Monday, April 17, 2017

Chess, The Learning Process

So most people who play our game have some ambition of becoming better. But just what exactly does that mean? And how does someone go about becoming better at chess? The first question seems easy to answer, we just become stronger players! But what exactly is a better player? Higher rated? What if a player improves, but not as quickly as others? So better can be a relative thing, and is a difficult subject to answer. How does one get better might be easier to answer. There are a set of stages in our development as chess players.

- first we gain knowledge of patterns and ideas.
- second we learn to recognise what we know in our games.
- third we develop an understanding of when our knowledge can and cannot be used.

So I guess we can say that we look to acquire as much chess knowledge as possible, then we try to apply that knowledge in our games to a deeper and gradually more successful degree.

Most people start by learning tactical processes, but this is a never ending process. And we find tricks that become evermore elaborate, good enough to beat top players! Like in the recent American Championship, the winner Wesley So played a brilliant attacking game against reigning World Junior Champion, Jeffery Xiong. It all started with an excellent sacrifice which paved the way for So's minimal force to jump into the attack.

So, as black played 21..Nxf2! and after 22.Kxf2 Rxb2+ 23.Kf1 Qh5 the position had become impossible to defend and So won shortly after.
After So's sacrifice, Jeffery Xiong has an impossible task defending as white.

The knight sacrifice removed a defender, opening up white's king and isolating it for an attack by minimal forces. A brilliant sacrificial attack? Well yes, of course, but there are plenty of examples of this sort of sacrifice, and a player of Wesley So's ability would almost definitely be aware of the pattern. However, the rest of us can learn from this and other examples of this sort.

For example, yesterday, Yifan Hou finished her game from the Grenke GM event with a similar knight sacrifice.

This one is much easier to spot, especially when you know what you are looking for. 29..Nxf2! This opens white's king, and let's black's heavy pieces into the attack. 30.Kxf2 Qe2+ 31.Kg1 Re3, an overwhelming force to attack a lone king. The game finished 32.Qc2 Rg3+ 33.Kh1 Rxh3+ 34.Kg1 Qe3+ a position which caused the white player, Georg Meier, to resign.
White's best is to play 35.Qf2 which will cost a queen after 35..Rh1+ distracting white's king.

Here's an early example of the sacrifice.
This is the game Burn-Pollock Belfast 1886 and black came up with our themed move 12..Nxf2! The key to understanding the success of the knight sacrifice now, is spotting that is followed by another knight leap opening black's light squared bishop to help threaten mate on g2. 13.Kxf2 Nd4! the joint threat of winning a queen and mate in 1 on g2 was too much for white to handle and although the game endured, the result was in little doubt.

Here's a classic example of the same theme, but taken to the extreme. Black has a whole army to break through which he starts with our custom sacrifice. Golgidze-Flohr Moscow 1935: 19..Nxf2 20.Kxf2 Qh4+ White's king has been attracted into a queen check and has to advance to hold on to material, 21.Kf3

But what now? Flohr's concept is absolutely brilliant, denuding white's king of defenders one by one until the white king faces a small but powerful black force alone. 21..Bxh3 22.Bxh3 Qxh3+ 23.Kf2 Qh4+ 24.Kf3 White's rearguard has gone.

And now Flohr removes the final defender, the dark squared bishop 24..Be5 Against this sacrificial onslaught white now crumbled 25.e3 Bxf4 26.exf4 Qh3+ 27.Kf2 Re3 with a similar force to that which Yifan Hou finished with yesterday!

White played a couple more moves before resigning, which brings another point to this issue. The fact is that it is harder to defend than to attack, and there are examples where the sacrifice wasn't fully correct but still worked. Like for instance the game Norman-Colle Hastings 1928

I don't know much about Colle except for his opening, and a game where he played a Greek Bishop Sacrifice. Here he comes up with our themed sacrifice: 19..Nxf2!? 20.Kxf2 Rae8

