Category Archives: Angus James

Tactical Oversights

It is remarkable how small tactics can finish games quickly, even where Grandmasters are concerned.

Looking at the recent Chebanenko Rapid Open there were two games between GMs that ended decisively in less than 25 moves. Shirov was on the winning side of both.

I am struck by how easy he made it look to take down these GMs, without really doing anything special. They just miscalculated and Shirov took full advantage with some precise play. The clock is a factor, but I doubt either of his victims were in time trouble when they made their mistakes.

Here Shirov plays an Advance against the French and Black seems to be playing fine up until the 17th move and suddenly one tactical oversight ends the game quickly:

Here Shirov starts off playing a Rossolimo against the Sicilian and then he moves back into Open Sicilian territory with 5.d4!? His opponent responds well, and even starts attacking along the h-file, but when he slips up Shirov pounces.

Such tactical oversights are extremely difficult to completely avoid. You would have to literally check-every-move (CEM) your opponent can make at every turn, and that is just not possible with time constraints as they are with tournament play. To help mitigate the risk, you can develop an intuition for when it is a good idea to use CEM, and only adopt it when the position demands it. For example, in highly tactical positions or critical moments. There are routine moves, and there are moves where accuracy is important and getting it right could effect the outcome of a game. Spending more time considering your alternatives at these key moments is justified. I guess in the case of these games, these GMs’ needed to do more checking at certain moves, but unfortunately for them, they didn’t. Hats off to Shirov for demonstrating the flaws in their plans so clinically.

Angus James 

What To Do About Gambits

Speedy development is often worth the investment of a pawn in the opening. Examples include the Smith-Morra Gambit of the Sicilian 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 when White has a very promising initiative for the pawn that often brings dividends. Devotees of this line can become highly attuned to its nuances. If that is the case you have to ask yourself as Black whether taking them on in their most familiar territory is the most intelligent thing to do. You might decide it is better to avoid it than to try to refute it. Even if you like spending many an hour with opening books, there is no substitute for hours of practice playing the line over and over again – which White will of course be doing. Perhaps Smith-Morra Gamiters’ would find the Caro-Kann or the French Defence, or something else, really annoying. If so, play that against them! It is wise to get your opponent out of their familiar territory.

This is the sort of thing that can be considered if you know your opponent and you’re playing them in an over-the-board game. Of course, if someone plays a gambit against you in a correspondence game and you are allowed to use software for help, then that is a different matter. For example, silicon monsters nowadays are less impressed with the Smith-Morra than we humans are. Below is one of my own correspondence games against a line of the Smith-Morra that I would have found difficult to play against over-the-board. But, with assistance from HIARCS, I found it easier to deal with. It takes a long time, but eventually White’s initiative dissipates and then it is all about whether Black can convert the ending. The knight and pawns ending was particularly pleasant to play for Black. If you would like to play some correspondence chess online, try FICGS – The Free Internet Correspondence Games Server.

Angus James 

When The Going Gets Tough

Chess is a tough old game. You need to plan ahead as well as managing short-term tactical shots. The average length of a game of chess in terms of moves might be 40-50 moves, but many games end decisively in less than 25 (known as miniatures) while others go on and on for over 100 moves in some cases. Short games that end decisively tend to involve opening mistakes or tactical oversights.

It is therefore essential to spend some time on openings and tactics training. The problem comes when players only do opening and tactics, and neglect development of their strategic and positional understanding of chess and endgame training. Of course, it is far easier to ‘do’ openings and tactics training because there are books and software galore to support players with that. When it comes to positional understanding, middle game training and endgame training, not only is this harder to do on your own, it is also less clear which resources are best to suit your level. Chess coaches can help you identify your development needs to put you on the right path to improvement, with the right resources.

Here is a short and sharp game played a few years ago where Black (who shall remain anonymous) goes wrong in the opening and doesn’t make it much further. It is not a good idea to play the Sicilian Defence unless you are prepared to learn some opening theory and have a keen tactical eye. Otherwise the game can be practically over after just 1-2 inaccurate moves.

Angus James

Using a Lead in Development

Getting a lead in development, by being efficient about how we develop our pieces, is the main aim of the opening.

How can you be efficient about development? For a start, think about how you can mobilise all of your pieces quickly, not just one or two. Think about where you can move your pieces so that they are doing something that influences the important central squares. Don’t make the common beginner’s error of moving the same piece more than once in the opening, unless it is essential. Think about where your king would be safest and make that happen as part of your opening strategy.

