Opening Evolution: Nakamura’s Rb1

Back in late 2015, I made the argument that despite his record against Magnus, Hikaru Nakamura was the player most in form going into the Candidates Tournament. I even boldly went so far to claim he would beat Magnus in a match with the way he played that year. Things didn’t pan out as a slow start in Moscow put a kibosh on Nakamura’s Challenger aspirations, but it is worth mentioning that shortly after the Candidates he did net his first win against Carlsen in Bilbao.

While Hikaru’s current standing among the world elite won’t be the focus of today’s article, I did want to revisit a game I analyzed in my aforementioned article.

An Opening Reborn: 8. Rb1

Millionaire Chess 2 pitted Nakamura against young Grandmaster Sam Sevian early, in which we reached our tabiya for today.

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Nakamura–Sevian, after 8. Rb1

If you aren’t familiar with the game, you should quickly look over it here, as it will give you an idea as to White’s main ideas in this line. This win was particularly attractive for me as an English player, and for a short time, I even incorporated it in my opening repertoire.

The underlying idea is pretty simple! With an early b2-b4 thrust, White intends to make Black choose between a having a weaker center, or letting White expand quickly on the queenside. If Black isn’t familiar with White’s ideas, these positions are quite dangerous. I remember a particularly euphoric win I had on chess.com against WGM Camilla Baginskaite (granted it was bullet, but the quality of chess was reasonable), after which I decided that this move 8. Rb1 was a legitimate weapon and sideline.

A year removed from this game, its been really interesting to see how Black’s play has evolved at the Grandmaster level, and I thought the development of this line would make for a fascinating conversation today. For such a minor sideline to evolve so quickly, I can only imagine the headache it is to catch up with Najdorf or Grünfeld theory!

Origin Story: 8…g5!?

As the last sub-title suggests, 8. Rb1 was not Nakamura’s creation – in fact, Kasparov even played it in 2001! However, Nakamura’s win against Sevian (and later Topalov) played a huge role in its return to prominence. So why did this line disappear among Super GMs in the first place? White’s plan seemed so easy – why would English players not play 8. Rb1? My best guess is because of the complications the crazy move 8…g5?! caused.

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With his rook still on h8, Black intends to punish White for castling so early!

There’s actually quite a number of games here. Black’s intent is to quickly throw everything at the kingside and punish White for a slow 8. Rb1. This line was first really fashioned in 1993 in a clash between then top Grandmasters, Grigory Serper and Viktor Kortschnoj. Kotschnoj blew White off the board, and this move 8…g7-g5 really took off from there. I did a quick search by ChessBase in this line by Black’s rating, and was amazed by Black’s results.

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So it makes some sense that 8. Rb1 went out of fashion – this move really gave White a headache. But there’s a story untold here – Black’s wins in this line for the most part predate the development of super computers like Stockfish and Houdini.

I took a quick look at the Almasi-Wang game played in 2011, and White managed to solve his opening problems (though his game was spoiled later on – perhaps thanks to the rapid time control). Since this game, 8…g5 has been played only ten times, with White scoring a splendid 7.5/10.

Black Starts Digging with 8…a5

Nakamura has most certainly looked at 8…g5, and for him to play 8. Rb1 means that he’s found something satisfactory for White as well. While this sideline had been played by GMs prior to Nakamura, his games accelerated the evolution of this line. As we see below, many of the strongest players who tried their hand at 8. Rb1 tried it after 2015, this putting it in the brief spotlight of Grandmaster level chess.

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So what can Black do? As we’ve seen in each of these games so far, Black failed to come up with an intuitive solution to 8. Rb1 and was punished for it. However, with 8. Rb1 starting to catch the eyes of strong players, it didn’t take long to find Oleg Romanishin’s tries in 1993 – 8…a5!

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Black plays the simplest move to stop b2-b4!

This move simply asks White why the rook is on b1! This is the most simple move for Black, and moves us to the next chapter of opening evolution. Luckily for us, this move was featured three times in the Paris leg of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, starting with Topalov’s try against Nakamura.

Topalov’s idea of simplifications in the center backfired, leaving the American a position where he could play for two results. Vesilin actually liked this game so much he tried 8. Rb1 as White later in the same tournament against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and won! We’ll get to that game later as it will be the starting point of a future chapter.

Remedy?

Unfortunately for me,  I did not learn about 8…a5 through this game, but rather three months earlier in an over the board game against my Pitt teammate John Ahlborg!

John hadn’t studied this 8…a5 line, but found it over the board and the game was smooth sailing for him from there. After the tournament, I started looking into this 8…a5 line and decided to stop playing 8. Rb1 entirely. It’s a great weapon against someone unfamiliar with theory, but with a little time, there’s not reason a strong player can’t find 8…a5 and play from there.

Of course, opening theory evolves beyond my understanding, and its been an interesting journey to watch how 8. Rb1 progressed. Just ten days before I played John in the Pittsburgh Open, Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky neutralized White playing 8..a5, and needless to say, had I analyzed this game, I would have reconsidered playing 8. Rb1 in my own game.

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Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky

Trades on b6, a Last Gasp?

Now we’ve seen 8..a5 a few times, it would be easy (like I did) to dismiss the 8. Rb1 line altogether, but one of the great things about opening evolution is that Grandmasters are always looking into new ideas!

In each of the losses against 8…a5, White tried Bxb6 at some point, giving up the bishop pair for control of the b5 square. Topalov, as I briefly mentioned before, also tried this idea but with a lot more success against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave!

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Topalov may not have had a stellar event in Paris, but taking a play out of Nakamura’s book got him a crucial win!

Black seemed powerless in that game! The novelty MVL came up with 11…Qd7 hardly challenged White, and the game quickly went into a lost endgame. So perhaps giving up the bishop pair for control of b5 is the right approach! Of course Black had some solutions too, and when a nearly 2600-rated  Grandmaster went for 8. Rb1 against Sergey Karjakin in the recent World Blitz Championships in Doha, Karjakin quickly put an end to the shenanigans.

Conclusions

I think this 8. Rb1 line is a fun line to try, especially in shorter time controls, but having played it myself, I don’t think I would advise it as a primary weapon. As we’ve seen through the evolution of this line, whenever Black’s found ideas to slow down White’s play, its become difficult for White to find ways to improve the position.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-11-51-54Objectively, I think White surrenders his opening advantage if Black plays 8…a5. At some point the rook will have to move from b1, costing White a critical tempo, as a b2-b4 push is no longer really possible.

