Look for the Penguins

by admin on October 30, 2014

Here’s the finish of one of my games from the recent Western States Open in Reno. It was round three, and I was White against Ganesh Murugappan, the #43 12-year-old in the country.

muruFEN: 6k1/2p1rr1p/P2p4/1PnPpBP1/2n1P3/2B5/4K2R/7R w – – 0 81

Position after 80. … R8f7. White to move.

Black has just moved his rook to f7, which is understandable because I was attacking the h-pawn three times. Both players are in intense time trouble; he had less than 30 seconds for the rest of the game and I had less than a minute. (We do, however, have a 5-second time delay each move to help us out.)

Obviously Black is on the ropes, but what do I do for a knockout punch? The only real threat in the position is g5-g6, but I wasn’t completely sure what the consequences of that move were. As I was trying to make up my mind, my eyes happened to wander over six files to the left — to the a-pawn. And instantly I knew what the correct move was.

81. a7! …

Of course! Black needed his rook on the eighth rank to watch over the pawn’s queening square. With that guard gone, the pawn advance is decisive.

The game ended as follows:

81. … Nb6 82. g6! …

Now there is a point to White’s looming rook penetration to h8. Once I get to that square I will be able to queen the a-pawn.

82. … hg

If 82. … Rg7 83. Rxh7 Rxh7 84. gh+ Kh8 85. Rg1 is curtains. White will maneuver his dark-squared bishop back to d2 and then either to g5 or h6.

83. Bxg6 Kg7?

Played in a state of utter panic, with maybe 15 seconds left on his clock, this move makes it easy for me. But 83. … Rf8 also fails to 84. Rh8+ Kg7 85. R8h7+! and either 86. … Kxg6 87. R1h6+ Kg5 88. Bd2+ or 86. … Kf6 87. Rf1+ Kxg6 88. Rxe7. In this last line the a-pawn is essential — take it off the board and White would not be winning.

84. Bxf7 Rxf7 85. Rh7+ …

From here I traded rooks, played Rh8 and he resigned on move 90.

From the chess point of view this finish is a nice example of play on both sides of the board, where pushing a pawn on the a-file facilitates a breakthrough on the kingside and vice versa. However, I think it’s even more interesting from the psychological point of view, because it’s an example of lateral thinking.

A couple years ago the television program Brain Games had a fascinating episode where they asked unwitting volunteers to watch a simple shell game (the kind where you hide a pea under one of three shells, shuffle them around and ask the person to tell you where the shell is). Meanwhile, a few feet behind the table they were looking at, an actor walked around in a penguin outfit and then left. After the shuffling was done, they asked the volunteers if they had noticed anything unusual in front of them. Not one of them had noticed the actor in the penguin outfit! They were all so focused on the shells that they couldn’t see the penguin.

I thought there was a great lesson here for chess players. We tend to get so focused on one plan, or one part of the board, or one piece, that we fail to notice what else is happening in the position. Ever since then, I have made a note to myself: “Don’t forget to look for the penguins!”

That was exactly what I did in this position, and it won the game for me. I had been so focused on my kingside advance that I had momentarily forgotten about the a-pawn, and it was only when I stopped thinking about the kingside that I noticed the penguin.

I call it “lateral thinking” when, instead of looking at the move that seems to be a logical sequel to the previous ones, you jump laterally to a different idea, a different piece, or a different part of the board. In the above example, it was very literally a “lateral” jump, because I looked six files to the left. In the next example, my lateral thinking was more metaphorical.

lateralFEN: r1r1bb2/5k2/q1n2P1p/3Np1pP/2p1Q3/p6P/P1BB3K/R4R2 w – – 0 36

Position after 35. … Kf7. White to play.

This was a position from a training game against Shredder, the computer program, which I played a couple weeks before the Reno tournament (October 2 to be exact). Shredder’s rating was set to 2142 and the time control was game in 10 minutes.

Just as in the Murugappan game, Black is obviously on the ropes but the question is how is White going to finish him off. I had just played 35. Qe4 and he had played 35. … Kf7, so obviously my attention was focused on the queen. I spent several seconds, maybe half a minute, trying to work out which was better, 36. Qh7+ or 36. Qg6+. On either move he answers … Ke6, and I will probably play something like f7 and he will take my knight on d5. After that I just couldn’t see for sure where my checkmate was.

That’s when a little voice in my head said, “Don’t forget to look for the penguin!” If the problem with my position is that Shredder is going to take my knight, why not move my knight? As soon as I made that lateral jump — from my queen to my knight — the winning combination was laughably easy to spot. I played

36. Nc7! …

Not only does this fork the queen and rook, it threatens 36. Qd5 checkmate! D’oh! The answer to the question, “Where should the queen go, g6 or h7?” was neither! The right square was d5.

Shredder played 36. … Ne7 to stop the checkmate, and of course I could have taken its queen, but I preferred mate in two with 37. Qh7+ Bg7 38. Qxg7 mate.

This was one of my most satisfying training games against Shredder, and it’s especially satisfying to think that the lesson on lateral thinking may have helped me to win my tournament game two weeks later.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane October 30, 2014 at 10:57 pm

From the first diagram my solution was for White to give away all of his pieces:
81. Rh7 Rh7 82. Rh7 Rh7 83. Bh7+ Kh7 84. Ba5 Na5 85. a7.

Maybe I’m missing something.


admin October 31, 2014 at 9:37 am

I love this! But can you work it out in 15 seconds? How sure are you that the Q vs. 2N endgame is an easy win, with all those Black pawns? Not disagreeing with you, but just saying that it’s a high-risk line to play with your flag hanging.


Chessperado October 31, 2014 at 3:14 pm

In Mike’s line, after 81. Rh7 Rh7 82. Rh7 Rh7 83. Bh7+ Kh7 84. Ba5, I think black can play 84…Na4 or Nd7. Or maybe not, I guess the white king can go easily to a5 after white bishop takes on c7 and the exchange on b6. Very nice position!


Dan November 3, 2014 at 6:46 am

How about the simple 81.g6 hg 82.Ba5 and it’s a girl!


Dan November 3, 2014 at 9:23 am

Oops, missed the …Nd7 idea. 81.g6 hg 82.Ba5 gf 83.a7 Nd7.


Dan November 3, 2014 at 9:27 am

Wait, I’m losing my mind…the first line I gave works. But the line Dana played is just as good.


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