Monday, June 30, 2008

A Very, Very Big Happy Birthday (& you're invited to the party!)

A very unusual Happy Birthday, this: Surrey County Chess are celebrating 125 years this year - and in style, too.

On Sunday 20th July, Ashtead Peace Memorial Hall will see three celebratory events: starting at 12.50pm there will be a five round Swiss rapidplay (25 mins per player per game, with a prize fund of £350), then a buffet at 6.30pm, and a quiz at 7.30pm. You can attend any or all of the events for the same sweet price of £12.50.

Email Mike Gunn for an entry form or more information, and I'm told club secretaries have been sent the details too. Btw, the full address of the venue is Ashtead Peace Memorial Hall, Woodfield Lane, Ashtead, KT21 2BE.

It sounds like a great day out to me. See you there?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Puzzle

It's almost six months since we last took a trip to the rather bizarre shores of Chess Now. That was for episode two. This morning, for your viewing pleasure, we give you episode three. The attentive amongst you may recognise presenter Tana from the original broadcast.

Anyhoo, today's question is ... how long do you think it will take before the sexually abusive phone calls start arriving in the Chess Now studio? Go on, have a guess. It will make watching it even more fun/slightly less nauseating*.

* delete according to preference.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chess in Art III

Konradin von Schwaben und Friedrich von Oesterreich vernehmen beim Schachspiel ihr Todesurteil

JHW Tischbein (1785)

[Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cat Chess

We're pretty serious about our chess blogging over here at Streatham and Brixton. But sometimes, I just want to do what the rest of the internet does and . . . blog a picture of a cat on a Friday afternoon! So pictured here preparing amongst my chess books a response to the Bird Variation, no doubt, it's south London's newest Katsparov-wannabe, Princess Osiana.

(See also, and also, and also, and also/5628, and also, and also, and especially. And also!)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dirk Gently

Like Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams' Holistic Detective, I believe in the inter-connectedness of all things. I was very pleased, therefore, that a couple of days after first reading Jacob Aagaard's idea that "most tournament games are not won by superior calculation ... but rather due to the superior understanding of the very basics of the game" (see my recent posts here, here and here) I came across Kramnik's contribution to Dvoretsky and Yusupov's book, Positional Play. More specifically, it was the following sentence that jumped off the page and landed on the end of my nose ...

"The game I want to show you now ended in White being routed in only 23 moves. This is not surprising - looking at it you get the impression that White simply did not know where to put his pieces, or which changes of structure were favourable to him and which were not." (my emphasis)

It's an interesting introduction because in the game in question, Shabalov-Vyzmanavin USSR 1987, White resigned in the following position,

Superficially, then, this game was decided by tactics and calculation. White could not find a defence to Black's threat and so threw in the towel.

The point Kramnik is making, I suppose, is that Black would never have been allowed to reach a position where he could deliver a tactical coup de grace if White had matched his positional understanding of the game.

Consider this sequence ...

11. Nxe4 fxe4, 12. e3 Nxe5, 13. fxe5 Bd7, 14. Qb3 b6, 15. cxd5 cxd5, 16. Rac1 Qg5, 17. Rc7

Kramnik gives three of White's seven moves a question mark, pointing out they are positional errors that hand Black first the advantage and then, eventually, victory. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to identify these strategic blunders. Of course, if you don't fancy it you can always amuse yourself by working out why White resigned instead of trying Bxd5.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Book Review: Chess on the Edge, Volume 1: 100 Selected Games of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles

Lukas Podolski recently asserted that ‘football is like chess, except without the dice’. The Yogi Berra comparisons inevitably came in hard and fast, but I rather think that Lukas and I are on the same wavelength: the element of chance that is generated artificially by the use of dice in Monopoly or Ludo or Dungeons and Dragons I believe to be dominant in our beloved game, too. If we conceive of chess as a contest between two unaided human beings then it is inevitable that errors will occur. It follows that some errors will be more serious than others, and that it is the player whose cumulative inaccuracies are punished less severely who will ultimately have an advantage. This human element of chess - as in Cabinet government - renders it a game of luck. But we can take comfort in the fact that unlike, say, life, chess is a game in which it is possible to make one’s own luck: if mistakes are all there, waiting to be made, then skill can defined as the ability to create the psychological and strategic conditions in which your opponent is more likely than yourself to blunder. ‘Given that chess is an intellectual game’ wondered the legal philosopher Carlos Nino in his 1992 work Rights, ‘is it like poker, intellectual in some sense that includes ability at psychological intimidation?’ Students of law have a tendency to ask questions to which they already know the answer, but one notable chess player who would probably answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’ is the retired Canadian grandmaster Duncan Suttles, the subject of a recent three-volume game collection by Bruce Harper and Yasser Seirawan entitled Chess on the Edge. It was Suttles, after all, who once insisted that ‘the point of chess is to trick the other guy’.

I first came across Suttles in the dusty pages of the not-particularly-good Batsford Chess Yearbook, which I had picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop in Bury St. Edmunds. It featured his remarkable win against Robatsch and although the annotations were sparse and dull, I instantly fell in love with every last aspect of his play: the bravado with which he would fling pawns forward before anything else, his preponderance for placing pieces on the edge of the board, the complete lack of interest in castling he showed and his ability to conjure up unlikely attacks that looked so scary that they worked. It was all at such right angles to traditional wisdom that I figured that this must be the correct way to play chess; certainly, it would be a good way to induce errors. Perhaps the best précis of the Suttlesian spirit came in 1970, when Harry Golombek wrote in The Times of how 'colour is well and truly back in the world of chess'. First he described the world champion to be:

In Bobby Fischer North America possesses a great master who seems to conduct his life in strict accordance with the logical principles to be found in Carroll's Alice through the Looking-glass. Once you accept these principles then everything he does is perfectly logical and yet (or perhaps therefore) he is probably the finest tournament player of our time.

Then he turned to King Duncan, who never exactly adhered to the Dodgson Dicta like Bobby:

On another level, there is the strange Canadian master, Suttles. During a tournament, or away from one for all I know, he never willingly gets up before midday. This treatment of time is on a par with his topsy-turvy methods of play over the board. For him the ideal development of his Kkt is KR3 and similarly KB2 is best for the Qkt. I once thought that, talented player though he undoubtedly is, he handicapped himself very much with these methods; but I no longer believe this. This system of play is employed rather like a red rag to a bull. His opponents, more often hypnotized by these strange procedures, usually succumb to a powerful King-side attack.
If ever there were player deserving of a games collection, then, it is Suttles. Chess on the Edge - published earlier this year, having been in the works since 1975 - contains 613 of Suttles' tournament games, a mouthwatering prospect. It would have been terrible if this Bible for which I'd been waiting so long had turned out to be a damp squib. Thankfully, Chess on the Edge is every bit as weird and as inspirational as its subject. I managed to scrape together enough pennies last month to afford the first volume, which is intended as a Suttles 'reader'. Therein lie 100 selected games, split into 20 chapters ('Rook pawns', 'Positional Sacrifices', 'Opening Disasters', etc.). The aim is to demystify Suttles' strange play somewhat, to make for an easier exploration of his games in the future. And it succeeds, partly because Messrs. Harper and Seirawan have no desire to paint their subject as infallible: in this introductory volume, in fact, Suttles loses some 24 games (!) and draws a further four. Not that this matters, as the authors explain in the annotations to Game 1, Zinn - Suttles, 1966. After eighteen moves, the following position arose:

Here white played 19.Bd3, a solid enough move that targets the weak g6 square. What he missed, however, was the attractive 19.Rxc6!, which, say Harper and Seirawan, ‘changes the picture completely. At a small cost of material, White can now use b5 for either his a2 knight (via c3) or e2 bishop, and can also play d4-d5, in order to increase his grip on the light squares, while simultaneously embarrassing Black’s a7 queen and eliminating his own weaknesses on d4.’ Is the fact that Suttles could have been undone enough to tarnish his eventual win? Not at all! The true delight of the book lies in the fact that Harper and Seirawan revel in the immanent messiness of chess. 'In the authors' view,' they write, 'the existence of this possibility [19.Rxc6!] enhances rather than detracts from the artistic quality of this game. "Correct" chess is boring - without mistakes chess is a draw, just as without asymmetry the universe itself is lifeless. Suttles was always ready to induce an error by his opponent. But some errors can be so subtle, and missed opportunities so difficult to see, as to elude detection even after the game. Without denying there must be an objective basis for artistry in chess, the fact remains that White did not play 19.Rxc6!' Zinn missed his chance, so yah boo sucks. Suttles, on the other hand, lived to fight another day.

Having played through the first three or four games of Chess on the Edge it was evident that Podolski and I shared with the authors the same basic understanding of the game, viz. that chess is a lottery which you're sometimes able to control. But although philosophical lessons on the nature of chess abound (as well as numerous divergences into military history; Bruce Harper was responsible for the absurdly complicated board game A World At War) there is no pedagogical tone to the book. One game that might have been included in the first volume is Benko - Suttles, 1964. There Suttles fights for a win with black until the very end when a draw was quite achieveable, and then ultimately implodes. However, IM Lawrence Day felt it so representative of the wonders of Suttles' play that he chose it as an illustrative example in Keene's Learn from the Grandmasters. Black confused the position so much - and from such an early stage - that it was only really clear that he was losing after he had resigned.

I was suddenly reminded of an old issue of Roy of the Rovers Monthly from 1994. Melchester Rovers have just signed an eccentric Brazilian player named Malandro, a natural talent capable of tearing whole teams apart but an unpredictable one all the same, prone to ignoring his team mates. One training session he is running rings around his fellow Melchester players, ignoring the shouts of Roy (‘Rocky wants!’) and assistant manager Duncan McKay (‘Release the ball! Release the chuffin’ ball!’). In the end he is brought down and the opposition score at the other end. ‘What d’ya think y’doin’, wee man?’ McKay fumes. ‘Y’dragged so many defenders towards ya, half yer team could have scored.’ Malandro’s reply is simple enough: ‘But it would have been such a beautiful goal.’ Had he got past that last man and slotted the ball home, nobody would have minded about Malandro’s selfish dribbling. All that would be remembered is his wonder goal. Likewise, had Suttles’ last-ditch gambling paid off against Benko, we would remember the fact that black won and white lost. Ballsy impulses to win at all costs are to be applauded, be they at the chessboard or in the pages of Roy of the Rovers.
I had not quite realised how appropriate the Malandro/Suttles comparisons were going to be until I dug out the relevant magazine earlier this week. After his bollocking the Brazilian opens up to first-team coach Merv Wallace in broken English about his upbringing in the favelas of Rio, ‘the biggest slum in the world’. It was there that he became a ‘natural at the Capoeira, “the dance of the knives”. Do the same thing over and over, your opponent will know what to expect, and you will be cut. Always you must surprise with new move, not following the rules and never to trust your opponent.’ We have here not just a fine description of Suttles’ modus operandi but the most pertinent words of advice that could ever be given to a chess player. I don't think it matters in the slightest that these words were spoken by a fictional Brazilian footballer.

Chess on the Edge is not overly concerned with biography, preferring instead to make Suttles' games the main selling point. This being the case, it is perhaps fair to review the book in the same manner. Below are five positions, all to be found in the first volume. These are not 'tests' in the slightest; some contain tactics, some involve deep strategy and some are just plain weird, but their unifying theme is their psychological impact. The move played by Suttles in each case can hardly have been expected, and if you successfully intuit at least two out of five 'solutions' then Chess on the Edge may well be you. I shall post Suttles' actual continuations in the comments box within a day or two.

a) Suttles - Letic, 1981. 31.?
b) Schulman - Suttles, 1965. 6...?
c) Evans - Suttles, 1972. 14...?

d) Filipowicz - Suttles, 1964. 15...?

e) Suttles - Schmid, 1975. 1.?

The only thing about which I'm mildly concerned is that with the publication of these splendid volumes we may seem some sort of Suttlesian prole drift. The heroes of chess amateurs such as myself tend to be the genuinely deserving: world champions, for example. But Suttles has been my little secret, and for several years now I have been muddling through the congress circuit by ripping Dunc off wholesale: ...Nh6 is usually more than enough to throw somebody in the ECF 110-140 bracket and gain a few minutes on the clock. Selfish bastard that I am, I almost wish that Chess on the Edge had never been written. As it is, however, they are all now freely available down at Speedy Malc's in Euston Road. Not only that but the first volume, at least, stands up as the most charming chess book ever published, and so I fear it's rather my duty as a reviewer to insist you all pick up a copy. Don't listen to a word of it though, they're talking nonsense.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Back inside of Zugzwang with the Ronan blues again

Remember this?

The final diagram in Ronan Bennett's Zugzwang, which claims to demonstrate a position of zugzwang, when plainly it does not - as I wrote in a piece on the subject last November, as well as discussing a number of serious errors in some of the book's other diagrams. (I subsequently wrote another piece exploring the question of whether a state of zugzwang was actually present in the other diagram for which it was claimed.)

As it happened, just yesterday, I was in Zaragoza returning some unsold books to a distributor. They have a bookshop attached to their warehouse and during a brief wander around, I happened to notice that Bennett's book has now been translated into Spanish. Naturally, I couldn't resist a look to see how the diagrams had fared in this new edition.

What I'd like to have done is compare the Spanish edition directly with the English: but as I wasn't aware of the existence of this edition until I saw it on the shelves in front of me, I couldn't do that. I might perhaps hunt around the other bookshops here in Huesca some time, but yesterday, however, not recalling exactly which were the two diagrams identified by Stephen Poole as particularly confused, and only having a couple of minutes to spare, I had to content myself with a brief flick-through, finding a few diagrams and seeing if they seemed to be in order. A most unsatisfactory procedure from the point of view of thoroughness, but, nevertheless, more than appeared to have been undertaken during the preparation of the original edition.

Anyway, those two or three diagrams that I located appeared to be prepared and captioned correctly: muy bien. Until I had a look at the last diagram in the book, the one after 52.Kg7 (or, in Spanish, 52.Rg7) which had been incorrectly described as a position of zugzwang. In the Spanish edition (on page 252, should any Spanish readers wish to look it up) it still is: the claim of zugzwang, still entirely incorrect, is still there. Moreover, a new error seems to have crept in, since the caption, observing that the f-pawn cannot be defended, refers to the peón en e7. There is not a pawn on e7. There is nothing on e7 except some empty space.

Chess is, to my mind, the struggle against error, and a ceaseless and ineffective struggle it is as well. So too, it appears, is the preparation of diagrams and their captions.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How to make chess better . . .

I'm usually pretty skeptical about using novelty boards to make chess better (remember this?) but maybe not this time:

Yes, that's right. It's a glow-in-the-dark chess set. Ideal for use in caves, gloomy night-clubs, during blackouts, and possibly nothing else.

But anyway, this isn't some over-priced novelty item. Instead it is handmade, the maker Tetranitrate posting his creation on the Instructables website ("The World's Biggest Show and Tell"). There he also tells you how you can make your own in twelve easy steps. Not only that, there's a video of the set in action, demonstrating the moves of a Deep Blue versus Kasparov game to some quirky music.

Now all we need are glow-in-the-dark clocks, scoresheets, pens . . .

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Video

Another clip for our video index, another few bob in the bank for Anand.

After Anand's bank manager I'm guessing the person next most pleased to see this advert is Devon Malcolm who can now finally relinquish the title of worst batsman in the history of the game.

At school we had a name for people who backed as far away from the stumps as Anand does. I can't recall it precisely but I'm pretty sure that the word "ponce" was in there somewhere. I've no idea why we took this attitude. Standing up when somebody hurls a cricket ball at you is just insanity. I'm still looking for my left nut after taking a hit in the nadgers during a second XI match circa the early 1980s. Ah well, the possibility of mishap is why we have two of them I suppose. Testicles, that is, not comprehensive school cricket teams.

We - that is Tom - originally found this clip on
Chess for All Ages a couple of weeks ago, although it subsequently featured on ChessVibes and Chessbase too.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Chess in Art II

The veterans

Richard Creifelds (1886)

[Brooklyn Museum]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, June 20, 2008

County Chess: Congratulations, Commiserations, and Controversy

Three bits of County news from last weekend.

Bad luck to the Open side, who were knocked out in the Semi-Final of the County Chess Championships 9½-6½ by Lancashire. Readers with long memories may recall Lancashire beat Surrey last year too, that time in the final itself - and they may also recall that in last year's semi-final the Surrey Under 175 team knocked out Yorkshire. Well, happily they did it again this year by the convincing score of 10-6 (including one default from the Surrey side.) Two Streatham & Brixton Chess Club players took part in this one; Angus and the present writer. Angus was unlucky to only draw his game, reaching an endgame a pawn-up but with no way to convert it, whilst my opponent playing white blundered against me early on by castling in the diagram position. Good luck to the team in the Final next month.

The final bit of County news comes from the Surrey Under 100 side, who lost their semi-final 5½-6½ to Nottinghamshire. But that scoreline is even closer than it looks. The final game to finish was the bottom board - when the scores were tied at 5½ each - with a loss for the Surrey player. A disputed loss, however, because it turned out that game had been played with the incorrect colours. So the Surrey Captain appealed to the ECF for a ruling, but they confirmed that the result stood. More details can be found here . . .

Meanwhile, the ECF webpage for the County Chess Championships 2008 is here, although it doesn't seem to have been updated for quite a while.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Winning with the cat II

It was my birthday on Sunday, reminding me, as Tom Lehrer said of Mozart, of how little I've achieved. I went to the mountains and watched vultures circling overhead: you'd need a less gloomy, and thus less reasonable outlook on life than mine not to locate some fairly obvious symbolism in the sight.

Never mind, we all have to age some time. I got sent this photo by way of greetings:

it combines cats, chess and books, three great passions of my life (a photo combining football, cricket and classical music would probably cover most of the rest).

An intriguing photo. Well of course it's intriguing - it has a cat in it - but intriguing also for the position on the board, in which Kitty, naturally, has already established something of an edge. (It's also intriguing because Puss has so far declined to sweep the pieces to the floor, though judging by the first few moves it will presumably be the opponent who will feel obliged to do so.) But normally in photos of chess sets you either get complete nonsense positions, or something standard, a positions from a classic game or from a variation that the book is discussing. Can't be the book the kittypuss is reading though - that, as Tom observed on seeing the shot, appears to be a book of chess variants, judging by the unusual shape of the diagrams which are anything but square. I've seen better boards in a pub.

So what's this about? Tiddles' moves are sensible enough, presumably beginning 1.d4 2.c4 and 3.Nc3, but Black's moves are a mixture of the standard and the second-rate. Either it's a QGD in which Black has eccentrically decided to play 3...Nc6, or the knight moved on the second turn, and then Black saw fit to play 3...e6 - not so much unthematic as antithematic, given that the whole point of the Chigorin is to put pressure on d4, to which end the ability to play ...Bg4 is fundamental. (I admit I have seen Chigorin players play 3....e6 when I've played the White pieces, though in that case it would have been the line with Nf3. In that instance it probably makes even less sense than it does here. It never fails to amaze me how some club players can choose an opening and yet neither learn any of the moves nor understand any of the ideas involved.)

Either way, Hairy Maclary has also made an unusual, though more reasonable, decision, selecting 4.a3 to restrict the bishop that Black has not yet closed off of their own accord. I'd have played 4.Nf3 myself, but perhaps the idea was to emulate the Petrosian variation of the Queen's Indian, in which a young future world champion made a name for himself, a generation and more ago, by winning a lot of games with the same 4.a3.

Same move, same idea. Can it be that we have a budding Katsparov?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Excelling at Chess - again again

Rivas Pastor-Akopian, Leon 1995
White to move

Last Wednesday we took a look at this position taken from Jacob Aagaard's book Excelling at Chess.

As I mentioned in the comments, Aagaard says,

"If you cannot fully appreciate that Black is a lot better ... you might want to have a discussion wiht yourself and/or a friend in order to acquite a better understanding of the differences between the respective set-ups."

Aagaard cites various factors in support of his assessment:-

"Black already has the advantage. The two bishops will give him a lasting edge in the endgame...."

"... the rooks should have been on c1 and e1 instead of d1 and f1, but this is not such a serious problem ...."

"Secondly, and this is far worse, the bishop looks stupid on b1, being better on d3 ...."

"... why, oh why, did White exchange pawns on d5 and open the c-file?"

"... it is hard to see where White's [knight] is going."

So there you go.

Here's the entire game to play through. White was 2500+ at the time but Black manages to win without apparently doing anything special. Aagaard feels that Akopian simply understood the game better and just put his pieces on sensible squares while Rivas Pastor was busy making a series of strategic mistakes that led to his eventual demise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How to Defend? Or, How to Write a Chess Book? -- A Review

How to Defend in Chess: Learn from the World Champions
by Colin Crouch
Gambit, 223 pp., £13.99

If I am typical of most chess players, then it is more common for us to wax lyrical about a great player's style than to actually analyze their games methodically and intricately with pieces in hand. Karpov we declare a Python, Tal a Magician, without so much as studying a rook endgame, analyzing a bishop sacrifice. Or we frame the development of chess style as a story about historical discoveries. For instance, we talk about the development of classicism out of romanticism, perhaps charted through a few famous game snippets from Steinitz, separated by decades. Colin Crouch's unusual and interesting book How to Defend in Chess avoids both the crass unchessiness of the former, metaphorical attitude and the deceptive clarity of the latter, fragmentary, unstudied, historical sweep. Yet his book is about the play of two very different World Champions whose styles have always attracted considerable verbiage. The two players are Emmanuel Lasker and Tigran Petrosian, and Crouch is particularly concerned with the different styles with which they successfully handled inferior positions.

All that is not to say Crouch doesn't make overarching points. He sets out his broadest conclusions about the two player's "defensive" styles right from the start in his brief Preface. In the inferior positions Lasker frequently stumbled into, he was capable of creating great complexities that his opponents would typically fail to fathom. Instead they would flail amidst the confusion Lasker conjured, as Lasker himself demonstrated again his greater practical mastery of chaos. Petrosian, meanwhile, had a chess nose capable of scenting the subtlest of dangers over the longest of distances, and a corresponding facility for then preventing potential attacks long before most players would sense that they were on the horizon, says Crouch. Nor does Crouch's writing lack a broad historical context. His first chapter - Principles of Defence - is an interesting discussion that charts defensive theory and practice from before Steinitz to after Nimzoswitch. The most important historical point he makes here amongst many is that the concept of Prophylaxis divides the styles (and, to an extent, eras, one wonders) of the two champions he writes about. Already we are a long way from Lasker "The Psychologist" and "Iron" Tigran.

But the rest of the book is the bulk of the matter: 200 pages consisting of two approximately equal-length chapters - Lasker as Defender, and then Petrosian as Defender. Each chapter in turn consists of ten main games, deeply analyzed and intricately described, along with several supplementary related games and fragments, either briefly analyzed or not analyzed at all. Here amidst Crouch's annotations, there is a lot to praise. There's historical detail, psychological insight, aptly-chosen quotations, often from contemporary sources that must have required considerable research to track-down. There is also a thread of original ideas running through these two chapters, related to Crouch's thoughts about the Geography of the Chess Board which he articulates in the Principles of Defence chapter. There's also an overarching attention to his thesis about the two players differing style in inferior positions. This proves hard to argue with, especially so given Crouch's evident intimacy with the games of the two players, which is itself visible from many interesting examples. For instance, he usefully compares two Petrosian games that featured double-isolated central pawns - the only two, he adds.

But of course the main thing is how Crouch describes the games, and the variations he analyzes. These two dimensions of the book are intricately linked, each informing the other, something all the more impressive given how deep and detailed the variations are. In fact, a casual glance at a few passages might suggest computer spool, but a closer read shows this is not the case. Instead, Crouch has chosen the variations he analyzes on the basis of a very human understanding of the position. I think this is an extremely important principle that every chess author should obey nowadays, and of which Crouch proves himself exemplar. An example of what I mean and why might help here to clarify my point and praise. When I put the following position from Fischer-Petrosian (5th game Candidates Match 1971, p.190 - 197)...

... into the computer programme Crafty, the first move it wants to play is 13.Qe2. This is followed by several minutes of analysis of 13.Nh4. Considerably later, it chooses the superior 13.d5. Were an average annotator of this position to follow Crafty, then, he might arrive at 13.d5 having first considered two rather off-the-boil moves. Instead, Crouch has already spent half a page or so discussing why white should attack in this position on the queenside, and not the kingside. In particular he discusses whether or not white should attack with pieces. This is what Fischer did with 13.Qb3?!, but this soon walked into a ...b5 push that diluted white's space advantage. Instead, then, white should attack on the queenside with pawns, says Crouch. Thus after Fischer's 13.Qb3 in the diagram above, Crouch instead analyzes the moves 13.d5, 13.b4 and 13.a4, all of which follow from his description of the position. This is a fairly simple example of what I'm talking about, but more complex examples can be found in each game featured in the book; an outstanding quality in itself, also suggesting not a moment of laziness in the book's writing.

In fact, if there's anything to criticize in Crouch's analysis, it's that sometimes the wordage could have been edited down a touch. This is especially so in the Petrosian games, which, far more than the Lasker games, feature subtle but nonetheless absolutely clear positional decisions. Take the following position from Spassky-Petrosian (7th game World Championship 1966, p. 172 - 181):

Here, famously, Petrosian played 17...c4!! and after 18.Be2, 18...a6!. Crouch analyzes this sequence across two or so pages, but I am not convinced that it was necessary to do so at such length. The idea is simple: if white now tries to attack with a4-a5, ...b6-b5 will close the queenside, or if he tries to attack with b4-b5, instead ..a6-a5 closes the queenside - and anyway, a white knight on d4 isn't going anywhere, so there is no particular point centralising it, thus no real concession on black's part. All in all, after the sequence 17...c4!! 18.Be2 a6!, black is left free to attack white on the kingside, and the position is more or less strategically won at this point. There are, true, several auxiliary questions surrounding this sequence: does the plan of b4-b5 with Nd4-c6 offer white any convincing attacking chances on the queenside? Could ..c5-c4 have been played earlier, before black castled queenside? Should white have played b4xc5 before black castled queenside and was able to play ..c5-c4? Or with the king in the centre does this exchange favour black? Would various shots involving Bd3-f5, with ideas of e5-e6 if black takes it - or Bh3 defending if he doesn't - have improved for white? These Crouch answers convincingly amidst his long discussion at this point, but sometimes implicitly, sometimes without concision. Still, this is a minor quibble. It is in fact better to have too much writing than not enough. This is because the latter leaves the reader groping in the dark, whilst the former is frequently pedagogically useful, as it allows the reader to mentally trim down the flesh of language and discern for him or herself the fundamental chess skeleton beneath.

And anyway, Crouch's discursive, inquisitive writing style is ideally suited to talking through Lasker's games. Sometimes in these we even find positions where it looks like some one has just dropped a bunch of pieces on the board at random, and Crouch does a good job of disentangling the disorientating visual impression these positions make. However, it is important to note that Crouch never pretends there is anything simple about any of these games - he never talks them into triteness. In staying true to their difficulty, Crouch also assumes a degree of chess competence on the part of the reader which makes this book unsuitable for less-strong players. For instance, above I briefly mentioned double-isolated central pawns. Crouch does not pause to explain the basics of when and why these are not necessarily weak. If this general understanding is not already and automatically yours - if, say, you read the phrase double-isolated central pawns above and shuddered, or assumed Petrosian won against them rather than with them - then Crouch's discussion of Petrosian's double-isolated pawns in these games will be pitched at least one notch above chess knowledge you lack. For the record, there is one game in the book I still feel like I don't have much of a grasp on; my grade next year will probably be in the mid-180s (2175 FIDE Elo) although I had a good season and so my true strength is probably a bit below that.

There is another way to talk about this book: as a games collection, irrespective of your interest in defence or the style of the two Champions. In this way we see how unusual and interesting the book really is. Certainly it is no ordinary games collection. Only a few of the games would find their way into "Best Ofs", one or two into "Greatests", but most would not. This attractive, rare quality makes the games far more typical of ordinary player's games than those in most games collections. There are rough and tumble ganes, games where all plans get stifled, games that are practical and imperfect, games where evaluations yo-yo, and so on. A large majority of the games see Lasker or Petrosian handling the black pieces too, so the book might be of especial interest to those who struggle more on that side of the board than on the white side. Perhaps one downside is that for all their prophylactic accuracy, one or two of the Petrosian games are really quite dull, where "nothing happens" or at least so it seems. ("They say my chess games should be more interesting. I could be more interesting - and also lose." – Petrosian) But the Lasker games are invariably interesting throughout.

One thing as a games collection this book certainly is not, is a "How to" book. In fact several of these games are not even really defensive in nature, something John Watson's mostly-laudatory review details further. Instead it is about how Lasker and Petrosian handled inferior positions with different styles. Likewise it is misleadingly subtitled: the book is not directly concerned with teaching the reader something, although of course learning from it is not impossible, but teaching is not this book's central concern. Anyway it is a shame that such an intrinsically interesting book with so much self-evident integrity should need to be packaged in such a way, but this shouldn't put potential readers off.

Finally, here are two of my favourite games from the book for you to play through. If you find yourself intrigued too, then I recommend Crouch's book as a good place to understand them better:

PS. The Gambit website for this book also contains a PDF sample from Crouch's work to download.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Are you a Master?

Are you a Master? True some of our readers can answer that question with a "Yes - International" or even "Grandmaster", but I'm guessing for the majority the answer is: "No."

But maybe not for long. The English Chess Federation have just announced the details of their new Master Points System - I believe previously that a similar but different scheme existed which was then stopped - and more or less anyone can qualify for at least one of their five titles:
Chess Maestro: A player must achieve a grade of at least 70 on any ECF official grading list.
Team Master: A player must achieve a grade of at least 100 on any ECF official grading list.
Club Master: A player must achieve a standard-play A or B grade of at least 130 on an ECF official grading list.
County Master: A player must achieve a standard-play A grade of at least 160 on an ECF official grading list.
Regional Master: A player must achieve a standard play A grade of at least 180 in two successive seasons on ECF official grading lists.
The details are here, as well as a list of current title holders, where you can spot a few members of our club and some other familiar names from the London chess scene. So are you tempted, Maestro?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Puzzle

White to play and draw

This problem, inspired by Reti, is taken from Ian D. Mullen's chapter on endings in Master Chess: A Course in 21 Lessons (Pergamon Press, 1985).

If it's true that knowing what to look for reduces the need for calcuation then looking at this post first should make the solution much easier to find.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chess in Art I

La partida de ajedrez

José Gallegos y Arnosa

[private collection]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Chess Peace

I like to think that here on the blog, we post about all sorts of chessy things. There's interesting positions, club updates, puzzles, videos, reviews, curiosities, news even of national interest, photograph reports, stuff to file under !?, and that's not the half of it. But reading The Kenyan Chess Blog by Edwin Korir reminded me just how limited our chess issues are - and how lucky in that respect we are.

We don't, after all, blog things like this:
During the months of January and February this year Kenya experienced a period of turmoil never seen in its 45 year post-independence history. After the controversial announcement of the 2007 presidential elections violence erupted across the country leaving in its wake more than 1000 dead and 350,000 displaced...

On Labor Day weekend Chess Kenya organized a chess tournament to select a team for the chess Olympiad to be held in Dresden, Germany later this year. The tournament was a great success; both in chess terms and in efforts to bring the country back to its feet.
That's from the post RISING FROM THE ASHES: How chess is helping reconciliation in Kenya, or click here for the blog frontpage.

Today is Friday 13th; if some terrible fate befalls you on a chess board this weekend, count yourself lucky nonetheless.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Late correction

You'll recall our recent entry looking at the above position, taken from a 1904 game Nimzowitsch-Hoffer and given in Neishtadt's 1981 book Test Your Tactical Ability.

Neishtadt gives the beautiful winning line 1.Be8 Raxe8 2.Qh6!! gxh6 3.Ng4, as played in the game, which terminated at that point, with Black resigning. Mate is forced and the point of the original bishop move is revealed, forcing the a8-rook to a square which hems in the f8-rook, thereby preventing it from moving to provide the king with an escape square.

Lamentably, though, the computer sees what Neishtadt did not: it gives the refutation 2....gxf6! and now if 3.Ng4, threatening check on f6 followed by mate, 3...Qxf2! wins the game. Well done, the computer!

However, as it happens, human eyes have also seen the solution - and many decades before Neishtadt wrote. Just this month Chess Notes has been taking an interest in this very game - or game-fragment, as the complete score of the game is yet to be found. It transpires that Nimzowitsch's own notes, in a booklet published in 1929, give the refutation. (It also transpires that Black is one H. Hofer, rather than the "Hoffer" given by Neishtadt.)

More than that, though - the refutation has in fact been known since 1905! Scroll down to #5610 where Mr Hans-Georg Kleinhenz informs us that:
Additional analysis was published in the "Briefwechsel" on page 47 of the 29 January 1905 issue of Deutsches Wochenschach, showing that Black would have won after 2...gxf6 (instead of 2...gxh6) 3 Ng4 Qxf2.
Poor Crafty, more than a hundred years late with its solution. Still, as far as I can see the computer is the first to note that the f2-capture also works if Black ignores the e8-bishop and plays 1...gxf6 2.Ng4 Qxf2. Unless - or until - time proves otherwise.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Excelling at Chess - again

You know it's strange but I find I've been finding it next to impossible to give a crap either way about the great grading debate so today I've decided to write about something else and I'm returning to Jacob Aagaard's book Excelling at Chess.

I started off taking the piss out of it (never let it be said I won't try to hit a soft target for a cheap laugh when there's one available) but more recently had a look at the central thesis of the early part of Aagaard's book - the idea that it is a superior understanding of the positional fundamentals of the game that is most likely to secure us victories.

Rivas Pastor-Akopian, Leon 1995
White to move

Today's position is taken from a game cited by Aagaard in support of his claim.

How would you assess this position? Would you say

  1. White is winning
  2. White is clearly better
  3. White is slightly better
  4. Equal
  5. Black is slightly better
  6. Black is clearly better
  7. Black is winning

or, do you want to play the chess book author's universal 'get out of jail free' card, and cop out with 'unclear'?

I'll come back to what Aagaard has to say about this position at a later date. In the meantime, please indulge my curiousity by answering the following too ...

How did you come to your conclusion? Did you calculate specific lines or are there certain features in this position that suggested the answer to you?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Great News for Chess Grades?

-- Or --

Putting the Grrrrrr into Grading?

You know how your grade is calculated, right? If you beat a player, then into your average for the next year goes their grade plus fifty; if you draw, just their grade; if you lose, their grade minus fifty: and then all your results are averaged. Of course there's also the forty-point rule - this deals with results between players separated by more than forty points in order to make illogicalities like losing grading points from victories impossible. And of course if you don't play thirty games in your season, then some of your previous results go into to your average as well, until it tots up to thirty, if possible. And that's it, right? How it always has been, how it always will be, grade after grade, list after list, season after season, decade after decade? Right?

WRONG! Because next year, you'll have two grades. The first will be your normal grade, calculated as above. That will be your official grade for the season. The second will be your corrected grade, which is (approximately) your normal grade multiplied by 0.8, with 50 added on to it. But as of 2009-10, this corrected grade will form the basis of all new gradings.


Wondering why?

Then read on. All will be revealed, as best I can . . .

So, here's the story. A little while back the English Chess Federation (ECF) commissioned research into whether or not their grading system suffered inflation or deflation. The statisticians who worked on this concluded that the lower the grade, the more deflated it was. After queries, double-checking, and much discussion, the ECF and their statistics team then worked out a formula to correct the deflation. That's the formula I gave above, approximately. As to the reason why the corrected grades are visible this year - but will be only be operationalized next year - that's simple. This way tournament controllers and league secretaries and the like can work out what their new grading boundaries will have to be next year - with a whole year to study the new corrected gradings and their implications. In other words, we'll all have a whole year to get used to this new lay of the land.

So, what does it mean? Well, if your grade next year is 100, your corrected grade will be 130 - a thirty point jump. But if your grade next year is 200, your corrected will be 210 - only a ten point jump. That's because the lower the grade, the more deflated. In fact if your grade next year is 250, then your corrected grade will still be exactly 250.

Now personally speaking, I'm no statistician, and I'm not going to argue with the experts on this, nor pretend I can refute all their research from my desk. In fact, my personal experience tends to confirm this kind of thing. My average grade this year against players rated lower than me is 22 points lower than my average grade against players rated higher than me. This confirms what the ECF says. And I remember more than a decade ago watching a game between two players rated in the 120s that started 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bd3?? Nxd4, after which white went on to win in about twenty more moves - without having batted an eyelid at his knight that had dropped off the board on move 6, let alone it seemed having contemplated resignation over it. But nowadays, I can't remember the last time I saw a 100 graded player make so crass a blunder. I've played several players around that grading level this year, and I consider them all decent club players. In fact two of them drew against me, and a third should have. Finally, on a personal note, I've heard several experienced and strong players - players whose opinion I respect far more than my own - say they think grades are increasingly deflated.

But not everybody is so convinced. Tim Spanton is arguing on the ECF forum, in fact, that a lot of people he knows believe the ECF are doing this for a different reason. "The suspicion," he writes, "is that this is a gimmick to raise grades for no reason other than stroking the fragile egos of people who can't stand seeing their grades going down (and aren't prepared to put in the hard work necessary to reverse such a process)." Well, what do you think? That this is a great move for grading? Or unnecessary meddling - just the ECF putting the Grrrrrrr into Grading?

(And, by the way, if you feel like joining in the debate over at the ECF, then their grading forum can be found by clicking here.)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Club News, Update!

I emailed our Club's Captains for news for this spot - and whilst modesty ought forbid me quoting this one, those who know me better will not be surprised to see otherwise:
One piece of news - David Hodgson, secretary of the Croydon League, tells me that you were best individual performer in Div 1 of the Croydon League: 'he scored 4/5 and exceeded his grade by 25 points.' Well done Tom,

But actually, that's nothing. Surely the performance of the year from a Streatham and Brixton players is to be found in the Minor Division of the London League, where Danny Hewitt scored a perfect 5/5. Great stuff, Danny. Or, wait a minute. What about Andrew Stone and his London League Division I draw against Wood Green Grandmaster Chris Ward? Who can match that? Not me, that's for sure.

And, well, . . . that's it for now. The season's over, so this spot will be suspended for a while. But if you're looking for regular club chess over the summer, why not pop down on Wednesdays to Streatham High Road and its Library? There a growing number of friendly players meet up each week from 3pm to 8pm to play casual games, learn about chess, chat, compete in their internal league, have fun, and they always welcome new visitors. Or click here to find out more, and perhaps I'll see you there one day over the summer.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Puzzle Me This . . . Puzzle Me - That!?

Pretty much everyone knows about ChessVibes nowadays, whether thanks to its lively coverage of chess news, involved and punctual tournament reporting, honest reviews, or most famously, its videos. One thing you might not know about the website, though, is that if you scroll to the bottom of its front page, each day you'll find a new and intriguing puzzle to chew on. Typically these puzzles are pretty tough, and sometimes they're not really traditional chess puzzles at all, requiring instead decisions of judgment rather than of calculation. This one from the end of April particularly caught my eye in this respect - and since I provide the solution beneath the puzzle, don't scroll down too quick if you want to try to 'solve' it yourself now:

White to play,
and . . . ?

The solution is - of course - 1.g4, and the details can be found here. "Of course"? Of course. Black has weakened his kingside with ...h6, can only open the centre slowly, rather than explosively, and white has retained the option of castling queenside. Clearly, then, white is poised for a quick attack on the black king, and black is hardly in a position to strike back. 1.g4 is the thematic, ordinary move, I decided after looking at this puzzle for a couple of minutes, wondering if I'd missed something rather more brilliant.

Except the funny thing is, in the solution the next day 1.g4 was given an '!!'. Presumably the explanation is that the notes to the remainder of the game were taken from 1974 - when the game was played - and such a move was rather less normal then than it is now. (It is also unusual to be able to pull-off that kind of thing in the Queen's Gambit Declined - clearly how the game must have begun - although hardly unheard of.) Nowadays, we see this kind of thing all over the place, and in variations like the Keres Attack in the Sicilian or the g4-Gambit in the Slav, we even see it punted when black hasn't made the weakening ...h6.

All of which got me wondering, what do we want from a puzzle? An easy tactical test? A strategic decision? A tactical labyrinth to grope through? A thematic shot? Something entirely different? Well, whatever you want, you can find our new Sunday Puzzle series here, and the index of our older chess puzzles here. Whatever you prefer, enjoy solving - whether over at ChessVibes or here on our blog.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Bad book covers IV

Anatoly Karpov, My Best Games, Edition Olms, 2007.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Knowing What to Look For

Last week, unfairly or not depending on your point of view, I was making fun of Jacob Aagaard's book Excelling at Chess.

In the second chapter, dedicated to Kasparov's idea of 'real chess players', Aagaard outlines his belief that for the most part chess games are won and lost according to which player has the better understanding of fundamental positional principles.

It's an interesting idea not least because, as Aagaard himself acknowledges, tactical errors can be found in any game - even the most famous it seems. Aagaard's point, though, is that no amount of tactical ability will save you if you don't know what it is you should be analysing in the first place.

"I remember David Norwood claiming that Grandmasters calculate less than amateurs, Basically, they do not need to because they know what to calculate, or so his argument goes, at least ...

in Jonathan Rowson's interesting recent work, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, the author talks about his six game match against Michael Adams ... After the games it always turned out that Adams had seen only a fraction of the lines addressed by Rowson but, somehow, these were the relevant lines! Adams won the match 5-1."

I read these words around the time that Justin posted a Reti composition back at the beginning of May.

It's such a beautiful study that it really deserves another look.

White to play and draw

Chasing the pawn down the board is obviously not going to work so White needs to gain a tempo from somewhere. Fortunately as soon as I saw Justin's post I recalled an idea that could achieve precisely that.

This diagram is taken from Master Chess: A course in 21 lessons (Pergamon Press, 1985). It must have made a strong impression on me because I still remember seeing it for the first time in Chelmsford library a year or two after the book was first published.

The point is that if you want to move the king from a4 to g4 the apparently direct red route is no quicker than the blue or the green. It's going to take six moves whichever way you go. Add to that a recollection of another Reti study that involves a diagonal king march and the fact that the extra tempo has to be gained from the bishop - there's nothing else on the board that White can attack - then it's not too difficult to find:-

1. Ke7 g5 - otherwise the pawn will be caught

2. Kd6 g4 - seeing that the pawn now blocks the bishop's other route to e8 convinced me I had to be on the right track and also clarified for me what White's next move has to be

3. e7 - otherwise ... g3 and the bishop can go to h5.

3. ... Bb5 - otherwise White queens

4. Kc5 B somewhere

5. Kd4

and the king enters the square and it's a draw.

The whole thing took me about 30 seconds in total. That's not as fast as Fritz but unlike the iron monster I didn't need to calculate any other lines at all.

So it seems to be true. If you know what to look for the number of lines you need to calculate reduces considerably.

Of course, it's the knowing what to aim for that's the tricky bit. I so rarely do, but for one morning at least I was able to entertain the delusion that I'm not completely incompetent at this game.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What Happened Next IV

Browne - Donner, The Master Game 1979

Yesterday, I asked what happened after Jan Hein Donner beat Walter Browne in their game from the 1979 edition of the classic BBC TV chess tournament.

Bent Larsen takes up the story ...

I shall always remember the day Donner beat Browne and looked completely bewildered. He had played badly recently and expected to be knocked out in the first round. Please, could he use a phone? Yes, just behind that door. he dialled Amsterdam, and it went something like:

' - I'm sorry dear but I won. - Yes, that means I have to stay till (sic) Wednesday. - Yes, I know I promised, but I shall pay the babysitter. - Yes, I make more money this way. - Yes, I'm sorry. Yes, see you Wednesday. Bye."

Mrs Donner is a judge, and he had promised to look after their little daughter while she concentrated on her work. It is not often you get to hear a chess master say: 'I'm sorry I won.'"

The Master Game: Book Two
James & Hartston, BBC 1981

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What Happened Next? IV

Browne - Donner, The Master Game 1979

Today, I'm shamelessly stealing a format from Justin (III answer; II answer; I answer).

It's Walter Browne playing White against Jan Hein Donner in the first round of The Master Game, series IV. Donner has just played ...Qd7-f7 and Browne, having just made the time control, resigned.

What happened next?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Test of Time, The Test of Computers

The puzzles chosen for the "Do you know the Classics?" chapter of Yakov Neishtadt's interesting (especially for £1) book Test Your Tactical Ability have, states the author, withstood the test of time: all of them, in fact, having been chosen from at least thirty years before the book's initial publication in 1981. The position below is from that chapter and dates back even further, to a 1904 clash in Nürnberg between the great Aron Nimzowitsch (white, to move) and his lesser known opponent playing with the black pieces Leopold Hoffer. The solution provided in the book is given immediately below the diagram, so if you prefer not to see it just yet, take a few minutes to try to work out what's going on before looking.

White to play,
and . . . ?

Now, the solution given by Neishtadt is the beautiful 1.Be8!! Raxe8 (1... gxf6 - 2.Ng4!; 1... Qxf2 - 2.Bxf7+ Kh8 3.Ng6 mate) 2.Qh6!! gxh6 3.Ng4, after which black resigned. Beautiful. But, alas, not true. A few minutes with my computer undoes the test of time, and reveals the solution to be more or less entirely flawed. See if you can spot what decades of delighted chess enthusiasts must have missed, a defence for black that leaves him with a more or less won position . . .

Monday, June 02, 2008

Time Controls

The ECF Forum currently has a thread asking about the different time controls used by different leagues. As it turns out there's a quite variety both across and sometimes within leagues. This probably shouldn't surprise me. I play in four different leagues - London, Surrey and Croydon for S&BCC; Thames Valley for the Other Club - and there are different playing conditions for every one.

Anyhoo, seeing this post reminded me of something that has puzzled me for a long time. In games that have quickplay finishes why do the rules usually call for x moves to be played in y minutes and then the winding back of the clock? In the London League, for example, quickplay finishes are currently 35 moves in 75 minutes followed by an additional 15 minutes for each player.

So, why bother faffing around resetting the clocks? Why not just play the game in 90 minutes?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Not a Sunday Puzzle

On Friday Tom was talking about adverts on chess websites.

The perfect time, then, to drop our current regular Sunday puzzle feature and go back to our old favourite the Sunday video clip.

Chess and advertising is not unknown to the S&BCC blog. If you check out our Video Index you'll find commercials made by Kasparov (three of them) and Korchnoi. We've even got Jay-Z claiming interest in chess in return for a wodge of cash from some bunch of corporate suits or other. Korchnoi's rather bizarre milk ad is my favourite although I quite like this Topalov one too.