28 June 2014

Annotated Game #129: Slaying a White Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus (or Hippo) is a rare defense for Black, although it has some popularity at the club level, and is an even rarer opening formation for White to pursue.  From move 2 of this sixth-round tournament game, however, I knew it was coming.  The Hippo formation - central pawns advanced one rank to clear their squares for the knights and both bishops fianchettoed - can be solid and difficult to crack.

This was in fact the first time I had faced the opening, but I was in a positive mindset coming off my earlier round win (Annotated Game #128) and considered it an interesting challenge.  I decided to unbalance things early with 3...Bg4 and this turned out to be an excellent practical decision, as my opponent responded weakly and allowed me to develop a kingside attack early on.  Subsequent mechanical moves made by White in an attempt to reach the standard Hippo formation only served to aid my own plans.

The decisive point occurred when I correctly calculated a key tactical sequence from moves 13-17, resulting in forced material gain due to control of the e3 square.  From there it was a "matter of technique" to simplify to a won endgame, although I made sure to then focus on safety and on eliminating any possible counterplay.  This reflected the advice of NM Dan Heisman about "going to sleep" in the endgame, not in the sense of turning your brain off, but in playing moves which maintain your advantage and at the same time do not allow your opponent any possibilities to make progress.

I felt very much "in the zone" in this game and did well in seeing the attacking possibilities, which was something of a novelty for me.  I believe it was the first time I have played such an early ...h5-h4 pawn push, for example, and I was not afraid to take the attack to White after I evaluated his weaknesses.  This showed I was overcoming the old limitations imposed by my self-imposed "positional" playing style.

23 June 2014

Annotated Game #128: Busted out of the opening

In the post-game review of this fifth-round tournament game, my opponent said he thought he had been busted out of the opening, which is mostly true.  His 9th move was simply bad and his position became further cramped and vulnerable afterwards.  However, he missed multiple opportunities to limit the damage or even regain equality, for example on move 15 when he could have made a very advantageous piece exchange.  I finally am able to pull the tactical trigger on move 19 and Black has a losing game afterwards, quickly going downhill.

The course of this game illustrates the psychological power that trends often have on a player; in other words, once you start down a losing path, it's hard to break that feeling and transform your game for the better.  GM Alex Yermolinsky talked about using "trend-breaking tools" to counter that phenomenon and I previously discussed the idea in "Chess performance and chess skills: not the same thing".  If you've perused other annotated games here, you've no doubt noticed a number of examples where I fell into the same psychological trap and failed to take advantage of opportunities to reverse my fortunes.  In this game, it was good to be on the opposite side of the problem, for once.

21 June 2014

Mastery Concept: Effects of Piece Exchanges

As part of the occasional series of Mastery Concept posts, today we'll look at the effects of piece exchanges.  The idea that like-for-like piece exchanges can change the course of the entire game is one that is not necessarily obvious to the Class player, who when evaluating material exchanges typically focuses on a point-based material balance evaluation, or other obvious effects on the position.  For example, first-order effects of exchanges include swapping bishop for knight in order to double your opponent's pawns, which is an early theme in several openings, including the Exchange Ruy Lopez and the Nimzo-Indian (Samisch Variation).  However, these types of decisions almost always have more far-reaching and subtler effects on the rest of the game.  The greater your understanding of the impact of piece exchanges, the better you will be able to evaluate their desirability and then benefit from them.
(Note that here we are talking about exchanges that are like-for-like, i.e. minor piece for minor piece, queen for queen, etc.  Captures that lead to material imbalances are another, more complicated subject.  If you are interested in that, I recommend this article by GM Larry Kaufman on NM Dan Heisman's site.)

For a general overview of the topic by a strong player, the Chess.com video General Strategy: When to Exchange Pieces by GM Dejan Bojkov is well worth the time, as it goes into various strategic guidelines for exchanging in a clear fashion.  

