Category Archives: Richard James

Defend With Your Life

There are plenty of puzzle books where you’re invited to find the winning move: to win material or force checkmate. But very few books present puzzles where you have to find the best defence.

Try your hand at this position. It’s Black’s move.

Go away, make yourself a cup of coffee or pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, and choose a move before reading on.

I came across this position the other day (I’ll tell you where at some point, but not for a few months). It’s, I think, an excellent defensive puzzle for intermediate standard players.

I set this up on the demo board for the upper intermediate group at Richmond Junior Club (these are young children graded round about 40-70 ECF). They set about analysing the position working mostly in small groups. One of two or them preferred to work alone.

They soon noticed that White was threatening Qxh6, not surprisingly. At this level many children get obsessed with this tactic and sometimes give up the rest of their army in order to set it up. While a few wanted to play a king move to h7 or h8, most of them wanted to move their queen. Some of them spotted that Qf6 lost the exchange to Nd7. I was very impressed that one group at first suggested 1… Qh7, and then explained to me that White could then play 2. Nd7, and if 2.. Rd8, then 3. Nf6+, exploiting the pin on the g-file to play a fork.

Interestingly, most of them failed to mention White’s other threat: Bg4, skewering the queen and rook and winning the exchange. At this level, many players make the mistake of only considering one threat, or one reason for playing a move. Trying to think about more than one thing at once proves to be difficult. This, by the way, is a point that Dan Heisman makes regularly: you should ask yourself “What are my opponent’s threats?” rather than “What is my opponent’s threat?”. Because it’s a more familiar pattern, you will tend to see the threat of Qxh6 before the threat of Bg4.

Once you realise that White has two threats you can start trying to find ways to meet them both at the same time. You might think of 1.. h5, which does meet both threats. Now White can win the h-pawn by playing a fork: 2. Rg5. There’s a stronger alternative, though, in 2. Qh6 Qh7 3. Qd6 with multiple threats: one idea is 3.. Rfd8 4. Nd7 Be6 5. Nf6+ Kh8 6. Qxd8, winning the exchange.

On the other hand, an experienced player would probably sense that 1.. h5 doesn’t look right, so would only consider it if everything else failed. Black has one simple move to meet both threats and leave him with a perfectly satisfactory position. That move, as you’ve probably realised by now, is 1.. Qe6, planning to meet 2. Bg4 with f5. After this move Black is at least equal. Eventually, my students managed to find the right answer for the right reason.

I then wound back the position by half a move. White’s last move was Rg4-g3. I asked the class if this was a mistake. Couldn’t White have played the immediate Qxh6 instead? Doesn’t that move win a pawn? A bright spark quickly provided the information that Black would reply with Qxg4, which will leave him a piece ahead. I’d guess, though, that had they been white in that position, most of them would have played Qxh6 without very much thought. Rg3, by the way, is an unusual way to create two threats. The threat Qxh6 comes about by moving the rook away from the attentions of the black queen, while it’s also a clearance move, vacating a square which the bishop wants to use. I’m not sure that there’s a technical term for this sort of double threat.

When we talk about tactics we tend to think about sacrifices and combinations. Most tactics you’ll find in books (including, at the moment, the CHESS FOR HEROES books) are exactly that. In real life, tactics is mostly about sorting out positions like this, defending accurately, not missing simple one or two movers.

Richard James

Short and Sweet (3)

Chess Improver reader Matt Fletcher sent me a game played by one of his teammates in a Hertfordshire League match last November.

As it happens it featured a variation I wrote about in an earlier Chess Improver post.

White in this game was Evgeny Tukpetov (currently 2280/212) while Black was Francis Parker (currently 1954/191).

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. c3

White chooses the Ponziani Opening

3.. Nf6
4. d4 Nxe4
5. d5 Bc5

Black chooses the move I was shown after the game in my earlier article. I had another chance to play it, against a different opponent, recently but chickened out as I’d forgotten the theory. You’ll probably see that game later this year.

