When to Strike - Part 1
Once again we return to the "Attack and Defense" series. We will be discussing the difficult question of when to strike and when to keep control. I had several instances of this occur in a recent tournament, the Eastern Open in Washington D.C.
The Eastern Open is an eight-round tournament held Christmas and New Year's Eve. I've never played particularly well in this tournament, perhaps because it takes place in the dead of winter, or maybe because there tend to be a lot of logistical problems for me at that location.
The tournament was not very strong this year - only one GM played. The highest rated player was IM Daniel Ludwig, and I was rated number two. Because of the small field and the large number of rounds, it was pretty much a certainty that all of the top seeds would play each other, usually pretty early in the tournament. Thus I ended up playing Ludwig as early as round 3. This was the first game I had played against Daniel, who is a very nice guy and also ended up winning the tournament by a full point.
I played a fairly ridiculous opening, but managed to hold on and the game was approximately equal for a long time. However, I had fallen into serious time pressure - by move 29 I had only about a minute to make eleven moves, while Ludwig still had something like twenty minutes.
The position is about equal, but I made the very risky move 29.Rg1?, instantly creating smothered-mate possibilities for my opponent. Instead, my original intention 29.Qd3 would have been fine.
Immediately after moving, I realized that 29...Ne4 might be decisive. Not only is Black preparing to add pressure on the e-file with ...Rce8 and then ...Nxd2, he is also threatening 30...Ng3+! 31.hxg3 Rh6+ followed by mate. I saw the only defense 30.Be1, but was very worried since then my pieces are tied down and the knight on e3 is loose.
However, it looks like Ludwig was right to hold off on the ...Ne4 move. White is keeping it together after 30.Be1; for instance, if 30...Rce8 there is 31.Nd5!. In any case, it is difficult to play this position in extreme time pressure, and slow play - without direct threats - is the best method for the other side. Therefore Ludwig played the immediate 29...Rce8.
White is objectively in some difficulties, although the position is only slightly worse. But given the situation, I was fairly sure I would lose. Now instead of 30.Qd3 or 30.Bf3, I wanted to get out of the situation I had created for myself, so I played 30.Bxb7+? Qxb7+ 31.Rg2.
Now was the best moment for Black to strike with 31...Ne4, and I was very worried about this move. The only defense is 32.Re1 (assuming I could find it with seconds on my clock) and then Black can play 32...Nxd2! 33.Qxd2 Kh8, and White is practically lost due to the pins.
Instead Daniel continued to make preparatory moves with 31...Kh8?, allowing me to finally play 32.Qd3, getting out of the pin and preparing to close the long diagonal with Nd5. At this point the clock was my biggest worry. Probably frustrated by missing his chance for ...Ne4, Ludwig now lashed out with 32...Rxe3?? 33.Bxe3 Qf3, which was met with 34.Rc3!
I had seen this when playing 32.Qd3 and realized that there was no way for Black to take advantage of the hanging rook on c3. For instance, 34...Ne4 is met by 35.Bd4, and 34...Ng4 by 35.Bg1. Later White will be able to oppose the long diagonal by Qf3.
At this point I had only about 20 seconds to make the six moves until the time control. Personally, I think the best practical choice for him would be to just make some kind of move, such as 34...Qb7. Black would have no compensation, but at least I would have to come up with my own moves, which is not so easy when you have no time and lots of possibilities. Instead he chose the objectively best and played 34...Nh5. Now I saw that 35.Bd2 was winning for White, but because of the clock situation chose the safer 35.Bg1, allowing him to force an ending, which would guarantee that I would make the time control with a better - or winning - position.
After 35...Qxg2+ 36.Kxg2 Nf4+ 37.Kf3 Nxd3 38.Rxd3 I was out of danger and the Black queenside pawns were weak.
Black played 38...Be5 39.Bxb6! (this was almost a random decision with seconds on my clock, but the right one - if 39.h3 Black would be fine after 39...b5) 39...Bxh2 40.Ra3!
Now I could breathe a sigh of relief - I had made the time control, and in a better position than I could possibly imagine. White will soon have two passed pawns far away on the queenside, so it seemed the game would be over soon. Ludwig played the only chance 40...Rc8 41.b5! axb5 42.cxb5 Kg8.
