Tag Archives: Spain

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)

Continue reading

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)

Continue reading


The first three rounds at Barberà went pretty well, as I scored 2.5/3. The one draw I had was where both of us had mutual chances. However, starting with round 4, something strange seemed to happen – my opponents either seemed to respect me too much or not much at all!

In round 4, I was black against IM Roberto Aloma Vidal, a 2460 IM from Montcada. I was expecting a serious fight, but instead my opponent sucked all the life out of the position as quickly as possible. I recently switched from the Slav to the Nimzo/Queen’s Gambit Declined, and as part of that opening set, I have to face the Catalan. I’ve played a couple different lines against the Catalan, and I decided to go with one of the more theoretical choices amongst that group.

(FEN: r1bqkb1r/pp3ppp/2n1pn2/2p5/2pP4/5NP1/PP2PPBP/RNBQ1RK1 w kq - 2 7)

Unfortunately, the line with 4…dxc4 and 5…c5 also presents White with an early set of options: the first, with 7.Ne5, leads to a complex position, which holds promise of an advantage for White, while the second, with 7.Qa4, leads to quieter positions, with the option of sterile equality if White wants it. My opponent quickly played 7.Qa4.

(FEN: 2rq1rk1/pp1b1ppp/4pn2/2b5/7Q/2N3P1/PP2PPBP/R1B2RK1 w - - 3 13)

After some further moves, we reached the above position. Black has no good deviation that I know of along the way (7.Qa4 Bd7 8.Qxc4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 Rc8 10.Nc3 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Bc5 12.Qh4 0-0), and strong players have been trying for decades. Virtually every deviation is supposed to give White a clear advantage, but in 2008, the pawn sacrifice with 12…0-0 caught on. According to theory, Black has adequate compensation for it after 14.Bxb7 Rb8 and 15…Rb4. Still, all 3 results are possible there. Instead, Aloma again chose the blandest continuation, going with 13.Bg5, which has resulted in a draw in every single game in which it’s been featured. Stronger players than me have fallen victim to the drawing bug with this line (GMs Naiditsch and Drozdovskij have recently given up draws to players about 160 points below them here).

Even stranger was the fact that he offered me not one, but two draws within the first 25 moves … and there was a 30-move minimum before draws could be agreed! After the second one, I reminded him that we had to play at least 30 moves, but in the end, he managed to hoover off all the pieces without providing me with any real chance.

Of course, part of the blame lies with me and my opening repertoire in these games. Had I played something that immediately creates imbalances, like the Dutch, maybe I would have had better chances to win a game. At the 2009 FIDE World Cup, GM Gata Kamsky lost his first game to GM Wesley So and had to win the second game as black to force the match to tiebreaks. Kamsky tried the Dutch, but was lucky to escape with a draw when So didn’t bother to press home a big advantage (the draw was enough to advance). After the game, Kamsky said, “In the second game I had to solve a difficult problem: it is almost impossible to beat a good player with black.”

Obviously my opponents here are not as good as Wesley So (nor am I as good as Kamsky), but the problem remains that most openings now have some lines with extremely strong drawish tendencies. Deviations, as in the Aloma game, usually concede a rather large disadvantage, and I’d rather not lose just to avoid a draw.

And to be honest, I wasn’t too unhappy with the result at the time. Aloma is only rated about 60 points below me, and he had easily outplayed a higher-rated GM (Omar Almeida) the previous day with the white pieces. That was only my second black, and I figured things would be different in my other games.

Continue reading

On Your Mark, Get Set (Fingers Crossed), Go

The second tournament of my trip this summer was in Barberà del Vallès, a town just north of Barcelona. With no rest day between the final round of Montcada and the first round there, I had to hope that my last round win against Lorenzo was a sign of better form.

The tournament at Barberà del Vallès is much smaller than the one in Benasque at about the same time, but that cuts both ways. Benasque, where I’ve played twice in the past, has more strong players, but so many more players in general (and only one section) that you play many lower-rated players before getting even a 2400. At Barberà, though, there were some GM/IM matchups in the first round. I was paired against a young 2280 in the first round, Alberto Chueca.

