27 May 2012

Why I Play the Caro-Kann

As was mentioned in the original discussion of openings selection, after playing a large number of informal games with a variety of different defenses to 1. e4, I settled on the Caro-Kann prior to starting tournament play.  It wasn't a question of emotional attachment to its aesthetics or a desire to model myself after professional players who used it; rather, it was a highly practical choice.  At the time, the other defenses I had seriously tried out - the Ruy Lopez (both Closed and Open), Sicilian, Alekhine, and French - didn't fit as well with my abilities and approach to the game.  I'll be the first to admit that my abilities at the start of my amateur career were modest (low Class C range) and my approach to the game was not very coherent.  But then again, one has to start out somewhere.

Speaking of starting out, here's my first tournament game with the Caro-Kann, my sixth tournament game ever. In it I hold a Class B player to a draw, despite the 200 rating point difference.  The opening variation is the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which transposes by move 7 to a tabiya (common position across different openings) usually classified as a Semi-Tarrasch Defense (which is reached from 1. d4).  Although Black doesn't play optimally, he is able to easily handle White's limited threats and then reach a drawn endgame.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "90"] [EventDate "1985.??.??"] {D41: Queen’s Gambit Declined: Semi-Tarrasch with 5 cxd5 - transposition from Caro-Kann} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 {the most solid treatment of the line.} 6. Nf3 Be7 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bb5 {Bd3 is now overwhelmingly played, although the text move was more popular prior to the 1950s, it seems.} Nc6 9. Ne5 Qc7 $146 {if Black wants to move the queen, b6 is a good square instead.} (9... Bd7 {is the most obvious and strongest move, reinforcing c6 with a minor piece. Having White exchange off the centralized Ne5 for the Bd7 would also be a net plus for Black.}) 10. Nxd5 $14 exd5 11. Qa4 Bd7 (11... O-O {is preferred by Houdini and sacrifices a pawn in order to keep White’s king in the center.} 12. Bxc6 bxc6 13. Qxc6 Bb4 14. Bd2 Bxd2 15. Kxd2) 12. Bf4 {White apparently overlooks Black’s idea; O-O would avoid the check and spirit White’s king away to safety. } Bb4 13. Kf1 Bd6 $11 14. Rc1 (14. Nxc6 Bxc6 15. Re1 Kd7 16. Bxd6 Qxd6 $11) 14... Rc8 {this maintains equality.} (14... O-O {obvious and best, according to the engines.}) 15. Bg3 (15. Nxc6 {is a possible drawing line for White.} bxc6 16. Re1 Be6 17. Rc1 Bd7 18. Re1) 15... O-O $15 {Black finally gets his king to safety and activates the rook in the process.} 16. Nxd7 Qxd7 17. Bxd6 Qxd6 {White’s simplification has produced a rather drawish position, with a completely symmetrical pawn structure.} 18. g3 a6 {this essentially forces the minor piece exchange on c6.} 19. Bxc6 (19. Be2 {would be the best alternative, but this allows Black far too much leeway.} Qe6 20. Rc3 Qh3 21. Kg1 Rfe8 22. Qd1 Re4) 19... Rxc6 (19... Qe6 {is a useful in-between move found by the engines, threatening Qh3. The Bc6 cannot run away due to Rxc1}) 20. Rxc6 $11 Qxc6 21. Qxc6 bxc6 {a drawn endgame position. Black has the only structural pawn weakness, the backward c-pawn, but White cannot generate enough pressure on it for this to matter.} 22. Ke2 Rc8 23. Rc1 Kf8 24. Kd3 Ke7 25. Rc5 Kd6 26. b4 Rb8 27. Kc3 Rb5 28. a4 Rxc5 29. bxc5 Kd7 30. Kb4 Kc7 {now a completely drawn position, as White cannot threaten anything on the kingside with pawns alone and Black’s king will be able to defend when necessary.} 31. f4 h5 32. f5 g6 33. fxg6 fxg6 34. h4 Kb7 35. Kc3 a5 36. Kd3 Kc7 37. Ke3 Kd7 38. Kf4 Ke6 39. Kg5 Kf7 40. g4 hxg4 41. Kxg4 Kf6 42. Kf4 Kf7 43. Kg5 Kg7 44. h5 gxh5 45. Kxh5 Kf6 1/2-1/2'/>

It's been over twenty years since that game and I remain happy with using the Caro-Kann as my primary defense.  I've found it to be rich in ideas that are understandable and usable by an amateur player, which was one of the primary considerations for my original selection of it to use in tournament play.  I initially did quite poorly with tactics and instead fancied myself as a "positional player" (whatever that means).  In any event, the semi-open nature of the defense helped limit my exposure to complicated tactics, while allowing me to focus on one or two key ideas at the board.  This becomes a real advantage when the opponent does not properly identify or know how to respond to these ideas.

