30 March 2013

Annotated Game #88: King Safety in the Caro-Kann

This next tournament started off with an Attack of the Clones, bringing me to a round 2 game with Black.  My opponent chooses an offbeat but effective sideline of the Caro-Kann with 2. c4.  However, he fails to take proper advantage of his lead in development and by move 10 Black has effectively equalized.

The positional maneuvering that follows is illustrative of Class B level play, as neither side seemingly knows what is going on in the position.  Black should be more pleased with the results, as his goal was to maintain equality and get his pieces into more effective positions, rather than attempting to seize the initiative.  Black's failure to understand the position's requirements, however, is brought to a head when White undertakes a rather obvious attack on Black's open kingside.  Despite the availability of a standard defensive resource (25...Ng8 with equality) Black fails to consider the move.  Instead he plays blithely on, focusing on the obvious White threat and failing to do elementary checks, captures and threats (CCT) analysis, leading to a quick and shocking conclusion.

The impression one gets from this game is that neither Black's mind nor heart was in it, which is essentially correct.  The opening variation is not very exciting for Black, who needs to struggle a bit for equality with no obvious counterattacking opportunities.  Games should not be played on autopilot, however, and in addition to engaging in poor positional play, I was simply lazy in failing to make the necessary calculations when my king position finally came under direct attack.

Any Caro-Kann player should have a defensive radar that detects these types of potential threats to king safety, ideally heading them off before they materialize or, failing that, marshaling enough defensive resources to meet the threat.  In this game, the weakening of the king's pawn shield allowed White to muster a cheap attack and Black's failure to find the correct defense allowed it to succeed, neither of which would have occurred if Black had been paying attention to his position.

27 March 2013

Stonewall Hero II

After having put aside Win with the Stonewall Dutch (Sverre Johnsen/Ivar Bern/Simen Agdestein, Gambit, 2009) for some time in order to focus on tournament preparation and middlegame studies, I've been working through it again. As with the original Modern Stonewall Hero, I'm now back at the Chapter 6 exercise where the reader is supposed to analyze one of the games of their "Stonewall hero".  Mine is GM Artur Yusupov (or Jussupow, as he appears in the ChessBase database) and I've selected a top-level struggle between him and Beliavsky for this edition.  A first pass was done through the game for commentary without an analysis engine, per the book's instructions.  I found this to be an excellent illustrative game for the Stonewall, as it demonstrates how Black (thanks to some White errors in judgment) can win the clash of basic strategic ideas in the opening.

24 March 2013

Mental breakthroughs and obstacles

The final game of the tournament that I've been analyzing can be found in Annotated Game #5: First Sacrifice.  As previously noted, that was a breakthrough game for me, being the first real (intentional!) sacrifice I had played in my tournament career.  Since that tournament, I've had my ups and downs, but I've certainly played much more actively and looked for opportunities for attacking chess that would have been ignored earlier.  As a result, I'm a significantly stronger player now, although I still have a long way to go in terms of my skills.

What were the reasons behind this mental breakthrough?  It was not just one particular thing, I think.  Study of a variety of well-annotated master games was certainly a key to breaking down my own internal prejudices on playing style and resistance to new ideas.  I was also starting to lose my concern about ratings, which I think is a drag on anyone's real playing strength and a sure way to inhibit your growth as a player.

Finally, this was the first tournament I played in after taking up qigong practice, which involves slow breathing and internal visualization combined with physical exercises.  In this last-round game, I sat there calmly the whole time while my opponent grew increasingly frustrated and excitable.  On a more macro level, the increased calmness and objectivity that come from regular practice of this discipline (or related ones such as meditation) is a definite aid to calculation and assessment.  Although it seems contradictory, this increased mental calmness has also allowed me to play a much more aggressive, attacking style of chess when the board situation demands it.  My mind is now more open to what the position is objectively telling me is best to do, rather than me trying to impose my own desires onto the board.

Attitudes are in no way a replacement for skills, but I think for improving players (especially adults) it is just as important to identify what factors are holding us back or diverting us from the path to mastery.  Un-learning things we erroneously believe or "know" is normally much more difficult and painful than new learning.  If we are self-aware and honest with ourselves, however, it can be accomplished.

17 March 2013

Annotated Game #87: Is it a Colle? A Stonewall? No, it's a bust

This fourth-round tournament game has a more satisfying feel to it than the previous "ratings draw" where I (as White) should have made the necessary effort to win the endgame, regardless of the ratings gap.  Here, as Black I am unable to play my usual ...Bf5 in response to a Colle System setup because White plays an early Bd3 - probably with preventing that move in mind.  However, opening theory and practice exists for a reason and a drawback of the unusual early bishop move is quickly demonstrated by Black, who exchanges off the d-pawn and then pressures its replacement.  The opening - which seems to be a strange mix of Colle and Stonewall Attack ideas - doesn't lose for White, but he quickly abandons any chance of an advantage while giving himself some positional flaws, so it has to be considered a bust.

By move 9 Black has the game fully in hand and White is struggling to come up with good ideas, although the position is still balanced.  Black never loses his grip and then steers the game towards a drawn ending, although the alternatives shown around move 19-20 would have allowed him to keep pressuring White in the hopes of realizing his positional advantage.  Given the 250-point ratings gap and Black's lack of a clearly winning advantage, I think a draw was a reasonable result, although it would have been useful to probe harder in the middlegame, as White had no real counter-threats.

This was an encouraging game from the improvement standpoint, as it was blunder-free and I essentially dominated things strategically from early in the opening phase against a much higher-rated opponent, even though the advantage obtained was not sufficient for a win.  In more general terms, games like these should be encouraging for us Class B players, as they help show that Class A players should not be feared.

13 March 2013

2013 Women's World Team Championship

I followed this year's Women's World Team Championship with great interest and was not disappointed, due to the high level of fighting chess.  The U.S. team placed in the middle, after a slow start but a stronger finish including a victory over the Russian team in round 7.

The following games caught my attention in particular.

Round 7: GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia) - IM Irina Krush (USA)
In this game Krush plays with fire in a Richter-Rauzer Open Sicilian, but it's her opponent who ends up getting burned.  After the middlegame fireworks explode all over the board, by move 34 an unusual material balance (N+2 pawns vs. rook) is present.  Just looking at the position then, one thinks that the Black rook has the upper hand, given the open nature of the position and the pawn structure, but it takes some more creative play from Krush to overcome Kosteniuk.  The key move at the end seems to be 43...Bc1! which White could have prevented by taking the Black b-pawn earlier.

Round 7: WGM Olga Girya (Russia) - WIM Viktorija Ni (USA)
The most striking thing about this game is the final tactical sequence, in which White clearly lacked the requisite sense of danger.  White's position is in fact fine, but what appears to be an obvious defensive interposition is punished by a classic pinning theme.  Ni clearly never gave up trying to create winning chances for herself and was rewarded for her tenacity, as this win plus Krush's gave the U.S. team the victory.

Round 8: IM Irina Krush (USA) - GM Anna Ushenina (Ukraine)
Krush here defeats the current Women's World Champion, having disposed of former World Champion Kosteniuk the previous round.  This game has a completely different character, as White chooses a compact Reti-type structure and maneuvers quietly for the first 12 moves.  After that, though, the latent offensive potential on the kingside comes into play featuring a highly aggressive space expansion by White's pawns through move 20, followed again by a period of maneuvering.  The end comes suddenly as White lines up a threat on the f-file that Black's uncoordinated pieces are unable to meet.  For an English Opening player like me, where some similarities exist in both the maneuvering and attacking possibilities, this is an example of high-level chess that is most instructive and entertaining, mixing various kinds of play to make a satisfying result.

Congratulations on a well-fought tournament to the U.S. team and especially to IM Krush, who earned a gold medal for her individual performance, scoring 7/9 with a performance rating of 2607.

09 March 2013

Annotated Game #86: A ratings draw

This third-round tournament game is about as clear an example of a "ratings draw" as there is.  The final endgame position should be a win for White, or if not I certainly had all the winning chances, so why didn't I continue?  Psychological factors, of course.
  • I was relieved to have secured a draw with a much higher-rated (by 300 points) player, which I viewed as a positive outcome in itself, regardless of the board position.
  • I was mentally tired by that point and did not see an easy way to make progress. (One way would be to play h3 on the next move to kick the Black knight, then work the king to the center and have the rook attack laterally from the flank.)
  • The tournament situation - a first-round loss to a much higher-rated player followed by a win over a much lower-rated player - left me wanting some stability in results.
  • Most importantly, I did not have a winning mentality.
Unless there was some other significant factor at play, for example a big time clock deficit, I would not repeat the decision today.  While I now focus much less on the ratings factor than I did previously in my chess career, I've also realized that if I want to make real progress and gain strength, I can't take the easy way out.

