Strategic Concepts: The Wedge on d6

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Tabling for Pitt Chess Club at the Peterson Events Center

Prior to flying to St Louis for the Rapid and Blitz, I took a quick road trip to the Cleveland Open where I had a somewhat lackluster performance. I got reasonable positions out of each game, but my form was simply off and the momentum I built in Columbus simply didn’t translate into results.

With the fall term starting and my rating bouncing between 2130 and 2160, the road to National Master seemed to get getting longer, not shorter. With one game at the Pittsburgh Chess Club left for the summer, I decided to put all this stress aside and just play chess – a mindset I’ve brought up several times here on Chess^Summit.  How did I do this with the White pieces? 1. e4!

Chess with a New Face

Drawing inspiration from my final round in Reykjavik last April, I opted for Fischer’s “best-by-test” move and forced myself to think from move 1. I actually won a really nice game (which I will attach below), but I wanted to focus on a critical moment where I executed a strategic idea I had studied from the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Geneva:

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Steincamp–Kostyak, position after 10…Be7

After ten moves, White is clearly better. I have an extra pawn, and I’ve managed to kick Black’s knight to a5 where it has no mobility. When my opponent played 10…Be7, I immediately wanted to break open the position and stop Black from castling with 11. d4, with ideas of dropping a knight on d6 and wreaking havoc in the center. However, Black’s superior development makes it near impossible to breakthrough – in fact, in some variations, Black is even better if White takes too many risks (thanks to the White king still being on e1).

It didn’t take me long to realize that Black has some compensation in his development for the pawn – not enough for equality, but certainly enough to stay in the game. Needing to catch up in development, I played 11. 0-0 0-0 12. d6!. Here’s an excerpt from my game notes I wrote after the game concluded:

“20 minute think – This was a hard move to make because this pawn does look weak and it lets the a5 knight back into the game [via c6]. The problem for White is that despite the material advantage, I am lacking in development, so a slower approach lets Black back into the game. This move is aimed to help me catch up and activate my pieces. I wasn’t 100% sure I was keeping the pawn, but the amount of tempi it would take to win it should leave Black with a worse position”

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Steincamp-Kostyak, position after 12. d6!

To summarize, I’m basically throwing a wrench into Black’s position. While Black tries to play around this pawn, I’ll get the time I need to create a harmonious set-up. This is an important move in the game because it stops Black’s plan of …f7-f5, and without this, Black really doesn’t have much. After 12…Bf6, the position turns static, where I hold an extra pawn and Black has two misplaced pieces – the knight on a5 and the bishop on f6. Much to my satisfaction, this d6 pawn not only helped me develop, but also helped me conduct an attack in the center and on the kingside. You can play through the game in full here with my notes and analysis.

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Pondering this 11. 0-0, 12. d6 idea, Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

Theoretical Notes

So what is it about this d5-d6 push that makes it so powerful? Surely in principle this is a hyper-extension! Let’s not rush to conclusions. The idea revolves around Black’s ability to make a blockade. Here’s a game of mine from the Columbus Open last June:

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Wright–Steincamp, position after 16…Nd6

Here I just played 16…Nd6 following the standard knight blockade idea in the King’s Indian. Even though my knight’s primary function is defensive, it hits a lot of critical squares (c4, b5), and thus is an active piece. This knight is a strong enough piece that my higher rated opponent decided to play 17. Nxd6 cxd6 18. Rfd1, and with the center closed, the game eventually petered out to a draw.

There are two distinct differences between a pawn on d5 and one on d6:

  1. A Black knight on d6 is an active blockader. From behind the d5 pawn, it can reach c4 and e4, and pressure various points in White’s camp.
  2. A Black knight on d6 can be supported by a pawn, whereas a knight on d7 cannot. This is an important distinction, because when White has a pawn on d6, he can play to undermine the blockade. In the example above, we saw that the pawn on d5 was neutralized after 17…cxd6.

If we return to my game where I played 12. d6!, we quickly see that the knight on d7 is a poor blockader and can’t contribute to the central fight:

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Steincamp-Kostyak, position after 12. d6!

Black is by no means obligated to blockade this pawn, but if he isn’t careful, the threat of promotion can become overwhelming – thus is the power of a pawn on d6. Of course, I can’t take credit for this strategic idea, and for that I have to thank my modern predecessor, Peter Svidler, for bringing it to my attention.

Svidler Pushes Delroy

As I mentioned, I was inspired to push my d-pawn from an earlier example during the FIDE Grand Prix in Geneva earlier this summer. Peter Svidler, in a last round clash with former Women’s World Champ Hou Yifan, pushed the d-pawn and got a nice win:

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Svidler–Hou Yifan, position after 16. d6!

In this game, Hou Yifan opted not to create a blockade, and was swiftly punished with a further d6-d7 push, as her rook was tied down to d8. Even though the computer evaluates the above position as equal, Svidler showed just how easy it was to smash through Black’s defensive resources in this win.

I watched the commentary for this game live, and I distinctly remember GM Evgeny Miroshnichenko saying “this is the way to punish these positions”, and that just stuck with me…

Beat the Youngster with Old School Chess!

With the World Cup starting last Sunday, I’ve found myself spoiled for choice when it comes to analyzing games. One fixture that caught my attention was 2016 World Champion Challenger Sergey Karjakin against International Master Anton Smirnov. Even though Smirnov held his own at the Match of the Millennials earlier this summer, I would not have predicted that Karjakin would need tiebreaks to outlast the youngster.

In their first tiebreak, Smirnov had out-prepared Karjakin from the Black side of a Petrov and established equality out of the opening with a massive time advantage. Surely  Smirnov could keep the course and head into the next tiebreaker on an even score, right? Unfortunately, the youngster from Australia got tricked by a mirage when he materialistically played 23…Bxf3?:

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Karjakin–Smirnov, position after 23…Bxf3?

Thinking he could snack on h3, Smirnov must have been surprised after 24. gxf3 Qxh3 25. d5! where he realized this pawn was going to d6, restricting Black’s pieces in the center. Even with Karjakin’s damaged kingside, this proved too strong for Smirnov, and he went down in the endgame. I really like this example, because it really showcases the strength of the central passed pawn. Again, the computer gives 23…Bxf3 an equal evaluation, but just like Svidler–Hou Yifan, we are starting to see we need to treat these positions differently.

Conclusions

Of course pushing your pawn all the way to d6 alone won’t win you games, but it is certainly a viable option when considering how to restrict your opponent’s counterplay. Its important to notice how in each of these games, the pawn on d6 acts as a wedge, and makes it easier to play in both the center and on the flanks. So next time the opportunity presents itself, strongly consider d5-d6! (or …d4-d3!) – it might just win you the game!

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