Facing a tame-looking opening as Black often looks like a lucky break, as getting a solid, equal (or better) position out of the opening – often the dream as Black – seems to become much easier. I used to worry about this more from the White side, wondering if my openings were too cautious and balanced to create winning chances. But after playing a lot of these “boring” openings from both sides, it became clear that the better player always manages to create chances to profit. From the Black side, it’s always important not to get lulled into careless decisions when it looks like your opponent is not trying hard enough.
Despite blowing the second game in my last post against FM Petesch, the prospect of me closing out the Pennsylvania G/60 with two Whites made things a bit more comfortable. But with the next round starting immediately after that tough loss, I felt like I just wanted a quiet game without time trouble issues.
With that in mind, I decided not to grind out one of my usual Closed Sicilians against young expert Maxim Yaskolko, who I’ve played on and off since I was about 1500. I’ve been getting the better of him lately, but he had to be pretty familiar with my Closed Sicilian routine, so I went for the only other anti-Sicilian I knew anything about.
Li – Yaskolko
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7
I was ready for the more ambitious 3…Nd7, although it is probably a bit risky, so Black goes with an understandable and safe alternative.
4. Bxd7+ Nxd7 5. O-O Ngf6 6. Re1 e6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Qxd4 Be7 9. Bg5 O-O
White’s choices haven’t been particularly interesting. The queen on d4 looks solid at first as it eyes the d6-pawn, but Black can challenge the queen with …Qb6 and should have no problems defending on the d-file after …a6.
10. Nc3 a6 11. Rad1
For the above reason, 10. Nc3 was rather futile, and probably could have been replaced by 10. c4 or something, though Black is doing fine. The knight is pretty awkwardly placed now, especially after the natural 11…Qc7 and 12…Rac8. However, Black hastily tries to chase the queen out immediately.
A really unfortunate decision, as the rest of the game is basically me slowly exploiting the weakness of d5 and d6. It is very hard to justify this given the absence of the light-squared bishops.
12. Qd2 b5 13. a3 Qb6? 14. h3?
I’d been trying so hard to play relatively quick, safe moves to just improve my position that I missed 14. Nh4! g6 15. Bh6 followed by 16. Nf5! when the knight is immune due to mate on the g-file, and thus winning at least a pawn.
Nevertheless, even with that opportunity gone, Black’s problems continue, as there is little to be done to prevent White from piling on the d6-pawn.
14…Rfd8 15. Nh2 b4 16. axb4 Qxb4
In my first big think of the game, I started calculating a lot of tempting Nd5 lines. They weren’t clear at all, so I simply continued my plan as to not cash in too early.
17. Re3 Nb6
17…Qxb2?? 18. Rb1 Qa3 19. Nd5 wins.
18. b3 Rac8 19. Rd3 Rd7 20. Bxf6
Black does have chances at counterplay with …Rdc7, so this gets rid of one more useful Black defender and introduces the Nh2 with tempo.
20…Bxf6 21. Ng4 Be7 22. Ne3 g6
Black thought allowing Nf5 would be curtains, but it turns out Nd5 works immediately anyway.
23. Ncd5! Nxd5 24. Nxd5 Qxd2 25. R1xd2
25. Nxe7+ Rxe7 26. R1xd2 Rdc7 27. Rxd6 Rxc2 28. Rxc2 Rxc2 29. Rxa6 would win a pawn, but the ending looks iffy.
For better or worse, Black had to defend passively with 25…Bd8; this runs into a tactic taking advantage of the unfortunate position of Black’s rooks.
After 26. f4
26…exf4 (26…Bd8 27. fxe5 is just a clear pawn) 27. Nb6 and Black ran out of time.
This was by no means the best way to play the position (eventually given that I arguably missed a win at move 14!) but the game does underscore that you only need one win, and sometimes simply improving your position and limiting counterplay is enough. While I might have missed some objective improvements, I was never in real danger, which is often more than one can hope for.
My last game, a nice win over NM Tom Magar, might not be boring in the same sense, but I know some people don’t think the Closed Sicilian to be challenging enough. Indeed, many of the positions look almost symmetrical on the important areas of the board, but in many games I’ve been able to show that many small-looking advantages can be more useful than people think.
Li – Magar
1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3
I hadn’t had to spend too much energy in my third-round game, so it felt like a good time to get back to my roots. That said, Tom and I have played a number of Closed Sicilian lines before, so I didn’t know which one he’d choose.
6…e5 7. Qd2 Be6 8. f4 Qd7?!
This is a bit unusual and committal, since it largely immobilizes the Be6, making it vulnerable to Nf3-g5. Keep in mind that for now, this is Black’s good bishop.
9. Nf3 Nge7 10. O-O O-O
I tend to think more of White’s chances than other people in these kinds of positions. Black’s position is reasonably solid, but White has a natural possibilities of doubling on the f-file and playing Bh6 or even c2-c3/d3-d4 if Black is slow. White’s bishop does not look great at the moment, but exf5 (if Black goes for the usual …f5 break) changes that outlook a bit. Note again that Black’s light-squared bishop is mostly stuck, and the potential loss of that bishop is a problem if he plays …f5.
11. Rf2 Rae8 12. Raf1 f5?!
Black tries this anyway, but the task of defending the light squares (and dark-squares – see later) becomes a long term problem.
13. Ng5 Nd4 14. Nxe6 Nxe6
I’m always a bit hesitant to break this out too early (in this case, rooks will be “traded” quickly) but otherwise Black plays …exf4 himself, unleashing the dark-squared bishop. As it turns out, White has plenty of options left.
15…Bxe5 16. Bh6 Bd4 17. Bxf8 Rxf8 18. Kh1 Bxf2 19. Rxf2
Since a lot of pieces have been traded off and all of Black’s weak points are defended, it looks like there’s a lot less play. But White’s pieces have a lot more potential; Black has to watch out for Nd5, and if the e4 and f5 pawns are traded, Ne4 and the light-squared bishop in general. Perhaps Black would like to trade rooks, but doing that too hastily would allow White’s queen to be too active. Finally, Black has still a number of weak squares – currently defended, but not necessarily in the long term.
19…Ng7 20. Kg1 b6 21. Bh3
Trying to keep Black’s pieces tied down on the f-file and c8-h3 diagonal.
One way to try and activate the queen, but this allows White’s queen an easy way in and now d5 (and e4 if the pawn moves) is a weak point White will try to exploit.
22. exf5! Ngxf5 23. Qf4
23…Rf7 24. Qe5
This immediately threatens 25. Bg2, either winning the d5-pawn or allowing the devastating Ne4 if …d4. Black’s only defense that I can see is to swing back with …Rf7-f8-d8.
24…d4?? 25. Ne4 Nd5
Forced, but White has quite a few ways to finish things off. One is to simply ensure Nf6.
26. c4 dxc3 27. bxc3 Re7 (otherwise, 28. c4) 28. Qxd5+ 1-0
In the end, White won by exploiting the advantages from earlier. This goes to show how advantages that look small and manageable at one time are not necessarily the same later!