Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Silmanites vs. De La Maza "Knights": Don't Be Hatin'!


As I dip into the waters of Chess Blogs, I've been dismayed how so many people are divided between two camps: Silman "fanbois" and de la Maza "Knights".

For the uninitiated: Silman is a well-known chess author whose works on chess strategy (most notably How To Reassess Your Chess) have quite a following. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, this is one of two books that got me seriously interested in chess. Michael de la Maza is an amateur that dramatically increased his chess rating through an intense program of chess tactics. His method was first described in a series of articles and then in the book Rapid Chess Improvement. He also made Convekta a lot of money by touting its "CT-Art 3.0" program as being ideal for his system of tactics study. People that have put themselves through a rigorous de la Maza tactics regime refer to themselves as "Knights" or "Knights Errant".

First, a disclaimer. I am not trying to tar all the de la Maza fans with the same brush. I've seen lots of good, reasonable advice out there. However, I've been encountering snobbery and anti-Silman sneering in my travels, and I can't understand the polarization. Here are a few of the themes that I've been seeing, and my reactions:

-"Tactics are more important than positional understanding". Well, der. No one, including Silman, disagree that tactics should be the focus of study. However, I've seen people overstate their case and say that Silman's stuff is "garbage". The most important benefit of Silman's material is it aids you in finding good moves when tactics are not the sole factor. The concept of using the imbalances in a position to direct your strategic thinking is immensely useful. Even though tactical oversights will play a larger role in the outcome of your games, that does not mean that the strategy of accumulating small advantages is worthless. Other things being equal, the player with the worse position will tend to make the more serious errors.

Although, ultimately, chess is a game, and people should spend time doing what they find enjoyable, I'm taken aback by the cheeky conclusion to de la Maza's original articles:

I look forward to avoiding opening, middlegame, and endgame study for years to come.

This is akin to restricting your exercise to one-arm pushups in order to excel at fighting with one hand behind your back.

I don't think players have to read and re-read and re-re-read Silman's books as if they were the bible. Learn the basic concepts, then go on to study tactics and annotated games. That little bit of time taken to read a book or two on chess strategy is well worth it. I would strongly recommend any player interested in improving their game to also look at Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess. Oddball nomenclature aside, it's all very good stuff. It will help you arrive at middlegame plans by looking at the pawn structure.

-"If you give one of his positions to a computer, and try and play his plan, the computer will eventually play something Silman didn't mention and proceed to win." Computers now routinely beat the best players in the world, so this argument strikes me as silly. As Dan Heisman has said repeatedly, your goal in a game of chess is to find the best move possible given the time constraints. A thought process like Silman's helps guide you to finding good moves.

You want to talk tactics? Mikhail Tal, the great attacking player, was quoted as saying, "There are two kinds of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine.". The point being, maybe his tactics weren't perfectly sound, but it put his opponent on the ropes. Even if a Silmanesque thinking technique doesn't result in perfect strategy, it will help you find strong moves (provided you double check your moves for tactical flaws before you play them).

One final observation: it appears that de la Maza and many Knights have quit, or cut back on, chess after attaining their goal, be it completing the "Seven Circles" program or whatever. I've seen this phenomenon happen to myself and others, in many different areas of life. For example, someone quits their job and plays a MMORPG 140 hours a week in order to get the first top-level character in the game, or starts an intense diet or exercise program, or takes up golf or whatever. They put in an incredible amount of time, then burn out once they've reached their goal or gone as far as they feel they can. The "Seven Circles" method de la Maza proposes is not for the faint of heart. Towards the end, you're expected to do 1000 tactical problems, in one day, in under 9 hours. I'm not surprised after completing that ordeal that some people get a bit sick of chess.

In contrast, books like Silman's, or Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi, don't just instruct, or make you a stronger player. They open your eyes to the richness of chess, and add to your appreciation of chess. When you play through annotated games, and the annotator says "obviously such-and-such a move would be bad because of such-and-such a positional factor", you'll see the truth in that assessment. I think Silman put it best in his review of de la Maza's book:
I get hundreds of letters from students worldwide that gain hundreds of points in a few months from reading my “strategically oriented” books. Others don’t improve drastically in tournament play, but simply enjoy the game more because they can suddenly understand ideas utilized by the chess greats. This is a VERY important point (I’m not pushing my books, I’m trying to make a point!): they enjoy the game more because, instead of looking for tricks while not having a clue about what’s happening on a broader scale, they are taught that chess has many hidden depths that ARE accessible to them with proper training.

If we set aside the issue of whether or not Silman's books can make you a better player, there's no denying that they can make the games you play more enjoyable. I have enjoyed accruing small advantages to reach a winning position. I have had knights on outposts dominate bad bishops. I have won games because of an outside passed pawn. I have counterattacked in the center after being attacked on the wing, and I have opened up the position for my bishop pair. I have taken advantage of a lead in development to open the position and launch an attack.

I'm sure these games abounded with tactical errors. But I feel I played more strongly for having been exposed to these positional ideas, and by thinking about the imbalances in the position.

Plus, I've been playing chess seriously for 13 years and I'm sure I'll be enjoying it for decades to come.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Openings for Improving Players: Part 3 (as Black)

Repertoire as Black

I have a lot more recommendations for books for the Black openings than for the White. Even though I'm telling you to not rely on books so much, there are a few nice ones here that will help. They'll be listed at the end of the article.

Flank Openings and other Riff-raff

Lets get these out of the way first. I held back on writing this article because I wasn't sure what to recommend for the flank openings (English, Reti) and other "odds and ends". Fortunately I snapped to my senses and realized that they don't matter.

