Moments in March: Outside the Candidates

For this week’s post, I decided that instead of breaking down the tiebreak system that gave Karjakin a match with Magnus, I would highlight some interesting games and positions from outside the Candidates Tournament that occurred this month.

While Norway Chess is no longer part of the Grand Chess Tour, it still boasts one of the strongest tournaments in the calendar year. Not only will it feature our first glimpse at a Carlsen–Karjakin match-up, it will also bring players like Vladimir Kramnik, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Pavel Eljanov, and many others. Being a ten seed round robin, a qualifier tournament was run between Jon Ludvig Hammer, Aryan Tari, Nils Grandelius, and Hou Yifan to decide who the tenth competitor will be. Needless to say, after the first decisive game, I knew who I was rooting for.

Hammer–Grandelius (Altibox Norway Chess Qualifier, 2016)

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Black to Move

After much maneuvering, it appeared that this game was headed to a draw after 40. b4, but Grandelius found the best way to press for a win by sacrificing the exchange with 40… Rxe5! While the resulting position leaves Black down a minor piece, it’s White compromised structure that will determine the outcome of this game.

41. dxe5 Rxe5 42. Rg1 Bd8 43. Kf3 Bxg5

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With three pawns for the knight, Black has more than sufficient compensation. With best play, the game should be equal, but with Hammer’s next move, it’s Black who has the advantage.

44. e4?!

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Not immediately losing, but this move gives Black’s bishop a lot more mobility. Hammer likely panicked here, thinking he just needed to get his pawns off dark squares, but trading the e- and d- pawns will only help Black make the f-pawn passed.

44…Bc1 45. a4 Ba3 46. exd5 Rxd5 47. Bc4

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I didn’t watch this game live, but I have to wonder if White was in time trouble here. This move simply gives up the b-pawn and any realistic chance at a draw.

47…Rf5+ 48. Ke4 Bxb4 49. Rf1 b5 50. axb5 cxb5 51. Ne3 Rxf1 52. Bxf1 a6 -+

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Only Black can win this endgame now, and Grandelius converted on move 73. He finished the double round robin with 4 wins and 2 draws. Quite an impressive showing!

I don’t expect Grandelius to fare too well against the much superior competition, but it will be a great opportunity for Sweden’s best player!

Our next game features a well-known prodigy you’ve definitely heard of, Wei Yi. The Chinese teenage superstar hasn’t been doing well as of late, with a rocky finish in the Aeroflot Open and a slow start in the Asian Nations Cup. However, after falling below 2700, perhaps he was inspired enough to remind me why I stopped playing the Najdorf. Let’s have a look:

Wei Yi – Dao (Asian Nations Cup, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5

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We’ve already discussed the Be3 Najdorf lines at some length here, but I believe that the Bg5 lines are also an aggressive try for White. This move directly points out Black’s lack of space and control of the center.

6…e6 7.f4 Nbd7 8.Qe2

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If I recall from my studies years ago, White usually opts for the f3 square for his queen. However, this move (as Wei Yi proves) is a considerable option. Knowing that Black will likely not castle kingside, White prepares for a future opening of the e-file, while getting his king to safety.

8…Qc7 9.O-O-O Be7 10.g4 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.fxg5 Nh7

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The thematic mechanism for Black in these lines. By exploiting the pin on the g5 pawn, Black usually gets sufficient counterplay on the kingside. The computer generally overstates White’s advantage in these positions, but the point is that Black is walking a thin line between life and death.

13.Bg3 hxg5 14.Nf5!

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The computer move! White’s idea is to sacrifice a piece to open up the Black monarch. While such a position comes at the price of a knight, Wei Yi proves once again that activity is of much greater importance than material.

14…exf5 15.Nd5

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One of the key points of the last move. Sacrificing the knight on f5 gains White entry to d5 (with a tempo). Black must play 15… Qd8 to stay alive, but after the natural 15… Qb8?, White’s pressure on d6 and e7 alone is enough to end the game.

15…Qb8 16.exf5 Ne5 17.Nxe7 Kxe7 18.Rxd6!

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And Black’s position collapses. The sad thing about it is that most of the tactics are intuitive, meaning that Wei Yi could have easily played them move-by-move from here and Black would have still never had a chance.

18…Qxd6 19.Bxe5 Qd5 20.Bg2 Qxa2 21.Bd6+!

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Drawing out the king so it can’t retreat to f8 for relative safety. Now all White has to do is ensure that Black’s king stays in the center.

21…Kxd6 22.Rd1+ Kc7 23.Qe5+ Kb6 24.Qd4+

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Great technique! Black now must move towards White with the king as a7 is taken away.

24…Ka5 25.Qc5+ b5 26.Qc7+ 0-1

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Wow, Wei Yi made it look easy! The best part? For him it truly was. After spending 14 minutes on 14. Nf5, and then two minutes on 15. Nd5, he needed less than a minute per move for the rest of the game, and then fewer than eight (!) seconds a move after 19. Bxe5. Talk about some confidence!

And our last moment for today comes from the latest round of the Schachbundesliga where the best team Baden-Baden was upset 3-5 by Werder Bremen.

Naiditsch–Smerdon (Schachbundesliga, 2016)

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Here Black just played 34… Qf8, leaving the b6 pawn unprotected. In a moment of blindness, Naiditsch decided that in his slightly worse position, he needed to find counterplay along the 6th and chose 35. Rxb6?? Can you find the Aussie’s demolition of White’s position? (see diagram below)

Black found the best way to exploit White’s weak king with 35… Nxe4! and now White has problems. The knight is untouchable as 36. Bxe4 Rxe4 37. Qxe4 Qh6+ and checkmate is unstoppable. In the game, White chose 36. Bg2 but didn’t last much longer after 36…Qg7 37. Rb2 Nc3 0-1

Sometimes even Grandmasters blunder! Interestingly Naiditsch, while in time pressure, had much more time than Smerdon had (47 seconds). Interesting to see what time trouble can do to you! Just look at the ending of my game last week!

More than Meets the Eye: An Attack, an Advantage, and a Blunder!

I hadn’t planned to play a rated game until Saturday’s Pittsburgh Chess League finale, but when I got the email saying my Tuesday night class had been canceled, I quickly found myself playing an extra rated game against a local expert from Carnegie Mellon University at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.

