29 April 2012

Pitfalls of Computer Analysis

After having worked through and published over forty annotated games, in the process employing what I'd consider to be a simple and straightforward method of computer-assisted analysis, I've acquired an idea of some of the major pitfalls, as well as the benefits, of using chess engines.  In sharing the following observations, it's worth noting that they are offered from the point of view of an improving Class player, rather than that of a professional chessplayer or computer programmer, whose needs and approaches to using computers may well be different.
  • Ironically in my view, one of the most pernicious pitfalls for the improving player is psychological: the sense of failure that can result after seeing computer analysis repeatedly demonstrate wins missed or ways that a loss could have been avoided.  How often do you see players comment about how stupid they feel or how bad their chess is following a game?  It's important to have the mental toughness to stop kicking yourself afterwards and truly learn from your mistakes, rather than waste mental energy on self-denigration.  Let the chess engine serve its function as a constructive tool to be used for improvement purposes.
  • While outright blunders and forced wins are easily highlighted by engine analysis, the "best move" in a position is often not so easy to determine.  This may even be impossible, given broadly conflicting plans and ideas: see what super-GM Kramnik has to say about this.  In practical terms, engine evaluations that differ by 0.1 pawns are essentially equivalent and I would not sweat too much over a difference of up to 0.2 pawns.
  • Only looking at a single visible line of analysis (the engine's top choice) can therefore be misleading when trying to understand a position; unfortunately, that is usually the default setting for a lot of software programs.  For analysis purposes, a player needs to have multiple move choices (lines) visible in order to better comprehend the potential of a position; having 3 lines visible is my preference.
  • Trusting the initially displayed engine move evaluations can be counterproductive to analysis and misleading.  Engines need time to sort through possibilities in non-forcing situations and at least 1-2 minutes should be allowed when looking at a move using "infinite analysis" before proceeding.  Stepping through subsequent moves of key variations is also very important and may change the evaluation of the line, after the engine is able to calculate further ahead in it.
  • Computers are of less practical help in objectively evaluating best opening play, due to the sheer number of possibilities and lack of forcing tactics leading to an advantage.  The best use of an engine in the opening phase is instead to search for and evaluate alternative moves that don't appear in, or are neglected by, opening theory; this is how the professionals use them to find theoretical novelties.
  • Playing a move suggested by an engine is dangerous when you don't understand why it should be played.  This is one of the main reasons that blindly following engine recommendations in the opening can be counterproductive, even if they are objectively "best" from the engine's point of view.  Ending up in a middlegame position that you don't know how to play is often a quick route to defeat.
  • In situations without forcing tactics, different engines may have significantly different assessments of the position.  It's therefore important to understand as best you can the particular biases and limitations of the engines you use, and/or use multiple ones for analysis.  Common biases include over-valuing material and mis-evaluating endgames in the absence of tablebases.  For example, having initially run through my past tournament games with Fritz and now using Houdini to assist in analyzing them, I've run across several instances of key positions where Fritz preferred a different move, while Houdini has supported my original evaluation and move choice.
In the end, the point of seriously analyzing your games (or anyone else's) is to achieve a greater understanding of them and through that, of the game of chess in general.  It's therefore wise to remember that the computer is there to support and asisst you, not to function as some sort of ultimate arbiter of what is correct and should always be played.

28 April 2012

Annotated Game #43: New tournament; Caro-Kann Classical

After Annotated Game #42, about two years passed before I played in another tournament, due to my work and life circumstances.  However, this next tournament turned out rather better than the last one and I at least held my own overall.

This first-round game features the Caro-Kann Classical, with a relatively unchallenging sideline (7. Be2) chosen by White.  Like most variations chosen by Black in the Caro-Kann, the Classical Variation is solid rather than unbalancing, so deviations by White from "book" play allow Black to more easily reach equality, rather than offering the chance at an advantage.  Black is assessed by the engines as equal on move 12 and by move 14 I would say has successfully taken over the initiative, along with having an advantage in piece coordination.  Some subtle inaccuracies in piece placement (18...Nb6) and then choosing to dominate the wrong file means that Black is unable to turn his initiative into anything concrete, although he is certainly no worse.  The Bishop vs. Knight ending that occurs after a series of exchanges illustrates a typical Caro-Kann piece imbalance, where Black's knight and pawn placement are sufficient to contain White's bishop.

Games that lack a lot of fireworks can still be useful (perhaps sometimes more useful) to draw lessons from. In this case, the analysis shows where Black could have better placed his pieces in the early middlegame, specifically the queen's knight and the doubled rooks, something which will better inform my future play.  This is also a relatively rare example of a use of the ...e5 break in the Classical variation, where ...c5 is more usual, and is a good illustration of how it can be set up and employed.

23 April 2012

Annotated Game #42: The Punishing Slav

The following game occurred in the last round of this particular tournament and was a much-needed win.  Even with the victory, I ended up at -1 (win-loss) for the tournament along with three draws, all of which were with significantly lower-rated players.  Not a terrible overall result, but one that served to underline the declining trend in my chess performance, primarily due to the lack of systematic practice between tournaments and only playing seriously around once a year.  This was not enough exposure to chess to either improve my skills or keep my mind in good practical shape for OTB play.

Nevertheless, this game is a good example of what I was capable of when warmed up.  White with 5. d5 enters a falsely seductive line against the Slav, one which you won't find in any opening books, for good reason.  Black correctly reacts aggressively and soon regains the gambit pawn, along with forcing the win of the exchange (although alternative play on move 9 is objectively better).  Despite Black's material advantage, White has good attacking possibilities and some compensating factors, leading to a tactical tussle.  White leaves his remaining rook out of the fight - a classic amateur mistake - and then Black is able to force enough simplifications to segue into a clearly won endgame.

The Slav has a deserved reputation as a solid defense, but it can also be a punishing one when White does not respect it, as this game shows.

22 April 2012

Tournaments: The Joy of Battle

This was conceived in response to some recent posts in the chess blogosphere about players retiring from the OTB tournament field of battle.  I'm very much a supporter of people doing what they themselves are most interested in doing; so for those who don't wish to participate in tournaments, may they thoroughly enjoy what they do in the chess world.

This post, however, is for the tournament warriors - past, present and future.

* * * * * * * * *

Walking into the venue for the first time.  (If it's a hotel, checking in with a sense of purpose.)  Perhaps other players are there in the entryway, sporting various types of chess gear.  A sense of anticipation is palpable.

(Unpacking in the hotel room.  Laptop, travel set and a book or two are carefully placed on the table.  The Endgame Clothing wear is separated from the rest of the clothes and hung with care.)

Supplies must be gathered for the upcoming campaign.  Juice drinks for careful consumption during the games, to ward off decision fatigue.  Snacks for eating during a very long game, or if there is not enough time between rounds to go for a full meal.  Warriors fight on their stomachs, as well as their brains.

The tournament gear is packed and at hand.  Set, board and clock are in their carrying case, ready to be drawn like swords from their scabbards.

(Shall it be the stairs or the elevator, to reach the tournament hall?  Taking the stairs, the body is warmed up and the blood flows for the coming struggle.  In the elevator, the mind is calm while watching others nervously or excitedly enter on the trip down.)

Carefully pushing through the throngs around the pairing sheets and wall charts.  Letting the most impatient clear the way, then moving softly, like a cat, to see who your next opponent is.  Recording the opponent's name, color choice, and board number on the scoresheet, which is otherwise blank - although not for long.

Heading for the tournament hall, feet treading the ground with a sense of purpose.  An impression of organized chaos, as players find their places and the round comes closer to starting.  Your board - the most special of them all, it seems - is waiting.  Feeling the thrill of getting in the ring with a higher-rated player, or a sense of confidence tinged with healthy respect for a lower-rated opponent.  

The joy of seeing the battle open as the first move is played.  Strategic choices are made and the duelists start to feel out each others' defenses.  Will it be a furious, sharp encounter?  Or a subtle exchange of thrusts and parries, slowly building to its conclusion?  The game is there to be created, its rhythm constantly ebbing and flowing.

