09 November 2018

Annotated Game #201: The importance of falsifying all your moves

The best thing that can be said about this next game is that it wasn't a miniature, like the previous one.  There are some useful lessons from the opening / early middlegame phase, particularly regarding the move 10 decision to avoid doubled pawns that was not in fact best.  However, the main lesson is to falsify all of your planned moves - meaning, to expend the mental effort necessary to calculate if your opponent can refute them.  This theme was originally introduced in Annotated Game #35: Thou Shalt Falsify.  Sometimes I find it all too easy to slip back into laziness, when a move looks fine (for me), or can be made on "general principles".  It does take additional mental effort to meaningfully check for your opponent's possible responses, rather than simply giving the board a cursory look.  Probably the best piece of advice I have ever received from a martial arts master is "don't be lazy", so I try to replay that in my mind whenever I am tempted to cut corners.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C42"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "46"] {[%mdl 8192] C42: Petroff Defence: 3 Nxe5 and unusual White 3rd moves} 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Bb5 Nxc3 7. bxc3 Qf6 {an unusual move to protect the e-pawn, immediately signaling aggressive intentions.} 8. d4 {White proceeds as usual in this variation.} exd4 9. exd4 { normally it's "dealer's choice" on which pawn to recapture with here, but with the queen on f6 I think it's probably better to use the c-pawn.} (9. cxd4 Bb4+ 10. Bd2 Bxd2+ 11. Qxd2 O-O 12. Rc1 Bh3 13. O-O Qg6 14. Ne1 Rad8 15. Bxc6 bxc6 16. f3 Rd5 17. Nd3 Rg5 18. Nf4 Qh6 19. Nxh3 Qxh3 20. Rxc6 Rc8 21. e4 Qh5 22. Qf4 Ra5 23. Rxc7 Rxc7 24. Qxc7 h6 25. Qc8+ Kh7 26. Qc4 Ra3 27. d5 Qe5 28. Rd1 Qb2 29. d6 Rxa2 30. Qxa2 {1-0 (30) Suba,M (2531)-Ljubarskij,J (2344) Bad Zwischenahn 2008}) 9... Bg4 $146 (9... Bd7 10. O-O h6 11. Re1+ Kd8 12. Ne5 Nxe5 13. dxe5 Qe6 14. Bxd7 Qxd7 15. Qf3 Kc8 16. Be3 Qe6 17. Rab1 c6 18. a4 Be7 19. a5 Rd8 20. a6 b6 21. c4 Kd7 22. c5 b5 23. Qg3 g5 24. Qf3 {Moracchini,F (2270) -Trinh,R (2230) Issy les Moulineaux 1989 1/2-1/2}) (9... Bd6 10. Bg5 Qe6+ 11. Kf1 $14) 10. Be2 {here I was transfixed by the obvious threat to create double f-pawns, so retreated the bishop.} (10. O-O $5 {the engine has no such prejudices against doubled pawns and instead sees what other possible advantages White could get in compensation.} Bxf3 11. Re1+ {this is the key idea, using the open e-file to harass Black's king. Losing the right to castle and having the king in the center is more worrisome than the kingside pawn structure, although White should be careful.} Kd8 (11... Be7 12. Qxf3 Qxf3 13. gxf3 Kd8) 12. gxf3 Bd6 13. Bf1 Qh4 (13... Qg6+ 14. Bg2) 14. h3 $16) 10... Bd6 $11 {Black has an active position, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface. The position is equal, but I don't really have many prospects for progress.} 11. O-O O-O 12. h3 Bf5 13. Bd3 {looking to trade, as Black's bishop seems more active than my own.} (13. Bg5 $5 {is a better idea, as it develops my last piece with tempo.}) 13... h6 {basically a free move for Black, preventing the previous bishop development idea by seizing control of g5.} 14. Rb1 Rab8 15. Qc2 $2 {an example of lazy thinking and not following my thinking progress, which requires *always* to falsify your intended moves.} (15. Re1 b6 $11) 15... Bxh3 {my opponent spots the tactic, which is based on the overloaded g-pawn and the now not sufficiently protected Nf3.} 16. gxh3 $6 {here it would have been better to simply accept the loss of a pawn, rather than disrupting my pawn structure for no good reason.} (16. Re1 $15) 16... Qxf3 $17 17. Bf5 Ne7 18. Bg4 Qf6 {Black is simply a pawn up now and I still have no real threats.} 19. Rb5 {I start becoming desperately aggressive with my plans now, basically trying to force counterplay.} c6 20. Rh5 {unfortunately Black has too many pieces able to defend his kingside, for any sacrificial ideas to work on my part.} Qg6 (20... Nd5 $5) 21. Qb3 (21. Qxg6 $5 {is technically much better, but at the time I didn't think I had a real chance if the queens stayed on the board. In reality, it's worse for White, as we'll shortly see.} fxg6 22. Ra5 $17) 21... Nd5 22. Kh1 $4 {simply worsens the situation. I wanted to break the pin on the Bg4, was the original thinking.} (22. Rxd5 cxd5 23. Qxd5 $19) 22... Qe4+ {now Black has mate threats, thanks to the queen and knight combination.} 23. f3 (23. Kg1 {what else?} Nf4 24. Bxf4 Qxf4 25. Re5 $19) 23... Qe2 (23... Qe2 24. Rf2 Qxf2 25. Re5 Bxe5 26. dxe5 Qf1+ 27. Kh2 Qxc1 28. Qxd5 cxd5 29. h4 Qf4+ 30. Kg2 Rbc8 31. c4 Rxc4 32. Bf5 Qxf5 33. Kg3 Qf4+ 34. Kh3 Rc2 35. a4 Qxf3#) 0-1

