29 June 2020

No draws

One of the chess books I read during my early scholastic career - it might have been GM Larry Evans' Chess Catechism - had a short anecdote about Bobby Fischer being offered a draw at a major tournament, in a very equal position; his opponent got the response "no draws!" At the time, I was rather enthusiastic about draws, to be honest, although intellectually I understood the idea of "no draws" even as I rejected it. As my chess understanding has matured, however, I've come around to more of a "no draws" mentality - although not as an outright refusal to take a draw under any circumstances, which is what I originally thought it meant.

Rather than a principle to be upheld unto death, I believe it is better to think of "no draws" as a mindset. The purpose of a competitive chess game is to win; failing that, to draw; failing that, to lose. There can be social aspects to chess, along with other factors that may come into consideration, but in the end we all normally want to win. The problem comes when our desire to avoid losing becomes stronger. At that point, I believe it will become very hard to make further progress along the path to chess mastery, unless the fear of losing can be accepted and in turn mastered.

In order to win more games, it is an unavoidable fact that more games will have to be played, meaning more losses as well. It also means that games that are balanced or draw(ish) should still be played out, as a rule. This builds positional understanding over time, going significantly beyond simply looking for winning tactics in every position. At the professional level, Magnus Carlsen is the latest and greatest professional to be able to squeeze wins from apparently dead equal positions, but this is actually a common phenomenon when stronger players when face weaker ones. Some players deliberately aim for this type of style (as IM Jay Bonin describes in Active Pieces), but in many cases it reflects a stronger player being able to implement their better understanding of the game, or them deliberately playing on long enough for their opponent to make a significant mistake. Hard to accomplish that if you regularly take an early draw.

So what does the practice of "no draws" look like at a practical level? Here is my scheme for it:
  • I will not ask for a draw unless the position is actually dead drawn. This means there is either a draw by repetition coming, or it is a theoretical draw in the endgame.
  • If my opponent asks for a draw, I will not accept it unless I think a draw is the best (and most likely) result for me.
The first point takes care of the majority of the angst usually involved in thinking about draws. If you enter a game with the mindset of playing it out, then there is never the need for a decision - and the added stress that comes along with it - about when to request a draw yourself. This has some other positive effects on your ability to improve as a chessplayer, such as deeper experience with positions reached and a better ability to play endgames. One of my persistent weaknesses has been the endgame, in part because early on I happily took draws to avoid going into them. This is a self-defeating practice in the long run.

The second point, concerning what to do when a draw offer is received, is that it should be treated as a welcome admission from your opponent that they no longer think they can win the game. Following some old tournament advice, you now have the opportunity to take as much time as you like (that is still on your clock) to consider the offer, since it cannot be withdrawn.
  • If you assess you can play on without risk and have at least a slight advantage, then the decision is easy to reject the offer.
  • If there are other factors in play, such as lack of clock time, then you may have to be practical about it and take a draw if you honestly assess that you could not win (or could very easily blunder) before making the next time control. This is where "no draws" becomes a guideline rather than an iron rule. 
  • In longer games, fatigue and declining calculating ability at the board may also be a consideration, even if enough time remains on the clock. Your own objective self-assessment as a player is what you must rely on for your decision.
  • In the end, the burden of proof should be on the reason to take a draw; the default should be to reject the offer.
Following the "no draws" mindset is one of the things that has measurably boosted my strength over the last several years, including my best game ever. Once you start seeing practical results from this approach, it's easier to put aside the loss avoidance reflex and concentrate more on the progress you can make over time. Plus, I've honestly found it more fun to have the appetite to play a full game, rather than worrying about making or accepting draw offers.

06 June 2020

Annotated Game #246: A thematic Stonewall victory

This last-round tournament game is thematic in a number of ways, not just for the opening in consideration. I had only played a handful of Stonewall games at this point, and it's clear through analysis that I missed some subtleties (and not-so-subtle aspects too). It is exactly this process of experience, analysis, and understanding that drives improvement, however, whether it's a new opening you are playing or any other aspect of your game.

Here I was fortunate enough to win in the end, pressing through a kingside attack that finishes nicely, but could have been defended against (or completely refuted) by exchanging one of my primary attacking pieces. I would also like to highlight some more universal chess observations that stemmed from the analysis, including about how Class players think.
  • White's opening a3 and h3 rook pawn moves are a common tendency among players at a certain level. It struck me during the game that my opponent was playing these moves more as a "system" or automatically, rather than through careful consideration of the needs of the position; a3 in particular looks out of place. The time lost was not decisive, but it allowed me to accelerate my attack plans and grab the initiative.
  • My opponent prematurely resolves the pawn tension in the center on move 9, a common mistake previously discussed in Annotated Game #245; it's interesting to see how these kinds of themes keep cropping up in games and analysis.
  • I missed two key strategic (and tactical) ideas involving piece exchanges and mobilization. I never considered trading off my well-placed Ne4 during the game, although the knight could have profitably given itself up for White's dark-square bishop. A related idea was mobilizing the Nd7 sooner, with the general principle of bringing more pieces into an attack.
  • As previously highlighted in Pitfalls of Computer Analysis, trusting superficial engine assessments can lead you astray. Here on move 16 that would have lead to thinking ...Qh4 was a mistake, based on an initial full-game analysis pass.
  • There are a number of calculation mistakes on both sides regarding the kingside attack that Black launches, starting around move 14. For my part, it reinforces the fact that I should be looking harder for my opponent's ideas, including in this case the very disruptive idea of Nxe4. In general, though, the process and outcome is an object lesson on the practical benefits of the initiative of being the attacker, since an under-pressure defender usually has more costs associated with calculation failures (mate, in this case).
[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class C"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A84"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "46"] {A84: Dutch Defence: 2 c4 Miscellaneous} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 e6 4. Nf3 f5 {the Slav Stonewall} 5. a3 {this neglects development} Nf6 6. h3 $146 {Secures g4, but also neglects development. We are now out of the database.} Bd6 { Black has now reached the standard Modern Stonewall setup. With White underdeveloped, Black has equalized by this point.} 7. Bd2 {a rather passive choice for the bishop.} (7. Bg5 h6 $11) 7... O-O 8. e3 Nbd7 {this is where I had my first real think. I defer for the moment deciding on where to put the light-square bishop.} (8... b6 9. Be2 Bb7 $11) 9. cxd5 $6 {this prematurely releases the pawn tension in the center. If Black can recapture with the e-pawn in the Stonewall, it usually is an advantage, since the c-file remains blocked for White while the half-open e-file can be better exploited by Black.} exd5 $15 10. Be2 Ne4 {the thematic Stonewall knight jump.} 11. O-O Qf6 { this is another strategic point for thought. The square f6 can be used by the queen, the Nd7 or the Rf8, so Black needs to formulate a plan here.} (11... Qe7 $5 {Komodo agrees that developing the queen is a good idea, but prefers e7. One point is that it fights for control of e5 just as well from here, leaving f6 free for another piece.}) 12. Qb3 {this normally would signal a desire by my opponent to pursue a queenside strategy, also importantly occupying the a1-h8 diagonal. This allows some tactical ideas based on the d5 pawn pin. Having learned my lesson in a previous game, I move my king out of the line of fire.} Kh8 {this also clears g8 for a rook.} 13. Rad1 $6 {this does nothing for the rook, as it has no future on the d-file, and contradicts to some extent the previous queen move.} g5 {I now get a standard kingside attack rolling.} (13... Nxd2 $5 {is a better version of the idea, as found by Komodo. The removal of the Bd2 gives Black an advantage on the dark squares, as well as weakening the defense of f4.} 14. Nxd2 (14. Rxd2 g5) 14... g5 {with the idea of ...Qh6 and ...Nf6 to mobilize additional forces, and ...g4 and ..f4 to storm the king position.}) 14. Nh2 $6 {a premature retreat. White would do better to exchange his largely useless Nc3 for my well-placed Ne4 first.} (14. Nxe4 dxe4 15. Nh2 $15 {Black has only a slight advantage, at most, as White can defend his king and has ideas of pushing d4-f5.}) 14... g4 $2 {played after a lot of thought, but a mistake. I am missing both the ...Nxd2 idea and the key follow-up of ...Qh6.} (14... Nxd2 $5 {again is the key idea.} 15. Rxd2 Qh6 $17 {now ...g4 is a real threat, especially after ...Nf6.}) 15. hxg4 $6 { this misses my next idea.} (15. Nxe4 $5 {would allow White to at least equalize.} fxe4 16. Nxg4) 15... Bxh2+ {this also took a good deal of thought, but this time with success...mostly.} 16. Kxh2 Qh4+ {here a previous version of Komodo (11.2) on the first pass thought this was a mistake, instead preferring ...Qh6, as does version 13.2 initially, but after some additional time the engine agrees the text move is best.} 17. Kg1 fxg4 $4 {Komodo via the Fritz interface gives this two question marks, since White now has an only move that wins. Another long think that does not go well for me, in a complex position.} (17... Ndf6 18. Qb4 Rf7 19. Nxe4 Nxe4 $17) 18. Be1 $2 {a logical defensive idea in general terms, but White is better by exchanging off the Ne4 attacker, which also opens up the center.} (18. Nxe4 $1 dxe4 {and now White breaks through in the center while Black's attack has evaporated.} 19. d5 $18 { and now after Bc3, White will cut into Black's position along the diagonals and also the d-file.}) 18... Rf6 $2 {the idea of a rook lift does not lose, but ignores the correct path to victory. The f6 square is better used to mobilize the Nd7, which also opens up the Bc8's path to the kingside.} (18... Ndf6) (18... Nxc3 $5 {followed by ...Rf6 also should win and may be a simpler path.}) 19. f3 $4 {this loses, as I had calculated.} (19. Nxe4 {again would save the game.} Rh6 (19... dxe4 $2 20. d5 $18) 20. f4 Qh2+ 21. Kf2 $11) 19... g3 $19 20. Bxg3 {forced} Nxg3 21. Rfe1 Rh6 {I chose this as a certain win, not being able to fully calculate the ...Nh1 idea at this point, due to fatigue.} ( 21... Nh1 {can be played immediately here.}) 22. Rf1 {now with f1 blocked and the rook already on h6 cutting off the h-file, the tactical idea is much clearer.} Nh1 23. Rfe1 Qf2# 0-1

