18 May 2020

Video completed - Studies in: The Caro-Kann Defense 2

I recently completed the "Studies in: The Caro-Kann Defense 2" DVD. This second volume, including content from IM David Vigorito and IM Bryan Smith, is more systematic than volume 1 in examining several different Caro-Kann variations, although example games still play a role in the presentations. As with the first one, the comments about typical plans involving piece placement and how to evaluate the resulting positions are for me the most valuable parts.

This volume's contents are actually an older collection of ChessLecture.com videos than were in the first one, so the order of the two "Studies" volumes seems backwards. You're probably better off starting with volume 2, although it doesn't matter all that much. This volume is somewhat more oriented toward looking at the opening from the Black point of view, although different White approaches are objectively looked at as well, and the White point of view is taken in the "Fantasies" sections at the end.

Summary of contents, with comments, follows. Note that the "PGN included" mentioned on the cover is a file with just a single unannotated game (Tiviakov-Dreev) and does not include any of the other games mentioned in the lectures, which is a bit disappointing (and deceptive marketing - come on guys, you're better than that).

Classical Caro-Kann 4...Bf5: Part I (Tiviakov - Dreev)
  • First part is general concepts and theory
  • Looks at two Black responses to 5. Nc5
  • Shows move-order trick if White delays playing h4
  • Looks at 6. N1e2 with early ...Bd6 response from Black
  • 6. Nf3 - good explanation of why Black does not exchange bishops on d3; a "let's just play chess" type of move; Black plan is to go for ...c5 or ...b5 advance
  • 6. f4 - again an early ...Bd6 response followed by ...Ne7
  • 6. Bc4 is considered the main sideline, followed by N1e2; 7...Bd6 response again considered the most safe
  • Tivakov-Dreev is shown as a miniature win for Black in the 6. Bc4 line
Classical Caro-Kann 4...Bf5: Part II
  • Covers main line with 6. h4
  • Good explanation of move-order significance of 7. Nf3 vs. h5 as follow-up for White
  • Gets into the Bf4 vs Bd2 options for White and Black's responses, with kingside castling plan
  • IM Vigorito then focuses on the old queenside castling plan for Black, which is still playable
  • Analysis extends into middlegame and endgame in these lines
Advance Caro-Kann for Black: Part I
  • Done by IM Vigorito from Black's point of view, with 3...Bf5; says 3...c5 is "interesting but risky" and doesn't treat it further
  • Focuses on "sharp" lines by White (4. Nc3 followed by g4)
  • Black should reply with a plan involving ...c5, according to Vigorito
  • Some similarities to French structures, including Winawer
  • A few possibilities are highlighted in response to White moves, but a clear recommendation is given in each case, with evaluations explained succinctly for both strategic and tactical points
Advance Caro-Kann for Black: Part II
  • "Slower" lines overview - more positional
  • 4. Nf3 - Short system; White idea of opening the position with c4
  • As with other lectures, examines what doesn't work for strategic/tactical reasons and why
  • 4. Be3
  • Other miscellaneous possibilities on move 4; have to be careful with 4. h4 as Black
  • Talks about knowing where the pieces should go, not rush with ...c5 as the main principles
Fantasies in the Caro-Kann
  • IM Bryan Smith - looks at the Fantasy Variation (3. f3), from White's point of view; has played it a dozen times in tournaments, with good results
  • Original critical line is 3...dxe4 followed by 4...e5
  • Both sides can get in trouble early if not following optimal path; Black's problem is getting too greedy or neglecting development, White's is allowing exchanges instead of developing
  • Other main options for Black include 3...e6, 3...g6; former can turn into an Advance French
  • Some stream of consciousness instead of preparation and analysis when discussing example games
Fantasies in the Caro-Kann: Part II: Odds & Ends
  • Fantasy variation from the White point of view again, with less common Black replies (3...e5, 3...Nf6, 3...Qb6)
  • Some slightly annoying microphone issues (rasping sound) degrade the audio quality
  • A fairly detailed look at the various options for both sides
  • Of interest mostly for White players of this variation, although if Black wants to play one of the choices it's worth a look.

17 May 2020

Annotated Game #244: Is it equal?

This second-round tournament game, against an Expert in a Classical Caro-Kann sideline, is an interesting look at what "equal" means and how it can be wrongly evaluated. One of the recurring themes found in my own game analysis, mentioned before here, is that the result of an assumed "equal" piece exchange in reality favors one side. As Black, one of the strategic errors I make early on is 9...Bxf3, which is an unforced trade of bishop for knight while the position is relatively open. A common amateur mistake is to blindly follow a strategy of trading down pieces against a significantly higher-rated opponent, thinking that fewer pieces automatically means a more "equal" game. In reality, it usually just plays into the strengths of your opponent, who is probably better at endgames and exploiting small positional advantages than you are.

Despite a few other inaccuracies, I actually do manage to achieve real equality in reaching a K+P endgame - which shows the benefits of stubborn and careful play - but I crack under pressure eventually with a miscalculation. Having a better "automatic" idea of what to do during endgames should help avoid this in the future, as it is too draining energy-wise to have to try to switch on your full internal calculating machine all the time, especially in a long game.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Expert"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B18"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "107"] {B18: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 sidelines} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Nf3 Nf6 7. h4 Nh5 {my opponent was surprised by this move-order trick, clearly had not seen it before.} 8. Nxh5 Bxh5 9. Be2 { pursuing normal development by breaking the pin on the Nf3.} Bxf3 $146 { this is a novelty because it is a bad idea strategically. The position is too open to give away the two bishops advantage so quickly.} (9... Nd7 {remains equal.} 10. Bf4 e6 11. Ne5 Bxe2 12. Qxe2 Be7 13. O-O-O O-O 14. Kb1 Nxe5 15. Bxe5 Re8 16. Rd3 Bf8 17. h5 f6 18. Bf4 Qd5 19. Rg1 Rad8 20. g4 Qb5 21. Qe4 c5 22. Rb3 Qa4 23. Qxb7 cxd4 24. Bc1 Re7 {Garcia,G (2485)-Campora,D (2550) Zaragoza 1992 0-1 (70)}) (9... e6 {is the other choice, which also looks reasonable.}) 10. Bxf3 $16 {Komodo already evaluates White as significantly better here.} e6 11. g3 {protecting the h-pawn so White can castle.} Bd6 12. O-O Qc7 {there's no need to commit the queen this early.} (12... Nd7 $5) 13. Qe2 Nd7 14. Be3 O-O {I had felt pretty good about the position here, in terms of keeping it solid, although objectively White has all the pluses. However, unless he plays vigorously, I should be able to improve things, which is what happens in the game.} 15. Bg2 (15. c4 {would be more to the point here, among other things taking away ideas of Nd7-f6-d5.}) 15... Rfe8 {thinking about a potential ...e5 break and lining up on White's queen. The rook was doing less on the f-file, I felt.} 16. Rad1 {White centralizes a rook in turn, supporting the d-pawn.} Nf6 17. Bg5 Be7 18. c3 {a solid choice.} h6 {with the idea of prompting an exchange and getting rid of the two bishops advantage.} 19. Bf4 Bd6 20. Bxd6 {my opponent couldn't come up with anything better.} Qxd6 $11 { now White has a slight space advantage, but not much else.} 21. Rfe1 Qc7 { allowing for a potential transfer over to the queenside.} 22. Qe5 {this looks like a strong queen centralization, but White does not have enough material on the board for it to translate into a meaningful attack. Best would be to continue with maximizing the Black queen's scope.} Qxe5 (22... Qb6 {keeps more tension.} 23. Rb1 Red8 24. Bf3 Rac8 25. Qe2 a5) 23. dxe5 {my opponent has the evident strategy of outplaying me in the endgame, which the exchange of queens has assisted. The advanced e-pawn, along with the h-pawn, is a better endgame structure for White.} Nd5 {the knight is well centralized, but unfortunately has no targets.} 24. Rd4 Kf8 {with the idea of centralizing the king and moving it to help cover the d-file.} 25. Kf1 Ke7 26. Ke2 Red8 {correctly contesting the d-file.} 27. Red1 Nb6 $6 (27... Rd7 {with the simple but effective plan of doubling rooks, since White cannot do anything useful in the interim.} 28. c4 {was what I was avoiding, but after} Nb6 29. Rxd7+ Nxd7 $11 { Black is completely equal.}) 28. Rxd8 Rxd8 29. Rxd8 Kxd8 $14 {White now has a slight advantage in the BvN endgame, due to his king position and ability to restrict my knight. His bishop is not very effective either, though.} 30. Kd3 Ke7 {this seems logical, but leaves my knight doing nothing. Might as well get it back into the action immediately.} (30... Nd7 $5) 31. b3 {restricting the knight's squares.} Nd5 {this again looks nicely centralized, but the knight would be more effective from d7.} 32. a3 Kd7 33. c4 Ne7 34. Be4 {White is consistently gaining space with his moves. In the absence of an obvious breakthrough, this is a good plan, especially since I do not really understand what I should be doing here to disrupt his plans.} b6 (34... f5 $5 35. exf6 gxf6 {would leave my kingside pawns on squares that could not be targeted by the bishop, and help control the 5th rank.}) 35. g4 (35. c5 {is a more dangerous try.} bxc5 $2 (35... b5 $11) 36. Kc4) 35... c5 {it was good of me to see the dangerous idea and block it for the future.} 36. f4 {the engine shows complete equality, but of course with White pressing forward it did not feel like it at the board. A pawn disruption is what is needed.} Nc6 (36... f5 37. exf6 gxf6 38. g5 fxg5 39. hxg5 hxg5 40. fxg5 Kd6 $11) 37. Bxc6+ Kxc6 $11 { still perfectly equal, but it's easy to go wrong in a K+P ending, which is what my opponent was counting on.} 38. h5 Kd7 39. Kc3 a6 40. Kd3 Ke8 41. g5 { I thought for a long time here and calculated incorrectly.} f6 $4 { unfortunately, this pawn break is now a bad idea with a pawn on g5.} (41... Ke7 $11 {is probably the simplest.}) 42. exf6 $18 gxf6 43. g6 $2 {my Expert-level opponent also goes wrong here, so we blunder back and forth.} ({White should play} 43. gxh6 Kf7 44. f5 exf5 45. Ke3 $18 {with White's rook pawns able to hold off the Black king for a couple of tempi, White's king can gobble the Black f-pawns then head over to the queenside.}) 43... Ke7 $2 (43... f5 $1 { would take away White's access square.}) 44. b4 $2 (44. f5 $18 {with a similar idea as in the above variation.}) 44... a5 $4 (44... f5 $11 {still draws.}) 45. bxc5 $18 {now White finds the killing blow and the rest is forced.} bxc5 46. Ke4 Ke8 (46... f5+ 47. Ke5 $18) 47. f5 Ke7 48. fxe6 Kxe6 49. Kf4 a4 50. Ke4 f5+ 51. Kf4 Kf6 52. g7 Kxg7 53. Kxf5 Kf7 54. Ke5 {White now wins the queenside pawns and can queen a pawn first.} 1-0

13 May 2020

Video completed - Studies in: The Caro-Kann Defense

I recently completed the "Studies in: The Caro-Kann Defense" DVD; a second volume is pending. As with other videos in the ChessLecture.com series, IM David Vigorito uses several games to narrate ideas in the Caro-Kann and also provide concrete analysis of the play into the middle and endgame phases. This is valuable both for a deeper understanding of opening options and - especially important - of the early middlegame plans (good and bad) that may result. A small bonus here is that an (unannotated) PGN file of the five games is included.

Summary of contents, with comments:

The Not-So-Boring Caro-Kann, Game 1 (Gashimov - Ivanchuk)
  • Format limitation: no board flip option in lecture, which has White at the bottom; PGN included, at least, to look at it from the Black perspective later
  • Advance Variation with 3...Bf5
  • Ivanchuk not a frequent C-K player
  • Comparison with Advance French ideas (bishop development vs. less pressure on d4)
  • Useful context on different C-K variations, with 4. Nf3 played in game (Short system)
  • Ideas clearly, succinctly explained from both sides
  • "Poisoned pawn" variation for Black and its endgame refutation
  • Good for general chess understanding / learning
The Not-So-Boring Caro-Kann, Game 2 (Balogh - Rodshtein)
  • Black displayed at the bottom this time
  • Classical Caro-Kann main line
  • Does a good job of explaining move-order effects (Bf4 vs Bd2 for White) and "newer" (1980s actually) castling short plan for Black
  • Looks at White's attacking plan with Ng3-f1 and then g2-g4
  • Black has an amazing sacrificial defense
  • Narration is a little confusing towards the end, as it's not always clear what is analysis and what is the actual game being looked at
The Simple Caro-Kann, Game 3 (LaRocca - Vigorito)
  • How to win with technique; pay attention to details, but not a sharp line like the previous game
  • Demonstrates how a higher-rated opponent can win with it (IM Vigorito vs a master-strength opponent in a club game); somewhat one-sided, but no big blunders
  • Classical Caro-Kann main line
  • More move-order insights, for example regarding the issue of what to do with White's Ng3
  • Discusses best plans for both sides, in terms of piece placement; exactly the kind of explanations that are most valuable, looking at different ideas and their results (including not only the best moves)
Losing the Must Win Game, Game 4 (Ivanov - Vigorito)
  • Tournament position (last round) dictated IM Vigorito (Black) had to try to win to be in the prize money
  • Picked Caro-Kann as his defense due to the lack of (draw) forcing lines; hadn't played before against GM Ivanov, so was a surprise
  • Caro-Kann Exchange variation with 5...Qc7
  • Black ends up with IQP position in the chosen continuation, but with easy development and White has some positional issues (pawns on f3, c3 blocking normal knight development)
  • As with other games, talks about different plans/ideas for early middlegame, including ones that aren't the best, providing insight on what not to do and why
  • Good insight into thinking and evaluation process during the game
Waving a Red Flag at a Bull, Game 5 (Nakamura - Mamedyarov)
  • White displayed on the bottom of the board
  • Advance variation, Short system; discussion of fundamental ideas
  • A follow-up to game 1, with delay of "poison pawn" capture on b2
  • Black overextends in a slightly awkward yet solid position; White in response employs an instructive attacking line

10 May 2020

Annotated Game #243: Battle in the center

This next first-round tournament game features a strategic and tactical battle over the center. Both my opponent and I make a number of key choices about how we fight for it in the opening and early middlegame, with some key points being:
  • The early choice of 3...Nc6 by Black can be solid, but it means the c-pawn will not be involved in the central fight.
  • 8. b3!? would have been an improvement for me, allowing recapture on c4 if necessary and maintaining influence over d5, as well as developing the dark-square bishop.
  • 9. c5! would have created a queenside and central bind in space. 
  • 10. d4 would have controlled e5 and reduced Black's counterplay, but at the time I valued more having an open long diagonal.
  • 11...Ne4 is the root of my opponent's difficulties for much of the game, as the knight looks good there but is too easily undermined, with the game becoming tactical after this.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class D"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A17"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "75"] {A17: English Opening: 1...Nf6 with ...Bb4} 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Nc6 { normally Black plays ...d5 or ...Bb4 here, aiming respectively for a QGD or Nimzo-Indian type setup.} 4. e3 {White has a large number of options here, with d4 probably being the most straightforward.} Bb4 5. Qc2 {keeping with standard Nimzo-Indian type ideas, to recapture on c3 with the queen if needed.} O-O 6. Be2 Bxc3 7. Qxc3 $14 {the queen now has a great diagonal and is unopposed by the dark-square bishop.} d5 8. O-O {I figured I would castle eventually anyway, so did it here, but there are other ways to improve the position first.} (8. b3 $5 {would prepare to recapture on c4 with a pawn, helping control d5, and also open a path for the Bc1 development.}) 8... Qd6 ( 8... dxc4 9. Bxc4 $11) 9. a3 {a missed opportunity. I was concerned about restricting Black's knight, but can do that in a more aggressive manner.} (9. c5 Qe7 10. b4 $16 {Black's remaining bishop is now sealed off from the action and White can implement a bind on the queenside and/or center.}) 9... a5 { this restrains b2-b4, but there were more active options for Black.} (9... e5 $5) 10. b3 {sticking with flank play. I wanted to keep the long diagonal open for the bishop.} (10. d4 $5 $14 {would control e5.}) 10... e5 11. Bb2 Ne4 $6 { a one-move threat against the Qc3 which also puts the knight in a precarious position.} (11... Re8 {would proceed with developing the rook and reinforcing the center.}) 12. Qc2 $16 {a simple retreat that strongly threatens cxd5, undermining the Ne4.} Bf5 {perhaps hoping for some tactics involving the bishop (such as ...Ng3). It would have been best just to retreat with ...Nf6.} (12... f5 $2 {fails to} 13. cxd5 Ne7 (13... Qxd5 $4 14. Bc4) 14. Bxe5 Qd7 15. Qxc7 $18) 13. Bd3 {I spent a lot of time here evaluating the different possibilities, to try and figure out the best way to pressure the Ne4 and use the cxd5 idea that undermines it. I ended up playing the text move as it increased pressure on the b1-h7 diagonal against both e4 and the currently hanging Bg6. It also takes away tactical ideas for Black such as ...Ng3 in some variations, which would otherwise simultaneously attack the Qc2, temporarily protect f5 and attack the Rf1.} (13. d3 {would have been the best "safe" choice.} Nc5 14. cxd5 Qxd5 15. e4 Qxb3 16. Qxb3 Nxb3 17. exf5 Nxa1 18. Rxa1 $16 {material is roughly equal, but White's two bishops confer an advantage.}) (13. cxd5 {is the tactical choice, which I wasn't able to fully calculate.} Qxd5 (13... Ng3 14. d3 Nxe2+ (14... Nxf1 15. dxc6 Nxh2 16. Nxh2 Qxc6 17. Qxc6 bxc6 18. Bxe5 $18) 15. Qxe2 Ne7 16. Bxe5 Qg6 17. e4 Bh3 18. Bg3 $18) 14. Nh4 (14. d3 {goes into the other main variation}) 14... Ng3 15. Nxf5 Nxf5 16. Bd3 $18 {winning a pawn, with the two bishops and White queen running rampant.}) 13... Rfe8 $6 {this does nothing to address the tactical vulnerability of the Bf5/Ne4/d5 structure, so now I am able to find a solution. } ({Better is} 13... Bg6 $1 {and the bishop no longer hangs.}) 14. Nh4 $18 { Black now loses a pawn, but finds a way for the Ne4 to escape.} Bg6 $2 { right idea, just played a move too late.} (14... g6 15. f3 Nc5 16. Nxf5 gxf5 17. Bxf5 d4 18. Bxh7+ Kg7) 15. Nxg6 {this is good enough for a significant advantage, although again cxd5 is a better idea.} fxg6 $2 {this opens the a2-g8 diagonal and weakens the center.} 16. cxd5 {now I play the key tactical idea.} Nc5 {I admit that I didn't initially see the retreat when I began the sequence calculation on move 14, which was a blind spot in my visualization. Backwards moves like these are simply harder to spot, especially when it puts the piece concerned en prise. Although the Nc6 is still hanging - what I saw later - taking it by dxc6 would now expose the underprotected Bd3 to capture, which I missed.} 17. Bc4 {I took some extra time here as well. This move is winning, although not optimal.} (17. dxc6 {is not as good.} Nxd3 18. cxb7 Ra7 $16 19. Qc4+ Kh8 20. Bc3 $18 {here White is two pawns up, but I thought it simplified things too much.}) (17. Bb5 {wins more material, as the Nc6 is now pinned against the Re8.}) 17... Na7 {while this doesn't block one of the defenders of the e5 pawn and allows Black to think about playing ...b5, I can immediately challenge the other knight and pre-empt this idea.} (17... Ne7) 18. b4 axb4 $6 {opening the a-file does not help Black.} (18... Nd7 {immediately is better, although it loses a pawn.} 19. bxa5 Kh8 20. d4 $18) 19. axb4 Nd7 { although I'm only a pawn up, my two bishops are far better than Black's knights, with great diagonals that I can threaten to exploit. My pawn structure gives me a space advantage, and I have various targets to potentially go after, including the Na7, c7, and e5.} 20. Ra2 {the b4 pawn is tactically protected, so I decide to go with a simple plan of increasing pressure along the a-file against the Na7, since it has nowhere it can go without losing material.} Qb6 (20... Qxb4 $2 21. Ba3 Qb6 22. Rb1 Qf6 23. d6+ Kh8 24. dxc7 $18) 21. Rfa1 Kh8 {removing the king from the threat of d5-d6 with a discovered check.} 22. d4 e4 {my opponent makes the best choice in response, as exchanging on d4 would bring my dark-square bishop to life.} 23. Qb3 {without an immediately obvious best way to continue, I choose to generally strengthen my queen position. The b4 pawn is now protected and I have a battery on the a2-g8 diagonal, strengthening the bishop's effectiveness. This in fact proves decisive later on.} Rf8 {my opponent seeks counterplay against f2, with the evident idea of following up by ...Qf6.} 24. Bc3 {this move overprotects b4 and is designed to continue ratcheting the pressure up on the queenside, with the idea of following up by b4-b5 and playing the bishop to either b4 or a5.} Qf6 {an understandable bid for counterplay, including a trappy offer of the Na7. However, I now have a largely forcing continuation that leads to material loss for Black.} 25. d6 {this move wins, although in a more complicated way. I recognized that the pawn could be mobile and the sacrifice would open key lines.} (25. Be1 $5 {is the simplest path to victory, as by protecting f2 the Na7 now truly hangs.}) 25... cxd6 26. Be6 $6 {good enough, although the threat is still not enough to lose a piece for Black, given the continuing weakness on f2.} ({Avoid the trap} 26. Rxa7 $2 Qxf2+ 27. Kh1 Rxa7 $19) 26... Nb6 $2 (26... Rad8 $18 {defends for the time being, although Black is still losing.}) 27. d5 {the point of this move is that now Black can no longer maintain his queen on the f-file. With the threat to f2 gone, the Na7 is now truly hanging and Black must lose a piece. My opponent missed the discovered attack on his queen, having focused on saving the knight on d7.} Nb5 {this would have worked if there was no attack on the queen, as the Ra8 is also now sufficiently protected, but...} 28. Bxf6 Rxa2 29. Bxg7+ $1 {I figured I should buy the bishop's life as dearly as possible; this is known as a desperado tactic.} Kxg7 30. Rxa2 {the game is now effectively over.} Ra8 31. Rxa8 Nxa8 32. Qb2+ {leading to a forced mate. I didn't bother trying to calculate the absolute quickest path, which seemed like a waste of energy by that point.} Kh6 33. Qh8 Nb6 34. Bg8 Kg5 35. Qxh7 Nc4 36. h4+ Kf5 37. Qf7+ Ke5 38. Qe6# 1-0

04 May 2020

Book completed: The Stonewall Attack

In searching for an alternative opening as White (although I expect to continue to use the English Opening as my primary), I eventually settled on learning the Stonewall Attack, largely because I had put a good deal of time into studying the Dutch Stonewall as Black. While the defense has a robust if not particularly large collection of book and video publications dedicated to it, the White side has relatively few - really, almost none - professional-level ones. The Kenilworthian's 2012 blog post on "The Stonewall in Black and White" is probably the best compilation of resources on the Stonewall, although now somewhat dated from the Black perspective. (It's not dated for White because so little has been done on it.)

