Monday, 24 December 2018

044. Surprising Openings

White: J. Rudd - C&DCCC Minor Counties, 2002

Whether or not an opening, or a variation of an opening, is a surprise naturally depends on whether an opponent expects it or is otherwise prepared. In an information-neutral context – i.e. without knowledge of someone's repertoire or, conversely, their knowledge of your own – the element of surprise can therefore be a matter of chance. My openings tend towards the disreputable, so they tend to have decent surprise value – most pleasingly demonstrated when an opponent starts thinking on move four.

But in this post I'm not concerned with opponents’ reactions. Instead, I've been looking through my old CC games, sorted variously by ECO code and notation, and have been surprising myself with some of my opening choices. For instance, as White: 1 e4 c5 2 a4!? (one game), 1 c4 (three games); and as Black: 1 d4 e5!? (one game), 1 d4 c5 2 d5 Nf6 3 c4 Ne4!? (one game), 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 (another three games). Okay, I can deduce that the single instances there were prompted by the writings of Hugh Myers and Stefan Bücker. But what I was doing playing the English and the Najdorf, I really have no idea.

In the blog-relevant C20-C99 category, there are surprises too: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 d5!? (three games), 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 f5!? (three games). I don't remember those either, especially the three Elephants. The games with the Schliemann Deferred (all from 2002) are slightly less surprising. I have occasionally played this over the board, usually aiming to take opponents (who might be ready for 3...f5) away from standard paths, since the seemingly benign inclusion of ...a7-a6 and Ba4 actually changes the position considerably. To obtain an advantage White has to play 5 d4 (a sideline in the Schliemann itself), and if 5...exd4 then 6 e5 with a favourable sort of reversed Falkbeer. I see that one of my CC games did go this way – and I lost – so whatever new ideas I might have had probably weren't very good. I'll have to look at that again sometime.

The game below took a less critical path: 5 d4 exd4 6 Nxd4 Nxd4 7 Qxd4 c5!.

Here the obvious threat to the a4-bishop (with ...b7-b5 etc) enables Black to escape the opening with a satisfactory position. This increased by degrees in the middlegame, and reduced more sharply in the endgame, until my opponent (now an OTB IM) was rightly justified in offering a draw (at move 35), which I declined – a decision equally and instantly justified when they blundered by reply. Sorry, Jack.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

043. Form is Temporary

White: R.W. Bauld - BCCA Championship, 1994/95

I'm playing very badly at the moment and don't know why. I've hardly won a league game in over a year and am now losing to people who haven't beaten me in a long time - or even at all. So far this season, I've had a lost position in every one of my nine games. That I've drawn five and even won a game doesn't make me feel much better. From a peak rating of 221 (ECF) eighteen months ago, I'll have dropped 30 points by the time the next list comes out.

Well, form comes and goes, I suppose. And drastically so for me in correspondence chess. For instance, after winning the BCCA Championship for the second time (and consecutively) in 1993/94, in the following year I came last. The game below is from the 1994/95 tournament.

It features another "deferred" Open Game. To be precise, it's a type of Réti – a reversed Classical Pirc – to which ECO duly assigns the code A07. But it could just as well be C42 or C44. Indeed, the first game in the database to reach the position at move seven (B.Ivkov-L.Rellstab, Bled 1950) took the route 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 d3 Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 Nbd2 Be7 6 Bg2 0-0 7 0-0. So there you are.

It's also a slightly unusual game in that, having built himself a fortress, my opponent took to "passing" from move 25 on, giving me unlimited time to try and find a way in. My written notes give no indication as to why I didn't take the e-pawn on move 29. Instead, I sent my knight on a trip from f6 to a8 and then round again to g5. This did in fact enable me to break through, though it was only a mistake on move 47 that gave me a winning position. And then I fell for a stalemate trick.

