12 September 2021

Unforced errors

In the tradition of previous Chess vs. Tennis posts, here is another one with an insight for chessplayers, excerpted from The Economist (Sept 11, 2021) article "All Too Human", which leads off talking about Naomi Osaka's collapse after being ahead at this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament:

...Yet the way her fortunes turned at the US Open, with one mistake begetting another, turns out to be common. A recent paper by David Harris, Samuel Vine and Mark Wilson of the University of Exeter and Michael Eysenck of Royal Holloway University of London finds that top-tier tennis players are surprisingly prone to mistakes caused by situation driven anxiety...

The taxonomy of shots in tennis helps to isolate the impacts of consistency and risk appetite. When a player misses a routine shot and loses a point, it is scored as an "unforced error" (UE). Conversely, shots that bounce within the court without being touched by an opponent are "winners".

...In high-pressure contexts such as break and set points, UEs were 15% more common than under less stressful situations. Similarly, during points following UEs, the chances of a repeat blunder rose sharply. These effects reinforced each other, so that UEs were even more common during high-pressure points following a prior UE than you would otherwise expect.

I don't think it's very surprising to find that high-stress moments tend to lead to more mistakes, even at an elite level. However, I find it more interesting to see the study's observations that these mistakes do indeed tend to subsequently reinforce themselves, which can result in a downward spiral of performance. While this could also be considered "common sense", having an acute awareness of these types of situations can be important for a player, who may then choose to consciously focus on their mental toughness in an effort to combat a further downhill slide in their game.

This finding is consistent with what I've seen over the years in analyzing both my own games and those at the master level. Often I've found that a series of sometimes small mistakes - or perhaps even just failures to play better moves - can sometimes then suddenly lead to much more significant blunders when under pressure from an opponent. Blunder recovery is then extremely important and often quite possible, even when down material or under heavy positional pressure, again underlining the importance of mental toughness to the ultimate result of the game. Recently in Annotated Game #255 I had just such a moment for recovery, but was unable to find the drawing line at the board. That was just one of many opportunities that I've seen occur, even in "losing" games, so the old advice to never give up until you are actually beaten remains good.

11 September 2021

Annotated Game #256: Back to the grind

This second-round game had me paired against a much lower-rated opponent. However, his rating was provisional and in practice he played significantly stronger. His main weakness was in not mobilizing his forces in a King's Indian Defense and letting me grab space and eventually win his unprotected d-pawn. After that I followed a strategy of safety first and felt confident in my strategic advantage, which became more apparent as material left the board. NM Dan Heisman's advice of pursuing a "go to sleep" strategy in the endgame paid off, as I covered all my weaknesses and then forced an imminent breakthrough, my opponent losing on time.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class E"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E61"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon 2"] [PlyCount "84"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. e3 g6 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. Be2 O-O 5. O-O d6 {transposing into the King's Indian formation, as I had expected.} 6. c4 Nbd7 7. Nc3 c5 {much less popular than the standard ...e5, but a good alternative. However, it's a less direct way of challenging in the center.} 8. d5 {database statistics show that White does better to maintain the central tension, for example after b3 or a3. I was comfortable immediately going for more space, however.} Nb6 {targeting c4 and opening the diagonal for the Bc8.} 9. Qc2 {this waiting move doesn't really do much for me, although it reinforces e4. I should do better by focusing on exploiting Black's slightly awkward setup, for example pushing a2-a4 immediately to gain further space.} Bd7 {this is slow, allowing me to recover the initiative, as the bishop is not placed to do anything useful here. Challenging in the center with ...e6 or ...e5 looks better.} 10. a4 Bg4 { despite the double bishop move, this is Komodo's choice as well, pointing out the flaw in developing to d7 in the first place.} (10... a5 $6 {would block ideas of a4-a5 but leave too many holes on the b-file for White to later exploit.}) 11. b3 {the idea here is to develop the dark-square bishop before doing anything else major. More active play is possible.} (11. Ng5 $5 {would offer to trade Black's most active piece and help increase White's light-square advantage.}) 11... a6 $16 {this keeps my knight out of b5, but now my structural and developmental advantages are more evident.} 12. Bb2 { although not winning yet, at this point I was content with what I felt was a strategic advantage here, with Black's pieces not cooperating well and me able to pursue longer-term ideas on both the queenside and in the center. For example, I can think about a4-a5 and Nc3-a4-b6, as well as the e4 advance and further play in the center.} Bd7 $6 {this third bishop move is just a time-waster.} (12... Bf5) 13. Rfe1 {with the idea of targeting play on the e-file, which I felt was the most dynamic option and also would keep squeezing Black.} Nc8 {my opponent continues time-wasting maneuvers.} 14. e4 Na7 15. h3 { a prophylactic move, taking away the g4 square from both Black's knight and bishop, to continue the squeezing motif.} (15. e5 $5 dxe5 16. Nxe5 {looks more active, but I was not in a rush to resolve the situation in the center.}) 15... Re8 {finally developing the rook to the e-file, to be able to aid in a future fight there.} 16. Bd3 {this is a bit of a wasted move, as the bishop accomplishes nothing on the new diagonal and e4 is already overprotected.} e6 { correctly challenging White's central pawn formation.} 17. dxe6 Bxe6 18. Nd5 { this obvious-looking move may let Black off the hook in the center. The point is that Black could then exchange off the bad light-square bishop for the centralized knight.} Nc6 $14 {getting the knight back into the fight, as b4 looks like a good place for it.} 19. Qd2 {proactively moving away from a ... Nb4 threat and to more open diagonals.} Rc8 (19... Bxd5 $5) 20. Rad1 {like my opponent, I try to develop my rook to a more potentially useful file.} Bd7 $6 $16 {while not immediately losing, this creates some targets for me to focus on and complicates Black's play. The d7 square is taken away from the Nf6, reducing the amount of space available to his pieces, and the d6 pawn is now unprotected, creating some tactical possibilities.} 21. Bb1 {getting out of the way of the d-file heavy pieces, while keeping up protection of the e4 pawn. } a5 $2 {ignores the threat to the pawn and thereby creates a fatal weakness.} (21... Be6) 22. Nxf6+ Bxf6 23. Bxf6 (23. e5 $5 {I did not even consider, instead going immediately for the win of the pawn. Komodo favors it because of the extra threats involved, although it is much more complicated.} Bg7 24. Qxd6 $18) 23... Qxf6 24. Qxd6 Qxd6 25. Rxd6 Be6 26. Red1 Rcd8 27. Kf1 {following the simple plan of activating the king.} (27. e5 $5) 27... Rxd6 {I was please to see this, as simplifying down material, especially from double to single rooks, normally makes the defender's situation worse in an endgame.} 28. Rxd6 Rd8 29. Rxd8+ {happy to exchange down further} Nxd8 30. Ke2 Kf8 31. Ne5 (31. Ke3 $5 {no reason to not keep centralizing the king and making it more powerful.}) 31... Ke7 32. Nd3 b6 33. Bc2 {played with the idea of establishing a defensive blockade first, then grinding away on the win.} Nc6 34. Bd1 { now ...Nd4 is no longer a threat.} Kd6 35. f4 {seizing space. although perhaps a little premature.} (35. Ke3 $5 {would better centralize the king and open up the diagonal for the bishop.}) 35... f6 36. g4 {my opponent by this point was quite low on time. I endeavored to play solid moves that kept my advantage and make the game easier on me, while difficult for my opponent to do anything useful.} Bd7 37. Ke3 Ke6 38. h4 $18 {by this point my 4v3 pawn majority is fully mobilized and supported by my pieces. The threat is to break through with g4-g5.} Nd4 39. f5+ {picking the simplest path to a win.} gxf5 40. exf5+ Kd6 41. Kf4 Be8 42. Nf2 Ke7 {and lost on time, although the knight maneuver Ne4-c3-d5 would decide things.} 1-0

06 September 2021

Annotated Game #255: Too eager to return

Earlier this year I had my first OTB tournament in some time and was quite eager to return to the board. Usually the first game of a tournament after a long layoff is dedicated more to cleaning out mental rust and getting back into fighting form; this one is no exception. The opening phase is not bad, despite my relative unfamiliarity with the position, but I am too aggressive in my intentions and delay kingside castling for too long. As a result, my opponent gets a significant strategic advantage and I decide to sacrifice material twice in order to try and get counterplay. The second sac is a better practical one and in fact my opponent did go wrong in the ensuing king hunt, allowing what would have been a drawing continuation, but alas I did not find it either. 

