Tuesday, March 12, 2019

41st Marchand Open March 16 & 17, 2019

The 41st Annual Marchand Open was held in downtown Rochester, NY at the Strong Museum of Play on March 16-17, 2019. Fortunately, there was not too much snow for participants travelling from far-away locations, but it was a cold weekend. This year's Marchand had a record-breaking 177 players including a large contingent from Canada! In the OPEN Section, GM Alexander Fishbein and GM Bryan Smith tied for first place. More information including cross tables, links, lots of photos and games will be posted here over the course of the week, so check back here for updates.  Click here to open the USCF Cross Table.

GM Alexander Fishbein (left) and Jason Liang
Round 3 - March 16th, 2019

GM Bryan Smith (left) and GM Alexander Shabalov
Round 4 - March 17th, 2019

Link to the Photo Gallery coming soon

Here are the Prize Winners of the 41st Marchand:

OPEN Section
1st place tie: GM Alexander Fishbein, GM Bryan Smith
2nd place tie: GM Alexander Shabalov, Eugene Hua, Daniel He, Matt Prilleltensky, Robert Sulman, Justing Arnold
1st place tie: David Phelps, Terry Luo, Chris Brooks
1st place: Joey Orozco
2nd place: Michael Opaska

U1800 Section
1st place: Ferdinand Supsup
2nd place tie: Chris Darling, Joseph Bello, Justin King, Jon-Paul Dyson, Ben Chernjavsky
1st place tie: Patrick Philips, Vincent Gagliano, Michael McGinnis

1400 Section
1st place tie: Joseph Hall, Erich Snell
3rd place: Jason Liu, Eric Addabbo
1st place: Grant Glor
2nd place: Sebastian Dankner

U1000 Section
1st place tie: Kevin Zou, Sam Lugar, Joseph Orozco
1st place tie: Ryan Shaffer, Ryan Beh, Brandon Norris

Portrait of Dr. Erich Watkinson Marchand displayed at the Rochester Chess Center

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Game of the Month: February 2019

The time has come once again to choose a game of the month to annotate. I reviewed many good submissions, but in the end I just had to choose the game which featured a tense positional duel with a tactical finale for the best instructional value. Let's dive in deep here and see what we can learn.

Strazzabasco, John (1545) - Trowbridge, Jim (1477)
CCCR Wednesday

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 (D)

For those who are unfamiliar, this type of Sicilian where black quickly sets up pawns on d6 and e6 is called a Scheveningen, named after a small town in the Netherlands where this was popularized in the early 1920s.


Alternatively, the Keres attack with 6.g4 is the "big boy" move here, but it is unnecessary to go into its complications here. The text move is more in keeping with the old classical rules of development.

6. ... Nc6 7.Nb3

I see many club players in this situation play 7.Nxc6?!, which is generally inferior because after 7. ... bxc6 black captures towards the center and can later start steamrolling with e6-e5 and d6-d5.

However, it's also worth noting that the knight on b3 is a very poorly placed piece - all it can do is go backwards to d2! For this reason I would play 7.Be3 instead, developing while protecting the Nd4. There is no immediate ...Ng4 to worry about.

7. ... Be7 8.Bf4 0-0 9.Qd2 (D)

9. ... d5!?

There's nothing wrong with this move - it's perfectly thematic - but usually I like to be a little more developed before playing this break. So I would play a6-b5-Bb7 first and then from there things like ...Nc6-b4 and ...d6-d5 become more attractive.

10.exd5 exd5

There was also nothing wrong with 10. ... Nxd5 11.Nxd5 Qxd5= either. Black's decision to accept an isolated pawn makes the game much more interesting. 


White does well to castle before his king in the open center becomes a target.

11. ... Be6 12.a3 a6 13.Rfe1 Nh5 14.Be3 (D)

OK, let's pause here. We've developed the pieces and castled, but now what? I think many club players feel a little lost when it comes time to make a concrete plan for the middlegame.

