The Problem of Growth

I don’t write on this blog often and the main reason is the problem of growth and reach.

In this post I’d like to give you an idea what I do lately and tell you about my other outlets where I write today. This doesn’t mean that I will close this blog, no way, after all it was this blog that made me somewhat popular in the chess world.

I started this blog in 2014 and my weekly newsletter some time after that. I wanted to reach as many people as possible with the hope that my thoughts on chess would be beneficial to them. Now, looking backwards, I see that these attempts were not very successful.

To share some numbers. I wrote my weekly newsletter for more than 6 years without an exception, never skipping a Saturday. Over 300 emails were sent over this period using a mailing list and a mailing client. Can you guess the number of subscribers I had at the end of that period (ending in February 2023)?

Six years is a long period and I expected bigger growth, but I only managed a bit over 700 subscribers. I found this very depressing. Like shouting into a void.

Some time in 2022, a reader of my newsletter, Martin B. Justesen (he has a very good Substack called Say Chess on chess history, chess publishing and adult improvement, give him a follow and subscribe if you can), suggested I move to Substack. I was thinking about it even before that, seeing that it’s a growing platform with good interaction with the readers.

After overcoming some technical issues I made the jump from my mailing client to Substack in February last year. I brought over my mailing list and in a bit over a year I more than doubled my subscribers.

Another example of incredibly slow growth (is it growth if you’re moving too slow? Aren’t you even further falling behind if the others move much faster?) is my Twitter following. I’ve been on Twitter since February 2014. I’ve posted regularly, my content is generally well-accepted. The number of my followers? It’s only recently that I went over 3K (3,029 at the time of writing). In other words, I’ve been shouting into a void for 10 years.

When I see people reach tens of thousands of followers in a matter of months, I despair. It seems I am doing what is generally suggested to do to grow your following: post regularly, engage with the audience, be helpful etc. but it doesn’t really seem to have an effect.

In order to increase my reach I re-activated my YouTube channel. I observe the same story as with my newsletter and Twitter: people like it a lot, comment, want more of my content, but the numbers are not showing this. At the time of writing, my number of subscribers is 1.5K.

As with my old newsletter using a mailing client, the reach of my blog has decreased substantially over the years. I have limited time to write, so I have to choose to write where I can get the maximum impact. This is the main reason I have moved from the blog to my Substack. I’d recommend you subscribe there, so every Saturday you will receive an email on a chess topic with a link to my weekly video. If you feel like it, you can even support me with a small montly amount that will give you access to the full archive of my posts. On my YouTube channel I also post Shorts almost every day, so consider subscribing there, too.

I don’t know if I’ll ever reach big enough numbers on these platforms that will enable me to make a difference in the chess world. I can only try.

I will still publish posts on this blog, I have never been one to abandon people and places. Old loves die hard.


A Long-Overdue Update

It’s been very hectic several months since I last wrote. Here’s a recap of what I’ve been doing ever since.

In August I played the Segunda Division (the second Spanish league) in the legendary town of Linares. It’s 7-round tournament where I played six games. There is one double-round day and I skip the morning game on that day. I played pretty well, though I have to say that the level of my opposition was unexpectedly high, especially taking into consideration their ratings, which weren’t.

My shortest game in Linares was 41 moves long, the longest was 104 moves, with the average being 61 moves. I don’t remember playing games that long one after another in a single tournament!

In spite of this, I was content how I played. You can see one example on my Youtube channel, where I analysed my game from the penultimate round, one that could have been one of my most brilliant games, but alas, I missed these chances twice.

Still, things weren’t that bad until the last round. As usual, a morning game, and again I failed to adapt. I felt more awful than usual and I simply couldn’t play. To add insult to injury, my opponent mistakenly sacrificed a queen, which gave me a winning position, and while I was aware that I was winning, I was so sluggish in taking decisions and calculating, that I ended up losing.

Losing is no end of pain, and this one was particulaly bad because of the way it happened. I couldn’t win with an extra queen! I tried to look at it from the positive side and drew several important lessons, though I still haven’t figured out what to do with the problem of playing in the morning.

In September I was the official commentator at the FIDE World Senior Team Championship, which was held in my country near the town of Struga on the Ohrid Lake. I enjoyed the part, looking at games as they were played, sharing my thoughts and opinions. The few people who followed me live seemed to be very happy with my commentary, though in view of the very closed market for chess commentary nowadays, I doubt I would get new offers. A pity, I have to add, because I really like commentating.

A few days after Struga I went to Durres, Albania, at the European Club Cup. Usually I have played these events, but this time I went for a different reason. I was one of the lecturers at the Fair Play Seminar. As one of the seven Fair Play Officers (FPOs) in the world I taught a group of players, arbiters, organisers and interested parties about the importance of anti-cheating, prevention and protection measures and a lot of other areas of this wide topic.

After Albania I returned home to finish my new Chessable course 1.d4 Simplified. I enjoy working on openings and doing so allows me to find a lot of new ideas that can be used in my games. Only a fraction of those ideas can make it to the course, so by analysing deeply the openings I enrich my own opening repertoire. I did the same with 1.e4 and now with 1.d4 I have a pretty nice arsenal of ideas to use in my games.

I managed to finish the course and submit it for beta-testing before leaving for Germany. In the upcoming weekend I will play one game for my German team before I set off for the Isle of Man and the Grand Swiss. Ideally I would have loved to play the Grand Swiss, but as things stand this is not a very probable event, so going there as a press officer is the next best thing. I will be writing daily reports from the rounds and this should be interesting, as I will be following high-level games and writing about them for 11 days! As a chess fan, being at the same place where the top events are happening and being able to see the players in the playing hall is priceless.

I don’t have many plans after the Isle of Man. I will likely play more games for my German club until the end of the year and there is also one more possible arrangement that I am currently discussing, but that is all, more or less.

I have always wanted a calm couple of months at the end of the year. As the weather gets colder, I prefer to spend more time at home, not having to travel in adverse conditions. Let’s see if I get them this time.


Shankland’s Shockers

The World Cup in Baku is well under way and I have already shared my preview and analysis on my Youtube channel, which you can check here.

There are many interesting games already, but I was drawn to one episode in particular, because it is something that I can connect to what has happened before.

I don’t really know Sam Shankland, we have barely exchanged a few words the one or two times we’ve met. He gave me the impression of being very (in)tense, and I think that these two characteristics have something to do with what I will show you below. I realise that what follows may be entirely wrong, as I don’t know the player, but I will still share my impressions and thoughts.

Shankland seems to have been an author of inexplicable decisions more than anyone else in the top 30 in the world. We are talking about classical games here. The first example that struck me as inexplicably shocking came at the end of his game with Giri at the Wijk aan Zee tournament in 2019.

The position is a fortress for Black, who only needs to walk his king back to c8. However, what happened is that Shankland resigned! Giri was so shocked that he had to ask him to confirm that the stretched hand was in fact resignation and not an agreement to a draw.

The next example came at the Olympiad in Chennai last year.

With his last move 90.b3 Shankland made sure to exchange the last black pawn and ensure a draw in the game and a victory for his team. What happened next is more applicable to online chess than classical – Shankland noticed that his opponent took the queen and expecting the check on h1 he automatically grabbed his king and played Kc2, only to see the black queen land on g2 instead of h1!! It’s clear to see that the only legal move then, 91.Kc1, loses instantly to 91…Qb2 followed by …Qxb3. Shankland had nothing better than to resign, which also led to his team drawing the match.

The third shocker came yesterday.

Shankland was pressing for the whole game, but eventually didn’t manage to make more of it so it was time to accept that the position is a draw. However…

Black has enough counterplay and moving the king back to c2 should draw, but Shankland boldly went ahead with 57.Kxc4??? only to be mated after 57…Rc8 58.Kd4 Rbc3 with the inevitable …R8c3 mate.

So why are these inexplicable things happening to a world-class player?

My impression is that at the end of tough games the intensity and tension that Shankland brings to the game become too much for him to handle and this leads to blackouts when things like the ones above happen. The excessive force and effort that he uses during his games at the end become a burden that he can no longer carry and the brain just shuts down.

With this loss Shankland is now in a must-win situation with the black pieces. A very difficult, but not impossible task. His opponent is the young Moldovan Grandmaster Ivan Shitco, who will also have a lot of nerves to deal with, as drawing with White on demand is more difficult than it may sound. The game will definitely be interesting, as long as Shankland doesn’t push himself over the limit one more time.

Upd. Shankland didn’t manage to equal the score and lost the match.


Rating Is The Enemy

Some time ago, I remember a young and promising GM crying on social media, in all seriousness, how the public cannot possibly understand the agonising pain of losing 20 rating points and dropping below 2600.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry from such deification of the rating numbers. And yet, they control us.

Everybody is an addict to those numbers, to a bigger or lesser extent. Even Carlsen, who recently said he would like to remain number one with a solid advantage over the rest.

We are all trapped inside our own small circles, from the beginners who want to cross 1100 to the elite who want to cross 2800. Let’s mention again Carlsen, who not so long ago set himself the aim to cross 2900.

This slavery doesn’t bring anything good. I remember I played my best when I didn’t care about rating. And yet, nowadays, it’s all about the rating.

Perhaps the worst thing about the rating is that we are judged by it. People see those numbers and immediately they think they know you’re a patzer or a strong player. They “know” whether you deserve respect or not. Which is definitely not how it should be. 

When checking the results of the players I encountered frequently in the past, I noticed that without exception, they all lose or have already lost, a lot of rating. There are several reasons for this.

The first one is the broken rating system. FIDE, in their worldly wisdom, decreased the rating gain to zero (!) when playing players who have more than 400 rating points. So, an IM of 2400 can score 9/9 against players rated 1900 and he will keep her rating. But God forbid should he make a draw – then she immediately loses around 5 points!

The second problem is that due to various factors, there are a lot of underrated players, especially the young ones. So again, God forbid you have the bad luck of playing them in a tournament – once you may win, but they will definitely get you in the next games and you can start posting agonising cries on social media like the GM mentioned at the beginning.

The most certain way not to lose rating is not to play. The once feared GM Korneev, who outrated me between 150-200 points for most of the time since the mid-90s, now is within 20 points of my rating. You play, you lose.

There is one group of players, though, who manage to play and not lose rating. It’s the elite, who play among themselves. They draw most of the time, win some, lose some, but when playing players with similar rating and you are around 50% most of the time, you don’t lose rating. 

The elite is definitely stronger than the rest, but the case of the online tournaments where they often play lower rated opposition shows what a lot of us have known – they cannot, consistently, maintain their rating when playing lower-rated players on a regular basis. There are countless examples of players like Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, Kramnik etc. losing or drawing players rated 2100 or lower. If those games were actually rated, they would have been writing agonising tweets mourning their ratings a long time ago. Or they would have stopped playing these events.

I can also give you an example from over-the-board play. While still a top 3 player, Kramnik played the Qatar Masters open in 2014. He played as expected, leading the event and only a loss in the last round to Yu Yangyi cost him first place. His next open was the same Qatar Masters the following year, when he played equally well, sharing third place.

But already in 2017, when playing in the Isle of Man open, Kramnik (rated 2803 at the time) struggled, failing to beat Lawrence Trent (2427) and losing to James Tarjan (2412). The following year was similar, as he drew with Sundararajan (2445) and Kashlinskaya (2447).

This is a known phenomenon – when a stronger player plays a weaker player on a regular basis, the strength of the stronger player decreases while the strength of the weaker player increases. This is why the elite prefer to play among themselves – it keeps their rating and their status in the chess world intact.

These problems with the rating kills the enthusiasm of many players. They want to play, but they cannot win (rating). And this leads to a lot of older players stopping active play, leaving only the young ones to massacre each other.

I outlined several issues with the rating, which I have observed, but I don’t know the solution to these issues. FIDE recently announced that they are coming up with something, and pretty soon at that. I am not too optimistic, though.

Perhaps, there is no general solution, only an individual one. Each one of us should find the most appropriate way for him/herself not to be affected by the “magical” numbers so that (s)he can give their best on the chessboard. Eventually, that should be all that matters.


Controversy in 1984

I grew up watching the Karpov-Kasparov matches in the 1980s. As a kid, I was rooting for Kasparov and I remember the joy I felt when I heard the news that he won the last game in Seville and kept his title.

When I started playing opens around Europe in the 1990s I encountered several players who were part of Karpov and Kasparov’s camps. Being fascinated by those matches, I never tired of listening to their stories. It was inside information I was craving for and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Some of that inside information was controversial.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of information and connected some dots. When Kasparov’s books on his Predecessors and the matches with Karpov came out, I considered that information in a new light.

In this post I will take an in-depth look at their first match in 1984-85.

The match started with a disaster for Kasparov. After game 9 he was already 0-4 down. Luckily for him, in an unlimited match, he could make draws and stay in the match, almost infinitely.

Kasparov started making draws. And some of these draws leave a strange impression. (In what follows I used the information from Kasparov’s own book on his match with Karpov. I have the book in Russian, so any quotations are translated from Russian.)

