Headbanging in the Anti Moscow: Three exchange sacrifices, one novelty

Since our website is celebrating Semi Slav week this annotated correspondence game played in the highest league of the Lechenicher Schachserver (LSS) should be a nice addition to our German content.

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The Anti Moscow represents the most sneaky among the many jungles one can lure his opponent into when playing the Semi Slav.  In fact I don’t have the balls required to play it with either side in OTB chess, and most other people don’t either. In correspondence chess on the other hand the Anti Moscow is a huge battlefield.

Too many draws, too few fighters in correspondence chess

Note that this annotated game has been published on r/chess almost two years ago. This is an edited and updated version for a bigger audience. Between the lines you can already find the reason why I turned my back to correspondence chess eventually: too many draws and too few opponents who actually want to fight it out. Playing correspondence chess ambitiously is a great experience, but in order to produce decisive games this kind of chess requires two players looking for imbalances and the greatest possible mess. Otherwise chess on this level is just a draw – and not as much fun as it could be.

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The DVD recommendation on the Semi Slav already given in the German Semi Slav article (notice: 20% cheaper on amazon.de compared to chessbase) a few days ago even stands in a correspondence chess context. Peter Heine-Nielsen’s work is as outstanding as it is impressive. While most of your regular opening books don’t meet correspondence requirements (including the Avrukh bibles as you can see here), this one does. It has introductional value of course, but is also so deep it touches the edges of theory. During my correspondence time I actually used it as a guide in order to find critical positions from where to start investigating deeper, and it hasn’t lead me astray one single time. Also, it is fun to just watch and see the Great Dane at work.

Enough with the foreword, here’s the edited version of the original reddit post:


15 draws in a row, the longest streak I have ever experienced. When I got back into correspondence chess I knew there would be a lot of draws the stronger the opponents get due to modern engines and machine power being a great equalizer. But once you are in the streak, it feels frustrating. Fortunately I’m expecting a few wins soon.

Part of the streak is me banging my head against the Anti Moscow. Five games, not a single one in which I got anywhere close to a serious advantage. So let this, draw number 15, be a goodbye to it. The Anti Moscow is fine for Black, and I will now start to view getting into its immense complications with the white pieces as a waste of time.

Pair of bishops versus pair of rooks – with the bishops being in charge

The novelty 14.h5 however may be theoretically relevant. At least it’s an option for White to continue pressing in a line that otherwise seems perfectly fine for Black. I have made the Anti Moscow part of my black repertoire now, and should I experience trouble somewhere (I doubt it) I may start to look into it from the white side again.

Draw number 15 was an exciting, spectacular game with imbalances and deep tactics all over the place. Expect three exchange sacrifices, one of them an „entry point exchange sac“ and a rare material distribution: pair of bishops vs pair of rook – with the bishops being in charge.

However, the game could have been even more exciting. Only that would have required my opponent to do more than just look for ways to get away with a draw. I offered him plenty of lively alternatives, some of them risky for me, but he refused. Still, this wasn’t your everyday game of chess.

I hope you enjoy it.

Hero (2.212) – Villain (2.122)
Lechenicher Schachserver 2016, Semi Slav (Anti Moscow)

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 d5 3. c4 c6 4. Nc3 e6

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The good old Semi Slav. I don’t know of any way for White to secure an advantage from this position. Still, balls of steel and a ton of knowledge are required for Black to voluntarily get into this in OTB chess. The triangle structure c6-d5-e6 may suggest that a calm, positional game is ahead, but it is not. With 4…e6 Black invites White to battle it out in the Meran, the Anti Meran, the Botvinik or the Anti Moscow, some of the sharpest, most unique and complicated opening systems around.

(4… dxc4 would be a regular Slav.)
(4… a6 is a Chebanenko Slav, the World champion’s choice currently.)

5. Bg5 h6

(5… dxc4 6. e4 b5 7. e5 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Nxg5 is the Botvinik.)

6. Bh4

(6. Bxf6 the Moscow leads to quieter, more positional play.)

6… dxc4 7. e4 g5 8. Bg3 b5

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The tabiya of the Anti Moscow, a weird position already. Black is a pawn up, but this pawn came for the price of king safety. After his advances …b5 and …g5 neither the kingside nor the queenside offer a shelter for the black majesty. If White could open lines easily, Black would hardly survive. But the black structure is extremely hard to crack, and Black has some active ideas on his own.

9. h4

9.Be2 and 9.Ne5 are the main moves. 9.h4 is a bit of a sideline that often transposes into positions that are usually reached via 9.Ne5.

9… g4 10. Ne5 Bb7

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A crossroad. Be2 and Nxg4 are possible. In my investigation I came to the conclusion that 11.Be2 isn’t much for White, but failed to realize that 11.Nxg4 may be even less because of 13… Qf6.

