Sunday, June 28, 2009

My First Sicilian

There are first things we all remember. This is my first Sicilian. After years of being a Réti player, I was getting good positions out of the opening, but it was taking me too long to win them. I was tired of winning a game in the morning that took six hours and then having to play the second game of the day after a 20 minute break and (often) no food.

I tried switching to the English, but that wasn’t enough, so eventually I went whole hog and decided to switch to 1.e4 (a decision from which my rating has still not recovered). Anyway, my main fears about this shift were assuaged when I bought Nunn & Gallagher’s Beating the Sicilian 3. I have never been able to understand why Black doesn’t just always get mated in the Sicilian, but the statistics are very clear that there must be some reason. So I figured I’d by buy the book, use it in an email tournament (with the IECG) and by the time that was done I’d have enough quality experience to play it over the board.

Shernoff-Dunn, IECG Cup 1997
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f4

N & G’s recommendation against the Najdorf.

I was happy with it because I figured it wouldn’t have as much theory as the Bg5 lines, and because I’d seen a game with it where Korchnoi beat Geller in a style similar to that which I was hoping to achieve by switching to 1.e4.


Okay, now we’ve got all the knights developed on normal squares, just like I was taught as a wee lad when I was first learning about chess. Let’s be good and look in the book...

What? This is not a normal move? In fact, it’s so much of a sideline that it gets kissed off with “7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.e5 Nd7 9.Bc4 dxe5 10.0-0 e6 11.f5 Bc5+ 12.Kh1 and White has good attacking chances.”

What? I paid $23.95 for one little line, and to be told that I have good attacking chances?

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.e5 Nd7 9.Bc4 dxe5 10.0-0 e6 11.f5 Bc5+ 12.Kh1

Son of a gun, he played into it. And now, as so often happens, that little untested line turns out to have a completely incorrect evaluation. On my very first use of that expensive book. Thanks, N & G!
12...exf5? 13.Rxf5 f6
My opponent, in New Zealand, always played very quickly (on a couple of occasions we exchanged three move pairs in one day) and was always happy to play “anti-positional” moves like this in order to hang on to material. Characterizing his play as quick, materialistic, and anti-positional, I decided he must be using a computer. (This is how they played, back in the day.)

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought that, since Black (from the diagram) has the much better and more materialistic move 12...Nb6!, after which White will either have to exchange queens or sac unsoundly in order to remain only one pawn down – for example 13.Bd3?! exf5 14.Bxf5?? Qxd1. I also don’t think much of 13.Qf3 Nxc4 14.Qxc6+ Bd7 15.Qxc5 Rc8 and exf5. This is not why White opens with the e-pawn.

Okay, so I’ve dodged a bullet here, but I still have to address the threat of Nb6, and I have to find a constructive place to develop my queen’s bishop, otherwise my lead in development will just melt away.

You might want to take a moment or two to contemplate how you would solve these problems...


My first Sicilian, and I get to sac a knight at d5. Sweet!
This was what I had expected, but 15...Rb8 is a much more constructive way to threaten to take the knight.

On 14...Nb6, White does not play the humorous line 15.Nxb6? Qxd1+, but instead 15.Nxf6+ Ke7 (15...gxf6 17.Qh5+ with widespread devastation) 16.Bg5! with that nice bishop development that I’d been aiming at – for instance, White has a nice checkmate after 16...Qxd1+ 17.Rxd1

You might want to stop here and try to spot the various mates.

The easiest is 17...gxf6 18.Bxf6+ Ke8 19.Rd8#

Then there's 17...Bxf5 (covering d8) 18.Nh5+ Ke8 19.Nxg7#

And the prettiest one is 17...Nxc4 18.Ne8+! Ke6 19.Nxg7#. It would have been difficult to spot this over the board...

Back to the game
(after 14...Rf8)

15.Qh5+ g6
16.Qxh7 cxd5
17.Qxg6+ Ke7
18.Bxd5 Rb8

And there’s that nice bishop development that was the whole point of the combination. I was glad I was playing this game via correspondence. It would have been tough and stressful to find all of this over the board.

At the time, coming off all those Rétis of mine, this seemed like a completely crazy position to me, but now as an experienced 1.e4 player, it seems completely normal! Well, not. But I certainly feel quite confident in saying that White has good compensation for the piece.

Again, I felt that this was an inappropriately materialistic move. On the other hand, 19...Nb6 20.Qg7+ Kd6 21.Qxf8+ (21.Be4 Bxf5 22.Bxf5 Rg8 23.Rd1+ Bd4 and I don’t think I have quite enough) 21...Qxf8 22.Bxf8+ Kxd5 23.Rxf6 and I should be able to win this endgame.

