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!

Moments in March: Outside the Candidates

For this week’s post, I decided that instead of breaking down the tiebreak system that gave Karjakin a match with Magnus, I would highlight some interesting games and positions from outside the Candidates Tournament that occurred this month.

While Norway Chess is no longer part of the Grand Chess Tour, it still boasts one of the strongest tournaments in the calendar year. Not only will it feature our first glimpse at a Carlsen–Karjakin match-up, it will also bring players like Vladimir Kramnik, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Pavel Eljanov, and many others. Being a ten seed round robin, a qualifier tournament was run between Jon Ludvig Hammer, Aryan Tari, Nils Grandelius, and Hou Yifan to decide who the tenth competitor will be. Needless to say, after the first decisive game, I knew who I was rooting for.

Hammer–Grandelius (Altibox Norway Chess Qualifier, 2016)

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Black to Move

After much maneuvering, it appeared that this game was headed to a draw after 40. b4, but Grandelius found the best way to press for a win by sacrificing the exchange with 40… Rxe5! While the resulting position leaves Black down a minor piece, it’s White compromised structure that will determine the outcome of this game.

41. dxe5 Rxe5 42. Rg1 Bd8 43. Kf3 Bxg5

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With three pawns for the knight, Black has more than sufficient compensation. With best play, the game should be equal, but with Hammer’s next move, it’s Black who has the advantage.

44. e4?!

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Not immediately losing, but this move gives Black’s bishop a lot more mobility. Hammer likely panicked here, thinking he just needed to get his pawns off dark squares, but trading the e- and d- pawns will only help Black make the f-pawn passed.

44…Bc1 45. a4 Ba3 46. exd5 Rxd5 47. Bc4

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I didn’t watch this game live, but I have to wonder if White was in time trouble here. This move simply gives up the b-pawn and any realistic chance at a draw.

47…Rf5+ 48. Ke4 Bxb4 49. Rf1 b5 50. axb5 cxb5 51. Ne3 Rxf1 52. Bxf1 a6 -+

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Only Black can win this endgame now, and Grandelius converted on move 73. He finished the double round robin with 4 wins and 2 draws. Quite an impressive showing!

I don’t expect Grandelius to fare too well against the much superior competition, but it will be a great opportunity for Sweden’s best player!

Our next game features a well-known prodigy you’ve definitely heard of, Wei Yi. The Chinese teenage superstar hasn’t been doing well as of late, with a rocky finish in the Aeroflot Open and a slow start in the Asian Nations Cup. However, after falling below 2700, perhaps he was inspired enough to remind me why I stopped playing the Najdorf. Let’s have a look:

Wei Yi – Dao (Asian Nations Cup, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5

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We’ve already discussed the Be3 Najdorf lines at some length here, but I believe that the Bg5 lines are also an aggressive try for White. This move directly points out Black’s lack of space and control of the center.

6…e6 7.f4 Nbd7 8.Qe2

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If I recall from my studies years ago, White usually opts for the f3 square for his queen. However, this move (as Wei Yi proves) is a considerable option. Knowing that Black will likely not castle kingside, White prepares for a future opening of the e-file, while getting his king to safety.

8…Qc7 9.O-O-O Be7 10.g4 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.fxg5 Nh7

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The thematic mechanism for Black in these lines. By exploiting the pin on the g5 pawn, Black usually gets sufficient counterplay on the kingside. The computer generally overstates White’s advantage in these positions, but the point is that Black is walking a thin line between life and death.

13.Bg3 hxg5 14.Nf5!

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The computer move! White’s idea is to sacrifice a piece to open up the Black monarch. While such a position comes at the price of a knight, Wei Yi proves once again that activity is of much greater importance than material.

14…exf5 15.Nd5

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One of the key points of the last move. Sacrificing the knight on f5 gains White entry to d5 (with a tempo). Black must play 15… Qd8 to stay alive, but after the natural 15… Qb8?, White’s pressure on d6 and e7 alone is enough to end the game.

