05 May 2017

E-book completed: Play the Caro-Kann



I've had the e-book version of Play the Caro-Kann (2007, Everyman Chess) by IM Jovanka Houska for a while now, but just recently took the time to go through it in a systematic way, after a previous false start.  There's a lot of material and it's more advanced than Starting Out: The Caro-Kann, although Houska's latest (2015) Opening Repertoire: The Caro-Kann is about double its predecessor's size.  (I have that as well and plan to follow up this year by looking at it seriously, which should provide some interesting comparisons.)

This is a valuable opening book in general, based on selected major repertoire lines for the Caro-Kann.  It does some things that many other opening books (whether a repertoire or "comprehensive" opening manual) do not.  In this case, Houska does a particularly fine job of highlighting both strategic and tactical issues associated with deviations from the central line, something clearly beneficial to improving players.  One of my general complaints as a Class player is that many opening books only give the "best play" and most contemporary lines.  Below master grade (but really even then), it's unlikely that your opponent will go straight down the "best" path that the book is so enthusiastic about.  (I put "best" in quotes because the "best" lines from 5, 10 or 20 years ago are unlikely to be the ones given today.  Sometimes entire major variations, like the Berlin Defense, are largely ignored but then resurrected and become "best", so it's best to think for yourself when building your own repertoire.)

Knowing on a deeper level the likely opening deviations and how to punish them (or at least get a better game) is key to getting a practical advantage out of your selected openings.  This is closely allied to the importance of understanding your openings' concepts, not just the latest variations; in many books play may be taken simply for granted until far into the game and the GM writing the book may not bother to even mention normal-looking alternatives.

Below are the chapter headings for the book with some commentary on content.
  • Chapter 1 - Main Line: Introduction and 11. Bf4.  The author chooses to start off with the 3. Nc3 main line, which is probably the most deeply analyzed historically, and selects the Classical (aka Capablanca) variation to meet it, 4...Bf5 (which I play).  Houska does a good job of discussing some of the introductory concepts about the variation while fast-forwarding ahead to move 11, which in this case is legitimate; I actually have played a number of games in which White can rattle off things automatically to this point (and beyond).  This particular chapter may not be 100% relevant to your repertoire if as a Caro-Kann player you don't play an early ...e6 instead of developing first with ...Nf6, but many of the lines transpose - it's hard to avoid playing ...Nf6 - and the various ideas are good to see in action regardless.  In particular, the ideas of hitting a white pawn on c4 with ...b5 and how to handle White's attacking idea of g2-g4 are well treated.
  • Chapter 2 - Main Line: 11 Bd2.  This is really the meat of the analysis for my repertoire and the foundation of the Caro-Kann main line, so all the ideas are relevant.  Knowing how to handle thematic White attacks like the sacrifices on h6, g6, f5 and e6 are very important, as is setting up Black's counterplay on the queenside and along the c-file in particular.  Caro-Kann players will get a sense of the cut-and-thrust of these positions and also have their morale boosted by seeing how dangerous-looking White attacks can be foiled.  In this chapter Houska also treats the early deviation 8. Bd3, in which White basically plays the same way but foregoes h4-h5, and suggests that Black go for queenside castling.
  • Chapter 3 - Main Line: 6. Bc4 and Early Deviations.  Here we find a White transposition to the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (via 4. f3) and Houska advocates taking the pawn, which is principled but can be dangerous if you don't really know the lines. Her preference of following up with 5...Bf5 and subsequent play looks pretty straightforward for Black.  Separately, the main line with 5. Nc5 (used by Fischer a few times) is treated with 5...b6 as the standard response.  The various 6th move alternatives, especially 6. Bc4 and 6. N1e2, need to be studied carefully by Black players, since the ideas are different from the regular main line.  6. f4 is also a rather violent line and should be looked at, since it has good surprise value for White and Black needs to know recommended piece development (Bf8-d6, Ng8-e7).
  • Chapters 4-5 treat the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, using the theoretically recommended 5...Nc6 line, which requires Black (especially) to really know the sequences, since the variations are sharper and White has the initiative and some lasting pressure; however, Black is fine (or sometimes better) in the end, due to better structural and positional factors.  Instead I play the 5...e6 line, which is more solid and typically transposes into a position classified as a Semi-Tarrasch defense (from queen's pawn openings).
  • Chapter 6 - Exchange Variation.  This is especially popular with Bobby Fischer fans and relatively straightforward to play.  Houska uses 5...Qc7 for her repertoire, which is a strong move (but not the main line 5...Nf6) that pre-empts the usual Bf4 development for White. (For an entertaining post on the variation by a fellow improvement blogger, see "The Grinch during off season") 
  • Chapters 7-8 go over the Advance Variation, which at top levels has long replaced the "main line" (3. Nc3) as the most popular approach for White.  Interestingly, this hasn't really happened at the Class level (at least in my experience), which means that players of both sides may be put off to some extent by the large amount of theory after 3. e5 Bf5, which is the most logical choice for Black, who places the light-square bishop outside of the pawn chain before playing ...e6.  Houska instead advocates the sideline 3...c5 and does a good job of covering it in depth, which is rare in Caro-Kann literature.  It is the only real gambit variation in the Caro-Kann but it is still a quite solid approach in most lines, as White usually either has to give back the pawn or is left with no real prospects for making progress.  Black (as Houska advises) should concentrate on the positional compensation rather than desperately trying to recover the pawn, so it is a genuine gambit line.  It's worth noting that Houska after the main theoretical continuation 4. dxc5 only presents 4...e6 for Black, which is the second most popular choice (after 4...Nc6).  Both lines score about the same in the database (43% for Black).  I think it's mostly a matter of taste, as the position naturally becomes more French-like after the early ...e6. 
  • Chapter 9 - Fantasy Variation.  This line (with 3. f3!?) is a favorite of White players impatient with normal Caro-Kann lines who just want to attack on the kingside (similar in some respects to the approach of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit per above).  The Kenilworthian blog summarized interest in the variation back in 2010.  If Black players just make mindless exchanges that leave the center wide open, then White has a nasty quick-developing attack.  That said, the theoretically most critical line has Black play 3...dxe4 followed by 4...e5 (and then the e5 pawn becomes the linchpin of the position).  Houska, who tried the line herself briefly, has an excellent summary analytic overview and emphasizes White's weakness on the dark squares (including f2), arguing that should be the basis of Black's strategy.  She notes that if Black players want to just have a solid game rather than challenging White, then 3...e6 and 3...g6 are good alternatives.
  • Chapter 10 - Panov's Little Brother: 2. c4.  It's good that Houska devotes an entire chapter to this line, which can be reached from multiple transpositional possibilities and can itself transpose into a full-fledged Panov-Botvinnik Attack.  Black can't simply ignore the unusual move and should be prepared for it.  Houska treats the main line approach, which after the pawn exchanges on d5 is to play 4...Nf6 rather than immediately recapturing with 4...Qxd5, which is reminiscent of the Center Counter defense.
  • Chapter 11 - Two Knights Variation.  This has always been at least somewhat popular at the Class level, I think largely because it's an obvious piece development.  Also probably because White gets some cheap points after unwary Black players try to treat it like the Classical Caro-Kann and exchange on e4 followed by 4...Bf5?!, which gets punished every time by White (per the above link).  The standard antidote (covered by Houska) is 3...Bg4, which is good for Black if the positional ideas behind it are understood (maintain the light-square bind with the pawns, don't open the position further).  It's again worth noting the quality job Houska does of explaining the key ideas and plans, rather than giving a variation or two with a one-sentence comment.
  • Chapter 12 - King's Indian Attack.  (Yet another Fischer sideline in the Caro-Kann.)  A more common setup against the French or Sicilian (as illustrated in the above link), it can also be used against the Caro-Kann.  Black has nothing to fear, in this case having a couple of advantages (already having the d5/c6 pawn chain and the move ...e5 available early) and so equalizing rather quickly, has been my experience.  Both the KIA and the Caro-Kann are solid openings, so there are few fireworks and the middlegame tends to be one of slow maneuvering rather than breakthroughs.  If you play the KIA as White in other openings and don't want to learn something new against the Caro-Kann, it's certainly a practical option.  Houska devotes a full chapter to it and a number of variations that are unlikely to appear on the board, mainly White deviations from the 5. g3 setup, so it may be more valuable in practical terms for White players looking for alternatives.
  • Chapter 13 - Unusual Lines and the Plain Bizarre.  The most important/relevant line here I think is 2. f4, which Black meets by playing in the style of the Advance Variation (with 3...Bf5) but I've also seen in practice the line 2. Nf3 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Ne5, which has been used by some top Grandmasters for surprise value.

