Endgame Essentials: In Action at the European Chess Championships!

After writing my most recent Endgames Essentials post, I decided to watch the European Individual Chess Championships and stumbled across an endgame that I thought was an effective model of the principles we’ve established thus far.

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

Before Ernesto Inarkiev managed to pull away from the pack and win the Championships, it looked like the event could go a number of ways – Saric, Navara, Jobava, Kovalenko, and Wojtaszek were all over 5/6, with a bunch of strong players at 4.5/6 with five rounds to go. While it wouldn’t determine the winner, David Navara’s game in round 7 against Baadur Jobava definetly impacted the course of the tournament.

In that game, we reached this drawish position:

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Navara – Jobava, 2016

With a symmetrical pawn structure, it seems like not much can happen. There are no logical pawn breaks in the position, and though White’s king is more active than Black’s, Jobava does have control over the d-file. What you might notice though, is that it is White who is pressing. With the e- and f-pawns already advanced, it will be difficult for Black to expand effectively on the kingside and create weaknesses. Sure, White certainly cannot be considered winning here, but it is Black who must prove equality. As we’ve seen in many of Carlsen’s games, this is already enough to play for! To stop Black from entering the second rank, White brings his king to c3, and activates his rook on the b-file. 18. Kc3 Kf8 19. Rb1 Ke7

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White has improved his position, but so has Black – in fact his king is coming into the game very quickly! If White isn’t careful, Black can bring his king to d6 and rook to d7 with the hopes of creating a fortress. When you’re trying to improve your position and push your opponent, it’s always important to consider their plans and see if you can stop them. Navara spent 20 minutes on this next, and made the most contesting move on the board. 20. e5!

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At an artificial level, this move looks really weakening. White gives up the d5 square for Black’s rook and his structure could get undermined with …f7-f6 ideas. But if you think about it, Black’s rook is no better on d5 than it is on d8 because tactically it must always retreat to d7 following Rb1-b7+. With the pawn on e5 cutting out improving squares for Black’s king, Black will need this …Rd7 resource until further notice. It’s also important to note that a break on f6 arguably hurts Black more than White – it doesn’t improve his structure, and an open f-file wouldn’t change the nature of the position. One thing to remember when playing in equal positions is that in order to play for a win, you must give up something in return. In this case, Navara gives Black the d5 square to keep his winning chances. 20…h5 21. a4

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Right now both sides are playing accurately. Black is trying to solidify his kingside, while White is trying to gain access to critical squares on the queenside. For example, were Black to stand idle, White could march his pawn to a6, giving him control of the b7 square for his rook to then win the game. Black’s logic here is that while he may be less active, if he can remain solid, White will not have enough to exploit his advantage. Let’s see if this holds true.

21…Rd5 22. Rb7+ Rd7 23. Rb8 Rd8 24. Rb4 Rd5

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So what just happened? It just seems like the two players shuffled their rooks back and forth, but what was the point? As Grandmaster Sam Shankland says, no self-respecting Grandmaster makes a move without a purpose. Let’s go back to the position after Jobava played 21… Rd5:

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In this position it is White to move, but in the current position after 24… Rd5 it is White to move. What’s changed? White got in Rb1-b4 and now has an extra tempo to improve his position. By infiltrating deep into the b-file, Black had to block out White’s rook from raiding the kingside pawns, so this line is actually rather forced. While Black should still be able to hold here, it’s small moments like these that count towards building a winning position. 25. g3 Rc5+ 26. Kb3 Rd5 27. c4 Rd2?!

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Here’s where Black starts to go wrong. As we mentioned earlier, the rook was no better on d5 than it was on d8, and so the same applies to d2. Black cannot afford to allow White’s rook to enter the 7th rank without resistance, as the a-pawn will fall, and it’s White’s passed pawn that will matter more than Black’s. Still, White can’t play 28. Rb7+ yet, so he makes the one move that wasn’t possible just one move ago. 28. a5!

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I’m going to guess that this move’s power was under estimated by Jobava, seeing as he spent 24 minutes on his next move. However after 27. c4 its impossible to effectively stop this pawn push and be able to retreat to d7. Black’s best hope was to create a fortress by retreating to d7 and bringing his king to c8. I messed around with Stockfish here to see how Black would hold, and the line goes 27…Rd3+ Very important – the king is pushed to the second rank before Black makes a bunker. 28. Kc2 Rd7 29. a5 Kd8 30. a6 Kc8 31. Rb1 g6

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White will have to try and create a weakness on the kingside, but his rook can’t run too far astray since Black can play …Kc7-b6 and attack the a-pawn. It’s an ugly position to have to defend, but since White’s king can’t get to the kingside thanks to the Black rook, Black should have good drawing chances. So how is this so different than what happened in the game? It turns out that not inserting this one check before retreating to d7 still gives White something to play for with an active king. If Jobava had played 28…Rd7, White’s king can enter the fray through a4, then later b4 and c5 – but admittedly this is very difficult to win. Instead, Jobava offers Navara an oppotunity. 28…Kd8?

