Endgame Essentials: In Action at the European Chess Championships!

After writing my most recent Endgames Essentials post, I decided to watch the European Individual Chess Championships and stumbled across an endgame that I thought was an effective model of the principles we’ve established thus far.

Today’s post features David Navara (right), a strong 2700+ rated Grandmaster from the Czech Republic!

Before Ernesto Inarkiev managed to pull away from the pack and win the Championships, it looked like the event could go a number of ways – Saric, Navara, Jobava, Kovalenko, and Wojtaszek were all over 5/6, with a bunch of strong players at 4.5/6 with five rounds to go. While it wouldn’t determine the winner, David Navara’s game in round 7 against Baadur Jobava definetly impacted the course of the tournament.

In that game, we reached this drawish position:

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Navara – Jobava, 2016

With a symmetrical pawn structure, it seems like not much can happen. There are no logical pawn breaks in the position, and though White’s king is more active than Black’s, Jobava does have control over the d-file. What you might notice though, is that it is White who is pressing. With the e- and f-pawns already advanced, it will be difficult for Black to expand effectively on the kingside and create weaknesses. Sure, White certainly cannot be considered winning here, but it is Black who must prove equality. As we’ve seen in many of Carlsen’s games, this is already enough to play for! To stop Black from entering the second rank, White brings his king to c3, and activates his rook on the b-file. 18. Kc3 Kf8 19. Rb1 Ke7

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White has improved his position, but so has Black – in fact his king is coming into the game very quickly! If White isn’t careful, Black can bring his king to d6 and rook to d7 with the hopes of creating a fortress. When you’re trying to improve your position and push your opponent, it’s always important to consider their plans and see if you can stop them. Navara spent 20 minutes on this next, and made the most contesting move on the board. 20. e5!

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At an artificial level, this move looks really weakening. White gives up the d5 square for Black’s rook and his structure could get undermined with …f7-f6 ideas. But if you think about it, Black’s rook is no better on d5 than it is on d8 because tactically it must always retreat to d7 following Rb1-b7+. With the pawn on e5 cutting out improving squares for Black’s king, Black will need this …Rd7 resource until further notice. It’s also important to note that a break on f6 arguably hurts Black more than White – it doesn’t improve his structure, and an open f-file wouldn’t change the nature of the position. One thing to remember when playing in equal positions is that in order to play for a win, you must give up something in return. In this case, Navara gives Black the d5 square to keep his winning chances. 20…h5 21. a4

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Right now both sides are playing accurately. Black is trying to solidify his kingside, while White is trying to gain access to critical squares on the queenside. For example, were Black to stand idle, White could march his pawn to a6, giving him control of the b7 square for his rook to then win the game. Black’s logic here is that while he may be less active, if he can remain solid, White will not have enough to exploit his advantage. Let’s see if this holds true.

21…Rd5 22. Rb7+ Rd7 23. Rb8 Rd8 24. Rb4 Rd5

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So what just happened? It just seems like the two players shuffled their rooks back and forth, but what was the point? As Grandmaster Sam Shankland says, no self-respecting Grandmaster makes a move without a purpose. Let’s go back to the position after Jobava played 21… Rd5:

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In this position it is White to move, but in the current position after 24… Rd5 it is White to move. What’s changed? White got in Rb1-b4 and now has an extra tempo to improve his position. By infiltrating deep into the b-file, Black had to block out White’s rook from raiding the kingside pawns, so this line is actually rather forced. While Black should still be able to hold here, it’s small moments like these that count towards building a winning position. 25. g3 Rc5+ 26. Kb3 Rd5 27. c4 Rd2?!

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Here’s where Black starts to go wrong. As we mentioned earlier, the rook was no better on d5 than it was on d8, and so the same applies to d2. Black cannot afford to allow White’s rook to enter the 7th rank without resistance, as the a-pawn will fall, and it’s White’s passed pawn that will matter more than Black’s. Still, White can’t play 28. Rb7+ yet, so he makes the one move that wasn’t possible just one move ago. 28. a5!

