28 February 2021

The Only Move

This position arose in the eleventh match game between Frank Marshall and Jose R. Capablanca in 1909.

White to move

Marshall played 29.h4, which looks sensible to me. Black still has a difficult position to defend. However, Black's defensive resources are adequate to the defense and White is lost after this move.

In My Chess Career (1920) Capablanca wrote, "White misses his chance here" (39), offering a move that I doubt I could have seen on my own after hours of looking at the board. Nonetheless, I spent five minutes going through Capablanca's annotations and other suggestions on the ChessBase DVD, Master Class 4: Jose Raul Capablanca (2015), which I reviewed in "Building a Lesson".

Komodo 13 needed half a minute to see that White had a draw, While Stockfish 11 found the idea instantly.

With some basic patterns from these annotations, I was able to draw Komodo 13 from White's position in about fifty moves. I think I used three takebacks after inaccuracies.

27 February 2021

Comic Error

There are a few errors on the ChessBase DVD that I mentioned in "Building a Lesson", Master Class 4: Jose Raul Capablanca. The one I found this morning is comic in the light of Capablanca's discursive comment at that point of the game. This position arose in the fifth match game between Frank Marshall and Jose R. Capablanca, 1909.

Black to move

Capablanca annotated this game in My Chess Career (1920). Capablanca played 26...Rxd4, and in his annotations indicated that he could have saved himself a lot of trouble by playing 26...Qf6. ChessBase omits this annotation, but after the subsequent 27.Qb8+ offers 27.Qc3 as an improvement. In fact, after 27.Qc3, Black checkmates in two moves.

In descriptive notation, both Capablanca's improvement and ChessBase's blunder are written Q-B3.

Capablanca comment on his own inaccuracy is instructive regarding ChessBase's error, and my own presumptions to comment on these games.
Not the best, Q-B3 was the right move. Incidentally it would have saved me a great deal of trouble which I had to win the game. Here I will call attention to the poor notes sometimes written by analysts. Games are often annotated by unknown players who have not sufficient knowledge of the game. As a matter of fact, the games of the great masters, at least, can only be properly annotated by very few players. Of course even the best are not exempt from mistakes, but while they make them few and far between the others do so continuously. (31)
I found another, slightly less severe, error earlier in the game as well. In that case a move was omitted from the sequence of exchanges, but this omission leads to an entirely different result--a Marshall win. Capablanca's annotation on his 26th move continued into a second paragraph.
I was highly praised by many because of the excellence of my play in this position, while in reality I could have done better. They simply did not see that here Q-B3 was better than the text move. (31)
White's 27.Q-B3 certainly would have been a lot better for Black. Marshall could have resigned at once.

24 February 2021

Sage Advice

These players study the openings and  try to find new routes and to introduce innovations. My opinion is that if they dedicated the better part of this time to the study of endings and to a better comprehension of the fundamental principles, they would better their game. It is often a waste of time to seek innovations in positions where there is nothing new to find, because one learns nothing to further his playing strength, outside of the structure of the position itself.
Jose R. Capablanca, Last Lectures (1966)

21 February 2021

Building a Lesson

A Partial DVD Review

I was stunned at seeing the number of instructive themes that Karsten Müller was able to extract from a short endgame played by Jose R. Capablanca as part of a simul. The lesson appears as part of the Fritz Trainer DVD, Master Class 04: Jose Raul Capablanca (2015). Then tracking down Müller's reference to Edward Winter revealed a fascinating history of the position as well, including some debate within Chess Notes that spanned more than a decade (see Edward Winter, "Capablanca v. Kalantarov", Chess Notes [updated 17 December 2019]).

Winter's story begins in 1988 with Chess Notes 1715. Ken Neat brought to Winter's attention a position that appeared in Isaak Linder, and Vladimir Linder, Kapablanka v Rossii (1988).* Linder and Linder reference an account by Peter Romanovsky that was published in Shakhmaty v SSSR (1959). Winter published Neat's translation. One of the later additions to Winter's notes present Romanovsky's entire article in three images. Those who read Russian might enjoy it.

Note 1715 inspired Rene Olthof to use the position in one of his training sessions, and he then sent in a note, which Winter published. Olthof found the position "nothing special". The first two notes were republished in Winter, Chess Explorations (1996) under the title, "Knight Ending" (25-26).

Twelve years later, Müller offered a refutation of Olthof's idea (Chess Notes 2402). As noted in the sequence of notes published by Winter over several decades and collated in the article, "Capablanca v. Kalantarov", Müller has published his analysis in The Chess Cafe Puzzle Book (2004). Encyclopedia of Chess Endings, vol. 5 (1993) also contains the position and some analysis, but not a key refutation of an error. Pal Benko also analyzed the ending in two issues of Chess Life.

The analysis begins with this position. We know from Winter that Capablanca's opponent was Kalantarov, about whom little is known, and that it was part of a thirty board simul in St. Petersburg in 1913. Capablanca scored +26-3=3. Romanovsky's story suggests that he and others were assisting Kalantarov.

White to move

The game concluded 46.Kf7 Ng5+ 47.Nxg5 fxg5 48.g4 Kh7 49.h4 Kh6 50.Kf6 Kh7 51.h5 a5 52.Ke5.

White wins because he has a protected passed pawn and his king is in the square of Black's passed pawn.

Müller's Diagram, Black to Move

Müller carries the analysis another twelve moves to show how White employs triangulation (although he omits this term) to regain the opposition and reach the point where outflanking will win Black's g-pawn.

Along the way, he presents several unplayed variations that lead to checkmate, even in one case allowing Black to promote first, but white plays a check, promotes with check, and then has the option of skewering the king to pick up Black's queen, or checkmate (the better option, of course).

White to move

After the move that Encyclopedia of Chess Endings missed, White also gets a supported passed pawn and stops Black's a-pawn. However, in this case, Black is able to maintain the distant opposition to keep the White king on the queenside, while at the same time staying in the square of the passed h-pawn.

Müller's Diagram, White to Move

Had Capablanca missed 48.g4, he could have lost the game because Black's outside passed pawn takes his king too far away and Black has time to round up White's pawns.

White to move

The DVD contains Müller's brief historical background, the note that with correct play Black should have drawn the game, and then finding 48.g4 is the first exercise. I made the same error as Olthof because I underestimated the complexity of the position. Following that error, however, I was able to play through the lesson and choose the correct answers. Capablanca's entire idea beginning with the surprising 46.Kf7 is an instructive breakthrough idea.

Inn addition to video lessons on the endgame by Müller, the DVD includes video lessons on strategy by Mihail Marin, tactics by Oliver Reeh, and openings by Niclas Huschenbeth. In addition to the videos, there are 103 games with training questions, and 14 endgames analyzed by Marin. The collection is enhanced by a biography of Capablanca with links to important games, and a database of 1223 Capablanca games. There are also opening trees for White and Black based on Capablanca's play.

*An English edition was published in 2009 under the title, Jose Raul Capablanca: Third World Chess Champion.

20 February 2021

Knight vs. Pawns

 This position came up this afternoon in a youth tournament. Black won some material in the opening and exchanged into an ending that should have been won. Moreover, he did win the ending. However, here White might have made matters more difficult.

White to move

White played 43.Kb3 and his position became hopeless.

18 February 2021

Rereading Chess Fundamentals

Readers of Chess Skills will have noticed that lately I am writing (and posting on this site's Facebook page) quite a bit about Jose R. Capablanca. In particular, I have written about Chess Fundamentals in several ways. Nearly two years ago, I pointed out a small error (see "A Capablanca Error"). More recently, I noted a proliferation of Kindle editions that mostly were identical to free versions on Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg (see "Ebook Scam"). Following that was "Advice for Beginners", where Chess Fundamentals was featured as my recommendation for players new to the game.

I bought my clothbound copy of the 1934 edition of Chess Fundamentals sometime in the mid-1990s, and I have read and reread some portions of it several times. Nonetheless, as with most chess books, I have never systematically worked through the entire book, studying every position, game fragment, and game. I am doing that now.

In the process of rereading, or rather wholly reading this classic text, I am taking the time both to compare several versions, and also to read the book in context with other related texts. Recently, I purchased both World Chess Championships 1921 and 1927 (I have the 1977 Dover edition) and A Chess Primer (1935). I am working through these books in parallel with Chess Fundamentals.

For Chess Fundamentals itself, I am primarily working through the 1994 paperback edition and the ebook version of the same, which I view within ChessBase. This same edition is also viewable on my iPad through Everyman's Chess Viewer app. Also, when I downloaded the e+Chess Books app several years ago, Chess Fundamentals was part of the package. Its algebraic edition differs slightly from the Everyman edition. That is, it does not correct Capablanca's error in Example 8; Everyman does.

I offer screenshots of these ebook editions for comparison.

Chess Fundamentals in ChessBase

Chess Fundamentals in the Everyman Reader

Chess Fundamentals in the E+books Reader

Breadth and Depth

While I have long praised Capablanca's classic text for its treatment of all phases of the game in a sequence that seems particularly well-thought out,  perhaps starting with A Chess Primer, and then advancing to Chess Fundamentals would be better. A Chess Primer has some instruction that is a little more elementary for beginners. But, I prefer the sequencing in Chess Fundamentals. Capablanca himself described these two books as companions volumes. I concur.

