"The hardest game to win is a won game." - Lasker
"The hardest game to win is a won game" -Lasker
I am not so sure if I have learned it yet. Often, reaching a favorable position makes it harder to win due to the added pressure to follow through with clinical precision to finish the game. As Alekhine once said, "To win against me, you must beat me three times: in the opening, the middlegame and the endgame." On several occasions I have found myself in favorable positions in the opening or in the middlegame or even in the endgame only to end up with a loss! I was unable to keep a strong presence of mind during all parts of the game after reaching favorable positions, perhaps declaring victory prematurely in my mind.
One such experience was at the "Western States Open" in Reno, where I was facing FM John Daniel Bryant in the first round. I arrived with high ambition and strong will to play well and I was ready to fight until the very end. Bryant is known for his good play in sharp and tactical positions as well as his sharp play in the Benoni defense. Most recently Bryant was the joint winner of the 2012 U.S. Open . Bryant has 2 GM norms and is working for his third.
Now, the game...
1. d4 c5 2. c3 Qc7 here I had not seen this move before and I assumed that the purpose of this move was to prevent Bf4 and to defend the c5 pawn. I spent some time looking at ways to gain the initiative like dxc5, but I thought that Nf3 was the most flexible. 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Ne4 Bryant begins active play 5. Bh4 d6 6. Nbd2 Bf5
Here, the position looked kind of weird and I was looking for ways to gain a distinct advantage. My original intention was Nxe4, Bxe4, Nd2, Bc6 and e4. At the time, I did not want to allow the bishop to remain on the h1-a8 diagonal. However, later analysis revealed that this was indeed a better way to go. Firstly, if the bishop ever were to ever go to g6 instead of c6, I could switch routes and develop my bishop to g2 as occured in the famous Kasparov-Anderson game (Tilburg, 1981). The second benefit is white gains more space in the center. And lastly, this central space translates into a distint initiative as black must deal with the threats of d5 and an eventual further development of a kingside attack. So, had I the chance to play it over again, I would opt for this line of play.
7. Qb3!? again, this move came about through the process of trying to create problems for my opponent. Although there is no concrete threat (which is why Nxe4 is better) my idea was to create threats on the f7 pawn when the time was right (e.g. Nxe4, Bxe4, and Ng5). 7... Nd7 8. e3 h6? perhaps black was worried about my threat of playing Nxe4, Bxe4, Bc4, Bg6 (if .. e6, then Bxe6 is strong), Ng5, e6, and Bxe6. However, after the simple 8..e6 Black has nothing to fear.
Find the strongest continuation!
Be sure to take a look at what happens after 10..d5 instead of Bxe4.
11...Nb6 12. dxc5 dxc5
Here I felt a mix of many emotions. I was surprised that such a strong player allowed me to do something which seemed trivial and I was happy knowing that I played well, at least for this part of the game. At the same time, tough, I was nervous as I knew that much more work would be needed to finish the game. In time this mindset of playing had severe consequences. In my previous games, I had experienced painful losses against lower rated opponents where I had underestimated my opponents and failed to evaluate my opponents' chances. This was not the case in this game. If anything, my downfall could be attributed to overestimation of my opponents' chances. However, I believe that during this game I had the false notion that if I had consolidated and "out waited" my opponent through "simple" chess, my 1 and later 2 pawn advantage would be enough to win. But what I did not recognize is that simple does not mean passive! In the game, I found myself bringing my pieces back toward defense when they should have been moving forward to attack. It is in these vital moments that I should have looked hungrily for the way to push my opponent over the cliff and finish him off for good. I should have been the shark who looks to devour the already bleeding prey.
Find the way to finish black off!
Other continuations include: fxe6 and Qxe5. If .. fxe6, then Qxe6+, Be7, Qf7+, Kd8, 0-0-0+, Kc8, Qe6+, Kb8 and Bg3 (Bxe7 is also good) will be decisive. If ...Qxe5, Bxf7+, Kd7, 0-0-0+, Kc6, Bg3!, Qf5 and c4 threatening Qb5# is decisive
In the game, however, I continued with 13. Bc4 which does not create any problems for black but merely tries to consolidate. Even if I had not found Ne5, it would not have hurt to try with even the simple, yet active Bg3 or even 0-0-0.