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I’m going to guess that this move’s power was under estimated by Jobava, seeing as he spent 24 minutes on his next move. However after 27. c4 its impossible to effectively stop this pawn push and be able to retreat to d7. Black’s best hope was to create a fortress by retreating to d7 and bringing his king to c8. I messed around with Stockfish here to see how Black would hold, and the line goes 27…Rd3+ Very important – the king is pushed to the second rank before Black makes a bunker. 28. Kc2 Rd7 29. a5 Kd8 30. a6 Kc8 31. Rb1 g6

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White will have to try and create a weakness on the kingside, but his rook can’t run too far astray since Black can play …Kc7-b6 and attack the a-pawn. It’s an ugly position to have to defend, but since White’s king can’t get to the kingside thanks to the Black rook, Black should have good drawing chances. So how is this so different than what happened in the game? It turns out that not inserting this one check before retreating to d7 still gives White something to play for with an active king. If Jobava had played 28…Rd7, White’s king can enter the fray through a4, then later b4 and c5 – but admittedly this is very difficult to win. Instead, Jobava offers Navara an oppotunity. 28…Kd8?

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The last move underestimated a resource to draw, but this move gives White an opportunity to play for more! While White can’t win material, his rook would be much better placed on f8 or g8 than it is currently on b4. Navara wastes no time in reaching his desired position.

29. Rb8+ Kc7 30. Rf8 Rd7 31. Kb4

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A tremendous improvement in White’s position. Black has no easy way to defend the a5-a6 idea, and White’s king is headed to the c5 square, where it cannot be touched by Black! The position still looks difficult to convert, but for the rest of the game (with the exception of one move), Navara spends less than a minute per move to convert the point! 31…a6 +-

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Not exactly a better recommendation for Black in the position, but now the b6 square is weak. White’s goal now is to stretch out Black’s defensive resources with his rook and try to make Black run out of good moves. 32. Kc5 g6 33. Ra8 Kb7 34. Rf8

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White’s repeating moves – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ideas. With each move, not only does Navara gain 30 seconds, but repeating moves in a superior position can actually create a psychological advantage! I’ve had a few cases in tournament games where I’ve used this idea, and sometimes instead of repeating my opponent’s have completely collapsed! Of course you can’t failry compare the caliber of opponent I’m playing to the likes of Baadur Jobava…

34…Kc7 35. h3 Kb7 36. g4

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Since Black cannot make any productive moves, White decides it makes sense to open the h-file so his rook has more options. In this position, Black has three weaknesses: the 7th rank, the d6 square, and the b6 square. At the precise moment, Navara will relocate his rook to attack Black’s weak queenside pawn structure.

36…hxg4 37. hxg4 Kc7 38. Ra8 Kb7 39. Rh8 Kc7 40. Rh1 Rd2

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For a second it seems like Black’s rook has become active, but there’s a cute trick here to force the rook back to e7 (not d7)!

41. Rh7 Rd7 42. g5 1-0

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Jobava was so dissatisfied with this endgame he actually resigned to the Czech Grandmaster! In this position, Black is more or less obliged to play 42… Re7 because after 42… Kb7 43. f5!! actually leads to forced mate. The pawn is poisoned since a move like 43…exf5 loses immediately to 44. e6 and White will have managed to trade rooks and gained a queen on the way.

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So 42… Re7 is the only move that doesn’t lose immediately. However this move also fails to defend adequately because now when White plays 43. Rh2, Black can’t also activate his rook since it needs one tempo to reach the d-file again, so after 43… Rd7 44. Rb2 Rd3 45. Rb6, White will win Black’s queenside, and the win of the f-pawn doesn’t help Black.

