A Scrappy Example of Psychology and Luck in an Ending

In the sixth (and final) round of the Pittsburgh Chess Club Championship, I played one of those unfortunately scrappy games I have been playing recently. From an easily winning position, I carelessly threw away the win to reach an ending that (to me) was obviously a draw. However, I kept playing for a win, hoping for a swindle, aided by the fact that my opponent had very little time on the clock and appeared to have spent a lot of energy earlier, and now appeared to be still nervous (indicating that he was not certain, unlike me, that the ending was a dead draw). Our subsequent play was sloppy, to say the least, but I got the win (aided by my incessant blitzing that left him in fact losing on time in the final position), and ended up just catching the leader to tie for first place in the tournament, to become one of two 2014 Pittsburgh Chess Club co-champions. I am happy that I achieved this, but know full well that I got there with a lot of luck in all the rounds that I aim to replace in the future with new skill (for example, every ending that I didn’t do right, I have studied after the fact).

Flaws aside, I think it’s useful to see how, amidst imperfect play, having a possible swindling winning idea is useful, because with luck it might actually work out. We are human beings, not computers, so there will always be some luck involved in human chess. I’d like to think there is a little bit of skill in pursuing a swindling idea, latching onto interesting aspects of a position and trying to make use of them.

In the sport of chess you have to do what you can even after misplaying an earlier part of the game. The swindle involved making moves that were risky or had obvious (to me) defenses, but part of the art of swindling involves trying to guess that your opponent might not see what you see and setting possible traps.

The ending

We reached a position with equal material: Two Rooks and one Bishop and four Pawns on each side. As White, I had a single b-Pawn and three King side Pawns. Black had an a-Pawn and b-Pawn but a fragmented King side with an f-Pawn and h-Pawn. So I concentrated on hoping to make something of Black’s weak King side before Black’s Queen side majority became a factor.

So one observation I immediately made was that perhaps I could make progress by getting my f-Pawn to f6 to make Black’s King inactive, and also to semi-trap it and bring my Rooks over to the half-open g-file, or even to try to win the h6 Pawn. Or try to round up the f7 Pawn. Meanwhile, having the move, I had an opportunity to block Black’s a-Pawn on a7 and artificially isolate the b5 Pawn. So I played Ra6, an active-looking move attacking Black’s h6 Pawn. I did this even though I knew Black could play the simple and effective …Bb6, because I had to try something. I gambled that my opponent would not want to move the centralized Bishop on d4 “backwards” as defense, but would want to keep it there to attack my undefended b2 Pawn. Yes, psychology at work.

I gambled further by not taking the offered h6 Pawn in return for my b2 Pawn, because simplification, even though objectively this was clearly the “best” move, because the “best” move doesn’t mean much if it only reduces swindling opportunities in a dead draw, and again because of psychology: my opponent had not played …Bb6 in the previous move, and probably would not play it again, and therefore would be playing the passive …Kg7 instead. And that happened. And I continued with advancing my f-Pawn to f5.

There was some risk in playing these suboptimal moves: a good defense would have left me fighting on the worse end of a draw. But I needed to win this game, and had plenty of time on the clock, so I was willing to fall back on defending a draw if anything did not work out.

Then I offered to trade our opposite-colored Bishops, by unprotecting my Bishop while moving my Rook up to “threaten” to come to the g-file. There was no real threat, but as I hoped, my opponent eagerly swapped Bishops, thinking (correctly) that this would neutralize the “attack”. However, objectively, the trade only benefited me. I got rid of a strong Bishop and lost my weak one.

A couple more gambles, and I made progress, losing my b-Pawn in return for his a-Pawn but now having one Rook on the g-file and one Rook on the 7th rank. Optically it looks a little scary, but that’s an illusion. Nevertheless, when an opponent is short on time, creating illusions can be useful.

After more passive moves by Black, I achieved my final dream position: Pawn on f6, Rook on a7, Rook on g7, about to win the f7 Pawn. It’s amazing how this fantasy position I had imagined early on actually came about. Still a draw, of course. But Black remained passive, and after a trade of Rooks, we actually ended in a Rook and Pawn ending that was winning for me. Unfortunately, at move 42, with the win in sight, I hastily made a passive move myself (Rg4) that threw away my win. I realized a few move later that the game was a truly dead draw. But I kept playing. A few seconds before his flag fell, my opponent made the only losing move, trading Rooks into a lost King and Pawn ending (two Pawns to one). Tragic, but in this tournament, where none of us were Masters, and endgame knowledge is weak, this stuff happens.

The moral of the story:

  • Endgame knowledge is very important. I’m not going to lie: I’m currently remedying my defects in the endgame (better late than never). I’m tired of displaying my games in which my weakness is obvious.
  • Even if you know an ending should be a draw, press on because you might get lucky.

The annotated game

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.