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The last move underestimated a resource to draw, but this move gives White an opportunity to play for more! While White can’t win material, his rook would be much better placed on f8 or g8 than it is currently on b4. Navara wastes no time in reaching his desired position.

29. Rb8+ Kc7 30. Rf8 Rd7 31. Kb4

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A tremendous improvement in White’s position. Black has no easy way to defend the a5-a6 idea, and White’s king is headed to the c5 square, where it cannot be touched by Black! The position still looks difficult to convert, but for the rest of the game (with the exception of one move), Navara spends less than a minute per move to convert the point! 31…a6 +-

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Not exactly a better recommendation for Black in the position, but now the b6 square is weak. White’s goal now is to stretch out Black’s defensive resources with his rook and try to make Black run out of good moves. 32. Kc5 g6 33. Ra8 Kb7 34. Rf8

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White’s repeating moves – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ideas. With each move, not only does Navara gain 30 seconds, but repeating moves in a superior position can actually create a psychological advantage! I’ve had a few cases in tournament games where I’ve used this idea, and sometimes instead of repeating my opponent’s have completely collapsed! Of course you can’t failry compare the caliber of opponent I’m playing to the likes of Baadur Jobava…

34…Kc7 35. h3 Kb7 36. g4

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Since Black cannot make any productive moves, White decides it makes sense to open the h-file so his rook has more options. In this position, Black has three weaknesses: the 7th rank, the d6 square, and the b6 square. At the precise moment, Navara will relocate his rook to attack Black’s weak queenside pawn structure.

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

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For a second it seems like Black’s rook has become active, but there’s a cute trick here to force the rook back to e7 (not d7)!

41. Rh7 Rd7 42. g5 1-0

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Jobava was so dissatisfied with this endgame he actually resigned to the Czech Grandmaster! In this position, Black is more or less obliged to play 42… Re7 because after 42… Kb7 43. f5!! actually leads to forced mate. The pawn is poisoned since a move like 43…exf5 loses immediately to 44. e6 and White will have managed to trade rooks and gained a queen on the way.

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So 42… Re7 is the only move that doesn’t lose immediately. However this move also fails to defend adequately because now when White plays 43. Rh2, Black can’t also activate his rook since it needs one tempo to reach the d-file again, so after 43… Rd7 44. Rb2 Rd3 45. Rb6, White will win Black’s queenside, and the win of the f-pawn doesn’t help Black.

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Black’s endgame was actually difficult to hold, and after only one real mistake, Jobava completely collapsed. I thought this game was instructive for a couple of reasons. First it showed us how to press a minuscule advantage, while also using the idea of marching the a-pawn to use the b7 square. This game also showed us that sometimes its possible to hold difficult positions as long as we only have one weakness. I think Jobava may have seen this bunker idea, but thought it would fall apart in the long-run. For a human it may be difficult to hold, but it was really Black’s only real chance of saving the game. Lastly, Navara showed us the importance of gaining tempi at various points of the game. While an extra small improvement may not seem significant in a particular moment of the game, such extra moves add up and become overwhelming.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a tournament this weekend, so I won’t be able to post a video this weekend. Make sure to look out for a post next week on my performance! The Cherry Blossom Classic promises to be a tough tournament, and I’ll be hoping to continue my luck from New York!

Endgame Essentials: 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!

Navigating the Maze: Games of Gibraltar

I’ve spent the last few days watching the Gibraltar Open, and now that it’s come to a close, I wanted to share some of the more interesting and instructive moments of the tournament.

Sebastien Maze, of France, proved to be one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament with a score of 7/10. We first look at his game against Ni Hua.

The first game I wanted to show was from round 9, Ni Hua–Maze, where a massive space advantage against a Berlin failed to materialize and then came crashing down to allow the Frenchman to convert the won endgame. If you’re unfamiliar with the Berlin, I highly recommend you check out my comprehensive post on the opening here.

Ni Hua – Maze (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8 10.Nc3 Be6 11.g4

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A more aggressive try than both the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri and Karjakin–Radjabov games we analyzed earlier. Here White gains space with tempo, punishing the knight on f5 for its awkward placement before Maze has the opportunity to insert the thematic …h7-h5.

11…Ne7 12.Nd4 Bd7 13.f4

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Wasting no time gaining space on the kingside. Needing a win, Ni Hua takes the risk of hyper-extending, with the hopes of just cramping Black while optimizing his pieces.

13…h5!

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Statically worse, Maze takes dynamic measures to change the nature of this position. With the goal of opening the h-file, the Frenchman hopes to activate his kingside rook to attack White’s pawns. Should White blunder here with 15. g5? the f5 square becomes a permanent outpost for Black, so Ni Hua must concede the trade.

14.f5 hxg4 15.hxg4 Rh4 16.Rf4

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Here is the critical position. Visually, White looks much better, sitting pretty with his space advantage. Meanwhile, Maze has to solve his issues of development while fending off any of White’s tactical opportunities, such has e5-e6 ideas. Clearly Black’s opening has failed, right? Think again. As I mentioned before, Black is only statically worse. If he can find dynamic opportunities, Maze can liquidate White’s kingside pawn mass and reach a better endgame. Already, Black can consider both …g7-g6 and …g7-g5, trying to create a square for his knight on g6. With White’s light squared bishop gone, moving the f-pawn would be a major concession. If Maze can make this pawn move then he’s moving in the right direction.

