22 January 2017

Commentary: 2016 Tal Memorial Round 6 (Aronian - Giri)

Although I've previously mentioned that I tend not to choose games for commentary from the super-GM class, the last batch I selected from 2016 all feature top names who happened to play brilliantly (and understandably) in my general opening repertoire, so I felt I couldn't ignore them!

This next commentary game, from round 6 of the Tal Memorial tournament, features brilliant maneuvering from GM Levon Aronian in an English, which helps show the latent power of the central setup. There are some key thematic observations on positional topics, such as what happens with the light-squared bishop exchange on h3, but the focus of the game is on the queenside pressure and crush that Aronian builds up after his opponent (GM Anish Giri) allows him the initiative. In the resulting sequence, I think that most of the rest of us would decide on the option 21. Nxe5 (and not necessarily be wrong to do so), but Aronian's more complex 21. Na5 followed by an exchange sacrifice is a model of positional and tactical effectiveness. It is well worth breaking down the individual sequences of tactical ideas and how Aronian strings them all together with his final back-rank threats and winning knight maneuver.
[Event "10th Tal Mem 2016"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2016.10.02"] [Round "?"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Giri, Anish"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A20"] [WhiteElo "2795"] [BlackElo "2755"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "67"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] 1. c4 e5 2. g3 {this very early fianchetto is a popular way to play the English } Nf6 3. Bg2 d5 {the most challenging, immediately looking to establish a central presence.} 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 {now it looks like a reversed Sicilian, doesn't it? In fact that is how ECO classifies it.} 6. O-O Nb6 7. d3 {with Black controlling d4, White must opt for a more restrained game, looking to control the center with pieces, which is the point of the original setup.} Be7 8. Be3 O-O 9. Nbd2 {this move eyes both e4 and c4, but neglects d5. It does leave the c-file half-open for White's rook, though.} (9. Nc3 {would be a fine (and more natural) alternative development for the knight, focusing more on the key d5 square.}) 9... Be6 (9... Nd5 $5 {would be the way to immediately take advantage of the knight development; the engine considers the resulting position completely equal after 10. Rc1 and the exchange on e3. The only other game in the database continued} 10. Nc4 Nxe3 11. Nxe3 Re8 12. Rc1 Bf8 13. Rxc6 bxc6 14. Qc2 Rb8 15. b3 Bd7 16. Nd2 Rb6 17. Ne4 a5 18. Nc4 Ra6 19. Nb2 Be6 20. Nc5 Bxc5 21. Qxc5 Bd5 22. Rc1 Bxg2 23. Kxg2 Qd5+ 24. Qxd5 cxd5 25. Rxc7 Raa8 26. Na4 Rec8 27. Re7 Re8 28. Rd7 Red8 29. Re7 f6 30. e3 Rac8 31. d4 exd4 32. exd4 Re8 33. Ra7 Rc2 34. Nc5 Ree2 35. Ra8+ Kf7 36. Ra7+ Kg6 37. Nd3 Kh6 38. Kf3 Red2 39. Ke3 Re2+ 40. Kf3 Rxa2 41. Rd7 g5 42. Rxd5 Kg6 43. g4 Red2 44. Ke3 Re2+ 45. Kf3 Red2 46. Ke3 h5 47. h3 h4 48. Rd6 Rd1 49. Ne5+ Kg7 50. Rd7+ Kg8 51. Rd8+ Kg7 52. Rd7+ Kg8 53. Rd8+ Kg7 54. Rd7+ Kg8 55. Rd8+ Kg7 56. Rd7+ Kg8 57. Rd8+ Kh7 58. Rd7+ Kg8 59. Rd8+ Kg7 60. Rd7+ Kg8 61. Rd8+ Kg7 {1/2-1/2 (61) Artemiev,V (2663)-Matlakov,M (2691) Sochi 2016}) 10. Rc1 Qd7 {telegraphing Black's intent to exchange the g2 bishop.} 11. a3 {sort of a waiting move, but also done to take away the b4 square from Black (usually to prevent ...Nb4 as a reaction to Qc2).} Bh3 12. Bxh3 {masters can play this move with ease in the English, even though it looks anti-positional. If Black could follow it up by bringing additional pieces into a kingside attack, then it would be bad, but often the exchange on h3 simply means that Black's queen is offsides for a while.} (12. b4 {is not a bad other option, but in this position White doesn't have much more to gain beyond this move on the queenside, so taking the time to first get Black's queen out of position is worth it.