31 March 2012

Chess Carnival "Best Of" - End of the Trilogy

The third and final installment of the Chess Carnival's "Best Of" series is now up at Robert Pearson's blog.  As usual, I'll post some thoughts on the Carnival content, which you can access via the link.

With this installment, I'd previously run across much of the content and have commented on my favorites elsewhere.  Nevertheless, a standout for me was Blue Devil Knight's post on "Lessons from blitz" which is both entertaining and thought-provoking, including its 30 comments.  The subject of blitz chess tends to raise a lot of passion in the chess improvement community, with some hardcore folks in both the pro- and anti-blitz contingents. 

I expect the level of passion and occasional rancor in the debate reflects the common desire for people to publicly justify their pursuits and opinions.  With some, it goes further, as they seem to want to impose their own views and practices on others at every opportunity.

Personally, I now avoid blitz completely.  Since this will probably be the only post I ever do on the topic, I'll mention the main reasons why:
  • My primary improvement needs are my thought process and endgame skills.  Blitz will assist poorly or not at all with these areas of my game.
  • Playing internet blitz normally involves lots of games with random people.  Inevitably, a certain, not-insignificant percentage of them will be jerks.  I have no need to meet more of them in my life, my blood pressure is borderline as it is.
  • Blitz easily becomes obsessive and a time suck.  I need to budget my time more effectively for chess improvement and enjoyment.
  • I simply enjoy other aspects of playing and studying more.
That said, I'm not one of those people who thinks blitz is completely useless and will rot your brain.  It's a fact that people have different approaches to learning and for some blitz may fit the bill as an aspect of their chess improvement program.  Some people also like blitz for pure enjoyment.  So I was able to enjoy reading BDK's post and watching some sparks fly afterwards.

24 March 2012

Annotated Game #37: Swindle

This next game, from round 3 of the tournament, should have been a loss (which would have resulted in "castling long" on the tournament scorechart, 0-0-0).  Black played an inferior English Four Knights variation with 7...f6 and White had winning tactics available as early as move 9, which however were ignored.  At the time, I had relatively poor tactical sight and rarely even looked for tactical possibilities in the opening; this failure to consider tactics in the opening phase is still something of a blind spot for me.

In any event, I continued playing "normal" developing moves and achieved a positional plus out of the opening, only to lose a piece to an unusual pinning tactic by Black.  Showing tenacity, however, I decided to fight on and play aggressively, looking for whatever counterchances might be there.  This was psychologically the right choice, as Black passes up multiple chances to exchange material and simplify down to a position where White has no real threats.  White then weaves a net of force with his major pieces and Black stumbles into it, losing material and then resigning just before mate.

While this was not a high-quality game, it had its moments and it was a significant turning point for the tournament, showing that I was in fact capable of winning - in an ugly but effective manner - after a year's absence from serious play.  This is also a good example of a successful swindle, where the player who should lose refuses to go down easily and works hard to generate threats, which can hit home if ignored or mishandled by the opponent, as happened here.

17 March 2012

Chess King: not quite the full package

As part of my efforts to train with useful computer tools - see the previous post on chess software - I recently purchased the Chess King program.  The advertisements and tutorials looked promising, so I was eager to try it.  I noted in my earlier post that I hadn't found a single software package that could do everything that I wanted.  I don't need a lot of fancy features, just the solid basics.  Chess King looked like it could deliver on that.

Unfortunately, I've found that not to be the case, for my needs.  In chess training, I would ideally want software to be able to:
  • Provide a database of quality games that I can use to review my own games against, including the most recent games.  The Gigaking database that comes with Chess King is current through October 2011, but cannot be updated.  This contradicts what has been publicly advertised as a feature; see the tutorials link above for the part about users being able to "combine" (i.e. merge and update) the database.  This feature does not in fact exist in the current version, meaning there is no way to manually update the database (there is no auto-download feature).  There also is no position search feature for the database, although the tree display in the interface essentially fulfills the same function.
  • Manage multiple games databases.  The software can import PGN and Chess Assistant (CA) format databases, but the user cannot manage them easily.  It is impossible to delete a game from a database and saving new games into a defined database works only infrequently.
  • Analyze games with a strong engine.  Houdini 2.0c is included in the package in a dedicated version (i.e. it's not the UCI version that you can then use with other programs as well).  While the engine works well in the software interface, for game analysis my method is to look at the game until out of database, then start with the engine, which is standard practice.  If the database can't be made current, then it's not nearly as useful.  I would therefore have to do that portion of the game analysis with another program.
  • Play training games.  I wasn't looking for Chess King to do this, since I prefer using the Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition board and opponents.  Chess King has an interesting odds-based training game system which would probably be most useful for beginners or players who are not focused on playing tournaments.
  • Publish games to this blog.  I was disappointed with the Aquarium 2011 publishing feature, which for some unknown reason blanks out all previous posts on the main blog page.  If it weren't for that, I'd use it instead of ChessFlash.  As can be seen here, Chess King's game publishing feature doesn't have a scroll box, so can't in practical terms be used for annotated games, because the board scrolls out of sight when going through the game.
Perhaps future updates to Chess King (the above describes the features in version 1.0) will make the purchase worthwhile for me.  As it stands, at least it makes me feel a lot better about continuing to use ChessBase 10 for my game analysis and database management.  For other suggestions and comments on software, see the first link in this post.

Annotated Game #36: How Not to Play the Caro-Kann Classical

This second round tournament game (following Annotated Game #35) was not quite as awful, in the sense that I made some serious strategic errors out of the opening which my opponent took advantage of, rather than me going abruptly from a winning to a losing game.  So at least my opponent deserved the win, which is some consolation (?)

The opening is a Caro-Kann Classical, with White choosing a relatively non-threatening sideline on move 7.  Black goes astray strategically starting on move 10 with the errant plan of castling queenside.  In the old (pre-1980s) Classical variation, this was in fact Black's main idea and considered safe if leading to unambitious positions.  In this game, however, Black ignores the actual board situation to implement this idea, leaving White with a strategically won game as early as move 13.  Black has no counterplay and White's forces are already ideally lined up against Black's king position.  Some nice tactics for White end the game quickly after he ratchets up the pressure.

Black's main errors, from my point of view:
  • Making the all-too-common amateur mistake of deciding to change your openings in a game because of a "bright idea" at the board.  I had never played the queenside castling variation in a tournament game, despite having studied it superficially.  At the time I thought it was "safer" and was proven wrong.
  • Not calculating the consequences of my decision and relying on the current visual impression of the board.  Looking ahead 2-3 moves would have (or should have) revealed that Black had major problems in this line.  The position after move 12 for White is clearly unfavorable for Black.
  • The tactical error on move 17.  It combines some features of a counting error, in which the player doesn't visualize properly the results of a series of exchanges on a square, and missing the eventual skewer.  At the time, I was prone to counting errors and I believe this was the root of the problem, i.e. not being able to visualize the final result on the board and therefore not seeing White's Bf4 threat in time.

11 March 2012

Why I Play the English Opening

The English Opening has been very, very good to me.  (I haven't always been good to it, that's another subject.)  But why play it?  What does it offer that others don't?

As I've mentioned before, it's likely to be unfamiliar to most opponents and therefore will provide a practical edge to someone who knows it better, although admittedly it's unlikely to score quick wins (with some exceptions).  It has consistent strategic themes in its various branches and is not sharp, so you don't have to worry about losing to a newly discovered tactic in opening theory.  These are good reasons to play it.

But it's not the best reason.

I recently got a copy of Starting Out: The English, which I'll eventually get around to going through completely (and did so: go here for a summary of the different lines and ideas in the English); right now I'm partway through Art of Attack in Chess and need to work on other aspects of my game besides openings.  But I'm already enthusiastic about the book.  It lists my own favorite English Opening work, How to Play the English Opening by Nigel Povah, in the bibliography.  In its first pages it also makes the audacious claim that if you have to play for a win, you should choose the English.

