Here’s a question for you. Yes, it’s another pawn ending.

White to move: what would you play here? Make your choice before you read on.

This position arose in a game between Julian Llewellyn (1790) and Eldar Alizada (2001) in the championship section of the recent Berks & Bucks Congress in Maidenhead, with White to select his 34th move.

I wrote some time ago about the important concept of the trebuchet in pawn endings. If you’re not familiar with the term, perhaps you should read this first.

Once you understand the idea you’ll see a trebuchet situation here, with the pawns on e4 and f4 both attacked and defended by both kings.

So it’s going to be a battle for tempo. If White runs out of pawn moves first he’ll lose. If Black runs out of pawn moves first it will, in general, be a draw. The difference here is basically that the black king is further up the board. You’ll also observe that White has a potential pawn break with a3 followed by b4. If he can play this at the right time he’ll probably be winning. So White has four pawn moves to consider here: a3, a4, b3 and h4. If you haven’t already decided on your move you might want to do so now. If you have already decided, you might perhaps want to think again.

Let’s take the four options in turn, moving from left to right.

34. a3? a5!

No choice: Black has to prevent b4. Other moves all lose. Now White needs to stop a4, crippling his pawn majority because of the annoying en passant rule.

35. b3 h6!

Black will only draw if he chooses f6 or h5 instead.

36. h4 h5!
37. a4 f6!

It’s zugzwang: White can either give way or give up.

34. a4? a5

Having seen the previous variation it won’t surprise you that this is no better. In fact 34.. a5, a6 and h6 are Black’s three winning moves here.

35. h4 h5!
36. b3 f6

And we’ve reached the same position as last time, but a move earlier.

Perhaps it will be third time lucky!

34. b3? a6

Here there are two winning moves for Black: 34.. a6 and h6, while a5 and h5 both lead to a draw.

35. a3 a5!
36. h4 h5!
37. b3 f6!

No – it was third time unlucky!

But the fourth way will lead to a draw.

34. h4! a6
35. h5! h6
36. a3!

Or 36. b3! if you prefer

36.. a5!
37. b3 f6
38. a4!

And now it’s Black who has to give way. Fortunately for him, it’s still a draw.

38.. Ke6!
39. Kxe4 f5+!

White’s extra pawn is useless and his king has no way through. You can either agree a draw now or move the kings round the board for the next 50 moves.

Black doesn’t want to allow h5, then, so could try instead:

34. h4! h5
35. a3! a5
36. a4 f6
37. b3!

The same position as last time, except with the h-pawns on different squares, which makes no difference.

It’s all rather confusing, isn’t it?

The way to understand this position is that:

a) White wants to play a3 at some point, threatening b4 and forcing Black to reply with a5, losing a tempo.
b) White wants to play h4 at some point, threatening h5 and forcing Black to reply with h5, again losing a tempo.
c) But if Black replies to a3 with a5, he’s threatening a4, forcing White to reply with b3, giving Black the extra tempo on the other side of the board with h6.
d) Therefore, White must start with h4, and then continue with a3.

If you managed to find the right move for the right reason, you’re a better player than I am.

I’m sure you’re eager to discover what happened in the game.

In fact White played 34. a3, which, I suspect, is what I’d have played as well. Black, who clearly didn’t have a 2000 rating for nothing, knew what to do.

34. a3? a5!
35. b3 h6!

Now, instead of following the line some way above, White, realising too late what was going to happen, switched into desperation mode:

36. b4 cxb4
37. axb4 axb4
38. Kd4 b3

White resigned because he can’t stop both pawns.

Richard James