16…Rd8 17.Be3 Bc8 18.Re4 g6! 19.Rf1

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Already, Ni Hua is finding that it’s not so easy to convert his space advantage. Even with all of his pieces on great squares, its not so easy to see what the next course of action is.

19…Rh3!

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With the pawn on g4 adequately protected, Black offers White tactical problems. Threatening to take two minor pieces for a rook, Ni Hua realized that he was in trouble and went all in with 20. e6 on the next move. But to illustrate some of the problems, let’s check out some lines.
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The most aggressive move also presents problems for White. After 20. Bg5, Black can play 20… gxf5 and should White err with 21. gxf5?? Rg3+ will win immediately for Black. To recapture on f5, White would have to play 21. Bxe7, but giving up the bishop pair in an endgame bound position is not ideal.
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Should White decide to get his bishop out of the way, for instance, 20. Bc1, Black can sacrifice an exchange to get an attack on the king with 20… gxf5 21. gxf5 Rxd4 22. Rxd4 Nxf5 23. Rdf4 Bc5+ and Black will have to give up an exchange to stay in the game.

20.e6?!

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An interesting try to avoid the lines mentioned above, but unfortunately for Ni Hua, Maze’s earlier move 18… g6 was already enough to liquidate to an endgame slightly better for Black.

20…Rxe3!

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Following through on his threat, and with the next few moves forced, Black will end the line up a pawn.

21.exf7+ Kxf7 22.Rxe3 Rxd4 23.fxg6+ Kg8

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It seems like Ni Hua can force the coronation of one of his pawns, but it’s Maze that sees a move further. One of the reasons why I like this game is that its hard to see where White went wrong, yet after 19… Rh3, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right for White. I’m no expert on the Berlin, but I would say that White’s hyper-extension instead of more principled play was enough to derail this game from equality.

24.Rxf8+ Kxf8 25.g7+ Kf7 26.Rxe7+

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Ni Hua will get his wish, but…

26…Kxe7 27.g8=Q Rxg4+

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… Maze achieves his goal, a bishop v knight endgame, and a pawn up! Maze went on to convert the endgame, reaching a 7/9 mark to be tied for first going into the last round.

In this next endgame, we saw a draw cost both sides an opportunity to make the playoffs with Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier–Lagrave. In the end, it was Pentala Harikrishna that was unable to convert his position of strength to a birth in the play-off.

Despite missing out on an opportunity to play for frist, Harikrishna’s performance leaves him less than 6 rating points lower than the best player from India, Vishy Anand.

Harikrishna – Li Chao (Tradewise Gibraltar, 2016)

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Here Li Chao offered Harikrishna a queen swap on c6, believing that the resulting rook and opposite colored bishop endgame was a draw. Though it may be tenable, White still has enough resources to play for the initiative. Both of Black’s pieces are limited in mobility defending the e7- pawn and White’s king can march to the action undisturbed.

45.Qxc6 bxc6 46.f4!

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Good technical play! Harikrishna intends to push the f-pawn to f5 limiting the f7-bishop and then plans to bring in the king. Unfortunately, Li Chao can’t do much more than sit around, as playing …f6-f5 himself will create an unbreakable box for his bishop. Black is paralyzed.

46…Kh7 47.f5 g6 48.Kf2

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Without concern for the f5-pawn! If White had taken on g6, he gives Black an easy route to the center of the board via g6-f5-e6 with good drawing chances. However, a Black pawn on f5 would constrain Black as White advances his king.

48…gxf5 49.Ke3 Kg7 50.Kf4 Bg6

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I think this position really illustrates Black’s dilemma as space becomes a big concern here. It’s up to White now to find the win.

51.Rd4 Rg8 52.Rd6

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I started to lose sight of what Harikrishna’s idea was since his last move seemed intended to capture on a4. After looking at this position with an engine, my computer showed that with accurate play, Black can hold a fortress as the advantage is only visual. That being said, Harikrishna really needed to make a second weakness here, and pushing the b-pawn up the board seems to me the best chance, regardless of the outcome. If you think White has a simple win here, I encourage you to play this position against an engine! Black’s ready to turn off the lights with …Bg6-e8, and it’s not clear if there’s enough power for white to generate a win.

52…Be8 53.Kxf5 Bg6+ 54.Ke6 Bf7+ 55.Kd7 Be8+ 56.Kd8

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Harikrishna’s gotten his king to the back rank, but with no light square control, the e-pawn will never promote.

56…Kf7 57.Bc5 Rxg2 58.Bd4 Rg6 59.Bc3 c5 60.Rd5 Rg8 61.Rxh5 Bb5+

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And with White having to surrender his e7 pawn, the final position is drawn. The players made a couple more moves and shook hands when it was clear neither side would falter.

