On Not Being Fabiano Caruana
'Turn and face the strange', sang David Bowie, but most of us don't react well to an unfamiliar move in the opening, especially in a line that we have only just begun to play. In the game I am considering today, my opponent played a rare pawn sacrifice that I had never seen before. As my post-game analysis revealed, it has some pedigree, having been played by none other than Fabiano Caruana against Daniel Fridman in 2012. My response was based on the right principles, but then things started to go wrong, in ways that I hope may prove instructive....
So it all began with the Short Variation of the Caro-Kann. It was a correspondence game on Chess.com and I was playing black against SunSt0rm (who, it turns out, is a very nice guy in post-game chat). Everything seemed to be going well and I felt I knew what I was doing since I had put a lot of work into my Caro-Kann repertoire not long before the game. We got to move ten and I was quite sure I was supposed to move my knight to g6 to attack white's e5-pawn, though I wasn't sure whether I should take on f3 first. You can see the opening line below:
All of a sudden, to my horror, white played Nd2, returning his knight to the place it had just come from. My first thought was that I had messed up my move-order and missed my opportunity to take on f3. Then I noticed that the e5-pawn was hanging and, uncharitably, I began to suspect that my opponent had blundered. So, almost immediately, I decided to take on e5. But then I paused to try to work out whether there were any snakes in the grass. The point of Nd2 began to seem obvious - there is no way for black to avoid damage to his pawn structure, since g6 is no longer available as a retreat for the bishop, and f5 is no longer protected by a knight. Well, I thought, it's a positional pawn sacrifice that I have to accept, but if white has to win the pawn back then black will be able to catch up in development - often a problem in the Short variation. So I took the pawn, and we entered a line that was first played by Sergei Zhigalko against Laurent Guidarelli in 2011, and then adopted as a surprise weapon by Caruana a year later. After a few logical moves, white eventually attacked my pawn on e4, as expected.
I immediately considering castling to complete my development, giving back the pawn. But then greed briefly crept in as I thought about protecting e4 with my queen or my f-pawn. At length, I decided that I should give the pawn back, but on my own terms. I calculated that playing Nd3 would temporarily block the attack on e4 and give me such a strong piece that white would have to take it, regaining material equality but giving up the bishop pair.
I still like this decision, but then I started to go wrong. White didn't take immediately, but played Rad1 first, and I thought I could now consolidate my position by playing Nce5, keeping both my pawn and my advanced piece. Greed finally won out. There are various tactical refutations of my plan. My opponent found a good move which was sufficient for a large advantage, but see if you can find the best continuation in the position:
As it happens, after my opponent played 16.f4 I still didn't see what was happening and continued to play as though I was heading for some advantageous exchanges. To my good fortune, my activity misled my opponent into making a mistake and, just in time, I stepped back from the brink, entering a position in which I was happy to have completed development and eradicated white's bishop pair. Subsequent play seemed to confirm my decision and I was able to progress to an equal endgame relatively smoothly. Only after the game did I realise how close I had come to annihilation in the opening. A lesson learned: when you strike on a logical plan of how to deal with an unfamiliar line, don't suddenly change your mind and enter complications that you don't fully understand.
The endgame was a similarly impressive demonstration that I cannot play like Caruana. Confident that the ending was drawn if I could get my rooks active, I willingly gave up a pawn when I didn't need to, and then, with one pawn against three, wrecklessly charged my peon into the thick of battle. In the end, I was lucky to escape with a draw. I won't go through the endgame here, but for the record I have put the full game below with a few limited notes attached which mostly just record what I recall of my thoughts at key moments during the endgame.
Finally, for ease of reference, I thought I should reward your reading to the end of a long blog by giving you the Caruana-Fridman game to look at: