50 Years of Chess: Year 33

by admin on May 8, 2021

Step right up for round two of the Emory Tate versus Dana Mackenzie show! If you didn’t catch round one, you can go back and read it in my Year 31 post. Technically, today’s game is round four, because we had played three games before this one, with two wins for Tate and one draw. This was the game where I finally got my revenge.

It was the fifth round of the 2004 Far West Open in Reno, and until this point I had played a very typical Dana Mackenzie tournament. Round one: I was outplayed positionally by a grandmaster (Gregory Serper). Never had a chance. Round two: I played an unsound piece sacrifice against an expert and won. Round three: I lost to Michael Aigner. I always lost to Michael Aigner. Round four: I played an unclear piece sacrifice against an expert, he declined it, and I won.

Even in my wins, as I wrote in my notebook, I played with “more bravado than insight.” And that was certainly true in my game against Tate. He really outplayed me in this game. What’s interesting is that he outplayed me strategically, and the reason he lost the game was tactics. That’s a little bit surprising, considering that he’s the guy whose biography (by Daaim Shabazz, apparently out of print) is called Triple Exclam!!! He missed a very clear and crushing piece sacrifice that would have won the game for him, and he also missed the tactic that won the game for me.

I’ve written previously that “Tactics follow Strategy.” Which is true, in a perfect chess world. But in chess games played by humans, Tactics is like a wild and undisciplined fairy. Sometimes she follows Strategy, and sometimes she goes off in a completely different direction of her own. For people who like their Tactics wild and undisciplined, I submit to you the following game.

Dana Mackenzie — Emory Tate, 4/11/2004

1. e4 c5 2. f4 e6 3. Nf3 Qc7 4. g3 …

Nowadays I would probably play 4. d3, but either move should be fine.

4. … d5 5. d3 Nf6 6. Nbd2 b6 7. Bg2 de 8. Nxe4 Nxe4 9. d3 Ba6

We come to the first turning point in the game.

Position after 9. … Ba6. White to move.

FEN: rn2kb1r/p1q2ppp/bp2p3/2p5/4PP2/5NP1/PPP3BP/R1BQK2R w KQkq – 0 10

One of my chess friends whom I had not yet met, Juande Perea, likes to say, “How bad can it be?” I think that the question would have been appropriate here. Okay, Black has stopped me from castling, at least for the moment. But how bad can it be? The bishop is strangely posted on a6, and not defended. It would have made a lot of sense to continue 10. c3, with the idea of 10. … Nc6 11. e5 Rd8 12. Qa4! Now Black really starts to feel the weakness of his light squares. For example, he can’t play 12. … Bd3 13. Nd4! Instead, he will have to retreat with 13. … Bb7, and then I can castle quite calmly. Alternatively, after 10. c3 Black might play for quick kingside development with 10. … Be7, but it’s not quick enough: I play 11. Qa4+ b5 12. Qc2 and the b5 pawn blocks Black’s bishop, so I can castle next move. If he plays 12. … b4 to reopen the diagonal, I play 13. c4 to re-close it.

So what I overlooked was that by playing ordinary developing moves and making threats, I could force him to either retreat his bishop or block the bishop’s diagonal. Instead I was considering unpleasant options like 10. Kf2, and not liking them. Finally, I decided that against Emory Tate, I would rather be the attacker than the attackee, and I decided on a dubious pawn sacrifice.

10. c4!? …

In my notebook I wrote, “an excellent dynamic move.” But it kind of wilts under computer analysis. It would be great if the pawn sac created some sort of weakness in Black’s position, but actually his a7-b6-c5 pawn formation is quite strong. At best, the pawn sac gains me two tempi, and it’s doubtful that that is enough.

10. … Bxc4 11. Ne5 Ba6 12. Be3 Be7

It’s worth noting that 12. … Bd6, the move that Black would probably like to play, is met by 13. Nxf7! Kxf7 14. e5, winning back the sacrificed material. So Black does have to be a little bit careful.

