The joy of getting things done: Jon Speelman's Agony Column #15

by ChessBase
8/17/2016 – "Better a bad plan than no plan at all" is a well-known strategic advice that one should perhaps not take too seriously. Nevertheless, it is true that indecisiveness and agony often go together while energetic play puts the opponent under pressure and provokes mistakes. And having the choice to carry out a bad plan is definitely better than having to play bad moves because you are in "zugzwang". Jon Speelman shows why.

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Agony Column #15

This week's games are by Shaun Graham Bowcaster who is in his thirties. A financial analyst with several degrees and a MENSA member, he was the 2009 Oklahoma State Chess Champion, though his rating has both waned and waxed since then. He's been married for sixteen years and has a daughter Glory who also plays chess.

Shaun contacted me very early on in this column's short life before the format has been fully determined and sent me a number of his games. Several have interesting moments and I'm dipping in and out.

We start with a fairly agonising loss to grandmaster Pavel Blatny, who confused him by playing the Hippopotamus but with White.

Shaun thought at least once about sacrificing a knight for two pawns but presumably talked himself out of it and the result was a very smooth win for the grandmaster.

[Event "G-60"] [Site "OKC"] [Date "2004.06.26"] [Round "5.1"] [White "Blatny, Pavel "] [Black "Graham, Shaun"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A01"] [WhiteElo "2550"] [BlackElo "1820"] [Annotator "Jonathan Speelman"] [PlyCount "55"] [EventDate "2004.06.27"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCategory "1"] [SourceDate "2015.07.13"] 1. b3 e5 2. e3 Nf6 3. Bb2 Nc6 4. d3 Bc5 5. a3 Qe7 6. Nd2 a5 7. g3 d6 8. Bg2 { [#]} Ng4 {Pretty odd. I guess he was thinking about sacririficing on e3 after h3 and then changed his mind.} 9. h3 Nf6 {Very submissive} (9... Nxe3 10. fxe3 Bxe3 {was far from ridiculous and}) (9... Nh6 $5 {made sense of the previous move though it is a real virtue to be able to admit your mistake and retract a move if you decide you were mistaken.}) 10. Ne2 O-O 11. g4 Be6 12. Ng3 Qd7 $6 { This rather tees White up to attack with the knights.} (12... d5 {would have prevented Ne4 in a moment and}) (12... h6 {was conceivable but is rather weakening and would encourage White to attack later.}) 13. g5 Nd5 (13... Ne8 { would have kept the kingside defended. Houdini now suggests} 14. d4 $5 exd4 15. exd4 Nxd4 16. Nde4 {but this is quite against the ethos of the Hippo and neither I nor Luke McShane, who happens to be looking over my shoulder, would have hit on the idea in a million years or certainly not without a very considerable think.}) 14. c4 {After Black declined to sacrifice once I imagine that Blatny presumed - rightly - that he would do so again.} Nde7 ({However,} 14... Nxe3 $1 15. fxe3 Bxe3 {would have created chaos and been much better than what happened.} 16. Nde4 Kh8) 15. Nde4 Bb6 {Walking into a big punch but it's already very difficult} 16. Nh5 Kh8 $6 {[#] The white knights have connected and the position screams out for a sacrifice.} (16... Qc8 17. Nhf6+ gxf6 18. gxf6 Kh8 {is most unpleasant but at least avoids immediate loss.}) 17. Nef6 $5 {Very unpleasant to meet but} (17. Nxg7 $1 {was the way to do it when} Kxg7 18. Nf6 Qc8 19. Qh5 Bf5 20. Qh6+ Kh8 21. Nh5 $1 {simply wins}) 17... gxf6 18. Nxf6 Qc8 19. Qh5 Bf5 20. Be4 Ng8 $2 (20... Rg8 {was a reasonable defence} 21. Nxh7 Rg6 22. Nf6+ (22. Nf8+ Kg7 23. Nxg6 fxg6 {and White has regained material but at the expense of blunting the attack.}) 22... Kg7 {is a battle - Black should be able to defend but might well fail in practice} 23. Qxg6+) (20... Qe6 {was another decent defence}) 21. Nxh7 Bg6 22. Qh4 Kg7 23. Nf6 {[#] Black cannot now untangle and is losing} Rd8 (23... Bf5 24. f4 {was also disastrous for example} Rd8 25. Bxf5 Qxf5 26. e4 Qe6 27. f5 Qe7 28. Qh7+ Kf8 29. Qxg8#) 24. Bxg6 Kf8 {and the rest was mopping up} 25. Qh7 fxg6 26. Qxg8+ Ke7 27. Nd5+ Kd7 28. Qf7+ 1-0

Shaun provided some notes to the next game, indicated as "SG". The other notes are by me  and occasionally I've avoided any possible confusion by labelling them JS.

