Free Game Analysis: Taming the Benko Gambit

With Isaac still slugging it out in Austria, I’ll be doing the Free Game Analysis for the first time. As always, if you’d like your game(s) covered, drop us an email at chess.summit@gmail.com and we’ll be happy to cover your game in one of our future posts!

Today’s game is from Adam Collier, a 9th grader from Western Pennsylvania who just picked up an impressive 100 rating points from the Pennsylvania G/75 U1600 Championship to reach 1254, losing just one game. Overall, he played well against a much higher-rated opponent, focusing on a lot of the right things, but his opponent did well to create complications a pawn-down and turn the tables in some critical moments. Consolidating a material advantage is a very underemphasized part of chess, so there’s a lot for any player to learn from games like these.

Adam provided annotations, so I’ve included some of those below with my own comments. Enjoy!

Adam Collier (1153) – Evan Unmann (1498)

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-3-49-57-pm

Adam: I’ve never played against this before, but I know the ideas.

4. cxb5 a6

Adam: I don’t think taking the pawn here is that good.

Beilin: Taking the pawn is actually the main line of the Benko. Of course, Black has some open lines and development, but it’s not clear that it’s worth a pawn (for what it’s worth, the Benko is probably viewed somewhat skeptically at high level). If White is not that comfortable with the open Benko stuff, 4. Nf3 (instead of 4. cxb5) is a solid way to decline.

5. Nc3 d6

Beilin: After 5. Nc3?! axb5 6. Nxb5, White’s basically down a tempo on many of the 5. bxa6 positions, since Black can kick the knight with tempo with 6…Ba6 or 6…Qa5+; note White can’t play e4. Instead, the game move 5…d6? just allows 6. e4 with a big advantage for White.

6. e4

Adam: I thought about Qb3 or Qa4 here but when I play b6 after Qb3 my pawn is pretty weak, and after Qa4, Bd7 is really good, so I decided to play normal.

Beilin: “Normal” is a good mindset when up a pawn, e.g. play naturally, develop normally, cover weak points, etc. 6. e4 is simple and strong; Qb3 and Qa4 are risky and unnecessary.

6…g6 7. Nf3 Bg7 8. Be2 O-O 9. O-O axb5 10. Bxb5

Adam: considered Nxb5, but I think my Bishop is better there

Beilin: Even more importantly, Nxb5 just hangs the e4 pawn. Fortunately, White played the right move here, but a lot can change in one move – so it’s always important to pay attention to these basic things.

10…Ba6 11. Bxa6 Nxa6

Adam: considered a3, but the Knight on b4 doesn’t really have any good squares after that (good point -Beilin)

12. Bf4 Nh5

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-18-26-pm

Adam: he thought about that move for a pretty long time

13. Bg5 Qd7 14. Qd2 Rab8

Adam: completing development and wanting to play Bh6

15. Rab1

Adam: time situation here is 1:02-1:02

15…Rb7

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-25-35-pm

16. Nd1

Adam: considered Ne2, but the Knight on d1 has both more and better squares to go to than the Knight placed on e2, AND it protects the pawn again, however it disconnects the rooks, but it’s a small price to pay in my opinion

Beilin: I think White is starting to go wrong here. A lot of players have a tendency to overreact to threats with overly passive moves, without considering the actual benefits and consequences. Here, 16. Nd1 doesn’t actually help White, since it allows the Bg7 to attack b2, cancelling out the knight’s “defense” of b2. And if the knight is tied down, disconnecting the rooks could become a more permanent problem.

So White would have done well to ask himself why (or why not) he had to move the knight and what Black was truly threatening. Note that Black is not actually going to win b2 in the near future; even if White plays 16. h3 and Black plays 16…Rfb8, he’s still safe (and something like b2-b3 is probably on the cards; a2 is a little weak, but Black has to shuffle around quite a bit to attack it.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-41-37-pm

after the hypothetical 16. h3 Rab8

16…Rab8 17. Bh6 Bh8 18. Ng5

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-43-46-pm

Adam: aggression is key: also I considered b3 here, but it’s kinda passive.

Beilin: Here, we’re seeing a bit of the opposite problem (playing aggressive for the sake of playing aggressive). White’s clearly intending f4, but this runs into …Bd4+ ideas (typical of many Benko/Benoni games) and more importantly, leaves the bishop stranded on h6.

18…Nc7

Adam: didn’t realize this move had a duel-purpose, I thought that he wanted to bring his Knight to e8-f6 or something, but it actually allows f6 here if he wants because he’s now defending the hole on e6 twice.

Beilin: Or (spoiler) …f5!

19. f4

Adam: again: aggression (time situation is 53-53)

19…f5

Adam: good move I think

Beilin: Major problems await White after …fxe4 (e.g. d5 is falling). This line could have used some calculation!

20. Re1 fxe4 21. Rxe4

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-5-12-17-pm

Adam: I considered Nxe4, but that seems kind of passive.

Beilin: Rxe4 is a big mistake, as 21…Nf6! threatens 22…Ng4 winning the trapped bishop on h6. Thus, White will have to cough up at least an Exchange (note 22. Re3 runs into 22…Bd4). After the (much) better 21. Nxe4, 21…Bd4+ followed by 22…Nxd5 wins a clear pawn with a dominating position.