11. Nxg4

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(11. Be2 I am amazed and deeply impressed whenever I see an OTB player enter the Anti Moscow. While this opening is among the hottest and most topical in correspondence chess, for a mere human with limited time the arising complications are just impossible to handle. Things can go either way, depending on who blunders first. In the Sinquefield cup 2016 Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren, two fearless warriors, entered the Anti Moscow, and after a little more than 20 moves it was already over. Ding Liren blundered first, I assume after he had been surprised by Hikaru’s 14th move. 11… Nbd7 12. Nxd7 Qxd7 (12… Nxd7 13. Bxg4 is good for White.) 13. Be5 Qe7 14. b3 a rare choice in OTB chess, but not bad at all, especially when it comes as a surprise. (14. O-O is the main move.) 14… cxb3 Probably Ding Liren was out of book from here on. (14… Rg8 has been tried hundreds of times in correspondence and engine chess with decent results for Black.) 15. axb3 a6 The engine likes it, I don’t. Just by feel as Black I would see that I get …Rg8 played before anything else. 16. Qc1! (diagram) Instead of pawngrabbing Hikaru improves his strongest piece. Qd1-c1-f4 is a maneuvre often seen in several lines of the Anti Moscow. (16. Bxg4 Wastes precious time that Black gladly uses to get his guys into play. 16… Rg8 17. Bf3 Nd7 18. Bg3 Qb4 19. Rc1 Rxg3! and Black has entered the driver’s seat.) 16… Rg8 17. O-O Nh5 18. d5 Qxh4? Brutal. The position is so edgy, one mistake by Black is enough to lose the game. 19. g3 Qg5 20. dxc6 Qxe5 21. cxb7 Rb8 22. Nd5! +- and White won in Nakamura-Ding Liren, St. Louis 2016.)

11… Nxg4 12. Qxg4 Qxd4 13. Rd1

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13… Qf6!

I had spent much time investigating 11.Be2 without success and finally settled on 11.Nxg4 mainly for the reason that I couldn’t come to like 11.Be2. But that lead to me not looking into 11.Nxg4 close enough beforehand. Only here I realized that 13…Qf6 seems to be promising for Black. In a few dozen previous correspondence games White didn’t get anywhere, neither with 14.e5 nor with 14.a4, and I couldn’t find any improvements over what had already been played. So it was time to improvise. Fortunately I found a new idea.

(13… Qg7 14. Qf4 Na6 += Theory suggests that this is good for White.)

14. h5!?N

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Novelty. Initially the engine jumps from 0.00 to -0.6 after 14.h5, but the move has two points. First of all 15.Bh4 (and mate on d8) is an immediate threat, and the Bh4 may be used to organize play against the black king. Furthermore, …h6-h5 is now prevented forever, White has gained some space and somewhere down the road the pawn on h6 may become a realibilty for Black.

14… Nd7 15. Bh4 Qe5

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Favoured by the engine, but I’m not a fan. The machine seems to think that provoking f2-f4 is a good idea due to White’s potential king safety issues. I’d prefer to go 15…Qg7 immediately.

16. f4 Qg7 17. Qf3

(17. Qxg7 Bxg7 18. e5 followed by Ne4 is heavily favored by Stockfish, and White may indeed have full compensation even with queens exchanged. However, I didn’t seriously check this line since I was already aiming for 18.Rh3, another move that Stockfish hates.)

17… f6 

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Preparing …0-0-0.

18. Rh3

Another blow for the engine. Just when it had become friends with the white position again and moved up to -0.2, this one makes it go back to -0.6. I don’t understand why, though. By playing …f6 Black has just created a whole on g6. Isn’t it natural to exploit it? If you guide the engine towards positions around move 22 and let it think for a while it realizes that White is in fact not doing so poorly. Black lacks space and active ideas. However, on its own I doubt a machine would ever show this very human move as its first choice.

(18. e5 O-O-O (18… fxe5? looks like self mate.) 19. exf6 Nxf6 20. Rxd8+ Kxd8 21. Qe3 Be7 with a minimal black advantage according to the engine. I was less interested in evaluations and more in winning chances, and here I couldn’t see any. Most likely after some complications and mass exchanges this will lead to a drawn endgame.)

18… O-O-O 19. Rg3 Qf7 20. Be2 Be7 21. Rg6

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It’s not so easy for Black to get rid of this guy. After for instance 21…Rdg8 White has a pleasant choice between 21.Qg3, Qh3 and f5.

21… Nf8 22. Rg3 Rd7

(22… Rg8 doesn’t help much. 23. Rxg8 Qxg8 24. e5 gives White options.)
(22… Nd7 offering a repetition was an idea.)

