Author Archives: Richard James

About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.

Short and Sweet (2)

In a recent Thames Valley League match my teammate Chris White managed to win a game against an opponent graded 173 in only ten moves.

Here’s how it went.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Be2

Chris is playing a reverse Philidor, which doesn’t seem the most likely place to find a ten-mover. Still, you never know.

3… Nf6
4. d3 d5
5. Nbd2 dxe4

This seems rather obliging. Bc5 and Be7 are more challenging options.

6. dxe4 Bg4

Again he might have preferred Bc5 here.

7. c3 Bd6
8. h3 Bh5
9. Nh4

Chris wants to put a knight on f5 (a knight on the rim isn’t dim if it’s on its way somewhere else) but he has to calculate this accurately.

9… Nxe4

A familiar tactic, apparently winning a pawn, but Chris has it all worked out.

10. Nxe4

Now Black, to his credit, realised that he was losing a piece and resigned without waiting to be shown:

10… Bxe2

Or 10… Qxh4 11. Nxd6+

11. Qxe2 Qxh4
12. Bg5

And Black’s queen is trapped.

This is a quiescence error. Black thinks the position after Qxh4 is quiescent (there’s nothing immediate happening) but it isn’t. You have to look at all forcing moves before deciding a position is quiescent and stopping your analysis.

This seemed to be a relatively unusual idea, although I’d remembered seeing this game in Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess.

I did a quick search on MegaBase 2018 and found several other examples. The game between Roberto Diaz Garcia (2037) and Leandro Jimenez Jimenez (1974) played in the Championship of the Dominican Republic last May, was almost a repeat of Busvine-Birnberg, the only difference being that White had played O-O rather than Nf1.

A few more examples of the same queen trap. This one’s from a very different opening and has happened more than once. 8. dxe5 would have been OK for White.

Even fairly strong players seem to miss this idea.

The final example features a very different setting, but the queen still gets trapped in the same way.

So there are two tactical ideas you might want to learn. If your opponent plays Nh5 you can sometimes win a pawn using a discovered attack: Nxe5 followed by Qxh5. But you must make sure your queen isn’t going to be trapped as a result. The general idea of trapping a queen in this way is also worth remembering.

Richard James

First Things First

The other week I was talking to a boy at Richmond Junior Club. He’s an older boy, in his first year at a highly regarded selective secondary school, but is fairly new to chess and has only recently moved up from the Novices Group.

I’d just looked through a game in which he’d lost most of his pieces and resigned in about a dozen moves. I then played a game with him, helping him a bit. He made a lot of highly intelligent and knowledgeable comments about positional chess, but the idea that you should be very careful not to lose your pieces and check that your intended move is safe before playing it seemed new to him.

The following week I was playing a boy who was new to the club. He was beating everyone at his primary school club and, quite rightly, wanted something more challenging. We played a game and eventually reached a position where I (with black) had an extra pawn, a big pawn centre and two bishops pointing at his castled king against two knights. He told me that he wasn’t going to move his knight from g3 because it would allow a two bishop sacrifice. There was one problem with this: we’d exchanged queens so there was no way I’d be able to mate him after giving up both my bishops.

How often do double bishop sacrifices occur, anyway? Round about once in 20,000 games, at a rough guess. As Dan Heisman would say, studying this won’t give you a lot of bang for your bucks. It’s important to know about the idea, but more because it’s part of chess culture than because it’s of very much practical use.

I spoke to the same boy again the following week. I explained that sacrifices happen very rarely in real life. When I told him this I could see his face fall a million miles. In 1542 games on my personal database I can recall winning only one game by a (very obvious) queen sacrifice and one game by a Greek Gift sacrifice (which was so strong it caused immediate resignation). I can’t, off the top of my head, recall losing any games in this way. He told me he’d won a game with the two bishop sacrifice himself, which I don’t believe. It was more likely a two bishop blunder. Children who only watch videos about sacrifices often think that ‘sacrifice’ is just another word for losing a piece, and, if they accidentally leave their queen en prise they’ll describe it as a sacrifice.

Another boy who was watching quoted something from a video about Mikhail Tal throwing all his pieces away. Well, yes, sometimes, but only in a small proportion of his games. But a) he was a risk taker by nature b) he had enough experience to know whether or not he had practical or theoretical compensation for the lost material and c) he was a genius. A third boy then, inevitably, mentioned the Fishing Pole Trap. To be fair we were looking at the Exchange Lopez variation with 5… Bg4 6. h3 h5 at the time, and they all got the idea that, while the Fishing Pole was just a trap, this was a much better way of using the same idea.