62.Kc7 Kxe7 63.Rf5 Be8 64.Rxf6 a3 65.Ra6 axb2 66.Bxb2 Rg6 67.Rxg6 1/2-1/2

I missed the Nakamura–MVL match-up for first prize, but after four draws, Nakamura won the armageddon game with the Black pieces to win Gibraltar for the second consecutive year. This year featured a strong section, and the tournament becomes more interesting with each year as the organizers find new players to invite – I’ll be curious to see who plays next year!

This Saturday, I will be playing Grandmaster Alexander Shabalov in a simultaneous exhibition at the Pittsburgh Chess Club – so make sure to look out for the “Grandmaster Eats Me Alive” video that will come out Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing how the reigning US Open Champion will plow through my repertoire!

Dancing with the Dutch: Post-Mortem

As you may recall from Sunday’s video against the Dutch, we left with two critical questions:

1) Why is 2 c4 more common than 2 Nc3 against the Dutch?

2) How is Black supposed to stop the h-pawn push in the Leningrad Dutch – and can White make it even more effective?

While Black folded rather easily (until I missed a simple win), I thought this game was a good starting point for today’s article, which asks us not one, but two critical theoretical questions about one of Black’s most common responses to 1. d4. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet, you can catch up here:

ChessBase’s online database gives us a really nice breakdown of White’s second move options, and as you may notice 2. Nc3 is not all that uncommon.

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In fact, it scores rather well, 58% in 2163 games. While this line has received special attention from top grandmasters Alexander Grischuk, Santosh Vidit, and Erwin L’ami, it has been played several times by the famous theoretician Boris Gelfand, though he hasn’t brandished it since 2014.

gelfand01
Boris Gelfand has always been an elite force to be reckoned with in the chess world, having won the World Cup in 2009, and challenged Vishy Anand for the World Championship in 2012.

While I will discuss both the positives and negatives of 2. Nc3 against the Dutch, please do note that most of its appearances in the Mega Database are from blitz tournaments – meaning that it may be used more as an element of surprise than an actual attacking weapon at the highest level. Let’s take a look at what can go wrong when Black doesn’t know how to handle 2. Nc3.

Jobava – Sandipan (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2014)

1. d4 f5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bg5 d5

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Look familiar? Think back to my ICC game, where my opponent played 2… d5 – same idea! This structure of pawns on d5 and f5 with a knight on f6 turns out to be the most common defense for Black, after which Black will opt for a Stonewall-like structure. Of course, this differs from my game on ICC, where my opponent tried to get a Leningrad structure.

4. e3 e6 5. h4

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Jobava plays what he does best – find novelties. While 5. Nf3 is by far the most common move, Baduur chose this line to secure the g5 square and route his knight to f4 via h3. Aggressive isn’t  the way to go about describing this move, but rather optimistic. 5. Nf3, as we’ll see, tends to get more equal positions with best play.

5…Be7 6. Nh3 O-O 7. Qd2 Ne4

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The standard Stonewall move, but already Black has a few problems. 1) Though White’s piece play is certainly unconventional, Black is falling behind in development. The light-squared bishop from c8 has no scope, and 2) with White due to castle queenside, Black can’t hope for the cookie-cutter attacking lines he gets in a main line Stonewall Dutch.

8. Nxe4 dxe4?! 9. O-O-O Nd7 10. Nf4 Nf6 11. Bc4

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Highlighting the problem with 8…dxe4?!. White’s f1-bishop springs to life here and attacks the king. Meanwhile, White’s amazing knight on f4 also pulls on the e6 weakness. It’s clear that Black’s development has been too slow.

11…Qd6 12. Qa5!

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Optimizing the queen, but can you see the threat?

12…h6 13. Qxf5 +-

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Exposing the pin along the a2-g8 diagonal. Black could take the bishop on g5 with 13… hxg5, but 14. Nxe6 has the whole kingside falling to shambles.

13…Nd5 14. Qxe4 Bxg5 15. Nxd5 1-0

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And on just the 15th move, Chanda Sandipan submits his resignation. Though 15… Bd8 could avoid immediate material loss, Black would find that his weaknesses on the light squares are just too much to bear after 16. Nc3 and 17. Bd3. With an undeveloped army, Black would face a kingside pawn storm with absolutely no counterplay. So what did this game tell us about the Veresov-like lines against the Dutch?

1) If Black cannot resolve the problems of his light squared bishop, it becomes extremely difficult to play for a win.

2) When White castles queenside, “textbook” Stonewall ideas aren’t effective.

Sure, this was a blitz game, and black wasn’t offering the best resistance, but these elements dictated the pace of the game. If Black wants to really maximize his chances, he needs to find a way to bust open the center. Let’s take a look at an antidote here from Vassily Ivanchuk.

Vassily-Ivanchuk1
While Ivanchuk has never been a classical World Champion, he’s a very accomplished player. Once the 2nd best player in the world, the Ukranian Grandmaster still plays actively. In 2007, he won the World Blitz Chess Championships.

