When to Sacrifice

It’s important to learn about the idea of sacrificing a piece for a pawn or two in front of the castled enemy king. There are many books which will show you examples of this, and all teachers enjoy showing these games to their students.

But if you read these books and follow these lessons you may well get the idea that such sacrifices always work. In real life, of course, they don’t, but it’s much more entertaining to demonstrate a short sacrificial win than a long game where the defender refutes the sacrifice and wins the ending with his extra piece.

Sometimes you can calculate a forced win. Sometimes it will be obvious to an experienced player (but not necessarily to someone less experienced) that the sacrifice won’t work. There’s also a grey area in the middle where you clearly have compensation. It’s partly a question of style, temperament and personality whether or not you will choose to make the sacrifice. You might also like to remember the rule (something I read years ago, I think in a book by Julian Hodgson) that you should play the sacrifice if, after giving up the piece, you have more attackers than your opponent has defenders.

The game below was posted on Facebook by my colleague at CSC, Ferris Lindsay. He asked why he lost this game. Let’s have a look.

1. e4 e6
2. d4 d5
3. exd5 exd5

White chooses the Exchange Variation in reply to his opponent’s French Defence. This is often a sign of peaceful intent, but Ferris has an aggressive plan in mind.

4. Nc3 Nf6
5. Bg5 c6
6. Nf3 Be7
7. Qd2 O-O
8. O-O-O

Natural moves, I suppose, but this position has only been seen in a few fairly low level amateur games. Superficially it looks a bit scary for Black, who has to reckon with a possible sacrifice if he ever tries to play h6. So we might want to consider why stronger players don’t start the game in this way.

It’s worth considering what would happen if Black decided to put the question to the bishop at this point. After 8… h6 White can consider two thematic sacrifices. Do either of them work. You might like to go away and analyse this position yourself before reading on, or, if you’re a chess teacher, set it as an exercise for your students.

So: 9. Bxh6 gxh6 10. Qxh6 when Stockfish finds several viable defences for Black, which may not, however, be so easy to find over the board at amateur level. One such defence is 10… Ne4 with the idea of Qd6 as well as a possible fork on f2. Then 11. Nxe4 dxe4 and the knight on f3 can’t move because of the nasty Bg5 pinning and winning the queen. Now Black’s not threatening exf3 because gxf3 will open the g-file for a white rook, but he’ll be able to play Qd6 next move and defend comfortably.

Or White could try 9. h4 hxg5 10. hxg5 hoping for an attack down the h-file. Now Black has only one way to gain an advantage: 10… Ne4 (against other knight moves 11. Bd3 will give White at least a perpetual check) 11. Nxe4 dxe4. Again the knight can’t move because of Bxg5 and this time, because of the pawn on g5, Black will be able to capture on f3 next move. After 12. Bc4 exf3 13. Qd3 Bxg5+ 14. Kb1 Re8 15. Qh7+ Kf8 White is two pieces down but has a strong attack. Not quite strong enough, according to Stockfish.

8… h6 is fine if you have a silicon brain, but a human would have to be pretty brave and pretty good at defending to play it.

Instead Black played…

8… Nbd7
9. h4

A useful move as White might have a rook lift via h3 in some lines.

9… Bb4

Black decides to take action on the queen side.

10. Bh6

This is it. Ferris sacrifices a bishop even though he’s only going to get one pawn in return. My first thought as a more experienced player is that this really isn’t going to work. Before we see what happened in the game, we’ll consider a more measured approach for White.

White’s most natural move seems to be 10. Bd3 when Black could continue with Qa5, a logical follow-up to his previous move. Given the subject of this article, though, we might also consider 10… h6 and decide whether 11. Bxh6 works. Again you might want to step back and decide on the blue pill or the red pill before going any further.

This time the sacrifice seems to work for White because he’s already played h4. One possible variation runs 10. Bd3 h6 11. Bxh6 gxh6 12. Qxh6 Re8 13. Ng5 (threatening mate in 3 starting with 14. Bh7+) 13… Nf8 14. Rh3 Bxh3 15. gxh3 Qd6 16. Rg1 and Black has to play 16… Re1+ to gain time to stave off White’s attack.

