Underestimating Unorthodox Openings

One of the greatest dangers of facing an unorthodox opening is psychological; it’s very easy to feel contemptuous of your opponent’s moves, or even insulted. And it has happened even to the best players, for example when Anatoly Karpov lost to Tony Miles when the latter answered 1.e4 with 1….a6.

Magnus Carlsen manages rather better in the following game, but mainly because he stays objective:

Nigel Davies


How to improve your rating for 2 pound 50

Is there a cheap, easy and quick method of improving your rating?

When I was younger, my concentration was better. I could literally play chess in a disco, and the noise would not bother me. Before you ask, it was not I who had brought a chess set into a disco. It was a fellow student.

But now , I am more bothered by distractions.

Most chess players do not play in ideal conditions, Very often, the playing area is noisier than it should be.

So now I wear ear-plugs.

I am convinced that ear-plugs are a quick, cheap and easy way to improve your game.

Some may point out that surely they just cut out distracting noise, and I don’t get distracted very often during a game by background chatter – perhaps just once or twice, perhaps not at all.

I have found that ear-plugs have a more subtle effect than just cutting out the one or two times in a game when it is too noisy.

Ear-plugs cut out background noise all the time. After 30 minutes of wearing ear-plugs and concentrating on the game, I find that I get much more into the zone, I can concentrate much better. Although there had not been any overtly distracting influences, usage of ear-plugs for an extended period of time, coupled with concentration on the game has produced a state of mind in me when I am  much more focused on the game.

I am certain that this is helping my game.

Recently I had to play a blind person. I could not wear ear-plugs because I had to hear my opponent say his moves, so that I could play his moves on my board.

My thinking during that game was much more unfocused. I overlooked even more things than usual. I felt distracted and nervous.

So now I will go back to wearing ear-plugs. I’m sure they have improved my rating.

And , if you don’t wear ear-plugs, don’t make any excuses about losing a game because your concentration had been disturbed by background noise.

Steven Carr


Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (3)

Back to the Ruy Lopez this week.

We’ll start by travelling back 25 years to watch the 6-year-old Luke McShane in action. It was seeing his early games and results with this opening that first alerted me to the advantages of teaching the Ruy Lopez at a relatively early stage of children’s chess development.

In this game Black allows the familiar discovered check to win the black queen.

The second game features a less common idea: a rather unusual rook fork wins Luke another queen.

In this article we’re taking a break from 3… a6. It’s very natural, especially if Black is more used to facing Bc4, to play a simple developing move such as 3… Nf6 or 3… Bc5. Of course Nf6, the Berlin variation, is very popular at all levels at the moment, while Bc5, while not played so often at GM level, is a frequent guest in amateur events. Both, of course, are perfectly reasonable moves.

Against 3… Nf6, or indeed 3… Bc5, it’s not unreasonable to play, as Luke did, the immediate exchange. f6 is not necessarily the best square for the black knight in the exchange variation. Instead, though, I’d recommend White to play 4. O-O against either of these moves. Making the king safe and giving the rook access to e1 in case the e-file gets opened can’t be bad. What we’re not going to do is transpose into a Four Knights by playing Nc3 and d3.

Games at this level often go 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 when White can trade on c6 and capture on e5, transposing into our article from two weeks ago. If you want to play a6 you have to do so on move 3, not on move 4. Every move we’re going to work out whether or not it’s safe to win the black e-pawn. Otherwise, we’re going to play a quick d4, not bothering too much if it loses a pawn, and, if the e-file is opened, put our rook on e1.

If they play 3… Bc5 instead we have a choice. We’re going to castle next and then we can, depending on Black’s reply, play c3 followed by d4 (and possibly d5 hitting the pinned knight) or go for the Fork Trick with Nxe5 followed by d4, using a pawn fork to regain the piece.

Let’s look at a few more short games to see how these ideas work out in practice and learn some tactical ideas.

See how easy it is to win a piece. In this game Black plays five obvious and natural moves – giving him a lost game. You see how strong the c3 and d4 idea can be against an opponent who plays Bc5. The only square for the bishop on move 6 is b6, which interferes with the b-pawn so Black cannot unpin with a6 followed by b5.