04 November 2018

Video completed: The Fort Knox Variation in the French Defence

I recently completed "The Fort Knox Variation in the French Defence" by IM Lawrence Trent, which is a ChessBase 60-minute video download.  I am not in fact taking up the French for its own sake, but using this variation to make sure that if I want to play the Dutch Stonewall by transposition, I can't be tripped up by the move-order sequence 1. d4 e6 2. e4.  Now it's important to note that White on move 3 can avoid the Fort Knox by not playing either 3. Nd2 or 3. Nc3 (either of which allows 3...dxe4, leading to the Fort Knox after 4...Bd7).  However, the less frequently played French lines like the Advance and Exchange variations are not critical and I feel Black can get by at a reasonable level with just some basic familiarization.  This is especially true if you are a Caro-Kann player who responds to the Advance variation with 3...c5, which heads into French-type positions.

Because the Fort Knox is structurally very similar to the Caro-Kann, I believe going this route is easier for me - or at least is more efficient in the near term - in terms of building an opening repertoire without major holes.  The alternative would be having to look in-depth at the non-standard Dutch lines after 1. d4 f5 (although I may do that at some point in the future).


1.  Introduction - this is a very basic intro to the Fort Knox which covers the initial entry into the variation - White has pawns on e4/d4 and Black on e6/d5, then goes 3. Nc3 (or Nd2) dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bd7.  IM Trent then discusses Black's standard development plan (...Bd7 followed by ...Bc6 and usually ...Nd7, with the idea of exchanging the bishop for one of White's knights and then playing ...c6 for a solid pawn structure), and talks a bit about the solidity of the opening and some of its past practitioners.

2.  Variation - 5. c4.  IM Trent says that he likes to start with the sidelines and this is an interesting one, in which White gets the c-pawn forward before retreating the knight with Ne4-c3.  Black sticks with standard developing moves up until a novelty, which gets the bishop off c6 with the idea of following up with ...c5 and then playing actively.

