A Poisoned Pawn

“… The notorious Poisoned Pawn arises after 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6, with current theory suggests that the b2 pawn is not too heavily laced with arsenic, but it would be suicidal to enter the line without specialist knowledge.”
Graham Burgess, The Mammoth Book of Chess, 2000 edition, pg. 176

Fischer’s love for this controversial Sicilian Najdorf line is legendary. He was not just a “specialist” but the “guru” of it. People understood that fast and followed their newly discovered guru by playing it often; that is how an opening line becomes popular and players of all levels try to become immortals by finding the next refutation or proof of its validity. The engines have changed the game a lot and one critical aspect is proving a lot of gambits wrong; however a handful of them are still tough to crack and Najdorf, the poisoned pawn is one of them.

Back in 2014 I tried my first Najdorf, poisoned pawn as Black in a correspondence game and we drew it in 25 moves by perpetual and without any novelties or deviations. The chosen line was so well analysed, it made no sense for either of us to deviate and hope to get anything out of it. Today’s game followed a well analysed line as well; what is impressive about it is the surgical positional precision white used to win the game. It is a game played in the ICCF teams Olympiad Final 19th edition, the last edition played by post; a number of games are played by email, but each board (teams consist of 4 players each) has 3-4 players insisting to stick with playing by post as intended. The current standings for the final from where you can also see the situation on each board, can be seen HERE

Have you also been impressed with the positional play by ICCF GM Rufenacht? I think it puts this line under a strong question mark and it does not stop just there; the computer won’t be able to help you a lot if you need assistance. Black did extensive research to get out of the maze and it did not find the Ariadne’s thread; maybe you will but be prepared for a long road ahead. Of course if you find it, it will be published in the following Informator. Please don’t forget to mention who launched you down this quest though; good luck!… If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

Connected Passed Pawns

A few weeks ago I posted this endgame win by Kopylov over Botvinnik using connected passed pawns. In the Rhyl congress yesterday I did something similar, getting some powerful passed pawns that were much stronger than my opponent’s. His piece sacrifice seemed a bit desperate but the engine confirms that Black is winning anyway:

Sam Davies

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Hans Renette, in his biography of Henry Bird which I reviewed last week, reports that, on about 1 June 1874, three weeks before Staunton’s death, Staunton, Bird and Ignaz Kolisch discussed the Sicilian Defence over dinner.

“Ignaz who?”, you might ask if you’re not familiar with 19th century chess history. There’s another relatively new (2015) McFarland chess history book that will tell you all you need to know: Ignaz Kolisch The Life and Chess Games, by Fabrizio Zavatarelli.

Kolisch was a stronger player than Bird, and, from the limited information we have available, seems to have been one of the best players in the world in the mid to late 1860s. He was born on 6 April 1837 in what was then Pressburg, a city belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary. Now we call it Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In 1845 his family moved to Vienna, and young Ignaz soon learnt the moves of chess

He first came to the attention of the chess public in 1857, winning a match against Eduard Jenay, one of the leading Viennese players of the day. He travelled to Italy, then to France, where he drew a match against Adolf Anderssen, and then to England, where he played in two small knock-out tournaments run by the British Chess Association. In Cambridge in 1860 he beat the American Charles Stanley in the final. The following year in Bristol he was knocked out by the only other strong player in the competition, Louis Paulsen, in the first round. He spent much of the autumn playing a match against the same opponent. Paulsen won 7 games, Kolisch won 6, with no less than 18 draws, a remarkable number for the time.

At some point in the early 1860s Kolisch decided to cut back on his chess and enter the world of finance. By 1867 he was living in Paris, where an international tournament was taking place. He went along to watch, but after the event had already started decided to enter. He eventually won first prize (5000 francs and a Sèvres vase, which he immediately sold), ahead of the newcomer Winawer and probably the two strongest active players at the time, Steinitz and Neumann. Gustav Neumann, by the way, is another forgotten name who deserves a modern reassessment.

Rod Edwards gives Kolisch a rating of 2700 at the end of 1867, behind only the inactive Morphy, so, although there’s not much evidence to go on, you could argue that Kolisch was, if only briefly, the strongest active player in the world at the time.

