Coming up Short in Complex Positions

A little over a week ago I had a nice showing at the PA State Chess Championship, going 3.5/5. I had my highest ever performance rating of almost 2350, drew my first 2300+ opponent and my actual rating went up a solid 54 points to 2072. I am obviously quite happy with these results, however today I am going to focus on a few games from the weeks leading up to this tournament. I am convinced that these three games were indicators that I was capable of performing at a high level and also have made me a stronger player.

In each of these three games, I was either objectively winning  or much better, yet only scored a half point total. This as you can imagine, lead to some frustration, when for three straight tournaments I lost rating points, despite playing quality chess. Although I have, of course, messed up winning positions before, these games stick out to me for the following reasons:

  1. They all occurred within three weeks of each other.
  2. None of these games were lost due to a grossly obvious blunder on my part.

Now without further ado, below are the games I was referring to, along with analysis of key positions. If you are interested in seeing the full games with some extra analysis, a link will be given at the end of the article.

Game 1: Black vs Nabil Feliachi (2140)

This game was played during round 3 of the PA State G75 Championship. I couldn’t complain about how the tournament was going (I lost a close game to FM Gabriel Petesch and won a comfortable game against an 1850). My opponent played an interesting opening where he gambited a pawn for an open b-file, much like a reverse Benko gambit. However, I was able to trade off a couple minor pieces and I liked the position I had.

Me vs Felliachi

Feliachi-Holzmueller after 20…Qxf3

Here  black is up a pretty healthy pawn. White’s pieces do not appear to be any better than black’s and both kings are relatively safe. Granted, white has open a and b files, and extra space on the kingside , but I do not think it should be enough for a pawn in this case. In the game, however, white tried to exploit their space advantage by opening the h file and attacking me. This eventually lead to a position where I was objectively winning, but where there was potential for complications.

Me vss Feliachi 35

Feliachi-Holzmueller after 35…Bc3

In this position I had to makethe choice between two appealing but different options. In the game I chose to play 35…Nc6 in an attempt to win the knight on d6 (notice that 36…e5 would be met by 36…Nxe5 due to the pin on the f file). However, even though I ended up winning a piece and got an objectively winning position, I wish I had instead played 35…Qxd6. Where after 36. Bxd4  Bxd4  37. Qxd4  Rxf4 black is up at least two pawns and white’s king is in constant danger. Not only was this practically easier considering I was in time pressure, but it was also the objectively better line. I eventually went on to lose this game on time, but by that point the position had become unclear.

Game 2: Black vs Adrian Benton (1835)

This game took place in the last round of the US Amateur Team East Tournament (USATE). My team had an opportunity to finish the tournament with a positive score and winning would gain me significant rating points. Like the first game, my opponent played an unusual opening which lead to the position below.

Holzmueller V Benton

Benton-Holzmueller after 15… d4

My opponent in an attempt to open the center, played the move 15… d4? which is a healthy idea. However, can you figure out why this move fails tactically? The answer can be found in the link provided at the end of this article.

After this tactical sequence,  we reached a position that, objectively,  is completely winning for black. Unfortunately, due to the material imbalance, these positions are not always trivial to win.

Holzmueller v Benton move 22

Benton-Holzmueller after 22…cxd4

Although I am up a queen, white has a rook and knight for it.  White’s king is completely secure, whereas mine is under the direct watch of white’s light squared bishop, and potentially the white knight. To compound the problem, white’s minor pieces are all coordinated towards a common goal: putting pressure on my kingside. On the other hand, I have a bishop on b3 which is attacking a weak queenside pawn, a rook on a8 doing absolutely nothing, and a queen on c7, which will become a much better piece when I consolidate. My only good piece is my bishop on g7, which  neutralizes white’s dark squared bishop. So why is this objectively winning?

Two reasons:

  1. If I play accurately I will be able to defend my king and improve my pieces.
  2. My queenside pawn majority will at some point pose white too many problems.

Me vs Benton 26

Benton-Holzmueller after 26…Re3

I followed reason 1, relatively well, but fell short on reason 2. In the position above, considering the two reasons I mentioned above, what would be black’s most logical move here? The move I played here instead was 26…Bf8?, with the idea of putting some pressure on the a7-g1 diagonal. However, as mentioned earlier this piece is probably best suited to neutralize white’s dark squared bishop.

After some inaccurate play by both sides (see the link for a more detailed analysis) we reached the position below.

ME vs Benton critical

Benton-Holzmueller after 32…Nxf7

With ten minutes on my clock I played the natural 32…Qxf7?? which changes my position from winning to losing. Why is this move losing, and can you figure out the best way for black to win this position? The solution will be in the link provided.

Game 3: Black vs Evan Park (1892)

This game was played on a Sunday match in the Pittsburgh Chess League. My opponent was a talented nine year old who has been playing USCF rated tournaments for less than two years! This took place the week after a slightly disappointing USATE tournament (due mostly to the game above) and I was hoping to get back on track. During the first stages of the game I was feeling fairly confident, because my opponent had played a sub-optimal line in the Maroczy Bind and allowed me to equalize easily. However, after the opening I ended up settling for an opposite colored bishop ending.

Me vs PArk 21 (2)

Park-Holzmueller after 21…bxa5

Although this position is far from winning, the fact that black’s bishop is far stronger than white’s certainly favors me. While black has just sacrificed a pawn, white’s extra a5 pawn is incredibly weak and will be won back whenever black wants. Therefore, it would be logical  to play 21…Ra8 which focuses on activating the rooks and also threatens the a5 pawn. Unfortunately, in the game I rejected this variation because I did not want to trade off my b pawn for white’s weak a pawns (21…Ra8 22. Rb1  Rxa5 23. Rxb7  Rxa2). Considering the amount of activity my rooks would have gotten, though, this would have been the most challenging variation. I instead opted for 21…Bc3 which won back the a pawn, but made it more difficult to activate my rooks. In fact, eventually white’s rooks became active and I had to be careful not to lose!

ME vs Park 41

Park-Holzmueller after 41…Rxf5

In order to decrease white’s play I decided to temporarily sacrifice my pawn on f5 and trade off a pair of rooks. After 41…Rxf5 42. Bxf5  Bf6 43. Re4  Ra7 44.  Re3 Ra4 45. Rb3  Bd4 46…Bd3 we reached a critical position.

Me vs Park 46

Park-Holzmueller after 46…Bd3

Here, I saw that I could win the pawn back by playing 46…Bc5 and then reach an easily drawing ending. While this is the most natural idea, I was able to find an idea that kept more winning chances and actually gives white a lot of trouble. What was this idea?

My opponent was able to find a very clever defensethat forced me to trade my powerful bishop for his bad bishop. This eventually lead to the following position; the last point in the game where I had any winning chances.

Me vs Park Last winning chance

Park-Holzmueller after 54…Rf4+

In this position I was getting into a little time pressure and quickly played 54…Re4? which I wrongly thought was winning. Why does this move lead to an easy draw for white?

Moving Forward

While none of these three games yielded me the results I wanted to see, I learned a lot from them and they were all interesting to play and analyze. I hope you found them interesting as well.  Let me leave you with this final thought. Do not worry too much about your results, and instead focus on playing good chess, learning from each game you play, and most importantly, enjoying the fascinating game of chess. If you follow this strategy, your desired results will follow.

And here is the link to my analysis of the three games: