Thursday, March 09, 2006

(147) The superiority of intuition over intellect is illustrated by the pawn ending stalemate

In the early morning of February 4th 1998, I was talking with Thierry Manouck at the Mermaid Beach Hotel in Bermuda.
I was saying that sometimes intuition can be superior to concrete calculation and told him of an incident from 1987.
It occured during the British Active-Play Chess Championships, in which each player is allotted half an hour for all of his moves. The event was held over a weekend at the Queens Hotel in Leeds.
At the close of play on the Saturday, the joint leaders were myself and Nigel Short, each with a total of five wins and one draw from our first six games.
This meant that we had to meet in the seventh round on the Sunday morning, at 11 a.m., with myself playing white.

I took breakfast in the hotel and then returned to my room.
At 10.55 there was a knock on my door and I opened it to find two concerned officials asking why I was not in the playing hall, for the game had begun twenty-five minutes earlier.

I had misread the tournament gen and the actual starting time for the seventh round had been 10.30.

I ran downstairs, cursing, and arrived at my board in time to apologise to Short and commence play with less than five minutes, maybe less than four, for all of my moves against an opponent ranked in the top twenty in the world and who would five years later contest a World Championship match with Kasparov.

I had hardly any time to think: I just bashed out the replies almost instantaneously.

For quite a while I held the balance of the position, despite the loss of one pawn. There seemed no way for him to make progress.
But then I fell into a trap and lost a piece.

Still I struggled on, and play went into an ending where some inaccuracies by him gave me hopes of survival.

We reached this position:

Short tried one last finesse by giving back his extra Bishop, aiming to exploit the unfortunate boxed-in predicament of my King, with
1…Ke7-d7. Play continued 2 Kb7xa7 Kd7-c7 after which all of white’s remaining moves are forced.
3 c4-c5 h7-h5 4 Ka7-a8 h5-h4 5 a6-a7 h4-h3 6 c5-c6 ... and a draw was agreed as Short gathered that on 6...Kc7-c8 7 c6-c7 forces a draw by the rare mechanism of stalemate.

Moreover a rather unusual sort of stalemate: to achieve it white makes all of the legal moves that he possibly could and, in a sense, the position has exhausted itself.

Nigel was flabbergasted.

Indeed so extraordinary was the whole scenario that some years later a chess enthusiast who witnessed it told me that many people thought that Short and I had agreed a draw beforehand and, rather than trotting out a perfunctory short series of moves before shaking hands, we had connived to put on a show for the spectators.

But it was all quite genuine.

I was not wholly unfamiliar with the theme of this finale, and when I consulted Maizelis’s classic book Pawn Endings I found that in 1930 the Soviet composer Gulyaev had created a study that leads to the same outcome.

To return to my conversation with Manouck in Bermuda, about sixteen hours later I was dining with a group which included the reigning joint Champion of America, Grandmaster Alexander Shabalov, and International Master Josh Waitzkin, on whose life the Oscar-nominated film Searching for Bobby Fischer (also released as Innocent Moves) was based.

Josh was talking about what sort of changes to his approach were needed for him to improve his results and gain the necessary qualifications for the Grandmaster title. Shabalov made some suggestions and then I chipped in with advice to the effect that he should "just let it happen."

I then illustrated my point by recounting the story of my game with Short, as I had done earlier that same day to Manouck, even detailing the bizarre endgame finale, rather than merely stating that I had held him to a draw by moving almost instantaneously.

Perhaps an hour later, at 9.57 p.m. to be precise, I crossed the room to where several players were playing friendly games. Grandmaster Alexander Baburin was playing rapid chess.

A couple of tables away was one of his chess pupils, eleven year old Zachary Karnazes. Zachary sat in front of a chess board on which was a position so extraordinary that I felt it just had to be an exercise given him by Baburin.

His mother, Elizabeth, had hired Baburin’s services as a chess coach and he had been staying with them at their San Francisco home a few months before. She too had been at my dinner table and had even remarked that her kids (Zachary’s twin brother, Alexander, was also present) had not been doing all that much chess study with Baburin during the last eleven days in Bermuda.
It was indeed an endgame study given to him as an exercise by Baburin months earlier.

The boy had chosen to set it up on the board at that moment without any prompting.
He could have had no knowledge of my dinner table conversation.
Baburin later told me that he believed it to have been created by the Soviet composer Georgiev at least fifty years before.

Black is to move and the task is to figure out how white can make a draw.
At first glance his plight is hopeless, for the black Pawn will advance and become a Queen in just five moves and white cannot stop it.

But by maximising his own assets he can pull off a miraculous save.

There are three main variations:

(a) Black plays 1…Kc8-c7 and white draws with 2 a2-a4 Kc7xc6 3 a4-a5 Kc6-b5 4 Ka8-b7… now threatening to advance his own Pawn. 4…Kb5xa5 5 Kb7-c6 and the King gets back in time to catch the black Pawn.

(b) Black sets about queening his baby with 1…h7-h5 when white just manages a draw by stalemating himself with 2 a2-a4 h5-h4 3 a4-a5 h4-h3 4 a5-a6 h3-h2 5 a6-a7 with the identical finale to Plaskett Vs Short, except for black being "two half moves ahead", i.e. his pawn is a square further on and it is him to move. Thus he here has the option of continuing play for one more move with underpromotion to a Rook, as, full promotion to a Queen would result in immediate stalemate.
But after 5…h2-h1=R 6 c6-c7 black still must allow stalemate.

(c) Black tries to wrongfoot white with 1...h6, hoping that he will commit the error of 2 a4? when black wins after 2...h5 3 a5 h4 4 a6 h3 5 a7 h2 6 c7 h1=Q checkmate. But by maintaining the correct tempo of advance with 2 a3! white leads play back into variation (a) or (b) and so draws.

I shouted to Waitzkin and Shabalov to come over from their seats at the dinner table ten metres away to witness this, which they did.

I have never come across this finish anywhere else in thirty-six years of playing chess, twenty-three of those at Grandmaster level.

Waitzkin would indeed later become, like the Fischer he "sought", World Champion.

But not at chess.

1 comment:

James Eadon said...
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