30 December 2011

Thoughts on "Best of" Chess Carnival posts

Been doing some thinking about the upcoming "Best of" Chess Carnival for January 2012, with my intended submissions arranged from the easiest to hardest category to decide on.

1.  Best Game?

I'll go with my final round game from the Denker Tournament of Champions.  Several reasons: the tournament result mattered personally (by winning I achieved a 50% score for the tournament); the overall game quality is high (for someone at the Class level); and I was able to find an original, winning idea while also calculating how to avoid a series of threats from my opponent which could have turned the game around.  Accurately calculating and evaluating my opponent's potential moves has been a traditional weak point in my thought process, so this game is an example of what I am capable of on a good day (with the idea of emulating it in the future to create more such good days).

2.  Best Post?

This is of course highly subjective; objectively speaking, this would best be determined by the readership's opinion, if that were really possible.  That said, the "best" post in terms of it being the most meaningful/useful one for me was in fact the first blog post, Setting the Scene.  The creation of this blog and its inaugural post both signified and manifested a new commitment to a serious program of chess training.  We'll see where it leads.

Separately, from the potentially meaningless statistics department: the most read post as of today is Openings Selection - Initial Considerations, which is also in a multiple-way tie for the most commented post.

3.  Best Post on Another Blog?

(Also known as the "Best Post EVAH" category)

Gotta go with the largest pseudo-flame war ever on chess improvement blogs: Shy Guest Blogger (from Elizabeth Vicary's blog).  Note the ironic post title.

Plenty of other internet wackiness and mayhem of course exists on blogs/sites devoted to chess politics and other controversial developments involving the sport/game/art.  The chess improvement community isn't usually a good match for this sort of thing - there really aren't very many things to potentially argue forcefully about and everybody agrees that improvement is a good thing.  Nonetheless, a wide range of interesting folks showed up to the above highly entertaining and sometimes informative exchange (90 comments as of today).

24 December 2011

Annotated Game #24: Kingside attack in the Slow Slav

This game took place in the first round of a five-round weekend tournament, following the previous tournament completed in Annotated Game #23.  My opponent chose the "Slow Slav" variation (4. e3), which leads to a game of maneuver and is normally quite level.  Rather than pursue a completely equal game with no winning prospects, I elect to create a positional imbalance and initiate a kingside attack, somewhat reminiscent of a Dutch Defense formation.  The attack in fact goes well, until I miss an elementary pinning tactic due to "tunnel vision" (focusing on one of my opponent's possibilities without considering other ones).  A useful game nonetheless to look at, with some improvements found for both sides in the maneuvering phase.  I now much better understand the importance of piece placement and activity, for example, which was neglected for both sides in this game.

23 December 2011

Mindfulness and Effortful Study

In looking for further parallels to serious chess and martial arts training, I came across the below excerpt, taken from a Scientific American article and posted on a martial arts site.  The term "mindfulness" is often used for meditation and other mental exercises, which essentially means that your mind is present in the moment and concentrating on your task, as in Focusing on the Path.  The term used below is "effortful study" which is less aesthetic, but conveys more precisely the process involved, i.e. constantly thinking critically and taking on new challenges.  Note also the comparison with musical study, which shares similar characteristics regarding the attainment of mastery.

"...What matters is not experience per se but 'effortful study,' which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study
Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields."

20 December 2011

Annotated Game #23: English Four Knights (4. e3 Be7)

This next game followed Annotated Game #22 and was the last round of the tournament.  My opponent was rated at the upper end of Class D and played the opening well, coming out of it with a space advantage, well-placed pieces and control of the center with a hanging pawns structure on the c/d files.  However, he apparently did not understand the requirements for subsequent dynamic play that the structure required, allowing me (despite some weak moves on my part) to eventually successfully target the pawns and then achieve a dominating position with a material plus.  Incredibly, at this point I dithered and allowed a draw, at the time being too passive and afraid of nonexistent threats on the kingside.  It is exactly this type of play (and attitude) that should be avoided on the path to chess mastery.

10 December 2011

How Kramnik makes us feel better about chess

The ongoing London Chess Classic 2011 is, as its predecessors were, an outstanding tournament filled with interesting personalities.  However one chooses to follow it, it's what used to be called a "chessic feast".

One of the excellent features this year is the post-game internet video commentary by the participants, which usually lasts from 15-20 minutes.  Kramnik's thorough description of his win over Adams in round 5 I think is particularly valuable for us non-GMs.  His commentary is very frank and includes a great deal of talk about uncertainty regarding his evaluation of positions and plans.  I found it very accessible and instructive on a practical level, which is not always the case with GM explanations.

