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Chess & Mental Differences

Nobody can deny the fact that chess players as a whole are a somewhat eccentric bunch. It needs a special kind of mind to devote vast swathes of time to a board game that is so intense and so abstract, most ‘normal’ people just don’t get it. I don’t know of any studies on the mental differences of the chess playing community but suspect we’re very well represented by people with Asperger traits.

Speaking for myself I come from a line of people with ‘non standard’ brains and count myself as fortunate that with me it skipped a generation! There again I never had a problem spending huge amounts of time going through chess games and codifying and studying openings. One of my earlier recollections is of being forced to go on a family walk on a sunny day rather than go through Bobby Fischer’s games, my parents were obviously concerned.

Nonetheless I haven’t had any episodes that gave me massive cause for concern apart from one which might have been down to more recent obsession with chi kung and tai chi. I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that I’d missed the school run and slept through until it was dark, and only found my son asleep in his room after phoning the police to ask what I should do. When I later mentioned this to my teacher he did advise me that there are possible side effects to these arts due to the changes that take place in the body, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Fortunately there has been no recurrence.

Are there practical implications for chess players if you don’t have a standard brain? For those with Asperger’s and autism the chess scene can be something of a refuge as a lot of others will understand you! Traits such as ruthlessness, paranoia and a lack of social skills and compassion can be the rule rather than the exception and you can merrily discuss an obscure variation of the Sicilian Najdorf to an attentive audience. Anxiety and depression, which also seem quite common, are an altogether more difficult thing to deal with as even the treatment may play havoc with your game. Nonetheless it might be better to keep taking the tablets as this chess player’s harrowing tale indicates. Arbiters have a hard enough job with the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet without having to call the men in white coats.

So welcome to the chess world, a wacky den of ‘individuals’ that is a haven for those with different brains. But remember that not all of them will have exactly the same brain difference as your own (or the same meds for that matter) so it can be good to cut them a little slack.

Nigel Davies


Minority Interests (4)

Thus far, we have seen successful examples where Black manages to exchange light-squared bishops early, which usually favours him. Against an accurate white move-order, this is not possible, but Black is still not without counterplay. A piece attack on the kingside is his main weapon. The following game sees this work very well against slow white play. Fuster hunts down and eventually annexes the poor black a-pawn, but while he is doing so, his kingside comes to resemble the Marie Celeste, and his monarch pays the price.

Steve Giddins


Miracles on the Chessboard

This week’s problem illustrates the type of miracles that can happen on a chessboard, even in very simple positions.

White’s King cannot stop a pawn from queening. If White takes a Black pawn, the other pawn jumps two squares and races down the board for a touchdown.

The Black King needs only two moves to capture the White pawn. White needs four moves with his King to catch it.

Obviously, White should resign. But should he? Amazingly, White can draw this position.

How does White do this astonishing feat?

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White wins with 1. Kg4! That is another astounding move, and the only way to win.

Steven Carr


Adventures with 1… e5 (7)

Last season I played six games with Black starting 1. e4 e5. They all continued 2. Nf3 Nc6, whereupon I encountered 3. Bb5 and 3. Bc4 twice each, and 3. d4 and 3. c3 once each.

I chose unusual ways to meet the Spanish: 3… g6 in one game and 3… Nge7 in the other. After the latter game my opponent told me he’d have played the Exchange Variation if I’d played 3… a6. I’d been wondering whether, considering that I only play 15-20 games a year and am coming to the end of my chess career, it was worth learning a main line defence such as the Marshall. How often would I get the chance to play it?

In the spirit of enquiry, I decided to find out whether my first Spanish opponent last season would have followed the main lines, so, when I found myself once again with the Black pieces against Paul Shepherd (congratulations to Paul for having become Surrey champion since we last met) I decided to ask him by playing 3… a6.

I hadn’t quite decided what to play against 4. Ba4 but as it turned out I wasn’t going to have to make that decision. Yes, he decided to trade on c6.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Bxc6 dxc6
5. O-O Bg4

This is what I teach my pupils so I decided to play it myself.

