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Alekhine Number (Part 1)

If you happen to be Alexander Alekhine your Alekhine Number is 0. If you’ve played Alekhine your Alekhine number is 1. If you’ve played someone with an Alekhine Number of 1, your Alekhine Number is 2.

You can maintain a hardline view and only include serious competitive games, or you can take a more lax approach and include simul games, casual games and online games.

I wonder how many people still alive have an Alekhine Number of 1. Arturo Pomar, a child prodigy in Spain in the 1940s, who died two years ago, was a pupil of Alekhine and played him three times in tournaments, drawing one of the games. He may well have been Alekhine’s last surviving opponent from competitive games. However, there’s still at least one active player who faced Alekhine over the board: Dimitrij Mathon. Mathon was born in 1927, claims to have played Alekhine in a simul in 1943, and is currently playing in the Czech 60+ Championship. (Thanks to John Saunders and Roger Emerson for this information.)

If you know anyone else still alive who played Alekhine I’d love to know: please get in touch.

My Alekhine Number is 2. Over the next two articles I’ll show you the games.

For the first game we travel back in time to Devon, to the city of Plymouth, famous for its naval base, and for Sir Francis Drake’s game of bowls. It’s 5 September 1938. The local chess club has organised a small all-play-all tournament of eight players to celebrate its golden jubilee. They’ve invited the world champion, Alexander Alekhine, and the Women’s World Champion, Vera Menchik to take part. The most interesting of the other competitors is Paul List, who was born in Odessa in 1887, moved to Germany in the 1920s and then settled in England in 1937. There were also three English internationals, Sir George Thomas from the older generation, and, representing the younger generation, Stuart Milner-Barry and George Wheatcroft. The field was completed by two local players, Ronald MacKay Bruce and Harold Vincent Mallison. Can you imagine Magnus Carlsen, or any other top grandmaster, agreeing to take part in such an event today?

Alekhine conceded two draws, to List and Thomas, which was only enough for a share of first place with the veteran Baronet, who scored one of his greatest successes. The other players finished well in arrears: List and Milner-Barry on 3½, Menchik on 3, Wheatcroft on 2½ along with Mallison, making a highly creditable score in such company. Ron Bruce was somewhat out of his depth, only managing two draws and losing to the world champion in just 12 moves.

1. e4 c6
2. Nc3 d5
3. Nf3

The World Champion chooses the Two Knights variation against Bruce’s Caro-Kann Defence. 3.. Bg4 is the most popular move here, but there’s not a lot wrong with just taking the pawn.

3.. dxe4
4. Nxe4 Bf5

4.. Nf6 is the usual choice. In the main line Caro-Kann Bf5 is excellent, but here it’s slightly inferior.

5. Ng3 Bg6

There’s a big difference between the Two Knights and the main line, as you’ll see on move 7. Instead Black should play Bg4 here.

6. h4 h6
7. Ne5 Bh7
8. Qh5

This position has been reached over 400 times on my database, with White scoring 86%. I’d have thought it was, by now, common knowledge that this position is close to winning for White, but apparently not. Quite a lot of 2200+ players have reached this with Black.

8.. g6

Now White has two very strong continuations. Alekhine chooses the flash move, but the alternative might be even better. After the simple 9. Qf3 several games have concluded 9.. Nf6 10. Qb3 Qd5 11. Qxb7 Qxe5+ 12. Be2 Bg7 (or 12.. Nd5) 13. Qc8#

9. Bc4 e6
10. Qe2

With a Big Threat, which Bruce overlooks. The best chance is 10.. Qe7 when Black’s still in the game, even though his king-side looks extremely ugly.

10.. Nf6
11. Nxf7

This position occurs in 11 games in my database. There are also 28 games with 10.. Bg7 11. Nxf7 and 17 games with 10.. Nd7 11. Nxf7.

11.. Kxf7
12. Qxe6+ 1-0

A trap which is well worth knowing, especially if you play the Caro-Kann. You might also like to try this variation with White.

