Player in Game is Better than He Appears

I blogged earlier that I was playing in Sants and had 6/8 with 2 games to go. I finished with 7.5/10, and now that I’m back in the States, I’ll start to recap the event over a series of posts.

The Sants Open is supposed to be one of the best events on the summer Catalan Circuit, and it is certainly one of the most popular. There were about 360 players in the top section, which meant that the first round would feature some relatively large mismatches on paper. I was black against a 2121 in the first round, but it turned out to be anything but a mismatch.

(FEN: r1bq1rk1/1pp2pp1/p1np1n1p/2b1p3/4P2N/2NP2PP/PPP2PB1/R1BQ1RK1 b - - 1 9)

I didn’t really know much about this line of the Four Knights with 4.g3 and after his 9.Nh4 to reach the above position, I had a long think. Not a good think, just a long think.

The classical response to a flank operation would be a central advance, so Black should be playing for …d5. The natural move then would be 9…Be6, and you might think that I played that, but instead I played 9…Nd4?!. Objectively, the move isn’t horrible, but with 9…Be6 available, why bother moving the same piece twice? Maybe I was reluctant to part with a bishop after 10.Nd5 Bxd5 11.exd5 Ne7, but that hasn’t stopped me from spending a good chunk of my chess career playing openings like the Ruy Lopez Exchange, the Rossolimo, and the Trompowsky …

But the real lemon was to come after 9…Nd4?! 10.Ne2 as I played 10…Re8?. This is a move straight out of left-field. I think I convinced myself that somehow White was going to play d4 and wanted the rook on e8 to put some pressure on e4. With White’s knight on e2, the simple 10…Be6 would have been the easy path to simple equality.

He didn’t miss his chance here, and with 11.Nxd4 Bxd4 12.Qf3, White already is just better. Black’s rook on e8 is stupid and he doesn’t have a bishop on e6, so he can’t play …d5. Meanwhile, White’s knight is coming to f5 next, and then Black is in a bit of a bind – he can give up the bishop pair or allow White to play g4 and start a kingside attack. I decided to allow the attack, leading the position in the following diagram.

(FEN: r1bq1rn1/1pp2ppk/p2p4/2b1pNPp/4P3/3P2QP/PPP2PB1/R1B2RK1 w - - 0 17)

I just played 16…h5, and while I wasn’t thrilled with my position, I decided that it was playable. After something like 17.Kh1 g6 18.Nh4 Ne7 19.f4 exf4 and 20…Bd4, Black is worse but his position is solid.

He thought he had more than that (in fact, he does with 17.d4!, but that’s another story), and played 17.Bf3?!. Naturally, I defended the h5-pawn with 17…g6 and then he uncorked 18.Bxh5. This isn’t a good move, but I wasn’t able to find the simple refutation.

I noticed that after 18…gxf5, White has 19.g6+ fxg6 20.Bxg6+! with a winning attack. Retreating to h8 allows 21.Bg5 with 22.Qh4+ to follow, while 20…Kg7 21.exf5 doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I didn’t actually calculate much further in that last line, as once I realized my king doesn’t have any safe square from g7, it’s clear that White just needs to bring up the cavalry with Kh2 and Rg1 to finish things off.

Thus, I played 18…Bxf5? and after 19.exf5 Ne7, he gave me a real gift with 20.fxg6+?. White is up a pawn after this with the bishop-pair, but Black does have some compensation. White’s kingside pawn structure isn’t very good and Black’s knight also has some nice squares to hop into (like f4 or d4). Instead, 20.f6 was just winning, with the point that 20…Nf5 21.Qf3! (not 21.Qg4 Qd7! and Black wins) Nd4 22.Qd1 is just great for White.

However, both of us seemed to miss that the obvious recapture, 18…gxh5, is just good for Black! After 19.Qh4, Black just guards his h5-pawn with 19…Kg6!. After a further 20.Ng3 f5 21.Qxh5+ Kg7, it turns out White can’t really continue the attack and then he’s just down a piece for a couple pawns. It’s not completely trivial, but I really should be finding that line.

(FEN: 5r2/1pp3k1/p2q2p1/2p1n1P1/5pBP/3P1P2/PPP4Q/5RK1 b - - 0 29)

Getting back to the game, we reached the position in the diagram above after his 29.f3. As I wrote earlier, the pawn-up and bishop-pair middlegame offered Black some compensation compared to 20.f6, and having made some headway, I finally started to play closer to my potential.

I continued with 29…c4!, breaking White’s center down and trying to get a knight deep into his position on e3. White’s pieces are uncoordinated and he was probably wishing his kingside pawns could move backwards. He played 30.dxc4 Nxc4 31.Qe2 Ne3 32.Rf2, but after 32…Rd8, it’s Black who is well on top despite the pawn minus. There aren’t any good ways to keep Black out and the endgame after 33.Qd3 Qxd3 34.cxd3 Rxd3 is no picnic either. I managed to hold things together the rest of the way and pick up the full point.

While I was happy to get into the win column, this was not the way I envisioned it. I was in serious danger of losing for a good portion of the game. Maybe it was the heat (the residence hall for the GMs was about a 25-30 minute walk away from the tournament site), maybe it was just fatigue from being in my 5th classical event of the summer, or maybe it was just that I was distracted and couldn’t focus for much of the game. Either way, it was just a bad performance.

