Storming The Castle

These days Carlsen and Karjakin are playing for the World Championship and given the stakes plus number of games, each plays as cautious as possible; any mistake or risk too big could decide the match in one’s favour. The regular player has a different kind of challenge and opportunity when paired with a FIDE titled player. The opportunities are far more often today than years ago. The number of titled players has increased, there are more titles available and of course more tournaments.

When you are paired with a titled player the first thing coming into play is how to approach the game: are you going to be intimidated or you look forward to the challenge? It is easy to say “I look forward to it”. In reality human nature is to look up to it and be more or less intimidated. What you need for sure is confidence in yourself! It is critical to be confident in what you know or you won’t stand much of a chance anyway.

The following game is from a while back when I got an opportunity to play a FIDE Master, 2355 rated at the time. This was a big deal back then… You will see how my low level of confidence influenced my play and in the end was the main cause for losing the game on time.

What can we conclude at the end of it? Titled players are also human beings and could also be uninspired or have a bad day. They could also choose to experiment or even worst to underestimate you. The well known advice is “Play the board and not the opponent”, meaning you need to focus on the game and not be influenced by your opponent’s title and/ or rating no matter what they are. It is the only way you could do well, learn and improve. 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

Over The Edge

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that Kramnik as White played 1. Ng5 h6 2. Ne4 and the White knight finds a very good square on d6.

This week’s problem illustrates the importance of driving your opponent over the edge, when his position is only just holding together.

Black has a bishop which is pinned and attacked. The two bishops standing opposite each other create a lot of tactical tension. There is clearly a storm coming. How can White increase the pressure on Black’s position, so that one of Black’s pieces falls off the board?

Steven Carr

Thinking Skills Revisited (2)

This week I’m revisiting questions 5 to 8 of my thinking skills quiz. My thanks to those readers who have been in touch to provide feedback regarding their pupils’ results.

In Q5 Black’s just taken our knight on c3. It looks like we have a straight choice between capturing the knight with the queen or the b-pawn. In fact quite a few children fail to capture the knight, perhaps thinking that it won’t run away and they’ll be able to take it next move, or perhaps just not noticing that they can take it at all. I tweaked this position slightly from last time, placing the black bishop on e7 rather than c5. When the bishop was on c5 most children captured with the queen in order to threaten the bishop. Some of them pointed out that it was also a double attack, threatening Nxe5 as well as Qxc5. Would moving the black bishop to a safe square make any difference? From the small sample this time round, the answer is ‘no’. All the children who captured on c3 chose the queen, telling me that they wanted to get their most powerful piece into play. None of them asked themselves what Black might play next, so they were all oblivious to the potential pin Bb4 after Qxc3. At this level asking “It I play that move, what will my opponent do next?” is just too hard, but without asking themselves this question they will find it hard to make much progress.

I should add that, if you add the moves O-O for White and Be6 for Black, so that Qxc3 is a viable option, strong players would still prefer bxc3, moving another pawn towards the centre, but at this level children have little idea about the subtleties of pawn play so it would be automatic for them to capture with the queen.

Q6 is a standard tactical idea which happens quite often. It’s helpful to be aware of it and hard to find the right answer if you haven’t seen it before. Most (but not all) children will notice that their queen is in danger. A popular choice would be f3, a perfectly reasonable and logical move. Others will choose a queen move such as Qd2, again very sensible. Some choose Qxg4, usually not noticing that the bishop is defended by the knight, but sometimes spotting that the knight on f6 is pinned and planning a trade of queens and minor pieces. This is also not a bad move, but there’s something much better.

A few children do notice (perhaps they’ve seen the idea before) that the move Bxf6 wins a piece whether Black captures the bishop or the queen in reply. This is hard at this level, though. It’s automatic, if your queen is attacked, to consider moving her to a safe square, blocking the attack or capturing the attacking piece. The idea of creating an Equal or Bigger Threat (EBT) is not so easy.

