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Choosing the Right Chess Set

When we first start learning chess we often do so using an old hand me down chess set that’s been sitting, dusty and neglected, in the family closet for years. These sets sometimes are thematic, depicting the pawns and pieces as characters from a popular historical period, movie or television show. Other times, these sets are made up of extremely tiny pieces that, because of their size, make it difficult to distinguish a Bishop from a pawn. While they serve their purpose for the beginner, they’re not the standard. By standard, I mean a chess set used in rated tournament play. When the beginner decides to take his or her game on the road and play at the local chess club, they’ll most likely not find anyone playing with a set that has Homer Simpson as its King!

My younger students as well as my adult students eventually ask me what kind of chess set they should be playing on. Before giving my answer, I’d like to mention the qualities that define a proper chess set. The pawns and pieces should easy to distinguish from one another. Small chess sets, those with a King height of 1 ½ inches or less, are often void of detail which makes the pawns and Bishops difficult to distinguish from one another. Other pieces, such as the King and Queen can be difficult to identify as well (at least to the beginner). Therefore, a good chess set will have a King height of 3 ¾ to 4 inches. Another factor to consider is the material the pawns and pieces are made of. After the beginner has spent many months studying chess, they sometimes feel the need to reward themselves with a decent chess set. When I say set, I’m referring to the pieces and board. You can find some amazing wooden sets available, some costing thousands of dollars. While these sets are lovely, they are made of wood and are thus fragile. If a Pawn or piece from your $1,000.00 set falls off the table and breaks, you’ll have to pay roughly $31.00 to replace that single piece, if you can find someone who sells replacement pieces.

A better choice is a plastic tournament set. You can buy them inexpensively and they are considered the standard for tournament play throughout the world. Therefore, when students ask me what type of chess set to purchase, my answer is always the same, a plastic tournament set. These Pawns and pieces are made from extremely durable plastic which makes them difficult to break (a plus with kids). They come weighted or unweighted. For young children, I’d recommend the unweighted set because the weights are often small metal cylinders that can eventually fall out of the piece’s base. This can be a choking hazard for children. For older students, I recommend a triple weighted set. The weight helps to keep the pieces from tipping over which can be handy when playing Blitz or if you play outside and wind is a factor.

The price of plastic pieces ranges from $10.00 to $40.00 which is better than spending $1,000.00. The other advantage to using an inexpensive set is that you can use the money you save to invest in chess books or training software which is far more important that a fancy set of pieces.

The standard design used in tournament play is the Staunton pattern. However, there are small differences in the way in which the pawns and pieces are designed in the various sets available. Some Knights, for example, have greater detail in their manes while some Bishops have a more pronounced Mitre. Normally, the more expensive the plastic set, the greater the level of detail. I’m very picky about my plastic sets, having settled on a plastic reproduction of the pieces used in the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match (an officially excepted pattern for use in tournament play). You have choices even when it comes to plastic playing pieces! Now let’s talk about boards.

Wooden boards are nice but they’re expensive and not very portable. Invest in a vinyl roll up tournament board. They cost less than $10.00, are easy to transport and if you spill something on them, you can simply wipe it off (try that with an expensive hand oiled Teak board that costs $300.00). These vinyl roll up boards are also the standard of tournament play. Vinyl tournament boards have 2 ¼ inch squares (designed to accommodate pieces with a King height on 3 ¾ to 4 inches) and letters and numbers running along the board’s edges that denote the files and ranks. This makes it much easier for the beginner to play through their own games as well as games from chess books.

It is best, as a beginner, to use a tournament set since they are used at chess clubs and in tournaments across the globe. However, there are additional reasons for using such a set. First off, because of the piece and board size, it’s easy to move the pieces around without accidentally knocking nearby pieces over (try that with a tiny chess set during a fie minute game of Blitz). The alpha-numeric symbols on the board’s edges make it easier for the beginner to start recording their games which is extremely important. It also serves to help teach chess notation to the chess novice since the beginner simply has to line up the file letter and rank number to identify a square. While the average player can do this on a board without these alpha-numeric markers, the beginner often finds this task difficult and can write down the wrong square without a visual aid.

There is also the notion that you’ll look more like a serious chess player with the right equipment. If I visit someone and they pull out a tournament set, I immediately think “this guy probably has some experience on the board. Lastly, you might want to consider a travel bag for your roll up board and pieces. This type of chess bag comes with inner compartments for your pieces and board as well as a chess clock. They run roughly $15.00 to $30.00 and are designed for the player on the go, having handles and straps to make toting it around easier. It beats carrying around your pieces in a brown paper bag (although I know a brilliant chess hustler who does just this to lull his opponent into a false sense of superiority)!

