Category Archives: Improver (950-1400)

A Case for Castling

“Castle early and often”
Rob Sillars

An interesting article “When to Castle” has been posted a while ago by Hugh Patterson. You can review it HERE
Castling is something we learn about from the very beginning and after we overcome the challenge of doing it correctly, moving our king to safety seems like a logical option. Time and time again the side not castling is punished for ignoring it and there is little to no excuse for that. Club players these days are challenged to do the right thing in an information overload era. Anyone can google for games and most common strategy or tactical aspects of the game. I often hear “GM X (insert the name of your favorite one) did not castle and won nicely”. Yes, they did. The difference is they knew why the position allowed them to skip castling and what were the positives and negatives to look for and consider when making the decision.

Voting chess I have used quite often for my articles here fascinates me lately. It is a microcosm of today’s reality: a lot participate, very few understand and even less learn a thing or two while being involved. Below is one of our recent games versus a team with a good reputation. Our team chose to ignore castling, lured by the mirage of winning the opposing queen; that did not happen, so looking back the question remains: should have Black castled at some point in the game or not? What say you? Hope you are going to enjoy the game.

Valer Eugen Demian

Are You Good at Chess?

This happens to me regularly. I’m on a bus working on tactics puzzles on my phone or I’m in the bookstore browsing a book on endgames, and some stranger will see me and ask: “So…are you good at chess?”

I never know how to answer that question. First, I’m not sure what the person is asking. Do they wonder whether I can beat them, or most people like them, at chess? Or do they wonder whether I can beat top players at chess? Second, I just started playing chess about two years ago, and after three tournaments my provisional rating with the Chess Federation of Canada is 1115. In my experience that’s good enough to beat most casual players most of the time, but it’s still low enough that I’m a below-average club player. To casual players I seem very good, but to tournament players, I look like a complete beginner.

Some will want to dismiss the question “Who is good at chess?” as meaningless or a matter of perspective to which the only possible answer is, “It depends whom you ask.” But I think the question is an important one, and that when it comes up (as it often does on various Internet forums), we should try to give as clear and as justifiable a response as possible, for two reasons.

The first reason is that every beginner wonders whether he is good at chess. We like to be good at the things we work hard at. We stick with those things, while we drop other activities for which we believe we have no talent. Believing that we are good at chess, or that we might one day be good at chess, is an important motivator for us beginners. It would be nice for us to know where the bar lies. Currently in the chess world the only clear benchmarks are the various chess titles obtained by a tiny fraction of all chess players: Expert, Master, Grandmaster, etc. Surely these are all categories that lie far beyond the humbler title “good at chess,” which ought to describe more than the top 2% of players. The absence of consensus in the chess community over what counts as “good”–or is it the snobbish unwillingness to concede that the term might mean anything less than “Master”?–is a motivational stumbling block.

The second reason is that public chess organizations, whether in schools or clubs, need a goal, something they can promise to the students they teach. That goal should not be to produce future Masters—no public program can promise to achieve something that depends on so many factors outside of its control. Yet, once again, in the absence of clear benchmarks below the chess titles, what else can a chess program aim at? In my opinion, the obvious baseline goal of every chess program should be to produce good chess players. So we need consensus over a definition of “good at chess” and the more specific we can be the better, both for individual students and for organizations.  How can we define this term in a way that avoids the problem of perspective?

Here’s my method: The definition of “good at chess” should strike a balance between two competing intuitions. On the one hand, you are good at chess if you can beat the majority of chess players in the world. This intuition will lead to a low bar for “good at chess,” probably somewhere around 1000 in FIDE’s rating system. On the other hand, you are not yet good at chess until you are taken seriously by the game’s Experts. This intuition will require the bar to be higher. What is the Goldilocks rating that captures both intuitions—not too high to be unattainable by most serious players, but not too low to be laughable by the standards of the game’s Experts?

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s say that if your rating is just high enough for us to expect you to beat chess Experts some percentage of the time, then you should be considered “good at chess.” After all, if you can be expected to take a percentage—any percentage, even just 1%—of your games against an Expert, then surely this is a good reason for the Expert to take you seriously. And surely the rest of us should count you as a good chess player.

