Saturday, March 30, 2019

Errors in the Opening - Part 1

Hello everyone and welcome to the first of a 3-part article on Errors in the Opening. Now you might be wondering what on earth this is all about. Looking at the title, one might think this is going to cover miniatures. Games of under 20 or 25 moves usually due to a blunder in the opening. That's not what we have here.

There is this constant argument by amateurs in chess forums, such as on, about what one needs to know about the opening. At the level of the elite grandmaster, like Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, and So, they are walking databases. They will know the new flavor of the month on move 27 or whatever other move number of the Najdorf Sicilian with 6.Bg5. At the 900 level, there is absolutely no use in even trying to know all of this because by move 5, your opponent will have already made an error and probably violated basic opening concepts.

But what about all the points in between? The so-called "Amateur" level? Those between 1600 and 2200?

Some still seem to be of the belief that they can just continue to do what they did when they were 900. Occupy the center. Don't move the same piece twice. Get castled. Don't throw your queen out too early. The problem with this theory in most cases is that you are merely looking at your own pieces, and often ignoring what your opponent is doing outside of direct threats. Usually these people will lack a positional understanding of what the opponent is trying to accomplish. For example, the following is a very common error made at the amateur level:

After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Nc3 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bc4 O-O, we have the following position:

This is one of the main lines of the Accelerated Dragon. The main difference between it and the regular Dragon is that in the regular Dragon, Black has played ...d6 and has not played either ...O-O or ...Nc6 yet (either move can be delayed to move 8 for Black). But someone that is just trying to rely on opening concepts will make the common mistake of playing 8.f3, on the basis that it is the same basic position. Turns out, 8.f3 is a very common amateur mistake. There are two major differences between this position and the position after 7 moves of the regular Dragon. One is positional, the other is tactical. The positional difference is the whole concept of the Accelerated Dragon. Black wants to get in the move ...d7-d5 in one go rather than spending a move on ...d7-d6 and then later push ...d6-d5 (this is where the concept of "Accelerated" comes from). The tactical issue is that after 8.f3?, the move 8...Qb6! wins material. The b2-pawn is hanging, and after 9.Bb3, the move 9...Nxe4 wins a pawn. If White captures the knight, the knight on d4 hangs. If he tries to be tricky and plays 10.Nf5, then 10...Nxc3 is a huge advantage for Black.

Now some amateurs are of the other extreme. They think they need to be walking databases, and try to outright memorize all the main lines. There are a few major flaws in this approach. The first is that you aren't facing grandmasters that are walking databases themselves. They won't be following your 35-move deep line of the Najdorf Sicilian. They will probably play some oddball move by move 10. Now what? Do you have any clue what to do now? Probably not! But you will go around saying that he should have played such-and-such and then I would have played this and I would have had a great game because I know this 35-move line. The problem is that memorizing is not enough. He might have memorized in the example above that White needed to play 8.Bb3 instead of 8.f3, but what if Black had played 2...g6 instead and entered the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon? Would he have had any idea what to do? Probably not! Taking this approach of simply trying to memorize would be like telling a 4-year old girl to repeat after me: "Whose broad stripes and bright stars", and she says the words. Sure, the 4-year old can say that, but does the 4-year old have any clue that you are referring to the American flag? Probably not. Why? Because all she did is memorize a few words, not actually understand what you are talking about because it was never explained to her.

So this now brings us to the correct conclusion. When studying an opening, you need to be able to understand and explain in words why certain moves are played. What the consequences are of not playing them. If your opponent doesn't play the main lines, is what they played bad? Did they simply play a viable move that isn't as popular? These questions can usually be answered only by understanding the points behind each move.

And so in this article and the next two, we are going to be looking at three games where an error was made in the opening. These are not outright blunders that lead to miniatures, but rather inferior moves that show a lack of understanding of the whole point behind the opening line played. In this article, we will be looking at a line of the English Opening. In the other two, we'll be looking at a Petroff, and a King's Indian Defense.

These games are certainly nothing worth writing home about, and we will see many errors, mostly of a tactical nature, made by Black, but the main illustration is to explain the concept of understanding the opening rather than memorizing it.

With that said, let's take a look at the game.

Tuesday Night Action 49, Round 3
W: Michael Kliber (2009)
B: Patrick McCartney (2070)
English Opening

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6

So the first step to understanding an opening is to understand certain principles and rules, and WHY those rules are there. The first one is that in the early g3-lines of the 1...e5 English, White should answer Black's development of the Queen's knight with the development of his own Queen's knight. Why? We'll see in a moment!

