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.

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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!

…Nf6-d7 – Undermining the e5 Square

With fewer than 50 days until the US Junior Open, I’ve finally returned to Richmond to start the summer. It’s been an eventful first year attending Pitt, but with the second semester in the books, I’m really excited to start preparing for my trip to New Orleans!

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With only so much time between now and my flight south, I’ve put together a study schedule to prepare for the event. Somehow an hour of daily exercise made my list…

Playing in Pittsburgh definitely offered me more playing opportunities, and while my rating didn’t change much, I still managed to break 2100 and earn the Candidate Master title this year, not to mention a nearly unbeaten record for the University of Pittsburgh (9 wins, 3 draws, and only 1 loss in team matches). I do get the impression, however, that to some extent, my ability to gain rating points was dampened by my schoolwork, and hopefully my appearances in New York City, Washington D.C., and Charlotte will give me the opportunity to prove that going into the US Junior Open.

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2016 Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open. Can you spot me?

That’s enough about me, I thought today I would discuss an interesting idea in queen’s pawn structures, specifically when 1. d4 is met with …d7-d5. Let’s sample the position below.

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Here we have a position where White has played the London System and has achieved control over the e5 square. Should White anchor a piece here, it’s up to Black to know how to undermine White’s center. This position can also occur in various Stonewall positions as well, here’s a case where I mishandled the pressure back in 2012.

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White to Move

Steincamp–Armentrout (Eastern Open, 2012)

Despite my 1800 rating at the time, I’ve already shown my opponent here that I don’t understand Black’s objectives in the Stonewall with the poor choice 6… cxd5, eliminating Black’s worries over his bad bishop. Aside from that early blunder, the critical moment is actually here, where I elected 10. Nxe4? allowing my opponent to turn his space into a space advantage. Already, after 10… fxe4 11. Nc3 Nf6 12. 0-0 0-0, White is already visibly worse.

My bishop on g2 is poor, and I’ve spent two moves to get my knight to c3 where it does absolutely nothing. Realizing the poor state of affairs, I tried to break through with 13. f3, only to find after 13… exf3 14. Bxf3 Bh3 15. Bg2 Bxg2 16. Kxg2 =+ that White simply has too many light-squared weaknesses and a weak e3 pawn for no compensation.

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I went on to lose 15 moves later in what would turn out to be the worst tournament of my career.

So it’s evident that handling your opponent’s control over the e4/e5 square in such closed positions is of extreme importance. If we look back, White would have been much better served trying 10. f3, though I’m convinced that even with this improvement White is still worse.

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The bishop on f4 is misplaced, and thanks to an early trade on d5, the e3 pawn proves a liability. But at least here you can see that White can try for an e3-e4 break to limit Black’s hold on the center. The resulting position will leave White with an isolated queen’s pawn, but at least it will be my best shot at equality.

In reality, when your opponent uses the e4/e5 square as an outpost, you really have two options, to kick it with your f-pawn, or to trade pieces. Each option has its perks.

For my first showcase example, I want to use the opening of a game I discussed upon the relaunch of chess^summit last fall. If you want to see the whole game, you can watch it here:

Ou – Steincamp (Washington International, 2015)

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Nc3 d5

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With White’s choice of 3. Nc3, I opted for this move, …d7-d5. White’s plan is to control e5, and perhaps have a well timed h-pawn push to weaken my kingside.

4.Bf4 Bg7 5.e3 O-O 6.Be2 b6

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The “safe” option for Black. I have the option of …Bc8-b7 and …Bc8-a6 with this move, but more realistically, I’m planning …c7-c5 to contest the center the one way White can’t, the flank.

7.Ne5

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And we’ve reached the critical concept for today. Here White puts a knight on e5 with the intention of playing f2-f3 and e3-e4, paralyzing Black. I can’t afford to let this knight stay on the e5 square, as my b8 knight cannot easily develop without ceding the c6 square for White’s knight. In this position where White holds the static advantage, its critical that Black play dynamically to breakthrough. Before taking any drastic measures, I quickly protect the d5 pawn to make my next move possible!

7…c6 8.O-O Nfd7!

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A backwards knight move! Though seemingly counterintuitive, the idea is to play …f7-f6 seizing control over e5, while simultaneously preapring an …e7-e5 push myself. Should White trade on d7, I develop with tempo – 9. Nxd7? Nxd7 10. h3 e5 11. Bh2 =+ Already it’s clear that the intiative has shifted.

9.f3 Nxe5

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It might also be acceptable to try 9… f6, but here I thought it made sense to trade since Black is cramped and now White must make some sort of concession on e5. My opponent chose to recapture with the bishop, which gave me quick play in the center.

10.Bxe5 f6 11.Bg3 e5

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Suddenly it’s White who has concerns over his weak center, and 12. e4 seems to give White more problems than solutions. I went on to win a nice game, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to check out my video on it!

In this next example, White transposes into a Stonewall structure. Note how this time my pieces are much more effectively placed than they were back in 2012.

Mucerino–Steincamp (Pennsylvania G/29 State Championships, 2016)

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bg5 Bg7 4.Nbd2 c5?!

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Not my typical choice, but I knew my opponent would stick to his repertoire and not take the pawn on c5 given the short time control. In return, I got a fantastic position.

