Winning the state, part 2

by admin on June 9, 2008

Probably the most interesting thing going on in this blog at the moment is our long-running discussion on “Yo, Hallman.” Nevertheless, some people may be interested in seeing some new posts, and I did start this series on my victory in the 1985 North Carolina championship, so let us continue. It’s been fun for me to look at these games again after 20 years, and also to look at them for the first time on a computer, which of course finds some stuff that I completely missed at the time … 

It’s always amazing to me how narrow the line between a great tournament and a mediocre tournament is. Why did I go 5-1 in the state championship in 1985, and only 3½-2½ the next year? A lot of it comes down to how cooperative your opponents are. You need your opponents to make mistakes. If they don’t make mistakes, or if the mistakes don’t occur at key moments, or if they aren’t mistakes of a kind that you know how to capitalize on, then you won’t win. Somehow my opponents in the 1985 tournament were in a very charitable mood.

In the first round I played an A player named Tom Sloan. I got nothing out of the opening, but in the middlegame my opponent missed a fork and lost a piece. However, he got some significant compensation for it. Here is a position I will call:

The Leaky Dam

Here it’s Black to move. What would you play? What do you think about the relative merits of 26. … Nf3+ and 26. … Qf3?

My opponent played 26. … Nf3+, after which I was able to consolidate: 27. Kh1 (not Kg2??, as he would get double-check and mate!) Qe4 28. Bh6+! (a key in-between move) Kg8 29. Qe3. Black has run out of squares on the long diagonal for his queen. My weirdly placed knight at b4 is doing a fantastic job, covering both c6 and c2. My opponent continued 29. … Nd2+ 30. Qxe4 Nxe4 and I won without much difficulty.

I really felt as if I had walked a tightrope here. So it’s not too surprising that the computer finds a way for Black to take better advantage of White’s leaky position.

The correct idea was 26. … Qf3! This is a subtle move, which seems almost paradoxical at first — Black puts his queen on the square where his knight wanted to go to. But as we have seen, 26. … Nf3+ just didn’t work. The idea of 26. … Qf3 is that White’s queen just has too many jobs to do. It has to defend the bishop on e3, the rook on a8, the knight on b4 in some cases, and also the weak light squares around White’s king. White’s position is like a leaky dam. The poor queen has to move from one place to another, sticking her finger in the holes in the dike, but she is finally unable to stop the dam from collapsing.

Here’s how the computer analysis goes from the diagrammed position: 26. … Qf3 27. Qd2 … (either this or  Qe1 is forced, to defend against … Qe2+ while keeping the bishop protected). 27. … Qf6 28. Qd1 … (The queen is forced to move again because of the threat of Nf3+ with a family fork. Also, she has to defend the rook on a1.) 28. … Nf3+ 29. Kg2 … (on 29. Kh1 Qf5 the dam springs a new leak, on h3). 29. … Qe5 (Now Black’s queen is threatening to come to e4 again, but this time White’s king is on g2 instead of h1, as in the game, and that makes all the difference! On 30. Qc1 Qe4 31. Bh6+ Kg8 32. Qe3?? Nh4++ and wins. 32. Qb2 is a better try, but 32. … a5! wins White’s knight, which can’t move back to c2 because it would block the queen’s defense.) 30. Bf4 Nh4+! and now White’s dam collapses. At least it collapses enough for Black to win back the piece and equalize, either with 31. Kg1 Qc5+ or with 31. gh Rxf4 32. Nc2 Re4 33. Rc1 Re2+ 34. Kf1 Rh2 35. Qf3 Qb2.

This is amazing stuff. I love the little dance of Black’s queen, from c6 to f3 to f6 to e5 to e4, and how the whole point of this dance is just to put White’s king on g2 instead of h1. I love the way the White queen goes from one leak to the other but finally can’t cope with all the threats. And I love the fact that my opponent didn’t see any of this, either, so I managed to win the game!

