Monday, March 20, 2017

Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider franchise began in 1996 when game studio Core Design released under its parent company Eidos Interactive, a third-person 3D action adventure featuring acrobatic (and shapely) Lara Croft as the Tomb Raider navigating through traps. Since that time, the franchise has gone on to publish about fifteen game titles and inspire two movies starring Angelina Jolie. A reboot of the film franchise is in development with Alicia Vikander (from Ex Machina) in the title role.

I won a game last month that reminded me of the Tomb Raider. My opponent offered material for the possibility of trapping my queen. I stayed one step ahead of the traps and managed to escape with the material advantage intact. I'm playing Black. White's 20th move was 20.Qc2-e2, loosening the protection of the Nb3, to which I responded 20...Qc7-d7 threatening to capture the white pawn on a4 and having a follow-up threat against Nb3 for the next move. Notice that Black has a loose a7 pawn.

My opponent and I were both a little short on time, about 15 minutes to make 10 moves and reach move 30. Ideally, both sides could sink into 30-45 minute thinks and try to work out the next 8-12 plies with some level of certainty before making such committal moves. Barring that, I fell back on intuition that I could use the pawn exchanges at e4 and b4 and my well-placed rooks at c8 and d8 to aid my queen's escape. If the two white rooks came to a1 and b1, the bishop would have trouble discovering the attack of the b-rook because a1 was occupied and Bc1 allows simply Qxc3. If the minor pieces could not trap my queen, then I might be able to sac my queen for a rook, thereby gaining at least material parity. I also used a rough risk-reward calculation: if I took on a4, worst case scenario was that Ra1 forces my queen to retreat to d7 and then I would have to contend with Rxa7. So, sometimes, I used shorter variations than I really should have to substitute for calculated certainty. My opponent sweetened the reward by cutting off the protection of Bb2. 21.Nc2??

I knew that I was getting the a-pawn and at least positional play against a pair of awkward knights (if either knight goes to a1). If he tried to trap my queen with Ra1, I would get the Nb3 and tempo against the loose Bb2. So I took the bait and entered the tomb. 21...Qxa4 22.Ra1

Last chance to bail out with Qd7 Rxa7. No guts no glory. 22...Qxb3 23.Reb1

White is one move away from trapping the Black Queen with Ra3, but Black has several resources to delay that outcome. The most immediate is cxb4. This has the possibility of opening the c-file for the Black rook and it also temporarily prevents Ra3. However, White would almost certainly play Nxb4, keeping the c-file semi-closed. Another resource is dxe4, temporarily giving Black the potential of Qd5, but fxe4 leaves the queen trapped. I already began to see the possibility of a bailout sacrifice to get my queen out of trouble, but I wasn't sure it was going to work. So I went for the pawn exchanges to improve my rooks. 23...dxe4 24.fxe4

24...cxb4 25.Nxb4

A pause now that we're five moves closer to time control. I was annoyed at the weakness of my a7 pawn and the tempo that Rxa7 might get on my Bb7. Since I was already up a knight and a pawn, I calculated that 25...a5 26.Ra3 Qxa3 27.Bxa3 axb4 might be a bailout strategy. Do you see the other possibility of bailout yet? 25...a5 26.Ra3. White moved in to kill my queen.

Even though 26...Qxa3 27.Bxa3 axb4 28.Bxb4 carries the material advantage of queen (9) for rook and two knights (11), White's position seemed annoyingly consolidated. I couldn't see how I was going to organize my pieces for the next round of battle. With White's Nb4 under attack and both our time troubles becoming serious, I decided to play my ace in the hole. 26...Nd4!.

If he captures my queen with Rxb3, I capture his queen with check Nxe2+ with more even exchanges helping Black's endgame. If he captures my knight with cxd4, I capture his knight Qxb4 and get my queen away safely with the knight advantage. If he saves his queen, I save my queen with Qe6. My opponent let his time tick down to about 1 minute for 4 moves as he tried to work out this mess. He finally settled on 27.Qd2 Qe6.

At this point, I figured that White should trade knights and gain a protected passer at d5, e.g. 28.cxd4 axb4 29.d5. Another variation could have gone 28.Nc2 Nxc2 29.Rxc2. However, with his time trouble, White tried too hard to avoid exchanges and came up with a move that knight, bishop, and rook awkward. 28.Na2?

