Critical Objectivity: part I

There is one very important ability needed by every chess player wanting to improve their game. Of course, chess has many different aspects to it, but without this certain ability, they all fade in to the background, and many may not even develop. The ability in question, is that of being able to be critically objective about one’s play.

It is very important to emphasise the word ‘critically’ here — taking a definition from the dictionary, “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.” For our purpose, let’s shorten it, thus:

“Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.”

The chess player who strives to improve, should implement this after each game they play. After all, how can we get better without knowing our flaws? In truth, all areas of our chess are flawed in some way, (there is yet to be a player who has perfected the game), the challenge is pinpointing specifics so that we can work on them. This is done, of course, by carrying out post-game analysis. And this, dear reader, is the subject for my next two blogs.

It still startles me that many chess players do not analyse their games. This really is a great pity because they deprive themselves of great learning opportunities. However, perhaps there is a logical reason for this, as among the plethora of chess books on the market, there are not many (if any) covering the analysis of ones games. This is probably quite a commercial decision, considering that many strong players (and many not so strong players for that matter) make money carrying out the service.

Anyway, I am going to try to regress the balance, and offer what I can on the subject. It goes without saying, that there is no winning formula for analysis, no set rules or technique. Each person is different, as is each game, and what works in the case of one may not work in the case of the other. However, I do believe that it is possible to give sensible guidance on the subject, based upon experience, and what seems to work for me. The more that one analyses, a unique style develops and the framework will become like second nature.

My blogs this week and next week, will be of use to players who have either not yet embarked upon analysis of their games, or who feel that they are perhaps not getting what they should be from it. The reason that I have decided to split the blog in to two parts, is that in my opinion, there are two aspects to post-game analysis:

1). The so-called ‘Post-Mortem’ (immediately afterwards with the opponent).
2). Personal home analysis.

The Post Mortem

In my experience, it is very easy to tell a serious chess player, from a casual woodpusher, and even at tournaments there are examples of both. Serious players will find a quiet corner after they have finished playing, and embark upon a post-mortem of it with their opponent. Casual players might do this with good games, as an opportunity for glory, and their losses will get crushed up and disposed of.

The importance of the post-mortem can not be over-stated, it is one’s opportunity to gain the insight of the opponent — how was he/she feeling at certain points? Why did he/she play 18…Qb6, the move that caused great bemusement? Because chess is a battle of minds, this is a very crucial part of development. To approach chess solely with the self in mind is very often counter-productive — it certainly is in a game, after all. During the post-mortem, a player may already be startled at just how much they had missed in the game, and just how wrong he/she had been in evaluating the position, and the opponent’s options at certain stages, not to mention their own. This can be immensely deflating, especially when thinking that one has played a fabulous game, but it is a necessary pain that we must all go through in order to pursue that fabulous game.

Of course, the main objective is to discover what your opponent was looking for with their moves, what did they think they had, what did they think the moves achieved? What did they see that you didn’t and vice versa? Seek perspective, evaluations and opinion. Whether you won, lost or drew the game, you can learn from all of this. For your moves, you want to know their reactions, good or bad. Where did they feel you got it right? Where did they feel you got it wrong? What were they expecting — and was that better or worse than what you played? You might be startled at how often your opponent seems to have had a better plan for you than you did — and vice versa.

What did your opponent feel were crucial points in the game? Spend some time on what are seen to be crucial positions, this will give you some work already for stage 2, home analysis. How was your opponent feeling at various stages of the game? This will give you important feedback regarding how you are reading not only the situation on the board, but also the body-language across it. Did you think your opponent was worried when you played that check on move 21, prompting him to hunch over the board? Only to find out that he was encouraged, thinking it was wasteful or over-ambitious on your part and that it signalled to him that you felt you had nothing better? Indeed, was he right? This would show a tendency to bluff, or to show some wishful thinking or denial … and it’s really going to bite one on the behind if it doesn’t get sorted out.