Although disappointed in the loss, I did not worry about it too much, given the ratings differential (over 100 points in my opponent's favor) and the fact I had another three games to go. At least I had made my opponent sweat, which gave some satisfaction.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class A"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D31"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon 2"] [PlyCount "67"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 e6 {the Triangle/Wedge formation. This can transpose to various different openings and my opponent opts for an aggressive continuation.} 4. e4 Bb4 (4... dxe4 {is most common here and may be superior, even with the ...Bb4 idea. One recent example with Carlsen playing it:} 5. Nxe4 Bb4+ 6. Nc3 c5 7. a3 Ba5 8. Be3 Nf6 9. Nge2 cxd4 10. Qxd4 Qxd4 11. Bxd4 Nc6 12. Bc5 Ne4 13. Be3 Nxc3 14. Nxc3 Bxc3+ 15. bxc3 e5 16. Rb1 Kd8 17. f4 Re8 18. Kf2 Kc7 19. Bd3 h6 20. Rb5 f6 21. Rhb1 Re7 22. Be4 Kd8 23. Rd5+ Kc7 24. fxe5 Nxe5 25. Bf4 Rb8 26. Ke3 Bd7 27. Rc5+ Bc6 28. Bxc6 b6 29. Bxe5+ fxe5 30. Rd5 Kxc6 31. Rf1 Rc8 32. Rf5 Kb7 33. Rfxe5 Rxe5+ 34. Rxe5 Rxc4 35. Kd3 Rg4 36. g3 Kc6 37. c4 Rg5 38. Re7 a5 39. Kd4 Kd6 40. Rb7 Rg4+ 41. Kd3 Kc6 42. Re7 h5 43. Re6+ Kc7 44. Re5 g6 45. Re6 Rg5 46. Kd4 Kb7 47. Rf6 h4 48. gxh4 Rg4+ 49. Kc3 Rxh4 50. Rxg6 Rxh2 51. c5 Rh3+ 52. Kc4 bxc5 53. Kxc5 Rxa3 54. Kb5 a4 55. Rg7+ Kc8 56. Rg4 Kc7 57. Rxa4 Rxa4 58. Kxa4 {1/2-1/2 (58) Xiong,J (2709)-Carlsen,M (2863) Lichess.org INT 2020}) 5. e5 {my opponent thought for a while here, probably expecting that I would take on e4. The text logically grabs space and prevents the knight development to f6, so} Ne7 6. Nf3 c5 {the correct reaction. This break is a major theme in the line, challenging White in the center and also with the idea of developing the other knight with Nb8-c6.} 7. dxc5 Bxc5 { here I thought for a while, not familiar with the position. It's better to at least temporarily sacrifice the pawn, rather than be so concerned with immediately re-establishing material equality.} (7... Nbc6) 8. cxd5 { psychologically this continued the pressure, with me feeling that my position was rather open once White's light-square bishop is freed. However, I didn't see anything real for White and this is objectively the case.} exd5 (8... Nxd5 {seemed a little loose to me.}) 9. Bd3 Bg4 {may be a little premature, as following the usual rule about developing knights before bishops seems better. However, in practical terms it is probably equal, since the knight development is coming anyway.} 10. O-O Nbc6 11. Re1 {this overprotects the e-pawn, but developing the dark-square bishop would be a more effective move.} Qd7 $6 { at this point I had to consider middlegame plans and also how to finish my king development. I was too afraid of castling kingside and instead kept my options open for castling queenside with the text move. However, it is too passive a square for the queen.} (11... Qb6 {is the logical reaction to White's last move, which left the f2 pawn vulnerable. White would now have to spend a move covering it, losing the initiative and allowing ...O-O.}) 12. h3 { White calls my bluff on the c8-h3 diagonal. The bishop sac on h3 would get me nothing, so now I have to retreat.} Bh5 (12... Bxf3 $2 13. Qxf3 {and now White really does have an excellent attacking game on the kingside.}) 13. Be2 Bg6 $6 {unnecessary and time-wasting. White does not follow up as strongly as he could, at least.} 14. Bd3 (14. Na4 $1 {one way or another will result in the disappearance of the Black dark-squared bishop, currently my most effective piece, making White's counterpart a monster. For example} Bb4 15. Bd2 O-O 16. Rc1 Rac8 17. a3 Bxd2 18. Qxd2 {with holes on the queenside (especially c5) that can be exploited by White's knight light-square bishop.}) 14... Rd8 $6 { again postponing castling, to my detriment.} 15. a3 $16 {taking away the b4 square from my pieces and preparing the next pawn advance.} O-O 16. b4 { I underestimated this. Now there is no good alternative to retreating the bishop to b6, but I felt that would just consign me to a hopeless strategic position. I was feeling aggressive so decided to sac a piece for two pawns instead. This is almost never the right decision, but it seems I need to better remember that.} Nxb4 $2 17. Bxg6 $18 fxg6 {in the hopes of eventually generating counterplay on the f-file.} 18. axb4 Bxb4 {a good example of a one-move threat that goes nowhere.} 19. Qb3 a5 {if my pieces were better placed, the two connected passed pawns on the queenside might provide compensation. However, White's pieces are much more active and mine still have to cover too many weaknesses.} 20. Rd1 Rxf3 $5 {given the desperate nature of the position, this is not a bad try, as it forces White to do some calculating on the defense, after his king position gets opened.} 21. gxf3 {one problem is that there is no good immediate follow-up. Here I decide to get my king off the diagonal and thereby free up the pinned d-pawn. This takes too long to allow me to make effective threats against White's king, however.} Kh8 22. Bg5 Rf8 23. Nxd5 Nxd5 24. Rxd5 Qxh3 {a last-gasp effort, although White could theoretically still go wrong here.} 25. Rd8 Rxd8 26. Bxd8 Bc5 27. Ra2 Qg3+ 28. Kf1 Qh3+ 29. Ke2 Qh2 30. Kd3 Qxe5 31. Re2 $2 {and he does go wrong! But under pressure, I miss how to use my queen.} (31. Bxa5 Qf5+ 32. Ke2 $18) 31... Qd6+ $2 {now it is effectively over.} (31... Qf5+ $1 32. Kd2 {I thought this would give White an out, but it doesn't. I suffered from "tunnel vision" and did not consider the possibility of a bishop check, only another queen check.} (32. Kc4 Qf7+ 33. Kxc5 Qxb3 34. Re8+ Qg8 35. Rxg8+ Kxg8 $11) 32... Bb4+ $1 {now White either has to repeat moves with Ke3 or lose the Bd8 to a queen fork.}) 32. Kc2 Qxd8 33. Qf7 $1 {White avoids the trap of being greedy.} (33. Qxb7 $2 $11 { now Black can escape the back-rank threat various ways, including ...Bf8.}) 33... Bf8 34. Re8 1-0

05 July 2021

Developing board sight


There are various definitions of "board sight" or "board vision" in chess, but fundamentally it means the ability to (mentally) see all of the various possibilities for moves by your pieces (and those of your opponent). While it is closely related to your level of tactical skill, it is not quite the same thing. In fact, I would say that, once you have been exposed to the full range of tactical ideas and patterns, whether through books like Understanding Chess Tactics or sites like Predator at the Chessboard, more often it is a failure of board sight in a particular position that will trip you up and cause you to miss a tactic. There are examples of this at all levels, including Kramnik's infamous missed mate-in-one.

One of the benefits of analyzing your own games is to see how particular issues repeatedly appear in them, which allows you to better correct them in future games. When looking at missed tactics, it is therefore very important to understand why you missed them - both for yourself or your opponent. In the latter case, I have long had a bias toward focusing on my own plans over the chessboard and not looking hard enough at the possibilities for my opponent; I have been working on this using a better thought process with tactics training. This expansion of mental focus, while helpful in general, will not necessarily eliminate board sight problems - although it should at least increase my chances to spot additional threats.

Here are some specific examples of "hard-to-see" tactical moves that can fool our board sight:

  • Backwards piece moves, especially by bishops and queens. It is more natural to focus on forward / attacking moves by long-range pieces, and miss the ability to retreat, even short distances. 
  • Horizontal piece moves, especially by rooks and queens. Again, there is a natural bias towards forward movement (toward the opponent), which may lead us to miss pins and attacks along the chessboard ranks.
  • "Impossible" moves by a piece onto a protected square. This can be a "naked sacrifice" where the moving piece looks like it will simply be captured, or a breakthrough sacrifice where for example a protected pawn is taken by a piece. In both cases, doing the usual math about how many times a square/piece is protected does not work, due to other tactics being present on the board.
The diagram at the top is a convenient illustration of all three of the above phenomena. Black has just snatched a pawn on c2 with his bishop, rarely a good idea in these kinds of positions. The key to the resulting tactic is a backwards queen move (Qf3-e2) which blocks in White's bishop. Moving a major piece a second time in the opening, while preventing the development of a minor piece, is not a normal occurrence, which may have helped bias Black when missing the move. The result is a double attack, horizontally against the Black Bc2 and vertically against the e7 pawn, which as a result is pinned. Afterwards Nc4-d6 is possible, threatening mate. So Black must guard against the mate threat and lose the bishop.

The obvious question, then, is how can we improve our board sight. Much of the general advice in that regard is along the lines of "practice more tactics" and "play a lot of games". It's hard to argue with these ideas, since greater experience normally translates in practical terms into better play - at least for a while. However, I would offer up the following practices as addressing more directly the issues involved with board sight failures, when you are actually playing a game:
  • CCT (checks, captures and threats). Incorporating a CCT scan into your thinking process will make you consider everything that is a forcing move on the board.
  • Status examination, as outlined in Understanding Chess Tactics. Essentially this means you will have an explicit awareness of what each piece can do and understand which are weak pieces and squares on the board.
  • Thinking on your opponent's time. This is more of an overall mental strategy, but the efficiency gains from doing the above two practices while your opponent is thinking, rather than doing things like calculating variations, will be significant.

13 June 2021

Commentary: FIDE World Cup 2017, Round 5 (Jobava - Yu)

