18 September 2018

Whither Draw

Bobby Fischer has just played 28.Be3 and a draw was agreed. From Fischer,R. -- Ames,D., 1955.

Black to move

Would you play on?

16 September 2018

Knights before Bishops

Most chess players have heard the rule that one should deploy a knight towards the center before moving a bishop. The standard move order in the Spanish opening is a good example--for White, a center pawn, the king's knight, and then the king's bishop. The Italian opening follows the same sequence. Likewise, in many lines of the Queen's Gambit, White will deploy both knights before moving a bishop. In other lines one knight comes out and one bishop a move or two later, while the other minor pieces await developments that reveal their best square.

However, in the London System, White plays the queen's bishop on the second move, and may bring out both bishops before a knight moves. Likewise, Black's first minor piece to come out in the Caro-Kann is a bishop.

Erik Kislik states that knights before bishops, "is not a very useful rule" (27) in Applying Logic in Chess (2018). This rule is the first of ten that Kislik quotes from the work of some unnamed grandmaster, presented as rules for beginners. He makes an important point:
Rules in chess assume 'all else is equal',but all else rarely is equal, so we need to judge ideas based on specific circumstances. Most of the time, advice given to amateurs is in the form of rules. Chess is a concrete game though, and more often than not, this advice is too stereotypical to be of much applicable value.
Kislik, Applying Logic in Chess, 26.
Kislik runs through each of the ten rules, offering his views of how each develops principles in certain circumstances but falls short in others. His analysis is almost completely verbal, with few diagrams and analysis of specific positions.

The Review

John Hartmann sold me Kislik's book through his review in Chess Life ("Logical Ambition," CL, September 2018, 20-21). Hartmann calls Kislik's book "one of the most interesting titles to appear in recent years, ... also one of the most maddening" (20). Hartmann notes that the cover, with a flowchart for making decisions in chess, is "misleading": "There is nothing in the text that resembles a flowchart for thought" (21). Kislik's view of logic and reason is more modest.

Another book on my shelf offers flowcharts, Paata Gaprindashvili, Imagination in Chess: How to Think Creatively and Avoid Foolish Mistakes (2004). I reviewed it here on Chess Skills in February 2017. The core of that book is found in the quality and difficulty of the exercises. I have found the flowcharts marginally useful.

Hartmann's comments took me back forty years when some fellow undergraduates were taking a course on logic and making the efforts to systemize thought in terms like, "if p, then q". I did not find such an approach to logic any more useful for learning to think than studying semiotics for learning to read and write. The notion that seemed to represent this more modest view of logic, which Hartmann quotes from later in Kislik's book, that chess errors always can be explained clearly, was enough to interest me in the book.

Hartmann also notes that, "there are multi-page stretches unsullied by diagrams or analysis" (21).

Kislik's Assessment

After declaring the rule "not ... useful", Kislik highlights both its merits and shortcomings. He starts out noting that the corollary to the rules that, "developing bishops early on is suboptimal ... is definitely not true" (27). What matters, he suggests, are the reasons. Kislik highlights piece coordination, the principle of improving the worst-placed piece, and flexibility. The last is where the rule's merits become evident. The knight on g1 usually finds itself well-placed on f3 early in the game, but the optimal placement of the bishops is less certain.

His views on this rule and those that follow are thought provoking and worthy of attention. Nonetheless, his discussion seems incomplete. He laments the instruction methods for beginners that proclaim these rules without, "making sense of the principle or idea, or understanding where it came from" (26). My way of thinking about "where it came from" drives me towards historical explanations. Kislik does not offer any history of these rules.

In Common Sense in Chess (1917), Emanuel Lasker offers the text of lectures that he presented in London in 1895. In the first of these lectures, he develops four rules--including knights before bishops--through concrete analysis of several short model games. Five years ago, these rules and games, as well as a few others that I selected, comprised the core of my lessons for youth players over several sessions (see Lasker's Rules).

Rule Independence

Erik Kislik is not original in his suggestion that concrete analysis of specific positions should take precedence over abstract and universal rules. This idea was well-expressed in John Watson, Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy: Advances since Nimzowitsch (1998). Even so, strong Grandmasters who teach young players still promulgate these rules with the understanding that their pupils will need to learn how and when to violate them. I recall during a tournament broadcast a few years ago, hearing Peter Svidler discuss his struggle with both promoting and resisting the teaching of such rules. These rules have a purpose even though in the long-run they can retard development.

