In a recent tournament, one game reached a certain ending which I had previously played a full eight years ago. That was a decent memory of a very different time. I wasn't even an IM yet, and I was still trying to establish a life in Philadelphia - times were pretty lean. That game took place in the 2006 Foxwoods Open, in the eighth round. In those days, the kind of prize I could hope to win - a couple thousand dollars - would make a huge difference in my life, perhaps even funding a trip abroad which would allow me to become an IM. There was a lot of pressure - indeed, I pretty much collapsed in the last round after this game. This tournament remains one of those memories from my (relative) youth, despite not even being a very good tournament on my part.
In the eighth round, I played a master named Dmitry Shevelev, and, as White in a French Defense, he went immediately into an endgame which is considered harmless. Indeed, White generally avoids this ending. This is not a theoretical article, and the assessment of this ending is not really up to debate since clearly Black is completely fine there. Nevertheless, it is the type of opening variation which someone might choose in a misguided attempt to make a draw.
In Shevelev's case, I doubt he was playing for a draw with white. This was an open tournament, and the players were fighting for prizes (including prizes for under 2500 rating, or something like that). He probably chose this variation out of a wish to exploit perceived weaknesses in my endgame play, or maybe just because he did not know the theory. If it was the former reason, he was probably disappointed because I played an ending which I can still be proud of today. So let's look at this first road:
One of the good things about chess is that even the most simple positions can diverge into an infinite number of different paths. So eight years later, in a round-robin tournament in Chicago, I faced the young player David Peng, who I believe is only ten years old. He was the lowest rated player in the tournament, but as is common with young players, his rating had not caught up to his strength. In our game, I chose the French Defense - which I had not played for a while - and he chose to go into the same ending as Shevelev had eight years earlier (when Mr. Peng was two years old).
Interestingly, the game with Peng was quite a bit more tense than the one with Shevelev, mostly because Peng came up with a much better arrangement of pieces early on. Individual factors aside (such as differences in the level of talent and dedication of these two particular opponents), I think a large change in the level of general chess ability can be observed in the last decade - probably largely due to computers. It confuses me somewhat, because differences in rating still mean the same, statistically. But all games with lower rated players are more tense and tend to be decided later in the game.
Now let's see the game with Peng:
This ending - while theoretically harmless from White's point of view - is great for studying the imbalances of bishop versus knight and opposing pawn majorities. Studying other games played from the beginning of the endgame (and there are many) you can find some similarities of the methods attempted. For instance, you can find the ...g7-g5 advance from my game with Shevelev, after White has played f4 - this pawn break puts pressure on White and is demanded by the pawn structure:
...g7-g5 in this structure ultimately leaves White with a difficult choice - allow the exchange of the f-pawn for Black's g-pawn, which gives Black a passed pawn and opens a kingside file, or support the pawn with g2-g3, which creates "positive tension" from Black's point of view (he can, at any moment, exchange on f4, creating an isolated pawn for White and opening the g-file; while for White, exchanging on g5 is still not desirable). This is a very basic structure, so learning such thematic ideas is very important.
Witness the following game, where White uses the same Nd2 idea as Peng, but continues with a later f4 move rather than Peng's f3. This gave Black the chance to chip away with the ...g5 break.
Furthermore, you might observe the Nd2 idea which Peng used, and which can be found in some other games from this ending. This idea was not even on my horizon when Peng played it on the board.
Despite the similarity of a few themes, you will find that every game diverges into an infinite number of paths. Eventually, none can even be called similar. In the diverging roads of two chess games, you can find the different personalities of the players, their momentary condition, their knowledge, the times in which they live. The forest of chess is indeed very thick. Two paths might run parallel for a little while, but eventually one leads to the mountains and the other to the river.