Riddle solved: Fischer was winning!

by Karsten Müller
5/20/2020 – The endgame of the fourth game of the famous Fischer-Taimanov candidates match Vancouver 1971 left an intriguing puzzle. Was the adjourned position already lost or was Taimanov's 42th move, played after the adjournment session, a decisive mistake? We asked our readers to help settle the historical debate. And they helped our endgame expert GM Karsten Müller to settle the question.

Master Class Vol.1: Bobby Fischer Master Class Vol.1: Bobby Fischer

No other World Champion was more infamous both inside and outside the chess world than Bobby Fischer. On this DVD, a team of experts shows you the winning techniques and strategies employed by the 11th World Champion.

Grandmaster Dorian Rogozenco delves into Fischer’s openings, and retraces the development of his repertoire. What variations did Fischer play, and what sources did he use to arm himself against the best Soviet players? Mihail Marin explains Fischer’s particular style and his special strategic talent in annotated games against Spassky, Taimanov and other greats. Karsten Müller is not just a leading international endgame expert, but also a true Fischer connoisseur.


Five months after the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal (1970) qualifier, the quarterfinals of the Candidates Matches was held. American GM Bobby Fischer faced the experienced Soviet star Mark Taimanov in a ten-game match, which was held in in Vancouver, Canada.

We described the background of the match, which Fischer won 6:0, in our previous article and asked our readers to help solve one of the great mysteries of chess history: in the key game four was Taimanov's move 42...Kd8 a terrible mistake? In the adjournment had the mighty Soviet analysts missed a way to save the game?

Now, with the help of our readers, we can confidently say: the old riddle is solved: Fischer was always winning!

I would like to admit that this time I underestimated the strength of the modern engines and overestimated the complexity of the position. Before our sessions it was not so clear in Let's Check, but now it has changed thanks to the efforts of the readers. The results are:

  1. Fischer was always winning in the adjourned position;
  2. The main winning idea is to exchange rooks under favorable circumstances;
  3. Black can only avoid this by making his rook passive, and then White can invade sooner or later with his king;

The winning proof provided by Kevin Cotreau (ChessBase handle PhishMaster) is clear and elegant, and much easier than Charles Sullivan's old proof from Endgame Corner 106. Without his analysis I was not able to find his clear logical proof.

