An unexamined life is not worth living.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book review - "The Survival Guide to Competitive Chess" by John Emms

 The Survival Guide to Competitive Chess : Improve Your Results Now!

I picked up  The Survival Guide to Competitive Chess : Improve Your Results Now! by John Emms (2007) in the library and was pleasantly surprised. The book is a good overview of things that happen in practical chess tournament games, and an experienced player's view on them. This book won't teach you how to play rook endgames properly, but will explain why even chess grandmasters make the mistakes they make, and how to avoid them. I am of course a much weaker player than the author, but nearly every example Emms gives I could relate to. Here are two examples I could related to my own study of opening theory:

- As you learn a new opening, your initial results are not so good because you don't know any theory, then it gets better because you are have more knowledge, and still have the sense of freshness playing new positions. After you play a few dozen games with an opening, your results get worse, because you are bored with studying the opening, and less alert during games

- "Little knowledge" is an idea or variation that we saw somewhere, but don't remember the exact details. Instead that vague feeling of "this feels like a book move, but I am not 100% sure, but I'll play it anyway cause it probably is a book move". Ideas taken out of the exact context can do more harm than good and lead to superficial moves.

In some of Alburt's books or Dzindzhikhashvili's videos the authors seems to try to impress you with the fact that they are grandmasters, and thus they "know all about it" (is it their ego, or they just want to sell you more of their stuff??), but Emms is honest about why he made the mistakes, which is good because I found my hallucinations are sometimes similar. His advice on using computers seemed also quite reasonable. The book has a lot of prose and diagrams, so it is easy to read without a board.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Book Review - Modern Chess Series, Part 1: Revolution in the 70's (Modern Chess) by Garry Kasparov

Modern Chess Series, Part 1: Revolution in the 70's (Modern Chess)


I have always found that learning a historic overview of an opening line is the most efficient way to understand the meaning of opening variations. In any major opening there is a myriad of deviations on every move, so knowing - why a certain line has become the main line is crucial to being able to remember the theory of any variation. In explaining the development of major modern opening systems lies the main value of this book, and Kasparov is in the best position to provide such an overview, since he himself was learning the opening for the first time throughout the seventies. Here are several random examples of what Kasparov brings to the table:

- detailed overview of the Hedgehog system

- historic development of the Sveshnikov varation in the Sicilian, but also a lot of information on the up to date theory

- explanation of how and why the Advance variation in the French defence became popular again

So Kasparov definitely succeeds in providing a truly useful book, and also a unique one in a way, since no one has done such an overview to the best of my knowledge. As for proving out that the seventies was the time of a particular revolution - that I don't think he truly convinced me in. The modern opening systems had already take current shape by then (that happened in 50s and 60s), and computers have not arrived yet the way they did in the nineties, so I still don't think that Sveshnikov variation or Hedgehog alone can be considered a revolution. In most other openings there was more of an evolution than revolution, so in my view Garry might as well have written a book title "Revolution in the 60s" or "Revolution in the 90s" (in fact I secretly hope that he will :))

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Book Review - Positional Play By Mark Dvoretsky and Arthur Yusupov

My first serious chess book that I read about 10 years ago was "Positional Play" By Mark Dvoretsky and Arthur Yusupov. That was also perhaps the most useful book I ever read - it influenced my perception of the game in more ways that I could imagine. This book is out of print, but there are lots of other books by Dvoretsky that are similar in style, and can have provide you with the same eye-opening experience. What was different about this book? Dvoretsky's books in general don't teach you what to play - they teach you how to think. This book taught me how to

- think of what the opponent plans to do - and how to prevent his intentions

- think in terms of the number of purposes that a single move can serve - which is essential for a practical player choosing between several roughly equivalent moves

- build up longer term positional plans, but at the same time realize that it is nearly impossible to plan 20 moves ahead, so instead you have to think in terms of 2-3 move operations that gradually improve your position.

- look for typical middlegame positions, and understand why it it is useful to learn them

Initially after reading the book my play actually became a bit worse, as my entire thinking changed and it took a while to adjust. In the long term, however it allowed me to go from waiting for the opponents to blunder (which allowed me to get to roughly 1900 ELO) - to being able to play for positional goals myself.