}) 12... Qxh3 13. b4 $14 Bd6 {this is done to protect e5 and subsequently maneuver the Nc6, but it seems somewhat contrived, as if Black has nothing better to do. Bringing the queen back on side with ...Qe6 or ...Qd7 would seem more productive.} 14. Qb3 { the natural spot for the queen, which no longer faces opposition from a bishop on the light squares and has a beautiful diagonal now; this is another reason why Aronian was happy to exchange off the bishops.} Ne7 15. d4 {Aronian judges the time is right to release some of the pent-up energy of his minor pieces clustered in the center and challenge/eliminate Black's presence there.} exd4 { essentially forced, as it would be more awkward for Black to try to defend with something like ...Nc6.} 16. Bxd4 {now the bishop has an excellent diagonal as well and cannot be easily opposed by its Black counterpart.} Nc6 { Black moves to trade off the centralized bishop.} 17. Ne4 {White has to be careful to maintain momentum here. Piece activity is more important than avoiding the bishop for knight swap.} (17. Bb2 {for example would allow Black to get some counter-pressure with} Rfe8) 17... Nxd4 18. Nxd4 {White's pair of knights are doing well by being centralized, while Black's minor pieces are comparatively restricted.} Qd7 $6 {Here Giri seeimgly invites the following sequence, by enabling the potential tactics down the d-file.} (18... Be5 $5 { immediately is playable.}) 19. Rfd1 $16 {now both of White's rooks are in the game, while Black's are still at home. The game illustrates the latent power of rooks when they are opposing queens (or kings) down a file, even with multiple pieces in the way.} Be5 20. Nc6 Qe8 21. Na5 (21. Nxe5 {is an alternate way to play that may be a more obvious one for most (at least Class) players.} Qxe5 22. Nc5 {and now Black's b- and c-pawns are under potential threat, while Black can gobble the e-pawn. For example} Qxe2 23. Nxb7 Qe7 24. Qc3 $16) 21... Rb8 22. Nc5 Qc8 23. Qf3 {White builds up single-mindedly against the b7 pawn while tying Black's pieces to its defense.} c6 24. b5 $1 { a brilliant idea to increase the pressure on the queenside, involving an exchange sacrifice, and probably why Aronian chose the approach with 21. Na5 in the first place. (And why for the rest of us 21. Nxe5 would probably be the easier way to go.)} Bb2 (24... cxb5 $2 25. Nd7 $18 {and Black has no good options.}) 25. bxc6 {the sharpest and most effective continuation.} ({Avoiding the exchange sacrifice with} 25. Rc2 {is less good, as after} cxb5 {White has to contend with the pin on the Nc5.}) 25... Bxc1 26. Rxc1 Qc7 (26... bxc6 { is shown by the engine as the least bad option, but then} 27. Nxc6 {forks the Rb8 and the undefended e7 square (which would fork the Black king and queen), so in this variation White can regain the exchange and then be a clear pawn up. Giri evidently didn't like this, so went for the more complicated game continuation.}) 27. cxb7 $18 {although the engine shows a big advantage for White, the winning continuation is tricky to find.} Na4 {trying to exploit the pin on the Nc5, however} 28. Ncb3 {holds everything together.} Qe7 29. Nd4 { Although Qf4 could be played immediately to good effect, White is still handily winning with this move, which threatens a fork on c6.} Qg5 {targeting the Rc1 and Na5, but now White has a brilliant finish.} 30. Qf4 {this works on multiple levels, as after an exchange on f4 Black would have no defense against Ndc6 and subsequent material losses. In the game continuation, Aronian exploits Giri's back-rank problems.} Qxa5 31. Qxb8 $1 Rxb8 32. Rc8+ Qd8 { at first this looks like it holds Black together, but after} 33. Rxd8+ Rxd8 34. Nc6 $1 {the knight and b-pawn threats prove decisive after all.} (34. Nc6 Re8 ( 34... Rd1+ 35. Kg2 Rb1 36. Nb4 {and the b-pawn queens.}) (34... Rb8 35. Nxb8 Nc5 36. Nc6 Nxb7 37. Nxa7 {and Black will not be able to stop both the a-pawn and White's 4v3 kingside majority.}) 35. Ne7+ Kf8 36. Nc8 $1 {and the b-pawn queens, with a blocking motif along the 8th rank similar to the above variation's one along the b-file.}) 1-0

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