My most stressful game

This past weekend, I went to Burlington to play in the Vermont Open. I had a fairly good result, scoring 2 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss. My most interesting, and also my most stressful, game was the one from round 4, against Vermont’s top player, David Carter.

Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo (2013) vs. David Carter (2195), Vermont Open, Round 4.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4

The Winawer is one of the sharpest opening variations in all of chess. It can be a lot of fun to play, and I enjoy it from both sides.

4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qc7

This move is annoying. The main move is 6…Ne7, when the sharpest and most common line continues with 7. Qg4 Qc7. Black sacrifices some pawns on the queenside for good piece play and (perhaps) an attack.

Black’s move could be an attempt to transpose into this line after 7. Qg4 Ne7, but there are other possibilities as well. In particular, after 7. Qg4, black could play 7…f5 or 7…f6. Both of those are quite common variations, but I didn’t know the theory for them. Thus, I thought it would be wise to stay away from them against a (presumably) well-prepared opponent. So, I just continued to develop normally.

7.Nf3 b6

This is quite a common idea in many lines of the French. Black’s biggest problem in the French is eir light-squared bishop. Thus, black does well to trade it off quickly. Of course, white should try to avoid this possibility, and I did the only really sensible maneuver that does avoid it.

8.Bb5+ Bd7 9.Bd3 Ne7 10.0-0 c4 11.Be2 Nbc6 12.a4

This move looked good at the time, and in fact it probably actually is good. The d6 square looked like such a great square to plant my bishop after I get in Ba3 and Bd6. The problem is that black gets to make moves too.


And now I started panicking. I really have to take on f6, but then the g-file gets opened, and my king might be strongly attacked. I thought at this stage that I was probably completely lost, having fallen into some well-known (to my opponent) opening trap and would have to struggle to survive to move 30. Fortunately, this was a needlessly pessimistic view, and white is just fine.

13.exf6 gxf6 14.g3

Apparently this isn’t the sort of move that people usually make, for here my opponent started thinking for the first time. I wanted to play Bf4 next and try to control one useful diagonal, although clearly black will not let me. However, white has possibilities other than Bf4 in this position, and even ones which are consistent with 14. g3.

14…Ng6 15.Re1 0-0-0 16.Bf1

My idea was to follow up with Bh3, hitting the e-pawn, but later I opted for a different setup instead.

16…h5 17.h4 Rdg8

And here they come. I expected that black would just start piling his pieces up around my king, and that seemed very scary. Maybe I should be okay, as my king has many defenders in the area, but one is generally worried when there are so many angry pieces hovering around.

18.Kh1 Rf8

This move is completely incomprehensible to me. In fact, I guessed very few of my opponent’s moves in the next stage of the game. Generally, I get most of them right.


My idea had been to play 19. Bh3, but after 19…e5, black probably benefits from having the position opened up more. As a French player myself, I know that nothing makes a French player happier than seeing the central pawns move down the board. So, I wanted to discourage that.

19…Kb7 20.Ba3

I didn’t really know what to do here. It’s not easy to find an ideal setup for my pieces, and attacking the black king also doesn’t look easy. I figured I’d at least try to rearrange my pieces a bit somehow.

The difficulty in positions like this one is that white’s strengths are not immediately relevant: I have the two bishops, perhaps good scope for my pieces once a few of them get traded, and perhaps more space. On the other hand, black is very active and has what seems to be an obvious plan: pile up on the g-file and attack my king.

20…Re8 21.Qd2

One idea I was considering was to play for something like Bb4 and a5, breaking open the queenside. But if I move my bishop to b4, black will just play a5, shutting down my play on that side of the board for a while. And then it will take me a while to get my bishop back to a sensible location of the board.

21…Nge7 22.Reb1 Ka8 23.Bc1 Nf5

Now, the move I wanted to play was 24. Bf4, and I tried a while to make 24. Bf4 e5 25. dxe5 fxe5 26. Nxe5 Rxe5 27. Bxd5 work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work at all, so I gave up and looked for something else. The next move I might want to play is 24. Qe2, but that loses to 24…Qxg3!!, so I had to avoid that as well.

24.Qd1 Rhg8 25.Bf4 Nd6

That was a big surprise. I thought he would play Qd8 and transfer the queen to the kingside. My first thought was to try to exploit the pin on the knight with Qc1-a3, and I thought for a while that this was an unstoppable winning idea. Fortunately I then woke up out of fantasyland and realized that black would just play e5 after my queen got to a3, and then my queen would look really stupid on a3.

26.Qe2 Rg4

Okay, so black wants to sacrifice the exchange on f4. I didn’t know which one of us would benefit from that sacrifice, but I thought that at least I could encourage it under slightly better circumstances for me. Also worth noting was that the time control at move 40 was looking perilously far away, even though I still had half an hour or so remaining at this point.

27.Nh2 Rxf4 28.gxf4 Nf5 29.Qxh5 Qxf4 30.Bh3


Black was threatening 30…Qxf2 followed by 31…Ng3#. So, my first inclination was to defend with 30. Rf1. But then I thought I could just trade off the knight, and then black would have fewer attackers in the vicinity.

The computer, however, does not like my move and instead recommends 30.  Qh7 Qxf2 31. Ng4 Ng3+ 32. Kh2 Qf4 33. Qxd7 Ne2+ with a draw. But black could also try 30…Rd8, and maybe black is a little bit better.


This move was quite shocking for me. I thought black would play 30…Nxh4 or 30…Qxf2, since it doesn’t make so much sense to trade queens while attacking. The best line seems to be 30…Qxf2 31. Bxf5 exf5 32. Rg1 Re2 33. Nf3 Rxc2, with a small edge for black.