A really interesting variation is 12. … Nc6, when I probably would have played 13. Qa4 Bb7 14. O-O-O Bd6 15. Rxd6!? Qxd6 16. Rd1 Qc7 17. Rd7 Qxd7! 18. Nxd7 Kxd7. With two rooks and a pawn for the queen, Black has the material advantage, but he has to be at least a little bit uneasy because his king is in the center of the board and White’s two bishops have some nice diagonals. This is a position I would be willing to play as White, on the grounds I just mentioned: against Emory Tate, I’d rather be the attacker than the attackee.

All in all, 12. … Be7 was a good, solid, sane developing move.

13. Qc2?! …

The computer says I should interpolate 13. Qa4+, inducing 13. … b5, and then play 14. Qc2. “What’s the difference?” you might wonder. The key point is that White actually would prefer to castle kingside. I’m asking Black, “Just how far will you go to keep me from castling kingside? Is it so important to you that you’ll play … Kf8?” (Probably not.) And a subsidiary point is that Black’s queenside pawns become looser after 13. … b5.

Little strategical misses like this can turn an okay position into a bad one.

13. … O-O 14. O-O-O b5

This is not the computer’s top choice, but it’s a very principled move. From the strategic point of view, it’s exactly right. Now that White has castled queenside, Black’s queenside pawn majority is not a weakness but a formidable strength. Tate is getting ready to march those pawns right down the board.

Position after 14. … b5. White to move.

FEN: rn3rk1/p1q1bppp/b3p3/1pp1N3/4PP2/4B1P1/PPQ3BP/2KR3R w – – 0 15

15. f5! …

I loved this move, following up my pawn sac with a piece sac that, of course, cannot be taken: 15. … Qxe5? 16. Bf4 Qf6 17. e5 Qxf5 18. Qxf5 ef 19. Bxa8. In my postgame notes, I wrote, “15. f5! — my favorite move of the game — shows that White is still in control.”

What a laugh! The next few moves show that it is Black who is in control. My comment is just like my play: combining suicidal bravado with delusional innocence about what is actually happening in the position.

15. … c4!

Not distracted by my “brilliant” piece sacrifice, Tate continues his own pawn march.

16. Bf4 f6!

I love this move, too. Tate pulls out his playbook from our game in Year 31. In that game, too, he sacrificed an exchange to shut down my counterplay and take the initiative. It worked then, and it should have worked in this game.

17. Ng6 e5 18. Nxf8 Kxf8 19. Be3 …

White’s initiative is over, and the retreating begins.

19. … Nc6 20. Kb1 Nb4 21. Qc3? …

Position after 21. Qc3. Black to move.

FEN: r4k2/p1q1b1pp/b4p2/1p2pP2/1np1P3/2Q1B1P1/PP4BP/1K1R3R b – – 0 21

White is ready to meet 21. … Qa5 with 22. a3, and of course he’s ready to meet 21. … Nd3 with 22. Rxd3. But there is one threat that White is not at all ready to meet. Do you see what it is?

The answer — and one that I think an attacking player with Tate’s prowess should have found — is 21. … Nxa2! After 22. Kxa2 b4, the march of the queenside pawns is just overwhelming. For example, 23. Qe1 Qa5+ 24. Kb1 c3 and it’s hard to even suggest a good move for White. If 25. Kc2 b3+. If 25. Rd5 Qa4 26. Qf2 Bc4 27. bc bc. Notice that it’s not just the pawns driving this attack — it’s the bishops and the rook too, after the pawns have loosened up the target.

You might wonder why, with an extra rook, White is so powerless to stop the onslaught. The reason is that White’s extra rook, sitting on h1, is the least relevant thing about this position. All that matters is that Black has more material in the relevant sector of the board, and he has enough open lines (or is able to open up enough lines) to use that material effectively.

