Minor Piece Ending – The Chess Improver

It’s Black to play in this minor piece ending. What I’d like you to do is assess this position. What are the plans for both sides? Who do think stands better? What do you think the result should be with best play? What would you play in this position if you were Black?

Stop and consider your answers to these questions while I talk to you about something else.

During the years before the First World War England boasted a number of strong amateurs (retrospective ratings suggest they were round about 2300-2400 strength) who rarely if even competed internationally due to the demands of their jobs, and, as a result, are virtually forgotten today. The strongest English player of the time, Henry Atkins, was also an amateur, devoting his life mostly to his job as a schoolmaster, but was a player of genuine Grandmaster strength. Players such as Blackburne and Gunsberg were still around, but in decline: their best days had been in the previous century, while the careers of Fred Yates and Sir George Thomas were yet to take off. But there were other players of, by todays standards, FM/IM strength, whose names are almost forgotten today.

Several of these players had connections with chess clubs in my part of the world, so I’m featuring them in a series of articles on British Chess News. I published a series of articles on George Edward Wainwright recently, and am now turning my attention to William Ward. William who? You might well ask. He played four times in the British Championship, finishing second to Atkins on two occasions, and third on another occasion, and, between 1902 and 1911, won the very strong City of London Club Championship on no less than six occasions. He was clearly someone whose life and games deserve to be remembered.

The position above is taken from a game between Ward and Atkins, played in the 1909 British Championship. Although he won the tournament, Atkins erred in this position. Did you manage to do better? Let’s take a look.

Material is level, with Black having a space advantage, a protected passed pawn and a nominally ‘good’ bishop against a knight. But in a very closed position such as this, the knight is a better piece. Specifically, White has a plan of manoeuvring his knight to e1, from where he can move either to g2, attacking the h4 pawn, or, after the king moves, to d3, attacking the c5 pawn. Black clearly can’t defend both pawns at once, so should seek counterplay by moving his king round to b4, attacking the weak b3 pawn. There’s an important tactical point as well: if the White king moves to c2 to defend the b3 pawn when his knight is on g2, Black will have a potential breakthrough sacrifice: Bxg4, when, whichever way White captures, the clumsy knight will be unable to prevent promotion.

Here’s how the game concluded:

59.. Bd7?
60. Na3! Ke7?!
61. Nc2 Kf7
62. Ne1 Kg6
63. Ke2

and Black resigned: White will continue with Nd3 and Nxc5, when his connected passed pawns will decide.

Black might have tried moving his king in the other direction, when White would have had to find a series of ‘only moves’ to bring home the full point:

59.. Bd7?
60. Na3! Kc6!
61. Nc2! Kb6
62. Ne1! Ka5
63. Ng2!

But not 63. Kc2? Be6! 64. Ng2? Bxg4!! and Black wins!

63.. Kb4
64. Nxh4!

And not 64. Kc2? d3+!, which leads to a draw.

64.. Kxb3
65. Nf5! Be6
66. Nd6!

and wins. Anything other than 65. Nf5 would have lost: White must defend the c-pawn. I think you’ll be impressed by the knight’s nifty footwork in this variation.

Returning to the diagram, Black could have drawn by choosing a different bishop move:

59.. Bf7!
60. Na3 Kc6
61. Nc2 Kb6
62. Ne1 Ka5

when 63. Ng2? now loses because Black will capture on c4. Instead, 63. Nc2, Kc2 and Kd2 are the drawing moves.

But, going back again to the diagram, it seems that Black’s bishop is ideally placed on e6, observing both c4 and g4, so it would make sense to move the king immediately over to the queenside, for instance by playing 59.. Kb6! . This will also lead to a draw with correct play.

Not a very impressive performance by Atkins, but then it’s easy to make mistakes of this nature at the end of a long game. We’ve all done it.

An instructive ending, I think, and one which demonstrates the power of knight journeys of this nature in closed positions. Endings are important. Take them seriously, study them and play them well!

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes. uk. View all posts by Richard James

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