Saturday, February 28, 2015

United Offensive: Alekhine vs Bogoljubov, Warsaw 1943

How many of you remember my 5-part series on attacking chess? For today's article, we will be looking at how this is applied by viewing a spectacular demonstration of a Queenside attack. Our hero of the day is 4th World Champion Alexander Alekhine, renowned for his tactical vision and aggressive playing style.

Alekhine (left) vs Bogoljubov (right). Image from Wikipedia

Alekhine has studiously annotated his games, and I will adopt some of them in the following analysis.

Alexander Alekhine vs Efim Bogoljubov
Warsaw 1943

1. d4 d5
2. c4 e6
3. Nf3 Nf6
4. g3 dxc4
5. Qa4+ Qd7

"The exchange of Queens that Black will force with this maneuver gives him very few advantages, because it does not solve the chief problem, which is the development of the queen's bishop." --Alekhine

6. Qxc4 Qc6
7. Nbd2 Qxc4
8. Nxc4 Bb4+
9. Bd2 Bxd2+
10. Ncxd2 Nc6
11. Bg2 Bd7
12. O-O O-O-O

12... O-O is an alternative I looked at. 13. Nc4 Nd5 14. Nce5 Nxe5 15. Nxe5 Bb5 16. Rfe1 c6 17. a4 Ba6 18. Rac1 (D)

Position after 18. Rac1

In this variation, White appears to be better, with his d5 knight and a potential outpost on c4 for his rook. Black, however, also has a nice position, and can chase away the offending knight before going for a central push. For example, play can continue: Rfe8 19. Bxd5 exd5 20. e3 and if Black can get his bishop into the centre, he will have very good control of the light squares.

Returning to the main line after 12... O-O-O:

13. Rac1

With both sides castled on opposite wings, Alekhine starts preparing for a Queenside attack, while Bogoljubov plans for a central advance.

13... Rhe8

13... Nd5 looks strong, but after 14. e4 Nb6 (14... Ndb4? 15. a3 Nd3 16. Rc2 f5 17. e5 Black will find it difficult to continue his attack, while White threatens Rd1 followed by Nc4 attacking Black's knight.) 15. Nc4 Nxc4 16. Rxc4 f6 17. Rfc1 e5? White simply replies 18. d5! and Black is in trouble!

A better variation is the immediate central thrust: 13... e5 14. dxe5 (Stronger than 14. d5 Nxd5 15. Nxe5? Nxe5 16. Bxd5 Bh3! where Black wins a piece) 14... Ng4 15. Nc4 Be6 16. Ng5 Bxc4 17. Rxc4 Ncxe5 18. Rc2 f6 19. Ne4 Kb8 (D)

Position after 19... Kb8

Although White still has a powerful fianchettoed bishop, Black has his pieces well-positioned on the Kingside, and can seek counterplay on that wing. Even after something like 20. h3, Black can still reply 20... Nh6 preparing Nf5-Nd4.

Returning to the position after 13... Rhe8:

14. Nc4

"It goes without saying that White will not allow e5" --Alekhine

14... Re7
15. a3 Be8

Black's past few moves were directed towards connecting the rooks, and putting pressure on the d4 pawn so as to discourage a d5 advance should Black play e5. Now White is forced to respond to this threat. On the other hand, after 15... Rde8 16. Nce5 Nxe5 17. Nxe5 White's centralized knight becomes very strong.

16. Rfd1 Nd5!

Apart from bringing the knight to b6, Nd5 also frees Black to play f6/f5, advancing on the kingside and getting his bishop back into the game.

17. b4 Nb6
18. b5 (D)

Position after 18. b5

If White were to mess up the order of moves and exchange knights first: 18. Nxb6+ axb6 19. b5 Black's knight will now have a good place to hide with 19... Na5,

18... Nb8?

Why would Bogoljubov choose the passive path over here? Now Alekhine is free to launch an energetic attack.

18... Nxc4 seemed like a better option; 19. bxc6 (19. Rxc4 Na5 20. Ra4 b6 21. Rb4 Rd5 Black should be ok here too) 19... Na5 (19... Nxa3? 20. cxb7+ Kxb7 21. Ne5+ Kc8 22. Nc6 Bxc6 23. Bxc6 Rd6 24. Rc3 and White wins) 20. Ne5 Rd6 21. cxb7+ Nxb7 22. Rb1 Rb6 Black should be able to hold out better in this position.