The book consists of several articles written by several Dvoretsky, Yusupov and several other contributors. Dvoretsky sets the key themes, and Yusupov's games are great at illustrating the concepts. Looking at Capablanca's games is good for understanding why an open file is important, Yusupov's games in this book explain why one grandmaster had to give up an open file to another grandmaster (basically because there was a number of factors involved, and at some point he overlooked some tactical subtlety and had to choose between dropping a pawn and giving up a file - but that's because Yusupov was putting pressure on him).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Keres Memorial 2008 - game over

Keres Memorial 2008 is over, Georgi Orlov and Bindi Cheng tied for 1st place with 5.5/7. These were the two strongest players in the tournament, so this is obviously not a surprpise. Bindi managed to revenge for last year's loss, and defeated Georgi in a complicated game, but himself lost to Vicente Lee. I myself tied for 4th place with 4.5 points out of 7, same as last year, and as in 2006. I am satisfied with the result, but the quality of my play in some of the games was awful. I did not take any byes this year, so in the middle of the tournament I lost concentration and started to make blunders. Here is the brief breakdown, in a diary form:

Round 1 - Jiganchine-Jack Cheng (1981) - 1:0

I was not too familiar with this line in Ruy Lopez, but soon after the opening got a large advantage. I won a pawn, but Black got some counterplay on the kingside. Fortunately Black had his knight stuck on b7 without any moves for most of the game, so when the position opened up I won with the decisive attack against Black's king. I was happy with my play in this game.

Round 2 - Bindi Cheng (2360)-Jiganchine- 1:0

This one was a true disaster. I played a line in Slav defense that I last time looked at about 9 years ago. Ever since Bindi came to BC 3 year ago I had a hard time in my games against him (a few difficult draws and a loss), but this time I did not even get out of the opening. What I vaguely remembered to be a book line, contained a few calculational problems for Black to solve, but I just could not decide which move was safe and which one was not, so by move 20 I was dead lost (down a pawn and in a terribly passive position). That does happen to me with Black pieces every once in a while against strong chess players (2300+) - they just play natural moves, and I am scrambling to remember something, ending up playing weak moves...

Round 3 - Jiganchine-John Niksic(1950) - 1/2:1/2

I played a passive line in Open Sicilian, and Black was better around move 30. John got a typical good Sicilian endgame, but misplayed it at some point (it was not obvious) and I got some initiative (strong passed pawn supported by a bishop). I was however down to 10 minutes on the clock (with increments), so I started to repeat when the opportunity arose. I had a feeling my technique did let me down - it is my goal, after all, to grind down lower rated players in slightly better endgames. Given that I don't study openings and play only one tournament a year - sacrificial attacks are not exactly what I should play for.

Round 4 - Andrei Kostin (2060)- Jiganchine - 1/2:1/2

I had some difficult choices in the opening as Black, but very soon Andrei made a couple of passive moves, and got a position with bad IQP. Again I was hoping to grind down my opponent, but instead I allowed lots of counterplay (all starting with White knight arriving on c5, never a good sign in IQP positions). Again, I got a better endgame (again - strong passed pawn supported by a bishop), but could not convert. I turned down a repetition, but a few moves later was glad that the position simplified to a draw.

Round 5 - Jiganchine-Dan Erichsen (2056) - 1/2:1/2

Ruy Lopez as White was a good sign, but in a Chigorin with my opponent seemed about equally familiar with the plans. I wasted a tempo on Bc2-b1-d3, but then he gave up the 'c' file, so there was hope for a complex struggle, but I made a terrible move Kh2, and with the Black queen on b8 that gave Black a chance to open up a diagonal against my king with d6-d5, winning at least a pawn. However, my opponent used that opportunity to ... offer to me a draw 3 moves later, despite him having a winning position. Draw by reputation, as John Emms calls it!

Round 6 - Paul Leblanc (1950) - Jiganchine - 0:1

I used to win lots of games like this when I was a junior: White plays d4 opening, followed by passive middlegame, trades into inferior endgame, putting all pawns on same color as a bishop. Should be an easy win, but it was not. I thought I found a plan with the pawn breakthrough; it seemed like it would work. However I missed a very simple defensive move, and my own rook was trapped on g4, surrounded by White pieces and pawns. Paul had to sacrifice an exchange which would leave me in total zugzwang, but instead he dropped a piece to a one move combination. Very lucky escape for me!

Round 7 - Jiganchine - Luc Poitras (2192)- 1:0

I was disgusted with my play in previous game and considered withdrawing, but decided to play since it was too late to worry about my performance. This game actually went very well for me, where in Kalashnikov Sicilian, Luc mistakenly simplified to a position where not only his d5 was a weakness, but also the d6 pawn was very hard to hold. He tried to create a kingside counter attack with knight and queen, but that only lead to his queen getting trapped via a tactical shot. This is what happens when luck is on your side - beating stronger opponents does not involve so much effort (or we were just both very tired and barely cared about the outcome).

The conclusion for me is that opening play was taking a lot of my effort, and combined with generally being in bad shape that led to missing more chances later in the games. Blunders like the ones in rounds 5 and 6 are also a very serious warning sign, as they did not happen to me in Keres'06 or Keres'07 as much.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zenit wins UEFA cup - is soccer just like chess?

Zenit from Saint Petersburg won the UEFA cup in great style (or so it seems from looking at the goals from their last two games). 4:0 against Bayern Munich and 2:0 against Glasgo Rangers - those are really impressive results, but the 2 goals from the final match are even more impressive. The main childhood memory I had from Russian soccer was "clumsy". I guess the dutch coaches have had something to do with changing things for the better.

