Seeking Clarity

by admin on September 9, 2012

“I woke up with a headache like my head against a board/ Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before/ And I went in seeking clarity.” — Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine”

Besides being a line from one of my two favorite songs in the whole world (I’ll leave you guessing about the other one), this is a little bit how I feel this morning. Not so much the headache part, but the “seeking clarity” part.

Gjon Feinstein and I met last night to go over some of the games from my tournament last weekend. Besides my miraculous win in the last game, I didn’t have much to be happy about; in two games I squandered what appeared to be decisive advantages and had to settle for a draw.

Here is one of the positions where I went in seeking clarity.

Position after 30. ... Kd6. White to move.

FEN: 8/p2P3p/3kn2p/1pp1N3/4K3/2P5/PP4PP/8 w – – 0 31

I was playing White in the fifth round against an expert named Scott Mason, and we had just passed the time control on move 30. This means I had lots of time to think (second time control was game/60, and with material so reduced it’s very unlikely that time pressure will become an issue again).

As I looked at the position it seemed to me that I stood at a fork in the road. I can either win a pawn on the kingside with 31. Nf7+ Kxd7 32. Nxh6 or I can win a pawn on the queenside with 31. Kf5 Ke7 (forced — Black cannot allow the king to penetrate to f6) 32. Nc6+ Kxd7 33. Nxa7. Which way should I go?

I started my analysis with the latter variation.

Position after 33. Nxa7 (analysis)

FEN: 8/N2k3p/4n2p/1pp2K2/8/2P5/PP4PP/8 b – – 0 33

First of all, let’s dispel the notion that White’s knight is in any trouble after 33. … Nc7. It’s true that it has no moves, but also Black’s king has no way to approach it. I can just march my king to f6 and g7, gobble Black’s kingside pawns, and win.

A line that concerned me more was 33. … b4 34. a4 bc 35. bc (or 34. … ba 35. ba if you prefer). With my pawns split, I thought that Black might somehow manage to liquidate the queenside pawns and sac his knight for my kingside pawns. Looking at it now I think this is ridiculous. So that was my first analytical failure — I was way too pessimistic about the queenside pawn grab.

Now, what about the kingside pawn grab, 31. Nf7+ Kxd7 32. Nxh6? Here is where things get murky, and I’m not quite sure what is the correct lesson for me to learn.

After a much more cursory analysis than the other variation, I decided this was easily winning for White. I thought I would be able to follow up with Ng8 and Nf6+, winning the second pawn on the kingside, and then I didn’t see any way that he could even hope to stop my connected passed pawns.

But things started going awry right away. My opponent surprised me with the move 32. … c4!

Position after 32. ... c4. White to move.

FEN: 8/p2k3p/4n2N/1p6/2p1K3/2P5/PP4PP/8 w – – 0 33

I had completely failed to analyze this possibility. In fact, in my rather careless analysis I had not really analyzed anything after Nxh6. Failure number two: After spending a long time analyzing line one and not being completely happy with it, I then leaped into line two without sufficient analysis. This is a very common faulty thought pattern.

Here’s how the game continued from diagram 3: 33. Ng8? Kd6 34. Nf6 Nc5+ 35. Kf5 Na4 (Now things are going seriously wrong for White. There isn’t time for me to grab the h-pawn. As it turns out, Black didn’t have to stop my connected passers, he just had to outrace them.) 36. Ne4+ Kd5 37. b3 cb 38. ab Nc5!!

Position after 38. ... Nc5. White to move.

FEN: 8/p6p/8/1pnk1K2/4N3/1PP5/6PP/8 w – – 0 39

Until Black played this move I still thought I was completely winning. It only gradually dawned on me that it’s now a draw. First, if I play the passive 39. Nd2 I might even lose after 39. … Nxb3! (also … a5 is possible). Second, if I go back to Plan A with 39. Nf6+ Kc6 40. b4 Na4 41. Nxh7 Nxc3, Black’s queenside pawns are just as fast at White’s kingside pawns. It’s not a matter of quantity but quality, and also Black’s knight is very strategically placed. For example, 42. g4 a5 43. Ke5? (A doomed attempt to stop the pawn) 43. … a4 44. Kd4 Nd1! 45. Kd3 a3 46. Kc2 a2 and the knight and pawn jointly keep White’s king out.

Finally there is 39. Nxc5, the move I played, which eliminates any losing possibilities but also leaves me one tempo short of a win. The game concluded 39. … Kxc5 40. Ke4 a5 41. g4 a4 42. ba ba 43. Kd3 a3 44. Kc2 a2 45. Kb2 Kc4 46. h4 a1Q+! 47. Kxa1 Kxc3 48. g5 Kd4 49. h5 Ke5 50. g6 Kf6 51. gh Kg7 ½-½.

Now, before going any further, I think we have to give Mason credit for finding a truly inspired defense. But after acknowledging that, we have to ask what went wrong with my thought process. How was I supposed to know that going after the  a-pawn wins, but going after the h-pawn only draws? Surely there must be something better than just flipping a coin.

What Gjon stressed last night is that in a position like this that is a clear fork in the road, you have to put maximum effort into your calculations. There is a place and a time for calculation. I often over-calculate in positions where I don’t really need to, and that’s one reason I get into time pressure. But here there was a need and there was plenty of time. Even though I used 15 minutes (!) I did a shockingly poor job of calculating the line after 32. Nxh6. I never even looked at 32. … c4. This is not grandmaster stuff. This is only TWO moves deep.

I think Gjon is right about that. But there’s another thing that both of us missed last night! Let’s go back to the position after 32. … c4. To help you I’ll copy it over again.

