Smyslov: Master of the ‘Coiled Spring’ Approach

I have always been an admirer of the late Russian Grandmaster, Vassily Smyslov. One of the things that drew me to his games, was his ability to take on cramped positions without becoming passive. He would then, very often unravel his position, rather like a spring which is wound and full of tension before being released. There would then be an explosion in which Smyslov would take space, and begin to relocate his pieces to more advanced positions, very often to carefully prepared squares.

Smyslov’s play, I must say, suits me very well, his style fits very well with mine and the openings I play. For players who play openings or piece setups where development is initially contained to the first 3-ranks and the opponent very often establishes in the centre, studies of his games really can not hurt at all.

Infact, this approach is one of the best ways to become familiar with an opening.

In the following game, I would like to draw your attention to how Smyslov plays quietly and subtely, but remains active (not an easy thing to do!). He controls the situation, playing accurately and responding to his opponent. Steadily, his position improves, and he is able to pounce when his opponent shows an obvious lack of technique and understanding of the type of position.

John Lee Shaw

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A Reader’s Youtube Videos

My thanks to Michel Miro for sending me links to his Youtube chess videos. Nice work:

Tribute to chess through painting

Male and female World Champions (Rocky)

Alexandra Kosteniuk (Pretty Woman)

Nigel Davies

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Chess for Heroes

In my last three posts I’ve discussed three reasons for promoting junior chess: to encourage participation in serious competitive chess at whatever level, to identify and fast track potential master strength players, and to use chess as a learning tool.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s chess was promoted in secondary schools: this proved successful in terms of our first aim. The work of the late Bob Wade, Leonard Barden and others was successful in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of our second aim. Chess in Schools and Communities is successfully pursuing the third aim, but over the past 30 years we’ve lost focus with regard to the first two.

Since the 1980s the main focus of junior chess here in the UK has been the primary school chess club. I started getting involved in primary school chess through the Richmond Chess Initiative in 1993, and after a few years I started asking questions. Yes, a few strong players came through primary school clubs, but nowhere near enough. I also didn’t see how they were ‘making kids smarter’. Richmond primary schools are the most academically successful in the country, the schools that were running chess clubs were, by and large, the most academically successful schools in Richmond, and the children who joined their chess clubs were, by and large, those who were academically strong, so there was not very much leeway in terms of making them even smarter than they were.

So our clubs were attracting a lot of very bright boys (but sadly few very bright girls) but the standard of play was, with a few exceptions, pretty low. The children enjoyed the chess clubs, and, to that extent they were an asset to the schools, but they weren’t becoming strong players or developing a long-term interest in chess.

The basic problem is that, because chess is not part of our culture, very few parents have enough knowledge about chess to help their children. Just doing 30 hours of chess in school over a year (actually more like 25 hours once you’ve taken off the time taken getting the sets out, setting them up and putting them away again) isn’t going to get you very far. Playing games at home against parents who are themselves beginners won’t help either, and losing game after game against the chess app on your mobile won’t be a lot better.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to get round this problem. I’ve tried handing out worksheets, giving homework, emailing parents with advice on how to help their children at home, writing books for parents, but none of this has had any success.

This time I hope I’ve found the answer.

CHESS FOR HEROES provides a workbook for children plus email access to a chess tutor for children learning the moves. There’s also a chess engine on the site which will record your games. After each module of the workbook you submit your children’s worksheet answers and games against the computer to your chess tutor who will get back to you with specific feedback on your children’s progress.

Children will benefit – they will be able to spend more time each week on chess, will improve their play, win more games and enjoy chess more.

Parents will benefit – they will get help for their children, and, by helping their children, will learn more about chess themselves.

Schools will benefit – their chess club will be stronger, and their children will learn various cognitive and non-cognitive skills which will help them excel academically.

Chess tutors will benefit – they will have something constructive to do between their lunchtime club and their after school club, and will make more money though marking their students’ worksheets and commenting on their games.

The ECF will benefit – more children will be encouraged to take part in higher level competitive chess and they will have more of a long-term interest in the game.

Finally, I will benefit – I will receive royalties for every copy of the course you buy.

Everybody wins, nobody loses. What’s not to like?

Do please visit the CHESS FOR HEROES website. If you’d like to be a CHESS FOR HEROES tutor yourself please let me know.

Richard James

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Children and Studying

If you want to get good at chess, you have to put work into it, namely in the form of studying the game’s principles. Unfortunately, living in a society that values instant gratification, we often avoid hobbies or pastimes that require serious effort. Many chess playing adults tend to learn only what is necessary to make a slight improvement in their game. Most adults work so their free time is limited which, in turn, limits the time they have to study. Children face an even great obstacle when it comes to learning chess. That obstacle is the video game. Let me explain.

I play video games now and again so I speak with a little authority on the subject. With video games, the only way to improve your skill set is to play the game over and over. Video games do not have a method of study you can employ to get better at playing them. You simply play the game over and over until you get better (or give up). The majority of my young students are video game players. When they first started their classes with me, they thought of chess and video games as being in the same category; games. They were preconditioned by their video games to approach improvement in chess by simply playing the game over and over. The idea of studying a game in a systematic way was foreign to them.

Today, my students actually embrace the idea of studying and ask for homework. When a student enters one of my classes, I make sure the parents know that work outside the classroom is necessary if their child want to get better at chess. I make a point of explaining to the parents that my reasons for giving homework are not Machiavellian on my part. No, my reasoning is simple: Children become frustrated easily and this frustration can lead to a child giving up on something they truly enjoy, such as chess. With students and parents alike, I use a music analogy:

When I was about fourteen years old, I decided that I was going to make a name for myself as a guitar player. I was determined to see my face on an album in the local record store. That was the plan! I had studying classical piano from a very young age so I knew the musician’s secret weapon for success, practice. Therefore, I locked myself in my room for a few years and taught myself guitar. By the age of seventeen, I was playing and touring in bands and had penned my first minor college radio hit (the first song I wrote). The song did well on the regional charts and I went on from there. My student’s parents, if they lived in San Francisco long enough, knew my name as a musician so they took what I had to say seriously. Study and practice. Study and practice!

When I start each class session, we briefly discuss how to get better at playing a musical instrument. Of course the discussion revolves around working at your craft by studying how to play and then practicing what you’ve learned. I had a student come to the first day of chess class in a t-shirt with my bands name on the front and an image of me playing guitar on the back. After the above opening session discussion, the student in question asked me if you really had to work that hard to get better at something. Knowing he took guitar lessons, I asked him if he practiced his guitar everyday. He said he did because his playing sounded terrible if he didn’t. I told him that the same idea applied to chess. Mastering the guitar would allow him to create art with his instrument and mastering chess would allow him to create art on the chess board. He seemed intrigued by this thought.

I poll my students at the start of every session and the majority of them either play a musical instrument or play a sport. The bottom line: both require some method of organized study followed by practice. However, just because there are similarities between learning chess and learning an instrument (or sport), doesn’t mean you’re going to get your students to throw themselves wholly into the study of chess! Rule one for me, lead by example.

I put a great deal of time into studying chess. I do it because I love the game and the more I study, the more secrets the game reveals to me. However, telling children or teenagers that the mystic secrets of the game of Kings will be revealed if they hunker down and hit the books isn’t enough. Therefore, at the start of every class, I say “guys, you’re not going to believe was I discovered in my studies last night. This is truly mind boggling and I’m not sure I can even show it to you.” The key point here is the build up. I get them pumped up to the point where they want to know what brilliant secret I learned in my chess studies. Do I share with them the greatest chess secret ever? Actually, we proceed with our regularly scheduled lesson. However, it isn’t just any old chess lesson, it’s a long lost Russian Grandmaster’s secret suddenly discovered in my studies. In actually, it might be an introduction to Knight forks or the dreaded double discovered check. The point is, it’s an adventure. I share my enthusiasm and the personal homework I’ve done with my students. Of course, the studying I’m doing is a bit more complicated than that of my students but the basic concepts are the same.

I also do any homework in the form of workbooks and handouts my students do. Yes, every year, I sit with a pencil in one hand and a workbook in the other, doing the same work I ask my students to do. Students will ask me why I bother doing their homework (since I know it already) and I tell them this, “I would never ask you to do something I didn’t do myself!”

I also use a bit of an incentive program. The more studying outside of class my students do, in the form of workbooks and handouts, the more one on one playing time they can earn with me. There is nothing wrong with a bit of incentive. Of course, my students start seeing progress because they’re studying chess outside of class so they often conclude that a bit of study can be a good thing. While it doesn’t work with every child and I did have one parent comment that my methods were on par with a television evangelist (my feathers are still ruffled over that comment), it has served the majority of my students well.

If you’re going to ask students to do outside work, make it an adventure and give them reasons for doing so that they can relate to. Well, time to go do some studying myself. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Amateur Versus Master: Game Eleven

This chess game is one of my recently completed games form the 2011 Golden Knights Final. Bonsack is the second master that I have drawn in this section and the second highest rated in this section at 2344. Unless I am mistaken, I have drawn a few 2300 rated players in correspondence chess, but I have yet to beat one. So far, I have one loss, two draws and no wins in this section.

