I’ve woved to stick to music, dylan, politics and computers, but allow me a digression into the wonderful world of chess.
I’m not a great player, but I’m not a bad player either. I’ve never played in a club — I just enjoy the occasional game of chess with my good friend Jens. I think our score is quite exactly equal.
He lured me into this local tournament, though, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. I especially enjoy — on Jens’ behalf, but also on my own, through self-indulgent hubris — the looks when I casually tell the other club members about our current standing (“Oh, you play equal with Jens — so you’re quite good, then.”).
Anyway. Today’s round was against someone way above my league: an elderly gentleman who looks nice and kind — the ideal grandfather — but who would probably be all over me to prove that looks are deceptive if I gave him the chance.
If ratings are to be trusted, I was going to fry. It turned out they’re not.
I openly admit I have two major drawbacks as a chess player: I usually come out of the opening second best, and I tend to venture on unsound, unprepared missions in the middle game, usually creating something of interest, but most often realising that “Nah, going to c6 probably wasn’t such a great idea after all”.
This time I decided things should be different.
As for the opening, I had had a look at some of my opponent’s previous games, and I had noticed two things: (1) He almost exclusively plays Caro-Cann as black, and (2) he sometimes gets himself into trouble, partly thanks to the opening; his black score is less than average, actually.
So I decided to deviate from my usual 1. d4 and play 1. e4 for a change, expecting to get 1…c6 back. It is potentially dangerous, of course, to step into the lion’s mouth like this and play my opponent’s favourite opening, but I decided to give it a try.
As for unwarranted experimental expeditions, I had pledged to avoid them, to the best of my ability. Last week, I was on the brink of expulsion thanks to one of them, against a player whom — again based on ratings — I ought to have beaten easily. No more of that. Cautious, solid play, waiting for the mistakes — that was my plan.
Østrem, Eyolf (1400) — Larsen, Paul M (1613)
Faxe EMT (3) Faxe
2011.04.13 1-0 B12s
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 (D)
I enjoy the advance variant in the French opening, so going for the equivalent in Caro-Cann was an easy choice. Since black usually does c6-c5 eventually, I consider it an advance French with an extra tempo. I decided to disregard the major difference: that black gets his white bishop out before e6.
Afterthought: Why is it that I enjoy the advance variation? Probably because it closes the centre, and with the centre closed, there is a little less to think about. If I look upon it like that, it sounds like an awfully defensive strategy for the white player. I’m sure there are more noble reasons to play this kind of opening, but I admit: I do it out of fear. I’ll have to do something about that. See a shrink? Hardly. Play only the King’s gambit for six months? Perhaps…
3…Bf5 4.Nf3 (D)
The Short variant: don’t try to fight the aggressor on f5 – just keep developing as if nothing had happened.
4…e6 5.Be2 c5 6.c3 cxd4
So far: everything according to plan. The usual line is for black to play Nc6 before the capture. When he didn’t wait, I got the chance to occupy the wonderful central square with my knight, which was to become the one piece and field around which the whole game evolved.
After this move, I groaned to myself: “Oh, no, I’ve lost from the start – again! Qg5 wins d5 or g2 no matter what I do! Damn!”
It turns out that any of the moves I had considered to continue with (Qb3, N2f3, Qa4+ and 0-0) would maintain the advantage.
( 8…Qg5 Here’s what Toga (a chess engine) has to say about the matter. “14:+1.20” means: “looking 14 half-moves forward, white is better by 1.20 pawns.”
( [Toga II 1.2.1] 14:+1.20 9.Qb3 Qe7 10.Qa4+ Nd7 11.O-O Qd8 12.c4 Ne7 13.N2f3 Qb6 14.Rd1 Qa6 15.Qxa6 bxa6 16.Bg5 Rb8 )
( [Toga II 1.2.1] 13:+1.21 9.N2f3 Qd8 10.O-O Ne7 11.Bg5 h6 12.Bh4 Qd7 13.Bb5 Nbc6 14.Qa4 Be4 15.Rfd1 )
( [Toga II 1.2.1] 13:+1.09 9.Qa4+ Nd7 10.N2f3 Qd8 11.O-O Bc5 12.Nb5 Nh6 13.Bxh6 gxh6 14.Nd6+ Bxd6 15.exd6 Qb6 16.Qd4 O-O-O 17.Qxb6 Nxb6 )
( [Toga II 1.2.1] 13:+1.01 9.O-O Qxe5 10.N2f3 Qc7 11.Nb5 Qa5 12.Bf4 Na6 13.Nbd4 Be7 14.Bb5+ Kf8 15.Re1 Nc7 16.b4 ) 9…Qxg2 10.Bf3 Qg5 11.Qxb7 )
And the pawn on g2 is poisoned: if the queen touches it, she dies.
