03 September 2015

Why World Champion Max Euwe Played the Slav Defense

I've posted previously here Why I Play the Slav, but it's also worth reading GM Bryan Smith's article on Chess.com on why World Champion Max Euwe played it in his matches against Alexander Alekhine.  It's not a completely one-sided tale, as Euwe did not fully rely on it as Black and also played against it (with success) as White.  This also helps reinforce the idea that true opening mastery is about deep understanding of positions, not an emotional commitment to your chosen side.  It's also worth noting that Slav players (like myself) doing their own research into the opening with today's databases will undoubtedly run across games from Euwe in still-critical lines.  It's nice to see lessons from the 20th century still applicable to today's games.

16 August 2015

Tournament prep is less about the chess, more about you

I've had a rather busy summer with a lot of travel and limited chess study time, but still managed to do reasonably well at my latest tournament this month - I played interesting games in all rounds, didn't blunder (which always makes for more interesting games), gained some rating points and won some money.  In the past, I've been apprehensive going into tournaments with what I felt was too little prep time - in particular, not enough time to review all of my openings.  This time I tried to put that feeling aside and focus more on having a good mental attitude and taking care of myself physically both before heading into the competition and during it.

Going back to the Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills and Mental Toughness posts, your skills practice over time should boost your strength (and it's good to put extra focus on some things pre-tournament).  However, it's your ability to maximize your chances in each individual game that determines your actual performance.  "Cramming" for a chess tournament like it's an exam is not helpful, since there's simply too much information to deal with; an exam has a finite boundary (even if it seems like a lot), while chess does not.  That's why optimizing your own mental and physical state - being as relaxed, energetic and confident as possible - will do more for you in the short term when going into a tournament.  Because chess is also a creative and engaging activity, I think this is even more important, since purely rote memorization and application of ideas generally leads to failure.

A recent post over at the Chess Improver ("Tournament Prep for Older Players") contains some similar themes.  The author (Hugh Patterson) has some more specific suggestions for pre-tournament activities, which you may or may not follow - IM Josh Waitzkin and others have also focused on Tai Chi practice as a blend of mental and physical training - but the main point is that getting your mind and body in a good place is the best way to set yourself up for success in both the long and short term.

IM Josh Waitzkin

05 August 2015

Commentary: 2015 U.S. Championship, Round 8 (Abrahamyan - Paikidze)

This next game also features Nazi Paikidze, who this time as Black plays an interesting and relatively new idea in the Classical Caro-Kann (11...a5!?).  One of the benefits of doing these commentary game analyses is getting exposure to current master-level ideas, in the process obtaining a deeper understanding of how they vary from the standard plans.  Most important to understand is why the idea is different and what it means for the position.  This also provides further insight into more familiar plans, by contrasting the different evolutions of the position.

Here the main idea is to get a head start on Black's queenside expansion and also to provide a weakening pawn move (13. c3) - although analysis shows that this response is not necessarily automatic or best on White's part.  The trade-off is slightly slower development for Black and a somewhat scary-looking (albeit manageable) kingside attack for White.  Caro-Kann players need to look hard at the White ideas and Black defensive responses in these position types, for example the variations around move 21.  The rest of the game also provides some useful lessons, including from Black's perspective on the importance of centralized queen activity and why it's important not to give up when down material, instead posing as many problems as possible for your opponent.

Contemporary commentary on the game can be seen here on the ChessBase news site, with analysis by GM Josh Freidel.

Abrahamyan, Tatev (2322) - Paikidze, Nazi (2333)