I am moving out of my current apartment this weekend and my opponent knew that I was taking a month off from chess for this move. I think that he felt sorry for me and that may be why he offered a draw in a position that favored him. Whatever the real reason for the draw, I’m glad.

This game transposed into a Benoni Defense. At the points in this game where I say “slightly better is” or “possibly better is”, it is because the chess engines do not agree on the moves and I am unsure myself.

At move number 11 I decided to keep the position closed for a while so that I could restrict the range of White’s bishops. In previous chess games against masters I have gotten burned when my opponent’s bishop pair came to life. I avoided that in this chess game.

Once White’s Knight was firmly established on b5, I could never dislodge it without giving him a passed pawn on the Queenside. That did not favor me, so I eventually decide to go for play on the Kingside by opening it up. That is when White started moving his King over to the Queenside. Not much happened after that.

Mike Serovey

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Fianchettoing Your King’s Bishop May Weaken Your c4-Pawn

I saw a curious position recently in which strangely, White was in a position to lose a c-Pawn placed on c4. I then remembered that it is actually not uncommon for this Pawn on c4 to be undefended when White has fianchettoed the Bishop to g2, because unlike classical development of the Bishop, where the Bishop is on e2 or d3 and therefore protects the Pawn on c4, the Bishop on g2 does nothing to protect the light squares from f1 to a6. Check out this position:

A standard theme for Black counterplay

Many middlegame plans by Black in these kinds of opening development setups in fact target White’s c4 Pawn and the light squares on the Queen side in general, while White tries to make something long-term out of increased central control of e5 and d5 (over classical development of the Bishop) and of course the long diagonal from h1 to a8. These positions can be very subtle for both sides to play. In this article I’m not discussing any of these subtleties, but simply pointing out a common theme for Black.

A variation of the King’s Indian Defense:

A variation of the English Opening:

And of course, the concept behind a popular approach to the Queen’s Indian Defense:

Franklin Chen

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Remember Games and Patterns

You might have heard that Carlsen can remember numbers of positions and recall them over the board in a limited amount of time. In the book GM-RAM, by Rashid Ziatdinov, the author emphasises remembering key positions and games and claims that “if you know just one of important classical games, you will be able to become a 1400 level player, to be world champion you will need to know 1,000 such games”. This may be too much but we can’t deny fact that remembering these games cold will definitely help you towards chess improvement.

I tried different ways to remember games, for example playing them over the board many times, guessing them move by move, using Chess Position Trainer etc. But they didn’t work that well for me.

Then I tried one more thing and succeeded. This method uses lots of time but definitely works; after a month without playing them through a second time I am able to remember the games and their critical positions.

The way to do this is to take a book of your favourite player where he has annotated his games. Now we are going to annotate his games in our words rather than going through author’s annotations first. You can use different software but a pen and paper works best for me.

The most important thing is that your focus must be on one direction but with inherent flexibility (if your opponent blunders you must be able to punish him). This tends to be missing from the play of amateur play as they fight in different directions. Write down your ideas for each move (for both White and Black) and don’t worry if you repeat the same thing over a series of moves. Once you finish it (normally I take 4 to 6 hours) go to the experts annotations and compare. You will find that now it is very easy to understand the author’s points and your mistakes, this wouldn’t have happened if you went directly to the author’s annotations .

It is also wise to go for a second opinion also, if someone has explained the same game. Players who have the time and work like hell will definitely get benefit from this!

If you find this is very hard and time consuming, first watch this video:

Ashvin Chauhan

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There Is No Fury Like Chess Scorned …

We chess players, have all had bad games — especially mere mortal and non-titled players such as myself. We’ve lost pawns, dropped pieces, got swindled, and fallen for tactics we really shouldn’t. Some of us may even have comitted the ultimate sins and lost a queen here and there, or even worse, walked in to mate.

But, you know, it’s not only the mere mortals who are having bad times at the board. In the 2014 World Rapid Championship, World Champion Magnus Carlsen grabbed a pawn and got a piece skewered against Anand; and, even more recently, (within the last week or so actually), Veselin Topalov had a real bad game against Fabiano Caruana, at the 2nd Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, USA.

As well as making us feel slightly better about our mistakes, dear reader, such blunders by the top players are also something of a mystery, arent’t they? How can such masters of the game make such errors?

Well, I have thought long and hard about this, and I think it very often boils down to the fact that the top players are pushing the boundaries of chess further and further all the time in order to find novelties and nuances to gain an edge. It’s rather like a racing driver, who drives their car to its absolute limit — arguably to within a hair’s width of suicidal. When it goes right, it is exciting, entertaining, dramatic, and gives witnesses a thril. On the other hand, when it goes wrong things can (and do) get ugly.

There is also the fact that top players tend to sometimes take ridiculous liberties, not castling for example, throwing pawns forward willy-nilly, behaving like the tried and tested fundamentals of chess (which we do our best to drum in to the beginner) do not apply to them. This can be even more so, in openings in which the players feel at home. They can sometimes be guilty of treating the game too casually, bordering even on the contemptuous.

I have to say, that looking over the Topalov-Caruana game mentioned above, I’d have to plump for the latter option. Topalov certainly did not play ambitiously as White in allowing the Symmetrical English. Mind you, it has to be said that even though this opening is often seen as dull and rather tame, it does not have to be. That being said, however, one has to spice it up in the right way. Topalov certainly didn’t, and seemed to lunge for sharp play with his 17.g4? Actually, his position had started to wane even before this move, and perhaps he was feeling a little vexed.

Unfortunately for the Bulgarian, though, when one does not show our beautiful game enough respect, the consequences tend to be very painful.

John Lee Shaw

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Scholastic Chess

My last two articles considered two possible reasons for running a junior chess project: to produce young people with a lifelong interest in chess and to identify and train potential IMs and GMs.

There is a third reason which is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world: scholastic chess. This involves using chess as an educational tool on the curriculum in the classroom, usually in primary/elementary schools in less affluent areas, and not necessarily having any expectations that children will become very strong players or even take a lasting interest in the game.

There have been many studies over many years which have claimed educational benefits from chess and suggesting that studying chess might improve children’s problem solving skills and their performance in maths and English.

Personally, I have some reservations about this. Many other activities, which may be of more practical use than chess, are also claimed to provide educational benefits: learning musical instruments, singing in a choir, learning fluency in a second language, learning coding and much else. There just isn’t time for schools to put all these activities on the curriculum. It’s also not clear to me whether other, simpler strategy games, which wouldn’t require specialist teachers, would have a similar effect, or whether the improvement in academic performance is long term or just short term.

Having said that, if schools are enthusiastic and supportive, scholastic chess can be, on its own terms, very popular and successful. If, on the other hand, the class teacher doesn’t support the lesson, just sitting at her desk looking bored and doing her marking, if the chess sets are locked away from one week to the next so that the children have no opportunity to play and reinforce what they’ve learnt, if there’s no communication with parents about what the children are learning and why they’re learning it, it’s probably not going to be very effective.

A further important question with regard to scholastic chess is that of competition. You might think that chess is by its nature competitive, but many teachers have reservations about the role of competition within education. Is it a good idea to run chess competitions for children who barely know how the pieces move and are confused about checkmate? If we decide it’s a good idea for children to have the opportunity to compete in mental activities as well as physical activities, is chess the only option? Could schools run competitions for noughts and crosses, Connect Four, draughts, various pre-chess games using subsets of the pieces and/or rules?

Here’s my take on how scholastic chess should work.

Chess in the classroom should be non-competitive. Of course children will spend some of the time playing games, but these will be seen as learning opportunities, not competitive activities. Children will also solve puzzle sheets as individuals while there will be harder puzzles to be solved by children working collaboratively in groups. The lessons will need to proceed slowly to ensure that no child is left behind. If you start with pawns, as CSC does, it will take several weeks before the whole class has mastered the pawn move (and that’s before you introduce the en passant rule). If a chess tutor is being used, the chess tutor and class teacher should lead the lessons together. The class teacher should be actively involved in the lessons and demonstrate her enthusiasm to the children. There should be posters round the walls reminding children of how the pieces move and the other basic rules. Chess sets should be available for children who want to play at break or lunchtime, before or after school rather than locked away in a cupboard. Parents and carers should be made aware not just that their children are learning chess, but how and why they are learning. You might want to run workshops in the evening for parents who would like to learn more so that they can help their children at home. There should be an after-school or lunchtime club for children who want to play low-level competitive chess. The school should take part in competitions against other schools and, in the UK, run a heat of the UK Chess Challenge. Links should be forged with local junior chess clubs (assuming they exist) so that children who want to play competitive chess at a higher level can be pointed in the right direction.

One final question is this: to what extent should national chess federations support projects that are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in participation in serous competitive chess?

Richard James

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