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Winning Pieces Without Taking Them

This week’s problem is about how to be a piece up without taking more of your opponents pieces than he has taken of yours.

The solution is that you bury one of your opponent’s pieces alive so that it can never enter the game.

How can Black to play ensure that he is , to all intents and purposes, playing with an extra piece?

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White plays 1.f5! and then Black will have a weak pawn on e6 for White to attack.

Steven Carr

The Castlie

If Stephen Moss, a player with a perfectly respectable grade (slightly above average club strength) considers himself a rookie, perhaps we need a different word for those who really are rookies.

Just before the start of term I received an email from a parent of a boy at a school where I run a chess club asking me if I had any vacancies. She told me her son was 10 years old, was passionate about chess, and had been playing regularly against his father at home for several years. As it happened I had some vacancies so invited him along for the first week of term, and offered him a game to find out what he knew.

He started off by setting the pieces up incorrectly, reversing the black king and queen, which was clearly how he had been taught at home. When I asked him the name of the chunky guy in the corner he shrugged his shoulders, looked bemused, and proposed “the tower?” – not unreasonably as he’s Italian. He started the game with 1. h4, explaining that he wanted to play Rh3 next move. When I asked him about the values of the pieces he thought that the bishop and knight were both worth four points. A nice boy, friendly and enthusiastic, but not (yet) a chess player.

The same day the school asked me if I was prepared to take a 6-year-old boy, two years or more younger than the other boys (sadly, no girls there) in the club. They told me his mother claimed he was a brilliant player, and that he was mature enough to cope in an environment with older children. They were right about the second point, but not the first. He was playing white against one of the stronger players in the club, and when his opponent moved a knight from d5 to capture a pawn on b6, he protested that his opponent was playing an illegal move because knights didn’t move like that.

Now if I’m told that a 10 year old is a passionate footballer I’d expect sensible answers from questions like “Which position do you like to play in?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who do you think will win the Premier League this season?”. But if I ask most kids who claim to be passionate about chess similar questions, like “What’s your favourite opening?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who’s going to win the world championship match” I’d get no more than a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders.

Most kids who play chess at home, and, for that matter, most adults who play chess in this country, have little idea about competitive chess, would be hard pressed to name very many famous chess players, wouldn’t be able to give the name of any opening, would probably think the best first move is a4 or h4, would be completely unaware of the en passant rule, and would think that rooks were called castles.

If Stephen Moss is a rookie, we need a new name for players like this. There seems little point in calling them rookies anyway, as they wouldn’t understand the pun. Perhaps we should call them Castlies instead. As Stephen wrote in his book, chess has slipped under the radar in this country, and I don’t see much hope of it returning to anything like its post-Fischer popularity in the near future.

Of course we have to realise that most kids in school chess clubs just want to play games with their friends, with someone there to help them if they’re not sure whether or not it’s checkmate. It would help a lot, though, if they all knew the very basic stuff that any adult who already knows the moves could pick up in half an hour or so. I’ve tried a lot of strategies to encourage parents to help their kids in this way, but none of them have had any effect: most parents just don’t want to know. The general view of chess seems to be that learning the moves is very hard, and that if your young child manages this he’s a genius, and that playing chess is about little more than playing random legal moves. I once asked a school chess club whether they thought chess was a game of luck or a game of skill. Most of them voted for a game of luck.

If you can think of any good way of getting through to the adult Castlies and giving them a few pieces of very basic knowledge about chess, please let me know. I’ve tried writing a book: no one buys it. I’ve tried offering free consultations for parents and children: I’ve had no takers. I’ve tried sending emails out to parents: they reply telling me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. I wish I knew what the answer was: perhaps you, dear reader, can help.

Richard James

Common Ground

One of the key points I make to new chess teachers is the idea of getting to know your student’s interests outside of chess. There’s a very good reason for this and it has to do with your ability to convey knowledge in the most efficient way. Your job as a teacher is explain something in terms that the student will fully understand. Teaching is not a one size fits all affair in which everyone learns in the same fashion. Some people are more visual learners for example. Visual learners need to make learning connections visually. A child who is a visual learner would have an easier time understanding the basics of addition if they were able to use physical (visual) objects such as wooden blocks to represent the quantities involved in the problem they’re trying to solve. They could easily see that if you had two blocks to start and added two more blocks to the pile, you’d now have four blocks. However, you’ll never know whether or not a student is a visual learner unless you get to know a little about the way in which they think.