Here we continue with the general theme of a b3/e3 development scheme for White, which appears here with an early c2-c4. White (GM Jobava) pursues a deliberate strategy of restraint, adopting a Hedgehog structure and maneuvering while waiting for his opponent to create a weakness. GM Yu Yangyi as Black does not oblige for most of the game, apparently being largely content to maneuver as well, with typical Hedgehog characteristics: enjoying a space advantage and eyeing the typically weak d-pawn, but not having any truly weak targets to go after. As can often occur, this relatively quiet maneuvering period ends with an explosive tactic, after some of Black's choices weaken his position subtly.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"] [Site "Tbilisi GEO"] [Date "2017.09.08"] [Round "2.5"] [White "Jobava, Baadur"] [Black "Yu, Yangyi"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A01"] [WhiteElo "2687"] [BlackElo "2744"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon 2"] [PlyCount "83"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. b3 d5 2. Bb2 Nf6 3. e3 g6 4. c4 {challenging the central pawn, taking advantage of White's control of d4 to prevent its advance.} dxc4 5. Bxc4 (5. bxc4 {is also possible, with the trade-off of controlling d5 with a pawn, but no longer having the half-open c-file to use, and isolating the a-pawn.}) 5... Bg7 6. Nf3 O-O 7. O-O c5 {asserting some central control.} 8. Be2 (8. d4 { is usually played here, directly challenging in the center. This leads to a very equal position. However, not necessarily a draw, as we can see from this high-level encounter:} cxd4 9. Nxd4 Bd7 10. Nd2 Nc6 11. N4f3 a6 12. Rc1 b5 13. Be2 Qb6 14. a3 Rfd8 15. Qc2 Rac8 16. Qb1 Ne8 17. Bxg7 Nxg7 18. Qb2 Bf5 19. b4 Ne6 20. Rc3 Bg4 21. Rfc1 Na7 22. h3 Bxf3 23. Nxf3 Rxc3 24. Rxc3 Rc8 25. Rd3 Rd8 26. Ne5 Rxd3 27. Nxd3 Qd6 28. Qc3 Qc6 29. Qe5 Qc7 30. Qd5 Kg7 31. Bf3 Nc8 32. Bg4 Nb6 33. Qe4 Nf8 34. Qd4+ f6 35. Nc5 e5 36. Qd3 f5 37. Bd1 Nc4 38. Bb3 Nd6 39. Qd5 e4 40. Qg8+ {1-0 (40) Nepomniachtchi,I (2784)-Dominguez Perez,L (2758) Lichess.org INT 2020}) 8... b6 9. d3 {now we see that Jobava is choosing to play with a Hedgehog type structure, which required the bishop retreat.} Bb7 10. Nbd2 Nc6 11. a3 {taking away the b4 square from Black's knight and completing the typical Hedgehog pawn structure.} Nd5 {centralizing the knight and leading to the exchange of White's better bishop.} 12. Bxg7 Kxg7 13. Qc2 { the queen gets off the first rank, connecting the rooks, and heads for the now-open long diagonal.} Qd7 (13... e5 {would be a more aggressive and imbalancing approach, setting up a more traditional central pawn presence immediately. Instead, Black maneuvers and prepares it for later.}) 14. Qb2+ f6 {blocking the diagonal and controlling the e5 square.} 15. Rfd1 {the Hedgehog structure typically calls for patient maneuvering and improvement of piece placement, which is what we see in the next several moves.} Rfd8 16. Rac1 Rac8 17. h3 {gives the king "luft" and controls g4. Also a useful waiting move.} e5 {Black now commits in the center, seizing space.} 18. Ne4 {centralizing the knight. It cannot be kicked with ...f5, due to the e5 pawn's weakness.} (18. Ne1 {is liked by the engines, as it reinforces d3 and threatens to activate the bishop via g4.}) 18... Qe7 19. Re1 {White continues patiently maneuvering. The rook overprotects the Be2 and lines up on the Black queen.} Rd7 (19... f5 { would no longer lose a pawn and would gain space, but would be committal on Black's part.} 20. Ned2 Qf6 $11) 20. Bf1 {gets the bishop out of the way of the Re1. It is not needed to protect the Nf3, so this helps activate the rook more.} Qd8 {moving the queen off the e-file and doubling up pressure on the d-file. This however seems slightly awkward, cutting off the Rc8 from moving along the 8th rank, but Black has nothing in particular to do at this moment.} 21. Rcd1 {reinforcing d3 again.} Nde7 $6 {the first slip-up by Black. Now White can advance his b-pawn and gain some space and activity.} (21... Nc7 22. b4 cxb4 23. axb4 a6 {and here the Nc7 controls b5, preventing the b-pawn from advancing further. As can be seen in the game continuation, this advance plays a significant role, attacking and driving away the Nc6.}) 22. b4 cxb4 (22... c4 $2 23. Qa1 cxd3 24. b5 $1 {this wins the knight, since if it moves, White will have the Nxf6 sacrifice, similar to the game.} Na5 $2 25. Nxf6 $18 Kxf6 (25... Bxf3 26. Nxd7 Bxd1 27. Nxe5 $18 {and White will regain the piece while having a much superior position.}) 26. Nxe5) 23. axb4 Nf5 {activating this knight and increasing control of d4.} 24. Rc1 {the rook is now free to do this, since the bishop covers d3, the minor piece serving a useful if limited purpose.} Qe7 { targeting the b-pawn, but essentially forcing White to play the best move.} 25. b5 $14 Na5 {the knight is now largely out of the action. The main effect is to relinquish control of the d4 square.} 26. Rxc8 Bxc8 {Black's pieces are now rather awkwardly placed and are not coordinating well.} 27. d4 {Black now has to exchange, in which case the game is still even, but he misses the threat.} ( 27. g4 $5 {is an alternative leading to some simplification.} Nd6 28. Nxd6 Qxd6 29. d4 $14) 27... Bb7 $2 (27... exd4 28. exd4 (28. Nxd4 $4 Qxe4 $19) 28... Qd8 29. d5 Rxd5 30. g4 Nd6 31. g5 {and the position is rather awkward for Black, despite being temporarily a pawn up, but it is better than the game continuation.}) 28. Nxf6 $1 $18 {a difficult-to-spot tactic, since it visually appears that the pawn is properly defended.} Kxf6 (28... Qxf6 29. dxe5 $18 { and now either the queen blocks on e6 or the discovered check wins the rook.} Qe6 30. Ng5 Qb3 {attacking the Qb2 almost works, but} 31. e6+ Qxb2 32. exd7 { and amazingly the d-pawn cannot be stopped without losing the queen.} Qd2 33. d8=Q Qxd8 34. Ne6+ $18) 29. dxe5+ Kf7 (29... Ke6 30. e4 $18) 30. e6+ (30. e4 { first would also work.}) 30... Kxe6 {now Black's king is exposed in the center, but it is still not so simple to convert the win.} (30... Qxe6 31. Ng5+ $18) 31. e4 {the only winning move, kicking the knight and seizing more squares in the center.} Ng7 (31... Nd6 32. Qa2+ Kf6 33. e5+ Kg7 34. exd6 Qxd6 35. Re6 Qf4 36. Qa1+ Kf7 37. Re3 {and Black cannot stop all the threats to the king, including Ne5+}) 32. Qa2+ Kd6 (32... Kf6 $2 33. e5+) 33. Rc1 $1 {this is a good example of how to conduct a king hunt properly. White first cuts off the escape route, before attempting to directly attack again.} Bxe4 $2 {this looks like a reasonable try, but now White goes after the king.} (33... Qd8 {is the best defence, but it also loses to} 34. Qa3+ Ke6 35. h4 h6 36. Qe3) 34. Qd2+ Ke6 35. Ng5+ Kf5 (35... Kf6 36. Nxe4+ Qxe4 37. Qxd7 $18) 36. g4+ Kf6 37. Nxe4+ Qxe4 38. Qxd7 {White is now up the exchange with a commanding position.} Ne6 39. Bg2 {the bishop finally sees some action.} Qd4 {hoping that White will exchange into a (still winning) endgame, but Jobava can simply increase his advantage.} 40. Qxh7 Nf4 {hoping for a cheapo fork on e2.} 41. Qh8+ Ke6 42. Re1+ {White does not fall for the fork trap, so Black gives up.} 1-0

06 June 2021

"How to Gain Intuition and Learn Fast" (article)

The recent article on Medium "How to Gain Intuition and Learn Fast" - actually an excerpt from a forthcoming book - did a lot for me in terms of expressing and explaining the dual modes in which we learn, "declarative" versus "procedural". This is similar to explaining thought processes in dual modes using the "System 1" and "System 2" concepts, for example as highlighted at Temposchlucker's blog. The core concepts are parallel, in that one mode is conscious and uses explicit rules, while the other mode is intuitive and uses pattern recognition.

The article focuses on examples from learning how to approach solving mathematical problems and foreign language study, which are both complex skills requiring the practitioner to recognize and break down larger "chunks" of information that can then be processed and an appropriate response given. This of course applies just as well to chess study. Some of the training tools and approaches described will be familiar, such as spaced repetition of lessons and interleaving, as they help move knowledge from the slower, rule-based "declarative" learning to where you have a deeper understanding of "procedural" problem-solving.

If this process is not clear, think about learning how to drive a car. At first, it is awkward as you try to keep track of multiple things at once inside the vehicle and in your outside environment. After a certain period of time, things become "automatic" as your mind recognizes what needs to be done from common cues (stopping distance, shifting gears, etc.)

Personally I've experienced this mental shift multiple times, including when studying calculus, learning foreign languages and in the chess improvement process; previously I shared some examples on the chess side of how you know you are becoming a stronger player. There is nothing magical about this phenomenon, although it occasionally seems that way, especially after having reached a learning plateau and being frustrated for some time, then having solutions start mentally clicking into place.

09 May 2021

Commentary: London Chess Classic 2017, Round 7 (Nepomniachtchi - Anand)

 This game continues the recent theme of an English Opening with e3/b3 development from last time (Carlsen - Giri), but here GM Ian Nepomniachtchi as White plays the provocative yet thematic 7. g4!? to completely change the character of the game. Pitching the g-pawn in this manner is one example of similar themes appearing across different openings - as occurred in a previous Caro-Kann commentary game - so the idea is well worth studying. I'm not sure if I would play it myself, but improving your chess strength requires having a more open mind to study ideas that are outside your normal comfort zone. In my previous (pre-blog) chess career, for example, I never would have looked at this game in depth, one of the reasons I stagnated at Class B strength for so long.

Of course 7. g4 does not magically win straight out of the opening, but White does well for himself in gaining the initiative and minimizing his positional weaknesses, with his king position being reasonably solid in the center. Anand does eventually equalize, but then Nepo strikes back and is able to pick up material for no compensation. Black, left with the prospect of a losing endgame with no counterplay, resigns. I doubt this would happen at the club level, but it's worth seeing in the final position what a 100% sure win looks like, even with a fair amount of material still on the board.

[Event "9th London Chess Classic 2017"] [Site "London"] [Date "2017.12.09"] [Round "7"] [White "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"] [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A17"] [WhiteElo "2729"] [BlackElo "2782"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "73"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 {now Black could just as easily go into a Nimzo-English hybrid with ...Bb4, but it seems most often a QGD formation is set up from here.} d5 4. e3 {White has committed to central play and there is no longer a potential gambit situation on the queenside, now that the c4 pawn is protected.} a6 {the move actually scores pretty well, leaving Black around 50 percent in the database, but it seems a little slow, given White's flexibility here.} 5. b3 {by far the most played. White develops his dark-square bishop and protects c4 again, allowing him to choose to retake with a pawn in case of an exchange and exert more control over d5.} Bd6 { a good square for the bishop, also signaling that Black will look to use his control of e5 strategically.} (5... c5 {is the usual reaction by Black. Here's an instructive and tactically fierce game featuring GM Mamedyarov as an example:} 6. Bb2 Nc6 7. cxd5 exd5 8. Rc1 Bg4 9. h3 Bh5 10. Na4 Nd7 11. Be2 b5 12. Nc3 Nf6 13. O-O Be7 14. a4 Bxf3 15. Bxf3 Rb8 16. axb5 axb5 17. Ne2 Qd6 18. Nf4 Nb4 19. Ba3 Na6 20. d4 b4 21. Bb2 O-O 22. Bxd5 Nxd5 23. dxc5 Nxc5 24. Nxd5 Rfd8 25. Qg4 Bf8 26. Nf6+ Kh8 27. Qf5 g6 28. Ne4+ {1-0 (28) Mamedyarov,S (2801) -Georgiadis,N (2526) Biel 2018}) 6. Bb2 O-O 7. g4 $5 {this was a novelty in tournament play, although it has been tried several times since with good results. The idea of sacrificing the g-pawn to open the file in this manner is a theme encountered in other openings.} Nxg4 {Black chooses to accept the challenge head-on.} (7... dxc4 {is an alternative.} 8. g5 Nfd7 9. Bxc4 $11) ( 7... c6 $5 {is suggested by Komodo Dragon as another way to decline the pawn. The point is to reinforce d5 while supporting a potential ...b5 pawn thrust.}) 8. Rg1 f5 {Black maintains the knight outpost, at least temporarily, while still allowing for ...Nf6 in the future. It also opens the 7th rank to lateral defense. However, it leaves the kingside a little loose and weakens e6, a fact which White later exploits.} 9. cxd5 e5 {Anand has given the pawn back immediately, but now maintains the advanced e5/f5 pawn duo.} 10. h3 Nf6 11. Ng5 {even with material equality, White needs to play actively to justify his uncastled king and isolated h-pawn. The knight gets into the game - not being very effective on f3 - by eyeing e6 and also clearing the diagonal for the queen.} Qe7 {covering e6 and g7.} (11... h6 $2 {this might be the obvious move played at the club level, in order to kick the knight. Let's see what would happen.} 12. Ne6 Bxe6 13. dxe6 {while at first glance White's pawn looks weak, Black has no immediate way of dealing with it and his own f-pawn has similar problems.} Nc6 14. Qf3 {and White has threats of Bc4 and Qg2 coming up, along with queenside castling as a possibility.}) 12. Qf3 {this allows the queen to move to the g-file, pressures f5, and also places it on the long diagonal. This last point is shortly used to good effect.} (12. Ne6 {the engines agree that this is best played immediately.} Bxe6 13. dxe6 {and the pawn is temporarily immune from capture due to the Bc4 skewer tactic. White can then follow up with Qf3.}) 12... Kh8 (12... e4 $5 13. Qg2 Nbd7 14. Ne6 Rf7 15. O-O-O $14) 13. Ne6 Bxe6 {now b7 is undefended.} (13... Rg8 {is the engines' preference. Again, leaving the strong Ne6 in place looks counterintuitive, but White still does well from the exchange.}) 14. dxe6 Qxe6 15. Qxb7 {White now has the bishop pair and his pawn structure overall is no worse than Black's.} Nbd7 16. Bc4 {a logical move, but hitting the queen is of limited utility for White here.} (16. Bxa6 {pawn snatching may be possible, but Black should get some compensation in terms of the half-open a-file and a strong center, while White's king starts looking a bit vulnerable.} e4) (16. O-O-O) (16. Qc6) 16... Qe7 17. Qg2 Nb6 $11 {White has no more immediate threats to make and Black has equalized. White will need to do some maneuvering to start playing dynamically again.} 18. Be2 a5 {looking to break up White's pawns and make inroads on the queenside.} 19. Bb5 {a good example of prophylaxis. It feels a bit strange to move this bishop yet again, but it is the best way to prevent ...a4.} Rad8 20. Qg5 {prompting Black to respond with} g6 {and now} 21. Qh6 {prompts} Ng8 22. Qg5 {White would be fine with an exchange here, so Black returns the knight.} Nf6 (22... Qxg5 23. Rxg5 {and now White's king position is much improved, lacking a queen to threaten it, and with two bishops and the half-open c-file to play with.}) 23. Rd1 {at this point queenside castling would not seem to be an improvement for White's king, so the center is reinforced.} e4 {this logical-looking move causes Black a few headaches, after White's next. The long diagonal is opened and Black loses control of d4 and f4, although gaining space.} (23... Qe6 {maintains Black's grip in the center.}) 24. Qh6 {pinning the h-pawn and threatening Rxg6.} Rg8 25. Ne2 {Black now immediately moves to contest the open long diagonal.} Be5 26. Bxe5 Qxe5 27. Nf4 $1 {the key move to give White the initiative. The Bb5 is hanging, but White has counterplay on the kingside if that happens.} g5 {an excellent defensive pawn sacrifice by Anand, echoing Nepo's original one.} (27... Qxb5 28. Nxg6+ Rxg6 29. Rxg6 Rg8 30. Rxg8+ Nxg8 31. Qe6 $14) 28. Rxg5 Rxg5 29. Qxg5 Rg8 30. Qh6 {the position is still tricky here and perhaps Anand was under time pressure, as his next move effectively loses.} Rg7 $2 {this looks like a solid defensive move, but in fact it leaves White's queen too active.} (30... Rg1+ 31. Bf1 Nbd7 32. Ne2 Rg6 {and Black should be fine, his space advantage and piece activity compensating for the pawn deficit.}) 31. Bc4 {a subtle move that even looks positionally wrong at first, trading off White's good bishop.} Nxc4 (31... Nfd5 {is the engines' recommendation, but White retains an endgame advantage after} 32. Ke2 Nxf4+ 33. Qxf4 Qxf4 34. exf4 Nxc4 35. bxc4 $18 {as Black can do nothing about White's plan of Rb1-b5, for example} a4 36. Rb1 Rg6 37. Rb5 Rc6 38. Rxf5 Rxc4 39. Rg5 {with what should be a winning rook endgame, as White can transfer his rook back via g3.}) 32. bxc4 {the b-pawn finally fulfills its destiny. From a strategic perspective, the opening of the b-file is also potentially very good for White, if he can get the rook on it.} Qb2 {Black looks to get his pawn back, but has to keep defending the Nf6.} (32... Qd6 { does not help much either, as after Ne2 and Rb1 White is taking over the game.} 33. Ne2) 33. Ke2 {White now has no real weaknesses and his pieces are in a much better position to go after Black's king.} (33. Ne2 {also works, protecting g1.}) 33... a4 34. Ne6 {White goes back to the weak e6 square, this time unchallenged.} Rf7 35. Nf4 {this is sufficient to win without the complications of attempting a direct attack.} (35. Nd8 Rg7 36. Rg1 $6 {allows Black to keep fighting} (36. a3 {as in the game}) 36... Ng4 37. hxg4 Qa3) 35... Rg7 36. a3 {physically blocks Black's ...a3 and is untouchable, due to the hanging Nf6. Essentially Black has no good moves at this point.} Ne8 {Black tries to cover everything, but is not successful.} (36... Qb6 {is the engines' best try} 37. d3 Qb2+ 38. Rd2 Qc3 39. Ne6 $18) 37. Qc6 {forking the Ne8 and the a4 pawn, so after the next move White will be up two pawns, one of which is the passed a-pawn, with no compensation for Black.} 1-0

02 May 2021

Commentary: Tata Steel Masters 2018, Round 14 tiebreak (Carlsen - Giri)

In keeping with a thematic approach to commentary games, this next one features an English Opening with a b3/Bb2 development. It is a different structure than Tarjan - Kosteniuk, however, as Black (GM Anish Giri) here adopts a Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) approach, while Carlsen uses a more central strategy with e3 instead of a double fianchetto for his light-square bishop.

This was actually a tiebreak blitz game, which however doesn't make it any less instructive for how Carlsen chose to strategize his play and the numerous positional decisions made along the way. The overall strategy for White was to get a comfortable game with no weaknesses and then keep pressuring the obvious Black targets. Giri as a result was always struggling for equality with less harmonious piece placement, not a position you want to be in regardless of the time control.

[Event "Tata Steel Masters TB"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2018.01.28"] [Round "14"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Giri, Anish"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A13"] [WhiteElo "2834"] [BlackElo "2752"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "109"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 {now we are in an English Opening, unless White plays an early d4.} e6 3. b3 d5 4. Bb2 Be7 {QGD setup} 5. e3 {with this move, White chooses to exert more direct control over the center, particularly the d4 square, and develop his bishop accordingly.} O-O 6. Nc3 {this directly pressures d5 and is in keeping with the opening's focus on the center.} c5 { now that Black has increased his influence on the d4 square, White exchanges in the center.} 7. cxd5 {exchanging the c- for the d-pawn is a standard idea. It will give White a numerical advantage in center pawns, increase the scope of the light-square bishop, and open up the c-file for White's rook.} Nxd5 ( 7... exd5 {is just as frequent a choice here. After} 8. d4 {play will be similar, but with the extra pair of minor pieces.}) 8. Nxd5 exd5 (8... Qxd5 { has been played more often, but White has a much higher score in the database, at 68 percent. After} 9. Bc4 {and the queen retreats, White has a pleasant game with a small lead in development.}) 9. d4 {now White challenges with the pawn, to force an isolated queen's pawn (IQP) structure.} Qa5+ {a novelty. Carlsen however is fine with the queens coming off the board.} (9... Nc6 { is the more familiar way to play, with some more options for White.} 10. dxc5 ( 10. Be2) 10... Bxc5 11. a3 (11. Bd3)) 10. Qd2 {forced} Qxd2+ 11. Kxd2 Nc6 ( 11... b6 {is the engines' preference here. White would not want to go for a hanging pawns structure after a pawn exchange on c5, since he does not have enough firepower to sufficiently pressure the c5/d5 pawns.}) 12. dxc5 {we now have the IQP structure on the board.} Bxc5 13. Bb5 {this bishop development gives the option of exchanging on c6, to inflict a backwards c-pawn on Black, while allowing the king to go to e2 and not block the bishop after the upcoming check. Bd3 was also a good possibility.} Bb4+ 14. Ke2 Be6 { reinforcing d5, although this makes the bishop a "big pawn" in effect.} 15. Rac1 (15. Bxc6 {is the engines' preference. After} bxc6 16. Ne5 Rfc8 17. Rhc1 c5 18. Nd3 {White has a more concrete slight positional plus. In the game, Carlsen avoids committing himself, however.}) 15... Rac8 {"It's always the wrong rook" is a common refrain. Here, Black's Rf8 is less active and the engines prefer him committing it to the queenside. Perhaps he had thoughts of . ..Re8 and ...d4 at some point, however.} 16. Rhd1 {getting the other rook into the game and pressuring the d-pawn.} (16. Bxc6 $5) 16... Be7 {Black decides the bishop is not doing anything useful on b4 and retreats it. This also covers the g5 square, preventing White's knight from landing there.} 17. h3 { preventing ...Bg4} a6 {putting the question to the bishop. Now the exchange on c6 seems less favorable and White retreats it.} 18. Bd3 (18. Bxc6 Rxc6 19. Nd4 Rxc1 20. Rxc1 Rc8 $11) 18... Nb4 19. Bb1 {these types of retreats are common in master play. Here of course it protects the a2 pawn, but the larger positional point is that the scope of the bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal is not diminished, so White loses nothing by having the piece on the back rank.} Rxc1 20. Rxc1 Rc8 21. Rd1 {Carlsen again avoids committing himself to the major piece exchange. Black's rook cannot penetrate on the c-file and White's rook is doing good work pressuring the d-pawn again.} Nc6 {Black's strategic problem is that he has nothing very useful to do. He would like to liquidate the d-pawn, but White has an ultra-firm grip on the d4 square, blockading the pawn's advance.} (21... Nc2 {doesn't get Black anything.}) (21... g6 {might be a somewhat useful waiting move.}) 22. g4 {one different between masters and amateurs is that masters have a much better sense of when to advance pawns, particularly kingside ones. Here the pawn advance does not impact White's king safety and restricts Black by controlling the f5 square; note the role played by the Bb1. This seizure of territory will help a future f-pawn advance as well.} h6 {getting "luft" for the king and also controlling g5.} 23. Nd4 { physically blockading d4 and clearing the way for the f-pawn.} Nxd4+ 24. Bxd4 ( 24. exd4 $6 {would negate the whole point of White's strategic play against the IQP.}) 24... Ba3 {controlling the c1 square, which could theoretically be used by either Black's rook or bishop. This is still a case of Black not having much useful to do, however.} 25. f4 {in contrast, White is now seizing space.} f6 {this gives the bishop the f7 square to retreat to if necessary, in order to maintain its guard over d5. It does inflict long-term weaknesses on the kingside pawn structure, however, which become important later.} 26. Bg6 { immediately taking advantage of the hole left behind by the pawn advance. Now White could exchange off bishops after ...Bf7 and e8 is also controlled.} Kf8 { moving to centralize the king, now that we are essentially in the endgame.} 27. Kf3 {likewise advancing his king to a more influential square.} (27. Rg1 { is liked by the engines, with the plan of further advancing the kingside pawns with the rook pressuring the g-file.}) 27... Ke7 28. h4 {at this point White still has the easier game, but with the material left on the board, it looks pretty even. This can still be dangerous for the side without a real plan, however.} Bb4 29. Bd3 Bd7 {the bishop can now go to c6 if it needs to.} 30. e4 {Carlsen decides to simplify the situation with this pawn break. Time control may have been a factor here.} (30. Rg1 {would keep the IQP tension.}) 30... Bc3 {Black would be happy to trade off pieces on c3, giving him a nice place for the rook and getting rid of his relatively worse bishop.} (30... dxe4+ 31. Bxe4 b5 $5 {looks fine for Black, for example} 32. Bb7 Rc2 $11) 31. Bf2 {safely avoiding the trade.} Bc6 $6 {Komodo Dragon identifies this as the move which gives White an advantage. Let's see how.} (31... d4 $5 {looks like it would pose White more problems, as he cannot win the d-pawn immediately.} 32. Be2 ( 32. f5 $14) 32... b5 33. Bxd4 Bxd4 34. Rxd4 Rc2 {and now Black can recover the pawn, for example after} 35. a4 Rc3+ 36. Rd3 Rxd3+ 37. Bxd3 bxa4 38. bxa4 Bxa4 $11) 32. exd5 Bxd5+ 33. Be4 Bxe4+ 34. Kxe4 {White's positional advantages here are twofold: a better king position and Black's weaker kingside pawn structure, which White's king is threatening to penetrate and White's bishop has the potential to attack. Tactically, Black has to watch out for his Bc3 getting pinned against the Rc8.} Ke6 {this looks reasonable, but White's next move is obvious as well.} (34... Bb4 {is preferred by the engines, but White still has an edge after} 35. Rd4 {followed by Rc4, thanks to his more advanced and centralized king.}) 35. f5+ $16 Ke7 36. Rc1 {now the only way to un-pin the bishop is to protect the rook. There are multiple ways to do this.} Rc6 $2 { the losing move, as identified by the engines. Let's see why.} (36... Kd7 37. Kd3 Be5 38. Rxc8 Kxc8 39. Bc5 {is favorable for White, who has pawns he can target with his bishop, but would it be enough to win?}) 37. Kd3 Bb4 38. Rxc6 bxc6 39. Kc4 $18 Bd6 40. Bc5 {By now we can see Black's problems more clearly. The isolated pawns on the queenside must be defended from White's king, while the kingside pawns need to be defended against an incursion from White's bishop. White will benefit from the creation of a zugzwang situation as well. Exchanging pieces would simply give White a won K+P ending.} Kd7 (40... Bxc5 41. Kxc5 {and Black's a-pawn is doomed.}) 41. h5 $1 {Making the zugzwang even more apparent. White can therefore focus on increasing the pressure.} (41. Bxd6 $2 {this exchange does not work, because White's king is in a worse position and Black has the added resource of ...h5 to undermine White's pawn structure. For example} Kxd6 42. b4 h5 43. gxh5 Ke5 $11) 41... Bf4 (41... Kc7 $2 {now the bishop exchange works.} 42. Bxd6+ Kxd6 43. Kb4 $18 {it would take too long for Black to demolish White's kingside, as White gobbles up the queenside.}) 42. Bf8 Ke8 {hoping to trap the bishop if it captures on g7.} 43. Bc5 Kd7 44. Kb4 { heading to penetrate on the queenside.} Bd2+ 45. Ka4 Kc7 46. b4 {now the White king's way up the a-file is clear again.} Bf4 47. Bf8 {Black can no longer hold both sides of the board.} Kb6 (47... Kd7 48. Ka5 $18) 48. Bxg7 Bg5 49. Bf8 Bf4 50. Be7 Bg5 {Black attempts to hold out with a fortress. The problem is that if the bishop is exchanged, White gets a passed pawn and it's game over.} 51. Kb3 Kc7 52. Kc4 Kd7 53. Bc5 Kc7 54. Kd3 Kd7 55. Be3 {Black loses another pawn or sees White create a passed pawn now, which is losing either way.} 1-0