On principle alone, we could say this violates moving the same piece twice, and White therefore fails to maintain the initiative. This is not necessarily to say that 8. Rb1 is a bad move – just not the most effective when trying to prove an advantage against 2000+ rated players. While I’m sure White may come up with new ideas in the future with this line, Black will always have solutions given his extra tempo in development.

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Blocking Out Distractions, Beating the Karpov System

This past weekend’s Pittsburgh Chess League match-up was certainly an interesting test for me. With an opportunity to break 2100 again and tally another point for the University of Pittsburgh team, I had had this day circled on my calendar since the conclusion of the Pennsylvania G/60 State Championships.

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Studying at the 61 Cent Cafe in Squirrel Hill!

Admittedly, the week leading up to my match-up was by no means optimal. Having fallen ill earlier in the week, I had to miss a few classes – meaning that I would spend the rest of the week catching up on homework and missed notes. Furthermore, with three midterms coming up, chess hadn’t exactly been at the forefront of my attention, so my preparation wasn’t just limited, it was almost non-existent. Thus understandably, I was extremely nervous for what was shaping up to be the single most important game so far this school year.

Things weren’t looking any better hours before the game when my chess.com Tactics Trainer rating took a nose-dive from 2700 to mid-2600 and I was still feeling tired despite multiple cups of coffee. So now what? Over what must have been my fifth coffee that morning, I laid out a plan that would put me in the ideal position to play to the best of my ability:

  1. Throw deep opening preparation out of the window! For some players, this may sound like torture, but knowing I had White I knew I could dictate the pace of the game. By eliminating the need for deep memorization with safe principled play, I rid myself opportunities to make unforced errors out of the opening.
  2. Play safe, avoid tactical complications. I had no idea who I would be paired against, but knowing that my team would need me to win, I decided it would a better idea to try to win my positional means rather than tactical ones. That’s not to say I wanted to eliminate tactics completely, it just meant I was looking for ways to get a safe edge – space, development, structural strength … which brings me to my last point.
  3. Stop all counterplay. This has proven to be an effective way for me to play in recent years when not feeling 100%, so it was natural to go back to this style of play. This method is incredibly effective against players under 2000, and proved to be an important theme in this game.

With this in mind, I was somewhat more comfortable with the idea of playing. I was still a little worried, but I knew at the very least, I would have a reason to take my mind off the stresses of school, so I tried my best to relax the last hour before the game.

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Closing moments of the October edition of the Pittsburgh Chess League. Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

I got paired against Jeff Schragin, a strong amateur from the area, and a player I have now faced four times since moving to Pittsburgh last year. While I was a favorite to win, Schragin had put the only real ding in my G/60 performance just a few weeks before, outplaying me most of the game before settling on a draw and effectively removing me from serious prize contention. Now with White and in a much longer time control, I had a chance to get my revenge in a relatively important league match.

I was pleasantly surprised when my opponent opted for the Karpov System against me. While it may have a relatively safe reputation for Black, in the hands of an unprepared player it can prove too much to handle, as the many positional subtleties can make the game fun for White, and not so much for Black. I covered this set-up in a video I made last year after the Pennsylvania G/29 State Championships, and if you missed it, you can catch up to speed here:

So needless to say, I got the exact kind of position I wanted that I had laid out in my game plan. Despite all the external distractions prior to the game to go wrong and lose, I maneuvered, created a positional bind, and won a nice game. While it was by no means a perfect performance, I was certainly a happy player after the three and a half hour fight.

Well, what’s next? The official Pennsylvania State Chess Championship is at the end of the month, and luckily for me, I’ll have two weeks after my last midterm to be fully prepared for this tournament (and hopefully get some sleep too!). While this past weekend’s result was encouraging and certainly builds off the momentum from last month’s performance, I still have some room for improvement and a lot to play for going forward.

Why the French is Failing in Baku

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Who do you think will take gold in this Olympiad?

As some of you may know, the 2016 Chess Olympiad started last week in Baku, Azerbaijan. Though most of the drama has yet to occur, the first few days of the competition have offered many mismatches, which means plenty of great and not-so-great trends to start out the tournament. While I’m sure you may be able to find a couple, one theme that both I and National Master Franklin Chen have discussed has been how the French has not performed well at all up to this point in the Olympiad.

While I am by no means a 1. e4 player or expert on the French, I decided to tackle this theme as a personal challenge to understand why the French can be seen as strategically risky and why it seldom makes the top flight games. To first layout this article I think I should differentiate between a strategically risky opening and a bad opening.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 00.14.52If you think about the French for a second, while it aims to push …d7-d5, it voluntarily allows White to claim full control over the center with pawns on both e4 and d4. More importantly, as many French players can relate, the c8 bishop is often referred to as the “bad French bishop”, because in many lines, it struggles to find daylight and have a meaningful role in the position.

This doesn’t make the French a bad opening, as many great players have tried their hand with it as Black at some point, it just means that someone playing 1…e6 should be aware of the fact that they are giving up more static factors than 1…e5 for dynamic play on the queenside. However, thanks to the recent development of engines, many of these dynamic lines can be thoroughly analyzed at home, and thus we see the French fashioned less at the Grandmaster level than in amateur level games.

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Was Wei Yi’s win because of tactics or bad opening play? (courtesy: chess24)

I’m willing to bet that if you have been seriously following the Olympiad, you have already seen the game played by Wei Yi in the first round against Kosovo. However, rather than looking at the game for entertainment from the Chinese wonder kid, let’s try to see what went wrong for Black.

So was this just a question of bad preparation? I do get the impression that perhaps Black quickly looked over a similar position with an engine and thought he could equalize. For most French players, spending this early move, 3…a6 is not to everyone’s liking as the tempo put Black permanently behind in development. Luckily enough for us, Women’s Grandmaster Katerina Nemcova had an opportunity to display here how …c5-c4 can also cause problems in the Women’s Olympiad without the inclusion of this move.

David Howell has been 2700 before, but can he stay there and make a jump over countryman Michael Adams?