30 April 2017

Annotated Game #174: Choke

For those not familiar with the word "choke", it refers in English slang to when an individual sportsperson (or sometimes an entire team) is presented with a clear winning opportunity during an important moment, but instead they screw it up and lose.  This next tournament game is a great example of this phenomenon.  After three wins in a row I was paired against the leader of the section and had a chance to move into first place with one round left to play.  Instead, after doing well in an aggressive English Opening (yes, the English can be aggressive), I was one move away from victory, but instead had a major thinking process failure on move 24 (trapping my opponent's queen...except for the one move that beat me).  It had been a rather exciting and somewhat exhausting game up until that point, so even though it was relatively early on move-wise, I had expended a good amount of clock time and a lot of mental energy on calculating variations since the unexpected 17th move from my opponent.  Basically I lost patience and decided to skip the process...with unfortunate consequences.  Lesson learned.

ChessAdmin - Class C

Result: 0-1

A13: English Opening: 1...e6
[...] 1.c4 e6 2.¤f3 d5 3.e3 ¤f6 4.b3 ¥e7 now in a standard QGD type setup for Black. 5.¥b2 ¤bd7 6.¥e2 b6 7.O-O ¥b7 8.¤c3 (8.d3 is an option, with the idea of Nbd2.) (8.cxd5!? immediately is more common than the text move.) 8...O-O 9.cxd5 this seemed the logical follow-up. I've previously had bad experiences with Black building a strong pawn center and this takes care of that problem. 9...¤xd5
9...exd5 10.¦c1 ¦e8 11.£c2 ¥f8 12.¦fd1 c6 13.d4 ¥d6 14.¥d3 £e7 15.¤e2 g6 16.¤g3 ¤g4 17.¦e1 f5 18.¥xf5 gxf5 19.¤xf5 £f8 20.e4 ¥f4 21.e5 ¦e6 22.¦cd1 ¢h8 23.g3 £g8 24.¢h1 Gunina,V (2529)-Kriebel,T (2461) Novy Bor 2015 1/2-1/2 (157)
10.¦c1
10.¤xd5 is more common. The Nc3 isn't a great piece and it's better to exchange it, also opening up the long diagonal for the Bb2 (and the c-file for a rook). 10...¥xd5 11.£c2 c5 12.¦ad1 ¦c8 13.£b1 £c7 14.d4 £b7 15.¦c1 cxd4 16.¥xd4 ¥f6 17.£b2 ¥xd4 18.£xd4 ¤f6 19.h3 h6 20.£a4 a5 21.£d4 ¦c7 22.£e5 ¦fc8 23.¥a6 1-0 (23) Alekseev,E (2679)-Rusanov,M (2440) St Petersburg 2014
10...¥f6 11.d4 here I decided the benefits of the pawn advance outweighed shutting off the Bb2. First of all, Black's Bf6 is also shut out, and I also get a strong central pawn that influences e5 and c5. The a3-f8 diagonal also looks like a good one for my bishop. 11...¦c8 a slow move and one that allows the following sequence, giving me a measurable edge. (11...¤xc3 12.¥xc3 c5) 12.¤xd5²12...¥xd5 (12...exd5 13.¤e5 ¤xe5 14.dxe5 ¥e7 15.¥g4 ¦a8 16.£c2 c6 17.f4²) 13.¥a6 this is the problem with the earlier rook move, Black loses a tempo and his queenside is looking awkward. 13...¦b8 14.¥d3 I had been worried about a possible future ...b5, blocking the bishop in. Another square might have been better, though. (14.¥b5)
14.£e2 is another option the engine likes, controlling the diagonal (and b5) while connecting the rooks and protecting the Bb2, which is otherwise loose.
14...c5 the logical reaction by Black, taking advantage of the unprotected Bb2 to rule out capture on c5. 15.¤e5 a somewhat risky and aggressive decision that was not the best. I didn't mind the exchange on e5, and it is evaluated by the engine as equal. (15.£e2 cxd4 16.¤xd4 ¦c8²) 15...¥xe5?! a case where the standard rule of not exchanging bishops for knights applies. (15...cxd4!?16.exd4 ¤xe5 17.dxe5 ¥e7) (15...¤xe5 16.dxe5 ¥e7) 16.dxe5² White has the pair of bishops, but also the Nd7 has no useful squares at the moment. 16...£g5 this surprised me, but I was able to find an effective countermove. 17.e4 now I have the initiative. 17...¥c6 18.f4 the queen's location becomes a problem for Black. 18...£h4 19.¦c2
