Sunday, October 3, 2010

Season Opener (2)

Monson v. Morgan 5th Board

Freshman Mike Monson’s game against Palatine’s Adam Morgan is perhaps the best played game on 5th Board that I have ever seen. Mike outplayed Adam in the opening to win a pawn, but Adam didn’t panic. Rather than take risky chances to turn the game around, he simply found strong moves that made Mike’s job as difficult as possible. Eventually, Mike’s inability to find a way forward led him to make his fatal mistake.

As often as not, when the advantage shifts from one player to the other on 5th Board, it is because one of them has blundered away material through some gross tactical oversight. What made this game so interesting is how the momentum changed as the result of subtle strategic points.

Diagram 1.

Here White saw the chance to win a second pawn and played 18.e5. Black cannot play 18…dxe5?? due to 19. Qxd8. The strategic error here is being too eager to convert a positional advantage into a material one (or in this case a bigger material one). At present, Black's pieces are all tangled up defending the weak pawn on d6. His knight is stuck on e8 which traps the rook on f8. White could activate his other rook with 18.Rhe1 or expand on the kingside with 18.h4 and Black would be hard pressed to respond. Unfortunately, 18.e5 was also a tactical mistake due to 18...Qg5+ 19. Kb1 Qxe5. After 20.Qxe5 dxe5 21.Bxb7, Mike is still up a pawn, but Black's pieces are no longer tied down to defending the glaring weakness on d6.

I cannot be too hard on Mike here. Even masters have a hard time deciding when to convert a positional advantage into a material advantage. Too early and the weaker side’s position is unnecessarily eased. Too late and the opportunity may slip away.

Diagram 2.

Here White played 26.a3 in order to create a sheltered spot for his king. The strategic problem here is the failure to make a transition from middle game to end game. In the endgame, the danger of a sudden checkmate is much less and the king becomes a powerful piece. White should be trying to activate and centralize his king, rather than protect it. Just as important, White's a, b, and c-pawns are only opposed by Black's a-pawn. They are much more valuable advancing as offensive units than they are as defensive units shielding the king. 26.c4 would get White's passed pawn moving as well as providing the White king a route towards the center.

Diagram 3.

Here White missed a chance to take firm control of the position with 29.Bd5. After 29...Re7 30.c4, Black has to figure out both how he is going to stop White's pawn as well as how he is going to extricate his knight. Instead, White played 29.Re2, but after 29…Rd7, the Black knight is more firmly established. I think White’s problem here is that the Black knight on d2 looks much more dangerous than it really is. White becomes fixated on ejecting it when he would be better off ignoring and advancing his own pawns. I have to admit though, that the knight looked pretty dangerous to me as I watched from the sidelines (although 29.Bd5 looked good).

I think this is a point that White might have recognized with a few minutes thought, but in a sixty minute game, a player has to allocate such long “thinks”. Sometimes it is obvious that a game has reached a crucial point where extra time is warranted, but it is hard to identify any particular feature in this position that might have suggested to White that an extra investment of time might pay dividends.

Diagram 4.

Here White played 31.c3, which really isn’t a bad move if his plan is to bring the bishop to c2 where it can target the Black pawns. However, since Mike’s plan was to bring his king over to oust the knight, 31.b3 would have been better.

Diagram 5.

Adam has given a very good demonstration of how to play when behind. Too often the player who is down tries to turn the game around quickly. Playing solid defense is preferable. Every move in which you can prevent your opponent from making progress is a victory in itself, especially if you can improve your own position. The cumulative effect of such moves is to cause your opponent to question whether his position is as good as he thought it was and whether he can actually figure out how to win it. This can create a feeling of panic that leads to mistakes.

Compare this position to the second Diagram. In seven moves, Black has created two very dangerous looking central pawns and White seems to have made no progress at all. Interestingly, White is still in good shape. If he simply brings his king over with 34.Kb2, he will have sufficient defensive capacity to stop the Black pawns and he can start advancing his own. However, feeling the game slipping away, White lashed out with 34.f3?? whereupon his position quickly fell apart.

When the advantage switches from one player to another on 5th Board, it is usually because one of the players has lost material through some unprovoked tactical oversight. This game is fascinating in the way the momentum shifted as the result of subtle strategic points. When the tactical oversight occurred, it was the result of Black's patient play over many moves.

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