Chess Game of the Month: October 2015

In September I did not finish any of my correspondence games, despite having 11 on the go.  In October I finished most of them, all against opponents greater than 1750, and most were quite interesting.  I’ve won them all so far, though one was due to a timeout in an equal position.  Along the way I passed the 1900 rating mark, and I wrote about four of those games here.

For my game of the month I choose the following match, one played against an 1800 rated player.  It was an Open Sicilian, but the play was very positional in nature.  There were no sudden tactics or crazy attacks: I simply improved my position slowly, and Black had to way to hang on to his weaknesses.  I like attacks and sacrifices as much as the next guy, but this is my favourite way to play: calm, logical, absolutely no risk, and it’s easy.  Few of my moves are difficult to find.

Okay, here we go.

SmithyQ – Slava888

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Be7 8.Qf3 Qc7 9.0-0-0

So far so theory.  This position has been reached literally hundreds if not thousands of times.  It is the traditional main line of the Najdorf, and even though theory goes on for many more moves, it’s useful to look at this positional generally.

White is near fully developed, and all his active pieces are on good squares.  He is ready to play in the center, pressuring the d6-pawn or advance with e5 for instance, and he can also push the Kingside pawns for an attack against the (soon to be) castled King.  If Black wastes time, White can choose either of these plans and get a good game.

Black thus needs to be careful.  He needs to be continually on guard against the center break, and if he castles he must watch the attack over there.  In particular, he has made a number of pawn moves and must now develop his pieces.  This help explains Black’s error.  He played 9…Nc6?, which looks fine but it’s a mistake.  Theory states 9…Nd7 as better.  White exchanged, 10.Nxc6 bxc6, reaching the following.

How Would You Play as White?

Here’s your chance to play the move I missed!

White has managed to exchange Knights.  This might not seem like a lot, but look at the diagram.  Black’s Bishops have barely any moves, and he has no active pieces.  His King is still in the center, and White’s Rook now has a open file hitting Black’s weakest pawn.  The c6-pawn is weaker than it was on b7.  Even though Black now has an open b-file, which might be useful for an attack, it has closed the c-file, which makes his Queen look somewhat silly.  It would clearly rather be on b6.

More to the point, White’s pieces are currently much better than Black’s, and he has a way to take advantage with the great move 11.e5!  I thought of this move, as it must always be a candidate in the Open Sicilian, but I couldn’t fully think it through.  Could you?  Let’s take a look at some lines.

After 11.e5! dxe5 12.fxe5, Black cannot grab the pawn with …Qxe5 as the c6-pawn is hanging.  White will take it with check and then exchange his Bishop (as it was hanging) before gobbling up the Rook.  Embarrassingly, this is the line I missed. in my calculations, and the main reason I didn’t play 11.e5.

Black cannot take the pawn, so best play after 11.e5 dxe5 12.e5 is … Nd5 13.Bxe7 Nxe7 14.Nd6.  White will place his Knight on the wonderful d6-square and has a comfortable advantage.  The computer suggests it’s only a 0.5 pawn advantage, but White has the piece, easy development, clear weaknesses and, most importantly, Black has no counterplay.

(Note that 14…Qxe5?? doesn’t work because of Nd6+, where White is threatening both Qxf7+ and also Qxc6+ check)

Instead of this, I played 11.Bc4, which is also a fine move: it finishes development and fights for the center.  My Bishop can later drop back to b3 to cover the b-file, stopping Black’s play there for a bit.  That said, it doesn’t cause any problems for Black, allowing him to finish development in ease.  The computer says this position is now dead equal.

11… 0-0 12.Rhe1 d5 13.Bb3

I of course do not want to exchange center pawns, as that just gives Black two central pawns to my zero.  Besides, I want my Bishop on b3 anyway, so I put it there.

More to the point, the central pawns have tension, and releasing tension is usually bad for the side that does it.  As GM Igor Smirnov says, to take is a mistake!  Find a way to keep the tension.  In fact, my opponent played 13…dxe4?, releasing the tension himself.  This gives me a huge advantage.

14.Nxe4 Nxe4 15.Bxe7 Qxe7 16.Qxe4

To fully understand Black’s error, just compare the last two diagrams.  In the previous one Black had a strong center, now he just has a weak pawn on c6.  All of White’s pieces are better than the Black counterparts.  Black has no active plan at all and is doomed to passive defence.

