Category Archives: Angus James

World Rapid Chess Championship

The FIDE World Rapid Chess Championship 2014 recently concluded with Magnus Carlsen winning, followed by Fabiano Caruana in 2nd place and Viswanathan Anand in 3rd.

There was an interesting endgame between the FIDE World Champion, Carlsen, and former World Champion, Anand. Carlsen uncharacteristically went wrong in an ending. In taking a pawn with his knight he missed a simple rook move that skewered his bishop and knight. Anyone can make such mistakes, especially in rapid chess, but when the World Champion does it, it’s called a blunder! Despite this loss, it wasn’t enough to stop Carlsen becoming the 2014 World Rapid Champion. You can view the ending play with commentary on the clip below.

Angus James

Hilarious Chess Fight

With the sad passing of English comedian Rik Mayall, it would be remiss not to repeat the chess clip from the BBC TV series Bottom. Rik’s character plays chess with Adrian Edmondson’s character, but it quickly deteriorates into a fight. It never fails to make me laugh, but I can’t claim it will improve your chess…

Angus James

Future Masters

Future masters have to start somewhere and most in England learn their skills on the weekend tournament circuit, in junior events and adult events. It used to be the case that it would take many years, even for the most talented, to become masters, but now things seem to have speeded up with access to databases and coaching.  It is remarkable how quickly juniors can improve now. One kid from nearby went from a beginner to the top player in the county for his age category in just 3 years. I guess he will have his first master title in another 3 years, such is the trajectory of his progression.

I recently had a look through some of my games in the 1990s, the decade when I first started playing chess. In 1996, I played in the World Amateur Championship in Hastings. I played a future IM, Thomas Rendle. He was only about 10 at the time, graded perhaps around 1500 elo, while I was about 1700 elo – although the ratings are a bit irrelevant as we were both heading for ratings hundreds of points higher. While I was a bit more experienced, he had the confidence of youth. He was in the habit of wearing bow-ties, as I recall. I thought he was a bit reminiscent of Walter, the arch enemy of Dennis and Gnasher. Anyway, he played the French Defence, which he still does today, although he’s no longer wearing the bow-ties!

In the game below he played well until he saw an opportunity to win two minor pieces for a rook, missing that his king would get into trouble.

Although I won this encounter, ten years later he become an IM while I hit a wall and stopped making significant progress. I like to think that the reason why I didn’t progress to master level was that I only came to chess as an adult, and annoying things like having to earn a living got in the way. While there is probably a little bit of that involved, it is probably more because I didn’t want to improve as much as he did and didn’t prioritise it enough. What are you prepared to sacrifice to improve? If you’re not giving 100% to chess, forget becoming a master. And watch out for the kids – some of them may be future masters!

Angus James

Retaining Focus is Child’s Play

Being able to completely immerse yourself in chess, either during games or when studying, is clearly going to benefit your chess development.

It is well known that some children can suffer from attention deficit disorder or something similar, but actually children can be much better than adults at focusing on one thing. This might be partly why they are so good at learning and absorbing information quickly when they find something that interests them.

Anyone with children, or who teaches children, will know that they can become so engrossed in something that they are able to completely zone out whatever is not the focus of their attention – such as parents and teachers on occasion! If something interests them it is effortless for them to completely focus on it. They don’t need lessons in how to concentrate, find something that interests them and they will be the ones giving the lessons to parents and teachers in how to concentrate.

This ability to focus, and zone out everything else, is known as ‘inattentional blindness‘ and everyone needs this to some degree. It is linked to brain development and hence children, especially younger children, are going to be much less aware of surroundings. I’m speculating, but I wonder if dedicated junior chess players are benefiting from this ability to focus so well. The main thing is that children are naturally interested in chess, not pushed into doing it by well-meaning parents. Not all children are interested in the same things. It would be great if every child could have the opportunity to learn chess and decide for themselves if they wish to pursue it further. Anyone with a child who loves chess is not going to have a problem getting them to focus on it, quite the reverse, it is their school homework that might be the problem!

