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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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane April 24, 2014 at 6:55 am

It looks like you dodged quite a few bullets. A few first impressions:

After move 19 White should ask the Mike Splane question, “How am I going to win this game?” The answer is to attack on the kingside, when the dark squares around Black’s king are fatally weakened. I think 20. Qd4 was a tempo waster, allowing Black to block both the long diagonal and the f file. I’d prefer 20. Qe1 e5 21. h4 Qh6 22. g5, preventing your space-gaining f7-f5. Now you have a big, and exposed, weakness on f7 to defend.

How did he miss 27. c5 when your position collapses? Black can’t take the pawn. If 27 …. dc5?? 28. Qc5+ Qe7 29. Nh7+ Ke8 30. Nf6+ Kf8 31. Qe7+ Ke7 32. Ba3+ Rd6 33. Rc1 Bd7 34. Rc7 Rd8 35. Ra7,
or 33. Rc1 Ba6+ 34. Kf2 Rc8 35. Rc8 Bc8 36. Bd6+ Kd6 37 h5 gh5 38. g6 Ke7 39. g7

35. Kg2 Qc3?? 36. Ne8+ Re8 37. Qf6# is a nice fantasy line, but 35. Kg2 ef4 wins for

I like White’s position after 47. Bd4 Bc4 48. Bc4 a5 49. Bd3 Rc7. It looks like this is forced to prevent 50. h5 gh5 (if Black allows White to get his h4 pawn to h6, he always has to guard against a bishop sac on g6) 51. Bh7. White has a couple of obvious winning tries, Kg4 and h5 or bringing the king to the queenside to win the a-pawn, but Black may be able to hold on, especially if he can manage to exchange the queenside pawns. This seems like a clear-cut edge with no counter-play but I can understand White trying for more.


Mike Splane April 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

I missed something in my first comment.

If 20. Qe1 e5 21. Bc1 wins the queen and if 20 … Qg4 21. Qe7 and Nf6+ is coming.
so Black must play 20 … Re8 when White can win the exchange with 21. Nc7 or try for more with 21. h3.


admin April 24, 2014 at 8:40 am

Mike, I agree that 20. Qe1 looks like a good move. The only thing I can add is that if 20. … Be6 now 21. Qc3! gets on the diagonal and is more effective than before because Black can’t block with e5.

I wouldn’t criticize 20. Qd4 too much, though, if at all. I think it was played with a perfectly valid plan of provoking the weakening … e5. Yes, he let me gain some space with … e5 and … f5, but he still got a completely winning position. Gaining space is no good if there are weaknesses behind the front lines.

I don’t think he missed 27. c5. My intention was to answer with 27. … Qa5, when the attack on the loose bishop is inconvenient. I think that 27. Qe3 was a good move, because it plans to answer … Qa5 with b4 (now the bishop on a3 is defended by the queen) and does so in a way that gains a tempo because of the threat of Qxe5. Up to this point I think he played with good patience — in good Mike Splane style, actually — taking away my possible counterplay. The problem is that he didn’t continue to do so, but instead overlooked my counterplay with 33. … f4.


Phille April 24, 2014 at 8:43 am

“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?”

Basically, you exchanged all your active pieces and remained with your queen (which is often vulnerable to attacks by weaker pieces) and your bishop (which cannot defend your kingside holes) and two passive rooks.
White on the other hand has five! pieces, which are either active or easy to activate.

I think, if you put it like that, you don’t have to calculate anything to realize black should/could be in trouble. Of course, the problem in practice is, to turn these post-hoc rationalizations into thoughts that occur during the actual game!

One useful way of questioning your reasoning during the game: Would you have worried with white in this position? Or would you have been confident to find good use for your active pieces?


admin April 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

Another possibility after 20. Qe1 is 20. … Bxg4 (which I probably would have played) 21. Nxe7+ Kf8. I don’t have a lot of faith in Black’s position, but it’s arguably no worse than what I got in the game.


Mike Splane April 24, 2014 at 5:58 pm

RE:” I don’t think he missed 27. c5. My intention was to answer with 27. … Qa5″

You don’t have that resource until one move later. You must be thinking of the position after 27. Ba3 Qc7 has been played My suggestion was 27. c5 instead of 27. Ba3.


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