Yesterday, at Mike Splane’s latest chess party, WFM Uyanga Byambaa showed us one of her games from the Norcal Chess Invitational, played in March 2012. There’s one position that I felt was super-instructive, although the conclusions I drew from it are a little bit debatable (and I would love to see some debate here).
Uyanga (rated 2110) was playing in the first round against Tigran Ishkhanov (2396), who outrated her by nearly 300 points. She is just learning the King’s Indian Defense and she mishandled it slightly, leading to the following position on White’s 20th move.
FEN: r2qrbk1/p1p2p1p/Qp4p1/3Ppn2/4N3/4P1P1/PP3PBP/2R2RK1 w – - 0 20
What do you do as White here? More importantly, how do you decide what to do?
I have to admit that when I was watching the game I got a little bit impulsive here. [I would say "too impulsive" except that one of my readers, Cortiano, recently informed me that there is no such thing as "too impulsive"!] Anyway, I immediately blurted out, “d6! What about d6?” We started analyzing the move — more on that below — but then after a minute or so Mike interrupted the discussion.
“We’re doing it again,” he said. “We’re analyzing a variation before we have made a list of all the candidate moves. I think we need to decide on the candidate moves first.”
Some of us (I confess) were a little bit reluctant to step back from the exciting analysis, but eventually Mike carried the day. But I have to say that the listing of candidate moves did not prove all that successful. About four or five moves were suggested: 20. d6, 20. Qc4, 20. h4, 20. Qb7 (the move Ishkhanov actually played), and maybe some others I don’t remember. But within 30 seconds we were back to analyzing 20. d6 again.
In fact I think this position calls into question Kotov’s candidate-move approach. Because I think it may not be right at this point to develop a full list of candidate moves. I would argue that the only list White needs at this point is (1) 20. d6; (2) 20. Qb7; and (3) everything else, with option (3) to be considered only if (1) and (2) look unsatisfactory.
Why do I say this? It has to do with timing. The strategic point of Black’s last move is that she wants to play 20. … Bd6, which would stabilize her queenside and give her a playable game. Therefore, if White is going to strike along the long diagonal, it is now or never. He will never get another chance to play d5-d6. Therefore it is imperative to look at the consequences of (1).
It’s also essential to look at (2) because it simply wins a pawn, without very much risk. You have to take seriously a move that wins a pawn.
Other moves, to me, are sort of missing the point of the position. Mike’s move 20. h4, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and he even came to acknowledge that. When White has the advantage in the center and on the queenside, why is he wasting time on the kingside?
So suppose we decide over the board that we are going to privilege 20. d6 and 20. Qb7, and look at other possibilities only if there is a good reason to. Now how do we make up our mind between those two choices? To me it’s a question of style, perhaps a question of psychology, and of course concrete analysis.
Style: Are you a hard-headed materialist, or do you prefer creative chess? I don’t think that either one of these is wrong — but if you know which one you are and you stick to it, it will help you make decisions like these.
Psychology: Remember that White outrates Black by 300 points. Should this enter into the decision? In this circumstance one might argue that White should play the most risk-free continuation; just win the pawn now and expect that Black will make further mistakes later.
Concrete Analysis: To me, this is what starts tipping the scales toward 20. d6. First you have to see that if Black ignores the pawn and plays 20. … c5 (which was suggested at the party), White has the absolutely crushing move 21. d7! The pawn cannot be taken because of a fork on f6, and if 21. … Re6 then 22. Ng5 wins the exchange. Plus, the pawn on d7 is very much alive and dangerous. This is an example of what I once called a “berserker pawn” in one of my ChessLectures.
Second, if Black takes with either the knight or bishop White clearly stands much better. This is what Uyanga probably would have played: 20. … Nxd6 21. Nxd6 Bxd6 22. Bxa8 Qxa8. White has won the exchange for a pawn. Maybe Ishkhanov looked at this and said, “I would rather win a pawn than a half a pawn.” But consider this: Black’s position is lifeless. She has no counterplay. The bishop is hemmed in by its own pawns. To me, this looks like a position where White can torture Black forever and eventually win.
Third and last, if Black takes with the pawn then White gets a dominating position: 20. … cd 21. Nc3! Rc8 and here White can either take his pawn back right away with 22. Qxa7 or play the more positional 22. Nd5 (see diagram).
