Thursday, February 1, 2007

Najdorf Sicilian 6.a4

Going into the final round of the New York State Game/45 Championship, held at Adelphi University on March 23rd*, I had a score of 2-1 which was comprised of one win [against a Class A player] and two draws [against an international grandmaster and national master, respectively]. Paired as Black against a candidate master who likes to play king-pawn openings, I made a practical decision before the game began to eschew my usual Philidor Counter Gambit in favor of the Sicilian Defense. Frankly I was too fatigued to play into the tactical complications of the PCG, especially with such a short time control.

Joseph Felber (USCF 2029) - Jim West (USCF 2200)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

The Najdorf variation used to be my old standby, in my pre-PCG days.

6.a4 Qc7

Astonishingly my last move is not even considered in the opening manuals, with most attention devoted to 6...e6, 6...g6, 6...Nc6, and even the inferior 6...e5. But it was played as far back in time as 1970 in the blitz tournament at Herceg Novi in the game Ostojic-Fischer which continued 7.Bd3 g6 8.f4 Bg7 9.Nf3 O-O 10.O-O Nbd7 11.Kh1 b6 12.Qe1 Bb7 13.Qh4 Rac8 14.Bd2 e5 15.Rae1 exf4 16.Bxf4 Ne5 17.Bh6 Bxh6 18.Qxh6 Nfg4 19.Qh4 Nxf3 20.Rxf3 f5 21.Rf4 d5 22.Rxg4 fxg4 23.Qxg4 Rf4 24.Qg3 dxe4 25.Bxe4 Bxe4 26.Nxe4 Rxe4 with White resigning, either because he was about to lose on time or because he did not want to be worn down in the endgame following 27.Rxe4 Qxc2 28.Re1 Qxa4 29.Qd6 Qc6. My opponent now decided to transpose into a more conventional line.

7.Be2 e5

Once White has committed his king bishop to the e2 square, the standard ...e5 pawn push is more timely than the premature 6...e5 which would allow White to play 7.Nde2 with the idea of 8.h3 and 9.g4 stealing a tempo on the 6.g3 variation.

8.Nb3 Be7 9.O-O O-O 10.Be3 Be6 11.f4 Nbd7 12.Kh1

Ever since the Karpov-Polugayevsky candidates match in 1974, this has been White's favorite move in this position, supplanting the old 12.f5 Bc4 13.a5 b5 14.axb6 Nxb6 15.Kh1 Rfc8 16.Bxb6 Qxb6 17.Bxc4 Rxc4 18.Qe2 Rac8 19.Ra2 Bd8 20.Rfa1 Qb7 21.Ra4 Rxa4 22.Rxa4 Rc6 which equalized in Karpov-Stoica, Graz 1972.

12...exf4 13.Rxf4 Ne5 14.Nd4

White should interpolate the moves 14.a5 Rac8 before playing this move.

14...Rfe8 15.Nf5 Bf8 16.Bd4 Nfd7

The "book" move is 16...d5 which is given as equal after 17.exd5 Nxd5 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.Rh4 Qc6 20.Qf1, Klovan-Vladimirov, USSR 1975.

17.Nd5 Bxd5 18.exd5

Admittedly White has the bishop pair, but Black's chronically weak pawn on d6 is shielded by the White pawn on d5 from frontal attack. In addition, Black can develop his queen rook to c8 with tempo.

18...Rac8 19.c4 a5

This move would not have been possible if White had played 14.a5.

20.Ra3 Nc5 21.Rg3 Ng6 22.Rf1 Ne4 23.Rb3 Qd7 24.Rbf3

Instead of moving his rook aimlessly along the third rank, White might have tried grabbing a pawn with 24.Rb5 Ra8 25.Bb6 Ra6 26.Bxa5 Rea8. But his kingside attacking chances would be gone, and his pieces would be awkwardly placed on the queenside.

24...Ne5 25.Bxe5 Rxe5 26.Bd3 g6

With White's powerful dark-squared bishop removed from the board, this move is quite playable.

27.Nd4 f5 28.Ne6 Nc5

Here I expected 29.Nxc5 Rxc5 with a drawish position, due to the opposite-colored bishops. Instead my opponent's next move came as a pleasant surprise.

29.Nxf8? Rxf8

The position is already better for Black because the knight on c5 is superior to the bishop on d3. For example, 30.b3 Rfe8 with the idea of tripling on the e-file is clearly advantageous to Black. White manages to avoid this, but only at the cost of a pawn.

30.Re1 Qxa4 31.Rff1 Qxd1 32.Rxd1 Nxd3

With a material advantage, I did not mind this exchange although it might have been better to keep the minor pieces on the board. The looming sudden-death time limit played a role in my decision. I wanted to make the position as uncomplicated as possible.

33.Rxd3 Rfe8 34.Rb3 Re1 35.Kg1 Rxf1+ 36.Kxf1 Rc8

This ending is favorable for Black, but with the active 37.Rxb7 Rxc4 38.Rb6 Rb4 39.Rxd6 Rxb2 White could have fought on. His passive alternative is tantamount to resignation.

37.Rc3 Rc5 38.Ke2 b5 39.b3 bxc4 40.bxc4

Now the passed a-pawn is decisive.

40...Kf7 41.Kd3 Kf6 42.Kd4 a4 43.Re3

Rather than waste a tempo with this move, White should play an immediate 43.Ra3.

43...Ra5 44.Ra3 g5 45.Kc3 f4 46.Kb4 Ra8 47.c5 dxc5+ 48.Kxc5 Ke5 49.d6 Rc8+ 50.Kb6 Kxd6

Not liking the looks of 51.Rxa4 Rb8+ 52.Ka7 Rb2 53.g3 f3 54.Ra5 Ke6 55.h4 gxh4 56.gxh4 f2 57.Ra1 Ra2+ 58.Rxa2 f1=Q, White resigned. This was a difficult game under any circumstances but especially so in the last round of a one-day tournament.

*{This article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Empire Chess}