It was the first round of the North American Open in Las Vegas and I was paired against the top 50 player Vallejo Pons, rated over 2700. Usually I don't get to play foreign chess players because they don't often come to play in American Opens. Vallejo is not only a European chess player but is rated among the top 50 players in the world. The chance to play him in the first round was a privilege and getting a decent game against him made me very happy. Here I would like to share with you an interesting endgame that happened in the game and hopefully give some insight into the plans and ideas.
The opening stage didn't go too well for me netting me a slightly worse position. To get some activity I sacrificed a pawn, which opened up the position for the two bishops and took advantage of black's underdevelopment. If black manages to quench white's activity and finish development then there will be very little compensation for the missing pawn. With his last move a5 black gains a tempo to finish development but in return allows white to get the bishop pair. There are two knight moves possible here: N:c6 and Nd5. After Nd5 black's only reasonable choice would be B:d5, as the knight will be intolerable on d5. After white recaptures with the pawn, the black knight will get to c5 blocking the c-file. In this scenario the other knight cannot get to c6 anymore but can get to f6 or e5 after the d6-Nd7 maneuver. I spent a substantial amount of time on deciding which move to choose and how to evaluate the resulting positions. Taking on c6 has the downfall of helping black with development but it keeps the d-file open, the d5 square for a knight and the h1-a8 diagonal open for the white bishop. On the other hand after Nd5 white gets an extra tempo and can possibly lead the position onto a dynamic path. Which move would you prefer?
Black is still up a pawn and white lost the advantage of the two bishops. The light-squared bishop is very strong because of all the weaknesses in black's position, however, there are no real targets to attack because most of the black pawns are on dark squares. The f5-pawn is well defended and cannot be attacked from the f3-square. White has an active bishop but there are no good lines for the rooks. White needs desperately to open a line for one or both rooks. The position might not looks as dangerous for white as it really is. Black's plan is to place the knight on c5, to double on the e-file and to win slowly, where I would be completely out of counterplay. There is no time to win the b4-pawn because black will get the desired set-up. So what should white do?
Drama, drama drama... Who would think that 2700s can blunder pawns? To me it was a small shock to realize that Vallejo blundered a pawn and that suddenly my position was better. It was the first round of the tournament and I can imagine even 2700s can be rusty after Christmas break. I didn't have much time to recover from the shock of ending up in a better position because my previous decisions took much of my clock time. Here pretty much I had to move quickly. One does not need to be super-grandmaster to figure out a few logical moves here. The pawn on e3 is under attack but the c7-pawn is also under attack, so it is not clear whether black should trade the c7 for the e3-pawn. White would like to go into an endgame because the bishop and the rooks will coordinate well and the king can participate in the e3-pawn's defense. Pretty much after g3 black is forced to play Qf6 and head for the endgame. Vallejo said after the game that there is a very small chance for black to have winning chances in that worse endgame. The move that I made in the game was spontaneous and the first one that came into my mind; had I thought for some time I would have seen easily what awaits white in the resulting position.
Black threatens Ne5 and c7-c6, after which he will win the c4-pawn and most likely the game. White must do something here and now. I had a plan of h4-g4-h5 but it is too slow. The other play is connected to the weakness on c7 but it was really hard to find during the game due to shortage of time.
Black's position is almost winning. This was the last moment that white could have put up a defense. I was too short on time to find a good move, which after the game Vallejo showed right away. Even after the correct move black is much better but it is not clear whether he is winning. After missing this resource I ended up in a losing position but Vallejo still took his time thinking over the moves, not allowing a chance for a second blunder.
What is the take-away from the game? Everyone makes mistakes but the one who makes the last mistake loses. There were a few critical moments in the game that I outlined here. Finding the solution in a few of them, I stumbled in the last ones ending up in a lost position. The reason was not having enough time to make the right decisions. Objectively I was better in the game after the pawn blunder but subjectively he was better because of my time situation. No matter how good of an endgame position one ends up with, poor time management skills will provide a low chance of realizing it.