Category Archives: Richard James

Dunning-Kruger

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This has its basis in a paper published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. I came across it the other day and considered how it might apply to chess.

From Wikipedia:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

“Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize genuine skill in others
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill”

So with regard to playing chess, unskilled chess players have no understanding that they are unskilled. By ‘unskilled’ in this context I mean failing to know all the rules of chess and failing to understand basic tactics and strategy. In my part of the world, most children are taught the moves by parents who are unskilled chess players, who know how the pieces move and think that’s all there is to chess. Which might explain why, when I offer to help them or give them advice on chess they either ignore me or tell me they don’t want my help. They might recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill if I provided them with training, but as they don’t recognise their incompetence they are not prepared to expose themselves to training.

Of course the idea of ‘unskilled’ is relative. Children who are aware that I can beat them very easily, and also parents who are aware that I can beat their children very easily, often assume that I must be a grandmaster because they perceive me as being unbelievably brilliant at chess. By Magnus Carlsen’s standards, or even by Nigel Davies’s standards, though, I’m a pretty bad player. Competent, perhaps, but no more than that. Competent enough to recognise my own lack of skill, and, up to a point, to appreciate how skilful Carlsen and other grandmasters are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to teaching as well as playing chess. In fact teaching is a whole range of skills. Teaching a group and teaching an individual are very different skills. Teaching elite junior internationals is very different from teaching beginners. Teaching younger children, teaching older children and teaching adults are all very different skills. But many strong chess players assume that all you have to do to be a chess teacher is stand in front of a class and tell them what you know. This might work in some environments, but not, for instance, with a class of 7-year-olds in a primary school chess club.

These teachers may look impressive but if you actually test their pupils to find out what they do and don’t know, or talk through a game with them and ask them what they’re thinking about you’ll discover just how effective they really are.

Dunning and Kruger also concluded that those with genuine ability in a particular domain tended to underestimate their own competence and assume that something they found easy would also be easy for others. So strong players who teach beginners tend to go too fast, assuming that because chess comes easily to them it will also come easily to their pupils, and assuming that children have understood something when in fact they haven’t. It’s very easy to get frustrated when a pupil hasn’t picked up something which is second nature to you.

There are cultural differences which also need to be explored. From Wikipedia again:

“Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve. East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”

I’ve written before about different attitudes to parenting and childhood: what I call the ‘Eastern’ approach: children are seen as small adults and are expected to aim to excel at everything they do, and the ‘Western’ approach: childhood is when you have fun: children are expected to work hard in school but extra-curricular activities are often seen as not being very serious. Perhaps this is part of the same thing. People with a ‘Eastern’ mindset are more likely to be searching for self-improvement as well as being more likely to expect their children to excel at music, chess or whatever.

Of course these are crude generalisations. Many Western parents will take an ‘Eastern’ approach while many Asian or East European parents will take a ‘Western’ approach. Most parents will, to a greater or lesser extent, take a ‘Western’ approach to some subjects and an ‘Eastern’ approach to other subjects.

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with after-school chess clubs is parental ignorance about all aspects of chess. One way of countering this is to put chess on the curriculum so that all children are taught to play properly. Another way is to promote chess clubs in secondary schools when children are old enough to teach themselves if they’re interested rather than in primary schools.

I’ve spent the last 15 years or more telling anyone who wants to listen that primary school chess clubs in their current form are destroying chess as an adult game in this country. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why most children don’t get anywhere and also why most teaching in primary school chess clubs is ineffective.

Let’s try to do something about it.

Richard James

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A Question of Time

In last week’s game, with more time and more ability I might have had to assess this king and pawn ending (with White to play) before choosing my move.

So what’s happening here? Let’s start by considering this position.

If Black has to move his king it’s clear he will lose. If it’s his move he will, if White is careful, run out of pawn moves first and White will win. But if it’s White’s move he can only draw because he’ll run out of pawn moves first.

So White’s aim is to reach this position with Black to move.

White needs to get his king in so, from the first diagram, obviously starts with 1. Kf3 Ke8 2. Kf4. After 2… Kd7 3. Ke5 White has achieved his aim, reaching the second diagram with Black to move. Now Black has a choice of pawn moves. We’ll look at each in turn.

After 3… g5 White can choose three pawn moves: one wins, one draws and one loses. The winning pawn move is 4. g4 h6 5. f3 and Black has to give way. If he prefers he can draw by playing 4. f4, for instance 4… gxf4 5. gxf4 h5 6. f5 exf5 7. Kxf5. Or he can choose to lose instead with 4. f3 h5 5. f4 h4 6. gxh4 gxh4 7. Ke4 Kxd6 8. Kf3 Kd5 9. Kg4 Ke4 10. Kxh4 Kxf4. Another way to draw is 4. Kf6 Kxd6 5. Kxg5 e5 6. Kh6 Kd5 7. Kxh7 Ke4 8. Kg6 Kf3 9. Kf5 Kxf2 10. g4 Kf3 11. g5 e4 12. g6 e3 13. g7 e2 14. g8Q e1Q

Returning to the second diagram Black might also play 3… h6. This time White has two winning pawn moves. 4. f4, which drew against g5, now wins. After 4… h5 5. Kf6 is now winning for White, while after 4… g5, 5. fxg5 hxg5 6. g4 forces Black to give way. 4. f3, which lost against 3… g5, also wins, meeting 4… h5 with 5. f4 and 4… g5 with 5. g4. But 4. g4, the only way to win against 3… g5, this time is only a draw after 4… h5. Another way for White to win is 4. Kf6, which was only a draw against 3… g5.

