As I mentioned in my post last week, I spent my Memorial Day weekend competing in the 4th Annual Cherry Blossom Classic to help me prepare for the US Junior Open. I scored 3/7 and lost a couple rating points, but I thought I learned a lot this week – not just about chess, but about how psychology factors into the game as well.
For those of you who have watched my Chess^Summit videos, you may recall I opened last year’s Cherry Blossom Classic with my best career win at the time against WFM and US Women’s Championship contender Jennifer Yu. This year, I had a little deja vu on the opening night, beating a 2355 rated opponent in an arguably equal position.
Jacobson – Steincamp
In this moment, it’s critical that I play accurately to maintain an equal position. For example, if I had tried 22… Rab8, I would be violating my first Endgame Essentials principle in not having active play. White would enjoy a nice position, perhaps playing Rf1-e1-e4 with the idea of playing f4-f5 and breaking open my kingside. So I gave my opponent the b7 pawn in exchange for a rook on the 7th rank. 22…Rae8! 23.Rxb7 Re2
Visually, we can already see how White’s material advantage is temporary, with c2 and d5 both weak. I’m not out of the woods, but I’m one step closer to proving equality. 24.Qg3 Qe4
I wanted to play here before playing 24…Qxc2 since I have the immediate idea of …Re2-e3, indirectly attacking the h3 pawn. White would be tied up and I could take the more valuable d5 pawn instead of the pawn on c2. Furthermore, 24…Qxc2 25. f5! and I’m not happy letting this pawn reach f6 with mating ideas and an outpost on e7 for White’s rooks. My insertion more or less forces 25.Qf3 but now I can play 25…Qxc2 because I can meet 26.f5 with gxf5!
This move more or less forces an equal rook endgame after trades on f5 because my rooks can easily hit both d5 and b2. But what about 27.Qg3+?Doesn’t this win a pawn and the game after 27…Kh8 28.Qxd6?
Can you find the saving move that gives Black the initiative? I’ll give you a hint – the theme is activity and counterplay!
Completely ignoring the hanging rook, because 29.Qxf8+ Rg8! forces White to give up the queen since the mate threat on g2 is unstoppable otherwise.
I went on to win the endgame in 93 moves, but after the game my opponent mentioned 29. Rb8 as a drawing move, but in his line 29… Rh2+ 30. Qxh2 Qxh2+ 31. Kxh2 Rxb8,
I think White still has to prove equality. I guess there’s two morals to this game: 1) always look for forcing moves, but more importantly 2) if the position is drawn, don’t play with fire. My opponent, just like Jennifer last year, refused to draw simply because I was lower rated. I guess some things never change.
However, after this first game, I struggled to maintain the momentum, ultimately blowing a completely won position against a 2300+ rated player in a rather embarrassing fashion in the fourth round, then drawing my way out to finish at 3/7.
There weren’t many particular dazzling moments in this tournament when compared to my victory in New York last week, but there was one particularly historic game for me personally:
Round 6: Steincamp–Li
Back in March, I shared a game I played against Beilin Li, a friend of mine from Carnegie Mellon. Only a few weeks after that game, we played again with opposite color, but this time, he came prepared and outsmarted me in a Closed Sicilian. I doubt I’ll ever play Beilin again outside of Pittsburgh, but since we were rooming together and playing in the same section this tournament, we certainly made it possible.
Still recovering from the aforementioned loss, I didn’t want to play a game based off of preparation against a tactically astute player, so I decided to improvise and go for a more intuitive set-up, forcing Beilin to show me what he knows outside of the Closed Sicilian set-up. 1. Nf3
Stopping 1… e5 and getting ready for an English. When I realized I was going to play him a second time back in April, I had prepared this to get Beilin out of his comfort zone. Maybe he was a little surprised, but if he followed my games, he’d know that the last time I didn’t open a game with 1 c4 was back in 2009 when I was only 1300! But Beilin was smart and chose 1…g6
Still thinking I would play 2. c4, Beilin prepared to delay any central commitment by fianchettoing his kingside. If I opt for an English, Beilin could transpose into a Reversed Sicilian still unless I wanted to make him play a King’s Indian. Again, on this particular morning, I didn’t want anything sharp and made the real surprise move.
2. e4! Ironically, I had this position as Black the night before, but the difference is that if Beilin had continued 2… c5 I know the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon as Black and he doesn’t – a theoretical advantage if you will. So Beilin opted for a Pirc and played well to hold a draw. The game didn’t hold much intrigue for spectators (that knew me at least) outside of the first two moves.
While Beilin had a rough tournament this weekend, I suspect he’ll be one of my most challenging opponents in Pittsburgh for years to come. While we may be “rivals” over the chess board, we’re close friends, which is why I’m pleased to announce that after the US Junior Open, I’ll be adding Beilin along with a few other talented authors to Chess^Summit (more about this later)! Beilin writes a lot of great material on chess.com, and you can check out some of his articles here!
So what can I say about my own performance this weekend? Compared to last year, this was a much more difficult event. Six of my seven games were determined in the endgame, and by the end of the tournament, I had spent nearly 30 hours at the chess board! While it’s clear that I still need to work on my calculation between now and the US Junior Open, I think there are some positives I can take away from this tournament. First, since my trip to New York, I’ve gone seven straight games with Black unbeaten, scoring four wins in that stretch. Secondly, the time controls were the same as those in New York, and this time around, my time management was significantly better, and often I found myself pushing my opponent’s into some form of time trouble. Lastly, even though I only scored 1/3 against higher rated players, I was extremely close to beating two 2300s in one weekend (I had only beaten one going into the weekend). With the right preparation and discipline, I think I can beat these guys – which is what it’s going to take to win the US Junior Open in three weeks.
Next week is my last preparatory event for the US Junior Open, and I’ll be traveling to Charlotte for the Carolinas Classic. I’m currently in the middle of the Championship section, and I’m looking forward to a chance for redemption!
After writing my most recent Endgames Essentials post, I decided to watch the European Individual Chess Championships and stumbled across an endgame that I thought was an effective model of the principles we’ve established thus far.
Before Ernesto Inarkiev managed to pull away from the pack and win the Championships, it looked like the event could go a number of ways – Saric, Navara, Jobava, Kovalenko, and Wojtaszek were all over 5/6, with a bunch of strong players at 4.5/6 with five rounds to go. While it wouldn’t determine the winner, David Navara’s game in round 7 against Baadur Jobava definetly impacted the course of the tournament.
In that game, we reached this drawish position:
Navara – Jobava, 2016
With a symmetrical pawn structure, it seems like not much can happen. There are no logical pawn breaks in the position, and though White’s king is more active than Black’s, Jobava does have control over the d-file. What you might notice though, is that it is White who is pressing. With the e- and f-pawns already advanced, it will be difficult for Black to expand effectively on the kingside and create weaknesses. Sure, White certainly cannot be considered winning here, but it is Black who must prove equality. As we’ve seen in many of Carlsen’s games, this is already enough to play for! To stop Black from entering the second rank, White brings his king to c3, and activates his rook on the b-file. 18. Kc3 Kf8 19. Rb1 Ke7
White has improved his position, but so has Black – in fact his king is coming into the game very quickly! If White isn’t careful, Black can bring his king to d6 and rook to d7 with the hopes of creating a fortress. When you’re trying to improve your position and push your opponent, it’s always important to consider their plans and see if you can stop them. Navara spent 20 minutes on this next, and made the most contesting move on the board. 20. e5!