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Usually when I post a game to chess^summit, I make sure the selection has some sort of specific instructional purpose. That being said, I can’t say that this game can be marginalized into such a general category. Even though he fell behind early, my opponent did really well to hold and even missed a few chances to equalize!

So if today has a theme, let it be complicated positions. Honestly I can’t remember winning a game this difficult (and almost blowing it too!).

Steincamp–Li (Pittsburgh Chess Club, 2016)

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.e3 d6 6.Nge2 Be6 7.d3 Qd7
8.O-O

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I think I’ve posted a few games with this set-up for White. Ideally, I’m going to place a knight on d5 and expand on the queenside. However, my opponent decided to change the pace of the game.

8…Bh3 9.e4 h5?!

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Going in for the attack! Black’s intention is to open the h-file and use his h8-rook and queen to quickly checkmate my king. However, there are some downsides to this move out of principle.

1. This move doesn’t develop or get Black’s king safe.

Okay, this is obvious, but still a valid point. By postponing the fundamentals, Black risks falling behind positionally should the attack not pan out.

2. Black cannot push …f7-f5.

This is the main problem with this move. If the f-pawn is pushed, Black gives White an outpost on g5 for a knight or a bishop.

Knowing this, I opted for 10. f3, giving me the option of Rf1-f2 if needed. Furthermore, if Black tries …h5-h4, g3-g4 can now shut down the position.

10.f3 Bxg2 11.Kxg2 h4

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Because of Black’s decision to attack, this must be played now. If 11… Nh6 12.h4, White stops all kingside play and has a simple lead in development.

12.g4

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Not a move I was crazy about playing, but I was able to convince myself that this was right. First, Black traded off the light squared bishops, leaving the c1- and g7 bishops on the board. Black’s pawns on c7-d6-e5 are all on dark squares, making my bishop better than my opponent’s. This is important since this structure has dark-squared holes, so from e3, I can cover some of Black’s potential outposts. Furthermore, playing this move guarantees a closed h-file, limiting Black’s intentions, and leaving me with a developmental advantage.

12…h3+!?

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My initial reaction to this move was to think that this was an error since it forces my king to safer waters and opens the g3 square for my knight. However, there are long-term benefits for Black! By controlling the g2 square, Black gets the counterplay he needs to stay alive in some lines – and according to the computer – enough to defend adequately.

13.Kh1 f5

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I found myself perplexed by the relative speed to which my opponent was moving, but this move I felt out of principle was wrong.

As I mentioned before, the g5 square becomes weak, yet it’s not so easy to exploit. At this point, I began to look at 14. gxf5, but I didn’t like it on account of a few reasons:

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1. The g-file opens

Even if this is tenable, I do feel like Black is getting the play he intended with his opening choice. With the g-file open, Black’s plan is to play … f5-f4 and queenside castle to bring his d8-rook over to g8. This is a lot of pressure, which brings me to my next point.

2. I’m not punishing Black!

Remember back when Black played 9… h5 when I said my opponent wasn’t following opening principles? 14. gxf5 not only fails to capitalize on this detail, it actually rewards Black for his play!

So this being said I played the anti-positional move

14.exf5?!

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Taking away from the center! But it turns out here that matters aren’t so trivial, Black’s king is still in the center, so opening the e-file with a future f3-f4 or d3-d4 push may be lethal. It was here that I noticed that Black’s weakness wasn’t the square on g5, it was the f5 square! By taking in this manner, the structure has changed; so a pawn on g4 helps support a knight on f5 and close the g-file. As my knight reroutes to f5, my bishop will find the right moment to go into g5 and cramp Black’s position.

And the best part? 14. exf5 was one of the computer’s best moves!

14…gxf5 15.Ng3 Nd4

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I thought this was Black’s best move, but there were several lines I had to consider before playing 14. exf5

Second Best:

15. … f4 16.Nge4 (16.Nf5?! allows 16…Nh6 ) 16. … O-O-O 17.Nd5 +=

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The position is a little unclear here since Black can simplify, but b2-b4 is coming with a slight initiative for White.

Last Choice:

15. … fxg4 16.fxg4

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As I’ve discussed in many of my posts, releasing the tension seldom leads to the best outcome. Here I have all the advantages I had a move ago, but the f-file is also open. It’s clear here that Black has simply run out of attacking resources.

So Black opted for the stingiest move, but it also once again neglects development and king saftey. Immediately I wanted to play 16. gxf5:

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The concept of cousre is to break Black’s center, leaving his king out in the open. This all works if Black plays along: 16… Nxf5 17.Nxf5 Qxf5 18.f4

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Because of the discovery threats on the queen, castling for Black comes at the cost of a pawn. However, not all captures are forcing! I soon realized that my dystopic outlook on the position was not only incorrect, but potentially losing after Black’s amazing resource, 16… Nh6!

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This shifts the game from dynamic play to static play. With 16. gxf4? I’ve actually given up any chance of securing the f5 outpost and opened the g-file for Black’s rook. Trying to stop Black from castling with 17. Bg5 still looks grim after 17… Nhxf5 =+.

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And here it’s clear that Black is simply better with no real counterchances for White.

So I had to be less direct, yet still keeping the position in a dynamic state. With my next move, I highlighted that the f5 pawn is still weak.

16.Nce2

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My c3-knight was no longer planning on reaching d5 since Black can play …c7-c6 now, so trading it for Black’s best piece was appealing. Black took drastic measures with his next move, but he had several options to consider.

Scenario 1:

16… f4!

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After some post-game analysis, I’ve come to the opinion that this was the best shot to equalize. While it creates light squared weaknesses, it neutralizes my grip on f5 and g5, while blocking in my bishop on c1. I had seen this during the game, and thought I had found a tactical resource in 17. Nxd4 fxg3 18. Re1 g2+ 19. Kg1 0-0-0 20. Nf5

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But after some research with Stockfish, here it’s my play that’s burned out, and soon I will find that the g2 pawn is not protecting my king, it’s a protected passed pawn! All endgames favor Black here.

However, my opponent didn’t play this move when originally given the opportunity, so he must have thought the assessment was the same as before.

Scenario 2:

16… Nxe2 17.Qxe2 fxg4 18.fxg4

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With evasive play, Black has avoided the loss of a pawn, but even after 18…0-0-0, my opponent will find his lack of development and counterplay concerning. My knight will find the f5 square, and my bishop, g5. White’s position plays itself.

Scenario 3:

16… Nh6?