Looking through my RJCC database (nearly 17000 games played over 30 years) the most frequent tactical idea, occurring, or being missed, in hundreds of games, is the queen fork with Qa4+, or Qa5+ if you’re black, hitting a loose minor piece, often, but not always, on b4/b5. Remember, Loose Pieces Drop Off (LPDO).

This position is a typical example, but few children at this level find the right move for the right reason. Quite a few children look blankly at this position, finding it hard to suggest any move at all, as they don’t think anything very much is happening. Some of them notice that their knight is pinned and resolve to do something about it by playing a3 or Bd2. Others are seduced by the idea of a check and might play either Bb5+ or Qa4+, or even suggest either move, being unable to choose, giving as their reason ‘because it’s check’. Some children think that saying check makes a move worth playing. Always check – it might be mate! Not very many will suggest the correct move for the correct reason. To get full credit they’d need to mention that the move is a fork, hitting the unprotected bishop on b4, and also to note that they’d meet Nc6 with Qxc6+. Of course you also have to notice that after 1. Qa4+ Nc6 2. Qxc6+ Bd7 3. Qb7 your queen will eventually be able to scurry back to safety.

The final question was designed deliberately to be confusing. Nonetheless, a few children do manage to solve it for the right reason. First of all you have to see that your bishop is under threat. Secondly, you have to see that it’s also pinned against the rook on a1. Then you have to notice that you can move the bishop to c3 where it defends the rook on a1. Finally, you have to spot that after 1. Bc3 Qxc3 you have 2. Rxa8+. Will children move their bishop to a safe square, overlooking the pin? Will they decide they’re losing a piece anyway and try something else?

A popular choice is e5. There might be several reasons for this: i) they haven’t noticed their bishop is threatened: ii) they’ve noticed their bishop is threatened and think they can’t save it: iii) they’re thinking ‘if you take my bishop I’ll take your knight’. But the move can be met most simply by Nd5, when Black’s winning a piece because the white bishop no longer has access to c3. Another popular choice is Qc4: I really hope you’ll take my bishop because then I’ll take your queen. Unfortunately the move’s no good because Black can trade queens before capturing the bishop. Rd1 is also sometimes suggested by children who think that after Rxa5, Rd8 might possibly be checkmate.

This quiz demonstrates a few things about how children think about chess positions and why they make mistakes. At this age children find it difficult to think about two different aspects of the position at the same time. Although they might analyse accurately if they see a familiar idea such as a back rank mate, by and large they will make one of two mistakes. They will either think “I’ll go there, then I’ll go there, then I’ll go there” or “I’ll go there because I hope you’ll do something really stupid”, or, in another version of this, “I’ll go there because I hope it might be checkmate”. All of which is very much what you’d expect if you read up on children’s cognitive development.

I’m planning to produce more of these quizzes, which might possibly make a book in the Chess for Heroes series. Although all the questions in this quiz had one right answer, there’s no reason why future questions shouldn’t have two, three or many right answers. I’m just as interested in the reasons for my students’ choice as I am in the moves themselves.

If you have any positions you’d like to submit for future quizzes of this nature, or if you’ve tested this quiz on any of your students, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Richard James

Tracking Improvement

Many of my students have asked me how they were doing in regards to their own improvement on the chessboard. If you think about it, it’s an extremely valid question since it’s often difficult to measure one’s chess improvement when all you see are your losses. In fact, most beginners (and many experienced players) become frustrated because they feel as if they’re getting nowhere when it comes to honing their chess skills. It’s a lot easier to see progress in others than it is to see progress in your own efforts. Again, we tend to see our losses as total losses, after all, a loss just proves you’re not moving forward. Right? Absolutely wrong, so remove that idea from your thinking. I really mean it, remove the idea that a loss is simply an example of your chess playing shortcomings! Great strides in improvement can be found in even the most brutal losses (within reason).

