Sunday, 5 May 2019

A Valentine's Day GM chess challenge from Lienz Open 2019

This is a Grandmaster chess challenge from Lienz Open 2019. Black to play. 

The town of Lienz in Austria has a very special place in my heart! The love story with Lienz began in February 2017 when I made my first visit there for the 19th International Dolomitenbank Open. I had just become an author as ChessBase had released my first DVD, 'Strengthen your chess foundation' a month back. In my correspondence with the tournament director, Georg Weiler, I had mentioned about my newly released DVD. He was extremely happy to know about it and immediately arranged for a few hard copies from ChessBase, Germany, to be sold at the tournament!

I felt very special to see the noticeboard of the tournament! It had my DVD all over and made me feel like a star!

I signed my first DVD in Lienz in 2017. At the bottom right is the wonderful tournament director, Georg Weiler, posing with my DVD! I was so happy back then with all this excitement that I started the tournament very well with 3.5/4. In the picture at the top, I am seen receiving the best lady prize.

The international open in Lienz takes place once in two years. That makes it more special because people like me who love the event wait eagerly for it for two years! I was very sure in 2017 that I would definitely play in Lienz in 2019! However, the 2019 event was at a time when I was not sure I would be free to travel abroad. Only in the second week of January I realised that I could travel to Europe in February and the first thing I did was to tell Georg that I was coming! In 2017 I had visited Lienz alone but this time I convinced my good friend cum practice partner, Bhagyashree Thipsay, who is the wife of my coach GM Pravin Thipsay, to come along and take part in a wonderful tournament. 20th International Dolomitenbank Lienz Open took place from 9th to 16th February 2019.

Bhagyashree on the left and yours faithfully on the right, posing with the Lienz Open banner. I will take the credit for taking Bhagyashree to a wonderful tournament with me where she drew the attention of one and all by playing fearless chess and smashing the youngsters left and right in the initial rounds!

I have always admired Bhagyashree's energy and enthusiasm on and off the chess board!

Lienz is a small town. It's natural beauty attracts me immensely. This is my favorite spot in Lienz and whenever I reach this spot, I take a picture. It looks different every time!

You have the sun, snow, mountains, very clear water and the deep blue sky! In one word I can describe Lienz as "beautiful"!

It's always nice to see the banner of a chess tournament in the streets!

The tournament in Lienz takes place in two groups- Group A and Group B. Group A had 87 players with quite a good average rating of the tournament. Out of the nine rounds I played, I faced seven titled players and Bhagyashree faced eight! No wonder that in such a strong field, many international norms are made! This year five players made norms in the tournament.

What I found very interesting in both the editions of the International Dolomiten Bank Open Lienz tourney that I played in is that on Valentine's Day, every female player finds a surprise gift in her table for her! Last year it was a pot of flowers and this year chocolates were awaiting us! This is such a nice gesture by the organisers to make the women feel special!

Women always feel special when they are pampered with gifts on V-Day! Here's a picture of what we received in 2017 and 2019!

I was making a record in Lienz this year- of playing the longest games everyday! Valentine's day was an exception. I finished my game fast. I think the best part of playing abroad is finishing one's own game and then enjoying the games of other players as a spectator, standing next to their boards! The top players can enjoy chess anywhere on earth but for me the best way I enjoy chess is by seeing some action LIVE!  Somehow as there are huge number of players in India, the arbiters back home cannot allow us that luxury to crowd around a board.As my roommate Bhagyashree was playing, I moved around the tournament hall to find a game of interest to me. Finally I found one! (Diagram)

IM Raunak Sadhwani (IND) 2448 -Ruff Maximilian (GER) 2312, 14-02-2019, Lienz Open. Position after 23.Be6+. This is when I reached the board and saw that Black is completely dominating.

Raunak with his mother Mrs. Heena Sadhwani. Photo by Georg Weiler.

13-year-old Raunak is one of the young talents from India who has shown immense maturity on the chess board. The first time I heard his name was when he won the IIFL Wealth Mumbai International Junior Chess 2016, which was the first edition of the tournament. Last year in the first round of the Isle of Man tournament, Raunak gave a scare to Vishy Anand who later said that the young boy is "ridiculously underrated" and that it was an unpleasant feeling for him to see the pairing! Such praise from Anand is enough to draw the attention of the world! When I reached Raunak's board, I realised that he was in deep trouble. I was curious to see whether he will just collapse slowly or will find some way out of the difficult position. The opponent had comparatively much lesser time in his clock and I noticed that Raunak made his moves fast so that the opponent does not get time to find the perfect winning plan.

It has often happened with all of us that we land into a completely winning position, realise that every move seems winning but we miss out on the easiest win and the victory becomes tougher with each move! I will show the next few moves after the above diagram with the help of an animated gif.

I recently discovered this animated gif feature of ChessBase15! Very useful indeed!

So we reach the next diagram.

Position after 36.Kh1. Black is completely dominating. Black has two ways to finish off the game immediately. Can you spot those?

36...Ne5 idea Nf3 winning the g1 knight or 36...h4 (idea h3) 37.gxh4 Nf2 38.Kh2 Bd6. Both the variations seem to finish off White immediately.

