Here’s a win of mine from this last weekend using the Ruy Lopez. My Dad says I played it very well, though I pushed my pawns a bit too quickly when I got nervous in the later stages:
Here’s a win of mine from this last weekend using the Ruy Lopez. My Dad says I played it very well, though I pushed my pawns a bit too quickly when I got nervous in the later stages:
There’s an excellent junior chess club in Oldham, Greater Manchester, called 3Cs, which stands, rather prosaically, for Children’s Chess Club.
If I were thinking of starting a children’s chess club and the name hadn’t already been taken I’d consider calling it 3Cs, but my three Cs would stand for something different.
I recently came across a blog post by a young English chess player and teacher, Chris Russell. As it happens, when Chris was a pupil at Norwich School my brother Michael taught him English, which might in part explain why the post is so well written.
Chris writes about the community of chess players:
“Chess is the way we have all chosen to engage with the world and the presence of others helps to give meaning to our journey. I have long ago stopped trying to explain why I spend time on chess to those who don’t. I used to be met with creative variations of “what’s the point?” and never really had a satisfactory answer. Nowadays, I think it is a broader question of networking, support, interest and motivation.”
Chess is the way I’ve chosen to engage with the world, as well. We all need to be part of communities: it’s what makes us human. We can’t always choose our family or our workmates. Sometimes we need to escape and be part of a community of our choice. For some it will be the local pub, or perhaps a place of worship. For others it will be a club or society where they can meet other people with a common interest, people who see the world the same way as they do. Communities of this nature are, by and large, struggling at the moment. Pubs are closing, church congregations are declining, chess clubs are finding it hard to survive. Younger people are spending more time engaging with the world via screens rather than in person. You might, as I do, find this sad. Of course virtual communities also have their benefits: there are communities of those who play chess online, those who discuss various aspects of chess on social media.
So there’s one of my Cs: COMMUNITY.
For many members of the chess community, the main point of chess is to be able to test your skill against other people. Most children and young people enjoy any form of competition, as, of course, do many older people. Competition fulfils a lot of basic human needs. As a society we’re pretty good at promoting physical competition through a wide variety of sports, but less good at promoting mental competition. We should be promoting chess, as well as bridge and other brain games, as outlets for young people’s competitive instincts.
My second C, then, is COMPETITION.
Beyond community and competition, I believe that chess has a cultural significance. Not to the same extent as literature, art and music, of course, but it’s still there. Aesthetic beauty is an inherent part of chess. There’s beauty in a brilliant sacrificial attack, and a very different type of beauty in a subtle ending. Most of us might only dream of playing like that, but at least we can appreciate the artistry of others. There are also specific areas of chess devoted to beauty as opposed to direct competition: the worlds of chess problems and endgame studies, which themselves also include competitions both for solving and for composing. This is only part of the cultural significance of chess. There’s the whole iconography of chess: the beauty of chess pieces of different designs and in different materials, the use of chess in art and literature. I’m very much in favour of introducing children to great music, great art and great literature, and, for this reason I want to introduce children to chess.
My final C: CULTURE.
If chess makes my pupils smarter as well, then so much the better. If they become grandmasters, I’ll be thrilled. But what I really want to give them is COMMUNITY, COMPETITION and CULTURE. These are three basic human needs: to belong, to compete, and to appreciate beauty. Chess can offer all three.
While playing human opponents is the best way to improve your game, not everyone has the time to go down to your local chess club and play. San Francisco has the oldest chess club in the country, the Mechanic’s Institute. The place is amazing, except for one thing, parking! I really don’t enjoy getting into a fistfight with an eighty seven year old woman over the city’s last available downtown parking space. The first time she beat me up, I thought it mere luck. The third time, I realized I was a wimp. While this didn’t really happen (well, once when I was seventeen), it serves to illustrate a point, sometimes you just can’t make playing at a chess club a reality. This is where chess software comes in handy. I’ve been training for a series of corresponding matches and over the board (OTB) tournaments this summer and my sparing partner has been Fritz and Houdini.
