Wednesday, June 3, 2020

State of the CCCSA

State of the Charlotte Chess Center
Written by Founding Director, FM Peter Giannatos


Dear CCCSA Members and Center Supporters:

I miss you! It feels like it's been so long since we've seen one another. I am fortunate to have kept up with many of you virtually through email and streams. I wanted to draft a note about the current state of the CCCSA, what we have done, and where we are going. I hope you find this post helpful and informative.

Peter Giannatos
Founder and Director
peter.giannatos@charlottechesscenter.org


Synopsis of Events Since March

  • Free Weekly Chess.com Tournaments

  • Free Live Weekly Lectures/Streams
    • Nearly 1800 followers on our Twitch channel
    • Over 40 streams with 70+ average viewers/stream
    • Instructional Content for Adults and Students
  • Matches Between CCCSA and Other Chess Clubs in the US
    • Team Matches Against: Saint Louis Chess Club, Mechanics Chess Institute, Memphis Chess Club and Marshall Chess Club.
    • Featured CCCSA member/players of all ratings levels
  • Custom Videos for CCCSA Students in Our School Programs
    • Coach Chris Callahan made over 30 videos for our students.
    • During the school year, the CCCSA taught 2000+ students weekly in school programs
    • In an effort to reach more students in need during the pandemic, the CCCSA offered these videos to all students in our member schools.
    • Sample video below:




  • Virtual Elite Day Camps
    • Top Instructor Names Include: GM Judit Polgar, GM Peter Svidler, GM Lenier Dominguez, GM Sam Shankland, GM Ruslan Ponomariov and many more!
    • (4) 2700 FIDE Rated GM Instructors, (15) 2600 FIDE Rated GM Instructors
    • Students all over the US participated in these camps




  • Online Academy Classes
    • The CCCSA moved all of its Academy Classes online.
    • Students received lessons via zoom and had supplement homework for each class
    • Coaches Alex Velasquez, David Cogswell and GM Daniel Naroditsky led the classes.




New Online Tournaments and Camps
  • Charlotte K-12 Online Championship Series (Begins June 13)

  • Chess Fundamentals Camps
    • Led by local masters: FM Peter Giannatos and NM Dominique Myers
    • Designed for rated players under 1300
    • Learn from instructors you will see again ☺
    • Distinct topics of discussion ranging from opening play to endgame play
    • More information here: https://www.charlottechesscenter.org/fundamentals

  • Chess and Art Camps

  • Elite Chess Camp (Week)
    • For the top juniors in the US.
    • Features top trainers: GM Jacob Aagaard, GM RB Ramesh, GM Boris Avrukh, GM Daniel Naroditsky
    • Camp is completely full with over 40 students.

  • Online Chess.com Tournaments + Lectures to Continue




Center Reopening
  • Plan on opening with limited offerings in mid July
  • Safety precautions will be taken, including but not limited to: temperature checks, mouth covers (masks), hand sanitizer stations, extra cleaning measures.
  • Activities likely to be offered:
    • Small classes
    • Small camps
    • Small tournaments
  • Online events will likely continue for a few months after the phased reopening of the CCCSA
  • All of the above contingent on recommendations of local health officials. At this time, the CCCSA is legally permitted to open, but we have decided to take additional precaution and wait until July.
Ways to Support



The CCCSA wants your support much more than it wants your donations. As you can see, we are offering quite a bit to our members and supporters (free and paid). I was a bit taken aback by the lack of participation of our local junior players in camps and classes. I'd like to hear from members about what they would like to see from the CCCSA moving forward (see meeting below).

Ways to Support:


Why support your local club?
  1. You will have to see us again ☺
  2. We will continue to provide opportunities for years to come
  3. Students should become comfortable and familiar with local coaches who they will engage with throughout their chess growth
  4. Chess clubs do not grow on trees, OK, I say that with a bit of humor, but you get the point. We want to continue to provide the Charlotte area with the best in chess, in order to do that, we need your support!
  5. I would like your input. Therefore I have scheduled a live zoom meeting for this Saturday at 11:00am. All parents and members are welcome to attend this meeting. See link below:




Topic: CCCSA Members Meeting
Time: Jun 6, 2020 11:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Open to First 100 to Join

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86811372521


Should you want to donate to the CCCSA, please reach out to us. All donations ensure the longetivty of the CCCSA and support our instructors.




Sunday, May 31, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 38

Hello everyone and welcome to the thirty-eighth edition of The French Connection. In this one, we are going to be looking at an interesting early check for Black in the Tarrasch Variation and be looking at another game from the Lockdown Cup. With the feature game, we will be looking at what is one of only two lines that White can play that pose any question at all to Black's idea, and so we will be looking at that line along with why other lines just don't do the job, and maybe we'll take a look at the other main line in another article when we see it featured in an actual game.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the feature game.


Lockdown Cup 2020 - (Prelim Bracket 2)
W: Lester Weiss (2153)
B: Patrick McCartney (1900)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5



Some that may have followed this blog all the way back to 2017 when I wrote the French repertoire along with posts on chess.com might be wondering why I didn't play the line I preached, which is 5...Nf6 (instead of 5...Nc6) 6.Bb5+ Bd7 7.Bxd7+ Nxd7 8.O-O Be7 9.dxc5 Nxc5 10.Nb3 Nce4. I still play this line as well, but I play almost any line of the French Defense.

That said, the old main line, which is still played today, sees Black playing 6...Bd6 here, after which we see White trading on c5 with 7.dxc5 Bxc5 and then 8.O-O Nge7 9.Nb3 and the Bishop retreats to d6 (more popular) or b6. I still to this day have little interest in that line as Black.

However, Black has another interesting move here that caught my eye and is why I went ahead and played 5...Nc6 instead of 5...Nf6.

6...Qe7+

This might, at first glance, look like a dubious move, putting the Queen on the same file as the King. In the line with 5...Nf6, after 6.Bb5+ Bd7, instead of trading on d7, there is the line where White tries to grab a pawn, at least temporarily, with 7.Qe2+ Be7 8.dxc5. The major difference between that line for White and this line for Black is that Black has no intention of staying on e7 with the Queen, whereas the other line for White, he actually leaves the Queen on e2, trying to hold the extra pawn, and if Black finds the right response, he really has to let it go, but if he doesn't, White just ends up a pawn ahead, but that's a big if, and if Black does play it right, it results in a major waste of time for White.

Here, however, the idea is simple. Just like in the 5...Nf6 line, Black would really like to develop the Knight actively on f6 rather than the passive e7-square. In the normal main line with 6...Bd6, White's development flows smoothly. He hands Black the Isolated Queen Pawn. He makes the Bishop move twice, similar to the battle of the tempo in the Queen's Gambit Declined. He gets his Knight out of the way of the Dark-Squared Bishop with the gain of tempo by making the Bishop move a third time, and to avoid problems on the e-file, Black has to develop his Knight passively on e7. By giving this check, White's decisions are highly limited. Unlike the line where White tries to win a pawn mentioned above, in this case, the King's Bishop has already been developed to b5. Interposing with the Bishop doesn't develop the Bishop like it does for Black when White plays 7.Qe2+. It in some ways "undevelops" it. Forces White to move it to a more passive position. But it turns out, that really is White's only choice if he wants to try to maintain any sort of an advantage, and so therefore, the move played in the game was as such.

7.Be2

Other moves either get White nothing, or lose outright. For example, 7.Ne5?? f6 drops a piece, and 7.Kf1 just hems in the Rook. The only other practical choice is 7.Qe2. The problem is that it achieves absolutely nothing for White. After 7...Qxe2+, you've got 8.Kxe2 and the amateurish 8.Bxe2. The problem with the latter is that Black now has 8...Bf5!, a move that is ineffective if White immediately retreats with the Bishop as the Queen covers c2. Here, both 9.dxc5 Bxc2! 10.b3 Nf6 (taking the pawn is dubious as 10...Bxc5?! 11.Bb2 creates the dual threats of 11.Bxg7 and 11.Rc1, skewering the Bishops, forcing 11...Bf8, and after 12.Rc1, he must retreat his other piece, and the lack of development is worth the pawn, and so Black should leave it alone) 11.Bb2 Bg6 and 9.c3 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Nxd4 11.cxd4 Rc8 give Black no problems at all. That leaves 8.Kxe2, but now, Black can force White to surrender the Bishop pair with 8...a6!, when after 9.Bxc6 bxc6, White must play 10.Re1 just to maintain equality, forcing Black to play 10...f6, taking the desired square away from the Knight, and after 11.dxc5 Bxc5 12.Nb3 Bd6 13.Be3 with either 13...a5 or 13...Ne7, we have a dynamically level position. Black has an extra pawn island, but he also has the Bishop pair in a fairly open position.

