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 ( or 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 ( 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.

Chess and Music Part 6: Other Voices

These days it’s much harder to become a specialist in more than one field, but there are some who manage it. There are others who excel professionally in either chess or music while choosing the other as a hobby, or who play chess in their youth before switching to music.

In this week’s article I look at some lesser known examples of chess playing musicians in a variety of genres.

A musical contemporary of Smyslov and Taimanov, and, like the former, a baritone, Derek Hammond-Stroud (1926-2012) was a keen amateur chess player who competed regularly in the London League. His musical specialities were German song and opera, and Gilbert and Sullivan: you can see him here as Jack Point in a 1975 production of The Yeomen of the Guard, along with the delightful Valerie Masterson, who, as far as I know, doesn’t play chess. I haven’t been able to find any of his games online, but there may well be someone out there who played him and kept the score of the game.

While I never played Derek Hammond-Stroud in the London League, I did play my next musician there (it was a draw, since you ask, but not sufficiently interesting to post here). I also once played in a bridge tournament against the great violinist Alfredo Campoli, but that’s another story.

Welsh chess international Francis Rayner was an award-winning child prodigy pianist who continues to be very active in both music and chess. Listen to him here playing La Cathédrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral), a beautiful piece by Debussy.

In this game Francis outplays GM Daniel King, about whose musical prowess you’ll hear much more next week.

Chess is not only popular amongst classical musicians. Leon Rosselson (1934-) has been writing and singing satirical and political songs for more than half a century. In this clip (and if you’re a Tory or a Republican you should probably look away) he’s performing alongside Hounslow’s finest, Robb Johnson, another political songwriter.

As a teenager, though, he was a promising chess player. Here’s a brilliancy prize winning game from the 1952 British Junior Championships.

Another folkie, Nic Jones (1947-), has been a passionate chess player all his life. As far as I know he’s never played competitively, but he’s clearly knowledgeable about the game as one of his albums, which has shamefully never been legally available on CD (the owner of the rights refuses to release them) The Noah’s Ark Trap. Here’s a lovely track from that album. Sadly Nic’s recording career was terminated by a catastrophic car accident in 1982, although he’s made some live appearances in recent years.

Moving on to the field of pop music, Bono (Paul Hewson) was an active club and tournament player as a young boy and claims to have played internationally, although his dad seems to dispute this. In 2014 he met Kasparov when Garry paid a visit to Dublin.

Ray Charles was, and Bob Dylan, for all I know, still is a keen chess player, but again neither played competitively and there seem to be no games available.

New age composer, pianist and singer Jason Kouchak (1969-), however, is a serious competitive player, and is also involved in many other aspects of the game. He installed a giant chess set for children in London’s Holland Park and is also involved with Chess in Schools & Communities. I’m afraid Jason’s music doesn’t appeal to me but that’s my loss: you may well feel differently. Here’s a sample with a chessy title.

Jason’s current FIDE rating is 1729 so he’s a decent player. Here’s a game against an American chess author.

Next week I’ll consider how chess and music can continue to work together: until then I hope you enjoy the games and at least some of the music.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 5: Taimanov plays, Smyslov sings

Continuing our exploration of the links between classical music and chess, we now turn to perhaps the first player since Philidor to reach the top in both disciplines – Mark Taimainov (1926-).

You’re probably aware of Taimanov’s long and (mostly) successful chess career. Jeff Sonas, on his Chessmetrics site, ranks Taimanov in the top ten throughout the late fifties, peaking at 5th in January 1957, and again, briefly, in 1970-71, until his 6-0 Candidates Match drubbing by Fischer, which, unfortunately, is how many chess fans will remember him. He also gave his name to an enduringly popular variation of the Sicilian Defence.

Taimanov’s musical career is perhaps less well known. He studied piano at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he met and married (at the age of 19) a fellow student, Lyubov Bruk. They decided to specialise in the repertoire of music for two pianos and had a very successful partnership within the Soviet Union. Due to travel restrictions imposed by the Soviet régime they were unable to perform abroad until the early seventies. Their marriage broke up, though, which brought an end to their musical collaboration and to Taimanov’s career as a concert pianist. You can hear them here in the final three movements of Rachmaninov’s First Suite for Two Pianos.