Now it looked like there were many ways to win, although the move 43.Ba7 was the most obvious. The bishop escorts the pawn in typical fashion. Black would have to play 43...d5 (either now or on the next move). Then the plan is 44.b6 followed by b7 and Rb3. Trading the bishops by ...Bb8 wouldn't be an option because Black wouldn't be in time with the king, and a4-a5-a6-a7 would win. However, Black could meet 44.b6 with 44...Rc2!, getting enough counterplay.
This wasn't the reason I didn't play 43.Ba7; rather, I thought it won but considered that the simple plan of bringing the king up to d5 and playing Bc7 was cleaner. Thus I played 43.Ke4. However, at this moment I had entirely forgotten that Black had a passed h-pawn. After 43...Rb8! 44.Ra6 h5! my king had to be diverted to the kingside, which gave Black enough counterplay to draw.
How does White win in the above diagram? After the game, Ludwig had said that he was considering resigning if I had played 43.Ba7. However, in view of 44...Rc2, that would have been premature.
It turns out that the way to win is a subtle move. White obviously needs to move the bishop somewhere and put the rook on its ideal place, b3 - behind the passed pawn. But the natural 43.Bd4 could be met by the annoying 43...Rc4.
Thus, the correct move is 43.Be3!. This move has another point to it - Bf4 will be possible in some cases, such as after 43...Rc2 44.b6 d5. The 45.Bf4 wins, since ...Rb2 will always be met by Rb3. It turns out that there was much more to this ending than I thought, and the excitement before the time control with the dramatic turn of events made it hard for me to take it seriously.
Of course, I was somewhat disappointed after this game, although I understood that I was also very lucky not to have lost. Now let's move ahead to the next round, which was the same day.
My opponent was Larry Kaufman, who is a GM, but with him having a FIDE rating somewhere in the 2300s I definitely wanted to win even though I had black. I got a pretty much ideal position from the opening, but still Kaufman defended well and I was disconcerted since I didn't seem to get as much as I thought the position promised. In particular, I questioned my decision to play the immediate 17...e6 rather than 17...Rae8 first, as well as the move 21...Nh5. Nevertheless I did have a pleasant position at the critical moment on move 30:
Most of the white pieces can't move. The knight has to stay on f3, because otherwise ...Rxf2 would be good for Black. The rook on a1 needs to guard a5 and White has to keep some pieces guarding f3 and e5 as well. I had just played 29...Bb5 to which he responded with 30.Ree1. It would be natural to repeat back with 30...Bc6, although I didn't consider taking a draw.
Although White's pieces can barely move, it is very hard to find a way to make progress for Black. In particular, my knight on g7 was very bad, although it did a valuable job of defending e6. I also have to keep something guarding c5.
Here my opponent was in bad time pressure (around five minutes to make ten moves), although I didn't have a huge excess of time either. Extremely tired from my six-hour game against Ludwig, my mind was very sluggish. I considered trying to enforce ...d5-d4 with 30...Qa7, but it wasn't convincing. I was also trying to reorganize my pieces by ...Nb8, ...Qe7, and ...Nc6, but it didn't achieve anything.
I saw the obvious continuation 30...Bc6 (not a draw offer!) 31.Re2 Qb7, increasing the pressure on the long diagonal, but somehow I didn't feel that I could go anywhere from there. However, it seems that this is best and the situation is difficult for White. If the knight moves from f3, then ...Bb5 follows; and otherwise ...d4 is coming soon.
Instead, frustrated and tired, I impulsively lashed out with 30...h5??, striking at exactly the wrong time and in the wrong way. The worst thing was that I hardly calculated anything at all after this move. This was met immediately by 31.Nh4!, showing that the threat to take f2 was not serious once Black had weakened his king position - White could meet it by 32.Nxg6, and the rook is only exposed on f2.
Black might not be lost after 30...h5??, but it made the position extremely dangerous for me for no reason. In fact I was flustered, fell into time pressure myself, and just blundered all of my pawns.
As you can see, one of the biggest mistakes you can make in chess is striking at the wrong time.
Next week we will see the following round of the tournament, which deals with the same theme. The entire games from this article are below.