19. Nxb6+ axb6
20. a4 f6

Black hopes to push e5 as part of his counterplan. If 20... f5 White replies Ne5!

21. Bh3

But White finds ways to tie down his opponent!

21... Bd7
22. Nd2!!

Now Black is forced to free up his cramped position and postpone e5. "What follows now is practically all forced"-- Alekhine.

22... Rf8

If 22... e5 White plays 23. Nc4, threatening Nxb6#

23. Bg2 c6
24. Nc4 (D)

Position after 24. Nc4

In Part 4 of our "How to Attack" series, we talked about how a pawn assault against the castled king is effective only with sufficient support from the pieces. Here, we see how White's pieces and pawns are coordinated in this united offensive, while Black's pieces have been squeezed into a fatal corner.

24... Kc7
25. e4!

There is now no defense to the threat of d5, after which Black's position falls apart.

25... cxb5
26. axb5 Bxb5
27. d5 exd5 (D)

Find the best move for White

27... Kd8 28. Nd6 Bd7 29. Nxb7+ is also crushing.

Now, find the best move for White!
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28. Na3+!

As explained in "How to Attack" Part 3, opening up files against the enemy king-- with your rooks in action-- is decisive. Now, the discovered attack seals the fate for Black.

28... Bc6
29. exd5 Rd7
30. Nb5+ Kd8
31. dxc6 bxc6
32. Nd4 (D)
1-0

Position after 32. Nd4

...

Hopefully you have a better appreciation for the art of attack in chess after looking through this game. Truly a masterpiece by Alekhine!

Links:
How to Attack Part 1: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/08/how-to-attack-part-1.html
How to Attack Part 2: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/08/how-to-attack-part-2.html
How to Attack Part 3: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/08/how-to-attack-part-3.html
How to Attack Part 4: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/09/how-to-attack-part-4.html
How to Attack Part 5: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/09/how-to-attack-part-5.html

References:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HYxnXemgGA
http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1013572

Friday, February 20, 2015

Endgame technique: Atkins vs Capablanca, London 1922

In my earlier article, we saw how Botvinnik demolished Capablanca with a strong attack coupled with a fine tactical combination. Today, we will seek some compensation for Capablanca by analysing one of his own victories. Throughout this game, you will see a fine demonstration of the Cuban master's clear strategic thinking, as well as unparalled endgame technique.

P.S. After two weeks in camp my brain might have suffered some damage, but nonetheless I will try my best to analyse this game.

Henry Ernest Atkins vs Jose Raul Capablanca
London 1922

1. e4 c6
2. d4 d5
3. e5 Bf5

In the Advance Variation of the Caro-Kann, Black allows White to build a pawn chain in the centre before attacking it with a c5 pawn break.

4. Bd3 Bxd3
5. Qxd3 e6
6. Ne2 Qb6
7. O-O Qa6!?

I'm not sure whether it is a good idea to exchange Queens  on a6 (and moving the Queen a second time!) and develop the knight to that sub-optimal square. Having a Queenless middlegame, however, might be beneficial for Black if he wants to prepare a c5 push later on; the d4 pawn will have one less defender. Also, putting the knight on a6 might possibly help support the c5 advance.

8. Qd1

8. Qxa6 Nxa6 9. c3 c5 While the knight is temporarily misplaced, it can get back into the game quickly if an exchange occurs on d4: Nb4-Nc6 and it will put the d4 pawn under strong pressure.

8... c5
9. c3 Nc6
10. Nd2 cxd4
11. cxd4 (D)

Position after 11. cxd4

As stated, the d4 pawn is now under pressure.

11... Qd3
12. Nb3 Qxd1
13. Rxd1

If Black is able to trade to an endgame, the d4 pawn will be very weak.

13... Nge7
14. Bd2 a5
15. Rac1 b6

The minority attack is also a common plan in Caro-Kann games

16. a4 Kd7!?

What is Capablanca thinking here? Perhaps he realizes that the endgame is coming soon, so he's trying to keep his king in the centre yet connect his rooks at the same time. We shall see whether this is an effective strategy.

17. Nc3 Na7

A bit passive, but here it will help support the b5 advance.

18. Kf1

Atkins also realizes the importance of centralizing the king in an upcoming endgame.

18... Nec6
19. Ke2 Rc8
20. Be1

Providing the d4 pawn with an extra defender (the d1 rook).

20... Be7
21. Nb1 f5!? (D)

Position after 21... f5

Another weird move; why not 21... f6 attacking the pawn chain? Perhaps Capablanca wants to gain space on the kingside too so as to prevent White from reinforcing the d4-e5 pawn chain. Note that by attacking this chain, Black has tied up White's pieces, so it gives him more freedom to operate on other parts of the board.

22. exf6?!

22. g3 g5 23. f4 gxf4 24. gxf4 Rhg8 And Black will break through on the Queenside; e.g. 25. Bg3 h5 preparing h4. A better try was 22. f4 though after 22... g5 23. g3 gxf4 24. gxf4 Rhg8 Black can still infiltrate the kingside.

22... Bxf6

Now Black's dark-squared bishop is brought into the action against d4.

23. Bc3 Nb4!

Bringing the a7 knight back in too!

24. Bd2

If 24. Bxb4?! axb4 25. Ke3 b5 White's b1 knight becomes effectively trapped; moving to e2 cuts the d1 rook from the isolani on d4, and after exchanging on b5 Black will continue attacking d4.

24... Nac6
25. Be3 Na2!
26. Rc2 Rc7
27. Na3 Rhc8 (D)

Position after 27.... Rhc8

Black's pressure on d4 allows him to slowly build up a powerful force on the Queenside.

28. Rcd2 Na7
29. Rd3 Nb4
30. R3d2 Rc6

The next couple of moves look like both sides are wasting tempo; maybe Capablanca is playing cat-and-mouse with his opponent?

31. Rb1 Be7
32. Ra1 Bd6
33. h3

33. Rad1 and Black will not play 33... Bxh2?? 34. g3! after which the bishop is trapped, and White plays Rh1 to capture it!

33... R6c7
34. Rad1 Na2
35. Ra1 Bxa3
36. Rxa2 Bb4
37. Rd1 Rc4! (D)

Position after 37... Rc4

Capablanca finally makes his breakthrough here.

38. Rc1 Nc6
39. Rxc4 dxc4

Exchanging off the dominant rook comes at the price of a passed pawn.

40. Nd2 Bxd2
41. Kxd2 Kd6
42. Kc3 Kd5 (D)

Position after 42... Kd5

Now Black has the better endgame. As quoted by Maroczy: "The knight is superior to the bishop since the latter cannot leave the d-pawn unprotected". It is a matter of Black using this and the passer to his advantage.

43. Ra1 g6
44. f3 Rb8
45. Ra3 b5
46. axb5 Rxb5
47. Bf2 Nb4
48. b3 cxb3
49. Kxb3

49. Rxb3 Na2+ 50. Kb2 Rxb3+ 51. Kxb3 Nb4 52. Ka4 Nc6 and Black's king will invade White's position.

49... Nc6+

The pawn falls, but Black is now able to break through the Queenside... and gets another passer on the a file!

50. Kc3 Rb1
51. Ra4 Rc1+
52. Kd2 Rc4
53. Ra1!

Wisely choosing to keep the rooks on the board. If 53. Rxc4 Kxc4 the d4 pawn will finally fall, while Black makes inroads into White's camp.

53... a4
54. Ra3 Na7
55. Ra1

Being in front of the passed pawn is not a pleasant place for the rook!

55... Nb5 (D)

Position after 55... Nb5

Black will slowly advance his a-pawn to maintain pressure on the opponent. Note the active knight as compared to White's passive bishop.

56. Rb1 Kc6
57. Kd3 Rc3+
58. Kd2 Rb3
59. Rc1+

Once again trading rooks is bad: 59. Rxb3? axb3 and the pawn cannot be stopped.

59... Kb7
60. Rc2 a3
61. Bg3 Nxd4
62. Rc7+ Kb6
63. Rc4 Kb5!
64. Rc8!

Despite being in a losing position, Atkins shows skilled endgame play here too; getting his rook behind the passed pawn is the best way to stop it. On the other hand, White can resign after 64. Rxd4? a2.

64... Nc6
65. Ra8 Rb2+
66. Ke3 Rxg2
67. Bf2 Nb4! (D)
0-1

Position after 67... Nb4

68. Rxa3 Nc2+! and White is plain losing here.

...