Back to the second diagram for the last time, and now Black plays 3… h5. It’s clear that 4. f4 wins at once. On the other hand, 4. g4 now loses after 4… h4 with a passed pawn (but 4… hxg4 only draws) and 4. f3 also loses after 4… g5 followed by 5… h4. 4. Kf6 this time is a win for White.

So to summarise from this position:

After 3… g5, g4 wins, f4 and Kf6 both draw, f3 loses.
After 3… h6, f3, f4 and Kf6 all win, g4 draws.
After 3… h5, f4 and Kf6 both win, f3 and g4 both lose.

So White can win with optimal play.

Back at the first diagram, then, after 1. Kf3 Ke8 2. Kf4 Black might want to consider alternatives. His best try is 2… g5. Now 3. Ke5 is met by h5, when Black’s passed h-pawn will distract White and enable him to draw. So White needs to play 3. g4 to prevent this.

We now need to consider another position.

If it’s White to move in this position it’s a draw with best play but Black has to get his timing right.

1. Kf6 Kxd6 2. Kxg5 Kd5 (Paradoxically, perhaps, 2… Ke5 loses because White gains an extra tempo: 3. f3 Kd4 4. Kh6 Ke3 5. Kxh7 Kxf3 6. g5 e5 7. g6 e4 8. g7 e3 9. g8=Q e2 10. Qg1 and White wins) 2. Kh6 Ke5 3. Kxh7 Kf4 4. f3 e5 5. Kh6 Kxf3 6. g5 e4 7. g6 e3 8. g7 e2 9. g8=Q e1=Q with a draw.

If it’s Black to move, though, White wins easily after 1… h6 2. f3 with Zugzwang.

Now consider what happens if White starts with 1. f3 h6.

This time it’s White who has to be careful if he wants to draw. Kf6 is now winning for Black so the only move is Ke4, to be able to take the opposition when Black takes on d6, after which he can make no progress.

2. Ke4 (2. Kd4 Kxd6 3. Ke4 Kc5 4. Ke5 Kc4 5. Kxe6 Kd3 6. Kf5 Ke3 7. Kg6 Kxf3 and Black wins) (2. Kf6 Kxd6 3. Kg6 Ke5 4. Kxh6 Kf4 5. Kh5 e5 and Black wins) 2… Kxd6 3. Kd4 e5+ 4. Ke4 Ke6 and Black, despite his extra pawn, only has a draw.

So, returning to our first diagram, after 1. Kf3 Ke8 2. Ke4 g5 3. g4 White’s primary aim is to reach the third diagram with Black to move while Black has to prevent this. So Black avoids 3… Kd7, instead playing Kd8, preparing to meet 4. Ke5 with Kd7. We now know that this is only a draw so White cannot achieve his primary aim but he still has a winning plan. His king has to take a journey to the queen side. He can win by playing Kc5 in reply to Kd7 (just as he can by playing Ke5 in reply to Kd7) or by playing Kc6 at some point. Black cannot prevent both these ideas.

White must continue 4. Kd4 (the only move to win) Kc8 5. Kc4 (again the only move to win: 5. Kc5 Kd7 is a draw) 5… Kb8 (or 5… Kd7 6. Kc5 and wins because it’s Black’s move) 6. Kb5 Kb7 7. Kc5 Kc8 8. Kc6 Kd8 9. d7 and wins.

Finally, we can conclude that the pawn ending is winning for White with best play (and that, returning to last week’s game, I could have won by selecting 38. Bd5). Chess is just too hard!

Richard James

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A Sinne of Feare

Last week I quoted with approval the dictum attributed to Amos Burn: “He Who Combinates is Lost”. Well, sometimes, but not always. Sometimes he who is too scared to combinate is lost. Sometimes he who is too scared to accept his opponent’s unsound sacrifices is lost.

Regular readers will have seen the end of this game a couple of months ago. We got there via some fascinating tactical complications.

The game was played in January last year. I had the white pieces in yet another Richmond v Surbiton encounter.

The opening was a King’s Indian Attack. I’d stationed my minor pieces on the king side and advanced my h-pawn to create a weakness while my opponent pushed his pawns on the other side of the board.

Noticing that my bishop on f4 was in line with his rook, I took the opportunity to put my knight on f6, so play continued 20. Nf6+ Bxf6 21. exf6 Qxf6. Black understandably didn’t fancy moving his rook and leaving the pawn on f6. It’s now decision time.

