Category : Psychology

Luck In Chess

This one is from my recent Inner Circle newsletter. If you like it, please subscribe to it by using the yellow form on the right.

 

Chess depends on you. – Bobby Fischer

Do I feel lucky? – Dirty Harry

I am a firm believer in Bobby Fischer’s quote. I believe that if you do the work and give your absolute best at the board, without any excuses, hidden or otherwise, you will be rewarded.

Fischer, as Carlsen today, won many games that would have otherwise been drawn if he didn’t keep on pushing, “giving his absolute best” at the board. Such players thoroughly deserve their “luck” when they win “dead drawn”  games.

This is not the “luck” I want to discuss, as I don’t actually consider it as such. This one fully depends on the player. What I would like to discuss is another type of luck that very often happens during the game. I will illustrate this with one example, even though there are countless situations with similar characteristics.

Let’s say that there is a position in front of us with two possiblities. The position is winning, but it is complex and requires serious calculation. In winning positions it is enough to find one way to win, but the complexity of the position won’t allow for an easy solution. Let us also assume that one move wins while the other doesn’t, but the calculation of both is very difficult and both moves look very tempting.

Here luck, defined as “success brought by chance”, comes to the fore. If you are lucky in that moment, you will start  your calculation with the correct move. You will calculate it, play it and you will win the game. You may check the other move as well, but once you’ve found a win you probably won’t bother much. End of the story.

But what happens if you’re not lucky? Then you will start your calculation with the other move, spend masses of time  and energy looking for the win that isn’t there and only then start checking the winnning move. Quite possibly you may end up in time-trouble so that there isn’t even a time to check the other move. Still, you may be able to navigate the complications and find the win, but the factors weighing against you are rather significant by this point and more often than not that will not happen.

You may even be less lucky. You may think you have found a win with the move that doesn’t win, and as you are about to play it you suddenly discover a hidden defence, then you go back to your calculations and go even deeper into the woods where there is no light. If you finally muster the will to abandon the move, in spite of it being so tempting and so close to winning, by the time you start calculating the winning move the external factors mentioned above will be even heavier and more aggravating.

So what does choosing the right move depend on? In situations as described above, your intuition should lead the way. But what if you just cannot decide, even with your finely tuned intuition? What if you don’t “feel” anything that would incline you towards one or the other? And sometimes even your intuition can deceive you!

What does then intuition depend on? Good form, good mood, the state of flow? How do you get to these states?

The bottom line is that we arrive at these ephemeral and elusive concepts that are the holy grail of every chess player’s quest for the perfect mindset. But nobody has even come close to a consistently reliable method how to induce this mindset.

As you can notice, I am not even considering the factor of the opponent, where a “lucky” day for you may mean that your opponent just grants you the win for no apparent reason. Is your opponent’s unlucky day a lucky day for you?

To be honest, I am not quite comfortable to attribute too much on luck in chess. But the situations as above are not at all rare and they affect the outcome of a game in a decisive matter.

For lack of a better word I use “luck” but the whole situation is much more complex and difficult to define. I hope to have managed to shed at least some light on it so that you can continue the analysis on your own and perhaps come up with some ideas.

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Inspirational Quotes

This post is somewhat off-topic and not directly chess-related. I do believe, however, that the better a person is (or becomes) the better the quality of his or her life. And that, eventually, will also lead to better chess.

The text below is taken from my newsletter, from time to time I send my readers inspirational quotes like the ones below. They do help me, so I hope they also help my readers. Just to remind you, if you like what you’re reading, please feel welcomed to enter my Inner Circle by using the yellow form on the right.

 

I’ve just finished reading a book by my favourite non-fiction writer. I’ve mentioned him and his books before, Tim Ferriss and his The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef.

His latest books are called Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. I rarely buy books, mostly because I have already too many of them that are still waiting to be read, but these two I bought. Yesterday I finished Tools of Titans. The book is basically life-advice on various topics by people who have “made it”. You have writers, artists, sports people, enterpreneurs, CEOs, doctors, singers, actors, all walks of life really. When I read books like these I like to take notes so here I’d like to share some of them as I think they may be useful and they also nicely fit in the Inspirational Quotes category. So this time it is less chess, more inspiring and thought-provoking life advice! Enjoy!

