In Part 4, we were heading into a Rook-Pawn endgame where black had drawing chances. Things were still uncertain (for me at least) after move 36. Here is the conclusion!
I like the English opening for a couple of reasons. First, although I started playing chess when I was 5 or 6 I never took it seriously or studied theory. When I picked up chess a year or so ago, particularly online chess, I found myself on the receiving end of e4 and d4 punishment from folks who had done their homework.
My plan is usually simple: gain space and get a reasonable game without going into long and complex variations that are demanding on my time and memory. Opening with c4 keeps the pieces from coming into conflict immediately.
1… . c6
Black can play a slav defense without putting his knight on f6. I find this to be a challenging system to refute, possibly because I just don’t see it a lot and it signals an immediate fight for control of the center.
I do this against almost anything except 1.c4 b6. The g3 line allows for a very simple, narrow repertoire.
2. …d5 3. Nf3
We have to play Nf3 here. If we don’t and play say Bg2 instead then after 3.Bg2 e5 4.d4 e4 and Black has an easy game with a pawn chain that will be later supported by f5 and the light squared bishop will have difficulty getting activated.
3. … Nf6
Also popular is 3. …dxc4 4. Bg2 Nd7. Nf6 is what (I think) black was trying to avoid at the outset of the game. The “mainline” slav defense to the English that I see is 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 c6 which has the idea of playing d5 and deploying a pawn chain to stop the white bishop that is heading to g2.
I’m happy to offer a pawn sacrifice when dxc4 because I feel white will get good compensation after 5.Qc2. Not 5.0-0 because if 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.0-0 Nbd7 6.Qc2 my Queen is too far behind when 6. …Nb6 7.Na3 Qd5(!) comes about, black looks really comfortable and I don’t see any compensation for that pawn sac.
Here we see an advantage to white not having moved b3! In that 5. cxd cxd5 6.Qb3! Hitting the pawn on b7 leaves Black feeling uncomfortable.
5. cxd5 cxd5 6. Qb3
Now Black has some queen moves, but none of them look that great.
If 6. …Qd7 the 7.Ne5 Qc7 is met with 8. Nc3 (preventing 8. …Qxc1#) and so then if 8. …Qxe5 then Black loses a rook because of 9. Qxb7 Hitting the defenseless rook on a8. So instead Black probably has to play 8. …e6 which leads to 9.d3 intending Bf5 forcing the black queen to move again.
These type of center structures are critically important to look at when studying the 2.g3 line of the English. While it isn’t theory intensive, these pawn structures come up time and time again and it’s useful to be able to see these 4 or 5 move progressions where each side is going to have a forcing move (like black’s threat of Qxc1) and knowing how to deal with it and where the possible plans will lead you.
Thankfully I had just watched GM Nigel Davies DVD series before this game and I had played through. And thankfully, the way Davies teaches these plans is pretty easy to absorb.
Oh man, so much for where I thought the game was going to go. I really knew that Qd7 line.
Pretty much forced, I can’t have Qxc1 and developing a knight is always nice.
7. …e6 8.d3
We have both opened up diagonals for our dark squared bishops.
8….Nc6 9. 0-0 Be7 10.Bf4
My bishop is now hitting his Queen.
I had to think a long time here. It’s important for me to start opening things up before he castles in the hopes that I can get a long term advantage on the queenside. From a planning perspective, I take a look at the board and ask “Where should I play?”
To answer that question, I break the board down into segments. I work right to left so the first thing I do is draw a mental box around the f-g-h files and look at the structure of just those files, what pieces are there, and whether there are pieces or pawns to move over there to make them better. The answer is pretty clearly ‘no’. I just castled to that side so I’m not interested in creating a pawn weakness. My bishop is fianchettoed and my knight is happy on f6.
So then I look at the center two files, d-e, and draw a box around them. Look at the potential here. Ne5 is a candidate piece move. What would happen? Ne5, Nxe5, Bxe5 creates no lasting advantage and needlessly simplifies. What about pawn moves? e4 is interesting and possibly very forcing. I see a long continuation here that I will discuss a little later (I kept thinking about it, I just don’t want to share yet).
So next I look at the a-b-c files and draw a mental box around them. Is there anything I want to move here? No. I just moved Nc3 and he’s fine there. My a-b pawns are going to be needed later and moving them now creates a long term weakness or target for black and gives him a needless tempo.
