Playing Against The Isolated Queen’s Pawn

GM Ben Finegold delivers a very interesting lecture on the strategic ideas behind the Isolated Queen’s Pawn to advanced students at Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He starts by exploring a game of his own. His lecture finishes with a classic game between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, their White Key Symphony Game. (GM Finegold calls it the White Square Symphony Game.)

Kasparov loses, playing the Petrosian Variation of the QGD. First, he has an IQP. Then he doesn’t. Then, he has an IQP again.

I’ve included the PGN for the White Key Symphony Game after the video.

Glenn Mitchell


Imitation, The Sincerest Form of Flattery

There is an old adage among writers. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Copying your opponent’s moves in the opening is well-known as a poor strategy. It’s common enough among novices and beginners. Sometimes even intermediate players do it, like my opponent in this turn-based Internet game played this week. I’ll admit I was surprised by the copycat behavior. My opponent had white, so he had the advantage of first move. This was the Internet equivalent of correspondence chess, with a time limit of up to three days per move. My opponent still appeared to run out of ideas quickly.

My opponent wasted a tempo from the start with 3.a3. When you go into a symmetrical position as White, it’s best not to go into it with a lost tempo. All else being equal, that gives your opening advantage entirely away. In this case, White got no compensation for that lost tempo.

I would expect an intermediate player to see that the ensuing exchanges would work to my advantage after the tempo loss and very likely lead to a queen-less middle game. That was definitely my plan. Trade the queens on d1, dislodging the white king. Then develop my bishop and castle long, forcing my opponent to pin a piece and lose another tempo.

This game is an example of what can happen after several wasted tempi. Rather than developing counter-play on the queenside, White invested two tempi trying to win back a pawn, one of my doubled pawns on f6 and f7. I allowed the doubled pawns, since it opened the g-file for possible use by my rook on h8. After investing those tempi, White wasn’t able to capture the f7 pawn. Later with 18.g4, White wasted another tempo chasing my bishop to its intended square. 18…Bg6 was planned to prepare the central pawn thrust to d3.

There is no point in making a move that forces your opponent to make the very same move s/he obviously intends to make on their next turn. White should have noticed that g4 was fruitless and looked for a move that would complicate my plans or make an attempt at counter-play. With my pawn on d4, poised to advance to d3 once the bishop added support, White should have been alarmed about its advance. The closer a central pawn gets to the opposite side of the board, the more it grows in power. I would have considered Rd2 with the idea of doubling the rooks on the d-file, Kb1 to increase king safety, or even a4 hoping for some queenside counter-play.

The position after 16…cxd5 is interesting to evaluate. White was down a minor piece and a pawn. I’d just taken on the responsibility of an IQP. My pawn structure was inferior. But I had more active pieces and the initiative. I intended to press that IQP forward immediately. White has just lost the best blockader of an IQP, his last knight.

I especially liked the outcome of my IQP. 24…d2#, the white king mated by a pawn move.

Glenn Mitchell


Capablanca and Bishop Immobilization

Capablanca’s games are an excellent study for intermediate players who want to improve their game. His endgame skill is legendary. His positional judgment is also highly regarded.

One positional motif that recurs in his games is the use of his pawns on one side of the board to restrict an enemy bishop and then launch an attack on the opposite side of the board. An example of this was the game Capablanca-Black, New York, 1916.

The same motif appears in Capablanca’s game against Winter at the 1919 Hastings Tournament. Isolate the opponent’s bishop, then initiate an attack on the opposite of the board.

Here’s a third example: Yates-Capablanca, Moscow, 1925.

Glenn Mitchell


“Satisficing” as a Strategy for Rapid Games

I played a rapid game bright and early this AM. I was up by 6:30 AM and playing before 7AM. My opponent and I were pretty much equally rated.

I’ve been watching Nigel’s ChessBase video on the QGD Exchange Variation all week. It’s an excellent video for chess improvers, since Nigel focuses on plans and ideas rather than memorizing lengthy variations. The last few clips discuss how the lessons one learns with focused attention on a particular opening can often be transferred to other openings.

A case in point was my game this morning. I chose to play 1.e4 and my opponent decided to play a Caro-Kann Defense. One of the examples Nigel demonstrates on his DVD is a Caro-Kann Exchange Variation that transforms to something like a QGD Exchange Variation with colors reversed. I opted to try for that. We didn’t get there, but we did get to a game where I could use some of the strategies from the QGD Exchange Variation.

