Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thoughts on Gambits, and a Mini-Review of The Modern Morra Gambit

Gambits have been on my mind lately for a few reasons.

  • A while ago, in my Openings for Beginners series, I recommended main lines. However, I still wondered if certain tactical, dodgy openings would be appropriate for developing tactical skills. Things like the Moller Attack in the Italian Game, or the Max Lange Attack, or the Morra Gambit. The latter two were actually some of the first weapons I adopted when I started playing rated chess, but I abandoned them early on.
  • I actually succumbed and bought Langrock's The Modern Morra Gambit to relive the past and give it a whirl in blitz. I was wondering if it might be appropriate after all.
  • I saw that Nigel Davies has put out a book called Gambiteer I, featuring gambit lines for white after 1.e4. The bastard. I have his Play 1.e4 e5! book, so the dirty blackguard was holding out on us with his secret weapons.

I've mulled the matter over in my head. Here's what I believe:

  • If you're not playing "real chess" yet, don't play dodgy, anti-positional openings. Build a repertoire around solid moves that feel good and make sense. Concentrate on playing "real chess" until your mistakes depend more on other aspects of chess strength such as visualization and calculation of variations.
  • If you're playing "real chess" on almost every move, then look at your games and see what's costing you points. If it's tactics and calculation of variations, or using the initiative, or attacking the king, try out some tricky lines. If it's strategy or endgames, work on those instead. If you're like most of us patzers stuck in the under-expert category, you'll be lucky to get the "real chess" aspect solved.
A problem I have with some of the tricky openings is that they encourage memorization of lines. I don't think that the Max Lange was as bad as some of the others in this regard. I had read through Koltanowski's booklet when I picked this opening up and, although there's a tactical maze to pass through, a lot of the tactics made sense and felt OK. In contrast, the Morra Gambit feels bizarre in a unique way, which leads to my mini-review.

My reference book when I took up the Morra Gambit aeons ago was Burgess's Winning with the Smith-Morra Gambit. One thing that made the book hard to use was the organization. Transpositions abound, so the material was organized along the lines of "lines where Black plays Qc7" or "lines where Black plays ...Bd7". Langrock's book follows pretty much the same organizational setup, except with a much harder to follow index of variations at the end. I've owned a lot of chess books, and this one takes the cake for difficulty in finding the line you're interested in. I had to make pencil marks in the index to tie together which variation ties on to which preceding move. I actually entered the whole freakin' index into Chessbase and printed it out as a table, and then as an index of variations....that helped a lot. However, there are still a lot of variations that are either not covered in the book, or well hidden. {After I wrote this, I found a review of the book by Silman, who agrees with me on this.}

For example, the lines with ...Qc7 presume that ...a6 is played first. Presumably this is to prevent a Nb5 from White to harass the queen. Yet I couldn't find this specifically addressed, nor could Fritz spit out an outright condemnation of omitting ...a6. For example, a recent blitz game went 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 d6 7. O-O Nf6 8. Qe2 Qc7. Fritz wasn't giddily jumping up and down over 9.Nb5 at this point, so the most reasonable continuation to me seemed to be to transpose into the main line with standard Morra moves. This is what indeed happened, as did many of the games in my database.

Maybe I need to play more gambits, but the Morra stands out to me as completely alien, an entirely different kind of game. A lot of the tactical motifs seem peculiar to this opening. A lot of the best moves for White, at my level of ability, are highly tactically sophisticated. Although I can see that there are certain tactical patterns that can act like signposts to guide you through the opening, there seems to be a high premium on memorization.

On the plus side, the positions get so crazy that, even if you badly bobble the opening, your opponent is likely to screw up badly as well. Also, some of the tactical patterns you learn here do appear elsewhere. One of the simpler tactical tricks I learned when I first played the Morra was this idea:


1. Bxf7+! Kxf7 2. Qxd8 +-




















I must have internalized this motif, because 13 years later I spotted this in a flash during a blitz game, in an entirely unrelated opening:

1. e4 e5 2. f3 Nf6 3. g3 d5 4. d3 Bc5 5. Ne2? (Diagram) 5...dxe4! 6. fxe4 Nxe4 7. dxe4 sets up the same decoy tactic: 7...Bf2+ 8. Kxf2 Qxd1 9. Be3 Bg4 10. Nec3 Qf3+ 0-1

I'm still impressed that I found this tactic almost at a glance.