Gelfand – Ivanchuk (FIDE World Blitz Championships, 2012)

1. d4 f5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bg5 d5 4. e3 e6 5. Nf3 c5

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The critical move for Black. While there are only 19 games in the Mega Database with this line, 74% of the outcomes favor Black. By not placing a pawn on c6, Black has a natural square for development and more space to solve his light squared bishop complex.

6. Bb5+?!

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After some computer analysis, I can’t say I like this move. Black will block with his bishop, and will be more than happy to trade off his worst piece. From d7, the bishop doesn’t take away the square from his knight, thanks to his early …c7-c5 deviation. Based on the game, White might have as well just tried 6. Be2, but 6. Ne5 is promising. In van Wely–Reinderman, 2015, the game continued 6… Be7 7. g4 fxg4 and then 8. Bb5+ for a crazy game and a win for White. You can check out that game here.

6…Bd7 7. Be2 Nc6 8. Ne5 Be7 9. Nxd7

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Not wanting to allow a trade on e5, Gelfand makes a major concession here, trading off his best piece for Black’s worst. Even though White does get the pair of bishops, it’s not clear how the light squares will be important with the construct on d5-e6-f5.

9…Qxd7 10. dxc5

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Allowing Black to play …c5-c4 and box in the bishop on e2 would defeat the purpose of trading the knight away, so Gelfand releases the tension and takes a passive position.

10…O-O 11. O-O Bxc5 12. Na4 Bd6 13. c4 d4!

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Allowing the trade of the c- and d- pawns would allow White’s bishop to get back in the game, so this move leaves the pawn on c4 in its way. Furthermore, intuitively this is a great decision. When you are better developed than your opponent, sometimes the best way to capitalize is to open the position. While that usually favors the pair of bishops, here White’s structure and development isn’t coordinated enough to take full advantage.

14. exd4 Nxd4 15. Nc3 Rad8 16. Be3 Be5 17. Nb5 Nxb5 18. cxb5 Nd5 19. Bc5 Bxh2+!

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This pawn grab is enough to be decisive! Should White recapture on h2, …Qd7-c7+ is waiting, picking the c5 bishop back up.

20. Kh1 Bd6 21. Bxd6 Qxd6 22. Bf3 e5 23. Bxd5+ Qxd5 24. Qxd5+ Rxd5

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And the endgame was technical for White. I’ve attached the rest of the game with diagrams for the sake of completion.

25. Rac1 Rxb5 26. b3 g6 27. Rfd1

Black to Move
Black to Move

27…Rf7 28. Rc8+ Kg7 29. Rdd8 e4

White to Move

30. g3 Re5 31. Kg2 e3 32. fxe3 Rxe3

White to Move
White to Move

33. Rc2 Rfe7 34. Kf2 h5 35. Rb8

Black to Move
Black to Move

35…R3e6 36. Kf3 Kh6 37. Kf2 Kg5

White to Move
White to Move

38. Kf3 Re3+ 39. Kf2 Kg4 40. Rc4+ R3e4 41. Rbc8 g5 0-1

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What changed? Well, Black definitely took some initiative with 5… c5. While reaching the Stonewall position helps limit White’s light squared bishop, it was critical that Black take advantage of White lacking a pawn on c4. Just like some Veresov lines, White really lacks any dynamic play because he doesn’t have a way to contest the center. Through further research, most Super-GM success with 2. Nc3 against the Dutch is against lower rated players, so perhaps it’s just a weapon to catch a lower rated player off-guard or out of preparation.

So that answers the first question – when it comes to dynamic play, the straight-forward 2. c4 is favored. Look no further than last week’s post for proof!

Now, the h-pawn march against the Leningrad. What can Black do? Well first, let’s see the idea played in it’s true form, played by the sixth best player in the world, Hikaru Nakamura.

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I put together a post on reigning US Champions Hikaru Nakamura a couple weeks ago, click here to check it out!

Nakamura – Barron (Toronto Open, 2009)

1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3

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If you want to have the option of playing h2-h4 should Black choose the Leningrad, it’s important to insert this move. By doing so, White can play e2-e4 once he’s distracted the f6 knight.

3…g6 4.h4 Bg7 5.h5 Nxh5 6.e4

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Unlike my game on ICC, Nakamura chooses a much more finesse move order in 6. e4. Now when he sacrifices on h5, the queen can immediately recapture without having to wait a move.

6…fxe4 7.Rxh5 gxh5 8.Qxh5+ Kf8 9.Bh6

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In my game on ICC, Black fell apart when he traded his bishop on e5 for my knight, surrendering the dark squares. Here, Nakamura highlights the same principle, forcing the trade of Black’s best defender.

9…Bxh6 10.Qxh6+ Kg8 11.Qg5+ Kf7 12.Nxe4

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While White is still down an exchange, he has full compensation. Black has zero development and White’s pieces are already on the crime scene.

12…Qg8 13.Qf4+ Ke8 14.Qxc7 Nc6 15.O-O-O

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Well, king safety is important, but Nakamura’s point is to bring out the rook.

15…Qg6 16.Re1 Kf7 17.d5 Nb4 18.Nf3 d6??

This move seals Black's fate as e7 is now exposed to both the rook and the queen.
This move seals Black’s fate as e7 is now exposed to both the rook and the queen.