In this game we learn another important tactical idea. Black makes the mistake of playing 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 and then allows a classic pawn fork. Pawn forks in the centre happen over and over again at this level. e5 will fork a bishop on d6 and a knight on f6 while d5 will fork a bishop on e6 and a knight on c6. Another typical tactical idea when Black has bishops on c5 and e6 is to play c3 and d4, hitting the bishop on c5, followed by the fork on d5.

Here White is successful with the fork trick. Bd6 is usually the right way to go in Italian fork trick positions but here it’s not good. Black’s 8th move just loses a piece and his 10th move just loses a king. 8… Bd6 would have saved the piece but left him way behind in development.

Finally for this week we return to Luke McShane to see how he handled the Berlin Defence as a GM. 5. d4 is more often played but Re1 is a simpler way of regaining the pawn which also contains a drop of poison.

Richard James


How to Read a Chess Book

Really? An article about how to read a book? Chess books are similar to textbooks used in schools, and getting the most out of a textbook requires some technique. The better your technique, the more information you retain. The more information you retain and put into practice, the better your chess game!

I was first introduced to this idea in college when I took an Introductory Archaeology class. On the first day of class, the teacher announced that we would first learn how to read our textbook before actually reading it. While the rest of the class rolled their eyes, I prepared to take notes. Why? Well, because I had been expelled from high school, I suspected I had a lot to learn about the art of learning! Here’s what I learned from that professor and from my own observations after reading many chess books.

Your first order of business is to invest in a notebook and a few pencils. You are going to take notes while reading. Why take notes if you own the book? Because you can jot down key concepts and ideas in your notebook and access them more quickly than if you had to skim through the book to find the same information. Also, the act of writing something down helps to implant it within your memory. As an added bonus, you’ll often be able to keep the key ideas from seven or eight books in a single notebook, making it a compact source of useful information. I have a single notebook that was created from eleven chess books I read. When you start reading a book, write the title and author down in your notebook prior to taking notes. This way you know where the information came from.

The first thing my professor told our class was to read the table of contents thoroughly. Many people simply plow into their reading, ignoring the table of contents. The table of contents tells you exactly what you’ll be studying, breaking it down into sections. Read the Book’s introduction as well. Some people find this a waste of time, but often you’ll find that you make a connection with the author and that connection, no matter how slight, pulls you that much further into the book. I read a chess book once where the author said that he was the worst chess player in the world when he started. I could identify with this which made me really want to pay attention to what he had to say as well as read all his other books. If you have a connection with a book you’re apt to put more effort into your reading and studying. Read the bibliography because this will tell you where the author’s ideas came from. If you really like the author’s writing, you might want to read the books listed in the bibliography. If there is an index, read that as well. While this might sound a bit silly, by reading the index prior to reading the book, you’ll have a better idea of the book’s contents and be able to easily find things while reading.

So now we sit down and start reading our chess book. Before even glancing at page one, have a board and pieces next to you. While you can read some chess books without having a physical board and pieces, you won’t retain as much information. The act of moving pieces, physically playing through the book’s examples, helps cement that knowledge within your memory. If you’re a Tablet user and read chess books in electronic form, invest in a chess book reader. These apps come with a small screen containing a fully functional chess board, allowing you to play through the book’s examples as you read. It really helps when studying openings. If you’re an old school, paper books or nothing type of chess player, have a board and pieces set up. Now you can start reading.

Many chess books start each chapter with a written explanation of that chapter’s key concepts. While most of us just want to get to the game examples, it is critical that you carefully read and understand the concepts being explained in that chapter. Even if its a concept you already understand, read the written explanation. While the basic explanation of a concept may be universal, each author offers a unique way of presenting that concept, one that might make even more sense to you, but you’ll never know unless you read that author’s explanation.

After each paragraph, stop reading and ask yourself, what did that last paragraph just say? We often plow through technical books too quickly, not assessing our own understanding of the material as we read. If the paragraph talks about the three primary opening principles, see if you remember those principles. If you can’t immediately remember them, go back and read the paragraph again. However, don’t get caught up with trying to memorize the paragraph. You’re after just the basic idea presented within the paragraph. While this may seem like slow going, this is not a race. You are here to learn, so take your time. If you do you’ll walk away with a great deal of information within your memory.

As you read each paragraph, jot down any key concepts that appear within that paragraph in your notebook. By doing so, you’ll easily be able to answer the question, what did that last paragraph say? Try to write the concept or idea down as a single sentence. Many chess books have the key concept being discussed written as a single sentence in bold letters. Write that down and then translate it into your own words. Again, try to keep your own explanation to a single sentence. Write down any specific words or terms used. Look those words or terms up if you don’t understand them. I have no problem keeping a dictionary handy if it means I get more out of the book I’m reading.

When you get through the entire chapter, review your notes to make sure that you understand everything you’ve just read. I cannot emphasize this enough. When you’re new to a subject, such as chess, there will be many concepts and ideas that are foreign to you. The more effort you put into understanding these concepts and ideas, the easier studying chess will become in the long run because you’re building a solid foundation of knowledge for yourself. This brings me to the game examples within the book you’re reading.

One type of chess book that tests the patience of chess students are books on various openings. Because there are so many variations presented in these books, many players try to skim through them. Don’t do it. Play through every single example no matter how long it takes. This is where the chess book app is king. With the Tablet app, you can play through numerous variations without having to physically reset the board. If you’re using a physical board and pieces, still play through all the examples. When playing through an opening, after each move, ask yourself why that move was made before referring to the text’s explanation. This really helps your understanding of the opening’s mechanics. Take your time and explore every move!

There is so much to this topic that you could write an entire book about it. However, this should give you enough ammunition to fight the good fight. Remember, what you get out of a book is directly proportional to what you put into that book in the way of effort. Read one book at a time! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Sometimes You Win and Sometimes You Don’t

I am posting two different games from the same section here. In the first game my opponent dropped a Bishop on the thirteenth move of the game and he resigned when I took it. My opponent in this first game is from the Netherlands. My opponent in the second game is from Canada.

In the second game we played much longer and agreed to a draw. These results put me in temporary first place in this section. I also got a draw against the other player who is higher rated than I am in this section. With 4 draws and a win I am alone in first place in this section and I am winning my last game in this section. However, that may not be enough to keep first place if one of the players that I drew wins more than 2 games in this section.

My notes in this second game, plus what I have stated above, pretty much cover what happened in this game.

Mike Serovey


Quiet Lines And Advantage

The blog renders thought discontinuous but there’s a thread in all my posts, and the thread is that even in “scientific” chess there is a tendency to evaluate positions and strategy with a logic colored by emotion and blurred by human fatuity.

20th century players laughed at 19th century players for scorning ending advantage in favor of prolonged middlegame attack. In turn, 20th century 1. e4 attacking lines are nowadays being displaced by “quiet” lines, e.g., White’s Be3 London Attack against the Najdorf Sicilian, seen more often recently than the nearly obligatory Bg5 of Fischer’s day.

Note how little the names of the opening lines convey above. One has to be fully indoctrinated before any sense can be made of the above comments, since the vocabulary of opening study does not convey much about the interrelation of the opening positions.

First-move advantage in chess is one of the better Wikipedia articles about chess. The observations of many masters recorded therein suggest collectively that advantage as we use the term in chess defies, as I’ve written before, rigorous definition aside from “winning advantage”. The modern “quiet” lines in openings are here to stay because they are fully as satisfactory as the more “manly” attacking lines of the 20th century and in some ways are more comfortable to play in the age of the computer, because they are more straightforward and balanced in their handling of the opening struggle than those lines supposed to be more aggressive and are simpler for the human mind.

Jacques Delaguerre


The Mystery Of Magnus Carlsen’s Genius And Dominance In Chess

I have been thinking more about how the World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen wins his games and must admit that it does not make sense to me. I have read quite a number of times that Carlsen just grinds out wins from drawn positions or simple positions. Let’s analyse that? In an age where computers are much more powerful that humans and it is much easier to understand the game aided by a training partner of Super Grandmaster strength, how is it that a player can dominate players with such a simple strategy.  A strategy so simple that many years ago could perhaps have been laughable?  Is such a strategy not too simple for the age we live in? We now have 7 piece endgame tablebases. Of course there is only so much that the memory can hold but Carlsen has has been holding his own with an approach to the game that would in theory be suicidal.

I propose that it should be much simpler to prepare for Carlsen than a Garry Kasparov or Fabiano Caruana. Even more mystifying for me is the fact that Carlsen is known to play many openings despite not being an opening expert. Should such a strategy not put him at a clear disadvantage playing rivals who have been using specific lines for a very long time?

Should the simpler positions from Carlsen in theory not be much easier to play than complicated positions? How then do players constantly lose their way against Carlsen? We are talking not just any players but super grandmasters, the very best in the world. They cannot play out the drawn positions against Carlsen to prove that they are indeed draws.

If we were to try and explain Carlsen in other sporting terms let’s say tennis, it could be the equivalent of a very good player whose chances of winning the match increase when he gets his ball in. Not when he serves fast or down the line, just serves a ball that goes and the play continues. Would such an approach, maybe it might but it would be just too risky.

Or let’s try and use soccer. How would a team winning with a Carlsen type strategy. Perhaps that could be, keep the ball in play. Do not aim for space advantage early on in the game. Just keep the ball in play and over time outplay the opposition. I doubt very much that any tennis player or soccer team would be comfortable with these kinds of strategies. It just gives the opposition too many options in terms of dictating.

Do players lose concentration against Carlsen as he ready to play for hours? Carlsen is not known for any kind of psychological warfare over the board or any kind of gamesmanship that could perhaps be getting him some cheap points. On the contrary Carlsen is but intimidating over the chess board. He does not seem to show much emotion in his games.

In some ways Carlsen is possibly the Capablanca of our times. Like Carlsen, Capablanca who had a very simple opening repertoire and spent minimal time on it. In fact Capablanca seemed to spend much less time on chess than say Alexander Alekhine, a contemporary of his.  However, once Capabanca got into the middle game or endgame with a simple game, most of the time he won. In fact Capablanca was so dominant in his time that when he lost a game after some years, that actually made headlines.

If you look at the last world championship between Magnus Carlsen and Vishwanathan Anand, Anand was constantly trying to complicate positions or use his deep opening preparation. Why would an Anand with all his vast experience not be comfortable with simplified positions that are probably less taxing for him calculation wise.

If we can agree that one key thing in chess strength is patten recognition. The more patterns a player recognises the higher their chances of finding the strongest move. In that case I would argue that much older and mature players than Carlsen should have an advantage as positions become simpler and less complicated. Why? Because they have been playing chess much longer and are more likely to have experience in such positions.

Then again, if it were so easy to play Magnus Carlsen, he wouldn’t be top of the rankings, world champion in three different formats of the game Classical, Rapid, and Blitz. I don’t know if such a feat has been achieved before. Perhaps we will need to dig more to solve the mystery of Carlsen’s magical play or simply admit that he is so much better than everyone else.

Bruce Mubayiwa


Algorithms, The Movie

Chess movies and documentaries can be annoying for the connoisseur, not least because the spirit of the game can be changed to suit a kitsch Hollywood story line. But this one looks interesting, exploring the World of chess for the blind. A review can be found here, and this is the official trailer:

Nigel Davies


The First Move Is The Most Important Move

Chess players are sometimes asked by people who don’t know the game how many moves they look ahead. Of course, there is no answer to the question.

But you really do have to look at least one move ahead. The first move in your analysis is the most important move. Don’t miss something on move one.

For beginners and near-beginners , this means checking your move for blunders.  Does my move blunder away material? Hopefully, this will become second-nature so that as you get more experience, your subconscious will blunder check without the need to consciously check.

As you get more experienced, you can ask yourself some new questions.

Three good questions to ask are :-

What is my opponent trying to do?

What is the most important thing in the position?

What possibilities are open to me?

Your opponent makes half of the moves in the game. You can’t ignore half of the moves in a game. You have to find out why your opponent is playing the moves he plays.

You have to find out what the most important thing in the position is, It is little use worrying about doubled b pawns if your opponent is about to put both his rooks on your seventh rank.

You have to know what possibilities are open to you. If you don’t, then you won’t even get move one right in your analysis. Why waste effort looking five moves ahead, when you have a much better move on move one?

Sadly, no set of questions is going to be a foolproof way to play chess.

But if you train yourself to ask yourself these three questions, you might get move one of your analysis correct more often than you do now.

And the first move of your analysis is the most important move.

Steven Carr


Chess with Chris and Kenny

Back to the Ruy Lopez next week unless anything else happens. Today there’s something different I have to share with you.

I returned from Richmond Junior Club last Saturday to see the sad news that one of my oldest chess friends and most regular opponents, Chris Clegg, had died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66.

I’d known Chris for more than 40 years and saw him regularly at matches in the Thames Valley League between my club, Richmond, and his club, Kingston. We played six times in a decade between 1978 and 1987, and then, strangely a 22 year hiatus before four more recent encounters.

Chris started playing chess at his secondary school, taking part in junior tournaments and soon joining his local chess club where he remained for the rest of his life. Every time we played Kingston we knew he’d be there, captaining the team. If we were playing at Kingston he’d be the first to arrive to set up the furniture and equipment, and the last to leave, having put everything away. He’d even arrive early for away matches and help set everything up without asking or being asked. Chris would be at almost every tournament in the London area, arriving on his own and leaving on his own.

By profession he was a solicitor, but he retired very early. He had no family, living with his mother until she died some years ago. His other interest was bird watching. Chris was one of those highly intelligent, rather introverted people who tend very often to be drawn to chess. As his Kingston Chess Club colleague John Foley wrote in his obituary on the English Chess Forum, chess kept Chris going and Chris kept Kingston Chess Club going.

The chess world has always needed, and will continue to need, the likes of Chris Clegg. At his best he was a county standard player, a bit short of master strength. But, more importantly, he was an organiser who worked at a local level, never seeking fame or recognition. Chess isn’t just about producing grandmasters. Without dedicated organisers there would be no grandmasters and no chess.

Here’s an exciting game from a Thames Valley League match a few years ago in which both players missed wins.

But there was also good news recently: news that, as Bruce Mubayiwa reported on this site, Kenny Solomon has become South Africa’s first grandmaster. A great achievement in itself, but notable also for Kenny’s background, growing up in a township notorious for drug abuse and gang violence.

From his website:

“Kenny was exposed to gang culture from an early age. Kenny realised that if he didn’t create his own future, he would merely become a pawn in this scene, trapped in the violent, oppressive cycle of gangsterism. Strong family values and his early interest in chess kept him away from these influences and compelled him to make choices about his fate.

“After getting into chess at the age of 13, he would play blitz games with his older brother and a friend in the Solomons’ backyard, amidst lines of dripping washing.”

Note that he taught himself to play chess in his teens. Not starting young is no barrier to becoming a grandmaster.

Chris Clegg and Kenny Solomon, two very different people and two very different players, but united by their passion for chess. I’m not sure whether chess made either of them smarter but it had an enormous social impact on both of them. It enabled Kenny to escape from the gangs and drugs of a South African township, taking him to Europe where he married an Italian girl, and to grandmasterdom. It gave Chris a purpose in life and a means of connecting with an increasingly alien world (he never used the internet or even owned a mobile phone).

There’s something else they have in common as well. I don’t know when Chris learnt the moves: probabbly round about the age of 11, as we all did in those days. There’s a loss to Ray Keene from the 1961-62 London Under 14 Championship, possibly his first tournament, on chessgames.com. I would guess that they both started their obsession with chess at about the age of 13 or 14. Not at 7 or 8 as children do today.

Regular readers will know that I consider the social benefits of chess at least as important as the academic benefits, and that these benefits really kick in for older rather than younger children. I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent interview with the comedian Stewart Lee.

“But also the things that get you when you’re 13 or 14, that’s when you’re most susceptible and if you’re lucky enough to encounter a good thing when you’re 13 or 14, it will stay with you for your life.”

Chris and Kenny were both lucky enough to encounter a good thing when they were 13 or 14.

Richard James