The outwardly restrained jubilation of a well-deserved win.  The relief of a not-so-well-deserved win.  The acknowledgement of a draw.  The resignation of a loss.  All possible, all accepted beforehand by the warrior, who nonetheless strives for victory.  Respect for an opponent's efforts shown, as the field of battle is departed to mark the results.  Seeing how the competition stands and weighing your chances.  Resolving to play well and fight hard the next round.

Packing at the end of the campaign.  Reflecting on the results and lessons.  Eager to get back in the fight, after a well-deserved rest.  Thinking of preparations for the next campaign... 

21 April 2012

Annotated Game #41: Stymied in an English-KID

This next tournament game is illustrative of how certain apparently subtle decisions can turn a potentially winning positional advantage into a draw.  My opponent transposes into a King's Indian Defense (KID) setup against the English, but from moves 8-11 succeeds neither in disrupting White's plans for queenside expansion, nor in establishing any kingside counterplay of his own, giving White an advantage.

White's move 12 indicates that he is looking to open up the a-file with pawn play, rather than fix Black's weaknesses and exploit them with his knight.  With some help from Black, White executes an advantageous piece trade (knight for bishop) on e6, but then errs by also trading his dark-square bishop for Black's. After seizing the a-file with the help of his monster Bg2, White is unable to exploit it after Black redeploys his forces to prevent further penetrations.

I've previously run across this problem in the English, where I'm able to achieve a large queenside space advantage, but then lack the wherewithal to make any further progress.  The improvements and other potential avenues of play found in analysis (particularly on moves 12 and 19) should help me overcome this problem in the future.

15 April 2012

Annotated Game #40: Be careful what you wish for

This game in the 5. Qf3 sideline of the Caro-Kann Classical is most notable for how Black repeatedly did not take advantage of a number of opportunities presented by White in the late opening and middlegame phases.  However, at this point (round 6 of the tournament) I was hoping to stabilize my performance and was clearly looking for a draw.  Be careful what you wish for, since you just might get it.

Before my most recent chess training period (starting with the establishment of this blog), I had relatively little notion of the importance of active piece play.  Starting on move 9, by which point Black had more than equalized, I pass up several chances to improve my piece activity and create multiple threats.  I like to think that now I would recognize at least some of the better candidate moves, given a better understanding of the importance of piece play and how to widen the move selection process.

In the end, the draw wasn't a bad result, but it illustrates another psychological trap - for Class players especially - which is to settle for a result that is less than the position merits, either through mis-evaluating the position or from lack of a winning desire.  In the long run, for the improving player I believe that realizing potential wins is just as important as avoiding losses.

12 April 2012

Tournament Preparation: Mental Toughness

This companion post to Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills discusses some techniques that players can use to mentally prepare themselves for success at a tournament.  Most importantly in practical terms, mental toughness and improved focus will enable a player to better leverage their existing chess skills, which in turn will lead to a higher performance level.  Furthermore, good mental preparation will help form a bulwark against negative thinking and results, while also helping one recover more quickly from a bad outcome.

