“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

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