I think the bottom line is that, if you are a weaker player (I'll guesstimate below class A), you can successfully employ this opening if you have a good memory. I could see kids booking up to the eyeballs on these lines and taking scalps. Even with my poor memory and limited study of this gambit, I can already see common Black mistakes and can recall the proper White response (without fully understanding it, perhaps). However, if you're not playing "real chess" reliably yet, playing such an opening is probably holding you back, because you're overwhelmed with memorizing lines and getting lost in a maze of tactics, rather than working on fixing your sloppy thought process.

(On a similar note, I flipped through Davies' Gambiteer I, and if I recall correctly some of the main lines led to bizarre, icky-feeling positions where, although Davies says white has an advantage, I would hate to have to play that mess. I seem to recall one position with an uncastled king on f1 with damaged pawn cover being a position to aim for. I'm just going by my impression of what I saw flipping through it in the book store, so don't hold me to specifics. I may at some point buy the book if I find my opponents using the lines against me, but right now I'm not anxious to try them out myself as White.)

So, what if you love gambits but frankly suck at the whole "real chess" thing? Intuitively, it seems to me that a reasonable compromise would be to play your gambits against lower rated players, and play solid against higher rated players. On the other hand, if you've ever read Simon Webb's Chess for Tigers, you'll see he recommends the opposite approach. Webb argues that even bunnies have sharp teeth, so you should play solidly against them rather than try to blow them out of the water. In contrast, when playing a stronger player you should muddy the waters with complexities to counter their edge in technique. And on the third hand (?!), Webb's advice would violate Petrosian's Rule:

The great Petrosian was patron to his assistant, the young and
talented Russian-Armenian master Karen Gregorian. Once
Gregorian returned from an important qualifying tournament and
showed Petrosian a game in which the young man had played
some very risky opening moves as Black and lost. Petrosian cross-
examined him in a characteristically chiding way.

Petrosian: "Why did you play such terrible moves? Even you
should understand these are bad."
Gregorian: "I had to win to qualify."
Petrosian: "Make a note. It's much easier to play for a win
from an equal position than from a bad position!"

So, hell, I don't know...play what you want.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Think I Finally Appreciate the Center

I'm still going through My System, among other things. I think I've finally achieved one breakthrough -- a better appreciation of the center.

Everybody reading this blog has probably heard this drum beaten again and again: control the center. Yet how many readers are constantly thinking about the center during their games? When you play a "book" move out of an opening repertoire that doesn't address central control, do you understand why it's good? Central control always seemed like a mundane, pedestrian topic that I didn't need to dwell on too much.

However, I had been noticing some common themes in my games. I didn't often think about central control directly, except with respect to tactics (dropping the e4 pawn in a Sicilian, for example) or general positional considerations (e.g. space advantage). It was also staggering to see in my Blitz games how often the best move that I missed was a simple push of a central pawn. This year, in order to improve my understanding, I finally put the French aside, and started playing 1...e5 as Black. I also abandoned the Spanish Exchange for something more main-line. This was a big deal...I played those lines exclusively for the last 13 years.

At some point, I am going to write a major blog entry about some of my discoveries, but I'll pass this along for now: it is surprising how much "opening theory" you can figure out yourself by just thinking about the center. Starting to play 1...e5 was uncomfortable because, if your opponent plays older stuff like the Four Knights, Vienna or Giuoco Piannisimo, transpositions abound and the maze of variations can get confusing. However, beginner's rules can guide you through the morass. For example, in the 1.e4 e5 openings:

  • if White gets to push a pawn to d4 without concessions, they typically will have at least the slight edge White is "supposed" to get with correct play.
  • if Black can get away with ...d5, they probably equalize or get the advantage.
  • both sides try to retain their e-pawns

Similarly, a lot of 1.d4 theory boils down to: White tries to push a pawn to e4, and Black tries to prevent it. Black often tries to maintain a pawn at d5 as a strong point, in which case White often tries to assail it.

