The decline of the Russian schoolboy

At the 1958 Olympiad in Munich, England’s top board Hugh Alexander lost an instructive game against Botvinnik. In a typical King’s Indian position, Alexander answered White’s e4xf5 by recapturing with the bishop, which proved a fatal positional mistake. After the game, Alexander was informed by his Soviet opponents that “every Russian schoolboy knows that Black must play g6xf5 in such positions!”.

The legend of the Caissically omniscient Russian goes very deep.  When I moved to Moscow in late 1992, I quickly came to realise the strengths and weaknesses of the average Russian chessplayer. Playing against them each Sunday, in the weekly 15-minute tournament held at the Central Chess Club, I soon realised that the typical Russian lagged well behind his Western counterpart when it came to opening theory, but was much stronger in other areas, especially typical positional play and endgames. I learnt that in order to beat them (and I outrated the great majority), I had to “do” them in the opening, because if they emerged into a normal middlegame position, they were very tough to outplay, even when rated some 200-300 points below me. Likewise, they were easily my equal, if not my superior, in endgames, and I frequently had  enormous difficulty converting winning rook endgames against them, even when two or three pawns up! All those years of thrice-weekly coaching, at the hands of experienced master players, had taught the Russians a basic understanding of endgames, that many Western professionals would have envied.

Grandmaster Sergey Tiviakov, teaching the next generation of Russian schoolboys (Photo: Chessbase)

Alas, since 1992, “uteklo mnogo vodi”, as they say in Moscow. Much water has indeed flowed, especially in Russia.  The Russian schoolboy of 2011 is not what he used to be, or so it would seem. The decline of this particular species was seen three days ago, when Yan Nepomnyashy, the 2010 Russian champion, and one of the strongest of the younger generation of Russian GMs, lost a basic drawn R+P v R position against Kamsky, in the World Cup playoff:

Play continued  58.Ra6 Rd1+ 59. Kh2

With his king on the short side of the pawn, White has a standard draw. Online commentator Sergey Shipov, who certainly represents the finest traditions of Russian schoolboys, had no doubt that Nepo would hold this without trouble, even in a rapid game, with only 10 second increments per move. For a while, it looked as though this was so.

59…Re1 60. Ra8 f4 61. Ra7 Ke3 62. Ra3+ Kf2 63. Ra4 f3

But now, alas, came a fatal blunder. The simplest draw is 64.Ra2+ (64.Ra3 also draws) and either 64…Re2 65 Ra1 or  64…Kf1 65. Kg3 with an easy draw. But Nepo played

64. Ra8??  after which he was lost.  Kf1 65. Ra3 

The problem is that now after 65.Kg3 Black has time for 65…f2 66.Ra2 Re3+!, driving the WK away.

f2 66. Ra2 Re8 67. Ra1+ Ke2 68. Ra2+ Kf3 69. Ra3+ Re3 70. Ra4 f1=Q 71.Rf4+ Ke2 0-1

No, Russian schoolboys aren’t what they used to be! I jest, of course – playing such an endgame in a QP situation, with a minute or so on the clock, plus 10 second per move, is enough to induce a fatal blunder from anyone, no matter how well they know their endings. But it does just go to show how difficult even “elementary” rook endings can be, and also how costly errors in them can be.

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