This is my best chess game; it is my worst chess game. It features beautiful tactics; it features devastating blunders. It’s a positional masterpiece; it’s a positional clusterbomb. I won this game; I lost this game. It shows how close I am to chess masterhood; it shows how far I still need to go.
This following chess game is probably the most important one I’ve ever played in terms of my own chess development. If I ever get a chance to write a book of my own games, this will be number one. It is my whole chess persona in a nutshell.
I’ve written about this game before: here and here and here. I’ve never analyzed it. I’ve been afraid, afraid that I really did play 20 perfect moves and then threw it all away in one moment of … I don’t even know what to call it. Overconfidence? Blindness? Stupidity? A subconscious tendency towards self-destruction?
This game was played back in April. My opponent was a Fide Master with an official OTB rating of 2300. I have an online rating of 2000. I should have been destroyed … and instead I played the game of my life, in every way possible. Let’s take a look.
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1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c5!?
This particular position has received some attention in recent years. It has been coined ‘the Sniper,’ and it can be played against virtually any White setup. The idea is to get the dark-square Bishop firmly into the game, breathing fire like a dragon. Best play for White seems to be 4.dxc5, where Black either needs to gambit the pawn for some compensation or spend a lot of time trying to win it back.
I don’t know this system, and I see no reason to go for the mainline, especially since my opponent likely knows the ins and outs much better than I do. I just play a normal move and soon transpose into a Sicilian defence.
4.Nf3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Nf6 6.Be3 Nc6
This is the Accelerated Dragon. Black has developed his minor pieces first, not using a tempo with d6 as he normally does in the Dragon proper. The idea is to potentially get in …d5 in one move, and indeed, if Black can play that pawn break then he generally gets an excellent game.
Not moving the d-pawn, though, also has some drawbacks, namely less control of the centre and the vital e5-square in particular. I played a particular variation I really like, one that highlights this downside.
7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.e5 Ng8
White has driven the Black Knight all the way back to the first rank. He has a huge space advantage and very easy development. White’s play is incredibly easy: develop pieces, place Rooks on open files, pressure the Black central pawns. Black’s play, by contrast, isn’t so easy. In particular, the e5-pawn cramps his Knight and blocks his Bishop. He needs to do something about it, as otherwise he is just worse.
Black decides to attack the pawn immediately, which is fine but costs time, time that I use to finish development and launch an attack.
9.Bd4 f6 10.f4 Qa5 11.Qd2 fxe5 12.fxe5 Bxe5
Black has played very directly, winning the e5-pawn … or have I sacrificed it? Yes, it’s a gambit. White is ahead in development, and the centre is now wide open. I have an easy plan of 0-0-0, Bc4 and Re1, where all my pieces are on great squares and Black has a lot of defending to do in exchange for that little pawn.
Now, normally, Black plays 11…c5 before capturing the gambit pawn, as that prevents my next move.
The Bishop is now doubly pinned, and Black needs to destroy his pawn structure to maintain material. This move seemed to catch my opponent by surprise, as he had played very quickly up until now, but he slowed down considerably after this. He may have had the original opening advantage with the Sniper setup, but I know this Accelerated Dragon line quite well.
13… d6 14.Bxe5 dxe5?!
Here my opponent made an inaccuracy. He needed to trade Queens here. True, the endgame will not be any fun for Black. He has terrible pawn weaknesses all over the board. I will plant a Knight on c5 and a Bishop on e4 and completely control everything. Black’s up a pawn but that doesn’t make up for his weaknesses. This is the type of position where White has very little risk, and though Black isn’t happy he can probably hold.
Instead, he decided to keep Queens, but that’s a fundamental positional mistake. Queens are very good at taking advantage of weaknesses. The Queen can move in any direction, and so it can take advantage of any weakness, anywhere. White has no weaknesses, Black has plenty, therefore White’s Queen should be much better going forward.
Watch how my initiative just soars from here.
15.0-0-0 Nf6 16.Bc4 Rb8 17.Re1 Qb4
How Should White Respond to Black’s Attack?
First off, White has a dream position: all of his pieces are active, on open lines and great squares. Every single one is doing something important. Black, by contrast, has half his army on the backrank, his King still in the centre and he’s only really attacking with his Queen and Rook. That said, he is threatening Qxb2+ with devastation to follow.
How should White respond? The most natural move is Bb3, retreating the Bishop and blocking the b-file. Black will then try a5 or c5 and try to chase that Bishop away. White is still doing well, no question, but is this the best defence? Can White try anything better?
Yes, yes he can.
This is one of the best moves I’ve ever played. White simply ignores Black’s attack, because Black’s attack doesn’t work. Yes, Black is attacking White’s King directly, and yes it looks scary, but it cannot work because White’s activity is higher.
This is a lesson I learned from GM Smirnov. If you have less activity, you might make some checks, you might even win some material, but you are going to lose the war. White is attacking with his entire army, attacking Black’s undeveloped forces, and Black has no defence. He can play some checks, win some pawns, but he cannot defend. White’s activity is higher, and so he will win this war.
The game continuation shows this … or at least, it should have …
18…Qxb2+ 19.Qd2 Rb7
This is the only move: Black defends e7 with his Rook, as otherwise he gets mated. If I can get rid of that Rook, then I can mate him with Qxe7. Yes, I could win the Knight with Qxf6, but that’s not the most accurate.