Now another good question is: Why did Tate miss this? I think that for a moment he had the same problem that I sometimes do: tunnel vision. I don’t think he seriously thought about … Nxa2. The square that he is aiming for with his knight is d3, and so he plays a move that prepares to sink the knight on that square. I can’t argue, it’s a nice square. But it’s not overwhelming in the way that Black’s attack would have been after … Nxa2.

21. … Qb7?

According to Fritz, this move drops Black’s advantage from 5 pawns to 0.3 pawns. That’s a pretty hefty drop!

But still, the game isn’t over. In some ways, the game is just beginning. Few chess games are perfect. White has made some mistakes, now Black has made a mistake. I didn’t even know that I had dodged a bullet, but even if I had known, it wouldn’t have mattered. All that matters now is who is going to play better for the rest of the game.

22. a3 Nd3 23. b4! …

An important move, which slows down Black’s attack on the queenside and denies the c5 square to Black’s knight.

23. … Qd7 24. Rd2 …

Indecisive. 24. Rxd3! is already competely playable. After 24. … Qxd3+ 25. Qxd3 cd 26. Rd1 Black can defend his d-pawn with 26. … Rd8, but then he loses the a-pawn to 27. Bxa7.

24. … Bb7 25. R1d1 Rd8?!

Tate wants to prevent the exchange sacrifice on d3 that is obviously coming, and he would also like to pressure the e-pawn with … Bc6 and … Qb7. So he is playing with a plan. An alternative plan would be 25. … a5 26. Rxd3 cd 27. Rxd3 Qc6, which looks likely to lead to a draw. Obviously, he wanted to play for more than a draw.

The trouble with this move is that it leaves the a7 pawn undefended. I have a feeling that Tate thought that this wouldn’t matter; he would gladly trade the a7 pawn for the e4 pawn.

26. Bxa7 …

It’s not just the win of a pawn that helps my position, it’s also the fact that I can now drive his rook away from d8.

26. … Bc6 27. Bb6 Rb8 28. Rxd3 cd 29. Rxd3 Qb7

Position after 29. … Qb7. White to move.

FEN: 1r3k2/1q2b1pp/1Bb2p2/1p2pP2/1P2P3/P1QR2P1/6BP/1K6 w – – 0 30

I’m certain that Tate had gotten to this position in his analysis on move 25, if not earlier, and thought that he was winning. I move my dark-squared bishop back somewhere, he takes on e4 and has a much better endgame.

There’s just one little thing he didn’t see — that fickle fairy Tactics, flittering in and messing up even the finest plans of stodgy old Strategy.

30. Bc5! Bxe4??

There was still time for Black to back off with 30. … Bxc5 or 30. … Rc8. But then White is a pawn ahead, will have no trouble defending his weak pawn on e4, and has every reason to be optimistic about winning the endgame. The text move, however, is much worse for Black — it loses immediately.

31. Bxe7+ Kxe7 32. Bxe4 Qxe4 33. Qc7+ Black resigns

My diary comments are interesting. “One spectator who was watching said that I had a look of disbelief on my face when Tate resigned. That shows how my confidence has eroded in recent years. I really couldn’t imagine beating a player of Tate’s caliber — a draw, maybe, but a win seemed too good to be true. Tate was pretty surprised, too. He told me after the game, ‘I got overconfident. I deserved it.'”

A sign of his overconfidence was the speed of the last few moves. We were both playing at rapid tempo. I was playing quickly because, as usual, I was in time trouble. But he had plenty of time left. Either he was trying to “blitz” me into making a mistake — a very bad idea, you should never try to blitz someone who is in time pressure — or else, as I think likely, he had worked out the whole variation in advance and didn’t see the need to stop and check for blunders.

