Washington Chess Congress, Round 1
W: Gil Holmes (1782)
B: Patrick McCartney (2069)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Bb5+
So here we have the starting position of the sideline in question. If Black wants to play the old main line that normally arises from 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.O-O Nge7 9.Nb3 Bd6, then 5...Nc6 is fine here. However, since the repertoire given last fall covers the more modern 5...Nf6, and that is also what I play, I interpose with the Bishop instead. This will lead to a temporary pawn sacrifice, but White can't hold onto it without destroying his own position.
5...Bd7 6.Qe2+ Be7
Interposing with the Queen, looking to trade Queens and avoiding the loss of the pawn, is inferior. After 6...Qe7 7.Bxd7+ Nxd7 8.Qxe7+ Bxe7 9.dxc5, we get an IQP position with a bunch of pieces traded off, including the Queens. The idea behind playing with the IQP is to get active piece play, not to quickly reach an endgame. That said, Black can usually hold in this position, but he is basically playing for two results as winning chances for Black are non-existent. Only White really has a chance of winning as the isolated pawn becomes more of a weakness than a strength in the endgame. The main reason Black can usually hold is that it's his only real weakness, and it's hard to win against a single weakness. Normally two weaknesses are needed to stretch out the defense, but if White can successfully create a second one, it's almost lights out for Black, and since Black is spending all of his time defending the single weakness on d5, counterplay for Black is virtually non-existent.
Therefore, Black is better off interposing with the Bishop. The loss of the pawn is only temporary for tactical reasons.
7.dxc5 Nf6 8.Ngf3 O-O 9.O-O
White realizes that he can't hold the pawn and gets his King out of dodge. Both attempts to hold the pawn fail.
A) After 9.Nb3, Black can immediately take the pawn anyway. After 9...Bxc5 10.Nxc5 Re8 11.Be3 Qa5+, Black regains the piece and he has equalized.
B) Even worse is 9.b4 as once again, Black can take the pawn immediately, and after 9...Bxc5 10.bxc5 (10.Bxd7 Nbxd7 11.bxc5 Re8 is even worse for White) Re8 11.Ne5 Bxb5 12.Qxb5 Rxe5+ 13.Kf1 Nc6 14.Qxb7 Re6 15.Nf3 Rb8 16.Qa6 Ne4 17.Be3 d4 18.Bf4 Rb2 and White's position is in complete disarray.
9...Bxc5 10.Nb3 Re8 11.Qd3
This is a very passive square for the Bishop. I played it mainly to get it out of the way of my other pieces for the time being, but it turns out that Black is best off putting the Bishop on b6 in this line. For example, after 11...Bb6 12.Bg5 Bxb5 13.Qxb5 Nbd7 14.Rad1 Qc7 (to get out of the pin and now the f6-Knight defends d5) 15.c3 Re4!, Black has a very active position in return for the isolated pawn. This is precisely what you are looking for when playing with the IQP. Notice the difference between this and the position we saw in the line with 6...Qe7. There, Black could deal with the weakness, but no more. Here, Black maintains an active position in return for the weaker pawn structure, and three results are still possible here!
Here, Black should play 12...Nc6 in order to be able to connect the Rooks in time. Black should not fear the loss of the pawn here as 13.Bxf6 Qxf6! 14.Qxd5 Rad8 is horrible for White. Sure, he's a pawn up, but Black is completely developed, and White's soon going to have to move the Queen again, and neither White Rook has been developed. Black has more than enough compensation here for the pawn, and his position is already significantly better than White's. White should, of course, decline the offer of the pawn, and rather than take on f6, move one of the Rooks to e1.
13.Rfe1 Nbd7 14.Rad1
White should try to gain the time on Black to maintain equality. After 14.Rxe8 Qxe8 15.Re1 Ne4 16.Bxc6 bxc6 17.Be3, the position is roughly equal, though admittedly, White's position seems to be the easier one to play here. Black should have probably played one of the alternatives at move 11 or 12, preferably move 11 as it leads to the exact kind of position Black is looking for in IQP positions.
14...Qb6 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.c4?
