Close Only Counts with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

I’ve fallen behind in my USCL updates, although this time it was maybe some sort of “strategery.” In Week 7 (now almost 3 weeks ago), the SF Mechanics squared off against the Chicago Blaze. At the time, the Blaze were still perfect with a 6-0 record – now they’re still running away with the division, but Miami handed them a loss in Week 8.

Chicago can feature a 3 GM lineup with a current 2200-USCF player on board 4 which makes them a pretty tough matchup for any team. Against us, though, they had GMs Shulman and Amanov on boards 1 and 2, followed by IM Angelo Young, and NM Sam Schmakel. San Francisco countered with me on board 1, followed by GM Jesse Kraai, IM Daniel Naroditsky, and Uyanga Byambaa. After heading over from work, the games got underway at 5:30 PM. The full game can be replayed on the USCL website here.

Last time I played Yury, it was the 1st round of the US Championship and I surprised him with the Queen’s Gambit Declined, via a 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 move order. This time Yury played 3.Nc3 instead, so I followed through with my “threat” to play the Nimzo Indian with 3…Bb4. Then a bombshell dropped – 4.Nf3.

(FEN: rnbqk2r/pppp1ppp/4pn2/8/1bPP4/2N2N2/PP2PPPP/R1BQKB1R b KQkq - 0 4)

This is obviously pretty common, but when I saw this move, I pretty much said “oh s%!$” to myself. When preparing for the game, I did notice that he had played a bunch of games with 3.Nc3 in the past. However, all those games continued with 3…Bb4 4.e3, a line that I have played with the white pieces. With over 20 games of experience in that line and having tried virtually every move order possible for White, I felt like I’d be able to navigate the opening without much specific preparation. Moreover, I only saw one game in the past decade where Yury had gone that route.

With this in mind, I didn’t even bother reviewing any Nimzo lines in advance of the game. Now I was facing 4.Nf3 (a move I’ve never played) and I hadn’t looked at the Nimzo for Black in almost 16 months. I knew that 4…c5 is the main move, with 4…b6 and 4…d5 pretty respectable as well, but I figured Yury might have looked at those a little bit at least. So I played 4…0-0, a move that was later described as “sketchy” by some GM friends. After 5.Bg5 c5, I had already spent 10 minutes on the clock.

After 6.d5, the central pawn structure begins to resemble the Benoni in some ways. The main difference is that Black’s bishop is on b4 instead of fianchettoed on g7. On the plus side, there’s a bit more central pressure (the e4 + d5 squares aren’t quite as securely in White’s grasp), but the Nf6 misses a defender and the bishop might have more influence on the long diagonal. In any case, it was following the Benoni themes that drove my next few moves: 6…exd5 7.cxd5 h6 (I wanted to get this in before White played something like Qc2, when …h6 might be met with h4) 8.Bh4 d6 9.e3 Bg4 10.Be2 Bxf3.

(FEN: rn1q1rk1/pp3pp1/3p1n1p/2pP4/1b5B/2N1Pb2/PP2BPPP/R2QK2R w KQ - 0 11)

This type of exchange is typical in the Benoni, as the light-squared bishop often doesn’t have a great square to go to. I was less sure of its necessity here, as the bishop does have the f5-square, but I didn’t want to see him set up a knight on c4 later on and I wasn’t sure my bishop would have all that much to do on the h7-b1 diagonal anyways.

Yury thought for a while here, so I figured he was considering 11.gxf3, but this move didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. White is still behind in development, so I didn’t think he’d be able to launch an attack very quickly. After something like 11…Nbd7 12.Qc2 Qa5, I didn’t see much trouble for Black.

After the normal 11.Bxf3, the game continued on a pretty logical path: 11…Nbd7 12.0-0 Re8 13.Be2 a6 (covering b5) 14.Qc2 Rc8 (setting up …c4 ideas later on – …b5 doesn’t make any sense with Black’s bishop on b4, the pawns will just be a weakness) 15.Rad1 Qe7 16.Bd3.

