Category Archives: Michael Koblentz

Nezhmetdinov in the Endgame

As the 1000-mile-wide Hurricane Sandy approaches my home (I’m just a few miles north of that big red line that tracks the storm eye), I am reminded of a “hurricane” of the chess world. In his July 7, 2012 blog, Nigel provided an extraordinary documentary on the life and chess of Rashid Nezhmetdinov (1912-1974), acknowledged by the world’s top grandmasters as one of the greatest attacking players in chess history. Nezhmetdinov was called “the greatest master of the initiative” (Polugaevsky), and “virtuoso of combinational chess” (Bronstein). Botvinnik said of him “Nobody sees combinations like Rashid Nezhmetdinov,” and Averbakh “If he had the attack he could kill anybody, including Tal.” Like a hurricane, Nezhmetdinov was always looking for “an active game with great complications.”

Among Nezhmetdinov’s credits include his plus score of +6 =9 -5 in his twenty games against five world champions – Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian and Spassky, including +1 =3 against his more famous attacking compatriot Mikhail Tal. When Tal was asked what day was the greatest in his life he said, “The day I lost to Nezhmetdinov,” referring the beauty of Nezhmetdinov’s combinations. There is a book:  Nezhmetdinov’s Best Games, translated and published by Caissa Editions, 2000. Nigel relates the story of his book acquisition in Russia and the incredible middle-game Polugaevsky-Nezhmetdinov, 1958.

Although renowned for his brilliant middle game play, it is less well known that Nezhmetdinov played some fine endgames (of course, only in cases where his opponent survived to see the endgame). But endgames are not all about the “theory of coordinate squares” and the like – there can be great tactics even with a reduced number of pieces on the board. Nezhmetdinov’s opponents soon came to expect they could never let their guard down, even for a moment in the endgame. If you blinked, you could be mated, as the first example below shows (a lot of interesting lines are contained in the notes):

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The Genius of the Kibitzer, Part I

Kiitz (kib·itzed, kib·itz·ing, kib·itz·es Informal)

1. To look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others.
2. To chat; converse.

 

Michael Koblentz’s Saturday post Chess Blindness led to some interesting discussion on Nigel’s Facebook page; my own thoughts on true “chess blindness” were:

I think chess blindness is due to a narrowing of visual attention similar to the “tunneling” reported by people in combat. For a vital moment we see only part of the board, or only some of the pieces. Visually imaging ALL of the opponents pieces before moving catches many of the superblunders.

Michael’s move Rxf3??, as opposed to a common- or garden-variety “error”, really was chess blindness; as he states, “I never even saw White’s capture with the King!” A truly spectacular blunder of my own can be found in the post Chess Humour where I have a crushing position at move 9 and after almost 15 minutes contemplation allow mate in one because I stopped looking at the opponent’s queen and only looked at what material my own queen moves could gain.

However, these are exceptional blunders, and while we all have made them, they’re rare enough. I am more interested in something else, only tenuously related to real chess blindness. As I also wrote on Facebook:

If we answer the question of why kibitzers so often see what the players miss we will be on the way to improving ourselves.

Most of us have had the experience of casually observing a tournament game, and in just a few seconds spotting some “obvious” two-move combination that would win material, or some “obvious” threat by the opponent that needs to be immediately attended to. If the players we’re watching are below expert level, most of us have also often seen the person overlook the killer shot, or the opponent’s threat, generally accompanied by suppressed groans from the observers. Some of these moves are of a type that, if the same player were to be shown a diagram while sitting on a couch at home, they would find the move within 2 minutes 98 times out of 100.

These kinds of mistakes are not the result of lack of knowledge, lack of ability or failure to do thousands of tactics problems.

The difficulties of substantially improving your chess results, especially as an adult whose grading has plateaued, are an interesting conundrum. Not overlooking the “obvious” is a step in the right direction. I have a several methods to share, from a range of coaches, psychologists, neuroscientists and even actual chess players that might help if assiduously applied, but I will reserve the details for my next post.

I would rather hear from readers this week. Have you experienced the “genius of the kibitzer,” and do you have any ideas for how we might see these things in our own games, rather than uselessly finding them while observing the games of others?

Use my contact page or leave a comment on Nigel’s Facebook. I would be happiest sharing a variety of ideas rather than just pontificating on my own!

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Chess Blindness

Is it true that your chess results are always a product of your own efforts? Of course this is a trick question – obviously your opponent’s efforts also count for something! Just because you win doesn’t necessarily mean that you played well … and sometimes when you lose it’s because your opponent played “the game of their life.” Sure. But much more often, you can’t escape the truth that you are to blame for your own pitiful bad results. So stop whining and making excuses. Improvement starts with taking personal responsibility.

By “Chess Blindness” (for lack of a better term) I mean a particular kind of blunder – a failure to even consider an immediate, transparent response by the opponent. A response that is obvious to everyone in the room except the blunderer, and, if considered at all, would certainly have resulted in avoidance of said  blunder. A  classic example is the rook ending in which, with just a few pieces remaining on the board, blunderer places a whole rook en prise to the opponent’s nearby King or pawn, which “lurk” a mere one square away from the sad, doomed rook. I have witnessed this tragedy several times – the self-inflicted victims including even very strong players. Other lapses include forgetting that a King has already moved and so cannot castle (Mikhail Tal), missing a mate in one (Sammy Reshevsky, Vladimir Kramnik vs Deep Junior and many lesser players, including myself at least twice), hanging your queen in the simplest possible way – piece attacks Q, ignore it, piece shockingly takes Q (Petrosian in Candidates Match vs. Bronstein –  I even did this once in a correspondence game!). What is the explanation? Why does Chess Blindness happen?

Often the explanation is fatigue – in the fifth or sixth hour of play one’s physical conditioning plays a big role, or maybe lack of sleep is a factor, and probably our brain chemistry changes in some undesirable way over the hours of intense concentration (I have also heard that the brain needs a regular source of sugar, if only in small amounts). The question is – what can you do to minimize such “cognitive failures.” Playing in tournaments with shorter time controls is certainly not the answer – in those tournaments you have to play more rounds per day and, essentially, more blitz at the end of each game. Not exactly a formula for minimizing errors.

There are many causes of “error” in chess, including, but not limited to, the following examples: a player attempts the smothered mate pattern in the h8-corner in which, after Qg8+, the opponent captures with queen instead of rook or knight (didn’t really understand the pattern), or player memorized an opening line but fatally transposed moves (Kasparov’s Caro Kann vs Deep Blue), or memorized an opening line but didn’t quite understand it and collapsed at the opponent’s first deviation (perhaps applies to a club player you know), or understands the bishop-plus-wrong-rook’s-pawn endgame draw but not that the bishop plus two (or even six) wrong rook’s pawns also draws, or makes a mistake in time trouble (chronic time trouble is itself a mistake), or simply gets outplayed in a complex tactical situation (a mistake, maybe, but one that alot of players might make), or touches the wrong rook, or forgets to turn off the cell phone, or forgets to set the alarm clock, or fails to sign the score sheet (wait, … that’s golf), or tragicomically resigns in a won position (the chess equivalent of running like the wind towards the wrong football goal, fans and team mates screaming in horror, “scoring” and then viciously spiking the ball), or overlooking an in-between move, overlooking a small deflecting move, assuming an automatic recapture, etc., etc., etc. – In general, the false assumption will get you every time.

Many authors have been written through the Ages about “mistakes in chess,”  how to avoid them, how to cause them and, more generally, the subject of “psychology in chess.” In fact, many pages would be required just for a decent bibliography. A few books that I’ve actually read and could even sort of  recommend include: Krogius Psychology in Chess, Soltis Catalog of Chess Mistakes, Kotov Think Like a Grandmaster and, a second volume, Play Like a Grandmaster, and finally, my personal favorite, Drink Like a Grandmaster, which is actually a coffee cup I presently have filled with pencils and pens.

Restricting ourselves, again, to just a subset of all chess mistakes, “Chess Blindness,” the following game is submitted as a desperate search for “an explanation.” This guy is no help; I asked, but he can’t tell me why.

In the Continental Chess Association’s recent Boardwalk Open (Asbury Park, New Jersey), my first round opponent, Jessica Regam, was the ultimate co-winner of the U2100 Section (she is now 2114). The diagram below shows the position after White’s 13.Re1. Here, playing the Black side of an obscure variation of the French Defense, I contemplated my backward e-pawn, the bad light-squared bishop and how best to wrest control of the e5-square – all of which made me think of the move…Ng4, which, in turn, led me to think of the totally wild sacrifice …Nxf2!  But, because of  my old age, I knew that such a violent undertaking would fail if one’s preparation was incomplete … and so, after 13 minutes thought, I played the obvious developing move 13…Rc8 (labeled move 1 below). This seemed to focus attention on the Q-side, as my opponent quickly played the defensive a2-a3, keeping one black knight off of the b4 square (possibly intending Qc2 or Bc2/Qd3) … but, aha, allowing the other knight free access to g4. After the anticipated h2-h3, I took on f2. White then has to take the knight, at which point you might ask, what does Black get for the sacrificed piece? Well, I thought … two important pawns, White’s shattered K-side pawn structure, very active development of one bishop with tempo …Bc5+, the Black Queen’s easy access to h4 with attack on h3, f2 and f3, the probably-dangerous rook lift …Rf6 and doubling …Raf8, and the imminent pawn roller …e6-e5-e4 solving all of my afore-mentioned problems. All this, while White’s Q-side is still a bit undeveloped. It seemed like a good deal. And it was a good deal. Then the end of the fourth hour of play approached, in a 40 moves in 2 hours format … The rest is in the notes to the game and the Post Mortem at the end..

Post Mortem:

First, in the middle of an attack, I suddenly became worried about the safety of by pieces and Q-side pawns. I took my eye off the target and played the safety move … Kh8. This loss of time allowed White to develop the Q-side and put up a fight, whereas the game could have been decided immediately.

Then I agreed to minor piece exchanges when it would have been better to keep them on the board. I could feel the loss of momentum when I played …Bxe3.

With plenty of time on my clock, plenty of sleep, a good meal, plenty of caffeinated beverages, I spent just a few minutes before playing …Rxf3?? I evaluated  both Qxf3 and Bxf3 as winning for Black. That’s it! I stopped thinking there and excitedly played …Rxf3. After a few minutes thought my opponent simply took my rook with the King. Stunned, like a deer caught in  headlights, I tried to put on my best poker face. The truth is that I never even saw White’s capture with the King! Even though it was sitting right next to my rook. I even give lectures to the kids – “The King is like an old tired Lion. He doesn’t move so fast but he still bites. So keep your rooks far away from the bite of the King. Another factor is that, when you are attacking, you don’t expect the attacked King to move towards the center, unless absolutely forced. Here Kxf3 never entered my conscious mind – I filtered it out at some subconscious level. I was also plagued by the notion of “doing something.” I felt that the position required “more” than a problematic ending with one extra pawn. This was true, but …Rxf3 was not the solution!

Then I compounded my omission in analysis (King bites rook) by quickly playing…Rf8+ -, nothing more than a poker bluff, thereby blowing the perpetual check that was still there, forced by …Qh5+. Everyone has read (but do they truly know?) that after making a mistake you must regain composure and play the best move in the position as it stands. It’s the same in golf – if you hit it in the gorse, you have to go find it and play it as it lies … or take the penalty. Here, after all my mistakes, I could have salvaged a draw by remaining cool and optimistic. Related quotes:

Reporter to Fischer: “Do you ever lose your cool during a game?”

Fischer: (Incredulous) “No. That’s part of the game, your cool.”

Reshevsky: “I rarely become discouraged in an inferior situation, and I fear no one.

Fischer on Reshevsky: “Reshevsky was the top player in the world in the mid-1950′s.” Reshevsky beat reigning World Champion Botvinnik 2.5 – 1.5 in their 1955 match. I will have more to say about Reshevsky in the future. I met him and played him a long time ago.

Finally, on the subject of creating “masterpieces” and “brilliancies”: I considered (briefly) then rejected …Bxe4 as “not enough.” I was still tethered to the feeling that there must be something better. The “work of art” delusion. A player needs to decide if he wants results or works of art. As Dr. Ariel Mengarini and others have pointed out, below the very highest levels, it is probably delusional to think you’ll crank out a bunch of masterpieces. Kasparov has said that the average Grandmaster makes three mistakes per game … and the average club player makes three mistakes per move! So be practical – play for results, but have fun while you’re at it.

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In 1950 Bell Labs scientist, mathematician and WW II cryptographer Alan Turing wrote a famous paper posing the question “Can machines think?” He devised a hypothetical test in which an Interrogator poses written questions to two unseen Subjects, one human and one machine. Based on the Subjects’ responses, the Interrogator then tries to determine which is the human and which is the machine. Turing predicted that, by the year 2000, machine Subjects would be capable of fooling 30% of human Interrogators into thinking that they were the human.


Dr. Alan Turing 1912-1954

The problem for this “Turing Test” was that, for many years, there was no practical way to conduct it. Computers were just not that far advanced. So the Turing Test remained a purely  academic thought experiment until, in 1991, a highly successful entrepreneur marketing pre-fabricated disco dance floors, Hugh Loebner, put up a substantial cash prize sponsoring an annual Turing Test (called the Loebner Prize, naturally). In addition to the cash, the winner is awarded a Gold Medal and the title “The Most Human Computer,” which I can only imagine would move the machine to tears of joy and pride.

