Sunday, July 29, 2007

Not Dead Yet

Just a brief update. Still unpacking and getting settled in to the new digs. Don't even have a place to set up my chessboard yet. I'll also be out of town next weekend.

If I get my books unpacked I'll try to post something substantive before the trip.

Friday, July 20, 2007

An Aside on Opening Preparation

Just thought I would clarify my stance on opening preparation, prior to the next installment of my series.

I think it's important to analyze your games--even online blitz. Part of that analysis should include how the opening was treated. Of course, you'll also be looking for errors in tactics, endgames, and strategy as well, but I don't think the opening should just be ignored, regardless of your chess strength.

If you do not want to maintain an openings repertoire, and just fly by the seat of your pants, then you could keep your opening study down to spotting gross errors. However, if you've ever bought an opening book with the intent of playing certain lines routinely, I strongly feel you need to understand the suggested moves, and have followed the main line through the opening so that you understand what each side is aiming for. If you're plopping money down on opening books, but just "looking up the answer" to what you should have played, or just trying to memorize lines, you're wasting time and money. You owe it to yourself to try and understand the lines you want to play, and I believe that studying openings in this limited but focused way can improve your chess as a whole.

For example, perhaps you learn that Black plays ...d5 at some point to prevent e4. If you understand that, and your opponent omits the "book move" of ...d5, that serves as an alert: Perhaps it would be good for you to push e4 in response. Or perhaps Black normally avoids exchanging a bishop for a knight, and your opponent doesn't. That suggests that winning the bishop pair may be a good idea.

The main lines of your opening are models of good opening play. Understanding them helps you to find good opening moves for yourself, and directs you towards reasonable middlegame strategies.

When you're not analyzing your own games, go ahead. Study tactics. Study endgames. Play through master games. Practice martial arts so you can strike the button on the clock with the reflexes of a cobra. Whatever you think helps your game more, or whatever tickles your fancy. Knock yourself out.

However, when it comes to analyzing your own games, I think you need to consider the game in its entirety, including the opening. Don't just focus on the knight you dropped in the midgame, but also the tactic you missed that would have regained it; the endgame you could have drawn a piece down; and the opening error that led to the difficult position you blundered in.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Learning New Routes

Still busy unpacking into the new home. My computer is being cantankerous (stupid nvidia graphics driver causing crashes) but thought I'd pass on a quick analogy.

I'm currently learning how to get around in a new city. Right now it seems like the civil engineers are purposely trying to thwart U turn here, no left turn allowed there, have to drive 3/4 of a mile just to turn around and get into the strip mall across the street. I knew my old routes so well I could drive on autopilot, even with all the finesses gained by experience (e.g. get in the left lane here, because the right lane will slow a half mile ahead). I've gone from rarely checking a map to needing a mapquest printout to get to the grocery store. I'm learning where the major destinations are and where the major highways lead and intersect, and not worrying as much about street names until I need to find a certain address.

Learning the ins and outs of a new opening is similar. Worry about the main roads first that lead to the most important destinations. As you do this, think about how you're getting there (why do I have to get in the right lane here? Why do I play ...h3 here?) until it's second nature. Learn new roads as required by need...don't try to memorize the entire map at once. Years later there'll still be places you're unfamiliar with, but you can find your way from one end of town to the other by feel if necessary.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Next Post Delayed

I am in the process of moving. The last post in the opening preparation series will be delayed until we're moved, unpacked and reconnected to the internet, which will take a week or more.

In contrast to the first two posts in the series, this one is requiring me to put in a lot of independent study because it's an example of what to do when opening repertoire books alone can't guide you. So I'll need a little time to unpack my library, get settled in, and finish the analysis.

Hopefully your patience will be rewarded.

Friday, July 6, 2007

How to Prepare an Opening, Part Two

Here we're going to hack our way through the jungle and eventually arrive at the main line of the Closed Spanish. I've tried to come up with phrases that describes what we're about to do:

  • spelunking
  • going on an Opening Safari
  • dumpster diving
  • mining for gold
  • antiquing (when using old games and analysis to guide your thoughts)

The bottom line is we're going to be trying to understand the reason behind the main move order, question it, and see if we can find other sequences we like better.

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 think it assists with this transfer.

We'll first go over the main line and see what each side is thinking. If these reasons for the moves aren't clear already, you can refer back to this sequence as we discuss alternatives. The ideas are superficial but they'll do. This is my own interpretation of the opening sequence. I may revise this if Marin's upcoming book on the Spanish turns more light bulbs on. Before I undertook this exercise, it wasn't clear to me why certain key moves for both sides (0-0, c3, and h3 for white; ...Be7, ...b5, ...0-0 and a possible ...Bg4 by Black) were played in a certain sequence. By going through this exercise, the picture is now a lot clearer. I recommend this technique of using an "internal Socratic dialogue (monologue?)" for any opening you work on....ask questions and try to answer them.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6:

5.0-0 ("I know my e4 pawn is attacked, but I've figured out how to deal with it")
5...Be7 ("I could take the e4 pawn, but I've figured out it can't really be kept, so I choose to develop.")
6.Re1 ("Ok, now I should protect e4. This also will clear f1 for a N manoeuvre I have planned.")
6...b5 ("I want to kick-start my queenside play before White can make an escape square at b2 for his bishop")
7.Bb3 d6 ("I want to play ...Na5 to chop the B off, but e5 is weak. This shores up my center and opens a diagonal for the queen's bishop.")
8.c3 ("I want to keep my bishop in case of ...Na5")
8...0-0 ("castling is good")
9.h3 ("I want to play d4, but if he pins me with Bg4 that's annoying.")
9...Bb7 ("develops the bishop on the long diagonal and hits e4"). Black has several options at this point. I've chosen this move because it completes Black's development (except for queen deployment), which is a good enough stopping point for this tutorial. If I were white, I would look at the main lines enough to get an idea for how my development will be completed (e.g. the standard Spanish N manoeuvre of Nb1-d2-f1-g3 or e3); as Black, I would choose my system starting at move 9 and extend the main line from there a short distance, in order to get a feel for the types of middlegames that ensue.

At lower levels of play, it's not that likely that your opponent makes it all the way through even the "mainest" of main lines without diverging at some point. In that case, studying the opening out further than the end of development won't pay direct dividends in your own games (although indirectly this may increase your understanding of typical play). You're better off, in my opinion, studying master games than worrying about exact move sequences here. When your opposition starts playing these lines through, then you can worry about extending your horizon.

I'm now going to cross-examine the main Spanish move sequence, see if I agree with it, and see if I can find alternatives for either side.

The first, obvious, question about 5.0-0 is: why doesn't White have to protect the e4 pawn? If you're castling here because it's the book move, but don't have an answer for this question, you're asking for trouble. 5...Nxe4 (the Open Spanish) is a reputable opening choice:

The standard move here is 6.d4. 6.Re1 is playable but should cost White the bishop pair. Now, the books say "it's too risky to play 6...exd4 in this position". This should trigger your intellectual curiosity. It turns out that this is called the Riga variation, and the main reason for that assessment is the endgame after 7.Re1 d5 8.Nxd4 Bd6! 9.Nxc6 Bxh2+!

Here, 10.Kh2 allows perpetual check by 10...Qh4+ 22.Kg1 Qxf2+. So, if a draw is an acceptable result for you, this is fine. The main continuation for White is 10.Kh1! Qh4 11.Rxe4+! dxe4 12.Qd8+! Qxd8 13.Nxd8+ Kxd8 14.Kxh2+/= (see next position):

Emms, for example, says that this endgame "has been known for many years to favour White" and leaves it at that. In my database, White scores 68%, which certainly backs this up. However:

1. This is a fairly forcing variation (although some homework on your part will be required). White has to find some good moves. If you're ok with a draw, this can be a good practical chance at club level.

2. If this were just a trappy, tactical line I probably wouldn't be attracted to it. However, ask yourself if the endgame (more like a queenless middlegame, in my opinion) is that bad for black.

Here's what I see:
  • material is unbalanced but roughly equal. Two minor pieces + bishop pair = 3.25x2 + 0.5 = 7 pawns, balancing a rook plus two pawns. I'm using the Kaufman values for the pieces...see this Heisman article for an elaboration.
  • black nominally has a lead in development, but at a glance I don't think Black will be able to keep it because he has to untangle a bit.
  • Black has action for his rooks on the center files, and a 4:2 pawn majority on the king side. White's N has no outpost, but the open position is good for the two bishops.

This is some shallow analysis, and perhaps the best thing is to play the position from both sides against the computer to see how you really feel about Black's position. My suspicion is that Grandmaster technique makes this easier for white, but at club level familiarity with the position will triumph. I think that this would be an interesting line to try out in actual play.

Even if you don't go for the Riga Variation, the Open Spanish with 5...Nxe4 is a real option for Black's repertoire.

So, it turns out that White can get away with 5.0-0. It also turns out that White can play 5.d4 here. Remember a rule of thumb for White in these openings is "if you can get away with d2-d4, it's probably a good move." It turns out that 5.d4 (or 6.d4 after 5.0-0 Be7) is fully playable. Johnsen and Johannessen call this the "Central Attack Ruy Lopez (CARL)". The authors say that it's drawish but that Black has to walk a narrow path. If this is the GM assessment, that means that this would be perfectly acceptable for club players. Your opponents aren't likely to have figured out an antidote to this variation; I have never faced it myself. J&J give a fair bit of analysis in this line; Davies' repertoire book for Black only considers the 6.d4 move order. I played through much of J&J's analysis, and my gut feeling was that White was making a lot of pawn moves and falling behind in development, but had nicer pawns at the end.

