23 February 2013

Annotated Game #84: Piece exchanges and draw offers will lose you the game

This was from the first round of the next tournament following Annotated Game #79.  While the previous tournament had a bad vibe to it from the beginning, this one was considerably better overall.  The fact that I was paired in the first round against a strong Expert player was a big benefit for me, as I didn't feel any pressure to win due to the 500-point ratings gap between us.  My opponent on the other hand did not appear to be as happy and looked even less happy after I had built up a fine-looking position out of the opening, an English - Grunfeld defense setup.

Black makes the first significant error on move 12, unnecessarily moving his rook away from the defense of the f7 square.  I was able to take advantage of this and by playing obvious moves had obtained a clearly superior position as of move 15.  At this point my lack of positional judgment starts to show, however, as I choose the wrong square for the retreat of my knight.  This is followed by allowing Black to exchange his so-so knight for my excellent light-square bishop on move 18, which marks the real strategic turning point of the game.  One of the things Class players often lack is a sense of the importance of piece exchanges and this game is an excellent illustration of the consequences.  Black immediately obtains the initiative and the bishop-pair, allowing his pieces to spring to life and target what are now some obvious White weaknesses.

Despite White's forced retreat, Black misses some chances to leverage his positional advantage for tactical gains (including 23...Bb5!) and White re-achieves equality, making a draw offer that is rejected.  Nowadays I've given up the practice of early draw offers in favor of emphasizing mental toughness, but even then I have to admit it was rather rude, given the ratings gap, not to mention being overly optimistic.  Indeed, a few moves later White plays the complacent 27. Nd3? and this time Black does not miss his chance to inflict material losses on White, who eventually loses after trading down into a bishop (for Black) endgame.

Although this was a loss, the game in fact left me in a relatively positive mood for the rest of the tournament.  I had made a 2100+ player sweat through the early middlegame and did not simply collapse after his first counterblow.  This positive frame of mind helped in my later games.  This was also the first tournament I played in after beginning to train with Qigong breathing exercises (part of my Taijiquan martial arts practice), which also appeared to have a positive effect on my mental outlook.  More on that later.

20 February 2013

A robust and deep insight on playing style

I finally tracked down the original reference from Playing Styles Deconstructed that underpinned what I termed the impracticality of pursuing a chess "style" for improving players.  The following is from GM Alex Yermolinsky's The Road To Chess Improvement (Gambit 1999).
...One strong GM once told me that during the game we (he meant World Top 100 or so) may happen to know, able to calculate, or in any other way find the best move in approximately 90 percent of positions.  This means that, if an average game lasts 50 moves, there will be 5 times during the game when we won't know what to do!  There comes the most interesting, yet difficult part.  He also said that these moments are very characteristic for a chess-player's style and personality.
I find this to be a robust and deep insight.  In the linked post, the primary lesson I took away was that attempting to conform to some idealized type of playing style ("tactical" or "positional" or whatever), especially at the Class level, would be an impediment to the improving player. What we really need to do instead, along the lines of the above quote, is focus on reducing the number of positions where we don't know what to do!

Another important aspect to the above-quoted idea is the concept that it is normal to have differing opinions over positions, even at the top level and to the point where you do not in fact understand all aspects of the position.  It's been remarkable to me how often the very top-rated players will candidly express this during interviews or in post-game analysis, for example in How Kramnik makes us feel better about chess.  I have seen Carlsen and Anand be similarly self-effacing and the lack of ego in the top ranks these days is very refreshing, as well as motivational for me to see.

A final comment on style: assuming the idea above is broadly true, our personal style will naturally shine through as part of a game's development, giving scope for creativity and individuality.  But  that does not excuse us from increasing our efforts at objective investigation and understanding of truth on the chessboard.

17 February 2013

Annotated Game #83: Rocky Rook Revenge Match

Although the ill-fated Double My Egg Nog tourney was never finished - only a single serving - Rocky Rook was still able to play our second round game.  In the first round game linked, he had won an interesting struggle in the Colle System, featuring two key blunders from myself, so I was looking forward to evening the score with some better play.

In my previous Round Turkey game against Rocky as White (Annotated Game #73), he played a sort of Old Indian type setup as Black.  This time, he started off with 1...g6 and I expected him to go into a King's Indian Defense setup eventually.  Instead, he surprised me with an early 3...c5 and took the game into the Symmetrical English, which is relatively rare at the Class level.  I therefore don't have a lot of experience with it, but Rocky seemed to have even less, so I found that somewhat encouraging heading into the middlegame.

The middlegame opens up after Rocky's 13...b5, which although objectively fine (according to Houdini) I felt played into White's hands strategically.  Essentially Black is forced to drop a pawn as a result of the move, but could have gained full compensation after the variation 16...Rc8, which establishes a strong center and kicks White's pieces around.  In the game continuation, Black remains active, but White is able to consolidate on the queenside and activate the passed a-pawn after Black initiates an exchange of knights.  I was, however, forced to think hard and find "only" moves that would protect material and at the same time give my pieces their necessary activity.

The last phase of the game occurs after Black's 23...Rc2 dangerously unbalances the position.  While the rook is threatening-looking on the second rank, White's attack on Black's back rank comes first and White's minor pieces are able to combine with the queen on an effective attack on Black's king, while White's rook and king hold the defense together.  The most challenging part of the calculation was when I had to find 29. Bd4, breaking a pin on White's queen by force, in order to finish the attack.

Thanks to Rocky for another well-fought game.  The key difference this time was my lack of blundering (always helpful!) and more accurate calculation.  I realized early on in the game that a Symmetrical English would require patience from me in order to eventually make progress, so having that mindset was a useful assist to my play.

Hopefully Rocky and I can do a regular set of matches; it would be good to get a monthly game going, for example.  It makes a difference having someone available to regularly challenge you, since it's not as easy to hide your weaknesses from them as it is with random tournament opponents.

16 February 2013

Book completed - Practical Middlegame Techniques

Today I completed Practical Middlegame Techniques by IM Danny Kopec with FM Rudy Blumenfeld (Cadogan, 1997, First Edition).  There was a second edition released in 2012, with a considerably expanded page count (242 pages versus the original 128) that is referenced in the above link; all comments here pertain to the first edition.

I would liken the effects of working through this book to drinking a large cup of coffee and taking a multivitamin.  It's not going to improve your chess the same way as a full-course meal would, but it should give anyone Class B and below a relatively quick and permanent boost to their understanding and skills.  Although the book is slim, it is content-rich and took me a fairly long time to work through.  (This was in fact my third attempt to do it.)  I'll take the fact I completed it now as a positive sign of my commitment to training, rather than bemoaning my previous laziness.

The contents are divided into three chapters:
  • Chapter 1: Essential Tactical Methods presents a series of common (and not-so-common) mating patterns and then some increasingly complex examples incorporating them.  The chapter moves on to define and illustrate different types of material gain combinations and then finishes with a series of more complex combinations incorporating different themes.
  • Chapter 2: Pawn Structures and How To Use Them, as the authors acknowledge, draws heavily on Dr. Hans Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess, but then again so do most other books on the topic.  The presentation of pawn structures and how to use different types of "levers" (perhaps best described as pawn advances with a specific purpose, usually challenging another pawn) is concisely done and dispenses with most of Kmoch's weird vocabulary.
  • Chapter 3: The Conditions and Methods for Attacking the King focuses on attacking play and presents some typical maneuvers used, along with identifying the conditions under which they can be used.   
I fit the profile for the best target audience for the book, which would be an intermediate-level player who is self-taught and can benefit most from exposure to the structured concepts in each section.  Someone who has already done years worth of mating and combination study would not find anything new in Chapter 1, although the mating pattern list is probably the best single reference that I've seen on the topic.  I haven't had that kind of rigorous exposure to tactics training, so I significantly benefited from the explanation and examples of mating and other tactical themes.

Similarly, Chapter 2 may not surprise anyone who already has some exposure to the positional concepts of pawn play, but I found the discussion of pawn structures and their static and dynamic qualities to be well worth the time. The examples given, largely game fragments but also including some complete games, were all well-chosen.  For me, I found the illustrations of the "sweeper-sealer" lever (sacrificing a pawn to free its square for a piece), minority attack and techniques for shielding backward pawns to be the most valuable.