In closing, hold off on buying a wooden chess set. Again, your money is better spent on training materials. While top level players can be seen playing with lovely wooden pieces on equally wonderful wooden boards, they’ve earned that right. To be fair, I’ll make you a deal. Get your rating up to around 1900 and you’ve earned such a set. Until then spend your money wisely. There’s a big difference between owning great chess gear and playing great chess! Speaking of “until then”, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Studying the Endgame

I wrote a few weeks ago about spending more time on endgame study. This week, GM Davies responded to a reader on his Facebook wall that instead of buying a book on the 2. b3 Sicilian, he should study the endgame. That struck a sympathetic vibration. I believe that we chess improvers should spend more time mastering tactics, strategy, and technique and less time obsessing over openings.

I spend my time on tactics, master games, endgames, and openings. In that order. Maybe 10% on openings.

Endgame study covers a broad watershed. One of our local experts – who will tell anyone in the coffee shop he is a USCF rated expert, whether they’re interested or not – tells novices they need to learn the Philidor and Lucena positions. There are good reasons to learn these endgame maneuvers at the appropriate time. I think there are much more important endgame lessons that a novice needs to learn before they memorize the Philidor and Lucena positions. To my mind, that’s rather like telling a novice they need to master the Sämisch Variation of the King’s Indian. No, they don’t.

Novices need to master the basic checkmates. They need to know them cold. I run into many intermediate players who still struggle with basic mates and walk into stalemates that are easily avoided or waste moves when a simple path to mate is available.

I’ll suggest that a novice or intermediate player does not need to memorize the technique for lone king versus bishop and knight. When I mentioned this to my former coach yesterday at the coffee shop, he told me in his fifty years of chess, he’d seen it only three times. There is so much to learn that is vital and practical, the lone king versus bishop and knight mate can wait, in my opinion.

So, where should an intermediate player look to study the endgame. Well, I’d advise against starting with something like Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s a monumental work, but it’s best saved for experts and masters.

Let’s consider briefly what’s practical for the chess improver to study. Stated differently, what endgame knowledge will be immediately useful to us in our games?

Rook endings are the most common, but the most fundamental are king and pawn endings. The critical lessons we need to master are opposition, triangulation, reserved tempi, and shouldering. Identifying critical squares is also important. With a sole king against one pawn, it’s an easy concept to grasp. Put multiple pawns for both sides on the board and it quickly becomes complicated. Mastering the idea is where we learn how to breakthrough with the king and prevent breakthroughs.

According to both Glenn Flear in Practical Endgame Play and Fundamental Chess Endings by Mueller and Lamprecht, the most common endgames are rook and minor piece for each side. Working on those endgames will pay big dividends. Especially R+B v R+N. Next in frequency is pure rook endgames. They’re tricky. Bishop v. knight endings are common, too.

My suggestion is to spend considerable time on pawn ending fundamentals, rook endings, minor piece endings, and queen endings in pretty much that order.

I have a couple of suggestions on resources for endgame study.

Some players learn best from videos. The endgame series by Karsten Mueller is comprehensive. It pretty much follows his book with Lamprecht. I’d recommend that for stronger improvers. For intermediate players, I’d suggest instead the endgame DVDs in GM Daniel King’s PowerPlay series for ChessBase. GM King targets his videos at improvers and his instruction is always practical in focus. He doesn’t cover the entire breadth of endgames, but you will learn a lot from his DVDs on practical pawn endgames and practical rook endgames. Watch them, and your endgame should improve a lot.

For books, I’ll suggest that John Nunn’s recent book, Understanding Chess Endgames, is a great place to start. The book covers 100 endgame themes, all of them critical knowledge for the improving chess player who wants to advance to expert. I’d suggest complementing Nunn’s book with Mastering Endgame Strategy by Johan Hellsten. It’s also good to focus on the endgame play of some othe very best, such as Capablanca, Smyslov, and Fischer. You might also add Steve Giddins’ The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames for that perspective.

If you want a little more detail, John Nunn’s two volume Nunn’s Chess Endings is also practical in its endgame coverage. It would be an excellent follow-up after mastering Understanding Chess Endgames.

It’s nice to have a comprehensive endgame manual, such as Mueller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings or Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings. Just realize, these are reference works, not introductory textbooks.