(FEN: r4rk1/pppqbppp/1nn1p3/4P3/3P2b1/PBN1B3/1P2NPPP/R2Q1RK1 w - - 3 12)

Black just introduced a novelty (I doubt if it was prepared, though) with 11…0-0. Normally in this line, Black castles queenside, and in fact, that is what GM Andre Diamant did against me at the SPICE Cup last year (he played it with …Bf5 instead of …Bg4, but both squares are reasonable).

Against Diamant, with him having castled queenside, I played a maneuver with Qd1-c1 and Rf1-d1, preparing the d4-d5 breakthrough. After a serious think here, I came up with something similar – 12.Qe1, which I think is a strong move. The move seems to be quite useful to me: it prepares Rd1, which supports the d4-pawn and sets up d5 breaks again; it breaks the pin on the knight (which might go to g3, when a further h2-h3 would embarrass Black’s bishop); and it also allows White’s queen to eye the a5-square (which Black might otherwise use to transfer a knight to c4) and the kingside (after f2-f3).

I was happy with my position here, and after a further 12…Rfd8 13.Rd1 Bf8 14.f3 Bf5 15.Qf2?!, I remember taking a walk around the playing hall feeling good about my position. It was only after playing 15.Qf2, though, that I realized that the best move there was probably 15.Ba2!. The bishop retreat gets out of the way of tempo-gains with …Na5, and the opening of the c2-square for the Bf5 isn’t such a big deal now. Meanwhile, if Black plays 15…Na5, White has more information on the position and can act accordingly – 16.d5! is now very strong, since after exchanges on d5, the Qd7 and Na5 will both be hit.

After 15.Qf2?!, though, Black gets a reprieve, which he could have seized with 15…Na5! 16.Ba2 Bc2. By transferring the bishop to b3, Black renders d5 impossible, takes the bishop away from potential trouble on the kingside, and also gains the c4-square for his knights. Instead, Chueca played 15…Rac8, hoping to play …Na5 and …c5 at a later juncture. He didn’t get a second chance though.

(FEN: 2rr1bk1/pppq1ppp/1nn1p3/4Pb2/3P4/PBN1BP2/1P2NQPP/3R1RK1 w - - 3 16)

Continue reading

Sisyphus in Spain

After a horrible start in Montcada, I was at 50% after four rounds. The second half of the tournament was a little better than the first, but that’s not saying much.

In round 5, I got my second black in a row against Jonathan Cruz (2437, Colombia). I didn’t find a lot of his games in the database, but he generally seemed to pick the sharp main lines. Thus, I was a bit surprised when he went for the 6.e3 variation of the Slav. Everything in his past games seemed to point to him repeating 6.Ne5, but I guess he had prepared something himself.

The variation with 6.e3 is somewhat testing, but it’s generally considered to be less challenging than 6.Ne5. White often gets a symbolic advantage, but can’t really do much with it. Compared to the main line with 6.Ne5, games with 6.e3 tend to end in a draw much more often. That is how this one ended up, although as it turns out, I should have played on in the final position:

(FEN: 5rk1/np1qbrpp/p3p1p1/P2pP3/3P1PPP/2NQ1R2/1P6/4BRK1 b - - 6 33)

We had been repeating with …Na7-c6-a7 and Nc3-e2-c3 the past couple moves, and this was a chance for a three-time repetition. I was down to about 3 minutes at this point to reach move 40 (along with a 30-second increment). I was tempted to play on, with 33…Qd8, hitting both h4 and a5.

I’m not quite sure what I was afraid of now, as 34.f5 gxf5 35.gxf5 Bxh4 nets a pawn (White can’t take on e6, because after the mass exchange on f3, the bishop on e1 hangs). White has some compensation after 36.Bd2, but Black is definitely playing for a win. Meanwhile, on 35.h5 gxh5 36.gxh5, I remember thinking my position was quite pleasant after 36…Nc6.

I think normally I would have played on here even if I thought the position was equal (after all, I’ve played on in much worse positions, and with less time!), but maybe because of my prior blunders, I decided not to tempt fate in time pressure and just repeated. The strange thing was that when I offered him a draw before finishing out the 3rd repetition, he declined and said it wasn’t 3 times. I was a bit confused by this, but instead of letting my clock run to zero, I just wrote my move down and claimed the draw. The arbiter duly verified the claim.

