In search of harmony

by Sundararajan Kidambi
2/25/2024 – Vasily Smyslov had this to say about beauty in chess: “Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty that are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp”. This quote and a fascinating endgame from the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg prompted GM Sundararajan Kidambi to consider new ways to approach a chess position. The endgame was played in the game between Wang Hao (pictured) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. | Photo: FIDE / Lennart Ootes

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An instructive endgame

Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty that are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp.

Vasily Smyslov


With an abundance of time at one’s disposal [during the pandemic], I came across an instructive and thought-provoking piece of analysis from an endgame which occurred in the game Wang Hao v. Vachier Lagrave in the Yekaterinburg Candidates Tournament. The author (and my friend), GM Vishnu Prasanna, is not only a gifted player and trainer, but also a fine thinker! Looking at this fascinating game and comments triggered a variety of thoughts in approaching a chess position.

This is the position after Black’s 32...Bc8. As Vishnu rightly points out in the ChessBase India video, Black’s main problem in this position is that his knight on a5 is out of play. Had it been on d6, the position would not at all be bad for Black. But such small differences, sometimes as little as one tempo, can alter a position diametrically.

The key factor in this position that seems to determine White’s advantage is the superior position and activity of his king. White need not actually just to contend with the fact that his king has reached a commanding post on d4, but can even strive to improve the royal monarch's position by rolling a red carpet!

Let us see how the game continued:

33.Nb5 a6 34.Nc7?!

Can there be anything in the world better than winning a pawn without any resistance? Well, if only things were that simple!

Here again Vishnu’s explanation is crisp and efficient. His reasoning is that Black trades off a pawn to improve the position of his knight from a5.

Steinitz, in his Modern Chess Instructor, put forward a view that rook pawns are not qualitatively equal in strength to other pawns on the board as they control only one square wherever they stand, relative to pawns that stand on other files which control two.

It may not have too much relevance here. However, I do feel that White’s knight moves too far away from the critical square of d6, a square which is key for both White and Black (to blockade the mighty passed pawn for Black and to evict the blockader for White). And if in turn, Black establishes a strong blockade on d6, which also means that White’s king cannot be used more efficiently from d4. Just imagine a situation in which White wins the b-pawn instead of a-pawn: this would be immediately fatal for Black, as White’s king would march onward to c5 and further up the board — and wreak havoc.

So, in this position the b6-pawn is a vital link in Black’s setup, which is acting like a dam against White’s king. So in some ways, White does not even need to win the b-pawn, but instead merely coax Black to push it forward one square to b5!

This is perhaps all White needs in this position, as illustrated by the following line.

34.Nc3!! b5 35.Kc5 Kd7 36.Kb6! Nb7 37.Ne4 with a winning advantage

This position deserves a diagram. The visual effect clearly shows the decisive role played by the activity of the king!

If instead Black decides to answer to 34.Nc3 with 34...Kd6 35.Ne4+ Ke7 36.Ke5 b5 37. g4 Nb7 38.d6+, White also emerges with a huge advantage.

Another position from a line which I feel deserves a diagram. Note that the king conquers more dark squares, only this time on the other side.

These two positions led me to ponder, “Isn’t (positional) chess a constant trade-off between control and relinquishment of squares on every move?”

Let us get back to the game continuation:

34.Nc7 Kd6 35.Na6 Nb7 and we reach perhaps the decisive moment in the game.

Here White nonchalantly continued with 36.g4?, which might even be the decisive mistake after which a win no longer exists according to Vishnu.

First of all, it is a bit weird to fix the pawns on light squares while having the light-squared bishop, but perhaps White completely relaxed here and missed the simple response 36...g5!, which not only fixes the g-pawn on a light square, but also the pawn on f3. However, I do not think that the good/bad bishop factor is relevant here. I feel the key to this position is control of dark squares, as White needs to keep a path (on the dark squares) open for his king to conquest.

So, by retaining the pawn on g2, White could have manoeuvred his knight to e3, and then continue with f4-g4 and g5, which would in turn secure the e5-square for his king. And this would definitely retain winning chances in the position.

Thus, the right way to continue was with 36.Nb4! Bd7 37.Nc2 Ke7 38.Ne3 Nd6 39.f4! followed by g4-g5 and Ke5.

After 36....g5 the game carried on with 37.Nb4 Bd7 38.Nc2 and so on.

Here, according to Vishnu, White had an interesting attempt to play for a win with 38.Nc6!? — Vishnu analyses some fine lines. I liked two resulting positions which are fortresses indicated here below as diagrams!

The first diagram is particularly pretty. The team work of the knight on d6 and the pawns on f6 and b6 form an unbreachable barricade against the white king, controlling all the key entry squares. In fact, the black king does not even have that big a role to play with such an impregnable formation of his other units!

Also, one has to bear in mind the role played by White’s own pawn on d5, which blocks the way for his king via d5.

This is the final position of the second game of the Kramnik v. Grischuk match from the 2011 Kazan Candidates, which illustrates the idea clearly.

My musings about this very interesting game are as follows.

  1. The position of the king and its activity are one of the key aspects of the initial position.
  2. The king should not be content to reach d4, but should strive to march onward to c5-b6 or e5 as dictated by the needs of the position and the opponent’s moves.
  3. The colour complex is another key factor — in this instance, White’s control of the dark squares is pivotal.

Or, in short, (positional) chess is a game of trade-offs between control of and relinquishment of squares on every move!

Thanks to Sagar Shah and Chessbase India, who produced the following video, where GM Vishnu Prasanna shares invaluable commentary on the game.

Here is the game below with detailed comments on a replayable board.


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Sundararajan is a chess player, enthusiast and Grandmaster from Chennai, India, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of chess classics.
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