Category Archives: Richard James

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

Dan’s Your Man

Regular readers will probably be aware of my view that most chess instruction, particularly at lower levels, is, at best, misguided.

One shining exception to this, though, is Dan Heisman. If you’re an adult novice (up to, say 1600 strength), you should certainly look at his materials.

He sums up his principles in three words: Slow, Safe, Active. The three show-stoppers.

‘Slow’ is to do with time management: at this level most players move much too fast, while others take far too long over moves which are either obvious or non-critical. I’d add that problems with time management happen at all levels. Off the top of my head I can think of an English IM who plays extremely quickly, while one of England’s top GMs regularly gets into severe time trouble.

‘Safe’ refers to basic tactics. It’s partly keeping your pieces safe but also not missing simple opportunities to win pieces. Heisman’s choice of word is interesting: he’s concentrating on the idea of not making mistakes rather than finding good moves.

‘Active’ concerns piece activity. Put your pieces on active squares. Use all your pieces, not just some of them.

The three show-stoppers can be extended to the Big Five. The additions are Thinking Process, how you decide which move to make, and General Principles/Guidelines, and you know what they are. Nothing, you’ll notice, about openings, endings, complex analysis.

The only two of these five which require specific study are Safety and General Principles/Guidelines, which you can find in Dan’s books or on his website.

This bears little relation to what most teachers seem to teach at this level, and also bears little relation to what most students think they want.

I sometimes tell my pupils that I’m not like other teachers. Most chess teachers are strong players who play lots of brilliant moves and will teach you how to play brilliant moves yourself. I’m a bad player, even though I have a reasonable grade: I spend most of my games desperately trying to avoid blunders and have never knowingly played a brilliant move in my life. I won’t show you how to play brilliant moves but I’ll try to help you to stop playing bad moves.

There are two types of mistake, not just in chess but in everything. Mistakes you make because something is too hard for you. Perhaps you didn’t know the opening well enough, the tactics were too deep for you, you didn’t understand how to play the ending. You can learn from these mistakes and move forward in your chess. There are also the mistakes you shouldn’t have made. You’d forgotten the opening. You missed a simple tactic. You played too fast. I don’t know about you, but most of my chess mistakes come into the second category. Most chess teachers, though, just concentrate on the first type of mistake, and most students think what they need is more chess information rather than techniques to avoid unnecessary mistakes.

If you’re interested in seeing Dan’s materials you could start by visiting his website. He writes articles for chess.com and produces videos for the Internet Chess Club, at least some of which are available for free on YouTube. His Novice Nook articles at Chess Café are behind a paywall, but you’ll also find many of them in his book A Guide To Chess Improvement, published by Everyman Chess. You can also follow him on Twitter where you can read his Chess Tip of the Day. His tip for December 29 sums up much of his philosophy.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

I’d just add that there’s a big difference between teaching adults of about 800-1000 strength and teaching 7-year-old children of the same strength. For example, the kids will play too fast because of their immature thinking processes, so the two most important things are safety and thinking process, followed by activity, which they can usually pick up quickly. But the basic principle of doing simple things well and avoiding careless mistakes is still there.

Richard James

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

Last Throes

William Pollock is not the only chess player I’ve been reading about recently. I’ve been waiting three decades to read Jimmy Adams’ book Gyula Breyer, The Chess Revolutionary. published by New in Chess. It was well worth the wait.

You probably know two things about Breyer, that he played 9… Nb8 in the Ruy Lopez and that he claimed (perhaps because of 9… Nb8) that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes. But neither of these is true, or at least there’s no evidence. The Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez was named by Barcza and other Hungarian players in the 1950s: they had been told by Viennese players that Breyer had recommended it in an essay, but the essay in question has not yet come to light. It was Tartakower who first claimed that Breyer had written that after 1. e4 White’s game was in the last throes, but again there’s no evidence that he wrote anything beyond saying that White’s position was compromised.

Like Pollock, Breyer had a short life and a short career. He was born in Budapest in 1893 and died of heart disease at the age of only 28 in Bratislava in 1921. His career started early, by the standards of his day, and he won the Hungarian Championship in 1912. He played at Mannheim in 1914, and was sharing fourth place when the tournament was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. There was no international chess for the next four years so he was only able to take part in national competitions. His best result came in Berlin in December 1920, when he scored 6½/9, finishing a full point ahead of Tartakower and Bogoljubov, but 11 months later he was dead.