5.e3 O-O 6.c3 b6 7.Bd3

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From what I’ve come to understand, this bishop really belongs on e2, but here it still offers control over the e4 square. My next two moves make it difficult for White to push his e3 pawn to claim the center.

7…Bb7 8.O-O d5

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A rather simple position. White’s gotten the simplistic development he wanted, but its not quite clear where he should go from here. That being said, White tried putting a knight on e5 to expand on the kingside.

9.Ne5 Nfd7!

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The star move for today! With both …f7-f6 and …Nd7xe5 threatened, White must act with urgency.

10.f4 Nxe5

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Black is prepared to break White’s central grip with his next move, …f7-f6. I think 10…f6 was also worthy of consideration 11. Nxd7 Qxd7 (getting off of the h4-d8 diagonal to prepare …e7-e5) 12. Bh4 e5 =+ and White has a slightly worse position

11.fxe5 f6 12.exf6 exf6 13.Bh4 Qe8!

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Despite a convincing win over an expert the last round, my coach, GM Eugene Perelshteyn told me that this was the best move I made this tournament. Not only does this move evade the pin on f6, but it puts pressure on the backward e3 pawn while also stopping e3-e4. My next move, 14…f5 locks in this weakness.

14.Qf3 f5

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At the cost of weakening the e5 square, I managed to turn e3 into a permanent structural weakness.

15.Qf4 Nd7 16.Rae1 Nf6 17.dxc5 bxc5 18.Qc7 Qc6?=

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Trading queens is the right idea, but it was critical to force the exchange on c8 not c6 to stop White’s resource c3-c4. By trading on c6, I could meet the push with …Bc8-a6! pinning the pawn to the unprotected d3 bishop.

Given the nature of the short time control, the advantage shifted sides throughout the rest of the game, ultimately reaching a drawn rook and pawn ending.

Today’s post showed how Black can effectively undermine an outpost on e5 with the maneuver …Nf6-d7 (White can do the same with Nf3-d2 to attack e4!) to break White’s hold on the center without creating any real positional concessions. It may not work for every closed position, but it’s definitely a mechanism worth knowing for the future!

The Tale of Two Bad …Nb6s! – From Pittsburgh to DC

I haven’t done a Free Game Analysis post in a while, so I was extremely pleased to get two game submissions this week from tournaments in both Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. If you too would like to have your game analyzed for free by me, send your game PGNs to chess.summit@gmail.com!

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Our first game is from Joe P’s last round of last week’s Pittsburgh Open. Joe scored 3.5/5 in the U1800 section, and saw a rating boost of 71 points to break 1600! Congrats Joe!

Mattis–Pleso (71st Annual Pittsburgh Open, 2016)
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Nf3 Nb6

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Instinctively, I don’t like this move. Black moves the knight a second time and it’s not quite clear what the compensation is. Attacking the c4 pawn and provoking White to push it to c5 gives White a space advantage, with Black’s knight forced to move once again.

So what should Black do instead? The main lines in this position are 6…0-0 and 6… c6 with the intention of keeping a closed position, and standard QGD play. While there’s nothing objectively wrong with this, Black doesn’t score very well at the top level.

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With this quick look in ChessBase’s free online Mega Database, Black only has two decisive games in the position after 6… 0-0 7. Rc1. If you look at some of the names, strong players like Sargissian, Naiditsch, and Kryvoruchko all lost to lower rated players in this line. Black’s relative passivity in this line makes life tough for Black, which is why I’m going to recommend the much more active set-up in the Ragozin. Putting the bishop on b4 instead of e7 gives Black alot more flexibility and space, and while there is plenty of theory, it’s clear that Black can play for a win in the opening.

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This position gives Black a little more life. It’s important that this isn’t a true Ragozin, since Black usually keeps the option of playing …Nb8-c6 open, meeting Bg5 with …h7-h6.

7. c5 Nbd7 8. Bd3 c6 9. O-O b5?

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A strategic error! With this push, we reach a padlock structure (check out the idea here). By reaching this kind of position, Black shuts down his own queenside counterplay, meaning that White is the only side that can press for the initiative. Think about it, if Black gets a pawn on b3, White can meet it with a2-a3, and if Black reaches a3, b2-b3 will shut down the queenside. Furthermore, if White does nothing, Black now has a very bad bishop on c8. Much better was 9… b6, putting pressure on the c5 pawn, while making the b7/a6 squares available for the c8 bishop to clear the way for a rook.

10. cxb6??

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This move justifies Black’s play. Now when Black recaptures on b6 with the a-pawn, Black will have dynamic chances with a …c6-c5 push, as well as pressure on the a2 pawn.
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This brings us back to the importance of statics and dynamics. Just a move ago, White was statically better, and could simply improve his own position. However, by changing the structure and taking a dynamic measure, Black’s resulting position is vastly improved. To learn more about static play, make sure to check out my October Article!

10…axb6 11. a3 Ba6

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A practical decision. Here Black trades off the light squared bishops, getting rid of his worst piece. Furthermore, this reduces White’s ability to defend squares like e4 and c4. Let’s see if this becomes an issue.

12. Bxa6 Rxa6 13. Qd3 Ra8 14. Rfc1 h6 15. Bxf6 Bxf6

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Well the typical recapture would be with the knight, right? Maybe, but I like this better. If Black can play …c6-c5, he can put even more pressure on d4 with a bishop on f6. From d7, Black’s knight not only controls e5 and c5, but safeguards the weak pawn on b6.

