2020 Charlotte Open, Round 2
W: Robert Stewart (1910)
B: Patrick McCartney (2087)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.a3
Here, Black has to make a decision. There are four main responses here, of which I think two of them are stronger than the other two.
This is the more dynamic approach of the two lines that I would suggest. The other options for Black are:
- 6...c4. This is the more positional approach. White's last move is to prepare 7.b4. This move stops it in its tracks. If White now plays 7.b4?, Black will take en passant. That said, this also takes all pressure off of the d4-pawn. Therefore, if Black does this, he has to commit to it. Therefore, after 7.Nd2, Black must play 7...Na5. He cannot allow b3 to be played by White without there being a cost. Now some people might wonder about 8.Rb1, and how does Black stop b3? It comes via a pin. After 8...Bd7!, the move 9.b3 is a mistake. After 9...cxb3 10.Nxb3?, Black can play 10...Ba4, winning material. For example, Black wins the exchange after 11.Nxa5 Bxd1 12.Rxb6 axb6 and now if White takes the Bishop, Black takes the Knight. If Black takes on b7, Black saves the Bishop by going to a4. After the most accurate reply by White, 13.Bb5+, Black has the advantage after 13...Kd8 14.Nb7+ Kc7 and the Knight is still under attack if White grabs the Bishop on d1. Therefore most White players are not going to do this, and after 7.Nd2 Na5, they will proceed as normal with 8.Be2 or 8.g3, and play for an attack on the Kingside while Black goes for the Queenside in what is often a long game with a lot of maneuvering.
- 6...Bd7?!. This move was popular back in the 90s, but it does not serve any real purpose. With the Knight already on c6, it's not like Black is going to be quick to exchange the light-squared Bishops. It does not stop b4. It does not contribute to the attack of the d4-pawn, unlike the Knight on h6, which will come to f5 in short order to put pressure on d4. It opens up Queenside castling, but Black usually castles Queenside in lines where Black plays ...c4, whether that be in the Advance or the Winawer, and so if Black is going to do that, he should play 6...c4, as mentioned above, to avoid 7.b4 by White. Yes, it is a move that Black will almost certainly make at some point in time, but for the moment, it does not serve a true purpose. White should continue on his merry way with 7.b4.
- 6...a5?!. This move also prevents 7.b4, but it weakens a very critical square, b5. I normally do not suggest the Milner-Barry Gambit for White, which is normally arrived at via 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3, and the reason for that is that Black has a slight advantage after 6...cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 (This time it serves a purpose - to allow Black to take twice ond 4 without a discovered attack on the Queen via a Bishop check) 8.O-O Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 and now the very strong move for Black is 10...a6! with a slight advantage for Black. With 6.a3 a5 thrown in there, the difference benefits White, and 7.Bd3! is now a strong move, since if Black proceeds to grab the pawn, he no longer has the ...a6 resource, and White will get very strong compensation for the pawn given the glaring hole on b5.
And so therefore, I would highly suggest that those playing Black stick to 6...c4 or 6...Nh6 (which was the move played in the game), and those of you playing White, while playing against 6...Bd7 is fairly self-explanatory as Black does nothing to stop what you were doing anyway, make sure that you know and understand the idea against 6...a5, and that you understand the major differences between this position after 7.Bd3 versus the Milner-Barry Gambit proper.
7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Bb2
In the previous article, The French Connection: Volume 27, I expressed my disdain for White's alternative move, 9.Be3, and I still think that move is vastly inferior, even if White doesn't walk into the trap that he walked into that game. The move played in this game is the main reply, and is the move I would also play when I am White, and I have had this position many times from both sides. Black now has a critical choice to make here on move 9, and White needs to understand the point behind both of Black's moves.
This move is my personal preference, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with Black's other main alternative, 9...Be7. In other words, I do not express the disdain I have for 9.Be3 on Black playing 9...Be7 here. The idea behind each move is different, and it is critical that White understand the differences, or else he could end up in a lot of trouble. I am almost certain I have covered this before, but for those new to reading the articles on this site along with a refresher for those who have read the ones in the past, I feel this is an important thing to reiterate to those playing White. In the case of 9...Be7, Black's idea is that the center is closed, and White won't be afraid to advance the g-pawn, since there is no easy access to the White King. If the center were fluid, playing moves like 10.g4 would do nothing but open up the White King to attack. But here, Black is aware of this, and figures that if White tries to kick the knight away from pressuring d4, then Black can play 10...Nh4, looking to trade a set of pieces in a position where Black is the one lacking space. So the main point behind 9...Be7 is to try to discourage White from playing g4 since what he gets out of it is virtually nothing, and allows Black to relieve his cramp. Therefore, White needs to understand what 9...Be7 doesn't do that 9...Bd7 does do, and that once again comes down to having knowledge of the Milner-Barry Gambit. In the Milner-Barry Gambit, you have that common trap where if Black takes three times on d4 immediately White wins with Bb5+ and the Queen on d4 is lost. What 9...Be7 doesn't do is block that check, and so instead of 10.g4?!, White should play 10.Bd3! since Black cannot take three times on d4 for the exact same reason that he can't do it in the Milner-Barry Gambit. After 10.Bd3, if Black tries to plug that hole up with 10...Bd7, threatening to take three times on d4, White should immediately play 11.Bxf5!. Yes, this does give Black the Bishop pair, but it compromises his pawn structure, including an isolated pawn on d5 along with the doubled f-pawns, and the uncontested Bishop is still a bad Bishop, and will not be raking down at White's King anytime soon, and White should not be worries about any monster attack on the light squares. I would much rather have White in this position, and instead of 10...Bd7 with a cheap one move threat, Black should focus on more important things, and should instead play 10...a5 with play for both sides.