But that was the end of his competitive chess career. He devoted the rest of his life (he died on 30 April 1889) to his business interests, investing wisely and becoming extremely wealthy. He continued his interest in the Royal Game, becoming a generous chess sponsor.

Zavatarelli considers Kolisch the first truly ‘universal’ player, equally at home playing dashing gambits and brilliant sacrifices in odds and coffee-house games, as he was playing the more modern positional chess which he preferred in most of his more serious encounters. His brilliancies deserve to be as well-known as those of Morphy.

Just as with the Bird book, if you have any interest at all in 19th century chess history you’ll find this an essential purchase. The chess and historical research appears to be meticulous, and if Edward Winter is impressed with its accuracy I’m not going to argue. It might be churlish to point out a couple of things. One of Kolisch’s earliest opponents, Karl Mayerhofer, an opera singer who might be considered for the Musicians team in any future edition of The Complete Chess Addict, is described on p12 as both a bass and a tenor. In fact he was a bass-baritone. We’re also told that the Duke of Brunswick’s father (yes, the Duke played Kolisch as well as Morphy) was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. He actually died in the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days earlier, so my Almey cousins from Earl Shilton, about whom more at another time in another place, just missed seeing him die. Curmudgeon that I am, I’d be tempted to deduct half a star because Zavatarelli’s English, unlike Renette’s, is not entirely idiomatic.

Here’s a game from Paris 1867. White’s 36th move is a blunder. Contemporary sources give Bc3, Qc3 and Qe3 as improvements. The engines concur, giving all three moves as likely draws with best play.

Richard James

Opening Principles Part Three: Working Together

In the first two articles in this series, we talked about pawns and minor pieces, specifically, what to do with them at the start of the game. The opening, the first ten to fifteen moves, is the foundation you build the rest of your game upon. Build that foundation right and you’ll set yourself up for a good middle-game, meaning you’ll be able to launch successful attacks which leads to a winning game. Build it wrong and you’ll more than likely be punished and lose the game. We know we should initially control the center with a pawn or two and then bring our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) out to active squares, those that also add to central square control. However, there’s another key idea we must embrace and that’s coordinating our pawns and minor pieces.

Our pawns and pieces must work together the way in which a successful sports team works together. This means coordination between all members of the team. One team member can’t win a game by himself and if everyone on the team is working against one another, chaos ensues (as well as a big loss). Coordination is a skill beginners must develop if they wish to improve and win games. While our first two opening principles, controlling the board’s center with a pawn or two and developing the minor pieces towards the center, seem easy enough to comprehend, there’s a bit more to it. Again, pawns and pieces must work together.

We know that control of the board’s center is your primary goal during the opening. Step one is moving a pawn or two to control one of those central squares (an opposition central square). Step two is bringing out the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops to add additional support to your centralized pawns as well as further centralized control. Now what?

Let’s start by looking at the Italian Opening (for White), an opening that all beginners should consider learning first. I suggest this as a first opening because the opening principles are clearing seen and learned when playing it. We’ll look at the first three moves. White starts with 1. e4 which opens up diagonals for both the Queen and the King-side Bishop. Just because it opens a pathway for the Queen to enter the game doesn’t mean you should bring her out right away. You have better pieces to bring into the game. When Black plays 1…e5, White follows with 2. Nf3 and Black defends the e5 pawn with 2…Nc6. White’s third move, 3. Bc4, puts the Bishop on a diagonal that cuts through the center and attacks the weak f7 pawn (weak because it’s only defended by the Black King). There are other squares upon which the Bishop can move to such as e2, d3 or b5 ( Bb5 being the Ruy Lopez opening which is a bit advanced for the absolute beginner). Moving the Bishop to e2 is rather passive and Blacks in the Queen. Moving the Bishop to d3 blocks in the d2 pawn and prevents the dark squared Bishop on c1 from coming out along the c1-h6 diagonal. You should never make moves during the opening that block in your pawns and pieces (within reason). Moving the Bishop to c4 seems to be the best choice here (for the beginner) and is the move that defines this opening. Let’s say that Black plays 3…Nf6. Now what do we do?