The takeaway from this is that if super-GMs regularly are unsure which plan is best to follow or which side stands better in a position, the rest of us should not be striving for perfection either.  All too often annotated games at high levels don't include the thought process of the players and are presented in a mechanistic way which doesn't reflect how games are really won and lost.  Kramnik's candid lessons should make us all feel better about what playing chess is really like.

Annotated Game #22: English-KID (plus quickest win)

This post resumes the annotations of my past tournament games following Annotated Game #18: Comeback (Round 3).  This game actually was the second one played in the next tournament, as the first round game was the shortest win of my chess career (10 moves) and did not warrant annotation.  It is included afterwards, however, mostly as a warning to those players who don't find it necessary to think in the opening.

Returning to the second round game, an English opening versus a King's Indian Defense setup, it features an all-too-typical pattern of an opening advantage in space and time squandered by too-slow play, then the selection of an incorrect plan based on a lack of appreciation for my opponent's possible threats.  This points to the need for deeper study of the middlegame transition point, in this case moves 10-13, where improvements were found for White.

Below is the first round game, for amusement purposes.

07 December 2011

December 2011 Chess Carnival

The Carnival lineup is now out on Blue Devil Knight's Confessions of a chess novice blog.

Normally I comment on an early favorite among the Carnival offerings.  This time, however, I'll instead mention BDK's blog itself, which with this entry may be making its last update.  It's a highly entertaining, often instructive and very human look at an amateur chess career and its theory and practice.  The journey through it is therefore well worth taking, in addition because of the major impact it had on the chess blogging scene for several years.

01 December 2011

Annotated Game #21: Modern Stonewall Hero

As part of learning the Dutch Defense, I'm currently working my way through Win with the Stonewall Dutch (Sverre Johnsen/Ivar Bern/Simen Agdestein, Gambit, 2009).  I'll post my thoughts on the book when it's complete, but one of the more innovative things included is an exercise in each chapter.  In Chapter 5, the reader is directed to research and choose a "Stonewall Hero" from internationally recognized players, while in Chapter 6 the exercise is to analyze and annotate at least one of their games, only using an engine after you have looked at the complete game yourself.

Although for practical reasons I generally prefer using computer-assisted analysis for my own games (i.e. looking at them with the aid of an engine, but not just feeding a game to one), I stuck to the authors' guidance in order to maximize the learning experience.  It turned out to not be as much of a chore as I thought it might be.  The "bare-brained" analysis process did especially help to identify and figure out some of the "roads not traveled" (variations not played) due to tactical or strategic considerations; when looking at positions with an engine, the computer won't offer up moves it considers inferior, although their drawbacks may not be initially obvious.  I also found that I could get something out of the analysis process while looking at an unannotated GM-level game, which had also been a point of doubt for me.  After all, what could I bring to the analysis of such a high level game?  Enough to make it worthwhile, it seems.

I selected Artur Yusupov (alternate spelling Jussupow, which is how he appears in the database I have) as my "Stonewall Hero" because of his breadth and depth of experience playing the Dutch over a number of years. He of course has also been a close collaborator with Mark Dvoretsky on a number of chess instruction books, including Opening Preparation, which I own.  As luck would have it, I opened the first game of his in the Dutch and it was a win in the Stonewall.  I found the game itself to be quite interesting, following a major sideline of the Modern Stonewall and featuring a number of thematic ideas in the opening, which are commented on below.

26 November 2011

Annotated Game #20: Training Game (Symmetrical English)

This training game isn't a miniature in fact, but essentially is one in spirit.  White makes a big strategic error on move 13, prematurely moving ahead with b4 and prompting exchanges which leave all of the chances with Black.  This is in large part due to my unfamiliarity with the Symmetrical English structures, so the game was at least valuable from the perspective of opening preparation and learning.  Moves 10-13 are particularly instructive in this regard, with some very different paths to follow.

As a little bit of background, I had just hung a piece in a "normal" training game and decided that this behavior should be punished somehow, the mechanism to deliver said punishment being a training game against the full-strength Chessmaster.  Its opening book is both good and varied, taking me out of normal practice around move 5.  With my limited experience, I am however finding that the Symmetrical English is not particularly dangerous for White as long as he doesn't try to get too much out of it.  Reasonable moves were sufficient through move 10 and even the sub-par continuation I chose after that wasn't bad, until move 13.  After that, a classic bind and squeeze is conducted by Black.

19 November 2011

The Kung Fu of Chess

Kung Fu literally translated from the Chinese means "energy-time" and in fact is best translated as "skill", since it refers to any capability that requires time and effort to master.  Outside of China, Kung Fu is commonly used to refer only to Chinese martial arts (of which there are in fact many disciplines).  But playing an instrument is also kung fu.  Dance is kung fu.  Chess is Kung Fu.

