After a euphoric performance in Columbus, I got a chance to step back and process my results. Getting such a great result was certainly an achievement, but keeping up with disciplined study can prove even more difficult.
Luckily for me, I got in a two game rated match against FM Gabe Petesch, and though I wound up losing both games, I learned a lot and thought I should share a particularly instructive moment for my post here on Chess^Summit today.
Practical Play over Tactical Play
As the title suggests, the mistake I’m going to share illustrates the importance of maintaining a balance between tactical and practical play. Not every move should be handled with the charisma of a blitz game! I managed to surprise Gabe with some opening preparation I did about a year ago in Orlando, and after some thought, we reached this position in the early middlegame:
White has a small plus. Given the cramped nature of his position, Black really has no active plan and must play carefully to stay in the game. Here, trying to punish Black for his awkward play, I erred with 14. h5?! an optimistic exchange sac with the intention of clearing the f5 square for my knight. After 14…Bxh5 15. Rxh5 Nxf3 16. gxf3 gxh5 17. Rg1 (see diagram below), it seems like I have reasonable compensation, but in opening the position I’ve made it easier for Black to simplify the position.
Play continued 17…Kh8! 18. Ne3?! Bh6 19. Nf5 Bxf4 20. Qxf4 Ng5 (see diagram below), and now we realize White doesn’t have enough pieces to have a coordinated attack. With correct play, Black will seize the g-file and emphasize his plurality of rooks, leaving me with insufficient targets and thus, a worse position. Sure, 18. Rh1! would have been a much stronger continuation, but let’s not kid ourselves – White’s position is not better than it was before I played 14. h5?!. Black let me hang around and create some counterplay as time pressure became a factor, but the result was never really in doubt, and Black went on to win after a good defensive effort.
To my dissatisfaction, the caveman approach failed here. As much as I love strategic exchange sacrifices, this position didn’t call for one. So what should I have played instead?
Finding the right idea here means correctly identifying what Black’s main problem is. During the game, I thought the ugly f6-g6-h7 structure begged for an attack on the kingside, but as we saw, Black’s pieces hold this side of the board reasonably well. Perhaps this is an idea in the future, but for now, White should be looking for more glaring problems in Black’s position. The biggest issue lies in Black’s superfluous knight on f7.
Black would love it if White traded off a pair of knights. Black would get more space for his pieces, clarify the purpose of the f7 knight, and perhaps even consider …f6-f5 pushes now that his f8 rook can support this central break. In fact, part of the reason why 14. h5?! didn’t work was because Black got to insert an in-between move with a trade on f3! The problem of the superfluous knight really slows down Black’s play, and this is why 14. Nd4! is a much stronger move than what I played. After 14…Bxe2 15. Qxe2, now White can really carry on a kingside attack, and it’s not clear how Black will use his knights to defend his position.
White has a clear positional advantage, and without Black’s light squared bishop on g4, a kingside attack is a much more considerable option since it doesn’t come at the cost of any material. I actually saw this option of 14. Nd4! during the game, but the immediacy of 14. h5?! was appealing to me because I thought I could keep a lot of pressure on Black’s king, though I didn’t have a concrete line to convert the position into a win. While the move I played is certainly testing, it’s a failure of calculation on multiple levels:
- I failed to really pinpoint Black’s problem in the position. Looking at the pawn structure alone was a really superficial way of trying to find a concrete problem. Two of Aagard’s questions would have helped my search: What is my opponent’s plan? and What are my opponent’s weaknesses?
- I failed to effectively compare the final positions for both 14. Nd4! and 14. h5?!. This is the most important step that should have helped me make the right decision. Without a doubt, 14. Nd4! gives White a better position. Meanwhile 14. h5?! might result in a better position for White (hindsight is 20/20 – I didn’t realize how quickly Black could seize the g-file after 17…Kh8!), but unclear is probably the more accurate assessment. Even if the evaluation were the same, on a practical level, why sacrifice material when there is another option just as strong?
- I needed to be more concrete with 14. h5?!. Seeing that I can play for the f5 square was not a bad concept at all – if anything, it’s a nice idea to save for later since Black can’t really stop this h4-h5 push. But to play it now means paying attention to all of Black’s options. While it’s already not practical to go into deep calculation here, this would have been the last chance for me to really know what I was getting into.
Failure may seem like a strong word, but these are things I take note of after losing a game where I fail to really make the most of a critical position. In one of my first posts back from Europe I mentioned that “solving” positions like these will decide whether or not I can make National Master. What we saw here was the difference between a mid-2100 rated player and a nearly 2400 rated opponent!
As I prepare for the Cleveland Open in August, I’ll be doing more exercises like this where I can test my tactical and positional understanding to find the right strategic approach. Right now, in my chase for NM, its more important to play smarter, not necessarily better, when making critical decisions. To help me get there, I’ll be playing in the upcoming Wild Card Open at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, a one game a week format with a long time control. Hopefully I’ll have an interesting game to share in my next post!