Category Archives: Improver (950-1400)

Abraham’s Choice

Last Tuesday (9 September 2014) my old friend Abraham Neviazsky died suddenly at the age of 80. I’d known Abraham more or less since joining Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club in 1966.

Abraham was a remarkable character who had learnt chess as a boy in Lithuania, having been taught by the likes of Mikenas. His family had suffered hardship during the Second World War, and eventually found their way, via Poland, to Israel. Abraham later married an English girl and moved to England.

Abraham was noted for his devotion to Fulham football club, and also for his devotion to moving his b-pawn two squares at the start of the game. I played in the same team as him on many occasions and rarely if ever saw him play any first move other than b4. He didn’t play it in a particularly scary way, but was confident and experienced in the slightly unusual middle game positions he reached. In recent years he had also taken to starting his games with Black with a6 followed by b5.

The subject of opening choice has been a topic of debate recently on Nigel’s Facebook page. How should we choose our own openings and what advice should we give to our students, whether adults or children?

Should we encourage them, like Abraham, to stick to the same opening at all times or to vary their openings? And should we encourage them to choose main line openings or, again like Abraham, unusual openings?

I was an active tournament player in the mid 1970s, when the English Chess Explosion, along with the explosion in opening books, was getting underway. What I did was, in retrospect, exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Whenever a new Batsford opening book came out I’d rush to Foyle’s to buy it on publication day, skim through the pages excitedly and play it at the next opportunity. I’d get a bad position because I didn’t really understand the opening, decide it wasn’t for me, await the publication of the next opening book and repeat the whole cycle all over again. When I eventually realised that I was no longer interested in studying chess seriously I was left with the opening repertoire I had when the music stopped. I haven’t been happy with what I play, especially with White, but don’t feel confident playing anything else. I know a little bit about most openings but not enough about anything to play it against a strong opponent. I’m envious of my friends who’ve been playing the same non-critical openings for the past 40 years and know exactly what they’re doing at the start of the game.

But there are two reasons why I don’t really regret taking that approach. As a chess teacher it’s important that I know a bit about all openings so that I can find out how much my students know about them, so that I can avoid falling into the trap of only teaching the openings I play myself, and so that I can avoid giving them bad advice. A few months ago I watched two colleagues demonstrating a game to a class of eager students. The game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. 0-0 Nxe4, which they castigated for being too greedy and moving a piece twice in the opening. In fact it’s main line theory and perfectly good for Black, but as neither of my colleagues played this line with either colour they were unaware of this.

There’s another thing as well. It seems to me that only playing e4 and never d4 is like only listening to Bach and never to Mozart, or only reading Dickens and never Jane Austen. Always playing b4 on your first move, then, must be like only listening to, I don’t know, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. From my perspective it would seem that, from his choice of opening, Abraham only experienced a small part of the world of chess. But I’ve known few people who played chess with so much enjoyment and enthusiasm as Abraham. He’d have liked a few more years, but suffering a heart attack while playing chess against an old friend is probably the way he’d have wanted to go.

Richard James

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Chess Preparation for the Busy Person

Before writing, I checked for other peoples’ views on how a busy person should prepare? But most of the time they suggest opening repertories which save time. Instead of this I have a different idea that does not involve the effort involved in changing openings, instead putting the focus on managing your existing repertoire more efficiently.

1. Create your own database: You put in tournament games, online games with a decent time control and correspondence games.

2. Select critical positions: Whatever opening systems you play, you can find some middle game positions that occur in your games the most and put them into different categories. For example winning positions, losing ones and those which are difficult to handle or uncertain.

3. Use the computer as playing partner: I am not big fan of using a computer for chess preparation but here you can use computers in more sensible way. First of you can select levels which you want to play against then play your selected positions as black and white in order to grasp the ideas and spot out tactical possibilities.

4. Using the database: Once you have plenty of experience in playing the selected positions, now it’s time to see how the experts play them. You simply search positions using any chess database and can go through the games.

The whole process is nothing but a way working on the selected patterns in more organised way.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Guidelines For Teaching Kids Endgames and Tactics

Once a student is familiar with piece movements, attacks, check and checkmate, my next topic is to teach him or her elementary mates. This was explained by Capablanca in his book Chess Fundamentals.

“The first thing a student should do, is to familiarise himself with the power of pieces. This can best be done by learning how to accomplish quickly some of the simple mates.”

In my view tactics and endgames should be learned in parallel. For tactics it’s best to proceed step by step to develop tactical skills very gradually and effectively. I have had very good results with that. But for the endgame I referred to many books before finally choosing ‘GM RAM’. This seems very strange at first as there are just 256 dry positions to work out without even knowing who is to move! But once you go though the you realise that the first 58 endgame positions are really essential. I realised that 70% or more of my endgame knowledge is based around those 58 positions, and these cover the following topics:

– Key Square
– Rule of Square
– Opposition
– Shouldering
– Pawn breakthrough
– Essential Rook ending (Philidor and Lucena)
– Queen vs. Rook endgame
– Essential Queen endgames

These elements are all vital for practical endgame play. And as there is nothing ready-made it can actually actually inspire us to work through them in our own way.