Breyer’s historical importance was as a founder of the Hypermodern School of chess. He was a friend of Réti and a big influence on Nimzowitsch. Breyer may not have said that after 1. e4 White’s game is in its last throes, but he made some pretty sweeping and controversial statements about openings.

He believed, for example, that 2. d4 in the French or Caro-Kann was a mistake, preferring instead 2. d3, not, as we might today, playing a King’s Indian Attack but instead going for a reversed Philidor. He also recommended 1. e4 Nf6 2. d3, considering 2. e5 a mistake, and planning to meet 2… e5 with 3. f4, claiming a white advantage.

After 1. d4 Breyer awarded 1… d5 a question mark, and, if instead 1. d4 Nf6, 2. c4 also received a question mark because of 2… d6. I guess you can see what he’s getting at. Any pawn in the centre could be a target for attack. Did he actually believe his assessments or was be just being, like many chess players, a professional contrarian? Who knows?

His chess playing style was unconventional, as well, favouring paradoxical ideas and obscure manoeuvres, but also demonstrating an extraordinary combinational talent.

This book is very different from the scholarly biographies published by McFarland. What we have, in a hardback book of 876 pages, is a compendium of 240 games played by Breyer, with annotations collated from many sources, along with Breyer’s essays, articles and newspaper columns (he was a prolific journalist), translated into English for the first time, and articles about Breyer from many other sources. The material is arranged chronologically and interspersed with a biography of our hero.

Let’s examine Breyer’s most famous game. He’s playing white against Johannes Esser, in a tournament played in Budapest in 1917.

1. d4 d5
2. c4 c6
3. e3 Nf6
4. Nc3 e6
5. Bd3 Bd6
6. f4 O-O
7. Nf3 dxc4
8. Bb1

Most of us would recapture without much though, but Breyer has his eyes set on a king-side attack.

8… b5
9. e4 Be7
10. Ng5 h6
11. h4

This is Breyer’s immediate idea: the same idea as the Fishing Pole Trap. The intention is to mate Black down the h-file.

11… g6
12. e5

At this point Breyer claimed he’d seen up to move 26. Do we believe him? I have my doubts.

12… hxg5
13. hxg5 Nd5
14. Kf1

This extraordinary move is the reason this game became famous. The immediate point is to avoid a potential pin if Black plays Bb4, but the grandiose idea only becomes clear many moves later. White wants to avoid a potential Bh4+.

14… Nxc3
15. bxc3 Bb7

This looks suspect: how does this move help defend his king-side. Qe8 and Nd7 were better alternatives.

16. Qg4 Kg7
17. Rh7+ Kxh7
18. Qh5+ Kg8
19. Bxg6 fxg6
20. Qxg6+ Kh8
21. Qh6+ Kg8
22. g6

Now we see the main point of Kf1. If the king was still on e1 Black would have been able to defend with Bh4+ here.

22… Rf7
23. gxf7+ Kxf7
24. Qh5+ Kg7

Black could draw here by playing Kg8. Now 25. f5 fails to Qf8 so White has nothing better than perpetual check. However, I can find no mention of this in the book.

25. f5 exf5
26. Bh6+

Some sources stop the game here claiming either that Black resigned or that White won in a few moves. White did win – eventually, after mutual blunders in time trouble. 26. e6+ would have forced mate in 9 moves, as would either Ke2 or Bf4+ but Breyer’s choice didn’t spoil anything.

26… Kh7
27. Bg5+ Kg8
28. Qg6+ Kh8
29. Qh6+

29. Bf6+ was the quickest way to win.

29… Kg8
30. Qe6+

White could still return to the previous position but now Black can escape.

30… Kf8
31. Qxf5+ Kg7
32. Bh6+ Kxh6
33. Ke2 Bc8
34. Rh1+ Bh4
35. e6

35. Rxh4+ Qxh4 36. Qf8+ is a perpetual check. Now Black can win by returning one of his three extra pieces: 35… Bxe6.

35… Qe7
36. Qf4+ Kg7
37. Rxh4 Qxe6+
38. Kd2 Na6

38… Bd7 was a possible improvement.