It was another three years before I was back in the Championship and won it again, this time with my best ever score of +6.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

042. Days of Innocence

Black: C.S. Thomson - BPCTC, 1993-94

Once upon a time, when people used to play 1...e5 against me (which no one has done OTB for three years now), I got to utilize a lot of "unexpected" variations in the King's Gambit. One of these was the Rosentreter: 2...exf4 3 Nf3 g5 4 d4!?, intending 4...g4 5 Bxf4 gxf3 6 Qxf3 with practical chances (see here, for instance), based on the fact that Black has no pieces out at all.

Some players, perhaps surprised by 4 d4, would try to reach a standard set-up with 4...Bg7, intending ...h7-h6, ...d7-d6 and so forth. Only to be confronted by 5 h4 h6 6 hxg5 hxg5 7 Rxh8 Bxh8 8 g3! (Keres), after which they found themselves instead in a fringe line of Becker's Defence, not knowing what to do.

I used to do quite well with this line (8...g4 9 Nh2! is the main point), even against FIDE titled (or future titled) players, such as: Gregory Kaidanov, Mark Hebden, James Cobb, and Robert Eames. My opponent in the game below, Craig Thomson, has a title too (he's an FM – whether at the time or later, I'm not sure), though the Becker wasn't a surprise to him because he started it off with 3...h6. (In any case, the element of surprise tends to be more potent in rapid chess than postal chess.) All the same, he didn't manage to defend correctly, and I won – as I thought then – a nice game.

They feel like days of innocence now. Neither that game, nor any of the others mentioned, stands up to engine scrutiny – especially the one against Hebden, which exemplifies Tartakower's maxim: that the player who wins is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake; i.e. it didn't matter that Hebden blundered first (17...Qf5??), nor that several other moves by both sides were also blunders, because I blundered last (38 Bf4??) and therefore lost.

If there's a reason I stopped playing 5 h4 and 8 g3, I've forgotten what it was. Maybe there wasn't a reason. Today, Stockfish gives Black the edge, but not fatally so. Or as John Shaw put it in his book: “The King's Gambit – not quite as stupid as it looks.” On the other hand, on the few occasions in recent years I've gotten as far as 2...exf4 as White, I've only played 3 Nf3 twice. Coincidentally, the last of those was against Hebden again (in 2016), where he blundered first again, and won again. Some things never change.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

041. My First CC Tournament

Black: D.J. Finnie - BCCA Major, 1988-89

I can't remember why I started playing correspondence chess. Likely I picked up a leaflet somewhere and decided to send it off. After playing chess as a junior – and packing it in at secondary school – I returned to it again in 1985 when the local chess club (Mansfield) suddenly turned up in my regular, the now defunct Stag & Pheasant (which is not the Wetherspoons of the same name). Three years later I entered the BCCA pyramid tournament for the first time.

By then my OTB rating was 163, which meant I was placed directly in a Major section, two divisions below the Championship. All-play-all, both colours, five opponents, ten games. I won nine. Going through them with Stockfish thirty years on, the engine inevitably points out a few mistakes but surprisingly few serious ones by me. It seems I actually played quite well (see here, for instance). Except in the game below.

In this one Philidor's Defence arrived via a Pirc move order: 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nbd7 4 Nf3 e5 5 Bc4 Be7 6 0-0 0-0.

I've faced this (Hanham) system twice as White and lost both times (once OTB in 1993). Since then I've studiously avoided it, opting variously for (3...Nbd7) 4 f4 (or if 3...e5 then 4 Nge2), or 3 f3, or 2 Nc3 without d2-d4 at all. It's interesting... Switch the colour of every piece in the diagram and I'd be perfectly content to grind this out as "Black", so why should it be more difficult with White? I guess it's a psychological problem. Or else just me. I'm sure Magnus Carlsen would be more than happy to take the white pieces here, and as often as he possibly could.

Well, anyway, looking over my BCCA game again now, I have to say I'm struggling to understand some of my moves:

13. Why not play Qf3 straight away, instead of wasting time with the dark-squared bishop?
15. Why then leave the bishop on f4 to be captured?
17. Why not take on e6 at once, instead of wasting time with the light-squared bishop?
23. What on earth was Rd4 for?
29. Okay, this was just a blunder.

But I can't be sad (can't be sad), ’cause nine out of ten ain't bad. I even won a game with Alekhine's Defence.

