Giants of Modern Studies - Steffen Nielsen Part I

by Satanick Mukhuty
6/16/2020 – In this article (the first part of what hopefully will turn into a series) we will delve into the life and work of the prominent study composer Steffen Slumstrup Nielsen. It is especially interesting to read how this first-rate creative mind may spot a motif in a top GM game, and then use that in a prize-winning endgame study | Foto: Niels Jørgen Jacobsen, Silkeborg

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If chess is an art then its composers are indeed its finest artists. A journalist by profession, based in Denmark, Steffen Nielsen possesses an undoubtedly first-rate creative mind. He became seriously interested in chess composition less than a decade ago – considering the fact that a good many composers have careers spanning across three or four decades, he is still relatively new and yet, as many of his colleagues will readily attest, he has already climbed the topmost echelons of his field.

The Danish maestro has etched out a unique style for himself, a style that he himself describes as highly tactical or visual in nature, drawing heavily on problem themes. This can be attributed in part to his diverse interests, apart from composing endgame studies. He likes participating in over-the-board tournaments as well as in solving competitions. Interestingly, he is keenly drawn to the genre of helpmates too. He actually quotes the following as one of his most loved problems of all time. This shows his distinctive taste, his penchant for the viscerally tactical; something that lends him an outlandish aura and makes him stand apart from his other esteemed peers.

 
 

Recall that in a helpmate Black moves first and then both sides cooperate or in other words, help each other, to achieve the aim of checkmating the black king in the stipulated number of moves. The solution in this case involves a striking cross-check effect. 1.Ne3+ Kf4 2.Nd5+ Kxe5 3.Nc3+ Nxa5#. Black delivers consecutive checks in all three moves with one of his knights. White in turn takes this chance to transfer his king to a favourable square, and then meets the third and the final check by capturing the checking piece – the black queen – while simultaneously unleashing checkmate.

The problem also has a second part or a twin, where a small change is made to the position to get a second thematically related solution. In the second diagram (with the white knight on e1 is shifted to b7) and we see how the solution is altered. 1.Ne4+ Ke2 2.Nc3+ Kxd2 3.Nd5+ Nbxa5#. Black delivers the consecutive checks with his other knight now, and White metes out the final checkmate with the knight on b7, instead of the one on c6. In both the solutions the black knights not only deliver consecutive checks but also crucially help close the lines of bBd2, bQa5, and bRd5 which allow White to move his king to the squares desired: e5 in the first position and d2 in the second.

The above diagrams show the action of the knights in both problems

Complex visual effects like these occur frequently in problems but less so in studies. Steffen however is motivated by them, and his creations are often distinguished by such problem-like tactical schemes. The following "short" study for instance, won a special prize in the Mario Garcia 70 years Jubilee tourney and illustrates this well.

[Event "Garcia 70 JT 2018, Special Prize"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Steffen S. Nielsen"] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "6R1/6P1/3k1q1r/3Ppp2/B7/7N/2PKP3/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "13"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] [SourceVersionDate "2020.06.03"] {White must take swift action in the above position or else Black, who has a queen, will easily turn the tables. The solution begins with} 1. Rc8 $1 { threatening both g8Q and Rc6+. Black goes with the only logical choice:} Qxg7 { Now White exploits the exposed king on d6.} 2. Rc6+ Kxd5 (2... Kd7 3. Rg6+ $18) (2... Ke7 3. Rc7+ $18) 3. c4+ Kd4 (3... Ke4 4. Bc2+ Kd4 5. e3#) 4. e3+ Ke4 { [#] and now, as the black king on e4 finds itself in a tough spot, in comes a dazzling stunner!} 5. Rg6 $3 $18 {Plachutta. Black can't capture the rook without getting mated. For instance, if Black captures that rook on g6 then Black's queen and rook end up interfering each other's paths and that actually allows White to deliver the coup de grâce.} Qxg6 (5... Rxg6 6. Ng5+ Rxg5 7. Bc6#) 6. Bc6+ Qxc6 7. Ng5# 1-0

Just like the way top chess players of the world are incredibly adept at finding resourceful moves over the chessboard, the top chess composers too are able to quickly spot ideas that might crystallize into their next original production. They find inspiration rather spontaneously and you would be greatly impressed how efficiently they are able to move from a concept to its actualization. Steffen is no exception in this regard. Take for instance the position below that occurred in a game between the Chinese superstar Ding Liren and the Russian phenom Daniil Dubov from the recently concluded Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge.

Unless you have been living under a rock during the lockdown, you must have followed the Lindores Abbey online rapid Challenge. Daniil Dubov surprised all by emerging as the champion of this event ahead of hot favourites such as Magnus Carlsen and Ding Liren. The Russian clinched the prize title by coming out on the top of Hikaru Nakamura in what was an absolutely roller-coaster finals | Photo: Lennart Ootes

[Event "Garcia 70 JT 2018, Special Prize"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Steffen S. Nielsen"] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "6R1/6P1/3k1q1r/3Ppp2/B7/7N/2PKP3/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "13"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] [SourceVersionDate "2020.06.03"] {White must take swift action in the above position or else Black, who has a queen, will easily turn the tables. The solution begins with} 1. Rc8 $1 { threatening both g8Q and Rc6+. Black goes with the only logical choice:} Qxg7 { Now White exploits the exposed king on d6.} 2. Rc6+ Kxd5 (2... Kd7 3. Rg6+ $18) (2... Ke7 3. Rc7+ $18) 3. c4+ Kd4 (3... Ke4 4. Bc2+ Kd4 5. e3#) 4. e3+ Ke4 { [#] and now, as the black king on e4 finds itself in a tough spot, in comes a dazzling stunner!} 5. Rg6 $3 $18 {Plachutta. Black can't capture the rook without getting mated. For instance, if Black captures that rook on g6 then Black's queen and rook end up interfering each other's paths and that actually allows White to deliver the coup de grâce.} Qxg6 (5... Rxg6 6. Ng5+ Rxg5 7. Bc6#) 6. Bc6+ Qxc6 7. Ng5# 1-0

Dubov crushed Liren in just 21 moves in this game, and the final blow that led the Chinese no.1 to resign was 21...Bg2! It will look like just a routine tactic that appeared in an encounter between two extremely strong grandmasters. Of course, White is hopeless here in view of the impending Rh1+ followed by Qh3.

When Steffen saw this he perceived much more than just that. "The fun thing about this combination is that it only works against the pawn formation f2/f3/g3. Even the pawn on d2 is needed or White could simply play 22.g4 Bxf3 23.Bxh8 and run with the king. So even though it may seem standard it is in fact quite special," he explained in a Facebook conversation. No wonder these observations quickly led him to put together the following remarkably ingenious study.

[Event "An original study dedicated to D. Dubov"] [Site "?"] [Date "2020.05.03"] [Round "?"] [White "Slumstrup Nielsen, Steffen"] [Black "White to play and win"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r5/5p2/2q2ppn/4p1p1/2p4k/4QP2/5PK1/1R4B1 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "15"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] {Black is profusely ahead in material, so White must act immediately to create threats against the exposed black king.} 1. Bh2 $1 {threatening Bg3+ followed by Rh1#} Nf5 2. Bg3+ Kh5 3. Rh1+ Nh4+ 4. Bxh4 Kh6 (4... gxh4 {is not possible because of} 5. Rxh4+ Kxh4 6. Qh6#) 5. Bxg5+ Kg7 6. Bh6+ Kg8 {[#]The main idea from the game is realized, White plays} 7. Bg7 $3 g5 {stopping Qh6 ideas.} ( 7... Kxg7 {is obviously not feasible with} 8. Qh6+ {coming.} Kg8 9. Qh8#) 8. Bh8 $1 $18 {and Black is completely lost as there's no good way to prevent Rh6 and the threat of Bxf6 that follows thereafter!} ({Black might try something like} 8. Bh8 Rd8 9. Rh6 Rd6 {but White crashes in anyway with} 10. Qa7 Kf8 11. Qb8+ Ke7 12. Bg7 {etc - a devastating attack!}) 1-0

A marvellously geometric study where once again the visual element stands out, with the bishop carrying out this picturesque zigzag maneuver. Funny how a "simple" tactical finish can inspire something so beautiful. For chess composers, the artists that they are, nothing is impossible

Steffen actually debuted with his first study in 2012, and got his big break later in the same year, when he won the Timman-60 Jubilee Tourney. There was no looking back after that. He quickly went from strength to strength and in no time catapulted into the elite circle of study composition. The fact that he secured eighth place in the World Championship in Composing for Individuals (WCCI) 2013-15, which in fact was his very first participation in the event, is a testament to his phenomenal talent.

[Event "Jan Timman 60 Jubilee Tourney"] [Site "?"] [Date "2013.07.22"] [Round "?"] [White "Slumstrup Nielsen, Steffen"] [Black "White to play and draw"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [Annotator "Steffen Nielsen"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "6b1/5RP1/3b1Pp1/1r6/7k/6N1/K7/3B4 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "39"] [EventDate "2013.??.??"] {This is the magnificent production that won him the first prize in the Jan Timman 60 years Jubilee Tourney ahead of such towering figures as Yochanan Afek, Sergiy Didukh, and Oleg Pervakov. White's position seems completely hopeless, the white rook on f7 is pinned and is beyond saving. Can the white pawns on f6 and g7 pull off a miracle?} 1. Bb3 Rxb3 (1... Kxg3 2. Be6 {=}) ( 1... Bxg3 2. Be6 $11) 2. Rf8 {White surprises with a cascade of sacrifices.} ( 2. Kxb3 Bxf7+ {is utterly lost.}) 2... Bxf8 (2... Rb8+ 3. f7 Bxf7+ 4. Rxf7 Kxg3 5. Rf6 g5 6. Rg6 {=}) (2... Bd5 3. Nf5+ gxf5 4. Rh8+ Kg5 5. g8=Q+ Bxg8 6. Rxg8+ Kxf6 7. Kxb3 {=}) (2... Be6) 3. Nf5+ (3. f7 Ra3+ 4. Kb1 Ra1+ 5. Kc2 Rc1+ 6. Kd3 Rc3+ 7. Ke2 Rc2+ 8. Kf1 Rf2+ 9. Kg1 Rxf7 {-+} (9... Bc5)) 3... gxf5 (3... Kg5 4. f7 Ra3+ 5. Kb1 Ra1+ 6. Kc2 Rc1+ 7. Kd3 Rc3+ 8. Ke2 Rc2+ 9. Kf1 Rc1+ 10. Kg2 {=} (10. Ke2)) (3... Kh3 4. f7 Ra3+ 5. Kb1 Ra1+ 6. Kc2 Rc1+ 7. Kxc1 (7. Kd3) 7... Ba3+ 8. Kc2 Bxf7 9. Nh6 Be6 10. g8=Q Bxg8 11. Nxg8 {=}) 4. f7 $11 { [#] As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. White has daringly given away all his pieces but now has both pawns standing mightily on the seventh rank. The black bishops indeed seem to cower under their weight! But still, is this enough to hold? Well, it turns out that White will still have to walk a precariously narrow path constituting a series of only moves. A slip here or a slip there is enough to completely hand over Black the victory.} Rb2+ (4... Ra3+ 5. Kb1 Ra1+ {transfers}) 5. Ka1 Ra2+ 6. Kb1 Ra1+ 7. Kc2 Rc1+ 8. Kd3 $1 ({A slight carelessness like} 8. Kd2 {lets all hell break loose as Black immediately gets in} Bb4+ {and quickly winds things up thereafter.}) ({ Similarly} 8. Kb2) ({and} 8. Kb3 {run into} Bxf7+ {and 8...Bxg7}) 8... Rc3+ 9. Ke2 Rc2+ (9... Re3+ 10. Kd1 Rd3+ 11. Ke2 Rd2+ 12. Kf1 Rf2+ (12... Rd1+ 13. Ke2 Re1+ 14. Kd3) 13. Kg1) 10. Kf1 {It turns out this is the only move that keeps things together: Black is ultimately forced to yield to a repetition. You can checkout all the nuances by playing through the full analysis in the replayable board with an engine (fan button) running..} (10. Kd1 Rd2+ 11. Ke1 Rd8) (10. Kd3 Rd2+) (10. Kf3 Rf2+ (10... Bc5)) 10... Rc1+ (10... Rf2+ 11. Kg1 Bc5 12. fxg8=Q (12. f8=Q)) 11. Ke2 (11. Kg2 Rg1+) 11... Re1+ 12. Kd3 (12. Kf3 Re3+ (12... Rf1+ 13. Ke2 Rf2+ 14. Kd1 Rd2+ 15. Ke1 Rd8) 13. Kf2 Bc5 14. f8=Q Re7+) 12... Re3+ (12... Rd1+ 13. Kc2 (13. Ke2)) 13. Kc2 Rc3+ 14. Kd1 Rc1+ 15. Ke2 Re1+ 16. Kd3 Re3+ 17. Kc2 Re2+ 18. Kb1 (18. Kd1 Rd2+ 19. Ke1 Rd8) 18... Rb2+ (18... Re1+ 19. Kc2) 19. Ka1 (19. Kc1 Rb8) 19... Ra2+ 20. Kb1 {=} 1/2-1/2

Going through these studies you must be wondering: how is it that a 45-year-old adult who has a family and a full-time job to work at find so much time to design positions of such exquisite complexity? Well, all great artists find a way to create no matter what. "You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge," the ever-voguish iconoclastic American poet and writer Charles Bukowski had once deftly remarked about the process of writing. The same is true for chess composing - you either do it or you don't. A passionate composer doesn't fold his hands on the pretext that he doesn't have the right conditions around him. Steffen manages to steal time from in between routine activities. He tinkers away with chess pieces when he is on a commute or between breaks at work. He is sporadic but incessant, unstructured but passionate. And that is how, patiently and doggedly over the years, he has managed to create specimens which can aptly be called masterpieces! His best is certainly yet to come but his oeuvre has already grown significantly rich. We present to you next a small collection of his choicest creations, creations that have truly broken new grounds in the field of modern studies.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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Satanick Mukhuty has a background in Mathematics. He is an avid enthusiast of composition chess and is sincerely committed to promoting it around the world. He works for ChessBase India.
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Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/17/2020 02:09
And the first diagram isn't working.
combinatorialist combinatorialist 6/17/2020 09:12
The Liern-Dubov position is missing.
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