Ladia Jirasek on the 35th US Chess School Camp

Written by NM Ladia Jirasek

The U.S. Chess School, founded by IM Greg Shahade returned to the beautiful city of San Francisco during the last week of July 2016 to hold their famous Chess Camp. This camp was made possible through the generous sponsors of Dr. Jim Roberts, the Scheinberg family, John Donaldson and the Mechanics Institute.

Two years ago, I was invited to the 24th US Chess School Camp. At that time, I was the second lowest rated chess player to attend. The rating range of USCF 2100 to 2400 may have been challenging to deal with, but both of our instructors, IM Greg Shahade and IM John Bartholomew found a way to make everyone benefit from their lessons. I never had a coach, never took a lesson, so this was a new experience for me. I did not know what to expect, yet the chess camp in 2014 was the best, and most gratifying chess experience I had in my short chess career, and I couldn’t wait to go back.

uscs35-group-photo_origOver the summer this year, the 35th US Chess School occupied the famous San Francisco Mechanic’s Institute, the oldest running chess club in the U.S. I had been invited again and I was looking forward to another great chess camp. The camp’s full schedule started at 10:00am and ended at 6:00pm that last 4 days. Each day consisted small breaks and an hour long lunch break. The chess camp consisted of 11 strong players from California, and one strong WFM from Texas. The 12 attendees were: FM Rayan Taghizadeh (2336), (almost FM) Josiah Stearman (2315), NM Siddharth Banik (2309), NM Ladia Jirasek (2305), WIM Agata Bykovtsev (2297), WIM Annie Wang (2251), NM Alex Costello (2247), WFM Emily Nguyen (2241) from Texas, Balaji Daggupati (2108), Cristopher Yoo (2089), Seaver Dahlgren (2079), and Karthik Padmanabhan (2035). Our coach was the well-known International Master Greg Shahade, founder and president of the U.S. Chess School, founder of the New York Masters and the U.S. Chess League, and who is also a pretty good poker player. This year Greg had no help but was ready to go 1 against 12 and leave no chess stone unturned.

It was time to learn.

Day #1

The first day started with a quick introduction and a nice endgame study. It was early in the morning and this puzzle got our brains running.

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White to play and draw. (Solution at the end of the article)

That was hard! After, we immediately jumped into our lessons. These lessons were not any ordinary lessons, but carefully crafted chess art, so each and every player could be challenged to come up with their own idea, formulate a plan, or have a chance to uncover a GM strategic move. Kudos to Greg for making these amazing lessons! We started by talking about the legendary Mark Dvoretsky, and going over the games of one of his students, Sergey Dolmatov. We looked at critical points in each game and analyzed not only the position, but the psychology behind each of Dolmatov’s decisions. That is something you don’t find in any regular chess lesson. After an intense, yet fun-filled 3 hours, we took a lunch break. Time to eat, time to rest, right? Not so fast. Put 12 chess players in one room together and your lunch break turns into a continuous chess competition. The best part of having our chess camp at Mechanic’s Institute was that it is filled with chess boards. Most of us quickly ate our food so we could go play bughouse. It may not help your chess, but it sure is fun! After lunch, Greg started to analyze our games. He found mistakes typical of younger players and constructed a lesson around it. Many younger, less experienced players want to attack and attack right away. In some games, that could be the difference between a win and a loss. Greg explained to us that sometimes we have to be patient and keep things under control before going on an all-out attack. If your opponent can’t do anything, just build up your position improve your pieces to their best potential, and only then start attacking. Then, we took a quick break to let the material sit in our brains. After, each of us participated in a simul against Greg. Since we were a “strong bunch” according to Greg, it was only fair that he be white in every game. Greg won most of the games, drew a few, and fell only to Alex Costello. Day 1 was a blast, it went by fast, and there were still three more days to go.

Day #2

Day 2 started very similarly to Day 1. We started with another fascinating endgame study and then focused on the idea of prophylactic moves (stopping your opponent’s threats before they happen). Every serious chess player knows that there was nobody better at prophylactics than the great Anatoly Karpov. Any ambitious player can review the Karpov – Spassky 1974 Candidates game 9 and try to find Karpov’s prophylactic moves. The lesson was very instructive and Greg had no problem getting us all involved. Greg also analyzed our games and pointed out some of our mistakes and showed us how we could further improve our chess. Later, we had another lesson on prophylactics. When we were done, it was the time everyone was waiting for… the 1-0 (1 minute) bullet tournament! Pieces were flying all over the board, we were all having fun. In the final, FM Rayan Taghizadeh was able to beat the “bullet machine”, Josiah Stearman, in the final match to get first place. Day 2 ended with Rayan celebrating his victory as well as his birthday. Happy Birthday, Rayan!

Day #3

Day 3 began with another endgame study. This time, having two days of practice, Greg made the endgame puzzle much harder and more challenging, yet many people still figured it out.

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White to move and win. (Solution at the end of the article)

Halfway through the study, we ended up in this position.