So let's suppose I was playing this position with black. How would I go about evaluating the situation and coming up with a plan?

The first thing to do is take stock and figure out what's important about the position. From there, we figure out what both sides want to do and then come up with concrete maneuvers.

To my eye, there are three factors here which stand out as the most critical:

1. Black has an isolated queen pawn (IQP). Generally speaking, this means that white should want to exchange pieces while black wants the exact opposite - to avoid trades.

2. No pieces have been traded yet. That's very good news for black. More pieces means more opportunities to cause mayhem.

3. Black has some weak squares on the queenside - namely b6 and c5. This is the only bad news for black, and if not for this I would say white was slightly worse.

Taking all this into consideration, I'd say the position is about equal with mutual chances. A promising plan I see for black could actually be to target white's kingside and generate some attack - after all, the knights on b3 and c3 are far and away on the other side of the board, and we already have our knight roaming around on h5. I'd start with Qc7+Bd6, and if g2-g3 then f7-f5-f4 would cause some serious havoc. Ra8-e8 fits in there somewhere to complete development.

All that being said, let's come back to the game and see what happened.

14. ... Qd7?!

It seems like black just overlooked white's next move.

15.Nc5 Also strong is 15.Na4 targeting b6. 15. ... Qc8 (D)


Usually in these kinds of positions, this exchange actually benefits black. Long-term, the Be6 is black's worst minor piece - it does nothing to help defend the weak dark squares on the queenside and can't control d4. All it can ever really do is defend the d5 pawn, which is a pathetically passive role.

Stronger is 16.N3a4! targeting b6 while dodging the ...d5-d4 fork.

16. ... fxe6 Now black has a wonderful open f-file and d5 is solidly protected.

17.Bg5 (D) Seeking to trade the dark squared bishops makes positional sense for white, but again 17.Na4! deserved consideration.

17. ... Nf6 There was also an interesting opportunity to agree to white's demands with 17. ... Bxg5!? 18.Qxg5 so that we can play 18. ... Nf4! and get some counterplay on the kingside. It's unclear if it amounts to anything concrete, but I prefer that to this passive retreat.

18.Qe2!? Perhaps overlooking black's next tempo move? 18.Na4 was still a good option, as black's queen is tied to the defense of e6.

18. ... Nd4 19.Qe3 Bc5 Uh oh. Suddenly black's not kidding around. White's queen is on the run. 20.Qh3 (D)

20. ... e5 I agree that the alternative 20. ... h6!? looks scary after 21.Bxh6 gxh6 22.Qxh6, with dangerous rook lifts to e3 or e5 looming in the air. 21.Qxc8 Raxc8 (D)

Although we've traded queens, there are still a lot of tactical elements to resolve here. White has to choose between Rxe5 and Bxf6-Nxd5. The correct answer can only be determined through hard calculation. How do you actually go about working through the numerous variations though?

Although I normally don't detail my thought process in this much depth, I'll be fully transparent just this once and show you what it actually looks like...

Bxf6 is the first move I look at. Rxe5 looks like an immediate mess after Ng4, so I'll come back to that later if I need to. After 22.Bxf6 black cannot simply recapture because then 23.Nxd5 and white is doing great. So that means he has to do something complicated...probably 22. ... e4.

22.Bxf6 e4 23.Bxd4 and I'm up two pieces. After 23. ... exd3 24.Bxc5 Rxc5 25.cxd3 I'm still up a knight, so that means he has to play 23. ... Bxd4...now both d3 and f2 are hanging. If I simply retreat 24.Bf1 then 24. ... Bxf2+ 25.Kh1 Bxe1 26.Rxe1 d4 27.Nxe4 Rxc2 - rook on the 7th, that's way too much counterplay. So what if instead I sac the piece back with 24.Nxe4...dxe4 25.Rxe4. Here, black probably wants to take on b2 rather than f2, since that splits up my queenside pawns. So 25. ... Bxb2...26.Ra2? If 26.Rb1 then 26. ... Bxa3 27.Rxb7 but now 27. ... Bc5 comes back to attack f2 and black's a-pawn becomes passed...meh. So 26.Ra2 Bc3...well I'm up a pawn but my Ra2 looks very stupid, although it can get out soon with a3-a4 and Ra3. That actually doesn't seem so bad; I can also do g3-f4-Kg2 and slowly start pressing...does black have any other options in this line? 22.Bxf6...e4 forced, 23.Bxd4...Bxd4 forced, 24.Nxe4 he has to take it...dxe4 25.Rxe4...if 25. ... Bxf2+ then 26.Kh1 and I simply have a free 3-2 majority on the queenside, that's fine...so yeah, 25. ... Bxb2 26.Ra2 with a4-Ra3, g3-Kg2 next...up a pawn...OK I like that.