Below is a set of conscious decisions that can be made, or attitudes that can be adopted, regarding your chess game.  Using these techniques has assisted me in combating negative and unproductive modes of thinking.  In fact, I credit them as being a key part of my improved chess performance since this blog was started, which has included beating the strongest opponent (2100+) faced in my chess career.  I believe that the techniques listed here will all contribute to a player becoming mentally tougher at the board, as they address (directly or indirectly) a number of the unhelpful fears, anxieties and fantasies we may have about our tournament performance.
  • Treat each game as an individual chance to excel at an activity you enjoy, while accepting the fact that you may lose.  If you lose, take away lessons from it both in terms of chess skill and mental preparation.  Do not waste energy on excuses, whether or not they are justified.  If you win, enjoy your victory but be sure to identify what your opponent did to allow it, since you did not win the game alone.  In this way, each game will become another stepping stone on your path to mastery.
  • Consider every opponent as worthy, but able to be defeated.  Do not worry about your opponent's rating during the game, as this becomes a source of fear and loathing.
  • Go into a game with the objective of playing well and looking to win, rather than to play perfectly; no one plays perfectly, so do not bother to attempt it.  Having an understandable winning plan or spotting a crucial tactic is what is needed for victory, not what your computer engine says afterwards is the best move.  (This is also a key underlying premise of Chess for Tigers.)
  • Resolve to play what the position demands.  If your opponent's position is vulnerable to an attack, then go on the offensive; do not play passively.  If your opponent's attack will end up coming first, or your attack has failed and and a counterattack is imminent, find the mental coolness necessary to defend well.  It requires mental courage for both attack and defense.
  • Do not deliberately aim for a draw from the start of a game, regardless of your opponent's rating or your tournament standing.  If you play your best and press any advantages you are able to obtain, you are more likely to achieve what you need and may in fact win.
  • Resolve not to offer a draw to your opponent unless the position on the board is in fact completely drawn.  This will contribute to a winning mindset and to not being afraid to play out any position.
  • Do not think about the probable future result of the game while it is in progress; think about what you (and your opponent) can do with the position on the board.  There is a big difference between what should be a winning position and what is actually a won position; do not confuse the two.
  • Do not think about your current or future tournament standing during the game.  The position in front of you is not affected by your current score or by how many future points you may fantasize about winning.
  • Consciously accept your overall limitations while playing in the tournament, so that you are not distracted by your perceived failings as a chessplayer; address them later as part of your long-term training program.  During a tournament, you will not be able to remember by rote all of your opening lines; this is normal and will not make you ignorant and helpless.  You are also unlikely to make major new breakthroughs in middlegame or endgame knowledge while the tournament is in progress; instead, recognize that what you know gives you enough skills to play well and win against comparable opposition.
These practices can of course be difficult to adhere to, especially the ones where you resolve to not think or do something. The point here is to have a conscious goal of ignoring certain things which will only serve to distract you from the central activity of playing chess to the best of your ability.  When these distractions do occur, with your additional mental toughness you can identify them and then mentally set them aside, thereby returning to a more productive thought process that is focused on the position in front of you.  Again, perfection in thought is not the goal, just as perfection in play is not attainable.  However, an end result of more productive behavior and thinking at the chessboard (or computer, for online tournaments) is quite attainable.

There are also broader practices involving mental strengthening and stimulation which can be applied to chess.  I find especially helpful ones which help calm the mind and allow you to perceive situations more objectively, which improves your analysis and judgment at the board.  One should follow the dictates of the position, whether it tells you to attack or defend.  It is a great deal easier to hear what it is telling you when your mind is not generating extra noise.  For more on this, along with some of my own observations on cross-training and the Kung Fu of chess, it's worth highlighting that GM Nigel Davies has made some parallel observations on his Chess Improver blog.

10 April 2012

Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills

After long and sometimes hard experience, I've come to the conclusion that the most effective pre-tournament preparation consists of sharpening and focusing what you are (or should be) doing for your longer-term training efforts.  This contrasts with the more common pre-tournament routine in which over the space of a week or two (at best) or a couple days (more often) players mostly spend time on openings and doing tactical drills, then put everything aside until the next tournament.

This type of staccato and rushed approach resulted in little success for me as an adult player.  During the scholastic phase of my career, I played in tournaments quite often, so without really trying I had constant exposure to new chess concepts and practical lessons, even though my (self-taught) training was not systematic.  There's a lot to be said for simply playing a lot of longer time control games, which looking back on it now was probably my best chess improvement practice.

Now with only sporadic participation in tournaments and a longer-term goal of improving my overall game, I've had to come up with something different for a training regimen, which has also meant a revised approach to pre-tournament prep work.  The primary principle I use both for long-term training and in preparing for tournaments will be a familiar one to many: train the way you fight, then fight the way you train.  This means that any training method used should accurately reflect, at least in part, the tournament game experience.  Conversely, it also means that when in a tournament game, a player should rely on their training when making decisions, rather than impulsively "winging it" when faced with an unclear situation.  One common example of this phenomenon is choosing to abandon your opening preparation when faced with a particular opponent.  This typically occurs when there is a large ratings gap and a player feels that their openings aren't good enough (if the opponent is higher-rated) or that the opponent (if lower-rated) can be easily beaten in an unfamiliar line.