Andrew Martin's Foxy video on the Stonewall Attack and Colle Zukertort is still being produced (my summary of the e-DVD content is in the link), but the only dedicated book by a GM is The Stonewall Attack by Andrew Soltis (Chess Digest, 2nd edition, 1993). I recently completed it using the legit downloadable (PDF) version you can find on Scribd.com; the book itself has been out of print for some time. The Kenilworthian post mentioned above praised it as a resource, but offered no details.

It was interesting to see that the structure and recommendations of Andrew Martin's video closely parallel those of Soltis, although to be fair Martin focuses on more recent example games that are not included in Soltis' work. I expect it would be better to read the book first when beginning a study of the opening, since it provides a deeper conceptual foundation, then look at the video presentation for additional commentary and updated modern examples.

I have to say that The Stonewall Attack has become one of my favorite chess opening books - probably chess books in general - because it is both enjoyable to go through and effective in its presentation. Soltis is a prolific and excellent writer; here he clearly enjoys his subject, digging into some of the opening's history - games from Capablanca, Marshall, Pillsbury and other top players from the first part of the 20th century are featured in the chapters - while discussing the various setups and approaches. There is for me a near-ideal balance of conceptual explanations, variations and examples. Some repetition of material occurs from certain example games, but from a learning perspective I felt this was actually a good thing, to help reinforce particular ideas.

Soltis also does certain things I appreciate, such as not sugar-coating things (the Stonewall is respected but not over-sold as a wonder weapon for White), highlighting move-order options that are often neglected, and calibrating his annotations and explanations to an amateur audience, including explanations of variations and moves which are bad/losing, not just focusing on best play for both sides. For improving players, I find this to be a crucial point in gaining chess strength, since rarely will both sides follow the "best" plan in an opening below master level (or even then).

I find studying the Stonewall Attack to be useful for both general chess skill and as a practical opening weapon. It's not just for historical purposes, either, as I was reminded when I saw Anand using it as White to beat an expert-level player in the recent Indian GM online simul at Chess.com (see the game vs. Fllinc, with a full transposition by move 14). Maybe Anand wouldn't play it at a top-level GM tournament, but he nevertheless knows how to play it successfully.

Below is a summary of the contents of the book, for those who may be interested in taking a closer look. It's worth noting that this is not a repertoire book, so both White and Black sides get examined from a number of different perspectives, with many options presented in the text.

This is a narrative introduction to Stonewall Attack ideas and history, covering five games from 1890 (Gunsberg-Tchigorin) to 1992 (Mohammed-Denker).

CHAPTER ONE: The Matter of Move Order
This is a more sophisticated introduction to early concepts and move-orders, for example using a Colle System to start and later playing Nf3-e5 and f2-f4. One point is that the Stonewall Attack should not be treated as a "system" opening in which the same moves are always made in the same order, regardless of what your opponent does, although Soltis recommends beginning with 1.d4 followed by 2. e3 and 3. Bd3. The chapter also contains the high-level clash Yusupov-Anand, Linares 1991.

CHAPTER TWO: Stonewall Strategies
(1) Simple Kingside Attack
(2) Good vs. Bad Bishops
(3) Queenside Play: The Open and Half-Open C-file
(4) The Pawn Re-Capture on d3
(5) Double Stonewall
(6) The Advance of the e-Pawn

CHAPTER THREE: The "Theoretically Best" Defense
Here Soltis deals with the primary theoretical recommendation for Black (3...Nc6) and also points out the move 3...Bg4 as a strong alternative idea.

CHAPTER FOUR: The Traditional Defense
This covers what most Black players are likely to play if not very familiar with the Stonewall Attack, which is a Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) formation with ...c5 included.

CHAPTER FIVE: Black Fianchettoes
Here we see Black going into either a reversed Dutch Stonewall, where standard plans/ideas apply, or setting up a King's Indian Defense (KID) or Queen's Indian Defense (QID), which require different treatments from White.

Although these games are sometimes quoted in the main text, here Soltis presents them in full. It's great fun to play over these old games and feel that they are still relevant to our understanding of the positions.
#1: Sultan Khan - A. Rubinstein, Prague (Olympiad) 1931
#2: Marshall - Rubinstein, Vienna 1908
#3: Horowitz - Amateur, New York 1950
#4: Kmoch - Nagy, Budapest 1926
#5: Santasiere - Adams, United States 1940
#6: Lipke - Zinki, Leipzig 1894
#7: Lipke - Schiffers, Leipzig 1894
#8: Pillsbury - Hanham, New York 1893

29 April 2020

Annotated Game #242: Making it harder

This final round tournament game, an Exchange Slav, has as its main theme how I made it a lot harder on myself than necessary to secure a draw. Highlights:
  • 7...Qd7?! starts digging a positional hole for Black, as the queen development interferes with better minor piece placement. I was relying too much on transferring this idea from a Caro-Kann Exchange structure, which isn't quite the same. In that case, 7...Na5 is dubious (here it's better). However, White doesn't try to keep up the pressure and I equalize in several moves.
  • 14...a6 was OK, but unnecessarily weakening of the queenside pawn structure.
  • A classic Class player error is not developing the rooks in the early middlegame. I committed this sin by passing over the idea of 15...Rfc8 and later, until it was too late and White dominated the c-file. This was due to some sort of hallucination that White would control the file regardless. It still wasn't too late to contest the c-file on move 21.
  • I manage to get out of my problems, both earlier and later, thanks largely to my opponent's lack of patience and willingness to exchange pieces on favorable terms.
In the end I'm at least satisfied that I played some fighting chess and didn't despair in the endgame, even if it wasn't accurate chess.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class A"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "81"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. cxd5 {the Exchange Slav historically has a drawish reputation, but I'd say it's as good a way for the White player to fight for the initiative as any, if they want to.} cxd5 4. Nc3 Nf6 5. Bf4 Nc6 6. e3 Bg4 { this scores significantly better (about 50 percent) than the alternative bishop development to f5 (about 45 percent for Black).} 7. Qb3 {the majority of games in the database feature this natural queen sortie, hitting b7 and adding to the pressure on d5.} Qd7 $6 {in a somewhat similar Caro-Kann Exchange variation, this is a perfectly good move. Here, however, the queen is misplaced as it blocks a path back for the Bg4, plus the Nc6 is better on another square.} (7... Na5 {is best here, as it cannot be driven from its post on a5 and eyes c4, while protecting b7 and hitting the Qb3. A sample high-level game:} 8. Qa4+ Bd7 9. Bb5 e6 10. Nf3 a6 11. Bxd7+ Nxd7 12. Ne5 b5 13. Qd1 Nxe5 14. Bxe5 Nc4 15. Qe2 Nxe5 16. dxe5 Bb4 17. Rc1 Rc8 18. Qd2 Qa5 19. a3 Bxc3 20. Rxc3 Rxc3 21. Qxc3 Qxc3+ 22. bxc3 Kd7 23. Kd2 Rc8 24. Kc2 Rc4 25. f3 f6 26. exf6 gxf6 27. Rd1 Kc6 28. g4 a5 29. Kb3 e5 30. h4 Kd6 31. Rg1 Ke6 32. Kb2 Kf7 33. Kb3 h5 34. Kb2 e4 35. f4 hxg4 36. Rxg4 b4 37. axb4 {Ni,H (2671) -Eljanov,P (2711) Riadh 2017 1/2-1/2 (65)}) 8. Bb5 $14 {a perfectly logical move, but not in the database's small sample.} e6 9. h3 Bf5 10. Nf3 Bd6 { here I want to exchange off White's effective bishop and complete my development.} 11. Bxd6 Qxd6 12. Ne5 O-O {by this point I feel White's initiative is largely spent and I've survived the opening pressure.} 13. Bd3 ( 13. Bxc6 $5 {is really the only way to try to fight for a (small) advantage. My opponent probably did not want to trade bishop for knight on principle, however.} bxc6 14. O-O {White has a slight pull on the queenside and the backwards c-pawn is a potential weakness, although Black should be able to keep things balanced with} Rfb8) 13... Bxd3 14. Nxd3 $11 a6 {taking the b5 square away from the knight, but also weakening b6. The b7 pawn is tactically protected.} (14... Qe7 $5 {also covering b7 looks simple and good.}) 15. O-O ( 15. Qxb7 $4 Rfb8 $19) 15... Rab8 {a solid choice, but it might be better to get the other rook into the game.} (15... Rfc8 {activates the rook and also contests the open c-file, the neglect of which causes me problems.}) 16. Rac1 Na5 17. Qb4 {a good choice by my opponent. White's pieces are a little better positioned than mine to fight on the queenside after the exchange.} Qxb4 { there is no good alternative, as retreating the queen just puts it in the way of my other pieces.} 18. Nxb4 Nc4 $6 (18... Rfc8 {it's still not too late for this.}) 19. Rc2 h6 $6 {played as a waiting move to give my king 'luft', but I could have put the tempo to better use.} 20. Rfc1 $14 Nd6 21. Na4 {now White's positional advantages are obvious, as he dominates the only open file and his knights can invade. With correct play, though, they are still too small to make a difference.} a5 $6 {forcing the knight to a better square.} (21... Rbc8) 22. Nd3 b5 23. Nac5 b4 $6 {I was having trouble coming up with a useful plan here, because I continued to fail to contest the c-file. With the Nd6 helping protect c8, however, that is the correct way to play.} 24. Ne5 {threatening the fork on d7. Now the pressure is really on.} Ra8 25. Ncd7 {my opponent lacks patience here. I'm perfectly happy to exchange off one of my worse knights.} Nxd7 26. Nxd7 Rfd8 (26... Rfc8 27. Nb6 Rxc2 28. Rxc2 Ra7 $14) 27. Ne5 a4 {I felt that this was my only source of counterplay, potentially opening the a-file or causing White some problems with the advanced pawns.} 28. Nc6 b3 {a bit desperate, but otherwise I thought White would gobble the pawn and just crush my position.} 29. axb3 axb3 30. Rc3 Rd7 31. Rxb3 {here I felt reasonably good about my drawing chances in a double rook ending, in part because White's pieces are no longer coordinating well. Komodo agrees, but not after the next move.} Nc4 (31... Rc7 $5 {is a very annoying pin on the Nc6.}) 32. Ne5 { again I'm happy to exchange.} (32. Rb5) 32... Nxe5 33. dxe5 $14 Ra2 {this abandons the 8th rank for the 2nd, unfortunately a worse placement for my rook, as all it does right now is be blocked by the b-pawn.} 34. Rb8+ {a mostly pointless check.} Kh7 35. b4 $6 {now my Ra2 is worth much more and can get in behind the pawn, where it ideally belongs.} Rb2 36. b5 Kg6 {adding a protector to the f-pawn and getting away from any ideas of a check on h8.} 37. b6 d4 $11 {this now activates the rook on the d-file.} 38. exd4 Rxd4 39. Rc3 {I thought for a while now and played a mistake.} Rdb4 $6 (39... Rd1+ 40. Kh2 Rxf2 41. b7 Rb1 {holds, for example} 42. Rh8 Rxb7 43. Rg3+ Kf5 44. Rxg7 Kxe5 45. Rxh6 $11) 40. Rg3+ $14 Kh7 41. Rf3 {here my opponent offered a draw, believing that the rook ending is drawn. After I take on b6, rooks are exchanged and White takes on f7. I'm still a pawn down but my more active rook should largely compensate and my king should help hold the kingside together.} 1/2-1/2

28 April 2020

Training quote of the day #30: Mark Dvoretsky

Chessplayers are not accustomed to changing the pattern of play abruptly except in cases of extreme need, and so certain moves sometimes quite simply fall outside our field of vision.
From "A Chessplayer's Strengths and Weaknesses" in Training for the Tournament Player 

27 April 2020

Functional fixedness

I would say that the #3 thing that holds me back in chess - following the top two things - is functional fixedness. One general definition of this phenomenon is "A mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem". In the chess context, this means an inability to see possible moves by pieces beyond their "assumed" current function. Some common examples of this in tactics are:
  • Where one side is able to force a break of a pin (not against the king)
  • Material sacrifices, especially large ones (queen sacrifices tend to be the most surprising)
  • Inserting a key intermediate move in a sequence (for example postponing an "automatic" recapture).
In all cases, these tactics appear because the other side had not considered the move "possible" - even though, of course, the rules of chess say otherwise.

