20 January 2017

Fiddling with the London System

In the first round of the Winter Championship at the Spokane Chess Club last night, I played an opponent who has been difficult for me. We first played nearly forty years ago in a match between our respective high schools. There may have been some other games after that, but the oldest game in my database is from my first USCF tournament, which was March 1996. I had White, played the King's Gambit, gained a slightly better position, and then lost.

Although I have been higher rated than him for most of the past twenty years, we have a nearly equal score. I believed last night when the game began that I was at +1, but a check of the US Chess Federation's website reveals that I am +2 until last night's game is rated.

My struggle against this opponent is a struggle with myself. My weakness in chess tournaments is playing to the level of my competition. Instead of playing the board and finding the best moves, no matter who is sitting across from me, I take unnecessary risks against weak players. Players in C Class seem weak to me now that I have risen well above that level, but they are strong enough to exploit stupidity.

Patrick Kirlin's excessive nervousness at the chess board compounds my tendency to play the player, rather than the board. Indeed, I credit my compassion for his time trouble and panic as the cause of letting a slightly better position deteriorate rapidly in that game in 1996. It is fine to be friendly with opponents before and after the game, and to be polite at the board, but compassion has no place in competition during the battle. I need the focus of my friend John Julian who looks at me as if I am his most hated enemy when we play each other (see "City Championship, Game One").

Last night, I had White. After thinking about various opening plans, I opted for the London System. I have been playing this opening a bit in online blitz lately, but I think this was my first game in the system in over the board play at standard time controls. The London System is not particularly ambitious for securing an advantage from the opening with the White pieces, but may suit my interest in playing for a long endgame--a strategy that often produces success against players at all levels in our local pool.

Simon Williams, in one of his YouTube videos advertising a DVD characterizes the London System, "a great opening for the lazy players out there." Dejan Bojkov, in a video about an instructive miniature in the London, offers another view: "Whenever you play the London System, you expect people to fight for a very long time." Indeed, this long fight is why players like Vladimir Kramnik, Gata Kamsky, and even Magnus Carlsen have played it. Carlsen's play, in particular, inspired me to give it a try.

Stripes,James (1791) - Kirlin,Patrick (1410) [A48]
SCC Winter Championship Spokane (1), 19.01.2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.d4 g6 3.Bf4

3.c4 might be more sensible than trying to force every game into a cookie cutter London System, but this was my initial foray with the London.

3...Bg7 4.Nbd2

White's scoring percentage is poor after this move. Looking back, I do not comprehend why I played it.

4.e3 is the normal move.

5.e4

I was thinking about my teaching of children and how often I tell them, "if your opponent lets you put two pawns on e4 and d4, you should do so." This teaching compelled me to play this move, grabbing space. However, both 5.c3 and 5.e3 is more in keeping with the needs of the position. White must prepare the e4 push. In this respect, the London System bears similarities with the Colle System.

5...d6 6.Bd3

6.c4 was my move when I had the same position in a blitz game in October 2016. I won that game quickly.

6...Nh5

Given who I was playing this move was expected. Although I more or less invited it, I also may have underestimated it.

6...c5 7.c3 cxd4 8.cxd4 e5 should give Black a slight edge.

7.Be3

At this point in the game, I recalled that often in Paul Morphy's games he would have all of his minor pieces in play while his opponent had but two or three. After this move, my opponent left the board seemingly in a panic. His behavior at the tournament director's table seemed to indicate that he was in search of a different writing instrument. I learned about ten minutes later that his intention was to create a distraction. He wrote the name of America's worst mistake on his forehead, and then made certain that I looked at his forehead when he returned to the board. He said, "it is to psych you out."

I have engaged in a few behaviors that have irritated him in years past, albeit never with such explicit intent. For instance, once I came to chess club with some apple juice in a whiskey flask. It had no effect on my opponent that night, a former US Army Ranger. However, when Pat walked into club and saw the flask, his distraction could be read on his face. I also routinely place a captured pawn behind the clock to stymie the calculation of those who do their material count off the board.