Over the years, I've found the defense to have enough depth in its position-types and ideas so that my handling of it has readily improved along with my own overall level of training and performance.  In other words, I've been able to evolve my opening repertoire choices within the various sub-variations, as my understand of the opening has grown, especially in reference to key middlegame ideas and plans.  My commentary on the ABC of the Caro-Kann mentions the main variations of the defense, for those interested.

I believe players should choose whatever openings interest them most, as long as they provide positive results for them, so have no real desire to convince others to play the Caro-Kann.  However, I do feel a need to comment on some of the naysaying about the opening that occasionally can be grating.  I've run across things like:
  • It's not appropriate for Class players and will only retard your growth because of its lack of tactics.
  • It's boring.
  • Nobody interesting plays it.
While there's a certain logic to not choosing the Caro-Kann if you want to focus on being a tactician - pick the Sicilian for that - tactics are hardly eliminated from the board after playing 1...c6 and, as with most openings, it largely depends on White how tactical or quiet things get.  One could make a similar argument about the Sicilian if White always played the Closed Sicilian or the 3. Bb5 variations.

As far as interesting vs. boring goes, it's a matter of taste.  There are very few gambit continuations in the Caro-Kann - although one of the main answers to the Advance Variation involves a pawn sacrifice - so gambiteers should definitely go elsewhere.  Otherwise, the variety and depth of the opening variations are comparable to any other main-line opening.  It's true that players who are interested in different aspects of positional play (isolated queen pawn positions as in the above game, executing key pawn breaks, queenside minority attacks, etc.) will probably get more out of the opening than tactical specialists.  Also, it's important to realize that the opening is solid rather than unbalancing, which means that a draw is a likelier result than with an unbalanced opening.

Finally, although it's not a major reason for choosing to play the opening, I've certainly enjoyed studying and playing over games from world champions who have employed it as Black: Capablanca, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand.  I've also particularly enjoyed Kortchnoi's games with it and will close with one of my favorites, a game in the Classical Variation that features opposite-side castling and attacking play on both wings.

[Event "Schuhplattler Veterans vs Ladies"] [Site "Munich"] [Date "2000.07.06"] [Round "3"] [White "Galliamova, Alisa"] [Black "Kortschnoj, Viktor"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B19"] [WhiteElo "2526"] [BlackElo "2620"] [PlyCount "128"] [EventDate "2000.07.04"] [EventType "schev"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "GER"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2000.10.18"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nf6 8. Ne5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Nbd7 12. f4 Be7 13. O-O-O c5 14. Bc3 O-O 15. Nxd7 Qxd7 16. f5 Qd5 17. b3 Rac8 18. dxc5 Qxc5 19. Bd4 Qa3 20. Kb1 Nd5 21. c4 Nb4 22. Qe2 b5 23. f6 Bxf6 24. Bxf6 gxf6 25. Nh5 f5 26. Nf6 Kh8 27. Rd2 Rfd8 28. Qe3 Kg7 29. Nh5 Kg6 30. Rh3 Rxc4 31. Rg3 Rg4 32. Rxg4 fxg4 33. Nf4 Kf5 34. Qc5 e5 35. Rxd8 Qxa2 36. Kc1 Qxb3 37. Rd2 Na2 38. Rxa2 Qxa2 39. Nd5 Qc4 40. Qxc4 bxc4 41. Kd2 a5 42. Kc3 Ke4 43. Nf6 Kf4 44. Kxc4 Kg3 45. h5 Kf4 46. Kb5 e4 47. Nd5 Ke5 48. Ne3 g3 49. Kxa5 f5 50. Kb4 f4 51. Ng4 Kd4 52. Nxh6 f3 53. Nf5 Kd3 54. h6 fxg2 55. h7 g1=Q 56. h8=Q Qb6 57. Ka4 Qa6 58. Kb4 Qc4 59. Ka3 Qc5 60. Kb3 Qb5 61. Ka2 Qxf5 62. Qh1 Qf2 63. Kb3 g2 64. Qh3 Ke2 0-1'/>

26 May 2012

Annotated Game #47: Oh no, not again!

I have to admit that I rather ruefully went over the following game, which is another excellent example of why improving players should be analyzing their own games regularly.  As occurred not so long ago in Annotated Game #31, a perfectly fine Caro-Kann Advance variation is transformed by Black into a dubious French variation with a tempo down, due to the move 5...e6.  Those who do not remember their past losses are condemned to repeat them.

Black is, objectively speaking, not lost out of the opening, but it's nevertheless clear that I had little real idea of what to do, making the position an uphill struggle both on the board and psychologically.  Perhaps this is why Black misses several equalizing opportunities, most notably on moves 9 and 14.  It's also worth noting that these moves would have required Black to recognize the need for more active play; Black by move 16 looks stuck in a passive, defensive mode.

This is also one of those games whose result can be largely explained by psychological factors.  In this case, I felt like I was struggling the entire time and was lost from a certain point on (around move 19), which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In fact, White misses a killer move (29. f6!) and Black equalizes immediately, finally being able to generate counterplay - if only he could recognize it.  The crowning moment of the game is when White apparently picks up a rook due to a Black blunder, which led to my resignation before it occurred.  However, the rook is in fact poisoned and its capture would lead to White being mated.

