20 January 2017

Fiddling with the London System

In the first round of the Winter Championship at the Spokane Chess Club last night, I played an opponent who has been difficult for me. We first played nearly forty years ago in a match between our respective high schools. There may have been some other games after that, but the oldest game in my database is from my first USCF tournament, which was March 1996. I had White, played the King's Gambit, gained a slightly better position, and then lost.

Although I have been higher rated than him for most of the past twenty years, we have a nearly equal score. I believed last night when the game began that I was at +1, but a check of the US Chess Federation's website reveals that I am +2 until last night's game is rated.

My struggle against this opponent is a struggle with myself. My weakness in chess tournaments is playing to the level of my competition. Instead of playing the board and finding the best moves, no matter who is sitting across from me, I take unnecessary risks against weak players. Players in C Class seem weak to me now that I have risen well above that level, but they are strong enough to exploit stupidity.

Patrick Kirlin's excessive nervousness at the chess board compounds my tendency to play the board, rather than the player. Indeed, I credit my compassion for his time trouble and panic as the cause of letting a slightly better position deteriorate rapidly in that game in 1996. It is fine to be friendly with opponents before and after the game, and to be polite at the board, but compassion has no place in competition during the battle. I need the focus of my friend John Julian who looks at me as if I am his most hated enemy when we play each other (see "City Championship, Game One").

Last night, I had White. After thinking about various opening plans, I opted for the London System. I have been playing this opening a bit in online blitz lately, but I think this was my first game in the system in over the board play at standard time controls. The London System is not particularly ambitious for securing an advantage from the opening with the White pieces, but may suit my interest in playing for a long endgame--a strategy that often produces success against players at all levels in our local pool.

Simon Williams, in one of his YouTube videos advertising a DVD characterizes the London System, "a great opening for the lazy players out there." Dejan Bojkov, in a video about an instructive miniature in the London, offers another view: "Whenever you play the London System, you expect people to fight for a very long time." Indeed, this long fight is why players like Vladimir Kramnik, Gata Kamsky, and even Magnus Carlsen have played it. Carlsen's play, in particular, inspired me to give it a try.

Stripes,James (1791) - Kirlin,Patrick (1410) [A48]
SCC Winter Championship Spokane (1), 19.01.2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.d4 g6 3.Bf4

3.c4 might be more sensible than trying to force every game into a cookie cutter London System, but this was my initial foray with the London.

3...Bg7 4.Nbd2

White's scoring percentage is poor after this move. Looking back, I do not comprehend why I played it.

4.e3 is the normal move.

5.e4

I was thinking about my teaching of children and how often I tell them, "if your opponent lets you put two pawns on e4 and d4, you should do so." This teaching compelled me to play this move, grabbing space. However, both 5.c3 and 5.e3 is more in keeping with the needs of the position. White must prepare the e4 push. In this respect, the London System bears similarities with the Colle System.

5...d6 6.Bd3

6.c4 was my move when I had the same position in a blitz game in October 2016. I won that game quickly.

6...Nh5

Given who I was playing this move was expected. Although I more or less invited it, I also may have underestimated it.

6...c5 7.c3 cxd4 8.cxd4 e5 should give Black a slight edge.

7.Be3

At this point in the game, I recalled that often in Paul Morphy's games he would have all of his minor pieces in play while his opponent had but two or three. After this move, my opponent left the board seemingly in a panic. His behavior at the tournament director's table seemed to indicate that he was in search of a different writing instrument. I learned about ten minutes later that his intention was to create a distraction. He wrote the name of America's worst mistake on his forehead, and then made certain that I looked at his forehead when he returned to the board. He said, "it is to psych you out."

I have engaged in a few behaviors that have irritated him in years past, albeit never with such explicit intent. For instance, once I came to chess club with some apple juice in a whiskey flask. It had no effect on my opponent that night, a former US Army Ranger. However, when Pat walked into club and saw the flask, his distraction could be read on his face. I also routinely place a captured pawn behind the clock to stymie the calculation of those who do their material count off the board.