16. Ne2 c5 17. dxc5?

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One thing I’ve discovered about lower rated play is that less experienced players HATE structural tension. In this case, Black’s bishop is opened (even with a quick cheap shot on b2!) and he trades off his last weak pawn, b6. Much better was 17. b3, preventing …c5-c4. I’m not quite sure what White intends with his knight on e2, since it doesn’t exactly have many great squares.

17…bxc5?!

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Opting for structural solidarity over a tactical shot. In his analysis, Joe sent me the following computer line: 17… Bxb2 18. c6 Nc5 19. Qb5 Bxa1 20. c7+ Qd7 21. Qxb6 Na4 22. Qb7 Rc8 23. Rxa1 Nc5 24. Qb4 Qxc7 25. Ned4
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Black is clearly better here but had to make a lot of precise moves to hold on to the advantage. Sure, being able to see this line would have been nice, but not being able to clearly see the right continuation and taking on c5 instead is the much more practical choice.

18. Rab1 Qb6

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This move isn’t exactly precise, as White’s idea is at some moment to push b4 and rid himself of this weak b2 pawn. Rather than checking an engine for the best line here, I encourage you to ask yourself how to limit White’s play. If you found 18… c4!, then you’ve found the best way to take control of the position. Black’s knight will move to c5 with nice options on b3 and d3, and it’s White who must find ways to break out of his shell.

19. Ng3

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This knight does a lot of dancing over the next few moves, watch it jump on its quest to nowhere… White really needed to keep the knight on the queenside, since that’s where the battle is being fought.

19…Ne5

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I’m not a fan of this move, as Black’s knight on d7 does a lot more than White’s. 19… 0-0 was the computer move, but 19… h5?! is an interesting alternative, with the idea of marching the h pawn down the board to attack.

20. Nxe5 Bxe5 21. Qe2 O-O 22. Nf1 Rfb8 23. Nd2 Bd6?

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I understood before, but why not take on b2? The pawn won’t get much weaker than it is presently and White has no way of exploiting the pin by tactical means, thanks to the bad knight on d2.

24. Qd1 Ra5 25. a4 c4?

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I think Black’s future problems stem from this move. Unfortunatelty, its already unclear how to convert Blacks bishop v knight advantage. My best guess is a long term plan of …Qa7, provoking b2-b3, then play …Rb8-b7 and …Qa7-b8, targeting both b3 and h2. It’s a long term fight, and it’s becoming clear that Black lost his chance when he didn’t take on b2.

26. b3 cxb3 27. Rxb3 Qa7 28. Rxb8+ Qxb8 29. g3 Qa8 30. Ra1 Be5 31. Ra2 Ra7 32. Nf3 Bf6 33. Qd2??

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White was so close to equality, but here White willingly loses a pawn for close to no compensation. White could have tried Nd4 or h4, but this move is clearly inferior.

33…Rxa4 34. Rxa4 Qxa4 35. Kg2 Qe4 36. Qd1 Kh7 37. Kg1 Kg6 38. h3 Qf5 39. Kh2 Qe4 40. Qe2 e5 41. Nd2 Qc2 42. Kg2 Kh7 43. Kf1 Be7 44. Nf3

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There have been some small inaccuracies leading up to this moment, but this move is practically a resignation. While you wouldn’t believe it from this position, a knight and queen is usually stronger than a queen and bishop due to the unusual combinations of squares they can control. Giving up that advantage means going into a position down a pawn where Black has a bishop over a knight. White really should have never brought the knight back to d2, but now cedes the trade without a fight.

44…Qxe2+45. Kxe2 f6 46. Nd2 Bb4 47. Nb3 Kg6 48. Na1

Where is he going?
Where is he going?

48…Kf7 49. Nc2 Bc5 50. Kd3 Ke7 51. Kc3 Kd7 52. Kb3 Kc6 53. Nb4+

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Walking into a lost pawn endgame. A poor decision by White. Black played reasonably well to secure the win, trading off a couple pawns to create a passed pawn.

53…Bxb4 54. Kxb4 h5 55. f3 g5 56. f4 h4 57. gxh4 gxh4 58. Kb3 Kc5 59. Kc3 exf4 60. exf4 f5 61. Kd3 d4 62. Kc2 Kd6 63. Kd2 Kc5 64. Kd3 Kd5 0-1

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My thoughts on the game? Aside from the opening, Black was never really in trouble of losing the game, but at times played too passively. White should have secured the half point, but Black played the better game. Congrats Joe on the strong finish and the big rating gain!

On to our next game, from Jeffrey, a chess^summit fan and my former teammate from my MLWGS days. Jeffrey’s currently at the Virginia Open, and after a rocky start, managed to pick up a round 2 win to reach 1.5/2. Let’s see how it went!

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Jeffrey playing GM Sergey Erenburg in a simul back in late 2014. Since then, Jeff has managed to break 1700, and is trying to fit into the tough world that is adult chess.

Song – Cahill (48th Annual Virginia Open, 2016)

1.f4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 O-O 5.O-O d6 6.d3 Nbd7 7.e4

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Even though the Bird’s Opening may not be the most conventional weapon, it’s different, and can still reach reasonable positions. Here White could transpose into a Closed Sicilian if Black were to choose …c7-c5 for his next move.