Monday, 15 October 2018

040. Old Novelties, New Novelties

White: Glawurtz89 - all-play-all tournament,, 2018

Twenty years ago in an ICCF thematic I played the novelty 19 Rf5 h6 20 Bf4 h5!. This was my improvement on analysis (20...Rfe8 21 Rg1) by Victor Ivanov and Alexander Kulagin in their very interesting book Play the Schliemann Defence! (Olbrich 1994).

It was indeed good, but I failed immediately to back it up. After 21 Bg5, my next move 21...Kc7? could have been met by 22 Qd2!, since 22...hxg4? 23 Qa5+ Kc8 24 Qxa7 g3! (as I'd analysed) fails instead to 24 Nc4! and if 24...g3 then 25 Nxd6+ Rxd6 26 Bf4 Rd7 27 Qxa7 wins for White. Fortunately, my opponent played 22 Ng6?, made some more mistakes, and finally allowed me a win with 31...f2! 32 d5 R8e4! 33 dxc6+ Kc7 – which I missed. I didn't even realize I was winning. This is all according to the engine of course.

Going back, the correct move was 21...Bc7, which seems to work out for Black. In the game below I intended to give it a go – until my opponent played 19 Rg1!, planning simply to trap the queen with Rg3.

No worries. I'd looked at this back in the day. Ivanov & Kulagin analysed the further 19...Bxe5 20 dxe5 Rxe5 21 Rg3 Qxg3 22 hxg3 Rxg5 23 Qe3 Rxg4 24 Qxa7 Re8, giving the appropriate symbol for “with counterplay”.

Okay, I'll just check that with the engine... 25 Rd4 Rg5 26 Rb4 b5 27 Rb3 Rh5 28 Ra3 e3 29 Rxe3 “+- (2.22)”. In human-speak: “White is winning”. Bollocks!

I had to leave the g4-pawn alone, grovel with 23...Re5 24 Qxa7 Rfe8, and hope that the e-pawn would still offer enough.

Well, as it turned out, my rooks managed to get in on the second (at the cost of a couple of pawns) and eliminate the white queenside, leading to a rook plus one vs. knight plus two endgame where the black e-pawn was enough. For instance, at the end, 46 Rxh7 c4+! 47 Kxc4 e2 48 Rh1 Ne3+ 49 Kd3 Nf1 draws.

All the same, if there are any novelties to be found post 23...Re5, they're going to be White's. I think I'll look for an improvement earlier on next time.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

039. Taking the Draw as White

White: Raffzahn - thematic tournament,, 2018

It's a common fact in chess that very sharp openings often lead to quick draws. Take this line of the Jaenisch: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 f5 4 Nc3 fxe4 5 Nxe4 d5 6 Nxe5 dxe4 7 Nxc6 Qg5 8 Qe2 Nf6 9 f4 Qxf4 10 Nxa7+ Bd7 11 Bxd7+ Kxd7 12 Qb5+ Ke6 13 Qxb7 Bd6.

Black has sacrificed two pawns for a lead in development and strong counterplay against the white king. Obviously the black king is none too safe either, which (unfortunately) means that White can, if desired, just take a draw.

Supposing White doesn't take the draw, what then? One possibility is 14 Qb3+ Kd7 15 Qf7+. I actually wrote an article on this for the BCCA magazine (CC#144, Autumn 1999), in which I was slightly dubious about Black's chances. But my conclusions there were wrong. Not least because, after 15...Kd8 16 Nc6+ Kc8 17 Ne7+ Bxe7 18 Qxe7 Re8 19 Qc5, the best move is not 19...e3?! (“!” in the article) but 19...Ra6! – as later shown by German gambit theoretician, Peter Leisebein, and consolidated in the games of CC-SIMs Hans-Dieter Vötter and Gerhard Ziese. This is significantly better for Black than my previously favoured 15...Be7 15 Nc6 Kxc6 17 Qxe7 Rae8.