Being 0-4 down and having lost two games in his beloved Tarrasch Defence, Kasparov wrote that he intended to use the Grunfeld Defence that he prepared with his second Adorjan. I find this very strange, as he wrote that he prepared the Queen’s Gambit Declined as his back-up defence against 1.d4. Going for a sharp Grunfeld while obviously out of form and 0-4 down didn’t sound too sensible to me.

Implying an information leak, Kasparov believed that Karpov knew of his intentions and that was the reason he chose 1.Nf3 starting from game 11 and avoiding 1.d4 (that he played in games 7 and 9 and featured the Tarrasch Defence) for the remainder of the match.

Instead of going for the QGD, Kasparov dabbled with the double fianchetto in the English Opening and the Queen’s Indian in games 11, 13 and 15. He was under pressure in those games but he managed to draw them. From game 17 onwards he relied on the QGD and starting from that game we got a very strange series of draws.

One of the most shocking inside information I got to know from the seconds in both camps was that during the match there were strange phone calls happening. The player (Karpov or Kasparov) would pick the phone up and there would be no words spoken and then they would hang up. What the seconds thought was that these were draw offers and they came in couples, i.e. to draw the next two games.

The following analysis of the games, taking into consideration their content and time spent by the players, does seem to support those claims.

In game 17 they drew in 23 moves, with White (Karpov – he was White in all the odd games) spending 1.28 and Black 1.01.

In game 18 the draw was agreed in 22 moves with White spending 1.58 and Black 1.03.

Game 19 was the only one that lasted longer, 44 moves, but in view of Kasparov’s excellent preparation the draw was obvious already around move 20.

Game 20 saw a draw in 15 moves, White spending 0.34 and Black 1.03.

Game 21, draw in 31 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 22, draw in 20 moves, White 1.36, Black 1.24.

Game 23, draw in 22 moves, White 1.43, Black 1.22.

Game 24, draw in 17 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 25, draw in 21 moves, White 2.05, Black 1.34.

Game 26, draw in 23 moves, White 1.23, Black 1.10.

As you can notice, the games lasted around 3 hours, more or less, and the number of moves was around 20.

Then Karpov won game 27 and the score became 5-0 in his favour.

After the uneventful draw in game 28, more strange things started to happen.

In his book, Kasparov starts to contradict himself. He wrote that he started to feel safe in the QGD when playing Black, because in spite of the loss of game 27 he didn’t really have problems in the opening. So where is the logic of venturing a new opening when one step away from losing the match with the embarrassing score 0-6?

Yet, that is exactly what Kasparov started doing in the next games.

He wrote that he wanted to take advantage of the fact that Karpov wasn’t always confident when meeting a new opening, so he played the sharp Meran in game 29. He wanted to “sharpen the situation in the match” by playing the Meran with Black and playing 1.e4 with White. 

Sharpening the situation in the match when being 0-5 down sounds suicidal to me, but game 29 fell into the category of the above draws, lasting only 13 moves with White spending 1.39 and Black 0.51.

Game 30 saw the Petroff, with a draw in 20 moves, White 1.02, Black 1.19.

Game 31 saw a return go the QGD for Kasparov (he writes that he decided to postpone the use of the Meran after seeing the “fighting look of his opponent.” All this makes very little sense to me – it implies he got scared of some preparation, so he switched to the QGD, and yet in the next games he returned to the Meran!). The game gave Karpov excellent winning chances, but he spoilt them and there was another draw.

Game 32 was Kasparov’s first win. In spite of his decision to start playing 1.e4 (“to sharpen the situation in the match”) he chose 1.d4 and in the Queen’s Indian he won a very nice game.

Game 33 saw a return to the Meran (Karpov chose the Semi-Slav development) and a draw in 20 moves, White 1.37, Black 1.10.

Game 34, draw in 20 moves, White 1.20, Black 0.59.

In game 35 Karpov decided to return to the move 1.e4.

Kasparov writes that they prepared the Classical Sicilian already for game 7, strangely not going for his back-up the Najdorf, that served him well for an easy draw in game 5. Again we get a new opening for Kasparov and again, miraculously, the Classical Sicilian (with the Rauzer chosen by Karpov) giving him easy draws in the two games he used it.

Game 35 was drawn in 17 moves, White 1.45, Black 1.22.

Game 36 saw a big fight, where both players could win.

Game 37 was another Rauzer with another quick draw, 15 moves, White 1.36, Black 0.37.

These were amazing results with both the Slav and the Classical Sicilian, easy and quick draws with new openings that he didn’t prepare for the match. So why didn’t Kasparov continue to use them?