This move fails tactically. 16.Rxe8 Rxe8 and only then 17.c4 keeps Black's edge to a microscopic one.
The alternative is no better. After 17.Nxe1 Ne5 18.Qf5 Nxc4 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.Rd3 (20.Qxf6 Bg7 -/+) Ne5 21.Rg3+ Bg7 22.Qxf6 Ng6 23.Qf5 Re8, Black has a significant advantage for Black.
And this is the trick. Two White Pawns are under attack, and they can't both be saved. Note that White cannot trap the Black Queen by saving the c-pawn with a move like 18.Rc1 and expecting to answer 18...Qxa2 with 19.Ra1 as the b2-pawn is then hanging.
18.Qc2 dxc4 19.Nbd2 Qxa2 20.Nxc4
So Black is still a pawn up, but it's not the healthiest of pawns. He has two isolated pawns to White's one, and an extra pawn island. His extra pawn is worth roughly three-quarters of a pawn. Therefore, to maintain the advantage, Black still has to follow up correctly, which is not easy to do in this position.
This is the wrong idea for Black. Black is looking to trade Queens by playing ...Qb3 on the next move, but given the weaknesses, Black needs to keep the Queens on for the time being. Instead, the move to maintain the advantage was 20...Nd5. After this, White has a couple of options, some trickier than others, but they should all lead to an advantage for Black. For example:
A) After 21.Nd4, Black can respond with 21...Qa6, where 22.Nf5 Nc5 23.Qe2 Ne6 24.Bc1 Rd8 leaves Black with the advantage.
B) After the cute 21.Nd6, with the idea of answering 21...Bxc6 with 22.Qxc6 which forks all three minor pieces, Black has 21...N7b6!, where if White tries to grab the pawn with 22.Qxc6, Black gets a winning position after 22...Nb4 23.Qc7 Nd3 and the b-pawn is going to fall. Otherwise, if White can resist the temptation to take the pawn, then after 22.Nf5 h6 23.Be7 Qc4 24.Qd2 Bxe7 25.Nxe7+ Nxe7 26.Rxe7 a5 27.h3 a4 28.Qe1 Qb3, Black has the better position.
So as we can see, maintaining an advantage can often be harder to achieve than getting the advantage in the first place. A lot of complicated moves that Black must find, starting with the first one, 20...Nd5.
21.g3 Qb3 22.Qxb3 Rxb3 23.Kg2 h6 24.Be3 c5
And now we see the consequences of trading the Queens. Black's last move was pretty much necessary to protect the a-pawn and to limit the scope of the f3-Knight. That said, it also takes a lot of the sting out of Black's position. For starters, the Bishop on f8 is now extremely passive. It's blocked by his own pawn on c5. The d6-square is controlled by the White Knight on c4, which also conveniently blocks the c5-pawn, and it's even difficult to get the Bishop to e7. Advancing the g-pawn and moving the Bishop to g7 will simply cost Black the c-pawn. Lastly, with White's next move, if Black wants to hold on to the extra pawn, he has to make his Rook super passive as well. All of this comes via an incorrect idea at move 20.
Passive as it looks, 25...Rb7 was still Black's best move here, despite the extra maneuvering needed to untangle himself, and the constant lookout Black must be on just to maintain the pawn and not allow White's more active pieces to overwhelm the Black position. The move played in the game completely removes any advantage Black has. The position is now equal.
26.Nfd2 Rb4 27.b3 Nxc4 28.bxc4 Ng4
One of many options for Black, but they all lead to a dead equal position with correct play.
Correct here was 29.Rxa7, when 29...Nxe3+ 30.fxe3 Rb2 31.Rd7 Be7 32.Kf3 Kf8 is equal.