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Black’s endgame was actually difficult to hold, and after only one real mistake, Jobava completely collapsed. I thought this game was instructive for a couple of reasons. First it showed us how to press a minuscule advantage, while also using the idea of marching the a-pawn to use the b7 square. This game also showed us that sometimes its possible to hold difficult positions as long as we only have one weakness. I think Jobava may have seen this bunker idea, but thought it would fall apart in the long-run. For a human it may be difficult to hold, but it was really Black’s only real chance of saving the game. Lastly, Navara showed us the importance of gaining tempi at various points of the game. While an extra small improvement may not seem significant in a particular moment of the game, such extra moves add up and become overwhelming.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a tournament this weekend, so I won’t be able to post a video this weekend. Make sure to look out for a post next week on my performance! The Cherry Blossom Classic promises to be a tough tournament, and I’ll be hoping to continue my luck from New York!

Endgame Essentials: Pushing Your Chances

So far in my Endgame Essentials series, I’ve laid out some basic principles to improve our overall assessment of different positions. Understanding that our opponent has a weak king, sidelined piece, or a cancerous structure can help us seize the initiative and identify a plan going forward. While the examples I’ve previously given are relatively straightforward, in practice, such applications are not so simple. Take this position from the recent Candidates Tournament for instance:

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White to Move

Svidler – Karjakin, 2016

In the game, Svidler made the logical move, 48. Rxf4, after which the game followed 48… Rxa2 49. Rfh4 g6 50. Re5 with a draw. I don’t think it’s fair to compare White’s choice to that of an engine, but Stockfish’s recommendation here is particularly instructive – 48. Re5! with a big plus for White. The point is that after 48…Rxa2 49. Re7 g6 50. Rxf4, White’s rooks are a lot more active than Black’s and now both the e3 pawn and the 7th rank are weak. Furthermore, Black’s knight on f8 is out of commission with no pleasant square for refuge. Again, it’s hard to fault Svidler for the miss, but the engine shows us here that activity is stronger than material (for more of my thoughts on engines, here’s a post from last year).

What this should tell us is that the heuristics we’ve identified thus far should always be at the forefront of our attention. However, sometimes we don’t have the convenience of having a better position. In such cases, one strategy is to strengthen our structure by gaining space in the aims to restrict our opponent. If I had to choose a “one-move” example of this, it would be from this past year’s Tata Steel.

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White to Move

Navara – Caruana, 2016

At a first glance, the position is seemingly equal. Navara has a broken pawn structure, but his activity offers enough compensation. If White had moved the bishop here from d5, Black would immediately take the second rank with …Rd6-d2!, seizing the initiative and potentially the game. This is why Navara chose 35. c4!, protecting the bishop, but also showing Caruana how inactive his rook really is.  From d6, the Black rook has limited options, and can’t easily put itself on the e-file. The Czech player went on to win a very nice endgame, and I encourage you to see its continuation here.

Navara is an extremely talented player, and perhaps will one day break the top ten, but as with the previous posts, the focus of today’s post is the reigning World Champion!

Naturally, improving a pawn structure takes more than one move, but I thought this case illustrates the aims of the expanding side quite nicely. As we have throughout this series, we’ll take a look at a few examples from Magnus Carlsen’s past victories, this time from 2012 and 2013.

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White to Move

Carlsen – Van Wely, 2013

Already, we have a messy position. White has the bishop pair, but the light-squared bishop seems a little boxed in on d3. The most glaring weakness in this position is the f5 pawn, but Loek has set a trap: 23. Bxf5 Ne5!= and despite being down a pawn, the constant pressure on c4 is enough to give Black equality. But as I hope you’ve noticed thus far, the endgame rewards long-term plans more than short calculations, so this pawn on f5 will be a source of concern for Black going forward. Just remember, sometimes the threat is stronger than the execution! So Magnus instead chose 23. Kc2 (Though imprecise, 23. f4 should win too since it covers the e5 square) Bd4 24. Rb1 Nb6 25. Bf4

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Before deciding on a structure, Carlsen has decided to optimize his pieces. By putting pressure on his opponent first, he will have a better idea of what structures will give him the best winning chances.

