Category Archives: John Lee Shaw

Alapin’s Folly …

It is of great comfort to us (or should be anyway) that even masters get things wrong in chess. And why shouldn’t they? After all, chess is not straight-forward, nor is it an exact science. And when that is mixed together with the human brain, (which though powerful is not infallible), mistakes will happen. However, is it very rare for a master to get things abominably wrong, as if to scorn the very game itself.

This week I would like to share one such instance with you. It is a game that I have known of for many years, and I remember analysing it for the first time in my late teens. Back then, I thought it was a super attack by White, and my appreciation of the dramatic finish was very high. Now, looking over it again, (for the first time in a couple of decades I should think … ouch …), I do not only appreciate it, but my chess taste buds tingle with excitement.

It is a testament to how my chess understanding has progressed over the years. Nowadays I do not only highly appreciate the dramatic finish of the game, but I shake my head in wonder at Black’s absolutely ludicrous play. I feel the tension as White prepares to show him the error of his ways.

The game is apparently a friendly game, between chess legend Aaron Nimzowitsch and analyst and problem composer (and no feeble player either, despite his showing in this game) Semion Alapin. You will see Alapin, playing Black, commit the most blatant chess sins. He will firstly commit his Queen in to early action — though this is not always a sin in itself, it is when coupled with neglect of development, which is his other offence. He will also grab material … for which he will pay a hard price.

Nimzowitsch, playing White, is exemplary. He develops quickly and finds optimum squares for his pieces. Move by move his advantage increases and the apprehension in the position sizzles. He gives his opponent no time to correct his errors, and pounces forcefully and precisely.

John Lee Shaw

The Joy of the Knight

In my time playing chess, I have often found that players prefer bishops over knights. This is especially so for amateur players, who often wish to maintain them at all costs. This most probably has something to do with their long-range capabilities, and the fact that they can easily change their ‘theatre’s of operation’ so-to-speak.

This does make one feel sorry for the knight, however. I often notice that youngsters especially aim to exchange these pieces off at the earliest opportunity. To exchange them for a bishop is seen as a bonus. Often, this seems to be incorporated in to their technique, and even worse, can become a habit. And perhaps it’s not surprising, after all, literature often values bishops higher than knights.

It has never made sense to me, that some authors of chess books wish to encourage those who are seeking to learn, to be so narrow-minded. In my opinion, the only thing that can be taken for granted in our game, is that nothing can be taken for granted. From the first move to the last, a game of chess is a flexible work-in-progress, and even though it is theory rich these days, each one is still full of twists and turns and contains numerous possibilities. Each individual player putting their own perspective on the positions.

Why then, should anyone claiming to be any kind of authority on the subject, seek to inhibit that? Answers on a postcard.

When evaluating pieces, a chessplayer cannot afford to be prejudiced, and should base his/her decision as to which to give up and which to retain, purely on the position — as the maxim says, ‘Play the board’. It goes without saying that one will limit, and even miss, possibilities (in both attack and defence) otherwise.

Having thought about it, I think that many inexperienced players favour bishops over knights due to a lack of understanding with regard to the piece. It is also clear that many see it as a nuisance. A knight, of course, can not switch its arena as easily as a bishop, its development can often need careful preparation and can take time.

However, for the player who is willing to keep an open mind, and give this piece a chance, there are great rewards, for a knight on the right square can be invaluable and have great influence upon a position. So, what kind of square is right for the knight?

— Central. They have the most reach there.

— Outposts/holes. Squares which can not be attacked by a pawn, meaning they are harder to dislodge. Their L-shaped hops make them ideal pieces to occupy holes. As someone once said to me: ‘People who push pawns willy-nilly …. fear the knight.’

— Because they can hop over pieces, knights excell on a crowded board on which bishops may find their potential limited.