20.Bxf8+ Qxf8
21.Bb3 Bd4
22.Rd1 Nc5

The rook will be very active on the 7th rank. Meanwhile, my Qg6 is active enough; and it defends c2, keeping the Rb2 confined.
24.axb3 Be6
25.Rh7+ Kd6

See my comment above about this position now looking normal. In Rétis, the whole point is not to give your opponent any counterplay whatsoever. Umm, not that Black really has any here. But one never has to calculate as many tactical lines in the Réti as I’ve had to do here, unless you’ve screwed up badly and let Black off the hook. So although I kept telling myself that things were fine, my positional alarm bells kept giving off danger signals. And there were certainly a lot of tactics here that I might have missed over the board.

on 26.c3 Bd5, the weakness of g2 may cause me some problems. Better to not touch anything major, and just push my h-pawn.

26...Ra2 An unusual way to defend the a-pawn.

27.h4 Kc6

I have no idea why I did this.

I have no idea why he did this.

29.Rg7 Qd8
30.h5 a5
31.h6 Kb5

What is Black doing with his king?

I have no idea what came over me. It is foolhardy to open the second rank, and I soon get into trouble because of it. I should just push the h-pawn, of course. I think I was motivated by the fear that his queen might move off the d-file and I’d lose the pin, and also that 32...Bd5 can currently be met by 33.c4+

32...f5 In an over-the-board game, I might have missed the threat of Qd8-h4. This is why he ran with his king – so that Qxe6 isn’t check.

33.Qh5 Bxb3

Because I was so upset over the course of the game, I decided afterwards that this was a mistake, and I should have played 34.Rb1. This seems correct, although the position has still gotten even more nerve-wracking than it needs to be.

This was all part of my plan when I played 32.c3, and I was expecting Black to resign now. After all, I’ll be a full rook up in a moment.
Huh! Sort of like a spite check! A spite mate threat. I just defend, and then... he... takes my rook on b3. Son of a bitch! Emotional pandemonium!

Luckily, in correspondence chess one can go downstairs and watch back-to-back episodes of Wings and Bewitched to calm ones nerves.

You might want to take a bit of time now and figure out how White gets out of this situation.

36.Qf3+ e4

37.Rb8! exf3
After 37...Qxb8 38.Qxf5, saving the bishop loses the rook to Qe6+, and 38...Qg8/g3 is met by Qxe4+ and cxd4, when Black is in a world of hurt, since White’s queen covers the perpetual (after 38...Qg3) by Qf2-h4 and back. This last is also quite hard to notice over the board, since my main focus for Qxe4 is guarding g2.
37...Qg5 may be the best swindling try (38.Qf1?? Qh4#) but 38.Qh3 holds things down surprisingly well.

38.Rxg8 And the rook covers g2

And here I thought that 38...f2 39.cxd4 Re2 was a better chance, though in correspondence it’s not difficult to find 40.g4 with Kg2 to follow.

39.Re8 fxg2+
40.Kg1 Bg3
41.h7 a4
Around here, I decided that a computer would not have shed material so fast, and gave up the idea that he was using one.

42.Ra1 42.Rd3 may be more accurate, chasing the bishop instead of the rook. His rook can (and should) just move back and forth on the 7th rank.

43.Kxg2 Bd6
44.h8Q Ra2+
45.Kf3 1-0

After the game, I mentioned the quick play and the computer idea, and he said “Oh, no! It’s just that I play at work, so I always have to move very fast, before someone sees me.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pretty Drawing Line Busted

I've added something at the end here, since Blogspot isn't allowing me to post comments to my blog. This seems to be a known problem that they haven't fixed -- there are a few threads in their help forums complaining about it.

Alas, I busted my favorite line in this whole endgame on my way home from work yesterday. You will recall one critical position, which in my home notes is labeled “The Last Crossroads” (and I have now added that title in the original post).
The Last Crossroads

Here I gave three different tries for Black:

61...Nd3, toying with queening the queenside pawns
61...Nd4+ 62.Kb1 Ndb3, forcing the queening of a queenside pawn, and
61...Nd4+ 62.Kb1 Nce2, threatening mate and forcing a draw. This last line is the one that I thought the most correct, and also the most attractive. However, it seems that White has a superior option: after (61...Nd4+ 62.Kb1 Nce2) 63.Ka2 Nc3+ 64.Kxa3 b1/Q

