Cleveland Open, Day 1: Positionally Won

NM blitzcopter
Aug 10, 2015, 9:09 PM |

I have a feeling this post is going to be really long, at least compared to my previous ones... my Day 2 post, which details two of my miracle draws at the Cleveland Open, will likely be much shorter.

The biggest factor in my improvement this year was how I responded to clearly winning or losing positions (or to a lesser extent, clearly advantageous and disadvantageous positions). At first it was difficult to accept that experts didn't simply fold over down a piece, but practice playing under pressure made my record in these situations much better. On the flip side, I stole a few undeserved games from lower-rated players in similar style!

But as I experiment with d4 in an attempt to practice positional chess, a special case of this issue clearly remains - winning positionally won games (more generally, positionally advantageous games, but let's start small). I grew up playing tactically, and it is difficult to weigh positional advantages (and strategies) against each other, and thus judge positions (and my extremely ambivalent thinking process doesn't help). But there are some positions where there can't be any doubt in this judgment, even if they're closed with no apparent tactical possibilities.

However, the lack of tactical possibilities makes it difficult to see a win (since the moves are likely not forced and any immediate combination will probably be quite deep), and my opponents won't roll over in these positions. Another option is simply to improve the position, but I'm guessing a lot of players have trouble implementing that as well. Or the position is well beyond that point, just waiting for some kind of breakthrough.

I exaggerate in the title, but I think my play on Day 1 was reasonably indicative of this issue. For example:

Black didn't quite know how to navigate the Queen's Gambit, and has little to do; in particular, the freeing ...c5 and ...e5 have been stopped for now. White, while not won, is in perfect position to attack the kingside. An obvious course of action is to play e4-e5, Qe4 threatening mate, and try h4. However, Black's position after the forced ...Nfd5/...g6/...h5, while terrible beyond description, is not yet dead.

Besides Nc3-e2-g3-xh5 (which was probably worth a try anyway), it's not immediately obvious (at least to me...) what White can do to improve. Black has some time to run the king away or get in ...Qf8-g7. White can try to plant a knight on d6, but that also takes some time.

Instead, I threw in 16. h4, threatening 17. e5 Nfd5 18. Qe4 g6 19. h5, but of course Black saw it (16...h5). I followed up with a hasty (with regards to motivation, not time) 17. Ng5? allowing 17...e5!. My position is still pretty good (I can still force ...g6), but the immediate attack is stalling and Black has opened some complications. In fact, I soon missed a tactic, went down a pawn, and was lucky to not lose (more on that later).

Second example:

Obviously, this isn't winning, but it is a quite nice Advance Caro-Kann for Black. The e5-pawn is not the strongest pawn ever, and f4 looks questionable, at least for now, due to ...Bc5 possibilities and White's dark-squared bishop. But Black needs something concrete here.

I basically decided to try getting at the e5 pawn, but this didn't succeed. According to Stockfish, ...f6 is a plan! It's not that I didn't see the possibility, but it wasn't clear to me that the advantages of opening the f-file outweigh the e6 weakness. I didn't want to trade off any of my perfect Caro-Kann structure. Also I thought I might deserve to win the e5-pawn. The rest of the game did not go well, but... more on that later.

Third, and probably main example:

Seriously, what happened to Black here? Weaknesses (e5, d6, c5, e6 pawn) abound. Bad bishop (though to be fair, slightly unavoidable in QGD). The knights are surprisingly useless even in this closed position. On the other hand, the bishop pair is pretty good for this closed position. Basically Black has nothing (in particular the number of Bd7-c8 and back was amusing).

With no real ideas to restrict Black further or improve positionally, I felt this was the time to look for something concrete. Unfortunately, closed position also means tactical possibilities are harder to see. 

I eventually tried to plant a knight on d6 (more on this later), but didn't succeed. My opponent made it easier by simplifying into a rook-light-squared-bishop endgame.

The beginning of said ending. Black's bishop is still terrible, but having (almost) all the pawns on the board, many of them on light squares, makes breakthrough difficult.

A few moves later:

Basically White can try to get the rook through any completely open file, but there are a couple of things to watch out for. Black can open up with ...c5, or get a passed h-pawn if White tries to blast through the kingside (which is probably harmless, but only probably). White also needs to watch out for e5 if the bishop is not on the b1-h7 diagonal.

Here are the full games:

I was only saved against my second-round opponent because of a time scramble. He went on to win the U1900 prize, scoring 2200+ performance against some tough opponents.

My last game of the day was against a young player. I found it really amusing that he thought I would play fast since a certain other expert I know also played fast against him.

Despite the scares, I ended up with a fairly solid Day 1, but the competition was about to get even tougher (top seeds).