Wild Fritz Endgames, No. 1 (R vs. 3P)

by admin on April 6, 2020

With nothing much going on the world of chess, I’ve been playing against my computer a lot. It’s a bad habit, really. But one somewhat unexpected benefit is that I’ve gotten to play a few interesting endgames recently.

When I play against Fritz, I generally set it on “Rated Game,” because that setting allows you to play without kibitzing and without being able to see the computer’s evaluation of the position. It also allows you to set the computer’s strength. Lately I have always been setting it at 2025, which seems to be a good challenge for me. Finally, I set it at 40 moves in 10 minutes. Call me a traditionalist; I like having a lot of time to think after the 40th move. It’s enabled me to win games that I would not have been able to win in a blitz time control. But at the same time, it’s pretty fast, so I can usually finish a game in half an hour.

Position after 36. … Bh5. White to move.

FEN: 8/2p3R1/1k4p1/pp3p1b/8/1K2P1P1/8/8 w – – 0 37

The position you’re looking at exemplifies my struggles against the computer. I was Black, and when you look at the position you will of course say, “Black is completely winning!” It’s inconceivable that the game could end in anything other than a Black victory.

But… White was a computer. And even “dumbed down” to 2025, Fritz will try every trick in the book, and a lot of tricks that aren’t in the book. And… Black was a human. Me, in time trouble, with half a minute left to play 4 moves.

So, when the computer played 37. e4!, I didn’t stop to think about what it was doing or why. If I had thought for even a few seconds, perhaps I would have realized the need to get my bishop to safety with 37. … Bd1+. After 38. Kb2 fe 39. Rxg6+ c6 it’s true that I will need to worry a little bit about White’s passed g-pawn, but my flotilla of passed pawns should easily decide the game in my favor.

But instead I played 37. … fe?, walking right into the computer’s cheapo: 38. g4!

Oh, so that’s the point! There’s no saving the bishop. At this point I had a complete emotional meltdown. That’s another difference between humans and computers. They aren’t prone to meltdowns.

I thought I had blundered the game away, but in fact Black should still draw easily. The best way to do it is to continue “falling into the trap” on purpose with 38. … Bxg4 39. Rxg6+ Kc5 40. Rxg4 Kd4. There’s no way on Earth that Black should lose this game; in fact, the question is whether White can actually stop the four passed pawns. According to Fritz, the drawing plan is to move the rook to the eighth rank and play checks from behind. If Black moves his king in front of the e-pawn to escape the checks, then White plays Rc8 attacking the c-pawn. If Black defends with … Kd4, then White plays Rd8+ again, and we have a repetition of position.

But in time trouble I lost all semblance of rational thought and played 38. … a4+ 39. Kb2 c5?

The difference between this line and the previous one is that Black’s king is behind the pawns and too far away from the e-pawn to defend it. So instead of 4 pawns versus rook with an easy draw, we will have 3 pawns versus rook with a very tricky position.

More generally, another moral here is that in most endgames, given a choice between pushing your pawns and activating your king, you should activate your king first.

Okay, let’s move ahead to our next interesting position, which arises after 40. gh gh 41. Re7 b4 42. Rxe4 Kb5 43. Rh4 Kc6 44. Rxh5 Kd6 45. Rh6+.

Position after 45. Rh6+. Black to move.

FEN: 8/8/3k3R/2p5/pp6/8/1K6/8 b – – 0 45

Which way do you go with your king?

I’m sure it will be no surprise when I tell you that I went the wrong way. But it’s a really interesting mistake. I played 45. … Kd5?? automatically (I took only 5 seconds on the move), in part because of the moral I just told you about. In endgames, 99 percent of the time you want to make your king as active as possible.

This position is in the one percent of exceptions. The correct move is 45. … Kc7!!, with a tablebase draw. (Also, 45. … Kd7 works, but … Kc7 is the more thematic move.) Yes, the job of the king here is to defend. There is no way that it can get in front of the pawns, so 45. … Kd5 is just useless bravado.

Ironically, the computer blundered a few moves later and gave me a second chance to do the right thing. The game continued as follows:

46. Ra6 a3+ 47. Kb3 Kd4

In for a penny, in for a pound. I had no choice but to continue “activating the king.”

Here the simplest route to victory for White is to cut my king off from the pawns with 48. Rd6+ Ke5 49. Rd1! This is another surprise. We are all used to the mantra, “Rooks belong behind passed pawns.” But here the rook’s job is to protect the first rank. We see why after 49. … Ke4 50. Kc4 Ke3 51. Kxc5 b3 52. Kb4, and White’s king is in time to vacuum up the pawns. (If White had played 49. Rd8, Black would just play b3-b2 and win.)

However, when it is “dumbed down” to 2025 the computer doesn’t always play the best moves, and here it starts drifting a little bit without a plan.

48. Ra7? Kd5 49. Rc7 Kd6 50. Rc8 Kd5 51. Ra8 Kc6!

Position after 51. … Kc6. White to move.

FEN: R7/8/2k5/2p5/1p6/pK6/8/8 w – – 0 52

This is the point where I figured out that the right idea was not moving my king forward, but moving it backward. Although White’s play has not been accurate, he is still winning. There is only one winning plan, though, and it’s far from obvious.

52. Kc4?? …

This natural-looking move is wrong, and leads to a tablebase draw. The correct move is 52. Rb8!! Why this move? The point is that White, of course, wants to win Black’s c-pawn, but he must make sure that Black’s king doesn’t get to b6. If you imagine the position with Black’s king on b6 and White’s king on c4, White can never play Rxc4 because Black would play … a2 and win. A tragedy for White, where his own king gets in the way of the rook, which cannot stop the pawn from queening.

After 52. Rb8!! Kc7 53. Rb5 Kc6 54. Kc4 Kd6 55. Rxc5 b3 56. Rd5+ Ke6 57. Rd1 b2 58. Kb3 we once again have a position where White’s king is just in time to stop the pawns.

52. … Kb7!

Finally the king reaches his ideal square! Black’s king harasses the rook endlessly on the a-file. If the rook moves somewhere on the eighth rank, Black will just play … Ka7-b7-a7 and White cannot make any progress. Amazing!

The game ended quickly with a threefold repetition: 53. Ra5 Kb6 54. Ra8 Kb7 55. Ra5 Kb6 56. Ra8 Kb7 1/2-1/2. Ironically, Fritz evaluates this position at +2.78 pawns in favor of White, but the tablebases show the truth: White has no way to win. (I’m a little bit surprised that Fritz 17 doesn’t come with the 6-piece tablebases already programmed into it. I had to look the position up online.)

Of course, before tablebases there were endgame manuals, and they could not have overlooked such a fundamental endgame as this. In Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endgames (1941), he says, “Pawns on 6th, 5th, 4th lose. [Pawns on 5th, 4th, 3rd draw.] Pawns on 4th, 3rd, 2nd win.” He refers to “Handbuch,” which I think must mean Grosses Schach-Handbuch by J. Dufresne and J. Zukertort (1873). So this position and this drawing idea have been known since at least 1873!

Obviously, it would have been better if I had known about the drawing motif in advance. I’m lucky that the computer gave me a second chance, and I’m pleased that I actually did manage to figure it out on the second try. Good things can actually come out of playing against a computer!

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Reality Intervenes (Candidates Postponed)

by admin on March 26, 2020

This morning FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich announced that he was suspending the 2020 Candidates Tournament, which had just reached the halfway mark. As most or all of my readers probably know already, this was the tournament to select a challenger to Magnus Carlsen for the world title. It’s been going on for the last two weeks in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in spite of the worldwide cancellation of sports events and in spite of calls to postpone it from such people as Vladimir Kramnik (former world champion) and Teimour Radjabov (who withdrew from the tournament as a protest against its being held during a pandemic).

What caused the suspension? Well, quite simply, Russia is closing its airspace to flights from other countries, starting tomorrow. That means that all five foreign players (Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave, Giri, Wang, and Ding) and all the foreign media representatives needed to get out of the country today, or else face the prospect of being trapped in Siberia for an indefinite period of time. From FIDE’s point of view, the host nation (Russia) was unable to fulfill its contractual obligations to guarantee the players’ safety, and that gave them the power to cancel the event.

I do think that questions will be asked, and this may be the end of the line for FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich. Were FIDE’s hands really tied, so that they had no authority over their own event? Why was the event was held at all, when virtually every other sporting event in the world was being cancelled? If it was a Russian government decision to proceed, who made this decision and why? Granted that the epidemic was perhaps two weeks slower in coming to Russia than to Western Europe, still it was inevitable. History has shown us time and time again that epidemics do not respect national boundaries.

I saw a lot of discussion online about whether Radjabov should be compensated in some way, because his protest was vindicated in the end. It’s hard to see any way that he could be included in the tournament; he would have to play make-up games with the other eight players. It would also be grossly unfair to the other eight players to wipe out the results and start over, and in any event, FIDE has said that won’t happen. The results of the first 7 rounds are official, and the second half of the tournament will be played at some future time.

