21 October 2013

Annotated Game #106: A first Nimzo-Larsen

The following game was the first one I actually played in the current Slow Swiss tournament in the Slow Chess League, the other two unfortunately being forfeits by my opponents.  The game was rewarding in several aspects, though, so was worth the wait.  For one, it was my first Nimzo-Larsen (1. Nf3 followed by 2. b3) and I like the opening for White although I've never played it.  As Black, I was at least acquainted with the main ideas that White normally pursues, which are to undermine any center constructed with active piece play, so I decided not to give my opponent any obvious targets.  The Slav setup that results I think is a good one for Black without any weaknesses, although it is unambitious and not likely to give obvious winning chances either.

The positional maneuvering game turned more violent after White's ambitious pawn break in the center on move 15, which created some potential threats for him (including a possible mate on h7 later on) but also left his position looser, something which became clear after he played 23. f4.  I thought during the game that he was being over-optimistic about his attacking chances and leaving behind vulnerabilities.  Despite this, the game was dynamically equal until I (under major time pressure) played 27...Be1.  The one correct continuation for White after 28. Re3 would lead to an endgame with technically balanced material (two bishops vs. rook and pawn) but that would favor White's chances.  However, my opponent failed to see the subsequent bishop check on f2, then the necessary (and not obvious) tactic to follow, so I ended up the exchange and a pawn, sufficient to win the endgame after forcing some exchanges.

Aside from the time pressure lurch on move 27, I feel I played a solid game and adhered well to my thinking process requirements, so it was a positive experience overall.  In practical terms, without my 27th move and its creation of threats, I may well have only ended up with a draw, so this is another example of the quirks of chess performance in practice.