The tournament schedule was pretty tight: seven games had to be fitted into six days, along with adjournments. This game was played on the Tuesday morning, and later the same day Ron Bruce found himself facing Vera Menchik. He wrote himself into the history books by becoming probably the only player to lose to two reigning world champions in a tournament on the same day.

(ChessBase mistakenly assigns the black pieces in this game to Rowena Mary Bruce. Rowena was Ron’s pupil and, from 1940, wife, as well as many times British Ladies Champion. At the time this game was played she was still Rowena Mary Dew.)

Richard James

Too Much Opening Theory

How much opening theory does the average chess player really need to know? Certainly nowhere near the amount book publishers tell us we need to know. Before you opening theory purists start screaming “what does some aged, long in the tooth guitar player who spent most of his career in a Bacchus induced stupor know about opening theory,” let me remind you that I teach and train young players and specialize in their opening preparation. It’s primarily how I keep a roof over my family’s head. I have club level players who seek me out for opening preparation as well. Why? Because I know a fair amount regarding numerous openings and their variations. However, I only know as much as I know because I teach it. I certainly don’t need to know as much as I do to play decently and neither do my students.

The quest for opening knowledge has become a quest for some insane holy grail. I suspect if you actually knew all there was to know about openings and theory, it would be like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the bad guys open the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently melt. My advice? Don’t stare at the text or you’ll melt as well. I wish I had a rating point for every time someone trying to sell a book said “this is the opening that will change your game.” My rating would be over 3000. I was at a chess shop the other day, listening to a conversation between two chess players. “I’m buying that book because it covers everything on opening theory.” I struck up a conversation with the purchaser of the the book (close to 1,000 pages) and discover his rating is around 1300. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his rating, only his choice of reading material. At a 1300 level, his book choice was above his skill set and mine, for that matter. Books that give you endless opening moves with little explanation don’t work unless you’re willing to figure out why the moves were made which is beyond the grasp of beginning players.

Too many players breeze through the underlying mechanics of opening play and get right into complex theory. They can recite the opening principles verbatim so they consider their studies of basic opening mechanics finished. This way of thinking is like being able to make a decent paper airplane and then deciding doing do gives you the ability to fly a jet fighter. You really need spend a lot of time working through the opening principles exhaustively and only then start to explore the more complex aspects of opening theory via specific openings. Here’s what I have my students:

Before learning a specific opening and some of it’s variations, my students do nothing but work on making moves that adhere to the opening principles. The moves don’t have to be “book” moves, simply moves that follow one of the principles. Of course, some of these principled moves lead to failure. When they do, my students have to figure out why. If a move is principled, why did it lead to a weakening of the position? I have my students play seemingly non principled moves which sometimes work. Why did they work? Were they actually principled moves that didn’t appear to be so? My students have to answer that question as well. The point of this is to explore the opening’s underlying mechanics and really learn why some principled moves work better than others. This means experimentation. When a beginning student naturally discovers the Italian Opening by making principled moves, I don’t tell them that’s the opening they’re playing.

Rather than refer to a book on opening theory, my students try a variety of moves during the opening. Everything should be considered, move-wise. The only rule to choosing a move is it must adhere to an opening principle. We work on this for months until students can consider a move and then opt for another because they know exactly why their first choice won’t work. They know it won’t work because they’ve tried it rather than being dissuaded by a book. They can determine the worth of a move based on principled play. This exercise also keeps them from playing too mechanically. Now we look at specific openings.

One benefit to the system I have my students use is that they start to get a feel for opening positions that work for them. When they crack open a general book on openings, they can more easily find an opening that they feel comfortable with, one that suits they developing style of play. I have them start by learning the mainline only. When the student sits down to play their opening choice in a friendly game against another student, they’re in for a rude awakening. I’ve provided their opponent, another student, with a series of moves to throw in that were not part of the mainline the student learned. Remember, all that business of trying out principled moves, etc? This is where that comes in handy. The student is suddenly forced into unfamiliar territory and must use principles to guide them. There’s a good reason for teaching opening theory this way.

