A Planning Challenge

With my usual arrogance, I was offering Charlie some notes on a game, and he remarked afterwards:

"The move I sweated over for so long, you passed over without comment, as though it was the most natural move in the game!"

What would you have played?  Make your mind up (that is, write it down) before reading on!

White to move


C. Keen
G. Ward

Exeter vs. Met. Office
2008

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d3 g6 5. Be2 Bg7 6. O-O O-O 7. Bg5 Re8 8. Re1 Qb6 9. Qc2 Nc6 10. Nbd2 Be6 11. h3 Rac8 12. Rad1 a5 13. Be3 Nd7 14. Ng5 Nf8 15. Nxe6 Nxe6 16. Nc4 Qc7 17. a4 b6 18. Bg4 Ncd8 19. Na3 h6 20. Nb5 Qd7 21. Be2 Rf8

--rnr-k-
---qppb-
-p-pn-pp
pNp-----
P---P---
--PPB--P
-PQ-BPP-
---RR-K-
b - - 0 21

(White to move) ... 1-0 (42)

1-0 OK, so, how do you go about making a decision like this?  We haven't followed Charlie's thought processes move by move, so we need to warm up a little, get ourselves into the game... A quick once-over the available tactical ideas tells us that the position cannot be 'solved' by a combination, so we have to see what is our proper strategy here.

Jeremy Silman talks about a pawn-pointing rule, saying you should look to expand or attack on the side where your pawns are pointing.  I don't think pawns always point quite so obviously as this suggests, nor is it a rule that cannot be broken, but if you are stuck it will give you a shove in the right direction.

Charlie's game, for example, seems a very good example of the pawn-pointing rule.  White's pawn chain c3-d3-e4 points forward towards the King's-side, and Black's e7-d6-d5 chain points to the Queen's-side.  This is quite clear and also rather cheering, for it seems that Black's earlier manoeuvring on the Queen's-side has resulted only in a weak square on b5, which is occupied by the piece which benefits most from such outposts, the Knight.  So,

So, to play on the King's-side... White can try to attack mainly with pieces with moves like Qd2 or moving both Bishops (er, somewhere) and playing Re1-e3-g3 and maybe (groan) Na3-b1-d2-f1-h2-g4... I can't see that going anywhere at all, certainly not at that speed.  Imagine putting those pieces there now, what threats would White have, even if Black did nothing for 10 moves? However, there is a familiar plan here of playing f2-f4-f5 and opening a King's-side file, where Black has less space.  So, f4 seems a very natural, even an obvious choice.

The trouble with the march of the f-pawn is that White's pieces don't fit in with that right now.  I would rather prefer the Re1 to be on f1, and the Be2 to be on d3, and the Nb5 to be on g3, to lend their weight to a discussion of the f-file.  So, pointing pawns notwithstanding, I wouldn't be pushing the f-pawn to f5. 

Let's see if we can go through this from scratch.  First, make a quick comparison of the two positions: compare pairs of pieces, see which one is better.  Then have a go at the pawn structures, what are they telling us?

Both Kings are castled and secure.  The positions of the Queens seem equivalent, centralised and poised but not yet active.  White's Rooks are on good squares but on closed files; so that's our first hint, White's Rooks will need an open or half-open file to work on before long.  Black's Rooks on the 'bishop' files are not badly placed but I don't know what Black is planning to do in order to open a file (the c-pawn cannot be moved and perhaps the f-pawn should not be).  And the minor pieces: White's good Knight and Black's good Bishop are very much more active than the rest, which look rather tame at the moment.  If the position opens up, White's Bishop pair will enjoy life much better. 

If we want to (half-)open a file, where can White look?  Black's advanced a- and c-pawns allow White to lever open either the b-file or the d-file by advancing and exchanging the pawn on those files; Black, faced with b2-b4 or d3-d4 may choose to (half-)open the a-file or the c-file by exchanging his pawns on those files instead.  All Queen's-side files, I note.  Now, at the moment, most of Black's pieces look well-placed to take advantage of open lines on the Queen's-side: they're either on that side or pointing that way.  Nonetheless, I can imagine someone pointing to the weakness of b5 and that handsome knight, and declare, White should be attacking on the Queen's-side.  There are prospects there, I expect, but I can't see it happening very quickly.  I'd want to get the Be2 into the weak light squares, maybe the Queen... I have a feeling that by the time I'd arranged all my pieces for attack (Rb1 Bf3 Qc2-c4 maybe) Black would have re-arranged their pieces for defence (...Nc7 threatening to exchange on d4 is one immediate idea).  Hmm, Na3-c4 and b2-b4 might make the backward b6-pawn feel sorry for itself... OK, let's not forget all those ideas, but nothing there is compelling.