The line that I gave in my original post is 65.Rxb1 Nxb1+ 66.Kb2 Ne6 =. However, this particular position always bothered me, in that sort of nagging way that all too often turns out to be significant. White sort of has a little breather here, because his king isn’t being checked. However, what can he do other than take the queen, right? – because he’s threatened with mate on the move. Wrong! He can under-promote:
65.f8/N+! Kh8
66.Rxb1 Nxb1+
67.Kb2 Nd2
68.Kc3 N2f3

and for the moment Black has preserved his extra knight, but he’s not happy about it. For one thing, White can win the knight back at will by pushing his e-pawn. At the moment, that would also lose the h-pawn, so probably White should start by protecting that by pushing his g-pawn (perhaps preceded by Kd3-e3/e4. None of Black’s pieces can really move (especially once White plays Kd3-e3, tying down both knights). Black may be able to draw if he gets two pawns for one of his knights, but in all these lines it's White who's playing to win.

It’s no good trying to avoid this with

65.f8/N+! Kg8
66.h7+ Kf7
67.Rxb1 Nxb1+

and now Black has to come back with Kg7 to keep the h-pawn from queening, so White gets to take the Nb1. 66...Qxh7 67.Nxh7 is also awful. So it looks like Black would have to go for complicated swindling chances in one of the other tries.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A complex ending with knights

I was spurred to make this post (my first ever) by the surprising amount of debate over a knight endgame post by Elizabeth Vicary:
What surprised me most was how poorly the commenters seemed to understand each other’s standards for whether an ending was simple or complex. Gee whiz, here I am, all freshly signed up on blogspot so that I can engage in dialog, and I might not be understood! I’m not posting stuff just so that I can be misunderstood!

So I thought maybe I’d post an interesting endgame that veers (especially in the sidelines) between complex, simple, and extremely complex. That way, whenever anyone misunderstands when I call an ending simple or complicated, I can just refer them to this post and my personal standards (whether or not you agree with them) will become perfectly clear.

Bacon – Shernoff, World Open, 2002 (Round 1)

We reached this ending after an exciting but poorly-played middlegame: first I allowed White to sac a bishop for all three pawns in front of my king, obtaining a dead won position. Then, in time trouble, White declined to push the center pawns that you see in the diagram, or to keep kicking my king around; instead he won an exchange and exchanged queens. I assume he was afraid of hanging material, or just thought the ending must be dead won with his material advantage.

White had made the time control with two seconds to spare (the magical precision of digital clocks!) and then gone outside for a smoke to calm down. So at this point he had about 50 minutes left in the sudden death time control, and I had about half an hour more.

I’ll return to the question of what White should play here at the end of the post. In fact, this is one of a few issues that I’ve broken off into its own post below this one, so that we don’t get our threads tangled. Or at least keep them minimally tangled. I want us all to be understood, after all...
45.Kf2 Nb4!
46.Re4 Nd3+

I felt that the b-pawn was the better one to steal, since my knight is nearer the center and it’s easier for it to jump back into action (for example, Nc3 is impossible if I take on a2). There are also some neat coordination things that happen between the Nb2 and the pawn I’m trying to queen. For one thing, the idea of Nd1, momentarily blocking the back rank, becomes thematic.
47.Ke3 Nxb2

White’s original intention here may have been to simplify, but that loses:
48.Rxd4 cxd4+ 49.Kxd4 b4 50.h4 b3 51.axb3 a3 52.Kc3 Nd1+ 53.Kc2 a2 queens.

When I showed this game to my friend Todd Rowland, he suggested 48.Rh4, which just goes to show that when you randomly lose material in an ending it’s not necessarily bad. Black has to take the rook, since if White gets to play Rh8-b8/a8, Black will never make any progress on the queenside:
48.Rh4!? Nf5+ 49.Ke4 Nxh4 50.gxh4

and this has become an extremely complicated ending, since Black can’t queen his pawns and also get his knight back quickly enough to stop White’s pawns: after 50...b4 51.Kf5 Nc4 52.e6+ Kf8 53.Kg6 Ne5+, Black is involved in tricky maneuvers of trying to impede White from queening while pushing his own pawns.

After 50...b4,

White also has the alternative of 51.h5, forcing a new queen. Then best play seems to be something like 51...b3 52.axb3 a3 53.h6 a2 (53...Kg6 54.e6 Kxf6 55.h7 is not an improvement, as White queens first) 54.h7 a1Q 55.h8Q Qh1+ 56.Kf5 Qf3+ 57.Kg5 Qg2+ 58.Kf5 Qg6+ 59.Kf4 Nd3+ 60.Ke3 Nxe5=

This was my analysis shortly after the game. However, looking at it with fresh eyes just now, I decided that there’s actually no need for Black to spend tempi queening his pawns now, since White can’t stop them later on. This means that if you see the right line (or have the right idea) it’s actually a simple endgame after all:

50...Ke6 (stopping Kd5, attacking the queenside pawns) 51.h5 Nc4 52.h6 Nxe5 53.h7 Ng6 and Black wins.
Unfortunately, this line allows White at least a draw with (51.h5 Nc4) 52.f7! Kxf7 53.Kd5. So it’s still a simple ending – just with the wrong evaluation. In fact, White can even play for the win with a-pawn and h-pawn(s) vs knight. So it looks like Black has to embrace the complications in this line to have any winning chances at all. And it certainly looks like White’s best winning try in this ending.

