The Fabulous 10s: The Fine Art of Chess Nihilism

The Fine Art of Trying for Nothing At All

IM Levon Altounian recently qualified for the 2010 US Championship by winning an online State Champions qualifier on the ICC.  I have had experience in this event, winning a West qualifier (a bunch of 3 0 games) a few years ago only to stumble in a playoff vs. Connecticut master Ted McHugh.  Indeed, online ICC games of any importance are very nervy affairs.

Altounian’s toughest match was the semi-final vs the Northern California champion, IM Sam Shankland.  Two games were contested at the time control of Game in 25 minutes with a 3 second increment.

In this two-game mini-match, Altounian showed how “doing nothing” (chess nihilism) is actually a dangerous weapon, especially in faster time controls. If the opponent doesn’t react well to “nothing”, then technique takes over.

I think the times on ICC are accurate so I will use them in this story.

Game 1.

L. Altounian (Arizona)  –  S Shankland ( NoCal )   G/25 + 3 sec increment

1. e4!?

A surprise!   Levon doesn’t play his usual Catalan!  I can imagine that before this game Altounian worked out riskless sidelines to respond to any black move.

1…e5!?

A surprise from Shankland!  I would have expected 1…c5 then some riskless move from white such as 2. c3 and a probable draw.   Black’s surprise move results in a good game for him!

2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. Nc3 This knight does not look happy here!

What a strange move!  An excellent example of nihilism.  White simply says “I’m trying for nothing, let’s just make some more moves.”

5…f6 This move is perfectly good.

Also fine is the active 5… Bc5!? 6. Nxe5 (6. d3 Qe7 7. Be3 Bxe3 8. fxe3 Nf6 9. O-O O-O =) 6… Qg5 7. d4 Qxg2 8. Qf3 (8. Rf1? Bh3 wins)  Qxf3 9. Nxf3 Bb4 =.

6. d4 exd4 7. Nxd4 c5! Why not?  White gets a very awkward formation.

8. Nde2 Qxd1+ 9. Nxd1

This is playing for a win?! No.. it’s playing for a non-loss!

Playing for a non-loss!

However I will be bold here and say white could, in fact, lose this!  This just means chess is not an easy game and white can’t force a draw so easily.

9…Bd7 I would definitely prefer 9…Be6 to keep the d-file open after castles long.  Then, if as in the game 10. Bf4 O-O-O 11. Ne3 Ne7 12. f3 g5! 13. Bg3 Bg7!  and black is very happy with the latent power of the bishop pair.  All of black’s pieces are very active.  If we were to talk about “winning chances for black” in an exchange Ruy Lopez, this would be it.  In the game, transferring the bishop from d7 to c6 is also good and gives black nice tactical motifs shortly.

10. Bf4 O-O-O 11. Ne3 Bc6 12. f3

To ...g7-g5 or not to ...g7-g5?

I can imagine black was very confident here.  He also had, as in the previous note, the immediate 12… g5! 13. Bg3 Ne7 14. h4 (on other moves, black is doing well) 14…g4! 15. Nxg4 f5! with fantastic compensation.   14…Bg7 was also fine for black in this line.

12…Ne7 13. Kf2 g6 Black may have been reluctant to weaken squares, but the space grabbing 13… g5 was still good.    At this point, black had 18 minutes left and white had 22 minutes left.  This means that white may have been better off playing 13. h4! before Kf2.

14. Rad1 Bg7 15. h4 h6 Black could play nihilistically here with 15…Rxd1 16. Rxd1 Re8 (doing nothing) and be all right.  The problem for white is if the game opens, the bishop pair comes into their own.

16. g4 f5 Sharpening the play.  Black has 15 minutes left and white has 20 minutes left.  Objectively, black is still fine but it’s not easy in a fast game.

17. gxf5

Key Moment

17…Bxb2? The position is tricky. Correct is simply 17…gxf5. If 18. exf5? Rdf8! is very good for black due to 19. Ng3 Bxb2 with a black edge.   If 18.  Rxd8+ Rxd8 19. exf5 Rf8! again is correct. Black is OK in this line after, for example, 20. Rg1 Bf6! hitting h4.  Since the position has just become unexpectedly sharp, this miscue has severe consequences.

18. Rxd8+ Rxd8 Essentially forced. 18…Kxd8 runs into 19. Nc4 Bf6 20. Be5! with a big edge.

19. c3? Winning is the brute force 19. fxg6 Nxg6 20. Bxh6, for example 20…Rh8 21. Bg5 and the pawns roll.  It is natural for a human in a fast time control to go for the “piece trap” but this should have squandered much of the edge.