Lessons:

  • Often your opponent’s threats aren’t as serious as they seem to be. Ask yourself, “How bad can it be?” Maybe you don’t need to defend his threat; maybe normal aggressive moves will make the threat go away by itself. [White move 10.]
  • Keep an eye open for “two-steps.” You want to move your piece to square a, but sometimes you should move it to square b first, force your opponent to make a response that improves your position in some way, and then move it to square a. [White move 13.]
  • Study defensive exchange sacrifices. There are two good ones in this game, on Black’s move 16 and White’s move 28.
  • When evaluating an attack, the most important thing is not the overall material count but the material count in the relevant part of the board. Also it’s important to ask whether the side with the extra material can create enough open lines to achieve a breakthrough. [Black move 21.]
  • Don’t rush when your opponent is in time pressure. If you do, you’re letting his problem become your problem! [Black moves 25-30, possibly.]
  • Beware of overconfidence. “It is not enough to be a good player, you must also play well.” — Siegbert Tarrasch [Black moves 25-30, definitely.]
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50 Years of Chess: Year 32

by admin on May 5, 2021

It’s still inspiring to look back at my diary for 2003. So many great things were happening that year. My first book, The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be, was published in April, and like any first-time author I was alternating between the heights of jubilation and the depths of despair:

“Nobody’s going to like my book.”

“Look, my book got four five-star reviews on Amazon!”

“I have no publicity tour. I have only four book readings, and I had to schedule them all myself.”

“I had a book reading in my hometown, and all my friends came, and I sold 33 books!”

“Oh, crap. No matter what I try to do to promote the book, it sells fewer copies every month than the month before.”

“At this rate, I might earn out my advance in two years. XXXXX four years. XXXXX ten years. XXXXX never.”

If you squint your eyes, you can almost read the marquee…

Here’s a picture of the local bookstore, the Capitola Book Cafe (which is, sadly, now gone), with the marquee saying, “Wed May 21 Dana Mackenzie Origins of the Moon.” It was the first time I had ever seen my name in such big letters. The night of the reading was surely one of the happiest nights of my life. I made one amusing gaffe, though. You have to know that the other bookstore in town, which was bigger, was Bookshop Santa Cruz. (It still exists.) So when the events manager at the Capitola Book Cafe introduced me, I started out: “I want to thank Bookshop Santa Cruz…” (audible gasp from the audience). After smacking my forehead with my palm, I continued, “… for turning me down so that I could speak at the Capitola Book Cafe!” That broke the tension pretty well, and the rest of my talk was just great. The events manager confided to me afterwards that I wasn’t the first person to make that mistake.

Chess-wise, the highlight of 2003 was probably the U.S. Open, which was held in southern California that year. In distant bygone days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and chess players slew Dragons with their bare hands, the U.S. Open used to be a twelve-round tournament. In more recent times it has gone to a nine-round format. But apparently the organizer of the 2003 tournament still missed the bygone days and decided to go back to a twelve-round format, for perhaps the last time. So I had to spend a full two weeks away from home, and I decided to stretch it into three weeks so that I could do other fun things. I went to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. I went to a tryout for Jeopardy!, the game show. (I didn’t qualify.) After the tournament was over, I went to a cryptology conference at UC Santa Barbara, where I heard about cryptocurrencies for the first time. Damn, if I’d paid attention I could be a multi-millionaire.

As for the chess tournament, I got off to an excellent start, winning my first two games and facing soon-to-be-grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian in round three. As you’ll see below, I drew an exciting game with him. His rating at the time was 2611 USCF, and in fact he is still the highest-rated player I’ve ever drawn. (A few years later I got a draw against Sergei Kudrin, who was rated 2608 at the time, and I will probably show you that game, too.)

Unfortunately, that game was the peak of my U.S. Open experience. A word to the wise: If you’re playing a 12-round tournament, you don’t want to peak in round three. In round four I lost to grandmaster Edhi Handoko of Indonesia, which was nothing to be ashamed of. But after that I languished in Class A Purgatory, playing eight games in a row against Class-A players. Most of these games were hard fights, and I scored only 5-3 in them, which is why I could never escape Class A Purgatory and get back to the Master Paradise. So in the end I had a 7.5-4.5 score and lost five rating points.

