Tag Archives: Balaguer

The White Period

I finished my last blog on a positive note, with a win where I finally played well from start to finish. As it was, I did manage to continue to play well through the rest of the tournament, but I wasn’t able to parlay that into any wins. Instead, all three of my games ended in draws (and thus, the title is inspired by Picasso’s so-called “Blue Period”).

In round 7, I had the black pieces against GM Daniele Vocaturo. Vocaturo had started off with 4 seemingly easy wins before falling back to earth with a couple of draws. The first critical moment came after he played 13.Bc1-e3:

(FEN: r4rk1/bppq1pp1/p1np1n1p/4p3/4P3/1QPPBN1P/PP3PP1/R3RNK1 b - - 2 13)

His last move was a new one for me, and so I sat down to think about my move. I can’t avoid the bishop exchange, but should it take place on e3 or a7? I played 13…Rfe8, and both of us agreed after the game that this was the right move. One problem with exchanging on e3 right away is that after 13…Bxe3 14.Nxe3, Black cannot easily chase the queen away from b3 because the b7-pawn will still be hanging (for now, …Rfb8 would trap the queen if it took the pawn). Black also has to think about a Ne3-d5 jump, as after an exchange on d5, White might quickly play d4 and gain a small advantage in space and activity.

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A Return to Form?

As I wrote in my last post, I finished the first three rounds with 2.5 points, but I still wasn’t playing all that well. I had missed key variations and ideas in each of my first three games.

In round 4, things were to get even worse. I had the white pieces against IM Jordan Ivanov, a solid IM I had drawn with in Seville earlier in the year. That was an up-and-down game where I missed a few opportunities and had to work hard to escape with a draw.

I was prepared for his usual QGA, but around lunchtime, I developed a splitting headache. A couple of Tylenol numbed some of the pain, but at game time, I was more inclined to sit with an icepack on my head than to play a game of chess in the sweltering heat of Balaguer.

Once it took me an hour to play out my preparation (and notice that I had already spent an hour), I realized it wasn’t my day, and I quickly tried to swap off some pieces. Luckily, Ivanov was not particularly ambitious that day (he had beaten GM Oms Pallisse the day before, but I guess with the black pieces, he went in being happy with a draw), and he didn’t try to avoid any of the exchanges. We agreed to a draw after 24 moves.

Playing one degree with Ivanov, Oms Pallisse is the only player to have beaten me in a rated game when I played the Trompowsky. I’ve been a 1.e4 player for most of my chess career, but after a long break from regular tournaments, I started playing 1.d4 in 2005. To cut down on the theory I had to learn, I started with the Trompowsky against 1…Nf6 players. In 21 rated games with the Tromp, I scored 19.5 points. Most of the games were against players about 150-200 points lower rated than me, though. GM Larry Christiansen also beat me in a Tromp in the US Chess League, but that wasn’t a rated game. Including such unrated games, my score in the Tromp moves up to 22.5 points from 25 games!

Now back to Balaguer … If round 4 against Ivanov was a strange day, the next game was even weirder. I was black against IM Mathias Roeder. Roeder has 3 GM norms, but he’s never crossed 2500 FIDE. With the white pieces, he’s especially difficult to beat, and I noticed that for a stretch from the start of 2006 through part of 2008, he didn’t have a single loss in the database with white. For someone who plays about 100 games a year, that’s pretty solid.

(FEN: r1b2rk1/ppqn1ppp/2pb1n2/4p3/P1BP4/2N1PN1P/1PQ2PP1/R1B2RK1 b - - 1 11)

White has just played 11.Qd1-c2, and it’s now up to Black to find a reasonable plan. In general, his problem is that the central tension can’t be favorably resolved and so his queenside pieces will languish on the first rank. Black can’t push …e5-e4, and for the moment, …Re8 would leave f7 weak after Ng5. Meanwhile, if Black takes on d4, White will recapture with the pawn and achieve a very nice isolated-queen’s pawn position. Black can’t target the pawn, and White has the more active pieces.