Knowing how a student thinks means getting to know something about them, namely their interests outside of the subject you’re teaching them. What a student is interested in or has a passion for can tell you a great deal about how they think in terms of learning, more specifically what sparks their thought process. A person’s thought process is ultimately what allows them to learn a subject. Connect with this way of thinking (thought process) and you’ll be able to tailor your lessons for that student.

Case in point, I have a high school student who loves studying diseases (he loves The Addams Family as well). He is a walking encyclopedia of every dreadful microbe known to humankind. Through my own amateur microbiology studies, I can hold my own with this young man when it comes to discussing Ebola, for example. One day, we were talking about the idea that a single bad move can lead to a slow positional death on the chess board. Wanting to drive this point home, I suggest that a bad move was comparable to being exposed to the very microbes that cause the common cold or flu. When you get exposed to a bug (microbe), you don’t get sick immediately. The illness comes later on after the virus that causes the cold or flu has had a chance to do its damage behind the scenes. He suddenly got it. Like the virus that slowly sets up shop within the human body, making things worse and worse until you’re stuck in bed day’s later, sick as a dog, bad moves can slowly do cumulative damage. I use sports analogies for those students who are sports fans when trying to explain an idea on the chessboard. It doesn’t matter what the student’s interest is. What matters is first discovering that student interest and then creating an analogy based on it. You’re now speaking in terms the student can understand.

This is why you should make a point of getting to know what your students like to do away from the chessboard. Providing them key chess ideas via familiar territory, something the student already knows and understands, allows them to soak up the information in a familiar environment. This allows them to strengthen their new found knowledge because it’s built on an already established intellectual foundation. Difficult concepts make sense when there are familiar landmarks to guide one’s thought process.

I’ve always been a student, perpetually taking colleges classes all my adult life. Just as important as learning is knowing how to learn. Successful learning comes down to finding the learning techniques best suited to your brain’s wiring. Again, we all learn differently. Fortunately, chess is a very visual game with pattern recognition being a key factor. However, this visual nature doesn’t automatically make it an easy game to master. Because I teach chess five days a week, I’ve gotten fairly good at recognizing patterns. I mention this because I sometimes catching myself wondering why a student isn’t seeing something I see so clearly. Then I remember, I’ve had more experience in this department than my student. Teachers should always be on guard when it comes to going over a student’s head, knowledge-wise, or expecting them to easily understand something you know inside out.

You can simply approach teaching pattern recognition as an exercise in basic geometry. However, some students don’t think in this way. You need to determine how they’re seeing the situation and what interest they have that you can turn into an analogy. This means asking questions and honing in on a teaching solution. Plenty of my students love American Football. Therefore, if I can turn the geometrical aspects of pattern recognition into game plays made by opposing football teams, I can make the recognition of patterns easier for my students. All it takes are a few simple questions to create an analogy your students will understand.

The other important reason for getting to know your students interests is to keep them engaged during your classes. I regularly ask students how a given chess concept would apply to something they’re interested in off of the chessboard. I use a Socratic method of teaching where a chess lecture can turn into a five way discussion regarding the issue. Common ground allows you bring your students into the lesson rather than simply having them sit through it (they get enough of that from their so called teachers during the day). Talk to your students. Get to know what interests them and you’ll find a more successful path towards chess enlightenment (for both you and your students). Here’s a game to mull over until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Studying Old Games (Part 2)

Continuing my review of some older games, here’s one that I consider to be very instructive, a strategic masterpiece by Akiba Rubinstein. The blockade of the hanging pawns was straightforward enough, but what I found remarkable was the way in which Rubinstein consolidated his position before trying to convert his advantage. Moves like 16.Rf2 and 19.Bf1 look slow if not pointless, but they are a key part of White rendering his position invulnerable to a sudden counterattack.

With White’s king position thoroughly secured Rubinstein resumes his siege of Black’s weak pawns on the queenside. The culmination is the tactical win of a pawn with 27.Rxc6, but after this we get further consolidation with 29.Qc5 and 30.Kf2.

It’s the quiet moves that should be studied here because Anatoly Karpov only learned to play like this more than sixty years later.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 1)

People sometimes ask if studying old games can help them. There are different views on the matter, mine is a qualified ‘yes’. There are many games from the past with a very high instructional value whilst others may not teach much at all.