By being hit with moves that are not in line with the mainline, the student has to come up with sound, principled moves on their own. More often than not, the student will come up with a move that is part of a variation. When they do learn the variation, later on, they’ll understand why the move was made as opposed to memorizing variation lines. It’s too easy to memorize openings and variations without understanding the real reasoning behind each move. Sure, you can say “hey, that move follows the opening principles, so that’s why it was made.” However, thinking like this is similar to memorizing all the parts of a car engine and not knowing how they work together to make the car move. If you know how all the parts work, you might just be able to determine why you car doesn’t start one cold rainy morning! Eventually, my students learn openings and variations using a book for reference, but only after they are comfortable with the underlying mechanics.

As for all those endless variations and books that tell you “you need to know these 12,375 moves to play the Ruy Lopez successfully.” Hogwash. If you’re an average player you can determine how much theory you need to know regarding a specific opening by talking to fellow chess players who play your opening. Ask them what variations they encounter. Go online and research the games of average players who play the same opening. Play through their games and see what they’ve had to deal with. In short, narrow it down to real life chess. By this, I mean games played by players just like you and a little stronger. I’m sure you play a great game of chess but do you really need the theoretical knowledge of Magnus Carlsen? Ah, no. At least not yet! Chess is supposed to be fun and it’s a game you’re supposed to be playing. Of course you should study some theory but if all you do is study, with little real play, you won’t get very far. Try moves out and when they fail, feel blessed because we learn most from our mistakes.

As a rule of thumb, any book on opening theory that is large enough to knock you out should it land on your head is probably a bit much for most players. Look for books that give written explanations. Lastly, don’t be a slave to your computer’s opening choices. Explore the uncharted waters of “out of book” moves during the opening. Of course, the majority of your choices will lead to disaster but you’ll learn a great deal about recovering from a bad opening position by doing so. You might even find an odd opening move that does some good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Pawn Structure Pawn Structure

“I’m only bothered about things that will change the pawn structure.” – N Davies

I have a tendency to spend too long calculating and Nigel has advised me to spend my time considering the pawn structure and possible levers/ changes when it is my opponent’s move.

In this game I was very interested in Nigel’s ideas around 10.Na5 which would have prevented Black’s a5 and pressured b7 and c6.

Nigel found my 24.Nxe6 really quite horrible. I didn’t understand the strength of the knight on c5. My idea was to simplify and win the game with the extra pawn. However, it was still important to play the best moves and I made life much harder for myself.  Nigel was clear that 24.Nxe6 gave up my best piece. Having now played through some example lines I am starting to see this.

Nigel commented that Knights with good outposts (such as this one on c5 – which would have been “really good” here – would work well with this pawn structure.

Dan Staples

The Fishing Pole Trap

Chess opening traps and tricks are very popular among beginners and there is a very large amount of material that falls into this category. That is the reason why many YouTube videos are booming around traps and tricks. Some opening traps are just not good like this one Richard talked few days back, but some of them are really good and contain generic ideas that can be applied in many different openings. For the good ones I prefer the term ‘pattern’ rather than ‘trap’, and today I am going to talk about one of them, the Fishing Pole trap. This trap is mainly associated with the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) but it can be used against many openings when the position allows. The idea is to opening up the h file or the access to h7/h2 by the means of sacrificing the minor piece of g4/g5.

Ashvin Chauhan

No Rush in the Endgame

One of the most important endgame principles is not to hurry. My Dad says I should have played more patiently with 24.h4 and then brought the king up to h3 after my 24.g5 Black was fine, at least until he played 31…Rhh8.

Sam Davies

Passed Pawns

Something I noticed many years ago looking at lower level junior games is that passed pawns in the ending are worth much more than at higher levels. Children will often panic and make unnecessary sacrifices instead of calmly working out how best to stop them.

One of my private pupils recently won an Under 9 tournament and had managed to record two of his games which he brought in to show me. His round 1 game, in which he had the white pieces, had several points of interest, two of which involved passed pawns.

