Travail Pursuit #60: On the precipice

Preparing to take the plunge and advance. This image is used under Creative Commons terms and sourced from cdm's Flickr photostream

Preparing to take the plunge and advance. This image is used under Creative Commons terms and sourced from cdm’s Flickr photostream

In this, the shortest of my four post series on the 9.Nf4 line in the French Tarrasch, there are just three games to look at. But don’t let the lack of material here fool you, this complex of lines is very important. It just so happens that I’ve played fewer games with this theme than I have the others. In the last post of this series (Travail Pursuit #58) I looked an important significant alternative for White in the form of 14.0-0 and then at ways for Black to deviate when White chooses the continuation 14.Qh4 e5 15.Nf3 .

In this post we’re beginning to get into seriously deep theory, but its theory that gets onto the board reasonably regularly. After 14.Qh4 e5 15.Nf3 Nxf3 16.gxf3 Bf5 17.Bxf5 gxf5 18.Bg5 we have reached an important tabiya for this variation. In my final post I’ll look at what can happen after Black plays the main (and in my opinion the best) move 18…Qa5+! In this post we’ll take a quick look at some of Black’s alternatives.

  • 1. Black advances his passed pawn at once with 18…d4
  • 2. Black plays aims to blockade the queen’s side with 18…Bc5
  • 3. Black takes his time with 18…Be7

Black has played 18...d4

Black has played 18…d4

Black advances his passed pawn at once with 18…d4

Shapland vs Corbett, Calderdale League, 2011 (Game 1 in the viewer below)
It seems perfectly natural for Black to get on the trying to exploit his major trump card, the passed d-pawn. The closer this pawn gets to promotion the more counter play Black will get and White will be under increasing pressure to make his initiative count. Of course the major question is, does Black have the luxury of enough time to neglect developing his remaining pieces for another move.

The first point to make about these alternatives to 18…Qa5+ is that Black is giving White the opportunity to castle. Usually, castling short is the best idea as the White king is actually no safer on the queen’s side than on the king’s side and, additionally, castling long can hand Black a free tempo with 19…Rc8+.

In this particular instance, it would appear that after 18…d4 White does genuinely have a choice and I examine the pros and cons of castling on either side of the board in the notes to the game. I elected to castle short in the game, which might have been the ‘less good’ decision.

Whichever way White castles, he has to figure out how to respond to Black’s main idea which is 19…Qd5! This is the real point behind Black’s 18th move. The queen is centralised to a very strong square from where it attacks both f3 and a2. This really challenges White’s momentum very strongly and I think White has to play accurately to maintain equality. I chose to capture the knight on f6 (thematic once the Black knight is unpinned) and then checked on h5. I think now that checking on h7 was more precise.

In this game my opponent missed some pretty deflection tactics which could have won him the game. This was based on getting his rook to the g and the h-files in order to sacrifice it and allow the Black queen access to f3. This idea is an important one for both sides to keep in mind when this line appears on the board.

Black has played 18...Bc5

Black has played 18…Bc5

Black plays aims to blockade the queen’s side with 18…Bc5

Shapland vs. Booth, Calderdale Individual Championship, 2009 (Game 2 in the viewer)
If Black’s idea in the last game was primarily about aggressively seeking counter play, then his concern here is predominantly about prophylaxis. Seeing that White’s plan is to take control of the open c-file, Black looks to utilise an idea we saw in the last post where he plays Bc5-b6 so that the bishop can stand guardian over the important c7 square, protect the a7 square and also block the b-file. It’s a tough defensive set up but there are ways for White to try and break it down.

One possible response is for White to immediately castle long. As opposed to the last line, in this instance Black can’t check the White king with gain of tempo, so the circumstances seem good for a long castle. This would probably be my choice if I faced this move again as it naturally tends to allow White to go for it on the king’s rather than the queen’s side of the board and that makes sense when Black is aiming to install his bishop on b6.

In this game I castled short, and there is nothing wrong with that either. Logically my opponent then advanced his d-pawn, but, unlike the last game his queen didn’t then take advantage of the vacant d5 square. He could have built a dangerous initiative with that move and, after I misplaced my king’s rook on e1 instead of d1 Black was doing very well.

I then made a critical error in helping the Black king get to the g7 square. This could have been deadly as if Black had used this opportunity to land his rook on h8 he would have had a dangerous attack. Eventually, as a consequence of my opponent opting to play b6 instead of Bb6 I was able to use a tactic to open the c-file for my rook. This was timed well as Black had also vacated the back rank with his rook. This infiltration exerted sufficient pressure on my opponent that he made a succession of inaccurate moves in a tough position and he went down in flames.