30…Nxh4 turns out to be less successful, as 31. Rg1 Qxf2 32. Raf1 Qxc2 33. Qxh4 Qxc3 34. Rg7 looks good for white: black’s pawns aren’t sufficiently far advanced as to be dangerous, while white’s pieces are actively placed.

My opponent, however, saw the logjam of pieces on the h-file and thought that it would cause me tactical problems once the queens were traded. I had thought about this as well and was worried about it, but I didn’t see anything concrete, so I suspected that I wasn’t in any danger.

31.Qxh4 Nxh4 32.Rg1 Rh8 33.Rg7 Bc8 34.Rag1 Nf3 35.Nxf3 Rxh3+ 36.Kg2 Rh8

Now white is winning. The question is how to convert this position most effectively. I had two ideas, based on two different principles. My first idea was to double my rooks on the 7th rank, since they can be quite dangerous there, and I might be able to arrange to tie up black’s pieces enough that I can get my knight in and win a few pawns.

My other idea was to trade a set of rooks off. The principle behind this idea is that it is beneficial to get rid of redundant pieces when there is a material imbalance. The point is that my two rooks serve the same purpose as each other, so the second rook might be slightly less valuable to me than to my opponent.

With these two principles at odds, I had to choose which one to follow. I decided to follow the first one for now and try to double on the 7th, but I was prepared to change that at a moment’s notice.

37.Kf1 e5

And I meant a moment’s notice. With this change in the pawn structure, black can no longer defend the f6 pawn. So, it’s time to trade rooks and attack some pawns.

38.Rg8 Rxg8 39.Rxg8 Kb8 40.Rf8 e4

And we made time control, although it wasn’t a serious issue in the end; the last several moves were fairly quick.

I looked at 41. Rxf6 exf3 42. Rxc6 Bd7 43. Rf6 Bxa4 44. Rxf3 for a while. I think it should be a fairly straightforward win, as I can get my king over to the queenside in time to stop the a-pawn from causing trouble, while I have my own passed f-pawn. But why bother getting fancy and risking it?

41.Nh4 f5 42.Nxf5 Kc7 43.Rf7+ Bd7 44.Ne3 Kd6


And now I had a long think, trying to work out whether the knight and pawn endgame was winning. If it is, that’s definitely the way to play. But if not, it would be very sad to sacrifice the exchange back and only get a draw. I concluded that it was indeed winning, although I missed some ideas.

In fact, I now think that black can draw the knight endgame. But we’ll get to that shortly.

45.Rxd7+? Kxd7 46.Nxd5 Ke6

Forced, or else 47. Nf6 picks up the e-pawn.

47.Ne3 Na5?

I thought this move was required in order to hold onto the c-pawn, but 47…Ne7! is much better. I guess we both missed this possibility. In fact, I cannot see how to win after 47…Ne7. One possible line is 48. Ke1 Nd5 49. Kd2 Nxe3! 50. Kxd3 Kd5 51. Ke2 a5!!. This last move prevents the black king from getting through on the queenside, and the kingside is too far away: if the white king tries to get through on the kingside, black will play b5! and promote the a-pawn and win.

So, instead white might try to play 51. a5, with the idea of breaking up black’s queenside pawns and then collecting them with the king. The problem is that the black king can chase the white f-pawn and promote the e-pawn. For example, play might continue 51…bxa5 52. Kd2 Ke6 53. Kc1 Kf5 54. Kb2 Kf4 55. Ka3 Kf3 56. d5 Kxf2 57. d6 e3 58. d7 e2 59. d8Q e1Q, and the queen endgame is surely drawn.

Alternatively, I can take the c-pawn immediately with 48. Nxc4, but black just plays 48…Nd5 and 49…Nxc3, and it’s hard to see why white should expect to win that.

48.Kg2 Kf6 49.Kg3

Gaining a tempo.

49…Kg5 50.f3 exf3 51.Kxf3 Kf6 52.Ke4 Ke6 53.d5+ Kd6 54.Kd4 a6 55.Nxc4+?!

This move wins, but 55. Nf5+! wins much more easily. Play can continue 55…Kd7 56. Ng3 Kd6 57. Ne4+ Ke7 58. Ke5 Nb7 59. d6+ Kd7 60. Kd5 a5 61. 62. Nf6+ Kd8 62. Kc6 Nc5 63. Kb5 Nb7 64. Ne4, eventually winning all the pawns.

55…Nxc4 56.Kxc4 b5+?

The most testing line, by far, is 56…Ke5!. Then I have to find 57. d6! Kxd6 58. Kd4 Kc6 59. c4 Kd6 60. c5! bxc5 61. Ke4! Kc6 62. c4! Kd6 63. Kf5 Kc6 64. a5 Kd6 65. Kf6, and I’ll eventually win both of the black pawns. But after 56…b5+, it’s trivial.

57.axb5 axb5+ 58.Kxb5 Kxd5 59.c4+ Kd6 60.Kb6 1-0

It wasn’t a perfect game, and trading down from a winning late middlegame/early endgame to what now appears to be a completely drawn knight and pawn endgame was inexcusable, especially after spending 15 on that move. But I’m mostly pleased with my play. However, I’m probably going to dump the 7. Nf3 line against 6…Qc7, because it just seems too easy to find ideas for black and too hard to find them for white. Also, I’ll probably get a heartattack if I keep trying to play games like this. (Well, either that or I’ll get used to them and they’ll stop causing me such anxiety.) I was a wreck until at least half an hour after the game had finished. That couldn’t have helped me much in the next round, where I lost against a master without much of a fight.


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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One Response to My most stressful game

  1. Even without fully understanding this game, I can see that it was a good fight and a pretty intense game. I was stressed just reading about it!

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