19… gxf5 20. Rb1 fxe4 21. fxe4 Ba3?! Here it’s important to get rid of white’s h-pawn.  Thus 21… Ng6! 22. Rxb2 (22. h5?? Nxf4 wins for black due to Rd2+ next) 22… Nxh4 23. Bxh6 Bxe4 and black can fight on and with reduced pawns retain decent chances of the draw.

22. Rb3 Bxe4 22….Ng6 again with the aim of eliminating white’s dangerous h-pawn.

23. Rxa3 Ng6 24. h5 Since white’s h-pawn lives, the battle is concluded.  A very tough loss for black after such a nice opening.

24…Nxf4 25. Nxf4 Rf8 26. Kg3 Rg8+ 27. Kh4 Rf8 28. Ng6 Rf6 29. Ng4  Rb6 30. Ne7+ Kd8 31. Ng8 Bf3 32. N8xh6 Kc8 33. Ra5 Rb2 34. Rxc5 Rxa2 35. Rf5 Bd1 36. Rf1 Be2 37. Rf2 Rc2 38. Nf5 Bd3 39. Rxc2 Bxc2 40. Kg5 1-0

The next game was conducted shortly after this one, and it’s very tough to reorient and bounce back at full strength.  In the second game, playing black, Altounian showed, well, an ingenious opening preparation for these conditions.

Game 2

S. Shankland – L. Altounian  QGA Strange Sideline

1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e3 Be6 This had to be a surprise.  An unusual sideline!

This?!?!

4. Nf3 In an action game my first thought would be to get the c-pawn rounded up with 4. Na3!? for example 4… Nc6 5. Nxc4 Qd5 6. Nf3. Not sure how much it offers, but it’s safe and no time spent on the clock.   The knight on c4 participates usefully.

4… Nf6 5. Nbd2 c5 6. Ng5 Bd5 7. e4 h6 I would hazard a guess that this was “main preparation” for Levon within this rare QGA sideline. As it turns out, the R/h8 finds useful work on its original file!

8. exd5 hxg5 9. Bxc4 cxd4 10. Nf3 g4 11. Ne5 Previously seen was 11. Nxd4 Rh5 12. Qb3 and it was about equal (but white went on to win in   1-0 Hansen,C-Zagema,W/Hinnerup 1979.

11… Nbd7 12. Qxd4 Nxe5 13. Qxe5 a6 14. O-O e6! The fact that this move is possible means black solved his problems effectively.

15. Bf4 Rh5! 16. Qe2 Bd6 It all goes like clockwork.

17. Bg3 Bxg3 18. fxg3 18. hxg3 Qe7 19. dxe6 O-O-O 20. exf7 Rdh8 is a typical mating pattern that white, of course, avoids.

18… Qb6+ 19. Rf2 e5 20. Re1 O-O-O 21. Qe3  Qxe3 22. Rxe3 e4 23. Bb3 Rdh8 24. Rc2+ Kd7 25. Rec3 Kd6? The most accurate here is 25… Ne8.
26. Rc7 e3 27. Rxb7 Nxd5 28. h4?
Last chance for white (remember he has to win to level the match) is 28. Rxf7! Rxh2 29. Kf1! averting mate.  Then for example, 29…g6 30. Bxd5 Kxd5 31. Rd7+ Ke5 32. Re7+ Kd4 33. Rc3 and white can fight on perhaps gaining a full point if black miscues.

28… gxh3 Now black wins with no problems. 29. Ra7 (29. Rxf7 hxg2 30. Kxg2 Rh2+ 31. Kf1 Rxc2 32. Bxc2 Rh1+ 33. Ke2 Rh2+ 34. Kd1 Rd2+ 35. Kc1 Nb4 36. Bb1 Rxb2 wins) 29… hxg2 30. Rxa6+ Ke5 31. Kxg2 (31. Ra5 Rh1+ 32. Kxg2 R8h2+ 33. Kf3 Rf1+ 34. Kg4 Rxc2 wins) 31… Rh2+ 32. Kf3 Rxc2 33. Bxc2 Rh2 0-1

The rare sideline worked out very well for black!  In the finals, Levon faced NM Damir Studen from Georgia (no, not Soviet Georgia) and won fairly easily, so this Western battle was definitely his toughest test.

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One Response to “The Fabulous 10s: The Fine Art of Chess Nihilism”

  1. charles Says:

    Sam has been having troubles with the exchange ruy lopez’s… unfortunate to see this was an obstacle for him.

    I dislike white’s Nc3 move in the opening… black was very active… He just miscalculated later. But why not a Sicilian?

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