Over coming days and weeks I’ll be posting some games which I think are very useful. Here’s the first, a classic example of a Queen’s Indian with White having doubled c-pawns and Black managing to launch a thematic attack on White’s king with a pawn storm. As for the finish it’s a real beauty:

Nigel Davies

Back to Basics

A few days back I was watching a video on martial arts where the instructor was insisting on practicing the basic moves. He was also stating that the same approach can be applied to other sports too. I also agree with him and believe that chess is not an exception here. I personally improved a lot at tactics by going back to basics.

The question is, what are those basic moves or the fundamental positions that chess players should practice? There are some books claiming that they have given the most important positions to learn but I think the choice of book varies from person to person. Here are my preferences:

For tactics, I am very much fond of Bain’s Chess tactics for Students. I myself finished it about 10 times and my students are also getting good results by repeating it. For the endgame I prefer the positions given in Chapter 3 of GM Ram by Rashid Ziyatdinov, though you need a coach to go through these positions. For checkmate training I prefer the first 306 positions from Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games by Laszlo Polgar.

Though, I strongly believe that one should give priority to their coach’s words above all because I myself gained around 200-300 points elo gain in 2 years coaching from Nigel.

Ashvin Chauhan

Dvoretsky to Lucena Connection (Part 1)

“Most commentaries in chess magazines and books are superficial and sometimes just awful. Once a certain experienced master explained to me how he worked. You put two fingers to the page with text on it and see that there are only moves under them – in other words, it is time to make a comment.”
Mark Dvoretsky

According to Wikipedia Mark Dvoretsky (December 9, 1947 – September 26, 2016) “… was widely regarded as the strongest IM in the world… he opted not to remain an active player and instead followed his urge to become a chess trainer…”. We all know what that decision meant to the chess World and the list of top grandmasters who were his students is overwhelming. His passing away a few days ago leaves behind an unquestionable legacy in chess training. Could not miss the opportunity to remember him with my modest article about a long endgame I played online about 1 year ago.

The following game was part of an online match between Canada and Serbia in WL2015 division B, played on 221 boards, one white and one black game on each board, plus 3 days per move reflection time. My minimatch ended in a tie, while the overall match was won by Serbia 223.5 to 218.5. In my opinion the moment when things became interesting in my game of choice is after move 33. Rf3 …

This is where the article should have ended. It does not because I chose the other move; until next time you get the chance to verify if the alternate winning move actually leads to a quick and simple win, as well as to ponder the ramifications of my decision. Hope the above annotations Dvoretsky was talking about will help you.

Valer Eugen Demian

The Two Bishops Again

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White plays 1. c5! to get a large advantage.

The Black Knight on a4 then has few squares, and the White Bishop on f1 can move to a6, helping White to take control of the b-file by stopping Black putting his Rooks on the b-file.

In this week’s problem, White is again faced with the task of making his two bishops count.

One clue is that the Black knight on d5 is very strong. It needs to be undermined.

How does White weaken the Black position?

Steven Carr

The Rookie

It’s inevitable that someone as antisocial as me rarely gets invited to parties, so I was surprised to receive an invitation to the offices of Bloomsbury Publishing, in a swanky Georgian terrace in Bedford Square, very close to the British Museum.

The event was the launch party for a new book about chess, The Rookie, subtitled An odyssey through chess (and life) by Guardian journalist Stephen Moss.

Stephen played a lot of chess as a teenager but, like many of his generation, stopped for twenty years, returning to the fray in 2007, and joining two clubs local to me, Kingston and Surbiton. In this book we follow him through three years on the UK tournament circuit, between 2012 and 2015, travelling by public transport, staying in cheap hotels and eating junk food. In the course of the book he also visits the Netherlands, Russia and the USA.

The book comprises 64 chapters, one for each square of the board. In the black squared chapters Stephen relates his chessboard triumphs and disasters, while on the white squares he considers the history, literature and philosophy of chess and interviews various luminaries of the chequered board.

It’s an entertaining and at time amusing read. As you’d expect from Stephen’s day job, he’s a perceptive interviewer as well as a fine writer. He hopes that it will not just appeal to chess players, but will “proselytise on behalf of a game that has slipped off the radar of the mainstream media”. Has he succeeded in his aim?

