This past weekend, I played another tournament, the Berkeley Open. It was only four rounds, but I hadn’t played a tournament since February and was anxious to play again. I can’t complain much about my results or my play: I ended up with one win, one loss, and two draws, against three masters and an A player. (It helped that I had white against all the masters.) My game from round four, against NM Keith Vickers, was the game I found to be most interesting. It didn’t have any dramatic tactics, but I found it to be exciting from a positional perspective.
Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo (2036) vs. NM Keith Vickers (2200), Round 4
1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nc3 Qd6
This is a fairly rare line, but it’s not completely unknown.
4. d4 Nf6 5. Nf3 Bg4 6. Be2 c6 7. 0-0 Nbd7 8. h3
My game in round 3 had been rather technical, with me trying (and ultimately failing) to win a difficult pawn-up endgame. So, I was hoping to play a more dynamic game this round. So, after 8…Bf5, 9. Nh4 Be6 10. f4 would have been a tempting way to unbalance the position. As I have learned from occasional unfortunate experiences, though, playing f4 after h3 has its drawbacks: black knights love to jump into g3 just when white is least expecting it! Of course, black could also play 8…Bxf3, although I’d be happy to play this position with the bishop pair.
8…Bh5 9. a4
This move comes with several points. One point is that it’s unclear to me how I wish to develop my pieces at the moment. I could play 9. Be3, but then the bishop would temporarily have limited scope. That would be okay if black were to play g6, as I could respond with Qd2, Rad1, and an eventual Bh6. However, at the moment, g6?? loses a piece to g4, and it makes little sense to prepare for a move that loses for completely different reasons. So, I wanted to take a more flexible approach. After 9. a4, black will be hesitant to castle on the queenside, as white can muster up a quick attack there by storming the queenside pawns (or at least the a-pawn). And, even if black has no desire to castle there, white can gain a lot of space to maneuver if black does not counter quickly. So, black played the very logical
9…a5 10. b3
Another point of 9. a4 is that it allows me to develop a piece to a3. The question then is, which piece should I develop there? 10. Ra3 is also an option worthy of serious consideration, as the plan of Rb3 forces black to figure out what to do about the b7 pawn. Maybe play Rb8? Or b6? Or Qc7? I don’t know what the most sensible plan is. Ultimately, however, I decided to develop my bishop to a3 instead.
10…e6 11. Ba3 Qc7 12. Bxf8 Nxf8
I was surprised by this move: I strongly expected that he would recapture with the rook. One possible crazy line that could follow after 12…Rxf8 would then be 13. Qd3 Bg6 14. Qe3 Bxc2 15. Rac1 Bxb3 16. Nb5 Qb6 17. Nd6+ Ke7 18. Rb1 Kxd6 19. Rxb3 Nd5 20. Qd3 Nf4 21. Qe3 Nxe2+ 22. Kh1 Qa6 23. Re1 Kc7 24. Rxe2, with something resembling dynamic equality. The reason I expected the rook recapture was that I thought he might find the knight jumping to e5 to be awkward to deal with.
13. Ne5 Bxe2 14. Qxe2 Ng6 15. f4
I thought for a while before making this move. In its favor, it supports the knight on e5, stops 15…Nf4, and threatens 16. f5, which should be nearly winning for white. But on the con side, it opens up the long diagonal for the black queen and leaves a big hole on g3. After some consideration, I failed to see any reason I should be afraid of 15. f4 Qb6 16. Rad1 Rad8 17. Qc4. However, I didn’t notice that black isn’t actually threatening Rxd4 after move 16. In particular, 17. f5! more or less wins: 17…Rxd4?? loses to 18. Qe3 (the move I missed), and after 17…Nxe5 18. Qxe5 0-0 19. fxe6 fxe6, black’s position has been severely compromised. (But I may wish to postpone capturing on e6 for the time being.)
I spent a while trying to make 16. Nxf7 or 16. f5 work, but there isn’t any way to make them do anything helpful for me.
This move isn’t a disaster, but I could do better. The issue is that after 16…Nf5, black is hitting g3 and d4, forcing me to come up with a slightly awkward defense, such as 17.Rfd1. I should still be equal after this, but no more. However, my opponent missed this opportunity.
16…Nxe4 17. Qxe4 0-0 18. Rad1 Rad8 19. Rd3
At this point, my attacking prospects appear to be quite strong: the knight on e5 is preventing the black queen from taking an active role in the game, and the black kingside is lacking in defenders. I had to figure out whether it was more prudent to attack with pieces or with pawns. In this case, I was hesitant to start a pawn storm, as my king would also become very exposed. In particular, I could be in trouble if I ever need to play f5, as opening the e-file for a black rook could be devastating. So, I preferred a piece attack, with the idea of putting a rook on the g-file. However, pieces sometimes trip over each other, so I had to be careful to avoid tangled piece configurations.
So much for getting my rook to g3.
20. c4 Rd6?!
Black wants to double rooks on the d-file, but I think that this wasn’t quite the right way of going about it. I didn’t play 20. g4 on the previous move because I didn’t want to encourage the knight to move to d6, displacing my queen. The right move for black to play was probably 20…f6. After 21. Ng4 Qd6 22. Rfd1 Rfe8, I think the position is roughly equal: white has more space, but I can’t see what to do with it, as black has no serious weaknesses.
I spent a bunch of time on this move, as I was somewhat worried about opening up my kingside more. But, if I’m ever going to make any progress, I have to attack somehow, and a kingside pawn march is my only reasonable idea to do so at the moment. The trick is to figure out how to open the kingside without opening the center or allow black to get rid of his f-pawn. Against good defense, I don’t think I should be able to make much progress, but it’s a bit easier to play white.
21…Ne7 22. Rfd1 f6 23. c5
The only options are 23. c5 and 23. Nf3. This move is sharper: it gives me a nice spot for my knight on d6, but it also allows black a strong square on d5 for a rook or knight. One idea I considered was that if black chooses to put a rook on d5, then after Nd6, the rook is stuck. However, there are some drawbacks to this plan for me: For one thing, I have no way of attacking the immobilized rook. That may not be such a serious concern, as immobilizing a piece can be nearly as good as capturing it. But more serious is that black can undermine the knight’s support by playing b6 at a convenient moment, and then I have to figure out how to retain my outpost. Of course, black can also just try to exchange the knight with Nc8. Still, I thought the possibility looked appealing, and it certainly did more to unbalance the position than the simple retreat with 23. Nf3 would have done.
23…Rdd8 24. Nc4 Nd5 25. Rf3
Taking on e6 doesn’t help, as my pawn on f4 is hanging; if anything, black is a bit better after 25. Qxe6+ because of the rather menacing black pieces. For example, after 25. Qxe6+ Kh8 26. Rf3 Rfe8 27. Qf5 g6 28. Qc2 Nxf4, black is probably a bit better.
25…Rde8 26. Nd6 Re7 27. Rdf1 b6 28. g5 bxc5 29. dxc5 Qa7 30. Rc1 e5?!
And with that, we made the time control; he had 18 seconds left after making this move. But, saying that is somewhat misleading: he had six or seven minutes and used essentially all of it, since there isn’t much of a consequence to doing so when extra time is about to be added.
I was excited when I saw this move, as it opens up a new diagonal that I could potentially use for my attack. So, playing Qc4 at some point could be tempting. However, lacking any concrete plan, I found nothing better than repeating moves.
31. Nf5 Ree8 32. Nd6 Re7 33. Nf5 1/2-1/2
I wondered if he might try to play on by moving the rook to the b-file and playing for Rb4. I suspected that I would have slightly better chances in that line, but it’s tough for me to evaluate. The computer suggests that I may have a slight pull after 33. gxf6 gxf6 34. Nf5 Ree8 35. fxe5 Rxe5 36. Qg4+, but it’s not a lot.
By this point, my brain was feeling rather overloaded from the mess, so I was happy to call it a day. On top of that, I suspected that I would be able to catch the 8:xx Caltrain at Millbrae if I left very soon, and getting home to sleep seemed like a nice thing to do after a taxing weekend. And, at my current level of play, I have little grounds for complaint when I draw with a master. (Well, except for this game, about which I have some legitimate complaints!)
With this tournament, I made some progress in my current goal of making master: I gained 11 points, to go from 2036 to 2047. 153 to go!