Why? Well, if you've read this earlier blog entry on Blitz games you've seen how I've used ChessBase to see what openings I've faced in the past. Going back seven years, here's the occurrence of openings I've faced as black:

1.e4 64.6%
1.d4 20.2%
1.Nf3 3.8%
1.c4 2.6%
1.f4 0.8%
1.b4 0.8%

And the odds drop from there. Considering that many of the 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 openings would transpose into 1.e4 or 1.d4 lines, their occurrence in my games really don't justify a lot of study. For me, these openings fall into the "find the novelty, determine what you'd play in the future, and forget about it" category.

Granted, at higher levels the occurrence of 1.d4, 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 will go up, but at my level they simply aren't worth sweating over. My advice is to stick to general principles and try to steer the game into familiar territory.

See how a chess database can save you money? Now you don't have to go out and buy "Joe Blow's EZ Guide to the Reti/English/Larsen/Grob/Whatever". "But a database won't tell me what the ideas of the opening are!", I hear the book addicts cry. To which I counter: your opponent probably doesn't know either. If you must, consult a general book on openings such as Collins' Understanding the Chess Openings and leave it at that. You'd be better off spending time practicing tactics, or reading Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess and playing by general principles.

B. 1.e4: 1...e5 or 1...c5

{Edit: 9/28/07: I want to make a strong recommendation for 1...e5, and for Marin's two repertoire books listed at the end of this post. I think they are the best opening repertoire books I've ever come across, and you can learn a lot about chess from them. I have been playing 1...e5 for the last 9 months now, and I feel as confident now playing 1...e5 as I do playing 1...e6 (which I played for 13 years).}

Alright, on to the main suggestions. Against 1.e4 I would recommend either 1...e5 or 1...c5. We are looking for popular openings, a variety of pawn structures, and tactics. I love the French (1...e6) to death, but as I said earlier I feel that the fixed pawn structure means less middlegame variety and less thinking "outside the box".

1...c5, the Sicilian, is obviously a great choice. It's tactical, it's asymmetric, and Black has a lot of control over the choice of opening (Najdorf, Scheveningen, Classical, Dragon, Taimanov....). However, there are a few detractions:

1. At my level of play at least, count on your White opponent chickening out and not playing the Open Sicilian. I know, because that's what I've done until recently as White. Bewildered by Black's variety of choices, and frequent victim of tactics (to the point where I wondered if I should just pretend I intended to gambit my e4 pawn all along), I tried the Smith-Morra, the c3-Sicilian, and lines with 3.Bb5(+) (Moscow and Rossolimo variations). The Grand Prix is also popular (I believe Alburt's recent repertoire book uses the Grand Prix). However, this can in the long run be a good thing. Most of the alternatives to 2.Nf3 and 3.d4 are considered less critical for Black (although that's meaningless at club level), and your games will be determined by tactics, not opening preparation. As you become a better player, you will have worked out your responses to these sidelines and will gradually get more and more experience in a "real" Sicilian line. If you are a book addict, though, the Sicilian will probably drive you nuts because you rarely get to play "your" opening.

2. The Dragon variations with ...g6 and ...Bg7 are very popular, but I would not recommend them because I feel there's not enough variation in middlegame plans and pawn structures. This may not be completely fair, and the Dragon definitely fits the bill as tactical. It just strikes me as being more stereotyped. Opposite side castling, mutual king hunts, Fischer's "sac...sac...mate!" approach with the White pieces.... Of course, the devil is in the details, but that's just it. It seems to be a very, very "book" opening. Alburt's black repertoire book uses an accelerated (hyper-accelerated, actually) version where Black plays 2.g3. This helps avoid some of White's standard anti-Sicilian measures, and I really can't say that it would be a bad choice as Black. I just think you'll increase your overall understanding of chess by playing another line. You'll still get your tactical vitamins in.

I'm most strongly attracted to the Scheveningen formation with pawns on d6 and e6. This allows for a variety of pawn thrusts in the center, so you'll get a large variety of middlegame plans. The standard Paulsen/Najdorf pawn structure with pawns on d6 and e5 may arise from the Scheveningen, or by playing an immediate e7-e5. This gives a backwards d-pawn and the "Boleslavsky hole" on d5, so it's not for the faint of heart, but it's a common feature of the Najdorf. For those wanting to take these structures up, I strongly recommend Soltis' Pawn Structure Chess, as well as Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopec, which emphasize general ideas over move orders. I've perused John Emms' Play the Najdorf: Scheveningen Style, and that style of play seems like a good choice for an improving player.

My suggestion is 1....e5, and I've started playing it myself. If you have avoided playing 1...e5 up until now, I understand why. You are telling White that they can pretty much choose whatever crazy 18th-century gambit or hot grandmaster line in the "Spanish Torture" they want, and you have to respond. The Two Knights' Defense/Max Lange lines, frankly, scare the crap out of me, even though when I first started chess I used the Max Lange as my first white opening (I've long since forgotten the theory). The King's Gambit, while not that common, is also quite annoying, and it doesn't help that my three repertoire books suggest three different responses. (Yes, I own three 1...e5 repertoire books. Yes, I'm telling you to not study theory. Yes, I'm a hypocrite. Did you not see the blog motto? Do as I say, not as I do....).

By switching to 1...e5, you are getting rid of the safety net, challenging White to do his worst, and unless they play something main-line you will probably be thinking on your feet for most of the opening. This is a good thing. I'm suggesting openings to help you improve as a player. I'm not suggesting openings to mollycoddle you and help you cling to your 1401 rating so you don't drop to the D category.