I invite the reader to take a look at the following games, both played by former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov. In the first, (played in his 1985 World Championship Match, against Anatoly Karpov), Kasparov (playing Black) is able to establish a knight on his sixth rank. Notice how this heavily inhibits White’s development and strategy, and ultimately the game. In the second, the mere establishing of a knight to a central outpost, creates unease with his opponent, Vladimir Kramnik. There is an immediate reaction (quite horrid looking it has to be said) which results in an overwhelming attack. If you’ve ever blundered horrendously and dropped your Queen, the game may just make you feel a little better . . .

John Lee Shaw

Look and Look and Look …

During a post-mortem game between two strong Grandmasters, there came a point in the game when one of their team, (who was kibitzing), said: “This is a position where you look and you look and you look”.

That statement made a big impression on me, and I have tried to apply it within my own chess play. Honestly, it’s not always a good thing, I am a natural analyst, and try to absorb positions as deeply as I can and examine many options. This can, and has, already led me to time problems. So, something which will encourage me to look even deeper can be quite a dangerous thing.

However, sometimes, there comes a point in certain games, where a chess player just feels instinctively that there is something there. That there must be something there, we are better, our pieces are co-ordinated, our opponent is on the back foot, vulnerable, exposed. I believe that this is that time, where we look and look and look. Of course, positional experience helps us find those quiet subtelties in order to zugzwang, just as thematical knowledge helps us to spot knock-out blows. However, sometimes we just have to find that move.

Infact, as Steinitz said, we have a responsibility, an obligation, to find that move. Otherwise, our moment to strike may (probably will) be lost.

At such times, it is our duty to examine as many possibilities as we can. These possibilities must be relevant and in context however. For example, if the action is going on on the Kingside and our build up is there, the probable result of looking at a Queenside pawn thrust will be wasted time. And time should always be used wisely in chess, so we invest it only towards the relevant in our position, and we try to examine its every nook and cranny, even the seemingly implausibe.

This open-mindedness, coupled with technique, experience, understanding, is what creates brilliances — possibly even immortals. As illustration, I’d like to present the following game, played by Russian master Stefan Levitsky and the well-known American great, Frank Marshall.

White tries to dictate play and force things right from the start, and seems to want to avoid positional tension. This is often a sign of a weaker player, or a player who feels intimidated. Their ‘bull at a gate’ approach tends to result in their opponent obtaining the advantage (often a large advantage) rather effortlessly. This is what happens in this game.

Marshall, with the Black pieces, takes his opponent’s play in his stride. Notice how he reacts calmly, with good developing moves, rather than trying to play bold refutations. This is how strong players tend to react to over-ambitious play.

The climax of the game comes in spectacular style, with Black playing a move that at first glance seems preposturous, suicidal even. However, it is without doubt one of the greatest chess moves ever played — and most likely one of the most satisfying.

John Lee Shaw

Masters of the Board: Rubinstein

Akiba Rubinstein (1880-1961) was a Polish Grandmaster, and a pioneer of his time when it came to opening play. He was one of the first strong Grandmasters to bear the endgame in mind when it came to selecting his openings. This is what I have read in various biographies around the internet, and it is certainly evident when playing through his games — which I advise anyone to do who wishes to learn how to play the opening. I find his placement of pieces very helpful, and the timing of certain crucial moves nothing less than exciting.

Unfortunately, Rubinstein’s later life was plagued by mental illness, he suffered ‘anthropophobia’ (fear of people) and schizophrenia amongst other things. He was known to hide between moves at tournaments. This condition, eventually (and I suppose inevitably), led to his withrdrawral from chess and public life.

Luckily for us, it was not before leaving behind many fine examples of chess play, and a few brilliances. The one below, labeled by some as his ‘evergreen’, is just one among them.

Right from the start, you will notice Rubinstein’s considered and constructive moves. He has a plan, he has wishes, and every move he plays is with that in mind. This, in contrast to his opponent, who does not really seem to have a firm plan of what he wishes to achieve. His position soon resembles a very disorganised camp of troops and comes undone. You will especially notice the mis-placement of his queen with 10.Qd2? and how this seems to be the beginning of his troubles.

