Friday, November 20, 2009

Sometimes tournament chess is like getting hit upside the head with a huge fish

Those people who don’t play our royal game often imagine chess to be this detached, cerebral exercise. (Cue fiendish laughter here) For the last couple months, I’ve been getting settled in at my new job with Wolfram Research which has been great but has also left me with very few spare brain cells for appreciating chess. Which has meant that – through absolutely no fault of my own – in the few spare moments when I’ve tried to get this blog going again, my taste in games has gravitated towards games that are the Caissic analog of a roadrunner cartoon.

Case in point:
Victor Chubakov-Leon Shernoff Maroon Kings Tournament, University of Chicago, 2002

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4

The Geller Gambit (or Tolush-Geller Gambit), a sharp continuation that is considered unsound at the GM level, but not below. On the one hand, I’ve seen games where the young Kasparov lost as White; on the other hand, I was present at a tournament where perpetual “could be IM if I felt like it” David Gliksman used it (as white) to crush Igor Ivanov, who then immediately used it himself (even though of course it’s completely not in Ivanov’s style) to crush another IM in the last round. (Gliksman, if I remember correctly, drew with Michael Brooks in about 7 moves to share first place between them)

I used to play a gimmicky continuation invented by Smyslov, but gave it up because of bad results, even though I always got good positions. Also because I realized it was just unsound in one game (confirmed by John Donaldson in the post mortem), even though my opponent didn’t see it in the game.

5... b5 6. e5 Nd5 7. a4 e6

The main line. The other major continuation is 7...h6. Also possible is 7...Qa5 (according to my book, anyway) and 7...Be6 (Smyslov's continuation), with the idea of Nxc3, Bd5, and e6.

8. axb5 Nxc3 9. bxc3 cxb5 10. Ng5 Bb7 11. Qh5 Qd7

Okay, this is also a legitimate way to reach the main line (11...g6), but also a gimmicky sideline in its own right. White can't take 12.Nxh7 because after 12...Nc6 Black threatens sacrifices on d4. You’ll get the idea of what happens then from what happens here.

12. Be2 Bxg2 ??

Based on the results of this game, I have to say that this move is just losing, even though it had been played at the GM level before (and possibly since).

Black should just play 12...g6 to enter the main line. He then plays Be7 and goes for the setup with Bd5 and Nc6. I, however, had memories of Black grabbing this pawn thus keeping White's king in the center (see Kievelitz-Crouch, Decin 1996 at the end of this post), so I got over-ambitious.

Though, to be honest, I had another problem with the main line, in that book (at this point in time) had White able to force a repetition with stuff like 12...g6 13.Qh4 Be7 14.Qh6 Bf8 (if Black can’t castle, he’s doomed) 14.Qh4 Be7 (see previous comment) 15.Qh6, etc. I don’t know whether this assessment has changed in the meantime. But it seems like an attractive line for a lower-rated player, as Black either has to allow this draw or play one of these cheesy sidelines that subject him to a ferocious attack.

13. Rg1


Afterwards, I thought that better would be 13...Bd5, as in Kievelitz-Crouch. However, I was still hoping to get my Nxd4 sac in, so I left the d-file open. And in fact, Couch should have been vulnerable to the exact sort of continuation that I was here, but he wouldn’t have had the open d-file for counterplay (such as it is).

14. Nxh7 Nc6 15. Nf6+ gxf6 16. Qxh8 Nxd4!?

Quiz question #1: What is White’s best response to this move? Hint: there is a very, very, very clear answer. To help you avoid peeking, I will babble on for a little while to fill up the page.

My thought at the time was that objectively Black's just losing here, so he has to start the complications right away. 16...0-0-0 just hands Victor the correct line: 17.Rg8, and now if Black starts the same sort of fun with 17...Nxd4 Qxd4, White is always a capture ahead of him after, say, 19.Rxf8 Qxa1 20.Rxd8+ Kc7 21.Rd1

After the game, I said to Victor that this was similar to last year's game, in that after a certain point we entered a tactical flurry, and I prevailed in the period of mutual oversights. The interesting thing about this year's game is that neither of us realized how early that period began.