3.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Neg5 Bd6; IM Trent in the video labels it as "Tricky Neg5".  (Note: there is a typo in the video's table of contents which says "Nge5" instead of "Neg5", which is rather confusing and suggests more editing effort was needed by ChessBase).  This is perhaps White's only/best shot at major tactical complications, with the idea of sacrificing the g5 knight on f7 or e6.  Black can go horribly wrong if he ignores White's tactical threats, for example by playing 6...h6? instead of the recommended 6...Bd6, which covers the e5 square.  But with smart play by Black, White simply doesn't have enough compensation for any sacrificial attacks.  Some memorization is needed in these lines, although not a huge amount.  The main line ends up looking very much like a Caro-Kann.

4.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. Qe2 Ngf6 8. Neg5.  Like the above variation (and also with a table of contents typo), White tries to be a little tricky and aggressive.  However, Black now has time for the standard Fort Knox plan of developing with ...Nd7 followed by ...Ngf6.  IM Trent's recommendation - he doesn't give any alternatives - is to respond with 8...Qe7, which looks awkward but at the same time defends against all of White's sacrifice ideas on f7 and e6.  The queen can later on move off the e7 square to good effect, and/or Black can castle queenside, allowing the follow-up of ...g5 and developing the dark-square bishop to g7.

5.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. O-O [listed in table of contents as Qe2] Ngf6 8. Ned2.  Here White's idea is to reposition the knight to c4, hoping to dominate e5 that way.  IM Trent offers multiple possible ideas for Black in response, including ...Bb5, ...Bd5 - both of which allow for the ...c5 pawn break - or simply ...O-O.  Black is not afraid to exchange the light-squared bishop for a knight, or even in some variations to preserve it on the long diagonal after going ...b6 first.  GM Rustamov is observed to often play ...Bd5 in these situations.

6.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. O-O [listed in table of contents as Qe2] Ngf6 8. Ng3.  This is in fact White's main line, according to IM Trent.  He presents the idea of avoiding the standard plan of an immediate ...Bxf3 reaction by Black, instead using GM Jobava's modern move 8...g6!? which blunts the White light-square bishop, offers up g7 for Black's dark-square bishop development, and takes away the idea of Nh5 for White as a future attacking move.  There is a lot of relatively new territory to explore, but IM Trent shows various plausible scenarios, including the later utility of the ...Bxf3 idea. White's 9. c4 is the most challenging response for White, who sacrifices a pawn on d5 in order to force Black's king to f8, but Black according to Trent should be OK, as it's White who has to prove compensation for the material.

And that's all there is to the opening!  The video concludes with a quiz section of five puzzles, taken from GM-level tournament games, that help show what kinds of positions you can end up with in the Fort Knox.  They're drawn from all stages of the game and include some effective ideas, for example multiple examples of exchange sacrifices.  They also demonstrate that the Fort Knox, while an equal opening, is certainly not devoid of tactical possibilities.

General comments:
  • The Fort Knox is not intended for aggressive counterplay by Black.  IM Trent emphasizes key concepts such as opportunities for multiple exchanges on e4 and the general idea of exchanging off White's active pieces, to arrive at a position where White has nothing.  Black however also has nothing in terms of obvious winning chances in most lines, so it's important to be aware of this.  I think the Fort Knox could be used to win if your opponent is the type who is too aggressive and typically over-presses in equal positions.
  • Each of the variations covered feature a direct link to the analysis in game format, so you can review them directly rather than having to go through the video again.
  • IM Trent usefully cites reference games in his narrative and encourages you to go through the full games, which is always a good idea.  He points you toward top players like GM Rustamov, who has played it frequently, and others like Gelfand and Karpov who have played key games.
  • The typos and misleading text in the video's table of contents (the "text' field of the database) are annoying but not a critical flaw.