Very often, a post-mortem might only last a few minutes, but those minutes will often have you bursting with things to look at and use to improve your game. I started taking a notepad with me because post-mortems gave me so much feedback. One more thing: I always try ‘dig’ and discover if my opponent knows the opening he/she played well? The mere comment “I’ve never seen this before” or “interesting line” can prompt many to volunteer lines in order to show off their theoretical knowledge. This can give you some things to look at if you found yourself surprised or if the game has highlighted a particular gap you have in a certain line. Just as you don’t want to miss a trick in the game, try not to miss any after it either.

Above all else, if you have never taken part in post-game analysis with an opponent before, then you really should give it a go. It can be a very rewarding exercise. Perhaps the next time you play, write down your moves and go over the game afterwards with your opponent. See what you can discover about their thought process and feelings during the game. If the opponent is stronger than you, if you have felt out-done somewhere, see it as open season to pick their brain.

You will very often find, during the exercise, that you will have much cause to … “Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.” If you don’t, no matter how great the game in question, then it is more likely to be the fact that you are yet to master the art of being critically objective, than it is that you have mastered the art of chess.

And if you think that’s fun, just wait until part 2 …

John Lee Shaw

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Lessons from a Single Game

The above was the title of a Dvoretsky article, analysing in depth the game Taimanov-Fischer, Buenos Aires 1060. But one often comes across single games, which are rich in instructional value, and those games are frequently not very well-known or ostensibly brilliant ones

I recall being deeply impressed by the following obscure game, played in the Moscow city championship. It is a model of the exploitation of the two bishops, but I was especially struck by Gulko’s dynamic play between moves 15-23. Rather than passively defending his c3-pawn at move 15, when his bishop pair advantage would have been very small, he realised that his temporary development lead was what was really important, and played very dynamically, to maintain and enhance it. Utilising tactics, such as back-rank threats, he succeeded in making it hard for Black to develop, and eventually forced transition into the sort of two-bishop ending White dreams of. Finally, immaculate and highly instructive technique wrapped up the full point.

I gave a full analysis of the game in my book 50 Essential Chess Lessons, but if you have not seen that, I recommend that you study the game carefully yourself.

Steve Giddins

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Land of Hope

Perhaps you know about the Sally-Anne test, a test used by developmental psychologists to determine whether or not young children understand that other people may not have the same beliefs that they do.

The experimenter introduces the subject to two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally is playing with a marble. She puts it in her basket and goes out. Then Anne comes in. Naughty Anne takes Sally’s marble from the basket and hides it in a box. Anne leaves, and then Sally returns. Where will she look for her marble?

We know that the marble is now in the box but Sally doesn’t, so she’ll look in the basket. Children who give the ‘correct’ answer demonstrate ‘Theory of Mind’, the understanding that others have different beliefs to us. Children who give the ‘incorrect’ answer lack this ability. (Of course, you could think of several reasons why Sally might look in the box. Perhaps Anne often moves the marble so Sally expects it to be in the box rather than the basket. Perhaps Sally was looking through the window and saw Anne move the marble.)

There’s a typical thinking error young children make when playing chess which, it seems to me, is similar to this. Children play a move thinking – or hoping – that their opponent will do what they want them to do.

Consider this.

A book I use a lot is Winning Chess Exercises, by the wonderful Jeff Coakley. For those of you who are not familiar with the book (and, if you’re a chess teacher you should be), it comprises 100 Best Move Contests of increasing difficulty. Each BMC comprises three checkmate puzzles, three winning material puzzles, three best move puzzles, and, at the foot of the page, a verbal chess/maths puzzle. I used the first BMC at a local (fairly strong) primary school chess club the other day for a group of some of the more experienced players who had finished their tournament game early. They set up the first position on the board and set off to find the mate.

After a few minutes thought they rushed up to me excitedly and told me they’d worked out the answer. I asked them what it was and they told me: R1c2. They explained that after Black captured on c2 they’d take twice on d8 with checkmate, and if Black instead captured on c8 they’d recapture, again leading to checkmate.

You can see what they were thinking, can’t you? They first looked at capturing on d8, but then one of them noticed that the rook was defended twice. So they then looked for a way to deflect one of the defenders and chanced upon R1c2. After that move there is indeed a forced checkmate in two moves, but sadly for Black rather than White.

