04 March 2022

Commentary: U.S. Women's Championship 2021, Round 1 (Abrahamyan - Tokhirjonova)

It's been a while since I've revisited this blog, due to the holiday period and various work commitments, although I've kept up a minimum level of chess practice with weekly training games and semi-daily sessions of tactics puzzles.

As I've done for some past cycles, for the next series of Commentary games I'll look at some of the most relevant games from the last U.S. Championship cycle, starting with the Women's event. This one features WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who published an interesting series of improvement videos reviewed here, versus WGM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova in the first round.

I selected the game because of the offbeat Caro-Kann variations employed by both White and Black, which have some widely applicable lessons regarding structure, opening development, and strategic choices. Black's main problem in the opening is her useless king's knight and more general lack of focus on development. White is able to seize the initiative and obtain a large space advantage by move 16, at which point strategically it looks almost hopeless for Black. 

Nevertheless, Black does not give up and puts up strong resistance, eventually being able to strike back and prevail in the long run, after a long middlegame struggle, as White is unable to find the most pressing continuations. This once again highlights the benefits of mental toughness and forcing your opponent to find a win by putting up a stubborn resistance. This often results in at least one chance appearing for successful counterplay - if you can find it.

One of the other repeated lessons from this game is the importance of changes in the relative strategic value of the pieces - on both sides. Black's aforementioned king's knight is a case in point, occasionally coming to life but often completely out of the game. However, White's bishops have some major shifts in power as well, and White passes up ideas (such as the Rd3-b3 rook lift) with the major pieces that would have significantly enhanced her position. The decision to trade minor pieces, or threaten a trade, is an often-overlooked aspect of chess strategy at the club level, as is the idea in general of relative piece power during a game. 

