27 March 2012

Problems in the English Opening

White collapsed far too rapidly in an English Opening: Reversed Sicilian where I was lucky to have the Black pieces. Although it is tempting to revel in the efficient beauty of my mating attack, improvements for White must be found.

The game was played at correspondence time controls on Chess.com, and was part of a team match between Team USA: Northwest and Team Ukraine. It is a large match with 52 players on each side. At the moment of this writing, Team Ukraine leads 37-19. Each pairing of players creates two simultaneous games.

In correspondence games, or turn-based chess as some folks call these online game at three or more days per move, both players have access to books and databases. Chess.com has a direct link from the game to a collection of master games. Whether the players avail themselves of these resources is up to them. For general comments concerning some ways players employ this distinctive aspect of correspondence chess, see "Playing with Databases." "Databases and Their Discontents" references a discussion in the forums on Chess.com revealing that not everyone finds the use of such resources desirable or even acceptable. I wrote about some previous success using Chess.com's Game Explorer and other resources in "Reading Annotations."

My opening study concentrates on practical application to ongoing games. Sometimes post-game analysis extends this work. During this particular game, I was looking for ways to optimize Black's chances. Now I am more interested in finding improvements for White. Below my annotations to the game are some model games, most of which present ideas that have worked for White.

Grabovetz,Vladimir (1850) - Stripes,James (1999) [A21]
Team USA: Northwest vs. Team Ukraine -- Chess.com, 28.02.2012

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4

White to move

According to the Game Explorer, this move is Black's fourth most popular. It also has the lowest scoring percentage for White. The Game Explorer gives it the name Kramnik-Shirov Counter, a name that provokes a bit of discussion in certain forums. Shirov won six of eleven games with Black from this position 1990-1996, and has played it a few times since. Kramnik played it three times in the early 1990s with an even score. Notably, he defeated Joel Lautier in 1993, and Lautier subsequently defeated Shirov in 1994. From the White side, Lautier has scored 4-3-1, his only loss to Kramnik.


White should consider 3.Nd5. See below Kasparov -- Shirov, Novgorod 1994; and Lautier -- Kramnik, Cannes 1993.

3...Nf6 4.Bg2

Via a different move order, we have reached the Smyslov variation of the English. In 1959, Smyslov defeated Fridrik Olafsson with Black from this position, but five years later Mikhail Botvinnik showed a better plan for White (see below Botvinnik -- Smyslov, Moscow 1964). Smyslov faced his own variation on more than one occasion, and played e2-e4 before the Black e-pawn could disrupt the harmony of his forces (see Smyslov -- Hartoch, Hastings 1968).

Confusion concerning variation names can result from the moves 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 d6 3.Nf3 Bg4 also bearing the name Smyslov variation. 

4...Bxc3 5.bxc3 0–0

White to move

The most popular move from this position is 6.Nf3. However, the strongest players have played 6.d3 (Nakamura -- Efimenko, Gibralter 2008) or 6.e4 (Sargissian -- Hasangatin, Moscow 2004). 6.d4, as my opponent played, is quite rare.

6.d4 d6

I found during the course of the game that 6...d6 was the most common move in this unusual position, and that White's scoring percentage was abysmal. Despite promising percentages, Black's advantage is slight. White might yet maintain equality. I found one White win between strong players, an Internet blitz game (see below, Fancsy -- Komliakov, Dos Hermanas 2004).


7.Nf3 may be slightly better, even though Black's e-pawn will chase the knight away. Although Black went on to win Strzemiecki -- Krzyzanowski, Wroclaw 2011, it was not on account of White's opening.

7...Nc6 8.Ne2 Re8 9.0–0 e4!

White to move

Black's pieces have greater mobility, and his pawns are somewhat better. White has the bishop pair, but the awkward placing of White's pawns and Black's happy e-pawn neutralize any advantage they might confer. Black has an advantage, but by no means is it a decisive one. One idea that White might pursue would be Bc1-a3 to support c4-c5, turning the doubled c-pawns from liability to asset. Seizing the half-open b-file with Rb1 also seems sensible.


Although control of the g4 square seems important, the pawn on h3 also becomes a target for Black.

10... Na5

Black attacks a weakness.

11.Qa4 c5

White to move

Black's advantage grows by small increments.

