Jon Speelman's Agony Column #7

by ChessBase
6/22/2016 – Playing regularly against the same opponent can be tricky. Openings have to be prepared differently and psychology becomes even more important than in"ordinary" games. In today's column Jonathan Speelman presents two games by 17-year old Clara McGrew which illustrate such a struggle while revealing something about the art of annotating games.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Agony Column #7

This week's two games are by Clara McGrew who is one of America's best juniors. Aged 17, she is the fifth highest rated girl in the USA and is one of the qualifiers for the World Youth Championships to be held in Khanty-Mansiysk in Russia, in September.

Clara, who has two sisters who also play chess, was taught at the age of about six by her mother Lydia and is coached by her father Tim who is a former Michigan State champion. She works a lot at chess - three or four hours a day - and, quaintly but rather marvellously, actually often uses a chess board rather than a screen.

Clara McGrew

Clara is currently rated just under 2000 though on the rise and both games are French defences against the same opponent: Manis Davidovich, a local master rated a couple of hundred points more than her, whom she's played four times with two wins apiece.

Annotating  chess games is an art in which it's important to balance your feelings about the game with the "objective truth" you can glean from an engine. Clara sent me quite sparse notes which I liked a lot because they told me how she was feeling and thinking rather than kow-towing to the silicon. I've included a number of her comments as “CM”.

We start with the Agony in which after a very tough battle she blundered a rook, forgetting that the exchange of queens had opened a bishop's diagonal.

[Event "August Lansing Mini-Swiss"] [Site "?"] [Date "2015.08.09"] [Round "3"] [White "Davidovich, Manis"] [Black "McGrew, Clara"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C02"] [WhiteElo "2234"] [BlackElo "1878"] [Annotator "Jonathan Speelman"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "2015.??.??"] [SourceDate "2015.07.13"] 1. d4 e6 2. e4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bd3 cxd4 6. O-O {CM: I hadn't studied this line. However, it seemed like Manis was very familiar with it.} f6 7. Bb5 Bd7 8. Bxc6 bxc6 9. Qxd4 c5 10. Qf4 {[#]} Qc7 {CM: After the game Maris said that 10...f5 was theoretically best. JS: This is very debatable because there haven't been a huge number of games in this line so "theory " hasn't hardened. White gives up bishop for knight in order to attempt to dominate the black squares and in particular to control e5.10...f5 would prevent a White attack and perhaps prepare ...g5 later after preparation, but I would quite possibly prefer to fight for e5 and 10...Qc7 is perfectly reasonable.} (10... f5) (10... Qb8 {was also possible with the advantage that the queen is defended. This means that if} 11. Qg3 Ne7 12. exf6 gxf6 {is excellent.}) 11. c4 $5 {Attacking the centre but opening a potentially nice diagonal for the d7 bishop.} (11. Qh4 Ne7 12. exf6 Ng6 13. fxg7 Bxg7) (11. Qg3 {was interesting when if} Ne7 12. exf6 Qxg3 13. f7+ Kxf7 14. fxg3 {is scary though Black probably ought to be okay.}) 11... d4 12. b4 fxe5 (12... Ne7 13. bxc5 Ng6 14. Qxd4 Bxc5 {was appealing with a nice initiative for the pawn}) 13. Nxe5 Nf6 14. Qg5 Bd6 $1 {CM Now things got wild.} 15. Qxg7 {[#]} O-O-O (15... Bxe5 {was critical} 16. Qxh8+ Kf7 17. Qxa8 Bc6 18. Qh8 Bxh2+ 19. Kh1 Qe5 20. Bh6 Bxg2+ (20... Qh5 $2 21. Qg7+ Ke8 22. Qg5) 21. Kxg2 Qe4+ 22. f3 Qg6+ 23. Kxh2 (23. Kf2 Qxh6 24. Re1 Qh4+ 25. Ke2 d3+ {is totally asking for it and indeed losing}) 23... Qxh6+ 24. Kg2 Qg6+ { with perpetual check}) 16. Nf7 Bxh2+ 17. Kh1 Be8 $2 ({CM: Stockfish says that} 17... Be5 $1 {was best.} 18. Nxd8 Rxd8 19. Nd2 Rg8 20. Qh6 Bc6 {and Black's attack looks very strong.}) 18. Qxf6 Bxf7 19. f4 $2 (19. g3 $1 {(CM) was best - White is simply winning after this move. I think Manis rejected this move because} Bxg3 20. fxg3 Qxg3 {looks dangerous. However, White has the move} 21. Bf4 $1 {stopping Black's attack, and White is winning. JS Although this is undoubtedly true since if} Qg4 22. Nd2 Be8 {White has} 23. b5 $1 {it would be easy to get worried as White.}) 19... Bg3 20. Nd2 Rhg8 21. Ne4 Rg6 22. Qe5 Rh6+ 23. Kg1 Bh2+ 24. Kf2 Qxe5 25. fxe5 {[#]} Bxe5 $4 {A very sad blunder. I forgot about the Bishop on c1.} 26. Bxh6 d3 27. bxc5 Bd4+ 28. Kf3 Bxa1 29. Rxa1 Kc7 30. Ke3 e5 31. Bg7 Bxc4 32. Bxe5+ Kc6 33. Bd6 Rg8 34. g3 Rg6 35. Nf2 Re6+ 36. Kd4 Re2 37. Kxc4 Rxf2 38. Kxd3 Rg2 39. a4 Rb2 40. Kc3 Rg2 41. Rh1 {The finish of this game was indeed miserable but it was an excellent tussle up to the huge blunder.} 1-0

