Two knights, two rims, twice as dim

by admin on April 27, 2017

The Reykjavik Open concluded today, and the winner was not too big a surprise: it was Anish Giri, who went into the tournament with the highest rating. However, the way he won was definitely a surprise; going into round eight he was half a point behind the leaders. The beautiful victory I showed in my last post caught him up, and then he finished with wins in rounds 9 and 10 as well to finish half a point clear of the field, with 8½ out of 10.

Second place was a four-way tie including Jorden van Foreest, who like Giri is from the Netherlands. Van Foreest is even younger than Giri! It’s getting completely impossible to keep track of all the young prodigies in chess. If you had asked me who is likely to become the first Dutch world champion since Max Euwe, I would have said Giri, of course. But maybe not!

Also in the tie for second was Gata Kamsky, the highest U.S. finisher. I have no idea how he won his last-round game; the last time I looked it was the most drawn-looking minor-piece endgame in history. But that’s what GM’s do.

But the real star of the tournament, for me, was none of the above: it was Kostya Kavutskiy, who tied for sixth (and in fact finished sixth on tiebreaks). With 7½ points out of 10 and a performance rating of 2505, this has to be the greatest tournament of Kavutskiy’s career so far. A little bit about him: His pre-tournament FIDE rating was 2347. He is a Facebook friend of mine, who lives in the San Jose area and teaches for Bay Area Chess. I started following him when he played on the San Jose Hackers in the PRO Chess League this winter. I have not met him personally, but I followed his commentary on YouTube throughout the Reykjavik Open. At first it was, “Wow, that’s cool! A local person going off to Reykjavik!” Then it was, “Hey, he’s doing pretty well in Reykjavik!” And finally, after his win today, it’s, “Holy cow! He just finished in the top ten of one of the strongest tournaments in the world!”

To anyone who’s interested, I strongly recommend that you watch his commentary on YouTube, for example this video about his brilliancy-prize winning game in round nine. I really like his teaching style, which is very understated but right to the point. Although he won the brilliancy prize for his game in round nine, I’m not sure that it was the one that impressed me the most. It was your basic King’s Indian massive pawn storm. Even Kostya said that he got most of the ideas from watching Hikaru Nakamura’s games, and he only had to think on the last seven moves of the game. (However, they were hard moves.)

The combination of his I liked the best came the round before. I liked it because it was so unique and original. Here is the key position:

kavutskiy 1White to move.

FEN: r4rk1/p2bq1p1/n3p2p/3pPp1n/8/1P4PN/PBQ1PPBP/R2R2K1 w – - 0 1

Correction: There was a Black pawn at b4 in the actual position. This is significant for three reasons: 1) Material is even, White isn’t ahead. 2) The move 1. … Nb4 (discussed below) was not actually available to Black. 3) After 8. a4 (several moves in the future), Kostya had to consider the possibility of 8. … ba en passant (which is bad because of 9. Bxa3 skewering queen and rook).

At first you might think that Black is doing okay here, but his position has one defect: the two knights that are both deployed awkwardly on the rim. The knight on h5, in particular, has no safe place to move to. Can you see how to exploit this fact?

In his video, Kavutskiy says that his first inclination was actually to play 1. e3, threatening to fork the two knights with Qe2. But then he realized, “Hey, wait a minute!” There is no way for Black to defend that fork! For that reason, he can get away with being a good deal more assertive, and he played 1. e4!

This is always my favorite move to play against a Stonewall pawn formation, and here it’s devastating. If 1. … Nb4 2. Qe2, White will chase away the knight with a3 and then demolish Black’s center with ed. Kostya’s opponent, Hilmir Heimisson from Iceland, decided instead to sac one of the knights for two pawns with 1. … fe 2. Qe2 Nxg3 3. hg Nc5. It seems superficially as if Black might actually get some counterplay for his material, with the knight coming to d3. But Kostya does a really nice job of shutting the counterplay down. He played 4. Nf4! threatening Ng6. If Black defends with 4. … Be8, hoping to chase the knight away on the next move with … g5, he doesn’t have enough time: Kostya will play 5. Bd4 threatening Bxc4 followed by Nxe6! This is what knights do best: fork major pieces.

Getting increasingly desperate, Heimisson sacked the exchange with 4. … Rxf4 5. gf Rf8 6. Qe3 Nd3, but Kostya just returned the exchange with 7. Rxd3 ed and then played the cool-as-a-cucumber 8. a4! No need to rush to take the d-pawn, you just shut down all of your opponent’s play first. Heimisson played on for several moves, but really the game is over here.

What I like about the combination is that it demands whole-board awareness. You have to see the two hanging knights, which seem to have nothing to do with one another, and realize that there is a way to attack both of them. Long-distance moves are always the hardest ones to see, and I think that a long-distance fork like this one is even harder.

Congratulations to Kavutskiy! Hopefully this tournament will be the kind of “quantum leap” that takes him to a new level in his chess career.

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admin April 28, 2017 at 9:14 am

I made a mistake in the diagram, and have now added an erratum. In my opinion, a day after the post went up is too late for me to just quietly replace the diagram and delete the unnecessary analysis.

By the way, Kostya was super humble about his accomplishment in his Facebook posts. He says, “I still have so much I can improve! Kind of scary/motivating. But mostly motivating, and also really scary.” He also says that he was never even close to a GM norm, but he did win the under-2400 prize. That might seem obvious, but actually there was another under-2400 player, England’s John Pigott, who also scored 7.5 out of 10. Kostya finished ahead of Pigott on tiebreaks.

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