[Event "U.S. Women's Chess Championship 2021"] [Site "http://www.chessbomb.com"] [Date "2021.10.06"] [Round "1"] [White "Abrahamyan, Tatev"] [Black "Tokhirjonova, Gulrukhbegim"] [Result "0-1"] [WhiteElo "2344"] [BlackElo "2322"] [EventDate "2021.??.??"] [ECO "B10"] [PlyCount "132"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Dragon 2.6.1 by Komodo"] 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d3 {this gives the move order with an early Nf3 an independent significance. Otherwise, Nc3 is a transposition to the Two Knights variation and e5 can result in an Advance variation, for example.} 3...g6 {this is the third most popular choice in the database. Black chooses not to fight directly in the center, either by exchanging on e4 or with ...Bg4.} 4.e5 {gaining space and eliminating the opportunity for Black to exchange central pawns.} 4...Bg7 5.Bf4 {in some gambit-type openings, this type of setup to protect the pawn with the bishop might be necessary and the extra material would help compensate for the awkward piece placement. Here, the more simple d4 seems indicated, even though it's a double move for the pawn in the opening.} 5...Qb6 {a natural reaction to the early sortie of the White bishop, targeting b2 and developing the queen to a nice square, pressuring on the g1-a7 diagonal.} 6.Nbd2 {offering the "poisoned" b2 pawn, as its capture would not be bad for White.} 6...Nh6 $6 {this is just an awkward placement for the knight. Komodo Dragon suggests ...Nd7 and ...Bh6 as alternatives. In the latter case, an exchange on h6 would at least remove one of White's developed pieces.} ( 6...Qxb2 7.d4 Bh6 8.Rb1 Qxa2 9.Ng5 $14 {White has more than enough compensation for the pawns in terms of a lead in development and open lines. Black will have trouble developing pieces to useful squares.} ) 7.Nb3 $14 {choosing to put the knight on a better square and block the b-file, protecting the b-pawn.} 7...Bg4 {in this structure, the light-square bishop is "bad" and hemmed in by its own pawns, so exchanging it for the Nf3 is good strategy.} ( 7...a5 {looking to chase the Nb3 and gain space on the queenside is a possibility as well. We'll see this idea recur.} ) 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 Nd7 {Black again passes up the idea of ...a5 in favor of piece development.} 10.d4 {White consolidates the center, supporting e5 and also fighting for control of c5.} 10...e6 {solid but a little passive. One thing to note is that the ...c5 break is eventually possible, now that the d5 pawn protected.} ( 10...a5 $5 {the engines like this (previously seen) idea here, which helps fight for c5 if White allows Black to chase away the Nb3, or weakens White's queenside if the a-pawn goes to a4 to block Black's advance.} ) 11.g4 {now that the center is locked, this kind of thrust on the wing is strategically sound.} ( 11.Bd3 $5 {is a less commital alternative, developing a piece and keeping White's options open.} ) 11...Ng8 {correctly retreating the knight, but also highlighting its lack of utility from the start on h6.} 12.h4 {with the knight now out of the way, White lacks good targets for the pawn advance, so developing (or redeveloping) a piece might have been more useful.} 12...f6 {a thematic pawn break, also seen in French Defense type positions. Black's pressure challenges the head of White's pawn chain on e5. It also reactivates the Bg7. At the same time, however, e6 is weakened and the f-file will soon be opened.} 13.O-O-O {this is not a bad move, but it's not necessary, either. White's king is no worse off in the center at this point.} ( 13.exf6 Ngxf6 14.h5 ( 14.g5 Ne4 $10 ) 14...a5 {and Black has more or less equalized, certainly with a more active game than before.} ) 13...fxe5 14.dxe5 c5 $6 ( 14...Ne7 {instead gets the knight to a useful square and allows the rook to go to f8.} ) ( 14...Bxe5 $2 {would be a mistake and ...Nxe5 has similar problems. The pawn looks like it is not defended adequately, but after} 15.Bxe5 Nxe5 16.Qe2 $18 {the queen's pressure down the e-file can't be countered - if ...Qc7, then Re1 - so the e-pawn will fall.} ) 15.h5 $16 {White now presses the advantage on the kingside, where Black cannot afford to open additional lines to the king.} 15...O-O-O $6 {this gets the king out of the way, but allows White a dominating space advantage.} ( 15...Nh6 {ironically seems better, by physically preventing the h-pawn advance, although a human player probably would not consider moving the piece back after such a humiliating sequence.