[Event "Vancouver Match 1971"] [Site "Vancouver"] [Date "1971.05.25"] [Round "4"] [White "Fischer, Bobby"] [Black "Taimanov, Mark E"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B47"] [WhiteElo "2740"] [BlackElo "2620"] [Annotator "Karsten Müller"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/3k4/1pn2rp1/pBp2p1p/P4P1P/2P1RKP1/1P6/8 b - - 0 41"] [PlyCount "60"] [EventDate "1971.05.16"] [EventType "match"] [EventCountry "CAN"] [SourceVersionDate "2016.11.12"] {The old riddle is solved: Fischer was always winning This time it seems that I underestimated the strength of the modern engines and overestimated the complexity of the position. Before it was not so clear in the Let's Check, which has now changed thanks to the efforts of the readers. The resultes are: 1) Fischer was always winning in the adjourned position 2) The main winning idea is to exchange rooks under favorable circumstances 3) Black can only avoid this by making his rook passive and then White can invade sooner or later with his king 4) The winning proof of Kevin Cotreau (ChessBase handle PhishMaster) is very clear and elegant and much easier than Charles Sullivan's old proof from Endgame Corner 106} 41... Rd6 {the sealed move} 42. Ke2 Kd8 $6 { allowing the exchange of rooks, when White's king will penetrate slowly but surely by using the sharp endgame weapon zugzwang again and again. More tenacious is} (42... Rf6 $5 {"I do not think that there is any doubt that white can still win after 42...Rf6. The problem is that white can force zugzwang and either force Re6 and the rooks need to come off, or Rd3 in similar lines to the game and the rooks come off due to the pin. The bishop ending seems just won no matter what, at least with the help of a computer." (Kevin Cotreau)} 43. Kd3 Rd6+ 44. Kc4 Rf6 45. Kb3 Kc7 (45... Rf8 46. Bxc6+ Kxc6 47. Re6+ Kd5 48. Rxg6 $18) 46. Bf1 Rd6 ({catalanFischer adds the line} 46... Kd7 47. Kc4 Na7 48. Bg2 Kd6 49. Re8 Kd7 50. Rg8 Nc6 51. Kb5 Ne7 52. Rb8 Nc8 53. Ka6 Kc7 54. Rb7+ Kd6 55. Bf1 $18 {"heading to c4 and black is completely uncoordinated. One of the g6 or b6 pawns will fall".}) 47. Bc4 Kd7 (47... Kc8 48. Re6 $18) 48. Rd3 $18 {(Kevin Cotreau)}) 43. Rd3 $1 Kc7 44. Rxd6 Kxd6 45. Kd3 Ne7 (45... Kd5 46. Bxc6+ Kxc6 47. Kc4 Kd6 48. Kb5 Kc7 49. Ka6 Kc6 50. c4 Kc7 51. Ka7 Kc6 52. Kb8 $18) 46. Be8 Kd5 47. Bf7+ Kd6 48. Kc4 Kc6 49. Be8+ Kb7 50. Kb5 Nc8 51. Bc6+ ({Of course not} 51. Bxg6 $4 Nd6#) 51... Kc7 52. Bd5 Ne7 53. Bf7 Kb7 54. Bb3 Ka7 55. Bd1 Kb7 56. Bf3+ Kc7 57. Ka6 Ng8 58. Bd5 Ne7 (58... Nf6 59. Bf7 Ne4 60. Bxg6 Nxg3 61. Be8 Ne2 62. Bxh5 Nxf4 63. Bf3 $18) 59. Bc4 Nc6 60. Bf7 Ne7 61. Be8 $1 {brings Black into fatal zugzwang. As the knight cannot move, Black's best chance is} Kd8 {but the bishop just sacrifices itself:} 62. Bxg6 Nxg6 63. Kxb6 Kd7 64. Kxc5 Ne7 65. b4 axb4 66. cxb4 Nc8 67. a5 Nd6 68. b5 Ne4+ 69. Kb6 Kc8 70. Kc6 Kb8 71. b6 1-0

You probably know that in our replay boards there are a large number of functions you can use to really appreciate the games. Recently we published a comprehensive tutorial on how to get the most out of the live broadcast game viewer. Learn about all the powerful features and buttons that make the ChessBase's replay one of the best watching experiences around.

One big advantage is that you can start an engine (fan icon) that will help you to analyse. You can get multiple lines of analysis by clicking the + button to the right of the engine analysis window. The "!" key, incidentally, shows you the threat in any position, which is incredibly useful in the case of unclear moves.

There is one more thing you can do. It is a lot of fun, but also a serious challenge: Click on the rook icon below the notation window. This will allow you the play the above position against Fritz, at your level of playing strength (e.g. "Club Player"), right here on the news page. Note that your analysis, in which you can delete, move or promote lines, is stored in the notation as new variations. In the end you will find the game with your analysis in the cloud. So nothing is ever lost.

About the winner

Kevin Cotreau, 58, is from Merrimack, NH. He has been a USCF Master for more than 30 years, and a three-time New Hampshire State Chess Champion. He was in the U.S. Air Force for eight years as a Russian linguist from 1980-1988, which can be handy as a chess player.

Kevin bought his first computer, a 486/50, back in 1991 – specifically to run ChessBase. "I really enjoyed learning about computers," he says, "I guess you could say that ChessBase is the reason I have a career now, as it steered me into my chosen field: I have been primarily self-employed as a computer network consultant since (I am actually a lot better at computers than I ever was at chess)."