This cognitive fixedness can be a significant problem when coming up with candidate moves and also in the subsequent visualization process while doing calculation. Our brains fundamentally tend to be lazy. (This is in fact a survival trait that cuts down on unneeded energy for processing.) They therefore like to make assumptions, which help simplify whatever task is in front of us to solve. Fighting this tendency requires both a conscious awareness of your cognition - in chess, this means consistently following a suitable thinking process - and enough energy to keep your brain functioning at a high enough level.

It may seem a little backwards, but I've found over time that focusing on energy management has had the biggest payoff in my quality of play. It makes it that much easier to focus and actually implement your thinking process, especially when there is a need to erase previous assumptions in order to uncover the new possibilities in a position. Just looking at two basic questions - 1) What did my opponent's last move change about the position? and 2) What CCT (checks, captures, threats) are available? - can go very far in finding opportunities for both your opponent and yourself.

20 April 2020

Annotated Game #241: Strategic squeeze

For the third time in a row in this tournament, White is the winner. In this game (as White), I actually know what I am doing in terms of the early middlegame plan and it shows, with emphasis on play in the center along the e-file. Although the position isn't fully analagous, I've internalized a main lesson from Annotated Game #2, which was to not discard e-pawn advances in the English. What I did miss was an improved idea for repositioning a minor piece with the Nf1-e3 maneuver, although my opponent was unable to take advantage of this.

The rest of the game starting around move 18 is a good example of a classic strategic squeeze. My opponent makes no tactical blunders, but wastes some time and allows me to maneuver my knight to the strong d5 outpost. Essentially the game is decided because I can occupy my outpost, but Black's outpost on d4 cannot be reached by his pieces. As usual, once strategic dominance is achieved then tactics appear, and I am able to win material.

With no major mistakes on my part and no outright blunders by either side for most of the game, this is of higher quality than the previous two games in this tournament. (What should normally be the trend, as one keeps playing, but not always!)

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A14"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "63"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. b3 c6 {Black now adopts a Semi-Slav structure. This is solid but allows White more central options. The fact that the dark-squared bishop is on e7 rather than d6 also makes the idea of e6-e5 more difficult.} 7. Bb2 Nbd7 8. Qc2 {sometimes it is difficult to determine the best square for the queen in the English, but here c2 is the best (almost only) option.} b6 {Black has no other option for developing the light-square bishop.} 9. d3 {this keeps the game in English territory, as opposed to d4. This has both practical and psychological effects on an opponent, given the significant strategic changes that result. The c4 pawn is reinforced, allowing the opening of the d-file in the event of an exchange, and Black's knight is kept out of e4. In this position, White has adequate control over e5 and I did not want to offer a pawn on d4 as a target for an eventual ...c5 pawn lever, either.} Bb7 10. Nbd2 {the knight is better placed here than on c3, where it would block the Bb2 and influence fewer useful squares.} Rc8 11. Rfe1 {both a useful waiting move and in preparation for initiating central play.} Qc7 {now Black can support ...e5.} 12. e4 { contesting the center actively. The benefits of playing e4 in the English is a lesson I learned early on in my improvement process, having irrationally avoided it previously.} dxe4 {deciding to immediately clarify the center.} 13. dxe4 e5 {otherwise White can advance the pawn and occupy the square with a cramping effect.} 14. Rad1 {time to activate the other rook.} Rfe8 {clears the f8 square for a possible bishop retreat, which will reinforce kingside defense; the rook placement also will further support e5.} 15. Bh3 {in the absence of an obvious major plan, I decide to improve the position of my pieces; the bishop has little current prospects on the long diagonal and h3-c8 seems more active. However, the Nd2 would be a slightly better choice, with the maneuver Nf1-e3, as it is no longer doing much of use where it is.} (15. Nf1 c5 16. Nh4 Bf8 17. Ne3 g6 18. Bc3 Bg7 19. Nd5 Qb8 20. Qb2 Nf8 21. f4 Nxd5 22. exd5 Nd7 23. Nf3 f6 24. Bh3 Rcd8 25. Be6+ Kf8 26. fxe5 Nxe5 27. Nxe5 fxe5 28. Qf2+ Ke7 29. Qf7+ Kd6 30. Qxg7 {1-0 (30) Padurariu,I (2188)-Dulgheru,A (1772) Romania 2007}) 15... Rcd8 16. Qc3 {still not hitting on the Nf1-e3 idea.} Bf8 17. b4 {a logical gain of space on the queenside, to oppose Black if he has any ambitions there.} c5 $6 (17... a5 $5 {would be the way to challenge the pawn, without giving up space.}) 18. b5 $14 {the extra queenside space cramps Black enough to give me a small long-term advantage there.} g6 19. a4 {with thoughts of the a5 push to open the a-file, if there is opportunity.} Bg7 {the bishop no longer benefits from being on the f8-a3 diagonal, with the c5 pawn blocking its scope, so moves to a better square.} 20. Qc2 {a somewhat subtle move, it makes the pressure on e5 more meaningful and also overprotects e4, making the Nd2 mobile again.} Kh8 $6 {this appears to be just a waiting move, but it is not helpful for Black.} 21. Ng5 {an obvious move, hitting the temporarily weakened f7 pawn, but Black can easily deal with this, even just by moving back with ...Kg8. However, my opponent reacts in a similarly obvious way and is reluctant to undo his previous move, which is a well-known psychological tendency.} (21. Nb1 $5 {immediately would be better, with the same plan as in the game of Nc3-d5. Taking on e4 is not in Black's interest.} Nxe4 22. Rxe4 Bxe4 23. Qxe4 $14 {White's minor pieces are a little better than Black's rook here.}) 21... Rf8 $6 {this effectively wastes a tempo by sidelining the rook from the central action. Black may have been thinking of an eventual f7-f5, but that would leave behind a hole on e6.} 22. Nb1 $14 h6 23. Nf3 {by this point, although things appear level, I now have the initiative and Black has no counterplay.} Rfe8 {now the rook comes back, while my plan to occupy the d5 outpost proceeds.} 24. Nc3 Bc8 25. Nd5 Nxd5 {exchanging the strong knight, but now a strong passed pawn takes its place.} 26. cxd5 Qd6 {using the queen as a blockader makes the next plan easy to find.} 27. Nd2 $18 {heading for c4} Qf8 28. Nc4 {the squeeze is now on Black across the center and queenside.} Nf6 $6 { this again makes White's job easier, by cutting off the Bg7 from defending e5. Black's desire to try and trade pieces is understandable, however.} (28... Nb8 {is ugly but at least does not block defense of e5.}) 29. Bxc8 Rxc8 30. Bxe5 { threatening a knight fork on d6. The road is also clearly open for a central pawn roller with d6 and e5.} Nd7 {missing the fork, but in a lost position anyway.} (30... Rcd8 31. Bxf6 Bxf6 32. e5 Bg7 33. d6 $18 {with Qe4 and/or f4 to follow.}) 31. Bxg7+ Qxg7 32. Nd6 1-0

18 April 2020

Back in the day...

Blunder Prone, one of the Chess Blogs That Used to Be Good (and might be again), has resurfaced with a thoughtful post on slow vs. fast training and sharing some old school techniques in that regard. I also admit I have to grin whenever a post starts with "Back in the day..."

17 April 2020

Annotated Game #240: Why you should check tactics before resigning

This second-round tournament game is a tale of unrealized compensation, psychological pressure and a final missed tactic. The annotations speak for themselves, in terms of the lessons.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class A"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D05"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "61"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 {going for the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, rather than the Exchange Variation} Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 6. Nf3 Be7 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Bd3 Nc6 9. O-O O-O 10. Ne4 $5 (10. Re1 {is overwhelmingly played here, and what I had prepared for.}) 10... Nf6 {this is a standard move against 10. Re1, but here scores quite poorly for Black. I thought for a while and didn't think there was anything better.} (10... b6 {has been played in master games and seems to be a straightforward way to equalize.}) (10... f5 $5 {is an interesting thought that occurred to me and also has been played a few times.} 11. Nc3 (11. Ng3 Bd7 $11) 11... Bf6 {and Black is a little cramped, but the e-pawn will be hard to crack while defended by the bishop and White will have to prove he can make progress.}) 11. Be3 b6 {this is where the problems start for me. Basically this is an unintended pawn sacrifice, that I get compensation for, but it's still unwelcome.} (11... Nb4 $5) 12. Nxf6+ Bxf6 13. Bxh7+ Kxh7 14. Qc2+ {forking the king and the unprotected Nc6.} g6 $6 {this is the real problem for the rest of the game and what gives White an advantage. I had thought that the rook on the open h-file would compensate for the dark-square holes, but this turns out not to be the case.} (14... Kg8 {Komodo considers this essentially equal.} 15. Qxc6 Rb8 {and after ...Bb7, Black has a pair of very good bishops (especially the unopposed light-square one on the long diagonal) and pressure on the isolated d-pawn, with d5 controlled in front of it. This was the general idea I also had in the game continuation, but it goes wrong.}) 15. Qxc6 $16 Bd7 $2 (15... Rb8 {as given in the previous variation is still the way to best develop the bishop, however awkward it looks. Unfortunately the bishop never really gets in the game after the text move.}) 16. Qe4 $146 {from here on, the pressure simply continues as White has the initiative and a clear pawn to the good.} Rc8 17. Qf4 {I could not figure out how to deal with this and tried to play more actively.} Rh8 $6 (17... Kg8 { emphasizes the holes on the kingside and shuts out the rook, but White is not in a position to immediately break through.} 18. Ne5 Bg7 $16) 18. Ne5 Kg7 19. Rac1 {bringing another piece into the game.} Rh5 {at least I'm continuing to play actively with pressure along the 5th rank, which likely contributes to White's next choice.} 20. Nxd7 $2 {this releases a lot of the pressure. Just about any normal move is fine for White here.} Qxd7 21. Rxc8 Qxc8 22. Rc1 Qa6 $2 {an error due to materialism. I'm focusing far too much on the one pawn material deficit, which Komodo assesses I mostly have compensation for, rather than on defending my position. The threats to the a-pawn and to penetrate on the diagonal are not real, while my queen effectively isolates herself from the rest of the action.} (22... Qd7 $5 23. Rc7 {appears to just drop another pawn, which is why I avoided it. However if} Qd8 24. Rxa7 e5 $1 {and White has a back-rank problem, so the d-pawn falls in turn.} 25. Qe4 exd4 $14) (22... Qa8 {would be an OK defensive move.}) (22... Qd8 {would set a trap:} 23. Rc7 $2 e5 $1 $19) 23. g4 Rh4 {with the idea of gumming up White's kingside offensive. However, White could play Qf3 and clear the awy for the g4-g5 advance.} (23... Rd5 $5) 24. Qg3 $6 Qe2 (24... g5 {would be the logical follow-up to the strategy of blocking White on the kingside. White cannot play} 25. f4 {because then the Black queen actually can penetrate to good effect with} Qe2 { threatening ...Rxg4.} 26. h3 $6 gxf4 27. Bxf4 Bxd4+ $17) 25. h3 {White blocks the one-move threat and now is well-positioned to take me apart.} Rh8 { anticipating the next move, but blocking it with my own pawn would still be better, even if no real solution.} 26. g5 Bd8 27. d5 $18 Qxb2 {at this point I'm just hoping that White blunders. Regaining material equality is meaningless.} 28. dxe6 fxe6 29. Qd6 Kf7 30. Qf4+ Ke8 31. Bd4 $2 {and White does in fact blunder, but I miss it! Any queen move loses, which I thought was the only defense, but the rook sacrifice on h4 is a saving deflection tactic, as the White queen is overloaded and cannot protect the Rc1 and Bd4 afterwards.} 1-0

08 April 2020

Anand and other Indian GMs playing online charity simul

This Saturday (11th of April) former world champion Anand and other top Indian GMs will be playing an online simul at Chess.com to raise money for fighting the coronavirus. It's taking place at a US/Europe/Asia friendly time and simul participants will start with a 45 45 clock rate, so it's a great opportunity to get in a serious game with serious players.

Full story and signup details: https://www.chess.com/news/view/viswanathan-anand-covid-19-message

04 April 2020

Annotated Game #239: Not a Hedgehog

This first-round game was a typical tournament start for me, featuring somewhat poor quality of play early on, but I was able to hold on long enough against a lower-rated opponent until I could generate some counterplay and finally break through. My opponent played well for most of the game, despite entering a dubious opening line (6...d5) that went against the Hedgehog structure just established on the previous move. I could have taken better advantage of this, however, and ended up allowing her to obtain a superior position in terms of space and piece activity. Most of the rest of the game consisted of me responding to threats in a relatively passive way, but the tide began turning around move 30, when I obtained some activity of my own and forced my opponent to have to respond to threats - thereby giving her a chance to go wrong, which she eventually did. One of the main lessons from the game analysis, other than from the opening phase, was how important (and effective) piece activity is in the endgame, especially when rooks are on the board. The other one, which tripped up my opponent in the end, was the decisive power of a more advanced passed pawn.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class D"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A30"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "109"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 b6 3. g3 Bb7 4. Bg2 Nf6 5. Nc3 c5 {entering a Hedgehog structure. However, Black immediately violates this with her next move.} 6. O-O d5 {while general principles suggest it is good to occupy the center with a pawn, in this case it is one too many pawn moves in the opening. Black's idea and threat is to continue the pawn advance with ...d4, but White can combat this in multiple ways, the simplest being to exchange the c- and d-pawns.} 7. Ne5 $5 {this prevents ...d4 due to the hanging Bb7 and occupies a central outpost. However, White's advantage is less concrete here.} (7. cxd5 Nxd5 (7... exd5 8. d4 $16 {is even better for White, as the Black d-pawn is a useful target.}) 8. d4 $14 {White is ahead in development and has better control of the center.}) 7... Nbd7 8. f4 $146 {the idea here is to support the outpost on e5 and open the f-file if Black exchanges. Although less pressing than the main line, as some consolation Komodo puts it as its second choice.} (8. Qa4 $14 {is universally played in the database and is probably the most active way to continue, as in the following example game.} Bd6 9. Nxd7 Qxd7 10. Qxd7+ Kxd7 11. Rd1 Rac8 12. cxd5 Nxd5 13. Nb5 Bb8 14. d4 cxd4 15. Nxd4 Ke7 16. e4 Nb4 17. Bd2 Na6 18. Bg5+ f6 19. Be3 Nc5 20. f3 Na4 21. Rd2 Be5 22. Bh3 Bxd4 23. Bxd4 Rc7 24. Rad1 Bc8 25. e5 f5 26. Bf1 Bd7 27. b3 Nc5 28. Bxc5+ bxc5 29. Bc4 Rb8 30. Rd6 Rb6 31. Kf2 Bc8 32. Rxb6 axb6 33. Rd6 Rb7 34. Ba6 Rb8 35. Bxc8 Rxc8 36. Rxb6 c4 37. Rb7+ Kf8 {Bayaraa,Z (2194)-Bryant,J (2359) Dallas 2009 1-0 (83)}) 8... Bd6 $11 {an obvious response, developing the piece and pressuring e5 again.} 9. Nf3 $6 {this betrays a lack of imagination and failure to take into account the dynamic factors in the position.} (9. cxd5) (9. Qa4) 9... O-O { Black is in a hurry to castle and prevent the position being opened with her king in the center, which of course is not a bad idea.} (9... dxc4 {would grab a pawn with little compensation for White, however.} 10. d3 cxd3 11. Qxd3 Be7 12. f5 exf5 13. Qxf5 O-O $17) 10. b3 {protecting the c-pawn while preparing to develop the bishop to the long diagonal. However, Black could now follow up on her previous idea to advance the d-pawn.} (10. d3 {would be comparatively better, not locking the dark-square bishop in after ...d4.}) 10... Re8 { a standard rook development, but this lets me repair the problem in the center. } (10... d4 $5) 11. e3 {taking control of the d4 square. The position is now equal again.} dxc4 12. bxc4 e5 {consistently following up with a standard idea of an e-pawn break supported by her pieces. However, I should have ignored it and continued to develop, as there is no actual threat.} 13. fxe5 {a premature exchange. It wins a pawn, but Black gets more than sufficient compensation.} ( 13. Nb5 $5 Bb8 14. fxe5 Nxe5 15. Nxe5 Bxg2 16. Nxf7 Kxf7 17. Kxg2 $11 {and now if} Be5 $2 18. d4 {is possible.}) (13. Bb2 exf4 14. exf4 $11 {in the game, I didn't like the idea of having a backward d-pawn, but Black has no way of getting at it soon. Also, my control of e5 in this variation is cramping for Black.}) 13... Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Bxg2 15. Nxf7 {this is the tactical point, a desperado maneuver that threatens the Qd8.} Kxf7 16. Kxg2 Be5 $15 {Black's pieces are much more active and my c-pawn is hanging, so my opponent in fact has a small advantage here.} 17. Bb2 {I need to get the bishop into the fight.} (17. Qc2 $6 {would attempt to cover both the c- and d-pawns, but would leave me with more weaknesses.} Kg8 18. Bb2 Qd7 $15 {now Black can increase pressure on the d-file and also threaten to swing the queen over to the weak light squares on the kingside.}) 17... Qd3 18. Rb1 {this seems like an obvious move and covers things reasonably well after the game continuation. The engine finds a more active continuation for Black, however, based ironically on retreating the king, which however frees up the Nf6.} (18. Qb1 $5) 18... Qxc4 ( 18... Kg8 19. Qe2 Rad8 $17) 19. d3 Qe6 {we're now back to rough equality, which could be solidifed by playing Ne4 and taking advantage of the continuing f-file pin. However, there are long variations involved. The text move is inferior, but more understandable, as it removes the threat to the e-pawn.} 20. e4 (20. Ne4 {and now if} Qxa2 21. Nxf6 Bxf6 22. Rf2 Qe6 23. Qh5+ Kg8 24. Rxf6 gxf6 25. Rf1 $11 {in a complex position.}) 20... Kg8 $17 {Black has more space, with better piece placement and coordination. Meanwhile, I have to try to fight against space cramp and get my pieces to better squares.} 21. Qb3 { I evaluated my queen as being inferior to Black's, so seized the chance to force an exchange. Black might do better by making me burn another tempo to complete it.} Qxb3 (21... Rad8 $5) 22. axb3 Red8 {this leaves the other rook on a8, which appears to be intended to support a future queenside pawn advance. However, this reduces the pressure Black has on the central files.} 23. Rf3 { this is more flexible than putting a rook on d1. The d-pawn cannot advance in any case.} Rd7 24. Nd1 {offering another trade.} Bxb2 25. Nxb2 {Black still has an advantage, but I feel that with fewer pieces on the board the problem is a little more manageable.} Ng4 (25... Rad8 $5) 26. Rd1 (26. Nc4 $5 {is a bid for more activity.}) 26... Rad8 (26... Ne5 $5 {would powerfully centralize the knight and allow Black to dominate in the long run.} 27. Rf2 Rad8 28. Rfd2 Kf8 $17 {and Black's king can enter the fray in the center.}) 27. h3 Nf6 $6 { thankfully (for me) missing the opportunity to move to e5.} (27... Ne5 28. Re3 Nc6 $19) 28. Re1 {made under the rule that rooks belong behind passed pawns. A good practical choice, perhaps, as Black would have to make some non-obvious knight maneuvers to effectively block the e-pawn.} (28. Ra1 $5 {with the d-pawn guarded, it would be better to get this rook active on the a-file.}) 28... Re7 {now the e-pawn is pinned, which did not really register with me.} ( 28... Ne8 {followed by moving to c7 is Komodo's preference, controlling the b5 and e6 squares.}) 29. g4 {played with the thought of moving the king up to g3, but this ignores Black's possible responses.} (29. Ra1 $5) 29... Rd4 { evidently played with the thought of following up with ...Rb4.} (29... Nd5 $1 { would take advantage of the e-pawn being pinned to transfer the knight to a better square, in this case b4.}) 30. Nc4 {physically preventing the rook from getting to b4. However, seeking active counterplay would be even better.} (30. Ra1 {it's interesting to see how piece activity really is the key to rook endgames. For example} Rb4 31. g5 Rxb3 32. Nc4 Ne8 33. Raf1 {and now despite beign a pawn down, White's domination of the f-file and more advanced passed e-pawn make it an even game, or even a win if Black fails to defend with} g6) 30... Nd7 31. Ref1 {around here I started feeling better about the situation. Although objectively Black still has a similar advantage, according to Komodo, I'm finally in the position of having potential threats and making my opponent react to my moves, rather than me having to constantly defend.} h6 32. Kf2 { getting the king into the action, with the intent of taking over defense of the d-pawn.} Kh7 $6 {the king is no safer here and this gives me a valuable tempo.} (32... b5 33. Ne3 Rxd3 34. Nf5 Rxf3+ 35. Kxf3 Rf7 36. Ke3 {and White is a pawn down, but with good chances to hold, thanks to the active king.}) 33. Ke2 $11 {the position is now balanced.} Nb8 34. Rf7 {still an even position, but psychologically a rook on the 7th adds to the pressure on my opponent.} Rxf7 35. Rxf7 Nc6 $2 (35... Rd7 $11) 36. Rc7 {the correct follow-up, driving the knight away from protecting the a-pawn.} Nb4 37. Nb2 $6 {too passive.} (37. Ne5 $16 {and the knight is gloriously centralized.}) 37... a6 38. e5 {my opponent now finds the runaway e-pawn difficult to deal with.} Nd5 39. Rf7 $6 { if I wanted to keep the rook on the 7th rank, a7 would be a better square.} ( 39. Rc6 Nf4+ 40. Ke3 Nxh3 41. e6 $11) 39... Rb4 $2 {my opponent gets greedy, not counting on the strength of the e-pawn.} (39... Nf4+ 40. Kd2 b5 $15) 40. e6 {the Black rook is now effectively walled off from the central action and the Nd5 is the only thing stopping the passed e-pawn. Black at minimum will have to give up the knight.} Rxb3 41. Nc4 $18 {I believe my opponent missed the full effects of this move, which now threatens to undermine the Nd5 from e3.} a5 {attempting to race her own pawn down the side, but there is not enough time.} (41... Kg8 42. Ne5 $18) 42. Ne3 {now there is no way for Black to exchange the knight for the passed e-pawn and the game is effectively over.} Nf6 43. Rxf6 $1 {this was overlooked as well, I believe.} gxf6 44. e7 a4 45. e8=Q a3 46. Qf7+ Kh8 47. Qxb3 {there are quicker mates, but at this stage of the game you don't get extra points for speed. My opponent, a junior, as is often the case these days, does not resign in a hopeless position, so I just play the easiest moves until mate.} h5 48. Qxa3 f5 49. gxf5 h4 50. Qa7 c4 51. dxc4 b5 52. cxb5 Kg8 53. b6 Kf8 54. b7 Ke8 55. b8=Q# 1-0

07 March 2020

Top two things that hold you back

Progress in chess, as with many things in life, isn't just about gaining new skills and knowledge. It's about identifying flawed or unhelpful practices that are holding you back from greater success, and eliminating - or at least significantly reducing - them. As with any sort of bad habit, the most effective way of tackling them is to consciously adopt new and positive practices. Otherwise, it's too easy for your brain to gravitate back to its old habits, like a well-worn rut in the dirt just keeps getting deeper over time.

