Themis_Neo – SmithyQ, Jan 2017: Punishing Passive Play with Positional Pressure

I’ve completed my most recent game in my chess.com tournament, this one against a decent 1760 player.  You’ll notice I won without doing anything special, which is sorta my hallmark.  Hey, a win is a win, right?  I think there’s two related reasons for this in this case.

First, my opponent played very passively.  I’m not sure he had a single threat all game.  If you don’t put pressure on me, I can do anything I want without risk.  I have no chance to lose, so I’m pretty happy, and my position just gets better and better.  In such situations, the defender often blunders, which is exactly what happened.

Second, and perhaps more important, I had the higher rating.  We all know to play the board, not the person or the rating, but we all do to a certain extent.  We’ll play risky gambits against much weaker players because we think we can get away with it.  I think, though I can’t be sure, that the opposite occurred here.  My opponent saw my rating was higher than his and tried to play solid to compensate.  This almost always backfires, and here it gave me a relatively easy win.  Let’s take a look.

[Event “2- Chess is for fun – Round 4”]
[Site “Chess.com”]
[Date “2017.01.05”]
[Round “?”]
[White “themis_neo”]
[Black “SmithyQ”]
[Result “0-1”]
[ECO “D00”]
[WhiteElo “1764”]
[BlackElo “2149”]
[Annotator “Pettit”]
[PlyCount “54”]
[EventDate “2017.??.??”]

