30 December 2017

Annotated Game #183: A lesson in exchanging queens and the initiative

This third-round tournament game was a hard-fought draw and I showed some resilience in achieving that result after the blundering loss the previous round (Annotated Game #182).  (Interestingly, in my latest tournament I had a very similar board sight problem that could also have been solved by playing Kg2 - "stepping up in the pocket" would the the sports term in American football - so there's a learning point for my game analysis.)

This particular variation (with 4. e3, reached by a different move-order here) used to be called the "Slow Slav" but now it's quite standard at the professional level.  At first it looks harmless, but the positions hold the metaphorical "drop of poison" for Black if he doesn't know what he's doing, as was the case this game.  I decided to exchange queens early on, which looked quite reasonable, but then White essentially by force gets a lot of space and pressure on the queenside, with no compensating counterplay for Black, who finds it difficult to place his minor pieces well and come up with a useful plan.  For Slav players, this points out why ...Qc7 rather than ...Qb6 is the standard reaction to White's queen sortie Qb3.

The middlegame is a study in contrasts, as I finally get some counterplay going (starting with 18...e5), but White puts on a very effective squeeze and gets a large advantage as a result.  I refuse to roll over and die, though, and continue searching for any counterplay possible.  Move 29 was a psychological victory for me, using a tactic that my opponent had overlooked, although by move 37 White was in the driver's seat in the endgame.  However, I was able to drum up some activity on the kingside and in the rook ending make some threats, causing my opponent to falter and force a draw.

So, multiple lessons from this game:
  • What to do (and not do, in other words exchange queens) in the Slow Slav after White brings out Qb3
  • Never give up fighting and trying to create counterchances
  • The initiative is a real phenomenon (in human chess) and if you can disrupt your opponent's momentum, it will have a positive impact on the game 

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D12"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "114"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] D12: Slav Defence: 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e3 Bf5} 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. e3 Bf5 4. c4 c6 {now in a Slav Defense by transposition.} 5. Nc3 e6 6. Qb3 Qb6 7. c5 Qxb3 (7... Qc7 {is by far the most played at the master level. We'll see why over the next few moves. Black can also play this the previous move; the current sequence has the effect of provoking the c4-c5 advance.}) 8. axb3 Nbd7 9. b4 Be7 10. b5 {so far my opponent is playing the main database line, and effectively. White after the exchange of queens has grabbed space on the queenside.} O-O 11. bxc6 bxc6 12. Ra6 Nb8 {awkward, but probably best for defense.} 13. Ra2 {it's not clear what square is best for the rook on the a-file.} Nbd7 {now White has to come up with something different than moving the rook back. Effectively he gained a tempo with the maneuver, but it's not a particularly important one.} 14. Be2 a5 {getting some much-needed space for myself on the queenside. The a-pawn is still a target, however.} 15. O-O Rfb8 16. Bd2 $14 {White has a small advantage out of the opening, as his pieces are somewhat better placed and he has fewer weaknesses. My next move magnifies his minor piece superiority, unfortunately.} Bd8 {done with the idea of defending the a-pawn, but more activity rather than less was called for. White will also simply be able to double rooks and then unmask the Bd2 in order to win the pawn, so I should have sought counterplay instead.} (16... Ne4 $5 17. Nxe4 dxe4 18. Ne5 Nxe5 19. dxe5 Bxc5 $14) 17. Rfa1 $16 Bc7 {at least it's on a better diagonal here.} 18. Ne1 {White retains an advantage after this, but I now get counterplay in the center.} e5 {a thematic (and only available) pawn lever.} 19. Nd1 {attacking the isolated pawn on a5, but the minor piece arrangement is rather comical and I have a bit of compensation due to White's limited knights. } exd4 {necessary to open lines in the center for counterplay.} 20. exd4 Re8 21. Ne3 Bg6 {played automatically.} (21... Rab8 $5 {can be played due to the pin of the Ne3 against the Be2.} 22. Bxa5 Bxa5 23. Rxa5 $16) 22. Bxa5 { realizing the pawn advantage.} Bf4 23. Bd2 Rab8 (23... Rxa2 $5 24. Rxa2 Nxc5 { is an interesting tactic:} 25. dxc5 d4 {and Black regains the piece, but White is still better.}) 24. g3 Bxe3 {not the best decision. In general, exchanging when down material isn't good, plus keeping the bishop on the h6-c1 diagonal would generate useful pressure.} (24... Bh6 $5 $16) 25. Bxe3 h6 {played to give the king some luft and in the absence of any better ideas.} 26. Kf1 { protecting the hanging Be2.} Ne4 27. Nd3 $18 {White has now sorted out his minor pieces, is a clear pawn up, and dominates the a-file, while I have no threats. It's not looking good for the home team.} Rbc8 {a passive choice, looking to defend the c-pawn, but there's not a lot that's much better.} (27... Nef6 28. h3 $18) 28. Ra7 Nb8 {an all-too-familiar place for the knight in this game. White is just squeezing me to death at this point, while I try to hang on via static defense.} 29. Bg4 $6 {White is still winning comfortably by the engine's calculation, but there's a big tactical opportunity now with the Nd3 hanging and on the same diagonal as his king. This also marks a major psychological shift in the game, as White is no longer just squeezing a helpless opponent.} Nxg3+ {I see a chance to get back the pawn and take it.} 30. hxg3 Bxd3+ 31. Ke1 f5 {I keep playing actively, to try to keep my opponent off balance.} (31... Rcd8 32. Kd2 Bg6 33. Rb7 $18) 32. Kd2 (32. Bh5 {would sidestep the threat.} Red8 33. Bf7+ Kh7 34. Be6 $18) 32... fxg4 33. Kxd3 Rf8 { still looking for counterplay. The rook is doing more on the f-file.} 34. Rb7 Rf7 {played with the idea of preventing White from getting doubled rooks on the 7th rank.} 35. Rxf7 Kxf7 36. Ra8 $6 {White picks the wrong rank for the rook, although the pin on the Nb8 looks dangerous, with Bf4 threatened.} (36. Ra7+ {maintains the advantage.} Ke6 37. Rxg7 Nd7 38. Rxg4 Nf6 $18) 36... Re8 $6 {takes care of the pin threat, but not in the best way.} (36... g5 {would take away the f4 square from White's bishop and help prevent further progress by my opponent.} 37. Ra7+ Kg6 $14 {in contrast with the game continuation, here my c-pawn is still well protected.}) 37. Bf4 $18 Nd7 38. Ra7 {maintaining the pin and the advantage.} Ke6 (38... Re7 39. Rc7 Nf6 40. Rxc6 $18) 39. Rc7 {White is now firmly back in control of the game.} g5 40. Rxc6+ Kf7 41. Bd6 Re6 42. Rc7 Ke8 43. Rc8+ Kf7 44. b4 Rf6 {I'm doomed on the queenside, so my only real hope is to try to drum up something on the kingside.} 45. Ke2 (45. Rd8 $5 {might be the shorter path} Rxd6 46. cxd6 Ke6 $18) 45... h5 46. Rh8 (46. Rd8 {keeps an even firmer grip} Re6+ 47. Kf1 Rxd6 48. cxd6 Ke6 $18) 46... Re6+ 47. Kf1 Nf6 48. Be5 Nd7 49. Rh7+ Ke8 50. f4 {rather than focus on the queenside, where he's winning, he starts playing on the kingside. He's still winning, but again this gives me some hope for counterplay.} gxf3 51. Rxh5 Nxe5 52. dxe5 Rxe5 { we now have an interesting position where the computer has White winning by a landslide, but it's not so easy to see.} 53. g4 $2 {this gives me a crucial tempo.} (53. c6 $1 Kd8 54. b5 {and Black can't stop the pawns, with White's rook able to play on the 7th and 8th ranks.}) 53... d4 $16 54. Rh3 {and now it's a draw, according to the engine, although I don't go about it the best way. My opponent had little appetite for continuing at this point, however.} ( 54. Rh6 Rd5 $16) 54... Re3 (54... d3 {is the key idea.} 55. Rxf3 $2 d2 56. Rd3 Re1+ {wins.}) 55. Kf2 (55. c6 d3 $11) 55... Re2+ 56. Kf1 Re3 {Twofold repetition} 57. Kf2 Re2+ 1/2-1/2

27 December 2017

New chess game replayer for 2018

Because of improved security features (using the HTTPS protocol which is now becoming standard) and additional available functionality, I've switched all of the games on this blog to using the ChessBase online replayer.  It's free and easy-to-use; instructions are in this link.  Being able to "full screen" the games, make your own variations on the board while replaying it, turn on an engine, and other capabilities are all quite nice to have when going through games.

Please note that this won't affect the PGN databases that are available for download; they were in fact used to update all of the posted annotated and commentary games to the new format.

There are still a few game fragments in past posts that I haven't updated, and may or may not get around to.  If you find one of particular interest, post a comment on that page and I'll see about updating it.