39. Rh5 Qf6

The final mistake. After 39… Bd7 White would win the black queen under less favourable curcumstances and Black would have been able to fight on. Now a series of forks will pick up Black’s loose pieces.

40. Rh7+ Kxh7
41. Qxf6 Bg4
42. Qh4+ Kg7
43. Qxg4+ Kf6
44. Qf3+ Ke7
45. Qxc6 Rg8
46. Qxa6 Rxg2+
47. Kc1 1-0

A flawed masterpiece, you might think. The same could also be said for the book. The amount of research, much of which was carried out three decades ago, is prodigious and the material endlessly fascinating. It’s strange, though, that, although twenty pages are devoted to discussing this game, quoting analysis and articles from many sources, and some computer analysis has been carried out, there’s no mention of 24… Kg8, which demonstrates that Breyer’s combination, spectacular though it was, should only have sufficed for a draw.

There are a few minor oversights: for example, the tournament table on p853 is incorrectly captioned. There has been, understandably some criticism concerning insufficiently detailed sources. This might be annoying if you’re a serious chess historian and want to refer to the originals but will be of no concern to most readers.

If you have any interest at all in chess history this book is an essential purchase. If you have an specific interest in the development of chess ideas over the years, again you have to buy this book.

One final thought. Last week I suggested that we were living in a golden age for chess history, with outstanding books such as this one being published regularly. Now chess is becoming a game for small children and professional players, will there be anyone left to write, or even read books like this in twenty years time? Or is chess history in its last throes?

Richard James

Golden Age

We’re currently living in a golden age for chess history, due in no small measure to the American publishing house McFarland & Co, who, for some years now, have provided us with a constant stream of elegant, beautifully produced hardback books concerning the history of the Royal Game.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading one of this year’s offerings, a biography of William Henry Krause Pollock, written by two of McFarland’s most experienced authors, Olimpiu Urcan and John Hilbert.

Pollock was a relatively minor figure in the history of chess, with a career of only a decade or so playing at master level. His highest EDO rating, 2463, ranked him 36th in the world in 1892. His short but interesting life, together with his attractive style of play, make him a worthy subject for a full biography.

William Pollock was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Cheltenham in 1859, the son of a clergyman. After various postings his father, now a widower, eventually settled in Bath. William studied medicine in Dublin, qualifying as a surgeon, but decided to forsake the operating theatre for the chessboard.

He started off playing in club matches and in lower sections of congresses, but by 1885 had graduated to the Masters sections. The 2nd Irish Chess Association Congress in 1886 provided him with what would be his greatest success, when he beat the visiting masters Blackburne and Burn as well as all the local players, the strongest and most interesting of whom was Richard Whieldon Barnett, also an expert rifle shooter, who would become the Conservative and Unionist MP for St Pancras West, and later St Pancras South West.

In 1889 Pollock crossed the Atlantic to take part in the 6th American Chess Congress in New York, one of the great international tournaments of the time. He finished 11th out of 20 competitors with a score of 17½/38, well behind the leaders Chigorin and Weiss (29/38), Gunsberg (28½), Blackburne (27), Burn (26), and Lipschütz (25½). He did, however, have the consolation of winning the Brilliancy Prize for his Round 35(!) victory with the black pieces over one of the joint winners, the very strong but now forgotten Miksa (Max) Weiss (1857-1927), who would give up professional chess soon after this event. Oh, look! It’s game 11111 in my database!

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Ba4 Nf6
5. d3 b5
6. Bb3 Bc5
7. c3 d5

The opening is of some interest. Weiss plays the sort of slow set-up with c3 and d3 much favoured today, and Pollock hits back in the centre, offering a pawn sacrifice in the style of Marshall.

8. exd5 Nxd5
9. Qe2 O-O
10. Qe4 Be6
11. Nxe5

This is too dangerous. 11. Ng5 g6 12. Nxe6 was to be preferred.

11… Nxe5
12. Qxe5 Nb4
13. O-O Nxd3
14. Qh5 Bxb3
15. axb3 Re8
16. Nd2 Qe7
17. b4 Bxf2+
18. Kh1

18. Rxf2 loses to 18… Qe1+ 19. Rf1 Qe3+. Black has many good moves now, but Pollock, typically, chooses the most spectacular option.

18… Qe1
19. h3

Allowing the following queen sacrifice.