While amateur players normally need to work on all aspects of their game, I think picking the top two things that keep tripping you up, then consciously working on them in both training and game situations, can be an effective strategy for speeding up overall improvement. Analyzing your own games over time should naturally highlight what these major issues are, combined with some self reflection, although if you have a coach they should be able to point them out as well. I'll share mine here.

1. Materialism

This is a pernicious problem for many amateurs. Occasionally you may find ultra-aggressive players who never bother counting material and always play for mate, but most people still want to win material and will "count the points" - the traditional "scoring" scheme being 9 for a queen, 5 for a rook, 3 for a bishop or knight, and 1 for a pawn.

Once you get to a certain level of play, I believe using this scheme as part of your thinking process is much more of a detriment than it is a help. At the beginner level, some type of easy-to-understand guide to piece value is needed, so using the standard counting scheme and its variants (3.5 for a bishop and 3.25 for a knight, say) has its place. However, this is a very static way of thinking about the game. Failure to take into account dynamic factors will inevitably hold you back, both strategically and tactically. This is not just a human failing, either, as many computer engines before the most recent modern era - Fritz was notorious for this - had the same problem with materialistic evaluations. (More on the role of engines in a bit.)

One way to effectively combat this in the thinking process is to consciously assess (and reassess) the current and future potential value of each piece. Full details of how to do this is beyond the scope of this post; there are a number of positional/strategic books and lessons available that address this topic. The most basic questions about piece activity, however, will go far. Namely: how many squares does the piece influence? Are they important squares? Does the piece have the ability to move to a better square? Answering these questions will help both strategic and tactical thinking, by highlighting opportunities for your pieces, along with vulnerabilities you may have to your opponent's pieces. This is a major component of prophylactic thinking, which involves preventing your opponent's pieces from reaching their best squares.

An important practical tool in this evaluation is the use of an engine (after the game, of course). Modern engines such as Stockfish, Komodo, Houdini and others are very good at assessing the value of compensation for material, which essentially reflects the dynamic positional value of pieces. I find that Komodo in particular tends to give more weight to non-material factors, which is one reason I use that as my primary engine when analyzing. The engine will not tell you why it evaluates a position in a certain way, so it cannot replace your own study and insight, but it importantly provides an objective evaluation for you to ponder further.

Recognition of materialism as a problem has helped me take some practical measures, including:
  • Deliberately looking for ways to increase piece activity, including via methods like pawn sacrifices. The idea of clearance sacrifices, for example, is common in master-level play.
  • Consciously searching for other major sacrificial possibilities, rather than automatically suppressing them as part of the thinking process. This reveals opportunities that will otherwise be missed, for example in Annotated Game #5 (First Sacrifice). This is just as important to do when thinking of your opponent's possibilities, as in Annotated Game #233 (Boden's Mate).
  • Paying more attention to the comparative value of pieces when making (or avoiding) exchanges. Piece swaps are often taken for granted, as players assume that if the overall "count" is the same, then exchanges always have a neutral value. This is one way that masters end up beating amateurs on a regular basis, by better recognizing the longer-term value of the pieces (including pawns) that are left. My simul game versus GM Sam Shankland is a good example.

2. Laziness in calculation

The best training advice I have ever received (from a martial arts master) is "don't be lazy". This is especially important when calculating as part of the thinking process. This does not mean calculating endless variations every single move; rather, it's important to recognize when critical positions are reached. At that point, the variations being calculated have to work, otherwise the game's outcome will be affected.

Another meme-worthy formulation of this is "Don't think you are. Know you are" from The Matrix. In other words, don't think you know what will happen if you make a critical move, make the effort to know what will happen. This requires laziness to be banished and increased focus and energy applied. Fear and doubt can enter into the process as well, either when attacking or defending in a critical situation. It's better to put those things aside and focus on determining the reality of what will work and what will not.

Consistent application of a routine thinking process that involves blunder checking and looking at your opponent's resources is also part of this idea, of not being lazy. It's been too easy for me to over-focus on my own possibilities and then, unless I force myself to ask "what are my opponent's threats and ideas", get caught out by something unexpected.

Another aspect of laziness is stopping prematurely when reaching a key future position during calculations. This is normally a result of either dismissing a position as not being viable, when in fact it is, or the opposite problem, which is believing that the position is won/good for you, when in fact your opponent can bust the line with their next move. This means that you have stopped "one move short" of what should be done. Eliminating this problem is not easy, because of the inherently difficult nature of calculating and visualizing multiple potential future positions, but identifying when to make the extra effort and then applying it can go a long way to improving quality of play and your results.

14 February 2020

Commentary: 2019 Cairns Cup, Round 5 (Abdumalik - Krush)

With the current (2020) Cairns Cup ongoing, it's fitting that this next commentary game between IM Zhansaya Abdumalik and GM Irina Krush is an interesting struggle from last year's tournament. I selected it for analysis because it features an unnamed Caro-Kann sideline - essentially an Exchange Variation paired with the aggressive idea Nf3-e5 - that surprisingly often has appeared in high-level games (Carlsen, Anand and Kramnik top the list of White players) and can crop up at the club level. I suspect that the top players use it largely for surprise value and to avoid long book lines, while club players may more often use it out of lack of knowledge or experience in facing the Caro-Kann. As with any opening approach that is not unsound, it shouldn't simply be dismissed as a sideline and ignored by Caro-Kann players.

Remarkably, I've faced the move 4 position six times during my own tournament career, most often opting for a setup with ...Nf6 and ...Nc6 in response. Krush's play with ...Nf6, ...g6 and ...Nbd7 I think is superior to that and lets her equalize quickly. How she handles the strategic tension in the center, play on the light squares, and taking advantage of a missed idea by her opponent (liquidation of queenside tension with c3-c4) is worth the time for study.

[Event "Cairns Cup 2019"] [Site "Saint Louis"] [Date "2019.02.10"] [Round "5.2"] [White "Abdumalik, Zhansaya"] [Black "Krush, Irina"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B13"] [WhiteElo "2468"] [BlackElo "2435"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "90"] [EventDate "2019.??.??"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Nf3 {this unnamed sideline can also arise from a 2. Nf3 move order. I've actually had this position six times in my tournament praxis.} Nf6 {this is what I played five times out of six.} (4... Nc6 {is as equally popular as the text move in the database and is more in keeping with standard Exchange Variation development. It blocks the diagonal to Black's king and helps guard e5. Used in Annotated Game #171.}) 5. Ne5 { White is attempting to chart an independent course in the opening, rather than sticking to normal development. This approach has been used successfully by a number of top-level players, although the surprise factor likely plays a role.} g6 {this has seen more success, scoring around 50 percent, than the other main alternative ...Nc6.} 6. Bb5+ Nbd7 {now Black has this more flexible and slightly less awkward response to the bishop check.} 7. O-O Bg7 {continuing to develop pieces. White's Ne5 is in a good position, but moving it twice has allowed Black to catch up in development.} 8. c3 {supporting the d4 pawn and looking to blunt Black's bishop on the long diagonal.} O-O 9. f4 {in keeping with the aggressive play featuring the Ne5. One can see this f-pawn push in some other Caro-Kann variations as well, having gained popularity in recent years. As with all pawn advances, it also leaves weaknesses in its wake, and Black now occupies the e4 outpost.} Ne4 10. Bd3 {this is where the bishop normally goes in the Exchange Variation, so arguably White has simply lost a tempo in development. Black's knight in turn has been diverted to d7 instead of c6, which seems more helpful for Black, as it can now move to f6 and support the Ne4.} Ndf6 11. Nd2 Bf5 $146 {making the strategic decision to maintain the Ne4. The Bf5 development is also normal in variations with ...g6.} (11... Nd6 {was previously played.} 12. Qe2 Bf5 13. Re1 Rc8 14. Ndf3 Bxd3 15. Nxd3 Nfe4 16. Nf2 Nxf2 17. Qxf2 Rc7 18. Qh4 e6 19. Qh3 b5 20. a3 a5 21. Ng5 h6 22. Nf3 b4 23. axb4 axb4 24. Ne5 bxc3 25. bxc3 Ne4 26. Bb2 Qb8 27. Re2 Rfc8 28. Rc1 Rb7 29. Ba1 Qa7 30. Qe3 Rb3 31. Rec2 Ra8 32. h3 Rc8 33. Kh2 Kh7 34. Qe1 Nd6 35. Qe2 Nc4 36. Nxc4 Rxc4 37. Ra2 Qc7 38. Rf1 h5 39. Qd1 Rb7 40. Kh1 Bh6 41. Qf3 Rb5 42. Qf2 Rc6 43. Re2 Rcb6 44. Ree1 Kg8 45. Rd1 Qb8 46. h4 Rb1 47. g3 Rxd1 48. Rxd1 Bf8 49. Qc2 Rb3 50. Rg1 Qb5 51. Rc1 Ba3 52. Rd1 Bd6 53. Rg1 Kg7 54. Rd1 Qc4 55. Kg2 Ra3 56. Bb2 Ra2 57. Rd2 Ba3 58. Qc1 Bxb2 59. Rxb2 Ra3 60. Rc2 Qa6 61. Qe3 Ra1 62. Rf2 Rb1 63. Qe5+ Kg8 64. f5 exf5 65. Qxd5 Qa1 66. Qc5 Rg1+ 67. Kh2 Rh1+ 68. Kg2 Qg1+ 69. Kf3 Qe1 70. Qc8+ Kg7 71. Qc6 f4 72. Qe4 Qxc3+ 73. Kxf4 Re1 74. Re2 Rf1+ {0-1 (74) Tomic,G (2216)-Andersen,A (2225) Djenovici 2018}) 12. Ndf3 e6 {stiffening Black's position on the light squares and also locking the bishop on the kingside. I admit I would be hesitant to play this kind of restrictive move, although objectively the Bf5 will have an out after ...Nd6.} (12... Nd6 $5 {is also an idea here.}) 13. Qe1 {this seems to waste time and put the queen on a less mobile square, although perhaps the idea was to enable the queen to eventually swing over to the kingside. Meanwhile, two queenside pieces remain undeveloped.} Nd6 14. Be2 {the bishop moves again, this time to avoid an exchange which would lessen White's ability to fight for the light squares.} b5 {with White retreating forces from the center, Krush now opts to mobilize her queenside.} 15. h3 {threatening g2-g4, but the bishop has the fine e4 square to go to.} Qc7 {connecting the rooks and adding to White's potential pressure on the queenside.} 16. b3 {this weakens c3, but gives White the idea of pushing the c-pawn, while keeping Black out of c4. It also opens up the c1-a3 diagonal for the bishop to get out.} Be4 { Krush now chooses to go for the exchange of bishop for knight.} (16... Rfc8 $5 {would activate the rook.}) 17. Ba3 Bxf3 18. Rxf3 {this is awkward-looking, but helps support the c3 pawn and gives the rook some mobility along the third rank, perhaps anticipating an eventual g2-g4.} (18. Bxf3 $5 {would instead fight for the e4 square.}) 18... Nfe4 {now the results of the bishop for knight trade look good for Black. Once again there is a strong Ne4, which in this position has greater reach than the bishop, targeting key squares such as c3 and g3.} 19. Rc1 {further reinforcing the c-pawn and preparing to advance it.} Rfc8 (19... f6 {is favored by the engines, which show a slight Black plus, but would represent a shift in strategy and require ...Rfe8 to support the e-pawn.}) 20. Kh2 {now White deliberately avoids the critical idea of c3-c4, to her detriment.} (20. c4 dxc4 21. bxc4 bxc4 22. Bxc4 $11) 20... a5 (20... Qa5 {is the engines' choice, forcing White to exchange on d6 or drop a pawn. However, White in return could get some activity and counterplay on the queenside.} 21. Bxd6 Nxd6 22. b4 (22. Bd3 Qxa2 23. Ra1 Qxb3 24. Ra6) 22... Qc7 23. a4) (20... Qb7 $5 {seems like a good practical choice as well, getting the queen off the c-file, reinforcing the Ne4, and keeping options open on the queenside.}) 21. Bd3 {this and White's next seem like waiting moves, with the idea perhaps of Qc1 afterwards. However, this gives Black too much time.} Qa7 22. Rc2 {this was the last chance to liquidate the tension by playing c4.} b4 $1 $17 {now Black's buildup pays off. The problem for White is that his Rc2 is overloaded, trying to cover both the a2 and c3 pawns, while the d4 pawn is also under pressure.} 23. cxb4 Rxc2 24. Bxc2 axb4 25. Bxb4 Qxa2 {breaking up White's queenside pawn duo, but limiting the reach of Black's queen.} (25... Qxd4 {is the choice of the engines, giving Black central control with a 5v3 majority and a centralized queen.}) 26. Bd3 {the bishop moves yet again, and again it seems to be hurting rather than helping White. Perhaps she is hoping in some long-run compensation for having the two bishops, but the light-square bishop is hobbled in this structure.} (26. Bxe4 Nxe4 27. Qc1 $17) 26... Qb2 { this gets the queen out of the way of the rook on the a-file and also targets the d4 pawn. Although material is even, White's two isolated, weak b- and d-pawns and awkward piece placement give Black a significant edge.} (26... Qxb3 $4 27. Bxe4 $18) 27. Bxd6 {this must have been played with some regret, exchanging White's better bishop, but it helps de-congest White's pieces and removes the Ne4.} Nxd6 28. Qb4 {finally giving the queen some scope and at least some theoretical hope for counterplay.} Bf8 {Krush improves her worst piece, with tempo, given its lineup on the White queen.} 29. Qb6 Qd2 (29... Ra2 {played first would keep the initiative and avoid the rook getting cut off by a potential Ba6.} 30. Bf1 Qd2 $19) 30. Bf1 (30. Ba6 $5 {would now interfere with Black's piece coordination and make her readjust her plans and pieces.} Qa2 31. Bd3 Kg7 $17) 30... h5 (30... Ra2) 31. Qc6 {White again misses the key idea of Ba6.} Ra1 $19 {now the rook moves into the attack and White is in trouble.} 32. Qd7 (32. Qb6 {would hold the pawns, at least for now.}) 32... Qxd4 {White's position now collapses.} 33. Nc6 $2 {White must be getting desperate at this point.} (33. Qd8 Rc1 $19) 33... Qf6 {controlling the e7 square.} 34. b4 {might as well push the passed pawn.} Ne4 35. Bd3 h4 {now Black takes advantage of White's kingside holes, preparing another square for the knight.} 36. Qc7 Ng3 {forcing the issue and winning material, with the threat of ...Rh1#} 37. Rxg3 hxg3+ 38. Kxg3 Ra3 {an exchange up with excellent activity for the rook and queen, and an exposed enemy king, the rest of the game is just mopping up for Krush.} 39. Ne5 Bh6 {pretty much everything wins here.} (39... Qf5 $5) 40. Qc1 Kg7 41. Qe3 Rb3 42. b5 Rb4 {now f4 falls to the Black forces.} 43. Ng4 Bxf4+ 44. Kf3 Qc3 45. Qe2 e5 {faced with further material loss, White resigns.} 0-1

13 February 2020

Training quote of the day #29: Simon Webb

The biggest difference between a Master and a club player is in positional understanding. This pays off most clearly in simple positions, where the Master knows exactly what to do, and finds it easy to punish the positional errors of his opponent. This almost certainly applies to you too when you play someone distinctly weaker than yourself.
From Chess for Tigers by IM Simon Webb, Chapter 5: "How to catch Rabbits" 

Annotated Game #238: Lining up the shot

In this last round of the tournament, I still had some pride and preserving my Class A rating to play for, both of which would require a win to be satisfied. However, there was relatively less pressure, as I'd scored a win in the previous round after losing the first three games, breaking the streak. I had been given two Blacks in a row, which in fact was fine by me, since I've scored just as well (sometimes better) with that color.

I was also cheered by the appearance of the London System on the board, which I've traditionally had good results against. This time was no different and I equalized easily, despite a bit of inconsistency in the opening. On move 16 I deliberately decided to keep the queens on the board, looking for more winning chances, although as the engine points out I would have gained a slight advantage in the endgame. The structure had enough imbalances for there to be significant play in an equal position, and therefore chances for my opponent to go wrong.

The game starts turning in my favor around move 20, when I am able to come up with a decent plan to better mobilize my queenside forces, while my opponent makes some aggressive-looking but also wasteful moves on the kingside. The weakening 24. g4?! allows me to a couple of moves later naturally line up my queen against his king on the long diagonal, then take a surprise tactical shot that combines a discovered check, attack on his queen, and an x-ray theme on the f-file. My resulting material advantage and advanced passed pawn seal the win and a satisfying end to what could have been a disastrous tournament.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D02"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "108"] 1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 {the London system has only gained in popularity over recent years, it seems.} Nf6 3. e3 Bf5 4. Bd3 Bxd3 5. Qxd3 e6 (5... c6 {is more popular here, controlling the b5 square, although as can be seen in the next variation, the queen check is not a serious threat.}) 6. Nf3 (6. Qb5+ {wins a pawn, but Black has full compensation. White's queen has to be careful not to be caught without squares, as Black's rook gain strength on the queenside open files.} Nbd7 7. Qxb7 Rb8 8. Qxa7 Rxb2 $11 {and now if White gets even more greedy, Black should win:} 9. Bxc7 $2 (9. Qxc7 $2 Qa8 $19) 9... Qc8 $19 { with the threat of ...Rb7.}) 6... Nbd7 7. Nbd2 Nh5 {played to target White's powerful bishop. However, White can avoid the trade and keep a small initiative.} (7... c5 {is a more logical follow-up to Black's previous move.}) 8. O-O (8. Bg5 $5) 8... c5 $6 {mixing and matching strategic ideas is not a good recipe for the opening. Luckily my opponent does not press his developmental advantage.} (8... Nxf4 {is the obvious follow-up, completing the idea behind the knight move.}) 9. c3 (9. c4 {with Black's king still in the center, White would do well to use this pawn lever to try to open the position. For example} Nxf4 10. exf4 Be7 11. cxd5 exd5 12. Qb3 $16) 9... Nxf4 10. exf4 Bd6 $11 11. f5 {now that I am ready to castle, this is not worrisome.} O-O 12. fxe6 fxe6 {the backwards e-pawn looks ugly, but White is not in a position to put too much pressure on it. The half-open f-file also serves as compensation.} 13. Rae1 Qf6 $6 {this is too committal of the queen.} 14. Qe3 (14. Qb5 { can be parried, but Black effectively wastes a tempo in doing so.} Qe7 $14) 14... Rae8 {now White cannot make any more progress.} 15. Ne5 Bxe5 16. dxe5 { I am fine with this bishop for knight trade, as now the d/c pawn pair is strengthened and White has a target on e5 he has to defend.} Qe7 {Here I had a long think about game strategy. This retreat looks slightly passive, but my thinking process was actually to preserve more potential winning chances by keeping the queens on the board.} (16... Qf4 {was my main alternative and Komodo's preference. The queen trade gives Black a small edge perhaps.} 17. Qxf4 (17. g3 $5 Qxe3 18. Rxe3 Rf5 19. f4 $11) 17... Rxf4 $15 {and my rook activity is superior.}) 17. f4 Rf7 {a slow plan. Komodo prefers to prepare to mobilize the queenside pawn majority (4v3), with moves like ...b5 or ...Nb8-c6. } (17... b5) 18. Rf3 Ref8 19. Ref1 {maintaining the equal tension.} b6 { thinking safety first and preparing ...c4.} 20. Rh3 {this effectively wastes a tempo.} (20. c4 $5 {would be more unbalancing, challenging Black's center and posing more problems to solve at the board.} Nb8 21. cxd5 exd5 22. f5 Nc6 23. e6 Rf6 24. g4 g6 $11 {should hold for Black, though.}) 20... c4 {clearing the square for use by my pieces and creating a potential outpost on d3.} 21. Kh1 { effectively another loss of tempo.} (21. b4 cxb3 22. Nxb3) 21... Nc5 $15 { good, but not best.} (21... Qc5 {is pointed out by Komodo as winning a pawn, given that both the f- and b-pawns are weak. I did not even consider it, though, based on my earlier decision to avoid exchanging queens.} 22. Qxc5 (22. Rhf3 Qxe3 23. Rxe3 Rxf4 24. Rxf4 Rxf4 25. Kg1 $17) 22... Nxc5 23. Rhf3 Nd3 $19) 22. Rhf3 Nd3 {Black gets an 'octopus' knight deep in enemy territory.} 23. b3 b5 {play has shifted to the queenside and as a result I now have the initiative and a space advantage.} 24. g4 $6 {an aggressive attempt to re-start kingside threats, but this is too weakening. The f-pawn (and by extension the e-pawn) now have less potential support. The h1-a8 diagonal is also now opened, which later becomes decisive.} (24. Qd4 $5) 24... Qc7 $17 { pressuring the e-pawn, thereby preventing an advance of the f-pawn.} 25. Nb1 $6 {this retreat and redeployment of the knight harms rather than helps.} a5 { this passes up an opportunity to strike a blow on the kingside, now that the knight has removed itself from the action.} (25... g5 26. f5 (26. fxg5 $2 Rxf3 27. Rxf3 Rxf3 28. Qxf3 Qxe5 $19) 26... Nxe5 27. Rg3 h6 $19 {and now the f-pawn will eventually fall.}) (25... Qb7 {immediately is also good.}) 26. Na3 Qb7 { consciously lining up on the long diagonal, as well as protecting the b-pawn.} 27. Nc2 $2 {missing the following tactic. The f-pawn is in fact sufficiently protected, which no doubt led to my opponent not considering the possibility of it being taken. However, the point is the discovered check and simultaneous attack on the queen, combined with the x-ray on the f-file.} (27. Kg1) 27... Nxf4 $1 28. Rxf4 $2 {this leads to additional material loss.} (28. h3 cxb3 29. axb3 Ng6 $19 {with a winning endgame.}) 28... d4+ 29. Qf3 Qxf3+ {now the x-ray tactic works.} 30. R4xf3 Rxf3 31. Rxf3 Rxf3 32. Nxd4 Rxc3 33. Nxb5 Rc1+ 34. Kg2 c3 $19 {with the material advantage and advanced passed c-pawn, the win is just a matter of simple technique.} 35. Na3 c2 (35... Ra1 {is quicker.}) 36. Kh3 Kf7 37. Kh4 Rh1 {forcing either the queening of the pawn or the loss of the knight.} 38. Nxc2 Rxh2+ {from this point on it's just cleaning up.} 39. Kg5 Rxc2 40. a3 Rb2 41. b4 a4 42. Kh5 Rb3 43. Kg5 Rxa3 44. Kh5 Rb3 45. Kg5 a3 46. b5 Rxb5 47. Kh5 a2 48. g5 a1=Q 49. g6+ hxg6+ 50. Kg5 Rxe5+ 51. Kf4 Qd4+ 52. Kf3 Re3+ 53. Kf2 Qd2+ 54. Kf1 Re1# 0-1

08 February 2020

Annotated Game #237: Redemption (with a bit of luck)

Losing my first three games of this tournament ("castling queenside" 0-0-0 as mentioned in Annotated Game #236) was a low point in my chess career, something I recognized I needed to deal with mentally. I've never withdrawn from a tournament and personally don't believe in doing so, unless there is some unavoidable external reason (family emergency, serious illness, or the like). By withdrawing there is also no chance of redemption. Achieving mental toughness in competition means that previous bad outcomes - whether a mistake within a game, a previous loss, or a poor overall tournament result - have to be accepted and then put aside, in favor of focusing on playing as well as possible in the moment.

The below game is far from clean, but it does highlight some positives as well as several areas for improvement.
  • As Black in a Caro-Kann Advance variation, I easily achieve equality out of the opening, although I could have done better at several points, as the position ends up being rather sterile.
  • My opponent makes a weakening move in the early middlegame, which I exploit for a small advantage. 
  • The turning point comes after I come up with a bad plan (featuring 28...f5?) which also highlights a general weakness in my game, of not properly evaluating the circumstances behind f-pawn pushes.
  • I get lucky when my opponent misses a winning tactic for White. Both of us were too focused on the situation with the weak e6 pawn to see it.
  • I do a better job of evaluating the position after my opponent technically is able to win material (two rooks and pawn for the queen), but I get much better dynamic chances, as my queen combines well with my remaining knight against White's exposed king. The pressure then rattles my opponent into dropping a rook and the game.
In terms of redeeming my tournament performance and keeping my Class A rating, this was a must-win game. Part of the mental preparation for it, however, was paradoxically accepting that I could lose, and that my chess career would not be over as a result. The fact that one of my previous losses had actually been a well-played game against a master (Annotated Game #234) also was helpful, even though disappointing, as it showed my play had not been uniformly terrible. The nature of Swiss system tournaments, in which your opponent always is in a similar position in terms of results, also contributes to the chances of coming back from a bad start: they are likely to be just as depressed as you are, so if you can adjust your attitude to be more positive, you may enjoy a certain psychological advantage.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class A"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B12"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "116"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bg4 {this is one point of the opening variation starting with 3...c5, to enable Black to place the bishop more effectively on g4.} 6. Be2 e6 7. Nbd2 Qb6 {choosing to increase pressure on the diagonal before taking any other action. In these types of positions, it is sometimes difficult to figure out when it is best to relieve the pawn tension, or increase it with the queen move.} (7... cxd4 {immediately is the favorite choice in the database, and here it is more effective in achieving Black's developmental goals and equalizing, without prematurely committing the queen.} 8. cxd4 (8. Nxd4 Bxe2 9. Qxe2 Nxd4 10. cxd4 $11) 8... Bb4 $11) 8. Nb3 ( 8. dxc5 $5 {at first looks like it plays into Black's idea of building up pressure, but after} Bxc5 9. O-O {Black's pieces in fact are not doing much. The pressure on the a7-g1 diagonal is no trouble for White so Black will have to redeploy his forces, figure out where to put the g8 knight, and leave the king in the center for while.}) 8... cxd4 (8... Bxf3 $5 {may be a better version of the idea.} 9. Bxf3 cxd4 10. cxd4 a5 11. a4 Bb4+ 12. Kf1 Nge7) 9. cxd4 (9. Nbxd4 {would have been more consistent with White's previous move, centralizing the knight and providing less of a target than the d4 pawn will be.}) 9... Nge7 {a solid developing move.} (9... a5 $5 {would take advantage of White's positionally awkward setup with the knight on b3, as ...a4 is threatened to drive away the knight, with d4 under pressure.}) 10. O-O Bxf3 { this was not yet necessary. Making White weaken his kingside squares with h3 if he wanted to kick the bishop would be slightly better for Black.} (10... Nf5 {continues with development, to the ideal square for the knight.}) 11. Bxf3 Nf5 12. Be3 {White has the two bishops, but this one is functioning just like a big pawn.} Be7 13. Rc1 O-O $11 {I've now completed development - except for the rooks - and have a comfortable position. White meanwhile is tied to defending d4.} 14. a3 {this temporarily takes the b4 square away from Black, but at the cost of weakening b3.} Rfc8 {it is unclear which rook should get into play first. I chose to leave the rook on the a-file, where it could perhaps support an a-pawn advance, but this never happens.} (14... a5 $5 { immediately is another idea.}) 15. Qd3 Qd8 {here I have a think and come up with a substandard plan.} (15... a5 {again is the main idea in the position and the logical follow-up.}) 16. Qb5 {I saw that the queen could gain space in this manner; however, the b7 pawn is not actually threatened, since after ... Rab8 the Nb3 would be hanging.} Bg5 {this was the original idea, to exchange off a defender of d4.} 17. Qd3 Bxe3 (17... Nxe3 {makes more sense, keeping the bishop on the board and exerting pressure down the h6-c1 diagonal.}) 18. fxe3 { now the position is fully equal, with fewer practical prospects for Black than before. The d4 square is no longer a weakness and White can think about using the half-open f-file.} Qg5 {getting the queen back into the game, pressuring e3 and exerting influence on the kingside.} 19. Rfe1 Nce7 {the knight has no useful squares on the queenside, so redeploying it makes sense.} 20. Kf2 { removing the pin on the g-file, which could theoretically be annoying at some point, but the king is less secure on f2.} b6 {essentially a waiting move, although it does take away c5 and a5 from White knight.} (20... Rxc1 21. Rxc1 Rf8 {is Komodo's preferred plan. At first this looks like it just gives away the queenside, but White's king position justifies a break using the f-pawn.} 22. Qe2 (22. Rc7 $2 Qh4+ $19) 22... f6 $15) 21. e4 $6 {this looks like a strong move, but in fact it leaves White vulnerable.} (21. Nd2 $5) 21... Nh4 { good, but not the best.} (21... dxe4 22. Bxe4 Rxc1 23. Rxc1 Rd8 24. Rd1 a5 25. a4 Qh4+ 26. Kg1 h5 $17 {with the idea of ...Qg5 and running the h-pawn up. Black will have lasting pressure against both White's king position and the d-pawn.}) 22. Qe3 $6 {this makes it easier for me to resolve the kingside tension favorably.} (22. exd5 Nxf3 23. Qxf3 Nxd5 $15) 22... Nxf3 {this is possible because the Qg5 is simultaneously protected, which my opponent may have missed.} 23. Kxf3 {better than the alternative, which drops a pawn.} (23. Qxf3 Rxc1 24. Rxc1 Qh4+ 25. Kg1 dxe4 $17) 23... dxe4+ 24. Qxe4 Nd5 $15 { a logical centralization of the knight, also blockading the d-pawn. However, Black can play more vigorously.} (24... Rxc1 $5 25. Rxc1 Rf8 $17 {again with the idea of lining up on the king and preparing ...f6.}) 25. g3 {creating a flight square on g2 and controlling h4 and f4.} a5 {I now finally play this idea, noticing that the Nb3 is short of squares.} 26. h4 Qe7 {I thought for a while here and decided to play the safe move.} (26... Qh6 {keeps more pressure on White.}) 27. Rc2 Rf8 {now I also play this idea from earlier, but the timing is not as good, and White still has both rooks on the board, which makes his control of the c-file much more relevant.} (27... Rxc2 28. Qxc2 Rf8 $17 {is an improved version.}) 28. Kg2 {the king also can more quickly run away from the f-file now.} f5 $2 {this shows both a lack of patience and a misunderstanding of the position. Without the king as a target, the opening of the f-file is no longer beneficial to Black and just weakens the position due to White's pressure on the e-file.} (28... Qd7 $15 {is better, with the idea of putting a rook on c8 and challenging for the c-file.}) 29. exf6 Rxf6 $4 { I thought for a while here and picked the wrong recapture. White (just as I did) now misses a game-ending tactic.} (29... Qxf6 30. Qxe6+ Qxe6 31. Rxe6 Rae8 32. Rxe8 Rxe8 $14 {accepts the loss of the pawn. Black however is blockading the d-pawn with a well-placed knight and has prospects for good rook activity, so this compensates somewhat.}) 30. Rc6 (30. Qxd5 {queen sacs (even if only temporary) are sometimes difficult to include in the thinking process, as it's common to automatically reject the possibility of such a capture. White wins a piece due to the hanging Qe7.}) 30... Qf8 $11 {now I lose the e-pawn, but can exploit the f-file and White's open king position.} 31. Rxe6 Rf2+ 32. Kg1 Nf6 { I had to think through the consequences of this carefully, predicting that my opponent would go for the queen for rooks exchange.} (32... Rxb2 {is also possible.}) 33. Qxa8 $6 (33. Qd3 Rxb2 34. Nd2 Rc8 $11) 33... Qxa8 34. Kxf2 Qd5 $17 {the general rule is that two rooks are better than a queen when there are open files and the endgame is near. In this particular case, however, my queen can combine effectively with the knight and it is powerfully centralized.} 35. Rxb6 {I got the impression that my opponent was quite happy with the position at this point, having gobbled a pawn on top of the rooks vs. queen situation. However, now I take over the initiative and demonstrate the power of the queen. } a4 {the knight's position is now revealed as a liability.} 36. Rb8+ (36. Nd2 $2 Qxd4+ {with a triple fork.}) 36... Kf7 37. Nc1 Qxd4+ 38. Re3 $2 {my opponent gets flustered by the situation and misses the knight fork, although . ..Qd2+ is also winning by picking up the Nc1.} Ng4+ $19 39. Kf1 Nxe3+ {at this point it's been a long struggle and I go for what I know is winning, rather than searching for even better moves.} (39... Qd1+ {is more effective.}) 40. Ke2 {my opponent now puts up stubborn resistance which requires a good amount of effort on my part to overcome, but the outcome is not really in doubt.} Nf5 (40... Nc4) 41. Rb4 Qe3+ 42. Kd1 Nxg3 43. Rxa4 Nf1 44. Kc2 Qd2+ (44... Qc5+) 45. Kb1 {I had foreseen this run to the queenside, which extends White's life for a little while longer.} Ne3 46. Ra7+ Kg6 {the problem for White is that the Black king can eventually hide behind his own pawns and/or gobble the h-pawn, so it is not vulnerable to further checks from the rook.} 47. Rc7 Qd6 48. Rc3 Nd5 49. Rd3 Qe5 50. Kc2 Qe4 51. b4 Nf4 52. Kc3 Nxd3 53. Nxd3 Qe3 { continuing with the pinning theme. When in doubt, render your opponent's pieces unusable.} 54. Kc4 Qe2 55. b5 Qc2+ 56. Kd4 Qa4+ 57. Kc5 Qxa3+ 58. Nb4 Qc3+ 0-1