The next round, I was white against Melkior Cotonnec (2296, France). The opening of this game was completely ridiculous – here’s the position we got after 11.Rh1-g1:

(FEN: r2qk1nr/ppp1n1p1/3bppb1/3p2Pp/3P3B/P3PN1P/1PPN1P2/R2QKBR1 b Qkq - 2 11)

If you look at the pieces from the 2nd rank to the 7th, it almost looks like something that would come out of a Chess960 opening, but no, this game started with the usual arrangement of pieces and 1.d4. During the game, I thought I was a little better now, while after the game, he thought he was doing fine here.

Continue reading

Dumb and Dumber

Back in April, I made my summer plans and decided to play a series of tournaments in Spain. Rather than jump around from country to country, packing and repacking, and passing through security checkpoints every week, I decided to essentially stay in one place. This is something of a change for me on these long trips. As often as I have played in Spain, I actually haven’t played more than 2 events at one stretch in the Catalonian Circuit before.

The first stop on this tour was Montcada, which is a small town just outside of Barcelona. It’s not traditionally a super-strong event, but it is a Category A tournament for the purposes of the Catalonian Circuit, and the field is generally small enough that you can play a number of good players. This year, Lazaro Bruzon (2668 FIDE) was the top seed, but after that, I was #2 at 2547. Still, there were only 40 players and the average rating of the entire field was in the high 2300s.

I ended up with only 5/9, but the tournament started off as a veritable disaster. I was completely lost against a 2420 in 12 moves, and then followed that up by achieving a lost position against a 2344 in 15 moves!

(FEN: r3k2r/pp1n1p1p/1q2b1p1/2ppb1N1/6B1/2P3Q1/PPP3PP/R1B2RK1 w kq - 0 13)

I just played 12…Bg7xe5, which pretty much loses by force. I could have struggled on with 12…0-0, but then I was worried about 13.Qh4 (still, this was by far the best option). The weird thing was that I could have stopped 12.Be2-g4, and while I recognized it was his threat, I decided to do nothing about it!

After 12…Bxe5 13.Bf4, it’s all over for Black. The game continued 13…Bxf4 14.Rxf4 c4+ 15.Kh1 Bxg4 (15…0-0 16.Qh4 h5 17.Bxh5 is curtains) 16.Qxg4 f5 (16…Ne5 17.Re1 f6 18.Nxh7! wins) 17.Re1+ Kd8 (17…Kf8 18.Rxf5+ wins) 18.Nf7+ Kc8 19.Qf3 and Black is toast.

Amazingly, this game made it to the front page of ajedreznd.com as the game of the tournament. Really?!

In any case, on to the next disaster.

(FEN: r2qr1k1/pp1b1pbp/3p1np1/2pP4/P3PPn1/2N2B2/1P1N2PP/R1BQR1K1 b - - 2 15)

I got up from the board here, feeling quite happy with myself as I thought my opponent had just played a horrible Benoni. Of course I saw 15…Nxe4, but I thought that after 16.Ncxe4 Bd4+ 17.Kh1 Qh4, I had either 18.Bxg4 Bxg4 19.Nf3 or 18.h3 at my disposal. When I returned to the board, he had played 15…Nxe4!, and when we reached the position after 17…Qh4, I realized that on 18.Bxg4 Bxg4 19.Nf3, Black has 19…Bxf3 20.gxf3 (not 20.Qxf3 Qxe1 and mate) f5 21.Ng3 Bf2! 22.Rxe8+ Rxe8 23.Kg2 Re1!. Black plays 24…Rg1+ next and wins. Uh oh.

But ok, I still have 18.h3, right? Nope – after 18…Nf2+! 19.Nxf2 Bxf2, Black threatens to invade on e1 and to take on h3, with a rather strong attack. Thanks for playing. Better luck next time.

I did manage to crawl back to 2/4, but it wasn’t easy. When you’re playing badly, the wins are hard to come by and the losses happen only too easily. The second of those wins came with the black pieces, against a young 2199 player who was having a pretty good event up until then.