Annotated Game #182: Remember that your king can move (and other board sight freeze-ups)

This short, rather sad second-round tournament game illustrates the title quite well.  An example of how not to play the English very effectively, plus I got flustered by my opponent's sudden tactical threat at the end.  I occasionally have these types of board sight / move choice failures, which typically fall into the categories of not seeing: 1) king moves while on the defense; 2) pawn advances; and 3) backwards moves.  What I believe is going on is that my brain assumes that the pieces involved are either static, or should move in a different direction (forwards, in the case of missed backwards moves).  These are all understandable failures due to mental bias, but they will hold my play back if I don't think more dynamically on a consistent basis.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A11"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "46"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] A11: English Opening: 1...c6} 1. c4 c6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Bf5 5. O-O e6 6. d3 {I thought for a while here on this option. White can play reasonably with different approaches.} (6. b3 $5) 6... Bd6 7. Qb3 {this seems a premature queen development, although the idea of taking advantage of the absence of Black's light-squared bishop is a standard one.} (7. cxd5 exd5 8. Nc3 O-O 9. Nh4 Be6 10. e4 Na6 11. Qe2 Re8 12. h3 Be5 13. f4 Bxc3 14. bxc3 dxe4 15. dxe4 Bd5 16. e5 Bxg2 17. Kxg2 Qd5+ 18. Nf3 Rad8 19. c4 Qe4 20. Re1 Qxe2+ 21. Rxe2 Nd7 {Carlsen,M (2813)-Smeets,J (2651) Nice 2010 1-0 (36)}) 7... Qc7 8. Bg5 {the idea was to get the bishop developed first, then play Nbd2.} (8. Nc3 { is a quite reasonable square for the knight, though.}) 8... Nbd7 9. Nbd2 { the position is very equal here. Unfortunately I have a lack of strategic ideas, however.} h6 10. Be3 {now the drawback of the Bg5 development is evident, with its limited squares. Compare this to how it would look on the long diagonal, for example.} (10. Bxf6 $5 {at the time, I thought that exchanging would leave Black better off, but the Nd7 is in fact well-placed where it is rather than on f6, so this would have been a worthwhile trade for me.} Nxf6 11. cxd5 exd5 $11) 10... O-O 11. Rac1 Rfd8 12. cxd5 Nxd5 13. Nc4 (13. Bd4 {when other plans aren't obvious, one can always improve the position of your worst piece.} e5 14. e4 exd4 15. exf5 Bc5 16. Ne4 $11) 13... Nxe3 14. Nxe3 {Black has the pair of bishops now.} Bh7 15. Nc4 Be7 16. h4 $6 {a pointless move, since there are no attacking prospects on the kingside and the g5 square is not critical to control. In the game, I wanted to transfer my knight to e4 via d2 and avoid ...Bg5 pinning it, but the manuever just isn't worth it.} Bf6 17. Nfd2 (17. Rfd1 Nb6 $11) 17... Nb6 18. Ne4 Bxe4 19. Bxe4 {now we have an opposite-colored bishops position.} Nxc4 20. Rxc4 {after some dubious middlegame ideas, I emerge with a pleasantly even position.} Rd4 21. Rfc1 (21. Rxd4 {there's no reason not to simplify down further at this point.} Bxd4 22. e3 Bf6 23. d4 $11) 21... Rad8 22. Rxd4 {this is not in fact the losing move, although it allows Black to set up the potential tactic.} (22. e3 Rxc4 23. Rxc4 $11) 22... Bxd4 23. Qc2 $4 {played as I recall rather automatically, not realizing until too late what my opponent could play.} (23. Kg2 $11 {this should have been easy to find (or Kf1).}) 23... Qxg3+ (23... Qxg3+ 24. Kh1 Bxf2 25. Bh7+ Kh8 26. Bf5 exf5 27. a3 Qh3#) 0-1

25 December 2017

Video completed: Safe and Active with the Dutch Stonewall

"Safe and Active with the Dutch Stonewall" by GM Leonid Kritz is one of the ChessBase 60-minute series of videos.  Most of the FritzTrainer type DVDs/videos are several hours long, so these are designed to be more focused and necessarily less comprehensive, although that's not necessarily a drawback.  The video lecture is delivered in a no-nonsense style and gets right to the point, so I will too.


1. Introduction - a helpful tour of the variations GM Kritz will be covering, focusing on the main Stonewall lines with White fianchettoing his bishop on g3.  He also covers non-fianchetto development and the Staunton Gambit, assuming that Black starts with 1. d4 f5.

2. Variation - 5. Nh3.  This is a tricky idea that some White players see as the best antidote to the Stonewall.  GM Kritz does a good job in 13 minutes of showing how Black can effectively respond to White's ideas of using the f4 square and repositioning his knights.  Key general Stonewall principles are also highlighted, including the idea of it being a benefit for Black to exchange on e5 so a White pawn arrives there.

3. Variation - 5. Nf3 and later b3.  This is the classic White strategy of seeking to exchange dark-squared bishops.  GM Kritz shows how to maintain equality with the modern Stonewall approach of developing Black's light-squared bishop to b7 or a6.  I like the fact that in the main line he shows two Black approaches, with 9...b6 and 9...b5.

4. Variation - 5. Nf3 and later Nc3.  This is more of a catch-all of White variations without the b3 idea.  GM Kritz at the beginning says he gives fewer concrete variations than in the previous section, but this is more to sensitize the viewer to the fact that the lines covered should be studied more for their ideas, since there are plenty of concrete moves, especially with the immediate Bf4 idea for White.  Here he introduces the alternative Black light-square bishop development idea as well (Bd7-e8-h5 or g6).

5. Stonewall without g3 - GM Kritz highlights the alternative of Black playing ...Bb4 early in this line, in order to turn the position into a type of enhanced Nimzo-Indian.  It seems that this is the way he'd prefer to play, but instead of delving into that, we look at the classical Stonewall development scheme and various White and Black options.  It's helpful in this presentation to see several examples of inferior choices by both White and Black, and how they are exploited by the other side.

6. Staunton Gambit - GM Kritz chops through the variations effectively in less than ten minutes, showing how Black stays at least equal and presenting a number of inferior White deviations that can be punished.

General comments:
  • Each of the sections has the variations presented also available in game format, so you can copy them for analysis or look at them again on your own.  This is very helpful in building your repertoire database.
  • Although this is intended for Black players, the narration stays even-handed - this is not a "Crush Your Opponent" type of hyped-up video.  With best play in the lines, Black ends up solid and equal.  That said, a number of White alternatives that are considered inferior are highlighted, which is a real benefit.  I believe these types of explanations of openings are most useful, rather than simply running through best play for both sides in a repertoire style format.
  • Most of the emphasis of the lines presented is on the modern play with ...b6 and ...Bb7, focusing on the ...c5 break and queenside play for Black.  There's enough kingside counterplay illustrated, however, to get a feel for when Black should initiate it, along with the idea of the Bd7-e8-h5 or g6 development
  • While you probably could start playing the Stonewall with just this video, you would need to also 1) look at some games to see how the opening evolves into typical middlegame plans, and 2) look at some of the other Anti-Dutch variations White can play, notably 2. Bg5, if you plan to play 1...f5.  GM Viktor Moskalenko and some other Stonewall practitioners for that reason play 1. d4 e6, but of course in that case you need to have some idea of what to do in the French if White plays 2. e4 (a low but real probability).
  • Within the constraints of the 60-minute format, the lessons deliver a good deal of value and should be a helpful resource to players studying the Stonewall.

17 December 2017

Annotated Game #181: Deceptive quiet

This first-round tournament saw a very drawish-looking position appear already as of move 13, the result of a somewhat unexpected equalizing line that I took in the Caro-Kann Classical; by my opponent's reaction, he hadn't seen the 12...Qa6 idea before.  However, it's been a weakness of mine in the past to evaluate a position as "equal" or "drawish" or "quiet" and then lose interest in it.  If your opponent doesn't agree and wants to continue, that kind of attitude can lead to significant problems, since they will undoubtedly put more effort into the game than you will.

It's better, I think, to treat each position as a puzzle to be solved, a truth to be discovered, or whatever metaphor of your choice, so you can invest real concentration in divining its most important characteristics.  This leads to better play, as you more deeply understand the needs of the position, rather than just playing decent-looking moves without real interest.  Analysis of move 14 already shows the benefits of this type of approach, as the only database game (14...Nb4) and Komodo's recommendation (14...c5) are both more dynamic responses to White's knight sortie.

The endgame is actually rather instructive, as White's 3-2 pawn majority could have proven a more significant advantage, but at the same time I could have followed better paths to neutralizing it.  Particular attention should be paid to the rook's role on the 5th rank as a defender.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B19"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "89"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {B19: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 main line} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nf6 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bf4 Qa5+ {a logical reaction to White's more aggressive placement of the bishop, rather than on d2.} 12. Bd2 Qa6 {something which makes this a unique line, rather than simply retreating the queen.} 13. Qxa6 (13. c4 {is the other main try, avoiding the queen exchange.} Nbd7 14. a4 c5 15. O-O cxd4 16. b4 Rd8 17. Qxd4 Nb6 18. Qxd8+ Kxd8 19. b5 Qxa4 20. Rxa4 Nxa4 21. Ra1 Nb6 22. Ne5 Kc8 23. Rxa7 Bc5 24. Nxf7 Rf8 25. Ne5 Nxh5 26. Ne4 Kb8 27. Ra2 Bd4 28. Be3 Bxe3 29. fxe3 Nf6 30. Nc5 Rd8 31. Kf2 Rc8 32. Nxe6 Re8 33. Nxg7 Rxe5 34. Rc2 Rc5 35. Kf3 Nxc4 36. Kf4 Nd5+ 37. Kg3 Ndxe3 38. Rf2 Rg5+ 39. Kh4 Rxg7 40. b6 Nxb6 41. Kh5 Rxg2 42. Rf3 Nec4 43. Rf4 Ka7 44. Kxh6 Ka6 {0-1 (44) Gochelashvili,D (2432) -Motylev,A (2675) Sochi 2017}) 13... Nxa6 {the position is now very drawish, as neither side has any real weaknesses or advantages.} 14. Ne5 {a bit overly aggressive.} Be7 {solid but unimaginative.} (14... Nb4 15. Bxb4 Bxb4+ 16. c3 Bd6 17. f4 c5 18. dxc5 Bxc5 19. Ke2 Ke7 20. Kf3 Rhd8 21. Rad1 Bd6 22. Ng4 Nxg4 23. Kxg4 f5+ 24. Kf3 Rac8 25. Ne2 Kf6 26. Rhe1 Bc5 27. Nc1 Bb6 28. Nd3 Rd5 29. Ne5 {Trenchev,J (2260)-Loos,R (2239) Bayern 2003 0-1 (68)}) (14... c5 $5) 15. O-O-O O-O 16. c4 Rac8 17. Kb1 Rfd8 {developing the last of my pieces.} 18. Be3 c5 {always a key pawn lever in the Caro-Kann Classical. It both hits White's center and allows Black's pieces greater activity.} 19. dxc5 {after the following exchanges, White gets a 3-2 queenside pawn majority, but my piece activity compensates.} Bxc5 20. Rxd8+ Rxd8 21. Bxc5 Nxc5 22. Kc2 Nce4 23. Nxe4 Nxe4 24. Rh4 {this is a slip by White, but again I play too solidly rather than actively.} Nf6 (24... Rd2+ $5 25. Kc1 Re2 $15) 25. f3 {Consolidates e4+g4} Kf8 {activating the king, now that we've reached the endgame.} 26. Nd3 Rc8 27. b3 Ke7 28. Kc3 b6 {Covers c5} 29. a3 a5 {here I was playing for restriction, but should have been more aggressive about disrupting White's pawns in subsequent moves.} 30. Rh1 Nd7 (30... b5 $5 {would have continued the minority attack idea, well supported by the Rc8.} 31. c5 Nd5+ $11) 31. g4 Nc5 32. Nxc5 Rxc5 {this makes it easier for White to make progress.} (32... bxc5 $11 { and the two isolated pawns are not in fact weak, since White cannot exploit them, plus they double-cover b4. For example} 33. b4 axb4+ 34. axb4 cxb4+ 35. Kxb4 Rb8+ 36. Kc3 Ra8 $11) 33. Re1 g6 {an unnecessary distraction. I was thinking I could try to make progress on the kingside, but it's really better to focus first on the queenside.} (33... Rg5 {keeps the rook deployed along the 5th rank, to good effect. After this, ...g6 makes more sense.}) 34. hxg6 fxg6 35. b4 axb4+ 36. axb4 Rg5 $6 {it's funny how much sequencing effects a position. Now the idea of bringing the rook over causes me problems.} (36... Rc8 $11) 37. Kd4 $6 (37. Ra1 $5 $16 {and now White penetrates on the 7th rank.} ) 37... h5 $11 38. gxh5 (38. Rg1 hxg4 39. Rxg4 Rf5 $11) 38... gxh5 {and now the strengths on the different flanks balance each other out nicely.} 39. Rh1 Kd6 40. Ke4 Rf5 41. f4 Ke7 42. Rh4 Kf6 43. Rh1 e5 44. fxe5+ Rxe5+ 45. Kf4 1/2-1/2

14 December 2017

DVD completed: Crushing White with the Caro-Kann Defense

The "Crushing White with the Caro-Kann Defense" (Reloaded Edition) DVD by GM Maxim Dlugy contains a series of lectures on suggested lines to play as Black in the Caro-Kann, along with a brief (2-page) summary of the main points of the four chapters in PDF format, and 10 games in PGN format on the disc.  Not all of the games/variations he presents are contained in the PGN files.

The video lectures are grouped into four chapters:

Chapter 1 - the Advance Variation, featuring Morozevich-Dlugy (2015).  Dlugy advocates the usual 3...Bf5 response by Black and looks at some of the more aggressive options for White featuring the g2-g4 advance, as well as the standard Nf3/Be2 development (Short System).

Chapter 2 - the Main Line with 4...Nd7, including four games from various points in Dlugy's career.  This is valuable for anyone who plays that line, but it is no longer very popular.  I've never been interested in playing it, in part because it makes development of the light-squared bishop more difficult.  Anatoly Karpov used the variation for a long stretch as his main defense, probably its greatest claim to fame.

Chapter 3 - the Exchange Variation and the Panov-Botvinnik Attack.  There is no actual database game given regarding the Exchange Variation, but Dlugy spends some time looking at an offbeat but effective-looking treatment of the line, using a maneuver with 6...g6 followed by ...Nf6-h5 as the main idea for Black.  After that is finished, the lecture includes two database games on the Panov-Botvinnik Attack that feature the solid 5...e6 variation; the other two main approaches are 5...Nc6 and 5...g6 (a gambit).  The PDF notes for this chapter are also quite helpful in outlining specific ideas, for later reference.

Chapter 4 - Dlugy returns to the Main Line with 4...Nd7.  This section has three more database games, including the infamous 1997 Deep Blue - Kasparov game where the computer won in 19 moves; this probably is the real reason (if not a completely valid one) for the variation's subsequent unpopularity.  The centerpiece of the chapter, as a somewhat strange choice, is a blitz game Dlugy played against Radjabov.

Comments and observations:
  • This DVD isn't comprehensive enough of an intro to the Caro-Kann to stand on its own, if that is what you are looking for.  For example, it doesn't cover some of the White variations often encountered at the club level (Two Knights, King's Indian Attack, Fantasy) and the PDF lecture notes are of uneven helpfulness (Chapter 3 being the best).
  • As basically a repertoire-based lecture on the main lines, it does offer some good ideas in the particular variations Dlugy uses.  Chapter 3 was particularly valuable for me, as Dlugy offers concrete strategic, tactical and even "philosophical" insights into Black's play in the Exchange (which he calls the "Fischer" variation) and the Panov.  The first part of the Panov variation presentation I found valuable, following a particularly instructive Karpov game, but the second part featuring one of Dlugy's own games was not as convincing or well-organized.
  • I found it annoying in a video lecture aimed at the Black side to still have a board with the White pieces at the bottom.  It would seem that the software used to record it would not allow for flipping the board, which is simply antiquated.  While having White on the bottom is still mostly standard for diagrams in Black-oriented repertoire books (if not 100% of the time), it felt rather awkward watching the board from White's perspective for the whole video. When you're reading a book but have a separate board set up in front of you, the diagrams are less of an issue, but using a separate board is not practical to do with a video lecture.
  • The presentation quality is uneven, with some segments flowing well and with insightful integrated commentary.  Others however show Dlugy being somewhat unprepared and having to check his notes.  I don't really understand why presenters don't simply do a retake when this happens, but it's a common phenomenon with chess videos across different publishers.
  • Dlugy sometimes plays out the (relatively few) games to the bitter end in the endgame, commenting along the way.  Sometimes this can be good when typical structures for an opening are presented, but other times it just seems to drag things out, for example with the last blitz game.
  • There are 10 pages of PDF puzzles also included, with two positions per page, but which variation they are taken from is not referenced in the text.

28 November 2017

Training quote of the day #12: Walter Browne

From GM Walter Browne's The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse (end of Chapter 4):
Almost fifty years of success can't be an accident. Many of the same skills needed for chess are equally necessary at poker, like patience, pattern recognition, control, vision, intuition and timely aggression. In poker it is absolutely vital to outguess your adversaries and put yourself in their minds...
But chess is in a different category. There is in the struggle a subtle, sublimated aggression, revealed in the game by the players in a one-to-one confrontation. There is a uniquely complex beauty within the intricate moves that cannot be compared with poker.

26 November 2017

Learning from a Prodigy - the science behind Magnus Carlsen's success

"Learning from a Prodigy: The Science Behind the Feats of the Greatest Chess Player of All Time" may be slightly hyped (is Magnus Carlsen really the greatest of all time?); occasionally breathless in tone; and not fully cognizant of standard chess training procedures (e.g. lots of people of all skill levels use computer analysis).  But the other 95% of the article, which was composed for a UCSD-hosted course on learning, offers a number of good observations.

The primary methods covered are:
  • Chunking: Building Actionable Knowledge
  • Diffuse Mode: Learning Through Reveries
  • Deliberate Practice: Kick-Starting Our Brain
  • Interleaving: Switching It Up
  • Transfer: Solving Parallel Problems
  • Health: Building on Solid Foundations
My comments:

I would say that chunking is probably the most relevant to gaining chess knowledge and skill, since it's the fundamental process in building pattern recognition and the intuitive base for position assessment and decisionmaking.  We learn things like openings, typical middlegame strategies, and endgames in this manner.

On this blog I've emphasized deliberate practice (or effortful study) as the best way of making progress in training, which basically means taking on difficult tasks (or opponents) that push your boundaries and therefore make you learn, rather than repeating the same tasks over and over.

Physical training (health) is also fundamental to maximizing our chess performance, especially in tournaments where your personal energy management and focus is so important to maintain at the highest level possible.

The subjects of Diffuse Mode and Interleaving are useful in highlighting why you should switch up study topics and take periodic breaks to let your brain make the necessary connections (literally) to achieve the next level of understanding.

I'm not completely sold on the "Transfer" idea of directly improving chess as a skill via other activities, although it can't hurt to have some broader interests and practices that also stimulate your brain.

All in all, worth checking out in detail.

24 November 2017

"Analyze This" at chess^summit

Analyzing my own games has long been the centerpiece of my training program and it still is paying dividends, in terms of improving my play both conceptually and practically.  On a related note, I recently ran across the "Analyze This" post at the chess^summit site, which discusses the benefits of analyzing games, starting with a more basic view of the process.  They also highlight two things that are worth knowing about for all levels of improving players:
  • The simple way you can now use online resources for game analysis, with an illustrated example of copying and pasting a PGN game file into the Chess.com analysis board.  I think it's important to have your own database set up to store analysis and training references, which you can obtain for free with the Scid vs. PC software and (champion) Stockfish engine. That said, the ease of use of online tools is a welcome evolution. 
  • An offer by the site to do free game analysis, if you would like to solicit a more expert human take on your game.

19 November 2017

How far can you get in one month of training?

By now, the story of the "Month to Master" guy, Max Deutsch, playing Magnus Carlsen has drawn a lot of commentary, as can be seen at the above-linked ChessBase article (which also has the original Wall Street Journal video article link; it's an entertaining watch).

The mastery challenge is an interesting outgrowth and example of the "Personal Growth" movement, which like the older "Self-Help" category contains a lot of good ideas under its umbrella, but also a lot of puffery.  The idea of trying to challenge yourself exponentially rather than only incrementally is in fact one way to achieve personal breakthroughs; Max in fact did quite well at the other challenges, which were all realistically achievable skills (if not easy at all).  His success with them reflected the mechanism of effortful study, while the emphasis on constant learning is, in any case, a great brain health practice.

