A Teachable Moment

The World Blitz Championship finished up a couple days ago and GM Levon Aronian took clear first with 24.5/38 (it was a 20-player, double round-robin). Radjabov finished half a point back, followed by Carlsen a further half-point back.

I didn’t look at all the games, but there was one that caught my eye between Aronian and Caruana in round 17.

(FEN: 8/6pk/4R3/5KPP/8/8/8/7r w - - 0 1)

Black has just played 56…Rh1 and Aronian, noticing there’s no actual way to force a win here, played the tricky 57.Re8. I have no idea how much time Caruana had here (I’m sure that even with 30 seconds, he’d have seen the trap), but he blundered with 57…Rxh5?, which falls for the trap that White set.

The position doesn’t look particularly dangerous. Rook and pawn endgames are notorious for their drawing tendencies, and here, with everything on one side, no passed pawns, and Black’s pieces well placed, it’s easy to relax and assume you can play on autopilot.

After 58.Ra8!, Black is stuck – he can’t move the rook from h5 because of 59.g6+ and 60.Rh8#, so he has to play 58…g6+ first. But then after 59.Kf6 Rh1 60.Ra7+ Kg8 61.Kxg6, Black finds himself in a lost rook and pawn endgame. Caruana resigned a few moves later.

If he had two moves at his disposal there, he could draw with something like 61…Rb1 and 62…Rb6+ (or, thanks to the fact it’s a g-pawn, with 61…Rb1 and 62…Rb8), but he doesn’t have that much time. Thus, in the diagrammed position above, he found pretty much the only non-trivial losing move.

Instead of 57…Rxh5?, Caruana could have drawn easily with 57…Rf1+. After 58.Ke6 Re1+ 59.Kd7, it is safe to return to h1 as there is no checkmate anymore (59…Rh1 60.g6+ Kh6 61.Rh8+ Kg5 draws pretty simply).

The reason this caught my eye is because last summer, I defended the same endgame against IM Robert Hungaski (here’s the blog entry that includes that game). This 2 vs. 1 endgame arose from a 3 vs. 2 endgame, where I had g- and f-pawns against my opponent’s 3 connected kingside pawns. I had a plus at the start of the endgame, but in time pressure, I showed some real skill in turning the tables.

(FEN: R7/6pk/5p2/5K1P/5PP1/8/8/7r b - - 0 53)

Actually, this exact position wasn’t reached in the game with White to move (White’s rook was on e8 instead of a8), but it’s not particularly important.

White pretty much has two tricks in this kind of endgame:

(1)   The idea in the Aronian-Caruana blitz game above with Black’s rook on h1. Hungaski tried the same approach with g5, “hanging” the h5-pawn, but I was aware of the danger and gave checks from the 1st rank until it was safe to return to h1 again.

(2)   The second trick wasn’t available to Aronian (because he didn’t start with the same 3 vs. 2 endgame), but it involves playing h5-h6 at an appropriate moment.

Imagine that Black plays 55…Re1 in the diagram above. Then White plays 56.h6!. Black can’t play 56…Kxh6 because of 57.Rh8# and 56…gxh6 57.Ra7+ is also winning for White. He can still draw with 56…Re7! and passive defense, though, so even there, not all is lost.

With the rook on g1, the h5-h6 trick doesn’t work because after 56…g6+ 57.Kxf6, Black has 57…Rxg4 which draws immediately. It’s also a draw with the rook on f1, but it isn’t quite as clean.

Thus, the endgame is objectively drawn if Black puts his rook on any sensible square, but there is still a little bit of danger, especially if you’re low on the clock.

3 responses to “A Teachable Moment

  1. The Aronian-Caruana position (or perhaps with some slight and irrelevant differences) appears in the indispensable Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics. Black fell for the trick in that game, too.

    By the way, did you know that my career record vs. Caruana is 1-0? Let’s not discuss how old he was when that game took place…

  2. Interesting that it popped up in Van Perlo’s book. I haven’t picked it up, but it received great reviews and won some book awards. Luckily I won’t make any future edition of that book, at least for this endgame.

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