12.Rb1 Bd7

It is interesting that Houdini 1.5 and Rybka 4 see Black as ahead by nearly one pawn, while Hiarcs 12 sees Black's advantage as closer to two. Hiarcs has better positional judgement in my opinion. Black has a clear initiative due to better mobility and piece coordination. Although not yet abundantly clear, subsequent play in this game suggests that perhaps the White king is vulnerable.

An important element in this position is Black's troublesome pawn on e4. It cuts the White position in two. If Black can mount an attack on the kingside, White's pieces will prove to be terribly placed on the queenside.

Perhaps f2-f3 is a move that White should prepare.

13.Qc2 Nxc4 14.Rxb7

Although this move is not terrible, it is worth noting that 1) the pawn is not undefended, and 2) it fails to resolve White's problems on the kingside where decisive action may soon take place.

14.g4 is the choice of the engines.

14...Qc8 15.Rb1 Bxh3

White to move

White's position has become critical. Black has a clear, and possibly decisive advantage. However, accurate defense here forces Black to labor in order to convert the advantage to a full point.

16.Nf4 Bg4

The engines think that I should have exchanged bishops here. My intent was to lock down the kingside where my pieces, and only my pieces, can play. After 16...Bxg2 17.Kxg2 cxd4 18.exd4 d5 Black has a nice position: a one pawn advantage, a target on c3, more space (mobility), and a reasonably secure monarch.

17.Re1 g5!

It is difficult psychologically to throw forward the pawn in front of one's king. Concrete analysis, however, reveals that Black's king is not vulnerable if White has no way to get his pieces there.

18.Ne2 Bf3 19.a4?

A waste of time, but what can White do to stop Black's attack? Trying to play on the b-file seems his only prospect. 19.Qb3 perhaps.

Black to move

19...Qg4 20.Qd1

20.dxc5 followed by 21.Rb5 was probably White's last chance to mobilize his pieces. Moving the queen into a pin only hastened Black's assault on the White king.

20...Qh5 21.Kf1 Ng4 22.Qc2 Bxg2+ 23.Kxg2 Qh2+ 0–1

Model Games

1) Kasparov,Garry (2805) -- Shirov,Alexei (2740) [A21]
Novgorod 1994

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.Nd5 Be7 4.d4 d6 5.e4 c6 6.Nxe7 Qxe7 7.Ne2 f5 8.dxe5 Qxe5 9.exf5 Nf6 10.Qd4 Bxf5 11.Bf4 Qa5+ 12.Qc3 Qxc3+ 13.Nxc3 0–0 14.0–0–0 d5 15.Bd6 Rc8 16.f3 Nbd7 17.g4 Be6 18.g5 Ne8 19.cxd5 Bxd5 20.Bg3 Be6 21.Bd3 Nc5 22.Bc2 Rd8 23.h4 Bf7 24.Ne4 Nxe4 25.fxe4 Kf8 26.Rdf1 Kg8 27.h5 Rd7 28.Rf2 Nd6 29.g6 Be6 30.gxh7+ Kh8 31.h6 g6 32.Rf6 Re8 33.Rxg6 Nc4 34.Be1 Kxh7 35.Rg3 Ne5 36.Bc3 Bc4 37.Rg7+ 1–0

2) Lautier,Joel (2645) -- Kramnik,Vladimir (2685) [A21]
Cannes 1993

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.Nd5 Bc5 4.Nf3 e4 5.Ng5 e3 6.d4 exf2+ 7.Kxf2 Be7 8.Nxe7 Qxe7 9.e4 d6 10.Bd3 Nc6 11.Bc2 Nf6 12.Re1 Bg4 13.Qd3 Nd7 14.Ba4 h6 15.e5 dxe5 16.d5 Nd4 17.Qe4 Be2 18.Nh3 b5 19.Bxb5 Nxb5 20.Qxe2 Nd4 21.Qd1 Qh4+ 22.Kf1 0–0 23.Be3 Nf5 24.Qc2 Nxe3+ 25.Rxe3 f5 26.Kg1 Rae8 27.Nf2 e4 28.Qc3 Nf6 29.g3 Qh5 30.Rf1 Nd7 31.Kg2 Ne5 32.h3 f4 33.gxf4 Rxf4 34.Rxe4 Qg6+ 35.Qg3 Rxf2+ 36.Rxf2 Qxe4+ 37.Kh2 Nxc4 38.Qxc7 Qxd5 39.Qxa7 Qd6+ 40.Kg2 Ne3+ 41.Kh1 Qd5+ 42.Kh2 Nd1 43.Rg2 Qd6+ 44.Kh1 Re1+ 45.Rg1 Qd5+ 0–1