The one thing that does make some sense to me is financial compensation; perhaps Radjabov could be awarded one-ninth of the prize fund. That would be a tremendous humanitarian gesture by FIDE, so of course it won’t happen. (Unless and until FIDE gets a president who isn’t a former Russian Deputy Prime Minister.)

Finally, speaking personally, I enjoyed following the Candidates Tournament and writing about it for you. I liked being able to pay attention to something that wasn’t the coronavirus; it felt like a small victory. Emil Sutovsky, FIDE’s director general, said it was good publicity for chess. I am not so sure about that; if there was any surge in public interest, it was to ask, “What are they thinking?” and “Will something awful happen?”

Even though I enjoyed the event, I recognize that it was probably irresponsible to hold it, and it could only happen because Russia has an autocratic government that is accountable to no one. I am very relieved that it is over and that none of the players (as far as we know) got the coronavirus. And I look forward to watching the second half of the tournament, at some unknown date in the future when it can be held safely!

Addendum (2:00 pm): Roman Parparov, one of my regular readers, suggested that I translate Alexander Grischuk’s comments to TASS, the Russian news agency. I don’t want to infringe on the author’s copyright, so I will only translate the direct quotes from Grischuk, not the rest of the article.

“I think that the decision is belated, but correct. Frankly, I think that it was long ago necessary to suspend the tournament. It’s not because of the virus or the danger of getting sick, but simply because this tournament is a feast in a time of plague.”

“I’ve hung out with some of the guys during the course of the tournament, and there was no panic. Although a few did hide in their rooms when there weren’t any games going on.”

[It’s not completely clear to me whether “some of the guys” refers to the other players in the tournament or other friends of Grischuk. I love the “feast in a time of plague” quote, it strikes me as very Russian. — Dana]

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Halfway! (Candidates, Round 7)

March 25, 2020

The only significant sports event in the world got a little bit more interesting today! In the seventh round of the 2020 FIDE Candidates tournament, the two leaders faced off against each other, and chess fans were rewarded with an exciting and decisive game. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi to catch up with the latter […]

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It’s All About Nepo Now (Candidates, Round 6)

March 23, 2020

It was a good news, bad news kind of day for Ian Nepomniachtchi and for chess fans everywhere. On one hand, he won his second straight game and put more distance between himself and his pursuers. He beat Ding Liren in a very solid Ruy Lopez where Ding’s position just spiraled downhill. This gives Nepo […]

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One Chessboard, Two Games (Candidates, Round 5)

March 22, 2020

The big story in round 5 of the FIDE Candidates Tournament is that we have a single leader for the first time. In a matchup of two of the leaders, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia and Wang Hao of China, Nepo took advantage of a subtle mistake by Wang and won. It was an impressive game […]

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Caruana Comes a Cropper (Candidates, Day 3)

March 19, 2020

The Candidates Tournament hit the “reset” button today as a result of Fabiano Caruana’s unexpected loss to Ding Liren. Caruana, at 1.5 points in 2 rounds, was tied for first; Ding, with 0 points in 2 rounds, was alone in last place. But all of that changed over the course of three dramatic hours. The […]

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Four-Way Tie (Candidates, Round 2)

March 18, 2020

I wrote in yesterday’s post that Fabiano Caruana should be very pleased with the results of round one of the FIDE Candidates Tournament, which will determine who will challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship later this year. If so, he should be even happier today. Caruana scored his first win in convincing fashion […]

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Newbies Rule! (2020 Candidates Tournament Day 1)

March 17, 2020

This year’s Candidates Tournament, which will select the next challenger to Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship, started with a bang. Although some might argue that it was unwise for FIDE and the Russian Chess Federation to proceed with the tournament in spite of the COVID-19 epidemic, what’s done is done. Here we are, […]

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Caruana-virus Comes to Russia?

March 15, 2020

For anyone with even a passing interest in sports, this is a pretty weird time. You open the sports page of the newspaper… and there are no games. NBA, NHL, golf, soccer, … all canceled. Which makes this an even more remarkable time for chess fans, because we are practically the only sport whose signature […]

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Chess and Coronavirus

March 11, 2020

“Without a plan, you are lost.” This is something that my college Russian teacher (who was also a chess player) once told me. He was a spy during World War II, and he said that once he was on a train when the police came on and started checking people’s documents. He proceeded to explain […]

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