One of the best things about playing chess tournaments up and down the east coast during my later teenage years was the number of interesting people I got to meet, and the camaraderie that developed between the people I traveled with. While this lends itself to long-lasting friendships, it also develops bitter rivalries. In the following game, I was playing the black pieces against one such rival that developed over dozens of tournament games. I was rated about 1500 at the time, and my opponent was rated about 1350. The game started:
1. e4 c5, 2. Nf3 d6, 3. d4 cxd4, 4. Nxd4 Nf6, 5. Nc3 g6,
This opening is the Sicilian Dragon, which he knows I play, and had been flaunting the fact that he had been “studying up” for this game, which would decide who was clear 1st place in a G/30 tournament. Opening study is often very important when you’re preparing for a specific opponent, and this is no exception. However, I was confident enough in my knowledge of the opening that I did not change to another opening to try to surprise him. Instead, I was actually thrilled to hear this as I might get to put more of my opening knowledge to work than I normally do from opponents who don’t know this opening as well as I do. We continue:
6. Bc4 Bg7,
My opponent’s last move is not book, but can only be applied to one specific line in the opening, so I play accordingly.
7. Be3 0-0,
The move 7. Be3 from my opponent showed me that he really didn’t know the opening much better than he ever has before. The point is that here at anytime I can play Ng4 and attack his e3-bishop, an important attacking piece because of my kingside fianchetto structure. The best plan for white in these positions is to build up with f2-f3, g2-g4, and h2-h4, castle on the queenside, and launch a kingside attack. However, to do this effectively, white must maintain his dark-squared bishop by playing f2-f3 at some point, so I cannot attack with Ng4.
8. Qd2 Ng4, 9. Bg5 Ne5, 10. Bb3 Nbc6, 11. 0-0-0 …,
The past few moves have been a real concession on white’s part. Black’s pieces have become active and white’s pieces are somewhat unorganized. Now black has a forced continuation to achieve a better position.
11. … Nxd4, 12. Qxd4 Nf3,
Black forks the queen on d4 and the bishop on g5, while also delivering a discovered attack on the queen with the bishop on g7.
13. Qe3 Nxg5, 14. Qxg5 Bxc3, 15. bxc3 Qc7,
Now it is black, not white, who has the initiative. White’s queenside pawns are horrible, and his isolated doubled pawns on black’s half-open c-file are going to be a huge weakness. The only real issue for black at this point is to figure out what to do with his bishop so that his major pieces can rock the c-file.
16. Kb2 Bd7, 17. h4 Rac8,
Black has a better game, but he still has to watch out. If left unchecked, white could quickly mount a huge kingside attack with h4-h5.
18. c4 Qc5,
If white trades queens then all hope of a kingside attack will be virtually lost. Also, the pawn on c4 will now become a target for black’s bishop, who can come to e6 now. Before, black had problems with his bishop’s activity because it couldn’t come to e6 out of fear of white playing Bxe6 and after he takes back with fxe6, his pawn structure is weakened.
19. Qxc5 Rxc5, 20. Rd5 Rfc8,
My opponent knew he had a worse position here, but it’s actually going to take a bit before I can take advantage of it. Because of our rivalry, and the pride that was at stake over the game, I believe he was becoming frustrated, which led to him playing slightly weaker than he normally would in these types of slow, positional positions.
21. Rhd1 Be6, 22. Rxc5 Rxc5, 23. Kc3 …,
It looks like b7-b5 would be a good move for me here, but after white’s Rd4, if I make the trades then I’ll actually have a worse endgame because the white king can take the a-pawn, giving himself an outside passed pawn, and I will lose fairly quickly. The key to these types of positions with a lot of pawns left on the board but just a few pieces is to take advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses and tie him down without letting him hone in on your weaknesses, or create new weaknesses for that matter.
23. … Kg7, 24. Kb4 a5+, 25. Kc3 b5,
Now it’s okay to play b7-b5 because I’ve slightly improved my position to the point that the endgame will not work out for him. While yes, I’ll allow him to win my a-pawn later, there’s an important aspect of the position that will remain which will ultimately lead to his demise nearly 25 moves later. Understanding the structure of the game allows me to turn abstract ideas into a concrete reality, and in the process, I know exactly how to win after the trades. This is one of my favorite endgames I’ve ever played, and it turns out to be quite beautiful.
26. a3 Bxc4, 27. Bxc4 Rxc4+, 28. Kb2 Rxe4, 29. Rd5 Re5, 30. Rxe5 dxe5,
Being up two pawns in a king and pawn ending is usually enough to win on it’s own, but it’s a little tricky here because his king can get close to my queenside pawns before I can get to them to protect them, and one of my extra pawns is doubled on the e-file.
31. a4 b4, 32. c3 bxc3+, 33. Kxc3 Kf6,
Now we see that my opponent is going to easily win the a-pawn, but I have something cute in store.
34. Kc4 Ke6, 35. Kb5 Kd6, 36. Kxa5 Kc5, 37. Ka6 Kc6, 38. a5 f5,
You’re probably starting to see the idea: the fact that he has the passed a-pawn is useless because I won’t allow his king to escape. In the meantime, my kingside pawn majority will force a promotion, and I will mate. The only thing I have to watch out for is to make sure I don’t stalemate him, but as it turns out, my doubled e-pawns allow for a really hot forced line.
39. Ka7 Kc7, 40. a6 h6, 41. g3 g5, 42. Ka8 gxh4, 43. gxh4 e4, 44. a7 h5,
And now, after careful timing, we see the final march.
45. f4 e5, 46. fxe5 e3, 47. e6 e2, 48. e7 e1=R, 49. e8=Q Rxe8#
As it turned out, this was the last game of the tournament to finish, and at this point there was a crowd of a few dozen people watching the game. Around move 40, I started hearing murmurs about how it was a draw and that there was no way black could win, but I knew better. My opponent, however, was requesting a draw around the same move, after every single move, making comments about how I was just trying to win on time (which is actually completely irrelevant to both the position and the clocks as we both had over 10 minutes remaining).
We played a number of games both before and after this game, and the intense rivalry evolved into a friendship that I’ll never forget.