Thursday, October 25, 2007

Strategic Themes

One thing that I find crops up a fair amount in over-the-board praxis is that I'm playing along in a game in the early stages and my opponent suddenly springs a move that seems completely out of left field. Usually it's a move that has no relationship to established theory, and often there's something clearly positionally or strategically questionable about the move, but it can be amazingly difficult to refute or punish such moves. There's very little guidance for this problem in the literature, as on the professional level, I'm sure that the answers appear more-or-less self-evident, but I find that it's easy to get into trouble scratching away after a solution to a problem that is hardly as transparent as it seems like it ought to be.

Sometimes you can find an answer by instinct. In this mainstream opening position, I had an opponent who played 5...d5? a move that clearly defies the logic of the position. He's opening up the center when behind in development, and willfully fixing himself with an isolated pawn that will be hard to defend. Alright, so 6.exd5 exd5, and then I sat there wondering how I could hurry up and win the isolani. I felt that his play was so illogical that I ought to be grabbing material immediately. 7.Bb5 Bd7 (maybe Nge7 can work? It holds the Nc6 and d5 pawn, but it is just so slow.) 8.Nxd5 Nxd4 9.Bxd7+ Qxd7 10.Qxd4 Rd8 and now, though I was still able to emerge with my pawn, the position had become at the very least, threatening. I suppose that my play was still about right, but the point is that these problems are often more difficult than they appear at first glance.

Here is a position from my most recent game:For readers who've seen some of my recent postings, yes, a large number of my games with both colors seems to be hedgehogs these days... At this point, I think it was time for black to play 10...Nbd7, probably to be followed by b7-b6 and a q-side fianchetto. Instead, my opponent played: 10...e5?! He wanted to activate his c8 bishop, and presumably hoped to treat the position like a mainline Kalashnikov. I knew that this had to be unsound, but how to prove it?
11 Nf5 Bxf5
12 exf5 Nc6
13 Re1 h6
14 f4 Rfe8
15 Qf2 Rad8
Clearly, there have been some less-than-perfect moves by both players to bring us to this position, and I think that white is still objectively for favor, but the point is that the whole endeavor has taken on a considerable note of risk. It would be easy for white to lose control of the position, dropping c4 or one of the f-pawns, and then black's two central pawns could really tell in an endgame.
Here I played 16.Nd5 and good things happened, but after 16...Nxd5 17.exd5 Nd4 18.Be3 Bf6, matters are far from clear, and the position is dangling close to a black advantage. The point is that white's pawns are unstable and rather over-extended.
I suppose that the moral of something like this is that you really can't afford to get too self-confident with your decisions just because you know that the opponent is trying something unkosher. If you don't have a clear instinct for the refutation, even very improbable plans can cause trouble.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Precision Moves

Twice this week I have had experiences where a position that was optically strong for me required surprising precision in order to make progress. The first time, I found the right move and emerged victorious. The second time... ahem.
Here, with the white pieces, I felt that my queenside majority should provide a stable advantage. My two bishops were also pretty nice. My opponent had just played ...a6, which I felt was unnecessary and weakening, but it took some thought before I considered the move: 1.Qb3! I suppose that a move like this really should jump out as obvious, but it seems so counterintuitive to block your own majority. Now it's hard to come up with a good reply for black. For example, 1...Rd7 2.Bb6 Qc8 3.Bd4 Qc7 4.Bxf6 Bxf6 5.Rxd7 Qxd7 6.Rd1, and b7 is falling. My opponent played:
2.Rxd1 Rc8? The best move is kind of hard to spot here. 2...Re8 3.Bb6 Qb8 would have put up the best fight, but white is still crawling over the queenside. 2...Rb8 runs into 3.Bb6 Qf4 4.c5 e6 5.Ba7 +-
3.Qxb7 and I was comfortably better and went on to win.

In this position, I had what appeared to be a very impressive attack. I had just won the e7 pawn, and I got... well, careless. I played:
1.Bxe5? Rd8
19.Bxg7? Nxg7 And only now did I realize that a consolidating move like Qc2 would run into a rook skewer on e8. I ended up sheding the pawn back to survive, and the game quickly petered out into a draw.

Instead, I had to play 1.fxe5, preserving the bishop to maintain my surprising pressure on the dark squares. From here, the lines are fascinating. For example, 1...Rc7 2.b4 Qa4 3.Nd5 Rc8 4.Qd1 and black is completely busted, 1...Rb7 2.Bc5!, 1...Rd8 2.Nd5 Qa3 3.cxb5 with the threat of Bc5! Obviously the trouble with these lines is that the key idea is different in each variation depending on how black replies, and I was just being... lazy.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Playing Ugly

Yes, well, I've been trying to rebound for some time now - thought I had it again a few weeks back, but I keep coming down to earth. I think, finally, that I would have to identify rusty (read inconsistent) tactics as the biggest problem. Here are a couple of unpleasantries that I put myself through this weekend:

Hedgehog structures seem like a nice, safe place to begin for a player trying to find his feet. They're stodgy, slow, rather positional - they emphasize ideas rather than concrete strings. So here, I am behind the black side of one:
What's going on you ask? Well, I've weakened my queenside dark squares for a shot at some play down the long diagonal. The bishop on g7 also protects my king against possible pawn storms. The trick here is going to be to figure out what to do with my queenside bishop. I also need to make sure to keep an eye on the d6 pawn, as it can become weak in a hurry.
Okay, so he wants to exchange off the dark square bishops. How do I feel about this? Don't like it. If I had really thought about this carefully, I might have tried to leave my bishop on e7. I know that it's theoretically okay to have the bishop on g7 here though, so what now? Well, I thought I would get cute:
12...Nh5!? or ?!
13.Nde2 Ne5
So, I'm still trying to hold up that Bh6 move.
14.b3 b6?!
Probably Rfd8 I think. I was starting to lose track of the dark squares.
15.Rfd1 Bb7?
Whoops. It's about finished here - or at least it's going that way. There's no safe way to deal with both weaknesses.
And now, head in my hands, I sat there and thought long and hard, and came up with:
Like I say, it was an ugly weekend. Remarkably, I managed to hold this game, though it was as much my opponent's fault.
18.cxb5 Qb8
19.b6? d5
20.exd5 Bxd5
21.Rc7 Nhf6
22.Rdc1 Rd8
23.Nf4 Bb7
24.Qa5? e5
Ahh, a slim pulse has returned. It's not much though, as the threat of Nd5 is empty - he doesn't have to move the rook!
What? Ambition... This is a cute idea that he had, but unfortunately, it simply doesn't work.
25... Qxb7
26.Rc7 Qb8
27.b7 exf4
28.bxa8(Q) Qxa8
29.Bxf4 Qd5
And now, seeing as I had about 24 minutes and he had 7, I thought he would take my draw offer, and he did. Certainly, he is still meaningfully better with the extra pawn, but I have good holding chances now.

This position is from the following round. I had black again, and this time had taken active part in a rather obscure opening discussion that led to an unusual position from the Symmetrical English. With the benefit of subsequent analysis, I think that the best move here might well be 7...d5!? with many complications to follow. That's not the kind of thing that I'm likely to play without some kind of knowledge in advance though, so I opted to steer this game into the structure of the previous one... I should have learned something from the experience of that game though...
7... d6
8.0-0 Be7
9.Nc3 a6
And I'm already kind of shaky. a6 is often necessary in positions with a queen on b6 so that if she gets kicked back to c7 by Be3, she won't then get walloped further by Nb5. Here though, Be3 and then Na4 is pretty nasty. Looking at this threat absorbed a fair amount of my attention, as I worked on Nd7 and how I would have to go about extricating my white-squared bishop. Consequently, I never even looked at another looming threat.
10... Qc7
11.Rc1 0-0?
Absolutely necesary was 11... Ne5 with a fine position.
And now I'm toast - just like that.

Chess can be painful!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Finding My Form

Well, I kind of brought my head above water again with that great tournament I had a few weeks back. Then I submerged for a while... Two losses in succession, one of them where I simply dropped a piece due to some wretched calculating, and then I had a rather embarrassing weekend where I came away with .5/4, but to be fair, I was pressing at that event, trying to do too much in most of the games, and looking for violence when I should have been taking deep, slow breaths.

This month has brought some games against weaker opposition at last, and they have had a calming effect on my play. Somehow, I'm working to find a rhythm again, to remember just what it takes to win and not lose, to press without over-reaching.

In this position, with the black pieces, I had already wrapped up a win, but there remained some question over just how long it would take me to convert. With great amusement though, I found:
1... a3
2.Ra4 a2!
Which works of course because of the skewer threat.
3.Kf2 Rh1

I had been a long, grueling fight, and it was nice to close out in style.

In this position, with the white pieces, I had what I thought should have been a comfortable positional edge, stemming principally from my permanent knight on d5. However, I think that my kingside advances were rather more loosening than I had intended, and now I began to worry about a potential break on the f-file.
28.Kg2 Qe6
29.g5 Rf8
And, trying to stick to my guns, I have seriously failed to prevent an f-break.
30.h5 h6!?
I rather expected 30...f6, which I suspect would have been stronger than the game continuation. I had calculated 31.hxg6 fxg6 32.gxf6 Bxf6 33.Qg3, and felt that I should still have a little something, but not so much as I would have liked. The trouble is that my knight is going to be destabilized if the center opens up and the major pieces fail to come off.
31.Rh1 f5This was a key moment. We were in mutual time trouble, and I hedged my bets that if I took on f5 he would fail to take back with the queen. Objectively, 32.gxf6 is probably better, but I felt that 32.exf5 would give me greater practical chances.
32.exf5 Rxf5?
Here, 32...Qxf5 would have called my bluff, as I can't play 33.Nf6+ now because the queen is simply too dangerous to loose on my naked king. I end up losing a rook in the check patterns in those lines. Instead, play might have gone 33.Qxf5 Rxf5 34.gxh6 Bxh6 35.hxg6 Rg5+ with relative equality heading into the endgame. I lucked out though - for a change.
33.Nf6+ Bxf6
34.Qxb7 Rxg5+
35.Kf1 Qg4
36.Rxd6 Qf4
37.Qa8+ Kh7
38.hxg6+ Kxg6?
This makes it easy. Rxf6 would have been much feistier.
39.Qg8+ Kf5
Missing all of the good moves. 40.Rxf6 was cute, as was 40.Qh7+, but it was the time control move...
40... Kg6
41.Qg8+ Kf5
42.Qh7+ Rg6
43.Rh5+ Bg5
44.Qxg6+ 1-0

So, things are looking up for the moment. Nothing too impressive, but I imagine that a few more wins, a little more confidence, and maybe I can start to work on churning out something to really write about again!