Friday, June 29, 2007

How to Prepare an Opening, Part One

I am going to demonstrate a thought process that would result in choosing the main line (closed) Spanish (a.k.a. Ruy Lopez) for both white and black. The Spanish is a good choice for this demonstration, because the main line for both sides up to move 9 or so is fairly clear. It also happens to coincide (mostly) with what I play myself, so I can pretend to speak with some authority. Finally, I suspect most amateurs have at least some familiarity with the opening. This is good, because I want people to focus on the thought process behind constructing the repertoire, rather than the opening itself.

Part One is just an introduction to the process. I imagine many people reading this won't find the first 5 moves of the Spanish too mysterious. The next post in the series will be more advanced, and show how you can, with a little research, come up with your own pet lines to surprise your opponents. After that, I hope to show a real-world example of opening preparation, where an opponent's odd treatment of the Nimzo-Indian demonstrates how opening books can lead you into a dead end. Even people that have played the Nimzo for years may learn something there. So, if this post strikes you as "baby talk", bear with me. I'm hoping by the end of the series that most readers have learned a thing or two.

Let's consider the first move for White. From general opening principles, you want to control the center and open lines for your pieces to come out. To me, the most natural moves are 1.d4 and 1.e4. Other moves such as 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 are perfectly acceptable, but they don't have the clear idea behind them that 1.d4 and 1.e4 do. From my own experience, and from the opinions of many chess trainers, I would say 1.e4 is the best choice for developing players. Just consider this advice (and other opinions that follow) as a "tie-breaker". If you did choose 1.d4, the only warning I'd have is not to play some system like the Colle or Stonewall that lead to stereotyped play. In the short term they may save you time by avoiding theory, but in the long term I feel they'll hold back your chess progression.

Similar logic applies to choosing 1...e5 as black. You may find that you like other moves better. Just be sure you understand the reason behind your favorite move. For example, the Scandinavian (1...d5) may be an acceptable opening but it's not intuitively a good opening move. It violates basic opening principles, because after 2.exd5 Qxd5 your queen will be chased around, and with 2...Nf6 you are down a pawn. I now know that the Caro-Kann (1...c6) and French (1...e6) tend to result in a limited number of pawn structures that trap your pieces behind light-squared pawns, so I would steer away from those (my cautionary tale can be found in this post). However, if you understand those moves and like them, go for it.

To me, 1...e5 feels the best. It's good for the same reasons 1.e4 was: it contests the center, and opens lines for the development of the king's bishop (which will get you closer to castling) and the queen. Finally, it discourages an immediate 2.d4 by White. In any opening, if White gets two pawns at d4 and e4 without some serious concession it suggests Black was too passive.

I suspect a lot of readers are already familiar with this principle. After 1.e4, White wants to achieve 1.d4 to dominate the center, and Black wants to prevent it; after 1.d4, White wants to get 1.e4 in. Black would also like to achieve this, but it's less likely. Yet if you go over your games, I'm sure you'll find examples where after weak opening play these basic ideas are forgotten. I'm going to assume an understanding of the importance of the center in this post.

(Aside: At the time I write this, I am about two thirds the way through Marin's Beating the Open Games, which is a repertoire for Black after 1.e4 e5 and handles White's systems that avoid the Spanish before 4...a6 Ba4. This is hands-down the most instructive repertoire book I've ever encountered. It's so well written, and so objective, you could go a long way towards choosing your white repertoire by looking at what Marin considers the more difficult lines. My attitude towards some of these White options has changed from "boring", or "inferior but annoying", to "I wouldn't mind giving that a shot!" I'm looking forward to his sequel, which will handle the main-line Spanish portion of the repertoire. )

After 1.e4 e5, 2.d4 would produce the classic d4/e4 center, but it would be immediately destroyed, e.g. 2...exd4 3.Qxd4 Nc6, and so would be suspicious based on basic opening principles. So, what moves feel good here? At this point, you could see what the most popular moves at this point are to help guide you. For this demonstration I'll use Chessbase to see what the most popular moves are. References such as this, or your chess program's opening book, a one-volume book such as Nunn's Chess Openings (NCO), or whatever, are only being used as a guideline...they'll either confirm that your choice is playable, or serve as a warning that it might not be such a good idea. I made an opening book from the games of players rated 2400 or higher, to see what the "big boys" like to play. Here's the number of occurrences of the top 5 choices for White's second move:

Nf3 34110
Bc4 1054
Nc3 780
f4 565
d4 156

Again, realizing 2.Nf3 is the most popular continuation here is not earth-shattering in itself. Determining what's "popular" will be used for a couple reasons in my tutorial. Here, it's a tip-off as to what the "best" moves are and helping us to feel good about our choice. We're also going to use popularity to determine what the main lines are for our opponent so that we know which lines to learn first.

One notable exception from the above list is 2.c3. It's logical to think, "OK, I'm going to prepare d2-d4 by playing c2-c3 first". It makes sense. It can lead to a Ponziani-type opening, and was played by Morphy, but no GMs seem to play it. Let's say this was your favorite move at this point. You can either decide to make it your repertoire move, or you can try to understand why it's not popular. First, it moves another pawn instead of developing a piece, so on general principles that may not feel as good. Second, it now makes 2...d5 a decent move for Black, because after 3.exd5 Qxd5 the queen can't be harassed by 4.Nc3. In other words, c3 took away a natural developing square for the b1 N. So, you're letting Black get feisty in the center. If, after that explanation, you still like c3, then go for was good enough for Morphy. If you progress to the point where your opponents are punishing you in the opening, you may decide that c3 isn't your favorite move after all.

