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    Tuesday
    Apr122005

    Bits and Pieces: Chess News

    Here are some recent stories from around the chess world that might be new and of interest to some of my readers:

    (1) While I'm not a fan of GM Maurice Ashley's handling of master prizes at the upcoming HB tournament in Minnesota (see 1 and 2), his contributions to American chess have been substantial on many fronts, including and perhaps especially scholastic chess. As useful as any teacher can be, however, his or her time and energies are limited; accordingly, Ashley is trying to multiply himself by teaching teachers. Here's the link, which I recommend visiting sooner rather than later, as the NY Times tends to be quick in removing articles' freebie status.

    (2) Chess's equivalent to the Energizer Bunny is at it again: yesterday's TWIC news summary reports that Viktor Korchnoi won the Beer Sheva Rapid, a 13-round robin event with 8 other GMs, with a dominating 10.5/13, leaving him 2.5 points clear of the field! UNBELIEVABLE. To slightly adapt a famous line from "When Harry met Sally," I'll have what he's having.

    (3) The status of the world chess championship title may be in somewhat of a shambles, but one elite prize, the Chess Oscar, awarded to "the best chess player of the past year," continues to be presented on schedule each year. The 2004 award, as determined by 445 voters (including 74 GMs), went to Indian superstar Viswanathan Anand, with Garry Kasparov, Peter Leko, Vladimir Kramnik and Rustam Kasimdzhanov rounding out the top 5.

    It's a well-known but minor award, not even carrying a cash prize, as far as I know. In light of the difficulties in organizing a fair world championship that's equitable to all the relevant parties, however, perhaps it would be best to create some sort of system like that in tennis: a year-long tour, grand slam events, and a meaningful player of the year award. Such a system would give the players something to strive for, create a busier schedule for the top guys (and gal!), generate a consistent media buzz (maybe), and do so without the organizational headaches that seem endemic to top matches.

    One can hope!

    Monday
    Apr112005

    Rook vs. Bishop: Ending 2

    It's time to resume our brief series of rook vs. bishop endings (see here and here), and this one's a real doozy. We started with this easy-looking position:

    and the task was to determine how White is supposed to win.

    It does look easy: all we need is get the rook to the back rank and it's mate! Black can use stalemate tricks, sure, but if we put the king on h6 and the rook on the 7th to protect the pawn (if we have to), what resources could Black have then? So let's try it:

    Attempt 1:

    1.Kh6 Be4!

    Hitting the h7 pawn forces White to play 2.Ra7, because the pure rook vs. bishop ending is generally a trivial draw when the king is in a corner of the opposite color of his bishop.

    2.Ra7

    and now, the key move:

    2...Bb7!!

    This move isn't terrific because it's showy; its strength comes from its preventing White from repositioning the rook on a different file. It's also the only move: 2...Bc6? 3.Rf7; 2...Bd5? 3.Rd7, etc.

    3.Kg6

    There's no other way to attempt progress: if the rook retreats, the bishop simply returns to e4.

    3...Be4+ 4.Kf7 Kxh7=

    J. Vancura, the composer of this 1924 study, gave the unnecessarily fancy but also more thematic 4...Bg6+ 5.Kf6 Bxh7 6.Ra8+ Bg8= as the continuation. It works too! And either way, 1.Kh6 fails to win - but then how could White have any winning ideas here at all?

    A first clue comes if we consider the position after 1.Kh6? Be4! 2.Ra7 Bb7!! Since it's a mutual zugzwang, White's win, if it's possible, will involve some tempo-gaining maneuver. White needs to get the rook off the a-file, for starters, and to do so without dropping the h-pawn. He can't move the rook yet, though, because of 1...Be4+, either winning the pawn or leading to stalemate, so by process of elimination, we get this:

    Attempt 2:

    1.Kg5!!

    It's not at all clear how this wins, but it's at least certain that it doesn't hurt anything, as the obvious/familiar Black tries 1...Kxh7, 1...Be4 and 1...Kg7 lose to 2.Rh4+, 2.Rxe4 and 2.h8(Q)+ Kxh8 3.Rh4+ and 4.Rxh1, respectively.

    Turning to subtler lines, carefree bishop moves demonstrate the winning procedure. Thus

    (A) 1...Bc6 2.Rc4 Bb5 3.Rc7 Bd3 4.Kh6 Bf5 5.Rf7 wins.
    (B) 1...Bd5 2.Rd4 Bc6 3.Kh6 Be8 4.Rd6 (zugzwang) Bd7 5.Rf6 wins.
    (C) 1...Bb7 2.Rb4 Ba6 3.Kh6 Bc8 4.Rb6 Bb7 5.Rd6 wins.