There is absolutely no reason to be afraid of the Queen trade. However, now that the Bishop has been forced to retreat, Black is ready to re-locate the Queen.

7...Qc7

The reason for playing this move immediately is the c5-pawn. If Black does not move the Queen now, then White can take on c5 and Black will have to take back with the Queen, which is undesirable. Now, if White takes, Black will take with the Bishop and develop yet another piece.

8.dxc5

More normal here is 8.O-O Nf6 and only now 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Nb3 Be7, which the game transposes to after Black's 10th move. I mention this move order because the alternative to 9.dxc5 is the prophylactic move 9.Re1, which is supposedly the most challenging move for Black, and if I ever am faced with this line, I will likely cover it in another article, but this one here is all about the 9.dxc5 line, the only other options that poses any questions at all to Black's 6th move, along with earlier deviations and how Black should react to them.

8...Bxc5 9.Nb3 Be7 10.O-O Nf6

Transposing back to the main line. Now, the question becomes, where does Black want to place his pieces? In this line, the ideal setup is to get his King's Knight to e4 while the other stays at c6, temporarily brings out the Light-Squared Bishop to connect the Rooks, create a battery with the Rooks on the e-file, and then retreat the Bishop back, with a dominance on the e-file, as we will see here in the game.

11.Bg5 O-O 12.c3 Be6 13.Nbd4 Rae8

The right place for the Black Rook. This is more desirable than the passive 13...Rad8, simply guarding the pawn. Now the onus is on White to play the right move.



14.Re1!

The correct move here! Taking either the Knight or Bishop will only help Black's pawn structure, and the dubious idea of trying to re-route the Bishop with 14.Bh4?! only backfires after 14...Ne4, removing all dreams of taking over the h2-b8 diagonal, and after 15.Bxe7 Rxe7 16.h3 Bc8 17.Qd3 Rfe8, Black has the perfect setup that we just talked about.

Now, we have an interesting position, and I came up with Black's next move, which I have yet to see be played anywhere.

14...h6

This Queen check line was covered in New In Chess Yearbook 119 back in 2016 by Dejan Antic, a Serbian Grandmaster. Here, he cites the game Mladenov - Trella, Germany 2014 to illustrate the idea behind 14.Re1, giving 14...a6 15.Qc2 Ne4 (Here he recommends 15...Ng4 on the basis that if the Queen and Bishop are still lined up on d1 and e2, go to e4, but if one of them has changed diagonals, possibly going to g4 is better, which here he gives an exclam to 15...Ng4, calling it unclear) 16.Be7 (Here he points out that White can also play 16.Nxe6 fxe6 17.Bxe7 Rxe7 18.Bd3 with a small advantage and is probably why he favors 15...Ng4) 16...Rxe7 17.Bd3 Nxd4 18.Nxd4 Nf6 19.h3 Rfe8 20.Rad1 Bc8 21.Rxe7 Rxe7 22.Qb3 g6 23.Bf1 h5 24.Be2 Re5 25.Bf1 Kg7 26.a3 Bf5 27.Nxf5+ Rxf5 28.Be2 Re5 29.Bf3 Qe7 30.g3 with an unclear position.

This is all fine and good. However, I think he misses the ship completely. I do not believe 14...a6 is very good for Black at all, and that White should answer not with 15.Qc2, but 15.Nxc6!. Now after 15...Qxc6 16.Nd4 Qc5 17.Bd3, White is for preference as the freeing move 17...Ne4? drops a pawn for nothing after 18.Bxe7, and otherwise, Black's position is really bottled up while White is free to maneuver. Artificial intelligence also claims +/= for White. The other option, 15...bxc6, looks at first like Black should be ok since after 16.Bxa6, Black can play 16...Qb6 and force White to either give the pawn back, or else put his Queen on the dangerous open e-file with 17.Qe2. The problem is, the latter works thanks to Black's two Bishops being in the way, giving White just enough time. For example, after 17...Bd8, threatening discoveries on the Queen, White has 18.Be3! with a practically winning position. Of course, this is not all forced, but a pawn is a pawn, and while White might have to spend an extra move to re-group, the compensation Black gets for the pawn is nowhere near enough.

Therefore, I think Black should keep the a-pawn back for as long as possible, and hence my novelty of 14...h6. It kicks the Bishop back with tempo, and prepares Black's expansion that comes up shortly. He should not be afraid of a Knight or Bishop coming to b5. With the Knight, Black can simply retreat to b8 and then when the time is right, kick the Knight back by playing ...a6 with tempo. In the game, White never goes down that rabbit trail, and rightfully so.

15.Bh4 Ne4

There's the freeing move, getting the Bishops off the board and opening up for Black to double on the e-file.

16.Bxe7 Rxe7 17.h3 Bd7

It seemed like this square was better than going all the way back to c8. There is nothing to worry about on b7, and since ...a6 was not played, I over-protected the c6-square in case the Bishop thinks about coming to b5. It should also be noted that the abandoning of the protection on d5 is not a problem for tactical reasons.

18.Bd3

18.Qb3 poses no threat to the d-pawn because Black has 18...Rfe8! where 19.Qxd5 can be answered by 19...Nxd4 20.Qxd4 Nxc3! and one could even argue a miniscule advantage for Black in this line.

18...Rfe8

Completing the mission of getting the Rooks lined up on the e-file. Next we will see Black start to expand on the Kingside.

19.Qc2 Qf4

Also possible here are 19...g5, and the more reserved 19...Qd6. Either way, the position should be dynamically equal. The important part for Black is to remain active. If he sits back for too long, what might be a teeny-tiny advantage for White will turn into a big advantage because of the isolated pawn. The player with the isolated pawn is the one that needs to stir up activity to compensate, and so Black is coming in to attack the White Kingside.

20.Rad1 g5 21.Re3 f5



So now Black has the space advantage, but he is still saddled with that weakness on d5. White can kick the Queen out with 22.Ne2, which might leave White once again with that "teeny-tiny" advantage that Black should have no real problems holding on to the balance. However, White sees two hanging pawns on b7 and d5 and plays ...

22.Qb3

The only problem with this move is that it allows Black to force a draw immediately. Do you see how?

22...Nxd4!

All other moves pretty much lose for Black.

23.cxd4

Of course, 23.Qxd5+?? would lose to 23...Ne6!

23...Nxf2!!

And there is the dagger. All hopes of winning for White are gone!

24.Qxd5 1/2-1/2

White realized this now and offered the draw, which I accepted. Just to show the lines, let's say this game went on. First thing to note is that 24...Be6?? is losing due to 25.Rxe6!! Rxe6 26.Kxf2 Qe3+ 27.Kf1 g4 28.Ne5 g3 29.Qf3 and White is winning. If 29...Qxd4, then 30.Qxg3+. Moving the King anywhere also fails to 25.Rxe7 followed by 26.Kxf2. So 24...Re6 is forced. Now White has a couple of ways to draw, but taking the Knight loses. The following are White's options:
  1. 25.Kxf2?? loses to 25...Qxe3+ 26.Kf1 and now any type of Re1 move is not a saving grace for White like it is in line B because Black can take the Bishop with check, and so therefore, after 26...g4 27.hxg4 fxg4 28.Qxd7 gxf3 29.Qh7+ Kf8 30.Qf5+ Ke7 31.Qc5+ Kd8 32.Qd5+ Kc7, white only has one more check if he wants it or can take the pawn on f3, both of which win easily for Black.
  2. 25.Qxd7 does draw for White only because of one saving grace. After 25...Qxe3, White has the miracle draw with 26.Re1 and Black loses too much material if he doesn't take the perpetual, and White gets mated if he tries to avoid it. After 26...Nxh3+, both sides have to repeat via 27.Kh1 Nf2+ 28.Kg1 Nh3+ etc, as both 27.Kh2 and 28.Kh2 lose. After 27.Kh2 (with the Black Knight on h3), Black wins after 27...Qf4+ 28.g3 (28.Kxh3 g4+ 29.Kh4 g3+ 30.Kh3 Qg4#) 28...Qxf3 and White has to give up his Queen on e8 to prolong the game as 29.Rxe6 Qf2+ 30.Kxh3 g4+ 31.Kh4 Qh2# is mate. Instead, if 28.Kh2, where the Black Knight is on f2, then 28...Ng4+ 29.Kh3 (29.Kh1 Qxe1+ leads to a back rank mate while 29.Kg3 Qf4+ followed by 30...Nf2# is also mate) 29...Qf4 30.g3 Qxf3 31.Bc4 Nf2+ 32.Kh2 Qh5+ 33.Kg2 Qh3+ 34.Kf3 (Taking the Knight leads to mate in 11) 34...g4+ 35.Kf4 (Again taking the Knight is mate in 11) 35...Nd3+ 36.Bxd3 Rxe1 is easily winning for Black. Therefore, the perpetual would have to be taken.
  3. 25.Rde1 is the cleanest and most obvious forcing of the draw. Black can try 25...Nxh3+ 26.Kf1 Qg3 27.gxh3 Qxh3+, but it still only leads to a draw, or he can simply take the Bishop with 25...Nxd3, after which the draw is routine. White takes three times on e6, ending with the Queen, and Black can't get out of check as he has to move up to g7 or h7 to hold the h-pawn. After 26.Rxe6 Bxe6 27.Rxe6 Rxe6 28.Qxe6+, a silly move like 28...Kf8 allows 29.Qxh6+ and now White's winning, and so he must play 28...Kg7 or 28...Kh7 and the checks cannot be escaped, and so the result is a draw.