Angus James

Improving Concentration

Being able to concentrate at the board is easier said than done, yet it is vital if you are going to play your best chess. Among the issues that could impact on your concentration are tiredness, fitness level, health, distractions and worries at home/work, etc.

Health and fitness are easily taken for granted, until you reach middle age and realise they are not a given. To be fit, well and rested for a tournament or match you have to train not just your chess brain, but also take care of yourself. It is notable that professional chess players spend a large amount of time preparing for matches just focusing on fitness. Great stamina is required to play at a high level for hours. Concentration is something that can be improved by increasing your fitness level and maintaining good health.

Getting a good night’s sleep before playing chess is an obvious one, but not always easy to achieve when you’ve got a family. Try to get an early night and avoid too much alcohol or caffeine.

On the day itself, get some fresh air before the game with a walk or some form of exercise. This is likely to help to get your body and mind energised for the game. Last minute opening preparation will most likely be a waste of time.

Some players find it useful to turn up 15 minutes early to games to get into ‘the zone’ before the game starts. Apparently Botvinnik did this. If you only get into ‘the zone’ 15 minutes after the game has started the whole game could be decided by then. Being calm will most likely put you in a better position to cope with whatever is about to occur at the board or around it.

When you do finally get started – after you’ve done your fitness program, healthy lifestyle regime, got a good night’s sleep, had a walk in the morning and turned up early – there can be really irritating distractions. Like talking in the background by inconsiderate folk, eating at the board (especially crisps and wrapped sweets), slurping tea/coffee, table shaking, etc. These things are often more distracting than someone’s mobile going off, but no one gets defaulted for them. Your opponent is not supposed to distract you, but rather than having a dispute that requires arbiter intervention, it might be better to remain resolutely focused on the position and not let yourself be distracted by it all. Maintain a Zen-like calm, and don’t let those pesky distractions get to you!

Spend as much time at the board as possible, concentrating as hard as you possibly can. You might find it helpful to get up regularly to take a little walk around, but try and limit these leg stretches in terms of time so that you’re not tempted to take your mind off the position. There is nothing worse than returning to the board and thinking, ‘what was I planning to do next?!’ and spending 15 minutes to re-acquaint yourself with the position.

Staying hydrated by drinking water before and during games is wise, particularly if the venue temperature is warm. This may mean you need to visit the bathroom once or twice, but better that than being dehydrated, which is proven to negatively impact body and mind performance. If you need to eat during the game, apparently bananas are good for slow release of carbohydrates, so that you don’t have any high or low blood sugars.

Angus James

Defence Skills

Defence skills are just as important as attacking skills. At a basic level, that means noticing when, for example, an undefended piece is attacked and threatened with capture. Usually, defending it or moving it is required – unless there is something more important going on elsewhere on the board, like a checkmate threat. In chess clubs at primary schools, players can often miss that their pieces are en prise (‘in a position to be taken’). Just getting them to check before they move whether any of their pieces are en prise is a good habit, and a breakthrough if they can manage it. When I see players hesitating even for a moment before making a move, it is a good sign that they are considering things that previously they would have ignored or overlooked. With experience they learn that mistakes like leaving pieces en prise for no good reason, can and usually will get punished by experienced opponents.

Scholar’s Mate, and variants of this, are simple attacks right out of the opening, but they are remarkably effective at school chess clubs and junior tournaments. Learning how to defend against this most basic attack is an important first step on the road to improving defence skills. Players that can survive the opening without being mated or losing material often find that their opponents start to lose heart. The game is not over in seconds; the first attack of the game has failed; and they have a fight on their hands. Having easily repelled an attack the initiative can pass to the defender.

Here is the classic Scholar’s Mate:

Here is a kind of Scholar’s Mate that was played at a recent junior tournament. Note how Black overlooks the vast array of defensive moves he has at his disposal to avoid mate (not to mention White’s own blunder):

Most of the time juniors at school chess clubs don’t need to play amazing attacking chess to win a game. They just need to be alert to threats and have some basic defensive skills. Training and practice that cultivates defence skills is just as important as attack skills. Good tactics training will include both attack and defence problems to solve, because finding the right way to defend can be just as important as finding the right attacking moves.