25…Be5 26. Re1 Kg7 27. Bg3!

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The starting point for today! With this move, Carlsen intends f3-f4, fixing the weakness on f5, and limiting his opponent’s bishop’s mobility. Already, holding the file and keeping his position intact is getting uncomfortable.

27…Re7 28. f4 Bf6 29. Rxe7 Bxe7 30. Be1

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Relocating the bishop the long diagonal is a clear idea, but Carlsen wants to gain space on the kingside with his h- and g-pawns. Again, there’s no rush to take on f5, the pawn can’t go anywhere, thanks to the pawn on f4.

30…h5 31. g3 Bf6 32. Kb3 Kg6 33. h3 1-0

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Perhaps it was premature, but Van Wely resigned here in light of 34. g4, finally winning the f5 pawn. With the bishop pair and a healthy material advantage, White should win with relative ease.

This is an important endgame because it shows us that long-term weaknesses can usually not be held by tactical means forever. White maximized a static advantage by fixing the f5 pawn and trading rooks, making it difficult for Black to create counterplay.

In our next example, Carlsen takes on Caruana in a position that is much more balanced:

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White to Move

Carlsen – Caruana, 2012

In this position, both sides have exactly one weakness. For White, the isolated c-pawn is a clear target, and for Black, the backward pawn on b6 is also an issue. I think here many players would try to exchange weaknesses, but, in this case, this mutually beneficial trade will only result in equality (Note that the immediate 29. Bxb6 fails anyways to 29… Rxe1!, I mean this as a more long-term idea). But here it could be argued that White’s position is simpler to play. The bishop on d4 is better placed than it’s counterpart on c7, and can’t easily be kicked from its outpost, thanks to the c3 pawn. Furthermore, it’s much easier for Magnus to put pressure on b6 than it is for Caruana to attack c3, so Black still needs to prove equality in this position. Knowing this, White decided that it was time to expand on the kingside.

29. Re4 g6 30. g4 Kf8 31. h4

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Even though it’s not yet clear how Magnus will use these pawns, we can say that he has improved his position, and now asks Black how he will relieve pressure on the b6 pawn. Caruana starts with an exchange and quickly claiming the e-file.

31…Rxe4 32. Kxe4 Re8+ 33. Kd3 Re6 34. Be3!

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And now it’s starting to become clear how Carlsen intends to use his kingside pawns. Should Black push ahead with 34…h5?! 35. gxh5 gxh5 36. Rb5 +=, White can enjoy a long-term advantage with pressure on both b6 and h5.

34…Kg7 35. Rb5 Bd8 36. h5

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Even though Caruana has made completely natural moves, White has consistently made matters difficult for him. Should Black try 35…f4, he will constantly have to defend a weak h6 pawn. Meanwhile, White can change gears and play c3-c4-c5, only now trading weaknesses because it will be more difficult to defend a5 and h6 than it currently is with b6 and h6. Black decided to keep his structure compact, but  this means his king is stuck on g7 protecting h6 until the structure is resolved!

35…Rd6+ 37. Kc4 Rc6+ 38. Kd5 Re6 39. Bd4+ Kf8 40. f4 +=

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Black has some weaknesses, but nothing nearly as pronounced as our previously analyzed games. However, by improving his pieces and getting space on the kingside, White’s advantage is already becoming visual. Black now is challenged to find moves that don’t make concessions.

40…Bc7 41. f5!

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Pressuring the g6 pawn. White’s intention is to make the h6 pawn much more exposed. Even if Caruana tries 41… gxf5 42. gxf5 with the belief that White’s structure also becomes weak, he’ll quickly find that he has no easy way of attacking the isolated f- and h-pawns, since b6 (and soon h6) are under fire. Sometimes, your opponent’s biggest weakness is only as weak as your strongest strength – here the damage to White’s structure is negligible.

41…Rd6+ 42. Ke4 Rc6 43. Rb1 Ke8 44. hxg6

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Now that Black has distanced himself from his kingside pawns, Carlsen takes on g6 with the h-pawn so he can attack h6 via h1.

