How Could I Be So Blind?

by admin on October 18, 2014

This is a lament that every chess player utters at some point… some of us more often than others. My turn to utter it was yesterday.

alazawi 1FEN: 7k/7p/P2R2p1/5p2/2p5/1K6/6rP/8 w – – 0 48

Position after 47. … c4+. White to move.

Round one of the Western States Open in Reno. I’m playing White against Samir Alazawi, a class A player. Here is where I had my moment of chess blindness.

I probably spent 10 minutes thinking about this position. The first move I wanted to play was 48. Ka3, to keep Black’s rook off the a-file. Obviously if 48. … c3 49. a7, and White’s pawn wins the race. But then I started looking at 48. … Rxh2, and I couldn’t see a win! After 49. a7 I suddenly thought, “Wait a minute! He can play 49. … Rh1! If I queen my pawn, he’ll play 50. … Ra1+ and skewer my king and queen!”

So then I started looking at the alternative, 50. Rd8+ Kg7 51. a8Q Ra1+ 52. Kb4 Rxa8 53. Ra8 (diagram).

alazawi 3FEN: R7/6kp/6p1/5p2/1Kp5/8/8/8 b – – 0 53

Position after 53. Ra8 (analysis). Black to move.

At this point, I have to say, my mind just boggled. I wasn’t sure whether I was winning, drawing, or losing — and a difference of a single tempo can easily change the result. I couldn’t really force myself to analyze this position, because there are a hundred million different variations and the crucial moments won’t come for another six or seven moves. So finally, I just gave up and played the safer move back in diagram 1, namely 48. Kxc4. Of course he then brought his rook to the a-file with 48. … Ra2. Maybe White can still win somehow, but I wasn’t able (with limited time) to figure out how, and the game was soon drawn after 49. Kb5 f4 50. Rf6 g5 51. Rf5 h6 52. Kb6 Kg7 53. a7 Rxa7 54. Kxa7 Kg6 55. Rf8 Kg7 56. Rf5 ½-½.

Those are the facts. Now, detective, what did I miss?

Answer: In the variation highlighted in red, after 48. Ka3! Rxh2 49. a7 Rh1 50. a8Q+ is check. He doesn’t get a chance to play 50. … Ra1+ and skewer my rook. Instead, to add insult to injury, I fork his king and rook!

It’s so head-smackingly simple. And the irony is that in the other variation, 48. … c3 49. a7 c2 50. a8Q+, I did realize that I was queening with check. But somehow I forgot it when I got to the other variation.

The only thing that makes me feel a little bit better is that I was completely lost earlier in the game, so my opponent could say exactly the same thing as me: “How could I be so blind?”

P.S. If you’re wondering about the rook-versus-three pawns endgame in diagram two, it is in fact won for White. I checked in the Nalimov tablebases. In order to draw, Black needs to get his pawns to h5-g4-f3 or to f5-g4-h3, and he’s a tempo short. For example, 53. … h5 54. Kxc4 h4. If it were Black to move, then … g5 would draw. But with White to move, 55. Kd5 wins (and if 55. … h3 56. Ke5!)

The moral here is that if you know a key position, you don’t have to analyze a hundred million variations. You can just count tempi. Unfortunately, I have never studied rook versus 3 pawn endgames, so I didn’t know the key positions.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane October 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

If I remember correctly the assessment of rook versus 3 connected passed pawn is pawns on the 2-3-4 ranks lose, on 3-4-5 ranks draw, on 4-5-6 ranks win. I have never been in this type of ending so I wouldn’t know how to play it out over the board. I think the rook goes behind the most advanced pawn and the King defends from in front, preventing the other king from advancing to support the pawns.


admin October 20, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Hi Mike, unfortunately it’s not so simple because it depends on whether Black’s king is behind the pawns or in front. So there’s a tradeoff: Which should he do? Run the pawns as fast as possible or run the king in front of the pawns?

I started out my analysis by assuming that running the king was the better way. That’s the rule about 99 percent of the time in endgames. But not necessarily in this one!

If Black runs his king in front of his pawns, he is not in time to keep White’s king out. Once White’s king is in front of the pawns too, the king and rook can pretty much stop them in their tracks and then squeeze Black’s king back via zugzwang. (A good example of a zugzwang position, if I remember correctly, is White: king on g2, rook on a5; Black king on g4, pawns on f4-g5-h5. If Black could pass, he would be fine. But he either has to push a pawn, creating a fatal weakness, or move … Kh4, allowing White’s king to occupy f3.)

On the other hand, if Black can get the pawns to the 4-5-6 ranks it’s a draw, even if his king is way back on the second rank. (That was quite a surprise to me when I discovered it in the Nalimov tablebase.) This suggests that maybe the above plan was wrong. In the position above Black has only gotten them to the 4-4-5 ranks, which wasn’t good enough. So maybe the time that Black spent moving his king in front was wasted? Maybe we should just leave it on g7? That was why I started looking at variations starting with 53. … h5. But no matter how you cut it, Black is a tempo short.


Ernest Hong October 19, 2014 at 5:55 am

A master pointed out your final position is a win as analyzed by a computer. He didn’t reveal the key, but kibitzers say after Rf8 Kg7 Ra8 is one way to go. Your king runs back and if the pawn makes a break for f1, the rook rounds it up. If the black king makes a break to capture h2, your king can keep pace and then Rh8 will reduce to a win.


admin October 20, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Hi Ernie, Thanks for your comment! I’m sorry that things didn’t go well for you at this tournament, but I was glad to see that you are back playing tournament chess.

Yes, I’m pretty sure that there is a win in the final position. The master you mention is Mike Zaloznyy. The first key move was 55. Rf8!, which I successfully played. Mike originally wanted me to go 55. Ra5, which would be incorrect and would allow Black to draw by one tempo (as I showed him after the game). But after 55. Rf8 Kg7 Black has lost a tempo, by moving his king back! Ergo, 56. Ra8! now wins. In the heat and pressure of battle, these subtleties were lost on me. It would take someone with great calculating ability and great confidence to figure something like this out OTB.

In view of the fact that I had missed the earlier, elementary win with 48. Ka3, it’s no surprise that I missed the 100 times more difficult win with 56. Ra8.


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