That's right.  Not 1. e4, so sorry.  Not 1. d4, move along.  The English.

When Kasparov was down 12-11 in the 1987 World Championship, with only one game remaining, what did he pull out against Karpov?  That's right, the must-win 1. c4.  I mean, how much more must-win can you get than having to win against Karpov or lose the world championship?

(If you can't see at first why Karpov resigned, White will inevitably win Black's g-pawn after some bishop maneuvers, then it's all over.)

(Also, compare this with Annotated Game #2, which has some similar opening characteristics, although sadly it didn't turn out as well for White.)

The English happens to fit both my aesthetic and practical criteria for an opening selection, so I'm happy playing it.  I hope you're just as happy with your own opening selections.  If not, why not take a look at 1. c4?

10 March 2012

Annotated Games PGN database now available

Thanks to a query from Hieronymus, I've now made a PGN database of the annotated games on this site available for download (from the free MediaFire storage site), with a link on the sidebar.  I'd put off organizing all of the games into one database, since they were a mix of tournament and training games; they had also been in more than one format originally.  However, I think it's worthwhile to have done it.  I'll plan to keep the database current, updating it every time there's a new annotated game posted here.

(Addendum: now that the full database is up, I've removed the individual game links from the sidebar, which in any case would have eventually become too unwieldy.)

Annotated Game #35: Thou Shalt Falsify

Following Annotated Game #34, over a year passed between tournaments.  During this next tournament, I was at a point in my life where I had just moved and was preparing to move again soon for another job.  I also had not been serious about studying chess for a while.  These factors all combined to produce a notably poorer quality of play throughout the tournament.

In this game, the first round of the tournament, as White I get a very pleasant position out of an English Opening; my opening play continued to be effective, at least.  Black enters a dubious variation (a transposition to an Old Indian Defense) and drops a pawn, leading to an unusual middlegame where White has an outside passed pawn early on.  If White had known what plan to follow, this would most likely have led to victory.  However, rather than actively pushing the pawn and exploiting his queenside dominance, I played too passively and had a game-ending thought process mistake on move 19.  The failure to falsify my candidate move (which would have immediately picked up Black's threat to take the Nc3) was a reflection of an unstructured thinking process, something which in fact I've only recently rectified.

07 March 2012

Chess Carnival "Best Of", Part Deux

The second installment of Robert Pearson's "Best Of" Chess Carnival is now up.  As usual, I like to post some initial reactions to the Carnival content which you can find via the link.

My favorite part hands down is the reminder of  "Hardcore Pawnography" by chessloser.  It's now a zombie blog, but it's still the most hilarious (OK, perhaps only hilarious) chess blog in existence, although I have to give Liquid Egg Product part credit.  Like Dr. Frankenstein, I only became acquainted with the blog after its death, but thanks to the Wayback Machine it lives again.

That in turn leads to some thoughts about the dead blogs littering the internet landscape.  Chess is hardly unique in that respect, but it's too bad that some of the truly stellar chess blogs out there are either MIA or KIA.  Might have something to do with the fact that their authors put heart and soul into their efforts, which leads (inevitably?) to burnout in the long run.

As for this blog, I deliberately don't stray too far from its central purpose as a training tool, and rarely attempt to be witty and entertaining, so I think it'll be around for the long haul.

03 March 2012

Annotated Game #34: Importance of the Initiative; Dueling Formats

This game, the last in the tournament, features some instructive strategic errors and missed tactics.  After Black plays 6...Na6, he fails to follow up with the logical redeployment to c7, although White unintentionally makes the knight useful by trying to carry out an accelerated pawn push to b4.  White carries out a suspect operation of exchanging dark-square bishop for knight, after which Black has a slight positional plus and the easier game strategically, with play on the kingside.  Similar to the knight development, Black begins moving towards this logical setup with 17...Kg7, but then simply hands White the initiative and allows a strong knight outpost to be established on c5.