I told the tournament director that my opponent's behavior was a violation of the rules, but did not press the matter. Spokane tournament chess is friendly competition. A few bad behaviors are tolerated within reason. A cell phone rang later in the round and the player on the other side of the board declared loudly, "you just forfeited." However, the threats to forfeit those whose phones ring during play is mostly talk. It was the first instance for this particular player. Another regular at club has a ringing cell phone nearly every event. We make it a point to remind him before round one of weekend Swiss events, when there are many players from out of town.

7.Bg3 did not seem like a good idea.
7.Bg5 merits consideration. 7...h6 8.Be3.

Black to move

7...e5 8.c3?

After brushing off the explicit effort to distract me as of no consequence (I said, "I've made my peace with the coming apocalypse"), my first move upon my opponent's return to the board was an error.

8...Nf4 9.Bf1

My intention was to play g3 after preparation, perhaps h3 or h4. Unfortunately I looked at the knight going back to h5, overlooking the value of the e6 square as a posting for the knight. This oversight became more serious a few moves later.

9.Bxf4 exf4 occupied my thoughts for several minutes. I preferred to avoid both giving up the bishop pair and creating a phalanx of pawns for my opponent on the kingside. In retrospect, I should have snapped off the knight.

9...b6

I started thinking that my opponent was planning to help me secure the h3 square so that I could play g3.

10.Qc2 Ba6 11.c4?

My move severely weakens the d4 square. Failing to notice such things stems from short-term tactical responses without considering long-term positional consequences. Playing to the level of my opponent is one cause of these mental errors. Playing too much online blitz is another (see "Good Blitz, Bad Blitz").

11.Bxf4 is probably still a move that I should have considered more seriously.

11...c5 12.dxe5?

12.d5 is objectively better. I considered that having more space could be useful, but did not like closing the center. It was probably a better decision to close the center and remove Black's knight.

12...dxe5 13.0–0–0

I hoped to play Nb1–c3-d5 after castling, but quickly realized that my opponent would need to make a few terribly weak moves to facilitate this maneuver.

13...Nc6

White to move

14.Bxf4 exf4

14...Nb4 15.Qb3 exf4 16.a3 Nc6 17.Nb1 Qc7 18.Nc3 seems to give Black the edge.

15.Nb3 Nd4

With 15...Qf6 Black has a clear advantage, when neither 16.a3 nor 16.Kb1 are fully adequate.

16.Nbxd4 cxd4 

16...Bxd4 17.Nxd4 cxd4 18.Bd3 gives White equality and long-term prospects of winning the isolated d-pawn in the endgame.

17.Bd3 

Black to move

It is clear that my position is worse. My king is vulnerable to attacks along the c-file as well as the diagonals that begin at b1 and c1.

17...f5?

Now that the game is over, I can feel compassion for Patrick for throwing the game away with this move.

17...Re8 18.Rhe1 Bb7 19.Qd2 Qc7 20.Kb1 should retain the advantage for Black and keep me suffering for my early missteps.

18.exf5

Now I have a clear advantage

18...Bb7

18...gxf5 19.Bxf5 Bxc4 could have been effective if not for the response being check. 20.Qxc4+ Kh8 and White is clearly better.

19.fxg6+- h5

19...hxg6 20.Bxg6

20.Be4 Rb8

20...Bxe4 21.Qxe4 Qd6 (21...Qc7 22.b3 Rae8 23.Qd3)

21.Rhe1

My game has become comfortable and my moves easy.

21...Bc8

My opponent keeps finding ways to help me.

22.Bd5+ Kh8 23.Ne5 

I considered 23.Nxd4 Qf6 24.f3

Black to move

23...Bxe5

23...Bf5 was Black's last chance to stay in the battle 24.Be4 Bxe5 (24...Bxe4 25.Qxe4) 25.Bxf5 Bg7

24.Rxe5 Qf6 

24...Kg7 was forced, but Black is lost anyway.

25.Rxh5+ 1–0

Playing anything less than the best moves, no matter who I'm playing against, is a behavior that must be exorcised if I am to make progress back into A Class and up. I won last night because my opponent played worse, not because I played well. I cannot blame the London System, but can blame the way I handled it with move order errors, ambition (the premature e4 push), tactical oversights, and shallow positional thinking.

