This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play in the Southern Open in Altamonte Springs, FL (just NE of Orlando). While this "learning experience" didn't match my Boca Raton experience, it did come with some genuine lessons that made it worthwhile.
The first worthwhile element was getting an opportunity to exact a measure of revenge against FM Bruci Lopez (USCF 2486). In Boca, as blogged, I missed a late opportunity for a win. In this tourney, we again found ourselves paired with each other in round one, and again, Bruci had white. I didn't have to wait long to find where he'd vary over our previous encounter:
After 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 (D), Bruci deviates from our first game which featured 4. d4 ed 5. e5 Ne4 6. Qe2 Nc5 7. c3 ?!
White's treatment with 4. d3 is an attempt to steer the game into positional channels akin to the closed Ruy Lopez. Our game continued 4...Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. Re1 d6 7. c3 (D).
Black generally has two plans in this position, namely ...Kh8, ...Ng8, and ...f5 as plan one, and a second plan of ...h6, ...Nh7, ...Ng5. I chose the former plan, since I think it gives black more dynamic chances, and provides white the opportunity to make a mistake.
Thus, we continued 7...Kh8 8. h3?!
Aha! One of the inaccuracies I was waiting for. Better is 8. Nbd2 when black, should actually revert to the second plan since white's reinforcement of f3 takes away black's key tactic. Following the game continuation of 8. h3, I play the logical follow-up 8...Ng8 9. d4 f5 10. de fe 11. Rxe4 Rxf3!
This is the tactic that lends some excitement to the proceedings, and would have been thwarted by 8. Nbd2. The game continues with 12. Bxg8 (12. Qxf3 Nxe5 13. Qe2 Bf5 and black has plenty of compensation for the exchange, e.g. 14. Re3? Bg5) Rf8 13. Bb3 Bf5 14. Re2 Nxe5 15. Bc2. White wants to get control of his d3 square, although taking such luxuries does nothing to help with his lagging development.
Thus, black continues with 15...Qd7 (threatening ...Bxh3) 16. Bxf5 Rxf5 17. Be3 Raf8 18. Nd2 Bh4 19. Qc2 Qf7 20. Rf1 Qh5. Black's advantage is starting to manifest itself (D).
21. Ne4 g5 22. f3 g4! 23. hg Nxg4 24 g3! A great saving grace for white that keeps black's advantage to a minimum.
24...Rxf3 25. Rxf3 Rxf3 26. Bd4+ Bf6 27. Bxf6 Nxf6 28. Nxf6 Rxf6 29. Qe4 Qf3 30. Qxf3 Rxf3.
While I wasn't convinced I was winning in this pawn-up rook-ending, I knew I wasn't losing.
Even so, I was surprised by white's next move, 31. Re7! It occurs to me that given the passivity of my position, I'm going to have a very difficult time winning from here. Thus, after 31...Rxg3+ 32. Kf1 Kg8 33. Rxc7 Rg7 34. Rc8+ Kf7 35.Kf2 Ke6 36. Ke3 and here I extended a draw offer that was accepted. We were both running short on time and I couldn't find a way to advance my position. Fritz confirmed that assessment.
The "lessons learned" part of this tournament came by nature of the next game, playing white against IM Dionisio Aldama. In an attempt to simplify play for the white side against the Sicilian, I chose 1. e4 c5 2. c3 with the idea of facing 2...d5 with 3. d3 de 4. de Qxd1 5. Kxd1, which I believe affords white easy equality and lends itself to a draw. 2...Nf6 would be met by 3. d3, with the idea of meeting 3...d5 with 4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4, a reversal on the 1...d6 line of 1. d4 d6 2. c4 e5 3. Nf3 e4 4. Nd2 (or Ng5) f5. On any other 3rd move by black, white would continue with f4, Nf3, Be2 (or g3 and Bg2).
All of these choices lead to strategically simplified games designed to blunt the advantage of the higher-rated player. However, such a prescription overlooks Aldama's choice, which maintains the complexity that allows the stronger player to outplay the weaker, namely 2...e6. Following 1. e4 c5 2. c3 e6 3. d4 d5 4. e5 Nc6 black enters the strategically-complex Advance Variation of the French Defense. It was about at this point, I was wishing I had spent more time with the Milner-Barry Gambit! Instead, I chose Kupreichik's line which I mishandled almost immediately. After 5. Be3!? Nge7 6. Nf3 Qb6 7. Qd2 Nf5 8. Bd3 Nxe3 9. fe Be7 10. O-O O-O 11. Na3 f6 12. Nc2 fe 13. de Qc7 14. e4 Ne5 15. ed Nxf3+ 16. gf ed 17. Rae1 Bh4 18. Re2 c4 0-1
Very ugly. Upon reflection, I've had to ask myself why I would choose second-rate Sicilian/French lines against a first-rate opponent, when I already have the London System as part of my repertoire. Typically, I've played the London when keeping the draw-in-hand was important; and where would a drawing weapon be more valuable than against an experienced IM?
A great example of this was my game in the fourth round of this tournament against promising junior Troy Daly (2135). I played Troy just a few months ago in the Space Coast Open, where as white, I essayed the Smith-Morra, which Troy declined with 3...Nf6. I thought better of dipping back into that well and, since I was already up rating points, decided that the London made a better practical choice. Although black eventually equalized, white kept the pull for most of the game and drew without considerable difficulty.
After the game, Troy shared with me that against the Smith-Morra he was prepared this time to play 3...d3, bringing about a Maroczy Bind position (after c4 and Bxd3 by white). Turns out, Troy plays the Accelerated Dragon and he said about one out of every five of his tournament games with black is a Maroczy Bind! Had I went the Smith-Morra route, I would've been playing at a distinct disadvantage, in terms of familiarity.
That means I'm in the market for another anti-Sicilian system, particularly against lower-rated players. As much as I love the Smith-Morra Gambit, the answers 3...Nf6 (relatively straightforward theoretical equality) along with 3...d3 (great bypass for afficionadoes of the Maroczy Bind) give black some easy outs from the complexities of the Smith-Morra. Coupled with some recent deficiencies I've discovered in the recommended 6...a6 Smith-Morra Accepted treatment by white means it may be time to hang up the Smith-Morra hat.
Like the BDG, it'll be remembered fondly.