Appropriate Opening Choices

On my video on Andrew Martin’s game with the King’s Indian Attack and a 1.g3 move order I mentioned that this should really only be played by very experienced players. There’s also a lot more to it than that.

The basic problem is that openings with flexible openings make great demands on someone’s positional play because they can resolve themselves into many different types of pawn structure. The least flexible of these, and therefore the easiest to understand is the King’s Indian Attack in which White plays e2-e4 and often e4-e5. The English tends to be considerably harder to play well (there are many possible ways you can arrange your pawns) and 1.g3 even more difficult.

So for a relatively inexperienced player or one whose positional play has not been highly developed it’s much better to play something much more direct in which the position of the central pawns is decided early on and the plans become relatively clear. The London System tends to be very good for this as do the Colle-Zukertort and Torre Attack, and after 1.e4 there are good choices in the f4 Sicilian and Scotch. And if you’re under 1400 you don’t really need to think about these things at all, just get your pieces out and try to assimilate an understanding of a few classic game plans!

One of the reasons more sophisticated openings tend to be popular with Grandmasters is BECAUSE they are so difficult for less experienced players to get to grips with, so they can outplay their oppoents much more easily. When beginners play such lines they are not doing themselves any favours, the structural and planning issues will be too complex until they’ve mastered simpler concepts. And they’ll never master the basics whilst wallowing in a sea of flexibility.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say on this matter, for example I seriously wonder who many chess products are aimed at when they’re way too sophisticated for the likes of me! But I’ll blog about that another day.

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The King’s Indian Attack

I’ve made a DVD about the King’s Indian Attack as well as 1.g3 so it was nice to see my fellow DVD presenter Andrew Martin transpose into the latter using the former! When Black was forced to play …c6-c5 he contracted serious weaknesses on d5 and b5 after which Martin trussed him up like a chicken and then executed him on the kingside.

Flank Openings can be great for older players with a rich knowledge of different types of positions because they rely on understanding rather than an exact knowledge of particular moves.

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Studying The Classics

One of the best ways to improve is to look at classic games from the past. The main reason these tend to be more instructive than most modern games is that tournaments had a greater range of playing strengths so that players could actually realise their ideas. Modern super-GMs tend to see everything coming and stop it in advance, so it’s very rare that you’ll get a single strategic idea realised.

Isn’t there a problem that the openings are ‘old-fashioned’? Well not really because Capablanca and Alekhine understood very well how to play the openings that were fashionable at the time, in fact their knowledge and understanding of these openings probably exceeds that of many modern players. Are these old-fashioned openings worse? For the purpose of beating an evenly matched opponent they might be excessively simple, but for players at club level this really doesn’t matter. And old-fashioned openings illustrate many important strategic themes with great clarity.

There is of course an urge for players to emulate the top players, whether this be Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand or Vladimir Kramnik. But in this case my advice is simply to get over it, it takes an immense amount of talent and work to play in the style of these giants and this is well beyond the capabilities of all but a highly select few. And note that even the greatest players played relatively simple openings early in their careers.

So do I have any specific book recommendations? Indeed I do, but it’s neither a recent book or a best seller. Take a look at Imre Konig’s Chess from Morphy to Botvinnik which contains the most brilliant exposition of certain opening systems with explanations about how they developed. Plus it’s well worth studying Alekhine’s collections of best games and Kmoch’s collection of Rubinstein’s games. One thing you’ll need though is to understand English Descriptive notation, the old P-K4 stuff. A lot of the best books were written using that.

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Carlsen – Giri, Tata Steel Tournament 2011

Here’s Magnus Carlsen’s shockingly quick loss against Anish Giri which I think provides some fascinating insights into his extraordinarily deep approach to chess and what can go wrong with it. There’s no doubt that 11.Qd2 is one weird move, but the ideas behind it are well motivated. It’s not quite clear to me what he missed tactically but White is in deep trouble after …e5-e4.

I imagine these two will be playing quite a few more games against each other. Could it become one of the great rivalries of chess history?

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Don’t Read The News!