FEN: 2rqrbk1/p4p1p/Qp1p2p1/3Npn2/8/4P1P1/PP3PBP/2R2RK1 b – - 0 22
Although Richard Koepcke and Mike Splane tried to convince me that 22. Qxa7 is better, I’m still going with this move. White can win the a7 pawn any time. I love the way that the knight on d5 dominates FOUR Black pieces. It prevents the rooks from moving to e7 or c7, prevents the queen from moving to d7, and because it blockades the d-pawn, it prevents Black’s bishop from moving anywhere!
Seeing how great all these variations are for White, it would be hard for me to choose any other move than 20. d6. To me, this is how chess is meant to be played. With 20. d6, you are opening up so many great lines for your pieces: the long diagonal for the bishop, the d5 square for the knight, the seventh rank for the queen. And meanwhile, by luring Black’s pawn to d6 you are restricting this scope of his pieces. If you “talk to the pieces,” as GM David Norwood says, you’ll find that they are unanimously in favor of this move.
Contrast this with 20. Qb7, a move that doesn’t improve White’s pieces in any way, misplaces the queen a long way from the action, and whose only redeeming virtue is that it wins a pawn. Of course, for some people that is a heck of a big redeeming virtue. Apparently that is the case for Ishkhanov, who played 20. Qb7 Rc8 21. Qxa7 Nd6 22. Nxd6 Bxd6 (diagram).
FEN: 2rqr1k1/Q1p2p1p/1p1b2p1/3Pp3/8/4P1P1/PP3PBP/2R2RK1 w – - 0 23
So here we are. White is a pawn up. But as they say, it is “just” a pawn; aside from this he has no other advantages. Black has a solid defensive setup, White’s bishop has been emasculated, … Ra8 is a threat, and also Black has a very natural plan of expansion on the kingside with … f5, … f4 etc. The opposite-colored bishops work in Black’s favor in two different ways. First, in the middlegame, opposite-colored bishops often give the attacker the equivalent of an extra piece. Black is the only player in this position with an attack, so this benefits her. Second, if White does manage to retain his extra pawn and exchange into an endgame, it’s still not going to be easy to win because of the drawish tendencies of OCB’s.
And another thing. I’ve just said Black’s plan is very easy to find. But what is White’s plan? The only idea I see for him is to play a2-a3, b2-b4, a3-a4-a5. But this is extremely difficult to accomplish; Black’s bishop on d6 and rook on a8 (eventually) are very well set up to prevent it.
For all of these reasons, I think that even a hard-headed materialist might concede that White went astray with 20. Qb7.
Anyway, what happened in the game was: 23. Qa4 f5 24. a3 f4 25. ef ef 26. Bh3 Ra8 27. Qc4 Qg5 28. Be6+ Kg7 29. Rce1 Be5 30. Re4 Ra5 31. Qe2 Bd6 32. Re1 Rf8 (diagram).
FEN: 5r2/2p3kp/1p1bB1p1/r2P2q1/4Rp2/P5P1/1P2QP1P/4R1K1 w – - 0 33
Up to this point I don’t think that either player has done anything overwhelmingly good or bad. It’s an amusing position because White has created this huge lineup of pieces on the e-file, yet they are completely impotent as long as the bishop stays on e6, and when is it ever going to leave?
Again, it’s hard to figure out a plan for White. The longterm plan probably has to begin with b2-b4, which is in fact playable here (because of the fork threat on b2), but is a very committing move. If you’re White you probably want to postpone such a move until after the time control, but the time control is still a long way (eight moves!) away.
Did I mention time trouble? That’s one thing that has changed in this position over the last ten moves, and not in a good way for White. Also, there had to be a certain amount of frustration for White in seeing a position where he had a clear advantage turn into a defensive battle. So for whatever reason — time trouble or frustration or both — he played two terrible moves in a row:
33. h4? (weakening the king) 33. … Qf6 34. b4?? (Now this simply drops a pawn for no compensation) and the game ended quickly: 34. … Rxa3 35. gf Bxf4 36. Qg4 Bd6 37. R1e2 Ra1+ 38. Kg2 Ra3 39. Re3?? Rxe3 and White resigned, seeing that either way of recapturing leads to checkmate.
A very nice comeback by Uyanga. Ishkhanov is the highest-rated player she has ever beaten!
By the way, you can find the complete game score and her annotations on her new blog. Welcome to the chessoblogosphere, Uyanga!
Interestingly, Uyanga does not say one word in her analysis about the key position on move 20. That is perhaps understandable because she is mostly concerned with what she could have done better, not what White could have done better. Still, I think you’ll get the most out of postmortem analysis if you put both your decisions and your opponent’s decisions under the microscope. That’s one reason Mike’s chess parties are so great; they force you to question everything!