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This isn’t really a move for Black, but it does a nice job of illustrating his dilemmas after 17. Nxd4 exd4 18. Re1+

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The win still needs work, but you get the idea. A trade on d4 eliminates Black’s ability to pressure the long dark squared diagonal, and opening the e-file will favor me.

So my opponent, uncomfortable with his options, played a move I hadn’t considered.

16. … Nxf3?!

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The idea that opening the long diagonal will give Black strong play. However, this is the first innacuracy of the game! With this line my opponent forces me to seal in his bishop and open the e-file.

17.Rxf3 Qc6 18.Nd4!

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The only way to refute Black’s play! In just a couple moves, Black will find himself much worse!

18…exd4 19.Nxf5 Be5 20.Bg5! +=

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Not only is Black unable to castle, but his knight on g8 is extremely immobile. From this point on though, Black’s 12. h3+!? starts to pay off as his pressure along the light squares becomes my biggest issue.

20…Kd7

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The only move from Black that doesn’t concede anything. While the f7 square becomes weak, my rook can’t get there due to the pin on the king. With the queen cut off from the kingside though, I decided that now would be the best time to drive the queen away by force.

21.b4 b5!

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The best move if Black plays the continuation correctly. The idea is that regardless of what I do, Black’s queen can stay on the diagonal with the b7 (and potentially d5) square opening up. Without much to do, I made my next move, assuming my next move assuming my opponent was intending a pawn sacrifice.

22.cxb5 Qxb5?

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A critical mistake! With this move, Black gives me an opportunity to move my queen away from the defence of the f3 rook, giving my a1-rook a chance to enter the fight. Black had much better in simply sacrificing the pawn and putting the queen in the center of the board.

Black really needed to try 22… Qd5 to force me to play slower.

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White’s plan would be to play Qe2-e4, trade queens, and go into an endgame with small winning chances. But with my next move, my opponent realized how active I had become.

23.Qb3

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Poking at the f7 square while giving my rook on a1 a chance to play.

23…Rf8

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The best defense. Using the other rook doesn’t pin my knight. A sample line I looked at was 23…Rh7 24.a4 Qb7 25.Rf1, but 24. Nh4 also looked appealing, with the idea of going to g6, or bringing the rook down to f7. I hadn’t really decided since I figured the text move was far simpler for Black.

24.Rc1

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Here I thought I was being smart, forcing the queen to go back to b7 instead of c6 to pin my rook, however, Black actually is in no rush to do this. In the game, I thought 24… Nf6 25. Ng7 was fine for White, putting pressure on e6, but 25… Nd5! was actually winning for Black. The computer says that after 24… Nf6, the position is about equal in other lines.

24…Qb7

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So why is it so important that White convince Black to reach b7 instead of c6? Well now White has Qa4+!, and Black is forced to surrender his control of the long diagonal.

25.Qa4+ Kc8

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Black is becoming passive, and if he had tried 25… c6, not only does he block in his queen, but I also have a turn-around tactic in 26. Nxd4! winning due to the attacked rook on f8.

26.Qc6=

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It turns out that this simplification leads to equality since (as I soon discovered) the endgame is extremely difficult to convert.

The computer gave me an option here that holds on to my grasp on the position with 26. Rf1 Rh7 27. Kg1 getting out of the pin 27… Nf6 28. Ng3 += with a slight edge.

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I do have to say, so far the game has been very complex, yet there have not been any missed tactics by either side. Coming from the position of strength, I have to say this is a testament to my opponent’s defensive resourcefulness to find holding moves each turn. However, with the queen trade on c6, I must win again – this time however with an advantage on the clock.

26. … Qxc6 27.Rxc6 Kd7 28.b5

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Stopping any future a- or c- pawn advances from Black. My opponent is cramped, but with his next move, he gives up a pawn for activity, which proves to be vital for his ability to play.

28…Nh6

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With pressure on g4, I decided I have nothing better than to win the pawn on d4. but to do this I must give up my bishop for a knight, and increase the Black bishop’s scope.

29.Bxh6 Rxh6 30.Nxd4

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I had to make sure that this trade worked, and I think again my opponent found the best resource in 30… Rhf6. Let’s quickly look through some of Black’s choices:

30… Rxf3 31. Nxf3 Rf6 32. Nxe5+ does not win a piece! Black can prolong the fight with 32… Ke6!

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…and White must stop the threat of mate on f1 with 33. Kg1, meaning that this is the position that must be understood. While Black may still be able to hold, I assessed that my advantage had increased since Black must give up the c7 and a7 pawns (the importance of a prophylactic measure like 28. b5!). Since I believed I had better winning chances, I was okay with this position.

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So simplification does not come to Black’s aid. Black can’t afford to be passive either since the backward 30… Rhh8? has a tactical problem. Can you find it?

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Here I had found 31. Rxf8 Rxf8 32. Rxc7+!! since now 32… Kxc7 is met with 33. Ne6+ with a winning minor piece endgame. Black can’t save himself with 32… Ke8, threatening mate on f1 and the knight on d4, because 33. Rc8+ forces a trade of rooks, and now I must find Nd4-f5, followed by d3-d4 to limit Black’s ability to attack my h2 pawn.

It’s clear that only White can be better, and of course I knew my opponent wouldn’t go for it. There was one last option I didn’t consider until after I had made my move in 30… Bxd4?! the concept being that my king is stuck on h1 and the constant threat of mate is a problem for me.

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While this may be a potential drawing resource in other positions, my b5 pawn makes c7 a permanent backwards pawn and target. So in the line 31. Rxf8 Re6 32. Rc1, Black cannot both be active and defend c7 as 32… Re3 33. Rf7+ still gives White reasonable winning chances.

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But as I said, I thought my opponent found the most aggressive try despite his time troubles.

30…Rhf6

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My knight will return to f5 to block the f-file, after which Black can pressure the g4 pawn and emphasize my king’s awkward positioning.

31.Nf5 Rg6 32.Rc4 Rb8?

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The second real mistake from my opponent (the first being 22… Qxb5). Time trouble played a large role in this decision, and now my not only will I eliminate Black’s annoying h3 pawn, I will get a rook on the 7th!

Black had much better in the more flexible 32… Rfg8 33.Ne3 d5 34.Ra4

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And while Black remains a pawn down, he has reasonable drawing chances. Having a bishop in the center of the board alone should be enough compensation for the extra g-pawn, not to mention, my queenside stucture is also quite hideous.

