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The Best Game I Ever Lost (a Failed Pawn Sac)

BACKGROUND: This was a tournament, but more importantly one of a series of on-line games that presage my attempts to return to OTB play with a better understanding of the game than demonstrated in my previous OTB play...and so I was experimenting a bit with ideas I've never executed before, but that offer some necessary lessons I need to understand if I'm to become a rated Master after age 50Cool.

MY GOAL IN THIS GAME: In this case, the personal weakness I wanted to delve into was my long-term unwillingness to sacrifice a pawn for compensation that clearly offered some opportunities for victory, but that when offered was certainly not decisive in any sense (for either side).

THE RESULT:  I sacrificed a pawn, but probably did not do so in the best way (a case where I happen to agree with Fritz). That said, I certainly achieved much of the type of activity I was looking for when I decided to sacrifice a pawn.

FINAL POINT BEFORE THE ANALYSIS BEGINS: I probably resigned earlier than necessary. Technically the game was certainly lost, but I was analyzing the position in my head (no board available) and mentally misplaced an enemy pawn by one square (a3 versus a2) that I could have captured, allowing me to extend the game. Had I realized that I might have chosen to drag the game another 10-20 moves instead of resigning...but the end result should have been the same, and my opponent had certainly been playing well enough to finish things off.

CREDITS: The majority of the analysis is my own, but where necessary I offer full credit to Fritz. Much of the opening discussion is owed to tenets I have picked up from Pirc Alert by GMs Alburt and Chernin, along with some additional lines offered in MCO-15 by GM de Firmian, et al. I spent several hours adding detailed discussion of the opening, but lost all that information twice, and have rejected any further attempts to deal with frustration in that area.

First, the game without notes. Then the detailed analyses in subsequent boxes.

 
In retrospect, it's easy to say Black never quite obtained sufficient compensation, and (further) that the pawn sacrifice was simply unnecessary because Black already had a very playable position with good Q-side space and imbalances worth investigating. That said, Fritz also liked pawn sacrifices, if not quite the one I selected. But if I didn't sac a pawn, then I wouldn't have been examining my unwillingness to sacrifice pawns for nebulous (or at least not immediate) compensation.
So, why did I sacrifice a pawn, and what did I learn as a result? Here is what I have uncovered in post-game analysis shat stretches out over the past year, including during the process of writing this article.
First, a regrettably short look at the opening, because I lost my inputs 3 times and refused to attempt it again.

So, anyway, time to figure out what my plan of action should be, knowing that White is going to storm the ramparts of the K-side, and neither the Q-side or the center looks safe for Black's King. What's my counterplay? ...can I wrest the initiative from White at some point?

Although White "left the book" with 10 f3-f4, that is a fairly routine move in such positions, so I also continued with some normal moves for Black. First, I wanted to activate my c8 Bishop (still holding out to gain that tempo if White plays Bh6 so I can capture from f8 instead of g7), followed by Q-side expansion.

 

The moment of truth. I spent considerable time considering my next move. I felt I had achieved equality following 12 Nce2, but now I wanted to try for more, so I started looking for something different...why? I'm uncertain in retrospect. 14 ... Bg7 was the best way to sac a pawn if I wanted to do so, though I do not beilevev it would have been wise for White to accept--so he probably wouldn't haveFrown. So, I decided to try another way--one that had some flaws. Still, I learned a lot about my weaknesses in such positions. In this case I was being too cute and purposely weakening my black squares.
The game has reached a critical stage. I've got decent activity for the pawn, but I wanted more--that motivated my next move. It creates gaping wounds on my K-side, but opens lines. I felt my King was better in the center at this point than Black's, and by itself that is probably sufficient proof that Fritz' suggestion for White on move 17 was an improvement.
At this point, I was thoroughly intrigued with this game. I knew that if I was not energetic, White would definitely win. But there were a lot of interesting ideas to explore in this position...and I learned a lot. The huge downside is that a lot of pieces were traded, which has to benefit White as any Black initiative will dwindle with fewer pieces. Fritz considers White to have only an edge in this position, and I'm certainly happy with the level of activity of my pieces. My opponent readily admitted that he would not have been happy to be playing this OTB as White with a tight time control. Then again, I had the same thoughts as Black, as I was definitely out of my comfort zone in this game...good thing that was my plan all along.
At this point there were two paths from which to choose. The less overt Kg7 followed by moving the rook on f8 to c8 and putting pressure on the Q-side pawns, or the agressive Rf2+, tackling the 7th rank. There were some interesting lines that led to mating nets if I put a hog on the 7th rank, so I took that route...plus, it appealed to my sense of Classical play. At this point, the final outcome was unclear to me with either path, and I felt a tactical solution offered more opportunities than a Benko Gambit type approach of putting pressure on the pawns via the b and c files. It's still unclear to me which approach was correct.
Fritz gives 31 ... Bxd5 two question marks. Instead it recommends 31 ... Na2; 32 Kb4 Bc8, but where's the fun in that? It seems fairly clear that the silicon monster is just going to settle in for a passive, ultimately losing, defense. I wanted to give my opponent the opportunity to go wrong!! It was clear to me that in order to win, White needed to sacrifice an exchange, but in return would gain two monster passed pawns on the 5th rank. HEY, not everyone would follow through on that, so pragmatically it seemed like the best approach. Just my luck to be playing someone far, far better than their rating (he had only played a few games on the website, so his rating vastly understated his competence).
What a great game! White is forced to find an entire series of correct moves if he wants to win. Black ends up with a passed pawn of his own on the 6th rank, but the bottom line is that a pair of passed pawns on the 6th rank are often worth more than a Rook, and in this case White had a Bishop to spare--which he needed since Black had a passed pawn of his own.
From the position above, White again found the correct continuation, and I threw in the towel shortly thereafter. The truth is that even in the end I could have kept playing, but somehow I felt it would have discredited the play that went before. By this point, I almost didn't want to see White accidentally miss a pitch and fail to receive the benefit of his play. Besides, the championship had been decided. No matter how this game turned out, I was guaranteed second, and my opponent first.

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