Naturally Max didn't even come close to beating Magnus, because chess is far too complex an activity/sport/art.  One parallel would be someone who took French in a classroom environment for a few years being asked to win a debate with a native-speaking Sorbonne philosophy professor; it's just not going to happen.  Similarly, an amateur tennis player is not going to suddenly raise their skill level in a month to beat Andy Murray.  This is one of the attractions of chess for me, as a matter of fact - it is infinitely deep and you will never stop learning on the path to mastery.

15 November 2017

Chess and brain health improvement

From BeBrainFit.Com
It's interesting to see where the benefits of chess training and brain health intersect and why.  I don't find it surprising to note that practices described as benefiting the brain the most health-wise are also what should be most effective in terms of improving your chess.  I've found the following observations particularly useful in that regard (my emphasis added in bold text).

From Sort Your Brain Out (Capstone, 2014):
The Einstein Aging Study...followed 2000 people aged 70 and above who were residents of the Bronx district of New York City for four years. Every year these residents were put through a variety of tests to monitor changes in their physical strength, balance and coordination, along with a wide variety of cognitive abilities. As well as undergoing these tests images of their brains were captured with an MRI scanner.
...They found that four activities were associated with a significantly reduced likelihood of developing the symptoms of cognitive decline: playing a musical instrument, playing chess, dancing and reading all seemed to have a positive impact on slowing the rate of cognitive decline. It was noted that none of these activities made the slightest different to the outcome unless they were practiced regularly.
 ...all of the above activities are mentally taxing - the other defining feature of activities that actually inspire the brain to make changes. If you don't up the ante in terms of tackling more and more challenging versions of the same activity then the brain will stop making the necessary changes for further improvements.
...Chess requires potential moves of both players to be imagined and held in mind so that further moves can be thought through and evaluated. Opportunities and pitfalls of each potential sequence of moves must be analyzed to select the best strategy. The more moves in advance a person tries to plan, the harder the brain areas in their Frontal and Parietal Lobes that support working memory...are pushed, to try to keep in mind where all the pieces would stand after each imagined move.
The harder working memory is put to the test during the day, the more work will be done overnight to reinforce the synapses connecting Frontal and Parietal brain areas to increase its capacity for next time.
 From The Brain Warrior's Way (New American Library, 2016):
The more you use your brain, the more you can continue using it. New learning creates new connections in the brain, but the absence of learning causes the brain to start disconnecting itself. Regardless of your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. Learning has a very real impact on neurons: it keeps them firing and it makes it easier for them to fire...Like muscles that don't get used, idle nerve cells waste away.
...The best mental exercise is acquiring new knowledge and doing things that you have not done before. Even if your routine activities are fairly complicated, such as teaching a college course, reading brain scans, or fixing a crashed computer network, they won't help your brain specifically because they aren't new to you. Whenever the brain does something over and over, it learns how to do it using less and less energy. New learning, such as learning a new medical technique, a new hobby, or a new game, helps establish new connections, thus maintaining and improving the function of other less-often-used brain areas.
The following list describes which mental exercises provide the best benefits to specific areas of the brain:
-- Prefrontal cortex (PFC): language games...strategy games, such as chess...meditation. [The correlation between chess and verbal skills is rather interesting and is also one of the benefits listed at "10 Ways Chess Builds Your Brain"]
New Learning Tips: Spend fifteen minutes a day learning something new. Einstein said that if anyone spends fifteen minutes a day learning something new, in a year he or she will be an expert; in five years, a national expert.
The above points track with observations made in some previous posts here, for example on The Kung Fu of Chess and especially Mindfulness and Effortful Study.  I also think that the observation about your brain using less energy to perform previously learned tasks could well be correlated with the power of pattern recognition, as reflected in Magnus Carlsen's comparison of the roles of intuition and analysis.

The topic of chess study and brain health, however important and positive in terms of its benefits, also deserves a few caveats:
  • Chess is not necessarily a uniquely beneficial activity.  I do think that its inexhaustible depth of possible new learning, however, is tailor-made for benefiting your brain.  Analyze a new opening variation, endgame type, strategic motif, tactical theme, etc. and you can get your 15 minutes a day (and more) of brain exercise, while adding to your skills and storehouse of knowledge.
  • Brain health is a different topic than IQ and other measures of raw intelligence.  There is a lot of disagreement about whether learning chess boosts intelligence.  I think it's something of a moot point from a practical standpoint, if it can enhance your brain functions, regardless of the (also controversial) existence of an innate "ceiling" to intelligence.
  • It's clear that binge studying followed by long layoffs won't help either your chess or your brain make progress over time.  Consistency is more important, even with relatively short time periods devoted to training; chess is not unique in that respect.  It's also noteworthy that this framework of structuring your activities parallels the practice of implanting positive habits.

26 October 2017

Trends in chess openings - personal observations

The above chart (based on August 2017 TWIC data) was recently highlighted in a ChessBase news article.  As usual, the best way to view any statistics is with a critical eye.  With that in mind, here are some observations related to my personal repertoire, which I know best, and some other opening trends that are highlighted.

At first I was surprised at the high popularity of the Caro-Kann (#4), my primary defense to 1. e4, but after you start adding up the various Sicilian variations, it makes more sense and does not in fact represent a big surge for the Caro-Kann.  The main point is that the Caro-Kann is reliably popular and a solid choice at the professional level (more on that point below), to the point of beating out the most popular variation (Najdorf) of the Sicilian.

Likewise with the Slav (#7), my primary defense to 1. d4, but that actually seems to be more logical as a separate category in the queen pawn opening complex, with the main 1...Nf6 choices ahead of it.  It's interesting to note that it does beat out the more historically popular Queen's Gambit Declined, but only (I expect) if you include the Semi-Slav complex of openings, which I don't have in my repertoire.

On the White side, it was nice to see the English well represented, with various main trunks taking up 4 of the top 20 spaces.  This makes sense, as it's a great must-win opening (said only partly jokingly).  It's worth noting that the reply 1...e6 is on the list, as in opening manuals it's often treated as a sideline (if at all).  While there are a lot of transpositional possibilities, it's something that every English player should look at.

A couple of general observations on the list:
  • The absence of the Ruy Lopez / Spanish Game is not completely shocking, if you've been paying attention to the top-level games over the last couple of years, but is still very interesting as a novel historical development.  Basically the top White players seem to have switched to the Giuoco Piano (#18) as holding better prospects for advantage.  Seeing the Caro-Kann at #4 and the Ruy Lopez nowhere on the list is still a bit weird, at least for those of us who have been playing for more than a decade.  The "Spanish Torture" seems to have lost its edge.
  • The #1 place for the Reti in my opinion is a reflection of the trend at the top, especially with players like Carlsen and Kramnik, to adopt a meta-strategy of "just playing chess" and seeking to win by relying on a deeper understanding of their game, rather than trying to fight it out in a theoretical duel.  This is a common idea at any level, actually, as the strategy seeks to take away the advantage of "free good moves" that a lower-rated player is offered by going into a well-prepared and analyzed line for 15-20 moves.  The caveat, of course, is that you actually do have to have superior knowledge of the resulting position-types, even if things like exact move orders are not always crucial, or there is a lack of forcing moves.
  • I have to admit I was surprised by the continuing popularity of the Modern Defence (#20), as I thought its peak time was past.  On the other hand it's a flexible choice, can be played in response to pretty much any White first move, and has the advantage noted above of being less forcing and more favorable to someone who knows the resulting positions and their requirements well.
  • In general, I tend to look at the "top openings" lists as indications of what master-level players consider to be completely solid openings that will yield the best chance for an advantage and/or counter-play.  Openings which are viewed as now being too drawish (the Ruy Lopez now, along with the Petroff) drop off in use as a result, but this lack of professional popularity should by no means influence amateur opening choice, when the openings in question are actually too solid rather than questionable.

27 September 2017

Annotated Game #180: At least it wasn't a draw (?)

This last-round tournament game is a thankfully rare example of how poor attitude can lead directly to an otherwise undeserved loss.  I get a small advantage out of the English Opening versus a King's Indian Defense setup, getting two open files on the queenside that my pieces should have done more with.  Instead, I miss a great tactic on the long diagonal on moves 19 and 20, then play too passively in response to an unexpected central pawn advance.  This leads almost immediately to unwarranted panic on my part, due to lazy (or nonexistent) calcuation, and a rapid implosion.  The turnaround is sharp and totally psychological.

