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. ... 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 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 it worth it? I don't think I can really win a piece, since Nxd3 is always an option for 24.Be3 probably just 24. ... Nxd3...25.cxd3...oops 25. ... Ne2+ and Bxe3, that's no 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.

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