27 May 2012

Why I Play the Caro-Kann

As was mentioned in the original discussion of openings selection, after playing a large number of informal games with a variety of different defenses to 1. e4, I settled on the Caro-Kann prior to starting tournament play.  It wasn't a question of emotional attachment to its aesthetics or a desire to model myself after professional players who used it; rather, it was a highly practical choice.  At the time, the other defenses I had seriously tried out - the Ruy Lopez (both Closed and Open), Sicilian, Alekhine, and French - didn't fit as well with my abilities and approach to the game.  I'll be the first to admit that my abilities at the start of my amateur career were modest (low Class C range) and my approach to the game was not very coherent.  But then again, one has to start out somewhere.

Speaking of starting out, here's my first tournament game with the Caro-Kann, my sixth tournament game ever. In it I hold a Class B player to a draw, despite the 200 rating point difference.  The opening variation is the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which transposes by move 7 to a tabiya (common position across different openings) usually classified as a Semi-Tarrasch Defense (which is reached from 1. d4).  Although Black doesn't play optimally, he is able to easily handle White's limited threats and then reach a drawn endgame.

It's been over twenty years since that game and I remain happy with using the Caro-Kann as my primary defense.  I've found it to be rich in ideas that are understandable and usable by an amateur player, which was one of the primary considerations for my original selection of it to use in tournament play.  I initially did quite poorly with tactics and instead fancied myself as a "positional player" (whatever that means).  In any event, the semi-open nature of the defense helped limit my exposure to complicated tactics, while allowing me to focus on one or two key ideas at the board.  This becomes a real advantage when the opponent does not properly identify or know how to respond to these ideas.

Over the years, I've found the defense to have enough depth in its position-types and ideas so that my handling of it has readily improved along with my own overall level of training and performance.  In other words, I've been able to evolve my opening repertoire choices within the various sub-variations, as my understand of the opening has grown, especially in reference to key middlegame ideas and plans.  My commentary on the ABC of the Caro-Kann mentions the main variations of the defense, for those interested.

I believe players should choose whatever openings interest them most, as long as they provide positive results for them, so have no real desire to convince others to play the Caro-Kann.  However, I do feel a need to comment on some of the naysaying about the opening that occasionally can be grating.  I've run across things like:
  • It's not appropriate for Class players and will only retard your growth because of its lack of tactics.
  • It's boring.
  • Nobody interesting plays it.
While there's a certain logic to not choosing the Caro-Kann if you want to focus on being a tactician - pick the Sicilian for that - tactics are hardly eliminated from the board after playing 1...c6 and, as with most openings, it largely depends on White how tactical or quiet things get.  One could make a similar argument about the Sicilian if White always played the Closed Sicilian or the 3. Bb5 variations.

As far as interesting vs. boring goes, it's a matter of taste.  There are very few gambit continuations in the Caro-Kann - although one of the main answers to the Advance Variation involves a pawn sacrifice - so gambiteers should definitely go elsewhere.  Otherwise, the variety and depth of the opening variations are comparable to any other main-line opening.  It's true that players who are interested in different aspects of positional play (isolated queen pawn positions as in the above game, executing key pawn breaks, queenside minority attacks, etc.) will probably get more out of the opening than tactical specialists.  Also, it's important to realize that the opening is solid rather than unbalancing, which means that a draw is a likelier result than with an unbalanced opening.

Finally, although it's not a major reason for choosing to play the opening, I've certainly enjoyed studying and playing over games from world champions who have employed it as Black: Capablanca, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand.  I've also particularly enjoyed Kortchnoi's games with it and will close with one of my favorites, a game in the Classical Variation that features opposite-side castling and attacking play on both wings.

26 May 2012

Annotated Game #47: Oh no, not again!

I have to admit that I rather ruefully went over the following game, which is another excellent example of why improving players should be analyzing their own games regularly.  As occurred not so long ago in Annotated Game #31, a perfectly fine Caro-Kann Advance variation is transformed by Black into a dubious French variation with a tempo down, due to the move 5...e6.  Those who do not remember their past losses are condemned to repeat them.

Black is, objectively speaking, not lost out of the opening, but it's nevertheless clear that I had little real idea of what to do, making the position an uphill struggle both on the board and psychologically.  Perhaps this is why Black misses several equalizing opportunities, most notably on moves 9 and 14.  It's also worth noting that these moves would have required Black to recognize the need for more active play; Black by move 16 looks stuck in a passive, defensive mode.

This is also one of those games whose result can be largely explained by psychological factors.  In this case, I felt like I was struggling the entire time and was lost from a certain point on (around move 19), which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In fact, White misses a killer move (29. f6!) and Black equalizes immediately, finally being able to generate counterplay - if only he could recognize it.  The crowning moment of the game is when White apparently picks up a rook due to a Black blunder, which led to my resignation before it occurred.  However, the rook is in fact poisoned and its capture would lead to White being mated.

Moral of the story: remember why you shouldn't play certain opening moves; never resign without running at least one final calculation of the position.

19 May 2012

Annotated Game #46: Maneuvers and Missed Opportunities

This fourth-round tournament game features an extended period of middlegame maneuvering, which is a feature of some English Opening variations in which neither side has obvious weaknesses; a head-on attack would simply hand the advantage to your opponent.  Black early on inflicts some positional and structural weaknesses on himself, including weakening his dark-square complex and locking his light-square bishop away.  White's choice of non-confrontational opening variation means that he ends up with a positional edge, but no obvious way to immediately punish Black.

