Missed Opportunities

This position is taken from a game played in Round 5 of the Grenke Chess Classic.

White, the German GM Georg Meier, is about to play his 39th move against Magnus Carlsen.

After 1 minute 28 seconds, and with just five seconds remaining on the clock he decides to play safe: 39. Ra1. The pieces were traded off and he captured the a-pawn to reach a drawn ending.

He wanted to look at something in the post mortem.

39. Rh1 Qe7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh5+ Kg6, and, on reaching this position he realised that he’d missed the second rook sacrifice 42. Rh6+ Kf7 (or 42… Kxh6 43. Qh5#) 43. Qh5+ Kg8 44. Rh8#. Black could avoid the mate by playing 41.. Kg8 but after 42. Be6+ Rff7 43. Rh6 White has a winning attack. In this line Black could also try 39.. Qf7, when White replies 40. Bf5 and Black can’t hold h7.

Unfortunate for Meier: with more time on the clock he’d have found the brilliant double rook sacrifice to defeat the World Champion.

In fact White has two other wins in this position.

One of them is 39. Rh5 with very much the same idea. Now after 39.. Qe7 40. Rxh7+ still works, but even stronger is 40. Be6 threatening 41. Rxh7+ Kxh7 42. Qh5#. Alternatively, 39.. Qf7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh1+ Kg8 42. Be6 wins the queen.

The other winning move is 39. Rf5 Rxf5 (or 39.. Qb8 40. Rxf8+ Qxf8 41. Rb1 with Rb8 to follow) 40. Bxf5 Qc7 (one of White’s many threats was Rh1) 41. Qe8+ Rg8 42. Qe6 Rf8 43. Rh1 and again Black has no way to defend h7.

Three ways to win, and a couple of other promising moves as well (Be6, Rb1), but, with only 90 seconds or so left, it’s understandable that Meier chose a safe, but not winning option. Chess is a cruel game.

Moving onto the next round, let’s watch world championship candidate Fabiano Caruana struggling to hold the ending against Hou Yifan. Hou, playing black, is about to make her 64th move.

Understandably enough, she moves her threatened a-pawn. Meanwhile, chess fans throughout the world, watching the chess24.com engine, realise she’s missed a beautiful win.

It starts with 64.. Kd2 when White has nothing better than 65. Bxa6. Now come two stunning moves. 65.. Nd3+!, sacrificing a knight to undouble the white pawns, followed by 66. cxd3 d4, sacrificing the rest of her pawns to force promotion. Totally amazing!

White doesn’t have to capture the knight, though.

66. Kb1 Ne1 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. Bc6 d4 69. Be4 Kd2 (but the immediate Nxc2 only draws) 70. a4 Nxc2 71. Bxc2 d3 72. Bxd3 cxd3 (but not Kxd3 which is only a draw) and Black will promote with check and win by a tempo.

After 66. Ka2 there are several ways to win. One attractive line runs 66.. Kxc2 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. a4 Kd2 69. a5 c3 70. a6 c2 71. a7 c1Q 72. Bxd3 Kc3 73. a8Q Qb2#

66. Ka1 is similar to Ka2.

In fact, after 64.. a5 65. Kc1 Hou is still winning. The way to secure the full point runs: 65.. Ke2 66. Bc6 Ke1 67. Bxb5 Ne2+ 68. Kb2 Kd2 winning the c3 pawn. Instead she continued 65.. Ne2+ 66. Kb2 Kd2 (going back with Nf4 was still winning) 67. Bxd5 Nxc3 and Caruana managed to hold on, the game eventually being drawn on move 98.

Another missed opportunity, but it’s very difficult for anyone to spot this over the board. For Caruana, as for Carlsen in the previous round, a narrow escape.

These two positions demonstrate just how beautiful – and how difficult – chess can be. Which is why playing it and teaching it, at least to pupils who want to play chess well, is so worthwhile.

A tweet from chess historian Olimpiu G Urcan summed it up: “You really have to feel pity for those who don’t play or understand chess in moments like this”.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.