3) Botvinnik,Mikhail -- Smyslov,Vassily [A22]
URS Spartakiad Moscow 1964

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bxc3 e4 7.Nh3 Re8 8.0–0 d6 9.Nf4 b6 10.f3 e3 11.d3 Bb7 12.Qe1 Nbd7 13.g4 h6 14.h4 Nf8 15.Qg3 Ng6 16.Nh3 Nh7 17.h5 Nh4 18.Bh1 f5 19.Bb2 Qf6 20.f4 Bxh1 21.g5 hxg5 22.fxg5 Qe5 23.Qxh4 Bc6 24.Rf4 g6 25.hxg6 Nf8 26.Qh6 Qg7 27.Rxf5 Nxg6 28.Raf1 Rf8 29.Rf6 Qxh6 30.gxh6 Rxf6 31.Rxf6 Kh7 32.Bc1 Rg8 33.Ng5+ Kxh6 34.Bxe3 Kh5 35.Rf7 Re8 36.Rh7+ Kg4 37.Kf2 Ne7 38.Ne6 Nf5 39.Nd4 Nxd4 40.cxd4 Rc8 41.d5 Ba4 42.Bd4 a6 43.e4 c5 44.Bf6 1–0

4) Smyslov,Vassily -- Hartoch,Robert G [A22]
Hastings 1968
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 0–0 5.e4 c6 6.Nge2 d5 7.exd5 cxd5 8.Nxd5 Nxd5 9.cxd5 Bf5 10.0–0 Nd7 11.a3 Bd6 12.d4 Rc8 13.Be3 Nb6 14.dxe5 Bxe5 15.Nd4 Bd7 16.b3 Qf6 17.Qd2 Qd6 18.Qb4 Qf6 19.Rad1 Rfd8 20.Nb5 1–0

5) Nakamura,Hikaru (2670) -- Efimenko,Zahar (2638) [A22]
Gibraltar 2008

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 Bxc3 5.bxc3 0–0 6.d3 d6 7.e4 Nc6 8.Ne2 Bd7 9.h3 Ne8 10.0–0 a6 11.a4 b6 12.f4 exf4 13.Bxf4 Ne5 14.Nd4 g6 15.Nc2 Ng7 16.Ne3 f6 17.d4 Nf7 18.g4 c6 19.Ra2 Ne6 20.Bg3 Neg5 21.Qd3 Qe7 22.h4 Ne6 23.Rb2 Rab8 24.Rbf2 Nh6 25.c5 bxc5 26.dxc5 Nxc5 27.Qxd6 Qxd6 28.Bxd6 Nxa4 29.Bxf8 Rxf8 30.g5 Ng4 31.Nxg4 Bxg4 32.Rxf6 Rc8 33.R1f4 Bd7 34.Bf1 1–0

6) Sargissian,Gabriel (2618) -- Hasangatin,Ramil (2515) [A22]
Moscow 2004

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.g3 Bxc3 4.bxc3 Nf6 5.Bg2 0–0 6.e4 c6 7.Qb3 b5 8.cxb5 cxb5 9.Nf3 d6 10.0–0 Qc7 11.Re1 a6 12.d4 Nc6 13.a4 Rb8 14.axb5 axb5 15.d5 Na5 16.Qb4 Nc4 17.Nd2 Nd7 18.Nxc4 bxc4 19.Qa5 Qxa5 20.Rxa5 Rb1 21.Rf1 f5 22.Ba3 Rb6 23.f3 Nf6 24.Bb4 fxe4 25.fxe4 Bg4 26.Rfa1 Be2 27.Ra6 Rfb8 28.Bh3 Nxe4 29.Be6+ Kf8 30.Bf5 Nc5 31.Bxc5 dxc5 32.d6 Rxa6 33.Rxa6 Kf7 34.d7 Bd3 35.Bh3 Ke7 36.Rc6 Rd8 37.Rxc5 Kd6 38.Rc8 Ke7 39.Rc5 Kd6 40.Rc8 Ke7 41.Be6 Bc2 42.Bg4 Bd3 43.Be6 Bc2 44.Kf2 Ba4 45.Bxc4 Rxd7 46.Ke3 Kd6 47.Bd3 h6 48.c4 Bc6 49.Be4 Bxe4 50.Kxe4 Rf7 51.h4 Re7 52.c5+ Kd7 53.Ra8 Kc6 54.Ra5 h5 55.Ra6+ Kxc5 56.Rg6 Kc4 57.Rg5 Kc5 58.Rxh5 Kd6 59.Rg5 Rf7 60.Rxe5 g6 1–0