In round two I played the eventual winner of the tournament, Rusty Potter. (See previous entry for more details on why he wasn’t eligible to become state champion.) I lost in very instructive fashion. I’ll call this game:

The Sleepy Opponent

I still remember this game vividly because for most of the game Potter wouldn’t even look at the board. He just closed his eyes and put his head down on the table. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Was he sleepy? Now, many years later, I think probably he was doing this as a visualization technique. You do most of the analysis in your head, and only “check in” with the physical board now and then. I think I’ve heard of grandmasters doing it, although I don’t remember who. Can anyone help me remember? (Note added five hours later: I’m most likely thinking about Ivanchuk. See comments thread for details.)

Anyway, I made the terrible psychological mistake of letting my opponent’s behavior bother me. I felt as if he was trying to show me up, by showing that he could beat this patzer (me) without even looking at the board. As I got more and more upset, I got into time trouble, and also played reckless moves that opened up my position to attack. A recipe for disaster!

I’m sure that I would react very differently now. I was young and stupid then. Nowadays I don’t let my opponent’s behavior rattle me as much, especially when it isn’t even directed against me. Also, I never let myself get in time pressure as bad as I used to. In this game, after move 20, I had to make 20 moves in 5 minutes!

In the diagrammed position I made a move that I considered to be the losing move in my post-game analysis. But in fact, the computer says it is an excellent move — Black’s only chance to avoid a disadvantage!

17. … d5!?

Exclamation point if Black realizes that he’s sacrificing a pawn for activity. Question mark if he doesn’t. That means, of course, that I get a question mark. The game continued 18. Bxd5 Nfxd5?! 19. Rfd1 and now I went into panic mode because I realized I was going to lose my piece on d5. I should have kept my wits about me and played 19. … f4!, after which Black still has a chance to survive. The bishop gets chased all the way back to c1, and after 20. Bc1 Qe8 21. Nxd5 Nxd5 22. Qxd5 (the rook capture is no better) Qe7 Black will play … Rbe8 and … Rf6 if necessary, and White cannot hold onto his pawn on e6. A very important ingredient in this position is White’s undeveloped queenside, because he doesn’t have time to bring his rook on a1 to the aid of his other two major pieces.

The computer points out that it’s even better, after 18. Bxd5, to play 18. … f4 right away! Black hopes to sucker White into playing 19. gf? Nfxd5, after which 20. Rfd1 ef is even more effective than in the line given previously, because Black can now defend his knight on d5.

Anyway, instead of fighting back with 19. … f4, I just put my tail between my legs with 19. … Qe8? 20. Nxd5 Nxd5 21. Qxd5 Rf6 22. e7+ Rf7 23. Bg5 h6 24. Bh4 Kh7, arriving at the following position:

White has many different winning moves, of course, but he chose to win in stylish fashion with 25. Qd8! (25. Qxf7! would also work) I played 25. … Bf6 26. Qxb8! Qxb8 27. Rd8 Bxe7 28. Rxb8 and Black resigned.

This was not exactly a difficult queen sacrifice to find or to calculate, but it is nevertheless (I believe) the only queen sac that has ever been played against me in a tournament game. One should treasure such moments, even if one is on the receiving end.

In round three I got back on track, with a game that I will call:

The Prepared Variation

As many of you know, I am very fond of playing my own innovations in the opening. Jesse Kraai criticized me for this in his ChessLecture and said that I should play more mainstream openings. But I just like to force my opponent to think for himself early in the game, instead of rattling off 15 moves of memorized book lines.

I think that my very first opening “discovery” was this trap for White in the French Defense: 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. Nc3 … (a known line, but not one with a great reputation) 3. … c5?