19.Neg5+ Kg8 20.Qd8+ Kg7 21.Rxe7+ Kh6 22.Nf7+

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Building the mating net. Already, if Black tries to win material with 22… Qxf7 23. Qxd6+ Qg6 24. Qf4+ and mate is inevitable on the next move.

22…Kh5 23.Re5+! dxe5 1-0

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Black resigned before White could complete his masterpiece, as 24. Qh4# ends the game. Nearly a miniature from the American, and not a convincing defense in sight.  So the question persists, what should Black do?

While Black has won games in this line, I can hardly see the middlegame positions being what Black desires from move 1. That’s why I’m going to suggest a different, more flexible move order for Black.

1.d4 f5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 d6!

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Not a brilliancy by Grandmaster-level thinking, but it turns out that this extra tempo takes White out of the line. The next move, 4. Nf3, the most common choice puts an end to the h2-h4 shenanigans since the sacrifice on h5 doesn’t work with the queen’s entry blocked.

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Should Black try 4… g6, 5. h4? makes little sense since the thematic e2-e4 push won’t work without Qd1-h5+.

While this move means Black must be prepared for different sidelines, it does mean that he gets more “Dutch-like” positions and can rely on intuition more than just pure calculation.

Well, that’s bad news for White – a great exchange sacrifice ‘refuted’ due to a slight move order change. In these past two weeks, I have easily been the most I’ve ever written about the Dutch. Expect a little bit of fresh air on Friday, it’s time to look at something new!

A Better Berlin: Handling 5. d4

In last Sunday’s video, I tried playing 1…e5 in response to the King’s Pawn opening. Without much theoretical knowledge of the Berlin, I quickly got bogged down in a worse position and on the clock. Though I got back into the game with a sacrifice on  g4, the position I reached isn’t desirable enough to want to play again. Let’s take a quick recap of what happened:

JoseBautista–leika (G/15 ICC, 2015)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6

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The Berlin of the Ruy Lopez. Since it is one of the most solid openings at the Grandmaster level, I decided to give it a try. I hadn’t studied Ruy Lopez theory in 8 years, and when I did it was for White. Back when I played against the Ruy Lopez, I opted for an immediate 3… a6.

4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4

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Already one out of book for me. While this move is one of the most popular ways to counter 4… Nxe4, I was only familiar with some of the 5. Re1 theory. And so here starts the Belin Wall, well – sort of.

Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nc4?

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The first inaccuracy that set the tone for the match. Main line, as we will see, is the much better 7… Nf5. In the video, I discussed the possibility of playing …Nc4-b6 and how playing …Nd6-f5 would block in my bishop, but this approach gave my opponent too many tempi. As we’ll see, Black aspires to play …b7-b6 and fianchetto the bishop for solidarity and good endgame play.

I’ll stop here since this questionable move already deviates from the Main Line which we will be discussing. When looking for a model game, I was lucky to find the Giri–Vachier-Lagrave match up from the London Chess Classic, in which Anish outplayed Maxime in a critical tiebreak match.

Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, both in the World’s top 10, have played each other many times – including the recent 2015 FIDE World Cup!

Vachier–Lagrave – Giri (London Chess Classic, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5

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Here gives us the critical move 7… Nf5 which makes Black’s position tenable. From here, the Black knight can attack the center without being easily kicked away (8. g4? would be a serious weakening). With the queens coming off the board, it’s important that Black has piece activity to make up for losing the right to castle.

8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 Ke8

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Let’s say the line ends here, as Giri’s remaining developing moves are intuitive, and could arguably be found over the board by any strong player. White has given up the pair of bishops and is in the endgame, but has some compensation. Beyond the doubled pawns on the c-file, Black is unable to castle, and needs time to develop to prove equality.

10.Nc3 h5

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What is this move? This h-pawn thrust is a prophylactic measure against any future idea for White involving g2-g4. With the game heading to an endgame, this idea is not as much of a weakening considering that the queens have been traded.

11.Ne2?!

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While this move plans to put the e2 knight in the center of the board, it’s kind of esoteric. This isn’t the most common move, as 11. Bf4 holds that honor, but it scores the same among ~2600 rated players.

11…b6 12.Rd1 Be7 13.Bg5 Bb7 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Black doesn’t really mind moving the king around so many times. As long as Giri’s king is safe and covers the d7 square, he’ll be fine. In fact, if you think about it, the king needs to be active in the endgame anyways. According to ChessBase’s online database, this immediate trade on e7 has never occured. While Black no longer has the pair of bishops, Anish has three “long-range” pieces compared to Vachier-Lagrave’s two.

15.Ned4 Nxd4 16.Nxd4 c5 17.Nb5 Rhc8

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Black’s last move to solidify. With all of his weaknesses covered, Giri is ready to start pushing …a7-a6 and then improve his position.

18.f4 Bc6 19.Nc3 Ke6 20.Kf2? h4!

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And just like that Black is arguably better! Should White try to play g2-g4 now, he would compromise his structure, leaving a static weakness on f4. Already, there are some ideas of …Rh8 in the position, with an idea of a rook lift to g6.

