Creating Your Own Luck

Well, if I was looking for a Cinderella story to make it over 2100 this past weekend, I certainly didn’t find it. This year’s edition of the Pennsylvania State Championships pushed me to the limit – testing my stamina, resilience, and my composure in ways that I have never been tested before. Upon the tournament’s conclusion, I had convinced myself that the 3/5 result I produced simply derived from bad luck.

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Deep into my first round… where did my advantage go? Photo Credit: Franklin Chen

With a little over a day to rethink my results, I have to admit, there were a lot of elements working against me, but I also created my own luck in the latter half of the tournament, which saved me from having an even worse result.

What do I mean by bad luck? Until the last round (when it was already too late), I was never able to put together any serious momentum. In the first round, I got paired down against an ambitious youngster. Even though I got an edge out of the opening, I hyperextended and quickly lost my advantage. While I missed a chance late in the game to win, my opponent didn’t make any mistakes and was able to hold the endgame to a draw. Not an ideal start, but a comeback is manageable, right?

With only thirty minutes between the rounds to catch my breath, I learned that I would play defending State Champion and fellow Chess^Summit author Grant Xu for the first ever Chess^Summit v Chess^Summit tournament match up. Grant had taken a half point bye in the first round and was ready to play, surprising me out of the opening and catching me off guard.

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While I didn’t have the best weekend, Grant was able to successfully defend his state title, winning each of his four games and reaching a rating of 2396!

Though I somehow managed to equalize, I was too tired to complete the result and managed to blunder my way through the rest of the endgame, dropping my score to 0.5/2. This put me in a really tough tournament position, as I would need to win out to objectively have a “good” tournament.

At that moment, I felt like I had had some bad luck with the pairings, and went back to my dorm room to rest up for the last round of the night.

Sure, it wasn’t ideal to play Grant with so little time between rounds, and sure, my first round opponent wasn’t quite the game I was hoping to open with, but in reflection, given the positions I had, I think I had some opportunities to score better. Going into the last game, I took the right mentality, forgetting the first two games and telling myself that I was now playing in a three-round tournament. Now this was my chance to create my own luck.

I got paired against a 1500 that night, but still treated the game as if I were playing someone my level. The affair was rather one-sided, but there was an instructive moment during the game that I thought I ought to share.

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Steincamp–Boles, after 10…Kf8

In this position, it’s my turn, and I’m clearly better. Black has lost his right to castle and has a significant lack of space. Yet how should I press on as White? Black doesn’t have any structural weaknesses and actually has the idea …Be7-g4, attacking the d4 pawn and trying to pry open the dark squared diagonal for his a7 bishop. After some thought, I figured the right question to ask was where should I put my dark squared bishop? I think objectively the options are about equal, but my choice offered me long term attacking possibilities. Can you figure what I decided?

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My last round win, and the highlight of my tournament. Photo Credit: Pennsylvania State Chess Federation

Though this win wasn’t exactly the most challenging, it felt nice to get back into the habit of asking the right questions and making the most of good positions. To my discontent, I got paired down in the fourth round on Sunday morning, and once again got surprised by an opening sideline in which I promptly put myself in a worse position.

I could have been outplayed, but I found ways to keep the game going, eventually pushing the game to equality and even a slight edge for myself before forcing the three move repetition. While objectively a draw was a good result considering the way the game started, I couldn’t help but feel that had I known the theory better I could have outplayed my opponent and gotten a full point. This result meant my last round would be a consolation game, and breaking 2100 would have to wait again.

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Photo Credit: Beilin Li

While this was not what I wanted going into the tournament, I think this was the best situation for me at this time. Going into the last round, I felt no stress whatsoever, and having White with nothing to lose, I was more comfortable being creative over the board. This alleviation made me feel refreshed, and I produced one of the better games I’ve played since coming back to Pittsburgh.

This was a critical lesson for me, when I just focus on chess, when I just focus on making the best move every move, I can play a great game. Most of the tournament I felt distracted – either being bewildered by my early results, or feeling a need to make up for them later on. But when I was just worried about chess, removing all of the emotional stress of a long weekend of dissapointment, I can well. This is what I mean by creating my own luck.

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Grabbing some post-tournament dinner with Beilin and going over some games on the restaurant’s bulky chess board!