Rubinstein’s 15…Ne5! marks a definate shift in his mentality as he switches to attack. Georg Rotlewi, a rising star of the time who had defeated Rubinstein on occasion, seems both unprepared and oblivious to the Black threats. Notice the complete harmony of the Black pieces, the bishops cutting across the board, the rooks firing along the open files, and the queen ideally placed on e7, ready to hop in any direction she wishes. 22.Rxc3!! highlights the precarious position that practically each White piece was in, and the game is over.

When playing through this game myself, I was prompted to remember some advice given to me by a rather aged chess player against whom I competed in local league events. After giving me a rather painful drubbing, he told me, “it only takes one bad piece to cause catastrophe”. I think that’s rather over-generalising things, but in this example, it can certainly said to be true. Mind you, Rotlewi gave himself more than one it has to be said.

If there is a lesson in this game, it is that each move a chess player makes must be utterly understood, (not only where a piece should go, but why, and what the consequences are), and in the opening it is perhaps even more crucial, because it will affect our whole game thereafter. Players who merely place a certain piece on a certain square may (should) find themselves in big trouble in the not too distant future. Furthermore, one doesn’t have to force things in chess in order to pay powerfully. Playing the right moves, and having an understanding of the position, deeper than that of one’s opponent, often results in opportunities presenting themselves naturally.

Enjoy this game, it is very instructive.

John Lee Shaw

Don’t Forget The King …

It is often said that a chess player should not forget their King — and of course rightly so. We should not forget that our whole game revolves around it. We strive to keep our King safe, and to be the undoing of the opposition King. And, ultimately, to capture it.

However, this being said, it is often the case that the King can leave his defences and become an attacking piece. Normally this happens in the endgame, of course, but it does not necessarily have to be that late in the game. There are many exceptions in chess, and one should always have an open mind and look for new twists. It can come about that the King can make a very big difference even in the middlegame.

Take the example below, between Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman, and British Grandmaster and former World Championship candidate, Nigel Short.

White gets the better of the opening, which is an Alekhine’s Defence, and thanks to some rather unadventurous play by black it has to be said, soon holds a commanding edge. Accordingly, Short shows why he has a reputation for being one of the games most attacking players.

His 24.Rd8! marks the beginning of the end, and upon 26. R8d7, Black can respectably resign. At 28…Rae8, white is in total control, and the black pieces are mere spectators. Then comes the twist. With the black position cramped and passive, white’s 29. Qf6! (not just a mere check) restricts it further. Then follows his 30. h4! And a safe path has been opened for the white King to triumphantly march up the board and make a decisive contribution to the battle. Notice how even with major black pieces on the board, the white monarch is under no imminent threat while the black King is doomed in his own house.

A perfect example of not forgetting one’s King if ever there was one — well, from White’s point of view, anyway …

John Lee Shaw

Dynamics: The Cusp of The Matter

Of all the chess books that I have decided to spend money on, (and there have been many over the years), those of the late Alexander Kotov (1913-1981) are among my most prized. His books, ‘Think Like a Grandmaster’, and ‘Play Like a Grandmaster’, although being rather ambitiously titled, give a great insight into the mind of the advanced chess player.

One of the topics that has most stuck with me, is his coverage of thought processes and how they change in the course of a game. In positions where there is little contact between the opposing forces, one focuses upon strategic considerations, he said, the placement of pieces, pawn structure, rather than the analysis of variations. When there is much contact, much tension, the possibility of exchanges, the thought process changes to the detailed analysis of variations, as deep and as concrete as possible. One can not argue with this logic, but all the same it can not be taken as absolutely black and white. For example, one can not afford to ignore the cusp!

Cusp: ” … a point which marks the beginning of a change.”

In other words, one must make the change in thought process not merely at the moment the dynamics in the game change, but before. We must be ever vigilant so that we can anticipate and be ready for any change that may occur. If we are surprised in a game, by an unforeseen lunge, or an out of the blue sacrifice, or a few timely and awkward knight hops, we have more than likely failed in this.