We felt that in those last two days, Greg stimulated our brains into a different chess zone. Ideas were coming out of the woodwork, the possibilities were endless and we felt good! After the endgame study, Greg came up with an engaging concept. We started a training game from a position of a GM game. We did not know who were the players or the correct ideas in the given position. We had 20 minutes to play and figure out the correct plans for the side we were playing. This is a great way to study and practice chess. When we finished the training game, we analyzed the actual game and found out what each player did. At the end of the day, we had our 3-2 (three minutes and two-second increment) blitz tournament. As with the Bullet tournament, Rayan emerged victorious again. This time he had to fight much harder for the win. In the final match, he was facing Josiah again. The game started out in the Italian opening, but in the middle game Rayan left his rook undefended. What was going on? Was it a trap? Did Rayan blunder? Everyone was wondering how a great blitz player could make a move like that and at the same time, how Josiah would miss an obvious attack on the rook. Both players were focused on other pieces and the rook remained unnoticed. The game ended as a draw so the players switched colors and began a 1-1 (one minute and one second increment) bullet game. This game was won by Rayan and his reward was a large bag of Ghirardelli chocolates. A very tasty motivation! Rayan Taghizadeh is the only person to have won both the Bullet and Blitz tournaments at the US Chess School. Congratulations Rayan!

Day #4 

Our final day at the US Chess School was going to be different from the previous three.  Except, we still started with another endgame study to get our brains running and then we finished analyzing our games. Afterwards, we played another training game. Just like yesterday, we did not know the players or the plans, but this time, we only had 15 minutes to play and figure out the correct plans for the side we were playing. After we finished, we analyzed the game so we could understand the correct concepts.

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White to move. Try to find black’s plan and prevent it! (Solution at end of article)

Later on, we took a really interesting test: “The Intuition Test.” There were 30 puzzles of varying strengths and we only had 45 seconds to write down our intuition move (the first move you think of) before the next puzzle starts. Some of us found out that our intuition was great and mostly correct, but others learned that they needed to work on their first instinct move. Either way, it was a great learning experience. For our lunch break, we were invited to a mobile advertising company called Fyber. They provided lunch for us and then challenged us to games of chess and video games. Some of us played chess and others took turns playing Ping-Pong and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Going to Fyber was a great way to end our time at the US Chess School. The people at Fyber were gracious and fun to be with.  Thank you to Fyber for providing us with lunch and entertainment. All of the students won’t forget it!

Thank you, Greg, for being an amazing coach and I hope to see you at the next US Chess School.

Also, a huge thank you to our main sponsors Dr. Jim Roberts and the Scheinberg family.

Thank you to John Donaldson and the Mechanic’s Institute for providing us with their space throughout the camp free of charge. It’s one of the bet chess clubs in the country, and they support us chess players year after year.

Afternote:

As the US Chess School Camp was over, five of us went to the People’s tournament in Berkeley. I wanted to put my newfound knowledge to the test. During the games, I found out that many moves I was thinking of now were not moves I thought of before. I would always try to find out what my opponent’s long-term plan was and I tried to stop it (prophylactics). I’m pretty sure that the knowledge I acquired from the camp over these four days helped me hold a draw against the one and only Mechanic’s own Grandmaster-in-residence Nick De Firmian. Other students demonstrated their newfound knowledge at this tournament too. Josiah Stearman saw that his opponent was threatening to move his knight to d4, and that the c4 square was weak so he maneuvered his knight (a lesson we had on day 1). He played knight from c3 to b1 so he could follow up with c3 to prevent the black knight from coming to d4. Then, he followed up with Nd2-c4 and had a nice position. Siddharth Banik used prophylactics to prevent his opponent’s only attacking idea and then followed up with an amazing rook sacrifice to have a forced win of material in four moves. And lastly, Seaver Dahlgren secured a position very similar to one of the Dolmatov games we were analyzing. Because of this, he was able to play the position well and got a winning advantage.

I know that we all learned a lot from the US Chess School and I can’t wait to go again!

Solutions to puzzles:

  1. 1. Ng4+  hxg4,  2. d4+  K anywhere,   3. Rh1!!  Qf8   4. Ke1  Qa8   5. Kf1  Qa6+ 6. Kg1 with stalemate
  2. 1. Bg2+!  Kxg2,  2. Nf4+  Kg1  3. Ke1!!  g2  4. Ne2#
  3. Black’s plan is to maneuver his knight from c6 to c4 via the a5 square. White has to stop that. White’s best move is Rc1 with the idea of Qb1 and Rc5. Check out the game to see what actually happened. (This position is just after black’s 23rd move …h6.)

http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1068393

Endgame Essentials: Dramatic, not Drawmatic!

If I’m totally honest, I don’t think I learned to fully appreciate rapid tournaments until this year. It took three tournaments to change my mind: the 2015 Chess World Cup, the Ultimate Blitz competition featuring Garry Kasparov, and today, the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Paris. Unlike longer time control games, rapid chess emphasizes strong, practical play, and takes the spotlight off of brilliant opening preparation. At this level of competition, winning implicitly requires two elements: accurate calculation and the ability to convert better endgames. In the first day of competition alone, I found five endgames worth sharing and wanted to break down each of their critical moments in today’s critical endgame posts. Remember, as we move through each game, take a minute to assess the various defining features of the position: activity, solidarity, king safety, and ability to improve.

Magnus’ only loss of the day occurred in his first game in Paris. While Wesley had his struggles later in the tournament, it was Carlsen who had the last laugh, finishing the day tied for first! Courtesy: ChessBase

For our first endgame, we start with the protagonist of the story thus far, Magnus Carlsen. While his Grand Chess Tour started with an eerily similar first round, it’s important to not overlook the accuracy he brought to this endgame against Wesley So’s particularly stingy defense.