Consider the very common position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5

White to move

Many youth players will not reach this position because they would have played 3.Nc3. While this move is not inherently bad, young players will make it by rote, often oblivious to the moves played by Black. They will often play it without thinking. Kislik's underlying notion, it seems to me, is that even at this early stage of the game, it is critical that reasoning must be part of every move. Whether one plays 3.Nc3, 3.Bc4, 3.Bb5, 3.d4, or some other move, it must be rooted in understanding.

From the diagram, most of the youth games that I have witnessed continue 4.Nc3. Master games, on the other hand, more often proceed with 4.d3 or 4.c3 (which violates one of Lasker's rules). In my play, I favor 4.c3 as more dynamic, and I usually will follow it with 5.d4. However, as more and more opponents fail to exhibit the greed that leads to disaster in the Greco Gambit, I am shifting towards 5.d3.

In my play and in my teaching, I teach students that it is okay to play 4.Nc3 (or 3.Nc3), even though I think there are stronger moves. What is critical, I urge is that these moves are made with thought and understanding, not simply played by rote. In the end, that's the point of these rules for development: they are guidelines that assist our thinking, not rules that direct our play. I think Kislik agrees.

13 September 2018


If I could simply always remember everything that I once knew, my chess play would be stronger. Among the dozen or so miniatures that I regularly show to my chess students is one that I won in thirteen moves after showing up twenty minutes late for round two. From this position, I played my move, and after a few minutes thought, my opponent resigned.

White to move

Despite knowing every move in this game, I somehow failed this tactics exercise last night.

Black to move

12 September 2018

Slight Advantage?

Sometimes the variations in published analysis sends me off in pursuit of an idea. Such was the case today while reading through annotations to Akobian,V. -- Shankland,S., St. Louis 2018, one of Shankland's victories enroute to winning the US Championship (Chess Informant 136). To Akobian's ordinary looking twelfth move, placing his bishop on the diagonal to oppose Black's, Danilo Milanovic gives the evaluation ?!, suggesting instead an intermediate attack on Black's queen. There are three options offered for Black with the longest line going another ten moves to reach this position.

Black to move

Milanovic states that White has a slight advantage? Why? Control of the c-file? The bishop's greater mobility over the knight?

Surely such an ordinary looking position has occurred in countless games. This exact position cannot be found in the database, but searching for games where both sides have two rooks, there is a bishop versus knight imbalance, and 4-6 pawns each, turns up hundreds of games.

I searched the database of my online games and found many entertaining blunders in seemingly routine positions. For example, I lost this game three days ago because I was oblivious to the creation of exploitable weaknesses.

Black to move

Play continued from this position 22...Rd1+ 23.Re1 Rad8 24.Kg1 b4 25.cxb4 Bxb2 26.Kf2 Rxe1 27.Rxe1 Bc3 28.Re4 Bd4+ 29.Kf3 Bb6

White to move

Perhaps White has a slight advantage with the queenside pawn majority and a more active king. But, an active king can be a vulnerable king, too. Inexplicably, I played 30.a4??

Black wasted no time pointing out the error and I resigned four moves later.

09 September 2018

Attack with Simple Moves

The past two days I have been going through games and analysis in Mihail Marin's column in Chess Informant 136, "Attack with Simple Moves" (47-58). The 1967 game Portisch -- Petrosian, in particular, captured my interest.

Portisch,Lajos -- Petrosian,Tigran V [D13]
Moscow 3/584, 1967

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bf4 e6 7.e3 Bd6 8.Bg3 0–0 9.Bd3 Re8 10.Ne5 Bxe5 11.dxe5 Nd7 12.f4

Black to move


Mikhail Yudovich, who annotated the game for Informant 3, gave this move a question mark. Marin adds, "A curious 'pawn grabbing based' plan with incomplete development" (53). Curiously, the diagram position has occurred in at least 18 games (Portisch -- Petrosian was the second) and 12...Qb6 has been played in 13 of these.

In the one previous game, Max Euwe won from the Black side in 20 moves after 13.Qe2. But White has a healthy 65% score over the 13 game batch.

