Free Game Analysis: Practical Decision Making

For today’s post, I wanted to do a free game analysis, but this time, for some much more experienced players. If you would like to have your games analyzed on the site, make sure to send your PGNs to chess.summit@gmail.com!

With the London Chess Classic under way, the world’s best have been competing in the final leg of the inaugural World Chess Tour. While there’s a lot on the line, I’ve noticed a lot of mistakes from the first few rounds – first with Anand-Carlsen, but even more so yesterday with Topalov-Caruana.

Caruana and Topalov are no strangers to each other, having played 11 times before meeting in London.

For today’s post, I’d like to highlight the importance of being practical by showing the round 3 duel between the Bulgarian and the American.

Topalov – Caruana (London Chess Classic, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6

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The Berlin Defense has been the most common response to the Ruy Lopez this tournament. Known for its solidarity and ability to reach good endgame positions, Black has had a lot of success in defending against 1 e4 over the last decade.

4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 O-O 6.Nbd2 d6 7.h3 Ne7 8.d4 Bb6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qe2 Ng6

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I’m no Ruy Lopez theoretician, but it doesn’t take much to see that Black’s already equalized. Needing to cover the f4 square, Topalov chose 11. g3. This move comes with the disadvantage that White’s kingside can become a target while White figures out how to develop his queenside army.

11.g3 Qe7 12.Bd3

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An awkward move, but given White’s plan, it’s probably the right approach. Topalov wants to trade his dark squared bishop for Caruana’s menacing b6 bishop. To do this, Veselin will play Nd2-c4 followed by Bc1-e3 so the knight can recapture on e3. Retreating the bishop before playing Nd2-c4 means Topalov doesn’t need to worry about …a7-a6 or …c7-c6.

12…a5 13.Nc4 Bc5 14.Be3 Rd8!

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I like this move from Caruana! Though he can’t stop White’s plan to trade bishops, he can continue to develop his pieces. By not taking on e3, White has to spend one more tempo to capture on c5. Meanwhile, Black has castled, completed most of his development, and is uncontested for the d-file.

15.Bxc5 Qxc5 16.Ne3 h6 17.O-O-O Be6 18.Kb1 b5

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The most natural move for Black. With a hook on c3, Black plunges forward on the queenside with plans of breaking through. Caruana isn’t objectively better yet, but his position is easier to play – making one wonder what Topalov really got out of the opening.

19.c4

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A typical defensive measure from Topalov. Black doesn’t really gain that much from trading on c4, and should Caruana push (like he did in the game), a queenside break becomes impossible! …a4-a3-a2 will be met by b2-b3, and …b4-b3 will be met by a2-a3, either way locking up the structure. Though Topalov has succeeded in defending the queenside attack, his light squared bishop is held in by his own e4 and c4 pawns.

19…b4 20.Nd5 Nd7 21.Ne1 c6??

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Maybe two question marks are too much, but even I found an improvement before Caruana made this move. Caruana’s intentions are simple. Let’s take a look at the pawn structure.
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Here we have what resembles a standard Maroczy position. If you think about weak squares in the position, White has a clear hole on d4, which would be a great square for a knight (Want to see an example? check out one of my earlier articles here). Meanwhile, with Fabiano’s move …c7-c6, Topalov does not have the same option of putting a piece on d5. If you go back to the game position, Caruana’s knight on g6 can reach d4 via g6-f8-e6-d4. So everything is simple, right?
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What Caruana failed to realize was that after 22. Nc7 he loses his grip on the position. Once White takes on e6, Black gets doubled isolated pawns while also losing his easiest route for the g6 knight to reach d4.
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21… Rc8 was my recommendation during the game, which I actually came up with during the game! Now Caruana can play …c6 next move and White’s knight is forced to return to e3. Generally, when your opponent is cramped, you don’t want to trade pieces. Here White’s knight on d5 will have to retreat, and meanwhile, what exactly can Topolav do? Perhaps Caruana was worried about 22. f4 exf4 not allowing f4-f5, 23. gxf4 but here 23… Bxd5 wins the f4 pawn. It’s definitely risky, but certainly better than what happened in the game. Stockfish suggests 21… a4, but seeing as the queenside attack is not going to infiltrate White’s king, I don’t think this is the most logical way to proceed.

