Riddle solved: Taimanov could not have defeated Fischer

by Karsten Müller
5/28/2024 – In the 1971 Candidate Matches Bobby Fischer faced Mark Taimanov In Vancouver, Canada. The American defeated his opponent from the Soviet Union with a "dry" 6-0 score. But matters could have started differently. In the first game it was Taimanov who put on the pressure, and even had winning chances. He played 27.h3, which nobody considered a bad move – until Kasparov pointed out its defect in 2004. Today's riddle deals with the position before White's 27th move. Computers find it devilishly difficult to find the best continuation. Can you?

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About a week ago Karsten Müller invited readers of his latest riddle to take a close at the first game of the 1971 Candidates Match between Bobby Fischer and Mark Taimanov in Vancouver, Canada. The American defeated his opponent from the Soviet Union with "dry" 6-0 score.  But matters could have started differently. In the first game it was Taimanov who put on the pressure.

Taimanov played 27.h3, which nobody considered a bad move – until Kasparov pointed out its defect in 2004. Then Lakdawala found 27.Ba6 and subsequently Aagaard, Karolyi, and Timman found further improvements. Timman even concluded that "White has a winning advantage; Black's compensation for the exchange is absolutely insufficient."

Grandmaster Jonas Lampert agrees with our finding that 27.Ba6 does not give White a winning position. At first, the computer does think that White's advantage of the exchange is decisive. But deeper analysis shows that eventually, Black can hold a pawn-down rook ending.

After 27...Rf8 28 Ba6 Rb6 Taimanov continued to press for the win and chose 29.Rc7 instead of the interesting alternative 29.Bb5! White played the obvious check 31.Bxh6 (which should have lost), but new analysis has found Taimanov could have played 31.Nxf5+ and held.

As Kasparov pointed out, after 29.Rc7 Qa4 30.Rg7+ 31.Bxh6 Fischer should have played the winning 31...Kh7!  Instead, 31...Kf7 allowed Taimanov to again dream of victory.

Taimanov played 36.Nd4 and called it "capitulation."  Instead, 36.g4! would have led to positions highly favorable for White.  In fact, in one variation, Black has to play a temporary rook sacrifice to reach a drawn ending in which he is a full bishop down!

Fischer's 37...Qb4 completely turns the tables.  As Taimanov says, "A stunning manoeuvre, abruptly changing the character of the battle."

Here is the game with full analysis by Charles Sullivan [click on the notation to get a replay board, and on the fan button to get engine assistance]:

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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rooff rooff 6/7/2024 12:36
I am not totally convinced that White achieves salvation with 31.Nxf5+ Kh7 32.Be2 Nh5 33.Bxh5 Rxf5 34.Bxg6+ Rxg6 35.Rc1. Instead of 35...Rg7 it seems to me that 35...Rgf6 is promising, e.g. 36.Qg3 ( 36.Bxh6 Qxa2 37.Rc7 Rf7 and it is not clear if White can hold this. 38.Rxf7+ Rxf7 39.Bf4 Qb1+ 40.Kh2 Qb6 41.Qg3 Qf6 might be a critical line ) 36...Rc6 37.Rb1 Rf7 38.Rb8 Rg7 39.Qe3 Re6 40.Qc1 and now 40....Qd7 (or even 40...Qc6) is not clear to me.