I see this over and over again: kids who have watched videos about, or perhaps been taught about relatively advanced (and sometimes relatively unimportant) concepts before they’ve grasped the fundamental point of chess: that (other things being equal) SUPERIOR FORCE (usually) WINS.

If you continually watch videos about sacrificial attacks without knowing how to win with an extra pawn, let alone with an extra piece, you’ll end up very confused about chess. Kids will often tell me that pawns don’t matter, or even that it doesn’t matter if you lose a bishop or a knight because you can’t get checkmate with just a minor piece against a king. They have neither the experience or the cognitive maturity to prioritise or contextualise the information they’ve learnt. In books and videos, of course, sacrifices always win, which is why we show them, but in real life we probably reject about three quarters of the sacrifices we consider because they seem to be unsound.

Likewise I frequently meet children who have watched videos about openings which are either not very good or too advanced for them. (“My dad’s got this brilliant new opening. It wins every time. It’s called the Latvian Gambit!”) This is one of the problems with internet chess instruction. Firstly, there’s a lot of bad information out there. Secondly, even if you’re using a reputable website you might get confused if you watch videos explaining difficult topics before you’ve mastered simple topics.

My belief is that chess tuition, especially for younger children, should be structured in a logical way. You learn a simple topic, master it through practice, and only then move onto the next topic. Of course there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be working on different topics relating to different aspects of the game in parallel. Of course we want to demonstrate brilliant sacrifices from time to time (and you’ll find lots of them in Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) but the concept of the sacrifice needs to be explained correctly and put into context. We also need to teach them how to win endings when they’re a pawn ahead. We also need to teach them how to put pieces onto good squares to make tactics more likely. You’ll recall Spielmann said something to the effect that he understood Alekhine’s sacrifices well enough, but not how he reached positions where he could play them.

I quoted Dan Heisman a couple of weeks ago. I’ll do so again, in case you missed it.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

This is one reason why I’d like to see a proper structured national or international chess course which ensures that students learn these important basics before moving on to harder topics.

Richard James

Are you a Risk Taker?

There are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

There are two types of people in the world: those who enjoy putting people into two categories and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category here. One way in which you can split people is whether they’re naturally cautious or prefer to take risks.

If you have some money to invest, your financial advisor will probably give you a questionnaire to fill in. Your answers will determine whether you’re a cautious saver or a risk taker. Depending on your answers, you will be recommended a savings option which will guarantee, as far as such things are possible, a small profit on your investment, or an option which will bring potentially greater rewards at the expense of a greater risk of losing money.

Me, I’m naturally a cautious person. I want to play safe. I don’t enjoy taking risks. One thing not many people know about me is that I’ve been interested in horse racing for almost sixty years, but I’ve never once placed a bet on a horse. It’s just not for me.

You might also want to classify chess players as to whether they prefer to play cautiously or take risks. Capablanca versus Alekhine, for example, Petrosian versus Tal or Karpov versus Kasparov.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted on Facebook extracts from an article written by the American master John F Barry just after Alekhine had defeated Capa in the 1927 World Championship match. Barry, although acknowledging that Capa had the greater natural talent, was clearly not impressed by his style of play. Here, in part, is what he said.

“For long the writer has been amazed to see the false theory of combat which the Cuban has disclosed in his games, namely: to play the opening safely in accordance with his views of safety, and pounce on his adversary only if he should blunder, content to draw when that did not happen. Poorer players oftimes drew with him accordingly, as they were naturally glad to do against so formidable an adversary. His disposition to initiate mid-game tactics was only predicated only on the adversary’s blunder. He met with tactics only when the adversary was venturesome enough to attack unwisely, and Capablanca won, of course.

“He rarely showed initiative or enterprise to bring about a mid-game otherwise. So that in many of his games we have an opening, and presently an equal ending. The art of planning a mid-game became a lost art to him, yet its possession discloses the true chess artist. He harbored a belief that you can’t attack unless the opponent errs – a truth, but the art is to lure the error.”

Of course you’re not going to become world champion unless you excel in all aspects of the game, but it’s natural that everyone will have stylistic preferences, based in part, perhaps, on their personalities and temperaments. If you prefer quiet positional chess you’re more likely to reach an ending – and many endings require accurate calculation. (There’s another, unrelated, paradox to do with chess. The more slowly you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble and the better you need to be at blitz chess.)

