15 May 2015

Book completed: The Diamond Dutch

I recently completed The Diamond Dutch by Victor Moskalenko, as the openings component of my current eclectic training program.  I found it to be an excellent example of a useful, modern-style openings book focused more on practical play rather than exhaustive theory.  As such, it does not attempt to be comprehensive in its treatment of every line of the Dutch Defense; rather, it examines all of the major variations and the less frequently played "Anti-Dutch" lines from the view of an experienced practitioner (on both the White and Black sides of most of the lines), focusing more on critical options.  This approach has great practical value and the author is candid about his evaluations and preferences, presenting them with clear, objective reasons (even if not always fully-fleshed out proofs).

Moskalenko is known as both a player and advocate of the Dutch Stonewall, so it is no surprise that the section on it is both the largest and (in my opinion) strongest part of the book.  The author's exposition of common plans in different set-ups, driven by White's primary strategy, is illuminating and particularly insightful, since a lot of the sample games are his own.  Rather than try to cover all the Stonewall possibilities, he focuses on what he considers to be the most effective lines from his own practice.  As Black, for example, Moskalenko generally avoids an early fianchetto of the light-squared bishop in favor of the more traditional development via d7 (and then to e8 and the kingside, most often).  This type of approach contrasts with the more comprehensive treatment in Win with the Stonewall Dutch, which also tends to favor the more modern fianchetto approach.  However, Moskalenko is not dogmatic about it and points out places where playing an earlier ...b6 can be good.  In many cases, as he does in other parts of the book, he may give one-move "!?" alternatives without further analysis.  In other works I've sometimes found that a frustrating practice, but here it made more sense to me, as it gives the reader other possibilities to investigate while helping reduce the complexity of analysis to a manageable level.

The section on the Leningrad Dutch is also meaty, if not quite as fully fleshed out.  However, in Leningrad theory there is more of a history of busted or now-dubious lines, in contrast with the more resilient Stonewall, so Moskalenko's focus on what he considers to be the critical tries appears appropriate.  He also does not neglect things like the move 7...Nc6 in the main line and offers the best recent high-level treatment of it that I've been able to find.  I also found his explanations of the problems with the 7...Qe8 line (dropped by most GMs a while ago) and the benefits of the 7...c6 option (the main line these days) to be quite helpful.  He also deals well with sidelines that are very important to know in the Leningrad, including some recent ones at the top level such as Aronian-Carlsen (Saint Louis, 2013).  Moskalenko's treatment of the Classical Dutch (and transpositional possibilities) is also good, although it is not my particular focus of study and I only looked at a few selective examples.

As usual with my opening study practice, I first went through the book using a physical board, then after each section used it as a reference in updating my opening repertoire database.  This sort of repetition I find both useful and aesthetically pleasing, as well as overall more comfortable than sitting down in front of a computer while trying to read and input moves at the same time on a first reading.  Moskalenko's (now-standard) approach of using reference games for each line, along with other game fragments as references for variations, is also helpful in constructing a more holistic understanding of middlegame and endgame considerations likely to arise from each variation.

From my point of view, this is a key book for any serious Dutch practitioner who wants both greater insight into the plans and possibilities for each side, while having the most up-to-date general treatment available on the key lines.

05 May 2015

DVD completed: Improve Your Chess with Tania Sachdev

This interactive DVD features Indian IM Tania Sachdev presenting lessons based on 15 of her games in ChessBase video format (with a viewer program included for those without ChessBase software), along with a series of 10 training positions/games at the end of the DVD which are fully interactive.  In both cases you can access the games in the database for further exploration or review after the video portion is done.

The DVD contents are focused exclusively on middlegame play.  Sachdev at various points comments on the importance of knowing opening theory, for example in the intro clip when emphasizing that you should at least know what types of positions you want to end up playing.  She does not discuss the opening phase of her games much, but a lot of the examples come from the early middlegame and show that "just playing chess" can still be important in a tournament game.

There is no overall theme or specific organization to the DVD, other than the idea of illustrating various important middlegame concepts.  These include, among others:
  • Using "small tactics" to obtain a positional advantage
  • Leveraging small advantages into bigger ones
  • The importance of piece placement
  • Common plans in different pawn structures
  • Doubled pawns as a weakness and as a strength
  • The importance of central pawn breaks
  • Identifying and executing a plan without getting distracted
During the 15 video annotated games, Sachdev does a good job of using the highlight tools to indicate things like key squares and threats, as well as asking the viewer to pause the video at critical points to think about possible continuations.  This type of interactivity is naturally enhanced in the final section of 10 "questions" which are presented similar to typical tactics trainer positions, with you making your chosen move on the board.  However, the instructional value is enhanced by Sachdev not only explaining the best move when you make it, but also discussing key variations (if you choose one of them) and/or specific elements to look for in the position (if you get it wrong).  With several of the games, there is more than one "question" position in them, which I found especially valuable, as it let me see how a game can progress through multiple decision points and longer tactical sequences, which is more like participating in an actual tournament game.

As a Class player, I found the DVD helpful and enjoyable to use, as Sachdev usually explains her concepts clearly and focuses on a couple of main points in each game.  If you are looking for something more structured and theoretical as part of your training, the annotated games approach might frustrate you, but from a practical standpoint I think the DVD works well; it's very much like having her available for a series of lessons.  There could have been even more interactivity, but the product shows off some of what can be done to enhance your training beyond simply watching a video.

04 May 2015

Chess computing resources for 2015 - ChessBase web-based applications

Since ChessBase recently posted its list of applications available on the web, I've decided to update my earlier "Chess computing resources for 2015" series with a link.  This increased availability of web-based resources is another step towards transforming the past model of players having to acquire multiple (and expensive) software packages with somewhat arbitrary separations in functions.  The list (you can follow the above link for them all) includes:

ChessBase online database (source of the above screenshot)
Fritz on the Web
Fritz and Chesster educational program
ChessBase's cloud database service
Tactics Trainer

All of them have free options, only a registration is required.  Given ChessBase's past tendency to charge on the high end of the market, this is welcome (and probably necessary from a business point of view, given other web-based apps' availability).

If you already have the full ChessBase software installed, some of the apps are redundant or scaled-down in terms of features, but they could still be helpful if you're away from your main computer.  From an aesthetic standpoint, I prefer the ChessBase/Fritz style boards to other types, so there's also some benefit simply from having better quality (and consistent) visuals in the different chess apps.

26 April 2015

Commentary - Shamkir 2015 round 3 (Caruana - Carlsen)

The super-GM tournament in Shamkir (Gashimov Memorial) recently finished, with Magnus Carlsen again besting the field.  This game from round 3 of the tournament sees Carlsen take advantage of a single mistake by his opponent (Caruana) during the transition from a Stonewall Dutch middlegame to the endgame.  I found the game instructive in all phases: Carlsen has used the Stonewall a number of times in the past, which is one of my interests; the middlegame could have taken a more challenging route had Caruana wanted it; and Carlsen's exploitation of his endgame advantage in pawn structure and rook activity is worthy of emulation.

18 April 2015

How Natalia Pogonina makes us feel better about chess

The 2015 knockout FIDE Women's World Championship finished earlier this month, with Natalia Pogonina coming in second.  She had some perceptive things to say about the mental side of chess in her follow-up interview with ChessBase; some of these points relate to an earlier post on mental toughness.  Others speak to the value of training and the need to focus on the task at hand when in a tournament situation.  Pogonina's calm, mature attitude combined with an intense fighting ability has served her well.
My preparation was more serious than usual. In early March I played a training match against a strong GM. We agreed to keep his name a secret, although if he finds it acceptable, I will gladly reveal the mystery. We played standard time control chess, rapid, blitz and even Armageddon. This was very interesting and useful. I believe the match helped me a lot, especially since I hadn’t played anywhere after the Russian Superfinal in December. I was rusty and lacking practice. Without such training it wouldn’t make much sense to participate in the [women's world championship].
One shouldn’t set any limits for oneself. I didn’t have any particular goals and didn’t treat it in the “the minimal task is to reach round X” way. I was mentally prepared to go home after the very first round. If I move on, it’s nice. If not, it’s also fine, because I will return to my family. Maybe this attitude helped me to focus on the game itself instead of dwelling on the results. My attention was on the game, not on the outcome.
...I demonstrated certain psychological weaknesses in the Final. I made blunders: not just chess ones, but human mistakes, so to speak.  Also, of course, I was very tired, so I wasn’t able to recover and readjust my game. I didn’t have a fresh head for the Final. I spent too much time studying theory. Even if we caught Mariya in preparation from time to time, I didn’t have enough stamina and mental strength to capitalize on it.
During the post-match press conference I was asked how I felt about being the Vice Women’s World Chess Champion and what expectations I had. My answer was that I don’t have any particular emotions and that I am already occupied with preparing for the upcoming World Team Championship. As to expectations, my reply was that now I have a chance to play the Grand Prix events and have secured a spot in the next World Championship. The audience has burst out laughing. Did I say anything wrong?
What are my expectations? The event has granted me valuable experience. It is also nice that some people watched me coming back over and over again and have arrived at their personal conclusions. Hopefully, they will be setting fewer mental barriers for themselves and will believe more in their own powers. One’s duty is to do one’s job well and to hope for the best.