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Player: United  KeSetoKaibaChessHere Gold Member Subject: The Fight For c5 & The Backward Pawn

2020-09-14 10:17:09
The Fight For c5 & The Backward Pawn

This game is an instructional example of how to fight for a square and how to target weaknesses. This game is from 1908 with Akiba Rubinstein as White and Georg Salwe as Black. It is round 3 in the Lodz event (Lodz, RUE). In my research of this game, I’ve also included some annotations from the German chess player Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941; aged 72). Even today, Lasker’s dominant chess reign was impressive and he is still generally regarded as one of the strongest chess players ever.

Actually, it is quite significant to hear Lasker’s perspective. In my opinion, Akiba Rubinstein may have been one of the strongest chess players ever to have never won a world championship match. Despite beating world-class players like Capablanca or Schlechter, Rubinstein never got his world championship match. He was scheduled to play none other than Lasker himself for the 1914 world championship chess match, but it was cancelled as the first world war broke out (WWI). Sadly, Rubinstein couldn’t maintain the same form of chess afterwards and his last years were impacted by mental illness. Just over a decade later, Rubinstein would pass away - never getting his world championship opportunity, despite his obvious chess talent.

Here we see Rubinstein (playing the White pieces) fight for the critical c5 square early on in this game and putting eventual pressure against the c6 backwards pawn Salwe has.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 This opening is the less popular Tarrasch Defense. In fact, this fighting opening was an integral part of the Black repertoire for a young Garry Kasparov in the early 1980s. At highest level play, The Tarrasch is probably dubious for Black; Kasparov seemed to have reached this conclusion as well after losing to Karpov at their 1984 World Championship match in Moscow.

The Tarrasch Defense can be a powerful weapon - especially if a surprise one; however, the Black isolated d-pawn is something to be aware of and not underestimated. White can usually gain the slight edge by playing against this structural weak point.

4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nf6 6. g3 Nc6 7. Bg2 Thus far, I have been playing like Rubinstein because I’ve gotten this exact position from the White side many times before! Of course, this is less impressive than it sounds: all of this is well-established opening theory. In this position, Lasker’s own annotations state, “Already this mode of developing the Bishop is determined by the weakness of Black on d5.”

cxd4 8. Nxd4 Qb6 This is still in opening theory. This opening is the “Tarrasch Defense: Two Knights, Rubinstein, Prague Variation, 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4.” You have to love an opening with a short name, don’t you?

As far as objective evaluation goes, 8…Qb6 is a fine move, but Black scores slightly better with 8…Bc5 according to my opening database. Play might continue: 8…Bc5 9. Nb3 Bb6 and the game result is still anyone’s guess. After 8…Qb6 9. Nxc6 bxc6, I think White gets a slight advantage after simply castling on move 10.

9. Nxc6 bxc6 10. O-O Be7 Of course, that is precisely what we get here.

11. Na4! The idea with 11. e4! also makes a lot of sense too. After the 11. e4 idea, Black can’t push the pawn due to something like 11…d4?! 12. e5 (if 12…Nd5 then 13. Na4 is strong) 12…dxc3?! 13. exf6 gxf6 (13…Bxf6?? is disastrous with 14. Qd6! and Black is positionally lost.) 14. Be3 and White is much better.

However, I find 11. Na4! to be instructive because it cuts right to the heart of the position instead of striking in the center (which as shown above also favors White here). 11. Na4! takes aim at the important c5 square already and also gains a tempo on the Black Queen in the process. Lasker writes on the position after White’s 11th move, “White concentrates on c5 and c6.”

Qb5 Black tries to keep the Queen close to c5 and c6 for added support. How should White best continue?

12. Be3 O-O 13. Rc1 12. Qc2 was also possible but the reason for 12. Be3 is apparent. Not only does this develop a piece and make room for the Rook, but the Bishop on e3 also eyes the important c5 square that Rubinstein is contesting.

Bg4 This move attempts to threaten the e2 pawn and also make room for a potential Rook on c8 to help aid in the defense of c5 and c6. Lasker’s annotations here say: “Black should rather strengthen c6 by …Bd7.”

