31 May 2014

Mastery Concept: Cross-training Openings

As part of an occasional series of Mastery Concept posts, I'd like to highlight the benefits of cross-training openings.  Cross-training is all the rage for getting in physical shape (witness Crossfit) and can also be an important part of strengthening your mental game.

For example, I used to be too narrow in my opening study methods and, like many players when they are first exposed to opening theory, focused on choosing and memorizing "book" variations.  Study of complete, annotated games featuring chosen variations was a big step up from this constrained and ultimately counterproductive method, and I believe this should be the cornerstone of most improving players' practice.  Another step forward in knowledge and sophistication, however, is looking at a broader range of games in order to take away valuable lessons at a conceptual level.

Naturally you need to have a balanced approach to selecting games to study, since with a limited time budget you can't just take in everything indiscriminately.  However, while looking at games from contemporary tournaments of interest, or when working through collections of annotated games of world-class players, similar concepts across different openings should pop out at you during the process.

Sometimes I find that identifying an analagous concept in a completely different opening has an even greater impact on my understanding of it, perhaps due to its unexpected nature.  These types of common concepts are, by definition, worthy of further study and examination due to their appearance in multiple types of games.  Striving to understand small differences in how concepts are applied across different games, or in different variations, I believe is also one of the keys to mastering positional understanding.  (See Training quote of the day #2)

Examples of openings cross-training are legion; here are some that I have run across at various points in my studies.  As can be seen below, cross-training opening ideas can range from direct transpositions between openings, which are more obvious, to individual maneuvers that can be applied in similar circumstances.

Caro-Kann / Slav combination: I've played both openings for a long time and I don't believe they have a large number of identical ideas, despite the duplication of Black's first two moves (1...c6 followed by 2...d5) and the common initial idea of supporting the d5 pawn in the center.  Their main commonality is that they both normally lead to semi-open type games, rather than open or closed positions.  Nevertheless, there are some benefits to being able to play both, given some early transposition possibilities (as occurred in Annotated Game #67).  Switching to the Caro-Kann is also an easy way to meet the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (1. d4 d5 2. e4 c6), if you have it in your repertoire.

Caro-Kann / Queen's Gambit Declined: further along in the opening, the Caro-Kann can in some cases also merge with queen's pawn openings, as occurs in a popular line of the Panov-Botvinnink Attack after Black plays 5...e6; see Annotated Game #38 and Annotated Game #123 for personal examples.

Slav / Stonewall Dutch: the Stonewall can be reached from a Slav move-order and can be used to good effect that way, as Anna Zatonskih did in the 2013 U.S. Championships.

Bishop retreat to h2/h7: an example of the value of this maneuver for White can be found in this 2014 U.S. Championship game by Gata Kamsky featuring the London System, while its analog for Black can be found in the analysis to Annotated Game #124.  In both cases the point is to preserve the light-square bishop rather than allow the opponent to trade it off.

And finally, here is a more sophisticated example, with the comment excerpted from the November 2011 Chess Evolution analysis of a top-level game in the Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez:

As a postscript, a couple of other observations on opening cross-training from the chess blogosphere:

GM Nigel Davies - The Benefits of Cross Training

GM Vinay Bhat - Mind = Blown

Sputnick - Responding to 1.d4 with the Nimzo-Indian and Ragozin

29 May 2014

Commentary: XV Karpov-Poikovsky Tournament - Round 4

Before continuing on with an account of my best recent tournament, started in Annotated Game #123, I have a pending commentary game to post.  From round 4 of the 15th anniversary Karpov-Poikovsky tournament in mid-May, this features two well-known international players (Bologan and Nepomniachtchi) slugging it out in a Leningrad Dutch.  Bologan's unusual 6th move creates a new strategic picture in the opening variation, but Black is the one who takes advantage of it.  It is instructive to see Nepomniachtchi successfully execute several thematic moves (7...Nc6, 9...Ne4 and 11...g5) that allow him to equalize and then seize the initiative.  Bologan had some opportunities to pull himself back into the game later on, but they were difficult to find and Black's threats kept coming in a relentless fashion.  Overall, this game is an excellent example of what Black can do in the Leningrad Dutch against imprecise play.

21 May 2014

Commentary: 2014 U.S. Championship - Round 11

The final round of the U.S. Championship was outstanding to see, especially the must-win effort from Gata Kamsky to gain a spot in the playoffs (which he then won).  In this game, he chose one of his regular weapons as White, the London System, against GM Josh Friedel.  This strategy of opening selection, relying on a deeply known opening that is considered solid rather than unbalancing, is similar for example to Kasparov's choice of the English in his must-win final game against Karpov in the 1987 World Championship.

Kamsky's strategic depth was shown via moves like 13. a5, which in fact is aimed at undermining the center.  Friedel had multiple chances to equalize or gain counterplay, but instead ended up choosing to play his opponent's game rather than his own.  I identify move 21 as the key strategic decision point for Black, as he deliberately passes up unbalanced play on the queenside, where he has an advantage, in favor of attempting to shore up his kingside defenses.  Black's subsequent awkward defensive contortions are eventually exploited by White, who ends up dominating the entire board.

The game is worth examining for its individual positional and tactical decisions, but what stands out are the strategic factors and the role psychology played, with Black evidently feeling the pressure of playing against his world-class opponent.

20 May 2014

Annotated Game #124: Crazy attacking interlude

Before resuming analysis of the tournament begun in Annotated Game #123, I could not resist looking at a recent Slow Chess League game that featured an unsound attack for Black (me) and surprising resources for both sides.  Having been caught off guard by an unpleasant opening sequence, I decide to sacrifice a piece for two pawns and an attack.  This is in fact a typical recipe for disaster at the novice level and I fail to do any better with it.  However, I was able to see a number of attacking ideas and thought it would be much more fun to go out fighting than be squeezed to death out of an inferior opening.  The attacking idea on move 19 for Black is especially noteworthy and the analysis shows how I could have legitimately obtained a dominant kingside attack by finding a way of employing all of my limited resources, despite being the equivalent of two pieces down.  In the end, at least it was a fun game with a worthy opponent.

12 May 2014

Commentary: 2014 U.S. Championship - Round 2

This game from round 2 of the ongoing U.S. Championship (Women's section) is one of the more interesting Hedgehog-type games I've seen.  The opening normally requires a good deal of maneuvering from both sides, with White enjoying a small space advantage early on, but Black being very solid and hard to make progress against.  While the English is a common way to reach this formation, it's also possible via the Sicilian, for example.

Black, the now-famous teenage player Ashritha Eswaran, I think erred in selecting to transpose into this opening against GM Irina Krush.  These types of positional battles are bound to favor the more experienced and prepared side, which in this case must be White.  Eswaran in fact goes astray with an innocuous looking move (15...a6) - something that is easy to do in the Hedgehog - that leads to a loss of a pawn, thanks to an overloaded queen and White's chance to reposition her pieces with tempo.  Krush then relentlessly applies pressure until her opponent cracks.  A valuable game to study, from both sides.

11 May 2014

Annotated Game #123: Off to a good start

After my "best game ever" to end the previous tournament, the next tournament got off to a good start in the first round with the following game.  I played solidly as Black and was in control of my own destiny the whole time.  The only error was in missing an interesting and hard-to-find knight sacrifice (19...Nxg2!) which serves as a lesson to investigate these sorts of opportunities in more depth, rather than dismissing them because there is no chance for a mate.  As part of my careful play, I also kept in mind the "evil e-file" tactics, showing that learning actually has taken place as a result of my study program (always a positive).

03 May 2014

Commentary: Women's Grand Prix Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 - Round 5

I chose the following game for study because it illustrates well the sometimes amorphous concept of positional compensation for a pawn.  In contrast with her round 1 game, Hou Yifan is unable to immediately recapture her Queen's Gambit pawn, but is not bothered by this fact.  She goes on to play exactly as required in order to actively press Black, keeping her off-balance and unable to consolidate her position; specifically, Black fails to develop her pieces well enough in order to be able to take advantage of the extra pawn.  Eventually Black stumbles under the pressure and White crushes her with rooks on the 7th rank.

It is worth noting that the Houdini engine had Hou either slightly favored or equal while down the pawn for the entire time (until Hou established a clear winning advantage).  Engine evaluations are sometimes rightly criticized for being too materialistic, but I have not found Houdini to have this flaw.