23 September 2019

Annotated Game #220: Second chances in the Dutch

The theme of this game, as well as being an example of the (desperate) second chances the Dutch can sometimes offer, could also be "Why You Should Never Give Up in Chess". This was my second tournament game with the Stonewall, coming about a year after Annotated Game #175. As can be seen, I'm still feeling my way forward in understanding the needs of the position and best locations for the pieces. White's 12. Ne5 highlights the weaknesses and awkward development that Black has at this point. However, analysis also shows the resilience of the Stonewall, as it is hard for White to make measurable progress even with a noticeable positional plus. The equalizing idea of the ...e5 pawn break (not played in the game until later) is particularly noteworthy.

On move 22, I start a rather rapid downward slide, with White establishing a positional bind on the queenside. Due to blunders on move 25 and 28, by move 30 my opponent is a piece up in a far superior position. I could have given up, but instead decided to play on and try to exhaust all opportunities for complicating the game and giving White a chance to go wrong. Essentially Black has to go "all in" on creating possible central and kingside threats. Move 35 is the last shot at this, which in fact worked in a spectacular way, as my opponent overlooked in the ensuing sequence an exchange sacrifice deflecting his queen away from protecting his king. From that point, the win was technical.

This game helps illustrate some of the psychological and cognitive factors behind winning and losing moves. My two blunders occurred under pressure and involved missing longer-range bishop moves / square coverage, the first being a backwards bishop move. My opponent's game-ending mistake occurred in a complex position where the "obvious" move seemed good enough and the alternatives were more difficult to calculate.