Although I've codified things in a checklist format below and have indicated my own particular preferences, I want to clearly distinguish between the "what" and the "how" of tournament preparation.  This means that it is more important for a player to train the various skill sets before a tournament, rather than how exactly they go about it.  So within each category there will naturally be a number of options available regarding the materials and tools to be used for training.  Methods can also vary greatly from player to player; the below is simply what has proven to work best for me.

Pre-Tournament Checklist
  1. Tactical exercises.  Perform at least one set of exercises for 10-15 minutes a day, or multiple sets if desired, with breaks in between them.  Important: the exercises' objectives should be randomized.  This means avoiding sets of "mate in 3" problems or the like.  Your thought process will benefit most from having to figure out the best move from an original position, with no hints, as this is the reality of a tournament game situation.  Limiting the time spent on individual sessions helps keep the mind active and engaged throughout the process (a state of "mindfulness"), aiding in the longer-term retention of tactical concepts and patterns.  Finally, focus on relatively simple (up to three-move) combinations and motifs, as this is what you will see the overwhelming majority of the time during actual play.  I primarily use the Chess Tactics Server, since it meets all of the above criteria.

  2. Training games.  Play at least one slow (60 5 or 45 45 or higher time control) game per week against opposition of generally comparable strength.  Tournament rules should apply (game clock, touch move, no takebacks allowed).  Colors should be varied, either randomized each time or generally alternating over several games (no more than two Whites in a row, for example).  Early resignation is not allowed, except for clearly losing circumstances (loss of a major piece, or a minor piece with no compensation whatsoever).  I use Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition for my computer opponents, playing in rated game mode and always playing the recommended next opponent after a game, a practice which adjusts their playing strength according to your performance.  The Chessmaster opponents' Elo ratings are not always good reflections of their practical performance, but I've found that my own rating generated by the program is remarkably accurate.

  3. Opening preparation.  Critically review all of your opening repertoire lines, concentrating on: a) the variations most likely to be played by your upcoming opposition; b) the most theoretically critical ones; and c) the most dangerous ones if you don't know/remember the theory.  All of the above are reviewed using chess books and articles (including videos), as well as database searches, so that ideas can be studied and not just lists of moves.  Taking the Caro-Kann variations as an example, I focus on the Main Line and the Advance Variation, with some attention paid to the Panov-Botvinnik Attack and the Exchange Variation (relatively common at the Class level), and finally the Fantasy Variation (as a potentially dangerous line).  All the others get at least one run-through in my repertoire database so that I can be reminded of key ideas and concepts of play.

  4. "Big think" activities.  While I'd consider the above three items to be fundamental, there's also an important role to be played by other activities that will energize your chess mind for the tournament experience.  Going over master-level annotated games (preferably ones played by the author) is one example, as you are thereby directly exposed to winning concepts and effective thought processes via the game commentary.  Other examples would include tackling middlegame and endgame books in a serious frame of mind, with the goal being to work through one particular book before the tournament.  The lessons will then be fresh in your mind and you are more likely to see opportunities to immediately apply them in your games.
Ideally an improving player is already doing all of the above types of things as part of a long-term training program.  In that case, preparing for a tournament becomes more a question of choosing to increase the focus on certain priority items over a shorter time period.

On a related note, I believe that a balanced approach to training chess skills will be the most productive for achieving good tournament results, rather than concentrating solely on one aspect such as tactical training or opening preparation, even if someone only has a short time period to put in the effort.  This is because successful tournament play demands a broad range of skills and practical preparation, rather than just knowledge of chess theory or performing well in rote drills.  As part of a balanced approach to pre-tournament preparation, it's also worth mentioning that players can choose to undertake certain mental preparations, which can be just as critical to one's tournament results as pure chess skill.  This is the subject of a companion post on mental toughness.