Below I've provided a few game examples in order to highlight some of the situations where piece exchanges can make a significant difference in the course of the game.  There are a considerable number of different lessons to be had, but as a fundamental concept, I believe that if the improving player asks the questions "how will this exchange affect the current position?" and "what are the strategic implications of the exchange for the rest of the game?" before exchanging, that in itself can help provide a measurable boost to chess understanding and playing strength.  


1) Samisch - Nimzovitch (Berlin, 1928)

This classic game was included by Nimzovitch as game 13 in his book Chess Praxis; a more modern commentary by GM Raymond Keene can be found at the link above.  Here Nimzovitch deliberately exchanges off both of his bishops in advantageous ways that are central to his strategy.

2) Hou - Kosintseva (Khanty-Mansiysk, 2014) - original full commentary

3) Ramirez - Shankland (St. Louis, 2013) - original full commentary

4) ChessAdmin - Expert (Annotated Game #84, "Piece exchanges and draw offers will lose you the game")

5. GM Yermolinsky - ChessAdmin (Annotated Game #4, "GM Alex Yermolinsky simul")

14 June 2014

Annotated Game #127: Turning Point

This fourth-round tournament game turned out to be the turning point for me.  Normally this would mean that I triumphed in a hard-fought game, but in this case I lost in a long, hard-fought game.  For most of it, however, I had done an excellent job of following my thinking process, evaluating positions, and combining strategy and tactics.  It is always gratifying when reviewing a game with an engine to see it agree with a large number of your moves, which was indicative of the overall quality of the game.  My opponent also played well and made a good psychological decision in the final phase of the game to not accept a draw and instead try to unbalance things, although he was slightly worse as a result.  If he had not done that, he could not have won in the end.  Perhaps he perceived my relative tiredness, lack of patience and desire for a draw, something which precluded me from finding some potentially advantageous continuations.

Other lessons taken away from the game analysis include:
  • The benefits of the opening maneuver with h7-h6 to clear a safety square for the Bf5, something recently highlighted in the cross-training openings post; this would have been a good option early on for Black, after White chose not to immediately pressure the bishop.
  • How "caveman" style strategies, as White adopted in the early middlegame by pushing the f and g-pawns, can be met.
  • How one should look to undermine advanced pawns, for example the variations on moves 33 and 35.
Despite the loss in this game, I ended up winning my remaining tournament games and finishing in the money for the first time in a number of years.  In contrast, my opponent did not do so well and ended up below me in the final rankings.  Although naturally I would have preferred not to lose, the overall high quality of play carried through into the next rounds and I was able to regain my mental toughness, as we shall see in the next series of annotations.

08 June 2014

Cross-training openings: Dutch Defense

Here are two further examples of cross-training openings, both relevant to the Dutch Defense.  I've been working my way through Nimzovitch's Chess Praxis, similar to the way I eventually completed Bronstein's Zurich 1953 tournament book.  The games are instructive in general - why Nimzovitch chose them to begin with - and you can also see a copy of his notes to the first game in the link below.

Bogoljubov - Nimzovitch (London, 1927)

Nimzovitch - von Scheve (Ostende, 1907)

Annotated Game #126: How to attack?

This third-round tournament game shows again the attacking possibilities of the English Opening on the kingside, even though I did not take the best advantage of them.  After a Grunfeld-type defense from my opponent, I had a small opening advantage which soon turned into equality.  Black, however, did not have any initiative of his own, so it was my ideas (for good or ill) that ended up driving the entire game.

A relatively harmless plan involving the advance of my h-pawn turned into an attacking possibility after Black recaptured with the wrong pawn (18...fxg6?!) and then left his knight in a vulnerable position pinned to his queen.  I was able to whip up some initiative and could have had a serious attack with 21. f4! but focused erroneously on play along the h-file.  After a simple board sight failure led to me passing up the chance to win a pawn, I entered a drawn double-rook endgame.

The analysis illustrates some useful concepts regarding how to attack.  In addition to the above examples, there were more subtle improvements such as 17. Rh1 or earlier opportunities to place the queen on a better square.  The game is also a useful example of how attacking play, even when not particularly threatening, can lead to opportunities being created on the board.