Theoretical Opening or Endgame?

Theoretical Opening or Endgame?

| 22 | Endgames

When we talk about opening theory our imagination wanders to numerous opening lines that are memorized, some critical positions, and some novelties played recently, heated discussions of favorite lines. Opening theory is a term that is used by amateurs as well as pros. In my opinion the Fide slogan “we are one family” can be changed to “we all study openings.” What does it take to study openings? This is a topic that can be discussed without end. I would like to address one aspect of opening theory when the theoretical position leads to an endgame position right away.

Our mind has to switch immediately from concrete variations to general planning in such situations. Here, we will discuss the theory of one endgame, whose history spans from 1912 until the game that we will consider, played in 2011 at the recent Moscow Open.

The following position was reached after 13 moves of theory. Rahmanov prepared this position as Black for the Moscow Open tournament. This was his third game in this opening in the tournament, naturally Inarkiev was well-prepared and showed a high understanding of ideas.


Before moving forward let us first evaluate it. White is clearly better: he has the powerful knight on d4, and space advantage on the kingside, while black is left with a “bad French” bishop. However, black has no weaknesses making it hard for white to break through. Black is cramped and would like to exchange a pair of pieces, especially the bishops. In a short time black would want to move the knight and let the bishop out with Bd7, while white would want to develop the bishop and bring the king up to e3 for example.

How do we start studying this endgame? This is not a precise position, thus referring to endgame manuals should be of little use. Some opening books should cover it but I suspect the books will not go into too much detail, providing an evaluation instead and a basic plan. In my opining digging into history is the best way to discover how the treatment of this position evolved over time.

One of the first games was played by Tarrasch, who is considered a chess classic. The position is not exactly the same but the pawn structure is similar and thus we can take a lot of ideas from it. After the game the other players were reluctant to play this position because Tarrasch showed a clear advantage for white throughout the game. Black did not manage to come up with a meaningful plan during the game and went down without putting real problems before white.


Let us highlight some of the key ideas and thoughts extracted from the game:

  • The exchange of the knights did not make black's life better because the white king got in time to the d-square.
  • The optimal position for the white bishop is the d3-square.
  • Black's threat to place the knight on c4 almost always should be met by b3.
  • White's main threat is to push the pawns on the kingside, creating either a passed pawn there or a weakness for black.

More than a half century later grandmaster Chernin picked up the opening for black and showed a defensive plan for black. In the Candidates tournament, faced with this new defensive concept, GM Short was unable to pose Chernin any problems.


Let us summarize what was done in the game:

  • The black knight is much better placed on c6 than on c5 like in the above game.
  • White refrained from the knight exchange because unlike the previous game here black still had his queenside pawns on a7 and b7, not restricting the light-squared bishop.
  • If white plays h4 the ideal pawn set-up for black is h5-g6 – preventing white from a pawn storm on the kingside.
  • Doubling the rooks on the c-file puts pressure on the c–pawn thus creating some couterplay for black, this was only possible because black secured the kingside.

The next major development of the plans in this position was when eight years later Chernin faced an interesting plan invented (according to my database) by Gofshtein. The plan is not obvious at all and is genuinely creative. After this game there were again not too many followers playing the line for black.


The following ideas are important:

  • The maneuver Rh3-Rc3-Rc7 puts immense problems before black.
  • Black must play f6 to undermine the centre and to get some play.
  • When the rook is implanted  on c7 it will be extremely hard to get rid of it. White will create a pawn attack on the queenside that will most likely result in a passed e–pawn.

After diving into the history of the position we can now be surer in deciphering the position that is the topic of this article. Had Rakhmanov come up with a new plan? Has he improved on the previous analysis? There were more games played that are not shown here, one of which introduced the idea of playing Nb8 after h4 so as to have Nc6 on Rc3. Rakhmanov used this idea, which is the only reasonable response against white's plan of the rook transfer.


The following ideas should conclude the discussion of the position:

  • Black erroneously exchanged the knight for the bishop, ending up with a permanently bad bishop.
  • When allowing h4-h5 black is bound to a passive defense. White’s main idea is to place the rooks on the g- file and put pressure on the weak g7 square, since black almost always must play f6, leaving a weakness on g7.
  • White can always trade the good knight for the bad bishop when it is most favorable, breaking down black’s defense.

Today, we analyzed an endgame that happened from a theoretical position. The look into history was of use when it came to analyzing the ideas behind both sides' play. This discussion was inspired by an excellent article analyzing Inarkiev's game on the official Moscow Open chess website by GM Kalinin. The verdict remains: white is better and black has yet to demonstrate a plan that creates some problems for white.

For the next week we will consider the following endgame:

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