At an artificial level, this move looks really weakening. White gives up the d5 square for Black’s rook and his structure could get undermined with …f7-f6 ideas. But if you think about it, Black’s rook is no better on d5 than it is on d8 because tactically it must always retreat to d7 following Rb1-b7+. With the pawn on e5 cutting out improving squares for Black’s king, Black will need this …Rd7 resource until further notice. It’s also important to note that a break on f6 arguably hurts Black more than White – it doesn’t improve his structure, and an open f-file wouldn’t change the nature of the position. One thing to remember when playing in equal positions is that in order to play for a win, you must give up something in return. In this case, Navara gives Black the d5 square to keep his winning chances. 20…h5 21. a4
Right now both sides are playing accurately. Black is trying to solidify his kingside, while White is trying to gain access to critical squares on the queenside. For example, were Black to stand idle, White could march his pawn to a6, giving him control of the b7 square for his rook to then win the game. Black’s logic here is that while he may be less active, if he can remain solid, White will not have enough to exploit his advantage. Let’s see if this holds true.
21…Rd5 22. Rb7+ Rd7 23. Rb8 Rd8 24. Rb4 Rd5
So what just happened? It just seems like the two players shuffled their rooks back and forth, but what was the point? As Grandmaster Sam Shankland says, no self-respecting Grandmaster makes a move without a purpose. Let’s go back to the position after Jobava played 21… Rd5:
In this position it is White to move, but in the current position after 24… Rd5 it is White to move. What’s changed? White got in Rb1-b4 and now has an extra tempo to improve his position. By infiltrating deep into the b-file, Black had to block out White’s rook from raiding the kingside pawns, so this line is actually rather forced. While Black should still be able to hold here, it’s small moments like these that count towards building a winning position. 25. g3 Rc5+ 26. Kb3 Rd5 27. c4 Rd2?!
Here’s where Black starts to go wrong. As we mentioned earlier, the rook was no better on d5 than it was on d8, and so the same applies to d2. Black cannot afford to allow White’s rook to enter the 7th rank without resistance, as the a-pawn will fall, and it’s White’s passed pawn that will matter more than Black’s. Still, White can’t play 28. Rb7+ yet, so he makes the one move that wasn’t possible just one move ago. 28. a5!
I’m going to guess that this move’s power was under estimated by Jobava, seeing as he spent 24 minutes on his next move. However after 27. c4 its impossible to effectively stop this pawn push and be able to retreat to d7. Black’s best hope was to create a fortress by retreating to d7 and bringing his king to c8. I messed around with Stockfish here to see how Black would hold, and the line goes 27…Rd3+ Very important – the king is pushed to the second rank before Black makes a bunker. 28. Kc2 Rd7 29. a5 Kd8 30. a6 Kc8 31. Rb1 g6
White will have to try and create a weakness on the kingside, but his rook can’t run too far astray since Black can play …Kc7-b6 and attack the a-pawn. It’s an ugly position to have to defend, but since White’s king can’t get to the kingside thanks to the Black rook, Black should have good drawing chances. So how is this so different than what happened in the game? It turns out that not inserting this one check before retreating to d7 still gives White something to play for with an active king. If Jobava had played 28…Rd7, White’s king can enter the fray through a4, then later b4 and c5 – but admittedly this is very difficult to win. Instead, Jobava offers Navara an oppotunity. 28…Kd8?
The last move underestimated a resource to draw, but this move gives White an opportunity to play for more! While White can’t win material, his rook would be much better placed on f8 or g8 than it is currently on b4. Navara wastes no time in reaching his desired position.
29. Rb8+ Kc7 30. Rf8 Rd7 31. Kb4
A tremendous improvement in White’s position. Black has no easy way to defend the a5-a6 idea, and White’s king is headed to the c5 square, where it cannot be touched by Black! The position still looks difficult to convert, but for the rest of the game (with the exception of one move), Navara spends less than a minute per move to convert the point! 31…a6 +-
Not exactly a better recommendation for Black in the position, but now the b6 square is weak. White’s goal now is to stretch out Black’s defensive resources with his rook and try to make Black run out of good moves. 32. Kc5 g6 33. Ra8 Kb7 34. Rf8
White’s repeating moves – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ideas. With each move, not only does Navara gain 30 seconds, but repeating moves in a superior position can actually create a psychological advantage! I’ve had a few cases in tournament games where I’ve used this idea, and sometimes instead of repeating my opponent’s have completely collapsed! Of course you can’t failry compare the caliber of opponent I’m playing to the likes of Baadur Jobava…
34…Kc7 35. h3 Kb7 36. g4
Since Black cannot make any productive moves, White decides it makes sense to open the h-file so his rook has more options. In this position, Black has three weaknesses: the 7th rank, the d6 square, and the b6 square. At the precise moment, Navara will relocate his rook to attack Black’s weak queenside pawn structure.
For a second it seems like Black’s rook has become active, but there’s a cute trick here to force the rook back to e7 (not d7)!
41. Rh7 Rd7 42. g5 1-0
Jobava was so dissatisfied with this endgame he actually resigned to the Czech Grandmaster! In this position, Black is more or less obliged to play 42… Re7 because after 42… Kb7 43. f5!! actually leads to forced mate. The pawn is poisoned since a move like 43…exf5 loses immediately to 44. e6 and White will have managed to trade rooks and gained a queen on the way.
So 42… Re7 is the only move that doesn’t lose immediately. However this move also fails to defend adequately because now when White plays 43. Rh2, Black can’t also activate his rook since it needs one tempo to reach the d-file again, so after 43… Rd7 44. Rb2 Rd3 45. Rb6, White will win Black’s queenside, and the win of the f-pawn doesn’t help Black.
Black’s endgame was actually difficult to hold, and after only one real mistake, Jobava completely collapsed. I thought this game was instructive for a couple of reasons. First it showed us how to press a minuscule advantage, while also using the idea of marching the a-pawn to use the b7 square. This game also showed us that sometimes its possible to hold difficult positions as long as we only have one weakness. I think Jobava may have seen this bunker idea, but thought it would fall apart in the long-run. For a human it may be difficult to hold, but it was really Black’s only real chance of saving the game. Lastly, Navara showed us the importance of gaining tempi at various points of the game. While an extra small improvement may not seem significant in a particular moment of the game, such extra moves add up and become overwhelming.
As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a tournament this weekend, so I won’t be able to post a video this weekend. Make sure to look out for a post next week on my performance! The Cherry Blossom Classic promises to be a tough tournament, and I’ll be hoping to continue my luck from New York!
This weekend proved to be a weekend of firsts. First time riding Amtrak without major delays. First time playing chess in the state of New York. First time visiting New York City and the Marshall Chess Club. But amidst all of the distractions, my first time winning an adult tournament! Of course, I had more than my fair share of luck, but we’ll get to that later.
With the late rounds each day, I had plenty of time to explore the city and visit some nearby attractions. While blitz in Washington Square Park was definitely the most entertaining for me, cliched visits to the Empire State Building and the Flat Iron were also highlights of the trip.
As a foodie, New York proved to offer more than I could try. Thanks to some prior research, I thought I had a pretty good sampling of the local cuisine – late night pizza, meatball subs, Japanese barbeque, tacos, doughnuts, and bagels. I don’t think I’ll ever have as many choices when it comes to food near a tournament venue than I did here in New York City.
But enough chit-chat. Let’s talk chess. After not having played tournament chess in over a month and a half, I was a little worried my prior training wouldn’t be sufficient. It took a round 2 loss and a close win in round 3 to finally get into gear, playing much better on the last day to close out the tournament.
Even though the tournament was strictly U2300 and had two time controls (40/90 with 30-second increment, 30-minute sudden death), I thought the format was close to what I’ll see in New Orleans this June. For the first 40 moves of each game, I got to simulate the US Junior Open time controls (90 minutes with 30-second increment). In reflection, I wish I could have been faster on the clock, but for my first tournament back in a while, I’m thinking that upcoming tournaments in DC and Charlotte can help me improve my time management.
