12 November 2019

Annotated Game #227: Lack of an early middlegame plan

This next tournament game is a perfect illustration of a common opening repertoire pitfall, that of not having a good (or any) early middlegame plan coming out of the opening. My opponent adopts a Slav setup as Black, which I should have played more actively against. Specifically, I should have recognized the standard idea of White playing an early Qb3 after Black's light-square bishop is away from the queenside; I've often enough been faced with this on the other side of the board. I hit on this idea later in the game, as well as the e2-e4 push to challenge Black in the center, but the delays mean that Black has fully developed and can more easily push back.

I was lucky that my opponent did not use his central pawn majority in a more effective way, but I still got into trouble after selecting a poor plan of just trying to exchange off minor pieces, which gave my opponent a tactic to win the exchange. I get a pawn for it, though, and successfully fight to tamp down further activity and try to set up a quasi-fortress. I succeeded in drawing in the end, which I felt good about. However, it would have been nice to avoid the whole thing by playing 9. Qb3, with greater piece activity and good play in the center and on the queenside. A lesson for the next time I face a similar setup.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A11"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "89"] {[%mdl 64] A11: English Opening: 1...c6} 1. c4 c6 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. g3 d5 4. Bg2 Bf5 5. O-O h6 6. cxd5 cxd5 7. Nc3 e6 8. d3 Nc6 9. Bf4 {this is of course a good post for the bishop. With Black's light-square bishop away from the queenside, however, it would be more to the point to develop the queen first with tempo, also displacing Black's queen slightly if moved to protect the b7 pawn.} (9. Qb3) 9... Be7 10. Rc1 O-O $11 11. Re1 Rc8 12. Qb3 {now that Black is fully developed, this is no longer effective.} (12. e4 $5 {perhaps it is time to think about challenging Black's space advantage in the center.} Bg4 13. exd5 Nxd5 14. Nxd5 Qxd5 15. Ne5 {forcing a queen trade and regaining a symmetrical pawn structure in the center.}) 12... Nd7 {an excellent, active move.} 13. Na4 $6 {it's already difficult to find something useful for White to do. The idea of the text move is to keep Black's knight out of c5, but Black is now free to start a pawn roller in the center.} (13. Be3 $5) (13. Qxb7 $2 Nc5 $1 {trapping the queen.}) 13... Na5 (13... e5 {poses White the most problems.}) 14. Qd1 Nc6 15. e4 {around here I recognize the danger Black's center poses.} dxe4 16. dxe4 Bg4 $15 {Black's pieces are still somewhat better placed than mine, but his central play has been diminished. Now I need to address the pressure from the Bg4.} 17. h3 Bh5 (17... Bxf3 18. Bxf3 Bb4 19. Rf1 $15) 18. a3 {this is primarily aimed at avoiding Black ideas of activating his bishop with ...Bb4.} (18. g4 {is preferred by Komodo.} Bg6 19. Qb3 {is a more active way to play.}) 18... e5 {now we're back to equality.} 19. Be3 $11 Nf6 20. Bc5 $2 {this was based on a a very uninspired idea of simply trading pieces. It has a tactical flaw, however.} (20. Nc3 $14 {would re-deploy the knight to a more effective spot. White's pieces at this point would be a little more active than Black's.}) 20... Qxd1 $17 21. Rexd1 Bxc5 22. Nxc5 $2 ( 22. Rxc5 {would admit the loss of a pawn and be slightly better.} Nxe4 23. Rcc1 $17) 22... Nd4 $1 $19 {well played by my opponent. Now I cannot cover everything threatened.} 23. Rxd4 {I felt this was a superior way to lose the exchange.} (23. Nxd4 Bxd1 $19) 23... exd4 24. Nxd4 b6 25. Ncb3 Rxc1+ 26. Nxc1 Re8 $2 {allows the opponent back into the game, comments Komodo via the Fritz interface.} (26... Rd8 {maintains the advantage and activates the rook much more advantageously.} 27. Ncb3 a5 $19) 27. f3 $17 {essentially forced. Now e4 is well-protected and the Bh5 is locked out. I felt better about my chances to draw at this point.} Kf8 28. Kf2 {copying my opponent by activating my king, but perhaps it would be more effective to get a minor piece back into play immediately.} (28. Nce2) 28... Bg6 29. Nce2 Nd7 30. Nc6 $6 {this is premature.} (30. Bf1 $5 {preparing to get the bishop into play.}) 30... a5 (30... Ne5 { would be more active.} 31. Nxe5 (31. Nxa7 $6 Nd3+) 31... Rxe5 $17) 31. Ned4 { still neglecting the poor bishop.} Nc5 32. b4 $6 {these sorts of exchanges tend to make life easier for the side that is up material.} (32. Ke3) 32... axb4 33. axb4 Ne6 34. Bf1 {finally!} Nxd4 35. Nxd4 Ra8 36. Ke3 Ke7 37. Bb5 Kd6 38. Kf4 $6 {this prematurely lessens the influence of the king in the center.} (38. h4 $5 Ra3+ 39. Kf4 Rc3 $17) 38... f6 39. Bc6 Ra2 40. b5 {I was happy at this point to get the bishop and pawn protecting each other, making it difficult for Black to make progress on the queenside. Black should be able to use his rook to support play on the kingside, however.} Rd2 41. Ke3 Rd1 42. h4 Ke5 43. Ne2 (43. f4+ $5 Kd6 44. g4 $17) 43... f5 (43... Re1 {would keep the pressure on.} 44. Kf2 Ra1 45. f4+ Kd6 $19) 44. f4+ Kd6 45. e5+ {my opponent could not see a path to victory and had limited time, so offered a draw. I was pretty confident of being able to hold this position if we had played on, now that I have a protected passed pawn on e5 and only one (dark square and out of reach of the bishop) to protect on the kingside, g3.} 1/2-1/2

