19 June 2022

Commentary: U.S. Women's Championship 2021, Round 8 (Eswaran - Tokhirjonova)

One finds that analyzing master-level games often leads to multiple insights. This one, at 148 moves, is no exception. A few top-level takeaways:

  • The game's opening could be classified several different ways, which to a purist would be horrific. This however helps illustrate how openings are often fluid, rather than rigid constructs. One of the things that has helped increase my strength over the years is a less-rigid view of opening play and an acceptance of the fact that your opponents will follow "proper" book lines much less often than opening book writers imply. Understanding different opening structures and their characteristics is much more important than adhering to a specific move order - except, of course, when you can play some useful tricks with different move orders.
  • Positional advantages - in this case, White gets one out of the opening - are nice to look at, but in themselves are not decisive. They can evaporate, as White's does, after which Black finally seizes the initiative.
  • Patient maneuvering can be the key to winning without the presence of forcing play. Here this was evident in both the middlegame and endgame phases, with White first losing an advantage, then getting herself trapped into an unfavorable rook exchange, which was decisive.

[Event "U.S. Women's Chess Championship 2021"] [Site "http://www.chessbomb.com"] [Date "2021.10.14"] [Round "08"] [White "Eswaran, Ashritha"] [Black "Tokhirjonova, Gulrukhbegim"] [Result "0-1"] [WhiteElo "2244"] [BlackElo "2322"] [ECO "A48"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Dragon 2.6.1 by Komodo"] [BlackClock "0:04:44"] [BlackFideId "14203626"] [TimeControl "5400+30"] [WhiteClock "0:00:58"] [WhiteFideId "2080788"] 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.d4 g6 3.e3 Bg7 4.c4 c6 {a rare setup from Black at this stage, who now goes for a Slav Defense structure with a fianchetto, which is called the Schlechter variation. However, the opening can be reached by different paths and can be classified in various ways.} 5.Be2 d5 6.O-O O-O 7.Nc3 {for example, this is now classified as a Grunfeld Defense, Burille Variation by the Chess.com Explorer, while the PGN download of the game calls it a King's Indian, East Indian Defence (ECO code A48). The key points of the structure, regardless, of how it is classified, is that White has developed with e3/Be2 instead of fianchettoing the bishop, while Black has the c6/d5 pawns and has fianchettoed her dark-square bishop.} 7...Ne4 {another relatively rare move. Black moves the same piece twice before developing further, which is against general opening principles and probably explains why it is less popular. The two main choices are:} ( 7...Bg4 ) ( 7...dxc4 ) 8.Qc2 ( 8.Qb3 {this scores better and is more active than the text move, placing the queen on the more useful b-file and a2-g8 diagonal.} ) 8...Nxc3 {Black chooses a safe and somewhat passive route.} ( 8...Bf5 $5 {is a more interesting and active choice. However, Black would need to be prepared to have an uglier pawn structure.} 9.Bd3 Nxc3 10.Bxf5 gxf5 ( 10...Nxa2 $6 11.Rxa2 gxf5 12.Qxf5 e6 13.Qh3 {and now that White's queen has been freely transferred to the kingside, it may only be a small advantage according to the engine, but White certainly has the easier game and more winning chances.} ) 11.bxc3 e6 12.Ba3 Re8 13.cxd5 cxd5 14.c4 {with a slight edge for White.} ) 9.bxc3 {the doubled pawns are only temporary, as the c4 pawn can always be exchanged for the d5 pawn.