Monday, May 9, 2016

Practical Rook Endgames 10: Abandon a Sinking Ship

It's going to seem as if I am a big fan of Guy Pearce, which is not really true, but instead of posting continuing phases of this game with contrived parallels to scenes in "Memento," I thought I would introduce more variety by relating them to Guy Pearce movies. The title of my post spoils part of the ending of the "Lockout" movie which apparently had a working title called "Escape from M.S. One." The makers of "Lockout" were successfully sued by the director of the "Escape From NY" and "Escape From LA" franchise. This practical rook ending comes from a semifinal game from my 2015 club championship run. The game is broken into phases running roughly in reverse chronological order.

On move 53, my opponent captured my rook which had just sacrificed itself for White's c-pawn, threatening to queen.

Black's only hope is that the f- and h-pawns might beat the rook. There is a rule of thumb that two connected passers on the 6th rank beat a rook, but concrete analysis is necessary to verify that the rule applies. Without connection, the passers will need a friendly king escort from g2. But what if the enemy king comes to defend? Black's king is closer to the queening squares, but escorting both pawns will take black almost 3 tempi (king-pawn-pawn) for every one tempo that the white king uses to step closer. The battle between the kings is interesting in that Black will try to muscle White away from the queening square at f1. When the king and rook cooperate, White can push the black king around. With the way the tempi stack up, the white king is aiming for e2 to capture the f-pawn, so the rook will probably have to help push the black king to the g-file. However, Black may have to move to g2 even without the rook's help, just to maintain threats of Pf2-f1 or Ph2-h1.

The position of the white rook deserves some consideration. With the pawns isolated, being on rank 1 is good because it forces Black to get his king to g2 to assist in queening. If the pawns were connected, this rook defense would be far less effective. At some point, in coordination with a closer white king, the white rook will be effective checking the black king from behind his advancing pawns (Rooks belong behind passed pawns). Even though the seventh rank seems almost as far as the eighth rank, checking distance still comes into play as we will see.

From the above diagram, I played 53...Kf5. Stockfish at 30 ply evaluates this ending as drawn as long as Black played either 53...Kf5 or 53...Kg5. Don't dilly-dally.

Now White has a choice: stop the f-h pawns from queening or counterthreat by capturing a7 and advancing his own passer. Analyses conclude a draw with either plan, but mere mortals might have trouble allowing Black to queen while nurturing a slow a-pawn. Stockfish gives 54.Kb7 f3 55.Kxa7 Kf4 56.a4 f2 57.Ra1 Kg3 58.a5 Kg2 59.a6 f1=Q 60.Rxf1 Kxf1 61.Kb8 h3 62.a7 h2 63.a8=Q Kg1! and Black draws since he can stalemate himself with Kh1 in response to White maneuvering his queen to g3. Instead, my opponent tried to lock down (or lockout) the pawn uprising with 54.Kd6.

Play continued 54...f3 55.Kd5 Kf4 56.Kd4

Black can choose to advance f2 here, but calculation shows that White will encircle the f-pawn. e.g. 56...f2 57.Rf1 Kf3 58.Kd3! and Black can't make progress unless he moves Kg2, allowing White to play Ke2, and Rxf2, probably with check. If Rxf2 happens then Black will need to have h1=Q ready just to have drawing chances, so the pawn will need to get to h2 anyway. The h-pawn still can't queen without Kg2, allowing Ke2, but it's the only chance to draw. Still, the steady advance of pawns was enough to make my opponent panic. Strategy-wise, f2 makes White's choice easier: it must play to f1 or some other square on the first rank such as c1. Allowing my opponent moves like Re4+ and Re8 makes his analysis more difficult. Never help your opponent out of a jam.56...h3.

In the post mortem, my opponent suggested 57.Re4+ as a way to improve. The problem is that the rook loses its checking distance and must go to the eighth rank anyway. e.g. 57.Re4+ Kg3 58.Ke3 f2 59.Rf4! h2!.

...and White still draws with 60.Rf7 or Rf8. Note the reliance on a skewer if Black queens the h-pawn, which is probably Black's most straightforward draw, e.g. 60.Rf8 h1=Q 61.Rg8+ Kh2 62.Rh8+ Kg1 63.Rxh1+ Kxh1 64.Kxf2=. Instead, my opponent went for the still-drawing variation of 57.Re8.

Here is where checking distance might have moved the game into a forced win for Black. 57.Re7?? seems like a multi-purpose move threatening Rxa7 at an opportune moment. However, watch the coming variations where the checking distance would have made a big difference. From the above position, 57...f2?? would have been a bad mistake punished by 58.Rf8+ Kg3 59.Ke3! and the h-pawn is not a big enough threat to hold the draw. e.g. 59...h2 60.Rg8+! Kh3 61.Kxf2 h1=N+ (spite check!) 62.Kf3 and Black is dead meat. I continued 57...h2!

White's safe path has narrowed. If 58.Rh8??, Black wins with 58...f2! The threat of queening one of the pawns succeeds after a move like Kg5, removing the immediate skewer. Other than the text, 58.Re1 would also have drawn. 58.Rf8+ is still drawing.

At this point, I almost played the automatic 58...Kg3, thinking "I have no choice but to support the pawns." But after 59.Ke3, I realized that with the king preventing the black king from getting to f2, f3, and f4, skewers from Rg8+ and Rh8+ were going to defang my queening threats. My plan is hopeless; the ship is sinking. But then I remembered that since the pawns are so advanced, they almost defeat the rook by themselves, so I searched for Plan B and hit upon 58...Kg5.

Abandon ship! Now the check in the back 59.Rg8+ allows me to get to the f-file and avoid the skewer of a short-lived queen on h1. White has no choice in this position. 59.Rg8+ is the only move that still draws and it is what was played.

Of course, my response was 59...Kf6!. Here is where the checking distance paid off for White. If White were checking from the seventh rank because he made the choice of Re7 on move 57, Black would now be attacking the rook on g7. A move such as 60.Rg7-h7 would be met by f2 and Black will queen successfully and win the game. After 59...Kf6, the game concluded with the first (last?) phase that I have already posted.

Looking back I realized that I used the f- and h-pawns to represent prison ship M.S. One, but in Practical Rook Endgames 05, I used the a- and c-pawns to represent the Death Star, another gargantuan space ship.

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