6. h3 h5

A considerable improvement on the similarly motivated Fishing Pole Trap. Of course it’s not a good idea for White to take the bishop.

7. d3 Qf6
8. Be3

The more complicated alternative is 8. Nbd2 which my opponent rejected because he didn’t know the theory, unaware that I didn’t know it either.

8… Bxf3
9. Qxf3 Qxf3
10. gxf3 Bd6
11. Nd2 Ne7
12. Rfd1

The usual choices here are Rfb1 (which looks rather strange to me) and Nc4.

12… O-O-O

Ng6, c5 and f6 have all been played here, but the engines seem happy enough with my choice. A not terribly interesting GM example: 12… c5 13. Nc4 Nc6 14. c3 Ke7 15. Kf1 f6 16. a3 a5 17. a4 g6 18. Ke2 Ke6 19. Rg1 Rhg8 20. Rg2 Rad8 21. Rag1 Kf7 1/2-1/2 A Volokitin (2600) – V Akopian (2689) Sochi 2004

13. Kf1 Ng6

Or 13… f6 14. Ke2 g5 15. Rg1 Ng6 16. c3 Rd7 17. Nc4 Be7 18. Rad1 c5 19. a3
Rhd8 20. Rd2 h4 21. Rb1 Nf8 22. b4 cxb4 23. axb4 b6 24. d4 exd4 25. cxd4 Ne6
26. d5 Ng7 27. Na3 Bd6 28. Nc4 and a draw in 65 moves in A Ruszin (2125) – H Asabri (2228) Budapest 2007

14. Ke2 Nf4+
15. Bxf4 exf4
16. Rg1 Rhg8
17. Nc4 g5
18. Rg2 f6
19. Rag1 Be7
20. Rh1

White might have played h4 at any time over the last few moves. Now I decide to put a stop to that idea, after which there shouldn’t be too much happening.

20… h4
21. Ra1 Rge8
22. Kd2

But this is very careless, allowing a potential fork should the white knight move to a5. I managed to spot this and played…

22… b5
23. Na3 Bxa3
24. bxa3 Re6
25. Rb1 c5
26. Rgg1 c4
27. Rgd1 Red6
28. Ke2 cxd3+
29. cxd3 Rd4
30. Rb4 Kb7

It’s not looking too for for White in this rook ending, but he could try to hold on with Rb3 or Rxd4 rather than giving up a pawn with…

31. Rdb1 Rxd3
32. a4 Rd2+
33. Ke1 Rxa2
34. axb5 axb5

A very poor decision, played without any thought at all. Instead, simply 34… a5 when White has no counterplay and Black has an easy victory in prospect.

35. Rxb5+ Kc6
36. Rf5 Rdd2
37. Rxf6+ Kd7
38. Rf7+ Ke6

Natural, I suppose, but another poor decision. 38… Kd6 39. Rf6+ Ke7 was the way to go, again with a simple win.

39. Rxc7 Re2+
40. Kd1 Red2+

Offering a draw, which was accepted. After 41. Ke1 I have nothing better than repetition.


Not a good game. My opponent made a careless mistake on move 22 and took a risk which left him with a lost position on move 31. I then threw away easy wins on moves 34 and 38. The same thing happened, you will recall, in the game I demonstrated last week. The better my position the more nervous I become and the worse I play. It’s always been what’s going on in my head more than anything else which prevented me becoming a better player. Would I ever win another game against a highly rated opponent?

There was no reason to complain about my position from the opening, though. 1… e5 still seems to be working well: perhaps I should have played it all my life.

Richard James


Pawn and Minor Piece Workouts

Beginners tend to employ major pieces for early attacks when they first start learning to play chess. We’ve all brought our Queen out early when we first learned the game only to watch her be captured by our opponent. The same holds true for the Rook. Beginners tend to think about using their minor pieces in limited terms, especially the Knight because of its strange way of moving. Pawns are expendable to the beginner because he or she has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued material in their arsenal (or so the beginner thinks). This often leads to a lack of game skill regarding pawns and minor pieces.

I’ve been trying a number of training exercises to get my students up and running when it comes to employing pawns and minor pieces in their games. Of course, there’s the old standby, the pawn game, used to introduce beginners to pawn movement. However, it only introduces the beginner to pawns interacting with pawns. In the pawn game, both players have only pawns that are lined up on their starting ranks. White moves first. The goal of the game is to get one pawn (or more) to the other side of the board to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and then capture the opposition’s pawns. The first player to capture all of the opposition’s pawns wins. This is a great way to learn about pawn structure and pawn coordination.

I’ve altered this game a bit to help students learn about the mighty pawn and minor pieces at the same time. It’s very simple. The student playing white will have the pawns and the student playing black will start with a single Knight on the a8 or h8 square (it doesn’t matter which corner square the Knight starts on). The goal for white is to get one pawn to its promotion square, promote it into a Queen and then capture the opposing Knight. The goal for black is to stop the pawns, namely by attacking the base of any pawn chain white creates as well as capturing any lone or unsupported pawns.

While it’s a tough challenge for the player with the lone Knight, it can be done, especially if the pawns are not well structured. If white doesn’t progress across the board with his or her pawns working together, black can pick off any lone pawns with ease. The student who has the black Knight will learn a great deal about moving the Knight, a piece often difficult for beginners to master. When a student says “I don’t think this is fair since my opponent has eight pawns and I only have a single minor piece,” I remind them that those eight pawns are going to have to work extremely closely with one another to avoid capture. I also mention that the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over (and behind) any pawn or piece on the board. This means you can’t block an attack by a Knight. Once the game concludes, the students switch sides and start a new game. After that game, they switch sides again and we add a second Knight to the black side. Now the third game starts with all the white pawns again on their starting rank (the second rank) and a black Knight on a8 and h8. Things become a lot tougher for white facing two Knights. At the conclusion of game three, the players switch sides and a fourth game is played.

I use the same idea with the Bishop. White starts the game with eight pawns on the second rank and black starts with a Bishop on either a8 or h8. The goal is the same, with white aiming for a pawn promotion and capture of the enemy Bishop. Because the Bishop is a long distance attacker with a greater board range than the Knight, white has to be extremely careful with their pawn structure. Lone pawns without supporting pawns will be picked off in no time. However, the single Bishop can only attack pawns on the same color square it’s on. After game one is concluded, the players switch sides and play again.

As with the first example employing the Knight, we add a second black Bishop to a corner square for game three. This means you have a black Bishop on a8 and h8 for game three. Now the player with the pawns has to think very carefully about pawn structure. Remember, with one Bishop on the board, your pawns will always be safe if they’re on a square of the opposite color of the square the opposing Bishop is on. With two Bishops, no square is safe. Only careful coordination and pawn structure will allow a pawn to be promoted. Game four finds our players switching sides one last time.

I use this training idea in my classes as well as a warm up exercise for my students at tournaments. What they get from this is twofold. First, they learn a lot about pawn structure, which is critical to good play, especially when they start to get into real endgame positions. Secondly, they learn to master those minor pieces they tend to ignore early on in their careers. When playing with two minor pieces students start to develop coordination between pieces, something sorely lacking when they first learn the game. So there’s a simple exercise you can use to develop some basic chess skills that’s fun but not easy. Getting good at something is never really easy (except in movies and works of fiction) but the reward for mastering it is priceless. Try this and you’ll see. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


One Good Blunder Deservers Another One

This chess game is from the first round of a chess tournament that is being played on Wednesday nights in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There is one round each Wednesday night and I have completed two rounds so far. I have lost both rounds, and there are only eight players in this section! I should have an easy time with Black in the third round.

This event is being played in a restaurant that is called Smashburger. The food is OK, but the playing conditions are poor. The lighting there is not good and I have to wear a hat to keep the overhead lights out of my eyes. The noise level is too high for me to play good chess. Some of the players are wearing headphones and drowning out the noise with music. However, I have yet to try that. With my hearing problems the music may become just as distracting as the ambient noise there. I doubt that I will play there again after I complete this event.

My opponent in this chess game is older than I am and owns his own computer business that he works with his son. Paul misplayed the opening and I ended up two passed pawns on the queenside. However, I blundered on move number 51 and the game was lost for me after that.

Mike Serovey


Does Chess Have a Future?

On Facebook …

Jonathan Tisdall: Does [Nigel Davies’ plan to revive competitive chess] include going back in time and preventing chess engines?

Jacques Delaguerre: You think engines are bad, wait until IBM Research builds a full-scale quantum computer which solves chess.

Jonathan Tisdall: Not sure how much worse that will be. We know it’s a draw and we can’t cope with how much is solved already unless we cheat.

Jacques Delaguerre: Quite true, grandmaster. Well, it’s just a game and it lasted 1,000 years. Perhaps the video gamers will one day realize that the triumph of chess was its minimalism and abstraction and build a game for the modern age which rivals Chess in beauty.

Jonathan Tisdall: On a more practical note, would Fischer360 or whatever its called, buy us more time or will the machines solve that more or less instantly?

Jacques Delaguerre: F360 is more combinationally complex, but not immensely more so than standard chess. Shogi is more combinationally complex than chess and a little farther back w/r/t the engines. How’s your shogi?

Jonathan Tisdall: I love shogi, prefer it to chess as a game. But life is too short…

Alex Fishbein: I’m not in favor of turning to other games just because chess has been either fully or partially solved. On the contrary, I believe that chess is more interesting to play because truth is easier to find in theory while humans would never be able to solve it over the board in any event. Anand was quoted expressing this viewpoint, I agree, and I believe that many other top players agree.

Jonathan Tisdall: I basically agree, though I confess I would prefer truth being mysterious, and not listening to amateurs who think they possess it because they can.

Computer exhaustion of chess can never exhaust it for the human mind, since we can’t absorb it all. The answer may be “42”, but what was the question?

For some perspective on the contrast between abstract mathematical solution of chess and the human experience of chess, consider a puzzle from the Baghdad era of Chess, circa 1000 CE, composed by Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Yahya al-Suli, a study not definitively solved until modern times!  It uses the ferz piece which is like a bishop that only moves one step.

 . . . . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . . . k . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . K F . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 f . . . . . . .

White to move and win by capturing Black’s ferz (capturing opponent’s last piece without losing one’s own being a win at that time). For the solution, visit John’s Chess Playground.

Jacques Delaguerre


Recognising the Patterns : Challenge # 22

While playing single minor piece endgames, the defending side has a deadly weapon to draw a game. That is to trade the attacker’s last pawn (usually) against his own piece because a single minor piece can’t checkmate and sometimes even with the help of a rook’s pawn. But how many of you actually recognize this in practice. Here few positions are given to test your knowledge.

Example 1 – Black to Move

Q:How could you save the game?
Hint: A knight can never lose a tempo
A: Black can save the day as follows:


Sacrificing whole piece against pawn as white’s knight won’t be able to help his king from getting out of prison

2. Nxg4

This is now a draw because White’s knight can never control the f7 square when the Black king is on f8.

Example 2 – Shirov against Mascarinass – Black to move
This example has been taken from Grandmaster Secrets: Endings by Andrew Soltis.

Q: Black is a piece down for two pawns, are two pawns worth the bishop here?
Hint: White has the wrong colour Bishop
A: Black can save the game with

The only move that forces to release the control of e5 or g4.

2. Bxb5

If 2.Kc5 then 2…Ke5 or if 2.Bd1 then 2…b4 and b3 which forces White to release the control of one of the squares.

2…g4 3. hxg4

Forced, otherwise …gxh3 on the next move is simple enough to draw the game.


Threatening to capture the pawn with king as far as c6 and d7 squares are available to White’s bishop
If 3…fxg4 then 4. Kd4 and now 4…Kg5 5.Ke5, 4…g3 5.Bd7 or 4…h3 then 5.g3 followed by Bc6 is winning.

