Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Draw for White in Smeets - Vachier-Lagrave?

Jan Smeets has had a tough time of it in the Tata Steel tournament this month.  (I am sure that I am not the first to mention it, but doesn't "Tata Steel" sound like a porn star name?)

In the eighth round, Smeets had White against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (who sounds like a Bond villain).  Lagrave played a Modern Defense with 4...a6, which I used to consider daring and exciting long ago when I played it with Black, but also slightly insulting when I faced it with White.  In any event, Smeets looked, if anything, better out of the opening, and was certainly no worse until he played 21.Rd8?  But, in his usual ferocious time trouble, he wound up defending a difficult pawn-down rook ending, which he proceeded to lose.

I want to suggest that at move 38 (when he probably had seconds left on the clock), Smeets missed a good drawing chance.  At this point, after some exchanges, the material was even, though Black had a strong passed pawn on the kingside.  In the following position,

Smeets played 38.Kb3? and wound up in a very difficult position after 38...Kc6 39.h4 Kd5 40.h5 Ke4 41.hxg6 Rxg6.  He may still have had a draw even then, but I think the draw is more likely after:


The idea is simply that Kb3 is a loss of a tempo: White wants to break up Black's kingside pawns and should start doing it right away.  I don't claim that this move draws for White in all lines--I haven't looked at the position in that depth--but if Black plays in the same way as in the game, White should hold.  Thus:

38...Kc6 39.h5 gxh5

Forced, as Black is too late to protect the f-pawn with his king: 39...Kd5 40.hxg6 Rxg6 41.Rxf5; if 40...Ke4 41.g7 Rg6 White, with his extra pawn, perhaps even has a small advantage, though it is undoubtedly still drawn thanks to Black's active king.

40.Rxf5 Rh6

Smeets - Vachieve-Lagrave (analysis diagram)

The main difference between this line and the game is that Black has an h-pawn rather than a f-pawn.  That means that his king will have to move farther away from the queenside to help it advance.  White's basic drawing plan is to get a passed pawn on the queenside, sacrifice his rook for the h-pawn, and then force Black to exchange his rook for White's remaining passed pawn.  Thus:

41.Rf3 h4 42.Rh3 Kd5 43.Kb3 (only now!) 43...Ke4 44.c4 Kf4 45.cxb5 axb5 46.a4 bxa4+ 47.Kxa4 Kg4 48.Rh1 h3 49.b5 Kg3 50.Ka5 Kg2 51.Rb1 h2 52.b6 h1=Q 53.Rxh1 Rxh1 54.Ka6

And Black's king is too far away to stop the b-pawn.  Therefore, it is a draw.

This is a very rough and incomplete analysis, so I can't say with certainty that White draws after 38.h4, but he does seem to have good drawing chances.  Please indicate corrections to the analysis, or questions, in the comments.

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