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Carlsen–So, Paris 2016

White to Move

On face value, the position seems fairly equal. After trading rooks on e8, the position provides us with a symmetrical pawn structure and equal material. However, two elements stand in the way of the American achieving full equality. First, the bishop on a7 is dormant, pushed away from the action thanks to the bishop on g3 and the pawn on d4. Furthermore, his pawn on b7 is backward, and can easily become a target should White move his knight to c5 in the future. Black’s plan here is to march his king to c8 to cover b7 and prepare …Ba7-b8, and with only one real structural weakness in the position, should have enough to hold a draw. Magnus can’t really do too much to stop this idea, so he makes the most of his turn with his next move, 27. a4!

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The easiest way to improve the position! Here Magnus plans a2-a4-a5 with the idea of fixing the queenside pawn structure, particularly the b7 pawn. While Wesley will be able to trade dark-squared bishops, the downside will be that the dark squares in his structure will be weak, and White will gain time to put further pressure on b7. 27…Qe7 28. a5 Kd8 29. Qd1 Qe4 30. Kh2 Ne7 31. Qb3

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Neither side is really in a rush to convert or prove anything, so each side marked time by improving their respective positions. Magnus by making his king safer and fixing the b7 pawn, Wesley by centralizing his queen and bringing his king closer to c8. Here Carlsen offers his knight since 31…Qxd3? 32. Qxb7 is close to lost for Black. The bishop on a7 is still trapped, and the queenside pawns are falling. Here Black correctly chose to continue his plan. 31…Kc8 32. Qb4 Qe6 33. Nf4 Qf7

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Wesley may be moving backward, but he still boasts a solid defense. As long as he has only one weakness, it will be very difficult for Magnus to make progress. In the next “phase” So executes the dark-squared bishop, and the f4 knight finds the c5 square. 34. Kg1 Bb8 35. Nd3 Bxg3 36. fxg3 Nf5 37. g4 Ng3 38. Nc5 Again, the game is relatively equal, and Wesley has put up the toughest defense we’ve seen in this series thus far.

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White counterintuitively doubled his pawns, giving the Black knight targets from f5. While I appreciate the idea of compactness, I think this structural decision made life for Magnus a little more complicated. Instead of 34. Kg1, perhaps he could have considered other prophylactic resources, but in this position, he’s still doing fine. White now has the pressure he wants on b7, but the problem now is that his pawn structure closes his army off from the kingside, giving Wesley the break 38…h5 39. gxh5 and the natural 39…Qe7. But as it turns out, this gives Magnus a tactical opportunity in 40. Ne6!. These moves are hard to find in rapid play, so I can’t really blame Carlsen for the miss.

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Anyways, this move would have been an amazing find. By revealing a discovered attack on the queen, Black’s options are limited. Already we can see that 40…Qxe6 41. Qf8+ Kd7 42. Qxg7+ will win back the knight back and retain a healthy pawn advantage. More critical was 40… Ne2+ 41. Kf2 Qxe6 41. Qf8+ Kd7 42. Qxg7+ where White doesn’t pick up the knight, but the h-pawn is simply unstoppable (see diagram).

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Position after 42. Qxg7+, Black is powerless to stop the h-pawn and must return material.

Black can consider 40… Qxb4, but the knight and pawn endgame is worse for Black after 41. cxb4 Nxh5 42. g4 Ng3 43. Kf2! stopping the fork on e2, and once the g7 pawn falls, White’s h-pawn becomes a headache. That being said, these moves are really unnatural but I like how it highlights flaws in Black’s position. Black has two concrete weaknesses, b7 and g7, and the task of covering both of them is extremely difficult if White plays the best moves.

Instead, Carlsen chose 40. Kf2 and the game continued. 40…Nf5 41. g4 Qe3+ and equality was temporarily reached.

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One of the problems with Magnus’ position in this game was that his focus on b7 dragged his pieces away from protecting his king, thus allowing Black to infiltrate through the center. Surprisingly, Black can’t coordinate his knight and queen to deliver mate, but he has many perpetual options. Given the nature of rapid chess, Wesley naturally tried for a win by improving his position with  42. Kf1 Qxh3+ 43. Ke1 Qg3+ 44. Kd2 Nd6

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The retreat not only protects b7, but it intends to reroute the knight to either e4 or c4 in the future. For those trying to find better for Black, it’s quite difficult since Qb4xb7 is a constant threat, and defending the b7 requires a passive retreat. I was really surprised with how quickly Carlsen made his next move, but it makes a lot of sense. After 45. Nxb7! Carlsen gives himself a lot of chances. If 45…Nxb7 46. Qf8+ wins the g7 pawn, and again we see the danger of the passed h-pawn. With best play, Black should be able to find a perpetual, but it’s in these complications Wesley finally errs and his position goes south. 45. Qg2+ 46. Kc1 Qf1+ 47. Kc2 Qe2+ 48. Kc1 Qe1+ 49. Kc2 Qe4+ 50. Kb3 Nxb7 51. Qf8+ Kc7 52. Qxg7+ Kb8

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The position is in the balance, but can Wesley make the correct net to force perpetual before the h-pawn promotes?

53. h6 Qd3? +-

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I was watching the live commentary from St. Louis at this moment, and was surprised they didn’t scrutinize this moment, because once this move is made, Wesley can never hope to recover. Black should have been able to find 53…Nxa5+ 54. Ka2 Qd1, the idea being that White cannot stop all the checks on a4, b3, and d1, so perpetual is forced. The problem with Wesley’s move is that it does nothing to improve his position. His next move, 54…Qb1 shows he wasted a tempo, and unfortunately, it’s enough to ensure Magnus a second queen. 54. Ka3 Qb1 55. h7 Qa1+ 56. Kb3 Qd1+ 57. Kb4 Ka7

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With no more checks in the position, Wesley moves his king away from a future check. Both players were in severe time trouble, but it was still a surprise when the game suddenly concluded after 58. h8=Q Qa1 0-1 and it was Black who had won, not White (see diagram)!

