Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What was the Greatest Endgame?

Imagine you're playing in a tournament with the World Champion, and all the best players in the world, and if you win your final round game, then you win the tournament. That was the situation that faced a young American player called Harry Pillsbury in the last round of one of the most famous tournaments of all time, Hastings 1895. Looking back in hindsight it is easy to say that Pillsbury was in fact a great player, but before the tournament started in August 1895, Pillsbury was considered an outsider, given little chance of success. A poor start in the tournament against Chigorin probably didn't help him gain favour among the pundits, though his defence was praised, even though he did lose the game. But then a win against Tarrasch brought him to the attention of the chess world. His victory over Tarrasch wasn't 100% convincing and followed by a draw with one of the outsiders, Georg Marco still would have led nobody to believe that he was a chance for tournament victory. But then a run of 9 wins, including a victory against Steinitz, catapulted him into the leading group which he didn't leave.

In the final round, Pillsbury was half a point ahead of Chigorin, and a point ahead of Lasker. Unfortunately for Pillsbury, the pressure mounted as both of these won quickly in the last round, and he was facing a level position against an ex-World Champion contender, Isidor Gunsberg.

The question is, how as white would you go ahead winning this position to take clear first in your first elite chess tournament. Look and watch, at one of the greatest endgame's ever played, not only because of the quality of white's play, but because of the pressure of the tournament situation.

23.Bc5 a6 [23..a5 would have been better, but things still don't look bad for black] 24.b4 [This space gainer builds pressure, but black should still be ok] 24..f6 25.g4 Bxc5 [This trade giving white a passed pawn is dangerous, but still ok] 26.bxc5

The passed c-pawn looks a bit scary, but does black really have anything to worry about? At this point Pillsbury got the break he needed with a blunder from Gunsberg, an understandable blunder, but a blunder nevertheless. One of the main ideas of the endgame is to stay active, whether it be the king, pieces, or advancing pawns. Gunsberg decided to prevent the advance of white's c-pawn with 26..Nb8?

Again, this looks innocuous enough, but from here on, white plays the endgame masterfully. 27.f5! An excellent breakthrough in the centre of the board, probably not what black was expecting. 27..g5 [Taking is not an option, as analysis has shown] 28.Nb4 a5

So white's knight has to retreat, right? 29.c6! [White's knight stays on b4 where it can't be taken or the c-pawn promotes] 29..Kd6 30.fxe6! [Again, leaving his knight en prise as if black captures the minor piece, white will promote]

Although white has 2 passed pawns, they look to be easily dealt with. 30..Nxc6 31.Nxc6 Kxc6 and now the king can just run back and catch white's e-pawn.

32.e4!! This is the move that Pillsbury must have seen way back when playing 28.Nb4, and he had to judge that the position was winning for him, no mean feat back in the days when endgames were a mystery to most players. 32..dxe4 33.d5+

Now that white's e-pawn is protected it just remains for the king to round up black's dangerous queen side, which he managed without problem, black resigning just 7 moves later.

An immortal endgame played under the most intense pressure, by one of the greats of the game, Harry Pillsbury! Here's the endgame with a few extra notes, well worth playing through again, and again. I've been using it recently to show kids the importance of making passed pawns, and of the importance of thinking about promoting pawns in the endgame.

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