Position after 32. ... c4. White to move.

FEN: 8/p2k3p/4n2N/1p6/2p1K3/2P5/PP4PP/8 w – – 0 33

I’m sure you must be wondering, “Why not 33. Kd5?” It’s the move that cries out to be played. It’s the whole reason I didn’t even consider 32. … c4, because I just assumed that Black had to keep my king out.

Well, the problem with 33. Kd5 is that Black plays 33. … Nf4+, forking the king and the g-pawn. But let’s go a little farther! After 34. Kc5 a6 35. Kb6 Nxg7 36. Kxa6 Kc6 we get to a position that somehow Gjon, my opponent, and I all mis-evaluated.

Position after 36. ... Kc6 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 8/7p/K1k4N/1p6/2p5/2P5/PP4nP/8 w – – 0 37

In the post-mortem, Mason played this move, 36. … Kc6 and we both said, “Oh yeah, draw.” When I showed Gjon the game last night, he reacted the same way. It’s an understandable gut reaction — you see the king trapped on the a-file and you think he has no way of getting out. But hello! There are knights on the board! In fact, after 37. Nf5 Ne1 38. Nd4+ I win the b-pawn and free my king. Black just remains two pawns down, and this should be an easy win.

So, in the end, my blunder was NOT that I chose the kingside over the queenside. Either way should have worked. The real blunder was that I “took my opponent’s word for it” that 33. Kd5 was no good. I had to analyze deeper. That’s how you win chess games, by seeing one move (or in this case, two moves) farther than your opponent.

So, have we reached clarity? I don’t know! After all of this, it seems as if the main conclusion is simply, “Analyze deeper.” (Or perhaps a more nuanced version: “Recognize the critical positions where analysis matters, and look one move deeper than your opponent.”) But that’s so obvious and banal that it’s hard to consider it a bona fide lesson.

“Twice as cloudy as the night before…”

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane September 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm

“After spending a long time analyzing line one and not being completely happy with it, I then leaped into line two without sufficient analysis. This is a very common faulty thought pattern.”

Yes, that happens to everybody. Good reminder.

“There is a place and a time for calculation. I often over-calculate in positions where I don’t really need to, and that’s one reason I get into time pressure. But here there was a need…”

I think you fell into that trap this time. You did not consider quiet moves in your list of candidates. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t think you needed to play forcing moves here. Black’s pieces are tied down as long as your pawn on d7 is alive and you can take your time to improve your position.

It seems as if the main conclusion is simply, “Analyze deeper.” (Or perhaps a more nuanced version: “Recognize the critical positions where analysis matters, and look one move deeper than your opponent.”)

I think your nuanced version is correct. Many positions are not solvable over-the-board by brute force analysis and you shouldn’t waste time trying.

In the initial position I would seek the right plan rather than the right tactics. I’d start with some general considerations and only look at candidate moves after I had an idea of how to win.

1. Does it help White to trade the strong d7 pawn, on the verge of queening and tying down Black’s pieces, for a lousy doubled rook-pawn, a doubled rook pawn at that? It might. That could be my resreve plan if I can’t find anything better.

2. Black has to defend the d8 square to stop White from queening. For the time being his knight can not move unless it gives check.

3. In Knight endings having a king on the fifth rank is usually a winning advantage. so Black’s king can not move without allowing the White king into d5.

4. Since Black’s king and knight are tied down, a waiting for zugawang approach might work. Can White imply wait for Black to run out of pawn moves? Let’s see.

5. Does it help Black to advance his queenside pawns? No. Any advances make them more vulnerable to attack. As long as the white king stats centralized there is nothing to fear.

6. Does it help Black to advance his h6 pawn? Yes, it gets out of the Nf7+ fork.

7. Does White have any good waiting moves? Yes. You can improve your own position by playing g4 and h4. If you eventually decide to trade the d-pawn for the h pawn it will be very helpful to have those pawns farther advanced.

8. White can start with either g4 or h4,. Which one is better? g4 freezes the h6-pawn but allows … Ng5+. What happens after that is where I would begin my calculations.

Hope this helps. – Mike

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Praveen September 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Hi Dana
I am probably overlooking something perfectly obvious. Nevertheless, in the first position, it seems to me that you have a de-facto win since black is nearly in zugzwang. His knight can’t move and so you can move the king. Black probably plans Nf8 followed by Kc7 trying to win the pawn. But white has moves – maybe Kf5 and then move one of the kingside pawns sometime to win the race after the h pawns fall?

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admin September 9, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Hi Mike, You’re totally right. I didn’t think about pawn moves. In fact, it seems as if I didn’t think about much of anything in those 15 minutes that I used!
31. g4 seems very sensible, especially in light of what happened in the game. One of my problems in the game continuation was that my passed pawns were too far back to win the pawn race — so why not advance them now, when it is practically risk-free? (Praveen is saying more or less the same thing.) Also, 31. g4 makes the g-pawn itself safe from forks (which was one thing that tripped me up during the game).
It’s very instructive to me how I set myself the wrong problem during the game. Instead of asking, “Which fork in the road do I take?” I should have asked, “Why choose any fork at all?” As long as I can improve my position, there’s no reason to choose.

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tolyakarpov September 10, 2012 at 6:49 am

At first glance at the position,its really winning..reading your profile,i think the problem is your style of play.you love kings gambit.meaning your super aggressive player.and the position above needs the style of petrosion or karpov,prophylaxis,.you need patient..and physical health that most chess player neglect…very instructive ending nice works

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Ed September 26, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Interesting ending and interesting read. Thanks!

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