Lastly, I must confess, the scholastic players I faced at the Marshall Chess Club were among the most underrated group of kids I’ve ever played. The tactical prowess of my round 2 opponent was particularly impressive (and proved lethal!), and I was nearly held to a draw by the 2016 K-3 co-National Champion! I can only wonder how strong I would be if I grew up in the area… Either way, I thought that my games against juniors gave me a good sense of what I’m up against next month.
Aside from winning the event, I’m most proud of scoring 3/3 with the Black pieces. I honestly can’t remember the last time I achieved a perfect score at a tournament with Black, and I think it was this persistence that helped me capture a tie for first (especially since I started with 3 Blacks in 4 games!). That being said let’s take a look at some of the important moments of the tournament!
Round 1: Breskin – Steincamp
Up to this point, I had mostly been experimenting, using an idea that an opponent once used to beat me only a couple months ago! My opponent’s play has been a little awkward, and it’s unclear where the knight’s future on e4 will be. Meanwhile, my plan is concrete. I will push …f7-f5 and lay claim to the center. Once this happens, my opponent will have no counterplay as d3-d4 will always be met by e5-e4, shutting down White’s g2 bishop.
In chess, you can’t be afraid of going into complications. With my last move, White has a choice. He can give me the center, allowing me to displace both of his knights, or he can sacrifice the knight on e4 for a few pawns, hoping the position will hold long enough to make for an endgame advantage. After a significant amount of time, my opponent made his decision, and in retrospect, probably correctly.
Very double edged, but White can’t afford to sit back anymore. In exchange for the knight, White can get three pawns, but the position implores White to find activity, and already this is not so simple.
15…fxe4 16.exd6 Qd8 17.Qd5+ =+
When I played 14…f5, I saw this move and assessed that I was better as the queen quickly becomes misplaced. What I didn’t consider, however, was 17. Nd2 (Stockfish’s recommendation) with “equality” in a position with lots of options. Backward knight moves are tricky to find, and especially when an active-looking check is a possibility, psychologically it can be very difficult to play the more prudent move. This would be the first of three positions where valuing a check is the deciding factor.
Under immense pressure, my opponent cracks in the form of a blunder! But already, it’s very difficult to find moves. 18. Nd2 is White’s best move, but Black is better with ideas of …Bd7-f5 once the d-pawn drops, and already, it’s becoming difficult to hold the d6 pawn.
Round 2: Steincamp – Chen
After having misplayed the opening, I thought I was reaching a draw after 28… Bxh4 29. Bxc4, where Black is up a pawn, but my bishop pair makes it difficult for my opponent to convert. But as I mentioned, my opponent’s tactics throughout the game were superb, and he caught my oversight with 28…Rxb8! 29.Rxb8 Bd6+
And now the endgame is winning for Black since he has the bishop pair and I don’t. I played out the ending, but it’s not too difficult to convert. Unfortunately for my opponent, this would prove to be his final victory of the weekend, but he played some inspired chess in each of his games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he reached master level in the near future.
Round 3: Zhou – Steincamp
After not much time to rest, I hurried into my third round game somewhat deflated. Though I got a decent advantage out of the opening, I misplayed the middlegame, trading queens too early and allowing my opponent to reach an equal position. Luck was on my side, though, and in this critical moment of the game, my opponent chose the howler, 45.Be3??
Already, the game is dead lost. My opponent, the recently crowned K-3 National Champion, valued a check as the best move in the position, seeing that 45… Bxe3 46. Kxe3 Kc2+ 47. Ke2 was at least a draw. But as the old saying goes, “patzer see a check, patzer play a check”, and I had already seen the simple refutation to this line.
45…Bxe3 46.Kxe3 Rxb6 -+
Winning. If White were to capture on d2, I would play …Re6+, capturing the rook after the king leaves the e3 square. White played on till checkmate, but again, Black will at least win the rook in exchange for the d2 pawn, so the win is still fairly simple once the Black king is able to reach c2.
This was a critical moment of the tournament (though I didn’t know it at the time). In the Russian sense, I had managed to “stop the bleeding” with a win with Black and get an opportunity to play some higher rated opponents. Rather than worrying about my quality of play up to this point, I simply relaxed and used this as an opportunity to sleep and explore the city.
Knowing that my last two rounds would define my performance in the tournament, I woke up early determined to play good chess. After a pleasant breakfast, I took a long walk from Madison Square Park to Washington Square Park to get some practice blitz games against the locals. After some early morning blunders out of my system, I was ready to head over to the Marshall Chess Club to start the final day of the competition.
One element of the tournament that was different for me was that many of the juniors were extremely underrated. As I had seen in my previous two games, their ratings had no reflection of their actual skill.
I went into the last day with a different mentality. At this point, I wasn’t concerned about rating point gain and understood that being upset again this tournament wouldn’t be a reflection of my understanding of chess, but rather a confirmation of the local talent. That being said, my last two games were against adults, so the wrath of the children had stopped.
Round 4: Polyakin – Steincamp
After starting with a King’s Indian, my opponent veered off course with an optimistic knight sac.
I had already calculated this line when I played …e7-e5, and knew that White simply didn’t have enough material to make anything of this sacrifice. Feeling this is one thing, defending it is another. Black is winning, but a single mistake could be fatal.
11…dxc3 12.hxg6+ fxg6 13.Bxg7+ Kxg7 14.Qh6+
No surprises so far. The way I understood the position was that White simply didn’t have entry squares on the h-file, and without any other active forces, I have enough time to shore up my weaknesses and develop my pieces. For Black I think merely pushing the game in a static direction is a valid threat and it’s White who must act quickly.
14…Kf7 15.Nf3 Rg8!
I had seen up to here before going into this line. This move holds my only critical weakness, g6. Once again, White is in do or die mode and ensured he would lose the game with his next move.
The third and final “losing check” of the weekend. White cuts off his own queen from the game, and once my king reaches e8 will have no active options to pursue an attack. If White was serious about creating counterplay, he would have tried 16. Qf4, with ideas of e4-e5 – but let’s not forget, White is still down a piece and Black is still winning.
16…Ke8 17.Rd1 c2
I really like this move as White has to move his rook off of the d-file, giving me more time to develop and start thinking about exploiting White’s king.
18.Rc1 Qe7 19.c5 Nxc5 20.Bc4 d5!
The deciding move. I had looked at 20…. Nfxe4 21. Bg8 Ng3+ with a win, but things get messy when White plays 21. 0-0!, and my king is once again under fire on e8. 20… Be6 was possible, but I think White has accomplished something after 21. Nxe6 Nxe6 22. Qh3 and now my king has to go to f7 or d7 which are quite awkward since both would willingly walk into a pin. The key to this position is to make sure that White’s king doesn’t have time to leave the center. Once the e-file opens, whoever’s king is the weakest will lose the game, probably regardless of material. But at this point, I saw that the follow-up was forced.
The obvious move as Black wins more material. Perhaps 21… dxc5 was possible, but why allow White’s king to get out of the center and centralize his rooks? Always look for the most practical solution in a winning position.
Winning a bishop. 22. Re1 is met by 22… Qxe1+ 23. Kxe1 c1Q+ and White has lost rook in addition to already being down two pieces. The game lasts two more moves.
23.Rxc2 Bf5 24.Re2 Bd3 0-1
And my opponent resigned here. A confidence booster for me here as the win meant I could play for first and continue playing 2100+ rated competition. Granted, my opponent gave me this game just as much as I won it, but I still had to defend adequately to get the point.
I won the game in less than two hours, which gave me plenty of time to explore and relax before the big finale.
Thanks to my loss in round 2, I was still a half-point behind the tournament leader, and needed him to draw or lose to have a chance to win the tournament.
Luck came once more on my side, as he drew quickly, playing too quickly to convert an extra pawn in a minor piece endgame. That left my opponent and I on board 2 with a chance to tie for first with a decisive result. Thanks to my surplus of Blacks in the tournament, I was given White against a FIDE Master who had just drawn Grandmaster Aleksandr Lenderman last week. The game started out slowly with a small nod in my favor, but in just three moves the balance took a massive swing and my opponent was left behind in the dust.