An interesting game that illustrates the dynamics of the 6...Qe7+ line of the Tarrasch when White plays 9.dxc5. Again, he does have one other alternative in 9.Re1, but pretty much all other moves cause Black no problems at all. A few things for Black to remember are to always move your Queen immediately after the check if White interposes with the Bishop so that you can take back on c5 with the Bishop if the pawn is captured by White, and that with the isolani, you do not want to passively defend the isolani with a move like ...Rad8, but rather, your ideal setup is to get the Knight to e4 and double the Rooks on the e-file. As the game proceeds, your number one priority as Black is to remain active! This will often lead to the dynamic balance between space and activity versus pawn structure.


This concludes this edition of The French Connection. Until next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 37

A Tale of Two Weird Winawers

Hello everyone and welcome to the 37th edition of The French Connection. As we continue to be stuck at home during this pandemic, correspondence chess and online blitz have taken over, and since the quality of online blitz chess is usually not good, I am continuing to cover correspondence games as they come to a close, and this week, I've had two games come to a close this week, and we will be covering both. Normally, in this series, we cover one game per article, but this time, like The French Connection: Volume 9, we will actually cover two games that fall in the same category. The first game we will cover an "Anti-Winawer". Yes, you read it right, an Anti-Winawer. Just when you thought it was only the Sicilian that had "Anti-" lines. There are many others as well, like the Anti-Colle, where Black brings his Bishop out before playing ...e6, or the Anti-Meran where White avoids 5.e3. The "Anti-Winawer", by definition, is any line where White does not play 4.e5 after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4. So this will be the first game we look at.

The second game we will see a very odd sideline. After 4.e5, Black will play 4...Ne7 instead of 4...c5 to avoid a highly theoretical line of the Semi-Winawer, namely 4...c5 5.Bd2. White still does have ways to avoid the main line. The most common are 5.Bd2 and 5.Qg4, ideas similar to the Semi-Winawer but where Black does not play an early ...c5. In the game we will be seeing, White plays a move that I will be honest, I have never seen before, is not mentioned in any book I've seen, and I own well over 20 books on the French, and in the database 365chess.com, out of 5390 games, White's reply was only played 65 times. So that will be the second game.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the games.


Game 1
Lockdown Cup 2020 - (Prelim Bracket 4)
W: Lee Edwards (Unrated)
B: Patrick McCartney (1900)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2

This is actually called the "Fingerslip Variation". It got its name from the game Alekhine - Flohr, Nottingham 1936 where Alekhine had intended to play the Semi-Winawer via 4.e5 c5 5.Bd2, but inadvertantly played the moves in the wrong order.

4...dxe4

The correct move here, and most popular. Other moves have been tried, such as 4...Ne7, and many responses by White will transpose to other lines, such as 5.e5 now would transpose to 4.e5 Ne7 5.Bd2, but the move 5.a3 can be a little annoying. It is hard to trust the retreat, 5...Ba5, without the center defined - White hasn't played e5 or exd5. I don't like Black's position after 6.Qf3. So Black must take on c3, and after the Bishop takes back, it may be best to then take the pawn on e4 anyway, so taking on e4 here really is the best approach.

5.Qg4

The only move to maintain equality. 5.Nxe4? Qxd4 nets Black a pawn with no compensation at all for White. Other moves besides 5.Qg4 allow Black to hold on to the extra pawn.

5...Nf6!

With the d-pawn currently hanging, the Knight protected by the Queen even after White's grab of the g-pawn, and forcing White to run around the board with the Queen without being fully developed, it makes far more sense to surrender the g-pawn than the e-pawn.

6.Qxg7 Rg8 7.Qh6



Black now has a choice to make.

7...Qxd4

This is probably the most aggressive option, grabbing the pawn. Other options are:
  1. 7...Nc6 and now 8.Nge2 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.O-O-O leads to an unclear position while 8.O-O-O allows Black to take a draw if he wants it. 8...Rg6 9.Qh4 (9.Qe3 Qxd4 10.Qe1 Bxc3 11.Bxc3 Qc5 and Black is slightly better) and now it is Black with the choice. He can take a draw with 9...Rg4 10.Qh6 Rg6 11.Qh4 Rg4 etc, or he can play on with 9...Bxc3 10.Bxc3 Qd5 with an equal, but unbalanced position.
  2. 7...Rg6?! though should be avoided. A move too soon. Now White has 8.Qe3! where after 8...Nc6 9.Nge2 Bxc3 10.Qxc3 Bd7 11.Qe3 Qe7 12.h3 O-O-O 13.O-O-O, White is for preference.

8.O-O-O?

I don't like this move for White at all. Stronger is 8.Nge2 first and only after 8...Qe5 should White play 9.O-O-O Rg6 10.Qf4 with equality. Note that 9.Bf4 is going too far at chasing the Queen. After 9...Qf5, both 10.h3 Nd5 and 10.Nd4 Bxc3 11.bxc3 Qc5 are better for Black.

8...Bf8 9.Qh4

9.Qh3? fails to 9...Qxf2 10.Nge2 Bd7 and now Moskalenko points out that both 11.g4 Rxg4 12.Ng3 e3 13.Be1 Qf4 14.Bd2 Qh6 15.Qxh6 Bxh6 16.Bxb7 Bc6 17.Bxa8 Bxa8 and 11.Ng3 e3 12.Be1 Qf4 13.Bd3 Qh6 are winning for Black.

9...Rg4 10.Qh3 Qxf2 11.Be2 Rh4!

Giving the material back. Moskalenko claims that 11...Rg6 12.g4 leads to undue tactical complications. For example, after 12...Qc5 (13.Be3 was threatened) 13.g5 Rxg5 14.Be3 Qf5 15.Qh4 Rg6 16.Nb5 Na6 17.Rf1 Qd5 18.Kb1, White is better.

12.Qxh4 Qxh4 13.g3 Qh6 14.Bxh6 Bxg6+ 15.Kb1



Now that the dust has settled, let's look at what we have here. It appears as though Black is way behind in development, but reality shows that White has his g1-Knight and h1-Rook that will take time to get out as the Knight can't go to its most natural square. The material count is equal, but usually a Bishop and two pawns is better than a Rook in the majority of cases. Black also has the Bishop pair in a somewhat open position, and with no direct attack for White and the Queens gone, it's probably better to have your King in the center than on the side of the board. All told, Black has a clear advantage here.

15...Nc6 16.h4

16.g4 would do nothing but give White a weak g-pawn after 16...Ne5.

16...Ne5 17.Nh3 Ke7 18.Rhg1

Clearly, White is trying to force through the g-pawn to possibly create problems for Black, but he can't get enough pieces over there and there is no clear way to creating a passer for White on the Kingside either.

18...Be3!

Putting the question to the Rook.

19.Rge1

19.Rg2 isn't any better. Yes, it maintains the idea of advancing the g-pawn, but with the Bishop out of the h6-square, there are no pawn forks to worry about, and Black can simply proceed to complete his development with 19...Bd7 and a clear advantage.

The text move might optically look better as there could be a discovery on the Bishop looming, but there is absolutely nothing here for Black to be worried about.

19...b6

Basically telling White that he has no real good discoveries with the Bishop.

20.g4

But this move makes less sense than any move of the Bishop on e2. This just hangs the g-pawn, but Black needs to make sure he takes with the right Knight. Yes, White does get the pawn on e4, but the g-pawn is far more important for White than the e4-pawn is for Black. If Black didn't have another pawn on e6 to shield the King, it might have been different.



20...Nfxg4!

Taking with the other Knight would lose most of Black's advantage. After 20...Nexg4? 21.Nxe4 Bb7 22.Nxf6 Nxf6 23.Ba6 Bxa6 24.Rxe3, the bulk of Black's advantage is gone. The major difference is that by taking with the f-Knight, White has no Knight trade available to him to deflect the g4-Knight away from the Bishop.

21.Nxe4 Bb7 22.Neg5?

This does nothing more than get the Knight trapped.

