Playing with Fire – Pawn Sacrifice for Long Term Compensation

Today’s video features an important game I played yesterday in the Pittsburgh Chess League. My opponent missed one opportunity to get play, but after that, all bets were off as I was left pressing in the final position.

This was a crucial fixture for the University of Pittsburgh, as the winner of the match would clinch the league title. In the end, our team won, pulling a 3-1 victory over the Carnegie Mellon alumni team.

The Tale of Two Bad …Nb6s! – From Pittsburgh to DC

I haven’t done a Free Game Analysis post in a while, so I was extremely pleased to get two game submissions this week from tournaments in both Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. If you too would like to have your game analyzed for free by me, send your game PGNs to chess.summit@gmail.com!

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Our first game is from Joe P’s last round of last week’s Pittsburgh Open. Joe scored 3.5/5 in the U1800 section, and saw a rating boost of 71 points to break 1600! Congrats Joe!

Mattis–Pleso (71st Annual Pittsburgh Open, 2016)
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Nf3 Nb6

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Instinctively, I don’t like this move. Black moves the knight a second time and it’s not quite clear what the compensation is. Attacking the c4 pawn and provoking White to push it to c5 gives White a space advantage, with Black’s knight forced to move once again.

So what should Black do instead? The main lines in this position are 6…0-0 and 6… c6 with the intention of keeping a closed position, and standard QGD play. While there’s nothing objectively wrong with this, Black doesn’t score very well at the top level.

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With this quick look in ChessBase’s free online Mega Database, Black only has two decisive games in the position after 6… 0-0 7. Rc1. If you look at some of the names, strong players like Sargissian, Naiditsch, and Kryvoruchko all lost to lower rated players in this line. Black’s relative passivity in this line makes life tough for Black, which is why I’m going to recommend the much more active set-up in the Ragozin. Putting the bishop on b4 instead of e7 gives Black alot more flexibility and space, and while there is plenty of theory, it’s clear that Black can play for a win in the opening.

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This position gives Black a little more life. It’s important that this isn’t a true Ragozin, since Black usually keeps the option of playing …Nb8-c6 open, meeting Bg5 with …h7-h6.

7. c5 Nbd7 8. Bd3 c6 9. O-O b5?

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A strategic error! With this push, we reach a padlock structure (check out the idea here). By reaching this kind of position, Black shuts down his own queenside counterplay, meaning that White is the only side that can press for the initiative. Think about it, if Black gets a pawn on b3, White can meet it with a2-a3, and if Black reaches a3, b2-b3 will shut down the queenside. Furthermore, if White does nothing, Black now has a very bad bishop on c8. Much better was 9… b6, putting pressure on the c5 pawn, while making the b7/a6 squares available for the c8 bishop to clear the way for a rook.

10. cxb6??

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This move justifies Black’s play. Now when Black recaptures on b6 with the a-pawn, Black will have dynamic chances with a …c6-c5 push, as well as pressure on the a2 pawn.
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This brings us back to the importance of statics and dynamics. Just a move ago, White was statically better, and could simply improve his own position. However, by changing the structure and taking a dynamic measure, Black’s resulting position is vastly improved. To learn more about static play, make sure to check out my October Article!

10…axb6 11. a3 Ba6

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A practical decision. Here Black trades off the light squared bishops, getting rid of his worst piece. Furthermore, this reduces White’s ability to defend squares like e4 and c4. Let’s see if this becomes an issue.

12. Bxa6 Rxa6 13. Qd3 Ra8 14. Rfc1 h6 15. Bxf6 Bxf6

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Well the typical recapture would be with the knight, right? Maybe, but I like this better. If Black can play …c6-c5, he can put even more pressure on d4 with a bishop on f6. From d7, Black’s knight not only controls e5 and c5, but safeguards the weak pawn on b6.

16. Ne2 c5 17. dxc5?

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One thing I’ve discovered about lower rated play is that less experienced players HATE structural tension. In this case, Black’s bishop is opened (even with a quick cheap shot on b2!) and he trades off his last weak pawn, b6. Much better was 17. b3, preventing …c5-c4. I’m not quite sure what White intends with his knight on e2, since it doesn’t exactly have many great squares.

17…bxc5?!

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Opting for structural solidarity over a tactical shot. In his analysis, Joe sent me the following computer line: 17… Bxb2 18. c6 Nc5 19. Qb5 Bxa1 20. c7+ Qd7 21. Qxb6 Na4 22. Qb7 Rc8 23. Rxa1 Nc5 24. Qb4 Qxc7 25. Ned4
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Black is clearly better here but had to make a lot of precise moves to hold on to the advantage. Sure, being able to see this line would have been nice, but not being able to clearly see the right continuation and taking on c5 instead is the much more practical choice.