Steincamp – Sulman (FM)
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6 4.g3 Bg4
I’ve never really seen this move before, even in the Mega Database among strong players. The bishop is a little awkward on g4 since it can always be hit by h2-h3, and it’s clearly telegraphing the idea of trading light square bishops in the future. The more natural square is e6, targeting a d6-d5 break while also maintaining the idea of eventually creating a battery and playing …Be6-h3.
5.Bg2 Qd7 6.Nd5
Moving the same piece twice in the opening may be a sin to some, but here I think it’s particularly useful, stopping Black’s knight from reaching f6, and eyeing c7 in the case that Black play …Bg4-h3.
6…Nge7 7.O-O O-O-O
I was extremely happy to see this move since I think White is more prepared to launch a pawn storm on the queenside than Black is on the kingside. By being on the queenside, Black potentially commits himself to playing moves like …Kc8-b8 to avoid creating weaknesses. This is a loss of time, and in a race position, might not be so trivial. That being said, I totally understand the approach from Black. Already board 1 was moving to a draw, so my opponent wanted to quickly create attacking chances to win the tournament.
Instinctively, I didn’t like this move, but it’s not so easy to demonstrate over the board. Up to this point, I had gained about a 30 minute advantage, so I used most of it here to find the best way to continue.
If we think about it, Black would love a line like …Bxf3 followed exf3 since that would make d4 a permanent outpost for Black. Another issue for me is that I always have to consider the zwischenzug …Ne7xd5, doubling my pawns. Many times, this can be a strategic advantage for White, but if I’m not careful, it can be a positional weakness. For example, a line I considered was 9. e3 Nxd5 10. cxd5 e4 11. exd4 Qb5! =+, where the tripled pawns prove difficult to hold. After the game, my opponent had said he had missed this variation, but I think it’s great Black.
In a position where it’s unclear what to do, sometimes it’s important to stick to Occam’s Razor, where the simplest solution can be the best one. I originally wasn’t thrilled about 9. Nxd4 since e2 becomes a target for Black, but after some time, I realized this was my best option. Sure, Black can try to take on e2, but in a race position, it won’t matter if I’m going for his king. Another concrete problem for Black is that it isn’t clear how his bishop is escaping f8 to an active position with a pawn on d4. My opponent thought this didn’t matter too much at this point, but I think it does need to be considered.
9.Nxd4 exd4 10.d3 h5 11.h4
Setting up the “wavebreaker” we’ve discussed before. I wasn’t too sure how Black was going to attack from here. I thought a positional approach would be to bring the f8 bishop to h6 and trade dark squared bishops, but to do this, he must move the g-pawn, which would allow Nd5-f6. So to execute this idea in full, Black must take the knight on d5, which would open the c-file for my rook – most definitely good for me. My thought on this position was that I was perhaps slightly better, but there was still a game to play here for both sides.
11…Bh3 12.Bxh3 Qxh3 13.Qa4
Nothing special yet, but I wanted to ask Black to prove his point. Once he plays 13… Kb8, I get a free tempo to finally start pushing my queenside armada.
13…Kb8 14.b4 Nxd5?
In our game analysis, my opponent and I agreed that this was the root of his problems. In this position, I get to open the c-file, but more importantly, Black has no threats! As the game shows, it’s not so easy to continue from here. Black’s best chance is to play 14… Nf5, where he immediately threatens to make a perpetual by taking on g3 or h4. Up to this point I didn’t think I was significantly ahead, but after these knights were swapped, I was very optimistic.
15.cxd5 Qf5 16.e4!
My opponent underestimated this move and now is faced with an uncomfortable decision. He can move the queen, at which point, he will no longer be able to access the queenside with it, or he can open the position, allowing my bishop to develop with tempo.
Personally, I thought Black would have been better off leaving the center untouched, as now, not only do I develop with tempo, Black must now make a concession on the queenside. It was this part of the game where I got to test my tactics. Trying to stay calm and not replicate an earlier failure, I got the job done with only a few forcing blows.
Another forcing move. If Black were to ignore me and play 18…Qxd5?, I can win by force with 19. Rxc7! threatening mate on a7, so Black if recaptures with 18…Kxc7 19. Qxa7+ Qb7 20. Rc1+ and I win the queen on the next move. Black can try 18… Qa8, but after a move like 19. Rbc1, are you really going to tell me Black can hold reasonably?
18…Rc8 19.Qb5 g5 20.Rb3
Simply ignoring Black’s non-existent kingside ploys. My idea is to play Rb3-a3 next move, preparing Qb5-a6 with mate. Black will have to open up his king with …c7-c5, and it won’t be pretty.
20…gxh4 21.Ra3 c5 22.bxc5
And all lines are winning here. In the game, Black tried the least ambitious defense thanks to his time troubles, but after 22…Qxd5 23. Rxa7! Kxa7 24. Qxb6+ Ka8 25. Rc3 and Black’s fate is inevitable. I thought Black would try 22… Rf7, but here too I saw that 23. Rxa7! is winning (not all the way till mate though) because 23… Rxa7 24. cxb6, and long story short, Black will not be able to cover all his weak light squares.
22…dxc5 23.Bf4+ Ka8 24.Qa4
The fastest win. If tactics trainer on chess.com has taught me anything, it’s to understand the differences between moves. 24. Qh6 is not as clean because it allows 24… Qd7. My move takes away this option, and since Black doesn’t have …Rc8-c7 in the position thanks to my bishop, he must push the a-pawn…
24…a5 25.Qxa5+ 1-0
Black resigns. If 25…bxa5 26. Rxa5+ Kb7 27. Rb1# and 25… Kb7 26. Qa7#. So that concludes my first ever adult tournament win! It took twelve and a half years to pull off, but to finally do it at the Marshall Chess Club of all places was extremely special.
I’d like to take this moment to thank all of my supporters over at GoFundMe for helping make this trip possible, as well as all of you for following my various accomplishments here on Chess^Summit. Without your continued support, this trip would have never been possible!
While this is a memorable moment for my career, I’ll have little time to relax. Next week is the Cherry Blossom Classic in DC, and the following week is the Carolinas Classic in Charlotte. Hard to believe that in less than one month I’ll be playing for the US Junior Open!
So far in my Endgame Essentials series, I’ve laid out some basic principles to improve our overall assessment of different positions. Understanding that our opponent has a weak king, sidelined piece, or a cancerous structure can help us seize the initiative and identify a plan going forward. While the examples I’ve previously given are relatively straightforward, in practice, such applications are not so simple. Take this position from the recent Candidates Tournament for instance:
Svidler – Karjakin, 2016
In the game, Svidler made the logical move, 48. Rxf4, after which the game followed 48… Rxa2 49. Rfh4 g6 50. Re5 with a draw. I don’t think it’s fair to compare White’s choice to that of an engine, but Stockfish’s recommendation here is particularly instructive – 48. Re5! with a big plus for White. The point is that after 48…Rxa2 49. Re7 g6 50. Rxf4, White’s rooks are a lot more active than Black’s and now both the e3 pawn and the 7th rank are weak. Furthermore, Black’s knight on f8 is out of commission with no pleasant square for refuge. Again, it’s hard to fault Svidler for the miss, but the engine shows us here that activity is stronger than material (for more of my thoughts on engines, here’s a post from last year).
What this should tell us is that the heuristics we’ve identified thus far should always be at the forefront of our attention. However, sometimes we don’t have the convenience of having a better position. In such cases, one strategy is to strengthen our structure by gaining space in the aims to restrict our opponent. If I had to choose a “one-move” example of this, it would be from this past year’s Tata Steel.