Let’s take a look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bc4

Stop here! In lesson after lesson I tell my private pupils not to play this move order, partly because Black might reply with 4.. Nxe4. We often tell the Richmond Junior Club intermediate group the same thing. But every week, every tournament this is what they play. It’s what they know and feel comfortable with, and they don’t want to change. If they really want to play a Giuoco Pianissimo, I tell them, remember PNBPNB: e4, Nf3, Bc4, d3, Nc3, Bg5 in that order. But they never do it. Or, better still, learn a different opening. You’ll only make significant progress if you gain experience of playing different types of position. But most of them never do.

4.. Bc5 5. Ng5

Stop again! In lesson after lesson I tell my pupils not to play Ng5 in this sort of position if their opponent can castle. In lesson after lesson I explain why. But they still play it, hoping that their opponent will fail to see their threat. I guess the only answer is proactive parental involvement: going through their opening repertoire the evening before the event. In this game Black was strong enough to get the next few moves right.

5.. O-O 6. d3 h6 7. Nf3 d6 8. O-O Bd4

A position which has arisen quite often in low level games. On my database Black scores close to 75% after the normal 8.. Nd4 in this position, although White’s OK after either Be3 or h3. In this game, though, Black decides to trade his two bishops for the two white knights.

9. Be3 Bxc3 10. bxc3 Bg4 11. h3 Bxf3 12. Qxf3 a6 13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 b5 15. Bd3 Nb4 16. e5 dxe5 17. dxe5 Nxd3 18. cxd3 Qxd3

The first blunder of the game. Two moves ago White played e5 to threaten the black knight. Black plays a couple of trades first, and then forgets that his knight is en prise. capturing a pawn instead. This is a very typical type of mistake at this level and age. Children will just look at the last piece that’s moved rather than the whole board, and, because their concentration is not very good, they will forget what happened a couple of moves ago if there have been some intermediate moves.

19. Bc5

White doesn’t notice, or possibly decides, mistakenly, that he’d rather win a rook than a knight.

19.. Qxf3 20. gxf3 Rfe8

Black sees the attack on the rook so moves it to safety. Now, finally, someone spots that the knight on f6 can be taken. 20.. Nd7 would have offered even chances: Black will have a pawn for the exchange and is quite likely to pick up another one in the near future.

21. exf6 Re5 22. Bd4 Re6 23. fxg7 Rg6+ 24. Kh1 Rd8

White should be winning now with his extra piece, but instead he makes an understandable (at this level) oversight.

25. Rad1

It’s natural to protect the bishop rather than moving it again, but now Black could have played Rgd6 (PIN AND WIN!), regaining the piece with a position that should be winning. White failed to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION “If I play that move, what will my opponent do next?”, and Black failed to look for all forcing moves (use a CCTV to look at the board: looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory), instead choosing to prepare to push his passed pawn.

25.. Rc8 26. Rg1 Rxg1+ 27. Rxg1 c5 28. Bc3 b4 29. Bd2 Rd8 30. Bxh6 c4 31. Bg5 Rc8 32. h4 c3 33. h5 Kxg7 34. h6+

34. Be7+ would have won one of the dangerous black pawns.

34.. Kh7 35. Rg4 c2 36. Rg1 f6 37. Bf4 Rd8

An inaccuracy, allowing White to get his rook behind his passed pawn. (RBBPP – Rooks Belong Behind Passed Pawns: the other day I lost a drawn ending by failing to follow my own advice, which I’ve been teaching for the past 45 years or so.)

38. Rg7+ Kh8 39. Kg2

Missing 39. Rc7 with an easy win.

39.. Rd4

White’s still winning, but has to play 40. Be3 Rc4 (otherwise 41. Rc7) 41. Bc1 here. You have to calculate accurately when your opponent has a passed pawn. Instead, White overlooks a tactic, which Black does well to notice.

40. Kg3 Rxf4 41. Kxf4

He doesn’t have to take the rook here: Rc7 is a drawn rook ending. At this level, though, they usually move first and think later.