19.¦c3!? is probably a better version of the idea of transferring the rook to the kingside (after Bc2) and one that I considered for a while. In the end I rejected a plan of a piece attack on the kingside for one based on a pawn advance. 19...£e7
19...¦bd8 20.g3
20.£e2± getting off the d-file and overprotecting e4 was an excellent idea.
20...£h3?! this over-optimistic move justified my play to this point. (20...£e7) 21.¦d2± screening the Qd1 and protecting the Bd3 again. 21...f6? causes even greater problems, in part because the Qh3 now has no safe retreat. It also weakens e6, which I take advantage of (but not well enough). (21...¤b8± looks sad, but otherwise Black has serious problems.) 22.f5 I thought for a while here and felt good about the move, which presses the attack, but is rather complicated given the various captures on e5, f5 and e6.
22.¥e2 is found by the engine the threat being to play Bg4 with a fork on e6. 22...f5 (22...h5 23.exf6 ¥xe4 24.¦f2 gxf6 25.¥xh5+⁠−) 23.¥c4 ¦fe8 24.¦d6 ¥xe4 25.¦f2 £h6 26.¦fd2+⁠−
22...¢h8? (22...£h6 23.¥b1 £e3+ 24.¦ff2+⁠−) 23.¦f4! this should be sufficient to win. The threat of course is Rh4, trapping the queen. 23...£h6 24.¦h4?? here I moved too quickly and had a major thinking process foul. I had assumed that the queen was trapped, but of course it now has e3 to go to, with devastating effect. This was a case of the actual piece placement (Rf4) interfering with my mental visualization of the future board (Rh4, Qh6), where the diagonal is no longer blocked. Naturally if I had followed my thinking process, I could have corrected for this.
24.fxe6! and wins. 24...fxe5 25.¦xf8+ ¤xf8 26.e7+⁠− I had in fact looked at this variation, but was tired and having trouble visualizing. And then it occurred to me (mistakenly) that I could just play Rh4.
24...£e3+−⁠+ after this it is game over, although I fight on for a few moves in the vain hope for a swindle. 25.¢f1 ¤xe5 26.£h5 £f3+ 27.¢e1 £xh5 28.¦xh5 ¤xd3+
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27 April 2017

Annotated Game #173: I like the London System

For whatever reason, I've traditionally had good results (as Black) in London System type games.  It's quite popular now for White and certainly offers good development and play.  On the Black side, I've found it to be not as challenging as other White systems in the opening phase, essentially because less direct pressure is placed on Black, so I feel like I can equalize and then play a comfortable game.

The below tournament game follows this pattern, with me equalizing as Black by move 6 and having some easy ideas to follow in the middlegame.  By move 18 the position is drawish, but I chose to be patient, as I felt any (slight) chances would lie on my side.  I was able to target the one weakness in White's position (the b2 pawn), but then my opponent cannily fought back to create an unusual endgame fight (2N+R vs my two rooks).  I did have an outside passed pawn, though, which ended up being decisive, after some interesting tactics (see move 36).

This game isn't of very high quality - too many dubious (?!) choices on both sides - but was valuable to analyze, including identifying a thinking process lapse (move 23, where I could have consolidated my advantage if I had recognized my opponent's best response).

Class C - ChessAdmin

Result: 0-1

[...] 1.d4 d5 2.¥f4 evidently going for a London System type setup. 2...¤f6 3.¤f3 c6 4.e3 ¥g4 (4...¥f5 is a standard alternative.)
4...£b6!? may be a little premature, but it hits at White's queenside immediately, now that the dark-square bishop is away. Kramnik once gave it a try against Gata Kamsky: 5.£c1 ¥f5 6.c4 e6 7.¤c3 ¤bd7 8.c5 £d8 9.¥e2 ¥e7 10.h3 ¤e4 11.O-O g5 12.¥e5 ¤xe5 13.¤xe5 ¥f6 14.¤xe4 ¥xe4 15.£c3 ¥g7 16.b4 O-O 17.b5 cxb5 18.¥xb5 £c7 19.¦ac1 f6 20.¤d7 ¦fd8 21.c6 bxc6 22.£xc6 £xc6 23.¥xc6 ¦ac8 24.¥b5 ¥g6 25.¤c5 ¦d6 26.a4 ¥f8 27.¤a6 ¦c2 28.¦xc2 ¥xc2 29.¤c5 e5 30.¦c1 ¥f5 31.g4 ¥g6 32.¤d7 ¥e8 33.¤xf8 ¥xb5 34.axb5 ¢xf8 35.dxe5 fxe5 36.¦c7 d4 37.exd4 exd4 38.¢f1 d3 39.¢e1 ¦d5 40.¦xa7 ¦xb5 41.¦xh7 ¦b1+ 42.¢d2 ¦f1 43.¢xd3 ¦xf2 44.¢e4 ¦f4+ 45.¢e5 ¦f3 46.¢e6 ¢g8 47.¦h5 ¢f8 48.¦xg5 ¦xh3 49.¢f6 ¦a3 50.¢g6 ¢g8 1/2-1/2 (50) Kamsky,G (2671)-Kramnik,V (2729) Turin 2006
5.c4 e6 6.a3 this takes away the b4 square from Black, but is a rather slow approach, neglecting piece development. 6...¥d6 a natural developing move that challenges White's strong Bf4. 7.¥g3 O-O 8.¥e2 not bad, but not optimal. It also prompts me to play the next move. 8...dxc4 while not really a full tempo loss for White, it's still annoying to move the bishop twice in a row. For Black, the benefit is to re-establish the pin on the Nf3 and achieve a solid central pawn formation that restricts White's light-square bishop. 9.¥xc4 ¥xg3 the exchange of bishops is more or less obligatory at some point, given the tension on the diagonal. I thought this was a good time to do it and enable the subsequent pawn break. 10.hxg3 c5 challenging White's central pawn outpost. If White is takes the c5 pawn, having the king in the center after a queen exchange on d1 would be worth the sacrifice, plus the pawn is recoverable. 11.¥e2
11.dxc5 £xd1+ 12.¢xd1 ¦c8 13.¤c3 (13.b4?!13...a5 14.bxa5 ¦xa5³) 13...¦xc5 14.¥e2
11...¤bd7 with White preparing to castle, now the pawn is better off being protected. 12.O-O ¦c8 13.¤bd2 cxd4 exchanging the pawns opens the c-file and reduces White's central pawn formation. 14.¤xd4 ¥xe2 15.£xe2 ¤b6 the idea being to challenge control of c4 and give the option of hopping to d5. 16.¦ac1 £d5 the queen is now nicely centralized, but White lacks any weaknesses that it could attack. 17.£f3 a6 taking away a useful square (b5) from the Nd4, in anticipation of the exchange. 18.£xd5 ¤fxd5 the position now looks very drawish and the engine agrees. In the past, I've been impatient with such types of positions and might even have offered a draw. Now I treat such situations more as learning experiences and will not on principle offer a draw until a position is truly played out (or perhaps if I assess I am worse off). 19.¤2f3 a minor slip by my opponent. With my next move, I now have a slight edge and am creating threats. (19.¤e4!?) 19...¤a4 20.¦fe1? (20.b3 ¤ac3 21.¦c2 ¦c7 22.¦fc1 ¦fc8 23.¢f1 ¢f8) 20...¤db6?! played as the result of not fully calculating the capture on b2. I thought that White could get the pawn back easily with Rb1, so took the step to screen the b7 pawn with the other knight first.
20...¤xb2 21.¦b1 originally I stopped calculating here, just seeing the threat to the unprotected b7 pawn. 21...¤d3 a nice intermediate move threatening the Re1 and now 22.¦ed1?
22.¦f1 is best but after 22...b5−⁠+ Black is winning with a mobilized 2-1 queenside pawn majority.
