Training With A Grandmaster

During my recent trip to England one of the more fun things I did was to record a video together with my friend David. Our idea was to show how a lesson with a grandmaster looks like.

My training process is centered on improving the student’s thinking process. The logic is that a better thinking process will lead to a better decision. The “correction” is performed by closely monitoring the student’s thoughts and commenting on the critical moments.

I set up various positions for the students to think about. Often these positions do not have a “solution” as such – they are like real-life examples from the games in a tournament. The position would be a complex one where a decision needs to be made. I even expect different students to have different preferences and choose different moves. This is normal, as we all have different styles and understand chess in our own personal way. Idiosincracies are perfectly fine, my job is only to make sure they are based on correct foundations. In chess there foundations are precise calculation and evaluation.

The position I chose for our training with David is from the famous game Flohr-Spielmann from Bled 1931. Those of you who regularly read my newsletter (and the others can use the yellow box on the right to subscribe) already know that I made a thorough analysis of this position as a way to demonstrate how chess understanding has evolved over the years. During the video, being somewhat restricted by time, I couldn’t really go over with David with all the knight moves in the starting position and in a real-life lesson we would have analysed Flohr’s choice in more depth. After all, the aim of the video was to give an idea how an 1-hour lesson looks like and normally the work continues in the next one.

With all these explanations as a way of introduction, I now invite you to take a look at the video on my YouTube channel. I am really looking forward to hear your impressions!

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Dubov’s Ideas

Daniil Dubov is one of the more original thinkers in modern chess. If you look at it at face value it is very easy to be original, just do something nobody has done before. The trick is to be original and good at the same time.

Dubov is one of the rare breed of very talented and strong young players who is also quite original. I am primarily speaking of his opening ideas, who cannot but catch your attention.

In my newsletter (use the friendly yellow box on the right to subscribe if you wish) I already noted some of his new ideas in the Grunfeld (he is a Grunfeld player with Black) and here I would like to draw your attention to his latest novelties. Currently he is playing the Russian Superfinal (just finished today), where in spite of the good start and leading the tournament he lost the rhythm and dropped to a minus score in the end. Curiously enough, he first won 2 games with Black before losing the next 3 with the same colour.

I am sure he will learn to deal with the pressure of being a leader, but in the meantime we can look at and perhaps pick up some of his ideas from the tournament.

In Round 2 Dubov introduced a true novelty on move 8 (it hasn’t even been played in games between computers or online!):

Even though he didn’t win the game this looks like an interesting way to steer the game clear of the usual paths. Black can probably neutralise this novelty, but that is difficult to do during the game as a GM as strong as Oparin failed to do so.

In Round 5 Dubov played a shocker (at least for me) on move 6!

Objectively speaking, Vitiugov reacted very well to Dubov’s 6 Nd2 and obtained a good position. But perhaps White’s play can be improved upon?

In Round 7 playing White against Fedoseev, Dubov continued in similar vein with the already-established aggressive treatment in the trendy …a6 lines in the QGD. Only this time the move e4 turned out to be a new one.

It is my impression that these lines with …a6 in the QGD work better when the White knight is already on f3!

Dubov’s ideas are very interesting and exciting, sometimes even shocking, so I always make sure to take a look at this games, wherever he plays. I would suggest doing the same if you are looking for ways to spice up your opening play, you won’t regret it!

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Sinquefield Cup 2018 – A Threesome

The Sinquefield Cup finished a few days ago and I would like to share some impressions I got from the tournament.

The crucial moment of the whole tournament was the game Carlsen-Caruana. The game lived up to the expectations and it followed a scenario where Carlsen managed to outplay Caruana, but failed to nail the game when it was within his reach.

If you take all their classical games from this year (Wijk aan Zee, Grenke, Stavanger and Saint Louis) you can notice that in all of them Carlsen had the advantage – he was constantly outplaying Caruana, but he only managed to win one, in Stavanger. This is both good news and bad news for Carlsen. The good news is that he manages to outplay Caruana on a more constant basis, but the bad news is that he wins very rarely. He was doing the same in his match with Karjakin, obtaining winning positions and failing to win, and I’m sure we all remember where that got him. As for Caruana, it is quite clear that he will have to raise his level even more if he wants to be equal in that match, but at least he can take a positive from this last game that he managed to save a lost position.

