29 October 2011

Reading Annotations

Playing a novelty on move twenty in a line of the French Defense brought victory in the final game of a tournament, evened the score with my opponent, and gave me a share of first place. The event was a French Defense Thematic on Chess.com that began in July 2009 and finished a few days ago. The event began with 32 players paired in groups of four. Within each group, contestants played two games against each opponent with the top two in each group advancing to the next round. By the fifth round there were five players in two groups. There would have been three players in the final round, but the third player was banned for cheating. The banned player scored an impressive 28-0-0 record and was in clear first until the purge.

Chess.com and similar sites offer a form of correspondence chess sometimes called turn-based chess. Time controls are expressed in days per move, and there is a general understanding, rendered clear in the site's Terms of Service agreement, that players may use books and databases, but not chess engines or friends. Previous posts in Chess Skills addressing these rules were put forth in January 2009, January 2010, and March 2011.

The process leading to my victory in the final game of the event sheds light on some of the available resources for correspondence chess. In an ironic twist, a brief lapse in the research process--a failure of memory while making moves in a cafe during lunch--led to more laborious research and the win. Without this lapse on my part, the game may have ended in a draw.

Ziryab (2019) - albatros1 (2294)
French Defense Thematic Tournament, Chess.com, 25.09.2011

1.e4 e6

This is the starting position.

2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4

My opponent opts for the MacCutcheon Variation. I have played this myself on several occasions. It can lead to a position that looks terribly awkward, but which is quite playable. I selected a line that has given me trouble when I have Black. So far in this game, I am playing wholly from knowledge of the opening gained through extensive play, use of ChessBase Training CDs, and study of a handful of excellent books on the French Defense, especially Lev Psakhis, French Defense: Steinitz, Classical and Other Systems (2004). I can look at these resources during this game, but up to this point have seen no reason to do so.

5.e5 h6 6.Bd2!

The line that gives me trouble, and that contributed to my near abandonment of the MacCutcheon variation. From the Black side, I much prefer 6.exf6 hxg5 7.fxg7 Rg8. Psakhis gives a lot of attention to lines following my move.

6...Bxc3 7.bxc3 Ne4 

 White to move

I might have taken a look at a database at this point. I do not remember for certain. My first impulse is towards the move that I played, but I may have taken a look at the Chess.com Game Explorer to confirm my memory of the main lines. Next to the move list in the Chess.com game view are several links: "analyze" opens a new window with a board on which it is possible to move the pieces around for both players; "explore" opens a new window with database information (see image below at move 18); "get PGN" offers several options for viewing the game score in PGN format, or saving it as a file to one's computer; and "flip board" lets a player see the board from the opponent's side.

I use the analysis board with some regularity, but first labor to work things out without it. Online correspondence chess, while interesting on its own, serves as training for OTB chess. By default, the Game Explorer opens to a collection of master games, but users may select a different collection, including previous games played by any player on the site, including the current opponent. I often will download the PGN file and then open it in ChessBase 11 where I can explore databases vastly more comprehensive than the Master Games collection in Chess.com's Game Explorer. Within ChessBase 11, I also can access the extensive annotated games from Knut Neven's two ChessBase training CDs on the French Defense. I refer myself to Neven's annotations in a marginal note that I penciled into my copy of Psakhis's book, as it happens, at the position reached with my move 11 in this game.

At some point late in the opening stage of this game, I saved the PGN file to my computer and began using the five million game collection in Big Database 2011 and the somewhat larger collection in ChessBase's Online Database, one click away from their proprietary software. I did not use Neven's CDs nor Psakhis's book in this game, although clearly I have used these resources in the past in other games following this opening system. I have been in this position in correspondence, blitz, and OTB games.

8.Qg4 g6 9.Bd3 Nxd2 10.Kxd2 c5 11.h4

Black to move

11.Nf3 is slightly more popular.

By this point in my game, I was spending some time going through top grandmaster games to get a general sense of the patterns of play. The ChessBase software identifies both moves as "hot," but my move as slightly more so. I opted for 11.h4 because it creates action on the kingside, while it is quite clear that Black plans some action on the queenside. In some lines, the knight goes to e2 instead of f3. Nf3 secures the e5 pawn, but Black often launches an attack against the base of White's central pawn chain. Ne2 protects c3. I thought it best to defer my deployment of the knight.