Not every tournament is going to be ideal, maybe it’s just bad pairings, or the TD makes the wrong decision, or you blow a won game in time trouble – this happens to everyone at some point. To be strong player, you have to put these moments behind you. It felt like most of this weekend I got hit with something new every game – an opening line I wasn’t prepared for (twice!), an underrated opponent, crazy pairings – all of these things were out of my control, but if I could have played as well as I did in the last round in each game, it would not have mattered and I could easily be 2100 again right now.

While it was dissapointing to have trained so hard for this event to only get one opponent rated over 2000, I plan to continue pushing myself for my next tournament in early November. By then I’ll have reached my 20th birthday, and perhaps a little bit of “luck” can rub off on me then 🙂 I guess we’ll just have to see in my next post!

Free Game Analysis: Attack of the West Windsor Warlord!

For the first time since the relaunch, I’m happy to bring back the Free Game Analysis section to Chess^Summit. As always, if you have an interesting game to share, please send us your PGNs at chess.summit@gmail.com, and we’ll try to cover it within the two-week cycle. We’ve had some fun submissions in the past, and today’s is certainly no exception! For today’s post, I’ll be using a ChessBase external link instead of sharing tons of diagrams of the game (don’t worry, you don’t need ChessBase to access it!). Let me know if you guys like this format more in the comments!

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Veenay was the Chess Club President at his New Jersey High School, and now hopes to break 1800 by the time he graduates Rutgers!

Remember that feeling when you first broke 1000? Well, recent high school graduate Veenay Komaragiri did that in style. Scoring 3/5 in the U1600 section of the recent Manhattan Open, Veenay didn’t just break 1000 – he skipped it, jumping from 945 to 1135!

Though college is often a deterrent from chess improvement for many, Veenay hopes to build off his summer success while he furthers his education at Rutgers University as either a Biology or Economics major. With his optimism and tactical foresight, I think he can be looking forward to a lot of future improvement. But why let me be the judge? Let’s take a look at two of the games he sent to Chess^Summit from his performance in Manhattan!

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 00.32.45Though his first win of the tournament was short, Veenay’s game offered a lot of opening improvements for both sides out of a Slav, but ultimately culminated into this position. Just as it seemed White had managed to get firm control over the center, Veenay found an excellent tactic here to show that Black was still alive and kicking with 13…Nxe4! and his higher rated opponent immediately fell apart!

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 00.40.13After picking up two quick wins, Veenay really met his test in the fourth round where he was a 500+ rating point underdog! Outclassed in the opening, Veenay had one chance to reach an equal endgame in this position but faltered with 13…Rfe8?!, and soon lost the thread of the game. However, with his never say die attitude, the Warlord from West Windsor managed to keep the Cinderella story going, finding a tactic late in the game to pull off his best career win – what a turnaround!

So what advice can I offer Veenay as he starts on his journey to become a strong tournament player?

1. When your opponent makes a move, always ask “What can my opponent do?” This is one of the most elementary forms of prophylaxis but is extremely effective when developing a thought process and playing at a higher level. I think too much of beginner level chess focuses on “I do this, he does that” and not enough on thinking about the bigger picture. While your first game was great, several of your problems in the second derived from not asking this very question. This one question alone is so powerful, I still use it in my games. Here’s one case where I failed to use it and it probably cost me the game!

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Steincamp – Ramachandran, 2016

My opponent just played 20… Rde8, and it seems like a harmless move, Black just wants to play on the e-file perhaps? But what does Black want to do? As it turns out, his knight on f7 is extremely poor, and will go to d8, then c6, and from there will have the option to play itself to d4 or b4 – a much better position! A few moves down the road, we reached a position like this:Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 00.54.11

The position is extremely complicated thanks to the activity of the Black knight. While I still managed to reach a good position after this, it gave me one more opportunity to go wrong, and I actually lost the game in the end. So what did I do wrong? I needed to insert a2-a3 before this knight ever reached b4, again asking Black to solve the problems in his position. After protecting the b2 pawn, I could have reached a position like this one:

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A slightly better position for White as I have breaks on both the kingside on the queenside. Black meanwhile has a weak f5 pawn and must find ways to generate counter play. If I had stopped at 20…Rde8 and recognized this plan, who knows? Maybe I would have been the one to win this game! There’s a certain magical aspect to prophylaxis in that we can see it applied in games of every level – whether it’s preventing a mate threat, stopping an attack, or in this case taking away an outpost.

