Monday, January 7, 2013

Pieces Schmieces

Last weekend at the Tim Just Winter Open, I was up a piece in three games and only won one of them.  However, I also managed to win a game when I was down a piece so I wound up with two wins, two draws, and one loss.

Let's start with my first round game in which I screwed up the opening against a player who was lower rated by 300 points.

The game transposed into the Symmetrical Variation of the English Opening 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 O-O 5.d3 c5.  I had beaten Robert Moskwa last year at a tournament in Skokie by pushing my b-pawn so I figured that the same strategy would work against this guy.  6. a3 Nc6 7. Rb1 e6 8. b4 cxb4 9. axb4 d5 10. b5 Ne7 11. c5 Nd7.  I was aware that my knight on c3 was loose and I had planned on playing 12. Na4, but for some reason the idea of playing 12. d4? popped into my head and I did so without giving it much thought and was unpleasantly surprised when my opponent whipped out 12...Nxc5.

This would of course have been a good time for a long think after which I would no doubt have resigned myself to being down a pawn, but that is not what I did.  Instead, I played the first move that popped into my head, 13.Nxd5?? to which my opponent replied 13...Nxd5. 


Now instead of being down a mere pawn, I'm down a whole piece.  After 14.dxc5 Nc3 15.Qxd8 Rxd8, I cannot move my rook because Black is threatening mate on d1 and 16.Bg5 f6 17.Rc1 fxg5 still leaves me down a piece.  14. Bxd5 Qxd5 15. Nf3 gets rid of Black's immediate threat, but I don't want to trade any pieces unless I absolutely must because I am going to need everything I've got if I'm to have a chance to save the game.  After forty minutes of thought, I finally decided on 14. Qc2 and I was greatly relieved when my opponent played 14...Nd7? almost immediately.  Had he played 14...Bxd4, I suspect I might have resigned in another move or two. 

It makes sense to play more defensively when ahead on material, but this move allows me to complete my development in relative peace. 15.e4 N5b6 16.Ne2 Nf6 17.O-O Bd7 18.Ba3 Rc8 19.Bc5 Re8.  

The worst thing about being down a piece is the friends and acquaintances who stop by your board to see what a mess you have made of your position.  At this point, at least it looks like I have some compensation for the material deficit as Black's position is pretty passive. My goal at this point was to keep his pieces bottled up for as long as I could in the hopes that he would get frustrated by the fact that the win wasn't coming as easily as he hoped.  20.Qa2 Ra8 21.Qb3 Bf8 22. Rfd1 Rc8  I was very happy to see my opponent shuttling his pieces back and forth even though I wasn't really making any progress.  Just maintaining the status quo is all I need to do to increase his frustration.  At some point, he probably should have tried to open up his position with something like ...e5 but he was mindset was thoroughly defensive by at this point.   23.Rbc1 Rc7 24.Nf4 Qc8 25.Nd3 Rd8 26.Ra1 Na8?  

When your opponent puts his knight in the corner, you know that he having trouble coming up with a constructive plan.   Grabbing the pawn with 27. Rxa7 b6 28. Rxc7 Qxc7 29. Bxf8 Rxf8 may be objectively best, but the exchanges might have made him feel like he was making progress.  By this point, I was actually ahead on time by a couple minutes despite the forty minutes I had consumed on my fourteenth move.  27. Qb2 b6 28. Bxf8 Rxf8 29. d5 Ne8 30. Ne5 Ng7 31. Nc6.

Now it was my opponent's turn to blunder horribly.  He told me after the game that he had spent so much time thinking about the consequences of 31...Bxc6 that in his mind's eye the d7 square was unoccupied.  As a result, he thought he could safely exchange pawns on d5.  31...exd5??  Unfortunately he couldn't. 32. Ne7+ 1-0

What lessons can be learned from this game:

(1)  No matter how much higher rated you are than your opponent, you cannot ignore development.
(2)  Being unable to win a won position is very frustrating.  If you can keep pieces on the board and maintain the status status quo in a bad position, your opponent's frustration will grow.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

When to Avoid a King and Pawn Ending

As a rule, you should never trade down to a king and pawn ending unless you are sure you know how to achieve the result that your are playing for.  If you are playing for a draw, you better be sure that the king and pawn ending is drawn, and you better be sure that it's won if you are playing for a win.  Otherwise, you are better off keeping pieces on the board.

