Robson, Nigel (2683) - Sirota, Anatoli (2556)
WC-2006-F-00001 (Lechenicher SchachServer), 09/12/2007

[Comments by Nigel Robson]

Anatoli Sirota stormed into an early lead in the Championship with three quick wins almost before the rest of us had got going. With his reputation as a previous winner he was the clear favourite and I realised that to have any chance myself I would have to defeat him. I had not encountered Anatoli before and felt a little handicapped as I could find very few of his previous games in my databases, so had little idea of his playing style. I was lucky, though, to have the advantage of the white pieces.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O b5 6.Bb3 Bb7 The Arkhangelsk Variation of the Ruy Lopez
7.d3 Be7 Transposing to ECO C84, Anatoli's defence of choice in this tournament. He played it five times. There are a number of playable responses, Claridge chose d4, Chovanec a4, Blanco and De Silva Re1. I felt comfortable with the more common Nc3, a natural developing move. I selected as a template the 2006 game between Khairullin and Khalifman. It had ended in a comfortable draw for Khalifman, but I was aware of a number of simple improvements for White which could give a small advantage from the opening. Anatoli may or may not have been aware of this earlier game, but if he was he may have been tempted to follow Khalifman's line by the prospect of a fairly easy draw. Also the Black moves are logical responses and if there were such a thing as a main line here, this would be it.
8.Nc3 O-O 9.Bd2 d6 10.Nd5 Nxd5 11.Bxd5 Rb8 Black frees his knight from the pin on his bishop. Alternatively he might have played Qc8 or better Qd7 followed by Rfb8. The rook on b8 has the advantage of supporting a later pawn push to b4 with the purpose of weakening White's centre, but the use of the a-rook gives White the prospect of opening and controlling the a-file.
12.c3 Bf6 13.a4 Ne7 14.Bxb7 Rxb7 15.axb5 axb5 The a-file is opened and gives White a small advantage.
[15...Rxb5 does not work:
16.b4 Qc8 17.Qa4 Rb6 18.Be3 c5 19.bxc5 dxc5 20.Qc4 and White should win a pawn.]
16.Be3!? A new move. Khairullin plays in the centre with d4 before Be3, but I have in mind taking control of the a-file with doubled rooks, Qb3, Ra6, Rfa1, and my black bishop is looking more at a7 than d4.
[The earlier game continued
16.d4 Ng6 17.Be3 b4 18.d5 bxc3 19.bxc3 Nh4 20.Nxh4 Bxh4 21.Rb1 Rxb1 22.Qxb1 Bg5 23.Bxg5 Qxg5 24.Qb7 Qd8 25.Ra1 1/2-1/2. Khalifman successfully cleared the a- and b-files, and liquidated the minor pieces and a pair of rooks for a comfortable draw.]
16...b4? Premature. Khalifman pushed b4 after White's d4 to weaken the White centre. But in this game White's d-pawn is still at d3 and now c4 becomes viable leaving Black's b-pawn looking a little isolated.
[Better might have been
16...c5 17.d4 exd4 18.cxd4 Qc7 19.Ra6 c4 20.Qd2 Ng6 21.Rfa1 Still a nice position for White, but Black is better off than in the game.]
17.Qb3 Gaining a tempo.
17...Qb8 18.c4 c5 Probably tactically necessary both to support b4 and prevent c5, but closes the centre as neither of us can exploit d4 or d5. My control of the a-file will emphasise the weakness of d6.
19.Ra6 Rc8 20.Rfa1 The opening skirmishes are over. My position is completely secure and I have achieved my objective of taking control of the a-file, the only open file, with doubled rooks. The closed centre is an unexpected bonus. I feel I have a healthy strategic advantage and can now turn my attention to the kingside. If I am able to develop space and perhaps break at f4 to create a second weakness, I will have good winning chances. Much will depend on how Anatoli chooses to defend.
20...Nc6 Reinforces a7 and it looks as though Black is going to contest the a-file. If not, then the knight might be better placed on g6, supporting f4 and h4 and able to protect the king on f8 if necessary.
21.h4 Qc7
[I had expected
21...h5 , though
22.Qd1 g6 23.Ng5 Qc7 24.g4 hxg4 25.Qxg4 Qd7 26.f3 and it is still not easy for Black.]
[Better perhaps
21...Ra7 22.Rxa7 Nxa7 23.h5 h6 24.Nh2 Qb7 would have given White more to think about.]
