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Endgame woes for Shirov in Moscow

The 5th Mikhail Tal Memorial Chess Tournament is presently underway in Moscow. The tournament, which began on November 5th, features a stellar lineup of chess talent: no one playing in the event is rated less than 2700 Elo. Among the participants duking it out in the round-robin event are Vladimir Kramnik (2791), Boris Gelfand (2741), and (from the United States) Hikaru Nakamura (also 2741).

The crosstable after four rounds

After four rounds the biggest surprise has to be Alexi Shirov (2735) who, after four rounds, hasn’t won a game. Shirov’s first three rounds were losses; he managed a draw against Sergey Karjakin (2760) in Monday’s game. The interesting oddity for each of Shirov’s games so far is that he’s consistently had an even position (or, at worst, at a slight disadvantage) going into the endgame. A slight misstep cost him Games One through Three; in Game Four it was his opponent who erred, as seen below:

Karjakin,Sergey (2760) – Shirov,Alexi (2735) [C78]

Tal Memorial Moscow RUS (4), 11/08/2010  [Lopez,Steve]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 b5 6.Bb3 Bc5 7.c3 d6 8.d4 Bb6 9.Be3 0–0 10.Nbd2 Bg4 11.h3 Bh5 12.Bg5 exd4 13.Bd5 dxc3 14.Bxc6 cxd2 15.Bxa8 Qxa8 16.Bxf6 gxf6 17.Qxd2 Qxe4 18.Rfe1 Qf5 19.Nh4 Qg5 20.Qxg5+ fxg5 21.Nf5 Bg6 22.Ne7+ Kg7 23.Nd5N

[23.Rad1 Ba5 24.Re2 Re8 25.Kf1 h6 26.Nc6 Rxe2 27.Kxe2 Bb6= Jobava – Grigorian, Yerevan 2008. It’s interesting to note that it took about five or six minutes for me to manually find the point of departure to come up with this game in Mega Database 2010, but the new “Novelty annotation” feature in ChessBase 11 identified the novelty and found this game online in less than five seconds.]

23…Rb8 24.Rad1 Kf8 25.g4

White’s in no hurry to snag Black’s dark-squared Bishop; the Knight controls a lot of space in the heart of Black’s position and blockades the d-pawn. [If 25.Nxb6 Rxb6 26.Kh2 c5 +/=]

25…c5 26.h4 gxh4 27.f4 f5 28.g5

This is an interesting position. White has a Rook and Bishop in exchange for the Bishop pair and three pawns. Black, meanwhile, has a passed h4-pawn but at the expense of creating a really tall. pointy-headed pawn on g6. But it’s not likely that he’ll be able to keep that passed pawn.

28…Bf7 29.Nf6 c4+ 30.Kg2 Rd8 31.Nxh7+ Kg7 32.Nf6 b4 33.Re7 c3 34.bxc3 bxc3 35.Nd7! Ba5

Not 35…Rxd7 yet because of 36.Rxd7 Bc5 37.Rc1 Bb4 38.a3+- and Black can’t hold the fort.; Black could have given up the passed pawn for at least a temporary stopgap: 35…h3+ 36.Kxh3 Rh8+ 37.Kg3 Bd8 +/=

36.g6 Kxg6 37.Kh3

Position after 37.Kh3

Position after 37.Kh3

Black has to choose between the h-pawn and the Bishop — the King can’t guard both.

37…Rxd7 38.Rxd7 Bb4 39.Kxh4 Bxa2 40.R1xd6+ Bxd6 41.Rxd6+

As the smoke clears, we see that White has the better endgame. Both of Black’s passed pawns are eligible to promote on dark squares, but Black has just the light-squared Bishop left.

41…Kf7 42.Rc6 a5 43.Rxc3 a4 44.Rc6 Ke7

Position after 44...Ke7

Position after 44…Ke7

This is another of those games which hinged on a single move. White’s played well and it’s hard to fault him, but he plays a move which turns a win into a draw (according to computer analysis).

45.Kg3

[45.Ra6 would have done nicely, according to computer chess engines analyzing with the aid of the Nalimov endgame tablebases. 45…Bb3 46.Kg5 Bc2 47.Rc6 Bb3 48.Kxf5 a3 49.Ke5 a2 50.Rc7+ Kf8 51.Ra7 Bf7 52.Kf6 Bd5 53.f5 Kg8 54.Rg7+ Kf8 55.Rg1 Be4 56.Rc1 Bc2 and on and on. Can either side win in a protracted endgame? According to both Fritz and Rybka, aided by the Nalimov tablebases, this should be a win for White with perfect play (e.g. as long as he keeps his Rook). As a practical matter (that is, in a game between human players) I have my doubts; I believe it to be more likely that a misstep would create a draw.]

45…Kd7 46.Ra6 Bb3 47.Kf2 Kc7 48.Ke1 Kb7 49.Rh6 Kc7 50.Kd2 a3 51.Kc3 a2 52.Kb2 Kd7 53.Ra6 Bc4 54.Ra5 Be6 55.Ra7+ Kc6 56.Ra6+ Kd7 57.Kc3 Kc7 58.Kd4 Kb7 59.Ra3 Kb6 60.Ke5 Bc4 61.Kxf5 Kc5 62.Kg6 Kb4 63.Rxa2 Bxa2 ½–½

White can’t promote the pawn with his Rook off the board. Black can sacrifice his Bishop for the pawn on either f5 or f7 and claim the draw.

It’s worth mentioning again that I’m not convinced that White could have won that game with different play. A computer can often see to the heart of the matter and find the shortest path, but a human player could easily err; I’m not referring to a tragic blunder here, either — just a minor mishap that might turn the game into a draw under the fifty-move rule. It’s worth a look for those players who have the complete set of six-man tablebases in their hard drives.

Shirov is scheduled to play Nakamura today, but no results have been posted yet as I type this post.

Interested in researching endgames? Want to make your favorite chessplaying program play them perfectly? The Nalimov tablebase set (a.k.a. the Fritz Endgame Turbo) is an invaluable resource — available now from ChessCentral, the leader in cutting-edge chess.

Have fun! — Steve

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