I’m a pawn down but can capture the rook on b8. Alternatively, I can play it as a sacrifice and go 22. Bg5, driving the black queen into the corner. I saw a possible further sacrifice and spent some time considering 22. Bg5 Qh8 23. Rxe6 fxe6 24. Bxe6+ Rf7 without coming to any conclusion as to whether or not it was sound. Meanwhile my clock was ticking away (we had 75 minutes each for the game) and I was getting behind on time.

As it happens, White has several ways to win from that position. The strongest plan involves getting the queen into play with Qd2/Qc1. The moves are easy enough to find if you’re a computer but not so easy for a human with limited tactical ability and a ticking clock. If I didn’t trust the exchange sacrifice, 23. Ne5 was also winning, and indeed any reasonable move was good.

In my heart of hearts I knew that 22. Bg5 had to be correct, and any reasonably experienced player, I’m sure, would reach the same conclusion. Better to be a pawn down with the black queen in the naughty corner than the exchange for a pawn up with no attack and Black’s queen side advancing. But the words of Omar Khayyam were resonating inside my head: “Ah, take the cash and let the promise go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum”. As someone who always makes cautious decisions I couldn’t bring myself to play a position a pawn down rather than taking the insurance of an extra exchange. I eventually decided to capture the rook. Now the computer tells me Black has adequate compensation for the exchange.

We continued: 22. Bxb8 Rxb8 23. c3, with a discovered attack on the knight which Black ignored: 23… bxc3 (Bb5 gave equal chances). I now noticed 24. bxc3 Rxb1 25. Qxb1 Qxf3 so rejected the recapture and focused on taking the knight. Being a natural pessimist I tend to assume that any sacrifice I might consider will be unsound while any sacrifice my opponent makes will be sound. I started seeing lines where Black was promoting a pawn and panicked. Something I often do in my games is to reject a move, forget why I rejected it and play it anyway, and this is what happened here. I forgot what I’d analysed a couple of minutes previously and recaptured on c3. But I was fearing ghosts. There was no reason at all not to play Qxa4. Black has several tries but they’re all very easy to meet as long as you keep your head.

Anyway, 24. bxc3 Rxb1 25. Qxb1 Qxf3 was played, with Black now having two knights and a pawn to my rook. I saw a way to muddy the waters, though, and played 26. Bxe6 with the idea of 26… fxe6 27. Rxe6 when I hoped I’d win either the knight on c6 or the bishop on a6. Now it’s Black’s turn to make a critical decision. The right choice is to play 26… fxe6 27. Rxe6 Qf5 (Nxc3 is met by 28. Qb6) 28. Qxf5 gxf5 29. Rxc6 Bb5 followed by Nxc3 when Black’s c-pawn will give him a winning advantage. But it’s not so easy to find this over the board and this time he assumed I knew what I was doing and preferred 26… Nxc3, hitting my queen.

Now I had the chance for a spectacular winning move. I saw the idea but didn’t get the execution right. The winning move is Bg4, keeping the vital e2 square under control. But instead I played 27. Bxd5 Ne2+ 28. Rxe2 Qxe2 29. Bxc6 Qe7 30. Qb8+. It was more accurate to play the immediate 30. Qb6, but to do that I had to see the variation. 30… c3 31. Qxa6 c2 32. Qc8+ Qf8 33. Be8 c1Q 34. Qxc1 Qxe8 when White should win the queen ending.

After 30… Qf8 31. Qb6 Black can play Bc8 when White has some advantage, but, for the second time in the game, he called my bluff, playing 31… c3 and daring me to capture on a6. Again, with not too much time left for the rest of the game, I panicked, believing that he’d seem some way of promoting the c-pawn. Just like on move 24, though, there was no reason at all not to take the bishop: White has several ways of stopping Black getting another queen. Instead I spotted the sequence 32. Be4 Bc4 33. Qxa5 Qxh6 34. Qxc3 Bxa2 when material is level but I hoped to make something of my passed d-pawn.

The game progressed with 35. d5 Qf8 36. Qc6 Qb4, abandoning the back rank and giving me my last chance. 36… Qb8 might have held on but now I have a win after 37. Bd5, although I have to find accurate sequences after both Qe1+ (the resulting pawn ending might be the subject of a future blog post) and Kf8. Instead, with very little time left, I played the ‘safe’ 37. Kg2. Now the position should be drawn: you can read about the tragicomic conclusion here.

John Donne wrote about his ‘sinne of feare’. In this game I was too scared to play a strong sacrifice, spending too much time thinking about it, and too scared to accept my opponent’s unsound sacrifices. Although you might think I was unlucky at the end I deserved to lose.

Richard James

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Burn’s Right

“He who combinates is lost.” I have a vague memory, many years ago, of seeing this attributed to Amos Burn, but have never been able to track it down. Google only comes up with an old Addicts’ Corner column on a very old Richmond Junior Club website, which, for some reason, still exists out there in cyberspace, in which we asked for help on this subject.