7…e5

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As a King’s Indian player, I’m not thrilled with this choice for Black. Usually, Black plays …e7-e5 to undermine the d4 square to control critical outposts like c5, but here the position is different. I think the most sound move is 7… c5 going into a semi-Sicilian, but the knight on d7 does make it hard for Black to play moves like …Bg4 and …Nd4. One reason I switched out of the Nbd7 King’s Indian lines was that it wasn’t very flexible and could often lead to passive positions with innacurate play.

8.Nc3 c6 9.h3 Re8?

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Whenever I play against the King’s Indian, I’m always thrilled to see this move. Here, with the pawn on e4 protected by the d3 pawn, this …Re8 move actually does nothing! Keeping the rook on f8 is a thematic resource, not only to play …f7-f5, but to protect the f-file in some positions. Black has bigger problems right now besides the placement of his rook such as development and space.

10.Nh4

Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5.
Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5. While it’s a neat idea, this move tactically fails to 10… exf4 11. gxf4 Nd5! and the h4 knight is hanging. Honestly, White doesn’t need the support of the knight to play f5, it might even be worth a pawn later if black were to cripple his structure by taking with g.

10…Nb6?

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Just like the last game, another bad …Nb6! While it technically opens the bishop, where can it actually go? Again, like last game, Black has wasted two tempi with this knight to go nowhere. A much better plan would have been 10… a5 with the idea of …Nd7-c5! A much more active square. If you are going to play a modern style of chess, you must be prepared to be active. The King’s Indian is the least forgiving to passive players.

11.a4 d5 12.a5

I think both 12. fxe5 and 12. f5 are possible here, but upon further evaluation, White’s choice doesn’t really matter since Black’s plan should be …Nf6-h5 with the idea of putting pressure on f4. Black’s opening play has been kind of poor, but White’s play hasn’t exaclty been punishing. I analyzed the move order with an engine and came to a few conclusions.

First, Nf3-h4 was a waste of time in this position, not only because it should have failed tactically, but it loses the value of having played 1. f4. What do I mean? Well if you think about it, White can reach a similar position in a King’s Indian Attack set-up:

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This has a structural resemblance to the game, but now White must move the knight on f3 to execute f2-f4. Since f5 is occupied, the knight usually goes to e1 and then returns to f3 to be able to enter the fray via g5 after f2-f4 has been played. White’s first move enabled him to not lose this tempo.
Knight on the rim is grim! Or is it? This is a new move for me, but it does help push the f-pawn to f5.
If you think about it, with a Black pawn on g6, White doesn’t exactly have a landing square for this knight besides f3, so to go back to my original question, the knight is grim!

Next, 9. h3 is what gives Black the …Nh5 resource since g3 is weakened. Usually this move is played to allow for Bc1-e3, taking away the g4 square from the knight, but seeing as Jeffrey didn’t play this move, 9. a4! would have been much more prudent.Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 18.42.59

It’s not that we are expecting Black to play the poor 9…Nb6? its just that this move restricts Black’s ability to expand with …b7-b5 on the queenside. Now it’s up to Black to come up with ideas. 9… a5 is a natural move for Black to secure the c5 outpost, but a knight on c5 won’t help Black with the pawn on d3. White can just play Kh1 followed by f4-f5. Also reasonable is b2-b3 and Bc1-a3 putting pressure on d6 once the f4-e5 tension is resolved (I will admit this is less agressive).

Anyways, I thought it was interesting that Black still had a tenable position after violating several opening principles.

12…d4

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So who gained the most out of this sequence? Black managed to expand in the center, but in doing so drives White’s knight to a more productive square, d2. Meanwhile, Black must retreat the knight back to d7, and still is way behind in development.

13.Ne2 Nbd7 14.f5 c5 +=

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Black’s limited development makes it extremely difficult to mobilize his forces, but I think Black’s best plan is follow-up with a …c5-c4 push, with the idea of placing a knight on c5 pressuring d3.

15.Qe1 b5 16.g4 Qe7?

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Simply too slow. Black has no time and must act with 19…c4. My guess is that Black was afraid of 20. Qb4, but 20… Ba6 21. dxc4?! Bf8 22. Qe1 bxc4 it becomes clear that this would only help Black mobilize his army.
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Following the sample line. Black is arguably better here with the strong a6 bishop, and the f8 bishop ready to come into c5. Obviously, White had much better in 20. Bf3.
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And my chief concern becomes the threat of g4-g5. My proposed move doesn’t really give Black an answer, but neither did the text’s move. With Black already this far behind, it’s fair to believe Black is strategically, in large part to the idea of Nb6.

17.Bf3 Qd6 18.g5 Nxe4

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Black gives up material instead of …Nh5. This doesn’t bode well for Black.

19.Bxe4 Rb8 20.Ng3 Bb7 21.Bd2!

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A very practical decision by Jeffrey. Instead of rushing manners on the kingside, he maximizes the overall optimization of his pieces before going in for the kill. Now the rook on a1 can join the fight. This is a great way to save time on the clock and maintain pressure over the board.

21…Bxe4 22.Nxe4 Qc6 23.Qg3 c4 24.Bb4 Bf8 25.Bxf8 Rxf8 26.f6?

