04 August 2019

Annotated Game #217: Recovering in the middlegame

After my first-round victory against an Expert (Annotated Game #216), I had a short draw against an equally-rated player. My rule these days is not to take draws unless the position is in fact drawn with no real play left. Although it was still technically the middlegame, I would say it met the criteria and the engine assessment corroborates that, so I don't feel bad about the result. It also let me conserve energy for this next game, which was again against someone 300+ rating points higher.

The story of the opening into the early middlegame is unfortunately a familiar one. In an English vs. Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) structure, I do fine for the first 10 moves of "book" and then flounder in an unfamiliar position. One of the insights I've had is that this is in fact a completely normal phenomenon. The point being, learn the ideas of the position through game analysis afterwards, so the next time it will be familiar. I believe this is one of the most powerful ways of improving your game on a practical level. It also means that frequent tournament/serious chess and post-game analysis is necessary.

Unlike in a number of previous games, I manage to recover after the rather silly 10. Na4?! and break the trend giving Black the initiative. It's interesting to see how early trends in a game often take psychological hold and a small but real advantage for one side just keeps getting (unnecessarily) larger. Here, Black has pressure in a complex position through move 13, then allows me in the next several moves to simplify and improve the relative position of my pieces. By move 17 I feel much better about the position and by move 22 things are completely level.

However, that doesn't mean that there were no more opportunities to go wrong. My opponent kept trying to create chances for me to degrade my position, for example on moves 37 and 41. The latter one is instructive, as one typical Class player error is to always take an even material exchange, in the belief that it will lead to a quicker draw. That's not what the position demanded, though, and the draw was sealed soon afterwards.