Here is a perfect example from Prospect's match against Barrington.  With rooks on the board, the ending was likely a draw even though White would be down a pawn, but the king and pawn ending with even material was lost for White.

Pos. 1

After 33. Kf4 bxa5 34. Re8+ Kf7 35. Rb8 Rb3, Black is going to find it very difficult to capitalize on his extra pawn.

Pos. 2

The problem for Black is how to get his rook out from in front his b-pawn without losing it once he gets the pawn close to queening as in Pos. 3.
Pos. 3

If the White king were on f3, Black could play 1...Rf1+ followed by 2...b1=Q.  If the White king were on f2, Black would have the tricky 1...Rh1! 2.Rxb2 Rh2+! winning the White rook.  However, if the White king stays on g2 or h2, or in front of its pawns on g4 or h4, the Black rook can't move without losing the b-pawn.  That means that the Black king will have to come over to help, which will give the White king a shot at the Black pawns.

Unfortunately, White played 33. Re3?  After 33...Rxe3e+ 34. Kxe3 axb5 35 Kd4 Kf7 36. Kc5 Kf5 37. Kxb5 Kf5, White got his pawn back but his position was dead lost because he could not stop the Black king from getting at his remaining pawns and his king is too far away to get at the Black pawns.

Pos. 4

Even if the Black pawn were a file closer on c5 as in Pos. 5, the position would still be lost for White.

Pos. 5
The problem for White is that it still takes him three moves to get to the Black pawn, which leaves him insufficient time to get back to protect his own pawns. After, 35 Ke4 Kf7 36. Kd5 Kf5 37. Kxc5 Black would just have to be careful to play 37...Ke5 rather than 37...Kf5 (as in Pos. 4) in order to prevent the White king from blocking the Black king's path with 38.Kd4.

Pos. 6
In order to be able to draw this ending, White would need the Black pawn to be both a rank and a file closer on c4 as in Pos. 7.  

Pos. 7

Now the White king has time to capture the Black pawn and to get back to block the Black king from getting to the White pawns.  35 Kd4 Kf7 36. Kxc4 Kf5 37. Ke3.

Pos. 8
Remember:  Rook endings are notoriously drawish.  Don't trade off a well placed rook just to win back a pawn unless you are sure that the resulting king and pawn ending is good for you.

Friday, November 30, 2012

This Game Will Drive You Nuts

In most sports and competitive activities, the outcome of a game or a match is rarely determined by a single minor oversight.  If a basketball player misses a switch on defense and allows an easy basket, there will be chances to get the point back unless it is the last play of the game.  If it is the last play of the game, there were likely many missed opportunities earlier in the game that could have changed the outcome.  Even in low scoring games like soccer, a loss is usually the result of multiple errors.  The goalie might have been faked out, but there were likely several defensive chances that were missed by the other players as well.

In chess on the other hand, it is not unusual for a player to find himself in an almost completely untenable position as the result of a single, relatively minor, oversight.  A case in point occurred 5th Board in Prospect's 40.5-27.5 victory over Hoffman Estates yesterday.  Ekrem "Echo" Genc managed to win a pawn with some speculative moves in the opening and continued his aggression with 11...c5?!

It is easy to see the appeal of this move.  Black would love to see 12.dxc5 Bxc5 when he readies his own castling and prevents White from doing so.  If White doesn't trade, Black will simply pile the pressure on the d-pawn with ...Nc6.  Somewhat safer would have been 11...Nc6 with the intention of castling long, but according to my chess engines, it's only a slightly better move.