There was a time when I used to be an avid reader and watcher of news. It was long ago and I seem to remember thinking that this defined me as a serious and responsible person. But times have changed, quite considerably in fact! These days I’ll only watch Star Trek or some crime drama and never take any notice of the ‘important’ stuff. Why?

One of my inspirations for this approach was Lajos Portisch who stayed at home studying chess when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. There was nothing to be done so why waste time protesting? Another was speculator and squash champion Victor Niederhoffer who restricted his reading matter to The National Enquirer so as to insulate himself from the crowd and therefore make it easier to come up with contrarian investment decisions.

My own news aversion has an additional motivation. I realised that news got my mind working on things I could do nothing about, whether it was an earth quake, volcanic eruption or the outbreak of war in a distant land. In this modern World we already have such a surfeit of information which goes way beyond our capacity to properly process it. That’s without a deliberate policy by the news agencies to report things that are most worrying in a way that is as worrisome as possible. So I made a decision to be quite minimalist with the information I take in so as to try and keep a clear head.

This minimalist approach has important applications in many walks of life but is beautifully illustrated on the chess board. Whenever someone distracts themselves from the deceptively simple job of finding the next move in their game they play worse. This can be through looking at other games, thinking about the tournament situation or chatting to someone outside the tournament hall. These are all serious distractions, especially the chatting.

With regard to chess study the same effect is in evidence. Even with limited time to improve their game it seems all too easy for people to convince themselves that reading chess news or spending hours at a forum is ‘doing some chess’. But reading an interview with, say, Vassily Ivanchuk, does nothing to improve someone’s game whereas playing through some of his games may well. And if someone really wants to improve they could sit down with a chess set and a good book, like the Pal Benko revision of Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings.

So please have a think about the news you are listening to and the effect of distractions in general. And don’t worry that something terrible may be happening that you don’t know about; if it’s something really important there will be screaming on the streets or a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

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Posture At The Board

During my many years of playing and coaching chess I’ve noticed a relationship between posture and thinking. For example if a player is hunched over the board and shaking, he’s probably involved mainly in the calculation of variations. Sometimes I’ve coached someone on the phone for quite a while but only when I saw how they sit at the board would I fully understand how they could improve their game.

This relationship between posture and thought has been highlighted more recently as I’ve become involved in Tai Chi. In this case proper intent is the key to a stronger posture, and it’s amazing the difference it makes.

This leads me to wonder if people can improve the quality of their thinking by improving their posture. I’ve tried googling for this and only come up with some studies showing a change in brain waves in people who meditate. Also intriguing is a recent finding that visiting a chiropracter can reduce blood pressure.

The problem of course is that there’s no incentive to test something that can’t be patented, and indeed might reduce the need for drugs. But I find the possibilities fascinating and think it’s worth experimenting with different ways of sitting.

One simple experiment is to try having your feet flat on the floor whilst playing chess. Also letting your hands rest gently on your knees whilst playing will avoid creating shoulder tension. I’ve seen several strong players from the former Soviet Union adopt such postures and it didn’t look as if it was accidental.

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Finding The Time To Study

One of the major issues for anyone wishing to improve their chess is how to find the time in which to do so. Even the most talented players can find this difficult, especially if they have commitments such as a job and family. In such circumstances a free hour per day would be quite a luxury, and if one goes by the oft quoted formula that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a particular subject that still means more than 27 years! And if one opts instead for the lower target of being a 3,000 hour strong amateur it would still mean more than 8 years. Isn’t there an easier way?

Well whilst the difficulties are self evident I’m rather sceptical about the usage of these numbers as it completely underplays the importance of ability. It also fails to take into account the quality of these hours, for example the deliberate practice cited by Anders Ericsson in his research is a far more effective way to learn than passive approaches.

There are also ways of creating more time, for example by using commuting time or that which is spent exercising. I’ve managed to read quite a few books on my exercise bike and if you have one at home you save the time spent commuting to the gym. An exercise bike at home also presents an opportunity to watch DVDs; if they’re for a PC then a remote mouse can be used to switch between different segments.

Another major source of extra time can be the daily commute, especially for those who currently go to work by car. Taking the train instead can free up several hours per day, and if you switch off your mobile phone you won’t be interrupted by phone calls.

