Although I played this game back in January, it might be the most memorable of this year so far. As most of my games are rather dry, I thought this one might be worthy of analysis.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+
A popular alternative to the Open Sicilian starting with 3.d4. With optimal play, black’s fine everywhere, so why bother learning a massive amount of theory in the main line Najdorf, when you can just opt for something easier and perfectly reasonable like 3.Bb5+?
3. …Nd7 4.Ba4!?
This wonderfully stupid move actually has a point. When I came across it while preparing for the game, the move had been played only 5 times, all in 2017. By now, there are 12 games in this variation, one of them being Zherebukh – So from the US-Championship 2018.
Let’s try to explain. Black’s last move, 3. …Nd7, which is considered the more ambitious alternative to 3. …Bd7, obviously avoids the trade of light-squared bishops. Since generally one shouldn’t give up a bishop for a knight without some kind of justification, White now has to think about what to do with that piece, which he so swiftly sent to b5; it could get harassed with …a6 at any time. In the main lines after 3. …Nd7 (4.0-0, 4.d4), White actually intends to part with the bishop (of course only after seeing …a6). Instead, with 4.Ba4, he prophylactically retreats in order to retain the bishop-pair.
There are pretty deep tactical justifications too, though. One of the main themes of this line is sacrificing a pawn for a dangerous initiative.
4. …Nf6 (I take a look at the important alternative 4. …a6 at the end of this article) 5.0-0!
Donating a pawn. I was glad my opponent accepted the challenge by taking it, as I got exactly what I wanted.
5. …Nxe4?! (safer and better was a calm move like 5. …e6 or, as in Zherebukh – So, 5. …a6 6.c4 g6.) 6.Re1 Nf6 7.d4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 e6 9.Nb5!
Problems! Suddenly, that bishop on a4 makes a whole lot of sense and Black has to be careful not to lose immediately (which he can achieve with 9. …Nc5 10.Nxd6++ Ke7 11.Nf5# by the way). Holding on to material here with 9. …d5 loses on the spot to the simple 10.Bf4. The best line seems to be 9. …Be7 10.Nxd6+ Kf8, but that is not a very human thing to do.
9. …a6 10.Nxd6+ Bxd6 11.Qxd6 Qe7 12.Bf4
I spent about 30 minutes on that last move, deciding between the simple 12.Qxe7+ and my choice 12.Bf4, after which my main consideration was 12. …Nd5, where I was trying to make a beautiful queen sacrifice work – 13.Qxd5?! exd5 14.Nc3!
Sadly, I had to realise that with two precise (and only!) moves, black should be fine: 14. …Qe6! (anything else is terrible, for example 14. …Qxe1+? 15.Rxe1+ Kd8 16.Nxd5 and 17.Bc7# is a lethal threat) 15.Nxd5 0-0! with an unclear position.
Instead, after 12. …Nd5, I would have had to settle for 13.Be5 or 13.Bg3, retaining a clear advantage.
12. …Qxd6 13.Bxd6 b6?
After this tactical oversight it’s over. 13. …b5 was needed, after which I planned on 14.Bb3 Bb7 15.Nc3 Rc8(?) 16.a4 Nc5 17.Bxc5 Rxc5 18.axb5 axb5 19.Nxb5! –
since 19. …Rxb5? 20.Ba4 Bc6 21.Bxb5 Bxb5 22.Ra8+ picks up the rook.
14.Bc6 Ra7 15.Bb8 Rb7 16.Bxb7 Bxb7 17.Bd6 Ne4 18.Ba3 Nec5 19.Nd2 0-0 20.Rad1 Nf6 21.Nc4 Rb8 22.Nxb6 1 – 0
Let’s explore one more line in the opening:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.Ba4 a6
A logical and sensible move.
preventing Black from expanding on the queenside with …b5.
5. …Nf6 6.0-0!
Again! Let’s get rid of the pawn – after all, it’s just blocking pathways to the black king.
6. …Nxe4?! (6. …e6) 7.Re1 Nf6 8.d4!
Just as in the game, but with …a6 and c4 included.
8. …e6 9.d5 e5 10.Nxe5! –
is another line where White’s setup makes some serious sense.
9.Nxd4 e6 10.Nc3 Be7
and it seems like Black is totally fine until 11.Rxe6!! –
lands on the board.
11. …fxe6 12.Nxe6 Qa5 13.Bd2! Qe5 14.Nc7+ Kf7 15.Nxa8 –
with a total mess. White’s better though. At least that’s what Mr. Houdini told me.