It is hard to imagine that Black is going to find himself faced with incredibly difficult decisions within a couple of moves, but that is precisely what happened after  12.Bg2 Nc6 13.0-0 Qe3+ 14.Kh1 cxd4 15.Qa4!.

Despite being down two pawns, White has managed to create pressure on c6 is that almost unbearable.  Echo spent better than fifteen minutes here before coming up with 15....0-0-0?.  Watching the game, I thought that this might be Black's best move, but it turns out that he has no good response to 16.Rac1.  I thought 16...Kb8 might be alright, but it loses to 17.Rxc6! bxc6 18.Ne5!  Echo decided to support the knight with 16....Kc7 but went down to defeat after 17.Qxa7 Rd6 18.Nxd4 when all of White's pieces were zeroing on the Black king.

So what lessons can we learn from this game?  According to the computer, 11...c5?! wasn't a terrible move, but computers calculate tactics much more quickly and accurately than humans.  Perhaps the most important lesson is to never underestimate the dangers of leaving your king in the center.  However, a second lesson is on the difference between opposite colored bishops in the end game and in the middle game.  When the only pieces left are bishops that travel on squares of opposite colors, the positions tend to be extremely drawish.  However, in the middle game, the player who is attacking can gain a great advantage from the fact that his opponent's bishop cannot defend key squares.

Another important lesson is to be vary wary about evaluating your teammates' positions.  After the match, Mike Monsen told me that he played less aggressively in his own game because he didn't think that Echo would do any worse than draw with two extra pawns, which would be enough for Prospect to win the match.  He did not recognize (just as I did not recognize) that White had plenty of compensation for those two pawns.  Had it not been for Prospect's comeback on 6th Board, the draw on 2nd Board would have left Hoffman Estates the winner of the match 34.5-33.5.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Basic Lessons in the Italian Game: 3rd Board v. BG

It seems like I have written this post several times, but of course, there are always new players who haven't seen it.  1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 is generally known as the Italian Game (although some consider the Italian Game to start only when Black replies 3...Bc5).  It is a very sound means of development that can lead to a a number of very exciting variations like the Evans Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack as well as a couple of more sedate continuations.  One of the weakest replies is 3...h6?! which I have seen played many times in my years of coaching high school chess.

The main problem with this move is that it doesn't develop a piece and lack of development can be fatal in many of the sharp lines in this opening.  In addition to being a non-developing move, it is a non-developing move that blocks a threat that doesn't need to be blocked.  The reason 3...h6 gets played is that Black is afraid of 3...Nf6 4.Ng5, however after the mainline moves 4...d5 5.exd5 Na5!?, Black's position is considered perfectly playable.

Black has sacrificed a pawn, but he has very active piece play as compensation.

Of course, sacrificing a pawn so early in the game as Black is not to everyone's taste.  (It's not to mine!)  Hence, Black's other main move 3...Bc5.  Note that 4.Ng5?? loses to 4...Qxg5.  If White delays the knight sortie with 4.0-0 Nf6 5.Ng5, Black simply replies 5...0-0.

Now Black is ahead in development.  So what should White do if Black wastes a move with 3...h6?  The best way to take advantage of a lead in development is to open the position up and attack. 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0 Bc5 6.c3!? looks like fun to me.

On 3rd Board in the Buffalo Grove match, White played the perfectly reasonable 4.c3 d6 5.d4 and Black played 5...Be7.  White replied with the disappointing 6.d5?!

This move is disappointing for both tactical and strategic reasons.  The tactical reason is that White could have won the f7 pawn with either 6.Qb3 or 6.dxe5 dxe5 7.Qb3.  The strategic problem with the move is that by closing the center White will have a much harder time exploiting his lead in development.

The other question to ask is "What's the rush?"  Even if closing the center is desirable, there is no need to do it now because Black sure isn't going to want to prevent it by exchanging pawns.  For example, after 6.0-0 exd4 7.cxd4, White has an absolutely lovely position with dominant central pawns and c3 available for his knight.

