Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bad book covers IX

Chess Training Pocket Book, Alburt, Chess Information and Research Center, 2000

[Bad book covers index]

Friday, October 30, 2009

When we were kings

Here’s something you won’t hear very often:-

The Seventies was a golden age

It sounds unlikely I know but it's true, as far as our favourite game is concerned anyway. Yes the clothes were ridiculous; yes the people were alarmingly hairy; yes the TV was shit*; but by god chess was popular.

Nowadays FIDE has to scrape around for sponsors before finally getting the cash for the Topalov – Anand World Championship match and mass media coverage of our game is so scarce that even a feature on Blue Peter is hailed as a huge success. Compare the contemporary chess world with that of three to four decades ago when matches and tournaments were fought for big money prizes and the game routinely featured in the news sections of the national press. It's no accident that Chess the musical was based on events from that time and neither, by the way, is it a coincidence that the English chess explosion of the 1980s followed a decade when the game had such a prominent position in popular culture.


Black family lives next door to White family ...
considered to be sit-'com' gold in 1970s TV land apparently

Anything that happened chesswise in the early 1970s is usually attributed to Fischer but while he was making the history it was certainly not in the circumstances of his own choosing. Bobby's great fortune was to be American at a time of cold war and the Soviets treating chess as a political weapon. Global context + Fischer not messing around and actually delivering what he promised in the 60s = chess more or less guaranteed to transcend its usual borders and come to the attention of a wider audience.

Without doubt, chess was part of the ideological struggle but that wasn't what made it so newsworthy. The importance of chess was that it provided the perfect metaphor for the cold war itself. It was a great help that the era generated a seemingly inexhaustible supply of 'wacky chess player' stories to feed the media machine - x-rays of chairs, dodgy yogurts and (my personal favourite) Spassky's refusal to come to the board during the latter stages of his 1977/78 match with Korchnoi unless wearing swimming goggles and a sun visor to name but three - but the real news value of chess was that it enabled the underlying global political narratives of the era to be personalised. Bobby and Viktor against the Russians over the 64 squares reflected bigger pictures of East against West, capitalist against communist, defector against party apparatchik and the press lapped it up.

Nikolai 'Comrade Chuckles' Krylenko:

We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’, like the formula ‘art for art’s sake’. We must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.

The threat of nuclear war might not have been a cheery prospect in most respects but it helped make chess big enough that parallels with heavyweight boxing do not seem at all out of place. For Ali, Foreman and Frazier read Fischer, Karpov and Korchnoi and while you're at it replace the Rumble in the Jungle - 35 years ago today - and the Thriller in Manilla with Reykjavik '72 and Baguio City '78.

It couldn't last of course. There's an inherent interest in one man punching another in the face. I'm not sure why, unless that other man is AA Gill, but it's just the way it is and for that reason boxing doesn't need to be a metaphor, it's going to get watched anyway. The same isn't true for chess unfortunately and the media's interest in knights, rooks and bishops drifted away along with Korchnoi's challenge and the Berlin Wall.

It might not be particularly good time for chess right now and it would probably take a shift in global politics of seismic proportions to get the game really popular again but if the world today is a very different place to that of forty years ago for the most part that's probably not a bad thing. Clothes designers, barbers and the makers of TV programmes might not be able to say the same, but we chess players can at least look back fondly and remember a time that really was a golden age. A time when we were kings.

* With the exception of Blake's 7 obviously.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Miss Easy Tactics! with Justin XV

[Our pedagogical series in which we look at a portion of a game I played recently in which some obvious tactic was overlooked. Readers are invited to practice their skill by seeing if they can spot what was missed.]

Horton - Pérez Puyal, individual championship of Huesca Province, 2009, round five, position after 18.Rc1-c2.

Play now proceeded 18...Rfc8 19.Rac1 Be8 20.g4 Nd6 21.Qf3 Nd7 and despite playing 22.Na4? (to which a knight capture on e5 might have been a strong reply) and some worse moves besides, White later went on to win.

But in the above sequence, what did both players miss?

(The game is not given below, being too embarrassingly bad to reproduce in full.)

[Miss Easy Tactics! index]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Whatever goes up...

Long-term readers may well remember that a couple of years ago, I solved the problem of short draws in chess. And now today, I'm going to put an end to the problem of rating inflation and deflation.

Or should I say, problems. After all, even if there is general agreement that FIDE's Elo system inflates - all these new 2700 players can't be that strong - there is more than one issue. Firstly, even club players with good memories can obtain a theoretically stronger and deeper repertoire than that which, say, Bobby Fischer ever mastered. How then are we meant to compare an "average" GM who plays Rybka-perfect lines for twenty moves with such kings of the past? But at the other end of the game, the abolishing of adjournments means endgames are played worse nowadays than, say, in the 1980s, something not at all factored into ratings. Another question mark: why is it that whenever a super-elite player such as Ivanchuk plays in a tournament a few categories below the top tier, they suddenly produce a 2900 performance? Could it be that the top few players - those never outside the top ten, say - actually have deflated ratings, thanks to playing each other so often? Deflated at least relative to the rest of the list, if not to the past?

And then there's the ECF system, which was found to be subject to deflation due to rapidly-rising juniors. A retrospective adjustment of all grades has since been made, and furthermore the ECF have tried to prevent the problem from occurring again by an adding an increment to each junior grade. 10 extra points for anyone under 10 years old each, 5 for anyone aged between 10 and 17. Crude fudge or satisfactory solution? We do not currently know, but at the very least this system ignores the deflationary effects of both juniors who aren't improving, and adults who are.

And what, then, is my solution? It's simple. All we need to do is find a player whose standard never changes: someone who plays at exactly the same level year on year, game on game, move on move. First, we find out what their rating is one year; second, we fix their grade at that point for eternity. Then finally we just measure other players against this one player, anchoring the entire system around this one solid point, changing all other grades as and when any inflation or deflation becomes apparent. (Indeed, different ratings might be adjusted differently.) Now, who could such a thoroughly consistent player be? Why, the answer is obvious. We need a computer programme that is never updated and always plays on the same hardware, and that's it. Problem solved.

Well, that's not quite it. First of all, the computer programme itself must be moderately strong. Strong enough that it could beat anyone on a good day, not so strong that it never loses. Secondly, it must have an opening repertoire not susceptible to anti-computer lines, the way early Fritzes were regularly mashed in closed King's Indian, for instance. The opening repertoire must also be broad enough that it is virtually unpreparable for, but not updated (because this would improve the computer's strength). Thirdly, the programme must face a large variety of human opposition, from weak players such as myself to strong Grandmasters. This could be organized online, or in special "rating determining" tournaments, or both. After that, the only thing to do is just analyse the results for de/inflation, and adjust rating lists accordingly. A very basic example, in case this part isn't wholly clear: let's say in the first year the computer consistently performs at 2650 against all opposition. We set its grade at 2650, but in the next year it performs equally consistently at 2700. This means the computer's performance has inflated by 50 points, so everyone's rating should be adjusted downwards by 50 points. The computer's, of course, stays the same - at 2650. Simple as.

So there it is, another off-the-board problem solved - a far easier thing to do than to solve them on the board, usually. What issue would you like to see Chivers resolve next?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bad book covers VIII

Chess Rules of Thumb, Alburt and Lawrence, Chess Information and Research Center, 2003

[Bad book covers index]

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blue or Red Pill? V

A Blue or Red Pill? means there's a choice to be made ... and today's decision is not just about whether to play a particular opening or transpose into a rook or opposite-coloured bishop ending but concerns our fundamental approach chess. It will take a little while to get there though, so bear with me, but the starting point for our journey is Keith Arkell's win against David Eggleston from our previous post.

On Wednesday I wrote that Arkell's slow but sure crushing of Eggleston was my favourite game from this year’s British Championship. In the comments box our regular visitor PG pointed out that the Bogo-Indian was a rare choice at the highest level these days, the Queen's Indian usually being played instead. I don't know for sure but I suspect Eggleston played as he did in Torquay because of what happened at Liverpool the year before.

This earlier Arkell – Eggleston encounter is another "I could have played all of those moves" type of game. Well, up to what my computer tells me is the decisive mistake - 23 … Na4 - at least and by that point Black was already under heavy pressure.

Not only did Arkell win today’s game doing ‘nothing’ he also won comfortably after playing an opening variation that is routinely dismissed as harmless. Wells suggests 8 Nxe4 the choice of the “unambitious” while Aagaard says that it’s “tantamount to a draw offer”. True he makes an exception if Ulf Andersson plays it and Wells concedes that perhaps there’s a case for “ … lovers of a microscopic advantage [to play it] from time to time” their negative view of the line is unmistakable.

Clearly Arkell disagrees and if further proof were needed that not everybody agrees with the pessimistic assessment of the line’s merits, back in the early 80s Edmar Mednis dedicated a chapter to it in his book From the Opening into the Endgame.

Mednis looked at a dozen different systems, each of which takes the game directly “… from the opening into the endgame, essentially completely bypassing the middlegame stage”.

There are a large number of players who don’t mind a bit of opening study and like the king security feature of the endgame, but are inherently uncomfortable in unbalanced middlegames. This book is meant especially for them.

The first chapter, for example, focuses on the Ruy Lopez Exchange

1 e4 e5, 2 Nf3 Nc6, 3 Bb5 a6, 4 Bxc6 dxc6, 5 o-o

and the last on the Andersson-Book line of the English.

1 c4 Nf6, 2 Nc3 d5, 3 cxd5 Nxd5, 4 Nf3 g6, 5 e4!? Nxc3, 6 dxc3! Qxd1+, 7 Kxd1

The Berlin Defence is not covered but had Mednis been writing after the Kasparov – Kramnik world championship match of 2000 he would doubtless have found room for that too since it clearly fits the mission statement for his book.

1 e4 e5, 2 Nf3 Nc6, 3 Bb5 Nf6, 4 o-o Nxe4, 5 d4 Nd6,
6 Bxc6 dxc6, 7 dxe5 Nf5, 8 Qxd8+ Kxd8, 9 Nc3

Now in my mind’s ear I can already hear T.C. giving me a stern lecture - “You’ll never learn to play chess properly if you start games like this”. In fact even Mednis himself says “for ultimate success in chess it is impossible to do without a knowledge of endgame principles and middlegame strategy and tactics” (my emphasis) but nevertheless I find Mednis/Arkell’s line of thought appealing.

If nothing else, if it’s true that “to excel at chess, you should have solid endgame technique” (Aagaard) then we will need solid endgame experience but adjudications generally finish play before an endgame is even reached and the practical difficulties of arranging second sessions mean that the theoretical possibility of playing a game out to the last pawn after an adjournment often doesn't happen in reality. I’ve found that I’m most likely to play endgames in matches that have quickplay finishes but playing such positions with seconds available for each move as your flag hangs is far from ideal to say the least.

So what about swapping some pieces off as quickly as possible? I don't just mean the particular variation that Arkell plays in today's game but as a general principle. It seems to me that it's not just a legitimate way of playing to win – and can lead to games that are as interesting in their own way as a tactical slugfests – but also may actually be good for our chess. I’m not sure I’d want to play this way in every game but certainly I think it’s worth a punt not just from time to time but even on a regular basis.

So, next time you sit down at the board do you head directly from the opening to the endgame, not passing go and not collecting £200, or do you play for positions with a greater chance middlegame complications? The choice is yours.

Jacob Aagaard
Excelling at Chess, Everyman Chess 2001

Edmar Mednis
From the Opening into the Endgame, Pergamon Press 1983

Peter Wells
Chess Explained: The Queen’s Indian, Gambit 2006.

punt the Classical Dutch against Korchnoi?

which side of the board do you want to take?

oppposite coloured bishop ending?

rook ending?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to the British

Back in the summer we covered the 2009 British Championship quite extensively
Howell wins; The rook endings computers don't see; Corporal or second lieutenant; First among equals?; Traditions, sicknotes and average guys; S&BCCers, young uns and a lack of cash; They're off; It's that time again
and yet one thing I never quite got around to was a post on my favourite game of the tournament. It's not that I didn't find the bamboozingly unclear messes of Conquest-Howell or Williams-Howell entertaining (both of which can be found here) but the game that I really liked was Keith Arkell's win against David Eggleston in round 10.

Although at 2341 elo David Eggleston is a better player than virtually everybody in the country, by British Championship standards his rating places him in the ‘not-quite-premier-league’ category. He’s certainly no pushover, as he proved by defeating defending Champion Stuart Conquest in the very first round and then notching another GM Scalp by beating Danny Gormally the following day, but even so Arkell made Eggleston him look rather ordinary – and that at the end of a tournament that had seen Keith uncharacteristically out of sorts and punching somewhat below his weight.

Is there anything special about this game? No, not at all, and that’s entirely the point.

After thirty moves,

White to play

the game is obviously in White’s favour. His pieces are active, Black’s are passive; he has outposts on d5 and b6, Black has weak pawns on d6 and b7; his king is safe, Black’s might potentially get back rank mated (a factor that does not appear to have any immediate relevance although it turns out to be decisive).

White’s advantage is so obvious you might think that a player of Eggleston’s strength would never have allowed the position to arise unless, perhaps, as the price he had to pay to fend off a mating attack or avoid losing material in complications which he’d miscalculated - except that having played through the game we already know this absolutely wasn’t the case. Arkell gave the impression of doing next to nothing and yet still managed to end up overwhelmingly on top.

The position, indeed the whole game, rather reminded me of Rivas Pastor – Akopian from Leon 1995, quoted in Excelling at Chess and in turn mentioned by me back in June last year. It seems to me that what Jacob Aagaard has to say about the Akopian game,

Rivas Pastor - Akopian, Leon 1995
White to play

In the diagram position Black already has the advantage. The two bishops will give him a lasting edge in the endgame … it is not too difficult to convert to a win. I am certain that Rivas Pastor was fully aware of this but, somehow, he did not demonstrate the same ability as his opponent to manoeuvre pieces, and thus found himself in this unpleasant situation.

Akopian, certainly, in no way calculated better than his opponent. He had not foreseen all White’s moves, rather he was searching for optimum coordination between his pieces.

If asked about the merits of White’s [play] Rivas Pastor would himself explain that White did nothing good for his position … But would he be able to suggest a good alternative plan for White? I do not believe so … Akopian would have suggestions, but Rivas Pastor would most likely not – at least not at the time the game was played because (I assume) he would have tried something else.

Jacob Aagaard, Excelling at Chess

is very likely what was going on in Arkell – Eggleston.

In contrast to the David Howell games against Williams and Conquest there's not a single one of the 41 moves it took to secure the win that you or I couldn’t have found ourselves had we been in charge of the White pieces. The difference is that we, or at least I, wouldn’t be able to play 41 such moves in a row. To be able to do that takes the fundamental chess ability that anybody less than an Arkell lacks - even the 2300+ Eggleston it seems.

Outplaying your opponent in almost unfathomable complications is one thing but doing nothing yet doing it so well that your opponent falls apart anyway is quite another. That a GM slayer can be reduced to rubble in such an apparently straightforward fashion is what makes Arkell-Eggleston truly impressive - and why it's my favourite game of the whole British Championship.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Ray Keene, whatever else he may be, is, by common consent, a charming man. The same is not true of his sidekick: or, to be more accurate, one of them, since there are several. But the particular sidekick who is the subject of today's piece is the brutish Eric Schiller, author of many unremarkable chess books - but, last week, author of a remarkable outburst on Ray's Chessgames page.

The subjects of Wikipedia and Private Eye had come up, with Ray having made some interesting remarks about both. Nothing hostile, though, nothing one could describe as menacing. But, standing at his boss's right hand, "Hard" Eric was not so restrained. It was blatant disrespect, and he wasn't having it. So he told them. He gave them what for. He threatened, - in pretty much so many words - to tear the miscreants a new anus. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Hard begins:
Wikipedia is a disgrace to scholarship. I don't allow my students to cite it. If I ever meet one of the founders, they are likely to suffer permanent injury.
The founders of Wikipedia were Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger: whether they would appreciate being the subject of physical threats from Eric Schiller is an interesting question. While we ponder it, Hard moves on to Private Eye:
Private Eye is different. I have always enjoyed reading their humor magazine. Nothing in it should ever be taken seriously, even the ads. In their pursuit of laughs they have targeted Ray, but in an unfunny way, like so many of his "critics".

Such publications are enablers of termites
Mmmm, termites again. But do go on...
the useless insignificant losers who have nothing better to do than criticise those with talents their targets possess but they lack. The cowards hide in the tubes of the Internets and pray they are never discovered. If they appear in public they might get the beatings they so richly deserve.
It's not quite clear to me who Hard is threatening here, as he's not quite so specific as before (and to be honest, specifics never were his strong point). Private Eye? Probably not. But he writes of "publications" - so does he mean Kingpin? Or maybe "useless insignificant losers" is a clue - perhaps he means us? Presumably not, deadly accurate though the description would be.
Meanwhile, the real chess community continues to enjoy the contributions of people like Ray Keene and appreciate his presence among us.
Well, I'm sure we can all agree with that at least. I enjoy Ray's Chessgames page immensely. Nevertheless, there are some questions that come to mind about Hard's comments.

One is, when Hard talks about "scholarship", did he have himself in mind?

A second is, why is Hard bothering to threaten people who are, by his own description, insignificant?

A third might be why, given that according to its guidelines reserves the right to delete messages that are deemed inappropriate, distasteful, or off-topic
and given that Ray has the power of deletion on his own page, does he consider Hard's comments neither distasteful enough nor inappropriate enough (and nor for that matter, embarrassing enough) to be deleted?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chess in Art Postscript : The Significance of Seeing Ernst.

Chess in Art XIII featured the only sculpture in the series: Max Ernst's "The King playing with his Queen" of 1944.

Allusions abound: a hieratic Lord and Protector; a mythic Totem, awesome; a zodiacal Taurus, jealous and possessive; the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull and, as satyrised by Picasso, a bit of old goat........

Minotaur Caressant une Dormeuse (From La Suite Vollard) 1933

Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

........... and, as Ernst intended, he portrays himself as the King overprotecting his Queen. As many have commented this one act play celebrates his relationship with fellow surrealist Dorothea Tanning who he married (his fourth time, lucky) in 1946. Ernst is the dramaturge, and he puts himself centre-scene, significantly; his play-actors are pieces in the set of his own creation.

He had ideas about board design as well, and created a "Strategic Value Board" with squares colour-coded accordingly. Unfortunately, decent photographs of the board are almost non-existent, and "hard copies" even more so. Maybe only a couple of them were ever made and have now disappeared from public view (to lose one maybe regarded as a misfortune, to lose two... etc). This photo shows Version 2 of the board, together with the Ernst-designed chess pieces.

Possibly Strategic Value Board 2 1944

In spite of the poor quality you can see something of the colour modulation of the squares. Along with an artistic sensibility, there is more than a suspicion of a chess mind at work as the strongest blacks and whites are in the centre, and those on the rim dim. The point of 1. h3!? is revealed on h2: a portrait photo of the artist, Max. Headroom obviously only could be found for something passport size. And, yes, they STBUR (see note at end), on a chess table, barely visible, designed by Xenia Cage (wife of John) for "The Imagery of Chess" show of 1944.

Now, as an aside, a morsel of Duchampatrivia: in that famous 1964 photo of himself grinning archly from beyond an Ernst chess set Duchamp also and infamously STBUR - co-incidence number one. But he like-wise, and seemingly intentionally, left the same h2 square empty (albeit with colours reversed): which is coincidence number two. As coincidences go, one may be regarded as good fortune, but two look like carefulness. These deliberate features of the Duchamp photo suggest that it is a nod to 1944, and a homage to his friend Ernst, and this could be the explanation for his knowing look (and that was another minor contribution to Duchamp scholarship (note 2)).

Back to Max: in the January 1945 issue of Chess Review (note 3) there is a black and white photo of the S.V. Board Version 1, framed and displayed as a wall hanging (note 4). Max deconstructed the ensemble and borrowed the frame to pose with Dorothea for this photographic double portrait.

They are using the Ernst set, and the liberated S.V. Board Version 1 which Mrs. Ernst Version 4 has exploited to the max., as you can just see from her intimidating pawn wedge on the strategically invaluable blackest squares.

Dorothea tanning Max in 1948

Some have remarked about this photo (note 5) that the couple seem, unwittingly maybe, but wittily for sure, to mimic a medieval scene of flirtatious fore/chess play, of which this is a famous example, moist with innuendo, that makes Max and Dorothea, six centuries later, look chastely old-fashioned...

The Game of Chess (14th Century mirror case). Anon

...inviting further comparison with the famous/scandalous Duchamp/Eve Babitz 1963 game/photo where Marcel affects to be distracted by the chess only.

Ernst's thrifty recycling of artwork into photographic study gives us a serendipitous opportunity to test out whether the frame-within-the-frame hypothesis holds water. As we saw with Delacroix and friends in Chess in Art XV this could be provided by a decrepit arch, unkempt foliage, or anything else pictorially plausible, but here we have a proper one, and this is what happens if you frame with the real thing:

Suppressing the peripheral vision makes a more meaningful image of the chess players at play and it helps us see the significance of Ernst, and Dorothea also of course. So, QEDdeedee, but no surprise to us so handy with digital cropping; we should admire then The Old Masters, who did it by eye, with a brush.

And here is another try at improving the original by Polish artist Renata Wypych:

Renata Wypych b1982

Like a shameless paparazzo she has tweaked the image: plain ground; no frame; and a proper board. Dorothea sits like a ramrod but Max has now slumped, with age perhaps, or more likely in despair at the advancing pawn-roller. But at least he kept his shirt on and stayed calm, focussed and determined; he knows the importance of being earnest.

Dorothea Tanning has outlived Max Ernst by over thirty years, and is now ninety-nine. She is must be one of the last living members of that be-knighted set of artist-cum-chess players in the "The Imagery of Chess" show. I hope she makes it to a hundred and beyond. It is poignant now that her contribution to "The Imagery" was "Endgame".

Endgame, 1944
Dorothea Tanning, b. 1910

Notes and References

STBUR = Set The Board Up Wrong coined by Mike Fox and Richard James; usually by having a black square bottom right.

Note 1. This is fig. 58 in The Imagery of Chess Revisited by Larry List (ed). (George Braziller, New York, 2005). The “possibly” is his designation. While some of the observations in this post are foreshadowed by comments in List their development and embellishment are not his responsibility.

Note 2. The other two (Duchamp's favourite smoke and a sealed move) were proposed in "We are not amused III". I’m not aware that anyone else has spotted the STUBR and h2 coincidences before – if they have, credit to them where it is due.

Note 3. Reproduced in List, op, cit., p. 157-165.

Note 4. List, op. cit., fig. 57.

Note 5. In the legend to fig. 61 in List, op. cit.

Note 6. Commentators who have also squeezed its juices are Bradley Bailey in "Marcel Duchamp - the Art of Chess" (2009), and according to his footnote, Michael Camille "The Medieval Art of Love" (1998).

Picture acknowledgements:

Max Ernst - Masterpiece
Art Facts
Sympathy for the Art Gallery
Catalogue des Moulages
Touch of Art

Chess in Art Index

Friday, October 16, 2009

What Happened Next XII

On Wednesday we left Ray Keene back at a tournament in Georgia, 1974.

Bohosian had just made his move, 36 Rg3, and pressed his clock (all normal) but then, quite unexpectedly ...

Black to play

We’ll let Raymondo finish the story:-

... he picked up his king and deliberately placed it in the ashtray at the side of the board!! I was desperately short of time and no-one present witnessed the incident. Of course, the arbiters could speak no English and I certainly had no command of Russian, Georgian or Bulgarian. My first reaction was to try and claim the game, but how?? The difficulties of making myself understood seemed insuperable! Instead I restarted my opponent’s clock and pointed to his off-side monarch. He stared at me as if I were a Bulgarian hill bandit and gradually realization dawned over his bovine physiognomy. He picked up his king and put it back on g1(!!) a much superior square of course (no back rank tricks). I wanted to claim again, but what about that damned language barrier? I pushed his king back to h1 and continued playing, though I felt completely off balance. The game was eventually drawn!

WHN? Index

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Happened Next? XII

Last week we saw one or two of the best examples of Raymond Keene at the chess board. Today we’ll continue surfing the RDK wave and have a look at a curiosity from way back when.

We join Raymondo in Round 9 of the Goglidize Memoiral tournament held in Tblisi back in December 1974.

Bohosian - Keene, Tblisi 1974
Black to play

RDK writes*:-
You can see that Black has a distinct advantage; White’s attack does not yet balance his pawn minus, and his back rank is weak. One of the very powerful ideas at Black’s disposal is … Qc6, threatening disruption with … a3 or … d4, or even … Qxc3 in favourable circumstances. Bohosian had just made his move, 36 Rg3, and pressed his clock (all normal) but then, quite unexpectedly …

So, what happened next?

WHN? Index

* The passage is taken from Becoming A Grandmaster, Batsford 1977. I have converted the descriptive notation of the original text into algebraic.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Magnus Carlsen is not that good. Is he?

For a long time now, the internet coronation of Magnus Carlsen as the new King of Chess has been annoying me. Whether it's kibitzers who declare him to be Karpov + Kasparov + Rybka, his mystical anointment into the К-Club, or instant annotations that presume flawless play by journalists who should know better, I've just not been buying it. Carlsen is, of course, very talented, already one of the world's best players, and looks to remain so for a reasonable length of time. But such deification as a chess god? Already? Really?

And it's not only knee-jerk doubt. I've been telling myself, there are logical reasons to be suspicious that Carlsen is overrated (in the historical sense). The first is that, psychologically, we chess fans are used to living in the era of a Super Champ: that is, a World Champion who topped the rating list, was expected to win every tournament they entered, and retained their crown for a more than just a handful of years. Both Karpov and Kasparov were Super Champs, and so it's natural to expect that a new Super Champ will come along sooner rather than later. Natural, but forgetful too of chess history. There have been many eras of chess without a Super Champ, after all. The most conspicuous was the late fifties and 1960s, which saw no fewer than five World Champions.

And why shouldn't top-level professional chess nowadays be similar to that era? Topalov tops the rating list and his combative style, quick recovery from defeats, and excellent preparation make him a likely front-runner in any tournament he enters. Meanwhile, there is no question that Kramnik and Anand both deserved their World Champion match victories. And plausible future rivals aren't hard to name: along with Carlsen, there's Aronian, Radjabov and Karjakin at the very least, not even to begin to name the Grandmaster children scaring me even further away from competitive chess. Add to that the ever-increasing role of affordable computers in the production of novelties - well, this era could surely produce a new, legitimate World Champion every other year, without a single Super Champ to be found.

And then there are the institutional arrangements, or rather their lack. No stable, revered World Championship to aim at; no gruelling, comprehensive qualifying structure. The consequential cultural devaluation of the ultimate crown. Qualifying for the World Championship once represented climbing Mount Everest, the ascension to the highest peak. But nowadays, who's to say that FIDE just won't parachute its latest favourite to the top for the next match? Everest is being worn down into just another modest chess hillock, the crown losing its shine, shedding its jewels. Why should chess professionals such as Carlsen not just content themselves with a pleasant, predictable life lived along a circuit of plush hotels, shrugging off the world-conquering dreams of their greater predecessors in favour of nights in watching Monty Python?

And so I had been telling myself. But that was before Kasparov revealed himself as Carlsen's second. Before Carlsen obliterated the world-class field in the Nanjing Pearl Spring tournament. Before Carlsen started talking up his intentions. Perhaps the uncrowned Super Champ he is after all. On the other hand, Karpov was a Super Champ for a whole decade, Kasparov for a full fifteen years: if Carlsen is to measure up to the hype, I at least have the consolation that the earliest I will be proven comprehensively wrong is 2019. One thing for sure is that there'll be a lot of interesting chess between now and then.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Oxfam fortune

Talking of friends, and London...a friend works in Oxfam's Bloomsbury shop, where they not long ago received a number of very decent chess books. There's still a few left, available at very reasonable prices: check out the list, below.
  • Queen v Rook and Minor Piece Endings by Averbakh, Chekhover and Henkin : £10.00
  • Rook v Minor Piece Endings by Averbakh : £6.00
  • Sicilian Defence, Najdorf Variation by Nunn and Stean : £5.00
  • Flank Openings by Keene (second edition, 1970) : £4.00
  • Larsen's Selected Games of Chess : £4.00
  • Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ed. Matanovic) : £5.00
Not so bad, eh? The shop is at 12 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QA. Their phone number is 020 7637 4610.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Don't mind if I do

The bloke in Huesca who cuts our hair went on holiday last month, to London. He was telling us all about it. Said he had a great time, but one thing puzzled him. In the pubs - why did everybody say "chess"?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ray Could Play II

Yesterday we looked at two of Ray Keene's games, a win against Botvinnik and a draw with Karpov, that have genuine historical significance for the development of English chess. In contrast, today's blog features a game that probably means nothing at all to anybody but me.

When I first started playing club chess in the mid 1980s I stumbled across Mike Basman's Audio Chess series and Raymondo's 1 d4 2 c4 Repertoire for White. In his tape, to help illustrate his recommended 5. Bf4 against the Queen's Gambit Declined, RDK demonstrated his game against Jakobsen from Esbjerg 1981.

I've played through scores of Keene's games in the past couple of decades, as many as most people I would imagine, but this win has always been my favourite. Aside from several very pleasing tactical moments (see below) it still remains an instructive example of what White's hoping for in the Bf4 variation. Sure, it's not particularly theoretically relevant anymore but it certainly illustrates the devastation that can follow a White bishop landing on e5.



White to play

In the game Jakobsen pushed 17 …b5-b4 which only succeeded in driving Raymondo's knight over to the kingside where it ended up doing some severe damage. What would have happened if instead of advancing a pawn Black had stuck his own knight in on e4?


Black to play

Black attacked White’s bishop with 18 … g7-g6 but RDK ignored the threat and just played 19 Ng3. Black then tried 19 … Nd7. Grabbing the piece certainly looks suicidal but could Black have got away with it?


Black to play

Here's Keene's just put another piece en prise with 21 Nh5. Black responded with 21 … f5 and got flattened. What would have happened if he’d accepted the sacrifice?


White to play

Things are looking very dicey for Black. Raymondo has placed his rook on g3 - right in front of Black’s king – and Jakobsen answered by moving his rook to e8. Sacrificing on g6 and following up with Qh6 looking to mate on h8 looks very tempting. Why didn’t Ray finish the game this way?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ray Could Play

It seems, I learn from this thread over at the EC Forum, that we will soon be getting some chess on the BBC. The programme will be aimed at novice players – "... people who know the rules of chess (not absolute beginners), but haven't really played much and could benefit from simple advice and tips...." according to the programme maker – and be broadcast on BBC4 sometime in December.

Chess on TV is, needless to say, a very blogable subject, and it will no doubt get a post here at some point in the near future, but for today I want to follow the EC Forum thread which, as internet discussions tend to do, has wandered off onto a different topic altogether – the chess skills of S&BC blog favourite Raymond Keene.

This contribution came from BCM editor John Saunders:-

For some reason which I can't quite fathom, youngsters who only know RDK as a writer and journalist sometimes doubt whether Ray is or was a strong player.

Indeed so, John. Indeed so.

Ray Keene ... ever the gentleman

Photo from

RDK, it should not be forgotten, was England’s second GM and was close enough to being the first that he and Tony Miles were formally awarded the title together at the 1976 Haifa Olympiad. It might also be said that his rating (2455 when he stopped playing but 2500+ at various times in the 1970s and 1980s) was achieved at a time before inflation drove ELOs upwards. In fact back at the EC Forum Kevin Thurlow did say exactly that but while I have every sympathy with this view I must say I find equally persuasive Keith Arkell’s suggestion that standards have risen in the last two or three decades and therefore a 2400+ now is better than a 2400+ back then. The conflict reflects the inherent problem of trying to compare ratings of players from different eras I suppose.

Judging talent based on achievements is an essentially error prone activity given that accomplishments are a function of opportunities as much as ability. The chess world now, after all, is a very different place than the one the active Raymondo inhabited. He was 19 before he played his his first international tournament (Hastings 1966/67), and prior to this he’d played a grand total of one Grandmaster (O’Kelly at Bognor Regis in 1965). Compare that to the beginnings of a modern player's chess career.

Take Magnus Carlsen, currently busy cracking skulls in Nanjing, for example. While Mondo didn’t get to go abroad to play an all-play-all tournament until he was well into his twenties, Magnus, who won't leave 18 behind until the end of next month, has probably already taken part in more such events than Keene and his cohort (Hartson, Basman, Whiteley et al) got to play in their entire careers.

Ray's still got it

Photo from

I'm sure Keene's talent would have taken him further had he been playing in modern times. Not as far as the Norweigen Future World Champion no doubt but beyond what he was able to achieve in his own era.

I suppose judgements of that nature are always going to be debatable but whether it's true or not, I still find it astounding that in the third round of that Hastings tournament Keene managed to take down none other than the patriarch of Soviet chess Mihail Botvinnik. True he would later describe it modestly as a “rotten win” and “nonsense [which] deserved to be hissed rather than clapped”, but there’s no denying the sporting significance of the clash. The game was played just three years after Botvinnik had lost his crown to Petrosian and only two British players - Sir George Thomas and C. H. O’D. Alexander - had previously beaten the Russian. Ritson Morry justifiably described Ray’s victory as, “the sensation of the tournament”.

There can’t be that many English chess players who have beaten a former World Champion but the number who have also drawn with a reigning Champion must be even fewer.

Keene got his half-point as Black against Karpov in Bad Lauterberg in 1977. Once more our hero was under pressure for much of the game and even managed to get into time trouble twice in the one session. The time control was 40 moves in two and a half hours followed by 16 moves in an hour as was standard in those days but Karpov played at such speed that they managed to fit all of the game's 57 moves into a single five-hour sitting. When the session was over RDK had used 210 minutes to Karpov’s 90 but, zeitnot or no zeitnot, they split the point after Keene found a neat piece sacrifice to save the day.

If neither of these games are examples of Ray’s best chess - examples of which, with annotations from the man himself, can be found on this very blog here and here – there is no doubt they are the high-water mark of his competitive achievements. There are many things that can be said about Raymond Keene but the suggestion that he was no good at chess is not one of them.

For sure Raymondo is now super-GM class in terms of getting himself at the centre of any appearance of chess in the media, and it was his appearance on the forthcoming BBC programme that sparked for this whole discussion in the first place, but that should not blind us to the fact that Ray could most definitely play.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pictures and the thousand blogs

Recently the guys that have run this excellent blog since 2006 asked if I'd like to contribute the occasional piece from my end of the turf, an invitation so pleasing I promptly forgot what it is that I usually write about when the "chess activity wake-up call" sounds in the brain.

This was a bit worrying. But I reflected that I don't actually play much chess in summer - unless it's got a beer bottle obscuring the colour of the h1 square. Also, the invitation came around the start of the Ashes hunting season, a once four-yearly pantomime cricket opera featuring the cries of the wingeing Pom in hot (or tepid) pursuit of a team of aggressively amiable Antipodeans.

And, though normally failing miserably, the home side won this year in true Tartakover fashion, timing their penultimate error (Headingley, fourth test, day 1) to perfection, leaving the Aussie selectors a mere 11 days to consider how best to drop their spinner from a turning pitch at the Oval.

All of which is to introduce the link below which, aided and abetted by Bob Dylan, casts a backward glance at the blog's pictorial content from 2006-09.

Friday, October 02, 2009

White to play, and mate in two

Today's puzzle is a special three-parter. You are asked to provide:
(a) white's first move
(b) proof that this is the only key move possible (that's to say, proof that the puzzle isn't cooked)
(c) the relevance (a) has to the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog today.
Much kudos and cake to the reader who can provide us with three satisfactory answers. All will be explained soon . . .