Saturday, January 13, 2007

Break and enter

In the summer of 2005 I spent a number of Saturday afternoons taking on all comers in the forecourt of Interactivity Games, the premier game store in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. Store owner Jack Pinder supplied a table, a stool, three boards, three sets of pieces, and an honorarium for the resident master. All in all it was a great gig. Each summer sees a huge influx of tourists to the sunny capital of British Columbia, thanks to its well-deserved status as a Conde Nast Top Ten destination. At least half of my opponents were from tourist stock, and many were from chessplaying countries like Germany and the Netherlands.

One afternoon a young man from Toronto came to my table and took the White pieces. After many adventures we arrived at the first diagrammed position with Black to move.

It is completely obvious that White is a pawn down and on the defensive. More experienced players will notice that my opponent has manoeuvred his rook to a rather odd square. On its own, the idea was a good one: prevent Black's pawns from advancing by attacking them from the rear and from the flank. If Black cannot make progress, the game must end in a draw.

Unfortunately for the viability of this plan, the simple advance of Black's pawn mass is not the only danger hanging over the White position. Black also has the very real threat of a mating attack against White's king. If successful, this plan will force the king to flee to the centre files. With the White king out of the way, Black will switch back to Plan A and advance one of his pawns to the queening square unhindered. As it turned out, this is what happened in the game, but not without further adventures. Here is the play from the first diagram:

NN - Dan Scoones
Victoria (simul) 2005

1...g4 2.hxg4
Certainly not 2.Rxh4? Kg3 with the double threat of 3...Kxh4 and 3...Rb1 mate.
2...fxg4 3.Kh2! (see the second diagram)
White is still alert. After 3. Rh8? Kg3! 4.Kf1 (or 4.Rf8 Rb1+ 5.Rf1 Rxf1+ 6.Kxf1 Kh2! 7.Kf2 g3+! [not 7...h3? 8.g3! and Black cannot make progress] 8.Kf1 h3 9.gxh3 g2+ and Black wins) 4...Rb1+ 5.Ke2 Kxg2 6.Rxh4 g3 and Black's pawn will promote.
Black obviously wants to play 4...Rb2, pinning and winning White's g-pawn. He could have played 3...Rb2 with the same idea, but that was not so precise (see the next note.) White hurries to prevent the threat.
White's position looks desperate, but as so often with rook endings, there was still a way to draw. White should play 4.Rh8! Rb2 5.Rf8+ and now:
a) 5...Kg5 6.Kh1! hxg2+ (or 6...Rxg2 7.Rf5+! Kh4 8.Rh5+! Kg3 9.Rxh3+! and White has forced stalemate) 7.Kg1 Kh4 8.Rh8+ Kg3 9.Rh3+! Kf4 10.Ra3 and Black cannot make progress;
b) 5...Ke3 6.Re8+ Kf2 (going west doesn't help since it just takes the king away from the scene of action) 7.Rf8+ Ke1 8.Kh1! Rxg2 (or 8...hxg2+ 9.Kg1 with a firm blockade) 9.Rf1+ Kd2 10.Rd1+ Kc3 11.Rd3+ (not 11.Rc1+? Rc2 and wins) 11...Kc4 12.Rxh3! and draws.
As hinted in the previous note, it was important for Black to play 3...h3 since playing 3...Rb2 first would make it much easier for White to find the drawing idea with 4.Rf8.
4...Rb2+ 5.Kg1 Kg3!
Threatening mate. White has no checks and must move his king.
6. Kf1 Rb1+ 7.Ke2 gxh3 8.Rg5+ Kf4
White's rook does not have any checking distance, but it makes no difference here.
9.Rh4 h2!
Only now did it dawn on White that he has been outplayed. 10.Rxh2 fails to 10...Rb2+ winning the rook, and otherwise the pawn queens.

When analysing this ending at home, it bothered me that White had missed a drawing resource. Perhaps I too had gone wrong somewhere? Let's backtrack to the position after White's move 3.Kh2 and try a different plan:
Threatening 3...g3+ 4.Kh3 Rh1 mate. But what if White takes the h-pawn?
4.Rxh4 Ra1!
The point. White is in zugzwang and must weaken his position.
Much better than 5.Rh8 g3+, when Black mates as before. But it doesn't save the game.
5...Kf3 6.Rh8 Ra2+ 7.Kg1 Kxg3 8.Kf1
Or 8.Rf8 Ra1+ 9.Rf1 Rxf1+ 10.Kxf1 Kh2! and Black's pawn will promote.
8...Ra1+ 9.Ke2 Kg2
White's king has been driven away from the queening square, and the Black g-pawn will now promote by force.

So is that the end of the story? Not quite. Let's backtrack again, this time to the position after 3...Rb1!? Instead of the compliant 4.Rxh4? White can throw a wrench into Black's plan with:
4.g3+! hxg3+
Black in turn can try to be clever, but the effort falls short: 4...Ke4!? (of no value is 4...Kf3? 5.Rf5+ followed by either 6...gxh4 or 6.Rf4+) 5.gxh4! (not 5.Rxh4? Kf3 and Black wins as before) 5...Kf4 6.Ra5! (6.Rh8? Rb2+ 7.Kg1 Kg3 8.Kf1 [8.Rf8 Rb1+ 9.Rf1 Rxf1+ 10.Kxf1 Kh2 and wins the queening race] 8...Kh2! followed shortly by ...g2+ and wins) 6...Kg3 7.Ra3+! Kxh4 8.Rc3! with a well-known drawing position.
5.Kg2 Rb2+ 6.Kg1 g2
Or 6...Kf3 7.Rf5+ etc.
Avoiding the last trap: 7.Rh8? Kf3 8.Rf8+ Kg3 9.Rb8!? Rf2! 10.Rb3+ Rf3 11.Ra3!? Kh3! 12.Ra1 Rf1+ 13.Rxf1 gxf1Q+ 14.Kxf1 Kh2 and wins. After 7.Ra5 White's rook has adequate checking distance and will hold the third rank with a well-known drawing position.

So the verdict is: draw with best play. It looks like I stole one!

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Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
National master (Canada) since 1984. B.C. Champion 1977 and 1984. Runner-up 1991 and 2002. B.C. Open Champion 1972 and 1982. B.C. U/14 Champion 1964-65-66. Mikhail Botvinnik once wrote that publishing your analytical work forces you to be accurate because it exposes you to criticism. Hence this blog.