Black misses his chance. He can regain the advantage with 29...Nxh2+! There is no way to trap the Knight. For example, after 30.Kf4, Black can simply play 30...Bd6+ 31.Ke4 Ng4 32.Rxa7 Nxe3 33.Kxe3 Be5 34.Ke4 Bc3 35.Nf3 Bd4 36.Nxd4 Rxc4 where Black is winning because he will either be up two pawns, or if 37.Kd5, attempting to win the c-pawn, then after 37...Rxd4+ 38.Kxc5, the White King is cut off on the wrong side of the Black Rook and the extra pawn will win. Also, 30.Kg2 simply leads to the same position as the 29.Ra7-line via 30...Ng4 31.Rxa7, except Black now has an extra pawn, and the Rook ending is no longer drawn. Therefore, White would have to try 30.Ke4 or 30.Ke2, at which point Black doesn't have to worry about his Knight getting trapped and he has the advantage.
30.Ke4 Nxc4 31.Nxc4 Rxc4+ 32.Kd5 Rc2 33.Rxa7 g5 34.Ra8 Kg7 35.Rc8 f6
This move looks ugly, but without it, Black can barely move. The position is still drawn, and Black had numerous options here that all still draw.
Here is where Black starts making mistakes and White is starting to get an advantage here. Any quiet move like 36...h5, 36...Rc3, 36...Re2, or even 36...Ra2, is still dead equal, but this move gives the Bishop the d4-square and access to c5.
37.Bd4 Re2+ 38.Kf5 Kf7 39.Rxc4 Be7 40.Be3 Ra2
This was Black's last chance to maintain equality with 40...h5. Now White is better.
White offered a draw here, which I took, but White is actually better here. Enough to win? That may be questionable, but White isn't losing, and both players just got 30 minutes added to their clock, so there was no reason to offer the draw here. For instance, after 41...Ra5+ (Black can't allow 42.Bc5) 42.Kg4 f5+ 43.Kh5, Black can likely draw with 43...f4 44.Ba7 Ke6 45.Kxh6, but it is Black that has to come up with the accurate moves, given that he's a pawn down, starting with 45...g4! A half point is still the likely result for White, but why not make Black find it when you've got nothing to lose?
So the following is what should be picked up from this game:
- First and foremost, make sure you know the tricks for Black if White tries to hold on to the pawn. In most cases, because of the threat of the pin of the Queen to the King with Re8, Black can usually respond to any guarding of the c-pawn with 9...Bxc5 anyway for tactical reasons! Not knowing these tricks will simply allow White to consolidate and hold on to the extra pawn and have the advantage.
- Remember that this line is different from the main line. For starters, Black should have developed his Bishop to b6 on move 11, leading to the active position for Black. After failing to do that, Black tried to develop his pieces in the same manner as the modern main line (5.Ngf3 Nf6) by moving his Bishop and placing the Knight on d7, but with this being a different position, a different approach was better, placing the Knight on c6 instead of the Bishop, and connecting the Rooks in time to counter White's 13.Rfe1 rather than allow him to gain the tempi necessary to equalize the position, which White had the opportunity to do on move 14.
- In positions where you have the IQP, you do not want to trade Queens until you have gotten a big enough advantage to better than offset the isolated pawn that becomes more of a weakness than an asset in an endgame. Being up an "unhealthy" pawn is not enough to trade Queens.
- When you have an advantage, always consider all possibilities of how to try to hold the advantage, rather than trying to follow "generalizations" that were written for the typical 1200-player, like trade pieces when you are up material. This is exactly what Black did at move 20, set up for the Queen trade as he was up a pawn, but this was not the time and place for that, and you must take every position individually, as when you get to the higher levels, like 1800 and above, generalizations can often be thrown right out the window.
- Always be on the lookout for positional liabilities. The fact that White was able to get Black to play 24...c5 pretty much completely deflated any possibilities that Black had at holding the advantage, despite the opportunity due to White's error on move 29.
- If a position looks drawish, but there is no risk against you and there are possibilities for your opponent to fail that are not completely obvious, play it out. Not saying play out K+R vs K+R due to a possible skewer that only an idiot would fall into, but here we saw that White could basically win the h-pawn by force, and then ask Black how he was going to defend the pawn-down endgame. If he responds correct, then offer the draw. If he doesn't, you might be able to sneak the full point out of your opponent.
Well, that concludes this edition of The French Connection. Until next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White.