05 February 2017

Book completed - Play the Dutch

I recently completed Play the Dutch by GM Neil McDonald (Everyman Chess, 2010), which per the book's subtitle is "an opening repertoire for Black based on the Leningrad Variation".  It is also a direct follow-up to his Starting Out: The Dutch Defence which provides an orientation to all of the main Dutch variations (Stonewall, Classical and Leningrad).  The "Play the..." series of books are intended to be more focused and intermediate versions of the "Starting Out..." openings series from Everyman.

In this case, McDonald offers his preferred repertoire, although not too narrowly, for example discussing two of the three main options in the main line Leningrad (7...c6 and 7...Nc6) and offering some refinements on the Anti-Dutch sidelines in the earlier book.  Here's the table of contents, for reference:

Gambit Lines and Early Oddities
White Plays 2 Nc3
White Plays 2 Bg5
White Avoids an early g2-g3 against a Leningrad Set-up
Sidelines in the Leningrad Variation
The Main Line Leningrad: 7 Nc3 c6
The Main Line Leningrad: 7 Nc3 Nc6
The Dutch versus 1 Nf3 and 1 c4

Some general observations:
  • The book is very reader-friendly, both in terms of writing style and visual presentation.  To do serious work with it you'll of course need a board and/or database program to review the material, but it can be followed along with only moderate effort on a first read-through.
  • The Leningrad Dutch is a tactics-heavy and sometimes tricky opening, one in which the theory of individual lines (or even whole variations) can change relatively rapidly based on new games and ideas.  This book should not be used for the latest theory, but that's not its intent: it's designed more to present key ideas, themes and specific reasoning behind the highlighted lines, at an intermediate rather than advanced level.  It does this the best of all of the Leningrad Dutch books I have looked at.
  • If you have a coach familiar with the Leningrad, then this book is probably redundant, but for those of us without coaches, it can be quite helpful in getting to the next level of understanding about the opening and its middlegame ideas, something which McDonald emphasizes in the complete annotated games that the book is built around.  He makes the effort to highlight similar plans and themes across games (including things like the ...f4 thrust and the utility of ...Nf6-h5 in attacking situations), which will be very important to achieving practical success using the opening.
  • The book should greatly assist the reader in delving further into Leningrad ideas and exploring lines, but does not offer a 100% concrete, fully tested repertoire.  I don't think this is a bad thing, as long as you realize that the book is a good resource, rather than meant to be used as your gospel and only opening resource.  (Probably a good attitude to have about any openings book.)
  • The main line treatment with 7...Nc6 is welcome, but it's also limited to Black's response 8...Na5 (after 8. d5 is played).  So the other main alternative 8...Ne5 is completely ignored (unlike in the Starting Out book), which means if you are a Black player, you really should take a look at it as well as 8...Na5, given some (known) difficulties there.  GM Viktor Moskalenko's related observations and analysis in The Diamond Dutch are very useful in understanding the trade-offs between the two lines.

22 January 2017

Commentary: 2016 Tal Memorial Round 6 (Aronian - Giri)

Although I've previously mentioned that I tend not to choose games for commentary from the super-GM class, the last batch I selected from 2016 all feature top names who happened to play brilliantly (and understandably) in my general opening repertoire, so I felt I couldn't ignore them!

This next commentary game, from round 6 of the Tal Memorial tournament, features brilliant maneuvering from GM Levon Aronian in an English, which helps show the latent power of the central setup. There are some key thematic observations on positional topics, such as what happens with the light-squared bishop exchange on h3, but the focus of the game is on the queenside pressure and crush that Aronian builds up after his opponent (GM Anish Giri) allows him the initiative. In the resulting sequence, I think that most of the rest of us would decide on the option 21. Nxe5 (and not necessarily be wrong to do so), but Aronian's more complex 21. Na5 followed by an exchange sacrifice is a model of positional and tactical effectiveness. It is well worth breaking down the individual sequences of tactical ideas and how Aronian strings them all together with his final back-rank threats and winning knight maneuver.

