Saturday, May 16, 2015

Random Thoughts on Studying Endgames

While waiting for pairings last Thursday night, I enjoyed conversing with local master and South Carolina's top rated player Sam Copeland. Among the topics we discussed was Jeremy Silman's book on the endgame, Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to Master. There was apparently some discussion on Facebook about the book's quality, and I commented that in my opinion there really is no such thing as a bad endgame book. As long as the book contains diagrammed positions to consider, one can't go wrong by reading it. Did any surrounding text or possible wrong analysis to the position really matter? Last century the quality of the writing in an endgame book might have mattered. This century, with the tools now available to us, I really don't think so. That's because we can use those tools to help get to the heart of the truth about endgame positions.

Any twentieth century book about an endgame, however proficient and ingenious its author, is going to be riddled with errors, probably in almost every endgame position the book offers. That's because endgames are so rich and complex that the human brain can't possibly get a true handle on all the complexities, nuances, and possibilities of any but the simplest endgames, not even after spending hours and days in home study on positions. Even the simplest of endgames are no easy chore to grasp. However, a computer program can really, really help us to arrive at authoritative conclusions that eluded even the world's most advanced endgame specialists just thirty years ago.

Here is an endgame I want to offer for consideration, Black to move:


The position is from Breyer-Nyholm, Baden-Baden 1914.Reuben Fine discusses it in Basic Chess Endings, number 62a in his "White Has an Outside Passed Pawn Section". Fine states that White "should experience little difficulty in winning" positions like this. Indeed, all else being equal, an outside passed pawn normally wins, especially as the number of pawns each side holds increases. This is because Black has to divert his King to capture the outside passer, leaving White the better King position with which to gobble the pawns left unprotected on the other side of the board.

But what about this particular position? Black will at some point have to take his King offside to eat White's c-pawn. However, the c-pawn is not very outside. Also, once the c-pawn is gone there is not that much material left on the board. Another advantage Black has is that his King at present is in a beautiful position. Are these factors considerable enough for Black to hold the position to a draw against the static (i.e. virtually permanent) White advantage of the outside passer?

There are eight "pieces" on the board, counting Kings; therefore, this position exceeds the range of endgame tablebases at this time and is not subject to precise calculation today. We are therefore still left to our own resources. However, when supplemented by computer programs, these are sufficient for a definitive conclusion.

A) Fine quotes an early analyst, Marco (in Wiener Schachzeitung), who concluded that White's passer triumphs. Fine gives the line 1...h5 2.h4 e5 3.c3+ Ke4 4.Ke2 g6 5.Kd2 Kf4 6.Kd3 g5 7.hxg5 Kxg5 8.Ke4 Kf6 9.Kd5 (L. Steiner's suggestion) 9...Kf5 10.c4 e4 11.Kd4 Kf4 12.c5 e3 13.Kd3 Ke5 14.Kxe3 Kd5 15.Kf4 Kxc5 16.Kg5 and White wins. Fine added only that if 3...Kc4 4.Kc2 is still winning, and that White should avoid playing 9.c4 Ke6 10.c5 h4 11.c6 Kd6 12.c7 Kxc7 13.Kxe5 Kd7 14.Kf5 h3!! and Black draws because he can get his King to f8.

A British Grandmaster and world leading specialist on endgame theory Jon Speelman came along to reassess the position in his 1981 book (revised 1988) Analyzing the Endgame in the chapter titled "Two Less Complicated Endgames". Less complicated! Right! If you played through the above analysis without a computer program, I am sure you wondered at many points, why did he move there, and what about such and such move? This endgame is anything but simple.

Black's drawing strategy is to try to exchange pawns off on the kingside. He hopes to allow White a pawn on the h-file at a point when he can reach f8 with his King to achieve a drawn position. Speelman correctly points out that in the analysis given above, 9.c4 actually still wins for White. After 9...Ke6, White should play 10.g3! (rather than 10.c5?). After 10...Kd6 11.Kf5 Kc5 12.Kxe5 Kxc4 13.Kf5 White will be able to Queen his g-pawn.

B) Speelman then goes on to show that there were a lot of analytic mistakes made and that Black in fact with correct play should easily be able to secure a draw. The first mistake is back in the position reached after 1...h5 2.h4 e5 3.c3+ Fine stated that after 3...Kc4 4.Kc2 White is still winning. Kovacevik (in Sahovski Glasnik 9/74) showed that 4...e4! draws for Black. 5.Kd2 Kb3 6.Ke3 Kxc3 7.Kxe4 Kd2 8.Kf5 Ke3 9.Kg6 Kf4 10.Kxh5 Kg3 11.Kg5 Kxg2 12.Kg6 Kg3 13.h5 Kg4 draw.