Taimanov, who married again late in life and fathered twins at the age of 78, recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Our next chess playing musician, Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010), became the seventh World Champion in 1957, and Sonas’s computations (to the end of 2004) rate him the 16th strongest player up to that time as well as the strongest player in the world for much of the mid 50s. The son of a master strength player who once beat Alekhine, he was something of a prodigy, reaching the world top 10 when he was still in his teens. In 1984, at the age of 62, he reached the Candidates Final where he lost to the 21 year old Garry Kasparov, and he continued playing high level chess into his 80s, when he was handicapped by failing eyesight.

As a young man he pursued parallel careers in chess and music. Unlike his contemporary, Taimanov, he was not an instrumentalist but an opera singer, specifically a baritone. It was only when he narrowly failed an audition to the Bolshoi Theatre in 1950, having already been one of the world’s elite for a decade, that he decided on a full time chess career. He sometimes gave vocal recitals at chess tournaments, often accompanied by Mark Taimanov on the piano. Listen here as he sings the popular Russian song Stepan Razin. (Razin was a Cossack leader who led an uprising against the nobility and bureaucracy in southern Russia in 1670-1671. The words to this song were written in 1883 and set to a Russian folk tune which some of my older readers might recognise as it was also used by The Seekers for their 1965 hit The Carnival is Over.)

Here are two games between Smyslov and Taimanov for you to enjoy.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 4: Oistrakh plays Prokofiev

If you click here you’ll hear David Oistrakh, whom you will have heard playing Tchaikovsky a couple of weeks ago, playing Sergei Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. You’ll also find Oistrakh playing the first violin concerto, the two violin sonatas and other works by the same composer on YouTube. Even if you’re not a classical music buff you’ll have heard some Prokofiev in your life. The BBC television programme The Apprentice uses the Dance of the Knights (spot the chess reference) from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet as its theme tune. You probably remember hearing Peter and the Wolf as a child, narrated here by the late David Bowie, also a chess aficionado, but not, as far as I know, a serious competitive player.

When you were listening to Oistrakh playing Prokofiev, you’ll have seen a picture of the two musical giants playing chess, watched by a young lady, the violinist Elizabeth Gilels, sister (not daughter, as stated in various places online) of the great Soviet pianist (and, of course, chess player) Emil Gilels. In 1937 a chess match was arranged between Prokofiev and Oistrakh. It took place in Moscow, with Alatortsev and Kan as arbiters. The match was supposed to be of ten games, but only seven were played. A contemporary report states that the first four games were drawn and Prokofiev won the fifth game. We don’t know what happened in the sixth and seventh games, but it’s believed that the composer won the match.

One game has survived. Prokofiev really should have won with two extra pawns in the ending but somehow let Oistrakh get away with a draw.

Sergei Prokofiev (23 April 1891 – 5 March 1953) is generally considered one of the greatest comopsers of the 20th century. He was a chess addict from an early age, and, according to Tartakower, a player of master strength. Like Alexander Goldenweiser, he was a regular participant in grandmaster simuls, beating Lasker, Capablanca and Rubinstein. His other opponents included Alekhine, Botvinnik and Tartakower, whom he beat in a casual game in 1933.

David Oistrakh (30 September 1908 – 24 October 1974) was one of the greatest classical violinists of his time. According to various sources he was a 1st category player (just below master standard) but there’s little information about his chess available apart from the match against Prokofiev.

Here’s Oistrakh on his chess friendship with Prokofiev: “Prokofiev was an avid player, he could spend hours on end thinking over his moves. Living next door to each other, we often played blitz-contests and I wish you could see how excited he was drawing all kinds of colorful diagrams of his wins and losses, and how happy he was with each victory, as well as how devastated each time he lost…”

Other classical musicians who were reputed to excel at chess included the pianist Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) and the violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967).

Edward Lasker claimed that Rosenthal, one of Liszt’s last surviving pupils and peerless in Chopin, was the strongest musician he played.

Mischa Elman, heard here in Mendelssohn, was reputed to play to a similar standard, and claimed, in a 1916 interview, to have won a casual game against the Maryland champion. Chopin and Mendelssohn, of course, both also enjoyed a game of chess.

Listen to the music, even (especially) if you’re not familiar with classical music, and play through the games before next week.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 3: Parratt and Goldenweiser

This time you’ll get the chance to meet two keyboard players who also excelled at chess.

Sir Walter Parratt (10 February 1841 – 27 March 1924) was an English organist who was to become Master of the Queen’s (later King’s) Musick. The son of an organist, he was a child prodigy pianist before becoming organist at Magdalen College Oxford in 1872, and, ten years later, organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where Queen Victoria and her family worshipped regularly. He was also in great demand as an organ teacher, becoming Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1908. In 1893 he received the ultimate accolade of being appointed Master of the Queen’s Musick. On his death he would be succeeded in that post (by then King’s, not Queen’s) by his friend Sir Edward Elgar, who, as you saw last week, was also a friend of Adolph Brodsky. He also wrote a small amount of church music: you can hear a psalm setting here and a hymn tune here. (A brief note: the post of Master of the King’s/Queen’s Musick originally involved composing music for royal occasions, and since Elgar’s day this has also been true, but for most of the 19th century it was more to do with organising music within the royal household rather than composing.)

Sir Walter inherited both his passions from his father, Thomas, who, apart from being the organist at Huddersfield Parish Church, was involved in the foundation of the Yorkshire Chess Association in 1841. Young Walter was active in competitive chess in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s. He doesn’t appear on Chessmetrics but Rod Edwards gives him a highest EDO rating of 2310 in 1869, with a world ranking of 53rd. His speciality was playing blindfold chess and the piano at the same time.

When he moved to Oxford he became involved in chess there. In 1873 he played on board 1 in the first Oxford v Cambridge chess match, and may possibly have been involved in its foundation and organisation. He won both his games against John de Soyres, who would later become a clergyman and emigrate to Canada. In the first game de Soyres made an unsound combination while the second, given below, was an exciting encounter with missed opportunities on both sides. Finally de Soyres erred in a rook ending, and the game, which was unfinished at the close of play, was adjudicated a win by Steinitz. In 1874, by now president of the University Chess Club, he faced the same opponent. This time three games were played, and his opponent extracted his revenge, winning two games and losing one.

The following February saw Parratt drawing with Steinitz in a blindfold simul, although in the final position Steinitz had an extra pawn and much the better position. But he declined the opportunity to take part in the University Match that year, citing lack of practice. And that, as far as I know, was the end of his chess career. Or almost the end. In 1921 the Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, himself a strong chess player, who was visiting Windsor Castle, wanted a game of chess. Sir Walter was summoned to play him. “Isn’t he a bit old?”, asked the PM when meeting his elderly opponent? After an hour’s play Sir Walter announced checkmate. “Not at all”, said Bonar Law. “I have seven moves.” Sir Walter then demonstrated how he would force checkmate in each variation. Towards the end of his life he agreed to represent Oxford Past in a match against Cambridge Past, but had to withdraw due to ill health.

Given the popularity of both chess and music in Russia it’s hardly surprising that many of the great Soviet musicians were also strong chess players. One of the strongest was the celebrated pianist, teacher and composer Alexander Goldenweiser (10 March 1875 – 26 November 1961). It’s only in recent decades, with the release of many previously unknown Soviet recordings, that we’ve started to appreciate the importance of the Russian piano school, of which Goldenweiser was a leading member, both as a pianist and as a highly influential teacher. His pupils included such legendary names as Grigory Ginzburg, Lazar Berman, Samuil Feinberg, Dmitry Kabalevsky and Tatiana Nikolayeva. You can hear him play Beethoven’s great Waldstein Sonata here, hear some of his most celebrated pupils here, and hear one of his own compositions here.

As a young man Goldenweiser was a friend and regular chess opponent of Leo Tolstoy, also a strong player. If you believe a rather inaccurate Hungarian book on chess playing celebs, he won games in simuls against Chigorin, Lasker and Alekhine, and drew with Capablanca, Botvinnik and Rubinstein. I haven’t yet been able to discover whether or not he played any competitive chess, but it seems he was, like Sir Walter Parratt, a very strong amateur.

Her’s a win against Chigorin, who plays a theoretical opening involving a rook sacrifice, but goes wrong on move 10 (the right move was 10. fxe5, and if 10… fxe5, 11. Rf1).

Your homework before next week is to listen to the music and study the games. See you then.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 2: Erkel and Brodsky

Continuing my series on chess-playing musicians, let’s move forward into the mid 19th century or so and meet Ferenc Erkel (November 7 1810 – June 15 1893).

Erkel is perhaps not a household name today but his music is still revered in his native Hungary. He was a composer, conductor and pianist best known as a composer of grand operas based on historical subjects. His 1861 opera Bánk Bán is considered Hungary’s national opera. If you’re interested you can watch it here.

He was also, as you might have guessed, a chess player as well, one of the founders of the Pest Chess Club in 1839, became Vice-President when it was refounded in 1864, and later its President. Between the late 1850s and early 1860s he was considered one of the strongest players in Hungary.