{D00: 1 d4 d5: Unusual lines} {White plays exceedingly passive, which allows
me to slowly take over the game.} 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nc3 d5 3. Nf3 Bg4 4. e3 {
This is about the most passive way you can play as White. Here are two games
in my database which show more ambitious ways of playing.} (4. Ne5 Bf5 5. g3
Nbd7 6. Bg2 e6 7. O-O c5 8. Bg5 cxd4 9. Qxd4 Nxe5 10. Qxe5 Bd6 11. Qd4 Bxc2 12.
Rac1 Bg6 13. e4 dxe4 14. Bxf6 gxf6 15. Rfd1 Ke7 16. Nb5 b6 17. Nxd6 Qd7 18.
Nf5+ {1-0 Benderac,A (2299)-Gebejes,A (2077)/Budva 2004/CBM 102 ext}) (4. Bf4
e6 5. Ne5 Bf5 6. e3 Ne4 7. Nxe4 Bxe4 8. f3 Bf5 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 Bd6 11.
Qb5+ c6 12. Qxb7 Nd7 13. Nxc6 Qc8 14. Qxc8+ Rxc8 15. Nxa7 Ra8 16. Bxd6 Rxa7 17.
O-O Ra6 18. Bb4 Rc6 {Mortensen,J-Hansen,J/Oyri 2008/CBM 122 Extra/1-0 (33)})
4… e6 {Notice how I play e6 only after developing my Bishop, unlike White.
White’s Bishop is a terrible piece, which becomes a major theme later on.} 5.
Be2 c5 6. O-O $146 {I should point out around here that I really dislike these
types of positions as Black. Don’t misunderstand me: Black is doing fine, even
slightly better, but these positions are so sterile. Neither side has any
weaknesses, and it generally takes a huge blunder to win for either side.
Anyway, in this position, I’m trying to delay developing my King’s Bishop. I’m
hoping White will play dxc5 at some point and I can save a tempo.} Nc6 7. Re1
a6 {Again, hoping White plays dxc5, saving me a tempo. Also, if I play the
most natural move, Bd6, I didn’t like Nb5 from White.} (7… Bd6 8. Nb5 {
Now I have two options, both of which seem to give White more play than he
gets in the game.} Be7 (8… O-O 9. Nxd6 Qxd6 10. b3 {and White threatens Ba3
with some annoying pressure. I will miss my dark-square Bishop in the coming
endgame, though the game is still perfectly equal.}) 9. dxc5 Bxc5 10. c4 {
The position resembles a QGA with reverse colours. Black is still doing well,
but I’m not thrilled.}) 8. b3 Bd6 9. h3 Bh5 {I played this automatically, but
the computer gives an interesting alternative.} (9… cxd4 10. exd4 (10. hxg4
$6 dxc3) 10… Bxf3 11. Bxf3 {White’s Bishop pair isn’t dangerous, and Black
has play with Bb4 and Qa5 coming.}) 10. Bb2 O-O 11. Ne5 {This move invites
simplifcations into a further sterile game, and even though I’m the higher
rated player, these positions can get extremely hard to win. There’s also a
drop of poison.} Bxe5 {I thus played this, for two reasons. First, I wanted to
unbalance the position, and I figured I could outplay his Bishop with my
Knights. Second, I thought it won a pawn, as I missed Nxe2…} (11… Nxe5 $2
12. dxe5 Bxe5 13. Bxh5 $18) 12. dxe5 Bxe2 13. Nxe2 Nd7 14. f4 {I’m much
happier now, even though the position is objectively equal. We now have an
imbalance. I have two Knights against a Bishop and Knight. This gives far more
room for both sides to outplay the other. Practically speaking, White has a
poor position, as his Bishop stares at his own pawn chain and it’s not easy to
think of a plan for him. This is exactly the type of position where a stronger
play can outplay a weaker one, which is exactly what happens.} b5 {In contrast,
my plan is relatively simple. I will advance my pawns on the Queenside, where
I will open lines for my Rooks and hopefully create a weakness. As long as the
centre stays closed, I should have nothing to fear.} 15. c3 {Already White
makes a weak move. c3 is a potential weakness and it further restricts his own
Bishop. Worse, it has no active plan. White is just waiting for me to come at
him.} (15. Kh2 {I think White’s best chance is to try for some Kingside play.}
Qc7 16. g4 Rfb8 17. Ng3 {[%cal Gf4f5,Gd1f3,Ge1g1] And White has a chance to
pressure Black with a pawn storm. I always prefer this over passive defence.})
15… a5 16. e4 $1 {This, though, is a great move, getting rid of the weak
e-pawn. Again, I want to keep the centre closed, so I can’t take.} Nb6 17. Qc2
a4 {My plan is about to come to fruition, as White cannot prevent the
Queenside from opening.} 18. Bc1 $6 {[%cal Ga8a1] White reacts poorly, as this
blocks the first rank and thus pins his own a-pawn.} (18. Rad1 $5 $11 {Keeps
the game level, though I still have all the room in the world for eventual
outplaying. Notice, is this a hard move to find? Not really. It puts the Rook
on a central file and it eyes of the enemy Queen. It’s the most natural spot
to put a Rook. White, though, felt my mounting pressure and thus started
playing reactionary and strange moves. In addition, I think he felt his own
passivity, he saw my rating was higher and so he resigned himself to a loss.})
18… axb3 19. Qxb3 Ra5 {Five moves ago the position was perfectly level. Now,
I have a nice advantage: an open file for my Rooks, weak pawns to attack and
potential squares for my Knights. White still has no plan. THIS is the
definition of outplaying someone. I’m not doing anything special: I’m just
pursuing a plan faster and more determined than my opponent.} 20. Be3 {White
does have one nagging plus: his Bishop creates constant pressure on my c-pawn,
and I need to defend it with my Queen until I can reorganize my pieces better.}
Qe7 21. exd5 Nxd5 22. Bf2 Rb8 {I played this to over-protect the b-pawn and
potentially eye the White Queen. It’s slow, though, and it gave White as
interesting option.} ({The computer instead recommends} 22… c4 $142 {as much
better. It attacks the Queen, buckles down the weak pawn on c3 and removes the
c5-pawn from attack. On the downside, it gives control of d4, allowing a White
piece to take up shop. Play might continue} 23. Qc2 Qb7 $17 24. Reb1 Qa6 {
and Black has pressure similar to the game.}) 23. Nc1 $2 {This throws a pawn
and the game away. I think I know what White was thinking: he wanted to play
Ne3, which attacks c5 and it can’t be defended. Unfortunately, it leaves the
f4-pawn hanging and, well, Ne3 allows c4 with a fork.} (23. c4 $142 {This was
White’s best chance. Yes, it opens lines where he is weak, but it trades his
weak c-pawn and cements my weak pawn on c5. Indeed, it’s hard for Black to
make progress without dropping that pawn. Black is still better, but look at
this position:} bxc4 24. Qxc4 $15 Rb4 25. Qc2 Nxf4 26. Nxf4 Rxf4 27. Rac1 c4
28. Be3 Rf5 29. Qxc4 Nxe5 30. Qc8+ Qf8 {This is the computer line, which is -0.
4. Black still has all hte winning chances, but White’s Bishop is much better,
his Rooks are better coordinated and it’s far from a slam dunk. The reason c4!
was such a good move is it gets rid of most of White’s weaknesses and gives
his pieces so much more freedom. That’s why I needed to play 22…c4, to keep
him locked him up.}) 23… Nxf4 $19 24. Bg3 Nd5 25. Qc2 Ra3 {[%cal Ga3g3,Gb5b4]
I now inch forward, threatening b4 as the g3-Bishop is undefended.} 26. Ne2 Qa7
{I spent a surprisingly long time on this move. It protects c5, my only real
weakness, and it prepares more play on the a-file.} (26… Qg5 {The computer
likes this move more. I debated between this or Qa7, but I couldn’t find a
good option after Bf2.} 27. Bf2 Nxe5 28. Bxc5 Nf3+ {Had I looked just a little
further, I would have found this crushing reply, picking up the exchange.}) 27.
Kh1 Ra8 {White resigned, as my pressure on the a-file has now become too
strong. He’s going to drop another pawn, and I imagine he had no desire to
defend his passive position any more.} ({For completeness sake, Qa7 isn’t even
the best move. The computer thinks b4 is half a pawn better, and it gives the
following cryptic line as best play:} 27… b4 28. cxb4 Ncxb4 29. Qe4 Qa6 30.
Rab1 Rc8 31. Rb3 c4 32. Rxa3 Qxa3 33. Kh2 c3 {Black is perfectly situated to
advance his c-pawn into a Queen.}) 0-1