 

Calm is contagious.

I’m either ready or not. Worrying is not going to change that. – Floyd Mayweather

The best plan is the one that lets you change your plans. (said by a non-chessplayer)

Standard pace is for chumps.

Busy = out of control. Lack of time = lack of priorities.

Being buys is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.

Being busy is often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.

Doing something well doesn’t make it important.

You are suffering because you’re focused on yourself.

When you are grateful, there is no anger, no fear.

Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Fear is not an option.

Be a meaningful specific rather than a wandering generality.

Keep track of the times it worked, not of the times it didn’t.

Losers have goals. Winners have systems.

No need to play with the cards you’ve been dealt, change the table!

Amplify your strengths rather than fix your weaknesses.

When you complain nobody wants to help you. – Stephen Hawking

Don’t find time, schedule time.

Inspiration is for amateurs. Just show up and get to work.

When given a choice, take both.

Those who work much, don’t work hard.

Discipline equals freedom. Whatever freedom you want, you can only achieve it by discipline.

If you want to be tougher mentally, it’s simple: Be Tougher. It’s a decision to be tougher.

Work will work when nothing else will work.

What we most fear doing is what we most need to do.

In any situation you have 3 choices: change it, accept it, leave it.

Always choose courage over comfort.

Luxury is feeling unrushed.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

Lives remaining: 0.

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Gashimov Memorial 2018 – Draw Fest

All draws so far in Shamkir, but not for the lack of the players’ trying.

Sometimes tournaments go like that. Everybody wants to win, but everbody also wants to avoid losing. And if the tendency to avoid losing is dominant, you get a lot of draws. It happens.

Ding Liren was winning in Round 1 against Wojtaszek. Topalov was winning in Round 2 against Giri and in Round 3 against Ding Liren. Conversely, Carlsen wasn’t even close to a win in any of his games.

The World Champion would very much want to win every tournament he plays in. He must have been very disappointed not to obtain winning chances against the relative outsiders Navara and Mamedov. He was very effectively neutralised in both of these games. That hurts.

On a more positive side, he demonstrated a very convincing way to solve all opening problems with Black in the Fianchetto Variation in the Grunfeld Defence. The line was introduced in practice by Dubov (quite a fertile opening innovator!) and this time it got the stamp of approval of the World Champion. The psychological background of the opening moves is also highly instructive and illustrative of Carlsen’s approach to preparation.

As you can see, even from a superficially “boring” theoretical draw one can learn quite a lot!

On the other side of the ocean, the US Championship is under way. At the time of writing three games of Round 4 have finished – Shankland beat Robson with Black, Zherbukh and Onischuk drew and Nakamura scored his 4th draw, this time against Liang. The leaders Caruana, So and Akobian are still playing.

I wanted to note what is happening to Nakamura. He started with 2 Whites, drew both (against Robson and Zherebukh) without a single chance for even an advantage. Then he was lost with Black against Onischuk with Black in Round 3 and again had nothing at all against Liang in Round 4.

This is a worrying tendency for one of the “big 3” of American chess. He is getting nothing from the openings and is not even getting close to outplaying his on-paper weaker opponents. My impression is that he has lost the energy and aggression in his play.

I see this change as a result of his loss of ambition. He realised he will never become a World Champion. He will not be the one who will “deal with Sauron.” Once the ambition had gone, he comfortably settled in his current situation of a Top-10 player who makes excellent living from playing chess and travelling the world. His Twitter profile says “Professional Chess Player and Investor/Trader.” Yes, he is not only a chess player and he seems to be very good at investing/trading. That is another excellent source of income for him. These changes are his choice, of course, but the player who was once an epitome of energy, aggression and courage is now gone.

Both tournaments have a lot of rounds to play, so things can get very exciting in Shamkir (once Carlsen starts winning!) and the US Championships never fail to entertain.

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Going Crazy

On the board, apparently. The ongoing Aeroflot Open is one of the strongest opens in the world. Its main attraction is the path to the Dortmund super-tournament for the winner.

The defending champion Vladimir Fedoseev had a fantastic last year, but also a few “almost-wins.” He almost won that same Dortmund super-tournament, lost in the final to Anand in the World Rapid Championship, and almost won the Russian superfinal after starting with 4/4.

This string of results gave Fedoseev infinite self-confidence. But a chess player has to keep himself under strict control. In case he doesn’t the self-confidence can inflate to over-confidence and even arrogance.

Before the tournament Fedoseev said he will attempt to win Aeroflot for a second time in a row (previously only Le Quang Liem achieved that). He feels that he belongs on the super-tournament circuit, but the invitations are still not coming, so the path to Dortmund again lies via Moscow.

Following Fedoseev’s games in Moscow, where he is the top seed, I found it difficult to understand how the ambition to win the tournament matched the way he played. In Round 1, playing Black against GM Vavulin (2575) he went for the Petroff Defence and drew. Then his openings and play started to get more weird. The apotheosis was the following game, played in Round 6, when he was forced to win in order to catch up with the leaders.

Humiliating and horrible. How can an aspiring elite player allow himself to play like this? I can only attribute it to the over-confidence (and maybe even arrogance) Fedoseev must have had, which gave him the impression that he could play as he wished and still win.

Another surprising moment is that Fedoseev has been working with Khalifman in the last 6 years or so and Khalifman is also playing in Moscow. How an experienced player and coach like Khalifman failed to curb Fedoseev’s impulses is another mystery.

To add insult to injury, Fedoseev continued in the same style (playing with Black he started the game 1 c4 Nc6 2 Nc3 e6 3 g3 g5?!?!) and lost in the next round to GM Romanov. He is definitely not going to Dortmund again this year.

Fedoseev is a wonderful player, but if he is to enter the elite such outbursts should be banned in the future. Together with Khalifman they will probably find a way, though missing opportunities like the one to go to Dortmund again is never a good thing.

On a sidenote, here’s another “idea” against the Najdorf. I wonder what will be next.

And here in the game Predke-Andreikin White played 6 Nf3. White is really getting desperate to find something against the Najdorf!

 

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Level of Precision

In a recent (immediately after this year’s Wijk) interview Peter Svidler expressed a notion that got me thinking.

When speaking about Vladimir Kramnik and a conversation they had at the party after the Wijk tournament, Svidler relates how he was taken aback by Kramnik’s opinion that the level of chess played 20 years ago was higher than the one now.

This was surprising. Normally I would expect to be the other way round, since we have learned more about chess since those times. But when I thought about it a bit further, I discovered two factors that may vindicate Kramnik’s opinion.

The first one is the domination of pragmatism in today’s chess. The end of the 90s was still Kasparov’s era with his scientific method of always playing the best moves after obtaining an advantage in the opening due to superior preparation. Today, this time under Carlsen’s influence, the emphasis is on practical play. This came as a result of the rise of the engines (sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it!) and the end of White’s advantage in the opening.  The aim today is just to play and preferably play better than the opponent, who would make a mistake that can be used to win the game. So less science, meaning not always searching for the best move, and more pragmatism.

The second factor, again connected to the strength of the engines, is the vast difference of the level of precision when the opening ends. Svidler also mentions this factor. Since everybody studies the opening with an engine, it means that everybody plays the opening at a 3500 Elo level. But once the preparation has finished, everybody drops at the level of their competence, be that 2700 or 2000. And here comes the important moment – the over-reliance on the work with engines makes the players less reliant on their own ability and as a result of this their own ability is neglected and it aggravates. This leads to decrease of the level of precision.

Perhaps there is an additional psychological factor. For the players nowadays the engine is God. They feel humbled and know that their own efforts rarely stand up to scrutiny. Today there is no greater praise for a player when he is told that his moves were approved by the engine! They may not necessarily be the first line, it is enough that the engine doesn’t change the evaluation drastically after the move made by the player. This feeling of lesser worth affects the players and as a result they may play weaker than they used to.

So perhaps Kramnik was right. He usually is, though I would have loved to hear his own explanations!

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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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