Study of the Month: The hour of the holy men

5/1/2017 – GM Jan Timman, in his work as a chess composer, is a fan of checkmates with the bishop. He may be pleased to see that we will be presenting studies where a bishop is the hero of the day – partly as a gift to Jan, whose 65th birthday composing tourney has as its theme "mate by the bishop or struggle against mate by the bishop". Todays three studies are by Soviet composers, one of whom perished tragically under Stalin. Fortunately (for the chess world) he handed his notebook to Mikhail Botvinnik before he disappeared.

The hour of the holy men

By Siegfried Hornecker

The Dutch chess composer and former world-class practical player Jan Hendrik Timman is a fan of checkmates by bishop, as can be seen in the announcement to his 65th birthday composing tourney, still open for submissions until July 1st.

Jan Timman analysing endgames with Yochanan Afek in 2005

Coincidentally, we will look in the next two months at studies where a bishop is the hero of the day. Of course, we have incidences where a real reverend was such a hero, such as Fernando Saavedra or Henry Loveday, but here we talk about the chess piece. As a small gift to Timman we will today have three joint studies of the month with a theme from his birthday tourney – the checkmate of the bishop and the fight against it.

David Bronstein had a brillant, yet unconvential, mind. A chess composer with the first half of his last name can claim the same for himself.

Vladimir Bron (1909-1985) was according to Wikipedia a scientist in Sverdlovsk, “one of the leading scientists of the refractory materials industry”. The German Wikipedia, naming Russian sources, calls him a doctor of engineering, having published not only a large number of chess studies and received the title of grandmaster for chess composition, but also over 150 scientific studies.

[Event "Rustaveli MT 1967, 3rd special prize"] [Site "?"] [Date "1967.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Bron, Vladimir"] [Black "?"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "5k1b/8/6Pp/8/3P2P1/6np/1B6/4K2B w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "21"] [EventDate "1967.??.??"] {White to move and win. - In this study, White is up a pawn but faced with threats by Black's advanced pawn. Nonetheless, he will prove that two bishops are powerful enough to win.} 1. g7+ $1 {White sacrifices a pawn for the initiative. If Black captures with the king, he will face a deadly discovered check, so he takes with the bishop, allowing White to move his Bh1 away with tempo soon.} ({With normal play, White can even lose if he isn't careful, for example} 1. Ba3+ $2 Kg7 $1 2. Bf3 ({Losing is} 2. d5 $2 Nxh1 3. Bb2+ Kxg6 4. Bxh8 h2 5. Be5 Ng3 $1 $19) 2... h2 3. d5 Kxg6 $11) 1... Bxg7 ({Not better is} 1... Kxg7 2. d5+ ({The computer wants to play} 2. Bf3 $18 {but Bron's variation is easier to understand. In the computer variation Black's knight is captured.}) 2... Kg6 ({after} 2... Kg8 3. Bxh8 Nxh1 4. d6 $1 $18 {the passed pawn decides.}) 3. Bxh8 Nxh1 4. Be5 $18 {and the knight is caught in the corner.}) 2. Ba3+ Kf7 3. Bd5+ Kg6 $1 {Black aims to exchange all pawns, in which case even a piece less - as long as he keeps his bishop - won't matter.} 4. Kf2 Nh1+ $1 {A nice sacrifice, playing for a trick to exchange the pawns.} ( {The immediate capture on d4 does not work out:} 4... Bxd4+ 5. Kxg3 {with three variations, but in all of them Pg4 survives: 5.-} h5 (5... Be5+ 6. Kf3 $1 h2 (6... h5 7. Be4+ Kh6 8. Bc1+ $18) 7. Be4+ $1 Kg5 8. Be7+ Bf6 9. Bxf6+ Kxf6 10. Kf4 $18) 6. Be4+ $18) 5. Bxh1 ({If White declines, according to Bron the two extra pawns for Black should secure a draw, although in a game Black would certainly lose:} 5. Ke3 $2 Bxd4+ 6. Kxd4 Nf2 7. Ke3 Nxg4+ 8. Kf4 h5 $11) ({ The study still would be sound if Black only could repeat the moves, this would be called a "loss of time dual":} 5. Ke3 Ng3 6. Kf2 Nh1+) 5... Bxd4+ 6. Kg3 Be5+ {[#]How can the game now not end in a draw?} 7. Kh4 $1 ({It would be wrong to take immediately:} 7. Kxh3 $2 h5 8. Be4+ Kg5 $1 9. Bc1+ (9. Be7+ Bf6 10. Bxf6+ Kxf6) 9... Bf4 10. Bxf4+ Kxf4 11. gxh5 Kg5 $11 {. To invalidate this defense, White must steer Be5 to f6 - in the problem language, a "Roman" manoeuver.}) 7... Bf6+ $1 8. Kxh3 h5 9. Be4+ Kh6 ({The first issue is that with the bishop on f6, the defense that worked now ends in checkmate.} 9... Kg5 10. Bc1#) {The second issue is that White has reached a position where he can fork king and bishop to reach this and another checkmate.} 10. g5+ $1 Bxg5 ({ Or, as we saw before,} 10... Kxg5 11. Bc1#) 11. Bf8# {Certainly the material balance is enough for a draw, but Black has a small positional issue preventing it - he is checkmated!} 1-0