Sure, two round 1 mismatches should not be significant towards our understanding of an opening. However, it was a place to start for this article, and to be seen by two 1800+ rated players at the Olympiad – well, I hope you can see how I felt obligated to discuss this …c5-c4 push! For the next three games, we’ll be looking at space-grabbing variations – meaning that rather than capturing on d5 (which is not to everyone’s liking!), White pushes in the center and forces Black to prove something for the bad bishop and space deficit. In round 2, David Howell, one of my favorite players, demonstrates this in a beautiful win over Indonesia.

So here we saw how when White leaves Black with no target on d4, the position quickly becomes difficult to play and White is the one continuing to press for space. While we have found some small improvements for Black in each game so far, we have yet to really see a position where Black can find serious dynamic resources to make up for slow development or a space deficit, reinforcing the fact that the French is strategically risky. I mentioned that Black could try …f7-f6 against Howell instead of breaking the center, but Canadian Grandmaster Bareev tried this against Mickey Adams, only to reach a similar fate. Take note of how Black still has problems in development, but also suffers from poor structure and king safety!

Will Karjakin get a chance to play Magnus one last time before the World Chess Championships?

I hope so far you’re starting to see a pattern. In each of these four games, Black has failed to find dynamic resources and paid the price for playing a strategically risky opening. That is not to say that the French is a bad opening – it has lots of well-established theory and a history of being played in many important games. It’s just that in each of these cases Black failed to “prove” anything whereas against 1…e5, usually it’s up to White to “prove” he has something. This burden of proof is what makes the French inherently risky, and why principled novelties could prove as more detrimental to Black than White in an over the board game.

I want to leave today’s post with a game Franklin shared with me that I had completely missed, but I think reinforces the theme that against these top level players, the French is perhaps not the best option against 1. e4. In the third round Austria-Jamaica match, Markus Ragger showed us we were forgetting one more thing about the French – the bad c8 bishop. Against the Jamaican FIDE Master, Ragger built an “aquarium” around b7, and the bishop never saw daylight as White’s pair of knights danced around Black’s position.

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Aside from trying 1. e3 in his first game, Carlsen’s start to the tournament has been rather quiet with draws in the next two subsequent rounds.

Again, here is another seemingly well-versed player in the French unable to demonstrate its prowess over-the-board. I think it’s really easy at home to passively look at these positions with an engine and believe that Black should be more or less okay with perfect play – but is it realistic to know all of these positions by heart for a tournament? I hardly think so. Black gives up a lot in the opening, the center, development, and in the case of a few games today, king safety – from a human perspective, it’s really difficult to hold the equality when White just makes fundamentally sound moves. It especially hurts when you’re playing the French against a top-class player in the Olympiad! All of these factors explain why fans of the French maybe a little unhappy.

While this article is about the French – we won’t be talking about THE French. I think France has a good chance at being a serious dark horse contender to medal, and wouldn’t be surprised if they snatch bronze in Baku.

So what does this mean if you play the French? Well chances are, you aren’t representing your country and playing the likes of Ragger and Adams right now, so for the most part, your opponents likely are not familiar with these lines for White. So on that note, you’re probably safe – you just need to have a really strong theoretical understanding and a good sense of the static/dynamic balance in the position. Notice how in each of the five losses we analyzed today, all of Black’s troubles stemmed from a position where the pawn structure could change – whether it was Black playing …c5-c4 to avoid the IQP, or challenging the d4 and e5 pawns to justify giving up the center. Based on what I’ve seen writing this article (keep in mind I play neither side of the French), it would appear that to play 1…e6, Black must be ready to handle many different pawn structures, and be flexible as the direction of a game changes. Whether or not this is for you, I can certainly not be the judge.

I’ll certainly be on the look out for more French in Baku, and I hope you do too!

 

The Muzio Gambit

Pawn sacrifices in openings are relatively common. Piece sacrifices are rare. Multiple piece sacrifices are so rare; they must be valuable, like a Liberty gold coin.

Capture5

Bobby FischerCapture6 stated that the real chess genius was Paul Morphy, who was the first historical figure of Grandmaster strength.  If Fischer can win the fantasy knockout tournament between all the World Champions (https://www.chess.com/article/view/the-all-time-world-chess-champion-bracket), then Fischer’s assessment of Morphy’s strength is evidential.

MorphyCapture7 was so strong that he retired from chess in his early twenties.  He offered to play anyone a match at Pawn + Move handicapCapture12 yet, no one picked up the glove that he threw down.

We have all learned chess from our predecessors, yet Morphy was an exception. When he was a pre-adolescentCapture13, he somehow, intuitively, instinctively, taught himself how to play good chess.  His overall lifetime record was an amazing 84.8%.

Morphy played for rapid accurate development, and he put his pieces on their best squares.  It was joked that Fischer could throw pieces at a board, and they would land upright centered on their best squares.

Morphy said that one should not attack until all the pieces are in play.  He was so ahead of his time that Botvinnik Capture8.PNGstated that there was little the Soviets could learn from how to play open positions, since Morphy showed everyone how.

Paul Morphy played more Muzio Gambits (or variations of) than all the World Champions combined.

I reviewed dozens of opening principles and devised the following succinct opening proverb for my students: “Connect your rooks, along the back-rank, as quickly as possible, by castling into safety” ©. This game has no players, yet, it ends with how all chess games should end, with checkmate.

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O!

Capture

The Muzio Gambit proper, and a truly gutsy move.  Two hundred years ago, in 1816 London, Jacob Henry Sarratt (http://www.edochess.ca/batgirl/Sarratt.html) and William Lewis Capture9played a 10-game match between themselves where Sarratt played White and Lewis played Black.  Nearly all the games opened with the Muzio Gambit, and they really played some wild chess in those days!  Game #6 (can be found in some chess databases), ended in a draw, and was particularly entertaining.  Sarratt introduced the idea that a stalemate was a draw, and Lewis’ famous pupil was Alexander McDonnell, who played LaBourdonnais in that great 1834 series of matches.

gxf3 6. Qxf3 Qf6

The Muzio Gambit is a tactical piece sacrifice.  It is imperative that White keep Queens on the board to generate threats as compensation for being down enormous material.  White’s attack will evaporate if Queens are traded.  The Benko Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5) is a positional pawn sacrifice.  In the Benko, Black can actually trade Queens and maintain his positional pressure.

