30 April 2017

Annotated Game #174: Choke

For those not familiar with the word "choke", it refers in English slang to when an individual sportsperson (or sometimes an entire team) is presented with a clear winning opportunity during an important moment, but instead they screw it up and lose.  This next tournament game is a great example of this phenomenon.  After three wins in a row I was paired against the leader of the section and had a chance to move into first place with one round left to play.  Instead, after doing well in an aggressive English Opening (yes, the English can be aggressive), I was one move away from victory, but instead had a major thinking process failure on move 24 (trapping my opponent's queen...except for the one move that beat me).  It had been a rather exciting and somewhat exhausting game up until that point, so even though it was relatively early on move-wise, I had expended a good amount of clock time and a lot of mental energy on calculating variations since the unexpected 17th move from my opponent.  Basically I lost patience and decided to skip the process...with unfortunate consequences.  Lesson learned.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A13"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 8"] [PlyCount "56"] [EventDate "2016.10.10"] [EventType "schev"] [EventRounds "5"] {[%mdl 8192] A13: English Opening: 1...e6} 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e3 Nf6 4. b3 Be7 {now in a standard QGD type setup for Black.} 5. Bb2 Nbd7 6. Be2 b6 7. O-O Bb7 8. Nc3 (8. d3 {is an option, with the idea of Nbd2.}) (8. cxd5 $5 { immediately is more common than the text move.}) 8... O-O 9. cxd5 {this seemed the logical follow-up. I've previously had bad experiences with Black building a strong pawn center and this takes care of that problem.} Nxd5 (9... exd5 10. Rc1 Re8 11. Qc2 Bf8 12. Rfd1 c6 13. d4 Bd6 14. Bd3 Qe7 15. Ne2 g6 16. Ng3 Ng4 17. Re1 f5 18. Bxf5 gxf5 19. Nxf5 Qf8 20. e4 Bf4 21. e5 Re6 22. Rcd1 Kh8 23. g3 Qg8 24. Kh1 {Gunina,V (2529)-Kriebel,T (2461) Novy Bor 2015 1/2-1/2 (157)}) 10. Rc1 (10. Nxd5 {is more common. The Nc3 isn't a great piece and it's better to exchange it, also opening up the long diagonal for the Bb2 (and the c-file for a rook).} Bxd5 11. Qc2 c5 12. Rad1 Rc8 13. Qb1 Qc7 14. d4 Qb7 15. Rc1 cxd4 16. Bxd4 Bf6 17. Qb2 Bxd4 18. Qxd4 Nf6 19. h3 h6 20. Qa4 a5 21. Qd4 Rc7 22. Qe5 Rfc8 23. Ba6 {1-0 (23) Alekseev,E (2679)-Rusanov,M (2440) St Petersburg 2014}) 10... Bf6 11. d4 {here I decided the benefits of the pawn advance outweighed shutting off the Bb2. First of all, Black's Bf6 is also shut out, and I also get a strong central pawn that influences e5 and c5. The a3-f8 diagonal also looks like a good one for my bishop.} Rc8 $146 {a slow move and one that allows the following sequence, giving me a measurable edge.} (11... Nxc3 12. Bxc3 c5 $11) 12. Nxd5 $14 Bxd5 (12... exd5 13. Ne5 Nxe5 14. dxe5 Be7 15. Bg4 Ra8 16. Qc2 c6 17. f4 $14) 13. Ba6 {this is the problem with the earlier rook move, Black loses a tempo and his queenside is looking awkward.} Rb8 14. Bd3 { I had been worried about a possible future ...b5, blocking the bishop in. Another square might have been better, though.} (14. Bb5) (14. Qe2 {is another option the engine likes, controlling the diagonal (and b5) while connecting the rooks and protecting the Bb2, which is otherwise loose.}) 14... c5 { the logical reaction by Black, taking advantage of the unprotected Bb2 to rule out capture on c5.} 15. Ne5 {a somewhat risky and aggressive decision that was not the best. I didn't mind the exchange on e5, and it is evaluated by the engine as equal.} (15. Qe2 cxd4 16. Nxd4 Rc8 $14) 15... Bxe5 $6 {a case where the standard rule of not exchanging bishops for knights applies.} (15... cxd4 $5 16. exd4 Nxe5 17. dxe5 Be7 $11) (15... Nxe5 16. dxe5 Be7 $11) 16. dxe5 $14 { White has the pair of bishops, but also the Nd7 has no useful squares at the moment.} Qg5 {this surprised me, but I was able to find an effective countermove.} 17. e4 {now I have the initiative.} Bc6 18. f4 {the queen's location becomes a problem for Black.} Qh4 19. Rc2 (19. Rc3 $5 {is probably a better version of the idea of transferring the rook to the kingside (after Bc2) and one that I considered for a while. In the end I rejected a plan of a piece attack on the kingside for one based on a pawn advance.} Qe7) 19... Rbd8 20. g3 (20. Qe2 $16 {getting off the d-file and overprotecting e4 was an excellent idea.}) 20... Qh3 $6 {this over-optimistic move justified my play to this point.} (20... Qe7) 21. Rd2 $16 {screening the Qd1 and protecting the Bd3 again.} f6 $2 {causes even greater problems, in part because the Qh3 now has no safe retreat. It also weakens e6, which I take advantage of (but not well enough).} (21... Nb8 $16 {looks sad, but otherwise Black has serious problems.} ) 22. f5 {I thought for a while here and felt good about the move, which presses the attack, but is rather complicated given the various captures on e5, f5 and e6.} (22. Be2 {is found by the engine the threat being to play Bg4 with a fork on e6.} f5 (22... h5 23. exf6 Bxe4 24. Rf2 gxf6 25. Bxh5 $18) 23. Bc4 Rfe8 24. Rd6 Bxe4 25. Rf2 Qh6 26. Rfd2 $18) 22... Kh8 $2 (22... Qh6 23. Bb1 Qe3+ 24. Rff2 $18) 23. Rf4 $1 {this should be sufficient to win. The threat of course is Rh4, trapping the queen.} Qh6 24. Rh4 $4 {here I moved too quickly and had a major thinking process foul. I had assumed that the queen was trapped, but of course it now has e3 to go to, with devastating effect. This was a case of the actual piece placement (Rf4) interfering with my mental visualization of the future board (Rh4, Qh6), where the diagonal is no longer blocked. Naturally if I had followed my thinking process, I could have corrected for this.} (24. fxe6 $1 {and wins.} fxe5 25. Rxf8+ Nxf8 26. e7 $18 { I had in fact looked at this variation, but was tired and having trouble visualizing. And then it occurred to me (mistakenly) that I could just play Rh4.}) 24... Qe3+ $19 {after this it is game over, although I fight on for a few moves in the vain hope for a swindle.} 25. Kf1 Nxe5 26. Qh5 Qf3+ 27. Ke1 Qxh5 28. Rxh5 Nxd3+ 0-1

27 April 2017

Annotated Game #173: I like the London System

For whatever reason, I've traditionally had good results (as Black) in London System type games.  It's quite popular now for White and certainly offers good development and play.  On the Black side, I've found it to be not as challenging as other White systems in the opening phase, essentially because less direct pressure is placed on Black, so I feel like I can equalize and then play a comfortable game.

The below tournament game follows this pattern, with me equalizing as Black by move 6 and having some easy ideas to follow in the middlegame.  By move 18 the position is drawish, but I chose to be patient, as I felt any (slight) chances would lie on my side.  I was able to target the one weakness in White's position (the b2 pawn), but then my opponent cannily fought back to create an unusual endgame fight (2N+R vs my two rooks).  I did have an outside passed pawn, though, which ended up being decisive, after some interesting tactics (see move 36).

This game isn't of very high quality - too many dubious (?!) choices on both sides - but was valuable to analyze, including identifying a thinking process lapse (move 23, where I could have consolidated my advantage if I had recognized my opponent's best response).

