Winning a Won Game (Part 1)

The great Frank Marshall once said that “winning a won game is one of the hardest things in chess.”  It may seem counterintuitive at first, but many examples, both of our own and of the top chess players, show that players can struggle with it.  Additionally, this point is more applicable to situations where one player is up a pawn, up a piece for a couple pawns, or even just positionally superior but with equal material.  In each case, the engine may say one thing (“player A is totally winning!”), but on the board, it may be a very different story (“I know I’m better, but how do I continue?!”).

Luckily for us, the 2019 Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, is currently ongoing so we can try to scour the games played thus far for examples of players converting winning positions when it may not be straightforward.

When it comes to conversions in the endgame, who better to study than Magnus Carlsen?  This first game involves a conversion of an endgame in which Carlsen was up an exchange for a pawn against David Navara in the third round.  To fully examine Carlsen’s technique, we will start right after the queens were traded.  For your convenience, the game and analysis are provided in the game viewer below.

Navara – Carlsen, Gashimov Memorial, 2019

In this game, we saw Carlsen identify a target (the h2-pawn) in the endgame and focus on accomplishing a goal related to that target, which was to capture the h2-pawn.  Carlsen also made sure that White’s queenside pawns wouldn’t pose a threat by separating them from each other and then picking them off.  Lastly, we saw Carlsen wait for the opportune time to force a trade of rooks that would benefit him immensely, especially in terms of pushing his own h-pawn down the board.  The end result was a classic Carlsen-esque conversion of an endgame in which he was better.

The second game we’ll look at today was between Alexander Grischuk and Veselin Topalov.  While this game didn’t go into an endgame, it was very much about converting a position with an advantage.  In this game, Grischuk managed to trade both of his knights for Topalov’s bishops, and in an open position, it was clear that the bishops were superior.  It was just a matter of transforming that advantage into something tangible.  Once again, the game and analysis are provided in the game viewer below for your convenience.

Grischuk – Topalov, Gashimov Memorial, 2019

As we saw in the game, there were a couple different goals that Grischuk likely had in his pursuit of a win in this superior position.  First, Grischuk wanted to poke holes in Black’s position with his queen and bishops and create weaknesses.  Once he was able to do that, Grischuk wanted to maneuver his pieces into a position where he would be able to target two weaknesses at once, forcing a further concession by Black that would leave the position very open for his bishops.  Lastly, with the open position, Grischuk would hope to use a combination of pins and cutting off squares to win material and eventually the game.  Meanwhile, during this entire process, Grischuk had to hide his king away in order to not fall into a perpetual check, which Topalov did threaten a couple times.

In both of these games, we saw established grandmasters plan out and then convert a position in which they were superior.  While there may have been a few missteps (such as in the Grischuk-Topalov game), the players were conscious enough of their goals to right the ship and continue pressing.  Overall, we were able to see just some of the ideas that grandmasters use to try to convert positions.

In other news, Chess^Summit’s very own Jennifer Yu won the U.S. Women’s Championship last week, so on behalf of the entire Chess^Summit community, I want to congratulate her on the amazing feat!

Next time, I’ll share some of my attempts (both successes and failures) to convert superior positions.

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