2. When developing a piece, always consider what future value it brings to the position. I noticed you like to reach various Slav set-ups where you also have a kingside fianchetto, and I think rather than booking up on theory, force yourself to compare the various options you have to place your pieces. As we saw in the second game,

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Jones – Komaragiri, 2016

the bishop on g7 was poorly placed on this diagonal, and would have been much better suited on the e7 square for future use. Of course, conceptual understandings like this take many games to develop, but while you are still improving this is the best time to work on this skill. If you want to see how I break down unfamiliar openings and choose my development, check out my post from the World Open! Despite personally having a rough tournament, I think you could learn a lot from the two games I shared on the site!

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Veenay speaking at his High School graduation earlier this summer.

3. Lastly, always stay positive! You seem really enthusiastic about getting better, and that’s probably the most important attribute when it comes to improving and getting results. As Paul told us last week, it doesn’t matter when you start playing chess, as long as you put in the work, it’s never too late to become an expert! He offered a lot of advice and personal anecdotes about improving despite only learning how to play in college, and I think you’ll find it very relatable!

Best of luck improving on your chess while studying at Rutgers – it was a lot of fun going over your games, and even I learned a few things along the way! Here’s to continued success in your near future!

The Southern Open: A Comedy of Errors

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The 2016 edition of Dragon Chess Camp brought in a record 51 campers for the week long program.

What a long couple of weeks it has been! Since my return from Philidelphia, improving from one of my most nightmarish tournaments of my career has been at the forefront of my agenda. With new openings to learn and grandmaster games to review, I had exactly two weeks to prepare for this past weekend’s Southern Open in Orlando. While such a short period of time to prepare is by no means ideal when preparing a new repertoire, I was ready to play some new lines as Black. In fact, in each of my games as Black I got to play new openings and reached much more solid positions! So progress has been steady, but there’s still a long ways to go.

On top of my own personal opening preparations, my first week back from the World Open was also spent volunteering at a program I had started back in 2013, Dragon Chess Camp. Back in my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to push our team to become much more competitive and provide my teammates with competitive opportunities across the country. The first edition of the summer camp had twenty participants and raised enough for our team to travel to the National High School Chess Championships in San Diego the following year where we won clear first in the U1200 section. Since, the team’s outreach has really taken off – running free chess clinics, more summer programs, and hosting a plethora of scholastic tournaments – and the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has become the pinnacle of chess in Richmond.

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Watching the kids practice the Lucena and Philidor positions – better now than later! And that screen in the background? We were watching Nakamura’s big win over Carlsen too.

This summer, fifty-one scholastic players registered, which will help next year’s team compete in their first SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee! With such high attendance, I was tasked with the largest group I had taught in all four editions of the program. For that week, our class focused on theoretical rook endgames – the Lucena, Philidor, Vancura, known draws – whatever you could think of! Despite the relatively young age of my group, by having the players practice both converting and defending, they proved to be extremely fast learners and one of the players even used the ‘building a bridge’ technique to convert a win at the weekend’s tournament.

The second half of the course focused on principled opening play, which I had put together after my performance at the World Open. Halfway through the week, I had realized that many of the players in the camp only knew “unprincipled” openings – for example, various Pirc and Modern structures as Black – and were constantly having problems because they didn’t know theory. Thinking back to the thousands of pages of chess literature I’ve read, Greg Serper’s chess.com article on Inexperienced Player Mistakes comes to mind, where he calls a 1500 rated player’s choice of 1. c4 a mistake (of course this means I sinned in this same way six years ago) because a player of that caliber needs to learn chess by fighting for the center first with 1. e4 or 1. d4.

I think part of the openings-craze among scholastic players is driven by coaches who themselves don’t know classical openings, or perhaps think that changing openings will solve all of the problems their pupils may be having. Of course, this may temporarily improve the student’s performance, but long term – as I too have recently found – could be more of a hindrance than a strength. As a gift to all the 1. e4 players in my class, I showed them a simple plan Amonatov used in similar structures to demonstrate how Black’s failure to fight for the center was the root of his problems.

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The tournament venue – good thing the US Junior Open in New Orleans taught me how to cope with the heat!