This is not a new idea at all. The earliest game on my database with this piece sacrifice is Brien-Falkbeer (he of counter-gambit fame) in 1855, although Black followed up incorrectly by taking on f2 with the knight rather than the bishop next move. It was later played by Chigorin and Pollock, and it seems there was quite a lot of theory on it in the 19th century, reaching the conclusion that it wasn’t quite sound.

6. dxc6 Bxf2+
7. Ke2 Bb6

This is a relatively new move which seems to justify the piece sacrifice. The earliest game I have was played between Tim Krabbé and Paul de Rooi on my 14th birthday. It was played a few times between 2003 and 2014 by players in the 2100-2350 range before taking off at a higher level in 2016.

A game from the 2014 World Blitz Championship saw Gabriel Sargissian experiment with 7.. 0-0 against Ian Nepomniachtchi but White eventually won a long and exciting game.

8. Qd5 has almost always been played here, and seems to be the only really satisfactory move for White. Black will continue 8.. Nf2. Now White has three reasonable options. 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 which looks pretty unclear. 9. Rg1 dxc6 10. Qxd8+ Kxd8 when Black has three pawns for the piece. 9. Qxe5+ Kf8 10. Rg1 dxc6 which again seems unclear: Black has two pawns for the piece but the white king is exposed (and the black king also misplaced).

8. Qa4

Tukpetov tries something different, but this move is just bad.

8.. Nf2
9. Rg1

Or 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Rg1 Qf6 when Black clearly has more than enough compensation.

9.. dxc6
10. Na3 Qd5

This is fine, but the engines prefer 10.. Bf5

11. Qc4

White was busted anyway, but this is an egregious blunder. He resigned immediately without waiting for the inevitable 11.. Qd1#

It’s very strange to see such a strong player lose like that. He must have had an off day: I guess it happens to everyone from time to time.

It’s stranger still that Tukpetov had had previous experience with this variation: he’d faced it in two recent 4NCL games.

In November 2016, a year before this game, he had White against GM Matthew Turner and followed one of the recommended lines.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d4 Nxe4 5. d5 Bc5 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 11. Bg5 f6 12. Bh4 Rb8 13. Qd5 Qe7 14. Nbd2 c6 15. Qc4 g5 16. Be1 Kf8 17. g3 d5 18. Qxc6 e4 19. Nd4 Bxd4 20. cxd4 Kg7 21. Bh3 Rxb2 22. Qd7 Qxd7 23. Bxd7 Rhb8 24. Bc6 f5 25. Bxd5 Rd8 26. Bb3 Rxd4 0-1

He was doing fine for some time (the engines recommend 21. Qxd5 with advantage) and appeared to resign in an equal position (the engines give 27. Rc1 as totally level). Perhaps he missed something Perhaps he lost on time. Perhaps his phone went off. Perhaps someone out there knows and can tell me.

The following March he faced the same variation again. His opponent, Samuel Franklin, had no doubt seen the Turner game and prepared an improvement, which might be why Tukpetov varied on move 9.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d4 Nxe4 5. d5 Bc5 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. Bg5 f6 10. Nxe5 Qe7 11. cxd7+ Bxd7 12. Qxd7+ Qxd7 13. Nxd7 Kxd7 14. Be3 Nxh1 15. Nd2 Bxe3 16. Kxe3 Rae8+ 17. Kf3 Re5 18. g4 Rhe8 19. Nc4 Re1 20. Rxe1 Rxe1 21. Ne3 Rb1 22. Bg2 Rxb2 23. Bxh1 Rxa2 24. Kf4 c6 25. h4 a5 26. Be4
a4 27. Bxh7 a3 28. Nc2 Rxc2 0-1

9. Bg5 seems to lead to a fairly forced tactical sequence after which Black has a winning advantage.

Now, in November 2017, he varied on move 8, but I don’t see how you can prefer Qa4 to Qd5, which hits both e5 and b7. As you’ve seen, he lost just three moves later.

While the Ponziani might have some merit as a surprise weapon, I’m not sure why you’d want to play it regularly at this level, where your opponents will prepare against you. Nepomniachtchi and, not unsurprisingly, Jobava, have played it quite often. Carlsen’s played it once and Nakamura twice, once in a blitz game. It’s perfectly sound and contains a certain amount of poison, but lacks the strategic complexity of the Ruy Lopez.

Another thing, which perhaps relates to last week’s article. It seems that Evgeny Tukpetov arrived in England a few years ago, when he was in his late 30s, never having played a FIDE rated game of chess. Perhaps he was schooled in the old Soviet system which concentrated on skills development rather than competitive play. I wonder, incidentally, whether anyone knows who is the highest graded player in England who has never played a FIDE rated game? There must be quite a few graded above me.

Richard James

Educational Chess

There seems to be a general misunderstanding, at least in this country, about what ‘chess in schools’ means. Let me try to explain.

If you attend the Chess in Schools conference you’ll be informed about what they call Scholastic Chess. Last year it was suggested that Educational Chess might be a better term, as Scholastic Chess, at least in the US, means something totally different. So, for the purposes of this article, at any rate, Educational Chess it is.

Educational Chess has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as you and I know it. Instead it involves using the chessboard and pieces for non-competitive activities across the curriculum. For instance, it might involve very young children using the chessboard to learn about up and down, left and right, black and white. Slightly older children might learn songs and dances explaining the moves of each piece, which could be used both in Music and PE. Beyond that, children might spend time in maths lessons working collaboratively to solve puzzles based on subsets of chess: for instance the Eight Officer’s Puzzles. Here’s a recent report on a major project of this nature.

Now you might well think this sounds great: all children will learn how to play chess in a fun way which will also have other benefits across the curriculum.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting it as an activity for very young children, and that this will be counter-productive in terms of encouraging older children and adults to take chess seriously.

I have no very strong views one way or the other myself as to the effectiveness of this approach as I have no personal experience. There are, to the best of my knowledge, very few schools here in the UK using this sort of method.

I would, however, question whether or not there are more important skills that 21st century schools should be teaching children, and whether or not these methods are the best way to teach music, PE, maths or whatever.

Wearing my Chess Hat I can see that it’s wonderful to teach all children to play chess. But if I take off my Chess Hat and put on my Education Hat instead there are all sorts of questions I might choose to ask.

What happens in most primary schools, at least in my part of the world, is very different. There are a small number of schools who take chess seriously and see it as part of the life of the school. But in most cases the only chance children have to learn or play is an after-school club running for an hour once a week. These tend to be geared towards low-level competitive chess such as the heats of the UK Chess Challenge. Children who are getting help at home will do well at this level and make progress. Children who are not getting much help will make little progress, but will have fun and enjoy winning their fluffy mascots.

Now you might well think this sounds great: children are introduced to competitive chess at a fairly early age, and those who show talent will be able to qualify for higher level competitions and will perhaps be encouraged to join more serious chess clubs.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting competitive chess as being suitable for mass participation by young children, and that, by promoting a structure in which the vast majority of children won’t get very far, you’re actually lowering the standards of chess.

I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on this, and, if you know me or if you read my articles, you’ll be aware of my views. However, it’s where we are, and it’s clearly better than nothing.

Other countries take a different approach: one specifically designed to produce strong players. Armenia has been doing this for some time, as recently reported here by the BBC. I must say the mothers and grandmothers waiting for their children to finish their games don’t look terribly excited. Leonard Barden pointed out on the English Chess Forum that there’s little evidence that, despite the claims made in this article, there’s no evidence that Armenia are producing many – or any – exceptionally talented young players. The closest match I can find to ‘Mikhael’ has a rating of 1550 and is ranked 1165th in the world for Under 12s. Of course it’s possible there may be some strong players not taking part in FIDE rated competitions: the old Soviet methods disapproved of young children playing in rated events.

