Endgame Essentials: Dramatic, not Drawmatic!

If I’m totally honest, I don’t think I learned to fully appreciate rapid tournaments until this year. It took three tournaments to change my mind: the 2015 Chess World Cup, the Ultimate Blitz competition featuring Garry Kasparov, and today, the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Paris. Unlike longer time control games, rapid chess emphasizes strong, practical play, and takes the spotlight off of brilliant opening preparation. At this level of competition, winning implicitly requires two elements: accurate calculation and the ability to convert better endgames. In the first day of competition alone, I found five endgames worth sharing and wanted to break down each of their critical moments in today’s critical endgame posts. Remember, as we move through each game, take a minute to assess the various defining features of the position: activity, solidarity, king safety, and ability to improve.

Magnus’ only loss of the day occurred in his first game in Paris. While Wesley had his struggles later in the tournament, it was Carlsen who had the last laugh, finishing the day tied for first! Courtesy: ChessBase

For our first endgame, we start with the protagonist of the story thus far, Magnus Carlsen. While his Grand Chess Tour started with an eerily similar first round, it’s important to not overlook the accuracy he brought to this endgame against Wesley So’s particularly stingy defense.

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Carlsen–So, Paris 2016

White to Move

On face value, the position seems fairly equal. After trading rooks on e8, the position provides us with a symmetrical pawn structure and equal material. However, two elements stand in the way of the American achieving full equality. First, the bishop on a7 is dormant, pushed away from the action thanks to the bishop on g3 and the pawn on d4. Furthermore, his pawn on b7 is backward, and can easily become a target should White move his knight to c5 in the future. Black’s plan here is to march his king to c8 to cover b7 and prepare …Ba7-b8, and with only one real structural weakness in the position, should have enough to hold a draw. Magnus can’t really do too much to stop this idea, so he makes the most of his turn with his next move, 27. a4!

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The easiest way to improve the position! Here Magnus plans a2-a4-a5 with the idea of fixing the queenside pawn structure, particularly the b7 pawn. While Wesley will be able to trade dark-squared bishops, the downside will be that the dark squares in his structure will be weak, and White will gain time to put further pressure on b7. 27…Qe7 28. a5 Kd8 29. Qd1 Qe4 30. Kh2 Ne7 31. Qb3

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Neither side is really in a rush to convert or prove anything, so each side marked time by improving their respective positions. Magnus by making his king safer and fixing the b7 pawn, Wesley by centralizing his queen and bringing his king closer to c8. Here Carlsen offers his knight since 31…Qxd3? 32. Qxb7 is close to lost for Black. The bishop on a7 is still trapped, and the queenside pawns are falling. Here Black correctly chose to continue his plan. 31…Kc8 32. Qb4 Qe6 33. Nf4 Qf7

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Wesley may be moving backward, but he still boasts a solid defense. As long as he has only one weakness, it will be very difficult for Magnus to make progress. In the next “phase” So executes the dark-squared bishop, and the f4 knight finds the c5 square. 34. Kg1 Bb8 35. Nd3 Bxg3 36. fxg3 Nf5 37. g4 Ng3 38. Nc5 Again, the game is relatively equal, and Wesley has put up the toughest defense we’ve seen in this series thus far.

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White counterintuitively doubled his pawns, giving the Black knight targets from f5. While I appreciate the idea of compactness, I think this structural decision made life for Magnus a little more complicated. Instead of 34. Kg1, perhaps he could have considered other prophylactic resources, but in this position, he’s still doing fine. White now has the pressure he wants on b7, but the problem now is that his pawn structure closes his army off from the kingside, giving Wesley the break 38…h5 39. gxh5 and the natural 39…Qe7. But as it turns out, this gives Magnus a tactical opportunity in 40. Ne6!. These moves are hard to find in rapid play, so I can’t really blame Carlsen for the miss.

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Anyways, this move would have been an amazing find. By revealing a discovered attack on the queen, Black’s options are limited. Already we can see that 40…Qxe6 41. Qf8+ Kd7 42. Qxg7+ will win back the knight back and retain a healthy pawn advantage. More critical was 40… Ne2+ 41. Kf2 Qxe6 41. Qf8+ Kd7 42. Qxg7+ where White doesn’t pick up the knight, but the h-pawn is simply unstoppable (see diagram).

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Position after 42. Qxg7+, Black is powerless to stop the h-pawn and must return material.

Black can consider 40… Qxb4, but the knight and pawn endgame is worse for Black after 41. cxb4 Nxh5 42. g4 Ng3 43. Kf2! stopping the fork on e2, and once the g7 pawn falls, White’s h-pawn becomes a headache. That being said, these moves are really unnatural but I like how it highlights flaws in Black’s position. Black has two concrete weaknesses, b7 and g7, and the task of covering both of them is extremely difficult if White plays the best moves.

Instead, Carlsen chose 40. Kf2 and the game continued. 40…Nf5 41. g4 Qe3+ and equality was temporarily reached.

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One of the problems with Magnus’ position in this game was that his focus on b7 dragged his pieces away from protecting his king, thus allowing Black to infiltrate through the center. Surprisingly, Black can’t coordinate his knight and queen to deliver mate, but he has many perpetual options. Given the nature of rapid chess, Wesley naturally tried for a win by improving his position with  42. Kf1 Qxh3+ 43. Ke1 Qg3+ 44. Kd2 Nd6

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The retreat not only protects b7, but it intends to reroute the knight to either e4 or c4 in the future. For those trying to find better for Black, it’s quite difficult since Qb4xb7 is a constant threat, and defending the b7 requires a passive retreat. I was really surprised with how quickly Carlsen made his next move, but it makes a lot of sense. After 45. Nxb7! Carlsen gives himself a lot of chances. If 45…Nxb7 46. Qf8+ wins the g7 pawn, and again we see the danger of the passed h-pawn. With best play, Black should be able to find a perpetual, but it’s in these complications Wesley finally errs and his position goes south. 45. Qg2+ 46. Kc1 Qf1+ 47. Kc2 Qe2+ 48. Kc1 Qe1+ 49. Kc2 Qe4+ 50. Kb3 Nxb7 51. Qf8+ Kc7 52. Qxg7+ Kb8

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The position is in the balance, but can Wesley make the correct net to force perpetual before the h-pawn promotes?