19… Nxc1
20. Rxe1 Rxe1+
21. Kh2 Bg1+
22. Kg3 Re3+

22… Ne2+, regaining material, was also possible but Pollock correctly prefers a mating attack.

23. Kg4 Ne2
24. Nf1 g6
25. Qd5 h5+
26. Kg5 Kg7
27. Nxe3 f6+
28. Kh4 Bf2+
29. g3 Bxg3#

After this event Pollock decided to stay in America, even though there were fewer opportunities for competitive chess there than in Europe. He travelled the country giving simuls and meeting local players, and, for a few months in 1892, he acted as Steinitz’s secretary in New York. He later moved to Canada, and it was as Canada’s representative that he was invited to take part in the famous Hastings tournament of 1895.

Not surprisingly, he found the competition there a bit hot and finished 19th out of 22 competitors with a score of 9 points. His victims, though, included both Tarrasch and Steinitz.

Shortly after the tournament his health worsened due to tuberculosis, and Hastings proved to be his swan song. He died at his father’s house a year later.

So that was Pollock. Consistently inconsistent, I suppose you could say, typically finishing below the recognised masters but above the local players who were there to make up the numbers in most 19th century events. A player capable of beating anyone on his day, a producer of brilliancies but also likely to lose games due to unsound attacks or careless oversights.

While there are many more distinguished practitioners of our game who have yet to receive a full biography, if you have any interest at all in chess history of this period you should buy this book. You’ll find almost 200 pages of biography followed by 523 games annotated using both contemporary sources and modern insights. I have just two minor complaints. I’d have liked to see the cross-tables of the tournaments in which Pollock participated, and would have preferred more detailed solutions to the problems which appear in various places in the book. The quality of research, writing and production are all exemplary and, as a matter of principle, writers and publishers of such a high quality product should be supported. If you don’t have any interest in chess history, I’d suggest you should. It’s part of our history, part of our heritage, and, although the openings may be old-fashioned there’s still much to learn from the games. It’s also a delight to witness the attacking skill of Pollock at his best. You might think that, just as the early 21st century is a golden age for chess history, the late 19th century was a golden age of chess playing.

Richard James

News of the Century

It’s the biggest chess news of the year. Perhaps the biggest chess news of the century. You might even consider it the biggest chess news of all time. Nigel has already written about this, but I think it’s worth another article.

The games we’ve seen so far have been fascinating and totally unlike human games. The choice of openings is the first point of interest. AlphaZero seems to prefer queen’s pawn or flank openings (1. d4, Nf3 or c4), disagreeing with Fischer’s dictum that 1. e4 is ‘best by test’. It doesn’t seem to think much of Black’s sharper defences such as the Sicilian and the King’s Indian. It liked the French for a time before switching to the Caro-Kann and then 1… e5, choosing the Berlin Defence against the Ruy Lopez. At the same time, several games featured positional sacrifices, demonstrating a preference for initiative over material. No doubt it had worked everything, or at least almost everything, out: it wasn’t just being speculative.

So already, after teaching itself in only four hours, it must be pretty close to playing perfect chess. How well will it play after 4000 hours?

It was also interesting, or perhaps disturbing, to read here that, of the sixty games so far completed in the 1st English Correspondence Chess Championship, fifty eight have been drawn. These days, because engine assistance is permitted, the vast majority of correspondence games result in the point being shared. The combination of human brain and computer brawn is starting to approach perfection, but still a long way short of AlphaZero. Compared with this, the number of decisive games in the London Chess Classic (10 out of 45 after a late flurry of excitement in rounds 7 and 9) seems positively thrilling.

What impact will this have on chess between humans? At amateur level, playing blunder-strewn games in inter-club matches and weekend congresses, very little. If AlphaZero becomes available online in some form I guess it will, sadly, mean the demise of correspondence chess. It will also have a big impact on top level chess, quite probably leading to more draws than today. Professional players will be able to carry out deeper research further into the game. People have been predicting the death of chess for more than a century: perhaps AlphaZero demonstrates how the chess world will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

There are answers, though. Some pundits are predicting the rise of Chess960, while others, and I’d probably put myself in their camp, believe that using different starting positions destroys the purity of chess. I don’t think I’d be opposed to the occasional Chess960 tournament, though. We’ll no doubt see more tournaments at faster time limits, which are also more entertaining for spectators. Perhaps we’ll see more invitations for creative players like Rapport and Jobava rather than the ‘bore draw’ specialists.

