Author Archives: Valer Eugen Demian

About Valer Eugen Demian

The player - my first serious chess tournament was back in 1974, a little bit late for today's standards. Over the years I have had the opportunity to play all forms of chess from OTB to postal, email and server chess. The journey as a player brought me a lot of experience and a few titles along the way: FIDE CM (2012), ICCF IM (2001) and one ICCF SIM norm (2004). The instructor - my career as a chess teacher and coach started in 1994 and continues strong. I have been awarded the FIDE Instructor title (2007) for my work and have been blessed with great students reaching the highest levels (CYCC, NAYCCC, Pan-Am, WYCC). I am very proud of them! See my website for more information. I have developed my own chess curriculum on 6 levels based on my overall chess knowledge and hands-on experience. A glimpse of it can be seen in my first chess app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/chessessentials/id593013634?mt=8 I can help you learn chess the proper way if this is what you seek!

Piece activity

Piece activity is a positional aspect of major importance in a game. Hugh Patterson has written a very nice article about it back in 2014. You can review it HERE Our chess app also covers it extensively in level 5, lessons 10-14 by looking at how the activity of each piece influences the outcome of the game. One of my latest online games proved to be a good example in that direction. Here is the beginning of it (turn based, 3 days per move), leading up to an important junction in the game:


Black’s last move is definitely out of the ordinary; when something like this happens, it is a good idea to stop, take a deep breath and analyse the position to the best of your abilities. It is easy to see white cannot capture the rook because it would lose its queen. This is the starting point for your analysis:

  • Material is equal
  • Both sides are castled and so far the White king is in more danger because of Ne5 and Rf3 being in close vicinity
  • There are no other attackers on the White castle
  • There are not a lot of defenders of the White castle either
  • If White does not pay attention, a move such as Qd8-d7 could increase the number of attackers and apply pressure

OK, so the conclusion is White must do something to improve the defense of its castle and its piece positioning. Looking at the piece positioning we see:

  • Rf1 and Be3 are in decent position with no better options for the moment
  • Rc1 could be placed better, but doing that won’t help with defending the castle
  • Qd2 could move and have Rf3 in danger of being captured; however a simple look at 18. Qe2 Qd7 19. gxf3?? Qxh3 (see last part of the game below) gives black a winning position
  • Nc3 is capable to get involved and in 2 moves (Nc3-e4-g5) it can spring into action, defending both the f3-square and h3-pawn

On the Black side we have:

  • Qd8 needs at least one move (Qd8-d7) to get into the action
  • Bg7 is very nicely placed, but there are no targets along the a1-h8 diagonal
  • Ra8 is completely out of the game and does not count
  • Ne5 and Rf3 are active but if White chooses the right plan, both could be chased away by pawns

Let’s see how the game continued:

Conclusion: piece activity must be monitored closely at all times. That starts with your own pieces and continues with the opposing ones. At the beginning it could feel like extra burden when the amount of time is so scarce (today’s time controls are a lot less of what they used to be); however if you stick with it, you will get better and realize it helps with planning and decision making. Your games will flow nicely and the moments of blank stares with no ideas in mind will be drastically reduced. Hope you will start looking at it!

Valer Eugen Demian

L-shape Pawn Formation

“Pawns are like buttons. Lose too many and the pants fall down by themselves.”
George Koltanowski

The knight moves in L-shape right? We all learn that at the very beginning and struggle at first to figure out the move. I can go one square to the right and two forward or two squares to the right and one forward? That could be very confusing. Add the other directions and permutations of square choices and you will leave any beginner numb in front of so many possibilities. Do you know of any other area of the game where the L-shape is of importance? If you do and the title of this article gave it away, you have either studied our app lesson 26, level 4 (thank you for that!) or you are a very strong player and have known this for a while now.

Here is a study by L Kubbel to test your knowledge:


It is white to move. What does your gut feeling tells you about the possible result here? Can White win? How about Black? Is it maybe a draw?

