Italy has been like a rating haven for me. Can just about claim I’ve found my niche, in a chess tournament context. My first tournament in Italy was almost exactly a year ago: The Ad Gredine Open, in a beautiful area of the Dolomites. That tournament officially began my upward climb, after what was perhaps my longest slump. Finished strongly there, with 2 good wins against GMs.
Since then, I’ve gone back to play in Italy 4 more times, including this most recent one. My relatively worst of the bunch was Rome last December, where I gained 3 points and still played a few strong games! Not quite sure, but maybe in general Italy has a serene feeling to it. Somehow I feel at home there, even if I barely interact with people or speak the language! Last month, I went to a small town in Southern Italy called Gallipoli (wait, isn’t that in Turkey!?) for the Salento Open. It was in the middle of nowhere. When going in my hotel room, I got greeted by the sound of old-fashioned style jazz music playing through a speaker in the bathroom ceiling! Sometimes I woke up to the morning sound of bathroom wall jazz! Not your everyday occurrence. Finished well in the Salento Open after a slow start, tying for third and performing in the FIDE high 24 hundreds while facing mostly very strong IMs and GMs.
My best was yet to come. Most recently I played the Forni di Sopra Open, in another area of the Dolomites (compared to a year ago). An added attraction, which really persuaded me to go was that Ivanchuk was registered. In fact, I’d been told this, during a car ride with the organizer in Salento last month, while talking about future tournaments in Italy . Ivanchuk has been like my long time idol. This World top 30 chess great is very creative and versatile. On good days he beats world champions, on bad days he loses to much lower rated players. I’ve sometimes called myself the Vassily Ivanchuk of IMs or joked about my Ivanchuk-like inconsistencies. So, playing him would be like a dream come true. Lo and behold, I got to play Ivanchuk! More on that later.
In terms of result, I topped it up another notch and scored my 4th GM norm. Having completed my required norms, my problem is of course the rating, being slightly over a hundred points away from the FIDE 2500 promised land. While you can argue that 3 norms was enough, 4 norms can only be better. As GM norms are notoriously tough to get, this was a big accomplishment. It was 4 years since my last norm. I think the important thing is psychologically I feel I have enough norms under my belt for the GM title. It was tougher to truly feel that way, before this 4th norm. Plus, a norm certificate with the name Ivanchuk is priceless.
I’ll divide this tournament report into 3 parts. You can call it opening, middlegame, endgame. This part will cover the first third of the tournament.
The general schedule of this 9 round tournament was one game a day at 4pm. However on the fourth day 6/18 was a double round: 9am and 4pm. This will be covered in my next part. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to get off to a good start. I think ANY tournament player can relate. Sometimes the first round itself can feel like the biggest challenge, even when playing a much lower rated player. Just about every new tournament is some form of adjustment, more so in a foreign country! Was White in the first round against a player rated roughly FIDE 2100. It was a struggle. I was for sure worse somewhere, but managed to come through in the end to win.
At a glance I was just about in the middle of 1 pointers and could go up or down in round 2. All the way up or all the way down, that is the question. I considered playing the top seed Ivanchuk a bit unlikely, as we both had white. Knew there was a slight chance though, as there could’ve been more winners with white (doesn’t white usually win more than black?) so someone would have to get an extra white and that person could very well be me. Sure enough, I got paired against Ivanchuk! I couldn’t believe my eyes, or even look at any chess that night, before going to sleep. Was playing him at the first plausible opportunity, getting an extra white to do so. He could play just about anything, so I didn’t really know what to most expect. Let’s see how the game went. Well this game was NUTS! It was a real nail biter. My attempted annotations won’t do it justice or provide anything near a comprehensive overview of what was going on. I’ll just try to shed some light. We can both be very original players and in that sense, this game failed to disappoint. Just sit back, fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ride.
IM Justin Sarkar (ELO 2366) – GM Vassily Ivanchuk (ELO 2691) [E72] 10th Forni di Sopra (2), 16.06.2019
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.g3?! This rare move is the Pomar system. White has an array of lines to choose against the Kings Indian and this move is only the 9th most common according to Chess Base. I feel inclined to label it as dubious, as objectively speaking black seems to have more than one way to equalize whereas just about any other mainstream choice against the Kings Indian is a more serious fight for the advantage. Another thing is that if white really wants to try this system, a slightly more accurate move order against the Kings Indian is 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.Nc3 d6 6.e4, for reasons that will become apparent. This nuance I failed to appreciate. A bigger issue is that in general, avoiding mainstream theory when white against a much higher rated player (who very likely wants to beat you, right?) is usually a mistake. This actually cost me later in the tournament. I’ll elaborate on this topic in the next part(s). Somehow I know these things yet lately have been defying them a bit too many times. Have to practice what I preach. Actually there were emotional reasons here for my choice, relating to ECO codes. There are 5 hundred ECO codes, ranging from A00-E99. I’ll have to elaborate another time on my interest in ECO codes and their classifications, but for now say that sometime last summer I carefully researched Ivanchuk’s over 4 thousand published games collection to note what ECO codes were missing from his tournament practice. E72 was one of them. I decided going into the game I’d get a kick out of playing a mutually new ECO code if possible. In that sense, E72 fit the bill perfectly. E72 is defined by the move 5.g3 as I played. It was also something I recently wanted to try anyhow. My opening play here though, left something to be desired. Let’s see what happened: c5!? My move 5 surprise made him think for 4 minutes, then uncork this interesting alternative to the automatic castling. Already we have a case for the aforementioned 3.g3 move order being more accurate. It sidesteps such alternatives to castling. Whereas here, 5…0-0 6.Bg2 would transpose to that Fianchetto with 6.e4 position I gave. 6.d5 b5!?