Aronian, Levon (2795) - Giri, Anish (2755)

Result: 1-0
Site: Moscow RUS
Date: 2016.10.02
[...] 1.c4 e5 2.g3 this very early fianchetto is a popular way to play the English 2...¤f6 3.¥g2 d5 the most challenging, immediately looking to establish a central presence. 4.cxd5 ¤xd5 5.¤f3 ¤c6 now it looks like a reversed Sicilian, doesn't it? In fact that is how ECO classifies it. 6.O-O ¤b6 7.d3 with Black controlling d4, White must opt for a more restrained game, looking to control the center with pieces, which is the point of the original setup. 7...¥e7 8.¥e3 O-O 9.¤bd2 this move eyes both e4 and c4, but neglects d5. It does leave the c-file half-open for White's rook, though.
9.¤c3 would be a fine (and more natural) alternative development for the knight, focusing more on the key d5 square.
9...¤d5!? would be the way to immediately take advantage of the knight development; the engine considers the resulting position completely equal after 10. Rc1 and the exchange on e3. The only other game in the database continued 10.¤c4 ¤xe3 11.¤xe3 ¦e8 12.¦c1 ¥f8 13.¦xc6 bxc6 14.£c2 ¦b8 15.b3 ¥d7 16.¤d2 ¦b6 17.¤e4 a5 18.¤c4 ¦a6 19.¤b2 ¥e6 20.¤c5 ¥xc5 21.£xc5 ¥d5 22.¦c1 ¥xg2 23.¢xg2 £d5+ 24.£xd5 cxd5 25.¦xc7 ¦aa8 26.¤a4 ¦ec8 27.¦e7 ¦e8 28.¦d7 ¦ed8 29.¦e7 f6 30.e3 ¦ac8 31.d4 exd4 32.exd4 ¦e8 33.¦a7 ¦c2 34.¤c5 ¦ee2 35.¦a8+ ¢f7 36.¦a7+ ¢g6 37.¤d3 ¢h6 38.¢f3 ¦ed2 39.¢e3 ¦e2+ 40.¢f3 ¦xa2 41.¦d7 g5 42.¦xd5 ¢g6 43.g4 ¦ed2 44.¢e3 ¦e2+ 45.¢f3 ¦ed2 46.¢e3 h5 47.h3 h4 48.¦d6 ¦d1 49.¤e5+ ¢g7 50.¦d7+ ¢g8 51.¦d8+ ¢g7 52.¦d7+ ¢g8 53.¦d8+ ¢g7 54.¦d7+ ¢g8 55.¦d8+ ¢g7 56.¦d7+ ¢g8 57.¦d8+ ¢h7 58.¦d7+ ¢g8 59.¦d8+ ¢g7 60.¦d7+ ¢g8 61.¦d8+ ¢g7 1/2-1/2 (61) Artemiev,V (2663)-Matlakov,M (2691) Sochi 2016
10.¦c1 £d7 telegraphing Black's intent to exchange the g2 bishop. 11.a3 sort of a waiting move, but also done to take away the b4 square from Black (usually to prevent ...Nb4 as a reaction to Qc2). 11...¥h3 12.¥xh3 masters can play this move with ease in the English, even though it looks anti-positional. If Black could follow it up by bringing additional pieces into a kingside attack, then it would be bad, but often the exchange on h3 simply means that Black's queen is offsides for a while.
12.b4 is not a bad other option, but in this position White doesn't have much more to gain beyond this move on the queenside, so taking the time to first get Black's queen out of position is worth it.
12...£xh3 13.b4²13...¥d6 this is done to protect e5 and subsequently maneuver the Nc6, but it seems somewhat contrived, as if Black has nothing better to do. Bringing the queen back on side with ...Qe6 or ...Qd7 would seem more productive. 14.£b3 the natural spot for the queen, which no longer faces opposition from a bishop on the light squares and has a beautiful diagonal now; this is another reason why Aronian was happy to exchange off the bishops. 14...¤e7 15.d4 Aronian judges the time is right to release some of the pent-up energy of his minor pieces clustered in the center and challenge/eliminate Black's presence there. 15...exd4 essentially forced, as it would be more awkward for Black to try to defend with something like ...Nc6. 16.¥xd4 now the bishop has an excellent diagonal as well and cannot be easily opposed by its Black counterpart. 16...¤c6 Black moves to trade off the centralized bishop. 17.¤e4 White has to be careful to maintain momentum here. Piece activity is more important than avoiding the bishop for knight swap.
17.¥b2 for example would allow Black to get some counter-pressure with 17...¦fe8
17...¤xd4 18.¤xd4 White's pair of knights are doing well by being centralized, while Black's minor pieces are comparatively restricted. 18...£d7?! Here Giri seeimgly invites the following sequence, by enabling the potential tactics down the d-file. (18...¥e5!? immediately is playable.) 19.¦fd1± now both of White's rooks are in the game, while Black's are still at home. The game illustrates the latent power of rooks when they are opposing queens (or kings) down a file, even with multiple pieces in the way. 19...¥e5 20.¤c6 £e8 21.¤a5
21.¤xe5 is an alternate way to play that may be a more obvious one for most (at least Class) players. 21...£xe5 22.¤c5 and now Black's b- and c-pawns are under potential threat, while Black can gobble the e-pawn. For example 22...£xe2 23.¤xb7 £e7 24.£c3±
21...¦b8 22.¤c5 £c8 23.£f3 White builds up single-mindedly against the b7 pawn while tying Black's pieces to its defense. 23...c6 24.b5! a brilliant idea to increase the pressure on the queenside, involving an exchange sacrifice, and probably why Aronian chose the approach with 21. Na5 in the first place. (And why for the rest of us 21. Nxe5 would probably be the easier way to go.) 24...¥b2 (24...cxb5?25.¤d7+⁠− and Black has no good options.) 25.bxc6 the sharpest and most effective continuation.
Avoiding the exchange sacrifice with 25.¦c2 is less good, as after 25...cxb5 White has to contend with the pin on the Nc5.
25...¥xc1 26.¦xc1 £c7
26...bxc6 is shown by the engine as the least bad option, but then 27.¤xc6 forks the Rb8 and the undefended e7 square (which would fork the Black king and queen), so in this variation White can regain the exchange and then be a clear pawn up. Giri evidently didn't like this, so went for the more complicated game continuation.
27.cxb7+⁠− although the engine shows a big advantage for White, the winning continuation is tricky to find. 27...¤a4 trying to exploit the pin on the Nc5, however 28.¤cb3 holds everything together. 28...£e7 29.¤d4 Although Qf4 could be played immediately to good effect, White is still handily winning with this move, which threatens a fork on c6. 29...£g5 targeting the Rc1 and Na5, but now White has a brilliant finish. 30.£f4 this works on multiple levels, as after an exchange on f4 Black would have no defense against Ndc6 and subsequent material losses. In the game continuation, Aronian exploits Giri's back-rank problems. 30...£xa5 31.£xb8!31...¦xb8 32.¦c8+ £d8 at first this looks like it holds Black together, but after 33.¦xd8+ ¦xd8 34.¤c6! the knight and b-pawn threats prove decisive after all.
34.¤c6 ¦e8 (34...¦d1+ 35.¢g2 ¦b1 36.¤b4 and the b-pawn queens.)
34...¦b8 35.¤xb8 ¤c5 36.¤c6 ¤xb7 37.¤xa7 and Black will not be able to stop both the a-pawn and White's 4v3 kingside majority.
35.¤e7+ ¢f8 36.¤c8! and the b-pawn queens, with a blocking motif along the 8th rank similar to the above variation's one along the b-file.
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21 January 2017

The curse of caring too much about chess

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that this post is more about the need to lift the curse of caring too much about your short-term results, either in an individual game or tournament; naturally, if we did not care about chess enough, then we would not bother playing seriously at all.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to take stock again of the overall state of my game, as previously done in the chess performance inventory and analytics posts. From my own observations and game analysis, qualitatively speaking my game has strengthened significantly since I started this blog. This has not yet been reflected quantitatively in terms of rating, however. This fact occasionally leads to frustration, but that's not very helpful. The point is that plateauing is a real and common phenomenon, and the only thing that will get you beyond a plateau is more work (although not always the same work, which is an important distinction).

A more helpful approach than rage quitting - which I think many of us are tempted to do after a disappointing result - is to better understand what is going on. My primary diagnosis for the (lack of) quantitative results so far is a failure to pursue consistent tournament-level play over time, something necessary for some fundamental performance elements. I also need to do better in focusing on, then completing, elements of my training program.
  • Energy management - this has always been important, more so now that I am no longer a teenager. Too often I am the one to miss something on the board (i.e. blunder) first due to tiredness, after a couple hours of play, rather than my opponent. As with any physical activity (and intensely using your brain falls in into that category), if it is done with regularity and without excessive gaps in practice, your ability to do that activity improves.
  • Keeping skills honed - I have been struck by how chess is similar to other practices such as playing musical instruments and speaking foreign languages (as well as kung fu), which are complex skills that require both memory and creative thought. In each activity we can establish an initial baseline of skill, with sustained learning effort and competitive practice over time, that will only slowly deteriorate with disuse. However, advancing the skill requires more consistent, regular practice, in part to avoid having to remember or re-learn particular items, rather than "automatically" recognizing them. In chess, pattern recognition is the foundation of this, and it's simply easier to recognize and remember what to do in specific situations if you regularly face them. The games we play are the test of our abilities, but also sustain our momentum in terms of performance.
  • Time management - I've found that I have enough time outside of work and other responsibilities, but often I have not felt that I had the requisite energy to devote to chess study, which is a different problem. Partly this is mental attitude, partly this is a need to continue to make healthy choices about food, drink and exercise to make sure I can sustain a reasonable pace of study on a weekly basis, if not always daily.
Returning to the main theme, here is a recent observation from one the United States' top (2100+) young female players, Alice Dongposted at Chess^Summit:
So when does one start to realize what chess means in their lives? For me, it was when I started playing for myself, for the enjoyment of the game rather than the success of the wins. I started to go to tournaments because I missed chess not because I wanted to win my section. It was also around that time that I became proud to be a chess player. Soon, the confused but amazed faces my peers when they found out I was a player amused me rather than scared me. Now, I know there are some of you out there who have also felt this change in what chess means in your life – what was it that led you across this bridge?
This kind of healthy attitude is one path to success; the opposite approach, obsessing over your results and handing over power to the game to define your life can also bring results, but it will also bring a lot of negative qualities to your life without any guarantee of ultimate success. The bottom line is that letting go of things like ratings fear and loathing and avoiding obsessing about your own rating is ultimately a sign of strength, if done for genuine love of the game and as part of a commitment to improve, rather than just a convenient cop-out if things aren't going your way.

13 January 2017

DVD completed: Typical Mistakes by 1600-1900 Players

This Fritztrainer DVD by GM Nicholas Pert takes a trainer's approach to identifying and addressing typical Class player mistakes.  Rather than focus primarily on teaching specific opening/middlegame/endgame knowledge (although there is an instructive chapter containing a couple of standard endgames), it looks at important concepts and practical decisions that improving players often get wrong.  Based on his commentary, it seems that GM Pert reviewed a number of internationally-rated tournament games featuring 1600-1900 rated players and then organized the DVD chapters based on common themes he saw in them.

Below are some of the highlights from my perspective.  In each of the chapters there are opportunities for the user to do some of their own "find the best move" practice, either by pausing during the video presentations or with quiz positions after the main chapter material.  As you'll see in the commentary, I found a number of common themes that have been previously highlighted in this blog.  Naturally some of the example games provided on the DVD contain multiple themes and GM Pert points this out when it happens.

Already there is a valuable observation here about the most practical approach to calculating and choosing variations. In the game example, a White knight is sacrificed on g7 and the Black player chooses a passive defensive line that is almost guaranteed to lose. The point is that any alternative to the chosen game continuation would be preferable, so Black should invest the time looking at critical lines (accepting the sacrifice) and other creative ways of countering it (one of which leads to an advantage).

Chapter 1: Not admitting a mistake
  • "Chess is a memoryless game" is a principle that many of us violate. We make a move and then realize it has problems, but then continue on with the idea anyway in order to try and recoup our investment. GM Pert shows how this is bad for our game. We need to have the mental toughness and lack of ego that will allow us to play what we (now) recognize is the best move on the board, even if it appears embarrassing - the chessboard does not lie, nor will it make fun of you for playing your best game.
  • In some of the game examples, it's not clear if the player recognizes their mistake, or simply doesn't see a better plan. It's still instructive to see those types of situations illustrated, since they prod us to always keep looking for a better plan and not be locked into a single idea, if we have the time to think.
  • I had a recent tournament game in which retreating a knight and admitting my previous idea was wrong would have saved a draw.  I even recognized this intellectually, but instead tried too hard to justify my previous play; in part this was because I'd had a string of draws in the tournament and was frustrated with that.  This was simply an emotional reaction, not wanting to experience the (false) embarrassment of retreating the piece and then deluding myself about my chances if I didn't.  I went on to lose as my opponent's pawns crashed through my center, without the knight to support it, so ironically I got my wish of "not another draw" - but not in a good way.  Accepting the truth of the chessboard is necessary for mastery, as is avoiding wishful thinking.

Chapter 2: Failed sacrifices
  • Concept: it's not necessary to calculate out all variations to the end, but one must focus on the critical ones.  This includes making sure that the opponent doesn't have any moves that refute the sacrifice, such as intermediate checks or captures.  To make the sacrifice, you need to be able to assess that it gives you prospects for success (in other words that you "get something for it" that is real).
  • Unsupported sacrifices clearly don't meet this criteria, as if the player has no other pieces able to attack, or if the defender can move his own pieces there first, there's no real attack.
  • Attacking play is highlighted in this section, including the important role of "quiet moves" such as withdrawals and opening squares for pieces, rather than always just going "all in" with multiple successive sacrifices
  • Sacrifices out of desperation often have no real prospects and just feel better (and lose quicker), rather than hard-headedly evaluating the needs of the position when careful defense is best.
  • An excellent example from this blog of a failed sacrifice is Annotated Game #162.

Chapter 3: Be aware of opponent's threats
  • This is a particular weak point of mine, as I often pay more attention to my own ideas and not enough to my opponent's threats.
  • The basic problem is focusing on one's own ideas, but not considering all of the opponent's possible moves. One antidote to this is to ask: why did they play their last move?  (This is in fact part of my simplified thought process).  Also, look beyond "obvious moves" to include possible captures and checks; sequencing of moves is also important.
  • On the flip side, you should be alert and look for your opponent's weakening moves, especially moving away defenders of key squares; this commentary game featuring FM Alisa Melekhina is an excellent example.
  • Common threats to look for: back rank or 7th rank penetrations; queen penetration into a position; taking advantage of hanging/vulnerable pieces (the "loose pieces drop off" idea).

Chapter 4: Standard Endgames
  • Short, but helpful on two specific endgame types (R+P, K+P)
  • Highlights the need for careful evaluation of potential transformations of the position, especially when choosing to simplify down in material.  This is a common problem among class players, for example in my simul game with GM Alex Yermolinsky.

Chapter 5: Too Materialistic
  • Short (too short in terms of content, I think, as this is a major failing of many Class players).
  • Emphasizes the need for players to make a dynamic evaluation of piece value (rather than just always thinking "rook = 5, knight = 3" etc.)
  • Highlights understanding the consequences for your opponent's piece activity when seizing material, including the idea of subsequently giving back material to end up with a small advantage, while taking away your opponent's threats.

