Sunday, 29 November 2020

066. Can I Still Draw?

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

Perhaps the most important question to ask about provocative openings is whether, should your opponent find (or know) good moves, you'll still be able to draw. An affirmative answer means you can essay that opening with confidence, ready to conduct a difficult defence if required or, more frequently, have your fun when it isn't. An answer to the contrary means you're essentially playing Hope Chess. In that case you'll need both to fake confidence and be prepared even so to take the occasional hit.

Colours are naturally a factor. As White you have considerable leeway to play suboptimally while remaining within the drawing zone, supposing you regard a draw as a satisfactory result. As Black a draw is theoretically theoretically acceptable, but the margins are tighter. A couple of inferior moves, especially in an open position, can mean you're losing right off the bat. I don't like to lose.

And yet I do like quarrelsome openings, particularly as Black. Here's a case in point: the Two Knights Defence with 4 d3. White refuses the confrontation posed by 3...Nf6 and simply defends the e-pawn, aiming for a slower, more positional game. Okay, we can go along with that, aiming to equalize after 4...Bc5, 4...Be7, or even 4...h6, all of which I've played on numerous occasions.

On the other hand, if you eventually end up wondering why you're bothering, you might be tempted just to push 4...d5. It's the sort of move you want to make with one finger. That's what I think of your opening. Pah.

Of course, breaking in the centre is very thematic. The downside to doing so so soon is that the e5-pawn is left exposed. And if White is unphased by your aggression and goes and takes it off, what then? Then we must show we can still draw.

From the diagram: 9...Bxf2+! 10 Kxf2 Qh4+ 11 Kf1 (11 Kg1?? Qd4+ is a not completely obvious trap) 11...Qf6+ 12 Qf3 Qxe5 13 Bxd5 c6, followed by 14...Qxh2, leads to an obscure non-Italian middlegame with rook and pawn vs. bishop and knight. Yes, the minor pieces ought to favour White at this stage – certainly Stockfish thinks so. Nonetheless, my score is P5 W1 D4 L0. Lost nil. It's not always easy, but it seems Black can still draw. The game below is a typical example.

At the finish, 33...Kh7 34 Bf6 Rexf6 35 Nxf6+ Rxf6 36 Rxh4+ Kg7 37 Rh3 Rg6 38 Kf1 c5 39 Ke2 f5 40 Kf3 Rb6 was one way to reach a drawn ending.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

065. Lockdown

Black: A. Eccles - BCCA Premier, 1996

The game below features the Scotch, Mieses Variation, with the then topical 9...Qh4!?. Black's nice idea is 10 a3 Bc5 11 g3 Bxf2+, followed by 12 Kxf2 Qd4+, winning the rook on a1, or 12 Qxf2 Qe4+, winning the rook on h1. The geometry of the twin corner captures is very pleasing.

Unfortunately, it's all rather specious. After 12 Qxf2 Qe4+ 13 Kd1 Qxh1 14 Nd2! White gains huge compensation for the exchange, in terms of time, control and the initiative, while Black must hurry to extricate the queen. Hence 14...Nc3+ 15 Kc2 Ne4 16 Nxe4 Qxe4+ 17 Bd3.

Now the best Black has is 17...Qg4 18 Bf5 Qh5 19 h4 f6 20 exf6 gxf6 21 Bb2 0-0-0 22 Bxf6 0-0-0, which involves returning all the material for a much inferior position, with the bishop self-isolating on a6 and White's kingside pawn majority ready for a trip to the seaside.

The course of the game was even worse. In the final position, my opponent – still material up (rook and three pawns for two bishops) – resigned because his king and king's rook were in an enforced and permanent lockdown.

I tried to think of something to say about face masks and support bubbles as well, but I guess I've pushed the metaphor far enough.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

064. The Box of Pawns

Black: bobby fissure - thematic tournament,, 2007

In a just-finished game I had the small pleasure of creating the “box of pawns”. Two sets of doubled pawns on adjacent files – created by two pawns, three files apart, capturing towards each other – can sometimes be arranged in a little square or “box”. In my game this occurred on e4, e5, f4 and f5. Unfortunately, it was in a Sicilian and hence not blog relevant.

Not wishing to be deterred, I've searched through my game databases looking for other instances and found three more. Two were “over the board” and hence not applicable either, but there was one in an online game. It was only an incidental box, lasting for a single ply, as a pawn recapture removed it at once. Nevertheless, a box is a box, so here it is in all its temporary glory:

The game itself isn't too interesting. I was already winning when my opponent left the queen en prise. And it featured the KGA Modern Defence with 3...d5. I tend to roll my eyes, often literally, whenever this line is proposed as an “antidote” to the King's Gambit. Sure, it's perfectly fine for Black, who can look forward to theoretical equality. But Black can count on at least that with virtually any defence to the King's Gambit.