If you master the books I’ve recommended or sat through the 60 or 70 hours of endgame videos and worked diligently through all the material, then you’ll be ready for more advanced endgame instruction, such as that found in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

Endgame study doesn’t end. Not even for GMs. The topics just get more advanced.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season!

Glenn Mitchell

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Seeking Stronger Opponents

Your path to chess improvement might include tactics training, endgame study, adoption of a solid opening repertoire, study of master games in the lines you play, reading on strategy, regular coaching sessions, etc., but does it involve playing enough quality chess?

An area that players seeking improvement easily forget is that just spending many hours playing opponents that are better than them, where the focus is on quality not pushing wood quickly, is a key method of learning. It is all too easy for players to fall into the cosy routine of playing only opponents of a similar standard or weaker. If you really want to take a step up, you have to challenge yourself and seek out some tougher opponents.

If you get into the habit of expecting high quality moves to come back at you, you will improve your own move selection – because you will have to just to stay in the game. As one World Champion said:

“When you see a good move, look for a better one”. – Emanuel Lasker

How true that is – and a mentality of working hard at the board will be cultivated if you know that your opponent is fully capable of punishing mistakes.

The lessons learned in your own games are more real and unforgettable than anything you might learn away from the board. Nothing focuses the mind more than experiencing a painful defeat. And you just can’t recreate the intensity of playing an actual game in training exercises. Making time for playing more games with quality opposition has to be at the top of any improver’s to-do-list!

At tournaments, that might mean playing in the section above the one you usually play in. In team matches it might mean asking your captain if you can play on a higher board (as long as it doesn’t breach any rules). It might mean considering events you wouldn’t normally play in, because it’s keeping company with strong players, not playing weaker players, that improves your chess.

If you find it difficult finding enough opportunities to play stronger opponents over-the-board you may wish to consider correspondence chess on a server like FICGS. You will soon get used to strong moves coming back at you.

Once you’ve played some games, careful analysis of them will reveal what you missed – and what your opponents missed – and where you could have improved. You can do this most productively with a chess coach or with a stronger player that can spare you some time. A chess engine might help with tactics, but it won’t tell you why one strategic plan is better than another.

If you seek challenging opposition and analyse your games properly – and nothing else – you’ll be doing more than most people.

Angus James

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“Nerves beat quality”

The FIDE World Cup in Tromso has seen some excellent commentary from Susan Polgar, Lawrence Trent and Nigel Short, among others. Even former World Champion Garry Kasparov, in his words “the highest-rated ever kibitzer”, rang in to add his views and you can still listen to his comments by clicking on this link.

One of the interesting things he said was that “nerves beat quality” in the knock-out tournament format, with performance in rapid and blitz games being key to making progress. Also, sheer stamina is required to merely survive the schedule. Indeed, failing to turn up on time to a game was enough to eliminate one player, misunderstanding or not.

Kasparov still concludes “eventually Kramnik will win” because of his “immense quality”. “Nerves beat quality” in knock-outs, unless you’re playing Kramnik then!

Angus James

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It’s just a flesh wound!

When you can’t avoid checkmate or you can’t find a reasonable move, it may be time to consider resigning. Many beginners and even improving players will play on all the way to checkmate even when there is nothing they can do. Maybe it’s because that is the way they have been taught? Maybe it’s because they are praying for a miracle? Maybe it is because they hope their opponent will make a massive mistake? Maybe it’s because they think they will learn something from being checkmated?

It doesn’t happen that often in over the board games played under slow play conditions, but I’ve found talented juniors doing it, which surprised me. I can’t help thinking this never-resign attitude reflects a misunderstanding about the chess. What does it say about your chess skills if you don’t know when you’re hopelessly lost? Isn’t it better to preserve some energy for the next game, or some constructive post-mortem analysis you might learn something from?

The Black Knight in this amusing video clip remained ridiculously over-confident throughout the fight.

Angus James

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How to trap Heffalumps

Stronger opponents are not infallible. Stronger players can be a bit too sure of themselves, and they can underestimate their opponents. That is their weakness. One thing I’ve learnt from analysing my own games is that no one plays perfect chess, not even titled players, they just tend to make fewer serious errors, that’s all.

To give yourself as good a chance as possible when playing a stronger player, one approach is to take some risks instead of playing it safe and solid. As Simon Webb said in his book Chess for Tigers, in the How to trap Heffalumps chapter:

“The basic principle is to head for a complicated or unclear position such that neither of you has much idea what to do, and hope that he makes a serious mistake before you do.”