So why did that happen?  You may have noticed that all of the previous games in this tournament ended in draws for me - some rightly so, others due to my squandering or simply not pursuing an existing advantage.  I was determined not to have a draw in the last round, which while understandable was simply the wrong mental attitude to adopt going into the game.  One cannot just impose one's will on the chessboard.  Your opponent always gets a vote and focusing on your desired outcome (a win) simply wastes mental energy and distracts you from what the goal should be, which is to play well and thoughtfully in every position.  Point taken.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A26"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "70"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "5"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. Nf3 d6 6. O-O e5 7. d3 {the standard KID setup against the English.} Nc6 8. Rb1 a5 9. a3 Ne7 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Ne8 {a funny-looking retreat, but it does allow the f-pawn to advance afterwards.} 12. Bg5 {this doesn't do a whole lot for me, as the bishop doesn't have much of a future on g5.} (12. b5 $5 c6 13. Bd2 $14) 12... c6 13. b5 f6 {it's not a bad move to kick the bishop, but it does neglect development for a tempo and locks his Bg7 in further.} (13... h6 {seems more logical.}) 14. Bd2 Be6 15. bxc6 (15. Na4 {is the idea Komodo prefers, eyeing the b6 square.}) 15... bxc6 16. Qc2 {after the initial exchanges and development now complete, the position is looking a bit drawish. I still have a slight pull in my favor, with the open queenside more easily accessible to my pieces, but it's not much of an advantage.} Qd7 {this really invites the Na4 idea, but it's also good to double rooks on the b-file.} 17. Rb6 (17. Rb4) 17... Nc8 18. Rb4 {this could have been a sly, trappy idea had I spotted the weakness in Black's next move, which I even anticipated.} c5 $2 19. Rb3 {this should be good enough for an advantage, but there's a tactical refutation of Black's last pawn push, which opens up the long diagonal.} (19. Nxe5 $1 fxe5 20. Rb7 {it's this follow-up move which is particularly difficult to see, if you're human.} Qd8 21. Rxg7+ Nxg7 22. Bxa8 $18 {White is a pawn up now, but more importantly will now easily dominate the board with his pieces.}) 19... Bh3 20. Rfb1 (20. Nxe5 $1 { is now a great idea that is much simpler to calculate.} fxe5 21. Bxa8 Bxf1 22. Kxf1 $18) 20... Bxg2 {unfortunately, after this there are no longer any tactics on the long diagonal for me.} 21. Kxg2 Ra7 22. Qb2 $16 {although I've passed up some opportunities, it's still looking good for me on the queenside. The Nc8 is poorly placed and I dominate the b-file. Now I plan to eliminate Black's Ra7 and work towards controlling both open files.} Rf7 23. Ra1 Rxa1 24. Qxa1 Qa7 25. Ra3 (25. Qb1 {keeping control of the b-file looks better, with the threat of invading the rook on b8.}) 25... Qd7 26. Nb5 {this is not a bad move, but here I start "losing the thread" of the game, as they say. Black's next move comes as an unpleasant surprise and I react poorly.} d5 {this is really a false threat, in the sense that my position is still advantageous, but it help Black take the initiative, since I don't find the only reply that keeps the advantage.} 27. Qc1 $6 $11 {I had been worried about the threat of losing the Bd2 to a discovered attack on the d-file.} (27. Ra8 $16 {correctly ignores Black's central pawns and pressures the 8th rank, with Qa6 being the main threat.} e4 28. Ne1 {and now if} dxc4 $2 29. Qa6 $1 $18) (27. Be3 $14 { would have been a safe choice that preserved some of my queenside pressure.}) 27... Nb6 {and now I just unreasonably panic and fall apart.} 28. Bh6 $2 { pretty much any reasonable move here keeps the balance. Instead...} Bxh6 29. Qxh6 dxc4 {now Black is a pawn up for nothing and I decide to try unsuccessfully for a swindle. It's pretty ugly.} 30. Ra7 Qxb5 31. Rxf7 Kxf7 32. Qxh7+ Ng7 33. Nh4 Qc6+ 34. f3 f5 35. g4 fxg4 0-1

21 September 2017

Annotated Game #179: An IQP lesson

This game is almost completely characterized by my strategic struggle against Black's isolated queen pawn (IQP), a normal result of the Tarrasch Defense.  The notes speak for themselves, with the key (wrong) choice made by me on move 24, thanks to a deflection tactic that makes my chosen sequence of moves lead to a very drawish position, rather than maintaining my positional advantage.  I could also have done a bit more with my knights, but that was the key strategic error and another (IQP) lesson learned.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A13"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 8"] [PlyCount "56"] [EventDate "2016.10.10"] [EventType "schev"] [EventRounds "5"] {[%mdl 8192] A13: English Opening: 1...e6} 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e3 Nf6 4. b3 Be7 {now in a standard QGD type setup for Black.} 5. Bb2 Nbd7 6. Be2 b6 7. O-O Bb7 8. Nc3 (8. d3 {is an option, with the idea of Nbd2.}) (8. cxd5 $5 { immediately is more common than the text move.}) 8... O-O 9. cxd5 {this seemed the logical follow-up. I've previously had bad experiences with Black building a strong pawn center and this takes care of that problem.} Nxd5 (9... exd5 10. Rc1 Re8 11. Qc2 Bf8 12. Rfd1 c6 13. d4 Bd6 14. Bd3 Qe7 15. Ne2 g6 16. Ng3 Ng4 17. Re1 f5 18. Bxf5 gxf5 19. Nxf5 Qf8 20. e4 Bf4 21. e5 Re6 22. Rcd1 Kh8 23. g3 Qg8 24. Kh1 {Gunina,V (2529)-Kriebel,T (2461) Novy Bor 2015 1/2-1/2 (157)}) 10. Rc1 (10. Nxd5 {is more common. The Nc3 isn't a great piece and it's better to exchange it, also opening up the long diagonal for the Bb2 (and the c-file for a rook).} Bxd5 11. Qc2 c5 12. Rad1 Rc8 13. Qb1 Qc7 14. d4 Qb7 15. Rc1 cxd4 16. Bxd4 Bf6 17. Qb2 Bxd4 18. Qxd4 Nf6 19. h3 h6 20. Qa4 a5 21. Qd4 Rc7 22. Qe5 Rfc8 23. Ba6 {1-0 (23) Alekseev,E (2679)-Rusanov,M (2440) St Petersburg 2014}) 10... Bf6 11. d4 {here I decided the benefits of the pawn advance outweighed shutting off the Bb2. First of all, Black's Bf6 is also shut out, and I also get a strong central pawn that influences e5 and c5. The a3-f8 diagonal also looks like a good one for my bishop.} Rc8 $146 {a slow move and one that allows the following sequence, giving me a measurable edge.} (11... Nxc3 12. Bxc3 c5 $11) 12. Nxd5 $14 Bxd5 (12... exd5 13. Ne5 Nxe5 14. dxe5 Be7 15. Bg4 Ra8 16. Qc2 c6 17. f4 $14) 13. Ba6 {this is the problem with the earlier rook move, Black loses a tempo and his queenside is looking awkward.} Rb8 14. Bd3 { I had been worried about a possible future ...b5, blocking the bishop in. Another square might have been better, though.} (14. Bb5) (14. Qe2 {is another option the engine likes, controlling the diagonal (and b5) while connecting the rooks and protecting the Bb2, which is otherwise loose.}) 14... c5 { the logical reaction by Black, taking advantage of the unprotected Bb2 to rule out capture on c5.} 15. Ne5 {a somewhat risky and aggressive decision that was not the best. I didn't mind the exchange on e5, and it is evaluated by the engine as equal.} (15. Qe2 cxd4 16. Nxd4 Rc8 $14) 15... Bxe5 $6 {a case where the standard rule of not exchanging bishops for knights applies.} (15... cxd4 $5 16. exd4 Nxe5 17. dxe5 Be7 $11) (15... Nxe5 16. dxe5 Be7 $11) 16. dxe5 $14 { White has the pair of bishops, but also the Nd7 has no useful squares at the moment.} Qg5 {this surprised me, but I was able to find an effective countermove.} 17. e4 {now I have the initiative.} Bc6 18. f4 {the queen's location becomes a problem for Black.} Qh4 19. Rc2 (19. Rc3 $5 {is probably a better version of the idea of transferring the rook to the kingside (after Bc2) and one that I considered for a while. In the end I rejected a plan of a piece attack on the kingside for one based on a pawn advance.} Qe7) 19... Rbd8 20. g3 (20. Qe2 $16 {getting off the d-file and overprotecting e4 was an excellent idea.}) 20... Qh3 $6 {this over-optimistic move justified my play to this point.} (20... Qe7) 21. Rd2 $16 {screening the Qd1 and protecting the Bd3 again.} f6 $2 {causes even greater problems, in part because the Qh3 now has no safe retreat. It also weakens e6, which I take advantage of (but not well enough).} (21... Nb8 $16 {looks sad, but otherwise Black has serious problems.} ) 22. f5 {I thought for a while here and felt good about the move, which presses the attack, but is rather complicated given the various captures on e5, f5 and e6.} (22. Be2 {is found by the engine the threat being to play Bg4 with a fork on e6.} f5 (22... h5 23. exf6 Bxe4 24. Rf2 gxf6 25. Bxh5 $18) 23. Bc4 Rfe8 24. Rd6 Bxe4 25. Rf2 Qh6 26. Rfd2 $18) 22... Kh8 $2 (22... Qh6 23. Bb1 Qe3+ 24. Rff2 $18) 23. Rf4 $1 {this should be sufficient to win. The threat of course is Rh4, trapping the queen.} Qh6 24. Rh4 $4 {here I moved too quickly and had a major thinking process foul. I had assumed that the queen was trapped, but of course it now has e3 to go to, with devastating effect. This was a case of the actual piece placement (Rf4) interfering with my mental visualization of the future board (Rh4, Qh6), where the diagonal is no longer blocked. Naturally if I had followed my thinking process, I could have corrected for this.} (24. fxe6 $1 {and wins.} fxe5 25. Rxf8+ Nxf8 26. e7 $18 { I had in fact looked at this variation, but was tired and having trouble visualizing. And then it occurred to me (mistakenly) that I could just play Rh4.}) 24... Qe3+ $19 {after this it is game over, although I fight on for a few moves in the vain hope for a swindle.} 25. Kf1 Nxe5 26. Qh5 Qf3+ 27. Ke1 Qxh5 28. Rxh5 Nxd3+ 0-1

02 September 2017

Annotated Game #178: Patience is a virtue...which I lack

Analysis of this next tournament game, along with the previous ones, helps highlight one recurring flaw in my play: lack of patience.  This is a common fault in Class players, often reflected in the idea that each single move has to "do something" big.  Here, as in Annotated Game #176, when there is no obvious immediate breakthrough, I get frustrated and acquiesce to a draw.  Fixing this conceptual flaw in my play should bring better results over time.

