In the Company of Legends, Part 1
One thing that I miss about playing in tournaments is not having games to blog about afterwards. Hopefully my tournament absence will end fairly soon, but in the meantime I still have hundreds of games from the past that I've never blogged about. Here is my one game against an American legend -- Jay Bonin, who has played more rated chess games than any other player in America.
The scene: the HB Chess Challenge, a one-time-only tournament held in Minneapolis in 2005. It was organized by Maurice Ashley, and it turned out to be a warmup for the "millionaire tournaments" he organized a few years later. This one was a half-millionaire tournament, because the prize fund was half a million dollars -- still an unheard-of amount at the time.
I decided to play in the Open section and I got hammered, ending with a score of 2½-6½ including a four-game losing streak at the end. Nevertheless, I had some very interesting games, including a pair of instructive games in the same opening. I did not realize it, but I was following in the footsteps of chess royalty.
Jay Bonin -- Dana Mackenzie
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d5
I like this move to take my opponents out of book lines. It's sometimes called the Marshall Variation, and it is way better than its reputation. However, White if he wants can decline the invitation to play 3. cd Nxd5, and instead transpose into more "normal" variations of the QGD.
3. Nf3 e6
If Black wants to continue to play provocatively he could try 3. ... Bf5, but I don't think it's quite sound.
4. Nc3 c5
The Semi-Tarrasch. Unlike in the Tarrasch, Black does not have to accept an isolated d-pawn. The cost is that he gives White a free hand in the center. However, a great deal of liquidation occurs, and Black pins his hopes on the belief that White will not be able to turn his central space advantage into a winning attack.
5. cd Nxd4 6. e4 ...
The next several moves are more or less forced for both sides, which makes this a very easy opening variation to remember -- there are no side variations.
6. ... Nxc3 7. bc cd 8. cd Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 O-O 11. Bc4 Nc6
Here Black can deviate with 11. ... Nd7, but at the time, not knowing any theory, 11. ... Nc6 seemed to make more sense to me. I'll explain why in a second.
12. O-O Na5
More common is 12. ... b6, but I liked the idea of forcing White to declare his intentions with the bishop.
13. Bd3 b6
Position after 13. ... b6. White to move.
FEN: r1bq1rk1/p4ppp/1p2p3/n7/3PP3/3B1N2/P2Q1PPP/R4RK1 w - - 0 14
Here's a good question: It's pretty obvious that White will use his next two moves to centralize his rooks. Where should they go?
Amusingly, I had just gotten to this position three rounds earlier against a master from Monaco named Patrick Van Hoolandt. He was not at all familiar with the position, and played 14. Rfd1?! The trouble with this move is that it doesn't give the other rook anything to do. Either it goes to the c-file, where it will get traded (which plays into Black's strategy of liquidation), or else it's a useless piece. Van Hoolandt attempted to avoid Rc1, but the result was that I took control over the c-file and won in surprisingly easy fashion. The game continued 14. ... Bb7 15. Qb4? (the wrong side of the board for White to play on) Qf6 16. Ne5 Rfc8 17. f3?! Rc7 18. Rac1 (too late) Rc8 with an easy game for Black.
Bonin, I suspect, knew the history behind this position.
14. Rad1 Bb7 15. Rfe1 Rc8
FEN: 2rq1rk1/pb3ppp/1p2p3/n7/3PP3/3B1N2/P2Q1PPP/3RR1K1 w - - 0 16
Let's talk about this position because it is a key one for the whole Semi-Tarrasch variation. First, from White's point of view, all of his pieces are developed and he has a nice pawn duo in the center. However, if he doesn't start making threats, his advantage will dissipate. Black is already threatening to play ... Nc4.
Clearly White wants to attack on the Kingside, because that is where his bishop and knight are "pointing" and because Black's minor pieces are very far away from. Clearly a move that needs to be considered is e4-e5, which unveils the power of White's bishop. But the problem with playing this move right away is that Black can play Bxf3, liquidating even more material, taking away a valuable attacker, and weakening White's pawn structure.
From Black's point of view, I was quite happy with this position because Black has no real weaknesses (except maybe the pawn on h7!) and also because my pieces are in such unassailable positions. In fact, this is a position where Mike Splane's concept of "parking spots" comes into play. The knight on a5 and the bishop on b7 can never be attacked or driven away, and from these squares they do useful things. The knight has ideas of moving to c4 and the bishop, as mentioned before, has ideas of pressuring the pawn on e4 and all the things behind it: the knight on f3, the pawn on g2.
So who is better, and what should White do? Unbeknownst to me, this question had been answered already by a great Soviet grandmaster, Lev Polugaevsky. In the 1969 Soviet championship, he won a brilliant game against none other than former World champion Mikhail Tal, starting with the following pawn sacrifice:
16. d5! ed?!
Black does not have to accept and probably shouldn't. 16. ... Qe7 looks interesting and playable. Nevertheless, Black will have to play some serious defense.
17. e5! ...
The key concept. 17. ed? would give away White's advantage.
These two moves, 16. d5! and 17. e5!, are absolutely a textbook example of a sweeper-sealer. The first move seals the long diagonal so that Black's bishop becomes ineffective. The second move sweeps open the b1-h7 diagonal, and also incidentally sets up possibilities of e5-e6 later in the game.
The question naturally arises: why would a player as strong as Tal allow this? This was a period of time when Tal was practically unbeatable. In the early 1970s he had two of the longest unbeaten streaks in chess history, 94 games and 84 games.
The reason, I think, is that Tal had calculated the tactics very carefully and thought that he had a good enough defense. Tal's continuation was 17. ... Nc4 18. Qf4 Nb2! (Looks like it stops White dead in his tracks. If Tal can trade his knight for the bishop, Polugaevsky will have nothing for his pawn.) 19. Bxh7+!! (The classic "Greek gift" sacrifice. Again, Tal had to see this coming but had the courage and confidence in his defensive abilities to allow it.) 19. ... Kxh7 20. Ng5+ Kg6 21. h4 Rc4!
This is surely the defense that Tal was counting on. It's particularly instructive that Tal is using active moves like 18. ... Nb2 and 21. ... Rc4 in an attempt to pre-empt White's attack. Nevertheless, Polugaevsky found a way for White to win. Can you see what he played?
Position after 21. ... Rc4 (Polugaevsky-Tal).
FEN: 3q1r2/pb3pp1/1p4k1/3pP1N1/2r2Q1P/8/Pn3PP1/3RR1K1 w - - 0 22
To be continued...