33.Rxh3 Rxb5 34.Rh7+ Ke6 35.h3

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Rather than immediately grab the c7 pawn, I thought it was important to nurture my two pawn advantage on the kingside. If Black tries 35… c5, I can play 36. a4, and only Black’s b5 rook is truly active.

35…Rb1+ 36.Kg2 Rb2+ 37.Kf3 Rxa2 38.Rcxc7

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Two rooks on the 7th and my opponent in time pressure? Should be an easy win, right? Not so clear. It’s hard to secure control of the d5 square (If Kf3-e4, …d6-d5+ wins for Black), and Black does have an outside passer.

38…a5 39.Rhe7+

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Believing I was winning since at the time I thought 39… Kd5 was unplayable (you’ll see shortly). I had calculated 39… Kf6, and now since the f6 square cannot be used by Black’s rook, my idea was Ng3-e4 creating a mating net while improving the overall position of my knight (I was fine with a bishop and knight trade since the resulting rook and pawn ending should be won).

39…Kd5 40.Rc4

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My opponent played his move quickly, so when I dropped this and his head sunk, I thought I had won because of my mating mechanism of Nf5-e3#. Here I got up walked around to wait for the resignation but had completely had missed my opponent’s defense.

40…Rf6!

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I give this move an exclamation for its psychological importance. With this oversight, I had now walked into a position I hadn’t analyzed and it felt like again, I had to start all over to win. However, with my opponent in time trouble, anything could happen so I made a waiting move.

41.h4 a4?

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Black’s third mistake of the game. Advancing the a-pawn to a4 gives me a free tempo move with 42. Ra7, which is winning in all lines. Black should have also waited, but in time trouble this is hard to do, especially with my kingside pawns moving down the board.

42.Ra7 a3 43.Ra5+ Ke6

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Finally, it’s starting to come together. Now with the king no longer on the fifth rank, I can play d3-d4, highlighting the awkward choice of squares Black’s bishop has.

44.d4 Bh2 45.d5+ Kd7 46.Ra7+ Kd8 47.Rb4

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Missing the simplest win in 47. Ra8+ Kd7 48. Rac8, and Black must give up an exchange to stop the threat of Rc4-c7#. But at this point I was already playing my opponent’s clock – with 8 seconds left, he can never hold this, right?

47. … Rb2 48.Rxb2?? =

 

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Here I thought that my opponent could make no progress with the b2 pawn, but with it on a dark square, his bishop can hold it until the rook comes to the rescue. So as I promised, one blunder… moral of the story? Don’t look at your opponent’s clock! If I had just spent 1 more minute, I would have realized that 48. Rxb2 allows too much play and that 48. Rba4 is a lot simpler.

48. … axb2 49.Rb7 Be5 50.Ke4 Kc8 51.Rb5

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As my opponent correctly pointed out in our post-mortem, …Kc8-c7, followed by …Rf6-f8-b8, not only is the best mechanism but now I have to worry about losing the game entirely. White should be fine if I bring my king to c2, but my kingside pawns become weak and won’t be able to promote with the bishop on e5 guarding both g7 and h8. But I got lucky…

51…Rf7 52.Rxb2!

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Thanks to the fork on d6, my rook is untouchable, so the endgame is now won. I can’t really blame my opponent for his mistake, but what I can say is that the mistakes will come if your opponent is in time trouble. Imagine how much less trouble I will be in if I hadn’t taken on b2!

52…Rc7 53.Rb4 Rc2 54.Ne7+ Kd7 55.Nc6 Bf6 56.g5 Rh2 57.gxf6 1-0

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Here my opponent resigned after realizing my rook is protected on b4, and my f-pawn is soon queening. Tough game and my opponent did well to hold, but he simply just made more mistakes than me.

As I said before this (really, really long) analysis, there really isn’t a particular theme I can sum up here. But there were some key points:

  1. Early attacks mean neglecting development. Sometimes the best defense is to find ways to punish your opponent for not following the fundamentals.
  2. Captures aren’t a truly forcing move. In this game, there were two points where a pawn takes pawn move could be ignored, and thus change the entire evaluation of the position.
  3. This brings me to my next point, always evaluate who is statically better each position. This constantly changed throughout the game, so it changed the focus for each player’s goal as well.
  4. Time trouble for your opponent is not time trouble for you! Say what you want, but I’m going to kick myself for this Rxb2 move more than I’ll pat myself on the back for winning. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

I thought this was a really interesting game, and I hope you did too. For me, winning (despite some errors) was a great way to rebound from the Pittsburgh Open and start thinking about my summer calendar – specifically the US Junior Open!

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!

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.

Red-PaperClip_h

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.

Nourishing Small Advantages: Winning in the Endgame

Given how endgames played a vital role in my games at the National Chess Congress this past weekend, I figured for today’s post I’d go over two endgames from Grandmaster games that relied on technique to grind out the point.

The first game I’d like to share is from one of England’s finest, David Howell.

Howell joined the 2700+ club back in August 2015. Winner of several British Championships, Howell is one of the most underrated players in the world.

In the following position, Howell is up two pawns, but his opponent has enough pieces to defend for the time being. How would you proceed?

Howell – Neiksans (Chess Olympiad, 2014)

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White to Move

While White is definitely better, the fact that Black has a bishop to White’s knight makes things more complicated. Howell addressed this with the simple but powerful 40. Nc6! Offering to trade minor pieces and reach a simpler endgame. The problem for Black is that bishop is also covering the d8 square, which prevents White from playing Nc6-d8+ forking the king and rook. Knowing that a minor piece swap would lose the game, Neiksans tried 40… Ba3 41. Nd8+ Kg6 42. Nxb7 Bxb2

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While Howell couldn’t force the trade of minor pieces, White did trade a pair of rooks which reduces the endgames complexity. In doing so, White can regroup his pieces and start pushing his b-pawn. 43. Nc5 Rb6 44. b4 Rc6

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Neiksans last move seems like a waste, but if White tries to push his b-pawn again, he’d be greeted with a nasty …Bb2-a3 taking advantage of the pin on the knight. While this temporarily stops Howell from pushing his pawn, he demonstrates a key concept, use all of your pieces! In the endgame, the king is one of the most important attackers, and that’s why Howell chose 45. Ke4! Forcing Black  through zugzwang to allow White’s b-pawn to keep marching. 45… Be5 46. b5 Rc8 47. b6

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Even though the dark squared bishop covers the b-pawn’s promotion square, Howell still has a 4 v 3 pawn advantage on the kingside. With Black’s army pulled down, Howell plans to fix Black’s pieces and then convert his kingside advantage. 47… Rc6 48. b7 Rb6 49. Nd7!

