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.