John Henderson
By John Henderson

The Greeks and the Romans were the first to perform it, and much later on, Shakespeare mastered it by turning it into a true art form. I’m talking about tragicomedy, that literary genre that combines comedy and tragedy, which, much like peanut butter and jelly, are both complementary but at the same time being complete opposites. And tragicomedy, as the late, great Mark Dvoretsky observed, can equally come on the chessboard just as it does on the theatre stage.

Many sections in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual would conclude with a “tragicomedy” or two for light relief between the chapters, examples where the players – often very strong ones – have gone terribly awry. This proved so popular with his readers that the legendary Russian trainer expanded his concept into an entire book, all dedicated again to endgames, with the publication of his Tragicomedy in the Endgame: Instructive Mistakes of the Masters (Russell Enterprises 2011), that went on to become the Association of Chess Professionals’ Book of the Year 2012.

If Dvoretsky were alive today, I can just see him reaching for his keyboard to write about another classic example of tragicomedy that sensationally unfolded at the end of one key game in Round 11 of the 81st Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee – and one that played a big part in potentially setting up for the organisers a dream final round clash for the title between rivals Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri.

Facing US champion Sam Shankland, Giri explains in the video below, that at the end of their game, Sam had a hallucination and didn’t realise the ending with a king on c8 (and not just with a king on a8) would be drawn, so just resigned in a drawn position, failing to spot the the fortress! Remarkably, this isn’t the first time this has happened at Wijk. In 2004, I witnessed at first hand Peter Svidler’s remarkable resignation from a drawn opposite-colour bishop ending against Vladimir Kramnik, when he, too, couldn’t see the fortress until Kramnik pointed it out.

But with Giri’s unexpected win, he now joins Magnus Carlsen in the joint lead going into Saturday’s penultimate round – and with the two Twitter barb rivals set for a dramatic final round showdown, Giri also has the chance to become the first Dutchman to win the premier Dutch tournament title since Jan Timman back in 1985! Like Carlsen, Giri is once again showing a resurgence in his form. Despite his disastrous opening round loss, Giri showed his mettle in the tournament of steel by hitting back with five wins to now not only find himself tied at the top with rival Carlsen but also gaining 14-points to climb up to world #4 in the unofficial live rating list.

1-2. M. Carlsen (Norway), A. Giri (Netherlands) 7½/11; 3. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 7; 4-5. Ding Liren (China), V. Anand (India) 6½; 6. G. Vidit (India) 6; 7. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan) 5½; 8-9. R. Rapport (Hungary), J-K. Duda (Poland) 5; 10-11. V. Fedoseev (Russia), S. Shankland (USA) 4½; 12-13. J. Van Foreest (Netherlands), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 4; 14. V. Kramnik (Russia) 3½.

Video: A delighted Anish Giri explains his unexpected win over Sam Shankland | © Tata Steel Chess