As someone who has never been very good at combinating this has always had a lot of resonance for me. My experience is that more games are lost by unsound than are won by sound combinations and sacrifices. And then there are all the combinations and sacrifices you consider and, usually correctly, reject.

As teachers and writers, though, we like to demonstrate games which are won by brilliant combinations. There are all sorts of valid reasons why we should do this, but, at the same time, kids often get the wrong idea of chess: that all sacrifices work and that making sacrifices is the usual way to win a game. Therefore they often go round making random sacrifices without having worked anything out.

There are essentially two types of sacrifice. We might sacrifice because we’ve calculated that we can force checkmate or win back the sacrificed material, probably with interest. If we’ve miscalculated, though, we’ll just find ourselves behind on material and looking foolish.

We might also make a positional sacrifice, giving up material because using our judgement and experience, we believe the strong position we get in return is more than worth the material investment. To play the first type of sacrifice just involves the ability to calculate, but positional sacrifices require more abstract considerations, which are difficult for young children.

When Morphy was playing the Aristocratic Allies in the Opera House he made a positional sacrifice of a knight for two pawns to gain a strong position, and he was entirely justified in doing so. At the end of the game he sacrificed his queen because he had performed an accurate calculation and worked out that by doing so he would force checkmate.

Let’s see what happened to a few guys who got it wrong.

Our first example shows an unsound positional sacrifice. Black, observing that White had left his king in the centre and advanced some king-side pawns, decided to play a random sacrifice of a bishop for two pawns on g4. It didn’t work out well for him, though, and, although White didn’t play optimally and he had some drawing chances at one point, he eventually lost the game some 50 moves later. Don’t try this at home, kids. if you go round doing this sort of thing you’ll lose far more games than you’ll win.

In this position White saw the opportunity for a rook sacrifice leading to checkmate and played 1. Rd7 Qxd7 2. f6, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to find a defence to Rg7+. But he was mistaken as Black had two ways to meet the threat. He could just have played Rxf6, returning the rook, when White has no mate and the black a-pawn will soon decide the game in his favour. Instead he played 2… Qd1+ 3. Qxd1 Kxg6, which was even better. He now had two rooks for his queen, White had no attack at all, and his a-pawn was going through. White’s rook sacrifice just made him look extremely foolish. This is what happens if you miscalculate. Get it right. Every time.

In our final example White had already made a random rook sacrifice to reach a totally wild position. He should have tried Bd2, which would have given him some practical chances but instead sacrificed another piece with 1. Ng6 Nxg6 2. Qxf5, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to meet the threats to his knight and king. But again he’d failed to calculate accurately and after 2… Ne7 3. Qf7+ Kd8 Black’s king was perfectly safe and White had nothing to show for his missing pieces.

I’ll repeat this again and again, kids. You really have to learn to calculate accurately if you want to be good at chess. You can’t just make random sacrifices and hope for the best.

I think you’ll agree that the three losers in these games played pretty badly. But who were they? Were the games played in some fairly low level junior tournament, or in one of the lower sections of a weekend congress?

Far from it. If you follow top level chess you’ll probably have recognised the positions. They all came from rounds 3 and 4 of the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic played in Baden Baden, Germany. The first example was World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing to Arkadij Naiditsch after punting a rather dubious positional sacrifice. The second example saw Carlsen the beneficiary of a miscalculation by former World Champion Vishy Anand, who, to be fair, had probably switched to desperation mode after losing his a-pawn while trying to build up a king-side attack. The third example was played by the only slightly less stellar David Baramidze, who, rated a long way below the other competitors, decided to go for broke and went wrong in an extremely complex position giving Naiditsch another victory.

If players of that level can misjudge or miscalculate perhaps Amos was right and he who combinates, more often than not, is lost. Or maybe chess is just too hard for mere humans. But let’s get the right message across to our pupils: 90% of the time that sacrifice you’re considering is really not going to work.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (5)

Returning to my series of articles on introducing kids to the Ruy Lopez, let’s start with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4.

What could be more natural or logical than playing 4… b5, driving the bishop back again and negating the potential pin on the a4-e8 diagonal? Children are more interested in creating threats than putting pieces on good squares, and, at low levels, you’ll win a lot of games because your opponent doesn’t notice your threats.

You won’t read a lot about this sequence in openings books, though, because it’s not popular with stronger players, and on the rare occasions they play it they follow up with Na5, immediately trading off the white bishop at the cost of a tempo. Mamedyarov, Morozovich and Agdestein have all started this way a few times, when play usually continues 5. 0-0 d6 6. d4.

It’s very natural again, though, especially for children who are probably more familiar with the Italian than the Spanish, to continue with a developing move like Bc5 or Nf6 just as they would after 3. Bc4. The position might look similar but the analysis is very different. If you’re playing chess at lower levels, particularly in junior tournaments, though, it’s good to know what’s happening.

By and large, the differences favour White, mainly because the bishop is safer from immediate attack on b3 than it is on c4.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Bc5 as in the Giuoco Piano.

The first point is that White can play, if he chooses, the Fork Trick with 6. Nxe5. You can’t do this in the Giuoco Piano, of course (although kids sometimes try) because 6… Nxe5 will hit the bishop on c4 and you’re not going to get the piece back.

Alternatively, White can continue in Italian fashion with 6. c3 Nf6 7. d4 exd4. We have two strong options here. 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2 10. Nbxd2 is very pleasant for White. In Italy Black can equalise with d5 hitting the bishop on c4, but in Spain we can meet d5 with e5 giving us a nice space advantage. We could also choose 8. e5, which again is well met by d5 in Italy, while in Spain Black has to move his knight to an awkward square.

So perhaps Black should play Nf6 instead. The stats favour White in many of these variations, mainly because a lot of the games feature stronger players beating weaker players, but the engines seem to think Black’s position is not unreasonable.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Nf6. Many kids like to play Ng5, going for the Fried Liver Attack. After 6. Ng5 d5 7. exd5 Nxd5 8. Nxf7 seems even stronger for White than the Fried Liver proper, but Black can do much better with 7… Nd4 to trade off the bishop when necessary. Regular readers will be aware than in Italy Nd4 seems to give White a slight advantage if he knows what he’s doing, but in Spain it’s absolutely fine for Black.

Instead, White might want to try 6. d4 here. The engines seem happy with d6 or Nxd4 for Black. 6… d6 seems rather passive but 6… Nxd4 leads to interesting complications. White plays 7. Nxd4 exd4 8. e5 and Black has to give up his knight because of tactics with Qf3 or Qd5. Instead he can play the strange looking computer move 7… c5, trapping the bishop with c4 when the knight moves away. 7. Bxf7+ has also been played, which looks scary to me but not to the engines.

If Black knows the Two Knights Defence, though, he’ll probably play the Italian move 6… exd4. Now White, as in the line above, can play 7. e5 as d5 is not an option for Black. Black is quite likely to play Ne4 when either O-O or the immediate Bd5 are possible for White. We’re now in a position which can arise from a variety of move orders. For some idea of White’s prospects in this sort of position, consider the following short game in which a strong player suffers a painful defeat.

There are one or two loose ends which I may or may not tie up later. One of the ideas of this series of posts was to make the point that most opening books are written by and for very strong players. They have little relevance for those of us playing club standard chess and no relevance at all for kids just starting out in competitive chess. Opening books for kids should be based on what happens in kids’ games, not what happens in grandmaster games. I’ve been asked many times to recommend a good opening book for kids at this level. My answer has always been the same: I haven’t written it yet, but at least I’m now working on it.

Richard James

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Knightmare

More on the Ruy Lopez later, but you might be wondering what happened to my adventures with 1…e5.

Since I last posted in this series I’ve had three more games with Black, facing d4 twice and f4 on the other occasion.

Here’s my most recent game against d4, in yet another Richmond v Surbiton match. This time I was playing for our A team against their B team, facing a slightly lower graded opponent. A positional battle ensued.

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 Nc6

For many years my main defence to 1. d4 has been the Dutch, but I’ve also played this on a few occasions. I’d resolved to play it more often this year. If White plays 3. Nc3 I’m planning to play an immediate e5, meeting d5 with Ne7, Ng6, Bb4 or Bc5 depending on what White does in the meantime, and then d6. Most players at my level haven’t studied this rather unusual defence, which scores very well for Black in the databases. In my previous 1. d4 game, playing for Richmond B against Wimbledon A, my opponent, Russell Picot, graded some way above me, clearly had studied it and came up with a very dangerous line. A few days before our game he’d partnered Kramnik against Giri in the final of the Pro-Biz Cup at the London Chess Classic so perhaps Big Vlad had given him some tips.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 Nc6 3. Nc3 e5 4. d5 Ne7 5. Nf3 Ng6 6. h4 (This scores 71% for White in BigBase 2015, whereas the most popular move, e4, only scores 27.5%.) 6… h5 7. Bg5 Be7 8. e3 Ng4? (Careless, allowing a strong reply. I should have played d6 instead.) 9. d6 Bxg5 10. hxg5 cxd6 11. Bd3 Nf8? (Ne7) 12. Qc2 (Bf5!) 12… g6 13. O-O-O a6 14. Be4 Rb8 15. Kb1 b5 16. cxb5 Bb7? 17. Bxb7 Rxb7 18. Ne4 Rb6 19. Nxd6+ Rxd6 20. Rxd6 axb5 21. Rd5 Ne6 22. Nxe5 Nxe5 23. Rxe5 O-O 24. f4 Qb8 25. Rc1 Qb6 26. Qb3 Rb8 27. Rd5 d6 28. Qd3 Nc5 29. Qd4 Ne6 30. Rc8+ Nf8 31. Rxf8+ Kxf8 32. Rxd6 Qc7 33. Rd7 1-0

3. Nf3

White prevents an immediate e5 so Black’s plan is e6 followed by Bb4, d6 and e5.

3… e6
4. g3 Bb4+
5. Bd2 Bxd2+

We’ve now transposed into a variation of the Bogo-Indian Defence. I showed the game to a friend of about 2200 strength who suggested this was a wasted move and that I should have preferred Qe7. In the main lines of the Bogo-Indian, yes, but with a knight on c6 I think this move is fine. If my opponent plays d5 in reply to my e5 I’d really like e7 for my knight. In a closed position such as this the lost tempi (I’m also spending two moves getting my pawn to e5) don’t really matter. My other line of thinking was that, as I’d have less space if my opponent met e5 with d5, I wanted to trade off my potentially bad bishop, and I’d rather trade it for a bishop than a knight, which I’d have to do if he played Nc3 followed by a3.

6. Nbxd2 O-O
7. Bg2 d6
8. Qc2 e5

Now White has to make a decision about the pawn formation. Should he close the centre with d5 or capture on e5 and open the d-file? Perhaps he should have chosen d5 but either way I’m very comfortable.

9. dxe5 dxe5
10. Rd1 Qe7
11. e4?!

I guess he was worried about my playing e4 at some point but this really isn’t what he wants to do, blocking in his bishop and giving me an outpost on d4.

11… h6

Just waiting, and preventing Ng5 should I play Be6. I could well have played Bg4 immediately, though.

12. O-O Rd8
13. Nb1?!

Trying to redeploy his knight to d5 but instead he lets my knight reach d4. My plan now is obvious.

13… Bg4
14. Rxd8+ Rxd8
15. Nc3

He might have admitted his error and gone back to d2 instead.

15… Bxf3
16. Bxf3 Nd4
17. Qd3 c6

Taking d5 away from his knight. We’ve now reached a pawn formation which can arise from a King’s Indian Defence, or, with colours reversed, from a Ruy Lopez where White’s played c3 and d4, Black’s played d6 and c5, and White’s traded pawns on c5. This formation favours Black slightly anyway, and here my knight has already reached its dream square. In addition I was, unusually, well ahead on the clock (we were playing 35 moves in 75 minutes).

18. Bg2 Nd7
19. Kh1 Nc5
20. Qb1 a5
21. f4?!

Running short of time, it’s understandable that White wants to open the position and free his bad bishop on g2. Capturing didn’t occur to me at first, as you usually try to keep the position closed with a knight against a bishop, but I wasn’t sure how to make progress if he answered, say, f6 with f5, taking the important staging post at e6 away from my knights. But then I noticed that I could follow up the trade with Qh4, when my knights have more squares, my rook will be able to invade down the d-file at some point, and his king is not looking very secure.

Instead he would have done better to wait with something like b3 and see how I was planning to improve my position.

21… exf4
22. gxf4 Qh4
23. e5?

He’s trying to give his bishop some air, but this is just losing. Now my knights come in on f4 and d3 with decisive threats. He should have tried f5 instead, to keep my knights out of e6.

23… Nde6
24. f5 Nf4
25. Qc2 Ncd3
26. e6?

An oversight in time trouble, but after 26. Qd2 Nh3 27. Bxh3 Qxh3 28. Qg2 Qxg2+ 29. Kxg2 Nxb2 Black’s going to mop up several of the overextended white pawns. Now a rather improbable knight fork on wins a piece.

26… Ne1
27. exf7+ Kxf7
28. Qe4 Nexg2
29. Rxf4 Nxf4
0-1

Quite an easy game to play as my opponent made some positional errors.

(My apologies to my friends at Streatham and Brixton Chess Club for borrowing the title of their 1970s annual.)

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (4)

Today we’re going to look at two important and interrelated tactical ideas which can arise from the Ruy Lopez. One of the ideas is a way for White to win material, while the other idea will win material for Black.

Suppose Black decides to chase the white bishop back with a6 and b5. Black will often do this straight away in kiddie chess. Kiddie players love to create threats in case their opponent doesn’t notice. Now if Black plays d6 there are some potential white square weaknesses around the d5 square. If Black plays Nxe4 a bishop move to d5 might fork the knights on e4 and c6, or, if the knight on c6 has moved away, the knight on e4 and the rook on a8.

Better still, a queen landing on d5 might also threaten mate on f7, backed up by the bishop on b3.

Let’s have a look at a few games to see how this works out in practice.

In our first game Black defends weakly against the Fork Trick. 8… Bd6 would also have failed because of the Qd5 idea: he should have played 8… Bxd4 instead.

Playing natural developing moves doesn’t mean you won’t lose quickly if you’re not careful. Black had to play the ugly 8… Bd6 instead. Note that if 10… Ng4 to defend f7, White just takes it off.

Black, who from his rating isn’t a bad player, comes up with a losing 6th move. He should either take on d4 or play d6 instead of Be7. This just goes to show how devastating an early d4 can be against an unwary opponent.

Again, a player with a reasonable rating plays a careless move (any other capture on move 7 would have been OK) and this time Qd5 pins and skewers everything in sight.

Another Fork Trick where Black goes wrong very quickly. This time White finds a different target: a bishop on e5. Note that, as mentioned last week, in other Fork Trick lines (7…) Bd6 is often the best move but in the Ruy Lopez it usually leads to a quick disaster. Again he should have played Bxd4 instead.

In this game White manages a record-breaking quadruple queen fork.

A typical example of a position where White wins a piece by playing Bd5.

Now for the black trap. This is sometimes known as the Noah’s Ark Trap, allegedly because the trap is as old as Noah’s Ark.

What happens is this: White plays d4 (without c3). Black trades pawns and knights on d4, forcing White to take back with the queen. Black then kicks the queen with c5, followed by c4, trapping the bishop on b3.

Study this game very carefully, paying full attention to the notes, and you’ll see how it works. Both players have to look several moves ahead to see whether or not it’s going to work and recognising the patterns will help you do this. Estonian chess great Paul Keres, who won this game, was one of the strongest players never to become world champion.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (3)

Back to the Ruy Lopez this week.

We’ll start by travelling back 25 years to watch the 6-year-old Luke McShane in action. It was seeing his early games and results with this opening that first alerted me to the advantages of teaching the Ruy Lopez at a relatively early stage of children’s chess development.

In this game Black allows the familiar discovered check to win the black queen.

The second game features a less common idea: a rather unusual rook fork wins Luke another queen.

In this article we’re taking a break from 3… a6. It’s very natural, especially if Black is more used to facing Bc4, to play a simple developing move such as 3… Nf6 or 3… Bc5. Of course Nf6, the Berlin variation, is very popular at all levels at the moment, while Bc5, while not played so often at GM level, is a frequent guest in amateur events. Both, of course, are perfectly reasonable moves.

Against 3… Nf6, or indeed 3… Bc5, it’s not unreasonable to play, as Luke did, the immediate exchange. f6 is not necessarily the best square for the black knight in the exchange variation. Instead, though, I’d recommend White to play 4. O-O against either of these moves. Making the king safe and giving the rook access to e1 in case the e-file gets opened can’t be bad. What we’re not going to do is transpose into a Four Knights by playing Nc3 and d3.

Games at this level often go 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 when White can trade on c6 and capture on e5, transposing into our article from two weeks ago. If you want to play a6 you have to do so on move 3, not on move 4. Every move we’re going to work out whether or not it’s safe to win the black e-pawn. Otherwise, we’re going to play a quick d4, not bothering too much if it loses a pawn, and, if the e-file is opened, put our rook on e1.

If they play 3… Bc5 instead we have a choice. We’re going to castle next and then we can, depending on Black’s reply, play c3 followed by d4 (and possibly d5 hitting the pinned knight) or go for the Fork Trick with Nxe5 followed by d4, using a pawn fork to regain the piece.

Let’s look at a few more short games to see how these ideas work out in practice and learn some tactical ideas.

See how easy it is to win a piece. In this game Black plays five obvious and natural moves – giving him a lost game. You see how strong the c3 and d4 idea can be against an opponent who plays Bc5. The only square for the bishop on move 6 is b6, which interferes with the b-pawn so Black cannot unpin with a6 followed by b5.

In this game we learn another important tactical idea. Black makes the mistake of playing 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 and then allows a classic pawn fork. Pawn forks in the centre happen over and over again at this level. e5 will fork a bishop on d6 and a knight on f6 while d5 will fork a bishop on e6 and a knight on c6. Another typical tactical idea when Black has bishops on c5 and e6 is to play c3 and d4, hitting the bishop on c5, followed by the fork on d5.

Here White is successful with the fork trick. Bd6 is usually the right way to go in Italian fork trick positions but here it’s not good. Black’s 8th move just loses a piece and his 10th move just loses a king. 8… Bd6 would have saved the piece but left him way behind in development.

Finally for this week we return to Luke McShane to see how he handled the Berlin Defence as a GM. 5. d4 is more often played but Re1 is a simpler way of regaining the pawn which also contains a drop of poison.

Richard James

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Chess with Chris and Kenny

Back to the Ruy Lopez next week unless anything else happens. Today there’s something different I have to share with you.

I returned from Richmond Junior Club last Saturday to see the sad news that one of my oldest chess friends and most regular opponents, Chris Clegg, had died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66.

I’d known Chris for more than 40 years and saw him regularly at matches in the Thames Valley League between my club, Richmond, and his club, Kingston. We played six times in a decade between 1978 and 1987, and then, strangely a 22 year hiatus before four more recent encounters.

Chris started playing chess at his secondary school, taking part in junior tournaments and soon joining his local chess club where he remained for the rest of his life. Every time we played Kingston we knew he’d be there, captaining the team. If we were playing at Kingston he’d be the first to arrive to set up the furniture and equipment, and the last to leave, having put everything away. He’d even arrive early for away matches and help set everything up without asking or being asked. Chris would be at almost every tournament in the London area, arriving on his own and leaving on his own.

By profession he was a solicitor, but he retired very early. He had no family, living with his mother until she died some years ago. His other interest was bird watching. Chris was one of those highly intelligent, rather introverted people who tend very often to be drawn to chess. As his Kingston Chess Club colleague John Foley wrote in his obituary on the English Chess Forum, chess kept Chris going and Chris kept Kingston Chess Club going.

The chess world has always needed, and will continue to need, the likes of Chris Clegg. At his best he was a county standard player, a bit short of master strength. But, more importantly, he was an organiser who worked at a local level, never seeking fame or recognition. Chess isn’t just about producing grandmasters. Without dedicated organisers there would be no grandmasters and no chess.

Here’s an exciting game from a Thames Valley League match a few years ago in which both players missed wins.

But there was also good news recently: news that, as Bruce Mubayiwa reported on this site, Kenny Solomon has become South Africa’s first grandmaster. A great achievement in itself, but notable also for Kenny’s background, growing up in a township notorious for drug abuse and gang violence.

From his website:

“Kenny was exposed to gang culture from an early age. Kenny realised that if he didn’t create his own future, he would merely become a pawn in this scene, trapped in the violent, oppressive cycle of gangsterism. Strong family values and his early interest in chess kept him away from these influences and compelled him to make choices about his fate.

“After getting into chess at the age of 13, he would play blitz games with his older brother and a friend in the Solomons’ backyard, amidst lines of dripping washing.”

Note that he taught himself to play chess in his teens. Not starting young is no barrier to becoming a grandmaster.

Chris Clegg and Kenny Solomon, two very different people and two very different players, but united by their passion for chess. I’m not sure whether chess made either of them smarter but it had an enormous social impact on both of them. It enabled Kenny to escape from the gangs and drugs of a South African township, taking him to Europe where he married an Italian girl, and to grandmasterdom. It gave Chris a purpose in life and a means of connecting with an increasingly alien world (he never used the internet or even owned a mobile phone).

There’s something else they have in common as well. I don’t know when Chris learnt the moves: probabbly round about the age of 11, as we all did in those days. There’s a loss to Ray Keene from the 1961-62 London Under 14 Championship, possibly his first tournament, on chessgames.com. I would guess that they both started their obsession with chess at about the age of 13 or 14. Not at 7 or 8 as children do today.

Regular readers will know that I consider the social benefits of chess at least as important as the academic benefits, and that these benefits really kick in for older rather than younger children. I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent interview with the comedian Stewart Lee.

“But also the things that get you when you’re 13 or 14, that’s when you’re most susceptible and if you’re lucky enough to encounter a good thing when you’re 13 or 14, it will stay with you for your life.”

Chris and Kenny were both lucky enough to encounter a good thing when they were 13 or 14.

Richard James

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (2)

So we left you last time considering the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5.O-O. If Black, as he often will in lower level kiddie tournaments, plays a natural developing move such as Nf6 or Bc5 we can capture the pawn on e5 safely, and, if Black tries to get the pawn back we have an array of tactical weapons involving using our rook on the open e-file at our disposal.

The most popular moves, in order of frequency, are f6 and Bg4, followed at a considerable distance, by Qd6 and Bd6. Stronger players tend to prefer f6 and Qd6, while lower rated players are more likely to go for Bg4 or Bd6.

At this level you can usually get away with simple development but there’s one important thing you need to know. It’s a trap which happens quite often in kiddie chess: the Fishing Pole‘s much more respectable cousin.

After 5… Bg4 play continues 6. h3 (a natural move, and by far White’s most popular choice here) 6… h5 when White has to decide whether or not to take the bishop. Theory recommends 7. d3 when both sides have to calculate each move whether or not White can take the bishop. If instead 7. hxg4 hxg4 leaves White in trouble, and if he tries to save his knight with 8. Nxe5 he gets mated after 8… Qh4 9. f4 g3 (the key move, shutting the door on the white king).

Before we move on there’s one other thing you might want to demonstrate, at least to older kids. Look at this variation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Qxd4 7. Nxd4. Now take everything off the board except the kings and pawns and play out the resulting pawn ending. Something like this might happen:

This is worth explaining. White’s winning because he can always force a passed pawn. As long as he doesn’t undouble Black’s c-pawns his opponent will never be able to create a passed pawn. If you run an intermediate level class it’s well worth giving this sort of ending to your pupils. Get them to record their moves and see what happens. In my experience many players will fail to win with White because they play c4xb5 at some point.

This exercise will teach you a lot about doubled pawns: about when and why they can be a disadvantage. It will also teach you a lot about pawn endings. Most importantly, it will teach you how openings and endings are closely connected (even though both are even more closely connected to middle games).

I wouldn’t encourage kids to spend too long playing the exchange variation, though. One reason is that, if you teach them to play the exchange variation after 3… a6 they’ll also make the trade after other third moves, which you probably don’t want them to do. So at some point they’re going to have to move onto 4. Ba4 as well as considering how to meet Black’s most popular 3rd move alternatives.

But first, you might like to demonstrate a couple of famous games. Regular readers will know that I’m very big on teaching chess culture as well as just chess so it’s always a good idea to look at how some of the all-time greats handled the opening you’re learning.

Richard James

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