The only competitive chess I’ve played for many years has been in my local league, the Thames Valley League. As I write this we’re half way though the summer break so it’s a good time to look back to last season’s games and consider how I might do better next time round.
My first game last season was a quick (in more ways than one) win against a talented junior which I’ll probably come back to later. My next match was against Kingston, a small club with a fairly strong first team but not much in the way of reserve strength. As several of their regular players were unavailable I found myself playing an opponent graded more than 50 points (about 400 Elo points) below me. Now I’m normally fairly consistent: I tend to beat lower graded players, lose to higher graded players and draw with players about my own strength, so, with the advantage of the white pieces, I was expecting a fairly comfortable victory.
Here’s what happened.
1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 d5
If he’s playing this move he doesn’t know a lot about openings.
3. cxd5 Nxd5
4. Nf3 Nc6
5. e4 Nb6
6. d5 Nb8
7. Nc3 e6
He’s hitting my centre pawn. What to do? At this point I started having visions of my opponent playing Bb4 sometime soon giving me problems holding d5 so I panicked and looked for a way to stop this idea. Bf4, Be2 and Qd4 have all been played here and the engines rather like a4, but I decided I should trade off the dark squared bishops and get his queen off the d-file.
In fact I have tactical resources, for instance 8. Bf4 exd5 9. exd5 Bb4 10. Qe2+ or 8. Be2 exd5 9. exd5 Bb4 10. Qd4, but these weren’t immediately obvious to me so, after some thought, I played…
8. Bg5 Be7
9. Bxe7 Qxe7
10. Be2 O-O
I was happy with my lead in development, space advantage and extra centre pawn but the engines are not so impressed, considering the position about equal.
The engines tell me Black should trade on d5 here, and that I should, either now or next move, play dxe6, meeting Qxe6 with Nb5. Not something I considered at all, of course.
12. a4 a5
13. Rc1 c6
Again he should have traded on d5, but instead he gives me the chance to play d6. Well, it’s the obvious move but again I started panicking about the pawn eventually being surrounded by the black pieces so decided on what I thought was a safer alternative.
14. dxc6 bxc6
I was still fairly happy here. Black has an isolated pawn which I can target, and if it moves to c5 I’ll have a tasty outpost on b5. I would also have argued that the black bishop is rather bad. The engines are still not impressed, though.
15. Nd4 Bb7
16. f4 Nf6
Why not gain some space to go with my other advantages? I expected Nd5 here, but the engines prefer the unobvious (at this level) tactical shot Rfd8. Instead the knight went back where it came from, so I appeared to have gained a couple of tempi.
Hitting the weak pawn on c6 again.
Now I have to make a decision.
At the time I was pleased with myself for having found this move. I was trading advantages: giving up a bishop for a knight and straightening his pawns, assuming he’d take back with the c-pawn, but in exchange I’d get an outpost on b5, play on the c-file and, potentially, a good knight against a bad bishop. I didn’t seriously consider what would happen if he took with the e-pawn. In fact taking with the e-pawn is fine for Black and Bxd5 was a pretty poor decision. Nxd5 was OK and perhaps very slightly better for White, as was Qd2.
Never mind: I can still get my knight to d6. This must be good for me.
20. Nf5 Qe6
21. Nd6 Ba6
It hadn’t occurred to me that he now had this square for his bishop, but never mind. My rook will be happy looking at the black queen.
22. Re1 f6
It was only now that I realised I had a problem. I can’t defend e5 again and my knight on d6 has nowhere to go. It now seemed to me that, far from playing safe, I’d overreached and was now in trouble.
23. f5 Qe7
I couldn’t see any alternative to the speculative sacrifice on d5, but in fact there’s a tactical solution: 24. Ncb5 cxb5 25. Qxd5+ Kh8 26. axb5, when I’m regaining the piece as the bishop is trapped (Bc8 leaves the rook on a8 hanging). I’m not a good enough tactician to see that sort of thing, so I had to make do with…
24. Nxd5 cxd5
25. Qxd5+ Kh8
This looked fairly unclear to me: perhaps my opponent would find the defence too difficult. But now we’re in exactly the sort of swamp where heffalumps are as likely as rabbits to drown.
My computer tells me I should have played 26. Rc7, which is an immediate draw by repetition after 26… fxe5 27. Qc6 and now either 27… Rfd8 28. Qd5 Rf8 or 27… Nb8 28. Qc5 Nd7. But I was starting to run low on time and it seemed natural to trade off my e-pawn rather than leaving it en prise.
26… Nxf6, trading queens, was a probable improvement.
27. Rc7 Rad8
After thinking for a bit I suddenly noticed I had a fork and jumped at the opportunity. But, unlike in the line after White’s 26th move, it’s just a losing blunder. I’d simply missed that he could defend with Nb8, meeting both my threats and creating two threats of his own.
It’s not obvious at my level and with the clock ticking, but 28. Rc6 Nb8 29. Re6 is the computer recommendation, apparently with equality. The tactical point is that the immediate 28. Rc6 would allow Qxb2, but now 29… Qxb2 would lose to Nf7+.
29. Kh1 Qd2
He should have played Nb8 at this point, which just wins at once. Now I have some sort of defence.
30. Rg1 Nb8
31. Ne4 Qe2
And here he should trade queens, which is still winning comfortably.
32. Qc3 Rd7
I had two better choices here: f6, which I think I considered but rejected, and Qc5.
34. Nd6 Nf6
34… Qd3 was correct here. Now I could and should grab the a-pawn: my only hope is to run Black out of pawns.
35. h3 Qf2
Again, I should have captured on a5, which, according to my computer, is only slightly better for Black. By now neither of us had enough time left so I’ll let the rest of the moves pass without comment.
37. Qc6 Qf4
38. Rc2 Bd3
39. Rc1 Bxf5
40. Nxe4 Bxe4
40. Nxf5 Qxf5
41. Rc5 Qf1+
42. Kh2 Qf4+
At this point I stopped recording as I was down to my last couple of minutes. My opponent eventually mated me with king and rook against king just before his flag fell.
So what went wrong? The mistakes at the end were understandable: the position was complicated and I didn’t have enough time left. The main problem was the blunder on move 28, and before that the positional misjudgement on move 19. I could have played the early part of the game much better, but on several occasions I didn’t play the move I knew I should have played because I was fearing ghosts: something that happens over and over again in my games. Perhaps I was unlucky because the run of play went against me. This sometimes happens, but my opponent played well after the opening and took enough of his chances to score a well deserved win.