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class C"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D11"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "126"] 1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 {evidently going for a London System type setup.} Nf6 3. Nf3 c6 4. e3 Bg4 (4... Bf5 {is a standard alternative.}) (4... Qb6 $5 {may be a little premature, but it hits at White's queenside immediately, now that the dark-square bishop is away. Kramnik once gave it a try against Gata Kamsky:} 5. Qc1 Bf5 6. c4 e6 7. Nc3 Nbd7 8. c5 Qd8 9. Be2 Be7 10. h3 Ne4 11. O-O g5 12. Be5 Nxe5 13. Nxe5 Bf6 14. Nxe4 Bxe4 15. Qc3 Bg7 16. b4 O-O 17. b5 cxb5 18. Bxb5 Qc7 19. Rac1 f6 20. Nd7 Rfd8 21. c6 bxc6 22. Qxc6 Qxc6 23. Bxc6 Rac8 24. Bb5 Bg6 25. Nc5 Rd6 26. a4 Bf8 27. Na6 Rc2 28. Rxc2 Bxc2 29. Nc5 e5 30. Rc1 Bf5 31. g4 Bg6 32. Nd7 Be8 33. Nxf8 Bxb5 34. axb5 Kxf8 35. dxe5 fxe5 36. Rc7 d4 37. exd4 exd4 38. Kf1 d3 39. Ke1 Rd5 40. Rxa7 Rxb5 41. Rxh7 Rb1+ 42. Kd2 Rf1 43. Kxd3 Rxf2 44. Ke4 Rf4+ 45. Ke5 Rf3 46. Ke6 Kg8 47. Rh5 Kf8 48. Rxg5 Rxh3 49. Kf6 Ra3 50. Kg6 Kg8 {1/2-1/2 (50) Kamsky,G (2671)-Kramnik,V (2729) Turin 2006}) 5. c4 e6 6. a3 {this takes away the b4 square from Black, but is a rather slow approach, neglecting piece development.} Bd6 {a natural developing move that challenges White's strong Bf4.} 7. Bg3 O-O 8. Be2 {not bad, but not optimal. It also prompts me to play the next move.} dxc4 {while not really a full tempo loss for White, it's still annoying to move the bishop twice in a row. For Black, the benefit is to re-establish the pin on the Nf3 and achieve a solid central pawn formation that restricts White's light-square bishop.} 9. Bxc4 Bxg3 {the exchange of bishops is more or less obligatory at some point, given the tension on the diagonal. I thought this was a good time to do it and enable the subsequent pawn break.} 10. hxg3 c5 {challenging White's central pawn outpost. If White is takes the c5 pawn, having the king in the center after a queen exchange on d1 would be worth the sacrifice, plus the pawn is recoverable.} 11. Be2 (11. dxc5 Qxd1+ 12. Kxd1 Rc8 13. Nc3 (13. b4 $6 a5 14. bxa5 Rxa5 $15) 13... Rxc5 14. Be2 $11) 11... Nbd7 {with White preparing to castle, now the pawn is better off being protected.} 12. O-O Rc8 13. Nbd2 cxd4 {exchanging the pawns opens the c-file and reduces White's central pawn formation.} 14. Nxd4 Bxe2 15. Qxe2 Nb6 {the idea being to challenge control of c4 and give the option of hopping to d5.} 16. Rac1 Qd5 {the queen is now nicely centralized, but White lacks any weaknesses that it could attack.} 17. Qf3 a6 {taking away a useful square (b5) from the Nd4, in anticipation of the exchange.} 18. Qxd5 Nfxd5 {the position now looks very drawish and the engine agrees. In the past, I've been impatient with such types of positions and might even have offered a draw. Now I treat such situations more as learning experiences and will not on principle offer a draw until a position is truly played out (or perhaps if I assess I am worse off).} 19. N2f3 {a minor slip by my opponent. With my next move, I now have a slight edge and am creating threats.} (19. Ne4 $5) 19... Na4 20. Rfe1 $2 (20. b3 Nac3 21. Rc2 Rc7 22. Rfc1 Rfc8 23. Kf1 Kf8 $11) 20... Ndb6 $6 {played as the result of not fully calculating the capture on b2. I thought that White could get the pawn back easily with Rb1, so took the step to screen the b7 pawn with the other knight first.} (20... Nxb2 21. Rb1 {originally I stopped calculating here, just seeing the threat to the unprotected b7 pawn.} Nd3 {a nice intermediate move threatening the Re1 and now} 22. Red1 $2 (22. Rf1 {is best but after} b5 $19 { Black is winning with a mobilized 2-1 queenside pawn majority.}) 22... Nc3 $19) 21. Kh2 {however, my opponent now gives me an extra tempo to execute the threat.} Nxb2 22. Rb1 N2a4 $17 23. Rb4 Rc3 $6 {here I didn't pay enough attention to my opponent's possible ideas, just going for the a3 pawn.} (23... Rc4 $17) 24. Reb1 {at this point I saw that he will get back some material.} Rxa3 25. Rxb6 Nxb6 26. Rxb6 h6 {right idea, but wrong timing, according to the engine. White could now play g4 and activate the king via g3.} (26... Ra5 { would be better, keeping the rook more active.}) (26... Ra2 {would also be good.}) 27. Rxb7 $11 {we now have an interesting, dynamically balanced endgame. If White had two bishops instead of two knights I would certainly be in worse shape. I still have to watch out for attacking ideas for White that use his two minor pieces and rook in combination, but my passed a-pawn and rook activity mean that the position is equal. At this point I didn't know if I could win, but I felt that at least I could avoid losing.} Ra2 28. Kg1 Rc8 $2 { too aggressive, neglecting the weak f7 square.} 29. Rb1 $6 {missing the threat he could make aginst f7, at least for now.} (29. Ne5 h5 {cutting off the exit square for the White king} 30. g4 hxg4 31. Nxf7 Rc5 $16 {looks rather ugly for Black.}) 29... a5 {passed pawns must be pushed!} 30. Ne5 Rc7 {now I am thinking more about defense.} 31. Kf1 {a waste of a tempo.} a4 $15 {White isn't lost yet, but the initiative is with me now and the a-pawn keeps getting stronger. It's also hard to find the specific continuation for White that holds.} 32. Re1 $2 (32. Rb8+ {(playing Kg1 first is also fine)} Kh7 33. Kg1 $15 {is the key according to the engine, which is rather hard for humans to see. White's king needs to get off the first rank, where it can be checked with tempo gain by a rook to facilitate the queening of the a-pawn.}) 32... a3 $17 33. Nd3 Rd7 $6 {right file, wrong rook.} (33... Rd2 $1 34. Nb4 a2 $19) 34. Nb4 $2 {after this I find a winning continuation.} (34. Rd1 $15) 34... Rb2 $19 35. Ndc2 a2 36. Ra1 {this seemed to be an excellent defense and I spent a good deal of time coming up with the game continuation (which is the best according to Komodo). I had originally spotted the idea of the tactic ...Rb1+, which now doesn't work to break through.} Rd2 (36... Rb1+ 37. Ke2 Rxa1 38. Nxa1 $19 { is still winning for Black, but with a lot more work to do.}) 37. Kg1 {but now the ...Rb1+ tactic does work!} (37. Rxa2 Rxa2 38. Nxa2 Rxc2 $19) 37... Rb1+ 38. Kh2 Rdd1 {the most effective continuation, now with a double attack on the Ra1 and on the h1 square threatening mate.} 39. g4 Rxa1 40. Nxa1 Rxa1 41. Kg3 Kf8 42. Kf4 Ke8 43. Ke4 Kd7 44. Ke5 {White's king cannot venture onto the d-file without suffering a rook check, with the a-pawn then queening.} Kc7 45. f4 Kb6 {with the simple winning idea of threatening to chase away the knight, which will force its exchange for the a-pawn.} 46. g5 hxg5 47. fxg5 Kb5 48. Nxa2 Rxa2 49. g6 fxg6 50. Kxe6 Rxg2 {at this point White cannot win and at worst I'll end up with K+R vs. K (an elementary mate).} 51. e4 Kc6 52. e5 Rg5 53. Kf7 Rxe5 54. Kxg7 g5 {now there is no way of stopping the pawn from queening and making the Q+R vs. K mate very obvious. My opponent however was a junior who apparently didn't realize the etiquette of resigning when you are in such a situation.} 55. Kf6 Kd5 56. Kg6 g4 57. Kf6 g3 58. Kg6 g2 59. Kg7 g1=Q+ 60. Kf6 Qf1+ 61. Kg7 Re2 62. Kg6 Rg2+ 63. Kh6 Qh1# 0-1

23 April 2017

Annotated Game #172: Light and Dark

This next tournament game is probably the best one of mine that illustrates the idea of weak-square complexes and how one can exploit them, which for Class players is a sometimes mysterious concept.  Here we have a clear light vs. dark situation on the board, with my opponent's pawns placed on dark squares, which have the effect of restricting his dark-square bishop, but more importantly leaving open the light squares to be dominated by my pieces.  This situation was evident by move 17 and demonstrated by the effectiveness of my centralized knight (these weaknesses aren't just for bishops to exploit).