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The endgame is hard to win with Black’s bishop on the board. By making Neuksans army uncoordinated, Howell decided now was the time to take affirmative action. 49… Rxb7 Black has won the b-pawn but now faces a 4 v 2 structure on the kingside. 50. Nxe5 fxe5 51. Kxe5 +-

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Howell went on to win this endgame, thanks to the help of the passed e-pawn. In what was a somewhat difficult endgame, Howell managed to neutralize Black’s bishop over a long period of time with very little calculation! In endgames, it’s important to have a long-term plan, as well as a roadmap of how to get there. In this game, Howell’s advantage was never in doubt, it was just a matter of playing around Black’s army.

For the second endgame, I wanted to share a game of a slightly older Peruvian Grandmaster, Julio Granda Zuniga. Rated around 2650, Granda Zuniga is one of the strongest players in South America.

Granda Zuniga took down both Fier and Henriquez (who had just eliminated Gelfand!) in the 2015 Chess World Cup in Baku.

Unlike the last game, White does not have a material advantage, but the bishop pair instead. How would you go about trying to exploit this advantage?

Granda Zuniga – Henriquez (World Cup, 2015)

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White to Move

Here Black has just played 39… d4 With the plan of using a “Philidor’s Ring” by playing …Nc7-d5-c3, blocking in the b2 bishop and limiting White’s mobility. However, by doing this, Black’s passed pawn becomes a liability, and White can find ways for his king to enter the fray, namely e4 or c4 – squares weakened by the d-pawn thrust. The problem for Black is that his plan only dominates the dark squares, so White needs to come up with a light squared infiltration. Ideally, White’s king can make the e2-d3-c4 trek, so he needs a square for his light-squared bishop. Granda Zuniga chose 40. a4! Creating a potential outpost for the d3 bishop. If Black tries 40… bxa3 41. Bxa3, both of White’s bishops become activated and the point behind Black’s play to control c3 is moot. 40… Nd5 41. Bb5+ Ke7 42. Ke2 Nc3+

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This is the “Philidor’s Ring” that Black was hoping to achieve. While a great way to close off files for rooks and make the position cramped, Black has bigger problems here in that White’s king can still enter the position via e2-d3-c4. Even if Black were to trade on b5 getting rid of the bishop pair, White would get a passed pawn and his king could come to aid before Black could ever attack the pawn. 43. Kd3 Nc5+ 44. Kc4 Protecting b3 instead of going for the weak d4 pawn.

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Mission Accomplished! Just like the Howell game, Granda Zuniga realized that his king was a vital player in this endgame. Now White’s goal is to punish the original problem with 39…d4. Black’s reason for pushing the pawn has been served, and now all that remains is a long term weakness. White wants to trade a pair of minor pieces so he’s left with a dark squared bishop against a knight. 44… Ne6 45. Bc6 Ne2 46. Bd5! Nxg3

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A scary proposition for White, but in the endgame, often activity is more important than material! White’s ultimate goal is to trade on e6 and then take on d4, allowing the dark squared bishop to eat Black’s entire queenside. 47. Bxe6 Kxe6 48. Bxd4 Kf5 49. Bb6 Kxf4 50. Bxa5

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To win this game, Granda Zuniga needed to have seen this position before allowing Black to take on g3 to know that 50… Kxe5? isn’t possible because of 51. Bc7+! with a skewer. A simple concept but Granda Zuniga would’ve had to have seen this after having played 44. Kc4! With the extra tempo, the endgame becomes quite simple. 51… Nf1 52. Bc7! The one pawn is enough. It’s important that White keeps his e- and h- pawns for as long as possible since they slow Henriquez’s ability to push pawns on the kingside. 52… Ke4 53. Kxb4 Kd5 54. Kb5 Nd2 55. b4 1-0

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Black is powerless to stop both pawns as White’s last move 55. b4 stops Black’s knight from reaching c5. Henriquez decided to throw in the towel here since he still can’t make progress on the kingside.

Two fairly instructive endgames, as they show how Grandmasters play in the latter stages of the game. In many cases, it’s hard to calculate to a position where one side converts accurately, so it’s important to have a general plan and find ways to achieve it before just calculating lines.

Put to the Test: My Toughest Tournament Ever

Now that Thanksgiving is over, I think that I should be most thankful for the opportunity I had to compete at the highest level this past weekend in Philadelphia for the National Chess Congress.

For the second time of my career, I decided to compete in the Premier section of a Continental Chess event and going in, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. I had been winning my weekly games against expert level competition with relative ease, and even my G/15 play seemed to be improving. Not to mention, I had just broken 2600 on chess.com’s tactics trainer. Everything was on the up and up.

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After waking up at 5 am, I found my way to the Pittsburgh Amtrak to go to the National Chess Congress. Little did I know that I would be in transit for 13 hours.

Perhaps the first sign that things would be difficult this was when my train took an extra four hours to get from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, followed by the hotel’s fire alarm going off the morning of the first round.

That being said, I was still feeling confident going into my first game against fellow Virginian Andy Samuelson, a player rated over 2300, and coincidentally my chess coach’s former college roommate.

Samuelson  – Steincamp (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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While my opening play up to this point had been dubious up to this point, I still had managed a respectable position, down an exchange but with a central passed pawn for compensation. Here I played 24… Qg7? losing my advantage as White got in 25. Qe3 blocking my advantage and making it difficult for me to reach a favorable endgame. My pawns on e6 and d6 are more of a liability than a threat and are ultimately why I wound up losing the game. But this tournament could have been very different if I had calculated the risky 24… Qxf4!

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I overlooked this move because I thought White could quickly find counterplay with 25. Rf1 Qxg4 26. Qf6, but missed that 26… Nd7! holds everything together and preserves Black’s advantage. Though capturing on f4 is risky because the f-file is open long term, I now have two pawns and a piece to justify the rook, and it is my rook that comes to f8 after White retreat the bishop. This isn’t winning yet but definitely would have been a great first step towards getting a point in my column.

That being said, the moral of this game is don’t be afraid to take chances! In chess there is risk, but there is also pure calculation which will always trump positional judgement if accurate. Here I trusted my opponent’s analysis too much and played passively to get on the wrong side of the match. Even with a loss, there was really no need to panic – I still had five more games.