Moral of the story: remember why you shouldn't play certain opening moves; never resign without running at least one final calculation of the position.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B12"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "67"] {C02: French: Advance Variation} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 {oh no, not again!} (5... Bg4 {is the equalizing move, freeing the light-square bishop.}) 6. Bd3 Qb6 7. O-O cxd4 8. cxd4 Bd7 {if you visualize how this compares with Bg4, it's rather obvious why this is inferior.} 9. Bc2 Nge7 $146 (9... Nb4 {is found by the engines. This goes against the principle of moving a piece twice in the opening and neglecting other pieces' development. However, White has done the same thing with the bishop and Black has the tactical opportunity to exchange off some of White's better pieces.} 10. Bb3 $11 Bb5 11. Re1 Nd3 12. Re3 Nxc1 13. Qxc1 {and only now} Ne7) 10. a3 { Prevents intrusion on b4, notes Fritz. White has obviously spotted the Nb4 idea.} Nf5 {d4 becomes the focus of attention, says Fritz.} 11. Bxf5 {the only way to save the d-pawn.} exf5 12. Nc3 Be6 {this is essential both to defend d5 and to prevent the future advance of the e-pawn. However, it means the bishop is reduced to the status of a "big pawn"} 13. b4 Be7 14. Bg5 (14. Be3 { overprotecting the d4 pawn is preferred by Houdini.}) 14... O-O {this allows White to keep his positional plus.} (14... Bxg5 {would instead enter a forcing line leading to an endgame that both engines evaluate as equal for Black.} 15. Nxg5 Qxd4 16. Qxd4 Nxd4 17. Rfd1 $11 Nc6 18. Nxd5 Rd8 19. Nf4 Ke7) 15. Bxe7 Nxe7 16. Qd3 h6 {while Black is not lost, he lacks active counterplay, making it a much easier game for White.} 17. Nb5 {is premature. White needs to bring more pieces into play; neglecting rook development is a common amateur error.} (17. Rac1) 17... a6 (17... Bd7 {would instead reactivate the bishop.} 18. Nd6 Nc8 19. Nxc8 (19. Nxf5 $5 {is an exchange sacrifice preferred by Houdini.} Bb5 20. Qe3 Bxf1 21. Rxf1 Kh7) 19... Rfxc8 $11) 18. Nd6 $14 Nc8 {Black is desperate to get rid of the Nd6. Note the difference compared to the Bd7 line given above, where the skewer on b5 is possible.} 19. Nxf5 {White is now up a pawn and Black still has no counterplay. The Nc8 prevents Nd6, but is otherwise useless.} Qd8 (19... Qb5 {would give some meaning to the previous ... a6 thrust.}) 20. N3h4 Ne7 21. f4 (21. Nd6 $1) 21... Rc8 $2 (21... Nxf5 { time to exchange off some attacking pieces.} 22. Nxf5 Bxf5 23. Qxf5 $16 { and at least White no longer has mate threats, although is still winning overall.}) 22. Ne3 (22. Nd6 $142 {and White either wins the exchange or is given a crushing kingside attack.} Nc6 (22... Rb8 23. f5 Bd7 24. f6) 23. Nxc8 Bxc8 24. Nf3 $18) 22... f5 (22... Bd7 {is still possible.}) 23. exf6 Rxf6 24. f5 Bd7 25. Ng4 Rfc6 {a desperate bid for activity.} (25... Rf7) 26. Ne5 (26. Rae1 {would increase White's pressure in a major way, rather than leaving the Ra1 out of the fight.}) 26... Rc3 (26... Rf6 $5 {would blockade the f-pawn and White has nothing better than retreating with Ng4.}) 27. Qd1 Bb5 $6 (27... Nc6 28. f6 Nxe5 29. dxe5 $18) 28. Rf3 {this gives Black a temporary reprieve.} (28. f6 $1 Bxf1 29. Qg4 Qf8 30. Qe6+ Kh7 $18) 28... Rc2 $4 {simply trying to avoid an exchange. Developing the queen to an active square appears to offer Black much more in the way of chances.} (28... Qb6 {is Fritz's choice} 29. Nhg6 Nxg6 30. Rxc3 Rxc3 31. fxg6 Re3 $16) (28... Qc7) 29. Qe1 $2 {after this move, the engines actually evaluate Black as equal.} (29. f6 {instead blows open Black's position. It's interesting to see how White continually missed the pawn push and preferred piece play instead.} Kh7 30. fxe7 Qxe7 31. Nhg6 $18) 29... Qb6 $11 {covering f6 and of course threatening d4.} 30. Rf4 (30. Re3 Qxd4 31. Rd1 Qxd1 32. Qxd1 Rc1 $15) 30... Re2 {this is the non-tactical choice, which is good enough to keep the position equal.} (30... g5 $142 $5 {is the sharp line found by the engines.} 31. Rg4 (31. fxg6 Re2 32. Qb1 Rxe5 33. a4 Bc4 34. a5 Qa7 $17) 31... Be2 $17) 31. Qg3 $11 Re4 (31... g5 $5 {is still best, although no longer winning now that the Qg3 pins the pawn, preventing it from immediately taking either piece.} 32. f6 Rxe5 $14) 32. Rxe4 $14 dxe4 33. Qe3 Rc2 $4 (33... Nd5 {would bring relief, comments Fritz.} 34. Qxe4 Nc3 $11 {and now} 35. Qe3 { is the only move which protects d4, leading to a repetition of moves after Nd5. }) 34. Qb3+ $2 {apparently picks up the rook, but both players overlook a mate for Black if this occurs, based on Qxd4+} (34. Qb3+ Kh7 35. Qxc2 (35. Rd1 $14) 35... Qxd4+ 36. Kh1 (36. Qf2 Qxa1+) 36... Qxa1+) (34. Re1 $18 {and White is comfortably winning, with the e-pawn about to fall.}) 1-0