Conclusion

Looking back at this game, did I play a single move that was hard to find?  Maybe the decision to play Bxe5 (which isn’t even the best move in the position).  The rest, though, was simple development and following a plan.  I wanted to open lines on the Queenside and then I did that in a logical manner.  That’s literally all I did, and I earned a fairly easy win against a decent opponent without risk.

There’s a tendency amongst improving chess players to overstate the importance of tactics.  I won this game without any tactics.  Heck, I actually overlooked a one-move sequence: I thought 11…Bxe5 won a pawn, missing the recapture Nxe2.  Don’t get me wrong, tactics are very important and I can often calculate deeply quite accurately, but that’s not why I win, and that’s now why my opponent lost.

My opponent lost because, from about move 15 on, he didn’t know what to do.  He played semi-randomly, aimlessly, and his position deteriorated.  That’s when he blundered, and that’s my real secret.  If you are in a better position, it’s easier for your opponent to blunder.  If your opponent blunders, then you don’t need to do anything special.  This is why I believe positional understanding will help more improving players than just endlessly drilling tactics.

2 thoughts on “Themis_Neo – SmithyQ, Jan 2017: Punishing Passive Play with Positional Pressure

  1. Gringo

    After the 4 …c6 the escape route for black’s Bishop is essentially closed. Does it mean the Bishop is on a one way mission, and generally primed for an exchange?

    The game is excellent for learning purposes. With GMPU underway you’re the only other resource I bother to check. What’s astonishing is that despite being over 2100 in rating your ideas are so comprehensible to someone in the 1500-1600 range. It is strange to see someone win with strategy instead of master tactical ability. Perhaps there is hope for other mortals.

  2. JP Post author

    Clarity is my number one goal when writing my chess analysis, so I’m grateful for your feedback.

    I assume you mean 4…e6. The structure resembles a QGD but with colours reversed. Yes, my Bishop has no way to retreat, but that doesn’t really matter. My central pawns are on light squares, so I’m left with a good Bishop after an eventual exchange. Even Bxf3 is possible, as White’s light-square Bishop will just stare at my pawn chain.

    More to the point, if I don’t play e6, I will need to play g6 to develop my other Bishop. On g7, though, it stares right at White’s pawn chain. The Bishop would clearly be better placed on d6, and the only way to get there is playing e6 first.

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