Lessons from a Single Ending

Mark Dvoretsky

At the chessboard we operate by concrete moves and variations, which arise from our general experience and understanding of the game. To a significant degree, the development of our chess understanding depends on training work completed earlier. In order to make this work productive, it is not enough to memorize specific information. What's important is that one develop chess models, or mental images, from this base of knowledge. The more vivid the images, the longer they will stay in memory -- especially original and deep general ideas, demonstrated in clear, convincing variations.

Many thoughts valuable for our development as chess players are scattered about in game commentaries written by the great chess players. When studying such commentaries, I look at the words even more than the moves. As soon as I see the gleam of an original, interesting idea, new to me in some way, I write it down along with the position in which it is carried out. In the same way, I write down examples that successfully demonstrate well-known ideas in clear and memorable form. Thus I have managed to gather a wide collection of the most varied chess ideas, illustrated by outstanding examples.

By the way, when young chessplayers read a book or listen to a lecture, too often they pay attention only to variations, letting slip past their eyes (or ears) the author's judgment. I am convinced that for this reason they miss a great deal; usually the most valuable information is concentrated in the words. Sometimes it is worthwhile to stop and focus on the simplest, even the most banal things. By going over them and discovering new subtleties, you strengthen your understanding of chess.

Of course, things are more complicated in life than on paper. The majority of commentators in journals and books are superficial, and sometimes simply frauds. One time an experienced master explained to me how he works. If he can hold two fingers to a page of text, and only moves are underneath them, then it is time to put in a comment. He adds something like "The Spanish Game always leads to a complicated, tense struggle" -- and his fee grows by a ruble. Learning to distinguish genuine perceptions and thoughts from such literary chaff will come in handy for you not only in chess.

Sometimes we see the other side of the picture. An author has interesting ideas, but lacks the strength to illustrate them with worthwhile examples. If a grandmaster comments on his own games, as a rule this problem doesn't arise: his general ideas are tightly connected to what is going on over the board. But as soon as he decides to write an article or book on a given theme, the difficulties immediately begin, because suitable material might not be at hand.

I remember leafing through a book by Alexey Suetin called The Path to Mastery (an English translation was published in 1982 by Pergamon Press as Three Steps to Chess Mastery). The titles of several chapters seemed very interesting, for example, "Play by analogy," "On hopeless positions," "The lack of consistency," and "Problems of using time in the choice of a move." These are vital questions of chess mastery. The book would have been excellent if the author had managed to give some answers, but unfortunately he goes deeply into hardly any of these topics. Most of his examples are either bland or superficially analyzed, and for the most part only loosely connected to the theme under investigation. Without adequate analytical material it is impossible to come to any meaningful conclusions. And from where could Suetin get good material? He gave up practical play long ago and doesn't do any real training work. Something, of course, must still be left in his memory -- but he connects to a chapter title the first episodes that come into his head, whether they are relevant or not. Looking at a section, you are curious to see how the author will explain the problem at hand. You read farther and find he doesn't understand it at all; he's just writing in generalities.

Probably the right order for such work is not from themes to examples, but the other way around: from a substantial, thoroughly analyzed example to the general conclusions that flow out of it. In just this way, we will study a classic ending that I offer for your attention -- by the way, it is one of my favorites.

Our inheritance from famous masters of the past is an invaluable resource for self-improvement. It is important not to limit yourself to playing the book variations quickly over the board, but to try to verify and understand them. Then from even a small amount of material you can get a large amount of valuable information.

Capablanca--Alekhine, New York 1924
French Defense C12

1 d4 e6 2 e4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Bb4 5 exd5 Qxd5 6 Bxf6 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 gxf6 8 Qd2 Nd7 9 c4 Qe4+ 10 Ne2 Nb6 11 f3 Qc6 12 c5 Nd5 13 c4 Ne7 14 Nc3 f5 15 Be2 Rg8 16 0-0 Bd7 17 Qe3 b6 18 Rfd1 bxc5 19 d5 Qd6 20 dxe6 Qxe6 21 Qxc5 Qb6 22 Qf2 f4 23 Rab1 Qxf2+ 24 Kxf2 Bc6 25 Rd4 Ng6 26 Bd3 Nh4 27 Bf1 Ng6 28 Ne2 Ke7 29 Re1 Rgb8 30 Nxf4+ Kf8 31 Nxg6+ hxg6 32 Bd3 Rb2+ 33 Re2 Rab8 34 Be4 Rxe2 35 Kxe2 Bxe4 36 fxe4 Ke7 37 Rd2 Ke6 38 Ke3 c6 (D 1)


