The “P” Word

by admin on November 8, 2013

The day the chess world has waited for is almost here — the beginning of the match between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship. It’s ironic that Carlsen is still so young (22 years old, with his 23rd birthday a couple days after the scheduled end of the match), and yet it seems as if we have been talking about him as a “potential” world champion for ages. It’s time, at last, for Magnus to get the “P” word off of his back.

Will he do it? Well, if you remember how awful my predictions were for the World Cup earlier this summer, you should take anything I say with a huge amount of skepticism. I’m in the camp that thinks it will not be close. I predict that Magnus will win by a score in the 6½-3½ range.

This week I tried to get my students at the Aptos Library Chess Club interested in the upcoming match by showing them the most recent game between Carlsen and Anand, played at the Tal Memorial this year. Usually super-GM games are hard to use for instructing kids, because they are too abstract, but this game ended with a very nice and relatively simple combination.

Position after 21. ... Qd7. White to move.

My kids did really well on this position. I asked them if they could suggest some good attacking moves for White, and the first two moves suggested were 22. e5 and 22. d5. I agree that these are the first two moves you should think about. I asked the kids what is the strongest kind of move besides a check and a capture, and they told me, “Forks!” When I asked them which one of the suggested moves was a fork, they said 22. d5.

Well, of course on the master level you have to do a little more calculation, and I think the kids have not quite grasped that not all forks are good — but we’re working on it.

Carlsen did indeed play 22. d5, and Anand of course played 22. … cd. Now, which should we take first, the rook on c7 or the queen on d7? At first the kids wanted to take the rook. Then they noticed that the White queen was hanging. This is another thing that we need work on. A lot of times they forget that if your piece is attacking one of your opponent’s pieces of the same kind (queen attacking queen, rook attacking rook, etc.) that means that he is also attacking you, too.

So we agreed that the queen trade is looking a lot better — in fact, forced, because otherwise you’ll have to move the queen (one kid suggested Qa6) and lose all of your attacking momentum.

After 23. Qxd7 Rxd7 comes another interesting decision: should you take the pawn or the bishop? Here I have to confess that I didn’t do a very good job as a teacher. The first answer I got was the “right” move, 24. Nxe6, and so we went with that even though 24. ed is definitely also worthy of consideration. In fact, if Black recaptures with 24. … Nxd5? he runs into a murderous pin: 25. Nxd5 Bxd5 26. Red1! This would have been a very instructive line for them to find, but I just didn’t think we had time both to cover that line and the variation that actually happened. The reason Carlsen didn’t play 24. ed is probably that it “only” wins a pawn. Instead of recapturing, Anand would just move his bishop away with 24. … Bf5, and then it’s still a game although White stands better. This discussion is too sophisticated for players at the 800 level, I think, although it would be great for players at the 1600 level or 2000 level.

After 24. … fe (forced) we again come to a fork in the road. Do we play 25. ed or… something else?

Here I was surprised. I was expecting to have to work quite a while to get the kids to see the right move, but one of them spotted it right away. Maybe it’s because we had just been talking about forks. Alex said, how about 25. Bh3!, threatening to fork the Black king and rook with 26. Bxe6+?

Position after 25. Bh3! Black to move.

I can’t say how pleased I was that he saw this without any prompting.  For a kid to see this fork, which involves a long-distance maneuver like Bg2-h3-e6, is a big step forward. Maybe if I were a better teacher I would have put a stern look on my face and asked Alex why he thought this move was better than taking on d5 … but I just don’t have the heart for playing mind games like that. So I immediately said, “Yes!!”

This position is a good one for teaching, because there are so many defensive possibilities for Black and yet every one of them comes up short. So we went through 25. … Rd6, 25. … Re7, 25. … Nxe4, 25. … Re8, and 25. … Kf7 and saw that every one of them runs into a pin or a fork or both. The most difficult one for the kids, strangely enough, was 25. … Rd6. They struggled to find White’s best answer, and even after I said that it was a fork, they couldn’t get it. One kid tried Rc6, Rc7, and Rc8. In fact, all three of those moves are forks, but they are all terrible forks. Either they attack pieces that are already defended or they attack pieces that can strike back. Once again this makes the point that if you attack another piece of the same kind as your own, you’ve got to realize that your opponent will get a chance to take you first.

We eventually did find 26. e5 somehow or other, but it was like the tenth move that the kids looked at. Not good. I think there may be a cognitive issue here. The previous moves in the combination were all about fighting for the light squares e6 and d5. So it takes a little bit of lateral thinking to suddenly see that you can strike a winning blow on the dark square e5.

Anyway, Anand chose none of the above. Instead of trying to defend the e6 pawn, he just gave it up with 25. … Kh8. (One kid said, “I was going to suggest that!”) The game ended 26. e5 Ng8 27. Bxe6 Rdd8 28. Rc7! (the kids found this move) d4 29. Bd7! and Black resigned.

Final position.

I have to say that the finish was a little bit underwhelming for the kids. No brilliant sacrifices, just a quiet move that cuts Black off from the advanced pawn on d4 and also prevents any counterattack with … Re8 or … Rc8. White will just attack the d-pawn and win it (for example, 29. … Ne7 30. Rd1 Nd5 31. Rb7 is nothing). I told them that at their level I would be mad if any of them gave up just because they lost a pawn, but of course at the grandmaster level things are different. Here, White will not only be a pawn up but the extra pawn (the passed e-pawn) is a tower of power and White’s pieces also dominate the board.

This was a pretty bad loss for a world champion in his last pre-match game against the challenger. Carlsen didn’t even have to play “like Carlsen” — in other words, he didn’t have to grind out an 80-move endgame win from a seemingly equal position. The fact that he can beat Anand in a completely different way (like Karpov, perhaps?) has to be a favorable sign for Carlsen and a troubling sign for Anand.

Finally, let me mention that I am leaving tomorrow on a (non-chess-related) trip to England and Scotland tomorrow, and I will be gone for ten days. I don’t know whether I will have a chance to write any blog entries while I am away. So I’m afraid that you will have to look elsewhere for match coverage. Of course, there are many places to look. Try Chessbase,, Chessdom, or even the official match website. Enjoy the match, while I enjoy my trip!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt November 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I am going to try to stay up to watch some of the first game live, although I believe it starts at 1:30am Pacific so I may not make it. I don’t think the match will be quite the blow out that you do and I expect Anand to snare Carlsen in some opening preparation in at least one or two games (since Carlsen’s weakness is known to be his openings). I do still expect Carlsen to win but won’t be surprised if it’s 6.5 – 5.5.

Have a good trip to the UK! Whereabouts in England will you be?


admin November 9, 2013 at 8:39 am

First in London for a statistics conference, and then I’m going with my wife to Scotland to visit the town where her grandmother grew up. It’s the first time either of us have been to Scotland.


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