53. h6 Qd3? +-

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I was watching the live commentary from St. Louis at this moment, and was surprised they didn’t scrutinize this moment, because once this move is made, Wesley can never hope to recover. Black should have been able to find 53…Nxa5+ 54. Ka2 Qd1, the idea being that White cannot stop all the checks on a4, b3, and d1, so perpetual is forced. The problem with Wesley’s move is that it does nothing to improve his position. His next move, 54…Qb1 shows he wasted a tempo, and unfortunately, it’s enough to ensure Magnus a second queen. 54. Ka3 Qb1 55. h7 Qa1+ 56. Kb3 Qd1+ 57. Kb4 Ka7

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With no more checks in the position, Wesley moves his king away from a future check. Both players were in severe time trouble, but it was still a surprise when the game suddenly concluded after 58. h8=Q Qa1 0-1 and it was Black who had won, not White (see diagram)!

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With about twenty seconds left (not to mention a ten-second increment), Carlsen found himself stuck between 59. Qxb7+ and 59. Qh2, both of which were completely winning. In a moment of curiosity, Carlsen decided to look at Qh8-h2 into more depth, and completely forgot about the clock, letting his time reach zero!

Despite the drama, the reigning World Champion played a great game, pushing Wesley each move to find the best moves. So, of course, played solidly as well, but as we’ve seen so many times this series, one mistake in the endgame can quite often be unforgivable. Accuracy counts, and at the end of the day, it’s what goes on the scoresheet.

The day proved to be good for the host nation. After five rounds, Laurent Fressinet had beaten Fabiano Caruana, and MVL had scored 6/10 (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw), tied for third with four games left. Courtesy: ChessBase

Our next three examples all occurred in the third round, and each provided instructive moments.

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Fressinet–Caruana, Paris 2016

White to Move

After what had already been a complicated rook and pawn endgame, we see that the Black king’s inability to get into the game is causing Caruana great difficulties. The live commentary team in St. Louis found some nice ideas to potentially reach equality earlier in the game, but already it’s too late. The French wild card needed to get his king off of b8, and played 51. Rc1 to prepare Kb8-c8 and promote his pawn. Once again, Fabiano tried the interference idea of 51…Rc3, but now with the rook to the right side of the pawn, White won with 52. Rxc3 h1=Q 53. Kc8 Qh8+ 54. Kc7 Qh2 55. Rc5 Qxf2

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White to Move

56. Rc6 Qa7 57. Kc8 Qa4 58. Rc7+ Kg6 59. b8=Q

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 19.40.49And Fressinet went on to convert the material and win the game. So what was the difference between taking on c3 and a3 you may ask? Well, winning or not to put it simply. If Fressinet had played 51. Rxa3? his rook doesn’t have a check on c7, and after 51…h1=Q 52. Ka7 Qc1,

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White cannot hope to promote the pawn and keep his material advantage. Again, accuracy is the critical difference between winning and drawing.

Having proven himself to be a very capable escape artist, Wesley So once again found himself in trouble against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Unlike his lucky break against Magnus, he failed to find any miracles and lost this pawn down queen ending.

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So–Vachier-Lagrave, Paris 2016

White to Move

I decided to insert this game since Black still has to be careful. Between pushing the c-pawn and avoiding perpetual checks, Maxime must also cover the f7 pawn, which makes his task a little more difficult. On the bright side, all queen trades are winning for Black, so it will be very difficult for White to create serious pressure. Wesley start his defense by playing 39. Qa1+ to maneuver the queen to f6 and directly attack f7. 39…Kh7 40. Qf6 Qd5 41. g3 c5 42. Kf1 c4

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Black is making progress, but his position is also easier to play now. With the c- and f-pawns both protected by the queen, MVL can take a few moves to improve his position. 43. Ke2 Kg8 44. Qc3 h5 45. h4 Kf8 46. Qe3 Qd6

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Here Maxime has made a little bit of progress, but now he must figure out how to make his king more active. After, 47. Qc3 Qc5 48. Qe3 Qd5 49. Qd2 Qe5+ 50. Kd1, it turns out that Wesley can do little to stop the advancing Black monarch.

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50…Ke7 with the threat of …Qe5-d6! 51. Kc2 Ke6 52. f4 Qd5 0-1

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 20.11.46Perhaps at the expert level, White can hope to play on, but this endgame is lost. Black’s king will waltz to g4 and pick up all of White’s kingside pawns, and White can’t stop all of Black’s pawns. Wesley resigned, leaving us one more great endgame from the round.

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Carlsen–Aronian, Paris 2016

 Black to Move

With a little help from the computer, GM Eric Hansen had a nice find here in 29…Qa1!, which should draw after 30. Qc5 Qa7 31. Qb5 Qa1 with repetition. The real idea is that 30. Qxb7 Qxc3 31. Qxc7 at least offers Black a lot of activity and decent drawing chances. But of course, Stockfish doesn’t play for us in tournaments, and the natural 29…Qa8 was played, giving White a nice edge since his pieces can be activated faster than Black’s. Skip ahead a few moves, and Black found himself completely paralyzed.

