Last week I quoted with approval the dictum attributed to Amos Burn: “He Who Combinates is Lost”. Well, sometimes, but not always. Sometimes he who is too scared to combinate is lost. Sometimes he who is too scared to accept his opponent’s unsound sacrifices is lost.
Regular readers will have seen the end of this game a couple of months ago. We got there via some fascinating tactical complications.
The game was played in January last year. I had the white pieces in yet another Richmond v Surbiton encounter.
The opening was a King’s Indian Attack. I’d stationed my minor pieces on the king side and advanced my h-pawn to create a weakness while my opponent pushed his pawns on the other side of the board.
Noticing that my bishop on f4 was in line with his rook, I took the opportunity to put my knight on f6, so play continued 20. Nf6+ Bxf6 21. exf6 Qxf6. Black understandably didn’t fancy moving his rook and leaving the pawn on f6. It’s now decision time.
I’m a pawn down but can capture the rook on b8. Alternatively, I can play it as a sacrifice and go 22. Bg5, driving the black queen into the corner. I saw a possible further sacrifice and spent some time considering 22. Bg5 Qh8 23. Rxe6 fxe6 24. Bxe6+ Rf7 without coming to any conclusion as to whether or not it was sound. Meanwhile my clock was ticking away (we had 75 minutes each for the game) and I was getting behind on time.
As it happens, White has several ways to win from that position. The strongest plan involves getting the queen into play with Qd2/Qc1. The moves are easy enough to find if you’re a computer but not so easy for a human with limited tactical ability and a ticking clock. If I didn’t trust the exchange sacrifice, 23. Ne5 was also winning, and indeed any reasonable move was good.
In my heart of hearts I knew that 22. Bg5 had to be correct, and any reasonably experienced player, I’m sure, would reach the same conclusion. Better to be a pawn down with the black queen in the naughty corner than the exchange for a pawn up with no attack and Black’s queen side advancing. But the words of Omar Khayyam were resonating inside my head: “Ah, take the cash and let the promise go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum”. As someone who always makes cautious decisions I couldn’t bring myself to play a position a pawn down rather than taking the insurance of an extra exchange. I eventually decided to capture the rook. Now the computer tells me Black has adequate compensation for the exchange.
We continued: 22. Bxb8 Rxb8 23. c3, with a discovered attack on the knight which Black ignored: 23… bxc3 (Bb5 gave equal chances). I now noticed 24. bxc3 Rxb1 25. Qxb1 Qxf3 so rejected the recapture and focused on taking the knight. Being a natural pessimist I tend to assume that any sacrifice I might consider will be unsound while any sacrifice my opponent makes will be sound. I started seeing lines where Black was promoting a pawn and panicked. Something I often do in my games is to reject a move, forget why I rejected it and play it anyway, and this is what happened here. I forgot what I’d analysed a couple of minutes previously and recaptured on c3. But I was fearing ghosts. There was no reason at all not to play Qxa4. Black has several tries but they’re all very easy to meet as long as you keep your head.
Anyway, 24. bxc3 Rxb1 25. Qxb1 Qxf3 was played, with Black now having two knights and a pawn to my rook. I saw a way to muddy the waters, though, and played 26. Bxe6 with the idea of 26… fxe6 27. Rxe6 when I hoped I’d win either the knight on c6 or the bishop on a6. Now it’s Black’s turn to make a critical decision. The right choice is to play 26… fxe6 27. Rxe6 Qf5 (Nxc3 is met by 28. Qb6) 28. Qxf5 gxf5 29. Rxc6 Bb5 followed by Nxc3 when Black’s c-pawn will give him a winning advantage. But it’s not so easy to find this over the board and this time he assumed I knew what I was doing and preferred 26… Nxc3, hitting my queen.
Now I had the chance for a spectacular winning move. I saw the idea but didn’t get the execution right. The winning move is Bg4, keeping the vital e2 square under control. But instead I played 27. Bxd5 Ne2+ 28. Rxe2 Qxe2 29. Bxc6 Qe7 30. Qb8+. It was more accurate to play the immediate 30. Qb6, but to do that I had to see the variation. 30… c3 31. Qxa6 c2 32. Qc8+ Qf8 33. Be8 c1Q 34. Qxc1 Qxe8 when White should win the queen ending.
After 30… Qf8 31. Qb6 Black can play Bc8 when White has some advantage, but, for the second time in the game, he called my bluff, playing 31… c3 and daring me to capture on a6. Again, with not too much time left for the rest of the game, I panicked, believing that he’d seem some way of promoting the c-pawn. Just like on move 24, though, there was no reason at all not to take the bishop: White has several ways of stopping Black getting another queen. Instead I spotted the sequence 32. Be4 Bc4 33. Qxa5 Qxh6 34. Qxc3 Bxa2 when material is level but I hoped to make something of my passed d-pawn.
The game progressed with 35. d5 Qf8 36. Qc6 Qb4, abandoning the back rank and giving me my last chance. 36… Qb8 might have held on but now I have a win after 37. Bd5, although I have to find accurate sequences after both Qe1+ (the resulting pawn ending might be the subject of a future blog post) and Kf8. Instead, with very little time left, I played the ‘safe’ 37. Kg2. Now the position should be drawn: you can read about the tragicomic conclusion here.
John Donne wrote about his ‘sinne of feare’. In this game I was too scared to play a strong sacrifice, spending too much time thinking about it, and too scared to accept my opponent’s unsound sacrifices. Although you might think I was unlucky at the end I deserved to lose.