11 November 2019

Common opening repertoire pitfalls

Here I'd like to explore some deeper and perhaps less talked about aspects of opening repertoire selection and training, from the point of view of how to avoid common pitfalls as an improving player. (Some earlier posts on the fundamentals of repertoire building and tools to use are Openings Selection: Initial ConsiderationsEvolving a Repertoire and Simple Openings Reportoire Database System.) My personal focus is on the type of repertoire that can be used by a Class/Expert player, say in the 1400-2100 range. That naturally reflects my own experience and requirements, although I would expect that most of the below ideas are valid, regardless of rating level. That said, not everything discussed is applicable for grandmaster-level repertoires, which brings us to the first topic:

1. Studying only GM games and lines
This seems counter-intuitive at first - why should it be a problem to study only the best lines? I've come to believe, however, that preparing only the 'best' openings and variations can really hamper your effectiveness as an improving player. Why is this the case?

Primarily, it's because the level and style of play reflected in GM preparation and tournament praxis will not be the same as your own tournament experiences. Even if some opponents occasionally go deeply into main book lines in your favorite opening, this is unlikely to happen a majority of the time. It therefore becomes more important to know how to respond to, and take advantage of, the other moves that can be made by your opponent, outside of top-level theory. This is really the case regardless of the level you are at, but I think it is especially important for the practical results of improving players.

Many times we believe that deviations from theory should be 'punished' at the board, but in fact our opponents are not really making mistakes; instead, they are playing solidly, if not 'best'. In these instances, our opponent is not creating any significant weaknesses to 'punish' - instead, they may fail to prevent us from carrying out our optimal opening plans and piece placements, giving us the opportunity for an easier or quicker path to the middlegame positions we want. (More on the idea of preferred middlegame positions as the real purpose of our openings selection is below.)

Alternatively, our opponents can play more aggressively than they 'should' (in strictly objective terms). These lines - for example, gambits or early flank pawn pushes - will still pose opening problems that cannot be ignored. However, if we are secure in our knowledge of the position, this usually gives us an opportunity to either win material for insufficient compensation, or to inflict long-term positional weaknesses. If you know your chosen opening's themes, ideal piece deployments, typical maneuvers and early middlegame plans well, then you should be able to reach a good (or at least playable) middlegame position, regardless of your opponent's choices.

The problem we often face is that theory books and other resources tend to focus on the 'best' lines (at least what is considered best at the time of publication). These can ignore popular 'real-world' options, as well as fail to explain how to best take advantage of any supposed deviations and inaccuracies. This often is true of materials aimed at master-level audiences, which are the most professional and where conceptual knowledge of the openings is assumed rather than explained. How can we combat this?
  • Use opening resources that contain specific explanations of typical plans and maneuvers, not just discussions of variations. While some of these may be aimed deliberately at Class players who are learning a new opening, such as the 'Starting Out' series from Everyman Chess, others may be higher-level, for example Karpov's How to Play the English Opening. Reviews or samples of the works in question are usually the best way to figure out whether they have enough explanatory content, although it may take some searching. Having specific guidance on plans - for example, something like "here White can opt for a queenside minority attack with Rb1, Rc1 and b2-b4-b5, or instead choose pursue a kingside strategy with Ne5 followed by f2-f4 and Rf3-h3" is also important. Too often we see only generalized principles that are too vague to be accurate and effective when coming up with a concrete plan in the early middlegame.
  • Study annotated games in the opening. A quality annotator will provide comments and insights into positional characteristics, typical plans, and how opening play affects the middlegame. Individual annotated games in magazines, articles or videos are usually not meant to be systematic opening treatments, but they often yield key insights. An annotated game is often used in opening works as a basis for introducing and explaining lines, but you need to be sure that concepts and plans are in fact explicitly addressed, so the game is not just a framework for giving variations. Also, if you can find decent peer-level blogs with annotated games, these can be a great resource, as well as entertaining. They can help identify common mistakes, problems and challenges in the opening below the GM level. The sidebar has links to some of these kinds of resources.
One of the open secrets of growing in chess strength (and gaining rating points) is to identify and study the commonly played, non-theoretical lines that you repeatedly face. These are bound to have certain weaknesses, sometimes serious ones. In the latter case, you can then earn a lot of points by essentially winning the same games over and over, since you already know the best plan and how to implement it over the board. At minimum, even if it does not lead directly to an advantageous position, this type of preparation will give you a pleasant and easy middlegame without much time or effort, while your opponent will have to struggle.

