Chess Game of the Month, Feb 2016

This game was special.  For one, it pushed me to 1990 rating, and my next win (which happened on the very same day) pushed me over 2000 rating for the first time. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I thought it was one of the best games I had ever played.  Ever.

It certainly was a good game, against a good 1800-ish opponent, but time away and deep analysis has exposed some blemishes.  Still, as far as positional games go, it was a treat to play, and when he finally resigned I felt a surge of excitement I hadn’t felt over a chess victory in a long time.

Quick background: the game started out as a Nimzo, then transposed into a QGD structure.  I made a freeing tactic which turned the game into a related but unique structure, and I then used my bad Bishop to outplay a good Knight before simplifying into a better endgame.  Pfew.

Spartacus – SmithyQ

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2

I’ll be honest, I don’t play the Nimzo very much.  I’ve been trying, but people either aren’t playing 1.d4 or avoid it with Nf3 on the second or third move.  I don’t have much experience in these positions, and already White is going off the beaten path.  I do not know the theory of this at all.

4…d5 5.a3 Be7!?

I like my Bishops and didn’t see the need to justify White’s 4th move.  By moving back, the best White can do is transpose into a Queen’s Gambit structure, but where he’s played the inoffensive a3.  Black should have easy equality here.

6.Bf4 0-0 7.e3 c6 8.h3!? Nbd7 9.Nf3

What would you play here as Black?

I don’t play a lot of QGD either, but I know the general idea: wait until White plays Bd3 so you can quickly dxc4, then play b5, Bb7 and prepare c5, opening up your Bishop and getting a good game.  You need to wait until White moves his Bishop, though, as otherwise you lose a tempo.

Here Black has already made all of his most natural moves, so he needs to think of something.  I thought about playing h6, just a simple waiting move, but I ultimately decided on 9…a6.  Now if 10.Bd3 dxc4 11.Bxc4 b5 12.Bd3 I can play c5 in one go, as the b5-pawn is already defended.  For this reason, Bd3?! was not the best move, and White responded with the much better 10.c5!  He has a comfortable, no-risk type of position.

What could I have played instead?  I had two other possibilities I considered, b6 and c5.  I didn’t like c5 because it quickly leads to an Isolated Queen’s Pawn, but White isn’t in the best position to take advantage.  For one thing, it would open the position with White still uncastled, always good, and White can’t put his Bishop on g2 to pressure the pawn, which makes it less weak than in, say, typical Tarrasch structures.

A possible variation would be 9… c5 10.cxd5 Nxd5 11.Nxd5 exd5 12.dxc5 Nxc5

This is an atypical IQP, but Black certainly has much more mobility than he started.  His Knight can go to e4 (or even e6) and Bishops to f6 and f5.  He can play just about anywhere on the board.  Yes, the d5-pawn is a potential weakness, but that’s it.  The computer suggests this as best play.

9…b6 was another possibility, which again avoids the c5 thrust.  The computer doesn’t like this line as much for Black, but I imagine it’s simply a stylistic thing.  Both were good options.

Back to the game, after 10.c5! I made a terrible decision, playing 10…Re8?! Normally, against a c5 advancement in this pawn structure, Black should play for the e5 break.  That would be great, but here, White controls e5 so well I have no real chance for it.

I should have played the other typical plan for these position, …b6 and …a5.  I didn’t like them, because it would leave my Q-side pawns weak, but it was my best chance.  White played 11.Bd3

Find Black’s Tactic

The one advantage of Re8 is that it set a trap, and White’s most natural move, 11.Bd3?, fell right into it.  Black has a freeing combination that significantly eases his game.  Can you see it?

11… Bxc5! 12.dxc5 e5 and now if the Bishop moves e4 comes with a fork.  Without the Rook on e8 the pawn would be undefended.  I felt pretty good about this, but honestly, if White doesn’t fall into this trap, I probably don’t win this game.

13.Bxe5 Nxe5 14.0-0 Qe7 15.b4 Ne4!?

Here, I think I’m a victim of over-thinking.  Black’s main problem is his bad Bishop on c8.  All of his pawns are on the same colour, and no matter where it moves, it has no prospects, or worse, it just gets in the way.

I figured by playing Ne4 like this, I practically force White to exchange, which lets my Bishop get a new diagonal if I place it on e6.  While this is true, my Bishop remains passive and the pawn on e4 can become vulnerable.  With correct play, my opponent can get a good position, leaving me with no counterplay.

Instead, the simple 15…Nxd3 16.Qxd3 Ne4 looks natural, allowing my Bishop to come to f5 and control the centre this way.  It’s similar, but I have no weaknesses here.

16.Bxe4 dxe4 17.Nxe5 Qxe5

Find the Best Move for White

This is a relatively simple position, yet both my opponent and I missed White’s resource.  Can you find it?  Obviously White’s Knight is threatened.  White could play Rc1, protecting it that way.  Alternatively, he could go 18.Ne2, like he did in the game, aiming to land on one of central dark-square.  White had a better idea, though.

It’s the amazing 18.Qd4! It looks strange, as after the exchange 18…Qxd4 19.exd4 he has a backwards pawn, but he is even now threatening to push it to d5.  Black can’t prevent this with Be6, as that drops the e4 pawn, and Rd8 runs into 20.Nxe4 Rxd4 21.Nd6, and White’s Knight is an absolute monster.

Black’s problem is that all of his pawns remain on light-squares, so it’s a bad Bishop versus a good Knight.  The above diagram illustrates this clearly. Indeed, the rest of the main game is all about Knight versus Bishop, and I slowly crawl ahead.

Instead of the above line, play continued 18.Ne2 Be6

And here White made his biggest mistake, playing 19.Ng3? I suppose he thought my e4-pawn weaker than it was.  White could still play 19.Qd4 instead, but even better I think was 19.Rc1, stopping my Bishop from going to c4.  19…Rad8 20.Nd4 and White’s Knight dominates on d4.  The computer says this position is dead equal, as Black is more active but has no way of getting past the central Knight.

Instead, White played 19.Ng3?, which started him on the wrong path. 19…Bc4! 20.Re1 Rad8 21.Qg4 g6 22.Red1 Bd3!

Just compare the two diagrams for a moment.  In the previous one, White’s Knight was great on d4, while Black’s Bishop sits passive on e6.  Here, Black’s Bishop is now the best piece in the game, a real thorn in White’s side, whereas the Knight isn’t doing much on g3.

White got distracted by the apparent weakness of the e4-pawn, which let me slink forward.  I now have a space advantage, and White’s lack of coordination begins to make itself felt.

23.Qh4 Kg7 24.Qg4 h5! 25.Qh4 Rh8

I’m now threatening g5, trapping the Queen.  White’s best option here is Qf4, but that ruins his pawn structure and, more importantly, weakens the d4-square.  His Knight can no longer anchor there.  I can now slowly push forward, letting my positional pressure take over.  I’m really good at this style of play.

White instead played 26.Nf1?! Be2! 27.Re1 (27.Rxd8 Qxa1) Bxf1 28.Rxf1?! 

I now played too quickly and rushed ahead with 28…g5.  This is of course a fine move, forcing White to retreat, exchanging Queens and worsening his pawn structure.  That’s great, but why rush?  Look at the position.  What can White do?  Where can his Queen even go?

The computer suggests 28…Rd3, simply improving my position.  At any time I can play g5, forcing the exchange of Queens.  I don’t even have to, as my Queen is so much more active than his.  I can perhaps invade with Qb2 and harass all the Queenside pawns.

When it comes to chess, I often rush my ideas.  Here was a great example of staying patient leading to, if nothing else, a gain of a tempo compared to the main line.

29.Qg3 Qxg3 30.fxg3 Rd3

What do you think, what is White’s best way to defend here?  He played the natural 31.Rfe1, but that is very passive and let’s me do whatever I want. It surrenders the game without a fight, really, as I don’t think passive defence can hold this position for White, not with all his weaknesses.

Instead, he could try 31.Rf5, counterattacking.  He can then bring his other rook to f1 and try to harass me this way.  It’s well known that activity is paramount in Rook endgames.  Yes, he’s going to lose a pawn this way, but he’s going to lose a pawn regardless.  At least in this line he can put up checks and maybe trade lots of pawns, inching closer to a draw.

31… Rhd8 32.Kf2 Kf6 33.Re2 Rb3! 34.Raa2 Rdd3 35.h4? gxh4 36.gxh4 Rxa3

After a fairly logical series of moves, I’ve managed to win a pawn, but also, I let White make a rather silly mistake.  He played h4 willingly, which simply gives my King a chance to invade on the King-side.  With the pawn on h3, his pawns created a wall, forcing my King to the Queenside.

Now, I have an easy way to hit the Kingside pawns as well, which means he has more to worry about.  It’s the principle of two weaknesses, as GM Smirnov explains in Endgame Expert. White can not hold the position.

37.Rxa3 Rxa3 38.Rd2 Rd3! 39.Ke2?

The endgame is losing for White regardless, but this just makes it trivial.  Keeping the Rooks on at least makes me work for it.

39… Rxd2+ 40.Kxd2 Kf5 0-1

White resigned, as he can’t stop Black from simply walking into his Kingside, ravaging everything he touches.

Conclusion

This game really started with 9.c5!, which restricted Black’s mobility. I lucked out, in a way, as White fell into a trap, but the resulting position was still dangerous.  The game revolved around my worst piece, the light-square Bishop.

Through the first 18 moves, it was simply useless, doing nothing.  With proper play, 18.Qd4! would have ensured that my Bishop remains passive the whole game.  White missed this opportunity, and then my Bishop started a maneuver that transferred it to d3, where it became the best piece on the board.

If White had asked himself how to keep me passive, he would have found 19.Rc1, which prevented the above maneuver, and likely would have lead to a draw.  He didn’t, however, and as my Bishop grew stronger his forces became more disorganized.  I finally converted my positional advantage into a better endgame, which I then won.

At the time, outplaying a good Knight with my bad Bishop felt amazing, but the distance of time has shown that my strategy wasn’t perfect.  Still, though it may not be my best game, it was a damn good one.

The complete game is below, or you can click here to get the chess.com interactive board.

 

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