    In each case, White is able to win by improving the position of the rook, and that becomes possible by attacking the conveniently relocated bishop. So Black's best try involves playing hide and seek with the bishop:

    (D) 1...Bg2

    Now what? Attacking the bishop on the g-file, in correspondence to the method of lines A-C, appears pointless, while 2.Kg6 Be4+ and 3...Bxh7 or 2.Kh6 Be4 3.Ra7 Bb7 both draw. Worse news still: if the rook leaves the fourth rank, then 2...Be4 wins the h-pawn, drawing.

    Thus, even though it looks pointless, we see by process of elimination that White's only attempt is

    2.Rg4!

    Fortunately, it's also a good move! Black now has two options: to return the bishop to the h-file or not.

    (i) 2...Bh3 3.Re4! (Taking advantage of Black's inability to capture on h7 when 4.Rh4+ would pick up the bishop) Bd7 4.Kh6 Be6 5.Rb4 Bc8 6.Rb6 (zugzwang) Bb7 7.Rd6 wins.

    (ii) 2...Bc6 3.Kh6 Bd5 4.Rd4 wins.

    Subtle? Yes. Difficult? Quite - but not impossible. But it's also elegant and instructive, and though the path to improvement comes not so much from mastering particular positions like this (though it's a component of one's skill), it does come (a) from the chess-specific cognitive development and (b) the feeling for the pieces one acquires by attempting to solve such positions. So if you haven't done so yet, give positions 3 and 4 a try before I present their solutions. It's worth it!

    Sunday
    Apr102005

    This Week's ChessBase Show: Going Under the Radar

    When picking a game for my ChessBase show (click here for directions on watching live and archived shows, and here for a list of previous shows' games), sometimes I choose a game from memory, sometimes I pore through my books, and occasionally a recent game catches my eye.

    This week, something different. Rather than allow lesser-known contemporary masterpieces slip away into the anonymity of subsequent editions of the Mega Database, I went looking for them! Seek and you shall find, it says, and my search of ChessBase Magazine 104 was a success.

    Our game features a nice battle from last year's Olympiad in Calvia, between rising star Baadur Jobava of Georgia and Neuris Delgado of Cuba. Delgado essayed the normally quiet Queen's Indian Defense, an opening that generally gives Black good control over d5 and e4. Jobava played a somewhat unusual line, however, grabbing a massive pawn center.

    The usual question in such cases is whether the pawn center is overextended, and so too in this game: Delgado set about destroying White's pawns, while Jobava attempted to use the space advantage as long as it lasted to build up a kingside attack. Whose plan succeeded? Tune in Monday night (at 9 p.m. ET) to find out!

    Sunday
    Apr102005

    Rook vs. Bishop: Ending 1

    Several days ago, I presented a series of four rook vs. bishop endings with the promise of forthcoming solutions. Here again is the first position:

    The task was left unstated: White to move and...? One might reasonably wonder if White can win this, given Black's two passed pawns, but in fact he can. All he has to do is avoid the move actually played in the game Hanken-Fries, USA 2004:

    60.f6+?

    This seems logical, but it's actually very bad - Black can now draw even without his pawns! As Pal Benko explains in his "Endgame Lab" column in the March 2005 Chess Life (page 46), "All we have to do is chase away the king with check when it steps either to e6 or g6. In case the pawn is pushed to f7, we have to play either Ke7 or Kg7 [DM: which square is appropriate depends on the location of the White king - Black doesn't want to allow the White king to protect the pawn] and take the pawn only afterwards. Therefore White needs the f6-square for his king to win..."

    Therefore, White should have played 60.Rg6+ Kf7 61.Rh6 Be2 62.Rh7+ Kg8 63.Rd7 h4 64.Kf6 h3 65.Kg6 and wins (Benko).

    60...Kg6?

    Of course, given what we know from the Benko quote, 60...Kf8 led to a simple draw. Now the Black king gets cut off from the f-pawn, so White's winning chances rise dramatically, though by sacrificing the h-pawn (in order to return the Black king to its proper defensive post on the f-file) the draw is still available. Nevertheless, since Black rejected that idea when it didn't cost anything, it's unlikely he'll reconsider at the cost of a pawn.

    61.Rb7 h4 62.Rg7+ Kh6 63.Rg4 Bf7?

    63...Kh5? lost to 64.Rxc4 (64...bxc4 65.f7), but Benko rightly notes that 63...h3! draws, as 64.Rh4+ Kg6 65.Rxh3 Kf7 allows the king to return to his roost.

