Endgames and Endgames
What is an endgame? We have discussed this before. In chess we might define the endgame as a position without queens, or with only queens, or something like that. But in popular culture the word "endgame" is also used. For example, "the endgame of the war in Iraq". The endgame means what it says: the end of the game. And as we know, the end is the most important part.
Well there are endgames, and there are endgames. And in the tournament I am now covering, I played a couple of good endgames, but the endgame of the tournament did not go so well.
The tournament began quite well. I am only going to cover in detail those games which reached an actual queenless position, but I will include some other games.
In round one I won quickly as Black against a young player rated 2065 (FIDE), with a piece sacrifice.
In round two I faced my nemesis, GM Alexander Stripunsky. My record against him is the worst record I have against any other player in the world. In fact, he was the first grandmaster I ever played (shortly after I left Alaska, when my rating was only about 2000), and on that occasion I drew. But since then I lost nine games, and only drew one other. To be truthful, most of those games were long ago when I was a far weaker player, but still, it was nice to finally beat him. I got a practically decisive advantage after the opening, but after losing the thread, the position became completely unclear. In severe mutual time pressure he made a blunder, and I was able to win:
In the following round I drew as Black against GM Alexander Shabalov. That game was exactly the same for fourteen moves as a later game against FM Gregory Markzon, and will be found in the notes there.
In the fourth round, I played a game which I knew would end up in this column, regardless of how the tournament turned out, since it was among the best endgames I have played. Against IM Leonid Gerzhoy (who made a GM norm in this tournament) I managed to use the two bishops, finally winning a pawn, and then winning a minor piece ending using Zugzwang motifs.
Around this point it was clear that I was on track for a GM norm, but actually making the norm seemed unlikely, since I needed to face three foreigners in the last five rounds.
That night I was completely unable to sleep, managing only a couple of hours. In addition I was coming down with a cold. In other cases this would lead to a sense of doom, but this time I managed to fight through it.
I ended up playing a quite lower rated player, FM Markzon, in the fifth round, having already played Shabalov, who was tied with me for first. Markzon was having a superb tournament and playing quite well. He hardly made any mistakes in the first half of the game against me, achieving a drawn position where I had only a symbolic advantage. There was not much I could complain about, because ultimately your opponent has to make a mistake if you want to beat him with black, and I had played correctly myself, so a draw would be normal. But I was not quite ready to agree to it, and finally he made a mistake, giving me good chances to win the resulting opposite-colored bishop ending:
In the next round I played GM Alex Lenderman as Black. It was the third Nimzo-Indian defense for me in the tournament, all the same line, the so-called Romanishin Variation, where Black leaves the bishop cut off on a5. It was a very interesting game but I won't comment it here because it doesn't fit into the subject of my column:
This was not a bad day at all. I had hardly slept, was sick, and got the black pieces in two consecutive games, thus having had black in four out of the first six rounds. But I had +4, and only needed 1.5 out of 3 to make my final GM norm and become a grandmaster at last. I would also have the white pieces in two of the last three games, and my opponents would be somewhat lower rated, since I had already played nearly all of the grandmasters, with the exception of the top seed, GM Alexander Rakhmanov, who had lost some games early on.
The main problem was I needed to play three "foreigners" out of the last three games. Ironically, with the exception of my first round opponent, all of my opponents spoke Russian as their first language (or perhaps Ukranian). But I had only played one "foreigner", a Canadian.
Nevertheless, it became clear that I would likely face three foreigners in the last three rounds, since I had already played all of the American players who were doing well.
In the seventh round I had White against IM Raja Panjwani, a player whom I had previously played and beaten three times. If I would win this game, I would almost certainly become a GM, since I would only need one draw out of the last two games. But my opponent defended well and the game ended in a draw.
The penultimate round was a great tragedy. I expected to play GM Rakhmanov with Black, and the goal was obviously to draw, since then I would have white against the Canadian IM Bindi Cheng in the last round, and the draw would probably be pretty easy. However, three minutes before the game (having already prepared for Rakhmanov) I found that I was actually playing Cheng with white that round. Of course I needed to play for a win, which would secure the GM title immediately, since it might not be so easy to draw as Black against Rakhmanov in the last round.
Throughout the game I stood somewhat better, and I think I missed a very good chance when I chose 26.g6 over the more positional 26.h6. Still, the position seemed to offer White slightly the better practical chances, and thus I avoided making a draw. Then suddenly the tension got to me, and I made a terrible blunder, overlooking my opponent's obvious move and losing instantly.
I was very upset after this game, since I had basically thrown away the certain GM title, and who knows when I would get another opportunity. I needed to beat the 2600+ Rakhmanov as Black, which would be very hard to do. Had I simply taken a draw against Cheng, I would have at least a very good chance of making a draw in the last round. Being upset from the previous round's disaster and feeling the need to complicate the game caused me to play pretty badly in the game against Rakhmanov and I lost.
So despite being neck-and-neck with the eventual winner Shabalov throughout the tournament, I ended up winning only $250 after the entry fee was taken out, not quite enough to cover my expenses, and no GM title. Truly it is the endgame which is the critical aspect of all things. Rakhmanov had started poorly, with bad losses to Shabalov and Stripunsky, but showed his character by winning the last four games, while my own nervous collapse has to be attributed to non-chess factors of personality and psychology. I hope some time soon I will have another chance to gain the GM title and remove this shadow which has come over my chess and life in general, the shadow of unfinished business, but at the moment there are few tournaments where this is possible, and those that exist I am unable to play in due to financial reasons.
So remember, that in chess and other things, how it ends is how you are judged, not how it begins. So study your endgames.