3.Nc3 f5

So this move shows indication that Black intends to play a very aggressive line against the English. This space-gaining move must be broken up quickly, or else Black will get all of his pieces developed behind the pawns and use his advantage in space to grab the initiative. So how does White break this up? Well, the answer is that White would like to play d4 at some point. If he can get Black to advance or trade off the e-pawn, he will weaken his control of a number of dark squares, like d4, f4, etc. So let's imagine that White plays d4 at some point, and Black responds with ...e4. As White, what do we want to do? Where do we want our pieces? Well, d4 is occupied with our pawn, but what about f4? If we could get a Knight to f4, we will likely have a great outpost. Sure, Black can play ...g5, but it weakens his Kingside, and if we think far enough in advance, we can maybe eliminate that g-pawn and get a permanent outpost for our knight.

So our goal is to create an outpost for the Knight on f4. First thing we need to do is get in d4, and get it in quick before Black can completely develop. So we figure that 4.Nf3 is probably necessary. After a normal developing move like 4...Nf6, we can play 5.d4, and let's assume that Black is stubborn and plays 5...e4, and doesn't trade on d4 like we want him to. Now what? Well, we need to get the Knight from f3 to f4. Black will have a pawn on e4, and so anything that goes through d3 is not an option. Also, if the Knight ever blocks the Queen's view of the d4-pawn, the pawn will hang, and so even a move like 6.Nd2 is not an option. How else can we get to f4? Well, we could go Nf3-g1-h3-f4 or Nf3-g5-h3-f4, but here lies a problem. Once our Knight gets to h3, what do we do if Black plays ...g5? What is the easiest way to break up that pawn chain with the pawn on e5? Wouldn't that be pushing the h-pawn? How are we going to do that if our Knight is on h3? Is there another way to get to f4 without going through d2, d3, or h3, three squares that we have determined we don't want to occupy at any point in time on our route to f4? What about Nf3-h4-g2-f4? BINGO! If Black plays ...g5, then once we move the Knight to g2, we have our h4-push to attack the g5-pawn. If Black takes or advances, f4 is ours. If he doesn't, he might have to watch out for tactics on the h-file with the potential of a hanging Rook on h8 after a trade of pawns.

Only NOW do we see the reason behind the concept of answering ...Nc6 with Nc3 in the early g3-lines of the English Opening! Let's say, hypothetically, that the game were to start 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2, and now Black plays 3...f5! The Bishop on g2 would impede the Knight's path to f4, and White would not be able to achieve his goal. For this reason, 3.Bg2 is actually a positional mistake, but to understand the reason behind this, you have to understand the reasons behind each move in the opening. WHY is 3.Nc3 better than 3.Bg2? They both look like very innocent moves, but we have just seen that a major difference in the outcome can result from those two moves.

In the game, White somehow recognizes this, but then proceeds to take the wrong route with the knight anyway, and gets himself into trouble.

4.Nf3 Nf6 5.d4 e4 6.Ng5?

As explained prior, the correct move here is 6.Nh4!, pressuring f5, intending to answer a future ...g5 with Ng2 and h4. Note that if Black doesn't respond with ...g5 at some point, White can pressure f5 and g6.

6...h6 7.Nh3 g5 8.d5 Ne5 9.b3 d6 10.Bg2 Bg7 11.O-O O-O 12.Qc2

So we can easily assess here that Black has a significant advantage. However, achieving the advantage, and executing it, are two different things. We have already discussed the primary point of the article. The rest of it is going to be observing mistakes by both players throughout the game where Black often times loses his advantage, and White often times fails to capitalize on Black's mistakes.


Black's idea during the game was to attempt to take advantage of the dark squares and pry open the Queenside in Benko Gambit fashion. However, Black already has a local piece superiority and a space advantage on the Kingside, and he should be attacking over there. Better is something like 12...Nh5 13.Rb1 Ng6 preparing 14...f4, which virtually forces White to play 14.f4, where after 14...gxf4 15.Nxf4 (the side down in space needs to trade pieces to give the others more room to maneuver) Nhxf4 16.gxf4, Black is better.


A complete waste of time. White should take advantage of Black not pressing and break up his wedge immediately with 13.f4 with an equal position.


Once again, Black should be rearranging his Knights.

14.f4 g4?

Black should capture on f4 with a slight advantage.

15.fxe5 gxh3 16.exf6 hxg2 17.Kxg2 Rxf6 18.Bf4?!

The wrong place to develop the Bishop. Better is 18.Bb2, neutralizing Black's dominance of the long diagonal. White would be slightly better, and this is why Black should have taken instead of advanced on move 14.

