Friday, April 18, 2014

Preparing for the Doeberl Cup

My routine coming into a big tournament runs something like this. First, try to get a load of chess work done up to a week before the tournament is due to start. This includes preparing openings, tactical and calculation training, deep analysis etc. Then I cut the workload down for the last few days before the tournament begins. This gives my brain time to process the information and think about it and also means that I should be fresher when I get to the board. Of course, there is always a temptation to think about chess during this down time, and that is probably unavoidable, as long as the work isn't too deep. Once I'm at the tournament, it is usually full on combination of prepare, play, analyse, with some downtime to eat and relax.

The day before Canberra, relaxing at Black Rock

So while I'm not going to go into the chess preparation I went into before the tournament began, here's a couple of ideas from the first days play at the Doeberl Cup in Canberra.. In round 1, Svetozar Stojic continued his good form this year with a draw against Indian GM Roy Chowdhury. IM's Moulthun Ly and James Morris also had to give u half a point to Jonas Muller and WIM Emma Guo respectively. While there were some other surprises, probably the biggest upset was IM Andrew Brown losing to Wenlin Yin. Personally, I was quite close to the half way mark and was hoping for a few players to take byes in the first round so that I could play a Grand Master. Unfortunately, that was not to be and I ended up in the top half on one of the bottom boards. I struggled to get any advantage early on, but then managed to build up some space which squeezed my opponent, and I won the game.

On the drive to Canberra, a stop at Holbrook to see a submarine 500 km's from the sea!

The second round saw no big upsets and 19 players remain on 2/2. I found the going quite hard toward the end of my game, and I think I wasn't the only one. It is quite tiring playing 2 games in a day with a finish close to 11 pm. So with that in mind, it was probably unwise for me to allow my game to blow up into a wild and complicated mess which my opponent, FM Tristan Boyd managed far better than I did. A crucial moment in the game was this.

I was playing black in a what started as a Nimzo Indian and was now preparing c5, when Tristan threw a spanner in the works. 15.f4!? To be honest, I was expecting something on that side of the board, but underestimated my opponent's chances. I should have carried on with the plan of  15..c5 with a tense game, but instead chose to add flames to the fire with 15..Ng4
I was expecting 16.Rf3 when I was planning 16..f5, though white might just be able to sacrifice a piece on f5 for a pretty vicious attack. However, I hadn't really considered the move that was actually played which shows a weakness in my thinking. 16.e4!? This completely threw me and I didn't find the best continuation, and went on to lose to an excellent attack that Tristan created. Funnily enough I talked about this subject of changing the pace of the game to IM James Morris recently who considers it a crucial skill for a chess player to have. It is certainly important to be ready for your opponent's tactical chances, and for when they might just roll the dice and go for it. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Yesterday's Tactics

After looking at some games of Kasparov's (and pretty much any Grand Master) it makes me realise just how tactically aware a chess player has to be. As such, solving chess tactical puzzles, or problems must be a worthwhile exercise. I guess the difficulty most of us face is continuing to work hard at the games for lengthy periods of time.

I've been solving lots of tactical puzzles on the chesstempo website, s well as any puzzles in magazines that I see and in books that I have. I reckon that at the moment, it is taking up at least 50% of the time I have for studying the game, and I still feel weak tactically. Anyway, here are the answers to yesterdays positions.

 This was a miniature that was played at the European Seniors Championship between Cebalo-Vasiukov. Black has gone badly wrong and mate was forced after 12.Qd5!! Qe7 [12..cxd5 13.Nxd5# is pretty] 13.Nxh7 when black resigned rather than play 13..Rxh7 14.Bg5#

 Black used a discovered attack in this puzzle 18..Nf4!! which either mates or wins the queen. White played 19.Bxb6 and resigned after 19..Nh3+! This pattern of a knight jumping to f4 and h3 is worth remembering.

Finally, we have another tactical genius, Alexei Shirov, playing in a rapid event. His opponent had just pinned his Nf3 by playing 17..Bh5, forgetting that if the piece at the back isn't the king, then the pinned piece may move. Shirov, in the above position, played 18.Nxg5!! when the queen cannot be taken because of 19.Bxh7# The game finished 18..Bxg5 Qxh5 19.Bxe3 fxe3 when black resigned.

I took these positions from TWIC, where I find a good tactical exercise is look at the games that finish in results under 25 moves, as mostly these games finish because of tactical blunders.

Birthday Greetings Garry Kasparov

There was quite some excitement in Australian chess circles earlier this year, when it was announced that the 13th World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov, would be coming to Australia around Easter time, and would look in at Doeberl, probably to hand out prizes on the last day. For many of my generation, Kasparov is an absolute idol, taking dynamic chess to new limits while also possessing masterful technique, and the ability to play all types of position equally well. While Spassky and Fischer brought the idea of 'total chess' to the table, Karpov and Kasparov raised the limits of possibilities, and especially Kasparov was at the forefront of deeper than ever opening preparation that most of us amateurs dread.

It is, of course, a great pity that such an amazing talent as Kasparov should have retired from competitive chess and that he won't be playing in Canberra, but his mere presence will be inspiration enough for many. The only time I've previously seen Kasparov was at the 1986 London World Championship match which I visited. The aura in the playing hall was amazing. Grandmasters were in the audience along with patzers like myself, watching the two great players battle it out. I left the playing hall desperate to work at the game, and get to the highest level I could manage.

Well, a week before his trip to Canberra, it is Kasparov's 51st birthday today. Kasparov has played many memorable games, and produced many great contributions to chess opening and endgame theory as well as his magnificent attacks and combinations. The game that I vividly remember seeing and thinking, "my God, how good was that!" was his win in 1982 at the Olympiad against the USA team. He was playing on board 1 against Soviet emigre, Lev Alburt, when the following position occurred:

Kasparov, as black has played a Benko type game, and now comes up with a raidcal way of changing the nature of the game. 14..Bxb5 15.Bxb5 Qxb5!? A fantastic positional queen sacrifice which will gain a rook and minor piece for the queen, but will leave black's pieces very active, while white has both weak pawns and uncoordinated pieces to worry about. 16.axb5 Rxa1+ 17.Bc1 Nxe4:
Kasparov's queen sacrifice has brought his pieces to life, and left white with weak b and d-pawns. Black may not be theoretically better here, but just imagine the psychological blow on an opponent that such a change of game would bring. I'm going to fast forward now to the conclusion of the game. It was hard fought for the next 30 or so moves, until this position was reached.

Unfortunately, Alburt blundered here, but he had been under relentless pressure from his 19 year old opponent. The game went 50.Qc6? Rd2! [Threatening a knight fork on d4] 51.Ke3:
51..Re2! [Again with a knight fork on d4 in mind] 52.Kd3 e4+! [forcing the king to a bad square] 53.Kc4 Rc2+ 54.Nc3 Bf6 [There goes the knight] 55.Qxe4 [Actually, Alburt could have probably resigned here] 55..Rxc3+ 56.Kd5 Rc5+ 57.Kxd6 Be5+ and white did resign.
White's choices are to give up his queen for rook and bishop and being a knight down in the ending, or moving the king up the board into a mating net. 58.Ke7 Rc7+ 59.Ke8 Bf6 [threatening 60.Re7#]

I was only about 16 when I first saw this game, and things like positional queen sacrifices were mysteries that only the greatest of players could hope to achieve. I was aware of Kasparov's tactical flare, but this game seemed to be something bigger, grander and more than just a display of tactical fireworks. Perhaps it isn't Kasparov's most perfect game, but it shows his ability to change a game situation, his tenacity, and both his positional and tactical awareness, albeit at prototype level!

Happy Birthday, Garry Kasparov.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Coffee House Chess

I've just read another article praising Coffee House Chess by a respected chess author. On the Chess.com site, GM Daniel Naroditsky has written an article on the art of setting traps. His point is that correct play can and should, be laced with traps. As such, a good tactical sense is important for any chess player.

So here's a couple of tactical puzzles:

Black to play and win
White to play and win

White to play and mate in 3
All these positions come from TWIC this week, showing that the art of the Coffee House is by no means dead. Answers tomorrow :)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Not Chess...Well Not Much

Well, actually there might be some chess, but not a lot. First a big thanks to Paul Cavezza who has mentioned this blog in kind terms on his blog. Knowing that the stuff you're doing is having even the most minuscule influence is a great thing.

Now, on to matters which are nothing to do with chess! The first important thing is coffee. This is critical, as next week I will be going to Canberra which doesn't have the same pedigree as Melbourne when it comes to coffee. However, I remember I found some decent places the last time I was there so I have some hope. Meanwhile, I have recently been fortunate enough to have had Egyptian and Greek coffee. The Egyptian Coffee I had in Hong Kong at an amazing Restaurant in the Central District. The food in Habibi was unbelievable and the coffee was delicious. It was a typical thick, sweet, syrupy drink with a slightly spiced flavour, probably from cardamom. Soon after I came back from Hong Kong I went to a local cafe where they had brewed some Greek coffee and were dishing it out free to regulars. Again, it was thick, sweet and flavoured although I've found that Greek coffee is generally chicory based. Both drinks were excellent, although a bit too sweet for my regular taste, and it makes me want to try some other types of coffee.