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White to Move

I really liked this moment of the game, as Carlsen realized that his would be much safer on the kingside, not to mention, an incredible for the b-pawn. 50. Ke2! Kg7 51. Kd3 Ng8 52. Ne8+ Kh8 53. Kc4 h5

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As Black begins to open the kingside, it’s Magnus’ king that has found refuge, and the entirety of Aronian’s position submits itself to passivity. The next part of Magnus’ plan is to capture the c6 pawn and use his passed b-pawn to limit Black’s queen. 54. gxh5 Qh6 55. Qxc6 Qd2 56. hxg6

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In trying to create activity, Black has to give up his g-pawn. While Black may have some checks now, he has the constant issue that ideas like Qg7 and Qh7 are checkmate! Just like our first Endgame Essentials post, king safety proves to be Aronian’s undoing. 56…Qe2+ 57. Kc5 Qxf2+ 58. Kb5 Qxg3 59. Qd7 Qxg6 60. Ka5

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Black may have regained his pawn by force, but the threat on g7 is constant, and the Black knight can’t help Aronian salvage the position. 60…Qg3 61. b5 Qc3+ 62. Ka6 Qa3+ 63. Kb7 Qg3

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Once again highlighting Black’s problems. Whenever Aronian runs out of checks, he must return to the defense of g7, giving White a tempo to push his b-pawn further down the board. 64. b6 Qg6 65. Ka7 f5 66. exf5

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I was really impressed watching Magnus here. Basically everything wins here, but after Aronian’s f-pawn push, he stopped, calculated and found the move that allowed the least amount of counterplay. A great micro-moment from Magnus here that showed his master class despite the rapid time controls. 66…Qg3 67. f6 Qa3+ 68. Kb8 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 20.37.07With no complications to offer, Aronian threw in the towel here, as both the b- and f-pawns are preparing to promote and sink the ship that is Black’s position. With a win here, Magnus won a second straight, proving he was completely unfazed by his surprising first round “defeat”.

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In his three-game winning streak, Magnus proved he was still the player to beat, having dominated each of the four opponents he had played up to that point.

For our fifth and final endgame, I wanted to share a nice idea found by the commentary team that shows a benefit of the opposite-colored bishop ending. In this fifth round encounter, an early slip from Magnus gave Hikaru Nakamura an opportunity to press before cashing in on a draw. While the engines do agree that the position has relative equality, from a more human point of view, Black had a nice geometrical idea to press even further.

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Carlsen–Nakamura, Paris 2016

Black to Move

Here Black settled for a perpetual with 33…Qg5+ 34. Kf1 Qc1+ and so forth. Here, Black could have tried 33…Qh2+ 34. Kf1 Qxh3+ 35. Ke2 Qh2

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In this position, White has an extra pawn but the queen and bishop battery actually stop each of White’s pawns from making progress (b8, d6, and f4 are all covered, so promotion is not a threat from White. Black would put his queen on f4 to overprotect f7, followed by pushing the h-pawn. Nakamura would still have a lot to prove, but it’s clear he has nothing to lose.

Wow, what a day! I suspect tomorrow has even greater games in store, featuring a Carlsen–Kramnik clash, as well as Caruana–Nakamura. With the way he’s been playing, I suspect Magnus to hold his lead after four rounds tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see if Nakamura can keep up!

Putting Together the Pieces: A Historic US Chess Championships

Well, it’s finally here! The US Chess Championships start under way this week, and with Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So competing among the best players in the country, I’m looking forward to this tournament more than Norway Chess.

Here’s the field:

Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Sam Shankland, Ray Robson, Gata Kamsky, Varuzhan Akobian, Alexander Onischuk, Aleksander Lenderman, Jeffrey Xiong, Alexander Shabalov, and Akshat Chandra.

So where to begin? Let’s start with the former World Championship Candidates Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura.

Caruana and Nakamura are the runaway favorites for the event, but don’t let that fool you! It will be interesting to see how the conclusion of the Candidates effects each player’s stamina.

Nakamura, the defending US Champion, may feel like he has the most to prove given a mediocre finish at the Candidates Tournament last month. While his even score drew criticism, I think given his -2 start, his performance was more of a sign of strength than a weakness.

I’m a little more concerned about Caruana. While he fell just short of getting the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship, he missed a lot of winning opportunities – in particular against Topalov – which ultimately cost him the event. This is a field that won’t forgive Caruana, and without much time to prepare for his opponents I’m curious to see how he’ll finish. Remember last year’s Millionaire Open? Caruana fans, you have your warning.

Without an appearance at the Candidates Tournament, Wesley So might be the most prepared player for this event. Still a top ten caliber player, So will want to avenge his disappointing showing last year by walking away from St. Louis a US Champion. There’s still a considerable gap between him and the likes of Nakamura and Caruana, but I fully expect him to bounce back.

If there’s one dark horse contender, it’s Ray Robson. In last year’s event, the Webster student placed second, only a half point behind Nakamura. Recently coming off a Final Four win, Robson should surprise again if he can keep the momentum going.

Predicting my Top Five:

  1. Hikaru Nakamura
  2. Wesley So
  3. Ray Robson
  4. Fabiano Caruana
  5. Sam Shankland

Opening Exploration: Navigating the Najdorf

To follow up on last Tuesday’s video, I put together an analysis on the Be3 Najdorf, with improvements for Black. For those of you that missed the video, make sure to check out White’s refutation of my set-up:

For those of you who saw it, here are some of the highlights:

DarwinEvolution–leika (G/15 Internet Chess Club)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 Nf6 6. Be3 e5 7. Nb3 Be7 8. f3

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This will be the tabiya position for today’s post. In the game, I veered off with 8… Nbd7, but today I will suggest the main line, 8… Be6.

8…Nbd7 9. Qd2 Qc7 10. g4 h6 11. O-O-O b5 12. Kb1 Bb7 13. a3 Rd8 14. Qf2!

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And now Black is paralyzed! No longer able to play …Nb6 to push …d7-d5, I no longer have an active plan, and must wait for White to take action.

I could have tried to insert …Nb6 earlier, with the idea of reaching c4, but even in those lines, my light squared bishop is slightly misplaced. Why did I go for this set-up? Let’s take a field trip back to the third video I ever posted to chess^summit, back in October 2014:

In that game, the set-up was justified in that game because White not only wasted several tempi but also with a bishop on e2, the Qf2 idea was never possible. That game was actually one of the last times I employed the Najdorf, so I never really worried about going beyond the analysis I had at that time.

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So that brings us back to the tabiya position. As I mentioned before, Black’s bishop is slightly misplaced on b7, so here 8…Be6 is the much more logical step going forward. Note how I can still play for …d7-d5 if the opportunity presents itself, but I also get more space on the queenside, while eying the b3 knight for a potential trade. With the bishop on b7, White can play a2-a3 to stop the b-pawn push without worrying about opening the c-file.

Our first game is from the 2013 Tal Memorial, featuring Boris Gelfand with Black against Fabiano Caruana.

