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The Old Dog’s New Tricks
by Barnet Chess Club member Costas Karayannis
Be forewarned: the way you play chess will change as you get older. This doesn’t happen overnight – the change is an insidious affair – but, eventually, you’ll be forced to accept that you are no longer the player you once were.
The telltale signs of your metamorphosis will be easy to spot. Winning and losing won’t produce the same emotional fluctuations that they once did. The inclination to study opening theory will wane. Somehow, you’ll manage to convince yourself that playing 1.g3 as White is interesting and innovative. As Black, you’ll play 1 … d6 against everything. In fact, even if you want to, you won’t be able to memorise long, theoretical lines. Your power of recall becomes unpredictable. The article that you read only last week - explaining the latest nuances in the Najdorf - will be a nebulous blur and yet, for some inexplicable reason, sentences, even whole paragraphs, from chess books that you read in your teens may come freely to the mind.
This isn’t just me being miserable. Bent Larsen wrote:
"I am probably getting old because I remember these games from my childhood better than most games from recent tournaments".
This quote comes from "Karpov vs. Korchnoi, World Chess Championship 1978", Larsen’s account of the Baguio City title match and the first chess book I ever bought. I have to admit that, as a thirteen-year-old, I found it impossible to relate to the Dane’s glimpse of my chess life to come. Still, there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand at that age: girls, trigonometry and the strange tufts of hair sprouting all over my body, to name but a few. Luckily, the confidence of youth enabled me to casually add Larsen’s observation to the list. After all, how significant could it be? Up until the age of seventeen or so, I could easily remember every move of every annotated game that I had ever played…
Over the years, I had neglected Larsen’s excellent book, which is a shame as it contains some wry commentary and the occasional insight into a strong player’s chess thinking. It was to my great surprise, therefore, that a passage from it recently came to mind – just as Larsen had foretold - when I was confronted with the problematic adjourned position below.
At first glance, this position looks like it must be a draw. Material is equal and Black’s kingside pawn majority is blockaded. However, during the adjournment, I recalled a striking quote from Larsen.
"Long live Philidor! His operas are almost forgotten, but in chess he is remembered as the strongest player of the 18th century and an important thinker and writer. He understood that it was not always wrong to have your pawns on the same colour as the bishop. He said that it was correct on the flank where you have to defend!"
Bishop endings are more complicated than they first appear and, although my next move had occurred to me over the board, I only found the courage to play it upon resumption: now armed with the knowledge that it had some technical basis.
41 … a4!
Scandalously, Black has placed a pawn on a white square, providing the enemy bishop with a target. No doubt this may offend the positional sensibilities of some, but here Philidor’s principle holds. To my mind, a4 is the strongest move available to Black. Leaving the quotes aside, let’s have a look at the key features of the position:
The move a4 cramps down on White’s queenside, immobilising his pawn majority there. Unless the a4 pawn drops, White will be unable to create a passed pawn.
The move a4 gains space, an important asset in the endgame.
On the kingside, Black has a majority and given White’s immobility on the queenside, Black is effectively a pawn up.
These features suggest a plan. If Black can force the exchange of bishops and play g4 before White’s king arrives on that square, he must be winning. My analyses therefore centred on this idea. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the position offered excellent chances of obtaining the whole point. Indeed, there was one winning method – both elegant and economical - that came to the fore repeatedly.
After discovering this method I was desperate to see if I could put it in to practice. You see, despite the passing of the years and the waning of ability, chess does offer solace. Occasionally, when you least expect it, the opportunity arises to create something beautiful.
42 Kd3 Bc4+ 43 Kd2 Kd6
A move consistent with Black’s plan. He aims to play Be6 challenging the White bishop who will feel compelled to move. Black will then be able to play g4, g3, fixing another pawn on a white square and presenting his opponent with a fresh problem: the ever-present threat of a f3 breakthrough.
44 Ke1 Be6 45 Be2
If White had played 45 Bd1 I had intended Bd7 as a response. There is no need to rush b5. In positions where you are trying to run your opponent out of moves, each pawn advance takes on added significance and can deny you an important tempo later in the game.
45 …g4 46 Bb5 Bd7 47 Be2 Kc5 48 Bd1 Kc4
Having conquered the necessary space on the kingside, I sought to manoeuvre against the other flank. Although my 3:2 majority there was an asset, it couldn’t win the game on its own. In the chess vernacular, I needed to create a "second weakness". I guess this is something "every Russian schoolboy" knows. Unfortunately, I grew up in East London and didn’t become aware of this principle until my late twenties.
Basically, White has to be on the constant lookout for a passed pawn on the f or g files. He doesn’t mind that so much, but what he does object to is guarding against a potential queening and his opponent’s king gobbling up his remaining pawns on the other flank. Please also note that, after Black plays g3, White will really have three weaknesses: the isolated pawns fixed on g2 and e4 and the hole on b3.
I wonder what the Russian schoolboy would think of that?
49 Kd2 g3 50 Kc2 Be6 51 Be2+ Kc5 52 Kd2 Bc4 53 Bf3
52 … Bc4 again forced the white bishop to give ground. Incidentally, on f3 it may defend both weak kingside pawns but the question has to be asked: where does it go from there?
53 … Bf1
The bishop penetrates to a square where it attacks the g2 pawn. This is a small victory only, because f1 is not its primary objective. White can defend with his bishop from f3 and use his king to defend the queenside. What Black would ideally like is to arrange the bishops so that White’s is tied down to a single defensive square whilst his own has the freedom of a diagonal on which it shuffle up and down and still attack a white pawn. This could be done on the a8 to d5 diagonal, but far stronger would be a transfer of the bishop to the b1 to d3 diagonal. From here the troublesome prelate would not only harass the e4 pawn, but it would also interfere with the vigil of the White king on the queenside.
54 Ke1 Bd3 55 Kd1Kc4 56 Kd2
Black has made considerable progress. His king is eyeing the juicy b3 square whilst White has been virtually immobilised. During my adjournment analysis, I came across this type of position regularly and I wanted to be sure that it was winning irrespective of whose move it was and the placement of my bishop.
If you study the above diagram you’ll notice that Black’s king can’t penetrate to the b3 square immediately because it has to defend the bishop. Similarly, Black can’t lose a tempo with a bishop move. For example, Kc2 would be the response to Bf1 and Kc1 counters Bb1. This suggests that White is very close to setting up a fortress and yet, in the diagrammed position, if it were his move he would be lost. He cannot move his bishop and any king move would be met by Black playing Kb3 followed by either bishop to c2 or b1. Black would then be free to lose tempi with the bishop along the d3 to b1 diagonal whilst White would eventually have to move his king from c1 allowing his counterpart to gobble the queenside pawns.
The problem for Black is that it is his move. The quickly leads to the conclusion that if he cannot effectively lose a tempo with his king or bishop then there is only one move available.
Silent. White is forced to give ground. The tempo that Black has purposely kept in reserve throughout the resumption is now used to good effect.
57 Kd1 Kb3 58 Kd2
A last try would be 58 Kc1 hoping for 58 …Bc2 59 Bg4 Be4?? 60 Be6+, mating! Yet, after 58… Ka2 instead, Black would still be winning all the same.
Bb1 59 Kc1 Ka2
Zugzwang always produces some kind of aesthetic delight and here the unusual position of the Black king and bishop increases that delight. Dare I say it, but you could describe the culmination of Black’s plan as beautiful.
For the sake of completeness, I should mention that moves like Be2 just don’t work for White. Viz.: 60 Be2 Be4 61 Bb5 f3!
Be4 61 Be6+ Ka1
A satisfying finale. Despite the pessimistic introduction to this article, I’ve found that getting older is not all doom and gloom for a chessplayer. What you lose in memory you can compensate for in experience and this is most likely to manifest itself in the endgame. OK, so I can’t remember the latest theory in lines that are supposed to be part of my opening repertoire. Who cares? The warning to my future opponents is now clear: mess with me and I’ll zugzwang you.