The Wise Old Master was shown a particularly complex middle-game position, and his students inquired: Who stands better, White or Black?
After a long study, the WOM said, “That depends.”
“Depends on what?” one disciple asked.
“On who is White and who is Black,” the sage replied.
Even at the very highest levels, there’s a very real human element to our rigorously logical game. A player’s skill, fighting spirit and even past reputation can totally alter the “objective” assessment of a given position.
Like, say, f’rinstance, the position from today’s diagram, taken from world champion Magnus Carlsen’s Round 8 game against British GM Gawain Jones at the superstrong Tata Steel Chess Tournament winding up this week in the Dutch city of Wijk aan Zee. Black has just played 16 … Be6-c8, and the Norwegian champ proceeds to drop a piece with the elementary blunder 17. g4?? f4!, cutting off the defense of the unfortunate knight on g5.
Being virtually a piece down with no real compensation to a player ranked 2640 is a resignable proposition — except perhaps when your own rating is 2834. Carlsen eventually managed to win a second pawn, then a third, and when Jones failed to secure his kingside, White even whipped up a powerful attack and took the full point in 42 moves. Dutch GM Anish Giri, also in the Tata field, said the game may have proved Carlsen is “a full piece stronger than the rest of us.”
A classic of this back-from-the-dead genre is the famous game that might be called “Burden’s Burden.” At a Las Vegas tournament in 1992, high expert James Burden found himself with a dead won position when GM Larry Christiansen allowed his queen to be trapped after 16. Ne2 Nd7?? (Qf5 17. Rhf1 cxd5 18. Bxd5 Nc6 is fine for Black) 17. Ng3!, and there’s nowhere to hide.
With 25. Nf7+ Rxf7 26. Bxf7, White’s material edge expands to queen for knight and pawn, and by 36. h3 Ne3 36. Qxf6 Rxd7, Burden’s bounty increases again to a queen for two just pawns. Totally busted, Christiansen reportedly started blitzing out his moves in a successful attempt to spur his nervous opponent to do the same.
Black’s connected passed pawns represents the faintest last ray of hope for the grandmaster, and Burden misses multiple slam dunks that would finally have put the game away; e.g., after 43. Qf6 Kh6, 44. Rg5!, threatening 45. Qf8 mate, is mate in three — 44 … Nh5 45. Rxg6+! hxg6 46. Qh8 mate. By 49. Re1 Rxe1+ 50. Qxe1 f4, Black has finally slipped the mating net and his knight and advancing pawns pose all kinds of tactical problems.
Christiansen’s doggedness and Burden’s understandable nerves — the game attracted a huge gallery in the tournament room — finally turn the tables after 59. Qe4+ Kh2 60. Qf3? (throwing away the win; 60. Qd3 was the last chance to hold the advantage) g4 61. Qe2? (throwing away the draw; White had to play 61. Qxg4 f1=Q+ 62. Kc2 Qf2+ 63. Kb1 Qxc5 64. Qxa4) g3 62. c6 g2 63. Qe5+ (Qxf2 Nxf2 64. c7 g1=Q 65. Ka2 Qc1 and wins) Kh1 64. c7 g1=Q+ 65. Kc2 f1=Q (having lost one queen, Black now has two) 66. Kc3 (c8=Q Qd1+ 67. Kc3 Qb3+ 68. Kd2 Qgd1 mate) Qc1+ 67. Kb4 Qb6+ 68. Kxa4 Qcc6+, and White resigned ahead of 69. Qb5 Qcxb5 mate.
A great fighting effort by the grandmaster and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions for poor Mr. Burden.
Burden-Christiansen, Las Vegas Open, 1992
1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. Be3 c6 5. Bc4 Nf6 6. f3 O-O 7. Qd2 d5 8. Bb3 dxe4 9. Nxe4 Nxe4 10. fxe4 e5 11. d5 Qh4+ 12. Qf2 Qxe4 13. O-O-O a5 14. a3 a4 15. Ba2 Bg4 16. Ne2 Nd7 17. Ng3 Qxe3+ 18. Qxe3 Bxd1 19. Rxd1 c5 20. Ne4 b6 21. Rf1 f6 22. Qh3 f5 23. Ng5 Nf6 24. d6 Kh8 25. Nf7+ Rxf7 26. Bxf7 Ng4 27. Kb1 Nh6 28. Bc4 Ng4 29. Qd3 Rd8 30. d7 e4 31. Qd6 Be5 32. Qe7 Bf6 33. Qe8+ Kg7 34. Qf7+ Kh6 35. h3 Ne3 36. Qxf6 Rxd7 37. Qe6 Rd4 38. Re1 Nxg2 39. Rg1 Nf4 40. Qg8 e3 41. Qf8+ Kh5 42. h4 Rxc4 43. Qf6 Kh6 44. Qg5+ Kg7 45. Qe7+ Kh6 46. Qxe3 Re4 47. Qf2 Nh3 48. Qd2+ Kh5 49. Re1 Rxe1+ 50. Qxe1 f4 51. Qe7 h6 52. Qf6 g5 53. hxg5 hxg5 54. Qxb6 f3 55. Qxc5 Kg4 56. Qe3 Kg3 57. c4 Kg2 58. c5 f2 59. Qe4+ Kh2 60. Qf3 g4 61. Qe2 g3 62. c6 g2 63. Qe5+ Kh1 64. c7 g1=Q+ 65. Kc2 f1=Q 66. Kc3 Qc1+ 67. Kb4 Qb6+ 68. Kxa4 Qcc6+ White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email email@example.com.