The Simple Art of the Swindle

In my last blog about Sants, I wrote how Round 1 was a let-down in terms of the quality of my play, but that I seemed to recover a little bit in Round 2. That seemed to bode well for my chances in the 3rd round, but that game was strange enough to merit its own post.

I was black against FM Lluis Oms (2360, Spain). As is often the case with lower-rated players, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on in the database. I did notice that against 2500+ players, he had played for a draw with some rather insipid lines (e.g., drawing lines in the Four Knights against 1…e5 and the Exchange against the French). Unlike some of the Four Knights lines, the Exchange French at least keeps the chance of some serious play, so I decided to play the French this time. I was mostly expecting 3.Nc3 against the French though, as he had the most games with that.

The game began 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.Nf3, a line that I don’t think I’ve ever faced in a regular game. A long time back, when I was about 9 or 10 years old and nearing 2200, I used to play something similar with white (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.Qg4 was what I played). Both versions are supposed to be rather innocuous, and I had no trouble in equalizing (and getting a better position).

Many books on the French recommend a system where Black plays a quick …f6 (with the knight on g8), but while that my work in some concrete sense, it seems unnecessary to me. I played 4…Nc6 5.Bd3 cxd4 6.0-0 Nge7 7.Bf4 Ng6 8.Bg3 Be7 (diagram below), preparing to castle or play …f6/f5 depending on what White does. In this setup, if White exchanges on f6, Black will generally recapture with a pawn and then play …e5. With an extra pawn and a huge pawn center, the slightly weakened kingside is usually of little consequence.

(FEN: r1bqk2r/pp2bppp/2n1p1n1/3pP3/3p4/3B1NB1/PPP2PPP/RN1Q1RK1 w kq - 5 9)

Up to this point, it all seemed pretty normal to me. I thought he would play 9.Nbd2 here, preparing to go after the d4-pawn with 10.Nb3 next. Instead, he played 9.a3, which seems a bit slow to me. If, for example, his rook and bishop were on e1 and c1, then this plan with a3 and b4 would make more sense to me. With b4, he threatens to dislodge the knight and also prepares Bb2. But here, with the bishop already on g3, there is no good follow up to b4 if Black deals with the threat of b5

Thus, I just played 9…0-0 10.b4 a6. He played 11.Nbd2, but essentially I saw this as a loss of time for him – he could have provoked …f6 before I castled and instead now my king is already away to safety. I played 11…f5 now, threatening to trap White’s bishop with …f4. Meanwhile, exchanging on f6 allows …gxf6, with …e5 to follow. Thus, White has to let the pawn stay on f5 and then Black is just better: Black has an extra pawn (even though it’s not great), White’s dark-squared bishop is shut out of the game, and White has no kingside play.

(FEN: r1r3k1/1p1bb1pp/pqn1p1n1/3pPp2/1P1p4/PN1B1NBP/2P2PP1/1R1QR1K1 b - - 6 15)

In the position from the diagram above, White had just played 15.Ra1-b1. White’s problem was that there wasn’t any simple way for him to increase the pressure on d4 without leaving his queenside very exposed. He hoped to dissuade me from …a5 (targeting the a3-pawn) with Rb1, but I played 15…a5! anyway. After 16.bxa5, I simply retreated with 16…Qa7, and now the a3-pawn is hanging right away! Meanwhile, the a5-pawn will likely be winnable in the future.

He played the sad looking 17.Ra1, and after 17…Nxa5 18.Nbxd4 Qc5 (note that Black shouldn’t play 18…Nc4 because of 19.Bxc4 Rxc4 20.Nxf5!, when 20…exf5 21.Qxd5+ is not good for him), there’s no way to stop Black from playing …Nc4 next and winning the a3-pawn. It’s amusing that at this point I was checking for Nxf5 tactics to undermine all the central light-squares.

(FEN: r1r3k1/1p1b2pp/1q2p1n1/n2pPp2/1b6/1N1B1NBP/2P2PP1/1R1Q1RK1 b - - 3 23)

After some more pawn exchanges, we reached the position above. Black is clearly better, and I started to think about consolidating my advantage. The b-file situation is somewhat annoying, and to that end, I wanted to move my knight. I initially discarded 23…Nc6, but both 23…Nc4 and 23…Nxb3 looked reasonable. I also thought about 23…Ba4, threatening to close the b-file next with 24…Nxb3. With each of these moves, though, I found something to dislike.