21.a4 Kf5 22.Ke3 Re8

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Both …Rd8 and …Re8 were perfectly acceptable here, but this move takes the most principled approach. With the rook on the same file as the king, White must find an answer for …f7-f6, ruining White’s hold on the center.

23.Nd5 Rac8 24.Rd2 f6 25.Rf1 fxe5 26.fxe5+ Kg5!!

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Maxime must have missed this. If Black takes on e5 immediately with the king, it stands in the center of the board, in the crossfire of both of Black’s rooks. Now should White try to protect the e5 pawn with 27. Ke4, he will lose to 27… Rxe5+!! as 28. Kxe5 is mate after 28… Re8#. What an idea! With White forced to play passively, the rest of the game is a matter of technique.

Giri won the game later on move 43, in what was arguably his best game of the tournament. While the victory may have been sweet, it was short-lived, as Maxime went on to win the next two tiebreak games, sending him to the final against Magnus Carlsen.

So what does this game tell us about the Berlin? Let’s take a look at the structure after move 17.

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If you’re wondering why so many Grandmasters play the Berlin, you should start here. Structurally, Black is more solid and his king, thanks to the early queen trade is already in the center. With all of his early dynamic play, White has yet to define his structure, leaving his e5 pawn seemingly hyper-extended. If we think about how Vachier-Lagrave attacked Black’s weaknesses (17. Nb5), the threat of the c7 and a7 pawns only slowed Giri’s play but didn’t cause him long term problems, so already that position is at least equal. Let’s take this position to the next level.

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Since White decided to give up the bishop pair with 6. Bxc6, we must also take this into consideration. While this minor piece endgame may be arguably tenable, it is clear that again, only Black can play for a win as the bishop dominates white’s knight. So with this assessment, we can say that Black is better in most Berlin Endgames.

Here’s another game where Black proved that solidarity was more important than initiative.

Teimour Radjabov (right), of Azerbaijan, is in the world’s top 30. Known for his opening preparation, let’s see what he had ready for the 2015 World Cup winner, Sergey Karjakin.

Karjakin – Radjabov (World Rapid Chess Championships, 2015)

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Rd1+

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Our deviation from the Vachier-Lagrave–Giri game. Here Karjakin immediately asserts control of the d-file with a forcing move. While an easy move to play, it does have the drawback that Black already wants to get his king off the d-file. So while White develops, Black gets to improve his position.

Ke8 10.Nc3 h5 11.Bg5

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Radjabov’s last move, …h7-h5, set his intentions of playing a long game – just like Giri. Karjakin, knowing that he would not be favored in the endgame, plays with gusto, immediately developing his pieces with threats along the way. But can initiative overpower Radjabov’s solidarity?

11…Be7 12.Ne2 Bd7

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Radjabov can’t exactly afford to play pedantically. While …b7-b6 followed by fianchettoing the bishop is far more natural, here, its much more important that Teimour gets his rooks into the game. Note that 12… Be6? would be punished by 13. Nf4! as the bishop for knight trade would give away Black’s long-term advantage.

13.Nf4 Rd8 14.Bxe7 Kxe7

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Again we see the thematic exchange of dark-squared bishops. By getting his own bishop off the board, Karjakin intends to play Nf3-g5 to keep the initiative. While White’s pieces are seemingly more active, he runs into the issue that he just doesn’t have enough pieces.

15.Ng5 Rh6

 

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A weird looking move but a necessary one as e5-e6 (a theme that White missed in my video) is no longer possible. Objectively, the position is equal since Black is held down by White’s knights, but its Karjakin”s desire to fall that proves his undoing.

16.g3 Rf8 17.Rd3 Bc8

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Black doesn’t have much to do here, but Radjabov’s point is that White can’t either. Black’s only weakness is the d-file, but as many of you know, you need two weaknesses to win a game of chess.

18.Re1 Re8 19.f3 Kf8

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With a safe king, Radjabov can just make improving moves on the queenside.

20.Kf2 a6 21.h3 Ne7!

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A multi-faceted move. First, it gets out of the way of any g3-g4 pushes. Second, it prepares …Ne7-g6 attacking the e5 pawn and offering a trade of knights to simplify the endgame in Black’s favor.

22.g4?! hxg4 23.hxg4

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I’m not sure if I agree with White’s g3-g4 push. While seemingly naturally, it makes Black’s h-rook more active and ignores the idea of …Ng6. By simplifying the endgame, the game gets easier for Radjabov, not Karjakin.

23…Ng6 24.Nxg6+ Rxg6 25.Nh3 Rh6 26.Nf4 Rh2+

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In just a few moves, Black has maximized his advantage after a single trade and claiming the h-file. White may already have to play for equality.

27.Ng2 Ke7 28.Re2 Reh8 29.Ke3 R8h3 30.Nf4 Rxe2+ 31.Kxe2 Rh2+ 32.Kd1 g6

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Only on the better side of equal, Black defines his structure while White wonders how to fix his overall passivity.