44…fxg6 45. Rh1 Kf7 46. Kd5 Rd6+ 47. Kc4 gxf5 48. gxf5 Bd8 49. f6!!

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An incredible interference! White trades the kingside pawns, with the idea that liquidating pieces will only help White since his king is closer to the queenside. Black has to oblige, and as we’ll see, his position quickly collapses.

49…Bxf6 50. Rxh6 Be7 51. Rxd6 Bxd6 52. Kb5

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And 23 moves later, the debate is resolved, the b6 pawn was weaker than the isolated c-pawn. It was important that White expanded on the kingside because it came with the caveat of having a better king in the final position. Black played on for another 14 moves, but the win is simple. Carlsen picked up the last of Black’s pawns and then pushed his down the board.

2013 proved to be Carlsen’s year. By the year’s end, he went on to beat Anand for the World Championship in Chennai.

For our last example today, both sides attempt to expand in the endgame, but Carlsen’s opponent tried for too much – which ultimately proved for his own demise!

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White to Move

Carlsen – Svidler, 2013

Already, it’s move 12, and we have a queenless middlegame. Black’s bishop looks a little silly on g7, but other than that, we have relative equality in the position. If Black were on the clock, Svidler would likely choose …Bc8-e6 limiting White’s e2 bishop, so Carlsen started with 12. Bc4. Svidler, needing to get his c8 bishop into the game with 12…b5 (which engine thinks is fine), but based on the game’s continuation, Black already puts himself in a place where he must be extremely accurate. White doesn’t really have any threats, which is why I prefer 12…Bd7, with the idea of rerouting to c6. It takes just as many moves as Svidler to develop, just without the bonus of a forcing move. One of the reasons I don’t like this move is because of a general principle Grandmaster Magesh Panchanathan once taught me – don’t move pawns for short term plans. It’s not clear yet if this queenside expansion is beneficial to Black, and as we’ll see Carlsen successfully punishes him later. 13. Bb3

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Already we can see some reasons as to why 12…b5 may be questionable. First, b3 isn’t exactly a “worse” square than c4 for White’s bishop. More importantly, the move a2-a4 is beckoning to be played, with the idea of undermining Black’s structure.

13…Bb7 14. f3 Bf8 15. a4!

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Now Svidler is faced with an uncomfortable decision. Does he take on a4 and cripple his queenside forever, or does he hyperextend with b5-b4? While the b-pawn push is optically pleasant, it comes with the drawback that c4 is weakened forever.

15…b4 16. Nb1

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Taking advantage of Black’s hyperextension. Carlsen plans a quick maneuver, Nb1-d2-c4 to put pressure on e5.

16…Nd7 17. Nd2 Bc5 18. Kf2!

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A nice application of a simple idea here – trade only if it helps you! Taking on c5 would activate Black’s knight, so now, if Svidler wants to trade dark-squared bishops, he must take on e3, activating the king!

18…a5 19. Rfd1 Kg7 20. Nc4 Bxe3+ 21. Kxe3 f6 22. Rd2

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Phase 1 of White’s plan is complete. Magnus stands slightly better thanks to his control over c4, but Svidler has done well to not create new weaknesses. The next stage of the game is brief, as Carlsen simply grabs the d-file.

22…Nb6 23. Nxb6 cxb6 24. Rad1 Rxd2 25. Rxd2 Bc6 26. Rd6 Rc8

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Once again Carlsen is doing well, but it still seems like Svidler can hold this position. In phase 3, White finally improves his structure on both sides of the board to increase his winning chances.

27. Be6 Rc7 28. b3 Kf8 29. Bc4

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White has sealed the queenside, as now both a4 and c2 cannot easily be hit. Meanwhile, b6 is already a future target for White. But first, Carlsen plays on the whole board!

29…Kg7 30. h4 h5 31. g4?