(FEN: 6rk/4qp1p/3p4/P2Pp2p/4P1b1/3BQ3/1R3PK1/8 w - - 1 41)

A tough, strategic Ruy Lopez battle became a bit sharper as we made it to the first time control, and I just played 40…Rc8-g8. I thought I was in great shape here, as I didn’t see how he’d be able to shelter his king. But after 41.Kf1 Qh4 42.Ke1, I realized it’s not so easy to get into White’s position. Meanwhile, the passed a-pawn is a real menace as I can’t really turn my attention to that side of the board. If I do, White might try and invade with his queen on h6 or g5, not to mention the fact that putting a rook on a8 doesn’t actually do anything, as I can never move it off the 8th rank because of Rb8+ and Qg5#.

After a long think, I came up with the best move in the position – 43…h4!. Black uses his own passed pawn to cause some problems. In a strict pawn race, Black wins – 44.a6 h3 47.a7 h2 48.Rb8 Qxf1+! 49.Kxf1 h1=Q#. However, White can throw in f2-f3 at some point to open the 2nd rank for his rook.

Luckily, he went wrong with 44.Rb7?, and after 44…h3 45.f3 Bc8! 46.Qh6 Qxf3 47.Rb3 Qxe4+, White’s position completely falls apart. Had he found 44.a6 h3 47.f3!, though, I would have had to work much harder to win the game.

easyCancellation and the End of the World (as They Knew It)

I’m in Gibraltar now, here to play in the Gibtelecom Masters which begins later today. Somewhat unfortunately, my plans in between the tournament in Sevilla and this one were scuttled before they ever took off though. The plan was to fly from Madrid to Marrakech and spend the time between the two events in Morocco. From Tangier, I would then take a ferry across the Strait to Gibraltar.

After the prize ceremony in Sevilla, I took a train to Madrid, spent a night there, and went to the airport the following morning. Unfortunately, after a few hours of waiting, easyJet canceled my flight (along with 3 other flights they had from Madrid that morning) due to “inclement weather.” We all had to collect our bags from the baggage carousel and then go back to the check-in area to figure out what our options were.

I thought something was a bit odd, as the weather in Madrid that day (January 17th) wasn’t particularly bad – it was cloudy, may have been sprinkling at the time (although it wasn’t when I came into the airport or left), and wasn’t especially windy. Pretty much all the other carriers in the terminal had some delays on their flights, but none of them were canceling their flights. After doing some searches online, it seems that easyJet has one of the highest cancellation rates of any European airline. I’m not sure why it makes sense for them to cancel flights since it leaves planes and staff out of position (not to mention costs them money for the people who they reimburse for hotel expenses, etc), but they seem to pull the trigger quickly on canceling flights.

In any case, we had no choice but to wait in line with hundreds of other passengers to hear our options. They made another strange move at this point, opening only two of the desks for these displaced passengers, but leaving six desks open for new check-ins – the lines at those desks were about two deep, so it shouldn’t have been too much trouble to accommodate their other passengers, but we weren’t going to have such luck.

After standing in line for 3 hours, I finally made it to the front, only to hear that their offer was a flight to Marrakech in a few days! If I took that flight, they would reimburse my hotel expenses in Madrid until then (within a reasonable amount).

Unfortunately, the loss of a few days would effectively derail my plans in Morocco. I had planned on visiting Marrakech and Tangier, combining some sightseeing with some rest. But with only a few days in Marrakech before a 10-hour train ride to Tangier, the new schedule wouldn’t give me enough time to do both – I’d either have to cram a lot of sightseeing and exploring into my trip, or go to Morocco to sleep. Neither option appealed to me, so I declined that offer.

Thus, I ended up spending the interim period in Madrid. I was disappointed that my trip had been shot by the weather and easyJet, but as I like Madrid, I didn’t mind it too much in the end. I made a couple daytrips to Segovia and Salamanca, and then went to Malaga to be a bit closer to Gibraltar.

From Malaga, I took a bus yesterday to La Linea de Concepcion. There, the bus station is just a short walk from the border. While there were cars backed up waiting to get through, I crossed on foot! Of course, the border is manned, and I had to show my passport at an immigration counter, but it was quite fast and I think that’s the first time I’ve crossed a border on foot.

On the bus from Malaga, I ran into one of my opponents from Sevilla (GM Damian Lemos). Because Gibraltar is so expensive and the tournament organizers don’t provide conditions to (male) players below 2600 FIDE, he decided to stay in La Linea and will just cross the border every day before the game. I can’t think of any other tournament in the world where you would stay in a different country from the site and commute every day!