There is a problem when a coach focuses on the endgame. A few of my students see the endgame as boring, insisting that I teach them more and more tactics, but the problem is that they can’t understand that they are not knowledgeable enough to decide what is good for them.

Accordingly I have not changed my way even at the cost of some students going elsewhere for lessons. Quality demands sacrifices.

Ashvin Chauhan

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World Rapid Chess Championship

The FIDE World Rapid Chess Championship 2014 recently concluded with Magnus Carlsen winning, followed by Fabiano Caruana in 2nd place and Viswanathan Anand in 3rd.

There was an interesting endgame between the FIDE World Champion, Carlsen, and former World Champion, Anand. Carlsen uncharacteristically went wrong in an ending. In taking a pawn with his knight he missed a simple rook move that skewered his bishop and knight. Anyone can make such mistakes, especially in rapid chess, but when the World Champion does it, it’s called a blunder! Despite this loss, it wasn’t enough to stop Carlsen becoming the 2014 World Rapid Champion. You can view the ending play with commentary on the clip below.

Angus James

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Legal Aid

I’m sure you all know about Legal’s Mate (or, if you prefer, Legall or Legalle, with or without an acute accent). It’s named after François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur (1702–92), a French chess player who taught Philidor and was probably, until he lost a match to his pupil in 1755, the strongest player in the world. Sadly, the games of that match are not extant: all we have of his play is the one game with the mate that bears his name.

Here’s an example from the RJCC database: Ray Cannon giving a simul back in 1987.

Black resigned, seeing that 8.. Ke7 9. Nd5 was checkmate. He would have been better advised to capture with the pawn rather than the knight on move 6.

There are, as you would imagine, many games on my database where one player unwittingly moves the pinned knight, losing the queen. Beginners will see the attack on the knight, decide they don’t want to lose it (even though it’s defended twice) and move it away. Alternatively, as in the next game, a more experienced but impatient player will get excited about the idea of creating a threat and forget to ask himself the Magic Question.

Of course, this is a really important topic that we need to teach to young children.

Firstly, they have to understand the pin, recognise the typical position type and be aware that if they move the knight their opponent will be able to capture their queen.

Then they need to learn that sometimes, but not very often, they will be able to move the pinned knight with impunity because they, like Sire de Legall or Ray Cannon, will have a mate at the other end of the board. Apart from its practical merit, it’s always good to show children queen sacrifices. There’s a section on Legal’s Mate in Move Two!.

But there are two possible problems that can arise. The first one happens when they find the mate they’d planned was illusory. One of my earliest coaching experiences was a game at RJCC where, after we’d given the class a lesson on Legal’s Mate, one player did just this. It might possibly have been this game:

If this was the game I’m thinking of, Black played Ng4 fully aware that White could take the queen but hoping that he had a mate in reply.

Another thing that can go wrong is that the mate’s there but the sacrificer hasn’t considered what happens if his opponent doesn’t take the queen.

Here’s the start of another RJCC game from the same period:

The mate’s there OK if Black takes the queen on move 6, but he unsportingly captured the knight instead when White had nothing for the piece.

Failing to check for this sort of thing is not recommended, but in another RJCC game nearly 20 years later Black got away with his indiscretion:

A little bit of thought would have persuaded White to play 12. Nxe4, leaving him a piece ahead. So there you have it. Teach your pupils about Legal’s Mate: it’s an important part of their chess education. Don’t forget to provide some Legal aid as well. Teach them to ensure that the mate is actually there if their opponent snaps at the bait, and to check what happens if their opponent doesn’t take the queen. Perhaps a worksheet could be produced where the students have to tell you whether or not the unpinning sacrifice works.

Richard James

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Future Masters

Future masters have to start somewhere and most in England learn their skills on the weekend tournament circuit, in junior events and adult events. It used to be the case that it would take many years, even for the most talented, to become masters, but now things seem to have speeded up with access to databases and coaching.  It is remarkable how quickly juniors can improve now. One kid from nearby went from a beginner to the top player in the county for his age category in just 3 years. I guess he will have his first master title in another 3 years, such is the trajectory of his progression.

I recently had a look through some of my games in the 1990s, the decade when I first started playing chess. In 1996, I played in the World Amateur Championship in Hastings. I played a future IM, Thomas Rendle. He was only about 10 at the time, graded perhaps around 1500 elo, while I was about 1700 elo – although the ratings are a bit irrelevant as we were both heading for ratings hundreds of points higher. While I was a bit more experienced, he had the confidence of youth. He was in the habit of wearing bow-ties, as I recall. I thought he was a bit reminiscent of Walter, the arch enemy of Dennis and Gnasher. Anyway, he played the French Defence, which he still does today, although he’s no longer wearing the bow-ties!