01 June 2020

Annotated Game #245: How not to crack open the queenside

The following third-round tournament game is very thematic for English Opening players and illustrates a consistent strategic weakness that I have recognized. Facing a King's Indian Defense (KID) setup, I follow the typical plan of queenside expansion with b2-b4, which yields a small plus. The critical position occurs on move 11 and is an excellent example of where I need to improve my game. Tactics are not really involved, but calculation and evaluation is important. Essentially White needs to find a way to keep the pressure up and not prematurely resolve the tension in the position. While I what I chose gained space, it allowed Black to easily contain the pressure and frustrate further progress. Learning what to do (and not do) in these positions is an important step in achieving better results with the English.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A16"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 13.2"] [PlyCount "51"] {A16: English Opening: 1...Nf6 with ...d5} 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. g3 O-O 5. Bg2 d6 6. O-O Nbd7 {this is a flexible choice, not committing to a pawn advance yet. That said, ...e5 is most played here, according to the database.} 7. d3 {the standard English setup against the KID.} a6 {up to this point, Black has delayed choosing between the two thematic pawn advances in the KID, but finally does so on the next move.} 8. Rb1 {this is the standard rook move, with the plan of b2-b4. White does not benefit from playing the pawn advance immediately, as Black's last move allowed, due to the weakness on the a1-h8 diagonal.} c5 9. Bd2 {this is a somewhat slow move, although it does develop the bishop, clearing the first rank, and support the knight. I was unduly worried about protecting the Nc3 against discovered attacks on the long diagonal from the Bg7. With the rook no longer on a1, this is not really an issue.} (9. b4 $5 {is a better way to pursue the initiative.}) 9... Rb8 { preparing to contest the b-file.} 10. b4 $14 {at this point White has a small lead in development, space and the initiative.} Ne8 $6 {Black has several options here, since White's last move is not forcing. This retreat of the knight opens the long diagonal, but withdraws it further from the action, which is a net minus for Black.} (10... cxb4 11. Rxb4 Nc5 12. Qc2 {with the idea of Rfb1 is a comfortable plan for White, keeping up pressure on the b-file. The a-pawn is isolated, but control of the b-file more than compensates for this.}) (10... Qc7 $5 {would avoid committing Black to changing the pawn structure.}) 11. b5 {not the best plan. Instead of opening the b-file to White's advantage, this allows Black to better contain White's pressure on the queenside. This is also an example of how Class players typically rush to resolve pawn tension.} (11. bxc5 $5 dxc5 12. a4 $16) (11. Qc2 {is also possible, connecting the rooks and maintaining the tension.}) 11... b6 {this looks a little dubious at first, since now I'll open the b-file with a backwards b-pawn for Black. However, after} 12. bxa6 Bxa6 {Black's b-pawn is overprotected and White has no obvious way to make progress.} 13. a4 (13. Qc1 Bb7 $11) 13... Nc7 {not the most active choice, but it gives Black the option of exchanging with the knight on b5, if Nc3-b5.} 14. Qc2 {at this point there is nothing left for White's queenside strategy and Komodo recommends switching to the kingside and center for play, although without a real prospect for an advantage. In that case, c1 would be a better square for the queen, creating a battery on the c1-h6 diagonal.} Bb7 $11 {illustrating how my efforts on the queenside have been for nought. Black can block the Rb8 and it does not matter. } 15. Rb3 {stubbornly continuing to look for queenside play, without bothering to take my opponent's obvious reply into account.} Bc6 {unblocking the Rb8 and pressuring a4.} 16. Nb5 Ra8 {now Black even has more threats on the queenside than I do.} 17. Rbb1 {an admission that my 15th move was useless, but there is nothing better.} Nxb5 {this exchange simplifies the queenside structure and gives my pieces better coordination as a result. However, the position is very even still.} 18. axb5 Bb7 19. Bc3 {contesting the diagonal under the principle that Black's Bg7 is a superior piece, so exchanging it would benefit me.} Nf6 { this is a small inaccuracy. Black wants to preserve his bishop, but this allows me some extra pressure.} 20. Ra1 $14 Qc7 21. Qb2 {now the Nf6 can only move to h5, due to the pressure on the Bg7.} h5 22. Rxa8 {not a bad move, but it ignores the (small) strategic benefits White has on the kingside and is followed up by queenside liquidation.} (22. Nh4 $5 {may be the best try to keep some initiative.} Bxg2 23. Nxg2 Qb7 24. e4 $14 {followed by Ne3 establishes better control of the center, particularly d5.}) 22... Rxa8 23. Ra1 Qb8 24. Ra3 {consciously trading to equality.} (24. Nd2 $5 Bxg2 25. Kxg2 Ra7 $11) 24... Rxa3 25. Qxa3 Qa8 26. Qxa8+ 1/2-1/2