So that’s enough banter, how did my first tournament back from the World Open go? Admittedly, not what I had hoped for. Without any opportunities to really practice my new openings or demonstrate improvement in an over-the-board game, I lacked a lot of confidence in my own abilities. This definitely had an impact on my overall play, but the bigger problem was that in spending all of my preparation on openings for this event, I was not as sharp tactically, and that proved to be the most apparent reason why I underperformed.

In my first round, I had a Deja vú experience, getting once again surprised in the opening and completely dismantled by International Master Daniel Fernandez – not exactly what you want when you’re confidence is already at a low! For my next two rounds, I focused on staying solid and earned two easy draws, though I figured they would not be the most entertaining games to share today. I nearly repeated the task in the fourth round, but a simple blunder saw me lose a pawn and enter a hopeless endgame. So once again, I had to look to my last round game to avoid disaster. After some impractical opening decisions, I reached the following position:

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Steincamp – Teodori, White to Move

While White might be able to hold a fortress, it’s clear that only Black can really play for a win. Beyond the fact that I have the thematically bad Maroczy bishop, Black also has the advantage that he can play for several weaknesses. First against the e4 pawn, in either tying down my pieces or making me play f2-f3 weakening my dark squares. But perhaps the idea that will really prove to be the most annoying is that Black can simply play …a7-a5-a4, and then put pressure along the half-open b-file, using the principle of two weaknesses to create pressure. If needed Black also has the …f7-f5 break as an added resource he can use to try to put an end to my existence. So strategically Black is winning. Over the board, I figured my best chance in this position was to find a way to generate kingside counterplay and reroute my light-squared bishop to a more active position. 21.g3

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Here I decided my only way to improve the position was to expand at the right moment with f2-f3 or f2-f4, but playing this move first leaves my options open. More importantly, this is the beginning of a long road trip for my bishop on d3, starting on f1, and re-entering the fray on g2. With the next few moves, my opponent made it clear that he didn’t know how to proceed. 21…Bc6 22.Bf1 Qd4 23.Bg2 Kg8 24.Rd1 Qg7 25.Rde1 Qd4 26.Rd1 Qg7 27.Rde1 Ba8 28.h3

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As you can see, my opponent has done very little to improve the nature of his position, simply waiting for me to make a mistake. Of course, there’s nothing I can really do at the moment to punish him, but the more I continue to evolve my position the better suited it will be to fend off any attack from Black. With this move, I create a little room from my king on h2. I was considering 28. f4?! but after 28… Qd4 starts to get annoying and tactical complications ensue after …f7-f5. Though h1 seems like a suitable square for the monarch, it’s on the same diagonal as Black’s bishop, and I would rather avoid that if possible. With Black not doing much, I have time to place my pieces as I would like. Realizing I was planning f2-f4, my opponent lashed out with 28…g5? and then the party really started!

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Even in my poor form, I immediately recognized this as a positional blunder. While temporarily stopping f2-f4, Black has just weakened his light squares around the king. Already I can think about mounting my g2 bishop on f5 where it would actually be a decent piece and at the very least give me very good drawing chances. Furthermore, thanks to 28. h3, I can put my king on h2 and consider opening the g-file at my own convenience. With this one move the entire dynamic of the game starts to change, and luckily for me, my opponent has yet to realize the gravity of the situation. 29.Kh2 Kh8 30.Qe2 Qg6 31.Qb2+ Qg7 32.Qe2 Kg8

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If you compare this position to the previous diagram, you’ll see that Black’s position is identical to the one before it, while I’ve had the luxury of making two moves and am on turn to take a third. Here I decided to take control of the game with 33.f4 since now seemed the most logical time to change the structure in the game. Black’s ability to use his long-term trumps are starting to wear off, and it almost seems like the a8 bishop is every bit out of the game as mine on g2. 33…f6 34.Bf3 Kh8 35.Bh5?

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Trying to execute a bishop pendulum before locking in on g4. Positionally not bad, but tactically problematic if Black finds 35…gxf4! the critical zwischenzug that turns the game upside down. Luckily for me, as the game has shown thus far, Black was beyond trying to proactively solve his problems and reacted to my threat as I had anticipated. 35…Rg8 36.Bg4 gxf4 37.gxf4 h5 38.Bf5

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Not taking the pawn! Positionally it is much more important to have a bishop on f5 and control the critical light squares in the position. This enables my queen to enter the game on h5 if Black isn’t careful, which wasn’t an option if I had taken with the bishop. Tactically, Black probably retains an edge if after 38. Bxh5 f5! attempting to open the long light square diagonal. I awkwardly managed to set-up a defense until making this critical mistake some moves later. 38…Qh6 39.Rf1 Reg7 40.Rff3 h4 41.Qf2 Bb7 42.Be6?