{NEW: 9/22/07} When I initially prepared this I glossed over 5.d3. In Marin's A Spanish Repertoire for White, he devotes an entire chapter to this move (which can be played "anywhere between the 5th and 10th moves). I'll just point out that it logically protects the e4 pawn, and that it's respectable. It's a bit timid for my taste, but it would be a good compromise for those wanting to play a "grownup" opening yet also deviate early to throw off your opponent.

Black has a few other 5th-move options after 5.0-0. Both 5...Bc5 and 5...b5 with 6...Bc5 (the Moller variation) opt to place the king's bishop on its other viable posting (Bd6 blocks the d-pawn, Bb4 allows c2-c3 with tempo). 5...b5 with 6.Bb7, the Arkhangelsk, develops the queen's bishop to the long diagonal. I will leave it up to someone with more experience from the White side as to how common it is to see these in club play; I'll just say that the moves make sense and are respectable.

For the most part I'm glossing over variations where White captures on c6. I'll just point out that some black players are annoyed enough by the Delayed Exchange Ruy Lopez Deferred (what a name!) with 6.Bxc6 that they play 5...b5 as above and only then 6....Be7.

Referring back to the main line now: after 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 the moves 6...b5 7.Bb3 are almost always seen. If Black delays, White plays c2-c3, and his bishop will reach c2 in one move instead of two.

Now, 7...0-0 is possible instead of 7...d6. The main difference here is that, if you castle on move 7 instead of move 8, your opponent may think you're going to play the Marshall Gambit (8.c3 d5!?). If you're perfectly happy with your opponent freaking out and avoiding a main-line Spanish by playing an "anti-Marshall" move like 8.a4, 8.h3, 8.d4 or 8.d3, go for it. If you were hoping to reach a main-line Spanish, then you're more likely to get it by playing 7...d6 here.

At this point, White normally plays 8.c3 here so that 8...Na5 doesn't lose the bishop. This move also helps prepare d2-d4, so it seems like the most natural choice. If you ask yourself, "Can I play d4 here?" the answer is "not really". The main point is that after 8...Nxd4 9.Nxd4 exd4, White can't play 10.Qxe4? because of the "Noah's Ark Trap": 10...c5 11.Qe3 c4 -+. I won't go into moves such as 8.a4 and 8.d3 except to say they're playable and may transpose to other lines.

White will probably play 9.h3 to avoid the ...Bg4 pin next move, so 8...Bg4 seems like a sensible alternative for Black here. I have not fully determined why it's not normally played. The "antidote" seems to be d2-d3, h2-h3, and Nb1-d2-f1-g3 for White, but that's not clearly bad for Black, and 8...Bg4 was actually played by Karpov against Short. This may be another opportunity for Black to do some homework and play an offbeat line.

If white omits h2-h3 and plays 9.d4 instead, 9...Bg4 is now supposed to be uncomfortable for White to play against. However, this is still a respectable option for White. Black is threatening to win the d4 pawn, so White has to be prepared to deal with this (e.g. 10.Be3 or 10.d5). 9.d3 here, or at many points in the Spanish, is playable but feels timid to me.

So, we can see that, compared to many openings, the Spanish has a very clear and logical main line. However, as I also showed here, even this classic opening sequence has lots of opportunity for both sides to deviate before Black's move 9. There's plenty of opportunity for a player to diverge and fight your opponent on your own turf. However, I would only diverge from the main line because you genuinely prefer your moves, rather than just diverging for the sake of "getting your opponent out of book".

To summarize the last two posts:

1. Become familiar with basic opening rules of thumb. Then, choose the opening moves that you want to play based on basic principles and guided by theory. When you don't have an overwhelming preference for one move, steer towards "respectable" openings that offer a variety of pawn structures and piece deployments.

2. Map out a "main line" where you decide what you would play against your opponent's "best" response. Chessbase's opening statistics makes it easy to determine what these "best" lines are, but use whatever resources you have (Nunn's Chess Openings, Modern Chess Openings, Fritz's opening book). If you're not sure which is "best", just choose one. Map this main line out until the approximate end of the opening phase (ideally, where all your pieces are developed and you've castled). This is generally about 9-12 moves.

I think the more clearly you understand the main line of your openings, the better equipped you are at dealing with your opponents' deviations. For example, White omitting c2-c3 when its called for may be a sign to seize the bishop pair with ...Na5.

The hardest, most time-consuming part is determining what your main lines will be. After that, your focus will be on analyzing your own games and determining how you'll deal with other lines as you encounter them. I think this is one area where internet blitz can be can get a large number of examples of how players of your level treat the opening. You may find that "inferior" lines such as the Steinitz or Cozio variations of the Spanish are actually the "main lines" at your level.

So, what if your opponent plays something odd? The next post will will show an example of opening preparation triggered by my opponent's novelty. It will also show the limitations of opening repertoire books compared to general familiarity with the opening.