21…Qf5

Adam: I missed this move, but somehow this move only truly attacks the d5 pawn (which I actually overlooked in game), I actually thought I could move the rook, but it’s pinned to the other rook (kinda funny, you don’t see that often)

Beilin: Missing 21…Nf6 as mentioned above, and White now gets out of the jam with a nice tactic.

22. Ne3 (! – Beilin) Bd4 23. Qxd4 exd4 24. Nxf5 gxf5

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-8-53-34-pm

25. Rxe7

Beilin: White is temporarily up two pawns – emphasis on “temporarily”, since almost every pawn on the board is on the verge of falling. 25. Rxe7 is the more ambitious of the two reasonable options (the other being 25. Rxd4) and as speed-checked with Stockfish, should work out – as long as White keeps the passed d-pawn under control. 25. Rxd4 peters out more simply, though both options should be calculated out in a real game (assuming reasonable time).

25…Nxd5 26. Rxb7 Rxb7

Adam: I considered a plethora of moves here including a4, Ne6, g3, and Rd1, but I went with [Re1].

Beilin: All 5 seem okay (for now), and would probably draw (assuming reasonable play by both sides).

27. Re1 Rb8 28. Nf3

Adam: This is too passive I think (I offered a draw here and he instantly declined).

Beilin: Remember it’s much more important to be correct than active/passive/etc. That said, going after the d-pawn is fine (as are several other moves).

28…d3

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-9-22-25-pm

29. g3

Adam: I don’t want him to take my f4 pawn (time situation is now 20-33)

Beilin: So I think White got a bit worried here because of the passed pawn, and because the a2, b2, and f4 pawns are falling. However, White is already up a pawn and is also on the way to winning the d-pawn(s).

The other possibility is that Black just takes on f4, but White will be able to round up the d-pawn (e.g. kick whichever knight defends d3 and possibly bring the king in) before Black is done taking his pawns. Specifically, after 29. Rd1, 29…Nhxf4 is at least met by 30. Bxf4 Nxf4 31. g3 (31. b3 might be even better) 31…Ne2+ 32. Kf2 Rxb2 33. Ke3 Rxa2 34. Rxd3 followed by picking up the d6 pawn.

29…Rxb2 30. Ng5

Adam: Threatening mate.

Beilin: Again, that shouldn’t be the primary concern here. Adam mentioned that he overlooked Black’s easy defenses of the mate threats, which of course mean White has basically wasted some tempi just to threaten mate while Black is carrying on his original threats. 30. Rd1 was probably best, but 30…Ne3 31. Rxd3 Rb1+ 32. Kf2 falls to 32…Ng4+ picking up a piece.

30…Nhf6 31. Rc1 Rc2 32. Rb1

 

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-9-41-30-pm

32…Nd7

Beilin: Given White’s upcoming tactical resource, one might wonder whether Black can stop the mate some other way and just promote the d-pawn. Indeed, after 32…Nc7! (blocking on e8 if necessary) White has to drop at least a piece (e.g. 33. Nf3 d2) to stop the d-pawn from queening.

33. Re1 N5f6 34. Re7 (!)

Adam: my last hope (also the time situation is now 9-27)

34…d2 35. Rg7+ Kf8 36. Rxd7+ Ke8 37. Rxd6 Rc1+ 38. Kg2 d1=Q 39. Rxd1 Rxd1

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-9-45-57-pm

Beilin: The last few moves have all been forced, and White basically did all he could to get a playable endgame. However, in a 2 vs. 3 situation on the kingside (or even 1 vs. 2) Black should be able to win with the extra Exchange, especially given White’s misplaced pieces.

40. Bg7 Ng4 41. a4

Beilin: I think the last chance for White to put up resistance was 41. Nf3; with the game move Black should pick up the h2 and g3 (and a4) pawns.

41…Rd2+ 42. Kf3 (?? – Beilin)

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-9-56-04-pm

Beilin: Hopefully White and Black have seen it by now, but 42…Rf2 is mate!

42…Nxh2+ 43. Ke3 Ra2

White stopped notating here and lost in time trouble, but as I mentioned earlier, Black should also pick up the g3 pawn, likely via …Nf1+ and …Ra3 if necessary.


In this game, White started well with solid plans to punish some questionable opening choices by his opponent, and was resourceful to the end of the game. However, in diagnosing White’s problems during the game, one aspect stands out in both the moves and Adam’s commentary – the focus on playing aggressive or passive moves. This brings me back to a point I made earlier that is much easier to state than to apply – one should focus on playing good moves, regardless of how active or defensive they look. Most of us would like to play more active moves, but if you play an “active” move when the position doesn’t demand it, you may be disappointed!

Some of the more “aggressive” moves White played created long-term problems (e.g. misplaced pieces) or met strong responses from the opponent that he didn’t see. So before considering the aesthetics of a particular move, it is more important to realize how the basic tactics work out and what your opponent can do. Having the right priorities when looking for moves will create a stronger framework for game decisions, and make you a better player.

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