31 December 2015

Year in Review 2015

Late in 2014, I initiated a study regimen intended to carry me through 2015. The regimen collapsed in the spring. In "To Know a Position," I described the plan and my ambivalence concerning New Year's resolutions.
How far into 2015 this current interest will carry me is unknown. I suspect that at some point other training interests or non-chess priorities will intervene and break me from this path. That is what always happens.
"To Know a Position" (29 December 2014)
Focus began to wane in April during the busy weeks leading up to the Washington State Elementary Chess Championship, an event with nearly one thousand competitors for which I served as tournament director. With the arrival of Chess Informant 124 in early July, it ended almost completely.

Studying classic games via the positions in GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge by Rashid Ziyatdinov was both enjoyable and productive. Time invested in these games improved the depth and breadth of my chess knowledge.

On the other hand, this work also spawned in an ironic sort of way an opening adventure that led to my worst tournament game in the past several years (see "Knowing Better").

Tournament Performance

My USCF chess rating is slightly higher today than one year ago, but it remains below my peak rating three years ago. Did my play in 2015 produce evidence of improvement? The evidence is mixed.

I competed in four USCF rated events, playing four games in each. The first, the Collyer Memorial at the end of February, lifted my rating from 1872 to 1877 with three wins and one loss. The player who beat me tied for first in the event. After a few opening moves, I attacked recklessly and self-destructed. My opponent happily facilitated this process with accurate defense. I was exhausted after the previous round when my game lasted over four hours (the time control was game in two hours plus a five second delay).

My second event was Spokane's annual Inland Empire Open in May. All four of my opponents were lower rated. I won two and lost two. On Saturday, I lost to an underrated high school student (his rating in 2015 rose from 1526 to 1838). Sunday brought my quick loss to an old friend, the first time he beat me in a tournament game. We played for the first time eighteen years ago. My rating plummeted to 1847.

Every game in the Spokane Falls Open went long for me, and none were easy. I played over two hundred moves through the course of four rounds in this mid-August event. I also won every game, finished in first place, and pushed my rating back over 1900 (see "Winning an Open"). This victory qualified me for the Spokane Contenders Tournament that will be played in June and July. The winner of the Contenders Tournament plays our City Champion in a four game match during the same weekend as the Spokane Falls Open. I won the Contenders in 2008, tied for first in 2010 (second on tie-breaks), and won again in 2012. I played in the event in 2014, finishing near the bottom.

Playing well in the Contenders Tournament in 2016 is one obvious goal for the new year.

One month after the Spokane Falls Open, I played in my fourth weekend Swiss for the year, the Eastern Washington Open. I lost a tough game to another underrated teenager, the former Idaho State Girls Co-Champion. My other three games were victories. My rating slid from 1902 to 1886.

In 2015, my tournament record was 12-0-4 against thirteen players rated below my strength and three above. I scored 67% against those rated above me and 77% against those below.

I will have stronger opponents in 2016, at least in the Contenders. In weekend Swisses, winning on Saturdays leads to stronger pairings on Sundays. Without these stronger pairings, I do not play those rated higher than me.

Training 2015

Through the course of 2015, I solved well over one thousand tactics problems, spent many productive hours studying endgames, and played through many hundreds of master games.

Using online correspondence chess to guide some opening study serves me well (see "Applied Study"). For one of the games that concluded in February, I went through approximately 150 master games--every game published in Informant that had reached a position that I was facing. I won that game when my opponent timed out, although it was headed for a draw. Late in 2014, I drew one and lost one in a match against an International Master. In early 2015, I scored 1.5/2 against a National Master. My draw against the IM, my win on time against the untitled player, and my win against the NM were all with the French Defense.

Two weaknesses in my play of the French Defense had become apparent. I was faltering repeatedly in the same manner against the Alekhine-Chatard Attack. I corrected this error through some opening study. Through the last half of 2015, I won most of my games in this line.

The other weak area, identified after a draw with an underrated youth player in August 2014, is the Steinitz variation. My win against the NM came after correcting the error that I played in in 2014. Since acquiring Chess Informant's Paramount Database in November, I have been working through every Steinitz variation game ever published in Informant. There are 588 games through Informant 123. As of this morning, I have gone through the first 285. I intend to transform this weakness into a strength.

Towards the New Year

GM-RAM continues to call me. In 2016, I plan to review the work done in 2014 and 2015. I created training cards for the first 48 middlegame positions. Reviewing these cards will reveal which of the first 31 games need further work. Then, I expect to renew this regimen and proceed through the remaining games, but perhaps at a slower pace. My aim is to balance study of the classics with an effort to make good use of my Informant subscription.

Mihai Marin's Informant column emphasizes the persistent relevance of classic games to modern GM play. I have read several of his columns. I intend to catch up on those that I missed.

I have neglected the endgame positions in GM-RAM, instead working through portions of Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual and other works. Ziyatdinov's more limited selection offers an excellent opportunity to identify gaps in my knowledge. I plan to work through this part of GM-RAM in 2016.

30 December 2015

A Zugzwang Lesson

It is not stalemate if a pawn can move.

The last game to finish in today's Holiday Tournament offered an illustration of a lesson from yesterday's Holiday Chess Camp. The two-day camp had three groups--beginners, intermediate, and advanced. One of the youth coaches who was in the advanced section yesterday reached an ending today that he might have understood better had he been in the room with the intermediate players yesterday. It was a youth chess camp, but coaches were encouraged to join the young players in the advanced camp, which was taught by FM Jim Maki.

John Dill and I taught the intermediate group.

Our Holiday Tournament had a scholastic section (NWSRS Rated) that I ran, and a USCF rated open section run by Dill. The Open section was one-third youth and two-thirds adults. The last game to finish was on board one, where a coach had White against a parent of one of the co-winners of the scholastic section.

White to move

I had been watching the game for several moves before I took a photo with my phone, which helped me to reconstruct this position. My sense was that the game was a draw. Black offered a draw here or a couple of moves later, explaining to his opponent that even without the Black pawns on the board, White could not win.

Indeed, White's bishop cannot help the h-pawns to promote because it cannot control the promotion square.

While the players were discussing the draw offer, John Dill whispered to me, "it's the position that we showed the children yesterday." I looked again with a new set of eyes. John was correct. White wins this position with correct play.

The player of Black is correct that without his pawns, White cannot win. However, those pawns change everything. If Black's king cannot move, then the g-pawn must advance.

In John's lecture, "Finding the Best Plan in the Endgame," he presented this position, which he found in Ray Cheng, Practical Chess Exercises: 600 Lessons from Tactics to Strategy (2007).

Black to move

There are obvious stalemate dangers, but if Black prevents the White king from moving without restricting the b-pawn, then White will be in zugzwang.

1...Bc2 2.Ka2 Bb1+ 3.Ka1 Kc2 and White is forced to play b3 or b4.

Both moves lead to 4...axb3 (or cxb3) and after White's only legal move, 5...b2#.

In the tournament game this afternoon, the presence of Black's pawns were fatal to his position. His opponent, however, did not find the winning idea. The bishop must go to g8 and trap the king on h8. Compelling Black's g-pawn to move produces checkmate in two moves.

John and I were both enthusiastic that a position from our camp instruction appeared in an important tournament game the next day.

18 December 2015

Holy Smokes!

My first impression of Shirov -- Gurevich, Munich 1993 (Chess Informant 57/287) was that the game requires more than the usual five minutes observing patterns. Gurevich sacrificed material to open the board before Shirov castled. Later, Shirov struck back and eventually prevailed. According to Shirov's annotations for Informant, Gurevich strayed from the best course from this position.

Black to move

ChessDB has the game so that it can be replayed in most browsers.

14 December 2015

The Blitz Standard

When teaching elementary checkmates to children, I often suggest they should know the basic techniques so well that they can perform them without thought with mere seconds left on the clock. Sometimes I mention an extreme example. Ryan Ackerman and I spent some time at the Spokane Chess Club one evening taking turns checkmating with queen and king against lone king. Ryan set his Chronos clock so that we each had ten seconds. We were each able to execute the checkmate in six to seven seconds with some consistency, although there was more than one stalemate through the course of the evening. Once, I played the nine or ten moves to checkmate in five seconds.

I do not expect children to perform these checkmates in seconds, but consistent success with reasonably rapid moves is a training standard they should aspire to. The first step is learning the technique and developing self-confidence. I learned these checkmates as a teenager, but still practice them in my fifties. My aim in practice is to move instantly and at the same time to execute the checkmate in the fewest possible moves.

12 December 2015

Outplay Chigorin

A Tough Position

I have shown this position to most of my chess students during the past two weeks. None have solved it, although several have seen checkmate patterns that look promising. The position arose in the thirteenth match game Schiffers -- Chigorin, St. Petersberg 1897.* It also appears in Encyclopedia of Chess Combinations, 5th edition (2014) as number 2386. It was brought to my attention two weeks ago via Renaud and Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate (1953).