It’s hard to believe, but by making three natural, everyday French Defense moves, Black has already landed himself in a difficult position. If you don’t believe it, check it out on a computer — Fritz 9 gives White more than a one-pawn advantage. There are two reasons. First, the move … c5 is intended to undermine White’s center, striking against his pawn on d4. But here there’s nothing to strike against! The move is premature. Second, by moving all three of his pawns like this, Black has created wonderful open lines for White’s pieces. White was already ahead in development, and this just allows him to keep on developing pieces with threats.

Just in case you’re wondering, the French Defense isn’t busted. Black is supposed to play 3. … Nf6 (3. … d4 is also playable, but I feel as if White has won a strategic victory because the position now has a very un-French-like feel to it), and after 4. e5 Nfd7 5. d4 c5! is correctly timed. This is completely okay for Black, although I do continue to play this line for White.

Anyway, in round three my opponent, an A player named Gary Newsome, fell into my home preparation and played 3. … c5?, arriving at the position above. I continued 4. ed ed 5. Bb5+ Nc6 6. Qe2+ Be6.

I was hoping for 6. … Be7?, a move I have won against in speed chess several times. My home preparation then goes 7. Ne5! Qd6 8. d4! cd. This position is worth a diagram.

White to play (analysis) 

9. Bf4!! … (Every White move is a threat! Black never gets time to consolidate.) 9. … dc 10. Nxc6 Qxf4 11. Nxe7+ Kd8 12. Nxd5 Qd2+ 13. Qxd2 cd+ 14. Kxd2. The smoke clears and White is simply a pawn up (with better development to boot). I discovered this beautiful line sometime in the early 80s. I don’t know if it is in any books.

Anyway, back to the game. Newsome played 6. … Be6, and though I don’t have any special preparation against that, White just has a good position. In particular, Black’s bishop on e6, on an open file, can easily become a target. But I got just a little too eager:

Here I have just played 11. Nd4?!, which seems like a great move, applying pressure against both of Black’s pinned pieces. But I overlooked a tactical trick. Can you see it?

The answer is 11. … Bxh2+! 12. Kxh2 Qh4+ 13. Kg1 Qxd4. Actually, this isn’t the end of the world for White. In fact, the computer gives White a small advantage after 14. c3. Black still has the two pinned pieces, he’s behind in development, and White’s knight on a4 is about to jump to c5, where it will be very inconvenient for Black. Just as in the last game, it would be okay if I had played this on purpose as a pawn sacrifice, but the fact is that I just missed Black’s move.

So did Black. Instead he played 11. … Qh4? and now after 12. f4 I’m basically winning a pawn by force. He played 12. … Nge7 13. Nxe6 fe 14. Qxe6 Qf6 15. Qxf6 gf, and we entered a long and tedious endgame that I eventually won.

So, as you can see, after three rounds of the tournament I had already had more than my share of good luck. Opponents walking into my opening preparation, blundering material, and failing to spot the opportunities I gave them. And in retrospect, it turned out to be a huge break that my one bad game, in round 2, came against the only player who was not eligible for the state title. In effect, I got a mulligan.

Next time: More adventures (and some actual good chess) from rounds 4-6.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Andres D. Hortillosa June 9, 2008 at 10:31 am

Ivanchuk is famous for it. Nakamura does it too but not as long as Ivanchuk. If you watch Nakamura closely, his lips are moving as he looks away from the board. He seems to be verbalizing his thoughts.


admin June 9, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Thanks, Andy. I’m sure that Ivanchuk is who I was thinking of.

Now I’m curious about another thing — who first came up with the idea of not looking at the board for most of the time while thinking? Apparently Rusty Potter was doing it in 1985 (or else he was just really sleepy that day). But I’m sure he didn’t come up with the idea.

Back in the early 1970s, when George Koltanowski had his TV show, “Koltanowski on Chess,” he advocated using blindfold play as a way of improving your board sight. (Of course, he was one of the greatest blindfold players ever.)

It seems to me that Koltanowski could have extrapolated from this, and could have recommended “semi-blindfold” play during a regular game. But I don’t know if he ever actually did.


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