White to move. He has an extra pawn, but realizing this advantage is not simple. (Remember the half-joking, half-serious aphorism of Tarrasch, "Rook endings are never won.") Let's take a look at the candidate moves in the position. It is useful at the start to look for the larger ideas -- otherwise, you overload yourself too early with calculations, and you miss something important.

The move 39 c5 springs to mind. It threatens 40 Rd6+, winning the pawn on c6. A second suggestion is 39 Kd4, in the hope of getting the king to c5. Still another plan is 39 h4 with the idea of 40 g4, 41 Rh2, etc. The white rook will occupy an ideal position behind the passed h-pawn.

As you see, White has several tempting possibilities. If we are to make a reliable choice, we must consider the opponent's counterplay.

Let's go in order, starting with 39 c5. On 39 ... Ke5?! follows 40 Rd7. In the case of 39 ... Rb4?! nothing comes of 40 Rd6+ Ke5 41 Rxc6 Rxe4+ and 42 ... Ra4. On the other hand, much better is 40 Kf4! with the followup 41 Rd6+. Alekhine showed the best defense: 39 ... Rb5! 40 Rd6+ Ke5 41 Rxc6 (41 Rd7 Ra5 or 41 ... Rxc5) 41 ... Ra5 (D 2),


followed by 42 ... Ra3+, 43 ... Rxa2+ ... With such growing piece activity, Black will not lose.

Let's take a look at 39 Kd4. Obviously the king cannot be let into c5. It doesn't help to play 39 ... Kd6? 40 e5+, so the reply 39 ... Rd8+ is forced. After 40 Kc3 the threat c4-c5 becomes more serious, because the c5 pawn can be defended by the king. Nevertheless, White's idea is not hard to counter: 40 ... Rh8! 41 h3 Rh5 (D 3) (also deserving attention is 41 ... Rh4).


The rook is exceptionally well placed on the fifth rank, where it controls the square c5 (if 42 Kb4, then 42 ... a5+) and is able to attack any enemy pawn. It is clear that White has achieved nothing.

The move 39 h4 still needs to be checked. The answer 39 ... Rh8! suggests itself (bad is 39 ... f5? 40 exf5+). White plays 40 g3, preparing 41 Rh2 and 42 g4. How can this plan be countered? The same maneuver of the rook saves everything: 40 ... Rh5! 41 Rh2 Ra5! (D 4).


Now 42 g4? is unprofitable because of 42 ... Ke5 43 h5 Ra3+ and 41 ... Rxa2+. And on 42 Kf4 follows 42 ... f6, preparing in case of g3-g4 to exchange the opponent's most dangerous pawn with g6-g5+!

By straightforwardly pursuing any of the plans we laid out, White achieves nothing. So how should he continue to play for a win? Note carefully that Black saves himself everywhere by moving the rook to the fifth rank. So let's think about prevention -- let's try hindering the main defensive idea of our opponent.

Alekhine suggests the surprising move 39 h3!! Now in the case of 39 ... Rh8 the h-pawn is not hanging and White answers 40 c5. After 40 ... Rh4, White gets no significant advantage by 41 Rd6+ Ke5 42 Rxc6 Rxe4+ and 43 ... Ra4, but very strong is 41 Rd8! At the same time, Black now has to consider the serious threat 40 Kd4. For example: 39 ... Rb1(b4) 40 Kd4 Kd6 41 e5+, or 39 ... f6 40 Kd4 Rd8+ (40 ... Kd6 41 c5+ Ke6 42 Kc4) 41 Kc3 Rb8 42 c5 Ke5 43 Rd6 with an obvious advantage. It's dangerous to play 39 ... Ke5 because of 40 Rd7. There remains 39 ... c5 40 Rd5 (if 40 h4, then 40 ... Rb4!, but not 40 ... Rh8 41 g3 Rh5 42 Rh2, and the fifth rank has become too short) 40 ... Rb2 41 g4 (also good is 41 Rxc5 Rxg2 42 Ra5) 41 ... Rxa2 42 Rxc5 Ra3+ 43 Kd4 Rxh3 44 Ra5 with excellent chances for White to win.

