CC v OTB Practical Thoughts

As many of you know I captain several Hertfordshire Chess Association teams and a game from Board 7 of our ‘A’ Team playing in the C&DCCC Division 2 Sinclair attracted my attention by the insightful notes that our player, Ross Brennan, made after claiming a draw by threefold repetition. Ross, as well as being a correspondence chess player, is also a strong over-the-board club player and has kindly allowed me to show you his thinking in one of his two games against Trevor Bates playing for Surrey ‘B’ Team.

Ross (playing Black) states: – “Basically my opponent played a sound game as White – very solid Torre Attack, which presumably followed someone’s book for about the first 17 or 18 moves. The position reached around then is evaluated as about +0.3 or += in old money, so White supposedly has a small but stable advantage. Until recently this line seems to have been regarded as dead equal, but – presumably a fairly recent discovery – it is actually a bit awkward to play as Black and White has a slight initiative. (OTB I would certainly lose this position against any reasonably strong player.)

Certainly it meant coming up with some decent moves to hold the position, and allowing White ideas like Nd6 then Qxf7+ is just not something you would consider OTB, because it looks too scary – “my king position must be too compromised after that”. However, the point of the defence was that White needed to give up two pieces for rook and a couple of pawns if he wanted to keep playing to win. In correspondence play it was then possible to work out that the uncoordinated minor pieces could eventually be coordinated and compromise the White king position. At most points if Black exchanges queens then White just wins with the Q-side passed pawns…but with queens on his king is too exposed.

At the end, counter-intuitively, the way for Black to play for a win is, finally, to exchange queens and gamble that he might have a winning endgame. But I chickened out instead!”

I am grateful to Ross for his comments and the computer says that the game finished with an equal position. Incidentally, Ross did win his other game as White against the same opponent!

John Rhodes


Fair Assessment

“All assessment is a perpetual work in progress.”
Linda Suskie

Last week we had a look at an endgame from one of our club games. The article is available HERE The position in the spotlight was this one:

Neither player did a very good job assessing the position (White was far too pessimistic, while black was too optimistic) and a number of moves later they reached the following one. How would you assess it?

White is still down a pawn which is surprising after being on the verge to even up the material in the first diagram. We made the observation it had to play aggressive. That did not happen and the main reason was poor assessment: she considered her position was lost!… You do not need a lot of endgame knowledge to observe now a number of differences:

  • The d6-pawn has advanced only once; pushing it towards promotion should have been the main focus
  • Kb7 is stopping Ra5 from reaching the 8th rank and help with the pawn promotion
  • Black’s pawn chain is still alive and far more dangerous now with the passed e4-pawn

Your chess sense should tell you black is back in the game and has a fighting chance. Now imagine you’ve been playing this game and whatever you felt in the first position, this one feels worst. Key is in such moments to calm down, reset and see what can be done to still achieve a good outcome. Have you ever been told of being too easy to play against? That means in tough situations or when things are not going in your favour, you cannot stop the slide and put up a fight. It is possible white was aware the latest position was worst; unfortunately it did not cross her mind to look for a way out. You might say that is impossible: white might just as well resign, saving time and effort if it accepts her faith. That is true except there’s always one hope we all have: the opponent might blunder. Of course you need to put up a fight and give it the opportunity to do so. Very rarely opponents blunder on their own.

Going back to the position a fair assessment should include a way out of it. White must eliminate the dangerous black pawns even if that means losing the important d6-pawn. Once white has that, it could look one more time to see if there’s more and if finding nothing, it should settle for a draw. It would be better than losing as it happened in our game after they reached a Black queen for a White rook type of endgame. In retrospect Black could think he was right all the time to think he was winning. That would be wrong; a fair assessment is needed at all times regardless of the outcome.

Valer Eugen Demian


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


“What say you?” The 1 minute challenge (11)

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer”
Bruce Lee

A quick reminder about how to do it:

  • Have a look at the position for 1 minute (watch the clock)
  • Think about the choices in front of you and pick the one you feel it is right
  • Verify it in your mind the best you can
  • Compare it with the solution

Endgame play continues to be a tough nut to crack as I can see week after week at our club. I asked both players about this position and got the following answers:
Mengbai: “Don’t know. I guess I am losing”
Steven: “Don’t know. Winning?”
Have a look at the position (White to move) and decide for yourselves.

