Heritage in Modern Play, Part 2

Heritage in Modern Play, Part 2

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Last week was the first installment of the series Heritage in Modern Play. Just to remind you, since the topic is still fresh this series aim at systematically studying some of the methods of play and ideas that were invented long ago but still are very useful in modern play. The first article featured Smyslov's Battery, while today's topic dates to pre-Smyslov times and is about how to play endgame positions with rooks and opposite-colored bishops. We will study games from the early 1900s and compare the players' technique to that of the modern super-GMs.  

What this topic is all about? First of all, if you check endgame manuals and other books on endgames, there is very little written about R+B vs. the same material but with an opposite-colored bishop. I desperately wanted to quote some authority such as Mark Dvoretsky on this topic, but scrolling quickly through the content of his Endgame Manual I didn't manage to find this topic. I am sure he covers it in one of his book, so please comment if you have the reference!

After a while I figured to rely only on the examples and try to figure out what is going on in these positions from studying classics. Objectively these type of positions with equal material should be equal, bu there is ton of play and one does not have to agree to a draw right away.

Exchanging the rooks early one will most likely lead to a drawn opposite-colored bishop ending. Hence, there are two techniques that the stronger side uses (what I saw from the examples) to maximize the advantage:

1. Create a passed pawn;
2. Use domination.

Sure, other endgame techniques and themes are applicable here as well such as active pieces and weak pawns/weak squares, but these two are methods are very effective, especially in this type of endgames. Creating a passed pawn will most likely lead to the weaker side blocking it but it will take both the rook and bishop to do so, hence the stronger side can use this to create a second weakness on the other flank. We will see three games on this topic: two classics and one modern example.

Regarding the second point: domination is especially effective when the weaker side has his pawns and bishop on the same color. Then, the stronger side can maneuver through the other set of squares. The second game featured in this article has some elements of domination, while the last game features this topic vividly.

After this brief introduction, let us proceed to the examples. In the first position, below, Capablanca exchanges a knight for a bishop to get rid of Black's strong bishop pair. This correct strategic decision left Black with a weakened pawn structure as the d6-pawn is a permanent target. Moreover, the a7-pawn can become a target too as it is placed on a dark square.

Capablanca wins this seemingly equal position effortlessly, even though Reti was a well-established player back in the days. Capablanca's effective strategy was to sacrifice a pawn temporarily but to create a passed pawn. Instead of giving it back right away and setting-up a fortress, Reti misplayed the endgame badly and lost the bishop.

In the following example from Nimzowitsch's play, White offered a rook exchange that rids White of a weak and isolated d4-pawn. Rc5 also created a pawn majority for White on the queenside, so White should have better chances playing this position, as he will be able to make a passed pawn on the queenside, correct?

As it turns out, there is a small detail that makes this position more favorable for Black. This detail is that the white pawn is on c5 and not on c4. If it was on c4 then White could have easily achieved a pawn storm on the queenside and he even could have created a passed pawn there.

Aaron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935)

However, the pawn is on c5 and the black bishop will block the pawn majority on the queenside with the help of a-pawn. Then Black will proceed to create a passed pawn on the kingside using his pawn majority there. Once that is accomplished, he will use all his pieces to infiltrate White's position — in another words, he will use domination.

This is all easier said than done; it takes much patience and maneuvering to win this endgame. Objectively speaking, if White had found the correct defense then the game would have ended in a draw.

Now that we are familiar with two classic examples, let's look at two modern games. In the first, in the starting position it is Black who is better and should try to use his pawn minority on the queenside to attack the white king, while the queens are still present on the board. However, after a queen exchange White is the only one who can create a passed pawn because the black pawns on the kingside are immobile.

Grischuk first brings his king up and moves the pawns forward to create a passed pawn. Then, with the help of all the pieces and with the rook actively positioned on the fourth rank to block Black's counterplay, he manages to break through on the queenside. All along it was hard for Black to play this position, because he did not have an active plan and passive defense sooner or earlier breaks.

The final example is from the very recent Karpov Tournament in Poikovsky, where Nepomniachtchi demonstrated excellent technique. The starting endgame position is equal but we notice that Black has doubled d-pawns, so White is better because of the pawn structure. Black's pawns are on the same color as the bishop, so the light squares are very weak and White can use them as pathways for the bishop and the king to get into Black's camp.

Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo © Maria Emelianova courtesy of FIDE

Nepomniachtchi first maneuvers to let Black figure out where he wants to place his king. Surprisingly enough, the queenside is a very poor place for black king. There the light squares are very weak and the king gets under checkmating threats. Hence, Black had to keep the king on the queenside, where it is more mobile and active. Nepomniachtchi played on both flanks and used domination to get his king and bishop into Black's camp. This game is an excellent example of attacking possibilities in R+B endgames.

Next week we will continue with this series and look more into different techniques that modern players have learned from the classics.


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