With the remaining time on my clock, I retreated while picking on the awkward rook. 28...Nb5 29.Ra3 Nd6 30.Qf2 Bc6. With a piece and a pawn down and the possibility of losing the rook, my opponent resigned. Black's most straightforward win goes 31.Ra3 Nb5 32.Ra4 Qb3 going back to the tomb to loot more treasure.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is a movie about a dystopian, Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, superficiality, and terrorism. The main character descends into criminality and madness when he tries to swim against the current using his conscience, passion, and resourcefulness. One of the images toward the end of the movie involves a heroic figure becoming enveloped and then consumed by flying scraps of paper, a metaphor for the triumph of bureaucracy.

One of my recent games involved enveloping an enemy piece in pins and cross-pins in order to eventually win. Here is the position after Black played 16...h5:

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) wakes up one night to find the central heating in his apartment has gone on the fritz and is now too hot. He leaves a message with the Central Services answering machine and goes to sleep with his head in the refrigerator.

Black seizes the initiative with a flank attack on White's g4-h3 pawn chain. Note that if g4-g5, Black has the fork Bf4+. 17.Nh4?!.

Sam is awakened by freelance outlaw repairman Archibald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert De Niro represented by the White knight) who tries to resolve the heating problem.

I think that my opponent wanted to try to exploit the hole at g6, but there is no time for that because the Black rooks are going to use the tempo Rh6 to assist in doubling on the h-file. 17...hxg4 18.hxg4 Rh6.

The call to Central Services goes through and two repairmen, Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O'Connor) are dispatched to Sam's apartment on a collision course with Harry Tuttle.
With some quick thinking, Sam rebuffs the attempt by Spoor and Dowser to bully their way into his apartment by requesting official paperwork, thereby preventing an armed confrontation with Tuttle. Tuttle zips away via a zipline.

White regroups with an awkward sequence: 19.Ng2 Reh8 20.Rg1?!. I mentioned after the game that White should have probably exchanged one pair of rooks so that I wouldn't get so much activity with the second rook on White's third rank.

Far from being defeated, Spoor and Dowser (Black's rook pair) keep showing up at Sam's apartment, once to pull all the ducting out of the walls, and then once more when the system has turned the apartment into a freezer. During the daytime, Sam spends all his efforts at work trying to track down the girl of his dreams, Jill Layton (Kim Greist).

Black's rooks soon lodge in White's position, first at h2 where it causes immobility in the Ng2 because of the looseness of f2. White tries to stabilize his weaknesses by moving his king from c1 to e2. This is double-edged in that his king becomes the target of pins and skewers. 20...Rh2 21.Kc2?! Be8 22.Kd2 Bg6 23.Ke2 R8h3 24.f3. With the third rank pressure preventing White from moving his Rd1 for fear of Bd3+, White blocks this coordination by advancing his f-pawn. But now the knight is pinned to the king.

With the aid of Sam's erratic behavior, Sam (White King) and Jill (King Bishop Pawn) run afoul of the law and are soon labeled as terrorists.

I'm somewhat proud of this next sequence which was not easy to find and advance the attack. The light-squared bishop is hindered by the f3 and g4 pawns. It would really like to participate in the attack on g2 and therefore belongs on e4 or h3, but there is currently no path. Luckily, a pawn break 24...f5! was handy, weakening the f3-g4 structure enough to become porous. Then followed 25.gxf5 Bxf5 26.Rdf1 Rg3 27.Rf2 Bh3.

Once 27.Rf2 appeared on the board, I had to calculate the possibility of 27...Bh3 being answered by Ng2 jumping. The trickiest jump is 28.Nf4 because it cuts the rooks off from their protection by the bishop on d6. At first I thought I had to trade both pairs of rooks 28...Rxf2+ 29.Kxf2 Rxg1, but I worried about 30.Nxh3. I couldn't see clearly enough to find 30...Rh1 which reopens 2 threats of Rxh3 and Rh2+ skewering the Bb2. But I was reassured when I found 28...Rxg1 29.Rxh2 Bxf4 30.Rxh3 Rg2+ 31.Kd3 Rxb2. Unfortunately, the next pair of moves were both blunders. White bluffed and Black blinked with 28.cxd5? exd5?. 28...Bxg2! would have been completely winning as Bxf3+ is difficult to meet. But finally, the White king walks into the trap that Black initiated with 20...Rh2. 29.Kf1. The knight is pinned again.