But back to the game…

10… gxh6
11. Qxh6 Kh8

A typical panic reaction in the face of White’s sacrifice. This sort of move is often seen in games at this level. Black moves his king because he’s scared of a possible check. He should have preferred 11… Ng4, driving the queen back, when he should be able to defend.

12. Bd3

Developing and attacking, but 12. Ng5, preventing an immediate Rg8, would have given Ferris an extra move for his attack and put him back in the game. 12. Ng5 Qe8 13. Bd3 Rg8 14. Nxh7 Ng4 15. Qd2 when White has won a second pawn for the piece and exposed the black king.

12… Bxc3
13. Ng5

White bravely continues with his attack rather than recapturing the piece. 13. bxc3 would have given Black time to defend with 13… Rg8

13… Bxb2+

Black seems determined to lose his bishop. Instead the natural move 13.. Bxd4 was correct, giving him a vital extra defender. Then 14. Bxh7 Ng4 15. Qh5 Ndf6 rather amusingly traps the white queen, while after 14. Nxh7 Black just has time to defend: 14… Ng8 15. Qh5 Bg7 16. Nxf8+ Bh6+ 17. Kb1 Qxf8.

14. Kd2

Likewise White insists on not capturing the bishop. This move should lose, but after 14. Kxb2 Qb6+ 15. Kc1 Qxd4 16. f3 Qb4 17. Bxh7 Qa3+ is one possible variation, leading to a position where both players have a perpetual check.

14… Qa5+

Moving the queen offside (14… Bxd4 was easier) but should still be good enough.

15. Ke2 Re8+

A tempting check, but it’s dangerous to undefend f7 in this way. 15… Bxd4 was still the simpler option.

16. Kf1 Re4

A very complicated position has arisen. Black tries block the attack on h7 by returning material, but, as it happens, the move is a mistake.

Yet again 16… Bd4 was correct. Then after 17. Nxh7 Black should gain time by returning one of his extra pieces: 17… Ng4 18. Qh5 Nh6 19. Qxh6 Bg7 20. Qh5 Kg8 – but I guess these moves would be very difficult to find over the board.

17. Nxf7+

What could be more natural than capturing an undefended pawn with check? But, unfortunately for Ferris, it loses.

Taking the rook also loses: 17. Bxe4 dxe4 18. Rh3 Qb5+ 19. Kg1 Qe2 20. Rf1 (an amusing position, given that White castled queen-side 12 moves earlier) 20… Qh5 and the black queen has managed to get back to defend her king.

But, amazingly, Stockfish reveals that there is a win here. The improbable winning move is 17. Rh3, with the slow but unanswerable threat of Rg3, forcing mate. The best Black can do is give up his queen: 17… Qc7 18. Rg3 Qxg3 19. fxg3 Kg8 when Black has rook (about to be captured), bishop and knight for queen. Paradoxically, White needs his knight and bishop for the attack, so he should use his rook, not a minor piece, to trade off the intruder on e4. Stockfish continues: 20. Re1 b6 21. Rxe4 dxe4 22. Bc4 when, because of the threats on f7, Black has nothing better than Ba6, shedding a piece.

Of course working all this out with your clock ticking is far too hard for most humans.

17… Kg8
18. Ng5 b6

Black is two pieces up but still needs to defend accurately. This move lets White back into the game. There were preferable defences such as Re7.

19. f3

Ferris misses his last chance. Again he could have considered the rook lift: 19. Rh3 (threatening both 20. Rg3 and 20. Nxe4 dxe4 21. Bc4+) when Black’s only route to an advantage is 19… Re7 when Stockfish analyses two variations: 20. Bxh7+ Nxh7 21. Re3 Ba6+ 22. Kg1 Qb4 23. Rxe7 Qxe7 24. Qg6+ Kh8 25. Nf7+ Qxf7 26. Qxf7 Ndf6 when White has queen and two pawns for four minor pieces in a position which looks totally unclear to me or 20. Nxh7 Bxd4 21. Rg3+ Kf7 22. c3 Ba6 23. Qg6+ Ke6 24. cxd4 Bxd3+ 25. Rgxd3 Rg8 and Black’s king just about survives.

19… Ba6
20. fxe4 dxe4

White has regained most of his material but now it’s Black who has the winning attack. Another insufficient try here is 21. Ne6 Bxd3+ 22. cxd3 Qf5+ 23. Nf4 Rf8.