Result: 1/2-1/2
Site: Saint Louis USA
Date: 2015.04.09
[...] 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.¤c3 entering the "Main Line" Caro-Kann, although these days it's the Advance Variation (3. e5) that is most played at the professional level. 3...dxe4 4.¤xe4 ¥f5 the Classical Caro-Kann. 5.¤g3 ¥g6 6.h4 h6 7.¤f3 ¤d7 8.h5 ¥h7 9.¥d3 ¥xd3 10.£xd3 e6 11.¥d2 the standard position in this line. Now Black varies, however. 11...a5!? this appears to be a new idea. Very little played, but with some recent high-level games where Black scores well. (11...¤gf6 is normally played here.) 12.O-O-O this seems to be an almost reflexive choice by White and scores 40 percent in the database (the alternative c4 scores 0 percent). The logic is that Black no longer can castle queenside safely, so by default must have the king stay in the center or castle kingside. White therefore castles queenside and keeps the rook on the h-file, for future attacking possibilities. This does in part play into Black's main idea, however, which is to gain space on the queenside and play there. 12...¥b4 this provokes White's next move, which however is not forced. The move is universally played in the database, an indication that it is considered the obvious follow-up idea and the reason for playing ...a5 in the first place. 13.c3
13.¤e4!? ignoring the bishop sortie and spending the tempo on mobilizing the knight is another option.
13...¥e7 having done its job, the bishop returns to its standard square. Now White's king is less secure, since the c3 pawn is a possible target for a future pawn lever. 14.£e2 ¤gf6 at this point we have a standard position, but with c3 and a5 thrown in. Structurally this has to favor Black a little, but this may be offset by the tempo invested in the pawn move, unless it is put to further good use. 15.¤e5 a standard attacking formation by White, seizing the central square and freeing up the space in front of the f-pawn. 15...O-O while it will take good defensive (or counter-offensive) skills to protect the Black king, it's still far better off castled than sitting on the e-file. 16.f4 ¦e8 this is a standard defensive rook move in this line. While at first glance it may seem unnecessary, the e6 pawn can become a serious weak point and tactical focus for White, so the Re8 will help with that, as well as leaving the f8 square potentially open for a bishop retreat. 17.¢b1 this proactively gets the king off the c-file and protects the a2 pawn.
17.f5 is played in the only other game in the database, but Black is able to neutralize this more aggressive approach. 17...¥d6 18.fxe6 ¦xe6 19.¤f5 ¥xe5 20.dxe5 ¦xe5 21.£f3 £f8 22.g4 £c5 23.¥e3 £c4 24.¥d4 £e2 25.£xe2 ¦xe2 26.g5 ¤g4 27.¦dg1 c5 28.¦xg4 cxd4 29.¦xd4 ¤c5 30.gxh6 gxh6 31.¤xh6 ¢h7 32.¤g4 a4 33.¦f1 ¢g8 34.¤f6 ¢h8 35.¦d2 ¦e6 36.¢c2 b5 37.¦f5 ¦c8 38.h6 ¦ec6 39.h7 ¤e6 40.¦xb5 a3 41.¦f5 axb2 42.¢xb2 ¦xc3 43.¦g2 ¤g7 44.a4 ¦3c6 45.¦f3 ¦b6 46.¢a3 ¦c1 47.¦b2 ¦a1 48.¦a2 ¦ab1 49.¦c2 ¦a1 50.¦a2 ¦ab1 1/2-1/2 (50) Bobras,P (2535) -Socko,B (2611) Germany 2015
17...a4 Black normally would be looking to play the ...c5 break around this time, and this would still be a viable way to play. However, with the advanced a-pawn and White's king on the queenside, the text move is natural. 18.¤f1 this seems like it just wastes time. Although it frees up the space in front of the g-pawn, so would the alternative Ne4. Perhaps White was reluctant to let Black exchange a pair of minor pieces on e4, fearing it would harm her attacking possibilities.
18.¤e4 ¤xe4 19.£xe4 ¤xe5 20.fxe5 a3 21.b3 ¥g5 does look OK for Black, for example.
18...a3 19.b3 c5³ in contrast with the variation above, White's pieces are uncoordinated and Black's look well placed to follow up on the ...c5 break. 20.g4 cxd4 21.g5 the point of White's very aggressive play. Black now chooses the wrong path. 21...dxc3?!
21...hxg5 this is a difficult move to play at the board, since it seems that White can now crash through on the kingside in a typical attack. However, this is not the case. 22.h6 for example is a typical move that normally threatens to break everything open.
22.¤xd7 ¤xd7 23.h6 g6 24.fxg5 ¥xg5³ is the best the engine can come up with, but Black is fine.
22...¤xe5 23.h7 looks most threatening (23.fxe5 £d5ยต) 23...¢h8 24.fxe5 d3−⁠+ and White has nowhere to go on the h-file, thanks to his own h7 pawn.
22.gxf6 c2 (22...cxd2 is similar: 23.fxe7 £xe7 24.¤xd2±) 23.¢xc2 ¤xf6± Black has sacrificed a piece for two pawns and an attack - which is always tempting, but only profitable if the attack lasts. Here, White's king appears open, but after a few moves she is able to consolidate her position. 24.¢b1 playing it safe, which allows Black the chance for compensation.
24.¤g3 ¦c8 (24...£c7 25.¢b1 ¦ac8 26.¦c1±) 25.¢b1 ¤d5 26.£b5±
24...¦c8?! this looks like an obvious follow-up, but is not threatening enough.