} 9...e6 {trying to be ultra-solid, apparently. First time this has appeared in the database, with ...b6 and ...dxc4 previously played.} 10.Ba3 {certainly a very logical way to develop the bishop, as the diagonal is excellent and it has nowhere else useful to go. Komodo Dragon prefers plans involving an a4 pawn push, exploiting White's space advantage on the queenside and further restricting Black.} 10...Re8 11.Rab1 $14 {putting the rook on the half-open file and restraining Black's b-pawn from advancing to b5. By this point White's advantage in development has given her a small but persistent plus.} 11...Nd7 12.cxd5 {this may be a little premature and also helps un-cramp Black's structure to some degree. However, White still has a freer game afterwards.} ( 12.h3 $5 {is an interesting prophylactic idea by the engine, the idea being to prevent an eventual ...Bg4.} ) 12...exd5 13.c4 dxc4 {this abdicates Black's central pawn presence without a fight.} ( 13...Nb6 14.cxd5 cxd5 {is the engine's preference, ending up in an IQP position. This may have been what turned Black off to the idea.} ) 14.Bxc4 {White's lead in development and positional plus is obvious. The two bishops have excellent diagonals and the Rb1 is well-placed. That said, White does not have any immediate threats.} 14...Nb6 {clearing the way to develop the Bc8 and kick the Bc4.} 15.Bd3 Be6 ( 15...Bg4 {seems more natural, threatening to exchange off the knight and compromise White's kingside pawn structure.} ) 16.Bc5 {increasing pressure on the queenside.} ( 16.Rfc1 $5 {getting the other rook into play might be better first.} ) 16...Qc7 {this seems like a normal move, protecting b7 and connecting the rooks, but there are lurking issues with it.} ( 16...Nd7 17.Rxb7 Nxc5 18.dxc5 Re7 {is a pawn sacrifice suggested by the engine, where Black now has the two bishops and a freer game in compensation. If eventually a 4v3 pawn rook endgame is reached, it could be drawn.} ) 17.Ng5 {looking to obtain the two bishops after a piece exchange.} 17...Bc8 {awkward, but the best way of preventing the exchange.} 18.Ne4 {Eyeing the weak d6 square. White has a comfortable game and a positional plus, with better control of the center and more active pieces.} 18...Nd5 19.Rfc1 ( 19.Nd6 $5 {White could continue the previous idea and force the piece exchange now. However, with the text move she keeps her own centralized knight.} ) 19...Rd8 {regaining control over d6.} 20.a4 {not having an obvious way to make further progress, White decides to grab some space.} ( 20.h3 {is again a prophylactic idea.} ) ( 20.Rb3 $5 {would allow for potential doubling of the rooks on the b-file and also prevent a tactical idea of Black's, as we can see in the next variation.} ) 20...Bf5 {the bishop re-activates itself.} ( 20...b6 $5 {is the tactical idea.} 21.Ba3 Bf5 {Black can allow capture of the c-pawn, due to the pin on the Ne4 once the queen is gone.} 22.Qxc6 ( 22.Rb3 $5 ) 22...Qxc6 23.Rxc6 Re8 24.Rd6 Nf4 25.exf4 Bxe4 26.Bxe4 Rxe4 $10 ) 21.Ba3 {without the Nb6 as a target, the bishop was not doing as much, so retreats.} 21...Rab8 {Black does not find the ...b6 idea and more passively defends.} 22.Rb2 ( 22.Rb3 {seems like a better placement, providing protection along the third rank.} ) 22...a5 {this freezes the White a-pawn and gives Black a potential outpost on b4. However, as with all pawn advances, it leaves some weaknesses behind.} 23.h3 {restricting the Bf5.} ( 23.Nc3 {an alternative would be to initiate exchanges and highlight White's pressure on the queenside.} 23...Bxd3 24.Qxd3 Nxc3 25.Qxc3 $14 ) 23...h5 {preventing g2-g4, but again leaving some holes behind.} ( 23...b6 $5 ) 24.Nc5 {now one pair of pieces are exchanged.