Saturday, November 9, 2019

The French Connection: Volume 26

Hello and welcome to the twenty-sixth edition of The French Connection. In this one, we are going to look at a line in the Closed Tarrasch, a line that hasn't been featured much in my columns, mainly because I still to this day view the Tarrasch as nothing more than a draw attempt by White, and because I find 3...c5 to be the automatic equalizer for Black. That said, I occasionally will play the Closed Tarrasch, and did so here as I was playing someone that I have played numerous times before, and was looking to change it up on him. That said, while I do see 3...c5 as Black's strongest response to the benign 3.Nd2, I'm here to show you that Black has very little, if anything, to be afraid of with 3...Nf6, and we will be discussing a little Closed Tarrasch theory.

The other reason I am featuring this game is to talk about a topic that French players must always be on the lookout for, as the Colle System and the French Defense are the two most frequent cases where this tactic can be found, in both cases against the Black King. It is a well-known tactic known as the Greek Gift Sacrifice. The Greek Gift Sacrifice is a sacrifice of the Bishop on h7 against the castled King (h2 if Black is executing it), usually followed by the Knight going to g5 followed by the Queen coming in on d3 or h5. We will talk in more detail about this when we get to the position in the game.

So without further ado, let's see what we have here.


Tuesday Night Action 57, Round 1
W: Vishnu Vanapalli (2122)
B: Patrick McCartney (2018)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6



This is a well-known position in the Closed Tarrasch. Sure there are early deviations, like White can play 5.f4, or Black can play an early 7...Qb6, but this position will occur in probably 90% of Closed Tarrasch games. While White plays the main response here, I'm about to show you why I don't play the Closed Tarrasch often. White has a sideline here, namely 9.Nf4!?. This line, in theory, isn't supposed to cause Black any issues if he knows it, but there are numerous places where Black needs to know the precise move or else he is worse, he won't be able to castle, and really only one spot that he can even think about deviating. The whole idea of why this line is ok for Black is the big pawn center he achieves, but after 9...Nxd4 10.Qh5+ Ke7 11.exf6+! (This should be played first before grabbing the exchange) Nxf6 12.Ng6+ hxg6 (12...Kd7 13.Ne5+! and 12...Ke8 13.Qh4! are both significantly worse for Black) 13.Qxh8 Kf7 (Another critical move - all other moves are significantly worse for Black) 14.Qh4 e5 15.Nf3 and here is the only spot where I think Black actually has a choice:

  1. The main line is 15...Nxf3+ 16.gxf3 Bf5 17.Bxf5 gxf5 18.Bg5 and this is supposed to be equal, but again, Black has to find a lot of moves just to hold on. After 18...Qa5+ 19.Kf1, the move 19...g6 is a critical move to find. After 20.Bxf6 Qa6+ 21.Kg2 Qxf6 22.Qa4 (White has no interest in trading Queens here) Qc6 23.Qb3 Bh6 (Another move that must be found by Black) 24.Rad1 Rd8 25.Rd3 Kf6 (Another critical move for Black) 26.Rc3 Qd7 27.Qc2 d4 and only now can one safely say that Black is ok. In the game Miroshnichenko - Firman, Alushta 2002, the game finish with White giving perpetual check after 28.Rc7 Qd5 29.Rh7 Bg7 30.h4 Qg8 31.Qc7 Re8 32.Rc1 Qxh7 33.Qd6+ Re6 34.Qd8+ Re7 35.Qd6+ Re6 36.Qd8+ with a draw.
  2. The one sideline option for Black, and probably the line I would be inclined to play if faced with this, is 15...e4 16.Nxd4 Bb4+ 17.Kf1 (17.Bd2 Bxd2+ 18.Kxd2 exd3 19.Kxd3 Qb6! 20.b3 Bf5+ 21.Nxf5 Qa6+ 22.Kc2 Rc8+ 23.Kb2 Qe2+ 24.Ka3 Rc6! and White can't avoid the perpetual) exd3 18.Bg5 Qb6 19.Bxf6 Qxf6 20.Qxf6 gxf6 and the unopposed Bishop pair, extra Pawn, and slightly better King now that the Queens are gone should compensate for being the exchange down.

This just feels like a lot of theory to know just to survive. In correspondence chess, this is a non-issue, but over the board, I would prefer to avoid this headache. Here is a prime example where the best move theoretically may be different than the best move in a practical manner. The move played in the game is the "main line", but I find 9.Nf4 to cause far more unnecessary headaches for Black than the main line, and this is the main reason why I advocate 3...c5 more than 3...Nf6. I think that the above analysis proves that I make no claim that Black is ever worse in the 9.Nf4 line of the Closed Tarrasch, just that it leads to too many headaches and sleepless nights for Black. In the grand scheme of things, I fully agree with Evgeny Sveshnikov's assessment that 3.Nd2 is vastly inferior for White compared to 3.Nc3 or 3.e5, but that doesn't mean Black task to prove it is simple, unlike in the Exchange Variation where White gets nothing after a very simple defense by Black. It's this extra necessary theoretical knowledge that gives Tarrasch supporters the false sense of security that they can actually achieve something substantial with this line.