In the game below he played well until he saw an opportunity to win two minor pieces for a rook, missing that his king would get into trouble.

Although I won this encounter, ten years later he become an IM while I hit a wall and stopped making significant progress. I like to think that the reason why I didn’t progress to master level was that I only came to chess as an adult, and annoying things like having to earn a living got in the way. While there is probably a little bit of that involved, it is probably more because I didn’t want to improve as much as he did and didn’t prioritise it enough. What are you prepared to sacrifice to improve? If you’re not giving 100% to chess, forget becoming a master. And watch out for the kids – some of them may be future masters!

Angus James

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Poetic Justice

I’ll return to the history of Richmond Junior Club later, possibly next week, but first I’d like to show you a recent RJCC game played between two of my private pupils.

The game started with the French Defence. Black, the older of the two boys, favours this opening. He doesn’t yet know a lot about it, though, as he’s still too young to study chess on his own.

So: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (unusual in junior chess where the Exchange and Advance Variations are the usual choices) 3.. Nf6 4. Bd3 (a reasonable developing move, but not played often at higher levels, where Bg5 and e5 are preferred. Now c5 is the most popular reply, but instead Black immediately blunders)

4.. Bd6, and White spotted the opportunity to win a piece, playing 5. e5. This tactical idea, a pawn fork in the centre of the board, happens over and over again in games played by children. There are scores of examples in my Richmond Junior Club database. You’ll rarely come across this in books, though, because at higher levels players see it coming and avoid it. If Black had remembered to ask himself the Magic Question (“If I do that what will he do next?”) he might have chosen something else.

Black decided he ought to gain some compensation for the piece by getting his pieces out quickly, so the game continued 5.. Nc6 6. exd6 Qxd6.

At this level, children tend to think “How can I create a threat?” rather than “How can I put a piece on a better square?”. The next day I was playing Black in a training game against another of my private pupils, younger and less experienced than these two boys. I played the French Defence myself (I usually play 1.. e5 at this level but sometimes mix things a bit) and the game started 1. e4 e6 2. d4 (It took him some time to find this move) 2.. d5 3. exd5 exd5. Now he saw that he could threaten my queen by playing Bg5, reached out his hand, noticed that it wasn’t safe, and instead played the first move he saw that controlled g5: h4. At lower levels children play this sort of move for this reason all the time. I persuaded him that if he wanted to prepare Bg5 he’d be better off developing a piece with Nf3.

Returning to the game in question, then, White decided he’d like to play Bf4 to threaten the black queen, so chose to prepare it with the truly horrible 7. g3. A much more sensible approach to the position would have been simple development with Nf3 and O-O.

Black replied with 7.. e5, opening the centre against the white king, and White, his plan thwarted, looked for another way to threaten the black queen and found 8. Nb5. Black replied 8.. Qe7, defending c7 and eyeing the white king. It’s not so easy for White now as it’s going to be hard to get his king into safety. He played 9. Ne2, blocking the e-file and hoping to castle, but this move had a tactical disadvantage. Again, asking the Magic Question would have led him to an alternative solution.

Black could now regain his piece with 9.. e4, trapping the bishop on d3, another basic recurring tactical idea at this level, but he didn’t notice this and preferred to continue his development with 9.. Bg4. White traded pawns: 10. dxe5 Nxe5, reaching a position where Black has a Big Threat.

White has a few ways to stay in the game here, but instead he failed to ask himself the Magic Question and just developed a piece: 11. Be3, allowing Black to carry out his threat: 11.. Nf3+ 12. Kf1 Bh3# with a pretty checkmate. Poetic justice that Black’s knight and bishop occupied the squares that were weakened by g3, and a salutary lesson for White about how pawn moves can create weaknesses.

Here’s the complete game.

The game I usually use when teaching about pawn forks in the opening is this:

This is a trick worth knowing. Black developed his bishops on c5 and e6 and a knight on c6, giving White the chance to win a piece neatly with 7. d4, followed by d5. He missed his chance but still won a piece the following move when Black fell for another recurring tactic, the queen fork on a4. If 9. Bxb4, 10. Qa4+ wins.

Richard James

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Improving Concentration

Being able to concentrate at the board is easier said than done, yet it is vital if you are going to play your best chess. Among the issues that could impact on your concentration are tiredness, fitness level, health, distractions and worries at home/work, etc.

Health and fitness are easily taken for granted, until you reach middle age and realise they are not a given. To be fit, well and rested for a tournament or match you have to train not just your chess brain, but also take care of yourself. It is notable that professional chess players spend a large amount of time preparing for matches just focusing on fitness. Great stamina is required to play at a high level for hours. Concentration is something that can be improved by increasing your fitness level and maintaining good health.