Now, how about Rxe5? 22.Rxe5 Ng4 looks icky, I can't defend f2 so probably have nothing better than 23.Rxd5...if 23. ... Rxf2 I have 24.h3, or actually better yet 24.Ne4 forking. That means 23. ... Nxf2...What's going on here? I'm up a pawn, but black clearly has lots of counterplay...pieces close to my king and open diagonal for the Bc5. I could still consider 24.Be3 or 24.Rxc5 with Be7 idea...is it worth it? I don't think I can really win a piece, since Nxd3 is always an option for black...like 24.Be3 probably just 24. ... Nxd3...25.cxd3...oops 25. ... Ne2+ and Bxe3, that's no good...hmm...so 24. ... Nxd3, that doesn't look too good, I have to play 25.Bxd4? 25.Bxd4 Bxd4 26.Rxd4 Nxb2 looks like no fun...I don't like that. And 25.Rxc5 Nxc5 26.Bxd4 I'm just down an exchange. Going back to 22.Rxe5 Ng4 23.Rxd5 Nxf2 24.Rxc5 Rxc5 25.Be7...that doesn't really feel right, worst case scenario black just sacs back on c3.

22.Bxf6 is looking more and more attractive - I have a safe pawn-up endgame that I can comfortably press in. I'll take that; I don't really want to deal with the complications in the other line.

So in the end, I would play 22.Bxf6, which indeed is the best move for white.

Now of course, I don't hold two club players to the same calculation standards here :) Instead, the actual game went:

22.Rxe5 Ng4 23.Rxd5 Nxf2 24.Be3 Nxd3 25.Bxd4 I'm guessing white spotted the trick 25.cxd3? Ne2+! 25. ... Bxd4+ 26.Rxd4 Nxb2 This is where I had terminated this particular line in my calculations - if anything black is actually slightly better now. 27.Rb4 Rxc3 28.Rxb2 Rfc8 1/2-1/2 And after all the adventures, they peacefully agreed to a draw.

Even though the players were both rated under 1600, there was still a lot to get out of analyzing that game! Overall very well-played; I enjoyed going through it.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ten Puzzles Easy to Hard

If you regularly read my blogs and like having puzzles to solve, I think you may enjoy this post...

Ten puzzles follow below. They start off easy, but ramp up in difficulty as you move forward.

Test your wits and see how far you can get! I will post the answers at the end of March.

White to move and mate in 1.

White to move and win.

Black to move and win.

With best play, does black win or is this position a draw? Assume black to move.

What is the fewest number of moves it takes for white to force mate?

Suppose from the starting position, white can make eight pawn moves in a row, but they all have to be with the SAME pawn. You must still keep moving the "pawn" even after you've promoted it. Given these constraints, find the only way for white to deliver mate on the eighth move without playing a single check until the final checkmate.

Find the best continuation for black.

Black to move and win.

White to move and win.

White to move and mate in three.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Prophylaxis: Stop your Opponent's Plans

Last time I explained what prophylaxis is; now I'll show an example where I walk through my actual thought process to show how you can use this kind of thinking in a real game with strong effect.

The position below is from a game I played against NM Daniel Johnston in 2018 (I was white).

