Positional Domination: Hou Yifan Breaks the Ice!

It feels like a long countdown until this weekend’s G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships and Pittsburgh Chess League matches, so I’ve been killing time doing opening research and watching ongoing Grandmaster games.

With Gibraltar over, there aren’t exactly many high profile games to watch, but there is the Bicontinental Match-up (South America and Antartica) between Women’s World Championship Candidate Hou Yifan and Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, an up-and-coming player from Chile.

The first round ended in a draw, where Hou Yifan was unable to convert a small advantage. For today’s post, we will be looking at the second game, one which Hou Yifan won in just 25 moves!

Hou Yifan is a player easy to overlook, but after today’s post, I think you’ll see just strong she really is. Let’s take a look:

Hou Yifan – Henriquez Villagra (Match Bicontinental de Ajedrez, 2016)

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 a6

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The starting position for today’s discussion. Villagra, who eliminated Gelfand from last year’s World Cup, will set-up a hedgehog defense with the Black pieces.

6.g3 Qc7 7.Bg2

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For those of you unfamiliar with the English, you should know that there is a lot of overlap with ideas from the Maroczy bind. One of the advantages of choosing the English move order is that the light squared bishop isn’t necessarily bad as it would be on e2 in a Maroczy Bind. Here against the Hedgehog structures, having this bishop is extremely useful, as it limits Black’s ability to queenside fianchetto, and is able to control the d5 square.

7…Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4

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Here White achieves the famous bind structure with pawns on e4 and c4. Hou Yifan hopes to claim her space in the center of the board while Villagra will wait for potential weaknesses to come.

9…d6 10.Be3 Nbd7

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A critical decision, and perhaps the beginning of Villagra’s trouble. The thematic square for the knight is c6, where it may be able to trade for the d4 knight, giving Black space and flexibility. Remember, when you are cramped, it’s advantageous to trade pieces!

11.Rc1 Ne5

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An active looking move, but in reality, Black’s hand was somewhat forced here. Black would love to get his c8 bishop to b7, but 11…b6 would lose on the spot to 12. e5! winning the rook on a8 by discovery. Should Black try to avoid this line by playing the well-known Hedgehog idea, 11… Ra7, 12. Ndb5! is better for White after 12… axb5 13. Nxb5 Qa5 14. Nxa7 and Black will not receive two minor pieces for the rook since the knight is protected from the bishop on e3.

12.b3 Bd7

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Black realizes that getting the bishop to b7 will simply take too much time, and chooses to route it to d7. Villagra can get this bishop to c6 and on the long diagonal, but as you may notice, Black is somewhat cramped.

13.h3

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Taking away the g4 square from each of Black’s knights before pushing f2-f4. While Hou Yifan has easy moves, improving her structure, it is already not so clear how Villagra is going to reroute his pieces to organize an attack. The Chilean’s next move is really telling as to Black’s struggles in this position.

13…Qa5

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Rather than improving the position, Black must spend a tempo to evade a tactic – that’s right!
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So if Black makes the most positionally improving move, White can force Black into a well known Hedgehog dilemma with 14. f4 Nc6 15. Nxc6 Bxc6 16. Nd5!
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I actually made this observation before checking with an engine, and the computers seem to see the moves merit. Black’s problems on the b6 square make recapturing the knight compulsory, after which, Black must not only give up the bishop pair but have a strategically ruined endgame.
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Black’s isolated pawn on d6 blocks in his dark squared bishop, and White’s pure control of space is enough for White to push for a win. Seeing this (or other similar lines), VIllagra chose 13… Qa5.

14.Qd2 Rfc8 15.f4 Nc6 16.Qf2 Bd8 17.Rfd1

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Black’s moved the c6 knight three times, the queen twice, and the d8 bishop twice. Meanwhile, White has optimized all of her pieces, acquiring a major space advantage. Only a pair of pawns have been traded, and because of it, Black is cramped and has little oxygen.

17…Ne8?

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Here Black really needed to trade on d4, but was afraid of 17… Nxd4 18. Bxd4 following with e4-e5, opening up the position. The Chilean wanted to be able to keep the position somewhat closed with d6-d5, but Black is beyond the point of having choices.

18.Nf3! Nb8

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Black’s backwards play these last few moves have been strictly tied to playing …d6-d5. This move puts some pressure on the c-file, but Black’s lack of development makes the threat anything but lethal. One principle to know here is that if you are better developed than your opponent, it’s in your best interest to open up the position. Here the former Women’s World Champion pushes through with a central break.

19.e5 d5

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And Black finally gets his break! But it’s this same move that actually ends the game for Black.

20.Nd2 Qb4 21.a3 Qxa3

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Dragging the queen offsides while solidifying the queenside. Without the queen on a5, Black will even fewer ways to defend the collapsing center.

22.cxd5 exd5 23.Ra1!

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And now Black’s queen must retreat all the way to f8 to avoid the wrath of the c3 knight. With the exception of the light-squared bishop, Black has placed all of his pieces on the back rank.

23…Qf8 24.Nxd5 Be6 25.Nc4 1-0

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Black threw in the towel here, as there’s no easy way to defend against f4-f5 and Nb6 threats. Complete positional domination from the Chinese Grandmaster as she dispatched her opponent while making it look easy! There are two games left in the match, and it’ll be one of the last opportunities to watch Hou Yifan before the Women’s World Championship in March when she takes on the reigning champion, Mariya Muzychuk.

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Navigating the Maze: Games of Gibraltar

I’ve spent the last few days watching the Gibraltar Open, and now that it’s come to a close, I wanted to share some of the more interesting and instructive moments of the tournament.

Sebastien Maze, of France, proved to be one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament with a score of 7/10. We first look at his game against Ni Hua.

The first game I wanted to show was from round 9, Ni Hua–Maze, where a massive space advantage against a Berlin failed to materialize and then came crashing down to allow the Frenchman to convert the won endgame. If you’re unfamiliar with the Berlin, I highly recommend you check out my comprehensive post on the opening here.