If you share my intuition that being just good enough to expect to win 1% of the time against a chess Expert is a reasonable criterion for being “good at chess”, then who is good at chess? Well, first we need to know who, exactly, the chess Experts are. In most federations “Expert” is an informal term whose official version is “Candidate Master.” In FIDE, the lowest rating bar for this title is set at 2000. So if we take 2000 to be the lower limit for chess Experts, then who can expect to win 1% of their games against a 2000 player? The answer can be easily calculated using the ratings tables available on FIDE’s website: a person whose rating is 620-735 points below their opponent can expect to win 1% of their games against that opponent.  So…

Here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for. Who is good at chess? By my reasoning it’s anyone whose FIDE rating is at least in the range of 1265-1380.

This range is both low enough to capture the first intuition and high enough to capture the second. Somebody who is rated above 1265 will crush casual chess players. Such a player won’t exactly strike fear into the 2000 Expert, but he will make the Expert work, and can even expect to win a rare game against him. I cannot imagine any other sport, art, or discipline in which giving the Experts a run for their money wouldn’t be enough to count as “good”!

Now, I’m not suggesting that FIDE institute a new title, “Good at Chess”, for 1265+ players.  We don’t need new official titles, just new ways of presenting the game and its culture to the broader chess-playing public.  On a practical level, I’m recommending a way to talk about the qualitative meanings of ratings and to set minimal goals for chess programs.

I can hear the objections pouring in, and the debate over who is good at chess will inevitably go on. But to conclude, here is the perspective of International Master Jeremy Silman on players whose ratings lie in precisely the range I’ve argued as constituting “good at chess”:

“I remember going to my first tournament at age twelve. It was all quite magical, and as I watched other players’ games in the under 1600 section I recall being amazed at their skills—skills which were far beyond anything I could fully understand at that time. Indeed, my view of 1200-1399 players as being demigods is not that far out of line…If he plays in tournaments, he holds his own against many experienced players. If he competes against non-tournament playing friends, he most likely dominates them” (Jeremy Silman, Complete Endgame Course, Part Three).

If an International Master thinks 1200+ players can be called “demigods,” then I would say it’s safe for the rest of us to call 1265+ players “good”!

Michael Hickson

Imbalanced Material Conclusion

“When not opposed by the bishop pair, the queen is worth rook, minor piece, and 1½ pawns”
Garry Kasparov

Not long ago I presented a voting chess position where our team decided to go for an imbalanced material position by sacrificing our queen. You can review the article HERE
Our controversial queen sacrifice split our team in 2: those who agreed with it and those who thought we were simply losing. Here is the position we envisioned and reached, together with black’s following move:

Black’s move is baffling. If we analyze the position for Black, a few important points should have been considered:

  • White has no weaknesses
  • Nd4 rules the board
  • The 1st ands 2nd rank are controlled by the White rooks
  • The a2-pawn is passed and can become dangerous if it starts advancing; it should be blocked ASAP and captured
  • There is no back rank danger, so the a2-pawn should be attacked by the rook; a queen is the worst possible blocker of a passed pawn one can think of

Going back to our side we were aware if Black would target our a2-pawn, there was not much we could do to hope for more than a draw; that pawn was our only hope to reach for the stars. It is hard to understand how a team of 15 players on their side could miss such an obvious idea. Seeing your opposition play like this should always be a confidence booster. The following group of 16 moves white had a clear goal in mind: setup a more aggressive position, exchange a rook to leave the queen to fight alone and begin pushing the a-pawn forward.

White is now clearly winning. The passer has reached the 6th rank for the simple reason the queen is the worst blocker one can choose. The Black king arrived in the center to participate in the battle, but he did not have time to switch places with the queen and become the blocker. That would have given the queen a bit of freedom to come up with some threats against the White king. Does that d4-knight look strong or what? It has been dominating the position since move 25. Here we experienced another heated discussion, even if the voting was overwhelming in favour of 42. Ra1 … I argued that 42. Ra4 … was superior. I still believe it was. White’s pieces would have cooperated nicely as can be seen in the sideline below; the line looks quite logical and the moves have a nice flow connecting them. Unfortunately I was alone voting for it.
In the end we won regardless. Black gave up and played one bad move after another, inviting us to checkmate. One last question for you before looking at the last part of the game: which rook move would have you chosen?

