Sunday, 18 March 2018

032. Grandmasters to the Rescue

White: docjan - thematic tournament,, 2018

I hate it when grandmasters start playing my pet lines. It means other grandmasters work out effective responses, which filter down to my level, so that my opponents are no longer surprised and can just learn how to reach sensible positions. The prime example is Chigorin's Defence, 1 d4 d5 2 c4 Nc6!?.

Back in 1982 when IM John Watson wrote his pioneering book on the Chigorin, it seemed nobody really much took notice. I was able to develop a whole repertoire involving ...d7-d5 and ...Nc6 against both 1 d4 and 1 Nf3, securing dynamic play for Black in positions where my opponents mostly had to think for themselves.

And then Alexander Morozevich took it up. Sorting my Chigorin database by Elo now lists a whole string of grandmasters on the black side (if only occasionally), including Carlsen, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Mamedyarov, Ponomariov, Rapport, Short, Moiseenko, Miladinovic... Not that GM Morozevich need care about that. The Chigorin was a useful weapon for him for a time and led to a lot of interesting games, but he's hardly played it in years. Bah.

Another apparent case is the Schliemann. Sorting that database reveals a similar sort of list: Carlsen, Aronian, Radjabov, Ivanchuk, Zvjaginsev, Nisipeanu, Azarov, I.Sokolov, Nyback, Pruijssers, and so on. But this time I don't mind so much. The lines they play aren't in general the lines I play. After 4 Nc3, for instance, GMs tend nowadays to go for Tartakower's 4...fxe4 5 Nxe4 Nf6, whereas I have always favoured 5...d5. And I'm so well versed in the theory that when grandmaster games do venture into my territory I am better able to appraise their value.

The 5...d5 main line continues 6 Nxe5 dxe4 7 Nxc6 Qg5 8 Qe2 Nf6 9 f4 Qxf4, which GM Ventzislav Inkiov does in fact play. My OTB score with this is 66% as Black: P22, W10, D9, L3 (and two of those losses were to GMs Michael Adams and James Howell, who would probably beat me whatever I played). However, early on, I identified a potential problem in 9 Nxa7+!?, the crucial point being that 9...Bd7 10 Bxd7+ Nxd7 11 f4! Qxf4? sees Black being move-ordered into a bad 9 f4 variation; while after 11...Qc5 12 Nb5 Qxc2 13 d4!, Black ends up having to defend a pawn-down endgame, which is no fun at all. I note that Inkiov has lost this twice as Black.

But here elite grandmasters have come to the rescue. In his book The Ruy Lopez Revisited (New in Chess 2009), GM Ivan Sokolov directed attention to 11...Qf5!?.

Other players have since refined and strengthened Sokolov's analysis; and in a critical line, 12 Nb5 0-0-0 13 a4, GM Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu brought out 13...Bb4! (improving on Sokolov's 13...Bc5). The game A.Nekhaev-Nisipeanu, correspondence 2012, is annotated in detail in Junior Tay's new book, The Schliemann Defence: Move By Move (Everyman 2018), which I worked on as editor.

One continuation Junior doesn't mention is 12 Nb5 0-0-0 13 Nc3. No one had ever played this, and Sokolov hardly mentions it either, writing only that “13...Bc5, followed by ...Rhe8, ...Nf6 gives Black nice compensation.” So the game below has some small theoretical value. I did manage to find some nice compensation, just as Sokolov had indicated – and some dubious knight moves by my opponent (moves 23-25) even allowed me to go on and win. Hurrah for the grandmasters!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

031. Some Bishop Endgames are Drawn

White: M. Larsson - 1st North Sea Team Championship, 1998

No one (as far as I know) has ever claimed that all bishop endgames are drawn, not even all opposite-coloured bishop endgames, but clearly some are.

The game below features the complicated line of the Vienna (1 e4 e5 2 Nc3) known as the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation, in which repeated threats to mate on f7 force Black to surrender the a8-rook. Compensation comes in the form of a long-term initiative, with Black's active minor pieces enhanced by the exposed enemy queen, while the white rooks sit passively on their starting squares.