18...Bd7 19.Rad1 b5

Once again, Black should be focused on Kingside operations. A move like 19...Rf8, 19...Rg6, or 19...h5 was better.

20.axb5 axb5 21.Ra1

Better was 21.Nxb5 Bxb5 22.cxb5 Qxb5 23.Ra1 Rxa1 24.Rxa1 Qxd5 25.Qxc7 Qxb3 26.Ra8+ Rf8 with dynamic equality. Black has the extra pawn, but White has the initiative.

21...bxc4 22.bxc4 Rf8 23.Rab1

White should trade Rooks on a8. Now we will see Black execute his original plan after White has failed multiple times to take advantage of Black's faulty plan.

23...Ra3 24.Rb3 Ba4 25.Nxa4 Qxa4 26.Rfb1 Ra2 27.Qd1 Qxc4 28.Kf1

So now we have a case of "What Matters Most?", as covered in a previous article.


The most important factor is that Black holds on to the c7-pawn. The root of the pawn chain that stops White from advancing. Therefore, 28...Rf7 or 28...Qc2 was better here and Black would have maintained the advantage.


Missing 29.Rc1! with equality.

29...Rxb8 30.Rxb8+ Kh7 31.Rb1 Qc3 32.Rc1 Ra1 33.Kg2 Rxc1 34.Bxc1 Qd4

Better are 34...Qc4 or 34...Qc5, pressuring the weak d-pawn, or 34...Kg6, relocating the King to its ideal square an stopping Queen intrusions on h5.

35.Qb3 Qa1 36.Bf4 Qe1

This move is pointless as after 37.Qb5, White has equality as the intrusion on d7 disallows Black to use the Bishop in the attack. Better was 36...Bd4. Fortunately for Black, White misses the opportunity once again!

37.Qc4 Qc3 38.Qa6 Qc5?

The most important factor here is time. This move gives White time to play 39.Qc8, which again he fails to do. Better is either 38...Qf6, not letting the Queen in, or else 38...Qb2 or 38...Qc2, both of which are probably stronger than 38...Qf6 as they both pressure the e-pawn, causing White to spend time covering that rather than counter-attacking the Black King.

39.Qa8 Qb5 40.Qa2 Bd4 41.Qd2 Qc5 42.e3 Bg7 43.Kh3 Qc3?

Now is not the time for Black to trade Queens. 43...Kg6 and Black is still better. Now is the time that White should have traded Queens and played for a draw, which shouldn't be too hard to achieve, despite being a pawn down in a same color Bishop scenario.

44.Qd1? Qa1?

Both sides were in time trouble here (White 4 minutes, Black 13 minutes), but that is no excuse to miss 44...Qd3! winning. White can't take in this case as he will have to give up his Bishop to stop the pawn from promoting.

45.Qe2 Qb2?

Black needed to play 45...Qb1, maintaining the threat on f1 if White abandons. Now, 46.Qh5! Qf6 47.Qe8 would have given White equality. Again, Black doesn't factor in what matters most in the position, and is repeatedly giving White opportunities to equalize.

46.Qh5! Qf6 47.Qe2?

Again, 47.Qe8 is equal. Black can't cover all the checks along with the f5 and c7 pawns and at the same time make progress on the White King.


Now Black is back where he needs to be, keeping an eye on f1, though it would have been better on b1, stopping Qb5, and so White still has one more chance.


This move is bad, but only if Black finds the right move (There is only ONE right move here!).


The comedy of errors continues. 48...Qf6 is the winning move here. Then after 49.Kg3, only now does Black take on g4.


Taking with the Queen is equal.


49...Qf6 wins.

50.Kh3 Qg1 51.Bg3 h5

Last chance for White. What's the equalizer?


White is lost and Black doesn't look back again. 52.Qb5! was correct.

52...Bh6! 53.Bf2 Qg5 54.Bh4 Qxe3+ 55.Qxe3 Bxe3 56.Bd8 Bb6 57.Kg3 Kf5 58.Kh4 e3! 59.Kxh5 e2 60.Bh4 Ba5 61.Bf2 e1=Q 62.Bxe1 Bxe1 63.h4 Ke5 64.Kg6 Bxh4 0-1

Wow! A game littered with errors! One could argue that this article is two lessons in one. The main point was to explain why understanding an opening is more important than memorizing the moves or merely developing blindly based on opening concepts, but once Black got the advantage as early as move 12, we can see that executing the advantage is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than achieving the advantage in the first place.