As it happens, I've recently had a spate of 10 Nxa7+s, facing it eight times in online games in 2018. And I've taken to hectoring my opponents, trying to discourage them from taking the draw. For instance:

10. tsmenace: Bah, 10 Nxa7 again. This is just a draw I think. 10 Ne5 is critical, or else 9 Nxa7 if White really wants to take the pawn. But of course you may yet prove me wrong ;)

Whether influenced by my comments or not, they've generally played the position on. And rightly so – in principle – because why play 10 Nxa7+ at all as White if you're just going to take a draw? What's to be learned from doing that? On the other hand, I should perhaps mention that, of the seven players who didn't take the draw, six have lost. That was quite a surprise to me, I must admit. I mean, I knew there were decent practical chances in these lines, but to score 6½/7 as Black!?

It's inadvertently given me more respect for the one person who ignored my remarks and took the draw:

15. Raffzahn: offered a draw - Please use the Accept Draw or Decline Draw buttons to accept or decline the offer.

I declined and played on:

15. tsmenace: it's your move :) - obviously you can force a draw if you want one

My opponent was determined. So – a draw. Well done.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

038. The Chigorin Sicilian

Black: RickF - all-play-all tournament,, 2018

Actually, Mikhail Chigorin has no Sicilian system named after him. Against 1 e4 the great Russian master played 1...e5 almost exclusively, and in the king's pawn openings his name is mainly associated with a formation in the Closed Ruy Lopez: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 0-0 9 h3 Na5 10 Bc2 c5.

I'm not sure why Chigorin gets the credit for that either. He seems only to have played it a couple of times; his treatment in O.Duras-M.Chigorin, Nuremberg 1906, was quite "unthematic"; and Schlechter had already ventured this set-up against Tarrasch four years earlier. If it's because Schlechter lost and Chigorin won, Schlechter had his revenge – beating Chigorin from the White side in 1907.

Well, anyway, the Chigorin Ruy Lopez it became and subsequently developed a large complex of theory. One variation, amongst many, runs 11 d4 Qc7 12 d5, whereby White hopes to keep the a5-knight out of the game; for example, after 12...Nc4 13 a4 Bd7 14 b3 Nb6 15 a5 or 12...Bd7 13 b3 c4 14 b4 Nb7 15 a4. Note that, in the latter line, 13 a4 is somewhat premature in view of 13...c4!, controlling the white b-pawn and preparing to target the a4-pawn with ...Nb7-c5.

Despite that, 13 a4 is still seen occasionally. E.Hossain-J.Hjartarson, Turin Olympiad 2006, continued 13...c4 14 Be3 bxa4?! 15 Bxa4 Bxa4 16 Qxa4 Nb3 17 Ra3 Rfc8 18 Nbd2 Nc5 19 Qc2 Nfd7 20 Rae1 a5 21 Nxc4 and White was clearly better at this point (later going very wrong in time trouble and losing). Rather than exchanging on a4 so soon, Black should maintain the tension with something like 14...Rfb8 or 14...Rfc8, or an immediate 14...Nb7-c5.

If you're wondering what any of this has to do with the Sicilian, then watch... 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 Bb5+ Bd7 4 a4!? (a harmless-looking move, played by GMs Bukhuti Gurgenidze, Bent Larsen and, more recently, Konstantin Chernyshov) 4...Nf6 5 d3 Nc6 6 0-0 e6 7 Re1 Be7 8 c3 a6 9 Bc4 0-0 10 Bb3 b5 11 d4 e5 (I once won after 11...Qc7 12 e5) 12 d5 Na5 13 Bc2 c4 (13...Qc7 was V.Kosenkov-M.Kletsel, 8th World Correspondence Championship 1975) 14 h3 Qc7 and somehow we've transposed to the diagram, duly making it a “Chigorin Sicilian”.