The Loebner event is replete with computer contestants (human imitator “chatterbots”), a panel of interrogators (“judges”) and human volunteers as subjects (“confederates”). Although Turing’s year 2000 prediction has not quite been realized, the machines are now getting quite close, fooling 25% of judges in recent testing. In order to motivate the human subjects to act more like humans (thereby making it harder by contrast for the bots to appear human) the organizer also gives a prize each year to “The Most Human Human.” Winner of the award Brian Christian has written an interesting book and highly entertaining presentation  (the talk starts after five minutes of introduction which might well be skipped).

Every year since 1966 another award, the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) Turing Award, is given to the best overall contribution to the field of computer science. This most prestigious award is essentially the Nobel Prize of computer science. In 1983, Ken Thompson (below left) and Dennis Ritchie (right) of Belle Labs won the Turing Award for the invention of UNIX.

Computer Expert Swindlebeards
Swindlebeards Thompson and Ritchie

If you have any interest in computer security, Thompson’s brilliant Turing Award lecture is a must read -  Reflections on Trusting Trust: “To what extent should one trust a statement that a program is free of Trojan horses? Perhaps it is more important to trust the people who wrote the software.”

Among Thompson’s other pioneering contributions (rambling back to chess) he is noted for work with Joe Condon on the Computer Chess World Champion Belle (1980), which included, by the way, four- and five-piece endgame tablebases solved by retrograde analysis (working backwards from final positions rather than forward from present positions). Thirty-plus years ago this was ground-breaking stuff. Nowadays if you’re having trouble sleeping I’d recommend a visit here or here or just google  “pawnless endgames fifty move rule.”

Here is an early game played by Belle.

 

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Two weeks ago I put forth the proposition that, in chess, it was “imperative” to swindle when presented the opportunity, as long as this is done with legal moves on the board and, in general, within the rules of the game. To be clear to our most impressionable readers, I am not saying that swindling is OK in everyday life. Although Alekhine’s reputed swindling his way out of a Russian firing squad is understandable, in most situations in life swindling (gaining something by deceit) is, at best, ill-mannered and, at worst, a crime against society. So, don’t do what these guys did and then say, as they take you off in handcuffs, in protest to anyone who’ll listen: “It’s not my fault; they trained me to swindle in Chess.”

American founding father, diplomat, scientist and chess player Benjamin Franklin, although not using the specific word ‘swindle,’ nonetheless had plenty to say about the subject in his famous essay “The Morals of Chess,” Columbian Magazine, December 1786. He is quoted here in part, saying that Chess teaches us to persevere in discouraging circumstances:

“We learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to sudden vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after long contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory by our own skill, or at least of getting a stalemate by the negligence of our adversary . . .”

Eloquently stated, that sounds very much like playing on in the hope of a swindle! Franklin continues:

“If your adversary is long in playing, you ought not to hurry him, or express any uneasiness at his delay. You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, not take up a book to read, nor make a tapping with your feet on the floor, or with your fingers on the table, nor do anything that may disturb his attention. For all these things displease; and they do not show your skill in playing, but your craftiness or your rudeness.”

Nowadays such behavior is formally against tournament rules, falling into the category of “annoying behavior.” But I have to admit, I’ve been put off by a couple of opponents in this way. One “amusing” incident escalated to a sort of kicking match beneath the table – suffice it to say that, in the end, I secured my rightful share of space long enough to mate my opponent in 16 moves.

Finally, Franklin addresses a particular kind of swindle that has nothing to do with moves at the board:

“You ought not to endeavour to amuse and deceive your adversary, by pretending to have made bad moves, and saying that you have now lost the game, in order to make him secure and careless, and inattentive to your schemes: for this is fraud and deceit, not skill in the game.”

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Improving Endgame Play – Step 1

Like so many chess players, I mis-spent my youth in pool halls … well, no, that’s not quite accurate. The truth is that I did squander alot of time studying the most popular, complex chess opening variations. “If my opponent falls into this trap at move five, then I’ve got him – I know it twenty moves deep all the way to mate! And in all variations!!” Or, I thought, “More likely, he won’t fall for the trap, but then I’ll play Fischer’s latest improvement at move 22, thus guaranteeing a small but comfortable edge.”