24...£d4 threatening mate on b2 appears to be Black's best chance for compensation. It's well worth remembering that Black often needs to have a centrally-placed queen in order to do well (or even sometimes survive) in the Classical Caro-Kann. 25.¥c1 ¤e4! a hard move to spot, since it leaves the queen hanging. Black will regain the material after forking on c3. 26.¦xd4 ¤c3 27.¢a1 ¤xe2 28.¦c4 b5 29.¦c6 ¦ac8 looks close to equal.
25.¤g3 White has the time to redevelop the knight, heading for e4. 25...¤d5 26.¦he1 this is too slow. (26.¤e4) 26...£b6 27.¤e4 f5 28.¤f2 now Black can equalize, but she instead goes for a tactic on e3 that does not fully work. 28...¦c3?! here the rook cannot be captured, but the maneuver Nf2-d3 gives White the advantage, unlike in the ...Bh4 variation where Black would get the exchange in compensation. (28...¥h4 29.¤fd3 ¥xe1 30.¦xe1 ¦c3) (28...£d4 remains a good idea as well.) 29.¤fd3 ¦ec8 30.¦c1 ¦xc1 31.¦xc1 ¦xc1 32.¢xc1 the exchanges can only benefit White, due to the material balance. 32...£g1 33.¢c2 (33.£e1!?) 33...£a1 34.¤c1² although White's king is more exposed, this is not sufficient compensation for the material, since Black cannot put together sufficient threats against it. 34...¥f6? overlooking White's threat on the e-file, although White immediately returns the favor.
34...£b2 35.¢d1 £d4± would keep the queen active and centralized, while making the most of White's king in the center.
35.¤ed3?!
35.¤g6 £b2 36.¢d1+⁠− and either the e6 or b7 pawn will fall to White's queen.
35...¤c7
35...¢f7 would protect e6 less awkwardly and keep the centralized Nd5.
36.¥b4 ¥b2 37.¥d6 ¥xc1 38.¤xc1 £b2 39.¢d1± White has covered all her bases and the reduced material makes her advantage more clear. 39...£d4 exchanging on e2 would of course just give Black an obviously lost endgame. 40.£d2 £g1 41.¢c2 ¤d5 42.¥xa3 an obvious move, but threatening the e6 pawn again with the queen (Qe2) might be more advantageous, as the a3 pawn isn't going anywhere. 42...£h1 43.¤d3 £xh5 Black is still fighting hard and looking for imbalances - in this case kingside pawns to match White's queenside pawn threat - that can give her drawing chances. 44.¥b2 £f3 45.a4 h5 46.¥d4 h4 47.£f2 £h5 48.£g1 £f7?! Black gives up the queen's activity, which has served her so well up to this point. (48...£e2)
48...£h6 would alternatively maintain support for the h-pawn while pressuring f4.
49.¢b2 ¤f6 50.£g5 White in contrast now muscles in with her queen. 50...h3 it's looking desperate for Black now. 51.¤f2−⁠+ (51.£g3 is simpler and better, guaranteeing the loss of the h-pawn.) 51...h2 52.£h4 this allows Black to start making threats again.
52.£g2 interestingly is the only move that retains White's significant advantage, again due to forcing the issue with the h-pawn. Black unlike in the game cannot play ...Qf7 in response, as then the response would simply be Bxf6, with the g-pawn pinned.
52...£d7 53.¥xf6?! White (perhaps in time trouble) seems to want to simplify, even at the cost of material. (53.¥c3!?) 53...£d2! this intermediate move equalizes, as opposes to simply recapturing on f6 immediately. 54.¢a3 £d6? unfortunately, the recapture was now necessary for Black to get back in the game.
54...gxf6 and now whatever White does, Black will be able to get a perpetual after playing ...Qc1+
55.b4 gxf6 56.£xh2+⁠− in contrast with the above variation, Black's queen is now out of position and has to spend a tempo, giving White time to act. 56...£d4 57.£g3 ¢h8 58.¤d3 (58.a5!? passed pawns must be pushed!) 58...£c3 59.¢a2 b6 60.£e3 ¢h7 61.£e2 ¢g6 62.£d1 e5 to Black's credit, she continues to fight, taking whatever space White will give her. 63.£g1 ¢f7 64.£d1 ¢g6 65.£g1 ¢f7 66.£d1 ¢g6 67.£g1 and White takes the draw, evidently not seeing a way to make progress.
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25 July 2015

Expectations for improvement


The "Unrealistic Expectations" blog over at The Chess Improver is a recent helpful reality check on our general expectations for improvement.  Pessimists often say adult chess improvement is impossible, due to our failing brains as we age, while the opposing legion of optimists believe they'll make master level after a couple years.  And as for the rest of us?  Perhaps it's best just to be happy playing the game, although I do think seeing improvement over time is an integral part of my enjoyment of chess as a pastime.  Time, I believe, is the hardest factor for fully-employed adults to control and is the primary constraint on our progress.  In any case, for those who can devote effort each week to serious chess study, I say continue doing it - while being objective about your results and how far you have to go (see the Alekhine quote above).

For a more detailed look at this topic, it's also worth checking out IM Silman's "The Curse of Unrealistic Expectations" at Chess.com.