21 April 2021

Looking at others' paths to mastery

There's a lot of advice about learning chess out there, but there are relatively few detailed paths to mastery described. (This blog doesn't count, since so far it's been about a Class B player becoming a Class A player with some hopefully useful observations presented along the way.) For those of us who are serious about improving, especially for players without a regular coach to map things out, I do think it's helpful and occasionally even enlightening to look at the paths others have taken.

In that vein, I'd like to mention two that I've found particularly entertaining, one that was recently posted and one from several years ago. Things they have in common: they are amateurs; were not brilliant child prodigies; consistently worked hard over a number of years; and bad things happened to them along the way where they could have quit, but chose not to. 

I think something similar can be found in a few of the books about masters or GMs' careers, but most of these tend to focus on their play at the international level (post-mastery), so while instructive they do not say much about the process of achieving master-level (2200-2300) strength in the first place.

10 April 2021

Video completed: Winning with the Dynamic Caro-Kann (The Deadly Bronstein-Larsen System)

I recently completed "Winning with the Dynamic Caro-Kann (The Deadly Bronstein-Larsen System)" - Foxy video vol. 162, by IM Andrew Martin. Like others in the Foxy series, it is a collection of recorded lectures, in this case centered on selected games that are narrated all the way through by IM Martin. There is no extra content (game data files, interactive quizzes, etc.) It was published in 2014 and although it contains several classic Bronstein-Larsen games, it focuses more on contemporary master-level examples from international tournaments, typically with players in the 2400+ Elo range.

The video display quality unfortunately is poor, as the demo chessboard is low-res. That said, the strengths of the annotated game format in explaining and demonstrating opening and middlegame ideas outweigh the technical minuses. Full games are presented, so it's a useful product for overall chess training as well, since tactics and strategic ideas are discussed all the way through the endgame. Video presentations by knowledgeable commentators like Martin help bring the material alive, much more than studying lists of variations, and I think the format also aids future recall of specific ideas and maneuvers.

There are 15 separate videos included, with a total running time of 2 hours 7 minutes. The first several look at various alternative move 6 options for White, before moving on to provide examples in the main theoretical 6. c3 line; however, later there are also a mix of options shown (primarily with 6. Nf3). The first 12 videos, containing narrated games, Martin at one point refers to as "introductory", and the last three supposedly contain his specific repertoire recommendations in the different move 6 White lines (6. Nf3, 6. g3 and c3 combination, and 6. Bc4). However, these are really just more example games, although he does present them based on his preference for 6...Bf5 in all cases.

It's worth noting that the "alternate" (to 6. c3) White lines are very important to study for a Black player, since they will likely be the most commonly faced. Especially at club level, 6. c3 - which develops no pieces and only moves the pawn forward one square - may not even occur to your opponent as an option. Other move 6 options, particularly the normal-looking 6. Nf3, are likely to appear on the board from White opponents (of whatever strength) who are not familiar with the Bronstein-Larsen. This probably means the majority of White players, in practical terms.

I found the most useful aspect of going through the narrated example games to be Martin's introduction and explanation of typical ideas and maneuvers, although concrete variations are of course also presented. Key recurring concepts highlighted include:

  • Development of Black's light-square bishop to g4 vs. f5
  • Deployment of black's rook to g8 along the half-open file, or alternatively using it to support an early h-pawn advance
  • The typical development plan of ...e6, ...Nd7, and queenside castling followed by a kingside attack
  • Alternative kingside castling for Black and ...Bf5-g6 ideas
  • Formation of Bd6/Qc7 battery when possible
  • Ideas involving ...Qa5+ and moving along the 5th rank subsequently
  • Disruptive ...Bb4 opportunities
  • Timing the pawn breaks/advances ...e5 (either in one go, or after a preliminary ...e6) and ...c5
  • Black's requirement to play actively with threats and counter-threats in the center and on the kingside, while not being afraid of calculating tactical defense ideas on the queenside.
Various Black responses to White's different move 6 choices are given in the introductory videos. The 6. c3 line responses include 6...Qd5 (recommended by Martin as a good alternative), 6...h5 (more chancy), and the standard 6...Bf5.

In general, these types of video lecture resources help fill in gaps when learning openings, since they do more than just go through book variations and give an evaluation at a certain cut-off point. Where to ideally place your pieces and the trade-offs involved in making these kinds of development decisions are what really underpin opening theory and practice. However, these concepts are too rarely explained in simple, practical terms in most opening theory books. Martin here does a good job at highlighting these ideas for the Bronstein-Larsen, across a number of example games.

Although there is a substantial amount of material covered, with Martin at least looking at the main options in each line, I would still consider this product as complementary in nature to more comprehensive "book" materials (in whatever format) and your personal annotated opening repertoire database. Despite the "Winning with..." title, Martin in my view does a decent job of not over-hyping Black's play, which he summarizes as designed to make White feel uncomfortable. He is also careful in his assessments to highlight practical vs. theoretical considerations. Looking at the Bronstein-Larsen variations in depth will require further research and your own evaluation of them, as is the case with all opening study.

30 March 2021

Commentary: 2017 Isle of Man International, Round 9 (Tarjan - Kosteniuk)

This next commentary game contains some themes for improving players at several different levels of analysis - meta, strategic, and tactical. "Meta" in this case refers to the overall context - the fact that GM James Tarjan, one of the best US players in the 1970s, was at the time of this game in the third year of his chess career comeback and at age 65 defeated both GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (below) and super-GM Vladimir Kramnik during the 2017 Isle of Man International. This was no fluke, as he had also played for the US in the 2016 chess Olympiad. Seeing these kinds of examples helps combat the "inevitable decline" narrative associated with the aging process, or at least provides fewer excuses for not undertaking effortful study.

While we (or at least I) may not have Tarjan's level of inherent talent, his approach and the example of play here are understandable and instructive. My top observations from the game:

  • Tarjan's opening choice is designed to allow White to "play chess" rather than debate opening theory. This strategy used to be frowned upon in general, with purists insisting White always play for a forced if slight advantage. However, Carlsen's repeated use of it over the years has lent it more legitimacy; one game of his is in a similar variation is included in the game notes.
  • Master-level choice of candidate moves. I highlight multiple instances where White's move choice probably would not occur to an amateur. I find these to be one of the most important aspects of studying and analyzing master-level games, as they demonstrate how new ideas can be introduced into your own play.
  • The interplay of tactical and strategic considerations is evident throughout, especially when Black - probably under time pressure - starts missing key tactics in the latter part of the game. Using tactics to achieve more of a strategic/positional advantage was also possible at several points in the game for both sides.