18 January 2017

Blowing the Ending

This morning on Chess.com, I beat NM Farzad Abdi in a three minute game. However, I completely blew the ending and won only because my opponent ran out of time in a dead drawn pawn ending.

Black to move

I played 55...Ra3+ and swapped rooks, which produced a pawn ending where my opponent easily seized the opposition and a dead draw. However, at this point I had 46 seconds remaining to his 11 seconds. I played against his clock and prevailed.

I was happy to get another blitz win against a titled player, but then spent a fair bit of time playing positions from earlier in the game against Stockfish 7. I learned that at three minute time controls, and even with a little more time to think, this ending is not a simple win.

55...Kf7 keeps winning chances alive.

A few moves earlier, I had an easier win.

Black to move

My 52...Rf2+, played after 4.6 seconds thought, did little to secure the win.

52...g5 advances the second pawn without allowing White's king to interfere.

A few moves earlier, I looked at and rejected the strongest move, using a mere 1.4 seconds. At the time, I had 1:03 to my opponent's 0:25.

Black to move

I played 48...h3.

Better was 48...g6+ 49.Ke4 h3 and then the feared checks lead only to 50.Ra7+ Kg8 51.Ra8+ Kg7 52.Ra7+ Kh6

Analysis Diagram
After 52...Kh6
Threatening the h-pawn with 53.Ra3 does not help White because Black has 53...Rg4+ 54.Ke5 Rh4 and with the rook behind the h-pawn, White's rook must take up a passive position on h1. Alternately, White can play 54.Kf3 and Black can exchange the rook for a new queen with 54...h2!

Going back earlier in the game, I had this position and the move.

Black to move

Play proceeded 38...Ke6 Ra7, and I thought that 39...g5 would be an error in the light of 40.Ra6+ Kxe5 41.Rxh6. My assessment was incorrect. White's king is too far away. White will be forced to give up the rook for the pawn.

After playing several other positions against the computer with mixed results, I found this one remarkably simple.

Analysis Diagram
After 41...Rxh6
41...g4 42.Rg6 Kf4 43.Rf6 Kg3 44.Kb3 Kg2 45.Kc4 g3 46.Kd3 Re8 47.Rg6 Kf2 48.Rf6+ Kg1 49.Rg6 g2 50.Rh6

Analysis Diagram
After 50.Rh6
And having reached a textbook Lucena, I built a bridge.

50...Re5 51.Rh7 Kf2 52.Rf7+ Kg3 53.Rc7 Rg5 54.Rc1 Kh2 55.Ke4 g1Q 56.Rxg1 Kxg1 and mate in fifteen.

It was nice to get the win, even from a dead drawn position. It is more important to learn how to win such positions more easily. My opponent misplayed the opening to give me an easy and comfortable middle game, but then I overlooked some of his resources in the endgame.

16 January 2017

Lessons with Yasser

Yasser Seirawan is giving me free chess lessons, but they are not exclusive. Once again, he is the host in the broadcast booth for the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee. I have been enjoying Seirawan's commentary during Grand Master tournaments since the early '00s. Many event were broadcast on the Playchess server before the introduction of broadcast technologies that offer live video of the playing room combined with the analysis board.

This morning (it is afternoon in the Netherlands), while drinking my morning coffee, Seirawan spent a few minutes on a position that arose in Wei -- Nepomniachtchi. He said that he would need several hours looking at the position, followed by analysis with a strong computer in order to understand what is going on.


Wei, Yi -- Nepomniachtchi, Ian B96
Tata Steel Masters, Wijk aan Zee 2017

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 h6 8.Bh4 Qb6 9.a3 Nbd7 10.Be2 e5 11.Nf5 g6 12.Bf2 Nc5 13.b4 gxf5

White to move

White obviously must capture the knight on c5, but as it is pinned, the capture can be deferred a few moves. What should White do in the meantime.

Seirawan showed a few quick variations, some very bad for White.