Going back to the position after 8...f6 (first diagram) ...

9.exf6 Nxf6 10.O-O Bd7 11.Nf3

Here Black has a decision to make.

11...Qc7

The other main options are 11...O-O and 11...Qb6. After 11...O-O, the move 12.Bf4, trading off Black's good Bishop, is known to give White a slight advantage, but Black should still have enough to hold the position together after 12...Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4 and there are a number of options for White here, but they shouldn't be too big of an issue for Black, and many French books will show you what to do here. The main downside to 11...O-O is that while it is solid, Black's winning chances are minimal. The biggest issue with 11...Qb6, while it does continue to pressure d4, is that the Queen is somewhat misplaced after either 12.Nc3 or 12.b3, both of which lead to a very strong score for White. Part of the problem is, even in the 12.Nc3 lines, the White Bishop is not tied down to the defense of the b-pawn as Black can almost never take it anyway. With the Knight able to go to b5, there are problems with threats of the Queen getting trapped and loose pieces, such as the Bishop on d6, hanging. Therefore, White can invite Black to take the b2-pawn, which is usually poisonous. Black, of course, doesn't have to take the Pawn, but then the Queen on b6 can get in the way of the other pieces along with the b-pawn.

With the move played in the game, Black's idea is to delay White's ability to trade off dark-squared Bishops for as long as possible, but he does have to make sure that he remains active. If Black starts playing passive moves, White will trade off the Bishops and then dominate the e5-square, and Black will end up with a miserable game.

12.h3

I don't like this move for White. It feels extremely slow and artificial, and is only White's 4th most popular move here. To me, there are two moves that are far superior to the move played in the game, and one that is actually inferior, amongst the three more popular moves by White:
  1. The main line for White, and in my opinion, White's best move as well, is 12.Bg5. The idea is simple. White wants to contest the Bishop on d6 and trade off dark-squared Bishops, but since 12.Bf4 has been eliminated by Black's 11th move, White is intending to go Bc1-g5-h4-g3 to contest the Bishop. Black usually follows up with 12...O-O, and after 13.Rc1, Black has four main options. He can play a conservative game with 13...a6 or 13...Bd7, looking to simply complete development, or he can play one of the active Knight moves, which is what I would advocate. I think it is a matter of taste whether you would prefer 13...Ng4 14.h3 (14.Ng3 Qb6!) Rxf3! 15.hxg4 Rf7 or 13...Nh5 14.Bh4 and now Black can decide between 14...Rxf3 15.gxf3 Bxh2+ 16.Bh1 Bd6, 14...g6 15.Qd2 Rxf3 16.gxf3 Bxh2+ 17.Kg2 Bf4 18.Nxf4 Nxf4+ 19.Kh1, or simply taking a more positional approach with 14...g6 15.Qd2 a6, stopping Bb5 by White. In the last line, the critical thing is to fight for e5. Black may never advance ...e5, but he can't allow a White piece to settle on e5, especially a Knight. Which line Black plays is a matter of taste, but he should be ok in each of the options displayed.
  2. With the Queen on c7 instead of b6, hence protecting the Bishop, 12.Nc3 doesn't have the sting it has in the 11...Qb6 line, and I don't think this is a very good line for White at all. Black can stop all activity for White with 12...a6, and then proceed as normal after 13.Bg5 O-O 14.Bh4 Nh5 15.Re1 g6 16.Rc1 Bf4 17.Rc2 Qg7 et cetera. This points out another key defensive idea in the 11...Qc7 line that is not available to Black in the 11...Qb6 line. This idea of advancing the g-pawn to g6 and moving the Queen to g7 is a common defensive mechanism for Black. The Queen continues to eye e5 like it does from c7, but also gives more support to the Black King. Black should have no issues what-so-ever in this line.
  3. The other alternative for White is 12.g3, which I think is really his only other legitimate try aside from 12.Bg5. The idea again is to contest the Bishop on d6. After 12...O-O 13.Bf4, I like the exchange sac idea for Black. After 13...Ng4 14.Rc1 Bxf4 15.Nxf4 Rxf4 16.gxf4 Qxf4 17.Be2 Nf6, Black has sufficient compensation for the slight material investment.

12...O-O 13.Be3 Nh5

I like this move for Black here. It illustrates one of the major problems with advancing the h-pawn too early. When you advance a Rook pawn one square, it weakens the square that is a Knight's move away from that pawn. So here, the move h3 weakens the f4-square, mainly because it is hard to dislodge something like a Knight as then the h3-pawn hangs, and even if a different piece resides on f4, it weakens h3 and other squares around the King. With the pawn still on h2, a move like g3 is not difficult to execute. The same goes for the other Rook pawns, where a3 weakens c4, ...a6 weakens c5 for Black, and ...h6 weakens f5 for Black.