Although the white king looks in danger, it is also hard to see where the white attack will come from. The cool 21.Rhd1 Qe7 22.Kg1 would have removed much of the threat to white's king, but what better than to trade? 21.Rhe1?! Qe7!
Probably now white realised that trading on e3 is impossible 22.Ne2 [22.Rxe3?? Qxe3+ 23.Kf1 Nc4 when white has to play 24.Rd1 but that puts rook, queen and king in forking position of a knight 24..Qf4+ with the lovely final variation 25.Kg1 Ne3
Black's fork is countered by a white pin 26.Qd2 but black has the temporary queen sacrifice 26..Nxd1! 27.Qxf4 Re1+ 28.Qf1 Rxf1+ 29.Kxf1 Nxc3 with an easily won endgame] 22..Nc4 throwing another piece forward, again without anything concrete 23.Bd3
I guess Colle just couldn't resist, and decided that it was time to give up his other knight! 23..Nb2?! 24.Qxb2 Rxd3
At this point white had to move his knight, but he missed this defensive possibility, losing quickly after the blunder 25.Rc3?? which allowed black's pieces to penetrate 25..Qe3+ 26.Kf1 Re6 and it was all over soon after.

Here are these last 2 classic games!

So by looking at a number of examples with the same theme, we can gain knowledge and hopefully get to use it in our own games, or at least prevent our opponent from using the theme against us. There is one last game with this theme, that happened only a few days ago, but I think I'll show this tomorrow as it was a genuinely magnificent example that deserves a post of its own,

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Watching for Captures

There is currently a huge amount of chess happening across the world. Magnus Carlsen comes out to play in Germany later today, while Kramnik, Anand et al are fighting it out in Zurich. Here in Australia there is the annual Doeberl Cup and there are a number of other being shown on chess websites such as chess24, TWIC, or chessbomb.

While playing a good amount of chess is a must for any aspiring player, study is also important. Watching games falls into this category. Watching live can be almost like playing a game, as you try to guess moves and analyse positions. Invariably, you tend to take one side and try to defend their position, so it really is like playing. But more than this, watching games, just like playing through games from databases and books, builds our store of knowledge, assuming we're thinking while we are watching (so turn your computer engine off!).

Watching games live also allows us to see players in action, some of whom will be familiar to us, while some will be unknowns. It's then possible to find some lesser known players to follow, master strength of under who have a style we can enjoy and possibly emulate.Saying that, I tend to like watching complicated games while my style increasingly shies away from complications.

One player who I seem to have seen a few games from recently is the young Iranian IM Aryan Gholami. Chess is flourishing in Iran at the moment with a bunch of strong players. The Iranian Junior Championship is currently taking place, and so I watched a game by Gholami in the first round. Aryan was white and rated 200 points higher than his opponent, so a win would be expected, and in the end he won the game. But 2 positions caught my eye in the game for the same reason.

Black has just played 10..Bd7. This not only protects the knight on c6, but threatens 11..Nxe5. So it seems that 11.Bxc6 is the best move in the position, otherwise you are losing a pawn. But Gholami played 11.Nb3?! and his opponent duly took on e5 leaving the young master a pawn down.

Looking at all captures is something we try to instill into kids, but it is especially important to look at central pawns and when they can be taken.

The game then kind of continued with black not finding a way to develop his position and becoming stuck. White gained a big development lead as well as there being weaknesses around black's king.

Working on the basis of examining all captures, white played 22.Rxc5! The point is that black doesn't have time to recapture or white will infiltrate on the weak dark squares around black's king. eg 22..Qxd4 23.Qxe7 Qxc5 24.Qf6 when black will have to give up the queen to prevent mate on g7.

Anyway, after 22.Rxc5! black played 22..Nc8 and there followed 23.Rxc8! getting a least 2 pieces for the rook 23..Rfxc8 with the following position.

So continuing the theme of looking for all captures, white's knight is attacked and to deal with this Gholami created a bigger threat with 24.Qe7. Now the familiar theme of 24..Qxd4 25.Qf6 with 26.Bh6 is in the air, so black retreated and the game dragged on for another 30 moves with white finally winning. However, by looking at captures, white could have found 24.Nxe6!!

The knight can't be taken, it is forced mate. So black has to try 24..Rc6 when white has 25.Qd7!

Black's rook is pinned, so it can't take the knight, and 25..fxe6 still loses to 26.Bh6. Black's best here is 25..Rc4 when white has another nice move, 26.Qxd5, leaving the knight en prise again, abut hitting black's a8 rook.

At this point, black pretty much has to bail out with 26..Qc6, accepting an endgame where he is an exchange and a pawn down..

So I guess the moral of the story is watch games critically, and not just by the top players, but by anyone. Even at the local chess club it is possible to look at games as they are in play and try to work out what is happening. You can talk to the players after the game about the position that interested you, and don't get computer help, analyse the games in your head, as if you were playing them!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Women's Chess?