Of course, someone reading this (other than my wife and mother) is going to think, “hey, if I just suffered a brutal loss, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?” I’d answer this by saying, “you have to lose a lot of games along the road to mastery.” However, there’s more to it than just simply saying you have to lose before you win. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

A student attends my chess classes, showing up every day, paying attention to my lectures and then acquiring some of my recommended chess books to study. This student, who was brand new to the game when we first met, also invests in a chess playing program so they have an opponent around the clock. The students reads and takes that new found knowledge with them when they play against the computer. They lose game after game because they set the software’s playing level fairly high for a beginner. The software program records all of the games played. After a few months, the student comes to me nearly in tears saying “I’m just not any good at this so I’m going to give up.” I say to them, as I say to every students who thinks about giving up, “let me take a look at the games you’ve played against the computer and see where you’re at. Don’t give up yet!”

I look at their games in chronological order, from the first game played to the last game played. I see a much different picture. I see improvement from the first game through the last, even if the student in question lost every game they played. It’s not the result of the game that I’m interested in but the application of their chess studies to the games. Here’s what I look for.

Obviously, I don’t have to worry about illegal piece movement and the breaking of rules when students are playing against the computer because the computer will not let you do anything illegal! What I’m really looking for is improvement. What do I mean by improvement?

The game of chess has three distinct phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these three phases require that certain tasks be accomplished, so that’s where I start. I examine each game phase and determine, first, if my students are applying the correct principles for the phase of the game and second, if those applied principles are improving in scope. I don’t expect a student to play a perfect opening at the start of their chess careers. I want to see the basics starting to come to light!

Most beginners are lost during the opening, not controlling the board’s center with a combination of pawns and pieces (especially the minor pieces). Add to this, the idea that beginner’s pieces aren’t coordinated from the start and you can see why they become so discouraged. The first thing I look at in their games against the computer (from first game to last) is whether they’re getting their pieces out towards the board’s center during the first six to eight moves. I give them a point for each minor piece moved towards the board’s center, ignoring piece coordination until I examine later games. As I play through the students games, I look to see if they start coordinating their pieces in later games. One point is awarded to each pair of coordinated pieces (five points for three pieces working together). A point is awarded for castling as well as good pawn structure.

Next, I examine the middle game, a realm in which many beginners have gone down in flames. What I’m look at here is further activity of pawns and pieces, awarding a point for each piece that is further developed to an active square. Points are taken away for premature attacks and capturing of opposition material if it damaged their position. Combinations that lead to tactical plays get five points.

The endgame, if reached (beginners seldom reach a real endgame), is tough for the beginner because they think that less material makes for less thinking! Wrong! While checkmate with a pair or Rooks or a Queen and King score a point, proper pawn promotion earns a whopping five points! I add up the scores for each game played and we look to see if the score increases from game to game.

By going through a student’s collection of games against their computer from the first game to the last, while scoring points for the above mentioned principled play and adding those points up, can give the student a snapshot of their improvement over time. I suggest you try this with your own recorded games. While you may be losing a lot of games, you’ll at least see that you are improving and getting better at the game we love so much in the long run. Don’t become discouraged if you’re not winning many games because you’re more likely improving but that improvement is buried under the stigma of losing. You just have to look beyond the losses and look for the things you’re doing right. Remember, even the world’s top players lose games and they don’t give up. Also, remember to be kind to yourself when assessing your improvement. My first chess teacher fired me as a student because, as he put it, “you really don’t have the intellectual skill set to play chess.” In other words, he thought I was the village idiot. I had the satisfaction of running into him decades later and crushing him on the sixty four squared jungle. While I try to be a gracious winner, I did kind of dance around the table yelling “ha ha ha, whose the idiot now.” Not my finest moment as an adult! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Chess-Player’s Brainfade

One of the most important qualities that a chess player must have on his C. V. is the ability to analyse accurately. One can possess all the theoretical knowledge and experience in the world, but when it comes to it, it is our moves over-the-board, that will decide the game. And if we are blase or complacent in our contemplations, we will (or should) pay the price.