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With about twenty seconds left (not to mention a ten-second increment), Carlsen found himself stuck between 59. Qxb7+ and 59. Qh2, both of which were completely winning. In a moment of curiosity, Carlsen decided to look at Qh8-h2 into more depth, and completely forgot about the clock, letting his time reach zero!

Despite the drama, the reigning World Champion played a great game, pushing Wesley each move to find the best moves. So, of course, played solidly as well, but as we’ve seen so many times this series, one mistake in the endgame can quite often be unforgivable. Accuracy counts, and at the end of the day, it’s what goes on the scoresheet.

The day proved to be good for the host nation. After five rounds, Laurent Fressinet had beaten Fabiano Caruana, and MVL had scored 6/10 (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw), tied for third with four games left. Courtesy: ChessBase

Our next three examples all occurred in the third round, and each provided instructive moments.

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Fressinet–Caruana, Paris 2016

White to Move

After what had already been a complicated rook and pawn endgame, we see that the Black king’s inability to get into the game is causing Caruana great difficulties. The live commentary team in St. Louis found some nice ideas to potentially reach equality earlier in the game, but already it’s too late. The French wild card needed to get his king off of b8, and played 51. Rc1 to prepare Kb8-c8 and promote his pawn. Once again, Fabiano tried the interference idea of 51…Rc3, but now with the rook to the right side of the pawn, White won with 52. Rxc3 h1=Q 53. Kc8 Qh8+ 54. Kc7 Qh2 55. Rc5 Qxf2

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White to Move

56. Rc6 Qa7 57. Kc8 Qa4 58. Rc7+ Kg6 59. b8=Q

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 19.40.49And Fressinet went on to convert the material and win the game. So what was the difference between taking on c3 and a3 you may ask? Well, winning or not to put it simply. If Fressinet had played 51. Rxa3? his rook doesn’t have a check on c7, and after 51…h1=Q 52. Ka7 Qc1,

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White cannot hope to promote the pawn and keep his material advantage. Again, accuracy is the critical difference between winning and drawing.

Having proven himself to be a very capable escape artist, Wesley So once again found himself in trouble against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Unlike his lucky break against Magnus, he failed to find any miracles and lost this pawn down queen ending.

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So–Vachier-Lagrave, Paris 2016

White to Move

I decided to insert this game since Black still has to be careful. Between pushing the c-pawn and avoiding perpetual checks, Maxime must also cover the f7 pawn, which makes his task a little more difficult. On the bright side, all queen trades are winning for Black, so it will be very difficult for White to create serious pressure. Wesley start his defense by playing 39. Qa1+ to maneuver the queen to f6 and directly attack f7. 39…Kh7 40. Qf6 Qd5 41. g3 c5 42. Kf1 c4

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Black is making progress, but his position is also easier to play now. With the c- and f-pawns both protected by the queen, MVL can take a few moves to improve his position. 43. Ke2 Kg8 44. Qc3 h5 45. h4 Kf8 46. Qe3 Qd6

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Here Maxime has made a little bit of progress, but now he must figure out how to make his king more active. After, 47. Qc3 Qc5 48. Qe3 Qd5 49. Qd2 Qe5+ 50. Kd1, it turns out that Wesley can do little to stop the advancing Black monarch.

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50…Ke7 with the threat of …Qe5-d6! 51. Kc2 Ke6 52. f4 Qd5 0-1

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 20.11.46Perhaps at the expert level, White can hope to play on, but this endgame is lost. Black’s king will waltz to g4 and pick up all of White’s kingside pawns, and White can’t stop all of Black’s pawns. Wesley resigned, leaving us one more great endgame from the round.

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Carlsen–Aronian, Paris 2016

 Black to Move

With a little help from the computer, GM Eric Hansen had a nice find here in 29…Qa1!, which should draw after 30. Qc5 Qa7 31. Qb5 Qa1 with repetition. The real idea is that 30. Qxb7 Qxc3 31. Qxc7 at least offers Black a lot of activity and decent drawing chances. But of course, Stockfish doesn’t play for us in tournaments, and the natural 29…Qa8 was played, giving White a nice edge since his pieces can be activated faster than Black’s. Skip ahead a few moves, and Black found himself completely paralyzed.

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White to Move

I really liked this moment of the game, as Carlsen realized that his would be much safer on the kingside, not to mention, an incredible for the b-pawn. 50. Ke2! Kg7 51. Kd3 Ng8 52. Ne8+ Kh8 53. Kc4 h5

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As Black begins to open the kingside, it’s Magnus’ king that has found refuge, and the entirety of Aronian’s position submits itself to passivity. The next part of Magnus’ plan is to capture the c6 pawn and use his passed b-pawn to limit Black’s queen. 54. gxh5 Qh6 55. Qxc6 Qd2 56. hxg6

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In trying to create activity, Black has to give up his g-pawn. While Black may have some checks now, he has the constant issue that ideas like Qg7 and Qh7 are checkmate! Just like our first Endgame Essentials post, king safety proves to be Aronian’s undoing. 56…Qe2+ 57. Kc5 Qxf2+ 58. Kb5 Qxg3 59. Qd7 Qxg6 60. Ka5

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Black may have regained his pawn by force, but the threat on g7 is constant, and the Black knight can’t help Aronian salvage the position. 60…Qg3 61. b5 Qc3+ 62. Ka6 Qa3+ 63. Kb7 Qg3