As for me, by nature I’m a cautious player, but my best results have been when I’ve taken risks. I’ve tended to play unambitious openings with white, but lack both the understanding and technique to play them well, usually ending up with no advantage or even a disadvantage. Not feeling comfortable defending slightly passive positions, I’ve tended to play more aggressively with black. When I played more aggressive but slightly dubious openings I’d often do well with them, but if you take this approach sometimes things will go wrong: you’ll meet someone who knows the opening and you’ll lose horribly. When that happened, I’d give up the opening, in spite of previous good results, buy the next Batsford opening book to hit the shelves and take up something else instead.

I was never able to resolve the paradox of the clash between my temperament, which has always been one of caution, and my abilities, which may have been more tactical than positional.

If you also teach chess your own preferences may influence the way you teach. If you enjoy taking risks you might encourage your pupils to play sharp, tactical openings. If you prefer to play more cautiously you might encourage your pupils to play safe and solid openings. Truly effective teachers will identify their pupils’ personality and stylistic preferences rather than just teaching the openings they themselves play. They might also want to encourage less experienced students to try out different styles, different openings, to see which they prefer and which gives them better results. At the same time they’ll also want to think about identifying their students’ weaknesses and help them improve in aspects of chess where they are weaker so that they can become stronger all-round players.

Richard James

Rook Ending Tactics

I’ve reached the point in Chess Endings for Heroes where I have to consider what to include in the section on rook endings. You will recall that this book is designed to take players who know how the pieces move up to adult competitive level (about 1500 ELO).

Dan Heisman says, with a degree of incredulity, that he’s heard that some instructors teach players rated 1200 or 1300 the Philidor and Lucena positions. He himself lost a game by not knowing the Philidor position when he’d been playing tournament chess for more than 5 years and his rating was 2100. He makes the point that he reached 2100 without knowing the Philidor position, and that there are better ways to use your time than learning positions that will happen very rarely.

I see his point but don’t entirely agree. It really doesn’t take that long to learn the basics of Phil and Lucy. I also think that, given faster time limits, a basic knowledge of endings is much more important now than when Dan lost this game, which must have been getting on for half a century ago. So I’ll be including a brief description of P and L, but at this level you really don’t know anything else specific.

Sure, you’ll need some basic principles: keep your pieces active, create passed pawns, rooks belong behind passed pawns, that sort of thing. But what I really want to do is to look at rook endings played at this level, look at the recurring tactical ideas, and reinforce them through a series of puzzles.

So I’ve spent the past week or so going through all the rook endings in my Richmond Junior Club database (getting on for 17000 games).

A familiar tactic in both queen and rook endings is the skewer.

In this position Black decided to promote his pawn, which wasn’t a good idea. He had four winning moves to choose from, the nicest of which was Rf3+, when, if White captures, it’s Black, not White who will play a skewer.

It’s very easy to switch into endgame mode and forget about mates. In this position White did just that, capturing on e6. He’d have had some winning chances if he’d taken the precaution of trading on g4 first.

Another frequent mistake: the most common in all endings at this level, is concerned with trading pieces to reach a pawn ending.

In this position I was giving a simul and carelessly moved my king to b5 instead of c5. Luckily, my opponent failed to avail himself of the opportunity to trade rooks and promote his remaining pawn.

Here’s another one. As you get stronger you have to move beyond just counting points and thinking rook for rook is an equal exchange. Here, with Black to make a decision, the trade is anything but equal. The rook ending is drawn, but Black traded rooks into what was a lost pawn ending after White correctly recaptured with the king. Note that Black would be winning if White took back on f4 with the pawn.

You also have to watch out for perpetual checks. In this position White played the natural g7, giving Black an immediate draw. The nicest way to win is to promote the pawn, play Rf7+ to trade rooks and then promote again.

My final example demonstrates another very common tactical idea. If your opponent’s rook is only defended by a king you can sometimes win it by playing a check. White is two pawns up here, but only has one winning move: Rf6+. Instead he pushed the h-pawn without thinking, losing his rook after White’s obvious reply. A few moves later, though, White accidentally left his rook en prise so the result was a draw.

Richard James

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

Dan’s Your Man

Regular readers will probably be aware of my view that most chess instruction, particularly at lower levels, is, at best, misguided.

One shining exception to this, though, is Dan Heisman. If you’re an adult novice (up to, say 1600 strength), you should certainly look at his materials.