Back to the game:

48. Rg4 Ne6 49.h4 b4 50.h5 b3 51.axb3 a3
51...axb3? 52.h6 c4 53.h7 Nd1+ 54.Kd2 c3+ 55.Kxd1 Nc5 56.h8Q c2+ 57.Ke2

52.Rh4 c4! 53.Rh1
53.bxc4?? Nd1+ and the a-pawn will queen. If White was a GM and won this game, no doubt s/he would draw our attention to the maneuver Re1-e4-g4-h4-h1.

53...cxb3 54.h6 Kg8 55.Ke4
If 55.f7+ Kh7

Again, looking at this position with fresh eyes, at first I thought this was a mistake that gives Black a chance to draw. The new line I saw is 55...a2 56.Kd5 (if 56.Ke3 Nd1+ and ...b2) Nf8/g5 with Nd1 on the next move and Black will queen. But this only works if White doesn’t play 57.e6 (and f7+ followed by h7). Back to the game:

White has to play Kd5. As in the famous Reti study shown here, the king has to move diagonally between his two goals, feinting at the kingside in order to reach the queenside in time.

After 56.Kd5 Nac5 57.Kc4 I was anticipating situations where my Nc5 and two pawns get exchanged for his rook, with his king recapturing way down in the corner. This gives my K+N plenty of time to round up White's remaining pawns, drawing. I’ll call this the queenside liquidation strategy.

57...b2 58.Kc3 Nd3 59.f7+ Kh7 60.Kb3 Nc1+ 61.Kc2

The Last Crossroads

and again, similar to the exchange sac above, there are three lines that Black can choose, one of which makes things very clear and two that entail more complexity.

Try 1
The clear one is 61...Nd4+ 62.Kb1 Nce2 (I like this line not only because it’s clear, but also because I get to threaten a nicely geometric perfect mate with Nc3+) 63.Ka2 Nc3+ (63...Nc1+ 64.Kb1 also repeats) 64.Kxa3 b1/Q 65.Rxb1 Nxb1+ 66.Kb2 Ne6 and here we have the simplest implementation of the queenside liquidation strategy.

Try 2

The more complicated line is 61...Nd3 62.Kb1 (to stop the a-pawn; 62.Kb3 Nc1+ repeats) and Black now has a couple ways to try and implement Nd2/c3+ and b1/Q, ending up with the queenside liquidation as above. I’m pretty sure that I was planning 61...Nd3 during the game, since it is the starting point of my analysis immediately afterwards.

Unfortunately, for instance after 62...Nxe5 63.Re1 Nf3 64.Re2 (not 64.Rxe6 Nd2+) White will get to play either Rf2 with the idea of f8/Q, or Re3xa3. Or after 62...Nf2 63.Re1 (covering e4 and d1) and Black seems to be in zugzwang. He can’t really move either knight, and if he moves the king White can force him to take the h-pawn by pushing it. Then he can play Ka2 and capture the a-pawn, as Nd3 (with the idea of Nc1+) can be met by Rh1+ and Kxa3.
If Black loses his pawns, the best he can do is a draw (even if White magically loses his rook) since White’s pawns are so far advanced; so he should prefer the simple drawing line of Try 1.

Try 3
The other factor that makes this continuation extremely complicated is that Black can force a new queen of his own, but only at the cost of allowing White to queen also. This is not a good bargain for Black. While we’ve all heard a million times what a strong attacking force Q + N are in the endgame (so Q + 2Ns should be even better, right?), for hunting down a lone king on the open board, they really kind of suck. Q + R is what you really want for that, and that’s what White has. Since White pretty much has Mate On Tap ™ as soon as he queens, Black has to mate with all checks, but it’s pretty easy for him to just walk away from the knights while staying on the same (correction) opposite colored squares as them, which makes it impossible for them to catch up with check. Here is a sample of the issues:

After 61...Nd4+ 62.Kb1 Ndb3

White can try for a perpetual check on f8 and g6 with 63.f8N+ Kh8 64.Ng6+ Kh7 65.Nf8+ but now black plays for the win with 65...Kg8 66.h7+ Kf7 67.h8/Q a2+ 68.Kxb2 a1Q+ 69.Kc2 Qa2+ 70.Kc3 Qd2+ 71.Kc4 Qd3+ 72.Kb4. Now the White king is confined, and Black wins by bringing up his remaining piece: 72... Na2+

73.Ka4 (73.Ka3 also Nd4+ mates simply) 73...Nc5+ 74.Ka5 Qa6 mate.