7. e5 Qxe5

Capture1 

8. Bxf7+!

This is called the double Muzio.  Chess databases contain fewer games played with this second piece sacrifice, yet it scores better than the more frequently played 8.d3.  An excellent historical example (between two World Champion candidates) isCapture10 Adolf Anderssen – Johannes Zukertort, Breslau 1865, which continued 8.d3 Bh6 9.Nc3 Ne7 10.Bd2 Nbc6 11.Rae1 Qf5 12.Nd5 Kd8 13.Bc3 Re8 14.Nf6 Rf8 15.g4 Qg6 16.h4 d6 17.g5 Bg7 18.Qxf4 h6 19.Qh2 a6 20.d4 hxg5 21.d5 gxh4+ 22.Kh1 Nb8 23.Qxd6+ Bd7 24.Qe7+ 1-0

Kxf7 9. d4 Qxd4+ 10. Be3 Qf6

 Capture2

11. Nc3!

This must be called the triple Muzio.  I like this move, and is the reason why I am writing this article.  For hundreds of years, the main line has been 11.Bxf4, which is proven good, yet 11.Bxf4 always seemed to me to be out of sync with the thread of the previous moves.  I do not recall where or when I first saw 11.Nc3, but it makes sense.

Capture11Alexey Shirov – J. Lapinski, Daugavpils 1990 continued 11.Bxf4 Ke8 12.Nc3 Nc6 13.Nd5 Qg6 14.Rae1 Be7 15.Bd6!! Kd8 16.Qxf8+! Bxf8 17.Bxc7# Some consider this the most brilliant Muzio ever played.

11.Nc3 develops White’s last minor piece and connects his rooks.  Black needs five moves to connect his rooks, and White has already sacrificed two pieces. Does the position really warrant that White pause to defend the threatened e3-Bishop?

fxe3 12. Qh5+ Kg7 13. Rxf6 Nxf6 14. Qg5+ Kf7 15. Rf1

Capture3

White moves his inactive Rook to the only open file on the board, and pins Black’s Knight. Black’s undeveloped Queenside pieces can only look on helplessly while White caps his resplendent play with another tactical sacrifice.

Be7 16. Nd5 Rg8 17. Rxf6+! Bxf6 18. Qxf6+ Ke8 19. Qe7#

Capture4

 

Breaking My Opening the Short Way

Today I’d like to discuss an opening situation that’s largely flown under my radar until now: playing against the Caro-Kann. At top-level, Caro-Kanns make up less than 10% of the “big four” responses (1…c5, 1…e5, 1…e6, 1…c6) to 1. e4, and Sicilians make up the vast (even by Sicilian standards) majority of responses to 1. e4 in my own games (it’s interesting how some trends get magnified at lower levels of play!).

However, chances are that you’re bound to see just about everything after playing high-level competition long enough. Two years is hardly near the threshold, but one of the first indicators is that I’m starting to see more Caro-Kanns. Good for them!

Unsurprisingly, the problems with facing the Caro-Kann highly resemble the reasons I play it as Black. Resource limitations also play a large role, as it’s not so easy to siphon complex opening ideas from database statistics or raw game scores. For example, almost all my theoretical knowledge about the Caro-Kann is from the book by Schandorff, whose recommendations are a little more dynamic than what I’m historically used to.

Honorable Mention: Fantasy Variation

There’s a weird candidate that deserves mention: the aptly-named Fantasy Variation (3. f3). I play this in bullet a lot, but mostly because everyone tends to play into the exciting 3…dxe4 4. fxe4 e5 5. Nf3 lines. In more serious play, I’d be more likely to get slower, French-like lines such as 3…e6 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bf4 Ne7 6. Qd3 b6 7. Nge2 Ba6 8. Qe3.

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Position after 8. Qe3.

This is actually the most likely  for me to switch to (though interestingly, I’m not sure what I’d play as Black against 3. f3). The above is certainly viable and interesting for White (due to opposite-side castling), but I’m also considering resource limitations (Schandorff only discusses 3…dxe4) and my phobia of allowing …c5 with a knight on c3.

Finding the One

Ultimately, the decision came down to the question of which position was easiest to play for White. For example, I eliminated the Panov (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4) early on, though it’s understandably very popular at the amateur level, I tend to favor the static nature of Black’s prospects in the isolated queen pawn positions. Eliminating the Classical (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3) was a little more complicated; I’d actually like playing both sides of the opposite-side castling positions I talked about in my last post, but unfortunately the “boring” 12…Qc7 turned me off the line (not to mention Black’s other options on move 4). White has some decent deviations, but they don’t tend to promise much and certainly run the risk of petering out.

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Position after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Qc7._. (there’s a new exclamation for you!).

The easiest of the Advanced Variation (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5) options to eliminate was 4. Nc3, which is, with all due respect to Shirov, surprisingly unreliable (Schandorff made a great case for this). Below is a “typical” example after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 Bg6 6. Nge2 c5 7. h4 h5!? 8. Nf4 Bh7 9. Nxh5 Nc6 10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Nxg7+ Kf8.

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A little deceptive; Black is down two pawns and can’t castle, but will soon play …d5-d4 and …Qd5 with tremendous play.

The “ease of play” criterion came back into play for the rest of the options. I don’t intentionally shy away from positional maneuvering lines, but most of the positional options didn’t seem particularly challenging for Black, who starts slightly cramped, but invariably untangles and challenges the center with …c5.

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Black untangles with 7…Nc8!? followed soon by …Ncb6 and …c5.

However, Black’s less-mobile position (at least initially) is fairly characteristic of the Advanced Variation; maybe there’s a way to take advantage of it without being unreliable.

The Short Variation

It’s a fairly simple idea. White gears up for a fight with some more intuitive development and dares Black to catch up, as can be seen fairly quickly after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 c5 6. Be3.

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Watch out for c2-c4.

However, my impression is that it’s gone fairly overlooked, despite being a regular guest at top level. It’s possible White players (and by extension, Black) can’t be bothered with the theory at lower levels of play. However, as I turn to facing stronger opposition this can’t be counted on. I stumbled upon the 6. Be3 Short while going over study material for Black, and was surprised at how dangerous the positions were. It certainly involves theory, but most resembles the reliably active option I’d been seeking.