This approach is unlikely to improve your standard of play or help you learn much, but it should make your opponent sweat a bit and not give him/her the satisfaction of a smooth technical win. In the case of the following game, I am the weaker player with little expectation of a draw let alone a win. I started out carefully in the opening, aiming for just simple development and a playable (but unusual) middle game rather than trying to outplay him in the opening. However, this solid start quickly gave way to more basic slightly dubious attacking instincts. Perhaps surprised by my impertinence, the stronger player blundered under pressure. As the position was quite critical, there was no coming back from that one mistake and it wasn’t too difficult to convert even in time trouble. 

Angus James

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British Game of the Day

At the time of writing, the 100th British Chess Championships is underway in Torquay, Devon. The Game of the Day coverage produced by IM Andrew Martin is available free to watch here:

http://englishchess.org.uk/BCC/game-of-the-day/

I think Andrew provides some interesting insights into the thinking and psychology of strong players as he comments on these games. I particularly like his analysis of the Round 1 encounter between top seed GM Gawain Jones and lower half of the draw player John Reid.

Angus James

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Accidental Queen Sacrifices

I run chess clubs in several schools and I often see children losing their Queens for either very little compensation or none at all. It’s not a problem that can be simply resolved by saying “move your Queen to the second rank” or “don’t move your Queen too early” or something similar. That might help her survive the opening phase of the game, but eventually she is going to have to get in amongst the fray.

What I try to do is make students more aware of the potential pitfalls of putting your Queen in amongst the opponent’s ranks, especially when she is on her own. While it might seem tempting to try to win a pawn with your Queen, such manoeuvres are inherently dangerous. It’s a bit like deciding your most powerful piece should take a stroll into the enemy camp to kill a foot soldier. Does the goal justify the risk?

The other thing worth saying is if you do find your Queen trapped there are often ways to release her by sacrificing minor material.

I’ve dug out two of my own games to illustrate the perils of Queen sorties. In the following game White gets his Queen trapped and misses an opportunity to free her by sacrificing a minor piece for two pawns.

In this game, Black takes a hot pawn but then realises that the Queen is trapped and takes steps to ensure she survives by sacrificing a minor piece. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, but it enabled Black to fight on for quite a long time.

Angus James

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Top Tips for Tournaments

Recently I was reminded just how hard it is to win a FIDE-rated swiss tournament if you’re not a clear favourite. When you’re playing people who are more or less the same strength as you it is tough making progress. In addition, quite a few players are under-rated because either they’re juniors or they don’t play enough FIDE-rated games to get a representative rating.

The FIDE-rated tournament I played in was a well-organised e2e4 event in Sunningdale back in May. In my case I started with a half-point bye as I couldn’t make the 1st round, and had a couple of straightforward wins against some slightly weaker players in rounds 2 and 3. This is as good as it got. In round 4 with White I got a little surprised in the opening and used up too much time to find the right opening moves and while still standing slightly better I bottled it by offering a draw. Not a courageous decision. In round 5 with Black I didn’t have enough time to prepare before the game and I walked into a known attack that I could have avoided with a bit more preparation – and was lost for most of the game despite my efforts to turn the tide. In round 6 as White I had a 100+ move epic that included 50+ moves trying to convert a technically drawn king and pawn ending a pawn up, and unfortunately for me my opponent played it flawlessly to draw. In round 7 with Black I was so exhausted I offered a draw to a much lower rated opponent after about move 6 and a draw was agreed on move 13 when I actually stood a bit better. I think it was partly not sleeping well the previous nights that led to the tiredness – not because of drinking, but because of hay fever triggered by tree pollens.

I only had a worse position in 1/7 games, and yet I only finished on 4/7. This could just be bad luck, but there is probably more to it than that. This experience might well be a case study in how not to succeed in a tournament. So I suppose the remedy is the opposite of what I did.

Here then are my five top tips for playing in FIDE-rated tournaments:

  • Play all the rounds
  • Aim to get a familiar middle game from your opening
  • Don’t offer a draw unless the position is lifeless
  • Get enough sleep (perhaps May isn’t an optimal time for hay fever sufferers to attempt to play in a tournament)
  • Prepare a bit for each game (if you can’t do that between each round it’s probably not the right event)

These are my personal insights based on my experience, but have you got any other tips you’d like to share? Please send your comments.

Angus James

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