14. 0-0-0 0-0 15. Bg3 I was following the principle of trading pieces when you are up material. Bxg3 16. hxg3 a5! it's not that big of a deal yet, but we can see that black isn't just waiting until his death. He looks to play active and create any problems for me that are possible. 17. a3 I couldn't find much improvement to this move, but had there been a more active alternative I would have gone for this. Right now my moves are rather simple, yet passive. And again simple does not mean passive. a4 18. Qa2 Nxc4
19. Qxc4 Bg6 20. Rd5! finally some active play! Rfc8 21. Rhd1 b5 again, black tries to complicate the situation. In situations like these I find it best to be sort of headstrong and calculate to find concrete solutions. I started with: 22. Qxb5! Rab8 23. Qe2? passive and frankly, too simple. I was worried about Qb7, Ra8, and possibilities of Rxa3. Again, in these sorts of positions when the true quality of a position is being tested, I find that creative and tactical solutions prove to hold up the best. At this point I was still playing with the "consolidate/'outwait' " strategy.
What would you play instead?
23.. Qb7 24. Ne5 Be4 25. R5d2 Bh7 this was a weird move 26. Qc4 Qg4 was better. Black's idea is to play Qb3 and have strong threats of Qxa3 and Qa2. Qc4 stops this directly. However, I could have taken advantage of the fact that the Bh7 creates back rank problems for black. First, Black's bishop now has limited squares. It's stuck on h7. And second, if Qb3, then now white can play Qxc8+! and checkmate. Furthermore, white threatens to actively consolidate by playing Qd7 to trade queens. And you can be sure that moves like this would cause massive headaches to your opponent for added benefit. 26... Bf5 27. Qa2? moving backwards with my queen! I did not want to allow Be6 and Qb3, so I thought that this was the simplest way to defend against this. Here the forward move was the correct one. I could have centralized my queen with Qd5. 27...Be6 28. Qb1
Compare this position to the position 7 moves ago on move 21. Just see the damage a few "backward" moves can do!
28...Bb3 29. Rg1 Rd8 black got pleasant control and is dominating position despite his pawn deficit. 30. Nf3 Rd7 31. Qf5 trying to get back in the game through activity. Bd5 32. Rgd1 Be4? Black was probably playing on my low time. I had less than 5 minutes to play 8 moves. However, this is a clear mistake and should lose a rook. Black's idea is to play Qb3 and, if permitted, Qxc3+. 33. Qxd7 Qb3
Find the best move!
Creating a space for the king in case of Qa2 which can be responded to with almost any queen move (like Qxa4) as the king will hide on e1.
In the game I panicked and played: 34. Qd8+ the "safe" move Rxd8 35. Rxd8+ Kh7 36. R1d2 Qa2 37. Kd1 Bc6 38. Ne1 Bb5 39. Nd3 Qb1+ 40. Nc1? a mistake on the last move before time control. Bc4! now my knight is lost as well as the game.
41. Rb8 my only chance was to try to create some sort of fortress and defend my position. Ba2 black has no rush to play Bb3+ 42. f3 planning to play e4 to block the black queen from attacking more weaknesses at other parts of the board. c4 43. g4 Bb3+ 44. Rxb3 axb3 45. e4 mission accomplished but the problem is that I cannot stop the king from infiltrating the kingside. My two weaknesses (the b2 pawn on the queenside and the eventual opening of the kingside) will be indefensable.
45... Kg6 46. Re2 Kg5 47. Rd2 perhaps g3 was better, but I think black's infiltration is just a matter of time. Kh4 48. Re2 Kg3 49. Rd2 g6 50. Re2 h5 51. gxh5 gxh5 52. Rd2 h4 53. Re2 Qa1 54. Rd2 h3 and now commentary is unnecessary. 55. gxh3 Kxh3 56. f4 Kg3 57. f5 Kf4 58. Re2 Ke5 59. Rd2 Kxe4 60. f6 Kf5 61. Rf2+ Ke5 62. Re2+ Kxf6 63. Rf2+ Ke5 64. a4 f5 65. a5 Kd6 66. a6 Kc7 67. a7 Kb7 68. a8Q+ Kxa8 69. Rd2 Qb1 70. Rf2 f4 and now I resigned.
So, in the end, this game against Bryant turned out to be one of the most instructional games in my entire life. The lessons of looking to push an opponent over the cliff immediately after a favorable position is achieved and to look for concrete,tactical, and active solutions to posed problems will remain with me for my entire life. There are tricks at every phase of the game, both for you and your opponent, and it would be wise to be vigilant in order to notice opportunities for they may be game deciders! So, please do not repeat my mistake and be aware, for "the hardest game to win is a won game."
Post your questions and comments in the comments section and as always please feel free to post any games both in the comments section and at my email: firstname.lastname@example.org for free game analysis!