Saturday, 16 January 2010

Rules Are Meant to be Broken

Today I’d like to introduce a new columnist to Chessticles readers. Because he is an eminent figure in the British judicial system (as well as a very strong chess player) he has chosen to use the nom de plume “M’Lod”. Readers will not be surprised to hear that he has been commissioned to ramble eccentrically about the laws of chess. When I say this however I refer not to the rules and regulations that govern the way the game is played but instead the “theoretical laws” that have been laid down for students of the game to follow by experts and tutors over the years. M’Lod will examine a case study in each of his columns and assess how the evidence it contains either supports or disproves the particular “law” that is being evaluated. Over to you M’Lod.

Silence in court! Let us begin.

When beginners are learning the game one of the first rules they are taught is the value of the pieces. The accepted theory is that Pawns are worth 1 point; Knights and Bishops 3 points; Rooks 5 points and the Queen 9 points. It is a simple way of assessing the balance of material on the board and in most cases a material advantage for one side or the other is decisive.

Unfortunately, the law is rather crude and needs further legislation in order to be enforced with any degree of reliability. For example, in the end game pawns assume a much greater value than they do in the earlier stages of the game as they have the opportunity to promote to a queen. Every pawn therefore has a potential value of 9 points and this dynamic can create chaos when it comes to assessing the merits of a position. One moment a pawn isworth 1 point, the next it is worth 9. How can this happen? Examine the evidence below if you will.

Case A – “Pieces are worth more than pawns”
Evidence – Ortueta vs. Sanz, Madrid, 1933

It is black to play in this position. A cursory assessment of the situation suggests that, although the material held by the two sides is equal, positionally, white is rather better. His knight is more active than black's passive bishop and black's doubled c-pawns are a potential weakness. Unfortunately they are also potential queens and black exploits this in a rather elegant fashion by playing...

1. ... Rxb2!

Black is sacrificing his rook, but, in the process the value of his pawn on c4 has just increased as it is now a passed pawn.

2.Nxb2 c3

Already white finds himself in a spot of bother as, in order to stop the pawn he must play 3.Nd3. Sadly this will be met with 3....c4+ 4.Kf1 (4.Rxb6 cxd3 is winning for black) cxd3 5.Ke1 c2 6.Kd2 Be3+ sacrificing the other piece in order to promote his c-pawn which has suddenly assumed a 9 point value! In order to continue white must give back the exchange by playing...

3.Rxb6 c4!!

A truly stunning reposte! Black isn't interested in regaining the rook. All that matters is queening the c-pawn and in order to do that he must prevent the white knight getting to d3 which he would suceed in doing after 3...axb6 4.Nd3. A purely material assessment of the position now shows that white is 8 points (Rook = 5 and Knight = 3) ahead but of course black's pawn on c3 is worth a lot more than 1 point right now.

4.Rb4 ...

This is white's only hope right now as if 4.Rc6 then cxb2 will get the pawn home on the b-file. Now if black takes the knight with 4...cxb2 then 5.Rxb2 and if 4...c2 then 5.Rxc4 and white stops the pawn. Black therefore declines to regain the material once again.

4. ... a5!

The coup de grace!

5.Rxb4 cxb2

With b4 and c1 unavailable to white's rook black's pawn can't be stopped and has achieved its maximum potential value therefore white resigned.

Of course the evidence this game provides is a rather melodramatic, if exceedingly elegant means of disrupting the accepted order. Never the less it surely proves that a simplistic and rigid application of piece values is destined to get players into trouble. I would therefore recommend that the following amendments be made the law we are examining today.

Suggested amendments to the “Pieces are worth more than pawns” rule

  1. Pawns have a dynamic value that ranges between 1 and 9
  2. The longer a game continues the greater each pawn’s potential value become
  3. The closer a pawn comes to its queening square the greater its value become
  4. Pieces only retain their value over pawns if they can prevent a pawn from queening without sacrificing themselves

I believe there are further amendments to laws about the relative value of pieces that must be considered but let us adjourn today’s proceedings and continue this discussion another time.

Plenty of Room for Improvement!

Today I give you an endgame position that I contested over the board recently. Endings are one part of my all round game that I’ve identified for remedial work. Many of my games never culminate in tight end games due to the fact that I’ve normally secured or conceded a decisive advantage by this stage of proceedings. Never the less if I’m going to improve my results I need to get better at playing endings. Recently I’ve been dipping back into the antique master work “How to Play Chess Endings” by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky and, although the going is heavy I felt like I was starting to make some progress. It seem I was wrong!

The game below gave me my first opportunity to my new found understanding to the test and I fear that I rather let the side down. The most challenging aspect of endgame play is the high degree of accuracy required. Judgement plays less of a role in this stage of the game and calculation becomes much more important. Even the smallest error can change the outcome of proceedings. Take a look at the position below.

White has just offered black the opportunity to exchange the knights off the board (with 33.Nd2) and enter into a king and pawn endgame. Should black accept or decline this offer? My recent studies have taught me that it is wise to have a clear idea of the theoretical outcome of the resultant position and how it should be approached before making a choice. King and pawn endings have concrete assessments you are either “winning”, “drawing” or “losing” there is no “unclear” or “equal” assessment. I figured that I was winning as after exchanging the knights I could play my king to d5 via e6, assume the opposition and eventually break through to win a pawn on the king’s side.

Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. I needed to look more carefully at the situation of the pawns on each side of the board. Who will be able to create a passed pawn most easily and who (without intervention from the enemy monarch) will be able to queen a pawn the quickest? The reality is that black must play with the upmost care to keep control over white’s king’s side pawns.
Play continued…

It’s pretty depressing to think that if it’s possible to make this many errors in a “simple” king and pawn ending then a more complex ending must be very difficult indeed!

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Best Bits of 2009

As 2009 turned into to 2010 I found myself pondering (as I always do), what did I learn about chess this year. Then I think about all those crucial lost games that got away and, eventually, I think about the ones I was most happy with.

If I had to pick one highlight from this year then it would be my discovering how to play a particular variation of the French Defence that I've been wrestling with for a couple of years. I've had the chance to test it several times in the last 12 months and I haven't lost a game with it... yet!

Anyway, here is the game from 2009 that I was most pleased with in the aforementioned line. It took place on Red Hot Pawn where the strength of your opening repertoire is tested to the limit against the better players.

All in all, a pretty nice game for me as I made only a few small errors against a strong opponent.