Played after 6 minutes of thought. Must confess I failed to consider this Benko Gambit attempt. Now white should just play ball and play pawn takes pawn, not being worse with an extra pawn in a standard type of Benko Gambit position after 7.cb5 a6 (or 0-0). However, wanting to be original I got overly creative and after 6 minutes decided on something that “looked interesting”. 7.e5?! In reality this is just asking for trouble. de5 He took 32 minutes on this obvious capture, which I think gave me a false sense of security 8.Nxb5 Ne4!? Played instantly. I failed to even consider it. Probably not even the objectively strongest move, yet it tempted me to do something that was just bad, in attempt to “justify my play”. 9.d6?!!? Not even sure how to annotate this move. Objectively bad, yet with some practical value given the murky nature of the position. But Black is really going to be in control, as will be apparent. My brain just wasn’t working and I was shaking off bad form, in this game itself! Just did something after about 15 minutes thought that looked interesting and “might work”, without being able to properly calculate the consequences. Qa5+ 10.Ke2
Don’t try this at home. I realized that on 10.Bd2 if he trades everything on d2 even at the price of an exchange sac on a8 for a pawn, I’m not better to say the least. After the king move I had little clue what’s going on and was somehow just hoping my threats would give enough play. Bb7 He took 10 minutes on this 11.Nc7+ Kd7
And 7 minutes on this. By now though, it dawned on me that I could seriously be worse despite taking the exchange, maybe even in trouble. Still, totally crazy position! Not one you see too often. Talk about original players. Tough to come up with general guidelines in this position. “Develop your pieces”. “Control the center”. “Have a plan”. “Try to take pieces”. “Don’t hang pieces”. Those are just some things that come to mind. I actually had to use the murky nature of the position in attempt to keep finding resources when things got critical. Objectively speaking, things have gone horribly wrong. Think I was still a bit blissfully ignorant of how bad things actually were. 12.Nf3 Can’t quite understand why I took 13 minutes on this and chose not to take on a8 first, though it should amount to the same thing after 12.Nxa8 Nxd6 13.Nf3, etc. Was still ahead on the clock though. Actually I think his time pressure later on saved me. Nxd6 He took 5 minutes on this (13…Nc6 is also possible). 13.Nxa8 Nc6 another 4 minutes on this. 14.Bg2 e4! This move really takes control of the position. 15.Nd2 This retreat is the least of the evils. Nd4+ 16.Kf1 Rxa8 17.h4! Perhaps the best try in a dire situation, to make some luft. White might sometimes have slight hopes of activating the rook. f5! 18.h5 Else …h5 felt positionally crushing. g5
19.Nb3 A desperate attempt to untangle, at the cost of a pawn. Inserting first 19.h6 Bf6 was probably more accurate. Nxb3 20.Qxb3 Ba6 I anticipated this. 21.Qd1 Bxc4+ But he took 5 minutes on this, and now has under 6 minutes (plus 30 second increment per move) to reach move 40. 22.Kg1 While I have 29 minutes. Bd3 23.h6 Bf6 23…Bd4! was stronger, and pretty much winning. I’ll take the machine’s word for it. 24.Bd2 Qb5 25.Bc3 My Bd2 followed by Bc3 was the relatively best try in a grim situation. I was actually expecting him to take on c3, followed by something like 26…Qb2. Rb8!? 26.Bxf6 ef6 27.b3 c4
28.bc4 28.Rc1 was a better try. Nxc4? 28…Qxc4 was stronger and virtually winning, though it’s tough to grasp such nuances without a machine. 29.Bf1 Took about 13 minutes on this and got down to 7 minutes. 29.g4!? was possible. I was worried about 29…Qc5 with idea 30…Rb2 but overlooked my drawing resource 30.Rh3! So maybe, some other queen move for black. Still, if I was unsure about 29.g4, 29.Bf1 was the right move to play. This trade is useful in attempt to free my position. Ne5 He was down to 3 minutes 30.Bxd3 Perhaps immediately 30.Qb3! ed3 31.Qb3!