Going through the other main moves: 2.f4 loses a pawn to 2...exd4. The King's Gambit is a real opening, but it's tactically complex and not a "common sense" opening. Odds are, if you were looking at the chessboard and knew nothing about openings, you'd consider 2.f4 a blunder (drops a pawn, exposes your king, and doesn't develop a piece). 2.Nc3 doesn't help you play d4, and doesn't get you any closer to kingside castling. Bc4 violates the guideline of developing knights before bishops. Of course, this isn't a guideline to be adhered to slavishly, but it's one that makes sense. Usually, it's clearer where you want to put your knights than your bishops, so it makes sense to delay it for a bit. Do I want to play the bishop to c4? b5? Let's see what Black does first. So, that brings us to 2.Nf3, the clear favorite. It develops a N, gets you closer to kingside castling, and supports d4.

Even if you're using a repertoire book for guidance, follow this thought process so that, at the very least, you've justified their move choice. If you think about the move for a bit, you're helping to transfer this move from short-term to long-term memory. I strongly recommend using an actual chess board, because I find it assists with this transfer.

This same technique of finding the move you like and checking it against the "book" moves is repeated until you've determined what your personal main line will be. For example, for Black we will see that by asking "if my opponent makes the most popular move, what do I want to respond with?" you can arrive at the Spanish main line of 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Bb7. I haven't actually settled on move 9 yet for my own repertoire, but Bb7 completes development (apart from moving the queen off the back rank) and is a good stopping point for these tutorials. This variation, if chosen, would be your foundation, your bedrock, your home turf, the trunk of the tree of variations. This is where you waggle your sword and proclaim, "NONE SHALL PASS!"

Just remember that it's sometimes appropriate to accept a draw as Black:

Back to our exercise in opening preparation:

2...Nc6 protects the pawn and develops a piece at the same time.

Now, if I were creating my own repertoire from scratch again, 3.d4 makes sense here. On basic principles, if pushing d4 is allowed it should be good. If Black exchanges the pawn on d4, a common pawn structure that results is called the "little center" by King and Ponzetto in their book on the Spanish, and is an example of what Kmoch calls a "jump formation":

This good for White because of the space advantage...White is less cramped and has a bit of an easier time than Black. This e4 vs. d5 center is a common feature of 1.e4 e5 openings in general, and explains White's advantage in many of the variations.

It is almost amazing how much of the theory of the Open Games can be figured out by just thinking about the center and the moves e4, d4, ...e5 and ...d5. In this case, following the basic idea of "if I can get away with d2-d4, play it!" results in the perfectly respectable Scotch opening. If you like the logic of 3.d4, and you like the pawn structures that typically arise in the Scotch, then go for it!

Back to White to play for their third move. 3.c3 would be the Ponziani opening. Theory would warn you that it's not the best choice, but it's playable. Here's a case where the guiding hand of theory might lead you to something "stronger", but if you absolutely loved it you could play it.

3.Bc4 develops the bishop to a nice diagonal and prepares castling, but it's less obvious how it addresses the center. It's not helping d2-d4, but it does help thwart d7-d5 and it also targets the sensitive f7 square. I choose 3.Bb5 because it develops the bishop and also weakens Black's control of e5. The latent threat is Bxc6 and Nxe5. This isn't possible right now (for example, 3...a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5 Qd4!), but the motif is there.

Black has many, many choices right now. Probably the most intuitive is 3...Nf6, which develops a piece, gets Black closer to castling, and attacks the e4 pawn. 3...d6 protects the e5 pawn and lets the queen bishop out. 3...Bc5 develops the bishop to a good diagonal before it can be imprisoned with d7-d6, and so on. My choice of 3...a6 is not the most intuitive, but it's the most popular. Here, rather than automatically play the "main" move, I've thought about it and have chosen it for my repertoire...I haven't had it chosen for me.

Here, challenging the bishop with ...a6 doesn't cause Black to fall behind in development (you can work this out for yourself). If White captures on c6, Black has gained the two bishops, and if White backs up (e.g. 4.Ba4) Black has turbocharged his queenside advance (...b5 will come soon). In this regard it has some resemblance to the Sicilian Najdorf. Often, wasting time in an opening by pushing a rook's pawn for no good reason is a waste of time (i.e. costs a "tempo"). Here, there are good reasons for pushing the rook's pawn. I am consciously violating a rule of thumb because there are concrete reasons to do so.

As White, I used to play the Exchange with 4.Bxc6 here. You give up the bishop pair but cripple Black's queenside majority. As someone who enjoys endgames,this sounded like a great idea, in theory... limit Black's choices, avoid theory, play positionally. Over time I found that I didn't like how my pieces coordinated, I didn't get endgames as much as I hoped, and most importantly I was missing out on the experience of playing against a variety of pawn structures. I prefer 4.Ba4 now. In both cases, I've said "this is the move that I like to play in this position", not "I don't like that book anymore, so I'm going to play something from this other book because I liked the blurb the publisher put on the back".

At this point, the main move is 4...Nf6, developing a piece, hitting the e4 pawn, and preparing to castle. I like that, so I play it. By the way, if you asked here or on the last move "is ...d5 possible?" the answer would be "not really", but you'll have to figure that out for yourself. Piket actually won a game with 4...d5 here against an IM, so it's not completely wacky, but you've been warned.

After 4...Nf6, White's e-pawn seems like it's in danger of being captured. As white, I currently play 5.Qe2 here to protect it. This is not the main move in this position, but the move makes sense (protects e4, develops the queen, vacates d1 for the king's rook) , and it's the move used in my current repertoire book. Remember: if you splurge on a repertoire book, treat them as menus of suggestions, not orders to follow. I may choose a move that the author recommends, or I may play something I like better. For example, I've gotten a lot of use out of Kaufman's repertoire book (there are very few books that provide white and black repertoires all in one volume) but I've rejected a lot of it for my own repertoire.