The game itself contains some interesting ideas (not just psychological ones), including alternatives for Black on move 9 and move 12.  As part of the analysis process, it's very useful to see how modern engines (Komodo 10 in this case) help evaluate plans, not just individual moves; for example, it consistently highlighted the value of the b8-h2 diagonal and building up pressure on it through the variations on moves 12 and 15.  I also like the idea of the knight retreat on move 19, getting out of the way of the pawns and playing a more maneuvering type of game.  Finally, it was worth looking at the different options towards the end of the game, for both dynamic and maneuvering play, to continue working my positional advantage.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "4"] [White "Class C"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D00"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "47"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "5"] 1. d4 d5 2. e3 {usually an indicator that White is heading for a Stonewall formation.} Nf6 3. Bd3 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. f4 Bg4 {getting the bishop to an active square before playing ...e6} 6. Nf3 e6 7. Nbd2 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Qe1 cxd4 { Normally it's a good idea to exchange c-pawn for d-pawn, and it isn't bad here. But there may be a more effective path forward for Black.} (9... Bf5 {is a more sophisticated positional idea, which is both the database and engine favorite. After} 10. Bxf5 exf5 {Black has a lock on e4 and White's e3 pawn will be weak on the half-open file.}) 10. exd4 Rc8 11. Ne5 Bf5 {I'll give myself credit for recognizing this idea, even if a bit later than optimal.} 12. Qe2 a6 {this was perhaps a waste of time. My idea was to play follow up with .. .b5 and prevent White from advancing the c-pawn to exchange off my d5 pawn. However, this is not a real threat as long as the Nc6 is there (due to the d4 pawn then being unprotected). If White exchanges on c6, then a subsequent pawn swap on d5 would just leave d4 isolated and weak.} (12... Qc7 $5 {would develop the queen and connect the rooks. It also starts to build pressure up on the b8-h2 diagonal.}) 13. Qf3 b5 {sticking with the original idea.} 14. a3 $6 {done to prevent b5-b4, but this is too weakening.} Na5 $15 {now having a pawn on b5 is actually helpful, thanks to my opponent making holes on the queenside.} 15. Re1 Re8 {not really necessary. Komodo still favors the plan of building pressure on the b8-h2 diagonal with ...Bd6 and ...Qc7.} 16. g4 Bxd3 17. Nxd3 Nc4 18. Nxc4 bxc4 {now I enjoy a significant space advantage in the center and on the queenside.} 19. Nf2 g6 (19... Nd7 $5 {would activate the Be7 and give White fewer kingside targets for the pawns.}) 20. Qh3 (20. f5 exf5 21. gxf5 Rb8 $15) 20... Bf8 {rather too cautious.} (20... Rb8 {with the idea of pressuring the b-pawn and forcing White to tie down a piece to its protection.} ) 21. Bd2 $6 {White will just have to move this back next move.} Rb8 $17 22. Bc1 Qb6 {here either more patience was called for in a largely closed position, or some more dynamic play.} (22... h5 $5 {is the dynamic option.} 23. gxh5 Nxh5 $15) (22... Re7 {is a more slow maneuvering approach, clearing the e8 square for the knight to go to d6 and perhaps to double rooks on the b-file.}) 23. Qg3 Bd6 24. Qf3 {at this point I saw no obvious breakthroughs for Black, so took the draw. Basically a lack of energy and patience was the reason, along with not really understanding the needs of the position. These include the importance of the b8-h2 diagonal and activating the bishop, the possible ...h5 advance, better and earlier development of the queen and rooks, etc.} 1/2-1/2

26 August 2017

Annotated Game #177: How could I not win this?

While it's always disappointing to lose a game, there's another - sometimes just as poignant - feeling of disappointment at not winning a game.  This next tournament game falls into that category.  I build up excellent attacking prospects on the kingside, with open lines and an overwhelming local superiority of pieces (4-0), but at the crucial point I failed to actually execute an attack.  My opponent started to do a good job of defending while making threats and turned the game around as a result; what happens after move 27 is an excellent illustration of the importance of the initiative, both on the board and psychologically.  I almost had the full disappointment of losing the game, as things went rapidly downhill, but after an error by my opponent I managed to calculate the drawing sequence and wrapped the game up.

Analyzing this game was helpful in highlighting certain clusters of turning points and strategic choices, for example around moves 17-19 and again on moves 27-31.  Hopefully I can make better future decisions as a result.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class C"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A28"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "5"] 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Bb5 Nxc3 7. bxc3 Bd7 8. d4 Bd6 9. O-O O-O 10. Be2 Re8 11. Qc2 e4 12. Nd2 {now e4 becomes an easy target to focus on, although the position is still equal.} Re6 $2 13. f4 { here I believed my opponent a little too much, when he failed to defend e4, although the text move is also good for White.} (13. Nxe4 {I correctly saw there was a threat for Black involving ...Qh4, which made me avoid this line. However the engine shows that this is unnecessary, since Black's attack just looks scary rather than being effective.} Qh4 (13... Bxh2+ 14. Kxh2 Qh4+ 15. Kg1 Qxe4 16. Qxe4 Rxe4 17. f3 Ree8 18. Kf2 $16) 14. f4 Rh6 15. h3 Rg6 16. Bf3 Bxh3 17. Nxd6 cxd6 $16 {and White is fine.}) 13... exf3 14. Nxf3 $16 {here Komodo considers White to be about the equivalent of a pawn ahead. The central pawns are quite powerful and I have some nice open lines on the kingside.} Re8 15. Bd3 h6 16. e4 {mobilizing the central pawn majority} Bg4 17. e5 {this is premature; I should bring more pieces into play first, or (as shown by the engine) challenge the Bg4, which is Black's only good piece on the kingside at the moment.} (17. h3 {would help get the pesky bishop out of the way. For example} Bh5 18. e5 {now this pawn advance has more bite, since g4 is threatened and the bishop has no good square to go to. So} Bxf3 19. Rxf3 $18 { and White is rolling on the kingside with four pieces (queen, two bishops and rook) currently versus zero for Black.}) (17. Rb1 $5 {is a simple move that gets the rook in play and makes life more awkward for Black.}) 17... Be7 $2 { an obvious retreat but not a good one.} (17... Bf8) 18. Rb1 {a good move but not great.} (18. Bc4 $1 $18 {pinning the f-pawn causes major problems for Black, as now Qg6 is threatened.}) 18... Rb8 19. Be4 {right piece to move, but not the best square for it (per above). I thought for a while here on where the best spot for the bishop would be, but ultimately was too focused on queenside play, when in fact the big payoff is on the kingside.} Qd7 20. h3 Bxf3 (20... Be6 {is more solid.}) 21. Rxf3 $18 {with the f-file now open and two strong bishops pointing towards the king, along with the dominating central pawns, I have a major advantage.} Bd8 22. Rg3 {going for the somewhat cheap-looking, but still effective, threat of Bxh6.} (22. Qf2 $5) 22... Nxd4 23. Qd3 {seeking to avoid having to take on d4 with the pawn and then give Black ...Qxd4+. However, that would in fact be fine for White as well.} (23. cxd4 Qxd4+ 24. Kh1 Rxe5 {here I was too materialistic and thought that the three pawns for a piece wasn't a good deal for me.} 25. Bh7+ Kh8 26. Bb2 $18) 23... Rxe5 24. cxd4 Rh5 25. Bb2 {lining up against g7.} (25. Rxb7 $5 {would pursue a simpler winning strategy, based on my material advantage.} Rxb7 26. Bxb7 Bf6 27. d5 $18) 25... Bg5 26. Rf1 {now all pieces are in on the attack and the engine evaluates this as the equivalent of White having an extra piece and then some.} Re8 27. Qf3 $6 {a significant slip, since it would be much better to double the rooks on the f-file rather than leading with the queen. Also, the lack of a battery on the b1-h7 diagonal leaves me with fewer options for the bishop and allows Black's next move. I did not in fact have a concrete plan here.} (27. Rgf3 Bf6 28. Rxf6 $1 gxf6 29. d5 $18 {and Black's king is stripped of cover.}) 27... Rh4 {well played. Black now starts taking back some of the initiative by making his own threats, the first in a while.} 28. Bf5 Qb5 29. Qc3 {now I am responding more to Black's threats than looking for my own.} (29. Bd3 {would take advantage of the weakness on f7.} Qd7 30. Qxb7 $18) 29... Rf4 30. Rxf4 Bxf4 31. Rf3 $2 {missing the way to keep an advantage. The position is now equal.} (31. Bd3 $1 $18 {extracts the bishop with tempo, also saving the Rg3.}) 31... Qxf5 {by this point the game has fully turned around and Black is the one with all the threats. Psychologically this was a blow and I was tired of calculating variations, prompting the next error.} 32. g3 $4 { this in fact should now lose.} (32. Bc1 {is in fact the only move to preserve the draw, as it blocks Black's next.}) 32... Qb1+ 33. Rf1 Qxa2 $2 {allowing me to draw.} (33... Be3+ {should win for Black.}) 34. Rxf4 {at least I was able to correctly calculate the next sequence.} Re2 35. Rf2 Qb1+ 36. Bc1 Rxf2 37. Kxf2 $11 {now the engine evaluates the position as dead drawn.} Qf5+ 38. Kg2 Qe4+ 39. Kf2 Qf5+ 40. Kg2 Qe4+ 41. Kf2 1/2-1/2

23 August 2017

What to think about on your opponent's time

While the Simplified Thought Process (that works) I think is a good practical framework, there are some aspects of it that could use more depth.  One aspect that can have a major impact on play - since on average it will occupy half of your time during a game - is what to think about on your opponent's time. The famous Botvinnik quote, which I paraphrased in the above-linked comments section, is a good place to start:
When my opponent's clock is going I discuss general considerations in an internal dialogue with myself. When my own clock is going I analyse concrete variations.
(From http://chess-quotes.blogspot.com/2014/07/botvinnik.html)
I've been participating in more tournaments recently, and the experience has reminded me of the importance of efficient clock use.  Not just to avoid time trouble, but to really make the most of your limited available time and get the best result you can.  The idea of not analyzing concrete variations on your opponent's time is indeed very efficient, since unless time is short or there are obvious forcing moves on the board, mathematically speaking you will inevitably spend the majority of your thinking time on variations that will never get played.  This process may not be a complete waste of time, as you should be spotting available ideas for both you and your opponent.  However, I think there are much more efficient (and less mentally tiring) ways of identifying key ideas and even concrete sequences, than to be constantly calculating speculative variations.

So that still leaves us with what to think about when it's your opponent's move.  "General considerations" per the above quote is quite vague, and I've often seen it paraphrased as "positional considerations" - but I would argue that is misleading.  "Positional" characteristics or general considerations about the board position can (and should) in fact encompass things like tactical ideas, including up to short sequences.  These often will not be playable ideas - yet - and therefore cannot be calculated like true variations, but they help uncover the potential of the position and also offer strategic goals to work towards.