    64.Rxh4+ Kg6 65.Rf4??

    A blunder, and we all know why at this point: it allows the Black king to return to f7! 65.Rg4+ followed by 66.Rg7 was a very easy win, but some days, nothing seems to go right.

    65...Bc4

    Vacating f7 for the king, right?

    66.Kd6 Bb3??

    Wrong. Even with the threat of 67.Ke7 hanging over his head, when the pawn clearly queens or costs Black the bishop, Black STILL avoids ...Kf7.

    67.Ke7 1-0

    It's easy for us to look at this and feel superior, feel Schadenfreude, wonder how they could be so slow, etc. Even Benko expresses his exasperation, asking rhetorically after Black's 66th move "Does Black want to lose?" Really though, there's just one relevant idea, and neither player got it. White didn't fear the Black king's reaching f7/f8, and Black had no interest in its reaching those squares. Presumably both thought the king would be in a mating net if it became stuck on the back rank, but neither realized that without the White king's safely reaching e6 or g6, there's no mate to be had. Thus, since Black (with correct play) can check the White king away the instant he reaches either of those squares, the Black king is safe.

    So let's be smart and learn from others' mistakes: the strong side is typically best off with his king leading the pawn, as that facilitates the crucial process of driving the defender away from the queening square. The goal is to cut the defender off from the queening file (or in some cases, to cut it off from the pawn horizontally, though that's rarer).

    Conversely, the defender wants to stay in front of the pawn and to prevent (if possible) the strong side's king from getting in front of the passer. In such cases, the position is rather like an opposite colored bishop ending: the defensive side has a very strong grip on the squares of one color, and despite the strong side's superior firepower, it's basically impotent to break the blockade: the pawn covers the wrong-colored squares, and when the king tries to help fight for that color complex (light squares in our case), he gets checked off immediately.

    This is useful, but we can learn even more by playing around with the position (without the Black pawns, perhaps - at least at first). Try moving everything over a file or two either way, or down a couple of ranks. Will it make a difference? Which side, if any, benefits from the changes? Are certain pawns harder for one side to handle?

    Further, we can reflect on what we've learned here for more complicated positions. We can see that the rook is relatively impotent to break the blockade by itself, and can perhaps start to think about the implications of exchange sacrifices in positions where the bishop's side has nearly full control over one color complex and not too many worries about squares of the opposite color. And how much leeway does it provide? One way to proceed is by adding pawns for each side. If the result with the new material is a draw, then add a pawn to White, or at least a further pair of pawns for each side. If the result, on the other hand, is a loss for the bishop's side, give him another pawn.

    By playing around like that (remember the Cycle World post?), you'll learn something about rooks and bishops. It won't be some sort of dull theoretical ending you're trying to learn from a book (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but something fun, something you'll have taught yourself. Better yet, it won't be some sort of isolated chess factoid, but a case of genuine know-how with applications extending well beyond the initial exercise.

    As they used to say when I was a kid: Try it, you'll like it!

    Saturday
    Apr092005

    Chess Patterns, Beauty and Humor

    An important part of becoming a strong player is developing one's pattern recognition. Whether it's recognizing a tactical theme or understanding what plans are available in a given pawn structure, the more patterns you know, all things being equal, the stronger you're going to be.

    Yet although it's "officially" chess patterns that players specialize in and value, I think we have a soft spot in our heart of aesthetic hearts for "civilian" patterns on the chessboard as well. Look, for example, at how the board is set up: nice neat rows of pawns, while behind them, with the tall king and queen in the middle, sloping down in height to the stubby rooks at each end.

    Interestingly, though, when patterns which are attractive in a non-chess-specific sense arise in the course of a game, I think most players don't find it beautiful so much as they find it amusing. The presence of one sort of beauty outside of its normal context is unusual and unexpected, and leads to irony rather than a sense of the sublime.