Ni Hua – Maze (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8 10.Nc3 Be6 11.g4

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A more aggressive try than both the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri and Karjakin–Radjabov games we analyzed earlier. Here White gains space with tempo, punishing the knight on f5 for its awkward placement before Maze has the opportunity to insert the thematic …h7-h5.

11…Ne7 12.Nd4 Bd7 13.f4

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Wasting no time gaining space on the kingside. Needing a win, Ni Hua takes the risk of hyper-extending, with the hopes of just cramping Black while optimizing his pieces.

13…h5!

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Statically worse, Maze takes dynamic measures to change the nature of this position. With the goal of opening the h-file, the Frenchman hopes to activate his kingside rook to attack White’s pawns. Should White blunder here with 15. g5? the f5 square becomes a permanent outpost for Black, so Ni Hua must concede the trade.

14.f5 hxg4 15.hxg4 Rh4 16.Rf4

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Here is the critical position. Visually, White looks much better, sitting pretty with his space advantage. Meanwhile, Maze has to solve his issues of development while fending off any of White’s tactical opportunities, such has e5-e6 ideas. Clearly Black’s opening has failed, right? Think again. As I mentioned before, Black is only statically worse. If he can find dynamic opportunities, Maze can liquidate White’s kingside pawn mass and reach a better endgame. Already, Black can consider both …g7-g6 and …g7-g5, trying to create a square for his knight on g6. With White’s light squared bishop gone, moving the f-pawn would be a major concession. If Maze can make this pawn move then he’s moving in the right direction.

16…Rd8 17.Be3 Bc8 18.Re4 g6! 19.Rf1

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Already, Ni Hua is finding that it’s not so easy to convert his space advantage. Even with all of his pieces on great squares, its not so easy to see what the next course of action is.

19…Rh3!

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With the pawn on g4 adequately protected, Black offers White tactical problems. Threatening to take two minor pieces for a rook, Ni Hua realized that he was in trouble and went all in with 20. e6 on the next move. But to illustrate some of the problems, let’s check out some lines.
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The most aggressive move also presents problems for White. After 20. Bg5, Black can play 20… gxf5 and should White err with 21. gxf5?? Rg3+ will win immediately for Black. To recapture on f5, White would have to play 21. Bxe7, but giving up the bishop pair in an endgame bound position is not ideal.
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Should White decide to get his bishop out of the way, for instance, 20. Bc1, Black can sacrifice an exchange to get an attack on the king with 20… gxf5 21. gxf5 Rxd4 22. Rxd4 Nxf5 23. Rdf4 Bc5+ and Black will have to give up an exchange to stay in the game.

20.e6?!

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An interesting try to avoid the lines mentioned above, but unfortunately for Ni Hua, Maze’s earlier move 18… g6 was already enough to liquidate to an endgame slightly better for Black.

20…Rxe3!

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Following through on his threat, and with the next few moves forced, Black will end the line up a pawn.

21.exf7+ Kxf7 22.Rxe3 Rxd4 23.fxg6+ Kg8

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It seems like Ni Hua can force the coronation of one of his pawns, but it’s Maze that sees a move further. One of the reasons why I like this game is that its hard to see where White went wrong, yet after 19… Rh3, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right for White. I’m no expert on the Berlin, but I would say that White’s hyper-extension instead of more principled play was enough to derail this game from equality.

24.Rxf8+ Kxf8 25.g7+ Kf7 26.Rxe7+

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Ni Hua will get his wish, but…

26…Kxe7 27.g8=Q Rxg4+

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… Maze achieves his goal, a bishop v knight endgame, and a pawn up! Maze went on to convert the endgame, reaching a 7/9 mark to be tied for first going into the last round.

In this next endgame, we saw a draw cost both sides an opportunity to make the playoffs with Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier–Lagrave. In the end, it was Pentala Harikrishna that was unable to convert his position of strength to a birth in the play-off.

Despite missing out on an opportunity to play for frist, Harikrishna’s performance leaves him less than 6 rating points lower than the best player from India, Vishy Anand.

Harikrishna – Li Chao (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

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Here Li Chao offered Harikrishna a queen swap on c6, believing that the resulting rook and opposite colored bishop endgame was a draw. Though it may be tenable, White still has enough resources to play for the initiative. Both of Black’s pieces are limited in mobility defending the e7- pawn and White’s king can march to the action undisturbed.

45.Qxc6 bxc6 46.f4!

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Good technical play! Harikrishna intends to push the f-pawn to f5 limiting the f7-bishop and then plans to bring in the king. Unfortunately, Li Chao can’t do much more than sit around, as playing …f6-f5 himself will create an unbreakable box for his bishop. Black is paralyzed.

46…Kh7 47.f5 g6 48.Kf2

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Without concern for the f5-pawn! If White had taken on g6, he gives Black an easy route to the center of the board via g6-f5-e6 with good drawing chances. However, a Black pawn on f5 would constrain Black as White advances his king.

48…gxf5 49.Ke3 Kg7 50.Kf4 Bg6

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I think this position really illustrates Black’s dilemma as space becomes a big concern here. It’s up to White now to find the win.

51.Rd4 Rg8 52.Rd6

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I started to lose sight of what Harikrishna’s idea was since his last move seemed intended to capture on a4. After looking at this position with an engine, my computer showed that with accurate play, Black can hold a fortress as the advantage is only visual. That being said, Harikrishna really needed to make a second weakness here, and pushing the b-pawn up the board seems to me the best chance, regardless of the outcome. If you think White has a simple win here, I encourage you to play this position against an engine! Black’s ready to turn off the lights with …Bg6-e8, and it’s not clear if there’s enough power for white to generate a win.

52…Be8 53.Kxf5 Bg6+ 54.Ke6 Bf7+ 55.Kd7 Be8+ 56.Kd8

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Harikrishna’s gotten his king to the back rank, but with no light square control, the e-pawn will never promote.

56…Kf7 57.Bc5 Rxg2 58.Bd4 Rg6 59.Bc3 c5 60.Rd5 Rg8 61.Rxh5 Bb5+

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And with White having to surrender his e7 pawn, the final position is drawn. The players made a couple more moves and shook hands when it was clear neither side would falter.