I told the tournament director that my opponent's behavior was a violation of the rules, but did not press the matter. Spokane tournament chess is friendly competition. A few bad behaviors are tolerated within reason. A cell phone rang later in the round and the player on the other side of the board declared loudly, "you just forfeited." However, the threats to forfeit those whose phones ring during play is mostly talk. It was the first instance for this particular player. Another regular at club has a ringing cell phone nearly every event. We make it a point to remind him before round one of weekend Swiss events, when there are many players from out of town.

7.Bg3 did not seem like a good idea.
7.Bg5 merits consideration. 7...h6 8.Be3.

Black to move

7...e5 8.c3?

After brushing off the explicit effort to distract me as of no consequence (I said, "I've made my peace with the coming apocalypse"), my first move upon my opponent's return to the board was an error.

8...Nf4 9.Bf1

My intention was to play g3 after preparation, perhaps h3 or h4. Unfortunately I looked at the knight going back to h5, overlooking the value of the e6 square as a posting for the knight. This oversight became more serious a few moves later.

9.Bxf4 exf4 occupied my thoughts for several minutes. I preferred to avoid both giving up the bishop pair and creating a phalanx of pawns for my opponent on the kingside. In retrospect, I should have snapped off the knight.

9...b6

I started thinking that my opponent was planning to help me secure the h3 square so that I could play g3.

10.Qc2 Ba6 11.c4?

My move severely weakens the d4 square. Failing to notice such things stems from short-term tactical responses without considering long-term positional consequences. Playing to the level of my opponent is one cause of these mental errors. Playing too much online blitz is another (see "Good Blitz, Bad Blitz").

11.Bxf4 is probably still a move that I should have considered more seriously.

11...c5 12.dxe5?

12.d5 is objectively better. I considered that having more space could be useful, but did not like closing the center. It was probably a better decision to close the center and remove Black's knight.

12...dxe5 13.0–0–0

I hoped to play Nb1–c3-d5 after castling, but quickly realized that my opponent would need to make a few terribly weak moves to facilitate this maneuver.

13...Nc6

White to move

14.Bxf4 exf4

14...Nb4 15.Qb3 exf4 16.a3 Nc6 17.Nb1 Qc7 18.Nc3 seems to give Black the edge.

15.Nb3 Nd4

With 15...Qf6 Black has a clear advantage, when neither 16.a3 nor 16.Kb1 are fully adequate.

16.Nbxd4 cxd4 

16...Bxd4 17.Nxd4 cxd4 18.Bd3 gives White equality and long-term prospects of winning the isolated d-pawn in the endgame.

17.Bd3 

Black to move

It is clear that my position is worse. My king is vulnerable to attacks along the c-file as well as the diagonals that begin at b1 and c1.

17...f5?

Now that the game is over, I can feel compassion for Patrick for throwing the game away with this move.

17...Re8 18.Rhe1 Bb7 19.Qd2 Qc7 20.Kb1 should retain the advantage for Black and keep me suffering for my early missteps.

18.exf5

Now I have a clear advantage

18...Bb7

18...gxf5 19.Bxf5 Bxc4 could have been effective if not for the response being check. 20.Qxc4+ Kh8 and White is clearly better.

19.fxg6+- h5

19...hxg6 20.Bxg6

20.Be4 Rb8

20...Bxe4 21.Qxe4 Qd6 (21...Qc7 22.b3 Rae8 23.Qd3)

21.Rhe1

My game has become comfortable and my moves easy.

21...Bc8

My opponent keeps finding ways to help me.

22.Bd5+ Kh8 23.Ne5 

I considered 23.Nxd4 Qf6 24.f3

Black to move

23...Bxe5

23...Bf5 was Black's last chance to stay in the battle 24.Be4 Bxe5 (24...Bxe4 25.Qxe4) 25.Bxf5 Bg7

24.Rxe5 Qf6 

24...Kg7 was forced, but Black is lost anyway.

25.Rxh5+ 1–0

Playing anything less than the best moves, no matter who I'm playing against, is a behavior that must be exorcised if I am to make progress back into A Class and up. I won last night because my opponent played worse, not because I played well. I cannot blame the London System, but can blame the way I handled it with move order errors, ambition (the premature e4 push), tactical oversights, and shallow positional thinking.

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