Round 4 saw me have a fairly lucky win over the tournament top seed Luke Li (ACF 2238; FIDE 2285), where Luke ran out of time in a position that is most likely drawn, although my position is definitely worse. This win has actually left me as the sole leader of the tournament after 4 rounds, although I think that will just make for more tough games in the coming weeks, with the likely round 5 pairings leading to a clash with second seed Eugene Schon.
In the game against Luke I decided to play a Benko Gambit, which used to be my regular opening of choice against 1.d4, but is something I have been using far less frequently in recent years. The opening turned out to be horrible for me, with Luke's 12.a4 being a move I had not seen before in that position, and was therefore unsure about what to do against it. Regardless of the state of theory, it highlights an issue with playing an opening such as the Benko Gambit - namely the need to be somewhat conversant with modern theory, particularly as evaluations of many lines can change very quickly. This is something that I know I don't really have the time, or motivation, to do to the level that I should & is in some ways one of the barriers to my improvement in the game.
The other dilemma with not staying current with opening theory is that you end up playing moves based on the rather vague idea of 'general principles', which may prove to be perfectly adequate, but can also run into trouble, particularly if there is some sort of tactical problem with these 'general principle' moves.
In the game, given that Luke had not played h3 or Re1, I thought that this allowed me an opportunity to exchange knights with the maneuver Nf6-g4-e5, which is something that in principle is supposed to favour black in most of the accepted line, with the queenside pressure that can be applied by the black rooks, queen & dark-squared bishop being more than enough compensation for the pawn deficit as you head towards the endgame. Of course the 12.a4 move has a number of other benefits for white, one of which is a possible defensive setup most often seen in the f3 lines, involving white setting up a queenside blockade of sorts with pawns on a4 & b3 (or b2), knights on b5 & c3, bishop on b2 & the queen on e2 or c2, which is normally very tough to break through, as the usual pressure on the b-file is largely nullified by the over-protected knight on b5.
As it turns out, I think the best move in the position for black is a different thematic one, 12...Qa5, looking to get the rook from f8 to b8 as quickly as possible to apply pressure to the queenside. This was quite the opposite of what happened in the game, with my rook remaining on the f-file for the entire game once I had castled on move 11! Of course the problem with the Ng4-e5 idea is that Luke can threaten to trap the knight on e5 with f4, which he set up with Nd2 & Qe2 & it was only after 14.Qe2 that I began to realise just how badly the previous few moves had gone for me. I decided to play 14...f5 to try to hold up the coming attack from the white pawns, but this left me with a weak e7 pawn, which I spent the remainder of the game defending! With this permanently weak pawn on e7, combined with a quasi-isolated pawn on f5, I never really got the typical queenside play that you usually get in the Benko, as my minor pieces were trying to hold my kingside together, rather than trying to pry white's queenside apart! Ironically, it was once I played the undeveloping move 28...Ng8 that my position started to turn around slightly. With the e7 pawn now defended by the knight, I was able to start generating some attacking chances, which allowed me to both stay alive in the game, as well as reduce Luke's advantage. The exchange sacrifice after 30...Rxa5 allowed me to get my queen active & pick up Luke's c-pawn, so that I had a pawn for the exchange & this gave me some sort of compensation, with the comfort of knowing that with a passed c-pawn I had some winning chances if too many pieces were exchanged. Ultimately I decided that the best policy in the position would be to set up a defensive structure that would be difficult to break & after swapping queens, I decided to overprotect the weak e7 pawn & basically shuffle my pieces around. I figured that if I could hold the e7 pawn, then that also meant that the d6 & c5 pawns would also be safe & I would have reasonable chances of holding a draw.
I missed a nice defensive move with 45...h5! as I was focused on the 'grim defense' method, & the pawn break would have made the subsequent defensive task much easier to deal with, as well as possibly helping to generate better winning chances for me in the ending. As the game went, I decided to offer a draw on move 48 after Kf8. Although Luke declined the draw, one advantage that I did obtain was that in thinking about the draw, Luke allowed his time advantage to finally disappear (he had been ahead on the clock since I had left my 'theory' on move 12) & we were now both down to our final 3 minutes each. Although Luke still pressed for the win, he was using much more time than me looking for ways to break through my position, while I was fairly content to shuffle & maintain the position, looking for a draw. Eventually Luke made the rather committal decision to play 52.f5, which allows me to blockade the pawns on the dark squares & after I played 52...Nf6, Luke ran out of time trying to play his next move!
All-in-all a rather lucky win for me, both to survive the opening, as well as managing to win a position that is still worse for me, though probably drawn with best play.
Full results for the round are on ChessChat