One GM comment I recall reading a while back noted that against lower-rated players, masters can often get significantly behind coming out of the opening, but then draw or win in the end after their opponents make a key error, typically close to or in the endgame. This seemed to be my opponent's thinking as well, which I can't fault him for. One of the differences in this game is that after recovering in the middlegame, I did not let up in my focus and calculation, assuming that it would be drawn; games don't magically end themselves (or if they do, it's likely because of a blunder on your part). So although my level of play in the first part was sub-par, it was good to see that I had what it took to go the full distance in the game.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Expert"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A13"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "83"] {A13: English Opening: 1...e6} 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 {going for a QGD setup} 3. b3 Nf6 4. Bb2 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Be2 c5 7. O-O Nc6 8. cxd5 Nxd5 9. Nc3 {the most common move in the position, according to the database, but not particularly well scoring (44 percent).} (9. d4 {stakes more of a claim in the center.}) (9. a3 $5 {goes for more of a Hedgehog type structure and scores 55 percent in the database.}) 9... Bf6 10. Na4 $6 {this is just a fancy way of misplacing the knight. The idea was to reposition it on c4 after a bishop exchange on b2.} ( 10. Qc1 {scores the best in the database, at 56 percent.} Nxc3 11. Bxc3 Bxc3 12. Qxc3 Qe7 13. Rfc1 b6 14. d4 Bb7 15. dxc5 Rfc8 16. b4 bxc5 17. bxc5 a5 18. a3 Rc7 19. Rab1 Rac8 20. Rxb7 Rxb7 21. Ba6 Rcb8 22. Bxb7 Qxb7 23. Nd4 a4 24. h3 g6 25. Qc4 Nxd4 26. exd4 Qc6 27. Rd1 Rd8 28. f3 h5 29. Rb1 Kh7 30. Rb4 Ra8 31. Qe2 Rd8 32. Qe4 Qc7 33. Rb7 Qg3 34. Rxf7+ Kg8 35. Qxe6 {1-0 (35) Lagarde,M (2586)-Skuhala,L (2059) chess.com INT 2018}) (10. Rc1 {seems natural as well, here's a high-level example:} b6 11. Qc2 Bb7 12. Rfd1 Rc8 13. Qb1 Nxc3 14. dxc3 Qc7 15. Nd2 Ne5 16. f4 Qc6 17. e4 Ng6 18. g3 c4 19. Nxc4 Rfd8 20. Bf3 b5 21. Ne3 Qb6 22. Kf2 e5 23. Rxd8+ Rxd8 24. Rd1 exf4 25. Rxd8+ Qxd8 26. Nd5 Be5 27. Qd3 fxg3+ 28. hxg3 Qg5 29. Be2 h5 30. Qe3 Qxe3+ 31. Kxe3 Bxd5 32. exd5 b4 33. Bxh5 bxc3 34. Bc1 Bxg3 35. Kd3 Nf4+ 36. Bxf4 Bxf4 37. Kxc3 g6 38. Be2 Kf8 39. b4 Ke7 40. a4 Kd6 41. Kc4 f5 42. Bd3 Be3 43. a5 Ke5 44. Bc2 Bf2 45. Bd3 Be3 46. Bc2 g5 47. d6 g4 48. d7 Bg5 49. b5 g3 50. b6 axb6 51. a6 g2 52. a7 g1=Q 53. a8=Q Qc5+ 54. Kb3 Qb5+ 55. Ka2 Qxd7 56. Qf3 Qa7+ 57. Kb3 Qf7+ 58. Kb2 Qe6 59. Qc3+ Kd6 60. Qd3+ Ke5 61. Qc3+ Kf4 62. Qd2+ Kg4 63. Qd1+ Kh4 64. Qh1+ Kg3 65. Qg1+ Kf4 66. Qc1+ Kg4 67. Qg1+ Kf4 68. Qc1+ {1/2-1/2 (68) Svidler,P (2754) -Naiditsch,A (2689) Moscow 2009}) 10... b6 {simply reinforcing the c5 pawn and allowing development of the bishop on b7.} (10... Bxb2 11. Nxb2 b6 12. d4 Nc3 13. Qd2 Nxe2+ 14. Qxe2 cxd4 15. Nxd4 Nxd4 16. exd4 Bb7 17. Qe3 Qd5 18. f3 Rfd8 19. Rfd1 Rac8 20. Rac1 Qa5 21. Nc4 Qb4 22. a3 Qe7 23. b4 Rc7 24. Ne5 Rdc8 25. Qd2 {Brozhik,V (2189)-Karnaukh,A (2253) Kiev 2003 0-1 (51)}) (10... Bxb2 11. Nxb2 b6 12. Na4 $11) 11. d4 (11. Nc3 {simply retreating the knight is probably easiest in response, although it's harder for humans to re-evaluate and simply admit a mistaken idea over the board.}) (11. Qb1 {is a related idea.}) 11... cxd4 12. Nxd4 Bb7 $15 {by this point Black's pieces are working well together, he has centralized knights and both bishops on the long diagonals. Mine are not as effective, with the misplaced Na4 and a potentially under-protected Bb2 needing to be watched carefully.} 13. Rc1 {a straightforward move, which Black could have responded to more effectively.} (13. Bf3 Ne5 {didn't appeal to me.}) 13... Rc8 {this was a relief, as I'm now able to reorganize my pieces and make exchanges.} (13... Bxd4 14. exd4 {saddles White with an isolated queen pawn, with Black already dominating the square in front of it.} Qg5 (14... Rc8 { is also good for an edge}) 15. g3 $15) 14. Nxc6 $11 Bxc6 15. Nc3 {finally getting the knight back into play.} (15. Ba6 $5) 15... Bxc3 16. Bxc3 Nxc3 17. Rxc3 Qg5 {I think my opponent was counting on this to sustain his advantage, but the threat is easily blocked. With the reduced material on the board and symmetric pawn structure, I have no problems.} 18. g3 Qf6 19. Qc1 {the obvious way to protect the rook, although Komodo is a bit more creative.} (19. Qa1 $5 { with a latent positional threat of exchanging on f6, also allowing the Rf1 to come to c1.}) 19... Bb7 20. Rxc8 Rxc8 21. Qd2 Qe5 {Black may still have hopes of taking advantage of the light-square weaknesses around my king, so I shut that down.} (21... Rd8 22. Qc2 $11) 22. f3 {now Black is blunted on the light squares.} Qc5 {immediately pressuring the weakened e3 square, but Black has no other way of increasing it.} 23. Kg2 {I played the king here rather than f2 in anticipation of Black pressure on the h-file with the queen.} g5 {the only way to try and make progress for Black is to advance the kingside pawns.} 24. g4 h6 25. Rf2 {my concern was Black playing ...Qc2 and after an exchange, getting his rook on the second rank.} Kf8 26. Qd7 {penetrating into my opponent's side of the board for the first time. There are no real threats, but there is an annoyance factor.} Qd5 {I'm happy to exchange queens. My opponent apparently thought that he could outplay me in the endgame, despite the equal position.} 27. Qxd5 Bxd5 28. e4 {further blunting Black's bishop.} Bb7 29. Bc4 {with my bishop finally in play and the situation on the board simplified, I felt confident that I would hold the draw.} Rd8 30. Rc2 {my strategy now is simply a preventative one, to prevent any Black breakthroughs.} Ke7 31. Kf2 Rc8 32. Rd2 a6 {preparing b5. This would certainly drive my bishop back, but its Black counterpart on b7 would also have nowhere to go.} 33. Ke3 {centralizing the king and protecting the Rd2.} e5 {although it doesn't change the engine evaluation, this move by my opponent sealed the draw for me, I felt. Black no longer has any hope of engineering a breakthrough on the kingside.} 34. Bd3 Rc5 35. Rc2 Kd6 36. Rxc5 {choosing to transition to a drawn bishop ending.} Kxc5 37. a3 {perhaps Black was hoping I would let his king penetrate on the queenside.} a5 38. Bc4 f6 39. Kd3 {keeping the Black king under watch and also protecting the Bc4, allowing the b-pawn to move if needed.} b5 40. Be6 Bc6 41. Ke3 {as long as the entry squares on the fourth rank are covered, Black cannot make progress.} b4 {hoping for a pawn exchange.} 42. a4 {now the board is completely sealed and my opponent offered a draw.} (42. axb4+ $2 Kxb4 $17) 1/2-1/2