Breaching the fortress

(Endgame Theme)


Insightful words! By nature we seek security from hostile forces that might threaten us or our way of life. Security in the form of a natural safe-haven: a fortress. We seek this so constantly that we have almost come to BELIEVE that fortresses do infact exist…but military history has shown, again and again, that what ever wall we might construct to keep out the hordes, some clever fellow will eventually find a way to bring it crashing down.

In the context of our noble game of chess, we also want to believe in fortresses. While some do infact exist (chess-unlike LIFE-is, after all, just a game), most of the fortresses we find in chess are also an illusion. Consider the case below:


Having to part with his Queen earlier in the middlegame, Black has managed to build a seemingly impenetrable wall around his King. There are no direct entry points for White’s King or Queen. On top of this, the Black Rook stands sentry around the fortress, cutting off penetration along the e-file as well as along the 6th rank.  In addition, the Rook is protected on e6. Should it have to move, it has thus two avenues of escape. 

Black has, with his reduced forces, achieved a great deal. Unfortunately, it is not enough to keep the enemy out forever!  And the reason is very simple: ZUGZWANG. In the game of chess, the concept of zugzwang is a formidable tool that can be used to reduce seemingly perfect defence to rubble.

How can we bring this about from the position above? In general, during any given game the task is never easy because we have limited time to think. And even if we had more time, chess history about the development of endgame theory is riddled with stories of theorists sometimes spending years to discover the perfect configuration of pieces  that brings about the desired result.

But about 35 years ago,  a theorist (Henkin) found the White piece configuration that produces a Zugzwang position, and  that reduces Black’s fortress to a pile of rubble:



The key to busting Black’s fortress is putting the Queen on c4.  It does not matter who moves first, Black or White.  It is surprising how simple it is to win…

If it were Black’s move, then …King to g8(or h8) loses immediately to Qc8+ and Qxe6! producing a won King and Pawn ending. If instead 1…Kf8 (a tougher defence) then 2.Qc5+! Kg7 (2…Kg8? 3.Qc8+ and 4.QxR!) 3.Qc3+! will transpose into the winning method if it were White’s move to play from the above position, which will soon consider in more detail.  If instead 1…Kh7, then 2.Qc7! Kg7 3.Qc3+! is just the previous comment.

Finally, any Rook move produces no different result: 1…Re1 (or e3 or b6) loses the Rook immediately to a Queen check. And 1…Re7 allows 2.Kd6! Re8 3.Kd7! etc  or if the immediate 1…Re8 2.Kd6! (again) Kg8!? 3.Kd7! Re5 4.Qc7! Re6 5.Qc8+ Kg7 6.Qc4! and there is no defence to the coming QxR!, the Rook not being able to flee in any direction as the Queen will pick it up :



If it were White’s move from the Zugzwang position, then things are just as trivial.

1.Qc3+! Kf8!? (only move that does not lose immediately. K to the h-file allows 2.Qh3+ and 3.QxR!; 1…Kg8 allows 2.Qc8+ and 3.QxR!) 2.Qc8+ Ke7 (2…Re8 allows 3.Qc5+ K-moves 3.Kd6! and 4.Kd7 as mentioned above.) 3.Qb8!


The reader can readily see that any Rook move loses in one or two moves; moving the f-pawn loses the Rook in one move; so that leaves only the King to move: 3…Kd7 4.Qf8! Re7 (forced) 5.Qg8! Kc7 6.Qa8! Kd7. 7.Qf8!


And by clever Queen play Black is completely Zugwanged and loses his pawns.  So, as we see, there never was a fortress in the first place…

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