Gibraltar is a tiny British colony and the massive Rock of Gibraltar marked the end of the world for the ancient Greeks. Amusingly enough, the tournament is on the side of the Rock that faces Greece, whereas my hotel is on the other side – I guess they never would have made it here!

The tournament itself should be very strong and the pre-registered list lives up to the billing of being one of the most prestigious open tournaments in the world. The top seed is French GM Etienne Bacrot. One of the strongest American players ever, GM Gata Kamsky, clocks in as the 5th seed.

He Who Has Fewer Pieces at the End can Still Draw

In my last post, I summarized a couple of my important wins from the tournament. After the win against Adina-Maria Hamdouchi in the 4th round, I got the black pieces against her husband, top seed GM Hicham Hamdouchi. Even though I didn’t win this game, it was probably my best game of the event because of the fight I had to put up to get even half a point. The opening was a Ruy Lopez, and in the following position, I had just played 19…d6-d5:

Surprised by a relative sideline, I decided to try and sacrifice my b5-pawn in the hopes of getting some active piece play in return. By the time I played …d5, I had already seen White’s upcoming maneuver, but I still had to get rid of my backward d-pawn and try to open things up for my pieces.

After 20.exd5 Qxd5 21.Nb1!, it looks like Black can’t take on b5 yet because of 22.Ba4, skewering Queen and Rook. Actually, Black can consider it, because after 22.Ba4, he can throw in 22…Bxf3! 23.gxf3 (White would like to take back with his queen, but then the Ba4 hangs, while if he takes on b5, Black takes on d1 and will have two pieces for the rook) Qb8 24.Bxe8 Qxe8 with some compensation. I considered this, but decided that it was a bit too speculative with White’s b2-pawn still around. For what it’s worth, Rybka considers this best for Black.

Instead, I played 21…Qb7, keeping the Q + B battery on the long diagonal. Now Black is planning 22…e4 and 23…e3, prying open the kingside. He played 22.Be3 to stop the e-pawn from making its way down the board, reaching the following diagram:

Now did I take on b5 with 22…Qxb5. After the game, he asked me why I didn’t play 22…Nd5 instead. I considered it, but the line 23.Nc3 Nxe3 24.Rxe3 (he preferred 24.fxe3) Bc5 25.Be4 dissuaded me. He had thought Black could play 25…Qb6 here, and on 26.Re2 Bxe4, White will lose his extra pawn: if White takes back with his rook, f2 hangs, while if he takes back with his knight, b5 falls. However, after 25…Qb6, White has the key intermediate move 26.Na4! and the tactics work out in his favor after 26…Qxb5 27.Nxc5 Qxc5 28.Qa4! (hitting e8 and a8) Qc8 (the only move) 29.Bxg6 fxg6 30.Nxe5 with a big advantage.

After 22…Qxb5 23.Ba4 Qxb2 24.Bxe8 Nxe8, we reached an interesting position that I considered to provide me with excellent drawing chances in a practical game. In a correspondence game, that evaluation might change. =)

But wait, there’s more!

A Good Start to the New Year

I’m done with the first leg of my 2-month trip, having finished the tournament in Sevilla a couple days ago. I finished in a tie for first with four others on 7.0/9! This is definitely a better start to the new year than in 2009, where I floundered horribly at the Parsvnath Open in Delhi.

On the mathematical tiebreaks (more on that again later), I finished in 3rd place, behind GM Renier Vazquez Igarza (originally of Cuba, now in Spain) and GM Hicham Hamdouchi (originally of Morocco, now in France). The three of us were on one of the top two boards for the last couple rounds. After us came IM Kiprian Berbatov of Bulgaria and GM Kevin Spraggett (of Canada, now in Portugal). The top 3 finishers are in the prize winner’s photo below (for those who don’t know, that’s me on the right):

Amusingly enough, I got a trophy for my efforts, but it was so big that I had to leave it behind with the organizers! There was simply no room for it in my bags, and with airline rules the way they are, there was no way I could take it on the plane with me. I also wasn’t particularly interested in lugging it around Europe for the next 6-7 weeks. Maybe I can ask them to mail it to the US …

I don’t think I actually played all that well here, but it was good enough to put points on the board. Somehow, I wasn’t quite as accurate as I was in some of my tournaments at the end of last year (in Montreal, Texas, and Palma). Still, I won a couple nice games and I managed to make it through another tournament without losing a game (5 wins and 4 draws).

