- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

It is not, in fact, always good to be the king.

In chess, the king is both indispensable and a giant pain in the neck, an entitled, one-square-at-a-time attention hog who needs constant protection and reinforcement. Philidor had his pawns, Janowsky loved his bishops, Spassky favored his rooks — but no one has ever ranked the king as their favorite piece. It’s like saying your favorite athlete on your favorite team is the owner.

The king has just one cool go-to move — the triangulation side-shuffle to gain a tempo — and the lone king vs. king ending is the very definition of Godot-like pointlessness.

Still, there are some rare examples where the king gets to shine, when His Majesty takes the initiative and doesn’t just sit there leading from behind. The brilliantly original Armenian-born Soviet world champion Tigran Petrosian, for example, has a positive thing for the king, often moving his monarch toward the fray in order to obtain a positional advantage. To this day, the world’s top computer programs have trouble comprehending the point and the brilliance of some of Petrosian’s over-the-board regal maneuvers.

The most famous example may have been Petrosian’s victory over the fine German GM Wolfgang Unzicker at a 1960 event. White wins the positional battle in this classic Queen’s Gambit Declined, with Black’s pieces pinned back on the queenside and White’s knight superior to Black’s limited bishop. But after 28. g3 Kg7, Petrosian faced a dilemma: There’s no way to break through on the queenside and a kingside pawn storm would put his own king in danger.

The brilliant solution: 29. Kf1!!, the start of a crazy but inspired trek across the board to a2, after which White can attack on the kingside with impunity. When the White king dashing across open ground finally reaches the b1-square, operations can commence with 41. g4 hxg4 42. Qxg4 Qe7 43. h5, cracking open the pawn coverage around the Black king.

With Black’s piece caught offside, Petrosian infiltrates decisively with 50. Qh2 Bf6 51. Rc8! Rad7 52. Nc5 b3+ 53. Kxb3 Rd6 54. f5! Rb6+ 55. Ka2, and Unzicker resigns after his queen is attacked and White also threatens the deadly 56. Nd7+.

The editors of the famed Russian chess magazine 64 called Petrosian’s play here “one of the most remarkable and ingenious plans ever conceived.”

A more recent version of a king getting off his duff and helping out his own cause came in English GM Nigel Short’s amazing win over Dutch rival Jan Timman at the 1994 Interpolis tournament. We pick up the action from today’s diagram, Timman as Black having just played 30…h7-h5.

As in Petrosian-Unzicker, White here has a strong bind but no obvious breakthrough. And because of the Black battery on the long diagonal, the White knight cannot join the attack (31. Ng5?? Qxg2 mate).

Short realizes the only piece not pulling its weight is his king, the inspiration for a remarkable walk up the board in the middle of the middle game: 31. Kh2!! Rc8 (trying to activate either the queen or bishop gives up the pressure on the long diagonal, e.g. 31…Qxa4 32. Ng5 Qxc2 33. Rxf7 Rxf7 34. Qxf7+ Kh8 35. Qh7 mate; or 31…Bc8 32. Ng5! Bxd7 33. g4 Bc8 34. gxh5 Bb7 35. f3 Qc5 36. h6 and wins) 32. Kg3! Rce8 33. Kf4! Bc8 34. Kg5!, and Black resigns as the White king helps deliver checkmate on 34…Qc5 35. Kh6 Qxe5 36. Nxe6, with 37. Qg7 mate to come.

Petrosian-Unzicker, Hamburg, Germany, August 1960

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bg5 d5 4. c4 c6 5. Qc2 Be7 6. e3 O-O 7. Nc3 h6 8. Bf4 Nbd7 9. cxd5 cxd5 10. Bd3 a6 11. O-O b5 12. a4 b4 13. Na2 Ne8 14. Nc1 a5 15. Nb3 Ba6 16. Bxa6 Rxa6 17. Qd3 Ra7 18. Rfc1 Nd6 19. Bxd6 Bxd6 20. Rc6 Nb8 21. Rc2 Nd7 22. Rac1 Nb6 23. Qb5 Nc4 24. Nfd2 Nxd2 25. Rxd2 Qa8 26. Rdc2 Rd8 27. Rc6 g6 28. g3 Kg7 29. Kf1 Kf8 30. h4 h5 31. R1c2 Kg7 32. Ke1 Kg8 33. Kd1 Kh7 34. Kc1 Kg8 35. Kb1 Kh7 36. Qe2 Qb7 37. Rc1 Kg7 38. Qb5 Qa8 39. f4 Kh7 40. Qe2 Qb7 41. g4 hxg4 42. Qxg4 Qe7 43. h5 Qf6 44. Ka2 Kg7 45. hxg6 Qxg6 46. Qh4 Be7 47. Qf2 Kf8 48. Nd2 Rb7 49. Nb3 Ra7 50. Qh2 Bf6 51. Rc8 Rd7 52. Nc5 b3+ 53. Kxb3 Rd6 54. f5 Rb6+ 55. Ka2 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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