At least I did have the one highlight-reel game against Akobian, and that’s the game I will show you now. I feel as if I channeled Alexei Shirov in this game — it was “fire on board” from beginning to end. How do you draw against a grandmaster? By putting relentless pressure on them.

Varuzhan Akobian — Dana Mackenzie

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d5

I had started experimenting with this variation, called the Marshall Variation, a couple years earlier and had good results. There is very little theory on it, because it’s supposed to be just bad. But it’s not! There is no variation where White can get a large advantage by force. More importantly, I’m a player who likes open lines for my pieces. I’m very uncomfortable with the cramped positions of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. I’m not a fan of the locked pawn formations of the King’s Indian. The Marshall Variation is a good way to get open lines, because if White wants to refute it (as people always do), he’ll have to exchange pawns in the center.

3. cd Nxd5 4. e4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5!

A very important point. If 6. de Qxd1+ 7. Kxd1 Ng4 Black gets his pawn back, with a fine position. The possibility of this insolent pawn thrust is one of the things I like about the Marshall Variation.

6. d5 Bc5

As desired, both of my bishops have open diagonals. Who wouldn’t prefer this to the torture of playing Black in the Queen’s Gambit Declined?

7. Be2 c6 8. Nf3 cd 9. ed Nbd7

Position after 9. … Nbd7. White to move.

FEN: r1bqk2r/pp1n1ppp/5n2/2bPp3/8/2N2N2/PP2BPPP/R1BQK2R w KQkq – 0 10

Oddly, this is the last knight move I made in the whole game. My knights stayed rooted on those squares, d7 and f6, until a draw was agreed on move 39. As we’ll see, there were a couple occasions when I perhaps should have moved one of them.

10. O-O O-O 11. Bg6 h6 12. Bh4 g5

Fritz prefers 12. … a6, but as I wrote in my notebook, “I was not about to let White get his knight to e4.” That’s why I played 12. … g5.

13. Bg3 Re8

The natural move, but here is one of the points where I could have tried to improve the position of my knights with 13. … Nh5!?, the computer’s recommendation. This looks borderline insane, as Black (a) puts his knight on the rim, (b) leaves it undefended, and (c) leaves the e-pawn under-defended. Yet it all works out tactically, because Black wins a piece after either 14. Nxe5 Nxg3 or 14. Bxe5 g4. It’s still pretty dicey, though, because Black will have a lot of weaknesses after winning the piece. Perhaps the moral is that if you’re going to play a coffeehouse move like 12. … g5, you might as well follow it up with another coffeehouse move!

14. Rc1 a6 15. d6 b5!?

I was not impressed with Akobian’s move 15. d6, because it gives me even more open lines for my bishops, and the d-pawn itself is no threat to advance as long as Black’s knights stand in the way. The position now gets extremely sharp, extremely fast, and basically stays sharp for the rest of the game. No positional maneuvering — it’s a sword fight from now on.

16. a4 …

It’s hard to criticize this move, but 16. Nd5 was also an option.

Position after 16. a4. Black to move.

FEN: r1bqr1k1/3n1p2/p2P1n1p/1pb1p1p1/P7/2N2NB1/1P2BPPP/2RQ1RK1 b – – 0 16

16. … Qb6!

I would play this pawn sacrifice 101 times out of 100. Everything is perfect about Black’s position. He has an open diagonal for his dark-squared bishop and queen. An open diagonal for his light-squared bishop. An open file for his queen rook. Yes, White will be a pawn up, but he has two weak isolated pawns at b2 and d6. On general principles, I thought that Black must have compensation for the pawn. In fact, with my active pieces and the possibility that I might eventually win both b2 and d6, I felt that I had realistic winning chances.

In retrospect my evaluation was too optimistic, because I also have some significant weaknesses on the kingside that will come back to haunt me sooner or later. But I still think this was the right way to play the position, because there is a human on the other side of the board (even if he is almost a grandmaster), and you need to make it as hard for him as possible.