Game 38 and 39 saw identical play until move 22 but didn’t offer any chances to either player.

Game 40 gave Kasparov winning chances, but he missed them.

Game 41 was a special one. 

Kasparov writes that he lost confidence in the Rauzer (why?) and was in panic about what to play against 1.e4. He writes that he didn’t “fully trust” the Najdorf (strange admission coming from Kasparov – the only time he used it was in game 5 which was an easy draw for him, so no reasons to really complain about it)  so he decided to go for his opponent’s favourite defence, the Petroff. He toyed with the idea of playing the Ruy Lopez (something that he looked at from the black side in his pre-match preparation) but he writes “with the score 1-5 playing a complex opening without proper preparation was scary.”

This is an obvious contradiction in Kasparov’s writing. He did prepare the Ruy Lopez before the match, unlike the Classical Sicilian and the Slav, but he never mentions being scary playing those two openings while being one loss away from losing the match. But now, all of a sudden it was scary to play the Lopez.

Eventually he decided to rely on the Petroff, another opening he didn’t prepare before the match, but he didn’t have any ideas against with with White, so he thought it was safe. The opening went well for Kasparov, but he misplayed it on move 15 and Karpov obtained great winning chances. However, he missed them on move 33 and Kasparov held the draw.

Game 42 was a draw in 26 moves, White 1.31, Black 1.21

Game 43 was a draw, notable that Kasparov (finally) played the Najdorf. It lasted 21 moves, White 1.43, Black 0.45.

Games 44-46 were real fights with mutual chances, game 45 featuring the Najdorf and games 44 and 46 were Ruy Lopezes, Karpov deviating from the Petroff.

Game 47 was another peculiar game.

Karpov returned to 1.Nf3 and Kasparov again played the Semi-Slav. He writes that he felt confident trying it again. Karpov went for the sharpest option 5.Bg5, inviting the Botvinnik Variation, but Kasparov, surprised by the sharp choice, dodged it by going for the Cambridge-Springs. On move 11 (!) Kasparov offered a draw, but Karpov refused even though Black already had no problems. Karpov’s refusal of “it’s too early” showed some insecurity and he played the game very badly, losing in 32 moves. 

Kasparov won a very good 48th game in the Petroff and the match was then stopped, with Karpov still leading 5-3.

The above analysis points out several questionable moments in the match. The first is the “coupling” of the draws, short both in the time spent and the number of moves played. Second is Kasparov’s choice of openings at different moments in the match. If it is true that such “coupling” of draws took place (as the seconds I spoke with thought) then it’s not really surprising that Kasparov chose different openings, as he knew the game would end in a draw and was risking nothing. At the same time he wasn’t showing his ideas in his main openings and was “testing” the ideas that he had in the Slav and the Rauzer. Third is Kasparov’s contradictory reasoning when choosing his opening for game 41, also going contrary to the logic of choosing the mentioned Slav and Classical Sicilian.

Only the main protagonists know the truth and I don’t think they will ever speak out about these questions. However, these questions certainly raise some doubts about some games of this historic match.

There are questions about their other matches as well.

I have heard that the match in Seville was “decided” to be drawn after Karpov equalised the score in game 16. 

Before that game there were two games that fell along the lines of the above draws.

Kasparov’s toothless treatment of the Caro-Kann in games 10 and 14, draws in 20 and 21 moves, 1.35-1.30 and 1.34-1.14, respectively. Even more strange is his choice to switch to 1.e4 in game 10 after winning a crushing game 8 with the English Opening when he himself writes that Karpov had obvious problems in the English. So why change the favourable opening and give away an easy draw and the match initiative?

Game 14 was agreed drawn in a position where Kasparov had a safe and stable advantage.

After a very bad game 16, which he lost with White, with the result in the match tied Kasparov chose the most surprising opening in his game 17. He writes that he was out of form in Seville and that he was lacking fighting spirit and just wanted to end the match. The Grunfeld was serving him well and I find his explanations to choose the King’s Indian (!) in such a delicate match situation – to mobilise his inner reserves – a bit far fetched. Karpov chose 1.Nf3 in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld (for a first time in the match!) and instead of the rock-solid QGD  or a variation in the English he had prepared, Kasparov went for the sharpest Mar del Plata variation! A curious selection of firsts by both players.

Similar to the games in the first match mentioned above, Kasparov again showed “courage” with his opening choice in a critical match situation. 

