This year I played the Remembrance Day Open in Halifax, NS. It was a fun tournament, albeit humbling.
My round 1 opponent was rated just under 1400 CFC. My rating is currently 1473, but it’s provisional and, I suspect, a bit too high (and will likely decrease after this tournament). So I was ready for a good game, but figured I could do reasonably well.
I played as black, and we started with the Classical Variation of the Pirc Defence:
The Pirc Defence is the first opening that I learned for the black pieces, and so I know it quite well. However, most recently I’ve been studying sharper variations of it that I tend to run into, like the 150 Attack and the Byrne Variation. I hadn’t been playing or studying the Classical Variation much recently, and so I got my ideas mixed up.
In this position, the move I probably should have played was Bg5. This will allow me to trade off the knight, and then play Nc6 to attack the weakened central dark squares and prepare an …e5 push. But instead, I played Nbd7 to prepare an immediate …e5. Unfortunately, in this variation, white can push e5 themselves and it becomes a very uncomfortable position for black. And that’s exactly what my opponent did.
The problem is that my knight is in trouble, and it doesn’t have a lot of good squares to go to. White’s dark-squared central pawns also have good support from the knight on c3 (since I didn’t trade it off for my bishop). In this position in the lichess database, white wins 69% of the time. Stockfish gives this position +0.9. Definitely an indicator that I did not “win” the opening.
Here’s a better variation:
In this position, white can still push e5, but it isn’t as strong. I can either recapture or move my knight to d7. Either way, I’m perfectly fine.
Anyway, at this point I didn’t have a lot of options for my knight. I didn’t like Nh5 because the queen and bishop were lined up against that square and could cause me problems later. So I decided to rotate to h6 instead, with the idea of ending up on f5 at some point.
Apparently, taking the pawn was a blunder, according to the computer. I was considering …Nf5 at this point to get my knight back in the game, but I was concerned about g4 coming and further chasing me around. It wouldn’t have been great for white’s king safety, but I didn’t want to lose material.
As it turns out, …Nf5 was the only good move here, as there was a tactic that I missed:
That was a tricky one and it’s no big surprise that I missed it. But this is the sort of thing that I need to learn to see during a game. I think I’m ok at calculating lines of captures, but when there’s a somewhat obscure tactic involve I miss it. In this case, I needed to see that after …Nf5, the knight is attacking the pawn on d4. Instead of dismissing it because the pawn is well guarded, I needed to notice that if I capture on d4 and he recaptures, then there is a tactical motif: the pawn pin between the bishop on f4 and the queen (or knight) on d4. Even from there, it’s not simple, as there is Nxe4. It’s hard to imagine me finding that and calculating it correctly during the game.
So instead, I took the pawn.
My thought was that the white pawn on e5 is a potential weakness that I could exploit, since it will be hard to protect it with another pawn. I already have two attackers on it, so if I could remove a defender (maybe with b6, Bc7 and capturing the knight on f3), then I could win the pawn.
Unfortunately, this is too slow, and there’s another problem. The h4-d8 diagonal is open now, and my queen doesn’t have a lot of options. The next move is where I made quite a serious mistake.
Of course I couldn’t capture the bishop because of the knight. The only real options I was considering were blocking the bishop with the knight or pawn, or moving my queen to e8. Blocking with the knight would lose material pretty quickly, and blocking with the pawn seemed bad because it would leave me with an isolated pawn. But actually, that would have been the best move. Instead, I felt like I was going to be fine after moving my queen.
But this introduced a new, very serious problem. First, moving or trading the queen typically weakens the c-pawn, as it did in this case. Second, this move sets up a tactical motif: the queen on e8 and the rook on a8 could be forked by a knight on c7, and there is a knight that can get to c7 very quickly!
I thought for a long time on this move. First trying to figure out whether there was any way out of this, and then trying to decide how to get the best compensation for losing material. In the end, I lost a pawn and a rook, but won back the knight.
I wanted to do it in such a way that I didn’t end up with a knight in the corner, but I couldn’t come up with a line that I was confident in. There are some engine lines that are a little better, but they’re pretty obscure.
Now my knight on h6 was under attack, and at this point I was convinced that I was going to lose more material. I wanted to move the knight to f5, but g4 was still a threat, and the knight would have nowhere to go.
So aside from another obscure engine line, I managed to find the correct (albeit painful) strategy:
Since I was down material and with a pretty bad position, I wasn’t eager to trade queens. But that was the only way to avoid losing even more material.
The rest of the game didn’t have anything special. I was just trying to improve my position the best I could. In the end after the c4 push, I figured I was going to lose more material and there wasn’t much I could do. My only hope was that my opponent would make a big mistake, and that didn’t seem likely. So I resigned here.
Well, my first takeaway is to study the Classical Variation of the Pirc. I’ve done so in the past, but refreshing the ideas and making sure that I train on them will help in games like this in the future.
Second, I think a theme for this game is that I need to look for tactical motifs when calculating lines. In other words, when I’m calculating and walking down a line in my head, I should look for motifs like skewers, pins, forks, overloading, and so on. There were a couple of those that I missed in this game, and they would have made a pretty big difference.