The following game is between Danish Grandmaster Carsten Hoi (although an International Master at the time), and Russian-American Grandmaster Boris Gulko. The game begins relatively calmly, and so Kotov’s advice of general strategic considerations would appear to be in place. After all, why waste time going through complicated variations when it is not needed, right? Indeed so — but Gulko, playing Black, decides to make an exchange of pieces with his 19…Bxf3. It is likely that he expected liquidation via 20.Qxf3 Qxf3 21.gxf3, when his position would be slightly inferior, but nothing major.

However, our opponent does not have to comply with our wishes, infact they rarely do. Accordingly, Carsten Hoi saw things differently than Gulko, and instead maintained pieces and opted to activate the g-file and launch an attack upon the Black king. This, it seems was a hugely viable decision, and the conclusion that I draw is that Boris Gulko either failed to explore the cusp of the change in dynamics in the position (before playing 19…Bxf3) or under-estimated his opponent’s potential. Make your own mind up, but whichever it is, it was to be a painful outcome for him.

John Lee Shaw

Calculation Leads To Creation . . .

One of the most important qualities that a chess player can possess, is the ability to calculate deep and accurately in a position. It is, no doubt, one of the things that separates an average player from a strong one, and a strong one from an elite one. And, according to its importance, calculation in chess is not something that can not be learned from a book or obtained from software, it can not be emulated or bluffed and is difficult to teach.

It is something which we chess players must develop.

This is obviously done by analysing many positions, first and foremost by playing lots of games. For the player who is serious in wanting to improve their calculation ability, though, hard work must be done away from over-the-board battle. This consists of the analysis of complex positions, against the clock. Some of the old masters used to write down candidate moves on a notepad, and then deeper variations to each. I would advise that players do this now also, only using chess software to check the analysis over afterwards — it will be of greater reward.

It is very interesting when first starting this method of training. When setting the clock to, say, 15-minutes, it will be amazing just how little ground gets covered before the flag drops – and how many mistakes are included. But gradually, the more one carries this out, the quicker the analysis goes, the more organised it becomes, and ultimately the more accurate.

Take a look at the game below, played by the great Mikhail Tal versus Johann Hjartarson. I can imagine that Hjartarson, playing black, was not too alarmed at his obviously inferior position upon Tal’s 33.Nc6, which is where we pick the game up. However, things were about to change very quickly. The reason for this is firstly a failing in Black’s sense of danger and positional technique. However, it is Mikhail Tal’s power of calculation which produces 36…Rc5!! and ultimately decides the day. It is true that Tal’s opponent walked somewhat clumsily in to the trap, but nothing should detract from the fact that Tal saw it’s decisiveness.

It might be of vaule to the reader to take a few moments in order to look at the position at 33.Nc6 before proceeding.

John Lee Shaw

Smyslov: Master of the ‘Coiled Spring’ Approach

I have always been an admirer of the late Russian Grandmaster, Vassily Smyslov. One of the things that drew me to his games, was his ability to take on cramped positions without becoming passive. He would then, very often unravel his position, rather like a spring which is wound and full of tension before being released. There would then be an explosion in which Smyslov would take space, and begin to relocate his pieces to more advanced positions, very often to carefully prepared squares.

Smyslov’s play, I must say, suits me very well, his style fits very well with mine and the openings I play. For players who play openings or piece setups where development is initially contained to the first 3-ranks and the opponent very often establishes in the centre, studies of his games really can not hurt at all.

Infact, this approach is one of the best ways to become familiar with an opening.

In the following game, I would like to draw your attention to how Smyslov plays quietly and subtely, but remains active (not an easy thing to do!). He controls the situation, playing accurately and responding to his opponent. Steadily, his position improves, and he is able to pounce when his opponent shows an obvious lack of technique and understanding of the type of position.

John Lee Shaw

There Is No Fury Like Chess Scorned …

We chess players, have all had bad games — especially mere mortal and non-titled players such as myself. We’ve lost pawns, dropped pieces, got swindled, and fallen for tactics we really shouldn’t. Some of us may even have comitted the ultimate sins and lost a queen here and there, or even worse, walked in to mate.