One thing you should note about this opening is that unlike my other analysis posts, the calculation must be much more concrete. The Najdorf is not for the faint-hearted, and will punish the tactically weak!

Caruana–Gelfand (Tal Memorial, 2013)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f3 e5 7. Nb3 Be6 8. Be3 Be7 9. Qd2 O-O

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Thanks to modern computer analysis, castling is the most popular option for Black. While the play is sharp, Black’s king is actually safe with best play.

10. O-O-O Nbd7 11. g4 b5 12. g5 b4!

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The key to handling a race position is to not be afraid to be persistent! Black doesn’t have time to waste and immediately attacks White’s knight, leaving his own under attack.

13. Ne2 Ne8 14. f4 a5 15. f5 a4!

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Same idea again! While White’s attack is scary, Black has also gained a lot of momentum. It’s important to not reward White for simply going first.

16. fxe6 axb3 17. cxb3 fxe6

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What just happened? Black opened the a-, c-, and f-files for his rooks while simultaneously liquidating White’s pawn storm. Black’s queenside pawns were also traded down, but offer Gelfand a lot of tactical opportunities.

18. Bh3 Rxa2 19. Bxe6+ Kh8

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White also gained from the earlier trading. For White to make progress, he must take advantage of Black’s lack of a light squared bishop.

20. Ng3 Nc7 21. Bc4 Qa8

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The computer assesses this position as equal, but one of the great things about the Najdorf is that the positions are very rich, as each side take turns attacking the other.

22. Rhf1 Rxf1 23. Rxf1 Ra1+ 24. Kc2 Rxf1 25. Bxf1 d5!

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Black justifies giving up the bishop pair by making the thematic …d6-d5 push, eliminating his main structural weakness.

26. h4 d4 27. Bg1 Ne6 28. Qe2?

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Who would have thought that this would be the critical mistake? A seemingly innocuous choice from Caruana but this move gives Black a key tempo. By not maintaining pressure on the b4 pawn, Black gets time to put a knight on c5, as well as threaten …d4-d3.

28…Ndc5 29. Qc4 Nf4!!

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Black’s knight’s are both active while Caruana’s bishops have yet to join the fray. What’s wrong with 30. Qxb4? Gelfand must have seen 30…Bf8! protecting the bishop while threatening a discovery. Black is winning in that line after 31. Qc4 Qa2 -+ as Black can’t easily stop the c5 knight from coming into d3.

30. Qf7 Qf8 31. Qc4 g6 32. Bf2 Ne2!!

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Another punishing blow from Gelfand! If White takes the knight, he must be prepared for the black queen to enter the 2nd rank by taking the bishop on f2. Caruana chose the only move to try and hold the fort.

33. Nh1 d3+ 34. Kd1 Qf3

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Now busting through the kingside, Gelfand has managed to win on both sides of the board. At this point, it’s just technical.

35. Bxc5 Qxf1+ 36. Kd2 Nf4!

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A quiet move – Black plans to put the queen on e2 and follow through with checkmate, so White doesn’t have time to grab the bishop.

37. Ng3 Qg2+ 38. Kc1

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38. Bxe7 would have lost on account of 38… Qe8#

38…Qxg3 39. Kb1 Ne2 40. Qf7 Qe1+ 41. Ka2 Nc3+ 0-1

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Caruana resigned. There’s simply no way for White to make use of his active pieces, as a sample line would go 42. bxc3 Qd2+ 43. Kb1 Qc2+ 44. Ka1 Qxc3+ 45. Ka2 Qxc5, and the d-pawn will promote with no three-fold chances for White.

What does this game tell us about the Be3 lines of the Najdorf? Well, it’s extremely tactical, and Black can’t play submissively if he has any aspirations of winning. Another aspect I will mention is that to play the Najdorf takes a lot of preparation – for each side; working with computers, reading manuscripts, analysis far deeper than the post I have provided you with today.

I stopped playing the Najdorf shortly after breaking 1900, because I found that it simply put too much emphasis on opening knowledge when playing 2000+ rated opponents, and the Bg5 lines alone gave me enough of a headache to stop. If you’re looking for a fun, easy opening to learn, this definitely isn’t it.

Free Game Analysis: Practical Decision Making

For today’s post, I wanted to do a free game analysis, but this time, for some much more experienced players. If you would like to have your games analyzed on the site, make sure to send your PGNs to chess.summit@gmail.com!

With the London Chess Classic under way, the world’s best have been competing in the final leg of the inaugural World Chess Tour. While there’s a lot on the line, I’ve noticed a lot of mistakes from the first few rounds – first with Anand-Carlsen, but even more so yesterday with Topalov-Caruana.

Caruana and Topalov are no strangers to each other, having played 11 times before meeting in London.

For today’s post, I’d like to highlight the importance of being practical by showing the round 3 duel between the Bulgarian and the American.

Topalov – Caruana (London Chess Classic, 2015)

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

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The Berlin Defense has been the most common response to the Ruy Lopez this tournament. Known for its solidarity and ability to reach good endgame positions, Black has had a lot of success in defending against 1 e4 over the last decade.

4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 O-O 6.Nbd2 d6 7.h3 Ne7 8.d4 Bb6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qe2 Ng6

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I’m no Ruy Lopez theoretician, but it doesn’t take much to see that Black’s already equalized. Needing to cover the f4 square, Topalov chose 11. g3. This move comes with the disadvantage that White’s kingside can become a target while White figures out how to develop his queenside army.

11.g3 Qe7 12.Bd3

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An awkward move, but given White’s plan, it’s probably the right approach. Topalov wants to trade his dark squared bishop for Caruana’s menacing b6 bishop. To do this, Veselin will play Nd2-c4 followed by Bc1-e3 so the knight can recapture on e3. Retreating the bishop before playing Nd2-c4 means Topalov doesn’t need to worry about …a7-a6 or …c7-c6.

12…a5 13.Nc4 Bc5 14.Be3 Rd8!

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I like this move from Caruana! Though he can’t stop White’s plan to trade bishops, he can continue to develop his pieces. By not taking on e3, White has to spend one more tempo to capture on c5. Meanwhile, Black has castled, completed most of his development, and is uncontested for the d-file.