Another characteristic is that Caruana won his games showing fruitful opening ideas and then capitalising on them. Carlsen won his games in long, “completely drawn” endgames. It has been a while since Carlsen won a game in this manner, but I am pretty sure that this won’t work in London. He needs to find other ways to win games and his adoption of mainstream theory in his last tournaments looks promising in that direction. Even in the above game he introduced a fresh opening idea!

Nakamura continues to be awful in classical chess. Shared last place with 3 losses and no wins and even more shockingly a drop out of the top 10 (of which I have already written on this blog) is a big concern for the American player. He is still dominant at faster time controls, but in classical he seems to have lost the patience. The way he lost to Carlsen in the last round is shameful. I really doubt it that he will find motivation to get back on track, but I also hope he proves me wrong.

Karjakin was similarly horrible. Just plain, no opening ideas, no spark, no motivation. He lost a Berlin endgame to Aronian and a “dead drawn” endgame to Carlsen before losing to Caruana after falling into an unpleasant position. Both Karjakin and Nakamura know that they will never become a World Champion and they are both financially secure for life – what motivation do they have?

The tournament ended in a farce. The regulations stated that there should be tie-break between two players, but since there were three and their tie-breakers were all equal, the odd man out had to be determined by drawing of lots. The players protested, but that’s what the regulations stated. Still, the organisers decided not to follow their own regulations and proclaimed all three, Caruana, Carlsen and Aronian, as winners.

This is ridiculous. Why are they writing regulations if they don’t plan to follow them? If they are so bad, why not take some time to write better ones? This is very similar to the Candidates tournament – back in 2013 in London everybody agreed that the first place shouldn’t be decided by a Sonneborn-Berger or whatever, but rather by a rapid tie-break match, yet the same regulations have remained in place for all the subsequent tournaments. Sometimes I get the impression these organisers are really lazy sods who hope that the tricky situations never occur. And to make it worse, that’s what most of the time happens!

There was still a tie-break in the end, for a place in the GCT Final Four in London in December. Caruana easily dispatched of So 1.5-0.5, securing the spot. I am firmly convinced that So’s loss was a result of his miserable last round game against that same Caruana. The previous day he boldly stated that he must go all in for a win in order to secure qualification for London, yet when the game came he chickened out with the queen exchange in the Petroff and a boring draw. This failure to stir up the spirit to fight for the prize is not a sign of strong character. When you don’t take your chances somebody else will, and that is what Caruana did in the tie-break. So is a great player, but his character seems to be still “under construction.”

The next big tournament is the Olympiad, where I will also be present, only this time not as a player. Too bad, but then again being there “where the action is” is still something that excites me.

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Return To Hotel Anibal

After exactly 16 and a half years I stepped back into the legendary venue of “The Wimbledon Of Chess.”

I still remember year 2002 when I was playing in the open and before each game I would go into the playing hall where Kasparov, Anand, Ivanchuk, Ponomariov, Adams, Shirov and Vallejo were playing. It was inspirational to be able to watch these players up close and every day I had 30 minutes before my own game started to get inspired by their play.

It was common to run into these guys in the hotel. I once witnessed a blind-folded analysis by Kasparov and Anand on the staircase leading to the upper floors. Or a lift ride with Ivanchuk, who commented with “hmmm” when I told him that Kasparov beat Ponomariov in the penulttimate round to clinch the tournament.

That win over Ponomariov was very important for Kasparov. Apart from winning the tournament, it was a matter of prestige since at that point Ponomariov was the FIDE Champion, having beaten Ivanchuk in the final of the knock-out event in 2001. I remember seeing his mother Klara in the audience going crazy and pumping fists when Ponomariov resigned the game. Was it an extra motivation for Kasparov the fact that the game was played on Fischer’s birthday?

This year, unlike last, the Second Spanish Division was played in the Anibal Hotel and that is where I and my team stayed. I don’t know if it was the aura of the place, the inspiration, or the fact that this time we played in the same playing hall they were playing in 2002, but I played rather well, scoring 100% (6 out of 6) on Board 1. One of the first things I did was to go and see Kasparov’s suite, the one he always occupied when playing here.