As for specifics, I would say prepare a main-line Spanish as Black, but be aware that a lot of the games won't go that far. One thing that strikes me about the main-line Spanish is that the move order is fairly logical, so as long as you understand why both White and Black play the moves they do for the first 9 moves, you're good. For example, if White omits 9.h3 (perfectly playable), you should know that it's because White generally regards the pin with 9...Bg4 to be annoying as hell, and that might be a good move to play if White omits pushing the h-pawn. One big diversion is if White plays the Exchange with 4.Bxc6. Black has many options here, but if you want to be devious you can try 4...dxc6 5.0-0 Bg4!?, with the point 6.h3 h5!, and the bishop is immune for now. This is a line you'd want to spend time on, though, because it'll get as hairy for Black as for White. Since I'm not advocating spending a lot of time on openings, you'd be better off playing more rational moves in my opinion.

I'm torn between the Giuoco Piano (3...Bc5) or the Two Knights' Defense (3...Nf6) against 3.Bc4. So far my experience is that the latter is way more tactical (the best line I believe amounts to Black gambiting a pawn), more transpositional (with a variety of Max Lange and Ng5 themes), and more risky. However, if you persevere I'm willing to bet that with your experience and your tactical chops you will be a better player. Myself, more often than not I've been chickening out with 3.Bc5. White still has some tactical options here, but a lot of the time (at my level) the games become these quieter, closed games with positional manoeuvrings and such....sort of "old school" chess like you'd see out of a Nimzovich book or something. 3.Bc5 is better for my nerves, worse for my chess. {Edit 9/28/07: Marin's repertoire book focuses on 3...Bc5, with some Two-Knights' theory to handle early transpositions.}

If your opponent isn't playing 3.Bb5 or 3.Bc4, I'd say just play chess and see what happens. There's a large variety of old-school gambits that can occur in these openings, but I'd say study them as they occur in your games and follow the standard "see what theory says and move on" approach. In a lot of these cases the games are probably decided by tactical prowess anyways.

C. 1.d4: Nimzo/Bogo/Queen's Indian

This is probably my most radical suggestion for an improving club player. I think most people would suggest a 1...d5 opening of some sort, playing an "old-school" QGD/QGA/Slav/Semi-Slav something-or-other. My problem with these openings is that they tend to be more closed in nature, with fewer pawn structures. Black tries to maintain a strong point at d5, starts out with pawns on light squares, and tries to engineer a pawn break such as ...c5 when the time is ripe, or at least avoid typical White plans such as the minority attack. For me, the double whammy of playing these light-squared defenses and playing the French to boot meant that I felt discombobulated whenever my pawns weren't on light squares. Some authors would recommend, for example "play the Caro-Kann and Slav" or "French and QGD" because of the similar pawn structures that arise. That is precisely why I say don't do it. It's too confining.

The Nimzo-Indian Talk about a mind-boggling array of pawn structures and transpositions. Perfect. Why? Because studying the theory is so daunting. You won't really know the theory, but neither will your opponent. A good read would be Tony Kosten's Mastering the Nimzo-Indian, which goes through the most common pawn structures that arise in this opening. From my experience so far, however, books aren't going to get you far in this opening at club levels because craziness will soon ensue.

Transpositions abound in these openings, but the Nimzo generally stems from 3.Nc3, and either the Bogo-Indian or Queen's Indian from 3.Nf3. So far I've been using Alburt's book and the Bogo- as guides, but the QID strikes me as something that can be played in a fairly Nimzo-like fashion. Pawn structures and tactics are more important than move orders as far as I can tell. The most important thing here is that both White and Black have a lot of input as to what middlegame plans and pawn structures will arise, and the games most likely will be determined by tactics or middlegame experience and not by "booking up".

{edit on 6/25/07: although I stand by my Nimzo recommendation, the QGD/Slav family is certainly appropriate. I mention this because, with my newfound appreciation of controlling the center, I find that the 1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5 openings most clearly demonstrate the importance of the center. Semi-open and Indian defences are a bit more mysterious about central control, or at least less blunt. My greatest concern is that a player chooses both the Caro-Kann and the Slav, for example, or French and QGD like I did. If your pawns are always on light squares, you're not getting exposed to enough variety of positions. I spent 13 years trapped in a light-squared prison. Don't let it happen to you. For the adventurous, I'll point out that after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 you could play ...d5 and choose a QGD system instead of the Queen's Indian or Bogo-Indian. That will give you experience in both a classical and a hypermodern response to 1.d4.}


Again, do as I say, not as I do. Try to limit your opening book expenditures and think for yourself in the opening. With that being said, the following books stand out.

Repertoire books:

Chess Openings for Black, Explained by Lev Alburt et al. The non-1.e4 section of the book can be used as a starting point for figuring out your own repertoire, even if you don't use the material on the Dragon.

NEW: Beating the Open Games and A Spanish Opening Repertoire for Black by Mihail Marin. Simply the best repertoire books I've ever seen (I also noticed, for what it's worth, that quotes Silman as saying "I can’t recall having seen a better book in the last two decades"). These are repertoire books you can actually read cover-to-cover for chess instruction.

This is Marin's actual tournament repertoire, and he seems to emphasize lines that follow sound opening principles. The first book covers the non-Spanish part of the repertoire, plus how to deal with the Spanish Exchange. The second focuses on the Chigorin variation of the main-line Spanish, plus earlier deviations by White.

Play 1.e4 e5! by Nigel Davies. Overall, a good one-volume choice for Black vs. 1.e4. Uses the Keres variation as its main-line Spanish suggestion.

Play the Open Games as Black by John Emms. Doesn't cover the Spanish, but has far more thorough coverage for all the non-Spanish alternatives than Davies' book. Probably the more useful of the two books for patzers like me because these "lesser" lines are common and annoying.

The Chess Advantage in Black and White by Larry Kaufman. A repertoire for both white and black packed into a small paperback. Not a bad starting point, and excellent value. This is more useful for White than Black in my recommended repertoire, but it does at least have Italian (3.Bc4 Bc5) lines for wimps like me (Davies and Emms use the Two Knights' Defense).