[Event "Chess.com Isle of Man Open - Masters"] [Site "Douglas (Isle of Man)"] [Date "2017.10.01"] [Round "9.32"] [White "Tarjan, James"] [Black "Kosteniuk, Alexandra"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A22"] [WhiteElo "2412"] [BlackElo "2552"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "99"] [EventDate "2017.09.23"] 1. c4 e5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. Nc3 Nb6 6. b3 {this move takes the game out of reversed Sicilian territory. Nf3 is the most played in the database.} Be7 {Black commits the bishop early. The following top-level game shows an alternate plan of development.} (6... Nc6 7. Bb2 Be6 8. Bxc6+ bxc6 9. Nf3 Bd6 10. d4 exd4 11. Qxd4 f6 12. Qe4 Kf7 13. Qxc6 Qe8 14. Qe4 h5 15. Nd4 Bd7 16. Qxe8+ Rhxe8 17. f3 c5 18. Nc2 Be5 19. Nd1 Bxb2 20. Nxb2 Bb5 21. e4 f5 22. Ne3 fxe4 23. f4 Red8 24. Rd1 Rd4 25. Nf5 Rad8 26. Nxd4 cxd4 27. a4 Ba6 28. a5 Nc8 29. Nc4 Ne7 30. Kf2 Nf5 31. Rhe1 e3+ 32. Kf3 Bb7+ 33. Ke2 Ke6 34. Rg1 Be4 35. Ne5 Rb8 36. Nf3 Bxf3+ 37. Kxf3 Rxb3 38. Ke4 e2 39. Rd3 Rb5 40. Re1 Rxa5 41. Rxe2 g6 42. Kf3+ Kd6 43. h3 Ra4 44. g4 hxg4+ 45. hxg4 Ne7 46. Ke4 Nc6 47. Rh2 Ra1 48. Rh6 Re1+ 49. Kf3 Rf1+ 50. Kg3 Rg1+ 51. Kh4 Rh1+ 52. Kg5 Rxh6 53. Kxh6 Kd5 54. Kxg6 Ke4 55. Rd1 Kxf4 56. g5 Ne5+ 57. Kh5 Ke4 58. Re1+ Kf5 59. Rf1+ Ke4 60. Re1+ Kf5 61. Kh6 Nf7+ 62. Kh5 Ne5 {1/2-1/2 (62) Carlsen,M (2863) -Nepomniachtchi,I (2784) Lichess.org INT 2020}) 7. Bb2 {the bishop must develop here and there is no reason to postpone it. It also gives White a look at Black's next developing move before making any other decisions about piece placement.} Nc6 (7... O-O {seems more consistent with the early Bishop move, also waiting to see where to go with the Nb8.}) 8. Bxc6+ $5 {Tarjan is the only one in the database to play this, sending the game on to a different strategic path. It is a classic trade-off decision, eliminating the strong White bishop but inflicting permanent structural damage on Black and providing White with relatively easy targets to work against. The engines evaluate the position as equal.} (8. Nf3 {is of course the conventional move.}) 8... bxc6 9. Nf3 {developing and attacking e5.} Qd6 (9... f6 {would be the more standard way to protect the pawn in similar Black structures.}) 10. O-O {tucking the king away before Black can play ...Bh3. Interestingly, the engines do not consider this such a problem.} (10. Rc1 $5 {immediately moving to increase pressure on the c-file.} Bh3 11. Qc2 $11 {White's king is in no danger and the rook can go to g1 and still be useful.}) 10... Bf5 $6 {this fights for the e4 square, but not very effectively, considering White's next move.} (10... Bh3) ( 10... O-O) 11. d3 $14 {now White is threatening Ne4, with a discovered attack on the e5 pawn.} Qe6 {avoiding a double attack on the queen after White's next. } 12. Ne4 {Black now has an important strategic decision to make. Her choice to castle queenside is very imbalancing and appears to go against the position's needs. Kosteniuk must have felt that either the king was safe enough there, despite the weak pawns, or that she would be able to attack White first.} O-O-O $6 {Black tactically protects e5, as the Ne4 is now hanging due to the pinned d-pawn. However, White gets out of the pin by moving his queen to a better square, lining up on the c-file, so it is a net minus for Black.} (12... f6 {is the engine recommendation, protecting the pawn.}) ( 12... Bxe4 $6 {looks like a reasonable idea, inflicting some pawn structure damage on White in return. However, Black's c-pawns are still worse than White's e-pawns and Black would no longer have the two bishops.}) 13. Qc2 $16 f6 14. Rfc1 {putting a rook on c1 is clearly a good idea, creating a battery with additional pressure. An argument could be made for moving the other rook, since the a-pawn will not need its support to advance, but White evidently wanted to put both heavy pieces on the queenside.} Kb7 {a reasonable-looking defensive move, but Black may be better off looking for some counterplay.} ( 14... Bg4 $5 {is the engines' preference, threatening to exchange on f3 and undermine White's d-pawn.}) 15. b4 $5 {a move that no amateur would be likely to consider, as it just appears to lose a pawn.} (15. a4 {is the more obvious way of launching operations on the queenside.}) 15... Bxb4 16. Rab1 {now we see the idea of the pawn sacrifice, to attack down the b-file. It appears to be slower than alternatives, though, as Black looks to equalize with ...Rd5 or exchange off an attacking piece with ...Bxe4. In practical terms, it is still difficult to meet, however.} (16. a4 Rd5 17. a5 Nd7 18. Bxe5 $5 fxe5) 16... Be7 {withdraws the bishop from its current vulnerable square, eliminating tactics involving a discovered attack after the Bb2 moves (for example Bd4 or Bxe5). This does little to impede White's attacking ideas, however.} (16... Rd5 { this defends along the 5th rank, although White still has pressure and tactical ideas in the center against the rook and bishop. For example} 17. Bd4 Ba3 18. Nc5+ Bxc5 19. Bxc5 e4 20. Nd4 Rxd4 {the defensive exchange sacrifice is necessary} (20... Qd7 $2 21. dxe4) 21. Bxd4 {at this point the engine shows complete equality, despite the material difference, meaning that with accurate defensive play Black will be all right. If Kosteniuk calculated this far, however, it would hardly look appetizing.}) (16... Bxe4 $5 {may be the best practical choice here, eliminating an attacking piece and reducing complexity.} 17. dxe4 a5 {physically impeding White's future a-pawn advance} 18. a3 Be7 $14) 17. a4 {with the idea of pushing away the knight. Bringing another piece into the attack might boost its effectiveness.} (17. Nfd2 {appears to be a useful preparatory move, as the Nf3 now is not doing much otherwise.}) (17. Bc3) 17... Ka8 {getting off the open file.} 18. a5 Nd7 {although Black has been pushed around, White does not have anything decisive and now looks to recover the pawn. However, there is no rush to do so and he ends up in a slightly worse position with the move played, so alternatives are worth looking at.} 19. Qa4 ( 19. Ra1 $5 {with the idea of Ba3 and trading off White's worse bishop, helping fight for the dark squares onthe queenside.}) (19. Qxc6+ Qxc6 20. Rxc6 { regains the pawn more forthrightly and seems to give Black less leeway than the game continuation.}) 19... Rb8 {challenging on the open file and giving back the pawn for equality.} (19... Nb8 $6 {is a move amateurs might play, defending the c6 pawn at all cost. This would renew White's attacking chances, however. For example} 20. Nfd2 Rd5 21. Ba3 Bxa3 22. Qxa3 Na6 23. Rc4 {followed by Rbc1.}) 20. Rxc6 {this forces Black's next move, otherwise the c-pawn is lost.} Qb3 21. Qxb3 Rxb3 22. Nfd2 {finally the knight gets into the action.} ( 22. Rxc7 $2 {greed is punished by} Rhb8 23. Rc2 Ba3 $19) 22... Rb7 {now Black is doing fine and the open b-file is more of a benefit for her than it is for her opponent.} 23. Rc2 {this overprotects the Bb2, freeing the Rb1 to move, but seems a bit passive.} (23. a6 $5 Rb6 24. Rxc7 Rhb8 25. Rc2 Rxa6 {with a slight advantage to Black, with the passed a-pawn.}) 23... Rhb8 24. Nc4 { overprotecting the Bb2 again and getting the knight further into play.} a6 { physically blocking the further advance of the White a-pawn.} 25. Rbc1 { moving the rook out of the pin and doubling pressure on the c-file. White has managed to rearrange his pieces to be less awkward and can look to exchange off his worse dark-square bishop with Ba3.} Rb3 {this temporarily stops the bishop exchange idea, but White could still insist on it.} 26. Bc3 (26. Ned2 R3b5 27. Ba3 Bxa3 28. Nxa3 Rxa5 29. Nac4 Rc5 30. Ra2 Rc6 31. Rca1 $11 {with play against the a-pawn.}) (26. f4 $5 {could also be played immediately.}) 26... Be6 {Black again passes up the chance to exchange on e4. This seems to help validate White's previous move, though, as the bishop is now more useful on the a5-e1 diagonal protecting the a-pawn.} (26... Bxe4 27. dxe4 Nc5) 27. f4 $6 {one of the common cases where playing the right idea at the wrong time - one tempo later, in this case - could result in a setback.} exf4 {Black makes the obvious move, to avoid losing the e-pawn (attacked three times, defended twice).} (27... Bxc4 {this possibility is the difference.} 28. dxc4 exf4 29. gxf4 Nc5 30. Ng3 Bd6 31. e3 $17 {now White has three weak pawns (a5, c4, e3) to defend and Black's pieces are much better placed.}) 28. gxf4 {this allows Black to play ...Bxc4 again, but she overlooks this.} (28. Ncd2 {is the engines' recommendation, sacrificing the pawn for vigorous piece play.}) 28... R3b5 29. Bd4 $11 {now White is completely equal.} Bb4 {attempting to pick up the a-pawn. Komodo recommends to simply ignore it, as White's rooks could then make threats on the c-file.} (29... Bxc4 30. Rxc4 $11) 30. Bc3 {an equal defensive move. Given the repetition of moves that occurs here, it appears both players were likely low on time.} (30. Ne3 $5 {this unleashes the rooks.} Bxa5 31. Rc6 Bb6 32. Bxb6 R8xb6 33. Rxc7 $16) 30... Be7 31. Bd4 R8b7 32. Kg2 { White appears to be just marking time here. Perhaps this succeeded in provoking Black's next, which is a non-obvious blunder.} Kb8 $2 {this appears to be a reasonable move, getting the king out of the corner and reinforcing the pawn on c7. It has a tactical problem, though, which Tarjan finds.} (32... Bd5 {or moving to f7 or g8 would avoid the problem, which is created by the king making itself vulnerable to a back-rank check, physically blocking the rook from coming back to b8.}) 33. Ncd6 $1 {an example of a reloader tactic on d6, made possible by the threat of Rc8+} Bxd6 (33... Rb1 {the engines suggest leaving the bishop on the board rather than exchange it, but it's still a win for White, who is up the exchange with no compensation for Black.} 34. Nxb7 Rxb7 (34... Rxc1 35. Rxc1 Kxb7 36. Nc5+ $18) 35. Kf2 $18) 34. Nxd6 {and now Black loses material.} Rd5 35. Nxb7 Rxd4 36. Nd8 Bd5+ 37. e4 Kc8 38. Nc6 Bxc6 39. Rxc6 Rxd3 40. Rxc7+ $18 {at the end of the sequence, White is simple an exchange up with a dominating rook pair.} Kd8 41. Ra7 {both getting behind the a-pawn and leaving the c7 square potentially available for the other rook.} Rd6 42. Kf3 g5 {attempting to get any counterplay possible, by breaking up the pawn shield in front of White's king, or getting a kingside pawn majority.} 43. Rg1 h6 {this looks like it is reinforcing the g-pawn, but ends up giving another pawn to White.} 44. h4 {another interesting master idea, although an amateur might have more of a chance of spotting this tactic. The h-pawn cannot be taken due to the mate, and Black's g-pawn cannot be further reinforced, so it is lost.} Ke7 45. hxg5 hxg5 46. fxg5 fxg5 47. Rxg5 Kf6 48. Kf4 Ke6 49. Rg6+ Nf6 {allowing one final tactic.} 50. Rxf6+ {and now the pawn forks on e5 after the rook is recaptured.} 1-0

18 March 2021

"How I won more games by improving my chess thought process" - article

NM Dan Heisman has posted an article by one of his students on his Chess.com blog - "How I won more games by improving my chess thought process" - that is one of the better practical descriptions I've seen of the central importance of your thought process to gaining chess strength. The main issues described, constantly calculating variations while also missing good candidate moves, are common ones and unlikely to be overcome unless the improving player is self-aware enough. Of course, once you are aware of the problem, it is then useful to have some concrete guidance on how to address it, which the article offers.

In my own chess improvement process, through analyzing my own games, I early on identified the lack of a consistent thought process as a significant handicap, resulting in the Simplified Thought Process (That Works). More recently, I've had some success in better identifying my opponent's resources (i.e. their candidate moves which result in threats) using tactics training to strengthen the thought process.

16 March 2021

Training quote of the day #36: Jacob Aagaard

Grandmasters know that a positional advantage is better than a material advantage

In my experience amateurs are reluctant to take extra material when they should, but have a tendency to do so when they should not. I think it is all about confidence. When you are under pressure from a grandmaster, it can be psychologically difficult to accept a pawn or a piece on offer. Often amateurs choose to take a worse position with material equality, and subsequently get hammered. At the same time amateurs have a tendency to cash in on a positional advantage far too soon, instead of maintaining the pressure. Again it is a matter of confidence. If you don't believe in your own abilities, you are less likely to trust your evaluation of the position and consequently seek some sort of security outside yourself, such as an extra pawn.