Note that on 16.Bg4, Black plays 16…g5 17.Bxd7 Qxd7 18.Bg3 Bxc3 and 19…Ne4 and I don’t think Black should be any worse. Thus, Shulman tried to increase the pressure on the Nf6 by pinning the Nd7 from f5. Because …g5 then wouldn’t force a trade on d7, I needed to get out of the way with 16…Rc7, reaching the position in the diagram below:

(FEN: 4r1k1/1prnqpp1/p2p1n1p/2pP4/1b5B/2NBP3/PPQ2PPP/3R1RK1 w - - 0 17)

Although I wasn’t particularly comfortable up to this point, I didn’t think I was much worse and estimated the position to only be slightly more pleasant for White. In his notes to the game, Yury seems to suggest that he thought he had more than that, but was unable to find anything great.

As it was, his 17.Bf5?! g6 18.Bd3?! was a bad plan. I was thinking about 18.Be6!?, but as far as I could tell, 18…fxe6 19.dxe6 (not 19.Qxg6+ Qg7, which is an easy win) Qxe6 20.Qxg6+ and 21.Qxh6 was just unclear. White’s got some pawns for the piece, but he doesn’t have many attackers.

After 18.Bd3, I assume Yury missed 18…Bxc3!, a slightly surprising trade of bishop for knight. On 19.bxc3, my idea was to play 19…c4! 20.Be2 Qe4!, hitting c2 and h4. That forces a trade of queens, after which White is saddled with weak pawns on c3 and d5, while his bishop pair doesn’t have any open diagonals.

To avoid that prospectless endgame, Shulman tried 19.Qxc3 Nxd5 20.Qc4, reaching the position in the diagram below:

(FEN: 4r1k1/1prnqp2/p2p2pp/2pn4/2Q4B/3BP3/PP3PPP/3R1RK1 b - - 0 20)

Objectively, I was pretty sure that 20…N5f6 was best here, but I ended up playing 20…Ne5 on practical grounds. The main plus of …N5f6 is that it keeps the pawn, but down to 5 minutes (against Yury’s 25 minutes), I felt that White might have some annoying pressure. Black will probably get to play …d5 at some point, but if he ever plays …g5, then the light squares will be very weak, and otherwise the d5-pawn will never be fully secure. Meanwhile, with 20…Ne5, I felt the resulting endgame would be a pretty easy hold and we seemed to be doing at least alright on the other boards. Jesse’s board 2 game with white had already ended in a draw, while we seemed to be doing fine on board 3 and better on board 4. The game continued 21.Bxe7 Nxc4 22.Bxc4 Nxe7 23.Rxd6 Kg7 24.Rfd1 Nc6, reaching the following position:

(FEN: 4r3/1pr2pk1/p1nR2pp/2p5/2B5/4P3/PP3PPP/3R2K1 w - - 0 25)

Some people seemed to think this endgame should be better for White by virtue of his control of the d-file and “advantage” of bishop over knight. However, White’s bishop has few prospects here (it can always be chased away by knight or b-pawn) and the d-file has no real targets – Rd7 can generally be met with …Re8-e7. Black has a simple plan in advancing his queenside majority, while White’s kingside majority isn’t as easy to set in motion. Maybe after retreating with his bishop to e2 (to get out a fork from e5), White should think about Rd7, Rxc7, f4, and Kf2.

What happened in the game turned good for me in a hurry. The game continued 25.h3 b5 26.Be2 c4 27.a3 Re5 (trying to control the 5th with …Rc5 and either …c3 or maybe …a5 and …b4 if needed) 28.Rd7 Ree7 29.Rxc7 Rxc7 30.Rd6.

(FEN: 8/2r2pk1/p1nR2pp/1p6/2p5/P3P2P/1P2BPP1/6K1 b - - 0 30)

At first, this looks nice for White, as the Nc6 seems to be pinned to the a6-pawn. Meanwhile, advancing with …a5 might invite Rd5, when the b-pawn is stuck guarding the c4-pawn. But with the advance of my pawns to c4 and b5, the b2-pawn is a fixed weakness, and I can use that to my advantage.

I played 30…Kf8! here, and after 31.Bf3, I continued with 31…Ne5 32.Be4 Ke7! 33.Rxa6 Nd3. White doesn’t have time to exchange on d3 and get his rook back into position, so the b2-pawn is a goner. After 34.Rb6 though, it looks like he might still escape as if 34…Nxb2 35.Rxb5 c3 36.Bc2, the pawn is blockaded. Black has the little zwischenzug of 34…f5!, forcing the bishop off the key diagonal. After 35.Bd5 Nxb2 (35…Rc5 might be slightly more accurate, although it might also transpose after 36.e4 Nxb2) 36.Rxg6 Rc5!.