After giving up a draw to FM Patrick Van Hoolandt in round 3, I had the white pieces against WGM Adina-Maria Hamdouchi. An offbeat King’s Indian turned into a Leningrad Dutch type of position, and her advances on both sides of the board left her with a worse structure in the following position:

I played 22.b4! here, opening up a front on the queenside. An isolated c-pawn would be difficult to defend (and in fact, 22…c4 could lose a pawn in a couple different ways), so she exchanged on b4. After 22…cxb4 23.Qxb4, though, her light-squared bishop is in a bad way. It may want to avoid c8, but a6 isn’t a good alternative because of 24.Qa4, hitting the Ba6 and Re8. Meanwhile, after 23…Bc8, I played 24.Re4! g5 25.g4! Qf6 26.Rc1, turning my attention to the bishop and the 7th rank. Black’s problem is that she has no real play in the center and kingside and the bishop has no safe haven. She ended up having to give away a pawn to get her bishop out of harm’s way.

After a number of moves, we reached the following rook and pawn endgame:

From the end of the previous note, I picked up a pawn and then entered a rook endgame. We exchanged a couple pawns, and I had assessed this endgame as a win. Black can’t seriously attack White’s d- or f-pawns (for example, 47…Rd4 48.Rxd6 Ke7 49.Re6+ and 50.Re5 covers everything), and putting the rook on a6 leaves it extremely passive. White walks his king up and should be able to win the game.

She found an interesting idea that I had overlooked with 47…Rf4 48.Kf2 Rf6!, as the king and pawn endgame is a draw at the moment! Black’s king gets to e5, and so White’s extra f3-pawn is useless. However, her rook is still badly placed, so I decided to regroup with 49.Re4 Rh6 50.Kg3. Now if 50…Rf6, 51.f4 and the exchanges of f4 lead to a winning K+P endgame for white (White has the e5-square). She played 50…Rh8, but after 51.Re6 Rd8, I walked my king to f5 via f2, e3, and e4 with 52.Kf2!. She resigned shortly afterwards.

Amusingly enough, the following day, I had black against her husband, GM Hicham Hamdouchi (the top seed at just over 2600 FIDE). That was probably my best game of the event and I’ll talk about it in a later post.

Last on in the tournament, I had white against the young Argentine GM, Damian Lemos (2544 FIDE). This was my highest-rated scalp from the event, but I didn’t think it was a particularly good game. It was notable more for the fact I played an opening that I normally face with the black pieces.

I had faced this line against GMs Bluvshtein (in June in Montreal, I won) and Akobian (in August in Montreal, I drew), and Lemos registered some surprise when I went for it. While I’ve played a couple different setups against the Semi-Slav Meran Variation, I had never gone for this before.

I’m not sure if his preparation was based on my games in this line, as when the opportunity to follow in my footsteps arose, he thought for the first time in a very topical position these days. After a long think (26 minutes!), he deviated from my games with 15…g6 in the following position:

The amusing thing was that the plan he chose was not one that I seriously considered during or before either of my games! Against Bluvshtein, I too was worried about Nd4-f5, but decided to play the prophylactic 15…Bc7 to avoid the kingside weaknesses and a possible f4/e5 pawn roller (see the writeup here). Against Akobian, I tried a speculative piece sacrifice with with 14…b4 (instead of 14…Ne5-d7 15.g2-g3 as in this game) 15.Nf5 Bc5 16.Na4 Bxf2+, which I wrote about here.

After a long think, I played 16.Be3!?, which invites him to continue with his plan of 16…b4 17.Na4 c5. This is a common motif for Black in these Meran setups, as it activates his light-squared bishop and can open up some diagonals for Black’s bishops and queen. The e4-pawn in this case is also en prise.

When I played 16.Be3, I had originally planned 18.Nb5 here, thinking that on 18…Bxe4 19.Qc4, if he moved his Bd6 anywhere, I’d take on d7 and then take on e4, getting two pieces for a rook. After I played 16.Be3, though, I took a walk around the playing hall and realized that after 19.Qc4, he could play the intermediate 19…Ne5! 20.Qc1 and only then 20…Be7. He’d then have a quite good position.