I'd decided it was time to start writing again, it was just getting the inspiration to get on and do it. My own life is in a pretty good place at the moment, and I'm beginning to find good form in my chess. I'll be writing quite a bit about my chess and the things that are happening in my little part of the world over the coming months. But what has driven me to write this post is a subject I've talked about before, the inequality in our game between men and women.

Having worked with a number of young female players, I've seen them come up against both blatant, and non blatant sexism that seems to be ingrained in our psyche. The fact that we call chess played by women "women's chess" as if it is a different game to that played by men is an instant sign. In fact, in an event where there is no physical strength advantage for men over women, why on earth do we need to have a segregated game? Because that is essentially what we have! Federations, coaches, clubs, leagues etc all kow-tow to this gender difference though it shouldn't exist.

Now why, you may ask, am I getting worked up about this? Well I follow an author on Twitter, Joanne Harris, who tweeted about the poor press that women artists have received through history, and it resonated with me as being exactly the same issues as affects chess. Let's have a look at Joanne Harris' points and see how they can be applied to our chess world.

In chess there has been limited opportunities historically for women to compete with the best male players, and top coaches have given more time and effort to their young boys and men than to the girls.

Segregation is overt in the chess world. Officials talk about giving female players extra opportunities by staging events such as the European Women's Championship currently being held in Latvia, but this is just another form of segregation. Chess is an activity that all can compete on an even footing regardless of age, social background, race, gender etc. I can understand age group events, but even then there are boys and girls sections as if we are preparing them for their segregated adult playing life.

How many chess books by women authors do you own? How many can you even think about? There are thousands of chess titles by men, most of which are average or below in quality. How many women coaches can you name? Actually, it is the same in art where I was embarrassed to struggle to name any female artists throughout history. I'm no art buff, but nevertheless, this is a shocking omission in my knowledge, and it is not all my fault as art is presented to me by men of primarily male artists. Chess is the same.

The answer above still applies to this.

Really? Is the eminent British author suggesting that women's brains aren't "hard-wired differently" to men's like the eminent British chess player once suggested? To be fair to Mr. Short, he is not the only one in our realm to believe this, though others are not so forthright in expressing their opinions.

This is an argument I've heard so many times in chess circles. Women can't reach the top because of their domestic role. Housekeeping, child rearing, cleaning up after the main bread winner of the household. Couples order their lives based on the joint abilities of each partner. Caroline was the skilled partner in our household and I deferred her the role of main breadwinner happily. In time, circumstances have changed and we are now more even in our professional and domestic roles. It's the 21st century for heaven's sake! Equality is about opportunity for all regardless of gender or social status (though perhaps not in Trump's new medieval America).
 If you haven't read anything by Judit Polgar, then I suggest you do, her books are excellent, she is an ambassador for women's rights championing the planet50-50 by 2030 campaign, as well as being the strongest female player in history. In her efforts to become a strong player she encountered overt and covert racism, which she has related in her books and writings. Even so, shemade it into the world's top 10.....
....where she was branded a man by default, more male than female, and all the other things which belittled her status as a great player who had just been born a girl!
 Though I'd rather not go there, this is another jibe girls and women have to endure. I cringe to think about some of the things I've heard people say at chess clubs about female players, and I admire those girls and women to rise above it and just keep carrying on. The same things aren't thrown at men, and this is simply an ignorant form of discrimination.
 Yes, absolutely. We have "women's chess". It is an inferior form of the game. You don't have to be so good to play it as the 'normal' game'. To be a male Grand Master you have to reach a 2500 rating level, whereas in "women's chess" the Grand Master title is only 2300. The same incremental difference can be seen for International Master's etc. The rationale? It encourages women a bit! WTF??? It encourages them to be worse. It rewards girls for achieving a lower level than boys.

Now how anybody can think this is not discrimination is beyond my understanding. The chess world is unfairly biased against women. The chances of us getting a top female player are minimal because girls have to undergo abuse, discrimination, assumed inferiority, segregation, and are given less opportunity than boys to perform at a high level. I'm an #heforshe advocate and it's time that we developed an equal playing field for girls and boys, treating kids the same, adults the same, giving them the same opportunities and rewarding them for attaining the same levels. Until that happens, I'm sad that my beloved game is discriminatory against girls and women.