In the next article, we will be looking at a similar scenario with another opening, the Petroff Defense, and we will again see the importance of understanding the opening rather than memorizing or ignoring the opening phase of the game.

Until next time, good luck in all of your rated games!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Evaluating Pawn Weaknesses

We all know what the books say. A clean pawn structure with fewer pawn islands is better than extra pawn islands, ragged pawns, doubled pawns, isolated pawns, and backward pawns, but is that always true? We will be looking at a game today that features various types of pawn weaknesses, specifically in a situation where the queens were traded off early, and so going "pawn hunting" won't be an option. In each of these cases, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
  • How easy is it for the opponent to get at the weakness, either by direct attack, or indirectly by taking advantage of the Opponent's immobility due to his having to cover the weakness?
  • Is the weakness compensated by something else, such as piece activity? For example, in the Scotch Game, after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6, Black has doubled pawns, but he gets an open b-file for his heavy pieces.
  • Is the weakness easily repairable, or permanent?

In the game we will be looking at, we will see how evaluation of the weaknesses is more important than just blindly assuming that pawn structure appearance says it all. I won't be going through the opening phase as this article is not on opening theory, but I'll include the opening moves for those that are interested, which is a fairly unusual way to reach the Queen's Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation.

With all of that said, let's take a look at the position.

Taco 90, Rd 1
W: Alexandre Blangy (1887)
B: Patrick McCartney (2070)
Raleigh, NC, January 19, 2019

After the moves 1.d4 e6 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 Bf5 7.Qb3 Qb6 8.Qxb6 axb6 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.e3 Nd7 11.Nh4 Bg6, we have the following position:

So if somebody told you that you had to sit down to this position with White to move, but you could choose which side you want, which side would you take? Do you take White with the two pawn islands and no doubled or isolated pawns? Or do you take Black with three pawn islands, two sets of doubled pawns, one of those sets doubled and isolated along with an isolated h-pawn, but an open a-file for the rook, and open g-file potentially for the other rook, and the bishop pair?

Believe it or not, this position is equal, and would remain equal if White played a move like 12.Kd2, intending 13.Bd3, contesting the Black Bishop. White probably wouldn't trade it off, and would wait for Black to do so, but it removes Black's control over the diagonal.

Instead, White makes a mistake here.


White is probably saying to himself "sure, I have reduced Black's pawn islands from 3 to 2 and the f-pawns and h-pawn are no longer isolated, but Black still has doubled b-pawns, and his bishop pair is knocked out, and so I must be better", when in reality, White will actually be worse in this position. Why you say? Let's first see how Black recaptures.


What? I must be smoking something very strong here. Why did Black not take back with the f-pawn? All that leaves him with is the doubled b-pawn! The answer is actually fairly simple. While taking with the f-pawn is ok, Black had something very specific in mind when he took with the h-pawn. Yes, he has two sets of doubled pawns. However, the front f-pawn is going to advance itself to f5 in the very near future. Both sides have opposite colored Bishops. By placing his pawns on f5, g6, and f7 rather than f6, g6, and h7 (or f5, g6, and h7), Black keeps control of key light squares, particularly e6 in this case, and he gives both his rooks on open avenue to go along with the semi-open e-file, while White has just the semi-open c-file that he will be able to do nothing with. Why? Because Black always has the option, while not obligatory (and in the game we don't see it happen), Black can always answer b4 with ...b5, not allowing the minority attack and tying White's pawn down to b4, a dark square, which can't be covered by White's bishop but can be attacked by Black's. So from a piece activity perspective, Black has the advantage. As for the pawns, White has to worry about the a-pawn and h-pawn, and advancing them will weaken other squares. Also, it's going to be very difficult for White to advance in the center with ...f5 coming. In addition, with the queens off the board, how exactly is White going to get at Black's weaknesses? What are Black's weaknesses? b6 and f7? Good luck getting to them. White's pawn structure may look prettier, but it's Black with the clear cut plan and the piece activity.

13.Bd3 f5 14.Kd2 Nf6 15.f3

I don't like this move at all for White. He weakens the e-pawn with no real ready plan to advance e4 as there are many ways for Black to stop it. Now let's look at the weaknesses again. Black has a weakness on f7, which is hard to get to. He has potential weaknesses on b7 and b6. The b7-pawn is hard to get to, and the b6-pawn can always advance to b5. White, on the other hand, now has a glaring weakness on e3, and unlike the weak Black pawns, this one is by no means difficult to get at. It is glaring in the wide open on the semi-open e-file. At initial glance, White's pawns look better because they are not doubled, but the immobility and glaring weakness on e3 actually makes White's position significantly worse. That said, it's really hard to recommend a move for White, and his best move might very well be 15.h3, releasing the h1-Rook for more useful duties, and to control g4 before Black is able to use it for the Knight to attack e3.


It might be better for Black to play 15...Bh6, putting pressure on e3 and pinning it for now to the King. The idea behind 15...Bg7 is that it stops 16.e4 in the sense that it drops a pawn after 16...dxe4 17.fxe4 fxe4 17.Nxe4 Nxe4 18.Bxe4 Bxd4, but with the reduced material and the extra pawn a doubled pawn in a more open position, and the opposite colored Bishops, such a trade down makes the extra pawn less valuable and White should, with proper defense, be able to draw the position.

16.b4 Kd7 17.a4 Nh5?

This move is a mistake because it gives White the opportunity to expose Black's weakness and also releases some pressure off of the e4-square. Better is 17...Bh6 with the same idea of 18...f4. If 18.f4, then after 18...Bf8 19.Rab1 Bd6, White has a permanent hole on e4 and a permanent weakness on e3, and with the b1-rook tied down covering b4, the knight stuck covering a4, and the bishop unable to cover e3 at all, Black is ready to bring the h8-rook to the e-file and lift it to e7 before releasing White's pieces from the duties of covering weak pawns while Black builds up on e3. The game would then have literally two possible results, and a White win is not one of them!


White missed the opportunity to level the position with 18.g4! fxg4 19.fxg4 Nf6 20.Raf1 with pressure now on the far more exposed f7 weakness, giving Black a lot more to worry about. Again, what matters more than the existence of weaknesses is the exposure of them. Can you actually get to them? White had that opportunity and missed it.


Now Black got what he wanted!



So we have to look at the situation and figure out why this is the right move. First of all, White is threatening the f-pawn, and it would be utter nonsense to play 19...g5 as that would open up the light squares for the White bishop, starting with a check on f5. However, the other thing to look at is that we have the opportunity to execute what I like to call a "Transition of Weaknesses". The e3-pawn has been White's main weakness since advancing the f-pawn to f3. Now, however, it's time to change that. Instead of just continuing to pound on e3, we see the BlackbBishop in line with the White rook on a1, the only thing separating it being the d-pawn. White has advanced b5, which means we can advance ...c5, putting pressure on d4, and winning an exchange if White takes on c5. It does leave the b6 and b7 pawns behind, but they were never going to be used as part of the attack, and doubled pawns are actually very strong at stopping the opposing side's pawns from advancing, and so the doubled b-pawns are doing their job. The other thing to recognize is that now we have determined d4 to be a weakness for White, trading on e3 removes the guard to d4. While the king may guard it for now, it is easier to push a king away from the defense of another piece, often via a check, than it is to get a pawn to move away. Therefore, the correct idea here is to trade on e3, eliminating any threats to the f4-pawn and weakening the d4-pawn. Also note that with the White knight now on e2, and a king about to capture on e3, White is nowhere near ready to contest the Black rooks from coming down the e-file.

20.Kxe3 c5

As mentioned prior, taking advantage of the pin.

21.Bc2 Rhe8+ 22.Kd3 c4+ 23.Kd2

So now let's look at the situation again. Black's weaknesses, namely the b6- and b7-pawns, are hard to get to. The f-pawn isn't much of a weakness any more as it can advance to f5 if need be, and unlike the opportunity White had on move 18, here the White f-pawn still remains on f3 and so there is no real exposure to the f7-pawn, and so while Black can advance it, why bother until you have to? White, on the other hand, is littered with weaknesses. There are three in particular that are glaring, and all of them are highly exposed. Those are the a4-pawn, the d4-pawn, and the e3-square. Not to mention, Black also has a protected passed pawn on c4 that White must deal with, and virtually all of White's pieces are extremely passive whereas Black's are all active, though granted, the a8-Rook is a bit less active than the rest of Black's pieces, but with that said, we will see that all of Black's pieces will be even more active very quickly, and so Black is completely in the driver's seat, and probably from here on out, it would never be too early to say that White could safely resign.

23...Bh6+ 24.Kd1 Re7 25.g3 Rae8

So while White moved his king backwards and made a pawn move, all of Black's pieces have become extremely active. What you are about to see is a domino effect, with one threat leading to another and constantly making White react to everything and never be able to fight back Black's onslaught.

26.Re1 Be3

With threats to the Knight and Rook via ...Bf2, hence White's next move.