Valer Eugen Demian

Short and Sweet (2)

In a recent Thames Valley League match my teammate Chris White managed to win a game against an opponent graded 173 in only ten moves.

Here’s how it went.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Be2

Chris is playing a reverse Philidor, which doesn’t seem the most likely place to find a ten-mover. Still, you never know.

3… Nf6
4. d3 d5
5. Nbd2 dxe4

This seems rather obliging. Bc5 and Be7 are more challenging options.

6. dxe4 Bg4

Again he might have preferred Bc5 here.

7. c3 Bd6
8. h3 Bh5
9. Nh4

Chris wants to put a knight on f5 (a knight on the rim isn’t dim if it’s on its way somewhere else) but he has to calculate this accurately.

9… Nxe4

A familiar tactic, apparently winning a pawn, but Chris has it all worked out.

10. Nxe4

Now Black, to his credit, realised that he was losing a piece and resigned without waiting to be shown:

10… Bxe2

Or 10… Qxh4 11. Nxd6+

11. Qxe2 Qxh4
12. Bg5

And Black’s queen is trapped.

This is a quiescence error. Black thinks the position after Qxh4 is quiescent (there’s nothing immediate happening) but it isn’t. You have to look at all forcing moves before deciding a position is quiescent and stopping your analysis.

This seemed to be a relatively unusual idea, although I’d remembered seeing this game in Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess.

I did a quick search on MegaBase 2018 and found several other examples. The game between Roberto Diaz Garcia (2037) and Leandro Jimenez Jimenez (1974) played in the Championship of the Dominican Republic last May, was almost a repeat of Busvine-Birnberg, the only difference being that White had played O-O rather than Nf1.

A few more examples of the same queen trap. This one’s from a very different opening and has happened more than once. 8. dxe5 would have been OK for White.

Even fairly strong players seem to miss this idea.

The final example features a very different setting, but the queen still gets trapped in the same way.

So there are two tactical ideas you might want to learn. If your opponent plays Nh5 you can sometimes win a pawn using a discovered attack: Nxe5 followed by Qxh5. But you must make sure your queen isn’t going to be trapped as a result. The general idea of trapping a queen in this way is also worth remembering.

Richard James

“What say you?” The 1 minute challenge (9)

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer”
Bruce Lee

A quick reminder about how to do it:

  • Have a look at the position for 1 minute (watch the clock)
  • Think about the choices in front of you and pick the one you feel it is right
  • Verify it in your mind the best you can
  • Compare it with the solution

My student “C” is a very interesting character. He can play some of the worst and some of the best games for his level; also just to keep things interesting he can play his worst and best in the same game. You never know what you are going to get with him. Two weeks ago we discussed about a decent game he played and won when his opponent blundered. These are tougher games to look at. We are humans and when we win, we tend not to nitpick how it happened. I challenged him anyway to analyse an important moment in the game and find the best play he could think of. That would have enabled him to win the game outright and not rely on opposing blunders. Here is the position and his 3 choices in no particular order; which one would you choose?

Let’s have a closer look:

  • White is up a pawn; this is the reason for line C
  • Both kings are castled with the white one looking nervous at Black’s battery along the h1-a8 diagonal
  • White controls the e-file
  • The d4-pawn is powerful in the center; it is supported and blocks Bb2
  • The battery Bb7 + Qd5 is nasty and looks to cause major problems on the king side once g5-g4 gets played
  • I have mentioned the blocked Bb2 and will add to it the bad position of Qd3
  • The opposite colours bishops could give a false indication for a possible draw

So, which one did you choose? Were you a bit confused by the similar looking bishop moves in line A and B? The difference between them actually is like night and day. If you have seen it or sense it, you are a strong player with good instincts. If you have looked at the position with an engine (do not recommend it for the purpose of this article), you might be intrigued why the choice 25… Bc8 was not offered? Honestly we did not look at it. Keeping the battery aligned feels right for a human. Our reason for moving the bishop is to take advantage of the blocked Bb2 and to put pressure on it by doubling the Rooks along the b-file. Did you see that? We considered it key to the position. The idea is to create a new threat and combine it with the one along the h1-a8 diagonal. We had fun analysing it and I hope you did it too. Enjoy the solution!