Therefore, these moves should only be made when there is a necessary reason for them. For example, in the Ruy Lopez (after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O), the move 9.h3 is necessary because White wants to play d4 without the Knight on f3, a major supporter of the d4-push, being pinned by the Bishop, and so the h3-push there prevents the pin.

But here, I see no good reason for the move, and the only other game I could find with 13...Nh5 was Savinel - Hodot, France 1998, which was a game that Black won via 14.Nc3 Bf4 15.Ng5 g6 16.Nb5 Qe7 17.Nf3 Bd7 18.a3 a6 19.Nc3 Rf7 20.Qd2 Raf8 21.Rae1 Qf6 22.Ne2 g5 23.Bxf4 gxf4 24.Kh2 Kh8 25.Rg1 Qh6 26.Ne5 Nxe5 27.dxe5 Rg7 28.Nd4 Rfg8 29.f3 Rg5 30.b4 Qg7 31.b5 Rxe5 32.Nb3 Rxe1 33.Rxe1 e5 34.Qb2 Qg3+ and White Resigned.

Black should also be ok after something like 14.Nc3 a6 15.Rc1 Nf4 16.Bb1 g6 17.h4 Qg7 18.g3 Nh5.

But in the game, we are going to see White try a completely different idea on the basis that the Knight moved away from f6.

14.Nc3 a6



15.Bxh7+?

White goes for what is known as the Greek Gift Sacrifice. This is a sacrifice of the Bishop on h7 against the castled King with the idea of a quick mating attack on the Black King. In general terms, it is typically thought that for this to work, White needs at minimum two of the following five items to be going his way (though that isn't always enough, as is the case here), and three is almost always decisive:
  • A Dark-Squared Bishop on the c1-h6 diagonal to discourage ...Kh6 by Black.
  • A second Knight that can reach e4 or f4.
  • A Rook that can get to an open e-file or a semi-open f- or h-file.
  • A secure pawn on e5
  • A pawn on h4 that is backed up by a Rook on h1

Now there are other factors, like whether or not a Black Rook is stuck on f8 to guard f7, or if the Black Queen is on e7 blocking the King's escape (particularly in cases where White does not have the secure pawn on e5, along with other minor factors that are very specific to each position, but those five mentioned are really the big five, and the combination that most frequently leads to success is the first and fourth ones, the Dark-Squared Bishop and the secure pawn on e5 as the f6-square can be a vital escape square for the King, and so if the King can't ever go to f6 and it can't ever go to h6, it's often a dead duck on either the g6- or g8-square.

In this scenario, White does have two of the five bullets, but it's not the best combination. He has the Dark-Squared Bishop, and the c3-Knight that can get to e4. As it turns out, with correct play from both sides, this version of the Greek Gift Sacrifice should end in a win for Black, and so therefore, if White should probably try the 15.Rc1 line mentioned near the end of the note to Black's 13th move above.

15...Kxh7 16.Ng5+ Kg6

Clearly the only defense for Black in this scenario as going backwards to g8 hangs the Knight on h5, and even though Black can prevent mate by pushing his g-pawn, his King is too exposed and he has lost too much material to survive.

17.h4

The correct move for White. After 17.Qd3+ Kf6 18.Qh7 Nf4 19.h4 Bd7 20.g3, the move 20...Rh8 is only enough to draw after 21.Nce4+ dxe4 22.Nxe4+ Kf7 23.Ng5+ Kf6 24.Ne4+ with a perpetual, but Black can rain on White's parade with 20...Rae8!!, threatening 21...Rh8 now that the Black King can walk his way to d8.

17...Rh8

The correct move by Black as all other moves lead to problems after White's next move.

18.Qg4

But after Black's last move, this move doesn't work. Slower moves like 18.Rc1 Bd7! are also no good for White.

The move that creates the greatest challenge for Black is 18.g3, but even here, if Black can get through the extreme complications, he should come out on top after 18...Bd7 19.Qd3+ Kf6 20.Rae1 Rae8 21.Bc1 Nf4 22.Bxf4 (22.gxf4 Rxh4 -+) Bxf4 23.Qf3 Nxd4 24.Qg4 Nf5 25.Rxe6+ Bxe6 26.Nxe6 Kxe6 27.Qg6+ Kd7 28.Qxf5+ Kd8 29.Nxd5 Qe5 30.Qd3 Bxg3 31.fxg3 Kc8 32.Qc4+ Kb8 33.Qf4 Re6 34.Kg2 Rd8 35.Qxe5+ Rxe5 36.Nf4 and Black can now spend the next hour playing through this won endgame as it's not a cakewalk, and so the odds that White resigns any time soon is slim. Black is going to need half a bottle of migraine pills and a really good night's sleep after this, but theoretically speaking, Black's still winning.

The move in the game reduced Black's pain from a severe migraine to maybe a dull ache.

18...Kf6??

