Without further ado, let's see what we have.
Des Moines Open, Round 3
W: Nathan Otten (1832)
B: Patrick McCartney (1996)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bd3 Bd6 6.O-O O-O 7.c3 Bg4 8.Bg5 c6 9.Nbd2 Nbd7 10.Re1 Qc7 11.Qc2 Rfe8
So we have a totally symmetrical position. White played a slightly unusual move order, and notice that say, on move 7, Black played 7...Bg4 rather than copying White, but expected, and got, a mimic response by White. The normal move order to reach this position would be 7.Bg5 Bg4 8.Nbd2 Nbd7 9.c3 c6 10.Qc2 Qc7 11.Rfe1 Rfe8. Black saw no reason to mimic 7...c6 immediately since the Knight is developed to f3 and Black wants to play his Bishop to g4 anyway, pretty much no matter what White does, and so getting the Bishop out there so that the Queen's Knight can be developed to d7 without blocking the Bishop can be done quickly, but notice that we got back to the symmetrical position anyway.
And so now the ball is in White's court. White developed his minor pieces. Black did the same. White created the battery on the diagonal, and Black responded with his own on the corresponding diagonal. White moves his Rook to the open file, and Black does the same. All of White's moves thus far have been easy, automatic, and non-committal moves. The reason I say that they are non-committal is that you can always retreat a piece back to its original square if you need to. The same cannot be said about Pawns. You move a pawn forward, it can't come back. So unless White can find a non-committal move that Black can't play for tactical reasons, White is going to have to commit first. Let's look at what White can do here:
- White can move a Queenside Pawn, but note that that would be a committal move, and Black can react accordingly, whether that be to continue to copy, or take advantage if you feel like White's move is weakening. For example, pushing 12.a3 would weaken the light squares on the queenside.
- White can play a move like 12.Bf5, but that would just accelerate Black's desire to trade light-squared Bishops. Yes, it's not locked in like it would be in the advance variation, but with a pawn locked on d5, the light-squared Bishop is still Black's bad Bishop.
- White can retreat the other Bishop to e3, but he is merely making his position more passive, and Black can proceed with his own attempts at an attack, or if he feels like White hasn't committed enough, he can continue to mimic.
- White can toggle his Queen's Rook, but for what? To see if Black will commit? He can if he wants, or he can mimic White and take a draw if White literally refuses to make a committal move and does nothing. A draw for Black is not a bad thing.
- White can lift the Rook, but Black will then trade before White is able to double up.
- White can trade Rooks, reload, and in this one case, Black should initiate the trade because White will be forced to recapture in an undesirable manner. After 12.Rxe8+ Rxe8 13.Re1 Rxe1+ 14.Nxe1. After this, White has to spend another move to bring the Knight back to life, and so White wastes two moves bringing the Knight back and forth, and so he goes from being one tempo up by going first to Black having a full extra move. Black's situation becomes what White's situation would be at move 12 if you simply took all the Rooks off the board and told White he could now move twice! This can't be good for White at all.
- The other option is to move 12.h3, which is what he does in the game.
While this move may be the least of the evils for White, it has its own problems. First off, it doesn't appear to do much other than force Black to do what he wants to do. Move the Bishop to h5 and g6 to contest the White battery. Notice that Black can no longer do the same thing on g3 because now only one Pawn covers g3 whereas both of Black's pawns continue to cover the g6-square, allowing Black to contest the battery.
12...Bh5 13.Re2 Rxe2
As noted in the list of possible twelfth moves for White, Black needs to trade before White can double up.
14.Bxe2 Bg6 15.Bd3 Re8
There is no reason for Black to take on d3 at this time. Let White initiate the trade and use his extra time to develop another piece while White is busy taking pieces off the board. White immediately complies.
16.Bxg6 hxg6 17.Re1 Rxe1+
Again, because White has to take with a minor piece, this is one of the few times to initiate the trade because a Knight on e1 is not desirable for White, and White is not gaining time by moving his Knight to the back rank.
18.Nxe1 Nh7 19.Nef3 Nxg5 20.Nxg5 Nf8
So after a number of trades, let's look at the situation. The following observations should be made:
- Black has the best minor piece. The Bishop, and it's his good one!
- White's Knight on g5 might appear to be more active than the Knight on f8. That said, Black's last move actually serves the purpose of at least temporarily keeping the d2-Knight passive. Notice that if White tries to make it active via 21.Ndf3, then Black can trap the other Knight with 21...f6 with a winning position.
21.Qd1 Qe7 22.Ngf3
Notice that White ends up retreating his lone active piece, realizing the trap if White were to activate the other Knight, and also notice the extra time it's going to take White just to contest the e-file and get the Queens off.
22...Bf4 23.Kf1 g5 24.Qe2 Qxe2+ 25.Kxe2 f6
Freeing the Bishop from needing to guard the g5-Pawn, and giving the Black King a path to the center of the board via the light squares.
