Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Longest Win of the Week

It's time to get back into looking at some endgames, and the best way to start is to download The Week in Chess  (TWIC) and sort the games according to how many moves were played in descending order. The latest TWIC is number 1038 and Mark Crowther has been running the site for over 20 years now, an amazing achievement and a great service to chess.

Anyway, once downloaded I like to look through some of the longest games, and see if there are any endgames which interest me. In the latest edition, I saw a game between A. Bergougnoux(1895)-J. Hebert (IM 2378) which reached the following position:


Like most club players, I'm guessing my knowledge of rook endings is pretty patchy. This game ended in a win for black, and my first thought was why isn't this is a draw? So I went to Averbakh's "Comprehensive Rook Endings" and looked at the section on where a rook fights against rook and doubled pawns. Here's what the Russian Grand Master and endgame expert has to say about these types of positions:

"Compared with the other forms of pawn structure, doubled pawns are less dangerous. We will first consider examples where the defenders king stands in the way of the pawns. In this case the result is normally a draw"

Ok, that is pretty much the same for rook and pawn versus rook endings, and it describes the position above. Averbakh then goes on to say that a passive rook, or when the defending king isn't in front of the pawn can affect the result. The examples he uses are excellent!

In this position, the defender has to use the same procedure as if the d4 pawn wasn't there. That is, wait till the pawn reaches the 6th rank, and then move behind the enemy king to start checking. 1.Rb7 Rg6 [Cutting off the white king] 2.Rb6

 2..Rg4!! [This is important. Heading for the back rank now is premature: 2..Rg1 3.Kc6! when either check fails] 3.d6 [3.Kc6 Rxd4 doesn't help white 4.Rb8+ Ke7 is a theoretical draw as the defending rook is behind the pawn and the king isn't cut off] 3..Rg1! [Now the rook heads for the back rank when there is no useful shelter for white's king]
White can make no progress. 4.Kc6 Rc1+ forces the king to retreat, while 4.Kd5 doesn't require any special treatment, so black could play 4..Rh1 gaining checking distance and waiting for white's king to try to advance. Now, if you look at the position in the first diagram, you'll see a position not unlike this one, a cast iron draw!

Sometimes, the draw is not so easy:
Here, for example, white has advanced the pawn to the brink of promotion, and the threat is Re8+, so black must seek drastic measures. 1.Rh2+ Kg6, and now that the black king is stalemated, 2.Re2!! and black's rook will keep diving in front of its white counterpart!

If the defensive rook is passive, things aren't easy, and maybe even impossible.
Black's rook is passive and white's king has penetrated the 6th rank. 1.Rd6 [Taking control of the 6th rank] 1..Rf8!? [A last attempt]
2.g5! [2.g7? Rf6+!! another stalemate possibility] 2..Ra8 3.g7 Rb8
White has a very simple plan. Rf6-f8, leading to a won pawn ending. 4.Rf6 Ra8 5.Rf8+ Rxf8 6.gxf8=Q+ Kxf8 7.Kh7 and white will promote on 3 moves.

Finally, take a look at this amazing technique!
Black's king is cut off, but the win isn't as straightforward as you'd think. Without the b6 pawn, white would build a bridge on the 5th rank, but that is now not possible. 1.Rd2+ [Driving white's king further from the action] 1..Ke7
[2.Rd5 fails to work after 2..Ra1 3.Kc7 Rc1 and white's king must go back to b8!] 2.Rd6!! [An unbelievable technique!] 2..Rc3 [Taking the rook doesn't help 2..Kxd6 3.Kc8 Rc2 4.Kd8 Rh2 threatening mate, but white promotes with check! 5.b8=Q+]
So what now? 3.Rc6!! [Building a bridge! If the rook isn't taken, then white's king will escape to c7] 3..Rxc6 4.Ka7, and black has no checks and cannot stop promotion!

So that's the theory, what about the example we started with?
I guess we've all been in this sort of position where we're struggling to draw against a much higher rated opponent, who just keeps playing and playing. Hebert changes the structure to try to upset his opponent. 1..f2. White still manages to keep playing solid moves. 2.Ra7 Kg5 3.Rg7+ Kf4 [A repetition is a good sign for the defender] 4.Ra7 Kg4
[My first reaction when I saw this position was to play 5.Ra3 cutting off black's king. 5..f4 and now throw the rook up the board 6.Ra8 when I don't see how black will progress. White played differently, but still good enough to draw] 5.Ra8 [According to Nalimov Tablebase, this position is drawn] 5..f4 6.Ra7 [Again, I like 6.Ra3 cutting off the black king. If 6..f3, white has the stalemate try 7.Rxf3!] 6..Kg3
In this position, after an heroic defence, the game ended. I'm not sure if white ran out of time, but I hope white didn't resign. According to Tablebases there is a move to draw, but only one. 6..Ra3+! [6..Rg7+ 7.Kf3 is hopeless for white] 7.f3 [Retreating the king back to g4 is no winning attempt] 
7..Rxf3+ with the same stalemate  theme! 8.Kxf3 stalemate!


Monday, September 29, 2014

Recharging the Batteries

Holidays and travelling can be many things. One can go somewhere for relaxation, or for adventure, to party or pamper, to discover new experiences or revisit favourite places. There seems to be no end of reasons for going somewhere. However, on coming back home, we are all hoping to be invigorated from our holiday experience and ready to jump back into normal life with a refreshed outlook.

This last week I've spent time in the southern island of New Zealand. I've been there before, and visited places both new to me and where I'd travelled before. I went with my lovely wife Caroline, and our friends Nick and Zoe, spending a week in Queenstown, with an overnight excursion to Milford Sound. The point of the holiday for me was to relax, walk a bit, see some of the most beautiful landscape in the world (and cleanest air and water), and spend quality time with those people I most value.

It's less than 4 hours flight to New Zealand, and we stayed in a lakeside apartment. The view from our apartment was already refreshing.

The view from our apartment
 We arrived on Nick and Zoe's anniversary which was a nice touch. It meant heading to town and a meal on Saturday night. The biggest noticeable difference between Melbourne and Queenstown is the amount of people and traffic. Even Saturday night in Queenstown was a gentle experience with no trouble finding parking or a place to eat. A week without queues or traffic jams was indeed a refreshing experience.
Anniversary couple, Nick and Zoe at Milford Sound
Queenstown is an adventure playground for those who are that way inclined. You can ski, bungy, canyon jump, white water raft, climb, mountain bike, jet boat etc. I must admit that I'm not into that sort of thing, but it doesn't stop me taking in the views of those who do.
AJ Hackett Bungy platform

Shotover Jet Boat
Queenstown was only a base for us, albeit a beautiful base. We hired a small car for the week which took us to some historic and scenic places. The area became populated in the mid to late 1800's due to the discovery of gold in the Otago region. Arrowtown is a living monument to this, with a Chinese Settlement area which preserves the buildings of the early Chinese miners.
Caroline giving scale to a hut from the early Chinese settlers to Arrowtown

Arrowtown was more than just history, nestled in magnificent scenery
There is no doubt that the area is amazingly beautiful. I'd be hard pushed to decide whether Queenstown or Wanaka were more stunning, not to mention Te Anau, or the areas between these places. The mountains, lakes, rivers and forests are beautiful. However, these are eclipsed by Fjordland, the scale of the beauty I'm unable to capture in pictures. You really do have to go there to experience just how amazingly beautiful this area is. I took my second trip to Milford Sound and was just as stunned as the first, perhaps even more so as the weather was completely different making the Fjord look totally different.
It was worth getting up at 5.45 am to get this view of Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound. Picture postcard beauty
So am I recharged? Absolutely! It was just the break that I needed. A week of losing oneself in a pristine environment to come out the other end ready to take on the world. Highly recommended!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Post Olympiad Chess Round Up

The recently finished Olympiad in Norway will no doubt be one long talked about. It was China's first victory in the open event, and probably not their last. With India coming in third without superstars Anand and Harikrishna, the focus of world chess certainly shifted away from Europe to Asia. There were category prize golds for Krygyzstan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, making the event a big haul for Asian countires. Australia competes in Asian events, and the continental success came here too. Australia were one of the big achievers gaining 29 places on their initial ranking and moving from a starting rank of 60th through to 31st (equal 24th). While all the Australian team contributed, our stars were undoubtedly current Australian Champion Max Illingworth and 13 year old Anton Smirnov. To be honest, the future looks good for Australian chess with a group of young and ambitious players who should soon be making their breakthroughs for Australia. In the current top 20 by FIDE rating, there are 9 players born 1990 or after, and 4 of these are born after 1994. Australia has every opportunity to be looking at an all GM team representing us at an Olympiad in the not too distant future!

The women's event was equally successful for Asia. China came in second (a slight disappointment for the tournament favourites) and category gold medallists include Mongolia, Tajikistan and Thailand. Australia's women also performed excellently, like the men moving up from an initial ranking of 51st to 32nd (equal 27th). For the girls it was a real team effort with no stand out results, though maybe it should be said that Berezina's performance on board 1 was very good. Australia's women don't have the same promise of youth that the men have, though there are 6 players in the top 20 born 1990 or after. However, of the remaining 23 players, 17 are born 1990 or after, so hopefully some of these will achieve their full potential and push into the top places.

Unfortunately, while the play seemed excellent, the Olympiad will also be remembered for some not so nice things. On the final day 2 players died. The official site of the Olympiad confirms the deaths of Kurt Meier of the Seychelles and Alisher Anarkulov of Uzbekistan. These are both very sad losses.

Hot on the heels of the end of the Olympiad there came more fall out. Another sad loss for chess will be the retirement of Judit Polgar. When announcing her retirement, Polgar in the Times took a dig at sexism in the game. Having coached a number of girls, I've seen this first hand and part of coaching girls in this male dominated game is to constantly help them to cope with the institutionalised sexism that is rife in chess clubs.

The other news from the women's game that interested me was Ukrainian GM Natalia Zhukova's swipe at turncoat Kateryna Lagno. Lagno switched federations from Ukraine to Russia at a politically volatile time. Added to this, the Russian team entered their player list late so that Lagno could represent her new country. When asked about her ex teammate Zhukova said:

"Getting rid of the parasites is always painless. Well, love cannot be forced. If she doesn't want to play for Ukraine, why do we need such people? We didn't communicate at the Olympiad, she avoided it. Cleansing is always for the better"

Tromso was also host to a FIDE election where Garry Kasparov lost to Kirsan Ilyumshinov, who stays as FIDE President for another 4 years. There has been mixed emotions about this, but one of the first big things to come up was Magnus Carlsen's participation in November's scheduled World Championship match. The Carlsen camp have asked for a postponement to the match which has been rejected by FIDE. It is getting like the Olympiad all over again!

Anyway, I intend to get lost in analysing many games from the Olympiad, stick my head in the sand and hope that all the politics and nastiness in chess sorts itself out. Fat chance!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Connected ramblings

Are you one of those people who are trying to find connections between things that happen, meanings or rationale? I guess I am. It is bizarre really, taking into account that I am vehemently against ideas of predetermination which mean that I don't believe in luck, fate or doom. In fact, it really annoys Caroline, my long suffering wife, when things just seem to fall into place. As an example, last year during our driving holiday around the USA, we had a day in Yellowstone. The drive and walks were wonderful, and we came close to amazing wildlife such as buffalo and pronghorn deer. On our way out of Yellowstone, we saw a car stopped on the side of the road, and so we thought we'd slow to see if the passengers had found something interesting to look at. Near to the road was a beautiful stag elk, grazing. We were just about getting ready to pull off when his head shot up, and we sprang off. And the next thing we heard was the unmistakeable howling of a nearby pack of wolves. The sound charged the air, and the wonder of hearing the wolves was exacerbated by the elemental fear that the howling puts through you. Caroline thanks her lucky start for that moment, while I was glad to be in the right place at the right time.

I was so happy to hear from one of my very best friends from England a few days ago. When one emigrates, it is so easy to get on with the new life and leave the old one behind. I guess that I have been guilty of that throughout my life. I left school, and moved from home to university, keeping in touch with virtually no one from that time (now there is only one left, and I only talk to John infrequently). After leaving university I travelled (bummed about) a bit before finally settling in Coventry. I lost contact with my university friends, only to start regaining contact recently through social media. Now that I've moved on again, I seem to have left many of the friends behind who I spent time with in Coventry. It's not that I don't think about these people, and often my mind will draw back to a moment in the past when something happened and someone who I haven't seen for ages comes to mind. When my great friend Mick contacted me through Facebook, it was really good, and I was able to catch up with him about times we spent together, and the laughs we had. I'm sure there will be more laughs and reminiscences to come. In fact I've just remembered a weekend we spent away in the somewhat less than salubrious setting of Hartlepool. OMG, there are some memories that could be better left locked away :D

I learned today that Robin Williams has died at the sadly young age of 63. While I was never a huge fan of Robin Williams, there is one movie that will stay with me for a long time, and that was partly due to the movie, and partly because I love the novel. The World According to Garp is a moving film from an equally moving book. It is a story that deals with deep themes such as sexuality and the inevitability of death. I must make the effort to see the film and read the book again. In that case Robin William's death will have influenced me, as I'm sure it has affected millions of other people.

I currently have a mass of books sitting on the shelf waiting to be read. There's a combination of genre and a mix of authors who I've read before, and who are new to me. There are even some books waiting to be read again. I lent out a copy of Joanne Harris's "Blackberry Wine" to our best friends in Australia, Nick and Zoe, and when I got home, I felt like reading it again. Bizarre! But then again, I remember reading it and thinking, 'this is like nothing I've ever read before'! I mean, how many novels are narrated by a bottle of wine? I mean, using death to narrate "The Book Thief" was great, but no greater than Harris's vintage. I guess it was books such as Blackberry Wine and The World According to Garp that took me away from reading mystery, or fantasy fiction, not that I've stopped reading those genre. I now read anything and everything....except horror, I guess.

It's been cold recently in Melbourne, and this always makes me think about trips away on holiday for some reason. Of course, we're always content when the weather is good outside. But the weird thing is that I'm heading to the south island of new Zealand where it's likely to be colder than it is here. Never mind, there will be plenty to see and the breathtaking beauty of New Zealand should be enough to recharge the batteries. The plan is to see this winter through, experience New Zealand, and then start a mad fitness drive through the spring and into the summer. So it should be back to writing occasionally about running. It's important that I start a fitness regime, as diabetes runs through both sides of my family. Funnily enough, the first time I really took tor running was in my mid 30's, which coincided with about the time that I was first reading novels such as the World According to Garp, and Blackberry Wine.

See, it's all connected, or I think too much...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mixed feelings

Last night came the dreaded moment when my country of residence, Australia, took on my country of birth, England, in the women's Olympiad. I found it very difficult to cheer for one team or another. In the end, the Australian team won by a narrow margin which was something of an upset but good from my point of view was that Anne-Marie James drew with Sally Yu, probably the 2 players in both teams I know the best. This match has pulled the Aussie women's team up the rankings to 32nd or equal 23rd in match points terms. From a starting position of 51st this is a fantastic effort and they will continue their tournament next against a strong Serbian team, where Australia will be out rated by quite a bit on every board. However, this Olympiad has provided quite a few upsets already in both men's and women's sections, and Australian team spirit will be high for the match.

The women's event was virtually decided in the last round with the match up of China-Russia. These 2 amazing teams had been cutting a swathe through the rest of the field, and their 7th round encounter seemed like a tournament decider. Of course, with 4 rounds to go, anything could happen, and it is unlikely that a team will be able to hold it together for every match in the event, but the Russian women have given themselves a great opportunity to retain their title by beating China 3-1. If Russia do win, then it will add to the stories in Olympiad history, as the team were nearly denied entry to the event before it began. The Olympiad organisers had denied the Russian women a spot in Tromso after Russia failed to enter their team list on time. This caused a crisis in the chess world with FIDE President Ilyumshinov finally stepping in to use his Presidential power to allow the Russian women a spot. By all accounts, the late entry was due to Kateryna Lagno changing federations from Ukraine to Russia, and the Russian's not wanting to name the team until that change came through. It has certainly worked out well for the Russian's as Lagno's victory over Women's World Champion, Yifan Hou was an integral part of Russia's victory yesterday.



The Open section also had some amazing results. Firstly, Azerbaijan are on an absolute mission in this event, and with the sad death earlier in the year of star player Gashimov, it as if the team are playing with a purpose of winning the tournament as a tribute to him. Azerbaijan are now sole leaders having won all games except one draw. Of course, it gets harder to keep things going the further the tournament goes, and today they have a very tough draw against China who have already drawn with the Russians in an earlier round. Not that Russia are performing that well. After struggling to beat Uzbekistan, they then lost to the Czech Republic and currently languish in 16th spot 3 points off the leaders. In fact, there are a whole bunch of top nations above Russia who could easily win their last 4 matches to take out the title should Azerbaijan slip. Armenia, Ukraine, France and the USA have all come back from disappointments earlier, and are all ahead of Russia. The English team are on the same score as Russia, with surprisingly, Scotland also in that group.

Australia's men had a fine win against higher rated Mexico yesterday, that has pulled them up to 50th, though they are on the same score as the team in 28th. The open event has the most amazing pairings in round 8, and at the top, every match will be hard fought. It will be hard pushed to top the USA-Hungary pairing, though, where 5th seeds take on 6th seeds. Russia need to win all their remaining 4 matches to stand any chance of a top finish, and that starts tonight against a tough Spanish team. England out rate Serbia by quite a margin, but that won't help to make their job easier as the Serbs have been playing well so far. Australia have to play Uzbekistan where David Smerdon will continue his tournament against tip rated opposition. After drawing with world number 2 Aronian earlier in the tournament, he has to face 2700 rated Kazimdzhanov today.

Anton Smirnov at the Australian Championship in January
Australia's star performer has been their youngest player, 13 year old Anton Smirnov who has scored an impressive 5.5/6 for a rating performance just below 2600. It's Anton's turn to rotate out of the match today, but there will be 3 more matches after that when he will hopefully add to his tally. Meanwhile, England's star has also been the bottom board. Matthew Sadler took time off chess, but he is back and performing well, with 5.5/7 for a 2696 performance. England have had some tough pairings, but have performed quite well. Nigel Short has perhaps been the weakest link this time round, but he is a stalwart for England and may yet come through in the final rounds, that is if he isn't working too hard in his role in the Kasparov electoral team.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rules and Regulations

Ok, it's time to have another moan about rules and regulations, or more to the point, the application of rules and regulations by FIDE. My problem with FIDE is the inflexibility of their rules, which means that the same rules apply for full time professional players, as they do for part time amateurs. These players have widely different needs and expectations from their chess experiences, and as such should not be treated in the same way. In the Olympiad in Norway the rule that is causing much discussion is again the zero tolerance to lateness at the board. I can kind of understand that it would seem preferable to have everyone at the board at the start of a round, but should someone really be defaulted for being 1 second late?

This is a "professional" rule which makes sense to sponsors who want to see players present at the start of a game. However, the Olympiad is over 50% amateur and penalising players, such as 11 year old Murara Layola of Rwanda, with immediate default seems rather harsh. To be honest, it is a law that I've never liked. If it was enforced in all FIDE rated events, then club tournaments would be devastated as people get to the club late from work, struggle through traffic, or couldn't leave the house on time because the babysitter was late. From an amateur's point of view, it is a draconian and ridiculous regulation. I'll leave this rant with a quote from England's number 1 player Michael Adams:

"The zero-tolerance rule is just stupid. They should just remove it right now"

Last night saw another rule trying to surface in a completely different circumstance. The board 2 game between Zimbabwe and Togo in round 3 of the women's event saw the incredible 1.e4 g5 2.d4 f6?? 3.Qh5 checkmate. The question was whether this play by the black player brings the game into disrepute. Twitter accounts were finding it hard to believe that the black player didn't know this sequence, and by inference had lost the game on purpose. If this was the case, then the the arbiters would have the right to impose penalties from a warning through to expulsion from the event according to the FIDE rules. Of course, at the other end of the scale, one could argue that refusing to shake hands with an opponent before the game could also be bringing the game into disrepute. Kramnik's refusal to shake hands with Topalov before the 5th round match between Russia and Bulgaria is rather sad. And it's a weird twist that it was Bulgarian GM and Topalov's team mate Ivan Cheparinov who famously lost a game because of a refusal to shake the hand of Nigel Short in the 2008 Corus tournament. According to FIDE's behavioural norms of 2007:

"Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent (or greets the opponent in a normal social manner in accordance with the conventional rules of their society) before the game starts in a FIDE tournament or during a FIDE match (and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter) or deliberately insults his/her opponent or the officials of the event, will immediately and finally lose the relevant game."

It's not a good position for a role model to display. At junior chess tournaments throughout the world, organisers are telling the kids before the games, "shake hands and start your games". If our top players aren't prepared to do that it is not a good message to send to the millions of chess fans across the globe.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Olympiad Inspiration

When you're teaching something you have a responsibility to be a role model and to inspire the students. Of course, every teacher would like to see their students excel, but I doubt that it is possible to hope for 100% excellence. My own personal goal is to make every kid to whom I teach chess to come away with a positive feeling of the experience. This might mean them improving to a certain level, but more often, it is about enjoyment of their time in the classes.In that respect, I try to engage all the kids in the group in some way, to make each of them feel worthwhile, and to excite them in some way. It can be a challenge finding something for everyone. For example, today I was working with one 6 year old who had never played before, through to 11 year old's who are playing competitively in adult events with ACF ratings of around 1000.

Well today was easy, as my lessons all revolved around the Olympiad. No matter how experienced the kids were, they all shared a desire to see their favourite team do well. In multi cultural Melbourne this does not always mean Australia, though all kids have an interest in the Australian teams. When I told the kids that both Australian men's and women's teams won their first round matches, there was actual cheers from some of the kids. I told them of Australia's heroic losses to top rated teams in round 2, and although the kids groaned a bit, they seemed genuinely impressed with our players efforts, especially David Smerdon's draw with Aronian. There were more groans when I told the kids that Australia had below par results in round 3, but when I said the teams both scored 2-2 draws against lower rated opposition. But the kids rallied and said that the teams didn't lose and still had plenty of time to win games.

I can definitely say that the players in both Australia's men's and women's teams are absolutely inspirational for my students at the moment, and I'm sure if those players could see that effect on these primary school kids, then they could be proud with their achievements.

Here was a nice finish from Emma Guo in her third round game. Here, black has just played 33..Ne4 making white's rook look for a new home. Emma found 34.Rd8!. Black found the best move in 34..Kf8. Emma then found the nice forcing line 35.Rxe8+ Kxe8 36.g4 Qg6 37.f3 Nf6
Black's pieces have been pushed out the centre, while her king has found it's way into the centre. White finished with 38.Qxe5+ Kf8 39.Qd6+ which prompted black's resignation as 39..Kg8 40.Ne7+ forking king and queen.

I'll be using our teams as inspiration for my students for the next couple of weeks. And I wish all the Australians players the very best in the rest of their matches.