Punch and Counterpunch

by admin on April 23, 2014

Over on my Facebook page, Damian Nash asked if I had posted any of my games from Reno online. So today I’ll show you my hardest-fought and in some ways most miraculous game from last weekend’s tournaments. I think it’s too long and too messy a game to make a good ChessLecture, but I am glad to share it on my blog and I hope that some of you will have some cogent comments to make about it.

Round four. I have a score of 1-2, and I’m playing Black against a lower-rated player, an expert named Anthony Blessing. Jesse Kraai tells me before the game, “Oh, he’s a student of mine. He needs a confidence boost.” And what am I supposed to do with this information? Go easy on him? I told Jesse, “Well, I need a confidence boost, too!”

The game starts out as an English, and rather than play my usual Botvinnik system, I decide to improvise. Blessing sure doesn’t look as if he needs a confidence boost, as on move 12 he lays down a bold, impressive, and correct pawn sacrifice, 12. d4!

blessing 1 Position after 12. d4. Black to move.

FEN: r1qr2k1/pp1bppbp/2np2p1/2p2n2/2PP4/1PN1PNP1/PB3PBP/1R1QR1K1 b – - 0 12

At this point the previously quiet game suddenly goes berserk. I think now that I should have played 12. … e5 (this was the point of my previous move, 11. … Rd8, which was supposed to bolster the d-pawn so that I could advance the e-pawn). However, I got lured into Blessing’s trap. I thought I saw a tactical opportunity that he had overlooked, and so I couldn’t resist taking the pawn.

12. … cd? 13. ed Nxd4 14. Nxd4 Bxd4 15. g4! …

All as expected. Now I played the shot that I thought he had missed.

blessing 2 Position after 15. g4. Black to move.

FEN: r1qr2k1/pp1bpp1p/3p2p1/5n2/2Pb2P1/1PN5/PB3PBP/1R1QR1K1 b – - 0 15

15. … Bxf2+

In for a penny, in for a pound! This is my style of chess; one of the things I love to do is react to a punch with an even stronger punch. However, sometimes I overdo the “counterpunching” strategy, as in this game.

16. Kxf2 Qc5+

I loved the way that the formerly misplaced queen suddenly found a purpose.

17. Ke1 Ne3+ 18. Rxe3 Qxe3 19. Nd5! …

I did see this coming, but I way, way underestimated how strong it was. Back when I decided to accept the pawn sac (move 12), I got this far in my analysis, saw that I could defend the e-pawn with … Qg5, and thought I was all right.

19. … Qg5

My thinking was: I’ve got a rook and two pawns for two pieces, so we have rough material equality. But his g4 pawn is terribly weak and his king (I thought) is somewhat exposed. So I thought Black had the advantage. I failed to grasp that my king, with the weak squares around it, is more exposed than the White king. I also failed to realize how quickly my queen could become trapped.

20. Qd4! …

Obvious, but the real point of this move is not so obvious.

20. … e5 21. Qf2! …

High time for another diagram.

blessing 3 Position after 21. Qf2. Black to move.

FEN: r2r2k1/pp1b1p1p/3p2p1/3Np1q1/2P3P1/1P6/PB3QBP/1R3K2 b – - 0 21

Suddenly the truth hits me like a ton of bricks. The threat is to win my queen with 22. Bc1. If I take on g4 with my queen, Nf6+ is a royal fork. If I play 21. … Bxg4, it looks as if my queen gains two new flight squares, but it doesn’t help: After 22. Bc1 Qh5, 23. Nf6+ is again a royal fork, and if 22. Bc1 Qf5, 23. Ne7+ is a royal fork. The knight at d5 is dominating Black’s queen!

I’m still struggling to figure out how I could have anticipated this. Remember, I had to see all of this way back on move 12. Is it humanly possible to analyze that position and visualize that nine moves later my queen would become trapped in such a remarkable way, with three potential flight squares all taken away by knight forks? In general, trapped-piece positions are among the most difficult to evaluate properly — and that’s even if you have the position right in front of you. If the position is nine moves in the future, it’s exponentially harder.

I think one could almost make the argument that 12. … cd and 15. … Bxf2+ was the right thing to play, and I just got unlucky. But that’s so fatalistic! It seems to be accepting that the cost of a swashbuckling style is that occasionally your opponent will get in the last lick. Alternatively, you could say that I should have realized that a knight getting to d5, with no bishop around to defend the dark squares, is serious business. My Karpovian “sense of danger” should have been activated.

If only I had a Karpovian “sense of danger.”

Here I played the only possible move to survive, 21. … f5, but then White won a pawn with a dominating position after 22. h4 Qh6 23. g5 Qg7 24. Nf6+ Kf8 25. Bxb7. Thirteen moves after his pawn sacrifice, White has won back his material with interest.

So far Blessing has played marvelous chess, like the second coming of Alekhine, but it didn’t stay that way. As the game progressed, he kept making curious tactical lapses. Here is the first of them.

blessing 4 Position after 32. … Rb8. White to move.

FEN: 1r1r4/p1q3kp/b2p1Np1/3BppP1/2P4P/1PB1Q3/P4K2/3R4 w – - 0 33

White has been building towards the pawn break 33. c5? for several moves, and here he thought that it was finally time to play it. Strategically, of course, it is absolutely the correct plan, because if he can tear down my pawn wall my king will become a sitting duck. But he failed to look at the tactics and failed to consider the counterpunching possibilities. If his king had been anywhere other than f2, his move would have been fine. But after 33. … f4! the king spoils everything. First, it takes away a flight square from White’s queen. Second, he cannot counter-counterpunch with 34. cd?? because 34. … fe+ comes with check. And third, after the move he played, 34. Qxf4, my reply 34. … Qxc5+ again comes with check. This means he has to retreat with 35. Qe3, and his attack is much diminished. First, queens come off the board, and second, he has given up the only pawn lever that he had for attacking my d6-e5 pawn chain.

Nevertheless, this should have been only a momentary stumble on the road to victory. My pawn chain was so weak that he was able to annihilate it a few moves later even without using any pawn levers. Quite a while later, we got to this endgame position.

blessing 5 Position after 49. … Ke7. White to move.

FEN: 8/p3k2p/6p1/3BB1P1/3K3P/1P2N3/4b3/2r5 w – - 0 50

White’s advantage is overwhelming. The two bishops are a demolition crew reaching toward all four corners of the board. The knight is a useful assistant, taking some squares on the back rank away from Black’s rook. People who saw the position around this point were stunned to find out later that I had managed to draw it. I was really just playing out the string here, with no real hope of saving the game.

Actually, though, there was one hope in this position. My last move, 49. … Ke7, looks simple enough — obviously I want to mobilize my king — but it does contain a trap. And I think that Blessing just got overconfident here and forgot to ask himself what Black might be threatening.

He played exactly the move I was hoping for: 50. Bg8??, thinking that he would win my two kingside pawns. But the move he missed was 50. … Rh1!, intending to reply to 51. Bxh7+?? with 51. … Rxh4+, forking king and bishop. It’s interesting to note that for the second time in this game, White just happens to have his king in the worst possible place.

Now White’s previously coordinated pieces are standing around looking embarrassed. He played 51. Bg3, but after 51. … Rh3 there is nobody who can help out the bishop. He has only two choices. He can continue defending the h-pawn with Be1-f2-g3, which means accepting a draw by repetition. Or he can give up the h-pawn, which is what he did: 52. Be1 Rh1 53. Bb4+ Kd7 54. Ke5 Rxh4.

I don’t know for sure if Black draws by force now, but the win has gotten very difficult. It’s late at night, and I think that Blessing was a little discouraged by the way his advantage had evaporated. Within a few moves I was able to trade off White’s remaining pawns, and we agreed to a draw.

Fascinating game! I do think that it exposed a couple of weaknesses in Blessing’s play. On three occasions he did not really pay proper attention to my counterattacking possibilities and to the position of his king. The first time, he came out smelling like a rose anyway, as the sensational move 21. Qf2! not only bailed him out but gave him a huge advantage. But the second and third times, his inattentiveness cost him. Just remember, your opponent is allowed to move, too.