15.Bxc5 Qxc5 16.Ne3 h6 17.O-O-O Be6 18.Kb1 b5

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The most natural move for Black. With a hook on c3, Black plunges forward on the queenside with plans of breaking through. Caruana isn’t objectively better yet, but his position is easier to play – making one wonder what Topalov really got out of the opening.

19.c4

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A typical defensive measure from Topalov. Black doesn’t really gain that much from trading on c4, and should Caruana push (like he did in the game), a queenside break becomes impossible! …a4-a3-a2 will be met by b2-b3, and …b4-b3 will be met by a2-a3, either way locking up the structure. Though Topalov has succeeded in defending the queenside attack, his light squared bishop is held in by his own e4 and c4 pawns.

19…b4 20.Nd5 Nd7 21.Ne1 c6??

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Maybe two question marks are too much, but even I found an improvement before Caruana made this move. Caruana’s intentions are simple. Let’s take a look at the pawn structure.
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Here we have what resembles a standard Maroczy position. If you think about weak squares in the position, White has a clear hole on d4, which would be a great square for a knight (Want to see an example? check out one of my earlier articles here). Meanwhile, with Fabiano’s move …c7-c6, Topalov does not have the same option of putting a piece on d5. If you go back to the game position, Caruana’s knight on g6 can reach d4 via g6-f8-e6-d4. So everything is simple, right?
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What Caruana failed to realize was that after 22. Nc7 he loses his grip on the position. Once White takes on e6, Black gets doubled isolated pawns while also losing his easiest route for the g6 knight to reach d4.
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21… Rc8 was my recommendation during the game, which I actually came up with during the game! Now Caruana can play …c6 next move and White’s knight is forced to return to e3. Generally, when your opponent is cramped, you don’t want to trade pieces. Here White’s knight on d5 will have to retreat, and meanwhile, what exactly can Topolav do? Perhaps Caruana was worried about 22. f4 exf4 not allowing f4-f5, 23. gxf4 but here 23… Bxd5 wins the f4 pawn. It’s definitely risky, but certainly better than what happened in the game. Stockfish suggests 21… a4, but seeing as the queenside attack is not going to infiltrate White’s king, I don’t think this is the most logical way to proceed.

22.Nc7 Rac8 23.Nxe6 fxe6 24.h4

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Topalov here threatens h4-h5 asking Caruana where his g6 knight will go to now that the e6 square is occupied. Already, it’s becoming clear that 21… c6 hasn’t panned out tactically.

24…Rf8 25.Bc2 Qe7 26.Nd3 Nc5 27.Qe3 Nxd3 28.Rxd3 Rfd8 29.Rhd1

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Topalov’s play here is quite simple. Since Black’s g6-knight can’t make it to d4, White infiltrates through the center.

29…Rxd3 30.Qxd3 Nf8 31.Ba4 Qc5 32.Rd2 Kf7 33.Bd1 Ra8 34.Qd6!

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A great move! Endgames will favor white, but if Caruana avoids the trade, his e5 pawn falls, weakening both his structure and his grip on d4. Black has had no compensation for Topalov’s play the last few moves.

34…Qxc4 35.Qxe5 Qb5 36.Qc7+ Kg8 37.Qd6 a4 38.Be2 Qb6 39.Bc4!

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Topalov has been playing phenomenally thus far – Now this bishop move helps Topalov both blockade Black’s queenside expansion while targeting the e6 pawn. Black will never be able to kick this bishop, so now Topalov gets to improve his static advantage.

39…Re8 40.Qd4 c5 41.Qd6 Qb7 42.f3 a3 43.Rd3?

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There’s no need for this! 43. b3 was easily the most natural move. While the computer may not be as punitive, this move was a sign of bad things to come.

43…axb2 44.Kxb2 Kh7 45.Kc2

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It was at this juncture where Maurice Ashley reminded the audience of a classic game between Tigran Petrosian and Wolfgang Unzicker played back in 1960. That game featured a king march to safety before going for the attack. Here, Black’s kingside pawns are extremely weak but taking them would open files to the White king. Ideally, Topalov would like his king on g2 before taking the pawns, and Caruana really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of counterplay.

45…Rc8! 46.Ba6?!

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Caruana laid out the bait and Topalov bit! While Topalov goes up a rook, opening the a-file for Caruana’s queen is extremely dangerous. I’m pretty sure Veselin saw the next few moves during the game – but did he feel more confident about the resulting position than he did about his positional advantage? I’m not so sure. My best guess is that White got impatient and assumed he was winning at the end of the line.

46…Qa7 47.Bxc8 Qxa2+ 48.Kd1 c4

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And Black managed to draw after another 35 moves – you can check the endgame here.

While this was a long game for both players, I thought that there were valuable lessons for players of all levels.

1) Look for all of your opponent’s forcing moves!

Imagine if Fabiano took 22.Nc7 seriously before pushing …c7-c6. This game could have not only ended faster but with a different result. Caruana’s structural integrity posed legitimate problems for Topalov, and I think he could have gone on to win the match.

2) Maintain your static advantages!

From when Topalov played 24. h4, he played great chess before playing 43. Rd3. With the static advantage, White only needed to maneuver around and improve his position while Black struggled to find counterplay. Once he allowed the queenside to open up with …axb2, Caruana got options and eventually tricked White with 45…Rc8.

3) Don’t get impatient.

I think when Topalov played 45. Kc2, he knew he was winning. All White had to do was execute his idea of bringing the king over to the kingside before taking affirmative action. 46. Ba6 is tempting, but Topalov should have known better than go for a line with complications. This decision, as the engine shows, loses the initiative, and cost Topalov a much-needed half point.

Want a cool way to study while watching the London Chess Classic? Try to put yourself in both players shoes! Ask yourself how to address the weaknesses in the position and then compare your moves to the moves made in the game. It’s not easy, but after a while you become more accurate. It was through this exercise I actually found the improvement 21… Rac8 for Caruana. I also liked Carlsen’s game today against Michael Adams. While that game was a draw, I thought Magnus got a very playable position with the white pieces, and I encourage you all to check it out!

China’s Ascension to the Top

I thought for today’s post, I’d share an ongoing development in chess – China’s sudden emergence as one of the world’s strongest national teams. China really caught my eye this summer with Wei Yi’s immortal game against Bruzon Batista, in addition to their 29-21 thumping of Russia last July. While the national team lost steam in their match against eventual World Cup winner Sergey Karjakin, I feel like the World Cup tiebreaker between Wei Yi and Ding Liren more than demonstrated the true strength that the country has to offer.

China has had a lot to offer to chess over the last few years, but their top players haven’t emerged at the top level tournaments on a regular basis (i.e. Sinquefield Cup, 2015 FIDE Grand Prix, Gashimov Memorial, etc). Former Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan may prove to be an exception, but her performances in the recent Tata Steel and the Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting proved she has a long ways to go to compete with the very best.

Two time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan may be one of the most famous players in China besides Wei Yi, but who else is ready to compete at the top level?

When I was younger (seven years ago), I remember hearing a lot about Bu Xiangzhi through the Internet Chess Club summaries of major tournaments – particularly a game he played against Vassily Ivanchuk, where he managed to lose in the first nine moves! Bu for the most part has not been active on the highest level since 2010, but since then, quite a few young players have drawn the spotlight of the Chinese chess scene: Wei Yi, Wang Hao, Ni Hua, Yu Yangyi to just name a few.

At sixteen, Wei Yi is already being compared to Magnus Carlsen. Can the fan favorite live up to the hype?

I think that the recent renaissance of chess in China will see it offer a challenger to the World Chess Championships within the next four years. You’ve probably (and hopefully) already seen Wei Yi’s immortal game, so here are two games by two different Chinese Grandmasters that I think have a lot of potential in the near future.

Ding Liren

Ding might be one of the most modest chess players I’ve seen over the years, which makes him just as dangerous to play against over the board. When asked in a New in Chess interview about Wei Yi following the 16 year old’s ascension to 2700, Ding said:

“Maybe I’m just a little stream or a little hill in front of him and it’s just a matter of time for Wei Yi to pass me.” –New in Chess, 2015 Magazine #6

Even if this is true, Ding Liren is still the 8th best player in the World, and of all the players on the Chinese National team, the most deserving of international attention. Back in January, Ding tied for second in the Tata Steel with 8.5/13, only a half point behind Magnus Carlsen. In that tournament, Ding posted 7 wins (more than any other of his adversaries) including victories over Radjabov, Aronian, and Wojtaszek. In his book, After Magnus, Anish Giri praises Ding Liren as “one of the best players of our time”.

Its only a matter of time before Ding Liren qualifies for the Candidates tournament. The real question is, will Wei Yi beat him there?

Ding Liren – Boris Gelfand (Ding Liren–Gelfand, 2015)

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Qc2 Bd6 7.Bd3 O-O 8.O-O dxc4 9.Bxc4 b5

Gelfand grabs a tempo here to gain space, but the downfall to making this b7-b5 push is that the c8 bishop lacks active squares.
Gelfand grabs a tempo here to gain space, but the downfall to making this b7-b5 push is that the c8 bishop lacks active squares.

10.Bd3 Bb7 11.a3 h6 12.Rd1 a6 13.b4

Ding Liren plays b2-b4 to stop any opportunity for Black to play c6-c5. If Gelfand can open this long light square diagonal, he can put a lot of pressure on the f3 knight.
Ding Liren plays b2-b4 to stop any opportunity for Black to play c6-c5. If Gelfand can open this long light square diagonal, he can put a lot of pressure on the f3 knight.

13…a5 14.Rb1 axb4 15.axb4 Nd5 16.Nxd5 exd5

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Definitely the right way to take as cxd5 would forever block in the b7 bishop and create an isolated pawn on b5. This move does have its own problems though. Black’s bishop on b7 will likely need to relocate back to c8 to become active, and Gelfand now has a backwards pawn on c6. White has a weak pawn and a bad c1 bishop, but I prefer White here.

17.Bh7+ Kh8 18.Bf5 Re8 19.Bd2 Nb6 20.Ne5 Bxe5 21.dxe5

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A positional pawn sacrifice. By clearing the d4 square, White begins to open the long dark squared diagonal for his bad bishop. Meanwhile Black still has yet to solve his problems.

21…Rxe5 22.Bc3 Re8 23.Ra1 Qe7 24.Bd4 Nc4 25.Qc3 Qg5 26.Bc2 Kg8 27.Rxa8 Rxa8 28.Ra1 Rxa1+ 29.Qxa1

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Black’s knight on c4 seems annoying but it really doesn’t pose a threat to White’s position. Black’s pieces are not coordinated while White’s bishops bear down on the kingside and the queen can attack from the sides with the a-file.

29…Qg4 30.h3 Qe2 31.Bf5 Nd6 32.Bg4 Qd2 33.Qa7 h5 34.Qb8+ Kh7 35.Bxh5

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White bites the bullet. In all honesty, Black is playing down a piece and White’s defenses are too strong.

35…Ne4 36.Qf4 Qe1+ 37.Kh2 Qxf2 38.Bxf7 Qxf4+ 39.exf4

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White invites the queen trade. With the bishop pair, Ding Liren takes no risks in this endgame.

39…Nd6 40.Be6 Bc8 41.Bxc8 Nxc8 42.Bc5!

The final straw. White's bishop covers all of the knights squares and leaves Gelfand in passivity as Ding gets the time he needs to advance his kingside pawns.
The final straw. White’s bishop covers all of the knights squares and leaves Gelfand in passivity as Ding gets the time he needs to advance his kingside pawns.

42…Kg6 43.g4 Kf7 44.f5 Kf6 45.h4 Ke5 46.h5 d4 47.Kg3 1-0

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Gelfand resigns here as every move loses. For instance, if 47… Ke4 48. Kf2 Kd3 49. f6! and either the f- or the h-pawn will promote. if 47… Kf6 48. Kf4! The pawn isn’t going anywhere 48…d3 49. g5+ Kf7 50. Ke3 and Black cannot defend the kingside march.