7) Fancsy,Imre (2409) -- Komliakov,Viktor (2435) [A21]
Dos Hermanas 2004

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 Bxc3 5.bxc3 0–0 6.d4 d6 7.Rb1 Nc6 8.Nf3 Qe7 9.0–0 e4 10.Ne1 Na5 11.Bg5 Bf5 12.Rb5 Nxc4 13.Rxf5 c6 14.h4 d5 15.Bxf6 gxf6 16.e3 Kh8 17.Nc2 Rg8 18.Qh5 Rg6 19.Rb1 a5 20.Rf4 Rag8 21.Bf1 Nd6 22.Be2 b5 23.Bg4 Qf8 24.Bf5 Rh6 25.Qe2 Nxf5 26.Rxf5 Rxh4 27.Rxf6 Qc8 28.Qf1 Qg4 29.Rxc6 Rg5 30.Ne1 Rgh5 31.Qg2 Rh1+ 32.Qxh1 Rxh1+ 33.Kxh1 Qe2 34.Ng2 Qxf2 35.Kh2 b4 36.cxb4 Qxa2 37.Rf1 Qe2 38.Rf5 axb4 39.Rxd5 Kg7 40.Rb6 h5 41.Rxb4 Kg6 42.Rb8 f6 43.Rg8+ Kh7 44.Rf8 h4 45.gxh4 Kg7 46.Ra8 Qd2 47.Rf5 Kg6 48.Rf4 Qd3 49.Kg3 f5 50.Rb8 Qd1 51.Rb6+ Kg7 52.Rxf5 1–0

8) Strzemiecki,Zbigniew (2420) - Krzyzanowski,Marcin (2370) [A29]
Wroclaw 2011

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 Bxc3 5.bxc3 0–0 6.d4 d6 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.0–0 h6 9.Ba3 e4 10.Nd2 Qe7 11.e3 Re8 12.c5 d5 13.c4 dxc4 14.Nxc4 Be6 15.Nd2 Bd5 16.Rb1 Rab8 17.Qc2 b5 18.Rbe1 b4 19.Bc1 a5 20.f3 exf3 21.Nxf3 Be4 22.Qa4 Qd7 23.Qb3 Bd5 24.Qc2 a4 25.Bb2 b3 26.axb3 axb3 27.Qc1 Qd8 28.Nh4 Nb4 29.Re2 Bxg2 30.Nxg2 Re4 31.Qc4 Qd5 32.Qc3 Qh5 33.Qd2 Nfd5 34.Ref2 Rf8 35.Ba3 Rb8 36.Bxb4 Nxb4 37.Nf4 Qg5 38.Rb1 Nc2 39.Re2 Na3 40.Rb2 Nc4 41.Qd3 Nxb2 42.Rxb2 Rbe8 43.Rxb3 Qg4 44.Ng2 Ra8 45.Qb1 Ree8 46.Rb7 Qd7 47.Qb2 Qd5 48.Rb3 Qf3 49.Ra3 Rxa3 50.Qxa3 Rb8 51.Qa2 Qd1+ 52.Kf2 Qc1 53.Kf3 g5 54.Ke4 Qf1 55.d5 Qf6 56.Kd3 Kg7 57.d6 cxd6 58.c6 Qf1+ 59.Ke4 Re8+ 60.Kd4 Qf6+ 61.Kd3 Qf5+ 62.Ke2 Qb5+ 0–1