09 May 2021

Commentary: London Chess Classic 2017, Round 7 (Nepomniachtchi - Anand)

 This game continues the recent theme of an English Opening with e3/b3 development from last time (Carlsen - Giri), but here GM Ian Nepomniachtchi as White plays the provocative yet thematic 7. g4!? to completely change the character of the game. Pitching the g-pawn in this manner is one example of similar themes appearing across different openings - as occurred in a previous Caro-Kann commentary game - so the idea is well worth studying. I'm not sure if I would play it myself, but improving your chess strength requires having a more open mind to study ideas that are outside your normal comfort zone. In my previous (pre-blog) chess career, for example, I never would have looked at this game in depth, one of the reasons I stagnated at Class B strength for so long.

Of course 7. g4 does not magically win straight out of the opening, but White does well for himself in gaining the initiative and minimizing his positional weaknesses, with his king position being reasonably solid in the center. Anand does eventually equalize, but then Nepo strikes back and is able to pick up material for no compensation. Black, left with the prospect of a losing endgame with no counterplay, resigns. I doubt this would happen at the club level, but it's worth seeing in the final position what a 100% sure win looks like, even with a fair amount of material still on the board.

[Event "9th London Chess Classic 2017"] [Site "London"] [Date "2017.12.09"] [Round "7"] [White "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"] [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A17"] [WhiteElo "2729"] [BlackElo "2782"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "73"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 {now Black could just as easily go into a Nimzo-English hybrid with ...Bb4, but it seems most often a QGD formation is set up from here.} d5 4. e3 {White has committed to central play and there is no longer a potential gambit situation on the queenside, now that the c4 pawn is protected.} a6 {the move actually scores pretty well, leaving Black around 50 percent in the database, but it seems a little slow, given White's flexibility here.} 5. b3 {by far the most played. White develops his dark-square bishop and protects c4 again, allowing him to choose to retake with a pawn in case of an exchange and exert more control over d5.} Bd6 { a good square for the bishop, also signaling that Black will look to use his control of e5 strategically.} (5... c5 {is the usual reaction by Black. Here's an instructive and tactically fierce game featuring GM Mamedyarov as an example:} 6. Bb2 Nc6 7. cxd5 exd5 8. Rc1 Bg4 9. h3 Bh5 10. Na4 Nd7 11. Be2 b5 12. Nc3 Nf6 13. O-O Be7 14. a4 Bxf3 15. Bxf3 Rb8 16. axb5 axb5 17. Ne2 Qd6 18. Nf4 Nb4 19. Ba3 Na6 20. d4 b4 21. Bb2 O-O 22. Bxd5 Nxd5 23. dxc5 Nxc5 24. Nxd5 Rfd8 25. Qg4 Bf8 26. Nf6+ Kh8 27. Qf5 g6 28. Ne4+ {1-0 (28) Mamedyarov,S (2801) -Georgiadis,N (2526) Biel 2018}) 6. Bb2 O-O 7. g4 $5 {this was a novelty in tournament play, although it has been tried several times since with good results. The idea of sacrificing the g-pawn to open the file in this manner is a theme encountered in other openings.} Nxg4 {Black chooses to accept the challenge head-on.} (7... dxc4 {is an alternative.} 8. g5 Nfd7 9. Bxc4 $11) ( 7... c6 $5 {is suggested by Komodo Dragon as another way to decline the pawn. The point is to reinforce d5 while supporting a potential ...b5 pawn thrust.}) 8. Rg1 f5 {Black maintains the knight outpost, at least temporarily, while still allowing for ...Nf6 in the future. It also opens the 7th rank to lateral defense. However, it leaves the kingside a little loose and weakens e6, a fact which White later exploits.} 9. cxd5 e5 {Anand has given the pawn back immediately, but now maintains the advanced e5/f5 pawn duo.} 10. h3 Nf6 11. Ng5 {even with material equality, White needs to play actively to justify his uncastled king and isolated h-pawn. The knight gets into the game - not being very effective on f3 - by eyeing e6 and also clearing the diagonal for the queen.} Qe7 {covering e6 and g7.} (11... h6 $2 {this might be the obvious move played at the club level, in order to kick the knight. Let's see what would happen.} 12. Ne6 Bxe6 13. dxe6 {while at first glance White's pawn looks weak, Black has no immediate way of dealing with it and his own f-pawn has similar problems.} Nc6 14. Qf3 {and White has threats of Bc4 and Qg2 coming up, along with queenside castling as a possibility.}) 12. Qf3 {this allows the queen to move to the g-file, pressures f5, and also places it on the long diagonal. This last point is shortly used to good effect.} (12. Ne6 {the engines agree that this is best played immediately.