03 November 2018

Annotated Game #200: A ghastly little game

This ghastly little game teaches a few things, so perhaps it wasn't a total waste of time.  Firstly, the strategic error of 4...Bg4?!? is not in itself losing, or even bad according to an engine, but it does not fit at all with what Black really needs to be doing in the position (4...e5).  These types of early strategic errors often result in a very narrow path to equality, which is easy to fall off of and into a worse position which slowly (or more rapidly here) leads to a loss.  The other major strategic error, 7...Qxd1, is also useful to illustrate how flawed is the idea of always going for piece exchanges (including the queen) against a much higher-rated opponent.  Just because material is off the board does not mean you are any safer, and in fact can simply heighten your opponent's advantage.  Don't be afraid to keep material on the board and maneuver, in other words, rather than simplify into a lost position.  You can see one of the earlier games on this blog, my simul against GM Yermolinsky (Annotated Game #4), as another good example of this.

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "????.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Expert"]
[Black "ChessAdmin"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "D10"]
[Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"]
[PlyCount "33"]

{D10: Slav Defence: cxd5 (without early Nf3) and 3 Nc3} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3.
Nc3 dxc4 {an aggressive continuation unique to the Slav.} 4. a4 Bg4 {the best
that can be said about this move is that it's creative.} (4... e5 {striking in
the center is more to the point, exploiting the now-open d-file for Black.}) 5.
f3 {I confess I had been hoping for a move like this in reaction, which causes
problems for White's development.} Bh5 {a logical retreat, but it doesn't do
anything for Black's development.} (5... Bd7 $5 {with the idea of} 6. e4 {
and now} b5) 6. e4 e5 $146 {the right idea, just played a little late.} 7. dxe5
Qxd1+ $2 {a strategic blunder. I now have a much more difficult time dealing
with White's pawns, while White's king position is effectively no longer weak.
I believe I let myself be dominated by the idea of 'against stronger opponents,
trade down quickly'} (7... Nd7 {should be equal. For example:} 8. e6 (8. g4 $6
Qh4+ 9. Ke2 Bg6 10. Nh3 Qe7 $15) 8... fxe6 9. Bxc4 Qh4+ $11) 8. Kxd1 Nd7 {
again with the right idea, played later than it should have been.} 9. g4 Bg6 {
although Komodo only gives a small edge to White, it's easy to see how White's
space advantage makes it much easier for him to play.} 10. f4 $14 h6 $2 {
unfortunately the correct defense is moving the h-pawn two squares forward,
not one. I was concerned about providing a haven for the bishop on h7, but
also should have recognized the need to break up White's kingside formation,
which now rolls forward and crushes me.} (10... h5 11. Bxc4 (11. f5 {is now
less effective:} Bh7 12. gxh5 $6 (12. g5 Nxe5 $11) 12... Nxe5) 11... hxg4 $14)
11. Bxc4 $16 {the most straightforward winning continuation. I'm now down a
pawn with no compensation and still being squeezed.} Bb4 12. Nge2 O-O-O 13. Kc2
$18 {now White's king is out of danger and he can fully mobilize his forces.}
f6 $6 {a desperate move that hastens my downfall.} (13... h5 14. g5 Ne7 15. Rf1
$18) 14. f5 {good enough to win.} (14. e6 $5) 14... Nxe5 {again accelerating
the loss, but I was done for anyway.} (14... Be8 15. exf6 Ngxf6 16. Be6 $18)
15. Be6+ Kc7 16. fxg6 Nxg4 {why not? Basically wishing that White would miss
the backwards bishop move, with no other hope.} 17. Bxg4 {a quick end to a
ridiculous game.} 1-0

29 October 2018

Annotated Game #199: First Master scalp

This first-round game is notable for really only one reason, and that is because it marks the first time I ever defeated a Master-level opponent in tournament play.  It's due to a tactical miscalculation on his part, rather than any brilliance on mine, but I was nevertheless happy to take the win.  I think it's important for any improving Class player to realize that significantly higher-rated opponents are still quite capable of making blunders or incorrect decisions during the course of play, with no game being an inevitable crushing defeat from start to finish.