To be honest, we chess players don’t come across very well in the book. We’re ‘unconventional, unworldly figures’, obsessive, introverted loners who are probably on the autistic spectrum. According to Jon Speelman, we’re odd but not barking. Towards the end of the book Stephen’s team-mate at Kingston Chris Clegg dies. “… I felt that even more I was writing an elegy for an era of chess – the anoraked, pens-in-the-top-pocket, draughty-church-hall brand of the game played in the UK by men who, in some respects, had never ceased to be small boys.” Guilty as charged, on all counts, Your Honour.

Yes, the sort of chess I’ve played for the past half century is slowly dying. I’ve written about this before and will no doubt do so again. Congress regular Brendan O’Gorman tells Stephen the biggest problem, compared with, say, Holland, is the absence of players aged between 20 and 50. He’s quite right, but it would have been good to hear more about why this should be. (Regular Chess Improver readers will be aware that I know the answer to this question!) There’s much more Stephen might have written about. He might have looked more closely at chess organisation here in the UK and considered how we might move forward. But the book’s already a hefty 400 pages long: anything more would have been commercially unrealistic. I’m sure there’s scope there for another volume looking at chess from a different angle.

As an obsessive, introverted loner myself, perhaps I should point out a couple of things. On p345 two sentences quoted from my Chess Improver post on Chris Clegg (linked to above) were attributed to me. Although I wish I’d written the second sentence I was in fact, as you will see, quoting John Foley, and was only personally responsible for the first sentence. I’m told that this is not the only misattribution in the book. Stephen claims to have made a slight improvement in his standard of play during his chess odyssey, having been graded 133 in July 2012 and 142 in July 2015. In fact he had been graded 142 in July 2010 and 143 in July 2009, so the evidence that he actually made progress is not especially convincing.

If you’re a chess player, should you read this book? Yes, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Regulars on the tournament circuit will have fun trying to identify Stephen’s opponents from his descriptions of them (or they might, as I did, cheat by looking up his grading record online). Will it find a significant outside readership? Despite Stephen’s hopes, I suspect not, and I don’t think it would convince many of them that they, or their children, should take up serious competitive chess. It’s not a book I could recommend to parents considering whether or not they should arrange tuition for their children and sign them up for tournaments. But he tells it the way he sees it, and there’s a lot of perhaps uncomfortable truth about the nature of English chess in there. There’s also much which gave me pause for thought, and which might, who knows, inspire a series of further blog posts.

One problem Stephen seems to have with his chess that I can relate to myself is his uncertainty as to whether he should play safe, boring positional chess or aggressive initiative chess. His other problem is his inconsistency: while he can play the occasional bad game or make the occasional blunder, he is also capable of playing well above his grade, as you’ll see in this game from his visit to Wijk aan Zee.

Richard James

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I like to ask my students if they know the difference between a good move and a great move. The correct answer is; good moves are good but great moves win games. Of course, bad moves are those moves that cost you the game. How about ugly moves? Ugly moves can either be bad moves that are really bad but, on occasion, are moves that produce surprising results (traps and tricks). The point here is that each move you make within a game of chess can determine the outcome of the game early on, even before the first attack is launched. Therefore, you should consider each move very carefully and never dismiss a bad or ugly move as bad or ugly) until you’ve examined it.

Carefully considering your moves isn’t rocket science and doing so will likely do more for your game than anything else. Of course, the beginner might say “with all the possible moves you can make in any given position and the fact that I am a beginner, how can I possibly find a great move let alone a good one?” Fortunately, the beginner has a weapon at his or her disposal, one employed by the world’s top players. That weapon is principled play.

Principled play envolves employment of the game’s proven principles when considering any move. When the beginner seriously studies chess, they learn specific principles for each phase of the game (opening, middle and endgame). These principles have been tested over hundreds of years of play and have been proven to be sound. Take the opening principles, for example. Beginners should always consider the “big three” as I call them, controlling the center of the board with a pawn or two from the start, developing one’s minor pieces towards the central squares and castling. I’ve seen so many beginners move their pawns and pieces in a very random or disconnected way at the start of the game. I say disconnected, because your pawns and pieces should be coordinated from move one. Pawns and pieces must work together, in positional harmony from the game’s start, otherwise you’ll never achieve control of the board.