On the positive side, when I committed to staying in the game on move 30, I was then able to focus on possible tactical resources and accurately calculate them. This often happens in a game when you accept that you are objectively lost, which paradoxically releases psychological pressure, as the worst case scenario has already happened. With nothing left to lose, more energy can be directed into trying to fight back than in worrying about potentially losing. I think part of the process of improvement is fostering the ability to have that kind of worry-free focus before you actually get into a lost position.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class A"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A84"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "102"] {[%mdl 8256] A84: Dutch Defence: 2 c4 Miscellaneous} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 e6 4. Nf3 f5 5. Bf4 Nf6 6. e3 Nbd7 {covering the e5 square immediately. More popular is an immediate bishop development to d6 or e7.} 7. Be2 Be7 {in the usual Modern Stonewall, this bishop goes to d6. With White's bishop on f4, it can sometimes be helpful for Black to defer challenging it there and use the old Stonewall setup with the bishop on e7.} 8. h3 {done to provide the Bf4 with a retreat square, but it seems a little slow to me.} O-O 9. O-O h6 $146 { I was thinking that this has the benefit of controlling g5 and avoiding awkward things like Ng5, threatening e6. Black however should do more with his pieces first, with the thematic ...Ne4 probably best here. Once that is done, g5 is more than adequately controlled with the bishop on e7.} (9... Ne4 10. Qc2 g5 11. Bh2 Rf7 12. Nxe4 dxe4 13. Nd2 Rg7 14. Rad1 Qe8 15. Nb3 h5 16. d5 cxd5 17. cxd5 e5 18. d6 Bf6 19. g4 Bd8 20. Rd5 hxg4 21. hxg4 Qg6 22. gxf5 Qxf5 23. Nc5 Rh7 24. Qxe4 Qh3 25. Qh1 Nxc5 26. Rxc5 Be6 27. Rxe5 Bf6 28. Rb5 Rd8 29. Bf3 Rdd7 30. b3 a6 31. Rc5 Bg4 32. Bxg4 Qxg4+ 33. Qg2 Qe2 34. Rf5 Bd8 35. Bg3 Rhf7 36. Rxf7 Rxf7 37. Qe4 Kf8 38. Rc1 Kg7 39. Rc8 Bf6 40. Kg2 g4 41. Rc4 {1-0 (41) Ogaard,L (2435)-Ivkov,B (2515) Buenos Aires 1978}) 10. c5 {this looks aggressive, but the additional pawn move gives me more time to activate my pieces, which I now do. The hole on d6 appears worrying, but White can't take advantage of it yet.} (10. Rc1 Ne4 $14) 10... Ne4 {now the knight also helps cover d6.} 11. Qc2 (11. Nxe4 fxe4 12. Ne5 Nxe5 13. Bxe5 Bf6 $14) 11... Kh8 { this move shows that I am over-focused on potential play down the g-file. In a number of variations this is useful, but here I am still somewhat under-developed.} (11... Bf6 $5 {with the idea of following up with ...Qe7 or . ..Qe8 and ...e5 would be a classic thematic idea. The e5 square, seemingly so strong, is challenged directly.}) 12. Ne5 $16 {this move is all the stronger because of the hole on g6, another drawback to the early ...h6 advance, which makes the next move forced.} Nxe5 13. Bxe5 Bf6 14. Bh2 {the correct decision, one which White has prepared for. The White bishop is much more valuable on the h2-b8 diagonal than its Black counterpart.} Bd7 {Black's position is now starting to look a little sad. The Stonewall bishop is not necessarily doomed to irrelevance, but in this position that seems to be its fate. Normally there would be the prospect of it going to h5 or possibly g6 in order to be effective, but that does not look likely here. My other pieces are not well coordinated either.} (14... Ng5 $5 {with the idea of potentially rerouting the knight to f7, either to shore up Black's center or to support an ...e5 pawn break, is an interesting idea.}) 15. b4 Qe8 {improving the prospect for the queen, which can now either support an e-pawn push or get to f7/g6/h5.} 16. a4 {this ignores Black's possible pawn lever in the center. Of course, I ignore it too.} (16. Nxe4 fxe4 17. Bd6 Be7 $16) 16... Rg8 $6 {continuing to over-focus on g-file play.} (16... e5 $5 {is the key to the position, opening the center and activating Black's pieces.} 17. Nxe4 (17. Bxe5 Bxe5 18. Nxe4 fxe4 19. dxe5 Qxe5) 17... fxe4 18. Qc3 exd4 19. exd4 Qg6 $11) 17. f3 Ng5 18. b5 {this makes White even more vulnerable to a counter-blow in the center, but we both remain unaware of this.} (18. Kh1 Nf7 19. f4 $16) 18... Nf7 (18... e5 $5 { is the best option Black has, comments Komodo via the Fritz interface.} 19. f4 exf4 20. Bxf4 Ne6 $11) 19. bxc6 $14 bxc6 {this opens the b-file, but covers the b5 square, so I preferred it to the bishop recapture.} 20. Bd3 (20. f4 g5 21. Bh5 Bc8 $14) 20... e5 $14 {long-delayed, but still best. In this position it's easier to see as a possibility, since there are very few other options for Black.} 21. Ne2 {reinforcing d4. Exchanging on e5 would let me release my pieces' energy.} exd4 22. exd4 $14 Qe3+ $2 {with this I start losing my way again. There is a nice little tactic present, taking advantage of the e3 hole in a much better way.} (22... Bxd4+ 23. Nxd4 Qe3+ 24. Kh1 Qxd4 25. Bxf5 Bxf5 26. Qxf5 $14) 23. Kh1 $16 g6 24. Rab1 Qe8 25. Ba6 {at this point I thought I was getting into serious trouble on the queenside, which started a bit of panicking.} (25. a5 $16 {followed by a6 would put even more of a squeeze on.}) 25... f4 $4 {the engine deservedly gives a double question mark here. Rather than play something reasonable, I hallucinate and think that the h7-b1 diagonal is now vulnerable. Of course, the Ba6 can always just come back to cover it. An example of trouble seeing a 'backwards' piece move.} (25... Bc8 { doesn't really help in the end, though, as after} 26. Bd3 $16 {White can just reset, having good targets across the board.}) 26. Bxf4 {now White is up a full pawn and has a much freer hand on the kingside and center. Things look bad.} (26. Nxf4 {might be the shorter path} Bf5 27. Bd3 Bxd3 28. Qxd3 Nd8 $18) 26... Ng5 {a desperate bid for piece activity.} (26... Bf5 {is what the engine thinks is still best, at least exchanging off my least active minor piece.} 27. Bd3 Bxd3 28. Qxd3 Qd7 $18) 27. Qd2 Rg7 28. Bb7 {increasing the bind and driving the rook away.} Bf5 $4 {but even a better move would not have saved the game, consoles Komodo.} (28... Rd8 29. Bc7 {and White wins the exchange.} Bf5 30. Bxd8 Bxd8 $18) 29. Bxa8 $18 Bxb1 30. Rxb1 {only now did I see that ... Qxa8 fails to Rb8+! as the rook is protected by the Bf4.} Qe6 {here I'm down a piece and a pawn for no compensation.} 31. Bb7 Re7 {might as well try to make a threat} 32. Ba6 Qf5 (32... Nxf3 {while clever, does not save the day:} 33. Qd3 Nh4 34. Bd6 $18) 33. Rb8+ Kh7 34. Bd3 Qe6 35. Bd6 Nxf3 $5 {one last shot at complicating the position and generating threats. The point is that White is vulnerable on h3 if the Nf3 is taken by the g-pawn.} 36. Bxg6+ (36. Qf4 { secures the win in probably the simplest way. Now the Nf3 (by the queen) and Re7 are both hanging.} Nh4 37. Bxe7 Qxe7 38. Rc8 $18) (36. gxf3 Qxh3+ 37. Kg1 Bg5) 36... Kg7 (36... Kxg6 $4 37. Nf4+ {at least I managed to avoid yet another ?? blunder.}) 37. gxf3 $4 {and now Black has the winning advantage.} ( 37. Bxe7 {is best, but requires some calculation and a temporary queen sacrifice.} Nxd2 38. Bf8+ Kxg6 39. Nf4+ Kf5 40. Nxe6 Kxe6 $18) 37... Qxh3+ $19 38. Kg1 Rxe2 $1 {this is what my opponent had missed, diverting the queen from protecting d4. Black has only a queen and bishop left, but it's enough to create a mate threat.} 39. Qxe2 Bxd4+ 40. Qf2 {forced} Bxf2+ 41. Kxf2 Kxg6 { the resulting endgame is non-trivial to play out, but the mobility advantage the Black queen has, coupled with White's exposed king, is enough to ensure the result.} 42. Rb4 h5 {taking away the g4 square from the rook.} 43. Bg3 Qf5 44. Bd6 {my opponent doesn't seem to have any other ideas left.} Qc2+ 45. Kg3 Qc1 {threatening ...Qe1+ forking the Rb4.} 46. Rf4 Qg1+ 47. Kh3 Kg5 (47... d4 { is the most direct route to a win.} 48. Rf8 Qh1+ 49. Kg3 Qe1+ 50. Kg2 d3 $19) 48. Rf7 Qf1+ 49. Kh2 Kg6 {playing it safe.} 50. Rf4 (50. Rxa7 Qf2+ 51. Kh1 Qxf3+ 52. Kh2 Qf2+ $19) 50... d4 $1 {a nice small deflection tactic to end things.} 51. Be5 (51. Rxd4 Qf2+) 51... Qe2+ {with more material loss coming, my opponent resigned.} (51... Qe2+ 52. Kh3 Qxe5 53. Re4 Qxe4 54. fxe4 d3 55. Kg3 d2 56. Kf2 d1=Q 57. Ke3 Kf6 58. Kf4 Qd2+ 59. Kf3 Kg5 60. e5 h4 61. e6 h3 62. Ke4 h2 63. Kf3 h1=Q+ 64. Kg3 Qhg2#) 0-1