Black needs to get off the 7th rank as if 36…c3? 37.Bb3 c2 38.Rg7+ Kd6 39.Rxc7 Kxc7 40.Bxc2 leaves White winning. When I played this whole …Kf8 maneuver, I missed this line and thought I was already winning …

Actually, I thought I was winning after 36…Rc5 as well, as if 37.Bg8, Black can just run with the pawn. Shulman’s 37.e4 was thus an unpleasant surprise, and with both of us having 1.5 minutes left (plus a 30-second increment the rest of the way), neither of us was going to have a lot of time to calculate things out.

(FEN: 8/4k3/6Rp/1prB1p2/2p1P3/P6P/1n3PP1/6K1 b - - 0 37)

I wasn’t sure what to do here – 100 seconds to make a move, and I had to decide between 37…c3, 37…fxe4, 37…Nd3, while briefly considering some other options. I thought for a second about 37…Rxd5, seeing that 38.exd5 c3 39.Rc6 Nc4 blocks the c-file, but then I realized the rook can get back via the e-file (not to mention that 40.a4 in that line also wins).

In the end, with 10 seconds left, I played 37…Nd3, angling to play …Nf4 and chase the bishop off the diagonal. I couldn’t properly evaluate all the …c3/…c2 endgames, but I figured if I cut down the diagonal, I could push the pawn safely.

Down to 14 seconds, Yury played the brilliant 38.g3!, a move that had completely escaped me. During my think about …Nd3 and his think afterwards, I had only looked at 38.Rxh6 and 38.Re6+.

On 38.Rxh6, I planned 38….Nf4 39.Bg8 Kf8!, and Black wins as the bishop can’t stick around on the diagonal. There’s an extra nuance that the endgame after 39.Kh2 Nxd5 40.exd5 c3 41.Re6+ Kd7 42.Re1 c2 43.Rc1 Kd6 is won for Black (White’s kingside pawns aren’t fast enough).

The short move g3 is the best because it takes away the …Nf4 resource. Down from 40 seconds to 7, I played 38…c3, and the game continued with 39.Bb3 c2 40.Bxc2 Rxc2 41.exf5 Rxf2. The endgame should be won with best play I think, but from this point onwards, I let some outside distractions get to me. The moves I ended up playing for a little while were still good, but I wasn’t focusing so well and gaining time on the clock.

Anyways, after some further moves, we reached the following position after Shulman’s 49.Rc6:

(FEN: 8/5k2/2R5/8/Ppn3PP/3r4/6K1/8 b - - 0 49)

It’s a very trivial win with 49…Rc3 here, as the b-pawn can be quickly pushed to b2, and then …Rc1 will queen the pawn. Instead, I started off on the wrong path with 49…Ne3+?, which gets all my pieces tangled up with one another.

It’s still winning after 50.Kf3 Ra3!, but it gets a little trickier. However, 50…Ra3 is the only way I see to win the endgame. Instead, my 50…b3? threw the win away immediately as I had completely overlooked 51.Ke2!.

I was already kicking myself for 49…Ne3+, but then I thought that if 50…b3 51.Ke4, I could still win with 51…Rd1!. The threat of …b2 and …b1/Q means that White has to play 52.Rb6, but then 52…Nc4! saves the knight, hits the rook, and indirectly guards b3 because of …Nd2+. None of that is possible after 51.Ke2. Yury offered a draw with the move, and with my best option being R + N vs R (after 51…b2 52.Rb6 Ra3), I decided not to think anymore (and lose on time) and accepted it.

By the time my game was over, we had already lost on board 4 while Naroditsky was headed for a drawn endgame on board 3. After playing pretty well for 48 moves, thanks to my miss with 49…Ne3? and 50…b3?, I went from a won position to a drawn one, and from a tied match to a loss. Sigh.

I’ll try and follow up with annotations of my Week 9 win against Bercys (also in a Nimzo) in a few days.


One response to “Close Only Counts with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

  1. Interesting article with a sprinkle of humor!!

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