That was the surprising course of the game below. I tried Hossain's 14 Be3, my opponent replied with 14...Rfc8 and... nothing much else happened. There was one way I might have made it interesting: 29 Qf2 g6 30 Nh5!? gxh5 31 Bh6, but this fails to 31...Ne8! 32 Qg3+ Kf7 33 Nf3 Ke7 34 Nxe5 h4! 35 Qxh4 Ne6!, when Black emerges with the better chances while, most pertinently, White has no chances of more than a draw. It seemed simpler to swap things off and then just offer a draw. So that's what I did.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

037. The King Steps Sideways

White: G. Crook - BCCA DJKO 35/1, 2000

The Two Knights with 4 d4 exd4 5 0-0 isn't played very much nowadays, because 5...Nxe4 6 Re1 d5 7 Bxd5 Qxd5 8 Nc3 Qa5 (or 8...Qh5) 9 Nxe4 Be6 is considered perfectly acceptable for Black. All well and good. Black has grabbed the central e-pawn; White has played a little trick (7 Bxd5, 8 Nc3) to regain it. And there the excitement ends for me.

I've mostly preferred the Max Lange Attack: 5...Bc5 6 e5 d5 7 exf6 dxc4. The main line continues 8 Re1+ Be6 9 Ng5 Qd5 10 Nc3 Qf5 11 Nce4 0-0-0 12 g4 Qe5, reaching a very messy position. That's more like it. I like messy positions. Up to a point. What I really like is messy positions where my opponent hasn't already learned what to do. Mainline Sicilians, for instance, can be extremely messy but also mapped out to move thirty and beyond. I'm not interested in all that. Max Lange variations, too, go deep into the twenties, and I'm not interested in those either. Especially not when it's me who doesn't know what to do.

So I started sliding the king sideways: 8...Kf8!?. Theory tends to dismiss this on account of 9 Bg5 gxf6 10 Bh6+ Kg8 11 Nc3.

For the price of two pawns White has shut the h8-rook in the corner and opened the black king to spectacular mating attacks. Such as 11...Bg4 12 Ne4 b6 13 c3 Ne5? 14 Nxe5! Bxd1 15 Nd7! Be7 16 Nexf6+ Bxf6 17 Re8+! Qxe8 18 Nxf6 mate, as in B.Kazic-B.Vukovic, Candidates Tournament, Yugoslavia 1940. Or 11...Bf8 12 Nxd4 Nxd4? 13 Qxd4! Qxd4? 14 Re8 Qd6 15 Nd5 and mate in four.

Except, none of that is forced. In the latter line Black can play 12...Bxh6 13 Nxc6 Qxd1 14 Ne7+ Kg7 15 Rad1 Be6 16 Ned5 “with roughly equal chances”, according to Yakov Estrin in his book on the Two Knights Defence (Batsford 1983). And I think that's being generous to White, seeing as Black still has an extra pawn and the two bishops. Or if 12 Bxf8 Kxf8 13 Ne4, then 13...f5! and again the onus is on White to justify the sacrifices.

I got to test those “equal chances” in the game below. As it happens, my opponent did manage to find compensation, tried to mate me with rook, knight and king, and eventually took a draw by perpetual check. Nonetheless, today's engines give Black the advantage all the way through, even if I was unable to convert it at the time. Certainly I'd be happy to have another go.

That is if White doesn't avoid the whole thing by throwing in 8 fxg7 first.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

036. The King Steps Forth

Black: A. Gardner - BCCA DJKO 28/2, 1994

Back in 1993 (when I was reviewing books) I received a copy of Das angenommene Königsgambit mit 3.Sc3 by Volker Hergert & Alexander Bangiev (Schachverlag Reinhold Dreier). Translating for you, that means 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nc3!?. I duly added this to my repertoire as White.

The obvious drawback to developing the b1-knight first is that Black can reply 3...Qh4+, forcing the white king to step forward. But it's the kind of move that amuses me – and sometimes my opponents too. 4 Ke2. Straight face. Eye contact. It often gets a laugh.

The thing about this sort of opening is that it's never quite as bad as it seems. For the inconvenience caused by the queen check, White aims to gain a nice pawn centre with d2-d4, while the king can seek sanctuary via f2 or d3-c2. Keres played 3 Nc3 regularly in his young days, and both Spassky and Bronstein won with it. More recently, IM Kamran Shirazi has brought it out occasionally; GM Richard Rapport used it to win an Austrian League game; even World Champions Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen have tried it in blitz. My own OTB record (after 4 Ke2) is P15, W9, D3, L3.

