28 July 2012

Annotated Game #56: Training game - King's Indian Attack

This training game (against Chessmaster personality "Turk") was the first time I had faced 1. g3 and perhaps the innocuous start by White made me more aggressive than usual, as I chose a somewhat dubiously threatening line with 5...Bc5 instead of transposing to the normal Caro-Kann line versus the KIA.  An inadvertent pawn sacrifice from Black makes the early part of the game interesting, where White needs to be careful in order not to give Black too much activity and developmental lead.

Positionally, Black is unreasonably fearful of having a two-pawn center and as a result does not achieve an optimal set-up in the middlegame.  I had worried that the pawn center could be too easily undermined by White, but analysis shows this was not the case.  This judgment error is a good example of  how an uncritical preference for a type of position (or against one) can lead to less effective play.

Around move 30 my calculation and judgment began declining rapidly when Black was faced with a menacing White pawn mass on the queenside.  At least I had a bailout into a drawn position, rather than fully collapsing into a loss.  "Turk" had played a typical computer handicap move on move 20 to give me the advantage, so I guess I just ended up returning the favor.

The training game was useful for highlighting the individual calculation and judgment errors mentioned above in the opening, middlegame and endgame phases, so was successful from that perspective.

21 July 2012

Annotated Game #55: Slice and Dice

This last-round game in the weekend Swiss open tournament shows how White takes advantage of passive play and effectively uses his two bishops in the end to slice and dice like knives through Black's position.  As Black, I deliberately selected a slightly inferior variation in the Two Knights variation of the Caro-Kann - done in order to save having to memorize the variation's main line - but quickly go wrong with it in the early middlegame.  This is a typical error of mine (and for many amateurs), related to lack of depth in opening study.  The failure to understand the important elements of the early middlegame that result from a particular opening line is, time and again, the root cause of a lost game.

In this case, the apparently subtle defensive move 12...Re8 was called for, which would have neutralized White's future threats along the evil e-file, although this does not become apparent for several moves.  This is also a reflection of the common general amateur error of not developing rooks early enough in the middlegame.  My opponent, an Expert, avoids this problem and the note to move 20 points out how effective his one developed rook is, combining with his other pieces to make threats while my rooks merely sit on the sidelines.

In terms of positional themes, the other dominant one is of course the two bishops.  In the opening, Black deliberately gives White this advantage, along with a small advantage in development, in compensation having easy development for himself and no structural weaknesses.  However, White's edge out of the opening is real and Black needed to concentrate harder on identifying and carefully neutralizing White's play.  Black instead focused on the more crude plan of simply exchanging down wherever possible, which worked up to a point but ignored White's positional threats.  The domination of the two bishops at the end of this game is an object lesson in why they are considered an advantage.

Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition - Windows 7 installation issues

Similar to what occurred with Fritz 13, I had to overcome some issues while installing the Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition DVD onto my new Windows 7 laptop.  The DVD autorun file didn't work at all, so I had to find the setup.exe file in the English-language installation folder on the DVD and create a shortcut to it on my desktop.  I then edited the shortcut properties (via right-click menu) to have the program run in Windows XP compatibility mode and as an administrator.  As a precaution, I also disabled the McAfee virus scan software for the duration of the installation.

After this, the installation went fine, although I discovered that you have to let the install program try and install DirectX, even if you already have it on your computer.

If anyone else has problems with their installation, this may be of help.

15 July 2012

Book completed - Starting Out: The English

Starting Out: The English by [McDonald, Neil]

I recently completed Starting Out: The English by Neil McDonald (Everyman Chess, 2003).  As with the Caro-Kann book in the Starting Out series, this was an opportunity to fill in gaps in my opening repertoire, learn more broadly about the opening, and focus on typical plans and ideas in certain position-types.  In working through the book, I used a mix of a tournament-sized chessboard (largely for the unfamiliar lines) and a computer for reviewing more familiar lines in my repertoire database.

The review linked above does an excellent job of summarizing the book's strengths (and few weaknesses).  Here I'll comment on its utility from my perspective, that of a Class player who has used the English for a number of years.