I happen to reread a wonderful book by Andrew Soltis, titled Studying Chess Made Easy. Any student of the game should have this book. As much as I’d like to claim the following thoughts as my own, they come from this brilliant book. These thoughts regard how you should set up your software program as an opponent.
Training starts with investing in a real chess playing program. While there are a plethora of chess apps available, most of them aren’t very good. Those free chess apps you can download for your tablet tend to play poorly with Stockfish being the exception. The problem with Stockfish is that it plays too well for beginners and intermediate players. This is where programs like Fritz and Houdini come in. Both give you the ability to find a level that works for you.
You want the program to be playing at a slightly higher level than your rating. If your rating is 1200, try playing against the program set at 1400. If you don’t know your rating or you’re new to chess, try playing the program at it’s lowest level. If you win easily, adjust the rating to a higher level. Repeat the process until the program’s play becomes challenging. When you find the ideal playing level, you should be winning 25% of your games against the machine, not 100% of the games. When you start winning 50% of your games against the computer, crank the program’s rating up a notch. Note that as your rating rises and you set the program’s rating higher, you need to do so in smaller increments.
Soltis makes a great suggestion regarding bad positions. If you end up with a bad position, don’t resign. Instead, switch sides, taking over the program’s position. Then see if you can take advantage of that better position. How do you know your position’s bad? Besides the feeling of dread in your stomach, you can check the evaluation function. It’s found in a window in the lower right-hand corner of the program’s GUI. If the function says -1.00, it’s time to switch sides. Note what makes the program’s position better and determine where you went wrong before continuing the game. The program is a training tool and this is part of the training. Save all your games for future study.
Limit your use of the redo or undo option, that little button that allows you to take a move back. I recommend two or three take backs per game. However, you need to fully understand why your move was bad when you take it back. Obviously, the computer shows you but there’s more to it. You need to go a few moves back and see if a previous move created the problem. Research the problem, don’t simply move on. I have a special rule regarding take backs. If I take back a move, I cannot take back the new move I make. This forces me to really look at the position in greater detail. Of course, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be hard to analyze a position in detail. Therefore, beginners can use the blunder alert aka “coach is watching” option. This will cause the program to let you know you’ve made a bad decision and let you take back the move. It won’t tell you what move you should make, just that your move is not so great.
I encourage you to try out crazy ideas against the computer. It’s not like the program is going to tell you your out of your mind (well, Fritz might). Try a strange move and see what happens. Use the program to explore ideas. Learning comes from exploration. When beginners first start playing, they make wild moves and try things more advanced players wouldn’t consider. I love playing against my students for this very reason. Not because I’m going to punish them for a weird move but because that weird move forces me to look at the position differently. As beginners improve, they start becoming card carrying members of The Church of Opening Theory. They play book moves and stop taking chances. You know all those guys that have openings and variations named after them. They took chances. Don’t go crazy playing unorthodox moves but do some exploring. Use all the training tools that come with the program.
Chess programs have come a long way and have become much better at playing chess. Opening and endgame play by the program has greatly improved, although I do the greatest damage to Fritz in the endgame. Speaking of which, beginners need to improve their endgame play. Set up endgame positions found in books and play them against the program. You can do the same with middle-game positions. However, be careful when trying to employ tactics against the computer. The computer is a master tactician. If it let’s you execute a fork, for example, be assured it will get that material back in a few moves. Nothing if life or chess is free. Use your chess program as a sparring partner but don’t neglect human play. Using the program’s two dimensional board constantly can throw your game off a bit when you sit down and play on a real board. You can remedy this by playing out your program game moves on a real chess set. Well, there you have it. Some quick advice on computer training. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.
Pawn levers are something I struggle with. Nigel highly recommends Hans Kmoch’s book Pawn Power in Chess and while I’ve read it and clearly need to do so again. I have found the language difficult but it is worth persevering with.
Nigel has advised me to spend my time thinking about the pawn structure when it’s my opponent’s turn.
When looking at this game with me he said the main thing for White in this structure is to develop the Kingside and control d5.