Black has played 18...Be7

Black has played 18…Be7

Black takes his time with 18…Be7

Shapland vs Clegg, Calderdale League, 2008 (Game 3 in the viewer)
I’ve mentioned my duel with Robert Clegg in this variation several times before. This was actually our first outing in this line and it took Robert by surprise. Despite that, he played the opening very well, remembered all the forcing lines and now, in the key position chose a solid and flexible continuation. As I demonstrate in the game notes this is certainly one continuation where White shouldn’t castle long as he gets nothing at all after that.

One significant factor to consider after 18…Be7 is that the pin on the knight is broken. Often this is the cu for White to capture it in order to prevent it hoping via h5 or d5 to f4. You’ll see in the game that when the Black knight does get to f4 it can play a pivotal role in a Black counter attack.

In this game I did at least station my rooks on their best files and then, as soon as Black looked like he might advance his d-pawn to d3 I played 22.Rd3 both to blockade the pawn and, in some circumstance, to transfer the rook to the a or b-files. Robert’s 22…Qb8!? was a very interesting response protecting the a and b-pawns and also threatening to play Rh8. In the end he didn’t play Rh8 but instead I allowed his knight into the f4 square. This could have led to immediately defeat for me but luckily there was a trick to avoid losing material involving a perpetual check which is not an unusual bail out clause for White in this line when things turn nasty for him.

Robert continued to play some very strong moves but it seemed that, whenever he needed to go for it and apply the killer touch, he tried instead to remove any counter chances for me and this actually gave me just enough time to defend myself on a couple of occasions. After missing a few more chances to win the game he allowed me to simplify into a position where both of us, exhausted and confused, were happy to take a draw.

Here’s a quick summary again of the main themes to look out for when Black play’s something other than 18…Qa5+

  • 1. White has the opportunity to castle and he should take it. Choosing which direction to go in depends on what Black has played though. Usually castling short is best but on occasion White can castle long
    2. The plan of 18…d4 and 19…Qd5! looks strong. White might even have to play to force a draw with 20.Bxf6+ gxf6 21.Qh7+ and then Qg8. Maybe there is something better but if Black wants to force a draw this might be the way to do it
    3. 18…Bc5 certainly allows White to castle long as Black can’t gain a tempo with Rc8+ when the bishop is in the way. However, Black can deploy the thematic idea of Bb6 which holds down the queen’s side very effectively
    4. In all these lines White should aim to put his rooks on c1 and d1 and when Black advances the d-pawn it can often be a good idea to play Rd3 to blockade and, if circumstance are right, swing the rook to a3 or b3 aiming at the Black pawns
    5. White has to beware of Black getting his rook to g8 or h8 as that can lead to very dangerous counter play
    6. White also has to be careful not to allow the Black knight to get to f4 via h5 or d5. Usually this means exchanging on f6 as soon as the pin on the knight has been broken

So, a win and two draws for me in these games but don’t let that fool you. Black has some very reasonable continuations here that offer him good play and plenty of value. The same can be said for White though and in the positions here demand accurate play from both sides. It’s sharp, complicated and interesting chess, exactly the reason why I like this variation so much.


3 Responses to “Travail Pursuit #60: On the precipice”

  1. Andy Bak

    Oct 08. 2015

    The Corbett game was really impressive, both playing principled and strong moves, especially from Malcolm.

    In the Booth game – is 20.Rac1 a mistake as it allows …Qd5? Maybe 20.Bxf6 is better, intending Qh7 and Qxb7 before Black has had chance to organise a mate.

    Some more very interesting games in this line, I can see why it’s a fun line to play for both sides!

    Reply to this comment
  2. James Carpenter

    Oct 09. 2015

    Very striking set of Games here David, well worth the detailed examination. Interesting to see how differently the tabiya develops depending on black’s choices.

    Reply to this comment


  1. Travail Pursuit #61: Into the deep - Yorkshire Chess | Yorkshire Chess - November 19, 2015

    […] On the precipice: in part 3 we jumped into the detail of the lines that follow the sequence 14.Qh4 e5 15.Nf3 Nxf3 16.gxf3 Bf5 17.Bxf5 gxf5 18.Bg5. In particular we looked at the variety of approaches Black can take here if he doesn’t want to choose the main move 18…Qa5+. […]

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