Although White gets his wish of focusing on queenside play, where he has some long-term prospects for an advantage, he also neglects Black's threats and unwisely weakens his king position, redeploying his fianchettoed bishop.  White's lack of a real plan shows in his move 28 blunder, which would allow an excellent tactical shot by Black, which (luckily for White) is a possibility ignored by both players.  Black continues to cede the initiative and loses to a tactic that employs a seventh-rank pin.

The role of the initiative struck me the most about this game, as psychology is the primary explanatory factor for both sides' performance in the middlegame.  Aside from the tactical missed opportunity by Black and White's ability to spot the winning one eventually, the middlegame maneuvers were not forced and White had no real prospect of making progress without Black's acquiescence.  If Black had followed up on what he started on move 17, he would have instead had the initiative and likely whatever winning chances there were in the position.

Here's the game in ChessFlash, which I normally use:

And here is the game published with the Chess King software.  Once I've had more experience with it, I'll share some impressions of its utility in other areas.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem practical for publishing annotated games, because there is no scroll box associated with the text; after around move 18 you either can't see the board or the game notation and annotations.

ChessAdmin - Class C

Result: 1-0
Site: ?
Date: ?
[...] 1.c4 ¤f6 2.¤c3 g6 3.¤f3 ¥g7 4.g3 O-O 5.¥g2 c6 first deviation from a normal King's Indian setup
6.O-O ¤a6 a handful of games in the database feature this move. Normally the idea is to play Nc7 at some point, or alternatively hop into b4. The latter seems unlikely to be fruitful, however, as White can cover the square with a pawn.
7.¦b1 looking for accelerated play on the queenside. In light of Black's previous move, however, a better strategy would be to develop normally and leave the knight stranded doing nothing useful. The rook also proves misplaced on move 9.
(7.d3 would be a more normal English setup) 7...d5 now out of the database 8.cxd5 no reason to let Black have a free hand in the center
8...cxd5 9.d4 ¥f5 10.¦a1 ¤b4 11.¥g5
(11.¥f4 seems superior, seizing an excellent diagonal.)
11...h6 12.¥xf6 carrying through White's positionally suspect plan for exchanging bishop for knight.
12...¥xf6 13.a3 Houdini prefers more active developing options, such as Qb3 or Ne5. The text move simply forces the knight to a better long-term square for it.
13...¤c6 14.e3 e6 Taking stock, the game is level, with a slight plus to Black due to his superior light-square bishop. White has far to go to generate something meaningful on the queenside, his only real strategic option.
15.¦c1 ¦c8 16.b4 a6 Secures b5, notes Fritz. 17.¦e1 ¢g7 this would normally be an indication that Black is seeking play down the h-file, with the king moving out of the way so he can play Rh8. However, Black doesn't follow up on this.
18.¤a4 b6 although this prophylactically covers c5, Black is now reacting to White, who has something of an initiative with his queenside play.
(18...a5 is preferred by the engines 19.b5 ¤e7 20.£b3 £d6)
19.¥f1 this was the reason for White's move 17, redeploying the bishop. However, this leaves his king position significantly weakened (namely f3).
(19.£e2 would instead develop the queen to a useful square as well as forcing Black to make a positional concession with either a5, b5 or Nb8.)
19...b5 allowing White a strong outpost on c5. 20.¤c5² ¤b8
(20...£d6 would be more active play. 21.¤xa6 ¤xd4 22.¤xd4 £xa6)
21.a4 White finds the correct idea to break through on the queenside.
21...£b6 22.axb5 axb5 23.£e2 ¥g4 24.h3 ¥xf3² forced 25.£xf3 ¦fd8 26.£e2 ¤c6 27.¦a1 ¦a8