62.Kc7 Kxe7 63.Rf5 Be8 64.Rxf6 a3 65.Ra6 axb2 66.Bxb2 Rg6 67.Rxg6 1/2-1/2

I missed the Nakamura–MVL match-up for first prize, but after four draws, Nakamura won the armageddon game with the Black pieces to win Gibraltar for the second consecutive year. This year featured a strong section, and the tournament becomes more interesting with each year as the organizers find new players to invite – I’ll be curious to see who plays next year!

This Saturday, I will be playing Grandmaster Alexander Shabalov in a simultaneous exhibition at the Pittsburgh Chess Club – so make sure to look out for the “Grandmaster Eats Me Alive” video that will come out Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing how the reigning US Open Champion will plow through my repertoire!

Five for Five: Winning with the Bishop Pair

This past Sunday marked a landmark win for me, as I managed to continue my perfect record in the Pittsburgh Chess League, getting my fifth win in five games. Getting a result not only meant helping my team, the Univesity of Pittsburgh, beat Carnegie Mellon University 3-1, but also meant extending my unbeaten streak in four-board team events to eleven games (8 wins, 3 draws).

I thought that this game was rather instructive, as the result was a direct reflection of the positional imbalances that occurred during the game, a pair of bishops against the pair of knights. Let’s have a look:

Steincamp – Puranik (Pittsburgh Chess League, 2016)

1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 c6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Bg2 Bg4

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One of the advantages of playing …c7-c6 before …e7-e6 is that Black has the option of developing his light squared bishop to a more active square.

5.O-O Bxf3?

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It’s only move 5, but Black has already made a critical mistake! With this move, Black gives away the bishop pair for no compensation. While Black’s pawn chain from b7-d5 seems to blunt my bishop, attacking b7 will eventually force Black to concede the diagonal.

6.Bxf3 e5

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Black grabs the center here with this move, with the hopes that a space advantage will outweigh the bishop pair. However, I have a nice resource – can you find it?

7.d4!

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It was critical that I play this move first. 7. d3 is too passive, and 7. Qb3 is easily met by 7… Qb6. This move forces a transposition to one of two common openings:
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Should Black choose to capture on d4, we have a reversed Main Line Alapin where White has the Bishop pair and an advantage in any endgames. For example 7… exd4 8. Qxd4 dxc4 9. Qxd8+ Kxd8 10. Bg5 Nbd7 11. Rc1 and my activity will offer me fair winning chances.

7…e4

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My expert opponent chose this move, which transposes into a Main Line Reversed French, with a few critical distinctions. 1) My pawn is on e2, not e3, so I don’t have the familiar “bad French bishop”, 2) without his light squared bishop, my opponent will find it difficult to defend both b7 and d5, and 3) already behind in tempi, Black has still yet to castle, which makes f2-f3 powerful if timed correctly.

8.Bg2 Nbd7 9.Nc3 Bb4

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In an effort to stop f2-f3 with …Bxc3, Black offers his second bishop. While this solves a short term problem, Black surrenders a lot of attacking potential without his dark square control.

10.Qb3

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This move forces Black to give away his bishop, and when he does, I will recapture with the b-pawn for two reasons. 1) To allow my bishop to develop via a3, and 2) to make a half open file targeting Black’s weakness. If the b7 pawn moves or falls, Black’s position will crumble.

10…Bxc3 11.bxc3 Qb6 12.Ba3!

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This move stops Black from castling kingside. It was important to not trade queens on b6, as Black could recapture with the knight and then head to c4 with some counterplay.

12…dxc4?

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This move not only opens the position but drastically weakens Black’s e4 pawn. By opening the diagonal for my queen, the f7 pawn can also become a weakness in some lines. Black had to try 12… Qxb3 13. axb3 dxc4 14. bxc4 Nb6 but Black still has the long term disadvantage. During the game, I found 15. Bc5 to win the a-pawn, but my friend found 15. Rfb1 which is stronger, cleaning Black’s queenside majority.

13.Qxc4 Qa5 14.Qb3 b6 +-

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In my mind, this move gave me the win. This not only weakens the diagonal but also means Black’s king won’t be safe on the queenside. Knowing this, I deemed it appropriate to go on an all-out assault on the monarch.

15.f3!

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A thematic move in the French, and the winning move here. I calculated a bunch of winning lines here tactically, but I could have also just relied on pure intuition, for example:
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15… Nd5 is not Black’s best move, but it highlights the issues with his position the most after 16. fxe4 Ne3 17. Qxf7+ with mate soon to follow.
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This move only postpones Black’s problems as 16. c4 will pick up the pawn as 16… Qd2 fails to 17. Rad1 Qxe2 18. Rde1 Qd2 19. Rxe3+ Kd8 and Black is clearly much worse.
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15… exf3 with the idea that if 16. exf3 0-0-0 is a bold one, although it offers Black some chances to get play on the e-file. That’s why I had prepared 16. Bxf3 so 16… 0-0-0 fails to 17. Bxc6, and I still have a massive pawn center after e2-e4.

15…O-O-O

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Black just decided to give up the pawn for the sake of king safety, but my bishop’s view from g2 is quite nice.

16.fxe4 Qh5 17.Qc4

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Both attacking and defending! Black had two threats, …Nf6-g4 and …Qh5xe2. This move defends the e2 pawn, and any of Black’s mating threats are secondary to Qc4xc6+ with Ba3-d6# to follow.

17…Kb7 18.e5

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Highlighting the inevitable problem Black would face when he chose …e5-e4. At some point this diagonal would open, and without any light square protection, Black is doomed. My opponent sacrificed a piece, but that failed to parry my plans.

18…Nxe5 19.dxe5 Nd5 20.Bxd5 Rxd5 21.Bd6

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Cutting off the rook with two ideas, e2-e4 to expose f7 or Ra1-d1, simply to trade the rooks and go into a won ending.

