During the first half, though, I played two grandmasters, while Angus, who was the best of our party with 6/10, played one. We scored, you'll not be astonished to hear, 0/3 in these games. But maybe it didn't have to be that way.
The first of these games was played in round two, in which I had the black pieces against Indian GM Neelotpal Das.
Not one of our victims at Benasque
At first sight it's a fairly straightforward stronger v weaker player crush, which is basically what it was: White played a sideline (9.a3) which Black didn't properly know how to counter (he really needs to take on a3) and hence lost a tempo (...Bf8-e7xb4) which enabled White to put him into an inescapable bind. After which it was just a question of how to finish Black off, which he managed himself with a blunder (29...Rc7??) while his time was running short.
So it goes. But there's one thing that piques my curiosity. In the post-mortem, Das said that had I avoided the blunder on move 29 and played the better 29...Rf8, he was intending to play 30.Bxd5 Rxd5 31.Ree7 Rh5 32.g3, reaching the following position.
I wonder - is White actually winning this? Black's back is absolutely up against the wall, but how does White finish him off? I can't see any obvious way in which this can be done, assuming that the position is drawn if a pair of rooks are exchanged. I don't believe White can even get his king past the fourth rank, not without giving up his extra pawn. In which case isn't this a draw?
Maybe. I'd like to know. Or maybe I wouldn't. But it didn't happen that way, and I lost.
In the fourth round, both Angus and I were on 2/3 and were paired against grandmasters, and pretty strong ones at that: I had Black against Alexsander Delchev while Angus, on the next board, had White against the Hungarian David Berczes (2550) who is older than his photo here suggests.
Not one of our victims at Benasque
Angus' notes (in italics) follow.
1.e4 e5 A surprise: I was expecting one of 1...c6, 1...c5 and 1...e6.
6.Qf3 And a surprise for my opponent. [A 1...e5 player writes: this line is a pain in the behind when you're really trying to win - ejh]
8.Be3 Bb6 8...Bxe3 is more common.
9.Nd2 9.Rg1 Ne7 (also possible is 9...g6) 10.Rxg7?! Bxe3 11.fxe3 Ng6 12.Bc4 d5 13.exd5 Kf8 14.Rxg6 hxg6 15.dxc6 Rxh2 16.Nd2 Rh1+ 17.Nf1 with probably not enough compensation: -0.51 at 19-ply according to Houdini 1.5. Maybe 9.c4!? intending c5, even after 9...d6.
13.f4 f5 13...d5? 14.f5
15.Nxb6 Better is 15.Na3, as my opponent suggested after the game.
15...axb6 I've "won" the bishop pair, but Black has mobile pawns and the a-file.
19.Bf3 Rfd8 Here I decided that my position wasn't as good as it had been a little earlier I thought I wasn't going to get any play on the kingside and would have to wait for Black to play d4, after he'd prepared it by doubling rooks and playing the knight to b3.
20.Rd2 However, doubling rooks on the g-file, with 20.Rg3
and staying active was the right thing to do. This would also free d1 for the bishop to cover b3. Also Rg3 may provide useful defence along the third rank. The position is virtually equal according to Houdini.
26.Bxd7 fxe1N+ 26...Bxd7 also works
While this was going on, I was playing Delchev, who at 2622 may have been the highest-rated opponent I've ever faced (depending, I think, on what Tony Miles' grading was when I played him in December 1992).
Not one of our victims at Benasque
The game did not begin auspiciously for me, since just before arriving at the playing hall I realised that I had no recollection at all of handing in my hotel room key at reception (which I had, in fact, done) and it was too late to go back and check. Then, fiddling around in my bag to see if I'd brought the key with me, I pulled out my right hand to find it covered in white stuff, which I thought at first was sun cream but which shortly proved itself to be Tippex from an inadvertently-opened bottle.
The subsequent cleaning-up operation was time-consuming as well as embarrassing, as I not only had to go through my bag to find what else had been covered in Tippex but had to make several trips to the toilets to try and wash off as much of it as possible - this after having tried to extend as much of my hand to Delchev, at the start of the game, as was possible without getting Tippex on him as well.
On top of this, I was still worrying about whether I had lost my room key, or left it in the door, leaving myself open to theft. This was a little distracting. It's fair to assume that neither of these two mini-disasters actually had an impact on the outcome of the game, but given that this was one of the biggest games of my life, I would have preferred that my concentration, never good at the best of times, had been a little less disturbed.
Anyway, on to the game, with Delchev playing White, and surprising me with the English Opening.
1.c4 I'd expected to play another Semi-Slav. But no matter.
