A Different Look at Unbalanced Endgames

Music and chess can mirror each other. In both we speak of tempo, subtext, and players with such technique it can become a living presence in the room. I picture the 1812 overture during development and a barrage of Motorhead when you king hunt, but no matter your disposition it’s not hard to see the strange rhythm in a chess game.

My good friend Michael, for whom I wrote an obituary on this site some time ago, made similar observation about games in general; although chess was not the subject I certainly think he’d concur with my thoughts. In my latest game I’ve decided to pick a song to go with my analysis. It’s found here. It’s called “Less Cute Version of You” and I think you’ll see why it’s apropos.


1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. cxd5 exd5 6. e3 Bf5 {We’ve analyzed
this line before. This is premature. If black could get away with such a move
there would be no reason to play aught else but the Queen’s Gambit Declined}

7. Qb3 O-O 8. Bxf6 Bxf6 9. Nxd5 {Not the best. Qxb7 will net two pawns.
Black will get a bit of play for them, but not adequate compensation.} (9. Qxb7
9…Nd7 10. Qxd5 {The queen is not all that vulnerable. When kicked to f3 it can exert a presence on the central light squares.})

9… Nd7 10. Nxf6+ Nxf6 11. Bd3 {We can say that a player gives up a move when his protected piece gets recaptured by another which is poorly placed on its new square. Fortunately, black turns tail and runs.} Be6 12. Qc2 c6 13. Ne2 Qa5+ 14. Nc3 Qg5

15. O-O Bh3 16. f4 {Black missed this resource.} Qg4 17. Kh1 Bxg2+ 18. Qxg2 Qxg2+ 19. Kxg2 Rfe8 20. f5 {? I didn’t defend the pawn. That was really an excruciating positional blow to me as well.}

Rxe3 21. Rf3 Rae8 22. Rxe3 Rxe3 23. Be2 h6 { Trading one pair of rooks isn’t such a hot idea if I can’t save a pawn while doing it. Now my king can intervene but it’s brutal trying to win with a knight for two pawns when the endgame is closing in quickly.}

24. h4 Ne4 25. Nxe4 Rxe2+ 26. Kf3 Rxb2 {After reaching this position I conceived of the column’s main point. Blatantly the knight is a less cute version than the three (perhaps two) advanced passers black can easily mobilize. I will not be able to use the knight to stop the blockading pawns and I will be forced to trade it for a pair. We are shuffling towards an easy draw for black if I am forced to play defense with the knight (not its forte)}

27. Nc3 Rc2 28. Ne2 {If black plays carefully the game is still relatively balanced. The knight is awkward.} b5 29. Rc1 Rxa2 30. Rxc6 {I did this to secure a passer of my own. I hope to use the knight as a blockader. My “less cute” piece is consigned to guard duty, a more fitting role than trying to stop black’s gargantuan passed pawns.} a5

31. Nc3 Ra3 {This is a critical position. To check or not to check? I do not want to check the king because its position on g8 may buy a tempo in a pawn race. It’s clear now that the rook is optimally placed there and my move is an error. Rd8 can defend the queening square and the c-file (if black’s pawn captures on c3).}

32. Ke4 {? A simpler plan but less effective.} b4 33. Nb5 Ra1 34. d5 {It’s best if black uses his rook to make the white king lose time.} a4 35. d6 Rd1 36. Nd4 b3 37. Rc8+ Kh7 38. d7 b2 39. Rb8 b1=Q+ 40. Rxb1 Rxb1 41. d8=Q a3 42. Qa5 Ra1 43. Kd5 a2 44. Nb3 Rh1 45. Qxa2 Rxh4 46. Nd4 Rh1 47. Qa7 1-0

I went on to win but I should have seen the stock dropping on my knight far earlier. An advantage in material is the most flexible of all imbalances but it cannot by itself lead you to exclude qualitative assessment of a position. “Just trade pieces when your up” is rather reductionist not to mention misguided!


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