In the analysis I also was able to identify some key errors in positional understanding, for example the thought behind 9. Be3, which should be valuable for improving future play in such types of positions.  It's also worth noting sequences like the one beginning on move 19, which serve to illustrate the lesson that just because you can do something fancy on the board using intermediate moves and such, doesn't mean that you should.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Master"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A37"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "79"] {[%mdl 8192] A37: Symmetrical English vs ...g6:4 Bg2 Bg7 5 Nf3} 1. c4 g6 2. Nc3 Bg7 3. g3 c5 4. Bg2 Nc6 {we now have a Symmetrical English, although Black soon stops mirroring White's setup.} 5. Nf3 d6 {breaking the symmetry and consolidating control of e5.} 6. O-O e5 7. d3 Nge7 {Black prefers not to block his f-pawn.} 8. Bg5 h6 9. Be3 $146 {This is unfortunately rather nonsensical positionally. At the time, I selected this square for the bishop so as to potentially exchange it for a knight landing on d4. However, this is a restrictive place for the bishop and prevents a future e2-e3 to evict a Black knight landing on d4.} (9. Bxe7 {I considered and it scores significantly better than the bishop retreat in the database. In this situation, Black's knight is probably better than White's dark-square bishop, making the exchange worthwhile for White.} Nxe7 10. Ne1 f5 $11) (9. Bd2 {is the standard retreat. White can potentially follow up with Qc1 and pressure h6.}) 9... O-O 10. Qc1 { the point behind retreating the bishop rather than exchanging it. However, the pressure on h6 does not really bother Black.} Kh7 11. Ne1 {beginning the standard plan of repositioning the knight to c2, in order to unleash the Bg2 and potentially support b2-b4 in the future.} Rb8 12. Nc2 Nd4 13. Rb1 {done to further prepare the b4 advance, although waiting is not necessary here. In other English Opening positions, the a1-h8 diagonal is open for Black's bishop and the rook move is in fact required.} (13. Bxd4 $6 {unfortunately would be a positional mistake, as after} exd4 14. Nd5 {Black can follow up with ...b5 to undermine White's central presence, while the half-open e-file will also be useful.}) (13. b4 $5) 13... Qa5 {this queen sortie is annoying but not best.} 14. Bxd4 (14. Re1 {is probably simplest, overprotecting e2, after which the engine assesses Black has nothing better than} Qd8 $11) 14... exd4 15. Nd5 Nxd5 16. Bxd5 {I had calculated this far ahead when initiating the exchange on d4. Black is a little better, however, as he has the two bishops and my pieces are not as well coordinated.} Bh3 17. Re1 Be6 {this was unnecessary and gives me a tempo to get moving on the queenside.} 18. b4 {the correct decision, according to Komodo, with the intention of trying to unravel the pawn chain.} Qc7 19. bxc5 $6 {this starts an unnecessarily complicated sequence. At the time, I was trying not to straighten out Black's pawn structure for him, but the results of this line are worse.} (19. Bxe6 fxe6 20. bxc5 dxc5 21. Rf1 $11) (19. e4 $5 dxe3 20. Nxe3 $11) 19... Bxd5 $15 20. cxd6 Qxd6 21. cxd5 Qxd5 22. Nb4 {the positional imbalances favor Black slightly. He has a 2-1 queenside majority and, perhaps more importantly, can easily defend his isolated d-pawn, which gives him a space advantage.} Qd6 23. Qd2 {my queen here is definitely inferior to Black's.} (23. Qf4 $5 {beginners are taught to avoid doubled pawns, but here the damage to my pawn structure would be less bad than letting Black's queen be dominant.} Qxf4 24. gxf4 {and White has more dynamic play than in the game.}) 23... Rbc8 {around this point in the game, I did not have a sense of how White could proceed meaningfully, other than try to block Black's plans.} 24. Nc2 b6 25. Rec1 Rc3 $17 {A classical outpost, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface. Black is using his space advantage well and the Nc2 is looking quite sad.} 26. Ne1 Rfc8 27. Rc2 {the idea being to double on the c-file and exchange off the rooks, if possible.} Qa3 (27... h5 28. Rxc3 dxc3 29. Qc2 $17) 28. Rbc1 $6 (28. Rcb2 $15 {I hadn't even considered, but was a better defense.}) 28... Qxc1 $4 {throws away the game, as Komodo states. Normally such an "x-ray" tactic would work down the c-file, but here the Ne1 bolsters the Rc2, so I can recapture on c1 with the queen (not rook) and cover everything.} (28... b5 {mobilizing the queenside pawn majority would be a road to victory.}) 29. Qxc1 $18 {after this point, I simply played solid moves until making the time control.} h5 30. Rxc3 Rxc3 31. Nc2 b5 32. Qb2 a5 33. Kg2 b4 34. Na1 Rc5 35. Nb3 Rd5 36. Nd2 f5 37. Qc2 Re5 38. Nc4 Rc5 39. Qa4 {by this point I've managed to rearrange my pieces profitably and the end is near.} Bh6 40. Qd7+ 1-0