His advice:

Spend time with this position analyzing without a computer. Only check your analysis with the computer after a lot of time exploring the position without assistance,

Several moves were played while I created this post. The game is going on. It behooves the serious chess student to black out the game in progress and study this position. There are many other games in progress. Can I ignore this one?

13 January 2017

Teaching Endgames

My advanced group and a few from the beginning group met together this week becuase of a schedule change for another after school activity. They struggled to find the moves in a game played by Alexander Alekhine when he was a young man. A few recognized the zugzwang theme, but could not put all the elements together correctly.

White to move
From Alekhine -- Yates, Hamburg 1910

43.e4

Alekhine's move is the only one that wins.

My students went for the pawn race, queening first.

43.Kc3 Ke7

It seems that a few recognized why 43...Ke6 loses due to 44.Kd4.

44.Kb4 Ke6 45.Kxb5 Kxe5 46.Kxa4 Ke4 47.b4 Kxe3 48.b5 f4 49.b6 f3 50.b7 f2 51.b8Q f1Q

White to move
Analysis diagram after 51...f1Q
As long as Black avoids trading queens unless his king is in front of the a-pawn, this position should be drawn.

We spent a lot of time with this variation, finding a few cases where even Black could win after a blunder that allows a skewer. With careful play, however, neither side can make progress.

Before going into this pawn race, a student found Alekhine's first few moves.

43...f4

Most of the students knew how to win after 43...Ke6 44.exf5+ Kxf5 45.Kd4. One of them event named the idea, "fox in the chicken coop" (see "Fox in the Chicken Coop").

44.Ke2 Ke6

White to move

After making it this far, the young player blundered with 45.Kf3, and after 45...Kxe5 went on to lose. We came back to this position after exhausting every one's ideas to try to extract a win for White from the pawn race described above.

45.Kf2!

Alekhine played the correct move.

45...Kxe5 46.Kf3

Black is in zugzwang.

Once we had seen how Alekhine won, we examined this elementary position.

Black to move

Black is also in zugzwang here, and must lose the pawn. However, in this case, the loss of the pawn does not mean loss of the game. For most of the students, defending the Black side here was simple.

11 January 2017

Patterns: Some Evidence

Working through a lesson series called "Advanced Tactics" on Chess.com, I came across this problem.

Black to move

The diagram is upside down (Black on bottom).

This lesson series was created for Chess Mentor by Thomas Wolski. It contains many lessons from the games of Wilhelm Steinitz. In addition to enjoying the tactics practice, I am becoming impressed with Wolski's ability to extract lessons from Steinitz's play. I am beginning to think that a more sustained study of the first official World Champion's games might be in my future.

I spotted the first several moves of this combination in one second, that is, instantly. This instant recognition of most of the solution, and the confidence that the rest would be forthcoming stemmed from having seen essentially the same ideas in two other problems that I put in front of youth players in the past two weeks. See "Carlsen's Queen Sacrifice," problems 3 and 6.

This instant recognition strikes me as evidence of pattern recognition as an element in the development of chess skill (see "Patterns and Calculation").

10 January 2017

Alekhine -- Levenfish 1912

Reading Alexander Alekhine's Best Games (1996) this morning, I became caught up studying a miniature. Alekhine -- Levenfish, St. Petersburg 1912 was decided in nineteen moves. Naturally, Levenfish's errors merit attention for anyone who plays the Benoni Defense, and perhaps also for players of the Modern.

After 14...Qxb2
Alekhine,Alexander -- Levenfish,Grigory [A43]
St Petersburg Winter-B St Petersburg, 1912

1.d4 c5

Alekhine criticizes this move, claiming, "White at once obtains a great positional advantage by simply advancing the centre pawns."

2.d5 Nf6 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 g6 5.f4 Nbd7?!

5...Bg7 is the normal move.

6.Nf3 a6?!

With this move, this game becomes unique in the database.

6...Bg7 7.e5 dxe5 8.fxe5 Ng4 9.e6 fxe6 has been played at least eleven times. Alekhine gives this line to 9.e6, but then has 9...Nde5 10.Bb5+. His line has been played at least twelve times with ten White wins. It seems that 9...fxe6 may be better, although here, too, White has done well.

White to move

7.e5

White already has a clear advantage, according to Branko Tadic, and Goran Arsovic, Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures (2015), where this game is number 166. Irving Chernev, The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (1955) has it as well, but the annotations are limited to the last two moves. Tadic and Arsovic mark Black's fifth and sixth moves as dubious. Anyone seeking to play this line as Black would be well to note the urgency of playing Bg7 straight away.

7...dxe5 8.fxe5 Ng4 9.e6

Searching positions with 6...Bg7 in the ChessBase database this morning brought up several games that reached the position via a move order from the Modern Defense. White did well in those games, too, and this e5-e6 thrust was frequently played in those games.

9...Nde5 10.Bf4

Black to move

10...Nxf3+

Black might have tried 10...Bg7. Here Tadic and Arsovic offer 11.Nxe5 Nxe5 12.Qe2 with advantage for White. For his part, Alekhine offers 11.Qe2 Nxf3+ 12.gxf3 Nf6 13.exf7+ Kxf7 14.O-O-O "with an overwhelming advantage for White." John Nunn, who converted Alekhine's games to algebraic and culled from the two volumes of My Best Games to produce Alexander Alekhine's Best Games, suggests an improvement for Black in the line Alekhine gives. Instead of 12...Nf6, Nunn recommends 12...Bxc3+ 13.bxc3 Qxd5 as "more testing". But even here, White gets a strong attack with 14.fxg4! Qxh1 15.O-O-O Qc6 16.exf7+ Kxf7 17.Bg2.

11.gxf3 Nf6 12.Bc4 fxe6

While my coffee was still hot this morning, I spent a little time looking at 12...b5 13.Nxb5 axb5 14.Bxb5+. White ends up a pawn ahead with a strong position.

13.dxe6

Black to move

13...Qb6

Alekhine presents the alternative 13...Qxd1+ 14.Rxd1 Bg7 15.Bc7 O-O 16.Bb6, where, "White wins a pawn, at the same time maintaining all his pressure."

13...Qa5 might be playable, although White still has an edge.

The computer likes Black's move until it sees Alekhine's brilliant fifteenth move.

14.Qe2! Qxb2?

Tadic and Arsovic give 14...Bg7 15.O-O-O with a clear advantage for White. Certainly, Black's last chance was to resist the poisoned pawn.

15.Nb5!!+-

Black to move

Alekhine's double rook sacrifice had to be calculated before playing 14.Qe2. Black, too, needed to see the consequences in order to avoid 13...Qb6

15... Qxa1+

Perhaps Black can survive with 15...Bg7 16.O-O-O O-O 17.Bd6!

Now, we have finish that is reminiscent of Anderssen's Immortal Game.

16.Kf2 Qxh1 17.Nc7+ Kd8 18.Qd2+ Bd7 19.exd7 1–0

Black can delay, but no longer prevent checkmate.

08 January 2017

Worksheets

Much of my time preparing chess lessons for young students is invested in the creation of worksheets. These can be photocopied and distributed to groups of students at minimal cost. The young chess players can then work on their own or with others to find the correct answers. During a paper and pencil worksheet session, students bring partly or fully completed worksheets to me for correction. I can then tell them how many they have correct, which ones are wrong, or give other tips. My practice varies from day-to-day.

This week my beginning students completed the Beginning Tactics 1 worksheet. They had previously seen three of the problems from that worksheet two months ago (see "Patterns of Contacts"). Their memory of positions seen previously has not developed yet, so the positions seemed new. Even so, these problems are elementary and they needed only a little guidance.

My advanced students were presented with the worksheet I created for chess camp last week (see "Carlsen's Queen Sacrifice") and two additional problems on the demo board.

White to move

From Bogoljubow -- Mueller, Triberg 1934

The second position on the demo board was challenging and we did not complete our analysis. The first move, of course, is already known because all of the problems have the same first move.