Ok, so what's going on here? The position looks about equal - black has the bishop pair but in return has a worse pawn structure and a passive rook, so ultimately these things balance out somewhat.

From the diagram, it was black to move, and Daniel played 20. ... e6 (D)

Now, it's my turn. So naturally I have some short-term goals and stuff that I would like to do - for example I want to centralize my king and maybe also get my knight to a more active square. But it's important to not just quickly play something like Ne5 or Kf1 here, because maybe black has an idea of his own behind the move ...e6 that we should consider and take steps against.

Fine, so before making a move, let's ask ourselves, "why did he play ...e6?" Well, at first glance maybe it's not so obvious, but you can see that it opens up the a3-f8 diagonal for his dark squared bishop - maybe he wants to play ...Bf8 and attack my rook? Ok, so what - if he does that then I'll just move it away; no harm done. But hold on a second, what if after that he then breaks out with c6-c5? Then he gets some activity - maybe in the future he'd be able to play cxd4 (although not immediately because of the pin) or even c5-c4 to make a passed pawn. I decided that I didn't want those things to happen, so I found a way to "stop" ...Bf8 from chasing my rook away. What move did I play?

The move I came up with was 21.Bd6! Now, if black still wants to play ...Bf8, I'll just trade the bishops and leave my dominating rook on c5.

While my move seems sort of random if you're not thinking about black's plans, once you see what black wants to do you can understand the logic behind Bd6.

Black continued with 21. ... Bd3 (D)

Notice how Daniel is also hindering me from executing one of my own plans - now my king has a hard time getting out.

Ok, so what do we do now? Just play a quick move like Ne5 to chase the bishop away? No, not so fast. We should do the same thing as before and try to figure out if there is some other idea behind ...Bd3 that we can stop. It turns out that there is.

If the bishop could move again, where might it go? There's a few options but the one I was worried about was b5. Imagine that bishop sitting on b5 - it defends both c6 and a6 and although in theory I could kick it out with a2-a4, you'll see that it's actually not so easy to come up with an efficient way to do that. Once c6 and a6 are anchored, his rook will be free to roam around and do stuff. I decided I didn't want any of that to happen, so I stopped ...Bb5 with 22.a4!

Daniel responded with 22. ... f6 (D)

Alright, so once again we should ask ourselves, "what's his plan with ...f6?" Do we need to take any preventative measures?

Well, the only things I could think of is that maybe black wants either ...e6-e5 or ...g6-g5 or simply wants to activate his king via f7 while keeping my knight from advancing.

I have good control over e5, so I shouldn't be worried about that pawn break. I wasn't worried about g6-g5 either - if black wants to waste several moves to start a pawn storm, then he can go ahead. We're in an endgame and I'm not going to get mated; those pawns will be weak later.

So ultimately, I decided that I don't have to take any preventative measures - this means I can finally start doing my own stuff.

From the diagram, I continued with 23.Nd2 to relocate my knight; my plan is f3-e4 and Kf2. After 23. ... Bf8 24.Bxf8 Kxf8 (D) we reach the following position:

We've only gone five moves from the initial position but look how much things have improved for me - we have a classic good knight vs. bad bishop, black's rook is still passive, and even his bishop is in danger of getting trapped if he's not careful. I can continue with things like f3-e4, Kf2-e3, and Ra5 & Nb3-c5 to target the a6 pawn. We've gone from rough equality to white having a pretty serious advantage.

However, it could have been a very different story if I did nothing to stop ...Bf8 and ...c5 earlier, or if black's bishop became outposted on b5 with my pawn still on a2. If either of those things had happened, I probably would only have a small plus, if anything at all.

From here the game becomes less about prophylaxis and more about how to convert an advantage, so I'll just briefly go through the rest.

From the diagram we continued 25.Rc3 Be2 25. ... Bf5? 26.e4 Bg4 27.f3 Bh5 28.g4 and the bishop is lost. 26.Ne4 Ke7 27.f3 (D)

Intending Kg1-f2 to start rounding up the bishop. Notice how black's rook is for now unable to go to the b-file because it has to defend c6.

27. ... Bd1 28.Rc4 keeping the bishop in a cage. I accomplish nothing after 28.Nc5? because it allows 28. ... Rb8! when black's rook suddenly becomes very active after 29.Nxa6 Rb1! 28. ... Rc7?? (D)

The decisive mistake.

29.Nc5 Had the rook been on c8, black could play ...Rb8 and get counterplay, but unfortunately for him b7 is covered now - there's nothing to be done about Rc1, eventually trapping the bishop. 29. ... Rc8 30.Rc1 1-0 On 30. ... Be2 there is 31.Kf2

This detailed example should illustrate the importance of being aware of your opponent's ideas and taking measures to stop them if they become threatening. A good player will have his own plans, but a master player also constantly thinks about his opponent's plans and actively tries to hinder them.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


What does prophylaxis mean in chess? I think a good chunk of club players might not be fully aware about how important the concept is over the board, and even some players who are aware can forget about it completely during their own games. In reality, prophylaxis is not an advanced idea, but it does requires a certain mindset to be used effectively.

In medicine, "prophylaxis" specifically means some kind of treatment that is designed to prevent a disease from happening. For example, you get a flu shot as prophylaxis against the flu virus. Of course, it's not a sure bet that you'll actually get the flu if you neglect the shot, but if you do get the vaccine you're significantly less likely to get sick.

Over the chessboard, it's exactly the same idea, just a little more abstract. Prophylaxis in chess is anything that prevents your opponent from doing something that would be bad for you in the future. Now, that's a very broad definition, but I'll illustrate with a basic example that I think many of you would be familiar with:

In this position, most experienced players with white would probably play a move like h2-h3 to make luft before doing anything else. But why? After all, black isn't even threatening back rank mate right now. Why would we play h2-h3 like this if there's no threat?

This highlights the key difference between "prophylaxis" and "defense". The point of h2-h3 here isn't to defend against an immediate threat of checkmate; rather, it's designed to prophylactically stop all future back rank mates because we'll always have an escape square on h2.

Of course, I can't say for sure that you will get back ranked if you neglect such a move, but you'd definitely be at a higher risk - for example, here's how things could go horribly wrong if you don't make luft: 1.Rd1? Qb2! 2.Qxb2 Rxd1#. That would be painful, but it's completely avoidable if you had simply played h2-h3 earlier.

I'll show one more example that you might commonly see in practice.

We have a pretty standard Sicilian position, with white to move. What do you think is the most common move played by grandmasters here? You might think that it would be something to continue development - perhaps 9.Be3 or 9.Qe2, but it's actually 9.Kh1.

To someone unfamiliar with prophylaxis, this may seem like a somewhat bizarre move - after all, what does that king have to do with anything? Well, imagine that later black plays something like Qc7-b6 and then even d6-d5 and Bf8-c5. Suddenly you can see that the Nd4 would be in a dangerous pin against the king on g1, and we'd probably have to do some uncomfortable things to defend and escape. By playing 9.Kh1, white prophylactically avoids all that by stepping away from the pin before it even exists.

With those examples in mind, we can generalize our definition of prophylaxis as just any move that stops a good idea our opponent might have. If our opponent has the idea of playing for back rank mate, we stop it before it even becomes a threat. If our opponent has an idea of creating a pin against one of our pieces, we make some move to evade that before it even happens.

We can keep applying this to literally anything else - say you notice your opponent wants to maneuver a knight to a strong outpost; you could be prophylactic and stop that. Or suppose you have two undefended pieces and you think your opponent might try to fork them later; you could be prophylactic by moving one of them back to safety.

This leads us to the formula for thinking prophylactically - you have to ask yourself what your opponent wants to do. Put yourself in his/her shoes and try to figure out what their ideas are, and then stop them before they actually get a chance to happen over the board. I guarantee you this is something that every single grandmaster in the world does both regularly and effectively.