26.g3 Bc7 27.Ne1 Kf7 28.Kf3 Ne6 29.Nd3 Bd6 30.a3 Kg6 31.Nb3 b6
Taking the c5-square away from the Knights.
32.Nb4 Nd8 33.Nd2 a5 34.Nc2 b5 35.Nb3 a4 36.Nd2
White should prefer 36.Nc5, maintaining equality. Note that if Black tries to create the weak Pawn with 36...Bxc5, then 37.dxc5 Ne6 38.Nb4 sees the c6-Pawn be just as weak for Black as the c5-Pawn is for White, and if the Pawns are traded, Black has an extra Pawn island and White might have a slight advantage. Of course, Black should maintain equality and not capture on c5 in that scenario.
36...Kf5 37.Nb4 Ke6 38.Nf1 Bxb4!
Black correctly times the trade of the Bishop for the White. Black has an advantage no matter how White recaptures.
The fractured Queenside is a problem for White. White has to constantly watch out for tactical shots, especially a Knight sacrifice on c3 if he is unable to chase down the a-pawn prior to promoting.
39...Nf7 40.Nd2 Nd6 41.Kg4??
This move fails tactically. Better tries are 41.Ke3 or 41.g4. Black still has a small advantage in both cases, but the position is manageable for White. The move played should drop at minimum a pawn.
My mind was on a defensive and prevention mentality, figuring the right moment would come for my Knight to charge in and either capture on b2 or sacrifice itself on c3, figuring Black has the long term advantage and should not rush. Normally, this would be good logic, but here it's an exception. Black should play 41...Ne4!!, winning at minimum a Pawn once the White Knight moves and Black is able to capture on f2. Note that 42.Nxe4 would be losing for White. After 42...dxe4, 43.Kh5 would be answered by 43...Kf5 44.g4+ Kf4, winning, while 43.h4 gxh4 44.gxh4 g6 is also winning for Black as White can't stop Black from walking right through the light squares to the b-pawn and win with the a-pawn.
Giving Black yet another opportunity. White must bring the King back and play 42.Kf3.
Once again, the winning move is 42...Ne4!, this time, answering a move like 43.Nb1 with 43...Nf2+ and 44...Nd1, winning a Pawn and the game. Taking on e4 also fails. 43.Nxe4 dxe4 and depending on what White does, the e-pawn or the unstoppable path to the b-pawn by the Black King wins it for Black.
Stronger is 43...g5+ 44.Ke3 f5, and now 45.h4 does not give White an outside passer. Actually, the opposite happens after 45...f4+ 46.gxf4 gxh4 with advantage for Black.
44.h4 Ne8 45.g4 Ng7 46.g5 Ne6+ 47.Kg4 Ng7 48.Nf3
White should repeat the position and play 48.Kf4, questioning Black what he's going to do. White should be able to draw that way.
48...Nf5 49.Kf4 Nd6
Better is 49...Ke6, against which White's best move is 50.gxf6 when after 50...Kxf6, Black still holds the advantage. The game move allows White to equalize.
50.Nd2 f5 51.Nf3 Ne4 52.Ne5+ Kg7
The only move, but enough to draw.
53.Nd3 or 53.Kf3 maintains equality and is safer than the move played. This move doesn't lose, but it causes more trouble for White than it's worth.
Again, the only move. Note that the sacrifice on c3 here would fail. 53...Nxc3?? 54.bxc3 a3 55.Na5 a2 56.Nb3 is winning for White.
This move loses for White. The only moves are 54.Kf3 or 54.c4, the latter being not obvious at all. The former is a more likely defense to actually be found over the board.
54...Nd3+ 55.Kf3 Nxb2 56.Nxb5 Nc4 57.Kf4 a3??
Throwing away the win. There is nothing White can do to stop Black, and he will have to surrender the Knight anyway whenever Black does play ...a3, so why rush it now? The correct answer was to improve the position of the Black King with either 57...Kf7 or 57...Kf8. Only after the King is ideally placed should Black advance the a-pawn.
58.Nxa3 Nxa3 59.Ke5 Nb5 60.Kxd5 Nxc3+ 61.Kc4 Na4
With both sides in time trouble, White buckles. Two moves draw here. 62.d5 and 62.Kd5. All other moves lose!
This move makes absolutely no sense as White can no longer stop the f-pawn. That said, even after the more logical 63.Kd3, Black is winning after 63...Kf7.
63...f4 64.Kxb6 f3 65.Ka6 f2 0-1
The Black Pawn is too fast for White and so he resigned.
So once again, we saw a symmetrical position early on, but notice that it put the big question to White as to what he was going to do next. This allowed us to drive how the game would be played. Sure, it took a while to win, and the earliest available win to Black was at move 41, but the fact that Black had five opportunities to win (moves 41, 42, 43, 57, and 62) to White's none should say a little something about the validity of this symmetrical system. Even with a few errors by Black, it was White that had to find perfect moves every move just to avoid losing.
That concludes this edition of The French Connection. Until next time, good luck in your games, especially those that start out as a French Defense!