Well, if neither side is quite appealing, White can turn to the centre.  The 'crouching' white central pawns do suggest a central expansion with d3-d4.  That immediately gives a sniff of the wild to three of the currently tame White pieces, namely, the Rooks and the Be2, all of whom suddenly have new prospects.  An argument against d4, of course, is that Black has sensibly parked a Rook on the same file as the White Queen, so that after d3-d4, ...c5xd4, the white c-pawn is pinned against the Queen... Currently, White still has three other units covering d4, so d3-d4 doesn't lose anything, but it would be nice to threaten to take over the centre by d3-d4 and be able to recapture c3xd4 with two pawns abreast.  Having had this idea, I can see that I can get the white Queen off the c-file with gain of tempo:Qd2 forces some sort of response from Black, like Kh7, when most of our earlier options are still available.  After which, I think taking space in the centre with d4 seems very logical.  I also think that is White's best short-term goal; long-term, it is hard to tell what a general space advantage can lead to, but this push seems to put pressure on Black's game and gives a definite (modest) advantage to White.  Medium-term... well, I can imagine playing d4-d5 (again with tempo) squashing Black even more; I can imagine playing e4-e5, opening lines in the centre... Just at the moment, White doesn't have enough covering e5 to make that much of a threat, but Bf4 or f2-f4 would definitely make it a contender.

Charlie's actual move was f4.  So far, I've listed two separate if not overwhelming reasons for this move: to open a file with f4-f5, and to support a pawn advance after d3-d4 and e4-e5.  Having thought of playing it, I can see another virtue in the move: parking that fidgety light-squared Bishop on f3, waiting for the liberating e4-e5.  This is the Bishop without an opposite number on the Black side, it's the Bishop which make use of the weakened light squares on Black's Queen's-side... so it should be doing more in life than getting in the way of the Rooks!

Overall, then, 22.f2-f4 was probably worth more comment than I gave it, but it was plausible, unobjectionable and had more than one point... And there were more important things to mention!  If you fancy a go yourselves, what would you comment on this whole game?  I'll show you what I sent Charlie in a week or two.

22.f4 Nc7 23.d4 cxd4 24.Nxd4 Nde6 25.e5 Nd5 26.Qe4 Nxe3 27.Qxe3 Qxa4 28.Bb5 Qa2 29.exd6 exd6 30.Nxe6 fxe6 31.Bd7 Qxb2 32.Qxe6+ Kh8 33.Bxc8 Qxc3 34.Bb7 Qc5+ 35.Kh1 Rxf4 36.Rc1 Qb5 37.Qxg6 Rf6 38.Re8+ Rf8 39.Rxf8+ Bxf8 40.Be4 Qd7 41.Rc8 Qxc8 42.Qh7# 1-0

[C] Charlie's notes. My notes on Charlie's game

Just to complete the story; were they anything like yours?

Complete game without notes for you to annotate:

Complete game with notes for you to compare:

Comment from Ish

I agree that white should be playing Qd2 with tempo, followed by d4. However, I feel your thought processes appear to be the wrong way round.

The centre should, by default, be the area you play in. If there's play to be had in the centre, play there before getting excited with a KS or QS attack. If the centre is locked, or if there's some other overwheling reason to play somewhere else, do it! But in lieu of any other striking features, go for the centre!

Also noteworthy is that after 22. f4, black has 22...Nd4! with an unclear position that solves at least some of his problems. White can take the piece with 23. cxd4, but after cxd4, must move his queen, so 24. Qd2 dxe3 25. Qxe3 Nc6 looks a bit better for white, but black has less to squash into his cramped position, and no longer has to contend with the bishop pair.

Or taking with bishop: 23. Bxd4 cxd4 24. Qd2 (to get off the c-file) Nc6 looks about equal, if a bit cramped.

Or with the knight (which just seems too good a piece to give up to me) 23. Nxd4 cxd4 24. Bd2 cxd3 25. bxc3 Ne6! Covering the g4-c8 diagonal and threatening Nc5 or Nd4.

White can also take the perpetual with 23. Qd2 Nb3 24. Nd4 etc (draw), or can try 24. Bg4!? f5!? with a crazy, wild position! (Who'd have thought from the initial position!?)I personally like this for black. What do you think?

Ish again

Excellent analysis there, Dave!

I must say, I didn't think of 7. Bg5 as a mistake, it's a fine place for the bishop... but I agree it might not want to go there. Maybe e3 was the place for it. So 7. h3 comes to mind.

I thought Re1 was slightly inaccurate, as the rook may prefer f1, as in the problem position below, if you're going with f4.

On move 9, you can consider gambiting the pawn on b2 with 9. Nbd2!? Qxb2 10. Nc5 Qb5 (only move) 11. d4, with good central control and development for the pawn. 9. Qc2 was also good, though.

Other than that, I think Dave's covered it all. Good stuff.

Also see my notes below on 22. f4?!

I loved 18. Bg4! The finish was very good from Charlie after he took that knight on e6.

Chess Quotes

On advanced ideas:
"After giving a student the basic mating patterns and strategies you must begin giving them advanced concepts. At first these ideas will not make sense, many players will have a vague idea of what you are talking about but nothing more. Even a fragmented understanding of these concepts will prove useful though, and eventually they will improve as these lessons are assimilated by repetition and example."
— Jeremy SILMAN, The Amateur's Mind, 1995

 cf.:

"We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. ... (The "spiral curriculum") ... Is it not possible ... to introduce them to some of the major ... ideas earlier, in a spirit perhaps less exact and more intuitive?"