White to move

From Keres -- Kurajica, Kapfenberg 1970

I made the point to the students that knowing the first move of a combination puts them in a position of struggling to calculate the entire sequence. In several positions, there is a simple checkmate in two if the defender accepts the sacrifice, but other moves are possible. The second move of the combination proved difficult in several cases.

03 January 2017

The Restricted Center

Dutch versus the English

My interest in the English Opening has been revived lately. As a consequence, I've been looking at some games in Anatoly Karpov, How to Play the English Opening (2007); Vladimir Kramnik, and Iakov Damsky, Kramnik: My Life and Games (2000); and S. Tartakower, and J. DuMont, 500 Master Games of Chess (1952). There are a handful of Kramnik's instructive games in both his book and Karpov's. These merit study. Tartakower and Dumont offer a mere seven games with the English Opening.

The first of these seven in Tartakower and DuMont is Staunton -- Horwitz, London 1851. As Staunton's endorsement of 1.c4 is the reason the opening bears the name English, it is a fitting beginning. The authors describe this game as "a methodical blockade" (626). Staunton's systematic exploitation of weaknesses in Black's position and Horwitz's reduction to spectator status because of the passivity of his position probably merits more study than I have given it so far. I ran through the game and annotations yesterday. On the second pass through this morning, I found myself caught up in the opening.

There was clearly something wrong with Horwitz's effort to transpose into a Dutch Defense against Staunton's English, but it is less clear that his opening moves were fatal.

Staunton,H -- Horwitz,B
London 1851

1.c4 e6

There have been times, especially in 2016, when I have advocated that Black can play 1...e6 against any first move by White. One of my own former students beat me badly in a tournament game a few months ago that began 1.d4 e6. I was White. He played a Dutch Defense. My effort to deploy the Raphael variation blew up in my face.

2.Nc3 f5

Tartakower and DuMont comment:
Trying to revert to the Dutch Defence. But White, instead of playing 3.P-Q4, decides on a restricted centre (5.P-Q3), with action on the wings. (626)
This restricted center is more commonly known today as a small center. According to Hooper and Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess, 2nd ed. (1996), "[a]s a strategic weapon for White the small centre was pioneered by Staunton" (375).

3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 c6

It is this offbeat move that removes most reference games while looking through this game with a database open.* It certainly appears that Black is making too many pawn moves. However, I found an interesting reference game that reveals another way that Black might have proceeded (see below).

5.d3

Black to move

5...Na6

5...d5 would transpose to my recommended reference game, Gashimov -- Moskalenko, Internet 2006. That game began 1.c4 f5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 (playing this move before c7-c6 could have served Horwitz a little better) 5.d3 c6 6.Nf3 dxc4! 7.dxc4 Qxd1 8.Nxd1 and was drawn after 58 moves. Moskalenko's idea to eliminate the queens early worked well for him in this blitz game and might be worth considering should a player find him- or herself in a similar position.

6.a3 Be7 7.e3

"The restricted centre" (Tartakower and Dumont).

7...O-O 8.Nge2

In most games that resemble this one even slightly, this knight goes to f3. Perhaps, however, Staunton anticipates a need to support e3-e4 with the bishop.

8...Nc7 9.O-O d5

Black has been preparing this move.

10.b3

It is clear that Staunton had seen Moskalenko's game and had no wish to exchange queens.**

Black to move

10...Qe8

Tartakower and DuMont condemn this move as "aimless". They recommend e6-e5 "after due preparation." Annotations by Raymond Keene at Chessgames.com urge 10...e5 immediately.

While studying this opening and the rest of the game, I wonder whether the Dutch Defense is a viable way of meeting the English Opening. According to Tartakower and DuMont, the idea is flawed because White is not obligated to play d4. On the other hand, Black's f7-f5 was not the flaw in his opening. After ten moves, it is clear that Black's pieces are less mobile than White's even though White has made more pawn moves.


*I played through this game on the dining room table with Tartakower and DuMont open, but then went to my computer for further work on the opening. Thanks to a now defunct website, I have all of this book's games in a separate database.

**This nonsensical statement should be understood as irony.