Category Archives: Articles

Grinding Out A Win

Here’s a game of mine from this last weekend in which I managed to grind out a win in what looked like an even endgame. I was helped by my opponent’s shortage of time but I had a slight edge later in the game that was enough encouragement to keep going.

Sam Davies

Are you a Risk Taker?

There are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

There are two types of people in the world: those who enjoy putting people into two categories and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category here. One way in which you can split people is whether they’re naturally cautious or prefer to take risks.

If you have some money to invest, your financial advisor will probably give you a questionnaire to fill in. Your answers will determine whether you’re a cautious saver or a risk taker. Depending on your answers, you will be recommended a savings option which will guarantee, as far as such things are possible, a small profit on your investment, or an option which will bring potentially greater rewards at the expense of a greater risk of losing money.

Me, I’m naturally a cautious person. I want to play safe. I don’t enjoy taking risks. One thing not many people know about me is that I’ve been interested in horse racing for almost sixty years, but I’ve never once placed a bet on a horse. It’s just not for me.

You might also want to classify chess players as to whether they prefer to play cautiously or take risks. Capablanca versus Alekhine, for example, Petrosian versus Tal or Karpov versus Kasparov.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted on Facebook extracts from an article written by the American master John F Barry just after Alekhine had defeated Capa in the 1927 World Championship match. Barry, although acknowledging that Capa had the greater natural talent, was clearly not impressed by his style of play. Here, in part, is what he said.

“For long the writer has been amazed to see the false theory of combat which the Cuban has disclosed in his games, namely: to play the opening safely in accordance with his views of safety, and pounce on his adversary only if he should blunder, content to draw when that did not happen. Poorer players oftimes drew with him accordingly, as they were naturally glad to do against so formidable an adversary. His disposition to initiate mid-game tactics was only predicated only on the adversary’s blunder. He met with tactics only when the adversary was venturesome enough to attack unwisely, and Capablanca won, of course.

“He rarely showed initiative or enterprise to bring about a mid-game otherwise. So that in many of his games we have an opening, and presently an equal ending. The art of planning a mid-game became a lost art to him, yet its possession discloses the true chess artist. He harbored a belief that you can’t attack unless the opponent errs – a truth, but the art is to lure the error.”

Of course you’re not going to become world champion unless you excel in all aspects of the game, but it’s natural that everyone will have stylistic preferences, based in part, perhaps, on their personalities and temperaments. If you prefer quiet positional chess you’re more likely to reach an ending – and many endings require accurate calculation. (There’s another, unrelated, paradox to do with chess. The more slowly you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble and the better you need to be at blitz chess.)

As for me, by nature I’m a cautious player, but my best results have been when I’ve taken risks. I’ve tended to play unambitious openings with white, but lack both the understanding and technique to play them well, usually ending up with no advantage or even a disadvantage. Not feeling comfortable defending slightly passive positions, I’ve tended to play more aggressively with black. When I played more aggressive but slightly dubious openings I’d often do well with them, but if you take this approach sometimes things will go wrong: you’ll meet someone who knows the opening and you’ll lose horribly. When that happened, I’d give up the opening, in spite of previous good results, buy the next Batsford opening book to hit the shelves and take up something else instead.

I was never able to resolve the paradox of the clash between my temperament, which has always been one of caution, and my abilities, which may have been more tactical than positional.

If you also teach chess your own preferences may influence the way you teach. If you enjoy taking risks you might encourage your pupils to play sharp, tactical openings. If you prefer to play more cautiously you might encourage your pupils to play safe and solid openings. Truly effective teachers will identify their pupils’ personality and stylistic preferences rather than just teaching the openings they themselves play. They might also want to encourage less experienced students to try out different styles, different openings, to see which they prefer and which gives them better results. At the same time they’ll also want to think about identifying their students’ weaknesses and help them improve in aspects of chess where they are weaker so that they can become stronger all-round players.

Richard James

Why the Center?

When I teach my students the opening principles, we talk a great deal about the center of the board because that’s the name of the game when it comes to the opening. My more astute students pay close attention, making mental notes regarding the center of the board. Yet rarely does one of them ask “why the center?” The majority of chess students will simply accept the statement “you must control the center of the board during the opening” as a hard fast rule, a law not to be broken unless you want to lose your game quickly. While I can appreciate the idea of simply taking in such a statement without argument, a great deal more can be learned when you question such a statement. I am overjoyed when a student raises his or her hand and asks me why the center of the board is so crucial to good opening play. Asking questions is a fantastic way to improve one’s knowledge but sadly few students ask questions, even when encouraging them to do so.

Beginner’s too often confuse the game’s principles with the game’s rules, thinking a principle to be another rule of the game. Therefore, I make a point, long before teaching any principles to explain the difference between the two. Rules cannot be broken in chess. However, principles are merely guidelines (albeit great guidelines) that provide us with a way to make informed or sound decisions when considering moves. The principles have been around for centuries and have stood the test of time. They’ve survived this test of time because they work. Of course, students will first ignore the opening principles, trying it their way instead. When they’ve suffered one too many agonizing defeats, they’ll try it the principled way and suddenly see positive results.

To hone in on why opening principles are so important, you have to realize just how important the opening is. For you beginners, the opening comprises roughly the first 12 to 16 moves made in a chess game. Some openings are shorter while some are longer. The opening allows you to build a foundation for the rest of your game. When building a house, if the foundation is weak that house will eventually collapse. The same holds true in chess. If your foundation, the opening, is poorly constructed, your game will collapse.

There are three phases to a chess game, the opening, middle and endgames. The opening sets you up for the middle-game and the middle-game sets you up for the endgame. Therefore, your middle-game is only as good as your opening and your endgame is only as good as your middle-game. They all depend on one another. However, you might not see a middle or endgame if your opening is weak. One question beginners will ask is “I never make it to the middle or endgame because I get checkmated early. What am I doing wrong?” The answer? Not playing a proper opening!

To play properly during the opening, you have to use the opening principles to guide the moves you make. You cannot waste time (tempo) because the goal of the opening is control the center of the board before your opponent does. Remembering that your opponent is trying to achieve the same goals as you during the opening means that every move you make must be principled and not waste time. Wasted moves, such as moving the same piece twice during the opening or bringing your Queen out early allows your opponent to continue their principled moves which furthers their control of the board’s center. When you waste moves you might as well be giving your opponent a free turn.

Before I can even start teaching the opening principles, I have to solidify the importance of the board’s center in the minds of my students. Unless you know why the center of the board is so critical during the opening, you’ll not fully appreciate the importance of the opening principles and might ignore them, opted for wasted moves instead. With that said, let’s look at why the center of the board is so important.

The center of the board is comprised of four squares, e4, e5, d4 and d5. During the opening, both players fight to control these four squares and the squares immediately surrounding them. Why control the center and not one side of the board or the other? Two reasons. First, pieces have greater power or control of squares elsewhere on the board when those pieces are centrally located. A Knight in the center of the board (d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls eight squares while a Knight on the edge of the board (a4 or h4, for example) controls only four squares (a half Knight) and finally, a Knight on a corner square (a1, a8, h1 or h8) controls only two squares (a quarter Knight). The opening is all about having greater control of the board’s center than your opponent. Therefore centrally positioned pieces have greater control and greater options due to controlling more squares.

The second reason for centralized control? the enemy King is on a central file and if you want to get to him, it’s a lot faster to attack through the center than the flanks or sides of the board. Remember, the first person to checkmate their opponent’s King wins the game. Therefore, you want to get to the opposition King as quickly as possible. However, this doesn’t mean you should attack the opposition King the first chance you get. Attacks are built up, often slowly. What I mean by “quickly” is that you should choose the most direct approach when attacking. Why make two moves to get to a square you can reach in one move? This brings me to another important point, time or tempo.

The opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The player who makes good opening moves that follow the opening principles will be the winner. The player who wastes time making moves that do nothing to control the board’s center will fall hopelessly behind. In chess terms, we call time tempo and every time you make an unprincipled move that does nothing to help you achieve your goal, control of the board’s center, you lose tempo. Unprincipled moves are wasted moves and every time you make one of these unprincipled moves, you might as well be giving your opponent a free move. Wasted moves waste time and wasting time losses games.

Since the opening comes down to who can control the center first, with greater force, we can see that using the opening principles to guide our moves doesn’t waste time. The player that wastes time or tempo falls behind the player who doesn’t. We now know the reasons for the center of the board being so important, so employing the opening principles should make more sense. Our job during the opening is to control the center of the board with a pawn (or two), develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishop) to squares that allow them to control the center, castle our King to safety, connect our Rooks and last, continue to improve the activity of our pawns and pieces in order to go into the middle-game with a strong position.

I mentioned that principles are not rules at the beginning of this article. This means they don’t have to be adhered to. There are time when you may have to make a move that goes against these principles because you have no choice. The principles suggest we don’t move the same piece twice during the opening but what if a black pawn suddenly moves to b4 when you have a Knight on c3. Do you leave the Knight there because you don’t want to move the same piece twice during the opening? No! You move the Knight rather than lose it. Leaving the Knight to be captured would be treating principles as rules and they’re not. In fact, great chess players sometimes bend the opening principles if they have a really good reason. However, they don’t break those principles completely, they only bend them slightly. For now though, as a beginner, don’t bend the opening principles until you’ve fully mastered them. Speaking of opening principles, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Don’t Dissolve the Duo

This was a game in our club championship. Ben looked to avoid theory with 1.a3.

Nigel stopped at 9…Qe7 preferring 9…Re8. He suggested that the Queen can become a target on e7 to Nf5 ideas. Re8 may be better to prepare …Nf8-g6 and whether White plays e3-e4 or d3-d4, Black gets some kind of space gaining wedge. If White does neither he is permanently short of space. Nigel showed an example variation 10.e4 Nf8 11.O-O Ng6 12.g3 d4 13.c5 Bc7 14.Nc4 b5 15.Ncd2 a5 which he said starts to look like a Spanish with colours reversed. Black’s space is on the queenside – see Karpov – Unzicker (below) to know how to treat this position.

Nigel didn’t like 11…e4 – “Dissolving the Duo is a big deal!”. My thinking was solely focused on playing e4. To try and get some sort of attack going. Seeing the Karpov game will hopefully open my thinking to more possibilities.

This is 2 minute video of the Karpov – Unzicker. Karpov’s Ba7 is particularly instructive.

Dan Staples

Lev Polugaevsky : A Hero for Many Hard Workers

To be honest I was not particularly aware of Lev Polugaevsky until I came across his game against Eugene Torre, where he demonstrated his hard-work and creativity.

This is a really inspiring illustration to show that skills can be cultivated with the hard-work and dedication. Nowadays it might be easy to prepare like this with the aid of computers, but this game was played in 1981 when chess programs did not exist. His book Grandmaster Preparation is considered to be the one of the best chess books of all time by many Grandmasters.

Those who can not afford coaching due to financial constraints may find this presentation by GM Alejandro Ramirez very useful. He comments on some of Polugaevsky’s best games including these:

Lev Polugaevsky vs Mikhail Tal, USSR Championship 1969
Yehuda Gruenfeld vs Polgaevsky, Riga Interzonal 1979,
Polugaevsky vs Eugenio Torre, 1981
Polugaevsky vs Boris Gulko, 1975.

Ashvin Chauhan

A Rapidplay Secret

My Dad and I played in the Stockport Rapidplay yesterday, I got 3.5/6 in the Major and Dad got 5.5/6 to win the Open. One of the things he has told me is that in faster time limits its really important to stay ahead on the clock, and this was probably what decided his round 5 game against Macklin:

Sam Davies

Rook Ending Tactics

I’ve reached the point in Chess Endings for Heroes where I have to consider what to include in the section on rook endings. You will recall that this book is designed to take players who know how the pieces move up to adult competitive level (about 1500 ELO).

