Author Archives: Franklin Chen

About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.

A Reminder About The Strengths And Limitations Of Chess Engines

Last week, I wrote an article about methodically building an endgame fortress, given a fascinating position that arose in a student’s game. One thing I did not focus on in the discussion was the fact that he has inquired about confusing evaluations by chess engines during endgames. Often, in positions that we know a correct and foolproof drawing technique, a chess engine will show a large evaluation score incorrectly suggesting that the superior side has such an advantage that it should win. He knows about tablebases, which are exactly computed evaluations of simplified endgame positions in which exhaustive search has proved the result is a win or draw, along with the full variations leading to the end result. So he asked me why the computer can be unreliable.

The reason for this has been known for decades, but is worth periodically remembering given how this period of human history has shown a huge explosion in the successful use of computation to make progress in various domains, including chess, Web search, and shopping prediction. This success has led many to believe (either with excitement or worry) that computers are on the verge of becoming super-intelligent. I don’t believe this is the case at all (but this general topic is outside the scope of this site).

Here I just want to point out something very concrete: that endgame fortresses are still difficult for computer engines to “understand”. Coincidentally, GM Daniel Naroditsky recently wrote an article about breaking fortresses. I highly recommend studying it, and experimenting with “throwing an engine” at the positions he gives. You will get an idea of how a computer engine “thinks” as it tries to search forward for some kind of forcing variation.

The main difficulty for chess engines is that they are largely programmed to search forward, whereas we human beings in the domain of chess are able to use meta-reasoning rather than just huge, long chains of “if/then/else” in order to generate ideas, plans, and test them out by working backward (instead of forward). Breaking a fortress involves taking in the biggest possible picture of what is happening on the board, eliminating what must not possibly work (usually, this means shuffling pieces around is not enough), and trying to see if something might work (usually, this means some kind of temporary “weakening” through Pawn advances in order to eventually create a Pawn break). We humans can with care determine what the “critical” positions must look like, in which everything has to be accurate else counterplay is achieved, and then zoom in to see if we can create a forcing line (usually based on some kind of Zugzwang or switch of attention from one side of the board to the other) that is tactically justified.

Chess engines are tremendously useful for this kind of work, actually, despite what I’ve said: on their own they may not be able to crack fortresses, but they can supply the assistance to a human who is “directing” the problem solving on the meta level and assigning specific calculations and verifications to the chess engine. The usefulness of computers as assistants is very exciting and real, but should never be confused with claims that they will achieve autonomous “intelligence”.

Franklin Chen

Methodically Building An Endgame Fortress

A student showed me a fascinating game of his in which he was fighting for a draw as White, being an exchange down (Rook down for a Knight) for a Pawn. The position looked precarious, but the more I looked at it, the more it looked like he missed a fortress draw (he blundered quickly instead). Upon analysis, the fortress idea appears to work, but just barely. Below I explore the construction of the fortress and a subtlety that shows how a single inaccuracy could cause White a lot of trouble.

Features of the position

The starting position has unusual features that give White a fighting chance to draw at all:

  • White has a Queen side Pawn majority and a King side Pawn majority. This helps prevent Pawn breaks by Black, although Black may be able to try a minority attack on the King side.
  • Black’s b6 and e6 Pawns are extremely weak. If White could win one of them, that would ensure a lot of counterplay, probably good enough for a draw.
  • White’s Knight on d4 is a monster. Most critically, it prevents any Black King invasion via c6, b5, or f5, so Black can any possibility of winning only by using the Rooks and King side Pawns.
  • There is only one open file for any of the Rooks, the a-file. If White takes it, White should probably be able to draw by perpetual check and/or winning the b6 or e6 Pawn (especially the e6 Pawn, in which case White would have a passed e-Pawn ready to march to e6 and e7).
  • One of Black’s Rooks happens to be very poorly placed. It will take time for this Rook to get to the a-file and join up with the other Rook to try to advantageously trade one Rook and then aim to knock off any weak White Pawns that cannot be protected by White’s King or Knight.