As always let’s look at this together to make sure you get it right. Analysis:

  • In king and pawns endgames we always look for passed pawns: each side has 2
  • The White pawns are on the edge and doubled; this reduces their value quite a bit
  • The Black pawns are separated by a file
  • Both kings are in the imaginary square of all opposing pawns, meaning they can stop them from promoting
  • White looks to have no more than a draw; even if it captures both Black pawns, the Black king will easily reach the a8-corner and stop the promotion
  • Black could have a chance to win since the White king must stop 2 passed pawns in the same time
  • If the Black king manages to capture both White pawns, Black will probably win

OK, this does not sound very promising for White. When I worked on the puzzle, the first thing I looked at was how to deal with the Black pawns. The b5-pawn being the closest is an obvious first target. How would Black respond to that? Well, here you need to know about the L-shape pawn formation. That formation helps 2 passed pawns separated by a file fight the opposing king and survive. If that is the case and Black can easily reach an L-shape by playing d7-d6, what can White do? Standing still does not work because Black will capture the White pawns and win. Bringing the king forward though, would result in one of the Black pawns promoting.

Let’s pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and look for options. It looks like you cannot stop both Black pawns. What can you do then? Hmm, if the b-pawn promotes and the White king is on the a-file, we might get a stalemate. That is awesome! The other option with the d-file promoting, it is a clear loss. OK, now you have a plan: capture the d-pawn and run to the a-file; be careful on the timing though (see line C)! Hope you liked it and it got you interested about this important endgame aspect. All left now is raw calculation. Here is the solution to help you out:

Valer Eugen Demian

Sac Or No Sac?

“A sacrifice is best refuted by accepting it”
Wilhelm Steinitz

Tactics decide the game. If you want a simple comparison, tactics are like putting the ball in the net. You need to know what to do when the opportunity is staring you in the face. Do you know what to do? Have you practice enough to firstly recognize it and secondly to take advantage of it? Let’s see how good you are in the following position. The question is: should white sac on h7 or not?

Analyse the position and firstly go with your gut instinct. Gut instinct is most of the times right and it relies heavily on personal experience. Personal experience is based both on the aspects of the game you learned and on direct feedback you got while playing your games. Have you ever looked at this sacrifice from a theoretical point of view? How about playing it or having it played on you? If you did, most certainly your gut instinct gave you the right signal and you got it right. If you did not, it is very likely you got this wrong.

It could be helful to look at position 4 under “Tactics” in my previous article HERE and added below for convenience:


It shows a successful sacrifice on h7. Now what you should do next is compare the two, identifying what aspects in position 4 made the sacrifice successful. Do you also find them in the proposed position 4.1 above? Let’s have a look at them together:
Similarities

  • The pawns defending the castle have not moved
  • Kg8 is the only defender of the h7-pawn
  • Black does not control nor attack the g5-square and allowing 2. Nf3-g5
  • Qd1 could join the attack via the d1-h5 diagonal

Differences

  • White has the e5-pawn (position 4), while the pawn is missing in position 4.1
  • Bd2 controls the c1-h6 diagonal (position 4), while it is blocked for the moment by Nd2 in position 4.1
  • Re1 could come in and help the attack using the 3rd rank (Re1-e3-h3), while Rf1 would require an extra move to do that in position 4.1
  • Bb7 is trapped for the moment by Nc6, while Bc8 has an open c8-h3 diagonal

Now it is time to weigh the above points and formulate a conclusion. Lesson 15 (level 5) of our chess app covers this nicely and if you have gone through it, you will notice rather quickly which one of the 6 needed conditions for the sacrifice to work is not met. That is condition #2:
“#2. The h2/ h7-pawn is defended only by the King and cannot be defended by any other piece in a move”
Kg8 being the only defender of the h7-pawn is met but black can simply defend the h7-square in a move. The sacrifice does not work:

Well, knowing these details makes the difference between winning a game in spectacular fashion and looking like a fool. It is obvious in what category we all want to be, so study these tactics and practice them; your efforts will be rewarded. Hope you liked it and will consider studying tactics closely, possibly using our app.

Valer Eugen Demian

ChessEssentials, Level 5

“We raise Champions!”

