Chess Game of the Month August 2015: Defending the Sacrifice

I’ve started to play more games the past few weeks, but I only managed to finish one of them. Fortunately, it was an interesting, double-edged game in which both sides made mistakes, and the game became sharp right from the opening. I will analyze the game, highlight the key moments and ask questions to you, the reader. You can thus be entertained and, hopefully, learn something, too.

Some background: I played Black in a NimzoIndian against an opponent rated in the high 1800s at the time, and his rating has crept up to the mid 1900s since this game. White makes a lot of pawn moves in the opening, which lets me get some initiative. Let’s take a look.  Here is the link, so you can move the pieces around on the board if you so wish.  There’s also a dynamic board at the bottom of the page.

Sklavemoral – SmithyQ

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 O-O 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.Qxc3 b5 7.c5!?

Here is the opening position.  I played 6…b5, a gambit line I like.  I should note that White has made four pawn moves in the first seven moves, and his only developed piece is his Queen.  He’s at least four moves away from castling.  All of this suggests that the gambit idea makes a lot of sense, and indeed, at the top level it is often declined.

White’s seventh move I have never seen before.  It prevents …c5 from Black, and it also makes the b5-pawn look slightly silly.  That said, it is another pawn move, doesn’t help development, and it gives the d5-square to my Knight, which I immediately pounce on.

7…Bb7 8.f3?! Nd5 9.Qd3

White clearly wants to dominate in the center with e4 coming.  His pawns would then claim the entire board.  How should Black play in response?  Well, how do we stop e4?

I played 9…f5!, which secures a foothold in the center.  White continued with his plan, but it didn’t go the way he wanted.  10.e4 fxe4 11.fxe4 Nf6

White succeeded in getting his pawn center, but at what cost?  He has opened up the position with his King is still in the center.  He still only has one piece developed, his Queen, while the rest are sleeping.  Black has two pieces aiming at the e4-pawn, and the newly opened f-file gives Black’s Rook an open line straight into the enemy camp.

White needs to do something about e4-pawn, but it’s not easy.  None of his undeveloped pieces can help.  If he advances with e5, then my Knight jumps into e4, and suddenly Qh4+ is threatened, and my Bishop has a perfect diagonal.  Instead, he tried 12.Bg5, but that’s only a temporary fix.  12…h6 13.Bh4 g5, and if White retreats his Bishop, the e4-pawn falls.  Therefore he played 14.e5 gxh4.

If White simply recaptures his piece, then after Qxf6 Black has a dream position.  He is threatening Qf2+ and Qxf1, his pieces are harmonious and developed, and he is up a pawn to boot.  White’s pawn structure in the center is terrible, and White has a very long, very tough defence ahead, if he can even hold the position.

Instead, White sacrificed a piece with 15.Qg6+ Kh8 16.Bd3 Qe7 17.Qxh6 Nh7, and the character of the game changes dramatically.

It’s White’s turn, and he has an interesting try.  18.Bxh7, and Black cannot recapture with Qxh7 because his Rook hangs on f8.  However, Black can try 18…Qg7!  If White retreats his Queen, then we can safely recapture the Bishop and keep our extra piece.  If White exchanges Queens and then tries to retreat his Bishop, Black has Bxg2, which wins the Rook stuck in the corner.

Therefore, Bxh7 doesn’t work, and really, we should know that.  White is attacking with barely any pieces, and Black hasn’t made any mistakes.  Tactics should favour Black, as they do.  White therefore plays 18.Ne2 instead, bringing another piece into play.

How Would You Defend?

This is the key moment in the game.  With 18.Ne2, White is threatening Bxh7 again, because now after Qg7, he can exchange Queens, retreat his Bishop and now, if Bxg2, the Rook is no longer trapped.  In fact, material is equal, and White has recovered from his earlier mistake.

That’s White’s threat.  Also, White might want to play Nf4, which threatens Ng3+ with a fork.  That’s another threat.  Our Queen must cover h7, as if it moves away then Qxh7 is of course mate.  Also, the Queen is the sole protector of the Rook on f8, so our Queen can very easily become overloaded.

