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.

Breaking 2100: Winning Ugly

Well, I’ve finally done it. This past Sunday I played against an expert in the Pittsburgh Chess League and pulled out a nail biter to get the win. The win puts me at 2/2 (both games with black) in the league, but more importantly will help me get the 8 points I need to cross 2100 for the first time in my career. Even though the game was far from perfect, I thought it would still be worth sharing, as the endgame is far from simple. Here we go.

Atwell – Steincamp (Pittsburgh Chess League, 2015)

1.e4 c5 2.c3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.cxd4 d5 5.e5 Bg7 6.Nc3 Nc6 7.Bb5 e6
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A passive move on my part. I believe a better suggestion here is 7… f6, putting pressure on the center. I saw this during the game, but I hesitated because of 8. Qa4. This is more or less a theoretical novelty for White, and I think 8… Qd7 should do enough, as White still has to solve his central problems.
8.Nf3 Ne7 9.Bg5 Bd7 10.Qd2
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A great move by my opponent! I was planning h6 and g5, gaining space on the kingside (I had already decided I wasn’t castling), but this idea might not be as strong now because of White’s potential to sacrifice on g5.
10…h6 11.Bh4 Qb6=
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After what felt like a passive opening choice, I think I have found equality here. I’m not exactly sure if White went wrong, but now my threat of Nf5 is also extremely strong. I remember during the game finding the award move 12. g4?! with the idea of cramping Black. If I try to counter with …h7-h5, White can open up the g-file and control g5. This is a cool concept positionally, but I have the saving grace 12… Nxe5 winning a pawn.
12.Bxe7 Kxe7 13.O-O
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I honestly was not too disappointed with my position. Despite being cramped, I have the pair of bishops, and my king is safe on e7. Here I had to consider the possibility of 13… Nxe5! winning a pawn. Objectively, this is the best move, but White isn’t without play. I played the text move because I didn’t like that I give white the opportunity to put his rook on a half-open file that has my king on it. Post mortem, I think the best line for White goes something like 14. Nxe5 Bxb5 15. Bxb5 Qxb5 16. Re1 Rac8 -+ and I am completely fine. I had also seen lines with Nxd5+ possibilities, but this just ends down a piece – in other words, I had a win here. While not as good as taking on e5, I have to say my move is pretty strong as well. I take control of the open file with the correct rook, and now when I reroute my queen to d8, both of my rooks are where the action will be. By not winning the pawn this turn I’m not better, but I definitely can’t be worse.
13…Rhc8 14.Bxc6? Bxc6
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My opponent didn’t make many mistakes this game, but if I had to find three moves I didn’t like for White, this would be the first one. Even though my light squared bishop is poor, it stops the c3 knight from getting to c5 via a4. Furthermore, having the pair of bishops alone guarantees some sort of advantage – if not here, then later should the position open up. I have two plans: 1) push my a pawn to gain space and attack the queenside and 2) maneuver my king to g8 to allow my bishop access to the f8 square.
15.a4 a5 16.Qd3 Kf8 17.Nd2 Kg8 18.Ra3 Bf8
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Mission Accomplished! My opponent had the right idea of a4 to lock up the queenside, but the position was slow enough that I had time to complete my second plan, here with the added benefit of a tempo. I don’t like White’s idea of getting the rook to a3, because in some lines the a4 pawn becomes a liability. This is mistake number 2 for my opponent.
19.Rb3 Bb4 20.Nb5??
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If you’ve ever read The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal, the author, Karsten Muller, emphasizes that mistakes come in “bunches”. While not losing immediately, White lets me trade off my worst piece while doubling his pawns and taking full control over the c-file. This is mistake number 3, and from this moment onward, Black has the initiative.