On one level you might see this as a ‘Theory of Mind’ issue. They believe, or at least hope, that their opponent will play the move they want him to play, rather than the move he wants to play. It’s also why children try for Scholar’s Mate, or sacrifice most of their pieces to play their queen to the g-file and their bishop to h6, hoping their opponent will allow Qxg7#.

On another level it’s a fixation with one idea to the exclusion of everything else rather than changing tack and trying Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work. Inflexible thinking, perhaps. A failure to apply Scientific Method, perhaps.

On a third level it’s a failure to ask the Magic Question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next? What checks, captures and threats does he have?”.

To give them credit, though, a few minutes later they came back to me with the correct answer, and, I hope, learnt something from the experience. At least they had little trouble solving the next two checkmate puzzles.

I’d like to call this sort of mistake, hoping your opponent will overlook your threat or fall for your trap rather than considering what he is most likely to do, ‘Hope Chess’, but Dan Heisman has already claimed this term for something slightly different and rather more general. Heisman defines ‘Hope Chess’ as playing without anticipating your opponent’s reply and hoping to be able to meet any forcing move successfully. This is exactly sort of chess played, in general terms, by stronger primary school players: moving from ‘Hope Chess’ to ‘Real Chess’ requires learning to think ahead accurately. In my example, my pupils were trying to anticipate their opponent’s reply but, possibly because of an inadequately developed Theory of Mind, were ‘hoping’ that he would make a weak reply rather than looking for a possible strong reply. So I need to call this something other than ‘Hope Chess’. Any suggestions?

Richard James

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Activity and Vulnerability

Beginners of all ages tend to have two very big positional problems when they’re honing their chess skills, piece activity and piece vulnerability. These two problems, if not addressed, will lead to loss after loss until the beginner simply gives up on this fantastic game. However, if the beginner puts some effort into both the understanding and application of activity and vulnerability, they’ll play a much better game. The earlier the beginner embraces these ideas, the better off they’ll be. Let’s take a look at activity first.

An important question players of all levels should ask themselves when looking at their position is “what are my pieces actually doing?” Pieces are active only if they’re doing something useful. If your pieces are sitting on their starting squares, they’re inactive. However, simply moving a piece randomly out onto the board doesn’t guarantee activity. So what defines piece activity?

A piece is active if it has mobility. Mobility is the ability of a piece to move to a number of different squares. The greater the number of squares, the greater the mobility. Greater mobility leads to greater control of the board. The beginner should always strive to develop their pieces to more active squares. Mobility gives a player greater options regarding the formation of plans. Greater planning options means more flexibility which is crucial since plans change during a game. Having flexibility due to mobility allows you to adjust your plans to fit the ever changing positional landscape on the board.

The ability to attack one or more of the oppositions pieces also adds to a piece’s activity. If you’re attacking one or more of your opponent’s pieces they’ll have to tie down some of their own forces to aid the attacked piece or pieces. This means that those opposition pieces involved in the defense of the attacked pieces lose their activity. Pieces tied down to defending a position cannot participate in an attack. Even if the attacked piece can move out of danger, it still costs time to do so which can detract from one’s development.

Control of territory is another consideration when discussing piece activity. Greater mobility leads to greater control. While controlling squares on your half of the board is important (you don’t want your opponent’s pieces to have an easy time occupying your half of the sixty four squares), it isn’t as important as controlling squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Take away key squares on your opponent’s side of the board and they’ll have a difficult time launching an attack let alone developing their pieces.

Piece coordination and cooperation is also tantamount to good active play. Pieces must work together. Beginners tend to launch lone pieces out on the board in an effort to attack the opposition only to lose that piece because it had no support. Chess is a team sport which means that pawns and pieces must work together. Pieces that work together are far less likely to become targets for your opponent. Now let’s look at vulnerability.

In the broadest sense, a vulnerability can be thought of as a disadvantage for you and an advantage for your opponent. Its a place, in this case the chessboard, in which a series of actions has led to you to being exposed to danger. You could be about to lose material or facing a mating attack. You are vulnerable. Your opponent has the immediate upper hand in the positional situation. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Giving material away (hanging pieces) is an example of becoming vulnerable because in giving your material away, you’re giving your opponent an advantage (while you maintain the disadvantage).

Beginners tend to hang pieces (place them on squares that allow their opponent to capture said piece freely) early in their chess careers. While employing the concepts mentioned above will help reduce this problem, there are some additional things the beginner can do to make their pieces less vulnerable to capture.

We are taught to look both ways before crossing the street. The same should hold true when moving a piece out onto the board. You wouldn’t just run out onto a busy street hoping you don’t get hit by a car, yet many beginners blindly thrust a piece out onto the board without much though. If you want to move a piece to a particular square, follow the rank, file and diagonals radiating out from that square to see if any opposition pawns or pieces control or attack it. Just doing this one simple thing can eliminate hanging pieces greatly.

Sending major pieces out onto the board early makes you vulnerable to attack. If you bring your Queen out early, you’re opponent will more than likely attack it. As your opponent’s pieces attack your Queen, they’re developing which gives your opponent an advantage. Because you’re having to move the Queen out of the line of fire, you’re losing tempo, a disadvantage. Common sense can greatly help improve your game and common sense tells us to bring out pieces of lesser value at the game’s start.

Beginners also tend to become vulnerable because of a one sided view of the game’s ebb and flow. By this, I mean that the beginner is more concerned with their moves and plans that those of their opponent’s. A student whose game I was watching once told me that he had thought the position through four moves into the future. This is a difficult task for many seasoned players let alone a young beginner. I watched in horror as my student’s position was crushed in three moves. He did think four moves into the future of the position, but those four moves depended on his opponent making the moves my student wanted him to make (which all favored my student’s position). Therefore, before making a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response to that move would be. Pretend to play your opponent’s side of the board when making decisions regarding your position! Often, you’ll find that a seemly reasonable move, even one that adheres to sound chess principles, can lead to problems. Problems are a measure of vulnerability.

Creating active positions and avoiding vulnerability really comes down to looking carefully before moving a piece anywhere on the board. It also comes down to putting these ideas into practice. I have my students keep checklists written out on index cards that they consult before making a move. Eventually, they don’t need to refer to their checklists, having committed the information to memory. However, at the start of their training with me I have them use the checklist because it forces them to think carefully before moving a piece. Speaking of pieces, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Tiger Chess Is Now Open!

After a lot of hard work I’ve finally opened my Tiger Chess site to the public, rather than just my students. It’s been my goal for quite a while to create a site which integrated my articles, video instruction, book and software recommendations and offers an online booking system to students. I’ve also wanted to create material that is both suitable for the target audience and of genuine benefit.

The first course, Building an Opening Repertoire, is now online and weighs in at over 21 hours of detailed instruction. Not having a offices to rent and staff to pay allows me to price this at just £19.95 to those with Full Membership. Those who’ve bought this course are very happy with it.

I have another four major courses planned as well which will essentially be video versions of an expanded Power Chess Program. This was originally a correspondence course I ran in the 1990s which later got published in a two book cut down form by B. T. Batsford. After much ado I got the publication rights back and am now in the process of revising and expanding the original material.

Besides offering Tiger Chess Full Membership, which is essentially aimed at adults who want to get better, the site has a membership level aimed at young players and their parents, the Annual Tiger Cubs Membership. Since becoming a chess parent myself I’ve seen widespread confusion about how to improve, what one’s goals should be, how to find a coach etc. Those with a Cubs Membership (priced at £12.95 per annum) will find resources that should help them navigate through this morass of confusing information and get more from their foray into the chess World. As with Full Members, anything that’s not up there they can ask me. And this all helps build the growing FAQ section.

Here anyway is a Youtube video explaining more about the site and how to go about joining:

Nigel Davies

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Completing My First Tournament: 7th Round And Summary Of What I Learned

Here I conclude my coverage of my first chess tournament, the 1980 Michigan Open (Reserve Section), achieving my first provisional USCF rating of 1546 after scoring 3.5/7.0 points. I also won a trophy for 2nd place Unrated in the Reserve Section (my father, also playing in his first tournament, won the trophy for 1st place Unrated in the Reserve Section). It was a great way to start my chess tournament life!

My goal in analyzing the games of my first tournament has been to begin exploring the development of a new chess tournament competitor (my young self of 1980) and examine common patterns of thoughts and behavior. I will continue further to track the evolution of my skill and style through analysis of further tournaments from 1980 and 1981.

Round 7

In my round 7 game, as Black I faced the Ruy Lopez (against White rated around USCF 1600), and as in round 3, did not know what I was doing and quickly gave up the center. My opponent did not know what he was doing either and we traded quickly into an endgame. As with many other endgames I played in this tournament, positions that are clearly draws at a higher level of play nevertheless contained imbalances and opportunities for going astray, and I played poorly, deliberately trading into what I should have known was a lost King and Pawn ending.

Summary of tournament

Openings

Move numbers after I was out of any theoretical knowledge:

  1. 1 (Bird’s Opening as Black)
  2. 5 (Petroff Defense as White)
  3. 9 (Closed Ruy Lopez as Black)
  4. 5 (Exchange Ruy Lopez as Black)
  5. 4 (Open Sicilian as White)
  6. 6 (Philidor’s Defense as White)
  7. 9 (Closed Ruy Lopez as Black)

Nobody lost a game straight out of the opening (except for the Open Sicilian where I won quickly as White), although poor positions of course arose. We could have used a better understanding and use of principles (such as development and central control) to improve beyond this 1500 level of play.

Middlegames

  1. I did not understand the value of the Bishop pair, or that Knight on the rim is dim, and got destroyed on the King side.
  2. A lot of piece trades. My opponent did not understand the value of the Bishop pair.
  3. Highlighted the importance of using Pawn breaks.
  4. My opponent should have opened the position because of my poor opening development, but instead closed it, allowing me to consolidate and in return attack his King with a Pawn storm.
  5. (I won the game out of the opening because my opponent ignored development and created holes.)
  6. A lot of piece trades. I did not understand the weakness of my isolated Pawn and lost it.
  7. A lot of piece trades. I did not understand the weakness of my opponent’s isolated Pawn and dissolved it instead of attacking it.

Endgames

5 of 7 games went all the way to an endgame. Many errors occurred, so the lesson is that there is much to be gained from studying the endgame. In addition, knowing what endgames are advantageous would have allowed me to make better decisions in the middlegame (regarding Pawn structures and Bishop vs. Knight). I feel that in the absence of clear attacks against the King, middlegame play often tend to be aimless simplification at the 1500 level. At top levels of chess, one plays openings with a goal toward certain kinds of endgames. Club level players who are no longer hanging material all the time and want to improve should also start to think this way.

  1. (I lost in the middlegame.)
  2. I had the Bishop pair advantage but squandered it. Comedy of errors resulted in my winning because my opponent did not realize the King and Pawn ending was lost for him.
  3. Draw: I dawdled and simplified in an endgame I could have won.
  4. Draw: I simplified too much, then my opponent allowed a won King and Pawn ending but I did not know it was won for me.
  5. (I won in the opening.)
  6. Draw: one Pawn down, but Bishop vs. Knight; comedy of errors, but eventually I won a Pawn back and simplified to a draw.
  7. I mistakenly simplified repeatedly, resulting in a lost and King and Pawn ending.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

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Structural Imbalance

You can get different kinds of pawn structure out of any opening, for example isolated pawns, pawn majorities & minorities on different sides. Today I will try to focus on how to play with a pawn majority & minority.

In earlier times a queenside majority was thought to be an advantage, but this is not true 100% in every stage of chess game. In the middle game a minority can be advanced against a majority in order to weaken opponent’s pawn structure and levering fully open a half open file. That is the reason that in the QGD Exchange Variation White normally attack on the queenside while Black attacks on the kingside. Of course if one of the files becomes fully open it is crucial to control the open file.

When we talk about the endgame then a queenside majority can be a winning advantage; with both kings castled on the short side it it can lead to a dangerous outside passed pawn. How should one play in such situations? Here we can learn a lot from classical games, and I present two examples:

Play With A Majority

Play With A Minority

Ashvin Chauhan

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Problems vs Potential

Very often in chess, a positional evaluation can be a simple matter of ‘Problems vs Potential’ (or, to invent a maxim, the ’2 P’s’).

“What potential does my position have for me?” vs “What problems is my opponent posing me?”

Of course, chess is a game of two sides, so we not only have to ask this from our own perspective, but also from that of our opponent, thus:

“What potential does my opponent have?” vs “What problems am I posing / can I pose?”

Sometimes, the answers to these questions alone can be decisive — whoever makes the opponent react first often has the advantage. Of course, it is important to note that there is such a thing as ‘prophylaxis’ in chess, where one can answer a threat from the opponent with a constructive move to their own position, sometimes even a counter-threat. Games in which one is presented with lots of those are good games, and it is important to make the distinction between prophylaxis and pure reaction, where a player must take time out from their own intentions in order to deal with threats from the opponent.

One such example is the following game, between Anna Muzychuk and Yifan Hou. It was played during the recent 2014 Women’s Grand Prix, in Lopota, Georgia. As you will notice, I have not annotated the opening (which is a Sicilian Defence of course), but I advise the reader to play through the moves prior to my annotations beginning at move 13. In doing so, try to answer for yourself how White’s opening play opened the door for her opponent.

John Lee Shaw

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The Transformation Problem (4)

In the following example, the key position arises after Black’s 26th move. White has an obvious advantage, with more space and weaknesses on c6 and e6. However, neither weak pawn is easy to attack effectively, and it is hard to increase the pressure by normal means.
Kramnik’s solution is the break d4-d5. This actually eliminates both of the weak black pawns, but in the resulting position, the black pawn on b5 is now hopelessly weak and incapable of being defended. Short takes the decision to sacrifice material at once, with 29…c5, but runs into a nice “little combination” in the Capablanca style, with 31.bxc5!, and eventually is ground down after stubborn resistance in the endgame.

Steve Giddins

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Search for the Hero

If you were paying attention last week you’ll know that my new chess course is called Chess for Heroes.

One reason is that if you want to succeed at competitive chess you need a collection of non-cognitive skills which might be summed up as ‘mental toughness’ along with chess skills.

But there’s another meaning to the word hero as well. We might admire someone because of their skills in a particular field and describe them as our hero. We might also identify a chess hero: a player we admire and whose play we’d like to emulate.

I understand from my pupils that some people in Brazil are currently kicking a ball around a grassy field. (There are also some different people much nearer home who, I believe, are hitting a smaller ball at each other over a net.) If you ask any child with even a cursory interest in football to name some famous footballers, he will have no problem in giving you lots of names, just as I could have done at that age. But if I ask children who enjoy playing chess to name some famous chess players they usually look at me in questioning amazement, as if I was asking them to name some famous Snakes and Ladders or Noughts and Crosses players.

Of course there’s an obvious difference. Football is an excellent spectator sport. Even if you don’t play football yourself you’re aware that the guys in the blue shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at one end, while the guys in the red shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at the other end. You might get more out of watching the game if you’re well versed in the intricacies of the offside rule, but it’s really not necessary. You can understand the game and appreciate the skills (or not, in the case of England) of the players even if you’re a complete duffer at playing football. To appreciate a top level chess game, though, you need to be a pretty strong player yourself.

Even so, I think we in the chess community could do a lot more to promote the idea of chess heroes. The presentation of the game online is improving. Excellent communicators such as Lawrence Trent are providing live online commentary on major events. There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about how well most top GMs handle the press conferences after their games. Although young players might enjoy following the major tournaments and supporting their favourite players, they would probably, at lower levels, get much more from choosing Paul Morphy rather than Magnus Carlsen as a role model for how to play chess. No worries: one great thing about chess is that you can travel back in time and follow the games of chess heroes from the past whose games might be easier to understand. There are many lessons available online which will help you do this, and brilliant analysis by the likes of Andrew Martin and Daniel King will enlighten you further.

So one of the ideas of Chess for Heroes is that it will incorporate (just as Move Two! did) biographies and news about top players, along with a blog on the website with links to current events.

There’s a lot to be said for encouraging young players to make Paul Morphy their chess hero. Rapid development and accurate calculation are necessary for chess success. Here’s Paul, at the age of 10 or 11, demonstrating how to beat his dad at chess.

Richard James

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