Last but not least there are ways of learning to sleep for 6 hours or less which are detailed in Tim Ferriss’s book The 4 Hour Body. Ferriss recommend a system of polyphasic sleep whereby you break sleep up into multiple segments so as to catch more REM sleep. The most extreme version of this with six precisely timed 20 minute naps is  is probably beyond most peoples’ schedules, but 6 solid hours plus a single 20 minute afternoon nap is not so difficult. Compared to an 8 hour sleep schedule there’s an hour and 40 minute saving, and this could knock off those 10,000 hours in less than 17 years!

Of course most people would prefer not to do this kind of thing unless they are rather driven to succeed. But it just goes to show that many things are possible if someone really wants them enough.

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Beating Younger Players

Although Victor Korchnoi probably hasn’t seen my DVD on beating younger players he does a good job of it in this recent game from Gibralter. In an earlier game between the two Korchnoi had played 5…b5 but lost the game. This time round he omits …b5 and then hits White’s bishop with the manoeuvre 8…Nd7 and 9…Nb6, which simultaneously prepares …f7-f5. When Caruana plays rather passively in reply Black manages to build a powerful king side attack.

Korchnoi is the most amazing example of chess longevity and I loved his remark to me after our game in the Staunton Memorial in London in 2009: “I played the same way against Leonid Stein in 1962 and he was lucky to escape with a draw!” He’s one of the main reasons I intend to play chess my whole life, it seems to be quite good for ones marbles!

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The Pros And Cons Of Flank Openings

To the casual observer it might look as if I’m a serious advocate of Flank Openings (1.c4, 1.Nf3, 1.g3 and others). I’ve used them since I was a teenager, presented DVDs on the English, King’s Indian Attack and 1.g3 and have authored a book on the Reti Opening. As if that wasn’t enough I currently update the Flank Openings section at Chesspublishing.com. So it may surprise the reader that I recommend caution before amateurs adopt them.

The advantages seem obvious, you get to ‘avoid theory’ and have a chess game to play instead. But there is a major issue for many players in that the positions can be difficult to understand because the pawn structures are not clearly defined. In order to play them well you must constantly bear in mind possible clarifications into positions in which the structure has been defined. But for this one needs a rich experience of regular positions first.

Accordingly Flank Openings are best suited to highly experienced players with a broad knowledge of chess positions but who have little inclination to study more direct openings. So many older Grandmasters turn to them in the twilight of their careers and will be able to outfox less experienced opponents.

On the other hand they don’t suit newcomers or relatively inexperienced players because they just won’t understand what they’re aiming for. They’d be better off developing their game with either 1.e4 or 1.d4.

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Ugly But Effective

The French Lebanese GM, Bachar Kouatly, once commented on how ugly my chess style was. Hopefully it has improved a bit in this respect (especially with my ever greater leaning towards positional play) but there may still be a lot of truth to what he said. I’d like to reply with Nimzovitsch’s remark that the beauty of chess lies not in a move’s appearance but rather the thought behind it, but when you see a game by Capablanca, Rubinstein, Smyslov, Karpov or Kramnik there is often an aesthetic appeal beyond this.

Of course an ugly style of play does not prevent one from being effective, and there may even be a case that ugly chess is MORE effective than the aesthetically pleasing variety because the only reason for playing that way would be the results. I have to say that Lasker played rather ugly chess but he was World Champion for 27 years. And the great Viktor Korchnoi’s games would not win many prizes for grace or elegance.

This observation can be of immediate practical value if a player makes a conscious decision to win won positions in the most sure and certain way rather than attempting to finish an opponent off in style. Very often this will mean converting an attack into a decisive material gain rather than playing for an uncertain mate.

This tends to be what professionals do because they’ve developed the necessary chess discipline, not to mention the fact that victory puts food on the table. Amateurs, by contrast, tend to be very reluctant to abandon thoughts of brilliance and will often find a game getting away from them when the hoped for crowning glory fails to materialise.

Of course someone might argue that they play chess for fun and that professional tactics are not for them. But in my experience most of the players who claim to do so would really like to be more successful. The ‘fun’ only comes into it as a way to rationalise their losses.

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