It is an interesting endgame, one you could encounter quite often at club level. Going over the position we can see the following important aspects:

  • Black is up a pawn
  • Kf4 is by far better than Kg8; the rather obvious Kf4-e5 would put it right in the center, supporting the d5-pawn
  • White has a passed d5-pawn, while Black has a passed a7-pawn; d5 is much stronger since it already is on the 5th rank. Black stands to lose the a7-pawn fairly quickly
  • Rd1 is pretty much tied up behind the passer but if White is not playing aggressive, it could swing to the 2nd row and possibly capture some white pawns in the process; if Black captures the f2-pawn and there is no imminent win for White, the e4-pawn becomes a passer and a threat
  • Rc5 is not placed in its best position but working together with the d5-pawn and its king, could make it very useful

Did you have something similar coming out of your analysis? How about a plan of action for White? In my opinion, after Kf4-e5 the combined threats of promoting the d5-pawn and back rank mating Kg8 (when it moves over to stop the passer) are overwhelming. White is simply winning here. The only challenge is to find the right moves and play aggressive.

In the game White managed to win the a7-pawn but her play was very tentative. I am not sure what was she concerned about when her passer reached the d6-square and stayed there longer than needed. Probably it is a good thing I had to watch other games meantime and missed a number of moves played. The simple line below shows a straight forward way for White to win. Next time we are going to look at the last part of this endgame.

Valer Eugen Demian


Missing Once, not Missing Twice

“It is better to learn late than never”
Publilius Syrus

I have been talking about turn based chess for a while now. To some having 3 days to think for a move sounds outrageous; to others they understand you do not really think for 3 days. Life happens around us and that reduces the reflection time and attention span quite considerably. Today I have an interesting example from one of my games.

I had a promising position from the opening, just to rush it and allow Black to open it up. Black’s last move was 23… Bd5xa2, winning a pawn and obtaining two passed pawns on the queen side. Does White has anything to compensate the material disadvantage? I think it has:

  • The White pieces work together and are much better placed
  • Ra8 is not playing at all and as long as that is the case, White is actually up in material
  • Black’s castle has a chip in it White might be able to exploit
  • The combo queen + knight is always better than queen and bishop. Hope you know why

Are you convinced White has enough compensation for the pawn? It has. Do you think it might have sufficient compensation to play for a win? I was not so sure of that. The real question needing a good answer was how to continue the attack. Should I go for 24. Qe4+ or 24. Qh4+? Checking on h4 looked a bit too narrow. There was nothing imminent happening and I wanted to keep my pieces central. I also wanted to combine the attacking threats on the castle with a possible win of the a7-pawn. Unfortunately I did not analyse the position close enough and missed the resource available. Luckily later on I saw the attacking idea with the queen and knight combo and that allow me to get the perpetual. Hope you will enjoy the play and learn a thing or two from it.

Valer Eugen Demian


“What say you?” The 1 minute challenge (10)

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer”
Bruce Lee

A quick reminder about how to do it:
– Have a look at the position for 1 minute (watch the clock)
– Think about the choices in front of you and pick the one you feel it is right
– Verify it in your mind the best you can
– Compare it with the solution
Last year I published an article about “Quick decisions” needed in short time control games. You can review it HERE
This past week I had a flash back about that storming the castle attack and for some reason I felt the solution presented in that article was actually not the best. Let’s have another look at it and see which of the available options you prefer given the outcome. Have a look for a minute at the options presented and choose.

Here are some helpful thoughts for each line:
3. Qe2 (Played in the game) – having the queen not only join the attack but lead it, seemed an attractive choice. My guess is having your most powerful piece in the front line provides some confidence and could strike fear into the opposition. If Black plays like in the game, 6 moves later White reaches a clearly won position. Of course Black can play 3… Ng6 and the position holds.
3. Bxh6 (Suggested line) – it opens up the h-file, something white wanted all along. Black manages to play 3… Ng6, but that cannot do more than delay losing. Black has no useful defensive moves and both rooks (b7 and f8) do little to nothing.
3. Qb2 (New option #1) – the idea here is to take advantage of the pin along the g-file. The combination of White rooks dominating the g- and h-files and the battery along the a1-h8 diagonal is deadly. It is however a not very intuitive move: play on the queen side when the action is on the king side. I have seen stranger moves at club level though
3. Qc3 (New option #2) – same idea to take advantage of the pin along the g-file. The slight difference here is Black being able to play 3… Ng4 since Rg3 must defend the White queen. White wins the knight and reaches a won endgame. This queen move is not as strange as the other one; some might see the battery connection along the 3rd row and think that could be used to bring the queen to the king side. In the same time the queen keeps an eye on the c7-pawn.