} ) 16.h6 $18 Bf8 17.c4 {this is a master-level move that might not be considered by a club player, given the apparent weakening of the pawn shield in front of the White king. However, Black has no way of taking advantage of this supposed weakness. The move helps White's worst piece, the Bf1, become relevant; directly challenges Black's center; and gains space on the queenside (b5). White would be very happy if the pawn sacrifice were to be accepted.} 17...d4 ( 17...dxc4 $2 18.Bxc4 $18 {and White's last piece gets developed to an outstanding square, pressuring the weak e6 pawn.} ) 18.Bg2 {the Q+B battery on the long diagonal, threatening b7, looks menacing but is not yet a knockout.} 18...Be7 {this clears the square for the rook, but also blocks the problem knight from developing.} 19.Kb1 {this doesn't appear necessary, but perhaps White preferred to play a waiting move, to see what her opponent would do next.} 19...Rf8 {without much to do on the d-file, the rook swings over to the f-file. The bishop is temporarily pinned and rook eyes the weak f2 pawn.} 20.Qe4 {maintaining the Q+B battery but limiting the queen's potential scope.} ( 20.Qg3 $5 {would overprotect the e5 pawn and guard f2, while leaving the queen a bit freer.} ) 20...Bd8 {As sometimes happens when defending an inferior position, Black's plan is rather obvious and straightforward: improve your worst pieces and hope White cannot find a breakthrough.} 21.Bg3 {a logical retreat, protecting f2 and freeing up the Qe4 to move rather than be tied to protecting the bishop on f4.} 21...Bc7 {the bishop is doing more here than on e7, pressuring e5 and freeing up the square for the knight.} 22.f4 {gaining more space and protecting the e5 pawn.} 22...Ne7 {the knight finally gets off its original square again.} 23.Nc1 {White looks to redevelop her own knight to a better square.} ( 23.Rd3 $5 ) 23...Nc6 {here the knight is quite useful, with b4 and a5 available and adding to the pressure on e5. This restrains White from further advancing the f-pawn.} 24.Nd3 {not a bad move for the knight, but unfortunately for White it takes away the idea of the rook lift Rd3-b3, which would significantly strengthen the rook and White's queenside.} ( 24.Rd3 ) 24...Na5 $6 {after White's obvious next move, which gives her rook something more to do than sitting on d1, this knight is just stuck on the queenside rim and will have to go back.} 25.Rc1 Rhg8 {developing the rook behind the g-pawn. Not much else going on for Black.} 26.Bh2 {this seems like more of a waste of a tempo than anything. Perhaps White again wanted to play a waiting move.} ( 26.Rhf1 ) 26...Nc6 27.Bh3 {lining up on the e6 pawn, in the event of g4-g5. Better mobilizing one of her major pieces with Rhf1 or Qe2 is suggested by the engine.} 27...Ne7 {the knight's journey continues, perhaps lacking anything obviously better to do.} 28.Rhf1 a5 {working on initiating some queenside counterplay, gaining space and thinking about disrupting White's king position with further advances.} 29.Rf2 {this reinforces b2 and clears f1 for the other rook to potentially double on the f-file. However, it seems rather passive.} 29...Rf7 {clearing f8 for the other rook.} ( 29...a4 $5 {continuing with the idea of counterplay would seem more active.} ) 30.Bg3 {and now the bishop goes back, with the intent of transferring to h4, but begging the question of what it was doing on h2 before.} 30...Rgf8 31.Bh4 Kb8 32.Bg3 $16 {now this really is a wasted maneuver and White is giving Black additional time to reorganize.} ( 32.Bxe7 ) 32...Ka7 33.Re2 $2 ( 33.Bg2 ) 33...Ng8 $2 $18 {Black returns the favor with yet another time-wasting maneuver of the king's knight. Instead, there was now a tactical opportunity for a breakthrough and counterplay on the kingside, based on the fact that White has given up control of f3. Psychologically, however, it would be difficult to find, given that Black has spent all game with the mental assessment/assumption that White was dominating on that side of the board.} ( 33...g5 $1 34.Rf1 ( 34.fxg5 Rf3 35.Rg1 Ng6 $10 {Black will regain the pawn with at least an equal game.} ) 34...gxf4 35.Rxf4 Rxf4 36.Bxf4 Ng6 {and Black is close to equalizing, with a much freer game.} ) 34.Ne1 $2 {ignoring the hanging h-pawn. White will still be positionally better, but now Black has compensation in the extra material and in getting rid of the advanced, cramping h-pawn.} ( 34.g5 $1 {would lock up White's kingside space advantage and open up the h3-e6 diagonal for the bishop.} ) 34...Nxh6 $10 35.Nf3 {heading for g5 next, but this could be easily handled by Black.} 35...Ng8 $6 {this is unnecessary and (again) reduces the utility of the knight. From h6, it watches the g4 pawn and would prevent the Bh3 from going to g2, which it soon does. And if g4-g5, the knight would have an outstanding square on f5 to go to.} ( 35...Bd8 {and the bishop, which has such limited scope, would gladly trade on g5, effectively preventing the knight from landing there.