| 27 | Middlegame

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Almasi,Zoltan - Watson,William N

German Bundesliga, 1995


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6





Note there is now a board at the bottom of this game that can be navigated!


Question 1 (2 points): White would like to play the Yugoslav attack and develop with the typical move 6.Be3, however he is worried about the annoying reply 6…Ng4. How can he solve this problem?





Answer: After 6.Be3 Ng4?? White wins instantly with 7.Bb5+! when either 7…Bd7 8.Qxg4 (1 point) wins an entire piece or 7…Nc6 8.Nxc6 bxc6 9.Bxc6+ Bd7 10.Bxa8 Qxa8 (an additional 1 point) wins a pawn and an exchange. These two variations show there is absolutely no threat of 6.Be3 Ng4??


6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0–0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.0–0–0 d5

According to IM Edward Dearing, this is the best try in the position. Certainly it is the most outwardly critical choice, attempting to exploit white’s omission of 9.Bc4, which would have taken control of d5.


IM Martin advises playing 8...Bd7!? without castling as made famous by GM Tiviakov. He believes black does best to avoid the critical lines after 9…d5 altogether.


Dragon innovator and Dragon aficionado GM Chris Ward advocates either of 9...Bd7 or 9…Nxd4 instead of this move in his book Winning with the Sicilian Dragon 2.


So there is no shortage of alternatives! However, even adding all these different lines together I think this whole system still requires less knowledge then if white chose 9.Bc4.




Question 2 (1 point): After Black has played 9…d5 as in the game, how can white press for an advantage?





10.exd5 (1 point)

This is white's most popular master level try for the advantage, although Black seems to be holding his own as of late here.


10.Kb1 (1 point) is popularly considered to be a refutation of the Dragon, and has been used with success as recently as Smeets,J.-Jones,G, London 2009. site author Roman Dzindzichashvili has produced a video on this line with some heavy computer analysis. Though the computer analysis is probably sounds for computers, some of the lines seem much too risky for us mere mortals to try and get away with.


10.Qe1!? (1 point) is an interesting sideline that can be used to try and throw black into a less explored but still dangerous path.


10.Nxc6 bxc6 (0 points) simply gives black too strong of a center, as well as an open b-file. Thus black is doing fine in these lines.






Question 3 (1 point): Now that white’s center has been dissolved, how does he prove a structural advantage?


















11.Nxc6 (1 point)

This is the only way to try and exploit the position in white’s favor. Otherwise Black might exchange a few sets of minor pieces and be absolutely fine. No points for any other guesses, sorry!


11…bxc6 12.Bd4

White gets his bishop out of the way of black’s Nd5 and offers to exchange it for black’s more powerful equivalent.


12.Nxd5!? is the other major option here, and in the following line white seems to forcibly win a pawn. However, the ensuing activity black gets seems just enough to maintain the balance. 12...cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7! 14.Qc5 (14.Qxa8?! is almost never played. 14...Bf5 15.Qxf8+ Kxf8 16.Rd2 h5 17.Be2 with excellent compensation for black.) 14...Qb8 15.Qa3 Qc7!? With definite compensation for the pawn.



12.Bd4 is under fire from a lot of directions right now, and this (12…e5) is just one of them. Check out some of black’s alternatives at this point that have also been doing well:


12...Nxc3 13.Qxc3 Bh6+ 14.Be3 Bxe3+ 15.Qxe3 Qb6 16.Qxe7 Be6 17.Qa3 Rad8 18.Bd3 Rd5 and black has compensation for the pawn, practice having shown it’s enough for equality. The most recent big game in this line was Alekseev,E.-Caruana,F, Biel 2009.


12...Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 Qa5 Qc7!? was chosen in the recent game Ivanchuk-Carlsen, Leon 2009. Carlsen managed to draw with little difficulty. 


All these strong alternatives may suggest that we should be looking for an alternative as far back as white’s tenth move: 10.exd5.


13.Bc5 Be6

A move which is probably confusing at first site, seemingly giving up an exchange for nothing.


13...Re8!? Invites white to try and grab a pawn and hang on, but this gives black powerful chances of equalizing. Instead white should just continue as in the mainline with: 14.Ne4! (14.Nxd5?! Gives black all the chances he needs to claim a draw. 14...cxd5 15.Qxd5 Qxd5 16.Rxd5 but now black regains the pawn with 16...Be6! 17.Rd6 Bxa2 and the bishop cannot be trapped because after 18.b3 Rec8 19.Rd5 a5 20.Kb2 a4 21.Kxa2 axb3+ 22.Kxb3 Ra5 23.Bc4 Raxc5 24.Rxc5 Rxc5 the position is level.) 14...Be6 15.h4 Transposes to the game.




Question 4: That exchange sacrifice sure looks tempting. Should white go for it?





14.Ne4 (1 point)

The answer: no!


