A Fischer Masterpiece

This is one of Bobby Fischer’s most famous games Which he wins with a queen sacrifice at the end. If Black promoted his pawn with 30…c1=Q+, White would answer with 31.Rxc1 Rxc1+ 32.Kh2 and after 32…Qf8 the queen sacrifice would follow just the same.

Sam Davies

News of the Century

It’s the biggest chess news of the year. Perhaps the biggest chess news of the century. You might even consider it the biggest chess news of all time. Nigel has already written about this, but I think it’s worth another article.

The games we’ve seen so far have been fascinating and totally unlike human games. The choice of openings is the first point of interest. AlphaZero seems to prefer queen’s pawn or flank openings (1. d4, Nf3 or c4), disagreeing with Fischer’s dictum that 1. e4 is ‘best by test’. It doesn’t seem to think much of Black’s sharper defences such as the Sicilian and the King’s Indian. It liked the French for a time before switching to the Caro-Kann and then 1… e5, choosing the Berlin Defence against the Ruy Lopez. At the same time, several games featured positional sacrifices, demonstrating a preference for initiative over material. No doubt it had worked everything, or at least almost everything, out: it wasn’t just being speculative.

So already, after teaching itself in only four hours, it must be pretty close to playing perfect chess. How well will it play after 4000 hours?

It was also interesting, or perhaps disturbing, to read here that, of the sixty games so far completed in the 1st English Correspondence Chess Championship, fifty eight have been drawn. These days, because engine assistance is permitted, the vast majority of correspondence games result in the point being shared. The combination of human brain and computer brawn is starting to approach perfection, but still a long way short of AlphaZero. Compared with this, the number of decisive games in the London Chess Classic (10 out of 45 after a late flurry of excitement in rounds 7 and 9) seems positively thrilling.

What impact will this have on chess between humans? At amateur level, playing blunder-strewn games in inter-club matches and weekend congresses, very little. If AlphaZero becomes available online in some form I guess it will, sadly, mean the demise of correspondence chess. It will also have a big impact on top level chess, quite probably leading to more draws than today. Professional players will be able to carry out deeper research further into the game. People have been predicting the death of chess for more than a century: perhaps AlphaZero demonstrates how the chess world will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

There are answers, though. Some pundits are predicting the rise of Chess960, while others, and I’d probably put myself in their camp, believe that using different starting positions destroys the purity of chess. I don’t think I’d be opposed to the occasional Chess960 tournament, though. We’ll no doubt see more tournaments at faster time limits, which are also more entertaining for spectators. Perhaps we’ll see more invitations for creative players like Rapport and Jobava rather than the ‘bore draw’ specialists.

I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. Harari predicts that homo sapiens will, in the not too distant future, die out, to be replaced by immortal cyborgs. I suppose that, in one sense, AlphaZero is a step in this direction. I’m not entirely convinced by Harari’s arguments, or at least I hope I’m not, and I hope he’ll be proved wrong. Not that I’ll be around long enough to find out, though.

All this prompts thoughts about how we might change chess for the better, which I’ll come back to later, and how we might change society for the better, which is a topic for another time and place, although not unrelated to my views on chess, and, specifically, junior chess.

Meanwhile, here’s another video of one of the AlphaZero v Stockfish games for you to enjoy.

Richard James

The Order of Battle

In chess, as in warfare, there’s an order in which you send your forces onto the battlefield. Modern battles tend to start with ground troops, otherwise known as the infantry. Thankfully, you don’t see armies starting battles with their biggest weapons, nuclear missiles. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our lives would have been ended with the first nuclear strike. While war usually ends up being an exercise in chaos and carnage, it tends to start with a methodical plan. First into battle, the foot soldiers, followed by artillery, followed by armored vehicles, then bombs and so on. The same should hold true in chess. Yet beginners tend to think “why waste all those resources when I can drop a bomb, in the form of bringing their Queen out early, and end the war with a quick victory.” It may sound great in theory (to the beginning player), but in reality, the battle typically ends with the beginner no longer having his or her most powerful attacking piece in the game. To teach my students thew correct order in which to bring out their forces on the chessboard, I simply point out a few things regarding the placement of the pawns and pieces.

The starting position of the pawns and pieces dictates the order in which members of the army enter the battle. Also contributing to this order is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. With the exception of the Knights, which can enter the game immediately due to their ability to jump over any material in their way, pawns have to be moved in order to get the majority of the pieces into the action. Pawns have the lowest relative value and therefore can keep an opposition piece off of a specific square because of higher value of the pieces. Fortunately, beginners quickly learn to move pawns first in order to get their pieces into the game. However, they often make too many pawn moves, either thinking that it’s safer to use the least valuable members of their army which are also more plentiful or they’re not comfortable with the movement of the pieces so they resort to pawns. I tell my students that bringing too many pawns into the game when your opponent is moving stronger pieces onto the board is akin to sending out foot soldiers with sticks to fight off armored tanks. It simply won’t work. You have to have some force behind your foot soldiers. So who do we use for this force?

Young beginners are infatuated with the Rooks and the Queen. They tend to think of both as super powered weapons. The problem with trying to bring out the Rooks early is that the beginner will move the “a” or “h” pawns two squares forward, then move the Rook two squares forward, planning to aim the Rook at the enemy King along the “e” file after moving the Rook again towards this central file. Sadly, either the opposition ignores the flank activity and builds up a strong center, capturing the Rook soon after, or they capture the Rook with a Bishop after developing a centralized pawn. Either way the power hungry beginner loses a Rook, a lot of tempo and the right to castle on one side of the board. Then there’s the Queen. Since the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, she’s a nuclear missile in the eyes of the beginner. Why fight a long war, muses the beginner, when I can aim a missile at my opponent and end it quickly? The problem with bringing the Queen out early is twofold. First, your opponent can nicely develop their forces while chasing your Queen around the board. All you have to show for your troubles is a running Queen while your opponent has complete control of the board’s center. The second problem is that you King is unsafe because you haven’t been able to castle due to the attacks on your Queen.

I point out to my students that it makes much more sense to develop the Knights and Bishops before the Rooks and Queen. When the Knights are developed initially to the “c” and “f” files they’re controlling the board’s center squares and bringing you one step closer to castling. Developing the Bishops towards the central squares helps lock down your control of this key area as well as bringing you closer to castling. Think of the Knights and Bishops as support artillery for your ground troops, the pawns. In battle, artillery is used to both gain greater control of the battlefield, repel the enemy and support the soldiers on the ground (the pawns). The minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) are well suited to this task.

Of course, when you develop your minor pieces on the King-side, for example, you can then castle. While castling is designed to place your King in a safety net of pawns and pieces, it does something equally important, getting one of your Rooks out of the corner. While I advised against bringing the Rook into the game early, you don’t want to leave it stuck in the corner where it does absolutely nothing. After castling, a Rook can then move over to the “e” file and stare down the un-castled enemy King at the other end of the “e” file. Rooks like to sit on open and half open files during the game. Think of them as a battleship that can hurl huge shells at the enemy from a long distance.

Lastly, there’s the Queen. She’s best left alone until later in the game when there are fewer Knights and Bishops around to go after her. Of course, one early move you can make with the Queen is to move her up (or down in the case of black) one rank so your Rooks are connected. This isn’t bringing your Queen out early and will give your Rooks more freedom.

The easiest way to remember the order in which pawns and pieces enter the game is by considering the relative value of the pieces, starting from low to high. Pawns have the least relative value (one) so they’re first into the fray. Knights and Bishops, both having a relative value of three come next. Rooks have a relative value of five so they come after the Knights and Bishops. However, this means making them more active not throwing them into the actual battle (save that for the endgame). Lastly comes the Queen who have a relative value of nine. Try to keep her around for a checkmating attempt when you head towards the endgame. Moving her up a rank is fine, just don’t drag her out onto the board during the opening. When in doubt, use the relative value of the pawns and pieces as your deployment guide. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Slav Extraction

I’ve been down at the London Chess Classic. I worked 10 days straight. It was too hard to resist playing and I entered the weekday U2050. I won my games with White but lost with Black. I was so tired that is was hard to calculate. Also, I had intermittent toothache.

I registered with a dentist while there and saw him yesterday. He said I had fractured a tooth and it needed extracting. In the evening I had to play a delayed game in the York Club Championship – which I’m organising. Btw I can recommend this free software.

I had struggled to get an advantage with White against Paul in the past and decided to play 3.c4. I still didn’t get much. His pieces seemd rather far from his King so I decided to attack on the Kingside and played 14.g4. If I had seen 20.Qh4 things would have been different. I tried a speculative Knight sacrifice which Black easily defended.

Today my dentist gave me a 2.30 appointment (it did!). My tooth didn’t want to leave my jaw but with the drill and some heavy duty instruments it succumbed.

Dan Staples

The London Chess Classic on Youtube

For those of you with a free weekend, rather than watch a season of Star Trek Voyager you might want to watch a couple of rounds from the London Chess Classic. Round 9 came in at just over 9 hours, which basically takes a day if you factor in cups of tea, bathroom breaks, lunch, dinner and a walk round the block. I find it quite interesting in parts but generally prefer to download the pgns for a quick perusal on HIARCS Chess Explorer. It all depends how much time you’ve got.

This aside, it’s great that the UK is holding such an event, which besides the super-GM tournament has many other tournaments. If you haven’t been there yet it’s well worth a visit in 2018.

Nigel Davies

Wanna be an English Trapper?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana

Funny how the past becomes important as we grow older. Some moments we remember immediately, others pop up at the right moment or even when we least expect it. Chessplayers have a good memory and that is an important ingredient in getting better. Another important thing is studying “traps and zaps”, expression used by Bruce Pandolfini in his popular book “Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps” from 1989. If you do not have it, you can always create your own from past games you played or have studied. Here is one of mine from the time I was in grade 7:

The English Opening is again popular these days, but was not so much at that time. I liked it because it allowed me to surprise my opponents expecting mostly 1. e4 or 1. d4. I have won many a game because of this. Do you think this trap is too simple or easy to see? You could be right now that you saw it. Hopefully you will not have it done to you from now on; it is not a nice feeling to lose that fast. All I can say is the trap functions today as efficient as it did back then. Quite a few of my students are using it too. It is also only one of more the position offers against unaware opponents. Here is another one played by one of my students a few years back:

Lessons 8 and 9, level 4 of our app have a few more useful traps and zaps in the English. The beauty of it is having the opportunity to add more examples as more unsuspecting victims fall for them. One of my former students managed to finish top 10 in boys U8 at the World Youth Chess Championship in Vietnam 2008 by playing the English exclusively with the White pieces; while he could not collect pieces with his traps at that level, he got pawns and superior positions he converted into invaluable points later on in those games. What more do you need? I will end this teaser article with one of my latest uses of a trap from a game I played online a couple of weeks ago. It was the game inspiring me to write this article. Hope you enjoyed it!

Valer Eugen Demian

The Importance of Tactics

I was surprised that Magnus Carlsen missed several tactics in his game yesterday but he did seem a bit out of sorts. Black’s 33…Rxc5 had probably been missed by White and then later he must have missed 36…Qa4!, which was a killer. It all shows the importance of tactics, which is why I do my Chessity every day!

Sam Davies

Elitism in Junior Chess

In an article in the November British Chess Magazine, GM Aleksandar Colovic bemoans the declining standards in junior chess.

Colovic starts by considering various projects involved with putting chess on the curriculum in schools. I share his reservations about this, but not for the same reasons.

“…there is one thing”, says Colovic, “that bothers me. … “It is the fact that all these activities are not aimed at producing the next Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. … Chess is seen as part of a person’s culture, not as a possible future profession.”

This is where I have a problem. Junior chess has, over the past 30 years or so, become increasingly elitist, and this attitude is one of the reasons for this. In my view the main purpose of any competition-based junior chess programme should not be to produce professional chess players, but to develop chess culture and produce hobby players with a lifelong passion for chess. Specifically, it should be to maximise the number of young people reaching, say, 1500 strength, not to maximise the number of young people reaching 2500 strength. I like to consider the chess playing population as a pyramid. At the top you get the likes of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen and Hou Yifan. As you go down you get grandmasters, international masters, national masters, down to the mass of 1500 strength (or below) players at the bottom. Unless there are amateur hobby players putting their time and money into chess the whole edifice will collapse.

Hobby players are just as important as professional players. They put money into chess: they join clubs, enter competitions, subscribe to online chess sites, buy boards, sets, clocks, books, software and DVDs. They take lessons with professionals, either online or in person. They put time into chess as well. They become club secretaries, treasurers, match captains, administrators, tournament organisers, arbiters. They pass on their passion for chess to their children. Perhaps they volunteer as teachers in their chess club or their children’s school. Some of them will develop an interest in other aspects of chess such as problems and endgame studies. Some will collect chess books or chess sets. Some will become chess historians. Some, if they’re financially successful in their career, will become chess benefactors, sponsoring events which will enable the professionals to earn a living. Without a strong base of hobby players there will be no market for professionals.

I believe we have our priorities totally wrong. We should be measuring teachers’ success, not by the ratings of their pupils, but by the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game and the length of time they continue to play. I’d much rather one of my pupils enjoyed playing chess at 1500 level for the next 50 years than became a disillusioned 2500 grandmaster stuck with chess because he has no other skills or qualifications (and any chess player active in social media will be able to name several of these).

I believe we should also be wary of promoting chess using dubious claims for its perceived extrinsic benefits and instead focus on the game’s intrinsic qualities. Chess is the greatest game in the world. Quite apart from the excitement of playing, or even watching, chess, it possesses an extraordinary aesthetic beauty. It offers its devotees the opportunity for travel and friendship with like-minded people throughout the world. It has an endlessly fascinating history and heritage going back centuries. It has an unrivalled body of literature covering every conceivable aspect of the game. It has no need for dubious and unverifiable it that chess helps prevent dementia. If you promote it as something that ‘makes kids smarter’ parents will take what they can get out of it for a year or two before taking them out of chess and into some other ‘improving’ pastime.

Let’s consider the nature of chess. We all know how hard it is to play chess even reasonably well. What skills do children require to become proficient players? They need exceptional concentration and impulse control: without these skills they will make one-move oversights every few moves. They need to be able to confident at handling and manipulating complex multi-dimensional abstract information. They need to be able to consider the position from their opponent’s perspective. They need the ability to self-reflect: to understand where they made a mistake and work out how to put it right. They need emotional maturity to cope with the demands of competitive play. If they can appreciate the beauty and heritage of chess they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the game. All these are skills we associate more with older children than younger children. Everything about chess screams out ‘adult game’, not ‘children’s game’.

Perhaps you see now why I describe junior chess as elitist. The only children who will really understand chess at a young age are the exceptionally bright kids with extremely supportive parents. Yes, it’s among these children that you’ll find your potential Kasparovs and Polgars, but at the same time many of them will drop out, choosing to concentrate on their academic career with will lead to a job more worthwhile and lucrative than being a 2500 grandmaster. And those children who don’t have an exceptional talent, whose parents are, often for the best of reasons, unable or unwilling to support them, will find it hard to make significant progress. If we want to combat elitism in chess we need to promote chess for older children, and not just for children in top academic schools, so that children from all backgrounds can enjoy chess.

Richard James

It’s All Over For Humanity!

The news that AlphaZero annihilated Stockfish after practising chess for just 4 hours should give us pause for thought. Humanity basically lost the battle against computers when Garry Kasparov went down against Deep Blue, but now things have moved to a totally different level. I suspect that it could play a simultaneous display against the top ten human players and just take them apart.

In one sense this does not matter, humans do not race against cars and human chess players cannot compete against machines. But for many years there was a belief that they could, that the human mind had qualities that would at least make it into a contest. This illusion has now been swept away completely and finally.

So what about computer preparation, will this become ever more important? Frankly I think we have enough trouble remembering analysis as it is, without adding to the burden so there could be a growth in the number of players who play in Magnus Carlsen style, aiming to grind people down in the endgame. There might also be a further push towards Fischer Random Chess or other variants.

Here’s one of Youtube’s best chess commentators on one of the games from the AlphaZero – Stockfish match:

Nigel Davies

Update on 1st English Correspondence Chess Championship 2017

The 1st English Correspondence Chess Championship Final 2017, which started on 31/03/17, has now had 60 of the 105 games completed. The leading scores so far are myself with 6.5 / 12 (+1 =11 -0), CCE Stan Grayland with 5.5 / 11 (+1 =9 -1) and SIM Alan Rawlings with 5.5 / 11 (+0 =11 -0). Out of the 60 finished games only two have, so far, been decisive. I have a habit of playing quickly as, fortunately, I am retired and have plenty of time available at the moment. However some players go at a calmer pace , for whatever reason, and complete their games much later. This means that it is difficult to know who is going to win until much later if most players are around the same score. So I do expect the lead to change many times!

Players have been discouraged from offering draws more than once in their games. I think one reason for the huge increase in draws in correspondence chess is the availability of endgame tables bases which often finish a game as drawn well before it would have been finished before their use. Also, the widespread use of powerful engines means fewer mistakes, so more draws. I suppose you can say that the quality of games has improved, but can you also say that the players themselves have also improved, I think not!

Here is Stan Grayland’s recent win: –

John Rhodes