Have you ever played in a simul against a strong player and been sitting at your board, trying to guess what their next move will be? Perhaps you spend several minutes looking at all the obvious moves, and you come up with your own prepared responses to them. Then the master/IM/GM comes around to you, looks at the position for a few seconds, and to your surprise plays something completely innocuous with no apparent purpose. It's a good bet that move had prophylactic intentions. There was some tactical idea they were worried about in the future, so they simply move away from it long before it could even become a real threat.

I know this because I do this when giving simuls myself! I'm only human; I simply don't have the time or energy to calculate lots of variations on every single board, so I make things easier for myself by preventing the tactics from being able to happen in the first place. I use prophylaxis now so that I won't have to defend later. Only when my position is secure enough do I go about executing my own plans to actually try and win.

This brings us to the last point, which is that the key to gradually improving your position is prophylaxis. Next time I'll show some practical examples from real games.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Game of the Month: January 2019

In this game of the month for January 2019, we will see how a rash positional decision early in the opening can have a lasting impact throughout the game.

Kehoe, Webster (2030) - Campbell, David (2052)
CCCR Wednesdays

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bb5 (D)

This type of Closed Sicilian with an early f2-f4 by white is typically known as the Grand Prix attack. Sometimes white chooses a setup with g2-g3 and Bf1-g2, but with 5.Bb5 Webster signals his intention to give up the bishop pair to permanently damage black's pawn structure.

5. ... a6!?

It is widely considered here that 5. ... Nd4! is the strongest response for black. The point is simple: we avoid any Bxc6 ideas and threaten to take the bishop anyway "for free". After the most common continuation 6.0-0 (White has also tried 6.Nxd4!? cxd4 but this gives black a strong cramping pawn in the center) 6. ... Nxb5 7.Nxb5 black simply has the bishop pair and it's not immediately obvious where the compensation is. Typically white doesn't accomplish much in those positions.

With his last move black daringly declares his opponent's idea to be so worthless that he's even willing to waste a tempo to force him to execute it! If not 5. ... Nd4, I would have at the very least preferred 5. ... d6, which contributes to development and influences the center.

6.Bxc6 bxc6 7.0-0 (D)

7. ... d5?

Although it looks natural to expand into the center like this, in reality this hasty advance is a serious mistake. The issue is that if white ever starts attacking c5, there's no way black can support it with a pawn anymore - he will either have to resort to painfully passive contortions to hold on to it or just accept its loss. For this reason the restrained 7. ... d6 was correct.


A viable alternative was 8.e5! to close down the Bg7. This also would avoid a small escape that black could have taken on the next move.

8. ... e6

Black will be worse off no matter what, but I think the best shot is to try the endgame after 8. ... Bxc3 9.bxc3 dxe4 10.dxe4 Qxd1 11.Rxd1 Nf6 - the opposite colored bishops offer some drawing chances and at least white's structure is damaged too.

9.Qe1 Ne7 10.Qf2 (D)

It should be clear now that black is struggling to defend c5.

10. ... d4

Unfortunately there's not much else to suggest. 10. ... Qa5 runs into the unpleasant 11.Bd2, creating the threat of Nc3-xd5. Although we're only ten moves into the game, white is already completely dominating, all because of the weak c5 square. It is instructive to see the rest of the execution:

11.Na4 c4 Desperation. If 11. ... Qa5, then 12.b3 and 13.Ba3 will win the pawn anyway. 12.dxc4 Qa5 13.b3

Unfortunately there's no way black can take advantage of the exposed long diagonal. 13. ... d3 can even be met by the flashy 14.cxd3! Bxa1 15.Bd2 and 16.Rxa1 with dominating compensation for the exchange.