So, in effect, the Modern means returning a dubiously donated pawn for an equality Black already has anyway. I'm rolling my eyes now just at the thought of it.

Monday, 18 May 2020

063. Four Exchange Sacrifices

Black: Decus Tutamen - all-play-all tournament,, 2020

Theory advances inexorably. In the Traxler, for instance, 5 d4, which used to be considered totally harmless, now appears to be the critical move. IM Panayotis Frendzas has proselytized for it on the forums, and that led me to try out 5 d4 myself as White in online thematic tournaments. My score: P14 W12 D2 L0. As someone who generally plays this as Black, those results are not encouraging.

As it happens, I've faced 5 d4 twice too during the same period – and managed to defend the position after 5...d5 6 Bxd5 Nxd5 7 dxc5 Ndb4 8 a3 Qxd1+ 9 Kxd1 Na6 10 b4 Nd4, but it's not the most fun I've ever had – and White can probably improve anyway.

Instead, the game below followed some analysis by Stefan Bücker (whether my opponent knew it or not), where White sacrifices the exchange for two pawns and far greater activity (given that Black's remaining pieces are all on the back rank).

More exactly, we followed it up to a point because, rather than accept the exchange straight away, my opponent first sacrificed the exchange himself (with 13...Rxf3!?). This led to equal material – but not equality.

Black's king is still stuck in the middle and he has a weak e-pawn. The one point in his favour is that the white a-pawn is also weak, which means endings are not hopeless for Black. So, rather than liquidate, I played for an attack on the kingside. This my opponent neutralized by sacrificing another exchange (27...Rxg5), leading to another endgame where my extra material was not enough to win, even after the queens came off.

Well, perhaps I could have played more strongly somewhere. Stockfish is keen on 24 a3!? for some reason. But a game is a game. The only move I actually regret not playing is 38 Qxd3+, because a plausible line then runs 38...Kc8 39 g3 Qh6 40 Qe3 Qh2+ 41 Kd1 Bf5 42 Qe8+ Kb7 43 Rxb5+! axb5 44 Qxb5+ Ka7 45 Qxf5 Qxg3 and White reaches a pawn-up queen ending.

It doesn't win either, please note. But at least that way I wouldn't have been outdone on exchange sacrifices.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

062. Computer Moves

Black: remyrey - thematic tournament,, 2020

“I don't think I'll try 8 Bd3 again” was my conclusion to Game 60. However, I was playing another game with it at the same time.

In this one I opted for 9 h4, followed by 9...h6 10 Qh5 Qf6 11 Nh7!?. As I said to my opponent: “I just played it because it looked so silly”. Of course it's a complete patzer's move. Black just takes the knight and then boxes in the bishop with ...g7-g6. Why would White allow anything like that?

Of course it's a computer move. 11 Nh7 is the type of startling, anti-intuitive idea very typical of an engine. And because we all have engines now, it's been seen several times before. White generally ends up with rook and two pawns for two minor pieces, which is okay, if no more than that.

Concrete computer analysis continues 11...Rxh7 12 Bxh7 g6 13 Qe2! Nf4 14 Qf3 Bb7 15 Nc3 c5 16 Ne4 Qg7, assessed as equal after any of 17 h5, 17 d4 and 17 d3.

And they've all been tried:

a) 17 h5 0-0-0 18 hxg6 fxg6 19 d3 Qxh7 20 Bxf4 exf4 21 Qxf4 was L.Simal Moreira-R.Cvak, correspondence 2017 (½-½, 34). Personally I'd rather have the two bishops here.

b) 17 d4 0-0-0 18 Bxf4 exf4 19 0-0-0 f5?! 20 dxc5! Rxd1+ 21 Rxd1 Bxe4 22 Qa3 was more promising for White in I.Popov-A.Moskalenko, Moscow 2018 (still ½-½, 74). I think Black's ...f7-f5 was mistimed; 17...f5 18 dxe5 fxe4 19 Qxf4 Qxh7 is preferable, and again the minor pieces seem superior to me.

c) 17 d3 f5 18 Qg3 0-0-0 19 Bxf4 exf4 20 Qxg6 fxe4 21 Qe6+ Kc7 22 Bxe4 Bc8 23 Qg6 Qxb2 was G.Legemaat-C.Steinert, correspondence 2018 (1-0, 43). The result is irrelevant, as Black abandoned the game in a favourable position.

I decided on line ‘c’, then deviating with 21 Qxg7. With the queens off White's extra rook has more chances to show its quality. Indeed, it was Black who chose to force the draw (½-½, 31). Still, a draw is still a draw.