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Black to move and win. I’ll attach the answer further down in the article if you want to try and solve it first. Positionally though, my goal was to lock down the e-file by playing f4-f5 and use the f4 square for my rook to attack h4. This is precisely what happened in the game, but even from a positionally better side of the board, tactics are still everywhere! 42…Re8 43.f5 Bc8 44.Rf4 Rh7 45.Bf7!

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I had seen this when I played 42. Be6, and perhaps I was too quick in missing its initial refutation. The game is now lost because Black cannot take on f7 without losing the queen via Rf4xh4 with a pin, and now my bishop will go to g6 and win the exchange. Sadly for Black, there are no practical winning chances once the position simplifies. 45…Re7 46.Bg6 Bb7 47.Bxh7 Rxh7 48.Rg4 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.31.45And the game meets its rightful end. Black cannot save the h4 pawn, and my pressure on the kingside will be too much to handle. Black’s light-squared bishop, once the proudest piece in the position, now is utterly useless to aid Black in his struggles.

Not a particularly well-played game, but I thought it illustrated how at the 2100 level, how tactics and poor endgame technique still plague our games. And to some extent, the once abysmal d3 bishop’s road trip was quite amusing – it moved eleven times from d3 to reach h7 to win the game!

I’ve already thoroughly discussed endgames here on Chess^Summit, but if you missed my series on Carlsen, you can check them (in order) here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here – I swear they are all different links! It was a lot of fun putting together those articles, and it certainly helped my endgame play, and  hopefully it can help you too! As for tactics, it’s a never ending improving process – speaking of which:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 18.24.4242. Be6?? Rg2+ 43. Qxg2 Rxg2+ 44. Kxg2 Bxe4!! 45. Rxe4 Qg6+ -+

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How easy it was to miss 44… Bxe4!!? Well, luck was certainly on my side this game.

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Last summer I took third in the U2200 section, which set me well on my way towards breaking 2100.

I’m closing out this summer with my next tournament, the Washington International, before heading back to Pittsburgh for my fall semester. While I was flirting with the idea of trying the open section early in the summer, I’ve decided to compete in the U2200 section to iron out some of the weaknesses in my game. The Washington International is certainly the most accommodating tournament I’ve ever played in, and I’ve had this event marked on my calendar since I left Rockville last year. I’m hoping to make the most out of this tournament, and hopefully, it can be as good to me as it was last year! Until next time!

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!

Queen City, the Last Stop Before NOLA

This weekend marked my last preparatory tournament before the US Junior Open – the inaugural Carolinas Classic. Given how my fast start to the Cherry Blossom Classic only petered out to a 3/7 finish, I decided to just focus on being consistent in playing each round. While arguably I failed in this respect, I did well to start 2.5/4 and get an opportunity to play for a class prize before dropping the final round and falling back to an even score.

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Unlike last week, the venue for the Carolinas Classic was right on the Boardwalk, meaning I had plenty of food options in walking distance.

This tournament was particularly interesting for me, as I got to play new openings and reach sharp positions in three of my five games. While my debut in North Carolina saw an end to my nine-game unbeaten streak with Black, it also saw me to another win over a 2300+ rated player, as well as an encounter with the 2012 US Junior Open winner.

Before we delve into some of the critical moments of my games, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the first edition of this FIDE rated event.

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The tournament hall before Friday night. A DGT board was provided for the top two boards in the Championship section and the top board of each of the other sections.

Considering the cost of registration, the chess rate, and the quality of the hotel, I thought that this tournament was extremely well run. The surrounding area was extremely accessible for players with plenty of food options and accommodations within walking distance. Sure, the tournament directors were a bit paternalistic at times, but on a whole, to be able to play in any FIDE event for such a low cost is a rare opportunity in the United States. My only wish was that this tournament had better advertising prior to the event. I actually found out about it by accident, and I wonder if stronger players would have participated if the event was advertised outside of North Carolina. I would recommend this tournament to any serious chess player, especially those looking for FIDE rated games.

That being said, here were some crucial moments of my tournament.

Beware of the Exchange Sac!