Nine months later, Clara played the same opponent in a similar opening in another Open.

[Event "Great Lakes Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2016.05.01"] [Round "?"] [White "Davidovich, Manis"] [Black "McGrew, Clara"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C02"] [WhiteElo "2226"] [BlackElo "2001"] [Annotator "Jonathan Speelman"] [PlyCount "132"] [EventDate "2016.??.??"] [SourceDate "2015.07.13"] 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bd7 6. a3 f6 {CM Recommended by Simon Williams.} 7. Bd3 fxe5 8. Nxe5 Nxe5 9. dxe5 Ne7 10. Qh5+ {I don't greatly like this since it helps Black to develop the f8 bishop though admittedly it does weaken f6.} (10. O-O Qc7 11. Re1 O-O-O {was normal}) 10... g6 11. Qe2 Bg7 12. Bg5 c4 13. Bc2 Qb6 14. O-O (14. Bf6 {JS} Bxf6 15. exf6 Nc6 16. O-O O-O {is just bad since f6 will fall.}) (14. Be3 $1 Qc7 15. f4 {was correct.}) 14... Nc6 15. h4 $2 d4 $5 {CM: I thought this was an interesting way of meeting h4.} (15... O-O {was stronger, threatening Qxb2 (of course not 15... Qxb2?? 16.Bxg6+)} 16. h5 Qxb2 17. hxg6 hxg6 {and White is in deep trouble for instance if} 18. Bc1 Qxa1 19. Bxg6 Nxe5 {and the attack obviously founders.}) 16. Be4 (16. Qxc4 {was better and if} Qxb2 17. Ra2 Qb6 18. cxd4) 16... d3 17. Qe1 $2 {CM: This move really surprised me. The queen looks very passive.} Nxe5 18. Kh1 O-O (18... Nf7 19. Nd2 Nxg5 20. hxg5 Rc8 21. Rb1 O-O) 19. f4 Ng4 20. h5 {[#] CM: In the game, this attack looked really scary. What is interesting is that the computer thinks this is nothing for White.} h6 ({JS } 20... Qe3 21. Nd2 Rac8 {was possible if Black is really scared but wouldn't give a big advantage.}) (20... Rf5 {is another move I like.} 21. Nd2 Rc8 { and White has no serious threats at all.}) 21. Qh4 Ne3 22. hxg6 Bc6 {CM: In the game, I thought it was a good practical decision to trade light-squared bishops.} ({I thought that} 22... Nxf1 23. Bxh6 {looked scary for Black. However the computer gives} Ng3+ $1 24. Qxg3 (24. Kh2 {loses to} Qf2 $1) 24... Bxh6 25. Qh4 Rxf4 26. Qxh6 Rf1+ 27. Kh2 Qc7+ $19 {and Black gets out.}) 23. Nd2 Bxe4 24. Nxe4 Qc6 25. Rae1 {[#]} Nxf1 (25... Qxe4 $1 {JS is what Black wants to play but is still very messy in practice} 26. Rxe3 $1 Qxe3 (26... Qxg6 27. Be7 Rf5) 27. Bxh6 {[#]} Qe4 $1 {kills the attack stone dead.} (27... Rf5 $2 { was my first thought "covering the king" but getting mated after} 28. Bxg7 Kxg7 29. Qh7+ Kf6 30. Qf7#) (27... Qe2 28. Re1 Qxe1+ 29. Qxe1 Bxh6 30. Qxe6+ Kg7 31. f5 Rae8 32. Qd7+ Kf6 {should be winning but allows White a lot of checks.}) 28. Rf3 (28. Bxg7 Kxg7 29. Qh7+ Kf6 {is absolutely nothing}) 28... Qxf3 29. gxf3 d2 30. Bxg7 d1=Q+ 31. Kg2 Kxg7 32. Qh7+ Kf6) 26. Bxh6 Bxh6 27. Qxh6 Qd7 28. Rxf1 Qg7 29. Qh4 Qh8 {CM: I wanted to get queens off as soon as possible.