Theory generally dismissed this line, not least because 4...d5 5 Nxd5 Bg4+ 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Nxc7+ Kd8 8 Nxa8 Ne5 9 h3 Bxf3+ 10 gxf3 Qg3 11 d4 Qxf3+ 12 Ke1 Qe3+ is a draw by perpetual check. However, Hergert and Bangiev showed that 9 Qe1!? Nxf3 10 Qxh4 Nxh4+ 11 Ke1 is a serious option, after which White gets rook and pawn (at least) for two knights – even if the a8-knight is simply removed from the board.

In the following game, utilizing a trick from the Jaenisch (13...Bb4+ 14 c3 Nxc3 15 a3 etc),
I got rather more than that – and my gōng hé king subsequently marched down the board to win on move 23.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

035. One for the Dustbin

White: afms - thematic tournament,, 2018

Something I've always aimed for in the opening is to take opponents away from positions they know – without thinking – how to play. In the Jaenisch, for instance, a lot of players opt for 4 d3, aiming for a more "normal" game after 4...fxe4 5 dxe4 Nf6 6 0-0. In order to rob them of that, back in 1992 I began playing 4...Nf6 instead, and if 5 0-0 then 5...Bc5, refusing to exchange on e4 and offering a reversed King's Gambit should White decide (correctly) to capture on f5. GM Nigel Davies later proposed this for Black in his book Gambiteer II (Everyman 2007).

In truth, I've never done very well with it. OTB my score (1992-2018) is 54.3%: P23, W9, D7, L7. Not very impressive, even if most of those losses were to strong players: James Cobb, Fernand Gobet, Jeff Horner, and Gary Quillan (all now IMs). I've stubbornly stuck with 4...Nf6, trying to find improvements for Black as and when necessary. But I think it's time to throw it in the bin.

One critical position (which can be reached via several routes) arises at move ten.

Black has a 0% score from here in the database (with one of my own losses contributing to that). Essentially, White has a terrific reversed Schallopp (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e5 Nh5), where the gambit pawn is firmly defended. Yes, Black can obtain a nice-looking centre after ...d6-d5, but it's not going anywhere – and it's not even very secure since White can swipe at it with either c2-c4 or f2-f4 or both.

In the game below, my opponent went for a slow build-up before breaking on the kingside, and eventually mated me by promoting a tripled f-pawn: g2-g4-g5xf6-f7-f8Q. It's a matter of taste, I suppose. I'd have used the bishop myself.

I've posted twice recently (Games 32 and 33) about Grandmasters coming to the rescue in my openings, but I can't see any help being forthcoming in this one.

Monday, 14 May 2018

034. That'll Learn Me

Black: dakarportsmouth - knockout tournament,, 2018

“If you find a good move, look for a better one” (as Emanuel Lasker apparently didn't say). It's a good maxim for correspondence chess, where you can spend all the time you like looking for better moves. Over the board, on the other hand, I usually opt for the practical “one win is as good as another” strategy. And sometimes this lazy attitude affects my Fernschach as well.

With fewer people signing up for my thematics at nowadays, I recently entered a couple of ordinary tournaments instead: a four-player round robin and a knockout with 64 players. In my own events I restrict the strength (or rather weakness) of my opponents by setting a lower limit on rating. The ordinaries are open tournaments, in other words anyone can enter. In the first round of the knockout I was drawn against someone nearly 1400 points lower rated than me. The first three moves were 1 e4 e5 2 f4 d6 3 Nc3 f6, after which I went into "simul" mode: come to the board, make a quick move, and go away again.

Now I'm regretting it because the engine shows that I failed to spot a pretty queen sacrifice leading to an unusual mate:

Having won a piece, I simply retreated the knight with check here, soon picked up more material, and eventually mated with queen and two bishops. However, Houdini pops instantly out with 16 Qxf6+! and declares a forced mate in eight: 16...Nxf6 17 Rxf6+ Kg7 18 Rf7+ Kg8 19 Rxe7+ Kf8 20 Bc5! (threatening 21 Rf1 mate) 20...Bc8 21 Rb7+ Ke8 22 Bf7+ Kd8 23 Be7 mate, this time with two bishops and rook.

Damn, that would have been really nice.

Friday, 20 April 2018

033. Another Grandmaster to the Rescue

White: AndyAndyO - thematic tournament,, 2017

From the Black side of the Vienna I have for a long time preferred 2...Nc6 to the standard 2...Nf6. Yes, the Frankenstein-Dracula variation 2...Nf6 3 Bc4 Nxe4 4 Qh5 Nd6 5 Bb3 Nc6 6 Nb5 etc can be fun, but I've never had that over the board. What you mostly get is boring equality after 3 f4 d5 or 3 g3 d5.

So I switched to 2...Nc6. Then if 3 Bc4 or 3 g3, Black still has options of a counter-attacking ...f7-f5, while 3 f4 is now far more risky for White due to 3...exf4!. On the other hand, it's very sharp, so you need to be prepared as Black. Eighteen months ago in the Notts League, I faced an unexpected Hamppe-Allgaier Gambit: 4 Nf3 g5 5 h4 g4 6 Ng5 h6 7 Nxf7 Kxf7, and I hadn't studied this in years. Fortunately, nor it seems had my opponent and we played a wholly incorrect game, ending in a draw.

Since then I've looked at the theory again. 8 d4 is considered the main move nowadays and 8...f3! the best response. In Black Weapons in the Open Games (New in Chess 2014), GM Victor Bologan gives 9 Bc4+ d5!? (“In such positions time is an extremely important factor”) 10 Bxd5+ Kg7 11 gxf3 Nf6! 12 Be3 Bb4 13 Bc4 Qe7 14 Qe2 (as arose in J.Gallager-V.Hrsec, Geneva 1991) and now the major improvement 14...Rd8!, intending 15 0-0-0 Bxc3 16 bxc3 Qa3+ 17 Kb1 Qxc3 18 Bb3 Rxd4! (“which is even better than capturing with the knight”).

All good – but there's also 9 gxf3, which I noticed scores over 85% for White in the databases. What does Black do against that? Grandmaster Bologan rides to the rescue! In the database games (dating back to I.Gunsberg-G.Mackenzie, London 1886) Black always played 9...Be7, whereas Bologan follows his theme:

“In the sub-variation 9 gxf3, no one has tried 9...d5!?, although I think this is the only way to exploit Black's material advantage. Now, if we exclude 10 exd5 because of 10...Nb4 (or even 10...Bd6!?, with the idea 11 dxc6 Bg3+ 11 Ke2 Nf6 and ...Re8), the critical line is 10 Nxd5, against which I like the active 10...Nf6 11 Bc4 Kg7, with the idea 12 Nxf6 Qxf6 13 e5 Bb4+ 14 c3 Nxe5!?, when Black has a strong initiative. I saw this theme frequently while analyzing this position. Black returns the piece to destroy White's steamroller.”

I got to try this out in a Vienna Gambit thematic. I actually commented: “not sure whether this idea of Bologan's really gives Black any serioius [sic] winning chances, but we'll see”. It turned out to be far stronger for Black than I'd thought. The forcing 15 dxe5 Qxe5+ 16 Qe2 Qg3+ 17 Qf2 Re8+ 18 Kf1 Qxf2+ 19 Kxf2 reaches a critical position.

Here it seems logical to target the white king on the open lines after 19...Bd6, but I couldn't see any conclusive way forward. So I decided to close the position instead with 19...Bc5+! 20 Kg3 Bd6+! 21 f4 h5, relying on the protected passed g-pawn as a long-term asset, and aiming eventually to get in behind and cause damage with a rook. Although White is only a couple of moves from bringing his own rooks out and challenging for the open files, it's surprisingly difficult for him to consolidate a defence.

In the end I managed to infiltrate via the pleasing manoeuvre ...Re5-c5-a5-a6-b6-b3, after which the game didn't last much longer.

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 Jaenisch. 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 Tournament, 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.