21. Kg1 Bxd4+ 22. Kh2 Qe5+ 23. g3 exd3 24. Rde1 Qc5 25. cxd3 Qc2+ 26. Kh3 Qxd3 27. Re7 Qg6 28. Qxg6+ hxg6
29. Re6 Re8 30. Rxc6 Re3 31. Rc7 Nc5 32. Rxa7 Bc8+ 33. Kg2 Re2+ 34. Kf1 Rf2+ 35. Ke1 Nd3+ 36. Kd1 Bg4+
37. Nf3 Bxf3#

So was Ferris right to make the sacrifice? In theory, no, because the sacrifice could have been refuted simply by 11… Ng4. In practice, no, because he eventually lost the game. But, you know what? I think he was indeed right to sacrifice. He will have learnt a lot about when sacrifices against the castled king are or aren’t likely to work, and will have learnt also about how to calculate and what sort of moves to look for in that sort of position. The beauty of online games is that the result doesn’t really matter. There’s no prize at stake. There are no teammates to complain if you lose. So you can afford to try things out and treat your games as a learning experience.

Richard James


When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, improving one’s chess skills was a simple process in theory. Playing chess meant facing off against a human opponent because the silicon beast had yet to rear it’s ugly head. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to get better at chess you acquired a chess book and studied it. You then took your new found knowledge and tested it out on the chessboard. There was no training software or DVDs. Here’s what I had to do just to get a hold of one chess book in more primitive times:

Back in the late 1970s, I was making my mark on the world by playing guitar in a punk rock band (it was a very small mark). We played the majority of our early shows at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club that let anyone show up and commandeer the stage. The man who booked the shows, and subsequently paid the bands, was known for his stinginess. On any given night, my band would make $13.27 to be split three ways. To purchase a single chess book required playing at least three shows.

I decided to purchase by first chess book after I started playing against stronger opponent’s who were crushing me during the opening. Asking a family friend who played chess what I should to improve my opening play, he suggested that I go to the closest chess shop, which was two hours away in Berkeley California, and get a book on chess openings. He added that I should ask for a man whose last name was Lawless. Being a young punk rocker going by the name of Johnny Genocide, I assumed anyone with the last name of Lawless would be either a biker or a punk.

After sweating it out for three nights playing on stage while dodging beer bottles, I had saved enough money to cover the cost of public transportation, sales tax and the cost of the actual book (as long as it wasn’t more than $13.95). I got up early on that faithful day, geared up for an adventure and started the two hour trip to Berkeley California, home of that most aggravating of species, the old school hippy. As a young punk kid, the though of an entire city filled with long haired throwbacks to the 1960s was dismal at best. After suffering through a long train ride spent listening to the caterwauling of poorly trained buskers, I made it to Games of Berkeley or the Church of Chess as I called it.

Walking in, I quickly scanned the store looking for a punk guy or biker. A middle aged man looked up from the counter and then back down at his book. Seeing no one that fit the description my imagination had created, I walked up to the counter. “Hey, do you know a guy named Lawless?” “Yes,” replied the counter-man. “Is he around?” I asked. “That he is,” was all I got in the way of a reply. Undaunted, I continued my line of questioning. “Can you point him out to me?” The man looked up and said “I’m Lawless!” He appeared to be anything but lawless. I suspect this guy had never even gotten a parking ticket and his idea of breaking the law would be having a beer with lunch. Before I could utter another word be said “what do you want kid?” Still trying to get over the fact that this guy did not in anyway resemble his last name, all I could get out was “I need a book on chess openings.” He grunted something and pointed to a massive bookcase on his left.

Not only was the bookcase eight feet tall, it was eight feet wide and every single book on its shelves was about the opening game. There were hundreds of them. Three hundred and seventy three in stock to be exact. We’ll get to how I knew that number later on. Being a guy, I resolutely refused to ask for further help. Anyone with half a brain would have asked for further information. I decided that a real man would simply start rummaging through the books until he found what he was looking for. I grabbed the first book I saw. It was on the Nimzo Indian. I had no interest in indigenous peoples so I grabbed another book. The next book was The Complete Sicilian. Having no interest in Sicily, I kept going. The next book I pulled out left me speechless. It was titled, The Hedgehog. I suddenly felt as if an elaborate prank was being played on me. After all, shouldn’t books about chess openings have “chess openings” in large block letters in their title?

