Chess: Adventures in the Scotch Game


As I have done nearly every year since 2002, I played in the CalChess Labor Day tournament in San Francisco this weekend. This has long been my favorite tournament: it’s well-populated by friends I’ve made over the years, and I’ve tended to have good results. (I’ve never had minus score at any of the seven Labor Day tournaments I’ve played in, despite playing up a section every time except the very first. In fact, I’ve only ever had one even score, in 2008, the first time I played in the expert section.) For the third year in a row, I played in the expert section, and if I manage to pass 2000 before next year, it should be my last: I’m excited about the possibility of playing in the master section and testing myself against the very best players in the area.

In the first round, I was paired against Theodore Biyiasas. We had played before, in May at the Memorial Day tournament, and that game ended up in a draw after I missed an unusual way to win a pawn. So, this was my second game against him.

Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo (1950) vs. Theodore Biyiasas (1889), Round 1


1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Bc5 5. Be3 Qf6 6. c3 Nge7 7. Bc4

So far, all this is completely standard: one of the main lines in the Scotch Game. The main line continues with 7…Ne5 8. Be2 Qg6 9. 0-0, and then it begins to branch. There’s a natural question here waiting to be asked: why should white play 7. Bc4 and then 8. Be2? Why not just play Be2 immediately on move 7? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that white regains the tempo later by playing f4 at some point, booting the knight from e5. Hence, no time is lost. In fact, white may even have gained some time, as black had to waste two move (Ne5 followed by the retreat to c6, assuming ey plays that) compared to one for white.

Here, my opponent deviated from the main line, but he chose a perfectly reasonable alternative.

7… 0-0 8. 0-0 Ne5 9. Be2 d5

In this variation of the Scotch, a major decision black must make is whether to play d6 or d5, and both have been tried many times. The less aggressive d6 tends to score much better results.

10. f4 N5c6

During the game, I was expecting 10…Nc4 11. Bxc4 bxc4, but it’s unclear why. After 12. Nd2, white is much better.

11. e5 Qh4 12. g3 Qh3

13. Nd2?!

My position is already a little bit tricky, and while there’s no particular reason for me to be in any trouble, I ought to have exercised a bit more caution than I thought necessary. Of course, Nd2 is a move white really wants to make here, since it allows me to develop my pieces on the best squares, but there are some tactical abnormalities on d4. I think the right way to play here is to play 13. Nc2!, attempting to trade off the bishops so that completing my development becomes easier.

13…Bxd4 14. Bxd4

I would love to play 14. cxd4 here, but unfortunately, it’s just bad. I had calculated 14. cxd4 Nf5 15. Bg4 Nxe3 16. Bxh3 Nxd1 17. Bxc8 Rfxc8 18. Raxd1 Nxd4, when black is up a clear pawn.

14…Nxd4 15. cxd4 Nf5 16. Bg4 Qh6 17. Bxf5 Bxf5

During the game, I didn’t think this position should pose any particular difficulties for me, but computer engines insist that black is better by roughly half a pawn. During the game, I felt that black had exactly one long-term threat: put the bishop on e4 and try mate me on g2, or at least provoke weaknesses forcing me to defend. I found it hard to see how such a plan could reasonably work though. On the other hand, my plan was obvious to me: try to provoke some structural weaknesses on the queenside.

18. Qb3

This move was obvious enough to me: it hits two unprotected pawns and gets my queen to an imposing square. It’s hard to complain about a move like that.

18…Qb6!

Black defends correctly. Also possible is 18…c6, after which 19. Qxb7? is met by 19…Rfb8 20. Qe7 Rxb2, and black is better. However, I think Qb6 is stronger. I didn’t want to trade queens on the grounds that his bishop gains power over my knight as more pieces, and especially queens, are traded. One other point is that 19. Qxd5? is impossible due to 19…Rad8 20. Qb3 Qxd4+ with a big advantage.

19. Qc3 Rfc8

Now that black’s pieces have congregated on the queenside, I wanted to lock up that side of the board to prevent him from getting dangerous pawn breaks. My first idea, and the most compelling one, was to play 20. b4, followed by Nb3 and Nc5. The problem is that 20. b4 is met by 20…a5! 21. a3 axb4 22. axb4 Ra6, after which I prefer black’s position. The computer suggests an improvement to this: 21…Qb5! 22. Nb3 axb4 23. axb4 Rxa1 24. Rxa1 b6, with a big edge for black. So, I was right to reject this move.

But the idea of slowing down black’s pawns on the queenside is important, and I had to figure out how to do it somehow. So, instead I played

20. Nb3

with the intention of sticking the knight on c5. But after

20…Qg6

I thought the knight really belonged on the kingside, especially h4 or g5, so I retreated with

21. Nd2.

Now, black correctly assessed that the time was right to start moving up the queenside pawns, and he did this by playing

21…b6.

Now, it was important to prevent 22…c5, so I played

22. b4 c6 23. Nf3 Be4 24. Nh4 Qg4 25. Rf2 Rc7 26. Rc1 Rac8 27. Qe3.