Navara – Caruana, 2016
At a first glance, the position is seemingly equal. Navara has a broken pawn structure, but his activity offers enough compensation. If White had moved the bishop here from d5, Black would immediately take the second rank with …Rd6-d2!, seizing the initiative and potentially the game. This is why Navara chose 35. c4!, protecting the bishop, but also showing Caruana how inactive his rook really is. From d6, the Black rook has limited options, and can’t easily put itself on the e-file. The Czech player went on to win a very nice endgame, and I encourage you to see its continuation here.
Naturally, improving a pawn structure takes more than one move, but I thought this case illustrates the aims of the expanding side quite nicely. As we have throughout this series, we’ll take a look at a few examples from Magnus Carlsen’s past victories, this time from 2012 and 2013.
Carlsen – Van Wely, 2013
Already, we have a messy position. White has the bishop pair, but the light-squared bishop seems a little boxed in on d3. The most glaring weakness in this position is the f5 pawn, but Loek has set a trap: 23. Bxf5 Ne5!= and despite being down a pawn, the constant pressure on c4 is enough to give Black equality. But as I hope you’ve noticed thus far, the endgame rewards long-term plans more than short calculations, so this pawn on f5 will be a source of concern for Black going forward. Just remember, sometimes the threat is stronger than the execution! So Magnus instead chose 23. Kc2(Though imprecise, 23. f4 should win too since it covers the e5 square) Bd4 24. Rb1 Nb6 25. Bf4
Before deciding on a structure, Carlsen has decided to optimize his pieces. By putting pressure on his opponent first, he will have a better idea of what structures will give him the best winning chances.
25…Be5 26. Re1 Kg7 27. Bg3!
The starting point for today! With this move, Carlsen intends f3-f4, fixing the weakness on f5, and limiting his opponent’s bishop’s mobility. Already, holding the file and keeping his position intact is getting uncomfortable.
27…Re7 28. f4 Bf6 29. Rxe7 Bxe7 30. Be1
Relocating the bishop the long diagonal is a clear idea, but Carlsen wants to gain space on the kingside with his h- and g-pawns. Again, there’s no rush to take on f5, the pawn can’t go anywhere, thanks to the pawn on f4.
30…h5 31. g3 Bf6 32. Kb3 Kg6 33. h3 1-0
Perhaps it was premature, but Van Wely resigned here in light of 34. g4, finally winning the f5 pawn. With the bishop pair and a healthy material advantage, White should win with relative ease.
This is an important endgame because it shows us that long-term weaknesses can usually not be held by tactical means forever. White maximized a static advantage by fixing the f5 pawn and trading rooks, making it difficult for Black to create counterplay.
In our next example, Carlsen takes on Caruana in a position that is much more balanced:
Carlsen – Caruana, 2012
In this position, both sides have exactly one weakness. For White, the isolated c-pawn is a clear target, and for Black, the backward pawn on b6 is also an issue. I think here many players would try to exchange weaknesses, but, in this case, this mutually beneficial trade will only result in equality (Note that the immediate 29. Bxb6 fails anyways to 29… Rxe1!, I mean this as a more long-term idea). But here it could be argued that White’s position is simpler to play. The bishop on d4 is better placed than it’s counterpart on c7, and can’t easily be kicked from its outpost, thanks to the c3 pawn. Furthermore, it’s much easier for Magnus to put pressure on b6 than it is for Caruana to attack c3, so Black still needs to prove equality in this position. Knowing this, White decided that it was time to expand on the kingside.
29. Re4 g6 30. g4 Kf8 31. h4
Even though it’s not yet clear how Magnus will use these pawns, we can say that he has improved his position, and now asks Black how he will relieve pressure on the b6 pawn. Caruana starts with an exchange and quickly claiming the e-file.
31…Rxe4 32. Kxe4 Re8+ 33. Kd3 Re6 34. Be3!
And now it’s starting to become clear how Carlsen intends to use his kingside pawns. Should Black push ahead with 34…h5?! 35. gxh5 gxh5 36. Rb5 +=, White can enjoy a long-term advantage with pressure on both b6 and h5.
34…Kg7 35. Rb5 Bd8 36. h5
Even though Caruana has made completely natural moves, White has consistently made matters difficult for him. Should Black try 35…f4, he will constantly have to defend a weak h6 pawn. Meanwhile, White can change gears and play c3-c4-c5, only now trading weaknesses because it will be more difficult to defend a5 and h6 than it currently is with b6 and h6. Black decided to keep his structure compact, but this means his king is stuck on g7 protecting h6 until the structure is resolved!
Black has some weaknesses, but nothing nearly as pronounced as our previously analyzed games. However, by improving his pieces and getting space on the kingside, White’s advantage is already becoming visual. Black now is challenged to find moves that don’t make concessions.
40…Bc7 41. f5!
Pressuring the g6 pawn. White’s intention is to make the h6 pawn much more exposed. Even if Caruana tries 41… gxf5 42. gxf5 with the belief that White’s structure also becomes weak, he’ll quickly find that he has no easy way of attacking the isolated f- and h-pawns, since b6 (and soon h6) are under fire. Sometimes, your opponent’s biggest weakness is only as weak as your strongest strength – here the damage to White’s structure is negligible.
41…Rd6+ 42. Ke4 Rc6 43. Rb1 Ke8 44. hxg6
Now that Black has distanced himself from his kingside pawns, Carlsen takes on g6 with the h-pawn so he can attack h6 via h1.
An incredible interference! White trades the kingside pawns, with the idea that liquidating pieces will only help White since his king is closer to the queenside. Black has to oblige, and as we’ll see, his position quickly collapses.
49…Bxf6 50. Rxh6 Be7 51. Rxd6 Bxd6 52. Kb5
And 23 moves later, the debate is resolved, the b6 pawn was weaker than the isolated c-pawn. It was important that White expanded on the kingside because it came with the caveat of having a better king in the final position. Black played on for another 14 moves, but the win is simple. Carlsen picked up the last of Black’s pawns and then pushed his down the board.
For our last example today, both sides attempt to expand in the endgame, but Carlsen’s opponent tried for too much – which ultimately proved for his own demise!
Carlsen – Svidler, 2013
Already, it’s move 12, and we have a queenless middlegame. Black’s bishop looks a little silly on g7, but other than that, we have relative equality in the position. If Black were on the clock, Svidler would likely choose …Bc8-e6 limiting White’s e2 bishop, so Carlsen started with 12.Bc4. Svidler, needing to get his c8 bishop into the game with 12…b5 (which engine thinks is fine), but based on the game’s continuation, Black already puts himself in a place where he must be extremely accurate. White doesn’t really have any threats, which is why I prefer 12…Bd7, with the idea of rerouting to c6. It takes just as many moves as Svidler to develop, just without the bonus of a forcing move. One of the reasons I don’t like this move is because of a general principle Grandmaster Magesh Panchanathan once taught me – don’t move pawns for short term plans. It’s not clear yet if this queenside expansion is beneficial to Black, and as we’ll see Carlsen successfully punishes him later. 13. Bb3
Already we can see some reasons as to why 12…b5 may be questionable. First, b3 isn’t exactly a “worse” square than c4 for White’s bishop. More importantly, the move a2-a4 is beckoning to be played, with the idea of undermining Black’s structure.
13…Bb7 14. f3 Bf8 15. a4!
Now Svidler is faced with an uncomfortable decision. Does he take on a4 and cripple his queenside forever, or does he hyperextend with b5-b4? While the b-pawn push is optically pleasant, it comes with the drawback that c4 is weakened forever.
15…b4 16. Nb1
Taking advantage of Black’s hyperextension. Carlsen plans a quick maneuver, Nb1-d2-c4 to put pressure on e5.
16…Nd7 17. Nd2 Bc5 18. Kf2!