Examining chess through the prism of Kung Fu lets us apply its time-tested training philosophies to our own mental martial art.  The concept of martial morality (wude in Chinese) is fundamental to Kung Fu training and performance.  While the popular image of Kung Fu is largely limited to acrobatic displays of physical power, the internal aspect of the art is at least as important, even more so for those disciplines such as Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) where mental techniques and soft body mechanics are used to defeat hard force.  The classic saying is that "a force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds" - here is the full quote from the Taijiquan classics, which I believe is relevant to any mental martial art:

"There are many fighting arts. Although they use different forms, for the most part they do not go beyond the strong dominating the weak, and the slow resigning to the swift. The strong defeating the weak and the slow hands ceding to the swift hands are all the results of natural abilities and not of well-trained techniques. From the sentence 'A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds' we know that the technique is not accomplished with strength. The spectacle of an old person defeating a group of young people, how can it be due to swiftness?"

The significance for the improving chess player is that natural ability will only take you so far and must be supplemented by technique.  Superior technique, achieved through deep understanding and training, will in turn defeat those who only rely on untrained strength.  Natural ability of course varies greatly, as some players may even attain Expert strength without much study, while many others will at first achieve around Class D strength.  In either case, true mastery can only be achieved through sustained study, practice and understanding of the art/game/skill we call chess.

As chess is a martial art of the mind, I will close by presenting the martial morality of mind. A fuller discussion of the concepts and practice of martial morality can be found here.
  • Will is reflected in a sincere, deep commitment to a goal. You will not turn aside.
  • Endurance, Perseverance, Patience are all necessary to achieve mastery, which is never easy or quick.
  • Courage is required to accept challenges, with the full understanding that you may lose, which in turn is necessary to win.
For other, world-class players' views of the parallels and synergies between chess and martial arts practices, one can refer to IM Josh Waitzkin's Art of Learning or GM Nigel Davies' The Chess Improver.

Annotated Game #19: Training game (Symmetrical English)

The following training game was played against Chessmaster (CM) personality "Dylan", rated Class B on my system, and is instructive and amusing, if not high-quality.  This line of the English was unfamiliar to me but I employed a standard idea from other Symmetrical English (c4/c5) positions with the 7. d4 break in the center.  This actually worked much better than I realized during the game, as the threat of d5-d6 (which was not obvious to me) in fact is quite strong without correct play from Black (7...d5).  So that was one useful takeaway from this game for my opening understanding.

After some maneuvering a dynamically equal position is reached, but then Black allows White to go for a strong attack in the center and up the f-file.  I have previously identified my attacking play as an area where improvement is needed, something which was reinforced by the sub-par conduct of this attack.  The move f6! is available for quite some time, but is never actually executed, to White's detriment.  White's attack peters out into a won endgame position where I was unable to find the key to make progress, allowing Black to sneak in a draw by repetition.

This is the first game published here using the latest Aquarium update.

