Category Archives: Articles

Inspiration From Another Field

Although published ten years ago and is actually about squash, this article reveals many of the qualities required to succeed in any field.

In the mid-Sixties, in a sport where his peers could be both cavalier and rotund yet still successful, his attitude caused its own revolution. ‘I won through fitness rather than through talent,’ he says, and this stemmed from an unprecedented training schedule and his infallible application to the cause. In 1966, after winning his first British Open championship, he did some press- ups and then, as the champagne was passed round, discussed his plans for Christmas training runs along his home cliffs of Morwenstow in Cornwall.

Such dedication fired an unquenchable desire to win. Michael Corby, for many years No 2 to him in Britain, remembers how Barrington cried after defeat in the quarter-finals of the world championship in Australia in 1967. ‘He cried because he cared so much,’ Corby said. ‘I used to say to him that of life’s many facets, he only had one and he should lighten up. But who is to say that I was right?’

Squash players seem to be exceptional role models in this regard, getting to know Victor Niederhoffer was helpful in learning that my own single mindedness and determination could actually be perceived as qualities. All too often you meet the attitude that it’s better to ‘have fun’ with an activity or be ‘well balanced’, which subtly implies that the pursuit of mastery of a field shows you are in some way defective!

My take on this is that normally people lack the motivation to do what it takes to succeed whilst at the same time wanting to be really good at something. Unfortunately the two don’t go together.

Nigel Davies

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Fishing Pole

We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.

Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.

These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.

I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.

A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.

So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.

We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”

I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.

There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.

You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.

So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.

Richard James

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Space Point Count

You’re playing a game of chess, well into the opening, and you compare your position to that of your opponent. It appears that you both are equal, developmentally speaking. Your pawns and pieces are on active squares, yet your opponent quickly becomes the aggressor which leaves you having to defend rather than attack. You quickly lose the game wondering where you went wrong. If this has happened to you, let me ask you a question, did you tally up your space points (space point count) when considering a move? If you’re wondering what a space point count is, read further!

How much territory you control on the board is critical during all phases of the game. However, nowhere is it more important than in the opening. If you control a greater number of squares than your opponent, your opponent is going to be hard pressed to safely get his or her pawns and pieces into the game. After my students learn the games rules, we move on to the opening principles. We often start with the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates these basic principles in action. With any opening, you want to get your pawns and pieces to their most active squares before launching into any attacks. Often, one player will develop their pawns and pieces actively while their opponent develops their pawns and pieces more defensively. While a well seasoned player can develop defensively in such a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to whip up a strong attack, the beginner playing defensively tends to create a traffic jam of pawns and pieces that trap their King on it’s starting square.

If you’re attacking, your opponent is defending and if you’re defending your opponent is attacking. Eventually, you become one or the other during the course of the game! Two players can have somewhat equal positions and suddenly, one of those players gains greater control of the board! In fact, you can take a quick glance at a given board position and it can appear as if both players have equal control of the board. However, if you apply a space point count to the position, you’ll see that one player has a slight edge or greater control of the situation.

A space point count is simply a way to calculate who has greater territorial control of the board. To employ this idea, count the number of opposition squares your pawns and pieces control. Opposition squares are those squares on your opponent’s side of the board. If you’re playing the white pieces, the squares you’re going to count are those squares on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th ranks (squares on your opponent’s side of the board). If you’re playing the black pieces, you’re looking at opposition squares on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st ranks. In essence, you’re calculating the opposition space you control, thus the term space point count.

In the above example, the space count points for white are 23 while the space point counts for black are a mere 5. White has a much greater control of black’s side of the board while black is barely attacking anything on white’s side of the board. This is a spatial advantage and spatial advantages lead to winning games!

Beginners have a difficult time with the concept of overall spatial control. This occurs because beginners tend to focus on a specific area on the board, such as the center during the game’s opening. During the opening, the beginner will focus on d4, d5, e4 and e5, moving their pawns and pieces on or towards those squares. Of course, this is what we’ve learned to do during the opening. However, this essentially mechanical way of thinking can leave the beginner ill equipped, transitionally speaking, to enter into the middle game.

By moving pawns and pieces to squares that control the maximum number of opposition squares during the opening, you’ll be setting yourself up for a better middle game. Employing a space count can also help you decide on a specific move. Let’s say you’ve come up with three good moves you can make and now have the task of narrowing it down to the one move you’re going to make. How do you determine which move is best? I suggest doing a space point count for each of the three moves and see which one controls the greatest number of squares on the opposition’s side of the board. Of course, there are exceptions to this but the beginner should stick to the basics and keep it simple!

By counting the number of opposition squares a piece will control after it is moved, the beginner will see the entire board rather than an isolated area such as the center. Many of my beginning students have had major problems with hanging pieces, losing them because they weren’t looking at the entire board. After using the space point count system, those students greatly reduced the number of hung pieces because their board vision was better. Those same students were also able to start making a smoother transition into the middle game.

Try using the space point count method when considering a specific move. It comes in handy when you have a few moves to chose from that are close in their advantages. More often than not, you’ll find that one move garners you a bit more control of the position. However, you have to count those squares to truly know! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Try using the space point count system while playing through this game.

Hugh Patterson

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Your Pawn Is Threatened: Do You Defend, Advance, Or Trade?

In a chess game, both sides start out with a complete front line of Pawns, which means that to make progress, you have to break through that front line somehow. The only way to break through is to advance your own Pawns and bring out your pieces to attack your opponent’s front line. At some point, a head-to-head clash occurs in which one side’s Pawn is attacked by a Pawn from the other side. The question then is always:

  • Do I advance my Pawn past the attacking Pawn (if not otherwise blocked)?
  • Do I capture my opponent’s Pawn with mine (usually meaning a trade, unless it was a deflecting gambit)?
  • Do I defend my Pawn (or overprotected it, if it was already defended)?

This question pops up early in the opening in particularly interesting fashion in the King’s Indian Defense, in which Black challenges White’s d4 Pawn with a Pawn to e5 that “threatens” the d4 Pawn.

At club level, I see players respond in each of the different ways, and sometimes I get asked “what is best?” The truth is, despite the particular popularity of certain responses at elite level, all three are definitely valid reactions at club level; in fact, I see White winning many games playing each way. The important thing is to know the reason behind each valid choice.

Even if you don’t play the King’s Indian Defense for either color, the strategic ideas are extremely interesting and worth studying, and can pop up in many openings.

Here is a typical decision point (I have chosen the “old main line” rather than the modern main line because it illustrates the themes more clearly). I want to discuss the fundamental ideas, not go into detailed opening variations: for that, you can consult an appropriate opening manual.

Closing the center

At club level, it is very common to see White immediately close the center by advancing d5, avoiding a trade of the d4 Pawn. Why would you want to do that?

Pros

  • Forever avoid any threats against the d4 Pawn, especially in light of Black’s fianchettoed Bishop on g7.
  • Forever avoid having an e4 Pawn exposed on a half-open e-file (if Black chose to capture with …exd4).
  • Gain space on the Queen side.

Cons

  • Black’s Knight gets a great outpost at c5, which is now a hole no longer covered by White’s d4 Pawn.
  • Black can plan to maneuver to get in an …f5 Pawn break attacking White’s e4 Pawn and gaining space on the King side.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4 to dislodge the Black Knight and somehow getting the c5 Pawn break in or taking control of the a-file or something. You are not going to win on the King side.

Exchanging Pawns

Also popular at club level is immediately exchanging Pawns.

Pros

  • As with closing the center, you no longer have to worry about the d4 Pawn.
    As with closing the center, your e4 Pawn is safe and Black’s fianchettoed Bishop is blocked in.

  • You retain a space advantage because of the c4 Pawn controlling d5 and possibly having plans to get to c5.

Cons

  • Giving up control of the c5 square.
  • The resulting Pawn structure leaves White with no immediate Pawn break but Black may have plans to maneuver to enable …f5.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4, c5, b5, something like that. You are not going to win on the King side.

Holding the center

Finally, the most interesting option for White is to hold the center. I think it’s useful to gain experience with the first two approaches above in order to appreciate why it might be beneficial but also risky to hold the center.

Pros

  • White continues to develop.
  • Black is denied the c5 square.
  • Black remains cramped, because the Knight on d7 has no place to go.
  • White keeps the option of advancing or trading any time in the future as desired, if Black does not capture first. In the case of Be3, White has a possible plan of preparing d5 followed immediately by Nd2 to protect the e4 Pawn.

Cons

  • Black may capture on d4, freeing up c5 for the Knight, opening the dark diagonal, and half-opening the e-file.

Be3 is one of three common ways to continue developing while “waiting” for Black to do something, and the most subtle. It protects the d4 Pawn more, in anticipation of Black capturing it.

Now Black is the one with a choice: take up the challenge or put pressure on White’s e4 Pawn to force White to make a decision about advancing or trading. Many variations are possible, and I’m not discussing them here, but the point is that both sides are subtly fighting over what to do and what to encourage the other side to do. Note that if Black plays the waiting move …c6, White’s d5 suddenly has a lot more effect than when Black’s Pawn was on c7. Also, if Black plays …Re8, again, White can play d5 making Black’s Rook look funny on the closed e-file. Finally, after …Ng4, White can argue that this does nothing other than misplace the Knight.

Another way to hold the center

Qc2 is another way to hold the center, with a double purpose:

  • Overprotect the e4 Pawn.
  • Prepare to play Rd1 protecting the d4 Pawn and also threatening to capture on e5 with a discovered pin.

A third way to hold the center

Finally, Re1 is also another way to hold the center. It may look mysterious, but the point is to play Bf1 to “discover” overprotection of the e4 Pawn.

Franklin Chen

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Towards Your Chess Improvement

The position below was taken from the game of Tarrasch against Berger, played in 1889:


White to move

At first glance it looks as if it is winning for white as you can play Rxd4, winning a piece.

First raw thought:
Rxd4 – cxd4
Qxc8 – Qxc8
Ne7+ and White wins a piece,

Normally a beginner, with some combinative knowledge, will instantly play this given combination and ended up in losing (as after Nxc8- d3 wins). The reason is that they don’t care to look at the position that arises after the combination which gives them a material advantage.

Lesson 1: Always try to see another half move ahead before playing a combination. The same thing has been recommended by Jacob Aagaard in his book Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation.

Second thought:
Before executing the combination I must bring my king closer so that I can stop the pawn advance. But then he can defend easily with Ra8 or Rb8 so I must stop here and look for other good moves. But now I see there is a chance to gain a tempo with:
Rxd4 – cxd4
Ne7+ (Changing the move order) – Qxe7
Qxc8+ – Qf8 and Qxf8 and gaining a tempo.

Lesson 2: Don’t give up in between.

Third thought:
I don’t get any material advantage then. Yet looking another half move ahead (lesson 1) I see that I now have a winning endgame position because the d4 pawn will fall soon and I can create outside passer on queen side.

Lesson 3: In the endgame a tiny advantage can be decisive and whatever combination you play must consider resulting endgames.

This position and the associated thought process shows that every position teaches you something. Progress is dependent on how much you learn and capitalise on it in future games.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Don’t Forget The King …

It is often said that a chess player should not forget their King — and of course rightly so. We should not forget that our whole game revolves around it. We strive to keep our King safe, and to be the undoing of the opposition King. And, ultimately, to capture it.

However, this being said, it is often the case that the King can leave his defences and become an attacking piece. Normally this happens in the endgame, of course, but it does not necessarily have to be that late in the game. There are many exceptions in chess, and one should always have an open mind and look for new twists. It can come about that the King can make a very big difference even in the middlegame.

Take the example below, between Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman, and British Grandmaster and former World Championship candidate, Nigel Short.

White gets the better of the opening, which is an Alekhine’s Defence, and thanks to some rather unadventurous play by black it has to be said, soon holds a commanding edge. Accordingly, Short shows why he has a reputation for being one of the games most attacking players.

His 24.Rd8! marks the beginning of the end, and upon 26. R8d7, Black can respectably resign. At 28…Rae8, white is in total control, and the black pieces are mere spectators. Then comes the twist. With the black position cramped and passive, white’s 29. Qf6! (not just a mere check) restricts it further. Then follows his 30. h4! And a safe path has been opened for the white King to triumphantly march up the board and make a decisive contribution to the battle. Notice how even with major black pieces on the board, the white monarch is under no imminent threat while the black King is doomed in his own house.

A perfect example of not forgetting one’s King if ever there was one — well, from White’s point of view, anyway …

John Lee Shaw

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Preparation In The Minors

Until recently the idea of having people prepare for their openings was alien to amateurs. But this is about to change.

The web site Chess DB has games by players right down to the lowest levels of competitive chess, and with the site accessible on a mobile phone everyone can now worry about having their opponents prepare for them.

Picking out a player at random I found that an 8 year old Austrian kid called Manuel Rigler, with a provisional Elo of 800, had seven games in the database. With White in one game he played for scholar’s mate (at least he did so in 2013) but great disappointment followed his opponent spotting it with 3…Nf6. He ended up retreating his queen with 4.Qd1, which might have been because of now remembering his coach’s advice not to bring the queen out too early. The later implosion with 27.b5 and 28.c4 was unfortunate, I guess he panicked a bit when he saw those rooks staring at him. Instead he had a strong move with 27.f4.

Manuel of course will likely be in shock to discover that his games are now public knowledge, not least because opponents can be primed for his scholar’s mate in advance. So aren’t databases going a little bit too far?

Of course here at the Davies household we’re celebrating the discovery of this site as my son Sam can now make more use of his personal GM father before a game. His opponents, of course, may find this more than a little disconcerting…

Nigel Davies

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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Focus

One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Accept The Sacrifice If The Alternative Is To Lose Anyway

When I was in my final year of high school, I played in the last tournament of my life before I returned to chess two decades later: I played in the 1987 Michigan High School Team Championship. I ended up winning the first board prize with a perfect score of 5 points, but I always felt funny about how I achieved that, because in one of my games I played a sacrifice that I felt guilty about for two decades. Also, that was the only tournament in my life that I ended up losing my score sheets for, so I do not even have the full score of that game. But I do remember vividly the moves leading up to the critical position, and my mindset.

Seeing the possibility of a Greek gift sacrifice

On move 10 out of the opening, I suddenly spent a huge amount of time deciding whether to play the “Greek gift” sacrifice against my opponent’s King, sacrificing my Bishop on h7 with check.

But in my attempt to calculate a win, I could not find a forced win. I saw defensive resources, so I was reluctant to play an unsound sacrifice. But the idea of playing the sacrifice really appealed to me. You have to understand that I had never played the Greek gift sacrifice before, only read about it in books, and also I knew this might be the last chess tournament of my life, as I was going off to college in the fall, and I had actually “retired” from chess in my sophomore year of high school, and came out to play in the Michigan High School State Championship only because I had started up a chess club in my high school in the fall in hope of boosting my college application (I brought four teammates who had never played in a tournament before). I outrated my opponent by over 500 USCF rating points, so there was no need for me to play recklessly to win, so my motivation was just to finish my chess-playing days in style.

I did see that I would get compensation for the sacrifice, and therefore should not lose if I played the sacrifice, but that was all I could see. Even after I went home to analyze the game, because I did not have access to good computational power in the 1980s, I did not believe I had the full truth of the position until the 2000s, on my return to chess, when chess engines by then had become very strong.

Sacrifice declined!

I was simultaneously ashamed and relieved when my opponent thought only briefly and declined the sacrifice, and therefore easily lost, being a Pawn down without compensation, and having a weakened King side also.

My opponent must have concluded that my deep thought meant I had figured everything out, but in fact, my deep thought came from not having figured it out! Granted, I was much higher-rated than my opponent, but higher-rated players can make terrible moves too, and sometimes even deliberately as a swindle, so you should think for yourself for a bit, and not always assume your higher-rated opponent has everything figured out. Granted, psychologically it was clearly a shocker to him that I thought mysteriously for such a long time moves before the sacrifice.

In club play, I often see fear of accepting sacrifices, and painful losses resulting from declining. The loss is usually painful because a sacrifice significantly disrupts a position, so if your position is disrupted anyway, and there is no visible immediate mate, maybe you might as well grab some material for your trouble; if the attack goes wrong, then you may have a good chance of consolidating and winning as a successful defender. Part of chess is choosing to defend.

So I’m saying, accept the sacrifice if you honestly do not see anything wrong with doing so. You might be making a mistake, but at least make the mistake and lose rather than choosing the path of sure loss, losing material against a much higher-rated player.

How sound was the sacrifice?

The fact that White is missing the dark-squared Bishop and only has a Queen and two Knights really restricts White from having a win in this position. The only possible things White can do are try to push h4, maybe castle Queen side, and use the two Rooks somehow. Meanwhile, Black can defend the King and develop. Note that if White tries to win back an exchange, the result is an unfavorable balance of material in which White gets a Rook and a Pawn or two for two minor pieces, so it is no use for White to regain material.

I’ve inserted some variations into my annotations below.

Irony: there could have been an alternative Greek gift sacrifice!

The irony is that if I had played Nc3 instead of Bd2, and “normal” development had continued, with Black “castling into it”, then the Greek gift sacrifice would have been obviously sound and winning. The huge difference is that with White’s dark-squared Bishop still on the board, and guarding the Knight on g5, White does not have to support the Knight with the Queen, but can calmly play h4, followed by Qg4, with a deadly barrage of discovered checks to follow: a check with the Queen or with the Bishop on c1 if the King goes to h6.

Note that it is important to play h4 first, to avoid Black’s tempo-gaining …f5 against the Queen on g4, because with the Pawn on h4 first, then h5+ can be played at any time, and optimally when Black’s King on g6 cannot escape to f5. Check it out with a computer engine if you want to verify that it’s a quick win for White.

Why did I play Bd2 anyway? I had some vague idea that getting rid of Black’s “good” Bishop for my “bad” one was advantageous. Also, note that I recaptured “wrong” with Nbxd2; I just recently wrote an article about why Qxd2 is usually best. But in 1987, my positional understanding was not so good.

Some resources on the Greek gift sacrifice

A well-written overview by GM Daniel Naroditsky.

A previous Chess Improver article by Ashvin Chauhan.

A 2012 game of mine in which I played a correct Greek gift sacrifice.

The game (up to the point of the sacrifice)

Franklin Chen

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