This plaque was placed next to the entrance in the suite after his retirement. The room number is 103.

All the winners of the tournament are proudly displayed In the lobby.

My best game from the tournament was played in Round 1. I was Black against a young Spanish talent, rated 2395. I noticed that he played the Nd2 line in the Catalan and I prepared well.

In spite of the mistake on move 14, I quite liked the way I played, the nice positional idea of doubling the g-pawns and also the controlled attack that won the game in style.

Even though my team didn’t do as well as last year, we had a great time in Linares. Additionally, I am quite happy with my recent results and the way I play and feel during the games. After Porto Mannu where I shared 3rd place, this is another good result for me. I cannot really complain about a 100% score, can I?

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Mastering Chess Middlegames

I have heard many times about Alexander Panchenko’s teaching methods and successes. A talented player whose playing career was cut short by an unexpected request to head a school for promising young players. He put all heart into the work and in times (1980s) where it was very difficult to collect and organise high-quality training material he was one of the best ones in doing so.

Apart from the Middlegames, Panchenko also had a similar course on endgames, something he valued very much and following Capablanca’s principle that chess should be studied from the endgame backwards, he emphasised the study of the last part of the game.

Very recently my friends at Chessable.com prepared Panchenko’s Mastering Chess Middlegames in their well-known inter-active format. The whole book is organised in chapters, videos and problems to solve in the already recognisable and highly efficient manner. As a preview, they offer a free one-hour sample video that you can see here.

Mastering Chess Middlegames is a book that is a result of Panchenko’s work throughout the years. The organisation of the material and its quality is its highest value. The Chapters have the names like Attack on the King, Defence, Prophylaxis, Equal Positions etc. all being equally important for a successful navigation of the middlegame. Each chapter ends with several positions to solve individually.

It is not obligatory to read and study the book from the beginning until end. I was interested in the chapter Realising an Advantage and went directly to it.

One of the main things that I have noticed in the games of my students is that once they have an advantage they sort of “switch off” (Panchenko’s expression). They expect the games to be won by themselves and just sit back and relax. Coupled with this attitude can be a lack of combinative ability and these two together are the most difficult factors to overcome as a player doesn’t really expect he needs to play combinations or attack, as these two are never associated with “technique.”

Closely related to the combinative ability is the feeling for when “to go over to active operations.” Panchenko says that “this ability usually comes with experience.”

In the same chapter Panchenko addresses the problem of time trouble. It is often that an advantage should be realised with limited time on the clock, especially nowadays with the shortened time-controls and eternal 30-second time trouble. He states 5 main reasons why players fall into time trouble and of these I have found the “uncertainty in oneself and one’s strengths” to be the most common one.

When showing examples of successful realisation of an advantage Panchenko shows quite a few games where direct king attacks and aggressive play are involved. I found it very important to get used to the fact that realisation of an advantage is not a boring, “technical” task!

But there is plenty of that too, as the title “Playing for a Squeeze” would suggest. The classical game Botvinnik-Zagoriansky never fails to impress me.

This is how the whole book is structured. With so many instructive examples it is inevitable that you will increase the level of your play. And add to this Chessable’s structured repetition with their trademarked MoveTrainer and you have a winning combination to increase your playing strength.

Mastering Chess Middlegames is out soon on Chessable (linked) and you can claim your free 1h video here.

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Shakh-Attack Destroys Biel 2018

Mamedyarov’s victory is Biel was impressive. Finishing a point and a half ahead of the World Champion and beating him in the individual match is an incredible feat.

I would like to note a distinct characteristic of Shakh’s opening preparation. He often relies on super-sharp and forcing lines to achieve his aim. For example, his use of the old, almost forgotten, line in the Open Spanish when Black sacrifices on f2 and obtains a rook and a couple of pawns for two pieces – he used it to a great effect to secure a good game against Vachier.

With White he is often even more aggressive, using the move g4 whenever he can. He beat Vachier thanks to a deep preparation in the English Opening.

I think the improved quality of his opening preparation has a big impact on Shakh’s recent stability and a firm establishment in the top 3.

The decisive game of the tournament was the direct duel between Mamedyarov and Carlsen. The latter was forced to play for a win since he was trailing with a full point. Here’s what came out of it.