The standard move here is 5.0-0, and we'll see that 5.d4 is also possible. At this point there are a lot of move-order issues and unusual sidelines. In Part 2 I'll talk about how to navigate the maze that follows, and possibly help you come up with your own pet weapons to surprise an opponent.

Chess Tactics for Beginners Arrived

I finally picked up CTB, so I have something to smack around after CT-ART's done abusing me. Did the first 110 problems over lunch. I had an embarrassing think over one of the mate-in-one problems, an example of chess blindness if there ever was one:

The funny thing is, I knew the theme was queen mates in one, but I instinctively kept trying to find a longer sequence, or returning to a failed one, rather than focus on every possible queen move. I kept looking at the criss-cross "mate" with Qd5, thinking, "man I wish that were possible...wonder if the programmers made a mistake with this one." After about a minute of this I forced myself to actually think concretely and found the answer (which I'll leave to the reader to find.)

Really, really embarrassing. If this had been given to me as a "white to play and win" I may never have gotten it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Prelude: Preparing an Opening Repertoire

Part of me is loathe to discuss openings yet again, but I see people tie themselves up in knots over this. I have had a monster tutorial on how to go about opening preparation rolling around my head for some time now, so I'm going to try and spit it out over the next few postings. I wanted to emphasize a few things right off the bat.

The idea is to decide for yourself what you like to play in a position, and keep track of those decisions. Unless you have a photographic memory, this means you need to maintain a record of some sort. If you're "old school", this could even be notebooks or index cards, but if you're reading this it's likely you own a computer, so I'll focus on using one to manage your repertoire.

Programs such as Bookup or the free download Chess Position Trainer allow you to move back and forth through the variations, and will spot transpositions. For example, let's say after you enter 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 you write a note about the Rubinstein variation of the French. If you then enter 3.Nd2 (the Tarrasch variation of the french) dxe4 4.Nxe4 you'll see your previous note and realize that you just transposed out of the Tarrasch and into the Rubinstein. There are other fancy things you can do with such opening databases, like automatically import your internet games for analysis if you want. Bookup has recently been revamped as the Chess Opening Wizard. I'm not ready to plop down money on it when I have the free CPT plus ChessBase 9 at my disposal (as well as the old Bookup Express).

Alternatively you can use software like Fritz, Chessbase (which has a new, free CB Light version) or whatever. I'm sure there's even free software out there that will do the job as well. With these, you would have to save your repertoire as separate lines and variations, so you have to spot transpositions between openings yourself. There's a tutorial here on one method of constructing a repertoire database in this fashion.

The ideal repertoire, in my opinion, consists largely of moves that follow good opening principles, that you consider the best in the position (or that you have come to understand are the best). Theory can help steer you towards more reliable lines, but what's most important is that you like and understand the moves you make. If you do this, memorization is less of an issue. Also, if you're consistently playing the moves you've decided yourself that you like, then there is no need to waffle and hop from opening to opening. If you really think 1.e4 makes more sense than 1.Nf3, then why play the latter? If you think 1...d5 in response to 1.d4 makes more sense than 1...Nf6, then why not play it?.

As I've mentioned in my previous opening guidelines, I would strongly encourage you to choose systems that tend to follow classic opening principles: play just enough pawn moves to get your pieces out, develop your minor pieces (knights before bishops, unless you know what you're doing), castle and connect your rooks. Do so in a manner that gives you a say in what happens in the center. If the "book" opening move violates any of these principles, understand why or play something else. (btw: if you still don't have a good feel for what good opening play is, Emms' Discovering Chess Openings is a terrific book).

Where opening theory is helpful is in guiding you towards good choices and away from bad ones. This way, you don't paint yourself into a corner. If you look at the ground and follow the most attractive path, you may find yourself looking over a cliff. For example, perhaps you may like the Ponziani opening, but theory pooh-poohs it. If you can understand, and agree with, that assessment, you may find that you agree more with the Scotch, Italian or Spanish than the Ponz. On the other hand, if the Ponz move sequence makes sense to you, and you can't understand why they're dissing your opening, then play it. Play your favorite move until you realize and understand that it's inferior. The goal here is to consistently play "your" moves instead of hopping from opening to opening.

Here's a better example of what I mean. I am in the early stages of figuring out what I want to play against the Sicilian. I currently lean towards systems with Bc4 (although I also like the feel of systems based on Be2, Be3 and f4). Here is a standard Sicilian position that arose in an ICC game:

If you crack open a theory book, 7.Bb3 is the overwhelming favorite here, with barely a mention of 7.0-0 except to say that it usually transposes after 7...b5 8.Bb3. So, if I were a lemming theory monkey (hmm... maybe I should avoid metaphors with multiple species) I would move the bishop twice in the opening, play Bb3, and perhaps not even try to find out why the move is played. I would be relying on my memory at this point. In contrast, 7. 0-0 is completely playable, and is the natural developing move. It's not quite that simple...there's actually a lot of interesting material surrounding these two move options that I'm sweeping under the rug, and certain black responses can be met with a rude shock. The point is: 7.0-0 is good, it's natural, the move order subtlety is overlooked in a lot of books and by playing "my move" I have a possibility of surprising my opponent if they play bookish moves robotically. I may have to play Bb3 next move anyway, but I've looked the lines over and decided I'll move it when I have to and no sooner.

I very much like the approach to opening preparation mentioned in Johnsen and Johannessen's book on a Spanish repertoire for black. Study the main line of the opening system you've chosen and try to get a mastery of that line. "Your attitude should be something like this: I may not be a grandmaster in chess, but on this particular branch of the game, I want to be an authority!" For the club player, I'd temper that as "I understand this entire branch up to the end of the opening (pieces out, castled, rooks connected...move 8-12ish) and have an idea about how the middlegame goes from there". As you encounter deviations in your games, determine what you'd play the next time you encountered it and follow the main line from there. One nice thing about Chessbase is that the database statistics can help you find out what the "main" line is.

In the short term, playing simple systems allows you to concentrate on other things such as tactics. However, if you approach opening study the way I recommend, you won't spend much more time studying a main line opening than your pet system. Basically, after you play a game (even internet blitz), look at the opening, see where it leaves theory, and determine what you would like to play the next time you encounter it. Also, make sure you're familiar with the main line itself. Make a record of this line. There, you're done! This automatically keeps your opening study down to the appropriate level. If you play the Spanish as White, for example, you may find that the "minor" 3rd-move deviations such as the Steinitz, Classical and Cozio occur more frequently than the main-line closed Spanish. If you routinely do an opening checkup after each game, you'll consequently be studying the lines that occur in your games the most.

In the long run playing main lines (in my opinion) will be the best for developing your chess. I have read several masters that have said "I would be a better player if I had started playing main lines (the Spanish is a common one that comes up in this context) at a younger age." If your intent is to progress in chess as far as you can, I say choose a repertoire that will grow with you. It's often said that chess masters can play any position well. I think choosing a repertoire that exposes you to many different kinds of pawn structures, while initially intimidating, ultimately helps you to become a better player. I think the more pawn structures out of Kmoch that you see in your own games, the better.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review of Daniel King's Power Play 2/3 DVDs

I've finished going through Daniel King's second and third DVDs in his Power Play series, and want to give my assessment of their utility to the club player. I have not viewed the first DVD in the series that deals with mating attacks. I will explain why at the end of this post.

First, a few relevant quotations:

"I can see the combinations as well as Alekhine, but I cannot get into the same positions."
-- Spielmann

"The player who is better must attack or risk losing the advantage"--Steinitz

"Properly taught, a student can learn more in a few hours than he would find out in ten years of untutored trial-and-error."--Em. Lasker

The two reviewed DVDs show how one initiates an attack so that you can get to the point of mating your opponent. The second DVD (Attacking the King) focuses on the idea of "inviting everyone to the party" by bringing pieces into the attack, in particular the heavy pieces. It also demonstrates the use of the g-pawn to crack open the g-file (particularly when the defender has played P-KR3). The third DVD focuses on pushing the f- and h-pawns.

I purchased these DVDs because I felt that, in my own games, I wasn't making the most of my attacking chances...I have a tendency to be risk-averse (although I do routinely sack a piece if I can get two defending pawns in exchange). However, I wondered if the DVDs would show example of example of sparkling attacks, and thereby encourage the viewer to launch into unjustified attacks in their own games. Then, through weakness of tactics and disregard of positional elements, their games would end in smoking ruins.

In short, these DVDs are an excellent example of Lasker's quote above. King provides a balanced, objective assessment of these attacks. In both DVDs, he has you pause the playback, set up the positions on a board, and think about the next move (in the second DVD, pauses during the lessons are common, and a few test positions are at the end of the DVD; in the third, there are fewer pauses in lessons but seventeen test positions at the end). Frequently, you are asked not for the attacker's next move but for the defender's. He shows not only attacks that break through but attacks that are ill-conceived. This approach adds instructional value, not only by encouraging a "real chess" approach (considering your opponent's responses) but by indirectly providing a primer on defence in chess. One benefit of learning mating patterns and attacks is so that, as a defender, you can see them looming and take prophylactic measures.

A strength of King's presentation is the use of repetition to drive home key concepts--and not just attacking principles, but general principles such as central control and space advantage. Here are some of the themes I detected:

  • In order to attack, you must have the center under control. You don't need opposite-side castling in order to launch a pawn storm. The center doesn't need to be locked, or even occupied by pawns, but it must be under control. Otherwise, your opponent can counter your attack by counterplay in the center (editorial aside: queenside counterplay may also be possible, but a counterattack in the center tends to be more powerful and more common.). This was wonderfully reinforced throughout the DVDs.
  • One signal for the attack is a lack of defenders around the king (well, der!) but particularly where the defender's queen is off on an adventure on the queenside, and/or when the cramped opponent doesn't have their rooks cooperating. An overriding theme of the second DVD is the following "story arc": central control cramps the opponent; their position gets pinched in two, limiting communication between kingside and queenside; the lack of communication prevents defenders, particularly queen and rooks, to come to the rescue of the king; the attacker gets overwhelming, localized superiority of force around the defender's king and mate follows.
  • You really want to get the heavy pieces into the attack. This was a bit of an eye opener for me, not because it doesn't make sense (a common patzer problem is activating your rooks), but that they are that much more special than other pieces. Previously, I followed Colin Crouch's advice from his handy little book Attacking Technique: "In general, a successful kingside attack will need at least three pieces participating; one to be sacrificed and two to give checkmate." Also, paraphrasing crouch, 0-1 pieces attacking the king = premature; 2 = consider getting a third (or play elsewhere); 3=may be in business, 4 or more = start looking for winning combinations. I didn't place that much higher an importance to getting the rooks involved than the minors.
  • Getting the queen early into the attack adds urgency and can provoke your opponent to create weaknesses. Transfering the queen to the kingside is emphasized. For example, the f4 push allows the queen to enter via the manoeuver Qd1-e1-g3(h4).
  • Pawn moves leave weaknesses. Pushing the f- pawn makes the king not only vulnerable along the diagonal (e.g. the a7-g1 diagonal after pushing the f2 pawn) but also along the second rank (a2-h2). (editorial aside: in Kopec's Mastering the Sicilian, he talks about Black's "Queenside-Kingside Swipe" where he penetrates down the c-file then swipes down the back ranks towards White's king. This demonstrates King's point nicely). Pushing the h-pawn is surprisingly safe in many cases, but you have to worry about, say, weakness on g4 after pushing h4. As the defender, if you can avoid making a weakening pawn move, avoid it. For example, DVD 2 really drives home how playing the modest P-KR3 can be asking for trouble.
A few comments about production quality of the DVDs: King is very engaging and entertaining. He sounds a lot like the old speech recordings used by Fritz 5.32...I wonder if he's the guy behind the curtains there (and I wonder if they'd use him again...the speech from Fritz 7 and 9 annoys the hell out of me). There's some minor fumbling with drawing arrows and making moves, and in some cases he desparately needed a drink of water, but it wasn't that distracting. I enjoyed the second DVD more...the third has fewer "pause and think" exercises during the exercises (although more "test positions" at the end of the DVD), and moves at a faster clip. The third DVD was more overwhelming at times with the rapid-fire analysis (but you can always pause). Besides the hours of DVD playback, the DVDs come with databases of annotated games (although some of the annotations appeared to be in German), so I would have to say that they are packed with value.

So, let's return to the plight of the club player and ask if this is $70 well-spent (>$100 if you decide to get the first DVD as well).

In theory, this material is covered in other formats. Looking at my bookshelf, I have books on attack by Vukovic, Znozko-Borovsky, Crouch, Tal, and Alburt. I've read all of them cover to cover except Vukovic (which I hope to re-read to completion soon) and yet these DVDs had many revelations for me. King's repetition of themes was very effective. It's becoming instinct for me to look at these positions in the following way:

  • Does one side have an advantage that would justify considering an attack? (Space, development, coordination etc.)
  • Does the attacker have the center under control? Can the defender counter in the center or on the queenside?
  • Can I get a local superiority of force through piece play alone? If not, can I do so via a pawn storm? Will my king be safe enough if I execute the pawn storm? Will the pawns leave serious weaknesses in their wake?

After taking a few weeks off from Blitz, I played a handful of games recently. I didn't seek to go out and put this new knowledge to the test...I just tried to play chess as usual. However, during play my new training automatically kicked in. I had several mates, and one failed attack where I missed the best continuation and the opponent regrouped. Fritz revealed multiple tactical errors in both attack and defense, but my attacking ideas themselves appeared to be justified.

Granted, this is a handful of blitz games, but it suggests that I successfully internalized a lot of King's material.

Another beneficial side-effect of the DVDs is that it ultimately reinforces what you already knew: tactics and calculation are the most important part of chess. There were a few instances where a Grandmaster had a winning attack and then couldn't convert at the end because they missed the mate. If you can't spot the basic mates, or have trouble with calculation, it doesn't matter how brilliant the attack was if you can't put the puck in the net. King didn't have every line completely mapped out, so when he would get to a certain position in the attack he would stop, analyze and assess on the spot. This was very enlightening, not only to see how he goes about thinking about the position but also how rapidly he spots and executes tactics. So, while it's been great learning how to set up these attacks, it's back to the grindstone for me.

So, in a nut shell: studying tactics probably will have more effect on your chess strength than improving your attacking technique. However, as I mentioned in my Synergy post, a little bit of basic knowledge can pay off disproportionately. These DVDs added to my knowledge and to my game something that was lacking. My games are still going to be decided largely through tactics, but I now have a better feel for if I should attack, how I can attack, and thus how I can get a stronger position where I will have an easier time than my opponent. I suspect after these lessons I'm going to need a dose of prophylaxis to balance me out, so it's back to My System shortly.

Finally, about the first DVD: I'm delaying getting this because, from the description and preview from, there seems to be considerable overlap with the material I already have (particularly Znozko-Borovsky, Vukovic, plus Tal's Winning Chess Combinations). Both Znozko-Borovsky and Vukovic, for example, have multiple examples of the Greek Gift sacrifice in different settings. However, because I found that I more efficiently learned (and hopefully retained) via DVD, I may yet relent. I am still adverse to getting the fourth DVD because I think I have had enough material on opening play for now.

However, if I were to somehow receive review copies of the other DVDs in the series I would gladly review them here (crosses fingers, hopes someone from ChessBase is reading this). Yes, I'm shameless.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mental Muscle: Fast Twitch vs. Slow Twitch

Those of you into exercise know that there are two general categories of skeletal muscle: fast-twitch and slow twitch. Fast-twitch muscle is capable of short bursts of intense power, but tires more quickly; slow-twitch muscle is less powerful but capable of long periods of aerobic exercise. I think that, when it comes to chess, something comparable applies to the muscle between your ears.

The #1 mantra of chess success is "study tactics". To me, however there are two separate components to tactical strength:

  • speed of pattern recognition
  • depth of vision

This is a bit artificial...the two aren't completely separate. Here's a hypothetical example to hopefully clarify what I mean.

You analyze a game of yours with Fritz, and Fritz points out that you could have won a piece by force. The error could fall into one of two broad categories:

  • "Oh, of course! I should have seen that!" (a sign that either you weren't playing "real chess", or that you were playing "real chess" but you missed a relatively simple tactic) This is your standard patzer error that tactics drills a la Heisman and proper thinking technique help to weed out. The aspect of chess strength most at play here is pattern recognition, and quite possibly the speed of calculating short forced sequences.

  • "How the hell was I supposed to see that? That's twelve ply deep!" Assuming it is a fairly forcing sequence, the relevant component of chess strength here is how clearly you can see the board several moves ahead. Even if it's a Kotov-esque tree of variations, visualization is an important component of the calculation process.