} Bxe6 13. dxe6 {and the pawn is temporarily immune from capture due to the Bc4 skewer tactic. White can then follow up with Qf3.}) 12... Kh8 (12... e4 $5 13. Qg2 Nbd7 14. Ne6 Rf7 15. O-O-O $14) 13. Ne6 Bxe6 {now b7 is undefended.} (13... Rg8 {is the engines' preference. Again, leaving the strong Ne6 in place looks counterintuitive, but White still does well from the exchange.}) 14. dxe6 Qxe6 15. Qxb7 {White now has the bishop pair and his pawn structure overall is no worse than Black's.} Nbd7 16. Bc4 {a logical move, but hitting the queen is of limited utility for White here.} (16. Bxa6 {pawn snatching may be possible, but Black should get some compensation in terms of the half-open a-file and a strong center, while White's king starts looking a bit vulnerable.} e4) (16. O-O-O) (16. Qc6) 16... Qe7 17. Qg2 Nb6 $11 {White has no more immediate threats to make and Black has equalized. White will need to do some maneuvering to start playing dynamically again.} 18. Be2 a5 {looking to break up White's pawns and make inroads on the queenside.} 19. Bb5 {a good example of prophylaxis. It feels a bit strange to move this bishop yet again, but it is the best way to prevent ...a4.} Rad8 20. Qg5 {prompting Black to respond with} g6 {and now} 21. Qh6 {prompts} Ng8 22. Qg5 {White would be fine with an exchange here, so Black returns the knight.} Nf6 (22... Qxg5 23. Rxg5 {and now White's king position is much improved, lacking a queen to threaten it, and with two bishops and the half-open c-file to play with.}) 23. Rd1 {at this point queenside castling would not seem to be an improvement for White's king, so the center is reinforced.} e4 {this logical-looking move causes Black a few headaches, after White's next. The long diagonal is opened and Black loses control of d4 and f4, although gaining space.} (23... Qe6 {maintains Black's grip in the center.}) 24. Qh6 {pinning the h-pawn and threatening Rxg6.} Rg8 25. Ne2 {Black now immediately moves to contest the open long diagonal.} Be5 26. Bxe5 Qxe5 27. Nf4 $1 {the key move to give White the initiative. The Bb5 is hanging, but White has counterplay on the kingside if that happens.} g5 {an excellent defensive pawn sacrifice by Anand, echoing Nepo's original one.} (27... Qxb5 28. Nxg6+ Rxg6 29. Rxg6 Rg8 30. Rxg8+ Nxg8 31. Qe6 $14) 28. Rxg5 Rxg5 29. Qxg5 Rg8 30. Qh6 {the position is still tricky here and perhaps Anand was under time pressure, as his next move effectively loses.} Rg7 $2 {this looks like a solid defensive move, but in fact it leaves White's queen too active.} (30... Rg1+ 31. Bf1 Nbd7 32. Ne2 Rg6 {and Black should be fine, his space advantage and piece activity compensating for the pawn deficit.}) 31. Bc4 {a subtle move that even looks positionally wrong at first, trading off White's good bishop.} Nxc4 (31... Nfd5 {is the engines' recommendation, but White retains an endgame advantage after} 32. Ke2 Nxf4+ 33. Qxf4 Qxf4 34. exf4 Nxc4 35. bxc4 $18 {as Black can do nothing about White's plan of Rb1-b5, for example} a4 36. Rb1 Rg6 37. Rb5 Rc6 38. Rxf5 Rxc4 39. Rg5 {with what should be a winning rook endgame, as White can transfer his rook back via g3.}) 32. bxc4 {the b-pawn finally fulfills its destiny. From a strategic perspective, the opening of the b-file is also potentially very good for White, if he can get the rook on it.} Qb2 {Black looks to get his pawn back, but has to keep defending the Nf6.} (32... Qd6 { does not help much either, as after Ne2 and Rb1 White is taking over the game.} 33. Ne2) 33. Ke2 {White now has no real weaknesses and his pieces are in a much better position to go after Black's king.} (33. Ne2 {also works, protecting g1.}) 33... a4 34. Ne6 {White goes back to the weak e6 square, this time unchallenged.} Rf7 35. Nf4 {this is sufficient to win without the complications of attempting a direct attack.} (35. Nd8 Rg7 36. Rg1 $6 {allows Black to keep fighting} (36. a3 {as in the game}) 36... Ng4 37. hxg4 Qa3) 35... Rg7 36. a3 {physically blocks Black's ...a3 and is untouchable, due to the hanging Nf6. Essentially Black has no good moves at this point.} Ne8 {Black tries to cover everything, but is not successful.} (36... Qb6 {is the engines' best try} 37. d3 Qb2+ 38. Rd2 Qc3 39. Ne6 $18) 37. Qc6 {forking the Ne8 and the a4 pawn, so after the next move White will be up two pawns, one of which is the passed a-pawn, with no compensation for Black.} 1-0

02 May 2021

Commentary: Tata Steel Masters 2018, Round 14 tiebreak (Carlsen - Giri)

In keeping with a thematic approach to commentary games, this next one features an English Opening with a b3/Bb2 development. It is a different structure than Tarjan - Kosteniuk, however, as Black (GM Anish Giri) here adopts a Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) approach, while Carlsen uses a more central strategy with e3 instead of a double fianchetto for his light-square bishop.

