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  3. OTB: Me ECF 138 vs ECF 170 (FIDE ~1975) - How can I fight harder?

Hi all,

Recently I've had to play against much stronger opponents for my club as we are a small club with a very limited roster. This means I end up playing people far above my level. It is a learning experience but also humbling.

I was wondering if you could take a quick look at this game and advise me if I should perhaps be a little more adventurous and less timid. I feel that although I had an okay position for much of the game, I was stilll passive. I will try and apply and ideas to a match I have tomorrow against another 165+ opponent.

I'm not looking to win these games per se, but I want to at least fight.
Chapter 10

If you can't find a plan on move 9, you shouldn't play this variation of the English. The basic advantage of playing 1.c4 is to have a clear plan for the middlegame. There are many ways to play the English, pick up one where you don't end up loosing the thread on move 9.

In this particular game, I would recommend 8.e4 (the "Botvinnik cup") instead of 8.d4 which is indeed a complicated variation (played twice in the recent Candidates Tournament with a different move order and a different defense by Black ; very unclear at our level).

On move 11, your opponent has just played a6 and then Rb8. What is he going to do ? What's the purpose of such strange moves ? He's going to play b5 and challenge your nice center, there is no other explanation. If you notice it, you play 11.a4 and perhaps 12.a5, and you have a queenside initiative, which is a recurring theme in the English. The same holds on move 12.

After Black's e4 push, putting your knight on f4 makes sense only if you open up the center with f3 afterwards. If you feel uncomfortable with that, you can also play h3-g4-Ng3 and put pressure on the e4-pawn. Same on move 15, where you had a long think but couldn't find a plan. If you play the English, having a black pawn on e4 is everyday hazard and you have to know how to deal with it (there are several thematic ways of doing it, f3 is one, Ng3 is another one).

After g5, I wouldn't play Nh5 even after reading Stockfish's justifications. With a longer horizon, there will be probably holes in those tactics. So you were right to play Nfe2. After that you have to oust Black's bishop from f3. There are two ways of doing it : Qc2,Nb1-d2 or Kf1,Ng1. Stockfish prefers the first method, so do I.

Don't believe Stockfish about 26.Nc1. It is the right move, and Stockfish agrees if you let him think just a little longer. Likewise 32.Qc4 cannot be criticized on its own.

My biggest problem with your game is 34.Na7?. Normally your knight belongs to c3, where it pressurizes Black's e4 pawn and defends your own pawn on d5. You decided to put it b5 for a good reason : it looks at the c7 square (possibly a fork can happen) and from there the e6 square (after Black pushes f5), blocking Black's central and kingside play (and who's better then ?). There is no other reason to put the knight on b5 (it was attacked on c3, but it could be cemented there, you have two rooks and a queen to protect it). So when you get the opportunity to jump to c7 and then to e6, do it ! The queen will come back on e2 to defend, the rooks will invade the queenside... Actually Black has to be careful to get a draw then.

Once that opportunity is wasted, basically you're tired by Black's constant pressure and you make mistakes. It always happens, even to grandmasters.

Conclusions :
1) You defend well once you're pressurized, and that's an important quality.
2) You have a problem with the reasons behind the moves (your moves or the opponent's). Understanding the reason behind your opponent's move is prophylaxis, another vital skill. Remembering the reasons behind your moves is consistency in your planning.
3) You need some thematic plans in the early middlegame if you play the English. It's not an opening where you can learn anything move by move. The plans you like determine the variation that you will pick up. Try to avoid variations where even grandmasters make mistakes :) .

Many thanks for your thoughtful and detailed response. I am very grateful.

Much better.

Clearly you feel more comfortable with this variation of the English :) . You have some very good company as I could find a game Reti-Spielmann that followed the same path up to 9.b3. There is nothing wrong with 9.Bf4, targeting the d6-pawn. In general, that pawn is not easy to attack in a king's indian or old indian structure like this one... but that's assuming Black plays perfectly :) .
I don't buy Black's Qa5, that's too far away from the d6-pawn which becomes a real target. The way to prove this was to play 12.Ne4! instead of 12.Nb3 that removes your beautiful knight from the center and chases the queen to a better square (I suspect Black wanted to play Qh5 anyway).
With 12...Qh5 your opponent offers a draw to trick you into forgetting that he's threatening mate in one. It's a kind of reflex : you expect your opponent to wait until you've answered his threats before he offers a draw ; if he offers a draw, it means that the position is quiet. Well, that kind of mental drift is very dangerous. Fortunately you don't fall into this (admittedly gross) trap.
Your follow-up is very energetic. It's a pity that you overlooked 15...f5 instead of playing 15.Be4 consciously weighting the line after 15...f5. Actually your advantage didn't decrease with 15.Be4 instead of Qxg6, it's just another way of maintaining the pressure. If I were playing White, I would prefer 15.Be4 to 15.Qxg6, but objectively they are of roughly equal merits.

Mass exchanges follow from 15.Be4 but you still have an advantage if you play 19.Nd4 (it goes to e6). Your structure is safe, your bishop will be good and you have some pressure along the d-file (even if Black plays d5 soon). If Black plays 19...Nxb2, you have 20.Rb1 and 21.Rxb7 ; you don't have to worry about your b-pawn.
A sample line from Komodo : 19.Nd4 d5 20.Ne6 Na6 21.b3 Nb6 22.e3 Nd7 23.Ne2 Ndc5 24.N2d4 Nxe6 25.Nxe6 g6 26.Kh2 gxf5 27.Rg1+ Kf7 28.Nd4 h6 29.Rg2 Nc5 30.Nxf5 Re6 31.b4 Ne4 32.f3 Nd6 and Black finally equalizes after a sequence of very precise moves (some are forced and easy to find, some aren't). I guess an amateur player with Black wouldn't play so precisely ; White's moves, on the other hand, look natural enough.

The final position is still slightly better for White, but not enough to decline the draw. I agree with your own assessment of the game as a whole ("much better"). You have a plan, you play consistently on both sides of the board (as you should in this variation), you have a long-term grip on the game (typical English opening, but here you have an objective advantage too). Compared with the previous game, I guess the quality of your play depends on your own feeling of confidence. If you think that you have an initiative and that your opponent responds to it, you know what to do ; if you defend, again you know what to do. You err when you feel like the game is not going your way without any concrete threats to answer (and perhaps your repertoire can be adjusted to that fact : don't play d4 when Black can maintain the tension, but do play d4 when it forces Black's hand).