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In the Company of Legends, Part 2

This is as far as I want to go in Polugaevsky-Tal, but it’s an interesting position to talk about.

In the Company of Legends, Part 2
by NM Dana Mackenzie on JANUARY 31, 2018

Position after 21. … Rc4. White to move.

FEN: 3q1r2/pb3pp1/1p4k1/3pP1N1/2r2Q1P/8/Pn3PP1/3RR1K1 w – – 0 22

Last time I left you with this quiz position, from the classic game Polugaevsky-Tal, Soviet Championship 1969. What should White play? Even if you didn’t read my earlier post, I strongly recommend taking some time to analyze this position.

One reader, Larry Smith, wrote in to say that he remembered seeing this in Chess Life back in the day, probably in Gligoric’s awesome Game of the Month column. I would love to see what Gligoric said about this game. Another reader, Todd Bryant, wrote in with his analysis. He suggested 22. Qg3, threatening discovered check. I agree with Bryant that 22. … Kh6 looks basically forced, and then Bryant suggested 23. e6! An awesome move!

My first instinct when I read Bryant’s comment was to play 23. … Qc7??, but this is a terrible move that loses the game. More than that, it shows a poor thought pattern that also killed me in my game with Jay Bonin. (Remember that? That’s how we got on the subject of Polugaevsky-Tal in the first place.)

My mistaken thought pattern was this: when defending, try to trade queens. Good advice in general, but you cannot let it blind you to the specific threats in the position. White wins here with 24. Nxf7+ Rxf7 (this was supposed to be the other point of … Qc7 — I strengthened my defense of f7) 25. Qg5+! Kh7 26. Qh5+! Kg8 27. ef+ Qxf7 28. Re8+! The point I missed! It’s a great example of an x-ray attack, where the queen defends the rook on e8 “through” the Black queen.

Instead of 23. …. Qc7, the computer says that Black has to play 23. … Qf6! In one sense this is very natural — Black is defending on the kingside, so it really helps to have the queen there, gobbling up squares. But on the other hand, Black is abandoning the chance to trade queens and get out of the attack easily. And this is an important lesson: Sometimes there is no easy way out.You just have to get in the arena and fight like hell. According to Rybka the chances are equal after 23. … Qf6, but I will skip the computer analysis because it would take us too far afield.

Besides Bryant’s move, another move that demands serious consideration is 22. Rd4! This move, though lacking in “brilliancy,” is in fact the computer’s top choice! As well it should be, because it does remove both the rook and the queen from danger. Black’s most consistent response is 22. … Rxd4 23. Qxd4, and then the point is that Black does not have time to save his knight because 23. … Nc4 allows 24. Qd3+ Kh5 25. Qh7+ Kg4 26. Kh2! with a mating net.

But Polugaevsky didn’t play either 22. Qg3 or 22. Rd4. He played 22. h5+!

If Black takes the pawn, White gets an amazing checkmate after 22. … Kxh5 23. g4+! Kh6 (or 23. … Kg6 24. Qf5+ Kh6 25. Nxf7+ Rxf7 26. Qh5 mate) 24. Qh2+ (Nf7+ also works, but this is more fun) Kxg5 25. Qh5+ Kf4 26. Qf5 mate. One has the sense that White’s position is crashing and burning — one piece down, another piece down, a rook en prise — and yet the queen strides through the wreckage like a superhero and delivers mate with only the aid of a couple of plucky pawns.

Of course, Tal saw all this and played 22. … Kh6! to keep lines closed. The king hunt continued with 23. Nf7+ Kh7 24. Qf5+ Kg8 25. e6! (Once again, this pawn advance is huge.) Qf6!(Once again, the thematic response.) 26. Qxf6 gf 27. Rd2 (diagram)

Position after 27. Rd2 (Polugaevsky-Tal).

FEN: 5rk1/pb3N2/1p2Pp2/3p3P/2r5/8/Pn1R1PP1/4R1K1 b – – 0 27

This is as far as I want to go in Polugaevsky-Tal, but it’s an interesting position to talk about. Todd Bryant’s comment was that he had the impression that White’s attack “fizzled out” in this line. But Polugaevsky realized, back on move 22, that this position is close to winning for White. (Rybka evaluates it at +1.) Black does not have time to rescue his knight. In the game, Tal did manage to win the e-pawn, leading to an even-material endgame, but the position was still better for White because of his outside passed pawn and his more active pieces. Black’s bishop on b7 was a sad sack that did absolutely nothing for the whole game.