Further, if White attains a classic d4/e4 (or d5/e5, for Black) center, its mobility should be considered. Another weakness I've found in my games is a reluctance to push pawns because it changes the pawn structure. Sometimes the most powerful moves on the board involve throwing mobile pawns forward. My System's chapter on the Center was a great refresher, and really drove in the points of occupation of the center, and using a mobile center as a weapon.

Instinctively, I rebelled against the notion that the four central squares are more magical than other squares like c5 or f6, and thought "oh yeah, that's all well and good, but you always have to consider other factors like tactics and development". Which is true. But I was finding in my own games that I was too often passing over moves such as P-Q4 as candidates. I've already seen in my Blitz games that my handling of unfamiliar openings has improved because of this.(I may, at some point, provide specific examples). For example, as Black I'll ask: "White's last move seemed weak. Can I push my pawn to d5 safely? Do I like the looks of the resulting position? OK, I'll play it!" Later, I'll check with Fritz and, sure enough, it was Fritz's favorite move by a good margin.

I've also found such thinking helpful in choosing between possible repertoire moves...if it's a natural move that addresses the center, play it. That also fits in with my philosophy that it's better to play a move you're happy with than some move recommended by theory but mysterious to you. If the bulk of your repertoire moves are natural to you and follow basic principles of development and central control, you avoid both the chore and the trap of memorization. Concentrate on the exceptions, where the best move in a position is unnatural to you, and try to understand why the counter-intuitive move is best.

A few additional points:

1. You need to be aware of the Center Fork Trick, which is essentially a mechanism to force an advantageous d4 or ...d5. Currently I'm finding that I still miss these too often...they're often the key to finding the best move in some of these Old School openings. If you're not familiar with it, an example is here.

2. A lot of other features of these "old school" openings are covered in older books like My System and Pawn Power in Chess. Many instructors recommend that beginners start out playing 1.e4 e5 to get practice with basic chess knowledge, and my experience so far is that this is very, very good advice.

3. This post may seem to fly in the face of my advice not to dwell on studying openings. What I'm trying to show here is that studying general principles will greatly reduce the need to study opening theory. In other words, a grasp of chess basics allows you to be the master of your openings, and not a slave. I am not intentionally studying theory that is helping me play 1.e4 e5 better. I have chosen to play 1.e4 e5 because the games that result will be guided by general chess principles and will help me to understand basic chess concepts.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Re-reading My System and Surprisingly Enjoying It

I'm currently re-reading Nimzowitsch's My System, which I read maybe 12 years or so ago. I am amazed how often now, as I study other chess material, I keep getting hit by deja vu: "Hey, I was just reading about that in My System!". It's hard to put into words, but it's like flashbulbs going off in your head. The revelations aren't as concrete and mundane as "here's a good versus a bad bishop; here's a space advantage" but more abstract ideas about central control, exchanges and tempi, endgame coordination, etc. And I"m only a third the way through (I'm taking time to digest the material).

It's strange, since before re-reading it I thought that I was pretty much familiar with all his concepts. I was expecting more of a "yeah, yeah, rooks like open files and the 7th rank, the center is important, blah blah blah" eat-your-broccoli-it's-good-for-you experience the second time around, but instead it's been quite an eye-opener. I can see many weaknesses in my game addressed here. Also, since I've been playing main line, open games lately, a lot of the material is particularly relevant to 1.e4 e5 setups.

I think that the reason for the impact must be the selection of examples. A lot of them aren't clear cut, or seem unusual; others are superficially "boring" positions like Four Knights or Giuoco Pianissimo old-school stuff but are used to highlight fundamental concepts.

Some of the analysis no longer stands up to Fritz, but are still enlightening. I may point out some of these flaws in a future post. Sometimes the ugly truth gets in the way of a good narrative or instructive example....I've seen this with Chernev's books as well. One thing I found with Kasparov's Predecessors books is that, in the quest for chess truth, the books become dense to the point of being unreadable. It sort of reflects the modern trend of concrete analysis trumping generations of accepted wisdom.

If you're D-class and above, and either haven't read My System or haven't read it in a long time, I'd really encourage you to take another crack at it. I'll probably be doing the same with Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess when I'm done with it... another old, less-readable book loaded with important, fundamental, revelatory material.