And now Black plays the wrong move. The correct move is 18...Nf6 (Black can flick in the check first if he wants with 18...Bh2+ 19.Kh1, but either way, the Knight move needs to come next) and the White Queen can't stay on the g-file, and there are no tactics either. For example, 19.Nxe6+ Nxg4 20.Nxc7 Bxc7 simply drops another piece for a pawn, and simply going back with something like 19.Qd1 just lets Black consolidate. This is where the importance of 17...Rh8 comes into play. Without that move, White has the resource of 19.h5+, which would be winning for White, but with the Rook on h8, this move doesn't work either.

19.Qf3+

White has full compensation for the piece after 19.Rfe1, leading to problems on e6. With the game move, the best White can do is escape with a draw.

19...Ke7 20.Nxd5+??

This was last call for the draw for White. He had to harass the Rook with 20.Nf7 Rh7 21.Ng5 Rh8 22.Nf7 and a perpetual unless Black tries 20...Rf8, but then 21.Qxh5 Rxf7 22.Bg5+ Ke8 23.Rae1 Ne7 24.Bxe7 Bxe7 25.Re3 when both 25...b5 and 25...Qd6 are answered with 26.Rf3 with dynamic equality.

20...exd5



A sacrificed piece for an extra pawn and a massive attack against a stripped King is often more than enough, but here, Black has two pieces for two pawns, and this is just too much for White to be able to cope with. He lacks the fire power, and whenever necessary, Black can return a piece back to White, hopefully for a pawn, and with a bunch of stuff traded off, White won't have the compensation for the missing piece like he did at various points in the middle game.

In fact, it's the White King that gets mated 13 moves later.

21.Rfe1 Nf6 22.Bf4+ Kf8

The correct retreating square for the Black King.

23.Be5 Nxe5

Black gets to trade another set of pieces and yet win one of his pawns back? Of course Black is willing to comply!

24.dxe5 Bxe5 25.Rad1 Bg4 26.Qd3

Of course, White has no interest in the tricky trade as 26.Qxg4 Nxg4 27.Ne6+ Kg8 28.Nxc7 Bxc7 just trades off more material. Sure White can grab the d-pawn, but he's down 2 pieces and completely lost with less material on the board.

26...Rd8

Of course, taking the Rook on d1 drops the Queen to a royal fork.

27.Rc1 Qd6 28.f3 Bh2+ 29.Kf1 Bd7

Re-routing the Bishop to the lethal b5-square.

30.Qg6 Bb5+ 31.Kf2

This leads to an instant mate, but even after 31.Re2 Bxe2+ 32.Kxe2 Re8+ followed by 33...Qd7, Black eliminates the cheapo mate and is completely winning.

31...Qg3+

31...Ng4+, moving the Knight first and mating with the Queen, is a move faster, but this works just as well. If you see a forced mate, there is no reason to go around searching for quicker mates. This was the first one I saw, and so this is what I played. Plus, the mate with the Knight is cuter!

32.Ke2 Qf4+ 33.Kf2 Ng4# 0-1


Except for move 18, a well-played defense by Black. This game illustrates a couple of important points. First of all, if you are looking to play the Closed Tarrasch, the analysis given on 9.Nf4 is critical for you to know because this is one of those lines where if Black doesn't know all the moves, he will get blasted in short order. But the other thing it does is illustrates that when an abnormality happens, like the Greek Gift Sacrifice, you can throw all general concepts, especially that of material count, out the window, and the topic of mating attacks comes into play instead. We saw here that White only had two of the five items on the checklist, which if they are the right two, it is often enough, but White probably had the worst combination of the two, and needed something extra to go with it that he didn't have. While this particular line was not a case where the Greek Gift sacrifice should work, notice that it takes extreme levels of accuracy in defense, especially if White plays all the right moves (See the note to White's 18th move). It should not be that hard to see the correct move on move 18 as calculation should be enough to realize that 19.Nxe6 doesn't work, and if the White pieces are driven away, especially the Queen, then consolidation of Black's position should be simple, and he would maintain the extra piece, and be winning easily. That said, you probably need to analyze the line given in the notes to White's 18th move thoroughly if you are going to play the 13...Nh5 line here. White shouldn't be going for the Greek Gift Sacrifice in this case, but in case he does, it's better to be prepared for it than not.


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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Game Analysis: South Carolina Championship, Round 4

In this article we are going to cover the fourth round of the South Carolina Championship. In this game, we are going to see a large quantity of "small factors" that, put together, equate to a very lopsided game. These small factors are very much the items that separate the level of understanding of a B-player and an Expert, which is what White and Black were in this game, respectively. These factors include recognizing transpositions in the opening, chess psychology, pawn structure, knowing which pieces to trade and when, and endgame evaluation. Keep those items in mind when looking at this one.


South Carolina Championship, Round 4
W: Vignesh Sekar (1787)
B: Patrick McCartney (2018)
Closed Sicilian

1.e4 e6

What? Now wait a minute here! I thought you said this was a Closed Sicilian? This looks more like a French! Why aren't we looking at the 26th edition of The French Connection?

2.Nc3 c5

And there's your answer! While I am a die hard fan of the French, I do typically transpose to a Sicilian if White develops either of the Knights on move two. The reason is simple. While the French has been my main weapon for over 20 years, I have played the Sicilian on and off over the course of the years, and contrary to popular belief, the French and Sicilian are actually closely related, and while the French might appear to be this slow, closed, positional opening, it's actually Black's other aggressive idea against e4, and if you've seen some of the McCutcheon and Winawer games that I've published, it can sometimes even get crazier than any Sicilian line.

That said, there are two lines of the French that, while not particularly good for White from a theoretical standpoint, I find extremely annoying. The first is called the Jackal. It arises from the move order 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.d4 c5 6.Bg5. Note that White can invert moves 2 and 3 as well. Now you can argue that this line can also come from the Classical move order, namely 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 and now instead of White's two main options, 5.f4 and 5.Nce2, White can play 5.Nf3 and transpose into this line. However, I already know at least three people that are a big fan of this line, and against each of them I would play the Winawer, and I know a couple of others that if they were to read this would proceed to do the same themselves, and otherwise, some out-of-towner could get this against me once, but wouldn't get it again. I know the ideas against this line, but I just find it all around annoying. I would rather face the Exchange Variation than this, something not many fans of the French would typically say, but I would. Remember that "annoying" and "bad" are not the same thing, and so this is not a line to be afraid of by any stretch of the imagination.

The other line I like to avoid, again not due to any theoretical benefit for White, but rather another line that I just find outright annoying, is the Wing Gambit. Like the Sicilian Defense, the French has it's version, and I think the Wing Gambit against the French is a little more sound than the Wing Gambit against the Sicilian. It goes as follows: 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e5 c5 4.b4, the idea being to deflect the c-pawn away from the pressure on d4, and only after Black takes on b4 does White think about playing d4.

However, what I do, by playing c5, is directly transpose into a Sicilian Defense. This also should send a message to all White players that play Anti-Sicilian and Anti-French lines. Your repertoire needs to mesh. For example, After 1.e4 e6 2.Nc3 or 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3, you might get players like me that play 2...c5. Therefore, if you are one that plays, say, the Grand Prix attack against the Sicilian, and the Wing Gambit against the French, you could be in for a rude awakening after 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 (I'm going to show Black up by playing the Wing Gambit that he probably doesn't know) 2...c5! (WHAT? I thought you were playing the French! Now look at what you've done to me! I can't play my Grand Prix Attack, and the Closed Sicilian with an early Nf3 is rediculous!). The same can be said for someone that plays the Alapin against the Sicilian, and decides to go for the Two Knights Variation against the French, but plays 2.Nc3 first. After 1.e4 e6 2.Nc3 c5, there is no Alapin! Of course, in either case, White can still play the Open Sicilian, even after 2.Nc3. For example, 1.e4 e6 2.Nc3 c5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 is a Taimanov Sicilian (the line I would play) while 1.e4 e6 2.Nc3 c5 3.Nf3 a6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 is a Kan Sicilian with 5.Nc3 (but notice it eliminates the 5.c4 or 5.Bd3 line - if you play those, you have to play 2.Nf3 instead of 2.Nc3).

One last note about the inter-connectivity between the Sicilian and the French, if you play the Alapin Sicilian (or "c3-Sicilian"), then after 1.e4 c5 2.c3, Black has 2...e6 as an option, and after 3.d4 d5, White has a decision to make. He can take on d5 on move 4, which leads to typical IQP lines of the French, or 4.e5, which is a direct transposition to the Advance French, so you can also go in the other direction, from Sicilian to French, in some cases.

So those of you that play the White side of various Sicilians, Anti-Sicilians, the French Advance, and Anti-French lines, you will need to make sure that your repertoire accounts for these move order tricks.

3.f4 a6 4.Nf3 b5 5.d3 Bb7 6.g3



So what we have here is a direct transposition into a line of the Grand Prix attack which normally would arrive via 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 a6 (a typical response from a Najdorf or Kan player where 2...Nc6 could be bad news for them after 3.Nf3 intending 4.d4) 3.f4 b5 4.Nf3 Bb7 5.d3 e6 and now 6.g3, recognizing that the Bishop has nowhere better to go after Black's early Queenside expansion, and once Bb5 is impossible, White's best move is to transpose to a Closed Sicilian, and that is how we got here.

