30 April 2014

Video on beating the English

FM Alisa Melekhina - who was previously mentioned in Chess vs Life - recently started recording videos for Chess.com and I was pleasantly surprised to see that video #2 features an effective annotation of an attacking game in the English.  Sadly for English players, Black (Alisa) wins handily with a kingside breakthrough, but it is instructional nonetheless to see how White should not play against a King's Indian Defense (KID) type setup.  The broader lesson, always helpful to see illustrated, is not to follow a stereotyped plan in your opening and to pay the necessary attention to what your opponent is doing.

29 April 2014

Commentary: Women's Grand Prix Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 - Round 1

Round 1 of the recent FIDE Women's Grand Prix tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk had two instructive games in the English Opening that caught my eye:

1)  Zhao Xue - Kateryna Lagno shows that all is not as it seems when evaluating positions visually.  The board picture at the end of move 9 looks favorable to White at first glance, but although she has more pieces developed and centralized, they are in fact not cooperating and vulnerable to disruption.  By the end of move 12 Black clearly has momentum and with 13...Bg4 it looks like she could have kept up the initiative.  Instead, after a non-threatening knight development, White is able to break the trend with 14. Ng5 and then capitalize on Black's inaccurate response.  This game is an excellent illustration of how quickly chances can shift in a game after seemingly innocuous move choices.

2)  Hou Yifan - Tatiana Kosintseva starts off with a Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) setup, which I think is a good choice against the English.  However, similar to the first game, there is a certain amount of drift in the opening - this time on Black's part - and White seizes the opportunity on move 12 to take the initiative with a knight maneuver.  Hou's decision to exchange the fianchettoed bishop on the long diagonal is instructive and perhaps was not expected by Black.  However, in return for giving up the valuable bishop, the knight becomes even stronger and Black's d5 pawn becomes a target.  Other instructive points include the "indirect exchanges" of pieces that occur twice and Hou's rook endgame play, which repeatedly sees her exchange off material for positional advantage and more material.  This sort of play is very characteristic of master games and the ideas involved might not even occur to Class players, so the example is well worth reviewing.

25 April 2014

Commentary: Candidates 2014 - Round 10

In round 6 of the 2014 Candidates Tournament, Peter Svidler surprised everyone by playing the Dutch.  Although he achieved an advantage out of the opening, a Leningrad Dutch with 7...Qe8, he eventually lost the game.  It's not clear whether surprise was a factor in round 10, when Svidler essayed the Dutch again against Kramnik, but the latter must have expected some level of preparation in the opening and had a very unusual early (move 4!) novelty in mind.

Despite the strange-looking and original early play, by move 14 Black transitions into a Stonewall structure, which serves to equalize.  Some interesting jousting with the minor pieces ensues, which is useful to examine to understand the logic behind piece exchanges.  The action really gets going after the 25. c4 break, which White justifies tactically, and Black's small error on move 26 which hands the initiative and some pressure to White.

Kramnik follows up well, but this game becomes another lesson in the importance of CCT, as evidently he focuses too much on the action in the center and as a result misses a forced deflection tactic on the kingside.  This leaves Black an exchange up with no compensation to White, so Kramnik decides to try for a swindle rather than suffer through a long, losing endgame.  Svidler then brings home the point in true Dutch Defense style, with the closing move ...f4.

20 April 2014

Jennifer Shahade on the English

For those looking to play (or play against) the English Opening, Jennifer Shahade recently posted a lecture from the Saint Louis Chess Club on YouTube, as flagged on the Improving Chess Player blog.  The first several minutes are of general interest in terms of discussing the opening, with the remainder of the time spent analyzing a specific game.  She also covers some very useful general ideas as part of that, including pertinent middlegame concepts.  Some highlights:
  • Insightful discussion about the general value of playing 1. c4 as White and the difficulties of selecting a Black system against it
  • Transposition and move-order issues
  • Comments on when to calculate and when simply to play chess
  • Relative value of pieces in the opening, middlegame and endgame - especially fianchettoed bishops
  • The value of looking at tactical ideas, even when they currently do not work
  • The advantage of expanding in the center and kingside when the opportunity exists, even when "normal" play in the English features a queenside strategy.  It was comforting to see that other English players at the Class level also have this blind spot, which is something I've addressed previously on the blog.
The production value of the video is high quality, with a large board complemented by a view of the commentator, although some of the questions from the audience are not quite audible.

19 April 2014

Annotated Game #122: Best Game Ever

This final-round tournament game was the best result ever in my chess career, as it featured the defeat of a 2100+ player.  It also pulled together in one game many of the core elements of my training and improvement program:
  • My play was blunder-free, which was the result of consistently following the simplified thought process.
  • Despite the over 400-point ratings gap, I rejected ratings fear and loathing and simply played to the best of my ability.  My opponent, on the other hand, appeared to be playing my rating and not the board, as he passed up multiple drawing lines from inferior positions.
  • Similarly, I was able to have the mental toughness necessary not to offer a draw in a better position simply because of the ratings differential, which was a strong temptation at various points.
  • I was able to spot key tactics on different occasions by keeping in mind the importance of CCT (checks, captures, threats) regardless of whether they appeared possible at first glance.
The game was an interesting one right from the start, as my opponent went into the aggressive Bellon Gambit against the English.  I had seen a mention of it previously, but the extent of my knowledge was limited to the fact that declining it with 5. d3 was the best option.  (This is one of those rare cases where declining a gambit is the only path to an advantage, rather than accepting it.)  For those interested in the theory - which I did not follow during the game - there are a series of excellent articles on ChessCafe.com that I found afterwards.

It struck me as obvious from the start that my opponent was rather contemptuous of my rating, although he was polite enough personally.  The choice of such an aggressive and not fully sound gambit line is consistent with that assessment, as he was clearly seeking to create an imbalanced game and exploit anything I did to stumble along the way.  He did not seem to expect me to decline the gambit, as he had to do some thinking after that occurred.  Nevertheless, he got most of what he wanted out of the opening, which is designed to give Black an advantage in the center by allowing him to occupy d5 with a pawn.

Despite some uncomfortable moments, I managed to equalize and by move 18 had a clear strategic target in my opponent's hanging pawns structure.  Some relatively weak play by my opponent, apparently again motivated by a desire to avoid drawing lines, allowed me to establish a bind in the center and eventually find a tactical shot that won the key c-pawn.  Subsequent play gave me the initiative and a positional advantage, but nothing decisive until I found another, more devastating tactical follow-up.  After that it still was not easy, as my opponent fought hard and sacrificed additional material to threaten a mate in one - which he never was able to execute, as my calculated attack came first.

While my play was hardly perfect, having missed some opportunities along the way, it was sufficient to the task.  I was especially heartened by my ability to find the necessary tactical opportunities and correctly calculate them, along with my ability to cope with the pressure of an intense 50+ move game.  I would not have been able to play this game without the benefits of the training program and the insights offered by my studies, since beginning this blog.

13 April 2014

Annotated Game #121: Quiet Symmetry

This penultimate round tournament game was a quiet Symmetrical English, which I thought my lower-rated opponent played well, although he was obviously unfamiliar with it.  It is one of those openings which Class players rarely use, perhaps because it lacks excitement or seemingly violates standard opening principles.  It also requires a good deal of patience to play properly and involves a lot of positional maneuvering.

Although the game appeared equal almost all the way through, in subsequent analysis, there were some improvements lurking for White, especially with 14. Bh3! - not a decisive move in tactical terms, but it would have resulted in a long-term positional advantage.  During the game I never considered moving the fianchettoed bishop off of g2, its "natural home".  Finding (and remembering) these types of moves is a key benefit of the game analysis process.

07 April 2014

Annotated Game #120: Breaking the pattern

In the tournament I've been analyzing (Annotated Games 116-119), by the fifth round I had a 2-2 score and White had won every game.  I resolved as Black in this game to break that pattern and successfully did so.  My opponent opened with a transposition to Sokolsky's Opening (featuring an early b4, in this case on the second move) - not an opening to be sneered at, but it shouldn't be feared either.

This was the first time I had faced the opening in a serious game and to meet it I relied on a piece of advice I had read at some point earlier in my career, which was to play a Queen's Indian Defense setup against it.  This is not an attempt to "punish" the opening by challenging it directly; rather, the idea is to give Black a solid setup and achieve an easy equality without creating any obvious weaknesses.  (I took a similar overall approach when playing against 1. b3 more recently - see Annotated Game #106 - although with a different defense.)  The strategy worked, as White left his kingside bare and allowed me to play a (first) classic bishop sacrifice.  In the late middlegame I even was able to use some ideas from the Dutch Stonewall to seal the victory.  (This is an example of how effective it can be to "cross-train" openings, a topic I hope to treat at greater length.)