27.Nc3 Bxd4

But now the consequence of White having to move the Knight is losing the d-pawn and getting put in yet another pin.


And now, with the White rooks not connected, White is forced to initiate the rook trade, giving away his only slightly active piece. Note that trying to connect the rooks with 28.Kd2?? would fail to a deflection tactic, 28...Bxc3+, deflecting the king away, and after 29.Kxc3, Black wins a rook with 29...Rxe1.

28...Rxe7 29.Kd2 Kd6 30.Rf1 Bxc3+

Now that White released the pin, Black eliminates the Knight while up a pawn, specifically avoiding all possibilities of an opposite colored bishop ending.

31.Kxc3 Kc5 32.Kd2 d4

The connected passers spell death for White.

33.g4 c3+! 34.Kd1

34.Kd3 allows mate in one with either piece. I was going to do it with the knight if he went that way. Either way, it's game over, and Black uses a technique to eliminate all of the pieces and gets down to a dead won pawn ending. Why be cute when the game can be won with total simplicity, and once you see a winning method, don't try to get cute and look for a faster one.

34...Nf4 35.Be4 d3 36.Re1 Ng2 37.Rg1 Ne3+ 38.Ke1 Kd4

The idea behind Black's last move is to threaten to eliminate all pieces from the board, which White allows. The fact that White is still playing on has gotten to the point of ridiculous.

39.g5 d2+

Now the trade down can't be avoided. Sure, Black can also win with follow-up moves like 40...Nc4 or 40...Rxe4, but why complicate matters when you've already figured out the win?

40.Ke2 d1(Q)+ 41.Rxd1 Nxd1 42.Kxd1 Rxe4 43.fxe4 Kxe4 44.Kc2 Kd4 45.h4 Kc4 0-1

White has nothing. He can advance the pawns, dropping them, but he can't create a passer, and there is no stalemate, and so White resigned.

Remember, don't just assume that all weak pawns are equally weak. In fact, sometimes a pawn structure that is often viewed as weak, such as doubled pawns or an isolated pawn, can be very strong, especially if they cover key squares and can't be attacked easily. Also, doubled pawns usually means the opening of a file, which can be useful for your rooks. That's what happened here in the game we looked at. Black had what appeared to be ugly pawns, but it allowed for harmonious piece activity. White's pawns looked great, but there was nothing he could ever do with them, and the moment he tries to start advancing them, such as when he played 15.f3, trying to break through with e4, all he would up doing was weaken his own pawns and give Black exposed targets to hit on, unlike the targets in Black's camp that were unexposed and very difficult to get to.

Till next time, good luck in your games.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The French Connection: Volume 18

What Matters Most?

Hello and welcome to the eighteenth edition of The French Connection. It has been a while since covering the Winawer Variation, last seen in Volume 1. The one thing that can be said about the Winawer that is vastly different from most other lines is that the concept of "General Principles" almost never applies here. We will be looking at a game played in January where moves that don't appear to make a whole lot of sense turn out to be the best moves. This is where the concept of asking yourself the question "What matters most?" comes into play. We will be asking ourselves this question many times throughout the game.

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

Tuesday Night Action 49, Round 1
W: Walter Smiley (1954)
B: Patrick McCartney (2070)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qa5

This is known as the Portisch-Hook Variation, named after two advocates, Lajos Portisch (1937-) and Bill Hook (1925-2010). The idea behind the line is simple. Black has given up his dark-squared Bishop for a White Knight. White would like to be able to make use of his Bishop pair. Against the more common 6...Ne7, while 7.Qg4 is the main line, many positional players have preferred the line 7.a4, which opens up the a3-square for the unopposed dark-squared Bishop so that White can get it to be in front of his pawns, which reside mostly on dark squares, rather than behind them.

With the move 6...Qa5, Black takes advantage of the fact that the c3-pawn is hanging and must be defended, and will follow that up with 7...Qa4, blocking the a-pawn and now allowing White to advance it. Then, depending on how White reacts, the main idea is to bottle up the Queenside and then castle in that direction. For example, the main line runs 7.Bd2 Qa4 8.Qb1 c4 9.Ne2 Nc6 10.Nf4 Bd7 11.g3 O-O-O with play for both sides.

7.Bd2 Qa4 8.Qg4

White tries to take another approach, attacking the g7-pawn before Black is ready to fight. Black has to make the decision of whether to weaken the dark squares with 8...g6, or surrender castling rights by moving the King.


This was Bill Hook's preference, and mine as well!