Now here is a part of the game that you can't see from this Website. It is recognizing psychology. We are talking a Class B player here. Most Class B players do not understand the concept of bluffing. In many ways, chess psychology is like reading poker faces. White here is a young kid, assisted in getting ready by one of his parents, and has a rating below 1800. Compare this to say, Dominique Myers, a player at the Charlotte Chess Center that is over 2100 and is known for bending the rules of chess strategy and is specifically looking for the trickiest lines possible that don't just outright lose, trying to play head games with his opponent. When Dominique takes extra time to make a move early on in the game, it's a total bluff. He understands the position. He knows what he's doing, and he's playing head games with his opponent. You can also tell sometimes in his demeanor. This was a young child just under Class A level that is working on his game, and probably does not even factor things like psychology when playing. So when I tell you that he played the first move very quickly, and then took 3 minutes to play 2.Nc3, with the facial reactions that he was showing, you could tell he was not very comfortable facing the French, and that it was probably not his favorite opening to face. After my 2...c5, he instantaneously played 3.f4 and 4.Nf3, like you could tell that the Grand Prix attack against the Sicilian was likely his norm, but when faced with an early ...b5 and ...Bb7, he was back to being at a loss. He spent 3 minutes realizing that 5.d3 was probably the only realistic way to guard e4, knowing that 5...Bb7 was coming. Sure you can play moves like Qe2, but the pieces end up not being well placed, and so he realized that 5.d3 was pretty much a must, and then he spent another 6 minutes on 6.g3, finally realizing he had nothing better.

Now, did I do a full blown interview after the game? Absolutely not, and my assessments above may or may not be totally correct, but as you are playing the game, you can usually get at least some idea of your opponent's situation by his antics, demeanor, facial reaction (do they look confused?), etc. Someone that knows what they are doing and are trying to trick you will often have a grin on their face. A person from the North Carolina mountains by the name of Neal Harris does this a lot, and he, like Dominique Myers, is always out looking for tricks. This kid looked confused at this point, and when you see the next 25 moves or so, you will see why as White will end up in a dead lost endgame right around that time after making numerous "small errors". None of it is outright blundering. White doesn't lose any material until he is completely busted positionally, but you will be able to see in the moves in the game that my assessment of him being somewhat lost psychologically was indeed correct.

6...Nf6 7.Bg2 d6 8.O-O Be7

White's last two moves were fairly simple because they were absolutely "normal". Sure there might be times that you play g3 and don't follow it up with a fianchetto of the Bishop, but more often than not, that's the case, and what's unusual about castling? Nothing! But now is when we are going to start seeing White's issues.

9.h3

I don't like this move at all for White. What does it achieve? If White wants to try to storm the Kingside, then get to the chase with 9.f5. Black is ok after this by playing 9...exf5 10.Nh4 fxe4 11.Nf5 O-O 12.Nxe4 Bxe4 13.dxe4 Ra7. White has the initiative, but he also has the weaker pawns and is down a pawn. All endgames should win for Black, but the question is going to be getting there.

The other option is to go for more traditional Closed Sicilian ideas with 9.Qe2 intending Nd1 and Be3.

But 9.h3 is extremely slow and achieves very little. Clearly White's idea is Kingside Expansion, but there is no reason to wait and build up if that is what you are looking to do. The early f5 ideas are fairly common in the Closed and Grand Prix lines of the Sicilian.

9...Nc6 10.g4 Qc7

Notice that Black just continues to develop his pieces while White continues to advance pawns in a very slow and methodical way. Also note that this idea by White would probably be far more relevant if Black had done two things that are often seen in normal lines of the Closed Sicilian, but not this one. In the normal lines of the Closed Sicilian where Black plays ...c5, ...Nc6, ...d6, and fianchettos his Kingside, he typically castles fairly early to the Kingside. With the g-pawn advanced, creating a hook with f5 or h5, and the King committed to the Kingside, the Pawn storm makes more sense, but here, what stops Black from going Queenside after all of this? Actually, in the game, we will see the Black King remain in the center. White's next move makes no sense at all.

11.b3

So White now plans to fianchetto his Queen's Bishop? This goes against White's whole plan in more ways than 1. The move that makes the most sense at this moment is 11.g5, chasing the Knight away and continuing Kingside expansion. By playing 11.b3, White has weakened his dark squares on the Queenside, has advanced a pawn on the side in which he is weaker, which is almost never good as it gives the opponent, who will likely be attacking on that side, more to chew on. Black now sees weak dark squares, a hook for the a-pawn (or c-pawn, but the a-pawn is more likely here), and with the advancement of the pawn, contact can occur faster. Notice how Black has kept all three of his Kingside pawns on their original squares, making White take more time to advance further and further before creating a clash.

11...Nd4 12.Bb2

White should consider 12.Nxd4 here, when after 12...cxd4, White can harass the d4-pawn, enticing ...e5 out of Black, which creates tension with the f-pawn, and White can open the f-file at this leisure as Black can't really prevent the idea. For this reason, 11...Nd4 may not have been Black's best move.

12...Nd7 13.Ne2



Now we see a few trades are going to start happening. It starts with Black trading a set of Knights. Which minor pieces would Black love to eliminate? Well, looking at the two Knights that White has, taking either one is with check, and so there is no worry about in-between moves by White. The Knight on e2 blocks the contact between the Knight on f3 and the Queen, and so if Black takes the more active Knight on f3, White will be forced to take with the Bishop or the Rook. But then what else does Black want to trade off? Well, there is no reason to trade off the other set of Knights, and he can take it or leave it when it comes to trading off the Light-Squared Bishops, but if Black can get rid of White's Dark-Squared Bishop, it will leave White with all kinds of holes on the dark squares, particularly on the Queenside. Therefore, Black starts by taking the correct Knight.