15…Qb8 16.exf5 Ne5 17.Nxe7 Kxe7 18.Rxd6!

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And Black’s position collapses. The sad thing about it is that most of the tactics are intuitive, meaning that Wei Yi could have easily played them move-by-move from here and Black would have still never had a chance.

18…Qxd6 19.Bxe5 Qd5 20.Bg2 Qxa2 21.Bd6+!

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Drawing out the king so it can’t retreat to f8 for relative safety. Now all White has to do is ensure that Black’s king stays in the center.

21…Kxd6 22.Rd1+ Kc7 23.Qe5+ Kb6 24.Qd4+

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Great technique! Black now must move towards White with the king as a7 is taken away.

24…Ka5 25.Qc5+ b5 26.Qc7+ 0-1

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Wow, Wei Yi made it look easy! The best part? For him it truly was. After spending 14 minutes on 14. Nf5, and then two minutes on 15. Nd5, he needed less than a minute per move for the rest of the game, and then fewer than eight (!) seconds a move after 19. Bxe5. Talk about some confidence!

And our last moment for today comes from the latest round of the Schachbundesliga where the best team Baden-Baden was upset 3-5 by Werder Bremen.

Naiditsch–Smerdon (Schachbundesliga, 2016)

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Here Black just played 34… Qf8, leaving the b6 pawn unprotected. In a moment of blindness, Naiditsch decided that in his slightly worse position, he needed to find counterplay along the 6th and chose 35. Rxb6?? Can you find the Aussie’s demolition of White’s position? (see diagram below)

Black found the best way to exploit White’s weak king with 35… Nxe4! and now White has problems. The knight is untouchable as 36. Bxe4 Rxe4 37. Qxe4 Qh6+ and checkmate is unstoppable. In the game, White chose 36. Bg2 but didn’t last much longer after 36…Qg7 37. Rb2 Nc3 0-1

Sometimes even Grandmasters blunder! Interestingly Naiditsch, while in time pressure, had much more time than Smerdon had (47 seconds). Interesting to see what time trouble can do to you! Just look at the ending of my game last week!

More than Meets the Eye: An Attack, an Advantage, and a Blunder!

I hadn’t planned to play a rated game until Saturday’s Pittsburgh Chess League finale, but when I got the email saying my Tuesday night class had been canceled, I quickly found myself playing an extra rated game against a local expert from Carnegie Mellon University at the Pittsburgh Chess Club.

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Usually when I post a game to chess^summit, I make sure the selection has some sort of specific instructional purpose. That being said, I can’t say that this game can be marginalized into such a general category. Even though he fell behind early, my opponent did really well to hold and even missed a few chances to equalize!

So if today has a theme, let it be complicated positions. Honestly I can’t remember winning a game this difficult (and almost blowing it too!).

Steincamp–Li (Pittsburgh Chess Club, 2016)

1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.e3 d6 6.Nge2 Be6 7.d3 Qd7
8.O-O

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I think I’ve posted a few games with this set-up for White. Ideally, I’m going to place a knight on d5 and expand on the queenside. However, my opponent decided to change the pace of the game.

8…Bh3 9.e4 h5?!

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Going in for the attack! Black’s intention is to open the h-file and use his h8-rook and queen to quickly checkmate my king. However, there are some downsides to this move out of principle.

1. This move doesn’t develop or get Black’s king safe.

Okay, this is obvious, but still a valid point. By postponing the fundamentals, Black risks falling behind positionally should the attack not pan out.

2. Black cannot push …f7-f5.

This is the main problem with this move. If the f-pawn is pushed, Black gives White an outpost on g5 for a knight or a bishop.

Knowing this, I opted for 10. f3, giving me the option of Rf1-f2 if needed. Furthermore, if Black tries …h5-h4, g3-g4 can now shut down the position.

10.f3 Bxg2 11.Kxg2 h4

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Because of Black’s decision to attack, this must be played now. If 11… Nh6 12.h4, White stops all kingside play and has a simple lead in development.

