When Picturesque Doesn’t Work

Is it good or bad that conventional aesthetics don’t matter so much in chess? Realizing early on that a win is a win saved me from most of the temptations of judging moves or positions by appearance (though I’m not immune to the old “not admitting mistakes” pitfall).

It helps that playing the Caro-Kann doesn’t usually leave me a lot of choice in the matter. This post isn’t about opening preparation (still my weakest area by far!), but recognizing that there wasn’t a truly clean (i.e. attractive and consistent) way to counter a particular opening idea was crucial in a recent game of mine. IM Jeremy Silman has written a great counterattacking article using a similar line as an example.

Sairam, a recently-crowned expert, is beginning to see the ups and downs of life in the 2000s, after some recent successes. In one of them, I reacted badly to an idea that, at first, might look too primitive to be good.

Position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 6. c5

The textbook example of Black trying to play “as usual” turns into something like this:

Example after 12. b4

and Black has failed to provide any real challenge to White’s queenside conquest.

If you’ve seen similar (good or bad) ideas for White, …e5 seems like something Black is most likely to strive for. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, as I found out the hard way in that game. In a rematch with Sairam two months later, I was more prepared.

Gopal (2021) – Li (2084), Pittsburgh Chess Club, October 2016

I changed up my anti-Panov repertoire in time, but Sairam found a way into familiar territory. Incidentally, it was a direct transposition to the position in our previous game after move 10.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bf4 e6

After 6…e6

My book’s flashier recommendation of 6…g6 7. Nb5 e5! was a little too much for me at the time.

7. c5 Be7 8. Bb5 O-O 9. Nf3 Ne4

After 9…Ne4

Aside from trying for an …e5 break (in our last meeting, my 9…Nd7? came nowhere close), this is the main counterattacking idea. Obviously, White can’t take on e4, and doesn’t want to end his queenside ambitions with bxc3. There are a number of directions (which I won’t go into) for both sides here, so the rest of Black’s strategy is not clear-cut yet.

10. Rc1 Qa5 11. Qa4 Qxa4 12. Nxa4?!

After 12. Nxa4

I sympathize with White here, because 12. Bxa4 already didn’t offer much; after something like 12…Nxc3 13. Rxc3 and a future b2-b4 push, …a5 will be more effective than before due to the disconnection of White’s rooks. However, the game move certainly leaves White in some uncomfortable contortions.


After 12…g5

It was here that I realized White’s dark-squared bishop didn’t have a particularly good retreat. For example, after 13. Be3, Black can not only play for my original idea of …f6 and …e5, but also …f5…Bf6, etc. after which the d4 and c5 “chain” really sticks out. White chose a more direct way out (in part due to the insertion of Bxc6/…bxc6 which introduced the additional threat of …Ba6), but it didn’t seem like a happy choice.

13. Bxc6 bxc6 14. Bd6?! Nxd6 15. cxd6 Bxd6 16. O-O

After 16. O-O

I was a little surprised at the time, but in hindsight risking 16. Rxc6? in the face of Black’s two bishops (and the …Ba6 idea) was likely worse. And after the game move, it wasn’t trivial to decide how to defend the c6 and g5 pawns, given that Nc5 and possibly Ne5 were coming. I showed someone what I did, and he was amazed I wanted to go into something so ugly; however, once you’re up a pawn, it really only matters that you’re able to eventually convert.

After 18…f6

The “badness” of Black’s bishop is irrelevant here, and despite their initial appearances, Black’s c6, e6, and f6 pawns are not weak. At worst, Black can march his king to d6 and unleash …Be8-g6, with temporary defense by the rooks as necessary. While Black’s bishop may be bad for the moment, White’s knight is definitely not useful enough to produce critical counterplay.

19. h3 Rfb8 20. b3 a5 21. Rb1 Rb5 22. Rc3 Rab8 23. a3 R8b6 24. Ne1 Be8 25. a4 Rb4 26. Nc2

After 26. Nc2

26…Rc4!! would have been a nice find here, ending the game pretty much immediately after, for example, 27. bxc4 Rxb1+ 28. Kh2 Rc1.

Nevertheless, 26…Rxa4 was still more than enough, especially with White’s time pressure. 27. Re1 Ra2 28. Rxe6 Kf7 29. Re2 Bd7 30. Rce3? Bf5.

After 30…Bf5

Again, aesthetics didn’t matter here, as Black has completely busted through the queenside. From here, it was mostly smooth sailing, but I feel obligated to record a moment of gross negligence later in the game.

After 50. h6

While 50…a2?! 51. Rxa2 doesn’t blow the game, 51…Rc4+?? does (51…Rc8 followed by …Rd8 still wins easily) due to White’s counterplay based off the advanced h6-pawn. Of course, White was still in time trouble, which allowed me a somewhat (at this point) undeserved win. Otherwise, I played this game pretty well, and although it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing to play, a lot can definitely be learned from it.

After a great turnaround from a disappointing end to the summer, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to bring back some great news from next weekend’s Pennsylvania State Championship, which will feature… three of us (Isaac, Grant, and myself)! Stay tuned for a few fun posts about that!


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