Ashland, Round 5
A11: English Opening, 1...c6
White: Dan Quigley (1766)
Black: Ian Bell (1871)
Columbia, SC, Round 1, G/75, 30 sec. bonus, May 14, 2015
One strength of the English Opening (in my opinion) is that 1.c4 is the move that most effectively deters 1...d5. Against any other first move by White, 1...d5 is an entirely possible continuation, with a near equal (or better) game resulting. It is only against 1.c4 that 1...d5 becomes inadvisable.
This move is not ambitious of me. More often chosen moves, and probably objectively better are 2.d4, 2.Nf3, and 2.Nc3. I dismissed the first because I did not want to play a Queen pawn game, the third because Black can play ...Bb4 and time ...Bxc3 to his liking. That isn't the gravest of threats, but I don't know the theory behind how White can counter the idea. I think 2.Nf3 is the best way to proceed for White. As I learn more about the English, I will be adopting it. 2.g3 is a quiet move that steers the game towards hypermodern channels, concepts I have some understanding of.
More common are 2...e5, 2...g6, and 2...e6. However, 2...c6 is the only move that results in a statistically favorable game for Black. The move makes a lot of sense. Black was denied 1...d5 by White's first move, but now intends to get it in forthwith in a way that won't be disadvantageous. The move also shores up the long diagonal White just announced he would be placing his Bishop upon.
3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5?!
Almost universally played in this position is 4.Nf3. I considered it, but after 4...dxc4 5.0-0, Black can play 5...b5 immediately or whenever White makes a serious attempt to recover his material. There are counters White has, of course, else 4.Nf3 would not be so popular, but I don't know them off the top of my head and didn't care to spend the game “discovering” them. So, I made this concession instead. The drawback of White's move is that it clears c6 for Black's Knight, which allows Black free and easy development.
4...cxd5 5.Nf3 Nc6!?
Developing the Bishop to f5 or g4 is selected more often in this position, but my young opponent again finds the strongest, most principled move instead. Now, the only way to stop ...e5 is to play 6.d4, making this a sterile Queen pawn game. I just wasn't willing to go in for that.
Very good. It's not yet clear where Black's Queen Bishop belongs.
White's only alternative, strongly favored by computer programs and which I considered for a long time at the board, is 7.d4. However, after 7...e4 Black's pawn chain is virtually indestructible and White's g2-Bishop will bite on close-by granite forever. That a move like 7...d3 is the only alternative to 7.d4 is a clear sign something has gone wrong in this opening for White.
Aggressive looking, but I prefer 7...Be7. On d6 the Bishop has little offensive power since it bites on g3 granite. It weakens Black's protection of d5, and when (not if) White plays Bg5, Black no longer has the unpinning Bishop on e7 unless he wants to lose time retreating the Bishop from d6.
Played with not much thought. 8...h6 is most often played here. Also worth consideration is 8...Be6 and 8...d4, both of which have won for Black.
9.Bg5 Be6 10.Qd2 TN
I had no idea how to proceed here. My thought was to link my Rooks by playing my Queen to the second rank, and I chose d2 because playing the Queen to c2 encourages Black's Rook to c8 all the more. But 9.Qd2 turns out to be pointless. Other players of White played 9.Rc1, 9.a3, 9.Bxf6, 9.e4, and 9.Nd2!? none of which are fantastic for White, but all of which look more normal. My unintended novelty is at least not harmful to White.
10...h6 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.a3
In the two games where White played 10.Bxf6 (without waiting for ...h6 as I did), after 10...Qxf6 White played 11.Nd2 and eventually won both of those games when Black allowed White to play 12.Ne4 next, which he did after both 11...d4 and 11...Ne7 12.Nde4 dxe4 13.Nxe4 and 14.Nxd6. The disadvantage of my tenth move is that d2 is no longer available for my Knight. I therefore decided to make the best of it and temporized with 12.a3, which at least has the virtue of keeping Black's pieces off b4.
We have arrived at what I think is the hardest type of position in chess to play well. Black has played the opening superbly and has nearly a pawn's worth of advantage according to computer programs, despite the material equality. Black must have felt (quite correctly) that he had an advantage and therefore must attack. But what is there to do? White may have played the opening passively, nevertheless his position has no weaknesses. Of what consists Black's superiority? Black must answer this question before making his twelfth move.
In my opinion, part of Black's advantage lies in the fact he has the two Bishops; therefore he should want to keep lines open. Black also dominates the center squares and enjoys a space advantage. Black's plan then should be to make something out of the center. He needs to complete his development by placing Rooks on c8 and d8. Then, he needs to figure out a way to pressurize the center such that he can eventually advance center pawns so that the likely result will be pawn exchanges rather than blocking pawn moves by White, or pushing past. Instead of employing a patient plan, Black began an unprovoked flank attack. 12...a5 also has the drawback of creating holes at b5 and b6 for White to exploit.
Consistent, if wrong. Black considers b3 a weakness he can exploit. He could have been right except for the tactical flaw with the concept. Best was 13...Qd8 when I planned to play 14.e3 and Hedgehog it with colors reversed. Black's position would still be preferable.
I noticed the a4 pawn could not be held. At first I was going to play 14.Qc2 to go after it, but that runs in to 14...Rfc8 15.Nxa4 Nd4! It took quite some time before I could fully convince myself this Karpovian retreat of the Queen back to the first rank from which she so recently emerged was White's best.
I expected 14...Rfd8!, after which Black probably has enough activity and central control to compensate for his pawn deficit.
Best was 15...Qd8 (protecting b6) 16.Nc5 Bxc5 (parting with the bad Bishop) 17.Rxc5 with only a small advantage for White due to the pawn plus. Black still owns the center and enjoys a space advantage, some small measure of compensation.
Best was 16...Rfc8 17.Nxe6 Rxc1 18.Qxc1 Qxe6, though White is doing well here.
A pawn and exchange down, Black resigned. A bit premature perhaps, but understandable. I have played plenty of games like Black's and could only feel bad for Ian. Being beat by one's opponent is much easier psychologically to accept than being beat by oneself, as happened here. I'm sure Ian's talent and determination will limit how often he loses the game in this manner. I anticipate a much tougher game the next time we face off.