A very important resource, to trade queens. d2 32.Rd1? It was stronger to take on b5: 32.Qxb5+ Rxb5 33.Kf1 with drawing chances. Maybe I felt the open a-file would help me, even if it meant sacking a pawn on b3. Qxb3 33.ab3 Nf3+ He had 1 minute here 34.Kg2 While I had 4. White must avoid 34.Kf1? Re8! Rxb3? This natural move, capturing a pawn while defending the knight, was actually a mistake, not readily apparent. Black should play 34…g4! This move gets priority. I didn’t realize it either. With the black rook able to go places like e8, white is trapped. Actually the best is to give back the exchange with 35.Rxd2+ Nxd2 36.Rd1 but after …Rxb3 37.Rxd2+ Ke6 38.Ra2 Kf7 39.Rxa7+ Kg6 followed by taking on h6 black should be able to untangle in the rook and pawn ending and make the 2 extra pawns tell. If I can pinpoint one missed win by him, this is it. Note he was down to a minute to reach move 40, and taking the pawn seemed very natural. Actually it was less important. So I guess my pawn served as a decoy. 35.Ra1 Ne1+?! Stronger was the immediate 35…Ra3! The rook is taboo due to 36…Ne1+ followed by queening, and 36.Rb1 is essentially forced. On 36.Rd1? Black can just play something like …a5. 36.Kf1 Ra3!
37.Rd1 37.Rb1 is an alternative but going to d1 and gaining a tempo hitting the d2-pawn makes lots of sense. Nf3 38.Ke2 Ke6 A better try was 38…g4. Now 39.Rb1 and some move, not sure what exactly. After his time pressure move, I suddenly equalize. 39.Rb1!
Don’t fall for 39.Ra1?? Nd4+ 40.Kxd2 Rxa1 followed by …Nb3+ but 39.Rb1 puts the rook on a nice open file and creates enough counterplay. Little did I realize, I’ve now officially equalized. Actually the evaluation will remain stuck at 0.00 for pretty much the rest of the game. At the board things felt a bit scary though. g4 40.Rhd1 Or 40.Rb7!? Kf7 41.Rb7+ Kg6 42.Rh1
I got tempted by 42.Rg7+? Kxh6 43.Rg8 trying to set up a mating net, but this is just asking for trouble after 43…Ng5! d1/Q+ I was kind of expecting him to promote to a bishop! Chucky has been known to show this type of humor. I’d have to take anyway, as 43.Kf1?? would be refuted by …f4! 43.Rxd1 Ng5 44.Rdd7 a6 45.Rb6 a5 46.Ra6 Ra2+ 47.Rd2 Ra4 48.Rd5 Re4+ 49.Kf1 Nf3 50.Rd1
A very important resource, guarding the first rank. Actually spent awhile looking at 50.Kg2?? Re1 and now stalemate ideas involving 51.Rd1 Rxd1 52.Rxf6+ but they simply fall short. Re5 51.Kg2 Ne1+ 52.Kf1 Have a feeling taking on e1 followed by a5 is good enough to hold (with the idea 53…Re5 54.Ra6), but of course completely unnecessary to say the least. Nf3 53.Kg2 a4 54.Ra1 Ne1+ 55.Kf1 Nf3 56.Kg2 And here, finally he offered the draw. The move 56…Re8 as shown online, was not actually played. Maybe such move got registered when resetting the pieces. In any case, the game is completely equal. Incidentally, clock times after each move are stored in the Live Chess Cloud. It helped me to go back to check it for the time situation.
Crazy game! This was quite a save, against such World legend, from a very bad position. I think my game with Ivanchuk set the tone. By the way, one thing about playing someone like that (and a tournament like this in general) is that both your strengths and weaknesses can become more apparent. It felt though like I was still shaking off bad form, in this game itself! But anyway, I’d have to overall feel satisfied with my defensive efforts to salvage such a draw against such caliber GM. As I’ve had various issues with time pressure, it was something to actually be saved by his time pressure. Or at least, it felt a bit like that. Overall, I hope you enjoyed the game!
Round 3 I actually “played down”, with black against a rising Indian junior rated FIDE 2205. He’d beaten a GM in round 1 and of course I knew had to be taken very seriously. All I can say is that the game was pretty equal and I was kind of expecting a draw any moment but he made an unforced error in time pressure around move 30, followed by a losing blunder by move 40. So I just had to take the win I was given.
Was off to a great start with 2.5/3 and my next task was to get past the double round the next day with a 9AM 4th round. As I began with a double white, I was due black again in round 4. Was paired against a high rated young Indian IM (close to FIDE 2500). Stay tuned for the next part!