A nice application of a simple idea here – trade only if it helps you! Taking on c5 would activate Black’s knight, so now, if Svidler wants to trade dark-squared bishops, he must take on e3, activating the king!
Phase 1 of White’s plan is complete. Magnus stands slightly better thanks to his control over c4, but Svidler has done well to not create new weaknesses. The next stage of the game is brief, as Carlsen simply grabs the d-file.
Once again Carlsen is doing well, but it still seems like Svidler can hold this position. In phase 3, White finally improves his structure on both sides of the board to increase his winning chances.
27. Be6 Rc7 28. b3 Kf8 29. Bc4
White has sealed the queenside, as now both a4 and c2 cannot easily be hit. Meanwhile, b6 is already a future target for White. But first, Carlsen plays on the whole board!
29…Kg7 30. h4 h5 31. g4?
Svidler must make another tough decision. Does he take on g4, allowing White the opportunity to create a passed h-pawn in the future? Or does he allow White to take on h5, creating another target? As it turns out, Black actually missed a chance to equalize here with 31…hxg4! 32. fxg4 Bxa4! 33. Rxb6 and Black has a lot fewer weaknesses in the position. Carlsen was better if he found the prophylactic 31. Bd3!, removing the idea of …Bxa4 and planning an f3-f4 push. The endgame is still complicated, but White still has an edge.
31…Bxa4 32. Rxb6 Bd7 33. gxh5 gxh5
While Black may have gotten rid of his b6 weakness, he now has targets on a5, f6, and h5. Even though Black isn’t lost here, White is still for choice.
34. Bd3 Kf7 35. f4 exf4+ 36. Kxf4
Winning this endgame won’t be simple, but by trading the e5 pawn for his f-pawn, Carlsen opens up dark squares in the center for his king. After getting his rook onto a better square, Magnus centralizes the king by moving it to d4.
A simple oversight by Svidler in a position that was already lost. This game gave us both good and bad examples of expanding the structure. Early in the game, Svidler pushed too quickly, giving White counterplay on the queenside and a great outpost on c4. But this wasn’t enough to win. By expanding on the kingside (the one blunder aside), Magnus managed to break Black’s pawn structure.
In today’s post, we discussed how in seemingly equal positions, we can increase our winning chances by improving our pawn structure and gaining space on each side of the board. Often times it isn’t enough to have one weakness in the position, so often changing the structure (in our favor) gives us more attacking options and plans to stretch out our opponent.
I’ll be playing my first tournament in over a month this weekend at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, so I won’t be able to post my usual video on Sunday. Look out for my next post early next week, where I’ll hopefully be sharing what turned out to be a good performance!
For those of you who were formally introduced to chess like me, you may recall being taught the importance of the solidarity in pawn structures. The more fragmented a structure becomes, the more pawn islands are created. Since pawns are “stronger” together, it’s logical then to believe that each pawn island (or isolated pawn) created thus weakens the integrity of one side’s overall structure. This static consideration is so important that many coaches for beginners say that the side with fewer pawn islands can be considered better! While this grossly undervalues the power of dynamic play, this consideration can help steer the structurally better player in the right direction.
In the case of endgames, understanding this principle is crucial, as a brittle structure offers various targets throughout the duration of the game. In our previous Endgame Essentials posts, we discussed how a weak king or a badly placed piece can single-handedly change a result. By simultaneously asking yourself how you can improve your position and stop the opponent’s counterplay, we can try to stretch out (or limit!) our opponent’s defensive resources by creating a passed pawn, or dominating an opponent’s piece. When taking structures into consideration, often times we don’t need to immediately create our own attacking resources because they are already provided for us. As we have with our past studies, we resume our travel through Magnus Carlsen’s career – resuming in 2009, and today reaching the year 2011.
As we move through each exercise, I encourage you to continue asking yourself how Carlsen can improve his position. When playing against a weak structure, the duration of the plan will take longer, and usually a win is not simply obtained by tactical means like some of our previous examples.
Carlsen – Karjakin, 2009
At a first glance, neither sides’ pieces are particularly impressive. Karjakin’s rook on d8 seems to stand strong on the d-file, but as we’ll see in a second, it actually has no entry square on the d-file that’s particularly useful. To get a better assessment of who’s better, we move to the theme of today’s lesson by comparing structures. In the purest definition of the word, each side has exactly three pawn islands. However, the value of each island is different. For example, visually, we can already see how the isolated c6 pawn is a lot weaker than White’s on h3. By being on a half-open file, Black’s c-pawn can present him with immediate problems. Furthermore, I think something needs to be said of Black’s e5 pawn. While at a basic level it belongs to the same pawn island as the f-, g-, and h- pawns, supporting it with another pawn would actually be a concession for Karjakin. Already, the pawn on e5 limits the scope of Black’s dark-squared bishop. Should Black ever play …f7-f6, he limits the bishop even more, while White’s opposite colored bishop improves.
So as we can see, while Carlsen also has three pawn islands, it doesn’t limit his ability to improve his position. 21. Nd1 Rd6 22. Rc5 Kf8 23. Kf1 h5 24. Ne3 Ke7 25. Ke2 Bg7
Both sides have tried to improve the position, but White’s done a better job of addressing Black’s weaknesses. From c5, Carlsen’s rook hits both the c6 and e5 pawns. Without a clear improvement, White spends this move asking himself “what’s my worst piece?” and finds that the knight on e3 has limited mobility despite its centralization. With 26. Nc2 Carlsen makes a move he’ll have to make anyway to reactivate the knight while waiting on Karjakin to find improvements 26…Bh6 27. Ra5!
Why not immediately take the pawn on e5? Carlsen decided here that given the choice, he’d rather win the pawn on a7. Should White win this pawn, not only does he get a passed pawn on the a-file, but the pawn on e5 still blocks in Black’s bishop. Karjakin didn’t let this happen, but protecting the a-pawn means retreating one of his pieces. Carlsen wasn’t worried about 27…Rd2+ 28. Kf1 Rd1+ 29. Kg2 and with no more checks, Black must go back and protect a7. It’s in this line that we see how Black’s rook isn’t really a factor on the d-file.
27…Rd7 28. Rxe5+ Kd6 29. Ra5 Bg7 30. f4!
Giving Karjakin a choice. By taking the pawn on b2 like he did in the game, Black temporarily puts his bishop offside and has to spend several tempi reactivating it. Meanwhile, White can still put pressure on c6 and a7. While Karjakin’s chances for survival dwindle by playing the role of materialist, he doesn’t exactly have a better option.
30…Bxb2 31. e5+ Ke7 32. Nb4 Kf8 +=
In ditching his c6 pawn, we can safely say that Carlsen holds an advantage. Had Black tried to hold on with 32…Rc7? 33.Rxa7! Rxa7 34. Nxc6 still gives White a nice two pawn cushion. White doesn’t even have to be flashy because 33. Rc5 will win on c6 as well – if 33…Kd7 34. Bxf7 +-.
33. Nxc6 Bc1 34. Kf3 Rc7 35. Rc5 Ba3 36. Rc2
After spending the last few moves to regroup, Carlsen’s ready to move onto phase two of this endgame. While White stands a pawn up, given the nature of rook and minor piece endgames, there’s still more work to do. The most immediate solution is to try to find ways to make the e-pawn passed. With White’s bishop on b3, it’s important to keep an eye out for sacrifices on f7, but there’s time to improve the position first. Since Black lacks any light square control, White can play to isolate Black’s f7 pawn with Kf3-e4, and f4-f5 with an edge. While this never happened in the game, I’m sure Carlsen saw it (the engine approves too!).
36…Nc8 37. Ke4 Kg7 38. Bxf7!
Though the idea of 38. f5 would have won slowly, this move immediately points out Black’s lack of coordination. Karjakin must take back on f7, and whichever way he chooses, he allows Nc6-d8 with a discovered attack on c8. Even with two minor pieces for the rook, Black doesn’t have enough to slow White’s passed pawn.
