South Carolina Championship, Round 4
W: Vignesh Sekar (1787)
B: Patrick McCartney (2018)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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:
- If we were to trade this down to an endgame, which scenarios, if any, would I be better?
- 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.
And now Black puts a stop to that!
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!
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.
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!
Forcing White to take Black's Queen!
27.Qxb4 cxb4 28.Ne2 Nd7 29.Ke3 Bd1
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.