Angus James

Checkmate Patterns

Players who have moved beyond the beginners stage and have reached the stage where they wish to improve their play, need to do a lot of work on tactics. This will improve their board vision and help to eliminate mistakes such as leaving pieces en prise. Of course, mistakes  never get completely eliminated from one’s game – even masters drop pieces from time to time – but by making very few serious errors a player will be tougher to beat.

One of the good ways to start is to acquaint yourself with mating patterns. As many instructors have said before, pattern recognition is very important in chess. If you’ve seen a pattern and can memorise it, when something like it happens in a game you’re playing, you will hopefully ‘see’ the pattern and know what to do without really thinking. ‘Intuition’ at the board – just ‘knowing’ what to do without really calculating at all – could partly be to do with natural talent, but it is also likely to be the result of training and practice.

You can read about an array of checkmating patterns here. Some of the names of these mates I didn’t even know had names, although I was familiar with them having utilised them enough times in my own games! I leave you with one example game, which features Anastasia’s Mate. My students are always pleased to see the theoretical applied in practice, and this is certainly a pretty neat game.

Angus James

Dutch Disaster

English GM Keith Arkell won the recent European Individual Seniors for those age 50+. But he is a relatively young veteran compared with some of those playing! Following the individual event was the European Senior Team Championship where the following miniature was played between a 69 year old and an 81 year old. Congratulations to these two old masters who create a wonderful spectacle. Who says chess is just a young persons game? With people living longer perhaps in the future we will see more adult age categories. Besides 50+ and 65+ perhaps an age 80+ category? Viktor Korchnoi, for example, is 83 and still playing. Anyway, this game is the kind of sparkling game that inspires people to play chess, so I can’t help repeating it here.

Angus James

Mixed Fortunes For Chess Clubs and Tournaments

Junior chess in my area seems to be thriving, it’s the adult chess that seems to be suffering.

In league chess, the situation with individual clubs varies enormously. Some have dwindling numbers of players, struggle to field players during the season, and end up reducing their teams. Other clubs are thriving and go from strength to strength. I’m proud to say that my own club, Surbiton, is fortunate to be one of the relatively few successful ones. Every year we seem to be fielding stronger and stronger teams. We have four teams, and our first team is usually competing for the top spot in the Division 1 of the leagues we participate in – Surrey and Thames Valley. In addition, our second team has been promoted in the past couple of seasons to play in Division 2 of both the Surrey and Thames Valley leagues. And, for the first time, our second team will be promoted to Division 1 of the Thames Valley next season, so we will have two teams in Division 1. This is the result of somehow being able to attract new members each year and to a growing number of juniors coming up through the ranks.

In tournament chess, declining prize funds and higher entry fees have seen attendance at some local amateur events dropping. This is I guess because of a lack of sponsorship and other sources of funding dry up. On the other hand, we see amateur events organised by e2e4 and 4NCL being very successful. At the 37th Surrey Chess Congress there was a Junior Championships and an Easter Open Rapidplay. The organisers and volunteers that make these events happen did a great job, although it was sad in my view to see the Easter Open Rapidplay could only attract 20 participants, given that this was once one of the most prestigious weekend Opens in England’s tournament calendar. Thankfully, the Surrey Junior Championships was a relative success. It featured seven sections: under 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, and there were over 150 participants. Go here for the results of the U12/13s and U11s. This bodes well for Surrey’s future as one of England’s leading chess counties.

Angus James 

O’Kelly Crusher

This week I’m sharing a smashing game by a teammate of mine, Chris Briscoe, played in the UK’s Four Nations Chess League (4NCL) in March. I manage Surbiton, a team in Division 3, which this year has over 60 teams competing for just three Division 2 promotion spots. Chris is our regular Board 1 player and we are fortunate to have him – he previously played for Wood Green, which is usually near the top of Division 1.

Angus James