Getting a good night’s sleep before playing chess is an obvious one, but not always easy to achieve when you’ve got a family. Try to get an early night and avoid too much alcohol or caffeine.

On the day itself, get some fresh air before the game with a walk or some form of exercise. This is likely to help to get your body and mind energised for the game. Last minute opening preparation will most likely be a waste of time.

Some players find it useful to turn up 15 minutes early to games to get into ‘the zone’ before the game starts. Apparently Botvinnik did this. If you only get into ‘the zone’ 15 minutes after the game has started the whole game could be decided by then. Being calm will most likely put you in a better position to cope with whatever is about to occur at the board or around it.

When you do finally get started – after you’ve done your fitness program, healthy lifestyle regime, got a good night’s sleep, had a walk in the morning and turned up early – there can be really irritating distractions. Like talking in the background by inconsiderate folk, eating at the board (especially crisps and wrapped sweets), slurping tea/coffee, table shaking, etc. These things are often more distracting than someone’s mobile going off, but no one gets defaulted for them. Your opponent is not supposed to distract you, but rather than having a dispute that requires arbiter intervention, it might be better to remain resolutely focused on the position and not let yourself be distracted by it all. Maintain a Zen-like calm, and don’t let those pesky distractions get to you!

Spend as much time at the board as possible, concentrating as hard as you possibly can. You might find it helpful to get up regularly to take a little walk around, but try and limit these leg stretches in terms of time so that you’re not tempted to take your mind off the position. There is nothing worse than returning to the board and thinking, ‘what was I planning to do next?!’ and spending 15 minutes to re-acquaint yourself with the position.

Staying hydrated by drinking water before and during games is wise, particularly if the venue temperature is warm. This may mean you need to visit the bathroom once or twice, but better that than being dehydrated, which is proven to negatively impact body and mind performance. If you need to eat during the game, apparently bananas are good for slow release of carbohydrates, so that you don’t have any high or low blood sugars.

Angus James

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Defence Skills

Defence skills are just as important as attacking skills. At a basic level, that means noticing when, for example, an undefended piece is attacked and threatened with capture. Usually, defending it or moving it is required – unless there is something more important going on elsewhere on the board, like a checkmate threat. In chess clubs at primary schools, players can often miss that their pieces are en prise (‘in a position to be taken’). Just getting them to check before they move whether any of their pieces are en prise is a good habit, and a breakthrough if they can manage it. When I see players hesitating even for a moment before making a move, it is a good sign that they are considering things that previously they would have ignored or overlooked. With experience they learn that mistakes like leaving pieces en prise for no good reason, can and usually will get punished by experienced opponents.

Scholar’s Mate, and variants of this, are simple attacks right out of the opening, but they are remarkably effective at school chess clubs and junior tournaments. Learning how to defend against this most basic attack is an important first step on the road to improving defence skills. Players that can survive the opening without being mated or losing material often find that their opponents start to lose heart. The game is not over in seconds; the first attack of the game has failed; and they have a fight on their hands. Having easily repelled an attack the initiative can pass to the defender.

Here is the classic Scholar’s Mate:

Here is a kind of Scholar’s Mate that was played at a recent junior tournament. Note how Black overlooks the vast array of defensive moves he has at his disposal to avoid mate (not to mention White’s own blunder):

Most of the time juniors at school chess clubs don’t need to play amazing attacking chess to win a game. They just need to be alert to threats and have some basic defensive skills. Training and practice that cultivates defence skills is just as important as attack skills. Good tactics training will include both attack and defence problems to solve, because finding the right way to defend can be just as important as finding the right attacking moves.

Angus James

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Checkmate Patterns

Players who have moved beyond the beginners stage and have reached the stage where they wish to improve their play, need to do a lot of work on tactics. This will improve their board vision and help to eliminate mistakes such as leaving pieces en prise. Of course, mistakes  never get completely eliminated from one’s game – even masters drop pieces from time to time – but by making very few serious errors a player will be tougher to beat.

One of the good ways to start is to acquaint yourself with mating patterns. As many instructors have said before, pattern recognition is very important in chess. If you’ve seen a pattern and can memorise it, when something like it happens in a game you’re playing, you will hopefully ‘see’ the pattern and know what to do without really thinking. ‘Intuition’ at the board – just ‘knowing’ what to do without really calculating at all – could partly be to do with natural talent, but it is also likely to be the result of training and practice.

You can read about an array of checkmating patterns here. Some of the names of these mates I didn’t even know had names, although I was familiar with them having utilised them enough times in my own games! I leave you with one example game, which features Anastasia’s Mate. My students are always pleased to see the theoretical applied in practice, and this is certainly a pretty neat game.

Angus James

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