4. gxf5 h3! 5. gxf3 Kxf5

The position is now drawn as g3 or g4 won’t work because the c6 square is not available to White’s bishop.

Ashvin Chauhan


Defusing The Demographic Time Bomb

I’ve previously written about the problems of an ageing population of regular chess tournament goers and how little seems to have been done to address the coming crisis. How should this be tackled? The usual answer is to teach kids to play, but they tend not to feed through into adult tournaments.

A factor in this is the difference in quality between junior and open age tournaments. Tournaments for ‘serious competitive players’ are usually way too strong so the kids often need to survive ongoing beatings before they can hold their own. Not many of them will want to do this.

A second issue is that casual players who might play a tournament or so a year will be put off if they have to go through the rigmarole and cost of joining a federation. They’d just as soon play on the internet. So these players, who might provide suitable sparring partners for kids in weaker sections, will be lost from the system.

These two issues suggest that something needs to be done to draw in both casual players and kids in order to get them playing ‘open age’ chess. And a good start to this would be to make it easy, inexpensive and fun. My suggestion is to create a FREE and LIVE grading system or adapt it from an existing system.

Players love to know how they’re doing via a grade so it should be made very easy for them to get one. This in turn implies that it should be made easy to organize a graded tournament and submit the results, whether it’s a junior or school chess club, a working man’s club or even someone’s lounge. The rules should not be too stringent (for example I think there’s a case for grading some kids tournaments even without them using clocks) or the procedure at all complicated. The point is to get people involved and interested in stepping up the improvement ladder.

The newly submitted results should AUTOMATICALLY update a live grading database which is simply based on a player’s last 30 games, starting with a 4 game minimum. Purists shouldn’t worry too much about whether the grades are accurate, they just won’t be. But this is not the point, it would get more people involved so they can see how they’re doing. Some of them would want to come back regularly.

With regular visitors to the database a strategically positioned calendar and information about clubs plus full membership benefits can be placed nearby. This should increase demand for lower level events (0-1300 Elo) and thus help chess clubs and tournaments attract new players.

The basic grade should not cost a penny and no forms should be required, it should just happen. It might be worth calling this a ‘free membership’ of a federation so that the federation can show good numbers to potential sponsors. This ‘basic membership’ would kick in the minute they play four graded games and if they were to win them they might come on the system really high. Again I should stress that accuracy is not the point here.

After that you should have a second tier of ‘serious’ membership which should include those who want to play in internationally rated events and achieve an Elo rating. For this there should be a charge and they in turn would get to vote on who runs things. Generally speaking this level of members would be more knowledgeable and committed to the game which in turn should help throw forward better qualified individuals to run things. You don’t want huge block votes of near beginners voting on issues where they have little understanding; the wrong people will end up in charge.

I realize of course that many federations would suffer a shortfall in income by adopting such a system, at least at first. But as most of them are run by volunteers anyway this shouldn’t threaten their existence, they’d simply be investing in attracting greater numbers instead of building a balance to spend on some less fruitful project. It should be remembered that the purpose of a federation is not to operate as a business and screw money out of its membership by virtue of its status as a ‘chess monopoly’. It is there to facilitate chess and get people playing.

Federations throughout the World should feel free to adopt this plan of mine, I don’t need an Honorary Vice Presidency, a knighthood, a statue or even credit. Let’s just try to save the game from a massive drop in numbers.

Nigel Davies


Minority Interests (3)

This week’s game is a cautionary example of when the black plan with b7-b5 can go wrong. As we mentioned last week, a critical factor in this plan’s success is usually that he have a strong grip on e4. White usually tries to react to b5 by breaking in the centre with e3-e4, which, if successful, threatens to undermine the black structure.
The following is a classic example. Spassky’s b5 is misjudged, and further subsequent inaccuracies enable Karpov to give a perfect demonstration of the white strategy.

Steve Giddins