Past reviews can be accessed here
ChessEssentials, level 1
ChessEssentials, level 2
ChessEssentials, level 3
ChessEssentials, level 4
App link at the iTunes store ChessEssentials
https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/chessessentials/id593013634?mt=8
The latest release of our app offers now level 5 (reference ratings 1400-1700). It costs $3.99 and it maintains the same format of 30 lessons, 30 puzzle sets and 30 tests arranged in a well thought order. Going over this level helps you build upon the knowledge accumulated so far; if we compare this with building a house, you are now raising walls, higher levels and all extras related to it.
Mates
Lesson 01 starts the level with mate in 3 puzzles, same with how level 4 ended. Good warming up as you might know by now.


Opening
Lessons 02 to 06 are of major importance. They cover one of the most important openings of all time on both sides of the board: the Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD). It is the opening any player must learn and play to understand how tactics flow from solid strategy. They do not just appear on the board out of the blue.

  • Lesson 02 covers the QGD Tartakover variation
  • Lesson 03 covers the QGD Lasker variation
  • Lesson 04 covers the QGD Classical variation
  • Lesson 05 covers the QGD Cambridge Springs variation
  • Lesson 06 covers the Tarrasch defence


Strategy
At this level strategy flows naturally from the openings studied prior to it. The Isolated Queen Pawn (IQP) is a very controversial subject and it has the chess World divided about in half: half of the players like its strenghts and the opportunities it presents, while the other half avoids it because of its weakness. You get the chance to make up your own mind about it, followed by a few lessons highlighting the importance of each piece’s position during the game.

  • Lesson 07 covers the IQP strength
  • Lesson 08 covers the IQP breakthrough
  • Lesson 09 covers the IQP weakness
  • Lesson 10 covers the Piece activity – Knight’s position
  • Lesson 11 covers the Piece activity – Bishop’s position
  • Lesson 12 covers the Piece activity – Rook’s position
  • Lesson 13 covers the Piece activity – Queen’s position
  • Lesson 14 covers the Piece activity – King’s position


Tactics
Strategy can put you in the position to use tactics decisively so when you get the chance, you need to be able to recognize the signs and execute with precision. The basics of some of the tactical procedures have been previously covered and here you get a chance to expand your knowledge.

  • Lesson 15 covers the h2/h7-square sacrifice
  • Lesson 16 covers the g2/g7-square sacrifice
  • Lesson 17 covers the f2/f7-square sacrifice
  • Lesson 18 covers overloading
  • Lesson 19 covers the zwischenzug (in-between move)
  • Lesson 20 covers the underpromotion
  • Lesson 21 covers the counterstrike
  • Lesson 22 covers limiting counterplay
  • Lesson 23 covers threefold repetition
  • Lesson 24 covers the stalemate
  • Lesson 25 covers the zugzwang


Endgame
The aspects covered here are more complicated and it is our intention to help you master them. Do not be afraid and study them with an open mind; in the end (pun intended) you will realize they are easier than they look.

  • Lesson 26 covers the King on the edge
  • Lesson 27 covers the triangulation
  • Lesson 28 covers the corresponding squares
  • Lesson 29 covers various endgames


Mates
Lesson 30 ends this level with mate in 4 puzzles. The training session takes it up another notch in preparation for level 6. Hope you find this presentation interesting and the app worth giving it a try!

Valer Eugen Demian

French Defence – C’est Bon!

One of my previous articles was a French Defence miniature White won in 20 moves after a vicious attack on the castle. You can review it HERE I have been looking ever since for an opportunity to level the balance and show a nice game played by Black; now I have found it. This one is also a correspondence chess game, meaning both sides had time to ponder their moves and plans like in the previous one. The players involved are 2400+ ICCF rated, giving even more value to it.

Hope you liked it! What conclusions can we draw out of it?

  • Black was very focused on making sure his plans on the queen side were applied as soon as possible
  • Choosing one of the main moves 9… Bxc5 proved to be (again) a better option
  • Black’s attack rolled on faster
  • It is not obvious where White went wrong
  • After 18… g6 White’s late attack stalled and his pieces were left in passive positions

If the French is part of your opening repertoire, consider this a reference game you could use in future. You can actually consider both games, the previous one as a clear example of how not to play it. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

Storming the Castle (2)

We all have one or more memorable games or combinations close to our heart to keep as jewels forever. How does your chess jewel look like? Is it a well rounded game where your plans went so well, it felt like your pieces were alive and moving alone? Was it maybe the combination of a lifetime? I have a few of each and I bet you all do have them too. Of course we are just mere mortals compared with Fischer and his “My 60 Memorable Games“; still do not sell your jewels short as they also are shiny and memorable. Teaching chess helps me and you rediscover some of these jewels and display them with pride in front of our audience. They are special because they are ours and also because we can add to them all sort of unique details about those moments and thoughts at the time.

