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General Apr 11, 2022 | 3:57 PMby FM Yosha Iglesias

The 5 most amazing bishop underpromotions

In the 6th round of the Reykjavik Open, the local Grandmaster Johann Hjartarson failed to play what would have been the most incredible bishop underpromotion in chess history! It's an opportunity for us to discover, or rediscover, the five most amazing bishop underpromotions.

By far the rarest of the four, the promotion to a bishop still happens from time to time in actual games. We can divide these IRL bishop underpromotions into three categories: the "just for fun" underpromotions, the "yes, but..." underpromotions, and the only winning move underpromotions.

For those who prefer watching videos over reading, I explain all the positions in this video on my channel.

1. The "just for fun" underpromotions

You might remember the Caruana-Robson game from the 2021 US Championship. After an 89-move grind, Fabi reached this position.

The former Challenger avoided 90.a8=Q?? Nc7+, but instead of playing 90.g8=Q+, Fabi promoted his pawn to a bishop! 90.g8=B+ and Ray resigned.

2. The "yes, but..." underpromotions

During the 1994 U12 World Championship, Alexander Grishchuk had a 3-pawn-up rook endgame against future FIDE Master and streamer Lefong Hua.

Young Lefong tried the last trick: 66...Rf8!

As taking the rook would lead to a stalemate, Sasha played 67.Rb8! and after 67...Rxb8 68.axb8=B! Lefong resigned. 68.axb8=Q?? or 68.axb8=R?? would have led to stalemate, so underpromoting to a bishop was justified, but Sasha could also have promoted his pawn to a knight...

Does it happen that a bishop underpromotion is the only winning move? If you had asked Anish Giri, he would have answered no.

Mon cher Anish, you might want to read the rest of this article!

3. The only winning move

We will now look at the five most amazing bishop underpromotions that were the only winning move!

5. Chan-Depasquale 1985

After 1...g1=Q?? White could draw thanks to a "mad rook": 2.Rd8+ and, for instance, 2...Kh7 3.Rh8+ Kg7 4.Rg8+ Kxg8=

Neither 1...g1=R?? 2.Rxe3  nor 1...g1=N+?? 2.Kh2 helps. 

Depasquale played the only winning move 1...g1=B! and won the game after 2. Rd8+ Kf7 3. Rh8 Nd5 4. Kg3 Be3 5. Rxh5 Bxf4+ 6. Kf3 Kg7 7. Kf2 Bh6 0-1

4. Reshko-Kaminsky 1972

At the 1972 Leningrad Championship, Reshko and Kaminsky played an instant classic. It's quoted in many great books, like Van Perlo's Endgame Tactics. Reshko avoided the surprising 59.Qf8?? g6#! and played 60.Qe8!. Kaminsky then set a trap into which many players would have fallen. 60...Qb7! 

Aron Reshko found the only winning move 61.a8=B!!

After 61.a8=Q?? Oleg Kaminsky had planned to give his queen with 61...Qf7+!! 62.Qxf7 stalemate!

The stalemate that Reshko avoided

But wait, isn't 61.a8=N? a simple piece-up winning endgame? Strangely enough, it's a drawn fortress after 61...Qa7!

Draw, despite White being up a piece.

The White queen has to guard the f7-square, so there isn't much that White can do. 62.Qf8 Qb7 63.Qe8 Qa7 64.g5 hxg5 65.hxg5 fxg5 66.Kxg5 Qg1+=

In the game, Kaminsky resigned after 61... Qb3 62. Qd7 Qg8 63. Bd5 Qf8 64. Bf7 Kh8 65. Qe8 Qxe8 66. Bxe8 Kh7 67. Bf7 Kh8 68. Kg6 h5 69. Kxh5 Kh7 70. Be8 Kg8 71. Kg6 1-0

3. Kholmov-Ehlvest 1985

Ehlvest's 1985 win against Kholmov is another classic involving a bishop underpromotion. 

In a desperate rook endgame, Kholmov tried 1.Ra1! but Ehlvest was alert, avoided 1...h1=Q?? 2.Ra8+! Qxa8 stalemate, played 1...h1=B! instead and won in a few moves while showing great technique: 2.Rf1 Rh8 3.Rf7 Re8 4.Kc5 e5 5.Kd6 Bb7 0-1

2. Sokolsky-Ravinsky 1938

In his old yet still fantastic website, Tim Krabbé says about this mysterious position:

I have never been able to find the entire game, nor the exact year, nor even its conclusion. The move number is the closest I have been able to come. The position is always dispatched with as '66.a8B and White won.' If he couldn't have won in another way, how he won, or why he should win at all, is never mentioned.

The position is so complex that even modern computers don't understand it! Let me give you some of the ideas.

First, 1.a8=Q? Rc2+ leads to a draw.

Second, 1.a8=N? Rc8! 2.Ra6 Rxa8 3.Rxa8 is also stalemate.

And third, 1.Ra6? Rc8 2.b4 is a draw as well. Black waits for the pawn to come to b6 and play Bc6-a8 to create a fortress. For instance, 2...Rd8 3.b5 Rc8 4.b6 Bc6! 5.Ra1 Ba8=

Sokolsky's 1.a8=B!! was indeed the only winning move, despite the computer showing +5 in the other attempts!

After 1...Rb5 2.Rxb5 Bxb5 3.Be4! Bd3, a key idea is 4.Bxh7+!, avoiding all the stalemates!

The most beautiful line is 1...Rc8 2.Be4 Bc6!? 3.Bxc6 Ra8 4.Ba4! Re8! 5.Ka3! Ra8! 

And here, the only winning move is 6.Re6!! There is no further stalemate with White's rook on e6, and White can safely push his pawn to promotion. This fantastic line was discovered by the Dutch Master Cortlever and quoted by Tim Krabbé. 

This was an extraordinary example, but it lacks simplicity, which is, according to my taste at least, a key ingredient for a perfect combination

1. Hjartarson-Andersen 2022

The most amazing bishop underpromotion that could have been played in a real game is the one that Grandmaster Johann Hjatarson just missed against Mads Andersen.

Instead of 54.e7? which led to a draw on move 89, White could have played the fantastic 54.Qf7+!! and after 54...Nxf7 55.exf7+ Black doesn't play 55...Kf8? 56.Ng6+ +- but 55...Kh7!

Now 56.f7xe8=Q?? Qg2+! is a draw, but White can win with 56.f7xe8=B!! With a rook, a bishop, a knight, and a pawn for a queen, White is totally winning!

Bonus: Boniface-Pugh 1985

‌White to play:

  1. What is White's best move? 
  2. What is Black's best answer to this move?
  3. What is the evaluation of the resulting endgame? 

Write your answers in the comments below!

See also:

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