[Event "Slow Swiss #9"] [Site "Chess.com"] [Date "2013.10.17"] [Round "?"] [White "Yamaduta"] [Black "ChessAdmin_01"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A12"] [WhiteElo "1507"] [BlackElo "1483"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Houdini"] [PlyCount "94"] [EventDate "2013.??.??"] [TimeControl "45"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 {a noncommittal response, as the only thing it really rules out is the Dutch Defense.} 2. b3 {the Nimzo-Larsen Attack. The idea is to undermine and attack Black's center, whether one is established with e5/d6 or more ambitiously pursued with d5/c5. I chose instead to follow a line where White is not given an obvious plan.} d5 3. Bb2 c6 {entering a Slav-type setup. Unambitious, but it leaves White few obvious targets to work against.} 4. d3 Bg4 {after White's previous move, this is the only good square for the bishop.} 5. Nbd2 Nbd7 6. g3 e6 7. Bg2 Be7 8. O-O O-O {Black now has standard Slav setup, except with the bishop on g4 rather than f5. It provides a small space advantage and will also be difficult for White to challenge.} 9. c4 Rc8 { developing the rook to a useful square, also making the pawn exchange on d5 not terribly attractive for White.} 10. a4 {now out of the database; the text move was evidently aimed at restraining a potential ... b5 advance, which I was in fact considering. h3 or a3 are the two favored moves in this position, based on a small game sample.} a5 {seizing control of b4, now that the a-pawn can no longer cover it.} 11. Re1 Bxf3 {the light-squared bishop has little prospect and is therefore exchanged for one of White's good knights, also allowing Black's next move to have more bite.} (11... Bb4 {immediately also looks good, with somewhat different play, being Houdini's choice.}) 12. Nxf3 Bb4 {I debated earlier whether to try to occupy b4 with the bishop or a knight. The knight would have taken longer to deploy and the bishop usefully covers e1 from here, keeping the rook off the key e-file.} 13. Rf1 Qe7 {connecting the rooks, preventing a possible Ba3 to exchange off the Bb4, and adding the queen's weight to the e-file.} 14. Qc2 {supporting the e4 push and also allowing White to seize the b1-h7 diagonal, once it opens.} Rfe8 {with the idea of potentially supporting a push of Black's e-pawn. This however has the drawback of taking away a retreat square from the Nf6.} 15. e4 {with this rather ambitious pawn break, White injects some activity into his position and starts creating some threats. Black has to be careful about a possible mate threat on h7 later on, for example.} dxe4 {I thought the opening of the d-file would benefit Black.} 16. dxe4 {now the e5 push becomes a threat and should have been stopped immediately.} Rcd8 {I calculated that White could not get anything from an attack, but prophylaxis against the e5 advance was still better.} (16... e5) 17. Ng5 $6 (17. e5 Ng4 {I considered this to be OK for Black.} 18. h3 Nh6 {and the knight placement is awkward, but it cannot be trapped and has a nice square on f5 waiting for it.}) 17... e5 {I don't pass up the chance again to block the advance, which is now more critical with the knight on g5. The pawn on e5 requires protection, which is a little awkward, but at the same time it keeps the Bb2 out of the game.} 18. Rad1 Nf8 {thinking defensively, focused on the e5 pawn and the Ng5.} (18... Nc5 $5) 19. Bc1 { evidently seeking to redeploy the bishop to a more useful diagonal. However, this takes the pressure off e5 and allows Black's pieces more freedom.