22...¤c3−⁠+
21.¢h2 however, my opponent now gives me an extra tempo to execute the threat. 21...¤xb2 22.¦b1 ¤2a4µ23.¦b4 ¦c3?! here I didn't pay enough attention to my opponent's possible ideas, just going for the a3 pawn. (23...¦c4µ) 24.¦eb1 at this point I saw that he will get back some material. 24...¦xa3 25.¦xb6 ¤xb6 26.¦xb6 h6 right idea, but wrong timing, according to the engine. White could now play g4 and activate the king via g3. (26...¦a5 would be better, keeping the rook more active.) (26...¦a2 would also be good.) 27.¦xb7 we now have an interesting, dynamically balanced endgame. If White had two bishops instead of two knights I would certainly be in worse shape. I still have to watch out for attacking ideas for White that use his two minor pieces and rook in combination, but my passed a-pawn and rook activity mean that the position is equal. At this point I didn't know if I could win, but I felt that at least I could avoid losing. 27...¦a2 28.¢g1 ¦c8? too aggressive, neglecting the weak f7 square. 29.¦b1?! missing the threat he could make aginst f7, at least for now.
29.¤e5 h5 cutting off the exit square for the White king 30.g4 hxg4 31.¤xf7 ¦c5± looks rather ugly for Black.
29...a5 passed pawns must be pushed! 30.¤e5 ¦c7 now I am thinking more about defense. 31.¢f1 a waste of a tempo. 31...a4³ White isn't lost yet, but the initiative is with me now and the a-pawn keeps getting stronger. It's also hard to find the specific continuation for White that holds. 32.¦e1?
32.¦b8+ (playing Kg1 first is also fine) 32...¢h7 33.¢g1³ is the key according to the engine, which is rather hard for humans to see. White's king needs to get off the first rank, where it can be checked with tempo gain by a rook to facilitate the queening of the a-pawn.
32...a3µ33.¤d3 ¦d7?! right file, wrong rook. (33...¦d2!34.¤b4 a2−⁠+) 34.¤b4? after this I find a winning continuation. (34.¦d1³) 34...¦b2−⁠+35.¤dc2 a2 36.¦a1 this seemed to be an excellent defense and I spent a good deal of time coming up with the game continuation (which is the best according to Komodo). I had originally spotted the idea of the tactic ...Rb1+, which now doesn't work to break through. 36...¦d2
36...¦b1+ 37.¢e2 ¦xa1 38.¤xa1−⁠+ is still winning for Black, but with a lot more work to do.
37.¢g1 but now the ...Rb1+ tactic does work! (37.¦xa2 ¦xa2 38.¤xa2 ¦xc2−⁠+) 37...¦b1+ 38.¢h2 ¦dd1 the most effective continuation, now with a double attack on the Ra1 and on the h1 square threatening mate. 39.g4 ¦xa1 40.¤xa1 ¦xa1 41.¢g3 ¢f8 42.¢f4 ¢e8 43.¢e4 ¢d7 44.¢e5 White's king cannot venture onto the d-file without suffering a rook check, with the a-pawn then queening. 44...¢c7 45.f4 ¢b6 with the simple winning idea of threatening to chase away the knight, which will force its exchange for the a-pawn. 46.g5 hxg5 47.fxg5 ¢b5 48.¤xa2 ¦xa2 49.g6 fxg6 50.¢xe6 ¦xg2 at this point White cannot win and at worst I'll end up with K+R vs. K (an elementary mate). 51.e4 ¢c6 52.e5 ¦g5 53.¢f7 ¦xe5 54.¢xg7 g5 now there is no way of stopping the pawn from queening and making the Q+R vs. K mate very obvious. My opponent however was a junior who apparently didn't realize the etiquette of resigning when you are in such a situation. 55.¢f6 ¢d5 56.¢g6 g4 57.¢f6 g3 58.¢g6 g2 59.¢g7 g1=£+ 60.¢f6 £f1+ 61.¢g7 ¦e2 62.¢g6 ¦g2+ 63.¢h6 £h1#
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