Alekhine Number (Part 1)

If you happen to be Alexander Alekhine your Alekhine Number is 0. If you’ve played Alekhine your Alekhine number is 1. If you’ve played someone with an Alekhine Number of 1, your Alekhine Number is 2.

You can maintain a hardline view and only include serious competitive games, or you can take a more lax approach and include simul games, casual games and online games.

I wonder how many people still alive have an Alekhine Number of 1. Arturo Pomar, a child prodigy in Spain in the 1940s, who died two years ago, was a pupil of Alekhine and played him three times in tournaments, drawing one of the games. He may well have been Alekhine’s last surviving opponent from competitive games. However, there’s still at least one active player who faced Alekhine over the board: Dimitrij Mathon. Mathon was born in 1927, claims to have played Alekhine in a simul in 1943, and is currently playing in the Czech 60+ Championship. (Thanks to John Saunders and Roger Emerson for this information.)

If you know anyone else still alive who played Alekhine I’d love to know: please get in touch.

My Alekhine Number is 2. Over the next two articles I’ll show you the games.

For the first game we travel back in time to Devon, to the city of Plymouth, famous for its naval base, and for Sir Francis Drake’s game of bowls. It’s 5 September 1938. The local chess club has organised a small all-play-all tournament of eight players to celebrate its golden jubilee. They’ve invited the world champion, Alexander Alekhine, and the Women’s World Champion, Vera Menchik to take part. The most interesting of the other competitors is Paul List, who was born in Odessa in 1887, moved to Germany in the 1920s and then settled in England in 1937. There were also three English internationals, Sir George Thomas from the older generation, and, representing the younger generation, Stuart Milner-Barry and George Wheatcroft. The field was completed by two local players, Ronald MacKay Bruce and Harold Vincent Mallison. Can you imagine Magnus Carlsen, or any other top grandmaster, agreeing to take part in such an event today?

Alekhine conceded two draws, to List and Thomas, which was only enough for a share of first place with the veteran Baronet, who scored one of his greatest successes. The other players finished well in arrears: List and Milner-Barry on 3½, Menchik on 3, Wheatcroft on 2½ along with Mallison, making a highly creditable score in such company. Ron Bruce was somewhat out of his depth, only managing two draws and losing to the world champion in just 12 moves.

1. e4 c6
2. Nc3 d5
3. Nf3

The World Champion chooses the Two Knights variation against Bruce’s Caro-Kann Defence. 3.. Bg4 is the most popular move here, but there’s not a lot wrong with just taking the pawn.

3.. dxe4
4. Nxe4 Bf5

4.. Nf6 is the usual choice. In the main line Caro-Kann Bf5 is excellent, but here it’s slightly inferior.

5. Ng3 Bg6

There’s a big difference between the Two Knights and the main line, as you’ll see on move 7. Instead Black should play Bg4 here.

6. h4 h6
7. Ne5 Bh7
8. Qh5

This position has been reached over 400 times on my database, with White scoring 86%. I’d have thought it was, by now, common knowledge that this position is close to winning for White, but apparently not. Quite a lot of 2200+ players have reached this with Black.

8.. g6

Now White has two very strong continuations. Alekhine chooses the flash move, but the alternative might be even better. After the simple 9. Qf3 several games have concluded 9.. Nf6 10. Qb3 Qd5 11. Qxb7 Qxe5+ 12. Be2 Bg7 (or 12.. Nd5) 13. Qc8#

9. Bc4 e6
10. Qe2

With a Big Threat, which Bruce overlooks. The best chance is 10.. Qe7 when Black’s still in the game, even though his king-side looks extremely ugly.

10.. Nf6
11. Nxf7

This position occurs in 11 games in my database. There are also 28 games with 10.. Bg7 11. Nxf7 and 17 games with 10.. Nd7 11. Nxf7.

11.. Kxf7
12. Qxe6+ 1-0

A trap which is well worth knowing, especially if you play the Caro-Kann. You might also like to try this variation with White.

