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Chess Notes: North American Open 2011: Vallejo Pons v. Shabalov

The North American Open won by Francisco Vallejo Pons of Spain near the end of 2011 yields this interesting encounter by Vallejo Pons in the fifth round, playing White, versus Alexander Shabalov, a former US champion. They last played in 2004, in a game won by Shabalov, but Vallejo Pons draws even by this performance.

The game is a Najdorf Sicilian in which Shabalov plays an early 6h5 to ward off White’s attack with g4. In the middle game, Shabalov surrenders a couple of tempi to reconnoiter his queen’s knight. The maneuver is too slow, so Shabalov finds himself in a box and tries to break out of by 22f5 a familiar and challenging counter attack, which threatens a pawn storm against the king. There are many ways to defend against this type of attack, including the occupation of the white squares with an attack on the diagonals against the king.

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But here Vallejo Pons perceives that Black’s h5 pawn is weak. It falls after the Black queen blocking it is forced to retreat. The pawn was critical to defense of Black’s king, so with its loss the game goes to Vallejo Pons.

a) My personal preference here is to play 6. . .e6. In response, White plays 7.g4 and then plays a Keres Attack Scheveningen with the h3,g4,Bg2 setup, which leads to a satisfactory position for Black.

b) If Black allows g2-g4, then White gains an extra tempo over the g3 lines of the Najdorf, and this may give White an edge. On the other hand, playing . . .h7-h5 has the obvious drawback of weakening g5.

c) The position has play for both sides. Although White has cemented his grip on the d5 square, it has cost him many tempi and therefore Black’s position should be OK.

d) I am not a fan of this move. Why lose so much time? Perhaps fighting for the C4 Square with 16 Na5 was better.

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e) Now White has a solid advantage. The d6 pawn is becoming a problem for Black and White’s knights are advancing.

f) It is understandable that Black seeks counterplay, but White is very well set up to parry this thrust, and after the recapture with the g-pawn the weak h-pawn is in trouble.

g) The threat of g2-g3 forces Black to make room for the queen to retreat, leaving the h-pawn in the lurch.

h) Black’s game is a disorganized disaster. The d-pawn will quickly fall, his king is exposed, and he has no counterplay whatsoever against White’s king. It is amazing how fast Black’s game fell apart once he started drifting around move 16 and then in his ill-conceived attempt at counterplay on move 22.

Annotations by grandmaster Patrick Wolff, a two-time US champion.

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