The next two games, 18 and 19, were QGDs, Kasparov returning to 1.c4 and Karpov replying 1…e6 and Karpov repeating 1.Nf3 but Kasparov this time going for 1…d5.

In game 21 Karpov returned to 1.d4 and Kasparov writes that he “understood that returning to the Grunfeld in such a critical moment was risky.” I just wonder why he didn’t consider the KID risky earlier, in game 17. Additionally, he didn’t consider the Grunfeld risky for game 23, when he offered a transposition to it, but Karpov declined it.

The last two games entered history as the most exciting finish in a World Championship match. I have heard that they were also part of an agreed “double,” but I leave it to the readers to believe what they wish.

The matches between Karpov and Kasparov had many situations that never made it to the public. In their last match in 1990, during the first part in New York, Karpov urgently had to fly back to Moscow. What could have been so important for Karpov to abandon a World Championship match and fly back to Moscow, changing time zones and completely messing up his regime and routine? The person who told me this didn’t know the answer.

Another curious information was that Karpov thoroughly prepared the Caro-Kann for the match in 1990, but he never used it then. The seconds and trainers working on it were puzzled by this choice. Karpov lost the match because of the sensitive losses in the Ruy Lopez in games 18 and 20. However, he used all that work on the Caro-Kann in his next tournaments and achieved great results in that opening. Does this mean that he saved all the work for after the match and didn’t consider the match “worthy” to show his preparation? Karpov was obviously under pressure in the Ruy Lopez, so it made perfect sense to change the opening, but the only time he did so was using the Petroff (giving him an easy draw!) in game 10. Why he didn’t repeat the Petroff, when it was such a success, is another question left unanswered.

In this lengthy analysis I posed the questions that I found logical and to which I couldn’t find the answers to. These were interspersed with bits of information that I have gathered throughout the years. I doubt that I will ever receive answers, but at least I put the questions out in the public. Who knows, maybe the truth will come out at some point.


Grandmasters Misevaluations

In the past few months I was going over Nigel Short’s games from his book “Winning.” I always liked Nigel and rooted for him in the 80s and 90s as he was the “best from the West” and I was curious to see how far he could go.

I find the games in the book very interesting and revealing. One aspect that I found surprising was how sometimes these great players could have bad days and how easily they could be affected by psychological factors. 

The following two games are good examples of both of these factors.

In the game Short-Timman from Reykjavik 1987, Black obtained a decent position in the French. However, instead of slower moves that improve his position (Short proposed …Kb8-a8) he lashed out with 14…f5??, which only gave him a hopeless position in exchange of a couple of tempi spent to bring the knight to e4, from where it was duly chased away.

Here’s the position after 7 moves, when Black is positionally lost. I found it really strange that a player of Timman’s strength, easily a top-5 player at the time, could commit such a bad positional mistake.

In the game Polugaevsky-Short from the same event, Short obtained a good position from the obscure opening 1.Nf3 d6. It resembles a Sicilian, where Black is very comfortable. Instead of simple play 17…a6 and b5, Short played 17…d5, which while not bad (though he criticises this decision in the book) shows a desire to force matters. In fact, Short admits to being rattled and feeling uncomfortable after the loss in the previous round. After 18.e5 Ne4 19.Bxe4 dxe4 20.Be3 he started to see ghosts and feared losing his e4-pawn.

So, instead of calmly doubling on the d-file, he lashed out with 20…f5? 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Bf2 and what he feared he single-handedly made it happen – he lost the pawn on e4. He managed to draw the game, but it was not a good pair of decisions. In this case, the curious part is his confession of playing under the influence of his previous game.

This example shows that when GMs demonstrate clear misevaluations or play bad moves, there is always an underlying reason for that. It’s just that we rarely get to know it, like in Timman’s case, as honesty is rarely the best policy in the world of elite sport – revealing too much about oneself can easily help the opposition. Not everybody will be honest even after their career ends, which makes these glimpses even more valuable.


Riding a Bicycle

This one is from my newsletter.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be talking about physical exercise and actual riding of a bicycle, even though that is a painful subject for me, the lack of it, to be more exact. That will likely be a topic for another day.

Now I’d like to share a revelation that I recently found in a book.

For all my life I was playing the Sicilian with both colours. When I played it with Black I always felt more at ease because I knew that the long-term prospects were on my side. I only (only!) had to avoid being mated and then I knew that things will be great for me as the potential endgame would give me good chances for more than just a draw.

However, when I played it with White, I always felt rushed and under pressure. Larsen called the Sicilian a “cheap trap” in a sense that White exchanges the central d-pawn for Black’s c-pawn and then tries to “cheapo” his way to a quick mating attack. So I always acutely felt this pressure that if I don’t deliver the mate then my long-term prospects would not be something to look forward to.

With these feelings, I always treated the Sicilian in a very aggressive fashion. The English Attack, lines with f4 and g4, the Sozin in the beginning of my career, all of them aimed at either a pawn storm or a piece attack.

Of course, I knew Karpov’s games in the Sicilian, playing in so-called slow-mode and strangulating his opponents, but this was mostly because of his superior playing skills rather than the “correct” treatment of the Sicilian. When he faced a Sicilian player par-excellence in the likes of Kasparov, he was forced to abandon 1.e4 altogether – the positional Sicilians didn’t work anymore.

(Of the many slow-Sicilians I was particularly impressed by the game Smyslov-Hort from Petropolis Interzonal in 1973 where White’s knight arrived on g4 (!) before delivering the final blow on f6).

I never defined these feelings exactly and to be honest I never seriously tried. I knew what I was feeling and didn’t feel a need to share that with the world. But at the beginning of the year I invested half of my one-day commentating fee at the Rilton Cup in chess books and one of the books I bought was “Winning” by Nigel Short. While browsing the book I found what I’ve forgotten I was looking for: the accurate description of White’s play in the Sicilian. Here’s Short’s comment on Black’s 17th move from his game against Kasparov from the Amsterdam tournament in 1991:

“Playing White in the Sicilian is like riding a bicycle. You have to keep moving forward, otherwise you fall off.”

Incredibly astute observation by Short and one that perfectly described my feelings!

I have written before that one of the feelings I hate the most is the feeling of being rushed. Therefore it’s perhaps not a surprise that I have stopped playing open Sicilians with White. The itch for a full-fledged open fight with sights on the opponent’s king is still there, but most of the time I think better of it. The Rossolimo seems like a good alternative nowadays.


Are the Days of Classical Chess Numbered?

It’s a valid question that crops up more and more lately. The latest impetus for asking it was Carlsen’s statement from his recent interview with chesscom when they spoke about the purchase of his company Play Magnus Group.

Carlsen openly stated that he expects classical chess to be phased out at his level. This is different to what Kasparov predicted more than 10 years ago when he said that classical chess will be played only by the elite, while for everybody else it will be just entertainment.

First we have to realise that Carlsen spoke as a shareholder of his company that was bought, so he had to play to the tune – chesscom is all about faster time controls. However, I think there is a deeper issue here.

Chronologically, Carlsen has called for change of the format of the World Championship to matches with faster time controls. Then this year he officially withdrew from the classical championship, something I wrote about in my previous post, where the main reason was the gruelling hard work necessary to play these matches. Then in the interview with chesscom he openly said that he expects classical chess to be played less. He said the reason for this was the difficulty of finding new ideas in the opening at his level.

Another notable thing he said was that he would like to play Fischer Random at classical time controls.

If we connect the dots of all of the above, we can come to the logical conclusion that Carlsen doesn’t want to work hard anymore.

Chess has always been very hard at the highest level. There was no World Champion who complained about that while they were still in their prime. They knew they had to work extremely hard to overcome their competition and come up with “new ideas in the opening.”

The comment about Fischer Random serves as proof of the above. Carlsen isn’t against classical chess per se, he likes to delve deeply in a position if he can just play from the beginning, not being burdened by preparation and memorisation.

But at 31 Carlsen became tired. He’s been working extremely hard for almost 20 years and doesn’t want to do that anymore. He wants to have fun, play on fast chess on chesscom and entertain himself and the world. He knows that his theoretical baggage from his matches is more than sufficient to keep him afloat, especially at faster time controls when even sub-optimal opening ideas can be tried without being punished.

I have to add that this doesn’t bide well for the still reigning World Champion. The moment you stop working hard you start going down. He is still head and shoulders above the rest, but that won’t last for long. That goal of 2900 will never happen.

After Carlsen other players also came out with the same preferences for faster time controls. With chesscom injecting vast amounts of money in their events, it’s easy to foresee a never-ending string of online tournaments which are financially more beneficial than any classical over-the-board event.

Who will care about classical chess then?

I care about classical chess and I know FIDE does too. But can anything be done to stop the tide?


Carlsen’s Pressure

Several months passed since Carlsen announced that he will not defend his title next year. The chess public accepted the fact and life moved on. In this post I’d like to give my view on the possible reasons for Carlsen’s decision.