Psychological Wisdom

While round 2 was likely the most “boring” match for me, my opponent showed a glimpse of brilliance which I thought was important to share.

Steincamp – Moon (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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Out of my theory, I spent over 15 minutes to come up with the move 14. Ba1?! which doesn’t really offer me any improvements. I wanted to make a non-committal move here, and I thought the perhaps this would be helpful as the b2-square opens up for my queen, and should the b-file ever open, I can just play Rc1 -b1. While this move was a good move in an earlier article, the key distinction is that in this game, the b-file isn’t open, so it doesn’t make sense to set my pieces this way. Furthermore, my opponent has the move …d5-d4 at any point, blocking my bishop and effectively trapping it. My opponent could have played this move, but he made a far more prudent move, 14…h6!. I give this move an exclamation because of the psychological effect it has behind it. Since I made a move after 15 minutes of thinking, my opponent made this move in 2-3 minutes to force me to come up with a new plan. He likely knew I was expecting …d5-d4, but with this move, forces me to come up with a new, non-reactive move.

In retrospect, I should’ve traded on d5 and then played the position like a hedgehog with relative balance. Even though I got in a worse position, I held my ground and managed a draw.

Turning the Tables

This is probably the match that I “let” go, but it’s still one of the best games I played the whole weekend.

Iyer – Steincamp (National Chess Congress, 2015)

1.b3

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The Larsen’s! When I was about 1400, I was terrified of this opening, but in retrospect, it’s not that bad! With this move, White throws theory out of the window and plays chess from move 1. When I saw this move, I got really excited – let’s see how it goes!

1…c5 2.Bb2 d6 3.e3 e5

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My central conquest is complete! White’s b2 bishop is blocked in, and at the right moment, I want to fianchetto on g7 and perhaps contest the diagonal. Furthermore, this move stops f2-f4 which transposes to the Bird’s, a natural position for White out of the Larsen’s.

4.Bb5+

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A novelty in my book, but definitely one I respect. White’s objective is to trade off my light squared bishop (my better bishop) and continue playing positionally. I think my opponent may have been inspired by the Rossolimo or Grand Prix of the Sicilian, where if I play …Nd7, I block in my own development, and …Nc6 could give me doubled pawns.

4…Bd7 5.Bxd7+ Qxd7 6.c4

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What did White get for the bishop trade? Well, other than leaving me my worse bishop, he can fight for the weakened d5 square.

6…Nc6 7.Ne2 Nge7 8.a3

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This move stops …Nc6-b4, but I think this is a bit much. White can always slow play with d2-d3 if need be. With this move, White gives me the time I need to fianchetto.

8…g6 9.Nbc3 Bg7 10.Qc2 Rb8

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My opponent has done a respectable job developing thus far, but I’ve also achieved some objectives as well. With this move I threaten …b7-b5, and should White try a3-a4, the b4 becomes a great outpost for my knight. Furthermore, I’m going to castle and play …f7-f5 with the hopes of punishing White for not being assertive.

11.O-O O-O 12.Rad1 f5 13.f4 a6

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It’s important to not get too excited here and blunder with 13…e4? allowing White the trump 14. d3, opening the d-file on my backwards pawn. If you play to constantly release tensions in such positions, you will constantly be worse in them too. Here my move 13… a6 sticks to my plan and puts the ball in White’s court.

14.Nb1?

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My opponent errs here with this move, trying to prepare d2-d4. The problem with this plan is that when my opponent plays d4, I will take with the c-pawn and push e5-e4 creating a protected passed pawn and a long-term advantage. In my eyes, this is just a poor move.

14…b5 15.fxe5 dxe5 16.cxb5 axb5

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Is the c5 pawn hanging? Of course it is! But not without consequence. 17. Qxc5? will be met by 17… Rfc8! and White begins to wonder where the Queen will go once the c6 knight jumps. If White tries to play 17. Rc1 Rfc8 again still holds the position. I think my opponent missed this before taking on e5 because now White just stands worse.

17.d3 Qa7

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With his last pawn move, White weakened the e3 pawn. With this move, I get my queen off the potentially busy d-file to avoid discoveries and attack!

18.Kh1 Nd5 19.Bc1

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White’s position has seemingly reduced to rubble, but how to break through? Nb1-c3 is coming, and if White can play d4 he might be able to claw his way back into the game.

19…Rfc8 20.Nbc3 Nd4

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A thematic hedgehog idea as I exploit the c-file, but here I need to be careful to not concede the advantage.

21.Qa2 Nxe2?

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Giving up my entire advantage as the game simplifies to a roughly equal endgame. Much better was actually 21. Nxc3 Nxc3 22. b4!! using the pin on the a-file while giving my knight the b5 square to evacuate and reroute to c6.
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Even though I traded one pair of knights, White’s remaining pieces look awkward as now I can play to create a passed pawn on c3 by using my dark squared bishop.

22.Nxd5 Nxc1 23.Rxc1 Kh8

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White miraculously lives, thanks to a decision on move 4, to trade off my light-squared bishop. I can never force the knight away from d5 once White plays e3-e4, and it’s enough to hold on to equality.

1/2-1/2

Definitely a disappointing result for such strong middlegame play, but as I learned this weekend, every move counts. In this game, it was just the difference between a win and a draw. Later in Round 5, I wouldn’t get so lucky.

The Sole Point

Before I show the critical position of my Round 4 win, I must confess I was truly impressed by my opponent’s ability to play at my level throughout the opening and middlegame. At just 1900, my opponent is proof that anyone can prove to be a tough opponent. Unfortunately, in chess there can only be one winner, and my opponent’s valiant efforts were thwarted in the endgame.

Steincamp – Trifale (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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In my estimation, I am the only side that can win, but Black has to help me get there. In this position, I played 28. g4 with the idea of weakening my opponent’s pawn structure and giving my king a route to e4. A move like 28… e6 may have saved face, but in time trouble my opponent tried 28… fxg4?? Though not immediately losing, conceding control of the e4 square will allow my king access to the light squares in the center.

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A couple moves later, we reach a winning position for White where I will win a pawn on d4 and soon enough the game. At some point, I will play for f4-f5 to gain access to d5. My opponent fought on but resigned on move 45.

At this point in the tournament, I was sitting pretty at 2/4 with a goal of either 2.5/6 or 3/6 completely attainable. Of the two remaining games, round 5 offered my best chance at reaching that goal.

