29 March 2012

Instructive Games Worthy of Memorizing

Choosing to memorize whole chess games demands identifying games with instructive value. The miniatures that I committed to memory last week are useful to the chess teacher who works with beginning players (see "Memorizing Chess Games"). They are of less value to my objective of making Expert (see "Breaking Through 1900!"). Consider the most important elements in a brief game that I played during the course of a single minute during lunch a few months ago, and have been able to replay ever since. To this day, I have not checked my analysis with an engine. It was an entertaining disaster for White in a three minute blitz game.

Internet Opponent -- Stripes
Chess.com 2012

1.e4 e6 2.f4 c5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Nf6 6.e5 Ne4 7.Bd3 Qh4+ 8.g3 Nxg3 9.Nf3

Black to move

9...Qg4? 10.hxg3? Qxg3+ 11.Ke2 Qg2+ 12.Ke3 Bc5+ 13.Ke4 f5+ 14.exf6 d5#

Black should have played 9...Qh3 when the knight remains safe. After 9...Qg4, White should have played 10.Rg1!

It was a fast game, and I have not analyzed it in any depth. Likely, there is an improvement that I have overlooked. It serves to illustrate the en passant rule, to show the danger to a king drawn into the middle of the board, and to illustrate the sort of mating attack that often presents itself in games of weak players. Memorizing this game required no effort. I played it at lunch on my iPad, saved it to tChess Pro, and showed it to a group of elementary school students an hour later. It has remained lodged in my memory since because I have shown it to others.

What elements give this game instructive value?

1) The truth of the position. Both players made errors. Perhaps the diagram position is worth knowing because the next move was Black's most significant error, which was followed by White's missed opportunity to use a pin to win material. Does Black have a clear advantage before 9...Qg4? Does White gain the upper hand after the unplayed 10.Rg1?

2) Tactical motifs. The queen's attack along the e1-h4 diagonal can occur in many positions, and it particularly effective when supported by a knight. White's knight is also a factor that often refutes such attacks.

3) Opening ideas. The game began as a French Defense, but quickly transposed into something resembling the Sicilian Grand Prix Attack. Was 6.e5 a useful move for White?

Process of Memorizing

Many games of fifteen moves or less can be memorized with minimal effort. Even players who claim they have never memorized an entire game can demonstrate Fool's Mate and Scholar's Mate. Legall de Kermeur's only recorded game should present no difficulty for the average player. My process in rereading Chernev's 1000 Best Short Games of Chess is a slightly more difficult exercise, but not onerous. It is an exercise in translation. I read through a short game in descriptive without reference to a chess board, close the book, and then play through the game on a board. Later, I write the game in algebraic notation without looking at the board.  In the 1970s I played a few blindfold games using English Descriptive Notation, but have become rusty in its use since learning Algebraic Notation in the early 1990s. With Chernev, I am honing my reading skills in the ancient language that exists in dozens of chess books on my shelf.

It is possible to memorize a game without understanding, particularly a short game. With longer games, however, the ability to play through an entire game from memory is either the precondition or it is the natural consequence of understanding the strategic features and tactical possibilities in a particular struggle between two players. Two years ago, I began an effort to identify useful whole games and commit them to memory. This effort was suspended for reasons having nothing to do with chess.

Those games that seem worthy of learning whole are the games from which critical positions have been extracted. Rashid Ziyatdinov wrote, "In Russian folklore it is said that there are 300 positions which comprise the most important knowledge which an aspiring player must acquire" (GM-RAM, 12). Lev Alburt stated something similar, "To become a strong tournament player, you must indelibly carve into your chess memory a limited number of essential positions and concepts" (Chess Training Pocket Book, 7). The terms "aspiring player" and "strong tournament player" are imprecise. My goal is specific: become a USCF Expert.

Both Alburt and Ziyatdinov stress that the essential 300 differ from one player to another. I have three books that each present approximately 300 candidate positions for my own 300: Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book; Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book II; and Ziyatdinov, GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Chess Knowledge. Ziyatdinov compares critical middlegame positions to fingerprints, "from this fingerprint, the associated game can be identified" (77). See "Fingerprints" for more discussion of Ziyatdinov's ideas.

Adding Games to the List

Earlier this week, in "Problems in the English Opening," I annotated a game that I won. White made a series of small strategic errors that led to a theoretically lost position. I have made some effort to commit this game to memory. It is not the celebration of winning a miniature from the Black side of the English that has merit, but the struggle to identify White's errors. I, too, play the English Opening. White's play must be improved so that I never find myself on the losing end of such a game.

Yesterday and today, I am reviewing the first twenty positions in Chess Training Pocket Book II. Positions 5-8 all come from the game Spassky -- Evans 1962. One position is from the actual game. Three are hypothetical positions that follow from moves that Evans did not play. Looking at the game, I concluded that the final mating attack was also worthy of knowing.

Spassky,Boris V - Evans,Larry Melvyn [E80]
Varna ol (Men) fin-A Varna (10), 1962

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 c6 6.Be3 a6 7.Qd2 b5 8.0–0–0

Black to move

This position is not uncommon, but Evans' move here has been repeated only a few times and with terrible results for Black.

8... bxc4 9.Bxc4 0–0 10.h4

Alburt's first problem is finding this move. The other there are variations involving tactical shots after  alternative moves that are worse than those played by Evans over the next few moves from this position, 15...Nh5 for instance.

10...d5 11.Bb3 dxe4 12.h5 exf3 13.hxg6 hxg6 14.Bh6 fxg2 15.Rh4 Ng4 16.Bxg7 Kxg7 17.Qxg2 Nh6 18.Nf3 Nf5 19.Rh2 Qd6 20.Ne5 Nd7 21.Ne4 Qc7 22.Rdh1

Black to move

Improvements for Black must be found before this position is reached. No matter what Black tries here, the aspiring player should have a clear plan of attack for White.

22...Rg8 23.Rh7+ Kf8 24.Rxf7+ Ke8 25.Qxg6 Nxe5 26.Rf8+ 1–0


  1. Hi James,

    Great post.

    I haven't seen the Spassky - Evans game before but it reminds me of the Dragon Buster type shown in Fischer-Larsen 1959 & Karpov-Korchnoi 1974 where White's h4 opening up the Kside proves that it must be dealt with early.

    Here Evans is in really bad shape as it looks like he doesn't even have some Qside counterplay that the others had.

    1. Thanks. I remember a correspondence game where I played that h-pawn thrust and achieved victory. But, I played an OTB game shortly after that one where I threw the h-pawn forward early against a Pirc. After castling, my opponent returned king and rook to their original squares to defend against my attack. Then he attacked on the queenside in a manner similar to Evans' efforts against Spassky. He beat me in the endgame.