Taking Care of Business

by admin on February 3, 2020

For the California Unicorns, this week’s PRO Chess League match was one that they were expected to win. Their opponents, the Brazil Capybaras, were in seventh place in the Western Conference, and they don’t have any super-GMs. Quite a change from last week’s opponents, the St. Louis Arch Bishops, who had four 2700-plus players in their lineup!

Although the Capybaras weren’t expected to seriously challenge the Unicorns, there are no routine matches in a chess league where every game is played at a blitz pace (10 minutes plus a 2-second-per-move increment). Plus, in this match we had an extra ingredient of uncertainty, as it marked the season debut (perhaps league debut?) of a new talent: 15-year-old grandmaster Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan.

I would be lying if I said that I had heard of Abdusattorov before today. But this is testament to the fact that PRO Chess League matches are no only won by the players. They are also won by the managers — in this case, David Pruess, who somehow must have heard through the grapevine about this player’s availability.

PRO Chess League rules allow teams to sign up players from anywhere in the world, provided that at most two of the four players in any given match are “free agents.” The other two have to be “local” players. This week, our local players were very familiar: GM Steven Zierk and GM Daniel Naroditsky. The latter has not missed a single match this season or last! Our second free agent was Anton Smirnov of Australia, a slightly less prodigious prodigy than Abdusattarov who is rated 2585 at age 19. (By comparison, Abdusattarov is rated 2635 at age 15.)

The match ended up being a very workmanlike victory for the Unicorns, in which they outplayed the Capybaras by a little bit each round. The Unicorns won each of the first three rounds by 2.5-1.5, and then coasted in with a 2-2 tie in the last round to end the match at 9.5-6.5. I didn’t see any particularly brilliant games (although I missed the first round, so I don’t know what happened there). What I did see was several good endgame wins and saves.

Also, Abdusattarov had a good debut, beating the Brazilian first and second boards in the last two rounds. If there was any turning point in this match, it was probably his win over Lucas do Valle Cardoso in round three.

Always Check, It Might Be Mate!

Black to move.

FEN: 1r6/8/8/3Pk3/R3n3/4p3/PPK1B2P/8 b – – 0 1

This looked like a desperate position for the Unicorns. Abdusattarov, playing Black, is three pawns down, and he can’t take on d5 because 46. … Kxd5? 47. Bf3! leads to a pin and an easy win for White. In such circumstances, you might as well throw in a check, right?

46. … Rc8+ 47. Kd1?? …

Even three pawns up, White has only one winning move and the other moves all lose. 47. Kb1?? runs into … Nd2+ and mate next move. Both 47. Kb3?? and 47. Kd3?? run into the wicked fork … Nc5+. And 47. Bc4?? would allow Black to queen his pawn with … e2. So we have to give Abdusattarov some credit for an “almost winning move.” But as they say, “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. By process of elimination White should have played 47. Rc4, after which he is completely winning. I don’t know how he missed this, but everything is possible in speed chess.

After the text move, Black is easily winning.

47. … Nf2+ 48. Ke1 Rc1+ 49. Bd1 Nxd1!

Not 49. … Rxd1+?, which would only draw after 50. Ke2.

50. Ke2 Nxb2

White’s poor rook at a4 was in the worst possible place. If it were anywhere else, White could play Kxe3 with a draw.

51. Ra3 Rc2+ 52. Kf3 …

Once again the e-pawn was taboo, because of 52. Kxe3 Nc4+.

52. … Rf2+!

When I first saw this I thought, “Has Black lost his mind? Giving away his last pawn?” No, he’s just calculated everything perfectly.

53. Kxe3 Nd1+! 54. Kd3 Rf3+ 55. Kd2 Rxa3 White resigns

If Cardoso had won this game, California would have had only a narrow margin of 6.5-5.5 going into the last round, and that round would surely have been much tenser. Instead we had a comfortable 7.5-4.5 advantage.

Another interesting endgame where the Unicorns snagged an extra half point was the game Cardoso-Zierk from round two. (Sorry that I’m picking on Cardoso today!)

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Rook and Pawn Endgames

I think that if you love chess you’ve got to love rook-and-pawn endgames, because small details other than the material situation can make a huge difference. A pawn-up endgame can be hopelessly drawn, and an even-material endgame can be won. It all depends on the pawn structure, the activity of the rooks, and the activity of the kings.

White to move.

FEN: R7/5ppk/p3p3/4P2p/5P2/5KP1/r6P/8 w – – 0 1

In this very common kind of position, here are the things that stand out to me. One is the fact that we have 4 pawns versus 4 on the kingside rather than 3 versus 3. This means that there are more opportunities than usual for Black to win by sacrificing his a-pawn for one of the kingside pawns, because the 4 on 3 situation might be a win.

But there are some factors in White’s favor, too. His rook is well placed, Black’s pawn on f2 is a target, and White’s advanced pawns give him the opportunity to lock Black’s king up in a dungeon. Put them on g4, f4, and e5, and the Black king can’t get out.

Cardoso, who is White, plays very well up to a point and he might have been able to save a draw. But then, as usual, speed chess craziness happened.