    To illustrate, here are a couple of examples. The first offers a vertical, pawnless traffic jam (hat-tip to Brian Karen), while the second, classic game presents what has come to be known as the Alterman Wall:

    Gruengard - Dobkin,I [C15]
    Tel Aviv, 1946

    1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 dxe4 6.Qg4 Nf6 7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qh6 c5 9.Ne2 Nc6 10.dxc5 Rg6 11.Qe3 Qa5 12.Bd2 e5 13.Ng3 Ng4 14.Qxe4 Qxc5 15.Qe2 f5 16.f3 Nf6 17.Qf2 Qd5 18.Rd1 Qg8 19.Bd3 e4 20.fxe4 fxe4 21.Nxe4 Nxe4 22.Bxe4 Re6 23.Qf3 Ne5 24.Qe2 Qg4 25.Rf1 Qh4+ 26.g3 Qe7 27.Be3

    27...Bd7 28.Bf5 Rc6 29.Bxd7+ Nxd7 30.Bg5 Qxe2+ 31.Kxe2 Rxc3 32.Kd2 Rc5 33.Rde1+ Ne5 34.Rf5 1-0

    Alterman,Boris (2564) - Comp Deep Fritz [A03]
    KC Human-Machine KasparovChess INT (9), 15.11.2000

    1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 g6 4.Be2 Bg7 5.d4 0-0 6.c3 Bf5 7.Nbd2 e6 8.h3 Ne4 9.g4 Ng3 10.Rg1 Nxe2 11.Kxe2 Be4 12.Ng5 Na6 13.b4 c6 14.Bb2 Qe7 15.Ndxe4 dxe4 16.Nxe4 Rad8 17.Qb3 Qh4 18.Rh1 Rfe8 19.Rag1 f6 20.Nd2 Nc7 21.Nf3 Qh6 22.h4 Rf8 23.Bc1 Rde8 24.a4 Nd5 25.c4 Nb6 26.e4

    26...f5 27.g5 Qh5 28.e5 Rf7 29.Be3 Rd7 30.Kf2 Red8 31.Rd1 Na8 32.b5 Bf8 33.a5 Be7 34.b6 axb6 35.axb6 Kg7 36.c5 Kf7 37.Ra1 Rb8 38.Qc4 Bd8 39.Nd2 Bxb6 40.cxb6 Nxb6 41.Qe2 Qxe2+ 42.Kxe2 Kg7 43.h5 Nd5 44.Ra7 Rbd8 45.Nb3 b6 46.hxg6 hxg6 47.Rha1 Kf7 48.Nd2 Ke7 49.Nc4 Rxa7 50.Rxa7+ Rd7 51.Ra1 Nxf4+ 52.Kf3 Nd5 53.Bc1 Nb4 54.Nd6 Nc2 55.Ra8 Rd8 56.Ra7+ Rd7 57.Ra8 Rd8 58.Rxd8 Kxd8 59.Bb2 Kd7 60.Nf7 Ke8 61.Nh8 Ne1+ 62.Ke2 Ng2 63.Bc1 Kf8 64.Nxg6+ Kf7 65.Nf4 Nh4 66.Kf2 Ng6 67.Nxg6 Kxg6 68.Bd2 Kh5 69.Kg3 Kg6 70.Kh4 b5 71.Bb4 f4 72.Kg4 f3 73.Kxf3 Kxg5 74.Be1 Kf5 75.Bb4 Kg5 76.Bc5 Kf5 77.Be7 Kg6 78.Kg4 Kh6 79.Bg5+ Kg6 80.Bd2 Kf7 81.Kg5 Kg7 82.Bb4 Kf7 83.Kh6 Kg8 84.Kg6 Kh8 85.Kf6 Kg8 86.Kxe6 Kh7 87.Kd7 1-0

    Several days ago I mentioned the Humor Tourney for Endgame Studies and my own preference for the second-prize winner over the first. (You can find both here: the second-prize winner is presented in entry 276; the first-prize winner in entry 281. The can also be replayed in the Palview board on the left side of that page.) Maybe the reason the first prize-winning entry won was that White's material was used more efficiently in that study than it was in the second prize-winner's (the pawn on h4 and knight on a8 play no role in the final position), but with respect to the humor elements alone, I think the runner-up was superior.

    The primary mechanism of the winning entry, wherein its humor lies, is a staircasing maneuver. The problem, however, is twofold: (1) staircase maneuvers are fairly common motifs in problems, and (2) staircasing maneuvers are common in ordinary chess games - especially in queen endings. The dual knight-hopping mechanism of the runner-up isn't unheard of, but in my admittedly limited experience with studies, it's rarer than staircasing; most importantly, though, from the humor perspective, it never happens in real games (or if it does, it's exceedingly rare - certainly I've never seen it or even heard about it).

    If the primary feature of humor in chess is the presence of visually attractive non-chess-specific patters in an unusual, unexpected chess context, then I think that unless the efficiency criteria won out in the Humor Tourney, the wrong entrant won. But perhaps there is another element of chess humor I'm failing to take into consideration? If so, I reiterate my request from the previous post on the Tourney: rescue me from philistinism!