C) Interestingly, after 1...h5 2.c3+ (instead of 2.h4) Kovacevik shows that 2...Kc4? would lose for Black because White has the surprising bolt 3.g4! 3...h4 (3...hxg4 4.hxg4 Kd5 5.Kd3 e5 6.c4+ Kc5 7.Ke4 Kxc4 8.Kxe5 Kd3 9.g5 Ke3 10.g6 wins) 4.g5 g6 5.Kc2 e5 6.Kd2 e4 7.Ke3 Kxc3 8.Kxe4 Kd2 9.Ke5 Ke3 10.Kf6 Kf3 11.Kxg6 Kg3 12.Kh5 Kxh3 13.g6 and White wins. Speelman mentions, and a computer program confirms, the way to the draw after 1...h5 2.c3+ is 2...Ke4 3.h4 and 3...Kd5 or 3...Ke5 draws, e.g.: 3...Kd5 4.Kd3 e5 5.c4+ Kc5 6.Ke4 Kxc4 and Black's King gets back in time to save the day as in B above. Speelman also finds the same draw for Black after 1...h5 2.c3+ Kd5. Interestingly enough, Speelman says that the line 3.g4? hxg4 4.hxg4 Ke4 "gives Black no problems." I'll say! Black actually wins according to the computer program, and in very interesting fashion. 5.g5 g6 6.Ke2 e5 7.Kd2 Kf4 8.c4 Kxg5 9.c5 Kf6 10.c6 Ke6 11.c7 Kd7 In this line we see how White's not "very" outside passed pawn cost him the game. White can maintain a draw with 3.h4, 3.Kd3, 3.Ke3, or 3.Ke2 instead of 3.g4? of course.

In conclusion, Speelman points out that Black's position is far from critical. Black does not need to play 1...h5 to draw. 1...g5 also draws perfectly well. Computer programs actually show that Black can draw with any of five moves in this position, 1...h5 among them, but least advisable (most risky). The four perfectly equalizing moves at Black's disposal are 1...g5, 1...g6, 1...e5, and 1...Ke4. Although barring an egregious error by White, Black has no winning chances in the above diagram, his King is well enough situated to deal easily with White's static advantage of the outside passer.

Arriving back to the opening point of my purpose for writing this column, with computer programs it is now possible to check the analysis of any endgame position given in any endgame book. Therefore, there is no bad endgame book so long as it provides endgame positions for consideration and independent checking. Perversely, I'll even go farther out on this limb by asserting that Fine's Basic Chess Endings and other twentieth century endgame books that were not computer checked may be even better books to study the endgame by. Not only is the cataloging of positions in logical order likely more thorough and comprehensive in these venerable tomes, but despite, perhaps even because of, their many errors they make the reader examine conclusions for himself. As always the computer can be used as a tool to check and show hidden, unconsidered paths, especially the intriguing hard-to-see finesses missed by earlier analysts. But it is the obligation of the player making the study to learn and understand the hidden facets of endgame positions and then remember them well enough to apply them in games when a position in which a similar principle arises.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Game 40: After a Long Absence from Tournament Chess Ashland, Round 5

A lot happened in my personal life in the last year or so to cause me to put chess on a back burner. Many of the issues that arose have been resolved, and one more promises to resolve itself in the next year. I can now give chess more time than I have been recently able to. I find after my absence that my hunger for chess and analysis are fully restored, even if my skills are somewhat rusty. I have been playing only two-dimensional, ten-minute games on chess.com.

Ashland, Round 5
A11: English Opening, 1...c6
White: Dan Quigley (1766)
Black: Ian Bell (1871)
Columbia, SC, Round 1, G/75, 30 sec. bonus, May 14, 2015

1.c4

One strength of the English Opening (in my opinion) is that 1.c4 is the move that most effectively deters 1...d5. Against any other first move by White, 1...d5 is an entirely possible continuation, with a near equal (or better) game resulting. It is only against 1.c4 that 1...d5 becomes inadvisable.

1...Nf6 2.g3

This move is not ambitious of me. More often chosen moves, and probably objectively better are 2.d4, 2.Nf3, and 2.Nc3. I dismissed the first because I did not want to play a Queen pawn game, the third because Black can play ...Bb4 and time ...Bxc3 to his liking. That isn't the gravest of threats, but I don't know the theory behind how White can counter the idea. I think 2.Nf3 is the best way to proceed for White. As I learn more about the English, I will be adopting it. 2.g3 is a quiet move that steers the game towards hypermodern channels, concepts I have some understanding of.

2...c6!?

More common are 2...e5, 2...g6, and 2...e6. However, 2...c6 is the only move that results in a statistically favorable game for Black. The move makes a lot of sense. Black was denied 1...d5 by White's first move, but now intends to get it in forthwith in a way that won't be disadvantageous. The move also shores up the long diagonal White just announced he would be placing his Bishop upon.

3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5?!

Almost universally played in this position is 4.Nf3. I considered it, but after 4...dxc4 5.0-0, Black can play 5...b5 immediately or whenever White makes a serious attempt to recover his material. There are counters White has, of course, else 4.Nf3 would not be so popular, but I don't know them off the top of my head and didn't care to spend the game “discovering” them. So, I made this concession instead. The drawback of White's move is that it clears c6 for Black's Knight, which allows Black free and easy development.