The question, though: would I have found the correct defense over the board? That’s the question I had vowed to avoid having to answer.
No more of that! No matter if the computer analysis says I would win. What good does that do me, if I can’t find the move?
Sigh of relief. I didn’t have to deal with the queen.
Maybe I should have done N2f3 right away, but I wanted to postpone the decision about how to defend the lonely, soon-to-be-attacked e5, Should I give it a solid pawn-support with f4 first, compromising the king’s safe nest, or should I regard the piece support I intended to give it (N2f3, Bf4, and Re1) as enough?
I don’t think the move is that bad, objectively speaking. But I consider it a mistake because it does what I tend to do: think that “OK, that Knight is blocking everything right now, but I’ll move it next time anyway, and then I will get out of this temporary cramp.”
That’s of course the moment when Jens usually strikes.
( [crafty] 17:+0.69 9.h4 h5 10.N2f3 Nbc6 11.O-O Nxd4 12.Nxd4 Nc6 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Qa4 Qb6 15.b4 Be7 16.Be3 Qc7 17.g3 )
Defend or attack? N2f3 is the “correct” move here, but I didn’t care for the prospect of Nd7, when I would have to trade my Knight in shining armour for the upshoot at c6, and then defend e5 with Bf4 before I could reconquer d4 with my other knight.
Besides, what is now a safe post would then be easy prey for the new c-pawn. Hence:
I had actually been considering something like this on some of the previous moves too, even before the black Knight arrived at c6. The plan was to provoke the Knight pin that had now been given me for free. I just couldn’t decide whether to play Bb5 or Qa4 first, so I did something else instead.
As for the quality of the move, at least it prevents Nd7. But my analysis engine tells me that whatever edge I had before, is all lost now.
If someone is to blame, other than me, it’s Gus Hansen, the Danish poker god. I just read his fascinating story of how he won a couple of million Australian dollars, hand by hand, and although I’ve barely played a single hand of poker, what I took from it was the insight that it’s not all about what you have up your sleeve, it’s just as much about what the other guy THINKS you have.
Secondly, the importance of the initiative: if you can tell the other guy where to look, he may not see the better move (which in this case was the quiet Be7).
( 10.N2f3 Nd7 )
I pondered for a while: do I want to remove the Queens and place his Knight awkwardly on the side, and advance the pawn to f4 — safer now that the most dangerous pieces are gone? Or do I want to keep my knight at d4 at any cost? Presented this way, it looks like an easy decision.
( [crafty] 16:+0.14 10…Be7 11.Bb5 O-O 12.N2f3 Qb6 13.Be3 Bc5 14.b3 a6 15.Be2 Nd7 16.Nxc6 bxc6 17.Bd4 f6 18.exf6 Nxf6 )
I, of course, decided to do something else. Objectively speaking, this is a bad move. QxQ BxQ now releases any tension from the position, and black is equal.
My motivation (not that I needed any, since I wasn’t aware it was such a bad move): he has taken some pains to get his knight to c6. Certainly he wants to get it into action, and the continued pin would not seem attractive.
And sure enough:
( 11.Qxa5 Nxa5 12.Nb5 Kd7 13.a3 a6 14.Nd4 Be7 )
( [crafty] 19:-0.09 11…Qxa4 12.Bxa4 Be7 13.Nb5 ( 13.N2f3 O-O 14.Bb5 Nxd4 15.Nxd4 a6 16.Be2 Rc8 17.Bf4 Nc6 18.Rac1 Be4 19.Rfd1 Rc7 20.Bd3 Bxd3 21.Rxd3 Nxd4 22.Rxd4 ) 13…Na6 14.Nd4 Nb8 15.f4 O-O 16.N2f3 )
12.N2f3 Be7 (D)
Now what? He is surely going to castle next time, and the knight pin I had based my play on would be history.
For once, the engine agrees with me, although his (or is it “its”?) reasons are probably more thought-through than mine. I thought along these lines: if he trades horses (… 0-0, cxd NxN, NxN exd), I’ll still have one of them on d4. What could be better than giving him an isolated pawn to attack (behind which I could hide my stallion)?
