TheomisNeo-SmithyQ, April 2017: Dull, Symmetrical Positions

If you talk to some chess players, you will find some refuse to play the French or the Slav as Black because of the exchange variations, which lead to symmetrical pawn structures and are notoriously drawish.

First off, yes, these positions ARE more drawish than most openings, but that doesn’t apply to most amateurs.  If you’re under 1700 or so, the draw is practically non-existent.  Here’s what does happen regardless of rating: the pawn structure is symmetrical, piece development is generally symmetrical and the game is pretty colourless.  Not the most fun chess positions.

As I approach expert level, I’ve become keenly aware of the drawish tendencies of these positions.  It’s very hard to win a game without any imbalances, and that’s true regardless of how much I may out-rate my opponent.  In this game, I reach such a position and do my best to give myself winning chances in a dead-equal position.

[Event “2- Chess is for fun – Round 5”]
[Site “Chess.com”]
[Date “2017.04.02”]
[Round “?”]
[White “themis_neo”]
[Black “SmithyQ”]
[Result “0-1”]
[ECO “D94”]
[WhiteElo “1844”]
[BlackElo “2152”]
[Annotator “Pettit”]
[PlyCount “66”]
[EventDate “2017.??.??”]
[TimeControl “1”]

{In a position with very little winning chances for either side, I blunder
into a position where White loses the game. Confused? So am I.} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4
g6 {Yes, I plan on switching from my Nimzo to the KID. Main reason? It works
much better against the omnipresent London and Colle systems.} 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e3
{This is probably the slowest way to play the KID as White.} O-O 5. Nf3 d5 {
I could, and perhaps should, have played d6 and e5, like a true KID
practioneer. In my youth, though, I played the Grunfeld, and Black equalizes
instantly here. The basic rule is that Black gets a good game if he can play
d5 and c5, and as White can’t stop it, I’m guaranteed a good game. Woo.} 6. Be2
c5 7. cxd5 cxd4 {This is the theory move, I believe, where if White plays exd4
we reach a Tarrasch QGD with colours reversed. I also used to play the
Tarrasch in my youth, and I know the ideas quite well.} (7… Nxd5 {This is
also possible, and it’s perhaps even preferable.} 8. Qb3 Nxc3 9. bxc3 {This
position is much more Grunfeld-ish, with White having the centre but Black
ready to attack it. Black has obvious ideas of Nc6, Bg4 and/or b6 and Bb7,
whereas White doesn’t have an obvious plan.}) 8. Nxd4 Nxd5 9. Nxd5 Qxd5 {
Here’s the problem: I have equalized, and White has no hint of advantage.
That’s good. Unfortunately, the position is dead even, with an emphasis on
dead. Neither side has weaknesses, the pawns are symmetrical, the open files
all but insure mass exchanges. How does one with this game?} 10. O-O {White
castles, which I think is a slight mistake. I liked Bf3, attacking my Queen
and preventing my next move.} e5 $5 {I now start a rather ambitious plan. Yes,
this move blocks my Bishop on g7, but I plan on meeting Bf3 with e4, blocking
White’s Bishop instead. If White does not play Bf3, then his Bishop has no
good available square. In addition, it kicks White’s good Knight away.} ({
The main alternative is to develop the Black Queenside. What is the least
active piece? Well, that would be} 10… Nc6 {This move looks dubious, though,
because of} 11. Bf3 Qc5 12. Nxc6 bxc6 {and White has a good Bishop on f3
hitting the only weakness in the position, Black’s self-inflicted pawn on c6.
I rejected this position, but the computer tells me to look deeper. In truth,
Black has excellent ACTIVITY here. His Bishop on g7 is even better than
White’s on f3. The b-file is open, allowing for Rb8. There’s annoying pressure
on b2, and it isn’t clear how White develops his Queenside. Play might
continue:} 13. Rb1 Ba6 14. Re1 Rfd8 {and White has few good squares for his
pieces. The computer really likes Black here. I think I do, too.}) 11. Nf3 {
A meek try.} (11. Nb5 $5 {This is White’s best move, threatening a fork on c7,
and it isn’t easy to see how Black stops it. Here’s my plan.} Qc5 12. b4 {
An ambitious thrust, trying to distract the Queen from defending c7. White has
other options, but I wasn’t scared of them.} Qe7 13. Bb2 Rd8 14. Qc2 Nc6 15. a3
Be6 {And we have an interesting position. Black’s position has more promise,
as he can continue with f5 and threaten things in the centre. White is
completely solid, though, so I’m not sure how I actually break through
anywhere.}) 11… Be6 {Developing a piece, defending my Queen, seems great.
Why I chose it over Rd8 will be seen in two moves.} (11… Qc5 {The computer
confirms that the plan with Qc5-e7 and finishing development like the
variation above is also good, and in fact is better because the White Knight
on f3 is less active.}) 12. Qxd5 Bxd5 13. Rd1 {White develops with tempo.} Bc6
{[%csl Yc1,Gc6,Ge2,Yg7] My Bishop now finds itself on the best diagonal. In
such positions, where neither side has weaknesses, it all comes down to piece
placement. Specifically, you want your pieces to be better, to be doing more
things, than your opponent’s. My Bc6 is doing more than the Be2, and my Bg7 is
better than the Bc1. Conversely, my Rooks are sleeping while White has one on
the open file. The game, then, will hinge on who can make better use of these
advantages. Now, objectively, it should be a draw, but a few inaccuracies
could give one side a slight edge. That’s all you can really play for here.}
14. Bc4 {Yes, based on what I wrote above, White should be trying to improve
his Bishop, but this is not the best square. That is, where will I develop my
Knight? Nd7 is obvious, and then Nb6 hits the Bishop, forcing it back. White
should forcus instead on getting his least active piece, the Bc1, into the
game.} Nd7 15. b3 Nb6 ({Note that} 15… e4 {doesn’t win the Rook in the
corner.} 16. Nd4 {The position is now worse for Black, all in one move. The
White Knight is now the best piece on the board, and my formally great Bishop
on c6 now stares at my own pawn (not to mention it can get exchanged at any
moment). I’m not losing, but I’ve likely lost any chance at winning, barring
amnesia from my opponent.}) 16. Be2 Rfd8 {[%csl Yc1,Gc6,Ge2,Yg7][%cal Gd8d1,
Gd1d8] Compared to a few moves ago, I’ve made some slight progress. I’ve
neutralized his open file, and my Bishop is still the best piece. My Bg7 is
slightly less happy, as it stares at my pawn, but the threat of e4 is always
in the air, and if need be the Bishop can drop to f8 and have a clear diagonal
there. That’s all I need to worry about, keeping my pieces better.} 17. Bb2 f6
{[%csl Ge5,Gf6][%cal Gf3d4,Gf3g5,Gb2d4] I had to commit to this move when I
played Rfd8, and it makes sense. My pawns claim several important squares, and
my pieces don’t need to defend e5. Bf8 is coming.} 18. h3 {This move does
nothing. I’m improving my position, White isn’t.} Bf8 19. a4 $6 {[%csl Rb3,Rb4]
I don’t understand this move. I’m guessing White wants to play a5 and chase
away my Knight, but this creates a permanent weakness on b3 and a juicy square
on b4.} Bb4 {My Bishop immediately jumps into that square, and now White
cannot play Nd2 or Rd2. Again, my pieces are slightly more active.} 20. Ne1 {
White intends to either play Nc2, chasing away my Bishop, or play Bf3,
exchanging my either Bishop. Oddly, I was more concerned with Bf3, as the
resulting exchange seemed to lead to a draw by force. Not really, but how do I
target the pawns on b3 and a4 without a light-square Bishop?} Rxd1 {I played
this because of a slight miscalculation, which I only just caught on my next
move. It should immediately appear suspect because it breaks the tension,
exchanging unprovoked. Better is the immediate Nd5, again improving a piece,
or a5, anchoring the weak square on b4.} 21. Rxd1 Kf8 (21… Bd5 {I was going
to play this move, as it seemingly wins the b3-pawn. I had it queued up and
was about to hit submit before I had a sudden flash. You know that feeling,
where you make a move and then immediately see the winning continuation for
your opponent? That was here, but thankfully I saw it before moving!} 22. Rxd5
{This was the move I had analyzed, and I saw it wasn’t enough for White.} (22.
Nc2 $1 {This is the move I saw only at the last minute. Best play is now} Bxb3
(22… Be7 23. Rxd5 Nxd5 24. Bc4 Rc8 {Hoping to pin the Bishop to the Knight,
but} 25. Bxd5+ {I forgot this was check.} Kg7 26. Ne1 $18 {and White should
win the resulting endgame.}) 23. Nxb4 Bxd1 24. Bxd1 {Material is equal, but
White has two monstrous Bishops, and my Knight has no good outposts. This is
the type of game where Karpov would make you suffer for 80 moves and you lose
anyway.}) 22… Nxd5 23. Bc4 {This is the point, using the pin against the
King, but} (23. Nc2 Kf8 {hitting the intermezzo with an intermezzo, as now Bc4
is no pin.}) 23… Bxe1 24. Bxd5+ Kg7 25. Bxb7 Rd8 $19 {and Black is up an
exchange. This would be great if White didn’t have 22.Nc2! instead, though.
And it now explains my 21st move, as I get my King away from the pinning
diagonal.}) 22. Nd3 Be7 {Bd6 may have been slightly better, allowing my King
to come to e7 instead.} 23. a5 Nd5 {If we compare the pieces, my Knight is the
best piece, but it isn’t by a lot. My Bishop remains on the best diagonal, but
none of the Bishops are doing much. White’s Queenside pawns are weaker than
mine, though, so that gives me some chances. Maybe. The position is still
dreadfully drawn.} 24. Bf3 {White finally suceeds in getting his Bishop to
this diagonal, but it should not have worked.} Rc8 $2 {I don’t know why I
played this move instead of Rd8. It was a last second decision. I didn’t even
consider if White had any tactics here, which is odd, because I spent 10min
looking for tactics myself.} (24… e4 $1 {I wanted to play this move, but
something seemed off.} 25. Bxe4 Nxe3 {[%cal Ge3d1,Gc6e4] The point, hitting
both pieces.} 26. Re1 (26. fxe3 Bxe4 {This is the computer line, which looks
much worse to me. White’s pawn structure is atrocious and Black has all the
activity.}) 26… Bxe4 27. Rxe3 {I got to this position in my calculation and
couldn’t tell if it was worth it. I have two Bishops, but my Rook is sleeping.
The computer then points out that} Rd8 {is easy mode. White trades the two
Bishops for the much more active Rook. The position may still be drawish, but
Black has some winning chances.}) 25. Nxe5 $1 {[%cal Gf3d5,Gd1d5] My opponent
now uses the same tactic against me! Arrgh! Rd8, of course, would have stopped
it cold.} Nxe3 {I do my best to muddy the waters.} 26. fxe3 (26. Nxc6 $1 {
This was best.} Nxd1 27. Nxe7 Kxe7 28. Bxd1 {Material is even, but the two
Bishops on the open board are much stronger than the Rook. Again, an Endgame
where Karpov would win effortlessly in 60 moves, though I might draw against
mere mortals.}) 26… fxe5 27. Bxc6 Rxc6 {Around here I was nervous, but my
intuition was yelling at me. Something was suspicious about White’s position.
What was it?} 28. Rd7 {[%cal Gb2e5,Gd7b7,Gd7h7] This looks ridiculously strong,
threatening all my pawns, and I was nervous … and yet here my intuition
yelled the loudest. I dug in and found an amazing resource.} (28. Bxe5 {
This avoids what happens in the game, and it leads to a pretty dull endgame.}
Rc5 29. Bd4 Rxa5 {You know what they say, all Rook endgames are drawn.}) 28…
Bd6 $1 {This move turns the assessment around. White has a huge problem, his
Bishop. Right now, it has no safe squares. After Rc2, the Bishop cannot
retreat to a1 as Rc1+ forks it up. If I can protect my own Bishop and/or force
White’s Rook to move, then I simply win a piece.} 29. e4 {This move does
nothing to address my above comments and thus loses. Wow. Looking at this
position, can you believe it?} ({White’s best chance appears to be gobbling up
pawns in exchange for the piece.} 29. Rxh7 Ke8 {A necessary first move.} (29…
Rc2 {If I go too fast,} 30. Rd7 {[%cal Gd7d6] and White counter-attacks my own.
Ke8 prevents this possibility.}) 30. Rxb7 Rc2 31. Rxa7 Rxb2 {This unbalanced
position is likely drawn, but in a practical game either side could win. I
think the most likely result is King, Rook, Bishop and e-pawn for Black versus
King and Rook. I’m pretty sure that’s drawn, and if it isn’t, I don’t know how
to win it off the top of my head.}) ({One reason e4 is such a mistake is that
it prevents White from eating all the pawns. Observe.} 29. Rxb7 Ke8 30. e4 Rc2
31. Rxa7 Bc5+ {e4 opens the diagonal and allows this fork.}) 29… Ke8 30. Rxh7
Rc2 31. Bxe5 {White tries to desperado a pawn, but it mostly opens lines for
my own Bishop.} Bxe5 32. g4 {White is forced to play this defensive move or
lose instantly.} ({For example} 32. Rxb7 Bg3 $1 {[%cal Gc2c1,Rg3b8] The threat
is mate on c1. White doesn’t even have any good checks, as the Bishop covers
the square.} 33. Kf1 {Trying to escape to e2.} Rf2+ {Gives White a choice of
immediate win or a small windmill that loses a Rook.} 34. Kg1 (34. Ke1 Rf7+ 35.
Kd2 Rxb7) 34… Re2 35. Kf1 Re1#) 32… Rc7 {White was forced to play a
defensive move, and that gave me time to bring my Rook back and defend my
pawns. White is lost.} 33. Rh6 Kf7 {My opponent resigned rather than play out
this endgame. The general idea is to exchange Rooks and then use my Bishop to
keep my pawns safe while slowly winning all of White’s pawns. Down a piece,
there’s not much White can do.} 0-1

Conclusions

It’s somewhat ironic, but if White doesn’t find his best move, 25.Nxe5!, he probably doesn’t lose this game.  He played a good move, then an inaccuracy, and suddenly he was losing.  If he plays something different, his position remains solid and he likely holds.  I find that amusing.

Now, it may seem that I won this game by chance.  My opponent played an inaccuracy, and then some mysterious intuition guided me to the correct move.  That’s not true.  Well, yes, it is true, but it misses the point.  I didn’t get a good position out of nowhere.  I worked hard for 20 moves, slowly improving my pieces and my position.  The position was always equal, but it was more equal for Black.  When tactics started flying, it makes sense that Black could come out on top.

More to the point, my overall strategy was correct.  Improve pieces slowly, don’t force things, just focus on incremental positional improvements.  There’s nothing else you can do in an equal position.  It may not be fun, but if you are the better player, you will have a chance to prove it.  GMs outplay amateurs in dead equal endgames all the time.  It may not be fun, but it is possible.

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