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GM Ján Markoš | August 22, 2011 – 10:00One Comment | 687 views

It is not so these days, but epidemic was perhaps the biggest disaster in the Middle Ages. When two kings decided to resolve their disputes by weapons, a battle took place on a limited battlefield and a few dozen kilometers away people were still working on the fields and raising cattle, without being interested in any of these wars.

Translated by: Dusan Turcer

But the plague was something different. In the sixth century, the epidemic cut the population of Europe in a half and the next wave of plague in the years 1347-1351 killed a third of people living on the old continent. Millions and millions of souls… And how did it all begin? Nobody really knows, but it was probably a small source, a few infected people or animals. A few infected rats in the hold of the ship – and the result? Millions of dead people.

With all due respect to the victims of epidemics in the past, it seems to me now, that the plague is very eloquent parable of the phenomenon which occurs on the board extremely often. The definition of this phenomenon could be about as follows: The weakness creates additional weaknesses in its surroundings like the infected person infects the others around.

Let’s have a look at the simple example:

Markos – De La Cruz, Germany 2006, White to move:

The source of the infection in the camp of Black is the c6-pawn. It’s difficult to cover it because the black pieces are lacking in space. And so they don’t have a lot of choices: they must occupy the positions from which they can take care of the weak pawn. The fact, that they become immobile and exposed, and thus easy targets, is another matter. Review the game and see what problems the black pieces are getting into:

16.Ke2 Bc7 17.Na2 Bb8 18.Ra6 Ng8 19.Nb4 Ne7 20.f4 f5 21.f3 Nf6 22.Rg1 g6 23.Be1 Kd7 24.Bh4 Rhf8 25.Rga1 Rf7 26.Rb6 Nfg8 27.Rb7+ Ke8 28.Na6 1-0

The final position deserves a diagram. Please note, that Black didn’t lose the game because he lost the c6-pawn, but because he lost one of the pieces in its surroundings – the covering of the weak pawn is a very difficult task, in which the pieces get weakened and distracted until they become an easy capture.

Of course, Black wasn’t defending very well in this case. However, infected pieces caring for the weakness are not arising only after a bad defense – they arise necessarily. Defender can only be correcting the rate of the epidemic.

The biggest source of infection on the board is obviously a weak king. His defense is therefore a top priority. A presence of a weak king on the board can be exploited in a three different ways. Firstly, we exploit the weakness directly, i.e. we deliver checkmate or stalemate. Secondly, we use it as a source to win some tempos – thanks to the checks and threats we are able to move our pieces almost for free. Thirdly, we can exploit the fact, that the pieces defending the king are getting infected by its weakness.

We are the most interested in the third way. Let’s have an example from the highest levels:

Kasparov – Short, Sarajevo 1999, White to move:

Black is a pawn up, but his king looks like naked in thorns. It lacks a natural protection of “cheap” pawns, and it must be therefore protected by valuable pieces. Kasparov played 33.Rh5! and it was proved, that the black queen is also in fatal danger (threatening Rh5-h8+-h7). Short had no choice: 33…Bxg6 34.Rh8+ Kf7 35.Rxc8 Nxc8 36.Rxb7+ Ne7 37.Bxg6+ Qxg6 38.Qb4 1-0

After forced continuance, in which the pieces were throwing themselves in front of their own king like hockey players into the shots from the blue line, one of the pieces paid the price for its self-sacrifice. The knight on e7 is pinned, attacked and cannot be covered. He got infected from its monarch, standing on the next square.

Persons or animals are not the only sources of epidemic. Sometimes we simply fall ill from unhealthy air or dirt in the area. Similarly, on the board – it may not always be that the source of infection is any particular piece; sometimes it is a weak square, a weak rank or an empty space.

Kogan – Markos, Torre delle Stelle 2011, Black to move:

There is more sources of the infection in the position of White. For example, Qf2 is tied to the weak f3-pawn. However, the main germ carrier is the weak a2-pawn and the whole a-file. Just thanks to the weakness of this file the rook on a5 didn’t have a choice – it had to remain in its not too comfortable exile. In his next moves, the Black is focusing exactly on this rook:

31…Qc7 32.Ra4 (Alas, there is no other way. The rook is not happy on a4, but it at least defends effectively. Black therefore decided to exchange that major piece.) 32…Be8 33.Ra6 Rxa6 34.Bxa6 Bf7 35.Qe2 (The queen is like a child now, holding the strings of two kites in her hands – Ba6 and f3-pawn). 35…Ra8 36.Bb5 Qa5 (I played the weaker 36…Rd8) 37.Ba4.

The weakness of the a-file caused that after the rook also the bishop ended up on the a4-square and this piece feels even more uncomfortable here. And the weakness of the bishop (watch, disease is spreading!) provides Black with a very strong 37…Bc4! 38.Qg2 Bd3:

The blood circulation in the White’s camp stopped altogether. Qg2 is still slavishly covering the f3-pawn, Ba4 is out of play, Nc2 is tied and it almost cannot move. Plague epidemic reached its full strength.

By the way, who of the readers noticed that the main problem of the position was just the white knight? It had almost nowhere to go from the c2 and it was acting as a stopper – spoilt the a2-pawn of its natural covering of the queen.

And so: because the knight on c2 was badly placed, the a2-pawn was weak. Because the a2-pawn was weak, the rook and the bishop had to stay on the a-file. And because Ba4 remained on such a bad square, black bishop could slip into the opponent’s camp through c4. This bishop pinned the Nc2 then. The circle was closed.

I strongly hope that I succeeded in today’s story, and that I showed you how harmful a weakness in your own camp is. The weakness is dangerous vector that can infect all the defensive pieces around.

Thus we need to avoid weaknesses like a devil avoids the cross.

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Comments (1)

  • Andy says:

    Something I’ve leaenrd in chess is you have to be active. There’s no use passively moving and defending. You need to go out, try things, see what works, and constantly struggle to move forward on the board. There’s no point to backing down when all that lies there is defeat.I have noticed in life i am a passive player. I need to try actively living it.

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