Valer Eugen Demian

Going Back to the Basics (4)

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

Material balance article was posted HERE
Kings’ position article was posted HERE
Pieces’ positioning was posted HERE
Last but not least one needs to be aware of the pawn structure on both sides. Pawns are a bit of an uncomfortable subject for many a player. Beginners don’t really know what to do with them. Their games do not last or keep the material balance long enough for the pawns to be more than a nuisance. At the beginning of the game pawns are too many to handle and more often than not they are obstacles impeding the pieces to move. Quite a few of my level 2 players choose to move a pawn when they cannot find a useful piece move, so we have been talking about them more often to make them pay more attention to them pawns.

Club players today could also do a better job looking after the pawns and involving them more in their games. It could be the fact pawns are slow pace moving pieces. They take a while to get going and be of importance. Everything today is about speed and instant gratification. Engines are setup to look for the line with the most positive mathematical outcome; how many times does that take into consideration the pawn structure? This being said pawn structures still are and will be of importance. I thought for a couple of days about what to write in this article and then I got the idea to go back in time and remind everyone of a few long forgotten, dusty pawn structures. Why would I do that? First these pawn structures deserve to be in the forefront of anyone’s home preparation and second it is a bit of a sentimental trip down the memory lane for me; nevertheless I hope this will tickle your curiosity to find out more about them.






Valer Eugen Demian

Going Back to the Basics (3)

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

Material balance article was posted HERE
Kings’ position article was posted HERE
Observing how all pieces are positioned is the third step anyone needs to do during their games. It is a challenging one for beginners and intermediate players in the opening and middle game just because of the sheer number of pieces to look at on both sides. My students fall in this category and need to be reminded of it time and time again. Do you do it in your games? We can start with obvious examples and continue from there:

  • Have you developed all your pieces?
  • How are the knights doing in closed positions?
  • How are the bishops doing in open or semi-open positions?
  • Are the rooks where they should be, especially if there are open or semi-open files available?
  • Where is the queen and what other pieces could work together with it?

Pieces’ positioning is a critical aspect in anyone’s game. It takes time to get better at it; some are better than others simply because they have the inner ability to sense where their pieces should go. That cannot be taught. I remember back in the 80s and early 90s I would know and admire strong players with an incredible intuition and vision in this regard. They were the most feared in tournaments because they could create things out of the blue. I would look at the same position as they did (including while playing them) and as I could not see more than the obvious (pieces developed, king castled), I was mesmerized to see them come up with plans I never saw coming. It took me a long time to work on this aspect of my game and I still have trouble with it more often than I would like. We are humans so the main flaw of those players was relying all the way on their intuition to the point where other aspects of their play (such as learning openings) would be completely ignored. That was the reason why they reached their plateau and could not advance anymore their entire life. I am sure many will agree and could name a few players in this category, players they envy and have trouble playing against in regular competitions.

Let’s see a few challenges one could face when playing and not doing very well at this aspect of the game:

What do you think about this position? Black’s last move was “Rf8-e8” and probably he was feeling good about pieces’ positioning; afterall his only “undeveloped” piece is Ra8, while white is a couple of steps behind. Well, how about a closer look?

  • The worst developed Black piece is Nc6; in a 1.d4 d5 opening setup, playing it in front of the c7-pawn eliminates any useful queen side play Black can think of. In the same time the c7-pawn is an unnecessary target Qd7 must take care of
  • Nf6 has the e4-square to go to (good prospects), but it could be chased away with ease (f2-f3 for example)
  • Bg7 has a very good defensive position; however its prospects of being involved in an attack are slim to none
  • The last move Rf8-e8 developed Rf8; however from this point on Black never tried to open up the e-file by moving e6-e5. In the case of deciding to keep the e6-pawn there, the move Rfe8 does nothing and concluding it was a waste of time is easy to make