} Ne6 { I thought for a long time over this, with alternatives including ...Ng6. Ideally with the text move the knight would go to a strong outpost on d4, but White stops that by exchanging.} 20. Nxe6 Qxe6 21. Bd2 c5 {an alternative was retreating with ...Qe7, to maintain piece control of b4, which is Houdini's second choice. I still had thoughts of shifting the other knight to d4, the main reason behind the text move.} (21... Bxd2 22. Rxd2 c5 {is Houdini's preference, showing how the strongpoint on d4 can be properly exploited with .. .Rd4. For example} 23. Rfd1 Rd4 {and White cannot exchange without creating a strong central passed pawn for Black, who otherwise can build up on the d-file. }) 22. h3 {taking away the g4 square from the Nf6.} h6 {preventing Bg5. I was content to see what White would try next.} 23. f4 {this was something of a surprise to me, as it loosens White's position considerably and will expose the e-pawn to attack. It also indicated to me that White wanted to play for a win.} exf4 {otherwise f5 will be strong for White. Houdini agrees with the exchange, but assesses that the Bd2 should be exchanged off first; this makes sense, taking away the two bishops and not allowing the bishop to move to a better square on f4.} 24. Bxf4 Rxd1 {it is necessary to exchange on the d-file prior to capturing on e4 with the knight.} (24... Nxe4 $2 25. Rxd8 Rxd8 26. Bxe4) 25. Rxd1 Nxe4 {Houdini considers this the best sequence, but still rates it as equal, with White having compensation for the pawn. White must bring his pieces into play actively in order to obtain it, however.} 26. h4 $6 {allowing the Bg2 to move without leaving the h-pawn hanging. However, the pawn advance leaves additional holes.} (26. Rd5 $5) 26... b6 {similarly moving the b-pawn out of the way of the Bg2.} (26... Nc3 {looks interesting.}) 27. Rd3 Be1 $6 { I was down to about 2 minutes on the clock here and decided to go for the more active option that could pose more problems for my opponent, although it was unclear.} (27... Nf6 {I considered briefly and it seems easiest to play in objective terms, simply retreating out of danger.}) (27... f5 {was also a possibility that I considered, eventually deciding that I did not want to continue the struggle over the Ne4. Houdini considers it to be fine, however.}) 28. Re3 {my opponent mentioned that he missed the bishop fork; it is easier to miss seeing backwards movements for pieces. The surprise no doubt caused him to miss the best continuation.} Bf2+ 29. Kh2 $2 (29. Qxf2 Nxf2 30. Rxe6 Rxe6 31. Kxf2 {I think should be a draw in the endgame, although Houdini shows over a pawn equivalent plus for White. The two bishops could prove to be the winning edge, another argument for why Black should have exchanged the Bd2 off earlier.}) 29... Bxe3 30. Bxe3 Nf6 {finally the knight retreats safely. Black has a won game, being up the exchange and a pawn. The strategy at this point is to create threats against White's king. Even if White successfully defends, Black will have the opportunity to exchange off material and head into a won endgame.} 31. Bf4 Ng4+ 32. Kg1 Qe1+ 33. Bf1 Ne3 34. Qf2 Qxf1+ {Black forces the exchanges into the endgame.} 35. Qxf1 Nxf1 36. Kxf1 f6 {Black's bishop is increasingly constrained and the one point it can attack (b6) can be easily held by the rook on the 6th rank while Black's king is activated.} 37. Kf2 g5 38. Bc7 Re6 39. Kf3 Kf7 40. h5 f5 41. Bd8 {now the bishop is inevitably trapped.} Ke8 42. Bc7 Kd7 43. Bb8 Kc8 44. Ba7 Kb7 45. Bxb6 Kxb6 46. g4 fxg4+ 47. Kxg4 Rf6 0-1