28 October 2018

Streakiness in chess performance

From "How much does one game affect the next game?" by Michael Richmond
"Streakiness" is the tendency to keep losing (or winning) several times in a row.  It's a well-known phenomenon in team sports, also including individual performances in sports like baseball and cricket where particular results (for example pitching vs. hitting) can be meaningfully isolated from the overall team performance.  Naturally, this tendency to have positive or negative results in streaks also extends to individual sports like tennis and chess.

As with any complex phenomenon, it's nearly impossible to point to a single, definitive explanation for a particular string of results.  I do think a large part of it, however, often can be explained by the psychological expectation or "hangover" that is generated from the previous game.  Winning generates positive feelings - although this is not always helpful for an improving player, if it masks substantive weaknesses.  On the flip side, if you lose, it is common to experience unhelpful emotions such as anger, shame, feelings of worthlessness, etc.  This type of personalized reaction is in fact natural - a lot of time, effort and preparation goes into a serious game.  As a player, you almost always are mentally invested in even a casual match.  It's therefore healthier to experience the emotional reaction and then move on, rather than try to repress it.

So how does a chessplayer break out of a losing streak, which is the most common concern with streakiness?  Most of the time we are talking about a short-term losing streak, but in some cases it may be the symptom of a longer period of stagnation or decline in results.

Substantively, it is important for improving chessplayers to work on all aspects of their game, as it's rarely the case that a specific weakness is wholly responsible for a streak of bad results - unless you (perhaps unconsciously) keep playing into situations where you are weak.  For example, a player may have little knowledge of endgames, but nevertheless tends to head straight for them by exchanging down material whenever possible.  Another common issue is reaching middlegame positions for which you don't know the standard plans and characteristics of the position-types.  These weaknesses can be addressed (or at least better avoided) through candid self-assessmentanalyzing your own games, and targeted improvement plans.  Self-analysis will also directly contribute to understanding and avoiding the repetition of the same types of errors across different games.  These long-term practices will tend to boost your overall playing strength over time and contribute to shorter-term success as well.  There is no magic pill for instant short-term improvement in chess skills, in other words.

Psychologically, especially in terms of your short-term performance, it is more important for players to overcome the "hangover" of a previous loss or losses by focusing fully on the game in front of them.  Success in accomplishing this is partly based on willpower and your ability to focus, but is more strongly underpinned by adopting an attitude of mental toughness in all your games.  Getting in the habit of treating each new game as unique, as winnable, and as a stepping stone on the road to mastery goes a long way towards erasing bad vibes from previous games.

Finally, it's important to understand that your opponent "gets a vote" in the result of a chess game - meaning that you may play well and still lose, or alternatively play poorly and still win.  In addition to cultivating mental toughness as mentioned above, for improvement purposes it's therefore better to focus on your quality of play in each game, rather than solely on the final outcome.  You can't fully control the results you have, but you can dedicate yourself to playing with increasing excellence - which is a reward in itself - and that will inevitably be reflected in your playing strength and future competitive results.