13...Nxf3+ 14.Rxf3

I think the lesser evil was to take with the Bishop. With the Rook on f3, pushing the e-pawn isn't even an option, and Black can easily eliminate the Dark-Squared Bishops.

14...Bf6 15.Bxf6 Nxf6



Thus far, White has done everything that Black has wanted him to do. Black has done nothing special, and has done little more than maintain balance, but everything that Black has done so far has been logical. Sometimes, the most logical move isn't the best move, but more often than not, you won't get killed that way. White, on the other hand, has already made a few illogical moves, and yet, he can maintain equality with a sensible move here. What do you think White should play here?

16.c4?

And yet, White makes another illogical move. Other than possibly the argument of the Rook on a1, which is waiting for the Queen to move first before it swings to the center or Kingside, the Knight on e2 is clearly White's worst placed piece, and it should be moved, and the correct move here is 16.Ng3, continuing his attack on the Kingside. Instead, the move 16.c4 makes no sense at all. What is White trying to do? Prevent ...c4 by Black? Even if it does that, it is expansion on the side in which he is weak. He is advancing the pawn to yet another light-square. The only thing worse than having all your pawns on light squares with the light-squared Bishops remaining is to have advanced pawns all on light squares. Ultimately, this game is going to reach an endgame where it is the Queenside that kills White. He will be forced to defend over there and Black will have a free hand at White's then weakened and advanced Kingside Pawns. With pieces on the board, advancing the pawns can be a strength as it can suffocate the opponent and your pieces come in for the kill. Reaching an endgame often makes advanced pawns that are not passed weak more often than strong. So White, rather than preventing Black from advancing on the Queenside and looking to trade down in the next 10 moves or so, should be getting his pieces to the Kingside and continuing his attack on the side where he has the space.

16...bxc4 17.bxc4 Bc6 18.f5 e5



One last chance for White. What should White play here?

19.Rf2?

White played this move and offered a draw, clearly not understanding what he should be doing in the position. Even if computers claim the position is equal, remember that equal and drawn are not the same thing, and White has shown nothing yet to this point that makes any indication that he understands what he is doing. Again, this was the opportunity to continue his Kingside attack with 19.g5, gaining a tempo on the Knight. Now, retreating the Rook and looking to swing the heavy pieces to the b-file to trade them all off clearly shows that White has no interest in his own attack, and merely fears anything Black might do down that b-file as the Queenside is mainly his. White should not be afraid of this, and needs to keep the initiative.

During the middlegame, you need to make the assessment of whether to attack quickly, or slow and methodically. Typically, this can be figured out by answering two questions:
  1. If we were to trade this down to an endgame, which scenarios, if any, would I be better?
  2. Does my opponent have counterplay?

Let's think about this. Endgames. Who would endgames favor? White's pieces are disco-ordinated. Black simply needs to move his King to connect the Rooks. They can get to the b-file quickly. Therefore, any heavy piece ending is likely to favor Black. Black's pawns are all on dark squares. White's are all on light. Each side has a light-squared Bishop. Any ending for White that features a light-squared Bishop for himself is bad. A same color Bishop ending would be bad enough, but even worse would be a Black Knight against White's Light-Squared Bishop. In fact, this is probably the worst case scenario of all for White when it comes to an endgame. Keep this in mind as you are about to see exactly which endgame arises in this game in a matter of less than 15 moves from now! A Knight endgame might be satisfactory for White, but is the extra spaces needed to maneuver if each side has only one piece? No! If anything, it could weaken the pawns as they are easier for the opposing Knight to reach. Maybe White's best case scenario if an endgame were to arise would be a Knight for him against Black's Bishop.

All of that said, look at White's space on the Kingside, especially after the aforementioned 19.g5. With more space, you want to keep pieces on the board. You don't want an endgame. So it is fairly safe to conclude that it is Black, not White, that wants an endgame.

Now to the second question. Does his opponent, Black in this case, have counterplay? The answer is yes. He can castle or lift the King, bring the Rooks to the b-file, and attack down the b-file. So therefore, White's play needs to be fast. If Black was bottled up and didn't have any counterplay, then White could take his sweet time improving every piece, getting them all, including the King, to their ideal squares, before going for the kill, but White does not have that luxury here, and so the lack of desire to trade down combined with the need to act fast goes to show why 19.g5 is clearly the best move here.

19...h6!

And now Black puts a stop to that!

20.Ng3

Too little, too late. Now that the pawns are immobile, where is the Knight going? h5? Black can trade Knights, completely wrecking White's pawns, advance ...f6 to allow the Queen to cover Black's only weakness on the board, the g7-pawn, and get the other Rook out, possibly by even castling this late in the game. All of that is nonsense for White, and so this Knight move can be virtually ignored, and with no reaction necessary from Black, he continues on the Queenside.