However, Ruff was in time pressure, he had to complete 40 moves in the first time control, and so did not find the immediate finish. He played 36...Kc7 which was still winning, though not immediately. You can see the next few moves with the animated gif.

Above you can see the game from move 36 to 46.

We reach another phase of the game after White's 46.Kxf2. It seemed to me that Ruff is playing good chess, has now converted his positional edge to a material advantage and has a completely winning position. Should be smooth for Black from here, right? But I know from my personal experience that it is the toughest to win a winning game!! Black managed to handle the first time control but soon found himself in time pressure again after a few more moves.

Here we see the game from move 46 to 60. Looks like a smooth sailing for Black.

Position after 60.f7. Black has succeeded in queening and seems to be on the verge of winning. White, on the other hand, has done two important things- brought the opponent under time pressure again and has pushed his f-pawn as much as he could and is threatening to queen. The last phase of the game can be seen with the animated gif.

Here's the final phase of the game from moves 60 to 69. The opponent took 60...Rxg6, thinking that there could be some win with the jigsaw movement of the queen.The game magically ended in a draw!

A highly entertaining game! As a spectator, I love to see a topsy-turvy game! A one sided game where one player has an edge and plays to perfection to win it is good for improving in chess but not fun for me as a spectator! This miraculous escape by Raunak made a great impression in my mind! What an escape! It felt like he did magic on the board! One needs a lot of self belief to keep fighting such a lost position! I was extremely impressed! My V-day had been very enjoyable with my love- chess!

I would like to mention here that Raunak made a GM norm in the next tournament that he played in- the Aeroflot Open. He had been travelling with his mother to a couple of tournaments in this trip (His mother told me that he had played the Sunway Sitges, then in Italy and Gibraltar, then stayed back for a week to play in Lienz and heading straight to Moscow from there!), staying away from home, determined to do well and fighting for every half point like a tiger! No wonder with such a fighting spirit he made his GM norm in the next event!

One of the best ways to enter Lienz is through Munich. Georg arranges for a bus to pick you up from Munich airport and to drop you back to Munich. The bus journey can be nice with the scenic beauty outside and the scope to make friends with other players inside!

We had a bus full of players on our return journey from Lienz to Munich. I was sitting towards the back row of the bus and Raunak was in the front row. I heard him give a position to solve blindfold to another Indian player in the bus. I did not hear the position. But I heard him say that it was from his game against Ruff and black had only one way to win in that position. Have you seen how a cow eats? It swallows everything at one go and then when it has time takes out the food and chews it one by one! My brain works similarly!! Whatever useful information I get, I put it inside my brain and in my free time think about that info! That day I was suffering from slight cold and did not want to think chess. A couple of days back I remembered Raunak's words and thought of investigating what he said!

Orissa's first Woman Grandmaster Kiran Manisha Mohanty is a good friend of mine. Since the past few years, her love for chess has grown immensely and she is ready to analyse and discuss anything chess at any time of the day! I showed Raunak's game to her and also mentioned his comment which I overheard -that in one particular position, Black has only one win! Now the question was which position was Raunak talking about? We tried looking at the game again. At every position it seemed that Black has more than one win! Then we convinced ourselves that after 60...Rxg6, there was no win, so that brought us to the following position.

I would now call it a Valentine's day on-the-board composition by Raunak and Ruff!! After 60.f7 it is Black to play. This definitely looked like the position Raunak was talking about that day in the bus! If you are a GM, before you read my article further, try to solve this. It is possible to solve this position in a couple of minutes or a couple of hours. I tried it on some GMs. Two very strong GMs took 2 hours to solve, so just a warning, also look for opponent's resources!

In chess it is much simpler when one person knows the solution and gives you the problem so that when you say you have solved it completely, he can tell you to look further. Kiran and I first tried to find some quick finish with some jigsaw movement of the queen- we are all familiar with that motif from lots of combinations that we have solved- failed in the attempt and then realised that we could not keep the queen, so needed to sacrifice the queen for the f-pawn and then push the queenside pawns. We found multiple moves to get the desired aim of giving up the queen and it looked completely winning. Why did Raunak say there was only one win? Probably he meant only one idea- give up the queen! So our answer was very simple. 60...Qf4 61. f8=Q Qxf8 62.Kxf8 a5. White's pieces are not coming to the queenside, we had pushed the White king further away by a capture on f8 and we win by marching the farthest pawn- the a-pawn! We thought this to be as simple!Now that we had 'solved' the problem, we thought of putting our engines on and checking.

Position after 62...a5 in our analysis. This position looked completely winning to us! We thought problem solved! How easy can chess be if opponents did not give resistance! White to play. Can you find a wonderful idea of defense spotted by our engine?

Our engine found a fantastic idea- 63.Nh8!! The idea is to play Nf7 and then start rolling the g pawn! Simply brilliant. Other moves instead of Nh8 do not work. A sample line is 63.Nf4 a4 64.Ne2 a3 65.Nc1 b5 winning for black. Similarly 63. Nh4 does not work either but I do not want to stuff my article with variations.