In other news, I'm also close to the end of Bronstein's Zurich 1953, which has been a long project of mine (I have a horrid tendency to bounce between books and not finish a whole one).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Weakest Link

The rough draft of my personal study plan is directed largely at studying a large number of master games, for a few reasons. One is that I haven't played over that many annotated games, and when I have it's been sporadic. Another is that I feel the need to be exposed to new plans, ideas and moves (for an example of one plan I found striking, see "When Pawns Lie"). I can tell from my own play that I have a tendency to play certain moves stereotypically and superficially....for example, my opponent plays ...g6 and I play Bg5 and Qd2. I also have a tendency to resist changing the pawn structure and not use my pawns dynamically. I need to see more examples where counter intuitive moves are played, moves that make you think: "they can actually play that?!?!".

However, this plan is incomplete because I have not addressed the most important thing I need to do to improve as a player. The biggest gains come from fixing your most glaring weaknesses. I think that for myself, and for most club players, one of the best ways of improving your playing strength is to make sure you're playing "real chess" on each and every move.

I am using Dan Heisman's definition of "real chess" from his classic article archived at The Chess Cafe:

"REAL" Chess - You select
candidate moves and, for each, you anticipate and evaluate all your
opponent's main candidate moves (especially all checks, captures,
and threats). If you see a threat you cannot meet, you almost
undoubtedly cannot play that candidate move; instead, you must
choose a candidate move that allows you to meet all threats next
move.

whereas I am prone to playing:

"HOPE" Chess - This is NOT when you make a move and hope
your opponent doesn't see your threat. Instead, Hope chess is when
you make a move and don't look at what your opponent might
threaten on his next move, and whether you can meet that threat on
your next move. Instead, you just wait until next move and see
what he does, and then hope you can meet any threats.

--not on every move....just a small number of them. However, it only takes one bad move to lose a game. As Heisman puts it:

A Chain is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link
The best way to introduce the second part of my explanation is to
make an analogy. Suppose you build a home where the temperature
is -20 degrees outside. You decide on a one-room home with four
walls, a roof, a floor, and a heater. You decide to save a little time
and material by finishing the four walls, the floor, and half the roof,
but the other half you leave open. Even though you have completed
over 90% of the structure, the temperature inside your home will
still be about -20 degrees with half your roof open. If you want
your inside heater to be effective, you have to enclose all of your
home.

The cold home analogy is similar to what happens when you play
Real chess for 90% of your moves, but not for the other 10%. You
think you are a good player, but weaker players beat you when you
let down your guard for that 10%. In order to be a good player, you
have to at least try to play correctly on every move, not just most of
them. Consistency is important: remember that your chain of
moves, in many cases, is only as strong as the weakest link.

I think the common misconception is that blunders are just tactical errors
. Tactics are involved, and better tactical vision will certainly help reduce the number of these blunders, but studying tactics is treating the symptoms and not the disease. Consider the errors you make in a game. How many of the critical errors (those that change the expected result of the game--win, lose or draw) were immediately obvious to you, and how many required some serious thought or computer assistance? If you had to think about why your move was bad, or why your opponent's move worked, then the problem is related to some other facet of your game. However, if your error provokes an immediate "D'oh!", then it wasn't your tactics that were faulty but your thinking. If:

  • shortly after you make your move you suddenly realize it was a stinker, or
  • your opponent makes an unexpected move whose strength is immediately obvious, or
  • your opponent makes a move that you didn't consider, but it's immediately obvious that you should have,

then your thinking process failed you, not your tactics.

Another helpful article of his is this one where he explains the critical importance of playing "real" chess reliably, and of using your time efficiently:

The interesting part about both Real Chess and Time Management is
that both have to be practiced 100% of the time – 98% does not nearly
work. For example, if on 98% of the moves (49/50) you play correctly,
but on one move you decide to just relax and “see what happens”, that
can be a disaster. By missing that one move each game you will
consistently play hundreds of points weaker than your strength would
have been if you had played every move carefully. It is similar with
time – if you play even one move fast that may be enough to cause you
to lose and, if you play too slowly and then have to play quickly
during time pressure (as many top players do), then again just one big
slip at the end may easily be enough to cost you the game.


I seem to be pretty good at time management in actual tournament games, so what I need to concentrate on is the "real chess" aspect. When I return home, I'll edit this post to give a couple of examples from tournament games of gross failures to play "real chess" reliably.


So What's the Solution?


If the solution were to just read Heisman's articles and *poof!* problem-B-gone!, I wouldn't have to write an article about this. The critical question is: how do I train this skill?

It seems easy enough: when considering candidate moves, and before making my chosen move, ask yourself what your opponent can do and whether you can handle his response. In practice, I have trouble doing this on every single move. For example, one error I constantly catch myself committing is "use my time analyzing A and B, be dissatisfied with the result, and play unanalyzed move C". It seems that being aware of how you are supposed to think is insufficient. What's needed is to reprogram your brain.

As an analogy, consider golf. One thing you train is to be able to consistently pull off a certain shot, such as sinking all 3-foot putts or chipping a ball onto the green and 3 feet from the hole. After practicing a shot again, and again, and again, the "right" way to do it becomes programmed in your "muscle memory" and you can just execute it with minimal thought. When a player decides to make a change in how they hit the ball (e.g. wind up a bit tighter for a more powerful drive), even if it's a small change, they need to test it again, and again, and again, to "reprogram" themselves.

Returning now to chess: I think that playing too much Blitz, especially online, programs your brain through repetition to play superficial chess. It's impossible to play "real" chess reliably during blitz. I suspect the psychology behind this is like rats pushing a button for a treat, or a couch potato constantly flipping channels with the remote. You perform an action, you get some stimulus as a reward...you perform the action, you get the stimulus....

The solution would appear to be to play more games at long time controls and to absolutely force yourself to play "real" chess throughout. Where I currently live, however, there are limited opportunities to play live games at standard time controls. After my move, I should be in an area with a lot more chess activity, so hopefully I'll be able to play proper chess more frequently.

Until then, the other solution would be to set a program such as Fritz to a decently low level and practice "real chess" there. I've only made a few attempts at this to date, and have had trouble sticking to my guns. One problem is that it seems hard to set aside several hours to play against a computer rather than a person. Another is that there's still the "TV remote syndrome", where it's too easy to just hit a button and find out the result of my chosen move...plus there's that "takeback" button where I can pretend that my overly-hasty move never happened. However, if I'm serious about improving this may be the most important thing I can try. I think I'm going to try and keep a game score and clock running, to try and emulate a tournament game more closely.

Another thing that may help is how I read over annotated games. I tend to go on autopilot and play through most of the moves uncritically, except where something grabs my interest and I feel like exploring the variations. Instead, I should probably make myself do a quick "real chess" scan after each move and try to anticipate the next move played.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone that has successfully employed Heisman's suggestions and turned their game around, and how they managed to do it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Study Plan, and Favorite Game Collections

This is another quick post from out of town. I'm putting together a study plan. I'm still working out the ground rules, but it will be something like:

-Play through all my collections of master games, and enter them into Chessbase. That should easily take me over the "2000 master games" suggestion of Dan Heisman.

-Enter the mate-in-two problems, endgame problems, and mating attack examples from the massive Polgar book into Chessbase. The mate-in-two studies are actually rather devious, and I include them because they're good practice for working on your thought process.

-Also enter positions from the Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames and Anthology of Chess Combinations.

-Get through the first 1000 or so positions of CT-ART, and maybe check out Personal Chess Trainer.

Ah, the joys of data entry. My intent is to pursue all these goals at the same time to alleviate database drudgery. For example, right now I'm entering about 40 games from a rather obscure book: Self-Taught Chess for Beginners and Intermediates by Milton Finkelstein dating from 1962. Not really a good choice for annotated games, I think (Edit on 5/18/07: I don't recommend this book. The "rule to remember" boxes would be useful to beginners, but the annotations are dreadful. In one case, the author analyzes a line in depth based on an illegal move. The author has a tendency to rattle off a long line of analysis without branches that Fritz will just tear to pieces. More on this topic in a future post....), but I'm starting with it out of sentimental reasons...it was my first chessbook. The copy I have has long ago lost its cover and has my 8-year-old scrawls and doodles all through it. When those 40 games are entered, I'll also have 40 endgame positions, 40 mate-in-twos, 40 mating attacks, etc. all entered into Chessbase. By the time I hit my 2000 games I should have succeeded in transferring a lot of my study material into Chessbase.

