Chess Thinking Process by NM Dana Mackenzie


Last night at the Tuesday Night Marathon I played a thrilling draw against Greg Sarafian, a high class-A player. As you'll see, this was a game where all three results were possible. In the immediate aftermath I was very relieved because I felt I had escaped from very serious trouble. But with a calmer look this morning I can see that I had him in trouble before that.

Here is the crucial position:

Position after 29. Kh1. Black to move.

FEN: r6k/pbq4p/1p6/3pR2Q/3P4/3Bp2P/PP3r2/4R2K b - - 0 29

In this position Black's e3-pawn is obviously a goner, and one question is how to extract the most value from it. After White plays Rxe3, he will potentially have very serious threats involving Re7 or Re8 -- but of course, he has to be careful because of Black's own mating threats on h2. It's a very tense position where both kings are in danger of being mated the same way!

Here I had 17 minutes left, and I spent 12 of those precious minutes on this position. I think that I made two errors in my thinking process:

  1. I was sure that there must be some brilliant way to win, maybe involving … Qc1+ or maybe involving a queen sac on e5 or maybe involving liberating my queen bishop somehow. I spent far too many of my 12 minutes looking at fantasy variations that weren't realistic.
  2. Because I was so busy trying to find brilliant wins, I didn't stop and ask myself what was White's main threat in this position. In particular, mistake (2a) was thinking that White's rook on e5 is effectively pinned because of the mate threat on h2. That's true unless the rook gives check. If White is allowed to play Re8+, then his counterattack can get started.

For this reason, Black's first move has to be either 29. … R8f8 or 29. … Rg8. I prefer the latter move because it places White's king in stalemate (or a mating net). After 29. … Rg8 30. R1xe3, Black simply plays 30. … Rxb2, winning a pawn, and asks White, "What are you going to do?" The problem for White is that his rook on e5 is really, truly pinned now, because it can't move with check, and with his rook stuck on that square he can't really get any kind of counterattack started. The best I can see for him is to bail out to a losing endgame with 31. Qxh7+ Qxh7 32. Bxh7 Kxh7 33. Re7+ Rg7 34. Rxg7+ Kxg7 35. Re7+ Kf6 36. Rxb7 Rxa2.

In my mind I'm hearing Jesse Kraai's favorite words: "Simple chess." The hardest thing to do is play simple moves in complicated positions. Black doesn't have to do anything heroic to win here. He just has to stop the threat and take the unprotected pawn. Simple chess!

The move I  played instead was 29. … e2. This was a desperate, "I'm down to 5 minutes and I've got to play something" move. I was hoping for 30. Rxe2 Rxe2 31. Rxe2 Qc1+, when Black has at least a draw by perpetual check with 32. Kh2 Qf4+. But White has lots of other options to play Qxe2 or Bxe2, so my move didn't really accomplish anything.

However, White surprised me by finding another way to draw:

30. Re8+! … As pointed out before, the pinned rook isn't really pinned! At this point I started wondering, "Oh no, does he have a checkmate?" But I couldn't see one, so I played 30. … Rxe8 31. Qxe8+ Kg7 32. Rg1+ Kf6.

Position after 32. … Kf6. White to move.

FEN: 4Q3/pbq4p/1p3k2/3p4/3P4/3B3P/PP2pr2/6RK w - - 0 33

Amazingly, Black does seem to be surviving. Thanks to the threat of mate on h2 and the ongoing threat of promoting the e-pawn, White cannot get too frisky. Nevertheless, I think Sarafian sold himself and his position short here. He went for the immediate draw by repetition with 33. Qf8+ Qf7 34. Qd6+ Qe6 35. Qf8+ ½-½, but as you can imagine I was quite happy to escape with a draw in this position.

White should have played 34. Qh6+ Ke7 35. Qe3+ (of course, 35. Rg7?? loses to 35. … e1Q+) Kd7 36. Be2. The position is still quite unclear, but I think that White's king is now somewhat safer than Black's, which is stuck in the middle of a wide-open chess board. Possibly the computer will say that the position is still equal (I haven't checked yet), but in such a position there are many more practical chances for Black to go wrong. When you add to this the fact that I had only 5 minutes left in a sudden-death time control, while my opponent had 30 minutes left, there's no question that White should have played on.

Although I don't want to use this as an excuse, I arrived at the game 40 minutes late due to losing track of the time earlier in the afternoon. Unfortunately, city traffic and subway schedules do not allow you to catch up when you are in this kind of "time trouble."

When I got to the Mechanics Institute, I was determined to not let the time deficit rattle me and for the most part it didn't. However, in the critical position on move 2, I wonder if I might have been able to think calmly and play "simple chess" if I had 57 minutes on my clock (or even 37) rather than 17.

Another good lesson: It's especially important to play simple chess in time trouble, when you are more apt to overlook things.

by NM Dana Mackenzie