This leads us into the next topic: 

2. Pursuing wrong or unsuitable early middlegame plans
The benefit of employing opening theory is that you stand on the shoulders of everyone who has gone before you in analyzing the moves. Over-reliance on theory, however, has the drawback of not knowing what to do with a theoretically 'best' position once you run out of 'free' moves, even if they have been of the highest quality. The practice of repeating theoretical variations without really understanding the resulting middlegames can seriously retard a chess player's performance and understanding; it was one of the principal reasons I essentially made no progress for over a decade as an adult. Many masters and coaches will therefore recommend focusing your opening study time on common early middlegame positions. I think this is good advice, although you still have to know how to reach them. The opening can therefore be viewed as a way to get to a middlegame position of your liking, rather than as an end in itself.

This makes it doubly important to find and study materials that explain and demonstrate ideas and plans, along the lines of what was mentioned above. Most importantly, you as a player have to understand and be comfortable playing the resulting middlegame. This means 'comfortable' in the sense that you have a good idea about what should be done in the position, rather than necessarily having a peaceful or easy one to play - it may in fact be highly complex or imbalanced. Although I think that 'style' is an overrated concept, it's a fact that people naturally gravitate towards particular types of positions. So constantly setting yourself up for open games, when you really prefer (and do well) in more closed positions, may not be the road to success. On the flip side, if what you really want to do is attack, attack, attack, then often reaching a quiet, maneuvering middlegame is going to frustrate you.

A final important principle is to exercise critical judgment when selecting lines - which really means the types of middlegames that you want. This includes making sure to not blindly accept 100% any 'canned' repertoires or recommendations. If you have trouble handling a particular middlegame situation, perhaps it's a useful challenge that will help grow your chess abilities. On the other hand, if you frequently get into trouble in the middlegame after a particular opening, or don't enjoy playing the positions, then it simply may not be well-suited to your current playstyle in terms of general position-types (open, semi-open, or closed).

3. Over-reliance on engine analysis and evaluations
Along with over-reliance on theory, it is easy to get seduced and sidetracked by over-reliance on our computers' recommendations. As mentioned in Pitfalls of Computer Analysis, it is important to use engines as a tool - and not have the engines use us, which means simply parroting engine lines without understanding them. Engines paired with databases can be profitably used for identifying new possibilities in the opening, and for exploring "what if?" branches in analysis of variations. However, 'final' engine evaluations of an opening line are much less helpful in practical play, especially when there are no forcing plans available (as is usually the case). Do you really want to pick a line that may be 0.1 better on the engine evaluation, but that you cannot play as well practically? That will only lead to worse results at the board.

This goes back to the principle of always being able to answer the question "why?" for yourself, both when playing individual moves and selecting whole variations. What will it do for you, and what are the trade-offs involved versus playing other moves/variations? Your ability to play a position and the results you get with it are the most important factors to consider. It's worth remembering that you would lose every game against a full-strength engine, so what is the point of preparing for it? If you always go for the top engine line, this is essentially what you are trying to do. Instead, craft your repertoire around your human opponents.

4. Not analyzing your own games and evolving your repertoire
The idea of using the study of your own annotated games as the central component of your chess improvement is valid for all aspects of your game, including the opening phase. Your own games and analysis should be the primary driver of testing and developing your repertoire, as it is an experiential process and not just theoretical. An obvious benefit of this process is highlighting common recurring problems with your openings; one of my own examples is Annotated Game #63: Third time's the charm (?)

It's not enough to diagnose a problem, though, you also have to fix it. This usually means researching tweaks to your opening repertoire database when you identify issues in your games. With a database/engine combo this is usually easy to do, although it will still take time to pursue in a reasonably thorough manner. Sometimes more than a tweak is needed, if you don't have anything prepared for a particular variation or opening. Even if you don't 'like' it (see emotional attachments below), if your opponents play something often enough, you'll need to research a middlegame setup that you can be comfortable in reaching. This sounds obvious, but at the Class level one can often find Sicilian players who don't know what to do against 2. c3 or 3. Bb5, French players who don't prepare a line in the Exchange variation, etc.