Chapter 3 I found to be worthwhile, but more uneven.  The first two parts were the most enlightening, including examinations of things like how to use a space advantages in the attack and particular cases of this advantage such as when White possesses an advanced pawn on e5.  Separate sections focusing on the rook lift maneuver and exchange sacrifice on the long diagonal also were especially useful.  The last part of the chapter ("Radical Approaches") introduces sections on the king hunt, major material sacrifices, and concentration of forces.  Here the examples given struck me as not being as clearly illustrative of the concepts as those in previous chapters.

The wide range of games and game fragments presented in the book is one of its strengths.  They include some classic examples from earlier 20th century play, examples from the authors' games, and selections from more modern and contemporary international tournament practice.  Kopec's annotations are concise and helpful, although there is a lot of "...and wins" type commentary when presenting variations.  It is primarily for this reason that I would say the book is best suited for intermediate players (Class B/C) who will be able to work out some of the tactics not explicitly given in the text.  Of course, this is the case whenever you work through annotated games, so the book is not unique in that respect.

As someone looking for the proverbial shot in the arm for their middlegame technique, I found the time put into the book to be worthwhile and will return to it for reference and to refresh my memory and understanding in the future.

10 February 2013

Annotated Game #82: A good diagnosis

This recent game (part of the Chessmaster ladder series of training games) provided a good diagnosis of my current playing strengths and weaknesses.  The opening phase is strong, with my opponent following a move 8 sideline of the Caro-Kann Panov variation (officially classified as a Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Tarrasch, which is what it becomes via transposition).  White's strategic error on move 11 with the bishop exchange gives Black relatively easy equality, in contrast with the kingside pressure White normally achieves in this variation.

The early middlegame analysis (moves 12-14) shows some interesting alternative plans for Black.  This for me is often the most valuable part of these training exercises.  Knowing how to play the early middlegame positions, in other words having a good idea of what to do in a position after your opening lines are finished, is a crucial skill and is something that I have often failed to do well.  In this game, my chosen path was not bad, but being aware of the other opportunities in the position will give me an advantage the next time I play a similar middlegame.

The game becomes tactical on move 17 as White drops a pawn with a typical computer handicap move.  However, it was much more interesting than it appeared, as the chosen method of White's piece recapture would have allowed Black to eventually win White's queen with a back-rank pin or check.  This was not obvious, however, and I instead focused on winning the pawn.

By move 24 we have an endgame where Black could have achieved a significantly stronger position by exchanging pawns on f3, inflicting a weakened structure on White and maintaining a strongly supported d-pawn.  Black instead ends up with several weak, isolated pawns that he cannot defend adequately, but is able to capture White pawns in exchange for them.  Black is stopped during the final race on the kingside, where the 2-to-1 pawn advantage is not enough to win in the single minor piece (BvN) endgame.

Diagnosis summary:
  • Solid opening preparation
  • Early middlegame was OK but not optimal, but this is not surprising given my lack of experience with actually playing the position.
  • Although I did not see the full possibilities of 18...Bf4! in terms of trapping the queen several moves later, I at least considered it as a candidate move, which I would not have done previously.
  • Remaining middlegame play was good, including the decision to force an exchange of queens and transition to the endgame.
  • I used my thinking process reasonably well and did not miss any significant threats from my opponent.
  • First endgame strategic decision was incorrect (not exchanging on f3), leading to better chances for my opponent.
  • Later on, my endgame advantage may not have been enough to win against best play, but I passed up several chances to improve my situation.
  • I lack knowledge of correct strategies in BvN endgames.

03 February 2013

Studying opening lines: how much is enough?

When creating and then evolving our opening repertoire, whether through use of a simple database or other system, we are faced with an issue that may at first seem simple, but is in fact complex: when to stop?  In other words, how much is "enough" to include, when we are compiling and studying individual opening lines?

Opinions vary greatly on whether opening study should be emphasized at all for players below the professional level, so getting into a philosophical debate over the question is probably not going to be of great use, nor would it resolve anything.  Rather, I'd like to offer some practical observations and guidelines that have helped me in making effective repertoire and study choices.  Regardless of the emphasis you may choose to place on opening study, everybody has to have something prepared for the opening phase of the game.

The primary objective for me out of the opening is to get a playable middlegame position, not to try to achieve a winning advantage.  This is not the most aggressive approach, but it's not a bad one in terms of results, either.  The goals of all my opening lines are therefore to: 1) avoid losing to forced tactics in the opening, and 2) reach a middlegame where I evaluate my chances are no worse than my opponent's.

Goal #1 (not to lose!) is of course the most important limiting factor.  Regardless of your opening choices, there will be at least a few (sometimes many) lines where the opponent can sacrifice material or undertake a provocative maneuver that gives them an early attack.  For example, if there is a tactical sideline with forcing threats that eventually ends up equal after 12 moves into the game, but you only know through move 7, your preparation is both incomplete and risky.  At the Class level, opponents are typically not "booked up" and will play interesting-looking or aggressive moves in the opening rather than "knowing" they ultimately do not work or end up in equality.  This forces us to be prepared not just for lines that theory considers best and popular, but for threatening sidelines.  Examples:
  • Slav Defense, Geller Gambit.  This pawn sacrifice normally gives White an initiative until around move 16-17 and Black can easily misstep if he does not understand the line.  You can see my simul against GM Alex Yermolinsky (Annotated Game #4) for an illustration of how the opening can be prepared (and how the endgame should not be played) in this line.
  • Budapest Gambit (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e5).  This whole opening is designed to be aggressive and trappy and is not easily dealt with by White.  In my tournament career, I've more than once been seated at a board next to a game where this gambit had been played and personally observed Black obtaining a won game in less than 10 moves, while White was completely bewildered by what had happened.
Goal #2 (reach an at least roughly equal position) is more flexible but also requires more judgment and evaluation.  With non-tactical sidelines or offbeat openings where there is no immediate threat from your opponent, sometimes just a basic idea of how to proceed can be enough, or perhaps knowing a sequence of 5-6 moves will set you up well for the middlegame after some additional standard developing moves.  In more complex cases, especially in whatever the main line is considered to be, there is more danger of your opponent (especially when you are Black) being able to emerge from the opening with at least a slight advantage.  Greater depth of move knowledge - and knowledge of why the moves are being made - is more critical here.  Examples:
  • 1. b4 (Sokolsky Opening).  The standard advice I've seen is simply to play a Queen's Indian Defense setup against it as Black.  This worked out well in the one game I've ever played against it.
  • Colle System.  I used to stop at move 3 with my preparation, which simply involved playing 3...Bf5 and then exchanging off the light-squared bishop.  This seemed to take most of the potential sting out of the system.  Following my game analysis here, my preparation has been extended out to move 5, for example as in Annotated Game #80, following the recognition from Annotated Games #75 and #78 that Black had to watch the b7-pawn more closely early on.
  • Caro-Kann, Advance Variation.  Most recently shown in Annotated Game #74, there are several early sidelines to know and the main line of the variation is considered the most challenging to Black.
The last big factor I take into account in determining "how much is enough?" is my ability to retain and understand opening lines - which, like everyone's, is limited.  This naturally affects overall repertoire choice, choice of lines and also how far we will study a line until it is considered "enough".  Take the Colle System example above: if I know it will be a more frequent choice of my opponents, then for practical purposes I will devote more time to looking at effective ideas for Black.  However, I am satisfied that I can reach an equal position with my current knowledge level.  So, in the absence of another motivating factor, I am able to safely concentrate on other openings.  I've also deliberately limited the amount of theory to know in the Caro-Kann Advance by choosing the 3...c5 sideline, but it is still a critical variation to know and understand, so requires more attention during opening preparation time.

I look for practical results from opening preparation more than anything else and this approach has worked well, to the point where I can (and should) concentrate on other aspects of my game.  It is also important to highlight that opening study methods can (and should) go far beyond identification and memorization of lines, if you want to truly improve your game.