White’s lead in development allows him two possible luxuries. One is the fairly overt threat of blowing open the center. The other, a bit more materialistic, can be seen from a plausible rookie mistake, 6…Nc6?.

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After 6…Nc6?

Black might be surprised at first by 7. dxc5!, but it’s clear that Black has no reasonable way to regain the pawn due to lack of kingside development, e.g. 7…Qc7? 8. dxc5 Nxe5?? 9. Nxe5 Qxe5 10. Bb5+ is brutal, or even more immediately (as my acquaintance tried against me in the Cleveland Open blitz last weekend) 7…Qa5+? 8. c3 and the pawn is White’s for good.

Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

For an example of the first type, we turn to a rare bright spot in last weekend’s Cleveland Open. My opponent and I both had a really rough tournament, but at least I got to finish with a flash.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Nd7.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 01.23.47
Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

This is actually slightly more popular than 5…c5, and intended to lead to a slower game. In fact, Schandorff is really pushing White’s buttons with the dynacism, choosing to cover only 5…c5.

6. Be3 h6 7. Nbd2.

This was an attempt to combine my recently picked-up bit of the 5…c5 6. Be3 Short theory and positional attempts by White to stall …c5 (e.g. 4. Be3 followed by 5. Nd2 instead of 4. Nf3). I initially thought 6…h6 was too slow, but Black’s doing okay as long the center stays closed, i.e. avoid…

7…c5?

At best, Black is playing with fire, basically playing the dangerous Short lines from earlier down a tempo or two. 8. c4! would have been most forcing, but there’s not too much wrong with the game continuation.

8. O-O Qc7

Unsurprisingly, Black is a reluctant to admit the mistake, so to speak. 8…Ne7 runs into the dxc5 problems from earlier, but is probably the lesser of the two evils.

9. c4 Ne7 10. Rc1 dxc4? 11. Bxc4?!

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 01.43.18
Li (2157) – Martin (1903)

My 11th move was based on thinking Black would stick to the fairly overt intention of an immediate …Nd5. We both overlooked the obvious 11…Nc6 after which 12. d5 isn’t nearly as treacherous as the game. However, Black would have been better off with simply 10…Nc6, as 11. Nxc4! Nd5 12. dxc5 Nxe3 13. fxe3 Bxc5 14. Nd6+ is curtains; White’s ruined e-pawns are irrelevant.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 01.44.42
Possible position after 14. Nd6+

Instead, Black rolled along with 11…Nd5?? 12. Bxd5 exd5 13. dxc5. It may be a little dramatic to say the game is over, but Black is at least a move from castling kingside or regaining the c5-pawn or e5-pawn (e.g. 13…Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Qxe5 15. Re1). Black actually decided he couldn’t get out of the center fast enough and castled queenside (!) into a bone-crunching attack, resigning on move 28.

Holding Off On …c5

It’s pretty clear Black has to be careful about …c5. But if Black refrains from …c5 until reorganizing, it’s natural to wonder if the game just turns into one of the positional lines I tried to avoid earlier.

For example, in the 4. Nd2 line, White could try something on the kingside, ala 4…e6 5. Nb3 Nd7 6. Nf3 Ne7 7. Be2 Nc8 8. O-O Be7 9. Ne1 Bg6 10. f4.

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After 10. f4

After something like 10…O-O, White can try 11. g4 but at worst after 11…f5, White can lock up the position with 12. g5 (in which Black has the usual queenside action) or open the g-file, which looks sketchy with Black (almost) fully developed.

In the Short Variation, Black could try to get something similar with (after 5. Be25…Nd7 6. Be3 Ne7.

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Short Variation, after 6…Ne7

7. O-O and 7. Nbd2 look like they’ll transpose to earlier lines after 7…Nc8. Instead, White could try for the relatively uncharted 7. Nh4!? possibly followed by 7…Bg6 8. O-O.

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Short Variation, after 7. Nh4 Bg6 8. O-O

8…Nc8 might be okay for Black, but after 9. Nxg6 it’s a different game than the 4. Nd2 line. 8…Nf5 9. Nxf5 Bxf5 10. g4 Bg6 11. f4 has been played a few times, with success for White within that bubble.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 02.25.51
After 11. f4

One difference is that with the knight exchange and omitted Nd2-b3 maneuver, White is up a tempo on the kingside compared to the previous line. More importantly, White has a lot more room to generate queenside play. The computer likes White’s chances after 11…Be7 (or 11…c5) 12. c4 and whether or not that’s important, the position is a far cry from the free hand Black has in the first position.

So it’s safe to say in the Short Variation, there are always some ways for White to drum up some differences from safer lines.


And that’s the beginning of my attempts to break down my primary Black response to e4.

Any interesting ways you’ve countered your favorite openings? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

Engine Shmengine?

Since it’s inception, chess has evolved a great deal with the emergence of computer engines. In fact, many opening variations have fallen out of fashion due to undesirable engine evaluations, and overall, the increasingly detail-oriented nature of chess has led many to be dependent upon the computer, to a fault. In particular, GM’s hold engines to a very high standard, regarding both preparation and self-evaluation. When I was in St. Louis, I met multiple GM’s and caught up with others, including Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez, Eric Hansen, and Robin van Kampen. I remember I was at a cafe with them once and Robin explained to me how essential computers are to preparation – in fact it is so important to have a powerful computer that he is linked through a cloud-like program to a computer in Europe. GM’s however are different from us – their mistakes are made in relation to slight nuances in the position, so a computer evaluation is often necessary. But with the vast majority of players under the GM level, mistakes are made based on an understanding (or lack thereof) of seemingly simplistic principles. As such, it is significantly more instructive for these players to look at their games without the use of an engine. In finding your own mistakes and the reasons for which they are mistakes, you can hope to improve your understanding of your faults and avoid similar mistakes in the future. Going through this process helps the principles stick in your memory a great deal more than a quick engine evaluation. Complete dependence on a computer is in a way giving yourself all the answers to the questions you would pose during your analysis. In this case, the common phrase “learn from your mistakes” is applicable; it’s rather hard to learn from being given all the answers.