19 May 2012

Annotated Game #46: Maneuvers and Missed Opportunities

This fourth-round tournament game features an extended period of middlegame maneuvering, which is a feature of some English Opening variations in which neither side has obvious weaknesses; a head-on attack would simply hand the advantage to your opponent.  Black early on inflicts some positional and structural weaknesses on himself, including weakening his dark-square complex and locking his light-square bishop away.  White's choice of non-confrontational opening variation means that he ends up with a positional edge, but no obvious way to immediately punish Black.

In the middlegame, White's incorrect choice of strategy with 12. b4 leads him nowhere in particular, although Black continues an to make some positionally weakening moves.  White starts to go astray with his awkward move 22, essentially ceding the initiative - at least mentally - to Black.  A remarkable tactical idea for White on move 27 (and afterwards) is completely missed by both sides, which if the engines had a sense of humor would no doubt very much amuse them.  After a good deal of back-and-forth, Black's attempt to press White comes to naught and a draw is a agreed, with neither side seeing how to make progress.  It's worth noting that Black was rated around 100 points higher than I was, which I think weighed on my decision-making process and made me more inclined to look for a draw and pass up other opportunities.  With more mental toughness that wouldn't have happened.

Key points that can be drawn from this game:
  • Applying the plan of pushing the b-pawn, which is common in other variations, was not called for here.  Playing an opening on automatic and not critically evaluating different positions can lead to ineffectual play.
  • It is important to look for central pawn breaks and exchanges in the English.  The play here was typical of my past refusal to consider these types of moves, which I wrongly felt were uncharacteristic of the opening.
  • Similarly, I failed to consider key alternatives on move 25 and 26 which would have been superior and probably winning.  This was symptomatic of my failure to look for tactical options in many situations, as these did not fit with my self-imposed mental image of having a "positional style" as a player.
The last point on how my self-perceived playing style held me back is, I think, a common and major psychological flaw among amateur players.  More on this later.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A13"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "87"] {A13: English Opening: 1...e6} 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 g6 {this move is not consistent with the QGD-type setup pursued to this point and weakens the kingside dark square complex.} 5. b3 Bg7 6. Bb2 O-O 7. Qc2 Nbd7 8. O-O Re8 {The highest-level encounter in the database had the following continuation:} (8... c6 9. Rd1 Re8 10. d4 Ne4 11. Nbd2 Nxd2 12. Rxd2 b6 13. e4 Bb7 14. Re1 Rc8 15. Ne5 Nf6 16. f3 Qc7 17. Nd3 Nd7 18. cxd5 cxd5 19. Qxc7 Rxc7 20. e5 {1/2-1/2 Panno,O-Rodriguez,J/Boca 1997/CBM 58 ext (20)}) 9. Re1 { note that the Panno game featured Rd1. Unless White intends to try for e4 at some point, or exchange on d5, the rook looks misplaced on e1.} (9. Nc3 { would be simple development, deferring placement of the rooks.}) 9... c6 10. d3 {Covers e4, observes Fritz. The idea is to combat Black's counterplay possibilities in the center, rather than attempt to assert control of it via d4.} Qc7 {Black spends a good amount of time in this game moving his queen around, not always to good effect. On c7, among other things it is unprotected. } (10... e5 $5 $11 {is what the engines prefer, with a bigger center for Black. } 11. cxd5 cxd5 12. Nc3 a6) 11. Nbd2 $14 {now White has all his pieces out, while the Bc8 is still locked in for Black, giving White a temporary edge in development.} b6 12. b4 {this was the key strategic point for White, who had to decide how to proceed. The b4 push, which in other variations is a main theme, here is unsupported and artificial.} (12. cxd5 {is Houdini's first choice, which leads to a resolution of the central tension in White's favor and kingside attacking possibilities.} exd5 {forced, due to the hanging Qc7.} 13. e4 Bb7 (13... dxe4 14. dxe4 {and White has a central pawn majority of 1-0 and attacking possibilities using the e5 push.}) 14. e5 Ng4 15. d4 c5 16. Bh3) (12. Rac1 {was also possible, patiently building up on the c-file.}) 12... Bb7 13. a4 dxc4 (13... a5 {is what Houdini prefers, thereby neutralizing White's pawn advance.} 14. bxa5 Rxa5) 14. Qxc4 {this greatly improves the position and reach of the queen. However, Nxc4 would probably improve White's piece placement even more, relatively speaking.