12.g4

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Not a move I was crazy about playing, but I was able to convince myself that this was right. First, Black traded off the light squared bishops, leaving the c1- and g7 bishops on the board. Black’s pawns on c7-d6-e5 are all on dark squares, making my bishop better than my opponent’s. This is important since this structure has dark-squared holes, so from e3, I can cover some of Black’s potential outposts. Furthermore, playing this move guarantees a closed h-file, limiting Black’s intentions, and leaving me with a developmental advantage.

12…h3+!?

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My initial reaction to this move was to think that this was an error since it forces my king to safer waters and opens the g3 square for my knight. However, there are long-term benefits for Black! By controlling the g2 square, Black gets the counterplay he needs to stay alive in some lines – and according to the computer – enough to defend adequately.

13.Kh1 f5

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I found myself perplexed by the relative speed to which my opponent was moving, but this move I felt out of principle was wrong.

As I mentioned before, the g5 square becomes weak, yet it’s not so easy to exploit. At this point, I began to look at 14. gxf5, but I didn’t like it on account of a few reasons:

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1. The g-file opens

Even if this is tenable, I do feel like Black is getting the play he intended with his opening choice. With the g-file open, Black’s plan is to play … f5-f4 and queenside castle to bring his d8-rook over to g8. This is a lot of pressure, which brings me to my next point.

2. I’m not punishing Black!

Remember back when Black played 9… h5 when I said my opponent wasn’t following opening principles? 14. gxf5 not only fails to capitalize on this detail, it actually rewards Black for his play!

So this being said I played the anti-positional move

14.exf5?!

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Taking away from the center! But it turns out here that matters aren’t so trivial, Black’s king is still in the center, so opening the e-file with a future f3-f4 or d3-d4 push may be lethal. It was here that I noticed that Black’s weakness wasn’t the square on g5, it was the f5 square! By taking in this manner, the structure has changed; so a pawn on g4 helps support a knight on f5 and close the g-file. As my knight reroutes to f5, my bishop will find the right moment to go into g5 and cramp Black’s position.

And the best part? 14. exf5 was one of the computer’s best moves!

14…gxf5 15.Ng3 Nd4

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I thought this was Black’s best move, but there were several lines I had to consider before playing 14. exf5

Second Best:

15. … f4 16.Nge4 (16.Nf5?! allows 16…Nh6 ) 16. … O-O-O 17.Nd5 +=

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The position is a little unclear here since Black can simplify, but b2-b4 is coming with a slight initiative for White.

Last Choice:

15. … fxg4 16.fxg4

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As I’ve discussed in many of my posts, releasing the tension seldom leads to the best outcome. Here I have all the advantages I had a move ago, but the f-file is also open. It’s clear here that Black has simply run out of attacking resources.

So Black opted for the stingiest move, but it also once again neglects development and king saftey. Immediately I wanted to play 16. gxf5:

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The concept of cousre is to break Black’s center, leaving his king out in the open. This all works if Black plays along: 16… Nxf5 17.Nxf5 Qxf5 18.f4

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Because of the discovery threats on the queen, castling for Black comes at the cost of a pawn. However, not all captures are forcing! I soon realized that my dystopic outlook on the position was not only incorrect, but potentially losing after Black’s amazing resource, 16… Nh6!

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This shifts the game from dynamic play to static play. With 16. gxf4? I’ve actually given up any chance of securing the f5 outpost and opened the g-file for Black’s rook. Trying to stop Black from castling with 17. Bg5 still looks grim after 17… Nhxf5 =+.

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And here it’s clear that Black is simply better with no real counterchances for White.

So I had to be less direct, yet still keeping the position in a dynamic state. With my next move, I highlighted that the f5 pawn is still weak.

16.Nce2

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My c3-knight was no longer planning on reaching d5 since Black can play …c7-c6 now, so trading it for Black’s best piece was appealing. Black took drastic measures with his next move, but he had several options to consider.

Scenario 1:

16… f4!