The tournament schedule was pretty tight: seven games had to be fitted into six days, along with adjournments. This game was played on the Tuesday morning, and later the same day Ron Bruce found himself facing Vera Menchik. He wrote himself into the history books by becoming probably the only player to lose to two reigning world champions in a tournament on the same day.

(ChessBase mistakenly assigns the black pieces in this game to Rowena Mary Bruce. Rowena was Ron’s pupil and, from 1940, wife, as well as many times British Ladies Champion. At the time this game was played she was still Rowena Mary Dew.)

Richard James

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Passed Pawns

Something I noticed many years ago looking at lower level junior games is that passed pawns in the ending are worth much more than at higher levels. Children will often panic and make unnecessary sacrifices instead of calmly working out how best to stop them.

One of my private pupils recently won an Under 9 tournament and had managed to record two of his games which he brought in to show me. His round 1 game, in which he had the white pieces, had several points of interest, two of which involved passed pawns.

Let’s take a look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bc4

Stop here! In lesson after lesson I tell my private pupils not to play this move order, partly because Black might reply with 4.. Nxe4. We often tell the Richmond Junior Club intermediate group the same thing. But every week, every tournament this is what they play. It’s what they know and feel comfortable with, and they don’t want to change. If they really want to play a Giuoco Pianissimo, I tell them, remember PNBPNB: e4, Nf3, Bc4, d3, Nc3, Bg5 in that order. But they never do it. Or, better still, learn a different opening. You’ll only make significant progress if you gain experience of playing different types of position. But most of them never do.

4.. Bc5 5. Ng5

Stop again! In lesson after lesson I tell my pupils not to play Ng5 in this sort of position if their opponent can castle. In lesson after lesson I explain why. But they still play it, hoping that their opponent will fail to see their threat. I guess the only answer is proactive parental involvement: going through their opening repertoire the evening before the event. In this game Black was strong enough to get the next few moves right.

5.. O-O 6. d3 h6 7. Nf3 d6 8. O-O Bd4

A position which has arisen quite often in low level games. On my database Black scores close to 75% after the normal 8.. Nd4 in this position, although White’s OK after either Be3 or h3. In this game, though, Black decides to trade his two bishops for the two white knights.

9. Be3 Bxc3 10. bxc3 Bg4 11. h3 Bxf3 12. Qxf3 a6 13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 b5 15. Bd3 Nb4 16. e5 dxe5 17. dxe5 Nxd3 18. cxd3 Qxd3

The first blunder of the game. Two moves ago White played e5 to threaten the black knight. Black plays a couple of trades first, and then forgets that his knight is en prise. capturing a pawn instead. This is a very typical type of mistake at this level and age. Children will just look at the last piece that’s moved rather than the whole board, and, because their concentration is not very good, they will forget what happened a couple of moves ago if there have been some intermediate moves.

19. Bc5

White doesn’t notice, or possibly decides, mistakenly, that he’d rather win a rook than a knight.

19.. Qxf3 20. gxf3 Rfe8

Black sees the attack on the rook so moves it to safety. Now, finally, someone spots that the knight on f6 can be taken. 20.. Nd7 would have offered even chances: Black will have a pawn for the exchange and is quite likely to pick up another one in the near future.

21. exf6 Re5 22. Bd4 Re6 23. fxg7 Rg6+ 24. Kh1 Rd8

White should be winning now with his extra piece, but instead he makes an understandable (at this level) oversight.

25. Rad1

It’s natural to protect the bishop rather than moving it again, but now Black could have played Rgd6 (PIN AND WIN!), regaining the piece with a position that should be winning. White failed to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION “If I play that move, what will my opponent do next?”, and Black failed to look for all forcing moves (use a CCTV to look at the board: looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory), instead choosing to prepare to push his passed pawn.