Well, what happened to his chess? "One year after my last state championship in 2003, my only child, a fantastic daughter, came along, and I focused on being a great dad. Only last year did I start playing tournaments again. It was a rough start (rust and age), but I have done better in each of successive tournament. I am attaching one recent game that was maybe my best game ever, if you are interested." Indeed we are:

[Event "Queen City Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2020.02.29"] [Round "2"] [White "Dame, Erin"] [Black "Cotreau"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A01"] [WhiteElo "1997"] [BlackElo "2142"] [PlyCount "52"] [EventDate "2004.02.28"] {This is probably my greatest game ever. Of course I did not see every variation below, but I saw the major themes, and I am very proud of this game, especially since it was a game/60 time control. Most of my moves were best, or borderline best.} 1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 d6 {I was inspired to play d6 here by a famous Kasparov game, Huebner-Kasparov, Hamburg 1985 match game one. I remembered it being covered in a New in Chess Yearbook.} 3. c4 Nf6 4. Nc3 Be7 5. e3 c5 6. Nge2 O-O 7. d4 $2 exd4 8. exd4 d5 $1 {Here, I was influenced by the Tal-Smyslov, Candidates Tournament, Yugoslavia 1959. I found this game on page 17 (example 7) in the Book "300 Most Important Chess Positions" by IM Thomas Engqvist, which I read recently. I realized that my opponent had spent quite a few moves on the queenside, and that it would take at least two more moves to develop the kingside, so I decided to blast the center open, and go after his king, or at least prevent him from developing his kingside. By the time he finally did, the game lasted only two more moves. The computer finds this move to be the best by far.} 9. Nxd5 (9. Nf4 {Is best, but still bad.} dxc4 10. dxc5 cxb3 $17) (9. dxc5 Bxc5 {The threats are Ng4 or Qb6, and there is no good defense. I really already stopped analyzing here seeing both threats, but here are a couple of sample computer lines.} 10. Qd2 (10. Na4 Bb4+ 11. Bc3 Na6 12. Qd2 Ne4 13. Qd4 Nxc3 14. Nexc3 Re8+ 15. Be2 Bd7 16. a3 Bxa4 17. axb4 Nxb4 18. Qd1 Bc6 19. O-O d4 $19) 10... dxc4 11. Qxd8 Rxd8 12. bxc4 Nc6 $19 {With the threat of Nb4.}) 9... Nxd5 10. cxd5 Bf6 $1 (10... Re8 {The computer likes this a little move initially, but eventually, it prefers my move. As it turns out, Bf6 induces a further error, so it was definitely the correct choice.}) 11. Qc2 $6 {Clearly, trying to prevent a future Bf5, but allows me to develop with tempo.} (11. Qd2 {Was a better way to defend the Bb2, but black is still much better after Qxd5.} Qxd5 $17) 11... Na6 12. a3 (12. dxc5 $4 Nb4 13. Qd2 Bxb2 14. Qxb2 ({Both my opponent and I saw the main line, but this computer alternative is nice too.} 14. Rb1 {I saw this, and planned on playing simply Ba3, but there is a nicer, and more natural, alternative that finishes development, and does not leave the B sitting on a3.} Bf5 $1 (14... Ba3) 15. Rxb2 Nd3+ 16. Kd1 Nxf2+) 14... Nd3+ $19) 12... Qxd5 (12... Re8 {The computer likes this about 3/4 of a pawn more. I played Qd5 with the idea of Bf5 with tempo.