Dan Heisman says, with a degree of incredulity, that he’s heard that some instructors teach players rated 1200 or 1300 the Philidor and Lucena positions. He himself lost a game by not knowing the Philidor position when he’d been playing tournament chess for more than 5 years and his rating was 2100. He makes the point that he reached 2100 without knowing the Philidor position, and that there are better ways to use your time than learning positions that will happen very rarely.

I see his point but don’t entirely agree. It really doesn’t take that long to learn the basics of Phil and Lucy. I also think that, given faster time limits, a basic knowledge of endings is much more important now than when Dan lost this game, which must have been getting on for half a century ago. So I’ll be including a brief description of P and L, but at this level you really don’t know anything else specific.

Sure, you’ll need some basic principles: keep your pieces active, create passed pawns, rooks belong behind passed pawns, that sort of thing. But what I really want to do is to look at rook endings played at this level, look at the recurring tactical ideas, and reinforce them through a series of puzzles.

So I’ve spent the past week or so going through all the rook endings in my Richmond Junior Club database (getting on for 17000 games).

A familiar tactic in both queen and rook endings is the skewer.

In this position Black decided to promote his pawn, which wasn’t a good idea. He had four winning moves to choose from, the nicest of which was Rf3+, when, if White captures, it’s Black, not White who will play a skewer.

It’s very easy to switch into endgame mode and forget about mates. In this position White did just that, capturing on e6. He’d have had some winning chances if he’d taken the precaution of trading on g4 first.

Another frequent mistake: the most common in all endings at this level, is concerned with trading pieces to reach a pawn ending.

In this position I was giving a simul and carelessly moved my king to b5 instead of c5. Luckily, my opponent failed to avail himself of the opportunity to trade rooks and promote his remaining pawn.

Here’s another one. As you get stronger you have to move beyond just counting points and thinking rook for rook is an equal exchange. Here, with Black to make a decision, the trade is anything but equal. The rook ending is drawn, but Black traded rooks into what was a lost pawn ending after White correctly recaptured with the king. Note that Black would be winning if White took back on f4 with the pawn.

You also have to watch out for perpetual checks. In this position White played the natural g7, giving Black an immediate draw. The nicest way to win is to promote the pawn, play Rf7+ to trade rooks and then promote again.

My final example demonstrates another very common tactical idea. If your opponent’s rook is only defended by a king you can sometimes win it by playing a check. White is two pawns up here, but only has one winning move: Rf6+. Instead he pushed the h-pawn without thinking, losing his rook after White’s obvious reply. A few moves later, though, White accidentally left his rook en prise so the result was a draw.

Richard James

What’s in a Number?

The new ECF grades came out this week which would have had a lot of UK players in the UK checking their latest number. Of what significance are they? Well they do give a fairly good indication of playing strength and you can see whether you are improving or not. A larger number of games will give a more accurate figure, a smaller number is less reliable.

My own grade came out at 247, up from 240. It was based on just 12 games so I don’t think it will be very reliable, though it does perhaps indicate that I did not completely go to seed during my long layoff from competitive chess. My son Sam stayed about the same, his standard grade going down slightly (153 from 157) and his rapid grade going up (147 from 144). I think he reached a bit of a plateau after moving up steadily from his first rapid play grade of 33 in 2012. I figure he’ll be moving up again before too long.

These long term trends, over a large number of games, are what best indicates where someone is heading. Many older players suffer a slow, long term decline, though not all. Checking players over 70 for ‘standard improvement’ shows that it is never too late to get better. It was good to see a Tiger Chess member occupying one of the top places on this metric.

Of course grades can be taken a bit too seriously and can become something of a distraction. So I would recommend not thinking about them until a list comes out, and even then take a very long term view. Things like moving house, a change of job or trouble at home can play havoc with someone’s playing strength. But these issues eventually come to an end leaving the big picture as what really matters.

