C3 Sicilian: Anti-Sicilian for the Improving Player

I’m pleased to see that Gambit released several of their “Chess Explained” books this week for the Amazon Kindle. One of them is IM Sam Collins’ book, Chess Explained: The c3 Sicilian.

The c3 Sicilian is a good choice for improving chess players. There’s a lot less theory than playing the Open Sicilians, such as the Najdorf or the Dragon.

If you read about the c3 Sicilian on forums or ask at the local chess club, you’ll likely hear some players comment that white doesn’t get an advantage with the c3 Sicilian. Well, at the level of the chess improver, such theoretical judgments have no practical importance. If both white and black play correctly, the Open Sicilians don’t promise white an advantage, and we improvers don’t play perfectly. Another comment you’ll likely read is that the c3 is boring. OK, it’s not generally a sharp opening. That’s a virtue for us chess improvers, however. Sharp openings require lots of memorization. The c3 Sicilian doesn’t take nearly as long to learn as the Open Sicilians. As with any opening, you need to learn some basics, but from the beginning you can focus on plans and ideas rather.

I find that the c3 Sicilian is a good repertoire choice for white because many of the positions take on important and familiar pawn formations, such as the d4-e5 pawn duo common in the French Defense, isolated queen’s pawn, etc.

Here’s a rapid game I played tonight online against a B class player. I missed an important opportunity on move 10 to win a piece. As I said, we improvers don’t play perfectly. So, don’t forego an opening like the c3 Sicilian just because you hear that white doesn’t get an advantage from the opening. We improvers need to work harder on avoiding disadvantages through blunders and weak moves, rather than expecting a big advantage from our choice of opening.

Glenn Mitchell


Focal Points

A square or a pawn can become such a critical point of focus that the outcome of the game is determined largely from the build up of force around this square. Isolated Queen’s Pawns are an example. Sometimes the IQP itself is the focal point. In other games, it is the square in front of the IQP as the opponent attempts to blockade the IQP.

Below is a recent game of mine. My opponent had an IQP. I focused as much force as I could on the IQP, adding piece after piece to the attack.

Improving chess players need to learn to recognize critical moments in their chess games. This is the title of an excellent book by Paata Gaprindashvili. It’s a book I strongly recommend for all improving chess players rated ELO 1400 and above. As the title suggests, it’s a book on identifying those moments in a chess game when the course is altered. My opponent missed the importance of maintaining focus on his IQP when he moved the queen away from direct supervision of the pawn.

The e5 pawn became a focal point in a rapid game I played yesterday. I plunked my queen in front of the pawn on e4 and we both fought briefly over it.

In this case, it was my turn to lose focus and throw away a decisive advantage by winning the e5 pawn outright. My opponent returned the favor by offering to exchange queens. A couple of moves later, I blundered again by not immediately seizing the seventh rank. Typical of games among us improvers, this one alternated blunders and weak moves by both players. The only consolation for me was the fact that my blunders did not completely reverse the outcome of the game. They instead gave my opponent more of a chance than was deserved.

Glenn Mitchell


Sometimes a Tree is a Bush

GM Kotov wrote a famous book about calculation in chess, Think Like a Grandmaster. He discusses the calculation of variations using an extended metaphor, the tree of variations.

The basic idea is that players should calculate a tree of variations. Players should only examine each branch of the tree once. Why once? To keep from dithering over multiple lines and then feeling time pressure, when they can be tempted to play a completely new candidate move and not even verify if it is sound.

A tree of variations implies that there are a small number of candidate variations to examine. Kotov recognized this is not always the case. Sometimes a player has to make a decision without the benefit of careful calculating every candidate variation sufficiently.

The game below is instructive for us improving players. GM Walter Browne felt he had a winning position. He likely calculated a handful of variations out several moves. Out several moves, there was still uncertainty. What GMs and IMs have that we do not is much greater experience and – as a result – a better-refined intuition about the outcome from a sacrifice and the initiative that follows. They make better evaluations. After black played 12. … 0-0, GM Browne reasoned this was the critical moment to begin a kingside attack. He sacrifices a rook in exchange for a swift and crushing initiative. He made his evaluation on the basis of partial calculation.

There’s another instructive lesson here for us improvers. GM Browne missed that 20. Rf1 was premature one move. It was his good fortune that his opponent missed it, too, since 20. … Qa5 would have given black some counterplay after 21. … Qe1+. Black further blundered by making the move Qa5 one move too late. Had he played 21. … Rg7 instead, white would have won the exchange and had a much better position but black could have continued to play on.

Glenn Mitchell


Insufficient Attention

I’ve been experimenting some this week with the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon. Informal Internet games give me the opportunity to try different openings. I find, at my level, it’s hard to get anywhere close to the Dragon Sicilian. So I decided to give 2 … g6 a go for several games. What attracted me is the sharp, tactical play that tends to result. Plus, at my level, most of my opponents are completely unfamiliar with the opening. You can seen the immediate pause to consider when the g-pawn moves forward immediately. I usually end up with a quick initiative.

My opponent this afternoon was the first all week who appeared to be familiar with the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon. That’s my surmise based on the practically instantaneous replies for the first several moves. I felt off-balanced until move 30. At that point, I felt I could — at a minimum – hold the position to a draw. This was not just chutzpah relating to my defensive skills. I know full well, at my level of play and in my own case, defensive technique is not so well-refined. I had a huge time advantage. I had seven minutes on my clock, my opponent less than two minutes.

With such a large time advantage, I should have slowed down. I also should have paid better attention to the entire board. I completely overlooked the winning opportunity with move 43. … b4 and instead played Kh7. As a consequence, I ended up with a drawn position, when I could have won rather easily.

Houdini 3 believes that my final move – which drew by repetition – was a blunder. The Houdini engine concludes black has a winning advantage. I believe that to be a piece of flawed analysis that gives too much credit to material advantage and not enough to the inability for black to convert the advantage into a win by force. I’ll be curious to learn from one of my titled coauthors if I’m dead wrong on this score. I concluded at the time that the position was a cast iron draw. The only way for black to force a win was for white to blunder. I spent a good 30 or more minutes with Houdini as a kibitzer, looking for a forced win and could not find one.

Glenn Mitchell


Don’t Disregard Descriptive Notation

When I was a youth, all of the chess books and chess magazines used descriptive notation. Algebraic notation didn’t really appear much until the 1980s and 1990s.

There was a time when I preferred descriptive notation. That was simply because I was unfamiliar with algebraic notation and I found the symmetry of descriptive notation appealing. When learning openings, for example, expressing the moves by naming squares from the perspective of the moving player was more intuitive to me. To say each player moved P-K4 and then white played N-KB3 and black followed with N-QB3 was easier for me to visualize. To be candid, I still find descriptive notation easier to visualize for openings.

Algebraic notation is now the norm. Some younger players don’t even know how to read descriptive notation. They grew up with algebraic notation. I’ve read many threads on message boards with younger players complaining about old books written in descriptive notation. Some even refuse to learn descriptive notation. My advice to chess improvers: don’t disregard descriptive notation.

I prefer algebraic notation, too. When I find a “classic” text or e-book is only available in descriptive notation, it’s disappointing. Why? I find that as I play through a game, I can more easily make a mistake with the moves when they’re recorded in descriptive notation. Each square has an unambiguous name in algebraic notation. Whether a move is recorded for white or black, the square c1 is exactly the same square in algebraic notation. Descriptive notation gives each square two names.

English-speaking players who avoid or refuse to learn descriptive notation isolate themselves from some truly great chess books. A recent example that I purchased for my Kindle is Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur by Max Euwe and Walter Meiden. This is a great book that can be read profitably by lower-rated chess improvers. Like many of the old Dover Chess books, it is still available only in descriptive notation. Even the Kindle version is just a copy of the original. It’s not updated to algebraic notation.

Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur is a “move-by-move” chess book. Players unwilling to learn descriptive notation or read books that use it could argue there are lots of good “move-by-move” books available in algebraic notation and those have more recent games. Why bother with Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur? One reason is Max Euwe’s clear and concise prose. The better reason is the nature of the games. One player is a master. The other player is much weaker. Euwe points out the errors made by the weaker player and – more important – he points out how a stronger player exploits those errors. This is a great book for the lower-rated player to learn how to exploit common mistakes. It’s only available in descriptive notation.

Another example, this one for the stronger chess improver, is Hans Kmoch’s Pawn Power in Chess. This is another “classic” this is available only in descriptive notation. I find this book to be the single most annoying chess book I’ve ever read. (You can read my editorial comments here: http://improvingchessplayer.com/the-most-impenetrable-chess-book.) That’s because Kmoch gets completely carried away creating terminology. The prose is so poorly written that I ended up more than once throwing the paperback across the room in frustration. (I’m not exaggerating about throwing the &#!$ book.)  Once you get past the truly goofy terminology and bad prose, the substance of the book is absolutely critical for chess mastery. This is another chess “classic” that’s available only in descriptive notation.