He (and me – with hindsight!) saw that 16. 0-0-0 is the wrong plan. The correct idea (before 0-0-0!) was to use the c4 lever (with the off chance of a b4 lever). The idea is to weaken Black’s pawns and gain access to his King.
My thinking needs to be Lever led. In his book Kmoch talks about the Headpawn – the pawn furthest forward. This is where our focus should be when looking for levers.
A rook on the 7th rank often gives you an initiative, but two rooks there is usually decisive. Here is a game of Capablanca against Nimzowitsch which illustrate this theme. And it is also quite interesting to see how Capa managed to get his both the rooks on 7th rank with couple of interesting moves and the bit of help from Nimzowitsch.
Position after 23. Bb2 (Nimzowitsch vs Capablanca 1927)
This move is really annoying. It creates an awkward pin and attacks a3.
Computers might find some other cool defences but this is a human move. White sets his bishop free and protects the a3 pawn.
24…Qb3 25. Bd4
This improves the position of the bishop and blocks the d file, but might have failed to see Capa’s idea.
First rook arrives.
Looking for counter play but missing Black’s next move. 26. Qd1 might be better but after 26…Qc4 27. Rc1 Rc8 28. Rxc2 Qxc2 29. Qxc2 Rxc2 Black’s position is preferable as he already has one rook on the 7th rank.
This brings the second rook to the 7th rank.
27. Bxe5 Rdd2 28. Qb7 Rxf2 29. g4
Now the bishop protects h2 and the queen protects g2.
29…Qe6! 30. Bg3 Rxh2! 31. Qf3
And Black won after few more moves as Rxh2 fails to Qxg4+ followed by Qh3.
Concluding my series of horrible Black wins in the Czech Benoni, here’s a game in which one of my Dad’s idols, Leonid Stein, was completely lost after 26…Rg8. He went on to win in the end but not thanks to his ugly position:
This position is taken from a game played in Round 5 of the Grenke Chess Classic.
White, the German GM Georg Meier, is about to play his 39th move against Magnus Carlsen.
After 1 minute 28 seconds, and with just five seconds remaining on the clock he decides to play safe: 39. Ra1. The pieces were traded off and he captured the a-pawn to reach a drawn ending.
He wanted to look at something in the post mortem.
39. Rh1 Qe7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh5+ Kg6, and, on reaching this position he realised that he’d missed the second rook sacrifice 42. Rh6+ Kf7 (or 42… Kxh6 43. Qh5#) 43. Qh5+ Kg8 44. Rh8#. Black could avoid the mate by playing 41.. Kg8 but after 42. Be6+ Rff7 43. Rh6 White has a winning attack. In this line Black could also try 39.. Qf7, when White replies 40. Bf5 and Black can’t hold h7.
Unfortunate for Meier: with more time on the clock he’d have found the brilliant double rook sacrifice to defeat the World Champion.
In fact White has two other wins in this position.
One of them is 39. Rh5 with very much the same idea. Now after 39.. Qe7 40. Rxh7+ still works, but even stronger is 40. Be6 threatening 41. Rxh7+ Kxh7 42. Qh5#. Alternatively, 39.. Qf7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh1+ Kg8 42. Be6 wins the queen.
The other winning move is 39. Rf5 Rxf5 (or 39.. Qb8 40. Rxf8+ Qxf8 41. Rb1 with Rb8 to follow) 40. Bxf5 Qc7 (one of White’s many threats was Rh1) 41. Qe8+ Rg8 42. Qe6 Rf8 43. Rh1 and again Black has no way to defend h7.
Three ways to win, and a couple of other promising moves as well (Be6, Rb1), but, with only 90 seconds or so left, it’s understandable that Meier chose a safe, but not winning option. Chess is a cruel game.
Moving onto the next round, let’s watch world championship candidate Fabiano Caruana struggling to hold the ending against Hou Yifan. Hou, playing black, is about to make her 64th move.
Understandably enough, she moves her threatened a-pawn. Meanwhile, chess fans throughout the world, watching the chess24.com engine, realise she’s missed a beautiful win.