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After some post-game analysis, I’ve come to the opinion that this was the best shot to equalize. While it creates light squared weaknesses, it neutralizes my grip on f5 and g5, while blocking in my bishop on c1. I had seen this during the game, and thought I had found a tactical resource in 17. Nxd4 fxg3 18. Re1 g2+ 19. Kg1 0-0-0 20. Nf5

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But after some research with Stockfish, here it’s my play that’s burned out, and soon I will find that the g2 pawn is not protecting my king, it’s a protected passed pawn! All endgames favor Black here.

However, my opponent didn’t play this move when originally given the opportunity, so he must have thought the assessment was the same as before.

Scenario 2:

16… Nxe2 17.Qxe2 fxg4 18.fxg4

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With evasive play, Black has avoided the loss of a pawn, but even after 18…0-0-0, my opponent will find his lack of development and counterplay concerning. My knight will find the f5 square, and my bishop, g5. White’s position plays itself.

Scenario 3:

16… Nh6?

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This isn’t really a move for Black, but it does a nice job of illustrating his dilemmas after 17. Nxd4 exd4 18. Re1+

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The win still needs work, but you get the idea. A trade on d4 eliminates Black’s ability to pressure the long dark squared diagonal, and opening the e-file will favor me.

So my opponent, uncomfortable with his options, played a move I hadn’t considered.

16. … Nxf3?!

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The idea that opening the long diagonal will give Black strong play. However, this is the first innacuracy of the game! With this line my opponent forces me to seal in his bishop and open the e-file.

17.Rxf3 Qc6 18.Nd4!

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The only way to refute Black’s play! In just a couple moves, Black will find himself much worse!

18…exd4 19.Nxf5 Be5 20.Bg5! +=

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Not only is Black unable to castle, but his knight on g8 is extremely immobile. From this point on though, Black’s 12. h3+!? starts to pay off as his pressure along the light squares becomes my biggest issue.

20…Kd7

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The only move from Black that doesn’t concede anything. While the f7 square becomes weak, my rook can’t get there due to the pin on the king. With the queen cut off from the kingside though, I decided that now would be the best time to drive the queen away by force.

21.b4 b5!

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The best move if Black plays the continuation correctly. The idea is that regardless of what I do, Black’s queen can stay on the diagonal with the b7 (and potentially d5) square opening up. Without much to do, I made my next move, assuming my next move assuming my opponent was intending a pawn sacrifice.

22.cxb5 Qxb5?

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A critical mistake! With this move, Black gives me an opportunity to move my queen away from the defence of the f3 rook, giving my a1-rook a chance to enter the fight. Black had much better in simply sacrificing the pawn and putting the queen in the center of the board.

Black really needed to try 22… Qd5 to force me to play slower.

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White’s plan would be to play Qe2-e4, trade queens, and go into an endgame with small winning chances. But with my next move, my opponent realized how active I had become.

23.Qb3

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Poking at the f7 square while giving my rook on a1 a chance to play.

23…Rf8

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The best defense. Using the other rook doesn’t pin my knight. A sample line I looked at was 23…Rh7 24.a4 Qb7 25.Rf1, but 24. Nh4 also looked appealing, with the idea of going to g6, or bringing the rook down to f7. I hadn’t really decided since I figured the text move was far simpler for Black.

24.Rc1

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Here I thought I was being smart, forcing the queen to go back to b7 instead of c6 to pin my rook, however, Black actually is in no rush to do this. In the game, I thought 24… Nf6 25. Ng7 was fine for White, putting pressure on e6, but 25… Nd5! was actually winning for Black. The computer says that after 24… Nf6, the position is about equal in other lines.

24…Qb7

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So why is it so important that White convince Black to reach b7 instead of c6? Well now White has Qa4+!, and Black is forced to surrender his control of the long diagonal.

25.Qa4+ Kc8

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Black is becoming passive, and if he had tried 25… c6, not only does he block in his queen, but I also have a turn-around tactic in 26. Nxd4! winning due to the attacked rook on f8.

26.Qc6=

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It turns out that this simplification leads to equality since (as I soon discovered) the endgame is extremely difficult to convert.