Pitted against the third strongest player in North Carolina, my board was broadcast live (only the second time in my career playing on DGT!), and I was hoping to impress for a second week in a row against 2300+ rated competition. Shortly after the opening, I offered a pawn sacrifice, and my opponent thought he spotted a way to clamp my position down instead with 17. Bb5

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On face value, Black’s position looks dangerous. I have a weak c5 pawn, and visually, I am at a developmental deficit. However, with my opponent’s king in the center, I had anticipated this and my position sprung to life!

17… Ne5 18. Qxd8 Rxd8 19. Bxc5

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Again, still visually unconvincing, but trust me the bishop on c5 is worth more than the f8 rook! In White’s effort to attack, he left his king open for my knight’s infiltration.

19…Nxf3+ 20. Kf2 Nxg4 21. Bxf8 Kxf8

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I’ve never really been known to hesitant sacrificing the exchange, and here’s a great example why. Black now has the bishop pair and an extra pawn, but the e4 pawn is destined to fall, so a minor piece and two pawns are more than enough compensation. Furthermore, the bishop on g7 is holding the knight on d1 in place and it’s now White that lacks activity. My opponent decided it was too much to hold on to b2, and gave me the pawn, but this game me a pawn majority on both sides of the board and I was able to convert the endgame (though it was not without difficulty!).

My opponent did well to bounce back, winning the next three before drawing tournament winner Grandmaster Elshan Moradiabadi.

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Triumph in the first round offered a deja vu to last week’s tournament. Now it was my duty put it behind me and start round 2 with 0 out of 0!

The second round also gave me an interesting match up (again on DGT), paired with the 2012 US Junior Open champion and University of Texas graduate Karthik Ramachandran.

This match-up was extremely close, and I think it could have gone either way, but unfortunately in sharp positions, usually there can only be one winner! I’m still in the process of trying to figure out what happened in that game, so rather than sharing a critical moment of the game, I’ve decided to share an instructive one.

For those of you who would like to see the game in its entirety, you can find it here if you scroll down towards the bottom of the games list. Even though I lost, I was really proud of how I fought in this game.

 

The Power of a Pawn Sacrifice

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In this position, I played 19. Nd5! offering the b2 pawn to Black’s g7 bishop. This is probably the most well-known form of a pawn sacrifice, but it’s always important to know where your play is coming from! The game continued 19… Qxd2+ 20. Kxd2 and now we can see that if 20… Bxb2 21. Rb1 Bg7 22. Bf3,

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I have sufficient counterplay for the pawn. If Black tries …b7-b6, I can march the a-pawn to a5, and Black’s queenside collapses. But the more complex find was if Black inserted 20… Bxd5 first, blocking my control of the diagonal after 21. cxd5 Bxb2 22. Rb1 Bg7. But now I have the resource 23. Bd3 and Black is once again in trouble.

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Here I have the luxury of taking the pawn on f5 immediately or waiting since this pawn also blocks in Black’s rooks. Now White can quickly play a2-a4 to stop any queenside expansion ideas and then push the h- and g-pawns down the board. Realizing this, my opponent opted for 20…Rde8 21. Bd3 and complexity ensued.

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As I said, I unfortunately wound up losing this game in a pawn race, but it was not enough to derail my tournament…right?

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Early phases of my game with the 2012 US Junior Open Champion. Hopefully, in less than two weeks I can accomplish the same feat of a perfect 6/6 to win the tournament!

At this point, I had already spent nine (!) hours at the chess board, and had little time to relax going into the next round, where I perhaps put together the worst game I’ve played in a while. My mother, who came with me to this tournament, suggested it might be because of the heavy meal I had going into the game, but honestly, I thought I just had a bad game – it happens to everyone at some point, and there’s no shame in it.

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Fortunately for me, my lower rated opponent was just as, or even more tired than I!

Twenty-ish moves into the game I managed to “wake up” and start making respectable moves. Having played tired now in several games over the past few weeks, my best suggestion is to walk around, and not try to calculate long lines but look for positionally logical moves. While this method certainly isn’t failproof, in an equal position you can still outplay your opponent if you just ask what’s my opponent’s weakness? and what’s my worst placed piece?. I have a slight hunch that Jacob Aagard would agree with me on that…

After ten or so moves of maneuvering, I found this nice tactic to make up for an extremely poor performance:

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38… Rxd3!! and now the position collapses since the mate threat on g2 means White must give up a piece. Nice move but a single move doesn’t make a good showing!