A nice display from Ding Liren! In the New in Chess article about Ding Liren, there was mention that Gelfand was injured after two draws into the match, but I don’t think that it takes away from the quality that Ding brought to this game. From what was seemingly an equal position, Gelfand was constantly punished for having a bad light square bishop, while White managed to sacrifice a pawn for activity. Instructive stuff!

Lu Shanglei

If you’ve heard of Lu Shanglei before, I’m quite impressed. To be quite honest, he only caught my attention when he held Veselin Topalov in the 2015 World Cup to force a tiebreak. Despite losing that match, Lu pushed Topalov to the edge, and the duration of that match likely played a small role in Veselin’s exit the following round against eventual finalist Peter Svidler. A relative unknown to the greater chess world, Lu Shanglei is the 16th best blitz player in the world, making his 2599 standard rating seem extremely deceiving. I don’t think he’ll be playing for the candidates tournament anytime soon, but at the age of 19, I think he will have plenty of time to reach 2700 and play with the best.

Lu Shanglei proved he can take the world’s best in the recent World Cup. How will he build on that performance?

Mikhail Kobalia – Lu Shanglei (Aeroflot Open, 2015)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.O-O a6 5.Bd3 Ngf6 6.c3 e5 7.Bc2 b5 8.d4 Bb7 9.Qe2 Be7 10.dxe5 dxe5

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We’ve reached a critical position where Black has a weak d5 square, but White is behind in development. Lu Shanglei hopes to use combined pressure against the e4 pawn and the d-file to get an initiative.

11.Rd1 Qc7 12.c4?!

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I don’t think I like this move. White’s trump in the position was that he could play for d5 while the d4 square was covered by the c3 pawn. With this move, Kobalia surrenders his hold on the center and suffers a space disadvantage.

12…b4 13.Nbd2 O-O 14.Nf1 Rfd8 15.Bg5 h6 16.Bh4 a5 17.Ne3 a4 18.Nd5 Bxd5 19.exd5 Bd6

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The point of taking on d5. Lu Shanglei places his bishop on d6 to blockade the passed pawn while creating the threat of e5-e4, putting pressure on h2.

20.Bg3 Re8 21.Bf5 Nb6 22.Nd2 e4!!

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A brilliant shot! White cannot take the pawn thanks to the pin on the e-file. If 23. Nxe4 Nxe4 24. Bxe4 f5! and the pressure is just too much.

23.Bxd6 Qxd6 24.Bh3 g6 25.g3 Re7 26.a3 b3 27.Nb1 Ne8 28.Nc3 Qe5 29.d6 Nxd6

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White makes a short-term pawn sacrifice, but in the last few moves, its become increasingly clear how weak White is in the center. With moves like …b3, Lu Shanglei has made the pawn on c4 weak while dominating the long dark squared diagonal.

30.Nd5 Nxd5 31.Rxd5 Qf6 32.Rxc5 Qd4 33.Rc6 Rd8 34.Rd1 Nf5!

Brilliant! Black is winning in all lines. White has nothing better than give the two rooks for the queen.
Brilliant! Black is winning in all lines. White has nothing better than give the two rooks for the queen.

35.Rxd4 Nxd4 36.Qe3 Nxc6 37.Qc5 Rd1+ 38.Kg2 e3 39.fxe3 Rd2+ 40.Kg1 Rxb2

Who needs knights? Here the passed b3 pawn is the much bigger threat, and White lacks any coordination to do anything with his short-term material advantage.
Who needs knights? Here the passed b3 pawn is the much bigger threat, and White lacks any coordination to do anything with his short-term material advantage.

41.Qxc6 Rc2 42.Bf1 b2 43.Qc5 Re6 44.Qc8+ Kg7 45.Qb8 Rxe3 46.Qf4 Re1 0-1

A great display from Lu Shanglei! What made this game truly enjoyable for me was how he was able to combine long-term positional strategies with tactics to seize the advantage. Once White tried 12. c4, Black’s play seemed really fluid, and Kobalia really wasn’t able to make a real effort to win the game.

If anything’s clear, its only a matter of time before the best of the Chinese team make regular appearances at the top level. The thought of Yu Yangyi, Wei Yi, or Wang Hao taking on a Fabiano Caruana or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is already making my mouth water.

Like this article? Make sure to check out my gofundme page to help me get to New Orleans for the 2016 US Junior Open!

Winning Play from Italian Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana

Morning everyone! A couple weeks ago, I broke down some games of Paul Morphy in my post, “The Fun and Games of Paul Morphy”. In those games, Morphy’s play was tactical and aggressive, and he found ways to win quickly. For today, I have decided to analyze the games of a current super Grandmaster, Fabiano Caruana from Italy. GM Caruana earned his title in 2007, and has seen much success, including three wins against reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen over the last three years (Bilbao Masters, Tal Memorial, Gashimov Memorial).

Caruana – van der Heijen (2007)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 d6

6. g4!? An aggressive approach. This eliminates the typical development of Ng8–f6. With preparation, this is a sound approach. White can always play f2–f3 to solidify his g4 pawn, or further extend his position with f2–f4. By trying this move order, Caruana has created more options for play.

6…Nge7 7. Be3 a6 8. Nb3 b5

9. f4 Further controlling the center. While white hasn’t castled yet, Caruana has better development, and Black has no way to immediately refute the kingside pawn push.

9…b4

10. Na4! The premature queenside play from Black gives White the a4 square. The b6 square is now weak, and it isn’t clear how Black will deal with the annoying White pair of bishops that are limiting his play. So far Caruana is winning the opening battle, as he dominates both the kingside and the queenside. In this position, it appears that Black’s traditional Sicilian queenside plan is moot. The pawns can’t advance in an attacking fashion, and already there are too many weak squares in the position.

10…Rb8 11. Qd2 Ng6 12. O-O-O Be7

13. g5 This cannot be the kind of play that Black was hoping for. Both of van der Heijen’s bishops are misplaced, and will have to result to keeping his king in the center. Meanwhile, Caruana has clear play on the kingside, as his pawns dare his opponent to castle.

13…e5?? Giving black the f5 square and complete control of the position. Generally, when White plays for rapid pawn play on one side of the board, he wants to control f5 if on the kingside, or c5 if on the queenside. By creating space, White creates more options, but also limits his opponent’s ability to play.