For me, the approximate boundary between the two in a middlegame of average complexity is six to eight ply--in other words, falling into the Chernev and Reinfeld "how to see three moves ahead" range of set up the tactic, execute the tactic, collect the booty.

I don't think that the idea of training your "visualization muscles" is often addressed. Instead, we have books or programs such as CT-ART that have a gradient of tactical problems from simpler to harder. Then, to do the harder ones, you need to work that muscle and see deeper. To me, that's a bit like exercising your back by doing squats. Yes, the back muscles will coincidentally get worked out a bit while you develop your legs, but you're not actually targeting them.

I have recently started studying master games in earnest. I try not to spend too much time on each one (I'd say 5-30 minutes, depending on the depth and quality of the annotations), but I usually use a board and pieces and take notes. For most of the annotations I push myself to visualize as best I can the sequence of moves. If it's a bit fuzzy, I may make a move or two on the board and try again. I do the best I can without spending too much time on it, then move on.

This position from Alekhine-Marshall, NY 1924 struck me as an excellent example:

Alekhine has the following side note: "[8. d5] must be done at once, inasmuch as Black, after 8.Be3, would obtain counter-play by means of 8... Bxf3 9. Bxf3 e5
10. fxe5 dxe5 11. d5 Nd4! (12. Bxd4 exd4 13. Qxd4 Nxe4), etc."

Set this position up on a board...go on, do it. Try to visualize down to the final position and get a feeling for what "etc." entails. Try to visualize, for example, why White doesn't play 14.Qxe4. If you can't get it, make a move and try again. Repeat until you get it. I'll add a comment about the final position at the end of my post...spoiler alert.

In the past my eyes would start glazing over at around 11.Nd4 and I'd just continue playing over the main line of the game. Here I said, "this isn't impossible, push yourself a little". While it's not a forcing sequence, it's a logical series of exchanges. With a little effort I was finally able to visualize the position at White's move 14 fairly clearly.

Note that I'm not trying to calculate my way through to the end, just visualize. In some cases, as you work through an annotation you'll be struck by alternatives: "hey, wait, why not _____ ?" If something jumps out at you, then go ahead...take a look, try to quickly figure it out, and if it's unclear write a note and move on. I have found that lengthy, linear analysis, especially by lesser annotators, is often suspect, and you may find that your own ideas are correct. For example, I found one instance in Capablanca's Best Chess Endings where Chernev missed a classic queen sacrifice and double-bishop mate. I was pretty chuffed about that.

I am hoping that by studying master games in this fashion that I'll overcome some of my mental laziness and improve my ability to visualize several moves ahead. One of the few books I've come across that actually touches on this aspect of chess development is Best Lessons of a Chess Coach, where in several critical game positions the reader is pushed to see ahead as far as they can.

I think the study of master games tends to be overlooked for a couple reasons:

  • You aren't getting a concentrated dose of tactics, or endgames, or opening theory, or strategy. So, if you're setting goals like "today I'm going to study tactics", or "this week I'm going to work on rook endgames", etc., you're going to be using other, more specialized, training material.
  • You aren't being spoon-fed the information. You have to actually think about the game on your own and ask your own questions. For example, an annotation may read "obviously forced" or "this alternative would result in a dead-lost endgame" as if it's self-evident, but you actually have to stop, think, and see if you can understand what the annotator is getting at.

Spoiler alert for the above position: I had difficulty visualizing that the e-file was completely vacated of pieces, save for the king. I had a residual shadow in my mind of one of the bishops on the e-file. After working my way through it once, I was able to work forward from the given position and visualize fairly clearly the final position, complete with vacated e-file.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


In advance of a more complete review of Daniel King's Power Play 2/3 DVDs, I'd like to express (or maybe, re-express) an opinion of mine on selecting study material.

Obviously, the biggest payoff for improving your chess strength is to focus on your weakest area or areas... the facets of your game that are costing you the most points. For most of us that is probably playing "real chess" and tactics. For some people it may be the endgame, or maybe it's playing reasonable opening moves (less likely). However, I think there are two caveats to this approach:

1. This approach ignores synergy between different areas of chess knowledge. A little bit of positional understanding (a la Silman, Nimzovich and Kmoch), endgame knowledge, and basic opening principles goes a long way. You may understand that a certain opening move is bad because it creates an understandable pawn weakness; a tactical threat may only be parried if the opponent allows you to have the two bishops; you may be able to tactically sacrifice the exchange to force a winning endgame. I can't tell you how many master games I've played over where a kingside attack is converted to an endgame advantage.

2. You may not realize what some of your weaknesses are unless a stronger player looks over your games. Fritz can spot the more glaring tactical boo-boos but it can't tell you that you habitually ignore the center, routinely overlook attacking possibilities, or commit cardinal sins in your rook endgames that "every Russian schoolboy knows about".

One example of point two : Only after re-reading My System, did I really come to terms with how little I appreciated the center. I mean, I've known for a quarter of a century that it was important, and I would think about the center in vague terms as I played, but it wasn't often that I would think about it concretely (e.g. "If I trade off the Nc3, I weaken White's control of d5 and can push d7-d5"). Now this is becoming more natural. There are fewer instances where Fritz looks over a blitz game and says, "dumbass, your opponent played a weak move and you should've pushed d5, der!" The games I'm playing over from the 1920s are constantly harping about the center. In the Daniel King DVDs, he's constantly pointing out that such-and-such an attack was only possible because the center was under control, and so on. It's like in the movie "They Live", where I now have these special glasses that allow me to see (or, more accurately, pay attention) to things I was oblivious to before.

The thing is, I figured this out the hard way. If you can, take advantage of stronger players at the club, or lessons if you can afford them, to periodically check if you have hidden weaknesses you were unaware of.