} 30. Qxh8+ Kxh8 31. Nd6 {[#] I would very much have wanted to keep the c4 pawn and} Kg7 ( 31... b5 {was stronger because if} 32. Nxb5 Rab8 33. Nd6 Rxb2 34. Nxc4 Re2 { the pawn has been annexed but with the black rook so active she is totally winning} 35. Rd1 (35. Kg1 d2) 35... Rxf4) 32. Nxc4 Rad8 33. Nd2 Kxg6 34. Rf3 Kf5 35. Kg1 Kg4 36. Ne4 Rxf4 37. Nf2+ Kf5 38. Rxd3 Rxd3 39. Nxd3 Rc4 40. Kf2 e5 41. Nb4 Ke4 42. Ke2 Rc8 43. Nd3 Rg8 44. Ne1 {[#] This position is certainly completely winning but with the board quite "small" the knight is a good defender and White can try to fight.} Kf4 45. Nd3+ Kf5 46. Ne1 e4 47. Kf2 Kf4 48. Nc2 Rg3 49. Ne1 e3+ 50. Ke2 Ke4 51. Kd1 Rg6 52. Ke2 Rd6 (52... b5 $1 { would have put White into zugzwang. After} 53. b3 (53. Kf1 Rf6+ 54. Nf3 Kd3 55. Ke1 Rf5 {is easy too}) 53... Rc6 54. c4 bxc4 55. bxc4 Rxc4 {is simple}) 53. Nf3 Rb6 54. b4 Rc6 55. Ng5+ Kf5 56. Nf7 {[#]} Rc7 $2 {CM: A bit of a slip on my part. JS there were several clear wins including} (56... Rxc3 57. Kf3 $1 Ke6 58. Nd8+ Kd5 59. Nxb7 Kd4 60. Nc5 Rxa3 61. g4 a5 62. Ne6+ Kd3 63. Nc5+ (63. bxa5 e2) 63... Kd2 64. Ne4+ Kd1) (56... Rf6 57. g4+ Kf4) 57. Nd6+ Kf4 58. g3+ Kxg3 59. Nb5 $2 ({CM: Amazingly enough} 59. Kxe3 {equalizes} Rxc3+ 60. Kd4 Rxa3 ({JS or} 60... Rc7 61. Nb5 Rd7+ 62. Kc5 a6 63. Na7) 61. Nxb7 {CM: And the computer evaluates this as a draw. JS: Or rather you can feed this six piece endgame to a tablebase Shredder for instance - online-chess/ online-databases/endgame-database.html and it will give the definitive answer of a draw.} Ra4 62. Kc5) 59... Rc6 {CM My opponent was in time pressure at this point.} 60. Nxa7 Rxc3 61. Nb5 Rb3 62. Nd6 Kf4 63. Nc4 Rc3 64. Nd6 Rc2+ 65. Kd1 Rd2+ 66. Ke1 Rxd6 {An excellent fighting game in which Black made plenty of good sensible decisions and kept her balance when she could easily have lost it. It was a shame, that she rather messed up the endgame but she kept on fighting and fully deserved the victory at the end.} 0-1

About the author

Jon was born in 1956 and became a professional player in 1977 after graduating from Worcester College Oxford where he read mathematics. He became an IM in 1977 a GM in 1980 and was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980-2006. Three times British Champion he played twice in the Candidates reaching the semi-final (of what was then a knockout series of matches) in 1989 when he lost 4.5 - 3.5 to Jan Timman. He's twice been a second at the world championship for Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995. He's written for the Observer (weekly) since 1993 and The Independent since 1998. With its closure (going online, but without Jon on board) he's expanding online activity and is also now offering online tuition. He likes puzzles especially (cryptic) crosswords and killer sudokus. If you'd like to contact Jon, then please write to

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register