Black has emerged with a small edge, I think. He’d like to play c5 at some point, but it doesn’t work just yet. Still, he could keep my pieces a bit tied up preventing it. In fact, I suspect that this is what he was trying to do, but he didn’t do it in a particularly effective way 27…f6 leaves black a bit better.

27… g6?

I should have punished this mistake immediately, but I just overlooked something in my calculations. The right way to play now is 28. f5, with the point that if 28…Bxf5 29. Nxf5 gxf5 30. Rcf1 is close to winning for white. However, I was (rather stupidly) worried about abandoning the c-file because of the c5-break. This was complete silliness on my part: my play on the kingside comes much more quickly than does his on the c-file.

I thought instead that it would be prudent to do something on the queenside first and only then play f5. So, I played

28. a4?!

The problem, which I failed to notice, is that he can now chase after the b4-pawn, and it’s surprisingly difficult for me to defend it adequately. He seized his chance at once with

28…Qe6 29. f5 Qe7 30. f6.

At least, I should play 30. Qd2 c5 31. f6, so as not to give up a pawn for no particular reason.

30. Qxb4 31. Qg5?

Now, my position is just lost. He should play 31… Kh8!, after which my pawns on a4 and d4 are both hanging, and my attack is getting nowhere. Fortunately, he panicked by playing

31…Qf8 32. Nf5 Bxf5 33. Rxf5 h6 34. Qg4 Kh7 35. Rf4 c5.

Well, this is a bit better for me than it was before. 36. Qf3 is probably roughly equal. But I thought it would be a good idea to create a passed f-pawn to keep some of the black pieces tied down to prevent its promotion.

36. e6? fxe6 37. Qxe6 Qf7 38. Qh3

Here, I was looking at 38…cxd4 39. Qxc8 Rxc8 40. Rxc8 d3 41. Rd4 Qxf6 42. Rxd3 and trying to figure out what was going on. Looking at it now, I think it’s pretty clear that I would lose that since it’s hard to get my rooks properly coordinated. The Grand Rule of playing with the two rooks versus a queen is that the rooks have to be able to defend each other, and only with the most extreme care can they ever stop defending each other. So, that would be bad. After 39. Rd1, instead, I’m in quite a lot of trouble, but I have chances to hold on.

Also strong for black is 38…c4, and this is what I was expecting. It’s not clear how dangerous the c-pawn is going to be, but I’m always going to have to look after it and make sure it doesn’t move too far. The computer points out an intriguing possibility here: after 38…c4, I can try 39. Re1 Re8 40. Re5! The immediate point is that I’m threatening 41. Qxh6+!, which is mate eventually: if 41…Kxh6, then 42. Rh4 is mate, and if 41…Kg8, then 42. Rh4 mates in a few more moves. So, black probably ought to play 40…Rxe5 (40…h5 is also possible) 41. dxe5 c3 42. e6, and play just might continue with the entertaining 42…e2 43. exf7 c1Q+. This is heading rapidly toward fantasy chess territory, especially as I looked a bit deeper than I mentioned here on my own, but it’s fun to speculate.

Instead of playing into one of those swashbuckling lines, though, my opponent erred and allowed me to strengthen my attack considerably. It’s amazing how quickly the evaluation can shift in such a sharp position.

38…g5?

Suddenly, I have an extra diagonal to move along.

39. Rf2 Re8 40. Qf5+ Kg8

41. h4!

I need to open up more lines for my pieces. Sure, it’s a bit risky to open up the g-file with my king entirely open on g1, but I believed his king to be more vulnerable than mine. Plus, I had another idea in mind: the pawn on h6 and the rook on c7 are difficult to defend simultaneously.

41…gxh4 42. gxh4 Kh8 43. Qf4 Rg8+ 44. Kh1 Rg6

The computer bravely suggests 44…h5, but it’s hard to imagine a human thinking that the pawn belongs there. I believed his move to be the only reasonable option.

It may be worth pointing out that by this point, he was quite low on time. I didn’t record time remaining on my scoresheet, but I suspect he had under 5 minutes remaining at this point. I had a bit more, probably in the 10-15 minute range. And no time gets added beyond the 5-second delay (meaning that the time doesn’t start going down for the first five seconds). This is not a good position in which to be experiencing time trouble: everything must be calculated with tremendous care, or else a mating attack can sneak up alarmingly fast.

45. Rg1 Rc8 46. Re1

I missed a more convincing win here with 46. Rxg6 Qxg6 47. Rg2 Qf7 48. Qxh6+ Qh7 49. Qf4 Qf7 50. h5 with the threat of 51. Rg6.

46…Rc7 47. Re5 Kh7? 48. Qf5! c4 49. h5 Black resigns.

It was far from a perfect game, but I at least found it very exciting, even when I thought I was in some trouble. There were always lots of puzzles to work on. Something that I ought to work on is learning how to conduct attacks like the final one with more precision. Had my opponent had a bit more time, he might have put up considerably more resistance. During the game, I felt that I had it all under control, but the computer pointed out lots of variations that I completely overlooked. (It’s amazing the way computers poke so many holes in games where we thought we played well and analyzed things correctly!)

I’ll post another one of my games soon.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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