The game below is a classic example of what can happen if one side gets a lead in development out of the opening. Take a look at the position after White’s 12th move. White’s opening has not been a great success. His king is still stuck in the centre and he is 2 moves away from castling. In contrast, Black has castled his king to safety and has all his minor pieces ready for action and is 1 move away from connecting his rooks. To take advantage of the lead in development, Black needs to move fast. He realises that, to attack the enemy king before it has the chance to castle, he has to open lines to the king, and he invests a piece to do that as quickly as possible. By the 19th move, White’s centre is completely destroyed, and it is only a matter of time before Black’s better developed pieces move in to finish White off.

Angus James

Back To Basics

Magnus Carlsen recently launched an Official YouTube Channel, following his successful challenge for the World Championship.

It is good to see that he is starting with the basics. His first training video concerns the three things that players should be thinking about in the opening phase of the game, namely, development, king safety and central square control. He explains these eloquently in the video below.

This is all pretty standard training stuff, which any chess coach teaching junior beginners will cover. But it is good to see short training videos like these online, easily accessible to all. Perhaps more non-chess players will be encouraged by these short videos to give chess a try.

Despite how simple the advice is on the video, it is amazing how many experienced players get into trouble by not following this advice. For example, many games see players never castling, or launching attacks before completing development, or attacking on the side and neglecting the centre. Sometimes the simplest advice is the most difficult to follow, for amateur and master alike.

Angus James

Going Off Piste

Going “off piste” or “off the beaten track” in the opening has its merits. For a start, you get your opponent thinking earlier, which is no bad thing if you’re fed up of 10-20 opening book moves being fired at you in the first 10 seconds of a game. You can explore the positions that occur after your opening at your leisure at home, while your opponent will most probably have to sweat at the board trying to fathom what the heck is going on in the position. At the very least you are going to get a time advantage, and that puts your opponent under pressure.

The opening after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 is very well-known. The most common moves here are by far 3.Bb5 (Ruy Lopez), 3.Bc4 (Italian Game), or 3.d4 (Scotch Opening), and to a lesser extent 3.Nc3 (Three Knights/Four Knights).

What about other options on move 3? Well, there are a number of reasonable alternatives to consider. Top of the list is perhaps the Ponziani (3.c3), which Carlsen has used as a surprise weapon. Or perhaps it isn’t that much of a surprise – he is becoming famed for his use of unpopular, but perfectly reasonable openings, with the aim of getting a playable position out of the opening, and just outplaying his opponents from an equal position in the middle game and/or ending. Below is an example of Carlsen’s use of the Ponziani:

Another line worth considering at this juncture is 3.Be2. This goes by the name of the Inverted Hungarian Opening. So called, because White’ s bishop on e2 resembles Black’s bishop on e7 in the Hungarian Defence. It doesn’t look like that much, but it seems fine. Below is a recent game from the Bronstein Memorial Open, which saw it adopted by a 2700+ player, Baadur Jobava. Presumably he didn’t fancy seeing his lower rated opponent’s opening preparation, and played something unexpected, but perfectly playable, and consequently won very quickly. A lesson to us all.

Angus James

Gibraltar Masterclasses

The Gibraltar International Chess Festival is widely hailed as the world’s premier Open chess tournament. This year’s festival was the 12th and was the biggest yet, with over 70 Grandmasters participating from all over the world. All week the tournament features interesting side events, including Masterclasses from some of the players. There are video clips available for the following Masterclasses here:

1) Nigel Short & Elisabeth Paehtz discuss their round 2 games.

2) Vassily Ivanchuk discusses his games in the FIDE candidates and other interesting ideas.

3) WGM Natalia Pogonina and GM Li Chao discuss their round 7 games with Tournament Director Stuart Conquest.

4) Maxime Vachier-Lagrave discusses a game from 2013 with Stuart Conquest and takes questions from the audience.

The Ivanchuk one features a fascinating analysis of five games he played in a match in Riga in 1991 vs Leonid Yudisan and lasts 1 hour 37 minutes.

Angus James

First Tournament for Kids

Recently 14 juniors I coach participated in their first tournament outside of school in a borough schools championship. I run chess clubs at three schools in the Kingston-upon-Thames and I invited those players that were ready to participate in the Championship on 25 January. At stake were individual and school prizes (based on the top four scorers from each school). The tournament had U7, U9, U11, U14 and U18 sections, and players could score 3 points for a win, 2 for a draw and 1 for a loss.

This was a first Kingston Borough Schools Chess Championships, organised by the same organiser of the UK Chess Challenge, Mike Basman. The idea is to encourage chess in schools, both primary and secondary, by providing a competition between local schools.