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Svidler must make another tough decision. Does he take on g4, allowing White the opportunity to create a passed h-pawn in the future? Or does he allow White to take on h5, creating another target? As it turns out, Black actually missed a chance to equalize here with 31…hxg4! 32. fxg4 Bxa4! 33. Rxb6 and Black has a lot fewer weaknesses in the position. Carlsen was better if he found the prophylactic 31. Bd3!, removing the idea of …Bxa4 and planning an f3-f4 push. The endgame is still complicated, but White still has an edge.

31…Bxa4 32. Rxb6 Bd7 33. gxh5 gxh5

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While Black may have gotten rid of his b6 weakness, he now has targets on a5, f6, and h5. Even though Black isn’t lost here, White is still for choice.

34. Bd3 Kf7 35. f4 exf4+ 36. Kxf4

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Winning this endgame won’t be simple, but by trading the e5 pawn for his f-pawn, Carlsen opens up dark squares in the center for his king. After getting his rook onto a better square, Magnus centralizes the king by moving it to d4.

36…Rc5 37. Rb7 Ke6 38. Ra7 Kd6 39. Ke3 Bg4 40. Kd4

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Now with a centralized king, White has slightly better winning chances. White will now bring his bishop to c4, reducing the Black rook’s options.

40…Re5 41. Bc4 Bf3 42. Bd5! +=

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With this move, White is in full control once again. Black’s rook only has two moves that don’t immediately drop a piece, and each of Svidler’s three weaknesses are much more difficult to defend.

42…Bd1 43. Rf7 Re8 44. Rxf6+ Kc7 45. Ra6 Bxc2?? 46. Rc6+ 1-0

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A simple oversight by Svidler in a position that was already lost. This game gave us both good and bad examples of expanding the structure. Early in the game, Svidler pushed too quickly, giving White counterplay on the queenside and a great outpost on c4. But this wasn’t enough to win. By expanding on the kingside (the one blunder aside), Magnus managed to break Black’s pawn structure.

In today’s post, we discussed how in seemingly equal positions, we can increase our winning chances by improving our pawn structure and gaining space on each side of the board. Often times it isn’t enough to have one weakness in the position, so often changing the structure (in our favor) gives us more attacking options and plans to stretch out our opponent.

I’ll be playing my first tournament in over a month this weekend at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, so I won’t be able to post my usual video on Sunday. Look out for my next post early next week, where I’ll hopefully be sharing what turned out to be a good performance!

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

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

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

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

Steincamp–Li (Pittsburgh Chess Club, 2016)

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

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

8…Bh3 9.e4 h5?!

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

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

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

2. Black cannot push …f7-f5.

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

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

10.f3 Bxg2 11.Kxg2 h4

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

12.g4

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

12…h3+!?

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

13.Kh1 f5

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

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

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1. The g-file opens

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

2. I’m not punishing Black!

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

So this being said I played the anti-positional move

14.exf5?!

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

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

14…gxf5 15.Ng3 Nd4

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

Second Best:

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

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

Last Choice:

15. … fxg4 16.fxg4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16.Nce2

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

Scenario 1:

16… f4!

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

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

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

Scenario 2:

16… Nxe2 17.Qxe2 fxg4 18.fxg4

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

Scenario 3:

16… Nh6?

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

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

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

16. … Nxf3?!

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

17.Rxf3 Qc6 18.Nd4!

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

18…exd4 19.Nxf5 Be5 20.Bg5! +=

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

20…Kd7

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

21.b4 b5!

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

22.cxb5 Qxb5?

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

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

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

23.Qb3

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

23…Rf8

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

24.Rc1

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

24…Qb7

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

25.Qa4+ Kc8

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

26.Qc6=

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

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

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

26. … Qxc6 27.Rxc6 Kd7 28.b5

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

28…Nh6

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

29.Bxh6 Rxh6 30.Nxd4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30…Rhf6

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

31.Nf5 Rg6 32.Rc4 Rb8?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

38…a5 39.Rhe7+

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

39…Kd5 40.Rc4

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

40…Rf6!

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

41.h4 a4?

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

42.Ra7 a3 43.Ra5+ Ke6

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

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

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

47. … Rb2 48.Rxb2?? =

 

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

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

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

51…Rf7 52.Rxb2!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Navigating the Maze: Games of Gibraltar

I’ve spent the last few days watching the Gibraltar Open, and now that it’s come to a close, I wanted to share some of the more interesting and instructive moments of the tournament.

Sebastien Maze, of France, proved to be one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament with a score of 7/10. We first look at his game against Ni Hua.

The first game I wanted to show was from round 9, Ni Hua–Maze, where a massive space advantage against a Berlin failed to materialize and then came crashing down to allow the Frenchman to convert the won endgame. If you’re unfamiliar with the Berlin, I highly recommend you check out my comprehensive post on the opening here.

Ni Hua – Maze (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8 10.Nc3 Be6 11.g4

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A more aggressive try than both the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri and Karjakin–Radjabov games we analyzed earlier. Here White gains space with tempo, punishing the knight on f5 for its awkward placement before Maze has the opportunity to insert the thematic …h7-h5.

11…Ne7 12.Nd4 Bd7 13.f4

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Wasting no time gaining space on the kingside. Needing a win, Ni Hua takes the risk of hyper-extending, with the hopes of just cramping Black while optimizing his pieces.

13…h5!

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Statically worse, Maze takes dynamic measures to change the nature of this position. With the goal of opening the h-file, the Frenchman hopes to activate his kingside rook to attack White’s pawns. Should White blunder here with 15. g5? the f5 square becomes a permanent outpost for Black, so Ni Hua must concede the trade.

14.f5 hxg4 15.hxg4 Rh4 16.Rf4

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Here is the critical position. Visually, White looks much better, sitting pretty with his space advantage. Meanwhile, Maze has to solve his issues of development while fending off any of White’s tactical opportunities, such has e5-e6 ideas. Clearly Black’s opening has failed, right? Think again. As I mentioned before, Black is only statically worse. If he can find dynamic opportunities, Maze can liquidate White’s kingside pawn mass and reach a better endgame. Already, Black can consider both …g7-g6 and …g7-g5, trying to create a square for his knight on g6. With White’s light squared bishop gone, moving the f-pawn would be a major concession. If Maze can make this pawn move then he’s moving in the right direction.

16…Rd8 17.Be3 Bc8 18.Re4 g6! 19.Rf1

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Already, Ni Hua is finding that it’s not so easy to convert his space advantage. Even with all of his pieces on great squares, its not so easy to see what the next course of action is.

19…Rh3!

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With the pawn on g4 adequately protected, Black offers White tactical problems. Threatening to take two minor pieces for a rook, Ni Hua realized that he was in trouble and went all in with 20. e6 on the next move. But to illustrate some of the problems, let’s check out some lines.
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The most aggressive move also presents problems for White. After 20. Bg5, Black can play 20… gxf5 and should White err with 21. gxf5?? Rg3+ will win immediately for Black. To recapture on f5, White would have to play 21. Bxe7, but giving up the bishop pair in an endgame bound position is not ideal.
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Should White decide to get his bishop out of the way, for instance, 20. Bc1, Black can sacrifice an exchange to get an attack on the king with 20… gxf5 21. gxf5 Rxd4 22. Rxd4 Nxf5 23. Rdf4 Bc5+ and Black will have to give up an exchange to stay in the game.

20.e6?!

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An interesting try to avoid the lines mentioned above, but unfortunately for Ni Hua, Maze’s earlier move 18… g6 was already enough to liquidate to an endgame slightly better for Black.

20…Rxe3!

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Following through on his threat, and with the next few moves forced, Black will end the line up a pawn.

21.exf7+ Kxf7 22.Rxe3 Rxd4 23.fxg6+ Kg8

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It seems like Ni Hua can force the coronation of one of his pawns, but it’s Maze that sees a move further. One of the reasons why I like this game is that its hard to see where White went wrong, yet after 19… Rh3, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right for White. I’m no expert on the Berlin, but I would say that White’s hyper-extension instead of more principled play was enough to derail this game from equality.

24.Rxf8+ Kxf8 25.g7+ Kf7 26.Rxe7+

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Ni Hua will get his wish, but…

26…Kxe7 27.g8=Q Rxg4+

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… Maze achieves his goal, a bishop v knight endgame, and a pawn up! Maze went on to convert the endgame, reaching a 7/9 mark to be tied for first going into the last round.

In this next endgame, we saw a draw cost both sides an opportunity to make the playoffs with Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier–Lagrave. In the end, it was Pentala Harikrishna that was unable to convert his position of strength to a birth in the play-off.

Despite missing out on an opportunity to play for frist, Harikrishna’s performance leaves him less than 6 rating points lower than the best player from India, Vishy Anand.

Harikrishna – Li Chao (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

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Here Li Chao offered Harikrishna a queen swap on c6, believing that the resulting rook and opposite colored bishop endgame was a draw. Though it may be tenable, White still has enough resources to play for the initiative. Both of Black’s pieces are limited in mobility defending the e7- pawn and White’s king can march to the action undisturbed.

45.Qxc6 bxc6 46.f4!

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Good technical play! Harikrishna intends to push the f-pawn to f5 limiting the f7-bishop and then plans to bring in the king. Unfortunately, Li Chao can’t do much more than sit around, as playing …f6-f5 himself will create an unbreakable box for his bishop. Black is paralyzed.

46…Kh7 47.f5 g6 48.Kf2

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Without concern for the f5-pawn! If White had taken on g6, he gives Black an easy route to the center of the board via g6-f5-e6 with good drawing chances. However, a Black pawn on f5 would constrain Black as White advances his king.

48…gxf5 49.Ke3 Kg7 50.Kf4 Bg6

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I think this position really illustrates Black’s dilemma as space becomes a big concern here. It’s up to White now to find the win.

51.Rd4 Rg8 52.Rd6

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I started to lose sight of what Harikrishna’s idea was since his last move seemed intended to capture on a4. After looking at this position with an engine, my computer showed that with accurate play, Black can hold a fortress as the advantage is only visual. That being said, Harikrishna really needed to make a second weakness here, and pushing the b-pawn up the board seems to me the best chance, regardless of the outcome. If you think White has a simple win here, I encourage you to play this position against an engine! Black’s ready to turn off the lights with …Bg6-e8, and it’s not clear if there’s enough power for white to generate a win.

52…Be8 53.Kxf5 Bg6+ 54.Ke6 Bf7+ 55.Kd7 Be8+ 56.Kd8

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Harikrishna’s gotten his king to the back rank, but with no light square control, the e-pawn will never promote.

56…Kf7 57.Bc5 Rxg2 58.Bd4 Rg6 59.Bc3 c5 60.Rd5 Rg8 61.Rxh5 Bb5+

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And with White having to surrender his e7 pawn, the final position is drawn. The players made a couple more moves and shook hands when it was clear neither side would falter.

62.Kc7 Kxe7 63.Rf5 Be8 64.Rxf6 a3 65.Ra6 axb2 66.Bxb2 Rg6 67.Rxg6 1/2-1/2

I missed the Nakamura–MVL match-up for first prize, but after four draws, Nakamura won the armageddon game with the Black pieces to win Gibraltar for the second consecutive year. This year featured a strong section, and the tournament becomes more interesting with each year as the organizers find new players to invite – I’ll be curious to see who plays next year!

This Saturday, I will be playing Grandmaster Alexander Shabalov in a simultaneous exhibition at the Pittsburgh Chess Club – so make sure to look out for the “Grandmaster Eats Me Alive” video that will come out Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing how the reigning US Open Champion will plow through my repertoire!

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.