Larissa Volpert's best pawn endgame

by Siegfried Hornecker
10/17/2017 – Our Study of the Month author Siegfried Hornecker has a mystery to solve, and he needs your help! Larissa Volpert, the professor for philology and chess master, died in New York City on October 1st, 2017, at the age of 91. A game fragment from a 1961 Soviet chess magazine provides a glimpse into one of her greatest triumphs — a pawn ending so elegant that it resembles a composed study. But was the rest of the game as equally awe inspiring?

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When chess imitates studies

Remembering Estonian WGM Larissa Volpert

As a chess composer — especially on the field of endgame studies — the material of kings and pawns yields the opportunity to show interesting struggles, consisting of zugzwang, mined squares, promotion struggles, and sometimes even an interesting stalemate idea. In theory, of course, every study can happen in a real game, although for some motifs it is more probable than others. However, in a truly extraordinary moment a pawn endgame might arise in a practical game that couldn’t have been composed any better!

Larissa VolpertLarissa Volpert, the professor for philology and chess master, died in New York City on October 1st, 2017, at the age of 91. According to her Wikipedia entry, she completed her doctorate in philology (which combines literary criticism, history, and linguistics) at Leningrad State University in 1955. Her work focused on the relationships between late 18th and early 19th centuries Russian (Pushkin, Lermontov) and French literature. At the same time she became an accomplished chess player, winning the Soviet Women's Championship twice — in 1954 and 1959.

The following game fragment, first published in the “Shakhmaty v SSSR” magazine, issue 2/1961, by Igor Bondarevsky, might be the most aesthetical endgame she ever won. It was played at the USSR team championship 1960, and I hope the readers that didn’t know it yet will find at least the ending as much pleasing as did Hans-Hilmar Staudte and Milu Milescu, who reprinted it in their book “Das 1x1 des Endspiels”. Yet, I found it to be widely unknown in the chess world, and for most readers it will be the first time seeing it.


I don't know how — or if — the game continued, but White won. Black, a queen ahead, finds herself in a position that can only occur once in a blue moon in a practical game. She is a queen ahead against three pawns, but damned to losw as she can't prevent the promotion. Isn't this truly remarkable? Play of the highest level, a hidden stalemate, and — by missing it — an even more study-like win. All that happening in a practical game, and in the analysis of Igor Bondarevsky! Wonderful!

Now let us for one moment look at the matrix in this position:


48.exf5 In the game followed 48...e4?, losing in style, while 48...Kg8 would have saved the game. Notice that before Kh8-g8 has been played both 48...e4? and 48...g4? are questionable, as shown above. However, after 48...Kg8, both moves draw if Black can play: 49...e4! or 49...g4!

I.e. 49.h6 g4?, but 49...e4!
Or 49.f6 e4?, but 49...g4!

I don’t know what this is called in the problemist jargon (Black Fleck theme?), but Black must precisely use the correct defense.

Unfortunately the entire game score seems to be missing and Larissa Volpert never replied to an e-mail I sent some years ago, so your author hereby offers a small bounty, to be collected by the first correct sender until December 31st, 2018: If you can find the real complete game score, I offer you a small prize at my discretion.

Correction October 18: Karsten Müller noted "44...Kg8 draws as well due to 45.Kd6 Kh7 and deserves no question mark". We've updated that note to Black's 44th move.


Siegfried (*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 presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.


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