22.h5 h6 23.Nh2 Rb6 Anatoli is clearly uncomfortable with Ra7.
24.R6a4 A tactical withdrawal. The rook will return.
24...Qd7 Switching to the kingside and I must do the same.
25.Qd1 Qe6
[Maybe 25...Kf8 26.Qg4 Ke8 is a better defensive setup. If Black cannot stop the f4 break then he needs to keep d6 secure or challenge White's weakness at d3. If queens are exchanged the Black king is more useful in the centre.]
[The only move that seems to keep the momentum going for White. At the time I was nervous fearing that an early exchange of Queens would favour Black but perhaps I had underestimated the direct
26.Qg4 Qxg4 27.Nxg4 Be7 28.f4!]
26...Be7 27.g3 Rf8 Is my opponent looking for counterplay? He seems to be preparing f5.
28.Kg2 I continue to prepare f4
28...Rfb8 Is it a change of mind or was 27... Rf8 just a feint? I am unclear, but Anatoli has lost a tempo and not disrupted my progress.
29.b3 Bd8 Black has cut off both his rooks from the kingside. Now is a good moment to force the play.
30.Qxe6! fxe6 31.Ng4 R6b7 32.f4! I have made considerable progress. The plan to break at f4 was quite simple and well advertised, so Anatoli's reluctance to obstruct f4 or seek counterplay suggests to me that he felt this position was defendable. But Black is cramped, his vital d-pawn is weak, and he has no prospect of getting behind the White defence. White will enjoy a central pawn majority, has mastery of the only open file the a-file, and the h5-pawn is a real nuissance. White holds all the cards and Anatoli will need to defend very accurately to save the game.
32...exf4 33.gxf4 Bb6?
[Black frees the back rank for his rook and reinforces his control of a7, but has underestimated the threat of e5. He may have rejected
33...Be7 because it impedes the b7-rook, but it is necessary to defend his queenside pawns. For example
34.Ra6 Rc7 35.Kf3 Rf8 36.Ra8 Rxa8 37.Rxa8+ Kf7 Black's defence is better organised and much of the venom has been taken from White's e5. The game has a different character and a win for White is no longer straightforward.]
34.Kf3 Intent on gaining a tempo, advancing the king towards the centre in anticipation of the endgame. Later the king will transfer to e2 where it can defend the weak d3-pawn.
34...Rf7 35.Ra8 Threatening 36. Rxb8 Nxb8 e5 +-. Taking the white rook also loses tactically.
[Forces the rook exchange, and the bishop will recapture. Preferable may be
35...Bc7 and then
36.Rxb8+ Nxb8 prevents Ra6, but is probably only enough to extend the game, not change the result.]
36.Rxb8+ Bxb8 37.Ra6 Nd8 Black's minor pieces are now poorly placed to defend his queenside pawns.
38.e5! Attacking the root of the pawn chain and undermining c5.
38...dxe5 39.Ke2 exf4 40.Bxc5 Kh7 Avoids the possibility of the back rank minor pieces being pinned, but the king cannot help the defence from here.
41.Bxb4 Rf5 42.Bd6 Bxd6 Black has no choice but to exchange bishops, clearing the way for White's pawns.
43.Rxd6 Nf7 44.Rd7 f3+ 45.Kf1 Better than going to f2 which is best kept available for the knight, but frustrating to return to the back rank.
45...Kg8 46.b4 White must take advantage of his advanced passed pawns. Black's only hope is if White delays.
46...Rxh5 47.Nf2 Re5 48.Ne4 Anatoli probably wanted to move his rook behind my pawns via e2, but it is easily blocked and my knight is well placed on e4 too.
48...Rh5 49.d4 Kf8 50.c5 Rd5 51.Rxd5 exd5 52.Nc3 Black resigns. The d5-pawn will fall and it is clear that one of White's three passed pawns must win the race to promotion and with it the game.
There were no killer moves or deep tactics in this game, just the gradual accumulation of small strategic advantages that is the staple of much correspondence chess. While we were playing this game, unknown to us, another correspondence game was being fought out between Szczepankiewicz and Kozlowski with some similar themes, and can be found in the Chessbase online database. There White controlled the only open a-file but Black avoided b4 and secured a draw through counterplay on the f-file.


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