Then I looked back at my clock and realized I had spent quite a lot of time and that I needed to make a move. I wasn’t in time pressure (yet), but I was nearing it. Remembering that …Nc6 was a move I considered to start my think, I tried to remember what I thought about it. From a general standpoint, it made sense – bring the knight back from the rim, shore up the Bb4, cover the d4-square, etc. I quickly checked to make sure I wasn’t losing to 24.c3 and played 23…Nc6?.

After I played it, though, I got a funny feeling that I had rejected this knight retreat before. I was just asking myself why when my opponent provided the answer – 24.Bxf5!. Now after 24…exf5 25.Qxd5+, White wins back his bishop and ends up at least one pawn ahead! D’oh!.

I had mentioned this Bxf5 tactic back on move 18, and I had been keeping my eye out for it ever since. However, I let my guard down for a moment and just blundered. I played 24…Nf8, but the damage had already been done.

The f5-pawn served to thwart any active kingside plan from white, and it also helped hem in White’s kingside pieces. With its disappearance, the light-squared bishop becomes a monster and Ng5/Qh5 ideas start to pop up. If the Nf3 moves, White can also think about pushing his f-pawn up the board. Finally, with the retreat of the Ng6, the Bg3 can also re-enter the game via h4 or f4. This was a huge one-move turnaround – White’s not winning, but he is better, and before, he was much worse.

(FEN: r4nk1/1p1rb1pp/4p3/q2pP2b/3B4/2PB1N1P/5PP1/1R1Q1RK1 w - - 1 32)

After bringing his bishop back into the game via f4 (reaching the position  above), Oms now started active operations on the kingside with 32.g4!. After 32…Bg6 33.Ne1 Rc8 34.f4, I had a chance to stop the bleeding with 34…Bc5!, but I erred with 34…Be4. I planned to play…Bc5 next, but I didn’t want him to think about f4-f5 (after 34…Bc5, though, 35.f5 walks into 35…Qxc3!). He didn’t need a second invitation, and played 35.Rb5!, forcing the queen back and claiming the c5-square. White’s bishop on d4 doesn’t look great, but it holds all the potential pawn weaknesses together. Without exchanging it off, Black is going to be helpless to fight against the kingside onslaught. White is much better now.

(FEN: 2r1qnk1/1pr3pp/4p3/1R2P3/3PQPP1/7P/6N1/1R4K1 b - - 0 41)

After time control, I was faced with the position above. Objectively, Black is toast. He’s down one pawn and the b7-pawn isn’t destined to stay on the board very long. Meanwhile, White’s queen dominates her counterpart and there isn’t any obvious way to create an attack on White’s king. What to do? Time to pull some tricks out of the bag …

I believe that the first rule of thumb for defending bad positions is not to give up. It certainly helps that I’ve done plenty of swindling before, and so I know it can be done and I have some faith in my abilities to pose the right questions. But even if you haven’t been successful before, you should know that stronger players than your opponent have thrown away games with bigger advantages than this one. Heck, I’ve done it a bunch of times and it applies to everybody up to World Champions.

In this case, there’s no theoretically drawn endgame (or at least close to drawn endgame) that I can escape into, so my only real hope was to randomize the position and force him to calculate his way through complications. That’s a good strategy for me for a couple reasons. For one, when my opponent has the advantage, it’s natural that he’ll be looking for ways to avoid complications and win the game “quietly.” Thus, it takes him out of his preferred mindset in some way. Secondly, even if your opponent is willing to go into the complications, people make mistakes there and it’s all the more likely after 3.5 hours of tough play.

I decided to push the red button and play 41…Rc2, not even bothering to try and hang onto c7. After 42.Rxb7, I played 42…R8c3. For the moment, actually, there’s no real threat. Black can’t play …Rg3 because of Qxc2, so he has to spend a move to guard the Rc2 first. However, I decided that on a natural move like 43.Rb8, he would have to play the position after 43…Qa4 44.Ra8 Rc1+ 45.Rxc1 Rxc1+ 46.Kh2 Qd1. After 47.Qe3 (already the only move to win), White is winning, but it’s psychologically unpleasant to walk your king to g3. Plus, you have to find 47.Qe3, as for example, 47.Ra3 Qg1+ 48.Kg3 Rc4 picks up the d4-pawn. Instead, my opponent played 43.Ra7, which I actually considered to be the best move in the position (reaching the diagram below).