14 October 2013

Commentary - Sinquefield Cup 2013, round 2

This next commentary post is from the second round of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup tournament in St. Louis; you can go here for the original ChessBase commentary.  (Over the past month I've saved several eye-catching international tournament games for review and am starting to work my way through them.)

While doing commentary on master-level games can't replace the analysis of your own games for improvement purposes, I've found that the two practices complement each other nicely.  The higher level of play involved in master games allows you to better see and understand how they choose and execute plans, something especially useful for me when looking at new opening ideas and making transitions to the middlegame.   While I do not (yet) play the Leningrad Dutch, I've studied it a fair amount and Carlsen (Black) in this game effectively takes advantage of some of Aronian's non-standard ideas to achieve a middlegame advantage, even if he was in the end unable to turn it into a victory.

[Event "Sinquefield Cup"] [Site "Saint Louis"] [Date "2013.09.10"] [Round "2"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A85"] [WhiteElo "2813"] [BlackElo "2862"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Houdini"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "2013.??.??"] [EventCountry "USA"] 1. d4 f5 {Carlsen has multiple variations of the Dutch Defense in his repertoire.} 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 g6 {Carlsen opts for the Leningrad variation, the most combative.} 4. Nc3 {g3 and the bishop fianchetto are normally standard at the master level, as this is considered most challenging to Black's setup.} Bg7 5. Bf4 {an atypical move, but lately the idea has enjoyed some popularity against the Dutch. White only scores around 44 percent with this, however.} d6 {continuing the standard Leningrad setup.} 6. e3 Nc6 { Black has tried a wide variety of moves in this position, with castling being preferred and ...c6 also popular. Playing ...Nc6 in the Leningrad can be viable, but is largely ignored by popular theory.} 7. Be2 (7. d5 {is the typical reaction against the Nc6 setup and why many Black players avoid the knight move, since it can be immediately chased away with uncertain repercussions. However, with the bishop on f4, Black would have the counterstroke} e5 {which is a core strategic idea that also works tactically here. For example:} 8. dxc6 (8. Bg5 Ne7 9. Be2 h6 10. Bxf6 Bxf6 $11) 8... exf4 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. exf4 Qe7+ {looks good for Black, whose pieces all have excellent prospects, despite being a (doubled) pawn down.}) 7... O-O 8. O-O Ne4 $1 {while the knight placement is certainly good for Black, the main idea here is to uncover the Bg7 and allow the key move ...e5 to follow.} 9. h3 e5 { also winning a tempo by hitting the Bf4. Black appears to understand very well how to exploit White's unusual bishop placement.} 10. Bh2 exd4 {by exchanging here, Black will remove the e3 pawn from the defense of f4 and the kingside.} 11. exd4 Ng5 {Black follows this up by targeting the d4 pawn via an attack on the defending Nf3.} 12. Nxg5 Qxg5 13. f4 {White pre-empts a Black ...f4 push and also chases Black's queen away from the king, although at the price of cutting off the Bh2 from the action.} Qf6 14. d5 {necessary to avoid the pressure, although this simply chases Black's knight to a good square.} Nd4 15. Kh1 c5 {an excellent idea, reinforcing the central outpost, or if White chooses to exchange on c6, opening the b-file and eliminating the central pawn. } 16. Bd3 {White chooses to get on with the re-development of his pieces, rather than exchange.} (16. dxc6 bxc6 17. Bd3 Rb8) 16... Bd7 17. Bg1 Rae8 ( 17... Rfe8 {would seem indicated if Black wants to play a subsequent ...Rb8. Perhaps Carlsen wanted to maintain the latent pressure on the f-file in the meantime.}) 18. Qd2 a6 {looking to play the undermining ...b5 push.} 19. Rad1 Rb8 20. a4 {Houdini considers this White's first significant error.} (20. Rfe1 $5) 20... Qd8 $15 {the queen is repositioned to take advantage of the weakened White queenside.} 21. Rb1 {White is now clearly on the defensive and Black's next series of moves powerfully capitalizes on his initiative.} Qa5 22. Qd1 Qb4 23. Bf2 Rbe8 24. Be1 Qb3 {Aronian now apparently felt he had little choice but to exchange off the dominant Qb3; however, Black's remaining pieces will continue to have a qualitative advantage.} 25. Qxb3 Nxb3 26. Bc2 Na5 $17 { switching to target the c-pawn, rather than return to d4.} 27. Bd3 Re3 28. Rd1 Rb8 $15 {instead of consolidating in the center, Carlsen tries to go for the .. .b5 break again.} (28... Nb3 29. Bf2 Re7 30. Bc2 Na5 31. Bd3 Bd4 {is one alternative possibility for central play.} 32. Bxd4 $2 cxd4 33. Ne2 Nb3 { and White loses a pawn.}) 29. Bf2 Ree8 30. Ra1 {positions the rook to take advantage of any exchange involving the a-pawn.} Bd4 31. Kg1 Be3 {Black here seems to accept the idea of a draw, with a number of exchanges now occurring.} 32. Bxe3 Rxe3 33. Rad1 Rbe8 34. Kf2 Nb3 35. Rfe1 Rxe1 36. Rxe1 Rxe1 37. Kxe1 Nd4 $11 38. Kd2 Kf7 39. Be2 Kf6 40. Bd1 a5 {and it is clear that neither side can make real progress.} 1/2-1/2

12 October 2013

Commentary - Tashkent FIDE Women's Grand Prix 2013, round 9

This next commentary is from round 9 of the women's FIDE Grand Prix in Tashkent.  The game caught my eye because of the unusual exchange sacrifice offered by White (but never accepted) and some of the thematic moves and "little tactics" that led Zhao Xue to win this game in the Symmetrical English against Kateryna Lagno.  Well worth the time to analyze.

[Event "FIDE WGP Tashkent"] [Site "Tashkent UZB"] [Date "2013.09.28"] [Round "9.1"] [White "Zhao, Xue"] [Black "Lagno, Kateryna"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A37"] [WhiteElo "2579"] [BlackElo "2532"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Houdini"] [PlyCount "85"] [EventDate "2013.09.18"] 1. c4 g6 2. Nc3 c5 {Black heads for a Symmetrical English variation. Other possibilities here would include a KID or Gruenfeld-type setup.} 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. g3 Nc6 5. Bg2 e6 6. O-O {White chooses the most common move, which is a solid line; d4 here would lead to a more active line with a pawn sacrifice. Interestingly, White only scores about 47 percent with the text move.} Nge7 7. a3 {both prophylactic against ...Nb4 and prepares an eventual b4 push. With this variation, a less frequently played one, White scores over 51 percent.} d5 {Black decides to commit in the center, rather than the more popular O-O.} 8. d3 O-O (8... dxc4 9. dxc4 Qxd1 10. Rxd1 Bxc3 11. bxc3 {is something a Class player might prefer, exchanging off as many pieces as possible with Black and inflicting doubled c-pawns on White. In concrete terms, however, White is left with the two bishops and the dark-square one is a monster, with Black's dark-square weaknesses beckoning. Play could continue} h6 12. Bf4 b6 13. Bd6 Bb7 14. Ne5 {and Black is already under significant pressure.}) 9. Bg5 { a thematic idea, designed to provoke a weakening Black pawn advance.} h6 10. cxd5 exd5 (10... hxg5 11. dxc6 Nxc6 {looks fine for White.}) 11. Bxe7 {the decision to exchange the dark-square bishop involves a tradeoff of time (in this case gained by avoiding a retreat) versus the two bishops, which Black now gains.} Nxe7 12. Rc1 Bd7 {this doesn't seem to be the best placement for the bishop. Playing it to e6 or eventually to b7 would keep it more active.} 13. b4 cxb4 {Black chooses to enter an IQP structure in exchange for greater piece activity.} 14. axb4 Qb6 $11 (14... a5 $15 {is what Houdini prefers here, immediately looking to create a passed pawn.} 15. bxa5 Qxa5) 15. Qb3 a5 16. Nxd5 {this tactical option was not possible in the previous variation, where the queen was on a5 instead of the more vulnerable b6 square.} Nxd5 17. Qxd5 Bc6 (17... Qe6 $5) 18. bxa5 $14 {another tactical follow-up exploiting the location of the Qb6.} Qxf2+ 19. Kxf2 Bxd5 {White is a pawn up here, with the passed d-pawn. Black has some compensation in terms of the two bishops and White's potentially weaker pawns.} 20. Rc5 Rfd8 21. Rb1 Bf8 22. Rcb5 Bc6 23. Ne5 {an excellent idea from Zhao and confirmed by Houdini. The exchange sacrifice is dangerous for Black to take.} Rdc8 (23... Bxb5 24. Rxb5 {the b-pawn will now fall as well.} Rac8 25. Rxb7 $16) 24. d4 $16 {passed pawns must be pushed!} Bg7 {based on the game continuation, this seems to be a loss of time, as the bishop will move back after a few moves.} (24... Bxb5 {the exchange sacrifice is still good for White, but at least Black would get rid of one of the powerful rooks on the queenside.} 25. Rxb5 Ra6 26. Bxb7 Rf6+ 27. Bf3) 25. Bxc6 bxc6 26. Rc5 {White takes advantage of the absence of the Bf8.} Ra6 27. Nf3 {choosing to consolidate rather than play more aggressively with something like Rb7.} Bf8 28. Rb6 {what masters call a "little tactic".} Rca8 ( 28... Bxc5 29. Rxa6 Bd6 $18 {and now it will be much easier for White to try and push through the passed a-pawn, whose queening square cannot be covered by the bishop.}) 29. Rcxc6 Rxa5 {although material is still even after the tactic, now nothing stands in the way of the d-pawn.} 30. Rb7 Ra2 31. Rcb6 Re8 32. Rb2 Raa8 33. Rc2 Bd6 {again a bishop move appears to lose time, as it could have moved directly to g7 instead of taking three tempi to do it per the game continuation. The idea appears to be that the bishop covers the e5 square, which it could also do from g7.} 34. Rd7 Ra6 35. Rb2 Bf8 36. Ne5 Bg7 {the f-pawn is protected tactically.} 37. Nf3 {given the lack of progress, one must think that White (and perhaps Black too) was looking to make a series of safe moves in order to save some time on the clock.} (37. Nxf7 $2 Rf6+) 37... Rae6 38. Rc2 Re4 39. Rd2 Bf8 $2 {this bishop is now truly a drag on Black's play. White immediately seizes the opportunity on e5, left uncovered by the bishop.} (39... g5 $5 {Houdini thinks that Black's best option is to try to generate counterplay on the kingside.}) 40. Ne5 $18 Bc5 {a desperation move.} (40... Bg7 $2 {no longer helps, now that Black's Re4 is cut off from assistance and vulnerable.} 41. Kf3 {and Black loses material.}) 41. Nxf7 (41. dxc5 {is also winning for White.} R4xe5 42. c6 Rc5 43. c7) 41... Bxd4+ 42. R2xd4 (42. R7xd4 $2 {White has no need to abandon the knight, as the e-pawn can be lost without damaging her winning prospects.} Kxf7 43. Rxe4 Rxe4 $14) 42... Rxe2+ 43. Kg1 { and now White is a full piece up and her king cannot be trapped.} 1-0

07 October 2013

How Irina Krush makes us feel better about chess

From GM-elect Irina Krush's Chess Life Online article about the Baku Open, where she gained the Grandmaster title.
Maybe the biggest [reason] is that despite not having a lot of confidence, for the most part I play like I do. I know my opponent's rating, but it's just a number, not my sentence. For me, chess is a fight, sixty four squares where you lay out everything you have, and I believe in my ability to fight, because it's really just a function of your ability to give everything you have, to put it banally, 'to do your best.' I want to make the maximum effort, whether that means pushing myself to find the best moves, being resilient in defense, or overcoming any psychological weakness that can come up during a game: inclinations towards cowardice, towards giving up in difficult positions, or slacking off in better ones. So while I just can't see myself to be very good in the actual playing of chess, I do come into every game with the belief that I can give it 100%, and that's probably not a lot less than what my opponents can bring. That's where my confidence comes from :)