} Rac8 15. Rac1 {here it seems better to leave the rook on a1 for pressure up the a-file.} (15. Qc3 $5) 15... e5 { this opens the diagonal for White to exert pressure on f7.} 16. Ng5 Re7 { we now have a complicated position where White has a definite plus, but no obvious threats. A period of maneuvering is thus called for.} 17. Nb3 {this makes the most sense if White is looking to push a5.} (17. Nde4 {is another version of the idea of getting this knight into play.} h6 18. Nxf6+ Nxf6 19. Ne4 Nxe4 20. Bxe4) (17. Ba3 {is suggested by Houdini, moving the bishop to a more productive diagonal.}) 17... h6 18. Ne4 Qb8 {this is rather passive and doesn't accomplish much, although White now has to start taking into account the Rc8 lined up with his queen.} 19. Nxf6+ Bxf6 {this seems an unnecessarily awkward placement for the bishop.} 20. Qc2 {protects the Bb2, but is passive; the bishop can exchange itself for its counterpart on f6 in the event Black pushes e4.} (20. a5 {would be the only move taking advantage of the Nb3 and is preferred by the engines. One possible continuation:} c5 21. Bxb7 Qxb7 22. bxc5 Nxc5 23. axb6 axb6 24. Ba3 $14) 20... Qd6 {here White definitely would still love to have a Ra1, in order to support Ba3.} (20... c5 21. Bxb7 Qxb7 22. Nd2 $11) 21. Qd2 {with a cheap threat against h6} (21. Nd2 {threatening Ne4 and Nc4 would give White a substantial positional plus. For example} Bg7 $14 22. a5 Ree8 23. Nc4 Qc7 24. axb6 axb6 25. Ra1) 21... Qe6 22. Rc3 $6 {while not losing, this puts the rook in an awkward spot and exposes it to a discovered attack from the Bf6.} (22. Qc2) 22... Kg7 23. Rec1 Nb8 24. a5 {finally moving forward on the queenside.} (24. d4 {would instead block the a1-h8 diagonal and give White a clearer edge.}) 24... e4 (24... Na6 25. d4 Rd8 26. Re3 $14) 25. d4 { at this point in my career, I never would have considered an exchange sacrifice.} (25. dxe4 {is found by the engines. The exchange sacrifice is only temporary, as it turns out.} Bxc3 26. Qxc3+ f6 $16 27. Bh3 Qf7 28. Bxc8 Bxc8 { and White is a pawn to the good.}) 25... Rd7 (25... Qd5 26. f3 Bg5 27. f4 $11) 26. e3 {White is obviously only thinking defense at this point and not considering all his options.} (26. Re3 $142 $16 {and the e4 pawn cannot be adequately defended.}) 26... Be7 $4 {is a losing blunder in a complicated position, but White does not take advantage of it.} (26... Na6 $5 {is Fritz's recommendation.} 27. b5 Nb4 $11) 27. Rc4 (27. d5 {is the tactical idea found by the engines, as the queen is attacked and White also has a discovered check threat on the long diagonal.} Rxd5 28. Rxc6+ Kg8 29. Qc3 Bf6 30. Rxc8+ Bxc8 31. Qxf6 Qxf6 32. Bxf6 {and White is a full piece ahead.}) 27... f6 {closing off the long diagonal.} 28. Ba3 {with the idea of overprotecting b4 and locking down control of c5, also anticipating Black's next move. However, the move betrays a lack of understanding of the potential of the d5 push.} (28. d5 $142 $5 {is still possible, although no longer devastating.} Rxd5 29. Nd4 Qg4 30. h3 Qd7 31. Bxe4) 28... Ba6 {the initiative temporarily shifts to Black.} 29. R4c3 Qd5 30. Qb2 Bb5 31. Nd2 {creating threats by honing in on the e4 pawn} f5 32. f3 {the engines agree this is best; this is a common move in these types of positions, to break out the Bg2. Unfortunately, I misplay the idea.} exf3 33. Nxf3 (33. Bxf3 {would be a little better, helping retain the initiative and immediately getting the bishop active on the long diagonal again.} Qf7 34. Nc4) 33... Qe6 $2 (33... Rdd8) 34. Ne5 $6 {again missing the idea of d5.} (34. d5 $1 Qf6 35. Nd4 bxa5 36. Nxb5 axb4 37. dxc6 bxc3 38. cxd7 Nxd7 39. Rxc3 Rxc3 40. Nxc3 $18 {and White is up a piece for a pawn.}) 34... Rdc7 35. axb6 (35. Nxc6 $5 Nxc6 36. Bxc6 $14 {and if the bishop is captured then d5 is played.}) 35... axb6 $14 36. Kf2 $11 (36. Nxc6 {was again possible here.}) (36. Qd2 {was a better choice if White wanted to reinforce the e3 pawn.}) 36... Bf6 {now Black again seizes the initiative.} 37. Nc4 Bxc4 38. Rxc4 b5 39. R4c2 Re8 {Exerts pressure on the backward pawn, notes Fritz.} (39... Nd7 {getting the knight back into the game would have been more useful, in the engines' opinion.}) 40. Re1 {the passive choice.} (40. Rc3) 40... Bg5 $2 {Increases the pressure on the backward pawn. However, missing the threat (again) of d5.} 41. Rce2 (41. d5+ $142 {White missed this excellent chance, notes Fritz.} Qf6 42. dxc6 $18) 41... Qd6 42. Qc3 Rce7 (42... Nd7) 43. Bb2 Bf6 44. Qd2 {and a draw was agreed; Houdini rates the position as equal.} (44. Ra1 $5 $14 {is noteworthy, says Fritz, and would appear to be the best try for an advantage, exploiting the penetration threat on the a-file.}) 1/2-1/2

14 May 2012

U.S. Championship: Why They Play the English

Because when you have to win, it's time to bring out the English.

The following game features IM Rusudan Goletiani defeating Iryna Zenyuk in the 5th round of the Women's round-robin.  Goletiani starts with a noncommittal opening, which due to Black's choices evolves into an English-KID (King's Indian Defense) setup.  You can compare it with Annotated Game #41, which has the same position after move 7.  In this game, however, White immediately goes for the bishop and knight exchange, whereas in the previous game I delayed playing Bg5 and did not get the opportunity to make the exchange.

I found Goletiani's play both instructive and engaging, with positional maneuvering giving way to a flurry of unrelenting pressure on Black's position after she finds a key tactical flaw in her opponent's play.  Because of the importance of the opening clash and the subsequent middlegame ideas, I've provided some more detailed notes than usual.

The below game is GM Yasser Seirawan's second win of the tournament, coming in the 6th round of the championship section, which is playing two more games than the women's group.  It comes against GM Ray Robson, who is already a very strong player and still rising.  The game features an English-Grunfeld hybrid, Robson's choice on move 3, with some subsequent interesting decisions made by Seirawan that unbalance the game and generate winning possibilities.  Here it is, with some light notes.

12 May 2012

Chess - échecs - ajedrez - xadrez - шахматы

Thanks to a new Google widget, this blog now has built-in translation available; the language selection can be accessed from the top of the sidebar.  It can also be interesting just seeing how it looks in your language of choice.  The ChessFlash game commentaries will not automatically translate, however.

Gens Una Sumus!

Annotated Game #45: The Slav Punished

In this third-round tournament game, it seems that I took the solidity of the Slav Defense for granted.  Playing an opening on automatic may not always be punished by your opponent, but this time mine quickly spotted the flaws in my play, particularly those caused by Black's 9th move.  While White's execution of his plan wasn't perfect, the apparent helplessness of Black in the face of White's simple attacking ideas makes a strong impression.

What could Black have done better?  The sixth move was perhaps not ideal, although it did not lead inevitably to Black's difficulties.  Rather, it was symptomatic of Black not thinking through his piece development.  9...Bd6 also was not directly disastrous, but betrayed the sloppiness of Black's thinking and planning in the opening.  Interestingly, it was exchanging White's Bd3 that really got Black into trouble.  One of the rules in evaluating the result of a piece exchange is to ask yourself who has the better positioned/more active pieces at the end of the sequence.  Clearly, White replacing the bishop on d3 with his queen leads to a major positional advantage for him, which he then uses to initiate an attack on Black's king.

The simplicity with which White conducts his attack also illustrates how development and effective piece placement can translate into a successful offensive.  By move 17, for example, White has four pieces (queen, knight, bishop, rook) all with great prospects on the kingside, while Black does not have a single piece that is effective there.

In sum, this short game is an excellent illustration of 1) the perils of neglecting development, 2) the importance of evaluating piece exchanges, and 3) the benefit of having a local material superiority during an attack.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "45"] {D10: Slav Defence: cxd5 (without early Nf3) and 3 Nc3} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 dxc4 4. e3 {normally White plays e4 here.} b5 {the intention here is not to try to hang on to the gambit pawn, but rather chase White's knight to a worse square.} 5. a4 b4 6. Na2 a5 (6... e6 {is greatly preferred in the database and scores well for Black. This is the first point where Black could have pursued faster development, opening the path for his dark-square bishop.}) 7. Bxc4 Nf6 8. Nf3 e6 {by this point we are looking at a transposition back to standard lines, which feature White developing Nf3, Nc3 then playing 5. e3 after dxc4.} 9. O-O Bd6 {this sub-standard move throws off Black's game. Two database games feature it, both losses. While the bishop looks actively posted, the likelihood of it ever usefully targeting the h2 pawn is in fact quite low. It also creates a vulnerability to a pawn fork on e5.} (9... Nbd7 {followed by ...Be7 and ...O-O would be solid.}) 10. Bd3 {White has already spotted the idea of pushing e4-e5. However, he could have prepared this and also developed another piece by Qe2, Qc2 or Re1.} Ba6 {this unfortunately allows White to push the e-pawn without opposition.} (10... Nbd7 11. e4 e5) 11. e4 Bc7 { now either the bishop or knight has to retreat.} (11... Be7 {is a better defensive move, preventing a possible Bg5 pin of the Nf6.}) 12. Re1 {White prepares the advance e5, says Fritz.} (12. Bg5 h6 13. Bxf6 Qxf6 14. e5 Qd8 { and White's space and development advantage is obvious.}) 12... O-O 13. e5 Bxd3 {while this exchanges off White's dangerous bishop on d3, it's replaced with the even more dangerous queen.} (13... Nd5 $5 $14 {immediately is what the engines prefer.}) 14. Qxd3 $16 Nd5 {while beautifully centralized, this knight no longer contributes to the kingside defense, which is what Black needs to focus on.} (14... Ne8 {is a better defensive try.}) 15. Ng5 $1 g6 {forced} 16. Qh3 h5 17. g4 {White's attacking play is simple, obvious and effective. Note how four of White's pieces are available for the attack, while Black's pieces are poorly placed for the defense.} Kg7 {Black attempts to get a defender on the h-file.} 18. gxh5 Rh8 19. h6+ {the obvious follow-up, although not the best one, according to the engines.} (19. Qf3 {targets the weak f7 square} Qe8 20. hxg6 fxg6 21. Qg4 {with Nxe6 to come.}) 19... Kg8 ({not} 19... Rxh6 20. Nxe6+ fxe6 21. Qxh6+) 20. Re4 {correctly bringing another piece into the attack.} Ne7 21. Nxe6 {Demolishes the pawn shield, says Fritz.} (21. h7+ Kg7 22. Nxe6+ {is an improved variation, according to Houdini, although would be difficult to see over-the-board.} fxe6 23. Qh6+ Kf7 24. Rf4+ Nf5 25. Rxf5+ exf5 26. Bg5 Qf8 27. e6+ Kxe6 28. Qxg6+ Kd7) 21... Qd7 {this allows a nice finish by White.} (21... fxe6 {is no good:} 22. Qxe6+ Kf8 23. Qf6+ Ke8 24. Qxh8+) ( 21... Qc8 {is a better defensive square, as it leaves the d7 square open for the king; also, the queen is protected there by the Ne7.}) 22. h7+ $1 Rxh7 23. Qxh7+ $1 {a beautiful, forced end to the game, says Fritz.} (23. Qxh7+ Kxh7 24. Nf8+ Kg7 25. Nxd7 Nxd7 26. Bg5 $18 {White would now be a pawn and the exchange up, with no counterplay for Black.}) 1-0

08 May 2012

U.S. Chess Championship underway

The 2012 U.S. championships are now underway.  The format this year is a round robin, which is both classic and doable, with a manageable number of players (12 in the men's section, 10 in the women's).

The tournament website is excellent and I'm currently looking at the live coverage of the first-round games, with some still in progress.  Great to see it offered and in an accessible way.

05 May 2012

Annotated Game #44: Queenside breakthrough in the English

This second-round tournament game features a classic queenside breakthrough in the English, even if it was somewhat messily executed by White.  Black does not appear to have much knowledge or faith in his opening play, avoiding the full King's Indian Defense (KID) setup by not playing ...e5 and furthermore not generating any meaningful counterplay.  I found it useful to examine moves like 12...c5 to see why they fail to stop White's queenside pressure.  It was also useful to see Houdini's alternative plans for White, which would have done away with distractions like 13. Bg5.

The game is an illustration of what can happen if Black fails to generate kingside or centrally-based counterplay against the standard English plan of queenside expansion against a KID-type setup.  Playing only on White's terms never ends up well for Black, who should either deliberately work to restrain White's plan on the queenside with moves like ...a5, and/or go for kingside expansion with ...e5 and likely an eventual ...f5.  What happens in this game, with the queenside breakthrough evolving into a kingside attack, is a typical outcome when White is able to dominate the position.

One of the benefits of playing the English Opening at the Class level is the relatively high probability of throwing your opponent on their own thinking resources early on.  It doesn't always end up being this one-sided, but it's usually obvious as White when Black is having trouble finding a response to your opening play, which among other things typically results in Black burning a lot of clock time early on in the game.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A16"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Fritz/Houdini"] [PlyCount "61"] {A16: English Opening: 1...Nf6 with ...d5} 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. d3 c6 {the third most popular move choice, after e5 and Nc6. Black indicates he is going to fight for the d5 square.} 7. O-O Bf5 {while a huge variety of moves have been played here, the text move (which misplaces the bishop) shows up exactly once, in a loss by a Class A player. The majority of games feature ...e5, taking it into a KID setup.} (7... Bg4 {would be a better option for developing the bishop at this stage.} 8. h3 Bxf3 9. Bxf3 Nbd7 10. Rb1 a5 11. Bg2 e5 12. e4 Nc5 13. Be3 Nfd7 14. f4 Ne6 15. f5 Nd4 16. h4 Rc8 17. Rf2 Rc7 18. Bh3 Kh8 19. Kh1 Rg8 20. fxg6 fxg6 21. Qd2 Rf8 22. Rbf1 { Rabar, B-Szilagyi,G/Reggio Emilia 1965/EXT 2001/1/2-1/2 (27)}) 8. Rb1 {White is undeterred from pursuing his queenside expansion plan.} Nbd7 (8... Qc8 { would be a more logical follow-up to the bishop development, aiming to play Bh3 to exchange off the Bg2.}) 9. b4 (9. Nd4 {on this move is preferred by the engines, as after the b4 push the Nc3 is also unprotected, allowing the response Nd5.}) 9... Rb8 {the rook would be better placed on c8, helping restrain the b4-b5 push because of its pressure down the c-file.} 10. Nd4 Be6 ( 10... Nd5 {would be a tactical way for Black to free his position up, for example} 11. cxd5 Bxd4 12. Bb2 Nf6) 11. Nxe6 fxe6 12. b5 {White continues his expansionary plans. In contrast with the above variation, Black has little prospect for counterplay.} c5 {this temporarily prevents White from opening up the queenside, at the cost of opening up the lane for the Bg2 and weakening the surrounding squares.} 13. Bg5 {played with the intention of exchanging off the Bg7, although White never actually does this.} (13. Qa4 {is one alternative.} d5 14. cxd5 Nb6 15. Qxa7 Nfxd5 16. Ne4) 13... Re8 (13... h6 { simply creates a future target for White.} 14. Bd2 $14) 14. Qd2 Nf8 {this protects the doubled e6 pawn, but locks the knight away, so is a net positional loss for Black.} 15. a4 N6d7 16. Ne4 {the knight looks strong here, but is in fact doing very little, despite the immediate threat of Nxd6 due to the pin on the e7 pawn.} Nf6 {Black threatens to exchange off the Ne4 and free his game a little. Houdini favors a plan for White that preserves the knight and regroups his pieces.} 17. a5 (17. Nc3 {and now a possible continuation is} Qc7 18. Qc1 N6d7 19. Bd2 Ne5 20. a5 {and now if} Qxa5 21. Ra1 Qb6 22. Nd5 exd5 23. Ba5) 17... a6 {this only helps set up White's breakthrough on the queenside.} (17... Nxe4) 18. Rb3 {preparing to switch the heavy pieces to the b-file and dominate it.} Ra8 {now the rook isn't a target as it was on b8, but it's not doing much of use on a8 and White's Bg2 is looking hungrily at it.} 19. Rfb1 $18 Nxe4 (19... axb5 20. Rxb5 Ra7 21. Nxf6+ exf6 22. Be3 $18) 20. dxe4 (20. Bxe4 {would preserve the Bishop's pressure on the long diagonal, even after} d5 21. Bg2 Ra7 22. cxd5 exd5) 20... e5 {evidently played with the idea of preventing White from challenging the d6 pawn, but now the light-squre bishop springs to life on another diagonal.} (20... Nd7 21. bxa6 bxa6 22. Rb7 $18) 21. Bh3 Qc7 $2 {this makes the queen a target on the 7th rank after White's rooks crash through. Howver, Black is essentially lost by this point anyway, as he cannot stop White from breaking into his position and has zero counterplay.} 22. bxa6 Rxa6 (22... bxa6 {does not solve anything, says Fritz.} 23. Rb7 Qc6 24. Qd3 $18) 23. Rxb7 Qxa5 24. Qxa5 {White opts to simplify into a winning position.} ({The engines instead find a mating attack with} 24. Qd5+ { which is not obvious (at least for me) in looking at the position.} e6 25. Bxe6+ Rxe6 26. Be7 $18 Ra8 27. Bxf8 Rxf8 28. Qxe6+) 24... Rxa5 25. Bxe7 Ra2 26. e3 Rea8 (26... Rc2 27. Bxd6 Rxc4 28. Rc7 $18) 27. Rb8 (27. Bxd6 {is the simpler approach.}) 27... R8a3 $4 {removing the extra protector of f8.} (27... Rxb8 28. Rxb8 Kf7 29. Bxd6 Ra7 $18) 28. Be6+ Kh8 29. Bxf8 {missing the near-term mate.} (29. Rxf8+ Bxf8 30. Bf6+ Bg7 31. Rb8#) 29... Bxf8 $18 30. Rxf8+ Kg7 31. Rf7+ (31. Rf7+ Kh6 32. Rbb7 Ra1+ 33. Kg2 $18) 1-0