He sums up his principles in three words: Slow, Safe, Active. The three show-stoppers.

‘Slow’ is to do with time management: at this level most players move much too fast, while others take far too long over moves which are either obvious or non-critical. I’d add that problems with time management happen at all levels. Off the top of my head I can think of an English IM who plays extremely quickly, while one of England’s top GMs regularly gets into severe time trouble.

‘Safe’ refers to basic tactics. It’s partly keeping your pieces safe but also not missing simple opportunities to win pieces. Heisman’s choice of word is interesting: he’s concentrating on the idea of not making mistakes rather than finding good moves.

‘Active’ concerns piece activity. Put your pieces on active squares. Use all your pieces, not just some of them.

The three show-stoppers can be extended to the Big Five. The additions are Thinking Process, how you decide which move to make, and General Principles/Guidelines, and you know what they are. Nothing, you’ll notice, about openings, endings, complex analysis.

The only two of these five which require specific study are Safety and General Principles/Guidelines, which you can find in Dan’s books or on his website.

This bears little relation to what most teachers seem to teach at this level, and also bears little relation to what most students think they want.

I sometimes tell my pupils that I’m not like other teachers. Most chess teachers are strong players who play lots of brilliant moves and will teach you how to play brilliant moves yourself. I’m a bad player, even though I have a reasonable grade: I spend most of my games desperately trying to avoid blunders and have never knowingly played a brilliant move in my life. I won’t show you how to play brilliant moves but I’ll try to help you to stop playing bad moves.

There are two types of mistake, not just in chess but in everything. Mistakes you make because something is too hard for you. Perhaps you didn’t know the opening well enough, the tactics were too deep for you, you didn’t understand how to play the ending. You can learn from these mistakes and move forward in your chess. There are also the mistakes you shouldn’t have made. You’d forgotten the opening. You missed a simple tactic. You played too fast. I don’t know about you, but most of my chess mistakes come into the second category. Most chess teachers, though, just concentrate on the first type of mistake, and most students think what they need is more chess information rather than techniques to avoid unnecessary mistakes.

If you’re interested in seeing Dan’s materials you could start by visiting his website. He writes articles for chess.com and produces videos for the Internet Chess Club, at least some of which are available for free on YouTube. His Novice Nook articles at Chess Café are behind a paywall, but you’ll also find many of them in his book A Guide To Chess Improvement, published by Everyman Chess. You can also follow him on Twitter where you can read his Chess Tip of the Day. His tip for December 29 sums up much of his philosophy.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

I’d just add that there’s a big difference between teaching adults of about 800-1000 strength and teaching 7-year-old children of the same strength. For example, the kids will play too fast because of their immature thinking processes, so the two most important things are safety and thinking process, followed by activity, which they can usually pick up quickly. But the basic principle of doing simple things well and avoiding careless mistakes is still there.

Richard James

Short and Sweet (1)

When Mike Fox and I were writing our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS one of our regular features was ‘Short and Sweet’, in which we invited readers to submit their own very short wins (or losses).

Every week I download the latest TWIC and search for mini-miniatures. This week’s TWIC offers a bumper 7872 games, many of them played in the World Rapid and World Blitz Championships, but also much else from Christmas/New Year tournaments around the world. The World Rapid and Blitz Championships, held, controversially, in Saudi Arabia, featured some less experienced local players who were easy prey for the visiting GMs.

Let’s look at some of last week’s quicker decisive games.

Cho Fai Heng (1476) – Benjamin Yao Teng Oh (1855)
Jolimark HK Open 24 Dec 2017

1. e4 c5
2. Ne2 Nc6
3. Nbc3

The Closed Variation is a nice system to play against the Sicilian. You can close your eyes and play the first eight moves without thinking. Or can you?

3… Nd4

Not optimal, but hoping for a Christmas present. White duly obliges.

4. g3 Nf3#

Of course it’s easy to fall for this if you’re, like White in this game, a low graded and perhaps inexperienced player.

Strong players would never make that sort of mistake. Or would they?

Six days later, this happened.

Gulnar Mammadova (2357) – Sarah Hoolt (2405)
World Blitz Women 2017, Riyahd R17 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 e6
3. b3 b6
4. c4 Bb7
5. Nc3 Nc6
6. Bb2 e5
7. Nd5 d6
8. g3 Nge7
9. Bh3

White’s not threatening anything so Black decides to prepare a fianchetto.

9… g6
10. Nf6#

It’s blitz so you move fast. These things happen. But if you stop to ask yourself the MAGIC QUESTION ‘If I play that move what will my opponent do next?’ it really shouldn’t happen. It’s also a pattern which you should recognize. Pattern recognition is an important part of chess and will save time in analysis. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to analyse at all, though.

Now here’s something strange. Perhaps the most frequent opening tactic of all is Qa4+ (Qa5+ for Black) picking up a loose minor piece. It’s a pattern you have to remember. Like this.

Inga Charkhalashvili (2337) – Bedor Al Shelash (-)
World Rapid Women 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. d4 e6
2. c4 d5
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bg5 Bb4
5. Qa4+ 1-0

Except that it isn’t. Black could have defended with Nc6. Perhaps she didn’t notice, or perhaps her mobile phone went off. Who knows?

I’d have been tempted to wait a move, playing something like 5. Nf3 hoping for 5… b6 in reply.

In rapid and blitz games mistakes like this will inevitably happen. But a grandmaster playing in a slowplay event would never hang a piece on move 5.

Wong Meng Kong (2252) – Denis Molofej (2081)
Jolimark HK Open 25 Dec 17

1. Nf3 d5
2. c4 dxc4
3. Qa4+ Qd7
4. Qxc4 Qc6

Trading queens on move 5 would be pretty boring so White prefers…

5. Qb3 Qxc1+ 0-1

Until I came across these games I was planning to write about a particular book and author this week. The book included an analogous position to this:

Mohammed Alanazy (1850) – Ahmed M Al Ghamdi (2159)
World Blitz 2017, Riyahd R15 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. d4 cxd4
3. c3 d3
4. Nf3 d6
5. e5 dxe5
6. Nxe5 Qc7
7. Qh5

White defends his threatened knight while at the same time threatening mate in 2. What could be more natural? Sadly, the blitz time limit didn’t allow him to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION.

7… g6

Black defends his threatened king while at the same time threatening the queen which is defending the knight. If 8. Qg5 he can choose between Bh6 and f6, both winning a piece.

8. Qf3 Qxe5+ 0-1

My last offering for now highlights another recurring tactical pattern in the opening. Again, an idea all competitive players need to know.

Johan-Sebastian Christiansen (2495) – Hassan M Al Bargi (1579)
World Rapid 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. e4 d5
2. exd5 Qxd5
3. Nc3 Qd8
4. d4 Nf6
5. Nf3 c6
6. Bc4 Bg4

Allowing a familiar combination. At least it should be familiar. My database has 28 examples of White’s next move, with two of the victims being rated over 2200. The earliest example is Albin – Lee New York 1893, a tournament which also featured William Henry Krause Pollock.

7. Bxf7+ Kxf7
8. Ne5+ Kg8
9. Nxg4 Nbd7
10. Qe2 Nxg4
11. Qe6#

Which is why an early section of Chess Openings for Heroes covers these tactical patterns which happen over and over again. You won’t find this, as far as I know, in any other elementary openings book.

Richard James

Last Throes

William Pollock is not the only chess player I’ve been reading about recently. I’ve been waiting three decades to read Jimmy Adams’ book Gyula Breyer, The Chess Revolutionary. published by New in Chess. It was well worth the wait.

You probably know two things about Breyer, that he played 9… Nb8 in the Ruy Lopez and that he claimed (perhaps because of 9… Nb8) that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes. But neither of these is true, or at least there’s no evidence. The Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez was named by Barcza and other Hungarian players in the 1950s: they had been told by Viennese players that Breyer had recommended it in an essay, but the essay in question has not yet come to light. It was Tartakower who first claimed that Breyer had written that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes, but again there’s no evidence that he wrote anything beyond saying that White’s position was compromised.

Like Pollock, Breyer had a short life and a short career. He was born in Budapest in 1893 and died of heart disease at the age of only 28 in Bratislava in 1921. His career started early, by the standards of his day, and he won the Hungarian Championship in 1912. He played at Mannheim in 1914, and was sharing fourth place when the tournament was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. There was no international chess for the next four years so he was only able to take part in national competitions. His best result came in Berlin in December 1920, when he scored 6½/9, finishing a full point ahead of Tartakower and Bogoljubov, but 11 months later he was dead.

Breyer’s historical importance was as a founder of the Hypermodern School of chess. He was a friend of Réti and a big influence on Nimzowitsch. Breyer may not have said that after 1. e4 White’s game is in its last throes, but he made some pretty sweeping and controversial statements about openings.