A few years ago I discovered the following jewel from a game played in Heidelberg 1946 between what it looks to be two members of the same family. I do not have much more information on it and if anyone does, I would gladly hear from you and do a follow up article on it. Anyhow, here is the position for you to look at and try to figure out what White should do here to amazingly win the game!


It is an interesting position for sure. Let’s have a closer look at it:

  • the opposite-side attacks situation is easy to see and Black has clearly made more visible progress. The a2-passed pawn is a game changing force, especially because of being supported by the Qa3 + Ra8 battery. Black has full control of the queen side
  • the center is pretty much blocked with Nd4 and Nd5 in perfect positions to help the operations on either flank as needed; White has no time to think about doing anything there given the situation on the queen side
  • there is hope for White on the king side with Qe3 attacking the h6-square and the h5-pawn supported by Rh1; however with Black threatening to trade queens, there is an urgency to find something decisive there

How bold are you? Do you have a flare for vicious attacks and decisive sacrifices? If you do, you should feel right at home here. What piece(s) can you think of sacrificing? Do a quick overview and don’t be surprised of what you will find!

How do you feel solving a 9 moves checkmate? It must feel like Superman for a few minutes, doesn’t it? Come up with this in any way, shape or form (including take backs and help from kibitzers) and you have your jewel for life. Now think about coming up with this in an OTB game. The length of the combination makes it a very hard task. The fact it starts with a queen sacrifice makes it even harder (up from very hard?…) because there is no way you can pick up Qa3 and then some; that means you must reach checkmate! Of course the once in a lifetime opportunities do not come around in easy-breezy situations. What do we learn out of this? The length of a combination could feel like a burden; in fact it isn’t a burden as long as you have a clear goal in mind. Knowing what you need to accomplish is of utmost importance, then you also need will and sheer calculation to keep it going. This time it ends up beautifully. What do you do when it does not work out? Well, at least you gave it a shot. That is worth almost as much as solving it. Like Pink Floyd lyrics say:
Don’t give in without a fight

Valer Eugen Demian

Opening Blunders

“Chess is a fairy tale of 1001 blunders”
Savielly Tartakower

Playing carefully and well in the opening is and has always been important; of course how one does that, it is up for discussion. Back in my junior days players would memorize many a line and a coaching session could include nasty questions such as “at what move should you play Ra8-c8 in the Sicilian Dragon?”. That practice was somewhat understandable with nothing but books and magazines available to keep us up to date with the latest theoretical ideas. Can you believe the rotary phone was the most advanced piece of communication at the time? It did not have many features, forget apps or internet access… The main downside of the memorization approach was (and still is) being in a difficult position the minute your opponent would play something outside the memorized lines; many talented players used that in purpose to get their opponents out of the books and outplay them using pure chess knowledge.

Today it is hard to surprise anyone in the opening; still it does not mean you should give up on trying to do that. It means you should do better research and of course know many ideas and setups enabling you to blend them in different ways to achieve that surprising and confusing position for your opponents. Today’s game is a very good example of that. Black got careless or simply confused of the succession of openings they touched and lost fast. It might not be a lot to look at, but the lessons out of it could be very useful in your opening preparation.

Hope you found it useful. What can we learn out of it? Here is where you can start:

  • Learn opening ideas and plans to be able to apply them as the position requires
  • Do not be afraid to try many openings or similar openings; that would enable you to avoid being dragged into an unknown opening or setup
  • Make sure you learn as many traps and tricks from the openings of your choice as possible; this is two fold: on one hand it teaches you to avoid them and on the other hand you can use them against your opposition

Pay attention what is going on at move 1 and stop doing that when the opponent shakes your hand. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

ChessJournal App

“Record, analyse and store your competitive ‘over-the-board’ games”

This week I am happy for the opportunity to present another app useful for the club player, app called ChessJournal. It is created by Jon Fischer and Matt Lawson both from Bristol, England and it can be downloaded for free at the iTunes and Google Play stores. Jon was kind enough to help me write this article by answering to a few questions. Hope you like it and will decide to give this app a try!