Specific openings:

The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black by Johnsen and Johannessen. This is actually a very good book, but has to compete with Marin's spanish repertoire now. However, it advocates the Zaitsev variation rather than the Chigorin. If you know you want to play the Zaitsev, or if you want further coverage of White's earlier deviations, this book is a good choice. I also found the lengthy preface and introduction to be enlightening.

Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopecr>Mastering the Nimzo-Indian by Tony Kostenr>These books have different formats but the same idea: showing typical middlegames for the openings in question with less focus on move orders. These two books would be more useful to people taking up these openings than any specific repertoire book. Highly recommended if you're going to play these openings.

Play the Najdorf: Scheveningen Style by John Emms.<br>Easy Guide to the Sicilian Scheveningena> by Steffen Pedersen.<br>If you're going to play the Sicilian, this seems like the best introductory way to do it in my opinion.

Play the Nimzo-Indian by Edward Dearing. The lines in this book grab me more than those in Alburt's. So far, Dearing has struck me as an excellent author of opening books (his book on the Sicilian Dragon strikes me as being the bible for that opening).

Easy Guide to the Nimzo-Indian by John Emms. Wow, the Emms trifecta is complete! This book and Pedersen's are from the same series and describe typical piece deployments in their openings.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Silman's Complete Endgame Course: A Review

Jeremy Silman's long-awaited endgame manual, Silman's Complete Endgame Course, is now out in stores. I picked up my copy last week, and have plowed through about half the material in it. Surprisingly, this book is encouraging me not to study the endgame, and that is its author's intent.


Let me explain. The book is actually divided into sections based on what the author thinks is essential knowledge for a player to know to achieve a certain chess rating. The material is divided according to the USCF ratings system: below Class E (Unrated -1999); Class D (1000-1199); Class C (1200-1399), and so on. After Class A there's also material for Experts (2000-2199), Masters (2200-2400) plus a final section of "Endgames for Pure Pleasure" for everyone. For all the levels up to about Master his suggestion is for students to read the book up to one class level beyond their current rating, and then put the book down and study other areas of chess until they've achieved that next level bracket.

I both agree and disagree with his division of material, and general advice. Mostly I agree. Quoting Dan Heisman from one of his ChessCafe articles:

I have heard from students about instructors
teaching players rated 1200-1300 Philidor and Lucena positions. Yet I
know someone who lost an easily drawable Philidor position because
he did not know the technique and never heard of it. My point? That
player was me: I had been playing tournament chess for 5½ years and
my USCF rating was about 2100! Sure, if I had known the technique I
would not have lost, but the point is that I got to 2100 without ever
even hearing about the Philidor draw because such specific knowledge
is only marginally useful (not useless!) and I was pretty good at {tactics,
piece activity, time management, thought process and general principles}.

Most of the endgames you encounter will be more complex than the basic positions you commonly find in endgame manuals, and in these situations your weaknesses in tactics, general principles, and sloppy thought processes (as well as your opponent's) will be the overriding factor.

Let's see what Silman's book would have a class C player like me study. The Class C chapter covers some very basic pawn endgame principles (opposition, rule of square, rook pawns tend to draw, outside passers are an advantage). There's a brief mention of opposite-colored bishop endgames, and bishop or knight vs. rook pawn is covered briefly (most importantly, the "wrong-coloured bishop" draw). The Lucena and Philidor positions for rook endgames (yes, the same endgame Heisman said he didn't know as a 2100 player) are introduced. Basic queen vs. pawn endgames are covered.

If you haven't studied endgames at all, none of the above sounds familiar. In that case, you should definitely start studying endgames! For me, most of the above was "old hat" and suggests that, for my level, that endgames aren't a big problem (which was my conclusion even before I started on this book). However, I did realize I should play over a few of the Philidor and passive-rook endgame examples as a refresher (a couple of the "white wins" scenarios didn't seem that clear to me). Also, although I knew the basic Q vs. P strategy, and have played it out many times in actual games, I wasn't playing as "crisply" as in the technique Silman shows.

So, let's see what Silman thinks I should study if I want to achieve my desired "B" category. We have: K vs. isolated pawns (e.g. the principle that two pawns separated by one file, and on the same rank, can protect each other without assistance from the king); elementary breakthroughs; triangulation; outflanking; rook and two connected passed pawns vs. rook; rooks on the 7th rank; more opposite bishop endgames; the 2-bishop mate. Although some of this is pretty basic to me (the opposion and opposite-colored bishop endgames in particular), some other material is stuff that I've studied before but obviously not gotten rock-solid (K vs. pawns separated by 2 files, for example).

On the whole, Silman's recommendations seem sound. The material does seem, on the whole, level-appropriate, and the advice to study other areas of your game besides endgames is sound. I disagree with dogmatically following his advice.

First, some principles are quite basic, can be learned easily, but aren't covered until much higher chapters in the book than their ease of learning would suggest. You can argue, for example, that the "principle of two weaknesses" isn't critical at lower levels, but the idea is so simple there's no reason not to learn it. I think if the endgame is present in a basic endgame manual such as Pandolfini's or Alburt's books, there's no reason not to study them. If it happens to make sense and stick in your mind, great. If it doesn't quite make sense, you can come back to it when you reach the next level. I think Silman would consider Soltis' Grandmaster Secrets: Endgames an advanced book, but I think anyone that has studied at least one beginner's endgame book would benefit greatly from reading it. I've also studied pawn endgames a bit (key squares, critical squares, some corresponding squares theory) and I think it's been immensely helpful. Silman doesn't cover the key squares in some basic pawn endgames till Class A. For example:

The colored squares are critical squares for Black's pawn. If white's king lands on any of those 3 squares, he wins. You can argue that you can be a B-player without knowing this, but it's pretty easy knowledge to pick up.

