A Fork in the Road

A Fork in the Road

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  • Middlegame

It sometimes happens that a player faces a critical choice early in the game. One way leads to a quiet backwater, or even directly onto the shore of the draw; while the other way leads to the rapids. Will he founder on the sharp rocks, or survive the cascades and reach victory? Sometimes the coming waterfall is barely visible. Does it make sense to even spend the time to calculate the coming complications, when another way promises a good position with no risks?

I faced this question early in the eighth round of the Philadelphia International against the young Indian grandmaster S.P. Sethuraman. This was my first tournament since moving back to Philadelphia, and also my first “good” tournament in a year – at least according to the ratings statistics. At this point I needed 1.5 points out of two to make my last norm and become a grandmaster.

Naturally one would plan to play solidly in the game against Sethuraman (where I had the black pieces) and stake my hopes on the white pieces in the last round.  However, after only nine moves I faced a very difficult choice.

My opponent had – it turned out – never seen the move 4…Qb6, which is not the most common move, but still quite respectable, and which I have played quite a few times before. As a result, he played the probably inferior sideline 5.Nc3 instead of the main move 5.dxc5. The position after move nine is a funny one. You might be forgiven for thinking black had sinned badly against the principles of development. Yes, the queen has moved three times only to return home. But in the meantime White has put his pieces into positions where they will only be beaten back. Unless white manages to land some kind of blow immediately, his apparent development advantage is meaningless. Black will castle before White, and his pieces will flow into the game quickly.

Do you have some kind of thinking algorithm when you play chess? Any kind of algorithm must involve a general evaluation of the position. Without an evaluation, you have no way to make decisions about the lines you are calculating. But “evaluating” this position in general terms is absurd. It is simply early in the game in a Maroczy bind position. I have been making essentially forced moves ever since 4…Qb6, so unless my opponent has found a refutation to this opening line which has been played hundreds of times by strong grandmasters, there is no way I could be in trouble. Any “evaluation” has to take into account the simple reply 9…Nf6. Due to the threat of 10…e5 as well as 10…Nxe4, White has to take on f6. After 10…Bxf6, White is missing a crucial thing that he needs in the Maroczy bind – the knight on c3. Black is completely okay, and perhaps even slightly better already. This is the litmus test against which other calculations must be compared.

So this is the quiet backwater, and it is very tempting to stop off there and not come back. But there are two other tributaries – the rocky and dangerous rapids of 9…e5, and the immediate waterfall of 9…e6. With 9…e6, I win a piece immediately, and if I can survive the fall, I should win. With 9…e5, I capture White’s crucial dark-squared bishop, at the expense of a rook. Perhaps I will manage to round up the knight on a8, perhaps I will develop an attack on his king, or perhaps he will get his own attack, or free the knight from a8.

There is a limited time to think during games. Do I plunge into calculating the complications, looking for a forced win or a clear advantage? Or do I simply assess them as dangerous intuitively and quickly play the safe and pleasant move 9…Nf6? I am sure there are many who would do the latter. But if I could win this game, I would only need a draw in the last round with the white pieces. Going into the quiet backwater without thinking much could be practical, but I would regret it if looking after the game the waterfall turns out to be only three feet high. Ultimately I decided to calculate the variations, even though my intuition told me to play 9…Nf6.

It was easy to discard 9…e6. My intuition made me not want to play it, but I had to prove it to myself, since the line with 11.Nxd6+ looked promising for Black. When I found 11.Qxd5!, it was time to move on.

Thus both dangerous tributaries turned out to be too rocky. I played 9…Nf6, and the game entered a complex endgame. Perhaps I had a slight advantage, but a draw was a likely result the whole time, and eventually that is what happened.

Was it absurd for me to spend twenty minutes on move nine, calculating lines six moves deep after the seemingly risky moves 9…e5 and 9…e6? If I had the same position again, I would again choose 9…Nf6 (although this time I would not think about it!). My calculations showed what my intuition was telling me. But a piece is a piece, and kings are hard to checkmate – so in slightly different circumstances, 9…e6 could be the best move. And any Dragon player knows the value of the dark-squared bishop, which meant that 9…e5 had its good sides as well.

After this draw, I needed to win the last game. However, I was very unlucky. Instead of playing white, I got black a second time in a row. Also, my opponent was the second seed in the tournament, Russian GM Evgeny Romanov, rated 2631. Winning with black against a player of this level would be a tall order, which nobody in the world could count on being able to do. Ultimately I managed to reach a sharp position with good chances, but tired from a long tournament and feeling the pressure, I went wrong and lost.

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