I ended up playing 11…h6?!, which is a somewhat provocative move that I didn’t really want to play. At the same time, I didn’t like the alternatives. Playing …h6 means that …Re8 is quite reasonable. After …Re8, Black can think about …exd4, …Nf8, and …Be6 – the pawn on h6 shuts the Bc1 down in that IQP middlegame.

The cost to …h6 is that it weakens the kingside light squares. With the bishop on c4, White might drop a piece into g6, or he might try and maneuver a knight to the soft f5-square now. Black can’t play g6 anymore because the pinned f7-pawn doesn’t actually guard that square.

White immediately executed that maneuver with 12.Nh4. I responded with 12…Rd8. I didn’t want to go e8 in this position for two reasons: one, the rook takes away a square for the king in case of Bxf7+ and Qb3+; and two, there could be a time when if White sacrifices a knight on h6 and plays Qg6+ and Bxf7, the rook would en prise on e8.

Now White made a clear mistake in my view, with the apparently natural 13.Nf5?!. After 13…Bf8, Black is now ready to play …Nb6 (there’s no pressure on e5 anymore), and so Roeder played 14.a5, cutting the knight down. This allowed me to unwind nicely with 14…Nd5!.

(FEN: r1br1bk1/ppqn1pp1/2p4p/P2npN2/2BP4/2N1P2P/1PQ2PP1/R1B2RK1 w - - 1 15)

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Our Man in Balaguer

[Note – the games and opponents are real and no vacuum cleaners were misrepresented in this blog!]

After Barberà del Vallès, the next tournament on my calendar was in Balaguer. I’ve had good experiences in Balaguer, having made my last two GM norms in 2006 and 2007 there. In 2006, I was in contention for first place until a last-round loss to GM Azer Mirzoev. But in 2007, that final GM norm came with a tie for first place with GM Alexander Delchev.

Unlike my previous tournaments in Barberà and Montcada, Balaguer is a single section tournament, so in the first round, there are huge rating mismatches. Still, my on-and-off form was on display in the first round against Jaime Parramon (1963 FIDE).

(FEN: r2q1rk1/pp1bnppp/2n1p3/1B2P3/Q2P4/R4N2/3P1PPP/1N3RK1 b - - 0 13)

Parramon responded to my French Defense with the Wing Gambit. At first I accepted the pawn, but I gave the pawn back in order to quell his hopes of a simple initiative (that’s how White’s c-pawn ended up on d4 – I played …d4 at some point and he played c2-c3xd4). White’s structure, though, is teetering now and I could have increased my advantage very simply with 13…a6. Retreating the bishop allows …Nxe5, while after 14.Bxc6 Bxc6, White will not be able to hang onto his d4-pawn after …Nf5.

I saw this, but thought I could get the same thing with 13…Nf5?. Black is threatening 14…a6 again, with the same ideas of a discovered attack. I realized right after I played the move that I was allowing 14.d5!, which sacrifices the doomed pawn, but also cuts down my bishop along the way. After 14…exd5 15.Bxc6 Bxc6 16.Qf4 Bd7 17.h4, White had achieved more counterplay than he could have dreamed of after 13…a6.

(FEN: r3qrk1/pp4p1/2b3Pp/4Pp2/3p1P2/R5Q1/3P2P1/1N2R1K1 b - - 0 24)

I managed to regroup and again put a stop to his attacking ambitions, and now I finally got myself on track and started attacking a bit myself. White’s g6-pawn is an obvious target, as the queen is the only piece that can guard it. I could win the pawn with …Qe6 and …Be8, but the bishop is useless on g6. I could also try for …Qd7, …Rfe8, …Re6, and …Qe8, but that is rather slow. The quickest, and strongest, route is via a6!

With 24…a5!, I opened the 6th rank for my Ra8 to swing across, while also setting my queenside passers in motion. Had he played 25.Rd3, then 25…Rd8 is simple and strong. The queenside pawns are now free to advance, and White’s Nb1 is still doing nothing. Instead, he played 25.Rc1 Ra6 26.Rd3, but with 26…Bd5, Black’s rook is going to take on g6 with tempo and White’s position falls apart.

In the second round, I was white against Diego Del Rey (2395 FIDE). Black has just recaptured on c5 with his bishop. Structurally, Black is doing fine. His only problem is with his development and this means White has to act quickly.

(FEN: rn1q1rk1/p4ppp/1p2p3/2bb4/8/5NP1/PPQBPPBP/R4RK1 w - - 0 13)

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Stalled at the Finish

Round 8: White vs FM Lazaro Lorenzo de la Riva (2367, Spain). I managed to get back in the win column against the only person who beat me in Balaguer last year. That time, though, Lazaro had the white pieces against me.

The game can be replayed here.

He surprised me with the Benoni as Black, although I expected something new as he doesn’t have many games in the database. I played the Modern Main Line with 7.h3 and 9.Bd3 and he responded with maybe the most theoretical response in 9…b5. This was a bit of a surprise, but a bigger surprise was 14…Rd8. My recollection of this line was that 14…Nd7 was the main move, and that there was some reason 14…Rd8 was not best. I thought for about 10 minutes and played 15.Qe2!?, which was a surprise for him.

As it turns out, 14…Rd8 is reasonably common and usually transposes to the 14…Nd7 line after 15.Bf4. However, 15.Qe2 is an interesting way to play and a viable alternative to 15.Bf4. He played 15…Bf8, after which he was down one pawn, but he had some development advantage and a somewhat awkward knight on e3 to play against.

He was just getting more compensation with 24…f5!, but then he threw it all away with 25…Qe4? as the endgame is just lost. Better was 25…Nd6, heading for the e4-square.

Round 9: Black vs. GM Alexander Delchev (2618, Bulgaria). Another crazy game against a GM, and again, this one ended in a draw. Delchev is a very solid 2600+ GM, who loses pretty rarely and loses with the white pieces even more rarely.

The game can be replayed here.

The game was a Semi-Slav Meran with 8…Bd6, although the game left my preparation after 13.Ne2. He said after the game that he has analyzed this position a bit, and thought that white was just better – during the game, I thought it was rather unclear but probably about equal.

He soon sent all his pieces to the kingside, and on every move, there was the possibility of f2-f4 or Nh4-f5. With the clocks running down to about 20 minutes apiece, he decided to play it safe with 18.Nf3. This shouldn’t have posed any problems, but a few inaccuracies from me capped by 24…Qe7?, left me in a difficult position. He played two very strong moves with 25.Qf4! and 26.Nf5!, after which black’s position looks extremely shaky. However, I was confident in my defensive chances and I didn’t see any win for him. As it turns out, neither did he. I consolidated the extra piece and with 39…Rf5, I would have sealed the win. But alas, I played 39…Qc5, which threw the win away as I had missed 44.Bg4.

With the cold, objective analysis of a computer, it turns out his sacrifice with 26.Nf5 is winning, but he has to find a series of amazing moves – 30.Qh4 (instead of 30.Qf5) Kh8!? 31.g3!!. While somewhat logical ex-post, it’d be hard to find many chessplayers who could find such moves with a minute on their clock.

Round 10: White vs. GM Levan Aroshidze (2547, Georgia). This was a particularly tough pairing for me (and for Levan), since we have roomed together at a few tournaments since last year. It’s never easy to play a friend.

The game can be replayed here.

The game itself ended in a draw, although not quite like it may have been expected. The opening was not something either of us prepared for (I pretty much always play the IQP positions of the Rubinstein Nimzo) and I was on my own after 10…b6. He then offered a draw with 13…Rfd8, which left me thinking for 20 minutes about what to do – play on or just take the draw?

In the end, I decided to play on, as my job now is essentially to play chess and get better. A draw wouldn’t have risked anything in the tournament, but at the same time, after going all the way to Spain, it made some sense to play on given that it wasn’t a GM norm/title on the line.

My idea with 15.e4, 16.e5 and 17.Qg4 looked dangerous, but Levan found the correct series of moves to diffuse the tension. If, instead of 20…Qc4, he played 20…Qb3, then 21.dxe6 Qxa2 22.Nf5! g6 23.exf7+ is the point (if 23…Qxf7, 24.Nh6+). If Black steps to h8 with king, then 24.Qb4 is crushing.

In the actual game, the endgame after 24.d6 is rather hard to assess – Black gains control of the c-file, but the d6-pawn is a serious asset. 24…f6 was the safe way to play and liquidated the central pawns and the game petered out to equality after which I offered a draw which was quickly accepted.

So, after playing an extra 2 hours or so, I was back at square one with a draw. But the game was still a useful one to play, I think. After the game, Levan actually apologized to me for offering a draw, saying that he couldn’t bring himself to play the game seriously and so offered a draw even though he had the black pieces. I didn’t mind that at all, actually, but I explained why I wanted to play on a bit.

In the other games, Baklan beat Fidel Corrales and so passed him for first place with 8/10. The top two Cubans (Corrales and Bruzon) shared 2nd-3rd at 7.5/10, and there was a 10-way tie for 4th-13th at 7/10. Unlike in Benasque, number of wins was not the first tiebreak (it was the 5th) and my opponent’s score as calculated by the Bucholz metric was the 2nd best amongst my group. Thus, I finished in 5th place on tiebreaks. For what it’s worth, had number of wins been used as the first tiebreak, I would have finished last!

I didn’t quite make a GM-norm equivalent performance in Balaguer though, as the performance was only about 2572. Still, it was a solid performance and I managed to gain about 12 points. So after Benasque and Balaguer, my two tournaments of the summer, I should be sitting on 2512 FIDE or so.

Shaking the Malaise

Well, since the fourth round, I managed to get 2 points from 3 games. The first two games, though, were not particularly clean, although the third was a bit better.

Round 5: Black vs. WFM Keti Tsatsalashvili (2271, Georgia). An odd game from the start. The Benoni is not part of my normal repertoire (I’ve only tried to play it twice over the past 10 years in rated play, and in both cases, my opponent didn’t let me play it!) and I had no games of my opponent against this opening. Still, I decided that since the Benoni angles for a fight from the start, it was the remedy I needed to get back on track.

The game can be replayed here.

Keti started off with the Knight Tour Variation with 7.Nd2, but then got back into a Fianchetto Variation with 8.g3. Black’s position was actually quite comfortable after 12…Ne5 and 13…Nh5. However, instead of 13…Bd7?!, I should have played 13…f5. I had seen this move, but I thought by threatening …b5, I could get her to play a move like Rb1, after which …f5 would have even more effect. However, I never got a chance to play …b5 and …f5 was a defensive measure when I got to play it. After 17.Nc4 Qc7, White’s position looks amazing at first glance but it’s not so easy to figure out how to make full use of the advantage.

In the game continuation, I sacrificed a pawn because I didn’t see anything better to do after 18.a5, but White has some technical difficulties to keep the pawn, as her knight on b6 is completely out of play. In addition, the bishop on c1 is temporarily tied down to the defense of the b2-pawn, and she must watch out that I don’t get a rook to e2 or capture the d5-pawn.

The way she played managed to temporarily avoid losing the pawns or allowing a rook in, but all of Black’s pieces became very active and after 27…Re4, Black is better. It was only a matter of time before I crashed through, and with 40…Nd4!, won the game.

Round 6: White vs. GM Lazaro Bruzon (2582, Cuba). An amazing save, if I may say so myself. In the database, Bruzon had essentially only played three different systems against 1.d4 – (1) the QGD, (2) the Nimzo-Indian, and (3) the Semi-Slav Meran with the rare 8…b4.