Returning to the subject of synergy: I'm sure I had a lot of losses that I wrote off as "tactical blunders" or "mishandling the opening" where central control was the main underlying factor. Maybe it was the tactic that ultimately cost me the game, but it was exacerbated by the difficult position I got into because I didn't act in the center when I should have. So, while studying tactics may be the most important area for most club players to work on, a little bit of work put into other aspects of chess can have disproportionately large payoffs.

This is one reason I'm enjoying studying master games: I'm working on spotting tactics and visualizing variations, but I'm also getting small doses of opening ideas, strategic principles, execution of attacks, and endgame technique. In particular, I think that once you're familiar with the basics of chess strategy that you're better off playing over master games than buying more and more books on chess strategy.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Brief update, and a preview of Daniel King's DVDs

Getting my stitches out on Wednesday. Just wanted to post an update, and a few random thoughts.

Currently playing through the NY 1924 tournament games annotated by Alekhine, and taking notes. I've entered the Finkelstein games into my master games database, but oy! what lousy annotations by the author! Even without the computer I found many. The longer and more linear the line he gave, the more certain that it'd be completely debunked.

I'm entering material from the giant Laszlo Polgar book Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games into Chessbase as well. The goal is that by the time I've gone through 2-3000 master games, that book will be completely entered as well. Ditto with the Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames and Tal's Winning Chess Combinations. Yes, I am insane. I'd better start backing up my files more regularly...if all this stuff got erased from my hard drive I'd flip out.

When I renewed my USCF membership I also ordered a mousepad roll-up board and heavily-weighted Marshall plastic pieces. I can now play outside without the wind blowing stuff all over the place. Since the shipping was so much for the pieces, I said "what the heck" and ordered the 2nd and 3rd of Daniel King's Power Play DVDs. Very good so far. I didn't order the first because I felt the material would overlap with material I already have (e.g. The Art of Chess Combination by Eugene Znozko-Borovsky and The Art of Attack in Chess by Vucovic). Similarly, I'm holding off on the 4th CD until I hear more about it, since it supposedly deals with opening play.

Themes from the second DVD are:

  • a strong center is generally a prerequisite for an attack, and an attack may be thwarted by counterplay in the center
  • King emphasizes the need to get the heavy pieces involved in an attack. I get the feeling the second DVD focuses on rook lifts to get your heavy pieces in front of your pawns, and the third DVD will focus on pawn storms backed up by heavy pieces.
  • A weak, poorly defended king is an obvious sign of a possible attack, but an even stronger theme is lack of coordination between the defender's pieces, esp. if the Queen can't get back to the kingside easily and if rooks can't coordinate on the back two ranks. So the real "blood in the water" is realizing that you can develop a local superiority of force around the enemy king. This in itself is not that profound, but how it's reinforced through example is enlightening. I kept comparing this concept to the concept of the "mismatch" in the endgame, where say bishop and pawn or two pawns are able to overpower a rook and thus queen a pawn.

So a summary would be: a strong center cramps your opponent, whose army is divided in two with limited ability to swing from a queenside assault to kingside defense. The attacker swings queen, a rook or two, and any other available pieces to the kingside and mates the king faster than Black can defend. Easy, no? The "HULK SMASH!" school of chess.

Edit 6/19/07: The second DVD also covers the advance of the g pawn to open lines. The advances of the f and h pawns are covered in the third DVD. So, it seems it was a good idea to buy the two DVDs together. I found the g pawn material in particular to be enlightening. I also want to point out that the material is quite balanced. King has you find not only good moves for the attacker, but for the defender (or bad moves to avoid) as well. Also, in the f-pawn material he has multiple examples of how pushing the f-pawn creates weaknesses that ultimately cost the original attacker the game.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

May be Out of Commission for a Bit

Having some wrist surgery tomorrow, so that'll probably put a crimp in the whole blogging thing. My next Magnus Opus will be delayed.

On the plus side, this is an excellent opportunity to go cold turkey on online blitz and start tinkering with Fritz settings to play long games and practice "real chess". I've been putting that off.

In other news, I've finished two games collections, so that puts me at about 72 games or so towards the 2000+ target. Wheeee!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Interesting Opening Statistics

What follows is a statistical analysis of Kasparov's 1.e4 openings using Chessbase. This is just a quick and dirty dissection of the information I found in the Big Database 2006. You can quibble exact numbers for my statistics, but shouldn't change the take-home message.

I was playing around with Chessbase's Player Dossier feature by pulling up Kasparov's information, and was surprised how few main-line Spanish games there were. I then did some searches in the database for Kasparov vs. people rated 2100 and up (to weed out the simuls and such). I did all of these as position searches so that I didn't lose any games because of transpositions. Here's what I found, and what the implications are for the average club player.

  • Games played by Kasparov with 1.e4: 340
  • Games where Kasparov reached the Spanish with 3...Bb5: 69 (so 20% of his e-pawn openings brought him here).
  • Games where the opponent played 3...a6: 58
  • I then searched for the main position that arises after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3: 22 games (so less than a third of his Spanish games end up here, or 6% of his 1.e4 games).
  • At this point, only 4 games continued with 9...Na5! Instead, 14 continued 9...Bb7 (11 of them from games with Karpov). In other words, only 6% of Kasparov's Spanishes as white (and only 1% of his 1.e4 games) resulted in Black's primary system in the Closed Spanish.

You can make arguments such as "well, that's because the Berlin and the Marshall Gambit have really taken off", or "but Kasparov has played the Scotch", or "people avoid the main line against Kasparov because they're afraid of his preparation" and so on. Out of 340 1.e4 games, there were 22 scotches, 3 Evans Gambits, and 6 Italian/Two Knights. In the Spanish, Kasparov pretty much stuck to the main lines, deliberately avoiding the main line on 6 occasions. Still, of the 94% of Spanish games that didn't end up at the main line, only 9% were Kasparov deviating, so the fault lies more with his opponents.

Now, as far as Black deviating to avoid Kasparov's preparation: the Spanish is an opening where the main line is pretty much delineated, as opposed to some branching monstrosity such as the Sicilian. Black has some serious deviations at move 3, at the Open Spanish, and the Marshall Gambit, but apart from that it's pretty much on rails. I have in my possession Glenn Flear's The Ruy Lopez Main Line, which covers only from move 9 on. Kasparov would only have reached positions in Flear's book in a small fraction of his Spanish games. I would have expected a larger number of his games to follow the main lines, but these statistics make it look like I have about as much chance of getting the main line Spanish in my blitz games on ICC as Kasparov did in a GM tournament. Perhaps more so, since some of the ICC players are theory monkeys that belt out the main lines. Lower-level players may play fewer Berlins and Marshalls, but they play far more Steinitz Defenses, Cozios and "junk" like that.

So, what's the take-home message here?

  • The farther down a main line you go, the less of a chance of seeing it in your own games (well, der!)
  • Memorization of main lines won't solve your opening problems.
  • If you buy an opening book with the intent of using it as a map to direct you through the opening, you're wasting your money. Books that deal with common pawn structures, such as Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess, are a better use of your study time.

Nonetheless, I recommend people play and study main lines. Why?

  • You will find more annotated master games featuring those lines, so you'll develop more understanding about why certain moves or variations are played.
  • You will see examples of good development, effective piece manoeuvres, thematic pawn structures, and typical middlegame plans, which may arise in your own non-mainline games.
So, if you treat an opening book as examples of good opening and middlegame play that you may choose to adopt, and read through the lines critically, they'll have some utility.

In my opinion, you really don't need to worry about any main line past what I consider to be the "real" end of the opening, which is typically where the minor pieces and queen are off the back rank, and the players have castled. I say "typically" because some lines will have a stay-at-home bishop, a delayed queen deployment, no castling with a closed center, or some such exception. If you follow general opening principles of development and central control, you may find out that you've just played the same line as a GM. You're best off treating opening manuals as examples of possible play, rather than "you must commit these lines to memory and execute them unfailingly". Rather, just be sure to analyze your own games (and all phases too...middlegame and endgames as well). If you find that you followed a "book" line, check it over until you find where you or your opponent left theory (often it's as simple as Fritz finding the patzer move), and figure out what you'd do if that were to arise again. If you've actually successfully followed a book line past the end of development, then go ahead and explore some typical lines and master games that also occurred in that line. For this purpose, books such as the "Mastering the..." series that discuss typical pawn structures and associated plans, as well as general material such as Kmoch's book, are of more value to amateurs than more specialized tomes. King and Ponzetto's book Mastering the Spanish is a classic in this regard.

{Postscript: after composing this, I obtained Mihail Marin's Beating the Open Games, which fills the same role as Emms' Play the Open Games as Black (a 1.e4 e5 repertoire for Black, except the Spanish--although Marin mentions the Spanish Exchange as well) but which a whole lot of explanatory text. It may become the only openings book I've ever read cover-to-cover, since it seems to be chock full of instructional material. It's too early for me to give a review, but right now I'll just say that it appears to be an openings book that will make you a better player. When I searched online for a hyperlink to Marin's book, I found that he has a repertoire book for the Spanish coming out soon as well. I'll be looking forward to its release.)}

In a future diary I hope to show an example of what I consider to be the proper way to go about studying an opening system.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Finally Finished Zurich 1953, and My Reading List

I have another article on opening study queued up, but I hate having so many posts on a topic that club players already spend too much time on. Instead, I'll just say that I finally finished Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 by Bronstein. It was my "carry with you and play through on a pocket set" book for quite a while now. I've replaced it with Chess: The Art of Logical Thinking by McDonald.

It'd be tempting to count the book's contents towards my "2000+ annotated master games" collection, but somehow it seems like cheating since they were spread out over months. After polishing off a couple half-read collections, I think I'm going to go through my collection roughly by the copyright date of the original publication. That way, if the same game comes up multiple times I can add the more modern analysis to the older annotations. Also, I expect the older books to have more general positional assessments and fewer variations, and the newer material to have more "exceptions to the rules", plus more and longer variations.

I'm planning on going through the following pre-1980 books in this order. The first few aren't in chronological order because I'm already in the process of reading them. Books I've previously read cover-to-cover are marked in red.

- Self-Taught Chess for Beginners and Intermediates by Milton Finkelstein (again, I don't actually recommend this book to others...this is just a sentimental favorite)
-the instructive games section of My System by Nimzowitsch
-Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur by Euwe and Kramer
-a block of Alekhine: the tournament books for NY 1924 and Nottingham 1937 (Dover editions), plus I'm counting Nunn's algebraic translation of Alekhine's Best Games as 1937-ish.
-One Hundred Selected Games by Botvinnik
-Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 (yes, again.)
-Logical Chess move by Move by Move and The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Chernev.
-My 60 Memorable Games by Fischer
-Tal-Botvinnik 1960 and The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, by Tal
-The Art of Positional Play by Reshevsky
-Capablanca's Best Chess Endings by Chernev

Not counting doubles, that's 1166 games right there.

Unfortunately, most of these old books are in descriptive notation, which is a bit of a headache. Only Alekhine's Best Games, Zurich '53, Tal's books and Capablanca's Best Chess Endings are in Algebraic. I realize some of the others have algebraic editions, but I'm not going to drop the money on them.