Second, I believe that studying more advanced material can help you in many ways. An example of a book that's definitely intended for stronger players, but that I feel I benefited greatly from, is The Final Countdown by Van Riemsdijk and Hajenius. This starts with relatively simple pawn endgames, but rapidly gets into complicated endgames requiring knowledge of corresponding squares. I wouldn't recommend this book to most people, but it really opened my eyes to how to use the opposition in pawn endgames. I've already mentioned Soltis' book, which is great because a lot of the content is more general principles and less technique. I think that studying more advanced endgame material also helps develop your calculating, visualization and planning skills. For example, if you can play through some basic pawn endgames in your head (e.g.: white K on d1, black K on d8, white pawn on d2) or at least by looking at the board and calculating to the end, then you're improving your ability to visualize several moves into the future. Although it would be a LOT of work, I intend to play through all the "basic" endgames in blue text that are in Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual before I die. The final section of Silman's book, "Endgames for Pure Pleasure", does give a taste for more intricate endgames, but I would strongly recommend supplementing this with Soltis' book.

Silman may be correctly supplying the basic endgame knowledge required to attain a certain level. However, I feel that time spent studying endgames isn't wasted unless you either are trying to memorize, or cannot understand the complexity of the ones you're working on. Nonetheless, Silman's book can help you determine if you have weaknesses in your endgame knowledge, and helps you determine where to best spend time in order to improve as a player. Although some of the material in the book is "common knowledge" to me, his descriptions of certain endgames help to cement that knowledge in. The book is rather thick from all the written descriptions, and Silman's writing style is talky and somewhat goofy (and downright naughty in at least one place: "my opponent's bishop...eyeing my monarch in a lecherous state of rut"), but the style works for me. I strongly recommend this book to class C players and up; lower classes will of course benefit, but will use a smaller portion of the content.

Monday, March 19, 2007

One Guide for Improving Adult Players

I found this post at the Kenilworthian website. I agree with most of it except the suggestion of an opening repertoire based around limited positions such as the Isolated Queen Pawn. I personally think openings that lead to a wide variety of pawn structures will provide more experience in strategy, and force you to calculate and think "outside the box" in these less-familiar positions.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Openings for Improving Players: Part 2 (as White)

I'm going to argue in a future post that the best way to improve is for players to build their own opening repertoires, based on the moves that they feel are best. However, if you want to decide on a "proper" opening system for tournament play, or if you are new to the game and want to play book lines to get a feel for what "proper" opening play looks like, my suggestions should help.

Some of my recommendations are quite general. For those that are looking for a "one-book" opening repertoire, you could check out such books as Kaufman's The Chess Advantage in Black and White, or Chess Openings for White, Explained by Lev Alburt et al. However, I would treat these books as a framework only. If you like the lines in them, use them, but if you don't then find your own.

I can't comment on the latter book much because I don't own it (yet), but I own the corresponding Black repertoire book. My experience was that there were some good suggestions, but a lot of the suggested moves were just given without explaining their purpose. When checking over one of my games, I frequently found instances where my opponent played a reasonable move but the book only covered one. Spotting transpositions were also a bit of a headache. However, this could actually be a strength of the book. I advocate determining for yourself what you like to play in a certain circumstance, so such a repertoire book provides a starting point but leaves you with plenty of homework to do. I believe this book for White suggests the Scotch gambit instead of the Ruy Lopez, and an early f4 against the Sicilian, and these should fit in with my philosophy of choosing openings that lead to open positions and tactical play.

Kaufman's book is a pretty good deal pricewise, and his theme of choosing "second-best but serious" lines for his repertoire makes sense. I've used it for quite a while. However, for most of the main openings I would now disagree with most of his choices for the improving club player. He advocates the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez and the Short system for the Caro-Kann, and I discuss this below. Some of his suggestions strike me as "unnatural" or non-intuitive, such as the weird pawn structures that result in his response to the Petroff. Finally, he dodges the open Sicilian (also discussed below). Nonetheless there's useful stuff in here, such as for the French Tarrasch, Pirc, Modern and Philidor.

Repertoire as White

I think that 1.e4 gives you more open, tactical games than 1.d4 or others, and thus will contribute more to your development as a player. You can argue "yes, but I want to learn more strategy", but I counter:

  • unless you are quite a good player, your games are being lost through tactics and not gaps in opening or middlegame strategy. One National Master I took group lessons from argued that you can become a master with tactics and a smidgen of endgame theory alone. (This guy also played the Philidor Defense as Black religiously, which is a great recommendation but about as uncool as main openings get. Further evidence that you don't have to play the hot, topical lines of today's grandmasters.)
  • these openings will lead to a large variety of pawn structures, which will give you experience in strategic play.
  • although a lot of the side lines are tactical, this repertoire aims at playing the Ruy Lopez, which should please anyone that enjoys chess strategy.
The Ruy Lopez (Spanish):Worrall System

I recommend that after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 that White play the Ruy Lopez (Spanish) with 3.Bb5. However: there is an excellent argument for playing 3.Bc4, which leads to the Giuoco Piano (3...Bc5) or Two Knights' Defense (3...Nf6). Actually, the lines with 3.Bc4 are even more tactical from my experience. So what are the reasons for my choice?

  • The tactics involved in these lines encourages rote memorization to weak people such as myself. Actually, if you worked through all the tactics of lines like the Moller attack, the Two Knights' with 4.Ng5, or the Max Lange attack by yourself, you would be in great shape. Not many of your opponents will play these openings perfectly, and if they did they probably memorized the "solution" and don't know what they're doing out of book. So, if you can avoid the "memorization trap" and have the discipline to immerse yourself in the tactics of these openings, I say go for it.
  • There are lots of books on the Ruy, but I can't recall seeing a good book for playing 3.Bc4 as White. Yes, I've been arguing a "burn the books!" approach to opening theory, but it's still nice to be able to find one book in your main opening.
  • It's not as common at the grandmaster level, so you come across fewer modern games as examples.
For most of the last 13 years I've played the Exchange Variation of the Ruy (3...a6 4.Bxc6). This seemed very logical to me at the time....I get a longterm endgame advantage (active kingside majority for White vs. crippled queenside majority for Black) at the cost of the two bishops, and I don't give Black a choice amongst the many main lines of the Ruy. I felt I could play based on general principles, and get a shot at practicing my endgame technique.

However, I found that I rarely got one of the typical Exchange Variation endgames. I also found the piece play to be not-so-intuitive after all, especially trying to get my minor pieces coordinated. Most importantly, I was not seeing a wide variety of pawn structures and middlegame plans. I was playing a system that limited my exposure to new positions and ideas.

Until a few weeks ago I'd suggest playing straight into the main lines of the Ruy Lopez, and that's still a great suggestion. There's plenty of books out there to guide you if you want (I'll just mention that Mastering the Spanish (With the Read and Play Method) by Daniel King and Pietro Ponzetto is a classic, although out of print). However, the Worrall System (3...a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe2) featured in the new book Play the Ruy Lopez by Andrew Greet looks like a perfect answer. The book covers all the 3rd- and 4th-move alternatives to the main line, which is very important at amateur level (see my post here where I show that 3rd-move alternatives are extremely common in my games). However, here White gets to deviate at move 5 and thus avoid the Open Ruy Lopez (5.0-0 Nxe4) as well as the main lines. Players of these lines will see a variety of pawn structures (as in the main lines of the Ruy) and yet they get to "call the shots" by deviating from the Main line relatively early. I like this approach a lot, and I've started to play these lines in my online blitz games. I think Greet's book is going to be very popular.

The Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 with 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4)

I'm just starting to play the Open Sicilian, so I have no specific recommendations against each line Black can throw at you. I'm recommending this purely for ideological reasons. The Open Sicilian is considered the main test of 1...c5, it leads to a large variety of pawn structures, and it's loaded with tactics.

I understand why we amateurs avoid it. Black gets a lot of choice in what line is chosen, so we tend to play into their pet lines. Also, because of the tactics I find time and again that I make some dumb mistake early on (my e4 pawn is a frequent victim of some removal-of-the-guard tactic). But that's the point...I'm not losing because of opening theory, but because of weak tactics.

There are a large number of cop-outs that can be played here, and I've played my fair share. I've at various times played the Smith-Morra gambit, the Alapin with 2.c3 or 3.c3, and the Moscow/Rossolimo variations with 3.Bb5(+). If you have to choose something besides the open, I like the suggestions by Kaufman in his one-book repertoire, which features the 3.Bb5 variants.

However, I think that this is one place where the approach of building your own repertoire is best. Try to stick to opening principles, and keep track of the moves you like to play. Try to check your choices with those in a book like Nunn's Chess Openings (NCO) or Modern Chess Openings (MCO), or with a reference database like Chessbase, or the opening and game databases that come with your chess engine. An added bonus to playing "your" move rather than some repertoire book's move is that it cuts down on're playing what you yourself feel is best, not what someone else likes.

Two book recommendations I have are Best Lessons of a Chess Coach (mentioned in an earlier post) and Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopec. Best Lessons only features a few Sicilian games, but the authors' descriptions about how they were played are very enlightening (e.g. the concept of two pawns at e4 and f4 acting as a "shield" to develop your pieces behind). The latter I have not yet read cover-to-cover, but it describes the "flow" of several games in several opening systems, so you get the feel for common positional themes and tactical threats. For example, one common theme is where Black expands on the queenside, and then "sweeps" over to the kingside for a mating attack.

The French Defense: Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2)

From my experience playing the French as black, I think that the Tarrasch is best choice for white, and I have started to play it myself. The overriding reasons for my choice are:
  • there's more variety in pawn structures with this opening, because Black may choose to play 3...c5 here. Watson's book Play the French (3rd edition) is the French player's bible, and he recommends this approach for Black. This means that a fair number of your French games won't feature the typical pawn chains at d4-e5. 3...Nf6 is still quite common, so you'll still get practice at playing against pawn chains.
  • my experience at the lower levels is that the Tarrasch is exceedingly rare (as also mentioned in my earlier post). On ICC, as Black, I get the exchange variation, the advance variation, and 3.Nc3. That means your typical black player at club level has far less experience with the Tarrasch than any other white response. Now, at higher levels the Tarrasch is exceedingly popular, and I don't have a feel for at what level you tend to see the switchover. As a class C player both over the board and on ICC, however, I can say that it is indeed uncommon.
Other Openings

Other openings, in my experience, are uncommon enough that they don't warrant a lot of study.

The Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6) would be one of the more common Black alternatives. I would suggest looking into the lines with 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4. These would lead to open games with lots of piece play. I have so far been playing the Short system (3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 with 5.Be2 and early castling) but this is another example of a closed center with a French-like pawn chain. At some point I may look into the more routine, open variations, but it's not common enough for me to change my ways.

Another relatively common opening is the Petroff (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6). The most common move is 3.Nxe5, with tricks involving the open e-file, but I like the next-most-common 3.d4. It's respectable, and Black only has two main choices at that point (3...exd4 or 3...Nxe4).

The Philidor (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6) is fairly common among beginners, and you may be seeing more of it soon. I've thumbed through The Philidor Files by Christian Bauer (note: this book and Greet's book on the Ruy Lopez are reviewed at here) at the book store, and it looks like it could be a popular repertoire book for Black. Worse, the author recommends entering the Philidor through a sneaky move order. Nonetheless, I've so far done well just playing according to general principles, and I don't think you need to prepare against it that much. That's also my advice against fianchetto openings such as the Pirc/Modern. Although these are trickier, I just don't face them enough to spend much time studying them. I do get annoyed by these "amateur" openings where they fianchetto both bishops and target my center, but I just try to think my way through them and play sensibly.

I also play by first principles again the Scandinavian (1.e4 d5). After the typical 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 you're gaining time on the queen, and I just play from there.

For a lot of these minor openings, and for deviations from the main openings, my attitude at the point my opponent or I leave theory is: "well, now it's a chess game" and I just play chess. After the game, I check and see who left theory where, what the best response was, and leave the opening study at that unless there's something interesting going on.

Coming soon: A repertoire for Black....

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Openings for Improving Players: Part 1

Although I'm encouraging a minimalist approach to studying openings, I want to spend some time on how to choose an opening repertoire. This is because I believe that a right or wrong choice here can have a significant impact on how well you progress as a chess player. When the time comes for a player to settle upon an opening repertoire, I think that some of the common suggestions for beginners, in the long run, are traps that will hinder your improvement. I'm still conflicted about some of the advice that follows, so I'd be interested in what some trainers think about these suggestions. Overall, however, I think my advice is sound.

One common philosophy is: "The purpose of the opening is to reach a playable middle game". Often this is coupled with the idea of selecting openings with similar piece deployments or pawn structures....sort of "universal systems" for handling whatever your opponent throws at you. Another common recommendation is to suggest sets of openings with similar pawn structures. For example, the orthodox Queen's Gambit Declined is similar to the French defense; the Caro-Kann to the Slav; and the King's Indian Attack to the King's Indian Defense.

The problem I now have with this is that you limit your exposure to different pawn structures and to different middlegames. To improve as a chess player, you need to be able to play any type of position, and you just don't get enough variety with these systems. The worst openings to choose, in my opinion, are those with fixed, predictable pawn structures.

I say this with great reluctance, because I am a great fan of the French defense. Shortly after I began playing at a club, I was having trouble with all the tricky tactics in the 1.e4 e5 openings as Black. After reading Nimzowitsch's My System, I took to the French Defense because the explanation of how pawn chains work made so much sense to me. I have been faithful to that defense for about 13 years, without ever waiving. Against 1.d4 I have at various times played the QGD, Slav, and semi-Slav defenses, all placing pawns on c6, d5 and/or e6.

The problem I have now is this: if I play Black, and my center pawns aren't on light squares, I'm really, really uncomfortable. A pawn on e5 instead of e6 makes me vaguely queasy. In a sense, I'm afraid to leave the womb.

Similarly, a player of the KID expects a pawn chain pointing at White's kingside, and will typically "burn the boats" to checkmate White at all costs. A player of the Sicilian Dragon similarly is exposed to a more narrow range of middlegame plans, in my opinion. That's not to say that these openings are tactically simple (quite the opposite in the last two cases), just that the player is exposed to fewer positional ideas.

When choosing a repertoire, these are the key things I'd consider:

1. Main lines are strongly recommended. They're main lines for a reason. Plus, as I've said before, at club level your opponents most likely don't know the theory. A great example of this is the Ruy Lopez (a.k.a. "Spanish"). Although theory goes very, very, deep, and the main lines of the closed Ruy Lopez don't start until move 9 or so, a lot of your amateur games won't get that far. Actually, a huge branch point is at the third move, where Black has a lot of reasonable alternatives to 3...a6 (my earlier post here shows what my opponents most commonly play at this point). My philosophy is that you only need to know theory as deeply as your typical opponent. As you improve, and your opponents improve as well, you'll pick up theory deeper and deeper into the main lines as you master the earlier deviations your weaker opponents tend to throw at you.

An added bonus of choosing the most popular openings is that, as you study master games, you'll come across more examples of strong players using your opening.

2. Openings that lead to a large variety of pawn structures, and thus middle games, are best. This gives you greater experience in handling different types of position, and helps you to think "outside the box". Contrast this to my experience as a French/QGD player. To help give you some perspective, I strongly recommend reading a book such as Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess (my favorite, despite the odd terminology the author uses), or Soltis' Pawn Structure Chess. You want to pick openings that will expose you to as many of those kinds of structures as possible.

3. Open and semi-open games are best. These lead to crazy tactics and force you to practice your kung-fu. If I had stuck to ...e5 thirteen years ago, and faced openings such as the King's Gambit, Two Knight's Defense, Max Lange attack and a host of crazy gambits, I'm sure I'd be a stronger player today.

I am genuinely conflicted over whether it's better to play an opening that is tactically complicated, but slightly suspect, or a more mainstream opening with more limited tactics. It may boil down to deciding what is your greater weakness: not playing "real chess" because of a sloppy thought process, or tactical ability. If the former, a calmer line with fewer tactics may be helpful.

4. Avoid lines that violate opening principle and/or don't make sense to you. Just because grandmasters charge early with g2-g4 against certain openings (such as the Sicilian Scheveningen or Caro-Kann advance) doesn't mean that you should emulate them. Many of these lines are highly tactical and non-intuitive.

I have gone through Watson's Mastering the Chess Openings (Volume 1), in which he gives a survey of 1.e4 openings while explaining typical opening strategies. Multiple times, Watson says essentially "you can play {such-and-such crazy move} here, but it's really tactical, counterintuitive, and doesn't really demonstrate the typical plans for this opening, so I'm not going to talk about it." Those are the types of opening lines to avoid.

OK, so what openings do I think the improving player should choose? Stay tuned for Part 2....

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Out Of Book, Episode 2

I'm still building up a head of steam for a more instructional article. For now, here's another example of why lower-level players are wasting time booking up on theory.

In the Italian (Giuoco Piano), after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 the usual move is 4.c3, to help prepare d2-d4. However, in one online game, my opponent just played 4. d4!? straight away.

This is called the Italian gambit. I have a fairly extensive openings library, and this move is not mentioned anywhere (although Google indicates that a book has been written about it, and there's brief mention of it in Wikipedia). It's pretty much assumed that d4 must be prepared first, and at the GM level this move would probably be evaluated as ?! or even ?. According to Fritz, however, this move is perfectly acceptable at patzer level. Considered best for Black is 4... Bxd4, and Chessbase gives 5. Nxd4 as the main line. However, my opponent played the standard, barbaric 5.Ng5, which pretty much compels the awkward 5...Nh6. Fritz gives Black only a slight advantage here.

In the Open Games (those beginning 1.e4 e5), many lines require White to prepare the move d2-d4. If White can break such a basic rule so early in the opening, with relative impunity (again, at patzer level), then studying opening lines to great depth is certainly not the best use of one's time.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Learning from Blitz Example: An Instructive Queen Sacrifice

Since my last post I've been more religious with how I analyze my blitz games. In one of my recent games I missed an idea featuring a queen sacrifice and instructive B + N mate.

The strongest move, which I didn't play but Fritz found, is 1.Ne4, ganging up on the pinned knight. I didn't think any further than 1...Nh5, protecting the bishop and discovering an attack on White's queen. However, 2.Qxg7!! is crushing. The point is 2...Nxg7 allows 3.Nf6#.

A great example of how Blitz & Fritz can be used to generate your own library of tactics problems.

Friday, March 2, 2007

What Can You Learn From Blitz Games?

I play too much blitz and not enough "regular chess". I think it's encouraging superficial thought, and I think I need to reprogram my brain to play what Heisman calls "real chess" on every move. I have a bad habit of going on blitz-crack binges where suddenly it's 3am, my vision is blurring and I'm down 300 ratings points.

However, I think that Blitz, in moderation, can help you improve your game if you stop and try to learn from each game. Here's how:

1. Blitz + Fritz = tactics problems for free. Well, you can use another analysis engine besides Fritz, but that wouldn't rhyme. If you analyze a blitz game with the computer, you are going to find plenty of examples of gross tactical blunders or missed opportunities. You can generate your own books of tactical problems by saving these positions in their own database. Chessbase 9 even allows you to add a "training annotation", where it will hide the next move and prompt you for the correct answer.

There are two advantages that a database of tactics taken from your own games has over store-bought books or software. One is that these are realistic or even mundane tactics. I've been enjoying using the CT-ART tactics program, but it's heavily slanted towards sacrifices and sacrificial mates. In a real game, the tactical opportunities that you miss are often more "boring". For example, maybe your queen could have forked a loose knight and pawn, and your opponent would have lost a pawn with no compensation. Heisman recommends studying lots of simple tactics to improve your pattern recognition, and these are exactly the kinds of errors that you'll be making in blitz games. One common error I see in my games is with "I-take, he-takes, I-take" counting problems, where a slight change in the move order makes a large difference.

I also see many instances where I played a good move, but there was a better move. For example, perhaps I could have won an extra pawn with another move, or been up a whole piece instead of just the exchange. You won't find many problems in books that deal with such mundane differences. The more often you choose the best move instead of the second-best move, the more quickly you can grind down your opponent.

The other advantage of such a book is that, since the positions are taken from your own games, they'll tend to stick in your mind better. Heisman recommends making a "Hall of Shame" database where you make problems out of your blunders. I'm going to start doing this more religiously, and also make some separate bases for 1, 2, and 3-move tactics (where I to move had the tactic) and blunders (where I allowed my opponent the tactic).

2. Opening Preparation. For every game you play, you should find out who left theory first, and what you would play if that position were to arise again. This can be as simple as seeing where someone played a move that's not in your computer program's opening book, or you could go as far as consulting opening manuals and/or searching a large database of games. If you use the program Bookup, you can automatically import your blitz games into opening databases for your white and black repertoires.

When I use Chessbase, I can see not only how often a move was played in my master games database, but what the player's ratings were and how well that move performed. This can be quite informative. For example, you may see that your opponent played a move that wasn't downright awful, but all the people that played it were rated below 2100, and in a couple of simuls a grandmaster opponent played what appears to be the refutation.

If you keep a database of your own games, you may find some interesting results that will save you study time. For example, when I searched for games in the last 7 years where I played the Spanish (Ruy Lopez) as White, I got these statistics:

This tells me a few interesting things:
a) the Steinitz defense (3...d6) occurred in a whopping 23% of my games. This is considered an outdated line by experts, and in some repertoire books gets very little attention.
b) The Cozio defence (3...Nge7) is causing me problems (opponent scoring 56%)
c) I'm doing well against the Berlin defense (3...Nf6; opponent scoring 23%).

If I succumb to the siren call of opening preparation, this tells me that I should concentrate on the Steinitz (which I face the most) and the Cozio (which I face often enough and do poorly against).

A similar search where I play the French as Black showed that I very rarely face the Tarrasch defence (3.Nd2) at my level...which is odd, since at professional level it's the #2 response. This tells me that it should be an excellent choice to play as white, because French players of my level rarely face it.

I'm going to maintain that you only need to know openings as deeply as your typical opponent. If you confine your preparation to finding out where your games deviate from theory, and what the "proper" continuations are, you can spend more time studying the stuff that really matters.