20…Bxb5 21.axb5 Kg7 22.h4 Qd8
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Queens are terrible blockaders. Having served its duty on b6, I made a tempo move on the h4 pawn while planning …Qe7, threatening a4, trapping the rook. I think this is the best way for me to use my positional advantage to get more active.
23.h5 Qe7 24.Qe3 Rc2 25.Nf3 a4-+
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Iossif Dorfman preaches that if a static advantage is played correctly, it will always become a material advantage. Here, White must sacrifice the rook on b4, as letting me take on b2 would give me a strong passer with no compensation. I like this decision for White, not because it gives him winning chances, but because the position quickly becomes extremely complicated.
26.Rxb4 Qxb4 27.hxg6 fxg6 28.Nh4 Qb3
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The difficult decision of the game. Here I think I could have done better with 28… Qxb5, and when White attacks g6 with 29. Qg3, meet it with 29… Qe8. 28… Qd2 is aggressive, but after 29. Qa3! Black has to be very accurate when covering the seventh rank. I chose this move because my queen was active, and ultimately had the goal of reaching e4.
29.Qf4 Rf8 30.Qg4 Qd3 31.Qxe6 Qe4 32.Nf3 Rxb2
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Winning a pawn, but more importantly coordinating my pieces! I can’t afford to let white gain access to the c-file, so this move gives me the resource …Rb2-b1, pinning the rook to the king.
33.Rc1 Rb1 34.Qe7+ Rf7 35.Qc5 b6-+
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Winning a pawn! White can’t afford to take on b6 or play Qc5-c6 because the a-pawn starts rolling and I will queen the pawn. White must give up the b5 pawn to stay in the game.
36.Qc3 Rxb5 37.Qc6 Rb1 38.Rxb1 Qxb1+ 39.Kh2 Qf5
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The hardest move to find throughout the game. If I were to have played 39… Qb3, I think I’m in trouble. 40. e6 Re7 41. Qd6 and the e5 outpost is really strong. By playing this move, I remove this threat at the cost of a pawn, but I really don’t think its so bad. For example, if 40. Qxa4, the queen is out of play, and the plan I had during the game would be much more effective (Qf4+, Rc7-c1+ – and White’s queen can’t generate counterplay with the passed pawn).
40.Qxd5 Qf4+
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My opponent told me after the game that he thought 40… Qh5+ was much more effective, but I beg to differ. 41. Kg1 Rc7 42. Kf1 (forced) Rc1+ 43. Ke2 and its already not clear how I make progress. 43… Rc2+ Black has to keep checking because the lack of coordination is not prepared to face the massive central advantage of White 44. Ke3 (not 44. Kd3?? Qf5+ and checkmate is around the corner) 44…Rc7 The king is exposed, but its not clear if white actually benefits from having an active king. Meanwhile, Black now has uncoordinated pieces against White’s queen and center passers.
41.Kg1 Rc7 42.g3 Qc1+ 43.Kg2 Qc6
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Still a difficult position, but I am making progress. Any queen trade is decisive and in my favor, and moving the queen allows me to attack f3.
44.Qd8 Rd7 45.Qe8 Rc7 46.Qd8 Qd7 47.Qf6+ Kh7 48.e6
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I think White makes the right choice here, taking on b6 loses a tempi to push pawns for white. After 48. Qxb6 a3 should be enough for the point as …Ra7 will provide more than enough support for the pawn.
48…Qg7 49.Qh4 a3
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And now the end is in sight. Every tempi White uses to stop my pawn is a tempi not used to push his own. White’s queen on h4 is blocked laterally by his own pawn on d4, and the knight really offers one meaningless check on g5. The result is 0-1.
50.d5 a2 51.d6 a1=Q 52.dxc7 Qxc7 53.e7 Qa8 54.Kh2 Qxf3 55.e8=Q Qxf2+ 56.Kh3 Qf1+ 0-1
I've never beaten an opponent who has two queens on the board before, but White resigned as Kg4 loses to ...Qf5#, and Kh2 falls prey to ...Qc2+ and mate on the next move.
I’ve never beaten an opponent who has two queens on the board before, but White resigned as Kg4 loses to …Qf5#, and Kh2 falls prey to …Qc2+ and mate on the next move.

