21 October 2013

Annotated Game #106: A first Nimzo-Larsen

The following game was the first one I actually played in the current Slow Swiss tournament in the Slow Chess League, the other two unfortunately being forfeits by my opponents.  The game was rewarding in several aspects, though, so was worth the wait.  For one, it was my first Nimzo-Larsen (1. Nf3 followed by 2. b3) and I like the opening for White although I've never played it.  As Black, I was at least acquainted with the main ideas that White normally pursues, which are to undermine any center constructed with active piece play, so I decided not to give my opponent any obvious targets.  The Slav setup that results I think is a good one for Black without any weaknesses, although it is unambitious and not likely to give obvious winning chances either.

The positional maneuvering game turned more violent after White's ambitious pawn break in the center on move 15, which created some potential threats for him (including a possible mate on h7 later on) but also left his position looser, something which became clear after he played 23. f4.  I thought during the game that he was being over-optimistic about his attacking chances and leaving behind vulnerabilities.  Despite this, the game was dynamically equal until I (under major time pressure) played 27...Be1.  The one correct continuation for White after 28. Re3 would lead to an endgame with technically balanced material (two bishops vs. rook and pawn) but that would favor White's chances.  However, my opponent failed to see the subsequent bishop check on f2, then the necessary (and not obvious) tactic to follow, so I ended up the exchange and a pawn, sufficient to win the endgame after forcing some exchanges.

Aside from the time pressure lurch on move 27, I feel I played a solid game and adhered well to my thinking process requirements, so it was a positive experience overall.  In practical terms, without my 27th move and its creation of threats, I may well have only ended up with a draw, so this is another example of the quirks of chess performance in practice.

14 October 2013

Commentary - Sinquefield Cup 2013, round 2

This next commentary post is from the second round of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup tournament in St. Louis; you can go here for the original ChessBase commentary.  (Over the past month I've saved several eye-catching international tournament games for review and am starting to work my way through them.)

While doing commentary on master-level games can't replace the analysis of your own games for improvement purposes, I've found that the two practices complement each other nicely.  The higher level of play involved in master games allows you to better see and understand how they choose and execute plans, something especially useful for me when looking at new opening ideas and making transitions to the middlegame.   While I do not (yet) play the Leningrad Dutch, I've studied it a fair amount and Carlsen (Black) in this game effectively takes advantage of some of Aronian's non-standard ideas to achieve a middlegame advantage, even if he was in the end unable to turn it into a victory.

12 October 2013

Commentary - Tashkent FIDE Women's Grand Prix 2013, round 9

This next commentary is from round 9 of the women's FIDE Grand Prix in Tashkent.  The game caught my eye because of the unusual exchange sacrifice offered by White (but never accepted) and some of the thematic moves and "little tactics" that led Zhao Xue to win this game in the Symmetrical English against Kateryna Lagno.  Well worth the time to analyze.

07 October 2013

How Irina Krush makes us feel better about chess

From GM-elect Irina Krush's Chess Life Online article about the Baku Open, where she gained the Grandmaster title.
Maybe the biggest [reason] is that despite not having a lot of confidence, for the most part I play like I do. I know my opponent's rating, but it's just a number, not my sentence. For me, chess is a fight, sixty four squares where you lay out everything you have, and I believe in my ability to fight, because it's really just a function of your ability to give everything you have, to put it banally, 'to do your best.' I want to make the maximum effort, whether that means pushing myself to find the best moves, being resilient in defense, or overcoming any psychological weakness that can come up during a game: inclinations towards cowardice, towards giving up in difficult positions, or slacking off in better ones. So while I just can't see myself to be very good in the actual playing of chess, I do come into every game with the belief that I can give it 100%, and that's probably not a lot less than what my opponents can bring. That's where my confidence comes from :)


05 October 2013

Chess performance and chess skills: not the same thing

The last two analyzed games (Annotated Game #104 and Annotated Game #105) provided a useful reminder that chess performance - by that, I mean a player's actual results in their games - is not necessarily a reflection of a player's chess skills.  This will not surprise longtime players, but it is still worth examining as a phenomenon.

It is said that there is no luck in chess, but that is not quite true.  Because it is a mental game (or sport), anything that affects our mental abilities on a particular day can significantly influence our performance at the board.  Life events, personal issues, random encounters and of course our physical health can all perturb our minds.  I recall that during one tournament, I drove about ten minutes away in order to pick up lunch and bring it back, with not a lot of time to spare before the next round.  Of course that was the time a police officer decided to pull me over for "aggressive driving" because I kept trying to beat the series of lights on the highway which were badly timed.  I hadn't in fact done anything wrong (wasn't speeding and hadn't run a light), so nothing happened to me, but I didn't have the best mental focus for the next round (also having to eat a cold lunch by that point).

Because your skills aren't going to improve while playing in a tournament (or an individual game), what therefore matters most about your performance is maximizing the use of what skills you already possess.  This requires concentration, focus and good judgment.  The flip side of this, of course, is that if you can disrupt your opponent's focus and judgment, your own relative winning chances increase.  I don't advocate intentionally annoying your opponent off the chessboard, but rather doing everything possible to disrupt their play on the chessboard.  This is especially needful when in objective terms you are losing.

As the analysis showed in the last two games, I was either objectively lost or at a serious material and positional disadvantage.  This indicates a failure of chess skills (thinking process, calculation, prophylaxis, etc.) but performance-wise I still won both games.  What happens when this kind of result occurs?
  • One could simply say that the winning player was lucky enough to execute a swindle.  This may be true, but doesn't help our understanding of why and how this "luck" was created.
  • Tenacity is essential for the initially losing and eventually winning player; for that reason, it was highlighted as its own category in my Chess Performance Inventory.  Annotated Game #104 was a great personal example, as I nearly gave up and resigned after Black's kingside breakthrough (which gave him an objectively won game), but made the deliberate decision to fight as hard as possible.
  • Although refusing to give up the fight is a necessary condition, it's obviously not sufficient in itself to disrupt your opponent's play.  Creating threats by obtaining active play for your pieces is absolutely essential, otherwise your opponent will have no trouble finishing you off.  In other words, give them an opportunity to go wrong with their subsequent play by ignoring your threats (the same way you got in trouble in the first place, no doubt.)
On a more sophisticated level one can use what GM Alex Yermolinsky in The Road to Chess Improvement calls "trend-breaking tools".  For example, a pawn sacrifice in return for enhanced piece play can let you seize the initiative and get more practical chances, even if a computer engine might indicate no difference in the evaluation (or perhaps a slightly worse one).  One characteristic of master games is how highly valued the initiative is, as the side which possesses it is the one making threats and dictating the course of the game.  Psychologically speaking it is almost always harder to defend than attack, even when an objective evaluation of the position might be completely neutral.

Something that is often mentioned by chess trainers, especially for players at the Class level, is how aggressive players with less knowledge of the game tend to win much more often than players with greater skills and understanding, but who play passively.  Naturally a too-aggressive player can and will over-press their opponent and lose, but it's worth reflecting on how their performance over time will still overshadow that of a too-passive player, who simply does not create enough opportunities for themselves.  It's much easier for a winning, aggressive player to then fill in the skills and knowledge gaps and thereby improve, than it is for the passive player to break out of their rut.

My own historical "playing style" was certainly more on the passive side.  One of the key aspects of improvement for me has been to break out of that stereotype and my more recent games have reflected that - although it's obvious a good deal of work remains to be done on my skills.