05 October 2013

Chess performance and chess skills: not the same thing

The last two analyzed games (Annotated Game #104 and Annotated Game #105) provided a useful reminder that chess performance - by that, I mean a player's actual results in their games - is not necessarily a reflection of a player's chess skills.  This will not surprise longtime players, but it is still worth examining as a phenomenon.

It is said that there is no luck in chess, but that is not quite true.  Because it is a mental game (or sport), anything that affects our mental abilities on a particular day can significantly influence our performance at the board.  Life events, personal issues, random encounters and of course our physical health can all perturb our minds.  I recall that during one tournament, I drove about ten minutes away in order to pick up lunch and bring it back, with not a lot of time to spare before the next round.  Of course that was the time a police officer decided to pull me over for "aggressive driving" because I kept trying to beat the series of lights on the highway which were badly timed.  I hadn't in fact done anything wrong (wasn't speeding and hadn't run a light), so nothing happened to me, but I didn't have the best mental focus for the next round (also having to eat a cold lunch by that point).

Because your skills aren't going to improve while playing in a tournament (or an individual game), what therefore matters most about your performance is maximizing the use of what skills you already possess.  This requires concentration, focus and good judgment.  The flip side of this, of course, is that if you can disrupt your opponent's focus and judgment, your own relative winning chances increase.  I don't advocate intentionally annoying your opponent off the chessboard, but rather doing everything possible to disrupt their play on the chessboard.  This is especially needful when in objective terms you are losing.

As the analysis showed in the last two games, I was either objectively lost or at a serious material and positional disadvantage.  This indicates a failure of chess skills (thinking process, calculation, prophylaxis, etc.) but performance-wise I still won both games.  What happens when this kind of result occurs?
  • One could simply say that the winning player was lucky enough to execute a swindle.  This may be true, but doesn't help our understanding of why and how this "luck" was created.
  • Tenacity is essential for the initially losing and eventually winning player; for that reason, it was highlighted as its own category in my Chess Performance Inventory.  Annotated Game #104 was a great personal example, as I nearly gave up and resigned after Black's kingside breakthrough (which gave him an objectively won game), but made the deliberate decision to fight as hard as possible.
  • Although refusing to give up the fight is a necessary condition, it's obviously not sufficient in itself to disrupt your opponent's play.  Creating threats by obtaining active play for your pieces is absolutely essential, otherwise your opponent will have no trouble finishing you off.  In other words, give them an opportunity to go wrong with their subsequent play by ignoring your threats (the same way you got in trouble in the first place, no doubt.)
On a more sophisticated level one can use what GM Alex Yermolinsky in The Road to Chess Improvement calls "trend-breaking tools".  For example, a pawn sacrifice in return for enhanced piece play can let you seize the initiative and get more practical chances, even if a computer engine might indicate no difference in the evaluation (or perhaps a slightly worse one).  One characteristic of master games is how highly valued the initiative is, as the side which possesses it is the one making threats and dictating the course of the game.  Psychologically speaking it is almost always harder to defend than attack, even when an objective evaluation of the position might be completely neutral.

Something that is often mentioned by chess trainers, especially for players at the Class level, is how aggressive players with less knowledge of the game tend to win much more often than players with greater skills and understanding, but who play passively.  Naturally a too-aggressive player can and will over-press their opponent and lose, but it's worth reflecting on how their performance over time will still overshadow that of a too-passive player, who simply does not create enough opportunities for themselves.  It's much easier for a winning, aggressive player to then fill in the skills and knowledge gaps and thereby improve, than it is for the passive player to break out of their rut.

My own historical "playing style" was certainly more on the passive side.  One of the key aspects of improvement for me has been to break out of that stereotype and my more recent games have reflected that - although it's obvious a good deal of work remains to be done on my skills.