I know I haven’t made a mistake yet in this game, so I knew I could solve all these problems somehow, but it took me a long time.  Test yourself, what would you do here?

I ended up playing 18…Nc6!?, which is good enough but not the best move.  This move develops the Knight and lets my other Rook defend the back rank, and it also pressures d4.  Unfortunately, it blocks my Bishop on b7, and it doesn’t stop White’s 19.Nf4, which he played.

The best move was 18…Rf7!  This solves all of the problems.  The Rook is no longer attacked, and so Bxh7+ no longer threatens to win a piece.  It adds another defender to h7, so the Queen is no longer overloaded.  And if Nf4, Black has Qg5!  Amazingly, White has no good continuation.  Ng6+ looks threatening, but after Kg8 he has no followup.  He is forced to exchange Queens, which gives Black all the winning chances to exploit his extra material.

18…Rf7 would have won the game on the spot, but 18…Nc6 did just as well, mostly because my opponent made a series of poor moves.  With correct play, the game would have been far more close.

The Game Continues

After 18…Nc6, play continued 19.Nf4 Rxf4 (the only move, but remember that I’m already up a piece, so it’s not much of a sacrifice) 20.Qxf4 Qg5.

I obviously want to exchange Queens, and if White plays say Qf7, then Qe3+ will pick up the Bishop after Be2 and Nxd4.  This seemed perfect, and White indeed exchanged Queens with 21.Qxg5?!  Instead, 21.0-0! gives Black some problems.  Now exchanging Queens put White’s Rook on the strong f4 square, and Black will lose his h4-pawn surely.  If Black doesn’t exchange, then White adds more pieces to his attack.

After 21…Nxg5, my opponent errs again.  He has been down in material since the opening, and he greedily plays 22.Bxb5?  The reason is clear enough: he can’t defend his d-pawn, so he hopes to exchange it.  Unfortunately, after 23…Nxd4 24.Bxd7?? White falls for the simple 24…Nc2+ fork.  White regained his pawns but lost the exchange.

After 25.Kd2 Nxa1 27.c6, we get one last instructive position.  What would you play here?

First off, yes, Black is winning here, regardless of where he moves his Bishop.  That said, a better move is a better move.  What is Black’s best bet?

I played 27…Bc8, which exchanges a piece and almost certainly wins the c-pawn.  That seems hard to beat.  However, look at 27…Ba6! 28.Rxa1 Bc4!

White’s seemingly strong Bishop on d7 is in fact useless.  It has no moves at all.  My light-square Bishop, by contrast, will anchor on d5, protect the e6-pawn and control the whole board.  It’s like I’m up an extra piece.  My forces will combine to attack White’s pawns, and he only has a Rook to defend.  Sure, my move Bc8 exchanges a piece, which is good, but Ba6 would be like being up a piece, which is even better.

That said, my opponent resigned in three moves regardless, but he didn’t need to.  Indeed, I think he resigned a tad early, as Black’s up a piece but doesn’t have many pawns left.  Perhaps White could still swindle a draw somehow, especially as the endgame is not my strongest phase of game.

Final Thoughts

This game showed several things.

  1. Too many pawn moves in the opening can lead to disaster.  White’s position started to fall apart because he fell behind in development while making several ‘natural’ pawn moves.
  2. I missed the best defence, but what I played was still good enough.  Mainly, don’t be afraid of returning material to blunt an attack.
  3. White was down material for most of the game, and when he saw a chance to regain it, he jumped on it … not noticing how it was immediately losing.  This is common, where we focus too much on something and then fall victim to chess blindness.  Be aware of this in your own games!
  4. When you see a good move, look for a better move.

This one was fun.  I’m currently engaged in a tense struggle against this same opponent, which may become next month’s game of the month.  Also, his rating continues to surge, to the high 1900s as of the time of writing, which makes my victory even more impressive.  My own chess training appears to be paying off!

Here’s the complete game if you don’t want to look at and prefer WordPress’s game board.




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