Overall Black’s setup is very defensive, so why would anyone want to reach such a middle game position with no prospects?
Conclusion: White has a considerable upper edge in pieces’ positioning and that should have led to a winning game


The comments in the game are by White. Please replay the moves starting with 10.Bg5 … until you reach the diagram and think about pieces’ positioning during that part of it. Who do you think played better and obtained more out of it? Here are a few pointers to help with your decision; hopefully you have identified them as well:

  • The poor dark squares White bishop was well traveled during this sequence and by move 23 he was stuck behind his own d4-pawn, blocked by Nd5
  • White’s indecision where to place Bc1 allowed Black to castle and improve the position of Nb8 all the way to d5 from where it dominates the position at move 23
  • 17… Re8 is as pointless in this position as it has been in the previous one above
  • White’s idea to push c2-c4 is excellent as long as it is combined with the purpose of chasing away the excellent placed Nd5
  • 19… Qc8 is another move without an obvious reason
  • 22.c5 … is a strategic blunder since it allows Nb6 to go back to its dominant d5-square (outpost); it proves the c2-c4 idea was not combined with the purpose of chasing away Nd5 and possibly was not combined with anything at all

From move 23 on black improved his position by taking control of the b-file with white being forced to defend the badly misplaced Bb2. It did not continue with improving the position of Be7 (possible Be7-f6) and when white launched a dubious 2 pieces attack in the center (!), it resigned seeing an illusory imminent checkmate.
Conclusion: White wandered around and should have had a tough time saving a draw in a game where it should have had good chances to play for a win.

There are several sources of inspiration to learn, practice and effectively get better and pieces’ positioning such as books, online articles and apps (our app levels 3, 4 and 5 has several lessons focusing on many variations of this subject). I guess any and all could be useful and the important point to make is to be aware of it, do your best to find the source good for you and start going at it relentlessly. Mastering it could be a long journey with one certain result: you will get better as a player and the results will follow. The higher levels you will reach will be sure things, so you won’t just bounce back down to lower levels once you passed them. Hope these thoughts convinced you to pay a more serious attention to pieces’ positioning!

Valer Eugen Demian

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

Going Back to the Basics (1)

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

One of my online students (let’s name him C) sent me his latest analysed games and the following message as he was preparing for a local tournament:
“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.”

Week after week we repeat the same process while going over his games. It is interesting to see how he struggles to make connection between our analysis and his thought process during the games. I have seen it too many times: the student believes after the lessons taught and puzzles solved, we are done and they do not have use for them anymore. During my earlier years as a coach I would not even think about it (too obvious, right?) and could become frustrated; one such moment was about 10 years ago during the national final of a team competition when I was coaching team British Columbia. Our province is a perennial 3rd in the country with Ontario and Quebec being in a league of their own. There are a number of reasons why this is the reality, but they are not important for the purpose of this article. Anyway the matches versus Ontario and Quebec are always a measuring stick of how we are doing; any wins or draws versus them are important. Our player in question was an up and coming junior at the time and he happened to be my student as well. Do not remember exactly what was the situation he missed in the endgame after a long battle in the match versus Ontario; it might have been going for a draw in the side pawn and bishop of wrong corner color (our app level 3, lesson 24). The point was that coincidentally we covered that situation right before the tournament (one would assume to be fresh on his mind) and I could not believe he failed to remember it.

Coming back to today I just reminded C of our process. One hears a lot in sports “go back to the basics” when things are not going well. It is easy to dismiss it as a cliche and to believe it does not apply to you when in reality it does very much. The first step in going back to the basics is to mind at all times the material balance or in simpler terms to know how many pieces you have versus what the opponent has. Do you mind this at all times in your games? Is it just as simple as counting the pieces and their value, subtract it from what the opponent has and see what you got? Do you count the pieces left on the board or the ones already captured? I see some of my level 2 students counting the pieces captured because they are fewer. This is not very good practice. Do you know why? There are a couple of obvious reasons for it:

  • The captured pieces cannot influence what is going on in the game anymore
  • Some captured pieces could be misplaced (example: falling under the table) or the opponent might hold one or more in their hand