This was actually a tiebreak blitz game, which however doesn't make it any less instructive for how Carlsen chose to strategize his play and the numerous positional decisions made along the way. The overall strategy for White was to get a comfortable game with no weaknesses and then keep pressuring the obvious Black targets. Giri as a result was always struggling for equality with less harmonious piece placement, not a position you want to be in regardless of the time control.

[Event "Tata Steel Masters TB"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2018.01.28"] [Round "14"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Giri, Anish"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A13"] [WhiteElo "2834"] [BlackElo "2752"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "109"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 {now we are in an English Opening, unless White plays an early d4.} e6 3. b3 d5 4. Bb2 Be7 {QGD setup} 5. e3 {with this move, White chooses to exert more direct control over the center, particularly the d4 square, and develop his bishop accordingly.} O-O 6. Nc3 {this directly pressures d5 and is in keeping with the opening's focus on the center.} c5 { now that Black has increased his influence on the d4 square, White exchanges in the center.} 7. cxd5 {exchanging the c- for the d-pawn is a standard idea. It will give White a numerical advantage in center pawns, increase the scope of the light-square bishop, and open up the c-file for White's rook.} Nxd5 ( 7... exd5 {is just as frequent a choice here. After} 8. d4 {play will be similar, but with the extra pair of minor pieces.}) 8. Nxd5 exd5 (8... Qxd5 { has been played more often, but White has a much higher score in the database, at 68 percent. After} 9. Bc4 {and the queen retreats, White has a pleasant game with a small lead in development.}) 9. d4 {now White challenges with the pawn, to force an isolated queen's pawn (IQP) structure.} Qa5+ {a novelty. Carlsen however is fine with the queens coming off the board.} (9... Nc6 { is the more familiar way to play, with some more options for White.} 10. dxc5 ( 10. Be2) 10... Bxc5 11. a3 (11. Bd3)) 10. Qd2 {forced} Qxd2+ 11. Kxd2 Nc6 ( 11... b6 {is the engines' preference here. White would not want to go for a hanging pawns structure after a pawn exchange on c5, since he does not have enough firepower to sufficiently pressure the c5/d5 pawns.}) 12. dxc5 {we now have the IQP structure on the board.} Bxc5 13. Bb5 {this bishop development gives the option of exchanging on c6, to inflict a backwards c-pawn on Black, while allowing the king to go to e2 and not block the bishop after the upcoming check. Bd3 was also a good possibility.} Bb4+ 14. Ke2 Be6 { reinforcing d5, although this makes the bishop a "big pawn" in effect.} 15. Rac1 (15. Bxc6 {is the engines' preference. After} bxc6 16. Ne5 Rfc8 17. Rhc1 c5 18. Nd3 {White has a more concrete slight positional plus. In the game, Carlsen avoids committing himself, however.}) 15... Rac8 {"It's always the wrong rook" is a common refrain. Here, Black's Rf8 is less active and the engines prefer him committing it to the queenside. Perhaps he had thoughts of . ..Re8 and ...d4 at some point, however.} 16. Rhd1 {getting the other rook into the game and pressuring the d-pawn.} (16. Bxc6 $5) 16... Be7 {Black decides the bishop is not doing anything useful on b4 and retreats it. This also covers the g5 square, preventing White's knight from landing there.} 17. h3 { preventing ...Bg4} a6 {putting the question to the bishop. Now the exchange on c6 seems less favorable and White retreats it.} 18. Bd3 (18. Bxc6 Rxc6 19. Nd4 Rxc1 20. Rxc1 Rc8 $11) 18... Nb4 19. Bb1 {these types of retreats are common in master play. Here of course it protects the a2 pawn, but the larger positional point is that the scope of the bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal is not diminished, so White loses nothing by having the piece on the back rank.} Rxc1 20. Rxc1 Rc8 21. Rd1 {Carlsen again avoids committing himself to the major piece exchange. Black's rook cannot penetrate on the c-file and White's rook is doing good work pressuring the d-pawn again.} Nc6 {Black's strategic problem is that he has nothing very useful to do. He would like to liquidate the d-pawn, but White has an ultra-firm grip on the d4 square, blockading the pawn's advance.} (21... Nc2 {doesn't get Black anything.}) (21... g6 {might be a somewhat useful waiting move.}) 22. g4 {one different between masters and amateurs is that masters have a much better sense of when to advance pawns, particularly kingside ones. Here the pawn advance does not impact White's king safety and restricts Black by controlling the f5 square; note the role played by the Bb1. This seizure of territory will help a future f-pawn advance as well.} h6 {getting "luft" for the king and also controlling g5.} 23. Nd4 { physically blockading d4 and clearing the way for the f-pawn.} Nxd4+ 24. Bxd4 ( 24. exd4 $6 {would negate the whole point of White's strategic play against the IQP.}) 24... Ba3 {controlling the c1 square, which could theoretically be used by either Black's rook or bishop. This is still a case of Black not having much useful to do, however.} 25. f4 {in contrast, White is now seizing space.} f6 {this gives the bishop the f7 square to retreat to if necessary, in order to maintain its guard over d5. It does inflict long-term weaknesses on the kingside pawn structure, however, which become important later.} 26. Bg6 { immediately taking advantage of the hole left behind by the pawn advance. Now White could exchange off bishops after ...Bf7 and e8 is also controlled.} Kf8 { moving to centralize the king, now that we are essentially in the endgame.} 27. Kf3 {likewise advancing his king to a more influential square.} (27. Rg1 { is liked by the engines, with the plan of further advancing the kingside pawns with the rook pressuring the g-file.}) 27... Ke7 28. h4 {at this point White still has the easier game, but with the material left on the board, it looks pretty even. This can still be dangerous for the side without a real plan, however.} Bb4 29. Bd3 Bd7 {the bishop can now go to c6 if it needs to.} 30. e4 {Carlsen decides to simplify the situation with this pawn break. Time control may have been a factor here.} (30. Rg1 {would keep the IQP tension.}) 30... Bc3 {Black would be happy to trade off pieces on c3, giving him a nice place for the rook and getting rid of his relatively worse bishop.} (30... dxe4+ 31. Bxe4 b5 $5 {looks fine for Black, for example} 32. Bb7 Rc2 $11) 31. Bf2 {safely avoiding the trade.} Bc6 $6 {Komodo Dragon identifies this as the move which gives White an advantage. Let's see how.} (31... d4 $5 {looks like it would pose White more problems, as he cannot win the d-pawn immediately.} 32. Be2 ( 32. f5 $14) 32... b5 33. Bxd4 Bxd4 34. Rxd4 Rc2 {and now Black can recover the pawn, for example after} 35. a4 Rc3+ 36. Rd3 Rxd3+ 37. Bxd3 bxa4 38. bxa4 Bxa4 $11) 32. exd5 Bxd5+ 33. Be4 Bxe4+ 34. Kxe4 {White's positional advantages here are twofold: a better king position and Black's weaker kingside pawn structure, which White's king is threatening to penetrate and White's bishop has the potential to attack. Tactically, Black has to watch out for his Bc3 getting pinned against the Rc8.} Ke6 {this looks reasonable, but White's next move is obvious as well.} (34... Bb4 {is preferred by the engines, but White still has an edge after} 35. Rd4 {followed by Rc4, thanks to his more advanced and centralized king.}) 35. f5+ $16 Ke7 36. Rc1 {now the only way to un-pin the bishop is to protect the rook. There are multiple ways to do this.} Rc6 $2 { the losing move, as identified by the engines. Let's see why.} (36... Kd7 37. Kd3 Be5 38. Rxc8 Kxc8 39. Bc5 {is favorable for White, who has pawns he can target with his bishop, but would it be enough to win?}) 37. Kd3 Bb4 38. Rxc6 bxc6 39. Kc4 $18 Bd6 40. Bc5 {By now we can see Black's problems more clearly. The isolated pawns on the queenside must be defended from White's king, while the kingside pawns need to be defended against an incursion from White's bishop. White will benefit from the creation of a zugzwang situation as well. Exchanging pieces would simply give White a won K+P ending.} Kd7 (40... Bxc5 41. Kxc5 {and Black's a-pawn is doomed.}) 41. h5 $1 {Making the zugzwang even more apparent. White can therefore focus on increasing the pressure.} (41. Bxd6 $2 {this exchange does not work, because White's king is in a worse position and Black has the added resource of ...h5 to undermine White's pawn structure. For example} Kxd6 42. b4 h5 43. gxh5 Ke5 $11) 41... Bf4 (41... Kc7 $2 {now the bishop exchange works.} 42. Bxd6+ Kxd6 43. Kb4 $18 {it would take too long for Black to demolish White's kingside, as White gobbles up the queenside.}) 42. Bf8 Ke8 {hoping to trap the bishop if it captures on g7.} 43. Bc5 Kd7 44. Kb4 { heading to penetrate on the queenside.} Bd2+ 45. Ka4 Kc7 46. b4 {now the White king's way up the a-file is clear again.} Bf4 47. Bf8 {Black can no longer hold both sides of the board.} Kb6 (47... Kd7 48. Ka5 $18) 48. Bxg7 Bg5 49. Bf8 Bf4 50. Be7 Bg5 {Black attempts to hold out with a fortress. The problem is that if the bishop is exchanged, White gets a passed pawn and it's game over.} 51. Kb3 Kc7 52. Kc4 Kd7 53. Bc5 Kc7 54. Kd3 Kd7 55. Be3 {Black loses another pawn or sees White create a passed pawn now, which is losing either way.} 1-0

21 April 2021

Looking at others' paths to mastery

There's a lot of advice about learning chess out there, but there are relatively few detailed paths to mastery described. (This blog doesn't count, since so far it's been about a Class B player becoming a Class A player with some hopefully useful observations presented along the way.) For those of us who are serious about improving, especially for players without a regular coach to map things out, I do think it's helpful and occasionally even enlightening to look at the paths others have taken.