41.. c1Q+ 42. Kf5 Qh1 43. Kg6 Qb1+ 44. Kxf6 a5 45. Rd7 Qb2+ 46. Kg6 Qc2+ 47. Kf6

White has some threats of mate or perpetual check as well as a passed pawn, but as long as Black calculates accurately he’ll win easily. For instance, 47.. Qxa2 48. Rd8+ when Black can either play 48.. Qg8 and win the pawn ending or 48.. Kh7 and run with his king. But instead he panics and returns his queen at the wrong time. Another recurring mistake at this age/level is to trade off the last pieces without calculating the pawn ending first. There’s a lot about this in CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES.

47.. Qh7 48. Rxh7+

No doubt played without thinking, as one does. At this level I’d expect nothing else, but White can gain a vital move by trading on g8 rather than h7: 48. Rd8+ Qg8 49. Rxg8+ Kxg8 50. Ke5 a4 51. Kd4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kc3 Kh7 54. Kxb3 Kxh6 55. Kc3 Kg5 56. Kd3 Kf4 57. Ke2 and White wins by a tempo.

48.. Kxh7 49. Ke5 Kxh6 50. Kd4 a4 51. Kd3

This loses a tempo, but shouldn’t affect the result: 51. Kc4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kxb3 Kg5 54. Kc3 Kf4 55. Kd2 Kxf3 and Black just gets back in time to draw.

51.. b3 52. axb3 a3

A fatal miscalculation. Instead 52.. axb3 is an immediate draw. Of course if White’s king was on e3 instead of d3 he’d have been quite correct. I’d guess he’d seen the idea before but chose the wrong moment to use it.

53. Kc2 a2 54. Kb2 a1=Q+ 55. Kxa1 and White had no trouble promoting a couple of pawns and checkmating his opponent.

A game with many mistakes which are very typical for young players at this level.

Richard James

Switching Off The Laptop

In these days of computer based preparation is there any benefit to using a board and pieces? It can certainly seem harder, especially if someone is used to whizzing through dozens of games using the right hand arrow. Yet there could be hidden benefits of the sort that makes many brain experts suggest that we write things down. One theory is that the physical act of writing things down helps activate the brain.

Actually I use a chess set myself whenever it is possible. This is not the case when teaching over the internet but it certainly is when I work on chess with my son Sam. We rarely use a computer unless we want a second opinion from an engine or need to map out some opening lines.

Not convinced? There is quite a lot of stuff on the internet about doing away with laptops, so do your own research and consider giving it a try.

Nigel Davies

QGD Horror Show

Ben is friend and former Battersea team mate. This was a QGD that we played at last years London Chess Classic. He played his attack very well.

I do feel uncomfortable with these opposite side castling QGDs. I don’t feel happy with Black’s attacks and need to play more!

In this game I remembered that it is necessary for Black to attack on the queenside to create counterplay. And this is achieved by pushing the a pawn. But I couldn’t remember (nor work out OTB) the way of doing it. I blundered with 14…b4 losing the a pawn for less than nothing. White easily shuts down Black on the queenside and can get on with things on the kingside with little to worry about. 14…Qa5 looks so natural with the benefit of hindsight. I think I worried about moving my queen away from my kingside and wanted to rush my counterplay.

Dan Staples

Simple but Solid Strategy : Adrian Mikhalchishin vs Dusko Pavasovic

While I was going through some games, I found this one very entertaining and instructive. In this game the Ukrainian Grandmaster came up with a very simple and solid strategy. He sacrificed his queen for a rook, bishop & a passed pawn in the early middle game. Then he exchanged pieces, and with every exchange White’s position became better and better. It was also quite necessary because with some additional pieces on the board Black’s queen might generate some counter play. This is not the first time he employed the same strategy. I have 4 games (including this) in my database against quite strong players where Mikhalchishin offered this queen sacrifice. Two games ended in a draw where Black declined by playing Qe7!, in the other two Black accepted and White won quite convincingly. I have selected this game due to its simplicity and clarity:

Ashvin Chauhan

A Win with the Ruy Lopez

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:

Sam Davies