Black to move

Mikhail Chigorin played 24...b6 and the game was drawn by repetition ten moves later. Renaud and Kahn point out that Chigorin missed a checkmate in five, and their solution is identical to that given in ECC. However, White has a defensive resource that delays checkmate one move, so it is actually a checkmate in six.

Knowing there is a forced checkmate, I was able to work out the five move solution in a few minutes. The computer showed me the additional defensive resource.

Several of my students found the first move easily, but because they could not find the second move, they revised their first move. Alas, all other first moves by Black allow White to unleash an attack.

I think the final checkmate pattern is hard to imagine from this position and that is why Chigorin and my students missed the combination. The solution was pointed out shortly after the game by R.J. Buckley, according to James Mason, The Art of Chess (1905), 210, where the position was represented by a diagram missing the c2 pawn (see Edward Winter, "Schiffers v Chigorin," Chess Notes 7932 [13 January 2013]).

*This game was Chigorin's foray with Damiano's Defense (see "Opening Disaster: Damiano's Defense").

09 December 2015


White to move

This position arose in Kamsky -- Lalic, Bad Mergentheim 1989 and was published in Chess Informant 48/393. It is the 125th game published in Informant with the ECO classification C 11 (French Defense, Steinitz variation). Thanks to the Paramount Database, I am working my way through all 588 C 11 games in Informants 1-123.

Kamsky played 36.a4 and Lalic resigned. Both his rook and king are tied down to the defense of the f-pawn in order to restrain White's f- and g-pawns. After 36.a4, the White king is free to march to the kingside, then through a gap between the pawns to snatch d4 and then over to remove Black's a-pawn. Then, White's a-pawn will march unmolested to the promotion square.

07 December 2015

Checkmate Patterns

The first thing for the reader to learn is to see every possible mate; this is one of the requirements of a good player.
Renaud and Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate
When David Weinstock recommended The Art of the Checkmate (1953) by Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn, I felt that he was underestimating my skill level. I met David when ChessMate, his company, was a vendor at the 1996 Washington Class Championships. It was my sixth USCF tournament and my first outside the Spokane area. Because I did not know anyone there and am an incurable bibliophile, I spent much of the time between rounds looking at the books ChessMate had available for sale and talking with David. He had several Chess Informants available for sale and he showed me how to read Informant codes. The Informants listed in the USCF sale catalog had piqued my interest. David answered questions, paving the way for my first Informant purchase a few months later (see "Playing by the Book").

I was in my mid-30s and had been pretty serious about chess as a teenager. In my youth I had learned how to checkmate efficiently with queen, rook, and two bishops. I had not mastered checkmate with bishop and knight, nor did I have a solid understanding of the two or three dozen most common checkmate patterns. Nonetheless, I thought that my checkmate skills were a strength as I could discover patterns when the opportunity was present.

In my first rated USCF tournament, I found the checkmate in two from this position.

White to move

My confidence in my ability to checkmate could be backed up with evidence from my games. I had been playing chess for more than two decades before entering rated competition. My transition from clueless beginner to capable novice took place during the rapid improvement that followed from learning to read chess books (see "My First Chess Book"). I developed an aggressive playing style grounded in attacking the king.

Surely there were other weaknesses in my game that should be addressed. Indeed, when I look at those old games now, I see terrible opening moves, egregious middlegame blunders, embarrassing endgame technique and even a few missed checkmates.

Nonetheless, when I saw The Art of the Checkmate in a bookstore a few years later, I pulled it off the shelf and looked inside. It was not the book that I had imagined when David Weinstock first suggested it to me. I bought it and started reading. Within a few weeks, I was checkmating my opponents on the Internet Chess Club with new patterns, such as in the game below.*

Internet Opponent (1415) -- Stripes,J (1439) [A45]
ICC 5 0 Internet Chess Club, 03.04.2001

1.d4 c5 2.dxc5 Nf6 3.Bg5 e6 4.c3 Bxc5 5.Nf3

Black to move

5...Ne4 6.Bxd8??

6.Be3 was necessary.

6...Bxf2# 0–1

I began to appreciate the quality of David's advice. The Art of the Checkmate is a terrific book. Renaud and Kahn not only present checkmate patterns that I had not known, or did not know as well as I thought, but much more.

Renaud and Kahn present whole games well-analyzed. They show how positional errors create the conditions for checkmate combinations. They develop each pattern from the basic pattern to more sophisticated examples, and then to the pattern as a threat designed to force positional concessions. The Art of the Checkmate is a simple book, but not quite as simple as I imagined.