25.. Rc8 26. Rg1 Rxg1+ 27. Rxg1 c5 28. Bc3 b4 29. Bd2 Rd8 30. Bxh6 c4 31. Bg5 Rc8 32. h4 c3 33. h5 Kxg7 34. h6+

34. Be7+ would have won one of the dangerous black pawns.

34.. Kh7 35. Rg4 c2 36. Rg1 f6 37. Bf4 Rd8

An inaccuracy, allowing White to get his rook behind his passed pawn. (RBBPP – Rooks Belong Behind Passed Pawns: the other day I lost a drawn ending by failing to follow my own advice, which I’ve been teaching for the past 45 years or so.)

38. Rg7+ Kh8 39. Kg2

Missing 39. Rc7 with an easy win.

39.. Rd4

White’s still winning, but has to play 40. Be3 Rc4 (otherwise 41. Rc7) 41. Bc1 here. You have to calculate accurately when your opponent has a passed pawn. Instead, White overlooks a tactic, which Black does well to notice.

40. Kg3 Rxf4 41. Kxf4

He doesn’t have to take the rook here: Rc7 is a drawn rook ending. At this level, though, they usually move first and think later.

41.. c1Q+ 42. Kf5 Qh1 43. Kg6 Qb1+ 44. Kxf6 a5 45. Rd7 Qb2+ 46. Kg6 Qc2+ 47. Kf6

White has some threats of mate or perpetual check as well as a passed pawn, but as long as Black calculates accurately he’ll win easily. For instance, 47.. Qxa2 48. Rd8+ when Black can either play 48.. Qg8 and win the pawn ending or 48.. Kh7 and run with his king. But instead he panics and returns his queen at the wrong time. Another recurring mistake at this age/level is to trade off the last pieces without calculating the pawn ending first. There’s a lot about this in CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES.

47.. Qh7 48. Rxh7+

No doubt played without thinking, as one does. At this level I’d expect nothing else, but White can gain a vital move by trading on g8 rather than h7: 48. Rd8+ Qg8 49. Rxg8+ Kxg8 50. Ke5 a4 51. Kd4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kc3 Kh7 54. Kxb3 Kxh6 55. Kc3 Kg5 56. Kd3 Kf4 57. Ke2 and White wins by a tempo.

48.. Kxh7 49. Ke5 Kxh6 50. Kd4 a4 51. Kd3

This loses a tempo, but shouldn’t affect the result: 51. Kc4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kxb3 Kg5 54. Kc3 Kf4 55. Kd2 Kxf3 and Black just gets back in time to draw.

51.. b3 52. axb3 a3

A fatal miscalculation. Instead 52.. axb3 is an immediate draw. Of course if White’s king was on e3 instead of d3 he’d have been quite correct. I’d guess he’d seen the idea before but chose the wrong moment to use it.

53. Kc2 a2 54. Kb2 a1=Q+ 55. Kxa1 and White had no trouble promoting a couple of pawns and checkmating his opponent.

A game with many mistakes which are very typical for young players at this level.

Richard James

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The Three Cs

There’s an excellent junior chess club in Oldham, Greater Manchester, called 3Cs, which stands, rather prosaically, for Children’s Chess Club.

If I were thinking of starting a children’s chess club and the name hadn’t already been taken I’d consider calling it 3Cs, but my three Cs would stand for something different.

I recently came across a blog post by a young English chess player and teacher, Chris Russell. As it happens, when Chris was a pupil at Norwich School my brother Michael taught him English, which might in part explain why the post is so well written.

Chris writes about the community of chess players:

“Chess is the way we have all chosen to engage with the world and the presence of others helps to give meaning to our journey. I have long ago stopped trying to explain why I spend time on chess to those who don’t. I used to be met with creative variations of “what’s the point?” and never really had a satisfactory answer. Nowadays, I think it is a broader question of networking, support, interest and motivation.”

Chess is the way I’ve chosen to engage with the world, as well. We all need to be part of communities: it’s what makes us human. We can’t always choose our family or our workmates. Sometimes we need to escape and be part of a community of our choice. For some it will be the local pub, or perhaps a place of worship. For others it will be a club or society where they can meet other people with a common interest, people who see the world the same way as they do. Communities of this nature are, by and large, struggling at the moment. Pubs are closing, church congregations are declining, chess clubs are finding it hard to survive. Younger people are spending more time engaging with the world via screens rather than in person. You might, as I do, find this sad. Of course virtual communities also have their benefits: there are communities of those who play chess online, those who discuss various aspects of chess on social media.