(Important! It's always necessary to think about your opponent's ideas as well as your own - so do this for both sides. This should come naturally when it's your opponent's move, as you are looking for his threats and trying to identify his plans in order to stop them.)

As a practical approach, I would suggest starting by recognizing important general positional features, followed by identifying more specific ideas involving individual pieces.  One outline for this process would be:
  • Explicit recognition of the open lines - diagonals and files - available for use, and possibilities for opening additional lines (including via sacrifices)
  • Visualizing the pieces' "power projection" along both open and closed lines.  Another way this idea can be expressed is as perceiving "lines of force" that emanate from each of your pieces along their movement axes; knights have an "arc" of force around them.  Being able to constantly perceive the pieces' power in this manner is very helpful for spotting latent tactics, for example those involving discovered attacks and backward movements, and I would say is another indicator that you are becoming a stronger chess player.
  • Noting all loose pieces, including ones that are pressured and could become underprotected. One of the most basic mantras for tactical sight is "Loose Pieces Drop Off" (LPDO)
  • Pawn levers / breaks that will open up the position and change it significantly (as in Annotated Game #176)
To get at the full potential of your pieces, the idea of conducting a piece "status examination" as presented in Understanding Chess Tactics is a valuable one and can quite profitably be done by you on your opponent's time.  This goes beyond "LPDO" and forces you to evaluate the status of each piece - what is it doing right now?  Is it vulnerable to a threat by my opponent?  Can it threaten anything? etc.  These lead to tactical ideas, but also strategic goals, as one of the most important ideas in general with chess strategy is to improve the position of your worst pieces; this will naturally result in a stronger position and give you more options.  Some specific considerations:
  • What is your worst piece - in other words, which piece is "not playing" for you right now? How can you best improve it? Common options include moving it towards the center (which automatically increases the "power projection" of all pieces except rooks); opening lines (via pawn moves, moving other pieces out of the way, etc.); or simply maneuvering the piece to a new square where it has more activity (for example on an open line), especially when it can directly influence key squares in the enemy camp.
  • Be on the lookout for potential near-term forks / double attacks that can be conducted by each piece, as the most common tactic.
  • Examine potential pawn advances, especially by passed pawns, for both their tactical and strategic power.
  • Evaluate where you currently have the best prospects for active play on the board: queenside, center or kingside.  This can change based on your pieces' status and tactical possibilities.
As with the original Simplified Thought Process description, the above isn't intended to be 100% comprehensive, but should help fill in some of the more important "general considerations" when thinking on your opponent's time.

20 August 2017

Annotated Game #176: Follow the mental toughness rule

This next first-round tournament game is a Classical Caro-Kann that goes into uncharted territory relatively early on (move 8). I am unable to correctly take advantage of my opponent's opening deviations, and more importantly miss - consciously reject, actually - a major idea of the position (the ...c5 break, which at various times ranged in potency from advantageous to devastating). However, I still manage to execute some good ideas and my opponent eventually goes seriously astray.

Despite the relatively low number of moves, I took quite a lot of time in making decisions move after move, which resulted in mental tiredness. My lack of board vision clarity lead to missing an advantageous tactic (in this case, a tactical defense of the e6 pawn, preventing a knight fork). As a result, as you'll see, the evaluation of the position goes up and down in rapid succession. In the end position, I still have an advantage, but I was low on the clock and mentally not prepared to continue after such a disappointment, although I should have.

First-round games in tournaments are often mental "warm-ups", so we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves too early, but I think I can and should do better. Taking less thinking time because I already know effective ideas in a position will help (...c5!), as will better energy management. Finally, it's all-important to follow the mental toughness rule of not taking a draw unless the position on the board is, in fact, known to be drawn. This rule has given me great success when I have followed it, and I only have myself to blame for the results when I don't.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B19"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "60"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "5"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nf6 8. Bf4 {not in the database. My opponent had evidently not seen the previous move before and was looking to try to take advantage of it.} Nd5 {choosing to immediately challenge the bishop. I wanted to try to take advantage of my opponent's opening deviation - a commendable goal, but this is probably not the best way to do it.} (8... e6 $5 {with straightforward development is simpler.}) 9. Bxb8 Qxb8 {this is the wrong recapture. The engine points out the below variation.} 10. a3 (10. Ne5 {targeting the Bg6 and f7 square, awkwardly for Black.} Qc7 11. Bc4 e6 12. Nxg6 fxg6 $14 {and it looks pretty ugly.}) 10... e6 {unlike earlier, I should now have taken advantage of the Nd5's placement, rather than play "normal" moves.} (10... Ne3 {is the computer line. I had actually thought about this possibility during the game, but wrongly turned it down as too "gimmicky".} 11. fxe3 Qxg3+ 12. Kd2 O-O-O $15) 11. h5 {while this is a standard idea in the mainline Caro-Kann, here White has less to back it up, in terms of putting together a kingside attack.} Bh7 12. Qd2 $6 {this is in fact a very problematic move for White. I'm assuming that he originally wanted to prepare to castle queenside.} (12. Bd3 Bxd3 13. Qxd3 $11) 12... Bd6 $17 {develops and threatens to win a pawn by exchanging on g3.} 13. Ne2 O-O {at this point I have a significant advantage in development, thanks to my castled king, good piece placement, and my opponent's blocked-in Bf1.} 14. g3 {smart, to take away the f4 square from me and blunt the h2-b8 diagonal.} b5 {played to restrain c4 and maintain the Nd5.} (14... c5 $5 { is evaluated as slightly better by the engine. It would more quickly open lines in the center, an important consideration with White still not being castled. I rejected it at the time, thinking that it would free up White's minor pieces by giving him the d4 square to occupy with a knight.}) 15. c3 a5 { the idea being to target and break up the queenside pawns, giving White's king even less cover.} 16. Bg2 Qc7 {a bit of a wasted move.} (16... Be4 $5 {would be annoying for White.}) (16... Rd8 {would get the rook in the game, lining up on the Qd2.}) 17. b3 b4 {not a bad move, but I'm focusing too much on pawn play on the a/b files and not considering the c-pawn break, or bringing in other pieces.} 18. c4 Nf6 {not the logical follow-up. This would have been a logical choice earlier, to reposition the knight, but now there is more pressing business.} (18... bxa3 {would maintain the advantage, given the threat of ...Bb4.} 19. c5 Be7 20. Rxa3 Bf6 $17) 19. a4 $5 (19. c5 $5 $11 { closing off the c-pawn break permanently.}) 19... Rad8 {now I really should be well-placed for a central breakthrough. However, the mental block I have on the c-pawn lever prevents me from accomplishing it.} 20. Qb2 Be4 $17 {not a bad move, but I'm still refusing to play the c5 break.} (20... c5 $1 $19 { and White now has to think about getting his king to safety, while having weaknesses in the center and on h5.}) 21. Rc1 Ng4 $15 22. Rh4 f5 $19 { maintaining the Ng4 on its outpost.} 23. c5 {now this doesn't help White nearly as much as it would have previously.} Be7 24. Nf4 {targeting the e6 pawn with a triple fork, which I was very worried about during the game; however, this should not be effective for him tactically. If I get the two bishops off of the file, then I can simply pin the knight on e6. I did not realize this at the time, unfortunately.} Bxh4 {good but not best.} (24... Bxf3 25. Bxf3 Bxh4 $19) 25. Nxh4 Bd5 $2 $11 {far too conservative, and still missing the e-file pin which tactically protects e6. This position is now equal.} (25... Bxg2 26. Nhxg2 Rfe8 $19) 26. Kf1 Rde8 27. Re1 Qd7 28. f3 Nf6 29. Nhg6 Qf7 30. Nxf8 Rxf8 $17 {at this point I took a draw as I did not see any way to make real progress and (the real reason) I was also very disappointed at missing a win. But of course the h5 pawn is hanging and the draw outcome was quite premature. So the moral of the story is that nothing good comes of violating the "no draws unless the position is actually drawn" rule.} 1/2-1/2

24 July 2017

DVD completed: The English Four Knights (For Both Colors) Volumes 1-2

I recently completed the two-DVD set from ChessLecture.com "The English Four Knights - For Both Colors", which is presented by IM David Vigorito.  This is my first experience with ChessLecture, which has been around for a while.  In terms of production values, it's a no-frills DVD, with a rather basic-looking 2-D board and audio narration.  So in that respect it doesn't provide extras like the ChessBase Fritztrainer products' interactive quizzes, included databases and live video of the presenter.  However, as long as the substance is sound, I think the extras are just that - extras - and the basic lecture format is still effective.

As a longtime player of the English, I used this product to supplement my understanding of the different Four Knights variations and get a more professional perspective on my preferences.  IM Vigorito does a good job covering the breadth of options for White, looking at all of the realistic move four White options (4. a3, d3, d4, e4, e3 and g3, in ascending order of popularity) as well as helpfully touching on some earlier move-order options for both sides, particularly after an earlier g3 by White.  If you play the English as White, then especially at the Class level the Four Knights will likely be encountered very often, so you should have one of the major lines prepared.  As Black, it's a good choice for a defense, with a lot of natural moves.

Some other personal observations:
  • Unlike the case with many opening products, IM Vigorito does truly present the opening from the point of view of both sides, without evident bias and balanced content.  He has personal experience with both White and Black in these lines, which helps.
  • The lecture provides additional depth of understanding in many lines by explaining how certain move alternatives don't work, including common ideas that you may well encounter over the board at the Class level, rather than simply focusing only on the "best" theoretical lines.  I value this because it really helps with learning the "why" behind opening lines and what you can do to take concrete advantage of deviations made by your opponent.
  • From the point of view of an improving player, it was in fact helpful to look at the entire lecture series, rather than just the ones that pertained to my particular repertoire choices.  IM Vigorito provides insightful commentary throughout on typical setups, traps and concepts which can be applicable to similar position-types, or that are just good to know in general for your chess.  In my own case, I think being less narrow-minded and understanding how different openings work has been important to strengthening my overall game.
  • The DVD lecture is good for either a first intro to the Four Knights, or as supplemental material for study; it's not comprehensive and doesn't pretend to be.  I found it a little short on the 4. e3 variations, although they generally get good treatment, and there is just too much theory on 4. g3 to be looked at in real depth, although the various major choices are presented well.  IM Vigorito notes this himself and points out where you will need to be much more independently booked up if you decide to play certain variations.