Sam hatches a daring plan to erase Jill from the Ministry of Information's databases. Unfortunately, Big Brother is more than a one-trick pony. Information Retrieval, e.g. police forces and interrogators, find Sam's hideout, break down the doors, and arrest him.

With the rooks and knight and king largely immobilized, the plan of Bd6-Bf4-Be3 seemed decisive. 29...Bf4 30.Re2. Here I missed the clever zugzwang 30...g5!. 30...Rxf3+ is enough to win, but my advantage falls from 5.9 to 3.0. 31.Rf2 Rxf2+ 32.Kxf2.

Sam finds himself about to be tortured. Suddenly a shot rings out and he is rescued by some commandos, including Harry Tuttle. There is seeming triumph over bureaucracy when Tuttle blows up the Ministry of Information buildings.

A semi-crucial move appears at this point of the game. If I had felt confident with all the pin pressure I had put on the Ng2, I still had to find my way to a winning endgame. The extra pawn at g7 could still win, but the ending should be bishops of same colors to win it. With that in mind, White must not be allowed to unpin the knight and capture Kxf4. Therefore, 32...g5! was necessary. My opponent said he thought he had a chance at this point, but the advance of the g-pawn shut down his last hope. The cocoon around the knight unravels, but the knight is also gone. 33.Kf3 Rxg2 34.Rxg2 Bxg2+ 35.Kxg2 g4

But the falling paper debris from the explosion envelops Tuttle and mummifies him like a spider's prey. Sam rushes to help, but by the time he unravels the paper, Tuttle has seemingly evaporated.
The authorities chase Sam until he finds Jill again and they escape to the idyllic countryside.

The game concluded with fairly simple plans of centralizing the Black king to f5, possibly e4, and trying to queen the g-pawn. The exploitation of two weaknesses is a common endgame principle. 36.Kf2 Kd7 37.Bf3 Ke6 38.Ke2 Kf5 39.Kd3 g3 40.Be1 g2 41.Bf2 Bh2 42.a4 g1=Q 43.Bxg1 Bxg1 44.b4 Kf4 45.Kc3 Ke4 and White resigned.

The unharmed faces of Sam's tormentors, Jack Lint (the Black King Bishop, played by Michael Palin) and Deputy Minister of Information Mr. Helpmann (the Black King, played by Peter Vaughan) interrupt Sam's fantasyscape, revealing that Sam has only escaped his torture by becoming completely delusional.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt in 1799 having parallel texts of ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone proved key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. I wanted to review one of my wins at the club last month with some attention to the language used to in analysis, from what I was thinking at the time to what postmortem analysis has shown, and try to translate it into Temposchluckerese.

As Black, I had just played 24...Bd7-c8. The evaluation is approximately equal. White's centralized knights and queenside pawn chain to c5 threaten to create a b-pawn passer. Black's f5-e4 pawn chain and attack against the e3 isolani provide central space and counterplay. It looks like Bc8 overprotects a6 from Qxa6 so that my Nc7 is freed up a bit from defensive duties. This increases not only the mobility of the Bc8 and the Nc7, but also the Rd8 which now faces White's Nd4. The main defect of Bd7-c8 is that the c6 pawn is now held only by my Qh6. I had been keeping my eye on White's weak e3 pawn for the past 10 moves. White had not improved his defense of that pawn for a while. Now that my rook faces Nd4, the Pe3 is that much more vulnerable, especially in a sequence where Be7-g5xe3 lands with check. In my usual language, I was going to try to remove the Pe3 guard of the Nd4.

As I understand Temposchlucker's terminology, e3 is a Point of Pressure (PoP) as is d4. Lines of Attack (LoA) include h6-e3 and d8-d4. The Nd4 is a Barely Adequately Defended (BAD) piece, but I would also like to label the Pe3 and Black's Pc6 and Pf5 as BAD. In addition, Pe3 is already immobilized and blockaded by Black's Pe4, but a functional immobility also exists in that the Nd4 is only defended by Pe3. With these critical items in play, White missed chances to bolster the e3-d4 problems and decided to press his queenside pawn majority with 25.a4. Of course, I played 25...Bg5 and my opponent sank into a long think. I felt somewhat confident at this point and walked around the club. I came back after 26.Kh1.

This shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Kh1 comes close to solving White's problems. Sometimes if you have to lose material and time, the solution is to quickly concede what you have to concede and move onto getting something in return. Black will capture Bxe3, but White will follow with Nxc6, making the queenside majority scarier and temporarily threatening a Nxd8 win of the exchange. Now that I saw White's plan, it was my turn to concede something and try to gain something in return. I could see that Rd2 might be a devastating blow if I could camp heavy pieces on White's second rank. So I decided to go down this variation. 26...Bxe3 27.Nxc6 Rd2.

At this point, I worried about White's offensive possibilities. 28.Ne7+ is a move. Can Black counterattack with 28...Kf8? I decided, correctly as verified afterward, that 29.Nxf5 threatening Black's queen and a discovery on Black's king were too dangerous, so I was going to have to play 28...Kh8. Because of the balance between pieces en prise at Be3 and Nc6, White probably felt he had to keep his queen in contact with Be3. Also, it was difficult to see past 28.Qc4+ Be6 because you have to look extra ply ahead while the queen is attacked, but 29.Ne7+ Kh8 30.Qxe4 would have smashed Black's center and brought the Nc6 back into the protection of the Bg2 and Qe4.

After Qc4+ Be6 Ne7+ Kh8, the lines of attack (LoA) are c4-g8 and f1-f8. The Rf8 is a BAD piece as is the Pe4 (both are also on Points of Pressure, PoP).

Instead White played the passive 28.Qe1.

Here I thought for a long time on how to proceed. I was fixated by the looseness of my Be3 and his Nc6. I didn't want to trade evenly since my Be3 was quite strong as an unopposed bishop slicing into White's position and supporting eventual passed pawns. I soon noticed that the Nc3 was also loose and tried to limit the mobility of the Nc6 by playing 28...Bg5. Now that the bishop is safe, Qxc6 is back on and Ne5 runs into Bf6 skewering two knights on the diagonal.

But what I failed to appreciate was that Rd2 had given me a significant Line of Attack on PoPs g2 and h2. Plus my queen which had been at h6 for the past 15 moves had another serious Line of Attack against PoP h2. Add this to the already existing LoA against the BAD Nc6, and the limited mobility of White's King because of Be3 and I could have increased my chances of finding the brilliant 28...Rf6!! This move looks like it only increases the pressure on Nc6, but what it really does is threaten checkmate. White staves off mate with 29.h4 Rxc6, but has to soldier on a piece down. If he saves his knight, e.g. 29.Na5 or even 29.Ne7+ Kf7 30.Nxc8, there comes the shocking 29...Qxh2+ 30.Kxh2 Rh6#.

I emerged from the middle game with 2 extra pawns and converted them to victory. Ironically, the e-pawn which had spent many moves under a death sentence was the winning pawn in the endgame.

Friday, February 24, 2017


Perhaps twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov's Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine because it had a cover story named "Queenmagic, Pawnmagic" by Ian Watson. The story was fairly good, about a boy named Pedino who comes of age in the medieval setting of Bellogard, a city of light locked in war with an antithetical city of dark named Chorny. Ordinary citizens live their lives ignorant of the conflict which is fought magically between the lords and squires of the realm. During a practical joke gone horribly wrong, Pedino is found to have a soul and overnight goes from the son of a tradesman to Pawn/Squire.

Recently, I was delighted to find out that the story from that magazine was part of a larger book, "Queenmagic, Kingmagic". However, my enthusiasm was tempered when I read the story to the end. I think Act I and Act II are strong with insight into the human experience transplanted to a chess-themed one. I suppose the main constant throughout is that the main character has a preoccupation with a series of women in his life. But I'm disappointed as usual with Act III, which almost discards the groundwork of the previous two-thirds. The story goes through palace intrigue and star-crossed romance, but then there is a left turn into action-packed multiverse theory before returning home to a meandering wrap-up. The story goes through a succession of discarded quests - victory, survival, home, family, love - none of which seem resolved satisfactorily.

Perhaps Mr. Watson didn't want to write for a chessically educated audience, since there seemed to be strange liberties such as a pawn being lost during castling. There were perhaps three main battles but treatment of the strategy and tactics were disappointingly superficial. One problem the author seemed to have is that in his description of Pedino's life, the pawn had agency and soul, but when the larger kingdom came into focus, there was an element of Destiny that stole the agency from the Pieces acting as players within this life-sized game.

My twenty-something self was struck back then by this passage relevant to our current discussion of dead and wounded pieces:

Queen Alyitsa was dead – murdered by Prince Feryava of Chorny. Bishop Slon was dead, killed by Bishop Zorn. Squire Iris was dead, protecting Bishop Veck.

The survivors were: the king, Bishop Veck, Sir Brant, Prince Ruk, and five of us squires. Henchy was injured; his wrist had been broken. It would stay that way for the rest of his life. Magical injuries did not heal unless you killed the person who inflicted them.

Despite its shortcomings, it was fun to see perspective shift to life among the pieces. It reminded me of this poem which I posted back during the death of Bobby Fischer:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Vulture Culture

Temposchlucker's blog has spilled some digital ink (bits and bytes?) on vultures lately. I found this comment in a post entitled KISS:

The first state is when we circle like a vulture above the board and look with a disciplined mind at the board. We see, almost parallel, everything what's going on, without identifying ourself with whatever happens down there. We see the trains driving from station to station, and from above we can see all stations and trains at the same time (parallel).

The second state is when something catches our attention, and we jump on the bandwagon. From that moment on, we rumble from station to station in a sequential way. We are totally identified with what we see, and it feels as if our train is driving through a tunnel. We only know about the station we just left, and the station we are heading to, and what we can see sideways from the windows of our forth thundering train. Our attention progresses from station to station in a serial way, unaware of what is going on elsewhere.

In the language I'm used to, the vulture represents breadth of chess calculation, while the train represents depth of chess calculation. The goal of chess calculation is to miss nothing important, shallow or deep, and thereby play nearly perfect chess like the computers and Super Grandmasters. One kind of error in chess is the horizon effect, usually relating to computer search depth: a move looks good until you see three moves later that it is refuted by an inescapable sequence. This is the fault of the train in the analogy above. No one told us that the station three stops away was being repaired. For this post, I wanted to concentrate on the vulture because it relates more directly to errors of vision in chess and our quest to see those little Hobbitses that conspire to stay hidden:

One of the appeals of chess, or almost any board game, is that we sit surveying the board like gods above a miniature world. The chess world is populated by sculptures that are imbued with varying geometry of movement, as opposed to the uniform diagonal of checkers, or the character attributes of Dungeons and Dragons avatars. As opposed to information hidden in the roll of a 20-sided die, the information of chess is evident in the positions of the pieces with a tiny bit encoded in the history of that particular game (e.g. castling and en passant privileges). Vultures fly overhead and check out the lay of the land.

NM Dan Heisman states, ""The most important principle in chess is SAFETY; second is ACTIVITY; everything else on the board is relatively unimportant." Being a lumper, I interpret the activity of your own pieces to be the extent to which they threaten the safety of your opponent's pieces and vice versa. One piece's activity is another piece's lack of safety, so there is a reduction back down to a single principle of safety. As beginners, we start evaluating by counting the pieces. Pieces that are off the board don't count. They are effectively dead for the rest of the game. But before they are removed from the board, they can be in various states of health: convalescing in their home positions, immobilized by positioning in the corners or edges of the board, limited by enemy or frenemy forces, and at death's doorstep (en prise). In Go, groups of stones have Life and Death. Pieces in chess have safety and activity, death and life:

I find it ironic that the doctor in the comic uses the word "activity". As chess players, it is pretty much our job to notice when pieces are safe or unsafe, protected or loose, good and bad, strongly posted or insecure. As beginners, the first level of vulnerability we see in our opponent's pieces is the completely loose, unprotected pieces. Capture the free stuff is what I tell my beginning student.:

Especially in beginner-level chess, mistake-prone humans will leave material unprotected. All that is required at this level is being careful of your own pieces' safety and patience for your opponent to leave a piece behind to die alone the desert.

After a while, it's not enough just to wait for someone to drop something. Around Class A/B level, chess players get through entire games without blundering any material. In this environment, the vulture analogy breaks down a bit. It's no longer enough to be a scavenger. We have to upgrade to being predators. Alexander Alekhine is quoted as saying, "During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk." Alekhine also said, "I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his."