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Once again highlighting Black’s problems. Whenever Aronian runs out of checks, he must return to the defense of g7, giving White a tempo to push his b-pawn further down the board. 64. b6 Qg6 65. Ka7 f5 66. exf5

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I was really impressed watching Magnus here. Basically everything wins here, but after Aronian’s f-pawn push, he stopped, calculated and found the move that allowed the least amount of counterplay. A great micro-moment from Magnus here that showed his master class despite the rapid time controls. 66…Qg3 67. f6 Qa3+ 68. Kb8 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 20.37.07With no complications to offer, Aronian threw in the towel here, as both the b- and f-pawns are preparing to promote and sink the ship that is Black’s position. With a win here, Magnus won a second straight, proving he was completely unfazed by his surprising first round “defeat”.

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In his three-game winning streak, Magnus proved he was still the player to beat, having dominated each of the four opponents he had played up to that point.

For our fifth and final endgame, I wanted to share a nice idea found by the commentary team that shows a benefit of the opposite-colored bishop ending. In this fifth round encounter, an early slip from Magnus gave Hikaru Nakamura an opportunity to press before cashing in on a draw. While the engines do agree that the position has relative equality, from a more human point of view, Black had a nice geometrical idea to press even further.

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Carlsen–Nakamura, Paris 2016

Black to Move

Here Black settled for a perpetual with 33…Qg5+ 34. Kf1 Qc1+ and so forth. Here, Black could have tried 33…Qh2+ 34. Kf1 Qxh3+ 35. Ke2 Qh2

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In this position, White has an extra pawn but the queen and bishop battery actually stop each of White’s pawns from making progress (b8, d6, and f4 are all covered, so promotion is not a threat from White. Black would put his queen on f4 to overprotect f7, followed by pushing the h-pawn. Nakamura would still have a lot to prove, but it’s clear he has nothing to lose.

Wow, what a day! I suspect tomorrow has even greater games in store, featuring a Carlsen–Kramnik clash, as well as Caruana–Nakamura. With the way he’s been playing, I suspect Magnus to hold his lead after four rounds tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see if Nakamura can keep up!

Endgame Essentials: In Action at the European Chess Championships!

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.

Today’s post features David Navara (right), a strong 2700+ rated Grandmaster from the Czech Republic!

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:

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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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:

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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?!

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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!

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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

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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?

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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

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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 +-

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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

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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

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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.

36…hxg4 37. hxg4 Kc7 38. Ra8 Kb7 39. Rh8 Kc7 40. Rh1 Rd2

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

Endgame Essentials: Pushing Your Chances

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:

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White to Move

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.

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White to Move

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.

Navara is an extremely talented player, and perhaps will one day break the top ten, but as with the previous posts, the focus of today’s post is the reigning World Champion!

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.

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White to Move

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

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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!

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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

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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

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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:

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White to Move

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

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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!

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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

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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!

35…Rd6+ 37. Kc4 Rc6+ 38. Kd5 Re6 39. Bd4+ Kf8 40. f4 +=

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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!

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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

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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.

44…fxg6 45. Rh1 Kf7 46. Kd5 Rd6+ 47. Kc4 gxf5 48. gxf5 Bd8 49. f6!!

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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

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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.

2013 proved to be Carlsen’s year. By the year’s end, he went on to beat Anand for the World Championship in Chennai.

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!

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White to Move

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

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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!

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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

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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!

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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!

18…a5 19. Rfd1 Kg7 20. Nc4 Bxe3+ 21. Kxe3 f6 22. Rd2

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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.

22…Nb6 23. Nxb6 cxb6 24. Rad1 Rxd2 25. Rxd2 Bc6 26. Rd6 Rc8

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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.

36…Rc5 37. Rb7 Ke6 38. Ra7 Kd6 39. Ke3 Bg4 40. Kd4

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Now with a centralized king, White has slightly better winning chances. White will now bring his bishop to c4, reducing the Black rook’s options.

40…Re5 41. Bc4 Bf3 42. Bd5! +=

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With this move, White is in full control once again. Black’s rook only has two moves that don’t immediately drop a piece, and each of Svidler’s three weaknesses are much more difficult to defend.

42…Bd1 43. Rf7 Re8 44. Rxf6+ Kc7 45. Ra6 Bxc2?? 46. Rc6+ 1-0

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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!

Endgame Essentials: Woes of the Inferior Pawn Structure

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.

For our first endgame, Carlsen faces his future-soon-to-be-challenger, Sergey Karjakin.

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.

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White to Move

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

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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!

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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!

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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 +=

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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

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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!

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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.

38…Kxf7 39. Nd8+ Ke8 40. Rxc7 Kxd8 41. Rc3 Bb4 42. Rd3+ +-

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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.

42…Ke7 43. f5 gxf5+ 44. Kxf5 a5 45. f4 Nb6 46. Rg3 Nd5 47. a3 Be1 48. Rd3 Nc3 49. e6 a4 50. Rd7+ Ke8 51. Rd4 Ke7 52. Ke5 Nb5 53. Rxa4

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Sure, White has a passed a-pawn now too, but if anything, this is just a confirmation that Black has lost.

53…Bc3+ 54. Kd5 Nc7+ 55. Kc4 Bf6 56. Ra7 Kd6 57. f5 Ne8 58. Rd7+ Ke5 59. Rd5+ Ke4 60. a4 Nc7 61. Rd7 Ne8 62. e7 1-0

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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.