Should he capture the c pawn instead, I could take it back with my queen, who is no longer needed on the diagonal towards the king, since the king will be gone anyway.
It doesn’t come easy, to give one of my own moves an “!”, but I’ve done it: I found what’s probably the best move in the situation; it’s not an obvious move; and there was a clear idea behind it.
13…O-O 14.cxd5 exd5
With the black knight free to move, I have to defend the e pawn again. I know, the bishop is undefended, but there may be a future disclosed attack in there too, somewhere along the line. Somewhat vaguely, I was thinking, too, that there might be some combination in there, involving moving the knight, opening the defense line from the Queen. It wasn’t a clear idea — just something to keep in mind.
This was beginning to look quite nice. The e-pawn is well-defended, and I was getting ready to pile up rooks against the loner on e5. But hey…!?:
Long thought. The a-pawn is pinned, sortof: If it takes the bishop, I capture the rook.
But then the queen is trapped – for good: there is not a single escape field left on the a file. I may be able to recapture the black queen with Nxb5 or, if I go in-between with Rc1 now, some funky business with Rxc6, but we would still come out equal and all my initiative would be gone.
I got lost in the calculations after a while, but this is where my pledge kicked in. Instead of thinking: “Surely, there must be a way out – I’ll go for it and see where it ends!”, I decided to play it safe. As Gus might have said: if the pot-odds are against you, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to fold a bad hand.
( 16.Rac1 axb5 17.Qxa8 Na6 18.Rxc6 Rxa8 19.Rxc7 Nxc7 )
16…bxc6 17.Rac1 (D)
I actually enjoyed this position, even though I had given him a connected passed pawn instead of an isolated one.
I tend to think of myself as fairly good at obstructive defensive play: taking away the good fields from the opponent’s attack forces when I’m behind. This game I consider a fairly successful obstructive offensive play, which is a rather new experience: even though the upper left corner is where all the action is, the Rook and Knight who are right there, are completely immobilized.
( 17.b4 )
He can’t take the knight, of course, since the Queen would fall, so I decide to up the ante:
… and my knight can stay a little while longer! The double passed pawns may become dangerous in the end game, but we’re not there yet!
A bit on the cautious side, but that was after all today’s strategy: better safe than sorry.
This move annoyed me quite a lot. After a short think, I concluded that it wasn’t really dangerous, but I had lulled myself into thinking that he didn’t have any moves, which clearly wasn’t the case. Was there more that I had overlooked? Had I neglected my obstructive defensive play in the pursuit of a possibly futile offensive?
Should I play Re1 or Rd1? Rd1 would either drive the intruding bishop away, since the pawn is pinned against the queen, or force the queen to another spot.
That other spot is not that easy to find: some defense of c6 seems neessary (Nc6 NxN, QxN, threatening a couple of pawns, at least), and if it leaves the diagonal, the bishop on f4 might come to life.
But rather than force my opponent to start thinking: “Now, where would the queen stand better?” I decided to postpone the attack on the bishop and concentrate on the e file, which looks nice indeed. Surely, that advanced pawn, left to his own devices for so long, must have potential?
( 20.Rfd1 Be4 )
Up to this point, I had spent almost twice as much time as my opponent, but he thought about this move for more than half an hour — and came up with a bad move.
The better alternatives – h6 and Rc8 – are not easy to find, though, especially when the chip leader (me) has dictated that the queen has to be involved in his move.
Finally! My decisive advantage is back – not just according to my own over-the-board analysis, but also according to the engine.
Still, for an average player, it’s a nervous moment: a bridge has been burnt – it’s do or die.
But I felt confident: if the pawn is captured, the trusty knight forks the rook and the queen, and if not …
21…f6 22.Bxb8 (D)
… the knight makes its presence felt anyway. The rook can’t capture, since it would then fall to another knight fork, this time on c6.
I just loved that knight!
Now, Nc6 would fork the queen and the bishop, but first things first:
( 23…Ra7 won’t make things much better for black 24.Qxd5 )
The knight moves in (All-in!) – at last!
( 24…Rfe8 25.Nfd4 Kf8 And the advantage is clear enough, but it’s not easy to find the right moves, for either side. )
25.exd7 Bd8 26.Re8? (D)
Two days ago, I played virtually the same position against Jens – but with me as the defender. As it happens, he failed to bring the attack to conclusion, and I should have taken the lesson: it would be decisive is black captures the rook (in this case, immediate mate), but if the white rook is left alone, it actually doesn’t do much harm. I can bring another rook into the puddle, but that’s about it.