21…Re8 22.e4 1-0

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Black resigned, seeing that 22… b5 23. Rab1 will force Black to give up the rook or conceded checkmate.

While I had a lot of ideas this game, the battle only lasted 22 moves! That is the power of the pair of bishops – find ways to open the position and create static weaknesses, and at some point, your opponent will blunder under pressure.

I won’t have another tournament game until February 13th, at the Pennsylvania G/75 State Chess Championships, but this game is definitely an encouraging sign concerning the direction of my preparation.

Trading into Better Positions

Since I’ve spent most of the last week discussing opening play, I decided to discuss trades in today’s post.

A few years ago when I was a student at Castle Chess Camp, I had the pleasure of working with Grandmaster Grigory Serper. While his use of metaphors and clichés to describe chess were particularly memorable, he did leave an impression on me regarding trading. Some of you may be familiar with Kyle MacDonald’s one red paperclip project, where through internet trading, he managed to trade a paperclip for an entire house.

As Serper pointed out, winning in chess is very similar. We want to checkmate our opponent, but often times our opponents aren’t so willing to cooperate. So instead, we take over small advantages and cash them into bigger ones – just like how MacDonald started with a trade for a pen, then a doorknob, and eventually down the road, a house.

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When looking for grandmaster games for today’s post, I decided to only select games from the recent rapid tournament, the 25th Paul Keres Memorial. We start with the third round upset of the top seed, Peter Svidler.

Svidler – Kulaots (25th Paul Keres Memorial, 2016)

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In this position, either side has practical winning chances. While Kulaots has the pair of bishops, Svidler has a fair amount of compensation. Black’s pawns limit the abilities of his own light squared bishop, and White’s knight has a strong outpost on f4. While some may argue that Black has the long-term advantage because of the pair of bishops, even that’s not so clear, as Svidler has a passed pawn on a3. In order for Kulaots to prove an advantage, he needs to activate his pieces.

23…Re4!

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A critical moment! Black attacks both the pawn on d4 and the knight on f4, asking Svidler to trade on his terms. 24. Rxe4?? loses to 24… dxe4 and both knights are under attack.

24. Nh5

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Svidler finds a tactical solution to his positional problems. Should Black try 24… Rxd4? 25. Re8+!! Qxe8 26. Nxf6 is winning. While White evaded the threat this turn, he hasn’t solved his problems yet. Svidler will have to decide if he wants to trade rooks on e4 and un-double Black’s pawns, or allow Kulaots to have a permanent weakness to attack on d4.

24…Kf7 25. Nb4 Qe8 26. g3 =+

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White realizes that with …Kf7-g6 looming, he needed a safe square for his knight. Retreating to g3 wasn’t an option because of …f5-f4, so this move will cover the knight on f4.

26…Kg6 27. Nf4+ Bxf4

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The first important trade. Black gives up the bishop pair, but in exchange makes another structural weakness on f4. Black will now increase the pressure on d4 and f4 until Svidler decides to take on e4, a trade that will only help Black mobilize his pawns.

28. gxf4 Qd7 29. Qd2 Qc7

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Attacking the f4 pawn while simultaneously defending c6. While Black’s bishop is still bad, Kulaots can just target White’s weaknesses. White is so paralyzed that Svidler can’t punish Black for his bad bishop.

30. Rac1 Ra8

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“Sometimes the threat is stronger than the execution.” Sure, Black could’ve taken on f4 with the rook, but that doesn’t actually help Kulaots. The pawn on f4 can be taken whenever, but more importantly, it’s blocking in White’s queen. Instead, Black makes the mature decision to attack White’s pawn on a3, the last remaining advantage that White had back when Svidler played 23. Re1.

31. Rc3 Bd7 32. Rxe4

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Unable to deal with the pressure of …Ra8-d8, White makes the second trade for Black. While this closes the e-file, it resolves Black’s structure. Meanwhile, f4 and a3 are still targets.

32…fxe4 33. Rb3 h5

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It’s still not clear if Kulaots is going to pull the upset. Without clear ways to improve his pieces, Black expands on the kingside.

34. Nc2 h4 35. Kf1 Bc8

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Preparing to maneuver the bishop from c8 to a6. Once the bishop reaches this diagonal, it can no longer be considered bad since it is outside of the pawn chain.

36. Ke1 Ba6 37. h3?!

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Trying to complicate the position, Svidler creates another weakness on h3. Rather than trying to force his way through, Kulaots decides to limit White’s play.

37…Bc4!

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Needing to defend both a3 and h3 simultaneously, the rook must stay on the third rank, surrendering the b-file, and entering a realm of passivity.

38. Rc3 Rb8

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With the simple threat of …Rb8-b1+, though blocking with the knight offers the best defense, from b4, it won’t be able to protect White’s kingside.

39. Nb4 f5 40. Kd1 Kf6 41. Kc1 Rg8 42. Nc2 g3 -+

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Forcing the last trade, and this time, it’s decisive. Black will now have a passed pawn on g3 and e4 though the strength of the g-pawn alone should be enough.

43. fxg3 hxg3 44. Ne3 Bd3 45. Rb3 Ke6 46. Ng2 Bf1 47. Ne3 g2 0-1

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A paralyzed Svidler has no way of stopping the pawn and here resigned. A great display by Kaido Kulaots!

This game was decided by three trades, the bishop for knight trade on f4, the rook trade on e4, and the opening of the floodgates on g3. Kulaots won this game by optimizing his position between each trade, paralyzing White to his structural weaknesses. Even though the f4 and d4 pawns dictated the pace for this game, Black didn’t have to win them to procure a result. Let’s move on to the next game.

2_svidler_400
Peter Svidler is a top 10 player, and will be one of a few Candidates to face Magnus Carlsen in the 2016 World Chess Championships. Expect the Russian to brush off this loss – he’s a world class player!

Kukk – Eljanov (25th Paul Keres Memorial, 2016)

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Pavel Eljanov is one of my favorite players to watch, and while he didn’t perform at his full strength this tournament, he still showed how he was one of the best here.