It is characteristic that Capablanca, a genius of chess intuition, doesn't manage to make the correct decision here. Alekhine is a chessplayer of a totally different frame of mind. A move like 39 h3!! cannot be made intuitively from "general impressions." It can only be found by a concrete investigation of the depths of the position.

Many years ago I helped Botvinnik lead an exercise in his school. At the request of Mikhail Moiseevich I prepared a large endgame exercise for the young Garry Kasparov, which included independent analysis of this Capablanca-Alekhine endgame. Garry found still another method to interfere with Black's bringing the rook to the fifth rank, the move 39 g3!! I like it very much, perhaps even more than the move recommended by Alekhine, because it contains the active follow-up idea 40 h4! And there don't appear to be any minuses. For example, if 39 ... g5, there is the pleasant choice between 40 h4 and 40 Rf2 with the threats 41 Rf5 or 41 Kd4. Further, if 39 ... Rh8 40 c5 Rh5 41 Rd6+ Ke5 (41 ... Ke7 42 Rxc6 Rxh2 43 Ra6) 42 h4 with advantage to White.

Now let's look at how the game proceeded.

39 h4?! Rh8 40 g3 Rh5! 41 Rh2 Ra5 42 Kf4

42 g4? Ke5; 42 Kd4? c5+.

42 ... f6! (D 5)


The main danger has been removed. If 43 g4 there is the answer 43 ... g5+! The game takes on a maneuvering character. Capablanca knew how to put one problem after another in front of his opponent, so Alekhine had to put up an exceptionally careful defense.

43 Rc2 Re5

Otherwise after 44 c5 the rook would be cut off from the kingside and couldn't interfere with White's playing g3-g4 and h4-h5.

44 c5

A double-edged move, but otherwise he can't improve his position. White limits the mobility of the enemy rook, but his own rook will be bound to the pawn on c5.

44 ... Rh5 45 Rc3

Threatening an advantageous exchange of pawns: 46 Ra3 Rxc5 47 Rxa7.

45 ... a5! 46 Rc2 Re5 47 Rc3 Rh5 48 Kf3! Ke7!

Mistaken would be 48 ... Ke5? 49 Ra3 or 48 ... Re5? 49 g4.

49 Kg4! (D 6)


White wants to strengthen his position by Kh3 and g3-g4. How can his opponent counter this plan?

49 ... Kf7! 50 Rc4!

In answer to 50 Kh3, Alekhine had prepared 50 ... g5! 51 Kg4 Kg6. He would exchange the pawn on h4 and shuttle the rook back and forth on h5 and e5.

50 ... Kg7!

White's subtle maneuvers have forced the black king (who must control the g6 square) to abandon the center. Capablanca sees that the moment has come to transform his advantage. He gives back the extra pawn but maximally activates his pieces and drives back the opponent's king to the edge of the board.

51 Rd4! Rxc5 52 Rd7+ Kf8

Not good is 52 ... Kh6? 53 Rf7.

53 Kf4

More accurate is 53 Ra7, because Black could now play 53 ... Rc2!?

53 ... Kg8 54 Ra7 Kf8 55 a4! Kg8 (D 7)


White has strengthened his position and now is ready to take decisive action. The logical continuation of his strategy would be 56 Ke3! Rc3+ 57 Kd4 Rxg3 58 Rxa5 Kf7! (very dangerous is 58 ... Rg4 59 Ra7 Rxh4 60 a5 and with the king cut off on the seventh rank, the passed a-pawn should decide the game) 59 Ra8 (or 59 h5). According to Alekhine Black can hold on, but in any event he would have to defend with extreme accuracy.

