Endgame Essentials: A Year Later

After the conclusion of the 2016 World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Doha, I started studying various endgames that occurred throughout the two tournaments. While it hasn’t been a continuous process, I figured it would be timely to share some of my findings as the 2017 edition of the tournament approaches.

Why look at the rapid games? In a lot of these games, the top players have to rely on intuition and technique. Given the limitation of time, much of the conversion process is in the endgame: squeeze, simplify, win. This gives us a more decisive allotment of material to look through and learn from.

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Magnus had a shaky start in Doha, and was unable to defend both his rapid and blitz titles (Courtesy: Maria Emilianova)

Much of the Endgame Essentials series thus far has emphasized pawn structure and static elements, but today’s games look at key material imbalances in the position. We’ll be looking at the practical power of the bishop pair and evaluating minor piece endgames.

In each of these sections, I’ll discuss the highlights, with links to further analysis for each game. Buckle up!

The Bishop Pair

Its no secret that possession of the bishop pair comes with great power. But what does winning with one actually look like? Bulgarian GM Ivan Cheparinov gave us a convincing example of how to win the bishop pair and then convert in the second round:

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Cheparinov–Al-Sayed, position after 16. Nc5!

Despite the symmetrical pawn structure, White has a clear plus. The knight on c5 (combined with the g2 bishop) exert a lot of pressure on Black’s queenside, and at some point, Black will have to surrender the bishop pair to remedy his position. Black opted for 16…Bc8, and later had to trade on c5. But this didn’t solve everything either – just look at the position after 24. a5:

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Cheparinov–Al-Sayed, position after 24. a5

In fixing the queenside, Cheparinov now has a target on a6. Once the g2 bishop breaks free it will be superior to the knight on f6, which will allow White to ‘stretch out’ Black’s resources. White’s task proved to not be too cumbersome, and the Bulgarian soon left with the point.

Constantly putting pressure throughout your opponent’s camp is one way utilize the bishop pair, but in this next game, Chinese GM Lu Shanglei shows us that simply waiting for the right time to trade could also do the trick.

How did White win the bishop pair here?

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Lu–Shytaj, position after 16…Nc4

With a simple 17. Rxd4 Rxd4 18. Bg7 Rh4 19. Bxh8 Rxh5, White got his bishop pair, but now what? The Chinese Grandmaster showed us that calculation isn’t everything when he came up with his plan in this position:

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Lu–Shytaj, position after 21…Ba6

Here White knew he wanted to activate his rook on the g-file and target h7. Black needs time to coordinate each of his pieces, so White continued with his plan with 22. Re4. Once his rook reached g8 and his b3 bishop was on c2, White was able to win the h-pawn and push his kingside majority. Put your pieces on the best squares and good things happen!

Having the bishop pair often means having the flexibility to control the game. Do you stretch your opponent out, or do you trade your bishop pair for an even greater advantage? In both of these games, White activated his pieces and applied pressure, causing Black too many practical problems.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and we saw one of China’s best, Li Chao, neutralize White’s bishop pair:

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Onischuk–Li Chao, position after 38. Bd2

White is a pawn up and has the bishop pair, but its the passivity in White’s position that stinks. White has to eliminate Black’s h-pawn and simplify to earn a draw, but White actually has weak dark square control. After 38…Nf5 Black kept the pawn on h6 and prepared …Bg1-e3 to eliminate White’s dark squared bishop. Once this trade occurs, White’s task of winning the h-pawn is much more difficult, meaning that it is Black who is stretching White, which is exactly what happened here. White missed some chances, but the pressure and trend of the game really did him in.

“Basic” Minor Piece Endgames

Bishop or Knight? That is the question. Do we just summarize that in positions where pawns span the board, bishops are better because of their range in motion? That seems like a decent general rule, but Russian GM Vladislav Artemiev showed us that’s not always true with his second round win:

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Artemiev–Banikas, position after 34. Nb3

Despite the material advantage, the conversion proves to not be so simple. Artemiev starts off by bringing his knight to a dark-squared outpost, c5. With only a light squared minor piece, Black really isn’t able to stop White from planting his knight and usurping the sixth rank with Re2-e6. White missed some chances and had to “re-win” the game later, but even in a drawn position, we see the combinations the knight and the rook can draw up against the king.

Does anyone teach knight endgames anymore? Knight endgames are a lot like pawn endgames – a material advantage is often enough to be decisive. What else do you know? Norwegian youngster and future World Junior Champ Aryan Tari was tested in the first round:

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Tari–Dubov, position after 38. Nd3

With his last move, 38. Nd3, Tari brings his knight behind the e4 pawn to create a shield along the 5th rank. To convert, White will need to activate his king and cross the fifth rank, with the goal of creating a passer on the e-file. Black made White’s life a little easy by playing …f7-f5, but Black was already in dire straights.

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Tari–Dubov, position after 43. Kd4

With stage one of the plan (more-or-less) complete, White’s advantage is even clearer. Black is extremely passive, and at some point, White will be ready to stretch Black between the a6 pawn, and his own passed e-pawn. The extra material proved to be enough, and Tari scored a big upset in the first round.

If you’re looking for more minor piece endgame material, GM Elshan Moradiabadi’s recent lecture at the St Louis Chess Club is a good starting point:

Conclusions

What has this short introduction to minor piece endgames told us? Activity still matters. Pawn structure still matters. Many of the same basic criterion we had established with rook endgames can be applied to minor piece endgames.

But on a deeper level, think about how in each of these games, one side followed a plan before worrying about actually converting the result – this is probably the most important point. Endgames are incredibly difficult, and its often pointless to try and calculate every move – the possibilities are literally infinite! So optimize your pieces and identify critical targets in your opponent’s camp. Maybe the rapid strategy isn’t so bad after all – squeeze, simplify, win.

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