Winning Equal Positions

In these days of very serious opening analysis and theory going well into the middle game in many lines, people often forget the importance of core skills or don’t have time to practice them. Tactical vision is of course absolutely essential, as most people realize. But endgame skill is often underestimated or even overlooked altogether. Who needs openings if they can win equal positions against the World’s top players.

Here’s Magnus Carlsen providing an object lesson in this art, winning a more or less equal endgame position against Teimour Radjabov. The commentator is the ever lucid and calm Jan Gustafsson:

Nigel Davies

Fixing What Ain’t Broke

There are two schools of thought with regard to making changes to openings. Most people believe that you should stick to what’s working whilst a rare few like to move on and explore new avenues.

I like to think that I belong to the second group, at least in theory, and there are good reasons why. In the early days of playing an opening it’s all very new and exciting, not least because you are learning how the thing works. But after a while its secrets can get exhausted and you start to play the line on autopilot. This in turn can lead to your entire game becoming stale and tired.

There’s another reason too, especially in these days of databases and engines. If it becomes known that you play in a particular way there’s a good chance that your opponents will prepare for you, and with engine power being what it is that can spell serious trouble. See yourself as a wildebeest looking to visit the watering hole; crocodiles have a good memory so it’s best to avoid going to exactly the same location.

A great master of opening variety and surprise was the late Danish Grandmaster Bent Larsen. In the following game he grinds down Boris Spassky in a Bird’s Opening which led Boris Ivkov to spend a lot of time preparing against the Bird when he was due to play Larsen in a match. The Bird never reappeared so Ivkov, rather than have his heard work wasted, decided to play it himself!

Nigel Davies

More Transitions to the Middle Game

In last week’s problem, Black’s plan was to liberate his pieces by playing e5.

White can get an advantage and stop Black’s plan by playing 1. Ne5. The idea is to follow up with f4 and Nb1-d2-f3, or Qf3 and then Qh3.

The best play for Black is to play 1..Bxe5 2. fxe5 Nd7 3. f4 and White has the plan of Nd2 followed by Nc4.

In this week’s problem, we again have to find a plan for White. Which is the best square for the Knight?

Steven Carr

T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

Richard James

The Scotch Opening

Beginners who play with the White pieces often play timidly at first, pushing a pawn one square instead of two on their first turn. They worry that pushing a pawn to e4, for example, will leave that pawn stranded without protection whereas as pushing a pawn to e3 affords that pawn protection by it’s fellow pawns on f2 and d2. However, if you’re playing White you should aggressively go for control of the board’s center immediately. The Scotch Opening is a good opening for teaching aggressive play from the start. The classical Scotch comes into play after the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. d4…exd4, 4. Nxd4…Nf6 and 5. Nc3, White immediately contests Black’s attempt to control the board’s center, a crucial concept (central control during the opening) as far as opening principles are concerned, while Black fights back to equalize the position. It should be noted that because black is a move behind, he or she should play to equalize or keep the position balanced rather than play for a fast attack during the opening.

The point the beginner should embrace is the idea that, because White moves first, White can gain control of the center before Black does and should therefore aim for central control from move one rather than making passive moves that allow Black to gain central control, turning the position around. The first two moves for both White and Black, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6, are the first two moves in a number of openings. Why? Because they fight for the center in a sound way. Move three of the classic Scotch, 3. d4…exd4 demonstrates the idea of White aggressively attacking Black’s own plan for control of the center. One of the reasons I teach this opening to beginners is because it clearly demonstrates the the opening principles in action, especially playing aggressively. A Scotch Opening might proceed a bit further like this:

Let’s review each move in terms of opening principles. Move one, for both players, 1. e4…e5, follows our first opening principle, controlling the center with a pawn. The pawns on e4 and e5 both control key central squares. The Queens and King-side Bishops are given room to develop. On move two (2. Nf3), White correctly develops (with tempo) the King-side Knight to its most active square, f3 where it attacks the e5 pawn while putting pressure on the d4 square. Tempo comes about because the Knight is attacking the pawn on e5, forcing Black to defend it which Black does with 2…Nc6. Black’s last move is a sound and logical choice because it develops a minor piece that not only protects the e5 pawn but also attacks the d4 square. Remember, Black needs to try and equalize the position and this move does just that! On move three, 3. d4, White attacks Black’s centralize pawn on e4, forcing Black to capture the d4 pawn. Does Black have to capture back?

If Black does something other than capture, instead developing the King-side Knight to f6, White can further gain tempo by playing either 4. d5, attacking the Queen-side Knight which forces it off of c6, or playing 4. dxe5 which attacks the King-side Knight, forcing it off of f6. Either way, White gains tempo and dislodges one of Black’s Knights off of an important square. Therefore, Black has to capture the pawn in order to avoid becoming further behind in tempo and sound position.

After Black captures the d4 pawn with 3…exd4, White can capture the pawn with 4. Nxd4. This moves works because the White Knight on d4 is protected by the White Queen on d1. If Black were to capture the White Knight on d4, the White Queen would simply capture it back which wouldn’t be good for Black from a positional point of view. Remember, as Black you want to keep things equalized. Therefore, Black plays 4…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White develops a minor piece with 5. Nc3 which protects the pawn. Notice that White develops rather than attack the Knight on f6 with 5. e5. Attacking the Knight with a pawn would be silly since the c6 Knight would simply capture the attacking White pawn. Think development rather than all out attacking during the opening. Of course, White moving the pawn to d4 earlier is an attacking move, but one which was made to contest or stop Black’s attempt to control the center. There’s a difference between the two!

Black now plays 5…Bb4, pinning the c3 Knight to the King on e1. This move by Black stops White’s c3 Knight from being able to protect the e4 pawn due to the absolute pin. Black develops a new piece into the game while preventing White’s previously developed minor piece from doing its job, acting as a bodyguard for the e4 pawn. White plays 6. Nxc6. This does break an opening principle, not moving the same piece during the opening, but there’s a reason for breaking this principle. It should be duly noted that principles are not rules and can be broken if the reason is sound. Here, removing the Black c6 Knight, doubles up Black’s pawns on the c file after 6…bxc6. Note that using the d6 pawn to capture back on c6 would lead to a potential trade of Queens in which the Black King would have to capture back, forfeiting the right to castle. It also allows White to play 7. e5, attacking the f6 Knight. This last move by White is dangerous because Black moves the attacked Knight to e4 (7…Ne4) where it teams up with the Black Bishop on b4, attacking the pinned Knight. There are a few ways to deal with this last move by Black, such as 8. Qd4 which not only adds a second defender on the c3 Knight but protects the vulnerable f2 square from a potential fork by the Black Knight on e4.

Then there’s a more modern approach in which White goes after Black sooner. Take a look:

In this variation, which I first met on a wonderful Andrew Martin DVD on the Scotch, White immediately goes after the center with 2. d4 rather than developing the Knight on move two. After Black captures the d4 pawn (2…exd4), White develops the Knight with 3. Nf3. When Black plays 3…Nf6, White hits back with 4. e5, forcing the Black Knight off of the f6 square. When Black plays 4…Ne4, White captures the pawn on d4 with the Queen (5. Qxd4), attacking the Black Knight and covering the f2 square so Black can’t sacrifice the Knight by capturing on f2 which would fork the King-side Rook and Queen.

All in all, the Scotch is a great way to teach aggressive play to beginners. I highly recommend playing around with this opening, really experimenting with it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. You should always tinker with openings. While learning the mainlines and variations is sound, experiment a little. Be a scientist and explore the board. While you’ll find that many of your ideas can be refuted, you might find a little something in the way of a move that will surprise your opponent. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Modesty, Generosity, and Plain Truth

Interviewer: In November, New York City will host the match for the chess crown between world champion Norwegian Magnus Carlsen and Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin. Some have compared this match with your match against Robert Fischer, which was supposed to take place in 1975, but never took place.

Anatoly Karpov: So far, Carlsen has not reached the level of the Fisher. He does not have the brightness inherent in the American. So on that side, there’s no comparison. And Sergei Karjakin, with all my sympathy for him, he has not gotten to my level. Therefore, it will not be a match on the scale of what my match with Fischer could have been. But it is very interesting. I am glad that Sergei was able to get to the match for the crown.
Interview “Anatoly Karpov: It’s going to be very difficult for Sergei”, Sovsport.RU, 2016-08-04

After thanking the Almighty, friends, family and the Sinquefields, GM Wesley So, winner of the 2016 Sinquefield Cup said

Thank you to my honored opponents who are like unpaid coaches to me because I study their games closely and even when I was still a kid was so motivated to play by observing their amazing techniques. Like I said, anyone in this group could have won, it just happened to be my year. Mabuhay!

This was taken in some quarters as the generosity of a truly modest individual, but it seems to me such modesty and generosity constitute expression of the plain truth.

GM So won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup 5.5/9 (+2 -0 =7). Viswanathan Anand took second 5/9 (+1 -0 =8). None of the roster of grandmasters won more than 2 games in 9 rounds. In world-class chess, it’s not at all lonely at the top.

Even Karpov, an egoist since youth and something approaching an insufferable ass in his mid-60’s (as witness his comments on the Carlsen-Karjakin match), was forced in his own time by the realism of the chess mind to acknowledge the plain truth. In 1974, upon winning his Candidate’s Final against Korchnoi, Karpov was approached at the reception by a flatterer. Karpov brushed off this unwelcome and ingratiating individual with the words, “After all, I am merely doing what everyone else is doing, that is, learning to play better.”

Here’s a link to what, to my mind, is So’s best game of the Cup.

Jacques Delaguerre

Wrong Exchanges

It has been a common observation at amateur level that they tend to exchange almost equal value pieces whilst playing against stronger opponent, with a draw in mind. Sometimes, they just move mechanically based on general rules. This in fact, gives masters an opportunity to demonstrate their technique. Here is an instructive example:

In the given position, Black exchanged his knight against White’s bishop and went for a bishop vs. knight endgame. At first this looks quite innocent and even a good idea because we have been told that a bishop is usually better than a knight in the endgame against knight. Secondly the position is not so closed, so Black might be able to open the position & can change the pawn structure. Lastly, Black could emerge with a passed pawn on either c- or d-file.

But taking the bishop on d3 is actually a mistake because it has nothing to attack. And White’s knight would become very active on c3, d4 or f4.

Interesting Exercise: Change the position of the bishop from e8 to d8 and analyse the position! This kind of imagination is helpful in learning chess.

Question: How would you recapture on d3?
Answer: Recapturing with king is dubious due to 1…c5!. For example 1…c5! 2. Nc1 Bb5+ 3.Kd2 Bc4 from where the bishop can be exchanged against the knight almost by force, while pawns on c5 and d5 guarantees Black a better game.

In the game Alekhine played cxd3! and now c5 is rather dubious idea (compare it with the previous line 1. Kxd3)

1.cxd3 c5?! 2.d4! c4

2…cxd4 is even worse because of 3. Kxd4 Kc6 and 4. Kc5 is winning.

3.f5!

The pawn can’t be taken because of Nf4

3…gxf5 4.h4!

Fixing a weakness, which is quite common in masters’ game!

Black tried to fight for next 20 moves but failed to change the outcome of the game.

Interesting Exercise: From here try to win the position against your friend or even an engine.

Ashvin Chauhan

The Value of Chess Culture

Whilst recent studies have not confirmed the value of a bit of chess in raising kids’ IQs, I would maintain that they’re not looking for what’s important. Rather than try to study short term intellectual attainments, that may or may not be achievable by different means, it is important to look at chess as a whole and the deep history and culture of the game. It is not a puzzle or set of puzzles for the mind, it’s a multi-dimensional art form which can provide a unique sphere for ongoing personal development.

Music and traditional martial arts will have a similar effect; practitioners who become deeply involved with them will develop attitudes, beliefs and abilities that can lead to a complete transformation and benefits that will be with them for their entire lives. Yet to test the benefits of these arts after, for example, throwing a few punches or singing fara jaka a couple of times, clearly isn’t going to be a fair test.

What does chess have to offer besides the unproven hope of improved maths scores? Based on my 45+ years observation of the game and its players, as both a player and teacher, here are a few of the more important benefits that come with a deeper and more long term involvement:

1. Learning to take responsibility; if you lose at chess it’s because of mistakes.

2. Learning from mistakes, if you can uncover why you made a particular type of mistake you can learn to avoid it in future.

3. Learning to assess the risk of a particular operation and balance it against potential reward.

4. Learning the value of research, for example from books, software and the internet.

5. Learning the value of history and the idea that the players of today build on the efforts of past masters.

6. Learning to respect better players as people who can offer insights and help you in your own journey.

7. Learning to equate practice with improved results.

8. Learning to stay calm under pressure.

9. Learning to manage thinking time.

10. Learning to combine big picture movements (strategy) with short term tactical operations.

11. Learning to win without it going to your head.

12. Learning to lose without thinking you are diminished in any way and seeing it instead as an opportunity to improve.

You won’t find these benefits in simpler puzzles and games, they simply don’t have the depth or background and culture that chess does. And this is why kids should learn chess instead, starting out with simple stuff after which those who are interested can build layers of complexity. As the Indian proverb goes, chess is a sea in which the elephant may bathe and the gnat may drink, and I don’t think we have to be too bothered about the goal of their bathing or drinking. They’ll decide for themselves what they want out of chess once they’ve had the opportunity to learn.

So it’s great that there are many volunteers, parents, coaches and organisations (for example Chess in Schools and Communities) who try to get them started in the game, and long may they continue to do so. And hopefully there will be a focus on the fascination of the game rather than becoming too obsessed with ‘success’ and the horrors that can bring.

Nigel Davies

End of Opening, Start of Game

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White can breakthrough with 1. b6!

1…Kxb6 is met by 2. Ba5+ and 1…Bxb6 is met by 2. Kb5.

In this week’s problem, the opening has just finished, so in many ways the game has just started.

Both sides should try to find plans, and try to find manoeuvres which prevent his opponent’s plans.

In this position White is to play and get an advantage. Try to work out what Black is intending to play. What move improves White’s position and tries to stop his opponent’s plan?

Steven Carr