Over the last few weeks, I’ve been playing in a bi-monthly ladder at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, and if I have to be honest, the change in tournament format hasn’t been the smoothest for me, as late night Tuesday rounds has pushed my mental endurance. Despite winning the first round, I made an early mistake in the opening, which made most of the game an uphill battle. Round 2 proved to be much more difficult. Despite taking a material advantage in an endgame, I underestimated my opponent’s counterattacking chances and lost in a rather embarrassing fashion. So this last Tuesday was round 3, and to say the least, I needed a win – badly.
My opponent, a much older player, had just drawn a strong expert despite his 1800 rating, and knowing some of his other recent results, I knew that this would be a tough fight. As always, I got to the board insanely early, ready to play the most important game I would have played since moving to Pittsburgh.
Steincamp – Schragin (19th Robert Smith Memorial, 2015)
1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 Be7
My opponent “doesn’t play openings” but even a novice should know that this move is ill-advised. While White stands slightly better, it’s important to note that this move alone won’t lose the game.
4.Nc3 c5 5.d3 Nc6 6.Nd5
I would like to have the option of playing Ng1-f3, but that would allow …d7-d5, giving Black a Maroczy structure and somewhat justifying his move 3…Be7.
If I want to castle, I’m going to need to determine the best square for my g1 knight. The square f3 isn’t bad, but my set-up is positioned to attack the d5 square. At first, I thought that 7. Nf3 0-0 8. Nd2 with the idea of Nd2-f1-e3 wouldn’t be so bad, but the problem is that Black has 8… Qa5! and now with the pin to my king, it’s not so clear why I wasted so many tempi to get my knight to d2. This is a much clearer plan, as 7. e3 allows me to play Ng1-e2-c3.
7…O-O 8.Ne2 Nxd5 9.cxd5 +=
Believe it or not, taking with the pawn in this position is surprisingly theoretical. Here it’s even better because I can punish Black (finally) for 3… Be7, because it takes away the most natural square for the knight. 9… Nb4 runs into problems after 10. a3 Qa5 11. 0-0 because Bc1-d2 is coming and the b4 knight needs to retreat to a6.
9…Nb8 10.O-O Bg4 11.f3
I want to play d3-d4 without having my knight pinned on e2, so this move felt natural. While I didn’t think much of it during the game, I think Black is strategically lost here once I break the central pawn structure. As you’ll notice, Black will not be able to generate counterplay for the remainder of the game.
11…Bh5 12.d4 Nd7
Maybe the best move, because after 12… cxd4 13. exd4 exd4 14. Nf4! (not 14. Nxd4 Qb6!) 14…Bg6 15. Qxd4 Bf6 16. Qb4, White has a slightly better position with a plan to take on g6 and mount my bishop on f4.
13.dxe5 Nxe5 14.Nf4
With Black deciding it was best to not give me a passed d-pawn, I get the f4 square for my knight and the bishop pair.
14…Bg6 15.Nxg6 Nxg6 16.Rb1
With Black planning to play …Be7-f6, this move gets the rook off the long diagonal, while potentially planning a b2-b4 strike. Black doesn’t have any dynamic options on the queenside as …b7-b5 will always be met with a2-a4, weakening Black’s structure (this is an important idea!).
The most important move of the game. Both 17. e4 and 17. b4 are the most natural moves, but each gives Black counterplay. 17. b4 can run into tactical issues because after 17… Qb6, Black points out my limited coordination and weaknesses on e3 and b4. 17. e4 is an easy move to make but after 17… Bf6, Black has control of the d4 square as well as the long diagonal. I need to get my bishop to c3 before pushing the e-pawn. My move makes the most intuitive sense because it takes the e5 square away from the Black knight while also stopping any …h7-h5 counterplay.
17…Bf6 18.Re1 Qa5 19.a3 Ne7?
This move tries to maneuver the knight away from the bad g6 square, but in doing so cuts off the f6 bishop. This is important, as now I can force an advantageous trade on c3.
