The Dance of Chess Kings

Tables are laid out with rows of chess boards as a member of staff puts out the final pieces prior to the start of the London
Tables are laid out with rows of chess boards as a member of staff puts out the final pieces prior to the start of the London Chess Classic tournament taking place over the weekend, in London, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

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Watching his rival Fabiano Caruana losing in the last round of the Tata Steel Chess tournament, the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen had to wait a few moments before he could celebrate yet another first place.

What does Carlsen have in common with sport superstars Lionel Messi, Jaromir Jagr or Stephen Curry? They all seem unstoppable. Everybody knows they are going to score, but not many are able to prevent it.

Carlsen went undefeated in the first major tournament of the year that ended in Wijk aan Zee at the end of January. It was his fifth victory in the traditional Dutch tournament, a record he now shares with the former world champion Vishy Anand.

The tournament started in the 1930s and 78 tournaments have been played since under different names and in different locations. In 1967 we played the last time in Beverwijk, in a movie theater, and the winner was Boris Spassky. Next year the event moved a few kilometers towards the sea to Wijk aan Zee. Lately, some rounds were played in the Rijksmuseum and the NEMO Science Center in Amsterdam, in the International Press Center in the Hague and in a railway museum in Utrecht.

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The Tata Steel tournament must be one of Carlsen's favorite events. Here he played his signature game against Sipke Ernst in 2004 that earned him the moniker "Mozart of Chess" by The Washington Post. The Norwegian grandmaster now won the last three times he played there. This year, he combined patience, grit, gamble, endurance, high technique, creative attacks and calm defenses to score five wins.

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His last win against the world's top-rated woman Hou Yifan came in a pawn endgame that the Chinese GM should have drawn, but it was not as easy as one may have thought. She would have to find a precise defense during the battle of the squares.

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Magnus Carlsen - Hou Yifan
Wijk aan Zee 2016

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This was a critical position and the game continued: 45...h5? Hou played this blunder rather quickly, allowing the white king to sneak to the square b6. 46.Kb4 Kc8 47.Ka5 Kc7 48.h4 Kb8 49.Kb6 Kc8 50.b4 Kb8 51.b5 cxb5 52.axb5 axb5 53.Kxb5 Kc7 54.c3 and Hou resigned. She is in zugzwang and has to surrender the square b6. White wins the pawn d5 after 54...Kd7 55.Kb6 Kc8 56.c6.

Instead of the faulty 45...h5?, Hou Yifan could have blocked the entrance to the square b6 with 45...a5! 46.b4. The only way to open the queenside. [46.h4 h5 47.b4 will transpose]

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It seems that Black now has two ways to make a draw but only one solves it with precise play.
A. 46...axb4+?!
This comes deceptively close to a draw, but White can continue playing.
47.Kxb4 Kd8!
Black's defense is based on a stalemate and zugzwang.
Here again 47...h5? loses to 48.Ka5 Kc7 49.h4 Kc8 50.Kb6 Kb8 51.a5 Ka8 52.a6 Kb8 53.axb7 wins.
48.Ka5 [48.Kc3 Ke7 49.a5 Kd7=] 48...Kc7 49.h4 h5 50.c3 Unfortunately, White has to move his c-pawn to make progress. White wins with the pawn on c2.
50...Kc8!
One square makes a difference: 50...Kb8? 51.Kb6 Kc8 52.a5 Kb8 53.a6 bxa6 54.Kxa6 and White wins the c6 pawn.
51.Kb6 Kb8 52.a5 Ka8!
After 52...Kc8? 53.Ka7 Kc7 54.a6 wins.
53.Kc7
After 53.a6 Kb8! 54.axb7 d4 55.cxd4 stalemates, but not 55.Kxc6? dxc3 56.Kb6 c2 57.c6 c1Q Black wins. Even after some magic, Black is not out of the woods:
53...Ka7 54.Kd6 Ka6 55.Ke5 Kb5! 56.Kxf5 Kc4! 57.Kg6 Kxc3 58.f5 d4 59.f6 d3 60.f7 d2 61.f8Q d1Q 62.Qh8+ Kc4 63.Qxh5 and I am sure Magnus would still try to win it from here.

B. 46...Ke7!
Hoping that the white pawns can block the queenside entrance for the white king. It is amazing to see the black pieces placed on the right squares - a strange coincidence.
47.bxa5 A critical position. The defense is based on the resistance equilibrium: Black has only one move to hold a draw.
47...Kd7!
A position with a mutual zugzwang. White to move: draw; Black to move: White wins.
After 47...Kd8? 48.Kd4 Ke7 49.Ke5 White wins.
48.Kb4
Two other examples show how Black has to find the only one correct square for his king:
1a. 48.Kd3 Ke7!= (48...Ke6? 49.Kd4 Kf6 50.Kc3 Ke6 51.Kb4 Kd7 52.a6 bxa6 53.Ka5+-) ;
1b. 48.Kd4 Ke6! =
48...Kc7 49.Kb3 Kc8 [or 49...Kd8] 50.Kc3 Kd7! Draw.

The analysis of the game Carlsen-Hou Yifan brought us to the wonderful world of zugzwangs, stalemates and critical, correspondence or conjured squares in the pawn endgames. The 1932 book L'Opposition et les Cases conjuguées sont réconciliées (Opposition and Sister squares are reconciled) by the dadaist Marcel Duchamp and chess composer Vitaly Halberstadt, dealing with a mysterious connection between empty squares, came to mind. Basically, it is a king dance: the white king steps on one square and it triggers only one correct response of the black king. The book is not very practical, but it is nice to look at.

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For the French writer Pierre Cabanne the problems presented in the book are rare, almost utopian. "It is an artist's book for chessplayers and a chess book for the artists," wrote the Austrian writer Ernst Strouhal, who published several books on Duchamp and chess.

In 1958, the Czech IM Emil Richter tried to make the idea more useful and came up with the more general Theory of Resistance Equilibrium. Perhaps an awkward name, but here is what he meant in short: "In a position in which one side makes a good move, the other side has to find only one correct answer - otherwise the balance is broken." It is mostly prevalent in the pawn endgames, as in Carlsen's game or Duchamp's work, but Richter intended to extend it to other pieces. He never got to do it, finished only the one volume about the pawn endgames and his theory was forgotten.

Richter was a strong player in the 1940s, chess composer and good teacher. His best student was GM Vlastimil Jansa, who in turn became a coach of the Czech champion David Navara. Another example how chess knowledge is passed from generation to generation.

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Navara won the Fair Play Prize in the Master group awarded in memory of the late Vugar Gashimov. He could have also won the prize for the most entertaining play, if there was any. Winning or losing, he fought bravely in every game, often being lured by chess artistry. "Too much talent," Bobby Fischer once told me about grandmasters playing this way. Navara's best game was against Caruana. Here is the final part:

Navara,David - Caruana,Fabiano
Wijk aan Zee 2016

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White threatens to create a passed pawn on the queenside, making the black bishop vulnerable. Caruana makes White's task easier by leaving the sixth rank with the rook.
49...Rxg3? 50.a5! bxa5 51.c5 Kd8?
After 51...Rg6 52.h5 Rf6 53.c6 Rd6 54.cxd7 (54.c7 Bc8) 54...Rxd7 55.Rxa5 Navara would have winning chances since the white h-pawn still remains on the board.
52.h5!
A wonderful quiet move, paving the way for the king by not allowing a check on the sixth rank. Caruana hoped he could survive giving up the bishop after 52.c6 Bxc6 (52...Bc8 53.h5) 53.Bxc6 and somehow exchange the last white pawn. Perhaps easier said than done, but anyway Navara had a study-like finish in mind.
52...f4 53.Kd6 Bc8 54.c6 Rg5
After 54...Rd3 55.Rxg7 Rxd5+ 56.Kxd5 the black king is still in trouble.
55.Bf7!
And that's how a true chess artist finishes his game, mating with a pawn after 55...Bh3 56.Ra8+ Bc8 57.c7 mate.
Black resigned.

It was a setback for Caruana, but he was still able to chase Carlsen until he lost to Evgeny Tomashevsky in the last round. The American GM shared the second place with the Chinese GM Ding Liren.

Next month, Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura will represent the United States in the Candidates tournament in Moscow for the right to challenge Carlsen for the world title.

Nakamura meantime continued to pursue his hobby: collecting first prizes in major open tournaments. Early this month he shared first place with the French GM Maxime Vachiere-Lagrave at the popular Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, but won the tie-brake 3-2. Anna Muzychuk, the sister of the Women's world champion Mariya, won the best women's prize.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game.

Images by Alina L'Ami