What Makes a Great Game

This is old news, but I somehow never got around to writing about this. Back in January, the Northern California Invitational took place in Fremont, CA. I was away in India at the time, but I had agreed beforehand to be the judge for the Best Game prize (the winner would receive a brand new iPad!).

When I got back, Arun Sharma (the tournament organizer) had a file of all the games ready. I started looking through the games the following day (Friday, Jan 13th) and I was supposed to email him with my decision by the end of the weekend.

I had never judged a best game competition before, but I didn’t think it would be especially difficult. In previous years with this tournament (when it was normally held in Berkeley), there were usually a handful of well-played, exciting games that really jumped out at me. Similarly, the USCL has long had Game of the Week (and Game of the Year) competitions; again, there always seemed to be obviously interesting games to choose from.

With that in mind, I started by playing through every game in the tournament file. There were 257 games, and I didn’t skip any, not even games between 1900s. As I went along, I kept a list of any games that I thought would make the short list for consideration. For the most part, I wasn’t analyzing the games too closely – I was just playing through them, occasionally thinking about a position or checking some tactical sequence with an engine.

When I got to the end of the file, I realized I had NO games that jumped out as being a likely contender. I had noticed a number of well-played games featuring nice sequences, positional squeezes, and so on, but nothing that seemed particularly extraordinary at first glance. I probably just set the bar too high in my head, as I kept expecting an absolute brilliancy to pop up.

The next day, I decided to make a list of games that caught my eye, but without trying to set the bar quite as high. The plan had always been to go through that secondary list more closely, as going through every game from the event carefully wasn’t realistic.

This second pass produced a list with some nice tactical sequences (e.g., GM Bachmann – IM Arnold), sacrificial bloodbaths (e.g, IM Smith – FM Aleskerov), aesthetically pleasing positional sacrifices (e.g, FM Coleman – IM Kaufman), quiet upsets (e.g., GM Ramirez – IM Shahade), and absolute messes (e.g, FM Aleskerov – GM Margvelashvili).

But how to choose one? Judging a best game competition is by definition a subjective process, but I still wanted to have some sort of criteria by which I could evaluate all the games. Some of the factors I considered were:

  1. Accuracy (accurate play should be rewarded)
  2. Creativity (standard patterns should be ranked lower than something less common)
  3. Level of Resistance (the old style game of one player playing while the other just claps should not win)
  4. Responsibility (the winner should preferably seize the initiative, not be handed it)

The first two factors alone narrowed the list considerably – for example, the Smith – Aleskerov game suffered from the fact that although Black found some nice moves to get a winning position, his previous sacrifices shouldn’t have succeeded.

(FEN: r4rk1/1p2qpbp/1nb5/p3P1pn/P4P2/1BN4P/1PP1N1PQ/R1B1K2R w KQ - 0 16)

Aleskerov played the Malmo (1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d5!?, an opening I’ve used in the past with success!), but this is a bit much for Black. White should probably just castle here with a pleasant advantage, even if it’s not quite immediately winning. However, after 16.e6?! fxe6 17.fxg5, White is asking for trouble because he can no longer castle. After a further 17…Rad8 18.Qg1? (18.Rf1 is the only chance) Ng3!! (the move that originally caught my eye), Black is just winning. The point is that on 19.Nxg3, Black has 19…Bxc3+ 20.bxc3 Qd6, threatening checkmate and the knight on g3.

(FEN: r4rk1/ppq2ppp/2n1b3/2P1p3/2P1P3/PQ2BP2/4N1PP/3RK2R w K - 0 17)

The above position is from the game between FM Coleman and IM Kaufman. White played the aesthetically pleasing 17.Rd5! here. The rest of the game was generally well played, but the Rd5 move is not an especially uncommon theme (especially in this f3 Nimzo Indian) and Black failed to put up the best resistance at a couple points.

Anyway, from these two criteria, I was left with two games really vying for the top prize: the previously mentioned Bachmann – Arnold game and the round 8 encounter between IMs Ray Kaufman and Larry Remlinger. And this is where the last couple criteria kicked in.

In the Arnold game, the fun really began in the following position:

(FEN: 1r3rk1/1pqb2pp/p1n1pb2/3p4/P2NnP2/1P3NPP/1BP3BK/R2Q1R2 w - - 0 19)

White’s insipid opening play has already given Black the better position. Maybe White should play something like 19.Rc1 and 20.c4, but he’s the one fighting for equality. Instead, Bachmann played 19.Nxc6 which doesn’t immediately lose, but it sends White down the wrong track.

After 19….Bxb2 20.Nxb8 Nxg3! 21.Re1! Qxb8, White really blundered with 22.Kxg3? (22.Ra2 keeps things interesting). After 22…Qxf4+ 23.Kf2, it’s already winning for Black, but there is only one way forward:

(FEN: 5rk1/1p1b2pp/p3p3/3p4/P4q2/1P3N1P/1bP2KB1/R2QR3 b - - 0 23)

Arnold was up to the task and played 23…Bd4+ 24.Kf1 e5! (this introduces the Bd7 into the attack and also sets up …e4 ideas) 25.c3 Qg3 26.cxd4 Bxh3 27.Ra2 e4 28.Rc2 exf3 29.Bxh3 Qxh3+ 30.Kf2 Qh4+ 31.Ke3 Re8+ 32.Kd3 Qxe1, and Black was up a couple pawns with a winning position and duly went on to win the game, although it took about 20 more moves. Extremely accurate up to this point and a pretty clear contender I think.

The Kaufman – Remlinger game was not as easy to spot, but I found it to be an interesting and well-executed game as well.

(FEN: 4r1k1/1p1brqnp/p1pp1n2/5p2/2P2P2/1PN2B1P/P2QN1P1/2RR3K b - - 0 25)

White had a typically small advantage in this King’s Indian, and my first impression was that he had increased his advantage a little bit. Playing through the game, I expected 25…Re6 to guard the d6-pawn, but it looks a bit artificial. In response, maybe White regroups with Ng3 and Nc3-e2-d4.

Instead, Remlinger played 25…Ne4!, jettisoning the d6-pawn after 26.Bxe4 fxe4 27.Qxd6. Black’s next is obviously 27…Nf5 and White now has a decision to make with his queen. The computer considers 28.Qb4 and 28.Qc7, but in the end settles on Kaufman’s 28.Qc5. After 28…Qh5 29.Kh2 Rg7 30.Rg1, it might look like Black’s attack has stalled.

(FEN: 4r1k1/1p1b2rp/p1p5/2Q2n1q/2P1pP2/1PN4P/P3N1PK/2R3R1 b - - 0 30)

However, it’s a full-board contest and Remlinger realized that the key to continuing the assault was to escape from the 5th rank pin. Therefore, he played 30…b6! and White bit with 31.Qxb6. My own view is that 31.Qf2 might be the best defensive idea, as 31…Nh4 isn’t quite as strong here – meanwhile 31…e3 32.Qf3 escapes into an about-equal endgame, while the tempting 31…Nh6 32.Qxb6! Ng4+ 33.Kh1 c5! 34.Rcf1 e3 35.Rf3! seems to just hold. Still, it’s not clear sailing after 31.Qf2.

Instead, after 31.Qxb6, Black starts to swarm the kingside with 31….Nh4. Taking on g2 or landing on f3 is already a threat, so White played 32.f5, and after 32…Qxf5 33.Rcf1 Nf3+ 34.Kh1 the position in the following diagram was reached.

(FEN: 4r1k1/1p1b2rp/p1p5/2Q2n1q/2P1pP2/1PN4P/P3N1PK/2R3R1 b - - 0 30)

How can Black bring more force to bear on White’s kingside? Remlinger played 34…Kh8!, clearing the way for Black’s rook. After 35.Rf2 Reg8 36.g4 h5!, Black has a solid plus! So far, Kaufman had mostly played the first engine line but to little avail. Here, he started to lose the thread completely with 37.Ng3? Qh7 38.Ncxe4?, and now there’s no holding Black back after 38…hxg4.

(FEN: 6rk/6rq/pQp5/8/2P1NRb1/1P4N1/P5p1/6K1 b - - 0 42)

Remlinger was also clinical until the end – after 42.Rf4, Black has forced mate … beginning with 42…Qh1+!. The game concluded 43.Nxh1 gxh1/Q+ 44.Kxh1 Bf3+! 45.Kh2 Rh7+ and it’s all over.

Along with the Arnold win, this was another worthy effort in my view. In the end, both Arnold and Remlinger found something surprising and were very accurate in their execution. For me, the difference was that Bachmann opened the door for Arnold with Nxc6 and then with Kxg3, while Remlinger pushed the door open himself with …Ne4!.

The decision to pick the Remlinger game seemed to surprise a lot of people, but looking back, I still think I picked the right one between the two main contenders.


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