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