In this position, White seems to be standing well. The knight on e5 well placed and Kukk has both of his rooks on open files while Black seems to be lingering behind in development. But Eljanov has his own ideas too. After rerouting from d7, the knight on b8 can enter the contest at any moment via c6. Furthermore, White’s bishop on b2 is passive behind the d4 pawn and will need to spend some tempi to reroute it.

18…Nc6 19. a3

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White plays this move to take away the b4 square from White’s knight. While this may stop Black’s plans for now, Kukk has created a hanging pawns structure on the queenside, and could prove to become key weaknesses in the future.

19…Ne7

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An odd-looking move but Eljanov intends to play …Nf6-e5, so this move allows the queen from b7 to protect the knight. Black also offers the first critical trade of the game.

20. Rxc8 Rxc8

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With this move, Eljanov moves from paperclip to pen. Black’s resolved his development problems and has a clear plan going forward.

21. Rc1 b5 22. b4

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By going for this structure, Kukk has completed a trade of sorts. In exchange for the c5 outpost, he’s put all of his queenside pawns on dark squares, limiting his bishop’s mobility.

22…Rxc1+ 23. Bxc1 Qc8

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Black uses the tempo from the trade to grab the initiative. By rerouting his queen, Eljanov quickly shifts the attention to the kingside, where White has fewer active pieces.

24. Nb3 Ne4

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With this move, Eljanov offers Kukk a choice. White can either try to play around the knight on e4 or can weaken his structure with f2-f3. Unfortunately for White, he can’t easily put a knight on c5 with Black’s knight in the center, so he chose to kick it.

25. f3 Ng3 26. Bf4 Nh5 27. Bd2 f6

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This move highlights the awkwardness behind 25. f3. Now the knight must retreat to g4, where it will have no active options.

28. Ng4 Qc4!

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Same idea as the last game! White has a weak d4 pawn, and a trade on c4 will only strengthen Black’s growing grip on the position.

29. Nf2 Ng3

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Constricting the movement of the king, and being prophylactic! Black wants to play …Ne7-f5, so this move also stops g2-g4.

30. Nc5 Nef5 31. Qxc4 bxc4 32. Nxa6 Nxd4

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The decisive trade. Not only does Kukk give up a central pawn for a wing pawn, but he now faces threats like …Nd4-e2+ followed by a discovered check by moving the g3 knight. While White, like Black, has two passed pawns, they aren’t as advanced, and the White army is too passive for them to make a difference.

33. Nd1 Nde2+ 34. Kf2 d4 0-1

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Here Kukk resigned, as Eljanov’s d- and c-pawns are just too much. White has no mobility, and he’ll have to give up a minor piece when Black pushes …c4-c3.

Since his performance at the World Cup, Pavel Eljanov has been invited to the currently ongoing edition of the Tata Steel in the Netherlands. Check out our post on him from last October here!

As you may have noticed, in each of these games, the winner didn’t count on tactical trumps to beat the other but rather milked small positional edges, forcing the other side to make concessions. When you identify candidate moves, it’s extremely important to know what trades will help your position or weaken your opponent’s.

Dancing with the Dutch: Post-Mortem

As you may recall from Sunday’s video against the Dutch, we left with two critical questions:

1) Why is 2 c4 more common than 2 Nc3 against the Dutch?

2) How is Black supposed to stop the h-pawn push in the Leningrad Dutch – and can White make it even more effective?

While Black folded rather easily (until I missed a simple win), I thought this game was a good starting point for today’s article, which asks us not one, but two critical theoretical questions about one of Black’s most common responses to 1. d4. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet, you can catch up here:

ChessBase’s online database gives us a really nice breakdown of White’s second move options, and as you may notice 2. Nc3 is not all that uncommon.

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In fact, it scores rather well, 58% in 2163 games. While this line has received special attention from top grandmasters Alexander Grischuk, Santosh Vidit, and Erwin L’ami, it has been played several times by the famous theoretician Boris Gelfand, though he hasn’t brandished it since 2014.

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Boris Gelfand has always been an elite force to be reckoned with in the chess world, having won the World Cup in 2009, and challenged Vishy Anand for the World Championship in 2012.

While I will discuss both the positives and negatives of 2. Nc3 against the Dutch, please do note that most of its appearances in the Mega Database are from blitz tournaments – meaning that it may be used more as an element of surprise than an actual attacking weapon at the highest level. Let’s take a look at what can go wrong when Black doesn’t know how to handle 2. Nc3.

Jobava – Sandipan (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2014)

1. d4 f5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bg5 d5

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Look familiar? Think back to my ICC game, where my opponent played 2… d5 – same idea! This structure of pawns on d5 and f5 with a knight on f6 turns out to be the most common defense for Black, after which Black will opt for a Stonewall-like structure. Of course, this differs from my game on ICC, where my opponent tried to get a Leningrad structure.

4. e3 e6 5. h4

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Jobava plays what he does best – find novelties. While 5. Nf3 is by far the most common move, Baduur chose this line to secure the g5 square and route his knight to f4 via h3. Aggressive isn’t  the way to go about describing this move, but rather optimistic. 5. Nf3, as we’ll see, tends to get more equal positions with best play.

5…Be7 6. Nh3 O-O 7. Qd2 Ne4

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The standard Stonewall move, but already Black has a few problems. 1) Though White’s piece play is certainly unconventional, Black is falling behind in development. The light-squared bishop from c8 has no scope, and 2) with White due to castle queenside, Black can’t hope for the cookie-cutter attacking lines he gets in a main line Stonewall Dutch.

8. Nxe4 dxe4?! 9. O-O-O Nd7 10. Nf4 Nf6 11. Bc4

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Highlighting the problem with 8…dxe4?!. White’s f1-bishop springs to life here and attacks the king. Meanwhile, White’s amazing knight on f4 also pulls on the e6 weakness. It’s clear that Black’s development has been too slow.

11…Qd6 12. Qa5!

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Optimizing the queen, but can you see the threat?

12…h6 13. Qxf5 +-

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Exposing the pin along the a2-g8 diagonal. Black could take the bishop on g5 with 13… hxg5, but 14. Nxe6 has the whole kingside falling to shambles.