Throughout the game we can observe Capablanca's clear strategic thinking. The Cuban first used a c5 break to weaken White's pawn chain. He then maintained pressure on this weak chain to tie up Atkin's pieces, before slowly building up a force on the Queenside to achieve a breakthrough. His efforts paid off with a passed pawn and dominating position in the endgame, though it required fine endgame technique to overcome his opponent's tough resistance.

Sources:
http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1093062
"Capablanca's Best Chess Endings" by Irving Chernev

Friday, February 13, 2015

CNY Challenge!















































Welcome all! Hope you have an awesome and eventful Chinese New Year the following week! However, this is no reason to let up on your training, as learning shouldn't stop there… As such, I have provided a few very challenging questions for you all:





Q1. Assess the position above (white to move). Black has just played Qf8-d6. Analyze the elements of this position, including placement and activity of pieces, pawn structures, development of pieces, king safety, tactical elements and possible threats from both sides. This list is not exhaustive, and it is not necessary to consider every point on this list (but use as many of them as possible). Using this analysis, propose a suitable continuation for White, with proper detailed justification and persuasive argument. Do not give one or two move answers, give suitable variations to justify your answers.



Q2. Repeat Q1 for the position below (white to move). Black has just played Ne4xg5.








Q3. White to play and win

Q4. Black to play and win

Q5*. Black to play and win


Once again, this challenge is compulsory to ALL members of the Black Knights (includes Year 1s, but excludes alumni and outsiders). Please put in effort into this challenge, if you really don't know how to answer any of the questions not no worry, just provide the best continuation and justification that you can think of. Email your answers to me at chow.darryl@yahoo.com.sg by Friday, 20 February 2015, 2359hrs. If you have any queries regarding this challenge, or if you need help, please direct you questions and concerns to me through the same email address. Seek help early if you need it; don't wait till the last minute before doing so. That's all I have for you for this festive season, good luck with this challenge! I can't wait to see what amazing answers you have!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Botvinnik's "Immortal Game"

P.S. Could you please take some time to scroll down to the two interactive chess viewers below, and leave a comment (on this blog or on the FB link I posted) on which one you prefer: The KnightVision viewer (top) or the Chess.com viewer (bottom). Thanks (:

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The game we are looking at today is one of the most famous games from the 20th century, fought between 2 of the strongest chess masters in history: Mikhail Botvinnik (three-time World Champion, 1948-1957, 1958-1960, 1961-1963) and Jose Raul Capablanca (3rd World Champion). It was played at the AVRO 1938 tournament, which was an unofficial candidates tournament to select a challenger to then World Champion Alekhine (World War II dashed any hopes of such a match). The game has been highly rated in various chess circles, and even Kasparov wrote that it was Botvinnik's "game of his life" against Capablanca.

Botvinnik vs Capablanca. The photo was taken in Moscow 1935

In this game, you will look at the application of various strategic concepts, such as the positioning and value of the minor pieces, the ideas behind attacking and defending, as well as how to realize a long-term plan. You will also pay witness to a stunning tactical blow by Botvinnik that cemented this game in history as his "Immortal Game".

Mikhail Botvinnik vs Jose Raul Capablanca
AVRO (Netherlands) 1938

KnightVision:


Chess.com:


1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 e6
3. Nc3 Bb4
4. e3 d5
5. a3 Bxc3+
6. bxc3 c5

Bear in mind that this game was played during a time when opening theory was still being refined, and chess engines were non-existent. Thus some of the moves that you see might seem out of place according to modern opening theory. In this case, c5 allows Black to stake a claim to the centre; however, it also opens up the position for White's bishop pair.

7. cxd5

If White tries to grab a pawn with 7. dxc5 Nc6 8. Nf3 O-O 9. cxd5 Qxd5 he will get a set of weak, isolated doubled pawns.

7... exd5
8. Bd3 O-O
9. Ne2

So that White can play f3 later on. Same as before, if he had played 9. dxc5 instead his extra pawn would not be worth protecting. His isolated c3 pawn would also be backward compared to Black's d4 isolani.

9... b6
10. O-O (D)

Position after 10. O-O

10... Ba6?!