1. h3 Kg6 2. g4 h4! 3. Ra7 Ra3+ 4. Ke4 Ra4+ 5. Kf3 …

Here Zierk, playing Black, really scared me, because he let his clock run down to 8 seconds before playing his next move. I think that the possible reason is really interesting, and worthy of a longish digression.

After the “normal” move, 5. … a5, Fritz says that the game is a draw! Or rather, it comes up with a line that seems drawn to me. The key is the very non-obvious move 6. g5! (diagram)

Position after 6. g5 (analysis). Black to move.

FEN: 8/R4pp1/4p1k1/p3P1P1/r4P1p/5K1P/8/8 b – – 0 6

Normally you want to avoid such a move like the plague, because it creates a hole in White’s pawn structure on f5. But this is an exception, and a great example of why there are no universal rules in R+P endgames.

White’s move has three points. (1) Black can’t play … Kf5 right away, or ever, because of Rxf7+. (2) Black’s pawn on h4 has been isolated from its peers and White can now win it with Kg4-h4. (3) But even more than that, White has some amazing ideas connected with pawn sacrifices on f5 and e6! Here’s how the line goes:

5. … a5 6. g5!! Ra1 (other moves exist, but I will play “normally” for Black) 7. Kg4 a4 8. Ra6! (pinning the e-pawn and threatening f5+, so Black has to retreat) 8. … Kh7 9. Rf7 a3 (9. … Kg6 10. Ra6 would draw) 10. Kh5! (Stronger than simply taking on h4. Notice that Black’s pawn has advanced too far, so White does not have time any more for 10. Rxf7.) 10. … a2 (diagram)

Position after 10. … a2 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 8/R4ppk/4p3/4P1PK/5P1p/7P/p7/r7 w – – 0 11

In this crucial position, the computer comes up with the amazing double-pawn sacrifice 11. f5!! ef 12. e6!! Black can’t take because of 12. … fe?? 13. g6+ Kg8 14. Ra8 mate. Instead he has to play 12. … g6 13. Kxh4 Kg7 14. e7 Re1 (the pawn must be stopped) 15. Rxa2 Rxe7 16. Ra6. Although Black is a pawn up with a protected passed pawn, his winning chances are small. The computer gives him a 0.39-pawn advantage. Also, notice that Black has to watch out for instant draws by stalemate, for example 16. … Re3 17. Rxg6+!

Now let’s go back to the position in the game after 5. Kf3 (diagram).

Position after 5. Kf3. Black to move.

FEN: 8/R4pp1/p3p1k1/4P3/r4PPp/5K1P/8/8 b – – 0 5

I don’t know if Zierk saw this variation, but his grandmaster intuition told him that White’s pawn phalanx was too dangerous to go unchallenged. With 8 seconds left, he played

5. … f6?! 6. Re7! Ra3+ 7. Ke4 Rxh3 8. Rxe6 Rh1 9. Rxa6 …

It feels as if White is very close to a draw now. But anything can happen in speed chess.

9. … h3 10. Kf3 Rg1 11. ef?? …

Sometimes we overthink things and play complicated moves when simple ones would do. The simple 11. Ra2 stops the h-pawn in its tracks and prepares Rh2. Now Zierk’s h-pawn reaches pay dirt.

11. … h2 12. fg+ Kxg7 13. Ra7+ Kf8 14. Rh7 h1Q White resigns.

What a tough day for Cardoso! Two losses in games he should have won and drawn, respectively. Those 1 1/2 points made the difference in the match.

In the day’s other matches, second-place St. Louis beat first-place Canada and bounced them from first, 10-6. Third-place New York obliterated Argentina, 14.5-1.5, winning their last twelve games in a row. New York also passed Canada and is now in second place. Finally, Chicago and the U.K. tied, 8-8, in a match with important consequences for the California Unicorns. Chicago is in fifth place, right behind California, and the tie with the U.K. made them fall farther behind. On the other hand, Chicago should be happy that they at least tied the match. They could have lost outright because one of the English players, Justin Tan, missed a mate-in-one with five seconds left in his game.

After five weeks, the standings are:

  • St. Louis — 101.5 points
  • New York — 94
  • Canada — 91
  • California — 70.5
  • Chicago — 54.5
  • Argentina — 38.5
  • Brazil — 38
  • United Kingdom — 32

Next week California plays New York and Hikaru Nakamura, which will be another extremely difficult test.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner February 3, 2020 at 9:20 pm

Nodirbek Abdusattorov is the 5th youngest GM in history at 13 years and 1 month, a full three months faster than Magnus Carlsen. Alas, he is just the second youngest GM in Uzbekistan, as compatriot Javokhir Sindarov nipped him by three months. Sergey Karjakin still holds the youngest GM record at 12 years and 7 months.


Roman Parparov February 4, 2020 at 2:08 pm

I think Zwierk had an easier win. 1. … Ra3+, to knock the king back to the 2nd row; then the black king goes to g6, the ‘a’ pawn to a4. Then the rook goes down to a1 and the pawn to a2 – the white king cannot escape the g2-h2 cage. Then black plays f7-f6.

If white takes the pawn, black will get a passer on the e-file that wins.
If white allows to trade on e5, that pawn becomes isolated and black wins by bringing his king to e1, and playing Ra1-d1-d2+, trading into a won pawn endgame.


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