20...Rb8 21.Rb1 Ke7

Black connects the Rooks, and with White's 19.Rf2 move earlier combined with 21.Rb1 Black senses that White is looking to trade down the heavy pieces along the b-file, and that he has no interest in dealing with Black's counterplay down that file since he has done nothing earlier to show any desire to attack Black on the Kingside. Therefore, rather than castling, Black prepares for the endgame by placing his King in the center rather than off to the side. If White doesn't trade off the heavy pieces, the locking of the pawns on move 18 provides the Black King enough safety to remain in the center of the board.

22.Rfb2 Rxb2 23.Rxb2 Rb8 24.Rxb8 Qxb8 25.Qb3

White even wants the Queens off!



25...Qb4!

And Black agrees! But only on his own terms. Remember earlier how I said that the Queenside would be White's downfall? Black wants White to take on b4, giving Black a 2-on-1 majority on the Queenside, the side away from the Kings.

26.Kf2

White had to play 26.Qc2 or 26.Qd1. Now the Queen trade can't be avoided, and it will be forced in Black's desired way of doing it!

26...Ba4!

Forcing White to take Black's Queen!

27.Qxb4 cxb4 28.Ne2 Nd7 29.Ke3 Bd1



30.Nc1

The correct move by White, despite the fact that he is already losing. As mentioned earlier, the last thing in the world that White wants is a Good Knight vs Bad Bishop scenario where White is the one with the Bishop. Therefore, the game move puts up the most resistance.

30...a5 31.Kd2 Ba4 32.Nb3??

We literally just got done saying that a Good Knight versus Bad Bishop is the last thing White ever wants, and now this? White needed to try something else, like 32.h4 or 32.d4 or 32.Bf3.

32...Bxb3 33.axb3 Nc5



The blockade is complete. White's pawns are stuck on the same color square as his Bishop, and the only way to open any lines for the Bishop is desperation sacrifices of his pawns. Meanwhile, White will be busy having to cover b3 while Black has that nice open dark-squared g1-a7 diagonal to walk his King down. White is completely busted.

34.Kc2 f6 35.Bf1 Kd7 36.h4 Kc6 37.Kb2 Nd7 38.Bg2 Kc5 39.Kc2 Kd4 40.Bf3

If 40.Kd2, to try to keep the Black King out of e3, then simply 40...Nc5, attacking both the b- and d-pawns.

40...Nc5 41.Be2 Ke3 42.Bf1 Kf2

42...Kf3 also works, but doing it this way, every King move comes with a gain of tempo, allowing absolutely nothing for White.

43.Bh3 Kg3 44.Bf1 Kxg4 45.Be2+ Kxh4 46.Bd1 Kg5 47.Kd2 h5 48.Ke3 h4 49.d4 exd4+ 50.Kxd4 Kf4 51.Kd5 h3 0-1

White threw in the towel as there is no stopping the h-pawn and it's much faster than anything White has in the center.


There really is nothing special that Black did this game, and he didn't always play the best move either, but what we saw here is often what separates an expert from a B-player:
  • Black had a firm grasp on all of the possible transpositions and didn't treat openings like mice in separated cubby holes with no interaction. Many openings can transpose into one another. The French and Sicilian are a prime example. Other common transposition scenarios include the 2...Nf6 Scandinavian and Caro-Kann Panov-Botvinnik Attack, the King's Indian Defense and Modern Benoni, the Nimzo-Indian Defense and Queen's Gambit Declined, the Petroff and Exchange French, and the Alekhine Chase Variation and c3-Sicilian, just to name a few. There are countless transpositional possibilities out there.
  • While not a 100% reliable source, and like poker, you have to sense bluff, but often times, demeanor, pace of play, etc can often times indicate to you what your opponent's comfort level is in a position, and you can often sense if he knows what he's doing or not. Also, from various moves in the game, such as White's lack of aggression on the Kingside after starting what he did, showed Black that White clearly did not understand the position.
  • What each side did with their pawns along with which pieces to trade off clearly indicated that Black had a much firmer grasp of what was going on than White. White proceeded to allow the worst nightmare scenario possible, giving Black the Knight and keeping the Bishop in a fairly closed position with all of White's pawns locked down on the same color square as his Bishop, virtually turning the White Bishop into a tall pawn.
  • Also note that Black's play was nowhere near perfect, but a general understanding of basic concepts won him a fairly easy game. So the next time that you feel like you need to know every move of theory to the 30th move, consider the fact that unless you are facing a Grandmaster, that level of granular opening knowledge is unnecessary. Knowing the basics of opening concepts, understanding that transpositions are out there and that it's not a memorization test on a list of openings, knowing the basics of trading including what you should trade and what you shouldn't, and the basic concepts of pawn play and endgame play will get you a lot further than spending countless hours on rote memorization of openings.


This concludes what I will be covering from the South Carolina Championship. Coming up will be club games and coverage from the Atlanta Class Championship. Until then, good luck in your games.