For round 2, I decided not to bother preparing much. For one, I didn’t have a lot of info on my opponent (Stig Martinsen, 2229 FIDE,  Norway), and secondly, I thought that taking it a bit easy opening-wise might leave me with a clearer head for the actual game.

Instead, my preparation consisted of playing over some of my best games. After the first round debacle, I felt that I could use a reminder that I do know how to play chess at a high level. That’s not the kind of thing I want to have to do in the middle of an event, but so it goes.

If nothing else, it turned out to be a wise decision to forgo the preparation, as I was already on my own after his 2nd move!

(FEN: rnbqkbnr/ppppp2p/6p1/5p2/2PP4/8/PP2PPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq f6 0 3)

The game started off with 1.d4 g6, I played 2.c4 and then he replied 2…f5. I knew he could play the Dutch, but I have pretty much always played 1.d4 f5 2.Nc3 when confronted with the regular Dutch move order. His little move order trick meant that I would have to play something I had never looked at before. A rather surprising hole in my 1.d4 repertoire, as nobody had ever tried this move order against me before!

I ended up playing 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Qc2!?, which essentially took him out of his theory as well. He told me he had prepared for the h-pawn lunge with 4.h4. I had thought about that, but I wasn’t entirely confident about White’s compensation in some of the exchange sac lines (White often follows up with h5, and if …Nxh5, just snaps the knight off with Rxh5) and decided not to walk into any more tricky opening ideas. Actually, after 4.Qc2!?, we transposed into a somewhat normal line with 4…d6 5.Bg5 Nbd7. I still didn’t know anything specific about this line, but I was pretty sure I had seen this position before somewhere.

White’s setup doesn’t refute the Dutch, but it is a bit non-standard for Leningrad players and the resulting middlegames can be pretty complicated. I also understood pretty quickly from the amount of time he was using that he was on his own as well. That was comforting at least. In the position from the diagram below, he had just played 12…a5:

(FEN: r1b2rk1/1pqn2bp/2pp1np1/p3pp2/2PP3B/2N1PP1N/PPQ1B1PP/R2R2K1 w - a6 0 13)

One advantage of dealing with novel terrain against a lower-rated player is that they have to solve problems on their own from an early stage. It’s not easy for GMs to deal with novelties, and although I didn’t really drop any novelty on him, my setup effectively took him out of his book. Without the benefit of past history or a theory book to guide him, he had to figure things out for himself and that cost him a lot of time and also caused some poor decisions.

I wasn’t a fan of 12…a5 during the game, although I admit that it isn’t as bad as I originally thought. In an ideal world, he would have gotten his Nbd7 out of the way and played …f4 (highlighting the awkward placing of White’s knight on h3), but that can’t be accomplished so quickly. The immediate 12…Nb6 walked into 13.dxe5 dxe5 14.c5 Nbd5 15.Bc4, when White has a clear advantage (15…Be6 allows 16.Ng5). I preferred 12…Re8, preparing 13…Nf8 in some case, while also putting some pressure on the e-file. I had planned 13.Bf2 then, when 13…a5 is a reasonable option. Compared to the game, Black has inserted …Re8/Bf2, which can only help him.

After the immediate 12…a5, though, I went to work on the weakened queenside squares with 13.Na4. The knight eyes the b6-square and also helps facilitate c4-c5, which would open up the center a bit (White is better developed) and also fix the b6-square as a weakness. In a not-at-all-forced line like 13…Re8 14.Bf1 Nf8 15.c5 dxc5 16.dxc5 f4, we see that come into play as White can play 17.Nb6 with tempo, and then exchange off the annoying Bc8. Actually, 13…Re8 is probably still the correct move, but then White can play 14.dxe5 Nxe5 (14…dxe5 15.c5 is positionally undesirable for Black) 15.Qb3, with continuing queenside pressure.

Instead, he continued to go wrong with 13…b6?. He wanted to try and put a stop to my c5 plans, but he just doesn’t have enough time to get away with this move. White’s advantage is of a temporary sort, so he has to seize the initiative. I played 14.Qb3, threatening 15.c5+. He responded with 14…c5 (14…Kh8 15.Ng5 Re8 16.c5 is winning), and then I played 15.Ng5, threatening a fork on e6. He played 15…Re8 and I responded with 16.d5, again threatening to invade on e6. Now it dawned on him that he wouldn’t have enough time to escape. The Nbd7 needs to move to cover the e6-square, but it is also needed to cover the b6-pawn. My knight’s invasion on e6 signaled the end for him, and he was reduced to resignation in just 4 more moves!

The final position was interesting, as he wasn’t down any material (at that point):

(FEN: 1rb1r1k1/q2n3p/1p1pN1pb/p1pPpp1n/N1P3PB/1Q2PP2/PP2B2P/R3R2K b - g3 0 20)

From my last note, the final moves were 16.d5 Bh6 17.Ne6 Qa7 18.Re1 Rb8 19.Kh1 Nh5 20.g4! and he resigned. There’s no good way to stop g5 next, as 20…g5 21.Nxg5 leaves Black’s king exposed and White still in total control of the entire board. Well, at least that was an improvement from round 1!


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