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May 1, 2014

If you can’t win, just try not to lose

Magnus Carlsen won the two-week Vugar Gashimov Memorial Chess Tournament on April 30. The tournament was in honor of Gashimov, one of the best chess players in the world, who died in January at age 27.

Six of the world’s best players participated in the tournament, and the world chess champion won despite two early losses.

An instructive position arose in the sixth-round game between Teimor Radjabov and Sergy Karjakin. Radjabov, who was white, has a dangerous passed pawn on b7. Karjakin puts an end to any risk by forcing a stalemate and draw with his next move. What is that move?

Black’s pawns and king are all blocked in. Black’s g4 pawn is impeded by white’s g3 pawn. Black’s h6 pawn is blocked by its king, and the black king is hemmed in by white’s king and g3 pawn, which stops the king’s flight to h4.

This allows black to strike by having its rook take white’s b7 pawn. If white’s rook takes the black rook, black’s king is stalemated – black has no legal moves and its king is not in check.

If white tries to play on, black can easily draw. White’s f2 pawn is vulnerable.

This makes white’s second-best reply the passive rook f8. The material is even, the position simple, and even a very weak player could hold the draw against Carlsen.

As a consequence, Karjakin took the black rook and stalemated Radjabov.

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