Although even well into the middlegame my opponent either had a small advantage or at least equality, despite his weaknesses, I felt comfortable playing the position and was able to identify good ideas for making progress.  I also correctly identified many of the important positional ideas (including strong and weak squares) and found dynamic moves like the (temporary) pawn sacrifice idea on move 19.  The turning point of the game was the sequence that began on move 23, which involved my finding some unexpected intermediate moves and placed my opponent under significant pressure for the first time; this led him to err with 26...Rf7?!  Although not a losing move in itself, I was subsequently able to maintain the initiative for the rest of the game and win an interesting, dynamic minor piece endgame.  Even considering some weaker play in the opening and early middlegame, I feel this game serves to highlight some of the signposts of progress that I have been making in strengthening my game.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A14"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "99"] 1. c4 c5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nc6 {Symmetrical Four Knights variation.} 4. g3 e6 { indicating my opponent is going to take a relatively cautious approach to the opening, at least early on.} 5. Bg2 Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. d3 {I thought for a while here on the best approach to take. The main alternative is d4 (and by far most often played), while b3 is also a possibility, with a double fianchetto position.} d5 8. cxd5 {played to reduce Black's central pawn presence and make pressure from the Bg2 down the long diagonal more meaningful. } exd5 9. Bg5 {in the English it's sometimes hard to know what to do with the dark-square bishop. I didn't see a future for it on the queenside and on f4 it could be harrassed by ...Nh5, so I picked g5. When playing this move, White has to be prepared to exchange it for the Nf6, so evaluating the effects of that piece trade is important.} d4 10. Bxf6 {I had foreseen Black's last and considered that the resulting position was good for me, with the centralized knight vs. a locked-in Bf6.} Bxf6 11. Ne4 Be7 $15 {objectively speaking, Black is a little better here. He has the two bishops and a small space advantage. That said, the position is relatively easy for me to play, with some clear ideas for making progress.} 12. Rc1 {done in the expectation of provoking Black's next move, which opens up the long diagonal for the Bg2.} b6 13. Ned2 { while the knight looked good in e4, it had no squares other than d2 open and could therefore be threatened by ...f5 (which Black plays shortly). Redeploying it gives it an equally good square and improves my piece coordination, is what I thought.} Rb8 {my opponent appears concerned about the rook on the open long diagonal, so moves it.} 14. a4 {with the idea of preserving the c4 square for the knight, by restricting the ...b5 advance.} ( 14. Nc4 $5 {can in fact be played immediately to good effect. For example} b5 $6 15. Nfe5 {taking advantage of the hanging Nc6 and the R+Q fork on the square.} Nxe5 16. Nxe5 Bb7 17. Nc6 Bxc6 18. Bxc6 $11) (14. a3 $5 {would take away b4 from the Nc6, which is helpful in several variations.}) 14... f5 { I felt that this move now was too loosening for Black's kingside. The knight is prevented from returning to e4, and the pawn then continues to f4 to try to weaken White's kingside pawn shield, but that does not appear to be sufficient reason for Black to weaken the a2-f8 diagonal and the light squares in general. } (14... Bg4 $5) 15. Nc4 f4 16. Nfe5 {now my other knight gets into the action and releases the Bg2's power.} Nxe5 $6 (16... Nb4 {is a significantly better choice, giving the knight an excellent outpost on b4.}) 17. Nxe5 $11 {the Ne5 now eyes the weak c6 square. I had thought that if Black exchanged the light-squared bishop for the knight (for example after trying ...Bb7, which I was thinking of following by playing the Nc6 fork) then that would leave me with a significantly positive imbalance between the remaining minor pieces (my light-square vs. Black's dark-square bishop).} Qd6 {the best option for Black, removing the queen from the fork and centralizing it.} (17... Bb7 $2 {would in fact have been a significant blunder, but for other reasons:} 18. Qb3+ $1 Kh8 19. Nf7+ Rxf7 20. Qxf7 $18) 18. Nc6 {now an exchange is not forced, but the Nc6 still causes Black difficulties.} Rb7 19. b4 {I felt that this was necessary to energize my position and use my pieces most effectively, particularly the Rc1 (which is not otherwise playing). Komodo agrees.} Rc7 { Black passes up the (temporary) pawn sacrifice.} (19... cxb4 $6 20. Rc4 { I had spotted this idea, targeting Black's weak pawns on the 4th rank.} fxg3 21. hxg3 Bf6 22. Nxb4 $14 {and White has a slight advantage due to better piece activity.}) 20. bxc5 bxc5 {now the position is still equal, but I have nice pressure against the c-pawn and comfortable play on the queenside.} 21. Na5 fxg3 {it's often difficult to decide which pawn recapture to make in this situation. I decided that the open f-file would benefit me more than Black, who does not have his rooks connected on the back rank, and that the resulting pawn formation would be a bit more solid, not offering Black any prospects of an attack down the h-file. The drawback of the text move, as I immediately realized, was that I lose control of the e3 square, so I had to watch that carefully. (The engine gives an assessment of equality to both pawn recaptures, incidentally).} 22. fxg3 Bg5 {here my opponent evidently did not consider the intermediate moves I could play in response to the threat against the Rc1, which end up giving me the initiative. I felt this justified my decision to open the f-file.} 23. Qb3+ Be6 24. Rxf8+ {forcing the recapture with the king, as the Be6 otherwise would be left undefended (deflection tactic against the Qd6).} Kxf8 25. Qb8+ {placing the queen on the back rank and pinning the Rc7.} Qd8 {my opponent thought for some time here and found the best reply.} (25... Bc8 $2 26. Rf1+ Bf6 27. Bb7 $16) 26. Rf1+ Rf7 $6 {this allows me to win the a-pawn.} (26... Kg8) 27. Rxf7+ Bxf7 28. Qxa7 {Black has some compensation in the form of the two bishops heading into the endgame, so I only have a small advantage. When calculating the pawn capture, I also needed to be very careful about evaluating Black's next move, which is very trappy.} Be3+ {I had thought a good deal about this position prior to initiating the previous sequence, so was prepared.} 29. Kh1 {better than f1, although it gives the king no squares. Either way is fine for White, however, according to the engine.} Qe7 30. Qxe7+ {at the time I was happy to enter the endgame with the advantage of a passed a-pawn, although I figured that combating the two bishops could make it a hard slog. At least with the queens off, I did not have to worry about mating threats. The engine evaluates keeping the queens on as significantly better for White, since the queen can more effectively shepherd the a-pawn forward. However, queen endgames are also very complex, so I think I made a decent practical decision in trading material.} Kxe7 31. Nc6+ Kd6 32. a5 {I had calculated this out prior to the knight move, as Black does not have sufficient time to capture the knight before the pawn queens. The idea is to block the Bf7 from getting over to defend, while the Be3 is also out of the action on the queenside. Now Black has to find an "only move" at this point to defend.} Be8 $2 {a reasonable try, but not sufficient.} (32... c4 {is the only move that preserves equality for Black and is not necessarily easy to find (for humans).} 33. dxc4 (33. a6 c3 34. Nb4 Kc5 35. a7 Kxb4 36. a8=Q c2 $11 { as White cannot keep the pawn from queening. For example} 37. Qb8+ (37. Qf8+ Kc3 38. Qxf7 c1=Q+) 37... Kc3 38. Qc7+ Kd2 $11) 33... Bxc4 34. Bf3) 33. a6 Kc7 34. a7 {by this point I knew that I would have to give up the a-pawn for Black's d-pawn, but was not sure when would be best. After some thought, I figured that it would be better to have Black's king a little further away. The engine disagrees.} (34. Nxd4 {makes the knight a much more threatening piece and introduces some tactical ideas.} Kb6 35. Nf5 Bd4 {I had seen this far and didn't consider it any better than the game continuation, but after} 36. Nxd4 cxd4 37. Bb7 $18 {White has the easy winning strategy of activating his king and clearing away Black's d-pawn.}) 34... Kb7 35. Nxd4+ {transforming the advantage of the passed a-pawn, by taking advantage of the discovered check. An example of a tactical trade, in this case the a-pawn for the d-pawn.} Kxa7 36. Nf5 Bd4 {I felt at the time that this was a losing move, giving away the benefits of the two bishops and clarifying my advantage. The engine is less harsh in its evaluation, not seeing the evaluation as any worse, although from a practical standpoint it made my mental task easier.} 37. Nxd4 cxd4 38. Be4 {I thought for a while about this or Bd5, they are both good centralization moves. Since it provokes Black's next (unforced) error, I'm glad I went with it.} g6 $2 $18 {Now Black has made his kingside pawns vulnerable to penetration by my king and/or bishop. This was the actual losing move.} (38... h6 $16) 39. Kg2 Kb6 40. Kf3 {the plan is very obvious for White here, to threaten the d4-pawn and tie Black's king to its defense, then go after the kingside pawns.} Kc5 41. Kf4 h6 42. h4 {guarding g5 against a supported Black pawn advance} Bf7 43. Ke5 g5 44. hxg5 hxg5 45. g4 {played as a prophylactic move, to keep Black's bishop from h5.} Bb3 {with the idea of moving to d1.} 46. Bf3 {the safest route to victory. Now that Black can only move the king or bishop, eventually he will be put in zugzwang; my bishop protects both e2 and g4 and the king has full freedom.} Bd1 47. Ke4 {I did this rather than move directly to e5 to have Black essentially lose a tempo with the bishop, although it's not truly necessary.} Bb3 48. Kf5 Kb4 49. Kxg5 Kc3 50. Kf4 1-0