Now you might well think that this sounds great: what could be more admirable than producing a generation of ‘chess whizz kids’? Your country will have lots of grandmasters, win lots of Olympic medals and encourage more young players to take up chess.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re taking up two lessons a week which could be better used for something else. My understanding is that one of the chess lessons replaced a PE lesson, which would have been great for me, but not necessarily for everyone. You might also ask what happens to the young children who show promise but fail to make the grade.

Another country taking a similar approach is Turkey. I recently saw some photos of a Turkish junior tournament posted on Facebook. I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking bunch of young people.

So, there you go. If you want to talk about ‘chess in schools’ it’s a good idea to be aware of what sort of ‘chess in schools’ you’re talking about.

Richard James

Short and Sweet (2)

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

Here’s how it went.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Be2

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

3… Nf6
4. d3 d5
5. Nbd2 dxe4

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

6. dxe4 Bg4

Again he might have preferred Bc5 here.

7. c3 Bd6
8. h3 Bh5
9. Nh4

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

9… Nxe4

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

10. Nxe4

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

10… Bxe2

Or 10… Qxh4 11. Nxd6+

11. Qxe2 Qxh4
12. Bg5

And Black’s queen is trapped.

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

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

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

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

Even fairly strong players seem to miss this idea.

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

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

Richard James

First Things First

The other week I was talking to a boy at Richmond Junior Club. He’s an older boy, in his first year at a highly regarded selective secondary school, but is fairly new to chess and has only recently moved up from the Novices Group.

I’d just looked through a game in which he’d lost most of his pieces and resigned in about a dozen moves. I then played a game with him, helping him a bit. He made a lot of highly intelligent and knowledgeable comments about positional chess, but the idea that you should be very careful not to lose your pieces and check that your intended move is safe before playing it seemed new to him.

The following week I was playing a boy who was new to the club. He was beating everyone at his primary school club and, quite rightly, wanted something more challenging. We played a game and eventually reached a position where I (with black) had an extra pawn, a big pawn centre and two bishops pointing at his castled king against two knights. He told me that he wasn’t going to move his knight from g3 because it would allow a two bishop sacrifice. There was one problem with this: we’d exchanged queens so there was no way I’d be able to mate him after giving up both my bishops.

How often do double bishop sacrifices occur, anyway? Round about once in 20,000 games, at a rough guess. As Dan Heisman would say, studying this won’t give you a lot of bang for your bucks. It’s important to know about the idea, but more because it’s part of chess culture than because it’s of very much practical use.

I spoke to the same boy again the following week. I explained that sacrifices happen very rarely in real life. When I told him this I could see his face fall a million miles. In 1542 games on my personal database I can recall winning only one game by a (very obvious) queen sacrifice and one game by a Greek Gift sacrifice (which was so strong it caused immediate resignation). I can’t, off the top of my head, recall losing any games in this way. He told me he’d won a game with the two bishop sacrifice himself, which I don’t believe. It was more likely a two bishop blunder. Children who only watch videos about sacrifices often think that ‘sacrifice’ is just another word for losing a piece, and, if they accidentally leave their queen en prise they’ll describe it as a sacrifice.

Another boy who was watching quoted something from a video about Mikhail Tal throwing all his pieces away. Well, yes, sometimes, but only in a small proportion of his games. But a) he was a risk taker by nature b) he had enough experience to know whether or not he had practical or theoretical compensation for the lost material and c) he was a genius. A third boy then, inevitably, mentioned the Fishing Pole Trap. To be fair we were looking at the Exchange Lopez variation with 5… Bg4 6. h3 h5 at the time, and they all got the idea that, while the Fishing Pole was just a trap, this was a much better way of using the same idea.

I see this over and over again: kids who have watched videos about, or perhaps been taught about relatively advanced (and sometimes relatively unimportant) concepts before they’ve grasped the fundamental point of chess: that (other things being equal) SUPERIOR FORCE (usually) WINS.

