02 September 2017

Annotated Game #178: Patience is a virtue...which I lack

Analysis of this next tournament game, along with the previous ones, helps highlight one recurring flaw in my play: lack of patience.  This is a common fault in Class players, often reflected in the idea that each single move has to "do something" big.  Here, as in Annotated Game #176, when there is no obvious immediate breakthrough, I get frustrated and acquiesce to a draw.  Fixing this conceptual flaw in my play should bring better results over time.

The game itself contains some interesting ideas (not just psychological ones), including alternatives for Black on move 9 and move 12.  As part of the analysis process, it's very useful to see how modern engines (Komodo 10 in this case) help evaluate plans, not just individual moves; for example, it consistently highlighted the value of the b8-h2 diagonal and building up pressure on it through the variations on moves 12 and 15.  I also like the idea of the knight retreat on move 19, getting out of the way of the pawns and playing a more maneuvering type of game.  Finally, it was worth looking at the different options towards the end of the game, for both dynamic and maneuvering play, to continue working my positional advantage.

Class C - ChessAdmin

Result: 1/2-1/2

[...] 1.d4 d5 2.e3 usually an indicator that White is heading for a Stonewall formation. 2...¤f6 3.¥d3 c5 4.c3 ¤c6 5.f4 ¥g4 getting the bishop to an active square before playing ...e6 6.¤f3 e6 7.¤bd2 ¥e7 8.O-O O-O 9.£e1 cxd4 Normally it's a good idea to exchange c-pawn for d-pawn, and it isn't bad here. But there may be a more effective path forward for Black.
9...¥f5 is a more sophisticated positional idea, which is both the database and engine favorite. After 10.¥xf5 exf5 Black has a lock on e4 and White's e3 pawn will be weak on the half-open file.
10.exd4 ¦c8 11.¤e5 ¥f5 I'll give myself credit for recognizing this idea, even if a bit later than optimal. 12.£e2 a6 this was perhaps a waste of time. My idea was to play follow up with .. .b5 and prevent White from advancing the c-pawn to exchange off my d5 pawn. However, this is not a real threat as long as the Nc6 is there (due to the d4 pawn then being unprotected). If White exchanges on c6, then a subsequent pawn swap on d5 would just leave d4 isolated and weak.
12...£c7!? would develop the queen and connect the rooks. It also starts to build pressure up on the b8-h2 diagonal.
13.£f3 b5 sticking with the original idea. 14.a3?! done to prevent b5-b4, but this is too weakening. 14...¤a5³ now having a pawn on b5 is actually helpful, thanks to my opponent making holes on the queenside. 15.¦e1 ¦e8 not really necessary. Komodo still favors the plan of building pressure on the b8-h2 diagonal with ...Bd6 and ...Qc7. 16.g4 ¥xd3 17.¤xd3 ¤c4 18.¤xc4 bxc4 now I enjoy a significant space advantage in the center and on the queenside. 19.¤f2 g6
19...¤d7!? would activate the Be7 and give White fewer kingside targets for the pawns.
20.£h3 (20.f5 exf5 21.gxf5 ¦b8³) 20...¥f8 rather too cautious.
20...¦b8 with the idea of pressuring the b-pawn and forcing White to tie down a piece to its protection.
21.¥d2?! White will just have to move this back next move. 21...¦b8µ22.¥c1 £b6 here either more patience was called for in a largely closed position, or some more dynamic play. (22...h5!? is the dynamic option. 23.gxh5 ¤xh5³)
22...¦e7 is a more slow maneuvering approach, clearing the e8 square for the knight to go to d6 and perhaps to double rooks on the b-file.
23.£g3 ¥d6 24.£f3 at this point I saw no obvious breakthroughs for Black, so took the draw. Basically a lack of energy and patience was the reason, along with not really understanding the needs of the position. These include the importance of the b8-h2 diagonal and activating the bishop, the possible ...h5 advance, better and earlier development of the queen and rooks, etc.
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26 August 2017

Annotated Game #177: How could I not win this?

While it's always disappointing to lose a game, there's another - sometimes just as poignant - feeling of disappointment at not winning a game.  This next tournament game falls into that category.  I build up excellent attacking prospects on the kingside, with open lines and an overwhelming local superiority of pieces (4-0), but at the crucial point I failed to actually execute an attack.  My opponent started to do a good job of defending while making threats and turned the game around as a result; what happens after move 27 is an excellent illustration of the importance of the initiative, both on the board and psychologically.  I almost had the full disappointment of losing the game, as things went rapidly downhill, but after an error by my opponent I managed to calculate the drawing sequence and wrapped the game up.

Analyzing this game was helpful in highlighting certain clusters of turning points and strategic choices, for example around moves 17-19 and again on moves 27-31.  Hopefully I can make better future decisions as a result.

ChessAdmin - Class C

Result: 1/2-1/2

[...] 1.c4 e5 2.¤c3 ¤f6 3.¤f3 ¤c6 4.e3 d5 5.cxd5 ¤xd5 6.¥b5 ¤xc3 7.bxc3 ¥d7 8.d4 ¥d6 9.O-O O-O 10.¥e2 ¦e8 11.£c2 e4 12.¤d2 now e4 becomes an easy target to focus on, although the position is still equal. 12...¦e6?13.f4 here I believed my opponent a little too much, when he failed to defend e4, although the text move is also good for White.
13.¤xe4 I correctly saw there was a threat for Black involving ...Qh4, which made me avoid this line. However the engine shows that this is unnecessary, since Black's attack just looks scary rather than being effective. 13...£h4 (13...¥xh2+ 14.¢xh2 £h4+ 15.¢g1 £xe4 16.£xe4 ¦xe4 17.f3 ¦ee8 18.¢f2±) 14.f4 ¦h6 15.h3 ¦g6 16.¥f3 ¥xh3 17.¤xd6 cxd6± and White is fine.
13...exf3 14.¤xf3± here Komodo considers White to be about the equivalent of a pawn ahead. The central pawns are quite powerful and I have some nice open lines on the kingside. 14...¦e8 15.¥d3 h6 16.e4 mobilizing the central pawn majority 16...¥g4 17.e5 this is premature; I should bring more pieces into play first, or (as shown by the engine) challenge the Bg4, which is Black's only good piece on the kingside at the moment.
17.h3 would help get the pesky bishop out of the way. For example 17...¥h5 18.e5 now this pawn advance has more bite, since g4 is threatened and the bishop has no good square to go to. So 18...¥xf3 19.¦xf3+⁠− and White is rolling on the kingside with four pieces (queen, two bishops and rook) currently versus zero for Black.
17.¦b1!? is a simple move that gets the rook in play and makes life more awkward for Black.
17...¥e7? an obvious retreat but not a good one. (17...¥f8) 18.¦b1 a good move but not great.
18.¥c4!+⁠− pinning the f-pawn causes major problems for Black, as now Qg6 is threatened.
18...¦b8 19.¥e4 right piece to move, but not the best square for it (per above). I thought for a while here on where the best spot for the bishop would be, but ultimately was too focused on queenside play, when in fact the big payoff is on the kingside. 19...£d7 20.h3 ¥xf3 (20...¥e6 is more solid.) 21.¦xf3+⁠− with the f-file now open and two strong bishops pointing towards the king, along with the dominating central pawns, I have a major advantage. 21...¥d8 22.¦g3 going for the somewhat cheap-looking, but still effective, threat of Bxh6. (22.£f2!?) 22...¤xd4 23.£d3 seeking to avoid having to take on d4 with the pawn and then give Black ...Qxd4+. However, that would in fact be fine for White as well.
23.cxd4 £xd4+ 24.¢h1 ¦xe5 here I was too materialistic and thought that the three pawns for a piece wasn't a good deal for me. 25.¥h7+ ¢h8 26.¥b2+⁠−
23...¦xe5 24.cxd4 ¦h5 25.¥b2 lining up against g7.
25.¦xb7!? would pursue a simpler winning strategy, based on my material advantage. 25...¦xb7 26.¥xb7 ¥f6 27.d5+⁠−
25...¥g5 26.¦f1 now all pieces are in on the attack and the engine evaluates this as the equivalent of White having an extra piece and then some. 26...¦e8 27.£f3?! a significant slip, since it would be much better to double the rooks on the f-file rather than leading with the queen. Also, the lack of a battery on the b1-h7 diagonal leaves me with fewer options for the bishop and allows Black's next move. I did not in fact have a concrete plan here.
27.¦gf3 ¥f6 28.¦xf6!28...gxf6 29.d5+⁠− and Black's king is stripped of cover.
27...¦h4 well played. Black now starts taking back some of the initiative by making his own threats, the first in a while. 28.¥f5 £b5 29.£c3 now I am responding more to Black's threats than looking for my own.
29.¥d3 would take advantage of the weakness on f7. 29...£d7 30.£xb7+⁠−
29...¦f4 30.¦xf4 ¥xf4 31.¦f3? missing the way to keep an advantage. The position is now equal. (31.¥d3!+⁠− extracts the bishop with tempo, also saving the Rg3.) 31...£xf5 by this point the game has fully turned around and Black is the one with all the threats. Psychologically this was a blow and I was tired of calculating variations, prompting the next error. 32.g3?? this in fact should now lose.
32.¥c1 is in fact the only move to preserve the draw, as it blocks Black's next.
32...£b1+ 33.¦f1 £xa2? allowing me to draw. (33...¥e3+ should win for Black.) 34.¦xf4 at least I was able to correctly calculate the next sequence. 34...¦e2 35.¦f2 £b1+ 36.¥c1 ¦xf2 37.¢xf2 now the engine evaluates the position as dead drawn. 37...£f5+ 38.¢g2 £e4+ 39.¢f2 £f5+ 40.¢g2 £e4+ 41.¢f2
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23 August 2017

What to think about on your opponent's time

While the Simplified Thought Process (that works) I think is a good practical framework, there are some aspects of it that could use more depth.  One aspect that can have a major impact on play - since on average it will occupy half of your time during a game - is what to think about on your opponent's time. The famous Botvinnik quote, which I paraphrased in the above-linked comments section, is a good place to start:
When my opponent's clock is going I discuss general considerations in an internal dialogue with myself. When my own clock is going I analyse concrete variations.
(From http://chess-quotes.blogspot.com/2014/07/botvinnik.html)
I've been participating in more tournaments recently, and the experience has reminded me of the importance of efficient clock use.  Not just to avoid time trouble, but to really make the most of your limited available time and get the best result you can.  The idea of not analyzing concrete variations on your opponent's time is indeed very efficient, since unless time is short or there are obvious forcing moves on the board, mathematically speaking you will inevitably spend the majority of your thinking time on variations that will never get played.  This process may not be a complete waste of time, as you should be spotting available ideas for both you and your opponent.  However, I think there are much more efficient (and less mentally tiring) ways of identifying key ideas and even concrete sequences, than to be constantly calculating speculative variations.

So that still leaves us with what to think about when it's your opponent's move.  "General considerations" per the above quote is quite vague, and I've often seen it paraphrased as "positional considerations" - but I would argue that is misleading.  "Positional" characteristics or general considerations about the board position can (and should) in fact encompass things like tactical ideas, including up to short sequences.  These often will not be playable ideas - yet - and therefore cannot be calculated like true variations, but they help uncover the potential of the position and also offer strategic goals to work towards.

(Important! It's always necessary to think about your opponent's ideas as well as your own - so do this for both sides. This should come naturally when it's your opponent's move, as you are looking for his threats and trying to identify his plans in order to stop them.)

As a practical approach, I would suggest starting by recognizing important general positional features, followed by identifying more specific ideas involving individual pieces.  One outline for this process would be:
  • Explicit recognition of the open lines - diagonals and files - available for use, and possibilities for opening additional lines (including via sacrifices)
  • Visualizing the pieces' "power projection" along both open and closed lines.  Another way this idea can be expressed is as perceiving "lines of force" that emanate from each of your pieces along their movement axes; knights have an "arc" of force around them.  Being able to constantly perceive the pieces' power in this manner is very helpful for spotting latent tactics, for example those involving discovered attacks and backward movements, and I would say is another indicator that you are becoming a stronger chess player.
  • Noting all loose pieces, including ones that are pressured and could become underprotected. One of the most basic mantras for tactical sight is "Loose Pieces Drop Off" (LPDO)
  • Pawn levers / breaks that will open up the position and change it significantly (as in Annotated Game #176)
To get at the full potential of your pieces, the idea of conducting a piece "status examination" as presented in Understanding Chess Tactics is a valuable one and can quite profitably be done by you on your opponent's time.  This goes beyond "LPDO" and forces you to evaluate the status of each piece - what is it doing right now?  Is it vulnerable to a threat by my opponent?  Can it threaten anything? etc.  These lead to tactical ideas, but also strategic goals, as one of the most important ideas in general with chess strategy is to improve the position of your worst pieces; this will naturally result in a stronger position and give you more options.  Some specific considerations:
  • What is your worst piece - in other words, which piece is "not playing" for you right now? How can you best improve it? Common options include moving it towards the center (which automatically increases the "power projection" of all pieces except rooks); opening lines (via pawn moves, moving other pieces out of the way, etc.); or simply maneuvering the piece to a new square where it has more activity (for example on an open line), especially when it can directly influence key squares in the enemy camp.
  • Be on the lookout for potential near-term forks / double attacks that can be conducted by each piece, as the most common tactic.
  • Examine potential pawn advances, especially by passed pawns, for both their tactical and strategic power.
  • Evaluate where you currently have the best prospects for active play on the board: queenside, center or kingside.  This can change based on your pieces' status and tactical possibilities.
As with the original Simplified Thought Process description, the above isn't intended to be 100% comprehensive, but should help fill in some of the more important "general considerations" when thinking on your opponent's time.

20 August 2017

Annotated Game #176: Follow the mental toughness rule

This next first-round tournament game is a Classical Caro-Kann that goes into uncharted territory relatively early on (move 8). I am unable to correctly take advantage of my opponent's opening deviations, and more importantly miss - consciously reject, actually - a major idea of the position (the ...c5 break, which at various times ranged in potency from advantageous to devastating). However, I still manage to execute some good ideas and my opponent eventually goes seriously astray.

Despite the relatively low number of moves, I took quite a lot of time in making decisions move after move, which resulted in mental tiredness. My lack of board vision clarity lead to missing an advantageous tactic (in this case, a tactical defense of the e6 pawn, preventing a knight fork). As a result, as you'll see, the evaluation of the position goes up and down in rapid succession. In the end position, I still have an advantage, but I was low on the clock and mentally not prepared to continue after such a disappointment, although I should have.

First-round games in tournaments are often mental "warm-ups", so we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves too early, but I think I can and should do better. Taking less thinking time because I already know effective ideas in a position will help (...c5!), as will better energy management. Finally, it's all-important to follow the mental toughness rule of not taking a draw unless the position on the board is, in fact, known to be drawn. This rule has given me great success when I have followed it, and I only have myself to blame for the results when I don't.