18. Rab1 Qb6

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This move isn’t exactly precise, as White’s idea is at some moment to push b4 and rid himself of this weak b2 pawn. Rather than checking an engine for the best line here, I encourage you to ask yourself how to limit White’s play. If you found 18… c4!, then you’ve found the best way to take control of the position. Black’s knight will move to c5 with nice options on b3 and d3, and it’s White who must find ways to break out of his shell.

19. Ng3

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This knight does a lot of dancing over the next few moves, watch it jump on its quest to nowhere… White really needed to keep the knight on the queenside, since that’s where the battle is being fought.

19…Ne5

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I’m not a fan of this move, as Black’s knight on d7 does a lot more than White’s. 19… 0-0 was the computer move, but 19… h5?! is an interesting alternative, with the idea of marching the h pawn down the board to attack.

20. Nxe5 Bxe5 21. Qe2 O-O 22. Nf1 Rfb8 23. Nd2 Bd6?

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I understood before, but why not take on b2? The pawn won’t get much weaker than it is presently and White has no way of exploiting the pin by tactical means, thanks to the bad knight on d2.

24. Qd1 Ra5 25. a4 c4?

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I think Black’s future problems stem from this move. Unfortunatelty, its already unclear how to convert Blacks bishop v knight advantage. My best guess is a long term plan of …Qa7, provoking b2-b3, then play …Rb8-b7 and …Qa7-b8, targeting both b3 and h2. It’s a long term fight, and it’s becoming clear that Black lost his chance when he didn’t take on b2.

26. b3 cxb3 27. Rxb3 Qa7 28. Rxb8+ Qxb8 29. g3 Qa8 30. Ra1 Be5 31. Ra2 Ra7 32. Nf3 Bf6 33. Qd2??

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White was so close to equality, but here White willingly loses a pawn for close to no compensation. White could have tried Nd4 or h4, but this move is clearly inferior.

33…Rxa4 34. Rxa4 Qxa4 35. Kg2 Qe4 36. Qd1 Kh7 37. Kg1 Kg6 38. h3 Qf5 39. Kh2 Qe4 40. Qe2 e5 41. Nd2 Qc2 42. Kg2 Kh7 43. Kf1 Be7 44. Nf3

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There have been some small inaccuracies leading up to this moment, but this move is practically a resignation. While you wouldn’t believe it from this position, a knight and queen is usually stronger than a queen and bishop due to the unusual combinations of squares they can control. Giving up that advantage means going into a position down a pawn where Black has a bishop over a knight. White really should have never brought the knight back to d2, but now cedes the trade without a fight.

44…Qxe2+45. Kxe2 f6 46. Nd2 Bb4 47. Nb3 Kg6 48. Na1

Where is he going?
Where is he going?

48…Kf7 49. Nc2 Bc5 50. Kd3 Ke7 51. Kc3 Kd7 52. Kb3 Kc6 53. Nb4+

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Walking into a lost pawn endgame. A poor decision by White. Black played reasonably well to secure the win, trading off a couple pawns to create a passed pawn.

53…Bxb4 54. Kxb4 h5 55. f3 g5 56. f4 h4 57. gxh4 gxh4 58. Kb3 Kc5 59. Kc3 exf4 60. exf4 f5 61. Kd3 d4 62. Kc2 Kd6 63. Kd2 Kc5 64. Kd3 Kd5 0-1

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My thoughts on the game? Aside from the opening, Black was never really in trouble of losing the game, but at times played too passively. White should have secured the half point, but Black played the better game. Congrats Joe on the strong finish and the big rating gain!

On to our next game, from Jeffrey, a chess^summit fan and my former teammate from my MLWGS days. Jeffrey’s currently at the Virginia Open, and after a rocky start, managed to pick up a round 2 win to reach 1.5/2. Let’s see how it went!

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Jeffrey playing GM Sergey Erenburg in a simul back in late 2014. Since then, Jeff has managed to break 1700, and is trying to fit into the tough world that is adult chess.

Song – Cahill (48th Annual Virginia Open, 2016)

1.f4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 O-O 5.O-O d6 6.d3 Nbd7 7.e4

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Even though the Bird’s Opening may not be the most conventional weapon, it’s different, and can still reach reasonable positions. Here White could transpose into a Closed Sicilian if Black were to choose …c7-c5 for his next move.

7…e5

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As a King’s Indian player, I’m not thrilled with this choice for Black. Usually, Black plays …e7-e5 to undermine the d4 square to control critical outposts like c5, but here the position is different. I think the most sound move is 7… c5 going into a semi-Sicilian, but the knight on d7 does make it hard for Black to play moves like …Bg4 and …Nd4. One reason I switched out of the Nbd7 King’s Indian lines was that it wasn’t very flexible and could often lead to passive positions with innacurate play.

8.Nc3 c6 9.h3 Re8?

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Whenever I play against the King’s Indian, I’m always thrilled to see this move. Here, with the pawn on e4 protected by the d3 pawn, this …Re8 move actually does nothing! Keeping the rook on f8 is a thematic resource, not only to play …f7-f5, but to protect the f-file in some positions. Black has bigger problems right now besides the placement of his rook such as development and space.

10.Nh4

Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5.
Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5. While it’s a neat idea, this move tactically fails to 10… exf4 11. gxf4 Nd5! and the h4 knight is hanging. Honestly, White doesn’t need the support of the knight to play f5, it might even be worth a pawn later if black were to cripple his structure by taking with g.

10…Nb6?

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Just like the last game, another bad …Nb6! While it technically opens the bishop, where can it actually go? Again, like last game, Black has wasted two tempi with this knight to go nowhere. A much better plan would have been 10… a5 with the idea of …Nd7-c5! A much more active square. If you are going to play a modern style of chess, you must be prepared to be active. The King’s Indian is the least forgiving to passive players.

11.a4 d5 12.a5

I think both 12. fxe5 and 12. f5 are possible here, but upon further evaluation, White’s choice doesn’t really matter since Black’s plan should be …Nf6-h5 with the idea of putting pressure on f4. Black’s opening play has been kind of poor, but White’s play hasn’t exaclty been punishing. I analyzed the move order with an engine and came to a few conclusions.

First, Nf3-h4 was a waste of time in this position, not only because it should have failed tactically, but it loses the value of having played 1. f4. What do I mean? Well if you think about it, White can reach a similar position in a King’s Indian Attack set-up:

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This has a structural resemblance to the game, but now White must move the knight on f3 to execute f2-f4. Since f5 is occupied, the knight usually goes to e1 and then returns to f3 to be able to enter the fray via g5 after f2-f4 has been played. White’s first move enabled him to not lose this tempo.
Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5.
If you think about it, with a Black pawn on g6, White doesn’t exactly have a landing square for this knight besides f3, so to go back to my original question, the knight is grim!

Next, 9. h3 is what gives Black the …Nh5 resource since g3 is weakened. Usually this move is played to allow for Bc1-e3, taking away the g4 square from the knight, but seeing as Jeffrey didn’t play this move, 9. a4! would have been much more prudent.Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 18.42.59

It’s not that we are expecting Black to play the poor 9…Nb6? its just that this move restricts Black’s ability to expand with …b7-b5 on the queenside. Now it’s up to Black to come up with ideas. 9… a5 is a natural move for Black to secure the c5 outpost, but a knight on c5 won’t help Black with the pawn on d3. White can just play Kh1 followed by f4-f5. Also reasonable is b2-b3 and Bc1-a3 putting pressure on d6 once the f4-e5 tension is resolved (I will admit this is less agressive).

Anyways, I thought it was interesting that Black still had a tenable position after violating several opening principles.

12…d4

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So who gained the most out of this sequence? Black managed to expand in the center, but in doing so drives White’s knight to a more productive square, d2. Meanwhile, Black must retreat the knight back to d7, and still is way behind in development.

13.Ne2 Nbd7 14.f5 c5 +=

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Black’s limited development makes it extremely difficult to mobilize his forces, but I think Black’s best plan is follow-up with a …c5-c4 push, with the idea of placing a knight on c5 pressuring d3.

15.Qe1 b5 16.g4 Qe7?

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Simply too slow. Black has no time and must act with 19…c4. My guess is that Black was afraid of 20. Qb4, but 20… Ba6 21. dxc4?! Bf8 22. Qe1 bxc4 it becomes clear that this would only help Black mobilize his army.
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Following the sample line. Black is arguably better here with the strong a6 bishop, and the f8 bishop ready to come into c5. Obviously, White had much better in 20. Bf3.
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And my chief concern becomes the threat of g4-g5. My proposed move doesn’t really give Black an answer, but neither did the text’s move. With Black already this far behind, it’s fair to believe Black is strategically, in large part to the idea of Nb6.

17.Bf3 Qd6 18.g5 Nxe4

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Black gives up material instead of …Nh5. This doesn’t bode well for Black.

19.Bxe4 Rb8 20.Ng3 Bb7 21.Bd2!

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A very practical decision by Jeffrey. Instead of rushing manners on the kingside, he maximizes the overall optimization of his pieces before going in for the kill. Now the rook on a1 can join the fight. This is a great way to save time on the clock and maintain pressure over the board.

21…Bxe4 22.Nxe4 Qc6 23.Qg3 c4 24.Bb4 Bf8 25.Bxf8 Rxf8 26.f6?

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Trying to do too much. White is better because of material, but this move slows his ability to win. 26. Nf6+! was a lot more simple, the idea being that 26… Nxf6 27. gxf6 Qxf6 28. fxg6, and Black’s queen and king are both under fire.
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Black is lost. From f6, White’s knight is untouchable in the combination, and should Black not capture it, White will bring in his rooks to the kingside before busting open the g-file.

26…Rbe8 27.Nf5??

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This is too much, not to mention the combination actually fails! The idea is that if 27… gxf5! 28. Rxf5 Kh8! Black’s king is extremely safe, and after …Rf8-g8, White’s king could be under fire.
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One of the reasons I didn’t like f5-f6 was that it makes it very difficult to attack Black’s king. White doesn’t have many points of entry to the kingside aside from g7, and with the pawn on g4, it’s not quite clear how White will make progress. This diagram here is the structure if Black had taken on f5. As you can see, it’s not so simple to breakthrough. Sure White was up a piece anyways, but the f-pawn push followed by …Nf5 was a failure of tactical foresight.

27…Re6 28.Ne7+ Rxe7

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Out of frustration, Black gives up the rook, and in doing so, the game.

29.fxe7 Re8 30.Nf6+ Nxf6 31.Rxf6 Qd7 32.Qg4 Qxe7 33.Re1 Qb4 34.Qg3 Qxb2 35.Rxe5 Rxe5 36.Qxe5 Qc1+ 37.Rf1 Qe3+ 38.Qxe3 dxe3 39.dxc4 1-0

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This game was a lot more tactical than the first, but also proved as another exemplar as to why these …Nb6 ideas don’t work. Sure, Black got away with it in the first game, but that was White’s choice, not Black’s genius. As a coach, I’ve noticed that this manuever, though incorrect, has been played alot by lower rated players. When I started working with one of my current students, he played a line of the King’s Indian like this:

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 c5 7.d5 Nbd7 8.O-O Nb6

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Of the three cases we’ve discussed today, this is the worst …Nb6, and while my student knows much better now, I think it shows that even at the 1400 level, this move still shows up.

If we’ve learned anything today, it’s that this amateur-ish …Nb6 idea is not only a weak move, but its a bad plan! It’s passive, and it slows the natural expansion of the queenside for Black. In more active openings like the King’s Indian, this move is even more unforgiveable since Black falls behind too many tempo in the sharp position.

Well, I hope you’ve made it this far – this is my longest free game analysis post yet. Make sure to send your games into chess.summit@gmail.com to have your game analyzed by me in my next post!

Rough Weekend Makes For Tough Lessons

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My first game had me on board 1, taking on Grandmaster Alexander Fishbein. The game took five hours, and though I lost, it was a reasonably well-fought game on my behalf.

Well – I wish I could say that a week of intensive study and deep preparation paid off, but I simply had a rough outing at the Pittsburgh Open this past weekend. Only scoring 1/4 in the top section, the weekend’s performance showed me that the road to becoming a master and playing for the US Junior Open is a lot longer than I had anticipated.

While there were a lot of negatives for me in this event, I did want to share my second round match-up.

Steincamp–Opaska (Pittsburgh Open, 2016)

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.e3 Bg7 5.d4

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Once again I opted for this c4-d4-e3 set-up, it’s really easy to play since it’s mostly intuitive. I knew my opponent can play the English, so going for this meant there was a greater chance he wasn’t familiar with the opening.

5…cxd4 6.exd4 d6 7.d5

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Already, I have vast central control, and it’s up to Black to come up with solutions. The computer already loves my position, since Black must now decide on an awkward knight move.

7…Nb8 8.h3 Nh6 9.Bd3 O-O 10.O-O Na6 11.Re1 Nc5 12.Bg5

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Willing to give up the bishop pair if it means provoking …f7-f6.

12…f6 13.Bf4 Nf7 14.Bf1

I thought this was a good decision when compared to Bc2. I decided that Black having a light squared bishop is inconvenient since going to f5 would block in the dark squared bishop, so going to c2 wasn’t as appealing.
I thought this was a good decision when compared to Bc2. I decided that Black having a light squared bishop is inconvenient since going to f5 would block in the dark squared bishop, so going to c2 where a trade was possible wasn’t as appealing.

14…e5??

 I was super happy when I saw this, I thought after 14… a5 then …Ne5, Black had a respectable position. Now the pawn on d6 is a major liability.
I was super happy when I saw this, I thought after 14… a5 then …Ne5, Black had a respectable position. Now the pawn on d6 is a major liability.

15.dxe6 Nxe6 16.Bh2 f5 17.Nb5 Bxb2 18.Rb1

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I will win the pawn on d6, so in this trade, I got an opportunity to claim the half-open b-file. Black’s lack of development makes his position quite uncomfortable.

18…Bg7 19.Nxd6 Nxd6

And the initiative is all mine. I had calculated 19… f4 (I suppose this was Black’s intention after f5), 20. Nxf7 Qxd1 21. Rbxd1 Rxf7 22. Rd6 and if 22… Re7 the f4 pawn is hanging and I have the option of 23. Ng5 and Black’s lack of development is a real problem.
And the initiative is all mine. I had calculated 19… f4 (I suppose this was Black’s intention after f5), 20. Nxf7 Qxd1 21. Rbxd1 Rxf7 22. Rd6 and if 22… Re7 the f4 pawn is hanging and I have the option of 23. Ng5 and Black’s lack of development is a real problem.

20.Bxd6 Re8 21.Qd5 Kh8 22.Ne5 Qh4 23.g3 Qf6

He didn’t play this the first time around, so I had prepared a fun line 23.. Qh5 24. Be2 Qxh3 25. Nf7+ Kg8 26. Ng5 Qh6 27. Bf4 and black is losing thanks to the pin on the knight and discovery soon to happen on the queen on h6.
He didn’t play this the first time around, so I had prepared a fun line 23.. Qh5 24. Be2 Qxh3 25. Nf7+ Kg8 26. Ng5 Qh6 27. Bf4 and black is losing thanks to the pin on the knight and discovery soon to happen on the queen on h6.

24.f4 h6 25.h4 Kh7 26.Nf3?

Pressed for time, I made this mistake, which relieved too much pressure. 26. c5 is so much cleaner, since ...g6-g5 isn't really a problem. Once the h-file opens, I can just play Re1-e2-h2 and have a comfortable grip on the position.
Pressed for time, I made this mistake, which relieved too much pressure. 26. c5 is so much cleaner, since …g6-g5 isn’t really a problem. Once the h-file opens, I can just play Re1-e2-h2 and have a comfortable grip on the position.

26…Rd8 27.Rbd1 Nd4?? 28.Rxd4 1-0

A mistake in mutual time trouble. As you may have noticed, while the computer evaluation is roughly equal before the knight blunder, it is difficult to find constructive moves for Black.
A mistake in mutual time trouble. As you may have noticed, while the computer evaluation is roughly equal before the knight blunder, it is difficult to find constructive moves for Black.

My only point of the weekend, but hopefully the short-term disappointment will lead to long-term success. I have a match for the Universtiy of Pittsburgh in two weeks, and I don’t intend to let that one go.

 

Central Dominance: A Bad Benoni Breeds Bad Play for Black

With less than 24 hours before my first round of the Pittsburgh Open kicks off, I thought I’d share another game of mine from the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open. While I wasn’t happy with my finish in that event, it’s certainly propelled me to work harder this week in each phase of the game. I’m not sure what that means for this weekend in what should be a tough open section of Continental Chess’ Pittsburgh Open, but confidence is never a bad thing to have.

I like the game I’m about to share, because to an extent, it balances practicality with precise play, while at the same time showing what happens when your opponent jumps ship on opening principles. My opponent is a young, ambitious player who is closing in on 1700, let’s see how he holds up.

Steincamp – Cao (71st Annual Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open, 2016)

1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3

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I’m really starting to embrace this kind of play for White, not necessarily because it is theoretically dangerous, but a lot of the play is intuitive – meaning a lot less study time. My knowledge of this position has grown exponentially since I used it in the last round of the National Chess Congress back in November.

4…e6 5.d4 b6??

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A concrete error on behalf of my opponent. Failing to realize the importance of the center, my opponent will now lose time retreating his pieces.

6.d5 exd5 7.cxd5 Ne7 +=

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Black’s queenside expansion kind of resembles a Benoni, but his development is so slow that he won’t be able to find the counter play he needs in time. Meanwhile, I can push the center and restrict my opponent’s development.

8.e4

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Moving the pawn a second time is justified since my opponent will have moved his e7 knight 3 times once it finds refuge on g6.

8…d6 9.h3!

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An important decision! In the Benoni, Black usually likes to trade off his c8 bishop for the knight on f3. My opponent, only now opening up the light-squared bishop with his last move, prompts me to take away the g4 square.

9…Ng6 10.Bd3 Ne5? 11.Nxe5 dxe5

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Trading on e5 was not in Black’s interest. Not only did he move this knight 4 times in the first 11 moves just to trade it, he also gives me a protected passed pawn, giving me another long-term advantage. In addition to space and development, this will also wreak havoc on Black’s position.

12.a4

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In a position like this, where there’s no clear plan yet for White, it’s important to feel out Black’s position. This pawn thrust is a natural way of gaining space while also stopping Black from playing …b7-b5. If Black doesn’t play …a7-a6, I might be able to break through with a4-a5 ideas.

12…a6 13.O-O Bd6 14.f4

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Taking advantage of Black’s lack of development. Should Black try to trade on f4, it will only help me develop while Black’s king is still in the center of the board.

14…O-O 15.f5

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This f-pawn thrust alone is how I broke 1900 (see my 2014 post on the idea here). By cutting off the light-squared bishop from the game, I can opt to play on the kingside, or I can continue to build my advantage around the rest of the board. Since Black lacks activity here, I decided that it would be easiest to draw out the game, let him suffer, leaving me with easy decisions.

15…Qc7 16.Bc4!

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A surprisingly critical moment. Black’s only hope was to play …c5-c4 and try to play along the dark squares. I think 16. b3 is also acceptable, but Black would still have the option to sacrifice on c4, so this move cuts out the nonsense.

16…Bd7 17.Bg5 Be7 18.Qd3

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So this is where practicality sets in. I’m sure some of you may have noticed the move 18. d6! was possible – and I spent some extensive time looking at this before making my decision. Here’s what I saw: 18. d6 Qxd6?? loses to 19. Qxd6 Bxd6 20. Bxf6 gxf6 21. Rad1 and Black loses a bishop.
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So this is winning, Black must recapture on d6 with the bishop to avoid these tactics.
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18. d6 Bxd6 19. Bxf6 gxf6 20. Nd5 Qd8 +=
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So in exchange for a pawn, I have a great outpost, and I’ve managed to weaken Black’s structure. But even though I knew I was intuitively better, the game isn’t easier. Black might have some resources with …Kh8 and …Rg8, and if I mess up, I’m just down a pawn. My move 18. Qd3, keeps my options open. Let’s look at that position again:
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For starters, I’m attacking a6, which would put me up a pawn, not down one. Furthermore, now I’m actually threatening …d6 because if …Bxd6 I have Bxf6 and Ra1-d1, winning a piece. Even though I knew d6 probably worked, I figured I could reap more rewards if I just improved my position.

18…Rfd8 19.Bxa6 Rxa6 +-

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I was surprised to see this move. It might be the best try though – for my opponent, he forces me to calculate accurately, to ensure the safety of my queen, and he gets some counterplay. Unfortunately for him, I saw the forced continuation before I took the pawn on a6.

20.Qxa6 c4 21.d6!

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The move I was counting on! This zwischenzug will either allow me to have a strong pin on f6, or take the pawn on c4 with my queen.

21…Bxd6 22.Nd5

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The other advantage to playing d5-d6 was that it cleared a square for my c3 knight. Now I have protected the critical e3 square to stop all counterplay from Black.

22…Qc5+ 23.Be3 Qc6 24.Nxf6+ gxf6 25.Qxb6

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Cashing in my exchange for a winning endgame. My opponent puts up some resistance, but the two rooks offer too much play for White.

25…Qxb6 26.Bxb6 Rb8 27.a5 Bc6 28.Rfe1 Bb4 29.Re2 Ra8 30.Kf2 Bb5 31.Rc2 Ba6 32.Rd1 Be7 33.Rd7

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My opponent is punished for his passivity, and with a rook on the seventh, I have full control over the position.

33…Kf8 34.Rc7 Bd8 35.R7xc4!

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Simplification! Eliminating Black’s hold on the light squares, while taking advantage of my soon-to-be doubled pawns. It turns out that the b2 pawn plays an important role in the conversion of this game.

35…Bxc4 36.Rxc4 Bxb6+ 37.axb6 Rb8 38.Rc6 Ke7 39.b4 h5 40.b5

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And Black realizes his dilemma. With the rook on c6 protected, there’s simply no way the king can undermine it. The f6-pawn is also weak, so that makes the conversion rather simple.

40…Ra8 41.b7 Rb8 42.Rc7+ Kd6 43.b6

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Continuing to use the same idea. Black allowed me to promote with his next move, but soon Black will be in zugzwang. If 43… h4 44. Ke3, and Black must move his rook since the king has no legal moves, giving me Rc7-c8 with a promotion.

43…Rd8 44.Rc8 Rxc8 45.bxc8=Q 1-0

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My opponent made me play on till checkmate, but the win is simple.

My opponent really only made two mistakes this game:

1) He didn’t stop my d-pawn push, which allowed me to gain too much time and space.

2) Giving me the protected passed pawn on d5 not only lost a tempo but caused long-term problems throughout the game. Because of the time he lost, it allowed me to march my f-pawn and then squeeze for space.

But the two principle abandoning gaffes were enough to lose this one. My opponent is a relatively strong player for his age, but even this game shows the importance of two basic opening principles: controlling the center and not moving the same piece twice.

Why the Closed Sicilian isn’t Bread and Butter

This past weekend I played in a small, three round tournament in Pittsburgh to prepare for the Pittsburgh Open in two weeks. Unfortunately (for me at least), the U1800 and open sections got merged, so I only had one opportunity to play someone over 2000, in a game that went south really quickly. My two wins though were against much lower rated opponents, and highlight many problems for players rated 1000-1600. For today’s post, I wanted to share my round 2 win over a 1300 rated player.

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Even against much lower rated opponents, I still push to play extremely accurately. In this game, White plays an uninspired Closed Sicilian and quickly falls apart!

Woskob–Steincamp (71st Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nc6 5.Nf3

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With this move, I can glean a lot of information about my opponent. By not playing f2-f4, White opted for a much less aggressive line by developing the knight first. This could mean one of two things: 1) My opponent feels more comfortable in slow maneuvering positions or, even more likely, 2) my opponent doesn’t really know theory, he just understands the basic set-up for White. If the latter is true, White will probably give us cues with a misplaced piece.

5…d6 6.O-O Bg4

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When my opponent played Nf3, I decided that I wanted something aggressive. To come up with this move, I had to decide where I wanted my e-pawn. With the goal of a queenside attack, I figured my fianchettoed g7 bishop would be crucial, so I wanted my pawn on e6. That being said, it made sense to trade the light squared bishop since the e6-d6-c5 structure doesn’t really give my light squared bishop life.

7.d3 Nd4 8.Bd2

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The first real clue that perhaps White doesn’t really understand the Closed Sicilian structure. This bishop belongs on e3, because from there it has the added benefit of attacking the critical d4 square. By failing to contest the center, I can continue to keep the pressure on f3 and develop normally.

8…e6 9.Re1?

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This move is a mistake because now the thematic f-pawn push has less support. White likely thought that with my king still in the center this move made sense, but my king won’t be on e8 for long! If you are truly knowledgeable in your repertoire, you know that there are some moves you must play. f4 is one of them.

9…Ne7 10.h3 Bxf3 11.Bxf3 O-O

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The first critical decision. Here I decided against taking the bishop on f3 since I believed that my knight on d4 was far superior. As you will see, this knight becomes instrumental in orchestrating the queenside onslaught, specifically in attacking c2. It’s critical to understand that Black isn’t winning yet, arguably only slightly better. But if White fails to take action, the fall would be difficult to recover from.

12.Bg2 b5 13.a3 =+

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With this move, I have a concrete edge. White has just created a hook on b4 while simultaneously weakening the b3 square. This will make it difficult for White to kick the knight away from d4 conventionally, as c2-c3 ideas allows …Nb3. Even though I’m temporarily unable to play …b5-b4, the amount of tempi that White has surrendered is enough to be close to losing.

13…Rb8 14.Qc1 b4

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My opponent went into deep thought here, as White faces concrete problems. For example, if 15. Ne2? Nxe2+ 16. Rxe2 bxa3 -+ and the a3 pawn is untouchable since 17. Rxa3?? Bxb2 is dead lost for White. Not only am I attacking White’s knight, but he also must be wary of …b4-b3 ideas, weakening the c2 square for a potential knight fork, thanks to the misplaced rook on e1.

15.axb4 cxb4 16.Ne2 Nec6

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The threats are renewed! My knight on c6 can reinforce the knight on d4, and White must already answer to the threat of …b4-b3.

17.Nxd4 Nxd4 18.Bxb4??

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My opponent thought he had just won a pawn here, but can you find the refutation?

18…Rxb4 19.c3 Nb3 0-1

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And Black retains the extra piece. I eventually converted with little resistance, finishing the round 2/2.

Before the blunder though, here is what I had anticipated:
18. Rxa7

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Even with the extra pawn, White suffers chronic problems after 18… Rc8, as the pressure on the queenside is too great. White’s rook is offsides on a6, and my bishop on g7 is still a monster. A sample line would go like 18. Rxa7 Rc8 19. c3 Nb3! 20. Qd1 Nxd2 21. Qxd2 bxc3 22. bxc3 Bxc3-+

So what’s the lesson? If you are going to play a strategic opening, you must understand the concepts to play it in tournaments. Here my opponent knew a general set-up for the Closed Sicilian, but failed to demonstrate any thematic knowledge of the opening.

Opening Exploration: Navigating the Najdorf

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

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

DarwinEvolution–leika (G/15 Internet Chess Club)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caruana–Gelfand (Tal Memorial, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. fxe6 axb3 17. cxb3 fxe6

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

18. Bh3 Rxa2 19. Bxe6+ Kh8

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

20. Ng3 Nc7 21. Bc4 Qa8

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

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

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

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

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

28…Ndc5 29. Qc4 Nf4!!

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

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

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

33. Nh1 d3+ 34. Kd1 Qf3

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

35. Bxc5 Qxf1+ 36. Kd2 Nf4!

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

37. Ng3 Qg2+ 38. Kc1

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

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

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

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

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

How to Not Win a State Championship!

For those of you who may know me well, one tournament that has always been just out of my reach is the Virginia Scholastic State Championships. Since the third grade, I’ve always been competitive in my section, with five top ten finishes to show for it. Though my scholastic days have been over for a long time, I’m still chasing at least one state championship title.

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After some rough years in middle school, I managed to claim two 8th place finishes in both my 10th and 11th-grade years. My senior year wouldn’t prove so easy, and thus the curse of not winning states continued.

This past weekend, I had my first real opportunity to become a state champion, as I was seated at board 1 going into the final round of the G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships against defending champion Mark Eidemiller. I had scored 2.5/3, with two somewhat quiet wins, and a draw against a 2200 rated opponent. I shared my first round win last Tuesday:

My opponent had won each of his three games in a convincing manner, so I had to win to get the championship honors. Let’s see how it went:

Steincamp–Eidemiller (G/75 Pennsylvania State Championships, 2016)

1.c4 e6 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.O-O O-O 6.b3 b6

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An interesting choice by my opponent, I thought he would opt for the much more active and popular 6…c5. While my opponent’s choice to change the move order added its own wrinkle to the game, I think he would choose a different line if we were to replay this game.

