Unplanned but Effective

by admin on August 26, 2015

This weekend I was reviewing the games from my last tournament, the National Open, in preparation for my next one. I had thought that my win in the fourth round was not very interesting, but actually there was more to learn from it than I expected. I was playing Black against Travis Guenther from Texas.

guenther1Position after 26. Bf1. Black to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p1bq1k/1p3pp1/2n1P2p/b1P4P/P1B3Q1/3N1PP1/R3RBK1 b – – 0 26

In this position Black could simply play 26. … fe, winning a pawn. White’s bishop can’t capture because it is needed to defend the knight on d2. The queen can’t take because it needs to defend the pawn on f2. However, surprisingly enough, the rook can take! If 26. … fe 27. Rxe5! Bd6? 28. Nf3! Bxe5 29. Qxe5! I have to give credit to Rybka, the computer program, for this discovery. Black’s only move to avoid disaster is 29. … Kh6, and then White (if he wants) can draw immediately with 30. Qg5+ Kh7 31. Qe5.

Sadly, I do not remember my exact thought process here. I wish I could say that I saw the exchange sac 27. Rxe5! and the followup 28. Nf3!, but I’d be lying. I think that one of two things happened, and I’m not sure which. One is that I just forgot I could win a pawn with 26. … fe, Embarrassing but quite possible. The other possibility is that I looked at 26. … fe but I was worried about White’s possible activity with Nf3 and Ng5+. I don’t think I calculated a precise variation like the one above, but the idea of removing the pawn from f6 too early looked quite risky to me.

Even without calculating, I think I hit all the key positional features right on the head. White has targets on e5, d2 and f2; Black has to worry about Nf3 or Ne4. So I played a prophylactic move: 26. … Bc6!

When  I went over the game this weekend I was really struck by how cunning this move is, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. It puts the question to White: what are you going to do about that weak pawn on e5? And what are you going to do about the weak knight on d2?

As it turns out, those questions are not easy to answer. 27. f4? definitely looks like a bad idea, as it creates even more weaknesses in White’s position. Rybka gives Black a huge advantage after 27. … fe 28. fe Nd3! Did I see this during the game? No. But I had a gut feeling. More natural for White would be 27. ef, exchanging off the pawn. But White’s problems aren’t over! After 27. … Bxf6 28. Bxf6 Qxf6 we get to this amusing position.

guenther2Position after 28. … Qxf6 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p4k/1pb2qp1/2n4p/2P4P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/R3RBK1 w – – 0 29

White’s knight on d2 is under attack, but where can it go? Any move that it makes will lead to immediate loss of material. White has to play the awkward 29. Ra2, but after 29. … Rd4 Black is at minimum winning a pawn (with threats of … Rg4 or a capture on h4).

My opponent played the most natural move, but it turns out to lead to a disaster:

29. Rad1? …

Psychologically this is a very interesting moment. White is now overprotecting his knight on d2, two defenders against one attackers, so I think he relaxed a little bit and didn’t think of it any more as a problem. So after I played 29. … fe he automatically recaptured with 30. Bxe5? (He should have just let the pawn go, but then his position is much inferior.)

guenther3Position after 30. Bxe5. Black to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p1bq1k/1pb3p1/2n1B2p/2P4P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/3RRBK1 b – – 0 28

I showed this position to the kids in the Aptos Library chess club yesterday and asked them what Black should play. I was stunned when the first suggestion, from a newcomer named John, was 30. … Nd3!? This is actually a terrific move! If 31. Bxd3 Rxd3 32. Qxd3 Qxf2+ White gets mated. On the other hand, if White leaves the knight there it’s a beast. (This idea of … Nd3 is kind of thematic; note that it came up earlier in the 27. f4 analysis.)

Picturesque as this would have been, the move I played, 30. … Ba4, is just a killer. White is obviously losing the exchange at least, and it’s actually worse than it looks. He played 31. Bxc7 Rd7 32. Be5 Bxd1 33. Rxd1 Ne4! and White resigned.

guenther4Final Position.

FEN: 5r2/p2rbq1k/1p4p1/4B2p/2P1n2P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/3R1BK1 w – – 0 31

One of my students, Aaron, asked why my opponent resigned and didn’t play 32. Qe3 instead. I have to admit that I gave him the wrong answer. I said that Black could play 32. … Bc5 33. Qxe4 Qxf2+, which wins by force, e.g., 34. Kh2 Qg1+ 35. Kh3 Qh1+ 36. Bh2 Bg1. But this is all more elaborate than necessary. As Rybka points out, after 32. Qe3, the simple 32. … Nxf2 wins a pawn, threatens the rook on d1, and keeps the … Bc5 threat in reserve for next move. Rybka gives Black a ridiculously huge advantage here, like 7 pawns. Practicality over tacticality!

As I said at the outset, after the game I wasn’t all that impressed with it, because there weren’t any brilliancies and it just seemed as if White had collapsed. I didn’t fully appreciate how clever my own move, 26. … Bc6, had been — passing up the chance to win a suspect pawn and in the process giving White a false sense of security about his position.

What can we learn from this game?

  1. Sometimes you don’t actually need to calculate. If you identify the key positional problems for both players, that can actually lead you to the right move even if you haven’t calculated all the variations.
  2. It is often good psychology, as well as good chess, to maintain the tension in the position instead of resolving it too soon. In this case, I could have won material with 26. … fe, but instead I kept the tension and ended up winning the game in a rout just a few moves later.
  3. Just because your opponent retreats a piece, that doesn’t mean he can’t put it back! Something weird was going on psychologically with the moves 26. … Bc6, 27. Rad1, and 28. … Ba4. I really think that my opponent forgot that the bishop could come back to a4. Maybe we could call this bishop a Terminator Piece (“I’ll be back.”)
  4. Practicality over tacticality. Given a choice between a flashy sacrifice (John’s 30. … Nd3, and my 32. … Bc5 in answer to Aaron’s question) and a move that just steamrollers your opponent flat (30. … Ba4 and 32. … Nxf2), choose the steamroller.
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane August 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Your move numbering is off somewhere. You jumped from 26 … Bc6 to 29. Rad1.

I asked myself what is What side of the board does White want to play on? How about Black?. Obviously the kingside is where all the action is. So the bishop on a4 is out of play. We reached the same conclusion through a different though process.

BTW, I think this is another example of not looking at enough candidate moves. Instead of Bc6 you could have chosen a slower approach: freeze the kingside with f5-f6, put the knight on e6, and move the bishop to c5. White has no active plan as far as I can see. Your bishop on a4 now becomes a useful piece, preventing him from contesting your control of the d file.

I’m not saying this is the best plan in the position but it could have been considered. I think it is a question of style. I like to restrict my opponent’s play and you like to knock their block off.

I’m really impressed by how you are using thinking processes to find the right ideas, rather than relying on brute calculation.


Mike Splane August 26, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Oops. I meant f6-f5. not vise versa.


admin August 26, 2015 at 5:23 pm

I may have looked at f6-f5 but there are three things I don’t like at all about it. First, it creates a hole on g5 and commits me either to give up my dark-square bishop for his knight or find a different square for the queen. Second, it closes the position when I want to open it! Black wants to open the f-file for the queen-rook battery (which is quite effective with f1 not available for a White rook), and also Black on general principles wants an open game because White’s pieces are poorly developed. Thirdly, as I pointed out, the pawn on e5 is weak because two of its defenders, the Q and B, are overloaded. The pawn push solves that problem for him and actually may let him turn the e5 pawn into a strong point by playing f2-f4.

In fact, this could have been another teaching point from this game: “Don’t solve your opponent’s problems for him.”


Mike Splane August 28, 2015 at 10:20 pm

Your reply points out an important problem in my choice of candidates moves. I too often look at putting my pawns and pieces on squares where they “make a pretty picture” but don’t threaten anything. My play is not dynamic enough. I’m not sure how to cure that tendency.


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