Sokolov - Master of Endgame
Recently GM Ivan Sokolov conquered the American chess scene by winning the largest open in the US - the World Open, technically, tying for 1st place with American GM Shabalov but winning on tie-break. Sokolov showed no mercy playing two young and talented American GMs, Shankland and Lenderman. The Exchange Slav turned out to be a dangerous weapon against Sam Shankland, while against Lenderman Sokolov ended up grinding a long and equalish endgame. Today's and next week's articles are dedicated to Sokolov's endgame against Lenderman.
From the first sight the endgame looks equal. White has an advantage of a bishop but for now it has little use. Sokolov's comment on the endgame after the tournament was that Lenderman probably for a long time didn't know what Sokolov was playing for. The position looks so equal that he didn't realize that Sokolov was playing for a win. Sokolov's justification for Lenderman's evaluation was that the white bishop was of the "wrong" color. Here, wrong means that it is of the same color as the d4-pawn, which dooms the bishop to a passive existence. Sokolov's comment was that although the bishop is of the "wrong" color this does not mean as much because the knights are still present on the board. To me this evaluation seemed so deep and showed so much class that I decided to dig in deeper into the endgame and figure out what the deal is with the right and wrong colored bishop.
Let's go through the first stage of the game where the rooks were traded:
White managed to gain space on the queenside with b4-b5, which took away the c6-square from the black knights and king and also fixed the a7-pawn as a weakness. Still, the position is far from winning, even far from a big advantage. Taking up space is a common idea in endgames like this. To understand the current endgame let us look at some other examples with bishop vs. knight.
Three examples of "wrong" bishop vs. knight -- taking space.
White seized some space but the position remained closed and there was no plan for further positional improvement. In the next example it seems that the side with the knight was trying to play for a win:
Having a bishop of the color opposite to the d4-pawn is an advantage but might be not enough to claim a win as the following example illustrates:
The game ended up in a draw. It seems that the extra pair of knights gives additional resources for both sides. The side with a space advantage has a right to play for a win. In today's endgame it is Sokolov who grabbed space on the queenside and is trying to win. The real problem for black is that his knights do not have active squares and have to move on the last three ranks.
The black knights cannot move, since one is tied to the defense of the d5-pawn and the other one is defending the first knight. The knight on c7 is especially poorly placed because it has no moves besides Na8 and Ne8. The knight on e6 is more active as it attacks the d4-pawn and controls the important f4-square. Because the knights cannot really move white can play for zugzwang. For now white can create a weakness on b6 by threatening the knight jump to b4. After that Sokolov starts to take space on the kingside. Generally, if he manages to get the f4-f5 break in to attack the e6-knight black's position will collapse as the knight on e6 is a key defensive piece. On the other hand black might try to continue defending passively by placing the knights on c7 and e8 and ignoring white's pawn pushes on the kingside. Black's active plan consists of pushing g5 and planting the knight on f4,while keeping the other knight on e6. The next game fragment shows the ideas discussed above.
It seems that black had a good chance of holding the position with passive defense. If you find a winning plan for white in the line to the 44th move starting with 44...Ne8!? please post it in the comments section. Next week we will pick up from the last position and finish up with this intriguing endgame.
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