What makes human chess so exciting, is that even with the best of intentions, games are filled with oversights, inaccuracies and darn right blunders. These are made at all levels, and even the greats fail. Perhaps you watched the recent online blitz showdown between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura? As well as being a real treat to see just what these players are capable of seeing given such short time, there was also some comfort to the mere mortals among us, when Nakamura hung his Queen by allowing his King to be skewered.

This makes me feel slightly more at ease, in sharing with you the following example that I recently played online. It is a correspondence game with a 7-day time control and I feel that it perfectly demonstrates the difficulties we face in maintaining a clear head, capable of consistent accurate analysis. Both myself and my opponent certainly failed at this in the most critical moments of the game, which was decided by who made the last error rather than any brilliance. This was, luckily for me, my opponent, who also committed the great faux pas of assuming that his opponent knew better than he did, as you will see.

So what do we learn from this game? Well, a few things:

  • We have to base our analysis upon the nature of the position. This goes without saying, but it is sometimes startlingly easy to forget. My positional and psychological decisions had served me very well up to a point in the above game. When the pieces are not in contact, when there is no tension, limiting one’s thought process to this is fine. The analysis of lines can often be limited to a few moves in these positions — infact, deep analysis of lines would be an inefficient use of time. However, when creating tension, when the pieces are in close contact, this changes. Even more so if one is intending to take a risk, such as a sacrifice. Deep, thorough and accurate analysis becomes essential and general positional and psychological thought simply will not suffice. We must endeavour to confirm that we will get the return we want, we can’t just wish our opponent to do something or trick or bully them into it.
  • Our opponent does not have to cooperate with our aspirations. Actually, the chess player’s goal is to not cooperate with the opponent. My decision to play 17…Bxh3 was based on the fact that I felt that White would be compelled to move his knight (therefore allowing me the strong …Qh4) after 18.gxh3 Rg6+ 19.Kf1 Bh2 in order to stop mate. This was completely inaccurate, but I saw what I wanted to see and didn’t see the reality on the board.
  • Our opponent is never infallible. My opponent’s decision to not play 18.gxh3 ultimately cost him the game. Had he analysed accurately, he would have seen that the bishop was a safe capture and that he would be fine to all that I had to throw at him. Instead, he relied on the accuracy of my analysis and in effect allowed himself to be bluffed, thinking that I had all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed. This resulted in him losing a game that he should have won.

John Lee Shaw

Hasta la Vista

It’s better to burn out than to fade away. ? Neil Young

I think I’m going to take a break from chess (except teaching).

All the sparkle has gone out of my tournament play.

I’m getting all my artistic satisfaction from programming now, which demands most of my time, and more sitting than is good for my health. Tournament chess simply aggravates my physical condition. GM Davies advised me to simplify my life and discard extraneous activities, and I fear chess has become one of those.

Until such a time as I have more material to present, I bid my readers a fond farewell.

Sincerely,

Jacques Delaguerre

Indirect Ways Of Winning Material

Checkmate ends the game, but a game is more often won by winning material directly or indirectly. A direct win of material is very simple to explain, you make a profitable capture or exchange. The indirect method involves cutting the opponent’s pieces off from the main battle field, having a superiority of force there or locking down a piece temporary or forever. In a nutshell one can say that indirect methods deal with reducing the quality of opponent’s pieces or increasing quality of your own pieces. Here is an instructive & famous example:

William Winter against Capablanca in 1912


Q: White’s last move, Nd5, was a mistake. How can you build a winning position because of this mistake?
A: As follows:

1…g5!

The beginning of the end.