} 24...Bxd3 25.Qxd3 Bf8 {putting the bishop on a better diagonal.} 26.Qb1 {it might have been more flexible for the queen's placement to use Rc1-b1 to double on the file. This would also help deter Black from opening the b-file.} 26...Qc8 {the point of this move is to cover the a6 square to allow Black's b-pawn to advance, otherwise there would be a knight fork on a6.} 27.Qa2 {this protects the Ba3.} 27...b5 {now Black finally gets some counterplay rolling, although if anything White still has a slight edge.} 28.axb5 $6 {this immediate resolution of the tension is unnecessary and makes Black's queenside pawns much more threatening. White may have been uncomfortable with the threat of ...b4, but Black will have that possibility anyway.} 28...cxb5 29.Nd3 $6 {now Black firmly takes the initiative, exploiting White's cramped pieces.} ( 29.Rbc2 ) 29...Nc3 30.Qa1 ( 30.Rxc3 $5 {Komodo Dragon favors this exchange sacrifice, leaving White more active after} 30...Qxc3 31.Ne5 Qc7 32.Bxf8 $15 {with threats to f7, g6 and a fork on c6 helping White regain the initiative, even if down material.} ) 30...b4 $19 {although Black does not immediately win the Ba3, White is in serious trouble.} 31.Rbc2 Qf5 {targeting the hanging Nd3 and moving out of the pin on the c-file. Now White avoids losing material, but Black gets a rook on the 2nd rank, with a stranglehold on the position.} 32.Ne5 bxa3 33.Rxc3 Rb2 {the most immediate threat is to f2, but the advanced a-pawn combined with Black's rooks is also a major problem.} 34.Rf1 Rdb8 35.Nd3 Rd2 ( 35...Bb4 {would more aggressively activate the bishop.} 36.Nxb2 Bxc3 37.Qxa3 Bxb2 $19 ) 36.Ne5 Rbb2 37.Nf3 Rdc2 {White has nothing better than to give up material.} 38.Rxa3 Bxa3 39.Qxa3 Qb5 40.Qe7 {the best try. White hopes to combine her queen and knight and take advantage of the weak square complex around Black's king.} 40...a4 {Black goes with the straightforward plan of ramming the a-pawn down the file.} 41.d5 {an excellent practical move by White, who must have hoped to distract Black, and succeeds. The engine shows White cannot queen the d-pawn, but it must have looked menacing.} 41...Qxd5 $2 ( 41...Rb1 42.Rxb1 Qxb1+ 43.Kh2 Qb8+ 44.d6 Qf8 {and Black wins.} ) 42.Qe8+ {now White is back in business, forking the a-pawn with her active queen.} 42...Kg7 43.Qxa4 {White now has high hopes for a draw, with a pawn for the exchange and a reasonable position.} 43...Ra2 44.Qf4 ( 44.Qd4+ Qxd4 45.Nxd4 {after simplification there seems little prospect for a Black breakthrough. Perhaps White did not trust her endgame skills, however.} ) 44...Qc4 45.Qe5+ $10 {the engine evaluates the position as equal. For Black, though, there is no reason not to play on, as long as she is careful not to blunder.} 45...f6 46.Qe7+ Qf7 47.Qd6 Qc7 48.Qd5 Ra5 49.Qd1 Rca2 50.Nd4 {Black cannot expel the knight from its central outpost.} 50...Qc4 51.Qf3 Qd5 {Black would be happy to trade off White's mobile queen, which has better access to her opponent's king.} 52.Qd1 {perhaps hoping for a repetition. However, Black is not interested.} 52...Kh6 53.Qb1 Qa8 54.Qb6 {an inaccuracy. This is a characteristic of queen endings especially, where both sides can go astray more easily.} ( 54.Qb4 Rg5 55.Nf3 Qxf3 56.Qf8+ {and draws.} ) 54...Rg5 55.Qc6 {forced} 55...Qxc6 56.Nxc6 Rb5 ( 56...h4 $15 {is the plan preferred by the engine, with the idea of following up with ...g5 and ...Kg6, to work Black's space advantage and increase the pressure. With the queens off the board, Black has nothing to fear.} ) 57.Nd4 Rbb2 {looking to safely tie up White with pressure along the 2nd rank, but Black has nowhere to go from there.} 58.h4 Kg7 {Black chooses to swing her king around, the long way, without moving her pawns.} 59.g3 ( 59.Ne6+ Kf7 60.Nf4 $10 {White's knight is very active and holds the kingside steady from here.} ) 59...Kf7 60.Kg2 Ke7 61.Nf3 Ke6 62.Ng1 {White effectively is marking time with the knight.} 62...Kf5 63.Nf3 Ke4 64.Nd4 Rd2 65.Nf3 {this allows Black to up the pressure and for White to lose the thread. Other knight moves were less risky.} ( 65.Nb3 ) ( 65.Ne6 ) 65...Re2 66.Ng1 Rxe3 {the engine shows no change in evaluation, but now White has a pawn's less worth of a margin of error.} 67.Rb1 Ke5 68.Rb5+ ( 68.Nh3 $5 ) 68...Kd6 69.Rb6+ Ke7 70.Rb7+ Kf8 71.Rc7 Re7 ( 71...g5 $1 {The point is that Black will be able to play ...g4, threatening to shut out the knight and preventing the king from escaping the rooks. For example} 72.hxg5 fxg5 73.Nh3 g4 74.Nf4 Re1 $19 {White's R+N cannot mate Black's king and eventually Black will break through.} ) 72.Rc6 Kf7 73.Nh3 Re5 ( 73...Ra5 {would accomplish the same thing on the 5th rank, while keeping the 7th rank covered.} ) 74.Nf4 ( 74.Rc7+ ) 74...Ra7 $17 {now preventing annoying rook checks. Black still has a clear edge in material, but a lot of maneuvering now ensues, with her trying to patiently make something of it.} 75.Rb6 Rf5 76.Rc6 Rb7 77.Ra6 Rd7 78.Ra2 Kg7 79.Rb2 Ra7 80.Rc2 Kh6 81.Rc6 Ra2 82.Rb6 Ra4 83.Nh3 Re4 84.Ra6 Kg7 {Black gets tired of making rook moves, but this should allow White to equalize.} 85.Ra7+ Kg8 86.Ra8+ ( 86.Nf4 {is pointed out by the engine, since Black cannot protect the g-pawn.} 86...g5 87.hxg5 Rxg5 {Black now has two weak pawns to look after.} 88.Ra8+ Kg7 89.Ra7+ Kh6 90.Kh3 {and White appears to hold.} ) 86...Kf7 87.Ra7+ Re7 88.Ra6 {trading rooks would be bad, since White's rook activity is one of the main things keeping Black in check.} 88...Kg8 89.Nf4 Kh7 90.Rb6 Ra7 91.Rc6 Kg7 92.Rb6 Kf7 93.Rb2 Rfa5 94.Rb6 Rd7 95.Rb2 Ra4 96.Rb5 Ra2 97.Rc5 Rdd2 98.Nh3 Rdc2 99.Rb5 Re2 100.Rb7+ Re7 101.Rb5 Re5 102.Rb7+ Ke6 {Black does not want to keep doing the same maneuvers and brings her king forward.} 103.Nf4+ {getting the knight back into the game and reminding Black about the g6 weakness.} 103...Kf5 104.Rf7 Rc5 105.Rf8 Rcc2 106.Nh3 Ke6 107.Rb8 Rcb2 108.Rc8 Rc2 109.Rb8 Rc7 110.Rb5 Rac2 111.Rb8 Kf5 112.Rg8 $2 {White finally loses patience with her own rook maneuvers and allows it to be traded off, leading to a won endgame for Black.} ( 112.Nf4 ) 112...Rc8 $1 113.Rg7 R2c7 114.Rxc7 Rxc7 $19 115.Nf4 {although the knight is no longer tied to defending f2, without White's rook available to harass Black's king, it now becomes a formidable piece in combination with the rook. After some maneuvering, Black can then support a pawn break.} 115...Rc2 116.Nd5 Ke6 117.Nf4+ Kf7 118.Kf3 Kg7 119.Kg2 Kh6 120.Nd5 Rc6 121.Ne3 g5 122.hxg5+ fxg5 123.Kf3 Rf6+ 124.Ke2 Kg6 125.Ng2 Kf5 126.Ne3+ Ke4 {the power of the centralized king is evident.} 127.Ng2 Ra6 {the rook can do more against White targets operating from the side.} 128.Kf1 Ra1+ 129.Ke2 Rb1 130.f3+ Kd4 131.Kf2 Rb2+ 132.Kf1 Kd3 133.f4 g4 {the f-pawn poses no threat, while control of f3 and h3 is now had.} 134.Nh4 Ke3 135.Kg1 ( 135.Nf5+ Ke4 136.Nh4 Rb3 {and White is soon in zugzwang.} ) 135...Ra2 136.f5 Ke4 ( 136...Rf2 ) 137.Kf1 Ke5 138.Kg1 Rb2 139.Kf1 Rh2 {forcing a winning position for Black.} 140.Kg1 Rxh4 {when you can force a winning endgame position, material balance is irrelevant.} 141.gxh4 Kxf5 142.Kf2 Kf4 143.Kg2 Ke4 144.Kf2 ( 144.Kg3 Ke3 145.Kg2 Kf4 {and wins.} ) 144...Kd3 145.Kg2 Ke2 146.Kg3 Kf1 147.Kf4 Kf2 148.Kg5 g3 0-1

Evaluation chart generated by HIARCS Chess Explorer Pro

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