The computer gave me an option here that holds on to my grasp on the position with 26. Rf1 Rh7 27. Kg1 getting out of the pin 27… Nf6 28. Ng3 += with a slight edge.

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I do have to say, so far the game has been very complex, yet there have not been any missed tactics by either side. Coming from the position of strength, I have to say this is a testament to my opponent’s defensive resourcefulness to find holding moves each turn. However, with the queen trade on c6, I must win again – this time however with an advantage on the clock.

26. … Qxc6 27.Rxc6 Kd7 28.b5

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Stopping any future a- or c- pawn advances from Black. My opponent is cramped, but with his next move, he gives up a pawn for activity, which proves to be vital for his ability to play.

28…Nh6

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With pressure on g4, I decided I have nothing better than to win the pawn on d4. but to do this I must give up my bishop for a knight, and increase the Black bishop’s scope.

29.Bxh6 Rxh6 30.Nxd4

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I had to make sure that this trade worked, and I think again my opponent found the best resource in 30… Rhf6. Let’s quickly look through some of Black’s choices:

30… Rxf3 31. Nxf3 Rf6 32. Nxe5+ does not win a piece! Black can prolong the fight with 32… Ke6!

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…and White must stop the threat of mate on f1 with 33. Kg1, meaning that this is the position that must be understood. While Black may still be able to hold, I assessed that my advantage had increased since Black must give up the c7 and a7 pawns (the importance of a prophylactic measure like 28. b5!). Since I believed I had better winning chances, I was okay with this position.

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So simplification does not come to Black’s aid. Black can’t afford to be passive either since the backward 30… Rhh8? has a tactical problem. Can you find it?

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Here I had found 31. Rxf8 Rxf8 32. Rxc7+!! since now 32… Kxc7 is met with 33. Ne6+ with a winning minor piece endgame. Black can’t save himself with 32… Ke8, threatening mate on f1 and the knight on d4, because 33. Rc8+ forces a trade of rooks, and now I must find Nd4-f5, followed by d3-d4 to limit Black’s ability to attack my h2 pawn.

It’s clear that only White can be better, and of course I knew my opponent wouldn’t go for it. There was one last option I didn’t consider until after I had made my move in 30… Bxd4?! the concept being that my king is stuck on h1 and the constant threat of mate is a problem for me.

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While this may be a potential drawing resource in other positions, my b5 pawn makes c7 a permanent backwards pawn and target. So in the line 31. Rxf8 Re6 32. Rc1, Black cannot both be active and defend c7 as 32… Re3 33. Rf7+ still gives White reasonable winning chances.

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But as I said, I thought my opponent found the most aggressive try despite his time troubles.

30…Rhf6

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My knight will return to f5 to block the f-file, after which Black can pressure the g4 pawn and emphasize my king’s awkward positioning.

31.Nf5 Rg6 32.Rc4 Rb8?

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The second real mistake from my opponent (the first being 22… Qxb5). Time trouble played a large role in this decision, and now my not only will I eliminate Black’s annoying h3 pawn, I will get a rook on the 7th!

Black had much better in the more flexible 32… Rfg8 33.Ne3 d5 34.Ra4

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And while Black remains a pawn down, he has reasonable drawing chances. Having a bishop in the center of the board alone should be enough compensation for the extra g-pawn, not to mention, my queenside stucture is also quite hideous.

33.Rxh3 Rxb5 34.Rh7+ Ke6 35.h3

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Rather than immediately grab the c7 pawn, I thought it was important to nurture my two pawn advantage on the kingside. If Black tries 35… c5, I can play 36. a4, and only Black’s b5 rook is truly active.

35…Rb1+ 36.Kg2 Rb2+ 37.Kf3 Rxa2 38.Rcxc7

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Two rooks on the 7th and my opponent in time pressure? Should be an easy win, right? Not so clear. It’s hard to secure control of the d5 square (If Kf3-e4, …d6-d5+ wins for Black), and Black does have an outside passer.

38…a5 39.Rhe7+

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Believing I was winning since at the time I thought 39… Kd5 was unplayable (you’ll see shortly). I had calculated 39… Kf6, and now since the f6 square cannot be used by Black’s rook, my idea was Ng3-e4 creating a mating net while improving the overall position of my knight (I was fine with a bishop and knight trade since the resulting rook and pawn ending should be won).

39…Kd5 40.Rc4

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My opponent played his move quickly, so when I dropped this and his head sunk, I thought I had won because of my mating mechanism of Nf5-e3#. Here I got up walked around to wait for the resignation but had completely had missed my opponent’s defense.

40…Rf6!

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I give this move an exclamation for its psychological importance. With this oversight, I had now walked into a position I hadn’t analyzed and it felt like again, I had to start all over to win. However, with my opponent in time trouble, anything could happen so I made a waiting move.

41.h4 a4?

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Black’s third mistake of the game. Advancing the a-pawn to a4 gives me a free tempo move with 42. Ra7, which is winning in all lines. Black should have also waited, but in time trouble this is hard to do, especially with my kingside pawns moving down the board.

42.Ra7 a3 43.Ra5+ Ke6

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Finally, it’s starting to come together. Now with the king no longer on the fifth rank, I can play d3-d4, highlighting the awkward choice of squares Black’s bishop has.

44.d4 Bh2 45.d5+ Kd7 46.Ra7+ Kd8 47.Rb4

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Missing the simplest win in 47. Ra8+ Kd7 48. Rac8, and Black must give up an exchange to stop the threat of Rc4-c7#. But at this point I was already playing my opponent’s clock – with 8 seconds left, he can never hold this, right?

47. … Rb2 48.Rxb2?? =

 

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Here I thought that my opponent could make no progress with the b2 pawn, but with it on a dark square, his bishop can hold it until the rook comes to the rescue. So as I promised, one blunder… moral of the story? Don’t look at your opponent’s clock! If I had just spent 1 more minute, I would have realized that 48. Rxb2 allows too much play and that 48. Rba4 is a lot simpler.

48. … axb2 49.Rb7 Be5 50.Ke4 Kc8 51.Rb5

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As my opponent correctly pointed out in our post-mortem, …Kc8-c7, followed by …Rf6-f8-b8, not only is the best mechanism but now I have to worry about losing the game entirely. White should be fine if I bring my king to c2, but my kingside pawns become weak and won’t be able to promote with the bishop on e5 guarding both g7 and h8. But I got lucky…

51…Rf7 52.Rxb2!

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 00.08.00
Thanks to the fork on d6, my rook is untouchable, so the endgame is now won. I can’t really blame my opponent for his mistake, but what I can say is that the mistakes will come if your opponent is in time trouble. Imagine how much less trouble I will be in if I hadn’t taken on b2!

52…Rc7 53.Rb4 Rc2 54.Ne7+ Kd7 55.Nc6 Bf6 56.g5 Rh2 57.gxf6 1-0

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 00.10.00

Here my opponent resigned after realizing my rook is protected on b4, and my f-pawn is soon queening. Tough game and my opponent did well to hold, but he simply just made more mistakes than me.

As I said before this (really, really long) analysis, there really isn’t a particular theme I can sum up here. But there were some key points:

  1. Early attacks mean neglecting development. Sometimes the best defense is to find ways to punish your opponent for not following the fundamentals.
  2. Captures aren’t a truly forcing move. In this game, there were two points where a pawn takes pawn move could be ignored, and thus change the entire evaluation of the position.
  3. This brings me to my next point, always evaluate who is statically better each position. This constantly changed throughout the game, so it changed the focus for each player’s goal as well.
  4. Time trouble for your opponent is not time trouble for you! Say what you want, but I’m going to kick myself for this Rxb2 move more than I’ll pat myself on the back for winning. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

I thought this was a really interesting game, and I hope you did too. For me, winning (despite some errors) was a great way to rebound from the Pittsburgh Open and start thinking about my summer calendar – specifically the US Junior Open!