13…Nd5 14. Qxe4 Bxg5 15. Nxd5 1-0

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And on just the 15th move, Chanda Sandipan submits his resignation. Though 15… Bd8 could avoid immediate material loss, Black would find that his weaknesses on the light squares are just too much to bear after 16. Nc3 and 17. Bd3. With an undeveloped army, Black would face a kingside pawn storm with absolutely no counterplay. So what did this game tell us about the Veresov-like lines against the Dutch?

1) If Black cannot resolve the problems of his light squared bishop, it becomes extremely difficult to play for a win.

2) When White castles queenside, “textbook” Stonewall ideas aren’t effective.

Sure, this was a blitz game, and black wasn’t offering the best resistance, but these elements dictated the pace of the game. If Black wants to really maximize his chances, he needs to find a way to bust open the center. Let’s take a look at an antidote here from Vassily Ivanchuk.

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While Ivanchuk has never been a classical World Champion, he’s a very accomplished player. Once the 2nd best player in the world, the Ukranian Grandmaster still plays actively. In 2007, he won the World Blitz Chess Championships.

Gelfand – Ivanchuk (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2012)

1. d4 f5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bg5 d5 4. e3 e6 5. Nf3 c5

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The critical move for Black. While there are only 19 games in the Mega Database with this line, 74% of the outcomes favor Black. By not placing a pawn on c6, Black has a natural square for development and more space to solve his light squared bishop complex.

6. Bb5+?!

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After some computer analysis, I can’t say I like this move. Black will block with his bishop, and will be more than happy to trade off his worst piece. From d7, the bishop doesn’t take away the square from his knight, thanks to his early …c7-c5 deviation. Based on the game, White might have as well just tried 6. Be2, but 6. Ne5 is promising. In van Wely–Reinderman, 2015, the game continued 6… Be7 7. g4 fxg4 and then 8. Bb5+ for a crazy game and a win for White. You can check out that game here.

6…Bd7 7. Be2 Nc6 8. Ne5 Be7 9. Nxd7

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Not wanting to allow a trade on e5, Gelfand makes a major concession here, trading off his best piece for Black’s worst. Even though White does get the pair of bishops, it’s not clear how the light squares will be important with the construct on d5-e6-f5.

9…Qxd7 10. dxc5

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Allowing Black to play …c5-c4 and box in the bishop on e2 would defeat the purpose of trading the knight away, so Gelfand releases the tension and takes a passive position.

10…O-O 11. O-O Bxc5 12. Na4 Bd6 13. c4 d4!

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Allowing the trade of the c- and d- pawns would allow White’s bishop to get back in the game, so this move leaves the pawn on c4 in its way. Furthermore, intuitively this is a great decision. When you are better developed than your opponent, sometimes the best way to capitalize is to open the position. While that usually favors the pair of bishops, here White’s structure and development isn’t coordinated enough to take full advantage.

14. exd4 Nxd4 15. Nc3 Rad8 16. Be3 Be5 17. Nb5 Nxb5 18. cxb5 Nd5 19. Bc5 Bxh2+!

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This pawn grab is enough to be decisive! Should White recapture on h2, …Qd7-c7+ is waiting, picking the c5 bishop back up.

20. Kh1 Bd6 21. Bxd6 Qxd6 22. Bf3 e5 23. Bxd5+ Qxd5 24. Qxd5+ Rxd5

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And the endgame was technical for White. I’ve attached the rest of the game with diagrams for the sake of completion.

25. Rac1 Rxb5 26. b3 g6 27. Rfd1

Black to Move
Black to Move

27…Rf7 28. Rc8+ Kg7 29. Rdd8 e4

White to Move

30. g3 Re5 31. Kg2 e3 32. fxe3 Rxe3

White to Move
White to Move

33. Rc2 Rfe7 34. Kf2 h5 35. Rb8

Black to Move
Black to Move

35…R3e6 36. Kf3 Kh6 37. Kf2 Kg5

White to Move
White to Move

38. Kf3 Re3+ 39. Kf2 Kg4 40. Rc4+ R3e4 41. Rbc8 g5 0-1

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What changed? Well, Black definitely took some initiative with 5… c5. While reaching the Stonewall position helps limit White’s light squared bishop, it was critical that Black take advantage of White lacking a pawn on c4. Just like some Veresov lines, White really lacks any dynamic play because he doesn’t have a way to contest the center. Through further research, most Super-GM success with 2. Nc3 against the Dutch is against lower rated players, so perhaps it’s just a weapon to catch a lower rated player off-guard or out of preparation.

So that answers the first question – when it comes to dynamic play, the straight-forward 2. c4 is favored. Look no further than last week’s post for proof!

Now, the h-pawn march against the Leningrad. What can Black do? Well first, let’s see the idea played in it’s true form, played by the sixth best player in the world, Hikaru Nakamura.

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I put together a post on reigning US Champions Hikaru Nakamura a couple weeks ago, click here to check it out!

Nakamura – Barron (Toronto Open, 2009)

1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3

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If you want to have the option of playing h2-h4 should Black choose the Leningrad, it’s important to insert this move. By doing so, White can play e2-e4 once he’s distracted the f6 knight.

3…g6 4.h4 Bg7 5.h5 Nxh5 6.e4

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Unlike my game on ICC, Nakamura chooses a much more finesse move order in 6. e4. Now when he sacrifices on h5, the queen can immediately recapture without having to wait a move.

6…fxe4 7.Rxh5 gxh5 8.Qxh5+ Kf8 9.Bh6

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In my game on ICC, Black fell apart when he traded his bishop on e5 for my knight, surrendering the dark squares. Here, Nakamura highlights the same principle, forcing the trade of Black’s best defender.

9…Bxh6 10.Qxh6+ Kg8 11.Qg5+ Kf7 12.Nxe4

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While White is still down an exchange, he has full compensation. Black has zero development and White’s pieces are already on the crime scene.