23. f5

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Now the entry point g6 is in White’s hands forever. On the other hand f4-f5 weakens the e5 square, but with his knight having moved from d7 to f8 Black has no piece to exploit this…

23… Bd6

…except the bishop of course. You don’t need to be Tigran Petrosian to snatch this one off immediately.

24. Rxd6

Once Black establishes a piece on e5, he is better, so the bishop has to be taken. This exchange sacrifice is as obvious as Aronian’s Rxc4! against Giri a few days ago at the Tata Steel tournament.

24… Rxd6 25. Qe3!?

Now 26.e5 is a threat. Black must prevent it, there’s no time to take care of a7.

(25. e5 immediately is tempting, but will most likely lead to mass exchanges and a drawn endgame.)

25… e5

(25… Kb8? 26. e5 +-)

26. Qxa7 Qc7

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One main piece improvement White has to aim for is to get the Bh4 to e3 from where it combines threats against the black king and pressure against h6. I was torn between 27.Rg4 and 27.Rg6 to achieve this. In the end I settled for Rg6, not necessarily because it’s the better move, more because I was in the business of exchange sacrifices anyway. It’s simply the more spectacular, more fun move. 27.Rg4 may have been better, though. The Nf8 is not exactly a monster, so why not keep in on the board. This way the Th8 would be locked in while after …Nxg6 it’s part of the game again. On the other hand the exchange sacrifice gives White a nice protected passer and the rare opportunity to play with a pair of bishops against a pair of rooks that will have a hard time to find open lines.

27. Rg6

I still believe this motif has a name, but I couldn’t dig it up. Chessexplained just called it „entry point exchange sac“ in one of his videos, so let’s go with that for now.

27… Nxg6 28. fxg6

At the time this seemed like an easy choice, I didn’t spend much time investigating. 28.fxg6 opens h3-c8 for the Be2 and fixes h6 to be a permanent problem for Black. In hindsight I am not sure anymore, hxg6 may have been better.

(28. hxg6!?)

28… Qe7

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29. Bf2

(29. a4 a2-a4-a5-a6 at any cost looks dangerous for Black, but it only leads to perpetual check scenarios. 29… b4 30. a5 bxc3 31. a6 Rd7!= (31… cxb2?? 32. Bg4+))

29… Rd4!

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Of course. White’s dark squared bishop must not enter the black queenside. Black combined this one with a draw offer that annoyed me somewhat. I enjoyed playing and analyzing this immensely. How could he not? I bet also for my opponent this was among the most unique games he has played lately.

30. Bg4+

(30. Bxd4 exd4 31. Qxd4 Re8= and Black holds.)
(30. a4 isn’t sufficient once again. 30… b4 31. a5 bxc3 32. bxc3 Rxe4 33. a6=)

30… Kc7 31. Qa5+ Kb8

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Black would like to achieve a draw by offering a perpetual queen exchange via …Qc7-d6-c7-d6.

32. Qb6

Tries to prevent any repetitions by making the extra square c5 accessible for the white queen.

32… Rhd8

It’s a pity, White is one tempo short of creating serious winning chances. If he could go Be3 and Bf5 in one move, Black would be in trouble. But he can’t, and so the sacrificial idea …f5 gives Black the draw he had already been begging for. The problem is that via …f5 the black queen can start to harass the white king, there will always be perpetuals.

33. Be3

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White voluntarily lets Black go …f5, but offers him a nice alternative in case he should suddenly want to actually play chess.

33… f5

(33… Qc7 34. Qc5 Qd6 35. Qxd6+ Leads to a complex endgame in which White is two exchanges down, but claims compensation due to his passer(s). Black may even be somewhat better, but I would have been happy to enter and explore this. The black player wasn’t interested, though. 35…R4xd6 36. Bxh6 b4 unclear)

34. Bxf5 b4

Being already two exchanges down, White happily sacrifices the Nc3 in order to make the Rd4 move. As soon as it moves White will at least have a perpetual himself, maybe more.

35. Ke2!?

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Steps out of the check on h4.

35… Qh4

(35… bxc3 36. bxc3 R4d7 was a way to continue the game. If White wants to press for a win, he will have to take risks, for instance 37. Qa7+ Kc8 38. Bxh6!? may lead to messy endgames in which Black is a rook up, but White has compensation even for a full rook due to his passers.)

36. Kf3 

It is out of White’s hand now. If Black wants a draw, he can force it. The idea of Kf3 was that Black has no further check after …Qxh5+ Kg3, but that doesn’t change the nature of the position.

36… bxc3 37. bxc3 Qxh5+

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Black offered draw again, I sighed and accepted. After 38.Kg3 Rd3 White has nothing else than to give a perpetual check himself.

(37… R4d7 would still be an exciting game of chess.)

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