And now for phase three – creating more passed pawns. By trading the f4 and g6 pawns, Carlsen can have connected passed pawns, thanks to his other f-pawn on f2. Once this happens, Magnus will push the e- and f-pawns until Black’s minor pieces stop immediate advances. The remainder of the game is added for the sake of completion.
Black must now give up a minor piece to stop White’s passed pawns, after which White’s rook and a-pawn will prove enough.
This endgame was particularly instructive because it shows the uncomfortable decision Black must constantly make between material and activity. Here Karjakin was consistently compliant with Carlsen’s pawn grabbing, but once the position opened, White was able to use his passed pawn (like our earlier endgames) to limit Black’s play and win. In our next game, Carlsen faces Ivanchuk in a rook and knight endgame where the Ukranian was adamant to hold onto his material.
So again we have a position where piece play is relatively even. Each sides’ rooks are planning to contend for the c-file and are arguably worth the same at the moment. While White’s knight seems menacing on d4, it can only move backward. Black’s knights have a similar issue as it’s unclear as to where they belong. If we do a basic pawn island count, we can see that Carlsen has two, while Ivanchuk has three. So where in the position is White’s structural advantage giving Carlsen an edge? The d4 square. Since Black’s d5 pawn is isolated, that means a pawn can never kick a piece from d4. However, we already mentioned that the knight here doesn’t offer much for White. When our opponent’s pawn structure doesn’t give us enough to work with, the next step is to see if we can create new targets. This is why Carlsen played 39. h5! and after Ne7 40. Rh1 gxh5 41. gxh5, we’ve reached a new structure.
Even though White’s created an isolated pawn of his own, Black now has three isolani in the position. I think it’s interesting to note how the engine still considers this endgame equal. Perhaps in a perfect world this position is tenable, but in practice this isn’t so easy to hold – and that should be enough for White. Carlsen’s plan is to activate his rook via h1-h4-f4 to attack f7, and then push his queenside pawns to create another weakness.
Black creates a padlock here and has done well thus far to improve his position. Black’s rook is a little awkward on g5, but it’s doing a good job of pressuring White’s only concession as a result of the structure change seven moves ago. Meanwhile, the knight on d6 offers Black mobility, with ideas of …Nd6-c4, putting pressure on e3, making sure the king stands guard.
47. a5 bxa5
This is more or less forced, as 47…b5 48. Nb3! with the idea of reaching c5 and pressuring a6. By trading on a5, Ivanchuk eliminates this permanent outpost.
48. bxa5 f5? +=
Black’s woes begin here with this committal move. Already it was becoming difficult to find improving moves for White, so simply waiting with 48…Re5= would have forced Carlsen to come up with new ideas. The Ukranian’s move is a mistake because it moves his weakness within reach of White’s knights, making it easier for Carlsen’s pieces to create pressure. I’m thinking Ivanchuk just panicked here because Rf4-f6 can be met with …Ne7-g8 and Black holds.
White’s rook is no longer needed on f4 since White’s knights are watching Black’s f-pawn. By activating the rook White can play to infiltrate on the queenside. Black can bring his rook over too, but that means no pressure on h5, and fewer defenders of the f5 pawn. Before relocating the rook, Carlsen will insert f3-f4 to stop any potential pawn sacrifice ideas of …f5-f4 and fix the weakness.
A good rule of thumb for knight endgames is that often times they can be calculated to a result like pawn endings. While this can be impractical to do over the board, being up a pawn in a knight endgame is definitely a promising sign, and in this game, Carlsen manages to convert. For the sake of brevity, I want to skip to a critical moment.
Sacrificing the knight! Thanks to the spread of White’s pawns, Black is not in time to stop promotion. Being able to sacrifice the knight to simplify into a won endgame is an important resource, and it’s definitely not an uncommon endgame idea. The game continued:
Black’s king is too far to stop White’s pawns, so Ivanchuk resigned here. Unlike the Karjakin game, Ivanchuk held onto his weaknesses (and rightfully so!), only to err later with 48…f5?. In retrospect it seems like a simple mistake, I think it’s really illustrative of how difficult it is to play such a position and just hold.
In today’s post, we discussed how a simplistic understanding of pawn islands can help us find weaknesses and weak squares. Similar to having better pieces, having a better structure can give you control of the pace of the game, ultimately making the difference between a win and a draw.
For today’s video, I dug up a game I played three years ago at the Fairfax Open against a former coach. While I wound up losing the game, I thought that this game was particularly instructive, and shows just how fickle the initiative can be. Pay special attention to how each side missed opportunities to win, and try to see if you can also find your own improvements.
At the time I played this game, I was rated 1900, and I think that this game is a fair representation of what play is like at that level. The video went kind of long, but I’m hoping I was able to break it down so everybody can understand the battle that took place. Enjoy!
In last Tuesday’s post, we discussed how the king is a vital resource in various practical endgames, and how it’s safety can shape the outcome. By trapping our opponent’s pieces with our activity, we offer ourselves good winning chances and the ability to press for a result. However, there are many cases where this is simply not possible. Perhaps the position is too simplified, or our opponent has too many avenues of play at his disposal. In such cases, it’s important to stay active and take note of small advantages like better-placed pieces. In today’s post, I wish to share four of Carlsen’s endgames to show how simply having a slightly better-placed rook can make a slight advantage decisive.
Our first example comes from Magnus’ win over the then reigning World Champion, Viswanathan Anand.
Carlsen – Anand, 2008
In this study-like endgame, Carlsen holds an extra pawn, but if he isn’t careful, Black’s passed d-pawn can become a major nuisance. To make the position a little simpler, Carlsen first stretches Anand’s defenses. This is the first step towards claiming an advantage. 40. h4 Kd4 41. h5 d5 42. h6 Ra7 43. Kf3 Rh7
In just three moves, the balance of the game has changed. Black’s rook, now on h7, has much less scope than it did on a3. Sure, the h-pawn can no longer advance, but in driving away the rook, White’s king is more mobile and can target Black’s weak pawns. Before going through with this plan, Carlsen should protect the pawn on h6. Which option is better, Re1-h1 or Re1-e6?
The most active choice, and the starting point of today’s lesson. While it may have seemed more natural to slide behind the passed h-pawn, Black has made it clear that this pawn is going nowhere. If Carlsen had instead gone to h1, his rook would have been just as passive as Black’s. By going to e6, not only does White protect the pawn, but he keeps control of the e-file while maintaining the ability to play on the sixth rank to slow Black’s d-pawn. Meanwhile, White’s king can aid the h-pawn on it’s journey to promotion – Anand’s rook defense is only temporary.
Admittedly, this isn’t that difficult to find, but in analyzing this position, we give ourselves a ground to compare pieces. In this case, the e6 rook is much better than its counterpart on h7 because it offers White more options to proceed with the game. Anand struggled for a few more moves, but the game is already lost.
44…Kc3 45. Rc6+ Kd3 46. Kf4
And so we see another way to win an endgame. Rather than limiting our opponent’s play, we can stretch our opponent’s play across the board.
46…Rf7 47. Kg5 Ke2 48. Rd6 1-0
Anand throws in the towel here, as the rook-pawn is enough for White due to the considerable distance from Black’s king. With simplification being the only real option, Anand confirmed what we knew four moves ago.
Our next example offers a little more material for each side, but once again, the better-placed rook is the deciding factor!
Carlsen – Leko, 2008
Already we can see that Carlsen has succeeded in making Leko’s life difficult, but even with some minor piece restriction, there’s still a little work to do. As you may have guessed, White will try to win Black’s d5 pawn to gain two queenside passed pawns.