Why did this happen?  Because Black released the tension.  Imagine if Black played a different 13th move and simply continued development.  He can play h6, Bb7 and/or a5 and the position remains unclear.  Black made a strategic error, and this let me easily play a risk-free game from here on out.

Black played 16…Bd7, though I was expected Bb7 instead.  He has two weak pawns on the Queenside, a6 and c6, and on by the Bishop would both protect each of them while also threatening c5, getting a great diagonal.

17.Rd3 g6?! 18.Red1 Ra7 19.Ba4 Rc8 20.Rd6

Can you see the power of White’s position and of this style of play?  Every White piece is better than every Black piece.  Indeed, Black can only sit and defend his weaknesses, and sooner or later he will make a mistake, lose material and then the game.  That’s what happened here: Black played slightly inaccurately and now has no way of defending his c-pawn.

20…Rcc7 21.Bxc6 Bxc6 22.Rxc6 Rxc6 23.Qxc6 Qb4 24.Qd6!

After a series of exchanges the dust has settled and Black is down a pawn.  His 23rd move was a good idea, seeking counterplay, but 24.Qd6! puts the pressure on him.  What should he do?

In the game he played 24…Qxd6?, which is the same mistake as earlier: he released the tension.  This allows 25.Rxd6, and Black is now in a completely losing endgame, as the game continuation will show.

Imagine instead if Black played 24…Rb7.  White can still exchange Queens with 25.Qxb4 Rxb4, but the position is very different.  When Black exchanged Queens, his Rook remained passive on a6.  By making White exchange Queens, he got his Rook to the active b4, attacking a pawn.  White broke the tension by exchanging, which gave Black a better position.  White is still winning, of course, but this would be far more accurate.  Just compare the two diagrams and ask which one looks better for Black.

Black breaks tension, exchanges Queens

Black keeps tension, White exchanges Queens

For the record, the best move is almost certainly 24…Qb7, keeping Queens on the board.  It’s passive, but Black at least has potential checks and forks with his Queen, and White must play very carefully.

Winning the Endgame

After exchanging Queens, Black played 25…Kf8, bringing his King closer to the action.  That’s one of the cardinal endgame principles.  This is the position, and I need to figure out how to win it.

Rook endgames are notoriously fickle.  Being up a pawn does not guarantee a win, and counter chances are always present.  If Black can get his Rook to the second rank and threaten my pawns, he might get drawing chances.

In this position, though, he needs to protect his weak a-pawn.  If it falls, White gets three connected passed pawns, which should win trivially.  If I can keep pressure on the a6-pawn, Black’s Rook can never become active, and that eliminates his counterplay.

This is why I played 26.a4!, with the threat of a5 coming.  I can then anchor my Rook on b6, where it can never be pushed away and where it always hits the a6-pawn, which is now stuck forever.  Black would be paralyzed, and I can then advance my passed c-pawn at my leisure.

26… Ke7 27.Rb6 a5

Black stops my a5 threat, but now my King can get to the b5-square, supporting my Rook, my passed c-pawn and attacking the pawn.

28.c4! Kd7 29.Kc2 Kc7 30.c5 h5 31.h4 Kd7 32.Kc3

My opponent resigned here, as there is no defence to the simple King advancement.  Black has no counterplay and just has to wait patiently for the executioner, which is no fun.  Indeed, the computer evaluation suddenly jumps upon hitting this position, going from about +1.5 to over +2.8, and the more it thinks the more it jumps.  That’s it’s way of saying Black’s resignation makes perfect sense.

The Main Take-Aways

Did I do anything special in this game?  Not really.  I formulated a nice endgame plan that quickly lead to resignation, but the position wasn’t that difficult.  I actually missed the best move out of the opening, and afterwards none of my moves seemed especially hard to find.

The only thing I did was keep the tension.  I let Black initiate all the exchanges.  When the dust settled I emerged with a superior position, one where Black had no counterplay.  I doubled my Rooks, attacked his weak pawn and managed to win it.  No brilliancy required.

This is a simple way of playing, one I absolutely love.  For more information on keeping the tension, watch GM Smirnov’s video on it.  I’ve linked it below, and it’s where I first really understood this concept.  It alone can take you far in your chess journey.

Game in Full

Smirnov’s Video

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