He believed, for example, that 2. d4 in the French or Caro-Kann was a mistake, preferring instead 2. d3, not, as we might today, playing a King’s Indian Attack but instead going for a reversed Philidor. He also recommended 1. e4 Nf6 2. d3, considering 2. e5 a mistake, and planning to meet 2… e5 with 3. f4, claiming a white advantage.

After 1. d4 Breyer awarded 1… d5 a question mark, and, if instead 1. d4 Nf6, 2. c4 also received a question mark because of 2… d6. I guess you can see what he’s getting at. Any pawn in the centre could be a target for attack. Did he actually believe his assessments or was be just being, like many chess players, a professional contrarian? Who knows?

His chess playing style was unconventional, as well, favouring paradoxical ideas and obscure manoeuvres, but also demonstrating an extraordinary combinational talent.

This book is very different from the scholarly biographies published by McFarland. What we have, in a hardback book of 876 pages, is a compendium of 240 games played by Breyer, with annotations collated from many sources, along with Breyer’s essays, articles and newspaper columns (he was a prolific journalist), translated into English for the first time, and articles about Breyer from many other sources. The material is arranged chronologically and interspersed with a biography of our hero.

Let’s examine Breyer’s most famous game. He’s playing white against Johannes Esser, in a tournament played in Budapest in 1917.

1. d4 d5
2. c4 c6
3. e3 Nf6
4. Nc3 e6
5. Bd3 Bd6
6. f4 O-O
7. Nf3 dxc4
8. Bb1

Most of us would recapture without much though, but Breyer has his eyes set on a king-side attack.

8… b5
9. e4 Be7
10. Ng5 h6
11. h4

This is Breyer’s immediate idea: the same idea as the Fishing Pole Trap. The intention is to mate Black down the h-file.

11… g6
12. e5

At this point Breyer claimed he’d seen up to move 26. Do we believe him? I have my doubts.

12… hxg5
13. hxg5 Nd5
14. Kf1

This extraordinary move is the reason this game became famous. The immediate point is to avoid a potential pin if Black plays Bb4, but the grandiose idea only becomes clear many moves later. White wants to avoid a potential Bh4+.

14… Nxc3
15. bxc3 Bb7

This looks suspect: how does this move help defend his king-side. Qe8 and Nd7 were better alternatives.

16. Qg4 Kg7
17. Rh7+ Kxh7
18. Qh5+ Kg8
19. Bxg6 fxg6
20. Qxg6+ Kh8
21. Qh6+ Kg8
22. g6

Now we see the main point of Kf1. If the king was still on e1 Black would have been able to defend with Bh4+ here.

22… Rf7
23. gxf7+ Kxf7
24. Qh5+ Kg7

Black could draw here by playing Kg8. Now 25. f5 fails to Qf8 so White has nothing better than perpetual check. However, I can find no mention of this in the book.

25. f5 exf5
26. Bh6+

Some sources stop the game here claiming either that Black resigned or that White won in a few moves. White did win – eventually, after mutual blunders in time trouble. 26. e6+ would have forced mate in 9 moves, as would either Ke2 or Bf4+ but Breyer’s choice didn’t spoil anything.

26… Kh7
27. Bg5+ Kg8
28. Qg6+ Kh8
29. Qh6+

29. Bf6+ was the quickest way to win.

29… Kg8
30. Qe6+

White could still return to the previous position but now Black can escape.

30… Kf8
31. Qxf5+ Kg7
32. Bh6+ Kxh6
33. Ke2 Bc8
34. Rh1+ Bh4
35. e6

35. Rxh4+ Qxh4 36. Qf8+ is a perpetual check. Now Black can win by returning one of his three extra pieces: 35… Bxe6.

35… Qe7
36. Qf4+ Kg7
37. Rxh4 Qxe6+
38. Kd2 Na6

38… Bd7 was a possible improvement.

39. Rh5 Qf6

The final mistake. After 39… Bd7 White would win the black queen under less favourable curcumstances and Black would have been able to fight on. Now a series of forks will pick up Black’s loose pieces.

40. Rh7+ Kxh7
41. Qxf6 Bg4
42. Qh4+ Kg7
43. Qxg4+ Kf6
44. Qf3+ Ke7
45. Qxc6 Rg8
46. Qxa6 Rxg2+
47. Kc1 1-0

A flawed masterpiece, you might think. The same could also be said for the book. The amount of research, much of which was carried out three decades ago, is prodigious and the material endlessly fascinating. It’s strange, though, that, although twenty pages are devoted to discussing this game, quoting analysis and articles from many sources, and some computer analysis has been carried out, there’s no mention of 24… Kg8, which demonstrates that Breyer’s combination, spectacular though it was, should only have sufficed for a draw.

There are a few minor oversights: for example, the tournament table on p853 is incorrectly captioned. There has been, understandably some criticism concerning insufficiently detailed sources. This might be annoying if you’re a serious chess historian and want to refer to the originals but will be of no concern to most readers.

If you have any interest at all in chess history this book is an essential purchase. If you have an specific interest in the development of chess ideas over the years, again you have to buy this book.

One final thought. Last week I suggested that we were living in a golden age for chess history, with outstanding books such as this one being published regularly. Now chess is becoming a game for small children and professional players, will there be anyone left to write, or even read books like this in twenty years time? Or is chess history in its last throes?

Richard James

Golden Age

We’re currently living in a golden age for chess history, due in no small measure to the American publishing house McFarland & Co, who, for some years now, have provided us with a constant stream of elegant, beautifully produced hardback books concerning the history of the Royal Game.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading one of this year’s offerings, a biography of William Henry Krause Pollock, written by two of McFarland’s most experienced authors, Olimpiu Urcan and John Hilbert.

Pollock was a relatively minor figure in the history of chess, with a career of only a decade or so playing at master level. His highest EDO rating, 2463, ranked him 36th in the world in 1892. His short but interesting life, together with his attractive style of play, make him a worthy subject for a full biography.

William Pollock was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Cheltenham in 1859, the son of a clergyman. After various postings his father, now a widower, eventually settled in Bath. William studied medicine in Dublin, qualifying as a surgeon, but decided to forsake the operating theatre for the chessboard.

He started off playing in club matches and in lower sections of congresses, but by 1885 had graduated to the Masters sections. The 2nd Irish Chess Association Congress in 1886 provided him with what would be his greatest success, when he beat the visiting masters Blackburne and Burn as well as all the local players, the strongest and most interesting of whom was Richard Whieldon Barnett, also an expert rifle shooter, who would become the Conservative and Unionist MP for St Pancras West, and later St Pancras South West.

In 1889 Pollock crossed the Atlantic to take part in the 6th American Chess Congress in New York, one of the great international tournaments of the time. He finished 11th out of 20 competitors with a score of 17½/38, well behind the leaders Chigorin and Weiss (29/38), Gunsberg (28½), Blackburne (27), Burn (26), and Lipschütz (25½). He did, however, have the consolation of winning the Brilliancy Prize for his Round 35(!) victory with the black pieces over one of the joint winners, the very strong but now forgotten Miksa (Max) Weiss (1857-1927), who would give up professional chess soon after this event. Oh, look! It’s game 11111 in my database!

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Ba4 Nf6
5. d3 b5
6. Bb3 Bc5
7. c3 d5

The opening is of some interest. Weiss plays the sort of slow set-up with c3 and d3 much favoured today, and Pollock hits back in the centre, offering a pawn sacrifice in the style of Marshall.

8. exd5 Nxd5
9. Qe2 O-O
10. Qe4 Be6
11. Nxe5

This is too dangerous. 11. Ng5 g6 12. Nxe6 was to be preferred.

11… Nxe5
12. Qxe5 Nb4
13. O-O Nxd3
14. Qh5 Bxb3
15. axb3 Re8
16. Nd2 Qe7
17. b4 Bxf2+
18. Kh1

18. Rxf2 loses to 18… Qe1+ 19. Rf1 Qe3+. Black has many good moves now, but Pollock, typically, chooses the most spectacular option.

18… Qe1
19. h3

Allowing the following queen sacrifice.

19… Nxc1
20. Rxe1 Rxe1+
21. Kh2 Bg1+
22. Kg3 Re3+

22… Ne2+, regaining material, was also possible but Pollock correctly prefers a mating attack.

23. Kg4 Ne2
24. Nf1 g6
25. Qd5 h5+
26. Kg5 Kg7
27. Nxe3 f6+
28. Kh4 Bf2+
29. g3 Bxg3#

After this event Pollock decided to stay in America, even though there were fewer opportunities for competitive chess there than in Europe. He travelled the country giving simuls and meeting local players, and, for a few months in 1892, he acted as Steinitz’s secretary in New York. He later moved to Canada, and it was as Canada’s representative that he was invited to take part in the famous Hastings tournament of 1895.

Not surprisingly, he found the competition there a bit hot and finished 19th out of 22 competitors with a score of 9 points. His victims, though, included both Tarrasch and Steinitz.

Shortly after the tournament his health worsened due to tuberculosis, and Hastings proved to be his swan song. He died at his father’s house a year later.

So that was Pollock. Consistently inconsistent, I suppose you could say, typically finishing below the recognised masters but above the local players who were there to make up the numbers in most 19th century events. A player capable of beating anyone on his day, a producer of brilliancies but also likely to lose games due to unsound attacks or careless oversights.

While there are many more distinguished practitioners of our game who have yet to receive a full biography, if you have any interest at all in chess history of this period you should buy this book. You’ll find almost 200 pages of biography followed by 523 games annotated using both contemporary sources and modern insights. I have just two minor complaints. I’d have liked to see the cross-tables of the tournaments in which Pollock participated, and would have preferred more detailed solutions to the problems which appear in various places in the book. The quality of research, writing and production are all exemplary and, as a matter of principle, writers and publishers of such a high quality product should be supported. If you don’t have any interest in chess history, I’d suggest you should. It’s part of our history, part of our heritage, and, although the openings may be old-fashioned there’s still much to learn from the games. It’s also a delight to witness the attacking skill of Pollock at his best. You might think that, just as the early 21st century is a golden age for chess history, the late 19th century was a golden age of chess playing.

Richard James

News of the Century

It’s the biggest chess news of the year. Perhaps the biggest chess news of the century. You might even consider it the biggest chess news of all time. Nigel has already written about this, but I think it’s worth another article.

The games we’ve seen so far have been fascinating and totally unlike human games. The choice of openings is the first point of interest. AlphaZero seems to prefer queen’s pawn or flank openings (1. d4, Nf3 or c4), disagreeing with Fischer’s dictum that 1. e4 is ‘best by test’. It doesn’t seem to think much of Black’s sharper defences such as the Sicilian and the King’s Indian. It liked the French for a time before switching to the Caro-Kann and then 1… e5, choosing the Berlin Defence against the Ruy Lopez. At the same time, several games featured positional sacrifices, demonstrating a preference for initiative over material. No doubt it had worked everything, or at least almost everything, out: it wasn’t just being speculative.

So already, after teaching itself in only four hours, it must be pretty close to playing perfect chess. How well will it play after 4000 hours?

It was also interesting, or perhaps disturbing, to read here that, of the sixty games so far completed in the 1st English Correspondence Chess Championship, fifty eight have been drawn. These days, because engine assistance is permitted, the vast majority of correspondence games result in the point being shared. The combination of human brain and computer brawn is starting to approach perfection, but still a long way short of AlphaZero. Compared with this, the number of decisive games in the London Chess Classic (10 out of 45 after a late flurry of excitement in rounds 7 and 9) seems positively thrilling.

What impact will this have on chess between humans? At amateur level, playing blunder-strewn games in inter-club matches and weekend congresses, very little. If AlphaZero becomes available online in some form I guess it will, sadly, mean the demise of correspondence chess. It will also have a big impact on top level chess, quite probably leading to more draws than today. Professional players will be able to carry out deeper research further into the game. People have been predicting the death of chess for more than a century: perhaps AlphaZero demonstrates how the chess world will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

There are answers, though. Some pundits are predicting the rise of Chess960, while others, and I’d probably put myself in their camp, believe that using different starting positions destroys the purity of chess. I don’t think I’d be opposed to the occasional Chess960 tournament, though. We’ll no doubt see more tournaments at faster time limits, which are also more entertaining for spectators. Perhaps we’ll see more invitations for creative players like Rapport and Jobava rather than the ‘bore draw’ specialists.

I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. Harari predicts that homo sapiens will, in the not too distant future, die out, to be replaced by immortal cyborgs. I suppose that, in one sense, AlphaZero is a step in this direction. I’m not entirely convinced by Harari’s arguments, or at least I hope I’m not, and I hope he’ll be proved wrong. Not that I’ll be around long enough to find out, though.

All this prompts thoughts about how we might change chess for the better, which I’ll come back to later, and how we might change society for the better, which is a topic for another time and place, although not unrelated to my views on chess, and, specifically, junior chess.

Meanwhile, here’s another video of one of the AlphaZero v Stockfish games for you to enjoy.

Richard James