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Trying to do too much. White is better because of material, but this move slows his ability to win. 26. Nf6+! was a lot more simple, the idea being that 26… Nxf6 27. gxf6 Qxf6 28. fxg6, and Black’s queen and king are both under fire.
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Black is lost. From f6, White’s knight is untouchable in the combination, and should Black not capture it, White will bring in his rooks to the kingside before busting open the g-file.

26…Rbe8 27.Nf5??

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This is too much, not to mention the combination actually fails! The idea is that if 27… gxf5! 28. Rxf5 Kh8! Black’s king is extremely safe, and after …Rf8-g8, White’s king could be under fire.
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One of the reasons I didn’t like f5-f6 was that it makes it very difficult to attack Black’s king. White doesn’t have many points of entry to the kingside aside from g7, and with the pawn on g4, it’s not quite clear how White will make progress. This diagram here is the structure if Black had taken on f5. As you can see, it’s not so simple to breakthrough. Sure White was up a piece anyways, but the f-pawn push followed by …Nf5 was a failure of tactical foresight.

27…Re6 28.Ne7+ Rxe7

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Out of frustration, Black gives up the rook, and in doing so, the game.

29.fxe7 Re8 30.Nf6+ Nxf6 31.Rxf6 Qd7 32.Qg4 Qxe7 33.Re1 Qb4 34.Qg3 Qxb2 35.Rxe5 Rxe5 36.Qxe5 Qc1+ 37.Rf1 Qe3+ 38.Qxe3 dxe3 39.dxc4 1-0

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This game was a lot more tactical than the first, but also proved as another exemplar as to why these …Nb6 ideas don’t work. Sure, Black got away with it in the first game, but that was White’s choice, not Black’s genius. As a coach, I’ve noticed that this manuever, though incorrect, has been played alot by lower rated players. When I started working with one of my current students, he played a line of the King’s Indian like this:

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 c5 7.d5 Nbd7 8.O-O Nb6

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Of the three cases we’ve discussed today, this is the worst …Nb6, and while my student knows much better now, I think it shows that even at the 1400 level, this move still shows up.

If we’ve learned anything today, it’s that this amateur-ish …Nb6 idea is not only a weak move, but its a bad plan! It’s passive, and it slows the natural expansion of the queenside for Black. In more active openings like the King’s Indian, this move is even more unforgiveable since Black falls behind too many tempo in the sharp position.

Well, I hope you’ve made it this far – this is my longest free game analysis post yet. Make sure to send your games into chess.summit@gmail.com to have your game analyzed by me in my next post!

Techniques of Positional Play

For today’s post, I wanted to recommend a book I’ve been working through. Techniques of Positional Chess by Valeri Bronznik and Anatoli Terekhin is by far one of the most instructive books I’ve read, and while it may be a reach for many chess^summit followers, it’s definitely one to put on your future reading list.

My coach, Grandmaster Eugene Perelshteyn, suggested that I read this book in conjunction with 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets by Andrew Soltis to help me prepare for the US Junior Open this summer. To say the least, I’m glad he did, and today I wanted to share a few examples from the book with some of own my analysis and insights to show you why this is the book to read.

The “Padlock”

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So here I’ve constructed a position to help demonstrate the padlock idea. The goal with a padlock is to reach a position where the pressing side can’t make progress. Here, if Black tries to push one of his queenside pawns to open up the position, White can lock up the position by pushing the other. For example, should Black play …a4-a3, White can simply push b2-b3, and no more progress can be made. Understanding this concept is not only important in race positions, but also a key feature of endgames. This next composition is taken from Bronznik’s book and highlights the importance of the padlock idea. See if you can find it!

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White to move and draw

So where’s the padlock? In these kinds of endgames, it’s critical that the Black rook has points of entry to infiltrate White’s set-up. Because of the padlock structure on the a- and b- files, Black can never hope to open the queenside as long as White does not move his a3 or b3 pawns. That being said, the only way to secure the kingside is the incredible 1. Kd1!! Rh2 2. Ke1!! Rxg2 3. Kf1! Rh2 4. Kg1 Rh5 5. f3 = and Black will never be able to make progress. As long as the White king prevents the Black rook from entering e2, e1, h2, or h1, the extra rook is meaningless for Black. Again, it’s the padlock idea on the queenside that makes this possible.

I have to admit, that one study alone made me want to write this post today… but we must go on!

Fighting with the Rook Pawn

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Steincamp – Chen (G/60 Pennsylvania State Championships, 2015)

After being under fire for most of the game, my opponent offered a draw here, and without too much thinking here, I took the half point. Not too much in this major piece ending, right? Well not quite. In this position, I actually had one opportunity to press for more. The a-pawn. Here, I could have tried a3-a4-a5-a6 at no cost, securing the b7 square for my rook and with play along the 7th rank. It’s not clear if this is enough to win, but the lack of an active plan for Black here does make this promising. Let’s take a look at one of the book’s examples.

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Botvinnik–Smyslov (1954 World Championship)

Black to Move

White is definitely cramped but Smyslov will need a point of entry to find a way to take advantage of his opponent’s passivity. 1… a4! 2. Bd2 Qb6 3. Be3 a3

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And just like in my own game (rather what should have been), Black takes over the b2 square, thus securing the critical point of entry. For the sake of brevity, looks fast forward a few moves later.