In this game he uses the Evans Gambit to score a well played sacrificial win against his compatriot József Szén.

Chessmetrics analyses Szén’s career in the 1850s, when he was ranked between 4th and 10th in the world, and gives him a top rating of 2546.

The evidence suggests that Erkel was a very strong player, who, if he’d had the time and inclination, could perhaps have scaled Caïssa’s heights.

Moving on another half century or so, we now make the acquaintance of Adolph Davidovich Brodsky (2 April 1851 – January 22 1929). Brodsky was born in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, in the far south western corner of Russia, to a Jewish family of musicians. He was a child prodigy violinist whose career took him to Vienna, Moscow, Leipzig and New York. In 1881 he gave the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s marvellous Violin Concerto, played here by the incomparable David Oistrakh, of whom more later. Tchaikovsky also dedicated the work to Brodsky after the original dedicatee, Leopold Auer, refused to play it unless changes were made.

In 1895 Brodsky moved to Manchester, changing the spelling of his first name from Adolf to Adolph. He had been invited by Sir Charles Hallé, also a chess player, to direct his orchestra and teach at the Manchester College of Music. He was to remain there for the rest of his life. While he was there he formed a string quartet, whose viola player had a familiar sounding name: Simon Speelman. (Speelman is a Dutch Jewish surname. It seems that two families, or possibly two branches of the same family, moved to England in the mid 19th century: a family of musicians to Manchester and a family of art and antique dealers, from whom Jonathan Simon Speelman is descended, to London.) In 1890 the quartet’s cellist, Carl Fuchs, invited Edward Elgar to compose a string quartet for them. It would be nearly three decades before Elgar completed his quartet, and, although they had since retired from performing, he still dedicated the work to them.

Brodsky was also, as you might have guessed by now, a strong chess player. Tony Gillam’s highly recommended and meticulously researched book Mannheim 1914 and the Interned Russians includes a section on him from which much of the following information is taken. (Brodsky was in Austria when war was declared and, as a Russian subject, was interned until the following year.)

Brodsky had been a regular and enthusiastic member of the Manhattan Chess Club, playing serious chess there almost every day, and when he moved to Manchester, continued his chess career. He played in eight matches for Lancashire between 1898 and 1904, scoring five wins, one draw and two losses.

This game was played in the 1897 Manchester Chess Club championship. The loser was a strong amateur who would later play in several British Championships.

In 1901 Brodsky played in a small tournament in Berlin where he beat the veteran master Emil Schallopp. Lasker was sufficiently impressed with the game to provide annotations for the Manchester Evening News.

It’s clear from these games that Brodsky was a gifted tactician who, if he’d chosen to dedicate his life to Caïssa rather than Euterpe, might perhaps have reached master standard.

Until next week, enjoy the music as well as the games.

Richard James

Chess and Music Part 1: Philidor

Apart from chess, my other great passion in life is music. While my chess ability is pretty close to zero, though, my musical ability is way below zero, so I ended up becoming a chess player rather than a musician.

There are many connections between chess and music. It’s often remarked (not entirely correctly) that the three disciplines which produce child prodigies are maths, music and chess. Music is seen by some as being the art form which most resembles the logic of maths. It’s not surprising, then, that many musicians have had an interest in chess, and that many chess players are also interested in music.

Readers of The (Even More) Complete Chess Addict will be familiar with many chess playing musicians and musical chess players.

The first and greatest example must be François-André Danican Philidor (September 7, 1726 – August 31, 1795), the strongest chess player of the 18th century, and the author of Analyse du jeu des Échecs, a hugely influential volume which was, for a century or more, considered one of the standard text books of the game. Philidor came from a family of musicians. The family was originally Scottish: the name ‘Danican’ was a corruption of ‘Duncan’, and his grandfather Jean was given the nickname Philidor by Louis XIII because his oboe playing reminded the king of an Italian oboist named Filidori. As he was French it’s hardly surprising that his grandfather was called Jean, but he also had a brother, 45 years older than him (Philidor’s father was 75 when he was born), surprisingly named Anne. Perhaps this was the 17th century French equivalent of A Boy Named Sue. (A quick note for those of my readers interested in French Baroque music: Anne is remembered today for having started a series of public concerts called Le Concert Spirituel. In 1988 the flamboyant French conductor Hervé Niquet founded a period instrument group under this name.)

Not so many people outside chess realise that Philidor was also one of the leading composers of his day. Some of his music is still performed today, and is available on CD or online. While he also composed instrumental and sacred music, his most important contribution to music was probably in the development of the comic opera. You’ll find one of his comic operas, Sancho Pança, on YouTube here. If you share my love of 18th century music you’ll certainly want to hear this.