There were over 50 players, which wasn’t bad I think given this was the first time this event has taken place. There were entrants from schools that have very well established chess clubs, and also schools that have relatively new chess clubs (such as mine that have only been going about a year). It was good to see so many new players, who were excited about playing their first tournament and by the end were keen to do another! I noticed that the U9 section was easily the largest section, while the U11/U14/U18 sections were merged into one and was essentially an U11 section apart from maybe 2-3 players. I think this reflects the sad fact that while chess clubs are popular at primary level, they are not so well represented at secondary level. This tournament gave children in local secondary schools an opportunity to play in a tournament (all the schools were contacted), but clearly supply is only one side of the equation, there also needs to be demand.

Playing

Playing

What I liked about this tournament format is it enabled players to try their first tournament locally, where they knew some classmates, and where families were welcome. This was reassuring for young players who may feel nervous about going to an event where they don’t know anyone. Feedback from my players suggests that it was very enjoyable event; there were no tears over losses (which I had feared); and it seemed a very friendly and supportive environment for them to test their chess skills against peers.

The Prize Giving

The Prize Giving

It was heartening to see these young students have the courage to try and be rewarded for their efforts, with some of them winning rosettes for creditable performances, while for others the reward was the novelty of their first tournament experience and some memorable lessons.

Angus James

Chess Superminiatures

A club mate of mine, Nick Pelling, has published an interactive ebook called ‘Chess Superminiatures’. Superminiatures are super-short chess games that last under 10 moves. There is a surprising amount that can be learnt from such short games. Furthermore, Nick brings the players and the games to life with his anecdotes and historical insights, as well as commentary on the moves.

A computer programmer by trade, Nick has enabled readers to interact with the ebook, with multiple choice ‘guess the move’ options at key points in each game. Some of the moves are not at all obvious, so this is a really good way of testing your chess skills. Also, he has divided up the games into chapters with themes so you can learn some important lessons along the way and see some instructive games to prove the points.

Over 100 games are arranged into eight themed chapters:-

1. Monkeys With Hammers – Attacking games
2. That’s Gotta Hurt – Moves that were overlooked
3. Greed Isn’t Good – What happens to greedy players
4. Tales of the Unpredicted – Bolts from the blue
5. Tangled Webs – When pieces fail to work together
6. Champs vs Chumps – Tales from Chess’s top table
7. Return To Sender – Correspondence players getting unexpected mail
8. Best of the Best – The very best superminiatures I’ve ever seen!

Within each chapter, the puzzles are arranged in ascending order of difficulty, so every reader should quickly find themselves at an appropriately challenging level of difficulty, whatever their playing strength.

So, there you have it – not only are you introduced to some delightful short games, you also get to train and develop your own board vision at the same time. Chess Superminiatures is available on Amazon for Kindle.

Below is a game from Chapter 3, Greed isn’t Good, notes by Nick Pelling:

Angus James

Studying Chess

Studying chess never came easily to me. The bulk of what I have learnt has come from practice, practice and more practice, rather than study. Having said that, there have been occasional times, particularly when I first started to get into chess, when I could easily spend hours reading chess books. I did a lot of learning on those occasions, without realising it.

Independent study skills – the kind that are cultivated at degree level – are very useful if you want to improve at chess. Perhaps we should all consider how we can improve our studying skills per se, if we are to maximise our chances of improving at chess.

Thinking about a creating a ‘study plan’ for chess can fill amateur players with dread and horror. It sounds terribly serious and onerous. But of course it should be the precise opposite, if it is going to work. Studying should something that is enjoyable and enlightening. If you can’t have fun while learning, then you’re in danger of losing motivation to improve.

Whatever you do, you need to find a sustainable way studying. It’s all too easy to buy dozens of chess books thinking that you’re somehow going to absorb the information from them without actually doing any work. Instead of buying the next bestseller in the chess book chart, you’re better off sitting down and working out what your weaknesses are as a player. Once you’ve done that, that will narrow down what resources you require.

If tactics are a weakness – find the most enjoyable way of getting yourself to work on that. For many it is using program on your mobile to work on tactical puzzles everyday.

If you know you are struggling in the middlegame of a particular opening that you play – find instructive games and discover the middlegame plans that make sense to you and use those in your own games. Regularly look at these game files as a refresher.

If you are having trouble with king and pawn endings or rook endings, or minor piece endings, there are plenty of resources to help you. There are endgame reference books, DVDs, and training software to help you practice. Find what works for you. Many find endgame books impenetrable, so try the DVDs and training software to see if you like that better.

In summary, identify what your weakest areas are, target those for study and find the study methods that you most enjoy. If you do those things you have the makings of successful study and improvement.

If you would like to read more about studying chess I recommend Studying Chess Made Easy by Andrew Soltis (Batsford, 2010).

Angus James