17. ab ab 18. Nxb5? …

The wrong way to capture. According to the computer, 18. Bxb5! was correct. Akobian probably didn’t want to give back the pawn so easily, but the point is that after 18. … Qxd6 19. Qxd6 Bxd6 20. Rfd1 Bf8, Black’s pieces are all getting forced into passive, defensive positions. After 18. Bxb5 Black has a multitude of other candidate moves, all of which require careful analysis — 18. … Bxd6, 18. … Ba6, 18. … Ra5, 18. … Re6. I’m not going to go over them all because I don’t want to make this an exercise in parroting computer variations. I’ll leave it to the reader to analyze them.

Still, I think that Akobian’s move is the one that most human opponents would play. He doesn’t believe that my pawn sac is sound, and so he says, “Prove it!”

18. … Ra5 19. Na3 …

Akobian blinks. Perhaps he had intended to play 19. Nc7 Rd8 20. Nxe5 Nxe5 21. Bxe5, but then noticed 21. … Bxf2+! 22. Rxf2 Rxe5. I thought this was winning for Black, but the computer discovered an unbelievable save for White: 23. Na8! Qe3 24. Rc3 Qa7 25. Rc7 with a draw by repetition. Black’s queen needs to stay on the a7-g1 diagonal but it cannot get away from the rook attacks. Still, for me, a 2100 player against a 2600, even a draw by repetition would be a great success.

19. … Bxa3 20. ba Rxa3?!

I continue to play in va banque style (contemporary English translation: “All in”) but this was one time when cooler heads perhaps should have prevailed. 20. … Ne4 wins the d6 pawn, and Black continues to have good piece activity. I think that this would just be a normal equal position, but I was trying to go for more than that.

Position after 20. … Rxa3. White to move.

FEN: 2b1r1k1/3n1p2/1q1P1n1p/4p1p1/8/r4NB1/4BPPP/2RQ1RK1 w – – 0 21

Still playing in Shirov mode, I was trying to provoke White into taking on e5: 21. Nxe5 Rxg3! 22. Nxd7 Rxg2+ 23. Kxg2 Bxd7. I thought that with White’s kingside shattered and the pawn on d6 likely to fall sooner or later, Black would have sufficient compensation for the exchange.

After lengthy thought, Akobian decided that it wasn’t worth the risk, and he decides to join in the fun by offering a pawn sacrifice of his own!

21. Qc2?! Ba6

Again choosing piece activity over material. If 21. … Qxd6 22. Rfd1 Qe7 23. Bc4 (threatening Qg6+) Kg7 24. Qb2 I had the feeling that something bad could happen on the long a1-h8 diagonal. I decided I would rather be attacking against a grandmaster than defending. The downside of this decision is that the longer the d6 pawn is allowed to survive, the more dangerous it becomes.

22. Bxa6 Qxa6 23. Rfd1 Ra2 24. Qf5 e4

Continuing with the take-no-prisoners approach. Besides attacking White’s knight, this seals off the queen’s retreat and prepares … Ra5.

25. Nd4 Ra5 26. Qh3 h5

Now I really started to feel as if I was getting somewhere. White’s pieces are not coordinating well, and where is his bishop going to go?

27. f4?! …

Better was 27. Nc6, with the idea of playing Ne7+ first and then f4. The knight on e7 would definitely impede Black’s attack.

Position after 27. f4. Black to move.

FEN: 4r1k1/3n1p2/q2P1n2/r5p1/3N3p/5PBQ/7P/2RR2K1 w – – 0 29

(Diagram 4.) Here is a major crossroads in the game, where I arguably missed a chance to get a nearly winning attack. But it’s just that — an argument. I’m not really sure if what I did was worse. I will present both sides of the case as a debate.

27. … g4?!

According to the computer, 27. … ef! en passant was the best move. Let us debate this proposition.

Argument in favor of taking en passant: This disrupts White’s pawn formation around his king, and really makes White’s kingside for the first time look even more vulnerable than Black’s. White has to recapture 28. gf. Then the move 28. … h4 seems to just win the d6 pawn.