Here are two of my own games which show the importance of using one’s own analysis before an engine evaluation, the first against Maggie Feng (top girl under the age of 20) and Emily Nguyen (the winner of the 2016 US Girls Closed):

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. Qa4 Be7 (5… Bb7 The mainline,which leads to a slightly different pawn structure. However, the game variation is by no means a serious mistake 6. Bg2 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. O-O O-O 9. Nc3 Be7)

Maggie 1
Position after 5. Qa4

6. Bg2 Bb7 7. O-O O-O 8. Nc3 c5 9. dxc5 bxc5 10. Rd1 d6 (10… Qb6 Possibly a better variation, anticipating the weakness of the d-pawn and preparing to provide support with Rd8 11. Bf4 Rd8)

Maggie 2
Position after 10. Rd1

11. Bf4 Here, just by turning on the engine, one can see that white has a slight advantage after … Qb6. However, taking a look at the position without the use of an engine can facilitate a better understanding of why my next move was a mistake. When looking at any position for the first time, it’s important to identify what the weaknesses are, what the worst-placed piece is, and what your opponents ideas are. In this position, the obvious weakness is on d6. The worst placed piece is not entirely evident yet, but it’s clear black should aim to activate the rooks and get the queen off the d-file. White’s idea is to pressure the d-pawn. But, after paying more attention to this weakness, one can see that white also has a tactical threat with Bxd6 (as played in the game). By going through the process of pinpointing the weaknesses, the worst pieces, and white’s concrete threats, the obvious continuation becomes …Qb6 (eliminating the threat of Bxd6 and preparing to support the d-pawn with the f8 rook). In this case, it is important to analyze the position without the use of an engine, because identifying the reasons for which the mistake was made with  one’s own analysis can help to reinforce positional concepts and prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future.} 11… Nh5?

Maggie 3
Position after 11… Nh5?

 

12. Bxd6 Bxd6 13. Nb5 Bc6 14. Ne1 (14. Qb3!) 14… a6 15. Bxc6 Nxc6 16. Nxd6 Nd4 17. Ne4 Nxe2+ 18. Kf1 Nd4 19. Nxc5 +-

Maggie 4
Final Position

Here, down a pawn and with the more misplaced pieces, I went on to lose the game. 1-0

By conducting my own analysis of this game without the use of an engine, I discovered that by taking a closer look at my opponent’s ideas and my own piece placement, I could have avoided the mistake I made. This is important, as it means that I need practice with prophylactic play.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 h6 7. h3!? Not the mainline, but aiming to get a similar game to the h3 najdorf, which I’ve also played. Nc6 8. Bg2 (8. Be3 +=) 8… d5?! Black would be best advised to just continue developing. After the game continuation, the isolated pawn on d5 becomes a weakness on which I was able to put pressure. (8… Bd7 9. Be3 Ne5 = An equal, but dynamic position)

Emily 1
Position after 8… d5

9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. O-O Be7 12. c3 O-O 13. Be3 Bf6 14. Ne2 Be6

Emily 2
Position after 14… Be6

A critical position. Here, turning on the engine would show you that white has a solid advantage after Nf4. But again, taking a look at a position with your own eyes and identifying the reasons for a mistake can help to a significantly greater extent in finding the trends in your mistakes and avoiding them in the future. In this position, again, it’s important to first look at the weaknesses, the worst-placed piece, and black’s ideas. The obvious weakness is the isolated pawn on d5. White’s worst-placed piece is not obvious, though the rooks and knight don’t have much of a role yet. Black does not have any apparent threats in the position – most likely to just continue with development. Considering the weakness on d5 however, white’s plan should clearly be to continue putting pressure on it. Therefore, the obvious move appears to be Nf4, activating the knight, and putting additional pressure on the isolated pawn. The game continuation didn’t give up all of the advantage, but it was a positional mistake. By going through the analytical process described, white’s best plan becomes more obvious. 15. f4?! The idea behind this is obvious, but it proves problematic in a few moves; it weakens the kingside and takes away the best square for the knight. (15. Nf4!) 15… Qe7

Emily 3
Position after 15… Qe7

My next move was a mistake which could have been avoided by carefully looking at my opponent’s ideas and the vulnerability of my own pieces. Black’s last move aims to tactically take advantage of the unprotected Bishop on e3 with …Bxg4. This leaves me with two options; Qd2 to protect the bishop, and Bf2 to avoid the threat altogether. Qd2 was what I played in the game, but by looking more closely at black’s idea, it’s evident that after … Re8, the same threat still stands, and in this case, Bf2 is not longer possible because of the hanging knight on e2. Thus, the prophylactic Bf2 is the best continuation, avoiding any sort of discovered attack down the e-file. 16. Qd2 $6 Rfe8 17. Rf3 d4 18. Bxd4

Emily 4
Final Position

And the game ended in a draw after several more exchanges, ending in a rook and minor piece endgame. 1/2-1/2

As was the case with the last game, in this game, better awareness and anticipation of my opponent’s ideas in particular could have helped me avoid the mistakes I made. Fortunately for me, this makes a trend fairly obvious, and it’s something I can hone in on to improve.

With new and improved engines constantly being released nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in relying on the machine. The reality though, is that in looking at your own games, you are your own best evaluator. The process of identifying your own mistakes, the reasons for those mistakes, and practice material to fix your weaknesses makes learning and improving tremendously easier. This task, of course, requires quite a lot of self-discipline – the urge to turn on an engine and simplify the analysis is very tempting at times. But the payoff for doing your own analysis is more than worth the time put into it.

The Dreaded g2-g4

Contents
0. Tl;dr
1. Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version
2. Good and Bad News
3. False Start
4. But Could Black Have Castled?
5. A Blowout
6. Don't Even Try Nxg4
7. Less Intuitive
8. Parting Thoughts

Tl;dr

Lately, I’ve decided to start trying to make sense of more dynamic positions. I’ll use the g2-g4 storms in the Classical Caro-Kann as an example, but I encourage you to extend something similar in any defensive positions of interest. This is a little bit of a disorganized journey, but it has to start somewhere.

And if nothing else, you’ll get to see me getting crushed by an 11-year old 1800 in under an hour.

Classical Caro-Kann, Feisty Version

First, a quick overview of the Classical Caro-Kann for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Classical almost always begins with 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (or 3. Nd2) 3…dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.06.22
The real starting position of the Classical Caro-Kann.