Sadly, I gave up and started the walk of shame back to Mr. Lawless. All men know that walk. It’s the sad shuffle we do when we realize that as men we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. After clearing my throat a few times, the counter-man looked up. “Yes?” From his tone of voice, I suspect he was enjoying this moment but I would be proven wrong! In a defeated voice, I said “I need a really basic book on chess openings. With that he smiled and said “why didn’t you say so. Come with me.” We walked back to the massive bookcase and what he told me as we went through the books in the opening section changed my chess life.

On that day, I learned that all these strange book titles had something in common. They all described different ways of starting a chess game. If that wasn’t astonishing enough to my rather undeveloped mind, Mr. Lawless went on to say that every single book on those shelves were based on the same guiding principles. All I could say at that point was “wow, the opening most be pretty important and very complicated.” He smiled and told me I had just learned something very crucial.

After finding the appropriate title, he walked me back to the counter and taught me algebraic notation, something I would need to read my new book. He also gave me a battered copy of My System free of charge. I walked out of the store feeling enlightened and more optimistic about my chess playing. The whole adventure took about five hours but it was well worth it.

How did I know the exact number of books on chess openings in their inventory? Six years later, I would go to work in the chess department at Games of Berkeley. Working there, I became well acquainted with all their chess books. When I got my name tag, I was told I didn’t have to use my real name but couldn’t call myself Johnny Genocide. I settled on Alexander Alekhine and for the entire time I worked there, that was my name. Mr. Lawless was my immediate boss and any free time was spent learning the game of chess. It turned out, Mr. Lawless was a National Master so he knew his stuff. I still have the tournament set he recommended I purchase and it is the one thing I’ve managed to keep for over thirty years.

There’s no chess lesson to be learned here, only a life lesson or two. First, never judge a book by it’s cover, as in the case of Mr. Lawless, and never judge a book by it’s title, as in the case of chess books. Second lesson: Ask for directions, whether you’re trying to find a destination while traveling or facing a mammoth wall of books. Asking for directions is much better than doing the walk of shame when your instincts have failed you. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Procrastination Vs. Practice

One of my Tiger Chess members asked me an interesting question today about the approach I would you recommend for tactical training. My answer is actually very simple, it’s the one that will be implemented.

A lot of players spend a lot of time talking about improvement rather than actually practising. You can find evidence of this on chess forums in which improvement methods and the value of different openings and books are discussed at length. But do the participants then knuckle down and implement their conclusions? Probably not.

This is of course procrastination, putting off what needs to be done (practice) in favour of chatting with friends. In this case the fact that the conversation is about improvement can give people the impression that they’re doing their best to improve. But it’s still procrastination rather than actual practice.

The truth of the matter is that all openings are playable, and there’s little qualitative difference when you go under 2400. Of course it helps a lot to know what you’re doing, but that means practice. As for the books, they can all be helpful when players actually study them with their minds engaged, but who does that? In a way the ones full of errors can stimulate personal study more than those that intimidate the reader with reams of computer checked analysis.

What about computers? In a way they can be the ultimate tool for procrastinating because the computer can do the work whilst its owner chats online and posts its conclusions. Someone can look particularly authoritative when they do this, but once again no work is actually being done.

What is the answer for someone who does this? Well there are some good books on curing procrastination, but above all self-honesty is required. Did you actually study chess today? And if so, how much did you do?

Nigel Davies


Chess and Game Theory

Grandmaster Nigel Davies has invited me to join his blog crew. I am an American chessplayer wandering in and out of expert class. I continually improve my play and wrestle with learning in one’s 60’s. In real life I am a computer programmer. Over the coming weeks, I plan to explore modern chess theory in the light of Game Theory and computation.

Mathematicians of the late 19th century began to research Game Theory. This field has identified Chess as an “intrinsically difficult” problem, one that has to be solved back-to-front. While chess can be represented mathematically in many different ways, there is, according to game theory, no algorithm that will infallibly generate best moves: all possibilities must be exhausted in the search.

The notion of intrinsic difficulty has interesting implications for chessplayers with pretensions to “scientific” play. For instance, it is generally accepted by chess theory that neither White nor Black possess a winning advantage in the starting position, but this is neither proven nor provable without exhaustive calculation.

