It’s always interesting to go back in my personal games database and look at some old games of mine. It brings back good and bad memories and highlights how much things have changed. The other day I revisited a game from 2014, when I was rated around 2150. At the time, I thought it had been a very nice game, except for a small theoretical slip-up. Upon taking a closer look, I found that that wasn’t exactly the case…
In this French, I had sacrificed an exchange on f3 as black to reach this position. Back in those days, I was a bit of a chicken, and sacrificing an exchange was about as “wild” as I’d generally go. In this position, black has two pawns for the exchange in the form of a central pawn mass. Black’s rook on c8 is nicely placed, his knight on g6 is temporarily guarding the h7-pawn, and his queen can easily hop into the action. Meanwhile, white’s queen is fairly active, white’s h3-rook looks strange but it’s useful, and his a1-rook will join the game pretty quickly. Black’s plan is to play …e5, with ideas of e4, Nf4, piling up on the c2-pawn, etc. If white sits back and does nothing, things could turn sour for him very quickly.
Looking at this position today, it seems pretty natural that white should generate counterplay. He doesn’t have to perform an all-out attack on the king; he can just keep an eye on it. This could be accomplished with a move like 18.Rf1. 18… e5 could quickly turn into a disaster after 19.Qf5!. Black will probably play 18… Qb6 instead, but after a move like Rf2, Kh1, Rg3, etc. white is doing all right. Black will most likely not get away with 19… Qxb2, and it really isn’t clear what he will do next.
My opponent played 18.Re1, which is a pretty natural move, though it isn’t best. I replied with 18… Qb6. Then came 19.Rb1?.
This is a move that sets alarm bells off in my IM brain. What really surprises me is that I didn’t make any comment about this move in my notes. 19.Rb1 defends the b2-pawn, but is that a serious issue in the first place? if white say plays 19.Kh1? If 19… Qxb2, white has 20.Qe2 Nf8 21.Rf3, generating counterplay against the black king. One critical resource to spot here is that 21… Qxc2?? loses to 22.Rxf8+! Kxf8 23.Qxe6 Qc4 24.Kg1. White doesn’t even have to play like this. Alternatives include 19.Rf3 and 19.Rf1 (yes, this does waste a tempo compared to 18.Rf1, but it’s still fine for white), after both of which 19… Qxb2 is actually bad for black. Black could play 19… e5 instead, but after 20.Qf5!, white’s counterplay is coming just in time. Another thing to point out is that playing 18.Re1 on the previous move, white is moving his rook right back to the awe-inspiring square of b1 in response to a reasonable move from black (18… Qb6). Wasting a tempo can’t be good, and the white rook will be doomed to babysitting the pawn.
To summarize 19.Rb1: no, no, no, and NO!!!
I naturally wanted to play 19… e5, but I was worried about 20.Rxh7 Kxh7 21.Qh3+, hitting the rook on c8. What I missed was that I actually don’t have to recapture on h7; I can go, for instance, 20… Nf4 21.Qf5 d3+ 22.Kh1 Rxc2, with a totally winning position. My d-pawn is close to queening, white’s king is suddenly shaky, and white’s attack is nonexistent.
Instead, I played 19… Qc5?. Now I’m protecting the c8-rook in those variations and am “attacking” the c2-pawn. However, this is a mistake that gives white a second chance to activate his rook. If white simply moves the rook away with 20.Rf1!, 20… Qxc2 is no longer a threat on account of 21.Qxd4. And if black plays 20… e5 instead, he’ll be met with 21.Qf5! where white is clearly getting serious counterplay. My opponent instead played 20.Rc1?, another bad move. I replied with 20… e5 and got my pawn mass rolling. After 21.Kh1 e4 22.Qd2 d3 black is already winning. My opponent tried to generate counterplay with 23.Qg5, but I played 23… d4 24.Qg4 d2 25.Qe6+ Kh8 26.Rf1 Qc4 27.Qf5
Wow, those pawns really are rolling. Comparing this to the starting position, it’s fairly clear that white has lost a gigantic amount of ground without getting anything real in return. I finished the game off with an elegant trick: 27… Qxf1+! 28.Qxf1 Rxc2. White has a queen for a knight and three pawns, but he is helpless in preventing 29… Rc1. Not bad! My opponent resigned.
After the game, I really liked my play. True, the ending where my pawns were rolling down the board was picturesque, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. One thing which strikes me now is how wrong my 2014 notes to the game were. Yes, it was nice to live in the bubble that this game had been a masterpiece and that my position had been good all along. I think I didn’t understand that the position is, in reality, around equal. I’ve had a few other such “masterpieces,” where my play was far from brilliant and where my opponents greatly helped my cause.
- Don’t judge a position by its cover. Yes, that position was easier to play for black, but white wasn’t helpless against black’s great plans.
- Don’t just sit there and wait for your opponent to execute his plan. Try to mix things up. If it looks like you will get steamrolled if you do nothing, you should try to generate some counterplay ASAP.
- Try not to be passive. In this case, white should have tried to keep his rook active instead of dooming it to eternal babysitting with Rb1 and Rc1.
- Don’t automatically recapture pieces. We all do it, but once you figure out that things aren’t so good after recapturing, look for alternatives. When I was looking at lines with Rxh7, I was always recapturing Kxh7 and didn’t realize that I’m winning after Nf4.