Eugen: A short introduction about you and your team
Jon: ChessJournal App is a passion project started by a chess addicted designer and a chess intrigued developer! Me and Matt both work in the digital design sector and are passionate about product design best practice. Also we are both young fathers and are thus very short on time! When you combine our first two passions with a shortage of time to study, ChessJournal App is the logical outcome! We sat down together and asked ourselves, could we use an app to help club and tournament players study more, learning about their own games in the process?

Eugen: What is your chess story?
Jon: I have been playing chess since I was five years old and hover around the 1800 ELO (145 – 150 ECF). Matt knows the moves and would like to improve but probably needs a better coach than me!

I’ve been an avid club and tournament player in the Bristol and District chess league (in the UK) since 2004. Like a lot of adults I have noticed minimal change in my chess performances over the last decade. Every year the grades come out, every year I’m 145 ECF. Last year I decided to put down my openings books and started seriously studying my own games and nothing else.

  • No openings
  • No ending study or puzzles
  • No tactics trainers
  • Just me and my games

This year (using ChessJournal App) I have achieved my highest ever rating performance of 159 ECF (1892 ELO). An improvement of 98 ELO. Anecdotally I have had feedback from ChessJournal users that they have seen improvements between 65 and 110 ELO points. Obviously I don’t have any hard data on these numbers yet, but the anecdotal feedback is encouraging!

Eugen: Why this app? How did the idea for it come about?
Jon: The concept of ChessJournal started from a love of club and tournament chess and a feeling that the majority of apps didn’t really help amateur players improve. As I browsed through the app store, I felt the majority of apps fell into one of four camps:

  • Play other humans at blitz
  • Tactics trainers
  • A chess database of master games on your phone
  • All of the above!

My problem with a lot of the apps on the market was they either focused on openings, puzzles, master games or five minute blitz. But the majority of chess coaches and masters agree that one of the best ways to improve is through studying your own games and learning where you personally make mistakes. Whilst I love a cracking game of online blitz as much as the next player, it isn’t really helping me make better decisions, learn from my mistakes or understand how my games are won or lost.

Funnily enough, around the same time I happened to read an article on the chess improver blog on the benefit of keeping a journal for the ambitious amateur. As I was reading the article I also happened to be staring at a shoebox of paper scoresheets from my regular attendance at local tournaments.

Thus me and Matt settled on the idea of a “chess players diary” that would enable amateur players to carry and study their own games wherever they go.

We started work on ChessJournal in January 2016 and launched version 1.0 in May last year. We run a lean iterative design and development approach meaning we are always looking for feedback from chess players and factoring in their thoughts as we push to develop the best chess players diary and scorebook available. We learnt an awful lot about what players need from a chess diary in v1.0 that we decided to go back to the drawing board late last year and rebuild the app from scratch.

We officially relaunched ChessJournal v2.0 on April 19th 2017 on both Apple and Android featuring a host of new powerful features such as cloud storage and the ability to set and track personal improvement goals across your competitive chess season.

So far the feedback has been fantastic! We are averaging 4 star reviews and above and we are receiving a lot of lovely emails (and new feature requests) from club and tournament chess players around the world. We have already planned and scheduled the next update for ChessJournal 2.1 and there are more exciting plans in the future.

Eugen: Can it compete with the big and popular guys such as Chessbase, Monroi, etc?
Jon: My initial response is that we don’t want to, or feel we need to, compete with the big and popular guys such as Chessbase. We genuinely take it as a compliment that ChessJournal is regularly used in the same breath as Chessbase!

There are similarities such as the storage and analysis of your own games but after that our focus on self study and goal tracking hopefully helps club and tournament players see the angle and approach that we are taking. ChessJournal is categorically not a database app. If you want to understand the 18th line of a sub variation of the Berlin defence then ChessJournal is not for you. We will never add a five million game database to ChessJournal.

However, if you are a sub 2100 player and serious about cutting out the mistakes, having easy access to your games anytime and easily sharing your annotated thoughts with your club mates and coaches then we feel you will get real value from ChessJournal. ChessJournal is all about your game and no one elses!