(27...e5 the engines correctly identify the need for Black to generate counterplay in the center.
28.¦a6 £b8 29.£xb5 £xb5 30.¥xb5 ¤xb4 31.¦a7 ¦a8 32.¦ea1 ¦xa7 33.¦xa7 ¦b8 34.dxe5 ¥xe5 35.¤d7 and White has a positional plus due to the weak d-pawn, but it's probably not decisive.)
(27...¤xb4 fails after 28.¦eb1 ¤c6 29.¦xb5)
28.f4?? this misguided attempt to cover e5 gives Black a winning tactical shot, something both of us missed during the game.
(Houdini finds White to have a big advantage after the straightforward 28.¦xa8 ¦xa8 29.¦b1 with Black tied down to defending the b5-pawn as best he can while White also prepares to break through on the a-file.)
28...¦xa1?! this is sufficient for an advantage, but misses the win.
(28...¤xd4 and Black has it in the bag, says Fritz.
29.£d3 (29.exd4 ¥xd4+ 30.¢h1 ¦xa1) (29.£g2 ¦xa1 30.¦xa1 ¤f3+ 31.£xf3 ¥xa1) 29...¤f3+ 30.¢f2 ¤xe1 31.¦xe1)
29.¦xa1 ¤xb4? Black has let it slip away
(29...¤xd4 still works, if not as well as before. 30.£d1 ¤f5µ 31.¦a6 £b8 32.¢f2 and Black is a clear pawn to the good.)
(30.£d2 ¤c6 31.¦a6 £c7 32.¥xb5 is a more effective method of recapturing the pawn, using the fact that the queen is tied to defending the Nc6.)
30...¤c6 (30...¤a6 31.£xb5 £xb5 32.¥xb5 ¤xc5 33.dxc5²) 31.¦xb5² £a7? this removes the queen from the action, allowing a nasty tactical follow-up.
(31...£c7 32.¦b7 £d6² and e6 is protected.)
32.¦b7ќ £a8?! cannot solve the problems of the position, notes Fritz.
(32...¤xd4 although the engines find this line limiting Black's material losses, it's difficult to find this sort of thing over the board. Black is still losing, in any case.
33.¦xa7 ¤xe2+ 34.¥xe2)
33.¤xe6+ ¢g8 34.¤xd8 ¥xd8 35.£b5 and the rest is easy for White, being the exchange and a pawn up while dominating the position.
35...£a3 36.¢f2 the engines say go ahead and take the Nc6, but I saw no reason to give Black even a hope of counterplay.
36...£a2+ 37.¥e2 £c2 38.£xd5 ¥e7 39.¦xe7! Eliminates the defender e7, trumpets Fritz, who gave the move the exclamation point. Houdini is less impressed and things Rc8 winning the knight is better. The text move simplifies down and gives White an easy and clear win, however.
39...¤xe7 40.£d8+ A double attack 40...¢g7 41.£xe7 £f5 42.g4 £d5 43.£e5+ with the queens off, Black will inevitably fall. (43.£e5+ £xe5 44.fxe5ќ)

Annotated Game #33: Stonewall Attack

This next tournament game serves up a mix of positional play and tactical play, along with a heaping portion of blunders on both sides.  The Stonewall Attack was completely unknown to me at the time (the computer classifies the opening as a transposition to a Caro-Kann Exchange variation, which is essentially true after move 5.)  However, I still equalize easily enough by move 10, when White misplaces his queen.

It's the middlegame where I go astray, but this in fact is related to my unfamiliarity with the opening and its resulting plans.  The Stonewall emphasizes using the knights to occupy key outposts at e5/e4, so challenging this idea is critical.  Black's 12...Nb6 is therefore a positional blunder and also demonstrates the classic amateur error of neglecting rook development with the alternative 12...Rac8 (a recurring theme from my tournament play during this period).  White plays the correct follow up, but then fails to take full advantage and misses a key pawn break on move 15, letting Black back into the game.

What follows from Black's point of view is a seesaw game where he is largely responding to White threats without much of an independent plan.  My tactical calculating ability at the time was also relatively undeveloped (shall we say), which meant that I missed a number of equalizing or winning opportunities, failing to think coolly under pressure.  Some days the bear gets you...