Masterpieces in a minor key — Joys of positional brilliance
As the great FrancoPolish master Savielly Tartakower reportedly observed, “Tactics is what you do when there is something to do; strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do.”
“Positional masterpiece” is one of those phrases seemingly coined just to drive readers away, describing a game in which the reader is expected to appreciate the brilliance of nothing happening. Replaying a short, sharp battle where a queen sacrifice leads to checkmate is fun; the pleasures of watching a grandmaster, like a dentist drilling at a cavity, laboring to win an isolated pawn followed by a precisely played 43-move opposite-colored bishops’ endgame are a lot harder to define.
Still, while the colors may be less vivid and the drama more subtle, there is much to appreciate in a beautifully conducted positional win, even when there isn’t a fireworks show at the end as a payoff. Check out, for instance, today’s game, from the ongoing European Individual Championship that wraps up Saturday in Minsk, Belarus. Against Russian GM Dmitry Kryakvin, Latvian GM Igor Kovalenko orchestrates a marvelous positional symphony of pawns and pieces, one in which a single ill-judged trade by Black puts him in a strategic bind from which he never escapes.
The English Opening (1. c4) often leads to more intricate strategic play, as White’s first move isn’t a direct claim for central space. Black’s 9. Bd3 Bxc3?! unnecessarily gives up a bishop that Kryakvin could use in the later play.
After 18. Kh1 a6 19. a4 (both sides are still probing for the right time and place to break open a closed position) axb5 20. axb5 Nh7?! 21. Ng1!, Kryakvin would have been better served to preserve his remaining bishop with 21…Bd7 22. Ra3 Qc7 23. Rfa1 Ra7 24. Kg2 Rea8 25. Qb2, though White would still enjoy a slight pull. Instead, after 21… Bxe2? 22. Nxe2 Nf6 23. h3! Nb7 24. Kh2! Qc7 25. f4 Nd7 26. f5, White has not only grabbed more space but also denied either Black knight a path to the ideal d4-square; by contrast, Kovalenko will plant his own knight on the d5-square with devastating effect.
White is positively Karpovian in blocking off all Black avenues to counterplay before finally striking: 29. Nd5 Rxa1 (temporizing with 29… Na5 is overcome by 30. Kg2 Ra7 31. Ra3 Rba8 32. Rfa1 Qb8 33. Qa2 Kf7 34. Nxb6! Qxb6 35. Bxa5, winning a critical pawn) 30. Rxa1 Ra8 (see diagram). Now, instead of a flashy queen sac, we get a perfectly timed finesse that all but clinches the game: 31. Ra6! Kh7 (Rxa6 32. bxa6 Na5 33. Bxa5 bxa5 34. Qa4 Kh7 35. a7 Kg8 36. Qc6 wins) 32. Qa4 Na5 (Rb8 33. Qd1! Qe8 — to stop the White queen’s infiltration via h5 — 34. Nxb6) 33. Bxa5 bxa5 34. Rxa8 Qxa8 35. b6!, and the White queen and knight completely dominate their Black counterparts.
Black desperately seeks counterplay on the kingside, but in the end, it is White who uses the h-file for the decisive invasion: 42. Kg3 Qh8 (hoping somehow for some tricks based on …Kg5 and …Qh4+) 43. Qd2+ g5 44. Qh2+ Kg7 45. Qxh8+ Kxh8 46. Nxf6!, a final deflection that forces Black resignation. On 46…Nb8 (Nxf6 47. b8=Q) 47. Ne8, White wins at his leisure in lines such as 47…Kg8 48. Nxd6 Kf8 49. f6 Nc6 50. d4! cxd4 51. c5 d3 52. Kf3 Nb8 53. Ke3 Kg8 54. Kxd3 Kh8 55. Kc4. Kovalenko-Kryakvin, 18th European Individual Championship, Minsk, Belarus, June 2017 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4 4. Qc2 c5 5. a3 Ba5 6. e3 Nc6 7. b3 O-O 8. Bb2 e5 9. Bd3 Bxc3 10. Bxc3 d6 11. O-O h6 12. b4 Re8 13. b5 Na5 14. Be2 b6 15. e4 Nh5 16. g3 Bg4 17. d3 Nf6 18. Kh1 a6 19. a4 axb5 20. axb5 Nh7 21. Ng1 Bxe2 22. Nxe2 Nf6 23. h3 Nb7 24. Kh2 Qc7 25. f4 Nd7 26. f5 f6 27. Bd2 Reb8 28. Nc3 Qd8 29. Nd5 Rxa1 30. Rxa1 Ra8 31. Ra6 Kh7 32. Qa4 Na5 33. Bxa5 bxa5 34. Rxa8 Qxa8 35. b6 Nf8 36. Nc7 Qb8 37. Qxa5 Nd7 38. Nd5 Qe8 39. g4 h5 40. b7 hxg4 41. hxg4 Kh6 42. Kg3 Qh8 43. Qd2+ g5 44. Qh2+ Kg7 45. Qxh8+ Kxh8 46. Nxf6 Black resigns