During another Friday evening game with Isaac, I battled through one of the ugliest openings ever to reach an ending up a piece for two pawns, but facing a rather formidable pawn storm. I was soon able to capitalize on an error to end matters quickly, but we felt compelled to spend a good chunk of time (and several impromptu mini-games) debating the merits of material versus activity in that endgame.
The short answer (according to me) was that material should eke out a win. The bar for compensating for lost material isn’t simple to meet. The flip side has burned me a few times as well, but more often than not, the material scale in chess is a good one. Isaac thought Black’s upcoming pawn storm would be crushing. We’ll get to the opinion of a certain silicon friend later.
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. h4 h6
I’d asked Isaac to play the Caro-Kann so I could practice in the Advanced Variation. Unfortunately, Isaac had only prepared for my previously favored 4. Nf3, but having little time recently to study main lines and having dabbled in 4. h4 in the past, I was willing to give the latter a few more tries. 4…h5 is generally considered most reliable, but Isaac’s choice of 4…h6 is an older try that usually leads to 5. g4 Bd7 6. h5. The other try is…
5. g4 Bh7?! 6. e6! fxe6 7. Bd3
Objectively, Black is still in the game, but Black’s temporary neglect of e6 and the cornered h7 bishop gives White good play on the light squares at the expense of a pawn.
Now White can accept a slight weakness in exchange for kicking the bishop with f3, or slowly go after the tripled pawns. I chose the latter.
8. Bxe4 dxe4 9. Ne2 Nf6 10. Ng3 c5 11. g5 hxg5 12. hxg5
It looks like Black will have to trade rooks and move out of f6, allowing an unpleasant Qh5+. But with d4 en prise and Black up a pawn, there is another option I hadn’t considered.
12…Rxh1 13. Nxh1 cxd4!?
Black gives up the knight for a mass of admittedly scary-looking pawns. The next few moves are virtually forced.
14. gxf6 exf6 15. Qh5+ Ke7 16. Ng3 Qd5 17. Qxd5 exd5 18. Nf5+ Ke6 19. Nxd4+ Ke5
In hindsight, I would have expected 20. Be3 to go fairly smoothly. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible after 20. Nc3?! (seeing if Black will fall for 20…Kxd4? 21. Nb5+ and 22. Nc7, but what else?) 20…Nc6 21. Nxc6+ bxc6.
As I mentioned above, I wasn’t particularly worried about Black’s pawn rushes, but now that Be3 is no longer possible due to …d4, developing the queenside was proving a bit more annoying. Fortunately, Black didn’t do much to inhibit my makeshift queenside development plan and fell victim to a tactic on e4.
22. Ke2 g5 23. f3 Bb4 24. Bd2 Rh8?? 25. Nxe4!
Isaac had apparently overlooked that after 25…Rh2+ 26. Ke3, 26…Bc5+ was impossible. After 26…dxe4 27. Bxb4 exf3? (27…Rh3 last chance to put up resistance) 28. Kxf3 Rxc2 29. Bc3+ Kf5 30. Kg3, I quickly rounded up f6, and later the other pawns.
Right away, we can see that White’s bishop is rather inhibited and Black’s plans involving …d4, f- and g-pawn storms, and going after the f2 pawn, the last resistance to Black’s potential passers.
None of this was particularly convincing to me, since pawns (even several of them) aren’t particularly effective against minor pieces and White’s only real weakness is f2. While it may take White some time to untangle (although untangle White does, after …d4/Nd1/b2-b3/Nb2 etc.), the extra pieces give White extra tactical possibilities and defensive opportunities to compensate for the lost time. I thought the ending would always be tricky in practical play, but was probably much better for White with best play.
Of course, these judgments call for empirical analysis, so Isaac and I blitzed out the ending from the original position several times, which didn’t help our cases too much; I dominated the first few games, but Isaac more or less closed the gap in the last few. Isaac may have overlooked the aforementioned tactical resources for White, but I was surprised to lose a number of close bishop vs. three-pawn endings. I did note some of the earlier simplifications into equal-material or pawn-up (for White) endings, just to confirm that the ending wasn’t completely winning for Black.
Eventually, we lended an ear to Stockfish, who evaluated the position after 21…bxc6 as +1 for White, basically in line with White’s material advantage. Unfortunately for me, the evaluation dwindled to 0.0 after 22. Ke2 (Stockfish liked 22. Ne2) 22…d4 23. Nd1 (Stockfish preferred a4).
We didn’t record any of the mini-games, but Isaac shored up the e4 pawn with …f5 and tried various bishop placements en route to developing Black’s rook, and clamping down with a passer whenever I tried f3. I just tested whatever seemed most intuitive (to untangling the back rank) for various Black tries. A sample line might run (after 23. Nd1):
23…f5 24. f3 (in hindsight, I don’t like this as much) 24…Be7 25. Nf2 Rh8 (25…g5 26. fxe4 fxe4 makes the pawns more manageable for White to deal with) 26. fxe4 fxe4
27. b3 is closer to what I attempted in most of the mini-games, providing a flexible choice for developing the big pawn on c1. After 27…Rh2, it seems best to disrupt the potential …e3 threats with 28. c3 d3+ (28…c5 looks possible, but opening up the c-file could prove fatal for Black) 29. Kf1 Rh4 30. Be3 (finally!), and perhaps 30…g5.
Now that White is finally untangled, 31. Bxa7 seems tempting, though I’d probably start worrying again after 31…c5 and questioning whether White really needs or wants the extra material. Against the straightforward 31. Kg2, Black might be out of gas, although there are still some tactics to watch out for. One caveat is the potential minor piece vs. 2-3 passer endgames, which could be more complicated than I’m letting on. I’d personally defer these possibilities to someone with more feel for time and those endings. The above is, of course, just one line of many. In a complicated ending that starts at +[0,1], there’s enough room for the position to swing either way.
As it turns out, Isaac and I underestimated (at least a little) the resources at each other’s disposal. A material advantage is powerful, and provides a lot of security in terms of tactical options (more powerful pieces, more possibilities) and conversion (into simpler positions). On the other hand, it is entirely possible for activity to produce longer-term advantages or tactical opportunities (which I missed) with a few great moves or inaccuracies from the other side. Our analysis is yet another reminder that my endgame intuition isn’t quite crystal clear (based on my eagerness to trade into losing piece-for-passed-pawns endings!). And whatever your faith in material advantages, structural advantages, spatial advantages, or activity, there’s always more than meets the eye!