17...N6f5 was a novelty, "improving" on an OTB game by the 15th World Correspondence Champion, Gert Jan Timmerman. I put improving in ironic quote marks there because I'm not sure whether it is an improvement or not. Gert is both a stronger player than me and understands the Frankenstein-Dracula much better. He once referred to one of my games as an example of how not to play the variation as Black. As he put it: “Tait was looking for a tactical solution, whereas a long-term positional approach is called for.”

Well, anyway, 17...N6f5 led to interesting play – it was the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation after all – as I rushed my g-pawn down the board, further kicking the white queen about, and eventually regained the sacrificed exchange at the cost of a pawn. Then my fun ended and I was left having to defend a queen and opposite-coloured bishop endgame still a pawn down. (It seems I had been looking for a tactical solution again, whereas...)

The obvious way to draw this position is to try and swap the queens off. After some careful reorganizing, I finally managed to prompt that by allowing the a7-pawn to fall. Not all opposite-coloured bishop endgames are drawn, but this one was.

I did wake up in the early hours suddenly worried that the white king might sneak round the back and enable a breakthrough with b2-b3 and c3-c4, but a few minutes with my magnetic chess set showed these to be nighttime fears, and I soon went back to sleep.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

030. Not All Rook Endgames are Drawn

White: AndyAndyO - thematic tournament,, 2017

In my earlier post ‘All Rook Endgames are Drawn’, I gave Tarrasch's famous maxim as meaning that “even quite favourable-looking rook endgames can be difficult to win, and sometimes they can't be won at all.”

And then sometimes they can, even if they're very difficult. Take this one:

I played for this endgame from 20 moves out (with 15...Rg8 in fact), hoping to be able to hold it. Okay, at first sight it looks completely lost, doesn't it. Indeed, remove the a-pawns and the Lomonosov tablebases already declare mate in 54.

However, the two a-pawns complicate matters considerably. Not least that if White sends the king over to the h-pawn, Black may rush round in turn and win the white a-pawn. For instance, remove the a2- and h5-pawns from the diagram, place the pieces WRh5, WKg5, BRa2, and give Black the move – and Lomonosov now says “Draw”. Moreover, with the king on d6, Black can also throw in ...Rc8 to encourage the c- or d-pawn to advance, compromising White's connected pawn front.

So what can White do? Obviously he can't simply use the rook to support the pawns, since the black h-pawn then goes through. And putting the king on blockading duty is no good either, since the white rook can't force a pawn through by itself. The solution my opponent came up with was very deep, so deep that I didn't realize I was losing until he played his 52nd move.

Summarizing his plan (with the benefit of hindsight):

— Push the a-pawn to a5 (39 a5!) where it is safer in some key lines, while encouraging Black to play ...a7-a6, weakening the b6-square (which is important later);
— Triangulate with the king (42 Kd2!) so that, when White plays Ke4, the black rook is on h7 (rather than h8) and checks from that rank don't work (due to Kg6);
— Retreat the white rook one square (45 Rh3!) so that it has access to the queenside along the third rank (even though it means allowing the h-pawn to advance);
— Push the central pawns (47 c5+!), supported by the king;
— Sacrifice the d-pawn (52 d7!) to reach a winning R+2P vs. R+P endgame (as confirmed by the tablebases).

I've since gone through this entire endgame again to see if I could have improved anywhere – with a more cunning rook move perhaps, or by not playing ...a7-a6, say – and the answer seems to be “no”. White is still winning.

In which case, Black probably has to go right back to moves 10-13 and find something there. Or else on move three.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

029. Avoiding the Four Knights

White: tripoduk -, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that I've only ever had six OTB games with the Four Knights, and “it hardly seems worthwhile studying an opening that you only face once every five years”. The point is that there's actually quite a lot of theory on the Four Knights, especially if you meet 4 Bb5 with Rubinstein's 4...Nd4. If you can't be bothered to try and remember it all, the question is what to do other than 3...Nf6.

