24 December 2023

Annotated Game #260: A Return to the Board

This was my first OTB tournament game in two years and it was nice to return to the board with a win. The play has a strong strategic flavor, as I consistently (if not always ideally) focused on combating White's isolated queen pawn (IQP). This proved to work in the end, although some key points of departure were revealed during analysis:

  • My choices on move 12 and subsequently on move 23 - notably both queen-related - showed that I understood the position's demands well (a positive) but did not find the best candidate move (a negative). In the first case, I was too rigid with my thinking about queen placement, not even considering ...Qd6 which would have then allowed my knight to develop without any issues. In the second case, I should have kept things simple with ...Qe4 rather than enter into a worrying sequence with tactical threats to trap my queen.
  • Another failure to find the best candidate occurred on move 26, when I did not even consider moving the g-pawn to create an escape square for my queen.
  • On a positive note, the winning sequence starting on move 36 was both reasonably accurate and practical. I could have had a better version of it, but once you have figured out how to win, the number of moves it takes is normally not relevant - it's much better to do it safely, especially if pressed for time, rather than try to calculate out a "best" move sequence that also wins, just faster.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D40"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Dragon 3.2"] [PlyCount "108"] [EventDate "2017.06.18"] {[%mdl 12320][%evp 0,108,15,18,63,68,61,43,43,21,0,26,18,11,25,32,21,-3,22,9,-14,-5,-3,0,7,-9,49,64,42,41,25,6,14,12,-1,-13,20,-25,-37,-81,-79,-107,-89,-112,-104,-119,-88,-104,-76,-104,-76,-89,-70,-112,25,-45,-37,-37,-11,-48,-54,-66,-58,-55,-57,-64,-58,-56,-60,-92,-88,-87,-91,-144,-135,-104,-103,-106,-106,-118,-107,-90,-105,-211,-231,-242,-252,-254,-321,-350,-267,-715,-813,-849,-920,-891,-887,-1112,-840,-1142,-1610,-2182,-1169,-1201,-1870,-2301,-1682,-2324,-29754,-29969,-29972] D40: Queen's Gambit Declined: Semi-Tarrasch with 5 e3} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 {my opponent thought for several minutes over this and the next few moves, apparently not familiar with the Caro-Kann.} d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 {the Panov variation.} e6 {the most traditional response, which leads to Semi-Tarrasch type QP opening positions.} 6. a3 {apparently this has been played a fair amount, according to the database, but it is the first time I have seen this move. The obvious point is to rule out ...Bb4, which may disrupt things if Black only has that move in their repertoire. How it developed in the game, it was a largely wasted tempo.} Be7 7. Nf3 O-O 8. Be2 (8. c5 {would be the most consistent continuation following the a3 push, with b4 coming.}) 8... dxc4 {my first serious think. I wanted to assure myself of reaching an IQP position.} 9. Bxc4 a6 {another serious think about preferred strategy here. Ideally I wanted to gain a tempo on the Bc4 with ...b5 and then develop with ...Bb7, which is what White allowed.} 10. O-O b5 11. Bb3 Bb7 {Reaching my ideal strategic position, with equal development and a blockade of the d5 square. (See Nimzovich's "blockade, attack, destroy" mantra).} 12. Be3 {the bishop is just acting as a big pawn here.} (12. Re1 Nbd7 13. Bg5 Nb6 14. Ne5 Nbd5 15. Rc1 Rc8 16. Bxf6 Bxf6 17. Nxd5 Bxd5 18. Rxc8 Qxc8 19. Bxd5 exd5 20. Qd2 Qf5 21. g3 h5 22. h4 Rc8 23. Re2 Qb1+ 24. Kg2 Rc1 25. Nf3 Rc8 26. Qf4 Qd3 {Ehlvest,J (2536)-Izoria,Z (2599) Chess.com INT 2018 0-1 (43)}) (12. Qd3 Nbd7 13. Bc2 Re8 14. Ne5 Nxe5 15. dxe5 Qxd3 16. Bxd3 Nd7 17. f4 Nc5 18. Bc2 Red8 19. Be3 Rac8 20. Rfd1 Nd7 21. Rd2 Nb6 22. Rxd8+ Bxd8 23. Bb3 Bc6 24. Rd1 Bc7 25. Bc5 Nc4 26. Bxc4 bxc4 {Morais,W (1843)-Fernandes,F Rio de Janeiro 2019 ½-½ (36)}) 12... Bd5 $146 {another significant think here. I wanted to maintain the blockade on d5, with which any developing moves with the Nb8 would interfere. However, there are other possibilities.} (12... Qd6 {this is the logical solution to the knight development issue, the idea being to allow ...Nbd7 without blocking the queen's power down the d-file.}) 13. Nxd5 $11 {The position is equal, but I was happy to see the minor piece trade, which fits in with combating the IQP.} Nxd5 14. Qd3 {a standard idea in this line is a Q+B battery on the b1-h7 diagonal, so I was able to anticipate my opponent's idea after this move.} Nc6 {I had to think for a while here, to make sure it was a safe move. The Nc6 is hanging and of course White has an interest in a kingside attack. However, I concluded my defensive resources were more than adequate.} 15. Bc2 g6 16. Bh6 Re8 17. Bb3 {my opponent seemed not to have a particular plan after the previous two-move forced sequence, just moving the bishop back. Which is in fact not bad, but underlines the equal nature of the position and lack of any concrete threats.} Na5 {I was happy to take advantage of the bishop placement and gain a tempo with the knight move, ideally heading for c4.} 18. Bxd5 $6 {this additional trade further assists the anti-IQP strategy.} (18. Ba2 $11) 18... Qxd5 $15 {now two pairs of minor pieces are off the board and I have a firm grip on d5.} 19. b4 $6 {this just helps the knight onto its best outpost square.} (19. h4 $5) (19. Rfe1) 19... Nc4 $17 20. Rfc1 Red8 {I rejected making any more committal moves at this point, in favor of getting the rook to a more productive file and increasing the pressure on the d-pawn. However, I missed a more immediate active option.