Finally, as with training in general, I believe people can and should have different approaches for tournament preparation, based on their learning styles and life circumstances.  One of the things I appreciate about the chess improvement community is the opportunity that it offers to better understand and then compare/contrast others' best practices, so I can incorporate them (or modified versions of them) into my own program.  So new ideas - at least ones that are new to me - and informed commentary about tournament preparation are always welcome.

EDIT: See also Tournament prep is less about the chess, more about you 

09 April 2012

Annotated Game #39: Rook Endings Are Always Drawn

The next tournament game, following on the heels of my most instructive loss, is typical of my play during that period of my chess career.  The opening is an English Four Knights with a slightly advantageous, or at least comfortable, position for White once the early middlegame is reached.  I don't have a particularly good idea of where to place my pieces, for example the bishop on move 12, the rook on move 14 and the queen on move 19.  These sorts of small positional errors accumulate and when White follows a skewed plan to push e4 using the f3 pawn as a support, tactics as a result appear for Black, who emerges up a pawn.

By the end of the exchanging sequence on move 26, we have a double rook endgame where Black has a central passed pawn and another one easily created on the queenside.  However, White is not lost, as his king is closer to the action and his rooks are active.  These sorts of endgames are notoriously difficult for the side with a material advantage to win; the move required for Black to win on move 35 would have taken a great deal of accurate calculation and nerves to play at the board.  White is able to exchange a pair of rooks and eliminate the central and queenside pawns in exchange for Black picking up two kingside pawns, which however means that Black's pawns will not be able to breach White's defenses.  By move 41 the draw has taken shape, with White's rook in an ideal position to prevent Black's king from getting into the fight.  By move 51 the draw is concrete, although it takes another 30 moves for my stubborn opponent to concede the fact (amusingly with both of us missing a threefold position repetition as well).

The main lessons I drew from the analysis of this game were:
  • Knowing an opening variation well is not enough, as some idea of the early middlegame requirements for the position is necessary to maintain momentum and accuracy of play.
  • Many times it is sufficient simply to follow a plan of improving the position of each of your pieces in order to increase their activity.  This is especially a good rule of thumb for when you know the opening well but lack experience with the resulting middlegame.
  • The defender in a rook endgame should never despair when he has active pieces that can get behind the enemy pawns and harass the king.  After all, all rook endgames are drawn, as the saying goes...

05 April 2012

Book completed - Starting Out: The Caro-Kann

Today I finished going through Starting Out: The Caro-Kann by Joe Gallagher (Everyman Chess, 2002).   This is actually the third time through the book for me, in addition to having used it as a reference when looking at particular variations.  However, this was the most comprehensive run-through that I've done of it, so I believe it's worth reporting on, especially since I haven't discussed it before in-depth.

Per my usual practice, I went through the book with a chess set in front of me, playing through all of my chosen lines and illustrative games.  This time, I also at least read through most of the sections on alternate lines, even if they're not included in my existing repertoire.  I found the whole process most useful in: 1) re-exposing myself to the middlegame plans in each key line, and 2) re-evaluating certain variations I play and opening myself to alternatives that I had previously dismissed. 

The book is not meant to provide a comprehensive treatment of the opening in all lines, but it is still the best single-volume introductory work on the Caro-Kann that I've seen, with excellent coverage of some key variations.  The author is not himself a player of the defense, but rather is a 1. e4 player and has prepared a number of different variations over the course of his career against it.  While at first this lack of direct experience as Black seemed a little strange, I now in fact greatly appreciate it; the author's evaluations come across as more objective than those in many opening manuals and the point of view is more balanced between White and Black.