Okay, if you’re still looking for a hint, I’ll tell you that the most important feature of Black’s last move is that it gives up control of the b4 square, which means that black can’t push his b-pawn if he needs to.

Here, Victor can win with 17.Qxf8! Kxf8 18.Ba3+, giving Black the lovely choice between 18...Ke8 19.Rg8# and 18...Qe7 19.Bxe7+ Kxe7 20.cxd4, capturing the knight under, ummm, superior conditions.

Is the roadrunner theme becoming clear to you yet?

So objectively, Black should have castled last move, even though it sucks. I think you’ll agree with me that the pawn grab Bxg2 was bad, in that Black’s two moves ...Bxg2 and ...B retreats are worth a lot less than White’s corresponding moves Rg1 and Rg8. So better, actually, to castle on move 12 instead of grabbing the g-pawn. But then White‘s king wouldn‘t be trapped in the center and Black would have little play. Best not to enter this line at all.

Victor was also (unbeknownst to me) starting to hallucinate, in that he rejected 17.Rg8 because of 17...Nc2+ 18.Kf1 Nxa1 19.Rxf8+ Ke7

because he "didn't see a mate" and didn't want to be "only up a piece" after taking twice on a8. After the game, we agreed that just being up the piece was good, but there are also at least three quick mates in the position! See if you can find them! The answer is at the end of the post, as “Mate cluster #2”.

I, of course, was going to castle on move 17, entering the "correct line" that I didn't want him to find (above).

The game continued:

17. cxd4?? Qxd4 18. Rb1?

Again, there's another long mate after the thematic 18.Rg8 Qxa1 19.Rxf8+ Ke7

and 20.Rxf7+. I’ll let you find it on your own, and I’ll put the answer at the end of the post. It’s not easy to visualize all the way to the end. Objectively, it looks like the passive move in the game blows White's advantage. Which means that if it takes so many ?? moves for White to not be winning then ...Bxg2 probably deserves something like four or five question marks instead of two.

18... O-O-O

19. Rg8??

At this point, White has to come back and defend against Qc3+ with Qh3 or Rg3. Fritz’s reasoning for declaring the position almost equal then seems to have been something like 19.Qh3 Qxe5, but I tend to distrust grabbing pawns as compensation for a whole rook. Ramming the c-(and b-?)pawn(s) down the board looks more appropriate to me. Another line is 19.Kf1 Bf3! (threat Qd1+; 19...Bc5? 20.Qxf6 defends f2) 20.Bxf3 Bc5! with threats against f2 and h8.

19... Bb4+??
Black wins after 19...Bg2!! The threat of Qc3+ compels 20.Rg3 or Rxg2, and Black then wins White's queen with 20...Bb4+
20. Rxb4??
It is especially embarrassing to admit that I was planning on 20.Kf1 Qd1+ 21.Bxd1 Rxd1+ and Re1#, not noticing that this is illegal because my rook is pinned on the back rank (by two major pieces!). But at least this is a mate. I'd been playing for it in some other lines where the Re1 is supported by a Nc2 instead of the bishop (after 17.Rb1, for example). There, it isn't even mate, as the king can go to d2!
20... Qc3+
Victor had overlooked that his Bc1 would be hanging here.

Here are a few of the games I had studied, with light notes.
(this is well-documented getting hit upside the head with a fish)

Kievelitz-Crouch, Decin 1996
1. Nf3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3. c4 c6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4 b5 6. e5 Nd5 7. a4 e6 8. axb5 Nxc3 9. bxc3 cxb5 10. Ng5 Bb7 11. Qh5 Qd7 12. Be2 Bxg2 13. Rg1 Bd5 14. Nxh7 Nc6 15. Nf6+ gxf6 16. Qxh8 O-O-O 17. Qxf6? (Rg8, of course, but White is still winning.) 17...b4 18. Bb2 a5 19. Bh5 a4 20. Rxa4?
(20. Qxf7 Qxf7 21.Bxf7 a3 22.Bc1 and Black's would-be pawn roller is already pre-undermined.)
20... Nxd4 21. Rxb4?!
(21. Ra2 Nc2+ 22.Kf1 (22.Ke2?? Bg2) 23.Bc6 and Black will have to play for an attack)
21... Bxb4 22. cxb4 Be4! 23. Qxf7 (23.Rg7 Nf5 0-1) Nc2+ 24. Kf1 Qd3+ (25...Qh3+ is also good) 0-1