In this post, we’ll examine some positions that occur after 11. Bd2. An equally popular continuation for White is 11. Bf4, which looks more active at first glance but can be countered with checks on the a5-e1 diagonal. Instead, after 11. Bd2, naturally 11…Ngf6 12. O-O-O follows.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.19.56
Kingside or queenside?

The Caro-Kann owes much of its solid-yet-boring reputation to the traditional Classical continuation: 12…Qc7 followed by queenside castling. Black isn’t particularly active, but White has no structural targets to take advantage of.

A more interesting (and trendy as of late) option is to brave opposite-side castling with 12…Be7!.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 02.30.23
Be bold!

I first learned of this through one of my two opening books, the Grandmaster Repertoire book on the Caro-Kann by GM Lars Schandorff, who proclaims, “Often, White will burn his bridges in his eagerness to attack, and if we are not mated, then we will win the endgame!” Indeed, in the long term, Black benefits from the thematically sound Caro-Kann structure, hoping for White’s h5-pawn to stick out even more.

Good and Bad News

But in the short term, Black shouldn’t be crowing about the placement of the h-pawns in front of his/her castled king, for fairly obvious reasons. Unsurprisingly, a common theme in this line is White’s ability to quickly rush the g-pawn, often as a sacrifice.

Black could run into this if oblivious enough:

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 03.07.16
Black should’ve paid a little more attention.

On the other hand, as I like to remind people, a pawn is a pawn. It’s always important not to confuse a scary-looking attack with proof that it actually works, so don’t be too quick to go, “OH NO, THE G-FILE IS OPEN! RUN!” The above disaster is just one of many possibilities involving the g-pawn rush in the Caro-Kann. Others range from just as dangerous to completely harmless.

Many good players are prone to underestimating defensive resources, but as I’ve learned firsthand, it’s just as easy to do the opposite. Unsurprisingly, these dynamic positions tend to be difficult to calculate in the short-term and long-term.

Despite the “Grandmaster Repertoire” label, the aforemtneiond Caro-Kann book is remarkably good at the conceptual level. However, as someone who is much more used to slower positions, I feel there’s some overall explanation on the “g4 positions” to be desired. Schandorff dismisses some dangerous positions as “g4 is coming”, while the supposedly harmless positions (including the scores of possibilities not mentioned, although this is hardly the fault of the book) are a different story at the expert-level, since we’re far from perfect at both attack and defense.

So even though I’ve read through most of the relevant part of the book, there’s certainly room for long-term study, if for nothing else than to get a feel for the potency of White’s kingside ideas.

False Start

The easiest way to tell that White’s attack won’t succeed is that there’s nothing to attack.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.04.35
Narkeeran (1777) – Li (2058)

In a Pittsburgh club game from last February against local 11-year old Madhavan Narkeeran, Black has just played 12…Be7 as usual. Now, one of the good things about playing Black is knowing exactly what White’s planning after moving the g3 knight, e.g. 13. Ne2.

So does Black castle into the attack or not? In my case, I’d just come back from an exhausting US Amateur Team East trip that morning. Thus simply avoiding the chance of a bone-crunching attack for the moment, in this case with 13…c5 preparing queenside counterplay, was a no-brainer, especially since Black’s king is in no danger at all.

I was promptly rewarded by the eager 14. g4? and only after 14…Nxg4 and only then did White realize he had no time to shift to the open kingside, due to 15…Nxf2.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.23.13

As expected, White promptly defended f2, but was forced to simply play the rest of the game down a pawn after I shuffled the knight back and castled queenside.

But Could Black Have Castled?

Instead, suppose Black just plays (after 13. Ne213…O-O 14. g4 Nxg4.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 00.30.47

First, two general scenarios emanating from these positions can be identified easily:

  • If White allows Black a completely free tempo in the beginning, Black is likely better.
  • If Black allows White to regain the pawn, White is likely better, since the newly lost Black pawn is likely to be one of the kingside pawns.

Similarly to the original game, but if White meekly defends f2, Black retreats, plays …Kh8, and can heavily defend everything on the kingside at a moment’s notice. More interesting is to simply forge ahead with 15. Rdg1!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 01.24.48

Black only has three plausible options: 15…f5, 15…Ndf6, and 15…Nxf2. However after 15…f5 16. Nf4 wins the e6-pawn by force, and although the game is far from over, Black has simply given the pawn back and created more weaknesses. 15…Ndf6 is immediately met by 16. Rh4, and Black can snag another pawn and a rook for the two knights, e.g. 16…Qd5 17. Rhxg4 Nxg4 18. Rxg4 Qxh5 but the combination of three minor pieces, a rook, and a queen is still quite enough to cause trouble on the wide-open kingside.

Instead, Stockfish evaluates 15…Nxf2 at slightly better than +1 (for Black), but as usual, the evaluation doesn’t tell the whole story. Indeed, when Black is about to be up at least an Exchange and two pawns but still only scores +1, there’s some trickery going on. After 16. Qb3 Nxh1 17. Bxh6, we see another thematic issue for Black: White being able to “reload” on g7 with both the bishop and h-pawn, e.g. Bxg7 and h5-h6 is a possibility no matter what (on the other hand, 16. Qe3?? Nxh1 17. Qxh6 blows out to 17…Bf6 and White has no follow-up for being down so much material).

Even now, we have quite a few possibilities after 17. Bxh6. The first one that came to mind was 17…Kh7 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. Qd3+ f5 20. Nf4 Nf8.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 01.47.46

At this point I switched off Stockfish so that my phone would last for more than 15 minutes, but a natural follow-up seems to be 21. Nxe6 Qd5 and perhaps White is running out of steam; Stockfish settled at around -2.2 (for White) here.

However, Black might also want to worry about 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. h6 after which the threat of 20. Qd3+ f5 21. Nf4 isn’t as easy to repel.

Of course, Black should be willing to calculate far more in a real game than I am at the moment, but the point was to show how hairy things can get even in a fairly non-critical try (13. Ne2/14. g4).

A Blowout

In the larger picture, Madhavan is a highly promising junior player. He’s been giving the established Pittsburgh players a lot of trouble, but a win over an expert has eluded him… until last Tuesday.

