30 December 2011

Friday Morning

In a three minute game, one must think fast. Having a rook for a knight is a clear advantage, but it can be a difficult endgame. Here I moved instantly, but Rybka required half of a minute to acknowledge that my move was best.

Black to move

23 December 2011

And Again

Yesterday I posted two examples of recent success: "Checkmate with Pawns." Such checkmates are rare. However, it is worth mentioning that I will not be able to find one of those two games in my database, as I do not save bullet games. After posting, I found time for a few bullet games during a break from work, and for the third time this week, pulled off another such checkmate that will not make it to the database.

White to move

My move was the best, although Rybka requires some coaxing to acknowledge it. After 41.b7+ it is checkmate in nine. My opponent's choice ended things more rapidly, and prevented my need of a queen.

41...Kb8 42.Kb6 Be4 43.a7#.

22 December 2011

Checkmate with Pawns

It has been nearly ten years since I was checkmated by two pawns in a complex and beautiful position on the Internet Chess Club. That game was the solitary example in my database of a rare and mostly theoretical possibility.

This week added two more. A Social Chess game that ended Tuesday had this finish.

Black to move
Add caption
49.b2 50.f6

Of course, he could have played 50.Ka2, leading to 50...Kc2, 51...b1Q and mate to follow.

50...Kb3 51.fxg7 a2#.

Yesterday, in a one-minute bullet game, I capped a series of games against my opponent with a nice victory. I won the series 9-4. In the finale, my opponent managed to shed a bishop in the early middle game, then two pawns.

Black to move

Here we transition into a simple pawn endgame. When there are seconds remaining, it is important to reduce counterplay.

34...Rxb2 35.Rxb2 Bxb2+ 36.Kxb2 c5 37.Kc3 c4 38.Kd2 Kc5 39.Kc2 d4 40.Kb2 e4 41.Kc2 e3 42.Kd1 Kd5 43.Ke1 Ke4 44.a4 d3 45.a5 d2+

White to move

I would play 46.Ke2, if I were in my opponent's position. Perhaps he thought he might walk into stalemate, or perhaps with so little time left, he did not think about it.

46.Kd1 Kd3 47.a6 e2#.

16 December 2011

En Passant: History and Illustration

When chess was invented some 1500 years ago somewhere in India, or possibly China, pawns could move one square. As chess spread, a few variations on the rules developed. It is known from a manuscript that dates to 1283 that pawns could move two squares on the first move. Los Libros de Acedrez, Dados E Tablas was produced for Alfonso X of Castile (1221-1284), and describes the play of chess, dice, and backgammon.* According to James Murray, A History of Chess (1913), there were some conditions upon the pawn's double move. In any case, the en passant capture is not mentioned in the Alfonso MS. Two centuries later, however, the en passant capture is described (see Murray, 461).

We might conclude that the rule came into common practice some five centuries ago, roughly during the period when the queen acquired her powers. Our current rules regarding castling were still in flux in the late fifteenth century, and even in the sixteenth, so the en passant capture is not the newest rule change. Nevertheless, it remains the most difficult one for beginners to grasp.

I had a rare opportunity to execute an en passant capture yesterday. After two days of play and 24 moves, my opponent and I reached this position with him on move.

White to move

He played 25.c4, advancing a pawn two squares. The pawn passed over a square where it might have been captured by my d-pawn if it had moved one square.

Black to move

The green arrow shows the path taken by the white pawn. The yellow arrow indicates the path the black pawn will take in order to capture en passant (in passing).

I played 25...dxc3.

White to move

After the en passant capture, the pawn on c4 has disappeared from the board. My pawn sits on c3. The tactical point of my capture was that now my rook is attacking the white queen: an en passant capture that creates a discovered attack. How often does something like that come up?

*A complete English translation and detailed analysis of Libros de Acedrez is available in the 2007 dissertation "Los libros de acedrex dados e tablas: Historical, Artistic and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X’s Book of Games" by Sonja Musser Golladay.

15 December 2011

Lesson of the Week

A holiday concert displaces one school chess club this week. Holiday distractions disrupt others. Last week's lesson on pins proved impossibly difficult for most of the young players in my clubs. Some were offered an easier lesson on pins last week: "While Looking at Pins." Another club saw the position from "While Looking at Pins" this week. Other groups this week are seeing the position below.

White to move

This position is problem number 1 is Fred Reinfeld, 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (1955). This text is generally available for approximately $10. My copy is beginning to fall apart, and I may replace it. The principal difficulty young students would have in learning from it stems from descriptive notation. Algebraic is far simpler to master for the nine year old student, and is the notation system universally taught. Descriptive notation is worth learning because it provides access to many older texts, such as the exceptional checkmate manual, Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate (1953). Reinfeld's text offers a one page explanation of descriptive notation in the front matter.

Reinfeld's text contains errors, but far fewer than will be evident in every book written by Bruce Pandolfini or by Eric Schiller. Reinfeld worked in an era before computers, checked his work carefully, and made a few errors in assessment. Pandolfini's work appears rushed into print without proper editing. Even so, I find that Pandolfini's Endgame Course (1988) is a highly instructive text for scholastic players. If I could give every child this text after his or her first tournament, and they could be induced to spend one hour per week studying it, skills would improve rapidly. Reinfeld's text is less elementary, focuses on middlegame tactics, rather than basic checkmates, and should be listed in every state qualifier's letter to Santa.

Reinfeld does not present his sources, but the position comes from Yanofsky -- Aitken, Hastings 1946. Yanofsky made the correct move and Aitken resigned.

13 December 2011

Improving Tactics: Training Resources

For most players, improvement in chess skill will be slow to non-existent if their only chess activity is playing. Tactics training, on the other hand, leads to rapid chess improvement. Resources for tactics training include books, magazines, databases and other software, websites, and more.

At the present time, in any given week, I use the Tactics Trainer at Chess.com (more than 32 hours since joining the site), the problems in the Shredder iPad app, my pawn endgame flash cards, or one of several books.

Ten years ago, I spent 15-30 minutes nearly every morning for several months working through problems in Laszlo Polgar, Chess Training in 5334 Positions (1994), which is pictured at the bottom of a stack in the image. Polgar's book, which may have been assembled by his daughter Susan, consists mostly of checkmate problems. This collection draws from an extensive library of composed problems, and a smaller collection of positions from actual play. The effectiveness of the training stems from repetition of patterns. Problems 1-306 are checkmate in one; 307-3718 are mate in two; 3719-4462 are mate in three. I completed a bit more than the first 1500 problems.

The book also contains 600 miniature games, a bit more than 100 simple endgames, and more than 100 combinations from the Polgar sisters' games. Occasionally, this book shows up on sale tables for $10, which strikes me as an opportunity calling for action.

Art of the Checkmate

While Polgar's Chess teaches checkmate patterns through compositions and miniatures, Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate (1953) employs real games. The organization of this classic text, and the quality of instruction it offers, are vastly superior to Murray Chandler, How to Beat Your Dad at Chess (1998). However, Chandler's book uses algebraic notation, while Renaud and Kahn is available only in descriptive. Other books with guides to basic checkmate patterns include Fred Reinfeld, How to Force Checkmate (1947); V. Vukovic, The Art of Attack in Chess (1965); and Jonathan Tisdall, Improve Your Chess Now (1997). My effort to extend the work naming, classifying, and organizing basic patterns by the authors of several of these texts resulted in a self-published pamphlet that I use in teaching, "Checklist of Checkmates: With Exercises" (2007). My pamphlet (pictured above) identifies 34 basic patterns sorted into six groups to aid learning, and offers 139 problems all from actual play. My study of The Art of the Checkmate, and the other books, followed by extensive database research to find examples in play, has done wonders for the development of my skill.

Basic Tactical Motifs

My library contains several terrific workbooks designed especially for youth who are beginning to intermediate players. These workbooks vary in method and content, but all stress basic tactical motifs--discovery, pins, skewers, removing the guard, etc.--through repetition. John A. Bain, Chess Tactics For Students (1993) uses fill-in-blank worksheets with clear diagrams. Chapter one offers 30 problems involving pins. Subsequent chapters are "Back Rank Combinations," "Knight Forks," "Other Forks/Double Attacks," and ten more chapters. After completing this workbook, young players might advance to Al Woolum, The Chess Tactics Workbook, 4th edition (2000); Todd Bardwick, Chess Workbook for Children (2006); or Dean Ippolito, Chess Tactics for Scholastic Players (2006). Each of these other three offer problems more challenging than Bain's, but also include very simple problems in the beginning. Those sensitive to patronizing language towards women and girls may find the prose in Bardwick's text distracting, but it offers good quality instruction otherwise.

For my annual chess camp, I create workbooks with problems that teach and reinforce tactical motifs. In 2008 and 2009, I used the same workbook. In 2009, I sought tactical problems and strategic lessons exclusively from the games of Adolf Anderssen. See "Learning from Errors: Adolf Anderssen" for a sample strategic lesson from this workbook. In 2011, my tactical problems all came from the games of Vasily Smyslov, and emphasized advanced endgames a bit more. For several years I have been contemplating doing more with Gioachino Greco, but doubt there is enough there for all of what I usually put into a workbook.

While my chess students and their parents gain access to an abundance of free and inexpensive resources that I churn out as teaching materials, the research process improves my skills, too. When I am not solving problems, I am looking for problems to put in front of beginning players. Sometimes, these are more challenging than expected, as last week's lesson on pins proved to have been.

Tactics for Advanced Players

Prior to the explosion of youth chess, a standard beginning text was Fred Reinfeld, 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (1955). It is organized by theme with dozens of problems in each chapter. Generations of masters have started with this book. Reinfeld wrote a few other 1001 texts, but this one seems most widely available. In "Where the Rubber Meet the Road," I detailed my training method with this text and a chess playing engine. Beyond finding Reinfeld's idea, I labor to convert the advantage gained through the tactic. I have not employed this training method in 2011, but expect to return  to such training for part of 2012.

Lev Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book (1997) contains 300 positions, four to a page. The solutions are on the facing page, making self-discipline a necessary feature of using the text for training. These well-chosen 300 positions, most from practical play, include common tactical motifs, positional concepts, and endgame fundamentals. Over the course of several years, I went through the entire book both randomly and in sequence at least twice, and have also used the book as a reference when compiling lessons for others. This book spent several years on my bedside table. The book indexes the problems by themes and by players. Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book II (2008) offers 320 new positions in the same format. This book will be a central component of my training in the near future. With such collections, I think it is best to go through all the problems, and then several months or a year later, go through them again.

Most club players should be able to solve the problems in Alburt's books in no more than a few minutes each, and errors will be easily corrected. A few times through these books should leave the student with a core knowledge of important positions. For more challenging tactical exercises, I turn to John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book (1999) and Paata Gaprindashvili, Imagination in Chess: How to Think Creatively and Avoid Foolish Mistakes (2004). Both of these texts offer fresh positions. That is, the positions in these texts will not be found in Reinfeld. Some of those in Alburt's texts are in Reinfeld, as well as in dozens of other training texts. Alburt's books lay the foundation that helped me reach USCF Class A, and to secure my position there. As I struggle to move up to Expert Class, and possibly master, Nunn's and Gaprindashvili's texts offer resources of value. Imagination in Chess also offers suggestions for effective thought processes. Gaprindashvili's logical process may be considered an improvement over the famed analysis tree in Alexander Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster (1971). Readers may differ in their assessments of these modes of systematic thinking.

Two other challenging texts offer exceptional insight into the nature of chess tactics, and plenty of training material. These are not collections of problems so much as treatises on the the middlegame. Yuri Averbakh, Chess Tactics for Advanced Players (1992) seeks to build a theoretical base for comprehension of chess tactics. Mark Dvoretsky, Secrets of Chess Tactics (1992) takes a more practical approach, but also contains much of theoretical value. The positions analyzed in both texts can be quite challenging, even for masters.

08 December 2011

While Looking at Pins

The critical moment when I gained a clear advantage in my last completed ChessWorld correspondence game presents another illustration of using a pin. I attacked the rook on c8 by moving my bishop to a6. Instead of shuffling the rook to a safer square on the eighth rank, my opponent moved it to c7. Now, the pin on the knight nets me a piece for a pawn.

White to move


Elementary. Pile on the pinned piece. Moving the knight loses the rook, and so 18...exd5 19.exd5 Qd6 20.dxc6+-.

07 December 2011

Problems of the Week

Working with pins

Although these four problems seem rather elementary to me, the second graders found them challenging yesterday. Today, I'll give them to some middle school students in a chess class for home school students, and to an after school chess club at another elementary school. The older students where the second graders had trouble get their crack on Thursday. On Saturday, players from these schools, as well as others, meet in a youth tournament. Perhaps some of them will do more with pins this weekend.

My procedure this week is a bit different than the norm. Usually, I have one problem on the demonstration board. The entire club gathers to discuss the position, which can mean as many as thirty young players suggesting the first move that looks right. This week, I printed sheets with all four problems, and the players work in teams trying to solve all four before another team does so. I asked the five strongest second graders on Tuesday to each work with a first grader or kindergartner as a teammate. With an abundance of help from me, including using the demo board to give everyone answers to the first two, one second grader finally had four correct answers written on his sheet.

White to move

Black to move

White to move

White to move

A key concept for working with pins is piling on. This technique is particularly apparent, it seems to me, in the second problem. All of these problems exploit the vulnerability of a king.

02 December 2011

Pin is Opportunity for Discovery

Chess Informant 105/75 was Vasily Ivanchuk's win over Sergey Karjakin at the 2009 Corus Chess Tournament at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands. At a critical point in the game, Ivanchuk sacrificed a pawn to gain the bishop pair and provoke a sequence of exchanges. I blogged this game while it was in progress ("Wijk aan Zee: Round Eight") and then took another look through Informant's annotations this morning. The game placed third in the voting for the best of Informant 105.

After the pawn sacrifice, I wrote, "Ivanchuk appears to have compensation for the pawn, but no significant advantage." Looking through the game this morning, I reached a different conclusion. Karjakin's gain of a pawn left his pawn structure in a mess. All his queenside pawns became weak. Although the a- and c-pawns are not technically isolated because the b-pawn remains on the board, they are too far advanced to receive assistance from the backwards b-pawn. Moreover, White's bishops control all the key squares. Over the course of the game, Ivanchuk's bishop pair mopped up Karjakin's weakened pawns. Eventually, Ivanchuk was the one with an extra pawn and was ready to go two pawns ahead when Karjakin threw in the towel. Karjakin went on to win the tournament with five wins, six draws, and two losses; Ivanchuk finished in a share of last place.

On the other hand, my engine finds the position equal after Ivanchuk's sacrifice.

The annual tournament in Wijk aan Zee was begun as a local event in 1938 by the Hoogoven Chess Club, consisting of workers at the steelworks. In 1939 it attracted national attention, and then in subsequent years gained international attention. It has grown into one of the major annual Grandmaster tournaments and a chess festival for all levels of players. As the local steel factory has changed ownership, so has the name of the tournament. In 2007, India's Tata Steel purchased Corus, and so beginning with the 2011 Wijk aan Zee event, it is now called the Tata Steel Chess Tournament. One of the first chess books that I purchased and studied regularly was Wijk aan Zee: Grandmaster Chess Tournament 1975 (1976). This old paperback is showing its age from many years of use, but remains a treasured possession.

White to move

White's pawn on b4 is pinned to the queen by Black's bishop on e7. However, the bishop is undefended and b4-b5 attacks the Black queen. Thus, the pinned pawn's advance creates a discovered attack on the bishop, and Black has no choice better than exchanging bishop for knight.

23...axb5 24.Qxe7 bxa4 25.Rd1 Nf8 26.Rd6 Re8 27.Rxc6 Rxe7 28.Bc5

Black to move

Houdini sees a difference of just under half a pawn between the move Karjakin played here and the optimum choice. The Chess Informant annotations provided by Ivanchuk and the lines suggested by Houdini both favor 28...Re8. This move has the idea of swapping rooks before other material comes off.

Karjakin played 28...Rd7. He was under considerable time pressure, having thought long before playing 22...f5.

29.Rb6 fxe4 30.fxe4 c3 31.Kf2 Ba2 32.a6 bxa6 

White to move

Black is temporarily ahead by two pawns, but positionally, White has a clear advantage.

33.Rb8 Rf7+ 34.Ke3 g6 35.Bd6 Rf6 36.Rd8

Black to move

Karjakin is not in zugzwang, but almost. There is nothing useful that he can do. I revised my analysis of the position after Ivanchuk's pawn sacrifice because even with optimum play, there is little that Black can do other than watch White build up his attack against the weakened pawns. With the rooks off the board, perhaps the technique would have required more skill. It seems to me that this sort of position merits one of those comments, "the rest is a matter of technique." Such comments seem lazy, of course, and are spurned by chess readers. For a super-grandmaster like Vasily Ivanchuk, such technique has been honed through extensive preparation, lots of playing experience, and keen instincts. For the rest of us, such technique requires that we continue to learn. Even so, White's plan is simple and straightforward: mop up the pawns and turn the remainder of the endgame into one where White has more.

When it is clear that White has more pawns, Black can resign in a grandmaster game. Among class players, resignation is deferred until the pawn promotes. Among young scholastic players, checkmate must be the finish.

36...a3 37.Bxa3 Kg7 38.Bd6 Rf7 39.Bxe5+ Kh6 40.Bxa6 Ne6 41.Rc8

Black to move

Karjakin resigned in this position. Another time to resign for a grandmaster is after reaching the time control. Karjakin played a lot of moves in a hurry. Now, with time to consider his position, he sees clearly that he is sunk.