Sunday, August 6, 2017

Those Annoying Time Zones

The worst thing about living in Australia is the time zone differences with Europe and America where many important events happen. I'm not going to stay up into the middle of the night to watch Federer win Wimbledon, or Usain Bolt run the 100 metres in the World Championship. I can see the replays the next day, but it just isn't the same. Similarly with chess, I generally play catch up with events the day after they happen, which isn't bad in terms of keeping up to date, but it still isn't the same as watching some live chess.

While this is usually the case, I have been rather fortunate with the Sinquefield Cup. While I can't see the start of the games, I am able to catch the end of the games when I wake up in the mornings. For me this is far more preferable than catching a few opening moves before having to leave the games as they start to get interesting. So far, I've eagerly followed 3 endgames from the event. The amazing finish to Aronian-Caruana in round 2 had me spellbound. Anand's defence against Carlsen in the following round had me thinking abut my own technique. And then this morning, I wake to find the game Vachier Lagrave-Carlsen in full swing when Carlsen blunders to give MVL a winning endgame.

During the endgame this morning I had one of those moments where you realise that your understanding of the game is just not on a level with other players.

Now in my primitive way of thinking, black is 2 pawns up though white could win the f-pawn. However, winning the f-pawn involves trading bishop for knight which would leave a lost pawn ending where black just forsakes the h-pawn and marches the king to the queen side. So, this is an easy win and there doesn't seem much that white can do? Isn't it just time to resign?

Magnus continued with 63.b4. I was sitting at my computer watching the game, thinking a trade on b4 would probably be ok, or just advance the king to g5. If black's king can get to g3, it's game over. However, neither of these "obvious" moves would have been good enough to force a win. The only move here which leads to victory is the far from obvious 63..c4 and amazingly, that is what MVL played! Would I have played this move, or even thought of it as an option? Probably not. But a deeper look at the position makes it clear why my candidate moves aren't good enough.

63..cxb4 64.cxb4 Kg5 65.Kf2 [blockading the pawn and the g3 sqaure for black's king] 65..Kf4 reaching the following position

So the question is, how does black progress? At least one of black's pieces needs to protect the f-pawn which means only one of them can try to win white's b-pawn. But that won't happen because white's bishop will sit on c6 and eventually the b-pawn will advance to b5. Even worse, from c6 the bishop can go to e8 and win white's h-pawn!

63..Kg5 64.bxc5 bxc5 65.Bd5 Kg4 66.Kf2 Kf4

Very similar to the last position, black can make no progress. In fact, with white to move there is already a repetition likely by 67.Bf7 Kg5 68.Bd5,

So this all goes with the need for strong calculation at all phases of the game. If it is possible to see that these 2 moves lead nowhere, then the next thing to do is look for other moves. MVL's 63..c4 just loses that pawn, putting on the same colour sqaure as controlled by white's bishop. But in winning the pawn, white gives black time to mobilise their pieces, and black's knight especially, moves from its depressing defence from the the edge of the board to an attacking piece in the centre. 64.Bd5 Kf5 65.Bxc4 Kg4 66.Kf2

So far, all seems fairly natural, but what now? Black's knight has 3 squares to move to but they all appear to lose a pawn. 66..Ng2 67.Bd5 wins the f-pawn or black's knight has to return to h4. This must be bad as white's queenside pawns will start marching. 66..Nf5 67.Be6 pinning black's knight after which white will advance the queen side pawns forcing black's king to defend which allows white to win the f-pawn with and the h-pawn. So 66..Ng6! but this also loses a pawn to 67.Be6+ Kf4 68.Bf7

Black's knight is skewered to the h-pawn and black's king has taken the f4 square from it. But amazingly this position is winning, thanks to the activity of black's pieces and the advanced passes f-pawn which is being nursed to promotion. 68..Ne5 69.Bxh5 Nd3+ 70.Kf1

What a turn around in position. White has levelled the game materially, but white's king has suffered an indignity in being pushed to the back rank. White's bishop is also somewhat askew. Meanwhile, black's king is in great shape and can infiltrate further into e3 or g3 (MVL chose g3) while black's knight has transformed itself. Carlsen resigned a few moves later when the knight further improved it's position by the maneuvre Nd3-f2-e4-d2/c3 or Nd3-f2-d1-e3/c3. White would have to part with his bishop for the f-pawn nad cannot force a trade on the queen side.

Lessons learned? First, we all need to calculate stronger in all phases of the game. Second, it is wrong to make assumptions based on general concepts such as material levels. While mostly material is of primary importance, there are times when other factors need to supplant this. I know that I am overly materialistic in my games, so seeing more examples like this and trying to adopt similar ideas when appropriate can only improve my chess.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Most Instructive....

I'm guessing that many chess players have been following some of the top class action in the northern hemisphere's summer season. For me, the British Championship is an interesting event to follow as I know some of the players. But like many, I've been keeping an eye on the Sinquefield Cup in America with Carlsen and a group of the world's elite. The first 3 rounds have brought about much fighting chess and a joy for those players who include 1.e4 e5 in their repertoires.

However, if we mere mortals want to improve our games and learn from the best what would be the 1 thing that we should study from this tournament so far? Well, any interesting position is good to study, and non standard types of manouvres, like Aronian's 10.Rh4 from his first round game vs Nepomniachtchi is a fun move.

Aronian-Nepomniachtchi Sinquefield 2017
In answer to black's 9..Qa5 Aronian here didn't defend his a3 bishop, or retreat it, but played 10.Rh4!? which protects the bishop due to the threat of Ra4 trapping a queen. Neat!

However, openings, tricks, fanciful ideas are to my mind beautiful to see but unlikely to bring many long term benefits to the game of an average club player. No, in my opinion, the best position to learn was Anand's defence of a rook ending a pawn down against Carlsen.

I'm sure that many people reading this blog will know that this is supposed to be a draw, but I wonder how many would be confident of holding this position with white against Magnus Carlsen? Anand did it comfortably and to be honest, white is starting with the best possible pawn structure for the defence and it is impossible for black to get his rook behind the pawn before white does. But the black a-pawn will force it's way down to a2 or a3. In fact, in just another 4 moves this position was reached.

White still just has to sit and wait for black to try something and then react, but what can black do? Advance on the king side? Bring the king to the queen side? With the pawn on a3, black's king has a hiding square on a2, but white's rook will be able to take king side pawns as black won't be threatening to promote. So the other option is to advance the pawn to a2, but what then? black's rook is as immobile as white's, and if black's king comes to the queen side, it will be subject to checks that it won't be able to escape from.

Carlsen didn't give up trying, and eventually, this position was reached with black pushing his g-pawn. So what would you play here as white? What would be your candidate moves? Perhaps hxg5, or Ra7+, or even Kf3? Let's look at trading a pair of pawns as that's what we're told we should do as defenders. After 1.hxg5 fxg5

Now what? White's king is becoming more open, and what black would like to do is have his rook on a1, pawn and a2 and swing the rook over to do a check. So imagine doing nothing like 2.Kf3 Ra1 3.Kg2 

Now the position is critical for white after 3..g4! If white shuffles the king, black's king will come to the queen side, while if white aims for more trades with 4.f4 exf3 Kxf3, then white's king becomes more exposed.

The whole endgame is a nightmare, and there are simplifications to other endgames that need to be understood as well. Anand's solution was excellent. If we go back a few moves:

Anand chose to play 60.g4! here. I have to admit, it wouldn't have been first among my candidate moves, but the resulting positions are all level.

If black captures hxg4, then white can play hxg5 fxg5 and Kg3 picking up one of the g-pawns before retreating the king back to the corner. Carlsen took the other way 60..gxh4 but after 61.gxh5, this h-pawn gives white sufficient counterplay. Look at the final position when the game was agreed drawn.

It is black to move and although he has an extra pawn, and 2 passed pawns, black has virtually no moves. Playing h3 will allow Kh2 when the only move is Kg8 but a repetition will occur after Rg7+ and the rook will fly back to a7.

While opening knowledge and tactical and imaginative flair are essential ingredients in a players arsenal, learning technique can help us save valuable half points, or like with Carlsen, squeeze out victories from unlikely positions. Remember that very often, the defence in the endgame is being carried out after 4, 5, 6 hours of intense concentration so it is important to keep trying and to keep putting pressure on opponent's. Here's the endgame with some notes by me. I strongly urge anyone with any chess ambition to learn the technique from Anand's play so that you can use it your own games.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Favourite Tournament

Do you have a favourite tournament? By that I mean is there any tournament that either you played in that sticks in your mind as being a great event for one reason or another, or one a great event from history. You could have performed amazingly, or the field or conditions were fantastic. And related to this, do you have a favourite tournament to follow? Is it a local event, a national championship, an annual supertournament, or anything else?

Currently, there are so many events happening around the world. This is what brought this question to my mind. The Match of the Millennials in USA sees a US team vs a World team at junior age group levels. Australia's very own prodigious talent, Anton Smirnov represents the World team, as does the Indian 11 year old star Pragga. This event can't help me thinking of the USSR vs Rest of the World matched from the 1970's and 1980's. I'm sure we'll look back at these kids when they become top players in 5-10 years time and reminisce a little, but I can't get too excited by this type of event.

I'm more excited by the British Championship which is starting later today. The national Championships of my birth country and my adopted country, Australia, are very important events for me, and I follow them both. Thankfully they happen at opposite times of the year, with the Australian Championship happening in January, giving me plenty of time to focus on them. In fact the 2016 Australian Championships was one of my better events over the years, and I hope to play in a few more championships in the coming years.

Even more immediate for me are local events, with the Victorian Championship currently in progress as well as many club events around Melbourne and Victoria. I'd have to sat tha my faourite event in the Victorian chess calendar is the MCC Club Championship which takes up the first quarter of the year. Although I haven't won it, I've finished near the top regularly, and it is a tournament where there is almost always IM opposition to face. This year I managed to finish third which was pretty good taking into account that it was a tough field. I also finished third in my most memorable Club Championship in 2008 which was won by Malcolm Pyke who scored a magnificent 8/9 to finish half a point clear of IM Guy West. Malcolm's perennial participation at the MCC will be sorely missed, and it was a great honour for me to win the tournament that was just held as his memorial at the MCC. More of that in a future post.

Of course, International events are great to follow. I have a soft spot for Hastings and Amsterdam having played memorable chess tournaments in both. I think Hastings tops it for me as the greatest,or at least, as my favourite. I remember sitting in the commentary room and being awestruck as Bent Larson just walked in and started talking about his game and the remaining games. This was years before internet coverage which sees this happen regularly, and was a special treat back in the 1980's. Hastings 1895 must go down as my favourite ever tournament. The cream of chess was playing, the games were great, the result was in doubt up till the very end, with the favourites not getting their own way. It had absolutely everything.

Anyway, what is your favourite tournament? One that you played in, one that you enjoy playing in, or International events that you love to watch, or your favourite from history?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Practical Chess Study

Most of us study chess from a book or a computer by ourselves. We play through stuff, openings, tactics puzzles, famous games, endgames, and generally accumulate knowledge and some level of expertise. But it can get much more effective if you study in a group or with a partner. There are more brains at work, hopefully with different ways of looking at positions.The only trouble is that we have little time to get together with others to study so most of what we do is alone. It is possible to play online, but I don't think many people study in a group online. Perhaps with a coach, but not in a group.

When I was running an endgame group at the Melbourne Chess Club a few years ago, we'd meet at the club and go through a type of ending each week, first looking at some practice and theory, and then playing from positions that related to the evening's theme. This is a really good exercise, learning and then putting the new found knowledge into a practical setting.

I recently decided that I could try this at home using a strong engine (probably a weak engine would be good enough!). Find some positions and play them out against the computer. Good positions to play would be practical endgame positions that are fairly level, or even theoretical positions to test your knowledge (try mating with king and queen vs king and rook against a comp, or defending rook vs rook and bishop).

But why limit it to endgames? Let's take 2 famous quotes as a starting point.

"The hardest thing in chess is to win a won game"

"The remainder of the game needs no further comment"

These 2 chess cliches seem to contradict one another. So how about setting up a position which requires no further comment and trying to convert to a win? Here's an example.

This position is from the game Euwe-Capablanca London 1922. In the tournament book, Maroczy criticises Euwe's last move. 17.g3 "This loses a pawn". But that is it. The remainder of the game gets no commentary as if it is all self evident. Apparently.

Working out how Capablanca as black wins a pawn in this position isn't that difficult, but to convert after might seem tricky, especially against a computer playing to at least 2500 standard. I wonder how many of us could do it 100% of the time?

This is the sort of exercise that would be of huge practical benefit to players, certainly below master standard, and playing against the clock would also help practically. I will not be playing much chess in the second half of the year so I'll be looking at ways to keep in touch. This might just be one such method.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Update on "Women's Chess"

A few months ago I wrote a post about "Women's Chess" and sexual discrimination in the chess World. Since then I have seen articles and heard opinions by women, so a quick update is due.

Earlier this week on the Chessbase website, US FM Alisa Melekhina wrote an interesting piece about "Women's Chess" and the negative connotation that label has on the game. Tellingly, a number of the comments at the end of the article are derogatory and by men. A number of comments are personal and have nothing rational to argue against the piece, and this fits very well into my previous article. If male chess players are threatened by the possibility there could be stronger female chess players, then that is a sad state of affairs.

Melekhina isn't the only player to recently come out and say there are problems with the way women are treated in chess. Canadian WFM Alexandra Botez put the case eloquently on's ChessCenter. While discussing with presenter IM Danny Rensch, Botez points out that women's titles are set lower than men's which sets lower goals for women. Personally, I feel this is stating the obvious, but it takes women such as Melekhina and Botez to come out and say it, as well as others. (This wrap up video contains the interview near the start of the transmission)

This interview came after a provocative article from Vanessa West on the US Chess Federation's website entitled "Should Women's Titles be Eliminated". As Botez said, the article was well researched and presented and the arguments seemed coherent. Women's titles lower the bar for women's expectations maintaining a lower standard among female players in the game. As such, less female role models exist at the top level and therefore less girls aspire to take up chess seriously. It is a self perpetuating cycle.

Again, there are numerous comments beneath the article, though they tend to be more reasoned arguments. A quick Google search for "should women's chess titles be eliminated" brings up 613,000 results which shows this is a real issue. And if these recent articles are anything to go by, it seems the trend is that opinion is against the women's titles and the division in the game.

I hope that in the near future, something will be done to really promote the place of girls and women in chess by equalising goals and removing discrimination from the world of chess.

ps. I received a notification from New in Chess today regarding a new book about the first women's World Champion, Vera Menchik. I reckon this will be a fascinating read, so I'm going to buy it! I'll review it at some stage in the future.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Variation on a Theme of Torre-Lasker

When I teach chess to kids (and adults for that matter) I love to teach classic games with clear motifs. I can teach something of the rich history and culture around the game as well as showing useful patterns and techniques. The classic example of a Windmill is the game Torre-Lasker Moscow 1925 where the Mexican genius beat ex-World Champion Emanuel Lasker using a spectacular queen sacrifice. The lead play to this sacrifice is rich in tactical ideas with plenty of thrust and counter thrust going on.

So here is the position where Torre famously sacrificed his queen with 25.Bf6!! There followed 25..Qxh5 26.Rxg7+ Kh8 27.Rxf7+ [The Windmill motif] 27..Kg8 28.Rg7+ 

Here's the windmill in visual mode. White's rook unleashes a discovered check from the bishop and after taking pieces on the rank, rebounds back to g7 to check and start the process over again.

To make this point even more vivid to young students, I have altered the position slightly allowing for more captures and a mating pattern at the end of the line.

Here's my improved Variation on a Theme by Torre-Lasker. Now, 25.Bf6!! Qxh5 26.Rxg7+ will be followed by captures on f7, e7, c7, b7, a7 and finally the Ra1 will take on a8 with unstoppable mate on f8. Not an improvement on the classic, but a more vivid example for young minds to cope with! The knight on e3 even stops Qd1 mate at the end!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Out Of Retirement

It is time to bring this blog back out of retirement. I mean, if Kasparov can come out of retirement to play in the Grand Chess Tour, then chess lovers of the world should all be excited. And that isn't the only exciting thing in the chess world. Magnus Carlsen has become less dominant so we have a great situation at the top of the game where there are a whole bunch of players challenging to take the number 1 spot on the FIDE rating list. Magnus has a small 10 point lead over Kramnik with Wesley So only 12 behind, Aronin 13 behind, Caruana 15 behind and Mamedyarov 22 off the top spot. I'm not sure I ever remember such a tightly packed group at the top and it makes it an exciting time at the top of the game.

While the elite side of the game intrigues me, it is difficult to get to grips with their ability and I therefore tend to concentrate more on other things when I'm studying chess. I love the history of the game and I've ordered a book of the 1922 London International tournament. This was a great event won by Capablanca ahead of Alekhine, Rubinstein etc. The tournament book was written by Maroczy who was competing in the event, and I'm quite excited to read this book as I've never read any of Maroczy's writings before.

As a chess coach I'm also interested in junior chess, and it is an exciting time with Chinese superstar Wei Yi heading towards the top 10 in the world, and Indian super kid, Praggnanandaa trying hard to beat Sergey Karjakin's 15 year old record of being the youngest Grand Master in history. Pragga is not yet 12, and has come close to scoring GM norms already. His rating is sitting at 2479 which is absolutely amazing. If you want to know more about Pragga, then follow Chessbase India, which I've recently discovered, and which I find excellent. There's plenty of information about the players making these super players more accessible.

We in Australia might not have a talent quite like Pragga, but we do have some great juniors and I obviously find Australian chess interesting. I'll be following it as best I can. I've been playing lots of chess and have some things to write. My club, the Melbourne Chess Club, is as active as always and I'm currently playing in the Victorian Championships.

I'll also be writing about women's chess, or at least my take on women's chess. I've written here before that I don't like the way that women are treated in our chess community and I'll continue to write about it until things change! I've worked with a number of girls in Australia and I have listened to their concerns about the game of chess and their place in it.

I was recently coaching on a camp and I showed a game from London 1922, the fantastic Alekhine-Yates game. If you haven't seen it, then take a look. It is a strategic masterpiece with a beautiful finish. Yates weakens his e5 square and Alekhine uses it as an outpost for his knight as well as dominating the c-file. He skillfully transfers his rooks from the c-file to the seventh rank and then brings up his last reinforcement, his king as an attacking piece in the middlegame. The final position is wonderful!

Alekhine as white has just played Ke5 trapping black's rook, while mate will follow soon. Here's the full game which I look forward to analysing in some depth with Maroczy's guidance.

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