From Grandmaster Versus Amateur, Chapter 1

09 March 2021

Commentary: 2017 U.S. Championship, Round 10 (Zherebukh - Nakamura)

Here we continue with the theme of Caro-Kann Classical wins by Black at the top level, with this game featuring dynamic opposite-side attacking play by GM Hikaru Nakamura from the 2017 U.S. Championship. Unlike the 2020 commentary game in which he lost as White to Awonder Liang, here Nakamura plays actively, even aggressively, but in a way that is in tune with the position's characteristics rather than attempting to force an attack. His opponent, GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, had been having a great tournament up to that point, but apparently was caught out by Nakamura's opening choice and subsequent play.

White's problems stemmed from his choice on move 14 to prematurely exchange minor pieces. This resulted in the h-file being opened for Black's rook, and he was also able to start pushing around White in the center, seizing the initiative and conducting a punishing attack. Nakamura's execution of it is particularly instructive. The variations show the interplay of various tactical ideas, revolving around fixing White's vulnerabilities around the king position - particularly the h1 and f2 squares - and taking advantage of loose/awkward piece placement. A devastating win in only 21 moves, showing that the Caro-Kann Classical can be a fighting choice as well as a solid one for Black.

[Event "U.S. Championships Men 2017"] [Site "Saint Louis"] [Date "2017.04.08"] [Round "10"] [White "Zherebukh, Yaroslav"] [Black "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B18"] [WhiteElo "2605"] [BlackElo "2793"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo Dragon"] [PlyCount "42"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Nh3 {this has the same idea as the "book" N1e2, namely deploying the knight to f4. It does not seem to have independent significance and is not mentioned in theory books, although it is interesting to see that it is roughly equivalent in the database - actually with a few more games - to N1e2.} Nf6 (6... e6 {is the other main response.}) (6... h6 {is the third most popular, but scores very well for White. There is no need to prevent the knight from going to g5 and preparing to retreat the Bg6 loses time for Black.}) 7. Nf4 Nbd7 (7... e5 { has been the traditional antidote to this variation since the Tal-Botvinnik matches in the 1960s, but the line can be drawish, so likely was avoided by Nakamura for this reason. Here's a high level example:} 8. Nxg6 hxg6 9. dxe5 Qa5+ 10. Bd2 Qxe5+ 11. Qe2 Qxe2+ 12. Bxe2 Nbd7 13. O-O O-O-O 14. Rad1 Nb6 15. Bc1 Bd6 16. Rfe1 Kc7 17. h3 Rhe8 18. Bd3 {1/2-1/2 (18) Radjabov,T (2735)-Anand, V (2799) Morelia/Linares 2008}) 8. Bc4 Qc7 9. O-O e6 10. c3 {while structurally sound, this is a rather passive move.} (10. Re1 {is a more typical White idea in this position, pressuring the e-file and threatening some tactical ideas if Black gets careless with development.} Bd6 {and now White can sac on e6, but it only maintains equality if Black defends correctly. However, it could certainly be a good practical try, Ivanchuk lost a blitz game against Duda in this line.} 11. Rxe6+ fxe6 12. Nxe6 Qb6 13. Qe2 Ke7 { and now the defensive idea is to play ...Rae8, perhaps after a4 and ...a5 are inserted. That way the king can flee via d8 and not lock the rook out of the game.}) 10... Bd6 11. Qf3 {Defending the Nf4. Also, by placing his queen on the h1-a8 diagonal, he influences e4 and d5 and eyes b7 in the event Black goes for the typical ...c5 break, which Nakamura does play immediately.} c5 { after an exchange on c5, recapturing will help activate Black's minor pieces. White could also push the d-pawn in response, but Black does not have any problems there.} 12. dxc5 (12. d5 {there are not in fact any database games with this line. White players likely do not want to give up the center so easily.} e5 $5 {may be the easiest way to neutralize White's chances.}) 12... Bxc5 (12... Nxc5 {no one plays this way, since the knight will just have to go back.} 13. Bb5+ Ncd7) 13. Bb3 {White takes care of his hanging bishop, otherwise ...Bxf2+ is threatened.} O-O-O {by castling opposite sides, Black signals further that he is looking for winning chances. It is also the engines' top choice. While Black's king position looks more open, he has effective local superiority on the queenside, as White is much better positioned for action on the kingside. The half-open c-file and queenside pawn majority are also not immediate problems, as it will be tough for White to mobilize anything there. Finally, White's dark-square bishop is currently out of the game, something which is corrected shortly, but still leads to problems. } 14. Nxg6 $2 {positionally, this allows for the bishop to come to a more active square, but ignores the even more significant extra activity that Black gains as a result, most notably through the opening of the h-file. Tactically, White needed to prepare the piece exchange more, as now he gets pushed around and gives Black the initiative.} (14. Be3) (14. Qe2) 14... hxg6 $17 {this is exactly what Black wanted with queenside castling, now the Rh8 is ideally placed to exert pressure on White's king position.} 15. Bf4 e5 {now Black is firmly in control.} 16. Be3 e4 {I think it likely that White underestimated or missed this move, attacking the queen with tempo. The Ng3 is pinned against the mate threat on h2, is the problem.} 17. Qe2 {abandoning the kingside to its fate.} (17. Qf4 $5 {would put up more resistance on the kingside.} Bd6 18. Qg5 Ne5 $19) 17... Bxe3 (17... Rxh2 {is also possible immediately, but trading bishops simplifies the calculations.}) 18. Qxe3 (18. fxe3 {would avoid the threat of a K+Q fork on h2 and e3, but has its own problems, namely that the Ng3 will no longer be protected after the sacrifice on h2.} Rxh2 {and the rook still cannot be taken, due to} 19. Kxh2 Rh8+ 20. Kg1 Qxg3 {with a winning attack, thanks to the Nf6. Eliminating it is not enough, either.} 21. Rxf6 Nxf6 22. Bxf7 Kb8 {and Black wins material after ...Qh2+, thanks to the hanging Ra1. Trying to defend with Qf2 loses to the deflection tactic ...Rh1+}) 18... Rxh2 { this thematic sacrificial breakthrough idea should always be looked at when the other rook is available to immediately come to the h-file.} 19. Rfd1 { nothing better than to give White's king a path to run.} (19. Kxh2 $2 Ng4+) 19... Rdh8 {Black is now simply up material with a strong attack and dominating position. He does not have an immediate combinational win, but White is going to have to drop material or worsen his king position considerably.} 20. Qxa7 {re-establishing material equality at least, in the hopes that Black cannot carry through with his attack.} (20. Rxd7 Nxd7 21. Rd1 Kb8 22. Qxe4 {and now Black can win easily by entering a material-up endgame with} (22. Bxf7 {and White looks like he might have some compensation, but a nice sacrificial winning line for Black is} Ne5 23. Be6 Nf3+ $1 24. gxf3 Qxg3+ 25. fxg3 Rh1+ 26. Kf2 R8h2#) 22... f5 23. Qe7 Nc5 24. Qxc7+ Kxc7 $19) (20. Kf1 Kb8 {and now White has no good defense, as Black's knights can mobilize further to c5, e5 and g4 and White's king is too open. For example} 21. Qd4 Ne5 22. Bc2 e3 {similar to the game} 23. Qxe3 Nfg4 $19) 20... e3 $1 {now the threat is ...Qxg3, and the queen cannot be taken because of the mate on h1; the e3 pawn covers the f2 flight square.} 21. Qxe3 (21. Qa8+ Nb8 22. Rd4 R2h4 23. Rad1 (23. Rxh4 exf2+ 24. Kxf2 Rxh4 $19) 23... e2 $19) (21. Rd4 Qxg3 22. Qa8+ Qb8 23. Rc4+ Kd8 24. Qxb8+ Nxb8 25. Rd1+ Nbd7 $19) 21... Ng4 {because the knight replaces the black pawn in covering the f2 flight square, the ... Qxg3 threat is renewed, along with mate threats on h1, and they can no longer be met without White losing his queen.} 0-1

07 March 2021

"Developing New Skills and Habits Using Root Cause Analysis" - article

Worth a read is the "Developing New Skills and Habits Using Root Cause Analysis" article at Chess.com by NM Hans Schut. Despite the didactic title, it contains some very practical counsel and examples focusing on adult improvers. The central idea is to be aware of your repeated problems and their root causes, through analyzing your own games. According to Schut,

Some of the top root causes identified in the lessons with my students are:

- I do not know the plan behind the opening that I play, I feel lost after the opening;

- I reduced tension by trading instead of building the activity of my pieces into an attack;

- I do not know how to play this opening;

- I do not use the blunder check (capture, checks, threats) at every move;

- I do not calculate variations, I play moves based on the characteristics of the position and my gut feel;

- I am overlooking the possibilities of my opponent;

- Endgame: lack of calculation skills and knowledge of general endgames principles including rook activity, king activity, pawn breakthroughs;

- Get into time trouble and blunder (this can have different root causes).

Any of these sound familiar? My top current ones are still the lack of knowledge of opening (really early middlegame) plans, failure to consistently apply blunder check/CCT, overlooking my opponent's possibilities, and endgame weakness. On the other hand, I would say I've been aware of all of these areas for improvement and have actually improved my performance in them, although not to where they need to be. In the past, reducing tension by exchanging pieces was something I noted repeatedly in analysis, and now pay much more attention to this in my games, so it's no longer an issue.

The main takeaway is therefore to know why you are losing and work on not repeating the same mistakes over and over. This often requires replacing bad habits with new ones, including deliberate modifications of your thinking process. Simply reducing the frequency of common mistakes will up your game and eliminating them can result in a significant leap in strength.

05 March 2021

Training quote of the day #35: Max Euwe

In the middlegame the pieces seldom exert their full powers, since they are obstructed by other pieces, both hostile and friendly. The aim must always be to give every piece its greatest possible radius of action; and this is really the hub on which turns all positional and combinational play.

From The Middlegame, Book One: Static Features by Dr. Max Euwe and Hans Kramer  

27 February 2021

"The Attacking Set-Up That Always Wins" - article

In the context of studying the Stonewall, it was interesting to see the article by GM Gregory Serper "The Attacking Set-Up That Always Wins" on Chess.com. Despite the clickbait title, it's actually a useful conceptual breakdown of some opening and middlegame ideas using the structure, focusing primarily on White's prospects with it (which he terms the "Pillsbury Attack"). Some highlights and observations:

  • The article intro examines the core setup (Ne5, Bd3 with pawns on d4/e3/f4) using a classic Pillsbury game (above image) from a Queen's Gambit opening. The main difference between it and a "pure" Stonewall Attack is the location of the Bg5. Other ideas seen (Qf3-h3 transfer, sacrificing the light-squared bishop, exploitation of the half-open f-file, etc.) are standard Stonewall ones.
  • Even more unusual paths to the formation for White are possible, including via 1.e4, as in the exciting games Bronstein-Zamikhovsky (see move 12 onwards) and Tal-Leonov (move 13 onwards), both from Caro-Kann (!) variations. In these the e-pawn is missing, but the other characteristics remain.
  • Black is given a nod with the citation of one classic attacking Dutch Stonewall game (Maroczy-Tartakower) that features a thematic rook sacrifice for White's h2 pawn, an idea (in reverse) which is also seen in one of the White example games (Steinitz-Mongredien).
The article is well worth the read for anyone looking at how to succeed by employing the Stonewall formation to attack. It also shows how this approach is not necessarily the result of formulaic "system" opening play, rather the idea is to reach specific position-types which can be very effective if their advantages are understood.

23 February 2021

Chess Computing Resources (2021)

The recent release of the Stockfish 13 engine is a good peg point for an updated post outlining available chess computing resources for improving players. This is intended to be a streamlined look at key resources grouped around two main functions - Database/Analysis and Gameplay/Training - along with some observations on how to effectively use these computer tools. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review of everything that is available on the internet. Rather, it reflects the products/sites with which I have some familiarity, and have found more (or sometimes less) useful. For a deeper dive into specific software functionality, although the references are somewhat dated, see Chess Computing Resources for 2015.

I. Database/Analysis packages: the core training functions

Based on the recommendations of top-level trainers and my own personal experience, the two most important practices for progressing in chess strength are analyzing your own games and studying master games. Building your personal databases - I maintain two, one containing my tournament games and one with my training/online games - is fundamental to this. Using computer tools to help analyze and compare your games to master-level ones then becomes a powerful and efficient training practice. 

To maintain full control over your data and for ease of use, having your own software package often makes the most sense. This will consist of three parts: 1) a database program GUI (graphical user interface); 2) databases (your own and at least one general reference one); and 3) chess engine(s) for assisting analytic evaluation. Below we'll look at what's available in each of these categories. Mixing and matching is very possible, so it is worth carefully considering what you actually need for your own training purposes, especially if your budget is limited.

Database/Analysis GUI programs (free)

Scid vs. PC
A very good free option for database software is Scid vs. PC, which also has a Mac version and a related Android mobile app (Scid on the Go). The above screenshot displays the program loaded with the PGN file of the Ruiz Castillo - So commentary game, with the "Commentary - ChessAdmin" database (linked in the sidebar) loaded into the database tree reference tab. The engine analysis window is displayed at the bottom, showing the top three lines being calculated by the (free) Stockfish 13 engine. The text moves in the PGN window are fully annotatable using a right-click menu. The software is quite powerful and has many database, search, and game editing functions available.

Other top free database GUI programs include: Arena; a version of the original Scid; and ChessX. It costs nothing to check them out and one may work better on your particular computer platform (PC/Mac/Linux).

Training methodology: the above layout reflects my core setup for game analysis functions, except that I would also have open a general reference database and my opening repertoire database. Stepping through a game from the beginning then allows you to examine in detail the key decision points, in a computer-assisted manner, while exploring and recording different options. In the opening phase, the databases are the primary reference points for comparison and further investigation. While move statistics (% winning, frequency played) can be helpful guides as to what works best in a position, it is also important to look at related master games in a more in-depth fashion, especially to see what is going on in the early middlegame. Once that point is reached, the engine becomes your primary assistant, especially in highlighting alternative candidate moves that you may not have otherwise considered; this is why I have it set to display the top three lines. Of course along with the benefits, it is useful to keep in mind the pitfalls of computer analysis.

Database/Analysis GUI programs (commercial)

ChessBase 15
Above is displayed the same game in the ChessBase 15 program. The configuration is similar, showing the board, game text, and engine window, in this case running the (commercial) Komodo Dragon engine. One significant addition is the lower right "Let's Check" window which is proprietary, showing the top three engine evaluation lines from the ChessBase cloud database for the position. This is a useful way of automatically tapping into others' analytic efforts, using a variety of different engines. (You automatically contribute your own engine's evaluation by accessing the function, as well.) The feature is included with the latest ChessBase versions, which also have a large suite of advanced analytic database functions, as previously documented. These can be very useful for study and preparation purposes, but are not required for the core practice of game analysis using a reference database, analytic engine, and annotation tools.

Other commercial database GUIs include: Hiarcs Chess Explorer, Chess Assistant 21 and Aquarium 2021. These are all powerful products, but the reality is that ChessBase is considered the commercial standard, including for its proprietary database file format (CBV). Which means that if you want access to a variety of large databases in CBV format, you will need a ChessBase program.


In contrast with database GUI software, it's difficult to find comprehensive, good quality free games databases, which makes having some type of commercial product more necessary, at least in terms of a general reference database. That said, there are still multiple options available and searching the internet for public domain PGN databases that are currently available is always an option. I would advise being very careful about any advertised "free" file sources, however, to avoid downloading malware onto your system.
  • TWIC (The Week in Chess) since 1994 has been publishing international tournament games on its website and has weekly game files freely downloadable in both PGN and CBV format. According to the site, a PayPal donation will get you the full collection in CBV format.
  • Chess Games Links is a comprehensive site for finding downloadable and online games databases.
  • PGN Mentor is often cited as a games source and has a number of databases broken down by opening, player and event.
  • The standard commercial ChessBase products (sold by many retailers) are its Mega Database and Big Database programs, released as comprehensive general reference databases for international OTB (over-the-board) tournament and match games, with yearly updates. The primary difference is the professionally annotated games contained in the Mega version. Both use the proprietary ChessBase format to facilitate generating reports by player, event, etc. and to take advantage of the advanced search and analytic capabilities of the ChessBase GUI software. The company also publishes a separate Correspondence Database.
Chess engines

In contemporary times, free chess engines are among the world's top performers, so there is no reason not to have one (or more) in your analysis toolkit. A bit of internet background research - for example this non-partisan blog post on Chess.com - will also reveal which engines are essentially clones of publicly available ones. You can then make the decision to go for the free download, or instead choose a slightly tweaked, perhaps even weaker commercial version of an engine.
  • Stockfish is the gold standard chess engine that is freely available. Many internet sites incorporate a version of it as a live analysis engine.
  • Lc0 (Leela Chess Zero) is the main open source neural network based chess engine, also freely available. Stockfish and other top engines now incorporate NNUE (efficiently updatable neural network) evaluations, so the neural network distinction is less important than it used to be.
  • Komodo is a commercial engine that has been developed since 2007 by GM Larry Kaufman and his team. It typically has some extra/unique features and settings included, which are described on the site. The latest (Dragon) version has also incorporated NNUE technology. Previous Komodo versions are available for free download on the site.
It used to be that chess engines had significantly different strengths and demonstrably varied in their evaluation functions; for example, Fritz was notorious for its materialism. Now that the top engines are well over 3000 Elo in strength, there are still differences between their evaluations and approaches, but the practical significance of this is relatively minor, especially at the amateur level. Nevertheless, I believe that the "feel" of an engine's move choices is at least psychologically important for an improving player, so which engine you select as your primary assistant is still a personal decision. Historically I've been able to understand and relate better to Komodo's top 3 choices - the standard number of candidate moves I have displayed during the analysis process - so that has been my go-to engine for a while now.

It's worth highlighting the use of the word "assistant" for an engine's role in the training process. They can't be called coaches, since they do not provide explanations for their recommendations. The assistance provided to your thinking process by their showing different possibilities in a position can be very valuable, however. Engines will also help hone your evaluation skills, since as part of the analytic process you will need to articulate to yourself why a position is +/- for a particular side. Finally, your own judgment cannot be replaced and sometimes - perhaps even relatively often, in quiet positions - engine "scores" for lines can be misleading or simply not helpful, depending on how practical they would be to play in real life.

II. Gameplay/Training resources

Given the broad capabilities of modern chess software, the lines have been permanently blurred between chess database and chess-playing programs. This is in part because having some sort of database access is now considered integral to playing chess. So depending on what you want, you may not feel the need to have a different application for your playing and other training needs.
  • Scid vs. PC is a good example of this, as it comes with an engine (Phalanx) designed to be played at a user-adjustable level (strong master - beginner) and has basic time and other settings, including specifying which opening complex the computer should play and playing out a game from a particular position.
  • ChessBase deliberately separates the playing function into its Fritz GUI line of software, which has been sold with various primary engines, although ChessBase software owners have the option of playing out a particular position against an online version of Fritz at adjustable levels.
The experience of playing a computer opponent is much more personalized than the database analysis functions, as "fun" and "challenge" and other aesthetic considerations will enter into it. People also have very different goals and interests in playing, everything ranging from repeated blitz games to learn new openings, to slow games that are intended to simulate tournament conditions. Personally, I find it difficult to care about a training game against a computer, especially when there is no evident personality or "real-life" quality conveyed as part of the experience. This is why my preferred practice is to play a weekly game against a human training partner.

That said, here are some additional computer resources designed to provide higher-quality playing experiences.

Shredder 13
  • Shredder Chess is now best known for the game-playing and training features in its Shredder 13 line of commercial products, which are available for all platforms. The interface is intuitive and it offers a variety of customizable options, as well as a more human-like opponent at different strength levels. It has built-in training features for openings and endings, as well as tactics puzzles. Naturally it has an analytic and PGN database capability as well.
  • Lucas Chess is software geared towards playing and training, with special emphasis on offering a number of choices deliberately aimed at beginners, including some very low-rated engine opponents and more basic training options to develop chess skills.
  • It's a shame the old Chessmaster series died out, as especially the last edition (XI or The Art of Learning) was packed with tutorials for all levels and used an expansive range of named opponents with different chess "personalities" that made for more interesting training games. You could for example use the opponents as a "ladder" challenge or specific ones (aggressive attackers, strong defenders) to work on specific aspects of your game. The software is still floating around, but installing it on a modern system is unlikely to work well.
  • The Chess.com bots are a recent implementation of the same idea of varying chess "personalities" and strengths, in the context of an online opponent. From my perspective, they have a good range, but lack some customizable training options, for example a time control above 30 0 (why not 45 45 or 60 10 or just let you input one yourself, up to a certain range?) This makes them unsuitable for tournament-like practice games, since anything that goes into the endgame will result in a time crunch. There is also a "no time" option for casual play, but that doesn't address the issue of wanting an opponent set up for a slow game.
In terms of chess training resources, there are a lot of online sites that offer a wide variety of services. Gone are the days when chess bloggers had to rely on things like CT-ART software. Internet search, which will turn up things like YouTube videos and such, may well be your best bet for researching specific interests or applications in depth, especially free content. Nonetheless I'll close this post by highlighting some of the major commercial chess training sites, which normally include some free content as part of their offerings.
  • Chess.com has online database services, including an openings explorer, various chess puzzle challenges, and a series of its own interactive training videos on all aspects of the game. There is also a large number of recorded instructional videos from professional players hosted on the site, many behind the paywall.
  • Chessable offers a range of training courses on openings, endgames, strategy and tactics. Again, some content is free.
  • 365chess.com is primarily an online database service, but includes a number of training features for its supporters, focusing on openings and puzzles.
  • Chess Tempo is an in-depth site focusing on tactics, openings and endgames training, as well as offering online database services.
  • Forward Chess by this point has accumulated an extensive library of interactive e-books from major publishers for its app, which is best designed for tablets. If you are already using a database GUI program for your analytic work on a computer, I would recommend getting e-books (with accompanying databases) in whatever format you have your other databases, so you can use the data more easily. You can obtain free samples and excerpts of products to "try before you buy" within the app.