So there’s one of my Cs: COMMUNITY.

For many members of the chess community, the main point of chess is to be able to test your skill against other people. Most children and young people enjoy any form of competition, as, of course, do many older people. Competition fulfils a lot of basic human needs. As a society we’re pretty good at promoting physical competition through a wide variety of sports, but less good at promoting mental competition. We should be promoting chess, as well as bridge and other brain games, as outlets for young people’s competitive instincts.

My second C, then, is COMPETITION.

Beyond community and competition, I believe that chess has a cultural significance. Not to the same extent as literature, art and music, of course, but it’s still there. Aesthetic beauty is an inherent part of chess. There’s beauty in a brilliant sacrificial attack, and a very different type of beauty in a subtle ending. Most of us might only dream of playing like that, but at least we can appreciate the artistry of others. There are also specific areas of chess devoted to beauty as opposed to direct competition: the worlds of chess problems and endgame studies, which themselves also include competitions both for solving and for composing. This is only part of the cultural significance of chess. There’s the whole iconography of chess: the beauty of chess pieces of different designs and in different materials, the use of chess in art and literature. I’m very much in favour of introducing children to great music, great art and great literature, and, for this reason I want to introduce children to chess.

My final C: CULTURE.

If chess makes my pupils smarter as well, then so much the better. If they become grandmasters, I’ll be thrilled. But what I really want to give them is COMMUNITY, COMPETITION and CULTURE. These are three basic human needs: to belong, to compete, and to appreciate beauty. Chess can offer all three.

Richard James

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Missed Opportunities

This position is taken from a game played in Round 5 of the Grenke Chess Classic.

White, the German GM Georg Meier, is about to play his 39th move against Magnus Carlsen.

After 1 minute 28 seconds, and with just five seconds remaining on the clock he decides to play safe: 39. Ra1. The pieces were traded off and he captured the a-pawn to reach a drawn ending.

He wanted to look at something in the post mortem.

39. Rh1 Qe7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh5+ Kg6, and, on reaching this position he realised that he’d missed the second rook sacrifice 42. Rh6+ Kf7 (or 42… Kxh6 43. Qh5#) 43. Qh5+ Kg8 44. Rh8#. Black could avoid the mate by playing 41.. Kg8 but after 42. Be6+ Rff7 43. Rh6 White has a winning attack. In this line Black could also try 39.. Qf7, when White replies 40. Bf5 and Black can’t hold h7.

Unfortunate for Meier: with more time on the clock he’d have found the brilliant double rook sacrifice to defeat the World Champion.

In fact White has two other wins in this position.

One of them is 39. Rh5 with very much the same idea. Now after 39.. Qe7 40. Rxh7+ still works, but even stronger is 40. Be6 threatening 41. Rxh7+ Kxh7 42. Qh5#. Alternatively, 39.. Qf7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rh1+ Kg8 42. Be6 wins the queen.

The other winning move is 39. Rf5 Rxf5 (or 39.. Qb8 40. Rxf8+ Qxf8 41. Rb1 with Rb8 to follow) 40. Bxf5 Qc7 (one of White’s many threats was Rh1) 41. Qe8+ Rg8 42. Qe6 Rf8 43. Rh1 and again Black has no way to defend h7.

Three ways to win, and a couple of other promising moves as well (Be6, Rb1), but, with only 90 seconds or so left, it’s understandable that Meier chose a safe, but not winning option. Chess is a cruel game.

Moving onto the next round, let’s watch world championship candidate Fabiano Caruana struggling to hold the ending against Hou Yifan. Hou, playing black, is about to make her 64th move.

Understandably enough, she moves her threatened a-pawn. Meanwhile, chess fans throughout the world, watching the chess24.com engine, realise she’s missed a beautiful win.

