The Comeback Trail, Part 2

Continuing on from my previous article I want to talk about how the game has changed and what I might need to do to adjust. The big thing to happen in the last couple of decades has been an explosion in the use of chess databases and engines which mean that even club players need to watch out for home cooking.

If you visit Chess DB you might well find some of your own games. Can your opponents then prepare for you with a one click download of your games and then feeding them into Komodo or Stockfish for comment? This is certainly something to bear in mind and becomes an ever more serious issue if you have more games up there.

How can we avoid or neutralize hostile preparation? To my mind there are several ways to do so:

1. Stay on top of the lines that you play so you keep track of any theoretical developments and analyze everything with high powered engines.

2. Choose openings which are essentially irrefutable, such as the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Be prepared to play long games.

3. Play lines in which there are numerous reasonable choices further down the line and the positions that arise are not particularly suitable for engine analysis. Such openings will most likely feature a delayed contact between the forces that you find, for example, in the Reti Opening.

4. Cycle between a number of offbeat lines so that your opponents will find it difficult to prepare in much depth for all of them.

5. Use a combination of the above methods.

For club players I recommend only number 2, the reason being that classical positions with clear pawn structures are the best for developing positional understanding. Moving up to 2300+ players, with a deep understanding of different of different pawn structures, number 3 becomes a good approach because they are more likely to be able to bamboozle less knowledgeable opposition. For those with more time to study openings (and do essential work and maintenance on the rest of their game as well), then 1 and 4 start to enter the frame as approaches to consider, though many players do this at the expense of studying other aspects of chess.

What approach would work for an older GM who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time studying and maintaining openings? Me for example? Probably number 3 should be the primary approach, though mixing in a dollop of number 4 might be a good idea as well. Of course a lot depends on who you expect to be playing, with soundness carrying a premium if the opposition is going to be strong. But basically I don’t expect to be playing much against the 2700 club, at least not at classical time limits.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 6)

Here’s another old game and another Ruy Lopez, though this time it features one of my chess heroes, Paul Keres.

Keres was a great specialist in the Black side of the Ruy Lopez and developed many different ideas for use in practical games. Here he adopts an unusual move order with 4…Be7 and then 5…d6, presumably to try and confuse his opponent. In the ‘little centre’ position that followed 7.d4 exd4 he had the two bishops. And as the geme progressed he gradually brought their latent strength to bear:

Nigel Davies

Board Games and Martial Arts

There are some interesting analogies between board games and martial arts and at many different levels. I noticed quite a few of them when I took up internal martial arts (Yiquan and then Tai Chi) around a decade ago and continue to be reminded of them all the time.

Here’s an interesting video in which these are explored. I might add the learning process is similar to chess in that you layer your understanding on what you already know. And that great patience and determination are needed on the part of the student.

Nigel Davies

A French Miniature

Any serious club player wishing to improve should prepare their openings properly. I know looking online at multiple free database sites with millions of games and choosing the moves order based on shown percentages is the most common action these days. Players do that and believe they are well prepared and of course do not need anyone to tell them otherwise; also who has time to read books today? Is it even cool anymore? You can google so many things and get acceptable returns, why would chess be different? The thing is one does not really know an opening just by learning or googling an opening move order! Not knowing what the opening ideas are (require more careful and selective googling or reading from proper books…) and furthermore not the known plans, attacking themes and specific combinations, handicaps those falling in this category decisively.

Over the board (OTB) play and correspondence have always been different. In OTB a good memory, chess sense and a good combination of strategic and tactical skills are important as we all know. Correspondence chess is a different animal for a couple of simple reasons: players have days and not minutes to make a move, plus by not being in the same location each can use all sort of tools and documentation to help them out with their move choices. In correspondence chess playing the opening badly is suicidal and not spending the time to do the analytical work required to figure out what the opponent is doing even if you don’t know much is unacceptable. Playing correspondence chess can also allow engine assistance; each given choice at the beginning of the game requires a proper approach.

The game I present today was played in an International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF) sanctioned tournament where both players could use engines to assist them with their play. This is important because one must be aware of it ahead of time and use engines. It is possible Black did not use them at all or properly: it is not enough to just let an engine start digging in the position and then just select one of the top engine choices after a few minutes; more or less a monkey can do that and no matter how good the engines are today, when both players use them in the same time, the one using them better will always win. Let this game be a good example in this regard!