Anyhow, I'm interested in what other people consider to be their favorite game collections. Heisman's "Four Homeworks" article has some good suggestions, and I own a lot of them. I've brought with me some of the older game collections, with the intent of progressing roughly from older to newer books:

-Chernev's Logical Chess Move by Move, The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played, and Capablanca's Best Chess Endgames. I've previously read these, but my rules are that to count towards the 2000 I have to have recently played over the games with a fresh mind.

-The Book of the New York International Chess Tournament 1924 and The Book of the Nottingham International Chess Tournament (1936), both annotated by Alekhine.

-Alexander Alekhine's Best Games

-One Hundred Selected Games by Botvinnik

I also brought Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 by Bronstein, but that's my "take with me wherever I go and play with a portable chess set" book. It has a lot of descriptive notation, and most of the variations aren't completely mind-blowing, so I don't feel like I have to have a computer to help me plow through the variations. I'll have to re-read it if I want to count it towards my 2000 games.

Among the collections I have at home that I'll be using are The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, Euwe and Kramer's Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur (currently about 2/3rds through that), How to Defend in Chess (a collection of Lasker and Petrosian games), Karpov's best games collection, Shirov's Fire on Board, Kasparov's The Test of Time and Predecessors books, Nunn's two "Move by Move" books and 101 Brilliant Chess Miniatures, and several more that I can't think of right now.

Feel free to post your favorite game collections in the comments section.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Leslie Ault: Most Under-Rated Chess Author?

{This is just a quick post...I've been pretty busy lately with getting the house ready for sale. I'm going to be out of town for about a week and I've been preparing my reading list (I never leave home without a gajillion books), which has prompted this topic.}

I've never understood why Leslie Ault's two books (three, if you count Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess--see below) never became better known.

When I was just a kid, The Chess Tutor: Elements of Combinations came out, and it was the first book I read that explained chess tactics systematically. I've owned two copies since...one fell apart and got lost, and the other I bought for 5$ used and gave to a friend. I thought I'd find another copy and never did. Now, I see that it sells used online for about $50, so maybe it's stature has grown a bit. I think this is a great first chess book, and prefer it to Chernev and Reinfeld's "how to see three moves ahead" book. I mentioned this book earlier here.

About 18 years (!) pass, and out comes The Genesis of Power Chess. Similar approach, but different material. This is a unique book that is hard to explain. In general, it's about positional chess, but the first several chapters have the theme of converting advantages to a win. Both books are a series of positions where typically you're asked to play for one side, and often asked what the outcome will be (e.g. in the endgames chapter, you have to figure out whether it's a win or a draw for the attacker). The chapters break down to:

  1. basic mates
  2. selected basic endgames
  3. "Cashing In at the End"-forcing a pawn promotion
  4. "More Fun at the Cashier's Window" continues this theme
  5. "The Care and Feeding of Pawns"- a terrific chapter on how to use your pawns, e.g. creating weaknesses or avoiding them
  6. "Piece and Harmony"-piece coordination, minor piece imbalances such as N vs. B, and so on.
  7. "The Endangered King"-king safety issues in the middlegame
  8. "No Holds Barred", where a series of positions from one game are given as quizzes.

The overall story of the book is how to gradually accumulate advantages and win. Arguably, this book more than any other I've encountered has given a clearer impression of how "real" chess is played.

Today, as I was researching for this post, I came across something interesting: Ault apparently was a pretty key figure behind "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess". From the book's acknowledgments:


Leslie H. Ault (a former U.S. Intercollegiate Champion) ...assisted with the original development of the programmed sequence and...served as general editor during the preparation for publication


The question of how much of BFTC was actually Ault's work was raised here. In the foreword to The Genesis of Power Chess, Ault mentions his involvement with the publication of the book. His description of the extent of his involvement came across as a "tidying of loose ends" when his actual contribution may have been much greater.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Instructive Opposite-Coloured Bishop Endgame

I'm showing this endgame because it demonstrates an important endgame principle everyone should know about, and also to help me digest the lessons from it. I'll also include a position from earlier in the game to demonstrate the kinds of thinking errors I (and I suspect many others) need to work on.

