The Comeback Kid

Happy new year to everybody, and best wishes for 2011.

I’m still entering a bunch of my old games (I think I started entering all my games in ChessBase from about 1997, and I only had select games before that), but I haven’t found the one game I’m looking for …

Anyways, this post is partly the result of some recent reading. On the recommendation of two friends, I just finished Josh Waitzkin’s 2007 book The Art of Learning on my way to/from work. Like him, I started learning chess “backwards” in a way, starting mostly with the endgame. If I remember correctly, the first book I read was called Every Great Chessplayer Was Once a Beginner, but that mostly introduces how the pieces move and so on. After that, while guessing at Morphy and Anderssen games, I spent a lot of time on basic endgame patterns (in king and pawn and minor piece endgames). The opening was a bit of an afterthought and so all sorts of unsound gambits were featured in my games.

Most of my scholastic opponents were especially weak compared to me in the endgame, and so it’s no huge surprise that I would routinely win pawn-down endgames like this one, especially as it isn’t all that easy for White to convert his advantage in this endgame (White was an 1800-rated player, I was 2150 or so).

(FEN: 2r3k1/pp3pp1/2r4p/3p4/3Pn3/1P2PN1P/PR3PP1/5RK1 w - - 0 22)

But I was a bit surprised when I came across this game, as black against IM Vladislav Fedorov (a 2500 IM) when I was about 2230. The opening was a Four Knights, where I played the rare 4…Bb4, and he responded with 5.Nxe5:

(FEN: r1bqk2r/pppp1ppp/2n2n2/4N3/1b1PP3/2N5/PPP2PPP/R1BQKB1R)

I learned from reading GM Jan Gustafsson’s comments to the USCL Game-of-the-Year contest that Black is supposed to play 5…Qe7 here, but I didn’t really know what I was doing and played 5…Nxe4.

After 6.Qg4 Nxc3 7.Qxg7, I went with 7…Nd5+ 8.c3 Qf6, and was left in a pawn-down endgame after 9.Qxf6 Nxf6 10.Nxc6 Bxc3+ 11.bxc3 dxc6.

(FEN: r1b1k2r/ppp2p1p/2p2n2/8/3P4/2P5/P4PPP/R1B1KB1R)

White has an extra pawn, the bishop pair, and a 300 point rating advantage. Plus, he has the famous Russian technique.

Maybe he was counting on those first 3 factors too, as his technique was lacking a bit that day. After 10 moves from the above diagram, we reached the position in the diagram below – Black’s compensation is nearly worth the pawn already.

(FEN: 4r1r1/pppk1p1p/2p5/5P2/2nP1B2/2P5/P5PP/4RRK1 w - - 0 21)

After 21.Kf2 Nb2 22.Rxe8 Rxe8 23.Kf3, I began re-routing my knight again with 23…Nc4. After 24.g4 Nd6 25.Rg1 (heading for h3 via g3 in all likelihood) Nb5 26.Bd2, we reached the diagram below.

(FEN: 4r3/pppk1p1p/2p5/1n3P2/3P2P1/2P2K2/P2B3P/6R1 b - - 0 26)

My pawn-pitching ways continued, as I made an interesting decision with 26…Kd6!?. White dutifully picked it up after 27.a4 Na3 28.Bf4+ Kd5 29.Bxc7, but I had my desired king activity after 29…Kc4.

(FEN: 4r3/ppB2p1p/2p5/5P2/P1kP2P1/n1P2K2/7P/6R1 w - - 0 30)

Now the computer suggests 30.Be5 Kxc3 31.Kf4 with a clear advantage (and I won’t disagree), but Fedorov played the passive 30.Rc1? instead.

Generally, you want to keep your strongest pieces active in the endgame, and the order of importance (in terms of which you should activate first, from most important to relatively less important) goes queen, rook, king, and then minor pieces. Of course, there are exceptions to that principle, but with that in mind, 30.Be5 and 31.Kf4 (activating the rest of White’s pieces and preparing the Rg3-h3 maneuver) would be pretty logical. (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen this principle attributed to the British GM Julian Hodgson, although of course many others have written that the “rook should always be active”)

After Fedorov’s mistake, I played 30…Kd3! 31.Bf4 Nc2!, and Black is starting to get truly active. Unfortunately for Fedorov, it only hit him now that he should be playing actively too, and he tried to correct his previous mistake with 32.Be5 Kxc3 33.Kf4. However, his rook is much worse on c1 and Black’s knight is closer to the action on c2.

This played out as he executed the plan that was correct a few moves ago (swinging the rook to h3 along the 3rd rank) and trying to create a passed pawn. We were both in time pressure at this point as well, and so there are naturally some nuances that escaped us in the complications that follow.

(FEN: 4r3/p4R2/1p6/4BPK1/P1pP2P1/3n4/3k3P/8 b - - 0 39)

Here, I should have played 39…Rc8!, covering the c7-square. Then White has to find the clever 40.Bg7, as the only way to stop the c-pawn is to bring the bishop to the c1-h6 diagonal! After 40…c3 41.f6 c2 42.Kf5, it looks like White is in time and will win with his f-pawn. But Black has the clever 42…Kd1 (the spectacular 42…Rh8 isn’t as good after 43.Rc7!) 43.Bh6 Nb2, when White surprisingly can’t stop 44…Nc4 and 45…Nd2, after which the c-pawn queens.

Instead, I rushed forward with the c-pawn with 39…c3?, but Fedorov gave me one more gift with 40.Bd6?. Now White is slow to cover the c-pawn and after 40…c2 (actually, 40…Rc8 is again the most accurate) 41.Ba3 Rc8 (finally!) and White is toast. He played on a little while after 42.Re7 Rc3 43.f6 Rxa3 44.f7 c1=Q 45.f8=Q, but a piece is a piece and I converted without any further trouble.

This wasn’t my first win over an IM, but it’s kind of amusing that I turned the tables on a strong IM once I got to a clearly worse endgame.

2 responses to “The Comeback Kid

  1. Another very instructive post, as usual. It was about time for me to send you my congratulations, as your chess blog is pretty much my favorite one right now.

    How did you develop such a fine endgame play? I find it hard to go from learning technical endgames (Lucena, Philidor, etc.) to playing well in strategic endgames.

    Happy new year!

  2. Thanks. I’m not an expert in strategic endgames, but I picked up a lot playing through the endgames of players like Capablanca, along with examples from other books (like Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy, etc). There are lots of guiding principles to help make strategic endgames easier to navigate. The technical endgames you mentioned like Lucena and Philidor don’t have a lot in the way of strategy – there are some basic ideas involved, but most people who learn those endgames are focusing on the exact moves, and that doesn’t translate particularly well to strategic endgames.

    I might be mistaken, but I thought that one of Capablanca’s points in Chess Fundamentals or Last Lectures was that by starting with some basic endgames, you learn how the pieces interact with one another on a simple level and then you can use that harmony to make sense of things in more complex positions. But my memory is often wrong, so I’m not sure without going through those books again.

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