Has your opinion changed after reading the above? Possibly you did not choose 3. Qe2 since Black holds at correct play. We all should consider the best replies for the opposition when deciding what to play. The other three choices however lead to different winning positions. Not sure which one fits your style. Personally in a game situation I think I would stick with my suggested line (3. Bxh6). In the end it still feels the most direct for me. The beauty of it is to discover two other options and that makes it worthwhile. This should be a good sample of what home preparation is about. Positions, combinations, lines stick with you until you find a reasonable solution resonating with you. Do the work and don’t let them linger on.
P.S. The exciting article by Richard James “Missed Opportunities” is perfectly timed. What better example of how useful the 1 minute challenge as part of preparation could be? GM Meier could have used it.

Valer Eugen Demian


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 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


Need Sure Points? Volga-Benko Gambit Edition

“A dream becomes a goal when action is taken toward its achievement”
Bo Bennett (businessman)

A while ago I wrote two articles about Volga-Benko gambit. The first one was based on a game I played and the second one was a follow up with ideas of improvement for Black’s play. You can review the second one HERE
This article is a follow up of idea #3 from it. The main point of both games below is once Black achieves an active setup, that balances out the sacrificed pawn. A balanced position poses interesting questions:
White: I am up a pawn and under pressure. How much risk should I take to continue? If I give back the pawn, my position could be worst and then I have to fight for a draw. If I do nothing, why would I play ahead?
Black: My active position compensates being down in material. If White decides to risk it, I have to make sure I will get my pawn back. If White sits tight and does nothing aggressive, I can also wait and maintain my active position
Hope the games below will be a good starting point in your preparation if you wish to introduce/ maintain Volga-Benko as part of your repertoire.

Game 1: a game played years ago with white looking to surprise black with a lesser known variation. Black managed to setup an active position with ease and both players agreed to a draw.

Game 2: a newer game where both sides made sure they reached a desired setup; once that happened, it felt like a standoff with neither side willing to blink first.

Valer Eugen Demian


Need Sure Points? London System Edition

“A dream becomes a goal when action is taken toward its achievement”
Bo Bennett (businessman)

If a draw is what you need with White, the London System is a solid choice. First and foremost you can play its standard setup against the majority of defences Black might want to use. That is incredible flexibility if you really think about it. Secondly it is not hard to learn and the resulting position is very solid. Thirdly the main idea is to attack on the king side; however White can engage in battle anywhere else on the board.

Personally I have tried Colle and Colle-Zukertort where the main difference is white’s dark squares bishop being left on c1 for later deployment as needed. A lot of people though stand by the London System as one of their favorite. The simple fact that bishop gets developed on the f4-square before white plays e2-e3, is used as one of the main reasons. Do you play/ have played or are interested to play the London System? It could be an unexpected surprise for opponents you know are well versed in opening theory.

I have chosen sample 2 games, one from the past and one more recent, where the opening of the d-file allowed quick exchanges of the heavy pieces. The positions left afterwards were pretty even so the draw was a natural result.

Valer Eugen Demian


Girl Power 2018

“Everyone has the impulse to be elite”
Alfre Woodard

GM Susan Polgar has been doing incredible work to promote girls chess. This past Saturday we ran our provincial final, qualifying our top girl to the 15th edition of Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational in St. Louis, Missouri. Chess is officially still considered a barbeque side activity in Canada and this is astonishing because we have great talents. I think they keep me and us going. I mean you have to see how a student who walked in the door a while ago comes up with this decent looking plan or combination. To each our own goals. We cannot be all World Champions even if we dream about it. That does not mean we don’t win our personal World Championship every now and then. I guess this is the beauty for us mortals; we win them more than once in our own way. Below is a selection of 3 World Championships won by our girls that day.

Sample #1
Imagine white has won two pawns in the opening, followed by massive exchanges leading into a rook and pawn endgame. The last Black pawn if you can believe it was at some point on f6, hopelessly blocked by an f4-pawn. White gave up the f4-pawn for the a6-pawn a first bad idea, but who could blame her? The endgame was so won, it could almost play itself out. Almost is never good enough and somehow that hopeless pawn reached f3. That is determination you know! Black could simply not be stopped. Do you believe if I told you she learned chess 3 years ago?

Sample #2
Round 2 decided the winner. It was not an easy game for black (the top rated player in the tournament) up to this point. She was under pressure with not a lot of space around. Luckily she reached this position. What happened next is an endgame played in true Capablanca style after rejecting the draw offer with confidence.

Sample #3
No report is worth its value without some tactical fireworks. This was quite a boring game for a while. I guess the girls decided they had enough of that and brought out the guns. One other reason might have been Black running low on time so she had no choice but to do something about it. What followed is something I have not seen in years. Enjoy!

Valer Eugen Demian