22...h6 23.Nxf7 Kxf7 0-1

Sure, White could have tried to play on with 24.Bxg4 Nxg4 25.Rd7+ Kg6 26.Rxc7, but after 26...Bd5, Black has two Bishops straight up for the Rook and a completely dominating position. If this was being played over the board, White might continue, but continuing this is a correspondence game with engines is totally useless, and so White gave up.


In the second game, we will be looking at an even weirder line that at first glance looks really bad for White, but study it further and you realize that it's not so easy for Black to take advantage of White's ugly pawns.

Game 2
World Zone Individual Championship, Preliminary Round
W: Jamie Davidson (2099 - AUS)
B: Patrick McCartney (1920 - USA)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.Bd3

This strange move is one that I had never seen prior to this game. Even in my over 3000 blitz games on chess.com, it had never come up when this move was played back in mid-February. Since then, I have faced this line twice on chess.com, but both of them transposed to another line.

5...c5

The most natural response, pressuring White's center.

6.dxc5

In both the games on chess.com, White played 6.a3, when after 6...Bxc3+ 7.bxc3, we have a direct transposition to 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 and now the offbeat 7.Bd3.

The move played in the game here leads to a very strange pawn structure.

6...d4 7.a3

Of course, forced as otherwise the Knight hangs.

7...Ba5

By not taking the Knight, the pawn structure for White ends up looking very weird.

8.b4 dxc3 9.bxa5



At first glance, it looks like a complete beginner is playing White. How could White let his pawns get that way? Turns out, this position is not easy for Black at all. You have to look past the ugly White pawns and realize the following facts about the position:
  • White is a pawn up, though that doesn't really mean much here.
  • White has extra space and a much easier time developing his pieces. As Black tries to develop his Queenside, the pieces will be tripping over each other.
  • Black has some really weak squares on the board. The one that stands out most is d6.
  • Black can get at the pawns, but keep in mind that Black has no dark-squared Bishop, so while getting one of them back is simple, just thinking you are going to pick off the pawns one by one is dreaming.
  • White has the Bishop pair in what is basically an open position, not something you see every day in the Winawer, and especially lines where White actually did play 4.e5.

So Black has to be careful how to pick his battles here.

9...Nd7

Probably the best move for Black. Black can also get an equal game with 9...Qxa5, but he has to be careful not to go pawn hunting with the Queen. After 10.Qg4, Black should develop either his Knight or his Bishop to d7. Note that 10...Qxc5? 11.Qxg7 Rg8 12.Qxh7! (this is even stronger for White than in the Poisoned Pawn variation where White's Bishop isn't already on d3) and now both 12...Qxe5+ 13.Ne2 and 12...Rxg2 13.Be3 Qxe5 14.Ne2 are very strong for White. The massive lead in development and Bishop pair on an open board along with the ability to gain tempi on the Rook and Queen far outweigh the extra pawn for Black. If Black were lagging in development with the minor pieces developed and the heavy pieces needing to get out, it might be a different story, but with only heavy pieces developed, this is a clear sign of possibilities for White to use them to gain even more tempi on his attack.

10.Nf3 Nxc5 11.Bb5+ Bd7 12.Bxd7+ Qxd7 13.Be3

So now the dilemma for Black. He can play a move like 13...b6 or 13...Rc8 to protect the Knight, but then he has to contend with a Queen Trade and then White gaining a tempo with the check. The alternative is to trade Queens and then resolve the problem with the Knight, which also develops the Rook for White. So either way, Black is either helping White develop, or retreating his own pieces, or in the case of the game, both! So don't get so excited about Black's position just because his pawn structure is better and he had regained the lost pawn.

13...Qxd1+ 14.Rxd1 Nd7



So Black's idea by retreating the Knight is fairly obvious. The position is open and White has the Bishop, so he has the best minor piece on the board. That said, with the Knight on f3, which is four moves away from the d5-square, and with White's remaining Bishop being on the dark squares, the d5-square is automatically where Black wants one of his Knights, both to protect the advanced c3-pawn, and to control some key dark squares in the center of the board. One of Black's Rooks will likely go to the c-file to also maintain the c3-pawn. If that c3-pawn falls, Black is likely worse, despite the ugly White pawn structure. The other Knight that just went to d7 is tying down the White Knight to the defense of the e5-pawn. So the real question is what will happen with the Rooks.

15.Ke2

There is no reason for either side to castle in this position.

15...Nd5 16.Rd4 b6 17.Rg4 Kf8

This appears to hem the Rook in, but this is only temporary. The King will ultimately go to e7 once the issue with the g7-pawn is resolved.

18.Kd3 Rac8

Now we see the point of 16...b6, making it so that we can free up the a8-Rook to remove the duties form guarding the a-pawn.

19.Rb1 h6 20.h4 Rg8 21.h5 Ke7 22.Bc1



Now we have a critical moment. Black must assess the position carefully. The Knight on d5 is ideally placed and probably will not move any time soon barring a tactic available to Black, and it turns out this Knight sits here for the rest of the game. The Rook on c8 does a good job of holding the c3-pawn, a pawn that will also be there the rest of the game. There is a problem on the Kingside. The attack on the g-pawn is tying down the Black Rook to a severely passive square, g8. Also, it is tying the c8-Rook down to its defense so that White has no tactics on h6, using a pin to win a pawn. The Knight on d7 is also passive. The b6-pawn is also very well covered. So Black's position is solid, but a little too passive right now with too many things tied down to Black's g7-weakness. What Black must do is first of all accept that he will have a weakness of some sort no matter what he does. However, it usually takes 2 weaknesses to be defeated. If Black can transition the weakness to somewhere else where the defense of the weakness is dependent upon fewer pieces, it would be a great idea for Black, and so this is exactly what Black does.

22...f6!

So by attacking the e-pawn, and virtually forcing White to take on f6, Black will first off activate his d7-Knight. It will gain a tempo on the Rook and virtually force the Rook off the g-file. This will give Black the ability to advance the g-pawn where it will get traded off for White's h-pawn, and then Black's h-pawn and White's a-pawn will be equally weak where White can choose to defend his own weakness, or allow Black to take it in return for the remaining kingside pawn. That will leave Black with just one weakness, the isolated e-pawn, which is well covered by the King and hard for White to get to, and so instead of two Rooks doing the job of covering a weak pawn and a Knight as a result suffering in a passive position, just the King alone is enough to defend Black's only real weakness, and this is likely what nets Black half of the point.

23.exf6 N7xf6 24.Rh4 g5 25.hxg6 Rxg6 26.Ne1

The g-pawn was hanging if White tries to take on h6.

26...h5 27.g3 Kd6 28.axb6 axb6 29.Ng2 Rg4 30.Rxg4 hxg4 31.Ne3 Ra8



I had offered a draw in this position as there really is nothing either side can do. Virtually every pawn except arguably the g3-pawn is weak, and so White can decide to hold on to his own pawns, or pick away at Black's, but for every pawn he picks away at, Black is able to do the same to one of the many weak White pawns. White, however, decided to play on here.

32.Rb3 Kc6 33.Nxd5 Nxd5 34.Bh6 Rg8

With the idea that while White is possibly going after the c3-pawn, Black will go to g6, and then f6 to attack the f2-pawn.

35.Rb1 Rg6 36.Rh1 Rf6

Now White is stuck either retreating a piece to defend f2, or else play 37.Rh4 and trade f for g. Again, Black's rule simply is that for each thing that White pressures or attacks, if Black has an equivalent threat, he will draw this game. As it turns out in the game, White will get a passed g-pawn, but it won't be enough.

37.Ke2 Rf7

In anticipation of White wanting to play Rh4 and threaten the g4-pawn, Black cannot play passive defense, going back to g6 with the Rook. Instead, Black is ready to swing the Rook back to the a-file, and trade off g-pawn for a-pawn, and then start rolling his b-pawn forward.

38.Rh4 Ra7 39.Rxg4 Rxa3 40.Re4 Rxa2

If White now takes with 41.Rxe6+, despite it being check, after 41...Kd7, the c-pawn will fall.

41.Kd3 Kd7 42.Re1 b5 43.Rb1 b4 44.Bg7 Kd6 45.f4

And here inlies White's problem with being able to win the game. If he doesn't advance these pawns, what is he doing? If he does, they become weak.

45...Ke7

Now all Black has to do is walk the King over in front of the passed g-pawn and then wait for g4, at which point he has a tactic based on the loose f-pawn that will allow him to simplify the position to a dead draw.

46.Bd4 Kf7 47.Be5 Kg6 48.g4



Now Black has a clever trick.

48...Rb2!

Now, if White doesn't take, Black will play ...b3 to force the issue.

49.Rxb2 1/2-1/2

Therefore, White took and offered the draw. After 49...cxb2 50.Bxb2 Nxf4+, the position is a dead draw. Sure, if you were playing over the board and one side was in time trouble, you could argue for playing on, but here, given the fact that 7-piece tablebases are used to declare wins and draws when a position gets down to 7 pieces or less, all that has to happen is one pawn goes away and either side can claim the result based on best moves, which in this case is going to be a draw.


So we saw two games here that did not feature the traditional closed position of the Winawer, but one thing was the same about these. Just like in the traditional Winawer, White's got weak pawns, and in some lines, Black also has weak pawns, and while weak pawns can often decide the game in a Classical, Tarrasch, Advance, or even Exchange French, the Winawer is a whole different ball of wax, and as we saw in both games, piece activity ruled both games. If either side spends their time defending weak pawns, they will lose! This is why move 22 was so critical in the second game. Black could spend the whole game using his whole army to defend the weak g7-pawn, or he can do what he did, converting it to a weakness on e6 that could be easily defended, and accepting the other weaknesses on the board, realizing that any attack on any of them can be countered by going after White's weak pawns. For example, we saw Black go after the a-pawn in return for White going after the g-pawn instead of having the Rook sit on the g-file and try to defend the g-pawn. White would eventually coordinate and break down Black's defenses, and so counter-attack is often the only option in this line. So just keep this in mind that if you are playing against a player that is always focused on his pawn structure, the Winawer can be your best friend!


That will conclude this edition of the French Connection. I'll be back when another game completes, which could be next week or it could be a few weeks later. Till then, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Game Analysis: Getting All of Your Pieces Into the Game!

Hello everyone and welcome. As we continue to deal with COVID-19 and the lack of over the board tournaments, I am continuing to analyze games as they finish in correspondence tournaments. In the last article, we looked at a game from a Zonal tournament. This time, we are going to look at a game from the "Lockdown Cup 2020" tournament. It is a small tournament of strictly players from the United States. There are 50 entries all told with many players having two entries. It is broken down into 10 prelim brackets with 5 players each, the winner of which will advance along with the highest rated 2nd place finishers to move on to the Semi-Finals, and then there will be a finals bracket where the top two finishers there will get paid. With each bracket being 5 players, and playing a single game against each player, two White and two Black, there is little room for error. I am in two Prelim brackets, both of which feature an IM, a player in the 2100s, myself, a player in the 1500s, and an unrated player.

The game we will be looking at today features an O'Kelly Sicilian, an opening I don't particularly think highly of for Black, and we will see Black failing to get his Kingside pieces into play. White will manage to get every piece into the game in rapid fire fashion, not giving Black the time he needs after a couple of early errors, and the Black King will get hunted down execution style.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the game.


Lockdown Cup 2020 - (Prelim Bracket 4)
W: Patrick McCartney (1900)
B: Ed Gomolka (1507)
Sicilian Defense, O'Kelly Variation

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6

This is known as the O'Kelly Variation of the Sicilian. Some players really love it. I see it more as a one trick pony, and if White knows what he's doing, I personally view the ...a6 move as a waste of time.

3.c3!

The O'Kelly player is usually hoping for White to play 3.d4?!, which truly is a dubious move now. The idea is that 3...cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5! gives Black an improved version of the Sveshnikov or Najdorf. Normally in the Sveshnikov, which arises from 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5, White will place his Knight on b5, virtually forcing 6...d6, blocking in the Bishop. Here, White would be forced to play 6.Nf3 or 6.Nb3 as the b5-square is covered by the a-pawn. In addition to playing this in Sveshnikov fashion, Black could also treat his play in more Najdorf fashion with two major pluses. The first is that the Bishop on f8 is not blocked by a pawn on d6. In the normal Najdorf, we see 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 (or one of many other moves) e5. Here, White has an extra developing move already, and Black's extra move is ...d6, a now backwards pawn that hems in the Dark-Squared Bishop. Here, in the O'Kelly move order, if White plays a move like 6.Nf5, Black can play the move 6...d5 in one go, not making a stop on d6 before going to d5, and the move ...d5 is usually the dream move for Black in many lines of the Sicilian. If White plays a little more conservative with a move like 6.Nf3, Black can bring the Bishop out with 6...Bb4 and can still then follow up with putting the pawn on d6 rather than d5 after getting his problem piece out.

So those are the dream scenarios for the O'Kelly player. Now the bad news. The moves 3.c3 and 3.c4 are both fairly strong for White, and puts the question to Black as to what he is doing with that 2...a6 move. In both cases, the idea is to follow up with a subsequent d4, but there are major differences between playing d4 on the 3rd move shown above, and playing it a move later. In the cases above, where we saw 3.d4?!, Black played an early ...Nf6, forcing White to play Nc3, and hence blocking the c-pawn. With a move like 3.c4, we get a Maroczy Bind type of position, which then raises the question "What are you doing with that ...a6 move?". Some of you that may have seen my games before have seen me play the Prins Variation against 2...d6. After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.f3, and here, Black can blast the center with 5...e5 followed by 6...d5, play in dynamic fashion with 5...e5 and 6...Be6, transpose to the Accelerated Dragon, or play a Hedgehog setup. While 5...a6 can lead to a Hedgehog setup, it is usually played in a different order, and most 5...a6 players that I've ran into are Najdorf players that don't know what they are doing, and I refer you to "Chess is a Game with 32 Pieces" for a prime example of that!

So yes, Black can play a Hedgehog here, and I have played 3.c4 before in the past, and don't recall one case of an O'Kelly player playing a Hedgehog. So this begs the question, if you aren't going to play a Hedgehog, what is the purpose of your 2...a6 move?

In this game, I played White's other strong option, 3.c3! Here, White is saying that we are going to now play an Alapin Sicilian. The move Nf3 is very useful, and many normal Alapin players will play 2.Nf3 themselves first before playing 3.c3. The move 2...a6 though? Where do you see an early ...a6 in Alapin lines? That's the question White raises with this move. He is putting the onus on Black to prove that he hasn't wasted time with his second move.

3...Nc6?!

This move does not address Black's problems. He will never have any issue with getting this Knight out, and so there is no need to rush it. Instead, he needs to break up White's center before it is fully built. The problem with 3...Nf6 is that after 4.e5 Nd5 5.d4, we are in the 2...Nf6 line of the Alapin with Black having played the useless ...a6 move. Without the extra moves of ...a6 by Black and Nf3 by White, I would fully recommend this line to anybody playing Black, and when I played the Sicilian, it was 2...Nf6 that I played against the Alapin, but here it can't be recommended.

Therefore, I think Black's legitimate options are narrowed down to two. The first is to play 3...d5, which will, in essence, lead to a tempo-down version of the 2...d5 variation, but here, since a trade on d4 occurs early, and the Knight can go to c3 early, covering the b5-square with the pawn could have a legitimate purpose, unlike in the 2...Nf6 Alapin. The other option is to play more in French fashion with 3...e6 4.d4 and now, rather than taking on d4, playing 4...d5. White is now the one that decides whether to play more in Advance or Exchange French fashion. Here, the move ...a6 can be viewed as being the most useful, and if someone came to me and asked me what was best for Black after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6 3.c3, I would have to say this line with 3...e6. It leads to a somewhat useful purpose for the move 2...a6, and opens up the Bishop to be able to get out.

With what we will see in this game, that Bishop on f8 will never see the light of day, and therefore, neither will the Rook on h8!

4.d4 cxd4 5.cxd4 d6?!

Once again, not addressing the problem of Black's Kingside pieces. Yes, a move like 5...e6 might appear to do harm to the Light-Squared Bishop, but Black has fewer problems with his Queenside. He can still get the Bishop to d7 or b7 fairly easily, but here, instead, we will see Black taking extra time to get this Bishop all the way out, and continuing to ignore the Kingside pieces.

6.Nc3 Bg4 7.Be3



Absolutely nothing fancy by White. Sure, 7.Be2 is also a fine move, but here, White sees the long term weaknesses on the dark squares, and we will see later on the criticality of this piece covering the b6-square. Without it, White's upcoming attack wouldn't really have been possible.

7...Nf6

It should be noted that if Black plays 7...Bxf3, White should take back with the pawn. After 8.gxf3!, the doubled pawns are not an issue, and in reality, it simply bolsters White's center while he goes hunting down the Queenside.

8.Qb3 Qc7?

Black is already in a bad spot, but this just makes matters worse, putting the Queen on an open file. He had to try 8...b5 or 8...Na5, both with a clear advantage for White, but Black wouldn't likely get blasted like he does in the game.

9.Rc1 Qd7

EXERCISE: Black has completely ignored his Kingside. Before scrolling past the diagram below, I want to you think four to six moves ahead, and come up with a very strong and forcing plan for White that will virtually put Black in his misery immediately. Take a few minutes to analyze the position and see what you can come up with before proceeding past the diagram. Many moves lead to a winning position for White, but what we are looking for is the most forcing, no nonsense approach.