It’s not enough to be equal, you have to earn equal

Sena – Steincamp (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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After trading the e- d- and c- pawns the symmetrical structure suggests a draw, but I’m not out of the hole yet. A simple 19… Be6 would have probably gotten the job done, as the b7 pawn isn’t really hanging since b2 is equally a liability. However, trying to simplify, I got greedy and tried 19… Bd4 20. Bxd4 Qxd4 and offered a draw. I think a few players would be happy with a half point here with White, but my opponent was vigilant with 21. Bd5! The only move offering winning chances. I couldn’t find anything better than 21… Be6 += And White once traded on e6, picked up the pawn on b7 and eventually converted the win.

That left Round 6 as my last chance to reach my goal, but I tried a novelty in the opening that went horribly wrong. While my play was less than stellar, my opponent executed a nice tactical shot that I had completely missed.

Steincamp – Elezi (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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With my plan being to push the b-pawn, I used this opportunity to play 14. Qc2 to protect my c3 knight and prepare b4 push. My thought here was that Black’s knight was headed to f6 and then e4, leading to a long-term positional battle, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. 14… e5 15. dxe6 Nxh2!

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With all my pieces on the queenside, I am absolutely defenseless to this attack. If I play 16. Kxh2? Qh4+ wins immediately as the rook on e1 is left hanging to the fork. At my level, there is absolutely no way I can reasonably hope to get back into this game.

While my opponent’s display of tactical brilliance is inspiring, I do want to make a note here about his board etiquette. Whenever I adjusted a piece, he would immediately put the piece back on the square and then slam the clock, even though it was my turn. Furthermore, before I resigned my opponent checked his phone in his suit pocket. While this does not justify how I played this game, my takeaway is that if it’s distracting, tell the tournament director. In an effort to be accommodating and tolerant, I allowed my opponent to become intimidating and cross the line of sportsmanship. Here are some useful things to know:

  1. In FIDE, it is unacceptable to adjust your opponent’s pieces on their turn. Period. Furthermore, touching the clock during the opponent’s turn is also a violation.
  2. FIDE leaves phone punishments to the tournament directors, but under FIDE rules it is completely unacceptable for the phone to leave the tournament hall. If the phone was in my opponent’s suit pocket and on, it fulfills that criteria when he left for the bathroom.

I didn’t know about the adjust rule until after the fact, but I chose not to report the phone since I was already completely lost and telling the TD seemed to just postpone a foregone over the board conclusion. In the future, I think the best thing to do is to just be proactive in these situations. Just because my opponent is winning doesn’t make it okay for him to break the rules. While a forfeit win or a time penalty would not have made me happy that round given my play, the rules are there for a reason, and it’s my job as the player to use them.

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Even though I didn’t perform as I would’ve liked, I still got to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Philadelphia! It’s been a long three months!

2/6 isn’t a bad score considering that this was the toughest competition I’d ever faced, but it does show me that there is room to improve before this summer’s US Junior Open in New Orleans. The support I got going into this event from friends, family, chess^summit fans, and GoFundMe was incredible, and I’m looking forward to what the next few months have in store.

Put to the Test: Akobian’s French

Last Saturday, Nicholas N. asked “Is there a chance you have a game with the French Defense winning?”

Unfortunately, I’m not a French player, and because I haven’t played 1 e4 since I was in elementary school, I don’t have any quality games for any up and coming French players. But I know someone who does.

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I (right) got to play GM Varuzhan Akobian (center) in a simultaneous exhibition at Emory University back in 2013 as part of the Castle Chess Camp program.

I met Grandmaster Akobian at Castle Chess back in 2011, and while I haven’t kept in contact, I have followed his games over the past few years. For those of you who only started following top-level chess recently, you may recall hearing Akobian’s name from this famous incident:

[Courtesy: D K Chess]

But Akobian has his own achievements too. A gold medal winner at the 2013 World Chess Team Championships, Var has a legacy of strong opening play with both the French and Bg5 systems against the King’s Indian Defense. To answer Nicholas’ question, we’ll look at two games in the French from Akobian.

Khachiyan – Akobian (World Open, 2008)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3

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I’m not an 1 e4 player, but if I were, this is the system I’d choose to combat the French. Recommended in “Chess Openings for White, Explained”, this Nc3 line offers solid play for White.

3…Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 a6

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This odd looking move is actually theoretical! The idea is to take away the b5 square from White (ideas like Nc3-b5-d6) before pushing …c7-c5. Because Black traded the dark square bishop, a square like d6 becomes difficult to cover effectively once the c-pawn moves from c7.

8.Nf3 c5 9.Qd2 Nc6 10.O-O-O b5 11.dxc5 Nxc5 12.Bd3 b4 13.Ne2 O-O

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In this position, White allows Black to push pawns, but in return gets space in the center and his outpost for his d4 knight. White needs to proceed with caution, a single mis-step could result in a fatal position.

14.Kb1

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A smart positional move. Before improving the position of his other pieces, Khachiyan moves his king off the half-open c-file.

14…a5

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White deviates from theory here with 15. Ned4, but it would have been interesting to see the tactical shot 15. Bxh7+, as recommended by “Chess Openings for White, Explained”. The line recommended continues 15… Kxh7 16. Ng5+ Kg8, and the quiet move 17. Qe3 gives the queen entry to the kingside and compensation for White.

15.Ned4 Nxd4 16.Nxd4 Ba6 17.Bxa6 Rxa6 18.h4 Ne4

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Something has gone wrong in White’s preparation for Akobian. With this move, Black’s knight proves itself to be just as strong as the White knight on d4, so Black has the initiative because of his pushed queenside army. White needs time to compete in the race position, and squares like g3 and f2 are rather weak and will require White’s attention.

19.Qe3?!

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White puts the queen on the third rank to defend the king, but it can’t leave the f2 square unprotected, so Qe1 may have made more sense. White should plan to play Rh1-h3 as the rook lift justifies the h2-h4 thrust, while bringing an inactive piece into the game. Putting the queen here blocks that possibility from coming to fruition and overloads the piece.

19…a4 20.Ne2 b3 21.cxb3 axb3 22.Qxb3

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A serious concession. Obviously White offers the knight e4-f2 fork, but the more important factor in the position is that White gives Black a half open b-file for the f8 rook. Ideally White would have liked to play 22. a3, but this gives Black a tactical opportunity: 22… Rxa3 23. bxa3 Qxa3 and White cannot stop both the threat of …Qa2# and …Rf8-a8 followed by …Qa1# without surrendering material.