12…Qg8 13.Qf4+ Ke8 14.Qxc7 Nc6 15.O-O-O

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Well, king safety is important, but Nakamura’s point is to bring out the rook.

15…Qg6 16.Re1 Kf7 17.d5 Nb4 18.Nf3 d6??

This move seals Black's fate as e7 is now exposed to both the rook and the queen.
This move seals Black’s fate as e7 is now exposed to both the rook and the queen.

19.Neg5+ Kg8 20.Qd8+ Kg7 21.Rxe7+ Kh6 22.Nf7+

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Building the mating net. Already, if Black tries to win material with 22… Qxf7 23. Qxd6+ Qg6 24. Qf4+ and mate is inevitable on the next move.

22…Kh5 23.Re5+! dxe5 1-0

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Black resigned before White could complete his masterpiece, as 24. Qh4# ends the game. Nearly a miniature from the American, and not a convincing defense in sight.  So the question persists, what should Black do?

While Black has won games in this line, I can hardly see the middlegame positions being what Black desires from move 1. That’s why I’m going to suggest a different, more flexible move order for Black.

1.d4 f5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 d6!

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Not a brilliancy by Grandmaster-level thinking, but it turns out that this extra tempo takes White out of the line. The next move, 4. Nf3, the most common choice puts an end to the h2-h4 shenanigans since the sacrifice on h5 doesn’t work with the queen’s entry blocked.

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Should Black try 4… g6, 5. h4? makes little sense since the thematic e2-e4 push won’t work without Qd1-h5+.

While this move means Black must be prepared for different sidelines, it does mean that he gets more “Dutch-like” positions and can rely on intuition more than just pure calculation.

Well, that’s bad news for White – a great exchange sacrifice ‘refuted’ due to a slight move order change. In these past two weeks, I have easily been the most I’ve ever written about the Dutch. Expect a little bit of fresh air on Friday, it’s time to look at something new!

A Better Berlin: Handling 5. d4

In last Sunday’s video, I tried playing 1…e5 in response to the King’s Pawn opening. Without much theoretical knowledge of the Berlin, I quickly got bogged down in a worse position and on the clock. Though I got back into the game with a sacrifice on  g4, the position I reached isn’t desirable enough to want to play again. Let’s take a quick recap of what happened:

JoseBautista–leika (G/15 ICC, 2015)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6

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The Berlin of the Ruy Lopez. Since it is one of the most solid openings at the Grandmaster level, I decided to give it a try. I hadn’t studied Ruy Lopez theory in 8 years, and when I did it was for White. Back when I played against the Ruy Lopez, I opted for an immediate 3… a6.

4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4

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Already one out of book for me. While this move is one of the most popular ways to counter 4… Nxe4, I was only familiar with some of the 5. Re1 theory. And so here starts the Belin Wall, well – sort of.

Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nc4?

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The first inaccuracy that set the tone for the match. Main line, as we will see, is the much better 7… Nf5. In the video, I discussed the possibility of playing …Nc4-b6 and how playing …Nd6-f5 would block in my bishop, but this approach gave my opponent too many tempi. As we’ll see, Black aspires to play …b7-b6 and fianchetto the bishop for solidarity and good endgame play.

I’ll stop here since this questionable move already deviates from the Main Line which we will be discussing. When looking for a model game, I was lucky to find the Giri–Vachier-Lagrave match up from the London Chess Classic, in which Anish outplayed Maxime in a critical tiebreak match.

Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, both in the World’s top 10, have played each other many times – including the recent 2015 FIDE World Cup!

Vachier–Lagrave – Giri (London Chess Classic, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5

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Here gives us the critical move 7… Nf5 which makes Black’s position tenable. From here, the Black knight can attack the center without being easily kicked away (8. g4? would be a serious weakening). With the queens coming off the board, it’s important that Black has piece activity to make up for losing the right to castle.

8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8

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Let’s say the line ends here, as Giri’s remaining developing moves are intuitive, and could arguably be found over the board by any strong player. White has given up the pair of bishops and is in the endgame, but has some compensation. Beyond the doubled pawns on the c-file, Black is unable to castle, and needs time to develop to prove equality.

10.Nc3 h5

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What is this move? This h-pawn thrust is a prophylactic measure against any future idea for White involving g2-g4. With the game heading to an endgame, this idea is not as much of a weakening considering that the queens have been traded.

11.Ne2?!

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While this move plans to put the e2 knight in the center of the board, it’s kind of esoteric. This isn’t the most common move, as 11. Bf4 holds that honor, but it scores the same among ~2600 rated players.

11…b6 12.Rd1 Be7 13.Bg5 Bb7 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Black doesn’t really mind moving the king around so many times. As long as Giri’s king is safe and covers the d7 square, he’ll be fine. In fact, if you think about it, the king needs to be active in the endgame anyways. According to ChessBase’s online database, this immediate trade on e7 has never occured. While Black no longer has the pair of bishops, Anish has three “long-range” pieces compared to Vachier-Lagrave’s two.

15.Ned4 Nxd4 16.Nxd4 c5 17.Nb5 Rhc8

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Black’s last move to solidify. With all of his weaknesses covered, Giri is ready to start pushing …a7-a6 and then improve his position.

18.f4 Bc6 19.Nc3 Ke6 20.Kf2? h4!

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And just like that Black is arguably better! Should White try to play g2-g4 now, he would compromise his structure, leaving a static weakness on f4. Already, there are some ideas of …Rh8 in the position, with an idea of a rook lift to g6.

21.a4 Kf5 22.Ke3 Re8

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Both …Rd8 and …Re8 were perfectly acceptable here, but this move takes the most principled approach. With the rook on the same file as the king, White must find an answer for …f7-f6, ruining White’s hold on the center.

23.Nd5 Rac8 24.Rd2 f6 25.Rf1 fxe5 26.fxe5+ Kg5!!

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Maxime must have missed this. If Black takes on e5 immediately with the king, it stands in the center of the board, in the crossfire of both of Black’s rooks. Now should White try to protect the e5 pawn with 27. Ke4, he will lose to 27… Rxe5+!! as 28. Kxe5 is mate after 28… Re8#. What an idea! With White forced to play passively, the rest of the game is a matter of technique.