Also, I think that the last diagrammed position would make a nice endgame challenge. How does White win this position? I think something like 50. Be4 followed by 51. Kd5 and maybe 52. Bd4 may be the idea. White wants to maintain his terrific piece coordination, which he gave away so heedlessly with 50. Bg8? He should realize that while his bishops and knight are optimally placed, the position of his king can and should still be improved. If the king can penetrate either on the kingside or queenside, I think it would be lights out for Black.

For myself, I think that the main lesson is to temper my creativity with objectivity. When you see a move like 15. … Bxf2+ it’s hard to resist, but you need to assess the consequences soberly. It’s tough to look at a (possibly) brilliant sacrifice and not play it. You don’t get showered with gold pieces and glory for that kind of brilliance. In fact, nobody may ever know that you had the (possibly) brilliant idea. But that’s part of being a disciplined tournament player, not just a flashy coffeehouse player.

Addendum: I would like to repair an omission from my last post. I reported on the winners at Reno, including the open section, class A and class B, but I neglected to say who won the expert prize ahead of me! Aaron Grabinsky scored 4-2, including a very nice endgame win in the last round over a 2300 player, and deservedly took the first prize for experts.

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Charmed (Far West Open Results, 2014)

by admin on April 21, 2014

Did you ever have a charmed day? A day when everything works out right? Well, that was Easter Sunday for me.

First, when Kay and I went out for lunch, I ordered a slice of carrot cake and got two! Well, one and a half. The woman behind the counter cut off a piece that she felt was too small, so she cut another one and then gave me both of them! “Nobody here is going to eat it, anyway,” she said. So I had my cake and ate it, too.

Next, I finally hit a lucky slot machine for the first time all weekend. Kay and I went the casino and I intended to gamble at most $2, because I was almost out of money. Imagine my amazement when on the first spin of the wheels, I won $44 on a 40-cent bet!

Finally, I won both of my chess games, both of them remarkably quickly. I won the morning game in 24 moves and the afternoon game in 26 moves. The second was against Michael Langer, a FIDE Master, and I had Black in a Two Knights Defense. For the first time ever, I played the main line (5. … Na5) instead of the Fritz (5. … Nd4). I’ve always been a fan of the Fritz, and even recorded an obsolete ChessLecture about it. However, in recent years I’ve had to admit that it has just been busted by computer analysis. My opponents may not know the analysis, but I can’t go on playing a variation that is busted.

Guess what? The main line is better than the Fritz! I discovered what the rest of the world knew all along. Here is a textbook case of a Two Knights gone wrong for White:

Position after 18. ... f4. White to move. Position after 18. … f4. White to move.

FEN: 2bq1rk1/p5p1/2pb3p/n6B/3Ppp1r/1P5P/P1P1QPP1/RNB2RK1 w – - 0 19

Here I’ve just played 18. … f4, threatening to advance to f3 and cut off the defense of White’s bishop on h5. Of course, if White takes on e4 he loses the bishop. And if he plays 19. Bg6 then 19. … f3 looks very unpleasant. So he played the natural-looking 19. Bg4, which seems to save the bishop. But it doesn’t! Do you see why not?

The answer is 19. … Bxg4 — an obvious move, but what’s not so obvious is that White can’t take back! If he plays 20. hg I can sacrifice my rook for mate with 20. … Rh1+!! 21. Kxh1 Qh5+ 22. Kg1 f3 23. g3 Qh3.

He labored on with 20. Qxe4 but my bishop continued its sacrificial rampage with 20. … Bxh3! This time he accepted, with 21. gh, and I forced checkmate with 21. … Qg5+ 22. Qg2 Qxg2+ 23. Kxg2 f3+ (Back into the dungeon you go!) 24. Kg1 Rf6 25. Rd1 Rxh3 and it’s mate in two. I think the final position is a testament to  everything that is wrong for White in the Two Knights Defense.

Final position. Final position.

FEN: 6k1/p5p1/2pb1r1p/n7/3P4/1P3p1r/P1P2P2/RNBR2K1 w – - 0 26

Black has made about twelve visible moves and White has made only four (castles, rook to d1, and two pawn pushes). So that means I’m eight tempi ahead. White’s poor queenside pieces are all sitting on the bench begging, “Coach! Put me in the game!”

My lucky Sunday ended with tying for second in the expert category, and a prize which, though modest, was more than four times what I won on the slot machine. As it should be!

Now, to recap the top prizes: Timur Gareev had an outstanding tournament, going 5½-½ to take clear first, no playoff required. Jesse Kraai and Melikset Khachiyan tied for second at 5-1. Jesse said it was the first time he had ever scored 5 points at a Reno tournament. Last fall he scored 4½ and tied for first, so it was a little bit odd that he scored better this time and yet had a lower finish. He beat Sergey Kudrin in the last round in what looked like a very nice game.

I should also mention that the winner of the Class A section, Amir Alazawi, scored a perfect 6-0. That’s a pretty rare feat in any section, so congratulations to him. I’m pretty sure that this will graduate him from Class A to Expert. First place in Class B was Sridhar Seshadri at 5½-½, and I didn’t check the lower sections.

As I mentioned in my first Reno post, organizer Jerry Weikel was pleased with the attendance. We had 196 players, which was a 17 percent increase over last year. The Open section, which was for both masters and experts, had 72 players. That was the most massive I’ve ever seen it. Next year it may be divided into separate master and expert sections. Weikel polled the experts to see what they thought. I don’t really care; usually I play in the Open section even if there is an Expert section available. To me, the challenge of playing the masters is worth it, even if it means I lose more games.

And now it’s time to go back home, with a heavier wallet and a lighter heart!

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Adventures in Reno

April 20, 2014

So far, after five rounds in Reno, I have an even score of 2½-2½. So far, all of my five games have been quite interesting and tactical. Michael Aigner remarked that he has trouble even telling who is ahead in material in my positions, let alone who stands better! Well, he was joking of course, […]

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Fireworks by the River

April 19, 2014

After I finished my evening game in the second round of the Larry Evans Memorial, I went outside and was surprised to see some fireworks going off in the distance. Apparently this is a somewhat regular event in Reno. Anyway, it was a good metaphor for the two games I played yesterday, because they both […]

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Calm Before the Storm

April 17, 2014

Round zero is complete here in Reno, and everybody is still tied with 0 points out of 0! The main job on Thursday is just to get here, which was no problem this year because the weather was beautiful. I picked up a passenger en route. Yes, that’s Jesse Kraai (photo taken by my wife), […]

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Calculation and Conceptualization

April 13, 2014

This week I recorded a ChessLecture that should come out in a month or so, called “How to Tell When the Moment is Right.” The question I was looking at in the lecture is, how do you tell when it’s time to calculate detailed variations, and how do you tell when you shouldn’t calculate variations […]

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“How a Master Eats an Expert”

April 5, 2014

At Mike Splane’s most recent chess party, Craig Mar showed us a really nice game he played years ago. Even though he doesn’t play tournament chess any more, he is a really good teacher and the games he shows us are usually as relevant as they were when he played them. This time he told […]

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0.00ooops!

March 30, 2014

Back when I wrote my Chess Life article about the Bryntse Gambit (White’s queen sac on move six in the Grand Prix Sicilian, 1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4?! 6. Qxg4!) I described it as an “anti-computer” opening, because very few human players have the gumption […]

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Anand Earns a Rematch

March 29, 2014

As most of my readers probably know already, Viswanathan Anand, the former world champion who was dethroned last year by Magnus Carlsen, has earned a rematch with Carlsen by winning the Candidates in dominating fashion. The tournament isn’t even over yet, but with one round to go Anand has already clinched first place! Even more […]

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Newspaper article + hyperbolic chessboard

March 24, 2014

Today the Santa Cruz Sentinel had an article about me! Amazingly, there wasn’t a single thing about the article that was embarrassing or cringe-worthy. That is a credit to the writer, Bonnie Horgos. She had a lot of things to cover — chess, hula, science writing, animal care, bomb scares — all in 600 words […]

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