For a general survey and one-volume treatment of the opening, I still rate Nigel Povah's How to Play the English Opening as the most useful book I've read, although it's out of print.  This makes McDonald's work probably the best single-volume introduction currently available.  At 190 pages, it's significantly longer than the Povah book and also somewhat longer than most other Starting Out series books (including McDonald's Dutch Defense volume).  That said, it is by no means comprehensive and someone who wants to play the English will have to obtain supplemental book/DVD resources or do significant database research to flesh out their desired repertoire.

The general strengths of the Starting Out series are on display in this volume, where the author takes a significant amount of space to explain important ideas for both sides at key points in variations and often points out why superficially attractive moves do not work in some concrete variations.  This presentation of the typical plans for both sides - in the process showing a balanced perspective regarding evaluations of different lines - is what makes the book most valuable for me, especially since the Povah book did not cover some of these ideas, particularly in the Symmetrical lines.

For those interested, here's a more detailed breakdown of the perceived utility of the various chapters.
  • Symmetrical English 1: Black's Kingside Fianchetto.  This was probably the most valuable chapter for me, since I have had little practical exposure to, or understanding of, the Symmetrical variations in general.  By coincidence, I played a recent tournament game in one of these lines where I had gone out of my own book at move 5, so this section helped plug a large hole in my repertoire.  The example games I thought were particularly well-chosen to illustrate White's plans.
  • Symmetrical English 2: Early Action in the Centre.  I was able to largely ignore this chapter, since my chosen repertoire doesn't feature these variations.  However, I was careful to look at certain variations that Black could use to ensure they did not pose a threat.
  • Symmetrical English 3: The Hedgehog.  This chapter discusses a complex position-type that can also arise from other openings such as the Sicilian.  It features deep maneuvering and relatively few tactics, although one has to keep some possible tactical points in mind along the d-file especially.  I found the discussion of both sides' ideas to be quite valuable, although the complexity of the variation and some of White's move choices are not treated in depth.
  • The Nimzo-English.  The main line with 4. Qc2 is what I play and is looked at only on a superficial level.  Given that the basic ideas in the line are positional and not terribly complicated, this is forgivable.  More space is allocated to the tactical Mikenas Attack with 3. e4 (in place of the normal 3. Nf3) and the 4. g4 attacking thrust.  I appreciated the author's evaluation of the greater danger for Black in the latter two lines, as well as his explanations of White's ideas, and may look more closely at them in the future for my own use.
  • The Four Knights (including the Reversed Dragon).  The author's presentation of key lines matched up well with my own repertoire with 4. e3, which has been extensively researched due to the common nature of the variation at the Class level.  However, in general the coverage of the alternatives to 4. g3 was superficial, with only one response (4...Bb4) to e3 presented.
  • Black Plays a King's Indian Setup.  This was the second most valuable chapter for me, introducing some key late opening/early middlegame concepts and exploring the different alternatives for White to meet Black's basic kingside attacking plan.  The variations covered here also tend to be commonly encountered in tournament play, so are important to study; Annotated Game #12 is a good example of this.  I found the chapter title to be somewhat misleading, however, as it doesn't really cover a "pure" KID setup against the English.  In contrast, Povah's book distinguished between the two, having a separate short KID chapter and placing these variations in a chapter entitled "Closed Systems II" because they typically begin with 1...e5 and feature Black's knight developing to c6.
  • Reti Lines.  The author gets significant credit for including these lines, which White can use against a Slav or Queen's Gambit Declined setup and which are often reached via the Reti Opening (1. Nf3).  However, the lines are only shallowly covered from White's perspective and are probably more useful for Black players for study purposes.  Nevertheless, this is a neglected area of the English and helps fill in a White player's repertoire, avoiding the idea that White should simply transpose to the main lines of the QGD or Slav with an early d4.  (Perhaps this is a good idea for d4 players to avoid certain Black move-orders in these openings, but for the English Opening player this would mean studying a lot more theory.)
  • Other Variations.  The author usefully touches on the Dutch and Grunfeld setups for Black and how White can (and should) vary from the usual queen pawn opening ideas.  Other irregular responses are mentioned as well (for example 1...b6 and the sequence 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 d6) and some basic ideas given, but players will have to do their own homework on specific variations.