16 September 2019

Annotated Game #219: The usual start to a tournament

This first-round game is from the second breakthrough tournament I had to reach the Class A level. It got off to what is unfortunately something of a usual start for me, with below-average play leading to a relatively quick end. It's tempting to ascribe these kinds of first-round losses to needing to "warm up" or "shake off the rust" or other similar excuse, and I do think there is some truth to that. However, that makes it all the more important to take lessons away from these games, so that your "default" level of play can improve, even when your brain is not at peak performance.

In this game, there are several key moments and ideas to point to:
  • The choice of 4. d3. Here I was mashing together different lines of the English from my preparation (5. Rb1 is actually not bad...in a different variation) and while the opening isn't the main point of failure of the game, it gave Black a freer hand than was needed. It also led to...
  • A failure to play e3, which is typical in this types of positions, restraining Black's idea of a ...f4 push. Around moves 3-4 could have been a good time to do it, but as late as move 12 it would have given me at least a slight plus, by neutralizing Black's pawn play on the kingside.
  • Failure to find the necessary defensive thread while under pressure. I at least understood that a focus on defense was necessary once Black played 12...f4, and was following the correct path with 16. Bf3. However, on move 18 I did not calculate correctly. Seeing in analysis how the king can be a defender (18. Kg2!), especially when the opposition lacks the minor pieces to dominate squares or sacrifice to open up the position, was enlightening.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A27"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "40"] {[%mdl 8192] A27: English Opening: Three Knights Variation} 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Nf3 f5 4. d3 {this scores poorly in the database, around 40 percent. Better to challenge the center immediately with d4. It is still the second most popular move played, however, probably due to the reversed Sicilian type positions that arise.} Nf6 5. Rb1 $146 {not in the database at all! The idea is to get an accelerated version of the queenside b-pawn push going.} (5. g3 { is more consistent with White's previous move.}) 5... Be7 {a safe choice.} ( 5... e4 6. dxe4 fxe4 7. Nd4 $11) 6. g3 O-O 7. Bg2 d6 {we're now back in the database. Both White and Black have achieved standard-looking setups, although my path was a little wobbly.} 8. b4 {time to get the b-pawn rolling.} Qe8 { making space for the knight.} 9. b5 {it's not necessary to push this immediately. The threat remains and another move to build up pressure like Nd5 may be better. O-O also helps development.} Nd8 $11 {around here I was feeling good about my game, having pushed Black's knight around, but the engine is more objective. The position is equal, with White's queenside space advantage being offset by Black's coming play in the center and kingside.} 10. O-O Ne6 { understandably wanting to get the knight back into action.} (10... a6 $5 { is what the engines prefer, putting some pressure on White's advanced b-pawn.}) 11. a4 Qh5 {Black signals that he will ignore the queenside in favor of going all in on the kingside.} 12. Ba3 {likewise, I continue to focus on queenside development.} (12. e3 $5 {would be a wise investment, to restrain Black's f-pawn.} a6 13. Nd2 $14) 12... f4 {now Black's pressure on the kingside makes itself felt, before I can push things further on the queenside.} 13. Nd5 { this knight jump to d5 is thematic, but here it is made under less favorable circumstances.} (13. e3 fxg3 14. fxg3 $11 (14. hxg3 $2 Ng4 $19)) 13... Nxd5 14. cxd5 Ng5 15. Nxg5 {getting rid of Black's excellent attacking knight is almost forced.} Bxg5 16. Bf3 {the best defensive move, which should let me push Black's queen away or further exchange down material.} Bg4 17. Bxg4 Qxg4 { this should be equal, but there is only one good defensive move and I fail to find it.} 18. f3 $2 {this was based on a miscalculation. When making pawn moves, it's important to understand the weakened squares they leave behind, in this case e3.} (18. Kg2 $5 {the king "steps up in the pocket" and covers both h3 and f3 effectively. With Black not having a light-square bishop, this is possible.} fxg3 19. Rb4 (19. hxg3 {also works, but is trickier for White.} Bh4 20. Qe1 Qd4 (20... Qxa4 21. Qb4 $11) 21. Qd1 Qxd5+ 22. e4 $11 {taking the Bh4 will leave White's king open to checks from the queen and rook.}) 19... Rf4 20. f3 Qd7 (20... Qh5 21. hxg3 $14) 21. hxg3 $11) 18... Qh3 $17 19. Rf2 fxg3 { only now did I realize that the skewer tactic on e3 existed, I had mentally visualized the pawn on f4 in the way of the Bg5 until then.} 20. hxg3 $4 { loses immediately. I was too rattled to put up further resistance, however, thinking I was already lost. The main problem is that I lose far more than the exchange after Black's pin of the Rf2, due to the g3 pawn hanging.} (20. Rg2 { is the only move.} gxh2+ 21. Kh1 Bf4 22. Bc1 {keeps White in the game, although not happily.}) 20... Be3 $19 (20... Be3 21. Qf1 Qxg3+ 22. Qg2 Bxf2+ 23. Kh1 Qxg2+ 24. Kxg2 Bb6 $19) 0-1

