Last week we looked at a topic of how modern players learn from classics in endgames where there are rooks present with opposite-colored bishops. We analyzed two classic games where the ideas of 1) a passed pawn and 2) domination showed up. We completed the analysis with few modern games that emphasized these two ideas.
I didn't find good reference material related to this ending, but I did receive feedback from you, the readers. Xivarmy suggested to look into Dvoretsky's School of Chess Excellence 1: Endgame Analysis for examples with this particular material balance. Hence, I felt like I needed to talk more about this topic given this new reference and a few others suggestions by the readers. So the format will be the same: we will look at ideas from the classics first, and then study modern examples.
As a teenager I devoured all Dvoretsky's excellent books and they still serve as study reference for me now. The chapter where the following example appears is about the advantage of abstract knowledge, which we will discuss a bit later. For now I want to quote a very important idea that Dvoretsky said about B+R endgames where the bishops are of opposite colors:
"If there are no other pieces on the board apart from the opposite-colored bishops and the kings, the weaker side should normally defend passively, aiming to set up a 'fortress'. On the contrary, when other pieces are present (especially in the middlegame), the main principle is activity, a striving for the initiative, even at the cost of material. After all, the presence on the board of opposite-colored bishops usually strengthens an attack, since the active bishop has no opponent."
Here we see the concept of activity and active defense. The material might not be as important as in many cases the game will turn into an opposite-colored bishop ending, where the defending side can hold even being few pawns down.
So, the topic of today's discussion is: active play. While discussing this idea, Dvoretsky presents an example from his student Nana Alexandria, who was playing a candidates match against Marta Litinskaya. Alexandria had to defend a tough endgame that arose after the game was adjourned, so her seconds had a whole night to spend on analysing the position. In the pre-computer era this was not much time to figure out all the nuances, but given the time-limit the quality of their analysis is excellent. Below, I present the game where many of the lines and quotes are from the book.
Given the abstract knowledge of the importance of piece activity when opposite-colored bishops and other material are present on the board, Dvoretsky found the 42.Kg1 idea relatively quickly. What is surprising is that Litinskaya's camp did not find it — I would guess grandmasters were working for her. The move 42.Rd2 is an almost automatic move that many will make without thinking, but it leads to a passive position and an eventual loss. To conclude this highly instructive example, I will use another quote from Dvoretsky: "A deep familiarity with general principles, procedures and methods enriches and sharpens our intuition."
Mark Dvoretsky | Photo © Lennart Ootes
Let us look at another classic example where Vasja Pirc did not find an active defense set-up. The position is better for White but Black has his queenside pawns on dark squares protected by the bishop and his only weakness is the f7-pawn. Given the small number of pieces on the board, Black should hold without much trouble. First, Pirc relocated his bishop to d8. Probably he missed something as having it on d8 instead of c5 is a big disadvantage. And then he had to sacrifice a pawn to stay afloat, but instead lost the game in two moves. After seeing Alexandria's game I hope that sacrificing the pawn on f7 would not be that challenging to find!
Active defense might not always pay off but at least one can create a lot of problems for the other side to resolve. In the next game from the recent Karpov Tournament in Poikovsky it is Viktor Bologan who was defending. His pawns are located on the same color as the bishop, and so his dark squares are extremely weak. Besides, the king and bishop are awkwardly placed and he does not have prospects of counterplay. But... Bologan happens to be a very creative player and likes the initiative. He found a way to sacrifice two pawns but to activate his pieces to the maximum. In the end if he had found 49... Rb7, he would have been very close to a draw.
The last example, which I found very instructive, was brought to my attention by IM Greg Shahade in his nice blogpost about Chess.com columnists. And because the example actually fits very well the topic of activity in endgames with rooks and opposite-colored bishops, I had to include it here.
Like the second example from Keres' play, this endgame is about the f7-pawn. The big difference is that White has an extra pawn on the kingside that will roll forward and potentially becomes a passed pawn. So White has clear plan here. After several introductory moves, where Carlsen tested waters and Karjakin showed that he has no intention to weaken his fortress, White finally sacrificed two pawns to create a passed e-pawn.
Here we have a critical moment in the game. Black has the choice of giving up extra material and try to hold the resulting position or dive into tactical complications that involve a piece sacrifice. It turns out that the second option led to a draw, as the black king with g- and h-pawns becomes a dominant force and the white bishop on c4 is cut off from the defense. Active defense can sometimes cost not only a pawn but a piece as this example shows. Karjakin did not find this defensive resource and soon lost the game.
Next week we will continue with the topic of classic heritage in modern play.