I was a bit confused when I first saw this move. Why would a strong player like Capablanca want to force this bishop trade, and get his knight on a suboptimal square (a6)? But as I looked at the position, trading off the light-squared bishop can be good due to the following:

  • Black wants to deny White his bishop pair. In an open game like this, having the bishop pair can be a huge advantage.
  • In the early stages of most games, White's light-squared bishop and Black's dark-squared bishop are generally stronger than their counterparts (which are usually blocked by pawns on e3 and e6). Thus, the opponent will try to use their own minor pieces to trade off these bishops.
  • White's light-squared bishop controls a critical square on e4. This square can be used for an eventual e4 push; conversely Black can also use it as an outpost for his knight. Thus Black wants to remove one of the defenders of this e4 square.

Nevertheless, after this trade Black's knight will be placed on the side of the board, which is far from good ("A knight on the rim is dim"). Whether this will have repercussions in the game, we shall have to wait and see.

I looked at an alternative variation here: 10... c4 11. Bc2 Re8 12. Re1 Nc6 13. Ng3 a5 14. f3 b5 (as in the game Black is playing for Queenside control here, while White seeks to expand in the centre and kingside) 15. e4 dxe4 16. fxe4 Bb7 17. d5 Ne5 (D)

Position after 17... Ne5

Despite White's passed pawn, Black has a strong blockade of the centre (18. d6? loses the pawn due to 18... Ra6/Re6), and threatens to advance further Queenside.

Returning to the game after 10... Ba6:

11. Bxa6 Nxa6
12. Bb2

Some analysts felt that playing 12. a4 preparing Ba3 would have made better use of the bishop

12... Qd7!

With the light-squared bishops off the board, Capablanca realized the importance of retaining control over the light squares.

13. a4 Rfe8
14. Qd3?!

The only purpose over Qd3 instead of Qe2 might be to provoke c4, but I don't see how this benefits White (apart from giving him extra control over the c5 square); on the contrary it gives Black a potential outpost on c3! Perhaps White could have gone for 14. Ng3 c4 15. Qc2 Nb8 16. Rae1 Nc6 17. f3 Na5 18. e4 where he can achieve his plans more quickly, although he still gives Black the outpost.

14... c4
15. Qc2 Nb8

We now see the problem with the knight. Black wants to move it to the b3 outpost, but because it had been misplaced on a6 he now has to spend tempo moving it back first, resulting in a rather fanciful maneuver. Thus shows the importance of piece positioning!

16. Rae1 Nc6
17. Ng3 Na5
18. f3 (D)

Position after 18. f3

White too has a plan of his own, preparing to push e4 for a central and kingside expansion. Note the weak pawns on c3 and d5.

18... Nb3

Looks like Black's plan has materialized. How about White?

19. e4!

Sacrificing the pawn for a strong attack.

19... Qxa4
20. e5 Nd7
21. Qf2 g6!

Stopping Nf5/Nh5, which would bring in more attackers.

I wondered if Black could instead seek counterplay on the other side of the board, so I looked at the line 21... a5 22. f4 Qc6 (22... b5 23. f5 b4 24. e6 bxc3 25. Bxc3 is bad for Black) 23. Nf5! (the move which Black was trying to stop with g6!) 23... b5 24. Nd6 Re6 with a very unclear position, where the outcome is determined by the race between White's kingside attack and Black's Queenside pawn advance.

22. f4 f5
23. exf6 (D)

Position after 23. exf6 (e.p.)

I would like to give a timely reminder on a rule of attacking chess. As the attacker, one of your goals is to create open files; it gives your major pieces easier access into the enemy position. On the contrary, having a closed position with pieces/pawns locked up everywhere is not going to do good for your major pieces, which function best on open files. Hence we see that the tempting 23. e6? does not work; after 23... Nf6! Black threatens Ne4, cutting off the passed pawn from its defenders.

23... Nxf6
24. f5

It is interesting to see how White continues his attack while Black's b3 knight-- the pinnacle of his old plan-- ends up sitting on the Queenside as a mere spectator (so does the b2 bishop!).

24...  Rxe1!

Following the principles of defense: Exchange as much material as possible to reduce the attacker's pressure.

25. Rxe1 Re8
26. Re6! (D)

Position after 26. Re6

Capablanca probably underestimated the power of this move.

26... Rxe6

Black could offer more resistance with 26... Kg7 27. Qf4 Qd7 28. Ba3 but White will still break
through in the end

27. fxe6

Botvinnik's attack has paid off with the form of the d-file passer. Now, it is a matter of escorting him to the promised land.

27... Kg7
28. Qf4 Qe8
29. Qe5 Qe7? (D)

Position after 29. Qe7

This looks like a perfectly logical move (whatever it takes to blockade the passed pawn), but it allows Botvinnik to unleash a stunning tactical blow. A better defense suggested by many analysts is 29... h6, and after something like 30. Ba3 Na5 31. Qc7+ Kg8 Black can offer more resistance, although White still have the upper hand.

Now, look at the position and see whether you can find the best continuation for White. Be warned: It's not that easy!
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30. Ba3!!

The bishop was not being active on b2 anyway, so sacrifice him to deflect the blockading Queen!

30... Qxa3

But now what? After 31. e7 Black simply replies Kf7 and the pawn is stuck. However, tactical blows rarely come in single moves, and it is the next move that ices the combination for White:

31. Nh5+!!

Tearing apart the kingside pawn protection. Black is forced to capture with the pawn and expose his king.

31... gxh5
32. Qg5+ Kf8
33. Qxf6+

With the tactical combination White allows his Queen to fully penetrate the kingside.

33... Kg8

Or 33... Ke8 $2 34. Qf7+ Kd8 35. Qd7#

34. e7 Qc1+
35. Kf2 Qc2+
36. Kg3 Qd3+
37. Kh4 Qe4+
38. Kxh5 Qe2+
39. Kh4 Qe4+
40. g4 Qe1+
41. Kh5 (D)
1-0

Position after 41. Kh5

Black has run of checks, and can't stop the pawn from promoting (without sacrificing his Queen).

Looking through the game, it is not hard to see why this game has become so renowned, alongside other classics such as the Immortal and Evergreen games. It was truly a tough fight between both players, and the fact that such fine gameplay existed in the time where chess theory was still in development is truly spectacular. Ultimately, Capablanca's underestimation of the passed pawn and his opponent's tactical vision allowed Botvinnik to score the full point.

Sources:
"My Great Predecessors, Part 2" by Garry Kasparov
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cekNkd34rew
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuxGRu5KaqQ
http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter86.html

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Middlegame calculation practice: Kickoff 2015 Chess Tournament (Round 5)

After the flood of emails on my calculation practice, I must say the degree of effort put in by y'all varied a lot. Some peeps gave me 4-line answers, others gave 4-paragraph analysis, one guy wrote me a 4-page report. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see that most of you put in a lot of effort into the analysis, and picked out most of the tactical/positional elements in the challenge I posed.

Let's take a look at the position again. It came from my game in Round 5 of last month's tourney after the following moves:

1. c4 Nf6
2. g3 e6
3. Bg2 d5
4. cxd5 exd5
5. d4 Be6
6. Nc3 c6
7. Bg5 Be7
8. Rc1 O-O
9. Qb3 (D)

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Kickoff 2015 Chess Tournament
Position after 9. Qb3

The game started as an English, but transposed into a Queen's Gambit Declined. Such positions are widely reputed for their solid nature (especially as Black), so we shall see whether that is true over here.

The most obvious feature of this position is that White threatens to win the b7 pawn (Qb3 develops the Queen with threat), followed by the a8 rook if not defended. I was surprised that some of you could not even spot this; if you are one of them, you really need to work on your tactical vision.

Dual meaning intended

Before we figure out how to defend against this threat, let's first look at other elements that might help us with our planning. Here are the features which many of you have been able to identify:

White enjoys more space in the centre, and his pieces are placed in more active positions. Two pieces worth noting are the g5 bishop and c1 rook. The g5 bishop is in the traditional knight-pin position, and while Black's knight is safely defended for now he must watch out for potential tactics; for example, moving the Queen away will hang the e7 bishop and make the pin more dangerous. The c1 rook controls the semi-open c-file and eyes c5 and c6; the former is defended by Black's dark-squared bishop while the latter is safely protected... so long as Black does not push the b-pawn.

However, the downside for White is that his fianchettoed light-squared bishop is temporarily blocked-in, while his dark-squared bishop-- the same one that's pinning the knight-- is hanging. This might give rise to potential discovered attacks that Black can exploit should he move his knight. On the other hand, Black's bishops are more well protected and coordinated; Black's light-squared bishop even has an indirect attack on the White Queen. This cannot be exploited for now though, since the d5 pawn is in the way. It's like first-person shooters; nothing more frustrating than having a target in your sights, but you can't fire because one of your teammates is in the way!

