The Sickest Move of the Year

by admin on December 24, 2019

This is part one of a two-part post. Come back after Christmas for part two!

Every now and then I see a game that makes me realize that the chess I play is just a completely different game from the chess that 2800 players play. I’m looking at you, Magnus Carlsen.

Position after 33. … Rxf2. White to play.

FEN: 8/P4pkp/2Rp2p1/8/8/7P/1r3rP1/R5K1 w – – 0 34

This was a position from the Tata Steel blitz tournament last month in Kolkata, India, featuring Carlsen as White and Levon Aronian (a former 2800 player himself) as Black. First thing to realize: It’s a speed game. So you don’t get a lot of time to think about this position. Pieces are flying. Your flag is hanging. In five seconds, what is your evaluation? What would you play?

If you said any other move than 34. a8Q, I don’t believe you. But then the game is a draw after 34. … Rxg2+ 35. Kf1 Rbf2+ 36. Ke1 Re2+ 37. Kd1 Rd2+. In your five seconds of analysis, you might have thought that 38. Kc1 gets you out of the checks. But actually, it gets you out of the frying pan and into the fire, because 38. … Rdf2! sets up two different mate threats that cannot both be defended by White’s queen. 39. Qa4?? would lose to 39. … Rf1+ 40. Qd1 Rxd1+ 41. Kxd1 Rg1+, picking up the rook with an x-ray attack. And 39. Kb1 Rb2+ 40. Kc1 Rdf2 would be a draw by repetition.

But if you’re Magnus, you have actually been aiming for this position for the last four moves, and you calmly play

34. Rc2!! …

This is my nominee for Sickest Move of the Year. Once you see it, I grant you, the move makes perfect sense. It’s a clearance sacrifice, opening the long diagonal so that after 34. … Rbxc2 35. a8Q defends the g-pawn. But just the appearance of the move itself, the rook brazenly stepping between Black’s doubled rooks on the seventh with nothing to defend it, is so crazy that I just love it.

When you add this to the fact that the move also stops … Rxg2+ (just for one move, but that’s enough), and Magnus had to find it in a few seconds, and that he also had to realize that there was no other way to win (i.e., 34. a8Q right away doesn’t work), you have the Sickest Move of the Year.

There’s one more thing I need to say about this position, which leads me to my next post. The game did in fact continue

34. … Rbxc2 35. a8Q …

Yes, White has queened his pawn and avoided perpetual check, but this position is still far from being a routine win. Black has a rook and two pawns for a queen. It’s true that the d6 pawn is weak and will probably fall, but Black should be able to charge a price for that pawn: White will have to trade a pair of rooks, and then we’ll be down to Q+2P versus R+3P, with all the pawns on the same side of the board. In such a position it seems as if Black would have very good chances to draw by setting up a fortress.

In fact, what I described is exactly what happened:

35. … h5 36. Qe4! Rce2 37. Qd4+ Rf6 38. Rf1 Re5!

Aronian avoids 38. … Ree6? 39. Rxf6 Rxf6 40. h4, zugzwang. This illustrates a point I’ll come back to next time: Black generally wants to avoid getting his rook(s) pinned.

39. Rxf6 Kxf6 40. Qxd6+ Re6 41. Qf8! …

Position after 41. Qf1. Black to move.

FEN: 5Q2/5p2/4rkp1/7p/8/7P/6P1/6K1 b – – 0 41

This position totally looks like a fortress. If you take away the g- and h-pawns for each player, it would be a book draw. But Magnus doesn’t believe in fortresses!

To me, the fact that Magnus won this endgame shows just as high a class of mastery as his amazing move, 34. Rc2!! That move just took one moment of genius. To win this endgame takes a deep understanding of queen versus rook endgames. For starters, let me just mention what a great move 41. Qf8! was. If Black’s king gets to g7, then Black has his fortress position and I believe there is no way for White to win.

Next time we’ll start with the above position, dissect this endgame and learn some things about Q versus R+P in general.

Same-day correction: I made a slight error in my analysis after 34. a8Q? Rxg2+ 35. Kf1 Rbf2+ 36. Ke1 Re2+ 37. Kd1. I continued 37. … Rd2+?? 38. Kc1 Rdf2, when one of the kids in the Aptos Library Chess Club correctly pointed out that 39. Rxd6! defends for White. Instead, Black should play 37. Ref2 right away. All the same themes apply: White has to play 38. Ke1 and settle for a draw by repetition, because 38. Qa5 walks into the check-and-skewer 38. … Rf1+ 39. Qe1 Rxe1+ 40. Kxe1 Rg1.

Merry Christmas to everyone, especially my brilliant kids at the Aptos Library Chess Club!

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