07 June 2019

Annotated Game #211: Deceptive symmetry

Having lost my first two tournament games, I was focused on holding the line for this next game and not losing. I was therefore pleased to see my significantly higher-rated opponent head for a drawish-looking line of the Symmetrical English. That said, symmetry can sometimes be deceptive, since one side can often quickly change the character of the game in their favor.

Here my opponent varies a little, but we still end up with a symmetrical pawn structure on move 17. However, now Black's pieces are able to come alive, while I start to get myself into a cramped position; this has been a long-term tendency of mine, particularly as White. My opponent misses a chance for a clear (if small plus) by playing the wrong pawn recapture on move 20, but I then dig myself into a positional hole with my two knights on the a-file rim. Luckily I am able to recover and then find the correct blockading strategy, being happy to take a draw in the final equal position.

I think it's important to be able to recover from an 0-2 start and not get too down on yourself. I also think it's a mistake to be playing deliberately for a draw. Here that wasn't the plan from the start, even though the opening was itself drawsh. So although I wobbled a bit in my play, I was satisfied that I ultimately found the right path and played according to the needs of the position.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A38"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "55"] {A38: Symmetrical English vs ...g6:4 Bg2 Bg7 5 Nf3 Nf6} 1. c4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. g3 g6 5. Bg2 Bg7 6. O-O O-O 7. d3 d6 {this is a very even but unambitious line from Black.} 8. Bd2 a6 {first breaking of the symmetry.} 9. Ne1 {an uncommon move here, but with a similar idea found in other Symmetrical Variation lines. White is repositioning the knight to c2, in order to support an eventual b4 advance and to unleash the Bg2.} (9. Qc1 $5 {with the intent of exchanging the Bg7 is another plan.}) 9... e6 {taking away the d5 square from White's pieces.} 10. Nc2 Bd7 11. a3 {preparing b4.} (11. Rb1 {may be preferable, as the rook has better prospects eventually on the b-file, and to get away from the latent threat to it from the Bg7 on the long diagonal.}) 11... Rb8 12. b4 {I saw no reason to wait, having prepared sufficiently.} cxb4 (12... b6 $5) 13. axb4 {I now have a small positional advantage on the queenside, having resolved the tension and ending up with a spatial plus.} Ne8 {this opens up the diagonal for the Bg7 and pins the Nc3, but is rather awkward.} 14. Rb1 {played to immediately break the pin on the Nc3 and support the b-pawn. However, this releases the pressure on the a-file and allows Black to equalize with his next move.} (14. Qc1 $5 {is preferred by the engine, getting the queen in play and also supporting the activation of the Bd2, which will eventually have prospects for going to g5 or h6.} b5) (14. Ra3 {is also a good alternative, breaking the pin and keeping the rook on the a-file.}) 14... b5 $11 15. cxb5 {I thought for a while here, since the decision here will have a major strategic effect on the course of the game.} (15. c5 {would unbalance the position by giving me much better central control, but would give Black two connected passed queenside pawns, which I did not like.} dxc5 16. bxc5 Nc7 $11) 15... axb5 {with a near-symmetrical pawn structure, it's a very drawish position now.} 16. e3 {the idea being to keep a Black knight out of d4 once the Nc2 moves.} d5 17. d4 {an interesting example of how symmetry is not necessarily equal. This move gives up the c4 square as an outpost for Black.} ( 17. Ne2 $5 {maneuvering the knight to a better square would avoid the positional issues that quickly arise in the game.}) 17... Nd6 {my opponent is quick to take advantage of the weak c4 square and vastly improve the Ne8's position.} 18. Re1 {I'm starting to get my pieces jammed up now, it looks like. The idea here is to vacate the f1 square for the bishop, although it might have been better to leave it on g2, potentially supporting an e3-e4 pawn push.} (18. Ne1 $5 {would mirror image my opponent's knight maneuver (e1-d3-c5).}) 18... Nc4 19. Bf1 {continuing with the original idea, which is to do something useful with the bad light-square bishop. The piece exchange is fine on its own merits, but the pawn structure transformation will be in Black's favor.} (19. Ne2 $5) 19... Qe7 20. Bxc4 bxc4 $6 {this is not nearly as good for Black as the d-pawn capture, since I now have compensation in the form of a passed b-pawn.} (20... dxc4 21. Ne4 $15) 21. Na4 $6 {heading for c5. Here I was thinking rather narrowly and only about piece play on the queenside.} (21. b5 { should equalize again, but at the time I was afraid the pawn would be overextended. However, it's even more of a target on b4.} Na7 22. e4 $11 { undermining the central pawn chain.}) 21... Na7 $17 {now controlling the b5 square.} 22. Na3 {protecting the Na4 with the queen.} Rfc8 {this gives me a little breathing room. Perhaps my opponent was reluctant to give up bishop for knight.} (22... Bxa4 $5 23. Qxa4 Rb7 $17) 23. Nc5 {Black still has an advantage, since his pieces are cooperating much better together, but I now have a strongly posted knight.} Bc6 24. Bc3 {blockading the pawn on c4.} Qe8 25. Qd2 {reinforcing the b4 pawn. At this point my plan is to block all further progress for my opponent, rather than seek counterplay (which isn't really feasible).} Bh6 26. Ra1 $11 {continuing the blockading strategy, as now that b4 is secure I can reinforce the a-file. Komodo now evaluates the position as equal, albeit with a slight advantage for Black.} (26. Nxc4 $5 { is the computer line and a tactical way to draw.} dxc4 27. d5 exd5 28. Qd4 f6 29. Qxf6 Qf8 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Qf6+ Kg8) 26... Ra8 27. Ra2 Nb5 28. Nxb5 { and I took a draw here, with my opponent shorter on time than me. Neither of us can make progress.} 1/2-1/2


  1. This is one of my favourite and highest scoring lines for White but that is when White plays 6.d4 cd 7.Nd4 0-0 8.0-0.

    1. That's certainly a much more dynamic line, as after e4 you'll have a Sicilian Dragon on the board.
      I have to admit to deliberately choosing the much more drawish approach for my repertoire (to date) to limit the necessary amount of studying for the Symmetrical Variation, in part because I see it so infrequently at the Class level.

    2. I keep a track of the lines I face and the Symmetrical occurs 20% of the time. My repertoire mostly follows the Marin books on the English, with Book 3 dedicated to the Symmetrical. It's the portion of the repertoire that performs best in my games, about 7% higher than I should expect comparing my rating against that of my opponents.
      I'm not sure the numerical value for Class Level. I'm sure when we "spoke" before we were similar in strength. I am between 1950 and 2035 over the last few ratings.

    3. Fun with statistics! Let's see what they say in my case.
      In my tournament games, the Symmetrical (ECO A30-A39,including the Hedgehog) has occurred 17 times, out of 147 as white, so that is 11.6%. Strip out the four Hedgehogs and that drops below 10%.
      I'm currently a Class A (1800 range) player, after starting as a Class C and then a Class B player for the bulk of my career. (See "The Long Journey to Class A"). My opponents in the Symmetrical English opening have ranged from 1379 to 2200. (I beat the 2200 after a miscalculated tactic on his part.)
      It's true that as ratings increase, more players know about (and play) the Symmetrical variation as Black. As a rough guess, though, I'd say that about half of my opponents have played it because it seemed they didn't have anything at all prepared against the English, and just wanted to mirror moves.
      It would seem that a different line in this variation, like the one you cited, would likely bring better results for me, although it's still a trade-off in terms of time and brain space for additional opening preparation.