Is chess an art, science or sport? Or something else? I tend to take the position that we should aim first and foremost for better results as this generally means better quality of play. It’s also too easy for people to proclaim themselves to be artists when another unsound sacrifice or dubious gambit goes wrong.
Having said that there is an element of art in chess and there are very strong players for whom this overshadows results. One such player was Eduard Gufeld.
Back in the 1990s, during my brief period as the Batsford Chess Editor, I got to know Gufeld because he was constantly phoning me up with book proposals. He had a number of co-authors in the former Soviet Union with whom he’d collaborate on various books, and then sell the manuscripts to publishers in the West. I had to reject many of his ideas but still enjoy many of his writings.
Sadly Gufeld died in 2002 but left behind a rich legacy in games. The book on his own games, The Search For Mona Lisa, was also a classic that many people may have overlooked because he was never one of the World’s top players.
Here’s Gufeld showing one of his games, and a very nice effort it was too:
A couple of videos have appeared on Youtube lately which gives some good insights about how a chess player thinks. I think a lot of people will find these interesting, especially the bit about him losing to the 10 year old!
Having previously examined the role of opening preparation, and how one should go about it, today I thought I’d look at the topic of preparing for specific opponents. It can certainly be useful to understand how a prospective opponent is likely to play, for example which openings might crop up and what sort of middle game decisions might be made.
Usually such preparations are made before a game and once the pairings are known. But you can also keen an eye on opponents you are likely to meet in your chess area, provided it isn’t too large of course.
The way to go about this is to make a list of the stronger players who you are likely to face. The size of this list depends largely on how much preparation you’re willing to do and how thoroughly you want to do it. After that you create a database for each one, perhaps using Chess DB as your reference source. Updates can be done periodically and you can have your favourite engine annotate the games. If certain opening lines crop up quite frequently, make a note of them and see if there’s a good antidote.
This kind of preparation has tremendous practical value but who actually does it? Of course your opponent’s games will need to have been published for this to be doable.
Last time I introduced the subject of preparation, pointing out how older players are often handicapped by their old fashioned attitudes with regard to databases and engines. Let’s expand on this a little.
First of all I should say that there’s little need to have very detailed preparation if you’re under 2000 Elo, at this stage you should still be building up core skills such as calculation, positional understanding and endgame skill. But the further you get beyond this the greater the need for sophisticated preparation.
Where should one start? A good place is to have a good general understanding of the openings you wish to play, and for this I would recommend the Chess Explained series by Everyman or their Move by Move titles. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have this kind of grounding, without this kind of strategic overview it’s hard to make sense out of a modern opening.
After that it should be straight into the theory together with databases and engines, and here too I think Everyman gets it right by offering books in database format. Other publishers seem to be slow to adopt this idea, perhaps because they’re worried their work will be copied. But for advanced opening work in which you add new games and use engines, there’s no point in having the book in paper format. Any interesting lines will have to be put into database form, which will of course be very time consuming.
I also offer database files of the opening moves at my Tiger Chess site so members can drill the lines with Chess Position Trainer, Chess Opening Wizard or at Chessable and develop them with their own notes.
There’s always a lot of fuss about kids who do well at chess early on, the media just loves this kind of thing. Personally I’ve never found it very interesting.
Chess for most of us is a personal, participation activity in which we try and do a bit better than last time, and even if we’ll never be the best it’s exciting and fun to play. Meanwhile many of the prodigies fail to live up to their early promise, chess is a long and winding journey in which we need to keep going and learn over a long period of time. It’s not whether you have talent but staying power that really matters.
Having said that, this kid Mikhail Osipov doesn’t seem bad for 3. I can’t fault his chess though with stardom coming he might want to sack whoever’s cutting his hear and get a more professional job done:
One approach to the openings is to throw your opponent on their own resources by playing unusual moves. This in fact is an approach that Magnus Carlsen has specialized in, using a wide variety of openings and often playing something unusual very early in the game.
Here we see him using the highly unusual 6.a3 against Wojtaszek’s Sicilian Najdorf, and it works rather well!
This will be my last post on this topic for the time being, I hope I’ve managed to convince the reader that old games can contain some very instructive concepts and that these in turn can be made clearer by less than ferocious resistance.
For this last game we’re going back even further to the 18th century and it features the best player of the day, François André Philidor. Philidor was the first player to emphasize the importance of the pawns and a quote often attributed to him is ‘pawns are the soul of chess’. Actually he didn’t quite say that, it was far more subtle. But his thinking is clearly demonstrated in the following game:
After thinking about which openings to play the next stage is how to prepare them. And for older players this is fraught with difficulties, largely because we started playing chess before the computer era. For many of us our idea of preparation was to play through a few model games in an opening and then start trying it out. These days this is not enough, certainly when you get over 2200 level.
Last weekend I was talking to an older player who is on his own comeback trail. He had spent time preparing an opening only to be totally outgunned by a younger opponent. I quipped that Bilguer’s Handbook was no longer enough and that older players needed to fully embrace the computer revolution to survive. I suspect that the older players who remain competitive, and most notably Vishwanathan Anand, have done just this.
Here’s a recent game in which Anand uncorked some stunning preparation against Veselin Topalov. Apparently when he finds an interesting move he leaves the computer on overnight to take a look at it, and this may well have been the case with his 12…b5!.
In my my last article I explained how the Modern Defence actually became a useful background for playing the Kan Sicilian. It can also help with other openings, an obvious example being the King’s Indian.
I have played the King’s Indian in some games but not with great success. I suspect this could probably be put down to the fact that I played it out of desperation (“What the hell should I do as Black against HIM?”) rather than inspiration and/or preparation. But it worked out OK in the following game, even if I played the likely dubious 7…Qe8:
Let’s look at another Queen’s Gambit Declined, played between Harry Nelson Pillsbury and Jackson Whipps Showalter in their match of 1897. It provides an excellent example of how Black can obtain a dangerous queenside pawn majority with …c5-c4.
The match itself ended in a rather convincing victory for Pillsbury and had a not inconsiderable prize (for those days) of $2,000. Also interesting was the fact that Pillsbury played the Berlin Defence in a number of games but Showalter answered 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 with 6.Ba4 rather than 6.Bxc6. These old guys knew something about chess!