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My Latest Blunder, Part, er, actually, I've lost count

Hello all - my latest attempt to eek my way up the USCF rating ladder to 2200 hit a roadblock last week when I botched a winning position at the local club against an underrated A-player.  In a misguided attempt to exorcise the angst of this latest debacle I will now annotate the game for the schadenfreudian amusement of chess.com.

John Chernoff (2144) vs. Steve Jenkins (1930), Arcata Chess Club 2/6/12

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5

I sometimes get the feeling that the Advance French is one of those openings where both sides are losing.

4. c3 Nc6
5. Nf3 Bd7

Slightly irregular, perhaps - 5...Qb6 is the most common move.  However, since I was going to play 6. Be2 against that, I played it against this, which might be less to the "point" since d4 is under less immediate pressure now.

6. Be2 cxd4
7. cxd4 Bb4+

OK, this is definitely odd.  In the "main" line, this check occurs in a position where White has little choice but to move his K to f1, but here it's hardly so clear.  After waaaaaay too much thought I decided that since I had prepared to play Kf1 in the "normal" lines that I would stick to a familiar strategic idea and play it here as well.  Also, 8. Nc3 Bxc3+ 9. bxc3 Na5 wasn't entirely clear to me, though in retrospect it should have been fairly obvious that my unopposed dark square bishop more than compensates for the backwards c-pawn.

8. Kf1?! Nge7

In retrospect this leads to awkwardness, so perhaps just 8...Be7 is a better approach to the position.

9. h4! Qa5?!

I very much liked the ideas behind 9.h4, of which there were at least two: 1) To deny Black a foothold on f5 with h4-h5 and an eventual g2-g4, and 2) to possibly activate the R on h1 on h3.  In response Black should have secured f5 for his Kt with 9...h5, after which there might follow 10. a3! Qa5! (10...Ba5?! 11.Bg5! is awkward) 11.Nbd2 and White has a minuscule advantage.

10. h5! h6

In contrast to the above, Black no longer has a secure outpost for his e7 Knight, and in fact is experiencing difficulties developing any of his pieces to useful squares.  On the other hand, this  paradoxically limits White's development as well, since there's no simple was to bring out his QN (and thus his QR as well) without allowing Black to exchange off his most awkward bishop on b4.

11. a3 f6!

Perhaps Black's only reasonable bid for play.

12. exf6 gxf6 13. Bf4!

White denies Black's Bishop a retreat on d6.

13... Nf5?

Useless, since White immediately drives this piece off, and "provoking" g4 only serves to create a tactical chance which I, alas, miss completely.

14. g4 Nfe7
15. Qb3!

This move, threatening both 16.Ra2! and/or 16.axb4! should for all intents and purposes win the Bishop on b4. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that 14.g4 allows my King to "castle", thus creating a trap for the Black Q. 

15... Nc8?

This should lose.  15... Rg8 was forced, when Black has some murky compensation for the lost Bishop after 16. Ra2 Rxg4 17. axb4 Qxb4 18. Qe3 Nf5 19. Qc1 Rc8 20. Nc3 Na5 etc.

16. Qe3?

Augh. I had spent so much time in previous positions trying to make axb4 "work" that when it actually does I was moving too quickly to notice anymore.  Anyhow,  16. axb4! Qxa1 17. Kg2 Rg8 18. Nc3 Rxg4+ 19. Bg3 Nxd4 20. Nxd4 Qxh1+ 21. Kxh1 Rxd4 22. Qc2! was completely and utterly winning.  Now, however, the game devolves back into a quagmired glop of uncoordinated pieces and tactical mirages.

16... Nd6!?

I didn't expect this idea of gambiting the h-pawn to create central play with ...Ne4, and with minutes left on my clock I really didn't know how to react.  As it turns out, the complications after 17. Bxh6 favor White, but who could rapidly calculate such lines as 17. Bxh6 Rg8 18. Nfd2 Bxd2 19. Nxd2 Qb6 20. Nb3 Nc4 21. Qc3 e5! 22.dxe5 N6xe5 23. f3 f5 24. Bxc4 Nxc4 25.Re1+ Kd8 26. Be3 Qb5 27. h6!! and so forth?

17. Nbd2?!

Instead I make a pragmatic decision to deny Black an outpost on e4 and hope for the best.

17... Bxd2 18. Nxd2

18... Nf7?!

More obnoxious would have been 18... e5!, e.g. 19. dxe5 d4 20. Qd3 fxe5 21. Qg6+ Nf7 22. Bc4 O-O-O 23. b4 Qc7 24.Bxf7 Ne7 25. Bxe5 Qxe5 26. Rc1+ Kb8 27. Qe4 Qg5 etc.

19. Bd3?!

There were much more urgent matters to attend to than pointing the B towards g6.

19...O-O-O 20. Rc1 e5!

My opponent accompanied this excellent move with a draw offer that I, with under five minutes on my clock, was more or less bound to accept. Play might have continued 21.Bg3 Rhg8 22. f3 Qb6 23. b4 Kb8 24. Nb3 Ka8 25. Rc5 Ng5 26. Kg2 Nxf3 27. Rb5 Qa6 28. Ra5 Qb6 29. Rb5 Qa6 with a draw in any event.

1/2-1/2

***

So, what to conclude from this game?  First, I simply cannot philosophize about the merits of, say, 8.Nc3 vs. 8.Kf1 for an hour in a 90 minute game.  I realize that such early decisions are often at crucial strategic moments, but there are times you simply have to trust your instincts and move.  Second, panicking when time pressure starts to manifest itself makes it much harder to think clearly and rapidly when really needing to.  Finally, I should never play the first move that springs to mind to "catch up" on time unless under 2-3 minutes, for the chess Gods will always, always, ALWAYS, see to it that I, in doing so, overlook some brilliantly winning move.

Bah.

***

Entire replayable game follows:

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