Principles are the beginners lighthouse, providing a guiding light when the seas of an unknown position become dark and dangerous. When faced with a given position in which the opposition’s plan isn’t clear, it is difficult to know how to react. However, in the case of the opening, you can’t go wrong (in most cases) with the active development of your pawns and pieces. Remember, the name of the game during the opening is to control the center of the board. Only after you gain a foothold in the center should you think about possible attacks.

During the opening, a beginner following sound opening principles will be making decent if not good moves. He or she should aim for great moves later on in their chess careers, when they develop some skills, unless the opportunity for checkmate suddenly appears which would qualify the move delivering mate as great. For now, and I ‘m speaking of the opening still, the beginner should be happy with making good moves that activate the pieces. The beginner should also be on the lookout for ugly opposition moves that might reek havoc for them. Ugly moves can hide a devilish underlying intent. By this, I mean moves that set up opening traps. I’ve mentioned three things you definitely should do during the opening. However, there are things you shouldn’t do and it’s these things that often signal a potential trap being laid. For example, moving the same piece twice or bringing the Queen out early can signal a possible trap. The beginner should look at these moves, especially when made by a player who has some obvious skill at the chessboard and ask the question “why would a good chess player break a principle proven to be sound?” Traps can easily be spotted because the moves required to set the trap sometimes go against principled play. This is what I mean by ugly moves appearing to be seemingly bad but having the potential to produce a brilliant result. It should be noted that you don’t often see highly skill chess players making ugly moves, but when they do, expect some exciting fireworks on the board, fireworks apt to blow your position out of the water!

Great moves take time to spot. I have my beginning students always try to come up with three possible or candidate moves before committing to one. We do this because beginners have a tendency to jump on the first seemingly reasonable move they see. While they might find a good move, they’ll miss out on finding a better move without further inspection and contemplation of the position. Finding anything in the way of decent moves is difficult when you first learn them game because you haven’t developed your pattern recognition skills yet. This is why it’s so important to use the games principles as a guide. Great moves are often the result of a combination of moves and beginners have trouble creating combinations when they first start playing. Beginners should aim for finding good moves first.

This is why trying to come up with three candidate moves before committing to one is crucial. When looking for multiple moves, you’re forced to really examine the entire board, considering not only your pawns and pieces but those of your opponent. Board vision, seeing everything on the board, assessing opposition threat values, etc., is a skill you need to develop over time. Beginners tend to look at a position and focus on the immediately noticeable action, such as the pieces surrounding the central squares going into the middle-game. They miss opposition pieces sitting out of their centered line of sight and it’s those pieces that can end up doing a great deal of damage.

An important idea that every beginner should embrace is the idea that even a slightly bad move (as opposed to an absolutely bad move) can start the downward spiral of a losing game. It’s the snowball effect. If you roll a small snowball from the top of a mountain, it picks up additional snow and speed, becoming bigger and faster until it’s knocking over houses at the mountain’s base. Bad moves have the same effect, making your position become worse and worse. Bad moves have a cumulative effect that leads to loss and should be avoided. Think small advantages rather than big advantages if you cannot seem to find a solid move right away. Never just go for broke. One must think about the repercussions of every move they make in terms of the snowball effect. All it takes is one bad move to ruin a game!

Can beginner’s find great moves? Yes they can but it’s extremely difficult. The way to make finding great moves less difficult is to employ the hardest skill the beginner must learn, patience. Patience means being able to methodically look at a position and consider all the possibilities for both you and your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Patience means taking your time. Fortunately, as your skills on the chessboard grow so does your ability to thoroughly examine a position in less time (while still exercising patience). Use principled play or game principles as your guide. It’s a lot easier to determine a good move when you have a mental checklist (game principles) that defines what a good move idea is for a particular phase of the game. You never see a top player carelessly thrust a pawn or piece into the game, hoping they get lucky. No, they carefully think about potential moves and use principled play to guide them.

Beginner’s shouldn’t worry about finding great moves right away because that comes later with experience at the chessboard. Just look for good moves. As for ugly moves, such as those that set up traps, don’t try to employ them, making chess traps a way of life. See an ugly move for what it may be and refrain from making them yourself. Principled play will always trump the trap, but you should always be on the look out for a trick or trap. To prove my point about principled play, I present a game between two Grandmasters, one of whom ignores using sound principles. You don’t have to think long and hard about who gets punished! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson