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.