But, you know, it’s not only the mere mortals who are having bad times at the board. In the 2014 World Rapid Championship, World Champion Magnus Carlsen grabbed a pawn and got a piece skewered against Anand; and, even more recently, (within the last week or so actually), Veselin Topalov had a real bad game against Fabiano Caruana, at the 2nd Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, USA.

As well as making us feel slightly better about our mistakes, dear reader, such blunders by the top players are also something of a mystery, arent’t they? How can such masters of the game make such errors?

Well, I have thought long and hard about this, and I think it very often boils down to the fact that the top players are pushing the boundaries of chess further and further all the time in order to find novelties and nuances to gain an edge. It’s rather like a racing driver, who drives their car to its absolute limit — arguably to within a hair’s width of suicidal. When it goes right, it is exciting, entertaining, dramatic, and gives witnesses a thril. On the other hand, when it goes wrong things can (and do) get ugly.

There is also the fact that top players tend to sometimes take ridiculous liberties, not castling for example, throwing pawns forward willy-nilly, behaving like the tried and tested fundamentals of chess (which we do our best to drum in to the beginner) do not apply to them. This can be even more so, in openings in which the players feel at home. They can sometimes be guilty of treating the game too casually, bordering even on the contemptuous.

I have to say, that looking over the Topalov-Caruana game mentioned above, I’d have to plump for the latter option. Topalov certainly did not play ambitiously as White in allowing the Symmetrical English. Mind you, it has to be said that even though this opening is often seen as dull and rather tame, it does not have to be. That being said, however, one has to spice it up in the right way. Topalov certainly didn’t, and seemed to lunge for sharp play with his 17.g4? Actually, his position had started to wane even before this move, and perhaps he was feeling a little vexed.

Unfortunately for the Bulgarian, though, when one does not show our beautiful game enough respect, the consequences tend to be very painful.

John Lee Shaw

A Lesson From Judit Polgar: Fear Nobody …

It is such a pity to learn of the retirement of Grandmaster Judit Polgar, who confirmed that she is leaving professional chess at the end of the 41st chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway. This ended on August 14th; and with it, then, chess lost one of its strongest exponents and finest ambassadors.

The reasons for her retirement, one can only speculate, Judit said in a recent interview with The Times newspaper, that she wanted to focus on her chess foundation which aims to spread chess through schools, and that she also wants to spend more time with her children. Who can blame her? I remember speaking with her Husband at the Corus Chess Tournament a few years ago, and he told me that she found the travelling and separation from her family very hard.

Also mentioned in the article was Polgar’s struggle to be recognized along with the male chess establishment. Sexism is ever-present in most walks of life, and no less in chess. Judit’s tireless resistance and condemnation of this has gained her much admiration from the chess world, from male and female alike.

I think that chess players can learn a lot from Judit Polgar, not only from her games, many of which contain powerful strategic and tactical finesses, but also from the way that she approached her opponents. Namely: all the same. She showed the same respect to amateur and Grandmaster alike, and was afraid of none. Let’s not forget that she was the first female player to defeat Garry Kasparov (who apparently once referred to her as a “circus puppet”) in tournament play. This happened in a rapid game, which took place during the Russia versus the Rest of the World Match, played in the September of 2002.

What strikes me about this game, is that Kasparov is never actually present in it. Judit punishes him for uninspiring play, and asserts herself right from the word go. With precise and aggressive play, she sends out a clear message that she is not to be trifled with, and that no one (not even the strongest player, world number 1, and multiple World Champion) can take liberties with her.

The game is below. As you play through it, notice first Kasparov’s allowing the early exchange of Queens as Black and neglecting his King which remains in the centre of the board, how his position lacks development, and how he allows his opponent far too much space. To me, this game strikes as an under-estimation at best, and a lack of respect at worst.

In her response, Judit Polgar does not stand on ceremonies, but instead takes full advantage and seizes her opportunity. This is a fine example of how to play against any opponent, even more so when you are the underdog. Do not be intimidated, but stay true to yourself, and focus on the board rather than the person. Play the best moves you can find. For at the end of the day, it is that and not reputation which will decide the outcome of the game.

John Lee Shaw