13. ... 0-0 14.Ba3 Re8 15.Rad1 Bd7 16.Bc5 Even though there's no pawn there anymore, it's still all about the c5 square! 16. ... Nc8 17.Nxd4 Bf8 18.Nf3 Qc7 19.Ne5 Rd8 20.Bxf8 Kxf8 21.Qh4 Kg8 22.c5 Rb8 23.Qf6 1-0

This is a good example of how just one or two hasty decisions in the opening can have a disastrous effect on the rest of the game. After 7. ... d5, white played almost flawlessly to realize his advantage.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Scholastic 2019 Winter Chess Tournaments

Jan 19th   at The Harley School   27th annual   9am-12:30pm
Jan 26th   at India Community Center   12th annual   9am-12:30pm
Feb 2nd   at Geneva North Street School   13th  annual   9am-12:30pm
Mar 2nd    at Seton Catholic School   23rd annual   9am-12-30pm
Mar 23rd   at Chess Center “ Woman’s + Girl’s”   17th annual   9:30am-3:00pm
Apr 27th    at Wayne Elementary School   4th  annual   9am-12:30pm
Also, at Rochester Chess Center 10am-1pm $5 entry: Jan 12, 19; Feb 9, 16, 23; Mar 9, 23, 30; Apr 6, 13, 20
For more experienced players @ Saratoga Springs   52nd  annual   NY State Scholastic Championship Mar 9,10;
@ Strong Museum of Play   41st annual   Marchand Open Mar 16,17.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Game of the Month: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Stonewall

Hello and welcome everybody! This is the inaugural edition of a new series where people may submit their games to me and each month, I will select the one game that stood out to me as the best and analyze it in detail. For this first one, I've combined October, November and December together but at the end of January I'll pick a new game from just that month.

Anybody of any rating level can submit a game! To find out how, feel free to see Mike Lionti at the CCCR on Wednesdays.

I picked the following game for its high instructive value in one of the more common openings seen at the club level which is often badly misplayed.

Birmingham, Gerry (1300) - Strazzabosco, John (1513)
CCCR Club Championship 2018, Round 5

1.d4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.f4!? e6!?

White has quickly taken to setting up the Stonewall formation; however, he has done so via an imprecise move order. As a result, black had a much more desirable option on his third move in 3. ... Bf5!, taking advantage of the fact that white hasn't yet posted his bishop on this critical diagonal. Without the strong bishop on d3 to attack h7, white's future kingside attacking chances will be greatly diminished.

4.Nd2 c5! 

White's plan is to attack on the kingside, so black must be prepared to seek counterplay on the queenside!

5.c3 cxd4!?

Not necessarily a bad move, but there is absolutely no harm in maintaining the tension, so I would instead prefer to continue development right away with 5. ... Bd6.

It is important however, that black decided not to close the position with 5. ... c4? This would be a huge positional mistake because then he would never be able to open the c-file later! Without an open c-file, black's queenside counterplay will be both weaker and slower.


Yes, as a rule you should recapture towards the center whenever possible, but as with all rules in chess, there are exceptions. In this instance, white should prefer 6.exd4! because it keeps the c-file blocked and opens the e-file for a future white rook on e1.

6. ... Nc6 7.a3 (D)

Birmingham's last move was played prophylactically to prevent ...Nc6-b4 after Bf1-d3. White has an iron-clad grip on e5 but at the same time has made six of his first seven moves with pawns. Black has a slight lead in development and already has managed to open the c-file (with a little help from his opponent). All of this combines to give black a comfortable advantage here. However, it will require precision over the next few moves to maintain that advantage!

7. ... Be7!? 8.Bd3 Bd7!?

Black's last two moves were routine development but important inaccuracies, and are the source of his upcoming difficulties. Far more effective development would be Bf8-d6 and b6-Bb7. That way, black would be well-prepared to occupy the e4 square and shut down white's strong attacking bishop on d3. For example, instead of 7. ... Be7!?, after 7. ... Bd6! 8.Bd3 0-0 9.Ngf3 b6! 10.0-0 Bb7 11.Ne5 Ne7! 12.Qf3 Nf5! black may continue further with Be7 and Nf5-d6-e4 after which white will have a tough time generating an attack without the services of his light-squared bishop. Black's last two moves are suboptimal because he can no longer complete such a maneuver.