When it comes to feeling the pressure and the fear of losing, I think the turning point was his match with Karjakin in 2016. That was the first time that he realistically felt that he could lose the match and the title. The scare was so big, that it left a mark on his psyche, a realisation that the title can depend on a single game and that he was, after all, not invincible.

Then came the proposals to change the format of the match and play a big number of a rapid games to determine the title of a World Champion.

When you add to the pressure of the match the months of gruesome pre-match preparation, it’s easy to understand that the amount of pressure that Carlsen feels for many months is incredibly high.

This is all understandable. However, the intriguing part for me was the match in 2018 against Caruana.

This was the match that Carlsen enjoyed. It was the first time that he felt that losing would not be the end of the world. Caruana had an almost equal rating to him at the time and was playing great chess, so Carlsen thought that losing to such a player would be sort-of acceptable. Caruana was worthy.

In other words, he didn’t feel the pressure to avoid losing to somebody he didn’t deem worthy. Something which was the case both with Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi.

The match with Nepomniachtchi was different in the sense that Carlsen had already made up his mind not to play another match and it was a “farewell affair.” The Challenger indeed showed that he wasn’t worthy in the way he collapsed.

Carlsen had been playing matches from 2013 to 2021, 5 matches in 8 years. Preparation, stress, tension, pressure were constant companions during these years. He proved everything he could and decided to stop. He couldn’t take the pressure any longer. It may not look like it, but he doesn’t have nerves of steel and some of his games have shown that he is quite susceptible to cracking under pressure. So it’s a safe bet to run away from all the trouble and play tournaments where the stakes are lower, at the same time undermining the legitimacy of the title of World Champion.

I don’t think any other World Champion would have done the same. They felt responsibility towards the chess public and felt it their duty to defend their title against the Challenger, whomever that may be. Carlsen is different and doesn’t seem to operate within these categories, which is his right. The chess public may lament this decision, but it will have to accept it.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think he will play another match. He will like the (almost) stress-free atmosphere of the tournaments he will play in so going back to the gruesome routine of match preparation and then match play will feel like a horror movie from the past that he will not look forward to relive again.


Fischer a-la Indian

You probably remember my post on one of Fischer’s original ideas, the move …g5 in the Sicilian/Hedgehog structures. While not completely original, as it most likely was inspired by Morphy’s game, I still think of it as one of his great positional ideas that expanded our knowledge of what is possible in chess.

Nobody will be surprised by the move …g5 today, but the talented players still manage to come up with new packaging for the old ideas. Therefore, I was definitely surprised when I saw Fischer’s idea implemented in a typical Najdorf position from the 6.Be2 line.

The following position arose in the relatively recent game between two Indian prodigies, Sadhwani-Erigaisi, played in the Abu Dhabi Masters in August:

A normal Najdorf position where Black has quite a few sensible moves at his disposal, 13…Qc6, 13…Rfd8, 13…Rfe8, 13…h6, all leading to maneuvering play along well-known lines and ideas.

However, Erigaisi came up with something completely unexpected: 13…Kh8!?. I cannot say whether he came up with this in his preparation (the engine doesn’t think too high of the idea) or over-the-board, but in any case to implement a well-known idea in a new situation is always curious to see.

Sadhwani continued with the usual maneuver 14.Nd2 (going to f1 and then perhaps to g3 or e3, in case the bishop moves from e3) and Erigaisi followed through with 14…Rg8!

Now this makes it very clear what Black intends to do: …g5-g4 is coming! The engine suggests ignoring Black’s plan by 15.Nf1 g5 16.g3, but Sadhwani didn’t want to allow any sort of aggression by Black and in fact started playing on the kingside himself! This is also a psychological decision, showing your opponent that you won’t be bullied into submission.

He chose 15.h4!? and after the suboptimal 15…Qb8?! he went 16.g4!

All of a sudden it was Black who was being attacked on the kingside! After White’s g5 and Bg4 he obtained a solid advantage, even though the game was eventually won by Black.

I found this game refreshing. Two of the best young players in the world entered a well-known theoretical position and managed to give it a new life, introducing immediate aggression. The fact that they used an old idea to do so doesn’t diminish the value of it – in fact, it only shows that these players know their classics as well.

Examples like this are proof that chess is still very rich with ideas, even in the openings. Whether they are completely new or old but in new packaging, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fresh positions they provide, and from then on it is “let the best player win.”

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