By 2010, Magnus Carlsen had already broken 2800 and held the highest rating in the world (and has ever since!).
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White to Move

Carlsen–Ivanchuk, 2012

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.

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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.

41…Rg8 42. Ng3 Rg5 43. b4 Kd7 44. Rh4 Ne8 45. Rf4 Nd6 46. a4 b6

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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

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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? +=

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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.

49. Rh4

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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.

49…Nc4 50. f4 Rg4 51. Rh3 Nd6 52. Rh1 Rg8 53. Rb1 Ra8

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While it may not seem like much has happened, all of Black’s pieces are tied to pawns, giving White time to do the one thing he’s done best: improve his pieces.

54. Kf3 Kc7 55. Ne6+ Kc8 56. Nc5 Rb8 57. Rxb8+ Kxb8 58. Nxa6+

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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.

58…Kb7 59. Nb4 Nc4 60. a6+ Kb6 61. Ke2 Nd6 62. Kd3 Nb5 63. Ne2 Ka5 64. Nc3 Nc7 65. Nbxd5!

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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:

65…Nexd5 66. Nxd5 Nxd5 67. a7 Nc7 68. Kd4 Kb6 69. Ke5 Kxa7 70. Kxf5 Nd5 71. Kg6 Nxe3 72. Kxh6 1-0

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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.

Endgame Essentials: Battle of the Better-Placed Rook

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.

Carlsen in 2008

Our first example comes from Magnus’ win over the then reigning World Champion, Viswanathan Anand.

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White to Move

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

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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?

44. Re6!!

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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

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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

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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!

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White to Move

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?!

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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+ +-

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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.

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So instead, Leko gives Magnus the pawn in the hope of putting up some resistance.

47. Nxd5 Kg7 48. Kf3

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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

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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

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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!

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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.

54…Kxf8 55. Bf4 Rc8 56. Ke2 Kf7 57. Kd3 Rd8 58. c4 1-0

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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:

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White to Move

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

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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:

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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:

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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!

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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

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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

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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+

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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!

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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

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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

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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.

By 2009, Carlsen had already captured the attention of most of the chess world and was only years out from his first World Championship.

For our last position, I wanted to share a case where better-placed rooks offer pleasant tactical simplifications into won endgames.

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White to Move

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 +-

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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

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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?

33. Ba6!

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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

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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!

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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

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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.

Endgame Essentials: Activity Wins Endgames … Just Ask Carlsen!

For today’s post, I wanted to discuss a phase of the game in which we are all shamelessly guilty for not studying enough of – the endgame! When I first started playing in 2003, my dad bought me Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess series to help me break 1000. The one book I didn’t read? Endgames, of course! What scholastic player needs to know more than rook and king against just a king? No 600 rated player should be bothered with the Lucena position, right…?

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I actually got an opportunity to meet Seirawan back in 2005 at Supernationals. That’s a flashback to third grade!

Perhaps. But everyone has to start somewhere. I took endgames a little more “seriously” once I broke 1300, trying to work through Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics, but aside from some cool drawing mechanisms like kamikaze and so forth, I must admit this read was a bit over my head at the time, and endgames once again took the back seat.

While I may have gotten away with a lack of it at the sub-1800 level, having a strong endgame knowledge is extremely important. Let’s take an example from the recent US Women’s Chess Championship:

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Black to Move

Nemcova – Bykovtsev

Here Black is faced with a critical decision. Should she defend the a6 pawn, or trade it for White’s f2 pawn? Unfortunately for the youngster hastily played 33… Rc6? (just 34 seconds spent!), making White’s ability to defend the draw much easier! The game continued for 20 more moves, but White traded the queenside pawn and was successfully able to hold the theoretically drawn position.

As it turns out 33… Rxf2! would have made the conversion process a lot simpler. White will have a queenside passed pawn, but the 3 v 1 on the kingside should be enough to win the game and give Black the point.

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This game is a perfect example of the importance of endgame knowledge. Black chose not to simplify the position to a more decisive edge, and ultimately paid the price for not being able to recognize the potentiality of the position!

While theoretical endgames are interesting, and in some cases can be challenging to find over the board, its practical endgames that often catch masters off guard. Knowing how to analyze and develop heuristics in practical endgames is crucial to convert advantages into theoretically won endgames. While often times our opponent’s will resign before this happens, we still have to have ideas as to how to reach such positions.

For the next few chess^summit posts, I wanted to discuss the endgame play of one of the strongest player’s in chess history, Magnus Carlsen. Each of today’s endgames are from 2007 when Carlsen was only 16 years old. Don’t worry – he was just a measly 2700! Surely nothing we can’t handle… just ask Aronian!

Our first position comes from the 2007 Candidates tournament, where as a 16-seed, Carlsen managed to take the 1-seed Aronian to a tiebreak match before being eliminated. Even though he lost, Carlsen gave us some nice endgame entertainment!

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White to Move

Carlsen – Aronian

White may visually be better, but the task isn’t easy as it seems. As Gelfand points out in his book Positional Decision Making in Chess, doubled f-pawns can make for stubborn defenders, and in some cases are better than a more fluid pawn structure! Furthermore, it’s not completely clear who will win the battle for the c-file in the near future. After Carlsen played 21. d5 Na5, a simple move like 22. Rac1 might be expected, contesting Black’s hold on the file, but here Carlsen decided to test Black’s hold on the position with 22. h5!.

