Avoiding Pressure

Let’s face it, we all have to deal with pressure. Whether at home, school or work, we’re all under some sort of pressure. Try as we may to avoid it, something always occurs that puts us under the gun, so to speak. While chess is wonderful way to exercise the mind, playing it can be stressful, especially during tournaments. Chess is a challenge in which two minds face off against one another and where the mind does battle so does the ego. When losing a game of chess, we often feel an emotional sting, perhaps the bruising of our ego? Add to this equation the idea that people generally like to win rather than lose and you create a recipe for pressure.

While pressure is a fact of life for nearly everyone and a little pressure can have positive effects, too much pressure can actually lead to health problems. The game of chess should be enjoyed whether you win, lose or draw. However, some people get really wound up before they play the game and it becomes a slightly nerve-racking experience. If you feel pressure before playing and that pressure is taking away from enjoying the game, read further for some tips on removing stress before playing.

Tip number one, and this should be apparent to everyone, be prepared! Be prepared to play. What do I mean by this? You need to be warmed up and in the zone. Before I play shows with my various bands, I spend a lot of time prior to those shows warming up. This means practicing. Sure, I could not practice and play songs I’ve played for years without making any mistakes. However, I might feel a little stress for not having warmed up. I might not play as well as I would had I practiced. Stress equals pressure. As for chess, if you’re about to play an important match, be it against a rival or at a tournament, you need to warm up. You have to play a lot of chess prior to that important game so that you’re in a strong mental state. Playing a lot of chess doesn’t mean playing as many games as humanly possible as quickly as possible. This is a matter of quality over quantity. It’s better to play ten games of chess in which you’re concentrating and making good moves than fifty games in which your simply playing as fast as you can which equates to less concentration and bad moves. If you have a few months before that important game or match, use than time to prepare yourself by simply playing chess.

Avoid suddenly changing your opening right before an important game or match. If you decide to change things up at the last minute, you’ll pay a dreadful price. Concentrate on what you already know. Consider variations against your opening that you haven’t already explored. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to freeze up when your opponent makes that unexpected move. If your opponent makes an opening move you were not prepared for, don’t panic. Use the opening principles to guide your decision making process. These principles will steer you in the right direction.

Another tip, get a lot of rest. Not just the night before your game or match but during the weeks leading up to it. If you stay up late and get up early, operating on little sleep, three weeks prior to the game or match and then decide to go to bed early the night before, you’ll gain no benefit. The effects of good sleeping habits are cumulative so you have to start resting up at least a month before your game or match. Getting a good night’s sleep also helps to reduce your stress levels. Think of your brain as an engine. If you try and run an engine twenty four hours a day, day after day, week after week, the engine will break down. Give your brain a break. This means not playing chess constantly but allotting a period of time each day for your practice. Too much playing will cause you to start losing focus. As I previously mentioned, you want to play lot of chess but it’s quality over quantity.

Of course, engines require fuel to run and so does your brain. Eat healthy and do so way in advance of your game or match. Eating healthily is also a cumulative process. If you live on junk food and then eat a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables the night before your game or match, you’ll receive no benefits. Start eating healthy at least two weeks prior to the game or match. Avoid sugar based products because sugar will give you a sudden surge or energy that quickly goes away leaving you feeling tired. The same things goes for caffeine. I’m not saying give up coffee or tea (I wouldn’t). I’m saying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The problem with caffeine is that it amps you up with artificial energy and what goes up must come down. You don’t want to suffer a caffeine crash in the middle of a chess game.

Probably the biggest stress reducer is exercise. It’s also the one thing most people don’t want to do. However, you don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron until you look like a body builder. Try taking walks which are an excellent way of getting the blood flowing. Your brain needs oxygen and that oxygen is carried in the blood stream. Walking gets the blood pumping to where you need it, namely the brain! Walking is a great way to relieve stress (unless you choose to walk in a demilitarized zone). Tai Chi is a great way to improve both body and mind. Try bicycling or anything that gets the blood flowing. Start exercising at least a month prior to playing.

So there are some tips for relieving the pressure of life and the pressure of chess. Chess can be stressful no matter how much you love the game. It’s a mental workout but it doesn’t have to be a stressful wokout. Speaking of workouts, here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

False(?) French Fears

“True attacks are realised only with many coordinated pieces and rarely with one or two.” Andre Philidor

I’ve had problems as Black against the Kings Indian Attack. I’ve tended to get overly concerned with White’s Kingside attack and her h pawn advance. As a result, I’ve often, as in this game, played f5 – which is either too early or unnecessary. Having gone through this game with Nigel I think(!) I will feel less concerned about the h pawn advance in future. The variation Nigel gives at move 10 was particularly interesting to me. In it Black focuses on advancing his pawns on the Queenside and while White gets his pawn to h6 Black maintains control of the dark squares around his King.

Dan Staples

Fischer vs Taimanov, 1971: An Interesting and Instructive Endgame

Today, I was going through some games and I found a very interesting and instructive position from the game played between Bobby Fischer and Mark Taimanov in 1971. There is nothing better than studying such games to improve your chess.

Position after move no 42. White to Play

Q :In this position Fischer played Rd3. What are the reasons behind exchanging the rooks?

A: When there are pawns on both sides of the board then the bishop is better, but here it is not clear. The position is not open and both sides lack good pawn levers. Here a concrete evaluation is necessary to justify the rook exchanges. I believe the reasons here are quite different than simply knight vs. Bishop end-game.

1) The position of the Black knight is very poor; it is very difficult to find good square for the knight from where it can attack White’s pawns.
2) Black’s king side pawns are on light squares and Black can’t liquidate those pawns.
3) Key factor: While Black’s knight is busy defending the king side there are quite good chances that White king will find his way to march to a6.

Fischer reached to the desired position after few more moves with brilliant bishop maneuver. It is really interesting. Here are the moves:

43. Rd3 Kc7 44. Rxd6 Kxd6 45. Kd3 Ne7 46. Be8 Kd5 47. Bf7+ Kd6 48. Kc4 Kc6 49. Be8+ Kb7 50. Kb5 Nc8 51. Bc6+ Kc7 52. Bd5 Ne7 53. Bf7 Kb7 54. Bb3 Ka7 55. Bd1 Kb7 56. Bf3+ Kc7 57. Ka6 Ng8 58. Bd5 Ne7 59. Bc4 Nc6 60. Bf7 Ne7 61. Be8 Kd8

And now it’s time for some action. Here Fischer sacrificed the bishop to win the queenside pawns and Black resigned quite soon.

Ashvin Chauhan

Stalemate Tuesday

“Any problem that features a pawn moving from its starting square to promotion in the course of the solution is now said to demonstrate the Excelsior theme.”
Excelsior by Sam Lloyd

Chess offers many more opportunities to enjoy it than what we get from the original position and normal play. There are several chess variants to choose from, as well as trying your hand at reaching the most unusual positions one can think of. Stalemate is very hard to reach given its main condition: no pieces can move and the King is not in check. It is logical to look for such positions in the endgame where we have few pieces left. Has it ever crossed your mind though to look for stalemate in the opening? Some have done it already. You can try to do better either by yourself or with your friends at the club. Why would you even consider doing that? I always regarded such unusual exercises as a way of being inventive; way too many times we blitz our moves without thinking in long opening lines, most of the times with no understanding why those moves are played in that order.

Here is an example of juniors who discovered a beauty composed by Sam Lloyd (shortest stalemate possible) and played it on the national stage. It did not go very well with the organizers and both got “0” at the end of it. If you want to play a pre-arranged draw, choose something “normal” to avoid the spotlight. I remember doing it once back in the University Championship. We chose a game with some spectacular sacrifices ending in perpetual; in hindsight it was a bit too spectacular and a number of players came over to watch it live, plus at the end of it a lively analysis erupted. There was no internet at the time and the likelyhood of someone knowing the game was not very high. Today if you want to do something similar, be careful what you choose; google is always watching… Below is what those juniors did. That is asking for trouble or being as inventive as one can be, depending on your perspective:

You can pick up the challenge and see if you can beat Sam Lloyd by finding a shorter stalemate. A couple of players from Germany chose to add a nice wrinkle to it and created a stalemate on move 12 with all the pieces on the board! The position might look familiar since Wheeler (Sunny South 1887) and Sam Lloyd (him again) composed similar positions some 100 years prior; still reaching it requires some work and from this point of view it is as good of a chess workout as anything. Enjoy!

Valer Eugen Demian

An Attacking Game in the Closed Sicilian

Here’s a great attacking game in the Closed Sicilian by the Hungarian Grandmaster Istvan Bilek. The attack started with 9.f5! is very typical of this opening though in this case it was followed by a brilliant exchange sacrifice (11.Rxf5). There is one very important tactical point, after 13…f5 14.Bd5+ Kh8 15.Ng5 h6 White has the brilliant 16.Qg6! when 16…hxg5 17.Qh5+ leads to mate.

Sam Davies

Short and Sweet (1)

When Mike Fox and I were writing our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS one of our regular features was ‘Short and Sweet’, in which we invited readers to submit their own very short wins (or losses).

Every week I download the latest TWIC and search for mini-miniatures. This week’s TWIC offers a bumper 7872 games, many of them played in the World Rapid and World Blitz Championships, but also much else from Christmas/New Year tournaments around the world. The World Rapid and Blitz Championships, held, controversially, in Saudi Arabia, featured some less experienced local players who were easy prey for the visiting GMs.

Let’s look at some of last week’s quicker decisive games.

Cho Fai Heng (1476) – Benjamin Yao Teng Oh (1855)
Jolimark HK Open 24 Dec 2017

1. e4 c5
2. Ne2 Nc6
3. Nbc3

The Closed Variation is a nice system to play against the Sicilian. You can close your eyes and play the first eight moves without thinking. Or can you?

3… Nd4

Not optimal, but hoping for a Christmas present. White duly obliges.

4. g3 Nf3#

Of course it’s easy to fall for this if you’re, like White in this game, a low graded and perhaps inexperienced player.

Strong players would never make that sort of mistake. Or would they?

Six days later, this happened.

Gulnar Mammadova (2357) – Sarah Hoolt (2405)
World Blitz Women 2017, Riyahd R17 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 e6
3. b3 b6
4. c4 Bb7
5. Nc3 Nc6
6. Bb2 e5
7. Nd5 d6
8. g3 Nge7
9. Bh3

White’s not threatening anything so Black decides to prepare a fianchetto.

9… g6
10. Nf6#

It’s blitz so you move fast. These things happen. But if you stop to ask yourself the MAGIC QUESTION ‘If I play that move what will my opponent do next?’ it really shouldn’t happen. It’s also a pattern which you should recognize. Pattern recognition is an important part of chess and will save time in analysis. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to analyse at all, though.

Now here’s something strange. Perhaps the most frequent opening tactic of all is Qa4+ (Qa5+ for Black) picking up a loose minor piece. It’s a pattern you have to remember. Like this.

Inga Charkhalashvili (2337) – Bedor Al Shelash (-)
World Rapid Women 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. d4 e6
2. c4 d5
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bg5 Bb4
5. Qa4+ 1-0

Except that it isn’t. Black could have defended with Nc6. Perhaps she didn’t notice, or perhaps her mobile phone went off. Who knows?

I’d have been tempted to wait a move, playing something like 5. Nf3 hoping for 5… b6 in reply.

In rapid and blitz games mistakes like this will inevitably happen. But a grandmaster playing in a slowplay event would never hang a piece on move 5.

Wong Meng Kong (2252) – Denis Molofej (2081)
Jolimark HK Open 25 Dec 17

1. Nf3 d5
2. c4 dxc4
3. Qa4+ Qd7
4. Qxc4 Qc6

Trading queens on move 5 would be pretty boring so White prefers…

5. Qb3 Qxc1+ 0-1

Until I came across these games I was planning to write about a particular book and author this week. The book included an analogous position to this:

Mohammed Alanazy (1850) – Ahmed M Al Ghamdi (2159)
World Blitz 2017, Riyahd R15 30 Dec 17

1. e4 c5
2. d4 cxd4
3. c3 d3
4. Nf3 d6
5. e5 dxe5
6. Nxe5 Qc7
7. Qh5

White defends his threatened knight while at the same time threatening mate in 2. What could be more natural? Sadly, the blitz time limit didn’t allow him to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION.

7… g6

Black defends his threatened king while at the same time threatening the queen which is defending the knight. If 8. Qg5 he can choose between Bh6 and f6, both winning a piece.

