Sunday, August 6, 2017

Those Annoying Time Zones

The worst thing about living in Australia is the time zone differences with Europe and America where many important events happen. I'm not going to stay up into the middle of the night to watch Federer win Wimbledon, or Usain Bolt run the 100 metres in the World Championship. I can see the replays the next day, but it just isn't the same. Similarly with chess, I generally play catch up with events the day after they happen, which isn't bad in terms of keeping up to date, but it still isn't the same as watching some live chess.

While this is usually the case, I have been rather fortunate with the Sinquefield Cup. While I can't see the start of the games, I am able to catch the end of the games when I wake up in the mornings. For me this is far more preferable than catching a few opening moves before having to leave the games as they start to get interesting. So far, I've eagerly followed 3 endgames from the event. The amazing finish to Aronian-Caruana in round 2 had me spellbound. Anand's defence against Carlsen in the following round had me thinking abut my own technique. And then this morning, I wake to find the game Vachier Lagrave-Carlsen in full swing when Carlsen blunders to give MVL a winning endgame.

During the endgame this morning I had one of those moments where you realise that your understanding of the game is just not on a level with other players.

Now in my primitive way of thinking, black is 2 pawns up though white could win the f-pawn. However, winning the f-pawn involves trading bishop for knight which would leave a lost pawn ending where black just forsakes the h-pawn and marches the king to the queen side. So, this is an easy win and there doesn't seem much that white can do? Isn't it just time to resign?

Magnus continued with 63.b4. I was sitting at my computer watching the game, thinking a trade on b4 would probably be ok, or just advance the king to g5. If black's king can get to g3, it's game over. However, neither of these "obvious" moves would have been good enough to force a win. The only move here which leads to victory is the far from obvious 63..c4 and amazingly, that is what MVL played! Would I have played this move, or even thought of it as an option? Probably not. But a deeper look at the position makes it clear why my candidate moves aren't good enough.

63..cxb4 64.cxb4 Kg5 65.Kf2 [blockading the pawn and the g3 sqaure for black's king] 65..Kf4 reaching the following position

So the question is, how does black progress? At least one of black's pieces needs to protect the f-pawn which means only one of them can try to win white's b-pawn. But that won't happen because white's bishop will sit on c6 and eventually the b-pawn will advance to b5. Even worse, from c6 the bishop can go to e8 and win white's h-pawn!

63..Kg5 64.bxc5 bxc5 65.Bd5 Kg4 66.Kf2 Kf4

Very similar to the last position, black can make no progress. In fact, with white to move there is already a repetition likely by 67.Bf7 Kg5 68.Bd5,

So this all goes with the need for strong calculation at all phases of the game. If it is possible to see that these 2 moves lead nowhere, then the next thing to do is look for other moves. MVL's 63..c4 just loses that pawn, putting on the same colour sqaure as controlled by white's bishop. But in winning the pawn, white gives black time to mobilise their pieces, and black's knight especially, moves from its depressing defence from the the edge of the board to an attacking piece in the centre. 64.Bd5 Kf5 65.Bxc4 Kg4 66.Kf2

So far, all seems fairly natural, but what now? Black's knight has 3 squares to move to but they all appear to lose a pawn. 66..Ng2 67.Bd5 wins the f-pawn or black's knight has to return to h4. This must be bad as white's queenside pawns will start marching. 66..Nf5 67.Be6 pinning black's knight after which white will advance the queen side pawns forcing black's king to defend which allows white to win the f-pawn with and the h-pawn. So 66..Ng6! but this also loses a pawn to 67.Be6+ Kf4 68.Bf7

Black's knight is skewered to the h-pawn and black's king has taken the f4 square from it. But amazingly this position is winning, thanks to the activity of black's pieces and the advanced passes f-pawn which is being nursed to promotion. 68..Ne5 69.Bxh5 Nd3+ 70.Kf1

What a turn around in position. White has levelled the game materially, but white's king has suffered an indignity in being pushed to the back rank. White's bishop is also somewhat askew. Meanwhile, black's king is in great shape and can infiltrate further into e3 or g3 (MVL chose g3) while black's knight has transformed itself. Carlsen resigned a few moves later when the knight further improved it's position by the maneuvre Nd3-f2-e4-d2/c3 or Nd3-f2-d1-e3/c3. White would have to part with his bishop for the f-pawn nad cannot force a trade on the queen side.

Lessons learned? First, we all need to calculate stronger in all phases of the game. Second, it is wrong to make assumptions based on general concepts such as material levels. While mostly material is of primary importance, there are times when other factors need to supplant this. I know that I am overly materialistic in my games, so seeing more examples like this and trying to adopt similar ideas when appropriate can only improve my chess.

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