A more general review of the book can be found at the above link; here are my own observations:
  • Formatting: I find the single-column format used by the Starting Out series to be very readable and it is designed for larger amounts of text, rather than variations.  I found the diagrams  in this book to be generally more illustrative of key positions and less awkwardly placed than in other books in the series that I've seen. 
  • Typos: I only found two move typos, which is on the high end as far as editing quality for chess books go.
  • Classical Variation: this was both the best (in my opinion) and personally most useful section of the book.  While some of the earlier sidelines (such as 5. Nc5) aren't fully examined, the overall treatment of the variation is quite meaty and the various different approaches for both sides are explained well.  This is a variation in which theory is usually well-developed until at least moves 10-12, so I appreciated the author's efforts to highlight typical middlegame plans and ideas, rather than simply giving an evaluation at the end.
  • Other Main Line variations: the author provides similarly deep treatment (two chapters) of the 4...Nd7 variation, which Karpov popularized, but only one chapter on the 4...Nf6 lines.  This arrangement is warranted, given the popularity and perceived effectiveness of the variations in question.  For example, if you're interested in the Tartakower Variation (5. Nxf6 exf6) there isn't a lot of material.  However, it's probably not in the author or reader's interest to dedicate much time to inferior and unpopular variations.
  • Advance Variation: this is now the most popular at the GM level and the book provides a good treatment of both the main response (3...Bf5) and the alternative pawn sacrifice line (3...c5).  The latter section isn't comprehensive enough to provide a basis for a repertoire, especially given the evolution of the line since the book was published, but it is a good place to get started.   Given the relative lack of attention to the 3...c5 lines, it's also useful to see an author (coming from the White perspective, no less) treat them seriously.
  • Panov-Botvinnik Attack: another strong section, where all three of Black's main alternatives (5...e6, 5...g6 and 5...Nc6) are presented with some depth.  For Class-level players, I would say that enough material is given here to provide a solid foundation for a repertoire.  Some of the 5...e6 lines will transpose into heavily-studied opening positions with a lot of branches, which means they are outside the scope of this book and will require more individual research by the player.
  • Fantasy Variation: this variation (3. f3) is a personal favorite of the author and the section on it was particularly welcomed by me.  Theoretical works on the Caro-Kann generally ignore or quickly dismiss the variation, despite the fact that it can be quite dangerous for the unprepared player.  As a side note, it can also be relevant for defending against the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (1. d4 d5 2. e4) since I decline it by playing the Caro-Kann (2...c6) and BDG players will likely continue trying to play in the spirit of the gambit with 3. f3.
  • Miscellaneous Lines: the Exchange Variation, 2. c4, and the King's Indian Attack are covered here.  While each only gets a small section, there is enough material to flesh out a Black repertoire against each line.  The KIA against the Caro-Kann simply isn't very good; as long as Black knows the best moves early on against it, there are no challenges.  The Exchange Variation requires more preparation as Black, given that more theory has been devoted to it (mostly in the 1970s).  2. c4 is also something Black players should be prepared for, although it's much less theoretical.

01 April 2012

Annotated Game #38: A most instructive loss

This fourth-round tournament game is a strong contender for my most instructive loss.  My opponent, perhaps around twelve years old, played the Panov-Botvinnik Attack against my Caro-Kann, which transposed into a Queen's Gambit Declined-type position; the computer in fact classifies it as a Queen's Gambit variant.  The opening goes eleven moves before leaving the database, something of a rarity at the Class level.

The middlegame features a tense duel between White's pressure and Black's countering moves.  Black makes some inferior moves in the early middlegame (moves 15-16) but White then becomes overeager and plays a premature rook lift on move 17.  The pendulum shortly afterward swings back in favor of Black, although after some back-and-forth the position simplifies into what should be a drawn rook and minor piece endgame.  Shortly after this occurs, I play carelessly and White immediately takes advantage of this, creating multiple threats against my pawns that I cannot parry.  Although I hold out until we reach a bishop endgame, White gains a decisive advantage and I resign.

During the post-mortem analysis in the skittles room, my opponent's teacher/trainer sat in and provided some useful pointers.  My opponent was originally rather cocky about his position in the opening, but his trainer then corrected his evaluation and pointed out how Black was doing just fine until the endgame error.  Because of the key nature of this opening system and the typical tactical and strategic themes that were shown during this game, I feel like gained a great deal from playing and then analyzing it.  Interesting how a loss can become a gain, in that respect.