Nigel Davies

Hanging Pawns

Hanging pawns are the pawn duo on half open files, usually on c & d file. This pawn formation may arises from many openings, especially Queen’s gambit declined; Tartakower system. As they are on half open files, fundamentally they’re weak and owner of the hanging pawns has to occupy his pieces to defend them. The same time, they can become an asset and real headache for the opponent if you can manage to roll it.

How to play with it:
– You must roll it to release the energy of the pieces behind it or to create strong passed pawn.
– If you can’t roll it then try to prevent your opponent from creating strong blockade against it.
– If you can’t do any of the above then you must seek counter play along adjacent files (b & e file). sometimes even at the cost of pawn.

In the following example, we will see how David Janowski pushes his d pawn to release the energy of his dark square Bishop which ultimately proved decisive factor of the game.

How to play against it:
Creating strong blockade is the ideal strategy and to do so you must force your opponent to move one of his pawns that creates the hole, can be used to create strong blockade with your knight or the Bishop. Here is the famous game played between Fischer and Spassky during their world championship match.

Ashvin Chauhan

Going Back to the Basics (2)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

Last week I wrote about material balance in response to a call for help from my online student C:
“Recently I’ve been noticing that when I’m in a game, sometimes I don’t find an attack, or a really good move right away, and I start to focus on dumb, and pointless things in the game like taking a side pawn, and I forget about what is happening around me. This is mainly why I blunder and then lose. If you could give me some advice before the tournament I would appreciate it.”

The second aspect one should always keep an eye on is the kings’ position at all times. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense; capturing either king ends the game on the spot. We should all strive to keep our king out of danger, while attacking the other one whenever the opportunity arises. Beginners in general face a real challenge to follow this. The number of pieces on the board at the beginning is overwhelming and the number of possible moves is plain and simple scary. Who has time to look at the king when we know it is not useful? Another challenge comes from the rules in place for castling. I have seen countless times total confusion when club players stumbled over castling, wanted to do it and did not know how. It starts as simple as to know how many squares the king moves (it happens often to see a Queen side castle with Kb1+Rc1) and it continues quite often with castling through check or castling while in check and getting away with it (the opponent accepts it!).

I can hear you saying “I can castle. I am not a beginner anymore”. Moving on to more entertaining situations, I wonder how many times do you really watch the kings’ position? Do you do it constantly throughout the game? If you do, it is highly unlikely to be in the same shoes as C. Their position gives you most of the times enough information to figure out what to do. Of course this is not enough; you also need to find the right idea and put together the most appropriate plan to use to your advantage the kings’ position. That requires more advanced positional and tactical knowledge, as well as a lot of practice. C has offered me the perfect opportunity to expand on it based on one of his games from that tournament. Here is the position in question, the way he played it and the way he should have played it:

The good (White):

  • he realized he should attack the opposing king
  • his pieces were positioned almost perfectly (this ties into the third aspect) and beginning the attack was the right thing to do
  • eventually he clued in to bring Rf1 into the attack

The bad (White):

  • he could not make up his mind what to do with Bc4
  • trying to create a battery with 19. Qf5 and 20. Bd3 was an unfortunate waste of time
  • he got scared of a potential one move threat Rg8-g5

The ugly (White):

  • he should have realized from the beginning Qe2 and Bc4 were already in attacking positions, so the correct way to play would have been 18. Rf3 to bring another attacker
  • the fact there were semi-open files on g- and h-, an isolated h6-pawn and no piece outside Qe7 defending the king, should have pointed to the need to bring a rook into the action

Conclusion: the play was dictated exclusively by the weakened position in front of the Black king. The first needed step was to recognize it and that meant White was on the right track. It did not mean he reached the destination yet and he also had to choose the most appropriate plan to attack it. It is striking how Black could survive and save a draw when his position was completely lost at move 18. Do not allow such anomalies to happen in your games!

Valer Eugen Demian