You probably know that you can move pieces on our replay boards to analyse, and even start an engine to help you. You can maximize the replayer, auto-play, flip the board and even change the piece style in the bar below the board. At the bottom of the notation window on the right there are buttons for editing (delete, promote, cut lines, unannotate, undo, redo) save, play out the position against Fritz and even embed our JavaScript replayer on your web site or blog. Hovering the mouse over any button will show you its function.

The Russian word “korol” means “king”. Of course the king of chess composers, at least by his name, must be Korolkov then. His study from Trud 1935 is very famous, but despite that I want to reproduce it as there might be someone who has indeed not seen it yet.

Vladimir Korolkov (1907-1987), son of a railroad engineer, was an electrical engineer, working in the legendary Kirov plant. He was, as the German Wikipedia tells us, citing Russian sources written by Korolkov himself, married to a rather unknown chess player, who however was twice Soviet Women Champion: Olga Semenova Tyan-Shanskaya. She was Master of Sport, a title given in the Soviet Union to extraordinary sports(wo)men.

[Event "Trud 1935, 1st prize"] [Site "?"] [Date "1935.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Korolkov, Vladimir"] [Black "?"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2B5/pR6/2pP1k2/8/6Kb/4p1P1/5p2/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "19"] [EventDate "1935.??.??"] {White to move and win. - This ingenious study by Vladimir Korolkov features two bishops that have to do heroic deeds while pawns want to promote all over the board. At first Pf2 wants to promote on f1, and playing 1.Rb1 e2 does not help either. So White has to create counterplay. There is only one way to stop the pawn for now, and that is to prepare a discovered check.} 1. d7 $1 ({After } 1. Rb1 $2 e2 $19 {White has no useful continuation.}) ({Sacrificing the rook can stop the pawns for now, but White can't create enough counterplay to draw, for example} 1. Rf7+ $2 Kxf7 2. Ba6 Bd8 3. Kf4 (3. Kf3 Bb6 4. g4 (4. Bc4+ Kf6 5. Ke2 a5 $19) 4... Ke6 5. g5 Kxd6 6. g6 Ke6 $19) 3... Bb6 4. Kf5 e2 5. Bxe2 a5 6. Bc4+ Ke8 7. Ke4 a4 8. Kf3 Kd7 $19 {and Black eventually wins with his passed pawns.}) 1... Ke7 2. Rb8 $1 ({It is important to choose the correct order of moves, as the immediate sacrifice} 2. d8=Q+ $2 Kxd8 3. Rb8 {allows Black to take on g3 without consequences: 3.-} Bxg3 4. Ra8 (4. Kxg3 f1=Q 5. Ba6+ Kc7 6. Rc8+ Kd7) 4... Bb8 $1 5. Ba6 Kc7 {and White is lacking a tempo, compared to the main line.} 6. Kh3 f1=Q+ 7. Bxf1 Kb7 $11 {with a draw because of the extra pawn on e3. Of course not} 8. Bg2 $4 e2 $19 {and Black even wins.} ) 2... Bxg3 $1 ({Taking on g3 is the best defense, as otherwise White wins easily with his g-pawn:} 2... f1=Q $2 3. d8=Q+ Kxd8 4. Ba6+ Kc7 5. Bxf1 Kxb8 6. gxh4 $18 {and the pawn promotes soon.}) {White must be very careful now, as the line we just saw will turn out to be a draw if White takes the bishop, so he must bring his rook to a secure place.} 3. Ra8 $1 ({Without the g-pawn, the draw is clear after} 3. Kxg3 $2 f1=Q 4. d8=Q+ Kxd8 5. Ba6+ Kc7 {, and now White loses his rook if he wants to take the queen. Otherwise, there is nothing better than perpetual check.} 6. Rb7+ Kc8 7. Rb6+ (7. Rxa7+ Kb8 8. Rb7+ Ka8) 7... Kc7 8. Rb7+ {, and taking on a7 allows Black to go to a8.} Kc8 9. Rxa7+ Kb8 10. Rb7+ Ka8 $11 {, although of course also 10.-Kc8 draws as before.} ) 3... f1=Q ({Black can't be too clever:} 3... Bb8 4. Ba6 $18 {wins easily} ({ but not} 4. Rxb8 $2 f1=Q 5. d8=Q+ Kxd8 6. Ba6+ Kc7 $11 {again.})) 4. d8=Q+ Kxd8 5. Ba6+ Bb8 $1 {The heroic sacrifice of the bishop leads to the known draw if White takes, but if he captures the queen immediately, Black wins the rook. So what should White do?} 6. Bxf1 {Anyway!} (6. Rxb8+ $2 Kc7 $11) 6... Kc7 7. Ba6 ({But not the other way round, as Black's pawn will draw:} 7. Be2 $2 Kb7 8. Bf3 e2 $1 $11) 7... e2 $1 8. Bxe2 Kb7 {White loses the rook...} 9. Bf3 $1 Kxa8 ( 9... a6 $5 10. Bxc6+ $1 $18) 10. Bxc6# {[#]...and eventually is a pawn down, which is not too much of an issue as Black is checkmated.} 1-0

The last selection of this month will show the battle against the bishops, a checkmate can only happen at a wrong move, but there is a highly tense battle worth watching. The composing hero is one that almost became unsung. Interestingly, the study took the second prize in the very same tourney.

Sergey Kaminer (1906-1938) also was engineer in the chemical industry. He was the earliest chess composer of the modern Soviet period, but his story is a rather sad one. One day in autumn 1937, when Botvinnik played the USSR championship against Levenfish in the hotel “National” in Moscow, Sergey Kaminer appeared after a phone call, gave Botvinnik his notebook in case something happens to him and with this took care that his studies were preserved. Unfortunately, the prediction turned out to be true, as those were the years of Stalin’s mass murder known as the “Great Purge”, to which Kaminer fell victim in 1938.

[Event "Trud 1935, 2nd prize"] [Site "?"] [Date "1935.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Kaminer, Sergey Mikhailovich"] [Black "?"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/2p2k2/4p1NP/p5p1/8/b7/P4P1P/1K1b2N1 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "17"] [EventDate "1935.??.??"] {White to move and win. Of course Whtie has a trump card, his Ph6, but Black can make dangerous threats with his bishops and apparently get the new queen, after which everything ends in a draw. Or is there anything else?} 1. h7 Bh5 { The plan is to take on g6, and then play Be7 and Bf6+, after which White won't be able to prevent the exchange of the bishop for the queen. The analogue idea Bf8 won't work because the other knight can interfere on e5 when the check on g7 is given.} 2. Nf4 $3 {Only at the very end, it will be clear why White needs to force Black's capture with the pwan.} ({The obvious line} 2. h8=Q $2 Bxg6+ 3. Ka1 Be7 $1 ({but not} 3... Bf8 4. Nf3 Bg7+ 5. Ne5+ $18) 4. Nf3 Bf6+ 5. Ne5+ Ke7 $11 {ends in a draw as mentioned above. But what is the difference when Pg5 stands on f4? Ph2 is not powerful enough to create a winning advantage - in fact, it even is bad as it prevents the queen from going to h2. And in the main line the diagonal h2-e5 is closed another time by White, for what reason?}) ({It is of note that Black, being a genius who knows what will happen, would draw with} 2. Nh4 $2 Kg7 $3 $11 {if White does not threaten to capture Bh5 to win the crucial tempo here.}) 2... gxf4 (2... Kg7 3. Nxh5+ $18) 3. h8=Q Bg6+ 4. Ka1 Be7 $1 {Has anything changed? White can't escape from the check on f6, as his king is in a very bad position. The knight can intervene, but White won't have any good square to defend it...} 5. Nf3 Bf6+ 6. Ne5+ Ke7 {[#]What was the point? White will have to take on f6 and the endgame then is better for Black. There obviously is no way to defend the knight on e5 with the queen?} 7. Qh4 $3 {What a move to clear the situation! The bishop gets pinned now, so it can't checkmate on e5. White had to see this when playing his knight to f4 in the second move already. Black is cheated out of his win, and the powerful bishops will fall while the seemingly dead knight triumphantly emerges from the situation. 7.-} Bxh4 8. Nxg6+ Kf6 9. Nxh4 1-0

Of course, compared to the other two studies, this short battle might seem to lack in content, but it has an unexpected idea that in rare circumstances practical players can profit from. And of course isn’t such a move aesthetically highly pleasing?

Botvinnik kept the notebook, and it became one of the bases of the book “Selected Studies of Liburkin and Kaminer” by Kofman in 1981 (“Izbrannye etyudi Kaminera i Liburkina”, Fizkultura i Sport, Moscow 1981). I offer a good reward to anyone who can find the notebook of Kaminer and scan it to preserve the content permanently. Kaminer himself was rehabilitated by the USSR Supreme Court in 1956, but as a death sentence was carried out in 1938, this was mostly a symbolic act, one that could not restore the great talent, one possibly on par with the famous Soviet composers, undoubtedly destroyed by Stalin...

Reddit IAmA selection

From the Reddit IAmA here is a small selection of the questions that Yours Truly answered (shortened when necessary). The session is over, but you can always write questions into the ChessBase comments section, and if you’re lucky they will be read. And once in a blue moon they might even be replied to in the column. The same goes for your criticism.

Q: What is exactly a chess composer?

A: A chess composer is a person (at least, until computers manage to understand artistry) who creates chess puzzles, such as endgame studies (positions where a way to win or draw has to be found) or direct mates (positions where a checkmate in a specified number of moves has to be found). The positions might be similar to games but always should include an artisitic element, or in rare cases a contribution to endgame theory. An artistic element might be a paradox, for example, refusal to capture a piece or pawn.

Q: Have you ever considered doing the same for other abstract games (like Go, Hnefatafl etc.) or are you only composing for chess? And if so, why?

A: I understand only chess well enough to compose for it. Go is too difficult for me, and Shogi is too tactical, it amounts to just giving check each turn. Of course, there are fairy chess variations, but it is already difficult for me to compose for those, so I only compose for chess.

Q: What are your thoughts about endgame tablebases finding winning positions that take 500+ moves to mate? Does it have any effect on chess puzzles?

A: This is an excellent question that has been explored, of course, in extenso. The short answer is that tablebase positions, such as in the Nalimov and Lomonossov sets, are not regarded as anticipations to studies – or to chess compositions in general. The English founder of the magazine "EG", John Roycroft, has written an entire book about two such longest winning positions, trying to analyze them from a human point of view, and believes this to be contributing to endgame theory if someone actually takes the time to understand the endgames in-depth. He asks why one move fails but another not, or why two seemingly similar moves are different, so one must have a hidden defense somewhere. Of course, while that effort is to be lauded, I don't believe personally that such endgames, even with the narrative, can be generalized, to be made understandable in a general form for humans.

The effect it has on chess puzzles is more in the mutual zugzwang positions (abbreviated "mzz" or just "zz"). Those mzz positions can be easily "mined". Some composers are tempted to take such positions, add an introduction that leads to the position with either side to play, and publish this as an endgame study. But even in such cases, in my opinion all play before and after the mzz must be humanly understandable, i.e. it must be understandable why a situation is a zugzwang.

The other influence the tablebases had is that certain endgames that were deemed a draw, always or in special cases, now are shown to be always lost. A famous yet curious case is the endgame of KBB vs. KN (king and two bishops vs. king and knight) which was thought to be a draw by a fortress in certain situations, with the knight on b7. But the tablebases showed that the fortress can be broken and it can just be prevented to set it up on the other side of the board again, so the endgame is a general win. As a result of this, many studies have become unsound, i.e. defect, because the intended draw was none, or because there is another way to win now that is shown by the tablebases and was thought to be a draw back then.

About the author

Siegfried Hornecker (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He will present an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.

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Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 5/1/2017 09:49
Nice article and quite instructive. The story of Kaminer is haunting and fascinating.
benedictralph benedictralph 5/1/2017 11:38
"Artistry" is a very subjective concept. An average or even master chess player could compose a chess puzzle or problem that still "works" (i.e. is "correct") even though a bunch of master composers don't find it particularly "artistic".
satman satman 5/5/2017 09:17
It is of course possible for average (or even poor) players to compose 'artistic' chess problems.
In fact many expert composers never actually play chess, having switched to composing at an early age before they developed as players.
However it's never too late for anybody to have a go, the main danger being that you'll get hooked and be left regretting all those years you wasted playing the game!