14. f5 Nf4 15. h4 h6 16. Rg1 hxg5 17. hxg5 Bxg5

18. Kb1 White has lost a pawn but has created a half open g–file. Black has a weakness on d6, and it still isn’t clear how the c8 bishop will get in the game.

18…Rh6 19. Nb6

19…Rxb6 The pressure is too much for Black. White wins an exchange, and there is no compensation for Black.

20. Bxb6 Qxb6 21. Rxg5 Kf8

22. Nc1?! Perhaps a relocation idea but the knight goes back to b3 later. 22. Bc4 is stronger as brings another piece into the game.

22…Nd4 23. Qf2 Bb7 24. Nb3

24…Qd8 Both of Black’s knights are on great squares, but they are powerless to do anything. White can always snap on d4 with Nxd4, and all of the squares that the f4 knight can move to are controlled by white.

25. Qg3 Nh5 26. Qe3 Nf4 27. Rg4 Nxb3 28. axb3 Rh1 29. Qf3 Rh6 30. Bc4 Rh3 31. Qf1

31…Rh6 While Black has been out of ideas, Caruana has slowly improved his position.

32. Qg1 Qf6

33. Qa7! White has put his queen on the perfect square. Black is too stretched out now to do anything.

33…Bxe4? 34. Rxd6! Bxc2+ 35. Ka2 Bb1+ 36. Ka1 And the king is out of Black’s grasp 1-0

In this game, Caruana got a big space advantage out of the opening, allowing him to put his pieces on great squares while his opponent had no chance to get back in the game. As White’s pieces got onto better squares, tactical opportunities opened up, giving him further control of the position.

This next game was in the 2010 World Blitz Championship against well-known theoretician Boris Gelfand.

Caruana – Gelfand (2010)

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 d6 3. f4 g6 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Bc4 Nc6 6. O-O Nf6 7. d3 O-O

8. f5! A key thematic idea in the Grand Prix Sicilian. By sacrificing a pawn, White dismantles the kingside. While Black isn’t losing, it is clear he must play defending chess for a while.

8…gxf5 9. Qe1 fxe4 10. dxe4 Be6 11. Nd5 Ne5 12. Nxe5

12…dxe5 It’s hard to imagine that this is prepared by Black. White has both the initiative and the pair of bishops, and it isn’t clear how Black plans to find compensation. Typically Black avoids the …gxf5 lines and plays e7–e6 before white can get in the traditional pawn push.

13. Bg5 Bxd5 14. exd5 Qd6 15. Qh4

15…Nxd5? Perhaps the losing move, Black takes away a defender from the king, and gives White even more play, now on the d–file. I think black could have tried b7–b5 here. The idea being that if white captures, Black plays … Qxd5 and tries to trade queens. Gelfand is still worse here, but it could have been an interesting try.

16. Rad1 e6

17. Rf6! White doesn’t bother with Bxd5 and the Be7 winning an exchange, Caruana already sees a win!

17…Qc7 The rook is poisoned, if the knight were to capture, the queen is lost, and if 17… Bxf6?? 18. Bxf6 and Black must give up his queen to avoid mate with 18… Nxf6 +-

18. Bxd5 exd5

19. Rd3 Another rook lift. Rather than trying to calculate sacrifices, Caruana doesn’t complicate anything by bringing in more pieces. Black can’t take the f6 rook, so there is plenty of time to improve the position.

19…Rfd8 20. Bh6 Bxh6 21. Qxh6 e4 22. Rg3+ 1-0

Caruana beat Gelfand fairly handily there, as the f4–f5 push seemed to throw Gelfand off-guard. White developed fairly easily out of the opening, and like the last game, expanded his kingside by attacking the f5 square. Once Caruana was much better, he just continued to improve his pieces while limiting his opponent. After 8…gxf5, Gelfand never found a way to get back into the game.

This last game is a little more recent, from the 2013 London Chess Classic against Emil Sutovsky.

Caruana – Sutovsky (2013)

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. Bf4 d6 4. h3 c5 5. dxc5 Qa5+ 6. Qd2 Qxc5 7. Nc3 Bf5 8. Nd4 Ne4 9. Nxe4 Bxe4

10. f3 After a slightly unorthodox method of combating the London System, this move accomplishes exactly what White wants. Caruana will follow this with an immediate e2–e4, where his f1 bishop will be better than Black’s light squared bishop.

Bc6 11. e4

11…e5 Black forks the pieces, but there is no worry for Caruana.

12. Be3 exd4 13. Bxd4 Bh6 14. Qf2 Qa5+ 15. Bc3 Qd8 16. Bxh8 f6

17. Qh4! The critical follow–up. Caruana punishes Black’s attempt to trap the White bishop. A key idea in chess is that you should not move pawns for short term plans, because every time you move a pawn, you create a weakness. Here the weakness is h4, because the Black queen is cut off.

17…Bg5 18. Qxh7 Qa5+

19. c3 White’s king seems weak in the center, but Black’s pieces are not well coordinated to put anything together.

19..Nd7 20. Qxg6+ Ke7 21. h4 Be3 22. Bxf6+ Nxf6 23. Qg7+ Ke6

24. g3 Threatening Bh3+! If the opponent’s king is in the center, you must attack it!

24…Bf2+

25. Kd2 Capturing the bishop allows Black some counter play with …Qb6+ followed by …Qxb2, while it may not be winning, Caruana’s logic is just to eliminate all initiative for Black.

25…Be3+ 26. Kc2 Bxe4+ 27. fxe4 Qa4+ 28. b3 Qxe4+

29. Kb2 Blocking with the bishop allows for Qg2+, so again Caruana chooses to eliminate all counter play for once and for all.

29…Qf3 30. Bh3+ 1-0 Black resigns because 30… Ke5 31. Qe7+ Kd5 32. Qxb7 is inevitable, and Black will lose the queen.

So in these three games, Caruana found ways to gain either a spacial or tactical advantage, either through fast pawn pushes or better piece placement. For the Italian, the key was to build upon his position by optimizing his pieces and eliminating his opponent’s play throughout the middle game.

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!