Hook and Ladder in the Meltwater Champions Tour

by admin on October 3, 2021

Okay, I admit that I have not been following this extravaganza called the Meltwater Champions Tour, which Magnus Carlsen has now won with two rounds to go. (Yawn…) Mostly I don’t care about it because it’s rapid chess (game/15 with 10 seconds per move). Don’t get me wrong. I love to see players like Magnus Carlsen, Teimour Radjabov, Wesley So, etc. going at it… but I would rather see them playing Chess rather than Chess Lite.

However, one of my blog readers and former teammates, Larry Smith, alerted me to an appearance of the Hook and Ladder Trick yesterday, and that is enough to get me interested! Especially because it’s a Hook and Ladder with an extra tactical wrinkle.

FEN: 4r3/5pkp/6p1/2Nb4/P2P4/3Q3P/q5P1/3R2K1 w – – 0 43

Hikaru Nakamura, playing White, is up a pawn but Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (Black) definitely has some pressure. All of his pieces coordinate beautifully and White especially has to watch out for the checkmate on g2. Nakamura has been trying for several moves to force a queen trade, because in an endgame he would have decent winning chances. So I imagine his next move was played more or less reflexively, without deep thought.

43. Qd2?? …

Hikaru should have played 43. Rd2, but even this leads to an uncomfortable position for White after 43. … Re1+ followed by 44. … Qa1, taking over the back rank and forcing White’s king out into the open.

Do you see what is wrong with the move Nakamura played?

43. … Re2??

MVL misses his chance for a quick knockout with 43. … Re1+!! If White takes with the rook, his queen loses protection: 44. Rxe1 Qxd2. If White takes with the queen, he gets checkmated: 44. Qxe1 Qxg2 mate. And if White just moves his king out of check, then Black wins a rook: 44. Kh2 Rxd1, and White again can’t recapture because of checkmate on g2.

For those of you who haven’t seen it before, this is a tactical motif that I call the Hook and Ladder Trick. The usual ingredients are:

  1. The queens are attacking each other. Normally, one player (I’ll call them your opponent) has just offered a queen trade.
  2. Your opponent’s queen is protected by a rook on the back rank. Think of the queen as standing on top of a ladder, whose base is held by a rook.
  3. Your rook can play a check on the back rank. This deflects the rook that is holding the base of the ladder, so if he takes your rook then you win his queen.
  4. For the Hook and Ladder to work, either your opponent’s king has to be in a mating net, so that your opponent is forced to take your rook, or else you need to have some other tactic after his king moves out of check. Typically that tactic involves an x-ray attack: either you can simply win his rook (as in this example) or you can trade queens and then win a rook (if your opponent has two rooks still).

These four ingredients come together much more often than you’d think, and even grandmasters are not aware of this trick. That’s one reason it really helps to give it a name, just like other tactics (e.g., the Greek Gift, Philidor’s Legacy). I wrote about it for Chess Life back in July 2007 and gave it the name “Hook and Ladder Trick.”

Since then I’ve mentioned the Hook and Ladder several times in this blog: here (Motylev-Giri, where it was threatened but avoided); here (Akobian-Caruana, where Caruana could have offered a pawn sac to set up the Hook and Ladder, but didn’t see it); here (Grandelius-Sapp, where White plays the Hook and Ladder and wins); here (a game where the computer sacs a bishop against me to set up the Hook and Ladder); here (my first win with the Hook and Ladder, played in a speed game, and the only example I’ve seen where the check was not played on the back rank); here (Vigorito-MacIntyre, where my fellow Chess Lecturer David Vigorito pulls out the Hook and Ladder); here (two examples: Krush-Foisor, where the many time US Women’s Champion is the victim, and Tkachenko-Makarkin, a couple of random Russians); and here (Kamsky-Akobian, where Kamsky uses the Hook and Ladder to win a playoff for the U.S. Championship). And of course this is in addition to the three or four examples I cited in my original Chess Life article. My favorite one in that article was Kraai-Mezentsev, where my friend Jesse Kraai earned his third and final grandmaster norm by setting up a Hook and Ladder against his IM opponent. All in all, it’s quite an impressive collection of strong players both using the Hook and Ladder, and also being completely bamboozled by it.

If you’re wondering what happened in the game between Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave, it ended up as a draw. Nakamura eventually won their match, 4-3, in an Armageddon playoff. If MVL had spotted the Hook and Ladder in the above position, he would probably have won the match, because it would have given him a 2-0 lead and Hikaru would have had to win two games in a row just to get to a playoff.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Smith October 5, 2021 at 7:57 pm

Great list of examples of this motif! The hook and ladder is one of the few tactical examples I can think of where you can keep looking and looking, and still not believe it actually works!


Phil Adams October 7, 2021 at 4:49 am

Hi Dana,
Thanks for a very useful reminder of how even very high-level players often seem to have a blind spot for this particular form of deflection.
Another recent example was Esipenko-Carlsen, FIDE World Cup, Sochi, 07.27.2021, where White missed 37 Re8+, but went on to beat the World Champion anyway. (HT to my student Nathan Gittens)


Brabo October 19, 2021 at 11:36 pm

I also encountered already a few times the hook and ladder in my games see http://chess-brabo.blogspot.com/2015/11/tactics-part-2.html

I think it is good to analyze one’s games to avoid missing such tactics in the future.


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