Jiretorn-Chmielinska, European Women’s Ch, Warsaw 2001
This game shows what happens if White takes the exchange without playing 12.Be2 first.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4 b5 6. e5 Nd5 7. a4 e6 8. axb5 Nxc3 9. bxc3 cxb5 10. Ng5 Bb7 11. Qh5 Qd7 12. Nxh7 Nc6 13. Nf6+ gxf6 14. Qxh8 O-O-O 15. Qxf6 Nxd4 16. f3 Nc2+ 17. Kf2 Bc5+ 18. Kg3 Rg8+ 19. Kh3 Nxa1 20. Be2 Nc2 21. Rd1 Bd5 22. g4 (and as you might imagine, Black won handily) Ne3 0-1

O'Cinneide-Hurley, Bunratty (Ireland) Open, 2000
And this game shows what happens if White tries to get fancy in the corner.

1. Nf3 d5 2. c4 c6 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4 b5 6. e5 Nd5 7. a4 e6 8. axb5 Nxc3 9. bxc3 cxb5 10. Ng5 Bb7 11. Qh5 Qd7 12. Nxh7 Nc6 13. Nxf8 Qxd4 (!!) 14. cxd4 Rxh5 15. Be3 a5 16. Be2 Rh4 17. Nxe6 fxe6 18. O-O-O Nb4 19. Bg5 Rh8 20. Bd2 Nd5 21. Kb2 Rf8 22. f3 Nf4 23. Bf1 Bd5 24. Rc1 Kd7 25. Rc2 Kc6 26. Rg1 Kb6 27. g3 Ng6 28. f4 Rac8 29. Be2 b4 30. Rgc1 Kb5 31. h4 Rc6 32. h5 Ne7 33. g4 Rfc8 34. Be1 Kb6 35. Bh4 c3+ 36. Kb1 R8c7 37. Bxe7 Rxe7 38. Bd3 Rec7 39. f5 b3 40. Rf2 a4 41. f6 gxf6 42. exf6 a3 43. h6 a2+ 44. Ka1 0-1

Moral of the story: all the sidelines in the 11...Qd7 line are good for Black; it’s only the main line that’s are completely lost!

Mate cluster #2

Mate 1) 20. Rxf7+ with Bh5+ and Qxf6#
Mate 2) 20. Qxf6+ with Qh8+ & Bg5+, with similar play; and
Mate 3) 20.Ba3+ which I consider emotionally equivalent to mate, even if it doesn't lead to a quick mate on the board

Here’s that longer mate at move 18:
18.Rg8 Qxa1 19.Rxf8+ Ke7

20.Rxf7+ 21.Bh5+ Now it's a mate in 8: 21...Ke7 22.Qxf6+ Kd7 23.Qf7+ Kd8 24.Qf8+ Kd7 25.Qd6+ Kc8 26.Qxe6+ Kc7/d8 27.Qd6+ Kc8 28.Bg4#

I have to say that after going over this game with a computer, I felt like it was a totally wretched game. However, after trying to find this particular mate myself, I have to admit it’s tough (or at least stressful) to do with (from the diagram position) mate hanging on c1 and the rook hanging on f8.
Likewise, a move before, it’s easy for the computer to see that 16...Nxd4 should be answered with 17.Qxf8, but it’s hard to notice that you should steel yourself and “ignore” the “loud” move Nxd4 and just play a sacrifice of your own. Another mental block in that position is it can be difficult to realize that you’re just winning so early in the game. On the other hand, Victor’s comments afterwards showed that he did realize he was winning, so

I suppose I can’t fault either of us much for missing the computer tactics on move 19; however, it was sheer luck that his ?? oversight outranked mine on move 20. Certainly not the most embarrassing game I’ve ever played, but it makes me think that perhaps one of the reasons chess is superior to roadrunner cartoons is that in chess both sides can get multiple anvils dropped on their head in the very same game.

Comments? I've added a poll.