In that vein, I'd like to mention two that I've found particularly entertaining, one that was recently posted and one from several years ago. Things they have in common: they are amateurs; were not brilliant child prodigies; consistently worked hard over a number of years; and bad things happened to them along the way where they could have quit, but chose not to. 

I think something similar can be found in a few of the books about masters or GMs' careers, but most of these tend to focus on their play at the international level (post-mastery), so while instructive they do not say much about the process of achieving master-level (2200-2300) strength in the first place.

10 April 2021

Video completed: Winning with the Dynamic Caro-Kann (The Deadly Bronstein-Larsen System)

I recently completed "Winning with the Dynamic Caro-Kann (The Deadly Bronstein-Larsen System)" - Foxy video vol. 162, by IM Andrew Martin. Like others in the Foxy series, it is a collection of recorded lectures, in this case centered on selected games that are narrated all the way through by IM Martin. There is no extra content (game data files, interactive quizzes, etc.) It was published in 2014 and although it contains several classic Bronstein-Larsen games, it focuses more on contemporary master-level examples from international tournaments, typically with players in the 2400+ Elo range.

The video display quality unfortunately is poor, as the demo chessboard is low-res. That said, the strengths of the annotated game format in explaining and demonstrating opening and middlegame ideas outweigh the technical minuses. Full games are presented, so it's a useful product for overall chess training as well, since tactics and strategic ideas are discussed all the way through the endgame. Video presentations by knowledgeable commentators like Martin help bring the material alive, much more than studying lists of variations, and I think the format also aids future recall of specific ideas and maneuvers.

There are 15 separate videos included, with a total running time of 2 hours 7 minutes. The first several look at various alternative move 6 options for White, before moving on to provide examples in the main theoretical 6. c3 line; however, later there are also a mix of options shown (primarily with 6. Nf3). The first 12 videos, containing narrated games, Martin at one point refers to as "introductory", and the last three supposedly contain his specific repertoire recommendations in the different move 6 White lines (6. Nf3, 6. g3 and c3 combination, and 6. Bc4). However, these are really just more example games, although he does present them based on his preference for 6...Bf5 in all cases.

It's worth noting that the "alternate" (to 6. c3) White lines are very important to study for a Black player, since they will likely be the most commonly faced. Especially at club level, 6. c3 - which develops no pieces and only moves the pawn forward one square - may not even occur to your opponent as an option. Other move 6 options, particularly the normal-looking 6. Nf3, are likely to appear on the board from White opponents (of whatever strength) who are not familiar with the Bronstein-Larsen. This probably means the majority of White players, in practical terms.

I found the most useful aspect of going through the narrated example games to be Martin's introduction and explanation of typical ideas and maneuvers, although concrete variations are of course also presented. Key recurring concepts highlighted include:

  • Development of Black's light-square bishop to g4 vs. f5
  • Deployment of black's rook to g8 along the half-open file, or alternatively using it to support an early h-pawn advance
  • The typical development plan of ...e6, ...Nd7, and queenside castling followed by a kingside attack
  • Alternative kingside castling for Black and ...Bf5-g6 ideas
  • Formation of Bd6/Qc7 battery when possible
  • Ideas involving ...Qa5+ and moving along the 5th rank subsequently
  • Disruptive ...Bb4 opportunities
  • Timing the pawn breaks/advances ...e5 (either in one go, or after a preliminary ...e6) and ...c5
  • Black's requirement to play actively with threats and counter-threats in the center and on the kingside, while not being afraid of calculating tactical defense ideas on the queenside.
Various Black responses to White's different move 6 choices are given in the introductory videos. The 6. c3 line responses include 6...Qd5 (recommended by Martin as a good alternative), 6...h5 (more chancy), and the standard 6...Bf5.

In general, these types of video lecture resources help fill in gaps when learning openings, since they do more than just go through book variations and give an evaluation at a certain cut-off point. Where to ideally place your pieces and the trade-offs involved in making these kinds of development decisions are what really underpin opening theory and practice. However, these concepts are too rarely explained in simple, practical terms in most opening theory books. Martin here does a good job at highlighting these ideas for the Bronstein-Larsen, across a number of example games.

Although there is a substantial amount of material covered, with Martin at least looking at the main options in each line, I would still consider this product as complementary in nature to more comprehensive "book" materials (in whatever format) and your personal annotated opening repertoire database. Despite the "Winning with..." title, Martin in my view does a decent job of not over-hyping Black's play, which he summarizes as designed to make White feel uncomfortable. He is also careful in his assessments to highlight practical vs. theoretical considerations. Looking at the Bronstein-Larsen variations in depth will require further research and your own evaluation of them, as is the case with all opening study.

30 March 2021

Commentary: 2017 Isle of Man International, Round 9 (Tarjan - Kosteniuk)

This next commentary game contains some themes for improving players at several different levels of analysis - meta, strategic, and tactical. "Meta" in this case refers to the overall context - the fact that GM James Tarjan, one of the best US players in the 1970s, was at the time of this game in the third year of his chess career comeback and at age 65 defeated both GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (below) and super-GM Vladimir Kramnik during the 2017 Isle of Man International. This was no fluke, as he had also played for the US in the 2016 chess Olympiad. Seeing these kinds of examples helps combat the "inevitable decline" narrative associated with the aging process, or at least provides fewer excuses for not undertaking effortful study.

While we (or at least I) may not have Tarjan's level of inherent talent, his approach and the example of play here are understandable and instructive. My top observations from the game:

  • Tarjan's opening choice is designed to allow White to "play chess" rather than debate opening theory. This strategy used to be frowned upon in general, with purists insisting White always play for a forced if slight advantage. However, Carlsen's repeated use of it over the years has lent it more legitimacy; one game of his is in a similar variation is included in the game notes.
  • Master-level choice of candidate moves. I highlight multiple instances where White's move choice probably would not occur to an amateur. I find these to be one of the most important aspects of studying and analyzing master-level games, as they demonstrate how new ideas can be introduced into your own play.
  • The interplay of tactical and strategic considerations is evident throughout, especially when Black - probably under time pressure - starts missing key tactics in the latter part of the game. Using tactics to achieve more of a strategic/positional advantage was also possible at several points in the game for both sides.

[Event "Chess.com Isle of Man Open - Masters"] [Site "Douglas (Isle of Man)"] [Date "2017.10.01"] [Round "9.32"] [White "Tarjan, James"] [Black "Kosteniuk, Alexandra"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A22"] [WhiteElo "2412"] [BlackElo "2552"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "99"] [EventDate "2017.09.23"] 1. c4 e5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. Nc3 Nb6 6. b3 {this move takes the game out of reversed Sicilian territory. Nf3 is the most played in the database.} Be7 {Black commits the bishop early. The following top-level game shows an alternate plan of development.} (6... Nc6 7. Bb2 Be6 8. Bxc6+ bxc6 9. Nf3 Bd6 10. d4 exd4 11. Qxd4 f6 12. Qe4 Kf7 13. Qxc6 Qe8 14. Qe4 h5 15. Nd4 Bd7 16. Qxe8+ Rhxe8 17. f3 c5 18. Nc2 Be5 19. Nd1 Bxb2 20. Nxb2 Bb5 21. e4 f5 22. Ne3 fxe4 23. f4 Red8 24. Rd1 Rd4 25. Nf5 Rad8 26. Nxd4 cxd4 27. a4 Ba6 28. a5 Nc8 29. Nc4 Ne7 30. Kf2 Nf5 31. Rhe1 e3+ 32. Kf3 Bb7+ 33. Ke2 Ke6 34. Rg1 Be4 35. Ne5 Rb8 36. Nf3 Bxf3+ 37. Kxf3 Rxb3 38. Ke4 e2 39. Rd3 Rb5 40. Re1 Rxa5 41. Rxe2 g6 42. Kf3+ Kd6 43. h3 Ra4 44. g4 hxg4+ 45. hxg4 Ne7 46. Ke4 Nc6 47. Rh2 Ra1 48. Rh6 Re1+ 49. Kf3 Rf1+ 50. Kg3 Rg1+ 51. Kh4 Rh1+ 52. Kg5 Rxh6 53. Kxh6 Kd5 54. Kxg6 Ke4 55. Rd1 Kxf4 56. g5 Ne5+ 57. Kh5 Ke4 58. Re1+ Kf5 59. Rf1+ Ke4 60. Re1+ Kf5 61. Kh6 Nf7+ 62. Kh5 Ne5 {1/2-1/2 (62) Carlsen,M (2863) -Nepomniachtchi,I (2784) Lichess.org INT 2020}) 7. Bb2 {the bishop must develop here and there is no reason to postpone it. It also gives White a look at Black's next developing move before making any other decisions about piece placement.} Nc6 (7... O-O {seems more consistent with the early Bishop move, also waiting to see where to go with the Nb8.}) 8. Bxc6+ $5 {Tarjan is the only one in the database to play this, sending the game on to a different strategic path. It is a classic trade-off decision, eliminating the strong White bishop but inflicting permanent structural damage on Black and providing White with relatively easy targets to work against. The engines evaluate the position as equal.} (8. Nf3 {is of course the conventional move.}) 8... bxc6 9. Nf3 {developing and attacking e5.} Qd6 (9... f6 {would be the more standard way to protect the pawn in similar Black structures.}) 10. O-O {tucking the king away before Black can play ...Bh3. Interestingly, the engines do not consider this such a problem.} (10. Rc1 $5 {immediately moving to increase pressure on the c-file.} Bh3 11. Qc2 $11 {White's king is in no danger and the rook can go to g1 and still be useful.}) 10... Bf5 $6 {this fights for the e4 square, but not very effectively, considering White's next move.} (10... Bh3) ( 10... O-O) 11. d3 $14 {now White is threatening Ne4, with a discovered attack on the e5 pawn.} Qe6 {avoiding a double attack on the queen after White's next. } 12. Ne4 {Black now has an important strategic decision to make. Her choice to castle queenside is very imbalancing and appears to go against the position's needs. Kosteniuk must have felt that either the king was safe enough there, despite the weak pawns, or that she would be able to attack White first.} O-O-O $6 {Black tactically protects e5, as the Ne4 is now hanging due to the pinned d-pawn. However, White gets out of the pin by moving his queen to a better square, lining up on the c-file, so it is a net minus for Black.} (12... f6 {is the engine recommendation, protecting the pawn.}) ( 12... Bxe4 $6 {looks like a reasonable idea, inflicting some pawn structure damage on White in return. However, Black's c-pawns are still worse than White's e-pawns and Black would no longer have the two bishops.}) 13. Qc2 $16 f6 14. Rfc1 {putting a rook on c1 is clearly a good idea, creating a battery with additional pressure. An argument could be made for moving the other rook, since the a-pawn will not need its support to advance, but White evidently wanted to put both heavy pieces on the queenside.} Kb7 {a reasonable-looking defensive move, but Black may be better off looking for some counterplay.} ( 14... Bg4 $5 {is the engines' preference, threatening to exchange on f3 and undermine White's d-pawn.}) 15. b4 $5 {a move that no amateur would be likely to consider, as it just appears to lose a pawn.} (15. a4 {is the more obvious way of launching operations on the queenside.}) 15... Bxb4 16. Rab1 {now we see the idea of the pawn sacrifice, to attack down the b-file. It appears to be slower than alternatives, though, as Black looks to equalize with ...Rd5 or exchange off an attacking piece with ...Bxe4. In practical terms, it is still difficult to meet, however.} (16. a4 Rd5 17. a5 Nd7 18. Bxe5 $5 fxe5) 16... Be7 {withdraws the bishop from its current vulnerable square, eliminating tactics involving a discovered attack after the Bb2 moves (for example Bd4 or Bxe5). This does little to impede White's attacking ideas, however.} (16... Rd5 { this defends along the 5th rank, although White still has pressure and tactical ideas in the center against the rook and bishop. For example} 17. Bd4 Ba3 18. Nc5+ Bxc5 19. Bxc5 e4 20. Nd4 Rxd4 {the defensive exchange sacrifice is necessary} (20... Qd7 $2 21. dxe4) 21. Bxd4 {at this point the engine shows complete equality, despite the material difference, meaning that with accurate defensive play Black will be all right. If Kosteniuk calculated this far, however, it would hardly look appetizing.}) (16... Bxe4 $5 {may be the best practical choice here, eliminating an attacking piece and reducing complexity.