10.d5!

This move probably wasn't too hard to find. It's what follows that is tricky.

10...Ne5

Black does not have time for the intermezzio move, 10...Bxf3, as after 11.dxc6, Black has two pieces under attack and will lose the Bishop. Also bad is 10...Na7 when 11.Bxa7! demolishes Black's hopes at survival. Both 11...Nxe4 12.Nxe4 Rxa7 13.Qe3 and 11...Rxa7 12.Nb5!! win significant amounts of material with Black's Kingside still not developed. In the latter case, the Knight can't be taken as 12...axb5 13.Bxb5 drops the Queen to a pin, and 12...Ra8 13.Nc7+ forks the King and Rook, and so Black at best is dropping the exchange, and probably more!

11.Nxe5

Critical that this piece be eliminated.

11...dxe5 12.Bb5!!

This was likely the hardest move to see. White is just flat out giving up a piece, but if you look a few moves down the road, the Knight, the Queen, the Bishop, the Rook, and after White castles, the other Rook, are all coming into the game, and all moves but one are forcing in nature for White, and so Black will get time to catch his breath for only one move. What can he do with that one move? Open the Bishop but never move it? This move here is what I really consider the hard part of the Exercise, along with maybe the 12.Nb5 move in the 10...Na7 line. The fact that the Bishop pins the Queen to the King makes it so that Black is forced to accept the sacrifice and go straight into White's attack.

12...axb5 13.Nxb5



So now the pessimist would say that White is down a piece for a pawn. The optimist would say White's up a Rook and a pawn. White has the threat here of 14.Nc7+, winning a whole Rook, and so Black doesn't have the time for moves like 13...e6 here, trying to get his pieces out. Here is also where we see why the Bishop on e3 is so important. With the b6-square weak, Black can't even move his King to d8 to solve the problem because White will simply check with the Bishop and then fork him with the Knight anyway!

It should also be noted that attempts to deflect the Queen don't work either. After 13...Rxa2 14.Qxa2 Qxb5 allows mate in 3 with 15.Qa8+ Kd7 16.Qc8+ Kd6 17.Qc7#, and while 13...Bd1 does eliminate White's ability to castle as he would take with the King, it does nothing to save Black's bacon. Therefore, Black's next move is virtually forced, though, of course, Black could probably resign pretty safely at this point!

13...Rc8 14.Rxc8+ Qxc8 15.O-O

Ok, remember when I said that Black will get one free move? Here it is. What is Black going to do about it? Back on move 10, this is the position you have to visualize and realize that there is absolutely nothing Black can do to save himself in order to go through with it.

15...Bd7

Neither this nor any other move works. Some of the other options for Black include:
  1. 15...b6 16.Bxb6 Bd7 17.Nc7+ Kd8 18.Rc1 Qb7 19.d6!! exd6 20.Ne6+ and now both 20...Ke7 21.Bd8+ and 20...Ke8 21.Nd8 win the Queen as Black must take the Bishop since 22.Qf7# was threatened.
  2. 15...Nxe4 leads to misery after 16.Rc1 Qd7 (or 16...Qxc1 with similarities to the game) 17.Nc7+ Kd8 18.Qxb7 e6 19.dxe6 Bxe6 20.Qxe4.
  3. 15...e6 16.Rc1 Qd7 17.Rc7 Qd8 18.Rxb7 Be7 19.Nc7+ Kf8 20.Rb8 also nets White the Queen.

16.Rc1 Qxc1+

Black can't save the Queen anyway. After something like 16...Qb8, White has 17.Nc7+ Kd8 18.Qb6 followed by 19.Na6+.

17.Bxc1 Nxe4 18.Nc7+ Kd8 19.Qb6 Kc8

Black can prolong the game with 19...e6 or 19...f6, but the result is already decided. This move allows White to end the game immeidately.


White to Move and Mate in 7


20.Na8!

Only this Knight move to the corner forces mate! Of course, just about any move is winning.

20...Kb8 21.Qc7+ Ka7

The most prolonged mate runs 21...Kxa8 22.Be3 Nd6 23.Qxd7 and now either 23...Kb8 24.Bb6 Nc8 (Or 24...e4 25.Bc7+ Ka7 26.Qa4#) 25.Qc7+ Ka8 26.Qxc8# or 23...b6 24.Bxb6 Kb8 25.Qa7+ Kc8 26.Qc7#.

22.Be3+ Kxa8

Flicking in 22...Nc5 does nothing but prolong it a move.

23.Qd8+ 1-0

The final position deserves a diagram.




The final position sees the four Black Kingside pawns, the Dark-Squared Bishop, and the King's Rook, sitting by their lonesome with no involvement in the game what-so-ever, and all of this came from over focusing on the Queenside pieces, which tend to be the simpler pieces to develop in the Sicilian Defense to begin with. Do note, however, that when your opponent fails to develop his pieces, whether they be the Kingside pieces or Queenside pieces, this is not a luxury that lasts for ever, or even for a while. To take advantage of such a mistake typically requires a lot of "loud moves". Notice that from move 10 to the end of the game, there was only one quiet move by White, and that was castling on move 15. Had White proceeded with quieter moves, the game would not have ended so abruptly, and the game might not have even ended with the same result! So when early development looks suspicious, always be on the lookout for sacrificial attacks, especially if you are able to force the King to come out in the center before he is able to castle into safety. That should automatically be a red flag that some form of attack is out there.


This will conclude this article on getting all of your pieces into the game. I will continue to write these articles as correspondence games reach their end. Once over the board play starts back up, you'll start seeing articles with more regularity like you have prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. I'll be back again once another game finishes. I still have 11 games ongoing, and I'll have about 40 more or so starting up in June. Till then, stay safe.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 36

Hello everyone and welcome to the thirty-sixth edition of The French Connection. The featured game in this article comes from the World Zone Individual Championship Preliminaries. Sounds like an ear full, doesn't it? It is a correspondence event played on the biggest world wide correspondence site, the "ICCF", or "International Correspondence Chess Federation". There are four stages, and the stages are staggered. Not everybody starts at the same stage. You have the Preliminaries, Semi-Finals, Candidates, and Finals. Where you start depends on your rating. Those over 2400 start at the Candidates stage. Those 2100 to 2399 have to qualify for the Candidates via the Semi-Finals, and those below 2100 have to qualify for the Semi-Finals via the Preliminaries.

Now why is this information important? Correspondence chess is a lot different than over the board chess. With the aid of books and engines, risky, unsound lines that you can try over the board really don't work here. Also, the draw ratio is very high, especially at the higher levels. With the additional information available, even low rated players can end up playing GM level moves, and so not only is it difficult to win, but it is extremely difficult to win with Black, which should explain why you are about to see a drawish system played by Black against a lower rated player in the feature game.

So why isn't everyone rated 2400 and above given that engines can be used? It isn't until you actually play correspondence chess that you realize that computers are not as strong as people make them out to be! Computers that have played against GM's, like Deep Blue in the 1990's against Garry Kasparov, are juiced up by programs developed by human GMs. Without these additional programs, like opening power books, endgame table bases, along with others, you see computers playing a lot of strange moves with highly inaccurate evaluations, especially in the opening and endgame. Have you ever gone on a site like chess.com, examine a game you played, and wonder why after Black's 6...e5 in the Classical King's Indian, the computer claims White is up almost a full point? Have you ever wondered why, in a position where immediate tactics to win a piece are not available, it thinks that a King, Rook, and Knight for White versus a King and Rook for Black, no pawns for either side, is plus 3 for White? You ever see it recommend a move in the middle game for Black, saying it is -0.7 (meaning better for Black), you play that move, it gives a non-pawn move for White, and then the next move for Black, it wants you to go right back from where you came from, and still thinks it's -0.7? If you keep going back and forth, it should read 0.00 due to a draw by repetition. Every see a computer say that one move is -0.7 for Black, another move is +0.3, meaning slightly favors White, but once you make the first move, it flips to 0.00, and once you make the second move, it suddenly thinks Black is slightly better with a -0.4 evaluation? Long story short, computer evaluations cannot be trusted, and so there is still a major human factor in correspondence chess, and so a 2000 over the board player may not be a 2000 correspondence player. He could be a 2400 correspondence player as there is no time pressure, or he could be a 1600 correspondence player as he relies too many times on computer moves and doesn't realize that further human analysis and judgment is required.

So what can computers do for you in correspondence? They are excellent at figuring out very deep, forcing lines that humans may not see, and they are great to use as a blunder check, and so you are not going to win games with 3-move tactical blunders very often as the computer will tell them when they try move "X" and see that it drops a Rook to a weird fork 5 moves later that is totally forced.

Therefore, the next time you come to me and say "but the computer says blah blah blah is best", you see why I will often blow it off unless it leads to a forcing tactical sequence that wins material with no positional consequences.