With this move, I offer black a chance to get out of all his misery with Bf5. Much better than the fairly pointless Rook escapade would have been Nfd4, which prevents the bishop from attacking the pawn on d7. Besides, there just HAS to be a white knight on that spot — it’s fate!
But again: I tend to think that on our level, the fact that I’ve decided that “now it’s all about the eighth rank” was what made him play:
( After 26…Bf5 27.Rxd8 Rfxd8 28.Ne7+ Kf7 29.Nxf5 Rxd7 the positioni is quite even, all of a sudden )
27.Rce1 Be4 (D)
I’ve been looking for pins and forks like mad so far, but I missed the best continuation here:
( 28.Rc8 Rfxc8 29.Ne7+ Kf8 30.Nxc8 )
28…Kxf8 29.Nfd4 (D)
is not bad either, though. Covers f5, thus preventing any funny business from the light-squared bishop, and threatens a King-Bishop fork on e6. The dark-squared bishop has to move:
I see the potential for nastiness along the diagnal towards the king, but I’m not too concerned: the bishop is soon going to die anyway.
30.Ne6+ Kf7 31.d8=Q (D)
31…Bxd8 32.Nexd8+ (D)
I reckon that I can safely trade the two knights for the black rook. My remaining rook against a single bishop ought to be enough. But hey, I’m still hungry:
( 32…Kf8 33.f3 Bf5 34.Rd1 Bd3 35.Ne6+ Kf7 36.Nc5 Rc8 37.Nd4 h5 38.Nxd3 cxd3 39.Rxd3 Rc1+ 40.Kf2 h4 41.h3 Ra1 42.Nf5 g5 43.Ne3 Ke6 44.Nxd5 Ra2+ 45.Kg1 Ra1+ 46.Kh2 Rc1 47.Rc3 Ra1 48.Nc7+ Ke5 49.Re3+ Kd4 50.Re4+ Kd3 51.Nxa6 Rxa3 52.b5 Ra5 53.Nc5+ Kc3 54.Na4+ Kb3 55.b6 Rb5 56.b7 )
Another pin! I love it!
33…f5 34.fxe4 fxe4 (D)
At this point, I have won, of course. But it has to be said: he defended bravely, sticking to every chance of counter-play he could find. He now has three connected passed pawns, smack in the centre of the board, and although I’m rather confident I can keep them at bay, there is no room for mistakes either.
Rd1 would have been better than my:
Heading for d4 again. Whatever fate decrees.
35…Kd7 36.Ncd4 Kd6 37.Nxg7 Ke5 (D)
Again, Rd1 is better.
( 39.Rf1 c3 40.Rf5+ Kd6 41.Nc5 Rxc5 42.bxc5+ Kxc5 43.Nc2 is the best he has )
39…c3 40.Kf2 Rc4 41.Ke3 c2 (D)
Pesky little bugger of a pawn. We don’t want the rook onto the third rank either, so time to let the horses rest:
42.Kd2 Rxd4+ 43.Nxd4 Kxd4 44.Rxc2 (D)
The rest is routine.
44…e3+ 45.Ke2 Ke4 46.a4
( 46.Rc6 d4 47.Rxa6 d3+ 48.Kd1 d2 49.b5 )
46…d4 47.Rc4 Kd5 48.Kd3 e2 49.Rc1 (D)
( 49.Rc5+ is more elegant, but what the heck: )
Finally, my opponent decided there was nothing more he could do, and stretched out his hand.
He then said: “That was so nicely played!” It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me — at least at a chess board.
So, is it a good game? There are flaws, overlooked moves, and bad strategic decisions on both sides. For it to have been a great game, I would have had to have avoided errors like 26.Re8.
When I’m happy with it, it’s because I played according to a strategy, and the strategy worked. The themes I had considerations about during the opening moves — how to handle the e-pawn, and the exploitation of d4 for the Knights — turned out to become essential to the game, and the decisions I made turned out to be successful.
But most importantly I think I managed to strike a balance between sound play, initiative, and the occasional good move (13.c4 and 21.e6). “Initiative” means not primarily forcing the opponent to act in a particular way, but making him think he is forced. The chess equivalent to the bluff in poker, if you wish. If Re8 was a bluff, it worked.