[Event "May Chall"] [Site "Moore, OK"] [Date "2015.05.16"] [Round "2.2"] [White "Zilajeva, Veronica"] [Black "Graham, Shaun"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E90"] [WhiteElo "1910"] [BlackElo "1988"] [Annotator "Jonathan Speelman"] [PlyCount "88"] [EventDate "2015.04.16"] [EventType "swiss (rapid)"] [EventRounds "4"] [EventCountry "USA"] [EventCategory "1"] [SourceDate "2015.07.13"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. Nf3 d6 5. e4 O-O 6. Bd3 {Normally White puts the bishop on e2 and 6.h3 is another very common line} a6 {SG After the move I thought c6, which is the main move, was more accurate. My thought was to discourage Q-side castling.} 7. a4 c6 (7... a5 {prevents a5 by White}) 8. O-O ( 8. a5 $5 {gains the advantage on the queenside and is very much a move you'd want to play}) 8... a5 $1 {SG Typical and thematic} 9. h3 Na6 10. Be3 Qc7 11. Qd2 Nb4 {[#]} 12. Bb1 {SG This move seems to be the cause of some issues for White, as it blocks in the Rook, and after ...e5 the Bishop is also out of play for some time. JS Yes, Nxd3 isn't much of a threat so it makes sense to get the rook out first} (12. Rac1 {opposite the queen is fairly natural}) 12... b6 13. Bh6 Ba6 14. b3 e5 15. Bxg7 Kxg7 16. Nh2 $11 Rae8 17. f4 Qe7 (17... Nh5) 18. f5 Bc8 (18... exd4 19. Qxd4 Qe5 {SG An attack on the wing should be met by a break in the center - Chess 101 JS White is weak on the black squares and the bishop on b1 is in the way. However, after} 20. Qxe5 {the position isn't so terrible for White} Rxe5 {was my instinctive reaction but d6 is weak then and} (20... dxe5 21. Na2 c5 22. Nxb4 cxb4 23. Bc2 {is certainly better for Black in principle but the position is rather blocked and once the white king gets to e3 it will be very hard to do much.}) 21. Nf3 Re7 22. Rd1 Rd7 {isn't unplayable}) 19. d5 cxd5 20. cxd5 Ba6 21. Rf3 Ng8 $6 (21... Rc8 {was normal taking the c-file and putting pressure on c3}) 22. Qf2 Rb8 23. Ng4 f6 24. Ne3 g5 {SG A practical decision to try to reduce calculation time as time was low.} (24... Rbc8 $11) 25. h4 (25. Na2 $14) 25... h6 26. hxg5 {[#]} hxg5 (26... fxg5 {SG Is interesting and probably leads to a dynamic equality but with little time left it seems to be too risky JS White can then take the exchange of course but that is not a good idea:} 27. f6+ Rxf6 28. Nf5+ Rxf5 29. exf5 ({if} 29. Rxf5 Rc8 30. Na2 Nf6 {Black is better due to the terrible bishop on b1}) 29... Nf6 30. Be4 {and the bishop has found a square of sorts, but all of Black's minor pieces are excellent and he is at least equal.}) 27. Ng4 Nh6 28. Nxh6 Kxh6 29. Rh3+ Kg7 $15 {SG Black's king security issues are resolved} 30. Bc2 Nxc2 $5 {Although the bishop isn't currently active it does have some potential and for instance if} (30... Rbc8 31. Rc1 Rc5 32. Bd1 Rfc8 33. Be2 { is perfectly playable}) 31. Qxc2 Qc7 32. Qf2 Qc5 {[#]} 33. Qxc5 {This gives Black a delightful target on b3, but the queen was very disruptive on c5} bxc5 34. Nd1 Rb4 35. Nf2 Rfb8 36. Ra3 Be2 {to prevent Ng4 but} (36... Rd4 37. Ra2 Rbb4 {was more to the point. Black will play ...c4 and then target the a-pawn but will have to be careful that he doesn't allow White to get counterplay with a rook on the seventh.}) 37. Re3 Bh5 38. g4 {With the g4-square blocked it will be harder for White to get play even if a rook manages to enter Black's position since the knight will have problems to join him.} (38. Rh3 Be2 39. Re3 {would have forced Black to vary in search of a win}) 38... Be8 39. Kf1 $2 (39. Rc3 {SG was necessary} Rd4 40. Ra2 Rbb4 41. Rac2 Bd7 42. Kg2 Bc8 43. Kf3 Ba6 44. Ke3 {JS and White is passive but pretty solid}) 39... c4 $1 40. bxc4 Rxc4 41. Nd1 Rc1 (41... Rxa4 $1 {SG was the simplest but here both sides had less than a minute on the clock.}) 42. Ke2 Rc4 (42... Rb4 $1 {keeps more pressure.}) 43. Nc3 Rb2+ {[#]} 44. Kd3 $4 (44. Kf3 Rbb4 $15 {and Black is better but the game continues}) 44... Rd4# {a snap checkmate - - and Agony and Ecstasy in chess encapsulated in a single move.} 0-1

To conclude briefly a nice example of the devastating effect which zugzwang can have in an ending.