9.Qd1 Ne7

This is a direct transposition to a line of the 7...Kf8 Variation of the main line Winawer, which is reached via 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.Qg4 Kf8 8.Qd1 Qa5 9.Bd2 Qa4. The alternatives are 9...b6, intending ...Ba6 to trade the Bishops, and 9...Nc6.

10.Nf3 b6 11.dxc5

This move is not particularly good. Better is 11.Bd3 Ba6 12.dxc5 bxc5 13.O-O Nd7 14.Rb1 h6 with play for both sides.

11...bxc5 12.Qb1

This brings us to the main question for the first time. What matters most? For Black, it should be easy to answer. His main trump is his pawn structure. If this were an endgame, Black would be better. However, it is not, and Black has many problems to solve. He lacks development as all three of his Queenside pieces are still on their original square. His Rook on h8 is blocked and so he should be aiming to get that piece out. Also, White has the Bishop pair, which seeks an open position. So should Black be hunting down Pawns such as the one on e5? Is Black ready to attack the White King?


The answer is no! Black should be focused on getting his pieces out and at the same time, eliminating White's Bishop pair specifically by trading his bad Bishop for White's good one. Black already has a small advantage, and he can maintain that small advantage by playing 12...Ba6! 13.Bxa6 Nxa6 on the basis that 14.Qb7?? doesn't work because after 14...Rb8 15.Qxa7 Nc8, the Queen is trapped.

13.Be3 c4 14.Be2 Nbc6

Once again, the question must be asked. What matters most here for White?


White answers incorrectly. Black went for an aggressive idea before his pieces are developed. White needs to actively pressure Black before Black is able to get his pieces coordinated. He needs to make it as hard as possible for Black to get his Rook on h8 out. In order to do this, White must play actively and with extreme aggression. If he allows Black to coordinate, Black's better because Black's has the long term advantage of having the better pawn structure. So while Black tries to attack and potentially gobble up pawns before his position is ready to do so, White, on the other hand, plays slowly in order to try to protect his pawns when, in reality, he should be happy if Black takes the pawn because it opens up his pieces to attack Black before Black is ready. Therefore, White should abandon the e-pawn and play 15.O-O!. After 15...Nxe5 16.Re1 N5c6 17.Qb5 Rb8 18.Qc5 Rb7 19.Nd4 Nxd4 20.Bxd4 Qxc2 21.Qa5, a draw is virtually forced as Black has nothing better than 21...Nc6, and after 22.Qc5+, 22...Ne7 is forced. Then after 23.Qa5, we are back at the original position and neither side has better than to repeat the position once more.

15...Rb8 16.Qc1

So again, what matters most for Black?


Black's idea was to prevent Ng5 from White and enable himself to play ...Nf5 without running the risk of getting the Queen trapped. This is too slow. Black should eliminate White's Bishop pair and then play on the Kingside, despite the straightening of White's pawns. After 16...Nxd4 17.cxd4 g5!, Black has an active game. 18.Nxg5? fails to 18...Qxd4 while 18.Qxg5? fails to 18...Rg8, both leading to a significant advantage for Black. This leaves just 18.h3 and Black gets an active position.

17.O-O Nf5 18.Bc5+ Kg8 19.Re1 Nxe5

If you think about what matters most, White can get an advantage here.


Remember what we said before? White's job is all about not allowing Black to coordinate. He needs to act fast, not trade off. White actually gets a slight advantage after 20.Nd4! Nxd4 21.cxd4 (attacking the Knight, which gains time) 21...Nd7 22.Bxc4 (attacking the Queen, which gains time) 22...Qh4 23.g3 Qd8 24.Bd3 and with Black unable to get his King to h7 for the time being, he still can't get his Rook out yet, and White is slightly better.

20...Qxe5 21.Bxa7 Ra8 22.Bc5 Qxc3 23.Bg4

The previous discussion of what matters most for Black should make his next move easy to determine, right?


Apparently not! Once again, Black is trying to attack without all of his pieces. Better is 23...Kh7! The doubling of the pawns is a non-issue, and Black is better after 24.Bxf5 exf5 25.Qd1 Be6 26.Bd4 Qa5.

So now, what should White play?


And once again, White fails to equalize after being given yet another opportunity. He must tie Black down before Black gets coordinated. After 24.Bb4! Qd4 25.h3 c3 26.Rd1 Qc4 27.Rd3 d4 28.Qe1 Qe6 29.f4 exf4 30.Qf2, White has equalized as 30...g5 fails to 31.Rxd4 while 30...Qg6 31.Re1 h5 32.Bf3 Rb8 33.Be4 maintains equality via continuing to tie Black down.