(FEN: 5nk1/R5pp/4p1q1/4P3/3PQPP1/2r4P/2r3N1/1R4K1 w - - 2 44)

With 43.Ra7, White is taking away …Qa4 (guarding the c2-rook) and preparing R1b7, when the rooks go to town on the 7th rank. Part 2 of the general strategy here came into play. There was no doubt in my mind that my position was lost. But with the modern, relatively fast time control, I felt I could pose some problems on the board AND on the clock. With that in mind, I had played 41…Rc2 and 42…R8c3 pretty quickly, and he spent some time figuring out what to do. I continued the “increase-the-pace” philosophy here by quickly playing 43…Qg6.

The move loses (that’s not saying much – everything else does as well), but I passed the move back to him and in a rather unpleasant fashion. With two extra pawns and a second rook ready to land on b7, this trade-offering queen move was a huge shock for him. I got up and paced the hall, thinking about what I might quickly play on all of his reasonably responses.

By the way, the main point is that 44.Qxg6 hxg6 is a real headache for White. Black threatens …Rg3 (winning the Ng2) or …Rxh3, and White doesn’t have any easy to send the rooks back because his own rooks are away from all the action. For example, 45.Ne1 Rg3+ 46.Kf1 Rd2 (with 47…Rxh3 to follow) is already a draw, while 45.Kh2 Rd2 (hitting d4 and preparing …Rcc2) is also annoying. White will still be up a pawn here, but with a 4-on-3 endgame and Black having some initiative. An amusing consequence of the queen trade is also that in general, Black is happier with the doubled g-pawns than without, as in any 4-on-3 endgame, White’s f5 will not easily create a passed e-pawn!

After another think, he responded with the correct 44.f5 and I dashed out 44…Qh6. Psychologically, there’s been a bit of a turnaround here. After 41.cxd4 and the time-control, White was probably looking forward to an easy conversion. But now, Black is making some threats and the combination of queen and two rooks looks menacing. The Nf8, while passive, covers the 8th rank and seemingly holds the defenses together. White again, has one way to win, but for that, he’d have to calculate 45.fxe6 and realize that Black’s kingside threats are simply too small to deal with the massive threat of 46.e7. It’s not a particularly hard calculation (Black has to play 45…Qxe6, but now the queen is not so threatening and White has gained time), but the alternative 45.Qb7 looks promising as well. That’s what he played, reaching the position in the diagram below.

(FEN: 5nk1/RQ4pp/4p2q/4PP2/3P2P1/2r4P/2r3N1/1R4K1 b - - 2 45)

Unfortunately, 45.Qb7 only looks good. By threatening Qf7+ and Qxf8#, it seems that Black doesn’t have time to take on h3 or check on c1 and invade. However, there was a small detail he overlooked.

I played 45…Rxg2+! 46.Qxg2 (46.Kxg2?? Qxh3 leads to mate) Qf4!. I’m threatening …Rg3, winning the queen, but rather importantly, after 47.Rf1 (one of only two moves that don’t lose outright – the other is 47.Kh1, which draws after 47…Qh6 48.Kg1 Qf4), I have 47…Qxd4+, hitting the unprotected rook on a7!

After 47…Qxd4+, the game continued with 48.Qf2 Qxe5. Black has a knight for a rook, but he’s got some serious kingside threats. With …Rg3+, Black will get at least a draw. He was already in serious time pressure at this point and decided to repeat with 49.Qf4 Qc5+ 50.Qf2 Qe5 51.Qf4 and so on.

There actually isn’t anything much better. GM Mark Bluvshtein suggested the ingenious 49.Ra5! after the game, but while 49…Qxa5 loses to 50.fxe6, Black can play 49…Qc7! and save a half-point. Meanwhile, 49.Re1 Rg3+ 50.Kf1 Qb5+ draws easily.

After my good 2nd round game and clear early-middlegame advantage, a draw wasn’t what I was looking for but so it goes. Better a half-point than nothing at all.

2 responses to “The Simple Art of the Swindle

  1. Vinay,

    Not a lot of people can say: “A long time back, when I was about 9 or 10 years old and nearing 2200…” :)

    Thanks for a good article about tenacious play and not giving up!

  2. Pingback: These Are Not the Bishop and Pawns You Are Looking For | An Unemployed Fellow

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