A Thin Line between Opening and Endgame
With the next couple of articles we will look at transitions from openings into endgames and explore the significance of endgames in opening preparation. Gata Kamsky once gave me advice on how to study openings. In addition to theory he recommended analyzing the endgames that result from the openings and looking for common patterns there. To me it sounded a bit too much as I hardly could cope with all the theoretical lines in the opening and all the plans in the resulting middlegames. However, in some openings knowing the endgames that can happen is a must. One such opening is the Sicilian Dragon. There one should know how to play endgames down an exchange or down a piece or even down a rook!
Last weekend I got to play a game against fellow chess.com contributor IM Danny Rensch. The opening and middlegame was a good choice for me as I got the endgame I was striving for. After getting into the endgame I realized that I have very little knowledge of how to play an endgame down a rook for four pawns. Recalling brilliant games by Radjabov who plays the Dragon really well I couldn’t remember a single general idea from his games.
In the end, ideas and plans are what will help you to navigate an unknown position. To acquire them one needs to invest time studying similar positions and eventually build a feel for them. Here we will look at the game and analyze the endgame in detail. The opening is not of particular interest to this article but I would like to mention that it is one of the sidelines and black does not achieve equality if the opponent plays well. It is useful to have such side lines in order to avoid preparation and to surprise the opponent. Let us look at the opening and the resulting position.
This is the first critical moment of the endgame. I have a choice of trading rooks or bishops. During the game I did not even consider the rook trade as somehow I thought that retaining one rook was a must. However, it turns out that leaving two bishops might have been a good if not a better decision for black. The bishop on g4 plays an important role in the endgame – it controls the critical d1-square, so the rook cannot get on the d-file. Two bishops have perfect control over the board. After trading a pair of rooks, the black king will not need to worry about coming under attack. Before returning to the game let us look at the analysis of the rook trade.
What are the takeaways from this line? Having two bishops instead of bishop and rook is good for black because the rook on h1 does not get into the game. White needs to spend a few tempi on the bishop trade after which the rook can try to get into the black camp. With such a massive pawn chain there are no open lines that the rook can use as avenues to attack black pawns. Meanwhile, black advances the f- and e-pawns with the help of the king, and the position remains unclear. Let us get back to the game and see what happened after I traded the bishops instead.
What happened in the above episode was more or less principled. I chose the most aggressive continuation of pushing the f-pawn as far as possible but gave up the 7th- rank to the white rook. The risks of the continuation I chose are obvious: loss of the a-pawn, getting my king under attack, losing the f-pawn etc. However, there are high gains: if I get the pawn too far it will be a major power and nothing else will matter.
During the game it was hard to assess the risks and to evaluate the resulting positions. It was extremely tempting to play solidly and not allow the rook to the 7th- rank. I realized that if he gets the knight into the game then advancing the pawns would be much harder. I believe and Houdini also believes that the decision started with f5 was the correct one. Rensch played it safe and did not chase after the a7-pawn but instead brought the knight into the game which was correct. After the two of us implemented the attack- defense plans the questions is what is next?
Obviously, the f- pawn on its own will not queen; it needs the help of either the g- or the e-pawn. Which one to push? Or should I bring the king into the game? Currently, the bishop is under attack. Should I put it on d4, defending the a7-pawn or should I retain it on c3 by the b4 move? The advantage of the bishop on c3 is that it controls the important e1-square and white cannot play Re1. On the other hand the a7-pawn is lost and with the knight on d3 he can start harassing the pawn on b4. The next episode of the game is the most complex. We had to calculate and evaluate an increasingly high number of variations. You don’t have to see all of the lines, what you have to do is to have faith in the plan you have chosen. During the game I started the right plan but in the middle of it the variations turned into a mess and I no longer believed in the plan and derailed, losing on the spot.
Overall, it was an extremely complex and interesting game. After the opening black sacrificed an exchange but got some counterplay in return. White allowed an exchange combination that got me four pawns for a rook. The next stage of the game we both played well, being consistent with plan implementation, after which I made the mistake of not following the plan I mapped out, resulting in immediate loss. The price of a move is extremely high when there is a race of who is faster. Relying on intuition and being unafraid to risk is necessary. My guess is that next time I get four pawns for a rook I will play it better because of this game experience. I hope you will too!