The World Champion didn’t have a good event in spite of the promising start. In fact, both here and in Norway a couple of months ago he started with 2.5/3 and both times he failed to win the tournament!

In the past the scenario of Carlsen’s tournaments was a slow start followed by warming up and an excellent finish. Lately the tendency has reversed: he starts well, but then instead of improving as the tournament goes on his play deteriorates. Carlsen himself admitted to many oversights during his game with Mamedyarov.

It is clear that Carlsen is in some sort of a transitional phase when it comes to his match preparations. He is trying main lines, plays aggressively with White and Black, but at the same time he still hasn’t reached the level of stability he would desire. A lot of work lies ahead for the World Champion!

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Peace In Biel 2018

It seems that yesterday’s bloodshed took some toll on the players in Biel.

Still, it is primarily Nico Georgiadis’s effort that ensured that all games finished in a draw. By ultra-aggressive and valiant play he managed to draw with the World Champion! In spite of losing the first three games, they didn’t go without a hidden benefit. When you play stronger opponents they are forcing you to raise your level of play. And it seems that three games were enough for Nico to raise his level enough to draw the World Champion!

Carlsen chose the French Defence, but don’t forget that all his opening choices are made with the title match in mind. Nico most likely didn’t expect the Armenian Variation, yet he still continued boldly. Soon enough he sacrificed material and even the engine approved of his decision! The pressure was enough even for the World Champion to crack and fail to find the best moves.

As you can see, the game was extremely complicated and even with a help of an engine I couldn’t really pinpoint a clear win for Black except on move 26. Nobody likes being attacked and this goes for the World Champion too! A fantastic result for Nico and a reminder to all that with courage no battle is hopeless.

Mamedyarov and Svidler played a Fianchetto Grunfeld where White was pressing but Black defended well. In another Grunfeld, Navara and Vachier played an exciting game.

We had bloodshed in Biel, we had draws. What’s next?

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Bloodshed In Biel 2018

With all eyes on the World Champion the Biel tournament is shaping up to be quite a brutal one.

After 3 rounds what I noticed is that Carlsen is playing much sharper and aggressive chess in Biel. In Round 1 he sacrificed a queen against Navara in order to keep the game going, though he knew he wasn’t risking much. In Round 2 he played the Pirc against Vachier, showing aggressive intentions even with Black against one of the world’s best players. In Round 3 he played the sharpest 6 Bg5 against Svidler’s Najdorf.

I see this as a preparation for the match in November – no matter what they say, both Carlsen and Caruana have their sights on the match and everything else fades in comparison. All the games they play until London are aimed at improving their chances in that match. Carlsen’s shift to more aggressive chess is an indication that perhaps he thinks that he won’t be able to overcome Caruana only by technical means. Be as it may, it’s great to see the Champion play open and attacking chess.

The inaccuracies permitted by Carlsen show that perhaps he is not 100% at ease in these sharp Najdorf positions, but then again it is an encouraging sign that the World Champion is looking for ways to expand his (already very wide) horizons.

Another player on fire in Biel is Mamedyarov. He destroyed Georgiadis in Round 1, escaped from a lost position against Navara in Round 2 and beat Vachier in Round 3 thanks to some original opening play.

Svidler is half a point behind the leaders thanks to a complex win against Georgiadis, while Vachier already lost 2 games and is in need of a quick come-back. With 0.5/3 he is only 1 point ahead of Anand on the live rating list as world’s number 10!

Navara is on 50% thanks to a win against Georgiadis (who sacrificed a queen for interesting positional compensation), while Nico is last will three losses, but I think he is still looking forward to all the remaining games, especially the one tomorrow against Carlsen!

It looks like the bloodshed in Biel with continue and that can only make me happy!

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Dortmund 2018 Won By Nepo

Finishing with two White wins Nepomniachtchi won the tournament with an impressive 5/7. One of those White wins was against the over-ambitious (as usual) Kramnik.

Funny thing this Kramnik style. So pleasurable to watch, but if you root for him, as I often do, it hurts to see him become so unstable. Botvinnik used to talk about the necessity for “self-programming” after a certain age and by that he meant taking advantages of the accumulated experience in order to compensate for the loss of calculating power and energy. This is what Anand is trying to do and more or less successfully.