14. f3!? Be6 The f3 idea is an ugly-looking move because it keeps the fianchetto Bishop corralled, but this is a superficial judgement; f3 is an interesting idea by Rubinstein. It is a strong move that understands the position and maintains the Bishop Pair - while simultaneously threatening the opponent’s Bishop Pair; the g2 Bishop may not be so active for the moment, but the Bishop Pair can be a strong asset in the endgame - especially on an open chess board. This is so much so that strong chess players like Rubinstein are not afraid of keeping a Bishop inactive for a while if they may keep it for later in the chess game.

Instead of 14. f3!? right away, 14. Qc2 Rac8 doesn’t give White as much pragmatic play as they would like. The 14. f3!? move keeps the initiative: Black must react to the threatened Bishop.

In fact, 14. f3!? was such an attractive move by Rubinstein that it has been repeated by strong players in contemporary chess as well. One such game was played in 2011 from this exact position and White also chose to keep the initiative with the same f3!? idea. The 2011 game with Laurie Delorme (2223) vs Ansgar Barthel (2224) reached this identical position, although from a different move order. That game got here by: 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Bg5 cxd4 10. Nxd4 Qb6 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. Na4 Qb5 13. Rc1 Be6 14. Be3 Bg4 15. f3!? where Black then chose 15…Bf5 but eventually White won anyhow.

15. Bc5 Rfe8 We once again get to a creative point for Rubinstein. How should White continue development?

16. Rf2!? Nd7 The idea of developing the Rook to f2 is creative and fairly unintuitive; most chess players would rather play something like 16. Qc2 and “connect the Rooks”, but placing the Rook on f2 instead must have some plan. Indeed, it does! White was babysitting the e2 pawn and so this move adds another defender to it for now and prepares the long-term plan of e2-e3 and then Rfc2 with decisive c-file pressure. Note that if 16. Qc2, then this idea would not be possible. Rubinstein has a good positional understanding about trying to assess where pieces should be ideally placed; White can add more pressure to c5 if the Rooks are doubled on the c-file and the Queen is on d4. It is a positional plan that may not manifest instantly, but the logic behind 16. Rf2!? impresses me and reveals Rubinstein’s outside the box thinking.

17. Bxe7 Rxe7 Again, Qc2 is a fine move, but it would negate the purpose of the earlier Rf2!? so Qd4 is the way for Rubinstein to continue the plan.

18. Qd4 Ree8 19. Bf1 Rec8 20. e3 Qb7 The plan is going like clockwork, for White, and Bf1 was even thrown in to kick the Queen back and away from c5.

21. Nc5 This move is instructive because beginners would be timid about placing the Knight on this square - out of fear that Black will simply exchange Knights. This is precisely what White hopes for! Exchanging pieces does not change the square weaknesses and White will still have control over c5 after the Knights are traded. Also note that the Knight on a4 surely looked less active than the d7 counterpart, so White would benefit from this move: at least from the perspective of piece activity.

Finally, it is important to highlight that if Black ignored the c5 Knight (something like 21…Qc7) then White should not be tempted to capture the Bishop via Nxe6. Why is the Bishop not important to White though? White’s fight is primarily over c5 right now. The light-squared Bishop can never influence a dark-square like c5, so White would not want to trade it for a piece that can potentially control c5 (like the Knight can). Once the opponent’s options are taken away, we are that much closer to reaching zugzwang: or at the very least, an unrivaled piece.

Nxc5 22. Rxc5 Rc7 23. Rfc2 Qb6 At last, White’s f2 Rook found the c-file that it was eyeing since move 16. With one more task completed, White stands slightly better than Black already. All of White’s heavy pieces (Queen and Rooks) are active; meanwhile, Black still has a Rook asleep at the switch on a8. Also, White’s Bishop appears more active than its rival on e6. The e6 piece looks like a tall pawn. White is positionally better already and it is simply a matter of technique and finesse to convert the full point. As Emanuel Lasker once said though, “The hardest game to win is a won game.”

