Don’t Forget The King …

It is often said that a chess player should not forget their King — and of course rightly so. We should not forget that our whole game revolves around it. We strive to keep our King safe, and to be the undoing of the opposition King. And, ultimately, to capture it.

However, this being said, it is often the case that the King can leave his defences and become an attacking piece. Normally this happens in the endgame, of course, but it does not necessarily have to be that late in the game. There are many exceptions in chess, and one should always have an open mind and look for new twists. It can come about that the King can make a very big difference even in the middlegame.

Take the example below, between Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman, and British Grandmaster and former World Championship candidate, Nigel Short.

White gets the better of the opening, which is an Alekhine’s Defence, and thanks to some rather unadventurous play by black it has to be said, soon holds a commanding edge. Accordingly, Short shows why he has a reputation for being one of the games most attacking players.

His 24.Rd8! marks the beginning of the end, and upon 26. R8d7, Black can respectably resign. At 28…Rae8, white is in total control, and the black pieces are mere spectators. Then comes the twist. With the black position cramped and passive, white’s 29. Qf6! (not just a mere check) restricts it further. Then follows his 30. h4! And a safe path has been opened for the white King to triumphantly march up the board and make a decisive contribution to the battle. Notice how even with major black pieces on the board, the white monarch is under no imminent threat while the black King is doomed in his own house.

A perfect example of not forgetting one’s King if ever there was one — well, from White’s point of view, anyway …

John Lee Shaw

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Preparation In The Minors

Until recently the idea of having people prepare for their openings was alien to amateurs. But this is about to change.

The web site Chess DB has games by players right down to the lowest levels of competitive chess, and with the site accessible on a mobile phone everyone can now worry about having their opponents prepare for them.

Picking out a player at random I found that an 8 year old Austrian kid called Manuel Rigler, with a provisional Elo of 800, had seven games in the database. With White in one game he played for scholar’s mate (at least he did so in 2013) but great disappointment followed his opponent spotting it with 3…Nf6. He ended up retreating his queen with 4.Qd1, which might have been because of now remembering his coach’s advice not to bring the queen out too early. The later implosion with 27.b5 and 28.c4 was unfortunate, I guess he panicked a bit when he saw those rooks staring at him. Instead he had a strong move with 27.f4.

Manuel of course will likely be in shock to discover that his games are now public knowledge, not least because opponents can be primed for his scholar’s mate in advance. So aren’t databases going a little bit too far?

Of course here at the Davies household we’re celebrating the discovery of this site as my son Sam can now make more use of his personal GM father before a game. His opponents, of course, may find this more than a little disconcerting…

Nigel Davies

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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Focus

One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Accept The Sacrifice If The Alternative Is To Lose Anyway

When I was in my final year of high school, I played in the last tournament of my life before I returned to chess two decades later: I played in the 1987 Michigan High School Team Championship. I ended up winning the first board prize with a perfect score of 5 points, but I always felt funny about how I achieved that, because in one of my games I played a sacrifice that I felt guilty about for two decades. Also, that was the only tournament in my life that I ended up losing my score sheets for, so I do not even have the full score of that game. But I do remember vividly the moves leading up to the critical position, and my mindset.

Seeing the possibility of a Greek gift sacrifice

On move 10 out of the opening, I suddenly spent a huge amount of time deciding whether to play the “Greek gift” sacrifice against my opponent’s King, sacrificing my Bishop on h7 with check.

But in my attempt to calculate a win, I could not find a forced win. I saw defensive resources, so I was reluctant to play an unsound sacrifice. But the idea of playing the sacrifice really appealed to me. You have to understand that I had never played the Greek gift sacrifice before, only read about it in books, and also I knew this might be the last chess tournament of my life, as I was going off to college in the fall, and I had actually “retired” from chess in my sophomore year of high school, and came out to play in the Michigan High School State Championship only because I had started up a chess club in my high school in the fall in hope of boosting my college application (I brought four teammates who had never played in a tournament before). I outrated my opponent by over 500 USCF rating points, so there was no need for me to play recklessly to win, so my motivation was just to finish my chess-playing days in style.

I did see that I would get compensation for the sacrifice, and therefore should not lose if I played the sacrifice, but that was all I could see. Even after I went home to analyze the game, because I did not have access to good computational power in the 1980s, I did not believe I had the full truth of the position until the 2000s, on my return to chess, when chess engines by then had become very strong.

Sacrifice declined!

I was simultaneously ashamed and relieved when my opponent thought only briefly and declined the sacrifice, and therefore easily lost, being a Pawn down without compensation, and having a weakened King side also.

My opponent must have concluded that my deep thought meant I had figured everything out, but in fact, my deep thought came from not having figured it out! Granted, I was much higher-rated than my opponent, but higher-rated players can make terrible moves too, and sometimes even deliberately as a swindle, so you should think for yourself for a bit, and not always assume your higher-rated opponent has everything figured out. Granted, psychologically it was clearly a shocker to him that I thought mysteriously for such a long time moves before the sacrifice.

In club play, I often see fear of accepting sacrifices, and painful losses resulting from declining. The loss is usually painful because a sacrifice significantly disrupts a position, so if your position is disrupted anyway, and there is no visible immediate mate, maybe you might as well grab some material for your trouble; if the attack goes wrong, then you may have a good chance of consolidating and winning as a successful defender. Part of chess is choosing to defend.

So I’m saying, accept the sacrifice if you honestly do not see anything wrong with doing so. You might be making a mistake, but at least make the mistake and lose rather than choosing the path of sure loss, losing material against a much higher-rated player.

How sound was the sacrifice?

The fact that White is missing the dark-squared Bishop and only has a Queen and two Knights really restricts White from having a win in this position. The only possible things White can do are try to push h4, maybe castle Queen side, and use the two Rooks somehow. Meanwhile, Black can defend the King and develop. Note that if White tries to win back an exchange, the result is an unfavorable balance of material in which White gets a Rook and a Pawn or two for two minor pieces, so it is no use for White to regain material.

I’ve inserted some variations into my annotations below.

Irony: there could have been an alternative Greek gift sacrifice!

The irony is that if I had played Nc3 instead of Bd2, and “normal” development had continued, with Black “castling into it”, then the Greek gift sacrifice would have been obviously sound and winning. The huge difference is that with White’s dark-squared Bishop still on the board, and guarding the Knight on g5, White does not have to support the Knight with the Queen, but can calmly play h4, followed by Qg4, with a deadly barrage of discovered checks to follow: a check with the Queen or with the Bishop on c1 if the King goes to h6.

Note that it is important to play h4 first, to avoid Black’s tempo-gaining …f5 against the Queen on g4, because with the Pawn on h4 first, then h5+ can be played at any time, and optimally when Black’s King on g6 cannot escape to f5. Check it out with a computer engine if you want to verify that it’s a quick win for White.

Why did I play Bd2 anyway? I had some vague idea that getting rid of Black’s “good” Bishop for my “bad” one was advantageous. Also, note that I recaptured “wrong” with Nbxd2; I just recently wrote an article about why Qxd2 is usually best. But in 1987, my positional understanding was not so good.

Some resources on the Greek gift sacrifice

A well-written overview by GM Daniel Naroditsky.

A previous Chess Improver article by Ashvin Chauhan.

A 2012 game of mine in which I played a correct Greek gift sacrifice.

The game (up to the point of the sacrifice)

Franklin Chen

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Sources And Thoughts On Teaching kids

Normally, I use books which advocate a step by step method in order to teach kids, but every kid is different and you can’t apply the same method to all of them. One day I came across the following sentence when I was reading Chess Fundamentals.

“The first thing a student should do, is to familiarize himself with the power of the pieces. This can best be done by learning how to accomplish quickly some of the simple mates.” Capablanca

So why can’t we do just this while teaching tactics to kids? I didn’t see why not and came to the conclusion that the mates in two from Laszlo Polgar’s 5334 Problems, Combination and Games was the best source of material for teaching kids tactics and mating patterns, and without using any jargon! There is also no need to find problem sets for different tactical motifs. One of my students did around 1600 mates in two and was then able to find tactical possibility without learning particular tactical motifs.

As I gained experience in the field of chess coaching, my belief become stronger and stronger that kids should solve more and more checkmate in one move problems before proceeding further. Here you can use Elementary Checkmates I and II that can be found at ChessOK.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Dynamics: The Cusp of The Matter

Of all the chess books that I have decided to spend money on, (and there have been many over the years), those of the late Alexander Kotov (1913-1981) are among my most prized. His books, ‘Think Like a Grandmaster’, and ‘Play Like a Grandmaster’, although being rather ambitiously titled, give a great insight into the mind of the advanced chess player.

One of the topics that has most stuck with me, is his coverage of thought processes and how they change in the course of a game. In positions where there is little contact between the opposing forces, one focuses upon strategic considerations, he said, the placement of pieces, pawn structure, rather than the analysis of variations. When there is much contact, much tension, the possibility of exchanges, the thought process changes to the detailed analysis of variations, as deep and as concrete as possible. One can not argue with this logic, but all the same it can not be taken as absolutely black and white. For example, one can not afford to ignore the cusp!

Cusp: ” … a point which marks the beginning of a change.”

In other words, one must make the change in thought process not merely at the moment the dynamics in the game change, but before. We must be ever vigilant so that we can anticipate and be ready for any change that may occur. If we are surprised in a game, by an unforeseen lunge, or an out of the blue sacrifice, or a few timely and awkward knight hops, we have more than likely failed in this.

The following game is between Danish Grandmaster Carsten Hoi (although an International Master at the time), and Russian-American Grandmaster Boris Gulko. The game begins relatively calmly, and so Kotov’s advice of general strategic considerations would appear to be in place. After all, why waste time going through complicated variations when it is not needed, right? Indeed so — but Gulko, playing Black, decides to make an exchange of pieces with his 19…Bxf3. It is likely that he expected liquidation via 20.Qxf3 Qxf3 21.gxf3, when his position would be slightly inferior, but nothing major.

However, our opponent does not have to comply with our wishes, infact they rarely do. Accordingly, Carsten Hoi saw things differently than Gulko, and instead maintained pieces and opted to activate the g-file and launch an attack upon the Black king. This, it seems was a hugely viable decision, and the conclusion that I draw is that Boris Gulko either failed to explore the cusp of the change in dynamics in the position (before playing 19…Bxf3) or under-estimated his opponent’s potential. Make your own mind up, but whichever it is, it was to be a painful outcome for him.

John Lee Shaw

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Know Your Clock!

An often overlooked aspect of getting better chess results is to have a thorough understanding of how the clock operates and time limit, not to mention keeping your score sheet up to date. I’ve lost a game because I thought the clock was about to add me some time on when it didn’t! And I lost another one when I accidentally missed out a line on my score sheet at the bottom of the first column.

In the following encounter the clock goes wrong, but the players show their class in quickly noticing it!

Nigel Davies

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Abraham’s Choice

Last Tuesday (9 September 2014) my old friend Abraham Neviazsky died suddenly at the age of 80. I’d known Abraham more or less since joining Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club in 1966.

Abraham was a remarkable character who had learnt chess as a boy in Lithuania, having been taught by the likes of Mikenas. His family had suffered hardship during the Second World War, and eventually found their way, via Poland, to Israel. Abraham later married an English girl and moved to England.

Abraham was noted for his devotion to Fulham football club, and also for his devotion to moving his b-pawn two squares at the start of the game. I played in the same team as him on many occasions and rarely if ever saw him play any first move other than b4. He didn’t play it in a particularly scary way, but was confident and experienced in the slightly unusual middle game positions he reached. In recent years he had also taken to starting his games with Black with a6 followed by b5.

The subject of opening choice has been a topic of debate recently on Nigel’s Facebook page. How should we choose our own openings and what advice should we give to our students, whether adults or children?

Should we encourage them, like Abraham, to stick to the same opening at all times or to vary their openings? And should we encourage them to choose main line openings or, again like Abraham, unusual openings?

I was an active tournament player in the mid 1970s, when the English Chess Explosion, along with the explosion in opening books, was getting underway. What I did was, in retrospect, exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Whenever a new Batsford opening book came out I’d rush to Foyle’s to buy it on publication day, skim through the pages excitedly and play it at the next opportunity. I’d get a bad position because I didn’t really understand the opening, decide it wasn’t for me, await the publication of the next opening book and repeat the whole cycle all over again. When I eventually realised that I was no longer interested in studying chess seriously I was left with the opening repertoire I had when the music stopped. I haven’t been happy with what I play, especially with White, but don’t feel confident playing anything else. I know a little bit about most openings but not enough about anything to play it against a strong opponent. I’m envious of my friends who’ve been playing the same non-critical openings for the past 40 years and know exactly what they’re doing at the start of the game.

But there are two reasons why I don’t really regret taking that approach. As a chess teacher it’s important that I know a bit about all openings so that I can find out how much my students know about them, so that I can avoid falling into the trap of only teaching the openings I play myself, and so that I can avoid giving them bad advice. A few months ago I watched two colleagues demonstrating a game to a class of eager students. The game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. 0-0 Nxe4, which they castigated for being too greedy and moving a piece twice in the opening. In fact it’s main line theory and perfectly good for Black, but as neither of my colleagues played this line with either colour they were unaware of this.

There’s another thing as well. It seems to me that only playing e4 and never d4 is like only listening to Bach and never to Mozart, or only reading Dickens and never Jane Austen. Always playing b4 on your first move, then, must be like only listening to, I don’t know, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. From my perspective it would seem that, from his choice of opening, Abraham only experienced a small part of the world of chess. But I’ve known few people who played chess with so much enjoyment and enthusiasm as Abraham. He’d have liked a few more years, but suffering a heart attack while playing chess against an old friend is probably the way he’d have wanted to go.

Richard James

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