Principled play tells us that we should continue with the development of our pawns and minor pieces. When in doubt as to what to do, consider a move that adheres to the opening principles regarding the development of your pawns and pieces.

You should always try to find three potential moves before simply committing to one move. As the old chess adage goes, when you find a good move, look for a better one! We could make the move 4. d3 which allows the d pawn to protect the e4 pawn. While this appears to make sense since the pawns value is one while the Knight’s is three (meaning Black won’t trade Knight for pawn), try to think of a better move. How about 4. Nc3? The reason 4. Nc3 is better than the pawn push to d3 (remember, this article is for beginners first learning opening principles) is that the Knight on c3 is defending the attacked pawn and also attacking the d5 square. We want to control as much of the center as possible before our opponent does. When your opponent makes a move, look to see if any of your pawns or pieces are being attacked. It a pawn or piece is attacked and it has no defender, add one! The other move to consider would be 4. 0-0, Castling on the King-side (we’ll get into Castling next week). Castling is important but if your King is not under attack, hold off and continue development. Black play 4, Be7, Now What?

Now we can consider 5. d3. This move bolsters the e4 pawn and gives the Bishop on c1 a diagonal to patrol. Notice that the Bishop on c4 is outside of White’s pawn chain. Had White played 3. d3, our King-side Bishop would have been trapped. This is what I mean by piece coordination and not blocking in your pawns and pieces! The few moves shown above are to serve as a starting point for understanding opening principles and piece coordination.. Of course, there are many ways in which both White and Black can play but beginners should start by just simply getting their pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the center of the board. As you get better, you’ll play more advanced openings and their variation. For now remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Next week we’ll look at Castling. It’s simple to learn but there’s more to it than you think. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.

Hugh Patterson

Winning From The Baseline

If chess has analogies with any physical sport it would probably be tennis. Serving can be likened to playing White and the return of serve is like playing Black. Serve and volley players are similar to those with sharp openings who rush out at their opponents whereas others prefer to win games from the baseline.

The following effort is an example of winning from the baseline as I barely moved a piece beyond the fourth rank, despite being White. But at the end of the game Black’s position was absolutely hopeless:

Nigel Davies

Preparation For Blitz?

This was ‘only’ a blitz game but it was interesting to see how far Garry Kasparov prepared. His 10.Ba3 is rare and Wesley So’s answer, 10…c5, is a whole lot rarer. Even so Kasparov played 11.g3 very quickly, and it had a distinct look of having been prepared.

It’s interesting that even blitz games feature heavy preparation now. It makes you wonder what could be in store with a full 30 minutes on the clock…

Nigel Davies

Knight vs. Bishop Endgame

In practice it has been shown that a bishop is usually stronger than the knight because of its mobility, but there are always some exceptions. Do remember that in such endgames position of the kings and pawn structure matters a lot. Here are some general pieces of advice with instructive examples:

The pawns are both the side and the position is more dynamic – the bishop is usually better

The pawns are on both sides and the bishop has no targets; generally the knight is better

If pawns are on just one side of the board and position of the king is not passive, then usually a side with a pawn down holds because the defender can sacrifice a piece for a pawn or pawns and can achieve an easy draw. We can conclude that if there are pawns on one side only, most of the time the game ends in a draw.

Ashvin Chauhan

“Hodor!”

“We had this meeting with George Martin where we’re trying to get as much information as possible out of him, and probably the most shocking revelation he had for us was when he told us the origin of Hodor — or how that name came about…”
David Benioff

Our minds function in ways we still do not truly understand today and for the forseeable future. If we want a better future, we should change that as soon as possible. This week’s puzzle is an interesting illustration of that. What on Earth could connect in my mind a chess study from 1922 to a well known character from George R R Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Game of Thrones”? Well, on one hand I am a huge fan of the series. It has so much of a real life feeling to it, plus the twists and turns are so unexpected and interconnected, it is hard not to be atracted to it. On the other hand I liked the puzzle the minute I saw it. It amazes me more and more how chess artists from 100 or so years ago could come up with such beautiful ideas and unique solutions; to me they really deserve to be as famous as the top players we all known so well.