What can we conclude at the end of it? Black had a vague idea it needed to attack the queenside castled position using a minority attack. It also expected White’s attack on the opposite flank to take a long time until all White pawns and pieces would be mobilized. Both expectations were wrong and adding insult to injury Black also deserted his kingside castled position. White’s attack was intuitive and swift. It is the desired, expected and needed approach in today’s chess to get a leg up on your opponents. Play or change your play in this direction! Take the time to study an opening you want to start using. Go beyond scratching the surface with a couple of minutes googling on dubious sites or following the free recommendations of every Tom, Dick or Harry. Do not be impressed by the sheer number of games in a database, but by their quality. In the end hard work is always rewarded…
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

Winning By Playing It Safe

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White can push Black over the edge by playing 1. Ra8. Then Black just has too many pins, pieces en prise and threats to cope with.

This week’s problem illustrates the importance of winning won positions. In the diagram, White is a piece up. he is winning, but needs to make sure his opponent wants to resign. His opponent won’t want to resign if he feels he can still conjure up something out of nothing.

If you prevent your opponent from having hopes of saving the game, he is more likely to resign.

How does White squash Black’s counterplay? White has to be careful. His bishop is attacked, the Black rook might come to e1 with a check, and possibly one day the passed Black c-pawn might become a nuisance.

White wants to prevent all of these bad things happening.

What should he play?

Steven Carr

Walking the Dog

When I was a boy we had a dog. Every day one of us would take her for a walk in the local park, where we’d meet a lot of other dogs and their owners. I still live very near the same park now, but about a mile away. (It’s a linear riverside park, about two miles in length. I used to live half a mile from one end: now I live half a mile from the other end. I’ll tell you another time and another place about the farm and flax mills where I used to live and the gunpowder mills where I now live.) These days, more than half a century on, you’ll still find a lot of dogs there, but the walkers will be different. You won’t find any kids walking their dogs as I did as kids aren’t allowed out on their own any more. They’re probably too busy looking at screens, anyway. You won’t find so many individuals or families walking their dogs, either. What you will find, especially on weekdays, which you wouldn’t have found when I was a boy, is dog walkers, with several dogs under their control. In this part of the world, many people are too busy, or just too preoccupied, to give their pooches the exercise they require so they’re prepared to pay good money for others to do so.

At one level you might think it’s sad that so many people lack the time or inclination to exercise their dogs, but at another level everyone wins. The dog owners are happy to be relieved of a chore. The dog walkers are happy because they can make a decent living doing something they enjoy, earning money from their love of animals and spending time in the open air. The dogs are happy as well: perhaps walkies is more fun if you can share it with your four-legged friends rather than just your two-legged master. Bear in mind that the owners aren’t looking for anything difficult or complicated: they just want someone reliable who is good with animals and will keep them safe. If they want their dog to win the Greyhound Derby or become Supreme Champion at Cruft’s they’ll take a different approach.

It seems to me that, in my affluent part of London, parents take the same attitude to playing with their children that they take to playing with their dogs. They’re too busy to do it themselves, working long hours in demanding jobs to enable them to afford the exorbitant house prices in this part of the world. They recognise, quite rightly, the benefits of strategy games for young children, but many of them lack the time or the inclination to play these games. So instead, just as they’ll happily pay a dog walker to entertain Fido and Rover, they’ll happily sign Johnny and Jenny up for their school chess club. Again, at one level everyone wins. The parents, if they’re not themselves interested in chess, are happy to be relieved of a chore. The chess tutors are happy to be paid for something they enjoy. Johnny and Jenny are happy because playing chess with their friends at school is more fun than playing with Mum and Dad at home. If they want Johnny and Jenny to become grandmasters they’ll take a different approach: they’ll sign them up for a higher level club (in my area that will be Richmond Junior Club), enter them in competitions and perhaps employ a private tutor.

Now if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree about the benefits of strategy games for kids, and probably also agree that chess is one of the world’s greatest strategy games. You’ll also agree that some talented children with supportive parents can excel at chess at an early age. Johnny and Jenny’s parents, though, are too busy provide much support, and let’s assume they are typical, rather than exceptionally bright, students. Is chess really the best game for them to start with, or would they do better to learn simpler games, moving onto chess when they’re ready? Perhaps we should teach them a wide variety of games from different cultures. Perhaps we should introduce them to chess through mini-games before encouraging them to play full games. Perhaps they’ll benefit more from playing games which are easier to master than chess. Perhaps they’ll gain more enjoyment from games with simpler rules which don’t last as long. Perhaps if we take this approach we’ll be able to persuade more schools to start clubs and more chess teachers will be able to make more money.

Ideally, perhaps, schools should run two clubs: a main group for kids who can already play a complete game, and a beginners’ group for kids who can’t play a complete game, or who would just prefer simpler and quicker games.

I’ve been helping a large local Primary School with their chess club for a year now. The club is over-subscribed (this term we’ve set a cap on 24 members) and the school wants to start another session next term. I’ve proposed that they make this a mini-chess club, and the teacher involved is very much in agreement with this. Here’s an edited version of the letter I’ve suggested could go out to parents:

Dear Parents

Strategy games should play a part in all children’s lives. They provide a fun and enjoyable way for children to learn logic, problem solving, self-regulation and social skills.

There are many, like me, who believe that chess is the greatest of all strategy games, but, because of its difficulty, it’s really much more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children. Although most young children have little difficulty learning how the pieces move, they find it hard to cope with the complex abstract logic and the multitude of choices every move.

In this club children will not be playing complete games of chess, but will instead be playing mini-games, solving puzzles and answering quizzes using subsets of the chess. The course will be fully structured and fully documented so that parents and other family members will be able to replicate the activities at home. We’d also like to stress that the club will be equally suitable for both girls and boys.

Perhaps this sort of club will attract more members. Perhaps parents and children just want chess clubs and nobody will be interested. Either way, it will be good to find out. I’ll try to get back to you in the New Year and let you know what happens next.

Richard James

The Comeback Trail, Part 1

When I take my son Sam to tournaments I often get asked why I’m not playing. A few years ago it certainly wouldn’t have been easy to combine chess parenting with playing, but as he gets older this is no longer clearly the case. So is a ‘comeback’ on the cards for me?

I certainly have misgivings about reentering the fray in the second half of my 50s. Emanual Lasker sensibly warned against doing battle against youth, and he was one of the greatest examples of chess longevity. Meanwhile I’ve been watching with concern as some of my long standing friends and colleagues have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their past success rate against wave after wave of young players. Age is not our friend.

On the other hand there are some definite plus points to a return. First of all I’ve heard that older people should try to keep their minds active, and chess might be good for that. Secondly I’d hope to be able to cover some of the expenses if I were to go to tournaments with both my son and myself playing. And thirdly I do still love the game and feel I might get a lot of enjoyment from playing. As long as I do well of course…

So how should an older player prepare such a return after a long break? I’ve seen some people try and fail and wouldn’t want to be one of them. On one level I think I’m not too rusty, mainly because I’ve spent a lot of time on chess teaching during my absence from competition. I don’t expect my mind to be quite as sharp as it was a couple of decades ago, but there again I know a lot more. It also seems that my health is OK, and since taking up tai chi and qigong my energy levels are high. This is very important as chess can take it out of you.

One thing that concerns me is that the game itself has also changed, not least because of the proliferation of opening theory, the rise of the chess engine and extensive chess databases. People are better prepared than they used to be and will tend to be ready if someone repeats something they’ve played before. To some extent I should be immune to this because of my wide opening repertoire and preference for systems which feature a delayed contact between the armies. Of course there are sharp lines in almost every opening, and these would need checking carefully.

So provisionally I’d say I’m up for it and have provisionally agreed with my son that his second will become less available from next summer. This leaves the nitty gritty of preparing myself because I wouldn’t want to return as a beaten up old has been! But this I’ll leave this discussion for future posts…

Nigel Davies

Developing Precision in Chess

I am not a bomber. I’m more about precision and being target-oriented. I have to rely on all parts of my game firing if I’m going to win.

Luke Donald, Professional Golfer

Small Differences

In chess and golf, small differences in position and in movement can mean either winning or losing. There are many positions where it is hard to determine the objective difference between several very good moves. Choosing these moves may often be a matter of preference or temperament.

However, there are many positions where the 2nd best move is not nearly as good as the best move. This can occur in very sharp middlegame positions as well as in many endgame positions.

Here is a position from a recent game I played that inspired this article. Although I won the game, I only played the 2nd best move in this position. Study my analysis, and notice how lucky I was that my opponent also played the 2nd best move on his turn.

I hope you enjoyed that position. It was rewarding for me to analyze and annotate for you. Also, it is also my hope that it helped you appreciate the need for precision in chess.

Pattern Recognition

One way to improve your precision is to have a working command of many patterns – especially in the endgame. Why? Knowing various chess patterns frees your mind from having to “figure it all out” at the board – allowing you to use your mental resources to do deeper calculations.

What kind of patterns should you know? Here is just a few examples:

  • Pawn structures that occur in your opening repertoire (and what you should be doing in those positions).
  • Basic endgame concepts such as zugzwang and opposition.
  • Specific theoretical endgames such as the Lucena position.
  • Tactical motifs such a pins, forks, etc.
  • Basic checkmating patterns (such as smothered mate) and methods (such as rook and king vs. king).

Depending on how long you have played and studied chess,  you may pick these patterns up through various sources, such as books as well as analyzing your own games. However, you can also systematically seek out this knowledge. A good book in this regard is Jeremy Silman’s Complete Endgame Course for endgame knowledge. If you enjoy learning online I can recommend our own GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program for a complete curriculum of strategy and endgames to build your chess pattern recognition.

Thought Process

Another way to improve your precision is to develop your thought process. This topic is beyond the scope of this article but there are two questions you need to ask yourself for each move you make:

Question #1: What is my opponent’s best responses to my move?

This question will help you to avoid overlooking your opponent’s replies. You should examine your opponent’s potential checks, captures, and threats as responses to your candidate move. In addition, you may want to ask yourself, “What would my opponent do if it were his turn to move?” 

In my endgame position above, had I done this I might have noticed my opponent’s potential move and looked for another option – I don’t know if I would have found the best move but I would have at least looked.

Question #2: Do I have a better move in this position?

As Lasker said, “When you see a good move, look for a better one.” If you ask yourself this question during your games, you will look for alternatives. Sometimes, this will just confirm your first choice, but sometimes you will find something even better!

Things to look for include:

  • Different move orders (especially in tactical combinations)
  • Checking moves that you think are forced (both for your candidate and your opponent’s reply)
  • Alternative moves that accomplish the strategic objectives of your current candidate

Including these two questions in your thought process will improve the precision of your move selection.

Calculation Skill

As I discuss in another article about learning tactics, there are two parts to improving tactics – pattern recognition and calculation ability. We covered pattern recognition above, so let’s talk about improving calculation skill.

There are a few elements to calculation, including visualizing positions, organizing the variations, and assessing the resulting positions – just to name a few. I recommend checking out Kotov’s Think LIke a Grandmaster if you really want to dig deep into this topic, but here are a few methods for improving your calculation.

  • Checkmate problems: This is a good method to start with and I’ve used it off and on for years with great success. You can start with 2-movers, then move progress to 3-movers and 4-movers. The beauty of this method is that it really isolates the visualization and organization aspects of calculation as you don’t have to evaluate positions – it is either a checkmate or not.
  • Chess Tempo Standard problems: These are tactical problems that usually requires 3+ moves of calculation to solve – particularly with the higher rated problems. There may be other online chess servers that achieve the same purpose, but I think Chess Tempo’s higher rated problems are particularly good for developing your calculating muscles. There is only one solution to each problem, this specifically improves your precision.
  • Endgame Studies: This is probably the most difficult of the methods I will mention here as they often require some endgame theoretical knowledge to give you a clue of where to start – otherwise you are often just taking shots in the dark (which may improve your calculation ability if it doesn’t drive you crazy). However, this could also provide much pleasure as there are many beautiful endgame studies. For a more practical slant, you can check out Chess Tempo’s endgame training mode – which provide positions from actual games.


Improving your precision can be a great investment of your chess training time. The obvious methods including solving tactical problems and practicing calculation will definitely help. In addition, I also propose increasing your chess knowledge as well as improving your thought process as ways that will both improve your precision as well as every other aspect of your chess.

As always, I wish you good luck in your chess endeavours and better chess!

Bryan Castro

Studying Old Games (Part 5)

Here’s another game in my series on instructive old games, a nice Ruy Lopez game by Edward (rather than Emanual) Lasker.

There are some instructive ideas here, for example the use of c5 by Black’s knights, 14…Bxf3 followed by 15….Bg5 which gets Black’s ‘bad’ bishop out and penetration along the open b-file. I also like Black’s timely 24…g6, just making sure there are no back rank tricks and potentially building up for the …f7-f5 lever. So although this wasn’t a masterpiece, all these positional themes are very clear and instructive:

Nigel Davies

Making Chess Popular

In India cricket is extremely popular and the best rewarded sport compared to other sports. And when I look at some other countries, I must admit that India seems like a good model to follow as far as motivating sports professionals, and this includes chess players. Financial support and a good environment is provided from an early age.

Let’s talk about professionals and the financial stability needed to motivate them. Vishy Anand is one of our national heroes but almost all IMs and GMs are highly respected and financially stable. You can’t expect them to spend their valuable time developing chess across society if they are not making enough bucks. In India you can even find many players around 2000 rating with permanent government jobs, and they are given special privileges to play chess regularly. They have been selected based on their chess talent, and of course there are some quotas assigned for this. But at least this provides some motivation to work on chess rather than put it aside for academic studies.

Let’s talk about kids and the good environment and financial support they receive. If a kid performing well at city or district level they will be backed financially by the government. In my city there are many students who are getting financial support every month. This even motivates their parents too. Of course there are some selection criteria to meet. Even last year Gujarat state chess association had hired two Russian trainers to coach them.

This does seem to be a lot better than many other countries and perhaps explains why India is producing so many good players.

Ashvin Chauhan