Saved by Peter Svidler
Have you ever spent time working on your opening repertoire only to discover your results get worse instead of better? Having recently put a lot of effort into studying the Gruenfeld, I was optimistic about a new thematic tournament on Chess.com in which I'd have a chance to try out my new knowledge from both the black and the white perspective. Of course, you never know whether your opponents will use databases, but I thought that even if they did it might prove a good test of what I'd been working on. Alas, my results were not good at all.
I'm sure part of the problem was that my opponents were simply much better than me. One guy in particular had beaten me convincingly twice before, and when I played against him with the white pieces in this tournament, the result was equally convincing. But then in my black game against him finally I managed to survive with a draw. What made the difference was Peter Svidler! I'll show the game below, partly because I'm proud of it, but also because it has one or two nice tactical shots, and I hope I can get some instructional value for myself and others from analysing it.
So, to be clear, I had studied Svidler's excellent video series on the Gruenfeld (on Chess24) some months ago without the aid of the attached ebook, which wasn't released till long after the videos. I finally got hold of the ebook not long before this tournament but I hadn't had time to work through it properly. Mostly, I had tried to find lines that weren't covered in the videos, but instead I got distracted into rewatching some parts of the original series that are particularly entertaining. As luck would have it, in the game where I salvaged a draw my opponent played one of the lines I had recently reviewed. I was able to remember the key idea, at least in part, since Svidler makes it memorable by showing a particularly startling variation that can arise. Then my opponent chose a rare continutation and I was immediately 'out of book'. I immediately miscalculated a tactical sequence and ended up down the exchange. You can see the opening, with my annotations, below:
Black has a pawn and the bishop pair for the exchange but also the chance to get his pieces coordinated before white can do so, giving him some hope of taking the initiative by advancing his queenside majority. The problem is that once white coordinates his pieces he can target the isolated e-pawn and/or the backward g-pawn, with a further plan of attacking black's slightly exposed king. Here, again, Svidler's voice was running in my head (I've heard him assess countless such positions in press conferences and on his video series) - black must play actively to maintain his compensation.
My efforts to apply this principle are probably not very interesting to anyone but myself, but I've included the rest of the game with my annotations below:
After the draw was agreed, I didn't look at the game for a day or two; then I analysed it without the computer; finally, I went back to it with the engine turned on. I'm glad I did it that way, because the least helpful exercise was the computer analysis, which basically said the game was roughly even all the way through. It thinks there were no serious blunders and no real winning chances. It didn't feel like that at all during the game! Instead of being pleased that there were no 'red moves', I was deflated, especially upon seeing that my plans in the endgame, over which I had sweated blood, were regarded as futile and even sub-optimal. Maybe they were; maybe even my opponent knew that and was bored throughout the game (I haven't asked); but for me, it was a roller-coaster.
Now for the instructional value (primarily, I imagine, for myself). I think the main points I've taken from this game are the following:
1) Peter Svidler is a great coach (and everybody should watch his series on the Gruenfeld), but not only as an opening theoretician, also as a guide to how to identify and exploit dynamic compensation in the middlegame and endgame.
2) When I'm drawn into a variation that I don't remember well, it is often attractive tactics that distract me so that I don't recall the lines in my repertoire. This is particularly if I think someone has played a sub-optimal move. I would bet a lot of people succumb to the same temptation to look for tactical solutions instead of sticking with the general ideas of the opening line.
3) I had to fight in this game against my tendency to think an equal position must be worse (or without winning chances) because my opponent is generally better than me. I don't know if I usually do this, but it's certainly something to keep an eye on, and I imagine I'm not the only person ever to make this mistake.
4) The computer really is annoying. Every book and every GM says to use it only as a last resort or blunder-checker during post-mortem analysis, but do I listen to them? Not often enough. We all should.