It starts with 64.. Kd2 when White has nothing better than 65. Bxa6. Now come two stunning moves. 65.. Nd3+!, sacrificing a knight to undouble the white pawns, followed by 66. cxd3 d4, sacrificing the rest of her pawns to force promotion. Totally amazing!

White doesn’t have to capture the knight, though.

66. Kb1 Ne1 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. Bc6 d4 69. Be4 Kd2 (but the immediate Nxc2 only draws) 70. a4 Nxc2 71. Bxc2 d3 72. Bxd3 cxd3 (but not Kxd3 which is only a draw) and Black will promote with check and win by a tempo.

After 66. Ka2 there are several ways to win. One attractive line runs 66.. Kxc2 67. Bxb5 Kxc3 68. a4 Kd2 69. a5 c3 70. a6 c2 71. a7 c1Q 72. Bxd3 Kc3 73. a8Q Qb2#

66. Ka1 is similar to Ka2.

In fact, after 64.. a5 65. Kc1 Hou is still winning. The way to secure the full point runs: 65.. Ke2 66. Bc6 Ke1 67. Bxb5 Ne2+ 68. Kb2 Kd2 winning the c3 pawn. Instead she continued 65.. Ne2+ 66. Kb2 Kd2 (going back with Nf4 was still winning) 67. Bxd5 Nxc3 and Caruana managed to hold on, the game eventually being drawn on move 98.

Another missed opportunity, but it’s very difficult for anyone to spot this over the board. For Caruana, as for Carlsen in the previous round, a narrow escape.

These two positions demonstrate just how beautiful – and how difficult – chess can be. Which is why playing it and teaching it, at least to pupils who want to play chess well, is so worthwhile.

A tweet from chess historian Olimpiu G Urcan summed it up: “You really have to feel pity for those who don’t play or understand chess in moments like this”.

Richard James

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Tennison Gambit

One of my private pupils rushed in excitedly to tell me he’d discovered an amazing new opening: he always wins whenever he plays it.

I asked him the name of the opening. “The Tennison Gambit”, he replied.

The what? Unless you’re an expert in obscure gambits you could be forgiven for not knowing what he was talking about.

First of all, it’s nothing at all to do with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson the poet was appointed President of the revived British Chess Association in 1883: I guess they were looking for a big name, and in 1883 celebrities didn’t come much bigger than Tennyson. His actual interest in chess, though, seems to have been fairly peripheral, although back in 1862 his 8-year-old son Lionel played chess against Lewis Carroll. I imagine his dad taught him the moves. History doesn’t record whether or not young Lionel played the Tennison Gambit.

So what is the Tennison Gambit? It’s named after the Danish born American amateur Otto Mandrup Tennison (1834–1909) and starts 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 (or, if you prefer, 1. e4 d5 2. Nf3).

Here’s a game he played in 1891:

1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Ng5 f5 4. Bc4 Nh6 5. Nxh7 Rxh7 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Qg6 Rh8 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. Bxc8+ Qd6 10. Qe8+ Kb6 11. Qa4 when Black, rather prematurely, resigned instead of trying to struggle on with 11.. Nc6.

How did my pupil discover this opening? It seems like he read somewhere that 1. Nf3 was the Réti Opening, and, under the misapprehension that the idea of the move was to transpose into a king’s pawn opening, decided to try it out. He played a game online starting 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4, which he won. The computer informed him he was playing the Tennison Gambit, and, because he won the game and he knew 1. Nf3 was popular, he assumed this gambit was both popular and strong. He also told me that after 1. Nf3 e5 he’d play 2. e4, transposing into what he knows. “What about playing 2. Nxe5 instead?”, I asked, but he didn’t seem interested. So his idea was that 1. Nf3 is a great move because after 1.. e5 you transpose, but if Black errs with 1.. d5 you play the brilliant Tennison Gambit.

Is the Tennison Gambit any good? It looks like you’re playing a reverse Budapest with an extra move, and the Budapest is certainly playable for Black, at least at club level. But if you stop and think about it you’ll realise that, if you play the Budapest with Black you’re doing to because you think you can take advantage of White’s c4 by playing Bb4+ at some point. The Tennison Gambit doesn’t give you this option.