11 July 2017

Your first (serious) chess tournament

Image result for world open chess tournament
(World Open 2014 playing hall, from The Chess Drum)

Some first serious chess tournaments are disasters, and some are disappointments; rarely are they triumphs, although when newcomers with some real training enter the (typically) lowest section of the tournament as an "unrated" player, they may do quite well their first time out.

I ended up with an even score in my first tournament, a classic four-round "weekend swiss", in which I won my first game (which you can see in "Why I Play the Slav").  I was a young teenager at the time, which is a fairly common time to start trying organized and competitive chess, although a number of people now start out in scholastic tournaments at a young age, while others may come to the game only after they develop chess as a serious pastime in adulthood.

My first rating was in the low 1400s, which I was satisfied with.  Nowadays, especially in the USA, it's common to have a lower rating when first starting out, due to the depressing effects of scholastic chess on the lower end of the Elo scale; when I began, it was unusual to see anyone in an organized tournament below 1200 and almost never below 1000.  As related in "What I Learned From My 1st Chess Tournament" over at Chess.com - well worth the read, as it's done by a professional writer - it's now more typical to start out with a rating in the triple digit range, which can magnify the shock and disorientation that often accompanies the first tournament experience, and perhaps lead to a (hopefully temporary) bout of depression at your future chess prospects.  I would liken it to running a competitive race (say a 10K) after having simply jogged for exercise for a while - it's really a different level of experience and one that is likely to be humbling.

After you complete the tournament and mentally process the whole experience, either you become energized and want to raise the level of your game - what I think most people's ultimate reaction is - or you never (or perhaps only after a long gap) go back to competitive chess.  An example of the latter case is that of former blogger Blue Devil Knight - whose chess blog used to be good - who essentially was traumatized after choosing to play in the World Open for his first tournament experience.  To use the same analogy as above, this is like jogging for exercise for a while and then trying to run the Boston Marathon as your first real race.  Basically, this is not recommended for anyone.

While I think preparation for any chess tournament is best done by continually working on your skills and your mental toughness, I'll offer some specific suggestions for setting yourself up for a first tournament success (or at least avoiding feeling like it will be a complete disaster).  I'm also curious if people have other particularly relevant tips, or could offer helpful (or cautionary) examples from their own early tournament experiences.  (Note: these are intended primarily for people going to over-the-board tournaments, but I think largely apply to "serious" online tournaments, especially ones with slower time controls.)
  • Do have a basic opening repertoire, which will help define what types of games you can expect to play.  Memorization of variations is less important than understanding key ideas, typical moves, and common plans.  Having an opening framework will also help you better understand the games afterwards when analyzing them.
  • Don't worry about your rating either before or after the tournament.  Ratings fear and loathing is all too common, and is nicely illustrated in the Chess.com article linked above.  Your rating will simply reflect your current performance and over time will track with your overall strength.  What is more important is where you go after you get your first rating, rather than what it is exactly.
  • Do warm up by playing games similar to tournament conditions in terms of time control, rules (no takebacks, touch move applies), and mental focus.  Humans make the best opponents, but it's possible to configure chess software to play at a level appropriate for sparring.  If you can't exactly replicate tournament conditions, it's all right, just don't play blitz 100% of the time and think it will directly translate into tournament effectiveness.
  • Do show up early at the tournament site and read all of the posted rules.  Be sure to know the standard tournament rules about things like how to handle touch move, draw offers, claiming a draw by three times repetition, when to stop your clock during a dispute, etc.  Most of these things are in fact quite simple, but if you are not sure of the procedure, it can easily throw you off your game if you run across them.  Also inform one of the tournament directors that it is your first tournament, which may gain you some extra sympathy and attention, and at least will signal to the TDs that they should make some extra effort to explain things when needed.
  • Don't get discouraged by losses during the tournament (or afterwards).  If you continue with competitive chess, there will inevitably be a lot more of them.  You will also win eventually if you concentrate on playing the position on the board well, rather than on your own or your opponent's ratings.
  • Do (as mentioned above) keep a legible, accurate record of your games and analyze them once your brain has returned to normal after the tournament.  You will find improvements for both yourself and your opponents; if you treat it as a marvelously fascinating learning process rather than a way to beat yourself up, you'll make progress.

06 June 2017

Training quote of the day #11: Wesley So

2017 U.S. Champion Wesley So
From a front-page article on GM Wesley So, published in the June 6, 2017 print edition of the Washington Post:
"...chess is not just about playing. It’s other aspects. I have to improve my mental state. I have to be tougher, more confident, more comfortable playing the top guys...And I also need to improve my physical conditioning, because each game can last to anywhere up to six hours and each tournament usually has around 10 games, so that’s a lot of work, and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.”

29 May 2017

How to think for yourself in opening preparation

One of the "secrets" of advancing towards mastery in chess, as in many other disciplines, is that the more advanced you get, the more you should be thinking for yourself in order to make real progress, not just uncritically following other people's recommendations.  In chess, I would say that this process of independent thinking should start relatively early on, once you get past the initial technical subjects to be learned such as mates, identifying and constructing tactics, fundamental opening principles, and basic endgames.  All phases of the game require independent thought, evaluation and judgment.  At the most basic level, chess players need to answer for themselves the question why they are making each move.

The opening in particular is subject to a near-overwhelming amount of advice and provision of expert information, in the form of instructional material (books/DVDs/etc.), computer engine evaluations, and database statistics.  It's certainly a good idea to take advantage of others' expert preparation and work, although it's debatable as to how much effort an improving player should put proportionally on opening preparation, versus middlegame and endgame skills.

Regardless of the total amount of effort spent on opening selection, evolving your repertoire, practice and understanding holistic concepts, I believe it's important to underline the benefits of doing serious evaluations of your opening lines (and finding new ones when necessary).  This level of mental engagement will not only serve to strengthen your overall repertoire, it will - perhaps even more importantly - boost your recall and effectiveness when playing the openings in question, as you are regularly and actively evaluating different lines and their resulting positions.

This type of active management of your openings is easily implemented using a simple database structure, which can be updated whenever you run across related material.  A recent personal example of doing this on a systematic level was comparing the recommendations in Play the Caro-Kann (made easier by its e-book format) with my repertoire database and evaluating the author's recommendations.  By no means did I accept all of her ideas, but studying the differences and determining why I preferred one line over another (or perhaps an entire variation) was valuable in itself.  This process is also quite useful when going over individual master-level annotated games that you come across, as in the Gormally example below.

Computer tools can be quite valuable for your preparation, but also misunderstood or misused.

Database programs easily display for you the most popular and highest-scoring lines, but their statistics can be misleading in various ways.  On the positive side, databases can identify shifts in popularity of particular lines and you can relatively easily pick out the important games that cause them.  On the other hand, sometimes there is a quick shift away from using a particular line that means the "old" (and maybe busted) version still has a relatively high percentage result, one of the reasons why you have to evaluate lines for yourself.
  • Popularity may also depend on the predicted result of the line - for example, many people may avoid a frequent drawing line as White, but perhaps you in fact want to have that as a solid weapon against higher-rated players.  Other lines may be unbalancing or relatively risky, but again that may be exactly what you need, as long as you understand the trade-offs in the positions you reach.
  • It matters which databases you use and why.  Correspondence games can be far more accurate than OTB collections, for example, so are very valuable to theory.  For practical use in OTB or online tournaments, though, it can be a bad decision to pick the theoretically "best" line if it runs 20+ moves of memorization, with multiple branching variations, and any deviation from it will likely benefit your opponent.
Engine recommendations also cut both ways.  They can be helpful, mainly for checking tactics and ideas to see what responses are likely and/or best.  They can also be potentially harmful to your game away from the computer.  Anyone who has worked extensively with engines knows that they may come up with certain moves in the opening that may look all right in the short term, but go against the main (human) ideas for the opening and so will cause problems 10-15 moves later.  One example I ran across early in my studies was in the main line of the Caro-Kann Exchange Variation, where most engines (even up until recently) evaluated 7...Na5 as best; you can even still see this on the ChessBase LiveBook with Fritz evaluations showing this as recently as 2016.  However, as Fischer-Petrosian (Belgrade 1970) and others have shown, it really does not work very well in practice.
  • Sometimes engine preparation can also give you a false sense of security, as illustrated by this entertaining example from GM Danny Gormally on a failed experiment in the Slav's Geller Gambit (as White).  On a practical level, I found his annotations useful and adjusted my own related Slav repertoire line as a result - but only after checking other database lines and engine possibilities and looking for myself at the positions.
  • Some computer products will give you a hard-coded numeric engine evaluation for literally every opening move, or you can replicate that by just running an engine.  I don't believe that these are very helpful in general and to evaluate lines you will have to follow them to the end and understand the why rather than letting something like a computer's "+0.25" fully define your view of them.
On a broader level, I think it's also important to understand and acknowledge the amount of work that will be needed in order to understand your chosen opening's positions and typical middlegame plans, then execute them in practice.  Some level of memorization is needed, if not of entire variations then things like key ideas, squares and principles for a particular opening.  Examples include the central important of the d5 square in the English Opening, the theme of the f5-f4 pawn advance in the Dutch, and the critical importance of the light-square bishop for Black in the King's Indian.  This type of opening lore I think is among the most valuable information for improving players and is why finding insightful explanatory material or having a coach who understands and can impart these principles is more important than following the latest professional theory, which often times is only expressed in long variations.

In the end, perhaps it's best to recall Kortchnoi's advice (mentioned in Annotated Game #175) to just go ahead and start playing a new opening, as - if you analyze your own games - that is how you will learn best what works and what doesn't in the opening.