Chapter 6: Miscalculating forced lines
  • Eye-opening about looking for lurking tactical issues (going back to previous chapter on your opponent's threats).
  • Difficult-to-see tactics/moves are highlighted, including a bishop retreat / long-distance skewer example, along with in-between moves that gain tempo (i.e. with check).
  • A personal issue of mine (as previously mentioned) is focusing too much on my own plans.  In practical terms, this translates to focusing on only one board segment and not having full board vision.  The counter to this would therefore seem to be deliberately expanding my the board vision.
  • Practical decisionmaking (a theme with other sections as well): if your alternatives all look bad, calculate the most critical line fully to see if you have any real chances with it. Always calculate the critical line for opponent fully to ensure that it does not work.
  • Test examples in this chapter included an "obvious" move being punished - see Annotated Game #149 for one of my own.
  • This chapter could have included more guidance / suggestions on how to avoid mistakes (or at least improve your calculating ability).

Chapter 7: Exchanging Bishops for Knights
  • Class players typically do understand that bishops are better in open games; the DVD includes an example of a positional tactic swapping knight for bishop.
  • One should also evaluate when knights are better (typically with closed pawn structures); this goes back to the idea of dynamic piece values.
  • The importance of piece exchanges was looked at here as a mastery concept.
  • GM Pert provides some interesting examples of how to work around annoying knights, rather than swapping good bishops for them, unless the swap is necessary to control key square(s).
  • The chapter is not systematic in examining piece exchange ideas, but was helpful in flagging general considerations (and the need to fully evaluate piece swaps).

Chapter 8: Pawn Structure
  • Very short (2 videos plus test); no attempt to be comprehensive, just offering a couple practical examples.
  • Opposite-colored bishops featured in one of the sample games, the point being that your pawns should control the squares of your opponent's bishop.
  • Undermining your opponent's pawn structure/control of a particular color square complex was another theme, including with pawn sacrifices when necessary.
  • The interesting idea behind sequencing a pawn advance was included, with an example of how a player could not execute a full (two-square) advance due to an en passant capture, so he did it "manually" rather than automatically - moved it one square, then moved up a supporting pawn, then moved the main pawn again
  • The flip side of the previous idea is the concept of an advancing a pawn primarily to block others' advance, by placing it in the en passant capture position.
  • Karlsbad pawn structure (d5-c6-b7-a7) vs. White minority attack: don't let White pawn get to b5 with the a-pawns on, advance a6 if necessary to guard b5.

Chapter 9: Improving your worst piece
  • Also very short, but very much to the point.
  • This is a key strategic and planning idea, especially when you have no other obvious plan (also included in my thinking process).
  • Another aspect of this idea is to bring all pieces into an attack - look at the ones which are not playing and activate them, rather than over-using the ones that are already developed.
  • Also avoid time-wasting moves in favor of developing moves, in general.
  • Work out the best square for a piece, then maneuver it as necessary (including getting other pieces out of the way).  This was included in a mastery concept - not every move has to "do something" in itself, it may just best facilitate the next move by a different piece, which is much more important.

Chapter 10: King safety
  • Exchanging pieces is the route to enhance king safety, especially the queens and when close to the endgame.
  • Anticipate problems (weak squares around the king, etc.) and then look for defensive tactics.
  • When on the offense, look to keep attacking pieces mobile and bring in additional pieces, while making sure your own king safety comes first (i.e. take away your opponent's threats).
  • Example given of moving a piece out of the way (the king) in order to add another attacking piece (a rook) for a mate threat - as in previous chapter's theme.

Chapter 11: Overestimating opponents plan
  • Common problem at all levels
  • This is the flip side of chapter 3 (being unaware of opponent's threats); this time, the problem is that you give too much power to your opponent's threats and don't play the best moves as a result.
  • If you have an advantage but can't see a complete path to a win, concentrate on making the best move in the position and keep on doing that; don't be deterred if your opponent gains back some ground, if you are still winning.
  • Example was given of an unnecessary defensive sacrifice of a piece for a pawn.  Maybe let a pawn go if you have to, but then shift to your own plan rather than giving all of the power in the position to your opponent and making it worse.  Don't focus only on the one evident idea/threat of your opponent and overreact to it.
  • Back to the original intro example, if you see only one bad alternative to your opponent's threat, it's a good practical decision to look for other, perhaps more riskier-looking options, rather than settle for a guaranteed poor position.