So, in a word, no, it’s not any good. You’re just giving up a pawn for next to nothing. But if you google ‘Tennison Gambit’ you’ll come across a few videos like this. To save you the trouble of watching, you’re advised to play these moves:

1. e4 d5 2. Nf3 (if you really want to play the Tennison Gambit you’re more likely to get it after 1. Nf3 than 1. e4) 2.. dxe4 3. Ng5 Nf6 (3.. Bf5, which, according to the video, ‘doesn’t look right’, is more accurate while 3.. e5 is another option) 4. d3 (4. Bc4 is probably a better move, when White has some initiative) 4.. exd3 5. Bxd3 h6 (White isn’t actually threatening anything so something like 5.. Nc6 leaves White with little to show for the missing pawn) 6. Nxf7 Kxf7 7. Bg6+ winning the black queen. You may well recognise this, with colours reversed, as a familiar trap in the Budapest. How many times have the moves in this game occurred in my 7 million game database? A big fat zero.

You see why so many kids tell me about the ‘secret opening tricks’ they’ve learnt: this is one of a whole series of videos by the same presenter. Even some otherwise reputable sources have their fair share of videos recommending dodgy opening traps (don’t get me started on the Fishing Pole Trap). If you look at the comments you’ll soon discover that there must be millions of players worldwide who have been taken in by this sort of thing and think the idea of the opening is to memorise traps and spring them on unwary opponents. Facebook groups concerning chess books and chess teachers are bombarded with requests for recommended books and lessons about opening traps.

In this case, no harm was done and some important lessons were learnt. Misunderstandings are an important learning tool, as long as you have a teacher who can put you right. I wonder how many novices, misled by the seductive idea of opening traps, fail to make progress and eventually give up because they have the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to do at the start of the game.

Richard James

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Indian Defence

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about John Cochrane’s games against Moheschunder Bannerjee from the 1850s. Bannerjee had learnt chess using the rules prevalent in India at the time, in which, amongst other differences, pawns were not allowed to move two squares on their first move.

In many of the games in which Bannerjee had black, he experimented with what would now be called the King’s Indian Defence, with Cochrane usually choosing the Four Pawns Attack. If you believe ChessBase (not a 100% reliable source but I don’t have immediate access to the contemporary records) some of the games started with the Pirc move order: 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6, with Cochrane, not wanting to block his c-pawn, preferring 3. Bd3 to the usual 3. Nc3. They investigated the further moves 3.. g6 4. c4 Bg7 5. Nc3 O-O 6. f4 e5 7. fxe5 dxe5 8. d5.

If you’re interested in what King’s Indian Defences from the 1850s looked like, here are a couple of examples.

In this game Black miscalculated the tactics on move 24, missing the force of Cochrane’s queen sacrifice

Here, Bannerjee brought off a neat finish.

Although the King’s Indian Defence was Bannerjee’s usual choice when Cochrane opened 1. d4, he also tried other ideas.

Here’s a Grünfeld Defence, in which Cochrane brings off a familiar smothered mate:

Finally, a Nimzo-Indian Defence where Bannerjee blundered a piece in a difficult position on move 25.

The name ‘Indian Opening’ was first used by Löwenthal in his book on the London 1862 Congress (published in 1864), annotating a game between Valentine Green, another player who spent time in India, and Louis Paulsen, which started 1. e4 e5 2. d3. ‘Indian Defence’ was first used in the Chess Player’s Chronicle in 1884, referring to one of the Cochrane-Bannerjee games which started 1. e4 d6 2. d4 g6. The current opening nomenclature was only developed in the period between the two world wars, when what we now call the Indian Defences (starting 1. d4 Nf6) were being investigated by the Hypermodern School and their immediate successors.

If more notice had been taken of Bannerjee’s games against Cochrane, chess openings might have developed in a very different way.