Giri won the game later on move 43, in what was arguably his best game of the tournament. While the victory may have been sweet, it was short-lived, as Maxime went on to win the next two tiebreak games, sending him to the final against Magnus Carlsen.

So what does this game tell us about the Berlin? Let’s take a look at the structure after move 17.

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If you’re wondering why so many Grandmasters play the Berlin, you should start here. Structurally, Black is more solid and his king, thanks to the early queen trade is already in the center. With all of his early dynamic play, White has yet to define his structure, leaving his e5 pawn seemingly hyper-extended. If we think about how Vachier-Lagrave attacked Black’s weaknesses (17. Nb5), the threat of the c7 and a7 pawns only slowed Giri’s play but didn’t cause him long term problems, so already that position is at least equal. Let’s take this position to the next level.

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Since White decided to give up the bishop pair with 6. Bxc6, we must also take this into consideration. While this minor piece endgame may be arguably tenable, it is clear that again, only Black can play for a win as the bishop dominates white’s knight. So with this assessment, we can say that Black is better in most Berlin Endgames.

Here’s another game where Black proved that solidarity was more important than initiative.

Teimour Radjabov (right), of Azerbaijan, is in the world’s top 30. Known for his opening preparation, let’s see what he had ready for the 2015 World Cup winner, Sergey Karjakin.

Karjakin – Radjabov (World Rapid Chess Championships, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Rd1+

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Our deviation from the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri game. Here Karjakin immediately asserts control of the d-file with a forcing move. While an easy move to play, it does have the drawback that Black already wants to get his king off the d-file. So while White develops, Black gets to improve his position.

Ke8 10.Nc3 h5 11.Bg5

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Radjabov’s last move, …h7-h5, set his intentions of playing a long game – just like Giri. Karjakin, knowing that he would not be favored in the endgame, plays with gusto, immediately developing his pieces with threats along the way. But can initiative overpower Radjabov’s solidarity?

11…Be7 12.Ne2 Bd7

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Radjabov can’t exactly afford to play pedantically. While …b7-b6 followed by fianchettoing the bishop is far more natural, here, its much more important that Teimour gets his rooks into the game. Note that 12… Be6? would be punished by 13. Nf4! as the bishop for knight trade would give away Black’s long-term advantage.

13.Nf4 Rd8 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Again we see the thematic exchange of dark-squared bishops. By getting his own bishop off the board, Karjakin intends to play Nf3-g5 to keep the initiative. While White’s pieces are seemingly more active, he runs into the issue that he just doesn’t have enough pieces.

15.Ng5 Rh6

 

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A weird looking move but a necessary one as e5-e6 (a theme that White missed in my video) is no longer possible. Objectively, the position is equal since Black is held down by White’s knights, but its Karjakin”s desire to fall that proves his undoing.

16.g3 Rf8 17.Rd3 Bc8

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Black doesn’t have much to do here, but Radjabov’s point is that White can’t either. Black’s only weakness is the d-file, but as many of you know, you need two weaknesses to win a game of chess.

18.Re1 Re8 19.f3 Kf8

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With a safe king, Radjabov can just make improving moves on the queenside.

20.Kf2 a6 21.h3 Ne7!

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A multi-faceted move. First, it gets out of the way of any g3-g4 pushes. Second, it prepares …Ne7-g6 attacking the e5 pawn and offering a trade of knights to simplify the endgame in Black’s favor.

22.g4?! hxg4 23.hxg4

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I’m not sure if I agree with White’s g3-g4 push. While seemingly naturally, it makes Black’s h-rook more active and ignores the idea of …Ng6. By simplifying the endgame, the game gets easier for Radjabov, not Karjakin.

23…Ng6 24.Nxg6+ Rxg6 25.Nh3 Rh6 26.Nf4 Rh2+

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In just a few moves, Black has maximized his advantage after a single trade and claiming the h-file. White may already have to play for equality.

27.Ng2 Ke7 28.Re2 Reh8 29.Ke3 R8h3 30.Nf4 Rxe2+ 31.Kxe2 Rh2+ 32.Kd1 g6

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Only on the better side of equal, Black defines his structure while White wonders how to fix his overall passivity.

33.Rd2 Rh1+ 34.Ke2 a5 35.Ke3 b6

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Maintaining flexibility. Black can move the bishop to a6 for play and has a solid structure to back it.

36.Ne2 Bd7 37.Ng3 Rh3 38.Rg2 Be6 39.b3 a4!

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A nice idea, aiming to weaken White’s queenside pawn structure. If Radjabov can trade the last pair of rooks, he’ll reach a bishop v knight endgame where only he can stand better.

40.Ne4 Rh1 41.Nf6 Ra1 42.c3 axb3 43.axb3 Re1+ 44.Re2 Rxe2+ 45.Kxe2 Bxb3

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Now with a material advantage, Radjabov has a win to play for in the classical Berlin Endgame. Black went on to win 23 moves later.

So what do these games tell us about playing the Berlin as Black?

  1. The Berlin won’t win games quickly. As evidenced by both games, endgame technique and defence are two critical skills needed to play the Berlin effectively. Black didn’t get an advantage until White erred playing for an edge.
  2. Patience in the key. Remember, the main reason why the Berlin is popular for Black is because the computer gives it a favorable evaluation with the computer. Once the queens come off the board, the game is about strategic gains for either side as White tries to compensate for losing the bishop pair.
  3. A Berlin Endgame is a good endgame. The biggest positive from today’s article. If White can’t effectively prove his compensation, he will be tortured in an uphill positional battle.

Expert vs. Expert: Knowing Your Structures

For today’s video, I wanted to share a game I played against an expert at the Pittsburgh Chess Club last Tuesday. I find this game to be particularly instructive since Black’s pawn structure dictated the pace of the game, as his pawn on c6 weighed down his development as I proceeded to find forcing moves and assemble my pieces for an attack. Hope you all enjoy!