Get into the habit of counting the pieces on the board and watch the balance between you pieces and the opposing ones. It is a basic aspect of the game you can use from the simplest “I am up by a point”, to the most sophisticated ones such as “I am going for an imbalanced material situation”. I am not going to spend time on “I am up by a point” C was alluding to when he mentioned taking a side pawn; however I am going to show a very interesting position where the imbalanced material situation was the answer. Here it is from one of our unfinished team voting games:

We had a long discussion about what to do here and some of the ideas were as follows (in chronological order):

  • “19. c5 gives us a passed pawn but it’ll be very difficult to defend; 19. Rfd1 is also a good idea since b5 is such a slow move”
  • “I like 19. Qb2 to move the queen away from the Black rook”
  • “Going back to 19. c5 it could be interesting to look at: 19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1”
  • “19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1 Nb7 21. c6 Bxc6 (21… Rxc6 same line) 22. Qxc6 Rxc6 23. Rxc6 and Black loses at least one queen side pawn”
    This was the seed of looking for an imbalanced material situation!
  • “19. a4 bxa4 20. Qxa4 Nd4 21. Qd1 Nxe2 To me this doesn’t seem great as I’d think their bishop is a bit better than our knight in such an open position, and both …Be6 and …Bg4 look like good moves for them”
  • “At the moment, the blunder 19. cxb5?? is in the lead, so we’re going to have to unite around a move. How about 19.Qb2 … ? It doesn’t seem to have any immediate downsides, and it gets us out of the pin”
  • “One quick note; 19. cxb5 is not a “blunder” per se. 19… Nd4 20. Qd2 Nxe2+ 21. Qxe2 Bxb5 22. Rxb5 axb5 23. Qxb5 with two pawns and a knight for a rook. Not the best, but not a total disaster”
  • “19. Qb2 is a safe option, but the resulting position (19. Qb2 b4) is probably not too much better for us than the a4 line”
  • “19. Qb2 b4 20. Rfc1 a5 21. Rc2 Rc7 22. Rbc1 Rfc8 23. Qb3 a4 doesn’t seem very good for White”
  • “I am not convinced that 19. cxb5 is all that horrible. I also wonder about 19. a4 having an issue with 19…b4 19. Qb2 looks interesting but the variations I see so far look defensive. So, let us look at 19. cxb5 in a little more depth. Tell why it is bad”
  • “19. cxb5 Nd4 20. Nxd4 Rxc2 21. Nxc2 Bxb5 22. Bxb5 axb5 23. Rxb5”
  • “In that line it is not clear to me how Black wins just with the queen, rook and 3 versus 4 pawns after they capture the a2-pawn (worst case scenario). White defends the f2-pawn with one rook and holds (for example) the 4th row with the other rook and knight. It feels easier to play than suffering in the 19. Qb2 line”
  • “I don’t like a4 b4 now (thanks to eric for finding that!). I am skeptical of cxb5; we’ll hold, but it won’t be easy, and we won’t have winning chances. The lines with Qb2 and Nd4 looks pretty good for us. Therefore, my vote goes to Qb2 (though I would be really unhappy if cxb5 won out)”

It is very interesting to go over the above and follow the train of thoughts. In the end 19. cxb5 won by one vote (10 votes) over 19. Qb2 (9 votes). Which move would have you chosen if you could be white in this position? Looking back here we were at the crossroads and going for 19. cxb5 made all the difference. My guess is it also surprised the opposing team and the resulting material imbalance influenced them into playing from bad to worst; now we are in an endgame where winning is just around the corner. Before showing you how the game went on for a few more moves, please remember to watch the material balance at all times until your subconscious will take over and do that for you.

Valer Eugen Demian

Short and Sweet (1)

When Mike Fox and I were writing our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS one of our regular features was ‘Short and Sweet’, in which we invited readers to submit their own very short wins (or losses).

Every week I download the latest TWIC and search for mini-miniatures. This week’s TWIC offers a bumper 7872 games, many of them played in the World Rapid and World Blitz Championships, but also much else from Christmas/New Year tournaments around the world. The World Rapid and Blitz Championships, held, controversially, in Saudi Arabia, featured some less experienced local players who were easy prey for the visiting GMs.