Greek coffee, looking rich and syrupy and tasting sweet and spicy
Ok, why is it that when you have holiday one of 2 things happen? Either you get sick, or the weather goes lousy. Well I have been pretty tired the past week, but the biggest thing in the way of my enjoyment is the torrential rain we've been having in Melbourne. Last week was great and I did manage to get out on Sunday, to the tourist hot spot of St Kilda. St Kilda is a suburb that I can't stand to be near in the summer. The crowds are unbearable, and too many of them have an aggression about them that comes from the amount of alcohol they've consumed. Look, I've got nothing against people having a good time, but I just don't feel the need to be near them when it's happening. However, in the colder months, St Kilda reverts back to being a bohemian, arty hang out that I really enjoy. Last Sunday I strolled along the crafts market, walked along the beach, into the community gardens (one of my very favourite places), had cake in Acland Street and walked around the botanical gardens.
St Kilda's "Espy" venue

The ethos of St Kilda Community Gardens

Fabulous cakes in Acland Street
And now I'm going to sign off and continue listening to alternative 80's music, taking me back to my student days when I would sit inside on rainy days listening to alternative 80's music (though it was more current then). I will resist the temptation to grow my blog by posting cute animals, naked women, licking arse on social networks or joining google+, whatever that is. I will, however, go back to chess for one last time. When I was in St Kilda I saw a great tee-shirt but it was unfortunately not in my size. I'll be back to get one in the right size in the future and will choose the right person to wear it against :)


Learning Endgames

Why is it that some players can just pick up an endgame book and methodically work through it, while some of us can't get to grips with them? I remember being a young player who wasn't converting good positions. As a result I purchased an endgame book. That book was called 'Practical Chess Endings' by one of my favourite players, Paul Keres. However, when I started to go through it, I found it not as practical as I was expecting, and in fact a lot of the positions that were covered didn't mean very much to me having never reached them before.

So I think for many players, myself included, study of the endgame has to evolve at a pace that reflects our practical application of that phase of the game. Nowadays, I am interested in any endgame, but I still get most interested in positions that I have experienced, wither through my own play, or through that of my students. I was recently looking at some games of one of my students when the following position was reached.
My student was white in this position, and he was very happy that the game ended in a draw (and perhaps a little lucky too). I asked him what he would have done if his opponent had played 49..g4? We played the moves 50.hxg4 Kg5 51.Bd6 Kxg4 52.c7 Nxc7 53.Bxc7 when the following position appeared.
I asked him if he'd ever looked at this ending before, and he replied he hadn't, so we played it out and I won the game easily with the pawns. However, from playing this position he learned a lot about this type of ending. First, white has a thankless task because the best he can hope for is a draw. So black can play on for free in this position. Actually there are a lot of positions like this, and it is good to get to know them and resist the temptation to offer draws. Thankfully, we have a World Champion who plays to the bitter end, thus encouraging us all to test our opponent's endgame knowledge. Second, without a plan, or some working knowledge of this endgame, it is almost impossible to know how to save it. Third, and as a consequence of the last point, it makes us think of all the other types of endgames that we need to learn, giving us that much needed incentive to get down and learn some technique.

So then, what about the ending Bishop vs 3 connected pawns? First, here are some general considerations:

- the worst pawns for trying to win include a rook's pawn
- if the pawns can all reach the 5th rank, they win.
- with a rook's pawn, it is better for the defender of the bishop controls the promotion square of that rook's pawn.
- king position is also a big factor with the defending king wanting to get in between or in front of the pawns.

A good way to learn these endgames is to have some basic positions to head for, so here are some typical drawing positions:

In both cases, the pawns can make no progress as they have been blockaded by the joint efforts of king and bishop. In the top diagram, if it is black's move and he plays 1..Ke5, white should prevent black's d-pawn advance by 2.Kc3.

It is worth noting that to draw, white wants to get his king in front of the pawns, and his bishop to a position where it is preventing the pawns' advance.