14.Bxf8? (0 points) 14…Qxf8 and black already threatens to win the Queen with ...Bh6. White is already walking a bit of tightrope, as simple developing moves just lead to trouble. For example: 15.Kb1 Rb8 16.Be2?? (16.Bc4?? is just as bad. 16...Nxc3+ 17.Qxc3 e4) 16...Rxb2+! wins on the spot. 17.Kxb2 Qb4+ 18.Ka1 e4! With a crushing attack for black. Of course white can avoid these lines, but you get the picture. An unopposed dark-squared bishop in this position is a terror, and well worth an exchange sacrifice!


14.Bc4?! (0 points) is not so hot either. 14…Nxc3 15.Qxc3 Qg5+ 16.Be3 Qxg2 17.bxe6 fxe6 18.Qxc6 Rac8! 19.Qxe6 Kh8 was agreed drawn in Shovunov,B-Arzumanian,G, Kharokov 1999. Black may be down a pawn in this position, but note the weakness on both c2 and f3. He regains the pawn immediately and the position promises equality at best for white.



Finally black decides volunteering an exchange is no longer viable, although he could still offer one if he was so inclined.


14...Rb8!? is an interesting alternative that Eddy Dearing has lost faith in, but which is certainly worth a try as it is rarely used in this day and age.



Aiming to gain space on the kingside in typical Yugoslav fashion. Minor alternatives include 15.Bc4 and 15.g4, and the reader should note the large possibility for transpositions here. I think the text is the most clear cut plan available here, heading straight for what all white players want in the Dragon, to tear the black king’s cover to shreds.



Far and away this is the mainline in the position, but black has been suffering here, so this may be a good point for the second player to look for alternatives. Black sets up a defensive pawn barrier on the g and h-files and is thus prepared to push a pawn past an intruding white pawn along the 5th rank.


15...Nf4!? is a major alternative for black at this point. In essence black offers a queen trade which would greatly alleviate any pressure there is on his position. A typical game continues: 16.g3 (16.Qe1, avoiding the queen trade, could be white’s best try here) 16…Qxd2+ 17.Rxd2 Nh5 18.g4 Nf4 and black managed to hold the balance in Oll,L-Macieja,B, Poland 1998.


16.g4 a5


16...Qc7 17.g5 h5 18.Bc4 Red8 19.Qf2 a5 20.a4 Qb7 21.b3 Nf4 transposes to text through a more typical move order.


16...Nf4!? 17.Qc3 Bd5 18.h5 g5 19.Qa3 was seen in Psakhis,L-Vasiukov,E, Vilnius 1980.


17.g5 h5

Black carries out his idea of locking the kingside pawns and preventing an opening into his position.




Question 5 (2 points): It appears as if white’s attack has reached an impasse of sorts. Black has locked down the kingside and its difficult to make progress. How should white continue?











18.a4! (2 points)

Yes, it’s time for a bit of that always hard to understand prophylactic play! So why on earth is this funny move played? Doesn’t it just voluntarily weaken white’s queenside? The answer lies in the fact the weakened dark-squares this move creates are protected now, because black’s e-pawn is firmly blockaded. The purpose of this move is that it prevents black from pushing …a4 himself and thus locking the white b2 pawn down as a target.


18.Bc4 (1 point) allows black to push a bit farther forward with his a-pawn. 18...a4! 19.a3 Qc7 20.Ba2 Red8 21.Qf2 Qb7 22.Rd2 Nf4 23.Bxe6 Nxe6 24.Rhd1 Rd5! 25.c4 (oops now the b3 square is an outpost!) 25…Rxd2 26.Qxd2 Rb8 and black was at least equal due to his powerful activity in Kuczynski,R-Watson,W, Germany 1993. It is very likely Almasi had seen and studied this position with his opponent from 2 years before he played the text game.


18...Qc7 19.Bc4

Now the bishop can be happily posted here.


19…Red8 20.Qf2 Qb7 21.b3

White strengthens his position in some ways, while weakening it in others. For now, the long diagonal is closed. As long as things remain that way, the dark-squared holes into the heart of white’s position will be defendable.


White has two other major options here including 21.Rhe1 and 21.Rd3, both of which are scoring well.


21.Bb3?! is possible, but may allow black to build pressure on the b2 pawn, which could end up immobilizing the bishop on b3 altogether.


21...Nf4 22.Bxe6 Nxe6








Question 6 (2 points): This position has been reached a handful of times in master chess, and white seems to be in the driver’s seat. How should he continue?























23.Rxd8+! (1 point)

It is arguable whether or not this move is best, but the difficulty in constructing a defense against this choice should be enough to render it the best practical move.


23.Be3?! (0 points) Hands any initiative over to black after 23…Nd4 24.Rhe1 Qb4 and black should be at least equal. Note also how he can now redevelop his dark-squared bishop via f8 and head for c5.


23.Rd6 (0 points) led to nothing special for white after 23…Rxd6 24.Nxd6 Qe7!? 25.Ne4 Nxc5 26.Qxc5 Qxc5 27.Nxc5 f6! And black had brought his once dormant minor to life to balance out white’s knight in Groszpeter,A-Marin,M, Odorheiu Secuiesc 1995. Marin believes Black to be slightly better at this point.