It starts with 64.. Kd2 when White has nothing better than 65. Bxa6. Now come two stunning moves. 65.. Nd3+!, sacrificing a knight to undouble the white pawns, followed by 66. cxd3 d4, sacrificing the rest of her pawns to force promotion. Totally amazing!
White doesn’t have to capture the knight, though.
66. Kb1 Ne1 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. Bc6 d4 69. Be4 Kd2 (but the immediate Nxc2 only draws) 70. a4 Nxc2 71. Bxc2 d3 72. Bxd3 cxd3 (but not Kxd3 which is only a draw) and Black will promote with check and win by a tempo.
After 66. Ka2 there are several ways to win. One attractive line runs 66.. Kxc2 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. a4 Kd2 69. a5 c3 70. a6 c2 71. a7 c1Q 72. Bxd3 Kc3 73. a8Q Qb2#
66. Ka1 is similar to Ka2.
In fact, after 64.. a5 65. Kc1 Hou is still winning. The way to secure the full point runs: 65.. Ke2 66. Bc6 Ke1 67. Bxb5 Ne2+ 68. Kb2 Kd2 winning the c3 pawn. Instead she continued 65.. Ne2+ 66. Kb2 Kd2 (going back with Nf4 was still winning) 67. Bxd5 Nxc3 and Caruana managed to hold on, the game eventually being drawn on move 98.
Another missed opportunity, but it’s very difficult for anyone to spot this over the board. For Caruana, as for Carlsen in the previous round, a narrow escape.
These two positions demonstrate just how beautiful – and how difficult – chess can be. Which is why playing it and teaching it, at least to pupils who want to play chess well, is so worthwhile.
A tweet from chess historian Olimpiu G Urcan summed it up: “You really have to feel pity for those who don’t play or understand chess in moments like this”.
“Remember boys, chess can’t be taught, Chess can only be learned,” So said Mikhail Botvinnik, father of the Russian School of Chess. What he meant was that most progress occurs when the student is alone, working through his or her studies. In chess, we often learn best what we learn independently. My fellow chess teachers and coaches might find this an odd statement from a guy that teaches and coaches chess for a living but I prefer my students to be self learners. If I expect students to teach themselves. What’s my role? I’m simply a guide who can answer questions and point students in the right direction. In the end, it’s the student who does all the work.
You really should be a self learner when it comes to chess for two reasons. First, you’ll learn a lot more when trying to work through problems and positions by yourself. Second, do you really want to pay a high hourly rate for something you can do at little cost? Of course you should have access to a teacher to help you along the way, but don’t depend on them for all of your learning.
Improving your chess is a hands on learning experience the same way music is. It’s a combination of theory and practice, or studying and playing. It’s a balancing act between both with one being needed to achieve the other. You can know all the theory in the world but unless you’ve tested that theory out on the board, you’ll never really improve. Shouldn’t knowing theory be enough to make sound decisions any time you play? No! Take the game’s numerous principles into consideration. There are times when principles are bent in order to gain a better position. The principles don’t tell you exactly when to bend them. Only actual play will show you where this works and where it doesn’t. Practice also helps to cement theory into your memory.
As I first mentioned, learning should primarily be an independent process. A student thirsty for chess knowledge and armed with a good chess book is going to learn a lot more working through the book than having me explain the book to them word for word. I have my students work through books and use me to explain ideas they don’t fully understand (only after they work at it for a while). Of course, you have to be motivated to be an independent learner. Many people rely on teachers because the teacher forces the student to adhere to a schedule. However, after paying the hourly rate, the student goes home and studies the teacher’s lesson. Sounds like the student is doing independent study! Most people who fall in love with chess tend to be motivated to learn. They fall under the spell of chess lust. They lust for chess knowledge which is great until they get a bad case of TMI or Too Much Information!