7.Bb2 Bb7 8.d4 c5

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I’m guessing the point of Black’s move order switch. In an effort to deviate from main line Catalan positions, Eidemiller happily takes the hanging pawns structure.

9.cxd5 exd5 10.dxc5 bxc5 11.Nc3

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One of the problems of playing with the hanging pawns is that now I have a lot of dynamic potential. This knight can reroute to a4 to put pressure on c5, opening up the half-open file for my rook to go to c1. Black is still somewhat undeveloped, and should he choose to move his c- or d-pawns forward, he will create weak squares for my pieces to land.

11…Re8 12.e3 Na6 13.Rc1 Nc7 14.Na4

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In this position, I already have a slight advantage, as Black hasn’t solved the problems with his pawn structure. Meanwhile, his knight on c7 is somewhat misplaced.

14…Ne4 15.Nd2 Ne6 16.Nxe4 dxe4 17.Qc2!

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The move my opponent must have missed! Even if Black can hold onto his pawns, he will stay chained to his weaknesses on c5 and e4 while my pieces spring to life. Already, I was very optimistic about my chances of winning.

17…Bf6 18.Bxf6 Qxf6 19.Nxc5

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As Dorfman would say – a static advantage handled correctly will always become a material advantage. Now up a pawn, I just need to limit Black’s play and this game is mine, right?

19…Rac8 20.Nxe4!

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Two pawns are better than one, right? Here Black can’t touch my queen since I have the intermezzo capture on f6 with a check and I will end up an exchange.

20…Qe5 21.Qb1!

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The queen is surprisingly well placed here! If Black isn’t careful and plays 21… f5?! 22. Nf6+ is strong since I can take the bishop on b7 while my queen points at the weak f5 pawn. So far I’m playing really well, absolutely crushing my 2300+ rated opponent.

21…Ba6 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.Rd1 f5 24.Nd6 Rd8 25.Rd5

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This is the only move that justifies my choice to play Ne4-d6 earlier. Now the f5 pawn is won with proper calculation!

25…Qc3 26.Nxf5 Bd3

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The critical position of the game. This is Black’s last chance to bring this game back to life, as the endgame is no longer tenable. However, the game having gone so smoothly for me, I was shocked to see that I had missed this line in my calculation and blundered. Here is my first regret – not relaxing and playing 27. Rxd8+ Nxd8 28. Qd1! and the pin on the bishop saves my knight on f5. Instead, I made a much less pragmatic decision.

27.Qxd3??

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This move actually works tactically, but because I didn’t see the idea when I took here, I give it the two question marks. I was actually so nervous/excited/scared, that I took the bishop, thinking I was just winning a piece! Unfortunately, chess isn’t so easy.

27…Qxd3 28.Rxd3 Rxd3

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My last chance to win the game, can you find it? White to move.

29.Be4

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This move certainly wasn’t it, but if I had only pushed the bishop one square further and played 29.Bd5! I would have won the game. 29… Rxd5 loses on account to Ne7+, and 29… Kf7 enters a lost ending after 30. Nd4.

Unfortunately, with this misstep, the computer evaluation dropped from +5.3 to +0.3, which was more than enough for my opponent to hold the draw. So what did we learn from this game?

The game isn’t over till the players shake hands.

I would be State Champion if I had taken 26…Bd3 more seriously and calculated out the whole line or just found the trade on d8. I’m perfectly capable of calculating both lines, but in that precise moment I was too excited to think straight, which leads me to my next point.

Don’t play quickly.

I had a couple regrets this game, and ultimately, there is no going back. Even if I was excited, a trip to the water fountain or a walk around the tournament hall could alone have saved the game and been the difference.

Relax.

There was no need for me to get excited because I hadn’t done anything yet! Even though the opening went well in my favor, that alone didn’t win the game. I just had to be patient.

I’m sure I’ll break the curse one day in the near future, but I am at least happy I finally made it to the top board heading into the final round of the tournament – already the farthest I’ve made it thus far.

Positional Domination: Hou Yifan Breaks the Ice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.g3 Qc7 7.Bg2

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

7…Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4

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

9…d6 10.Be3 Nbd7

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

11.Rc1 Ne5

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

12.b3 Bd7

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

13.h3

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

13…Qa5

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

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

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

17…Ne8?

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

18.Nf3! Nb8

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

19.e5 d5

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

20.Nd2 Qb4 21.a3 Qxa3

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

22.cxd5 exd5 23.Ra1!

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

23…Qf8 24.Nxd5 Be6 25.Nc4 1-0

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