06 September 2019

Training quote of the day #26: Boris Gulko

From Lessons with a Grandmaster, by GM Boris Gulko and Dr. Joel R. Snead.
I like challenges, I like to struggle and fight against the best. That's very exciting to me. Also, I grew up (as did my generation in the USSR) believing that generally, reputations were not to be trusted. Of course, it is hard to be a fake in chess (compared to politics) because if you are weak you will simply lose. Perhaps some of this general belief persisted in the world of chess. The idea of not trusting reputations contrasted sharply with what I experienced when I first came to the United States. I found chess players to be much more polite; e.g. offering a draw to a higher rated player in better positions. We would never do that; we would want to beat them, even make them suffer.

04 September 2019

Video completed: "Why You Should Always Think Before Taking a Draw" by Tatev Abrahamyan


"Why You Should Always Think Before Taking a Draw" is the fifth video in the new Chess.com series by Tatev Abrahamyan. It is shorter than the others, at around 7 minutes, which I think is appropriate for the topic. An opening quote summarizes its main idea nicely, in the context of thinking about what to do when a higher-rated player makes a draw offer, although I believe it applies to our general approach to the game as improving players:
We want to be able to play objective chess, rather than emotional chess...and be able to play the position, not so much our opponent.
In the first game example, taken from the Bundesliga where White has a 300-point rating deficit, White took a draw when there was essentially zero risk of losing and he had all the winning chances.  "Playing with zero risk against a strong player, it's something we have to do all the time [meaning every time]. We owe it to our position to actually play the game out." The second game is similar, with the Black player down 300+ points, but after the coming forced sequence being up a pawn and having all the better chances.

The third example acknowledges the role that time pressure can play in accepting a draw, but Abrahamyan argues that if you can play "easy" moves until a time control, you can then do deeper calculation once you have more time. In other words, don't try to calculate all the way to a win if that's not possible, rather take obvious (but with a tactics check!) ways to at least preserve your existing advantage. In this particular game, Black's king position was weak and White had some easy follow-up attacking moves that would not have let Black get any counterplay.

In each case, a contributing factor is the "visual" evaluation of the board, in which superficially the side offering a draw seems like they may have some counterchances or threats. The third game was a good example of this, in which Black had a passed pawn on d4. However, when concrete analysis shows there is no actual opportunity for your opponent to implement a threat, it is worth playing on. In this particular case, White could keep making threats against Black's permanently weak king. In another example from the first game, White could at any time just force a draw via perpetual check, so that provided a sufficient safety net to play for a win.

In addition to being simply good, objective chess, the principle of playing out a favorable position I think is one of the practical keys to advancing your chess strength (and rating). It helps build mental toughness - remember Fischer's motto "No draws!" - and there's also the simple fact that "you can't win if you don't play." Unfortunately time pressure does sometimes interfere with an objectively best decision, along with emotional pressure - but the latter is something which you put on yourself and is subjective, not objective.

I would therefore suggest mentally rejecting the idea of a draw - including offering one yourself - if the decision would be made on a purely emotional basis. I remember having to repeatedly fight down the impulse to hope/wish for a draw in my best game ever, and was very glad that I did so. Yes, losing is then a possibility, but once you accept that fact for each and every game, it makes it mentally easier to give yourself the chance to win more often.