I grow tired of hearing 1650 rated players (and I include my former chess playing self in this category) debate the merits of opening lines and their theoretical soundness. The large software players in the market dominate at the elite and very strong club player level where, I agree, that you need to understand theoretical novelties and what different people have played.

I guess what me and Matt are saying is that we believe real chess improvement for the amateur player can come from a focus on your own games and therefore a piece of giant database software is perhaps overkill for a lot of players. But then thats just our opinion…

Eugen: What’s it competitive advantage?
Jon: Its free! Ha ha, seriously I genuinely feel that ChessJournal is excellent value! The app is free to download but to unlock all features (such as annotations and sharing of annotated games) we charge a modest annual subscription fee of £5 / $6 / €6 a year.

A second major advantage is that it is available on both major platforms, Apple and Google Android. We get a lot of positive comments from iPhone carrying club players grateful for the ability to store their games. Because it is cloud based your games can be accessed anywhere on any device. One of my best friends has an Android smart phone and an iPad but his personal ChessJournal is always the same, wherever he is.

The third major advantage is simply mobility. Because it is an app you can leave your laptop at home next time you attend that weekend tournament. We have built in full import and export features for PGN so that a player can input their games when they are at matches or tournaments and still export them to other well known popular chess database software.

Eugen: The app’s best feature is?
Jon: Personally I would say either the goals section of the app or the annotation timelines.

Goals allows a player to create unique targets and goals for their desired improvement across the chess season. They can literally make a goal anything they want but once created they can link important games to them as they move through the season.

The annotation timeline is a feature unlocked with premium membership where a player can create and save variations in the game and annotate key positions. I suppose I am just really pleased with the design of this area in the app and we are in the process of rolling out some even better user interface updates.

We have a solid roadmap of new features coming and are regularly receiving new ideas from the chess community. To finish I would say that in the long term we are aiming to create the ultimate companion app for amateur club and tournament players. This is just the start!

Thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you about ChessJournal. More information can be found on chessjournalapp.com

Valer Eugen Demian

A Poisoned Pawn

“… The notorious Poisoned Pawn arises after 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6, with current theory suggests that the b2 pawn is not too heavily laced with arsenic, but it would be suicidal to enter the line without specialist knowledge.”
Graham Burgess, The Mammoth Book of Chess, 2000 edition, pg. 176

Fischer’s love for this controversial Sicilian Najdorf line is legendary. He was not just a “specialist” but the “guru” of it. People understood that fast and followed their newly discovered guru by playing it often; that is how an opening line becomes popular and players of all levels try to become immortals by finding the next refutation or proof of its validity. The engines have changed the game a lot and one critical aspect is proving a lot of gambits wrong; however a handful of them are still tough to crack and Najdorf, the poisoned pawn is one of them.

Back in 2014 I tried my first Najdorf, poisoned pawn as Black in a correspondence game and we drew it in 25 moves by perpetual and without any novelties or deviations. The chosen line was so well analysed, it made no sense for either of us to deviate and hope to get anything out of it. Today’s game followed a well analysed line as well; what is impressive about it is the surgical positional precision white used to win the game. It is a game played in the ICCF teams Olympiad Final 19th edition, the last edition played by post; a number of games are played by email, but each board (teams consist of 4 players each) has 3-4 players insisting to stick with playing by post as intended. The current standings for the final from where you can also see the situation on each board, can be seen HERE

Have you also been impressed with the positional play by ICCF GM Rufenacht? I think it puts this line under a strong question mark and it does not stop just there; the computer won’t be able to help you a lot if you need assistance. Black did extensive research to get out of the maze and it did not find the Ariadne’s thread; maybe you will but be prepared for a long road ahead. Of course if you find it, it will be published in the following Informator. Please don’t forget to mention who launched you down this quest though; good luck!… If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

“Hodor!”

“We had this meeting with George Martin where we’re trying to get as much information as possible out of him, and probably the most shocking revelation he had for us was when he told us the origin of Hodor — or how that name came about…”
David Benioff

Our minds function in ways we still do not truly understand today and for the forseeable future. If we want a better future, we should change that as soon as possible. This week’s puzzle is an interesting illustration of that. What on Earth could connect in my mind a chess study from 1922 to a well known character from George R R Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Game of Thrones”? Well, on one hand I am a huge fan of the series. It has so much of a real life feeling to it, plus the twists and turns are so unexpected and interconnected, it is hard not to be atracted to it. On the other hand I liked the puzzle the minute I saw it. It amazes me more and more how chess artists from 100 or so years ago could come up with such beautiful ideas and unique solutions; to me they really deserve to be as famous as the top players we all known so well.

Please have a look at the position! The task is White to move and win. Give it a try and then compare your solution and thought process with the one below.


Step 1: Let’s look at it like we normally do and firstly we should remember studies follow a simple rule: all pieces on the chessboard serve a purpose. We can proceed verifying that together with the material situation assessment:
– Ka6 looks out of place
– Kd5 is in a perfect position in the center
– Nb8 looks oddly placed
– Bh4 is going to be important as it is the only piece capable to stop the a3-pawn
– the c2- and d2-pawns give mixed messages: they are in the way of Bh4, but also are in the way of the d4-pawn and Kd5
– the d4-pawn is first and foremost the protector of the a1-h8 diagonal
– the a3-pawn is the key; it is easy to feel that because it is passed and only 2 moves away from promotion
OK, now what can we do with this information? Well, we know we need to win and that means there is no way we can allow the a3-pawn promotion. This is an important observation!

Step 2: how do we stop that pawn? Ka6 and both White pawns cannot do much in that regard. That means it has to be a combination of Nb8, Bh4 and possibly those pawns (somehow) working together to do it. Hmm, that does not sound simple to put together; maybe we can look at simpler bits and pieces like when we put together the edge pieces of a puzzle:
– Nb8 can move to c6 or d7; moving to d7 does not seem to lead anywhere. Moving to c6 though could threaten Nc6-b4+ with stopping or winning the a-pawn. The only problem with that is Nb8-c6 gives up the Knight for free… Can we afford to drop the Knight like that?
– Bh4 needs a tempo from somewhere to get involved because a direct Bh4-f6 is ignored by Black and a3-a2 is deadly; hmm, dropping the knight could give us the tempo we were looking for since after Kd5xc6 the d4-protector of the a1-h8 diagonal is not defended. Oh, that is another important observation!

Step 3: we drop the knight to bring Bh4-f6 into the action. What do we do now after Black brings back its king to protect the pawn? Can you still “see” this in your mind or maybe have it on the chessboard in front of you? One way or another the picture gets clearer: Black cannot come back Kc6-c5 because now you can win the a3-pawn after Bf6-e7+. Black is forced to go back where it was (Kc6-d5). That is good, now we might be able to use the pawns I guess. Playing c2-c3 or c2-c4+ does not help:
– c2-c3 adds another piece along the critical a1-h8 diagonal and that is a killer even if it might get rid of the d4-pawn; you won’t be able to stop the a-pawn anymore and mating a king in the center requires firepower we do not have
– c2-c4+ drops the pawn and the d4-pawn survives as the protector of the a1-h8 diagonal
OK, we need to move the d2-pawn and the only possible move is easy to see.

Step 4: Black moves one step away from promotion and we realize stopping it becomes impossible. What now? Is it possible the solution could involve a checkmate? There is no other logical alternative, is it? In order to do that we need to tighten the noose around Kd5 and c2-c4+ does that. The d4-protector cannot take en-passant because the bishop would finally take control of the diagonal, stop the promotion and together with the remaining d3-pawn could win the game; at this moment we also see Kd5 must step aside in such a way to still defend the d4-protector and that is only possible in one way. Please look again at the position! Isn’t Kc5 now almost completely surrounded? Could you see the following decisive move coming from the most unlikely source? Remember, the goal is to either checkmate or stop the a-pawn promotion. Enjoy the solution.

Did you analyse blindly as you were reading the steps above? Could you follow it up correctly all the way to the solution? If you did, you have a sharp chess mind; keep it up by practicing often. Wasn’t Black’s desperate defence of the a1-h8 diagonal both heroic and tragic in the same time? The a-pawn managed to run away like in the movie, right? Sadly the outcome for the defenders was the same. OK, at least here the feeling we are left with is of joy by solving the puzzle… Hope you liked it. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian