With 4.5/6, I barely made the cut in the 7th round and squared off as black against GM Reynaldo Vera of Cuba. Although his rating has dropped over the past few years, he’s very experienced and was playing well at Cappelle (with a performance rating over 2600). Throw in the facts that he had been playing both sides of the Semi-Slav for about 25 years and that I used his book (Chess Explained: The Meran Semi-Slav) to learn it, and I knew it wouldn’t be an easy game.
At my tournaments recently, even with one game a day, I only try to spend about 1-2 hours preparing for every game. I used to spend much more time preparing when I was playing sporadically (as in the summers of 2006 and 2007), but now that I work on chess much more, I have less to do in general. It also lets me conserve my energy for the game. Thus, even though I wasn’t sure where he would go in the Meran, I didn’t spend a bunch of time and decided to focus on the line in which Kazhgaleyev clobbered me.
Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and he instead went with a line that has become pretty popular over the past 2-3 years: the 5.b3 Anti-Meran (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.b3). Kramnik won a couple nice games with it, and whenever Kramnik plays, people pay attention. When Avrukh made it a big part of his book, GM Repertoire Volume 1, it really took off.
For example, in 18 games where I tried to play the Semi-Slav last year (i.e., I didn’t play the regular Slav), I saw this line 3 times. By comparison, I only saw the main line Meran with 5.Nc3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 a grand total of 0 times (that’s also why the idea I played against Kazhgaleyev had been sitting on the shelf gathering dust for over a year)!
Most recently, I’ve been experimenting with a Stonewall setup against this system (with a quick …Ne4 and …f5), and this game was no exception. But unlike my 3 previous opponents with this setup, Vera decided to play Nfd2 instead of Nbd2 at a key juncture, hoping to kick my knight away from e4 with a later f3. In the following position, he had succeeded in this aim:
r1bq1rk1/pp1n2pp/2p1pn2/3p1p2/1bPP4/1P1BPP2/PB1N2PP/RN1Q1RK1 w - - 1 11)
Ideally, he would break with e3-e4 at some point, putting serious pressure on Black’s structure. If Black takes on e4, he will be left with a horribly weak e6-pawn, while the alternative of allowing White to grab a ton of space with e5 is not particularly enticing. In this specific position, though, I had seen that 11.e4 runs into 11…dxe4 12.fxe4 Nc5!, taking advantage of the pin on the d4-pawn. If 13.dxc5, Black plays 13…Bxc5+ and then plays 14…Qxd3 with advantage. However, 13.Bc2 drops the e4-pawn, so White is not ready for e3-e4.
To this end, he played 11.Qe2, guarding the bishop and preparing 12.e4. I was ready for this as well and played 11…Re8!, putting the rook on the e-file in anticipation of the e-file opening up. The point is that after 12.e4 Black can play 12…e5! and White is in some trouble actually. If White ever takes on d5 or f5, Black takes on d4 with tempo. For example, 13.exd5? exd4 14.Qf2 Ne5! (covering f5 and hitting the bishop) and White is in real trouble – 15.Qxd4 Qa5! is even losing for White, who can’t deal with both …Bxd2 and …Bc5.
Thus, I had defused White’s entire plan with Nfd2 – as GM Anton Kovalyov remarked in our post-mortem (amusingly, he was one of the guys against whom I tried this Stonewall approach last year), the knights on d2 and b1 look a bit funny now. Unfortunately, I relaxed a bit having dealt with White’s main strategic goal and proceeded to make a couple small errors. While it didn’t land me in a horrible position, it did mean things weren’t as comfortable as they could have been. By move 25 or so, both of us were getting a bit low on time and I decided that under those circumstances, the initiative was worth a bit more than usual.
r4nk1/ppbbr2p/2p1p3/1PPp2qn/P2P1p2/1N1B1P2/1BQ3PP/R3RNK1 b - - 0 22)
Black has the obvious plan of playing on the kingside, with moves like …Rg7, …Ng6, …Nh4, …Kh8, and …Rag8 all factoring in. However, as soon as Black puts a knight on g6, White is going to take if off – if a Black knight reaches h4, then White is going to be in real trouble (it’s virtually impossible to hold both g2 and f3 forever). Thus, if Black plays 22…Ng6 right now, White will take, and Black has no way of keeping the file open. The h-file is not as useful as the g-file in this case, as the Nf1 guards h2 and it will take Black a long time to triple on the h-file.