Chess Fundamentals also offers some study material that is more advanced than I had noticed through my superficial reading of some sections. It does a better job than any other book to lay a solid foundation for beginning students, but also offers both a refresher and some challenging material for intermediate students.

In the section Queen against Rook, Example 40 is a position that I have included in several lessons for my students, but Example 42 proves more challenging. With Capablanca's guidance, I was able to subdue Stockfish while drinking my morning coffee one morning last week.

White to move

Stockfish on the iPad did not follow Capablanca's main line, but his analysis served as a guide for my play nonetheless.

Moving on to middlegame positions, Example 50 gave me enough of a challenge that I expect to return to it again for further work.

Stripes,James -- Fritz 13 SE
From Capablanca, 15.02.2021

White to move
 After 14...e5 Example 50, Chess Fundamentals

15.Ne6+ Kf6  6.f4 Nc6

Capablanca gives 16...e4 17.Qg5+ Kxe6 18.Qe5+ Kd7 19.Rfd1+ Nd3 20.Nxe4 Kc6 21.Rxd3 Qxd3 22.Rc1+ Kb6 23.Qc7+ and checkmate in five.

White to move

a) 17.Qg5+ was my first choice 17...Kxe6 18.f5+ Kd6

White to move


19.Rad1+ is better 19...Kc7 (19...Nd4 20.Qg3 was the move I overlooked) 20.Rxd8

19...Kd5 20.Rfd1+ Nd4 21.Rxd4+

21.Qxd8+?? did not go well for me; 
21.Qg3 is again useful

21...exd4 22.f6+ Kc6 23.Nxd4+ Kd6 24.Qf4+ Kd7

White to move

25.fxg7 took a long time for me to find 25...f6 26.gxf8N+ Qxf8 27.Rc1 and I could sense that my advantage was slipping away, so I started anew at move 17.

b) 17.fxe5+? throws away the advantage, but I tried it second 17...Ke7 18.Nxd8?? Bxg4 19.Nxc6+ bxc6 and Black is winning; 

c) 17.f5 was my third effort 17...Bxe6 18.fxe6+ Ke7 19.Rad1 (19.exf7 was better) 19...Nxe6 20.Rxd8 Raxd8 and I am satisfied that White has a clear advantage, but was tired of playing against the machine; 

d) 17.Rad1 is best, but I did not play this line.

15 February 2021

What is Reading?

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
Francis Bacon, "Of Studies" (1625)
What do you mean when you say you've read a book? Have you read every word?

During a class my first year of graduate school, my professor stated her view that for a master's degree, a history student should know 300 books. For the doctorate, she said, one thousand books was the expectation. Her statement was a little intimidating at first, for it meant reading one academic book every two to three days. Many of these books are densely written and run 400-500 pages.

For that class, we each bought the twelve required texts, and were each assigned one for our individual presentations, and two written assignments--an annotated bibliography and a 15-20 page paper. For my bibliography and paper, I "read" perhaps a dozen more books, and several journal articles. The assignment was to place the book in question in the context of other scholarship on the same topic.* Reading a book with this purpose meant spending as much as two hours identifying the central arguments and the nature of the supporting evidence of each book. An article should take fifteen minutes. With practice, and some familiarity with the subject matter, this level of reading can be achieved in about thirty minutes for most history books.

Reading a novel is another matter. It must be read in sequence and cover-to-cover. Some books may remain unfinished--there is a long list of popular classics that I started and did not finish because I did not like them. For other novels, reading only begins the second or third time through the book. This need for a second and third reading is a characteristic of the sort of dense fiction that I prefer. All reading is rereading, as some French theorist famously suggested.**

How do you read a chess book?

For some chess books, the practice of the historian--skimming, assessing, highlighting key points--might be all you need. A few weeks ago, I reviewed three chess books for beginners that were all terrible. Each was self-published and two seemed as if they were not written by chess players. The third read like a bad machine translation of a decent book in a language other than English. Perhaps two hours were required to read the combined 300 pages of these three books. I did not skip any pages, but did pass rapidly over the surface looking for points where the author said something of merit, or got something egregiously wrong.

There are many chess books on my shelves that I read for an hour or two on the day of purchase, often with the intent to go back and peruse with more attention to detail. Most chess books offer verbal discussion of key ideas, illustrative positions with diagrams, and detailed analysis of positions, sometimes with many branches of possible variations. Reading the text often does not take long, while pondering the variations can keep you tied up for years.