8 8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
ChessAdmin - Dylan
1/2-1/2, 2011.11.11.
[#] 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.Nf3 e6 +0.18 4.g3 Nc6 5.Bg2 h6 the most common fifth moves by far are:
[5...d5 6.cxd5 exd5 7.d4 Bg4 8.Ne5 cxd4 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Qxd4 ...0-1, Psakhis Lev 2582 - Polgar Judit 2700 , Benidorm 2002 It (cat.13) (active);
5...Be7 6.O-O d5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.d4 O-O 9.Bg5 Ne4 10.Bxe7 ...1-0, Karpov Anatoly 2780 - Wuerfel Christian, Hockenheim 1994 Simultan]
6.O-O Be7 7.d4 a6 +1.17 N now truly out of book.
[7...d5 would have been interesting. 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Qc2 Qe7 11.a3 and White has a reasonably comfortable game.]
8.Bf4 +0.52 is Houdini's second choice.
[Its first is 8.d5 which although it doesn't appear so at first glance, is in fact a very forcing move. The double threat of dxc6 and d6 forces Black to lose a pawn or suffer a massive positional bind. 8...exd5 (8...Na5 9.d6 Bf8 10.e4 g6 11.e5 Nh7 is similarly painful) 9.cxd5 Nd4 ( If Black for example tries 9...Na5 10.d6! Bf8 11.Qd3 now the best Black can do is grab the d6 pawn in exchange for a piece, otherwise 11...Nc6 12.Qe3+ ) 10.Nxd4 cxd4 11.Qxd4 +1.17]
8...Nh5 9.Be3 Nf6?! +1.27
[9...cxd4!? 10.Nxd4 O-O ]
10.dxc5 +0.98 again, second best to d5!
[10.d5 exd5 11.cxd5 Nd4 12.Nxd4 cxd4 13.Bxd4 +1.27]
10...Ng4 11.Bd4?! +0.22 I had seen the ..e5 push earlier but forgot about it. 11...e5 12.Be3 Nxe3 13.fxe3 Bxc5 the position is now equal. The doubled pawns are compensated for by the semi-open f-file and greater piece activity due to White's lead in development. As will be seen, the extra e-pawn can even be useful. 14.Kh1 +0.00 done in order to get the king off the a7-g1 diagonal occupied by Black's bishop and offer a pawn sacrifice. With Black's underdeveloped position, taking the pawn on e3 would be rapidly punished. 14...d6
[14...Bxe3 15.Qd5 was what I had in mind, with the principal threat of Nxe5 or Ng5 with a discovered attack on f7. 15...d6 16.Ng5 Qxg5 17.Qxf7+ Kd8 18.Rad1 with a healthy attack.]
[The immediate 15.Nd2 with the same idea of repositioning the knight on e4 would take advantage of the d6 weakness and not block the d-file.]
15...Be6 16.Nd2 a5 17.Ne4 f5?! +1.12
[17...O-O ]
18.Nxc5 dxc5 19.e4 +0.68
[19.Qb3!? appears somewhat stronger, as White creates a threat to the b7 pawn while clearing d1 for the Ra1 to move to. 19...O-O prudently moves the king to greater safety 20.Qxb7 Rc8 21.Rad1 Rf7 22.Qb5 +1.12]
19...Nd4?? +3.75
[19...O-O 20.exf5 Rxf5 +0.68]
20.e3 the doubled pawns dominate! 20...Nc6 21.exf5 Bf7 the threat of f6 now looms. 22.Qg4 Kf8 23.Rad1
[23.f6 g5 24.Rad1 is a superior continuation with the same idea, having already dominated squares around Black's king.]
23...h5 24.Qe2 h4 25.g4 h3 26.Be4 Bxd5 27.Bxd5
[I did not even consider 27.cxd5 since it shut off attacking lanes for the pieces. However, Houdini likes it best, with a sample continuation of 27...Nb8 28.f6 gxf6 29.g5 Nd7 30.d6 Qe8 31.Qg4 ;
27.Rxd5 also appears better than the game continuation, allowing the rook to penetrate into Black's position, cause direct threats, and allow for the queen or rook to go to d1.]
27...Qc7 28.Qf3 Nb4 29.a3
[29.Bxb7 I looked for a while at this, but then decided it gave Black some counterplay, while a3 did not. Houdini gives 29...Rb8 30.Be4 a move I hadn't considered 30...Nxa2 31.f6 g6 32.Bxg6 and White has nothing to worry about.]
29...Nc6 Unfortunately Nimzovich's dictum "the threat is stronger than the execution" only goes so far. Here's where f6 should have been executed (again). Instead, the attack starts petering out. 30.Be6 e4 31.Qxe4 Qe5 32.Qxe5 Nxe5 33.Rf4 White is still winning, although the double rook and minor piece endgame looks nowhere near as easy as the attack did several moves ago. 33...a4 34.Rd5 Nc6 Here the simple Rxc5 should seal the deal, with Rd5 available as a follow-up to hold the d-file. 35.Bd7 Nd8 36.e4 Rh6 37.e5 Rb6 38.Rf2 +2.63 Rb3 39.Kg1 the idea being to avoid future back-rank mate issues. 39...Re3 40.Rfd2 Nf7 41.Kf2
[Here I avoided the obvious 41.e6 Ne5 42.Rxc5 due to the knight fork 42...Nf3+ but 43.Kf2 handles things nicely.]
41...Rxe5 42.Re2 Re7 43.Rxe7 Kxe7 44.Be6 Nd6 45.Ke3 b6 46.Rd3?! +1.45
[Now was the time for 46.Kf4!? in order to march to g5.]
46...Rf8?! +2.88
[46...Rd8!? 47.Bd5 b5 48.cxb5 Nxb5 49.Ke4 ]
47.Kf4 Rh8 Here I failed to come up with a good idea to make progress. 48.Kg5 +2.38
[48.Ke5 Rd8 49.Bd5 would have allowed the king to improve its position and seal off the d-file from any threats from the Rd8.]
48...Ne4+ 49.Kf4 Nd6 50.Ke5 Rd8 I still needed more time to find the key to the position, Bd5 not occurring to me. Unfortunately... 51.Kf4?! +1.17
[51.Bd5!? Nf7+ 52.Kf4 +2.88]
51...Rh8 +2.88 is a sneaky three times repetition, which Black seizes. [1/2-1/2]