} (20... e5 $1 $19 {taking advantage of the pin on the d-pawn against the Qd3 and threatening a pawn fork on e4.} 21. Nd2 Rac8) (20... Rad8 {the other rook would have been better for the same idea, as the e-file is important.}) 21. Be3 $6 {now the Ra8 actually could earn its keep, with Black's piece able to target White's queenside effectively.} Bf6 $17 {a logical move, increasing the pressure on the long diagonal. However, using the a-pawn as a lever gets Black more here.} ({Black should try} 21... a5 22. Qc3 axb4 23. axb4 Rxa1 24. Rxa1 Ra8 $19 {and White will not be able to hold the b-pawn, while Black's pieces will dominate.}) 22. Qe2 {smartly getting out of the line of fire on the d-file.} Rac8 {similar to the previous rook move, I no longer saw much use for it on the a-file and moved it to a more active one.} (22... a5 $5 {is still a possibility.}) 23. Rd1 Qh5 {At the time, I assessed the benefits of this move outweighed the risk of the queen getting trapped, although White is later able to threaten this more than I anticipated. It frees d5 for a rook and forces White to consider his currently hanging queen, with a temporary pin on the Nf3. However, there are better squares for the Black queen.} (23... Qe4) 24. Ra2 {this protects the queen, but unconnects the rooks, which causes problems later.} Rd5 {physically blockading the d-pawn, possible due to the previous minor piece exchanges, and clearing d8 for the other rook. It also has the downside of limiting the squares for the Black queen.} 25. h3 {clearly intending to try and trap the Qh5.} Rcd8 {threatening to play ...e5.} 26. Kh2 {I missed this move, which of course is necessary to guard the h3 pawn prior to playing g4. Black is still OK, but at the board I only found one line that saved the queen, which made it a dangerous situation. The engine highlights other possibilities, however.} Nxe3 $6 {this keeps Black safe but allows White to equalize.} (26... g5 {is actually the simplest and most effective solution, clearing g6 for the queen. My thinking process was too rigid here, not considering the g-pawn advance. The pawn is more than adequately protected, however, and Black can follow up with ...h5 and further pawn advances.} 27. Kg1 Qg6 $17) 27. Qxe3 Bg5 28. Qe4 Qh6 {the point of the 26th move in this sequence was that h6 is now safe for the queen, in all variations.} 29. Nxg5 $6 {White appeared to decide he had nothing better, but of course further exchanges of minor pieces in an IQP position are strategically suspect.} (29. Rc2 $11) 29... Qxg5 $15 30. f4 {due to the IQP configuration, this actually does not help with control of e5. It does put the question to the queen, however, and prompts me to make a worse move.} ({Better is} 30. Rc2 $15) 30... Qf5 $6 {the exchange on f5 actually helps White here, as Black's queen is more dangerous. Most other queen moves preserve a greater advantage.} (30... Qf6 31. Rad2 Rc8 $17) 31. Qxf5 Rxf5 32. g3 Rfd5 $15 {at this point, we have the classic approach to the IQP on the board: maximum pressure down the file against it, with a pawn break coming. However, it's still not so easy to make progress, unless of course your opponent helps...} 33. Rad2 f6 {intending to play ...e5 next. However, this should not gain Black anything, unfortunately.} 34. Rc2 {My opponent evidently also thought the d-pawn was doomed, and was looking for some other rook activity to compensate.} (34. Kg2 {or a similar noncommital move and now Black gets the d-pawn, but White has immediate compensation. For example} e5 35. fxe5 fxe5 36. Rc2 exd4 37. Rc6 R5d6 38. Rxd6 Rxd6 39. Kf3 Kf7 40. Ke4 Re6+ 41. Kf4 {and the rook ending is equal.}) 34... e5 {the pawn break is still the best practical chance here, putting the pressure on White to respond accurately.} (34... Rxd4 35. Rxd4 Rxd4 36. Rc8+ Kf7 37. Rc7+ $11) 35. fxe5 fxe5 36. Rc5 $2 {I hadn't anticipated this, which however loses.} (36. Kg2 $1 $11 {as in the above variation, and White has nothing to worry about in the long run.}) 36... Rxd4 $19 {this seemed the simplest solution at the time and is good enough for the win.} (36... Rxc5 37. bxc5 exd4 $19 {leaves White with more weaknesses.}) 37. Rxd4 {I had thought this was essentially forced, but technically speaking it is not.} (37. Rdc1 Rd2+ 38. Kg1 R8d3 $19) 37... exd4 $19 {now White has to bring back the rook to defend, otherwise, the d-pawn will queen.} 38. Rc2 Kf7 {time to get the king in the game.} 39. Kg2 Ke6 40. Kf3 Ke5 {Strongly threatening ...d3. the centralized king is now a force.} 41. Rd2 Rf8+ {pushing the king back first. The point now is to win safely, rather than try and calculate the quickest route.} 42. Ke2 Ke4 {this position illustrates how a rook is a poor short-range piece, as the White one gets in the way of both itself and the king in trying to defend against the pawn.} 43. Rd1 Rf3 44. Rc1 {perhaps with ideas of getting behind the Black king, which is probably the best practical chance. However, White would not have time to do this successfully.} d3+ 45. Ke1 Ke3 {now if the Rc1 tries to get behind the Black king, the d-pawn queens after ...d2+} 46. Rc3 Rxg3 {with a won position on the board and not a lot of time on the clock remaining, I keep the win in hand by improving my position without risk.} 47. Kf1 Rxh3 48. a4 {I thought this was simply an attempt at a distraction, but may have been intended in the hope of eventually reaching a stalemate position.} Rh4 49. a5 Rc4 {I decided the easiest way to win would be to box in White's rook and force a trade.} 50. Rb3 Kd2 51. Rb2+ Kc1 52. Ra2 Rc2 53. Ra1+ Kb2 54. Rd1 Rc1 0-1