20 April 2017

How do you know you are becoming a stronger chess player?

Chess strength is a funny thing.  It's hard to define precisely, so we rely on rating systems (primarily Elo-based) as a proxy statistic for it.  Yet clearly there must be something substantive behind the explanation for why players have particular levels of strength, so we can talk about things like "master" and "expert" versus "Class B" and "Class C" players.  (I am currently a Class B player, per the USCF scale above.)

There are some helpful, if not necessarily definitive, attempts at providing "roadmaps" or the like to chess knowledge at each level.  Here is one posted at Chesstempo.  You can also infer what knowledge is considered standard to have at beginner, intermediate and expert levels from resources such as the Chess.com study plans.  Another approach is defining specific characteristics and skills that set the higher levels apart from others, as done by GM Andy Soltis in What it Takes to Become a Chess Master.  Soltis' book I think gets at some crucial concepts, including how masters are able to much better understand (and apply) things like compensation for sacrificed material in the absence of concrete winning tactics.  This includes "positional" sacrifices of the exchange or a pawn or two, where there is no combination on the board, yet the master understands that in the long term, their chances are better (or at least as good) as before the sacrifice.

All of the above approaches to explaining playing strength have their uses, but one of the conundrums of chess strength is that it often does not reflect the extent of a player's knowledge, at least on a one-to-one basis.  Some things are directly correlated with your ability to win; knowing basic mates and mating patterns are fundamental to success.  Others are helpful, but not 100% required (for example how to play the Philidor and Lucena ending positions).  Finally, some pieces of chess knowledge have a very low (yet non-zero) percentage chance of ever being directly helpful (such as knowing the K+B+N v K mate).  Soltis' work outlining particular crucial areas of skill I think comes closer to a cognitive approach, rather than simply giving a list of "must knows", but of course this approach is necessarily subjective, rather than rigorously scientific.

Similar to Soltis' approach, but on a more practical level for the improving Class player, I'd like to document some phenomena that appear as concrete indicators of improving chess strength.  It's not an exhaustive list, but I think it is useful to share.  I make no claim to having originated any of these ideas, but in reading widely and through analyzing my own games I have been struck by how important some of these are when they appear, and I have personally experienced all of them at one time or another.  Naturally there are many more improvements yet to come...

I've arranged the below phenomena in what seems to me to be a logical progression from ones based on more concrete/tactical/conscious considerations, to those that are more cognitive/strategic/unconscious in nature.  Again, these are meant to be taken as positive signposts you may see on the road to mastery, whenever you observe them in your games.  I think it's important for improving players to explicitly recognize the positives in their game, along with the many errors and negatives, otherwise chess can start becoming toxic and demotivational.  We (including professional players) will always fall short of perfection, but that's to be expected, and therefore not overly lamented.
  • I hesitate to start with this one because of its obviousness, but blunders (making less of them) really is fundamental.  If you keep having the same frequency of game-ending blunders (i.e. losing a piece or overlooking mating threats) over time, then by definition you will make little progress.  Having at least a basic blundercheck thinking process is necessary; over time, it hopefully will become more and more unconscious (but still necessary).  One practical observation I've read before, and tend to agree with based on personal observation, is that by Class B level the majority of games are no longer decided by blunders, and by Class A only a very few are.  In other words, you more often have to beat your opponent, rather than just waiting for them to beat themselves.
  • When analyzing your games, you have an increasing number of "!" annotations.  This is related to the above indicator on blunders (the "?" moves), but it is not simply the elimination of errors, but rather a demonstrable ability to find the key (sometimes only) move that gives you a breakthrough in the position.  You can always give yourself a "!" if you're feeling generous, but it's worth more when coming from an unbiased annotator, which in many cases will mean your computer engine.  Although there are some pitfalls of computer analysis, engines can almost always correctly identify the standout strong moves ("!") as well as the blunders.
  • Something a little less obvious, but a definite sign of improvement in strength and sophistication, is spotting and deliberately using intermediate moves when conceiving and calculating move sequences.  One thing I have seen repeatedly in my game analyses is that I (or my opponent) often may have a good idea, but it is not executed to the full extent of its power, whether it may be a strategic pawn break or a particular tactic that becomes much more effective with the insertion of an intermediate move.  I think that learning how to keep searching for more effective moves after finding a good idea is the key, including taking a particular idea and then looking creatively at the different possibilities of how and when it could be most effectively played.  Annotated Game #171 has some good examples of effective intermediate moves.
  • As part of your evaluation of the position, you start naturally "thinking in squares" rather than just about the pieces and threats to them.  Weak squares in your opponent's camp become magnets for tactical and strategic ideas; one common example is if f2/f7 become underprotected next to a castled king.  Excellent squares should also suggest themselves (see below) for your pieces - for example leading to the repositioning of a knight, perhaps even using a tactic, to get it to a dominating outpost on the opponent's side of the board.  Defending your own weak squares and realizing when they might be created (after a pawn push, when a key piece moves away) is also very important, the more so the higher level you get.  (See this example commentary game.)  Going back to the thinking process, Botvinnik suggested thinking on your opponent's time about positional considerations rather than calculating variations - squares are a big part of this process.
  • Allied to the automatic recognition of "thinking in squares" is the development of a more automatic/unconscious visualization skill, in other words the ability to picture future board positions in your mind.  I have found that this grows naturally in the context of a consistently applied training/study plan, as long as you sometimes move the pieces in your head rather than always on the board.  One good example of doing this is when variations are given in an annotated game and you visualize them, rather than playing them out physically.  This can also be practiced in reading chess books without a board, starting with ones that have plentiful diagrams (such as Logical Chess: Move by Move).  At a basic level, you should not need to have the board coordinates (A-H, 1-8) printed on the board for you to immediately identify a square.  The next stage is being able to mentally picture (away from a board) the color of a particular square (d4 is black, b7 is white, etc.) quickly; if you can't do this, then your internal board sight is not functioning on an unconscious level and the need to process this consciously will slow you down.  Finally, being able to play a game "blindfold" (without sight of the board, whether or not you actually are wearing a blindfold) is more than a parlor trick, it is a sign that you have strong visualization skills that will strengthen your calculation and evaluation of variations.  Blindfold chess skill is again not a one-to-one correspondence with overall chess skill - not everyone can be Timur Gareev and he is not at the super-GM level (yet) - but it is a strong indicator of your general strength level.
  • While the above are largely conscious mental efforts related to the process of calculation - with visualization being, I would argue, also a partially unconscious function - one unconscious-origin phenomenon is when a move "suggests itself" without you doing any calculation at all.  At a certain level this phenomenon is related to what we call "natural moves" - which to a lower strength player do not necessarily appear natural at all.  Geometrically these can typically be defined as when an individual piece can be moved to a square where it will have maximum influence across the board, particularly into the opponent's camp.  More sophisticated versions of this idea occur when we have a mental library of successful positional patterns built up, so we make an instant comparison to what we have seen work before.  To quote Magnus Carlsen: "Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it’s just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check." 
  • Finally is an observation that I once read by a GM (the source regrettably does not occur to me right now, maybe Yermolinsky?) who noted that when you gain strength you do not in fact feel any stronger yourself; rather, your opponents start seeming weaker (in the same Elo range as you).  This is naturally a largely unconscious impression, but I believe it's a valid one and probably one of the most powerful indicators that you have in fact shifted significantly past a previous milestone in chess strength.