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Carlsen realized that the c-file was not crucial in light of …Na5-c4-d6, blockading the pawn and pressuring the e4 pawn, after which, White would have to move the hypothetical rook away from c1, thus conceding the file anyways. Carlsen follows a more principled approach. Each of his pieces could use some improvement, but there isn’t an obvious square for either of the rooks. With the h-pawn push, Carlsen intends to open a maneuver for his knight, Nf3-h4-f5 to improve his position.

22… Nc4 23.Nh4 Nd6 24.h6!

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And this move highlights today’s theme, restricting activity. Carlsen’s intentions are to limit the Black king’s mobility and create potential back rank problems before simplifying the position. With an eventual trade on the c-file seeming to be inevitable, White makes his position as strong as possible before simplifying. While this idea may seem simple enough, Aronian, one of the world’s elite players, manages to find himself lost in just a few moves.

24…Rc3 25.Rac1 Rfc8?

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Tactically, an exchange on c3 means that in each line, Black must resolve his back rank issues. Meanwhile, the simplification on c3 makes the passed d-pawn stronger. While the position may have still been tenable, Black is already close to reaching paralysis. For example, the pawn-grabbing 25…Rxc1 26. Rxc1 Nxe4? is punished by 27. Rc7! += as Black is exposed on the 7th rank. White will play Nh4-f5 at the right moment to push the d-pawn, and Black’s rook is confined to the 8th rank as to avoid mating ideas. Starting with 25… Nxe4 isn’t much different. 26.Rxc3 Nxc3 27. d6 is enough to guarantee that White keeps a slight edge.

26.Rxc3 Rxc3 27.Nf5 Nxf5 28.exf5 Kg8

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Rooks belong behind passed pawns, but here has Aronian tried 28…Rd3? 29. Rc1! is catastrophic. While this move is a step in the right direction, Black still needs one more move before his back rank issues are solved. With this tempo, Carlsen takes affirmative action by creating another passed pawn.

29.Re4 Kf8 30.Rg4 Rc7 31.Rg7 +-

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We’ve already talked about how the h- and a- pawn can be extremely useful, and this is another great example. Carlsen realized that the d-pawn alone would simply not be enough, and in turn created another weakness. Black’s king once again is relegated to passivity as it must stay in the corner of the board.

31…b5 32.Rxh7 Kg8 33.Rg7+ Kh8 34.d6

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Extremely precise. White intends to bring in the king (34. Kf3 is fine as well), but this move forces Black’s rook to take a more passive route first, giving the White king the time to reach e4. As we will see this move will eventually force Black off his own 2nd rank, giving White the opportunity to take on f7 and have more luft for his rook.

34…Rd7 35.Kf3 b4 36.Ke4 Rxd6 37.Rxf7 Ra6 38.g4!

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The final straw. Carlsen’s intention is to march the g-pawn and force Black to take it on g5. Once this happens, White will have a route for his king via e4-f5-g6 and will win the game.

38…Kg8 39.h7+

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Not so fast mister… that king will stay on h8! Black is powerless to stop any of White’s ideas.

39…Kh8 40.g5 fxg5 41.f6 1-0

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Aronian throws in the towel here as Black will get checkmated once the White king reaches g6. Arguably, the theoretical endgame you needed to know was rook and king against king, but the hardest part of the game was over after White was able to limit Black’s king. Even though we don’t think of the king to be an important attacking piece, here we can just see a visual comparison between the two sides’ monarchs.

It turns out that Carlsen felt like he needed to give Aronian two doses of the same lesson, and prescribed the same shot in the same match!

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White to Move

Carlsen –Aronian

Already we have a good knight against bad bishop endgame, as Aronian’s c8 bishop can’t pressure any of Carlsen’s weak pawns. We can also already see that White has already limited Black’s king, but it’s not really enough right now to win the game.

28. Rb6 Ra3 29. Rc1 Be6 30. Nf3

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Just like the last game, White improves his position before taking drastic measures. From f3, the knight has a lot more scope, but that’s only the first half of his idea…

30…Rfa8 31. h4!

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This is a moment that separates Carlsen from the rest. Once again we see the h-pawn push, this time with the intention of opening the g-file. It’s not enough to win, but Carlsen continues to press for small advantages.

31…h6 32. Ne5 Ra1?

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Once again, we see a bad rook trade from Aronian. While his passive king problems may not be as pronounced, it’s another small concession that pushes the scale in Carlsen’s favor. The win of the c3 pawn is forced, but as Black will discover, it comes at great cost.

33. Rxa1 Rxa1+ 34. Kh2 Ra3 35. Rb8+ Kh7 36. f4!

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Now is not a time to play with fear! With this move, Carlsen now has two options to prod Black’s kingside. Watch how quickly Carlsen is able to take advantage of the weak f7 pawn. Given how quickly Black collapses, I’m guessing that even Aronian didn’t sense the true danger to his king.

36…Rxc3 37. h5!

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Once again, Carlsen refuses to stand down. The insertion of this move is necessary to make a future f4-f5 push work. As Grandmaster Alexander Fishbein told me shortly after beating me at last spring’s Pittsburgh Open, it’s not about the number of pawns, it’s about how active your pieces are. At the conclusion of this line, Carlsen will have given three pawns, just to win the pawn on f7. As it turns out, this same pawn was Aronian’s Achilles’ heel.

37…gxh5 38. Rf8 Ra3 39. f5! Bxf5 40. Rxf7+

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Carlsen achieves his dream position. Now with a rook on the 7th and a knight in the center, White’s pieces are much more active than Black’s, but more importantly, the f6 pawn is now the most dangerous passed pawn on the board.