After the move played, Black finally starts playing correctly. Pay close attention to Black's technique in the following moves. There are multiple ways to win this, but Black's play is clean up through move 37. He secures h7 for the King, gets his Rooks connected, maintains the extra pawn and gets the connected passer rolling. He also does not flinch to White's passed a-pawn until it is absolutely necessary.

24...Nh4 25.Bxc8 Rxc8 26.Re3 Qa5 27.Bb4 Qc7 28.Qe1 Ng6 29.c3 Kh7 30.Qb1 Rhe8 31.a4 Kg8 32.a5 d4 33.cxd4 exd4 34.Rxe8+ Rxe8 35.a6 Qc6 36.f3 Ra8 37.Qe4 Qxe4 38.fxe4

So Black's play the last 14 moves has been beautiful. But it's not over yet! He has one more hurdle to get over, and must ask the question one more time. What matters most? Is it eliminating the a-pawn? Advancing his passers? Or centralizing the Knight?


Black makes the wrong choice this move and the next move, and gave White one more opportunity to draw. The correct answer is to advance the passers. But which one? Well, 38...d3? 39.Kf2 is equal, but after the correct 38...c3 39.Kf1 Nf4 40.a7 Nd3 41.Bd6 Nc1 42.Ra1 d3, Black's winning!

39.Bc5 Nc6

Black's last chance was 39...d3, but after 40.Bb4 Nc6 41.Bd2 Na7 42.Kf2 Rc8 43.Bc3 Nb5 44.Bb4 Rd8 45.Ke1 c3 46.a7 Ra8 47.Ra5 c2 48.Bd2 Nc3 49.e5 Nb1 50.g4 Kf8 51.Bc1 Ke7 52.Ra6 Kd7 53.Rd6+ Kc7 54.Rxd3 Rxa7, converting the win is significantly more difficult than the position that could have been reached after 38...c3!.

Now White draws.


And then again, maybe he doesn't! After 40.Kf2! c3 41.Ke2, the position is equal as the Black pawns can be stopped. For example, after 41...c2 42.Kd2 d3 43.Ra1 f6 44.a7 Ne5 45.Bd4 Kf7 46.Bxe5 fxe5 47.Kxd3 c1=R 48.Rxc1 Rxa7 49.Ke3 Ra3+ 50.Kf2 Kf6 51.h4 Ra6 52.Rc5 g6 53.g4 Ra2+ 54.Kf3 Ra4 55.Rc6+ Kg7 56.h5 Ra3+ 57.Kf2 gxh5 58.gxh5 Ra2+ 59.Kf3 Ra3+ 60.Kf2, the position is a dead draw.

After 40.Ra4, Black doesn't look back.

40...d3 41.Be3 c3 42.Ra2 d2 43.Ra1 Rxa6 0-1

White threw in the towel as his only distraction to Black is now lost, and there is no stopping the Black pawns.

The moral of the story is that general concepts only go so far. Both sides tried to use concepts to play this game, and we saw both sides making inferior moves. If you are going to play the Winawer Variation of the French Defense, you must throw concepts out the window, and this is why I recommended 3...Nf6 in the repertoire I wrote in 2017, because it's an easier line to play because Black's ideas are based on common sense. This is also why it is always preached that the first two openings one should learn are the Ruy Lopez and Queen's Gambit. The ideas in both follow most in line with general concepts.

But for a line like the Winawer, concepts must be thrown right out the window, and taking a "What Matters Most?" approach is the way of thinking that is necessary for this variation of the French Defense. Material count and pawn structure, two "concepts" often taught early on, mean nothing here. We saw in this game that what mattered most was neither material count nor pawn structure for either player. For White, it was Time! He needed to play "fast" moves, not pawn-saving moves, in order to keep Black from taking advantage of the better pawns. For Black, it was Harmony! Sure his pawns were better than White's the whole game, and he was even up a pawn for much of the game, but the pawn structure and the extra pawn meant absolutely nothing until his pieces were coordinated. Compare Black's position after move 13 to Black's position after move 30. After move 30, his Rooks are connected, his Queen is in a good spot, and his pawns are ready to roll. After 13 moves, Black's Queen is the only active piece and in line to be harassed by White's pieces. His Knight on e7 is passive, and his entire Queenside is undeveloped. None of his pieces worked together at all at that point, and hence why it was Harmony, or Coordination, that mattered most for Black.

While the Winawer is an extreme case of how critical it is to ask the question "What Matters Most?", this question can and just as much should be asked in any game you play, no matter what the opening is.

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