4...cxd5 5.Nf3 Nc6!?

Developing the Bishop to f5 or g4 is selected more often in this position, but my young opponent again finds the strongest, most principled move instead. Now, the only way to stop ...e5 is to play 6.d4, making this a sterile Queen pawn game. I just wasn't willing to go in for that.

6.0-0 e5!?

Very good. It's not yet clear where Black's Queen Bishop belongs.

7.d3

White's only alternative, strongly favored by computer programs and which I considered for a long time at the board, is 7.d4. However, after 7...e4 Black's pawn chain is virtually indestructible and White's g2-Bishop will bite on close-by granite forever. That a move like 7...d3 is the only alternative to 7.d4 is a clear sign something has gone wrong in this opening for White.

7...Bd6?!

Aggressive looking, but I prefer 7...Be7. On d6 the Bishop has little offensive power since it bites on g3 granite. It weakens Black's protection of d5, and when (not if) White plays Bg5, Black no longer has the unpinning Bishop on e7 unless he wants to lose time retreating the Bishop from d6.

8.Nc3 0-0

Played with not much thought. 8...h6 is most often played here. Also worth consideration is 8...Be6 and 8...d4, both of which have won for Black.

9.Bg5 Be6 10.Qd2 TN

I had no idea how to proceed here. My thought was to link my Rooks by playing my Queen to the second rank, and I chose d2 because playing the Queen to c2 encourages Black's Rook to c8 all the more. But 9.Qd2 turns out to be pointless. Other players of White played 9.Rc1, 9.a3, 9.Bxf6, 9.e4, and 9.Nd2!? none of which are fantastic for White, but all of which look more normal. My unintended novelty is at least not harmful to White.

10...h6 11.Bxf6 Qxf6 12.a3

In the two games where White played 10.Bxf6 (without waiting for ...h6 as I did), after 10...Qxf6 White played 11.Nd2 and eventually won both of those games when Black allowed White to play 12.Ne4 next, which he did after both 11...d4 and 11...Ne7 12.Nde4 dxe4 13.Nxe4 and 14.Nxd6. The disadvantage of my tenth move is that d2 is no longer available for my Knight. I therefore decided to make the best of it and temporized with 12.a3, which at least has the virtue of keeping Black's pieces off b4.



We have arrived at what I think is the hardest type of position in chess to play well. Black has played the opening superbly and has nearly a pawn's worth of advantage according to computer programs, despite the material equality. Black must have felt (quite correctly) that he had an advantage and therefore must attack. But what is there to do? White may have played the opening passively, nevertheless his position has no weaknesses. Of what consists Black's superiority? Black must answer this question before making his twelfth move.

12...a5?!

In my opinion, part of Black's advantage lies in the fact he has the two Bishops; therefore he should want to keep lines open. Black also dominates the center squares and enjoys a space advantage. Black's plan then should be to make something out of the center. He needs to complete his development by placing Rooks on c8 and d8. Then, he needs to figure out a way to pressurize the center such that he can eventually advance center pawns so that the likely result will be pawn exchanges rather than blocking pawn moves by White, or pushing past. Instead of employing a patient plan, Black began an unprovoked flank attack. 12...a5 also has the drawback of creating holes at b5 and b6 for White to exploit.

13.Rac1 a4?

Consistent, if wrong. Black considers b3 a weakness he can exploit. He could have been right except for the tactical flaw with the concept. Best was 13...Qd8 when I planned to play 14.e3 and Hedgehog it with colors reversed. Black's position would still be preferable.

14.Qd1!

I noticed the a4 pawn could not be held. At first I was going to play 14.Qc2 to go after it, but that runs in to 14...Rfc8 15.Nxa4 Nd4! It took quite some time before I could fully convince myself this Karpovian retreat of the Queen back to the first rank from which she so recently emerged was White's best.

14...d4?!

I expected 14...Rfd8!, after which Black probably has enough activity and central control to compensate for his pawn deficit.

15.Nxa4 Na5?

Best was 15...Qd8 (protecting b6) 16.Nc5 Bxc5 (parting with the bad Bishop) 17.Rxc5 with only a small advantage for White due to the pawn plus. Black still owns the center and enjoys a space advantage, some small measure of compensation.

16.Nc5 Bd5?

Best was 16...Rfc8 17.Nxe6 Rxc1 18.Qxc1 Qxe6, though White is doing well here.

17.Nd7 1-0

A pawn and exchange down, Black resigned. A bit premature perhaps, but understandable. I have played plenty of games like Black's and could only feel bad for Ian. Being beat by one's opponent is much easier psychologically to accept than being beat by oneself, as happened here. I'm sure Ian's talent and determination will limit how often he loses the game in this manner. I anticipate a much tougher game the next time we face off.