Rejoining the fight - game 2
So, after the dispiriting wipe out in round 1, I was a little surprised to still be facing IM level opposition in round 2. I guess it's been a while since I came in ranked in the bottom 10% of the field, and this IS a very strong tournament, and at least I'll have white.
[Event "PokerStars Masters"]
[White "the big dumdum"]
[Black "Ansell (IM), S."]
My opponent, a pretty experienced IM who seems to have moved on a bit from chess as a profession, does have the eminently admirable quality (at least in your opponents) of extremely rigid and predictable openings. So, I took this opportunity to do a reasonable study of a common black opening - the Kalashnikov.
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e5 5. Nb5 d6 6. c4 Be7 7. N1c3 a6 8. Na3 Nf6 9. Be2 O-O 10. Nc2 Be6 11. O-O Rc8 12. b3
All according to plan, a nice change from the norm. This is a pretty commonly seen position, and one in which white has successfully restrained d5, reorganized his pieces, and hasn't allowed any king side activity. White has a variety of pleasant plans, most of which involve asking some questions to black about how to defend d6 sufficiently - the moves for white are pretty easy to imagine to do so. So, black is obliged to take immediate action with the first move of the game I didn't recall or expect from my preparation (even though it's still the most commonly played move).
13...b5 13. cxb5 axb5 14. Qd3 Na7 15. Ne3 b4 16. Ncd5 Nc6 17. Nc2 Rb8
I'm not ashamed to admit, I thought I was just winning pretty clearly here. The b4 pawn has no future, he still has no play on the kingside, d5 remains under my control, and I'll soon have two connected passers on the queenside. However, what we see now is what happens when you get a strong player in a bad position - spoiler alert: they fight, and they fight hard.
18. Bd2 Bxd5 19. exd5 e4 20. Qe3 Nxd5 21. Qxe4 Nc3 22. Bxc3 d5 23. Qd3 bxc3 24. Bf3
Some nice tactics, I thought, but you're still going to pay me one pawn for your (to my eyes) questionable opening. Yes, he has a bit of compensation in the c3 pawn, which will be hard to remove, but it's securely blockaded, and as hard as it will be for me to remove due to the opposite bishops, it will be equally hard for him to break the blockade. I assumed I'd just keep the c3 pawn blocked, and slowly prepare the march of the a+b pawns and win.
24...Bf6 25. Qxd5 Ne5 26. Rfd1 Qc8 27. Be4 Rd8 28. Qa5 Qg4 29. f3 Qg5 30. Qa7 Ng6
er...ok what happened here. Yes, i won the pawn. However, now my queen is marauding around on a7 trying not to get trapped or stumble into some skewer on the dark squares, my king position has become flawed, he's got three pieces lined up in the vicinity of my king, and my a and b pawns haven't moved yet. He's created a lot of play for himself and I'm not sure where it all went wrong. Time for a plan involving exchanges or advancing my queenside pawns, or preferably both.
31. Qe3 Qa5 32. b4 Qc7 33. a4 Be5 34. a5 Bxh2+ 35. Kf1 Qc4+ 36. Qe2 Qe6 37. Nd4
Ok, oddly at the cost of one of my kingside pawns, I've encouraged him to discoordinate his pieces and gotten my queenside pawns moving. Now I've also managed to seemingly switch the guard and get my knight in the game and blockade with my bishop; in this particular position, the bishop will be a better blockader as it will still have a ton of scope from c2, while the knight's limited range is an issue. Of course, the threat of Nc6 is useful as well!
37...Rxd4 38. Rxd4 Be5
So now I'm a full exchange up, but his counter play is continuing. Nf4 is going to be an issue I have to deal with and I'm feeling the strain of such an intense game after so much time off. Instead of buckling down and finding the correct (and winning 39.Rd5 (which stops Nf4 due to Rxe5), I decide to liquidate into an ending I think I might win but certainly can't lose.
39. Bxg6 Bxd4 40. Qxe6 fxe6 41. Bc2 Rxb4 42. Ke2 Rb7 43. Kd3 e5 44. a6 Rc7 45. f4 Ba7 46. fxe5 1/2-1/2
A tough, hard fought draw against a very determined and strong opponent. I was pretty happy, until I looked at the final position some more with a GM friend, who asked me why in gods name I'd take a draw here, with two passed pawns, a superior king, and lots of winning chances and no losing chances. He has no hope of breaking the c2 blockade, and has to worry about maybe even just losing the c3 pawn outright, while also defending against me simply running the epawn in for the score. The longer you look, the more it becomes clear how much better white is in the position, and probably winning.
Well, kind of a cold shower after the excitement of my first result of the tournament! Still, lots to takeaway from this:
Learning 1: openings are still pretty important. If you can get a good position out of the opening, where you understand the plans and ideas, you can look like a much stronger player than you are. I've always laughed a little at guys playing junky openings against higher rated opponents "to get them out of book" - when I play main lines, my opponent is facing Kasparov or Anand for as long as I can remember the theory.
Learning 2: when you get a good position against a strong player, they don't just fold up like a cheap tent and give you the point. Accordingly, you have to keep fighting and working the whole time no matter how good your position is.
Learning 3: Far advanced passed pawns you can't eliminate are always a source of counterplay. Simply being able to blockade them doesn't remove their impact and can often tie you down considerably trying to maintain your blockade.
Learning 4: To the death. Yes, he's stronger and endings are probably the weakest part of my game, but there's no reason not to take a very detailed look at the position and really think about what possibilities are open to both sides. In this case, I have lots of possibilities and he has none. That alone should really strongly make me think that the position remains worth playing.
Some games are really valuable in terms of learnings, and some aren't. This, for me, was the former; I got into a seriously challenging game against a tough opponent and had to play well to do well. I learned a lot about my own chess stamina and fighting spirit - I didn't put in enough work at various middle game points or the end, and it cost me what would have been a very gratifying win.
Coming soon - game 3, and how chess.com and Sam Shankland failed me.