In contrast to the Modenese school of players, who favoured gambits and tactical play, Philidor preferred strategic play and endings. His analysis of the ending of rook and bishop against rook is still, even today, considered important to endgame theory. All competitive players should know the Philidor Position which demonstrates an important defensive method with rook against rook and pawn.

Philidor was also the first player who really understood the importance of pawns:

“My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is, good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defence, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.”

The contrast between the two rival (Modenese and Philidorian) schools of thought is reminiscent of the debate today as to whether you should encourage young players to play gambits or to concentrate on positional play, teaching them to play simple openings with fixed pawn formations and follow a logical plan. This is something I’ll write much more about in future.

The French Revolution left Philidor stranded in London: returning to France would not have been safe due to his connections with the monarchy and aristocracy. Most of his surviving games are from this final period of his life.

On 13 March 1790, Philidor played three simultaneous games, against the Hon HS Conway, Mr Sheldon and Captain Smith. The games against Sheldon and Smith were both played without sight of the board. Young players tend to play pieces much better than pawns in the opening so this game might be used as an example of how to use your pawns to gain space. The captain played without a plan and without attempting to open the position to his advantage, so Philidor was able to gain space on both sides of the board, leaving his king in the centre, and choose the right moment to strike. Watch out also for the nice sacrificial finish.

Richard James

Activity Cards

If you’ve ever taught in primary school chess clubs you’ll be aware of the problem – or at least one of the problems.

Two kids finish a game with, say, 10 minutes to go before the end of the session. They don’t have time for another game so they start chatting or interfering with other games which are still in progress. What do you get them to do?

Sometimes I’ll have some puzzle sheets with me. As most of the children in primary school clubs play to a very low standard these will need to be simple one-movers to give them the chance to get some of them right.

I’ve recently invested in a laminator which enables me to produce laminated activity sheets which I can take from school to school. There are lots of possible activity sheets you could produce. I’ve started with checkmate skill sheets, covering the basic checkmates: two rooks, king and queen, king and rook, two bishops and bishop + knight. There are also endgame challenges: these include king and 8 pawns each along with various positions where White has to exploit a material advantage. Then, mainly for less experienced players, there are Capture the Flag games: positions without kings where you win in one of three ways: a) you get a pawn to the end safely (capturing the flag), b) you take all your opponent’s pieces or c) you stalemate your opponent. The positions I use include 8 pawns each, queen against 8 pawns, rook against 5 pawns and bishop against 3 pawns. In each of these activities the players are expected to set the position up and play them out over the board.

Some of the more simple skills here are what children should really be doing before joining a chess club. Others are vital for children wishing to play competitive chess outside their school club.

There’s much else that could be done – and will be done when I get round to it. Simple chess variants, for example losing chess or Scotch chess (White plays 1 move, Black 2 moves, White 3 moves and so on). Simple problems or endgame studies for more advanced players. Puzzles such as the Knight’s Tour and the Eight Officers Puzzle (place eight men on the board so that none of them are on the same rank, file or diagonal). Opening cards with the first few moves of a popular opening variation. Puzzle sheets with several tactics or checkmate puzzles on them (perhaps with the answers on the back).

Already, after only the first week of using these, several children have asked me if they can take one of the cards home. The answer is ‘no’, but I guess I could have non-laminated copies of some of the activities available to hand out. I’ll also, at some point, make them available for download on one of my websites.

There are other ways in which they could be developed. I’m considering putting a difficulty rating on each card (for instance the two rooks checkmate might have a difficulty rating of 1 while the bishop and knight checkmate would be 9 or 10) so that children can find activities appropriate for their level. I could possibly use the back of each card to give further information, and, in the case of some of the endgame challenges, a sample game.

As always, the trick will be to get the parents involved. If children play chess at home with family members they could be doing these activities at home as well as just playing games.

If you’d like copies of what I’ve done so far, or have any ideas about how these cards could be developed further please feel free to contact me via one of my websites or on social media.

Richard James

Nine Eventful Moves

Here’s a question for all teachers.

When teaching, do you prefer to present your pupils with high level material, expecting them to fill in the gaps for themselves and make rapid improvement? Or do you prefer to present them with material which is at or slightly above their level, to reinforce what they already know and perhaps teach them one new skill.