Luckily, when I played 16.Be3, I hadn’t put all my eggs in one basket, and had noticed that 18.Nb3 was also interesting. While not hitting any piece, the c5-pawn is under serious pressure, and I thought that after 18…Bxe4 19.Qd2, I would get a knight to c5 with a small plus. Actually, my advantage there isn’t so big, so that was the right way for him to continue. Instead, he played 18…Nxe4, missing 19.Na5!:

Somewhat surprisingly, Black is just lost here! White is directly or indirectly putting pressure on all four of Black’s minor pieces, and he just doesn’t have the time to save all of them. The immediate threat is 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Bf3, hitting and pinning the Ne4. After Black guards the knight, White plays 22.Rxd6, taking advantage of the fact the Ne4 is pinned to the Qb7.

Meanwhile, if 19…Ndf6, guarding the knight in advance, White has 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.f3. If the Ne4 moves, the Bd6 hangs. The Bd6 can’t move at the moment because the Nd7 hangs behind it. And the Ne4 can’t move because of 20.Nxb7 Qxb7 21.Rxd6. So what to do?

He tried 19…f5, but that doesn’t really help after 20.f3 Ndf6 21.Nxb7. He played on for a while, even down two minor pieces, but he never really had a chance.

19.Na5! was a somewhat non-standard move, but it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to find and it really just ended things immediately. I had expected a tougher game, and this maneuver ended things a bit prematurely in my opinion. Not that I’m complaining of course – I was happy to take the easy win and improve my preparation along the way.

I’ll write about a couple of my other interesting games in a couple days …

En España, de nuevo

Yesterday evening, I arrived in Spain after a 30-hour trip from San Francisco that began on Tuesday afternoon. I’m here for the Sevilla Open, which begins on January 8th – the first of four tournaments I will be playing on this trip (the rumors of my imminent retirement have been greatly exaggerated).

My trip went from SFO to Amsterdam to London to Seville. There were delays on each flight, but nothing too serious. The first one was delayed because the KLM plane from Amsterdam was late (because of the enhanced security measures at Schipol Airport), while the flight from Amsterdam to London was delayed because London has been receiving record snowfall these past couple weeks.

Once I got to Heathrow, I was a bit worried that I’d be grounded there. British Airways had cancelled all their flights to Spain that afternoon and evening, and I was desperately hoping that the Iberia flight I was on would not meet the same fate. Luckily, it didn’t and we got off the ground about 45 minutes after the scheduled take-off time.

I did have a couple strange security experiences along the way. In San Francisco, after passing the metal detectors without any problems, I had put my laptop back in my backpack and collected my belongings. But just as I was taking my bag off the belt and walking away, I received a little tap on the shoulder, and I was “randomly selected for a further screening.” I’ve occasionally been selected when I’m still in the area, but this was the first time I had been randomly selected as I was about to leave the roped off area.

In Amsterdam, I was already past the main security checkpoint, but they had another one set up at the gate. However, they didn’t have security personnel at the gate 2 hours before the flight, so people just filed in and sat inside the “clean” area. Once the security guards came, everybody had to leave and they did a reasonably thorough search of the formerly clean area, taking apart the garbage can, crawling along the floor to look under the seats, and so on. They probably could have saved themselves the trouble had they just closed the area off for passengers when nobody was around to check them.

They did another strange thing when they scanned our carry-on bags. I had bought a water bottle inside the terminal, so I should theoretically have been able to bring it in, even if I hadn’t declared it. I didn’t think it would be a problem, so I didn’t pull it out of my bag. And when I got to the other side of the metal detectors, there was no problem. However, a guy further behind in the line had to throw out his water bottle. Did they just not see the bottle when they scanned my bag?

Finally, in London, they were quite professional. I’ve been through Heathrow a dozen times over the past couple years and it seems to me that the security guards there seem to enjoy their job a bit more than they do in other airports. Anyways, one guy kept calling out “Do you have anything in your pockets? Anything left in your pockets?”

Somehow, the word “pockets” was repeated often enough that I was reminded of the scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo escapes from Gollum by asking Gollum what he has in his pockets. By the time I got to the front of the line, I was chuckling at the imaginary scene of the security guard hissing “Have you gots anything in your pocketses?”

I’ll try and post some updates as the tournament rolls along.