Monday, February 21, 2011

This is the end

White to play

When I was a student – when I was a student the first time that is – I was friends with a guy called Mikey. I haven’t seen him for more than twenty years now, but one thing I’m pretty sure about is that he didn’t turn into a club chesser. Purely on the law of averages, I suppose, you could guess that most people that you meet won’t take up chess as a hobby. I know that Mikey hasn’t though, and I know because of how he used the jukebox in the Union bar.

Yes, most of my evenings at Southampton University were spent in the students’ bar in the company of my undergraduate chums. We spent our time drinking watered-down beer, talking shite, playing the quiz machine and feeding the jukebox with ten pence pieces. While most of us would vary our musical choices night by night Mikey always, literally always, picked The Doors’ This is the End. It was, he said, the longest song in the jukebox and was, therefore, the best value for money.

That’s how I know Mikey doesn’t play league chess. Club players loathe endings of any sort don’t they?

Ride the snake to the ancient lake baby

Endgames might not be de rigueur for those folk who play most of their chess in club matches, but tournament play seems to be a completely different kettle of fish. Having played in a few tournaments myself in the last few weeks, I’m starting to appreciate some of the differences between these two forms of the game. For a start it became clear to me pretty quickly that my knowledge and understanding of basic endgame technique was pretty poor.

Take the position at the head of today’s post. I saw it, or something very close, crop up in game in one of the tournament for lower rated players at Golders Green in January. A small crowd had gathered around the board. I wonder if those spectators were, like your humble scribe, trying to remember whether this position was won for White or not.

I knew that a centre pawn would be a win,

White to play

White securing the point by using checks to force the enemy king in front of his pawn and then bring his king one square nearer with the tempo that s/he's gained, and I also knew that a rook’s pawn would be a draw,

White to play

because here pushing the king to h1 leads to stalemate. I even remembered once seeing something like [update: see Adam FF's note in the comment box] this

White to play

which is now winning for White after all because when the queen lands on f2 Black will be able to move the second pawn allowing a mate on f1 (a bit tough to lose because you have too many pawns, but them's the rules of chess).

Alongside these memories I had the nagging feeling that there was a certain ending in which a queen’s, king’s or knight’s pawn was won and the bishop’s and rook’s pawn were drawn. What I couldn’t remember was why this would be. It didn’t seem likely that it could be any other ending than Queen v pawn on the 7th, but why would the bishop’s pawn ending in front of me be different from this?

White to play

I couldn’t remember, and I couldn’t work it out, neither at the time nor on the tube on the way home. As soon as I got back I looked it up and discovered that I’d been right, the position with a bishop’s pawn is a theoretical draw. I also found out that not only had White had no clue how to go about winning this ending – that much had been obvious – but Black hadn’t known how to draw it either. He kept defending the pawn instead of putting his king in the corner and allowing the pawn to fall.  Continuing the way he was going could have led to a defeat if White had worked out that she needed to bring her king up.

Queen takes pawn

What a trio we made: none of us doing a very good job of understanding what is, after all, a rather simple and easily learned ending. The players themselves were obviously rather inexperienced and perhaps not to be expected to have acquired this basic knowledge yet. What was my excuse though? After more than two decades of club chess shouldn’t I have learned to have played this ending by now?

The blue bus is calling us

The truth is, I did once know about this ending. I’d forgotten, though, because until now I have played most of my chess in club games and this sort of thing has simply never cropped up.  Hardly any of my games come down to endings of any sort, let alone one as far as advanced as queen v pawn on the seventh. When it comes down to it, I didn’t retain what I’d learned because I didn’t need to remember it.

Since I'm aiming to play tournaments on a regular basis this year I've decided that it's time I turned this around  I still don’t know much about endgames (yet), but at least I’ve lost my passive antipathy towards positions with only a few pieces left on the board. Chess ain’t free, after all. Why not play for as long as possible and get the most value for my money? If only I’d listened to Mikey and Jim Morrison in the first place, I wouldn’t have missed out for all these years.


Anonymous said...

My first chess book was Golombek's "The Game of Chess" published by Penguin which says on the cover "A book for beginners as well as for those who already know how to play". That contains the Queen versus Bishop pawn ending. For good measure the handful of positions where the Queen wins are illustrated.

The age-old question "Are beginners stronger than they used to be?" Perhaps it depends on the books they have (or have not) read.


Anonymous said...

Just down the road it was 'Size of a flippin' Cow'. Every night.


Adam FF said...

I was checkmated by Marcus Osborne after he "stalemated" my king but I still had other pawns I could move; most unfair ;-) ! I'm not seeing how White wins with the additional Black pawn on h5; I can't see how he can force Qg3+ without playing Qg4+, but to do that he needs to take the pawn on h5?!

Jonathan B said...

Good spot Adam.

I'd thought the key was being able to play

... Qg3+/Kg1-h1 Qf2/ and then mate on f1. I didn't realise you'd need to be able to play ... Qg4 to get to g3 but it seems that you do!

I guess the pawn has to be on h6 in that position.