I find that in a long chess match opponents seem to be of equal strength, but at some point one of them makes a mistake and if the other player is really stronger - he should punish such a mistake and make it look easy. I find that Arshavin's pass that perfectly went through the Rangers' defence and found the Zenit attacker is in many ways similar to how in Kasparov - Anand match (1995) Kasparov's rook travelled across the board and found its target - the c2 pawn. In both cases the opponent could never recover after a killer shot ...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Grandmaster Preparation ...Not

How do you prepare for a chess tournament, give that time available and resolve to win are in limited amounts? In 2006 I decided that I need to play at least one serious tournament a year. Since Keres Memorial is the only regular open tournament held in Vancouver, BC, the choice is clear. So that's why I am planning to play in Keres Memorial 2008 in less than a week. The process of preparing for it will be however quite different from what Lev Polugaevsky described in his classic book "Grandmaster Preparation"

Polugaevsky (1934-1995) was known for spending countless hours analyzing positions from his opening repertoire to great depth and preparing forced variations where he would foresee arising positions up to the point where his attack would give a clear win. Here is what a human mortal like me is more likely to do for a preparation for a given tournament:

1) Go over my file of openings and decide on what I actually want to play. For White I have been sticking to 1.e4 for nearly all my games since year 2000, but for Black there are definitely some decisions to be made.

2) Play some games on ICC to at least remember how the pieces move. Normally I take this to the next level, and go through the online games I played in more depth later (as in this example)- usually to see if I made any crucial mistakes in the opening. This time the goal is just to get back into shape as soon as possible. Ideally I would play a couple of training games with the same time control as the real tournament, but I have not done this for a very long time, and won't have time for it this time either. Last time I did this before a big tournament was before Keres 2001, and not surprisingly I did quite well that year (2280 performance). Practicing for a specific time control really helps to manage time better, especially during the first couple of rounds.

3) Do some tactics, either on a computer, or from a printed sheet. Tactics tend to decide most of the games at most levels, beginner or grandmaster. So being able to calculate well and efficiently is crucial, and a tactical trick can always save a game that has gone wrong otherwise (because of opening or whatever).

Like a real "chess pro", I took two days of vacation from my day job to take care of these steps, just so that I am less likely to hang a piece in round 1. Will I get to play Orlov this year? Otherwise, I don't think this tournament will be very different for me from 2006 or 2007.

Bad Bishop Defends good pawns - Van Wely - Anand, 1997

Loek Van Wely - Viswanathan Anand, Amber-blind 6th 1997

Loek Van Wely (2645) - Viswanathan Anand (2765) [D20]

Amber-blind 6th/Monte Carlo (9) 1997

Studying opening variations from your repertoir may also point you at some interesting positional concepts from the middlegame and endgame. Here is a game I was looking at in the Queen's Gambit Accepted.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e4 e5 4. Nf3 exd4 5. Bxc4 Nc6 6. O-O Be6 7. Bb5 Bc5

8. Qc2 Apparently 8. b4 is more popular now. 8... Bb6 9. a4 a5 10. Bxc6+ bxc6 11. Qxc6+ Bd7 12. Qc2 Ne7 13. Na3 O-O 14. Nc4 Nc6 15. Rd1 Nb4 16. Qb3 c5 17. Bd2 Bc7 18. Bxb4 Rb8 19. Qc2 Rxb4 20. Nce5 Bd6 21. Nxd7 Qxd7 22. b3 Qe6 23. Nd2

23... Rfb8 It may appear that the bishop is hopelessly bad, and the White Knight is dominating the light squares. However the remaining black pieces are much better coordinated (pressure on the b file), and it turns out that the bishop eventually has no trouble finding a good diagonal. 24. Rab1 h5 25. Nc4

25... Bc7 For the moment - bad bishops defend good pawns! 26. Qd3 g6 27. h4 Qc6 28. g3 Qb7 29. Nd2 Bd6 30. Rdc1 Be7 31. Rc4

31... Rb6! In general Black wants to avoid trading off heavy pieces - then the bishop would indeed become inferior to the knight 32. Kf1 Bf8 33. Ke2

33... Re8 34. Kd1 Perhaps under illusion of having a positional advantage, White decided to transfer the king to c2, in order to free up the pieces from defence of 'b3'. Anand quickly opens up the files and the bishop becomes the key piece in the attack agains White king. 34... Rbe6 35. Kc2 f5 36. exf5 Re2 37. fxg6

37... Bh6! 38. Rd1 Qd5 39. Kb1 Rxf2 40. Qc2

40... d3! 41. Qc3 Rxd2 42. Rxd2 Re1+ 43. Ka2 Bxd2 44. Qf6 Re2 0-1

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