The point behind 9...Bd7 is that White can no longer play the active move, 10.Bd3, as Black now can take three times on d4. However, the downfall to this move is that Black has nothing covering h4, and so the move played in the game is critical.
This move must be played and it must be played now! After a passive move like 10.Be2, Black has 10...h5!, stopping g4 and maintaining the outpost for the Knight on f5, which is hard to get at since White can't play Bd3 any more.
Black's other main option is 10...Nfe7, where from here it will usually go to g6, both taking advantage of some weakened dark squares on the Kingside along with possibly pressuring the e5-pawn with a timely ...f6. The move in the game makes White take time with another pawn move.
This move is slightly inaccurate. Black should play either 11...f6, immediately pressuring e5, or continuing his Queenside development with 11...Rc8, and after 12.Nc3, only now should Black play 12...Na5!, when 13.Na4 does not win the Knight on a5 because 13...Qc6 attacks the a4-Knight, and after 14.Rc1 Nc4, both sides have play.
The problem with 11...Na5 is that White has not committed his Knight yet, but he fails to take advantage.
White should take advantage of Black's miscue with 12.Nbd2! Now Black probably has nothing better than to go back with 12...Nc6. He could try 12...Rc8, but after 13.Rc1 Rxc1 14.Bxc1, any entrance to c4 with the Knight will probably not mean much as the Bishop is no longer attacked since it is back on c1, and there is no problem with it on c1 as it no longer is in the way of the a1-Rook as that has been traded off, and so Black has traded one of his more active pieces, the Queenside Rook, for what can be a problem piece for White, the Queenside Rook, as in many cases, where it goes could pose problems or limitations on the dark-squared Bishop. Now it's completely out of White's way, and White gets a really good game.
Black should transpose back to the correct line with 12...Rc8!
This loses all advantage for White, and he might even be slightly worse here. Correct is to take advantage of Black's early leap into c4 without the Rook on c8 yet, and play 13.Bxc4! dxc4, and now, after 14.d5!, White's pieces are far more prepared to open the flood gates in the center than Black's are. Yes, both Kings are still in the center, but White's is easily far safer than Black's.
Once again, White should probably have taken on c4, or else maybe play 14.Na4, but it's hard to recommend much for White has he has already lost all advantage, but the move played in the game allows Black to take over.
Only one move here works for Black, but it's a very strong move. Can you find it? It does require some deep calculation.
A very strong move, where if White now were to follow up with the relatively best move, 15.Qc2, then the b5-pawn will be forever isolated after 15...Nxb2 16.Qxb2, and Black now has 16...f6! with a strong position.
Instead, White goes for the line that required calculating a very long sequence, but it just flat out works for Black.
15.Nxa4 Qa5+ 16.Nc3
White has no other option. Anything else drops the Knight on a4.
The Bishop now must be removed.
It looks like Black is just walking into a fatal pin, but White is too slow at getting to Black.
The only move that maintains the pressure on the Bishop.
And now things should be a little clearer as to what Black is doing. Now that he has connected the Rooks, and a8 won't hang, Black's idea is to play ...Qb4, eliminating the Queens and getting the Bishop out of the pin. White must also watch out for pressure on the pinned Knight on c3. Since White can't castle right away, 19...Rfc8 could be a problem, which lead to White's next move, which removes the pin, but otherwise does nothing to improve his position, and he's now massively lagging behind Black in development.
And while I did not necessarily account for every White option on move 19, I knew that there wasn't one that would give Black any problems, and it was this exact position that I visualized back on move 14 when I played 14...a4. Also, if you are like me, and you keep track of time, it can be seen easily that this was figured out then at move 14, because the time for Black, in minutes, was 110 (or an hour and 50 minutes) after 13...a5, 90 after 14...a4 (meaning 20 minutes was spent on this move), and then 90, 90, 90, 90, and 89 for moves 15 thru 19. This is why I am a huge advocate of taking down the time every move. You can see that Black put in a lot of time finding and trying to calculate the semi-forcing sequence played in the game, but once that was done, Black spent almost no time on each move after that. Maybe 10 to 15 seconds per move just for blunder check.
Next, we will see Black's moves continue to flow naturally while White is having to make unusual and non-productive moves just to try to hold the position together. Notice how the Bishop and Rook on f1 and h1 continue to be out of the picture for yet another 10 moves.