9.Ngf3 0-0 10.0-0 Rc8 11.Ne5 (D)

Despite his earlier mistakes, white now has everything he wanted from the opening while black is visibly struggling to find a good plan. There may not be anything better for black than to play defensive moves like g7-g6 and Bd7-Be8, awaiting events.

11. ... Nxe5?!

I suspect this was played with a good plan in mind, but for tactical reasons it only exacerbates black's difficulties. After white's next move the Rf1 gets extended scope and the Nf6 is forced to retreat from its good defensive position.

12.fxe5 Ne8 13.Rf3 f6!? 14.Rh3 g6? (D)

In theory, if black can get away with this f7-f6 break and open the f-file, then he can quickly activate his pieces and get a large initiative. At the same time, it's risky business to push pawns in front of your king like that! It would have been better instead to close things with 14. ... f5! to avoid what could have been a devastating tactical shot.


Unfortunately, this is the wrong sacrifice. Instead, the thematic 15.Rxh7!! would put black's king in dire peril, as 15. ... Kxh7? gets mated after 16.Qh5+ Kg8 17.Qxg6+ Ng7 18.Qh7+ Kf7 19.Bg6#

15. ... hxg6 16.Qg4 (D)

Now it is black's turn to find an accurate defense.

16. ... g5?

Unfortunately this allows white to get back into the game. As an exercise, try to find the best defense for black! The answer will be at the end.

17.Qh5 Threatening immediate mate. There's only one defense. 17. ... Ng7 18.Qg6!? Creating the crushing threat of 19.Rh7 Rf7 20.Qh6 with unstoppable mate, but black can parry this easily with his next move. 18. ... Qe8 (D) offering a queen trade which white cannot accept.

This is the last critical moment of the game. White is down a piece but can in fact force a draw here. This will be the second exercise, with the answer at the end.

19.Qd3? f5 After this, black is just up a piece and has a better position, while white's attack is nonexistent. The rest is trivial conversion. 20.Rf3 Bb5 21.Qb3 g4 22.Rg3 Bh4 23.e4 Desperation. 23. ... Bxg3 24.Qxg3 dxe4 25.Nb3 Qd8 26.Qf2 b6 27.a4 Bc4 28.Nd2 Bd3 29.b3 Rc2 At last black takes advantage of the open c-file! Soon it is white's king that will come under attack. Also we're at move 30 and white's queenside rook and bishop have yet to move. 30.Ba3 Re8 31.Bd6 Qg5 32.Rd1 Rec8 33.Bb4 a5 34.Nxe4 Bxe4 35.Qe1 0-1

There are a couple important takeaways from this game.

1) When white sets up the Stonewall formation, one of the most essential strategies for black is to occupy the e4 square with a knight to block white's light-squared bishop. To do this, black needs to have his own light-squared bishop fianchettoed on b7 and may need to come up with some lengthy knight maneuvers (for instance c6-e7-f5-d6-e4). If black can successfully execute such a maneuver, typically he will be better.

2) The c-file is one of the most important files to pay attention to. If it becomes open, black can quickly double or even triple major pieces there to threaten infiltration into white's camp. If black closes it by playing c5-c4, then he loses the ability to get that kind of quick counterplay and makes white's game much easier.

Now, the answer to the exercises:

Exercise 1: Instead of 16. ... g5?, 16. ... Kf7! would transfer the king out of the danger zone. For example after 17.Rh7+ Ng7 18.Rh6 g5! black's king can always run away to e8 and white does not have compensation for a piece. Nor does 17.Rh6 Rg8! accomplish anything for white either.

Exercise 2: Instead of 19.Qd3?, after 19.Qh7+ Kf7 20.Rh6! black has to accept a perpetual after something like 20. ... f5 21.Qg6+ Kg8 22.Qh7+ Kf7 23.Qg6+. The attempt to avoid it with 20. ... Rg8? fails to 21.exf6! Bxf6 22.Qg6+ when white regains his piece with a big advantage.