Class B - ChessAdmin

Result: 1/2-1/2

[...] 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.¤d2 dxe4 4.¤xe4 ¥f5 5.¤g3 ¥g6 6.h4 h6 7.¤f3 ¤f6 8.¥f4 not in the database. My opponent had evidently not seen the previous move before and was looking to try to take advantage of it. 8...¤d5 choosing to immediately challenge the bishop. I wanted to try to take advantage of my opponent's opening deviation - a commendable goal, but this is probably not the best way to do it. (8...e6!? with straightforward development is simpler.) 9.¥xb8 £xb8 this is the wrong recapture. The engine points out the below variation. 10.a3
10.¤e5 targeting the Bg6 and f7 square, awkwardly for Black. 10...£c7 11.¥c4 e6 12.¤xg6 fxg6² and it looks pretty ugly.
10...e6 unlike earlier, I should now have taken advantage of the Nd5's placement, rather than play "normal" moves.
10...¤e3 is the computer line. I had actually thought about this possibility during the game, but wrongly turned it down as too "gimmicky". 11.fxe3 £xg3+ 12.¢d2 O-O-O³
11.h5 while this is a standard idea in the mainline Caro-Kann, here White has less to back it up, in terms of putting together a kingside attack. 11...¥h7 12.£d2?! this is in fact a very problematic move for White. I'm assuming that he originally wanted to prepare to castle queenside. (12.¥d3 ¥xd3 13.£xd3) 12...¥d6µ develops and threatens to win a pawn by exchanging on g3. 13.¤e2 O-O at this point I have a significant advantage in development, thanks to my castled king, good piece placement, and my opponent's blocked-in Bf1. 14.g3 smart, to take away the f4 square from me and blunt the h2-b8 diagonal. 14...b5 played to restrain c4 and maintain the Nd5.
14...c5!? is evaluated as slightly better by the engine. It would more quickly open lines in the center, an important consideration with White still not being castled. I rejected it at the time, thinking that it would free up White's minor pieces by giving him the d4 square to occupy with a knight.
15.c3 a5 the idea being to target and break up the queenside pawns, giving White's king even less cover. 16.¥g2 £c7 a bit of a wasted move. (16...¥e4!? would be annoying for White.) (16...¦d8 would get the rook in the game, lining up on the Qd2.) 17.b3 b4 not a bad move, but I'm focusing too much on pawn play on the a/b files and not considering the c-pawn break, or bringing in other pieces. 18.c4 ¤f6 not the logical follow-up. This would have been a logical choice earlier, to reposition the knight, but now there is more pressing business.
18...bxa3 would maintain the advantage, given the threat of ...Bb4. 19.c5 ¥e7 20.¦xa3 ¥f6µ
19.a4!? (19.c5!? closing off the c-pawn break permanently.) 19...¦ad8 now I really should be well-placed for a central breakthrough. However, the mental block I have on the c-pawn lever prevents me from accomplishing it. 20.£b2 ¥e4µ not a bad move, but I'm still refusing to play the c5 break.
20...c5!−⁠+ and White now has to think about getting his king to safety, while having weaknesses in the center and on h5.
21.¦c1 ¤g4³22.¦h4 f5−⁠+ maintaining the Ng4 on its outpost. 23.c5 now this doesn't help White nearly as much as it would have previously. 23...¥e7 24.¤f4 targeting the e6 pawn with a triple fork, which I was very worried about during the game; however, this should not be effective for him tactically. If I get the two bishops off of the file, then I can simply pin the knight on e6. I did not realize this at the time, unfortunately. 24...¥xh4 good but not best. (24...¥xf3 25.¥xf3 ¥xh4−⁠+) 25.¤xh4 ¥d5? far too conservative, and still missing the e-file pin which tactically protects e6. This position is now equal. (25...¥xg2 26.¤hxg2 ¦fe8−⁠+) 26.¢f1 ¦de8 27.¦e1 £d7 28.f3 ¤f6 29.¤hg6 £f7 30.¤xf8 ¦xf8µ at this point I took a draw as I did not see any way to make real progress and (the real reason) I was also very disappointed at missing a win. But of course the h5 pawn is hanging and the draw outcome was quite premature. So the moral of the story is that nothing good comes of violating the "no draws unless the position is actually drawn" rule.
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24 July 2017

DVD completed: The English Four Knights (For Both Colors) Volumes 1-2

I recently completed the two-DVD set from ChessLecture.com "The English Four Knights - For Both Colors", which is presented by IM David Vigorito.  This is my first experience with ChessLecture, which has been around for a while.  In terms of production values, it's a no-frills DVD, with a rather basic-looking 2-D board and audio narration.  So in that respect it doesn't provide extras like the ChessBase Fritztrainer products' interactive quizzes, included databases and live video of the presenter.  However, as long as the substance is sound, I think the extras are just that - extras - and the basic lecture format is still effective.

As a longtime player of the English, I used this product to supplement my understanding of the different Four Knights variations and get a more professional perspective on my preferences.  IM Vigorito does a good job covering the breadth of options for White, looking at all of the realistic move four White options (4. a3, d3, d4, e4, e3 and g3, in ascending order of popularity) as well as helpfully touching on some earlier move-order options for both sides, particularly after an earlier g3 by White.  If you play the English as White, then especially at the Class level the Four Knights will likely be encountered very often, so you should have one of the major lines prepared.  As Black, it's a good choice for a defense, with a lot of natural moves.

Some other personal observations:
  • Unlike the case with many opening products, IM Vigorito does truly present the opening from the point of view of both sides, without evident bias and balanced content.  He has personal experience with both White and Black in these lines, which helps.
  • The lecture provides additional depth of understanding in many lines by explaining how certain move alternatives don't work, including common ideas that you may well encounter over the board at the Class level, rather than simply focusing only on the "best" theoretical lines.  I value this because it really helps with learning the "why" behind opening lines and what you can do to take concrete advantage of deviations made by your opponent.
  • From the point of view of an improving player, it was in fact helpful to look at the entire lecture series, rather than just the ones that pertained to my particular repertoire choices.  IM Vigorito provides insightful commentary throughout on typical setups, traps and concepts which can be applicable to similar position-types, or that are just good to know in general for your chess.  In my own case, I think being less narrow-minded and understanding how different openings work has been important to strengthening my overall game.
  • The DVD lecture is good for either a first intro to the Four Knights, or as supplemental material for study; it's not comprehensive and doesn't pretend to be.  I found it a little short on the 4. e3 variations, although they generally get good treatment, and there is just too much theory on 4. g3 to be looked at in real depth, although the various major choices are presented well.  IM Vigorito notes this himself and points out where you will need to be much more independently booked up if you decide to play certain variations.

11 July 2017

Your first (serious) chess tournament

Image result for world open chess tournament
(World Open 2014 playing hall, from The Chess Drum)

Some first serious chess tournaments are disasters, and some are disappointments; rarely are they triumphs, although when newcomers with some real training enter the (typically) lowest section of the tournament as an "unrated" player, they may do quite well their first time out.

I ended up with an even score in my first tournament, a classic four-round "weekend swiss", in which I won my first game (which you can see in "Why I Play the Slav").  I was a young teenager at the time, which is a fairly common time to start trying organized and competitive chess, although a number of people now start out in scholastic tournaments at a young age, while others may come to the game only after they develop chess as a serious pastime in adulthood.

My first rating was in the low 1400s, which I was satisfied with.  Nowadays, especially in the USA, it's common to have a lower rating when first starting out, due to the depressing effects of scholastic chess on the lower end of the Elo scale; when I began, it was unusual to see anyone in an organized tournament below 1200 and almost never below 1000.  As related in "What I Learned From My 1st Chess Tournament" over at Chess.com - well worth the read, as it's done by a professional writer - it's now more typical to start out with a rating in the triple digit range, which can magnify the shock and disorientation that often accompanies the first tournament experience, and perhaps lead to a (hopefully temporary) bout of depression at your future chess prospects.  I would liken it to running a competitive race (say a 10K) after having simply jogged for exercise for a while - it's really a different level of experience and one that is likely to be humbling.

After you complete the tournament and mentally process the whole experience, either you become energized and want to raise the level of your game - what I think most people's ultimate reaction is - or you never (or perhaps only after a long gap) go back to competitive chess.  An example of the latter case is that of former blogger Blue Devil Knight - whose chess blog used to be good - who essentially was traumatized after choosing to play in the World Open for his first tournament experience.  To use the same analogy as above, this is like jogging for exercise for a while and then trying to run the Boston Marathon as your first real race.  Basically, this is not recommended for anyone.

While I think preparation for any chess tournament is best done by continually working on your skills and your mental toughness, I'll offer some specific suggestions for setting yourself up for a first tournament success (or at least avoiding feeling like it will be a complete disaster).  I'm also curious if people have other particularly relevant tips, or could offer helpful (or cautionary) examples from their own early tournament experiences.  (Note: these are intended primarily for people going to over-the-board tournaments, but I think largely apply to "serious" online tournaments, especially ones with slower time controls.)
  • Do have a basic opening repertoire, which will help define what types of games you can expect to play.  Memorization of variations is less important than understanding key ideas, typical moves, and common plans.  Having an opening framework will also help you better understand the games afterwards when analyzing them.
  • Don't worry about your rating either before or after the tournament.  Ratings fear and loathing is all too common, and is nicely illustrated in the Chess.com article linked above.  Your rating will simply reflect your current performance and over time will track with your overall strength.  What is more important is where you go after you get your first rating, rather than what it is exactly.
  • Do warm up by playing games similar to tournament conditions in terms of time control, rules (no takebacks, touch move applies), and mental focus.  Humans make the best opponents, but it's possible to configure chess software to play at a level appropriate for sparring.  If you can't exactly replicate tournament conditions, it's all right, just don't play blitz 100% of the time and think it will directly translate into tournament effectiveness.
  • Do show up early at the tournament site and read all of the posted rules.  Be sure to know the standard tournament rules about things like how to handle touch move, draw offers, claiming a draw by three times repetition, when to stop your clock during a dispute, etc.  Most of these things are in fact quite simple, but if you are not sure of the procedure, it can easily throw you off your game if you run across them.  Also inform one of the tournament directors that it is your first tournament, which may gain you some extra sympathy and attention, and at least will signal to the TDs that they should make some extra effort to explain things when needed.
  • Don't get discouraged by losses during the tournament (or afterwards).  If you continue with competitive chess, there will inevitably be a lot more of them.  You will also win eventually if you concentrate on playing the position on the board well, rather than on your own or your opponent's ratings.
  • Do (as mentioned above) keep a legible, accurate record of your games and analyze them once your brain has returned to normal after the tournament.  You will find improvements for both yourself and your opponents; if you treat it as a marvelously fascinating learning process rather than a way to beat yourself up, you'll make progress.

06 June 2017

Training quote of the day #11

2017 U.S. Champion Wesley So
From a front-page article on GM Wesley So, published in the June 6, 2017 print edition of the Washington Post:
"...chess is not just about playing. It’s other aspects. I have to improve my mental state. I have to be tougher, more confident, more comfortable playing the top guys...And I also need to improve my physical conditioning, because each game can last to anywhere up to six hours and each tournament usually has around 10 games, so that’s a lot of work, and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.”

29 May 2017

How to think for yourself in opening preparation

One of the "secrets" of advancing towards mastery in chess, as in many other disciplines, is that the more advanced you get, the more you should be thinking for yourself in order to make real progress, not just uncritically following other people's recommendations.  In chess, I would say that this process of independent thinking should start relatively early on, once you get past the initial technical subjects to be learned such as mates, identifying and constructing tactics, fundamental opening principles, and basic endgames.  All phases of the game require independent thought, evaluation and judgment.  At the most basic level, chess players need to answer for themselves the question why they are making each move.

The opening in particular is subject to a near-overwhelming amount of advice and provision of expert information, in the form of instructional material (books/DVDs/etc.), computer engine evaluations, and database statistics.  It's certainly a good idea to take advantage of others' expert preparation and work, although it's debatable as to how much effort an improving player should put proportionally on opening preparation, versus middlegame and endgame skills.

Regardless of the total amount of effort spent on opening selection, evolving your repertoire, practice and understanding holistic concepts, I believe it's important to underline the benefits of doing serious evaluations of your opening lines (and finding new ones when necessary).  This level of mental engagement will not only serve to strengthen your overall repertoire, it will - perhaps even more importantly - boost your recall and effectiveness when playing the openings in question, as you are regularly and actively evaluating different lines and their resulting positions.

This type of active management of your openings is easily implemented using a simple database structure, which can be updated whenever you run across related material.  A recent personal example of doing this on a systematic level was comparing the recommendations in Play the Caro-Kann (made easier by its e-book format) with my repertoire database and evaluating the author's recommendations.  By no means did I accept all of her ideas, but studying the differences and determining why I preferred one line over another (or perhaps an entire variation) was valuable in itself.  This process is also quite useful when going over individual master-level annotated games that you come across, as in the Gormally example below.

Computer tools can be quite valuable for your preparation, but also misunderstood or misused.

Database programs easily display for you the most popular and highest-scoring lines, but their statistics can be misleading in various ways.  On the positive side, databases can identify shifts in popularity of particular lines and you can relatively easily pick out the important games that cause them.  On the other hand, sometimes there is a quick shift away from using a particular line that means the "old" (and maybe busted) version still has a relatively high percentage result, one of the reasons why you have to evaluate lines for yourself.
  • Popularity may also depend on the predicted result of the line - for example, many people may avoid a frequent drawing line as White, but perhaps you in fact want to have that as a solid weapon against higher-rated players.  Other lines may be unbalancing or relatively risky, but again that may be exactly what you need, as long as you understand the trade-offs in the positions you reach.
  • It matters which databases you use and why.  Correspondence games can be far more accurate than OTB collections, for example, so are very valuable to theory.  For practical use in OTB or online tournaments, though, it can be a bad decision to pick the theoretically "best" line if it runs 20+ moves of memorization, with multiple branching variations, and any deviation from it will likely benefit your opponent.
Engine recommendations also cut both ways.  They can be helpful, mainly for checking tactics and ideas to see what responses are likely and/or best.  They can also be potentially harmful to your game away from the computer.  Anyone who has worked extensively with engines knows that they may come up with certain moves in the opening that may look all right in the short term, but go against the main (human) ideas for the opening and so will cause problems 10-15 moves later.  One example I ran across early in my studies was in the main line of the Caro-Kann Exchange Variation, where most engines (even up until recently) evaluated 7...Na5 as best; you can even still see this on the ChessBase LiveBook with Fritz evaluations showing this as recently as 2016.  However, as Fischer-Petrosian (Belgrade 1970) and others have shown, it really does not work very well in practice.
  • Sometimes engine preparation can also give you a false sense of security, as illustrated by this entertaining example from GM Danny Gormally on a failed experiment in the Slav's Geller Gambit (as White).  On a practical level, I found his annotations useful and adjusted my own related Slav repertoire line as a result - but only after checking other database lines and engine possibilities and looking for myself at the positions.
  • Some computer products will give you a hard-coded numeric engine evaluation for literally every opening move, or you can replicate that by just running an engine.  I don't believe that these are very helpful in general and to evaluate lines you will have to follow them to the end and understand the why rather than letting something like a computer's "+0.25" fully define your view of them.
On a broader level, I think it's also important to understand and acknowledge the amount of work that will be needed in order to understand your chosen opening's positions and typical middlegame plans, then execute them in practice.  Some level of memorization is needed, if not of entire variations then things like key ideas, squares and principles for a particular opening.  Examples include the central important of the d5 square in the English Opening, the theme of the f5-f4 pawn advance in the Dutch, and the critical importance of the light-square bishop for Black in the King's Indian.  This type of opening lore I think is among the most valuable information for improving players and is why finding insightful explanatory material or having a coach who understands and can impart these principles is more important than following the latest professional theory, which often times is only expressed in long variations.

In the end, perhaps it's best to recall Kortchnoi's advice (mentioned in Annotated Game #175) to just go ahead and start playing a new opening, as - if you analyze your own games - that is how you will learn best what works and what doesn't in the opening.

28 May 2017

Annotated Game #175: Epic Stonewall exhaustion

This final round tournament game followed Annotated Game #174 and was the first time that I had essayed playing the Stonewall Dutch, outside of a simul game with GM Sam Shankland.  It taught me a lot about the opening, above all the need for patience (which I did not have enough of) when constructing a kingside attack.  There are many ups and downs in the course of the game - the critical phase starts at move 28 and goes all the way to the end of the game - and we were one of the last ones to finish in the round.  The toll of fighting a complicated battle for 30 moves straight along with the psychological downward trend in the end did me in, as I was exhausted from what felt like an epic fight, with my opponent on the ropes but eventually coming back.  However, there will be other opportunities.  It's also another data point telling me that energy management is something critical to watch (and improve) for my overall performance.

On that note, it's worth recalling something GM Viktor Kortchnoi said when asked about when someone should start playing a new opening they are in the process of learning.  Basically he asserted that you should just go ahead and start playing it in serious games, why not?  Losses will be inevitable, but there's really no other way to get better at it.  I like this outlook, which shouldn't be taken too literally by Class players - some preparation and study is essential, beyond just knowing the first few moves of a chosen opening - but it helps avoid the perfectionist trap of always thinking that your preparation is never "good enough" to play.  At some point, you just need to fire away.

Class C - ChessAdmin

Result: 1-0

A85: Dutch Defence: 2 c4 Nf6 3 Nc3
[...] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.¤f3 e6 (3...¤f6 is the Slav Defense.) 4.e3 f5 with this move-order we have what is called a "Slav Stonewall". 5.¤c3 ¤f6 6.¥d3 ¥d6 the Modern Stonewall, instead of ...Be7. 7.O-O ¤bd7 ...O-O immediately is much more common here. No reason to wait. 8.b3 a standard plan for activating the dark-square bishop. 8...O-O 9.a4 done to allow the bishop to get to a3 and exchange off its counterpart on d6. 9...¤e4 a standard and often necessary move for Black in the Stonewall. In this position it is forcing, as the Nc3 is unprotected. 10.¤e2 £e7 keeping my options open and also deterring Ba3. 11.¤e1 I welcomed this, as I felt it was a waste of time for White. The intent is obvious, to push f3, but moving the knight back to the first rank does not seem worth it. 11...g5 I was in an aggressive mood from the start of the game and this move shows it. Not a very sophisticated approach.
11...a5!? would be good prophylaxis against White's queenside play. 12.f3 ¤g5 13.£c2
12.f3²12...¤ef6 13.¤c2 g4 a logical follow-up, as Komodo agrees.
13...¢h8 however might have been best to play immediately, as the king needs to vacate the g-file for a rook and I only do this much later in the game.
14.¥a3 c5?! not a good decision, although my opponent does not take advantage of it.
14...¥xa3 is what the engine considers best. During the game, I wanted to preserve the bishop for use in the kingside attack. 15.¤xa3 ¢h8²
15.cxd5!? dissolves the center to White's advantage. 15...¤xd5 16.e4 gxf3 17.exd5 fxe2 18.£xe2±
15...¤xc5 16.b4? now my opponent is too aggressive. 16...¤xd3³17.£xd3 b6?! it seems that I am not really looking hard at the position and its requirements. Developing the Bc8 is a nice idea, but there are other things that are more urgent, given the pawn tensions at f3 and c4 and a potential weakness at h2.
17...gxf3 would be the direct approach. 18.¦xf3 dxc4 19.£xc4 b5 20.£xb5 £c7³
17...£c7 gives White no good options. 18.cxd5 ¥xh2+ 19.¢h1 ¥e5³
18.cxd5 this would have been strong earlier (move 15), but now I'm OK. 18...¤xd5
18...gxf3!? is better, as once the Nf6 moves away it no longer can recapture on g4 and get a good outpost. 19.gxf3 (19.¦xf3 ¥b7³) 19...¤xd5³
19.b5 my opponent now looks to simplify.
19.fxg4 would break up Black's kingside to good effect. 19...£c7 20.g3 fxg4 21.¤cd4²
19...¥xa3 20.£xa3 ¥b7 21.£xe7 ¤xe7 we now have a very equal-looking middle/endgame position. 22.f4 ¦ac8 23.¤cd4 threatening e6. 23...¢f7 24.¦ac1?! this "obvious move" gives me the initiative as my Ne7 now springs to life. (24.¢f2) 24...¤d5³ returning the favor by threatening e3. 25.¢f2 ¤b4 threatening the fork on d3. 26.¦b1 (26.¦fd1 ¦xc1 27.¤xc1 ¥e4³) 26...¤d3+ this is still a strong move. 27.¢g3µ White's king safety is now something of a problem, which along with my nicely centralized Nd3 gives me an advantage. (27.¢g1 h5µ) 27...h5 here I correctly find the logical follow-up, which raises mate threats. 28.¦fd1? this should lose, but the winning continuation is not obvious. (28.h4 gxh3 29.¢xh3 ¦g8µ) 28...¥e4 a good follow-up move, but not nearly as good as the best move.
28...h4+ secures the point, comments the engine via the Fritz interface. 29.¢xh4 ¤f2! now the White king has no way back. 30.¢g3? (30.¤xe6 ¦h8+ 31.¢g5 ¢xe6−⁠+) (30.¤xf5 ¦h8+ 31.¢g3 ¤e4+ 32.¢xg4 ¦cg8+ 33.¢f3 ¤d2+ 34.¢f2 ¦xg2+−⁠+) 30...¤e4+ 31.¢h4 ¦h8#
29.¤c6µ eyeing the jump to e5 and threatening a7, something I gave too much weight to. 29...¦h8? now I'm not thinking aggressively enough.
29...¢f6 removes the check on e5. 30.¤c3 h4+ 31.¢xh4 ¤c5µ
30.¢h4 this is enough to restore equality.
30.¦xd3! is a simple forking tactic that gets two pieces for a rook. 30...¥xd3 31.¤e5+ ¢f6 32.¤xd3±
30...¤c5 31.¦b4 this solves the dual threat to the Rb1 and a4, but not in the best way.
31.¤e5+!?31...¢f6 32.¦bc1 and now Black cannot go pawn snatching: 32...¥xg2 (32...¤xa4??33.¦d7! with mate coming.) 33.¦xc5 ¦xc5 34.¦d7 and now 34...¦xe5 is forced. 35.fxe5+ ¢xe5 36.¤f4² snagging the bishop, as a fork on g6 is threatened.
31...¥xc6 was the other option. 32.bxc6 ¦xc6³ this had the advantage of getting rid of preventing the knight from reaching e5.
32.¤e5+ I was quite aware of the fact that I had potential mating threats, but now so does White, given the location of his knight and potential rook action on the 7th rank. 32...¢f6 33.¤g3 naturally the h5 pawn is poisoned and can't be taken, due to the subsequent pin against the king. 33...¥d5 34.¦bd4?! (34.¦c1!?) 34...¤b3 the best move, but at this point I was tired and had relatively little time on the clock, so I didn't have a coherent follow-up plan. 35.¦4d3? looks obvious, but should lose.
35.¦xd5 is necessary and only leaves White slightly worse. 35...exd5 36.¦xd5³
35...¦c2−⁠+ again another best move and obvious follow-up, but without clear vision of a winning continuation. However, the next series of moves are simple enough. 36.¤f1 ¦hc8 37.¤d7+ ¢e7 38.¤e5 ¤c5 good but perhaps not best. I felt I should at least keep making threats, feeling somewhat frustrated that I could not find a breakthrough. 39.¦d4 ¢f6 played to take away the g5 square from White's king. 40.h3 now I felt I should be able to break through. 40...gxh3 41.¢xh3 ¥g2+ unfortunately here I could not find a winning idea, under pressure.
41...¤e4!? would bring another necessary piece into the attack, since d7 does not in fact need to be guarded. 42.¤d7+ (42.¦xe4 fxe4 43.¤g3 ¦c1−⁠+) 42...¢e7 43.¤e5 ¦g8 44.¦xe4 ¦g1−⁠+ and mate threats mean White loses material.
42.¢h4 ¥d5 43.¢h3 ¦g8 (43...¤e4 again is the key. 44.¦xe4 fxe4 45.¤g3 ¦c1−⁠+) 44.¤g3 h4
44...¦g2 Black missed this excellent chance, comments the engine. 45.¤xh5+ ¢e7 46.¤c6+ ¢d6−⁠+
(44...¦h8 is also good, preparing to push the h-pawn.) 45.¤h5+µ45...¢e7 46.¤c6+ ¢f8 now we're back to equality... (46...¥xc6 47.bxc6 ¦gg2µ) 47.¤f6? except that this (again) should lose for my opponent.
47.¦xd5 leads to a perpetual. 47...exd5 48.¦xd5 for example 48...¦g1 49.¦xf5+ ¢e8 50.¤f6+ ¢f8 51.¤h5+ ¢e8 etc.
47...¦gg2 48.¦h1 ¤e4?! unfortunately this was a good idea several moves ago, not now.
48...¦g3+ and Black wins 49.¢xh4 forced 49...¦g6 with a double attack on the Nf6 and the h6 square (threatening the Rh1 via a skewer check). 50.¦xd5 exd5−⁠+
(48...¦g6?! immediately doesn't work, as White simply replies Nxd5.) 49.¤xe4³49...¥xe4 50.¦d8+ ¢g7 51.¦d7+? again my opponent offers up an opportunity. (51.¤e5) 51...¢h6−⁠+52.¤e5 ¦g3+ a great idea...on move 48. Here it blows the discovered attack by the Be4 on the Ra1, since the Rg3 will be hanging.
52...¦gf2 moving to e2 works fine as well. 53.¢xh4 forced 53...¥xh1 54.¤f7+ ¢g7 55.¤e5+ ¢f8−⁠+
53.¢xh4 by this point I'm totally exhausted and out of ideas. 53...¦g7 simplification is actually a good route to go and should result in a draw. 54.¦h3 ¦xd7 55.¤xd7 ¦g2 keeping hopes of a mate threat alive. 56.¤e5 The knight dominates, comments the engine (correctly). 56...¥c2 57.¦h1 ¥xa4 58.¦a1 ¥xb5 59.¦xa7 ¥e8? this really made no sense, but my brain was too tired from all the calculating and I missed the simple follow-up. The original idea was to dominate the Ne5. (59...¦g7 was simplest.) 60.¦e7 at this point I just gave up, seeing that I would lose the two pawns and was exhausted. The game is far from over, though. (60.¦e7 ¥a4 61.¦xe6+ ¢g7 62.¦xb6²)
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