The day I bought Jeremy Silman's Complete Endgame Course (2007), I spent less than two hours racing through the first third of the book, pausing only to think through a few diagrams. Most of the content through what he calls "Endgames for Class C" consists of knowledge I assimilated before I bought the book. Even so, Silman's book transformed the curriculum I was using to teach elementary age chess players. He convinced me that checkmate with knight and bishop was an inefficient use of time, while the Lucena and Philidor rook endings deserved far more attention. Prior to buying his Endgame Course, some ideas presented in How to Reasssess Your Chess, 3rd ed. (1993) had worked their way into my teaching. I cannot say that I have read either of these books, except in part. But I have frequently reread a few parts of Reassess, both 3rd and 4th editions.

I read Excelling at Technical Chess (2004) by Jacob Aagaard more slowly and more deliberately, but still not wholly. It had a profound impact on my play that was vital as I rose from B Class to A within the USCF rating system. Where I was once eager to accept a draw in a seemingly equal position, I started refusing these offers after reading Aagaard. If there is an imbalance that allows me to create problems for my opponent to solve, I insist that we should play on at least a few more moves. I also began to see that some endings, while long and potentially difficult, were not at all equal. See "Excelling at Technical Chess" for an example of the fighting spirit Aagaard helped inspire.


When reading some chess books, especially those that present whole games well-annotated, I often follow a longer process. First I locate the next game in the text in a database. I play through the game several times without reference to the book. The first few times, I use no aids, but seek the key moments in the game. Where did the player who lost begin to go wrong?

When I am comfortable with understanding some of the key tactical and positional points, I may use an opening database to research a bit. After I have worked to acquire a thorough understanding of the game, I read the annotations in the text.

Sometimes I will continue by looking at how other books present the same game. I have used this process for dozens of books on my shelves, but Logical Chess Move by Move (1998) by Irving Chernev is the only book for which I have taken this process all the way through every game. I went through the algebraic edition a few years ago, but also have vague memories of a more superficial reading of a library copy of the original descriptive edition in the late-1970s.

This process of "chewing and digesting" a chess book is one that I advocate. Perhaps, if I find the time, I will complete other books in this manner. I started this process a bit over a year ago with Paul Keres, World Championship 1948 (2016), which is a terrific book. Alas, work and other chess books got in the way.

*I discuss this specific book and that graduate class in more detail on Patriots and Peoples, "Pandemic History".
**Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (1974).

07 February 2021

Capablanca's Sources

As I am rereading J. R. Capablanca's classic Chess Fundamentals (1921), I marvel at how much content he packs into such a short book. With respect to pawn endgames, in particular, he presents a small number of examples that together constitute a substantial amount endgame knowledge.

When Nate Fewel showed me this position at the Spokane Chess Club in the mid-1990s, I had a copy of Chess Fundamentals, but had not spent much time studying it. I failed to solve this elementary position. When I was glancing through Capablanca's book a short time after Nate showed the position to me and saw it there, I began to to read the text with some diligence. Over the next few years, my endgame skills improved dramatically.

White to move

Capablanca did not compose the exercise. The breakthrough idea with pawns lined up as they are here dates back at least to Carlo Cozio, Il Giuoco degli Scacchi (1766). Endgame Study Database VI by Harold van der Heiden has this position credited to Cozio (see "Endgame Study Database").

White to move

Although I do not know the contents of Capablanca's library, it seems reasonable to believe that he would have had access to Johann Berger, Theorie und Praxis der Endspiele (1891), as it was the standard endgame work of the day. Position number 539 of Berger's book credits J. H. Sarratt, A Treatise on the Game of Chess (1808).

White to move

Sarratt has the White king on h1 and the Black king on g3, which is closer to what Nate showed me. In all cases, the moves are the same. White achieves the breakthrough by advancing the b-pawn, which Black captures. Then, depending on how Black captures, White sacrifices either the a-pawn or the c-pawn, so the other may promote.

Capablanca also notes that Black on the move draws by advancing the b-pawn.

06 February 2021

A Puzzle

In 1869, I.O. Howard Taylor published Chess Brilliants, a book containing one hundred games played by chess masters. In the back of the book, he offered some diagrams from his own games. This position is one of the diagrams.

He presents a little information. The game was played at the Philidorian Chess Rooms in early 1862. Five moves have been played. Black, "a stranger"--no name is given--has played 5...f6. Taylor checkmated his opponent in eight moves from this position.

Can you reconstruct the moves that led to this position?
Can you find a forced checkmate in eight moves?