} 17. dxe4 a5 {physically impeding White's future a-pawn advance} 18. a3 Be7 $14) 17. a4 {with the idea of pushing away the knight. Bringing another piece into the attack might boost its effectiveness.} (17. Nfd2 {appears to be a useful preparatory move, as the Nf3 now is not doing much otherwise.}) (17. Bc3) 17... Ka8 {getting off the open file.} 18. a5 Nd7 {although Black has been pushed around, White does not have anything decisive and now looks to recover the pawn. However, there is no rush to do so and he ends up in a slightly worse position with the move played, so alternatives are worth looking at.} 19. Qa4 ( 19. Ra1 $5 {with the idea of Ba3 and trading off White's worse bishop, helping fight for the dark squares onthe queenside.}) (19. Qxc6+ Qxc6 20. Rxc6 { regains the pawn more forthrightly and seems to give Black less leeway than the game continuation.}) 19... Rb8 {challenging on the open file and giving back the pawn for equality.} (19... Nb8 $6 {is a move amateurs might play, defending the c6 pawn at all cost. This would renew White's attacking chances, however. For example} 20. Nfd2 Rd5 21. Ba3 Bxa3 22. Qxa3 Na6 23. Rc4 {followed by Rbc1.}) 20. Rxc6 {this forces Black's next move, otherwise the c-pawn is lost.} Qb3 21. Qxb3 Rxb3 22. Nfd2 {finally the knight gets into the action.} ( 22. Rxc7 $2 {greed is punished by} Rhb8 23. Rc2 Ba3 $19) 22... Rb7 {now Black is doing fine and the open b-file is more of a benefit for her than it is for her opponent.} 23. Rc2 {this overprotects the Bb2, freeing the Rb1 to move, but seems a bit passive.} (23. a6 $5 Rb6 24. Rxc7 Rhb8 25. Rc2 Rxa6 {with a slight advantage to Black, with the passed a-pawn.}) 23... Rhb8 24. Nc4 { overprotecting the Bb2 again and getting the knight further into play.} a6 { physically blocking the further advance of the White a-pawn.} 25. Rbc1 { moving the rook out of the pin and doubling pressure on the c-file. White has managed to rearrange his pieces to be less awkward and can look to exchange off his worse dark-square bishop with Ba3.} Rb3 {this temporarily stops the bishop exchange idea, but White could still insist on it.} 26. Bc3 (26. Ned2 R3b5 27. Ba3 Bxa3 28. Nxa3 Rxa5 29. Nac4 Rc5 30. Ra2 Rc6 31. Rca1 $11 {with play against the a-pawn.}) (26. f4 $5 {could also be played immediately.}) 26... Be6 {Black again passes up the chance to exchange on e4. This seems to help validate White's previous move, though, as the bishop is now more useful on the a5-e1 diagonal protecting the a-pawn.} (26... Bxe4 27. dxe4 Nc5) 27. f4 $6 {one of the common cases where playing the right idea at the wrong time - one tempo later, in this case - could result in a setback.} exf4 {Black makes the obvious move, to avoid losing the e-pawn (attacked three times, defended twice).} (27... Bxc4 {this possibility is the difference.} 28. dxc4 exf4 29. gxf4 Nc5 30. Ng3 Bd6 31. e3 $17 {now White has three weak pawns (a5, c4, e3) to defend and Black's pieces are much better placed.}) 28. gxf4 {this allows Black to play ...Bxc4 again, but she overlooks this.} (28. Ncd2 {is the engines' recommendation, sacrificing the pawn for vigorous piece play.}) 28... R3b5 29. Bd4 $11 {now White is completely equal.} Bb4 {attempting to pick up the a-pawn. Komodo recommends to simply ignore it, as White's rooks could then make threats on the c-file.} (29... Bxc4 30. Rxc4 $11) 30. Bc3 {an equal defensive move. Given the repetition of moves that occurs here, it appears both players were likely low on time.} (30. Ne3 $5 {this unleashes the rooks.} Bxa5 31. Rc6 Bb6 32. Bxb6 R8xb6 33. Rxc7 $16) 30... Be7 31. Bd4 R8b7 32. Kg2 { White appears to be just marking time here. Perhaps this succeeded in provoking Black's next, which is a non-obvious blunder.} Kb8 $2 {this appears to be a reasonable move, getting the king out of the corner and reinforcing the pawn on c7. It has a tactical problem, though, which Tarjan finds.} (32... Bd5 {or moving to f7 or g8 would avoid the problem, which is created by the king making itself vulnerable to a back-rank check, physically blocking the rook from coming back to b8.}) 33. Ncd6 $1 {an example of a reloader tactic on d6, made possible by the threat of Rc8+} Bxd6 (33... Rb1 {the engines suggest leaving the bishop on the board rather than exchange it, but it's still a win for White, who is up the exchange with no compensation for Black.} 34. Nxb7 Rxb7 (34... Rxc1 35. Rxc1 Kxb7 36. Nc5+ $18) 35. Kf2 $18) 34. Nxd6 {and now Black loses material.} Rd5 35. Nxb7 Rxd4 36. Nd8 Bd5+ 37. e4 Kc8 38. Nc6 Bxc6 39. Rxc6 Rxd3 40. Rxc7+ $18 {at the end of the sequence, White is simple an exchange up with a dominating rook pair.} Kd8 41. Ra7 {both getting behind the a-pawn and leaving the c7 square potentially available for the other rook.} Rd6 42. Kf3 g5 {attempting to get any counterplay possible, by breaking up the pawn shield in front of White's king, or getting a kingside pawn majority.} 43. Rg1 h6 {this looks like it is reinforcing the g-pawn, but ends up giving another pawn to White.} 44. h4 {another interesting master idea, although an amateur might have more of a chance of spotting this tactic. The h-pawn cannot be taken due to the mate, and Black's g-pawn cannot be further reinforced, so it is lost.} Ke7 45. hxg5 hxg5 46. fxg5 fxg5 47. Rxg5 Kf6 48. Kf4 Ke6 49. Rg6+ Nf6 {allowing one final tactic.} 50. Rxf6+ {and now the pawn forks on e5 after the rook is recaptured.} 1-0