GM Anish Giri – GM Sam Shankland
81st Tata Steel Masters, (11)
Giuoco Piano
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano – one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century – means ‘quiet game’ in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.d3 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Na4 Qe7 7.a3 Black doesn’t fear 7.Nxc5 dxc5 as he’ll have control of the vital d4-square, preventing White pushing for c3 & d4, and also stopping ideas of c3 & b4 expanding on the queenside. 7…Be6 8.Bxe6 Qxe6 9.b4 Bb6 10.0-0 0-0 11.c4 Nd7 Just nipping in the bud any ideas Giri may have of playing c5, pushing the bishop onto the awkward a5 square and out of the game. 12.Bb2 Nd4 13.Nd2 f5 14.Rc1 c5 A strange choice, as the more logical plan was 14…c6! forcing 15.Nxb6 otherwise Black plays …Bc7 with a good game. And after 15…axb6 Black stands no worse with a nice solid game and a more compact pawn structure. 15.exf5 Nxf5 16.Ne4 cxb4 17.Nxb6 axb6 Marginally better was 17…Nxb6 – but Sam is banking on the rooks being traded on the a-file that will help relieve the pressure. 18.axb4 Qg6 19.Ra1 Rxa1 20.Bxa1 Nf6 An interesting try was 20…b5!? 21.cxb5 Nb6 22.Qb3+ Kh8 and it is not so easy for White to make any progress despite the pawn advantage, as Black not only has good central control with his knights, there’s also no easy answer to the subtle retreat …Qe8 picking off the b5 pawn. 21.Nxf6+ Rxf6 The key to Black’s survival here with the handicap of his crippled queenside pawns, is the fact that White’s bishop is temporarily locked out of the game – and it will involve a lot of time to get it back into action. 22.Qf3 Nh4 23.Qd5+ Kh8 24.f4 h6 25.Qe4?! The main reason Sam kept the queens on the board was that he had excellent attacking prospects with his more active pieces – and perhaps Giri was beginning to get a little worried about this, as he now offers a less-favourable trade of queens. But better was 25.Bc3!? Rf5!? 26.Qxb7 (Black’s position is not without resources here, and White has to tread carefully. If 26.fxe5?? Nxg2! completely turns the tables, as 27.Rxf5 Nf4+ picks off the queen and the game.) 26…exf4 27.Rf2 Rg5 28.Qe4 and try to make something of this ending. 25…Qxe4! No wonder Sam is happy to trade queens here, as he’ll stand a little better in the ending. 26.dxe4 Rxf4 27.Rxf4 exf4 Black’s pawns are awkward and weak, and the knight is on the rim – but he does have an extra pawn now! 28.e5! This is Giri’s bail-out, activating his bishop and looking to pick-off the b6 pawn with Black’s knight effectively out of the game. 28…dxe5 29.Bxe5 Ng6 30.Bc7 b5! Doubling pawns in an endgame scenario can come in very useful – as we’ll soon see! 31.cxb5 The best move in the circumstances, as 31.c5 Kg8 32.Kf2 Kf7 33.Kf3 Ke6 34.Ke4 Nh4! the knight returns to the rim to pick off the g2 pawn for a 2:1 kingside majority. That said, after 35.Bxf4 Nxg2 36.Bg3 g5 37.h3 h5 38.Kf3 Nf4 39.Bxf4 gxf4 40.Kxf4 Kd5 41.Kg5 Kc4 42.Kxh5 Kxb4 43.h4 it will likely end in a technically drawn Q v QP ending with both pawns queening – but White will have to work a little more to secure the draw: 43…Kxc5 44.Kg5 b4 45.h5 b3 46.h6 b2 47.h7 b1Q 48.h8Q The Endgame Tablebases tells us this is a draw, but White is the one that has to play accurately to draw it! 31…Kg8 32.Kf2 Kf7 33.Kf3 Nh4+ 34.Kxf4 Nxg2+ 35.Ke5 Ke7 36.Bd6+ Ke8 37.Ke6 g5 38.Kf6 Kd7 39.Bf8 Nh4 The crux of the position is that all the engines tell you that White has to be “winning”, as their assessments say +3.00 to +4.00 – but right now, the engines can’t see over the horizon of a remarkable stalemate save Sam has – and unfortunately, neither can Sam see it! 40.Bxh6 Nf3 41.h3 Ng1 42.Bxg5 Nxh3 43.Be3 The knight is trapped on the edge of the board – but right now, that doesn’t matter. 43…Kd6 44.Kf5 Kd5 The king is looking to get to c4 and win one of the doubled b-pawns. 45.b6 [see diagram] An alternative try was 45.Bc5 but, as Danny King would say in his excellent “How Good Is Your Chess?” column for Chess magazine, give yourself maximum points if you spotted 45…b6!! 46.Bxb6 Kc4 drawing. The hard fact is that the only way Shankland can lose this position is by resigning – and even more remarkably, that is just what he does! 1-0 What an incredible end to the game! But Sam’s pain at least offers us all a very instructive free chess lesson.

The key is a study-like save with 45…Kd6! 46.Bd4 White can go for the knight with 46.Kg4 but this is one of those rare moments in endgames where the extra piece is useless. All Black does is heads for c8 (or a8) e.g. 46…Kd7 47.Kxh3 Kc8 48.Bf4 Kd8 49.Kg3 Kd7 and although the Bf4 cuts the king from crossing to a8, so long as Black just oscillates his king around c8, d8 & d7, White can’t do anything, as the king marching to e7 or e8 comes with stalemate; and if the bishop vacates the h2-b8 diagonal, then the Black king can cross to a8 and another stalemate theme. 46…Kd7 47.Be5 Kd8! again returning to the oscillating fortress theme of …Kc8-d7-d8.


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