33.Rd2 Rh1+ 34.Ke2 a5 35.Ke3 b6

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Maintaining flexibility. Black can move the bishop to a6 for play and has a solid structure to back it.

36.Ne2 Bd7 37.Ng3 Rh3 38.Rg2 Be6 39.b3 a4!

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A nice idea, aiming to weaken White’s queenside pawn structure. If Radjabov can trade the last pair of rooks, he’ll reach a bishop v knight endgame where only he can stand better.

40.Ne4 Rh1 41.Nf6 Ra1 42.c3 axb3 43.axb3 Re1+ 44.Re2 Rxe2+ 45.Kxe2 Bxb3

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Now with a material advantage, Radjabov has a win to play for in the classical Berlin Endgame. Black went on to win 23 moves later.

So what do these games tell us about playing the Berlin as Black?

  1. The Berlin won’t win games quickly. As evidenced by both games, endgame technique and defence are two critical skills needed to play the Berlin effectively. Black didn’t get an advantage until White erred playing for an edge.
  2. Patience in the key. Remember, the main reason why the Berlin is popular for Black is because the computer gives it a favorable evaluation with the computer. Once the queens come off the board, the game is about strategic gains for either side as White tries to compensate for losing the bishop pair.
  3. A Berlin Endgame is a good endgame. The biggest positive from today’s article. If White can’t effectively prove his compensation, he will be tortured in an uphill positional battle.

Stamina and Chess

Who said chess wasn’t a sport? Since 1999, chess has been identified as a sport by the International Olympics Committee – but what about our game is athletic? Let’s take a look at a recent example from Norway Chess 2015:

Hammer – Topalov (Norway Chess, 2015)

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After 6 hours of play, Jon Ludvig Hammer looked ready to draw his round 5 game against tournament leader Veselin Topalov. In a position where 74. f5 would be enough to liquidate the game, Hammer thought he could win the game with 74. Kc6?? aiming to push the bishop and promote the a-pawn. Unfortunately, after 74… Ke6 Topalov saw an immediate resignation from the Norwegian as the black king was ready to move to f5 and win White’s kingside pawns. 0-1

A disgusted Hammer looks on post-mortem, as a draw is no longer within reach against the Bulgarian Grandmaster. Hammer’s lone win of Norway Chess was against reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

This game gave Topalov a crucial half-point, that eventually helped put him in first place. I remember watching the live broadcast for the event, and the reaction was obviously that of shock for a 2600 rated player to make such a mistake in a high level game. While as a spectator, its easy to see such errors and take them for granted, as a player I can also relate to the issue of endurance. When I first broke 2000, I started competing against a much harder level of competition, which really pushed my mental stamina. After winning the last round of the 2014 Virginia Closed Chess Championships, I went from October 2014 to April 2015 without winning the final round of a chess tournament. Its not fair to compare my level of play to that of a Grandmaster, but I feel like at some point, every player struggles with endurance – and even at the highest level we are constantly reminded by the intensity of the game. Here are a couple gaffes of my own:

Steincamp – Wu (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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45. Nxd3 Draw offer and my opponent quickly agreed. I had gotten an overwhelming advantage in the opening, but lost it trying to evade time trouble. Now five hours into the match with only 15 minute left on my clock, I offered a draw, trusting that the rook endgame was equal. However, here it’s not too difficult to see that after 45… Rxd3 46. Ke1 Escaping the checkmate threat of …Rd3-d1# 46…bxc6 47. bxc6 that I have a passed pawn and a much more active king. While I am not winning, this position could easily be reached, and White would have a risk-free (and better) position. Unfortunately with draw offers, they can be seen as a “way out” – and that’s the disappointing decision I made here.

Rajasekaran – Steincamp (Potomac Open, 2015)

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In this position, I am strategically better. Playing the reigning 2-year Virginia Scholastic State Chess Champion, I’d managed to surprise my opponent in the opening, gaining a massive advantage and subduing him into passive play. However, things hadn’t been going my either. I had drawn three of my four games, and I just finished my morning game an hour earlier, where I had managed to blow a significant advantage with the white pieces. Needless to say, I really wanted to win and chose the un-calculated thrust 21… f4? which lead to unclear play and me losing material. If I had just relaxed and played the natural 21…b6 (or a move like it), White would be out of options, and there would be no queenside counterplay. A basic rule of thumb before attacking is to develop all of your pieces, and here I uncharacteristically jumped on an unrealistic attack before developing my bishop on c8 and my rook on a8.

If you read my article, Catching Up – A Season in a Post, I also mentioned my three round collapse at the World Open, where I started 4/6, but then finished 4/9 and actually lost a rating point in the event. So what can we do to avoid these moments?

Well, I have to believe that practicing for longer time periods with a consistent intensity never hurts. When I was a scholastic player, my dad always told me to “practice the way you play”, and while he was never was a great chess player or anything, there is a little bit of truth to that. Another aspect of my game that I have been working on is my athletic training and regular exercise. While I’m not exactly sure how much this has contributed to my game, running regularly and eating healthy certainly cannot hurt.

How do you improve your chess endurance? Feel free to comment below!