If you want to have access to the fullest range of chess books to improve your game, it’s a good idea to be comfortable with both algebraic and descriptive chess notation.

Glenn Mitchell


Interconnectedness in Chess

One of the lessons I’ve been trying to internalize about chess is interconnectedness. Nothing happens on the chessboard in isolation.

One of the habits we chess improvers need to refine is to consider the entire board. We often focus our attention on one part of the board and neglect the rest. We talk about the center, the kingside, the queenside. These are artificial divisions important in our strategic planning. It’s vital that we also remember that strategies and tactics which emerge on one part of the board can impact other parts of the board in important and (sometimes) unexpected ways. “Tunnel vision” is a failure to see interconnectedness.

Another habit we need to refine is giving full consideration to the plans and ideas of our opponents. Strong chess players are flexible about their strategic thinking. If they see that the circumstances on the board have changed significantly, they adjust their plans. Perhaps they even abandon their current plan and adopt another, one better suited to the totality of circumstances in the current game. Weak players bear on, as if conditions have not changed. When we focus on our own plans and ideas exclusively, we invite unpleasant surprise.

Advice I’ve read somewhere on choosing a repertoire suggested that intermediate players begin by thinking about the kinds of middlegames and endgames they prefer. I’ve seen heated forum discussions about when the opening ends and the middlegame begins or when the middlegame transitions to the endgame. Experienced players know that the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame are related. What happens in middlegame evolves out of the opening and (similarly) what occurs in the endgame is determined in large part by what happened in the middlegame.

Developing a better intuition for interconnectedness on the chessboard will help improve your thinking processes at the board.

For example, should you take on doubled pawns for some other concession? Novices tend to think of doubled pawns as weaknesses. Often, they are. Whether to accept them, however, requires careful consideration. And, not just thinking about the short-term consequences. Accepting doubled pawns can have long-term implications that might even affect a different part of the board entirely.

Making decisions in chess is like squeezing a balloon. We apply pressure in one spot but the effect is distributed much more widely. Pinch a balloon in the center (assuming it doesn’t pop) and the balloon will bulge on either side or both.

Glenn Mitchell


Mastering Priyomes: A Key to Chess Improvement

Russians have a very interesting concept. The word for it is “priyome.” It’s actually a very common word in Russian, but it’s the chess concept that I want to discuss in this brief blog post.

Improving chess players begin to study pawn structures seriously. Priyomes are closely related. They are critical situations to learn and remember. The concept of priyome includes both patterns and associated maneuvers. I believe Andy Soltis has the most helpful definition in his book, Studying Chess Made Easy. Priyomes are positional patterns.

The diagram below comes from Andy Soltis’ latest book, 100 Chess Master Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames. White to move.

The first element of a priyome is to recognize the structure. To do that, we need to know the characteristics of a particular structure and then be able to recognize it on the board. In this case, we have an endgame where the d file is open. It could have been the e file. Or, any single open file.

The second element is to recognize the associated maneuver to exploit the structure. In this case, white should move Rd1 followed by Rd7. White gets a decisive advantage as a result.

Not all priyomes are so obvious and decisive. Some are simple, others are elaborate. Some can result in a decisive advantage, others only slightly improve a position.

One distinguishing characteristic of priyomes is that they can be described in words rather than moves. As I noted in the example above, the priyome does not depend on the d file being open. The priyome is this: an open file that can be seized by a rook, which can then penetrate to the seventh rank with devastating effect.

Masters know lots of priyomes. The Soviet chess schools urged students to collect new patterns and save them in notebooks. They wanted their students to instantly recognize a pattern and then remember the associated priyome. Trainer Anatoly Trekhin amassed over 100 different priyomes in his notebook. Mark Dvoretsky had more than 3,000 positions in his collection. Yasser Seirawan had 32 notebooks. Do you need such a large collection? Andy Soltis argues, “No.” In his latest book, he claims there are 25 essential priyomes.

Whether you collect priyomes in a notebook, save them on notecards, or store them on a computer, thinking in terms of priyomes is an excellent method for taking pattern recognition to a further level and enhancing your chess intuition.