23.Nf6+ (0 points) Bxf6 24.gxf6 Rd5? 25.Rxd5 cxd5 26.Bd6 was a line given by Marin, but it does not lead to a better position for white as he thought. Marin’s line continues 26…Rc8 27.Kb2 Nd4 28.Rc1 and an improvement on his line is 28…Qb6! As white’s e-pawn is off limits due to 29.Bxe5? Rxc2+! 30.Rxc2 Qxb3+ 31.Kc1 Nxc2 32.Qxc2 Qe3+ and black has picked up a pawn, has the safer king, and the superior structure. All of this should add up to a black win. Of course it is easy to correct a GM who annotated a game all those years ago without the help of an engine. On principle I will give 0 points for this line as it trades an active piece for one that is locked away without sufficient cause.


23.Bd6!? (1 point) is interesting in that it retains control of c5 and doesn’t allow a bishop exchange due to the pressure on the e5 pawn. For these reasons alone I think it is worth at least a point. Play could continue 23…Nd4 24.Rd3 Qc8 25.Be7 Rd5 26.Nf6+ Bxf6 with a very strong dark-squared bishop as in Herrera,I-Bellon Lopez, JM, Capablanca Memorial 1996.


23...Rxd8 24.Bb6


NOTE: Take an additional (1 point) for 24.Bb6 if you saw it beginning from the move 23.Rxd8 and add that to your points for question 6.


This move creates a double attack on the rook on d8 and the pawn on a5.



I think this is honestly too passive and just lands black in immediate trouble. Instead he should consider aiming for counterplay with 24...Rd5


24...Rd5 25.Nc3 Rd7!? dares white to take the pawn as now: 26.Bxa5 c5! grants black good play for the pawn. 27.Rd1 Rxd1+ 28.Nxd1 c4! 29.b4 Nd4 30.b5 Qa8 31.Qd2 Qxf3 32.Ne3 e4 and this is terrifyingly tricky. Fritz 11 believes the position to be better for Black but this whole line seems like dancing on a knife-edge and not a good practical recommendation.


25.Rd1 Nd4



Question 7 (2 points): As white, you now have a choice between the moves 26.Bc5 and the crazy-looking 26.Bxd4 intending an exchange sacrifice after 26…exd4 27.Rxd4!? Bxd4 28.Qxd4. Evaluate both of these options in your head as best as possible and choose one to play!



















26.Bc5 (1 point)

This is a calm retreat that protects the bishop, keeps pressure on d4, and keeps control of the a3-f8 diagonal. It also keeps the black queen out of b4. No real concrete variations are necessary to say this is a solid move.


26.Bxd4?! (0 points) exd4 27.Rxd4?! Bxd4 28.Qxd4 looks like a clever exchange sacrifice, but runs into immediate problems based on the loosened white king position. The only benefit of this line is that it forces... a draw! 28...Qb4! 29.Nf6+ Kh8 30.Qe5 Qb8! 31.Qd4 Qb4= is a draw by repetition (an additional 1 point if you saw the repetition). Black cannot allow the discovered check. Too bad as otherwise this might have been a great attacking try!


26...Qd7 27.Nf6+?!

This shouldn't lead to anything more than equality, but black makes a critical error in short order. Better might have been an attempt to slowly improve with 27.Rd3!?


27...Bxf6 28.gxf6 Qd5?

28...Rd8 maintains the balance according to Emms, and it’s hard to disagree with him. Almasi points out that after: 29.Rd3?? Nxb3+ 30.Rxb3 Qd1+ 31.Kb2 Rd2 black is winning.


29.Bxd4 exd4 30.Qxd4 Qxf3

Black must have seen this deep and imagined that due to material equality and the loose position of the white king, he would be equal. Yet black missed a very big weakness in his own camp here.




Question 8 (2 points): How does white exploit the position in his favor?








31.Qe5! (2 points)

Incredible. Suddenly black is losing. White's major pieces will dominate the board while black's cannot find sufficient activity to compensate. This powerful queen move is an example of centralization, and shows how important activity is in a purely major piece ending. No points for any other tries here. One could be forgiven for thinking black had drawing chances here, but he is dead lost.


31...Qf2 32.Rd7! Rf8 33.Kb2 c5

A last, desperate bid for some play.








Question 9 (2 points): How would you continue?
















Forcefully winning the game with a cute combination. Note how white had to safety his king first so that there were no intermezzo's available to his opponent. Black resigned here, but I hope you saw all the way to the end 34...Rxf7 35.Qe8+ Rf8 36.Qxg6+ Kh8 37.Qg7# (1 point if you saw the entire combination) If Black tries to head for an ending a pawn down but with an active king he is in for a surprise after 34…Qd4+ 35.Qxd4 cxd4 36.Rxf8+! Kxf8 37.b4! when he cannot stop both passers (a further 1 point if you saw this entire beautiful variation).






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