The game was another ICC blitz at 2+12 time control, but it produced a very interesting endgame:


The first point to note is that "Bs of opps" endgames offer excellent drawing chances for the weaker side, even when several pawns down. We'll see that that's what happened to me in this endgame.

The second point is the "principle of two weaknesses": if your opponent has one weakness to cover, they can often defend, but if they have two weaknesses to cover they may be unable to defend against both threats at the same time (someone somewhere described this as "you can't attend two weddings at once"). If White can either take the h- pawn or advance the a- and b- pawns, he may queen a pawn and win.

The third point is the concept of a "mismatch". Once again, I have to STRONGLY recommend Soltis' book Grandmaster Secrets: Endings. Seriously, this is one of I'd say three chess books that had a revolutionary impact on me. A mismatch is where one side has a localized superiority of force, one which may defy a "point-count" assessment. In this endgame, the mismatch would be K+a+b pawns vs. B . In the absence of Black's king, Black's B would have to sacrifice itself for one of White's queenside pawns to prevent it from queening, allowing the other to queen and win.

White has two choices here: support the queenside pawns with his bishop and try to take the h-pawn with his king, or support the kingside with his bishop and charge the queenside with his king. The first plan was what I tried, but the second plan is necessary. To understand why, let's introduce the fourth point: schematic thinking.

What position does Black seek to get a draw? If Black can park his king on a dark square in front of the a- and b-pawns, he will be immune to attack from White's bishop, and can just shuffle his bishop around to defend the kingside pawn and prevent White from getting a passer there. In other words, Black wants this sort of setup:


This position is very similar to, and could have occurred in, the actual game continuation that ended in a draw.

What does White need to aim for to win? If White tries to go after the h-pawn with his king, Black can guard it with his bishop on the c1-h6 diagonal. However, the bishop may also have to work on the a7-g1 diagonal to hold back the queenside pawns. White was thinking that he could overload the bishop by using a threat on one side of the board to divert it from a threat on the other. Unfortunately, what's critical here is the activity of Black's king. In the time that it would take White's king to make good on this threat, Black's king would be on the queenside picking up the slack, and we would have a position like the above.

In this sort of position, it's critical for White to get his king in front of the passed pawns and not Black. How critical? Watch how much material White jettisons in the winning line. From the first diagram:

57. Ke4! Kf6 (57... Kxg4 58. Kd5 will win similar to the main line here) 58. Kd5!! (see diagram on the left) The Bishop can be left to its fate because White gets a winning mismatch on the queenside 58...Kxf7 59.Kc6 Be3 60.b5 and White will queen a pawn.

By analyzing this position, I determined for myself that in these endgames the attacker's king must get in front of the passers. While re-reading parts of Soltis' book as I prepared this article, I saw that he stated this principle explicitly himself. By working out this endgame myself and by re-reading some endgame instruction, I feel I've gotten a firmer grasp on this sort of endgame. Another example of mining a blitz game for valuable lessons.

Ok, that was the important part. What follows are errors from earlier in the game that give insight into the flawed workings of my brain.

First, I was completely crushing my opponent (up a rook) up until this point:


Black just played 33...Rf6xf3. I succumbed to the zwichenzug
34. Qxe5? rather than just recapture directly. I had analyzed out to around move 36, and got a spidey-sense that ...Bxf2+ was potentially going to spoil things, but everything else looked too "pretty". This is the story of my life. When you have an advantage, and you have the choice of a clear, good continuation and a tactical, more complex and unclear one, you should take the simpler path. Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess points out that calculating tactics is an inherently risky endeavour, so if you're not 100% sure of the outcome you shouldn't allow yourself to be seduced. 34... f6 35. Qxc7 threatening mate ...Bxf2+ 36. Kh1 Qg7 37. Qd8+ Qg8 At this point, both 38.Rd1 and 38.Qd2 are clearly winning still (thanks, Fritz). However: 38. Bxf3?? Even under severe time pressure, how can you hang your queen with a 12 second time increment? Bxe1?? Or miss that my queen is hanging? 39.Qxf6+ Qg7 40. Qd8+ Qg8 41. Qf6+ Qg7 42. Qxa6 Qg5 43. Qa8+ Qg8 44. Qxg8+? (simplifying to the dreaded "Bs of opps") ... Kxg8 45.Bd5+ Kg7 46. c4 bxc4 47. Bxc4 Bd2 48. a4 Ba5 49. g4 Kf6 50. Kg2 Kg5 51. Kg3 Bc7+ 52. Kf3 Kh4 53. b4 Kxh3 54. a5 Kh4 55. Bf7 Kg5 56. a6 Bb6 gives us the endgame position I analyzed above.

