Last month I beat my first ever titled player … but it was somewhat cheap, as it came from an opening trap. It was a really subtle trap, quite beautiful, but I didn’t have to do any thinking. That spoils the achievement somewhat. Fortunately, I played him twice, and the second game was a 47 move intense Queenless middlegame … and I won!
I can now say, 100%, that I’ve truly beaten a titled play. No traps, no gimmicks, just good chess.
I’ll admit, this game really pumped me up. I played White against the Alekhine defence, and I got a slightly better position in a Queenless middlegame. No surprise, I got a space advantage, but my main strategy was playing against Black’s light-square Bishop. That piece never got a chance to enter the game, and when it did, it signalled Black’s defeat. Let’s take a look.
1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. c4 Nb6 4. d4 d6 5. exd6 cxd6 6. Nc3 g6
We have a pretty standard Alekhine position. White has more space, Black’s Knight is slightly misplaced, but maybe White’s centre will prove more weakness than strength in the coming middlegame. I now start a plan of playing against Black’s light-square Bishop. It’s not the best plan objectively, but it’s still pretty good.
7. h3 Bg7 8. Nf3 O-O 9. Be3 Nc6 10. Rc1 e5
Both sides continue to make natural developing moves. I’ve played an early h3, which prevents Bg4. This puts Black’s light-square Bishop in a predicament. Where can it be developed? It’s useless on d7, g4 is impossible and e6 just invites a fork. The last spot would be f5, but putting the Bishop there stops Black’s f-pawn from advancing, and that’s his only real plan in this position. In other words, there’s nothing stopping Black from playing Bf5, but then it’s not clear what he’ll do next.
The only downside to my plan is that it cost time, and I’m behind in development. Black is ready to open the center and possible attack my King, and this explains why I trade Queens at the first opportunity.
11. Be2 f5 12. dxe5 dxe5 13. Qxd8 Rxd8 14. c5!
At first glance Black looks okay here: he has a good pawn centre, his Bishop on g7 will be a future beast and his Rook controls the only open file. However, things aren’t that easy. His Knight is attacked, and it goes to d5, then Nxd5 Rxd5, Bc4 pins the Rook and wins. The only available square is 14… Nd7, but that allows the following accurate continuation: 15.Bc4+ Kf8 16.Ng5!, threatening both the h7-pawn and a fork on e6. Black must play 16…Nf6, and then 17.Nf7! Rd7 18. Nd6 reaches this position.
White has a beautiful position. His Knight is dominating and all his minor pieces are on good squares. Only the Rook does nothing, but it will after castling on my next move. Black’s position isn’t bad, but it’s definitely not pleasant. Notice that his Bishop on c8 is completely locked in, and that keeps his other Rook passive as well.
That Bishop is Black’s main problem the rest of the game. He can’t move it, and that prevents him from getting his army mobilized. Indeed, in this position I’m threatening to take it, Nxc8 Rxc8 and then Be6 with a skewer, winning the exchange. This prompts Black’s next move, which was his main mistake in an unpleasant position.
This is a very passive move. Black moves his Knight backwards, where it controls less squares. Yes, it stops my above threat, but it doesn’t create any counterplay. Black is basically dooming himself to passive defence the rest of the game.
Several months ago, I made the observation that strong players rarely make moves backwards. Weaker players make moves backwards constantly, which is why they lose. My opponent isn’t weak, certainly, but he did move backwards, which paved the way for my advantage. A stronger move would have been Na5!, forcing my Bishop away from its strong diagonal. His passive decision instead led to my continual initiative.
19. O-O f4 20. Bd2 Rc7 21. Rfe1!
A great move. Of course, it’s simply developing the final piece, hitting Black’s weakest pawn at the same time. It might not seem like much, but it has subtle threats. For instance, if Black’s Nf6 were to move away, then suddenly White could play Bxf4, where exf4? allows Re8 mate, thanks to White’s great Knight.
True, you might say, but doesn’t it hang a pawn? Can’t Black play Rxc5? No, the pawn is poisoned. If he takes it, then 22.Na4! Rc6 23.Bb4 and Black is in huge trouble.
White is threatening discovered checks, and there’s almost nothing Black can do. In fact, his King has no legal moves to escape. White will simply play Nxc8+ and win. In fact, if Black plays something like Bd7 to escape, then it’s suddenly mate! Nf5+ Ke8. Nxg7#.
That’s why Black can’t take the pawn. If he doesn’t do that, though, then what else can he do?
21… Nc6 22. Nd5 Nxd5 23. Bxd5 Re7 24. Bc3
White is slowly improving his position: I now have a great Bishop to go along with my great Knight, and my pieces are starting to aim at the e5-pawn. This limits Black’s options. If Black sits around and does nothing, then I’ll start pushing pawns on the Queenside with b4, a4 and the like. This is a very real threat.
Notice that Black’s Bishop is still on it’s original square, doing nothing after 24 moves. This keeps his Rook imprisoned as well. If his Queenside remains blocked, then my Queenside play will be inevitably successful. My opponent didn’t know how to deal with this, so he moved his Bishop even at the cost of a pawn.
24… Be6!? 25. Bxe6 Rxe6 26. Nxb7 e4!
Titled players are crafty. They don’t go down without a fight. Black has lost a pawn, yes, but now suddenly his pieces come alive. His Bishop, previously passive, now has a great diagonal, and I can’t let that stand. His Rook, previously trapped on a8, now can move, and it has an open b-file to pressure my pawns. Finally, he has advanced pawns, and if I’m not careful they can become scary.
Objectively, Black doesn’t have enough compensation for the pawn, but practically I need to jump through some hoops to prove it. I would have wished he defended passively forever, as then I’d be far less nervous!