17 April 2017

Annotated Game #171: A matter of technique

This next tournament game, which started my win streak, recalls a number of previous themes from my analyzed games.  The problem of going ahead and playing an "obvious move" without checking tactics is present - for both White and Black, in this case.  Strategic themes are identified on the kingside (White's Bh6 threat), the center (the e5 square and various tactics, as well as an eventual pawn break), and the queenside (missed opportunities to exploit White's weaknesses there).  Tactical themes include hanging pieces (White's Bf4), deflection, and intermediate moves (exploited by me to very good effect).

Overall I chose as the primary theme the sometimes cliche' comment in a game annotation, that the win from a certain point is "a matter of technique".  As long as one's technique is adequate, that is.  One of the pitfalls of computer analysis is to always look for the best move, even when you have already identified a winning move, which from a practical perspective should (by definition) always be enough.  This is an especially important consideration after a long struggle when you may be tired and your board sight and calculating ability (unlike a computer engine's) is not at 100%.  In this game I won by going into an advantageous endgame which I felt confident of winning, but should have earlier seen a deflection tactic (25...h5!) which would have wrapped things up much sooner.  After that, it really is around move 36 that I knew I would win (rather than just thinking it...there is a difference), but still almost faltered due to a board sight issue on the long diagonal.  The final blow doesn't come until I transition into a won king and pawn endgame, which takes two tries but finally succeeds.