I frequently read chess forums where the subject of database use is discussed, most often by those with minimal experience or knowledge of correspondence chess. They often claim that database users are not using their own brain, but simply imitating others. I disagree. My practice, when I use them at all--I do not always,--varies a bit. Sometimes I use the Game Explorer of ChessBase to watch percentages and steer the game towards favorable lines. I suspect that some of my opponents have done this in a manner that employs extensive research into transpositions as a means to steer the game to a favorable percentage.

So far in this game, I am watching these percentages, but am traveling familiar trails. I am choosing my route on the basis of strategic principles rather than database percentages.

Had I looked at my own previous games, I would have known that an opponent in 2006 played 11.Nf3 against me in a game at Red Hot Pawn, another correspondence site where I played for several years. I lost that game. In this Chess.com event, I previously played 11.h4 in summer 2010 against the player later banned for cheating. I lost.

11...Nc6 12.Qf4 

I played 12.Nf3 in the game that I lost in 2010. I copied into the game score in my database several Grandmaster games that featured 12.Nf3: evidence that I spent some time considering that move.

12...cxd4 13.cxd4 Qa5+ 

White to move

The percentages look very good for Black here.


Had I been playing the percentages, I might have selected 14.Ke3. But, I was looking only at games played by the strongest players, many of which ended in a draw. I was content to draw against a stronger player, pick up a few rating points, and finish this tournament in second place. I wanted to be done with it, having found the two days per move rate a bit too frenetic. I prefer three days per move.


14...b6 scores better for Black.


We are down to four games in Big Database 2011, three of which are found in Chess.com's Game Explorer. The ChessBase online database contains fifteen games in this position with a 70% scoring percentage for White. Had I looked there, I might have developed some confidence of victory. Alas, I had seized on a different idea: I found a line in which White sacrificed a rook to force a draw by repetition.

15...Rf8 16.Ne2 b4 17.Rhc1 Rb8

White to move

At this point, there are two games in Big Database 2011. Game Explorer has one. Black won the game in Explorer: Edlund--Brynell 2003. The other game that I examined ended in a draw, Hermannson--Brynell 2002. My intention was to follow this game. Sometimes I make my moves in the morning, accessing Chess.com via my notebook computer. This computer has ChessBase 11 installed, and thus contains my notes on the game, including both of GM Stellan Brynell's games.


The Game Explorer view prior to my opponent's move 17
I played this move on my iPad at lunch in a cafe. Now, we are following Edlund--Brynell, rather than the line I had planned.

18...Ba6 19.cxb4 Nxb4

It was time to do some deeper research. I did not like Edlund's next move. I knew that he lost; I was making efforts to discover where he might have played differently. 20.Bxa6, played by Edlund, continues action on the side of the board where Black is strong. Meanwhile the White queen is out of play due to the decision earlier in the game to prevent Black from castling.

Hermannson's drawing tactics might have suggested a better move here: a sacrifice of material to expose the enemy king. He sacrificed a rook to create perpetual check and a draw by repetition. In this position, a sacrifice of White's bishop, trading it for two pawns, creates some action on the kingside. Instead of battling a rook, queen, and knight with two rooks and a knight, White creates action where he has a queen and knight against a rook. With the battle waging on both sides of the board, the question becomes who gets there first.

18.Ke3 turns out to have been prophylactic, slowing Black's attack.

Screenshot of Edlund's annotations: Informant 90/245
I might have worked out these ideas on my own, but after his loss to Brynell, Robin Edlund annotated the game for Chess Informant. He identified 20.Bxa6 as a dubious move and offered an improvement.

I played Edlund's improvement, and for the next couple of moves, the game followed his annotation. An inferior choice by my opponent on move 22 led to a rapid conclusion.

20.Bxg6! Qb6 21.Nf4 fxg6 22.Qxg6+ Ke7 23.Qg7+ Ke8 24.Ng6 1–0

Credit Chess Informant for this win.

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