The point is that black is not yet castled and by breaking the center now, white can control the c and d files with his rook. I spent a long time calculating the exchange of pieces in the middle and believe it firmly favors white.
11. ... dxe4 12.dxe4 Nxe4 13.Nxe4
And here the point is that after black's bishop recaptures on e4, white's knight can move to e5 hitting the Queen, allowing white to recapture on e4 with his light squared bishop.
13. ...Bxe4 14.Ne5! Nxe5 15. Bxe4!
White's bishop's are very powerful and white will now be able to recapture the sacrificed pawn with a better game for white.
15. ...Nc6 16. Rfd1
The black Queen must be made to retreat before taking the knight on c6
16. ...Qc8 17.Rcd1
Preventing a recapture on c6 by the Queen.
17. ... 0-0
Qa4 hitting the Knight and preparing for the recapture sequence. Rd8 requiring a rook exchange first.
Qxc6 regaining the pawn sacrifice. White's bishop is very active but white's advantage on the queen side will require precise play to convert. Black responds with h6 preparing an escape square for the king, but creating a dangerous weakness.
22. Be3 Bf6
Be3 relocating my bishop to threaten a7, cover that diagonal, and avoid getting kicked by a pawn push on the kingside. Black responds with Bf6, hitting the b2 pawn.
I struggled between three candidate moves: b3, b4, and Rc2. each had their relative merits, and I thought b4 was the more aggressive move. My goal is to create a passed pawn on the queenside and advanced pawns are the way to do that.
Surprising!! Trading his queen to create a passed pawn. He's a stronger player than I am, and I think the game favors white at the moment, so I will accept the trade and neutralize his best piece.
24. Qxd5 exd5
I want to put my rook in front of my pawns, use my bishop to control the dark squares, continue with my plan to create a passed pawn on the queenside. I am also eyeing the bishop on f6, preventing a g6 or g5 advance because of the threat of Rxf6.
While I feel like white is better, I know I am playing a much higher rated player and I think if he can keep bishops on the board then he will be able to blockade my pawn advance and trade down to a drawn position.
Kicking my bishop and pushing his pawn. My candidate moves are Bd2, setting up the blockage, Bf4 hitting the b8 square and depriving his rook of it. But then I thought longer, with this few pieces on the board it's easy to brute for moves for a single piece (There are only 6 possible moves), so what about Bxh6! I pick up a pawn, if he recaptures with gxh6 then Rxh6 and I am a pawn up and my king will be able to blockade the d pawn!!
As Danny Rensch says: "Greed is your best human quality in a chess game. Take it. Don't feel guilty!"
Here's the question for black, does he let me keep that h pawn or does he recapture gxh6 in which case I will take his bishop with Rxf6! He has split f and h pawns and an advanced d pawn, but my king is close enough to blockade that square. I think d5 was a blunder that took the game from drawing chances to losing for black.
27. … gxh6
Capturing the Bishop.
The Bishop's are now off the board, Black has to activate his rook and carefully balance pushing the d pawn and relocated his rook to a more active position to take some of White's pawns.
Protecting the d pawn.
Heading to blockade the d pawn.
28. … d3
29. Ke1 d2?
Black pushed his pawn too far! Why not 29. … Re8+ 30. Kd1 Re2 31.Ra6 Rxf2! 32. Rxa7 and now black can either pick up the h2 pawn directly or threaten Rb2 33. a3 Rxh2 before swinging back to the a and b file?
Instead, the d pawn went too far, it is now blockaded and black's rook can't get to the 2d rank where three of white's pawns are located.
30. Kd1 blockading the pawn ... Kd7
31. Ra6 Rd7
32. a4 Kh7
34. b6 axb6
35. Rxb6 Rd4
37. f4 Rd4
39. Ra7 Kg8
41. Rb7 Ra5
43. g4 Kg6
45. h5 Kf6
47. h6 Kg6
49. Kxd2 Ra2+
50. Kc3 Ra1
51. h7 Kxh7
52. Rxf7+ Kg6
54. Kc4 Kf6
55. Kc5 Ke6
57. Kb6 Ra1
58. Kc7 Kd5
59. Kb8 1-0