20.Ncb1 Qxb3 21.Nxb3 Bb4+ 22.Kd1 Rxa1 23.Nxa1
I had to put up a diagram simply because the position is picturesque, and not in a good way, at least for White that is. I would wager that this is not the position that White would normally envision having in the Advance French!
While White's position is grotesque, Black is not without any problems. His Bishop on d7, given the protected pawn on b5, is extremely difficult to get into the game, and the Knight is passive on h6. The move played looks to break open the position, and especially the f-file for the Rook, and at the same time, give the Knight a route back into the game.
24.Nc2 Ba5 25.f4 fxe5 26.fxe5 Rf3 27.Nba3
After this move, Black may not be able to force the win of material, but White's only defense, which he does not find, would prove that this move is virtually useless.
Just flat out surrendering the d-pawn. After 28.Nb1 Rb3, going for the b-pawn, White can once again go 29.Nd2, forcing the Rook to move again, and he should probably stay on the 3rd rank with 29...Rg3 rather than on the file, since White can answer 29...Rb2 with 30.Kc1.
28.Kd2 Bxd4 29.Nxd4 Rxa3 30.Bd3
On move 30, the Bishop finally comes into play.
Here is where Black starts going astray. Instead of spending time going for the h-pawn, he should get his King closer to the center with 31...Kf8! Now, instead, even with White about to be two pawns down, the position is about to be a really hairy mess that Black did not have to allow.
Black needed to go back with 32...Nf7 with still an advantage, though not as great of one.
What was a horrible position 9 moves ago and still a lost position 3 moves ago is now an advantage for White, despite being two pawns down!
Relatively best was 33...Ra4 +/=
White can get a winning position with the correct move here. What should White play?
After 34.Bc2!! Nxg4 35.Rxd7 Nxe5 36.Rxb7 Nc4+ 37.Kc1 e5 38.Nb3 Ra8 39.Rd7 and now 39...Rc8 40.Rxd5 White is just munching away at the Black pawns while 39...d4 40.Nd2 stops the Black central passers right in their tracks. The are weak, and will ultimately fall. White will not allow his b-pawn to be taken without it costing Black another piece as he clearly wants to avoid something like Rook and Bishop versus Rook with no pawns.
After the move played in the game, the advantage swings back to Black.
34...Ne4+ 35.Kc2 Ra4 36.Kd3
One more problem to figure out. Black to move and win!
The winning move was 36...b6!, and after something like 37.Nc6, Black can play 37...Kf8 and White has absolutely nothing. If he moves his King, say like 38.Ke3, then 38...Ra3+ followed by 39...Nc5 solves Black's problems and the extra material will prevail.
After the move played in the game, White ends the game abruptly with a blunder, but he had the chance to equalize here.
During post-game analysis, it was thought that maybe 37.Ke3 was the solution, but after 37...Ra3+ 38.Bd3, the move 38...b6 is once again winning for Black.
The drawing move was 37.b6!, stopping Black from making the move he has been needing to make. 37.Rc8 temporarily delays it and still works because of the attack on the Bishop, but the main point is advancing b6 before Black does.
The move played, of course, simply loses to a one-move fork.
A very wild game for what shouldn't ever have gotten to that point. The following can be gotten from this game:
- White's critical 10th move. Make sure you understand what to do against each of Black's 9th move options. Failure to understand the downside to each of them will give Black an excellent game.
- Time Management - When calculating a long, forcing or semi-forcing sequence, spend the time to make sure that you are not overlooking alternatives by the opposing player. One missed move could completely destroy you in situations like this. Notice, however, that once you have assured yourself that it works, do not waste a lot of time executing it. 20 minutes was spent calculating it, but the following five moves saw no more than a minute total spent on the five follow-up moves combined. If you go back and recalculate every time, you'll run yourself out of time in short order.
- When you have a winning position, like Black does moves 20 to 30, the way to maintain that winning advantage is to prevent the other side from getting any counter-play, rather than wildly going around trying to collect more material. Grabbing the d-pawn got Black the material advantage with the protected passed pawn. Grabbing the h-pawn showed nothing more than greed by Black, and he should have had to pay for that.
- When your position is bad, always look for ways to stir trouble, and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities, such as the missed 34.Bc2 by White. Now this does not mean play on in a completely unrecoverable position. Being down a pawn or two with pieces still on the board, and especially if the side with the extra material has a bad piece, like the Black Bishop on d7, still allows for opportunities. Being down 3 pawns in a pawn ending, or down a queen for nothing and zero compensation, there is no use trying to play on. Pipe dreams will never happen, but don't give up in situations like White's in this game where Black's winning advantage was fairly obvious after 23 moves, but as was proven here, he still had the opportunity to stir up trouble, and it almost worked!
Next time, we will see a game in the Advance French where Black attempts to play something really unusual in the opening, and we will be looking at how White should deal with such oddities.
This concludes this edition of The French Connection. Till next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White.