This game was a struggle and I missed some good ideas, but being able to make some strong, confident decisions along the way to victory helped keep up the positive momentum in subsequent games.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class C"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B13"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin / Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "134"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Nf3 {this is not a recognized variation in the Caro-Kann, although of course it's not a terrible move in itself. It doesn't challenge Black in any way, unlike the Panov (c4) or the Exchange (Bd3) variations.} Nc6 5. Bf4 Bg4 {Black is able to deploy the bishop to a very effective square before playing ...e6. I would say that Black has already equalized.} 6. Be2 Nf6 7. h3 Bh5 8. c3 e6 9. Nbd2 Bd6 {White's Bf4 is an excellently placed piece, so deserves to be challenged.} 10. Ne5 Bxe2 11. Qxe2 O-O {much better to castle before trying to play further in the center.} 12. Ndf3 {White has established a strong-looking and supported outpost on e5. The flip side is that I get a similar one on e4.} Ne4 {also an excellent outpost for my knight on the e-file and one that cannot be challenged without inflicting positional damage on White. Importantly, it also helps guard the g5 square.} 13. Nxc6 {I am happy with this exchange, which gets rid of a strong centralized knight in exchange for my Nc6, which is doing relatively little at the moment.} bxc6 14. Ne5 $6 {again a knight occupies e5, but with fewer pieces on the board White has less in the way of potential threats associated with it. White also gives himself a tactical problem, in that the Bf4 is hanging if the Ne5 moves. This is not immediately critical, but soon becomes a consideration.} (14. Bxd6 Nxd6 15. O-O $11) 14... Qc7 {now ...f6 is a threat.} 15. Qg4 {protecting the Bf4 (once). I now have to watch out for the Bh6 idea, but it doesn't work tactically under the current circumstances.} (15. Bh2 $5) 15... c5 $17 {a classic Caro-Kann pawn lever.} (15... f6 16. Nd3 {saves the bishop, but doesn't prevent the pawn advance.} e5 17. dxe5 fxe5 18. Be3 c5 $17 {this variation is a better version of the ...c5 lever idea, with a large rolling pawn center for Black and White's king looking unsafe.}) (15... Rab8 { is preferred by Komodo, taking more direct advantage of the Ne4 placement and White's queenside weaknesses.}) 16. f3 $2 {creating a major dark square weakness for White. This is an "obvious move" to kick the knight, but...} (16. Bh6 $2 Bxe5 17. dxe5 Qxe5 $17 {is what I saw during the game.}) (16. O-O Rab8 $17) 16... cxd4 $1 {I spotted this tactic/intermediate move, the point being that the Ne5 is (temporarily) no longer sufficiently protected.} 17. cxd4 (17. fxe4 Bxe5 18. Bxe5 Qxe5 19. cxd4 Qxd4 $19) 17... Bb4+ {it was clear here that activating a piece along the d1-a5 diagonal would be best, but it was unclear to me which one. In the end I chose the "safer" alternative. Visually it also looked good, with my queen maybe able to penetrate on c2.} (17... Qa5+ { I also considered for a while, and Komodo considers it much superior. Black is able to break through in the different variations.} 18. Kf1 (18. Ke2 Bxe5 19. fxe4 f5 20. exf5 Bxf4 21. Qxf4 Rxf5 {and White's open king will be hunted down. }) 18... Qb5+ 19. Kg1 Qxb2 20. Kh2 Nf2 $19) 18. Kf1 {here I could not come up with much of a plan, other than exchanging pieces. Simply retreating the knight would have been fine.} Nd2+ $6 (18... Nf6 19. Qh4 Rac8 $17) 19. Kg1 { I was instead expecting a piece trade on d2, which would have left me with an unopposed, outstanding dark-square bishop. The text move attempts to hide the White king on the h-file, but takes additional time and leaves the king still exposed on a dark square.} (19. Bxd2 $2 {would in fact be much worse for White. } Bxd2 $19 {and now White's queenside is very weak, notably the b-pawn, and not defendable.}) 19... Rfe8 $6 {with the idea of supporting an eventual f6 and e5 advance. Unfortunately the rook placement on e8 is an error, as pointed out by the engine.} (19... Rfc8 {instead allows the knight to be extricated via c4, while protecting against White's Bh6 idea.} 20. Bh6 f5 21. Qg3 Nc4 $11) (19... Nc4 {is the safe alternative, not leaving the knight out on a ledge.}) 20. a3 $2 {another "obvious move" that fails, this time putting White back into losing territory for the rest of the game.} (20. Nd3 {is the way to accomplish White's idea, attacking the Bb4 while gaining a tempo by forcing Black's queen to move.} Qc4 21. Nxb4 Qxd4+ 22. Kh2 Qxb4 23. b3 $16 {and now the knight has no escape.}) 20... Nb3 {another intermediate move tactic, this time that saves the knight. I should have looked at this idea sooner, however, as White's move was actually a surprise.} 21. Rd1 Bd6 {now I can breathe easier. White has no good responses to the multiple threats down the c-file and on the b8-h2 diagonal.} 22. Kh2 (22. Nd3 $5 Rac8 23. Be5 Bxe5 24. dxe5 Qb6+ 25. Kh2 Rc2 $17) 22... f6 23. Nd3 Nxd4 {winning the d4 pawn is the the first concrete benefit I have to show for my positional advantages. I spotted this idea when first considering the plan of kicking the White knight with ..f6.} 24. Bxd6 Qxd6+ 25. Nf4 $2 {unnecessarily pinning a piece.} (25. f4) 25... Ne2 { not a very imaginative move, but there are multiple paths to victory and it utilizes the pin to good effect. I can win now by trading down into an endgame. } (25... h5 $1 {wins the Nf4 with a deflection tactic. I should have looked harder for other ways to exploit the pin.}) 26. g3 Nxf4 27. gxf4 {evidently hoping to try for some counterplay along the half-open g-file.} Rac8 $19 { finally I get the rook developed.} 28. Rc1 Rc7 {played to keep an eye on g7 while preparing to double on the c-file.} 29. Rhe1 Rce7 {here I decided that the c-file would be of no real use to White, while opening up and dominating the e-file would be to my benefit.} (29... Rxc1 {would be simpler and follow the rule of exchanging down rooks when in a winning position. White indeed can do nothing with the c-file, so logically this is superior than keeping the double rooks on.}) 30. Kh1 e5 31. fxe5 Rxe5 32. Rxe5 {at this point there's nothing better for White. Ceding the e-file to the doubled rooks would be worse.} Qxe5 {the piece trades have benefited my strategy of clearing the way for the passed d-pawn and dominating the e-file. The queen is very well placed on e5 for central mobility. At this point there is little doubt that I have a won game, but still have to win it.} 33. b4 Qe3 {this gives White too much latitude.} (33... f5) 34. Rg1 (34. Rc7 $5 {would be annoying.} g5 35. Rc8 Kg7 36. Rxe8 Qxe8 $17) 34... g6 {here it was nice to play a correct "obvious move". } 35. Rf1 f5 {now I get the idea of blocking the queen's penetration on the h3-c8 diagonal.} 36. Qg2 Qxa3 {at this point it really is "a matter of technique" for the win, although White still has a fair amount of fight to put up.} 37. f4 Kg7 38. Rb1 (38. Qxd5 Qxh3+) 38... Re3 {I originally thought this would be decisive, but White finds a good resource that I missed.} 39. Qb2+ Rc3 {not necessarily my first choice, but I touched the rook to capture the h3 pawn before I understood that the queen move was a check. My board sight failed me on the long diagonal here, in part probably due to tiredness. Luckily this changes nothing about the outcome.} 40. Qxa3 Rxa3 41. Kg2 { now my rook is more awkwardly placed and White has managed to protect the h-pawn, but the d-pawn is still dominant.} Ra6 {played to regroup the rook behind the d-pawn.} 42. b5 Rd6 43. Ra1 Rd7 {this is a safe place for the rook, from which I felt I could continue playing without worrying much about calculation.} 44. Kf3 d4 {passed pawns must be pushed!} 45. Ke2 Kf7 {actually sending the king to the wrong side. The Rd7 can cover everything while Black's king romps on the kingside.} (45... Kh6) 46. Ra6 Ke8 47. b6 {likely played out of a common Class player desire for simplication, which often is the wrong instinct.} axb6 48. Rxb6 d3+ 49. Kd2 Kf7 {here I calculated that the resulting K+P endgame would be winning, so did not have a problem jettisoning the d-pawn. } 50. Rb3 h6 51. Rxd3 {at this point Komodo shows a mate in 26 for Black.} (51. Rb5 $19) 51... Rxd3+ 52. Kxd3 g5 53. fxg5 hxg5 54. Ke3 Kg6 55. Kf3 Kh5 { again I head my king the less effective way.} (55... Kf6) 56. Kg3 f4+ 57. Kf3 Kh4 58. Kg2 {here I had some problems calculating the win due to fatigue, so repeated the position.} Kh5 59. Kf3 Kh4 60. Kg2 f3+ {the key move which I found, but had to make sure did not lead to stalemate.} 61. Kh2 g4 62. hxg4 Kxg4 63. Kh1 Kh3 64. Kg1 Kg3 {having gained the opposition the final time, the win is now evident.} 65. Kh1 Kf2 66. Kh2 Ke1 67. Kg1 f2+ 0-1

09 April 2017

Annotated Game #170: It's the little moves that matter

The next tournament I played in featured some rather big swings in momentum.  After my usual "warm-up" game to get the rust out after an extended period of not playing (the game below), I won the next three games and then lost the last two.  This result really pointed out the importance of energy management and psychological factors in improving my tournament performances.