Obviously, 3...f5 is the move I'd most like to play. Unfortunately, 4 d4! fxe4 5 Nxe5 Nf6 6 Bc4! d5 7 Nxd5! Nxd5 8 Qh5+, as in G.Breyer-Z.Von Balla, Bad Pistyan 1912, pretty much wins for White. And there aren't any significant improvements for Black which make 3...f5 acceptable.

Alternatively, 3...g6 is a popular avoidance strategy; but as IM Andrei Obodchuk says in his book on the Four Knights (New in Chess 2011), this “is employed most often by stronger players against weaker opponents”, with the aim of outplaying them in less familiar positions. Whereas my 3 Nc3 opponents tend to be of comparable strength to me – or stronger. Outplaying them from a slightly inferior position is therefore not the most likely outcome.

So, I've recently been looking at 3...Bc5!? instead. The book refutation of this move runs 4 Nxe5! Nxe5 5 d4 Bd6 6 dxe5 Bxe5 and so on.

Back in 1993, Nunn wrote that “Examination of published theory gives the impression that this line is very bad for Black, which is probably true”. Or not. GM Oleg Romanishin has been playing 3...Bc5 for years with decent results (P24, W8, D10, L6 in the database); and as Obodchuk shows in his more serious investigation of the variation, it really isn't that bad at all. Even his various suggestions for White don't seem to trouble Black much since, if nothing else, they can often be circumvented.

I tested one such in the game below. This followed D.Pedzich-O.Romanishin, Koszalin 1997, where after 12...Nf6 13 0-0 0-0 Obodchuk suggests 14 Re1 as offering White a slight advantage. That may or may not be the case, but Black doesn't have to go in for it anyway. The plan of 12...Bd7, ...Bc6, ...0-0-0, and ...Nf6, as in B.Bogoevski-R.Navarro Segura, Merida 2001, seemed preferable to me.

As it happens, I've since had the chance to test 3...Bc5!? out over the board as well. J.Willow-J.Tait, Notts County Championship 2017, saw 7 Bc4 Nf6 8 0-0 0-0 9 Re1 Re8 10 Bg5 c6 11 f4?? Bxc3 12 bxc3 Qb6+ and Black won a pawn for nothing.

Okay, I didn't in the end manage to win either game, but at least I enjoyed them a whole lot more.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

028. Two Lines of a Rook Endgame

White: J. De Waard - North Sea Team Championship, 1998

One of my mates once told me: “if you want to play the Four Knights as Black, play the Petroff”. That's because, as I mentioned here, 3 Nc3 is a common reply to 2...Nf6. Whereas it isn't so much against 2...Nc6. Checking my own OTB games, going back to 1989, I see I've only faced 3 Nc3 six times. In correspondence chess, it's even more of a rarity: just three games in all competitions. Those nine in total continued with 4 d4 (four times), 4 g3 (thrice), and 4 Bb5 (twice). I won just once.

Hmmm. It hardly seems worthwhile studying an opening that you only face once every five years. But still... only one win as Black. How'd you like them apples?! Not very much, in truth. Maybe I should do something about that.

On the other hand, my one win was quite nice. Glek's variation (4 g3) led eventually to a double rook endgame where I held the initiative, and thence to a single rook endgame. The final result turned, after 45...Rb1, on two move 49 positions, both of which I assessed as won for Black:

a) 46 Ra2 Rxb3 47 Ra6+ Ke7 48 Rxh6 Rxd3 49 Kxf5 Rd4;
b) 46 Re2 Rxb3 47 Re5 Rxd3 48 Rxf5+ Ke6 49 Rxc5 Rxh3.

Black ends up with rook and two vs. rook and one in each case. And the second line (with split passed pawns) is indeed won, as the Lomonosov databases now confirm. But the first one (with connected passed pawns) isn't: 50 Ke5 Rxc4 51 Rb6 or 50...Kd7 51 h4 Rxc4 52 Kd5 and draws (Lomonosov again).

Guess it was lucky my opponent went for line ‘b’.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

027. Emotions in Correspondence Chess

White: A. Richards - BCCA DJKO 33/1, 1998

The main point of Georgi Popov's 3...a5!? defence to the Ruy Lopez is to follow up with 4...Na7 5 Bc4 b5, gaining the usual queenside space for Black while driving the Lopez bishop away – and trapping it should it drop back to b3. White's 4 d3 in the game below is therefore quite obliging as it blocks a retreat to the centre. Thus 4...Na7 5 Bc4 b5 (etc) and the bishop is lost.

My opponent in the game below wasn't bothered by that, responding 6 Bxf7+ Kxf7 7 Nxe5+ Ke7 and then 8 Nf7!?.

I don't recall ever seeing a similar idea before: White gives up two pieces on f7 in order to win an unprotected rook on a8 with queen checks. Later on he surprised me again by putting his other bishop en prise to a pawn (21 Bd6).

Going over the game with Houdini now, it seems neither of these surprises is particularly good for White. The engine prefers the bishop and knight to White's rook and two pawns in the first instance. In the second, it suggests that Black simply takes the piece: 21...cxd6 22 Nxd6 Nf4 and then answer 23 Nxc8 with 23...Nxg2!, which looks very strong. Whether I actually considered that, I'm unable to tell, since the game is somehow missing from my cardboard Postal Games 1996-98 folder.

What I do remember is feeling unsettled, unable wholly to trust my assessments throughout the game. In the end, I went completely wrong (31...Ng7?) and lost.

It might be assumed that emotions don't much matter in correspondence chess. On receiving a shock, for instance, you don't have to find a reply right there with the clock ticking. You can let your feelings subside before studying a position... calmly, rationally... two or three days later maybe. But it can be difficult all the same. An underlying sense of unease, that you're not in control, that things are going wrong, can pervade a whole game, and is no less disturbing for being long drawn out.

Or so I have found anyway. Your mileage may vary.

Friday, 29 September 2017

026. A Spectacular Queen Hunt

White: MarcShaw - Thematic tournament,, 2014

Hunts in chess are always “spectacular”, aren't they. In this one the white queen rushes out early to h5, snaffles the rook on h8, is driven back by busy minor pieces and seeks shelter on the queenside, only to suffer the indignity of perpetual attack from a lowly bishop, forcing a draw.

Okay, this hunt is not really so spectacular. The initial queen sally is a known theoretical line, and her subsequent harassment forms the basis of Black's compensation for the sacrificed exchange. All the same, it's quite a nice sequence of events: Qd1-h5-h8-h7-h4-a4-a3-a6-a4-a6 and draws.

It also shows that, in the 3 Bc4 variation at least, The Latvian Gambit Lives!, even if Black's path to apparent safety remains quite narrow: 3...fxe4 4 Nxe5 d5! 5 Qh5+ g6 6 Nxg6 hxg6! and so on. Everything else (e.g. 3...d6?!, 4...Qg5?!, 6...Nf6?!) is just good for White.

Since the 3 Bc4 Latvian can – and in fact did – arise via the Calabrese Counter-Gambit, it's a good thing for the latter that this line of the former is acceptable for Black. Regarding which, the game below is theoretically interesting.

From the diagram, the game continued 11...Ne5 12 Nd2 exd3 13 0-0 Nf6 14 Qh4 Qd6, which I think represents best play for both sides.

Instead, GM Kosten – working in, if not exactly pre-computer days, then certainly weaker computer days – gave a few erroneous assessments which are perhaps worth noting:
a) “11...exd3! and Black is at least equal”. Here 12 0-0 is good for White; e.g. 12...dxc2 13 Bxc2 Nf8 14 Qh4 Qxh4 15 gxh4, MarcShaw-Reprimand, 2013.
b) “13 f4! looks right, followed by Nf3-g5”. This lands White in serious trouble after 13...Nf6 14 Qh4 Neg4 15 Nf3 Qd6 16 Ng5+ Ke7.
c) 13...Qf6!? 14 f4 Nc4 15 f5 gxf5 “unclear”, H.Hage-F.Van der Muysenberg, correspondence 1995. This should have been met by 16 Nf3! with advantage.

At the time I was a bit worried about 15 Qf4, but now Houdini shows that 15...g5! 16 Qxg5 Rh8 17 Re1 Rh5 is fine for Black. I love computers :)