03 March 2013

Book completed: The Long Goodbye

From Chapter 2 of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye:
It was a quiet night and the house seemed emptier than usual. I set out the chessmen and played a French defense against Steinitz. He beat me in forty-four moves, but I had him sweating a couple of times.
The phone rang at nine-thirty and the voice that spoke was one I had heard before.
"Is this Mr. Philip Marlowe?"
"Yeah. I'm Marlowe."
"This is Sylvia Lennox, Mr. Marlowe. We met very briefly in front of The Dancers one night last month. I heard afterwards that you had been kind enough to see that Terry got home."
"I did that."
"I suppose you know that we are not married any more, but I've been a little worried about him. He gave up the apartment he had in Westwood and nobody seems to know where he is."
"I noticed how worried you were the night we met."
"Look, Mr. Marlowe, I've been married to the man. I'm not very sympathetic to drunks. Perhaps I was a little unfeeling and perhaps I had something rather important to do. You're a private detective and this can be put on a professional basis, if you prefer it."
"It doesn't have to be put on any basis at all, Mrs. Lennox. He's on a bus going to Las Vegas. He has a friend there who will give him a job."
She brightened up very suddenly. "Oh-to Las Vegas? How sentimental of him. That's where we were married."
"I guess he forgot," I said, "or he would have gone somewhere else."
Instead of hanging up on me she laughed. It was a cute little laugh. "Axe you always as rude as this to your dients?"
"You're not a client, Mrs. Lennox."
"I might be someday. Who knows? Let's say to your lady friends, then."
"Same answer. The guy was down and out, starving, dirty, without a bean. You could have found him if it had been worth your time. He didn't want anything from you then and he probably doesn't want anything from you now."
"That," she said coolly, "is something you couldn't possibly know anything about. Good night." And she hung up.
She was dead right, of course, and I was dead wrong. But I didn't feel wrong. I just felt sore. If she had called up half an hour earlier I might have been sore enough to beat the hell out of Steinitz-except that he had been dead for fifty years and the chess game was out of a book.
From Chapter 3:
I liked him better drunk, down and out, hungry and beaten and proud. Or did I? Maybe I just liked being top man. His reasons for things were hard to figure. In my business there's a time to ask questions and a time to let your man simmer until he boils over. Every good cop knows that. It's a good deal like chess or boxing: Some people you have to crowd and keep off balance. Some you just box and they will end up beating themselves.
From Chapter 13:
He nodded. He was giving me a careful once over. "Tell me a little about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. That is, if you don't find the request objectionable."
"What sort of thing? I'm a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I'm a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life."
From Chapter 24:
She hung up and I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. 
From Chapter 40:
I put the chessboard on the coffee table and set out a problem called The Sphynx. It is printed on the end papers of a book on chess by Blackburn, the English chess wizard, probably the most dynamic chess player who ever lived, although he wouldn't get to first base in the cold war type of chess they play nowadays. The Sphynx is an eleven-mover and it justifies its name. Chess problems seldom run to more than four or five moves. Beyond that the difficulty of solving them rises in almost geometrical progression. An eleven-mover is sheer unadulterated torture.
Once in a long while when I feel mean enough I set it out and look for a new way to solve it. It's a nice quiet way to go crazy. You don't even scream, but you come awfully close. 

02 March 2013

Annotated Game #85: Why the Caro-Kann Classical is good vs. lower-rated players

This second-round tournament game helped me bounce back well from the previous defeat (Annotated Game #84) and shows some of the strengths of using the Caro-Kann Classical as an opening weapon.  Despite its well-deserved reputation for solidity, its ideas are complex enough that it offers Black a chance to create imbalances and even get a strong attack going against inaccurate play from White.

When the defense is used against lower-rated opponents, it often occurs that White possesses little knowledge or has few concrete ideas about how to play against it.  Black is unlikely to gain an advantage out of the opening, but if White simply drifts along without a clear plan, Black's counterplay can develop quickly.  This game is an excellent illustration of this, as White allows Black to equalize early on, then never really seems to develop a plan of his own.  The one concrete idea he plays on moves 23-24 simply leads to better play for Black.  By move 31 Black is ready to attack and seven moves later White is mated.

While there were a number of instructive improvements for both sides along the way, the overall development of the game shows how Black can effectively neutralize White's opening play, improve his position, then quickly go over to the attack when an opportunity is given.  This is especially dangerous against lower-rated players who lack the experience or understanding of White's more complex ideas.  Black's position is both simpler to play and has latent attacking resources that the patient player can reveal later in the middlegame.