“I looked at my watch. Nine fifty-four. Time to go home and get your slippers on and play over a game of chess. Time for a tall cool drink and a long quiet pipe. Time to sit with your feet up and think of nothing. Time to start yawning over your magazine. Time to be a human being … and rebuild the brain for tomorrow.”
– Raymond Chandler in The Lady in the Lake
Normally, after my games at these Spanish tournaments, I’d go back to my room after dinner, watch a little TV, prepare a little for my next opponent, then read and go to sleep.
That’d be my routine in a normal tournament. Going into the second half of Sants, though, I was riding a wave of disappointment. My play in rounds 3, 4, and 5 wasn’t going to cut it, and the 1/3 I scored there left me with a paltry 3/5.
I decided a change was in order and I almost entirely stopped preparing! Instead, I focused on “rebuilding” my brain.
I was generally going to dinner with GM Mark Bluvshtein, who I got to know during my two visits to Montreal last summer. I played ping-pong with Mark a few days after the games, mostly doubles with Spanish or Israeli players in the same building. Maybe that served as a bit of an additional release for me, as my play started to pick up starting in round 6.
In round 6, I was white against Jordi Serra (2211, Spain). It was a King’s Indian, and we reached the following position after he played 14…Qd8-e7:
rnb2rk1/pp2qnbp/2p2p2/2P1p1p1/4P3/2N2NB1/PPQ1BPPP/R4RK1 w - - 2 15)
White has a couple ideas here (he can play b2-b4 here, for example), but I went with 15.Nd1. If White can bring his knight to e3, then the position is strategically winning. Black has less space (which implies fewer good squares for his pieces) and a bunch of holes in his position (d6 and f5 being two of the most notable). One plan for White in that position would be to play Nd2 and then Bg4 at some point (maybe even after h3), winning complete control over f5.
He reacted correctly, I think, with 15…f5. Black has to do something active or risk being squashed slowly. The pawn advance takes advantage of some temporary awkwardness in White’s camp because of 15.Nd1. After 16.exf5 e4 17.Nd2 Bxf5 18.Ne3 Bg6, white is at a crossroads:
rn3rk1/pp2qnbp/2p3b1/2P3p1/4p3/4N1B1/PPQNBPPP/R4RK1 w - - 2 19)
Black appears to have broken free of the bind, and with 19…Nd7 and …Ne5 later on, he seems to have a good position. As my opponent told me after the game, he felt good about his chances at this point.
However, I found 19.Qb3! here, which really complicates Black’s task. I had seen this when I played 15.Nd1, which was partly the reason I went with that move instead of 15.b4. The Queen move is annoying because now Black can’t play …Nd7 in general because of Qxb7 – the Nd7 is pinned and with the bishop on g3 covering b8, Black can’t kick the queen from b7. Furthermore, there’s the immediate threat of Bd6 because the Nf7 is pinned, and 19…Qxc5 loses to 20.Qxb7. After 19…Kh8 20.Rac1, White has effectively tied Black’s queenside up. Black can develop with 20…Na6, but after 21.Bxa6 bxa6 and something like 22.Rc2 (freeing the Qb3 to go to a4), Black’s structure is pretty poor. He also doesn’t have any targets on the kingside or center to attack, and so I think White is clearly better.
The rest of the game was pretty easy for me, but there was one amusing position that we reached:
r2n1r1k/3q2bp/1pR3b1/1Q1NN1p1/n3p3/6B1/1P2BPPP/5RK1 b - - 5 27)
The power of centralization! White has completely overrun Black’s position and is winning. After 27…Qe8 28.Nc7, Black can safely throw in the towel. That was a nice, clean win – I hadn’t really prepared anything special, but I played quickly and purposefully.
In round 7, I was black against a British FM, Ian Thompson. I had played Thompson once before, back in 2000 in San Francisco! In that game, I was white and played the rather exotic 1.e4 e6 2.b3 and won without too much trouble.
I spent the most time during this game during the opening phase. It started out as 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5, and while I had faced this once before in 2009, I couldn’t remember what my analysis was against it. Maybe one of the reasons I spent so much time in the opening is that when you’re playing poorly, there’s a tendency to doubt yourself, to wonder whether the opening or variation you’re choosing is not only the right one, but whether it promises some winning chances.
After some twists and turns, we actually ended up transposing into one of the main lines of the Semi-Slav (in the super-sharp Moscow Gambit). At first, I didn’t mind this because I play the Semi-Slav, and I didn’t get the feeling that he was a Semi-Slav player (I had seen some of his games, and he seemed to be a conservative player). But I was in for a surprise as he started playing the theoretical moves faster than I could remember them!
Eventually, I unwittingly deviated from theory. I was quite sure that my normal preparation involved …Rg6, but I also remembered that the line was pretty drawish. I thought I remembered …g4 as an alternative that led to a more complicated position. I spent a fair amount of time checking …g4 and then played it. When I got back to my room though, I realized that I had mis-remembered the entire line and that …g4 is virtually unknown!