13.0–0 Qxe3+

Yudovich recommends 13...Nc5, which still remains unplayed in subsequent games.

14.Kh1 Qb6

After 14...a6, Black went on to win in Stobik,D. -- Hoffmann,H., Germany 1977, and also in Pira,D. -- Van Rompu,A., France 2008.

White to move


15.Nb5 was played in the only other game to reach this position, and Black won, Dreyer,M. -- Mohammad,S., Yerevan 1996.


Marin offers two alternatives: 15...h6 and 15...g6. My computer suggests that 15...g6 is Black's only hope for eqauality.

16.Rf3 Ng6 17.Bf2 Qd8 18.Nb5

Marin notes Black's "chronic weaknesses" (54). This position is the sort that I am always in search of to present to my students for illustrating the consequences of pieces that are mere spectators. All of White's pieces are in the battle on the kingside, or will be soon. Most of Black's pieces are doing nothing.

18...Nce7 19.Nd6 Bd7

White to move


20.Nxe8 wins the exchange, but gives Black time to bring the rest of his pieces into the game. It is a grave error to exchange a strong attacking piece for a spectator.

20...Qb6 21.Rh3 h6 22.Bf6 Qxb2 23.Rf1 Nf5 24.Bxf5 1–0

Checkmate comes soon.

08 September 2018

Floating Square

This position occurred in yesterday's tactics training. I solved it quickly because it is elementary. However, the 51.1% pass rate suggests that not everyone finds it so. I post it to remember to use it with my students.

White to move

07 September 2018

In a Heartbeat

I would play Black's move here in a heartbeat, but it takes longer for me to see the ramifications with clarity. From a blitz game.

Black to move

Aronian,L. -- Anand,V., Zurich 2016.

31 August 2018

Anatomy of a Miniature

Miniatures (games ending in fewer than 25 moves) occur because one of the players makes a catastrophic error. This game was played with each player having three minutes for the whole game. With such a time control, errors abound.

Internet Opponent (1952) -- Stripes,J (1967) [D30]
Live Chess Chess.com, 24.08.2018

1.Nf3 e6 2.d4 c5 3.c4 d5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Qc2

5.Nc3 is the main line.

5...Nc6 6.a3

6.dxc5 was played in a game in the database 6...Bxc5 7.a3 Bd6 8.Nc3 0–0 9.Be2 dxc4 10.Bxc4 a6 11.Bd3 Bd7 12.0–0 Rc8 13.Rd1 Qc7 and drawn in 28 moves, Nyzhnyk,I (2544) -- Slugin,S (2427) Kiev 2010.


The only other game I found reaching this position continued 6...cxd4 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.e4 Nf6 9.Bb5?? Qa5+ 10.b4 Qxb5 and White gave up after move 30, Hennemann,H -- Zolanwar,F Heroldsbach 1997.

White to move

7.Be2 dxc4 8.Qxc4 cxd4

8...b5 9.Qxb5 Nxd4

9.Nxd4 Qa5+ 10.Bd2 Qg5 11.0–0 Be7 12.e4 Qh4 13.Nc3

Black to move


13...Nxe4 wins a pawn.


14.Qc7 Nxe4 15.Qxb7 Nxd2 16.Qxa8+ Bd8 17.Qxa7 Nxf1 18.Bxf1±

14...0–0 15.g3 Qh3

Black's idea is clear and simple.

White to move


16.f3 and no knight will occupy g4. Black needs a new idea.

16...Nfg4 17.Bxg4 Nxg4 18.Nf3

Black to move


18...f5 is the best way to dislodge the knight.

19.Rfe1 Bc5 20.Be3 Bxe3 21.fxe3 Bxe4 22.Nbd4

Attempts to secure the knight.


Low on time and losing a knight, White resigned.

22...Nxh2 was a better way for Black to finish the attack. 23.Kf2 (23.Nxh2 Qg2#; 23.Re2 Nxf3+ 24.Nxf3 Bxf3 25.Qd3 Qh1+ 26.Kf2 Qg2+ 27.Ke1 Qg1+) 23...Ng4+ 24.Ke2 Qg2+ 25.Kd1 Bxf3+ 26.Kc1.