Richard James

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Unsound Sacrifices

It was the last week of term at the primary school chess club. The children had all completed their games the previous week and received their fluffy mascots. At the start of the session we handed out the Megafinal qualification forms to the lucky recipients and then moved onto the traditional end of term simul.

There were 19 players present and six large tables in the room so I appointed the six strongest players as team captains, with one to a table, and distributed the other players into teams, leaving one team with four players and five teams with three players each.

One of the games started like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bc4 Nxe4
5. Nxe4 d5
6. Bd3

I was impressed that they found the right move here, and, when they suggested it, confirmed that it was the best move. At this level most of my opponents play Bxd5, but it’s clearly better to keep the bishop rather than the knight.

6.. dxe4
7. Bxe4 Bd6
8. d3 O-O

At this point I expected them to do something sensible like O-O, the usual move here, but instead they surprised me by playing Nd4. I explained that I could capture the knight. “Yes, we know”, their captain replied. “We want to play this move.”

I then realised what they had in mind, so the game continued:

8. Nd4 Nxd4
9. Qh5

As expected. They were sacrificing a piece for a mate threat, hoping that I wouldn’t notice.

9.. g6

Good enough, but 9.. Nxc2+ was more accurate as White could now have played Qd1.

10. Qh6

Now I spotted that they might be planning Bg5, followed by Bf6 and Qg7#, but I decided I had time to meet that threat and played:

10… Nxc2+, winning easily with my extra material.

I suppose I have to be impressed with the idea, which demonstrates imagination and creativity as well as the ability to think ahead. Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn’t going to work against a reasonably competent opponent. If you want to play for a mating attack on move 8 it would make much more sense to play Ng5 when Qh5 really is a threat, but instead they wanted to bait the trap.

I should add, in case anyone from the school is reading this, that the teams played really well in the simul, two of them totally outplaying me, although I think I might have almost equalised in one game when time was called.

Two days earlier I’d been demonstrating the Aronian-Kramnik game from the Candidates Tournament to a group of rather stronger players (about 800-1000 rating) at Richmond Junior Club.

You’ve probably seen the game already, so will be aware that the first moves were:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Bc5
5. Bxc6 dxc6
6. O-O Qe7
7. h3

I asked the class to guess Black’s next move, telling them it wasn’t an easy move to find.

Several of the class liked the idea of Bxh3. One of the stronger players in the group told me he’d play either Bxh3 or Bg4. Someone else suggested Ng4, possibly thinking of the Fishing Pole trap.

Again, you have to be impressed, up to a point. They’d identified that White’s last move had created a weakness and they wanted to take advantage of it. Most of them have seen games in which the winner successfully sacrificed a piece for a winning attack on the enemy king. I might have been more impressed if someone had suggested the idea of Be6, Qd7 and then Bxh3, which, if White gives you the opportunity, will give you two pawns for the piece and a stronger attack.

As you probably know, Kramnik actually played 7.. Rg8 here, continuing with Nh5 and g5, and winning with a brilliant sacrificial attack against Aronian’s king.

It occurred to me some time ago that I was mistaken in thinking that when players at this level lost a piece they were either playing too impulsively or looking at the board but not seeing. Once you talk to children about their moves you’ll realise that very often they know they’re losing a piece but either think it doesn’t matter, or, as in these two examples, think they’re doing something rather clever.

This is what happened, for rather different reasons, in both these examples.

In the first position, they were simply setting a trap which they hoped I’d fall into. How should we look at this? A failure to consider risks and probabilities? Immaturity of thought, playing a move based on what they hope their opponent will play rather than what their opponent is likely to play? A lack of understanding that Superior Force Wins and how to play endings?

The second example (playing, for example, Bxh3 rather than Kramnik’s Rg8) is a higher level error. These players have seen lots of examples of sacrificial attacks but lack the ability to calculate whether or not the sacrifice works and the experience to estimate whether or not the sacrifice is likely to work. Of course all chess teachers like to demonstrate this sort of game, but as you progress in chess you realise that in real life most potential sacrifices don’t work, and that you’ll reject the majority of the sacrifices you consider.