Such exhaustive calculation is not possible on the fastest modern computational hardware. However, there may be ways around this limit. The entire game of English Draughts (American Checkers) is solved computationally. Will we in our lifetimes see the same for Chess? More on this …

Jacques Delaguerre


Game Analysis, Its Outcomes And Improvement

People should analyse their games in order to improve at chess. But how should they go about this? First and foremost you must have good record of your game. What I mean by a good record is that you should write down ideas behind each move shortly after finishing the game.

Blunder checks and tactical oversights are best done with a computer program, which can help a lot. Once you know what you have missed tactically what else can you do? Here I have an idea. Categorize your games according to opening and generate tactical puzzles using your games. This can be done with Fritz. Soon you will notice any pattern of error in a particular opening and practicing those puzzles repeatedly will help you much more than solving tactical puzzles from a book.

Levers: Master play is based on pawn structure so it is wise to analyse which pawn levers you and your opponent missed in the relation of piece placement and time. I think this is essential in developing middle game play and positional play.

Compare your ideas with those of a stronger player or coach. For example you prefer to play Rfe8 in order to bring rook into action but your coach want you to play Rfe8 in order to bring Nf6-d7-f8 to protect your king. The moves are the same but with different reasoning behind them. This will help you understand the position better and the logic behind the move played.

Ashvin Chauhan


A Single File Please … !

It goes without saying that the chess elite are so great to learn from, because they are capable of playing such great chess, and showing the rest of us how it’s done. However, that is really only half the story. The other half, is that when they get things wrong, they can really get things wrong. Not only that, but the consequences tend to be amplified all the greater. This is because they are usually playing another elite player, who is ever poised to grab them by the jugular — figuratively speaking, of course (in most cases).

The following game is a case in point. It was played at the recent London Chess Classic, by Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik, both former World Chess Champions. It must first be said, that this was a blitz game, but that rarely makes huge differences at the top levels. Of course, it varies from player to player, but the two involved in this game are both very accomplished blitz players. Therefore, the game should be judged accordingly.

The opening is a Reti. It is not unusual for players to opt for less common openings, steering the game away from theoretical lines. This way, they lessen the risk of being caught out or wasting their preparation. The games often quickly become a straight middlegame fight. The players both play the opening reasonably well. In a position of opposite-side-castling, White obtains an initiative on the Kingside, while Black endeavours to create counter-play on the Queenside. Good, fighting, exciting chess.

The outcome of this game is largely a result of inaccuracies made by White, it has to be said. First, his 20.Qa6? posts his Queen away from his theatre of operation. Not only that, but it offered Black the opportunity (albeit missed) to take the initiative with 20…Bxd4!. White’s fatal error, however, would have to be refusing 24.dxc5 in favour of 24.d5?? A move very much unworthy of a player of Anand’s calibre. This is because the chosen move hands his opponent the b6-square (and thus the b-file) on a platter, whereas the refused move would have guarded the b6-square and actually seems very good for White. The move is a clanger, it must be said.

Vladimir Kramnik is clinical, seizing control of the game via the b-file. He wraps things up powerfully and renders his opponent’s attempts at defence futile.

John Lee Shaw


No Quick Fix

As chess has been cursed with ‘win with’ books for decades, it’s no surprise that there are now plenty of adverts around for miracle chess courses. The claim is that they produce amazing results in a short period of time, usually being available for a limited time only and at a special, knocked down price.

They don’t work of course, it’s all just marketing. Yet the quick fix still has enough appeal to get people to part with their money.

Of course players, even older ones, can improve their chess. But it takes time and effort, as with mastering something like the violin. Is there a ballpark figure of how much work is involved? Well there’s been a lot of debate about the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson, and actually that’s not a bad ball park figure. Certainly it’s good to get away from the idea that people can improve substantially at something with just a modest time investment.

With this in mind I’ve created a strategy course on my Tiger Chess site which comprises 160 weekly lessons. The lessons and assignments and ‘digestion’ of the material will probably take one or two hours each, so that’s still not too many hours. But together with concurrent tactics practice (3 hours per week), endgames (another 3 hours per week), 50 tournament games per year (let’s say 4 hours each) and building a solid set of openings (perhaps 2 hours per week), the 160 weeks will contain at least a couple of thousand hours of productive work.

This kind of commitment is usually rewarded, though of course there are many variables. Exceptional talent makes the learning process much easier, as does studying the right material. But what won’t do it is a couple of snatched hours at the weekend.

Since my teenage years I’ve probably spent around 15-20 hours per week on chess and now have tens of thousands of hours under my belt. If I’d been blessed with a bit more talent I might have become REALLY good!

Nigel Davies


Adventures with 1…e5 (4)

My fourth consecutive black saw me facing 1. c4 so it’s not relevant to this series of articles. Another match and yet another outing with the black pieces. This was yet another Richmond v Surbiton encounter: Richmond B v Surbiton A so I was on a high board against an opponent about 200 points stronger than me.

My opponent chose the slow option. We had to complete 35 moves in 75 minutes, with a choice of adjournment or adjudication if the game was unfinished after 2½ hours. You might find the rules strange but that’s the way things work in ThamesValleyLeagueLand.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5

At last I get to face the Ruy Lopez. I’m looking at a few options in answer to this.

3… g6

The Smyslov Variation. I’m hoping to continue with Bg7, Nge7, d6, 0-0 in some order. The Cozio Variation (3… Nge7) is another possible move order to achieve the same aim.

4. O-O

Not White’s scariest line. An immediate d4 will disrupt Black’s plan but his position is still playable.

4… Bg7
5. c3 d6
6. Re1 Nge7
7. d4 O-O

Natural developing moves so far. The three previous games in this series were about opening knowledge, tactics and calculation. Here, at least for the moment, it’s about understanding pawn formations, long-term planning and positional judgement. But of course you still have to calculate everything that moves.

Both players have several choices with regard to the centre pawns. White can close the centre with d5 when the position will resemble a King’s Indian Defence or possibly trade on e5. Black has a range of options. He might be able to play an immediate d5, an immediate f5, or trade on d4 and then play either d5 or f5. He might also want to throw in a6 (with or without a subsequent b5) before doing any of these. There’s a lot to think about.

8. Be3

For the moment White decides to play a simple developing move rather than committing himself in the centre.

8… Bd7

Not a very intelligent move. There was no need to put the bishop on d7 after I’d castled and in some cases it might prefer to be on g4. Now was probably the time to undertake some sort of action in the centre.

9. Bf1

Again White decides to wait.

9… Kh8

Another waiting move based on an irrational fear of checks on the diagonal. I could and probably should have played 9.. exd4 10. cxd4 d5 when I can meet 11. e5 with f6.

10. d5

White decides it’s time to take action in the centre himself, heading for a King’s Indian Defence structure. I’m very big on encouraging children who are serious about the game to learn ALL major openings, partly for this reason. If you never open 1. d4 and never play the King’s Indian with black you’ll be totally at sea when you reach this sort of position via a Ruy Lopez.

Now the game continues with a series of typical KID-type moves.

10… Nb8
11. Nfd2 f5
12. f3 f4
13. Bf2 g5
14. c4 b6
15. b4 a5

16. c5

Ambitious. 16. bxa5 was a simpler and probably stronger alternative.

16… axb4
17. c6 Bc8
18. Qb3 Na6
19. Qa4

Overlooking a cheapo but Black seems to be doing quite well anyway, with various tactical chances on the king-side and the long diagonal.

19… Nxd5

My opponent thought I would have been in trouble here without this move but Stockfish suggests I’m OK. The pin on the a-file isn’t a big problem as, whenever I move the bishop from c8, it can bounce back to c8 again after Bxa6. But he’d completely missed this simple tactic winning the exchange.

20. exd5 e4

The point – the rook is trapped and White has no way of blocking the diagonal. Justification for my third move!

21. Rxe4

The more natural Nxe4 was probably a better try – at least in theory.

21… Bxa1
22. Nb3 Be5
23. Nd4 Bxd4

Well, what can I say? It looks, and is, totally wrong to trade off the bishop on the long diagonal for a knight. If one of my more serious pupils had played this move I’d have been very disappointed in them. At this point I had about 15 minutes left to reach move 35, so didn’t want to spend more than a few minutes on this move. I had visions of this knight coming in on e6 in some lines, but, realistically, that’s never going to happen. I’d also failed to consider that White could double his queen and bishop on the long diagonal. From what I recall, my other candidate move was Bf5, which is absurd for tactical reasons. After a sensible move such as Qf6, though, White has absolutely nothing for his material deficit. It’s Black, if anyone, who has the king-side attacking chances.

So what went wrong? Why did I play such an obviously bad move? Time and again in my games I talk myself out of playing a move I know I should play or talk myself into playing a move I know I shouldn’t play.

Indecisiveness (coupled, in this case, with lack of familiarity of the opening) always leaves me behind on the clock. I’m not a good speed player and not good at dealing with stress so when I don’t have much time left I start to panic. Lack of self-confidence, which also contributes to getting short of time. Irrational fears (in this case, an irrational fear of a knight landing on e6). All this is the story of my life, not just the story of my chess games. In my case, and it’s probably true to a greater or lesser extent for most players, getting better at chess is not just about learning more openings or improving calculation skills. It’s about clearing all the junk (which has been there for more than half a century) out of my head.

Anyway, the game continued.

24. Bxd4+ Kg8
25. Nd2 Bf5

The position’s now very complicated and without much time on the clock I wasn’t able to find a good continuation. Stockfish tells me Black has several ways to draw here but I really don’t understand most of the moves! One of the options was 25… g4, with the following variations: 25… g4 26. fxg4 Bxg4 27. Bxa6 Qg5 28. Qb5 Bh3 29. Qe2 Rxa6 30. Nf3 Qxg2+ (30… Qg4 31. Re7 Rf7 32. Re8+ Rf8 33. Re7) (30… Qg6 31. Nh4 Qg5 32. Nf3) 31. Qxg2+ Bxg2 32. Kxg2 Rxa2+ 33. Kh3 Ra3 34. Kg2)

26. Bxa6 Bc8

Played (without any thought) to regain the bishop, but I should have taken the rook instead and gone for the white king: 26… Bxe4 27. Nxe4 g4 28. Qb5 Qh4 29. Qe2 Rf7 30. Bc4 gxf3 31. gxf3 which Stockfish assesses as equal, though don’t ask me why.

27. Qxb4 Rxa6
28. Bc3 Bf5

This is losing. The only way to stay in the game was to play Rxa2, hitting the knight on d2. Stockfish analyses 28… Rxa2 29. Qd4 Qf6 30. Qxf6 Rxf6 31. Bxf6 Rxd2 with an ending in which, although Black is temporarily a pawn ahead, White has better chances.

29. Re2

He could have ignored the rook, just playing 29. Qd4 Qf6 30. Qxf6 Rxf6 31. Bxf6 Bxe4 32. Nxe4 Rxa2 when White is winning because Black can’t defend c7 (after Bd8, Nc3, Nb5).

29… Rf6

29… Kf7 was an insufficient alternative. Stockfish informs me that White’s best reply is 30. Ne4, threatening 31. Bf6, and also 31. g4 fxg3 Nxg3 when if the bishop moves on the b1-h7 diagonal White has Re6 and if it moves on the h3-c8 diagonal White has Qb1. Alternatively, 29… Rxa2 30. Qd4 and Black has to give up a rook. Notice that 29. Re2 defended the knight on d2.

30. Qd4 Kf7
31. Re6

White gives up a second exchange, this time deliberately.

31… Bxe6 32. dxe6+ Rxe6

Losing horribly but 32… Ke8 drops the rook on f6 and 32… Kxe6 drops the rook on a6 (after 33. Qc4+).

33. Qg7+ Ke8
34. Qg8+ Ke7
35. Qxg5+ Ke8
36. Qg8+ Ke7
37. Qxh7+ Ke8

At this point time was called. My opponent could either propose an adjudication or seal a move and adjourn. We agreed on an adjudication as the computer would confirm whether or not he had any more than a perpetual. Looking at the position, we soon concluded that after Ne4 I had no defence to a future Nf6+. Computer analysis confirmed this so I resigned by email the following day.


Richard James


Hanging Pieces

Beginners tend to have an easier time improving their basic opening and endgame skills than they do improving their middle-game skills. The opening principles are easier to define and apply compared to middle-game principles. Basic endgame principles are likewise easier to learn and employ compared to middle-game principles. What is it about the middle-game that causes the beginner so much trouble? To answer this question, let’s first define the middle-game.

During the opening, you gain a foothold in the center by rapid piece development. You and your opponent are racing to see who gets the greatest control of the center and thus an early positional advantage first. Once your pieces are on their most active squares, you enter the middle-game. The middle-game is where the fighting starts! This is the phase of a chess game in which often violent attacks and cunning defenses take place. This is the realm of tactics. It is also the realm of the dreaded hanging pieces.

The big problem beginners face when entering the middle-game is that their calculation skills are minimal. When I say calculation skills, I’m not talking about seeing six or seven moves ahead. I’m talking about seeing one and a half moves ahead. This translates to your move, your opponent’s best response to that move and your subsequent response to your opponent’s move. Beginners tend to think only about the moves they can make and not about their opponent’s response. Subsequently, beginners hang or lose a healthy, or should I say unhealthy, number of pawns and pieces by thinking this way.

Beginners also miss opportunities to capture their opponent’s hanging pieces, pieces that are unprotected and free for the taking. A few years back, I was watching some of my beginning students at their first tournament and was astonished at one game in which both players had multiple hanging pieces that remained on the board for many turns. It was because of this that I started to employ various training methods to help students avoid this problem.

One method I use with my students is to have them do positional exercises, using software training programs, to improve their ability to spot hanging pieces (both their own and those of their opponent). One training module specifically deals with capturing pieces, many of which are hanging. However, that specific module offers no advice, only five thousand plus positions in which a piece can be captured. This series of positional problems comes from real life middle-game positions played by players of varying ratings. While the beginner can develop their skills working through the numerous problems, they won’t get the maximum amount of solid training in this specific area without some additional concepts being introduced to them.

Because we live in a fast paced world that puts a high premium on getting the job done quickly, students will try to blaze through the five thousand plus problems as fast as possible. While some improvement is guaranteed by simply doing the problems, the serious student will not achieve the greatest improvement without putting deeper thought into each problem.

Simply capturing the correct piece isn’t enough. While it may be enough for the training program you’re using, you have to look at the bigger picture. That “bigger picture” comes in the form of questions you must ask after making that correct move, namely, how does this capture change the position. Of course, I don’t expect the beginner to analyze the position like a professional player. However, there are a few key questions a beginner can ask that will help them understand positional play a bit more and spot potentially hung opposition pawns and pieces.

The first question I have students ask themselves after capturing the correct piece has to do with the capturing piece’s relationship to the pawns and pieces around it. After the capture, does that piece now protect pawns and pieces that weren’t previously protected? This is a crucial consideration because if the answer is yes (which it generally is with these types of training programs), then the capture has not weakened the position. Instead, it has improved it. Remember, you don’t want to capture simply to capture. You want to capture if it strengthens your position. I have my students note each pawn and piece that is now protected as a result of the capture. This idea of asking questions helps to slow down the student’s solving of each problem and forces them to look more carefully at the position. This, in turn, develops greater board vision (seeing the entire board and the subsequent pawns and pieces on it).

The obvious second question to ask is, does this weaken my position at all. Even in the games of masters, positional weaknesses can and will occur. With beginners, it is best to keep the list of potential weaknesses short, having them look for immediate weaknesses such as doubled pawns, bad Bishops, exposed Kings and, of course, hanging pieces. Spotting potential long term weaknesses is best left for later, when the beginner has gained some playing experience.

Where these questions really help is when you get into the more advanced sections of the software program. Often, you’ll be given a choice of two similar pieces to capture, two knights for example. Capturing one Knight will lead to an exchange of material that is beneficial to the opposition. Capturing the other Knight will garner you that Knight at no cost of your own material, not to mention a better position. Asking questions when capturing material leads to good decision making.

Training software can be an excellent tool for players wishing to improve on their own. However, you don’t want to blaze through the individual problems without taking the time to carefully look at the position. Often, it is easy to spot the correct piece to capture. However, unless you carefully examine the position after the capture, looking for positional strengths and weaknesses, you won’t get as much out of your training. Take your time. If a capture doesn’t make sense from a positional viewpoint, examine the position further before moving on to the next problem. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


London Chess Classic Blitz

Here’s an interesting video of the London Chess Classic blitz qualifier, won by England’s Michael Adams. I hasten to add that players of this level can play meaningful blitz games, but as you go down the rating scale it becomes ever more destructive to players’ thinking habits:

This great event finishes on Sunday, the official tournament site is here.

Nigel Davies