Was Magnus Carlsen Wrong About Chess Fortresses?

Was Magnus Carlsen Wrong About Chess Fortresses?

| 88 | Endgames

After the fourth game of his 2016 world championship match versus GM Sergey Karjakin, GM Magnus Carlsen famously said, "I don't believe in fortresses!" What he probably meant is that even though fortresses do exist in chess, the majority of the positions that look like a fortress can be penetrated.

Unfortunately, after these words of the world champion were printed and reprinted thousands of times (GM Hikaru Nakamura even made it a quote of the day on his Twitter account), Carlsen's quote has lost its initial meaning. These days it is generally believed that Carlsen thinks that fortresses are similar to a unicorn: they simply don't exist.

People like to point out that after the fortress in the fourth game, above, Karjakin managed to build another unbreakable position in the same match!

So the real question is: how common are fortresses in chess? I doubt that anyone has exact statistics, but my answer to the question would be that fortresses are more common than you might expect!

Before we proceed with our discussion of fortresses, let me tell you a funny story that happened some 60 years ago in a Soviet tournament. GM Eduard Gufeld had just started his game when he noticed that the exact same opening was being played by two other masters in another corner of the tournament hall. There is nothing unusual about this fact since in many top tournaments you can see a couple of Najdorf Sicilians or Berlins played at the same time.

Eduard Gufeld Magnus Carlsen Fortresses
Gufeld. Photo: Gennadiy Titkov, CC.

But the more Gufeld's game progressed, the more he was concerned about the situation on the other board. The turning point happened when a very strong novelty was played on that board. Gufeld quickly realized that it would be a disaster if his opponent saw the novelty and played it in their game. So, Gufeld went to the big demo board that was showing the game with the novelty and blocked the view of it with his body.

Here I need to mention that Gufeld was always a big guy, who liked to use the expression "50 pounds ago" instead of more common "10 years ago." The person operating the demo board asked Gufeld to move numerous times, and their conversation got quite heated. Fortunately, Gufeld's opponent was in such deep thought that he was not aware of anything happening away from his board, and finally made a different move. Since it was not the novelty Gufeld was so afraid of, the game continued without further incident.

A very similar situation happened in a more recent tournament where two games played on adjacent boards had 19 identical moves, which we discussed in this article.

You, my dear readers, are probably wondering what these stories of similar openings played at the same time have to do with our discussion about fortresses. Well, let's see what happened just a couple of days ago in the U.S. Championship. 

The championship newcomer GM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova had an extra pawn that she tried to convert into a win until she ran into a surprising fortress built by her tricky opponent, GM Sabina-Francesca Foisor:

I call this fortress surprising because all black pawns are placed on the squares of the same color as her bishop, which is a big no-no in these kind of endgames; moreover, White has an extra pawn. And yet, this is an impregnable fortress!

In the same round, GM Fabiano Caruana patiently tried to convert his positional advantage into a win and in the end he succeeded. At the very end of the game he also demonstrated a piece of chess humor:

These days we don't have the old-fashioned demo boards anymore. Instead, there are computer monitors everywhere. This could work to Caruana's advantage since it is much easier to block a view to a computer monitor compared to a big demo board! If GM Ray Robson had seen what happened in the above-mentioned Tokhirjonova game, which was played just some feet away, he would have found a very simple way to save his own game.

Given that there were a couple of fortresses in just one world championship match, and two very similar fortresses in the same round of the US Championship, fortresses are way more common than you might think. You better believe in them!

What do you think about chess fortresses? Have you ever had one in your games? Let us know in the comments below!

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