The depth of Polugaevsky’s analysis is staggering. Most of us, having played the “Greek gift” sacrifice on h7, would be looking for some brilliant checkmate. Not Polugaevsky. True, there were mates aplenty if Black messed up the defense, but the main point of his combination is just that White gets a better endgame. Can you believe it?

Wow! Now, after all that, let’s get back to the game Bonin-Mackenzie. As you recall, Tal got into this mess because he played 17. … Nc4, and his bishop never got into the game. Your intrepid blogger, knowing nothing about the Polugaevsky-Tal game, reasoned as follows: Well, my bishop on b7 is stuck doing nothing. There is a great “parking spot” (well, I didn’t use that word) for my rook on c5, and that frees up c8 for my bishop. So, why not? I played

17. … Rc5?!?

Position after 17. … Rc5. White to move.

FEN: 3q1rk1/pb3ppp/1p6/n1rpP3/8/3B1N2/P2Q1PPP/3RR1K1 w – – 0 18

Warning: After seeing how the gods play chess, you are now going to see how the not-gods play chess.

I’ve given my move two question marks, because it is in fact a losing move. But I have also given it an exclamation point because it is based on sound positional reasoning. If I can catch a break, and my opponent misses the winning line, then I’m actually back in pretty good shape.

“Catch a break” is exactly what I did. Bonin could no longer play on memory; he had a practical problem to solve and he failed.

18. Qf4 Bc8 19. Re3?? …

Instead, 19. Ng5! wins. The main point is that after 19. … h6 20. Nh7! Re8 21. Nf6+!! is an absolute killer. Black has to give up the exchange. Frankly, a 2400 player like Bonin should have seen this, but that’s chess. It’s not so easy to see a move like Nh7, which seems to be wandering into no man’s land.

After Bonin’s move I think that Black stands better; I’m up a pawn and the bishop is now in a useful place for defending against White’s attack. The game continued

19. … h6 20. h4 Nc4 21. Re2.

This sad retreat shows even more clearly that White’s 19th move was just a waste of time. But now I play another not-god move:

21. … Qd7? (diagram)

Position after 21. … Qd7. White to move.

FEN: 2b2rk1/p2q1pp1/1p5p/2rpP3/2n2Q1P/3B1N2/P3RPP1/3R2K1 w – – 0 22

Jeez, what an awful move. I hate it not only because I made a tactical oversight, but because my whole thought process was wrong. I should be thinking aggressively: How can I capitalize on White’s inaccurate play? Pinning the e-pawn and then piling up pressure on it is a great way to start. So 21. … Qc7 has to be the right move.

By contrast, 21. … Qd7 is just plain ugly and shows a defensive mindset. I still have the attitude that I’m defending against an attack and therefore my #1 goal is to exchange queens. As we saw earlier, I still fall into this bad habit twelve years later — I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

Plus, as I said, there is a tactical problem with my move — and this time, Bonin plays like a 2400 player and spots it.

22. e6! …

Over and over, this pawn break is one of White’s main attacking ideas.

22. … fe 23. Bh7+! …

Of course, this deflection sacrifice is what I missed. Bad strategic thinking leads to bad tactical thinking.

23. … Kxh7 24. Qxf8 Qd6

Still trying to trade queens. I don’t think that there is anything to be gained for White by playing 25. Qf7 or 25. Qe8, so he goes along with the trade.

25. Qxd6 Nxd6

Position after 25. … Nxd6. White to move.

FEN: 2b5/p5pk/1p1np2p/2rp4/7P/5N2/P3RPP1/3R2K1 w – – 0 26

The game enters a new phase. I think that it is still anybody’s game. I have two pawns for the exchange, and the passed d-pawn is potentially quite dangerous. White’s threats are more well-hidden, and in the game I completely failed to appreciate them. I’ll talk about my psychological mistake in this position in my next post, but in a word, I think I lost this game because I believed that we were now in the endgame. In fact, there are still a number of pieces on the board; it is a sort of hybrid position that you could either call a “late middlegame” or a “complex endgame.” Why does this matter? We’ll see in the next post.

To be continued…

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