Let’s look at some of last week’s quicker decisive games.

Cho Fai Heng (1476) – Benjamin Yao Teng Oh (1855)
Jolimark HK Open 24 Dec 2017

1. e4 c5
2. Ne2 Nc6
3. Nbc3

The Closed Variation is a nice system to play against the Sicilian. You can close your eyes and play the first eight moves without thinking. Or can you?

3… Nd4

Not optimal, but hoping for a Christmas present. White duly obliges.

4. g3 Nf3#

Of course it’s easy to fall for this if you’re, like White in this game, a low graded and perhaps inexperienced player.

Strong players would never make that sort of mistake. Or would they?

Six days later, this happened.

Gulnar Mammadova (2357) – Sarah Hoolt (2405)
World Blitz Women 2017, Riyahd R17 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 e6
3. b3 b6
4. c4 Bb7
5. Nc3 Nc6
6. Bb2 e5
7. Nd5 d6
8. g3 Nge7
9. Bh3

White’s not threatening anything so Black decides to prepare a fianchetto.

9… g6
10. Nf6#

It’s blitz so you move fast. These things happen. But if you stop to ask yourself the MAGIC QUESTION ‘If I play that move what will my opponent do next?’ it really shouldn’t happen. It’s also a pattern which you should recognize. Pattern recognition is an important part of chess and will save time in analysis. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to analyse at all, though.

Now here’s something strange. Perhaps the most frequent opening tactic of all is Qa4+ (Qa5+ for Black) picking up a loose minor piece. It’s a pattern you have to remember. Like this.

Inga Charkhalashvili (2337) – Bedor Al Shelash (-)
World Rapid Women 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. d4 e6
2. c4 d5
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bg5 Bb4
5. Qa4+ 1-0

Except that it isn’t. Black could have defended with Nc6. Perhaps she didn’t notice, or perhaps her mobile phone went off. Who knows?

I’d have been tempted to wait a move, playing something like 5. Nf3 hoping for 5… b6 in reply.

In rapid and blitz games mistakes like this will inevitably happen. But a grandmaster playing in a slowplay event would never hang a piece on move 5.

Wong Meng Kong (2252) – Denis Molofej (2081)
Jolimark HK Open 25 Dec 17

1. Nf3 d5
2. c4 dxc4
3. Qa4+ Qd7
4. Qxc4 Qc6

Trading queens on move 5 would be pretty boring so White prefers…

5. Qb3 Qxc1+ 0-1

Until I came across these games I was planning to write about a particular book and author this week. The book included an analogous position to this:

Mohammed Alanazy (1850) – Ahmed M Al Ghamdi (2159)
World Blitz 2017, Riyahd R15 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. d4 cxd4
3. c3 d3
4. Nf3 d6
5. e5 dxe5
6. Nxe5 Qc7
7. Qh5

White defends his threatened knight while at the same time threatening mate in 2. What could be more natural? Sadly, the blitz time limit didn’t allow him to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION.

7… g6

Black defends his threatened king while at the same time threatening the queen which is defending the knight. If 8. Qg5 he can choose between Bh6 and f6, both winning a piece.

8. Qf3 Qxe5+ 0-1

My last offering for now highlights another recurring tactical pattern in the opening. Again, an idea all competitive players need to know.

Johan-Sebastian Christiansen (2495) – Hassan M Al Bargi (1579)
World Rapid 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. e4 d5
2. exd5 Qxd5
3. Nc3 Qd8
4. d4 Nf6
5. Nf3 c6
6. Bc4 Bg4

Allowing a familiar combination. At least it should be familiar. My database has 28 examples of White’s next move, with two of the victims being rated over 2200. The earliest example is Albin – Lee New York 1893, a tournament which also featured William Henry Krause Pollock.

7. Bxf7+ Kxf7
8. Ne5+ Kg8
9. Nxg4 Nbd7
10. Qe2 Nxg4
11. Qe6#

Which is why an early section of Chess Openings for Heroes covers these tactical patterns which happen over and over again. You won’t find this, as far as I know, in any other elementary openings book.

Richard James