} 13. O-O-O {The best move, but white is already totally lost.} Bg4 { And Rc8 next wins.} 14. dxc5 Nxc5 $1 $19) 13. Qc4 Qe4 14. f3 (14. O-O-O $2 Bf5 $19 15. Nc3 $2 {Defending b1.} Qc2# {Which I missed.} (15... Bg5+ 16. Rd2 Qe1+ {But I did see this one.} 17. Nd1 Qxd2#)) 14... Bh4+ $1 15. Kd1 (15. g3 Qxf3 16. Rg1 {I had not considered this, but my opponent pointed it out after the game.} Bg5 17. Bg2 Qh5 18. dxc5 Bg4 $19) 15... Qe7 16. g3 Bf6 17. Nf4 {With the obvious threat of Nd5.} b5 $1 (17... Rd8 18. Nd5 Rxd5 {I considered this exchange sac, but why do that when you are cruising, and it could backfire?} ( 18... Qe6 $3 {This crushes, but it is not humanly natural to give up that strong Bf6, and the line is fairly complicated.} 19. Nxf6+ (19. Nf4 Qe3 20. Qd3 cxd4 $19) 19... Qxf6 20. Bg2 Be6 21. Qd3 c4 $1 22. bxc4 Nc5 23. Qc2 Rxd4+ 24. Bxd4 Qxd4+ 25. Ke2 Bxc4+ {And mates in 5.}) 19. Qxd5 Be6 20. Qe4 Bxb3+ { And I did not see a kill shot.}) 18. Qe2 (18. Qxb5 Bb7 {Just looked crushing now that the rooks join the game. I really did not look any further.} (18... Rb8 {This is a lot stronger per Stockfish 11.})) 18... Qd6 19. Qe4 Bxd4 (19... Rb8 $142 {And if...} 20. Nd5 Bxd4 $1 21. Bxd4 cxd4 22. Ne7+ Kh8 23. Nxc8 Rbxc8 24. Bd3 f5 $19 {Is hopeless.}) 20. Bd3 (20. Bxd4 Bb7 $19) (20. Qxa8 Bxb2+ $19) 20... f5 21. Qxa8 Bxb2 22. Ra2 (22. Rb1 Be6 23. Qxa7 Be5 24. Ke2 Bxf4 25. gxf4 {I saw this to here, but the computer finishes nicely.} Bd5 $1 {With the treats of either Ra8 or Rf7 should white threaten mate with Rhg1.} 26. Bxb5 ( 26. Rhg1 Rf7 $19) 26... Nc7 27. Bc4 Qxf4 28. Qxc5 Re8+ 29. Kd1 Qxf3+ $19) 22... Be6 23. Qxa7 $2 {A final error in a lost position.} (23. Qxf8+ Kxf8 24. Nxe6+ Qxe6 25. Rxb2 Qd5 26. Kc2 Nc7 27. Rd1 Ne6 {And Nd4 was my plan, and would have been fairly easy to win. White is not coordinated, and the Q+N work well together against all the white weaknesses. I only saw to here, and really thought that Bb5 was impossible since Nd4-b5 would win it, but of course, my Nd4 is pinned. Luckily I would still have the very strong Qf3 there.} 28. Bxb5 Nd4+ 29. Kc1 (29. Kb1 Qxf3 $19 {And now Nb5 is a threat as well as Qd1.}) 29... Nxb3+ 30. Kc2 Nd4+ 31. Kb1 Qxf3 32. Ba4 Qxa3 $19) 23... Bxb3+ 24. Ke2 Bxa2 25. Rd1 Bb3 {I have the tendency to overlook things as I get older, and as I was initially looking at Bb3, much to my horror, I had overlooked Bc4+, but I quickly realized that Bb3xBc4 was check in return, so I played my first instinct.} 26. Bc2 (26. Bc4+ Bxc4+ $1) (26. Rd2 Bc1) 26... Qe5+ 0-1

Great stuff, Kevin. Hope you will write more often for us.


Karsten Müller is considered to be one of the greatest endgame experts in the world. His books on the endgame - among them "Fundamentals of Chess Endings", co-authored with Frank Lamprecht, that helped to improve Magnus Carlsen's endgame knowledge - and his endgame columns for the ChessCafe website and the ChessBase Magazine helped to establish and to confirm this reputation. Karsten's Fritztrainer DVDs on the endgame are bestsellers. The mathematician with a PhD lives in Hamburg, and for more than 25 years he has been scoring points for the Hamburger Schachklub (HSK) in the Bundesliga.


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