse. He’s up a pawn for the moment, but he won’t be able to save the c6-pawn, and once that falls, he will lose either c7 or a5 next. I usually put up a good fight with my back to the wall, but in this game, I just didn’t have the energy to do so and I went down pretty quickly.

That loss eliminated me from contention for 1st-4th place. I played the loser of the 4 vs. 5 matchup, and that gave me black against IM David Lariño Nieto. Last year, he demolished super-GM Mickey Adams in an Exchange Ruy Lopez, so I decided to surprise him with the Berlin. He had also miniatured one-time 2700 GM Michael Krasenkow in the Berlin, but I had a new idea in mind. It wasn’t to be, though, as he entered the now-famous endgame and offered a draw after a few more moves. Happy to get the white pieces with a draw, I accepted. In the rapid tiebreak, the time control was G/10 minutes + 10 seconds per move.

(FEN: r1bq1rk1/pp3ppp/2n2b2/2pp4/N2Pn3/1P3NP1/PB2PPBP/R2Q1RK1 b - - 4 11)

I had prepared a bit for him after the slow game, and so I noticed that, amongst many openings, he played the Tarrasch Defense. After looking at a couple games in the database, I decided that I would try the 9.b3 line instead of my usual 9.Bg5. I must have spent a grand total of 2 minutes on the Tarrasch but it paid off rather handsomely as he uncorked the blunder 11…b5? here. The correct move is 11…b6 with a reasonable position.

After 11…b5, it looks like White is in some trouble with his Na4 and Bb2, but after 12.Nxc5 Nxc5 13.Rc1!, it’s Black who has to scramble. After 13…Nxb3 14.Qxb3 Na5 15.Qxb5, White is just up a pawn with better development.

(FEN: r3r1k1/3n1ppp/p3b3/3p2q1/3B4/6P1/PQ2PPBP/2RR2K1 w - - 0 23)

I returned the pawn to get the bishop-pair and a more stable advantage in general. I continued with 23.h4! Qg6 24.Rc6! here, turning up the heat on Black’s position. The g7-, d5-, and a6-pawns are all problems, and Black’s pieces have little activity and little potential. The Nd7, for example, is pretty much dominated. After 24…Rab8 25.Qa1 Rb5 26.a4 Rb3 27.Qa2 Reb8, we reached the following position:

(FEN: 1r4k1/3n1ppp/p1R1b1q1/3p4/P2B3P/1r4P1/Q3PPB1/3R2K1 w - - 3 28)

I continued with 28.Rxa6 here, and in order to avoid any back-rank issues after …Rb1 for example, he played 28…h5. But that doesn’t really stop me from playing 29.Ra8!, exchanging off a pair of rooks and dramatically reducing Black’s counterplay. The game finished rather brutally: 29…Kh7 30.Rxb8 Rxb8 31.a5 Rc8 32.a6 Rc2 33.Qb1 Bf5 34.a7 Qc6 35.e4! Bg4 36.exd5 and he finally resigned with his flag about to fall.

That win meant I would be playing for 5th or 6th place in the last round, as black against IM Miguel Muñoz Pantoja.

(FEN: r1b2rk1/1ppnq1bp/p1p2pp1/4p3/2N1P2B/3P1N2/PPP2PPP/R2QR1K1 b - - 4 12)

A Delayed Ruy Lopez Exchange led to this quiet position where Black is already doing fine. He only has to make sure he doesn’t walk into a quick opening of the center with d3-d4 (and potentially e4-e5). To that end, I stepped aside with 12…Qf7, and after 13.b3, I played 13…c5 to further delay the opening of the center. After 14.c3, he made his intentions clear, but with …c5 in, Black will at least get rid of the doubled c-pawns in the process.