In terms of my opening preparation, I was pleased that this game justified my decision to briefly examine the opening, determine a strategy against it, then move on and concentrate on more popular setups.  I believe that facing offbeat openings with healthy respect is definitely the way to go, rather than believing you can beat somebody in the opening phase in their pet line, simply by applying some general principles and playing aggressively.  Flank openings without obvious targets to go after, such as in this game, can become passive and ultimately succumb to a more traditional approach of central play, in this case combined with a kingside attack.

05 April 2014

Commentary: Candidates 2014 - Round 3

The recent conclusion of the 2014 Candidates was disappointing - but only because I hated to see it end.  Anand showed what it meant to be a world-class competitor, ignoring everyone who declared his winning chances to be nil - which included the majority of the chess world, or at least the pundits - and outplaying everyone over the course of the tournament.

In this game from round 3, Anand plays a solid game in the Slav, but then does not hesitate to unbalance things and seize the initiative once White becomes overly aggressive.  Perhaps Mamedyarov was relying on the continuation from the Ivanchuck-Vallejo Pons game cited in the annotations, but Anand finds a more active pawn break and then shows how central domination can lead to tactical threats which White in the end simply cannot shake.

03 April 2014

Chess vs Life

An excellent recent article in Chess Life Online by FM Alisa Melekhina highlights some of the contradictions and conflicts that bedevil the life of a serious chessplayer.  Hers is only one example among many, but if you look around the chess community, it reflects some common truths - the most important one for improving players being that mastery requires time-intensive practice, which means dedicating a large part of your life to it.

For example, she relates how she spent four hours a day in high school in training, while now she is lucky to get four hours a week - which is not enough to maintain her edge for tournaments.  If you look at other up-and-coming masters such as Justus Williams and James Black (just to name recent American examples) you can see the same dogged work ethic and massive time commitment during their rise from Class levels to the master-level 2200 rating and beyond.  This is a useful reality check for those who think "talent" is some sort of magic carpet ride to mastery, or that significant progress can come without sustained, focused effort.

This simple but sometimes elusive truth I believe is the core of the problem - or challenge, depending on how you view it - of adult chess improvement.  How many people can possibly devote four hours a day to chess once out of their school years and in the working world?  Two hours a day?  Even just one hour a day on average, consistently?  In reality, very few people who work for a living have the combination of available time, energy and desire.  (Many of those who do not have to work for a living also lack these things, it is true, but at least they are not constrained by life responsibilities.)

The oft-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice required for mastery of a complex skill such as chess is simply an approximation, but the structural implications of it still hold for how you organize your life.  If you devote two hours a day to chess, that means you will reach your goal twice as fast as if you devoted one hour.  Four hours a day, four times as fast.  (No hours a day, never!)  The arithmetic in this sense is simple.

The learning process, however, is not strictly arithmetic in nature.  The more you become immersed in a subject, the more you tend to retain and make new breakthroughs in understanding, while you may not retain much at all if you only learn a particular subject in small doses and infrequently.  (This phenomenon is well known by anyone who halfheartedly studied a foreign language and can no longer speak more than a few words of it.)  Every person will have a certain threshold for effective study, then, which is necessary to pass on a frequent basis.  Distribution of time therefore becomes important, not just your total hours.  For example, doing intensive training for a half-hour a day, six days a week is more likely to result in sustained progress than 3 hours a day, once a week.

As an adult with the objective of improving my chess game, it is nice to have mastery as a goal, but one of the realizations that I have had on my journey since starting this blog is that, short of having the (rare) opportunity to take a year or two off from work to devote to training and studying, I am unlikely to achieve the master title.  Does that make progress pointless?  If you define the sum total of chess' worth to you as 2200 Elo or above, then it would be.  For me that is not the case, for a variety of reasons, ranging from simple enjoyment to competitive instincts to proven neurological benefits.

Returning to the idea of "chess versus life", one can view the two as mutually exclusive: life has demands and distractions that take away from your chess, while on the flip side studying a game for hours on end by definition means that you aren't doing anything else with your life.  This can be considered both an inconvenient truth and a negative way of looking at both sides of the chess/life coin.

I will end this meditation on the subject by offering the counter-argument and observation that integrating chess training and study into your life, by balancing both sides as best as you can and not succumbing to negativity about the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, may just make you both a better person and chessplayer.  Perhaps Alisa would agree.