22…Qa7 23.Nc1 Rb8 0-1

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A great positional motif to end the game. Black made sure to control the b-file before even considering to play …Ne4-f2, and now has a massive queenside attack to show for it. White has a lot of problems in this position, and threw in the towel as he cannot generate counterplay on the kingside.

A strong showing from Akobian in this game against a top level Grandmaster! This game showed us a couple of lessons:

1) While theory doesn’t win games, it can play a significant factor in deciding the result. In this game Khachiyan wasn’t familiar with the Bxh7 line, and because of that, could not acquire positional resources to slow Black’s play.

2) In winning positions, positional advantages may mean more than winning material! Var could have played …Ne4-f2 but waited, because he realized that it would actually be harder to win up the exchange than taking full control of the weak queenside first.

3) Use all of your pieces! White traded a lot of pieces, and while theoretical, didn’t find a way to effectively use his h1 rook. This may seem irrelevant to the game, but in the final position, White is basically playing down a rook as all of Black’s pieces are going into the action.

This game was short, but shows us that the French can be a sharp opening and White must know theory to challenge Black’s queenside thrusts. Let’s take a look at a more positional game where Var makes use of an isolated queen’s pawn.

Akobian is one of the top player in the United States, having qualified for every US Chess Championships since 2005. You can visit his website here!

Shahade–Akobian (Philadelphia Open, 2012)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2

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This peculiar knight move is similar to the first game in that it guards e4, with the added advantage of playing c2-c3 in the future. While White aims to create solid structure, he does block in the c1 bishop with this move and will have to spend a tempo later to compensate.

3…Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.c3 c5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.Ne2 Qb6

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A thematic move in the French as Black gives White the center early to put pressure on the d4 pawn. While white aims to use his central space to acquire a positional advantage, Black wants to punish White for hyper-extending his pawns in the center before completing development.

8.Nf3 cxd4 9.cxd4 f6

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Black continues to chip away at White’s center in a typical French fashion. If White doesn’t trade pawns on f6, he will be stuck with an unprotected pawn on e5, and by trading on f6, White gives Black the space he needs to finish development.

10.exf6 Nxf6 11.O-O Bd6 12.b3 e5!

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A critical decision from Akobian, as now he rids himself from a central backwards pawn, making it not clear what White is playing for. Even with an IQP, Black stands at least equal as the bad French bishop is activated.

13.dxe5 Nxe5 14.Nxe5 Bxe5 15.Rb1 O-O 16.h3 Bd7 17.Bf4 Rae8 18.Qd2 Kh8 19.Bxe5 Rxe5 20.Ng3 Qd4 21.Qb2 Qxb2 22.Rxb2

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In a seemingly equal position, Akobian has traded his activity into a slightly favorable endgame. White’s rook on b2 in misplaced, and the passed d5-pawn gives Black the only real shot of winning.

22…Rc8 23.Rd1 Kg8 24.Rbd2 Kf7 25.Be2 Rce8 26.Bf3 Re1+

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Var trades off a pair of rooks. With each simplification the IQP becomes more meaningful.

27.Kh2 Rxd1 28.Rxd1 Be6 29.Nf1 Ke7 30.Ne3 Kd6 31.Nc4+ Kc5

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Shahade’s mistake here was to allow Black’s king to get so far without improving his own position. Now with an active king Black’s slight advantage has increased.

32.Ne3 a5!

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I like this move! Knowing that Rc1+ is unstoppable, Akobian makes this pawn push to stop White from playing b3-b4, permanently cutting the king off from the c5 square.

33.Rc1+ Kd6 34.Kg1 b5 35.Kf1 Rc8 36.Rxc8 Bxc8

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After forcing the last pair of rooks to come off the board, Akobian has one simple plan to win – play on the dark squares! Even though the f3-bishop controls the d5 pawn’s promotion square, Akobian can subdue White’s army into a passive position.

37.g4 d4!

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Getting the pawn off a light square and giving White less room to work with.

38.Nc2 Kc5 39.Ke2 b4 40.Kd2 g5!

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An instructive moment! In a position that doesn’t have a clear path to victory, Black fixes White’s pawn structure, confining White’s pawns to the same color as his bishop.

41.Ne1 Ba6 42.Bg2 h6 43.Kd1 Nd5

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Forcing the last needed simplification. Even though the knight is arguably better than the bishop, Akobian applies an “Ulf Andersen” like idea here of comparing the pieces that are left on the board. The a6-bishop is much stronger than the passive e1 knight, and the trade on d5 eliminates a White piece that can control d1. White has no choice but to take on d5 since Black’s knight will be too strong on either c3 or f4.

44.Bxd5 Kxd5 45.Nf3 Ke4 46.Ne1 Bf1 47.Kd2 d3 48.f3+ Kf4!

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The pawn on d3 is poisoned because the pawn ending is a guaranteed win for Black. Unfortunately, there not much else Greg Shahade can do.

49.Nxd3+ Bxd3 50.Kxd3 Kxf3 51.Kc4 Kg3 52.Kb5 Kxh3 53.Kxa5 Kxg4 54.Kxb4 h5 0-1

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Precisely as Akobian had calculated. The h-pawn will promote on h1 one tempo before the a-pawn can reach a8, meaning that the newly promoted queen can cover the long diagonal and win the game for Black.

I liked this game because Akobian showed that playing with the “dreaded” IQP isn’t actually that bad. By making advantageous trades, he simplified into an endgame where he could play for two results, and then slowly outplayed the International Master.

The French is a versatile structure, and learning it can help you understand the Dutch and the Nimzo Indian at the next level. While I personally would never choose the French as a first choice, it is a great way to build an opening repertoire.

How to Swindle – Part 2

One year after I miraculously survived a completely lost endgame at the National High School Chess Championships in San Diego, I found myself in a similar situation in the first round of the same event in Columbus.

While I wasn’t lost, I had dropped a pawn in the opening, and at first, things looked like they were about to turn sour. However, through the use of just one file, I was able to maximize the activity of all my pieces, reaching an endgame where only I had winning chances. I really liked this game, because I was able to use a lot of similar ideas that I did in the original “How to Swindle”, while limiting all of my opponent’s counterplay. I hope you enjoy!