I had to transfer all of my chess teaching stuff to a new laptop this weekend. It took ten hours to transfer roughly 400 GB of books, videos, training software, my own chess writing, etc. I only transferred the most important materials. My first thought when starting the transfer process was, how does anyone learn independently with so many choices of training material? I have my adult students who are new to chess start off with books written for kids. They are not allowed to study adult books until they’ve read three children’s books I recommend. Kid’s books give clear explanations that can easily be grasped. After they’ve gone through the books do we start talking about apps and programs for training. The secret to avoiding a bad case of TMI? Don’t worry about everything available to help you improve. Simply concentrate on where you need to improve and seek advice from someone who can determine where you need to work on your playing. This is where teachers come in. I sit down with my students, play a few games and then analyze those games. This allows me to determine where the student needs work and point them in the right direction. I suggest books or training programs geared towards their level of play at this point.
Surprisingly, a lot of learning is subliminal. A student plays through the games of a master and tries to follow the action on the board. This student sees a move that follows a principle they learned about and may have forgotten. Now that principle is cemented into their memory. The same student might play through a game they lost trying to determine where they went wrong. Even though they might not see the problem move clearly, they subliminally notice other important things about the game that will become part of their playing thought process. We learn a lot more than we think we do. At the age of thirteen, Botvinnik spent countless hours analyzing his games in order to improve.
The self learner should always know why something is actually important. This can get tricky because you often have to read between the lines. Here’s an example of what I mean: The Knight, Bishop and King against lone King endgame. I use this endgame example in my upcoming book. I did a lot of research regarding this type of endgame because it’s tricky. The majority of endgame books I read stated this is an important endgame to know. Really, how many players find themselves in this type of endgame? Not many. Why this endgame is important has to do with piece coordination. You should learn this endgame because it will teach you how to coordinate your pieces which can be helpful during the entire game. The point here is that if you know why something you’re learning is important, you’ll be able to apply it to your play successfully. I’m a big fan of this endgame situation and share it with my students. However, I never teach it in terms of endgame play.
A lot of your learning takes place when you absorb an idea and run with it, trying it out in your games. The great thing about chess is that you can have fun putting you new found knowledge to the test by playing. You learn something and test it out. It doesn’t always work out the first time around, but stick with it. Principled play always wins over unprincipled play. Be a self learner. Seriously, you’ll get more out of your studies. Of course, I’m happy to take your money. However, I’m still going to make you learn on your own. If a chess teacher says you can’t learn the game on your own, there’s something suspicious regarding that teacher’s motives. Try it out. In fact here’s a little self learner homework. Play through this game and find a principle that applies to every move made. In fairness, I did what I’m asking you to do last night. Enjoy!
Here is a game that highlights my lack of structural understanding! It was helpful to go through it with Nigel. Below is the game with Nigel’s notes. Nigel explained the big problem of my 10.dxe5 was that it gave Black the c5 square. 10. b5 would have been better.
He showed me two games of Korchnoi’s games (including one against Nigel!) with similar structural themes.
This is really an instructive position. Play was focused on restricting the activity of one of Black’s minor pieces, a key middle game strategy that is often seen at grandmaster level. We have following position after Black’s last move 19…Rd8:
Q: How would you continue from here with white pieces?
20. b5! Ne5?!
Other options are also just good for White, for example:
a) 20…Ne7 21.c6
a1)21…Bc8 22.Bc4 Nd5 23.cxd7 23.Rxd7 24.Qa2 Rd8 25.Nd4 and white enjoys pressing position.
a2)21…Ba8 22.Bc4 Nc8 23.Qa2 Nb6 24.Rd1 with fantastic position.;
b) 20…Nb8 is just bad because of 21.Qa5 Bxf3 22.Bxf3 Qe5 23.Rc1 and Black has a very poor knight.
21.Nxe5 Qxe5 22.c6 Bc8
22…Ba8 23.Rd1 d5 24.Qd4 Qxd4 25.exd4 produces a position where Black’s bishop is even worse than on c8 which was what happened in the actual game.
23…d6 24.Qa5 d5 25.Qa1 Qxa1 26.Rxa1 gives White a winning position.
24.Qd4! Qxd4 25.exd4 Kf8 26.f4!
Now Black can’t achieve e5 without a significant loss of material which means his light square bishop is very bad. Carlsen went on win after few more moves.