46. Nc7 Bf8?!
Black ditches his pawn, hoping that he can get his pieces into the game with some drawing chances. I was surprised that Leko didn’t try 46…Rd8 but after some forcing play from White, Black’s position is pretty hopeless too: 47. Be5 Rd7 48. Ne6 Bxe5 49. Nf8+ +-
If Black tries to do too much with 47… Bf8, we reach the theme of paralysis once again with the move 47. Re2!, the idea being to infiltrate the 7th rank from a7, and all the sudden Black has to defend himself from ugly mating threats.
So instead, Leko gives Magnus the pawn in the hope of putting up some resistance.
47. Nxd5 Kg7 48. Kf3
Classic Carlsen. As we’ve come to learn in these last two posts, it’s extremely important to improve your position as much as possible before going forth with a winning plan. This move offers an example of consolidation while offering the King’s resources to the attack.
48…Kf7 49. Nb6 Rc6
And now the position doesn’t seem so difficult to convert. From c6, the Black rook doesn’t really offer any function, while the e3 rook cuts off Black’s king.
50. Nd7 Bg7 51. Be5 Bf8 52. d5
It would be an exaggeration here to say that Black’s defenses are stretched here, but his inability to create counterplay is Leko’s biggest burden. Carlsen decides to gain some tempi at the expense of Black’s passivity.
52…Rc4 53. d6 Rc6 54. Nxf8!
An important trade, as Carlsen eliminates one of Black’s best “defenders”. Now the knight on g8 is trapped forever, and White will have as much time to improve his position as he needs. Watch how Carlsen refuses to push the d6 pawn until his c-pawn is advanced and his king is in the game.
Leko resigns as Carlsen’s intentions are clear. White’s king will march to d5, along with the c-pawn, which will quickly make way down the board. For Carlsen, I’m sure this endgame didn’t pose much of a problem, but from a technical point of view, it shows the overlap between better-placed pieces and limiting activity. If we can cramp our opponent’s pieces, we in turn have better pieces to stretch out their defenses. Should we stretch out the opponent, we can often limit their hand and thus dominate the board. Of course, chess isn’t so linear, but it’s always important to ask ourselves 1) how can we stop our opponent’s counterplay? and 2) how can I improve my position? While these are important questions to ask in each phase of the game, the endgame demands that we take these into consideration since timing is extremely crucial.
This next endgame is the most challenging position in today’s post:
Carlsen – Eljanov, 2008
White is two pawns up, but it’s not so easy to convert. As you may know, a 4 v 3 pawn and rook endgame is a famous theoretically drawn position, and here it’s not so clear how the added c-pawn will help with each side possessing a pair of rooks. Carlsen makes the practical decision to weaken Black’s structure.
31. Bxe6 fxe6 32. f3
By trading the pair of bishops, Carlsen has created an isolani on e6. But the question remains, what has gained? Let’s take a look at a similar position:
Just by taking off the c5 pawn, we have a drawn rook ending where White doesn’t even have the hope of creating a passed e-pawn. So arguably, you could say White hurt his winning chances, right? Let’s take a look at the game position again:
I’m sure Carlsen recognized that without the c-pawn he can’t win, but he needed more weaknesses to make the c-pawn more valuable. In the starting position, White couldn’t hope to queen his passed pawn against Black’s forces, and the f7-g6-h7 structure was too solid to really find a breakthrough. By trading on e6, White causes structural damage and hopes to execute the principle of two weaknesses. Carlsen cannot win by force, so he intends to do so by stretching Eljanov’s rooks to the defense of the e6 pawn and preventing the c-pawn’s promotion. Are the two weaknesses far enough? This is the debate for the next ten moves.
32…Rd2 33. h4!
This move opens a route for Carlsen’s king, as well as offers potential kingside play with h4-h5 ideas. When trying to play against two weaknesses, it’s important to bring in as many pieces as possible to exert the most pressure.
33…Kf7 34. Rf2
Before running to h2, Carlsen forces Eljanov’s rook on to a more passive square. From d2, Black could put pressure on g2 as well as control the d-file. This tempo costs White nothing, and in turn Black’s rook does much less on d1.
32…Rd1+ 35. Kh2 Kf6 36. Kg3 Rc6 37. Ra2
White still has an advantage, but it’s extremely slight. Eljanov has done well to defend the two weaknesses, so White must continue to find ways to improve the position. Here Carlsen finds a superior square for the rook on f2, where it now has the ability to play down the board. It doesn’t seem like much, but three moves ago, this rook was doing nothing on f1, now it’s the best rook on the board!
37…Rb1 38. Ra7 h5 39. Kf4 e5+
This was more or less forced from Black, but what did Carlsen achieve from Black’s pawn push? It’s important to remember that this e-pawn is still isolated, so arguably it will be harder to protect on e5 without the support from c6 than it was on e6. But Carlsen thought even deeper. Black’s king is lacking squares which lead Carlsen on to the winning idea…
40. Kg3 Rb5 41. Rd3!
Perhaps the two weaknesses were too close for Carlsen to make the most out of them, but without having done so, he would not have had the opportunity to trade weaknesses! It’s clear that the c-pawn is going nowhere, so Carlsen gives it up to pursue a weak king. Another way to consider this move is that it activates White’s last rook. Since our analysis began, White has not been able to effectively use this rook because it’s been tied to the pawn. Just as I mentioned last post, activity can be more important than material, and here’s just another case. Meanwhile, Eljanov’s rooks are doubled on the c-file, pointing nowhere.
41…Rbxc5 42. Rdd7 Rc1 43. Rf7+Ke6 44. Rg7
With the threat of mate, White lures Black’s king back to f6, allowing Carlsen to fully regroup and take Black’s kingside pawns with him.
Kf6 45. Raf7+ Ke6 46. Rf8 1-0
Black cannot save the kingside from falling apart, and all resulting endgames will be lost.
This was a particularly impressionable endgame, because Carlsen managed to win by finding minor improvements along the way, particularly focusing on the placement of rooks. Through the use of the principle of two weaknesses, Eljanov was stretched just enough to create a third, which is just enough to have a decisive position.
For our last position, I wanted to share a case where better-placed rooks offer pleasant tactical simplifications into won endgames.
Carlsen – Grischuk, 2009
Well, you can probably predict what I’m going to say here – Black’s rooks are extremely passive, especially the rook on b8, chained to the b7 pawn. That being said, can you find the tactical solution Carlsen found to take this advantageous position into a winning one?
28. Rxf6! gxf6 29. Nd7 +-
Even if Carlsen wasn’t guaranteed his material back, the exchange sacrifice was enough to damage Black’s position beyond repair. Given a choice between allowing a fork on f6 or giving back the exchange on b8, Grischuk desperately tries to find counterplay.
29…f5 30. c4 a5 31. c5 Bg7 32. Nxb8 Rxb8
Sure, the position has opposite-colored bishops but given the advances of White’s queenside majority and Black’s displaced b8 rook, that doesn’t matter now. How did Carlsen put this game away?
Black doesn’t have time to take the bishop since White’s pawns are moving too quickly. As Grischuk was to discover, however, the bishop has to be taken at some point.
33…Bf6 34.Bxb7 Rxb7 35. c6
As goes the general rule, two passed pawns beat a rook. Here, with a rook on d1, Carlsen shows that the added f6 bishop doesn’t help Black’s cause.
35…Rxb6 36. Rc1!
An important insertion, as 36. c7? would allow 36… Rc6! and Black is holding. A nice way to end the day’s lesson, as White’s rook places itself better than Black’s one last time.
36…Bxb2 37. d7 1-0
And Grischuk understandably resigns here. A nice tactical display by the future World Champion!
I hope these last two posts have given you all a lot more insight into active endgame play. In each case, Carlsen found ways to maximize his advantages by either limiting his opponent or stretching them across the board. While the two can overlap, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable, and one must be used as a means of achieving the other.