15 January 2016

Read Critically

The Art of the Middle Game (1964) by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov is an often recommended classic. I have the old Penguin paperback edition with an introduction by Harry Golombek, who also translated the book. This book is worthy of detailed study. I have started it on several occasions, but have yet to progress far.

Going through Kotov's "Strategy and Tactics of Attack on the King" (30-79), I get hung up on the first game fragment. One move played (9...R-Kt2; 22...Rb7 in the game score below) clearly loses material. Kotov does not consider alternatives. His book shows why the position after this move is lost for Black. But Black might have played a different move here or on the previous move.

Concerning attacks on opposite wings, Kotov offers a story that might be remembered when chess enthusiasts debate the relative merits of blitz (see "Improving through Blitz").
When I stayed behind at school with my school friends after lessons, and managed to play up to a hundred games in a single afternoon, the strategy was simple enough: I castled on the opposite side in the middle of violent (and mutual) king attacks. Whoever got his attack in first, won. The result was that I acquired an unfailing mastery of those positions where castling takes place on opposite sides, and from that time on I knew how to find my way about them.
Kotov, 32
As he begins to elucidate the principles of attacks on opposite wings, Kotov notes that "an offensive with pawns must be calculated with the same careful deliberation that one uses in assessing a combination" (32). Alas, Alexander Konstantinopolsky's calculations could have been refuted, even though his opponent did not do so.

Alexander Konstantinopolsky - Frank [E60]
Leningrad corr USSR, 1935

Kotov's analysis begins with the position after White's 14.O-O-O

Black to move

Kotov writes:
At the first glance it seems as though Black should arrive at a pawn attack first on the grounds of the advanced White pawns on c4 and b3 and also because he has 'good' pawns. But instead the isolated and scattered White pawns on the King's wing take over the task of destroying the enemy position." (33-34)*
14...a4 15.f4 axb3 16.axb3 b5 17.cxb5 Be6 18.h5

Although White's b- and c-pawns only appear to offer Black prospects for attack, Kotov suggests that Black's g-pawn is an essential target.

18...Bxb3 19.Rdg1 Ra7 20.f5! 
Black has not obtained anything concrete. The pawn on b5 is still alive and kicking; it stands adequately guarded and meanwhile Black's king's position collapses completely. Kotov, 34
White to move


A lesson that Kotov does not elucidate to my satisfaction in this example is the role of piece play. This move looked essential to me because the shattered pawn shield is less consequential due to the the defense of critical squares by White's minor pieces. Testing my belief that 21.Bd3 was necessary, I looked at some alternatives and then checked my analysis with Stockfish.

As it happens, my effort to refute alternative moves here revealed the refutation of White's next move. This refutation is absent from Kotov's text.

a) 21.fxg6 Ne4

a1) I considered 21...Ra1+? and saw 22.Bxa1?? loses for White 22...Qxa1+ 23.Nb1 Ne4 24.gxh7+ Kh8 25.Qd4 (25.Qb4 Bb2#; 25.h6 Bb2+) 25...Bxd4 26.exd4–+.

However, after 21...Ra1+, 22.Nb1± gives White the edge.

22.gxf7+ (22.gxh7+) 22...Rxf7 23.Qd4 Nxc3 24.Qxc3 Qxh1! and Black is better.

b) 21.hxg6 was judged by the engine as the only move offering White equality.

Now White gets the opportunity of spreading confusion in the enemy camp. But other continuations too are of little help to Black. Kotov, 35
Confusion did indeed reign. Perhaps Kotov's choice of this word offers a clue that he understood the unplayed refutation of White's calculated attack.

21...Ra1+!! was not prevented by White's seemingly essential 21...Bd3.

22.Bxa1 is best (22.Nb1 Ne4-+) 22...Qxa1+ 23.Bb1 Nd5 24.Qb2 Qxb2+ 25.Kxb2 Bc4 and the pin on the knight leaves Black with more pieces.

22.b6! (Kotov)

Black to move


This move bothers me every time I go through Kotov's discussion. It should be clear than it loses a rook as well as abandoning the attack. If a rook must be lost, why not sacrifice one for play against the enemy king? After all, the other rook defends the pesky b-pawn's promotion square.

22...Ra1+!! is the correct move for much the same reasons offered in my analysis of the previous move.

23.Ne4 Nxe4 24.Bxe4 Qa4 25.Bxb7
White has already won a rook and Black's attack has still hardly got into motion. It is interesting to note that White defers for so long on the final capture on g6 and that the mere threat of exchanging forces Black to lose a piece. A beautiful illustration of the precept 'the threat is stronger than the execution.' Kotov, 35

25...Qc4+ 26.Kb1 Rb8 27.hxg6 hxg6 28.Bxg7 "and White soon won." Kotov 1–0

*My copy of the book is in descriptive notation. I have converted the notation in quotations to algebraic.

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