Self-analysis and repertoire evolution is a constant, continuing process - which is in fact a good thing. Making small updates to your repertoire, while in the process reinforcing the lessons of your recent games, will have a significant cumulative impact over time. This is also much easier than trying to revamp large chunks of your repertoire at once, only based on theory. However, sometimes major new ground does need to be broken, with more of a revolution than an evolution.

5. Lacking enough weapons in your opening arsenal 
Mastery of openings involves experiential knowledge, not just "book" lines. This is evident in relatively minor, but important, things like move-order and transposition considerations; these are often ignored or over-simplified in opening resources. Better ones will point out practical ways to do things like force your opponent into your chosen variations, or to avoid having to deal with particular variations. One common example in the Dutch is starting with 1. d4 e6 as Black if you play the Stonewall, to avoid all of the Anti-Dutch options for White on moves 2 and 3. (Of course, the Black player should have the French in his repertoire if White does and chooses to continue with 2. e4.) Failure to understand and intelligently apply these practical weapons can result in unneeded time in opening preparation, while over the board you will simply be less effective.

On a more macro level, openings selection is necessarily part of your overall game and tournament strategy. I think it is a legitimate choice to focus on the minimum necessary number of openings for a complete repertoire, rather than having multiple systems as White and multiple defenses to 1. e4 and d4 as Black. However, a player ideally wants to be able to go into an opening that will be best for a particular opponent and situation, in order to obtain maximal results. The most critical aspect of this is the ability to select lines that are imbalanced and therefore offer more winning chances, or to go for solid but more balanced positions. This requirement sometimes can be satisfied by preparing alternate variations within a single opening, but not always, depending on how you match up with your opponent.

In the broadest sense, mastering different openings can only be good for your chess, since you build up understanding of different position-types and a deeper understanding of middlegame and endgame concepts and how they relate to the opening. This is more of a long-term investment, however, as it is extremely common to lose more games initially when playing a new opening, reflecting the experiential component of practical knowledge. If you are willing to suffer on the front end, though, eventually you should raise your ceiling and be stronger in the long term.

6. Emotional attachment to openings
What happens when a player becomes unreasonably attached to specific openings, or particular ideas within them? First of all, the growth process described above is not allowed to happen, so it ends up being a limiting factor for an improving player. Mis-alignments in style can also occur, as what one 'likes' to do may not be what actually works for them, at least at their current level of ability. If your tactical skills are currently poor (let's be kind and say 'under-developed'), but you always try for a Sicilian Dragon as Black, then it's not going to end well. Conversely, if you love flank openings, but lack the ability to identify and exploit positional weaknesses or endgame advantages, your results will suffer.

Sometimes this sort of emotional blockage can even extend to move choices within in opening, as described in my case in Annotated Game #2. One should not eliminate the option of playing e2-e4 just because you no longer like playing king pawn openings, is the moral of the story. Another variation of this unwillingness to vary from set patterns, I would argue, is a slavish devotion to 'system' openings where the exact same thing is played every time for a relatively long move sequence, regardless of the opponent or situation. This is not to say that they are necessarily objectively bad or losing, but if you try nothing else, you will not get optimal results in your games or, in the long run, your chess.

In the end, openings are a tool for you, so don't put yourself in the position of being a slave to them. Make them work for you, which includes evolving your repertoire over time and sometimes shaking it up to better your chess. Mastering opening weapons takes time and effort, but will bring satisfaction and better results in the end. 

08 November 2019

Annotated Game #226: This is not the Dutch you're looking for

This second-round tournament game features an Anglo-Dutch, a fancy way of saying that Black responds to my English Opening with a standard Dutch Defense setup. This is not necessarily a bad way to play for Black, but most Dutch players have a significantly more difficult time in coming up with a plan that doesn't involve use of the e4 square, which in this line is taken away by White after 7. d3. So it's not the Dutch they are normally looking for. I have much better results than average in this line and am happy to see it on the board.

My opponent actually does a decent job of pursuing his own goals on the kingside even without the e4 square, including the aggressive plan with 14...f4, which is good enough for equality. For my side, the main lesson out of the opening is to continue pressing on the queenside whenever possible, for example with 11.a4, rather than get distracted. The resulting middlegame evolution is interesting. I manage to draw Black's fangs on the kingside, even if I also end up liquidating my queenside space advantage. The result is a much more open game, which Black tries to take advantage of by snatching a central pawn with his queen. However, I get his c-pawn in return, along with a monster centralized bishop and the initiative.

My opponent, under pressure, neglects to see the net closing in around his queen and misses a backwards bishop move that traps it. (See also Annotated Game #218 and Annotated Game #221 for examples of this phenomenon.) So in this particular 9-game stretch, I won 3 games using this kind of tactic. I think the moral of the story is that it's more difficult in general to visualize backwards moves by pieces. That said, I was very much alive to the possibility and consciously played move 25 with the idea of taking away the Black queen's remaining squares.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "63"] {[%mdl 8192] A10: English Opening: Unusual Replies for Black} 1. c4 f5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 e6 4. g3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O d6 {the Classical Dutch setup.} 7. d3 {this keeps the game in English Opening territory. The important point for a Dutch is that the square e4 is no longer available to Black, taking away the usual ideas with ...Ne4.} Nc6 8. Rb1 {proceeding with the typical queenside expansion plan for White.} e5 {no reason not to grab space in the center, although without a pawn on d4 the dynamics are different, as no tension is immediately created.} 9. b4 Qe8 {continuing with standard Dutch motifs, with the idea of transferring the queen to the kingside. This also clears d8 for a knight retreat, as we see after} 10. b5 Nd8 11. Nd2 $146 {not a bad move, but perhaps not the most challenging to meet. The idea is to clear the long diagonal for the Bg2 and reinforce e4.} (11. a4 {is the move most played here and also favored by Komodo. This is a logical follow-up and prepares to either support b5 or advance further.}) 11... Ne6 12. e3 {this is usually a big help for White in meeting Black's kingside expansion plans, both guarding d4 and preparing to exchange on f4 and open the e-file for White.} Ng4 {Black prepares the advance f4, comments Komodo via the Fritz interface. There is also the idea of ...Qh4 to target h2, which is why I played the next move. Komodo assesses I can just ignore this, however.} 13. h3 {this pushes the knight back and controls g4, which is good. However, the h-pawn can sometimes become a target, so has to be watched carefully.} (13. a4 {is still the engine recommendation.} Qh5 $6 {is premature here, as after} 14. h3 Nf6 15. Qxh5 Nxh5 {Black doesn't have much prospect for a kingside attack and White's advantage on the queenside becomes more pronounced.}) 13... Nf6 14. Bb2 {the placement of the dark-square bishop is somewhat problematic, since e3 has already closed off its home diagonal, and it is in the way of other pieces on either b2 or a3. } f4 {the aggressive choice.} (14... a6) 15. exf4 exf4 16. Nd5 {this is often a thematic move in the English, but here it's not ideal.} (16. Re1 {would do better to take advantage of the opening of the e-file, which can be better used by the rook than the f-file.} fxg3 17. fxg3 Qg6 18. Kh2 $14) 16... Nxd5 $11 17. Bxd5 c6 18. bxc6 bxc6 19. Bg2 {White's space advantage on the queenside has now evaporated and the position is more balanced.} fxg3 20. fxg3 Qg6 21. Rxf8+ {I thought it was better to reduce the number of Black pieces on the kingside first.} Bxf8 22. Kh2 {the king is huddled together with the bishop behind the reduced pawn wall, but is still safe, as long as White is careful.} Qxd3 $2 (22... Bd7 {developing the bishop and protecting c6 looks equal.}) 23. Bxc6 $18 Rb8 24. Bd5 {now Black has major problems, as White's light-square bishop becomes dominant and the initiative is with White, especially after the pin on the Ne6. Black's queen is centralized but is effectively misplaced, with no pieces available to coordinate with it; it also has relatively few squares to go to, being surrounded by White pieces.} Rb6 25. Qe1 {this obviously pressures the Ne6 further, but more subtly also takes away e3 from the Black queen. Black needs to get his queen out of there now.} Kh8 $2 {dropping the queen, by missing the backwards bishop move.} (25... Qg6 $18) 26. Be4 Qxb1 27. Qxb1 {at this point White has queen for rook and all of the positional pluses, so the win is without difficulty.} Nc5 28. Qc2 (28. Qf1 $5) 28... Be7 29. Nb3 Nxe4 30. Qxe4 Rb7 31. Bd4 Kg8 32. Qc6 {forking the rook and bishop, a situation which continues after ...Rb8 and Qc7.} 1-0

06 November 2019

Video completed: The Stonewall Dutch - A Fighting Repertoire against 1.d4

This five-hour ChessBase FritzTrainer from GM Erwin L'Ami is the most thorough video treatment of the Stonewall Dutch that I've come across, as is reflected by the below contents list. I wanted to continue focusing on recent related opening studies and get deeper on the Stonewall ideas, so finally opened the DVD in my chess library.

Normally I'd provide commentary on each section, but doing that for 30 of them would be too much. Instead I'll offer the following summary observations:
  • It starts with a typical intro to the Stonewall, noting the characteristic pawn formation (f5-e6-d5-c6), the standard move 6 position after White fianchettoes the light-square bishop, and stating that the Modern Stonewall (with 6...Bd6 instead of the old ...Be7) is what will be focused on. GM L'Ami does bring some personal perspective, talking about how he has had difficulty facing it as White and commenting on its contemporary relevance, including citing its use by Carlsen at the top level.
  • L'Ami states that the opening is more about ideas than theory (which is a Stonewall trope) and uses the first sections of the video to look at typical maneuvers and ideas. This is actually very helpful rather than being a cop-out, as these ideas do in fact recur over a number of different variations and setups, and it's often a matter of judgment or even just personal preference when to go with them.
  • The introduction of the classic light-square bishop development maneuver (Bd7-e8-h5) is illustrative of this, as L'Ami goes through three different iterations of it in the main line with a dark square bishop exchange, ending with one which illustrates why White is considered better and the bishop plan is not good for Black in that line. He explains that different lines will require different plans for the light-square bishop (classic development, modern fianchetto, or remaining on c8). While this may seem obvious, this is a point that can often be fudged or unclear, and players can get attached to one plan or another in all situations.
  • An examination of the strategic idea of dissolving the Stonewall pawn formation by ...dxc4 followed by ...c5 or ...e5 breaks is very welcome. L'Ami shows examples of where it is objectively best (including a Giri-Carlsen game) and where it is not, although Black obtains practical chances. This underlines the need to play flexibly and not get mentally trapped by preconceived ideas of "always do this" in the Stonewall, which leads to stereotypical plans played by rote.
  • Another typical idea for Black is ...h6 then ...g5, especially useful in lines with a White knight on h3 that will get shut in afterwards. Again it is a matter of timing and whether Black can follow up effectively, taking into account White's ability to disrupt things in the center in reaction. From my own first impressions with the Stonewall, reinforced by the video examples, Black needs to have his pieces reasonably well-developed, at least in comparison with his opponent, before playing this. It was also eye-opening to see this idea played in one game, followed by a Black offensive on the queenside.
  • The examination of the White idea of exchanging cxd5 highlights critical factors such as whether Black can take with the e- or c-pawns (preferably the e-pawn normally) and the weakness on c6 created by ...b6, which White can often exploit on the c-file.
  • In the theory sections, L'Ami does a valuable service by not just presenting a canned repertoire for Black, but running through major options for both sides, including ones that have been tried and found not to work. Some may view this as a waste of time, but deeper, practical opening study needs to identify these points. The lines are also useful to see for when similar positions are encountered, as you then know what not to do, and why.
  • L'Ami concludes that Black has problems in the best lines for White in both 7. b3 and 7. Bf4 variations, so offers a large chunk of theory involving a move-order that avoids these problems by delaying ...c6. This seems to be a popular approach, as reflected in tournament games from the past couple of years. There are some Black resources and moves that L'Ami does not cover in these long variations, though, and his assessment is not necessarily the same as some other GMs in the same lines, so use your own judgment (as always).
  • The Stonewall sideline involving the development of White's light-square bishop to d3 (instead of g2) receives only perfunctory treatment in section 24. On a practical level, at least at the Class level, this way of playing is a lot more prevalent, including when reached by alternative move-orders when White plays an early e3. Many people will develop the knight to f3 instead of e2, and L'Ami literally spends about 10 seconds on this, just concluding that Black is fine. In my serious games playing the Stonewall, although it's a small sample size, only a minority (2 of 7) of them have featured the "main line" bishop fianchetto to g2 by White.
  • No Anti-Dutch lines are covered at all after 1.d4 f5, so Black players will have to find alternate sources for a full Dutch repertoire.
  • Interactive games: the game selections contain a number of useful strategic and tactical points for both White and Black. The second one, Aronian-Tomashevsky, in fact is a non-fianchetto Stonewall, which again underlines the practical utility of spending more time on these positions.
The package includes two very useful databases: "Working base" - which contains all of the theory notes - and an illustrative games database. These resources provide a lot of depth and convenience for further serious Stonewall study, making sure that this will not (or at least should not) just be shelved and forgotten after completion.


01: Introduction [02:55]
02: Typical Manouevres - Bd7-e8-h5 - Video analysis [09:58]
03: Typical Ideas - dxc4 followed by c5 - Video analysis [11:20]
04: Typical Ideas - Bxe5 dxe5 - Video analysis [12:12]
05: Typical Ideas - h6 followed by g5 - Video analysis [08:45]
06: Typical Ideas - cxd5 - Video analysis [11:48]
07: Typical Ideas - c4-c5 - Video analysis [08:21]
Main Line: 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 d5 5.Nf3 c6 6.0-0 Bd6
08: Main Line - various 7th Moves - Video analysis [17:00]
09: Main Line - 7.b3 Qe7 8.Bb2 0-0 - Video analysis [13:02]
10: Main Line - 7.b3 Qe7 8.Bb2 b6 - Video analysis [10:03]
11: Main Line - 7.b3 Qe7 8.Ne5 - Video analysis [17:34]
12: Main Line - 7.b3 0-0 - Video analysis [12:06]
13: Main Line - 7.Bf4 - Video analysis [16:55]
1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 d5 5.Nf3 Bd6
14: New move order delaying c6 - 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 d5 5.Nf3 Bd6 - Video analysis [12:39]
15: Main Line - 6.0-0 0-0 7.Qc2 c6 8.Ne5 - Video analysis [10:03]
16: Main Line - 6.0-0 0-0 7.Qc2 c6 8.Nc3 Ne4 and other 8th moves - Video analysis [10:24]
17: Main Line - 6.0-0 0-0 7.Qc2 c6 8.Nc3 Qe7 - Video analysis [10:59]
18: Stonewall - 4.Nh3 or 4.c4 c6 5.Nh3 d6 - Video analysis [08:18]
19: Stonewall - 4.c4 d5 5.Nh3 c6 - Video analysis [08:58]
20: Stonewall - 4.c4 d5 5.Nh3 Bd6 - Video analysis [05:53]
21: Move orders tricks - Video analysis [05:19]
22: Stonewall sidelines - 1.Nf3 - Video analysis [05:44]
23: Stonewall sidelines - 1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.Qc2 - Video analysis [05:41]
24: Stonewall sidelines - 1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.e3 - Video analysis [10:23]
25: Theoretical overview - Video analysis [05:54]
Interactive games
26: Anand,V - Schmittdiel,E [19:53]
27: Aronian,L - Tomashevsky,E [16:51]
28: Anand,V - Carlsen,M [16:44]
29: Vitiugov,N - Agdestein,S [12:18]
30: Outro [01:21]

30 October 2019

Annotated Game #225: A new beginning and defeating ratings anxiety

One of the avoidable curses of playing competitive chess is an obsession with ratings. Focusing on your opponent's rating when compared to your own can be quite unhelpful while at the chessboard, as covered in "Ratings Fear and Loathing". Similarly, caring too much about your own rating can - rather ironically - create anxiety and stress whether it is currently going down, up, or staying the same.
  • A declining rating can obviously be depressing, especially if it is associated too closely with self-worth.
  • A stagnant rating can become frustrating, leading to thoughts of "I'll never improve" and such.
  • Achieving a particular ratings goal can lead to a crippling desire to maintain it at all costs, which in an extreme form can include deliberately not playing in order to protect it.
The below tournament game is the first one after my breakthrough to Class A, so it was the first time I faced the last situation above after achieving the new rating level. I felt it was important to consciously combat both the potential short-term and long-term effects of ratings obsession. Some observations that helped the process:
  • Ratings are a statistical phenomenon and there is little meaningful difference in minor (30-40 point) fluctuations. This means that an arbitrary threshold like 1800 for Class A has no intrinsic value, so falling a short distance below it (if that happens) should not have an outsized psychological impact. People grapple with this psychological phenomenon all the time when nominal statistical data points like body weight, stock prices, etc. are involved. What really matters is the long-term trend line, not short-term ups and downs.
  • You have to be willing to lose games in order to win them - nothing risked, nothing gained - and to improve your chess strength over time. This means accepting the statistically inevitable negative results when they occur in the short term, then clearing your mental slate for future games.
  • Quality of play is more important for someone truly interested in chess. Focusing on playing well (the process) rather than gain/loss of rating points (the results) is a much better and healthier improvement strategy.
  • Mental toughness is a phenomenon that ignores ratings.
In contrast to my usual rough start to a tournament, this game is a win and features only one significant slip, a hard-to-see tactic on move 21 which my opponent also misses. The idea - uncovering control of a key square that would disrupt my skewer tactic - was eye-opening and well worth the analysis.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B12"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "106"] {[%mdl 8192] B12: Caro-Kann: Advance Variation} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bg4 {this is the point of playing this variation, that the bishop (unlike in the Advance French) is not locked in.} 6. Be2 e6 7. O-O Nge7 8. h3 Bxf3 {otherwise the bishop wastes time by retreating, so this capture is standard. Also, it removes a protector of d4/e5, which soon come under pressure.} 9. Bxf3 Nf5 {continuing with minor piece development to ideal squares.} 10. Be3 $2 {White underestimates Black's threats.} (10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Bf4 $15 {keeps the material balance, but Black still has the easier game.}) 10... Qb6 {a standard and good move in these types of positions. The queen adds her force to the a7-g1 diagonal and also hits b2, now vulnerable because of the bishop move.} 11. Qd2 $6 {this drops the d4 pawn with no compensation.} (11. Nd2 {at least gets another piece out for White.}) 11... cxd4 12. cxd4 Ncxd4 (12... Nfxd4 {I also considered, but judged it weaker and Komodo agrees. Black for the moment can dissolve the pin on the knight by ...Nxf3, but Bg4 then removes that possibility. The text move allows for ...Nxe3 if needed.}) 13. Bxd4 Nxd4 14. Be2 Rc8 {hard to argue with developing the rook on the open file. } (14... Bb4 {is slightly preferred by the engine.} 15. Bb5+ Qxb5 16. Qxd4 Rc8 {may be a slightly better version of the idea, as all Black's pieces are now developed and if} 17. Nc3 {then} Bxc3 18. bxc3 Qa5 {leaves White down material and stuck with the weak c-pawn.}) 15. Nc3 Bb4 (15... Nxe2+ {simplifying down may be easier, but at the time I did not want to exchange my very well-placed knight.} 16. Nxe2 Bb4 $17) 16. Rac1 O-O (16... Nxe2+ {now I do think that trading off the bishop is superior before castling. After this, White would not have sufficient material to pose any threats to Black's bare kingside.}) 17. Rfd1 Nc6 $19 {Black has no weaknesses and with the protected passed d-pawn has a decisive advantage in the endgame.} 18. Qf4 f6 {played in the hopes of an exchange on f6, which is only to my benefit, but White doesn't have to do this.} (18... Be7 19. Nb5 $19) 19. exf6 (19. Bg4 $5 f5 20. Bh5 $19) 19... Rxf6 {now I have the half-open f-file and can swiftly dominate it with my rooks. The e-pawn is sufficiently protected as well.} 20. Qg3 Rxf2 $2 {this appears to be an obvious tactic, due to the possibility of a follow-up skewer on the a7-g1 diagonal by Black's bishop if White takes on f2 with the queen. However.. .} (20... Rcf8) 21. Kh1 $2 {White fails to find the tactical refutation, which is very hard to spot.} (21. Nxd5 {busts the idea, as the knight sacrifice opens the c-file for White's rook to control c5. No bishop skewer now.} exd5 ( 21... Rf1+ 22. Kxf1 exd5 23. Qf2 $16)) (21. Na4 {also works for White.}) (21. Qxf2 Bc5 $19 {was the idea behind Black's previous move.}) 21... Bxc3 {this is a removal of the guard theme, targeting the Be2. White can actually save the piece, although again it's difficult to find.} 22. Rxc3 $2 (22. Bg4 { threatening to capture on e6 and fork Black's king and rook, thereby gaining the necessary tempo for recapturing on c3.} Rf6 23. Qxc3 $19) 22... Rxe2 { with a piece and two connected passed pawns up, the win is essentially trivial from here, even if it takes some more work.} 23. Rf1 Qc7 24. Qf3 Re4 (24... Rxb2 {is preferred by the engine, but I felt further pawn snatching was unnecessary and simply diverted the rook away from the main action.} 25. Qg4 Qe7 $19) 25. Rfc1 {although everything is losing at this stage, I think allowing my next move made it that much easier for me. I'm happy to dominate the kingside and center and let White make some demonstrations on the queenside.} Rf8 26. Qd3 Qf4 27. Qb5 Rb4 28. Qe2 e5 29. Rd1 Rd4 30. Rdc1 Rd2 31. Qb5 Qf2 32. Rg1 Rf7 {shutting down the threat to b7.} 33. Rd3 Rxd3 34. Qxd3 Qd4 {the plan is to get rid of distractions with the queen and just roll to victory with the pawns.} 35. Rd1 Qxd3 36. Rxd3 d4 37. Rd2 e4 38. Kg1 Kf8 { with White's king cut off from the action, I just march my king up to help the pawns. This is a no-brainer win, so why waste calcuating power on anything else? The engine shows quicker wins, but that's irrelevant.} 39. g4 Ke7 40. Kg2 Ke6 41. Kg3 Ke5 42. Re2 d3 43. Rd2 Kd4 44. Kg2 e3 45. Rd1 d2 46. Kg3 Kd3 47. Kh4 e2 48. Rg1 e1=Q+ 49. Rg3+ Qxg3+ 50. Kxg3 d1=Q 51. Kg2 Rf3 52. Kh2 Qe2+ 53. Kg1 Rf1# 0-1