Glenn Mitchell


Spending More Time on Endgames

I own lots of books on openings but they’re sitting in my collection for the future. So far in my training, I’ve avoided the common mistake that many of us improvers make: spending too much time on openings.

There’s one important difference between opening theory and endgame theory. Opening theory is constantly evolving. Endgame theory, on the other hand, is much more fixed. Opening mavens spend a lot of time memorizing theoretical novelties that they seldom get to play. When it comes to openings, your opponent has lots of options, too.

Many improvers feel they need to learn openings to even get to the endgame. They feel it is their lack of opening knowledge that leads to early losses. Much more often, in my own personal experience, it’s failure to consistently apply basic opening principles that contributes to early losses. A personal example, at my first OTB tournament, I decided to play the London System as white with the idea of at least getting into a middlegame against my opponents. One of them, rated around ELO 1900 played the Dutch Defense. I was intimidated right from the move f5. I had never seen the Dutch Defense. My immediate reaction. “I’ve never seen the Dutch Defense. What do I do?” I had no idea. Did I fall back on general opening principles. No. I panicked. I lost in approximately 20 moves. When I told my coach about this, he told me, I should have been pleased when my opponent played the Dutch Defense against the London System since the Dutch Defense was not a particularly good defense against the London System. What I needed to do was remain calm and think through the basic opening principles.

Most of us improvers feel inadequate in the endgame. Curiously, we feel inadequate in the opening, too. Yet, we react differently to those feelings of inadequacy. With openings, we have a tendency to want to study them before we’re really prepared to study them seriously. With endgames, we have a tendency to want to avoid their study. We use excuses, like “Endgame studies are boring.”

GM Josh Waitzkin argues we improvers get it backwards. We “. . . should start with the endgame instead of the opening. Studying positions of reduced complexity you can gain an early understanding of certain deep principles that would be impossible to feel in complex middlegame positions. Then, once we understand the principle, we can apply it to much more complex positions.” (Josh Waitzkin, Chess Life, August 2007)

The best reason to study endgames is that it is the one area where most beginners and intermediate chess players are deficient. If you are strong in the endgame, you will have a huge advantage over them.

A second reason is that it allows you to conserve energy during a tournament. Rather than flailing away for an extra twenty or thirty moves in an endgame because your technique is poor, you could perhaps achieve the same result in ten or fifteen moves.

A third reason for studying endgames seriously even as an improving chess player is that it makes us more familiar with fundamental chess positions. This improves our ability to calculate and to better judge when a game is hopeless and (more importantly) when you can fight on and win.

As with openings, I’m learning that there are lots of ways to fritter away time in the study of endings. Not all endings are critical for improving chess players to master. Pawn, rook and pawn, and rook endings are the most common endings and also the most important for us improvers to study in depth. Yes, you will experience the occasional Q+N v Q endgame. Very infrequently. Fifty percent of endings include rooks. Q+N v Q is rather uncommon because queens tend to be traded off before the endgame, especially among beginners and intermediate players. As NM Bruce Pandolfini argues in Pandolfini’s Chess Complete, it’s sensible to emphasize pawn endings and pawn and rook endings.

One last point to consider about studying endgames. Classic games are great source material. With the advent of computers, there are no more adjournments and shorter time controls are the rule. As a result, endgame play from modern games tends to be less exemplary than it was from classical time controls. The experts I’ve read all agree that the endgames of Rubenstein, Capablanca, and Smyslov are the most exemplary endgames to study.

I try to study at least one endgame each day. If you find endgames tedious, then I suggest you start your chess study time with an endgame. I believe it’s good advice to start with an endgame for another reason. Endgames take a lot of concentration. Although there are fewer units on the board, the number of candidate moves and variations tend to be greater. That’s why endgame tablebases were created. Chess computers require more time to calculate endgames. Predigesting them speeds the computer’s response. Since endgames require a lot of concentration, it’s best to do that when our mental facilities are at their sharpest.

The game below is Seirawan – Kasparov, Nikši? 1983 I believe this a good example to work through for assimilating the idea of triangulation. There are times in king and pawn endgames when we want to lose a tempo. When we can move our king in a triangle while our opponent can only move back and forth, we can lose a tempo and perhaps the game.

In this game, Kasparov (as black) would prefer to “pass” his turn. Unfortunately, passing is not an option in chess. So, he opts to apply the triangulation endgame motif to win the game in just a few moves.

Glenn Mitchell


Learning From Zürich 1953

A great deal of printer’s ink has been applied to paper advising novices and intermediate players to study the games of grandmasters. By looking at them, we improvers have the opportunity to see chess at its best.

One common approach is to read collections of games annotated by the greatest players, such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov, etc. Another approach is to study more general game collections, like The World’s Greatest Chess Games by Nunn, Burgess, and Emms.

I’ve been working lately with some books that record the games from important chess tournaments. For example, Bronstein’s Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 is considered by many to be one of the finest chess books ever written. Miguel Najdorf also wrote an excellent collection of annotated games from this same tournament, Zürich 1953: 15 Contenders for the World Chess Championship.

One major advantage I find from studying a game collection from a famous tournament is the overall strength of the play. Let’s consider the Zürich 1953 tournament. Zürich 1953 was a 30-round event. Fifteen of the best players in the world plying a double round-robin tournament that lasted nearly two months. There were 210 games contested by Vassily Smyslov, Sammy Reshevsky, Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Tigran Petrosian, Efim Geller, Alexander Kotov, Mark Taimanov, Yuri Averbakh, Isaac Boleslavsky, Laszlo Szabo, Svetozar Gligoric, Max Euwe, Gideon Stahlberg, and Miguel Najdorf. Smyslov eventually won the tournament.

The Zürich 1953 tournament is uncommon in one respect. There are two excellent annotated game collections, one by David Bronstein and the other by Miguel Najdorf. I have both. Bronstein speaks in plain language rather than exploring lots of variations in great depth. I suspect this is what make’s Bronstein’s version so popular with us improvers. It’s a very accessible text for intermediate players. I’ll argue that Najdorf’s volume is just as accessible. Again, there are no lengthy variations. What’s missing from Bronstein’s version and present in Najdorf’s, however, is a feel for the tournament and the players.

Over the last year, a number of these classic tournament game collections have been released for the Amazon Kindle. Both Bronstein’s and Najdorf’s volumes on Zürich 1953, for example, are available in the Kindle format. Both can be profitably studied by my fellow chess improvers.

Glenn Mitchell


Learning from Alekhine

Studying the games of great players is frequent advice given to improving chess players. Good advice that presumes the answers to a couple of important questions?

  • At what level should we begin to study the games of great players?
  • How should we study those games?

I might be dead wrong on this point . . . I don’t believe that novices below ELO 1000 will benefit much from studying the games of great players. I don’t think it will do any harm. But for players who are just learning the basics of pins and forks and why the center of the board is critical, studying the games of great players is productive how?! Most books for novices contain fragments rather than complete games to focus in on essential material to understand right from the start when beginning chess.

I believe that studying the games of great players becomes especially productive for improving players and proceeds right through to masters and experts. What changes is how we go about studying those games.

I’ve read advice, mostly on chess sites and not in print, that improvers should cull a hundred or so games from a database and just play through them rapidly. Spending no more than thirty seconds to one minute per move. This sounds to me rather like learning chess by osmosis. I appreciate the idea of pattern recognition, but I’ve always felt that was best done for tactics by working with puzzle books and programs like CT-ART. Speeding through complete games doesn’t teach me patterns. That could just be a learning deficit on my part. 😉

Over the last year, a number of the published works of Alekhine have been released for the Amazon Kindle. I find the Kindle convenient for working through the games of chess greats like Alekhine. Books are fine, but I can lay the Kindle down and make a move. I don’t have to flip the book over or mark my page. I can carry every Kindle chess book I own to the coffee shop, set up my board, and study.

One reason that I chose Alekhine is because of the quality of his annotations. Another is the range of published games. Not only are his collected games available but also the tournament books he annotated for several famous tournaments. My Kindle collection for Alekhine includes the following:

  • Alexander Alekhine’s Best Games
  • My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1937
  • New York, 1924
  • New York, 1927
  • Nottingham, 1936

At my level, squarely an improver and not an expert or master, I find it best to work through the games with a board and pieces and go through Alekhine’s analysis. Not too fast, but instead savoring it.

The advice that I’ve read for experts and masters is to go through the games and play solitaire chess. You focus on guessing the moves for one side. Go through the game move-by-move. Do your own analysis first. Choose your move. Then compare your move and your analysis with that of the grandmaster. See just how well you do, compared with a great, such as Alekhine.

I’ll close with the PGN for two games that Alekhine considered his very best: Bogoljubow v Alekhine (Hastings, 1922) and Réti v. Alekhine (Baden-Baden, 1925).

Glenn Mitchell