A crazy game, and a lot for me to work on before the Pennsylvania State Chess Championships next week. Either way, breaking 2100 is really exciting for me – and hopefully, reaching master is around the corner.

Did you enjoy this article? Make sure to check out my gofundme campaign to help me keep improving and push my way to the 2016 US Junior Open!

Sam Shankland: The American Dr. Who

While America isn’t known for its ability to produce world class grandmasters, there’s definitely been a recent trend of increasing strength in the states. Most players love to talk about Hiraku Nakamura and Wesley So, I think more people should pay attention to Grandmaster Sam Shankland.

I first watched Shankland play at this past year’s US Chess Championships when he upset then tournament leader Varuzhan Akobian to cause a late shake up in the standings. Since then, he’s been relatively unheard, despite a strong performance at the Tata Steel Challengers section this past weekend (3rd).

For today’s post, I wanted to share a few of his games so maybe you too can appreciate his style of play.

Shankland – Michiels (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 6)

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. e5 Nd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4 f6

9. exf6 By opting to play this line of the French, Shankland must effectively control the c5 and e5 squares. White should have relatively easy development, and a backwards pawn to attack on e6.

9…Nxf6 10. 0-0 Bd6 11. Nf3 Qc7 12. Nc3 a6 13. Bd2 0-0

14. Rc1 In a relatively equal position, Shankland takes the most principled approach. By putting his rook on the same file as the opponent’s queen, Black has some questions to answer.

14…Bd7 15. Re1 Rae8

16. Na4 A strong move. From a4, the knight controls c5 (a critical square) and b6, while opening up the rook. If Black isn’t careful, Shankland will have a nice outpost on c5.

16…Bc8 A slight inaccuracy from Black. In an effort to create more space on his own side of the board, Black neglects White’s ability to find active play.

17. Ne5 Rather than allowing Black to push and trade his backwards e-pawn, Shankland uses a common idea of a blockade by placing his knight here.

17…Qb8 18. Bf4 Nxd4

19. Bxh7+ A critical moment in the game. With this exchange, White stands better as he traded his isolated d-pawn for the h-pawn, weakening the enemy kingside while maintaining the e5 outpost in the center.

19…Kxh7 20. Qxd4 Ne5 21. Bg3 Rf5 22. Nf3 Nxg3 23. hxg3 Bd7

24. Nc5 Putting pressure on the backwards e-pawn and encouraging Black to trade away the bishop pair.

24…Bxc5 25. Rxc5 Qd6

26. Ne5 With no clear play, Shankland improves his position.

26…g5? Michiels intended to find some sort of play here, but opens up holes in front of his king.

27. g4! A great move! White blockades the g-pawn, while creating easy access for a rook lift to h3, fully exposing the king.

27.Rf4 28. Qd3+ Kh8 29. Qg6 Re7

30. Rc3 Paralyzing Black. After 30… Rh7, the game falls apart quickly.

30…Rh7 31. Qxg5 Re4 32. Rxe4 dxe4 33. Qd8+ 1-0

A good game by Shankland. By optimizing his pieces from what was relatively a equal position, Shankland was able to create outposts to help him limit Black’s ability to move.

Haast – Shankland (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 13)

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

5…a6 The Najdorf is a favorite opening in Shankland’s repertoire. Recently he made a video series for chess.com on the line, which you can watch here.

6.Be3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3

8…h5 Limiting any quick kingside pawn storm.

9.Be2 Nbd7 10.a4 Rc8 11.a5 Be7 12.O-O g6 13.Qd2

13…Kf8 A very interesting idea. By castling by hand, Shankland keeps his rook on h8, a much more appropriate file than the f-file.

14.Nd5 Bxd5

15.exd5 With this exchange, Black closes the d-file, hiding his backwards d6 pawn, which is the main weakness in many Najdorf structures.

15…Kg7 16.Ra4 b5 17.Raa1 Qc7 18.c3 Qb7 19.Rfd1 h4 20.Nc1

20…Bd8 With this move Black sets the tempo of the game. This bishop will slowly find its way to b8, allowing Shankland to connect the rooks while maintaining control of the c-file. White has wasted time with the rook maneuvers on the queenside, allowing for Black to play for a slight advantage.

21.Ra3 Bc7

22.Na2 White must solve the awkwardness in her position. The Women’s International Master’s pieces on the queenside are not coordinated, and will allow for Black to seize control of the c5 square.

22…Bb8 23.Rb3 Nc5 24.Rb4

24…Bc7 And now it becomes clear how messy White’s position truly is. With the a-pawn lost, White quickly grabs the h-pawn. While material may come out even, Black gets a strategic advantage by opening the h-file.

25.Bg5 Bxa5 26.Rxh4 Rxh4 27.Bxh4

27…Bb6 Now without the pawn on a5, Shankland takes full advantage of his repossession of the b6 square. By placing his bishop here, he forces White’s king off the dark square diagonal to the corner of the board…

28.Kh1 Rh8 29.Qe1 Qd7 30.Nb4 Qf5 31.Bf2 a5

32.Nd3?? After being outmaneuvered for most of the game, Haast makes her first big mistake, and Shankland finds a strong tactical blow.

32…Nxd3 33.Bxd3 Bxf2 34.Qxf2

34…Rxh2+! Using the h-file to create a king and queen fork. If White does not comply, Black has …Qh5, putting more pressure on the h-file.

35.Kxh2 Ng4+ 36.Kg1 Nxf2 37.Kxf2 Qc8 38.Ke2 Qc5 39.b4 Qxc3 40.bxa5 Qxa5 41.Rb1 b4 42.Bc4 Qc5 43.Bb3 f5 44.Kf1 Qb5+ 45.Kg1 Qd3 Completely outplayed, Haast resigned. 0-1

Like in the first game, Shankland uses his ability to maneuver pieces to active squares to outplay his opponents. In the first game, he attacked the c5 and e5 squares, and the second, the c5 square also played a big role. In both of the these cases a knight on these squares really limited the mobility of the opponent. Much like the Doctor, Shankland finds ways to inconvenience his opponents at exactly the right moment. Even if you don’t play the French or the Sicilian Najdorf, most openings have potential outposts. Your pieces are your sonic screwdrivers!

A pretty good tournament from Shankland this past weekend in the first super tournament of 2015. We’ll be seeing more from the Doctor in the near future!

A Diamond in the Rough

I’ve been preparing for my next tournament, the National Chess Congress in Philadelphia, and with a little less than a week to go, I’ve been playing a lot of games on the Internet Chess Club (ICC) to prepare. I’ve had a bunch of bad games, but this game against a Women’s International Master is definitely promising.

Me – loafyyy (WIM) – Internet Chess Club (G/15)

1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. Nc3 d6 5. d3 O-O 6.e4 Nbd7 7. Nge2 e5 8. O-O c6 9. h3 a5 10. Be3 Qc7 11. Rc1 Nc5

12. b3 I didn’t see how Black could stop my d4 push or render it useless, so I just strengthened my position before opening up the position.

12…Nfd7 13. d4 exd4 14. Bxd4 Nf6 15. Qc2 Re8 16. Rfd1 Qe7

17. f3 I couldn’t find any other moves that I liked, trading the bishop on f6 is too committal, and with this move, now Black has to deal with the d6 weakness.

17…Bd7 18. Qd2 Rad8 19. Bxf6 Qxf6 20. Qxd6 Ne6 21. Qd2

21…Ng5!  I missed this move in my analysis, and now the position becomes interesting as I only have a pair of knights against a pair of bishops.

22. Qe3 Nxh3+ 23. Bxh3 Bxh3 24. Rxd8 Rxd8 25. Rd1 Be6

26. Kg2 Makes efforts like …Qa1+ useless and offers protection for f3. This was more of a prophylactic measure.

26…Rxd1 27. Nxd1 Qd8

28. Ndc3 I was tempted to look at Nf2 with the idea of trading queens one d3, but Ndc3 move stops any queenside counterplay with the b-pawn. I also want to point out that even with a queen trade on d3, the knights are awkwardly placed.

28…h5 Threatening h4. Black wants to weaken my pawn structure and make my king unprotected in a quickly opening position.

29. e5?! This is probably not the best move, but I thought locking down the g7 bishop was crucial for me to having any winning chances. I didn’t really have any other practical moves so I opted for this instead.

29…Kh7 30. f4 h4

31.Ne4 I might not be winning, but I definitely have some sort of initiative. The bishops in this position are obsolete, and my knights are very strong.

31…hxg3  32. Ng5+ Kg8 33. Nxe6 fxe6

34. Nxg3 My plan is to park my knight on e4 and control d6 and f6. My opponent’s remaining bishop is very poor, thanks to my e4-e5 push from earlier.

34…Bh6 35. Ne4 Qd1

36. Kg3 Both my opponent and I have about 3 minutes left, so I really liked this move because my opponent has no checks in this position. It also frees my queen a little bit, because now there is no fork on the 2nd rank. Black is going to have to be more creative to draw this game.

36…Bf8 Relocating the bishop to a better diagonal, this leaves the f6 square very weak.

37. Ng5 Not my original plan, but I needed the Black queen to be inactive to have a chance to win.

37…Qd7 38. Qe4 Kg7

39. Nf3 Relocating my Knight to h4, I want Black’s queen off the open file. Black’s position is becoming harder to defend as her pieces are becoming quite tangled.

39…b6 40. Nh4 Qe8 41. Qd3 Be7 42. Nf3 Bc5

43. Ng5  I only have 30 seconds left, but I want to maneuver my knight back to e4 to have a better position.

43…Qe7? Pressed for time, my opponent made this mistake, inviting ideas like Nf6 followed by an advantageous queen trade. I think even if my opponent had more time from this position, it wouldn’t change the outcome of the game.

44. Ne4 Bb4 45. Nf6 Be1+ 46. Kg4 Bb4

47. Qd7 This wins, but I missed the cruel 47. Kg5 Qf7 48. Qh3 Kf8 49. Qh8+ Ke7 50.Qc8 c5 making the Black bishop useless and Black defenseless. I only had 20 seconds left, so I didn’t see this idea until after the game.

47…Qxd7 48. Nxd7 Kf7

49. Nb8? I think I needed to be more careful here. 49… c5 and the position is no longer clear. I think in this case I have to play 50. Na6 with the idea of moving to c7 and b5 to not get trapped, even in that case, it isn’t clear how the knight is useful to me. Meanwhile 49. Nxb6 is clearly winning!

49…Ke7 50. Nxc6+ Kd7 51. Nxb4 axb4 52. Kg5 With 8 seconds left, my opponent resigns. I had 16 seconds left at the game’s conclusion 1-0

This is probably one of the best games I’ve played in a while. A key takeaway from this game is how to make a knight v. bishop ending a thematic good knight v. bad bishop position. In this game, I did that by locking the center and creating outposts. Once I traded minor pieces on e6, my opponent was lost because I could use e4 as a vantage point for my knight, and my opponent could never attack it with her bishop.

With the National Chess Congress starting on Friday, I think I can aim for another Candidate Master Norm with play like this.

 

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

A Quick Trap in the Slav

Its fairly important to know the tactical elements in your opening repertoire. For today’s post, I want to share a quick trap that I learned and used in a tournament game in the Slav.

Steincamp – Karell (Maryland Open, 2013)

1. c4 c6 2. d4 d5

3. cxd5 When I played this, I liked the Exchange Variation because it required little opening knowledge, and focused more on actual chess play. For the most part, the opening is based on intuition and common sense.

3…cxd5 4. Bf4 Nf6 5. Nc3

5…e6? There is no real need to block in the light squared bishop. I find this move odd, because usually I find that Slav players tend to want to develop this bishop before this move, thus being why they play …c6 before …e6.

6. e3

6…Bd6?! This is generally the right trade, but I think that this may not be the best positional idea. Black’s queen doesn’t add value to Black’s position from d6, and leaves c8 hanging. Thematically, this is the right idea, but positionally this move is the wrong approach.

7. Bxd6 Qxd6

8.Rc1 Immediately seizing the file. This was one of the reasons I liked this line, because generally I could reach this kind of position with little pressure. I threaten Nb5 attacking the queen, then Nc7+ with a deadly fork.

8…a6 The b5 square is weak, but that leaves black open to a quick discovered attack from the powerful rook on c1.

9. Nxd5!! Attacking the bishop. My opponent makes the only move in the position, as Black cannot allow Rxc8+.

Nc6 10. Nxf6+ gxf6 +- Black kingside is unsafe, and its quick uncomfortable to castle queenside. On top of this, I am up a pawn, and black only has a slight advantage in development.

I have to give my opponent a lot of credit because after this trap I got lazy and let her back in the game. However, this trap gave me both a material and positional advantage out of the opening.

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

Winning with the f-pawn Push

In my last post, I talked about how Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana won by gaining space with pawn pushes, particularly with the f4/f5 pawn push. I figured that for today’s post, I would show how placing your f-pawn deep into enemy territory is such a strong point in your position.

Going into this game I was rated 1799, and seeing that my opponent was similarly rated, a win would guarantee that I gain at least 1 rating point.

Wiseman – Steincamp (Kingstowne Action Plus, 2013)

1. c4 Nf6 2. d4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Be3

5…O-O An immediate …Ng4 could have been more interesting, but seeing as this tournament had a shorter time control, I decided to stick to what I knew,

6. Bd3?! Already I know that my opponent is not too familiar with the King’s Indian Defense, as the traditional square for the light squared bishop is e2. From d3, it will be behind 2 pawns, e4 and c4. Right now I want to shut down the center to limit the scope of this poorly placed bishop.

6…e5 7. d5 Nbd7

8. b4 An unusual approach. White usually solidifies on the kingside before trying this pawn push and attacking on the queenside. Before I start my kingside play, I will eliminate White’s counter play on the queenside.

8…a5 9. a3 axb4 10. axb4 Rxa1 11. Qxa1

11…Ng4 With phase 1 of my plan mostly complete, I decided that I need to punish White for leaving his bishop on e3. In the King’s Indian this is a very common maneuver, and is sometimes even follow up with Ng4–h6–f7 in true Bronstein style.

12. Qc1 Nxe3 13. Qxe3 c5

14. b5 Locking down all of the light squares. Now I should aim for the thematic f–pawn push.

14…Qa5?! Not necessary, an immediate 14… f5 would have been solid, as after 15. exf5 gxf5, and I have a strong center.

15. Nge2 f5 16. O-O

16…f4! The critical point of this game. Now that I control the f4 squares, I can exploit White’s kingside weaknesses at my will. I will play for a fast g–pawn push, and White will need to become creative to find a defense.

17. Qc1 Qd8

18. f3 The typical response to the enemy pawn on f4. 17… f3 didn’t yield any play for me though, as after 18. g3, there is still some play for White. While this is a typical defense mechanism, it creates 2 problems for white. First, it helps make my g–pawn push idea very effective, and secondly, now he cannot put his knight on f3. Defending the h2 square will become problematic.

18…Nf6 Putting my knight on f6 gives me a further hold on the g4 square.

19. Qa3? Missing the point. White has no play on the queenside, and he takes away a piece for defending.

19…g5 20. Ra1 g4 21. fxg4

21…Nxg4! Since I have exchanged off White’s dark squared bishop, I need to take advantage of the weak squares in his position, made possible by my f4 pawn.

22. h3 Ne3

23. Nd1 A natural looking move. However, it blocks off the queen and the rook from defending the king. In these kinds of positions, it is very important to look for all forcing moves.

23… Nxg2! 24. Kxg2 f3+ 25. Kh2

25…Qh4 An immediate 25… Qg5! is much more effective, but this is winning too. It is critical to not take the knight however, as it does a nice job of blocking out my opponent’s pieces.

26. Ng1 f2 27. Nxf2 Rxf2+ 28.Kh1 Qg3 29. Bf1 Qh2# 0-1

While limited opening preparation certainly did not help my opponent, he lost because of my pawn on f4. By having a strong pawn on f4, my opponent could not easily defend his kingside, while I had all the space  in the world to attack. Furthermore, by closing off the center, I could safely attack with my g-pawn without risk to my king. For black, these dark-square openings like the King’s Indian Defense revolve around these f7-f5-f4 ideas, so for me, eliminating the opponent’s dark squared bishop was critical towards attacking his king.

Don’t believe in the power of the f–pawn push? Here’s another game!

Chava – Steincamp (Virginia Scholastic Chess Championships, 2013)

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 Nbd7 7. O-O e5 8. d5 a5 9. Be3

9…Ng4 Again, the immediate Ng4, eliminating the dark squared bishop. Should black try 10. Bg5, I can play 10… f6 or 10… Qe8, both of which are respected theoretical lines for Black.

10. Qd2 Nxe3 11. Qxe3

11…Nc5 So far I have achieved my dream position. I have a knight on c5, and I can push the f–pawn whenever I wish.

12. a3 f5

13. b4? A critical thematic idea, but poorly timed. What is the winning intermezzo move?

13…f4! 14. Qc1 Nb3 15. Qb2 Nxa1 16. Rxa1

16…g5 Now up an exchange, and my opponent’s pieces far from his king, it is time for the g–pawn push. Since White’s knight is on f3 rather than a pawn, I ideally want to play g5-g4 then f4-f3 opening the g–file.

17. bxa5 g4 18. Nd2 f3 19. gxf3 gxf3 20. Bxf3

20…Bh3 Up an exchange, I am more than happy to give away a few pawns to open the enemy king. My pieces are all well–placed, and there seems to be no escape for the White king.

21. Kh1 Qh4

22. Nd1 Defending f2, but again blocking out his own pieces. White cannot move the knight on d2 to allow the queen to protect f2 because the bishop on f3 hangs, and white cannot afford to give up another exchange with 22. Rf1.

22…Bh6 Threatening the famous removing the defender idea. Generally in these pawns structures, if Black can activate his dark squared bishop without jeopardizing his king, White is in a world of hurt.

23. Bg2 Bxg2+ 24. Kxg2 Bf4 25. Kf1 Bxh2

26. Nb3 The knight must move, and the position collapses for white.

26…Qxe4 27. Qe2 Qh1# 0-1

In this game, my opponent allowed me to place a pawn on f4 and push my g–pawn to bust open his position. This time, by using the f4–f3 push, I created an open file and won by exposing the enemy king.

So how to defend against the f4 push? Surely, there must be a way! And there is. Here’s a rule of thumb my old coach taught me to protect yourself against these ideas. If your opponent plays f7–f5, planning f5–f4, you have three options:

1. Play f4 yourself, opening the position.

2. Play exf4, if your opponent isn’t prepared, you might be able to place a knight on e4 and grab hold of the position.

3. Find a move that renders kingside play obsolete. If you can eliminate the material needed to attack, it is only a small space advantage.

In most cases, #1 or 2 are the best option, but every now and the the pawn thrust is harmless. You must calculate in these positions, as a critical misstep can ruin a perfectly good game!

I hope you now know how to play not only as the side pushing the f–pawn, but also that you now know how to defend against it. This is a strong idea, and I hope you can implement it in your games!

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