It was not so many years ago that there were nine or ten fairly strong and serious teams in the Thames Valley League. It’s symptomatic of the decline in chess, at least in this part of London, that there are now only four serious teams: Ealing, Surbiton and Wimbledon along with my team, Richmond.
My next chance to play 1.. e5 came when I played for Richmond A in our home match against Surbiton A. My opponent was rated slightly below me. We’ve known each other for many years, but, surprisingly, this was only our second encounter over the board. A few years ago I lost through a blunder at the end of the session.
Here’s what happened.
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
White chooses the unusual Ponziani opening, the fifth most popular choice here after Bb5, Bc4, d4 and Nc3.
This and 3.. d5 are Black’s main options and both totally playable as long as you avoid the tricks. Here’s a game played just the other day in which a strong player suffered a disaster. White was Federico Gonzalez (1978) and Black Rico Salimbagat (2213): the game was played (online) in the US Chess League KO between Miami and Manhattan.
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 d5 4. Qa4 dxe4 (f6 and Bd7 are also played here) 5. Nxe5 Nf6 6. Bc4 Bd7?? 7. Bxf7+ Ke7 8. Qa3+ 1-0
I seemed to recall reading somewhere many years ago that 3.. Nf6 was the simpler route to equality, but there are some traps there as well.
4. d4 Nxe4
5. d5 Ne7
Jochem Snuverink informed me after the game that 5… Bc5 is another option for Black. White has to play very accurately just to stay in the game. Stockfish analysis runs 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 (a big improvement on bxc6, which is usually played here) 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 with some advantage to Black.
6. Nxe5 Ng6
Black has to be careful. I correctly rejected 6.. d6 because of 7. Bb5+, which wins at once.
After just seven moves we reach the critical moment of the game. Black can play simply 7.. Nxe5 8. Bxe4 Bc5 when Black’s position is slightly more comfortable. Jochem told me he used to play the Ponziani himself but gave it up because of this line. 7.. d6 again loses: either to 8. Bb5+ or to 8. Nxg6 hxg6 9. Qa4+ with a familiar queen fork.
But it looks very tempting to play the desperado 7.. Nxf2 when most of White’s pieces seem to be hanging. After a queen move I can capture on d3 with check. I was suspicious as my opponent had played all his moves immediately so far, but couldn’t see anything wrong with it so foolishly decided to call his bluff.
So this was what I’d overlooked. I saw enough to realise that I couldn’t take the queen. After the game my opponent showed me the variation 8.. Nxd1 9. Bxf7+ Ke7 10. Bg5+ Kd6 11. Nc4+ Kc5 12. Nba3 Nxb2 (12… Qxg5 13. b4#) 13. Be3#. It’s not a forced mate but Black will be a piece down with his king exposed.
BigBase reveals that I’m not the only person, or even the strongest person, to have fallen for this trap. Igor Rausis, rated 2460 at the time, lost to an unrated player back in 1992, playing 8.. Qh4 here. Four players have captured the queen, all losing. Five players preferred the tricky Bc5, managing to win three games and draw one, but with best play White should be winning. Stockfish likes 9. Qe2 Qe7 10. Bxf7+ Kd8 11. h4 to threaten Bg5.
My choice is slightly better, but should still lose.
Now it’s White’s turn to face a critical decision. The correct choice was, as my opponent realised immediately after playing his move, 9. Qe2, when White should have no trouble converting his extra piece. As it happens, 9. Kf2 is also good: 9.. Bc5+ 10. Be3 Bxe3+ 11. Ke3 and White’s king will have time to scuttle back to safety.
But instead, and luckily for me, White went wrong.
9. Qf3 Qf6
10. Kxf2 Bc5+
I guess he missed that I could throw in this check before taking the knight. White either has to interfere with his rook or allow me to capture on e5 with check. 11. Kg3 Qh4# (which I hadn’t seen at the time) would have been amusing, at least for the spectators.
11. Kf1 Qxe5
12. Bf4 Qf5
Another key decision. Should I return my extra pawn and castle into safety or retain my material advantage, allowing a check which would displace my king.
The wrong decision, although it turned out well in the game. After 13… d6 14. Re1+ Kf8 my king is perfectly happy. I was hoping to use my threats to trap his bishop and embarrass his king but hadn’t realised my queen might be in danger.
It’s very natural to restore material equality, but neither of us noticed the possibility of 14. Ne4, threatening not just the bishop, but to trap the queen with 15. g4. So, assuming (not necessarily a safe assumption) that I spotted the Big Threat, I’d have to play 14.. d6 15. Nxc5 dxc5 16. Kf2 Qc2+ 17. Qe2 when Black may have trouble exploiting his extra pawn.
One of the symptoms of my habitual lack of aggression is a tendency to trade queens at the first opportunity. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that young children often avoid trading queens because if they lose their most powerful piece it will be harder for them to get checkmate. In my case I’m only too eager to exchange queens because I won’t be able to leave it en prise (and because if my opponent loses his most powerful piece it will be harder for him to get checkmate). Of course this is based on fear of losing rather than logic.
I thought this was good for me as I have threats of trapping his bishop as well as harassing his king, but I should have preferred 14.. Qc2, trying to win a few of White’s queen-side pawns…
…because White could instead capture with the g-pawn giving his king a safe haven on g2.
This is the losing move. White can stay in the game with 16. Nd4 Bb7 17. d6
Now Black is winning material. If White tries to save his bishop his king will be caught in the crossfire of my bishops and rooks.
17. a3 Ba6
Or 18. b4 Bxc4+ 19. Ke1 Be3 20. Bxd6 Rfe8 and the black king has nowhere to hide. The rest is easy.
19. b4 Bd4
20. Re1 Rxc7
21. b5 Bc3
22. Re2 Bxd2
23. Rxd2 Bxb5
A nice way to finish. If he takes the bishop he loses his rook on h1 to a skewer.