24. b4 a6 25. Ra5 Rb8 26. a3 Ra7 This is a fine move by Black with 26…Ra7. The Queen trade can only seem good for White, but Black didn’t really have a great way of keeping the Queens on the chess board. 26…Qb7 avoids the Queens coming off immediately, but then Black must be willing to address 27. Bxa6 when White wins a pawn. One may argue that this option is better for Black because they were losing anyway (and the a-pawn is not an important part of Black’s position), but in practical play: I think giving up the a-pawn is risky. Material was even, so giving up the material lead (even if just a pawn) is something concrete that White can hold onto. Positional considerations are not as concrete; they are not always as permanent. This is why I believe Black decided to allow the Queen trade; they have better chances to hold the position if they are not also down by a pawn.

27. Rxc6! Winning a pawn anyway! This might have been a shock. It is worth mentioning that 27…Qb7?! would dubiously drop another pawn because then the a6 pawn would only have two Black defenders, but three White attackers.

Qxc6 28. Qxa7 The tactical idea behind the previous move for White.

Ra8 29. Qc5 Qb7 This small improvement is important for White. 29. Qc5 puts the Queen in a commanding position to control the open c-file. Black didn’t want to trade Queens now. It was not appealing when material was equal, so it certainly doesn’t seem better now that Black is now down in material. Black is probably not thrilled with giving up the c-file, but they are not really in a position to contest it. With White now stabilizing the Queenside, they are free to slowly improve the position elsewhere. Kingside expansion and activating the King for the endgame (bringing it up the board and closer to the action) both seem logical.

30. Kf2 h5 31. Be2 g6 32. Qd6 Qc8 As soon as the White Queen slowly begins to infiltrate by leaving the c-file, Black tries to pounce on the opportunity to recapture control of the c-file. Unfortunately for Black, the White Rook will now relieve the Queen of her c-file command from the c5 square - which frees the Queen to become involved in other plans. This is a thematic plan to have in mind. If a strong piece (like the White Queen) is tied down to a defensive duty (like defending the c-file from Black’s potential presence there), it is usually a good idea if you can successfully delegate that role to a piece of lesser value. This way, you can free your stronger pieces for other ambitions.

33. Rc5 Qb7 It is of little surprise that White would move the Rook here if this thematic “changing of the guard” has been seen before. This is one reason that study of grandmaster chess games (or at least that of strong chess players) is useful. The more patterns and thematic plans you familiarize yourself with: then the more likely you are to find, or literally create, them in your own games.

34. h4 a5 35. Rc7 Qb8 36. b5 a4 37. b6 Ra5 38. b7 1-0 With this, White finally converts the full point with Black resigning. The passed b-pawn is too much to handle. How did White create this asset? It wasn’t as trivial as starting with 36. b5 and then 37. b6 and 38. b7. This would overlook how White was able to create the superior position that made a passed pawn possible. This time, it was a passed pawn, but next time it may be a different asset chosen that will lead the faction to victory. A deep insight may claim something along the lines of this plan beginning way back at move 11 with 11. Na4! Did this mean that Rubinstein calculated this deeply from move 11 to move 38? Of course not, but it does indicate that positional considerations often times take many moves to fully take effect and this is what we witness here.

Let us take this as a lesson and don’t rush positional chess. If your position is slowly becoming better than the opponent, then there is seldom a rush to do something drastic (like sacrificing material). It is often times best to slowly improve the position as much as possible when the opponent is helpless and only then launch dramatic measures like pouncing on the attack (and even sacrificing material when justified). By waiting and improving the position first, whatever plans you follow through with will be potentially more dangerous.

Sharp attacking chess and sacrifices are better when the opponent is not helpless and you must seize the opportunity before it vanishes. In this game, we watched Rubinstein fight for the c5 square and play against the backward pawn on c6. We then saw Rubinstein expand this advantage gained into influence over the entire c-file and eventually the entire game. It took many moves to do, but positional chess is slower like this and we must learn to be patient for our fruits of earlier play to grow into a beautiful game.
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