If you continually watch videos about sacrificial attacks without knowing how to win with an extra pawn, let alone with an extra piece, you’ll end up very confused about chess. Kids will often tell me that pawns don’t matter, or even that it doesn’t matter if you lose a bishop or a knight because you can’t get checkmate with just a minor piece against a king. They have neither the experience or the cognitive maturity to prioritise or contextualise the information they’ve learnt. In books and videos, of course, sacrifices always win, which is why we show them, but in real life we probably reject about three quarters of the sacrifices we consider because they seem to be unsound.

Likewise I frequently meet children who have watched videos about openings which are either not very good or too advanced for them. (“My dad’s got this brilliant new opening. It wins every time. It’s called the Latvian Gambit!”) This is one of the problems with internet chess instruction. Firstly, there’s a lot of bad information out there. Secondly, even if you’re using a reputable website you might get confused if you watch videos explaining difficult topics before you’ve mastered simple topics.

My belief is that chess tuition, especially for younger children, should be structured in a logical way. You learn a simple topic, master it through practice, and only then move onto the next topic. Of course there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be working on different topics relating to different aspects of the game in parallel. Of course we want to demonstrate brilliant sacrifices from time to time (and you’ll find lots of them in Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) but the concept of the sacrifice needs to be explained correctly and put into context. We also need to teach them how to win endings when they’re a pawn ahead. We also need to teach them how to put pieces onto good squares to make tactics more likely. You’ll recall Spielmann said something to the effect that he understood Alekhine’s sacrifices well enough, but not how he reached positions where he could play them.

I quoted Dan Heisman a couple of weeks ago. I’ll do so again, in case you missed it.

“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.”

This is one reason why I’d like to see a proper structured national or international chess course which ensures that students learn these important basics before moving on to harder topics.

Richard James

Are you a Risk Taker?

There are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

There are two types of people in the world: those who enjoy putting people into two categories and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category here. One way in which you can split people is whether they’re naturally cautious or prefer to take risks.

If you have some money to invest, your financial advisor will probably give you a questionnaire to fill in. Your answers will determine whether you’re a cautious saver or a risk taker. Depending on your answers, you will be recommended a savings option which will guarantee, as far as such things are possible, a small profit on your investment, or an option which will bring potentially greater rewards at the expense of a greater risk of losing money.

Me, I’m naturally a cautious person. I want to play safe. I don’t enjoy taking risks. One thing not many people know about me is that I’ve been interested in horse racing for almost sixty years, but I’ve never once placed a bet on a horse. It’s just not for me.

You might also want to classify chess players as to whether they prefer to play cautiously or take risks. Capablanca versus Alekhine, for example, Petrosian versus Tal or Karpov versus Kasparov.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted on Facebook extracts from an article written by the American master John F Barry just after Alekhine had defeated Capa in the 1927 World Championship match. Barry, although acknowledging that Capa had the greater natural talent, was clearly not impressed by his style of play. Here, in part, is what he said.

“For long the writer has been amazed to see the false theory of combat which the Cuban has disclosed in his games, namely: to play the opening safely in accordance with his views of safety, and pounce on his adversary only if he should blunder, content to draw when that did not happen. Poorer players oftimes drew with him accordingly, as they were naturally glad to do against so formidable an adversary. His disposition to initiate mid-game tactics was only predicated only on the adversary’s blunder. He met with tactics only when the adversary was venturesome enough to attack unwisely, and Capablanca won, of course.

“He rarely showed initiative or enterprise to bring about a mid-game otherwise. So that in many of his games we have an opening, and presently an equal ending. The art of planning a mid-game became a lost art to him, yet its possession discloses the true chess artist. He harbored a belief that you can’t attack unless the opponent errs – a truth, but the art is to lure the error.”

Of course you’re not going to become world champion unless you excel in all aspects of the game, but it’s natural that everyone will have stylistic preferences, based in part, perhaps, on their personalities and temperaments. If you prefer quiet positional chess you’re more likely to reach an ending – and many endings require accurate calculation. (There’s another, unrelated, paradox to do with chess. The more slowly you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble and the better you need to be at blitz chess.)