There was no reason for White to release the tension so soon.  By maintaining his lead in development, he could have kept Black guessing about his intentions.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Some Games from the Buffalo Grove Match

Prospect Edges Buffalo Grove

In its tightest match of the year, Prospect beat Buffalo Grove 35.5-32.5.  As in the Schaumburg match, the lower boards saved the day.  Playing in his first match since the soccer season ended, Robert Moskwa won on 1st Board, but Buffalo Grove won on 2nd, 3rd and 4th.  Prospect squeaked by with wins on 5th, 6th, and 7th, and a draw on 8th.

There were many good lessons to be learned. 

Lesson 1:  Gambit Play

I have no objection to players trying out sharp gambits as long as they are prepared for the fact that they may find themselves behind by a lot of material if they don't find the right continuation. On 3rd Board, Prospect's Marc Graff decided to venture the Traxler Gambit against Buffalo Grove's Anna Shabayev.  The Traxler arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc5 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5!? and is considered reasonably sound but it is very complex and since Black may be called upon to sacrifice as much as a rook, he better find the best moves over the board.

5.Bxf7+!?, where White is content to grab a pawn and misplace Black's king, is generally considered to be the strongest reply to the Traxler, but Anna played 5.Nxf7 which is considered to give Black the better chances.  One of the mistakes that players sometimes make when trying to learn a new opening is concentrating too much on the moves for the other side that the books say are strongest.  Since players often don't play the strongest moves, it is important to know why the weaker moves are considered the weaker moves and how to take advantage of them.  Marc responded correctly with 5...Bxf2+, but after 6.Kxf2 Nxe4+ 7.Kg1, he slipped up with 7...Qf6?

7...Qf6? threatens mate on f2, but the problem is that this is the only thing that the move does.  When you've sacrificed a bishop and you've got a rook hanging, you need to find moves that multitask.  In this case 7...Qh4 is the strongest move.  Besides threatening mate, it protects the Black knight on e4.   After 8.g3 Nxg3 9.Nxh8, Black's strongest is 9...Nd4!

Positions like this are why the Traxler is seen more often in correspondence chess than it is in over-the-board play.  After 7...Qf6?, White played 8.Qe2 and Black was unable to generate any more threats and simply found himself down two pieces.  He eventually managed to get one of them back and fought on gamely for 63 moves but in the end the material he sacrificed in the opening was the difference.

As painful as this loss was for Black, it is no reason to give up on the Traxler.   With more preparation and more practice games, it can still be a dangerous weapon.

Lesson 2:  Sometimes Threatening a Queen with a Knight is Not So Scary.  

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your threat dictates your opponent's reply only to be surprised to find that he can create threats that out weigh yours.  Prospect's 5th and 8th Boards learned that the hard way.

On 8th Board, Prospect's Brad Thomson thought he had given Buffalo Grove's Cory Moy something to worry about by attacking his queen with 21.Ne5 only to find his own queen under attack after 21...Bxb5 and it was White who a piece.

On 5th Board, Mike Morikado forked White's king and rook with 26...Nd2, but soon found that he was the one losing material after 27.Qd3+ Kh8 28.Rc4!

No matter how threatening your move may seem, unless it's a check, there is always a possibility that your opponent can ignore it because he has counter threats of his own that are stronger.  Make sure you have considered all your opponents checks and captures.

Lesson 3: A Neat Tactic

My favorite move of the match came on 5th Board where Mike Morikado, who despite losing a knight, managed to parlay his extra pawns into the following winning position.  Unfortunately, he only had a minute left on his clock.

According to the computer, Black's strongest moves are 59...a3 and 59...e3, but both moves leave White with two pieces on the board which means two pieces that Black has to watch, increasing the possibility of an oversight.  59...Rc1+!! cleans up the position beautifully however.  If 60.Nxc1 dxc1=Q+ and the queen will have no trouble escorting home the a-pawn or e-pawn or both.  After 60.Kg2 d1=Q 61.Rxd1 Rxd1, Black had no trouble forcing White to give up his knight for the a-pawn after which Black simply brought his king up to wipe out the rest of White's pawns.