Unfortunately, Capablanca didn't want to sharpen the game and chose another continuation that leads to a forced draw.

56 g4?! g5+ 57 hxg5 Rxg5!

Of course not 57 ... fxg5+ 58 Ke3-there's no reason to give his opponent a passed pawn.

58 Ra6 Rc5 59 Ke3 Kf7 60 Kd4 Rg5 61 Rxc6 Rxg4 62 Rc5 Rg5! 1/2-1/2 (D 8)


In this position a draw was agreed due to the continuation 63 Rxg5 fxg5 64 Ke5 Kg6! 65 Kd6 Kf7! (if 65 ... g4 66 e5 Black would have to defend a queen ending) 66 Ke5 (66 e5? Ke8 and 66 Kd7 Kf6 both draw) 66 ... Kg6!

With what theme should we connect the Capablanca-Alekhine endgame? If you think it over a bit, you'll see that there is no single answer. In the process of studying this rough gem of an ending, we uncovered many facets that are all important for the practical player. Let's go over what we found.

For a chessplayer it is very important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent objectively. The opponent's previous games will form the basis for this evaluation. A few of these will turn out to be especially informative.

In the 1920s, Alekhine was preparing himself to duel with Capablanca for the world crown. This is what he concluded after the New York 1924 tournament:
"In this tournament I made one comforting observation, which for me was a true discovery. Namely, that although in the first game with me Capablanca outplayed me in the opening, achieved a winning position in the middlegame and preserved a significant part of his advantage in the rook ending, in the end he let victory slip from his grasp and had to satisfy himself with a draw. This led me to further thinking, taking into account that Capablanca very much wanted to win the game, as he was trying to catch Lasker, who was leading the tournament and the day before had beaten me. I was convinced that if I were in Capablanca's place, I would have brought the matter to victory without fail. In a word, I noted in my opponent a small weakness: the growth of uncertainty in the face of stubborn resistance. I had already discovered earlier that Capablanca from time to time committed minor inaccuracies, but I did not suspect that he was unable to free himself from this deficiency when he was fully concentrating his energies. This was an extraordinarily important discovery for the future!"
Later, in the well-known article "The New York 1927 tournament as prologue to the battle in Buenos Aires for the world championship" which introduced his book of the tournament (see also ACJ 1, pp. 97-98), Alekhine once more underlined the role which this game with Capablanca played for him: "This game, by the way, was the starting point for my understanding of the chess individuality of Capablanca."

I will add a few more of Alekhine's comments on the style of his historic opponent, confirming the conclusions we have already made. They might seem overly sharp, which can be explained by the well-known strained personal relations between the two champions. But objectively, these judgments appear fair to me (of course, only "for the most part," and with the caveat that we are talking about the very highest class of play).
"... Capablanca by no means is an exceptional master of the endgame. His craft in this stage of the game is for the most part of a technical character, and other masters in a few particular areas of the ending excel or excelled him (for example, Rubinstein in rook endings)."

"... In the games of Capablanca one has to notice over the years a less deep understanding of the details of a position, and the cause of this appears to be an unshakeable (I speak all the time of the period before Buenos Aires) confidence in the faultlessness of his intuition. The saddest thing for Capablanca was that his system of playing "good" moves was almost without exception sufficient, because for the most part it was opposed by positionally hopeless weapons. By going unpunished while choosing moves that were not the best, on the one hand he lost the habit of concentration during the game which is the only guarantee against the powerful forces of error, and on the other hand, his self-confidence grew to infinity and crossed almost into self-worship ..."
Not all games you will find in books and magazines are as valuable as the one between Capablanca and Alekhine. But clearly, a single ending can teach many lessons.

Mark Dvoretsky is an international master, a professional chess trainer, and the author or co-author of several acclaimed books (most recently, Technique for the Tournament Player, from which this article is adapted). He lives in Moscow.

This article appears in ACJ 3 (1995), pp. 36-43.

This page last modified on 28 April 2018.
Copyright (c) 1995-2018 Christopher F. Chabris. All rights reserved.