Category : Psychology

Candidates 2018 Preview

With all the players deeply immersed in preparation for the most important tournament of the year, and with Wijk and Gibraltar behind us, it is time to take a look at each player’s chances and prospects.

Of the 8 players only Ding Liren and Grischuk didn’t play anything in the new year. So let’s start with them.

I am very much looking forward to Alexander Grischuk’s participation. He is one of the deepest and most original thinkers, especially in the openings. I will only mention two of his latest ideas that had a big impact on modern theory – one is the move …Bc5 in the English Opening after 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 cd Nd5 6 Bg2:

and the other, again in the English, and as early as move 2 (!) 1 c4 e5 2 d3, which he used to beat Anand in 2015. He also expressed his desire for the latter to be called by his name – after all, you don’t get to invent new ways as early as move 2 nowadays! I am curious what he will come up with in the openings this time. With White, he mixed the theoretical approach of going for the main lines with the non-theoretical (London System, Reti etc.). It is likely that he (like everybody else!) will tailor his approach to every opponent so we may see again a mixture of both. With Black against 1 e4, apart from the inevitable Berlin when wanting to play safe, he will undoubtedly come up with something else. In the last few years he was successful with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, but his latest Sicilian games have been in the Taimanov with transpositions to the Scheveningen. Against 1 d4 he has been experimenting lately, but the Grunfeld, an integral part of his repertoire since the Candidates matches in 2011, is definitely a possibility. All of these choices (and this applies for every player) will depend on his strategy for the tournament and also on the people he will work with (his decision to play the Grunfeld in 2011 was a result of him having Peter Svidler as a second). Apart from his opening originality, Grischuk is a player who is notorious for his time-troubles and this will both add to the excitement and harm his chances. Even though I am a big fan of Grischuk, I don’t see him winning the tournament, mostly because of his time-troubles. In order to stand a chance he will need to be in the form of his life, like in the Petrosian Memorial in 2014 which he won with 5.5/7 and crossed 2800. Let’s see if he manages – if he does, I for one won’t complain!

Ding Liren is the biggest mystery to me from all the 8 participants. A player with fantastic technique, excellent opening preparation and quite a resilient nervous system – his last round wins in the Sharjah Grand Prix over Aronian and in the Moscow Grand Prix over Gelfand were major factors in his qualification for the Candidates. On the other hand, he lost matches to So and Grischuk in 2016and Giri in 2017, so perhaps he needs to work to improve in situations with prolongued tension. He will have all the resources of China to aid him in his preparations. His opening preparation seems to be more limited than that of the others, his mainstay with Black is the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Semi-Slav with the Nimzo against 1 d4, while with White he is mostly a 1 d4 player. It can be expected that he will expand or change his openings, though I don’t expect him to change his manner of play. But only with great technique it will be impossible to win games in this field and for now I cannot see what can that extra spark be that will help him introduce something novel and give him a playing edge in the games. I don’t see him winning the tournament, but I do expect to have a better understanding of Ding Liren as a player.

All the other players had some practice in January so there is fresh information about them to be analysed.

One of my favourite players on the circuit is Vladimir Kramnik. Big Vlad had a very exciting Wijk, winning 6 games, more than anyone else, but also losing 2. Kramnik will undoubtedly come with fantastic preparation and I can only guess what novel concepts he will introduce. The only thing I think he will keep is the Berlin against 1e4. Against 1 d4 I think he will introduce new ideas within the already well-established openings in his repertoire as I don’t see him taking up the Grunfeld! I am more interested to see what he will do with White. He has been a proponent of the non-theoretical approach, like starting with 1 Nf3 and doing a double-fianchetto, and even though he still analyses these “offbeat” lines deeply, I am not sure this is the way to go in every game of the tournament. So I expect to see him mix it up, after all he has amassed such a big amount of opening analysis over the years! But Kramnik’s problems won’t be the openings, it will be his ambition. With Carlsen’s emergence and his insistence on playing until the end and looking for the tiniest chances, Kramnik successfully adapted and adopted this approach himself, becoming one of the most uncompromising players. His infinite belief in his abilities that he can beat anybody is perhaps natural for somebody who has been a World Champion and beaten Kasparov, but there is only one problem with it – he cannot keep that level of play, concentration and determination in every single game. There are too many ups and downs in his play and Wijk was an excellent example – he had two very bad games, the ones he lost to Giri and Karjakin and he had a few (just) bad games, the ones he didn’t win against Jones and Hou Yifan and the last round game he won against Adhiban (from a losing position). These are 5 games out of 13! In his desire to win he also made mistakes and dubious sacrifices in his games with Matlakov and So. With these two it is half the tournament! This kind of instability will not go unpunished in Berlin. I think that the Big Vlad of old, the stable and solid player who dethroned Kasparov would have more chances. But can he change his approach and adapt after years of “living dangerously”? If anybody can, it is Kramnik. But I am not entirely sure that he will see the need for it. And therein lies the core issue that will impede his chances of winning. This time his over-confidence and ambition will work against him. As much as I would like to see him win the tournament, I am afraid I have to say that he won’t. Though I can still hope…

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had a wonderful year. His rise to the number 2 in the world with an impressive 2814 on the February list speaks for itself. Shakh has always been a very dynamic and aggressive player and while that gave him irresistible force, he was always susceptible to instability. This instability wasn’t only in his chess, it was also a psychological factor, when he couldn’t bring himself to defend for long periods and be resilient. But these things changed with certain important developments in his personal life. He got married (for a second time), quit alcohol and started playing “boring chess” (in his own words). These events brought Shakh what he needed most – stability. Now he is a much more complete player who won’t always go for a win at all costs. He has kept his aggression but this time it is a controlled one. He is also more relaxed and doesn’t consider the Candidates as a “must-win” tournament. This approach should alleviate the tension that will undoubtedly be felt by all participants. While the openings were never his main strength, he has introduced some novelties in his repertoire, like the Ragozin Defence with Black (in which he beat Svidler in 21 moves) and the Catalan with White. He also successfully used the element of surprise in his game with So, using the Nimzowitch Variation in the Sicilian (1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nf6) daring So enter wild complications in the main line. So, being unprepared for this, understandably declined and Mamaedyarov didn’t have problems to draw. Whereas Mamedyarov quickly fell out of contention in the previous Candidates tournament he played in 2014 due to instability at the start (he started with 0.5/3), the new Mamedyarov will not repeat the same mistake. If he can keep the same form as in Wijk, coupled with good preparation and wisely using the element of surprise Mamedyarov will be in serious contention. I still don’t think he will win, but it will be exciting to see him add another dimension to the tournament.

Wesley So on the other hand is an epitomy of stability. And stability will be a very important factor in Berlin. His tournament will depend on whether he manages to win a game or two. If he does he may as well win the tournament, but if he gets stuck and starts making draws he can easily replicate Giri’s 14 draws from Moscow 2016. The Candidates tournaments in 2013, 2014 and 2016 were all won with a result of +3 (8.5/14). Such “dense” tournaments work well for players who don’t win (and lose) a lot of games so even though being a newcomer in the field (all the others apart from Ding Liren have already played in a Candidates tournament) Wesley So shouldn’t find it any different from the usual tournaments he plays. In Wijk he introduced small changes to his repertoire: with Black he changed the line in the Catalan (instead of the main line he went for 4…dc 5 Bg2 Nc6 against Matlakov, though he did revert back to the main line against Kramnik) and surprised Anand with the Open Spanish while with White he tried the sideline 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 Nbd2 against Svidler in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld. He is usually excellent in the opening and he will introduce some adjustments to his well-established repertoire. I expect him to be the same player as before – solid and not taking many risks. Can he win it? It is possible.

Sergey Karjakin had a relatively successful Wijk, winning two games, against Kramnik and Caruana, and drawing the rest. This was his first decent result in classical chess ever since the Sinquefield Cup last year where he scored 5/9, another decent result. His other results were far from decent, to put it mildly, but Karjakin’s focus since the match with Carlsen has been on promoting himself and milking out the maximum of his status and not on playing good chess. The result in Wijk may play a trick on Karjakin if he thinks that all is well because he managed to beat two of his competitors in Berlin. The main danger lies if he thinks that after a year of mediocrity he can rise to the occasion and perform at his best in Berlin. I would like to draw a parallel here. When preparing for his match with Spassky in 1972, after carefully analysing his games Fischer came to the conclusion that the level of Spassky’s play in the last year had deteriorated and he was now a weaker player than before. After the match Fischer said that Spassky played as he expected he would, i.e. on his lower level leading to the match. What I’m trying to say is that it is next to impossible for a player to drastically improve and raise his level after a prolongued period of mediocrity. Even though Karjakin will prepare very seriously I don’t see him as a candidate to win the tournament. His honeymoon period, which started with his win in the Moscow Candidates in 2016, will end in Berlin and he will have nowhere to hide – then we will see the true character of Sergey Karjakin. If he manages to get back to his best and return to the fight for the top places in the tournaments he is playing in or continues to freeload and just be one of the many.

Fabiano Caruana had a nightmare in Wijk. Losing 4 games and winning only 1 (in which he was also losing) is not something we expect of a player of Caruana’s caliber. This is even more surprising as it comes only a few weeks after his triumph in the London Classic in December. How will this bad result affect his play in Berlin? I don’t think it will. After suffering a serious setback the intelligent player will draw very important conclusions from it and will adjust accordingly not to repeat the same mistakes again. Additionally, after a catastrophe like Caruana’s Wijk, a player is more likely to be more careful in his next tournaments. I see this as a very positive development for Caruana’s chances in Berlin because, as I noted above, stability will be key in winning the tournament. And extra care can only be welcome. There is also a historical parallel to Caruana’s situation. In 2008, a month before his match with Kramnik in Bonn, Anand played a very bad tournament in Bilbao, finishing last with a -2 score on 4/10. And we all know how he played in Bonn. To conclude, I don’t think Caruana’s disaster in Wijk will affect his chances. What may affect them though, is his lingering problem with realisation of an advantage. In 2016 in Moscow he ruined his chances of winning the tournament by failing to win from winning positions in Rounds 11 (against Topalov) and 13 (against Svidler). He also had problems with this aspect last year, but surely he must have worked on this very hard and will pay special attention to it in his preparations. Speaking of openings, last year Caruana introduced the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the Petroff Defence to his repertoire. This is an obvious attempt to be more solid with Black and the results have been pretty good so far, even though he suffered in a few endgames in the QGA (the line with 7 dc) and lost to Anand in the Petroff in Wijk. But he also introduced the Taimanov Sicilian in which he won an important game against Karjakin in London. This shows that he has flexibility with Black and can adapt his choices based on the situation. With White, even though primarily a 1 e4 player, he has also been experimenting with 1 c4, 1d4 with then either taking the route of normal theory or playing an odd London System. Caruana is stable psychologically, but has a more incisive style than So. Can he win it? Yes.

Levon Aronian was another player, beside Mamedyarov, to have a wonderful 2017. Coming out of the shadows after a lousy period he had excellent results and firmly re-established himself as a formidable force. He played in Gibraltar instead of Wijk, but he needed no less grit to win an open than it is required to win a Wijk. In 2017 Aronian’s main strength turned out to be his psychological resilience, something that was severely lacking in his previous decisive moments, particularly notable in the Candidates of 2013, 2014 and 2016. Aronian qualified for Berlin by winning the World Cup, the only person to achieve the feat two times. In a tournament when practically every game is a decisive one Aronian’s new-found inner strength carried him all the way to the finish line. Aronian is the only player to have played in all the Candidates tournaments since 2013, but this time it will be different for him. Previously he always started well only to spoil it later on as the tension was rising. With the recent experience from the World Cup he will know how to play in such circumstances. While the ghosts from the past will come back to haunt him, this time he seems better equipped to deal with them. Aronian’s repertoire is limited, especially with Black, when he sticks to the Berlin and the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Nimzo/Slav/QGD complex against 1 d4. He varies more with White, choosing between 1 d4 and 1c4. I don’t expect him to change his openings, but I do expect him to introduce new ideas in them. Aronian’s chess talent is one of the brightest and coupled with his newly found inner peace that brings him stability when it matters most, he is definitely one of the main contenders. Can he win it? Yes.

These are my thoughts on the most important tournament of 2018. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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An Exclusive Interview with Boris Gelfand

During the European Club Cup in Skopje in 2015 I had the bright idea to conduct interviews with the elite players. One of the best interviews was with the wonderful Boris Gelfand.

Boris agreed to meet us (me and my very good friend Kiril Penushliski, a PhD and an avid chess aficionado) after the tournament and we spent a few good hours walking in the park and talking about chess, life, Universe and pretty much everything else.

It is probably long overdue, I should have published this gem long time ago, but the initial plan was to have the interview transcribed and publish it in a written version. Alas, this never materialised, so I decided to publish the audio version.

I would like to thank Boris for giving us this opportunity to talk to one of the best chess players in the world. He answered truthfully and at length, it was sheer delight to talk about chess with somebody who has seen and done it all.

You can enjoy the interview following this link.

 

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Fischer’s Openings in Reykjavik – Part II

This is Part II of my 3-part analysis of Fischer’s openings in the Match of the Century in 1972. The series was written for my Inner Circle to which you can also subscribe using the yellow form on the right. Once inside The Circle, if you would like to read the other two parts, let me know and I will send them to you. In the meantime, enjoy!

 

Fischer’s Openings in Reykjavik – Part II

Continuing my analysis from last week, we left off with Game 11, Fischer’s only catastrophy in the match. This was the first time he repeated an opening, the Poisoned Pawn from Game 7, but this time Spassky was ready and the punishment was severe.

This serious setback forced Fischer to implement the same strategy of changing his openings after 1 e4 as well. But this was more problematic for him because playing almost only the Najdorf since the US Championship in 1963 he had less solid openings at his disposal.

Fischer’s choices of the Alekhine and the Pirc in games 13, 17 and 19 were the most puzzling for me in the whole match, due to several reasons. Even though Fischer played the Alekhine on several occassions in 1970, the opening is far from being solid enough for a World Championship match. And the Pirc even less so! Yet he still played them in 3 games!

I read an interesting observation somewhere, that Fischer didn’t know how to play solidly for equality. That he always needed dynamism and activity. And this was the only reasonable explanation I could find to explain his choices of those openings.

The Alekhine in Game 13 saw a very poor reaction by Spassky. His improvisation on move 7 in a very-well know theoretical position (7 Nbd2 on which he spent 17 minutes) was of low quality. It is surprising that on both first occassions with an opening (the Poisoned Pawn in Games 7 and 11 and the Alekhine in Games 13 and 19) Spassky reacted badly! And as Russians vs Fischer tells us, he was excellently prepared for all the openings! Puzzling indeed.

In Game 15 Fischer returned to the Najdorf and didn’t venture again in the Poisoned Pawn, choosing the line with 7…Be7. In view of Spassky’s superior preparation he was close to losing after the opening. This was another surprising choice because later Fischer would say that approximately after Game 13 he started to play safe, stopped looking for chances and was leaving it to Spassky to beat him. No reason not to trust him, but how does that go along with his
opening choices with Black?

Game 17 and the Pirc was perhaps the strangest choice. First about the move-order. After 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Fischer went 2…g6. This begs several questions to be asked: why did he allow the King’s Indian that would have most probably arisen after 3 c4 (and he didn’t play it in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing 1 d4)? Since Spassky was sticking to 1 e4 did he really know Spassky so well that he trusted him he wouldn’t switch to a 1 d4 opening once he
abandoned them? And what was he trying to achieve by playing 2…g6 instead of 2…Nf6? The only explanation I could come up with for the last question was that he was avoiding 2…Nf6 3 f3, as Spassky played against Jansson in 1971.

To continue with the questions, did he intend something else after 3 c4 instead of a normal KID transposition, by leaving the knight on g8? And after Spassky’s 3 Nc3 (on which he spent 4 minutes, probably thinking to KID or not to KID) Fischer spent 4 minutes on 3…Nf6. Why? The only obvious alternative is 3…Bg7, so again, what was he trying to avoid?

The following few moves and the times spent on them continue to be mysterious. Being faced with an obvious surprise by Fischer, Spassky again, as in Game 1, chose a line from his youth, one he played only once in his life, in 1960 in Mar del Plata (incidentally a tournament where Fischer also played) – Fischer’s own pet line, the Austrian
Attack. After 4 f4 Bg7 5 Nf3 Fischer sank into a 15-minute think before choosing 5…c5. When playing the Austrian Attack with White Fischer convincingly demonstrated the strength of the line 5… 0-0 6 Bd3, winning several good games with it. So it is perhaps understandable that he wanted to avoid it with Black, but why spend 15 minutes on that decision?

The game was very important theoretically and it established the best way to play for Black in that line of the Pirc (namely to play …Bg4 before White can prevent it by h3) and it was also notable for Spassky’s original middlegame plan of 11 Rad1 and 12 Bc4.

Game 19 saw the return of the Alekhine, with Fischer varying with 4…Bg4 instead of the 4…g6 from Game 13. Another first-ever by Fischer, but Spassky was prepared. I find an interesting parallel between this game and Game 5. Had Spassky taken 12 gf (he took 20 minutes on that decision) the blocked character of the position would have resembled the one from Game 5. Why was Fischer luring Spassky in such closed positions, did he learn in his preparation that
Spassky didn’t like them and played them less well? It was considered that Fischer didn’t like closed and blocked positions, buthere he was actively pursuing them!

Fischer’s choice for what turned out to be the last game of the match was excellent and I wonder why he didn’t come up with it earlier. Again a first-ever, this time in the Sicilian, 2…e6 instead of the automatic 2…d6. (Curiously enough, in Game 20 of their match in 1992, the first game of that match where Spassky played 1 e4, after 1…c5 2 Ne2 Nf6 3 Nbc3 Fischer again played 3…e6, signalling that he wanted to play something else than the Najdorf. Here the most probable is the Scheveningen after 4 d4 cd 5 Nd4 d6, but Spassky played 4 g3).

After 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 there came 4…a6, a move he so convincingly dismantled with White in Game 7 of his match with Petrosian. So the first question, what did he have in mind against his own choice of 5 Bd3? My guess is 5…Nc6, as Petrosian played, and after 6 Nc6 dc, instead of Petrosian’s inferior 6…bc. The positions after 6…dc are much calmer and more solid, quite in line with Fischer’s admission that he wasn’t trying to look for chances in the second half of the match. And being a Sicilian, it still offers more dynamism and activity than other openings. Still, this is why I think his choice was good, because he finally found a solid and safe line for Black.

But Spassky stayed in line with his established way to reacting to surprises, he chose a line he played before. The system with Be3 and Bd3 brought him the title with a draw from a winning position in Game 23 of his match with Petrosian in 1969, but Fischer played an important novelty after 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Be3 Nf6 7 Bd3 d5 (the game Spassky-Petrosian went via a different move order 7…Qc7 8 0-0 Ne5) 8 ed ed! and Black was already equal. Fischer’s love for old games was crowned by employing a move played by Adolf Anderssen in 1877!

Fischer’s strategy with Black turned out to be very efficient. His frequent changes of openings and sub-lines coupled with Spassky’s predictability and bad first-time reactions enabled him to have the opening initiative in most of the games. The only opening disaster he had was when he himself was predictable, but he didn’t let that happen again.

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Kramnik’s Disaster in Isle of Man

The problems a strong player faces in an open tournament are all too-well known to me. Having to win and win quickly, but the guy just won’t fold. Thinking you deserve to be playing on the top boards, yet you’re stuck on board 50. “What am I doing here?”

I address these issues and some more in my latest video, available on my YouTube channel.

Check it out here.

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The Best Move

What follows is from my latest newsletter (to which you can subscribe by using the yellow box on the right). I discuss Garry’s problems and how chess has changed since his retirement.

When I was growing up, which coincided with Garry’s time at the top, the general idea was that in every position there should be a move that is if not the best, then at least better than all the others. The player’s task was to find that move and play it. Perhaps he may take into consideration some psychological factors, but generally, as Fischer put it, players believed more in good moves than psychology.

And then came the engines. By a coincidence or not, Kasparov retired in 2005 and Rybka 3’s emergence was in 2007. What Rybka 3 and all the others that came afterwards showed was that in many positions there were more moves of relatively equal value. The engines will still show you the “best” move as the first line, but in fact the miniscule difference of value between the first and the fifth means very little to the human sitting at the board and thinking for himself. (Obviously I am talking about balanced positions which are far from a forced win or where there is a clear best move available). The players who grew up with these engines accepted that fact as a given. They were happy to play one of the five best moves. The players from the older generation kept on looking for the best move.

This is where Carlsen’s pragmatism comes from. And not only his, but generally the practicality of today’s best players. They are not trying to find the one best move, they are happy to “keep it between the hedges” and play one of the five. (For those who haven’t read Rowson’s Deadly Sins and Zebras and are not familiar with the term, it’s an advice for driving on unmarked country roads with hedges on both sides – there are no lanes on the road, but keeping it between the hedges should suffice.)

I am sure Kasparov understands where does this new pragmatism come from, but I am not sure he has managed to “re-program” himself as his great teacher Botvinnik recommended to all players who wanted to achieve longetivity in chess. Kasparov struggled at the board, his brain was looking for the best move and then his time on the clock ran out. Kasparov has been one of the best learners in chess, so I am sure he can learn to apply the new pragmatism that rules today’s chess, but I am not so sure we will see him again in action to see the fruits of his newly acquired skill.

It was fantastic to see Kasparov play again. But I felt uneasy to see my childhood hero suffer and his hands shake, after being used to see him dominate everything and everybody. Times have changed and he is not the best anymore. That makes me a little sad, something has been taken away from the legend.

Still, it was the contrast of Kasparov’s old ways and the new pragmatism of the modern chess that made it so compelling and easy to notice the change that has occurred in his absence. And as Confucius said, “they must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

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Garry

I barely followed the other games of the Sinquefield rapid and blitz, Garry was all that mattered.

The excitement was mixed with discomfort though. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have always felt this strong feeling of confidence when watching elite performers. Whether that is Federer, LeBron or Messi, I always expect them to perform well. And Kasparov didn’t.

The discomfort was slowly beginning to transform to shame. I was ashamed that Garry got beaten, that he kept on blundering, that he kept on getting in insane time-troubles, that his hands were shaking. That was not the Garry I used to know, the champion who dominated the world for decades.

I have always wondered what makes legends return once they have retired. Another hero of mine, Fischer, made an even more incredulous come-back, but in his case it must have been the money. He was leading such a miserable life that he probably decided to cash in before it was too late. But with Kasparov? No money can buy the humiliation and destruction of the legend he created with his magnificent career. Both these cases strengthened my belief that legends must never return. The moment they return, the legend is destroyed.

Kasparov heavily criticised Fischer for coming back. Now he did the same thing he criticised Fischer for.

The last day of the blitz was just too weak a balm for the gaping wound of the first four. “Look, he can still do it, if only he devoted himself to study and training…” But he won’t. His life is other things now and playing chess is not one of them.

Kasparov said that this was a huge success for the popularisation of chess. Not really. This was a huge success for the popularisation of Garry Kasparov and, to a lesser extent, the Sinquefield Cup. Chess will slump back to the previous levels of popularity soon enough as if nothing happened.

I was very excited to see Garry play again. Seeing him how he played I felt ashamed. Now I am relieved. The last Najdorf of his career against Dominguez was the final bitter-sweet goodbye and I thank him for that.

 

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Sinquefield Cup 2017 Ends With French Glory

Vachier-Lagrave achieved his biggest success to date with the triumph in the Sinquefield Cup. The play Vachier demonstrated, especially his last round win against Nepomniachtchi and the stubborn defence against Carlsen made him a deserved winner.

Vachier’s main strengths are his excellent opening preparation and his calculational abilities. In dynamic positions, whether better or worse, he feels at home and frequently outplays his opponents. The above-mentioned game with Carlsen (which eventually decided the winner) is a typical example. When facing problems he creates a mess on the board and manages to get the better of his opponents. What I found impressive though was his last-round win against Nepomniachtchi. The Russian was obviously out of form, but the way Vachier approached the game was exemplary. No sharp Najdorf lines, a controlled 6 Be2 e5 7 Nf3 and a firm positional squeeze. To create a positional masterpiece in a last-round game with so much at stake requires strong nerves and Vachier showed he possesses them.

 


 

Carlsen finally played a good tournament. He didn’t win, but he played good chess and missed too many chances. He should have beaten Vachier and Nakamura. The endgame with the latter was very instructive, but also very insightful about how Carlsen thinks and uses his intuition. About the first winning move, 41 Kg5, he said that he considered it, but “intuitively felt” that Black gets counterplay there so he went on to look in another direction. This is a crucial insight – it shows that he doesn’t always verify his intuition by calculating deeply! The second moment, choosing between the winning 43 h5 and the drawing 43 g5, showed a similarity with his “I don’t believe in fortresses.” He believes in the almost infinite possibilities of chess and believes that there will always be one that will lead to a win. Again he doesn’t verify this by calculation, but relies on his intuition to “tell” him that there will be a way. In the Nakamura game he thought the endgame was won in more than one way and consequently he didn’t realise that the path to victory was narrow.

 


 

These insights about Carlsen’s intuition were an eye-opener for me. It turns out even the World Champion doesn’t have everything thought through and relies heavily on intuition, even in positions where I would be inclined to calculate everything as far as possible. Lesson taken, rely on intuition more, but verify!

Aronian continued with his fine form, even though his tournament was somewhat spoiled by his last-round loss to Carlsen. I think Aronian was too optimistic going into that game, he thought he could beat Carlsen with Black and win the tournament. That’s what happens to him when he’s on fire – he gets over-optimistic. He was duly punished for it by Carlsen, but I am sure he got a lot of positives from the tournament. It is a good period for Aronian and I am curious to see how it will affect his play in the upcoming World Cup.

The revelation of the tournament was Vishy Anand, as strange as it may sound. He had the perfect tournament: his preparation was going in regularly and he was never in trouble in the openings. Later on he picked up everything that was offered. The combination he played against Caruana was magnificent and showed that he can still out-calculate the younger generation.

 


 

Karjakin finished on +1 together with Aronian, but he was mostly inconspicuous. He beat Svidler and the struggling So while losing the principled game with Carlsen. The result will probably give him the false impression that all is well and he won’t change his ways.

The Americans had an awful tournament. The worst one was So, who after losing a very promising position to Carlsen mysteriously collapsed. He will be back, though falling for 18 rating points from world’s number 2 to world’s number 8 is a big loss to handle. Caruana still suffers from his inability to win promising positions and his last-round loss to Svidler slumped him to -1. Nakamura’s solidity showed its ugly side – when out of form blunders creep in and it is next to impossible to adjust and be more active. Nakamura kept on toiling, but wasn’t even close to winning a game.

The Russians ended up where expected. As I said in my previous post Nepo is too unstable and Svidler never wins in such a company. It is amusing to listen to his constant whining about his openings and the positions he gets, though I don’t believe a word he says!

Next up is Garry K. himself! How will he fare against the new generation we will soon find out. I am looking forward to his opening ideas and I don’t expect him to win.

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Lasker’s Psychology

Quite a controversial idea probably, but I really believe it is true. This text is from my newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow form on the right. The next newsletter is due on Saturday.

 

Lasker’s Psychology

I will start immediately with the shocker – there wasn’t any.

As many books have often repeated, I’ll paraphrase here, Lasker played the opening in a dubious manner in order to lure the opponent into unfamiliar territory and then outplay them. Nothing can be further from the truth.

No strong player plays the opening dubiously on purpose. The fact that Lasker often ended up in dubious positions after the opening doesn’t mean that he intended it. As I have already written about this, and I advise you to read the part on Vukovic’s books for better understanding, I will just say that like anybody else he preferred to have a good position after the opening.

If there was any psychology in Lasker’s play, it was almost entirely his own. He didn’t care about the opponent so much. He was primarily concerned with his own safety.

Don’t let this confuse you. Popular literature leads you to believe that Lasker was the risk-taker, the gambler, the great fighter. Yes, he could be all these things once the game was under way, but before the game he was very cautious and often insecure. I would like to discuss two very famous games of his to demonstrate my point. In both he used the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

The first one is the first game of the match with Tarrasch in 1908. Here’s the game without comments.

 

 

We know that Tarrasch was a fierce critic of Lasker and often publicly stated that he wasn’t a worthy World Champion. They finally met in a match in 1908. It is not widely known, but before the first game Lasker was nervous and this showed in his comment to his brother. I don’t recall the exact words, but he said something along the lines, if I play the Exchange Variation, how can I possibly lose?

Note that he was primarily seeking a safe haven, he wanted to avoid losing in the first place!

The fact that he won shows that once the game started Lasker was just playing chess, trying to find the best moves. If an opportunity presented itself he would grab it and win the game, even if before it he was content with a draw. The game with Tarrasch was around equal most of the time, but Tarrasch erred and Lasker took his chance.

The second game is even more famous. In St. Petersburg in 1914 Capablanca was having a dream tournament. He was leading comfortably and playing excellent chess. He won the preliminary tournament with 8/10, a full point and a half ahead of Lasker and Tarrasch. These points counted toward the final standings and in the final he continued to play well. So what chances did Lasker have when they met in Round 7 in the final? He was trailing by a full point and he was playing a dangerous young opponent against whom he suffered for 100 moves in Round 2 of the final and who was openly intent on claiming his title.

Losing that game would have been a disaster for Lasker in the eyes of the public. Not winning the tournament and coming second behind the Cuban genius, much less so. How does then Lasker approach the game? No experiments, keep it safe and play the trusted Exchange Variation!

 

 

Just like in the game with Tarrasch, once the game started and he was safe out of the opening, knowing that he cannot possibly lose from that position, he started playing chess. And he outplayed Capablanca, who was probably somewhat confused: he became more relaxed after the innocuous opening choice but also concerned about what Lasker was trying to achieve.

These two games were the most striking examples I found of Lasker’s psychology. I was very surprised that even Kasparov, in his Predecessors book, fell for this myth of “Lasker the Psychologist” who played the Exchange Variation in the Ruy Lopez for a win.

“Lasker was a great man,” Capablanca said on more that one occasion. And great men are often misunderstood.

 

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Inspirational Quotes

While still at University I started a file where I collected memorable lines, quotes, ideas and sometimes even whole paragraphs that made a deep impression on me. It started with Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth (“God helps them that help themselves”) and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance (“It needs a divine man to exhibit anything divine”) then continued with Shakespeare (everybody knows “All’s well that ends well (yet)” but very few know the follow-up “Though time seems so adverse and means unfit”) and from there I started collecting memorable lines from every book I read.

The chess-related inspirational quotes came much later. Mostly because I rarely found really insightful things said about chess! Not that there weren’t any, but because I’ve known them for so long that they had become part of my understanding and I didn’t find them insightful, just part of my understanding.

Here I would like to present some of the more recent ones. They are precise verbalisations of something I had vaguely sensed but never came to defining and putting into words myself. Enjoy!

 

The secret of succeeding in such [dead-drawn] positions in a practical game is to create the impression of momentum and progress. That automatically puts pressure on the opponent, and once an opponent feels pressure, mistakes are never far behind. – from M. Sadler’s “Chess for Life”

 

Those who calculate well – it’s bad for them. That means they won’t be successful for long. You have to be able to play with the hand, not only with the head.

On the first moves you should see wide, not deep. And calculate only when it’s necessary. Calculate only two moves ahead, so as not to blunder something. – Alexey Dreev (my translation from an interview in Russian)

 

Up to a point I’m maintaining my level and then when the pressure increases I can’t keep it up. Someone who’s in bad shape usually blunders something at some point. Often people are in bad shape and get away with it. If a guy like Magnus is in bad shape it’s very rare someone spots it. – Anish Giri

 

Keep the pressure on them every second. They all crack.

Don’t “turn off” your mind when it’s your opponent’s turn to move. Use this time to think ahead to your next possible move. And when he does move, always ask yourself, “Why did he make this particular move?” before you do anything else.

Don’t give up in the middle of the game if you don’t think you’re doing well – or even if you’re in big trouble. There’s always a chance that you’ll have a flash of brilliance or that your opponent might slip up. Chess is a kaleidoscope – it’s ever changing – and opportunities suddenly appear. – Bobby Fischer

 

The point is not to always try to and make the best move. – Veselin Topalov

 

In his time Robert Fischer achieved a new level of tactical precision […] Fischer didn’t allow mistakes that his contemporaries, for example Boris Spassky, thought to be acceptable inaccuracies. And he didn’t pardon them.

Carlsen, as it seems to me, reached the next level of tactical precision. When they say that Carlsen plays until the end, that he keeps the tension […] that is correct. But it’s necessary to understand why that happens. And why the others cannot do it.

Any other player from the top 20 will try to squeeze water from stone in an equal position, but he will make an inaccuracy in his calculation, then again he will miss something and will realise that it’s better not to risk and just make a draw. Carlsen, while doing the same, somehow manages not to make mistakes.  – Dmitry Jakovenko (my translation from an interview in Russian)

 

I think it’s an important trait of a good player to be able to have the same level of focus and creativity in simple positions as well as more complicated ones and thus create chances at any point in the game. I don’t think making few mistakes and playing very accurately for a long time should be a negative.

Kasparov told me many years ago not to play tournaments with amateur conditions, because then you will play amateur chess.

In this sense I have that in common with Karpov in his heyday: he believed deeply in his abilities, he was very combative and won a lot of games in tournaments because even when he was not in a good position, he felt he could still win and played all the way. I’m somewhat similar in spirit: during a competition, I always believe in myself.

…if my opponent is not playing for a win, then regardless of the position I should be able to do it myself. – Magnus Carlsen

 

We were born to succeed, not to fail. – Henry David Thoreau (he didn’t write it about chess, but I’m sure you can see the connection.)

 

Hard work is talent. – Garry Kasparov

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Zebras

This is my first post on my new blog and I am very happy the process pf migration was quick and efficient. There are still some things that need polishing, but the most imporatant thing is that the blog is working well!

There are some design changes and the main one is the friendly orange sign-up box on the right, inviting you to join my Inner Circle. I think I should give you an idea what that means. I have envisioned the Circle as a place where more direct communiation will take place among its members. My intention is to share more personal stories and often give my opinions on various openings, ideas and concepts. As an illustration, please read below for an example of what that means in practice:

ZEBRAS

 

“When you hear hoof beats, think of a zebra.” – Sufi Saying

I love this saying. I first encountered it in the book of my favourite contemporary chess author, GM Jonathan Rowson, Chess for Zebras. It reminds me not to be on the side of majority (“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain) because the majority would think of a horse. And I try to think of a zebra.

I first got acquainted with Jonathan Rowson’s work in the previous century (that was a long time ago, wasn’t it) when his first book, Understanding the Grunfeld inspired me to seriously study and play the opening. I was always platonically in love with the Grunfeld, I was attracted to the sole bishop on g7, which both defended the king and attacked white’s centre. My results with the Grunfeld weren’t spectacular, but I always felt the thrill to push the pawn on d5 on move 3. Rowson devised a repertoire for black but from a completely different perspective – he told stories and explained concepts and then wrapped them up in some theory. It was exactly the kind of opening book that I wanted to read!

Years passed and in 2006 I played in Dos Hermanas. I was there with my very good friend, the Indian GM Neelotpal Das. During the tournament he gave me a book to read, imagine my surprise when it was Rowson’s second book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. I was completely immersed into the book that I read it in several hours during the night (yes, I can read pretty fast)! I also took notes from the book on a piece of paper – the size of the piece of paper was one from a notebook. It’s hard to believe, but somehow I managed to squeeze all the important information on that one piece of paper. I still have it, when I find it I will take a picture of it and I will send it to you (UPD: see below for this)! The book is about the shortcomings all chess players have (to a bigger or lesser extent) and what to do about them. As usual, Rowson discusses these topics in his usual educated and precise style, I would always catch myself thinking how he managed to put into exact words what I have only vaguely sensed. Needless to say my admiration of him only grew.

And then came the Zebras, his last book to date. The subtitle is telling, Thinking Differently about Black and White. I am sure we all somehow feel that there are subtle differences when playing white and black. And it’s not only the advantage of the first move or the choice of opening or variation. It’s much more subtle than that, it’s an inner dynamic that is difficult to put into words, yet Rowson succeeds to pinpoint all the nuances – it took him some 250 pages to do it, but he did it and I doubt any other author would have done a better job.

Next weekend I will go to the UK to play at the 4NCL for my team Cheddleton. I started playing for Cheddleton in 2012 and have been a regular ever since. Several years ago (it was in November 2013) the league was played in Hinckley and after finishing my game rather late I was in a hurry to catch the train to London. I ran to the reception in a desperate need for taxi when I noticed none other but Jonathan waiting for his! I asked him if we could share the taxi since I was running late for my train. He didn’t mind and soon enough I found myself sharing the taxi with my favourite author! It was only in the taxi that we introduced each other, and then he introduced himself I told him, “Yes, I know, you’re my favourite author!” and he seemed to be a little embarrased by that. We had a very pleasant chat during the ride and on the train station and I remember that there were so many things I wanted to ask him (and I was already a GM by that time!) but time was short… We discussed a lot of things, some variations as well, and I remember one thing he told me, he considered it a mistake – he told me that he should have tried to go as far as possible with the Najdorf (he was a Najdorf player) instead of changing to the Spanish. Changing his main opening against 1 e4 took him time and energy to adjust to the new positions and he felt that this slowed down his progress. These kinds of observations are what have always attracted me to his style. He looks at chess from a higher perspective and this is extremely rare nowadays. And, coincidentally, I am now at the same point, incorporating 1…e5 into my own repertoire and playing it more often, after a lifetime of Sicilians.

During that taxi ride I asked him if he planned to write another book. He was hesitant, he had too many other obligations outside of chess and they were taking his time. But he didn’t say a direct no. Well, for sure I will be waiting for that next book when it comes out, whenever that may be!

Alex

My notes from Zebras

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