At least one article indicates that criminal predators choose their targets from the way people walk. Analogous to gait in a person, mobility of a piece on the chessboard depends on space, safe squares to move to, whether it is pinned to more valuable pieces, etc. When we capture a mere pawn, Aron Nimzovich spoke of an entire process, "First restrain, then blockade and finally destroy." So how freely a piece can move can often correlate with how vulnerable it is. If it is crawling, there is a good chance it might make a good meal for our vulture.

To broaden our definitions, sometimes the target in chess is not a moribund piece, but rather a key square. Vultures also need nice places to roost as well as the occasional carcass.

Computers have taught us that sometimes, positions that look hopelessly lost actually have hidden defensive resources in order to save a draw for the weaker side. Again, in Go, there is a state called Seki where two opposing groups of stones have features that cannot be resolved into Life and Death. These might be analogous to drawing fortresses or stalemate positions in chess. Investing in phantom possibilities is the flip side of being a vulture: when NOT to invest energy pursuing a line that evaluates unfavorably. The hypothesis must occasionally be nullified.

Draw! (gunslinging, art, and chess puns all intended). At the end of the game, what motivates us chess players is a desire for victory signified by the death of the opponent's king. In this pageant of flight, eyesight, error, opportunism, and death, the vulture is apt analogy.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Magneto's Prison

My first chess composition began while I was teaching a beginner how to checkmate with two rooks using the steamroller technique:

I wanted to test the student's ability to see how the pieces might protect each other from a double attack and so I presented this position. White to move and save both rooks:

As the beginner pondered how to save the rooks, I wondered whether such a position was possible with White to move, since Black's king is almost stalemated and he has no visible means to mark time. This got me thinking along the lines of retrograde analysis a la "The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes" by Raymond Smullyan. On top of the requirement for LEGAL moves in retrograde analysis, I wondered whether Black would make LOGICAL moves to get to this position, basically meaning can we get to this without White having to leave a rook en prise for one or more moves? I answered both questions with this new setup and sequence of moves. White to move and get to the diagram above:

1.Rf3+ Kxg4

With my current reading of Kubbel's 150 Endgame Studies, I decided to make a little composition and ran through many possible movie-themed or atomic-themed names to give a worldly root to my abstract composition: Phantom Zone a la Superman 2; hydronium ion with 2 electrons around 1 proton; maybe just helium; unobtainium which is mentioned in James Cameron's Avatar and in The Core; maybe Bose-Einstein condensate in the movie Spectral. Finally, I decided that the rooks should land at the corners and a queen should stabilize the tight square around the king. The last corner might as well be a White Knight. And finally, using the White King's opposition to force the Black King to capture the White Bishop, I thought of the prison that held Magneto at the end of X-Men (2000). Best of all, there are two knights playing chess together in this scene.

Soapstone's Chess Problem #1: "Magneto's Prison"

Dedicated to Two Knights: Sir Patrick "Jean-Luc Picard" Stewart and Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellan

White to checkmate in 2 moves

FEN 8/8/8/5N1R/3K1kB1/3R1q2/5p2/5Q2 w - - 0 1

The solution is nearly trivial: 1.Rxf3+ Kxg4 2.Qh3#, leaving the Black King trapped in a four-cornered cage:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Stalemate Swindle

Frenez, one of my three readers, requested that I show a recent tournament stalemate. I was totally busted playing white against an 1800 player. The moves are not cleverly hidden like in Kubbel's studies; in fact, they're natural and obvious. White to play and draw:

69.b7! Qc7 70.b8=Q! Qxb8! stalemate! To my memory, this is the only one of my 540+ tournament games that ended in a complex stalemate. Now that Frenez has gotten the stalemate, I'm going to go in reverse chronological order like my Memento series and go over some of the crucial moments of this game. Feel free to change the channel when I get long-winded. I almost resigned this game prematurely. In the above diagram, I could see that b7 was going to be followed by Qc7, but Ka7 was going to be met by Qxa5+, so my only other option was to give up the b-pawn which was my only hope, but I hardly considered stalemate until I was one ply away and saw that it succeeded in giving me the draw. Notice that the Black King is at e6, blockading my passed pawn and preventing it from moving - we'll visit this later. The above diagram is already approximately equal. After 69.b7, Black has no real alternative to 69...Qc7 except perpetual check starting with 69...Qc6+ 70.Ka7 Qc7 {pinning the queening pawn} 71.a6 d4 72.Ka8 {unpinning} Qc6 {repinning} 73.Ka7, etc. Black blew the win one move earlier in the following diagram with Black to play:

Almost everything wins, EXCEPT 68...Qc5?, e.g. 68...Kd7 leads to mate in 8, 68...Qb4 leads to mate in 9, 68...Qb2 leads to mate in 10, the greedy 68...Qxe5 leads to mate in 10, and even the dithering 68...Qc4+ leads to mate in 10 as long as the follow-up is the approach of the Black King.