Please have a look at the position! The task is White to move and win. Give it a try and then compare your solution and thought process with the one below.


Step 1: Let’s look at it like we normally do and firstly we should remember studies follow a simple rule: all pieces on the chessboard serve a purpose. We can proceed verifying that together with the material situation assessment:
– Ka6 looks out of place
– Kd5 is in a perfect position in the center
– Nb8 looks oddly placed
– Bh4 is going to be important as it is the only piece capable to stop the a3-pawn
– the c2- and d2-pawns give mixed messages: they are in the way of Bh4, but also are in the way of the d4-pawn and Kd5
– the d4-pawn is first and foremost the protector of the a1-h8 diagonal
– the a3-pawn is the key; it is easy to feel that because it is passed and only 2 moves away from promotion
OK, now what can we do with this information? Well, we know we need to win and that means there is no way we can allow the a3-pawn promotion. This is an important observation!

Step 2: how do we stop that pawn? Ka6 and both White pawns cannot do much in that regard. That means it has to be a combination of Nb8, Bh4 and possibly those pawns (somehow) working together to do it. Hmm, that does not sound simple to put together; maybe we can look at simpler bits and pieces like when we put together the edge pieces of a puzzle:
– Nb8 can move to c6 or d7; moving to d7 does not seem to lead anywhere. Moving to c6 though could threaten Nc6-b4+ with stopping or winning the a-pawn. The only problem with that is Nb8-c6 gives up the Knight for free… Can we afford to drop the Knight like that?
– Bh4 needs a tempo from somewhere to get involved because a direct Bh4-f6 is ignored by Black and a3-a2 is deadly; hmm, dropping the knight could give us the tempo we were looking for since after Kd5xc6 the d4-protector of the a1-h8 diagonal is not defended. Oh, that is another important observation!

Step 3: we drop the knight to bring Bh4-f6 into the action. What do we do now after Black brings back its king to protect the pawn? Can you still “see” this in your mind or maybe have it on the chessboard in front of you? One way or another the picture gets clearer: Black cannot come back Kc6-c5 because now you can win the a3-pawn after Bf6-e7+. Black is forced to go back where it was (Kc6-d5). That is good, now we might be able to use the pawns I guess. Playing c2-c3 or c2-c4+ does not help:
– c2-c3 adds another piece along the critical a1-h8 diagonal and that is a killer even if it might get rid of the d4-pawn; you won’t be able to stop the a-pawn anymore and mating a king in the center requires firepower we do not have
– c2-c4+ drops the pawn and the d4-pawn survives as the protector of the a1-h8 diagonal
OK, we need to move the d2-pawn and the only possible move is easy to see.

Step 4: Black moves one step away from promotion and we realize stopping it becomes impossible. What now? Is it possible the solution could involve a checkmate? There is no other logical alternative, is it? In order to do that we need to tighten the noose around Kd5 and c2-c4+ does that. The d4-protector cannot take en-passant because the bishop would finally take control of the diagonal, stop the promotion and together with the remaining d3-pawn could win the game; at this moment we also see Kd5 must step aside in such a way to still defend the d4-protector and that is only possible in one way. Please look again at the position! Isn’t Kc5 now almost completely surrounded? Could you see the following decisive move coming from the most unlikely source? Remember, the goal is to either checkmate or stop the a-pawn promotion. Enjoy the solution.

Did you analyse blindly as you were reading the steps above? Could you follow it up correctly all the way to the solution? If you did, you have a sharp chess mind; keep it up by practicing often. Wasn’t Black’s desperate defence of the a1-h8 diagonal both heroic and tragic in the same time? The a-pawn managed to run away like in the movie, right? Sadly the outcome for the defenders was the same. OK, at least here the feeling we are left with is of joy by solving the puzzle… Hope you liked it. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

Endgame Openings

There are some openings which lead directly into an endgame, missing out the middle game altogether. Here’s an example of this in the Caro-Kann Defence. White might be better off playing 16.Be3.

Sam Davies

Bird in the Hand

I have a Bird in my hand at the moment. A big fat blue Bird. Or, to be precise, a book about Henry Edward Bird.

H.E. Bird A Chess Biography with 1,198 games, written by Hans Renette, a Belgian FM and chess historian, and published by McFarland. A handsome, large format hardback of more than 600 pages, going into immense detail about Bird’s life and times, and with about 40% of the games annotated, often in considerable depth, using both contemporary sources and computer-aided analysis.

Of course we all know the name. We’ve encountered Bird’s Opening (1. f4), still popular with club players seeking to avoid theory with White, and favoured by two of my regular Thames Valley League opponents. We also know about Bird’s Defence to the Ruy Lopez (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4), seen occasionally at GM level even today. Carlsen lost the only time he played it, but it’s been played several times by the young Hungarian talent Richard Rapport, as well as by the likes of Morozevich and Sokolov. Bird was also a pioneer of the Dutch Defence and the Sicilian Dragon, and favoured the currently highly fashionable c3+d3 in the Giuoco Piano, although his plan of rapid queenside expansion with b4, b5 and a4 is considered rather inflexible today. The likes of Aronian, So and Short, have tried it, though, and it’s often been played by Jobava.

Bird was the coffee-house player par excellence, with his crowd-pleasing style, and brilliant and creative ideas marred on occasion by gross blunders. I guess it’s the experimental, left-field players like Rapport and Jobava who can be considered Henry Bird’s heirs today.

If you’re interested in chess history you’ll be aware of his long chess career, spanning half a century, from the first modern tournament (London 1849) to the great London International Tournament of 50 years later. You may also have read about his personality, outgoing and friendly but occasionally disputatious.

For these reasons, he’s better remembered than some of his stronger contemporaries, but the details of his life are less well-known. Henry Edward Bird was born in 1829 in Portsea, now part of Portsmouth, which also saw the birth of two illustrious near-contemporaries: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806) and Charles Dickens (1812). A few years later the family moved to London where the teenage Bird picked up the moves in a coffee house, soon coming into contact with the celebrated chess playing historian Henry Buckle. Our hero was active in London chess circles for several years, but the game soon came to take a back seat to his chosen profession of accountancy, specifically railway accountancy. Sadly for accountancy, but happily for chess, his business ultimately proved unsuccessful and in 1870 he was declared bankrupt. At the end of 1872 he decided to return to his first love, playing in Vienna in 1873, spending two years (1876-77) in America and, on his return, becoming a regular on the international chess circuit. He reached his peak in the middle to late 1870s, when in his late 40s, but his later years, when he was increasingly incapacitated by gout, saw an inexorable decline in his powers.

How strong was he? Jeff Sonas and Rod Edwards have both done an impressive amount of analysis of 19th century chess results, Sonas only using formal competitive games and Edwards using everything available. They also use slightly different mathematical models to produce their results. Sonas has retrospective monthly lists while Edwards has only annual lists. Edwards keeps inactive players on the list longer than Sonas.

Sonas gives Bird a top rating of 2635 in September 1875 and a highest position of 2nd in March and April 1876. Edwards rates him much lower: with a top rating of 2545 in 1878 and a highest position of 10th in both 1877 and 1878. I consider Edwards’ figures more accurate in this case. He usually finished somewhere mid-division in top international events, behind the elite players such as Steinitz, Zukertort and Blackburne but ahead of the local players at the foot of the table.

One of Bird’s claims to fame was as the first recipient of a brilliancy prize: for his imaginative but, as engines now demonstrate, queen sacrifice in this game. His opponent, James Mason, had missed a fairly simple win a couple of moves earlier.

This is a 5-star book in every respect: outstanding historical and chess research combined with outstanding production values, as you would expect if you are at all familiar with McFarland’s chess history books. Much more than just a handsome addition to your library shelves. If you have even the slightest interest in chess history and culture you should rush out and buy a copy now.

Richard James