Argument against taking en passant: The attempt to win the d6 pawn is an illusion, because White can insert the zwischenzug 29. Rc6! After, say, 29. … Qb7 30. Bf2, how does Black make progress?

Argument for taking en passant: Black in fact makes good progress by playing 30. … Rd5! By playing … h4 Black has weakened White’s defense of the d-pawn, so that Black can eventually win it. Also, Black has wicked threats like … Rxd4 and the even nastier 31. … Qxc6! 32. Rxc6 Rxd1+ 33. Kg2 Nd5, threatening mate. (See diagram.)

Position after 34. … Nd5 (analysis). Threatening a royal fork and mate.

FEN: 4r1k1/3n1p2/2NP4/3n2p1/7p/5P1Q/5BKP/3r4 w – – 0 35

Argument against taking en passant: Wait a minute! Let’s not get carried away by all of this brilliance. White can strike back with 31. Rc7! Qa6 32. Rxd7, finally breaking down Black’s seemingly impregnable fortess of knights.

Argument for taking en passant: If so, Black wins with an absolutely sick fork: 32. … Qa4!! I have to insert a picture of this position, too. This whole variation is just like a symphony of remarkable tactics.

Position after 32. … Qa4 (analysis). A sick fork.

FEN: 4r1k1/3R1p2/3P1n2/3r2p1/q2N3p/5P1Q/5B1P/3R2K1 w – – 0 33

Argument against taking en passant: Okay, Einstein, I grant that in this nutso computer variation, Black emerges with the advantage through tactical means. But no human could possibly figure these variations out. I certainly didn’t figure it out over the board. Let’s go back to the previous diagram (Diagram 4). Doesn’t it make more sense to lock down the kingside with 27. … g4? I would then argue that my pieces are more active and my e-pawn is a more dangerous threat than White’s d-pawn. (Note to reader: This was in fact the argument that convinced me during the game.)

Argument for taking en passant: What makes you think that 27. … g4 will “lock down” the kingside? After an eventual f5, White will be able to infiltrate Black’s kingside on the dark squares with both the bishop and queen. (Note to reader: This is probably what I did not understand clearly enough at this point.) Also, calling Black’s knights “active” is stretching a point. They are still on defensive duty, as they have been for the whole game.

My conclusion, 18 years later: Taking en passant was better, but only if I had a computer to help me with the tactics. I think I really shouldn’t beat myself up over playing 27. … g4 instead. It was a tough decision. Black is less likely to win after 27. … g4, but also less likely to lose.

In any case, 27. … g4 was the move played, and the game continued:

28. Qh4 e3

This move, too, could be debated. I was very interested in setting up the pawn as a serious threat. But what is it threatening to do, exactly? Push on to e1, a square that White is defending four times?

29. f5 Ra2

The glimmerings of a plan emerge — Black is hoping to put the queen on the long diagonal and checkmate on g2.

30. Qg5+ Kh7 31. Bf4 Qb7 32. Nc2 …

I’m sure Akobian didn’t like playing this move. But 32. Nc6 would allow 32. … Qb2, and 32. Rc6 would allow 32. … e2 33. Re1 Qb4, another nasty fork.

32. … e2 33. Re1 …

Position after 33. Re1. Black to move.

FEN: 4r3/1q1n1p1k/3P1n2/5PQp/5Bp1/8/r1N1p1PP/2R1R1K1 b – – 0 33

Someday I should write a book or at least a chapter about “Maxed-Out Attacks,” and this position would be Exhibit A. A maxed-out attack is position that optically looks wonderful, but which you have no way of improving. It looks as if I’ve gotten everything I could hope for in the attack. White’s two rooks and knight have been reduced to passivity. The e-pawn is one square away from paydirt. But … there’s no checkmate. I couldn’t find a win, and the computer can’t either. And there’s good reason: Black is only attacking with his queen. The pawn on e2 actually kind of gets in the way of the rooks. And Black’s knights, those Stationary Steeds of Strange Stickiness, are still stuck like glue on d7 and f6. Really, that’s the difference in the game. If either of the Stationary Steeds could do something useful, like jump into d3 or even f3, the game would be over. As for White, he doesn’t really have any winning chances as long as he is only attacking with his queen and bishop. So after all the incredible excitement of the previous moves, the game is heading towards a draw — both sides just have insufficient winning chances.