I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. Harari predicts that homo sapiens will, in the not too distant future, die out, to be replaced by immortal cyborgs. I suppose that, in one sense, AlphaZero is a step in this direction. I’m not entirely convinced by Harari’s arguments, or at least I hope I’m not, and I hope he’ll be proved wrong. Not that I’ll be around long enough to find out, though.

All this prompts thoughts about how we might change chess for the better, which I’ll come back to later, and how we might change society for the better, which is a topic for another time and place, although not unrelated to my views on chess, and, specifically, junior chess.

Meanwhile, here’s another video of one of the AlphaZero v Stockfish games for you to enjoy.

Richard James

Elitism in Junior Chess

In an article in the November British Chess Magazine, GM Aleksandar Colovic bemoans the declining standards in junior chess.

Colovic starts by considering various projects involved with putting chess on the curriculum in schools. I share his reservations about this, but not for the same reasons.

“…there is one thing”, says Colovic, “that bothers me. … “It is the fact that all these activities are not aimed at producing the next Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. … Chess is seen as part of a person’s culture, not as a possible future profession.”

This is where I have a problem. Junior chess has, over the past 30 years or so, become increasingly elitist, and this attitude is one of the reasons for this. In my view the main purpose of any competition-based junior chess programme should not be to produce professional chess players, but to develop chess culture and produce hobby players with a lifelong passion for chess. Specifically, it should be to maximise the number of young people reaching, say, 1500 strength, not to maximise the number of young people reaching 2500 strength. I like to consider the chess playing population as a pyramid. At the top you get the likes of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen and Hou Yifan. As you go down you get grandmasters, international masters, national masters, down to the mass of 1500 strength (or below) players at the bottom. Unless there are amateur hobby players putting their time and money into chess the whole edifice will collapse.

Hobby players are just as important as professional players. They put money into chess: they join clubs, enter competitions, subscribe to online chess sites, buy boards, sets, clocks, books, software and DVDs. They take lessons with professionals, either online or in person. They put time into chess as well. They become club secretaries, treasurers, match captains, administrators, tournament organisers, arbiters. They pass on their passion for chess to their children. Perhaps they volunteer as teachers in their chess club or their children’s school. Some of them will develop an interest in other aspects of chess such as problems and endgame studies. Some will collect chess books or chess sets. Some will become chess historians. Some, if they’re financially successful in their career, will become chess benefactors, sponsoring events which will enable the professionals to earn a living. Without a strong base of hobby players there will be no market for professionals.

I believe we have our priorities totally wrong. We should be measuring teachers’ success, not by the ratings of their pupils, but by the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game and the length of time they continue to play. I’d much rather one of my pupils enjoyed playing chess at 1500 level for the next 50 years than became a disillusioned 2500 grandmaster stuck with chess because he has no other skills or qualifications (and any chess player active in social media will be able to name several of these).

I believe we should also be wary of promoting chess using dubious claims for its perceived extrinsic benefits and instead focus on the game’s intrinsic qualities. Chess is the greatest game in the world. Quite apart from the excitement of playing, or even watching, chess, it possesses an extraordinary aesthetic beauty. It offers its devotees the opportunity for travel and friendship with like-minded people throughout the world. It has an endlessly fascinating history and heritage going back centuries. It has an unrivalled body of literature covering every conceivable aspect of the game. It has no need for dubious and unverifiable it that chess helps prevent dementia. If you promote it as something that ‘makes kids smarter’ parents will take what they can get out of it for a year or two before taking them out of chess and into some other ‘improving’ pastime.

Let’s consider the nature of chess. We all know how hard it is to play chess even reasonably well. What skills do children require to become proficient players? They need exceptional concentration and impulse control: without these skills they will make one-move oversights every few moves. They need to be able to confident at handling and manipulating complex multi-dimensional abstract information. They need to be able to consider the position from their opponent’s perspective. They need the ability to self-reflect: to understand where they made a mistake and work out how to put it right. They need emotional maturity to cope with the demands of competitive play. If they can appreciate the beauty and heritage of chess they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the game. All these are skills we associate more with older children than younger children. Everything about chess screams out ‘adult game’, not ‘children’s game’.

