21 May 2014

Commentary: 2014 U.S. Championship - Round 11

The final round of the U.S. Championship was outstanding to see, especially the must-win effort from Gata Kamsky to gain a spot in the playoffs (which he then won).  In this game, he chose one of his regular weapons as White, the London System, against GM Josh Friedel.  This strategy of opening selection, relying on a deeply known opening that is considered solid rather than unbalancing, is similar for example to Kasparov's choice of the English in his must-win final game against Karpov in the 1987 World Championship.

Kamsky's strategic depth was shown via moves like 13. a5, which in fact is aimed at undermining the center.  Friedel had multiple chances to equalize or gain counterplay, but instead ended up choosing to play his opponent's game rather than his own.  I identify move 21 as the key strategic decision point for Black, as he deliberately passes up unbalanced play on the queenside, where he has an advantage, in favor of attempting to shore up his kingside defenses.  Black's subsequent awkward defensive contortions are eventually exploited by White, who ends up dominating the entire board.

The game is worth examining for its individual positional and tactical decisions, but what stands out are the strategic factors and the role psychology played, with Black evidently feeling the pressure of playing against his world-class opponent.

[Event "ch-USA 2014"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2014.05.19"] [Round "11"] [White "Kamsky, G."] [Black "Friedel, J."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A46"] [WhiteElo "2713"] [BlackElo "2505"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Houdini"] [PlyCount "127"] [EventDate "2014.05.07"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bf4 {the London System.} c5 {this and ...b6 are the two most popular responses.} 4. e3 {continuing with the standard setup, although c3 is also possible. Exchanging on c5 would simply give Black what he wants in the center and develop the dark-squared bishop.} cxd4 {exchanging the c for the d pawn, which according to classical theory is a plus. Of course this is done all the time in the Open Sicilian by White, so general ideas only get you so far.} 5. exd4 b6 {again, the most popular continuation. The light-squared bishop will otherwise be out of the game.} 6. h3 {a typical feature of the opening, although played early here. The main point is to provide a retreat square for the Bf4, rather than to take g4 away from the Nf6.} Bb7 7. Bd3 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Re1 d6 {Black challenges the hold White has over e5, which otherwise would be an excellent outpost for him.} 10. a4 {the idea is to undermine Black on the queenside.} a6 11. Nbd2 Nbd7 12. Bh2 {White anticipates a challenge to the bishop and withdraws it to safer territory.} Re8 13. a5 { demonstrating a deep understanding of the position. With this advance on the wing, in fact Kamsky is undermining Black's position in the center.} d5 { while a central pawn on d5 is not a bad thing in itself, here the pawn advance gives up the e5 square and also blocks the Bb7.} (13... bxa5 14. Nc4 Bxf3 15. Qxf3 d5 16. Nxa5 $14) (13... b5 {is Houdini's preference, which maintains Black's central configuration and makes fewer concessions to White.} 14. c4 bxc4 15. Nxc4 Qb8) 14. c3 {Kamsky with this move reinforces d4 and gives his queen (or bishop) the c2 square.} Bc6 (14... bxa5 {still does not work.} 15. Qa4 {and the a5 pawn will fall, leaving its double on a6 a target.}) 15. axb6 Qxb6 16. Ra2 Bb5 17. Bc2 {Kamsky's decision to avoid the piece trade I believe was influenced by the must-win nature of the game. He likely assessed that in practical terms, his winning chances would decrease, even if the position appeared slightly better.} (17. Qe2 Bxd3 18. Qxd3 $14) 17... Rec8 {the action looks to be over on the queenside, so Black commits his rook.} 18. Ne5 Nxe5 { leaving the strong knight on e5 would do Black no good and the piece exchange is also welcomed. However, White as a result of the maneuver gains more control over the strategic square.} 19. Bxe5 Nd7 20. Bf4 a5 21. Re3 {the rook lift idea looks a little crude, but again White needs the win. Black's forces are also away from the kingside, so there is an intimidation factor to White's potential attack.} Nf8 {a key turning point strategically. Friedel chooses to shift his play back to the kingside for defense, mirroring Kamsky's efforts, rather than play on the queenside where he has a space advantage and pressure.} (21... a4 {here or on the next move is the engine's recommendation, as it assesses that White will not be able to put together a successful kingside attack.} 22. Ra1 (22. Bxa4 $2 Bxa4 23. Rxa4 Qxb2 $17) 22... Bd6 23. Bxd6 Qxd6 24. Rg3 g6 $11) 22. Qg4 Bd7 23. Be5 Ng6 24. Qh5 Rf8 {Black continues to play White's game, rather than try to impose his own ideas.} 25. Nf3 Be8 26. Bh2 { again preserving the bishop and anticipating possible Black tactics with the Be8 now lined up on the Qh5.} f5 27. Nd2 {this clears the h5-d1 diagonal for the queen.} Rf6 {while this reinforces Black's defense on the 6th rank, it hampers his piece coordination.} 28. Re1 f4 $6 {this loosens Black's position and gives back the g4 square to White.} (28... Bd6 $5 {looking to exchange pieces.}) 29. Qg4 Bd6 30. Nf3 {the knight can now return to its more active square, since the queen is safe.} Qc7 31. Kh1 {this looks like a waiting move, as there does not appear to be a pressing reason to delay Ng5.} Bf7 {still playing defensively and rather passively.} (31... Rb8 {would provide some counterplay, or the aforementioned ...a4 idea.}) 32. Ng5 {now White looks to be in control strategically.} Nf8 {Black has to contort himself even more to cover his weaknesses, while White feels no pressure.} 33. Nxf7 Kxf7 34. Qf3 Rb8 35. Bg1 {apparently aimed at covering the f2 square, although the engine considers that Kg1 is a better way to accomplish this. The bishop also eventually provides support for d4 after the c-pawn is pushed, but locking the piece away in the meantime seems a high price to pay.} (35. Kg1 Kg8 36. Qd3 $16 ) 35... Kg8 36. Bd1 {a passive move that follows the previous passive move, meaning that White has seemingly dissipated much of his pressure. I imagine both players were in time pressure by this point, which explains the following repetition.} Qc4 37. Ra4 Qc7 38. Ra2 Qc4 39. b3 Qc7 40. Qd3 {compared with the above variation on move 36, White's bishops are significantly worse in this position.} Rc8 41. Rc2 Qb7 42. c4 Qb4 (42... Bb4 $5 {seems to be a more effective blockading piece for the queenside, leaving the queen available for other duties.}) 43. Rf1 dxc4 {this transformation of the pawn structure benefits White more than Black. Again Black gives up a key central square, this time e4.} 44. bxc4 Rd8 45. Qe4 (45. f3 {is also possible.}) 45... a4 { Black does not have sufficient support for the a-pawn, while in contrast the c/ d pawn duo is stronger and has better piece support.} 46. Bg4 $16 {the bishop finally springs to life again, also clearing the first rank for the rook.} (46. c5 {played immediately also looks very effective, as Houdini already evaluates White as being the equivalent of two pawns up.} Bc7 47. f3 Ng6 48. Ra2 $18 { and the a-pawn will fall.}) 46... a3 47. c5 a2 $2 {this loses material and seals Black's fate, but perhaps Friedel thought it gave him the best practical chances, setting a trap if the Bd6 is captured.} (47... Bc7) 48. f3 $18 (48. cxd6 $2 Qb1 $1) 48... Bb8 (48... Qb1 49. Rcc1 $18) 49. Rxa2 Qc4 50. Raa1 { although White is only a pawn up, it is a protected passed pawn. Meanwhile, his pieces are so active and coordinated, and Black's are not, that it is nearly impossible to imagine any way to save the game against someone like Kamsky.} Rf7 51. Rfe1 Re7 52. Bf2 Ree8 53. h4 {a simple but effective idea, to threaten to pry open Black's king position.} Re7 54. h5 Ree8 55. Rab1 {White is able to make threats on both wings and also dominates the center.} Rd7 56. Kg1 Qa2 57. c6 Rde7 58. Ra1 Qd2 59. Rec1 Ra7 60. d5 {Kamsky ruthlessly presses home his advantage in the center, utilizing the pin on the Re8.} Rxa1 (60... Qxd5 $2 61. Qxd5 exd5 62. Bxa7) 61. Rxa1 Bd6 62. dxe6 Qc3 63. Rd1 Bc5 64. Qxf4 1-0

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