Round 4 saw me draw quickly after some experimenting with my opening preparation for the US Junior Open, though I must mention preferred my opponent’s position when we agreed on the result. However, scoring 1.5/2 in games where I felt I played less than perfectly was reassuring that even when not at my best, I can still play and hope for a result. Knowing that my last round opponent would be a strong National Master (2200+), I relaxed and focused on putting my best foot forward in my last game before the US Junior Open.

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Moments before the start of Round 1 on Friday night. Who said cool chess piece photos were overdone?

While I lost in a time scramble, I was better for most of the game, and the computer actually preferred my side of the board until the last fifteen minutes of the game as the resulting endgame was deemed as unsavory. Again, I’m still in the process of understanding everything that happened, but I had one highlight I really liked since I was extremely vigilant in defending my king.

Offense is the Best Defense

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My opponent decided to open the floodgates here with 29. gxh5, trying to rip apart my kingside and quickly deliver mate. However, almost instinctively I knew this could never work with White’s king on f2. My plan is to keep the g-file closed at all costs, and put my rooks on the h- and f-files. Once my rook is on h8, I can quickly activate my e7 bishop on h4, punishing White for opening the position. The game continued 29… Kg7 30. Rg1 Rh8 31. Ng4 Nxh5

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White’s attack has fizzled out, but as the engine points out, there was never anything here for White, in fact Black is perhaps better, if not, equal. This sequence not only played a huge role in the position that transpired, but the clock as well. In these three moves, my opponent spent half his time, and I only needed 3 minutes (of course I had looked at this position before the capture on h5, but still my foresight gave me a temporary time advantage). But the game didn’t stop there, after 32. Nxh5 Rxh5 33. Ba5 Bh4+

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 19.51.10And now I’m the one attacking. Don’t believe me? If White isn’t careful, 34. Kf1? is close to losing since 34…b5!  threatens mate in one with …Bd7-b5#. White must put the rook on h1 and remain passive while I storm the barricades. The attack ensues after 34. Ke2 b5 35. Qd2 Bb4+ 36. Kd1

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The tide has turned, and in time trouble, White is struggling to hold. With my next move, 36… Be7, White’s a5 bishop is closed out of the game and White’s rook have no real avenues of play. My opponent did a great job of complicating the position, and offered a draw before I miscalculated and went from winning to lost in a couple moves. Maybe I deserved to win this one, but that cannot be said about my games in the third and fourth rounds, so in a sense it balanced out.

These last three weeks have given me many extremely complicated positions, and of the seventeen games, I can’t really say that any of them proved to be easy, with most of them pushing the maximum time alotment of the round. While this last game ends my nine-game unbeaten streak with Black, I think my games with each successive week have shown significant improvement, and definetly has me looking forward to the US Junior Open in 11 days!

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No studying for today, but already I can see plenty of tactics and endgames in my near future!

Again, I can’t thank everyone enough for the support over the past year, and I am really looking forward to showing everyone what I’ve learned this year in New Orleans. Over the past seventeen games, I’ve scored 9.5/17, with only five losses across the three venues.

For the most part, I’d say the theoretical aspect of my training is complete, minus a few tweaks after analyzing my performances over the past three weeks. Here on out, I’m planning on working extensively on calculation since that proved to be the key determinant across all of my losses.

I suspect the preparation and anticipation in upcoming days will be just as fun as my trip to New Orleans, so make sure to check back to get my final thoughts going into the US Junior Open!

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: 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!

Calculation Corner: Solving a Troitzky Study

The weather here in Pittsburgh has been really nice these past few weeks, and I’ve been taking full advantage by studying chess outside. Yesterday, I picked up an old issue of Chess Evolution (May 2014) and started to work through the analysis before I reached this position.

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White to move, and with Black’s king in the box, the win should be easy, right? Well not so fast. After about 30 minutes of calculation, I finally figured out the answer. Finding the solution without any prompting from a friend or engine made the composition a lot more difficult, but by asking the questions 1) What’s my opponent’s threat? and 2) Am I making progress?, all the sudden the answer doesn’t seem so contrived.

Rather than analyzing this study in post format, I decided to make a video of all the lines – winning and losing – so everyone could visualize the answer. Make sure to try and solve this one on your own first!