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April 4, 2013

Carlsen’s call: What is black’s best move?

BOYNTON — The Candidates Chess Tournament ran from March 14 to April 1. Magnus Carlsen of Norway won and earned the right to challenge the reigning world chess champion, Vishy Anand, for the title later this year. It was a race to the end.

Early on, Carlsen took the lead. Late in the tournament Vladimir Kramnik of Russia began to catch up and passed Carlsen with only two rounds remaining. Carlsen needed to win the penultimate round to tie Kramnik for first place. In a 7-hour-plus marathon game against Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, Carlsen won and tied Kramnik.

If both players remained tied after the final round, Carlsen would win based on the tiebreaker formula. This meant that Kramnik had to play for a win in the final round and hope that Carlsen lost his final game. Carlsen did in fact lose to Peter Svidler of Russia, as Carlsen’s previous mara-

thon game took its toll.

Carlsen then could only watch and hope that Kramnik lost. And indeed Kramnik lost to Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, who ironically defeated both Carlsen and Kramnik during the tournament, even though he placed next to last in the final standings. Carlsen thus, as it were, became the last man standing.

It’s in this context that in retrospect the most important game of the tournament was Carlsen’s game against Kramnik in the ninth round. The most important move of that game and therefore of the tournament occurred in that game. This week’s position is from that game and shows the position immediately prior to the most important move of the tournament.

Here, Carlsen is black; Kramnik, white. It is Carlsen to move and he is down two pawns and in danger of losing. He found the move that forces a theoretical draw and demonstrated his understanding of the theory for another 12 moves before Kramnik conceded the draw, despite his advantage and hunger to win. With this hint in mind please try to find black’s best move.

Kramnik has an outside passed pawn on a2 and a vulnerable e2 pawn. He cannot hold onto to both pawns. The a2 pawn’s promotion square is a light square and white has a dark-squared bishop. This typically results in a draw, because the bishop cannot support the pawn’s advance, especially when the pawn is an “a” or “h” pawn, as in this case. When the promotion square sits in one of the two corners of board, the pawn’s king cannot maneuver around the square from one of two angles and sometimes winning by triangulation.

This is why Carlsen moved his queen to c4.

Kramnik cannot avoid a queen trade, which simplifies the game and accelerates the endgame. If Kramnik tries to avoid the trade and moves his queen to d6, Carlsen retreats his bishop to b7. Because of the black’s queen’s pressure on e2, the black’s rook’s pressure along the “e”file, and the b7 bishop’s influence along the b7-h1 diagonal, this pressure nullifies white’s extra pawns and the position is equal and white’s king vulnerable.

Kramnik instead moved his a2 pawn to a3. He chose to hold onto the a2 pawn rather than the weak e2 pawn. Carlsen then executed a combination that traded queens and caused Kramnik to lose the weak e2 pawn. Kramnik fought on, but soon a draw was agreed. The extra pawn with the wrong colored bishop wasn’t enough.

It is expected that Carlsen will play Anand in November for the crown.

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