Here's the entire game, for the curious:


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Secrets of Practical Chess (Embiggened Edition)

I had heard that Nunn's book was out in a "New Enlarged Edition". I remember thumbing through the first edition years ago in the bookstores, gleaning a few nuggets of information from it but not committing to buying it. I hadn't planned on picking this second edition up, but I succumbed on the strength of the computer section alone.

Even though I've doing many of the tricks Nunn mentions when using Chessbase and Fritz products, there were many revelations here. In particular, I want to get back on track and be more religious in using the Repertoire Database feature in Chessbase.

For people like me that historically have had a weakness to repertoire opening books, Chessbase is a great solution. The weakness of opening books is that it is unlikely that you will like, or even be comfortable with, all of the author's suggested lines, which means that you will be left plugging the holes yourself. I think a better approach to the openings is to ask yourself at each juncture: "What move do I personally like best in this position?". You can then check that move against a large database of games and with a chess engine, and if you still like the move, presto: your own repertoire move. I'm going to experiment with coming up with repertoires for a few of my openings by playing by general opening principles, and checking the lines I like as Nunn describes.

I think one advantage of this approach is that, if you're like me and don't have the greatest memory, you'll be playing moves that you like and arrived at yourself. I always tell my students that if they take the extra effort to understand a topic, it reduces the need to rely on memorization. For example, in the French advance Watson recommends the move ...Nh6 in some lines. I know it's the repertoire move, I understand roughly the point to it, and it still makes me uncomfortable. I can either spend extra time to convince myself how great that move is, or I can make my own repertoire and play a more "natural" move of my own choosing.

Another new section of the book deals with chess literature. I was amused to see that he uses both Silman and de la Maza as examples of flaws to watch out for. Nunn likes How to Reassess Your Chess but thinks that some of Silman's examples don't quite match the general principles they're supposed to demonstrate.

Silman's book is quite well-known and can be recommended as a good general guide for club players. My only real concern is that Silman's treatment is strongly tilted towards the 'covering up messy details' end of the spectrum, which can be deceptive since real-life games very rarely follow the smooth progression Silman describes.
He then goes through the example J. Sipaila--J.Silman, Reno 1993. He says that Silman's evaluation is correct but doesn't agree with the lines Silman gives to demonstrate that assessment.

In contrast, Nunn treats de la Maza's Rapid Chess Improvement far more harshly. Although he concedes:
There is a limited amount of truth in de la Maza's ideas. Tactics are certainly extremely important in chess, and are probably more so at the under-1800 level.
but then proceeds to essentially tear de la Maza a new one. It's tempting to quote, but I'll just direct the curious to their local book store.

(Aside: Personally, I believe that the most important thing under-1800 people can spend time on is making sure they play what Heisman calls "real chess" (rather than "hope chess") reliably on every move they play. I feel that this is the weakest link for most people, and I've been intending to write about this for a while. Studying tactics and improving your calculation helps in this regard, but the biggest boost in your chess strength will come from eliminating glaring oversights. Unfortunately, you can't really pick up a book entitled Don't be a Dumbass! and fix this problem...you have to actually work at rewiring your brain to a better way of thinking.)

I may comment more on the rest of the content in the future. Many of the examples and suggestions are targeted towards more advanced players, but a lot of the content can be applied by players of any strength {for example: the acronyms DAUT (Don't Analyse Unnecessary Tactics) and LPDO (Loose Pieces Drop Off)}.

I would definitely recommend people flip through this book at the book store and evaluate how much they feel this book will help them. If you use Chessbase products, the chapter on computers alone may be worth the money.