Maybe the shrapnel from his helmet will take out the enemy

For the pawn structure, both sides are relatively secure but a few things stand out. The first is White's hanging d4 pawn, which can be protected if he is given time to play e3. Another is the "hole" on e5 which can be used as an outpost by White's knight. A third element which nearly all of you have talked about is Black's d5 pawn, which seems to be the centre of attention for so many attacking and defending pieces!

Development-wise, both sides have an undeveloped knight each. However, Black's king has castled to safety while White's is still exposed in the centre. In fact, Black might even consider Qa5 as a potential threat to White's king.

Overall, we see that although White appears to be in a more aggressive position, he must first complete his development and castle his kingside to safety, lest Black exploits these weaknesses to launch a counterblow. Following that he might try to push e4 to gain even more space (of course he must protect that square first) in as part of his strategy. For Black, his priority is to defend against the b7 threat, before trying to play on White's weaknesses-- his slight lag in development and the various indirect attacks-- to formulate a suitable plan.


Candidate moves

To defend against b7 there are a number of ways. Black can use the Queen/Bishop to defend the pawn (Bc8, Qc8, Qd7, Qc7 and Qb6), push the pawn (b6 or or b5) or launch a counterblow somewhere else (Ne4). We will look at these candidate moves and see which are worth calculating.

We can cross 9... Bc8 and 9... Qd7 off our list immediately; Bc8 is simply undeveloping the bishop, while Qd7 hinders development of the b8 knight (which can be used to protect the e5 square, as a couple of you have mentioned). Both moves hand the initiative to White on a silver platter, and many of you share the same sentiment in your emails.

9... Qc7 might seem fine at first; some of you pointed out the continuation 10. Bxf6 Bxf6 11. Nxd5 Bxd5, and White's plan to exploit the c-file pin with 12. Bxd5?? doesn't work because of 12... Qa5+! winning the bishop. However, I quickly ruled out Qc7 due to the reply 10. Bf4!, which forces the Queen to a less optimal square (10... Bd6?? overloads the Queen and loses material: 11. Bxd6 Qxd6 12. Qxb7 +-) and once again hands the initiative to White.

9... Qc8 was something I felt not worth calculating either since it looked too passive as a defense. After the game I looked at the continuation 10. Nf3 (10. Bxf6 Bxf6 11. Nxd5 Bxd4 12. Ne7+ Kh8 13. Nxc8 Bxb3 14. axb3 Rxc8 gives Black a slight edge due to his isolated doubled-pawns) 10... Nbd7 11. Ne5 b5 12. Nxd7 Qxd7 (D)

Position after 12... Qxd7

This line did not favour me, with potential weaknesses on c6 and c5.

So in no time we eliminated 4 candidates without needing to go deep into the variations.

Tip: When you see candidate moves that are clearly sub-optimal, cross them out and look at other variations so as to save time.

That leaves us with 4 more options: b6, b5, Qb6 and Ne4.


Calculation of variations

9... b6 followed by 10... c5 seemed like a good plan, defending against the threat and striking out in the centre immediately. However, as I mentioned before, the c6 pawn becomes a potential weakness should Black push the b-pawn. Even after 10... c5 11. dxc5, there would be an open b-file for the White Queen to access (one Black Knight also pointed out the dangers of leaving the a-pawn isolated in this scenario)! So I ruled out this variation during the game in light of the problems on the c and b-files.

Later on I verified this by looking at the line: 10. Na4 c5 11. dxc5 (it is better for White to exchange; for example after 11. Nf3 Nbd7 12. O-O Re8 13. Rfe1 Black has a dangerous plan of playing 13... c4 with plans on the Queenside, as one of you have mentioned) 11... bxc5 12. Qb7!? Nbd7 13. Nf3 Re8 14. O-O Qa5 15. Nc3 (D)

Position after 15. Nc3

The complications here are not in Black's favour. If for example he plays d4?! 16. Ne4 Nxe4 17. Qxe4 Nf6 (17... Qxa2?? allows White to launch a tactical blow: 18. Bxe7! Rxe7 19. Qxa8+ winning the rook) 18. Qd3 the c5 pawn becomes a weakness again.

...