2.Nxf6

If 2. Nxg5 then 2…Nxd5 wins a piece or if 2. Bg3 then 2…Nxd5 3. exd5 Bg4 followed by f6 leaves White’s dark square bishop with no future. Please note that the bishop pinning the knight on f6 is quite a common theme and you can find a detailed explanation of its effect on the center and the future of the bishop in My System by Aaron Nimzowitsch.

2…Qxf6 3.Bg3 – Bg4

Now White can’t avoid doubled pawns on the f- file and White’s dark square bishop can’t come to life without sacrificing a pawn.

4.h3

If 4.h4 then 4…Bxf3 5. Qxf3 Qxf3 6. gxf3 f6 with same result discussed below.

4…Bxf3 5.Qxf3 Qxf3 6.gxf3 f6

Now the bishop can’t be unlocked without sacrificing a pawn. In the game White choose not to sacrifice and Black attacked the queenside with his extra piece. Black won after 15 more moves.

Here is the whole game in case you’re interested.:

Ashvin Chauhan

Bad Ideas

“Errare humanum est…”
Seneca

Everyone has their fair share of bad ideas over a chess career. It is as they say part of the human nature. Key is to learn from them instead of persisting down that road because:
“… sed in errare (errore) perseverare diabolicum”
It is interesting how some bad ideas leave a big mark and stay with you for a long time or even forever. If you learn your lesson, a game lost by a bad idea can help you improve more than countless games won. The first game below has haunted me for a long time. It is from the University years, some of the best years in anyone’s life: no worries, courage, lots of bubbling ideas and most of all fun! In all this vortex of action bad and good ideas pour out of your mind while you try to keep up with them. The bad idea this time came all of a sudden and seemed worth exploring: what is the big deal if my fianchettoed bishop gets trapped in the corner? While he gets busy trapping it, I can gain space and initiative on the queenside. This can’t be so bad, can’t it? Let’s see how it went:

This is a game I remember the most when I open the copybook with my games from those years. 15 years from that day having it in the back of my mind came to the rescue in the most unexpected way. I was playing in my first Canadian correspondence chess final; in one of the games I had the opportunity to return the favour on an unsuspected opponent. This time however I got much more than just a bishop.

What can we conclude out of this? Do not be afraid of your ideas! Trust your instinct and go for it no matter what. Yes, some are going to be bad and others good. There is no better teacher than your own experience. The good ideas need to become part of your arsenal. The bad ones need to be analysed, remembered and then also used as part of your own arsenal by simply turning the tables on your opposition. It is simple and still rather counter intuitive. Being afraid to experiment or simply forgetting about them handicaps you, so don’t do that. Go for it and you will be rewarded!

Valer Eugen Demian

Think Ten Times, Play Once

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White wins with 1.Nb8+ Kc8 2. Re8+ Kb7 3. Bc6+ Kb6 4 Qe3+ ! Ka5 5. b4+

The saying ‘Think ten times, play once’ is attributed to Franz Liszt. The idea is that before you play a piece of music, you should think about what you are trying to achieve. If you don’t know what you are supposed to be getting from the music, how can you play good music?

This saying also applies in chess.

In this week’s problem, many players would not even think once. They would just automatically castle.

But what is White trying to achieve in the position? If you think once, or perhaps twice, you might avoid making an automatic move with White, and instead make the move that Kramnik thought of.

Steven Carr

Thinking Skills Revisited (1)

More than a decade ago I devised a short quiz designed to test the chess thinking skills of children rated up to about 1500 ELO/100 ECF. There were eight questions in which my pupils were invited to choose a move for White and give reasons for their choice either using a short sentence or a variation.

The results were written up in an article which was published in various places.

Two of the original questions were slightly unsatisfactory so were omitted from the article. I’d rather forgotten about the whole project, partly because I hadn’t had the opportunity recently to teach in an environment where the test would be appropriate. But following a recent discussion about the article with my online friend from across the Atlantic, Paul Swaney, I decided to revive it for the Intermediate Group at Richmond Junior Club, making some minor changes to two of the other positions in the process. This group is for children of primary school age who have mastered the basics and understand notation, but who are not yet ready for serious competition. Their ratings would be up to about 800/1000 ELO and their ECF grades up to about 40/50. My previous experience is that players of about 1500 ELO/100 ECF will get most of the questions right, but anyone much below that will struggle to get more than a few correct.