In the middlegame, White's incorrect choice of strategy with 12. b4 leads him nowhere in particular, although Black continues an to make some positionally weakening moves.  White starts to go astray with his awkward move 22, essentially ceding the initiative - at least mentally - to Black.  A remarkable tactical idea for White on move 27 (and afterwards) is completely missed by both sides, which if the engines had a sense of humor would no doubt very much amuse them.  After a good deal of back-and-forth, Black's attempt to press White comes to naught and a draw is a agreed, with neither side seeing how to make progress.  It's worth noting that Black was rated around 100 points higher than I was, which I think weighed on my decision-making process and made me more inclined to look for a draw and pass up other opportunities.  With more mental toughness that wouldn't have happened.

Key points that can be drawn from this game:
  • Applying the plan of pushing the b-pawn, which is common in other variations, was not called for here.  Playing an opening on automatic and not critically evaluating different positions can lead to ineffectual play.
  • It is important to look for central pawn breaks and exchanges in the English.  The play here was typical of my past refusal to consider these types of moves, which I wrongly felt were uncharacteristic of the opening.
  • Similarly, I failed to consider key alternatives on move 25 and 26 which would have been superior and probably winning.  This was symptomatic of my failure to look for tactical options in many situations, as these did not fit with my self-imposed mental image of having a "positional style" as a player.
The last point on how my self-perceived playing style held me back is, I think, a common and major psychological flaw among amateur players.  More on this later.

14 May 2012

U.S. Championship: Why They Play the English

Because when you have to win, it's time to bring out the English.

The following game features IM Rusudan Goletiani defeating Iryna Zenyuk in the 5th round of the Women's round-robin.  Goletiani starts with a noncommittal opening, which due to Black's choices evolves into an English-KID (King's Indian Defense) setup.  You can compare it with Annotated Game #41, which has the same position after move 7.  In this game, however, White immediately goes for the bishop and knight exchange, whereas in the previous game I delayed playing Bg5 and did not get the opportunity to make the exchange.

I found Goletiani's play both instructive and engaging, with positional maneuvering giving way to a flurry of unrelenting pressure on Black's position after she finds a key tactical flaw in her opponent's play.  Because of the importance of the opening clash and the subsequent middlegame ideas, I've provided some more detailed notes than usual.

The below game is GM Yasser Seirawan's second win of the tournament, coming in the 6th round of the championship section, which is playing two more games than the women's group.  It comes against GM Ray Robson, who is already a very strong player and still rising.  The game features an English-Grunfeld hybrid, Robson's choice on move 3, with some subsequent interesting decisions made by Seirawan that unbalance the game and generate winning possibilities.  Here it is, with some light notes.

12 May 2012

Chess - échecs - ajedrez - xadrez - шахматы

Thanks to a new Google widget, this blog now has built-in translation available; the language selection can be accessed from the top of the sidebar.  It can also be interesting just seeing how it looks in your language of choice.  The ChessFlash game commentaries will not automatically translate, however.

Gens Una Sumus!

Annotated Game #45: The Slav Punished

In this third-round tournament game, it seems that I took the solidity of the Slav Defense for granted.  Playing an opening on automatic may not always be punished by your opponent, but this time mine quickly spotted the flaws in my play, particularly those caused by Black's 9th move.  While White's execution of his plan wasn't perfect, the apparent helplessness of Black in the face of White's simple attacking ideas makes a strong impression.

What could Black have done better?  The sixth move was perhaps not ideal, although it did not lead inevitably to Black's difficulties.  Rather, it was symptomatic of Black not thinking through his piece development.  9...Bd6 also was not directly disastrous, but betrayed the sloppiness of Black's thinking and planning in the opening.  Interestingly, it was exchanging White's Bd3 that really got Black into trouble.  One of the rules in evaluating the result of a piece exchange is to ask yourself who has the better positioned/more active pieces at the end of the sequence.  Clearly, White replacing the bishop on d3 with his queen leads to a major positional advantage for him, which he then uses to initiate an attack on Black's king.

The simplicity with which White conducts his attack also illustrates how development and effective piece placement can translate into a successful offensive.  By move 17, for example, White has four pieces (queen, knight, bishop, rook) all with great prospects on the kingside, while Black does not have a single piece that is effective there.

In sum, this short game is an excellent illustration of 1) the perils of neglecting development, 2) the importance of evaluating piece exchanges, and 3) the benefit of having a local material superiority during an attack.

08 May 2012

U.S. Chess Championship underway

The 2012 U.S. championships are now underway.  The format this year is a round robin, which is both classic and doable, with a manageable number of players (12 in the men's section, 10 in the women's).

The tournament website is excellent and I'm currently looking at the live coverage of the first-round games, with some still in progress.  Great to see it offered and in an accessible way.

05 May 2012

Annotated Game #44: Queenside breakthrough in the English

This second-round tournament game features a classic queenside breakthrough in the English, even if it was somewhat messily executed by White.  Black does not appear to have much knowledge or faith in his opening play, avoiding the full King's Indian Defense (KID) setup by not playing ...e5 and furthermore not generating any meaningful counterplay.  I found it useful to examine moves like 12...c5 to see why they fail to stop White's queenside pressure.  It was also useful to see Houdini's alternative plans for White, which would have done away with distractions like 13. Bg5.

The game is an illustration of what can happen if Black fails to generate kingside or centrally-based counterplay against the standard English plan of queenside expansion against a KID-type setup.  Playing only on White's terms never ends up well for Black, who should either deliberately work to restrain White's plan on the queenside with moves like ...a5, and/or go for kingside expansion with ...e5 and likely an eventual ...f5.  What happens in this game, with the queenside breakthrough evolving into a kingside attack, is a typical outcome when White is able to dominate the position.

One of the benefits of playing the English Opening at the Class level is the relatively high probability of throwing your opponent on their own thinking resources early on.  It doesn't always end up being this one-sided, but it's usually obvious as White when Black is having trouble finding a response to your opening play, which among other things typically results in Black burning a lot of clock time early on in the game.