Returning, for a moment, to the first diagram, according to my database, two players (rated 1855 and 1949, so about my level) have tried 9. Bxh7+ here. If you’ve learnt the Greek Gift sacrifice it’s very tempting, isn’t it? I suspect that if I showed this position to the Saturday group, many of whom will know the idea, a lot of them would suggest the same thing.

In this position, though, it just doesn’t work. After 9.. Kxh7 10. Ng5+ Kg8 11. Qh5 Black can defend comfortably with Bf5 (or, if he prefers, 11.. Bb4+ 12. c3 Qxd3 13. cxb4 Nxb4). It’s important to know basic tactical ideas like the Greek Gift and Légall’s Mate, but you have to understand that they don’t always work. The Greek Gift, for example, is unlikely to work if your opponent can, as in this position, play Bf5 in reply to Qh5.

Richard James

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The Cochrane Gambit

John Cochrane (1798-1878) was one of the most interesting figures in 19th century chess. Rod Edwards ranks him among the world’s top 15 players for half a century, from 1820 to 1870, yet he never played any formal competitive chess.

Cochrane was a scion of the Scottish nobility, a member of the family of the Earls of Dundonald. He joined the Royal Navy as a young man, but changed his career and became a barrister. In the early 1820s he played casual games against the leading French players of the time and wrote a book on the game. He then moved to India to further his legal career. He spent the years from 1841 to 1843 in London, where he proved himself superior to everyone except Howard Staunton. Back in Calcutta, he played many games against two local players, Moheschunder Bannerjee and Saumchurn Guttack, which were published in England, mostly by Staunton.

Cochrane is perhaps best remembered today for the Cochrane Gambit, which goes like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nf6
3. Nxe5 d6
4. Nxf7 Kxf7

There are 848 games with this on MegaBase2018, with White scoring a healthy 59%.

Cochrane and Bannerjee tested this over many games in the 1850s, with Cochrane invariably following up with the natural 5. Bc4+. Bannerjee tried three ways of getting out of check: Ke8, Be6 and d5.

One of their games continued:

5. Bc4+ Ke8 6. O-O c5 7. h3 Qc7 8. f4 Nc6 9. Nc3 a6 10. a4 Qe7 11. Nd5 Qd8 12. d4 cxd4 13. e5 Nxd5 14. Bxd5 dxe5 15. Bxc6+ bxc6 16. Qh5+ Kd7 17. fxe5 Kc7 18. Rf7+ Kb8 19. e6 Bd6 20. Bg5 Qb6 21. a5 Qc5

So far Black has defended well, but this is an oversight. The correct move was Qb4. Cochrane now has a pretty win: 22. Bf4 Qb4 23. c3 and Black will have to give up his queen to prevent Bxd6#.

22. b4

White misses his opportunity…

22.. Qe5

… but Black gives him a second chance. Instead, either Qc3 or Qd5 would have provided a sufficient defence.

23. Bf4 Qxe6

Losing at once. His only chance was Qxf4.

24. Qc5 Qxf7
25. Bxd6+ 1-0

Cochrane’s gambit led an underground existence for more than a century, until it was revived in the late 1970s, its most prominent regular practitioner being the Latvian IM Alvis Vitolinsh. 5. Bc4+ was now considered insufficient and instead attention turned to 5. d4, which was almost always played at this time.

By the late 1990s attention had switched to another 5th move for White: Nc3, which is preferred by today’s engines. It reached the big time when Topalov punted it against Kramnik in 1999, the game resulting in a thrilling draw.

Since then, though, the Cochrane Gambit’s only appearance in top level chess came in 2016, when Ivanchuk was unsuccessful in a blitz game against the Chinese GM Li Chao.

Objectively, the gambit is not quite sound. If you like this sort of thing it may well be worth a try in blitz games at lower levels. For the piece you get two pawns and some attacking chances against Black’s displaced king, which, if you’re not playing a well booked-up master strength player, might be considered reasonable compensation. Why not give it a go yourself, in commemoration of the life and chess career of John Cochrane?

Richard James

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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

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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

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