06 February 2018

Book completed: The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse


I recently finished GM Walter Browne's The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse ("My Life, Career and 101 Best Games"), which is his annotated games collection.  You can see previous posts here related to GM Browne, including Annotated Game #1 (simul played in Las Vegas), Training quote of the day #12Insights from GM Walter Browne and GM Walter Browne: 1949-2015.

For chess improvement purposes, it's a great collection and perfect for using to go through a game during your lunchtime at work, which is how I worked through the book (and why it took so long to complete).  I think it's useful for both your chess skill and overall brain health to have some quality chess study time, even if no more than 15-20 minutes, to break up the work day and get your mind thinking about something completely different. (Unless of course you're a chess professional, in which case for your brain health I'd recommend focusing on an activity that had nothing to do with it at all).  I did the same thing with GM David Bronstein's Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 and will look for similar types of game collections in the future.

I found Browne's annotations to be relatively short and succinct in words, yet always valuable and relevant.  For chess improvers, another major benefit of going through a collection of a player's own annotated games is that you gain unique insight into their thought and decision-making process.  Browne includes a lot of these types of observations and it's highly educational to see a top-level GM (which he was at his peak) provide casually sophisticated evaluations of positions and share the considerations he took into account when making choices on how to proceed at key points.  As usually occurs when reading others' annotated games, sometimes you have to put some work into figuring out why a particular move is played (or not played) when it isn't explicitly explained or a variation given, but that's part of the value of engaging in effortful study - to grow in understanding by figuring things out for yourself.  Also, as with almost any games collection, there are at least occasionally a few typos and such in the notation that force you to puzzle out the real continuation, but the editorial quality is high enough that these are no more than a very infrequent and temporary distraction.

Browne's career was interesting in its ups and occasional downs, and spanned a long period of time in American chess.  His personal observations about tournaments, opponents, particular controversies and so on are probably of more interest to those with some previous acquaintance with them, or just curious about tournament experiences in general.  I don't think anything would be lost from a chess training perspective by skipping his sometimes encyclopedic accounts of his chess career, although there are some particularly entertaining stories from the decade where he competed the most internationally (roughly from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s).  For those into the poker scene, he also towards the end of his book (and career) recounts some of his professional poker tournament experiences and has some interesting insights in that regard as well.

27 January 2018

Annotated Game #186: All rook endgames *should* be drawn

This last-round tournament game is another illustration of why persistence and active play can pay off (even if it does not actually, in this case).  Some relative weak opening play in an unfamiliar position leads to a failure to falsify a key move, which lands me significant material down.  Deciding that there was at least some hope for a kingside attack and pressure in compensation, I continue playing and the initiative shifts to me, despite being objectively lost.  Eventually my opponent can't take any more pressure and simplifies to what should be a drawn rook endgame...which isn't, however, in the end.  A good lesson on weak pawns, rook activity and other elements of rook endgames...which apparently all really should be drawn.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A25"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "184"] {[%mdl 8192] A25: English Opening vs King's Indian with ...Nc6 but without early d3} 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Bb4 {the second most common move in the position, according to the database. The bishop needs to be developed, but this doesn't have as much bite as when the d-pawn has already advanced, since there's no pin on the Nc3.} 5. Nd5 {the standard reaction.} Nxd5 6. cxd5 Ne7 7. a3 (7. Nf3 {is played most here and scores quite well, over 72 percent.}) 7... Bc5 8. b4 Bb6 9. e3 {I'm playing a lot of pawn moves here and neglecting development. The idea is to bring the knight out via e2 rather than f3, to avoid it being harrassed by the e-pawn. It's rather slow, however.} (9. Bb2) 9... d6 10. Ne2 O-O 11. Bb2 Bg4 12. Qb3 $146 {inviting the minor piece trade on e2, which I think would be better for me. The king would be safe and my light-square bishop would then be unopposed.} (12. d4 {is the move that is begging to be played here.} f6 13. h3 Bf5 14. e4 Bg6 15. O-O Rc8 16. Kh2 Re8 17. f4 c6 18. dxe5 fxe5 19. fxe5 cxd5 20. exd6 Qxd6 21. Nf4 Bf7 22. e5 Qd7 23. Qb3 g5 24. e6 Bxe6 25. Nxe6 Qxe6 26. Rae1 Qd6 {Butala,M (2246) -Banic,S Ljubljana 2001 1-0}) (12. h3 $5 {also looks fine.}) 12... Qd7 { obviously aimed at exchanging off the Bg2 and taking advantage of the resulting light-square weakness on the kingside.} 13. h3 Bh5 (13... Bxe2 14. Kxe2 f5 15. f4 $11) 14. f4 $6 {this is not terrible, but not ideal either. It weakens the king position and now the exchange on e2 is better for Black.} (14. g4 Bg6 15. f4 $11 {is an improved version of the idea. My knight would be happy to go to f4 after an exchange.}) 14... Bxe2 15. Kxe2 f6 {blunting future potential threats on the long diagonal.} 16. Raf1 $6 {here I completely miss Black's imminent threats. The g3 square is now unprotected, thanks to the f-pawn advance.} Nf5 {with a simple fork threat that I handle terribly.} 17. Rf3 $4 (17. Kf2 {I'm uncomfortable here and will have to focus on defense, but the engine considers the position equal.} Rae8 18. Re1 $11) 17... e4 $19 { what explains not seeing this response to my last move? Probably over-focusing on the tension between the e5 and f4 pawns and looking at the exchange possibilities there. Also not seriously focusing on my opponent's possibilities in order to falsify my move.} 18. Rf2 Nxg3+ 19. Ke1 Nxh1 20. Bxh1 {although an exchange and a pawn down, I decide to fight on. Black's kingside is looking a little open now and I thought my only chance would be to try to attack.} Rae8 21. Rh2 (21. f5 $19 {is the engine's improvement, preventing Black from occupying the f5 square and seizing more space. The square f4 is also now available for a rook transfer.}) 21... Qb5 22. Qd1 $2 {another bit of territory lost, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface.} (22. a4 {would be an opportunity to regain some material.} Qd3 23. Qxd3 exd3 24. a5 Bxe3 25. dxe3 Rxe3+ 26. Kd2 $17) 22... Qxd5 23. Qg4 Qe6 {by this point I really am lost.} 24. f5 {another desperate move, to prevent a queen exchange.} Qf7 {here my opponent starts losing the thread, playing very conservatively instead of putting the final nail in my coffin.} (24... Qa2 $5 25. Rg2 Qb1+ 26. Kf2 Re7 $19) 25. Bxe4 {A bit of material back and a psychological victory, even if it doesn't change the objective evaluation.} d5 (25... Qb3 {my opponent still does not see the strength of this penetration idea with the queen.} 26. Rg2 Re7 $19) 26. Bd3 c6 27. Rg2 Bc7 28. Bd4 b6 29. h4 {although I'm still losing badly, at least it's nice to have some initiative. Watching the h-pawn grind towards him made my opponent react sub-optimally.} h5 {this stops the forward motion of my h-pawn, but also leaves the h5 pawn without much support.} 30. Qf3 Be5 { the best move, exchanging off one of my good pieces and getting closer to an easily won endgame.} 31. Bxe5 Rxe5 32. Rg6 {blocking the h5 pawn's protection.} Qe7 {a direct approach, doubling on the e-file, but not the best.} (32... c5 $5 $19 {would get Black's pawns rolling and support d5-d4.}) 33. Qxh5 Rf7 { my opponent continues to react conservatively to my threats, giving me a bit of hope.} 34. Qg4 Re4 $2 {my opponent decides to simplify rather than endure further kingside pressure. Komodo now evaluates the position as equal.} (34... c5 {is still a good option.} 35. h5 c4 $19 {and now ...c3 is threatened, undermining support for e3.}) 35. Bxe4 $11 Qxe4 36. Qxe4 dxe4 {we now have a rook endgame that is perfectly fine for me.} 37. Rg4 {conservative play.} (37. h5 $5 {the engine identifies the correct plan, which is to exchange off the weak h-pawn. It doesn't have to be done immediately, but there's no reason to wait. Unfortunately, I did not identify this as a strategic need.} Kh7 38. Kf2 Rd7 39. h6 Rxd2+ 40. Kg3 gxh6 41. Rxf6 h5 42. Re6 $14) 37... Re7 38. Ke2 Re5 39. Rf4 Kh7 40. d4 (40. Rg4 {was probably the best route to a draw, just shuffling the rook.} Kh6 (40... Rxf5 41. Rxe4 $11) 41. Rg6+ Kh7 (41... Kh5 $6 42. Rxg7 $14) 42. Rg4) 40... exd3+ 41. Kxd3 {while the engine still rates it as equal, my job is now more difficult, with more open lines in the center and a backward e-pawn.} Rd5+ 42. Ke2 {I pick the wrong side, concerned about my weak pawns. Now Black can more easily activate his queenside majority.} (42. Kc3) 42... c5 43. e4 (43. b5 Kh6 $11) 43... Rd4 44. Ke3 Rd1 {things are still equal, if uncomfortable for me. Black has the iniative.} 45. bxc5 {not an objectively bad move, but it gives me considerably fewer options to combat Black's queenside threats.} (45. Ke2 $5 {is much more flexible, harrassing Black's rook and allowing my rook space on the third rank.}) 45... bxc5 46. Ke2 $6 (46. Rf3 {is the only move that holds equality and is not obvious to find.}) 46... Rd4 $15 47. h5 {now I start crumbling, not having any better ideas.} (47. Ke3 {this is supposedly better according to the engine, but it still looks difficult.} Ra4 48. Rf2 Rxa3+ 49. Kf4 $15) 47... Rc4 (47... a5 $17) 48. Rf3 $2 (48. Kd3 {and White could well hope to play on, comments Komod.} Rd4+ (48... Ra4 49. Rg4 Rxa3+ 50. Kc4 $11 {Black will not be able to make progress on the queenside with separated pawns and the rook in front, versus my king close at hand.}) 49. Kc2 $11) 48... Rxe4+ $19 {now all of my pawns are weak, vulnerable and isolated. Black has a winning game now.} 49. Kf2 Rh4 50. Kg3 Rxh5 51. Kg4 Rg5+ 52. Kf4 g6 53. fxg6+ Kxg6 54. Rc3 Re5 55. Rc4 Rd5 56. Ke3 f5 57. Ra4 { the best chance, with a temporary defense along the fourth rank, but my opponent correctly takes the time to reset his rook position.} Rd7 58. Ra6+ Kg5 59. Rc6 {I figured I needed activity and threats to have any sort of chance to resist.} (59. Ra4 {is safer but still very much losing.}) 59... f4+ 60. Ke2 Re7+ 61. Kf2 Re5 62. Rc8 {with the idea of pursuing an "annoying rook checks" strategy to harrass my opponent.} a5 63. Rg8+ Kf5 64. Ra8 c4 65. Rc8 Re4 66. Rc5+ Re5 {this was an unnecessary concession by my opponent.} (66... Kg4 67. Rc6 (67. Rxa5 f3 $19) 67... Re3 68. Rxc4 Rxa3 $19) 67. Rxc4 {I began to have a bit of hope again now.} Rb5 $6 {this allows the next move with tempo.} (67... Kg4 $5 68. Rc8 a4 $19) (67... Rd5 $5) 68. a4 $17 Rb2+ $2 {now according to the engine, I can draw.} 69. Kf3 {Exerts pressure on the isolated pawn} (69. Ke1 $5 ) 69... Rb3+ 70. Ke2 Re3+ 71. Kf2 Re4 {Black threatens to win material: Re4xc4} 72. Rc5+ {here I thought I had to avoid the rook trade, not having fully calculated out the resulting K+P endgame.} (72. Rxe4 Kxe4 73. Ke2 {will also draw. For example} Kd4 74. Kf3 Kc3 75. Kxf4 Kb4 76. Ke3 Kxa4 77. Kd2 Kb3 78. Kc1 Kc3 79. Kb1 $11) 72... Re5 {Black threatens to win material: Re5xc5} 73. Rc3 $2 {this unnecessarily limits my rook movement and loses to Black's next.} (73. Rxe5+ {works, similar to the above variation.} Kxe5 74. Kf3 $11) (73. Rc1 $11 {and now my rook can check on g1 if Black's king goes to g4.}) 73... Kg4 74. Rc8 Re4 75. Rg8+ Kf5 76. Rf8+ Kg6 77. Kf3 Rxa4 $19 78. Rc8 Kf5 79. Rf8+ $2 Ke5 80. Re8+ Kd5 81. Rd8+ Kc6 82. Rh8 Rd4 83. Rh5 Kb6 84. Rh6+ Kb5 85. Rh5+ Kb4 86. Rh8 a4 87. Rb8+ Ka3 88. Rb7 Rb4 89. Rd7 Kb2 90. Ke2 a3 91. Rd2+ Kb3 92. Rd3+ Ka4 (92... Ka4 93. Rd1 a2 94. Rd8 Ka3 95. Rd3+ Rb3 96. Rd1 f3+ 97. Kf2 Rb1 98. Rd3+ Kb4 99. Rd4+ Kc3 100. Ra4 a1=Q 101. Rxa1 Rxa1 102. Kxf3 Ra4 103. Ke3 Kc2 104. Kf2 Kd2 105. Kf3 Rd4 106. Kg2 Ke3 107. Kg3 Ke2 108. Kg2 Rd3 109. Kh1 Kf2 110. Kh2 Rb3 111. Kh1 Rh3#) 0-1

20 January 2018

Annotated Game #185: Take those free tempi

This next tournament game continues the theme (from Annotated Game #184) of the value of a tempo.  My opponent at various times gives me a free tempo; in particular, 15. Qc1 is a turning point in the game, as I am able to then seize the initiative.  The value of the advantage of active piece placement is then demonstrated a few moves later, as various tactics hang in the air and my opponent misses a key square weakness.

The game also illustrates the strengths of the Caro-Kann Classical as a defense, as Black's setup allows his pieces to spring into action whenever White lets up the pressure; along those lines, see also the classic pawn break suggestion by Komodo on move 17.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B18"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "48"] {[%mdl 8192] B18: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 sidelines} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Bc4 e6 7. N1e2 Bd6 8. O-O Nd7 9. Kh1 $146 { this just seems to waste time.} Qc7 {with the idea of opening the way for queenside castling, as well as establishing a Q+B battery on the b8-h2 diagonal.} 10. Bg5 Ne7 {this is the usual square for the knight in this variation of the Caro-Kann Classical, largely to further protect against an advance of White's f-pawn.} (10... Ngf6 {is certainly possible, however.} 11. f4 O-O $11) 11. Bxe7 {an unnecessary exchange of bishop for knight.} Bxe7 $15 ( 11... Kxe7 $5 {is a suggestion by Komodo, leaving the bishop on the better diagonal. Black's king would then drop back to f8 if necessary.}) 12. f4 O-O-O {Black now has a pleasant position. My king is well protected and my pieces are better coordinated.} 13. f5 exf5 {no need to let White exchange off my bishop.} 14. Nxf5 {White's knight fork is taken care of with my next move.} Bf6 {the two bishops are looking good together.} 15. Qc1 {whatever the intent behind this move was, it was too slow. Now I'm able to start taking the initiative.} (15. Bd3 Kb8 $15) 15... Nb6 16. Bd3 Kb8 {prudently moving the king off the h3-c8 diagonal.} 17. c3 Rhe8 {getting the rook into play on the open file.} (17... c5 $5 {is Komodo's idea, a pawn break which would further activate Black's pieces.} 18. dxc5 Na4 19. Ned4 Nxc5 $17) 18. b4 {this is aggressive-looking, but it just creates more weaknesses.} (18. Neg3 $5 $15) 18... Nd5 $17 {there are now various tactical ideas swirling, including a knight hop into e3 and a potentially overloaded Bd3. White currently has everything covered, but with his next move signals that he missed the weakness of the e3 square.} 19. Qc2 $2 Bxf5 $19 20. Rxf5 (20. Bxf5 Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf1 22. Rxf1 Re3 $19) 20... Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf5 22. Bxf5 Re3 {clearing the e8 square for the other rook to double up on the open file.} 23. a4 {White is still pinning his hopes on an attack on my king position, but again it is too slow.} Rde8 { White now has back rank problems and his pieces are vulnerable.} 24. Ra2 (24. Ng1 {there is nothing better in the position} Qf4 25. Bd7 $17 R8e7 26. Bh3 Re1 $19) 24... Qf4 0-1

11 January 2018

Book completed: Mastering Opening Strategy


I recently completed Mastering Opening Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten (Everyman Chess, 2012).  The book took a beastly long time to complete - more on that below - but I think it was worth it, in the end.

Instead of a detailed theory of opening concepts, a la Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, GM Hellsten's book has four core chapters that center around a number of annotated games and long quiz sections, along with a short fifth one on opening preparation.  The chapters are:

1 - The Nature of Development
2 - Crime and Punishment
3 - The Battle for the Centre
4 - Restriction
5 - A Few Words on Opening Preparation

My comments:
  • Chapters 1 and 2 overlap a great deal, in the sense that pretty much all of the examples show how the less developed side is punished for neglecting opening principles regarding the value of rapid piece development.  A lot of them revolve around king-in-the-center positions, which you learn must be cracked open as soon as possible, otherwise the slower side can consolidate.  Piece activity (via development) and looking for opportunities to initiate attacks with early sacrifices, done to open lines in the position (especially towards the enemy king), are key elements that are illustrated repeatedly.
  • Chapter 3 is interesting, as in a number of cases the importance of the center is underlined by efforts on the wings to undermine it.  There are plenty of examples of seizing central territory with pieces and/or pawns and using that to dominate the opponent, though.
  • Chapter 4 is primarily about prophylaxis, with the focus being on limiting (sometimes severely) your opponent's piece development.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and underlines the importance of understanding your opponent's plans as much as your own opportunities.  A number of positional crushes are presented at the top levels of professional chess, showing that this really is an effective and important concept.
  • Chapter 5 contains some useful principles on building an opening repertoire, although does not try to be comprehensive.  Hellsten's observations on the opening being the most apropos area of the game for exploring your personal taste/style were quite interesting, especially in light of previous insights shared here on the concept of style in chess.  Basically the idea is that you should look at openings with structural and style similarities when building a repertoire, with a number of different types of factors highlighted.  This is not necessarily a new idea, but Hellsten explicitly focuses on the opening as most suitable for the expression of "style" choices and largely discounts it for middlegame play.
  • Be prepared for a long time factor in working through this book.  Each of the chapters has a number of example annotated games, which works well, then a large number of games (long fragments, sometimes complete games) as quizzes where you are supposed to identify the next move.  For example, Chapter 3 has 34 example games and 37 quiz games.  If you take them seriously and don't blitz through them, even going through relatively rapidly (say 5 minutes per example game and 10 minutes per quiz game), that means a typical chapter will take you around 540 minutes = 9 hours.  So that means around 36 hours total for the whole book.  So if you go hard at it for an hour a day, every day without a break, it will still take you over a month to complete.  I typically did study sessions in 15-30 minute daily chunks, not sequentially and with substantial breaks sometimes, so that meant it ended up taking well over a year to work through it.
  • If you're expecting a detailed, systemic exposition of opening theory and principles, this really isn't the book for it.  If you're looking for a number of well-annotated illustrative games with connecting and recurring themes related to the opening phase, then that better fits the description of this book.  Repetition of the themes has ingrained the basic principles in my chess thinking and should help me take better advantages of these types of opportunities in the future, even without retention of all the details.