I was ready for all those, although I had expected him to play a Nimzo. However, he trotted out the Meran and then played 8…Bd6! While I had faced this once before this summer (against Eduardo Desanjose Candalija), I had not studied it too carefully since then, and even if I had, I probably would not have been ready to meet his natural novelty of 11…a5.

I sunk into thought and was unable to find anything good to do, and in fact, got a worse position in trying to play for some advantage. 19.Rd1 was a mistake in view of 19…g6! To compound my troubles, I was down to about 4 minutes to his 30 minutes. In the complications that followed, I managed to find some good moves and missed one good one (26.Qxb3! instead of 26.Qd2?), but Lazaro was unable to put me away there. To avoid some nice checkmates after 29…Nf5+, I had to sacrifice my queen, but the Q vs 2R endgame was not a trivial win, especially as his clock was ticking down.

In the end, he had to repeat the position to avoid a worse fate (if, for example, my pawn gets farther down the board, maybe I can even think of playing to win). The computer would, of course, had a field day with the middlegame attacking position.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the endgame, but given the time control, it was difficult to play properly. The original time control for the tournament was 40/90 + G/30, with 30 seconds added per move. However, for reasons unknown, it was changed the same day as the first round.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 7: Black vs. GM Vladimir Baklan (2630, Ukraine). This game was a bit of a missed opportunity for me. Baklan is the top seed in the tournament, but I let a bit of an advantage slip.

The game featured the Worrall Attack of the Ruy Lopez with 12.d5, a line I had spent all of 5 minutes preparing for. As this was my first time on the black side of such a Ruy structure, I took a bit of time, but I hit upon a few somewhat standard ideas. Actually, after 19…c4, I was even a bit better, but then I played 22…Na5?. I think I should have played 22…Nc5 instead, but for some reason, I reacted instantly with …Na5. After 23.g5 Nh5 24.Nxh5, my position is probably alright, but it’s gotten a lot more unclear. I had a shattered kingside pawn structure, and a rather bad bishop on g7, but I did get a pawn on h3 as compensation in addition to the trump of my queenside passer.

The 10 minutes I spent on 27…a5 was a key moment in the game, as it was during that think I realized that the way for me to keep playing this position was to push the a-pawn. Black has two ideas there – one is just to push the a-pawn all the way, the other is, if the pawn gets exchanged on a4 for example, is to take back with the rook, followed by doubling on the a-file and the 4th rank (with …Qc4).

Still, the pawn push only kept the position rather unclear, and in mutual time pressure, the game simplified into an endgame that I probably should have kept playing. Instead, I decided to call it a day and accepted his draw offer.

The game can be replayed here.

So after 7 rounds, I have 5 points. IM Fidel Corrales Jimenez of Cuba is leading the tournament with 6.5/7. He crushed GMs Delchev and Aroshidze the past two rounds, and is the first person I’ve seen beat Delchev in Balaguer in the last 3 years!

The dog days of summer in Balaguer

Round 1: Black vs C.P. Aatirah (1946, India). An easy game to start off the tournament. Since first round pairings only go up right before the game, there is no time for preparation. As a result, I went with what I know best (and what angles for a fight from the start). I played the French Defense, and after the Advance Variation, my old favorite line of 5…Nh6. Black’s pieces all went to their best squares right away, and in some sense, it was a textbook demonstration of what Black should be trying for in this line.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 2: White vs Boris Bruned (2224, Spain). A protracted struggle, with most of the problems for me coming in the opening phase. I had not prepared much for this game, although it would have been useful for me to have done so. I played a Trompowsky, and we followed a game of mine against Kruttika Nadig from Andorra 2006 for a little while. While I managed to win that game, it was not because I came out ahead from the opening struggle, and I spent a lot of time at the board trying to figure out what the improvement was supposed to be. In the end, I hit upon an interesting idea with 9.Nh3, 11.Nf4, and 12.Bh3.

