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

Zurich Chess Challenge 2016: Opening Thoughts, Predictions

It’s been about two weeks since my last rated game, so to make up for the void, I’ve been watching a lot more Grandmaster games live to mix up my preparation. Last Tuesday, I posted Hou Yifan’s dominating win over Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, where she used a massive space advantage to crush a hedgehog gone wrong.

With the Zurich Chess Challenge starting today, I thought I’d break down some of the major headlines going into the tournament for players unsure of what to look for.

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This year’s edition of the Zurich Chess Challenge offers top level entertainment from Vladimir Kramnik, Hikaru Nakamura, Vishy Anand, Alexei Shirov, Levon Aronian, and Anish Giri.

Who Strikes First?

With the Candidates tournament in March, expect Nakamura, Anand, Aronian, and Giri to keep their new ideas close to their chests. What does this mean? Kramnik and Shirov will likely be the providers of any new opening plot twists, and perhaps take more liberties with their choices from the start. Kramnik isn’t known to rely on aggressive opening innovations (rather more positional, solid play), but Shirov, author of Fire on Board, may entertain us with a splurge of aggressive opening selections. If Shirov pulls off an upset, don’t be surprised.

What does age mean?

This is the big question, especially for former World Champion Vishy Anand. Last year, he played in a tie-breaker match for this very tournament. This year? It might be a miracle he makes it that far with his recent form. While most of the chess world has been busy criticizing Magnus, Anand’s been slipping since last summer’s Sinquefield Cup, with a disastrous performance in both London and Gibraltar. The tumble has seen India’s number one fall out of the top ten, and nearly eclipsed by Pentala Harikrishna.

For Anand, doing well in Zurich means changing the trend before going into the Candidates tournament. If Vishy can’t leave the Chess Challenge with at least a 50% score, don’t expect him to last long in the Candidates either – it’s a long road back to getting to the top.

Solid is strong, but can it win?

This one’s for Giri. The fourth best player in the world is going to have to win games in order to come out on top in Zurich. Anish left Tata Steel with a 7/13 score (2 wins, 1 loss, 10 draws), but with lucky breaks against Hou Yifan and Fabiano Caruana, it could have been worse. This tournament features two opponents Giri has never beaten – Kramnik and Aronian.

Anish is one of the most consistent players in this field right now, so even if he fails to emerge victorious, he will still be in good shape for the Candidates.

Does Aronian’s style trump that of Nakamura?

Realistically, the Aronian v. Nakamura match could decide the winner of the tournament. Levon’s 2015 got off to a rocky start, but he’s been playing at his best form since his Sinquefield Cup win. Nakamura, the “2015 player of the year”, will seek to improve from his 1st place finish at Gibraltar. Aronian has nine wins over Nakamura in classical play, compared to Hikaru’s two.

I expect this game to also be a critical moment in the Candidates tournament in Moscow as well, so depending on how this game plays out, it could be a great indicator as to who will do better in March.

How strong is the world #2, really?

His rise to second best has been a quiet one, as he hasn’t had too many recent games at the top level events. That being said, Vladimir Kramnik has always been among the world’s elite, and his latest appearances in Qatar and the European Club Cup should show that. At 4o, a lot of chess fans write off the Russian, but I think this is a promising opportunity for Kramnik to show he isn’t done.

How does it finish?

This is a fairly balanced field, and any exceptional performances will definitely form big impressions for the rest of 2016. That being said, here’s how I see Zurich finishing out:

1. Levon Aronian

2. Hikaru Nakamura

T3. Vladimir Kramnik

T3. Anish Giri

5. Alexei Shirov

6. Viswanathan Anand

Have different thoughts? Feel free to share!

Dancing with the Dutch: Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jobava – Sandipan (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2014)

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

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

4. e3 e6 5. h4

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

5…Be7 6. Nh3 O-O 7. Qd2 Ne4

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

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

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

11…Qd6 12. Qa5!

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Optimizing the queen, but can you see the threat?

12…h6 13. Qxf5 +-

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

13…Nd5 14. Qxe4 Bxg5 15. Nxd5 1-0

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

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

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

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

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

Gelfand – Ivanchuk (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2012)

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

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

6. Bb5+?!

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

6…Bd7 7. Be2 Nc6 8. Ne5 Be7 9. Nxd7

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

9…Qxd7 10. dxc5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. Rac1 Rxb5 26. b3 g6 27. Rfd1

Black to Move
Black to Move

27…Rf7 28. Rc8+ Kg7 29. Rdd8 e4

White to Move

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

White to Move
White to Move

33. Rc2 Rfe7 34. Kf2 h5 35. Rb8

Black to Move
Black to Move

35…R3e6 36. Kf3 Kh6 37. Kf2 Kg5

White to Move
White to Move

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

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

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

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

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

Nakamura – Barron (Toronto Open, 2009)

1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3

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

3…g6 4.h4 Bg7 5.h5 Nxh5 6.e4

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

6…fxe4 7.Rxh5 gxh5 8.Qxh5+ Kf8 9.Bh6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22…Kh5 23.Re5+! dxe5 1-0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better than the Rest – Hikaru Nakamura, the Original American Superhero

The best chess player in the world right now is Hikaru Nakamura. Forget the household names – Carlsen, Anand, Caruana, and Kramnik, chess is changing, and so are the best players.

Hikaru has been dubbed “player of the year” for 2015. Can he make a push for the crown?

But why isn’t the American capturing any real attention when it comes to discussions of the next World Champion? Nakamura has been called the “Player of the Year” by many, claiming either 1st or 2nd in each event he’s played in this year (excluding the World Cup). While top performances in the FIDE Grand Prix, Gibraltar, Millionaire Chess, and the Grand Chess Tour have propelled Nakamura to the top, his success has yet to lend itself to the one result he wants most: a win over Magnus Carlsen.

In classical games, Magnus dominates Hikaru 11-0 with 18 draws. However, with Carlsen’s recent form, it might just be a matter of time before the American captures his first win.

While this one fact separates players like Fabiano Caruana and Vaseline Topalov from Nakamura, it doesn’t detract from his quality and consistency. Let’s look at some games.

Nakamura – Sevian (Millionaire Chess, 2015)

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nb6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.O-O Be7 8.Rb1

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Here Nakamura decides against playing the common Grandmaster move 8. a3 preparing to launch the b-pawn to b4, gaining space. With this move, Nakamura plans to play b4 directly, the idea being to push to b4-b5 and attack the c6 knight. If Sevian takes this pawn, he must concede his central e5 pawn, as the c6 knight is the sole protector. Furthermore, should Sevian stop this move with …a7-a5 the b5 square becomes weak, and White can play d2-d3, Bc1-e3, followed by trading on b6 to weaken the outpost for his c3 knight.

8…O-O 9.b4 e4

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Black decided that he might as well jettison this pawn to gain tempi for development. This is a temporary pawn sacrifice as the b4 pawn is weak. After 10. Nxe4 Bf5, the position looks strong for Black, but Sevian had to concede his central pawns for this position, which gives Nakamura a slight structural advantage should the game liquidate to an endgame.

10.Nxe4 Bf5 11.Qc2 Bxb4 12.a3 Bd6 13.e3

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An awkward looking move by Nakamura, but the right decision. It was important to not play 13. d3? as 13… Bxe4 14. dxe4 Re8 is better for Black as White’s own central pawns blocks his queen from entering the game. 13. e3 serves helps White play d2-d4 controlling the center, but I think Nakamura played this move knowing he wanted to play f2-f4, so this move does a nice job of defending the a7-g1 diagonal as a prophylactic measure.

13…h6 14.Nh4 Bh7 15.f4

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Black’s development advantage from playing 9… e4 has dissipated, and now once Nakamura resolves the pin on the knight with f4-f5 and plays Bb2, White’s pieces will be much more active than Black’s.

15…Be7 16.f5!

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A fantastic move! Sevian’s last move 15… Be7 was made to attack the h4 knight, so I wonder if he saw Hikaru’s thrust to f5 as a legitimate possibility. 16… Bxh4 is not advisable, because 17. gxh4 Qxh4 18. Rf4 gains tempo on the queen while threatening f5-f6, creating weaknesses in Black’s kingside, which justifies the pawn sacrifice. Even if Black doesn’t take on h4, the threat of f5-f6 will force Black to make a concession on the kingside.

16…Ne5 17.Bb2!

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No rush to infiltrate since White’s development is not completed. The d3 square offers not counterplay for Black, as after 17… Nd3 18 Bd4 wins a piece and 17… Qd3 18. Qxc7 Nc6 19. Qf4 should give Black headaches.

17…f6

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A sad concession. Black locks down the a1-h8 diagonal at the price of blocking in his e7 bishop and making any g7-g6 break impossible. Black now has a lot of light square weaknesses on the kingside, and will struggle to stay in the game.

18.a4

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These next few moves are telling as to how white picks up the win. a3-a4 does two things. First, it allows the b2 bishop to move without hanging the a3 pawn. But perhaps more importantly, this is a minority attack – if White can play a4-a5 and open up the b-file, his rook on b1 is perfectly placed to dominate the queenside. This is really instructive, as Nakamura wisely decides to shut down both sides of the board for Black before trying to force his way to victory.

18…Nec4 19.Bd4 a5

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I’m no grandmaster, but this move can’t help Black. When White decides that he wants to use the g2-bishop to target b7, Black would really like to be able to play c7-c6, and thats not possible now considering how loose the knight will be, making it significant a liability for Black. Looking around the board, it’s hard to find other concessions for Black. Sevian cannot play to reroute his h7 bishop to g8 because of the weak g6 square, and his knight on c4 is stuck, stopping the move a4-a5.

20.Nc5 Bxc5 21.Bxc5 Rf7 22.Bxb6

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Nakamura cashes in his bishop pair advantage for a pawn and a structural advantage. While some might prefer to keep the bishop pair, its important to note that here after this trade on b6, White’s pieces that are left on the board are simply better than Black’s.

22…Nxb6 23.Bxb7 Rb8 24.Bc6 Qd6 25.Rf4 +-

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Hikaru was destined to play this move when he pushed f4-f5 nine moves ago, since then, Black’s position has completely fallen apart, and White’s timing for an attack couldn’t be better.

25…Kh8 26.Rd4 Qa3 27.Qc3

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White decided that the queen trade was acceptable given that he could dominate the d-file. The b6 knight and h7 bishop can’t move so this trade helps White simplify the victory.

27…Qxc3 28.dxc3 Re7 29.Rbd1!

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If I were White, I would have waited a move and played 29. e4, keeping a grip on the center – but that’s because I’m not Nakamura! Here Hikaru left a trap for Sevian because if 29… Rxe3 30. Kf2! Black is busted, no matter where the rook goes. If 30… Rxc3, 31. Ng6+ wins as 31… Bxg6 32. fxg6, as Black’s pieces aren’t coordinated to stop White’s back rank threats. If Black retreats with 30… Re5/e7 31. Rd8+ Rxd8 32. Rxd8+ Bg8 33. Ng6+, and Black is reminded once again that the bishop is grounded on h7.

29…Rf7 30.c4 Rff8 31.c5 Nc8

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White disconnects Black’s rooks before going in for the kill. Masterful chess from the current US Chess Champion.

32.Rd7 Na7 33.Bg2 Rbc8 34.Ng6+ Bxg6 35.fxg6 1-0

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Just a pawn down, Black resigns as White’s pieces are just too suffocating. The a7 knight is immobile, and Black’s rooks are stuck on the back rank defending the king. White’s plan is to bring his d1 rook to the 7th rank and meet the defensive …Rg8 with Bg2-d5, winning the g7 pawn.

A truly inspiring performance from Nakamura, as he took a slight advantage over the world’s youngest grandmaster and made the conversion seem effortless. Hikaru’s energetic play covers all openings, 1. e4, 1. d4, and the English, making him impossible to prepare for. For the second game today, I was tempted to put in Nakamura’s win over Anand from the recent Sinquefield Cup, as he left a powerful impression on me during his interview about older players, specifically Vishy:

Vishy is of course a quite bit older than most other players so unfortunately for him he made a mistake at the critical moment…

–Hikaru Nakamura after Round 1 of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup

This is something which I think Kramnik is struggling through too – its just harder to compete on the highest levels as an older player. If this alone is a reason for why they make mistakes, then younger players do have some sort of stamina advantage. While that game was interesting, it was mostly equal until Anand played f7-f5 too early and fell apart in the endgame, so it wasn’t the most exciting.

With his second place finish in the 2015 FIDE Grand Prix, Nakamura has secured his spot in the Candidates Tournament in March among players like Vishy Anand, Fabiano Caruana, Sergey Karjakin, and Peter Svidler.

With Wesley So’s recent switch to the United States, its not too hard to imagine seeing So v. Nakamura becoming a regular rivalry to determine the best American player. That being said, the most exciting game between them may have already happened at this summer’s Sinqufield Cup. Where Nakamura beat So in a dynamic King’s Indian. With So’s incredible victory against Ding Liren at the Bilbao Chess Masters earlier this week in the same line of the King’s Indian, I thought that gave this game the nod.

So – Nakamura (Sinquefield Cup, 2015)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 e5 7.O-O Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.Ne1 Nd7 10.f3 f5 11.Be3 f4 12.Bf2 g5 13.Nd3

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This is all theory, but in his more recent game against Ding Liren, So chose 13. Rc1 with the idea of placing the rook on the c-file before pushing with c4-c5.

13…Ng6 14.c5 Nf6 15.Rc1 Rf7 16.Kh1 h5 17.cxd6 cxd6 18.Nb5 a6 19.Na3 b5

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The c6 square becomes weak, but it’s important to remember, this is not a positional game! In this race position, both sides will be pressing for the advantage so this move makes it difficult for the a3 knight to get back in the game. Furthermore, the f7-rook offers enough protection as it covers the entire 7th rank.

20.Rc6 g4 21.Qc2 Qf8

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Still mostly thematic play here, but it’s important to notice that Nakamura is not too worried about So’s control over the c-file. Because the rook on c6 has no concrete threats, Black has time to continue optimizing his army for a kingside plunge.

22.Rc1 Bd7 23.Rc7 Bh6

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Still improving his pieces, Nakamura puts his dark squared bishop on the best square. Now, should the f4 pawn be traded, the h6 bishop is mobile and black would stand better. While Black hasn’t taken any attacking approach yet, its starting to become apparent that White has achieved little with his c-file infiltration.

24.Be1 h4

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Now the idea of …Bh6 seems much more clear! If White does nothing, Hikaru will push …h4-h3 breaking the kingside and planning g4-g3, busting open the c1-h6 diagonal. White’s only chance is to take the bait on g4.

25.fxg4 f3!!

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In this line, Black still gets the diagonal, but its not the rook that he wants. With Wesley’s bishop on e1, his king is not adequately protected as his two bishops act as a wall, stopping white’s rook and queen from defending. This move seizes the most opportune moment to attack and breaks the center with Black’s next move.

26.gxf3 Nxe4

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Its important to note that Black did not take the rook on c1, as the chronic dark square weaknesses make the h6 bishop vastly superior. The knight on e4 is toxic since 27. fxe4?? loses immediately to 27… Rf1+ 28. Bxf1 Qxf1#

27.Rd1

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White decides that he wants to keep the rook to help defend the king, but this move really shows that So has absolutely no counterplay to Black’s attack. Up a pawn, Wesley is paralyzed by the passivity of his own army.

27…Rxf3!

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Offering White a choice between being up the exchange on f3, or winning a piece on d7. Wesley better choose one of them, but 28. Bxf3 is playing with fire, as 28… Qxf3+ 29. Qg2 Bxg4 leaves the king open and Black with few chances.

28.Rxd7 Rf1+ 29.Kg2 Be3

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Hikaru is rewarded for not being materialistic earlier in the game. From e3, the dark squared bishop sets up the threat of …Rg1+ followed by …Ng5#

30.Bg3 hxg3

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Offering Wesley more material, but the game is already over. Perhaps Nakamura was jealous of Wei Yi’s “Immortal Game” from earlier this year.

31.Rxf1 Nh4+ 32.Kh3 Qh6

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Despite being down a full rook, Hikaru continues to ask Wesley how he plans to protect his king. Just as it seemed when Black played 25… f3, the e2 bishop blocks out the queen, and the rook on c7 and knight on a3 seem too distant to really be part of the fight.

33.g5

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A last gasp for the king on h3. Unfortunately this isn’t Navara–Wojtaszek (Biel, 2015), and a king march is not the winning idea.

33…Nxg5+ 34.Kg4 Nhf3 35.Nf2

White offers his knight so his queen can finally have access to squares (g6 and h7). However, its too little, too late.
White offers his knight so his queen can finally have access to squares (g6 and h7). However, its too little, too late.

35…Qh4+ 36.Kf5 Rf8+ 37.Kg6 Rf6+ 38.Kxf6 Ne4+ 39.Kg6 Qg5# 0-1

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In a sporting manner, So lets Nakamura complete the tactic, reaching checkmate down two whole rooks. What a game!

I’ve been really inspired by Hikaru’s play as of late, and even though he’s had some disappointing games, he has been the most consistent players this calendar year. Only one hurdle remains for the American – the Word Championship. He’ll have to beat Magnus, not just in one sitting, but an entire match. With the way he’s been playing as of late, I would put my bet on him to get the job done.