Perhaps you see now why I describe junior chess as elitist. The only children who will really understand chess at a young age are the exceptionally bright kids with extremely supportive parents. Yes, it’s among these children that you’ll find your potential Kasparovs and Polgars, but at the same time many of them will drop out, choosing to concentrate on their academic career with will lead to a job more worthwhile and lucrative than being a 2500 grandmaster. And those children who don’t have an exceptional talent, whose parents are, often for the best of reasons, unable or unwilling to support them, will find it hard to make significant progress. If we want to combat elitism in chess we need to promote chess for older children, and not just for children in top academic schools, so that children from all backgrounds can enjoy chess.

Richard James

Chess Behind Bars

My grandfather spent time in Leicester Gaol. My father was in Feltham Borstal (now Feltham Young Offenders Institution) for several years. I was in Broadmoor (then described as a hospital for the criminally insane, now described as a high security psychiatric hospital) on three occasions in the 1970s. How many of us, I like to ask my friends, were, or are, criminals?

The answer is only one: my grandfather, who was imprisoned for breaking into a church as a teenager. My father taught at Feltham Borstal, while I visited Broadmoor for three chess matches.

Perhaps Tom Harry James would have benefitted from learning chess, and even receiving a chess book written for prisoners. (Come to think of it, perhaps he did. I never found out how my father learnt how the pieces moved.)

A chess book for prisoners might seem a strange idea, but that’s what I have in front of me. Chess Behind Bars, by Carl Portman, published by the excellent folk at Quality Chess: a sturdy and beautifully produced hardback of over 300 pages. Carl is the English Chess Federation’s Manager of Chess in Prisons, and spends much of his spare time voluntarily visiting prisons, giving simuls, delivering equipment and starting chess clubs.

In his preface, Carl Portman writes: “This book is written primarily for prisoners (anywhere in the world), but let me be clear that from a wider perspective this book will be of value to prison staff and officials, governments, chess fans and the general public alike”.

Much of the book comprises a guide to chess for novices: highly enjoyable with an excellent selection of tactics puzzles, but, at least for this chess fan, the first 80 pages are of the most interest and provide much food for thought.

Carl’s first chapter, What Chess Means to Me, must have been very painful to write. He tells of his childhood, spent in some poverty with a violent, alcoholic stepfather. He discovered chess at secondary school and was encouraged by the teacher who ran the school club. He played in inter-school matches and later joined an adult club. Carl believes that, if he hadn’t discovered chess, he may well have ended up in prison himself.

You’ve probably heard of, and perhaps read, a book called The Grass Arena, in which John Healy, a former alcoholic, related how he was taught chess in prison, and, as a result turned his life round. The book was made into a film, which Carl saw in 1992. Carl describes this as an epiphany, and, more than two decades later, when the ECF wanted to appoint someone to promote chess in prisons, he was eager to apply for the post. While writing his book Carl interviewed John: this interview forms part of the second chapter of the book.

In Chapter 3 Carl describes his first prison visit. Following a question and answer session he played a simul against about 20 opponents. Although some of his opponents were novices, others were clearly competent players. Carl, who is a strong club player with a current grade of 164, lost one game and drew two. Sets and boards were donated to the prison so that they could start a chess club, all the players received chess magazines, and there were additional prizes for the best players.

Chapter 4 deals with women’s chess – and chess in women’s prisons. For me, though, the most inspiring part of the book is Chapter 5, which closes the first part of the book. Here, Carl presents testimonies from prisoners about how much they’ve gained from chess. There are several recurring themes. Chess is seen as being an enjoyable and productive way of passing time. It demonstrates how you have to stop and think before making decisions. It can be addictive, but, unlike alcohol and other drugs, it’s not a damaging addiction.

I’d like to quote part of the final testimony in the book. “I’m a relative newcomer to chess. Having Asperger’s Syndrome I love the clear, precise logic of the game. I have two chess books in my cell and a nice chess set. I’m placing out the positions from the books and going through the logic and planning of each move. I’m kinda having some fun with it too. Being autistic I have a lot of trouble understanding and experiencing emotions.”

Should you buy this book? If you have any interest at all in the subject of chess in prisons, yes. If you’re involved in any way with chess administration, again, yes. And anyone who quotes Phil Ochs certainly gets my vote, although I could have done without the dubious claims for chess preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. There’s a whole, very different, book to be written on the subject of chess in prisons (Claude Bloodgood gets a brief mention and a game here, but Norman Whitaker and Raymond Weinstein are conspicuous by their absence) and hospitals (my friend Martin Smith has done a lot of research into chess in Broadmoor). Having said that, though, Chess Behind Bars is far more worthwhile than most chess books, and, I would say, deserves your support.

I have a few questions for you, though.

Whose contribution to chess is more valuable? Carl, who is voluntarily promoting chess in prisons in his spare time, or those of us who make a living from teaching the children of well-heeled and aspirational parents in the most affluent parts of London.

What chances are there of someone from Carl’s background discovering chess today? Or indeed someone from John Healy’s background becoming addicted to chess in his teens rather than alcohol? Children who start chess in primary school will only succeed with supportive parents, while those who start chess in secondary school will be able to teach themselves. Most of the secondary schools playing competitive chess in this country are selective. While some of the comprehensive schools in my area have chess clubs, there is no competition and no enthusiastic member of staff who will encourage them to take the game seriously.

I think the chances are somewhere between remote and zero. As long as chess policy is dictated by market forces rather than by genuine need that will continue to be the case. It’s my view that the social benefits from promoting chess in secondary schools are rather more important than the perceived academic benefits of promoting chess in primary schools, but, sadly, it’s not where we are at the moment.

Richard James

Summing Up the Season

It’s time, I guess, to summarise my performance last season. While you’re reading this article you might like to consider the position above.

Black, observing that his rook on a8 was threatened, played Rh8 here to which White replied with Nf3. What do you think about these moves? All will be revealed at the end of the article.

In the November 2017 issue of CHESS, my slightly younger contemporary, James Essinger, remarks that, although his grade is 164, he considers himself a better player than when his grade was 196 as a junior back in the late 1970s. As a result of my games last season my grade went up by a modest three points, from 165 to 168. My highest grade, 178, was also in the late 1970s, although I made 177 in 2013. If I’d taken all my chances, not lost that game to a much lower rated opponent, not missed some simple tactics, not agreed draws in two totally won positions, I might even have made my highest ever grade.

If James is correct, and he’s a better player now than when he was over 30 points higher 40 years ago, then I must be a very much better player now than when I was 10 points higher 40 years ago.

I have no doubt that standards have improved in that time: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and all that, but by that much? I’m not sure. I think there are stylistic issues. As you will have noticed, I tend to play safe and avoid taking risks, whereas James describes his chess as ‘Byronic’: “I try to think of some really cool moves and hope to triumph through romantic ingenuity”.

Looking at my games, I’m not sure I’m playing any worse than 40 years ago, but I’m also not convinced I’m playing a lot better. You only have to look at the many missed simple tactics in my games. Still, it’s gratifying, I suppose, to know, or at least hope, that my brain is working as well as it ever was. What has got worse, though, is the unpleasant physical symptoms of playing chess, the anxieties, the negative thoughts. I’d assumed that, as I got older, these would improve while my brain would start to work less well. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case, although I think I’m rather better than I used to be at dealing with losses.

I rather suspect that, for amateurs like me who aren’t studying the game seriously, many of us are able to maintain our strength, such as it is, into our sixties, and perhaps beyond. It’s much harder, of course, for professional players.

I think there are lessons I can learn from last season’s games, particularly with regard to looking for tactics and clock handling, although at this stage in my chess career it’s rather too late to make much difference.

Returning to the position at the top of the article, this is from one of my early games in the 2017-18 season. I had the black pieces in this rather strange position. I’d given up a pawn, hoping to win the exchange by trapping the white rook on e7. I debated, without coming to any serious conclusion, whether to move my threatened rook to c8 or h8, both of which seemingly had their advantages. 0I mentally tossed a coin and selected the h8 square (Rc8 would have been fine). What you’ve no doubt seen, but neither my opponent (graded 180) not I had, was that Qxe6 would have won a piece. The bishop looks very safe, but, curiously, both black pawns are pinned. I went on to win the exchange, and no doubt should have won the game, but after getting slightly short of time and panicking I returned the material to secure a half point.

So much for trying to avoid missing two-move tactics. In this position I missed a one-move tactic, but so did my opponent. I guess it’s not so obvious given the unusual nature of the position. At some point in the future I’ll let you see the complete game.

Still, onwards and upwards, or, more likely, onwards and downwards. We’ll see.

Richard James

Chickening Out

By now the league season had finished but we were still in the cup, facing Surbiton in the semi-finals. I had yet another white, against former RJCC member Jasper Tambini, who was graded 185 at the time, but is now 202.

I wheeled out my trusty QGD Exchange. Here’s what happened.

1. d4 d5
2. c4 e6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. cxd5 exd5
5. Bg5 Be7
6. e3 h6

An unusual move order. Black usually plays c6 or O-O here.

7. Bh4 c6
8. Qc2 O-O
9. Bd3 Re8
10. Nf3 Nbd7
11. O-O Ne4
12. Bxe7 Qxe7
13. Nd2

White usually heads for the minority attack with Rab1 here. Bxe4 is another popular choice. My plan of trading knights on e4 shouldn’t give me anything.

13… Ndf6
14. Ndxe4 dxe4
15. Be2 Nd5
16. Nxd5 cxd5
17. Rac1 Qg5
18. Qc7 Re6

He could have played Be6 here, intending to meet 19. Qxb7 with Bh3. Tactical points like this are always important. Calculation in chess is more about spotting this sort of idea than ‘sac sac mate’. Now I might have tried 19. f4, but instead, predictably, head for the ending.

19. Qg3 Qxg3
20. hxg3 Rb6
21. b3 Bd7
22. Rc5 Bc6
23. Rfc1 a5
24. f3 exf3
25. Bxf3 a4
26. bxa4 Rxa4
27. R1c2 Ra3

White’s attacking the black d-pawn while Black in turn targets the white a-pawn. It’s still equal.

28. Kf2 Rba6
29. Bxd5 Bxd5
30. Rxd5 Rxa2

An alternative was 30… Rf6+ 31. Ke2 Re6, switching his attention to the e-pawn.

31. Rd8+ Kh7
32. Rxa2 Rxa2+
33. Kf3 Kg6
34. Rd6+ f6
35. Rb6 Ra7

This is clearly a mistake. Black should give up the a-pawn to remain active rather than moving his rook to this poor square. 35… h5 36. Rxb7 f5 and Black is holding. One idea is Kf6 followed by g5, g4+ and Rf2#, although of course White isn’t going to allow this!

36. e4 Kf7
37. Kf4 h5
38. e5

Giving Black some counterplay. 39. d5 should have been preferred.

38… Ra4
39. Rxb7+ Ke6
40. Rb6+ Kf7

Losing a vital tempo. 40… Ke7 still offered drawing chances.

41. e6+ Ke7
42. Ke4 g6

At this point Jasper unexpectedly offered a draw. My emotions were conflicted. Regular readers, as well as anyone who knows me in real life, will be aware that I’m almost always happy to agree a draw, regardless of the position. As my opponent is a former RJCC member and we’ve always been very big on cultivating sportsmanship, I’d assume he would only offer a draw if he thought he could hold the position. Offering a draw in a position you know is lost when your opponent has enough time on the clock is, to say the least, bad manners. It seemed to me like a position in which, whether or not I was winning, I could press without any danger of losing. But then I became tormented by negative thoughts. Perhaps I would freeze and end up losing on time. Perhaps he’d capture my g-pawns and his pawns would start advancing towards promotion. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

In fact the position’s an easy win for White, as long as I find some fairly accurate king moves to escape the black rook’s attention. For example: 43.Rc6 Rb4 44.Kd5 Rb5+ 45.Kc4 Rb2 46.d5 Rc2+ (or 46…Rxg2 47.Rc7+ Kd8 48.e7+ Kxc7 49.e8Q) 47.Kb4 Rb2+ (or 47…Rxc6 48.dxc6 Kxe6 49.Kc5 with a winning pawn ending) 48.Kc3 Re2 49.Kd3 Re1 50.Rc7+ Kd6 51.Rd7+ Kc5 52.e7 Re5 53.d6 and the e-pawn will eventually promote.

But of course I agreed the draw. Meanwhile, although we were heavily outgraded on all but the top board, a couple of the other games went in our favour. We lost the match 3½-2½, but if I’d played on and won, we’d have drawn 3-3 and gone through to the finals on board count.

What else could I say? A lot, actually, but not now.

Richard James