9... b5 is an interesting defense suggested by one of you, and something I did not consider during the game. The idea behind this move is similar to b6 but more aggressive: Black defends the pawn and at the same time uses it to launch a Queenside attack. However, there are similar problems regarding the c6 pawn: For example after 10. Nf3 a5 11. Qc2 Nbd7 (or Na6 as the same person suggested) 12. e4 dxe4 13. Nxe4 (D)

Position after 13. Nxe4

After which the weakness on c6 becomes apparent. No doubt this position is still playable (Black can continue his advance on the Queenside and try to exploit White's isolated d4 pawn while White concentrates on the centre/kingside; a possible continuation might be 13... Nxe4 14. Bxe7 Qxe7 15. Qxe4), but personally I won't go for it.

...

9... Qb6 is one of the more solid responses to White's threat. Here Black forces a Queen exchange; retreating the Queen is wasting tempo for White, while ignoring the threat and allowing Black to exchange on b3 gives White isolated doubled pawns. However, it seems like after the exchange on b6 Black is worse off since he himself gets a pair of doubled-pawns... or is he?

In fact, that was my main concern when I was calculating this variation in-game. But after some consideration, I realized that Black gets sufficient compensation for this: The a-file is opened for the rook after the exchange, allowing Black to gain access to that area of the board. Moreover, the doubled-pawns are not as weak as they seem, since they can be well supported after Black develops the knight to d7. To further extend his Queenside control, he might even consider playing b5 (this creates a system of dark square "holes", but they are not very weak since Black still retains his dark-squared bishop) followed by b4, putting the question to the knight.

Another better plan suggested by a few of you would be to get the b8 knight onto the c4 outpost via Nd7-Nb6-Nc4: For example after 11. Nf3 Nbd7 12. a3 b5 13. Ne5 Nb6! (D)


Despite his doubled-pawns and White's centralized knight, Black has very good control on the Queenside. His plans will be to play Nc4 or push b4... going for an advance on that wing. Unfortunately for me, playing the knight to c4 was not one the the plans I had in mind during the game!

...

9... Ne4! is an interesting counter-blow that I did not spot, although some of you managed to discuss about it. The basis of this move rests on the various tactical elements we discussed: That White's dark-squared bishop and c1 rook are hanging, Black's light-squared bishop has an indirect attack on White's Queen, and after a capture on e7 Black's Queen will protect the b7 pawn. It gives rise to a very sharp position with plenty of variations to calculate. Here are the lines which you guys have talked about:

At first glance it seems White can still win the pawn (and rook) with 10. Qxb7?!; but after 10... Bxg5 we see that White's hanging rook lies in the fire of Black's bishop! Thus after 11. Qxa8 Bxc1 White ends up losing material.

After 10. Bxe7 Qxe7 the b7 pawn is protected, and a possible continuation will be 11. Nxe4 dxe4 12. Qc2 Bd5. Black has more space, but White can consolidate quickly with moves like 13. e3 and 14. Ne2.

In the case of 10. Nxe4, Black is saved by the discovered attack after 10... dxe4 (so the d5 pawn can move after all... just not directly forward!). Here 11. Qxb7 leads to similar problems as stated earlier, so White has to continue 11. Bxe7 Qxe7 12. Qc2 Bxa2 13. Bxe4 Qb4+ 14. Qc3 (D)

Position after 14. Qc3

After the Queen exchange White will have an isolated b-pawn if he recaptures with the rook; Black will have an outside passed pawn on the a-file if White recaptures with pawn. Either way Black will have a slight edge in the endgame.

The Ne4 variation is a difficult one to calculate especially if you're under time pressure, so great job to those who managed to identify and calculate it.


Wrapping up

From this exercise, you have put yourself through a typical over-the-board situation where one needs to calculate variations in order to respond to threats or formulate a strategy. Under time constraints-- and especially in a rapid game-- the trick is to know when to stop calculating, so that one can get enough insight and yet save time. This requires a good knowledge of the various strategic and tactical elements; if you practice on them more often, they will come to you naturally.

So how did my game continue? You can see from the analysis above that I am in favour of the Qb6 and Ne4 variations. Since I did not consider Ne4 in-game, I went for 9... Qb6 with plans of exploiting the opened a-file after the exchange (though putting the knight on c4 was not one of the things I planned for). It led to a very interesting game with fire taking place mostly on the Queenside. Unfortunately, a mistake in the endgame eventually caused me to slip up and led to an embarrassing defeat ):

You can see the entire game here:


Great job to all of you for your efforts! (:

Sources:
www.memecenter.com
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvC9RyIFAAU