20.Rb1! Rd7+ 21.Bd3 Rxd3 22.Kxd3 Bf5+ 23.Kc4
What a fantastic position! Both Kings are in the centre, with White’s on the amazing c4-square, something that should never happen in the middlegame. Nonetheless, he’s completely safe there. What can Black do? He has no checks, his Queen is attacked and he’s facing mate in one.
You see, White’s activity was higher. Black did some checks, then he sacrificed some material, but his attack was just a mirage. White’s attack, by contrast, is winning because his whole army is involved.
23… Qa3 24.Qxf6!
Again, the most accurate move. Yes, Rb8+ would have won the Rook, but the Rook isn’t doing anything. Really, it just misplaces my Rook in the corner, and Black gains time to check my King. By contrast, here Black is toast: his Rook is attacked, he is still threatened with Rb8+, and if his Queen moves he still gets mated on e7. Not to mention he is down a piece, because the pawn of course is pinned.
Black is completely busted. I put this position in the computer, and it said it was +25 for White. Plus twenty-five! I don’t know whether that makes the following better or worse…
24… Qa6+ 25.Kc5 Qa5+
The Moment of Truth
This is it. Put yourself in the moment. You have just played a brilliant game against a Fide Master, someone rated over 2300. You have sacrificed material, played both bravely and beautifully and now have the game on the line. Your immortality is almost guaranteed. You just need to answer this one question: how do you get out of check?
First, Kxc6?? doesn’t work because of Qa6+, skewering the Queen. Moving the King back to c4 allows a repetition of moves, and we want more than a draw. Finally, moving the King to d4 gives Black the options of Qd8+ or c5+, and we can’t move the King to the e-file or we lose our Queen; we would block our Rook from pinning the pawn.
White thus has two options here: Rb5 and Nb5. Both block the check. Both are beautiful, sacrificing even more material. Both look perfectly fine. Which one should we pick?
Both have a drawback, in that they give Black an extra check. Rb5 controls b6 but allows Qa3+, and Nb5 controls a3 but allows Qb6+. Do either of these matter? Eh, not really. If Black puts his Queen on a3, then it controls the e7-square, stopping mate, but after Kc4 he has no more checks, his Rook is hanging, Rb8+ is still threatened and, oh yeah, he’s still down a piece.
Both moves are fine. Both moves win trivially. Which to choose?
I wish I were making this up, but I played Nb5 because, this is true, it looked better. That’s it. I didn’t calculate this variation, I didn’t look at any possible replies. I just thought it looked better, and I mean in an aesthetic sense: it brought the Knight into the attack, the final piece to play an important part. It also kept my Rooks connected on the first rank, keeping them protected. Not that either were attacked, but that seemed important. Why have hanging pieces?
That’s right. I got to this position, smiled, and played the move that aesthetically looked better. And you can guess what happened next.
26.Nb5?? Qb6+ (here’s where my stomach seemingly fell out) 27.Kc4 cxb5+ 28.Rxb5 Qxf6 0-1
Yes, I lost my Queen in the end. Here’s where the difference between Nb5 and Rb5 come to the fore: Rb5 prevented Qb6+, which then set up a skewer after moving the pawn. After 26…Qb6+, I cannot prevent Black from moving his pawn with check, winning my Queen in the process.
I can’t describe how bad I felt at that very moment. I mean, I tried to, but that doesn’t do it justice. I felt completely empty, destroyed, obliterated. Here it was, my Immortal Game, and it instead goes down in infamy.
Credit to my opponent: he found the best moves in a bad position, and we chatted briefly after the game. He praised my play, and I praised his attitude. He didn’t have to say anything, but he did, and I thank him for that.
This is a tale of two games. It shows so many good things: how to deal with an unfamiliar opening, then how to sacrifice a pawn for an attack, and then how to use the Queen to attack weaknesses, and then how activity trumps everything, even an attack against your own King.
I accurately calculated variations nearly ten moves deep, seeing all the possible responses … and then I stopped on the very last move … because I’m an idiot apparently …
And really, that’s it. I stopped playing chess. I saw that I had a winning position. I didn’t even need to see it; I just knew it. I could tell that Black was busted. I felt it in my bones. And so I stopped playing chess. I thought of how I’d make this game it’s own blog post, how I’d celebrate afterwards, how I’d finally get my rating over 2100 for the first time ever. I imagined how good it would feel to beat my first titled player. I thought all this and thousands of other things.
None of them involved chess.
I took my eye off the prize and I lost. My position was +25 according to the computer and I still lost! All in one move.
I’ve often heard other people say something like this, in other fields. They’d be playing chess or martial arts or some other sport and be on the verge of winning … and that’s exactly when they get distracted. They lose objectivity. They become complacent, right when their opponent wants it the most. They snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
I always wondered, how could this be? How could you lose focus like that. I’d certainly never do that … and then I played this game, and now I know. It’s very easy, and the bigger the game the easier it is. That’s the real lesson here. Ignore all the chess advice. That doesn’t really matter.
If you learn one thing from this game, it’s think about chess when you are playing chess. Celebrate after. Don’t let your immortal games turn into infamous games.