Most chess teachers seem to prefer the first method, but, especially when working with younger and less experienced players, I prefer the second method. Showing lower level players a master game will, as often as not, leave them confused, giving them information which they are unable to contextualise.

Which is why I spent 30 years collecting games played at Richmond Junior Club, with the intention of producing coaching materials based on what actually happens in kids’ games.

One thing I noticed was how many games are decided by opening tactics, with the same patterns repeated over and over again. This is why I included a lot of opening tactics in my book Move Two!.

Consider this game, played the other day at Richmond Junior Club between two players of about 1000 (Elo) strength.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nf6

Black decided to try out a new opening, the Petroff Defence, but it transpired that he only knew the first two moves. In another game the same afternoon, played between two stronger (about 1500-1600 Elo) players, White tried 1. e4 c5 2. c3 but again only seemed to know the first two moves, being surprised that Black, who had seen the move before and knew what to do, replied 2… d5. He replied with the not very impressive 3. e5, when Black, instead of playing Bf5, leading to what you might consider either an advance French with the queen’s bishop outside the box or an advance Caro-Kann with an extra tempo, chose 3… e6, leading to an advance French which neither player seemed to know very much about. White seemed even more surprised when I explained that 2… d5 should be met by 3. exd5 Qxd5 4. d4.

As an aside, I consider the Petroff to be a reasonable choice for Black at this level as long as you know how to meet the tactics on the e-file. It requires a lot less knowledge of theory than 2… Nc6. The disadvantage is that it can easily lead to rather dull positions.

3. Nxe5 Nxe4

Now it’s clear that Black hadn’t made any attempt to study the Petroff. White, on the other hand, had learnt the Copycat Trap so knew what to do next. In future, Black will prefer the main line: 3… d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4.

4. Qe2

Most kids at this level know this, and when I demonstrated the game to a relatively small group (most of the club were at the UK Chess Challenge Megafinals) the following week, there were only a few who were unaware of what to do.

4… Ng5

Rather surprisingly, Black, a fairly experienced player, was still blind to what was going to happen next. One or two strong players have chosen this line, with 4… Qe7, as a surprise weapon, but as far as I can see Black’s going to be a pawn down with not a lot to show for it.

5. Nc6+

White was very well aware of what she should do next and gleefully pocketed the black queen.

5… Be7
6. Nxd8 Kxd8

White was ahead by a queen for a knight and just had to be careful. Her next move was absolutely fine.

7. d4 Re8

A black rook has appeared menacingly on the e-file, glaring at White’s royal couple. Alarm bells are ringing. Red lights are flashing. What should White do? Most of the audience the following week suggested 8. Be3, which looks extremely sensible to me, blocking the e-file and giving White time to get her king into safety by castling. 8. Nc3, intending to meet a discovered check with Be3, is also excellent. White saw that her queen was in danger and moved it out of the way, oblivious to the fact that the king was now exposed to a fatal double check.

8. Qd3 Bb4+

This time it was Black who knew exactly what to do, recognising the pattern of the familiar ‘Morphy’ rook and bishop mate.

9. Kd1 Re1#

And sadly, White was still a queen up, but a king down. All that in just nine moves.

Here’s what you might learn from this game:

  • If you want to try out a new opening you need to do more than learn the first two moves.
  • If your opponent plays the Petroff, play 3. Nxe5 and hope they fall for the Copycat Trap.
  • If you want to play the Petroff with Black remember to play 3. Nxe5 d6 followed by Nxe4 if the knight retreats (and be ready to play Qe7 in reply to Qe2).
  • Learn about how to place your line pieces (queen, rooks, bishops) in line with more valuable enemy pieces, understanding that if your piece is in the way you can play a discovered attack/check, while if your opponent’s piece is in the way it will be pinned.
  • Learn to understand and recognise (and see coming a long way off) discovered checks.
  • Learn about the idea of using discovered checks to win material (and being aware that the piece making the discovery will be, as long as it’s not next door to the enemy king, be immune from capture).
  • Learn about double checks – “the atom bomb of the chessboard” – and understand that a double check has to be met by a king move.
  • Learn the rook and bishop mating pattern – look at it in different contexts, for example Morphy v Aristocratic Allies.
  • Look at every check you could play – and look at every check your opponent could play in reply to your intended move.

Nine important lessons in just nine eventful moves. Cheap at half the price. And also just the sort of game I’d use for a very low level ‘How Good is Your Chess’ lesson.

Richard James

Rook Endings (4)

Two more practical examples of rook and pawn against rook from games played at Richmond Junior Club.