8. Qf3 Qxe5+ 0-1

My last offering for now highlights another recurring tactical pattern in the opening. Again, an idea all competitive players need to know.

Johan-Sebastian Christiansen (2495) – Hassan M Al Bargi (1579)
World Rapid 2017, Riyahd R2 26 Dec 17

1. e4 d5
2. exd5 Qxd5
3. Nc3 Qd8
4. d4 Nf6
5. Nf3 c6
6. Bc4 Bg4

Allowing a familiar combination. At least it should be familiar. My database has 28 examples of White’s next move, with two of the victims being rated over 2200. The earliest example is Albin – Lee New York 1893, a tournament which also featured William Henry Krause Pollock.

7. Bxf7+ Kxf7
8. Ne5+ Kg8
9. Nxg4 Nbd7
10. Qe2 Nxg4
11. Qe6#

Which is why an early section of Chess Openings for Heroes covers these tactical patterns which happen over and over again. You won’t find this, as far as I know, in any other elementary openings book.

Richard James

When to Take Lessons

The question is not should my child take chess lessons but when should the lessons start. The reason we’re seeing so many highly rated and talented young players has a great deal to with when they start studying under a qualified coach or instructor. Many professionals believe the target age for starting chess lessons is between five and eight years old. The reason for this has to do with a child’s ability to absorb information. However, we should explore this notion in greater detail. Young children tend to spend less time second guessing instructional information and are more open to accepting guidelines as fact. I know this seems counter intuitive to the way children think, exploring ideas by testing them, but in the right hands (a good teacher), young children will absorb the information with little intellectual resistance which develops good habits from the start.

Many parents will have a chess coach or teacher handle the entire process, meaning the coach or teacher teaches the rules of the game. As much as I’d enjoy collecting a high hourly wage for explaining the rules, I tell parents not to waste their hard earned money on something they can do on their own. Thus, parents should teach their children the rules of the game before starting them with a coach or teacher. Parents should keep their expectations low, meaning they should set realistic goals such as the child simply being able to move the pieces correctly. Too many parents jump into specific game principles before their child has a basic command of pawn and piece movement which is frustrating for both child and parent alike. Children learn at different speeds so patience is an absolute must. Just because your child’s friend learned to correctly move the pawns and pieces very quickly, doesn’t mean your child will do likewise. It also doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to be a good chess player. He or she make just take a bit longer to catch up. On the flip side, just because your child picks the rules up quickly doesn’t mean he or she will be the next Magnus Carlsen. Take your time and set small realistic goals. Make it fun by telling stories about each piece and define the piece’s special way of moving as the piece’s super power (as if that piece was a comic book hero). If it isn’t fun, your child will be less likely to enjoy the game. If you’re new to chess, pick up a copy of Richard James’ book, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids.

As for which person to choose for your child, coach or teacher, go with a teacher because there’s a difference. Coaches tend to work with children who already play chess and play it well. Coaches have to prepare their students for tournaments which means they have to cover a lot of conceptual ground and quickly. They often don’t have the patience needed to work with an absolute beginner. Teachers, on the other hand, have more patience and specialize in the basics. Choose a teacher over a coach unless your candidate does both. Finding one depends on your location. If you’re in a big city or near one, you can generally find a chess club. Many schools offer after school chess programs. The important thing is to find someone who works well with kids. Why? Because kids require a teaching program that is on par with their intellectual level. A good chess teacher needs to explain complex ideas employing simple analogies. A teacher who speaks as if presenting a dissertation on particle physics to a room full of rocket scientists is probably going to sound as if they’re speaking ancient Sanskrit to your child. Teachers who specialize in teaching chess to children know how to simplify explanations and more importantly, make those explanations fun.

Of course, there are a lot of people who fancy themselves chess teachers but in reality couldn’t teach well if their life depended on it. Therefore, interview the teacher. Better yet, ask them to define a chess concept for you. See if their explanation makes sense, not only to you but your child. Is that explanation suitable for a child? Remember, you’re hiring this person as a teacher so they better be able to teach. Put them on the spot, After all, you’re paying them for a service. Another good source for finding chess teachers is on college campuses. Put up a flier in the mathematics and science departments (not the music department or you’ll get a roguish character such as myself). College students are generally excited and passionate and this will translate to passionate teaching. Some of the most passionate chess teachers we have at Academic Chess are college students and the kids love them!

You should start your child off learning chess at a young age but the younger the age, the more patient you’ll have to be. As your child gets older, they’ll be more apt to question everything. While there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact I tell my students that questioning everything is their youthful job, it can make the learning process a bit slower. However, there is no age maximum for learning chess. While we’re on the subject of questioning things, there’s nothing wrong with this idea. In fact, most children who learn the game even at an early age will question why they should do something, such as following the opening principles. Let them ignore those principles because they’ll quickly learn via experience that the principles do work. Again, it comes down to being patient. Start your child off young, be patient and let them learn at their own pace. After they learn the game’s rules, hand over the job of teaching to a professional but be proactive. Ask your child what he or she learned during their chess lesson. Have them explain it to you. You’ll know if the teacher is earning his or her keep and if your child is progressing by your child’s response. Don’t be afraid to switch teachers if your current teacher isn’t working out. It’s not a marriage, it’s a paid position! Speaking of positions, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Power of the Two Bishops

One important strategic element is the two bishops. A player has the two bishops when you have both bishops on the board and your opponent only has one (or none). Of course, understanding when and how the two bishops can be an benefit depends on the specific position.

The bishop pair thrives in the following types of positions:

  1. In open positions, where there are either few central pawns or they are not locked.
  2. When there are pawns on both sides of the board.
  3. When the bishops have targets – typically in the form of pawns.

The two bishops struggle in the following types of positions:

  1. In closed positions, where the central pawns are locked.
  2. When the opposing knight has strong central outposts, where the main strength of the bishop over the knight – its range – is negated.
  3. When pawns are on one side of the board, where an opposing knight may be able to protect them.

Why are the two bishops often an positional advantage?

  1. The bishops can often dominate an opposing knight, particularly a misplaced one – “knights on the rim are dim.”
  2. The unopposed bishop (the one for which doesn’t have an opposite number) can attack squares and targets that cannot be easily defended since the opponent doesn’t have a bishop of the same color.
  3. The bishops can coordinate and cover large zones of squares on both sides of the board. This is particularly true in the endgame, where there are fewer pieces and pawns on the board.

The following video is a game that I commented on where Black – Greek GM Efstratios Grivas – expertly handles the two bishops.

Bryan Castro

Critical Central Control Combat

“The centre is the Balkans of the chessboard; fighting may at any time break out there” – Aron Nimzowitsch

I seem to keep making mistakes playing the French. The crucial pawn lever is c5 and Black has to play it in a timely manner. In this game it was important to play 6…c5. Instead I got a very cramped position with a very troublesome light squared bishop. However, Nigel thought I defended well and was able to take advantage of White’s blunder on move 23.

Dan Staples

Acting and Reacting

This position is taken from a game of mine that was played in recent tournament. What do you think about the position?

Black to play:

Here are some thoughts:
1) Black’s dark square bishop is absent so Black has some permanent weaknesses.
2) White’s beautiful dark square bishop on f6 will help arrange a checkmate if Black does not do something very soon, for instance by Rh4xh7.
3) On the other hand Black is relying on the counter play against the g2 square via the 2nd rank and h1-a8 diagonal.

Sometimes you get positions where you can’t just defend, if you do so you will lose. Here with 4 minutes on the clock, I played 1…h6 and lost very quickly as there is no defense to Rh4 and Rxh6. For example, Rxd3 then Rxh6!! No way to save checkmate on h8.

So did Black miss something? He forgot to act and realize the need to create his own threats very quicly. Here in fact Black stands better but instead of 1…h6, the best move is 1…Rxd3!, and it works because White still needs three moves to checkmate whereas Black needs only two. So White has to exchange the queens and here are no good alternatives, for example 2. Qg5 h6 or 2. Qg4 Rd2 3. Rg1 and now Rc8 will win for Black.

Accordingly White has to play 2. Rf2 (either) Rxg3 3. Rxb2 and now Black can play his rook to a safe square on the 3rd rank, and despite there being opposite colour bishops on the board the more active rook and bishop guarantees him a good game.

How many of you have lost games because of reacting instead of acting? Probably quite a few.

Ashvin Chauhan