As for me, by nature I’m a cautious player, but my best results have been when I’ve taken risks. I’ve tended to play unambitious openings with white, but lack both the understanding and technique to play them well, usually ending up with no advantage or even a disadvantage. Not feeling comfortable defending slightly passive positions, I’ve tended to play more aggressively with black. When I played more aggressive but slightly dubious openings I’d often do well with them, but if you take this approach sometimes things will go wrong: you’ll meet someone who knows the opening and you’ll lose horribly. When that happened, I’d give up the opening, in spite of previous good results, buy the next Batsford opening book to hit the shelves and take up something else instead.

I was never able to resolve the paradox of the clash between my temperament, which has always been one of caution, and my abilities, which may have been more tactical than positional.

If you also teach chess your own preferences may influence the way you teach. If you enjoy taking risks you might encourage your pupils to play sharp, tactical openings. If you prefer to play more cautiously you might encourage your pupils to play safe and solid openings. Truly effective teachers will identify their pupils’ personality and stylistic preferences rather than just teaching the openings they themselves play. They might also want to encourage less experienced students to try out different styles, different openings, to see which they prefer and which gives them better results. At the same time they’ll also want to think about identifying their students’ weaknesses and help them improve in aspects of chess where they are weaker so that they can become stronger all-round players.

Richard James

Rook Ending Tactics

I’ve reached the point in Chess Endings for Heroes where I have to consider what to include in the section on rook endings. You will recall that this book is designed to take players who know how the pieces move up to adult competitive level (about 1500 ELO).

Dan Heisman says, with a degree of incredulity, that he’s heard that some instructors teach players rated 1200 or 1300 the Philidor and Lucena positions. He himself lost a game by not knowing the Philidor position when he’d been playing tournament chess for more than 5 years and his rating was 2100. He makes the point that he reached 2100 without knowing the Philidor position, and that there are better ways to use your time than learning positions that will happen very rarely.

I see his point but don’t entirely agree. It really doesn’t take that long to learn the basics of Phil and Lucy. I also think that, given faster time limits, a basic knowledge of endings is much more important now than when Dan lost this game, which must have been getting on for half a century ago. So I’ll be including a brief description of P and L, but at this level you really don’t know anything else specific.

Sure, you’ll need some basic principles: keep your pieces active, create passed pawns, rooks belong behind passed pawns, that sort of thing. But what I really want to do is to look at rook endings played at this level, look at the recurring tactical ideas, and reinforce them through a series of puzzles.

So I’ve spent the past week or so going through all the rook endings in my Richmond Junior Club database (getting on for 17000 games).

A familiar tactic in both queen and rook endings is the skewer.

In this position Black decided to promote his pawn, which wasn’t a good idea. He had four winning moves to choose from, the nicest of which was Rf3+, when, if White captures, it’s Black, not White who will play a skewer.

It’s very easy to switch into endgame mode and forget about mates. In this position White did just that, capturing on e6. He’d have had some winning chances if he’d taken the precaution of trading on g4 first.

Another frequent mistake: the most common in all endings at this level, is concerned with trading pieces to reach a pawn ending.

In this position I was giving a simul and carelessly moved my king to b5 instead of c5. Luckily, my opponent failed to avail himself of the opportunity to trade rooks and promote his remaining pawn.

Here’s another one. As you get stronger you have to move beyond just counting points and thinking rook for rook is an equal exchange. Here, with Black to make a decision, the trade is anything but equal. The rook ending is drawn, but Black traded rooks into what was a lost pawn ending after White correctly recaptured with the king. Note that Black would be winning if White took back on f4 with the pawn.

You also have to watch out for perpetual checks. In this position White played the natural g7, giving Black an immediate draw. The nicest way to win is to promote the pawn, play Rf7+ to trade rooks and then promote again.

My final example demonstrates another very common tactical idea. If your opponent’s rook is only defended by a king you can sometimes win it by playing a check. White is two pawns up here, but only has one winning move: Rf6+. Instead he pushed the h-pawn without thinking, losing his rook after White’s obvious reply. A few moves later, though, White accidentally left his rook en prise so the result was a draw.

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