Although the traps did win a few games, in most cases my “deep preparation” was totally wasted. Most of my opponents didn’t even know the main lines, and my stronger opponents were equally uncooperative, easily sidestepping my dark designs.

On rare occasions in those days, I would take out an endgame book. I was told that endgames were good for you – sort of like taking vitamins, only a lot more work. I did manage to learn some basic endgame principles, but then it was always more fun to study tactical puzzles and even easier to go back to the openings. After all, it seemed essential to have a backup system for everything I played, just in case of “emergencies.” In all candor, after decades of tournament play I have never actually had such an emergency.

Nonetheless, it is a well known fact that I am single-handedly responsible for keeping Barnes and Noble in business, having purchased immense quantities of highly specialized opening books for many, many years. What’s worse, I actually spent time reading them. Then, when chess engines became commercially available, I started “checking” the openings book analyses and looking for theoretical novelties. Well, that didn’t last long – I soon realized that the authors, aside from being grandmasters, had engines at least as powerful as mine… In time, I also discovered that, except for rare early tactical skirmishes, engines are not of much help in the openings.

So, at Nigel’s suggestion, I’m now making some opening repertoire changes that will reduce the amount of material I have to study. At the same time, these changes produce more solid positions that avoid feeding my habit for ultra-sharp positions (which require complex calculations at almost every move, an increasingly taxing task on my aging brain). But best of all, Nigel’s approach leaves lots of extra time to address an important neglected area, i.e. improving one’s endgame play. So that’s Step 1 – finding the time  and making endgame study a priority.

Here are a few instructive endgames I’ve studied so far this week – games by two of the greatest endgame players in history, Jose Raul Capablanca and Akiba Rubinstein.

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In the game of chess, when your King’s life is at stake, the often maligned practice of obtaining something by trickery (snatching a win or a draw in the face of of an apparently certain loss) is well within the rules of the game. Not only within the rules, but an actual imperative! Steinitz taught us that if we held the advantage then we must go over to the attack, or risk losing our advantage. By similar reasoning, I say that if you have the opportunity to swindle, then you must swindle! Yes, it’s well within the rules …

Frank Marshall

The most famous “swindler” in the history of chess was Frank J. Marshall, U.S. Champion from 1909-1936. He even wrote a book published in 1914 entitled Marshall’s Chess “Swindles,” with 125 of his annotated games. But if you got this book expecting to find 125 examples of miraculous rescues of lost games, you’d be … swindled!  Actually, Marshall puts everything in perspective in the book’s Introduction:

“It may not be obvious to all why I have employed the title of ‘Marshall’s Chess Swindles.’ The title of ‘swindle’ is one of derision, which has been applied to my victories over certain disappointed gentlemen, who did not enjoy seeing their fond pre-conceived notions demolished over the open board. When their theories went to smash in actual play with a man not tied to book chess, the explanation was, that the unexpected move was a ‘Marshall swindle.’ So I have made a collection of ‘Marshall swindles’ …

… “I may therefore be pardoned by the reader if I ask him when he plays over these games to judge fairly as to this point, namely: Is the successful move, combination or line of play, as the case may be, initiated by me, rightly to be called a ‘swindle,’ or rather, on the other hand, is the respective move, combination or line of play demolished by me, entitled to be called ‘a busted conceit’.” – Frank J. Marshall

Whoa, don’t tug on Superman’s cape!! Upon reading his book it at once becomes clear, Marshall was not at all happy with being called a swindler, and it would appear that some “historians” simply have the story wrong when stating “Marshall was proud of his reputation for swindles, and even wrote a book entitled Marshall’s Chess “Swindles” (1914).”

I think that we should give credit to true swindles for just what they are. If a pro sports team wins in the final seconds of a game, do we call that a swindle? Certainly not! We call it a “come from behind victory!” Or even an “heroic come from behind victory.” Imagine the headlines: “The New York Knicks, down eight points with just fourteen seconds to play, their backs to the wall, nearly checkmated by their heavily favored opponents, staged the greatest comeback in NBA history to win the NBA Finals Championship. Their opponents immediately filed a petition with NBA Commissioner David Stern, charging that the game was ‘Swindled.’ When Stern was reached for comment he responded “These sniveling crybabies lost fair and square and now deserve to be the universal subject of ridicule, scorn and mockery.” He then fined them $50,000.”

Here are two of Marshall’s so-called swindles which, by the way, are also given in “Frank J. Marshall’s Best Games of Chess,” (formerly: “My Fifty Years of Chess” 1942).

 

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