Reno report — openings

by admin on April 16, 2009

Continuing my recap of the Far West Open … I will write at least one or two more posts going over my games from the tournament after I have had a chance to analyze them more carefully. But for the openings buffs out there, I will do a quick recap of the openings in my six games.

First, and most interesting, I had two games that threatened to go into the Queen Sacrifice Variation (aka Bryntse Gambit) in the Grand Prix Sicilian, but both opponents declined to chase my queen. The opening moves were 1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bf4 and now, instead of attacking the queen with 5. … Bg4?!, Black played the only other sensible option, 5. … e6. I then played 6. Nc3. Because Black has made a concession with 5. … e6, locking in his QB (at least for the moment) and not attempting to defend e4, I think that it behooves White to settle for this small victory and just win back the gambit pawn, going into a quieter sort of position.

If you are interested in playing the Bryntse Gambit, you will have to get used to this position because most players will play this safer and more sensible line instead of chasing the queen. What is happening in this position? First, White is obviously going to win back the pawn on e4. Generally I prefer to take with my c3 knight rather than the g5 knight. This may seem surprising, but there are a couple of reasons. First, the knight on g5 can still give Black some grief later in the game, if Black does not kick it away with … h6. Basically I am telling him, “If you want to get this knight out of your face, you will have to spend a tempo on … h6 or else trade knights on e4. I’m not going to retreat it voluntarily.”

A second reason for taking with the c3 knight is that it prepares to play c3 later in the game, eventually repositioning the bishop to c2. Both of the above themes came up in my game against class-A player Mark Rand in round 6. In particular, I eventually got the dream position of having both of my knights in his face, one on g5 and one on e5. (He had pushed his f-pawn to f5, so that … f6 was no longer a concern.) The position was highly tactical by that point, so the “dream position” didn’t last for long, but it was nice to at least get there for a moment. I eventually won the game.

Going back to the diagram, after White takes on e4, he will continue with d3 and then perhaps O-O or perhaps Be3. The pawn structure has a curious rotational symmetry, with White’s kingside pawn structure matching Black’s queenside pawn structure and vice versa. In view of this symmetry, you might wonder why White should get any advantage at all. Well, I don’t claim that he has much of an advantage, but there are two possible points in his favor. First, of course, White has an extra tempo. Second, he has more space on the kingside, and since that is where the kings usually end up, White’s attack is a priori a little bit more dangerous. Counterbalancing these advantages for White we have to acknowledge two advantages for Black. First, the White king position is definitely draftier, at least in the early stages of the game. The move f4 is not as “solid” as Black’s corresponding move … c5. One consequence, for example, is that White has to play Ncxe4 and d3 before castling, because otherwise Black will win a piece with … Qd4+. So White does need to exercise some caution.

The other possible advantage for Black — or at least an imbalance to take note of  — is that his queen bishop can develop to b7, where he will probably be more effective than the corresponding White bishop (on c4).

My game against national master Michael Langer in round 4 demonstrated these two advantages for Black. In that game I compounded my difficulties by playing the move g4 prematurely, which allowed him to bring his queen to h3 and his other bishop to h4 in addition to putting his bishop on b7. This meant that he controlled a huge number of squares on the kingside. Of course I castled queenside, but that didn’t completely solve my problems. Because Langer controlled so many squares on the kingside, it was very difficult for me to organize a kingside attack. In particular it was hard to find safe squares for my rooks. With the attack fizzling, the weakness of my pawns on f4 and especially g4 became an issue. I eventually lost the game, although not without some adventures — Langer actually let me off the hook, and I could have gotten an advantage later on.

My other game as White was against Jesse Kraai, where, as noted in a previous post, I essayed the Exchange French (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. ed ed). Although this has a drawish reputation, I have been trying out a strategy of playing this variation against higher-rated players while playing a different variation against lower-rated players. The idea is that the higher-rated players will avoid the symmetrical lines. If they continue 4. Nf3 Nc6, as Jesse did, now we get a nice unbalanced position where a very interesting game can ensue. In fact, I think we should abandon the name Exchange French, which makes the opening sound boring. I think we should call it the Open French, because that is what it is.

The first thing I hate about playing against the French is the way it forces you into closed positions. As all of you know, I like open positions with active piece play. The second thing I hate about playing against the French is that in many lines (e.g. the Advance Variation) White hands the initiative to Black. That is ridiculous! White should never give Black the initiative unless he gets at least a pawn for it. The Open French avoids both of these problems. The pawn trade ensures at least some open lines, and also White retains the initiative because he doesn’t have to be constantly propping up his rickety pawns at d4 and e5.

Anyway, that’s the way it looks to me.

But Jesse made an interesting point when we talked about this later. He advocates playing the classical variation as White (see, e.g., the way David Pruess handled the French in my last post). “But what if Black plays the Winawer?” I asked. “Ah!” the Sensei said. “Then you exchange on d5 and you go into a better form of the Exchange variation!” One may say that the scales dropped from my eyes at that moment. Of course! Wait for Black to make a commitment (developing his bishop to b4 instead of d6) and then open the position. I’ll have to think very seriously about Jesse’s advice.

As for my Black openings, in round 1 against class-A player Eric Shoemaker I played 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d5. I discussed the philosophy behind this offbeat variation, called the Marshall Variation, in my Chess Lecture called “Fun With a Supposedly Inferior Opening.” He did not play the best line against it and I equalized pretty easily, and eventually won the game.

In round 2, against Mezentsev, we got into a quiet variation of the Two Knights Defense, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3, that has been getting more and more popular lately. Black’s options are 4. … Bc5 or 4. … Be7, and I generally play the latter. 4. … Bc5 is a little bit looser; the bishop can be a target after c3 and d4; and Black may also have to worry about a pin on his f6 knight if he follows up … Bc4 with … d6. On the other hand, 4. … Be7 is a little bit unambitious, but that is only a very mild criticism. Especially against a master, there is nothing wrong with playing a solid move like this. As I commented in an earlier post, I think I played the defense fairly well, limiting White to only a token advantage, until things went crazy in the time scramble.

Finally, in round 5 against a class-A player named Solomon Beilin, we went into my favorite opening variation, the Bird Defense to the Ruy Lopez. As usual I went into the Blackburne Variation 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 ed 5. O-O g6, which I recently wrote a whole series of posts about. He played an unusual idea, 6. d3 Bg7 7. c4. I was happy to see this at first because it allows Black’s pawn to remain unchallenged on d4; but on the other hand he ended up playing f4 and b4 too, claiming a lot of space. It’s as if he is saying, “I’ll give you d4 but I want to control the rest of the board.” We ended up with a very tense and dynamic game where first I missed a win and then he missed a win and we ended up drawing. I won’t say any more about it now because this is one game I really want to take a closer look at first.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Blue Devil Knight April 16, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Great way to whet our appetite! I look forward to hearing more about the games.

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