Except there’s one thing I have not mentioned yet: the clock. Both sides have maybe half a minute to reach the time control (move 40). Under those circumstances, anything can happen.

33. … Qb6+ 34. Ne3 Qd4 35. g3 …

Creating new weaknesses, but White needs to have the bishop defended so that he can take on h5 after 36. Qh6+ Kg8 37. Qg5+ Kh8 38. Qh6+ Nh7.

35. … Qe4 36. Qh6+ …

If White wants to play for a win, he could try 36. Rc7, but 36. … Qb4 37. Ng2 Qd4+ 38. Be3 Qe4! 39. Rxd7 Nxd7 40. Qxh5+ is only a draw. However, Black does have to avoid the tempting 38. … Qxd6?? when White wins after 39. Rxd7!

36. … Kg8 37. Qg5+ Kh7 38. Qh6+ Kg8 1/2-1/2

And that’s that, except for what the scoresheet can’t tell you. In real time, this game is being played on one of the top boards, with lots of spectators and a tournament director around, and both players’ clocks down to their last few seconds. Here is what I wrote in my diary:

“Then there was a bit of a bizarre ending. We were both in serious time pressure, with maybe 30 seconds left for the last six or seven moves. He decided to bail out by going for a perpetual check, which of course would be a draw. Thinking that we had repeated the position three times, I claimed a draw — but pressed my clock button. That made my claim invalid, so even though I looked beseechingly at the arbiter, he was not allowed to say anything. (In fact, after the game he said we had only repeated the position twice.) Meanwhile, Akobian’s time ran out. I thought that I would have to fill in the last few moves on my scoresheet (which I had omitted in the time scramble) in order to prove my repeated-position claim. Now Akobian was in a real bind — because with my scoresheet filled in, I could legally claim a win on time! So he stuck his hand across the board, and we agreed to a draw.

“What a relief! I’m okay with the fact that maybe I could have won the game on time if I hadn’t said anything, because really a draw was the fair result. I would feel a little bit unsportsmanlike to claim a win in a position where my opponent could draw by perpetual check and had every intention of doing so.”

What do you think, my esteemed readers? Should I have claimed a win on time? How would it feel to have my first victory over a grandmaster tainted in this way? Also, if I had tried to claim a win on time, Akobian might have been able to say that I had distracted him with my invalid draw claim earlier. If any TD’s are reading this, what would your ruling be in such a case?

I still think I did the right thing, and the gentlemanly thing, so as I said in my diary, I’m okay with how the game ended. I’m sure that the TD was relieved to have the game end amiably, without a dispute.

This has been another long, long post, but I hope you agree that this game was absolutely riveting from start to finish. Rather than give you a list of lessons, I’ll end with just one reflection.

Why did Black’s attack come so close but not succeed? The more I look at the game, the more I think it’s because I played only with my “pretty pieces.” This is something that grandmaster Jesse Kraai talked about in a ChessLecture long ago (though several years after this game was played). He said that most players like to move their “pretty pieces,” the ones that are already well-developed and have lots of options. In this game, my queen and queen rook and e-pawn were pretty pieces. The bishops were, too, although they just ended up being traded off. But the Stationary Steeds, and also the Stationary Rook on e8 that never budged after move 13, never found a way to participate in the attack. Jesse said that what sets masters apart is that they also know how to play with their “ugly pieces.” That is something I clearly needed to learn from this game.

Even acknowledging that shortcoming, though, I think this was a pretty darn good game.

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50 Years of Chess: Year 31

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