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White cannot simply take the rook on b2 without creating a strong passed pawn and weakening a2, so White must succumb to a worse position. To get out of Black’s grips, White gave up the bishop pair in the game by trading on c5, and eventually lost the rook and minor piece endgame.

The “Wavebreaker”

The last idea I will discuss today is a prophylactic structure called the “wavebreaker”. In my post, Catching Up – A Season in a PostI discussed a game from the World Open where I actually used this concept to secure my kingside!

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Steincamp – Zinski (World Open, 2015)

White to Move

So White could try a “padlock” set-up with 1. h3?!, but that would be structurally dubious after 1… h4 2. g4 because now the White king is at risk of being exposed. Much simpler is creating a harmonious set-up with 1.h4!

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Stopping the h-pawn push in its tracks. I originally got the idea from watching Jan Gustafsson’s commentary during the 2015 Dortmund Sparkassen Meeting. Black ought not to get too carried away with his antics, as …f7-f5 would give me a great outpost on g5. You can check out my analysis of that game with the corresponding link above, as I got a slightly better position, misplayed the advantage, and then had a little luck to secure the half-point in the endgame.

Understanding the “wavebreaker” structure is not only important to understand defensive play, it’s also an important element of the 4 v 3 rook and pawn ending. Check out this position from the book:

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Capablanca – Yates (1930)

Black to Move

As Bronznik explains, if it were White’s move, Capablanca would play g3-g4! stopping Black from creating the wavebreaker formation. This idea of having a pawn on g4 is the easiest way to convert the 4 v 3 ending, with the idea of pushing the h-pawn in the hopes of creating a passed pawn. If you are more interested in 4 v 3 structures, you should watch this lecture by Yasser Seirawan:

For this reason, the book explains that Black had to try 1… h5= to equalize but after the inferior 1… Rc4? 2. g4! was played. While White is far from winning, he is well on his way towards making Black’s life miserable.

It’s been a while since my last book review on the site, so I’m glad I chose this one to break the silence. I’m still working my way through it, and I feel like I learn something every time I sit down to read it.

Positional Domination: Hou Yifan Breaks the Ice!

It feels like a long countdown until this weekend’s G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships and Pittsburgh Chess League matches, so I’ve been killing time doing opening research and watching ongoing Grandmaster games.

With Gibraltar over, there aren’t exactly many high profile games to watch, but there is the Bicontinental Match-up (South America and Antartica) between Women’s World Championship Candidate Hou Yifan and Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, an up-and-coming player from Chile.

The first round ended in a draw, where Hou Yifan was unable to convert a small advantage. For today’s post, we will be looking at the second game, one which Hou Yifan won in just 25 moves!

Hou Yifan is a player easy to overlook, but after today’s post, I think you’ll see just strong she really is. Let’s take a look:

Hou Yifan – Henriquez Villagra (Match Bicontinental de Ajedrez, 2016)

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 a6

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The starting position for today’s discussion. Villagra, who eliminated Gelfand from last year’s World Cup, will set-up a hedgehog defense with the Black pieces.

6.g3 Qc7 7.Bg2

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For those of you unfamiliar with the English, you should know that there is a lot of overlap with ideas from the Maroczy bind. One of the advantages of choosing the English move order is that the light squared bishop isn’t necessarily bad as it would be on e2 in a Maroczy Bind. Here against the Hedgehog structures, having this bishop is extremely useful, as it limits Black’s ability to queenside fianchetto, and is able to control the d5 square.

7…Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4

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Here White achieves the famous bind structure with pawns on e4 and c4. Hou Yifan hopes to claim her space in the center of the board while Villagra will wait for potential weaknesses to come.

9…d6 10.Be3 Nbd7

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A critical decision, and perhaps the beginning of Villagra’s trouble. The thematic square for the knight is c6, where it may be able to trade for the d4 knight, giving Black space and flexibility. Remember, when you are cramped, it’s advantageous to trade pieces!

11.Rc1 Ne5

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An active looking move, but in reality, Black’s hand was somewhat forced here. Black would love to get his c8 bishop to b7, but 11…b6 would lose on the spot to 12. e5! winning the rook on a8 by discovery. Should Black try to avoid this line by playing the well-known Hedgehog idea, 11… Ra7, 12. Ndb5! is better for White after 12… axb5 13. Nxb5 Qa5 14. Nxa7 and Black will not receive two minor pieces for the rook since the knight is protected from the bishop on e3.

12.b3 Bd7

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Black realizes that getting the bishop to b7 will simply take too much time, and chooses to route it to d7. Villagra can get this bishop to c6 and on the long diagonal, but as you may notice, Black is somewhat cramped.

13.h3

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Taking away the g4 square from each of Black’s knights before pushing f2-f4. While Hou Yifan has easy moves, improving her structure, it is already not so clear how Villagra is going to reroute his pieces to organize an attack. The Chilean’s next move is really telling as to Black’s struggles in this position.

13…Qa5

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Rather than improving the position, Black must spend a tempo to evade a tactic – that’s right!
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So if Black makes the most positionally improving move, White can force Black into a well known Hedgehog dilemma with 14. f4 Nc6 15. Nxc6 Bxc6 16. Nd5!
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I actually made this observation before checking with an engine, and the computers seem to see the moves merit. Black’s problems on the b6 square make recapturing the knight compulsory, after which, Black must not only give up the bishop pair but have a strategically ruined endgame.
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Black’s isolated pawn on d6 blocks in his dark squared bishop, and White’s pure control of space is enough for White to push for a win. Seeing this (or other similar lines), VIllagra chose 13… Qa5.

14.Qd2 Rfc8 15.f4 Nc6 16.Qf2 Bd8 17.Rfd1

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Black’s moved the c6 knight three times, the queen twice, and the d8 bishop twice. Meanwhile, White has optimized all of her pieces, acquiring a major space advantage. Only a pair of pawns have been traded, and because of it, Black is cramped and has little oxygen.

17…Ne8?

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Here Black really needed to trade on d4, but was afraid of 17… Nxd4 18. Bxd4 following with e4-e5, opening up the position. The Chilean wanted to be able to keep the position somewhat closed with d6-d5, but Black is beyond the point of having choices.

18.Nf3! Nb8

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Black’s backwards play these last few moves have been strictly tied to playing …d6-d5. This move puts some pressure on the c-file, but Black’s lack of development makes the threat anything but lethal. One principle to know here is that if you are better developed than your opponent, it’s in your best interest to open up the position. Here the former Women’s World Champion pushes through with a central break.

19.e5 d5

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And Black finally gets his break! But it’s this same move that actually ends the game for Black.

20.Nd2 Qb4 21.a3 Qxa3

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Dragging the queen offsides while solidifying the queenside. Without the queen on a5, Black will even fewer ways to defend the collapsing center.

22.cxd5 exd5 23.Ra1!

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And now Black’s queen must retreat all the way to f8 to avoid the wrath of the c3 knight. With the exception of the light-squared bishop, Black has placed all of his pieces on the back rank.

23…Qf8 24.Nxd5 Be6 25.Nc4 1-0

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Black threw in the towel here, as there’s no easy way to defend against f4-f5 and Nb6 threats. Complete positional domination from the Chinese Grandmaster as she dispatched her opponent while making it look easy! There are two games left in the match, and it’ll be one of the last opportunities to watch Hou Yifan before the Women’s World Championship in March when she takes on the reigning champion, Mariya Muzychuk.

Trading into Better Positions

Since I’ve spent most of the last week discussing opening play, I decided to discuss trades in today’s post.

A few years ago when I was a student at Castle Chess Camp, I had the pleasure of working with Grandmaster Grigory Serper. While his use of metaphors and clichés to describe chess were particularly memorable, he did leave an impression on me regarding trading. Some of you may be familiar with Kyle MacDonald’s one red paperclip project, where through internet trading, he managed to trade a paperclip for an entire house.

As Serper pointed out, winning in chess is very similar. We want to checkmate our opponent, but often times our opponents aren’t so willing to cooperate. So instead, we take over small advantages and cash them into bigger ones – just like how MacDonald started with a trade for a pen, then a doorknob, and eventually down the road, a house.

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When looking for grandmaster games for today’s post, I decided to only select games from the recent rapid tournament, the 25th Paul Keres Memorial. We start with the third round upset of the top seed, Peter Svidler.

Svidler – Kulaots (25th Paul Keres Memorial, 2016)

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In this position, either side has practical winning chances. While Kulaots has the pair of bishops, Svidler has a fair amount of compensation. Black’s pawns limit the abilities of his own light squared bishop, and White’s knight has a strong outpost on f4. While some may argue that Black has the long-term advantage because of the pair of bishops, even that’s not so clear, as Svidler has a passed pawn on a3. In order for Kulaots to prove an advantage, he needs to activate his pieces.

23…Re4!

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A critical moment! Black attacks both the pawn on d4 and the knight on f4, asking Svidler to trade on his terms. 24. Rxe4?? loses to 24… dxe4 and both knights are under attack.

24. Nh5

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Svidler finds a tactical solution to his positional problems. Should Black try 24… Rxd4? 25. Re8+!! Qxe8 26. Nxf6 is winning. While White evaded the threat this turn, he hasn’t solved his problems yet. Svidler will have to decide if he wants to trade rooks on e4 and un-double Black’s pawns, or allow Kulaots to have a permanent weakness to attack on d4.

24…Kf7 25. Nb4 Qe8 26. g3 =+

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White realizes that with …Kf7-g6 looming, he needed a safe square for his knight. Retreating to g3 wasn’t an option because of …f5-f4, so this move will cover the knight on f4.

26…Kg6 27. Nf4+ Bxf4

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The first important trade. Black gives up the bishop pair, but in exchange makes another structural weakness on f4. Black will now increase the pressure on d4 and f4 until Svidler decides to take on e4, a trade that will only help Black mobilize his pawns.

28. gxf4 Qd7 29. Qd2 Qc7

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Attacking the f4 pawn while simultaneously defending c6. While Black’s bishop is still bad, Kulaots can just target White’s weaknesses. White is so paralyzed that Svidler can’t punish Black for his bad bishop.

30. Rac1 Ra8

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“Sometimes the threat is stronger than the execution.” Sure, Black could’ve taken on f4 with the rook, but that doesn’t actually help Kulaots. The pawn on f4 can be taken whenever, but more importantly, it’s blocking in White’s queen. Instead, Black makes the mature decision to attack White’s pawn on a3, the last remaining advantage that White had back when Svidler played 23. Re1.

31. Rc3 Bd7 32. Rxe4

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Unable to deal with the pressure of …Ra8-d8, White makes the second trade for Black. While this closes the e-file, it resolves Black’s structure. Meanwhile, f4 and a3 are still targets.

32…fxe4 33. Rb3 h5

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It’s still not clear if Kulaots is going to pull the upset. Without clear ways to improve his pieces, Black expands on the kingside.

34. Nc2 h4 35. Kf1 Bc8

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Preparing to maneuver the bishop from c8 to a6. Once the bishop reaches this diagonal, it can no longer be considered bad since it is outside of the pawn chain.

36. Ke1 Ba6 37. h3?!

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Trying to complicate the position, Svidler creates another weakness on h3. Rather than trying to force his way through, Kulaots decides to limit White’s play.

37…Bc4!

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Needing to defend both a3 and h3 simultaneously, the rook must stay on the third rank, surrendering the b-file, and entering a realm of passivity.

38. Rc3 Rb8

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With the simple threat of …Rb8-b1+, though blocking with the knight offers the best defense, from b4, it won’t be able to protect White’s kingside.

39. Nb4 f5 40. Kd1 Kf6 41. Kc1 Rg8 42. Nc2 g3 -+

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Forcing the last trade, and this time, it’s decisive. Black will now have a passed pawn on g3 and e4 though the strength of the g-pawn alone should be enough.

43. fxg3 hxg3 44. Ne3 Bd3 45. Rb3 Ke6 46. Ng2 Bf1 47. Ne3 g2 0-1

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A paralyzed Svidler has no way of stopping the pawn and here resigned. A great display by Kaido Kulaots!

This game was decided by three trades, the bishop for knight trade on f4, the rook trade on e4, and the opening of the floodgates on g3. Kulaots won this game by optimizing his position between each trade, paralyzing White to his structural weaknesses. Even though the f4 and d4 pawns dictated the pace for this game, Black didn’t have to win them to procure a result. Let’s move on to the next game.

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Peter Svidler is a top 10 player, and will be one of a few Candidates to face Magnus Carlsen in the 2016 World Chess Championships. Expect the Russian to brush off this loss – he’s a world class player!

Kukk – Eljanov (25th Paul Keres Memorial, 2016)

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Pavel Eljanov is one of my favorite players to watch, and while he didn’t perform at his full strength this tournament, he still showed how he was one of the best here.

In this position, White seems to be standing well. The knight on e5 well placed and Kukk has both of his rooks on open files while Black seems to be lingering behind in development. But Eljanov has his own ideas too. After rerouting from d7, the knight on b8 can enter the contest at any moment via c6. Furthermore, White’s bishop on b2 is passive behind the d4 pawn and will need to spend some tempi to reroute it.

18…Nc6 19. a3

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White plays this move to take away the b4 square from White’s knight. While this may stop Black’s plans for now, Kukk has created a hanging pawns structure on the queenside, and could prove to become key weaknesses in the future.

19…Ne7

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An odd-looking move but Eljanov intends to play …Nf6-e5, so this move allows the queen from b7 to protect the knight. Black also offers the first critical trade of the game.

20. Rxc8 Rxc8

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With this move, Eljanov moves from paperclip to pen. Black’s resolved his development problems and has a clear plan going forward.

21. Rc1 b5 22. b4

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By going for this structure, Kukk has completed a trade of sorts. In exchange for the c5 outpost, he’s put all of his queenside pawns on dark squares, limiting his bishop’s mobility.

22…Rxc1+ 23. Bxc1 Qc8

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Black uses the tempo from the trade to grab the initiative. By rerouting his queen, Eljanov quickly shifts the attention to the kingside, where White has fewer active pieces.

24. Nb3 Ne4

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With this move, Eljanov offers Kukk a choice. White can either try to play around the knight on e4 or can weaken his structure with f2-f3. Unfortunately for White, he can’t easily put a knight on c5 with Black’s knight in the center, so he chose to kick it.

25. f3 Ng3 26. Bf4 Nh5 27. Bd2 f6

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This move highlights the awkwardness behind 25. f3. Now the knight must retreat to g4, where it will have no active options.

28. Ng4 Qc4!

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Same idea as the last game! White has a weak d4 pawn, and a trade on c4 will only strengthen Black’s growing grip on the position.

29. Nf2 Ng3

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Constricting the movement of the king, and being prophylactic! Black wants to play …Ne7-f5, so this move also stops g2-g4.

30. Nc5 Nef5 31. Qxc4 bxc4 32. Nxa6 Nxd4

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The decisive trade. Not only does Kukk give up a central pawn for a wing pawn, but he now faces threats like …Nd4-e2+ followed by a discovered check by moving the g3 knight. While White, like Black, has two passed pawns, they aren’t as advanced, and the White army is too passive for them to make a difference.

33. Nd1 Nde2+ 34. Kf2 d4 0-1

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Here Kukk resigned, as Eljanov’s d- and c-pawns are just too much. White has no mobility, and he’ll have to give up a minor piece when Black pushes …c4-c3.

Since his performance at the World Cup, Pavel Eljanov has been invited to the currently ongoing edition of the Tata Steel in the Netherlands. Check out our post on him from last October here!

As you may have noticed, in each of these games, the winner didn’t count on tactical trumps to beat the other but rather milked small positional edges, forcing the other side to make concessions. When you identify candidate moves, it’s extremely important to know what trades will help your position or weaken your opponent’s.