20 January 2011

Levenfish's Rook Endings

The January 2011 issue of Chess Life featured a number of great articles, including an 18 page report on the U.S. performance at the recent 2010 Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Following this was a six page instructional article titled 'Vasily Smyslov's Opening Contributions' (USchess.org) by Russell Potter. Interspersed with specific examples of Smyslov's opening inventions were a number of sections documenting Smyslov's other contributions to chess. I especially liked the following.

Contributions To Endgame Strategy: Smyslov recalls that early in his life, he was taught a love of simple positions, endings and endgame studies from his father, who was a player of near master strength. Garry Kasparov and many other grandmaster authorities hold that during the 1950s, Smyslov had no equal in this phase of chess. A common piece of grandmaster advice is to study the endgames that Smyslov played in actual competitions.

One of the most important types of endings are rook endings, particularly those in which each side has a rook and one or more pawns. It is often noted that rook endings are so important because they occur more frequently than any other type of ending.

In 1971, Vasily Smyslov and Grigory Levenfish wrote a book on this very subject that was titled simply, Rook Endings. This book was published in a unique format. Instead of following the format of previous endgame books on rook endings, the authors put little emphasis on whether the pawns were on the third or fourth or fifth ranks, or whether they were on the knight file or the bishop file or the center files.

What was really revolutionary about this book was the emphasis that was placed on the properties of the rooks and kings themselves! The book’s classification schemes were both original and practical. How active were the two kings? How active were their rooks? Where were they in relation to their own passed pawns? To those of their opponent?

Positional draws, counterattacks, perpetuals and even mating attacks abounded throughout the book. Whereas the works of Berger, Fine, Euwe, Cheron and Averbakh had focused heavily on the precise squares, ranks and files that the pawns were on, Rook Endings forced the reader to pay a much greater attention to the dynamic interactions of the pieces. While completely sound instructionally, the difference in emphasis was as unmistakable as it was refreshing. It was at once a more fun read and a more instructive read as well.

To top it off, Rook Endings featured a unique set of 22 rules at the very end of the book. The authors referred to them as "General Conclusions." These well-selected examples could stand alone as an excellent summary guide of the proper way to play rook endings. These "General Conclusions" are so informative that I always urge all of my students to go to the back of their copy of Rook Endings and study these through several times before actually beginning to study the book at its front.

From a chess instructor’s perspective, Rook Endings stands as one of the great historical publications on the practical endgame. Countless American classrooms, Summer teaching camps, chess club study groups and individual American chessplayers have benefitted enormously from this book.

One reason I liked this excerpt was that I had just finished reading Russian Silhouettes by Genna Sosonko (New in Chess, 2009), a book in which each chapter presents an insightful sketch of a different Soviet player (plus a chapter on Capablanca and his Russian wife Olga). The last chapter, titled 'The Summing Up', is about Grigory Levenfish (1889-1961), co-author of Rook Endings. Although listed first on the title page of the book itself, his name is usually listed by others only second after Smyslov's, as in the excerpt above, or omitted entirely, i.e. Smyslov's Rook Endings. The introduction to Sosonko's chapter on Levenfish says,

In the chess history of the last century, with its wealth of events and personalities, his name can be found only in footnotes. Appreciated by rare connoisseurs, he stayed in the memory of only a few people, but not in the collective memory, and today his name is almost forgotten. [...] Lasker and Capablanca considered him to be the strongest player in the Soviet Union after Botvinnik. When remembering him, Smyslov, Bronstein and Taimanov, Korchnoi and Spassky use the epithets outstanding, remarkable, and eminent. Even today, looking back at events of more than half a century ago, they, the champions and vice-champions of the world, the strongest players of their time, speak of him as someone from their ranks. (p.190)

Later in the same chapter, Sosonko quotes Smyslov.

Smyslov remembers: 'Grigory Yakovlevich was a highly intelligent person, but he lived a poor life. A difficult life. In his last few years he came to me with a stack of paper, the manuscript of his book on Rook endings, and asked me to check it. We spent many days under a lamp made of Sèvres porcelain, analysing and talking. [...] I checked his analyses and made corrections in places, but it was he who did all the hard work.' (p.216)

At the risk of exceeding fair use by a country mile, here are the general conclusions in the last chapter of Rook Endings.

  1. The basis of all Rook endings is the endgame with R + P vs R. The inferior side must try to get Philidor's position, the superior side must prevent it.

  2. Having the Rook on the short side and the King, cut off from the Pawn, on the long side in most cases makes it more difficult to save the game.

  3. With the Rook on the short side, attacking the Pawn from behind saves the inferior side if the Pawn is on the 5th or beyond.

  4. The Rook is a long-range piece and can force the enemy King with checks right to the other end of the board. Use this method of defense in appropriate cases.

  5. The difficult ending with the BP and RP pair requires a knowledge of intermediate positions.

  6. A RP on the 7th, defended by a Rook on the 8th and attacked by a Rook from behind, does not win, even if there is a NP on the other wing.

  7. The possibility of sheltering the King from checks in the immediate neighborhood of the passed Pawn (the principle of the flight square) often determines the outcome of the game.

  8. It is better to have active pieces and be a Pawn down than to have passively placed pieces with material equality.

  9. When a Rook pins a King to the edge of the board by cutting it off along the 7th rank, this creates the conditions for tactical operations. Particularly dangerous is the combined action of the King, Rook, and passed Pawn when the King has shelter from checks. This shelter can even be provided by enemy Pawns.

  10. A Rook and two connected passed Pawns generally win against a Rook and passed Pawn. If the passed Pawns have reached the 6th rank there is the possibility of sacrificing the Rook for the Pawn, transposing into a won ending of two connected passed Pawns vs. Rook. However, if the inferior side has a far advanced passed Pawn vs. a RP + NP pair the drawing chances are greater.

  11. With two disconnected Pawns against one passed Pawn important roles are played by the bridge and diversion.

  12. Isolate the enemy's King from your passed Pawn so that he cannot obstruct its advance.

  13. If the King can blockade an isolated Pawn that is guarded by its Rook, this is a considerable achievement positionally. Centralization of the King is the usual strategy in the endgame.

  14. If one Rook attacks a Pawn while the other is doomed to passive defense, this creates a prerequisite for the actively placed side to win. It is not yet the end, but it may be the beginning of the end.

  15. A passed Pawn supported by its Rook from behind means poor prospects for the inferior side if he cannot blockade the Pawn with his King.

  16. A Rook must be behind its own Pawn to push it through to the Queening square and behind an enemy Pawn to hinder its advance.

  17. In the event of an opponent's far advanced passed Pawn being blocked by the Rook, playing for Zugzwang often becomes a factor.

  18. Isolate your opponent's King from his passed Pawn so that he cannot help its advance.

  19. Setting up a passed Pawn often constitutes the only correct method of defense.

  20. Having got the enemy Rook into a passive position, widen the bridgehead for the operations of your active Rook.

  21. If both sides have passed Pawns it is important to force the enemy King by means of checks to take up a position in front of its Pawn, thereby obstructing its advance.

  22. Simplifying a Rook ending with numerous Pawns into a simpler ending which lends itself to an accurate appraisal is an important strategem that must be skilfully exploited in Rook endings.

Each one of those bullets requires further explanation and, along with brief examples in the concluding chapter, there are numerous detailed examples in the body of the book. No.5, on the 'BP and RP pair', takes five full pages of explanation. No.8, on the value of active pieces, might very well be a valid guideline not just for the endgame, but for the entire game. In no.11, I'm not sure what is meant by 'bridge and diversion', so I'll come back to this and other points in a future post.


Later: One of the posts included in Chess Blog Carnival: Coney Island Edition.

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