So with this knowledge, it should be able to create a plan if you ever get into this sort of position with specific moves being guided by general principles. There are even some amazing ideas like this one:
The general considerations first: white's king and bishop are in front of black's pawns which include a rook's pawn, and the bishop controls h1. The pawns have all reached the 5th rank, however, and black's king is very active. It's a close call. 1.Bb5 f3 2.Bd7 Kf4 3.Be6 g3 4.Bd7 Ke3 [Black plans to bring his king to e2 or e1 to help his pawn promote] 5.Be6 Ke2 6.Bh3 [guarding the promotion square of the most advanced pawn] 6..f2+
This seemingly hopeless position for white has one last twist. 7.Kh1 Of course if black now promotes white will sacrifice his bishop for stalemate, while playing 7..g2+ [to give white's king a flight square fails to] 8.Bxg2 f1=Q+ 9.Bxf1+ Kxf1 10.Kh2 =

So going back to the original position, what should white play in order to draw?
1..Kf5 [1..f5 2.Kd4 f4 3.Ke4 and the pawns will make no more progress] It certainly makes sense for white to bring his king to the defence] 2Kd4 f6 3.Ke3 [manouvering his king in front of the pawns advance] 3..e5 4.Bb8 [white can afford to play a waiting game allowing the pawns to advance which they surely will if black has any designs on winning] 4..g5 5.Kf3
Black can't advance any of the pawns without compromising his position and advancing the king doesn't help either. 5..Kd5 6.Bc7 e4+ 7.Ke2 f4 8.Bd8 g4 9.Bc7 f3+ 10.Ke3 with a dark squared blockade.

Saying that, it can be seen just how difficult it is to play these type of positions. I seriously recommend setting up some positions and playing them out, with an opponent if you can find one. There is also the Nalimov Tablebases which work with 6 man endgames, and thus can definitively tell us the result of all endgames with king and bishop versus king and 3 pawns. Interestingly, I originally set the wrong position up in the Tablebase and was surprised to see that white was losing.
Even though this position sees black with a rook's pawn, and it is further back than in the main example, this position is winning for black according to the Tablebase. I suppose white's king is further from the action and his bishop doesn't control h1. It would be an interesting practical position to play from, maybe changing things a little by placing the bishop on b7 as well.

* I used Averbakh's volume on minor piece endings to help me write this:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Week Till Doeberl So...

So I'd better get cracking with some work. It's terrible weather in Melbourne anyway, so I can actually probably get some analysis and preparation together before I play next week. I finished the Melbourne Chess Club Championship with a draw against IM Ari Dale which is a good result for me even if the game wasn't brilliant. Both of us made errors of judgement in the game which need to be worked on.

Ari had sort of misplayed the middle game up to this point and I felt that I had equal chances with black especially as white's b-pawn is weak. My next move was not good, though, and worse than the move was a thinking process error that I've noticed in my games. I have been seeing some threats for my opponent, and then taking the same threat for granted in future moves. This happened to me earlier in the tournament against Svetozar Stojic, where I blundered a pawn to a move I'd considered earlier in the game. Here, I had been vigilant of my opponent's check on h7 until this move, when I played 24..Ne6? Ari gave me some respect by taking a couple of minutes to take on h7, where I can't capture the bishop as it leave my d5 pawn unguarded, so I had to play 25.Bxh7+ Kh8 when I thought I am just a pawn down.

Funnily enough, this materialistic view of the resulting position is incorrect, and black is not that much worse because of the weakness of white's queen side, and black's excellent protected passed c-pawn. The game became a bit affected by time considerations until Ari did me a favour back again. Ari had made good on his extra pawn building his king side majority and gaining a sizeable advantage until we reached this position.

I had just played ..Qa2 and Ari whipped out the tempting 40.Qg6 [probably 40.Qxa2 followed by Kf4 was white's best, and good enough to win] and I found an equalising check blocking the queen's defence of the b1 rook. 40..Ne4+. I thought it prudent to offer a draw in that position as after taking the knight white can force it anyway with Qe8-h5-e8 and, of course, Ari accepted. Ari Dale was already the MCC Champion before this round, so a big congratulations to him. I'm sure he has many Championship wins ahead of him.

It means I go to Doeberl next week with a good result under my belt, even if the play and thinking was not convincing. At least that means I won't be overconfident before my first game. And who I will play is a complete mystery. I am currently sat in the top half of the event, but I would expect there to be a number of players taking byes in the first round. If this is the case, then I may get the chance to play a strong Grand Master. Last time I played, my first round opponent was Romanian GM Gergely Szabo (2553 at the time) so hopefully I'll get another crack at a GM this time round.