But all this means is that White should queen immediately with 63.f8/Q instead of screwing around with perpetual via the underpromotion. Now the mating line in the last diagram doesn’t work because the Qf8 guards c5, and I have been unable to find another way for Black to prevent the White king from just walking away. Try it. I know that most of you can just dump the position into your computer and it will be perfectly happy to spit out a string of 79 checks (if such exist) leading to mate. This is irrelevant to what you can find at the board with 30-40 minutes on your clock, after the fatigue of what I’d had to find already. I’ve put a post about the position after 63.f8/Q after this one. I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts about how this analytical task can be approached sanely and practically at the board.

Back to the game:

Now (after 56.Kf5) we have a simple ending for the first time in the actual game.

56...Nac5 57.g4 a2 58.g5 b2 59.g6 b1Q+ 0–1

The Ne6 forces the white king back, so after 60.Kg4 Qxg6+ 61.Kf3 Qe4+, Black wins the rook in the corner anyway.

If White had played 56.Kd5 he could have also tried this continuation, since queening as in the game is not check and loses to 60.h7+ Kh8 61.g7+. But instead Black could play 59...Nf4+ 60.Kxc5 Nxg6 and b1/Q on the next move.

“Do Not Hurry” vs Complexity

This standard bit of endgame advice is fairly ludicrous in this game. All sorts of things are decided by a single tempo. But with this in mind, maybe we can use “Do Not Hurry” as a test for developing a scale of complexity for endgames:
1) In the simplest endings, “Do Not Hurry” does not apply, as you can simply count out what you should do (straight-ahead pawn races for example). In these endgames it’s quite clear who has the advantage, and what each side needs to do.
2) Add a bit more complexity, and “Do Not Hurry” starts to apply, but these are all positions where nothing much is going on, and the critical task is coordinating responses to fairly low-urgency threats.
3) At a higher level still, you have something like this game, where each tempo matters, and both players are working with threats that are quite urgent.

What should White have played in the initial position?

Given the course of the game, I originally thought that White’s rook should have just stayed on the back rank, and White should have just played Kg2 and pushed the h-pawn in the initial position. I felt that White’s initial Kf2 let Black develop his ferocious activity, so it was mistaken; however, (a) the centralized king that White has in the game is not worthless either, and (b) Black has some activity anyway:

However, it turns out that Black can still respond with Nb4, and after Nd3 White will still have to play Re4 if he wants to keep the e-pawn (and he does want to keep the e-pawn, right?). Given the success of the exchange sac in the notes, I also thought that maybe just pushing the h-pawn here would be good, with
54.h4 Nf3+
55.Kf2 Nxe1
56.Kxe1 and then if Black tries to play as in the game,
57.h5 Nd3+
58.Ke2 Nxb2
59.h6 and the pawns are ready to carry the day; but obviously Black doesn’t have to be so cluelessly persistent about winning the b-pawn. It is ironic that these accidental-looking exchange sacs can both be so dangerous.

How to handle Q + 2Ns vs Q + R?

Okay, here’s this position. How do you evaluate it? Is there any way to parse the possibilities in a sanely human kind of way, to reach judgments in a reasonable amount of (over the board) time?

It’s ominous that Black has to give up either a pawn or a knight in order to queen. That pretty much means he has to mate or die.

In the main post, I examine a line where Black promotes his a-pawn at this point. There’s also 63...Nd2+ 64.Kc2 b1/Q+ 65.Kxd2 Qb2+ 66.Ke3 Qc3+, which looks promising when you see 67.Ke4 Qd3+ 68.Kf4 Ne2+ and Black will either win the queen with a queen check on the f-file or by playing 69.Kg4 Qxg3+ 70.Kh5 Nf4+. However the king can simply go 67.Kf4 (a move earlier), or to f2 here. Black may have a perpetual, but it will be difficult. And if White gets the queens off, he has a clear win: 67.Kf4 Qd4 68.Kg5 Qxe5+ 69.Qf5+ Qxf5 70.Kxf5 Nb3 71.Rh2 Nc1 72.Rc2 and after White wins the a-pawn he should be able to queen the g-pawn.