22.Nc7 Rac8 23.Nxe6 fxe6 24.h4

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Topalov here threatens h4-h5 asking Caruana where his g6 knight will go to now that the e6 square is occupied. Already, it’s becoming clear that 21… c6 hasn’t panned out tactically.

24…Rf8 25.Bc2 Qe7 26.Nd3 Nc5 27.Qe3 Nxd3 28.Rxd3 Rfd8 29.Rhd1

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Topalov’s play here is quite simple. Since Black’s g6-knight can’t make it to d4, White infiltrates through the center.

29…Rxd3 30.Qxd3 Nf8 31.Ba4 Qc5 32.Rd2 Kf7 33.Bd1 Ra8 34.Qd6!

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A great move! Endgames will favor white, but if Caruana avoids the trade, his e5 pawn falls, weakening both his structure and his grip on d4. Black has had no compensation for Topalov’s play the last few moves.

34…Qxc4 35.Qxe5 Qb5 36.Qc7+ Kg8 37.Qd6 a4 38.Be2 Qb6 39.Bc4!

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Topalov has been playing phenomenally thus far – Now this bishop move helps Topalov both blockade Black’s queenside expansion while targeting the e6 pawn. Black will never be able to kick this bishop, so now Topalov gets to improve his static advantage.

39…Re8 40.Qd4 c5 41.Qd6 Qb7 42.f3 a3 43.Rd3?

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There’s no need for this! 43. b3 was easily the most natural move. While the computer may not be as punitive, this move was a sign of bad things to come.

43…axb2 44.Kxb2 Kh7 45.Kc2

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It was at this juncture where Maurice Ashley reminded the audience of a classic game between Tigran Petrosian and Wolfgang Unzicker played back in 1960. That game featured a king march to safety before going for the attack. Here, Black’s kingside pawns are extremely weak but taking them would open files to the White king. Ideally, Topalov would like his king on g2 before taking the pawns, and Caruana really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of counterplay.

45…Rc8! 46.Ba6?!

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Caruana laid out the bait and Topalov bit! While Topalov goes up a rook, opening the a-file for Caruana’s queen is extremely dangerous. I’m pretty sure Veselin saw the next few moves during the game – but did he feel more confident about the resulting position than he did about his positional advantage? I’m not so sure. My best guess is that White got impatient and assumed he was winning at the end of the line.

46…Qa7 47.Bxc8 Qxa2+ 48.Kd1 c4

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And Black managed to draw after another 35 moves – you can check the endgame here.

While this was a long game for both players, I thought that there were valuable lessons for players of all levels.

1) Look for all of your opponent’s forcing moves!

Imagine if Fabiano took 22.Nc7 seriously before pushing …c7-c6. This game could have not only ended faster but with a different result. Caruana’s structural integrity posed legitimate problems for Topalov, and I think he could have gone on to win the match.

2) Maintain your static advantages!

From when Topalov played 24. h4, he played great chess before playing 43. Rd3. With the static advantage, White only needed to maneuver around and improve his position while Black struggled to find counterplay. Once he allowed the queenside to open up with …axb2, Caruana got options and eventually tricked White with 45…Rc8.

3) Don’t get impatient.

I think when Topalov played 45. Kc2, he knew he was winning. All White had to do was execute his idea of bringing the king over to the kingside before taking affirmative action. 46. Ba6 is tempting, but Topalov should have known better than go for a line with complications. This decision, as the engine shows, loses the initiative, and cost Topalov a much-needed half point.

Want a cool way to study while watching the London Chess Classic? Try to put yourself in both players shoes! Ask yourself how to address the weaknesses in the position and then compare your moves to the moves made in the game. It’s not easy, but after a while you become more accurate. It was through this exercise I actually found the improvement 21… Rac8 for Caruana. I also liked Carlsen’s game today against Michael Adams. While that game was a draw, I thought Magnus got a very playable position with the white pieces, and I encourage you all to check it out!

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