[Event "4th Fall Op"] [Site "Stillwater"] [Date "2015.10.17"] [Round "2.6"] [White "Graham, Shaun"] [Black "Helff, Florian"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A36"] [WhiteElo "1980"] [Annotator "Speelman,Jonathan"] [PlyCount "119"] [EventDate "2015.10.18"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "5"] [EventCategory "2"] [SourceDate "2015.07.13"] 1. c4 c5 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. d3 d6 6. e4 e5 7. Nge2 Nge7 8. O-O O-O 9. Be3 Nd4 10. h3 Nec6 11. Kh2 a6 12. Qd2 Rb8 13. Bh6 Qd7 14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15. Nxd4 Nxd4 16. Rad1 b5 17. b3 b4 18. Ne2 Nxe2 {Here Black offered a draw.} 19. Qxe2 Bb7 20. f4 f6 21. Bf3 Bc8 22. Qg2 a5 23. Rd2 a4 24. Rdf2 Qe8 25. Bg4 Bxg4 26. hxg4 axb3 27. axb3 Qd7 28. Qf3 h5 29. gxh5 gxh5 30. Kg2 Qg4 31. Qe3 h4 32. Rf3 Ra8 33. R1f2 Ra5 34. Qe1 h3+ 35. Kh2 Ra2 36. fxe5 Qxf3 37. Rxa2 fxe5 38. Qe2 Qxe2+ 39. Rxe2 Rf1 40. Kxh3 Rb1 41. Kg4 Rxb3 42. Rd2 Kg6 43. Kh4 Rc3 44. Kg4 b3 45. Kf3 Rc2 46. Rd1 b2 47. Rb1 Rd2 48. Ke3 Rc2 49. g4 {[#] The critical position.} Rh2 {Black now starts drifting. The position was winning with the help of zugzwang but required quite a lot of care.} (49... Kg5 50. Kf3 Rh2 51. Rf1 (51. Kg3 Rd2) 51... Rd2 52. Ke3 Rc2 53. Rb1 Kxg4 54. Rg1+ {[#] and there are two quite different winning methods} Kh3 ({If Black aims to play ...Kc3 then the white king can head for e6:} 54... Kh5 55. Rb1 Kg5 56. Kf3 Kf6 57. Kg3 Ke6 58. Kg4 Kd7 59. Kf5 Rf2+ 60. Kg4 Kc6 61. Kg3 Rc2 62. Kg4 Kb6 63. Kf5 { [#] And Black should just take pawns rather than continue with the king march which would lead to an ending with rook against pawns which actually might be drawn} Rd2 $1 (63... Ka5 64. Ke6 Kb4 65. Kxd6 Kc3 66. Kxe5) 64. Ke6 Kc6 65. Ke7 Rxd3 66. Rxb2 Rd4 67. Rb8 Rxc4 68. Rc8+ Kb7 69. Rh8 Rd4) 55. Rh1+ Kg3 56. Rg1+ Kh2 57. Rb1 Kg2 $1 {[#] My first thought was that this wins instantly but White can still wriggle with} 58. Re1 $1 Rf2 59. Rb1 {However after} Rf3+ 60. Ke2 Rf8 61. Ke3 Rf2 62. Re1 Rf1 63. Re2+ Kg3 64. Rxb2 Rf3+ 65. Kd2 Rf2+ 66. Kc3 Rxb2 67. Kxb2 {[#]} Kf2 $1 (67... Kf3 $2 68. Kb3 {is a draw}) 68. Kb3 Ke1 69. Kc2 Ke2 70. Kc3 Kd1 {wins}) 50. Rg1 Rh3+ $4 {Now the king gets to c3 and White holds} (50... Kg5 {would soon transpose to the previous note}) 51. Kd2 Rh2+ 52. Kc3 Kg5 53. Kb3 b1=Q+ 54. Rxb1 Kxg4 55. Rg1+ Kh5 56. Rg8 Rh3 57. Rh8+ Kg4 58. Rg8+ Kh4 59. Rh8+ Kg4 60. Rg8+ 1/2-1/2

Did you play agonising/ecstatic games that you would like to share? Send them in to! The winners - that is, if your games get published - will receive a free copy of Nicholas Pert's ChessBase DVD "Typical Mistakes by 1800-2000 players".

Nicholas Pert:
Typical mistakes by 1800-2000 players

GM Nicholas Pert about his DVD: “After the success of my previous DVD Typical mistakes by 1600-1900 players I decided to produce a follow up DVD aimed at players of a slightly higher level. The examples all come from games played by players with a rating between 1800 and 2100. This DVD offers slightly more complex material than the previous DVD, and will hopefully provide an insight into what I believe are the main errors which stop players of this level to be more successful. I divided the material into categories such as “when to exchange pieces”, “how to convert an advantage”, “passive pieces”, “anticipating your opponents plan”, “openings and pawn structure”. Each section contains several examples which illustrate the theme and practical examples which allow the viewer to test his skills. This DVD provides a useful training tool for ambitious players and may highlight mistakes that the viewer should be aware of.”

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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

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