} ) 36.Ng5 Re7 ( 36...Rg7 $5 {would leave open the e7 square for the knight.} ) 37.Bg2 {clearly an improvement of the bishop's power, also re-establishing the Q+B battery on the long diagonal, which Black must watch. If White could achieve a rook lift to b3, then Black would be much worse due to the weakness at b7, but this takes some time to achieve.} 37...Nb8 {presumably Black at this point had no better ideas. However, simply playing the knight back to h6 would be something useful. The text move actually makes it more difficult for Black to defend on the queenside, as it makes b7 more vulnerable.} 38.Rh1 {this mostly just wastes time for White, since Black can easily meet the threat on the h-file.} ( 38.Rd2 $5 {heading for the rook lift.} ) 38...h6 39.Nf3 Rg7 {protecting the g6 pawn.} 40.Nh4 Ne7 $10 {once again Black easily defends and White has to reset.} 41.Nf3 Ng8 $6 {inviting a move repetition, but now White hits on the rook lift plan.} ( 41...Nbc6 $5 {is the engine's suggestion, giving up the h-pawn for counterplay on the queenside. For example} 42.Rd2 Qa6 43.Rxh6 Qxc4 $10 ) 42.Rd2 $16 Bd8 $6 {this had more of a point to it earlier, when White's knight was eyeing g5. Now, it effectively ignores White's growing threat on the queenside.} ( 42...Qa6 ) 43.Rd3 Qc6 44.Qe2 {naturally White avoids exchanging queens, which would considerably reduce her attack and also bring out the Nb8. Note how both of Black's knights are on their original squares.} 44...Qe8 {getting the queen off the long diagonal and clearing c6 for the knight.} 45.Nd2 {opening things up for the Bg2 and heading for the excellent post on e4.} 45...Nc6 46.Ne4 $18 {now the pressure is on again against Black in the center, along the long diagonal, and up the b-file. Meanwhile, Black's pieces are all clustered on the back ranks and not coordinating with each other.} 46...Be7 47.Rb3 h5 {a desperate attempt at distracting counterplay.} 48.Rb5 {this retains a significant advantage, but the engine recommends simply playing g5, which locks down the kingside and prevents any thought of counterplay there.} 48...h4 49.Bxh4 {a simple and effective response.} 49...Bxh4 50.Rxh4 Rxf4 51.Nxc5 {White is now effectively breaking through on the queenside and Black's king is vulnerable, while White's remains safe and Black's activity on the kingside is not a real threat.} 51...Rgf7 {the rook is effectively trapped here, but temporarily makes the "threat" of going to f2 - although White can simply ignore this, due to a tactic on the vulnerable b7 square. Instead, White chooses to retreat her very strong attacking knight and cash it in for material advantage (the exchange). She's still winning, but afterwards how to proceed is not so evident, and there are fewer tactics available.} 52.Nd3 ( 52.Rh3 {may be the simplest approach.} 52...Rf2 53.Rxb7+ Ka8 ( 53...Rxb7 54.Qxf2 Rf7 55.Bxc6 Rxf2 56.Bxe8 $18 ) 54.Qe4 Rxb7 55.Qxc6 Qxc6 56.Bxc6 Rxb2+ 57.Kc1 Rb1+ 58.Kc2 $18 {Black will run out of checks and White will win decisive material.} ) 52...Nge7 53.Nxf4 Rxf4 54.Rh3 {correctly activating the rook on the 3rd rank, where it can go to b3 or a3 and restrain ...d3.} 54...g5 {more desperate hopes for counterplay.} 55.Rhb3 Qg6+ {at least the queen is finally doing something.} 56.Ka1 Nd8 {Black is now busted, with b7 about to fall, but White does not play any of the crushing moves, with Bxb7 probably the simplest.} 57.Qd2 $6 ( 57.Bxb7 {with the threat of Rxa5+, so Black will lose the queen or get mated.} 57...Kb8 58.Be4+ ) 57...Nec6 {the correct but still desperate defense.} 58.Rxa5+ Kb8 59.Rab5 Qf7 {threatening a cheapo mate on f1. White fails to defend properly against it, giving the king an out rather than controlling the mating square. Time pressure may have been a factor, one imagines.} 60.a3 $2 ( 60.Qd1 {or any other queen move keeping control of f1 works.} ) 60...Rf2 $1 {the loose bishop and White's misplaced queen now combine in a tactic for Black. White now fails to find the drawing continuation.} 61.Qxg5 $2 ( 61.Rxb7+ Nxb7 62.Rxb7+ Kxb7 63.Qb4+ Kc8 64.Bxc6 $10 ) 61...Rxg2 $19 {suddenly it's now White's king that is vulnerable and Black's pieces that are effectively coordinating. The two knights can defend in the absence of the Bg2 and the Q+R can penetrate on the first rank.} 62.Ka2 Rg1 63.Qf6 Qh7 {amazingly, White cannot defend herself now, the main culprit being the b2 pawn walling the rooks off.} 64.Rf3 Qb1+ 65.Kb3 d3 {Nimzovich would have been proud. Passed pawns must be pushed!} 66.Qf8 d2 {White can now pick up the d-pawn, but Black is still by far winning, given White's vulnerable king.} 0-1

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