I don't think I'll try 8 Bd3 again.

Monday, 9 March 2020

061. Alekhine's Pop Gun

Black: K. Kitson - C&DCCC Ward-Higgs Trophy, 2020

Alekhine's Gun is an arrangement of the heavy pieces, a tripling (a syzygy) of queen and rooks on one file with the queen at the back.

With tripling, the queen more often goes between the rooks, which tends to be more effective. The front rook can then smash through a barrier, allowing the queen to appear in the breach, supported by a second rook behind.

Whereas – in the absence of any sitting ducks (Alekhine himself was lined up against a pinned knight) – The Gun seems to do very little besides gaze down its file, which is an overconcentration of forces in a single direction. It has featured eight times in my praxis and never yielded one victory for its constructor (even from move 33 in this game). And in the game below, the gun never got to fire at all.

After 29 Qd1, White has built The Gun and is ready to shoot with 30 dxc6, uncovering an attack on the d6-pawn.

Or should Black pre-empt that by playing 29...c5, White can take some time to prepare a queenside break with c2-c3 and b3-b4, switching the heavy pieces to the b-file.

Instead, my opponent (who had previously played ...Bg4-d7-f5-h7-g8) opted simply to return his bishop to h7 again. This manoeuvre rendered the gun impotent since, with the e4-knight now pinned, 30 dxc6? bxc6 would not be a good idea for White.


Seeing nothing else to do, I made a nothing move and offered a draw.

Monday, 24 February 2020

060. Drawing With Someone Else's Moves

Black: Reprimand - thematic tournament,, 2020

I recently set up a Two Knights Defence thematic at, in order to refine my theory even further. As Black I faced 4 d4 and 4 d3 (twice) and my theory was duly refined. As White I opted for 4 Ng5, with the currently fashionable variation 4...d5 5 exd5 Na5 6 Bb5+ c6 7 dxc5 bxc6 8 Bd3!?.

A database search (criterion: 2015-2020) for this position brings up an array of strong grandmasters on the White side, such as Aronian, Kovalev, Mamedov, Melkumyan, Nisipeanu, Piorun, Popov, Sethuraman, Shankland, Shirov, Vallejo Pons, Van Foreest, Vitiugov, Wang Hao, and Zhigalko. And Black has been defended by the likes of Carlsen, Caruana, Ding Liren, Grischuk, Matlakov, Vidit and so.

It certainly seems like 8 Bd3 can lead to very interesting play and mutual chances over the board, as is the case with the Two Knights in general. However, in a theoretical sense at least, 8 Bd3 seems to have been played out.

One crucial line was in fact played out three years ago: in the game P.Bobel-F.Vaillant, correspondence 2017, which ended up with rook + four connected passed pawns vs. rook + knight in the ending. Now, if the white general was in close attendance, the pawns would probably win. But he wasn't. Instead, the pawns were peasants with pitchforks helpless against the black cannon and cavalry. Hence a draw.

The game below followed Bobel-Vaillant as far as move 28, whereupon my opponent proposed peace. I could see no reason to play on. Hence a draw.

And all with someone else's moves.

I don't think I'll try 8 Bd3 again.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

059. The King Goes For a Stroll

White: Honeybunch - all-play-all tournament,, 2019

I used to try and defend the main lines of the Max Lange: 8 Re1+ Be6 9 Ng5 Qd5 10 Nc3 Qf5 11 Nce4 0-0-0 12 g4 Qe5 and so on. But that was a long time ago. Because...

Well, the positions are extremely complicated and – worse – it means playing on White's turf. I never like doing that. So I switched to the sideline 8...Kf8!?, as in ‘The King Steps Sideways’.

One slight annoyance is that White can pre-empt the king move by taking on g7 at once. Then theory runs 8 fxg7 Rg8 9 Bg5 Be7 10 Bxe7 Kxe7 (best) 11 Re1+ Be6 12 Re4 with more complications, again on White's turf. I don't much like that either.

I'm sure you'll have noticed the common factor in those two lines. Black blocks a rook check on e1 by sensibly developing the light-squared bishop to e6.

Right, so we won't do that after 8 fxg7 either. Instead, we'll send the king on a little walk: out to f6, capture the pawn on g7, and then drop back into the corner.

And it turns out that the king can stroll this path in blithe serenity — as long as the queen is ready to rush back and forth ensuring his safety: 15...Qg5, 17...Qd8! (a key novelty), 19...Qf6 (19...Nxf4? is far too greedy), 20...Qxb2, 21...Qg7, 23...Qxc3 and the various traps and tribulations – which concerned the king not at all – are finally past.

Caution: Special Agent Queen needs to be thoroughly prepared for her protection duties before being deployed in the field.