Category Archives: Nigel Davies

The Comeback Trail, Part 3

In my previous article I looked at some broad categories of openings and why it makes sense to select some over others. This time I’ll look at another useful concept for those wanting to come back to the game, a chess version of the Zulu Principle.

The Zulu Principle was first espoused by the British financier and chess sponsor, Jim Slater. After seeing how his wife had acquired an exceptional knowledge of Zulus after reading a Reader’s Digest article on them, he started to apply the same concept to investing. By specializing in particular investments he could know more than almost everyone else about them.

This idea can be applied to chess openings. If you specialize in particular lines that nobody else really bothers with you can become a leading authority on them with relatively little effort. So instead of playing something like the popular Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 O-O 8.c3 d6 9.h3 and now 9…Nb8) why not consider something that nobody else touches? I’ve played 9…Be6 in a few games with pretty decent results and 9…Nd7 is another good move.

Black can also deviate much earlier on, for example with 5…d6 or 4…d6. Very few players pay much attention to these moves because they occur so infrequently, and this in turn gives someone who bucks the trend a Zulu Principle edge in knowledge.

Of course this is not what most players do, they just have to play the most fashionable lines. But with these being so topical there will be far more people who know them and know what to do, not to mention the fact that there’s far more to learn in fashionable lines.

So I think it makes sense to go slightly off the beaten track, but here I’d also like to issue a word of caution. Any openings that one chooses to play should follow sound principles and not just be different for the sake of it. This is partly because well principled openings will cultivate a player’s strategic understanding, especially if clear strategic themes are present. Those which lead to chaotic positions do not have this benefit.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 7)

Moving further back in time here’s a really ancient Ruy Lopez with Wilhelm Steinitz playing Black. Steinitz is generally regarded as being the founder of modern positional play as he codified many positional ideas and techniques that had previously been less formally stated and existed only as rules of thumb of the best players. This clarification enabled Steinitz to stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries and he was World Chess Champion for some 28 years.

In this game Steinitz provides us with a model example of how to use the bishop pair by taking space and depriving his opponent’s minor pieces of useful squares (for example 19…c5). When his pieces are clearly stronger than Black’s he is able to exchange off into a much simpler endgame:

Nigel Davies

Remembering Mark Taimanov

I was very sorry to hear about the recent death of Mark Taimanov, who I met and played several times. Having made it to 90, he was one of the last of the golden era of Soviet Chess players and I thought I’d share some personal reminiscences.

We first played in a tournament in Portugal in 1985. I saw one of his games from an earlier round against Jorges Guimaraes which went 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 Nge7 7.O-O Nxd4 8.Qxd4 Nc6 9.Qd3 Nb4 after which Guemaraes quickly retreated his queen to d2. I was wondering why White couldn’t play 10.Qg3 after which 10…Nxc2 11.Bg5 f6 12.Bf4 gives White a strong attack for the sacrificed pawn, the tactical point being that 12…Nxa1 loses to 13.Bh5+ g6 14.Bxg6+ hxg6 15.Qxg6+ Ke7 16.e5 d5 17.Qxf6+ Kd7 18.Qxh8 Nc2 19.Qh7+ picking up the knight.

This led me to trying an open Sicilian in our game in this event, but Taimanov cannily sidestepped this with 6…Qc7 instead. When we made a draw I showed him 10.Qg3, which was a bit naive of me because maybe I’d have had another chance to spring it on him. After trying to defend his position he admitted that the situation was most unpleasant for Black and never repeated this line.

Interestingly it was Jim Plaskett who got to play 10.Qg3 in a game against Bill Hartston, and won in brilliant style. We hadn’t prepared it and I hadn’t shown him, Plaskett just found it over the board:

I played in several more tournaments with Taimanov and invited him to the Owen’s Corning tournament in Wrexham in 1997. Despite being 71 at the time he played in great style and took first place. And his game against John Donaldson showed his class, tying White’s rooks down in the endgame and then getting in with his king:

Besides being a great chess player Taimanov was also a concert pianist and he successfully managed to combine his careers in these two arts. I found this clip of him playing alongside his first wife on Youtube:

For those who’d like to know more there’s also a nice interview with Taimanov here. I’d just like to say that he was a real gentleman and it was a privilege to have met him.

Nigel Davies

The Comeback Trail, Part 2

Continuing on from my previous article I want to talk about how the game has changed and what I might need to do to adjust. The big thing to happen in the last couple of decades has been an explosion in the use of chess databases and engines which mean that even club players need to watch out for home cooking.

If you visit Chess DB you might well find some of your own games. Can your opponents then prepare for you with a one click download of your games and then feeding them into Komodo or Stockfish for comment? This is certainly something to bear in mind and becomes an ever more serious issue if you have more games up there.

How can we avoid or neutralize hostile preparation? To my mind there are several ways to do so:

1. Stay on top of the lines that you play so you keep track of any theoretical developments and analyze everything with high powered engines.

2. Choose openings which are essentially irrefutable, such as the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Be prepared to play long games.

3. Play lines in which there are numerous reasonable choices further down the line and the positions that arise are not particularly suitable for engine analysis. Such openings will most likely feature a delayed contact between the forces that you find, for example, in the Reti Opening.

4. Cycle between a number of offbeat lines so that your opponents will find it difficult to prepare in much depth for all of them.

5. Use a combination of the above methods.

For club players I recommend only number 2, the reason being that classical positions with clear pawn structures are the best for developing positional understanding. Moving up to 2300+ players, with a deep understanding of different of different pawn structures, number 3 becomes a good approach because they are more likely to be able to bamboozle less knowledgeable opposition. For those with more time to study openings (and do essential work and maintenance on the rest of their game as well), then 1 and 4 start to enter the frame as approaches to consider, though many players do this at the expense of studying other aspects of chess.

What approach would work for an older GM who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time studying and maintaining openings? Me for example? Probably number 3 should be the primary approach, though mixing in a dollop of number 4 might be a good idea as well. Of course a lot depends on who you expect to be playing, with soundness carrying a premium if the opposition is going to be strong. But basically I don’t expect to be playing much against the 2700 club, at least not at classical time limits.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 6)

Here’s another old game and another Ruy Lopez, though this time it features one of my chess heroes, Paul Keres.

Keres was a great specialist in the Black side of the Ruy Lopez and developed many different ideas for use in practical games. Here he adopts an unusual move order with 4…Be7 and then 5…d6, presumably to try and confuse his opponent. In the ‘little centre’ position that followed 7.d4 exd4 he had the two bishops. And as the geme progressed he gradually brought their latent strength to bear:

Nigel Davies

Board Games and Martial Arts

There are some interesting analogies between board games and martial arts and at many different levels. I noticed quite a few of them when I took up internal martial arts (Yiquan and then Tai Chi) around a decade ago and continue to be reminded of them all the time.

Here’s an interesting video in which these are explored. I might add the learning process is similar to chess in that you layer your understanding on what you already know. And that great patience and determination are needed on the part of the student.

Nigel Davies

The Comeback Trail, Part 1

When I take my son Sam to tournaments I often get asked why I’m not playing. A few years ago it certainly wouldn’t have been easy to combine chess parenting with playing, but as he gets older this is no longer clearly the case. So is a ‘comeback’ on the cards for me?

I certainly have misgivings about reentering the fray in the second half of my 50s. Emanual Lasker sensibly warned against doing battle against youth, and he was one of the greatest examples of chess longevity. Meanwhile I’ve been watching with concern as some of my long standing friends and colleagues have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their past success rate against wave after wave of young players. Age is not our friend.

On the other hand there are some definite plus points to a return. First of all I’ve heard that older people should try to keep their minds active, and chess might be good for that. Secondly I’d hope to be able to cover some of the expenses if I were to go to tournaments with both my son and myself playing. And thirdly I do still love the game and feel I might get a lot of enjoyment from playing. As long as I do well of course…

So how should an older player prepare such a return after a long break? I’ve seen some people try and fail and wouldn’t want to be one of them. On one level I think I’m not too rusty, mainly because I’ve spent a lot of time on chess teaching during my absence from competition. I don’t expect my mind to be quite as sharp as it was a couple of decades ago, but there again I know a lot more. It also seems that my health is OK, and since taking up tai chi and qigong my energy levels are high. This is very important as chess can take it out of you.

One thing that concerns me is that the game itself has also changed, not least because of the proliferation of opening theory, the rise of the chess engine and extensive chess databases. People are better prepared than they used to be and will tend to be ready if someone repeats something they’ve played before. To some extent I should be immune to this because of my wide opening repertoire and preference for systems which feature a delayed contact between the armies. Of course there are sharp lines in almost every opening, and these would need checking carefully.

So I’d say I’m up for it and have provisionally agreed with my son that his second will become less available from next summer. This leaves the nitty gritty of preparing myself because I wouldn’t want to return as a beaten up old has been! But this I’ll leave this discussion for future posts…

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 5)

Here’s another game in my series on instructive old games, a nice Ruy Lopez game by Edward (rather than Emanual) Lasker.

There are some instructive ideas here, for example the use of c5 by Black’s knights, 14…Bxf3 followed by 15….Bg5 which gets Black’s ‘bad’ bishop out and penetration along the open b-file. I also like Black’s timely 24…g6, just making sure there are no back rank tricks and potentially building up for the …f7-f5 lever. So although this wasn’t a masterpiece, all these positional themes are very clear and instructive:

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 4)

Continuing my series on instructive old games, here’s a great game by Alexander Alekhine in which he puts the zugzwang Master, Aron Nimzowitsch, in zugzwang.

The problems start for Black when White’s knight lands on d6. This powerful knight is later exchanged, but not before White is ready to take control of the c-file. Black gets so tied up along this file that he is literally reduced to helplessness, and in the final position can only play some meaningless pawn moves before he is forced into a disastrous move of a piece:

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 3)

Here’s another in my series on old games that are worth studying. In this case it’s a nice example of a little centre that occurred in a Steinitz Defence to the Ruy Lopez. And playing Black was a lifelong adherent of this opening, Emanuel Lasker.

Many of the themes from this position type are in evidence here, exchanging pieces to relieve Black’s lack of space, pressure on the b-file and then a flanking blow against White’s centre with …f7-f5. I would later use such games as a model for my interpretation of the Modern Defence in which I often played …Nc6, …e7-e5 and …e5xd4:

Nigel Davies