The importance of opposition: Al-Rakib vs. Nigel Short, 1999
Recently, I came across a game in the youtube channel of The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. One of the games intrigued me, with an endgame really pushing two points: Always calculate (Don't rely on general principles!) and Opposition is key. In pawn endgames, it really matters where you move your king because pawn endgames are very technical and with only one piece on the board for each side, where you place it can easily make the difference between a draw or a loss. Here is a game in point. After 63 moves the following position was reached:
64. Kc3 b5 65. cxb5 Kxb5 With only 2 pawns left, surely this should be easy to calculate, right?
Actually, it is anything but that! Here is white's first decision of the endgame. He played the correct 66. Kb3 Nigel Short responded with the only winning try and played 66... a4+!
Al-Rakib probably neither calculated nor thought that opposition was that important here. He simply played the most obvious move, 67. Kc3?? Nigel Short responded with the obvious 67... Kc5 Suddenly, Al-Rakib realized he was in trouble. After 68. Kd3 Kd5 if he played 69. Ke3, then Black would play Kc4. Black would win the a-pawn and queen and prevent White from doing so after 69. Ke3 Kc4 70. Kf4 Kb3 71. Kg5 Kxa3 72. Kxh5 Kb3 73. g4 a3 74. g5 a2 75. g6 a1=Q and black wins. Similarily if White played 69. Kc3 Black would win after 69... Ke4
In the game White resigned after 69. Kd2 Kd4
However, the position is drawn!
Looking back at the position above, what should have White done after 66... a4+ ?
The important thing in this endgame is that White keeps the opposition. After 67. Kc2?? Kc4, black has the opposition and will win easily. After the odd looking 67. Ka2?? Kc4 68. Kb2 Kd3 White will also lose.
That leaves us with the unexpected 67. Kb2!! After Kc5 or Kc4 White would take the opposition and claim an easy draw. For example, 69... Kc4 70. Kc2 Kd4 71. Kd2 and Black isn't making any progress. The most testing option is after 67... Kb6!?
White must make sure that he doesn't mess up here. To draw, he must keep the opposition, so the best way to secure the draw is by 68. Kb1! (68. Kc2 also draws but is much more diificult and has nothing to do with the point about opposition). White now has distant opposition (5 squares between the king) and Black has no way to penetrate the White position.
What an amazing endgame! A 2400 misjudged a position with a king and 2 pawns for each side. When reaching a pawn endgame, always make sure to pay attention, keep the opposition, and most of all, take your time and calculate all the options.