Ideas of White’s fortress

Making a list of the features of the positions gives many clues about how White could possibly draw this position, as well as how Black can try to win it. Of course, general considerations are not enough: very careful tactical calculation is required especially when White has the opportunity to go all out to abandon everything and try to get to Black’s seventh rank with a Rook: if the attempt at a perpetual check (or other draw by repetition) and/or Queen promotion fails, White will obviously lose. In this article I don’t focus on the variations in which Black allows such penetration, but on the fortress itself, under the assumption that Black does not allow the penetration.

The first thing to do is to imagine that Black does trade off White’s remaining Rook. Black can always force a Rook trade if desired, so we have to at least be able to hold the draw if White’s Rook can no longer defend the whole range of White’s position, from Queen side to King side.

  • Black’s King cannot make progress as long as White’s Knight stays close to d4 and attacks the e6 Pawn.
  • If Black sacrifices the Rook for White’s Knight, that should not achieve anything because Black’s King is not close enough to do anything useful in the King and Pawn ending.
  • The c-Pawn must remain protected: this requires either the King on the b, c, or d files or the Knight on e2.
  • The e-Pawn must remain protected: this requires either Ne2 blocking a Rook on e1, or f4 creating a Pawn chain.
  • The f-Pawn must remain protected: if the g-Pawn has been forced to advance to g3, then f4 creates a Pawn chain; if the g-Pawn has been forced to advanced to g4, the f-Pawn is best protected at f3 by the Knight on d4.
  • The g-Pawn must remain protected: it has to go to g3 or g4, because otherwise it is too far away from White’s King and Knight, which ideally remain no further than the e-file, in order to guard against possible loss of the c-Pawn or possible invastion by Black’s King.
  • The h-Pawn must remain protected: at h3 it is in big trouble because we assume the g-Pawn has to be advanced; at h4 it might be OK, protected by a Pawn at g3; at h5 it might be OK, protected by a Pawn at g4.

How might Black breach the fortress?

The main thing to notice is that if Black can get a Pawn down to h3 safely, without trading any Rooks, White is surely lost, because Black can first tie up White’s pieces on the Queen side, then trade a Rook just in time to get the other Rook attacking White’s defenseless Pawn on h2. Therefore, Black has the plan of g5, h5, h4, h3.

Also, if Black can force a Pawn trade of the g-Pawn and open a file on the King side (say by White being able to play f4 only after Black has already played g5), White is surely lost, because of the power of a Rook crashing through White’s position through that file and winning one or more remaining weak White King side Pawns with the help of the other Rook.

So the main variation below, which succeeds in setting up a defensive fortress, has White hurrying up to distract Black’s Rook away from the King side to defend the a-file, then playing h4 to permanently prevent the h3 plan. Note that it involves saving time by not defending the attacked h2-Pawn at all.

An interesting side variation, which may lose, involves White playing g3 to protect the h2-Pawn currently under threat, but permanently weakening the h-Pawn. Black can try the g5, h5, h4, h3 plan. If White just waits passively, the game is lost. There is a fiendishly complicated variation in which White abandons the fortress idea and tries to get counterplay at the cost of sacrificing the f-Pawn after redeploying the Knight to d6. This is scary-looking and I don’t actually know if White can draw with computer-perfect play, but it is White’s best try after starting the mistaken g3 idea.

Annotated

Franklin Chen

Blockading To Defend When Things Get Tough

In a recent tournament game that I painfully lost, I had a terrible losing position, but my opponent suddenly changed the nature of the game by allowing me to set up a blockade that should have enabled me to draw. I played carelessly and threw away the draw. I thought it would be instructive to show how powerful the concept of blockade is. In this game, the blockade was worth even more than the Pawn down and if I had been more careful, I could have maintained the blockade in the center and still had attacking chances of my own on the King side.