It should also be noted that the ICCF has three "zones". The Europe Zone, the Africa/Asia Zone, and the World Zone. The World Zone includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Turkey, Untied States, and Venezuela. This event is restricted only to players from those countries, which shows the difference between a Zonal event, and something like a Norm tournament or World Correspondence Championship event.

With this background information in mind, let's take a look at the feature game.


World Zone Individual Championship, Preliminary Round
W: Gerald Thomas (1794 - USA)
B: Patrick McCartney (1920 - USA)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4

This line, which can also be played against 3.Nc3, is known as the Rubinstein Variation. Black gives up the fight for the center, and accepts a slightly passive position. White has a space advantage, but Black has no real weaknesses in the position, unlike the weaknesses seen in many other lines of the French Defense. For example, in the Open Tarrasch (3...c5), Black often has to either bring his Queen out early (4.exd5 Qxd5), or else deal with an isolated pawn (4.exd5 exd5 with a later dxc5 or ...cxd4). In the Closed Tarrasch (3...Nf6), Black will usually have a backwards e-pawn on a semi-open file. In the Winawer (3.Nc3 Bb4), Black has to worry about the dark squares on the Kingside.

The downside is that Black is passive to start the game, and this line is often used as a drawing weapon, and at the GM level, White tends to win fewer games here than in the more highly theoretical lines, but wins by Black tend to be very close to non-existent. So why would I play this line against a player of lower rating? The reason is two-fold. The first is that against a lower rated player in correspondence chess, minimizing risk with Black can be a good thing. In a bracket with all players below 2100, you can bank on there being more wins overall than in the later rounds, and so getting a draw with Black could mean the difference between advancing and not advancing. The second is that lower rated players are likely to make a few second-best moves. Again, with the use of computers, banking on a tactical blunder is highly far-fetched, but a positional error in a position that isn't full of fireworks isn't out of the question, and actually, we will see that happen in this game.

4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6



This is the main starting position of the Rubinstein. While there may be a few sidelines, like the Fort Knox, where Black develops his light-squared Bishop early, this position is the position you will see the majority of the time when Black takes on e4 on move 3. White has a significant number of choices here, which can be viewed as the other downside to the Rubinstein. Black has no weaknesses right now, but White has numerous choices at this point. He can:

  • Trade Knights on f6 and then follow up with 7.Bd3 (highly popular at the amateur level), 7.c3 (Kasparov's specialty which can be highly dangerous for Black if he doesn't know what he's doing), 7.Be3, or even go for a fianchetto approach with an early g3.
  • He can pin the Black Knight with 6.Bg5, and once kicked by 6...h6, only then trade the Knights on f6 and follow up with the retreat 8.Bh4, maintaining the pin, trading of Bishop for Knight with 8.Bf6, or relieve the pin and retreat with 8.Be3, seeing the h6-pawn as a weakness compared to the 6.Nxf6 and 7.Be3 line shown in the previous bullet.
  • He can play 6.Bd3 and castle Kingside, which was Khalifman's Recommendation in "Opening for White According to Anand" back in 2006.
  • He can play 6.Bd3 and take a more dynamic approach by continuing development and castling Queenside.

So as we can see, there are a significant number of moves that Black needs to know how to respond to. Outside of Kasparov's 6.Nxf6 and 7.c3, none of them are extremely dangerous, but Black can very quickly get into an inferior position if he doesn't know precisely what he is doing.

6.Bg5 h6 7.Nxf6+ Nxf6 8.Bh4

So White decided to go with the 6.Bg5 approach and maintaining the pin on the Knight.

8...c5

This pawn break is Black's main weapon in the vast majority of lines of the Rubinstein, and this line is not one of the exceptions. Now, once again, White has a lot of options.

9.dxc5

White decides to relieve the central tension a little too early, and this line causes very few problems for Black. Other options by White include:

  • 9.Bb5+ should not be a problem for Black, especially given that Black's worst piece is being traded. After 9...Bd7 10.Bxd7+ Qxd7 11.Qe2 Be7 12.O-O-O O-O 13.dxc5 Qc6 14.Ne5 Qxc5 15.Bxf6 Bxf6 16.Nd7 Bxb2+, White has nothing better than allowing the perpetual after 17.Kxb2 Qb4+ as if he tries to escape the draw by walking his King to d2, Black can pin the Knight with ...Rfd8, and while White can hold on to the Knight with Ke1, precise play is required for White to survive, and even then, the line has been figured out to a draw.
  • 9.Bc4, which can lead to tactical issues for Black if he takes on d4 immediately, but 9...a6 10.O-O and only now 10...cxd4 and Black is fine here. If White tries to stir up an attack by sacrificing a pawn with 11.Qe2 Qb6 12.Rad1, Black has the time to take the pawn with 12...Qxb2 and again, the most White can really hope for is a draw here.
  • The pawn sacrifice line 9.Ne5 has been figured out. Black equalizes with 9...Qa5+ 10.c3 cxd4 11.Qxd4 Bc5 12.Qf4 Bd6 13.Bg3 O-O 14.Be2 Nd5.
  • I think that if White wants any hopes of a win with this line, he has to try 9.Bd3 or 9.c3. Black should be ok in both of these lines, but more accuracy is required from Black, and it's not a simple one-liner that equalizes the position for him.


9...Qa5

Trading Queens would be a mistake here. After 9...Qxd1+?! 10.Rxd1 Bxc5 11.Be2 Ke7 12.Ne5 g5 13.Bg3 Ne4 14.Bh5 Rf8 15.Bf3 Nf6 16.h4 Rg8 17.hxg5 hxg5 18.Rh6, White's advantage is significant.

10.c3 Qxc5



11.Qd4

This move does not make much sense. White has a slight lead in development, and while 11.Bd3 Bd7 12.Qe2 Bd6 13.Bg3 Bxg3 14.hxg3 Bc6 is equal, there is a lot more room for error here, and White has a few approaches he can take. He can play the safe 15.O-O, or he can try 15.Rh4 and castle Queenside. Equal does not mean drawn, but this Queen trade simple eases things for Black.

11...Qxd4 12.Nxd4 Bd7 13.Bxf6

I don't like this move for White at all. Yes, it slightly wrecks Black's pawn structure, but the extra central pawn and the Bishop in an open position is more important than the pawn structure. As we will see in the game, White is never able to take advantage of Black's kingside. I didn't like White's 11th move either, and so it's hard to recommend anything, but if I had to play this position and was White, I'd probably recommend 13.O-O-O here.

13...gxf6 14.Bb5 Bc5 15.Bxd7+ Kxd7 16.O-O-O



This is really the first time that Black needs to make a decision. Should he move his King to c7, e7, or move one of the Rooks to d8 before moving the King?

16...Ke7

I think this is Black's best move. The problem with 16...Rad8 or 16...Rhd8 is 17.Nb3+, which forces 17...Bd6 and Black's pieces are cluttered on the d-file, making the Rook somewhat ineffective as it has to wait for the King and Bishop to both move. It also puts the Bishop on a more passive square than c5.

It is a little less clear whether 16...Kc7 could be better or not. White has a 3-on-2 pawn majority on the Queenside. While Black may have both doubled pawns and an isolated pawn, his majority is still on the kingside. With pieces still on the board, there is no reason for Black to take a defensive stance and use the King to block the White queenside pawns. It makes a lot more sense for it to join its pawn majority. In addition, it also creates a tactical defense to the isolated h-pawn that we are about to see a few moves later.

17.Rhe1

Now 17.Nb3 can be answered by 17...Bxf2 rather than 17...Bd6, which would be winning for Black.

17...Rhd8!

This move looks like it drops the h-pawn, but it doesn't. This is the correct Rook to put on the d-file as otherwise, they will become disconnected as the Black King is about to be forced to the back rank with an upcoming check. With this move, the Rooks remain connected.

18.Nf5+ Kf8!

The correct move as otherwise, Black's next move wouldn't be possible.

19.Ne3

Taking the h-pawn loses: 19.Nxh6? f5! traps the Knight. After 20.g4 Bxf2 21.Re2 Bh4, the White Knight can't get out and 22...Bg5 is coming.

19...f5

Had the King gone to e8 on the previous move, this move wouldn't be possible as White could just take it with the Knight due to the pin.

20.Rxd8+ Rxd8 21.Rd1



So now a critical decision from Black. It is inevitable that the Rooks will be traded. It makes no sense to re-locate the Black Rook to a passive position and give White the d-file. So the Rooks are going to go. The bigger question is the minor pieces. Should Black trade the minor pieces first, since taking the Knight comes with check? Or should Black take the Rook, which allows White to recapture with the Knight and keep the minor pieces on the board?