14 July 2012

Annotated Game #54: Clubs and Stones

The third round of this tournament featured me doing a caveman impression with my attack on the White king position.  However, this was not due to the "caveman attack" being my preferred style of play; rather, it reflected the shockingly basic level of my attacking skills at the time.

The opening is worth examining, being a good example of when the opponent (Black in this case) varies from standard opening play with a solid and reasonable, yet theoretically inferior move (4...d6).  There is of course no immediate punishment for the move; in fact, it transposes into an opening formation for Black - both knights developed plus the d6-e5 pawn chain - which can result from the Black Knight's Tango, Panther, or Old Indian Defense (the root of the previous two openings).  The difference between this game and the main line of the other defenses is that White has played e3 instead of d5; for more on the Panther setup, there's an interesting series of articles at the Kenilworthian.

Returning to the game, the first major decision occurs on moves 7-8, with Black exchanging central pawns on d4 and White deciding to recapture with pieces rather than the e3 pawn.  It's these sorts of decisions that will greatly affect the structure and flow of a game, although they may appear innocuous at the time.  It was interesting to see that the choice I made was supported by 100% of the master games in the database.  At the time, I went that route largely through a greater familiarity with the central structure in question, which is in fact not a bad reason.  From an objective standpoint, the alternative central pawn structure (pawns on c4+d4 with an open e-file) is a little loose for White and I think Black finds it easier to play against, with the idea of undermining White's pawns and eventually putting a rook on the e-file.

The early middlegame features some silly maneuvering on both sides, although Black's turns out to be a bit sillier, since he maneuvers his knight into a pin against g7 on the long diagonal from White's Q+B battery.  The threat of mate on g7 dominates the rest of the game, although analysis points out where both sides could have profitably broken out of this situation.  Things are finally brought to a head when White goes caveman starting on move 20.  After a rather lengthy sequence he manages to exchange off Black's defending knight, although analysis shows that by this point it had no real impact on Black's defenses.

One of Black's problems throughout this game was that he was evidently thinking only one ply ahead on a number of his previous moves - the antics of both the knight and the light-squared bishop are witness to that - and missing obvious replies from White.  Unfortunately for Black he does the same thing again on move 27, attacking White's "caveman" rook but failing to count the number of attackers against g7.  The end is brutal, with White throwing stones and then clubbing Black to death.

Moral of the story: brains can beat brawn, but only if they are used for thinking ahead more than one move.

06 July 2012

Annotated Game #53: Immediate Punishment

This second-round tournament features a quirky sideline of the Classical Caro-Kann allowed by White's move-order choice on move 6.  The resulting positions from this sideline tend to bear little resemblance to the normal ones, throwing both players out of book quite quickly.  Here, White seemingly plays aggressively with 8. Ne5, but the following exchanges are mostly unavoidable, leaving the players with no pieces developed on move 10. White in compensation for a wrecked kingside pawn structure has the two bishops and somewhat more active prospects for his pieces.

Black plays rather conventionally, overlooking some interesting active possibilities such as 11...Qa5 which would have thrown White off his game, but is not in any real trouble until he gets lazy on move 17.  Centralizing the knight looks good for all of one move, then White's pawns immediately start rolling over Black's pieces, punishing him for lack of attention.  Black misses a rather complicated defensive idea and then is down a full piece, putting up staunch resistance in the endgame but to no avail.

I got the most positive value from analyzing this game from looking at the piece exchanges resulting from the opening, which look OK for Black, and understanding how moves like 11...Qa5 can be advantageous.  The negative lesson is rather obvious, since Black failed to falsify his move, which would not have been very difficult to do (i.e. simply seeing the move 18. c4! from his opponent, hitting the Nd5.)  It's interesting to see how easy it is to pick out thought process mistakes in game analysis, which leads in turn to a significant part of the improvement process, that of recognizing and correcting recurring mistakes in play.

04 July 2012

Computer Resources - July 2012 update

My use of computer resources has evolved since last year's posts on the subject.  In addition to updating comments on individual tools, I'll also provide an outline of how this particular Class player is using computer tools to train.  I'm always interested in hearing how other players are training using computer tools, either with the same software or different choices.

The core resource for me continues to be a database analysis program with a comprehensive, updated games database and engine plugin.  Because of my approach to training, which features regular analysis of my own games and related comprehensive opening study (including identifying typical middlegame plans and reviewing complete games), this is the most important computer tool.
  • I recently settled on using ChessBase 11 as the primary database software package, along with a 2012 ChessBase format database. This was primarily due to the analytical features available in the package, the ease of generating commentary, and to legacy factors; I've been using ChessBase format for a long time.  After having used CB10 for a number of years, I can say that the CB11 interface and display is in fact much improved.  The most important improvement for me is better integration of the game reference display, which I use continually.  I also observed calculation errors CB10 made in terms of the move results percentages, which CB11 does not do.  CB11 also seems to run chess engines with fewer issues as well; CB10 would occasionally lock up, while I've had no errors with CB11 so far.
  • Tech note: CB11 took several tries to install and activate on my new Windows 7 laptop.  Running the install program in XP compatibility mode and with administrator access eventually worked; I also had issues installing the Fritz 13 program from DVD.  CB11's current version has a number of bugfixes and updates; I've had no stability issues or errors since install.  I do run it in XP compatibility mode, however, which was a suggestion I found in researching the product before purchasing it.
  • The main retail alternative is the Chess Assistant 12 software package from ChessOK.  It has its own proprietary database format, as does Chessbase, so the analytic software and databases are integrated (and often sold as packages).  Both CB and CA can read and process PGN files, however, so are not limited to the proprietary database formats.
  • The latest Scid vs PC package is a popular freeware alternative database program which uses PGN format files.  It has a number of analytic features and supports UCI and Winboard chess engines.
  • Also free are "lite" versions of the CB and CA software, although these tend to be more useful as "try before you buy" programs, rather than something for permanent use, now that fully-functional freeware programs like Scid vs PC are available. 
Closely associated with the above is the use of chess playing and game analysis software.  These days there tends to be a large overlap in software categories, as database programs have chess engines integrated into them and chess playing programs have database features.  However, the overlap is not quite complete, since the database programs include many more features for processing the database information, while having few if any options for play or complete game analysis.
  • Fritz 13's playing and analysis features have changed little from previous versions, although the new proprietary "Let's Check" feature, which uses an online cloud database to enhance position analysis, is an interesting new tool.  I primarily use the software for full-game commentated analysis, as part of my computer-assisted analysis practice.
  • Houdini 2.0 is now my engine of choice for full-game analysis using the Fritz interface and in CB11 position analysis.  I have experienced no issues so far with it in either program.  Its free predecessor (version 1.5, still available for download from the site) also worked quite well.  The Houdini engine seems to generate better text commentary in the Fritz interface than the Fritz engine does, although that's not a scientific observation.  A number of strong freeware engines with a variety of "styles" are also available.
  • Aquarium 2011 is the ChessOK retail alternative playing/analysis package, which is set up more for analysis than play.  The latest version comes packaged with Houdini 2.
  • I still use Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition for longer-duration training games, employing a "ladder" approach against the CM personalities and always playing the recommended next opponent.
  • There are a lot of freeware programs that are available for playing and game analysis purposes, including earlier versions of some of the principal retail programs.
While I use the ChessBase lineup and am quite happy with CB11 and Fritz 13's performance and features, selection of computer tools I think is primarily a matter of personal taste; this is especially the case for us non-professional players.  You can find advocates for both CB and CA products with an internet search, although user experiences can vary widely with both packages.  It's also difficult to find an objective and contemporary (2012) review and comparison of features.  The proprietary formats employed by the two companies mean that users, for convenience's sake, are best off using the respective database and playing/analysis software as a package.  For example, I own Aquarium 2011, but the necessary process of converting files to PGN and back for use with the database software (among other things) deters me from using it with my personal games database; it is of course not compatible with the CB format main reference database that I use.  

If someone is just starting out with using computer tools, I would recommend comparing the CB lite, CA lite, and Scid vs. PC software (at minimum) before choosing a particular path to follow.  If saving $$ is important, the freeware options in the link above offer some great resources and a PGN database can be updated with new games for free using weekly downloads at the TWIC site.  Related to that and as mentioned in previous commentary, I had hoped that the Chess King retail package would provide a useful basic-needs approach to integrating database and playing/analysis software, especially since Class-level users like myself may end up not using a lot of the features of the more expensive software programs; however, the lack of database functionality and bugs in the software meant that it was not usable for my training program.

03 July 2012

Fritz 13 and Windows 7 installation issues

I recently solved a Fritz 13 installation problem, so thought it would be worth sharing the procedure.  A Google search didn't help me out when I was wrestling with it, although it pointed out one Amazon.com review where someone had the same issue, so I knew I wasn't alone.

After getting a new laptop with Windows 7 - the previous one was running XP - of course the first thing on the list was to re-install my chess software.  However, the Fritz 13 DVD refused to install.  I would be able to get to the first autorun screen with the "install" button; however, the DVD would just spin after that and nothing would happen, other than my computer slowing down while it tried to process things.

Repeated tries, including running the Setup program on the DVD under different XP compatibility settings, didn't work, so I temporarily gave up.  At one point canceling out of the install resulted in the error message: "The installer package could not be opened. Contact the application vendor to verify that this is a valid Windows installer package"

However, when re-installing some other software, during installation I received an error message that a file was allegedly missing; immediately afterwards, my McAfee security software said it had deleted a trojan.  False detection errors can be a common error with security software during software installation, so I turned off McAfee and then successfully re-installed the other program.

Returning to Fritz 13, after two tries I was able to get it fully installed.  To be safe, I ran the install in XP compatibility mode, but the key part was clearly disabling the McAfee security software.  (On the XP installation, I had a different security program running.)  If anyone else is having the same issue, hopefully the above will help.

EDIT: I put in a request for technical assistance at Chessbase.com and did in fact receive a response, although after I had resolved the issue.  It reminded me that along with running Setup.exe in XP compatability mode, it might be necessary to run it as an administrator as well (which I had in fact attempted originally with no luck).  Disabling the anti-virus software still appears to be the most critical step.

01 July 2012

Why I Play the Slav

During my initial process of openings selection, I settled on the Slav rather early as my defense to 1. d4.  Unlike with the 1. e4 suite of openings, I didn't try out as many different defenses, only playing the King's Indian Defense and the Queen's Gambit Accepted in informal games prior to deciding on the Slav.  At the time, I simply didn't understand the KID and was not a tactically-oriented player, so passing on the KID was a good choice.  The QGA I felt more comfortable with, but I did not handle very well the more open positions that resulted from it.  The Slav is characterized by semi-open positions, as with the Caro-Kann, so it fit my needs at the time.

What follows is my first tournament game ever - a win with the Slav.

The basic ideas in the Slav I find easy to comprehend and implement during a game.  Black's central pawn presence is supported with c6 and the light-squared bishop normally finds a home on f5 before e6 is played, with standard development occurring with Be7/Bb4 and Nbd7 in many lines.  This, along with the opening's generally solid nature, have given me no cause for complaint over the years.  There is also enough variety in the different variations, including some White gambits and Black sidelines, that keep the opening from being stale.  It is also an opening in which knowledge and preparation can pay off against any level of opposition, for example in the simul game with GM Alex Yermolinsky (which also highlights my poor endgame play, but that is another story) and in the "Punishing Slav" game.

In order to increase my winning potential against queen pawn openings - if White wants a draw against the Slav, he can usually obtain one easily - and expand my chess horizons, I've been looking at the Dutch Defense.  However, I'll never abandon the Slav, which has done well for me, from the very beginning until the present day.