In the position below, my opponent had a winning advantage largely due to doubled Rooks on an open e-file, but then initiated a trade of Knights in which he blocked his own open file by recapturing with a Pawn to e4. Granted, this had its points: creation of a passed Pawn with Rooks behind it can be very powerful given the threat of advancing the Pawn further. But in this particular position, I had enough time to place my Bishop on e3 setting up a blockade, and if I had just made sure to leave it there, I could have continued a decent King side attack as compensation. Note in particular that Black’s extra Pawn, the d-Pawn is backward on a half-open file, and therefore if it can be prevented from advancing, the extra Pawn should not suffice to win in a simplified ending given enough piece activity. Here, tactics based on my good piece activity were enough that I could even have tried for more, if I had maneuvered my other Rook to the King side more efficiently.

Franklin Chen

The Danger Of A King Out Of Play In The Endgame

In a hard-fought game my student played that ended in a draw, when we were looking at it, I observed that his opponent missed a win at one single critical moment. This was a result of an accumulation of positionally questionable decisions that, although in themselves still led to defensible positions, led to a single blunder that could have been punished.

Three mistakes

Allowing an outside passed Pawn

The first unnecessary concession was made in the late middlegame when Black captured a piece on a5 allowing a recapture with a Pawn bxa5 resulting in White getting an outside passed Pawn. Granted, this being a Rook Pawn made it not as useful, but still created unnecessary danger.

King out of play

The second unnecessary concession was moving the King from g8 to h7, out of the main action. It was best to moving the King toward the center and toward the Queenside, with the goals of safeguarding the Pawn chain from c6 as well as, more critically, aiming toward White’s a-Pawn, either to capture it or at least prevent it from Queening. Granted, Black had a plan to get the King to f4, but it is slow. In fact, it ended up working in the game, but only because White did not act more quickly and decisively to try to Queen the a-Pawn.

Creating another outside Pawn for the opponent

The final concession, which in this case was a big blunder, was to accept White’s sneaky offer of a Queen trade, resulting in transforming White’s c-Pawn into an “outside” b-Pawn that could have been used as a Pawn break to lead the way for White’s King to invade the Queen side and successfully Queen the a-Pawn. A calculation shows that Black’s attempt to also Queen a passed Pawn is too late, because White’s active King can get to Black’s King side Pawns in time to ensure that after White gives up the Rook in turn, the resulting King and Pawn ending is an easy win because Black’s King ends up out of play and White can just push a passed Pawn to victory.

Lessons

The main lessons to learn are that even in a drawable position, it is wise to keep the draw simple by not giving a passed Pawn to the opponent, not giving a Pawn break to the opponent, and keeping one’s King ready to prevent Queening of a passed Pawn if it does exist.

Franklin Chen

Anticipating The Endgame As Part Of Understanding The Opening

The 2014 World Chess Championship rematch between Carlsen and Anand kicked off with Carlsen playing the Grünfeld as Black, an interesting choice since he does not usually play this opening, and in fact Anand is the one who prepared the Grünfeld as Black in 2013. The game proceeded along a path in which Anand as White lost an opening initiative and got into some trouble but held an unpleasant endgame.

Since detailed commentary from many strong players is already available and will continue to be provided as the match progresses, so why should I write out it here at The Chess Improver? My goal here is to describe the big picture that players of many levels can relate to and hopefully apply to their own play.

The goal of the Grünfeld Defense opening

Black’s goal in playing the Grünfeld Defense is to try to destroy White’s center, by targeting White’s Pawn on d4. The asymmetrical Pawn structure that arises when White’s c-Pawn is exchanged with Black’s d-Pawn gives Black possible chances to contain White’s d-Pawn and counterattack with a Queen side Pawn majority.

White has a choice of goals in return, and has to make a decision. (Take note if you are following the match, because we may see the Grünfeld pop up again with players making different decisions.) The three basic choices are to:

  • Grab the big center with e4, advance with d5 eventually, possibly make a passed d-Pawn for the endgame.
  • Forget the endgame, go all out with an attack on Black’s King based on h4, h5, etc.
  • Forget the big center, protect the d4 Pawn with e3, block in Black’s Bishop on g7, and try to make headway on the Queenside.

What happened in this game

What actually happened was Anand played as though aiming for one of the first two, but was inconsistent in followup. He got the center and then played as though to attack Black’s King: Qd2, allowing his Knight on f3 to be captured by Black’s Bishop permanently messing up White’s Pawn structure (doubled f-Pawns, isolated h-Pawn), castling Queen side. But he never did attack Black’s King after all, and the Pawn on d5 didn’t get any further.

So Black’s defense, based on destroying White’s Pawn structure and surviving any attack, with the aim of reaching a superior endgame, worked out. Anand had to be careful to hold the draw in face of his isolated and weak f and h Pawns.

The main thing I want to point out is that it was not automatically bad for White to allow the weakened Pawn structure. Before the endgame, there is the middlegame. It is a valid, aggressive idea for White to decide not to try to win the endgame, but instead the middlegame. It just didn’t work out in this particular game.

Franklin Chen

The Art Of Attacking A Slightly Weakened King Side

In a recent tournament game, as White I ended up misplaying a Semi-Tarrasch type of early middlegame, allowing Black easy equality after committing to the e5 advance (giving up control of the d5 square) and not taking advantage of Black’s lag in development. However, I managed to win by stubbornly trying to attack a slightly weakened King side, resulting from my forcing g6 to avoid mate on h7. Even after g6, however, Black’s position was fine. But at least I had something to work with. This game is instructive because it shows how to try to make progress based on just a single possible weakness in the opponent’s position.

The story

Black made the error of trading off the dark-squared Bishops, permanently weakening f6 and h6 and d6. Again, objectively Black’s position was still solid and fine, because of his very strong Knight on d5 that guarded the f6 square anyway.

But I did some maneuvering and waiting to allow my opponent to make one inaccuracy after another, resulting in Black voluntarily moving the Knight away from d5 to b6 and my own Knight getting to a d6 outpost, thanks to Black’s missing dark Bishop.

Finally, Black made a tactical inaccuracy that allowed me to win the a7 Pawn. Even after this, objectively the position should have been an easy draw, thanks to simplification and Black’s total control over the d5 square. But Black gave up the light-squared Bishop for mine, resulting in a position in which I had still had a bind and remote chances to try for a King side attack.

It turned out that Black maneuvered poorly, making his own Rooks passive and away from his King, and finally erring with moving his Queen also away from his King, to the Queen side. This allowed me to land my Knight on f6 just in time as the King side was undefended, and through some tactics win the f7 Pawn and the game.

A long grind of a game, but I was happy that my patience was rewarded.

Franklin Chen

The Common Problem Of Following A Pattern Without Understanding It

Last week, I wrote about the importance of learning and teaching through comparing similar but different situations. Again and again this theme pops up, and is easy to miss if one is not careful. It is easy to memorize a pattern without understanding its context and purpose, or more charitably, to have understood it once but getting it mixed up with another pattern during the heat of battle. What is the solution? Sometimes the solution is just to review concrete details. Sometimes the solution is to remember a higher-priority pattern that gives real force and justification to the pattern at hand.

Here’s an example I recently saw, involving the elementary Lucena position which is a win for the side with the Rook and Pawn versus Rook, if one understands the fundamental concept, which is “building a bridge” in order to block the opposing Rook’s checks and therefore ensure Pawn promotion.

Lucena position

The standard easy win for White is to

  1. Chase Black’s King further away from the Queening square by checking.
  2. Lift the Rook to the 4th rank in preparation to “build a bridge”.

However, White in eagerness to “remember” the key pattern, that of the Rook lift, failed to perform the first critical step, and the result was a draw by mistake! Building the bridge is pointless if it only results in Black’s King reaching the advanced Pawn and gobbling it up.

The solution to this mistake is to remember that the primary goal in this position is not to build the bridge. The real goal is to successfully Queen the Pawn, and getting Black’s King far away is the most important part of that, not the bridge building. The bridge building is not the goal, but the means to the larger goal. Without remember this, it is too easy to just vaguely remember one aspect of what the winning technique is, and use it outside of the larger context.

Franklin Chen

Learning Through Comparing Similar But Different Situations

The temptation is very great, for both a learner and a teacher, to try to go fast through a lot of material, when learning a subject such as chess, because there is so much that is known. This is not a problem specific to chess: in fact, it is a problem for students of cooking, running, law, computer science, medicine, you name it. We all feel the burden of the accumulated knowledge of all of human history. Educators everywhere face the challenge of somehow distilling more and more knowledge, wisdom, and practical technique into less and less time. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for deep learning. Just flipping through a chess book or even working through a set of exercises is no guarantee that when you sit down across the chess board, you will remember or know how to apply what you learned.

In my attempts to improve my own lifelong learning as well as my teaching, I have found that comparing similar but different situations is a technique that can be very useful in making learning more efficient, and even more interesting. Instead of trying to focus too much on “this is how to do things”, it is better to have worked through several similar ideas that do or don’t work, and know why. It is like in martial arts where you must learn how to fall, in addition to how to strike.

Fundamental endgames are a great place to notice both patterns and differences between them. Little things can make a big difference in endgames. It is a great mental exercise to understand fundamental endgames and learn to appreciate the importance of detail, and the unexpected beauty of peculiar features of chess positions. For example, consider the following Rook and Pawn endgame position, White to move. Can White win or is it a draw?

One way to win

The answer is that it is a win for White. The key insight is that in order to Queen the a7-Pawn, White must reach a position in which

  • Black cannot check White’s King forever.
  • White has time to move the Rook with check in order to free up the a8 square for Queening without losing the a7-Pawn (if Black’s Rook is on the a-file always threatening to take it).

The tricky part of winning is finding out how to deal with all possibilities and obstacles while keeping in mind the key insight.

One way to win is to move the King all the way to the left, perpetually uncovering Black’s King and therefore threatening to check it. This forces Black’s King to move in the “shadow” of White’s King; if the King does not move but the Rook checks instead, then White can simply bring the King near the Rook eventually and stop all checks and then be in position to check Black’s King and Queen the a7-Pawn.

Once Black’s King is pushed all the way to b1, and White’s King at b3 prevents a Black Rook check, White has the tactical trick of moving the Rook to the right and simultaneously threatening Queening and checkmate on the first rank!

Changing the problem

Unfortunately, teaching this way to win, although instructive in its own right, can cause a failure to generalize. This is a special case kind of winning plan. To prove this, move the pair of Kings up one rank:

Here, if White blindly follows the plan of trying to box Black’s King down, then it becomes clear at the end of the King march that the original tactical idea no longer works: there is no back rank mate.

I believe that it is extremely instructive to allow the student to try a generalization that fails, to solidify the understanding of what is going on, rather than treat endgame knowledge as a mechanical memorization of particular move sequences. Then after trying out some possibilities, we can finally reveal a key idea: White has another tactical trick, based on reaching a position in which White can still move the Rook away and allow Black to capture the a7-Pawn, but in return, White can perform a discovered check that wins the Rook. So White’s King should, at the first opportunity, start a diagonal march straight to the a7-Pawn.

By presenting first the back rank trick, and then the discovered check trick, we allow the student the opportunity to learn a more general lesson than if the back rank trick had not been mastered first: that the goal is to be able to move the Rook with an appropriate tactic in mind, not just checkmate or a discovered check.

A variation that still obeys the pattern

It’s always useful to show how a pattern can in fact be applied to a slightly different position, without substantial change. Move the Kings up more: the discovered check still works.

A variation that does not work

And, of course, it is necessary to show a variation of the initial position in which White cannot win, otherwise the student might get the wrong idea and again fall into mechanical memorization habits.

Here, the Kings are so far forward that Black has boxed in White’s King so that it has no shelter and is far away from Black’s Rook, so Black can keep on checking White for a draw. Note that a careless student might try to mechanically apply the discovered check tactic with Rc8 only to find that after losing the Pawn on a7, there is no win of the Rook, because Black’s King is close enough to protect it! Again, allowing the student to fall into this trap is important, to prevent complacency and really nail down the nature of the discovered check tactic, which requires a nice combination of

  • White’s King being close enough to the a7-Pawn to get there in two moves, including one “free” discovered check move if necessary.
  • Black’s King being far enough away from the a7-Pawn not to be able to cover the a7 square in one move.

Conclusion

Even elementary endgames provide quite a rich amount of material for setting up ways for a student to discover the reasons for what works and what doesn’t work in a line of reasoning and a general plan.

Franklin Chen

Basic Endgames Teach How To Tie Together Mathematics And Logic

In the game of chess, each lowly Pawn has the potential to promote to a powerful Queen by advancing all the way to the 8th rank. Also, there’s a remarkable rule that if one side cannot make any legal moves, the game is actually a draw, rather than a loss for the paralyzed side. These two facts create the phase of a chess game called the endgame, where a player has the opportunity to out-think and out-trick the opponent.

Logic

Chess has a well-deserved reputation for being a game of logic. Indeed, fundamentally the game really is a matter of logic, in the sense that everything is about managing the fact that everything boils down to “if I do this, then she can do that, but then I can do this other thing”, and therefore a decision tree of immense breadth and depth. Nowhere is this more true than in the endgame, where being one move ahead of the other side may mean the difference between a win and a draw: and in fact, being one move ahead does not always win, but sometimes even loses (in situations called Zugzwang where getting somewhere first means the other side can make a waiting move and then pounce).

For example, a basic endgame position everyone must learn is the following King and Pawn versus Pawn position. Black to move, there is only one move that draws; the other two moves lose.

This is a perfect position to use to teach children how to think logically, even if they don’t otherwise play chess. They don’t even need to know how to checkmate with a Queen against King. You can just teach them how the King and Pawn work, and set the goal for White as being to get the Pawn to the 8th rank without its being captured. In fact, I think chess would be much more useful in teaching logic if play was arranged starting from simplified positions in endgames, skipping the much more complex phases of the opening and middlegame.

Meta-reasoning

Once a chess player begins applying logical reasoning, an observant player will observe that she is reusing certain patterns in reasoning again and again. This is where reasoning about reasoning, or meta-reasoning, comes in. The concept of “taking the opposition” in chess is one of the simplest examples. In the position above, Black draws by arranging it so that if White’s King advances, Black’s King is in position to “take the opposition” and prevent further progress. So the principle of opposition is not a part of the game of chess, but part of how we can reasoning about the game of chess. A chess player could in theory just apply the “rule” of opposition to play chess well, but without actually understanding why it works, would be missing a huge part of what chess is about: discovering patterns, proving facts about them (this is the “meta-reasoning”), and applying the patterns as building blocks.

Mathematics

This leads to the topic of mathematics in chess. I take the point of view that certain ways of effectively making decisions in chess amount to doing mathematics, going beyond just logic: arithmetic, algebra, geometry. There are many connections to be made here that, when made explicit, can greatly aid in transferring skills out of chess itself.

For today, I’ll just mention a connection with arithmetic and geometry. In the position below, White to move can win, but only by very precise play. The aim is to prevent Black from taking the opposition, and then for White to take the opposition and reduce the problem to the previously mentioned position. The concept of reducing to a previously proved fact is fundamental to logical reasoning, of course. So where does the mathematics come in?

First of all, it must be understood that there is a race between the two Kings to get to one of the critical squares in front of White’s Pawn that will determine whether White can win: White must get the King to d6, e6, or f6. So there may be some kind of counting implicit in whatever logical reasoning is used.

From a geometrical point of view, what is important to understand is that because Kings have to move either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, “distance” on the chess board is not the same as the “bird’s eye view” visual spatial distance: chess operates on a more abstract geometrical space where, for example, all things being equal, diagonal moves can get a King somewhere much faster than just horizontal or vertical moves.

Arithmetic comes in to tie in this geometric insight with the logic-based goal-setting and reduction: the simple way to determine whether this position is a win for White is to count how many moves it takes to reach a desired square, and to count whether Black can stop this. Arithmetic is basically a meta-reasoning shortcut for otherwise engaging in low-level “if this, then that” logical reasoning. Here, we see that White can, in 3 moves, reach d5 unimpeded, because in 2 moves, Black can at most reach f6. Then we tie up the reasoning with one bit of logic/geometry: after White’s King is on d5 and Black’s King on f6, Black’s King must go to e7 to prevent White from getting to d6. But then this allows White to get to e5, taking the opposition and winning the game.

I believe that this endgame position is very instructive for showing how to apply multiple levels and styles of logical and mathematical understanding to be able to guarantee a desired result. Any student who can master (as tested by playing out as either side to the optimal result) and be able to explain the evaluation of each position in which the Pawn is on e4 and the other Kings are on any other squares on the board will have demonstrated a real understanding of logical reasoning.

Franklin Chen

The Temptation To Play Safe Can Prevent Improvement

A student of mine lost a game almost straight out of the opening as a result of facing Alekhine’s Defense as White and overextending and losing the advanced e5 Pawn; there may have been drawing chances later in the game, but losing the e5 Pawn at move 13 was not fun:

Avoid overreacting to the loss

This kind of thing happens to all of us: we can play too aggressively or carelessly, and end up losing. That’s natural. But how we respond to our failure can determine whether we improve or simply get demoralized. In his disappointment, he suggested that maybe he should meet Alekhine’s Defense with the cautious d3, protecting the e4 Pawn and refusing to play into Black’s provocative idea of causing White to advance with e5.

OK, d3 is objectively not horrible, so why not play this? There are a couple of reasons:

  • If Black plays …e5, then you as White are playing a Philidor reversed with an extra move. Now, if you already play the Philidor as Black, this might well be just fine for you.

    But if you don’t play the Philidor as Black because you don’t like the cramped positions, then why would you want to play it in reverse as White? From a psychological point of view, it makes no sense to open the game with e4 if you don’t have a clear plan on taking on the Alekhine.

  • If you do not play e5, you are passing up a great opportunity to learn how to try to use a space advantage in chess. This is an important skill to work on. In less “unusual” openings the the Alekhine, White has to fight hard to get an undisputed space advantage, so it is a shame not to take up the challenge immediately when it is presented on move 2.

Take a middle path

In the game, White played the ambitious Four Pawns Attack against the Alekhine, trying to support the e5 Pawn with the f-Pawn, etc. Another wrong lesson to learn would be that White should not play the Four Pawns Attack. It is quite playable, if one is tactically precise. So I could advise studying all the various tricky lines Black has against the Four Pawns Attack.

But for an improver, I advise taking a middle path. Instead of either cowering in fear with d3 or going all out with the Four Pawns Attack, there are two other possible variations for White that are positionally quite sound and should ensure White a pleasant game with a space advantage, and completely avoid the problem of a possibly overextended e5 Pawn.

The Modern Variation with 4 Nf3 is quite sound, intending to recapture on e5 with the Knight if necessary. The Exchange Variation with 4 exd6 is also sound, dissolving the e5 Pawn entirely. So I advise learning the ideas behind one of these variations before embarking on other possible variations against the Alekhine.

The advantages of taking a middle path:

  • The solid positional approach is always useful to learn and understand, even if later on one chooses the sharper approach.
  • If is not yet prepared for tactical trickery, it is quite justifiable for an improver to step back from it and save exploration of sharp lines for later.
  • It can sometimes be useful to build up confidence after an annoying loss by avoiding an awkward line in any case.

Franklin Chen