After the opening, my opponent started to think a lot more and soon came to the realization that his opening plan did not solve the problems of his pawn structure, especially with the pawns on e7 and f7. In the end, those pawns cost him the game, as he was going to lose one for sure after 27.Qd3. The endgame was lost, but he then lost on time after 38.b4.

The game can be replayed here.

Compared to the past two years, the tournament is marginally stronger this year. While the ratings of the top players are about the same, the bigger difference is that there are fewer lower rated players (especially in the 2000-2100 range). In the past two years, I faced players rated 2167 and 2182 in the 2nd round. And last year, despite have a lower rating, I was essentially the same seed.

Round 3:  Black vs Jose Luis Vilela (2347, Cuba). The game finished as a draw after only 14 moves, but it took almost 3 hours to play! Again, I did not spend as much time preparing for this game as I would if I was playing without the accumulated fatigue of a previous tournament.

As it was, he played the Slav Exchange (like Levin did in Benasque). I had actually expected something else from him even though he had played this line a few times. He continued with 4.Nc3 and 5.Bf4, so I played 5…Qb6. He then sank into thought for about 30 minutes before playing 6.Rc1 (one of the more testing moves in my opinion).

Not remembering the theory here, I decided to avoid taking the pawn on b2 (after a preparatory 6…Nc6, for example) and instead played 6…Bf5. He then thought for another 15 minutes and played 7.Na4. And then I sat down for about 45 minutes before playing 7…Qa5+! The first problem for me was that I had completely overlooked 7.Na4, despite it being a rather obvious move. The second problem was that I realized it was a good move.

I spent a lot of time calculating variations after 7…Qd8 8.Qb3 Nbd7 9.Qxb7 e5! (angling for an eventual …Rb8 and …Bb4+) and 9.Nf3! Ne4!? with similar traps in mind based on the a5-e1 diagonal. In the end, I realized that 9.Nf3 was quite strong for white and gave up on this line.

In the game continuation, White missed a strong line with 9.Qb3 (instead of 9.e3), which would have secured a small advantage. As it was in the game, I had a nice trick with 11…a6!, covering the b5-square. Even though it drops the d5-pawn, it’s only a temporary loss since I get the a2-pawn back after 13…Be6. Down to less than 20 minutes, Vilela offered a draw with 14.Qa5 and I saw no reason to decline.

The game can be replayed here.

Round 4: White vs Yvain Bruned (2383, Spain). Thanks to a healthy dose of good fortune, I managed to escape this game with a draw. It was a bit weird to play Boris’ twin brother in the same tournament as they play the exact same set of openings. Thus, I was not likely to repeat the Trompowsky, but I had to decide what to do against the Nimzo.

He deviated from his usual patterns in the Rubinstein Variation with 4…0-0 5.Bd3 d5 (rather than the 4…c5 he had played in every game from that position in the database). He immediately made a misstep though with 7…Nxd5? instead of 7…cxd4. However, I played too hastily with e4-e5 and threw away a huge advantage and then had to try and stir up trouble on the kingside without any obvious weakness to attack.

I got into huge time trouble in this game, down to about 4 minutes against more than an hour, but managed to pose enough problems to trick him into a draw. Actually, he blundered with 27…a5?, which loses to 28.Bxh7+!, but for some reason, I missed the only threat I had in the position. Then I hit upon an amusing idea of 37.Qg2, aiming to throw the h-pawn into the fire (the only piece that could attack but hadn’t yet done so). He then blundered again horribly with 42…Kxh7, although neither of us realized that 42…Kh8 was immediately winning!

The game can be replayed here.

After this game, the Bruned family is on the board against me. I had beaten Yvain in Andorra 2006, Vianney (the youngest brother) in Balaguer 2007, and Boris in Balaguer 2008.

Hopefully I play better the rest of the tournament – the past two games have featured some pretty poor chess on my part.