27. Bxg7+ Kxg7 28. Nd6 e3
How Would You Play as White?
I won’t lie, I spent over 30min analyzing this position. If that seems long, remember: I’m a pawn up against a titled player. I’m close to beating a chess master, but a single misplayed move can turn advantage into dust. Put yourself in my shoes. You’re trying to secure this game. How would you play as White?
The main question is whether White can take the e3-pawn or not. You need to be very careful, as that pawn is advanced, and if it can safely land on e2 then things could get bad in a hurry. For instance, if White plays 29.f2?, then the computer says White’s advantage is completely gone and Black may even have the edge.
Let’s look at 29.fxe3 fxe3. The most logical idea now is to attack the e-pawn, so 30.Rc3 e2 31.Rc2, but not Black has …Nd4 and things aren’t so clear. True, White can end up winning the pawn, but it isn’t completely clear. 32.Rc4 Nc6 33.Ne4 (blocking the open line) Rbe8 34.Rxe2, leading to the following position.
This position looked very risky to me. My Knight is pinned and attacked, and it’s hard to see how I can untangle myself. If my King tries to come closer, Black can always play Rf8+, pushing me away and then sliding back to renew the pin.
The computer says the position is winning for White, and maybe it is, but it feels very uncomfortable. I don’t know if I could find the winning plan, and again, I’m facing a titled player. I wanted something better. In the end, I figured the problem wasn’t the e2-pawn but rather the Knight coming to d4. How can I stop Nd4? Once I asked that, my move became obvious.
29. Rc4 Rf8 30. b4 Ne5 31. Rc3 Rb8 32. b5
The position has now changed just three moves later. Instead of worrying about Black’s pawns, I’ve been busy advancing my own, giving Black something to worry about. Also, look at the e-file. In the above variation I rejected, my Knight ended up in an awkward pin. Now it’s Black’s Knight that potentially faces the pin.
Indeed, Black faces a tough choice. If he plays exf2+, he gets pinned and is on the defensive. If he doesn’t do that, though, then he’ll just lose the e-pawn. That’s the path he chose.
My opponent, Marco Cordeiro, is a fantastic Blitz player. He was the 2014 Brazilian Rapid Chess champion, and he is far, far better at blitz than I am. Here, I think he makes a blitz decision. That is, he saw a potential tactic and then went for it, but without looking at the position beyond it.
He played 32…Nd7?!, setting up the following little tactic. 33.fxe3 Nxc5, the whole point.
Black eliminates the pawn that protects the d6-Knight, White’s best piece. Black has wanted to exchange that Knight since the middlegame, and he wins a pawn while doing it, so it looks good … but let’s look two moves further.
34.Rxc5 Rxd6 35. exf4 Rb7
Suddenly we realize that Black’s little tactical sequence cost him a pawn, and he had already sacrificed a pawn earlier. Despite all the Rooks, this is a relatively easy endgame to win. I have an extra pawn on each side of the board, meaning I can make passed pawns at will. At this point I can relax, as I know the endgame is completely winning … right?
Wrong! You never relax until your opponent shakes your hand! There’s nothing easier to lose than a won a game. My opponent still has two Rooks, and if he can coordinate them, he can put me on the defensive, extra pawns or not. That’s my first order or business, trade Rooks.
36. Rec1 Kh6 37. Rc7
This is the easiest way to do it. Black doesn’t want to exchange Rooks, but he can’t really avoid it. If 37…Rxb5, then I play Rxa7 and then bring my other Rook to the seventh rank. Suddenly my Rooks are the coordinated pair, and I’m hitting his weakness on h7, a weakness he actually can’t defend.
37… Rd7 38. Rxb7! Rxb7 39. a4
This is now easily winning. I have the easy plan or Rb1 and marching my King to the Queenside, pushing my b-pawn to promotion. Black’s Rook can’t stop it by itself and his King is too far away to help.
39…a6 40. Rb1axb5 41. axb5 Kg7 42. Kf2 Kf6 43. Ke3 g5
Black is doing the right thing, trying to exchange pawns, but his position is completely lost.
44. fxg5+ Kxg5 45. Kd4 Kf4 46. Kc5 Rg7 47. b6 1-0
Black tried to distract me with counterplay on the Kingside pawns, but I just calmly pushed my pawn forward and he resigned. He can’t stop it, and with that, I’ve truly beaten my first ever titled player!
This game had two distinct phases. In the first half, I used my opening strategy of hindering his light-square Bishop. Black never found a way around this, and both his Bishop and Rook were passive well into the middlegame. He eventually sacrificed a pawn to free it, which brings about the second phase of the game, where I tried to limit his counterplay and nurse my extra material to victory.
It’s also worth noting that his two biggest mistakes, at least in my mind, were unforced retreats, both with his Knight. First he moved backwards with Nd8 in the early middlegame, giving himself a very passive position; he eventually sacrificed a pawn because of this passivity. Second, he played Nd7 in the early endgame, looking at a tactic that didn’t quite work; this also cost a pawn.
Now, to be fair, in the second instance it’s hard to find a good move for Black, as he’s in a bad position, but the idea still stands: good players don’t retreat pieces unnecessarily. If he had found two different ideas in these two positions, the game would have been very different.
If you look at my play, I only moved a piece backwards three times: my Bishop from e3 to d2 when it was attacked by a pawn (and the only move), my Knight from b7 to d6 (getting to a better square, so not really a retreat), and my Rook from c4 to c3 when it was attacked by a pawn (and attacking Black’s pawn in the process). I never retreated unnecessarily, and in the process I was never in danger of losing.
This idea, never retreat a piece unless you absolutely have to, is one of my biggest chess discoveries, and it’s helped me defeat a titled player in a really nice game.