9.f3 I used to play the White side of this, or I did theoretically, since I don't think I ever got this far down the line. I moved away from it because I liked it for Black: it never seemed to me to recover from the second game of the 1987 World Championship match in which Karpov surprised Kasparov with
9...e3 after which White's position never looked comfortable to me. However, that shouldn't lead anybody to conclude that I knew very much of the theory. I was confident I knew as far as move eleven for Black
11.Qb3 Na5 but from here on I was unsure. So after
12.Qa3 I continued
13.cxd5 and now I wasn't clear with which piece I should take. The knight capture seemed more natural, but the more I looked at the pawn capture the more I preferred it, clearing c6 for my knight while obstructing e4 for his. So I played it. But the paradoxical outcome of so doing was that I was convinced that I had departed from theory and was therefore winging it - whereas, in fact, I was going straight down the main line!
14.f4 Nc6 14...Bg4 is, I'm informed, generally preferred, but I don't have any reason to dislike the move I - and Karpov - played.
15.Rb1 b6 And here we depart from the original KvK game, in which Karpov played 15...Qc7, quite probably a better move than mine. 15...b6 has the apparent demerit of weakening the long diagonal, which Delchev of course saw, and attempted to take advantage. But he shouldn't have, because his sixteenth was a bad error, perhaps even, potentially, a game-losing one.
I thought for more than half-an-hour on the next move, which left me with barely more than ten minutes for the rest of the game (albeit I didn't, as it turned out, need very much more). I saw an idea, and its follow-up, and I was very tempted indeed to play it: but it seemed to me to be, probably, exciting but unsound. So, though I was, nevertheless, sorely tempted, I eventually decided that if I could find another move that looked both good and sound, I would play it. I did find another move: and though that move was sound enough, perhaps, in playing it, I missed my chance.
16...Bg4 This was the safe move. What the idea was, we'll see below.
17.Bb2 I didn't think of this: all I'd really considered was 17.Re1.
19.cxd5?! The computer likes 19.Rbc1, strengthening the threat rather than rushing to the execution, though 19..Rc8 looks perfectly OK for Black. Now, however, I panicked, or whatever you want to call it: I thought that after 19...Nxd5 20.Qb3 Nce7 21.Ba3
I would be under intolerable pressure. But it's not so: after 21...Rc8 (and maybe even 21...h6 22.Ne4 Rc8, as the knight fork wins neither of the rooks) Black is at least fine.
However, I went instead for the desperate
19...Na5? and then after
20.Ne4 it's too late for
20...Nxd5? though 20...Nxe4 21.dxe4 is not a strategy for the long-term, either.
22.Bxd5 Rxd6 and now my last hope was that 23.Bxa8 Rxd3 would give me a pawn or two and some long-diagonal compensation for the exchange, but he interposed
23.Qc3 and then noted that my attempt to play 23...f6 was an attempt to play an illegal move. Black will shortly have nothing for the exchange, and therefore
But let us go back to the position after White's sixteenth.
The idea which I had, and on which I spent so much time before rejecting it, was 16...Nd4!
and then, after 17.Qb2, Black can play 17...Nf5, which I didn't consider, because I wanted to play the much more daring, and much stronger, 17...dxc4!!
Then, after White takes the rook with 18.Bxa8, I considered both 18...cxd3, which is not so strong, and 18...c3!, which certainly is.
Then, after 19.Qb4, Black naturally plays 19...Nxe2+ and then we have this position.
I hope you don't mind so many diagrams: I've provided them partly to strengthen the impression of an analysis proceeding several moves down the line, and yet not reaching the point of clarification. Which was partly my problem. It was unclear where I would go from here: indeed, everything was pretty much unclear, and I couldn't really convince myself that this position, which I thought about long and hard, was a mess in which I had good chances, rather than a mess in which I was probably going to be losing.
Part of the reason for this is that I was, perhaps understandably, looking for a way to play the c8 bishop somewhere strong in order to threaten to take the a8 bishop. But I couldn't see how it was to be done, and I wasn't convinced, and while at least once I was on the brink of reaching out and playing 16...Nd4 anyway, I didn't. I played the bishop move instead.
I wish I had gone with the knight. Although there are many different ways the game can go from here, I think Black has tremendous chances. It's far too complicated to analyse here, even if I had the time or the ability to do so, but White has two possible king moves here (20.Kg2 and 20.Kh1) after either of which Black has a number of options - but perhaps prime among them, either 20...h6 21.Ne4 Qxd3, or the immediate queen capture, 20...Qxd3. So for instance, after 20.Kg2 Qxd3
this looks like a massive position for Black. Already three pawns for a rook, and, more importantly, all sorts of attacking ideas. Perhaps there aren't many, or indeed any, one-move threats, and perhaps this too helps explain why I didn't really see how powerful my position was. But ask a computer, or try playing it yourself, and I think you'll find White's position is probably indefensible.
I'm sure, in practice, that I'd have been very lucky to win it, even had I reached it: five hundred Elo points is an awfully large gap in capability. Even so, I think I can be forgiven for regarding this one as a near-miss.
But a miss it was, near or otherwise. A miss is what it was.
[Das photo: Chessbase]
[Berczes photo: Ray Morris-Hill]
[Delchev photo: Chessdom]
[Thanks to Angus for notes]