40…Kg8 41. Rg7+ Kf8 42. Rb7

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I feel like here, a pressured amateur may play 42. Rc7?! in an attempt to follow the dogmatic approach of putting the rook behind the passed pawn. But here, it’s much more important that White has the ability to threaten mate on the 8th rank, thus giving him more mobility. Because White controls the c7 square, and Black has no way of easily inserting his own rook behind the passed pawn, the fact that the c4 pawn is passed is not of concern to White just yet.

42…Ra8 43. Kg3 Rd8

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On a surface level, 43… Rc8 may seem to produce more counterplay, but in light of 44. Kf4 Be4 45. Rf7+ Ke8 46. Re7+ Kf8 47. Nd7+ (with mate looming), Aronian had to play the text move to be able to take the knight on d7 should Magnus opt for this line. This concession alone shows the importance of an active king.

44. Kf4 Be4 45. g3!

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Not rushing into things! White has “all” the time in the world to convert, so here he spends one tempo to avoid 45. Rf7+ Ke8 46. Re7+ Kf8 47. Nd7+ Rxd7 48. Rxd7 Bxg2 and while still losing for Black, White still has a game to win. If it’s a won endgame either way, the safer road is the road best taken!

45…c3 46. Rf7+ Kg8 47. Rg7+ Kf8 48. Nd7+

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And now Black must give up the rook in light of 48… Ke8 49. Re7#.

48…Rxd7 49. Rxd7 1-0

Another great game by Carlsen! In just one tournament, we see two different demonstrations of how limiting the king’s mobility can lead to big problems in the endgame. For Aronian, the results were drastic, as in each loss he quickly found himself in a mating net thanks to the superb coordination of White’s army.

For our last endgame of today, I’d like to discuss a game where Carlsen combined a the positioning of a weak king with the opponent’s temporary limitations of a bad rook to win a nice World Cup game against Cheparinov. Winning this game gave Carlsen a berth to the semifinals, where he eventually lost to the eventual winner, Gata Kamsky.

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White to Move

Carlsen – Cheparinov

Already, this position poses a different argument than the last two. With a material imbalance, White has two minor pieces to Black’s rook, but given the simplified nature of the position, that should not be enough to win it. Upon deeper observation, it should be noted that White does have a passed pawn (Black’s pawn on e7 is so far back that it’s not relevant in our assessment of passed pawns) on g6, and the promotion square does match our bishop. Of course, the biggest note is that Black’s rook, while seemingly attacking our pawns, is actually offsides and out of play. Already we can see that Black will need to spend some time to get this rook to a more appropriate square. In a position that the computer claims is only slightly better for White, Carlsen shows that the position is quite rich with the move 36. Bg2!

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This move comes with the short term idea, 36… Rxa2?? 37. Bd5+ +-, but of course there’s more to it. White puts his bishop on a much more active diagonal to assist his g6 pawn. While Black may eventually win White’s queenside pawns, again it will be White’s activity that will determine the outcome of this contest.

36…c4 37. a3 Rb1 38. Be4 Rxb2+ 39. Nc2

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Almost mocking Black’s rook for its passivity. Black may have won a pawn, but here we already get the sense that something has gone quite wrong. White’s created a cage for Black’s only piece, giving him even more time to improve his position.

39…Kg7 40. Ke3 Rb3 41. Kd2

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A backward looking move, but now that Black’s rook is on b3 and not b2, it makes more sense to come back to d2 since there is no pin along the second rank. By not going to d4, White leaves a rite of passage for his knight to aid the g-pawn.

41… Kf6 42. Nd4 Rxa3 43. Nxb5 Ra5 44. Nc7

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Even outside of the box, Black’s options for his rook aren’t exactly impressive. Meanwhile, White’s knight will enter the fray via d5 or e6 (or even e8!) and begin to limit Black’s king.

44…Kg7 45. Ne6+ Kh8

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Carlsen must have been extremely satisfied to have pushed his opponent this far. Already the king is forced to the h8 square, many thanks to White’s light-square domination. Should Black have tried 45… Kg8?!, he may have found it uncomfortable to defend 46. Bc6!

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The idea is that White can play Bc6-e8-f7 and improve the position with check, or simply wait for Black to move the rook and occupy the d5 square. Cheparinov chose to avoid such lines, but without a bishop, he can’t ignore these problems forever…

46. Ke3 Ra1 47. Kd4 a5 48. Bc6

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Even with the a-pawn marching, Black is still powerless to stop White from creating a mating net. After all, a checkmate is much more valuable than having an extra queen!

48…a4 49. Be8 Rg1 50. g5!

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The critical move Carlsen must have seen moves ago! The idea is that should Black take the pawn with …h6xg5, the file closes and White will promote the g-pawn.

50…a3 51. Bf7 Rxg5

Naturally this is losing, but Black, as it’s been for the duration of the endgame, has not had the luxury of choosing. With no other way to stop the g-pawn from promoting, Black throws in the rook.

52. Nxg5 hxg5 53. Bxc4

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Given the nature of the World Cup, Cheparinov played for a few more moves to avoid elimination, but a lost position is lost. White simply weaved the king over to pick up the a3 pawn, then brought it back to stop Black’s pawns.

In just three positions, we’ve come to learn the importance of restricting enemy pieces (especially the king!) in the endgame, and how such technique can give us the time we need to build our positions to full strength. As Carlsen showed, the king is an important attacker, and its a critical part of the fight too!

For my post later this week, I’ll discuss more endgames of Carlsen on his road to becoming World Champion. Don’t miss it!