Kramnik, on the other hand, is doing completely the opposite. He’s trying to fight the younger players on their territory – getting a game out of the opening, thus expending energy from the early stages of the game, and then being as aggressive as possible, relying on his calculational abilities and energy levels, both of which are clearly inferior when compared to the younger players. He may be enjoying chess playing like this, but his results will unavoidably become only worse.

As I don’t see Kramnik change his approach I think his days in the Top 10 are numbered and that number is pretty low. Of course, this depends on the next tournament he plays, but each tournament is just another realistic opportunity to lose points and fall lower.

Here’s that game with Nepomniachtchi.

Nepo wasn’t without the usual winner’s luck. In the next round he escaped from a lost position to Duda.

In the last round Nepo demolished Meier’s super-solid French and won irrelevant of the results of the other games.

After losing to Kovalev, Giri made a nice comeback, winning twice with the Black pieces. He beat out-of-form Nisipeanu in a Najdorf and he beat his recent boss Kramnik. Perhaps it is more precise to say Kramnik committed a hara-kiri with his absurd winning attempts, but that doesn’t diminish Giri’s merit.

Giri even could have finished clear second had he won a winning position against Duda in the last round, but it wasn’t to be. Both players finished shared second with 4/7.

This leaves the unsung hero of the tournament, the Aeroflot qualifier and rating outsider Vladislav Kovalev. He beat Giri with Black and almost beat Kramnik with White in the last round. Need I say Kramnik blundered terribly in an equal position? Undefeated 4/7 and a shared second is an incredible result for Kovalev, but I don’t see him getting more elite-level invitations as a result of this success. Elite tournaments are not really a meritocracy, even though Spassky once said that chess is a meritocracy. Chess may be, but getting into those closed circles requires much more than just good play.

To finish, here’s that Kramnik blunder in the last round.

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Dortmund 2018 Starts

This year the traditional Dortmund tournament sees a few familiar faces and a couple of new ones.

The home player is of course Vladimir Kramnik. Having won the tournament 10 times, he’s a regular for “26th or 27th time” as even he himself couldn’t remember the exact number of times he’s played there. He is in search for an 11th win in Dortmund, but I doubt he’ll win it – Kramnik is an exciting player to watch, but he allows too many chances in his games and modern players have learned to take them.

Kramnik’s second in Berlin was Anish Giri. He will definitely want to win a supertournament for the first time since Reggio Emilia’s 2011. That’s definitely a long wait for somebody who is attempting to establish himself as a worthy World Championship candidate. He did show glimpses of his potential in Wijk this year as he only lost to Carlsen in the tie-break, but so far his Dortmund play leaves much to be desired. Here’s what he managed to lose to the Aeroflot qualifier and definitely the outsider here, Vladislav Kovalev.

The game shows that even world-class players are not immune to a loss against weaker opposition. The reason is that the “weaker opposition” isn’t weak at all and they are fully capable of taking advantage of the world-class player’s mistakes.

Nepomniachtchi came to Dortmund fresh from winning the strong Gideon Japhen Memorial in Jerusalem. In a double-round robin with a rapid time control that included Svidler, Gelfand, Ivanchuk, Meier and Anna Muzychuk he won with 6/10, a full point ahead of the rest. He won a smooth game against Nisipeanu in Round 3.

Leading the tournament is the best U20 player in the world, the Polish GM Duda. It’s interesting to see him win against Nisipeanu in one of the most drawing lines in the 3 Bb5+ line in the Sicilian.

Duda’s aggressive intentions were awarded in this game, but it is this spirit of trying to win a game with Black even against an openly draw-minded opponent that can bring the Polish player far. As for Nisipeanu, he’s clearly out of form in Dortmund and Kramnik can perhaps curse his bad luck that he had to play him in Round 1 while that still wasn’t visible.

The other two players, Meier and Wojtaszek (who again lost to Duda, after their duel in the Polish championship) still need to show something notable. At least Meier drew with Kramnik and Giri.

Dortmund is really a very relaxing tournament – only 7 rounds and 2 rest days. A chess-player’s paradise. Let’s see what the rest of the tournament has to offer.

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