In this position the good news for Black is that his king is in front of the pawn and the white king is subject to mating threats on the side of the board. The bad news is that his rook is badly placed, and that it’s White’s move. (If it was Black to move he could win by moving his rook in a westerly direction.)

His plan should be to get his rook round the back to threaten mate, while White will need to counter this by moving his rook away to check the black king from the other side.

White now has two moves to draw: Ra6 and Rb6. He needs to meet mate threats with horizontal checks, and has to be as far away as possible from the enemy monarch.

But instead he played 55. Re6, presumably with the idea of keeping the black king on the f-file. Now any westerly rook move is winning for Black. He chose 55… Re1, having observed correctly that the pawn ending would be winning. White went back behind the pawn: 56. Rf6, and now, out of Black’s 17 legal moves, 11 are winning and 4 are drawing. The quickest winning moves are Re7 and Re8, both mating in 21 moves according to the tablebases. He actually chose one of the drawing moves: 56… Re2, missing the winning plan of threatening mate on the h-file. Now White again has time to draw by moving his rook over to the far side of the board (note that this is one of many positions in these endings where you want your rook on the side rather than behind the passed pawn). This time, Ra6, Rb6 and Rc6 all draw, but in principle he should move as far away as possible. Instead, stuck with the mistaken idea that rooks always belong behind passed pawns, he played 57. Kh3.

Now Black has four winning moves: Re8, Re7, Re5 and Re3 (but Re4 is only a draw). Still not thinking about potential checks on the h-file he chose perhaps the least obvious of these, 57… Re3. White played 58. Kh2 when Black has a choice of 14 moves, of which 8 win and 5 draw. As you would expect by now, the quickest wins are Re8 and Re7. Instead he went for one of the drawing options: 58… Ke2.

Now White has 16 possible moves, but only one of them draws: Kg3, hitting the f-pawn. After his actual choice, 59. Kg1, though, Black can again win by moving his rook in a northerly direction, again planning a check from behind. Instead he gave up and pushed the pawn: 59… f2+. White was happy to capture the pawn: 60. Rxf2+, and a draw was agreed.

If you’re down to the last few minutes on the clock, or, as is likely these days, playing on an increment, it’s all too easy to think inflexibly, as both players did in this example. Black seemed to be thinking purely about how to push his f-pawn, while White was just trying to prevent this. Neither player was thinking about how to check the enemy king.

Our final example starts off by being about getting your king in front of the pawn, but when Balck fails to do this it’s just about calculation. Will White calculate accurately? We’ll see.

Black has to make his 52nd move. He has 15 moves to choose from, three of which lose his rook, although one of them, Rg2, still draws (rook against pawn is another interesting subject). There are 10 winning moves and two other moves that draw: Rg4 and the move he chose, 52… f3.

Now it seems very natural and obvious to push your pawn, and you’ve probably been taught that passed pawns should be pushed, but when you possess the only remaining pawn on the board you often want your king in front of the pawn. This is the case here.

White found the only move to draw: 53. Kd4, correctly rushing back with his king. His rook is well placed on the h-file here, preventing the black king from travelling to g2 via h3. Black pushed the pawn again: 53… f2, for the moment preventing the white king’s approach. White again found the only drawing move: 54. Rf7. (Rg7+ would have led to king and queen against king and rook, which would have been another story entirely.) Black naturally replied by defending the pawn with 54… Rg2.

On his 55th move White has no less than 21 choices (the maximum number of 8 king moves and 13 rook moves, one short of the maximum, for those of you who care about this sort of thing). Nine of them draw and the other twelve lose. The most obvious draw is the simple Ke3 just winning the pawn and demonstrating to black that he pushed his pawn too quickly. However he was seduced by the skewer 55. Rg7+, no doubt playing too fast to notice that after he won the rook Black would promote.

Now Black has six king moves, but the only one to win is Kf6, when he’ll reach the tricky ending king and queen against king and rook. It’s mate in 28 according to the tablebases, but would he have been able to win? We’ll never know because instead he played 55… Kh4.

White’s now drawing again if he finds 56. Rf7, getting back behind the passed pawn and preparing to meet 56… Kg3 with 57. Ke3, when Black can make no progress. His actual choice of 56. Rh7+ was too slow, though, because now after 56… Kg3, which Black played, his king will have time to reach g1 via h2. The game continued 57. Rg7+ Kh2 58. Rh2+ Kg1 and Black won by promoting his pawn.

Richard James

Rook Endings (3)

Last time I considered some simple rook and pawn v rook endings from the Richmond Junior Club database.

In this article I’ll show you a few slightly more complicated examples.

Caspar Bates, who had to choose a move with white in this position against his brother Pascal, returned to chess several years ago and is now an occasional player (for Richmond in the London League) and an excellent composer of endgame studies.

At this stage in his career, though, his knowledge of endings was limited. He had the opportunity to head for the Philidor position, but instead chose a passive defence with his rook. This should still be good enough to draw, and in this position he has three ways to share the point. In order to play this position accurately, both players have to be aware of two standard tactical ideas, one of which you saw last week.

White can draw by continuing his policy of passive defence, playing Rd1, when Black has no way to make progress. Or he can choose an active defence and play either Rb2 or Rf2, planning to move up the board and check from behind. But Rg2 (or Rh2) would lose to a skewer: Black would reply with d2+ (a discovered check) and, if White takes the pawn, pick up the rook via a skewer because the white king is too far away. If White doesn’t take the pawn, Ra1 will lead to the same thing.

Instead White chose Ke4. Now Black can use another tactical idea which you may remember from last week’s article. His two winning moves are Ra7 and Ra8. In both cases, if the white rook takes the pawn, a check from behind will force the king away and win the rook. And if White doesn’t take the pawn, again black rook checks from behind will prove decisive. Note, though, that Ra6 is only a draw because the white king will be close enough to approach the rook, meeting Re6+ with Kf5.

Alas, he missed his chance, and after several repetitions the game eventually resulted in a draw.

This rather atypical position should also be a draw, but Black, to play, chose what should have been a losing option: 46… Ra5. Now White has two winning moves: the simpler way to win is 47. Rb6+ but White’s actual choice of 47. Kd4 should also suffice. Now Black is in zugzwang: a horizontal rook move lets the pawn advance, a vertical rook move allows Kc5, a king move to, say, b2, allows Kc4. That leaves Black’s choice in the game, 47… Kb4, which White correctly met with 48. Rb6+ Ka4 49. Kc4 Ka3. Now White can win by choosing a horizontal rook move, when Black is again zugged. Instead he played 50. Rb3+, when, after 50… Ka2 he’d have to repeat moves and have another go at finding the winning idea. But Black preferred 50… Ka4. Now 51. Rb1, threatening mate, wins at once, but he missed it, repeating moves with 51. Rb6 Ka3. He still didn’t spot the zugzwang and decided to try a different idea, 52. Kb5, hoping Black would trade rooks. No such luck: she captured the pawn: 52… Rxa6. Now White could have offered a draw but instead played on, hoping Black would allow a rook mate: 53. Rb3+ Ka2 54. Kc3??, only to discover he was losing his rook after 54… Rc6+ 55. Kb4 Rb6+.

Disillusioned, perhaps, by the result of this game, White soon gave up his chess career, and now, more than 30 years on, is a partner in a firm of solicitors based just across the road from Richmond Junior Club’s current Twickenham venue.

The basic principle in these endings is that if your king can make contact with the promotion square you’re likely to get the result you want.

So in this position, with White to move, there are two winning moves: Kg6 and Kh6. The white king has to run up the board, using the rook to shelter from checks if necessary. Instead, White played the understandable but misguided 52. f5, when Black can hold the draw by activating his rook and preparing to check from behind. But now Black in turn erred by playing 52… Re5 to pin the pawn. White now demonstrated the win as follows: 53. Ra6 Kf7 54. Ra7+ Kf8 55. Kf6 Re4 56. Ra8+ Re8 57. Rxe8+ Kxe8 58. Kg7 (the only winning move) and Black resigned.

Black could have offered more resistance with 55… Ke8 when play might continue 56. Kg6 Rd8 57. f6 Kg8 58. Rg7+ (but not f7+ which only draws) 58… Kf8 59. Rh7 or 58… Kh8 59. Rh7+ Kg8 60. f7+.

Note that this is the type of position where Black will lose even though his king reaches the queening square because of White’s mate threats.

So chess improvers need to be aware of a few basic principles, some of which apply to all rook endings.

* Rooks belong behind passed pawns (RBBPP)
* Keep your pieces active at all times
* Play with a long-term plan in mind rather than just operating with immediate threats
* Your king needs to head towards the promotion square
* Be aware of the basic tactical ideas which happen in rook endings (the skewer, the check to force the king away from defending the rook)
* Develop your long-range calculating skills

I’ll have a few more examples for you next week.

Richard James