When the universe winks

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

I write this with a sunny feeling. That’s partly because spring is upon us, but mostly because I have just spotted one of those winsome coincidences which lifts the spirits with its serendipity. The first part of this delightful dyad occurred in the preliminary stage of the latest (and ongoing) Magnus Carlsen invitational event.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov–Daniil Dubov,
Magnus Carlsen Invitational, March 2021

Two pawns up, Mamedyarov is certainly expecting to grind out a win. His last move, 66 Bd4-e5 threatens Re7-c7+, skewering the bishop on c2. Quick as a whip, Dubov fires back with 66…Rf1!! to attack the pawn on f5. If White loses that pawn, the game is bound for a draw, and anyway Mamedyarov’s move 67 Rc7+ appears to win the bishop. Dubov responds with 67…Kd5, and after 68 Rxc2 Rxf5+! 69 Kxf5 the game is drawn by stalemate, as unexpected as it is beautiful.

On its own, witnessing that is a pleasing fillip to one’s day. Not an hour later, I cast my eye over the problems which were posed during last month’s British Open Online Solving Masters. This was an informal event, organised by the British Chess Problem Society, in lieu of the official Winton British Chess Solving Championship which was postponed until later in the year.

Forty participants took part in this challenge, and spent several hours working through all the problems. Out of curiosity, I picked just one to tackle myself (see diagram 2). It is White to play and win in this endgame study, composed by Paul Byway, and published in The Problemist in 1998. Be warned — a spoiler lies ahead!

Evidently the pawn on g6 is White’s main source of aspiration, though the Black pawn on a2 requires urgent attention. 1 Kxa2 might strike you as suspiciously simple in a composed problem, and indeed it meets with a subtle defence: 1… Kxe4 2 g7 Kd4! prepares a check on d5. After 3 Bf6+ Kc5 4 g8=Q Bd5+ 5 Qxd5 Kxd5 6 g6 Ke6 Black’s king can arrest the second g-pawn. But 1 Bf6! is more promising: with both Black bishops sidelined, it is hard to prevent the advance of the g6-pawn. Resourceful play from both sides is the hallmark of a good endgame study, so to get to the bottom of this you must find 1…a1=Q! 2 Bxa1 Bd4! 3 Bxd4 Kxe4. Now, pressing on with 4 g7 Kxd4 5 g8=Q Bd5+ leads to a draw, while 4 Kc3 Kf5 5 g7 Bd5 also saves the game. White must guard the d5 square, hence 4 Kc4! That looks decisive, but there is one more trick to contend with. 4…Bf3! 5 g7 Bh5! sets up a check on f7, and we are at the climax: White wins with the underpromotion 6 g8=B!, when the extra bishop and pawn win the endgame comfortably. Why the underpromotion? Black’s devious defence reveals itself after 6 g8=Q Bf7+! 7 Qxf7 stalemate. This presented itself like a little wink from the universe. Rotating the board and ignoring the trivial differences, we see an unmistakeable doppelgänger for Dubov’s ploy.

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