Nourishing Small Advantages: Winning in the Endgame

Given how endgames played a vital role in my games at the National Chess Congress this past weekend, I figured for today’s post I’d go over two endgames from Grandmaster games that relied on technique to grind out the point.

The first game I’d like to share is from one of England’s finest, David Howell.

Howell joined the 2700+ club back in August 2015. Winner of several British Championships, Howell is one of the most underrated players in the world.

In the following position, Howell is up two pawns, but his opponent has enough pieces to defend for the time being. How would you proceed?

Howell – Neiksans (Chess Olympiad, 2014)

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White to Move

While White is definitely better, the fact that Black has a bishop to White’s knight makes things more complicated. Howell addressed this with the simple but powerful 40. Nc6! Offering to trade minor pieces and reach a simpler endgame. The problem for Black is that bishop is also covering the d8 square, which prevents White from playing Nc6-d8+ forking the king and rook. Knowing that a minor piece swap would lose the game, Neiksans tried 40… Ba3 41. Nd8+ Kg6 42. Nxb7 Bxb2

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While Howell couldn’t force the trade of minor pieces, White did trade a pair of rooks which reduces the endgames complexity. In doing so, White can regroup his pieces and start pushing his b-pawn. 43. Nc5 Rb6 44. b4 Rc6

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Neiksans last move seems like a waste, but if White tries to push his b-pawn again, he’d be greeted with a nasty …Bb2-a3 taking advantage of the pin on the knight. While this temporarily stops Howell from pushing his pawn, he demonstrates a key concept, use all of your pieces! In the endgame, the king is one of the most important attackers, and that’s why Howell chose 45. Ke4! Forcing Black  through zugzwang to allow White’s b-pawn to keep marching. 45… Be5 46. b5 Rc8 47. b6

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Even though the dark squared bishop covers the b-pawn’s promotion square, Howell still has a 4 v 3 pawn advantage on the kingside. With Black’s army pulled down, Howell plans to fix Black’s pieces and then convert his kingside advantage. 47… Rc6 48. b7 Rb6 49. Nd7!

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The endgame is hard to win with Black’s bishop on the board. By making Neuksans army uncoordinated, Howell decided now was the time to take affirmative action. 49… Rxb7 Black has won the b-pawn but now faces a 4 v 2 structure on the kingside. 50. Nxe5 fxe5 51. Kxe5 +-

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Howell went on to win this endgame, thanks to the help of the passed e-pawn. In what was a somewhat difficult endgame, Howell managed to neutralize Black’s bishop over a long period of time with very little calculation! In endgames, it’s important to have a long-term plan, as well as a roadmap of how to get there. In this game, Howell’s advantage was never in doubt, it was just a matter of playing around Black’s army.

For the second endgame, I wanted to share a game of a slightly older Peruvian Grandmaster, Julio Granda Zuniga. Rated around 2650, Granda Zuniga is one of the strongest players in South America.

Granda Zuniga took down both Fier and Henriquez (who had just eliminated Gelfand!) in the 2015 Chess World Cup in Baku.

Unlike the last game, White does not have a material advantage, but the bishop pair instead. How would you go about trying to exploit this advantage?

Granda Zuniga – Henriquez (World Cup, 2015)

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White to Move

Here Black has just played 39… d4 With the plan of using a “Philidor’s Ring” by playing …Nc7-d5-c3, blocking in the b2 bishop and limiting White’s mobility. However, by doing this, Black’s passed pawn becomes a liability, and White can find ways for his king to enter the fray, namely e4 or c4 – squares weakened by the d-pawn thrust. The problem for Black is that his plan only dominates the dark squares, so White needs to come up with a light squared infiltration. Ideally, White’s king can make the e2-d3-c4 trek, so he needs a square for his light-squared bishop. Granda Zuniga chose 40. a4! Creating a potential outpost for the d3 bishop. If Black tries 40… bxa3 41. Bxa3, both of White’s bishops become activated and the point behind Black’s play to control c3 is moot. 40… Nd5 41. Bb5+ Ke7 42. Ke2 Nc3+

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This is the “Philidor’s Ring” that Black was hoping to achieve. While a great way to close off files for rooks and make the position cramped, Black has bigger problems here in that White’s king can still enter the position via e2-d3-c4. Even if Black were to trade on b5 getting rid of the bishop pair, White would get a passed pawn and his king could come to aid before Black could ever attack the pawn. 43. Kd3 Nc5+ 44. Kc4 Protecting b3 instead of going for the weak d4 pawn.

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Mission Accomplished! Just like the Howell game, Granda Zuniga realized that his king was a vital player in this endgame. Now White’s goal is to punish the original problem with 39…d4. Black’s reason for pushing the pawn has been served, and now all that remains is a long term weakness. White wants to trade a pair of minor pieces so he’s left with a dark squared bishop against a knight. 44… Ne6 45. Bc6 Ne2 46. Bd5! Nxg3

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A scary proposition for White, but in the endgame, often activity is more important than material! White’s ultimate goal is to trade on e6 and then take on d4, allowing the dark squared bishop to eat Black’s entire queenside. 47. Bxe6 Kxe6 48. Bxd4 Kf5 49. Bb6 Kxf4 50. Bxa5

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To win this game, Granda Zuniga needed to have seen this position before allowing Black to take on g3 to know that 50… Kxe5? isn’t possible because of 51. Bc7+! with a skewer. A simple concept but Granda Zuniga would’ve had to have seen this after having played 44. Kc4! With the extra tempo, the endgame becomes quite simple. 51… Nf1 52. Bc7! The one pawn is enough. It’s important that White keeps his e- and h- pawns for as long as possible since they slow Henriquez’s ability to push pawns on the kingside. 52… Ke4 53. Kxb4 Kd5 54. Kb5 Nd2 55. b4 1-0

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Black is powerless to stop both pawns as White’s last move 55. b4 stops Black’s knight from reaching c5. Henriquez decided to throw in the towel here since he still can’t make progress on the kingside.

Two fairly instructive endgames, as they show how Grandmasters play in the latter stages of the game. In many cases, it’s hard to calculate to a position where one side converts accurately, so it’s important to have a general plan and find ways to achieve it before just calculating lines.

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