I needed to develop my queenside at this point, but my Nd7 doesn’t have anywhere good to go. A typical regrouping would be to bring the knight around to c6, but that’s a bit slow here, and so I just played 14…b6. Now when the center opened up after 15.d4 cxd4 16.cxd4 exd4 17.Qxd4 Bb7 (diagram below), Black is nearly done with his development. Black is already slightly better in my view as the bishop-pair promises him a long-term pull while White doesn’t have a structural advantage or a lead in development that is typical of Exchange Lopez structures.

(FEN: r4rk1/1bpn1qbp/pp3pp1/8/2NQP2B/1P3N2/P4PPP/R3R1K1 w - - 1 18)

He tried to force the issue with 18.e5, but the opening of the center only highlighted the power of my bishops. With 18…Rae8! 19.exf6 Nxf6 20.Nce5 Qd5, White was in real trouble. Exchanging queens allows …Nxd5, when the a1-h8 diagonal is a real headache for White. He played 21.Qa4 and was only saved because I blundered with 21…b5?.

I smelled blood after 21.Qa4 and a long think convinced me that 21…b5 22.Qa5 Ng4! was winning, with the main points being 23.Nxg4 Bxa1 24.Rxa1 Rxf3! and 23.Rad1 Nxe5 24.Rxd5 Nxf3+ 25.gxf3 Rxe1+ and 26…Bxd5. I needed to take the queen off the 4th rank to play …Ng4, but what I forgot about is that in that last line, the queen on a5 covers e1 and so after 25…Rxe1+, White plays 26.Qxe1 and not 26.Kg2. Uh oh.

Instead of 21…b5?, better was 21…Qb5!. White can’t avoid the exchange of queens any longer, and while Black’s knight doesn’t come to d5 immediately, it will go there next. The b5-pawn is also quite nice – it opens the a-file for Black and allows him to anchor a knight into c3 after playing …b4. Black has a big advantage in the endgame in my view.

After 21…b5? 22.Qa5, my advantage disappeared as the queen is in some trouble in the center and the c7-pawn is under attack.

(FEN: 6k1/2B3bp/p5p1/1p6/8/1P3r2/P4P1P/4R1K1 w - - 0 32)

After another 10 moves, we reached the endgame in the diagram above. The position is about equal, mostly because White’s rook can’t really enter thanks to …Rf6/…Rf7/…Rf8 moves from Black. I should have held this endgame, but in time pressure, I ended up collapsing on move 45, just dropping a pawn for nothing. After that, it was no longer equal and he wrapped things up efficiently.

That final round loss left me in 6th place. Bruzon collected another 1st place trophy by beating Corrales and Quezada in tiebreaks. Even though he was the 4 seed and had the black pieces to start every game, it looked like the slow games were all pre-determined draws to not risk any rating points. Instead, after a quick draw, they would fight it out in rapid/blitz tiebreaks, but with the white pieces to start every tiebreak, Bruzon was lethal.

I lost a few more rating points along the way, mostly due to the last-round loss to Pantoja. It’s a strange tournament where you get 6 blacks in 9 rounds, finish in 6th place, and lose rating points! I’ve had 6 blacks in 10 round tournaments before, which is already a bit odd, but 6 in 9 rounds is a first. Corrales, meanwhile, got 7 whites in 9 rounds! Finishing in 6th place is a decent result, but with a couple better decisions, I could easily have finished higher.

Having the black pieces every game is almost certainly a disadvantage against other strong players, but my poor finish in Badalona is less explained by the colors and probably more that I was just tired. In the three games that I managed to lose, I emerged from the openings in decent shape and then proceeded to obtain an advantage over the subsequent moves. But then fatigue set in and thinking more didn’t help me find the right moves. Maybe instead of Achilles Last Stand, the Led Zeppelin song title I’m looking for was “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”?


2 responses to “Achilles Last Stand

  1. If you could please tell M. Bluvshtein to stop playing the Pirc,

    that would be much appreciated.


  2. Duly noted and passed on. Maybe he’ll listen to your advice for his game tomorrow.

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