But before that, White blew a securely drawn position with some chances to swindle a win (white to play):

The moves just prior to arriving at this position were 59.f4 Kf7. I had realized that with my pawn back on f3, e5 was dangerous for me because of the way it can spring the d5 pawn free for a queening race. Unfortunately, playing 59.f4 and locking a bead on the hole at e5 made me think that e6-e5 had been prevented forever. It had not. With sober reflection on information that I definitely had access to, I could see that playing Kd7, Kd8, Kd7, and Kd6 would secure the draw for me. The e-file squares - e6, e7, and e8 - are crucial to White's winning chances and if he stays in contact with them, any variation that Black initiates with ...e5 fxe5 f4 e6 will probably end badly for Black because the e-pawn will likely check the Black King on the way to e8, giving the new White Queen time to execute the upstart Black Pawn on f2. With more sober reflection, I should have been more patient here and tried to advance my queenside pawns. 60.a4! is one move away from a winning position. However, if Black also reflects soberly, he can realize that e5 loses, and blockading my queenside pawns can secure a draw for him also. 60.a4! a5! 61.Kd7 Kf6 is drawn as is 60.b4 b5! 61.Kd7!= If somehow Black doesn't see the danger, then the variation 60.a4 Kf6? 61.a5! Kf7 62.b4 Kf6 63.Kc7 is won for White. e.g. 63...Ke7 64.Kxb7! e5 65.fxe5! f4 66.b5! axb5 67.a6! f3 68.a7 f2 69.a8=Q f1=Q 70.Qa6! Qc4 71.Qf6+! Kd7 72.Qd6+! Ke8 73.e6! initiates checkmate in 6 moves. If after 70.Qa6!, Black tries to hold with 70...Qf5 71.Qd6+ Kf7 72.Qxd5+ also keeps White's winning chances alive. Going back to 60.a4!, one last bit of interesting subtlety is that 60...b6 61.b4 Kf6! 62.b5 axb5! is still drawn albeit precariously.

At this point, my greed for pouncing on the queenside pawns made me impatient and I played 60.Kc7?? e5! 61.fxe5 Ke6. Note that Ke7 would have also prevented White from queening and also gives White a move if stalemate is a problem. Black correctly calculated that given a chance with 61...f4? White would have played 62.Kd7! and White is back from the dead and winning, e.g. 62...f3 63.e6+ Kg7 64.e7 f2 65.e8=Q f1=Q 66.Qe5+ Kf8 67.Qb8+ Kg7 68.Qxb7 and White is +4.0 in Stockfish's evaluation. For continuity, the moves that got us to the pivotal checkmate or stalemate position above were 62.Kxb7 f4 63.Kxa6 f3 64.b4 f2 65.a4 f1=Q+ 66.b5 Qc4 67.a5 Qxd4 68.b6

One more bit of shoulda-coulda. From the above diagram, rewind the game another 10 moves and we arrive here with White to make move 50:

Material is equal. Black's e-pawn is backward. White's h-pawn is passed. The crucial idea that I missed was that my h-pawn is vulnerable if it runs too far ahead, but if I centralize my White King, the h-pawn can be a valuable distraction. To that end, 50.Ke3! was a priority to prepare for a possibility of 50...Nf6? 51.Bxf6 Kxf6 52.Kf4 with winning advantage. Because of safe, time-wasting moves like Rh1-h2 and back, White can eventually zugzwang Black's king and or rook to allowing h5-h6, h6-h7, and Kf4-e5. Instead, I finally pushed back this troublesome knight on e4 and played 50.f3 Nf6. Here, 51.Bxf6 Kxf6 52.Ke3 Kg5=. The game went 51.h6 Ng8 52.Bf4 Kg6 53.Ke3 Nxh6 54.Rxh6+ Rxh6 55.Bxh6 Kxh6 56.Kf4 Kg6 57.Ke5 Kf7 58.Kd6 Kf6 59.f4 Kf7 and we meet the above "drawish" position.