However, my over-the-board inspiration worked out well, as he was on his own and immediately erred. In the following position, White has just won his pawn back on c4, but Black will come out on top:
r3kb2/pb1q1p2/2p1pnr1/1p2B2p/2PPP1p1/2N5/P3BPPP/R1Q2RK1 b q - 0 16)
With 16…b4 17.Na4 c5!, I took control of the position. The knight on a4 is hanging, but most importantly, the Bb7 wakes up. For example, after 18.Nxc5 Bxc5 19.dxc5 Qc6, White has to deal with …Qxe4, and if 20.Re1 Nxe4 21.Bf1, then 21…0-0-0 looks good for Black. White doesn’t have any open lines on the queenside and Black has some kingside threats.
This was probably White’s best, but he played 18.Bxf6? instead. Black is then clearly better after 18…Rxf6 19.Nxc5 Bxc5 20.dxc5 Qd4!, as there’s no good way to stop …Qxe4 next. For example, 21.Qe3 Qxe3 22.fxe3 Rxf1+ 23.Kxf1 Bxe4 leaves Black with a huge endgame advantage. He’ll win the c5-pawn at some point, and White’s rook and bishop are useless.
We eventually reached a different endgame, but the one I got was essentially just as good. Thompson played on for a long time (he was even down 3 pawns at one point!) but the result was never really in doubt. So far, so good for just playing more intuitively.
In round 8, I was white against FM Arian Gonzalez (2403, Cuba). The tournament was really shaping up to be a King’s Indian theme event for me, as Gonzalez was my 3rd opponent in 4 games to play the King’s Indian. The one person who didn’t play it (a Leningrad Dutch in round 2) was normally a King’s Indian player!
r1bqr1k1/pp3pnp/2n3p1/2Ppb3/3N4/2N2PP1/PP1QBB1P/R4RK1 w - - 1 16)
Gonzalez surprised me with a quiet …exd4 variation in the Classical King’s Indian. It’s not particularly ambitious and for someone who thrives on sharp positions, it doesn’t seem like a very good choice to me. We were still in theory in the above position, and while I had looked at this line in some depth a couple years ago, I had since forgotten the specifics of my analysis.
At the board, I came up with 16.Bb5, but 16.Rfd1 is by far the most popular move. He played 16…Bd7 and now I played the first officially new move of the game with 17.Rfd1. I was debating which rook to bring to d1, as leaving the rook on f1 provides some protection for f3 later on. At the same time, if given the opportunity, I wanted to bring my light-squared bishop to safety on f1.
He didn’t give me that chance, though, taking the opportunity to initiate mass exchanges with 17…Nxd4 18.Bxd4 Bxd4+ 19.Qxd4 Bxb5 20.Nxb5. He followed with 20…Nf5 and I played 21.Qf2 (note that 21.Qxd5?? Re1+ wins for Black – that wouldn’t have been available with 17.Rad1!), reaching the position in the diagram below:
r2qr1k1/pp3p1p/6p1/1NPp1n2/8/5PP1/PP3Q1P/R2R2K1 b - - 2 21)
Black has a pretty weak d5-pawn, but White’s position is not free of defects either. The Nb5 is a bit misplaced, the c5-pawn might turn out to be weak, the e3-square is weak, and the kingside structure is a bit airy (White would generally like to have that pawn back on g2 right about now). The position is about equal.
He continued actively (and correctly) with 21…Qa5 22.Nc3 d4, when after 23.Ne4, he may have made a small misstep with 23…Qd8 (23…Red8 is simpler). After some more moves, we reached the position in the diagram below:
r5k1/pp3p1p/3N2p1/2P2nq1/2Rp4/4rPP1/PP3Q1P/3R2K1 b - - 7 26)
I had just played 26.Rc1-c4, introducing a little tactical threat that he missed. He had spent a lot of time in the middlegame, partly from fatigue (like me, he had been playing a lot of chess over the summer) and partly from an unfamiliarity with the structure and type of position. So, nearing time pressure, he played 26…Kg7?, which was the one and only opportunity I needed that day.
First some background … After I played 26.Rc4, he wanted to play 26…Nh4, but then 27.Ne4! ruins Black’s plans as the queen can’t stay on the g-file. He also can’t play 27…Qd5 (hitting the Rc4) because of 28.Nf6+. This is why he played …Kg7, preparing his idea with …Nh4. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t see what I had planned with 26.Rc4.
I responded to 26…Kg7? with 27.Ne4! Qe7 28.Rcxd4!, and all of a sudden, the Re3 loses its support. To make matters worse, the rook has nowhere safe to go and White is threatening to invade on d7. It didn’t take me long to wrap the game up.
Instead of 26…Kg7?, he should have played 26…Rd8, which indirectly adds some extra support to the d4-pawn. For example, 27.Ne4 Qe7 28.Rcxd4 now fails to either 28…Nxd4 29.Qxe3 Nxf3+! 30.Qxf3 Rxd1+ 31.Qxd1 Qxe4 with equality, or 28…Rxd4 29.Rxd4 Rxf3! 30.Qxf3 Nxd4 with equality.
With three straight wins, I was back in the tournament with 6/8. Score one for ping-pong as preparation!