Rather than adopting the minority attack, I decided to use my IQP to lever open the center. I consider the position in the diagram below and decided that 12.d5 was a strong move. I had three pieces defending my IQP on d5. Black had only two pieces defending d5 and had an undefended bishop on d6.

Black made a dubious move with 13…Rb8. Black should have played 13…Ne4. My evaluation of that position was roughly equal. We could have had a good game with reasonable chances for both sides. My reply was strong, trading knights on f6 and then bringing my rook from f1 to d1, where I could hassle the black bishops.

Black made a futile piece sacrifice, 16…Bh2. Black was down a piece with no compensation, except the h2 pawn. I didn’t make a serious blunder in this game, so the fruitless bishop sacrifice was enough to cost Black the game.

My weak play in this game was in the endgame. I waited much too long to get my connected, unopposed queen pawns moving. Delaying their movement didn’t change the outcome of the game. Two pieces up after 29.NxR, I was reasonably confident of the win throughout the endgame. Mobilizing my queen pawns earlier would have shortened the endgame. It was better endgame technique. Inefficient play is to be avoided, especially for us older players during a weekend tournament. Extra moves require extra time and mental energy, which increases opportunities for fatigue in later games and that can lead to costly mistakes.

I didn’t consciously relax my game during the endgame. I didn’t look for the quickest win, either. With rapid games, there is usually not enough excess time to calculate the most efficient solution. Instead, I often “satisfice.” I look for a satisfactory solution that is sufficient to win. That’s what I did in this game. I “satisficed” my way to a winning endgame.

Glenn Mitchell


A Simple Slip, A Ferocious Attack

I was watching Nigel’s DVD for ChessBase on the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. This is one of my favorite ChessBase DVDs. Rather than focusing on long variations, this is a DVD that is all about ideas and plans. It’s an excellent openings DVD for improving chess players.

One of the clips goes through a game fragment from Mark Taimanov and Rashid Nezhmetdinov. The fragment was from the Under 21 USSR Championship, played in 1954 in Kiev. This is a very instructive game because Mark Taimanov decides to shift pieces over to the queenside to support his minority attack. What he missed was just how quickly Black could whip up a kingside attack. The game demonstrates how a player needs to pay attention not only to his own plans and ideas but also the opponent’s opportunities to initiate counterplay.

Glenn Mitchell


An Example of a Priyome

I wrote a recent column on priyomes. This is a Russian concept for strategic positions that recur frequently. They include not just static structure (i.e., the positions of the pawns and pieces) but also the associated maneuvers to exploit that structure. Reader feedback asked for examples.

Below is a position from the 6.Be3 variation of the Najdorf (the Geller-Karpov) variation. The structure is common to many Sicilians. The black rook on c8 is menacing the white knight on c3. Playing the knight to b6 is a common Najdorf maneuver and white decides to prevent this with a5. The pawn move is not a blunder, but I judged it to be questionable because it ignores an important priyome. Black reacted aggressively with a very thematic exchange sacrifice on c3.

By sacrificing the rook for the knight, black wins the critical e-pawn and completely shatters the white queenside pawn structure.

The important lesson to learn is not just the structure – the rook staring down the half-open c-file at the white knight. It’s also exchange sacrifice coupled with Nxe4 that needs to be remembered. Black gets plenty of compensation for the exchange sacrifice.

Fritz Pro 14 gives black a very slight advantage. I prefer black’s chances in this position. I suspect this is the chess engine’s materialistic preference. Yes, white has a rook in exchange for a knight and a pawn, but white also has an isolated rook pawn and doubled c-pawns that are isolated. Then look at black’s pawn structure, which is very healthy. Add the centralized knight, and I feel black has more than just a slight advantage. In the game itself, Ian Nepomniachtchi won rather easily.

Glenn Mitchell


Argumentative Souls

I’ve been writing a review of two related ChessBase DVDs by GM Daniel King. Their both on the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense. There is a lot of discussion about making the e5 and or d5 pawn break. When to attempt them. How to go about them successfully. When to keep the pawn structure fixed.

This led me to the idea of writing a bit about pawn breaks. I had been weighing the option of discussing some middle game themes and pawn breaks was one possibility. Minority attacks was another. I’ll come back to both in future columns.

As I was considering what I was going to write about pawn breaks, I was doing a bit of research on the Internet. I should have followed my first instinct and instead read from classic texts on the middle game and blogs from well-respected chess professionals. The search results for “pawn breaks” reminded me why I almost universally avoid chess forums. There are too many pedants, snarky kids, and argumentative people — all just aching, it seems — to find someone … anyone … to get in a fight with.

When someone starts a reply on a forum with something like “Technically speaking …,” you know there’s a pendant just busting at the seams to show that their definition is the correct and common usage is wrong. They do this, I believe, not to help clarify but instead to grandstand. They’ll get in long, nasty, public fights over minutiae. This is the sort of behavior that creates hard feelings and to no good purpose whatsoever.

I read chess forums for a brief period of time at places like Wow! So much nastiness. I found to be the most egregious example I visited, but there was plenty of nastiness on every forum I visited. I quickly tired of all the negative energy that surrounds chess forums, I no longer visit them.

And now … I’m tired of venting my own negative energy on this topic. 😉

Glenn Mitchell


Two Pawn Advantage, Not Enough?!

With minor piece endgames, sometimes what appears to be sufficient material for a win is actually insufficient. Have a quick look at the position below. Most of us improvers would likely conclude that white is winning, especially since it’s white to move and the black pawn on a5 is lost. That left white with two pawns and a bishop against just a bishop of the same color.

Appearances can be deceptive. It’s a mistake to rely on intuition alone in the endgame. Two pawns were not sufficient for the win in this position!

GM Khalifman won the game, but only after GM Meier resigned. There was no forced win for white, so my surmise is that GM Meier ran out of time. Up to the move where he resigned, he defended brilliantly. The draw after move 75 was easy enough even for a fish like me to spot, so I’m quite certain that GM Meier knew the position was a draw. The best white could do was maneuver until there was a draw by threefold repetition or by the 50-move rule.

Have a go and set up the position where my analysis ends. If white moves his bishop to c7, it blocks the c-pawn. Black can move the bishop off the diagonal and prepare to place it on the b8/h2 diagonal. White cannot move the king without dropping the pawn, so the bishop has to move. If Bb8, the black bishop moves back to a5. If Bc8, the black bishop goes to the b8/h2 diagonal. Game drawn in either case.

Glenn Mitchell


Mating with Knight and Bishop

Last week, I shared some of my thoughts on endgame mastery for improving chess players. I mentioned that learning the ending for Knight and Bishop against lone king could wait, since it occurs infrequently over the board. That’s still my opinion.

For stronger improvers, say ELO 1800 and above, there is some benefit in working through the mate. If you do not know the mate, please get out a chessboard for this. Don’t work through it in your head.

Depending on where the lone king is located on the board, it can take as many as 35 moves to achieve mate. So, with the 50-move rule, that means your technique has to be spot on for this. Your play has to be precise. One inaccuracy can mean a draw under the 50-move rule. That’s one of the important the benefit of learning this mate. You have to be able to calculate precisely. Another important benefit. You must keep your pieces coordinated.

GM Karsten Mueller does an excellent job walking viewers through this mate in his first DVD for ChessBase on the endgame. I’m going to break this down into the same stages as GM Yuri Averbakh in his classic book, Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge. This is a small, lucid book on endgame play from the 1960s. I’m going to use his positions, too.

Let’s start with the simplest case. The lone king is already in a correct corner of the board. That’s the corners with the same color as the bishop. The bishop and knight together control four important squares in the diagram below. The white king then comes forward to shoulder the enemy king towards the corner. From this point, if black plays precisely, mate takes nine moves.

Most players beyond the weakest novices know that the mate is only possible in a corner controlled by the bishop. As the endgame approaches, they’ll likely run to corner opposite that of the bishop. Thus, you need to know how to force the king from a “wrong” corner to one controlled by the bishop. Averbakh doesn’t name the technique. GM Karsten Mueller calls this the “W-maneuver.” That’s a helpful mnemonic that describes how the knight moves across the board.

Keep in mind that it is the knight moves that will spoil your mate quickest. That’s because the knight trots while the bishop can move more quickly.

With best play by black, this adds eleven more moves to the mate.

When the endgame begins on the edge but the lone king is in the middle, you might need to give the lone king some space. You also need to lose a tempo or two.

The worst case is the lone king away from the center of the board. The process begins by driving the king to the edge of the board. From there, the mate continues, depending on where along the edge the lone king lands. The king and bishop do most of the work of forcing the king to the edge of the board. The knight is used to close off important flight squares.

My suggestion to my fellow improvers is to make slight changes to these positions and work them through to checkmate. That way, you’ll really understand what is going on and not memorize solutions.

Glenn Mitchell


Studying the Endgame

I wrote a few weeks ago about spending more time on endgame study. This week, GM Davies responded to a reader on his Facebook wall that instead of buying a book on the 2. b3 Sicilian, he should study the endgame. That struck a sympathetic vibration. I believe that we chess improvers should spend more time mastering tactics, strategy, and technique and less time obsessing over openings.

I spend my time on tactics, master games, endgames, and openings. In that order. Maybe 10% on openings.

Endgame study covers a broad watershed. One of our local experts – who will tell anyone in the coffee shop he is a USCF rated expert, whether they’re interested or not – tells novices they need to learn the Philidor and Lucena positions. There are good reasons to learn these endgame maneuvers at the appropriate time. I think there are much more important endgame lessons that a novice needs to learn before they memorize the Philidor and Lucena positions. To my mind, that’s rather like telling a novice they need to master the Sämisch Variation of the King’s Indian. No, they don’t.

Novices need to master the basic checkmates. They need to know them cold. I run into many intermediate players who still struggle with basic mates and walk into stalemates that are easily avoided or waste moves when a simple path to mate is available.

I’ll suggest that a novice or intermediate player does not need to memorize the technique for lone king versus bishop and knight. When I mentioned this to my former coach yesterday at the coffee shop, he told me in his fifty years of chess, he’d seen it only three times. There is so much to learn that is vital and practical, the lone king versus bishop and knight mate can wait, in my opinion.

So, where should an intermediate player look to study the endgame. Well, I’d advise against starting with something like Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s a monumental work, but it’s best saved for experts and masters.

Let’s consider briefly what’s practical for the chess improver to study. Stated differently, what endgame knowledge will be immediately useful to us in our games?

Rook endings are the most common, but the most fundamental are king and pawn endings. The critical lessons we need to master are opposition, triangulation, reserved tempi, and shouldering. Identifying critical squares is also important. With a sole king against one pawn, it’s an easy concept to grasp. Put multiple pawns for both sides on the board and it quickly becomes complicated. Mastering the idea is where we learn how to breakthrough with the king and prevent breakthroughs.

According to both Glenn Flear in Practical Endgame Play and Fundamental Chess Endings by Mueller and Lamprecht, the most common endgames are rook and minor piece for each side. Working on those endgames will pay big dividends. Especially R+B v R+N. Next in frequency is pure rook endgames. They’re tricky. Bishop v. knight endings are common, too.

My suggestion is to spend considerable time on pawn ending fundamentals, rook endings, minor piece endings, and queen endings in pretty much that order.

I have a couple of suggestions on resources for endgame study.

Some players learn best from videos. The endgame series by Karsten Mueller is comprehensive. It pretty much follows his book with Lamprecht. I’d recommend that for stronger improvers. For intermediate players, I’d suggest instead the endgame DVDs in GM Daniel King’s PowerPlay series for ChessBase. GM King targets his videos at improvers and his instruction is always practical in focus. He doesn’t cover the entire breadth of endgames, but you will learn a lot from his DVDs on practical pawn endgames and practical rook endgames. Watch them, and your endgame should improve a lot.

For books, I’ll suggest that John Nunn’s recent book, Understanding Chess Endgames, is a great place to start. The book covers 100 endgame themes, all of them critical knowledge for the improving chess player who wants to advance to expert. I’d suggest complementing Nunn’s book with Mastering Endgame Strategy by Johan Hellsten. It’s also good to focus on the endgame play of some othe very best, such as Capablanca, Smyslov, and Fischer. You might also add Steve Giddins’ The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames for that perspective.

If you want a little more detail, John Nunn’s two volume Nunn’s Chess Endings is also practical in its endgame coverage. It would be an excellent follow-up after mastering Understanding Chess Endgames.

It’s nice to have a comprehensive endgame manual, such as Mueller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings or Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings. Just realize, these are reference works, not introductory textbooks.

If you master the books I’ve recommended or sat through the 60 or 70 hours of endgame videos and worked diligently through all the material, then you’ll be ready for more advanced endgame instruction, such as that found in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

Endgame study doesn’t end. Not even for GMs. The topics just get more advanced.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season!

Glenn Mitchell