My interest in these questions is not so much the answers that the children give but the reasons for their answers. I have to bear in mind, of course, that young children are not always very good at putting their thoughts into words and their words onto paper.

This is Q1: a basic test of endgame knowledge. I repeat this over and over again with my pupils, so some of them will get it right. Others will choose a random move, saying that if Black replies with c2 they’ll be able to capture the pawn. This is an error in differentiation. I explain to them it’s like me asking what the difference is between Jack and Joe, and getting the reply “Jack’s a boy”.

It occurred to me that there’s a slight problem with interpreting the reasons they give for their answers to this question. Many children think ‘stalemate’ is just another word for draw and announce ‘stalemate’ when they reach a position with king against king. If they say that they’ll play Kc1 because they’re more likely to get stalemate they might have the right reason, or they might just be saying it because they’re anticipating c2 in reply.

In Q2 we have a pawn on the seventh rank about to promote. But there’s a problem: Black is threatening mate in 1, which, because it relies on a pin, is not easy to see at this level. The other problem is that, because promotions are very common in games played by young children and a queen is almost always chosen, they find it very difficult even to consider the idea of promoting to anything other than a queen.

As expected, most children at this level promote to a queen here, overlooking the mate. They will often point out that next move they intend to play Q(either)g8#. Some children will play something else instead even though they haven’t seen Black’s mate threat, thinking that promotion can wait. So Rd1, for instance, is sometimes chosen. Some children move the rook, explaining that they’ve seen the mate and want to provide an escape square for their king on g1, overlooking that they’re just allowing mate in 2. Some children will stop the mate by playing a move like c4 or Kh2. Only a few will even consider promoting to a knight rather than a queen because the idea of promoting to a queen is so ingrained. When I ask children how many possible moves they have with the pawn on f7 they’ll usually say ‘one’: it takes me a very long time to persuade them that the answer is actually ‘four’.

When I first devised Q3 I expected it to be a straight choice between captures on d4. I was wondering how many would choose the rook capture because they wanted to avoid doubled pawns. At this level at least half the children, typically, will give an incorrect answer. A few will mention doubled pawns but most will not: children will usually see the rook capture first because pawns move and capture in different ways and play it with no further thought.

Many children at this level are familiar with the back rank mate and some of them will notice the problem with Rxd4. You’d expect them all to play cxd4 instead, but not all of them do. Some of them will instead play a move such as h3 to stop the back rank mate, intending to capture the knight next move. This didn’t actually happen with the small RJCC group, but when I tested some of my private pupils later, one of them did play h3. Again, this demonstrates that children at this level tend, if they’re thinking ahead at all, to think “I go there, then I go there, then I go there” rather than “I go there, then you go there, then I go there”. The idea that they have an opponent who is going to try to find the best move is a very difficult concept for most young children whose theory of mind skills are, as yet, insufficiently developed for them to consider their opponent’s perspective in any meaningful way.

Q4 might be considered the hardest question in this set. The idea, which mostly works, is that weaker players will play the right answer for the wrong reason, and will take the queen without any further thought. The intermediate players will spot the potential back rank mate but the idea of meeting Re1+ with Rf1 rather than Rxa1 won’t occur to them. So they’ll play a move such as Qd1 or h3, planning to capture the queen next move.

At this level, only a few players will get the question right for the right reason, pointing out that after 1. Rxf6 Re1+? they’re going to play Rf1. There will also be a few who don’t notice that they can capture the black queen.

I’ll consider the other four questions next week. If any of my readers teach at this level and would like to try this quiz out or devise suitable questions of their own I’d love to hear from them.

Richard James