This certain expert is probably not going to relax too much against any of these kingside attacks anymore, no matter how unsound they seem.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.19.15
Narkeeran (1800) – Li (2157)

At the 12…Be7 tabiya, Madhavan deviated from our previous game with the common 13. Kb1, and we blitzed through 13…O-O 14. Ne4 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Nf6 16. Qe2 Qd5. White has attempted to clear the path for g2-g4, while Black attempts to trade into a comfortable ending via …Qe4. We’re still in well-trodden theory.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.26.45

It turns out that White doesn’t have a great way to start the attack. 17. g4?! is a dubious sacrifice with Black’s queen so active, e.g. 17…Qe4 18. Be3 Nxg4 19. Nd2 (19. Rdg1? Nxe3 20. fxe3 Bg519…Qf5 20. Rdg1 Nxe3 and Black gets the free tempo and blocks the g-file pressure easily.

17. Be3, which Madhavan played, is one of the harmless moves as labeled by Schandorff, but is White’s last chance to avoid …Qe4.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.32.32

An interesting idea from the book is 17…Bd6!?, seemingly placing the queen awkwardly but preparing …Qf5 and …Bf4 if need be. By now, the role that dark-square control plays in the defense is becoming clearer.  And Madhavan immediately whipped out the strange 18. Nh4?!.

One problem with skepticism is that it extends too far beyond the first move. My instinct was that this was too contrived to be correct, and it should have stayed that way – instinct. Since I now thought I could play basically anything reasonable and hold, I stuck with my first impulse to trade queens with 18…Qxh5. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to play the resulting position than I realized, and in fact 18…Nxh5! threatens to completely stall White’s play on f4 (especially if 19. g4?) and probably would have won with much less trouble.

Naturally, White’s response to 18…Qxh5 was to immediately sacrifice another pawn with 19. g4!.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.48.10

In lieu of my above comments, it’s not surprising that my reaction was basically, “well, kids like to sac pawns galore; also, no one sacrifices two pawns here, so…”

Of course, instead of the nearsighted 19…Qxg4? there’s also 19…Qd5 but that completely defeats the purpose of 18…Qxh5; after something like 20. Rdg1 preparing g5, Black is still walking a fine line with White fully developed.

And it’s quite embarrassing to note that after White’s 20. Qd2, my first real think of the game – about 20 minutes – produced 20…Qe4??.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.55.18

In some sense, it was just forgetting something after too much time analyzing something else. But the damage was done and even though after 21. Bxh6! Nd5 White gave me a chance to regroup slightly with 22. Qg5?, I immediately squandered it with 22…Qh7?? which was followed by 23. Rdg1 and total carnage (for what it’s worth, 22…g6 was called for, but defending an airy kingside an Exchange down is not on many players’ bucket lists). I ended up getting mated in a few more moves, ending the game after a little under an hour.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 02.58.36
After 23. Rdg1

On one hand, I just played a bad game, but as I discussed in my previous post, this is not exactly acceptable damage at the 2150 level. Furthermore, there is something to be said about taking into account the possibility of playing worse, when preparing.

So now, it’s pretty clear what dangers lurk in even harmless-looking positions. For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss any others in great detail, but will bring up a few that came up in my exploration of the g4 positions.

Don’t Even Try Nxg4

After 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Ngf6 12. O-O-O Be7, White has a tricky prophylactic idea in 13. Qe2!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.07.54

Avoiding the problems of the 13. Ne2 sideline from earlier, as can be seen after 13…O-O 14. Nf1!? c5 15. g4!.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.12.01

After 15…Nxg4? 16. Rg1, Black doesn’t have that tempo due to White’s sneaky 13. Qe2 protecting f2 and has a lovely choice between 16…f5 and 16…Nf6, in each case giving White back a clear pawn and some weaknesses to attack. Of course, Black can settle for 15…Nh7.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.14.07

But this is a long-term concession. White is still willing to sacrifice the g-pawn and can prepare it with an eventual f2-f4. Black’s plan on the kingside is not so obvious and the queenside attack is a little slower than we’d like.

So in general, Black can certainly decline Nxg4, but in many lines this faces the long-term issue of a further push of the kingside pawns.

Less Intuitive

After 12…Be713. Ne4 Nxe4 14. Qxe4 Nf6 is actually most common. Historically, White has usually stuck to 15. Qe2 but 15. Qd3!? is a little devious.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.36.33

After 15. Qe215…Qd5 equalizes fairly easily in a similar manner to one of the earlier lines. However, if Black tries (15. Qd3) 15…Qd5?! suddenly 16. c4 Qe4 17. Qb3! places the queen in a very awkward situation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.38.43

Castling queenside into a bone-crushing attack is out of the question, especially since White can relegate the queen to h7 with Rhe1. Castling kingside (presumably after b7 is dealt with) with the queen so misplaced gets tangly for multiple reasons I won’t go into.

Black defenses to this haven’t been studied that much. 15…c5 has been played a few times and I recall seeing it in a random book I found at a chess tournament in May, but Schandorff considers the best bet to castle into the attack with 15…O-O and prepare.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.43.10

Schandorff’s analysis runs 16. g4 Nxg4 17. Rhg1 f5 (apparently 17…Nxf2 is too dangerous) 18. Qe2 Kh7!?.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 03.45.29

Not the most intuitive at first glance. But the traded off pieces have made all the difference; with the freer center and rock-solid Ng4, Black can afford to cooly respond to 19. Qxe6 with 19…Qd6. The book analysis continues 19. Ne5 Nxe5 20. dxe5 and while I haven’t studied this in detail, it looks like due to the trades Black is mobile enough to defend everything on the kingside with fairly good chances.

Parting Thoughts

Unfortunately for me, the g4 positions get more difficult than what I’ve posted. But these positions are fairly representative of what one might get at a competent, but less theoretical (i.e. players go out of book sooner) level of play. And while more difficult positions certainly require either more calculation or preparation (depending on when one chooses to be lazy), the above positions have proven to be fairly manageable by considering more positional aspects of the lines. Of course, remembering all of them is easier said than done. But this is where general playing experience and preparation, if I ever get around to it, comes in.

Again, in other defensive setups, similar exploration might be helpful.

It might also prevent some unsuspecting upsets by young players if you do it well!