Article: "Can Adults Improve at Chess?" by NM Todd Bryant

The title of NM Todd Bryant's article at Chess.com is somewhat misleading - of course adults can improve at chess, a more relevant question is if (and how) they do it. My long journey to Class A pointed out what works for me: playing tournament chess on a monthly basis; seriously analyzing my own games; at least a brief period of chess skills study daily (including realistic tactical puzzles); and other dedicated study and practice on a weekly basis. As of this year I've been able to return to OTB tournament play, but it has been infrequent and I have not coupled that with sufficient dedicated chess study time to break through my current plateau. Here I'll start sharing analyzed tournament games again, as I process them, and we'll see what 2024 may bring.

In the above-linked article, NM Bryant does a good job of examining available data on ratings improvement by adult players (defined as over 25) in the U.S., which is really an analysis of the what of adult improvement - describing it as a statistical phenomenon, along with some specific examples of individual cases. Although the article by no means can be used as a "roadmap to improvement" or the like, it does set out the facts, including establishing the possibility and documenting the regular, if not necessarily frequent, phenomenon of significant strength gains in adulthood. He also captures some of the common qualitative characteristics of those who have in fact succeeded, which I'll quote below. None of them should be surprising, but they are a good reminder of how putting in the work and a strong mental attitude can in fact be rewarded over time.

"Play A LOT. This is more important than studying, coaching, chess psychology, or anything else. Overwhelmingly, the improvers I found had jagged ratings graphs for decades, meaning that they were constantly playing.
Care about chess, not your rating. I’ve been fortunate to know many of the adult improvers on my list, and I looked up others on social media. Aside from playing all the time, these people are deeply invested in the quality of their chess. Many of them have told me they were too busy focusing on chess to worry about rating. They are curious. They like analyzing their games. They have chess blogs, book collections, particular areas of the game that they are experts in. These things, not rating obsession, occupy their time.
Never, ever, ever give up. All of the people above experienced setbacks, sometimes big ones. When this happens, it is easy to get frustrated, discouraged, or nervous that we are washed up and can no longer compete with the kids. These people did not do that. And this gave them a chance to catch a good run later."