The first checkmate pattern presented is dubbed Legal's Pseudo-Sacrifice by the authors, The chapter on this pattern contains seventeen games and not all are king's pawn openings. Some games end in the checkmate pattern, but others lead only to a modest gain of material or positional advantage for the side employing the pattern. Nor does White always prevail.

When I read this book some fifteen years ago, one of the variations presented in the notes to the seventh game stuck with me.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 d6 4.Nc3 Bg4 5.h3 Bh5 6.Nxe5!

Black to move

Among the games preserved in my database, I've had White in this position ten times. Only once did my opponent play 6...Bxd1 and fall for Legal's Mate. Renaud and Kahn's note suggested that 6...Nxe5 is the "lesser evil" (15).

Play then continues 7.Qxh5 Nxc4 8.Qb5+.

I have had the resulting position in seven of those ten games, twice against one opponent. I have won five of those game. I have also faced 6...dxe5 (I won) and 7...Nf6 (I won). Playing the recommended moves has given me an 80% score from the diagram position even though my opponents do not fall for the queen sacrifice (Legal's pseudo-sacrifice).

*I had been exposed to many of these new patterns in my first chess book, but the intervening decades had erased many details from my memory while leaving general impressions.

03 December 2015

The Lesson

Teaching chess to children is a constant search for lessons that will challenge without frustrating. Sometimes the lesson is too easy; sometimes it is too hard. This week's lesson for my advanced students seemed difficult for the young students in my Thursday club. Perhaps the questions were too abstract and they needed more guidance going through the game. Perhaps the questions were clear, but the answers were too complex.

They did answer the first question rather quickly, which did not surprise me as several weeks ago they saw the games in "Patterns".

I presented them with a worksheet that consisted of a game score with one diagram and some text that included questions at the beginning. This game came to my notice while searching a position from The Art of the Checkmate (1953) by Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn. A game won by Ernest Falkbeer via Legall's checkmate is presented there. A search of the ChessBase database revealed three games that reached the diagram position. The best move, which Falkbeer executed, was not played in any of the other three. I chose the game with the highest rated players for this exercise.

Bautista Ballester,Jordi (1885) -- Mejia Fernandez,Josep (1734) [C44]
Roncana Tancats-chT 1st Santa Eulalia de Roncana (1), 23.04.2009

From the diagram position, White has a crushing attack. However, he did not find it. Rather, his move offered prospects of a slight advantage, which he later squandered. Hence, we have some questions:

1) What was the best move 8 for White?

2) How did White let the advantage slip away?

3) Where did Black err, giving White once again the upper hand?

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.0–0 Bg4 7.Nxc3 Ne5

White to move

8.Qa4+ Qd7 9.Nxe5 Qxa4 10.Bxf7+ Ke7 11.Nxa4 dxe5 12.f3 Kxf7 13.fxg4+ Kg6 14.h4 h6 15.g5 Be7 16.Rf5 hxg5 17.Bxg5 Bf6 18.Raf1 Ne7 19.Rxf6+ gxf6 20.Rxf6+ Kg7 21.Nc5 Nc6 22.Ne6+ Kg8 23.Nxc7 Rd8 24.Nd5 Rf8 25.Rd6 Rf7 26.g4 Kh7 27.h5 Rhf8 28.Rh6+ Kg7 29.Rg6+ Kh7 30.Nf6+ Kh8 31.Rh6+ 1–0

My beginning students worked on recognizing simple forks via a worksheet that had such positions as the following.

White to move

White to move

02 December 2015

Pawn Lever

In a fifteen minute game online, my poor play led to a terrible position. However, my opponent failed to deliver the knockout blow. He worked to bring his pieces into play when a simple pawn lever would have accomplished the task.

Black to move


30...c5 shows that White's bishop, the critical defensive piece, is doomed.


White has fantasies of Rh6 and Rxh7#. Black has resources to stop this plan. With Black's c-pawn still mobile, 31.Rd3 was the only defense.


Now, White is winning.

31...c5 32.Rd3 c4 33.Qxc3 Qxc3 34.Rxc3 cxb3 35.Kb2 Rxa2+ 36.Kxb3 Black's two bishops, which work marvelously well with his rooks on an open board will prove overwhelming.

32.Nxf7+ Rxf7 33.Rd8+ Kg7 34.gxf4

Black to move


Still hoping for a breakthrough with pieces. 34...Bxf4 addresses the immediate threats.


35.Qg2+ leads to checkmate.

35...Bxg1 36.Qg2+ 1-0

Black resigned due to imminent checkmate.