The main theme for this game is the importance of "little moves" - ones that don't look like they do much (if anything) on the board, but can have big strategic or tactical impact.  The first one was a strategic one on move 9, while the other two were crucial tactics, including what should have been a game-winning combination.  Another theme is that of the swindle, as after the combination fail I have to fight hard and cunningly to get to a (largely undeserved) draw.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A14"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "91"] 1. c4 c6 2. Nf3 e6 {an unusual and rather inflexible way of heading for a Semi-Slav type setup.} 3. g3 d5 4. Bg2 Nf6 5. O-O Nbd7 6. b3 Be7 {I've seen more games with the ...Bd6 but both are equal choices for the bishop.} 7. Bb2 { the bishop serves to both restrain ...d4 and to pressure the beautiful long a1-h8 diagonal.} O-O 8. d3 {here I thought for a while and eventually opted for the database favorite. This retains flexibility for White in the center - keeping the Bb2 unblocked - while giving the Nb1 the option of developing to d2.} dxc4 {this is rarely played, as it gives up Black's best, well-supported central pawn (the whole reason for the Semi-Slav pawn formation in the first place).} 9. dxc4 {I opted for the central pawn recapture to maintain the pawn structure symmetry, thinking that Black might somehow be able to do something with an open b-file later on. This isn't a bad move, but most players (and Komodo) prefer recapturing towards the center with the b-pawn. Among other things that leaves the d3 pawn controlling e4. A "little move" that matters.} Qb6 {done to clear the d8 square for a rook, but this is less effective a maneuver without the rooks connected on the back rank. The locked-in Bc8 is doing nothing for Black except get in the way.} 10. Qc2 Rd8 11. Nc3 { developing my last minor piece and connecting the rooks, which will allow me to challenge on the d-file.} Nf8 $6 {I was a little puzzled by this knight maneuver, which seems a bit of a time-waster.} 12. Rad1 $14 {I now have a pleasant game and am ahead in development.} Ng6 13. Rxd8+ Qxd8 14. Rd1 { although I have the d-file, which is nice, the piece exchange did help ease Black's cramped game a bit.} Qc7 {although the idea of seizing the d-file was easy to find, now I thought for a while about a suitable plan. The Nc3 isn't doing a whole lot and has limited prospects, so I thought exchanging it for the Nf6 and opening the long diagonal again would be a good idea.} 15. Ne4 { the (rather obvious) threat with this move is exchanging twice on f6 and doubling Black's f-pawns. Komodo prefers a more sophisticated version of the idea of occupying e4 with a knight, first playing Nd2.} Nd7 $6 {another surprising retreat, as I had expected an exchange on e4 (indeed best per the engine). I understood the importance of the d-file, but failed to find the best idea, which would be to use the un-exchanged Ne4 to move to an even better outpost on d6.} 16. Qd2 {the idea was to increase pressure on the d-file, which could further hinder the development of the Bc8, and also to support a possible knight hop to d6.} (16. c5 $1 {would prepare Nd6 and throttle Black.}) 16... Nge5 17. Nxe5 $1 {here I had another long think and came up with a nice-looking combination that doesn't quite work as played. This move however is indeed winning.} Nxe5 18. Bxe5 Qxe5 19. Qd8+ $1 $18 { a nice-looking back-rank tactic.} Bf8 {however, now I wasn't able to find the correct forcing path, due to a lack of creative thinking. As played in the game, the try to win a piece ends up leaving me down two pawns.} 20. Nd6 $6 { this actually can work out OK for White, but there is an immediate win. I was too fixated on trying to win the Bc8 and did not see the potential for also threatening f7.} (20. Qe8 $1 {a "little move" with the threat of Rd8 to follow, doubling up on the 8th rank and winning.}) 20... Qxe2 21. Nxc8 $2 {this is the right idea (or one of them) in the position, but wrong sequencing. I understood by this point that I would be down multiple pawns afterwards, but didn't see anything better.} (21. Rf1 {another quiet, little move that is the best.} Qe5 (21... Qxa2 $2 22. Qe8) 22. Nxc8 Qb8 23. Ne7+ Kh8 24. Qd7 $16) 21... Rxc8 {this is the problem, the rook sacrifices itself with a deflection tactic and the Rd1 is now hanging. I was not patient and analytic enough to see that simply removing the Rd1 from being en prise (as given in the above variation) would be enough to make the tactic succeed.} 22. Qxc8 Qxd1+ $17 23. Bf1 Qa1 24. Qxb7 (24. a4 {again, patience would have been a virtue here.}) 24... Qxa2 25. Qxc6 $6 {this gives Black an outside passed pawn on the a-file.} Qxb3 {now it's looking pretty ugly for me, although not hopeless, given the complexity of queen endings. I try to avoid trading queens at all costs, keep up threats to the a-pawn, and freeze the Black bishop on the back rank, while maintaining my c-pawn and advancing it.} 26. Qa8 Qb6 27. Bd3 {with the threat of Bxh7, getting a pawn back by a deflection tactic against the Bf8.} Qb3 $2 28. c5 $2 { now I thought here for a while and chose to go for another risky, poorly-calculated "combination", thinking that I could queen the c-pawn if given a head start.} (28. Bxh7+ $1 {the original idea is still the best.} Kxh7 29. Qxf8 $11 {I mis-evaluted this position, which the engine gives as completely equal. Black's king is too exposed and the f-pawn is weak.}) 28... Qxd3 $19 29. c6 Qd1+ 30. Kg2 Qd5+ 31. f3 g6 {my original idea hinged on being able to queen on c8 after sacrificing the queen for the Bf8, but now I see this will not be possible.} 32. Qc8 {the only hope, I felt, of still trying to queen the pawn. Now we are in swindle territory.} Kg7 33. c7 Bd6 34. Qd8 { temporarily staving off disaster by pinning the bishop.} Qd2+ 35. Kh3 Qh6+ 36. Kg2 Bxc7 {Black has nothing better. We are now back to the two-pawn material deficit situation.} 37. Qxc7 {while Black is still comfortably winning, there's a big difference both psychologically and materially with the bishop off the board.} Qd2+ 38. Kh3 Qd4 39. f4 {with the idea of freezing the e-pawn advance.} h5 40. Qa5 {with the idea of keeping an eye on the a-pawn and on e5.} Kg8 41. Qc7 $2 {now White's idea should be to keep the queen on the a-file to prevent Black's queen from doing the same and advancing the pawn.} Kg7 42. Qa5 Qd1 43. Qe5+ Kh7 44. Qc7 {making sure to keep the queen as active as possible, threatening the f-pawn as well as the a-pawn.} Qg4+ 45. Kg2 Qe2+ 46. Kh3 { at this point, with less time on her clock, my opponent decides to stop trying to convert the queen ending and offered a draw, which I accepted.} 1/2-1/2

01 April 2017

Annotated Game #169: Alekhine's Gun

The Alekhine's Gun formation is one of those rare, fun and aesthetically pleasing positions that is hard to resist playing when you have the opportunity.  In this game, it appears on move 29 and was a natural reaction to my opponent allowing me play on the open e-file.

The general course of this tournament game shows how effective a small but persistent advantage can be.  I was fortunate enough to be on the positive side of this effect, after a queen sortie to snatch White's a-pawn.  I tend to credit moves like 12...Be4 with helping keep up the psychological pressure on my opponent, although I by no means found all of the most effective moves/ideas (for example the idea of mobilizing my extra a-pawn).  Another key strategic turning point in the game was when my opponent played 20. c5, which very helpfully clarified my middlegame plans by eliminating the central pawn tension.  At the Class level, it's very common to not be comfortable maintaining such types of tension and prematurely resolving it with either an advance (as happened here) or by exchanging, in either case often giving the opponent a better (or at least easier) position as a result.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D02"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "70"] {D02:1 d4 d5 2 Nf sidelines, including 2...Nf6 3 g3 and 2...Nf6 3 Bf4} 1. Nf3 Nf6 {I prefer to take a waiting approach in response to White's first move, rather than directly challenge in the center.} 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 d5 {a solid approach, essentially aiming for a Slav-type setup, which was the point of the previous move. It's not necessary to commit so early with 2...c6, but with White obviously fianchettoing his bishop, it doesn't hurt to strengthen the diagonal in preparation for 3...d5.} 4. O-O Bf5 {it's mostly a matter of taste whether the bishop is played to f5 or g4, although the resulting play has significant differences. Here's a recent high-level example of the alternative bishop placement:} (4... Bg4 5. h3 Bxf3 6. Bxf3 Nbd7 7. d3 e5 8. e4 dxe4 9. dxe4 Bc5 10. Bg2 Qe7 11. a4 O-O 12. Qe2 a5 13. Nd2 Rfd8 14. Nb3 Bb6 15. Bd2 Nc5 16. Nxc5 Bxc5 17. Rfd1 h6 18. Be1 Nd7 19. h4 Bb6 20. Qc4 Nc5 21. b3 Ne6 22. c3 Rxd1 23. Rxd1 Rd8 24. Qe2 Qa3 25. Rxd8+ Bxd8 26. Qd1 Bb6 27. Bh3 Nc5 28. Bc8 Qb2 29. Kf1 Nxe4 30. Bf5 Nxf2 31. Qd7 g6 32. Be6 fxe6 33. Qe8+ Kg7 34. Qe7+ Kg8 35. Qe8+ Kg7 36. Qe7+ Kg8 {1/2-1/2 (36) Giri,A (2782)-Kramnik,V (2812) Paris 2016}) 5. d4 e6 6. b3 {this is actually the second most popular move in the database. It doesn't score so well for White, though, at 49 percent.} (6. c4 { would transpose directly into Slav Defense territory.}) 6... Nbd7 {developing the knight first and keeping the dark-squared bishop placement flexible for as long as possible.} 7. Ba3 $6 {this minor piece exchange is a net benefit to Black, who develops and exchanges the bishop in one tempo, while leaving White's knight on an awkward rim square. If the knight had b5 available it might make more sense.} (7. Nbd2 Ne4 8. Bb2 Be7 9. Ne5 Nxd2 10. Qxd2 Nxe5 11. dxe5 Qb6 12. Bd4 c5 13. Be3 Qc7 14. c4 d4 15. Bf4 h6 16. e4 Bg4 17. f3 Bh5 18. g4 g5 19. Bg3 Bg6 20. f4 gxf4 21. Bxf4 h5 {Perez Pardo,J (2297)-Istratescu,A (2607) Caleta 2010 0-1 (36)}) 7... Bxa3 8. Nxa3 O-O {castling before deciding where to most effectively develop the Black queen.} 9. c4 {presumably this was my opponent's idea behind putting his knight on a3, to support the c-pawn push. Under the right circumstances after pawn exchanges, the knight could then go to c4 or b5. However, since I do not oblige by exchanging on c4, this never actually happens.} Re8 {getting the rooks onto better squares is never a bad idea and is often neglected by Class players (as I've done many times in the past).} 10. Rc1 $2 {White's subsequent troubles can be traced to this move, which neglects the (now) two unprotected pieces on the a-file.} Qa5 {an example of a double attack tactic, in this case via a type of skewer down the a-file which attacks the hanging Na3 which cannot be defended, and thereby indirectly the a2 pawn.} 11. Nc2 Qxa2 $15 {Komodo evaluates White as having some compensation for the pawn. I will have to spend some time extricating the queen, but it's still worth the material.} 12. Ne3 {here I thought for some time, since there are several plausible alternatives. Komodo agrees with my choice.} (12. Nb4 Qa5 13. Nd3 $15) 12... Be4 {this move is a common theme in these types of positions. The bishop is well supported and centralized on e4 and is annoying to deal with. Any effort to exchange it should also result in a position that is fine for Black. I chose it because it keeps up the pressure a bit more on my opponent.} (12... Bg6 {is a solid alternative.}) 13. Ra1 Qb2 { part of the calculations that went into move 11. My queen is in no actual danger, despite being behind the screen of queenside pawns, since my opponent has no pieces able to cover all of the escape squares.} 14. Ne1 {engines here show a preference for exchanging queens, which among other things would help ease White's space deficit.} (14. Qc1 Qxc1 15. Rfxc1 a6 $17) 14... Qc3 { I deliberately made a safe choice here, deciding to focus on ensuring the queen could be withdrawn without any issues. The engine prefers a more aggressive approach.} (14... a5 $5 {mobilizing the extra pawn.} 15. Bxe4 Nxe4 16. N1c2 Qxb3 17. Rb1 Qc3 18. Rxb7 Red8 $17 {for example is evaluated as better for Black, but I was leery of allowing White any counterplay down the b-file.}) 15. Bxe4 {apparently my opponent didn't like having my centralized bishop in his territory.} (15. Rc1 Qa5 $15) 15... Nxe4 $17 {however, after the minor piece exchange on e4, Black's space advantage and better piece coordination is more evident. At this point I also noticed the idea of a sacrifice on f2, based on the relative lack of support for the Ne3.} 16. Nf3 Ndf6 {I thought for a while here, as I was not able to find an obvious plan. This move had the purpose of supporting the Ne4 and also left open the idea of a sac on f2.} (16... a5 $5 {again would be more assertive with Black's extra pawn, grabbing space and promising good play on the queenside.}) 17. Rc1 $15 { now the queen has to retreat, somewhat regretfully, without being able to carry out the sacrifice idea.} Qa5 {I spent some time here deciding between a5 and b4. On b4 the queen could continue to pressure the b-pawn, but I was more interested in giving her extra mobility on the d8-a5 diagonal.} 18. Qd3 Qc7 19. Ne5 {this was expected and is a thematic occupation of the e5 outpost. I now have to think hard about how to neutralize the knight.} Qe7 {I had to be careful here about some of the tactics involved in the potential pawn exchanges on d5. This move got the queen out of a latent pin on the c-file.} 20. c5 {this is not a bad move, but I was happy to see it from a strategic perspective. The tension at d5 is now resolved and it clarifies what Black's plan should be, which is play in the center and kingside.} (20. f3 $5 Nd6 $15) 20... Nd7 {challenging the Ne5 and preparing to advance the f-pawn if necessary.} 21. Nxd7 Qxd7 $17 {as material is exchanged, any White compensation for the missing pawn is decreased.} 22. f3 {ejecting my knight from its advanced outpost.} Nf6 23. g4 {during the game I felt that this was over-optimistic. It's not a terrible move, but as with all pawn advances it leaves weaknesses behind it.} (23. Rfe1 e5 $17) 23... e5 {this is a good idea but the timing of it is not the best. I probably spent less time than I should have thinking about this move, which is critical, but it seemed pretty obvious. } (23... Qc7 $5 {would have been a good preparatory move, getting the queen on the penetrating diagonal b8-h2 and directly supporting ...e5}) 24. dxe5 $6 { this just plays into Black's plan of getting pressure down the e-file.} (24. Nf5 $5 $17 {would seem to be a consistent idea with the g4 pawn push.}) 24... Rxe5 {now my advantage is more evident, with a positional edge on the e-file along with the material advantage.} 25. Nf5 {correctly occupying the outpost, but to less effect now that the e-file is open.} Rae8 {the obvious follow-up and a good one. I was most focused on Nd6 as a possible response, but then Black has ...Re3} (25... g6 $5 {is good but somewhat more complicated.} 26. Qd2 Qe6 (26... gxf5 $2 27. Qg5+ $16) 27. Nd4 Qe7 $17) 26. Rf2 (26. Nd6 Re3 $17 ( 26... R8e7 $5)) 26... h5 {I thought for a long time here and made Komodo's second choice. I couldn't fully calculate all of the consequences, but didn't see how White could benefit from the move and many ways how I could increase pressure. The basic idea of the move is to undermine the Nf5 and threaten to open up pressure along the c8-h3 diagonal.} (26... g6 27. Nd6 R8e7 {is evaluated as clearly better for Black, but at the time I didn't like how ...g6 cut off some potential lateral movement for the rooks.}) 27. h3 {I had mostly considered Rg2 in response. The move played is better, but has its own problems.} (27. Nd6 R8e7 28. Nf5 hxg4 (28... Re8 {is also fine}) 29. Nxe7+ Qxe7 $17) (27. Rg2 $6 hxg4 28. fxg4 Ne4 29. h4 g6 30. Nh6+ Kg7 31. g5 f5 $19) 27... a6 {a safe choice but not best.} (27... g6 {I also considered, but I was getting tired by this point and hesitated to pull the trigger. I figured that . ..a6 helpfully removed any possible threats on the a-file and I also wanted to see what my opponent had in mind before committing to a particular course of action. Among other things, I was concerned that the g-file could be opened to White's advantage or that the g6 pawn could become a target.} 28. Nd6 R8e7 29. Ra1 a6 $19) 28. Ra1 $2 {this is a wasted move and would have allowed me to get in the more effective ...g6.} (28. Nd6 R8e6 $15) 28... R8e6 $6 {this is a good idea, but the timing is wrong.} (28... g6 29. Nd6 R8e6 $19) 29. e4 $2 {this essentially forces Black to make a breakthough and loses for White, although I still had some thinking to do. I think my opponent was still being optimistic about his prospects for a kingside attack.} (29. Rg2 {is much more solid:} Qe8 30. Ra2 g6 31. Qd2 Qf8 $15) 29... Qe8 $19 {I now have the "Alekhine's Gun" formation on the e-file, which is always fun to see on the board and I admit played a role in my move choice. I also was getting tired and saw there was at worst a drawing line via repetition that would result, that at the same time was not obligatory.} (29... dxe4 {is the engine preference.} 30. Qxd7 Nxd7 31. b4 exf3 32. Rxf3 hxg4 33. hxg4 Re4 $19 {and Black has a winning endgame. However, I was thinking about winning the middlegame still.}) 30. Nd6 Qe7 31. Nf5 {I think my opponent had been thinking the same thing about reaching a drawing line. However, the c5 pawn is loose and I noticed it at this point.} ( 31. Raf1 dxe4 32. fxe4 hxg4 $19) 31... Qxc5 $19 {this puts the win for Black beyond a doubt, with the extra pawn seized and the Rf2 pinned.} 32. Nd4 dxe4 { forcing the issue.} 33. fxe4 (33. Nxe6 {doesn't work:} Qxf2+ 34. Kxf2 exd3 $19 {and Black mops up easily in the endgame.}) 33... Nxe4 34. Rc2 Qb6 { maintaining the pin on the Nd4.} 35. Kg2 Rd6 {the knight is now doomed.} (35... Rd6 36. Rd1 c5 $19) 0-1