Here is where one must be careful about using computers and solely relying on their assessments. When people ask "What is the numerical assessment of the position?", I question why that is relevant. Sure, if the computer says it's +6, I would have zero doubt that White is winning, and if it says -8, then yes, Black's winning. Sure! But here, if I run the current position on Shredder, Chess.com's computer engine, it says that 21...Bxe3+ is "-0.55" and that 21...Rxd1+ is "-0.48". So if you blindly rely on the computer, you would argue that 21...Bxe3+ is a slightly stronger move. I am here to tell you that this is 100 percent inaccurate!

Let's say Black plays 21...Bxe3+ right now. White will of course take the Bishop. After 22.fxe3 Rxd1+ 23.Kxd1 Ke7, yes, Black does get to the fourth rank before White does, but it's not enough. After 24.Kc2 Kd6, White has the critical move 25.c4!, taking the d5-square away from the Black King, and giving him only one square, e5, and not two squares for Black to toggle upon. After 25.c4, it still claims a slight advantage for Black after 25...a5 or 25...Ke5, but as you play each of these, suddenly it changes its assessment to 0.00 in both cases, 25...a5 being responded to with 26.b3 and 25...Ke5 being responded to with 26.Kd3.

Now, any player can run random moves through the bot and see if the favorable assessment maintains itself or if it dies like it did here. You need to be able to do more than that in correspondence chess. I figured out myself that taking the Knight was not the way to go for the following reasons, beyond just seeing the triple zeroes:

  • The position is fairly open with pawns on both sides and no immediate tactical threats by the White Knight. Black has the better minor piece!
  • In King and pawn endgames, assuming all other factors are equal, like how far up the board your majority is, the side with the smaller majority has the advantage. Therefore, 3 on 2 is better than 4 on 3 (the situation in this game), 2 on 1 is better than 3 on 2, and 1 on 0 is better than 2 on 1.
  • White's majority is in its ideal formation. Three pawns that are not isolated or doubled. Black's majority is crippled. Black would have e, double-f, and h vs e, g, and h.
  • Black's majority is closer to the center of the board. In a King and pawn endgame, outside pawns are stronger.


So we see here an actual occurrence where relying on computer assessment would be an error. Black should still be able to hold the position, but he is by no means better like the computer originally said. Also, Black has to be careful not to over-press and suddenly be in a lost position. For example, in the line above after 25...Ke5 26.Kd3, the move 26...f4 would not be answered by a capture, but rather, 27.b4, and while this should still be drawn, both sides have to be aware of what they are doing, and not rely on computer assessments until either one side suddenly has an alarming advantage, like +3, or the total number of pieces becomes 7 or less as then table bases can be used to determine if one side wins or if it is a draw.

So after this assessment, Black's choice should be easy.

21...Rxd1+ 22.Nxd1 Ke7 23.Kc2 e5

Black has the advantage due to the advanced pawn phlanx and the better minor piece, and so White must be thinking from a defensive mentality here.

24.Kd3?!

I think White would be better off advancing a Kingside pawn. Which one? That raises an interesting question.

Playing 24.g3 seems counter-intuitive because it puts the pawns on the dark squares, which is the color complex that Black's Bishop occupies. That said, it also takes a bunch of dark squares away from Black. Personally, I think this is White's strongest move. Black has to be careful. For example, after 24...e4 25.Ne3! Ke6 26.a4 Bxe3?! 27.fxe3, black must find 27...Kd5 just to maintain equality. Black's majority is stopped, and White has the Queenside majority, and only two results would be possible here, a White win or a draw.

Of course, Black is not forced to play 24...e4, and can play something like 24...Ke6, but after 25.a4, I don't see how Black is going to make progress without taking such a risk. Sure, he can play waiting moves like 25...Bd6, but without an error by White, I don't see how either side can make progress, and a draw is the likely result.

While I think 24.g3 is best, I also think that 24.f3 is interesting, though Black might be able to take advantage of the open dark squares. After 24...Kf6 25.Kd3 Bh1 26.h3 Kg5 27.Ne3, Black has two viable options:
  1. 27...Bxe3 28.Kxe3 f4+ 29.Ke4 f6 30.a4 Kh4 31.b4 Kg3 32.c4 Kxg2 33.c5 f5+ 34.Kxf5 (34.Kxe5? Kxf3 35.b5 Kg3 36.c6 bxc6 37.bxc6 f3 38.c7 f2 39.c8=Q f1=Q is clearly better for Black with the extra pawn) 34...Kxf3 35.b5 Kg3 36.c6 bxc6 37.bxc6 f3 38.c7 f2 39.c8=Q f1=Q+ 40.Kxe5 and Black is better as his King is harassing one of the White pawns directly, but it's unclear whether it is enough for Black to win.
  2. 27...Kf4 and now I think 28.Nc4 is stronger than the overly passive 28.Nf1. After 28.Nc4, Black can try 28...e4+ 29.Ke2 Bc5 30.b4 Be7 31.Ne3 Bg5 or 28...h5 29.Ke2 Bc5 30.b4 Bf8 31.Kf2 h4, but in neither case do I see Black getting anywhere.

I still think 24.g3 is safer than 24.f3 due to line A, but the latter may turn out to be playable as well.

24...Ke6 25.b4 e4+ 26.Kc4?

This move leads to problems for White. I think that 26.Ke2 was forced, attempting to stop Black. The problem with advancing the King is that Black will be able to create a zugzwang position where White will run out of viable moves and will be virtually forced to get out of Black's way!

26...Bd6 27.h3 f4 28.b4

It does not help White to play 28.Kd4 as the King can be chased away via 28...f5 29.a4 Be5+ 30.Kc4 Bf6 and the King can then enter via e5 and re-route the Bishop.

28...Ke5 29.a5 Be7 30.g3?

Other moves are likely not to work either and White is likely already lost, but the move played makes Black's task very easy. After a move like 30.f3, Black can win by advancing the e-pawn and once again, making White run out of productive moves. For example, 30...e3 31.Kd3 h5 32.Nb2 Kd5 33.Nd1 Bf6 34.c4+ Kc6 35.Nc3 Bxc3 36.Kxc3 h4 37.Kc2 a6 38.Kd3 b6 39.axb6 Kxb6 40.Kc2 a5 41.bxa5+ Kxa5 42.c5 Kb5, winning.

30...fxg3 31.fxg3 Bg5

The Bishop is headed to e1.

32.Nf2 f5 33.Nd1 Bd2 34.b5 Be1

This will allow Black to force through the f-pawn as White either has to advance the g-pawn, or lose it.

35.g4 f4!

Far stronger than trading on g4.

36.a6 b6!



White is in Zugzwang! If he moves his King, Black will advance his e-pawn. If he moves his Knight, Black will advance his f-pawn.

37.Nb2

Or 37.Kb3 e3 38.Kc2 Ke4 39.h4 f3 and the f-pawn can't be stopped.

37...f3 38.Nd1 Kf4 39.Kd4 e3! 40.Kd3

Or 40.Nxe3 Bf2 wins the Knight.

40...e2 41.Ne3 Bxc3 42.Nc2

White can win the Bishop, but then Black promotes his e-pawn.

42...e1=Q 43.Nxe1 Bxe1 44.g5 hxg5 0-1


So what we saw here was an instructive game that illustrates many aspects of the game:
  • An introduction to the Rubinstein Variation of the French Defense
  • Paying close attention to detail and correctly deciding between two moves that look to be equal in value. For example, Black's 16th and 18th moves, both of which feature significant differences between two moves that at first glance appear to be equally playable.
  • Understanding when to trade and when not to! Black was right to keep the minor pieces on the board, and while the analysis shows a few scenarios where Black can trade, the first opportunity, back at move 21, it was most certainly in Black's interest not to trade the minor pieces.
  • An illustrative example of how a Bishop can certainly be better than a Knight, despite its inability to reach half the squares on the board. The Knight was dominated by the threat of Black's pawns advancing. The Bishop was able to improve its position over the course of the endgame while the White Knight was virtually frozen for the duration of the endgame.
  • DO NOT ASSUME that all computer moves are gospel! Computers are extremely strong at calculating long, forcing sequences that the human mind will often fail to find because of an obscure move in the sequence, whether that be a move that violates principles, like a Knight going to the edge of the board, or a major sacrifice, like giving up a Rook that 13 moves later leads to regaining the material and then some or mating the opposing King. That said, there are other aspects of the game where computers are weak, and positional evaluation can be one of them, along with openings and endgames. We saw the computer advertising that Black should trade the minor pieces on move 21, but we saw here that trading the pieces only causes trouble for Black, and while leaving them on might not be a forced win for Black, it is White, not Black, that has to prove it in the endgame. Computers also have a tendency of overvaluing material above positional aspects, and so don't just assume that what the computer says must be right. That is often not the case at all!



This concludes this edition of The French Connection. Til next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!