20.Bd2 Qc7 21.Bc3 Bxc3 22.bxc3
With a pawn on c3, I can play e2-e4 without giving Black counterplay.
22…Rad8 23.e4 Ng6 24.h4
Pointing out that Black cannot play …h7-h5 to stop the h-pawn. With no counterplay across the board, Black begins to falter.
A positional blunder! My opponent weakens the e6 square, which will make for a great outpost for my bishop. While it looks difficult to penetrate Black’s fortress, my advantage lies in my light squared bishop.
25. Bh3 would have also been acceptable, but I liked this move more since it stops any chance for Black to have a dynamic break on the queenside. Because Black doesn’t have a piece that can reach d4, fixing the pawn structure furthers my advantage.
25…b6 26.Bh3 Re7 27.Be6+ Kh8 28.Kf2
On his next move, Black will attack my e6 bishop, so I get one tempo for an improving move. By moving the king off the first rank, I open access to the h-file for my rooks. I thought it was important to put the king on f2 and not g2 because I figure Black’s only counterplay lies in …g7-g5, opening the g-file, this move gets my king out of the way in advance while giving me a chance to attack.
It’s important to not that 29. f5 loses all of White’s advantage. While 29… Nxe6 would give White a passed pawn, it’s in Black’s best interest to instead play 29… Nd7! with the idea of going to e5. Since my pawns can’t control dark squares once I push the f-pawn, I would have no way of recovering my bishop for knight advantage. That being said, there are two reasons why I am winning: 1) the bishop dominates Black’s weak light squares and the f8 knight has no scope and 2) the f4 pawn. The f4 pawn controls the most critical squares, e5 and g5, and is the main reason Black’s knight is contained (remember 17. f4! set this position by achieving this goal!).
This seemingly innocuous move seals my opponent’s fate. When I played 29. Bf5, I actually wanted to provoke this move (the bishop was solid on f5 regardless). In this position, I really only have one target – the square on e6. I can push the a-pawn, but it’s not clear if opening the b-file really helps me yet. Now with this second weakness, I can apply the principle of two weaknesses. By playing …g7-g6, Black weakens the a1-h8 diagonal and the f6 pawn, while simultaneously giving me a hook on g6.
30.Bh3 Rde8 31.Qd3 Rf7 32.Re3
This move serves multiple purposes. While protecting the e3 pawn, I give my b1 rook access to the h1 square. Furthermore, by creating a battery on the third rank, I’m prepared for Black’s …g6-g5 push to open the g-file, as I’ll have the option of Rg3 or Rh3 in such positions. Black really doesn’t have much going on, so I can take my time maneuvering.
This move is my first attempt to break through the position. Though I do want to break open the h-file, my ultimate goal is to open f5 again for my bishop as a permanent outpost. The best defensive effort may be 33… g5 but after 34. Bf5 Black still has no play and would have to defend against an eventual Qd3-c3 followed by a potential f4xg5 plan, where Black’s king gets exposed.
33…gxh5 34.Bf5 Rg7 35.Rh1 Qe7 36.Rxh5 Qf7 37.Qd1 Re7 38.Rh6
Putting pressure on f6 while sealing the kingside from Black’s army. My goal now is to play Qd1-a1 and Re1-h1.
38…Ng6 39.Qa1 Re8 40.Re1 Ne7??
Black’s counting on me to take the f6 pawn to open up Black’s kingside but misses the winning blow 41. Be6 +-. Without this mistake, black’s still lost as he can’t simultaneously protect f6, h7, and stop the a-pawn push at the same time. Black’s knight is still pinned to the f6 pawn, and his king is still under fire from multiple angles.
1-0 Black Resigns.
I was really happy with the quality that I brought to this round, and it’ll be a big boost going into the National Chess Congress next weekend in Philadelphia. Black helped me along the way, but it’s difficult for me to find significant improvements for myself throughout the game.