Position after the fantastic 63.Nh8! White is threatening Nf7+ forking the king and the rook. Surprisingly there is only one way for black to keep trying for a win! Can you spot it?

It is easy to reject the rook moves as then the h5 bishop is released. So where to move with our king? Again here it is the most counter-intuitive move which is the answer! The correct move for black here is 63...Kc7!! Now that I know the engine variations, I can tell you the danger of going with the king to the other squares briefly. 63...Kc5 looks like the most obvious move but it blocks the rook's path along the 5th rank, and king on the light squares, become a victim of a check from white's bishop (like Bg4+)!

So after 63...Kc7, the next few moves go 64.Nf7 Rc5 (this is a better square than d5 as it will not allow a tempo with Bf3) 65.g5 a4. Let's see the variation till now.

In the gif above, we see the variation starting with 60...Qf4 till 65...a4.

Now a very small trivia for the non-GMs who might be getting bored with the maze of variations.
Position after 65...a4. Here the best move for White is 66.Bg4 with idea Be6 to stop the a-pawn. What happens if White plays 66.g6 instead? Does Black win with both 66..Rxh5 and 66...Ra5?

The answer, as you must have spotted, is "No". 66...Rxh5 67. g7 Ra5 wins for black but 66...Ra5 is a blunder and it is possible to miss the defense if we are careless. 66...Ra5?? loses after 67.g7 Ra8 68. Nd8 69. Rxd8 Be8 and it is white who is winning! Somehow it is possible to miss this Be8 idea if we are careless!

So the best continuation from the above diagram is 66.Bg4 a3 67.Be6 Rc6 68.Bd5 Rg6! (to tie down the f7 knight and to stop Kg7) 69. Ke7! (to play Nd8 and release the knight)

So we see from the move 66.Bg4 to 69.Ke7

The best move for black is to play 69...Kb6 so as to not allow white to release the f7 knight. Very interesting to note is that instead of 69...Kb6, if black makes two careless moves one after the other, then he even loses the game! 69...b5? 70.Nd8! b4?? 71.Ne6 Kb6 72.Bb3 wins for white as shown below in the gif!

Black can even lose if he is careless!! See this variation starting with 69...b5?

Let's return to the position after 69...Kb6! 70.Ba2 Ka5! (here king on a7, a6 or a5 lead to similar result but not 70...Kc5? as white uses the fork to relocate the knight with 71.Nd8!).

We reach this position after 70...Ka5.

Very interesting to note is that the natural move 71.Nd8? loses here as shown above.

The correct variation is 71.Bb1. I really liked the last position after 78.Ne6 which is surprisingly a draw as the queen is fighting against three pieces! I took you around these maze of variations because I wanted to show to you this last position!

After Kiran and I saw these maze of beautiful variations shown by our engine, we realised "Oh, that is why we should not allow the Nh8-Nf7 idea!! Once we realise this, the solution becomes easy. The first thought that any human gets after seeing the position after 60.f7 is to drive the opponent's king away from the g-pawn and so we capture the f-pawn on f8! But the solution is counter-intuitive-  grab the pawn on f7 and not on f8 so as not to allow the knight manoeuvring ideas of White!! The simplest solution is 60...Qc7!! 61.Kg8 Qxf7 and Black is winning as White's pieces are all jumbled up on the kingside!

There is an alternate way to win for black- grab on f8 when White has to take on f8 with the knight , but the win is simply too complicated, so I will not explain it, but for the sake of completion, I will give the main variations in a gif.

Complicated way to win- take on f8 when White takes Nxf8 and then push the a-pawn. The end is very beautiful in this variation but only engines can see this far!

This is the second complicated way to win as pointed out by my GM friend- take on f8 when White has to take with the knight and then push the b-pawn. TableBase tells that the last position is winning. I did not delve further.

So basically this problem has two solutions- the easy one (which is not so easy to arrive at!) Qxf7 and the difficult one with Qxf8 and Nxf8. If someone spots Qxf7 in one go, then he misses the fun of the problem!

We do not like long engine variations. But what do we do when we get such positions in our own games? As you see, Ruff played a nice game, he was winning all through but he was under pressure. He was playing a highly talented kid who has been recognised by none other than Anand! The general pressure of playing a strong player also leads to time pressure. I gave this position to a good friend who is a very strong GM. My friend thought that this was a study! Later when he came up with the correct solution of grabbing the pawn on f7, I asked him how he arrived at the solution. He said that he started with all the variations with Qxf8 Kxf8 and then found Nh8, then he shifted his focus and then suddenly realised that he should not allow Nh8-f7 at all and so capture Qxf7! So I would say that for top players, part of it is calculation and another part is an intuitive feeling that there is something better in the position!

I end this article with sincere gratitude to the tournament director, Georg Weiler, who is one of the finest organisers that I know. He does his best to take care of all the problems of the players, is forever smiling and is extremely helpful, be it with your trip planing, invitation letter or anything else that you might need in Lienz. I definitely look forward to Lienz Open 2021!

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A Valentine's Day GM chess challenge from Lienz Open 2019

This is a Grandmaster chess challenge from Lienz Open 2019. Black to play.  The town of Lienz in Austria has a very special plac...